Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Yisro - Torah as the Measure of a Jew

What does it mean to be a Jew? When I describe myself as a Jew, what does that really mean?

It is readily apparent that none of the normal categories for group identification (e.g. ethnicity, race, nationality) really fit the Jewish people. It might be tempting to define a “Jew” as an adherent to the religion known as “Judaism”, but, while religion is certainly an important aspect of Jewish identity, such a definition doesn’t really work either.

This question is not simply theoretical. A Jew has an obligation to identify with the Jewish people. As we have discussed previously, the Sages tell us that there were "wicked" and "sinful" Jews who died during the plague of darkness. What was so wicked and sinful about these Jews? We are told only this: That they were comfortable in Egypt and did not wish to leave. Their sin was that they had separated themselves from the community, and did not see themselves as an inseparable part of the Jewish people.

This raises an obvious and critical question. What does it actually mean, in practical terms, to be part of the Jewish people? As we see from the fate of these Egyptian Jews, a large part of it is that we are required to identify with other Jews and to see our fates as inextricably intertwined, so that what is "good for the Jews" is good for us, and what is "bad for the Jews" is bad for us. Thus, Chazal teach us, "אל תפרוש מן הצבור" - "Do not separate from the community,” which means that when the community is suffering, you have an obligation to bear the burden and suffer together with the community, even if the problem does not directly affect you. Indeed, we are taught that one who separates from the community when it is suffering will not merit to see the community's deliverance.

However, while it is clear that a Jew is obligated to identify with the Jewish people, and to bear the burdens of the community, this alone does not really answer our question. After all, people can disagree on what is and what is not "good for the Jews." We can be sure that many of the Jews that wished to remain in Egypt honestly believed that remaining in Egypt was "good for the Jews." Instead of just giving up on Egypt, they believed that the Jewish people should be using the opportunity provided by the plagues to fight for full civil rights as Egyptian citizens. To these people, remaining in Egypt – the center of civilization – was "good for the Jews", while running off to conquer some insignificant backwater was obviously "bad for the Jews."

Even if we think they were wrong, why did simply having this opinion make them "wicked" and "sinful"? These Jews didn't see themselves as turning their back on their people. On the contrary, they sincerely believed that their approach was in the best interests of the Jewish people. What made their opinion so invalid that not only was it wrong, but it essentially cut them off from the Jewish nation?

The root of the problem was that Moses, the prophet of God, had made it very clear that the God wanted the Jewish people out of Egypt. That should have been the end of the debate. If God wants us out, then clearly that is what is "good for the Jews." So, regardless of their intent, their opinion was one that was in conflict with God’s vision of the purpose of the Jewish people.

Identifying with the Jewish people cannot be separated from the recognition that the Jewish people are the chosen people of God to whom He has revealed His intent through His Torah and His prophets. The Jewish people are not a nation like other nations; rather we are a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation." We are the "children of God", His "first-born son", and any identification with the Jewish people that fails to include these factors is as false as it would be for a brother to insist on his familial relationship with his siblings while denying his connection to their father.

Rav Saadia Gaon famously wrote (Emunos v’Deos 3:7), אומותינו איננה אומה כי אם בתורותיה – “Our nation is only a nation through its Torah.” The Torah is what truly binds us together and it is the reason for our existence as a nation. We express this recognition every morning when we recite the Birchos HaTorah (Blessings on the Torah) in which we declare:
ברוך אתה ה' אלקינו מלך העולם אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו. ברוך אתה ה' נותן התורה
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who gives the Torah.
R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch explains (Siddur, p.9):
From the very beginning, His purpose in electing us was to give us His Torah, to make us its bearers, students, and executors (Exodus 3:12). Our entire historical significance among the nations stands and falls by the manner in which we cultivate and cherish the Torah in our midst. Should we ever cease to know the Torah, or to fulfill it, we should also cease to have a place among mankind.
The Torah is the core of all true Jewish identity. To truly identify as a Jew means to recognize the Torah as the purpose of our existence and, as in R’ Hirsch’s words, to "cultivate and cherish the Torah in our midst." It is this that is the true measure of one’s identity as a Jew.

R' Elchonon Wasserman
R’ Elchonon Wasserman once wrote (Daas Torah):
דער ריכטיגער באַראָמעטער אין אידישקייט, וויפיעל גראַד אידישקייט יעדער האָט, זאָל באַטראַכטען ווי איז זיין באַציהונג צו תורה: צו ער לערענט אַליין, צו ער גיט זיינע קינדער צום לערנען, און צו ער איז מחזיק תורה.
The true barometer of Judaism with which to measure a person’s level of Jewishness is a person’s relationship with the Torah: Does he study Torah himself? Does he send his children to study? And does he support Torah study?
To identify as a Jew requires much more than simply the mere assertion of such an identity, no matter how strongly felt. It requires a genuine commitment to what the Jewish nation actually is: God’s kingdom of priests, who heard the voice of God at Mt. Sinai and received His Torah.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Science and Creation

This is a video of a presentation I made a few years ago to middle school students at an Orthodox Jewish day school discussing how to think about the apparent conflicts between our current scientific understanding of the age of the universe and the traditional Jewish understanding of the Torah.


