Thursday, February 23, 2012

Teruma - The Path to Holiness (And What is Holiness Anyways??)

Parshas Terumah deals with the construction of the Mishkan - the desert Tabernacle - and its vessels. The construction of the Mishkan is part of a general mitzva (commandment) to construct a Mikdash - Sanctuary - for the service of God. In the desert, where the Jewish people were not settled in a specific location, the Mishkan sufficed. Eventually, when the Jewish people had fully settled in the land of Israel, a full Temple was built in Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon.

Rabbi Samson Raphael
This is the mitzva expressed in the verse (Exodus 25:8), "And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst." Significantly, the Torah does not say, "and I shall dwell in it (i.e. the Sanctuary)", but rather, "I shall dwell in their midst." The goal of the Sanctuary is to somehow make the Jewish people themselves worthy of God's presence. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d.1888) puts it:
...the ושכנתי בתוכם ["and I shall dwell in their midst"] of our verse extends far beyond the mere presence of God in the Temple, but that it means the proximity of God in our midst, showing itself in accordance with the covenant, in the whole happiness and prosperity of our private and national life under His protection and blessing.
The Temple is a model for us of how to sanctify ourselves. From the Temple, we learn how to make ourselves holy, so that each of us can become a living Mikdash.

This goal, of course, is the work of an entire lifetime, and one that we will never truly complete. Nevertheless, it is a task that we must begin, which means that we need to have some basic idea of what it is we are trying to acheive. First of all, how do we start? What basic characteristics are necessary to begin this process of self-sanctification?

A hint may be found in an enigmatic midrash that connects Parshas Terumah to the end of Parshas Mishpatim:
כשאמרו ישראל נעשה ונשמע מיד אמר להם ויקחו לי תרומה
(ילקוט ראובני - ונראה שהמקור הוא תנא דבי אליהו רבא פרק י"ז)
"When the Jewish people declared (Exodus 24:7), "We will do and we will hear," God immediately said to them (Exodus 25:1), "Let them take for Me a portion..."
This midrash indicates that there is a special connection between the great declaration of נעשה ונשמע - "We will do and will hear" - and the commandment to construct the Mishkan. This declaration somehow demonstrated that the Jewish people were ready to take the step of creating a Sanctuary for God in this world. What exactly is the connection between these two concepts?

A number of commentaries address this question, of which two, in particular, struck me as particularly significant.

The first explanation is from the commentary of Dr. Isaac Unterman, in his English commentary on the Torah (published in 1973). He writes:
The construction of the Tabernacle for God was likely to lead to a serious error: to think, God forbid, that the Holy One was in need of a resting place, that he was corporeal. For this reason, the command to build a Tabernacle could not be given until it had been definitely established that they understood that the Most High was not of a material substance and hence had no use for rest like living creatures. This was made evident when the Jews said: WE WILL DO AND WE WILL HEAR. Actually they should have demanded to hear first - perhaps they would have found it too hard? But because they were sure that the Most High was of infinite perfection, he had no need for precepts. The latter were absolutely for the good of man. Then there was no point in inquiring whether or not they would be a match to the performance of the commandments. For there is no telling how far man would go in his efforts when it concerns his own good and happiness. At that moment, when this became evident that they were well groomed to perform the task of putting up the Tabernacle, without any fear that it might lead to an error - accordingly, they were then told that "they bring Me an offering" and "they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in the midst of them."
This commentary from Dr. Unterman points to the great importance of having a proper conception of God and of our relationship with Him. Someone who perceives God as limited, in any way, will lack the ability to fully trust God and to wholeheartedly accept His Torah. His relationship with God will be fundamentally flawed. Only once we have achieved a proper, basic understanding of these basic principles is it then possible for us to enter into the realm of true holiness.