 As usual, all comments and criticisms are welcome.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Beshalach - The Beautification of Mitzvos

In the Song of the Sea, Moses and the Jewish people sang (Exodus 15:2), "זה א-לי ואנוהו" - "This is my God and I shall glorify Him!" Based on this verse, the Talmud (Shabbos 133b) teaches that we have an obligation to perform mitzvos in a beautiful manner:
זה אלי, ואנוהו - התנאה לפניו במצותֹ עשה לפניו סוכה נאה, ולולב נאה, ושופר נאה, ציצית נאה, ספר תורה נאה וכתוב בו לשמו בדיו נאה, בקולמוס נאה, בלבלר אומן וכורכו בשיראין נאין.
"This is my God, and I will glorify Him." - Be beautiful before Him with the mitzvos. Make before Him a beautiful sukkah, [use] a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzitzis, and a beautiful Torah scroll, and write it for His sake with beautiful ink, with a beautiful reed, and with a skilled scribe, and wrap it with beautiful silks.
This is the concept of hiddur mitzva - the beautification of a mitzva. The Ramchal discusses this concept at some length in Mesillas Yesharim, citing this Talmudic passage (and other relevant passages) and expanding on this idea:
הרי דעת שפתותיהם ז"ל ברור מללו, שאין די בעשות המצוה לבד, אלא שצריך לכבדה ולהדרה. ולהוציא ממי שלהקל על עצמו יאמר אין הכבוד אלא לבני האדם המתפתים בהבלים אלה, אך הקב"ה אינו חושש לזה, כי הוא מרומם מדברים האלה ונשגב מהם, וכיון שהמצוה נעשית לאמתה די בזה, אמנם האמת הוא שהאדון ברוך הוא נקרא אל הכבוד, ואנו חייבים לכבדו, אע"פ שאינו צריך לכבודנו ולא כבודנו חשוב וספון לפניו, ומי שממעט בזה במקום שהיה יכול להרבות, אינו אלא חוטא.
Thus, the opinion of the Sages is very clear, that is not sufficient to simply do the mitzva alone, but it is necessary to honor and glorify it. This is a rejection of the opinion of one who, wishing to be lenient for himself, says that honor is only for human beings, who are seduced by such vanities, but God has no interest in this, for He is exalted far above such matters. Therefore, [he argues,] it is sufficient that the mitzva is simply fulfilled correctly. However, the truth is that God is called (Psalms 29:3) the "God of glory", and we are obligated to honor Him, even though He has no need for our glorification, and our glorification is of no real significance before Him.One who minimizes [his beautification of the mitzvos] when he has the ability to do more is simply a sinner.
The Ramchal then goes on to quote many additional sources that demonstrate the importance of this concept. But, while all of these sources clearly demonstrate that the sinner's argument is indeed false, they never really address the question of why his argument is incorrect. Why isn't it sufficient to simply fulfill the mitzvos precisely as they are commanded? Why is there an obligation to beautify the mitzvos?

Perhaps a hint to the answer can be found in a passage from Maimonides, when he concludes his discussion of the laws of acceptable oils for the meal offerings in the Holy Temple (Hil. Issurei HaMizbei'ach 7:11):
ומאחר שכולן כשרין למנחות למה נמנו, כדי לידע יפה שאין למעלה ממנו והשוה והפחות שהרוצה לזכות עצמו יכוף יצרו הרע וירחיב ידו ויביא קרבנו מן היפה המשובח ביותר שבאותו המין שיביא ממנו, הרי נאמר בתורה והבל הביא גם הוא מבכורות צאנו ומחלביהן וישע י"י אל הבל ואל מנחתו, והוא הדין בכל דבר שהוא לשם האל הטוב שיהיה מן הנאה והטוב, אם בנה בית תפלה יהיה נאה מבית ישיבתו, האכיל רעב יאכיל מן הטוב והמתוק שבשולחנו, כסה ערום יכסה מן היפה שבכסותו, הקדיש דבר יקדיש מן היפה שבנכסיו וכן הוא אומר כל חלב ליי' וגו'.
If they (i.e. kinds of oil) are all valid for the menachos (meal offerings), then why did [the Sages] rank them? So that one can know which is the very best, which are of equal status, and which are inferior. For one who wishes to earn merit should subdue his evil inclination and open his hands wide and bring an offering from the very finest and best of the species that he is bringing. For, behold, it says in the Torah (Genesis 4:4), "And Abel also brought from the from the firstborns of his sheep and from their fats, and God turned to Abel and his offering."
This concept applies to everything that is done for the sake of God, Who is good, that it should be from the finest and the best. When one builds a house of prayer, it should be more beautiful than his house of dwelling. When one feeds the hungry, he should feed them from the best and the tastiest food on his table. When one clothes the naked, cover him with the most beautiful of his garments. When one consecrates an item,he should consecrate the most beautiful of his possessions. And so it says (Leviticus 3:16), "All the fat is God's...."
Maimonides introduces this idea by saying that "one who wishes to earn merit should subdue his evil inclination and open his hands wide." In other words, doing the mitzvos in the most beautiful manner is, fundamentally, about subduing our own nature and changing ourselves for the better. Of course God Himself has no need for glory and honor. In truth, He, in of Himself, has no need for our mitzvos either! The mitzvos were given to us for our benefit. They are what enable us to connect to God.

The same is true for the concept of hiddur mitzva. When we beautify a mitzva, in the same way that we would beautify a gift that we give to someone that we love and respect, we reinforce in our own the minds the reality of God and of our relationship with Him. It is this recognition that is at the core of all Jewish spirituality.

Perhaps this explains why the Talmud finds this concept alluded to in this particular verse, which describes the amazing spiritual revelation that the Jewish people experienced at the splitting of the Red Sea. How can we, today, in any way grasp what it means to declare, "This is my God!" - when "this" refers to a direct spiritual experience? Perhaps the answer is that when we sincerely perform the mitzvos, not as formal legal obligations, but as expressions of a genuine loving relationship, with all the love and honor that we put into our most valued human relationships, then we too can eventually come to experience the personal relationship with God expressed in the statement, "This is my God!"

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Weberman Conviction and Torah Justice

For most people who are aware of the case, the recent conviction of the child rapist, Nechemya Weberman, has come as a welcome sign that, even in the most insular of our communities, those who are willing to step forward and fight for what is right, can hope to see justice done, and - even more importantly - remove these violent predators from our midst.

Unfortunately, while the conviction itself was a good thing, there is also much about the case that is deeply discouraging. The fact that the leadership of Weberman's community came out aggressively in his support, even after it was absolutely clear that his behavior had long been in violation of halacha, indicates an almost willful blindness in many quarters with regard to this issue that is deeply disturbing.

That being said, I do not see myself as competent to discuss the communal aspects of this issue, which have been covered by far abler people than myself. I am also not going to address the issue of mesira, i.e. the prohibition against informing on a Jew to non-Jewish authorities. The poskim have already stated that the prohibition against mesirah does not apply to cases of abuse, whether physical or sexual. (For a full discussion, see Nishmat Avraham, vol. 3, ch. 18.)

What I wish to discuss here is a technical issue dealing with the question of the justice of Weberman's conviction from a Torah perspective. Throughout the course of the court case, I have come across the claim that from a Torah perspective the entire case is invalid, as the evidence against Weberman does not meet the standards of Jewish law. On the surface, this question, which I have encountered several times, seems to be valid. After all, one of the most basic concepts of Jewish law is that one can only be convicted for a crime when there are two eyewitnesses to the actual event. Circumstantial evidence and second-hand testimony are invalid. In general, Torah law describes a criminal justice system that is very heavily biased towards acquittal  So how can we support the conviction of Weberman when, it is argued, according to Torah law he would certainly not have been convicted him for anything?

While this might appear to be valid question, it is based on a critically flawed understanding of the reality of Jewish law as it was actually practiced when the Jewish people lived under Torah law. This issue is discussed at length in the Drashos HaRan (Rabbeinu Nissim, 14th century) in Drasha 11. The Ran points out that in a Torah society, the criminal justice system must serve two distinct functions, which can often be in tension with each other.

The first function of the Torah's criminal justice system is ישוב המדינה (yishuv hamedina), i.e. to provide a stable society in which people can function without fear of violence from others.

The second function of the Torah's criminal justice system is to enforce the laws of the Torah, as they are, regardless of the apparent utility of those laws from a yishuv hamedina perspective.

Most of the time, these two functions work together hand in hand. The reality is that the majority of people, in any society (and, hopefully, even more so in a society governed by Torah law), are basically law abiding citizens. Thus, even in the case of a violent crime, it is proper to give the ordinary citizen the benefit of the doubt, even to an unreasonable degree.

However, when applied to human predators, such as career criminals, serial murderers, rapists, and abusers, the simple reality is that this system does not work. If we would apply all the protections that are normally applied to the accused in Torah law, it would be virtually impossible to convict any of these criminals for their crimes. The Ran points this out explicitly:
אם לא יענשו העוברים כי אם על זה הדרך, יפסד הסדור המדיני לגמרי, שיתרבו שופכי דמים ולא יגורו מן העונש!
If law breakers are only punished under these conditions [i.e. the conventional standards of evidence required by Torah law] the order of society will be completely destroyed, for murders will increase and they will have no fear of punishment!
The Ran explains, therefore, that the Jewish criminal justice system actually had two tracks. The primary track, which functioned according to the ideal standards of pure Torah law, was run by the batei din - the Jewish courts that were established in every community. It was this system that the average citizen of the Jewish state interacted with when accused of a crime. Convictions, especially of capital crimes, were extraordinarily unusual under this system.

However, there was another system, which was specifically intended to ensure that true criminals would not be able to take advantage of the leniency of the standard judicial system to shield them from the punishment they deserved. This track was run by the king. Under Jewish law, the king was empowered to punish, and even execute, a criminal based upon his own judgement of what was necessary for the protection of society. The king was not required to follow the conventional laws of evidence that applied to the courts.

Indeed, the Ran points out that the king's power was so great that it was necessary to impose special obligations on him to teach him to restrain himself from abusing that power:
ולפי שכח המלך גדול, איננו משועבד למשפטי התורה כמו השופט, ואם לא יהיה שלם ביראת אלקיו יבוא להפריז על המדות יותר ממה שיתחייב לתקון הכלל, ציוהו שיהיה ספר תורה עמו תמיד... שכשיפריץ על מדות התורה לצורך תקון זמנו, לא תהיה כוונתו לעבור על דברי תורה כלל ולא לפרוק מעליו עול יראת שמים בשום צד, אבל תהיה כוונתו "לשמור את כל דברי התורה הזאת ואת החוקים האלה לעשותם", שבכל מה שיוסיף או יגרע, יכוון כדי שיהיו חוקי התורה ומצוותיה יותר נשמעים, כאשר נאמר על צד המשל, שכשיהרג הורג נפש בלא עדים והתראה, לא תהיה כוונתו להראות ממשלתו לעם שהוא שליט על זה, אבל יכוון בעשותו זה כדי שמצות "לא תרצח" תתקיים יותר ולא יפרצו עליה.
The power of the king is so great - in that he is not obligated to conform to the laws of the Torah like a judge - that if he is not perfect in his fear of God, he may go beyond those principles more than is necessary for the protection of the community. Therefore, he is commanded to always have a Torah scroll with him (Deuteronomy 17:18-19)... [to remind him] that when he goes beyond the principles of the Torah for the necessity of the situation, his intent should not be, in any way, to violate the words of the Torah or to cast off the yoke of fear of Heaven, but his intent should be "to guard all the words of this Torah and these decrees, that they be fulfilled." Whether he adds or detracts, his intent must be that the laws and commandments of the Torah be heeded to a greater degree. Thus, for example, if he executes a murderer without witnesses or warning. his intent must not be to demonstrate his dominion to the people, but his intent in doing this should be that the commandment of "Thou shalt not murder" will be upheld further and not violated.
The Ran also points out that when there is no proper king, as was the case for much of the Second Temple period, this power of the king is transferred to the courts. (See the Rambam, Hil. Sanhedrin 24:4-10, where he describes the extra-legal powers of the courts in detail.)