Another explanation of this midrash can be found in Sefer Zichron Menachem, written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Levkovitch of Proshnitz (I don't know exactly when the author lived, but the sefer has haskomos from major figures such as R' Shmuel Salant and the Sdei Chemed, both of whom passed away in the very early years of the twentieth century). The Zichron Menachem focuses on a different aspect of the declaration of "We will do and we will hear!", pointing out that no one person can actually fulfill all of the commandments of the Torah. For example, certain commandments are restricted to kohanim, whereas others are restricted to non-kohanim, and so on. How then, could the Jewish people declare "All that God has spoken we will do and we will hear"? The answer is that at that time the Jewish people had attained such a degree of unity and brotherly love that they were like one person, and therefore, if one Jew performed a mitzva, it was as if all of them had done so.

This, the Zichron Menachem explains, was an essential prerequisite for constructing the Sanctuary, for God's presence cannot rest amongst the Jewish people except when they are in a state of unity. This also helps us understand why Parshas Mishpatim, which deals with laws involving man and his fellow, had to come before Parshas Terumah. True holiness can only be achieved when we are in a state of peace with our fellow Jew.

From these two commentaries we learn that, even before we can begin the task of holiness, we must first work to achieve two basic preconditions, a proper conception of God and His relationship with us, and a peaceful relationship with our fellow Jews. Only once these conditions have been met can we properly begin the task of holiness.

But what, exactly, is holiness - kedusha? We tend, for some reason, to imagine "holiness" as a beatific and peaceful state of "spirituality" (a vague concept if there ever was one). In reality, kedusha means "separateness" - and  refers to a state of being separated from the rest of the world. Thus, God Himself - HaKadosh Baruch Hu - is holy in the most absolute sense, in that He is entirely separate from the world. Anytime we speak of something in this world as being holy - kodesh - we mean that this thing has been separated from the world and set aside for the service of God. Thus, for example, the Torah is holy, the Sabbath is holy, the Temple - and, to a lesser degree, every synagogue - is holy, the land of Israel is holy, and - within the Jewish people - the kohanim are holy. In every case, this means that this thing thing is set aside for serving God, and is therefore subject to great limitations on its use. The same is true for the Holy People, the Jewish nation. The Jewish people, as a whole, are a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6), meaning that they have a relationship to the world akin to the relationship of the kohanim to the Jewish people. The Jewish people are holy, meaning that they are set aside from the rest of the world for the purpose of serving God. Returning to the commentary of Rav Hirsch:
...this blessing and protecting Schechina - proximity of God - is not brought about by the mere correct erection and upkeeping of the Sanctuary, but can only be won by consecrating and giving up our whole private and public lives to carrying out the Divine Torah. A fact that is not only proved historically by the destruction of the Sanctuary, once in Shilo and twice in Jerusalem, but which is distinctly stressed as a warning, not only in the Torah itself..., but also immediately at the foundation and building of Solomon's temple and on almost every page of the  books of the prophets.
This, of course, is a very demanding calling, and one that requires from us a great deal of commitment, determination, and, perhaps most of all, hard work. It is not surprising therefore, to find that the Sages point to the role of labor in association with our verse. The great sage, Shemai'ah, taught (Avos 1:10), "Love work!" In a discussion of the teaching, Avos d'Rabbi Noson (ch.11) states:
רבי טרפון אומר, אף הקב"ה לא השרה שכינתו על ישראל עד שעשו מלאכה, שנאמר "ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם."
Rabbi Tarfon said, "Even God did  not allow His Presence to rest upon Israel until they worked, as it says, "And they shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell amongst them."
The task of constructing the Temple - with all its complexity and labor - symbolizes the even more complex and difficult task of sanctifying ourselves. This is an all-encompassing mission, which demands that our entire lives be focused exclusively on this goal.

It often happens that an outsider will recognize truths that are often missed by those of us who have grown up within the religious Jewish world. As an example, I remember in yeshiva, the non-Jewish janitor remarking about the drunkenness of the yeshiva students on Purim. He expressed astonishment, "That room (referring to the dining hall during the Purim seudah) is filled with hundreds of drunk young men, but there's not a single fight!" (I am not going to enter here into the question of the propriety of this practice. The point is valid regardless.)

Similarly, one of the best descriptions of the concept of holiness in Orthodox Jewish life that I have encountered was written by a non-Jew, Maria Poggi Johnson. Mrs. Johnson is a Catholic Christian who teaches theology at the University of Scranton. Scranton is also the home of a prominent yeshiva and has a vibrant Orthodox Jewish community. Mrs. Johnson happens to reside in the midst of that community and she and her family became very friendly with a number of her Orthodox Jewish neighbors. In 2006 she published a memoir about her relationship with these neighbors and friends entitled Strangers and Neighbors: What I Have Learned About Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews.

In chapter four, titled "The Holy God and His Stiff-Necked People", Mrs. Johnson discusses the concept of holiness. She writes:
The word "holy," kodesh in Hebrew, is tricky. We tend to use it, rather vaguely, to mean extra-good, super-spiritual, or even just really, really nice. The original meaning of kodesh is actually "separate" or "set apart." When God tells his people that he is holy, he means that he is different - nothing remotely like the gods of the Egyptians or the Canaanites. "My thoughts are not your thoughts," he tells them. "And my ways are not your ways. I am utterly unlike anything you have experienced or could imagine" (Isa. 55:8, paraphrase). If you try to understand the nature of God and decide to worship him by doing what the Egyptians and the Canaanites and everyone else does - creating and bowing down to images - you will get it wrong. No images. Nothing in the world, nothing that can be represented in matter, can adequately communicate God's essence.
Holiness is not only strange; it is dangerous. If you see God, you die. If you touch the mountain where the presence of God has entered our universe, you die. If you panic because Moses, who is the only person who seems to have any idea what is going on, has been up the mountain for forty days, and you need something that you can understand and touch and control, and you pool all your gold and make an image of a calf and worship that, then lots and lots of you die.
So when God says, "I am holy," he doesn't mean "I am nice." And when he says, "You shall be holy," he doesn't mean "You ought to be nice too." He means that, although his people can never imagine or understand him, they are to be like him. This is the outrageous job that God gives to the Jews: the job of making manifest in their lives the holiness, purity, absolute justice, mercy, and goodness of God. It is not a job they can begin to do if they care, even a little, about being normal, fitting in, going with the flow. To be holy means precisely to be different: set apart, proudly weird, bizarrely countercultural, and defiantly unlike the business-as-usual world all around them. That is the task that our neighbors have inherited, and they give themselves to it heart and soul.
The unique task of holiness that has been set upon the Jewish people cannot begin until we recognize that we are set apart from the world at large and we accept the sacrifices that this separation entails. We simply cannot expect to live ordinary, mainstream lives and also achieve the goal of holiness that God has set upon us. The Torah demands from us, as we saw in the words of Rav Hirsch, "consecrating and giving up our whole private and public lives to carrying out the Divine Torah." Nothing less will suffice.

Of course, when faced with such a demanding concept, it is easy to get carried away. Any number of religious groups, including Jewish groups, have taken the concept of holiness to extremes of asceticism, abstinence, and social separation that go far beyond what God demands from us. Indeed, by going to such extremes, these groups really miss the point. As Rav Hirsch put it, the demand of holiness is that we devote our entire being to "carrying out the Divine Torah." We do not decide for ourselves how to become holy, for, in truth, we can have no real understanding of what that goal truly means until we get there. Instead, God has provided us with a detailed guide towards achieving this goal - the Torah. This is why the Holy Ark - containing the  Tablets of the Covenant and a Torah scroll - is placed at the center of the Sanctuary. The entire Sanctuary is to built around the Torah, symbolizing that the only means by which we can truly achieve holiness is by adherence to the laws and teachings of the Torah.