The point of all of this is that actual Torah law does not give a free pass for any criminal who is clever enough to figure out how to circumvent the - extraordinarily lenient - standards of the conventional Jewish court system. To imagine that this is so, is to imagine that the ancient Jewish government was unable to provide even the most basic protections to its citizens. Under a properly run Jewish government, a predator like Weberman would indeed have been convicted, and likely executed, for his crimes.

The fact that, in our current state of exile, the Jewish community no longer has the ability to protect itself from monsters of this sort and is forced instead to rely on the good graces of an - admittedly imperfect - non-Jewish justice system is indeed a tragedy. However, the fact that, in this case at least, the system worked is something for which we should be deeply grateful.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Bo - Do Not Separate from the Community

Parshas Bo tells us of the final three of the ten plagues that God inflicted upon the Egyptians before the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. The second from last plague was the plague of darkness, in which the entire land of Egypt experienced a supernatural darkness.

In a famous medrash, the Sages tell us that in addition to functioning as a punishment for the Egyptians, the plague of darkness also served to hide an event that God did not wish the Egyptians to witness. The medrash states (Shemos Raba 14:3, also see Tanchuma, Va'era 14, and Tana D'Vei Eliyahu 7):
Why did He bring darkness upon them? Blessed be the Name of the Holy One, blessed is He, for there is no favoritism before Him, Who delves deep into the [human] mind and examines [their] thoughts: For there were sinners (פושעים, Rashi here has רשעים, "wicked people") in Israel who had patrons among the Egyptians, and they had wealth and honor there, and they did not wish to leave. God said, "If I bring a plague upon [these sinful Jews] openly and they die, the Egyptians will say, 'The same thing that is happening to us is also happening to them!'" Therefore He brought the darkness upon the Egyptians for three days, so that [the Jews] would be able to bury their dead, and their enemies would not see.
There were Jews who were comfortable in Egypt and did not want to leave. The Sages do not accuse these people of any kind of sinful behavior, whether towards God or to their fellow men. Their entire wickedness is summed up in the fact that they did not wish to leave Egypt! 

Moreover, we know that there were some genuinely wicked Jews who did leave Egypt together with their fellow Jews, the best known examples being the famous troublemakers, Dathan and Abiram. And the Jewish people as a whole were far from perfect. The Sages tell us that when God drowned the Egyptians at the Red Sea, the angels challenged the Divine Justice in drowning the Egyptians and not drowning the children of Israel, famously declaring, "הללו עובדי עבודה זרה והללו עובדי עבודה זרה" - "These are idol worshipers and those are idol worshipers!"

The implication of this medrash is that the issue was not that these particular Jews were exceptionally sinful, but rather that they were sinful in a very specific way, one which made it impossible for them to live to see the redemption of their people from Egypt. This was the simple fact that, regardless of any other virtues they may have possessed, these Jews wanted to stay in Egypt. They were quite comfortable in Egypt, and they saw no reason to leave!

As Jews, we have an obligation to see ourselves as part of a larger unit, the Jewish people, to which we are intrinsically connected. Our connection to God as individuals cannot be distinguished from our connection to the Jewish people as a whole. We can never simply go our own way, as if the fate of our fellow Jews means no more than that of any other random group of people.

One of the most famous teachings of the great Talmudic sage, Hillel, was (Avos 2:4), "אל תפרוש מן הצבור" - "Do not separate from the community." The commentaries explain that when the community is suffering, you have an obligation to bear the burden and suffer together with the community, even if the problem does not directly affect you. The Talmud (Taanis 11a) says that one who separates from the community when it is suffering will not merit to see the community's deliverance. This is precisely what happened to these Jews who did not wish to leave Egypt!

Not every sin requires actively violating an explicit prohibition. Indeed, as we see in this case, it is possible that one could be considered a sinful and wicked person even without doing a single forbidden or even improper act. Simply having the wrong mental attitude can be enough, if that improper attitude touches upon fundamental aspects of one's relationship with God and man.

This concept can also help us understand why it is that certain sins which seem to be relatively minor are sometimes given far more significance than others which would seem to be far more severe. One classic example is the case of a Jewish man sinning with a non-Jewish woman. Technically speaking, there is a debate if this is a Biblical or Rabbinical prohibition. And even if it is a Biblical prohibition, it clearly does not qualify for the severe penalty of kareis (spiritual excision) that we find by many other prohibited relationships. Yet, this is actually one of the most severe sins a Jew can commit! As the prophet Malachi said (2:11-12):
Judah has been treacherous, and an abomination has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has desecrated the holiness of God, which He loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. May God cut off (kareis) from the man that does this any living child from the tents of Jacob, and anyone that might bring forth an offering to the God of Hosts.
The prophet applies the penalty of kareis to an act that, according to many authorities, is not even a Biblical prohibition! Indeed, the Sefer Mitzvos HaGadol (R' Moses of Coucy, 13th century) writes (Lavin #112) that, in certain regards, the kareis described by the prophet is actually more severe than that of any other sexual sin. 

The Talmud (Eruvin 19a) states (in a somewhat obscure passage) that, in the afterlife, when a Jew is condemned to punishment in Gehinom, the patriarch Abraham comes and takes him out, "except for a Jew that has had relations with a non-Jewish woman, for his foreskin is pulled forward and he is not recognized" as a Jew. Here we see that a Jew who commits this, technically "minor" sin, is said to have lost his circumcision, the sign of the Jewish covenant with God!