In summary, God has set upon the Jewish people the extraordinary and demanding task of achieving a state of holiness and becoming a dwelling place for God. This is a task that demands a great deal of hard work, and can only begin when he have attained a certain minimal level of understanding of the nature of God and our relationship with Him. Moreover, we cannot even begin to work towards holiness while we are in a state of discord with our fellow Jews, for only in a state of unity can God's presence dwell in our midst. This task demands from us that we devote our every aspect of our lives towards this purpose, and that we, therefore, cannot expect to live "ordinary" lives like the people around us. God has given us the Torah as our guide towards achieving this goal, and, for this reason, the Torah must always be the central focus in our lives. While the goal of true holiness might appear to be beyond our abilities, if we truly strive towards this goal, then God will respond in kind, and he will grant us the abilities to achieve that which would otherwise be impossible.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Yiush Shelo M'Daat - The Movie

A few years ago, while I was teaching in Politz Day School, we were studying Eilu Metzios, one of the chapters of the Talmudic tractate, Bava Metzia, which deals with the laws of lost objects. One of the main issues discussed in this chapter is the concept of yi'ush shelo m'daas - "giving up hope (for regaining a lost object) without conscious intent." It's not a simple concept, especially for 12-13 year olds, and as it is a very long and complex discussion, it was important that the students properly understand the basic issues at the outset.

In a brainstorming session, the principal suggested that I make a little "movie" with the class, that would help them get all the details straight in their mind. I was very hesitant at first, as I had never done anything like this, but I agreed to try it out. So, after a little planning - mostly to figure out what I was capable of reasonably achieving without specialized software - this little video was the result. The initial video started right out from the story, but afterwards people wanted a version that could be used by the general public, so I added a two minute introduction.

It turned out that I had created a monster, as the video was a big hit within the school. The school arranged for me to show the video at the local JCC, and from there it went on to be shown at a local Jewish film festival. Not quite what I had expected when I made the silly thing.

The movie is a good example of what a person can do with a little creativity, even without specialized software. Unfortunately, as an educational technique, "movie making" is of limited utility. Not every topic lends itself well to the approach, and if you do it too often it loses much of its novelty (which is its main appeal).

(For those who are familiar with the Talmudic discussion, it should be noted that the conclusion is greatly oversimplified. In reality, the halacha would play out almost exactly the opposite from what happens in the film. According to the opinion that yi'ush shelo m'daas is yi'ush, the court would, in most cases, require the item to be returned to the original owner based on the principle of lifnim m'shuras hadin (which is often enforceable in hashovas aveida cases). According to the opinion that yi'ush shelo m'daas is not yi'ush, the court would generally not be able to return the lost objects to the original owner for the simple reason that he can not prove that he is, in fact, the owner. (If he could, then there would be no issue of yi'ush shelo m'daas in the first place.) Rather, the finder would have to hold the object as an agent of the original owner until such evidence is provided. The only way this could realistically happen would be if there had been witnesses to the original loss that the owner had been unaware of. In short, it's a complicated topic.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Mishpatim - All Suffering is from God

In Parshas Mishpatim we read (Exodus 21:18-19):
And if men fight, and one strikes the other, whether with a stone or with a fist, and he does not die, but falls into bed: If he gets up again, and walks out upon his staff, then he that struck him shall be clean; only for his rest he shall give him, and for his healing.
If one person knowingly injured another person sufficiently that there is a risk that the injured person might die, then Torah law requires us to imprison the one who inflicted the injury until it becomes clear what will happen. If the victim dies of his injuries, then the imprisoned person is tried for murder. If, however, the victim recovers sufficiently that he is able to walk outside, then the person who inflicted the injury is freed from imprisonment, and is no longer held liable for any later developments (i.e. he is “clean”). Even if the victim later dies, we can no longer assume that the death was directly and exclusively caused by the injury.

Once the person who inflicted the injury is no longer potentially guilty of murder, the case shifts from a criminal case to a financial case. If the court holds the person who inflicted the injury to be guilty, then he is liable for damages. Among the damages that he must pay are the cost of the injured person's lost wages and the cost of medical care.