This brings us back to our original topic. Our relationship with God cannot be separated from our relationship with the Jewish people. This is the nature of the Jewish people, we are His people, and He is our God. It is that relationship with God that makes us a nation, and it is as a nation that we have that relationship with God. When we cut ourselves off from the Jewish people, we are cutting ourselves off from God. As Jews, we have a moral and spiritual obligation, unlike that found in any other nation, to remain loyal to our people, both as individuals and as a group. We bear our burdens together, we share in the suffering of our fellows Jews, no matter where they are or how different they may seem, and, ultimately, we will all experience the joy of the final redemption together, as one people.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Assessing a Yeshiva

The Alter of Novhardok (R' Yosef Yozel Hurwitz, d.1919) used to say:
מדת הישיבה אינה נמדדת כמה טובים וכמה רעים בתוכה, אלא מהו המכונה והנחשב לרע או לטוב. (ספר המאורות הגדולים, ר' יוסף יוזל הורביץ, ר"א)
A yeshiva is not measured by how many good or bad students are in it, but by what the students consider good or bad. (Sparks of Mussar, p.148)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Va'eira - The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart

In Parshas Va'eira we read of the first seven of the ten plagues that God inflicted upon the Egyptians. Before the plagues, God instructed Moses to go and speak to Pharaoh, demanding that he allow the Jewish people to go free. In the course of these instructions, God tells Moses (Exodus 7:3), "ואני אקשה את לב פרעה" - "And I shall harden Pharaoh's heart" - and that Pharaoh would not listen to his pleas and God would perform many "signs and wonders" and would take the Jewish people out of Egypt "with an outstretched hand". And indeed, we find that after the sixth, eighth, ninth, and tenth plagues that "God strengthened the heart of Pharaoh", ultimately culminating in the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea.

Many commentators discuss how we are to understand the concept of God "hardening" Pharaoh's heart. if God hardened Pharaoh's heart, then how could he be held responsible for his actions? Moreover, one of the most basic principles of Judaism is the concept of free-will. Yet these passages imply that free-will is not guaranteed, and that it is possible that a person could lose his free-will.

Traditional Depiction
Indeed, Maimonides explains that it is possible for a truly wicked person to be punished with the loss of his free will, making it impossible for him to repent for his evil deeds. He writes (Hil. Teshuva 6:3):
It is possible that a person would commit so great a sin, or so many sins, to the point that justice demands from the True Judge that the punishment appropriate for the willful sins of this sinner is that teshuva (repentance) should be withheld from him and he should lose the ability to turn from his evil, so that he will die and be lost in the sins he has committed. ...
Therefore it says in the Torah (Exodus 14:4), "I shall strengthen the heart of Pharaoh," for Pharaoh had sinned on his own volition and was wicked towards the people of Israel that dwelt in his land.... Justice required that teshuva be withheld from him until he had been punished. God therefore hardened his heart. 
In his commentary on this verse, the Ramban also addresses this issue and provides two answers. The first answer is identical with the approach of Maimonides. In his second answer, however, the Ramban argues that the "hardening" of Pharaoh's heart does not refer to a loss of free-will, but the opposite, that God gave Pharaoh the strength of will to be able to defy God despite the incredible pressure brought about by the plagues. At no point did Pharaoh actually desire to let the Jewish people go. It was only that, after all of these plagues, he simply did not have to strength to continue fighting. Thus God strengthened the will of Pharaoh, leaving him free to make the choice that he wished to make.

This approach is also taken by the Seforno (commentary on Torah by R' Ovadia Seforno, d.1550) and the Sefer HaIkkarim (philosophical work by R' Joseph Albo, d.1444) and appears to be the dominant approach taken by most later commentators as well. Among these later commentators is the famous Dubno Maggid, R' Yakov Kranz (d.1804), in his commentary (Kochav L'Yakov on the haftara of Lech Lecha) on the verse (Isaiah 40:29), "He gives strength to the weary, and for the powerless He gives abundant might." The Dubno Maggid cites the famous medrash about Joseph in the house of Potiphar, that states that Joseph was on the verge of succumbing to the seductive ploys of his master's wife, when God sent him a vision of his father, Jacob. This vision inspired Joseph to absolutely reject the sinful advances of Potiphar's wife. The Dubno Maggid asks why the Sages revealed this fact, which would appear to reflect so poorly on Joseph, as he was on the verge of committing such a severe sin and was only prevented from doing so by a Divine vision? Moreover, doesn't this diminish the free-will of Joseph? (Indeed, the Sages view Joseph's resistance to Potiphar's wife as one his greatest acts of righteousness - "for he sanctified the Name of God in secret" (Sotah 10b). Yet how many people would commit a sin immediately after receiving a prophetic vision?)

The Dubno Maggid therefore explains that the reality was that Joseph had absolutely no desire to sin and had resisted Potiphar's wife with all his strength. But ultimately, the pressure of her campaign had simply become too much for him. He simply did not have the strength to fight any longer (which, if we imagine his circumstances, as a young slave in a foreign land with no moral support of any kind, is not surprising). He was on the verge of succumbing to sin, not because of desire, but because he had reached the limits of his strength to fight. At this point, God gave him renewed strength by sending him a vision. This is the idea expressed in the verse that God "gives strength to the weary," which, the Dubno Maggid explains, is fundamentally the same thing that happened with Pharaoh. In both cases, God gave them the renewed strength of will to resist what would otherwise have been overwhelming pressure. The difference between the two is only that in the case of Joseph his true desire was to do what was right, and in the case of Pharaoh his true desire was to do evil.

These two approaches may be reflected in the debate between the Sages, R' Yochanan and R' Shimon Lakish, in the medrash (Shemos Raba 13:3, cited in the Ramban):
"For I have hardened his heart." (Exodus 10:1) - R' Yochanan said, "This gives an opening for heretics to claim that he had no opportunity to repent!" R' Shimon ben Lakish said to him, "May the mouths of the heretics be sealed! Rather, [the true understanding is] "He mocks the mockers" (Proverbs 3:34) - He warns him once, twice, and a third time, and he [still] does not repent, and He closes his heart to repentance in order to punish him for his sin. So it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Once God had communicated with him five times (i.e. the first five plagues) and he paid no heed, God said to him, 'You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart, behold, I shall add impurity upon your impurity!"
The Yefeh To'ar (commentary on Midrash Raba by R' Shmuel Yafa Ashkenazi, 16th century) argues that R' Yochanan follows the second approach that we have described, that Pharaoh did not lose his free will. Thus he says that a simple reading of the verse would seem to support to the claims of the heretics that Pharaoh had no free-will and therefore did not deserve to be punished. R' Shimon ben Lakish, however, following the approach of Maimonides, says that Pharaoh did indeed lose his free will, but that the arguments of the heretics are nevertheless baseless, for this was his punishment for his extreme wickedness.

R' Elya Lopian
Whether we follow the interpretation of the Yefeh To'ar or not, it would seem clear that R' Shimon ben Lakish is the following the approach of Maimonides, that Pharaoh did indeed lose his ability to repent for his sins. However, in Lev Eliyahu (vol.2, p.49), R' Elya Lopian (d.1970) argues - emphatically - that teshuva is always possible, stating:
Know and remember this: That one who says, "I am unable to break my desire and stand up against my nature," this is heresy. As we see in the debate between R' Yochanan and R'Shimon ben Lakish... that both agree that this is what is said by heretics.
(Thus, in a lengthy note on the Lev Eliyahu (p.49-51), R' Sholom Schwadron (d.1997) argues (based upon a later passage in Hil. Teshuva) that even according to Maimonides, it is possible for a person to regain his ability to repent through prayer.)

Instead, R' Elya Lopian (p.44) understands the opinion of R' Shimon ben Lakish to mean not that God takes away the sinner's ability to repent, but rather that God ceases to reach out to the sinner to motivate him to repent.

This idea is also found in the Kedushas Levi (R' Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, d.1809). The Kedushas Levi (Deuteronomy 28:1) states that the Sages tell us that there is a Heavenly voice that calls out every day, "Return, O wayward sons!" (Jeremiah 3:22). This Heavenly voice is heard, on a spiritual level, by every Jew, and it serves to arouse his soul to repentance. However, the Sages tell us of certain Sage, R' Elisha ben Avuya, who became a heretic and became known as Acher. On a few instances, when asked why he did not repent from his sins, he responded that he had heard a Heavenly voice call out, "Return, O wayward sons! - Except for Acher!" (Chagiga 15a)

The Kedushas Levi explains that Acher did not lose the ability to repent, and if he had repented, his repentance would have been accepted. What Acher had lost was the daily Divine inspiration towards repentance that is the normal state for every Jew. Acher's sins were so great that the Heavenly voice no longer functioned to arouse his soul to repentance. For Acher, without that Divine inspiration, repentance would be far more difficult than for an ordinary Jew, but it remained within his power to do.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Prohibition of Ona'as Devarim – Hurting Another Jew's Feelings

“And you shall not hurt the feelings of one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am HaShem your God.” (Leviticus 25:17)

The Torah commands us not to hurt our fellow Jews in any way, even through speech. Harming another Jew with words is called ona’as devarim – oppressing with words. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) tells us that harming another Jew’s feelings is even worse than cheating him of money.

The Talmud gives several examples of the kinds of harmful statements that are prohibited:
  • Reminding a person of something shameful in his past, or in his family’s past. For example, if he was once not properly religious and has since repented, it is forbidden to remind him of his previous deeds. Related to this, if a person is a convert, we are not permitted to make remarks that imply that his non-Jewish origin somehow diminishes his status as a Jew.
  • If a person is suffering from misfortune or illness, we are not permitted to tell him that his suffering is a punishment for his sins.
  • Shaming someone in public. Even if it is sometimes necessary to admonish a person for his misdeeds, this should be done in private. Shaming a person in public is a terrible sin, even if it is done with good intentions. Obviously, to maliciously shame a person in public is far worse. The Talmud tells us, “Anyone who shames his fellow in public, it is as if he spilled blood.” Shaming another person in public is akin to murder.
    “Anyone who shames his fellow in public, it is as if he spilled blood.”
    Instead of saying that it is as if he spilled “his blood”, the Talmud refers to blood in the plural (which doesn’t translate well into English). The Ben Ish Chai (Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Bagdad – 1832-1904) explains that when one shames another person in public, every time the victim remembers his shame or meets someone who was present, he experiences the shame again. So when one shames his fellow in public, he has not merely shamed him once, but he has spilled his blood repeatedly!
    The Ben Ish Chai
  • Calling someone an insulting name. This is particularly problematic if one calls someone by an insulting name so frequently that it becomes a popular nickname for the person.
  • Giving misleading or self-serving advice. Do not think that since no one will know that the bad advice was given with bad intent that you will get away with it, because God knows. That is why the Torah adds here, “you shall fear your God”. (Rashi on Leviticus 25:17)
  • Arousing false hopes. For example, if one goes into a store with no intent of buying anything, but asks the store owner for prices making him think that you are a potential customer.
The importance of this mitzvah cannot be understated. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) states:
All those who go down to Gehinom (Hell) eventually come back up, except three: one who has committed adultery with another man’s wife, one who has shamed his fellow in public, and one who has given an insulting nickname to his fellow.
We must be very careful not to hurt the feelings of our fellow Jews. We must always bear in mind Hillel’s rule “What is unpleasant to you, do not do to your fellow” (Talmud Shabbos 31a). Sometimes we think that an insulting remark made in jest is harmless. Yet we all know many times when someone’s feelings were hurt from a joking remark. “I was only joking” is not a valid excuse. Just as one does not treat another person’s life as a joking matter, one must treat his fellow’s feeling with great respect. (Pele Yo’etz – Ona’ah)

In addition to the basic mitzvah not to hurt another Jews feelings, the Torah tells us to be extra careful about hurting the feelings of people who are particularly vulnerable. This includes a convert, “When a convert comes to live in your land, do not hurt his feelings” (Leviticus 19:33) or any other person who is not a native to your country, place, or culture (see Exodus 22:20). We must also be extremely careful about the feelings of widows and orphans, for the Torah says, “You shall not afflict any widow, or orphaned child. If you afflict them in any wise, and they cry to me, I will surely hear their cry; And my anger shall burn hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children orphans” (Exodus 22:21-23). The Talmud (BM 59a) also says that a man must be particularly careful not the hurt his wife’s feelings.