In a famous passage, the Talmud (Bava Kamma 85a) derives from this verse the principle that Judaism is not opposed to medical care:
The school of Rabbi Yishmael says,  “[The verse states,] 'for his healing,' from here we see that permission is given to a healer to heal.”
Why would we think otherwise? Rashi, in his commentary on the Talmud, explains, “We do not say, ‘God has stricken him and he (i.e. the doctor) heals him?’” In other words, being that all illness and suffering comes from God’s decree, we might believe that medical care is an inappropriate interference with God’s will. The Torah teaches us that this is not true, in that God has permitted the use of medical care. While we are required to believe that all that happens to us is from the will of God, we are still required to function within the natural framework that God has created. Among many other things, this would include medical care.

The Chofetz Chaim
The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan d.1933) ספר ח"ח עה"ת)) points out that the context in which this lesson is taught provides an additional important lesson. People sometimes argue that, while suffering that comes from natural causes comes from the will of God, suffering that is inflicted upon us by other human beings does not. God gave human beings free will, and this, the argument goes, means that a human being has the power to inflict harm on another person even if God does not will it so. The Chofetz Chaim points out that it is specifically in the context of harm being inflicted by one person upon another that we are taught that medical care is permitted. This indicates that even in such a case, the argument that “God has stricken him and he heals him?” would still apply if not for the fact that the Torah permitted medical care.

Even when other human beings inflict harm upon us, we must still recognize that this was only possible because God decreed that we should endure this suffering. This is an important principle in Jewish thought that underlies many other concepts. For example, the Sefer HaChinuch (241) writes that this is the underlying concept of the prohibition against revenge. A person must recognize that everything that happens to him, good or bad, is from the will of God, and that no man can harm him unless God so decrees.

The Shach
Throughout the generations, it was this concept that gave the Jewish people the strength to endure the most horrific suffering under the hands of their enemies. In the aftermath of the Cossack massacres of Jewish communities in Poland and the Ukraine, the great Torah sage, Rabbi Shabsai Kohen (d.1662), better known as the Shach (after his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, Sifsei Kohen), wrote a lengthy poem commemorating the victims called Megilas Eifah. One of the communities he mentions is the community of Homiah (the following is a loose translation – some of the less easily translated terms and phrases have been omitted):

Let it be known in truth and perfection,
That the Jews of the village Homiah
Sanctified the name of God more than the other righteous and wise Jews.
For there too the impure barbarians came as violent dogs,
In collusion with other immoral people,
And the Jews were given into their hands.
They were driven out of the city upon the fields and orchards,
And they were surrounded and stripped naked,
And they were forced to sit upon the ground and the Jews were embarrassed and ashamed.
They were driven like a lamb to the slaughterer and like an ewe to the shearer.
Then the barbarians spoke to the Jews good and comforting words,
“Why should you be strangled and slaughtered like cattle
For your God Who pours His anger upon you without mercy?
Would it not be better for you to serve our gods, the statues and images
And we will be one unified people?
Then you will be freed from us and you will live,
And we will return to you all the spoils and you will be wealthy and powerful!”
The holy and faithful seed, who, in all the days, have been killed for God,
Had contempt for this world, young men and women, and the elderly,
They gathered together – old and young,
In whom there was no flaw,
And they cried out a great and bitter cry to God above,
“Hear O Israel, Hashem is Our God, Hashem is one!
For You, God of Israel, we are killed every day!
We shall not dwell with men falsehood and wickedness!”
And they confessed their sins and they said, “But we are guilty!”
And they justified the judgement and said, “The Rock, His work is perfect!”
And they sung many songs of mourning until their cries rose to the heavens.
When the barbarians saw that the Jews were perfect in their faith,
They began to speak to them arrogantly and threateningly,
“For how long will you be stiff-necked, and knowingly give yourself over to destruction, making yourselves into murderers?
For you are bringing your deaths upon yourselves, causing the murder and slaughter,
For you do not wish to serve our gods!”
And the Jews said to them, “Why do you delay killing us?
For we will not listen to your voice, and we will not worship gods of human manufacture,
For God is one in heaven and earth, Hashem is our God and our Savior,
You, today, are sent by Him, blessed be He, to strike down our lives,
For God brings about evil deeds through evil men, such as you, our haters and enemies,
And if you will not kill us, God has many other agents,
He has many lions and bears to attack us.
But you are the one that He has prepared for punishment, you are His sword to destroy us!”
Then the barbarians raised their hands against them and killed them all for our sins,
And they committed a great massacre against our brethren, the people of our covenant,
Against our sons, our daughters, our youth and our elderly.