Despite the importance of not insulting another person, it is sometimes acceptable to respond strongly to someone who is verbally attacking you. However, even in such a case, one should use care and not speak out of anger. Moreover, it is considered a great level of righteousness to avoid responding even to those who verbally attack you. (Sefer HaChinuch 338)

This material was originally written for young students.

Friday, January 4, 2013

On the Popularity of the Mesillas Yesharim

One of the most influential and popular seforim (Jewish religious works) ever written is the mussar (ethical) work, Mesillas Yesharim, by R' Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (d.1747) - popularly known as the "Ramchal". The Mesillas Yesharim is considered a basic text in most yeshivos today and is widely studied by Jews throughout the world (both in the original Hebrew and in translation).

The question, of course, is why - of all the great mussar works written over the generations - this work should have become so immensely popular that it has reached the point of being one of the basic religious works of the Jewish world?

Before we can address the reasons for the immense popularity of this work, we first need to address a concern that is sometimes raised. The Ramchal, who passed away at the young age of 39, had the misfortune of being a rather controversial figure in his lifetime. He was accused - and even threatened with excommunication - of improper involvement in mystical practices and even Sabbatianism (adherence to one of the heretical cults based on the false messiah, Sabbatai Zvi). At first glance it might seem surprising that a work written by such a controversial figure has become such a central text of the Jewish world.

The reality, however, is that the Jewish world has long accepted that these accusations were incorrect. The fact that major figures, most notably, the Vilna Gaon (R' Elijah of Vilna, d.1797), strongly endorsed the Ramchal and his works has served to completely clear any suspicion from his name. The conventional opinion within the Orthodox community is that, as is often the case with complex figures (and the Ramchal was certainly a complex figure), especially those deeply involved with kabbalah and mysticism, the Ramchal was simply misunderstood. (The Ramchal was not unique in this regard; R' Yonason Eibshutz (d.1764) is another example of a major figure accused of Sabbatianism, whose works are fully accepted today, and for largely the same reason.)

The accusations against the Ramchal have, therefore, not been given any credence within the religious Jewish world for well over two centuries, and have long been viewed as just another unfortunate aspect of history.

Of course, the fact that the Ramchal is not viewed as a controversial figure does not, in of itself, explain why the Mesillas Yesharim became so popular. In fact, the Ramchal himself wrote many other works, and while some are fairly popular today, none of them comes close to the extraordinary popularity that the Mesillas Yesharim has enjoyed for more than two centuries.

I don't believe there can be any definite answers to this question. The fact that the Mesillas Yesharim was enthusiastically endorsed by numerous major rabbinic figures over the years (such as the Vilna Gaon and, perhaps most significantly, R' Yisrael Salanter (d.1883), the founder of the Mussar Movement in 19th century Eastern Europe) has certainly played a large role in its popularity. However, asides from the fact that this does not explain why the book received such enthusiastic endorsements in the first place, it also fails to really explain the work's general popularity as well. There have been many works over the years that have been enthusiastically endorsed by major figures that failed to really gain general popularity. (For example, in addition to Mesillas Yesharim, R' Yisrael Salanter also sought to popularize the study of several other mussar works, yet none of these works enjoys anything resembling the popularity of the Mesillas Yesharim, and some, such as the medieval mussar work, Tikkun Middos HaNefesh, by R' Solomon ibn Gabirol (d.1058), remain virtually unknown.) The reality is that it is the popularity of the Mesillas Yesharim that explains why people are aware of the many endorsements it has received, not the other way around.

So what was it about the Mesillas Yesharim that set it apart from all the other classic mussar works?

In my opinion, the most significant factor that sets the Mesillas Yesharim apart from earlier works is that, unlike many earlier mussar works, the Mesillas Yesharim refrains entirely from harsh, condemnatory language directed at the reader.  With many earlier mussar works, it is all too easy for the reader to come away from his studies with a sense of despair and fear. (An elderly - and very religious - woman once told me that she had difficulty studying the classic mussar work Shaarei Teshuva (by Rabbeinu Yona of Gerona, d.1263) because, for her, its uncompromising style was too intimidating and, ultimately, discouraging.) Many older mussar works seem to make a special effort to describe the dreadful fate of the sinner in the afterlife (the Reishis Chochma, by R' Elijah di Vidas, d.1592, is particularly noted for this).

The Mesillas Yesharim entirely refrains from such rhetoric. On the contrary, the work continually stresses that every positive step, no matter how small, is actually a major achievement, and that even one who attains to only the lowest of the levels described in the book has done something extraordinary.

Another significant factor that, in my opinion, distinguishes the Mesillas Yesharim from most earlier works is that he largely refrains from lengthy technical discussions. Many other works are written more in the style of philosophical works than as guides to self-improvement. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is the classic Chovos Halevovos (by Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Paquda, 11th century), with its often cumbersome lists of proof-texts from Scripture and Rabbinic literature and philosophical arguments that, for the average reader, are often unnecessary. (It should be noted that, despite this issue, the Chovos Halevovos remains quite popular, and is probably the next most popular mussar work after the Mesillas Yesharim.)