The Torah has taught the Jewish people to recognize that all suffering, whether as a community or as an individual, comes from the decree of God, and that, ultimately, all of our suffering is intended to bring us closer to achieving the purpose of our existence, to achieve a true knowledge and attachment to God. It is has been this recognition that has given the Jewish people the strength to survive thousands of years of exile.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Yisro - To Truly Hear is to Change

Parshas Yisro begins with words, “וישמע יתרו” - “And Jethro heard.” Sitting in Midian, the exciting and dramatic news came, “all that God did to Moshe and to Israel, His people, when God took Israel out of Egypt.” There is no reason to believe that Jethro had a unique source of information. The news came to town and was available to everyone; it was probably one of the main topics of conversation for quite some time: “Hey! Did you hear the latest on what’s happening in Egypt? Blood, frogs, wild animals!” “The whole Egyptian army drowned! Who could have imagined?” “Amalek defeated! Read all about it!”

Yet, while the information was available to everyone, only Jethro truly “heard” the news. He heard the same news everyone else did, but he was the only one who accepted what it truly meant and acted upon it. To “hear” means much more than simply to passively hear a sound, it means to think about what you hear, to understand it, and to change yourself in response to the new knowledge.

“שמע ישראל ה' אלקנו ה' אחד” – “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4). We are commanded not simply to repeat the words, but to think about them and internalize this knowledge. It is not enough to simply recite a creed, even if we are entirely sincere. We must “hear” it – the knowledge has to effect a change in us.

When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they declared, “נעשה ונשמע” – “We will do and we will hear.” (Exodus 24:7) As many commentators point out, placing “we will do” before “we will hear” demonstrates that the Jewish people were not referring to the listening necessary for basic compliance with the law. That level of listening is already implicit in “we will do”, as one cannot obey a law that one has not heard. When the Jewish people said, “we will hear”, they were saying that they would not simply obey the laws in a superficial and rote manner, but that they would “listen” to the lessons that the laws teach and that those lessons would change them into better people.

This is the mission of the Jewish people, not simply to do, but to listen. Jethro is a model for us of how one who truly “listens”, one who truly “hears”, can go from being the idolatrous “priest of Midian” to being the “father-in-law of Moses.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

Tu B'Shvat - Shifting into a Higher Perspective

The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 1:1) tells us that the fifteenth of Shvat is the “Rosh HaShana” (New Year) for trees. The commentaries explain that Tu B’Shvat is the day when the sap begins to flow back into the limbs of the tree to begin a new season of growth. For this reason, Tu B’Shvat marks the beginning of a new crop of fruit. This is relevant for a number of the laws of agriculture, mainly the various agricultural tithes and the prohibition of ערלה (the prohibition against eating the fruit of trees in their first three years). Many of these laws are only applicable within the land of Israel.

The significance of Tu B’Shvat is primarily as a legal date, serving as a dividing line between the crops of separate years. However, it is also considered a minor holiday. From a halachic perspective, this means only that we refrain from fasting, eulogizing the dead, and that we omit the recitation of Tachanun from the daily prayers. There are a number of such minor holidays in the Jewish year (e.g. Tu B’Av, Pesach Sheini, Lag B’Omer, and, in leap years, Purim Katan).