Both of these factors point to the single, unique quality that distinguishes the Mesillas Yesharim: The sense that the author is there for you as a supportive and understanding personal mentor. The Ramchal in Mesillas Yesharim never condemns you; he never implies that your spiritual failings mean that you are a bad person or that you just don't care. He never implies that you just need to get your act together and stop doing bad things, as if it were an easy thing to do. And he never attempts to motivate you through fear of punishment. Instead, the Ramchal guides the reader step by step, with practical and inspirational advice, on how to gradually develop oneself and work one's way upwards spiritually. (For an overview of the general structure of the Messilas Yesharim, see my previous post: Who Achieves Divine Inspiration?)

In writing the Mesillas Yesharim in this manner, the Ramchal demonstrated a deep sensitivity to the changes that were taking place in society (both in Jewish society and in society at large). While earlier generations apparently found the older style mussar works effective, in the modern world a very different approach was necessary. The Mesillas Yesharim was thus, in many ways, the first modern Hebrew work. (Indeed, the early maskilim were great admirers of the Ramchal, and the Mesillas Yesharim, for this very reason.)

Given all of the above, it is not surprising that the Mesillas Yesharim was a huge "hit" and became the most popular mussar work of all time.

There is one more issue that is often raised that needs to be addressed. Anyone who has studied the Mesillas Yesharim will quickly recognize that, of the nine levels he describes, few people ever attain much beyond the first two or three. That being so, what is the point of studying the later sections?

Not long ago, I had the opportunity to discuss this topic with my rebbi, who is himself a long-time student of the Mesillas Yesharim. In the discussion, we came to three basic reasons why the later sections of Mesillas Yesharim are relevant to every Jew.
  1. "You can't begin a journey if you don't know where you are going." Even when you are still on a lower level, the knowledge of what you are working to eventually achieve on the higher levels still has a major impact.
  2. Spiritual growth is usually uneven. There are always some areas in which we are stronger than in other areas. Thus, it is possible that while a person may have only achieved the first or second level in most regards, he is nevertheless on level 5 or 6 in certain specific areas. A person should not restrict his spiritual growth in stronger areas while he waits for his weakest areas to "catch up". On the contrary, it is often the case that as one improves in one area, other areas tend to be "drawn along" and improve as well.
  3. It is important for us to understand what true spirituality is, so that we will be able to recognize it (or its absence) in the people around us. Even if we have not achieved the highest levels described in Mesillas Yesharim, if we study them we will at least be able to recognize such greatness when we encounter it in another person, and we will also be able to recognize its absence in those who put on false pretenses of holiness.

Originally written in response to a question on an on-line forum.

Shemos - A Man Married a Woman...

In Parshas Shemos the Torah tells us the story of the birth of Moses, the savior of the Jewish people; the man who would lead them out of Egyptian slavery, who would bring them to a national revelation at Mt. Sinai, and who would lead them for forty years in the wilderness, teaching them God's Torah. The man whom, the Torah tells us, was both the humblest man and the greatest prophet of all time.

We would expect that this account would be one of drama and miracles, yet the Torah tells us the story in the simplest of possible terms (Exodus 2:1-2):
And a man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and bore a son....
A man married a woman and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. A more ordinary story could not be told.

Yet, in reality, the Sages tell us that there was a great deal of drama to this story. Moses was not from an ordinary Levite family. As the Torah tells us (Exodus 6:20), Moses was the son of Amram, the grandson of Levi and, the Sages tell us, the leader of the generation, and Jochebed, a daughter of Levi. Amram and Jochebed had been previously married (as we know from the fact that Moses had two older siblings, Aaron and Miriam), but in the face of the decree to cast all male children into the river, Amram had separated from her, and his example had been followed by the rest of the Jewish people. The Sages tell us that this continued until Miriam, Amram's daughter, said to her father, "Your decree is worse than Pharaoh's! For Pharaoh has decreed only against the males, but you have decreed on both the males and the females!" Amram accepted this criticism and remarried Jochebed. As R' Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:
R' Samson Raphael Hirsch
In such times courage was required to become a father or a mother. So it does not say, ויהי איש מבית לוי ויקח וגו' ("And there was a man from the house of Levi that married...") but וילך וגו' ("And he went..."). In this וילך lies the whole great resolution that was necessary for taking such a step.
Note further, that it does not say, ויקח בת לוי ("and he took a daughter of Levi") but ויקח את בת לוי ("and he took the daughter of Levi"), i.e. one who was already definitely known. In any case we know from the sequel that when this occurred, the couple had been married previously. A sister was already there and this sister had already a brother. All this tells us what our Sages say, viz. that this was not their first marriage, but that a man who had separated from his wife in consideration of the King's cruel order, made up his mind to take her back again to oppose this order.
Yet, despite this, the Torah tells us the story in exceptionally sparse and simple terms. We are not even told the names of the parents, only their tribe. Why does the Torah do this?

In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz (d.1946) writes:
The explicit language in these two verses brings out an important characteristic of Judaism. In other religions, the founders are represented as of supernatural birth. Not so in Judaism. Even Moses is human as to birth, as also in regard to death (Deut. 34:5).
R' Hertz sees in the simple and straightforward language of the Torah an apparently simple lesson that is actually of profound importance. Judaism emphasizes the human nature of its founders and leaders, and does not see this as in any way diminishing their stature. An "ordinary" child of "ordinary" parents can grow up to reach the highest levels of spirituality. (This point is also made, and developed at some length, by R' Yaakov Kamenetsky in Emes L'Yakov.)

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin (d.1966) sees a related idea in the omission of the names of the parents. If the Torah had stated their names at this point, we might have thought that Amram and Jochebed were somehow predestined to be the parents of the savior of the Jewish people. By omitting the names, however, the Torah teaches us that any righteous Jewish man can be the father, and any righteous Jewish woman the mother, of the savior of the Jewish people.

The Torah tells us the story of Moses' birth in these simple terms, "a man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi", to teach us to recognize the significance of a Jewish man and woman coming together in marriage and raising a family. To teach us that, ultimately, every Jewish family has the ability to bring about the salvation of the Jewish people.