However, Tu B’Shvat stands out for having a unique, and intriguing custom, recorded in many authoritative sources. This is the custom to eat fruit on Tu B’Shvat. This is an intriguing custom in that the activity involved is actually extraordinarily commonplace. People eat fruit all the time, most of us have a stash of apples and oranges in our refrigerator. One of the first blessings Jewish children learn to recite is the blessing made before eating fruit, "Blessed are You, HaShem our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the tree."

How does an ordinary activity, one that many of us engage in on a daily basis, suddenly become a “custom” on Tu B’Shvat?

I believe we can understand this from a classic Chassidic tale:
R’ Aharon of Karlin was once sitting with a young boy, when they were brought a bowl of apples. Each took an apple, recited the blessing, and took a bite. The young boy, sitting with the famous rabbi, began to think, “The rabbi recites a blessing and eats the apple; I recite a blessing and eat the apple. Are we really all that different?” R’ Aharon, seeing the thoughtful look on the boy’s face, immediately realized what the boy was thinking. 
He said to the boy, “You and I are both eating apples, and it appears as if we are doing the same thing. But there is a real difference. When you see the apple, you imagine the pleasure of eating the apple and you desire the apple. So you take the apple, but, being a religious boy, you are careful to recite the blessing first, thanking God for the kindness He has bestowed on you. When I see the apple, I too notice how beautiful and attractive it appears and I think about the pleasure that we experience when eating it. I am then filled with gratitude and love for God Who has bestowed these wonderful kindnesses upon us. A great desire to recite the blessing on the fruit of the tree, thanking God for His great kindness, takes hold of me. But one may not recite a blessing on food unless one eats the food, so I pick up the apple to enable me to recite the blessing. In short, you recite the blessing to permit you to eat the apple, I eat the apple to permit me to recite the blessing.”
The custom of eating fruit on Tu B’Shvat provides us with an opportunity to emulate this high spiritual level. On Tu B’Shvat we desire to express our gratitude to God for the fruits of the trees, so we make a point of eating these fruits, enabling us to recite the blessing, “Blessed are You, HaShem our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the tree.” 

This should be a model for us for the entire year. Even if we aren’t always on the level of eating for the sake of a blessing, we can at least be careful to always recite the appropriate blessings on our food and to think for an instant about the often overlooked kindnesses that God continually bestows upon us.

The Legitimacy of the Oral Torah

One of the basic principles of Judaism is that when God gave the written text of the Torah to Moses at Sinai, He also gave over to Moses an Oral Torah. This Oral Torah is the authoritative interpretation of the written Torah, telling us how to perform the various commandments, and also providing us with a methodology for Scriptural interpretation (hermeneutic rules). Today, the teachings of the Oral Torah are embodied in the Talmudic literature (which includes much more than just the Talmud itself).

People often ask what justification is there for the belief in the Oral Torah. This question is sometimes rooted in a discomfort with the idea of giving human beings dispositive authority over the Torah. For these questioners, while they are willing to accept the authority of the written Torah as a Divinely revealed document, they are uncomfortable with giving authority to human beings to determine what the Torah really means.

More often, however, the question is motivated by a desire to give legitimacy to alternative interpretations. If, the argument effectively goes, there is no Divinely revealed Oral Torah, then my interpretation (or my sect/denomination/religion’s interpretation) has as much authority as any other. For some, such as the liberal Jewish movements, even the written Torah has little inherent authority, and the denial of the Oral Torah is just part of a larger argument against traditional authority. For others, such as for many Christian believers, the Divine origin of the written text of the Torah is fully acknowledged, but their understanding of the Scriptures differs dramatically from the traditional Jewish interpretations. They are therefore forced to challenge the claim that the traditional Jewish interpretation, i.e. the Oral Torah, is of Divine origin.

(In most cases, people who believe themselves to be in the first group are actually in the second. Their difficulty is that the preconceptions underlying their interpretation of Scripture are so taken for granted that they do not realize that they are engaged in interpretation in the first place.)

For the first group, the basic answer is that, while their concern is understandable, the fact remains that God wrote the written Torah in such a way that there is simply no way to avoid the need for human interpretation. Any attempt to use Scripture as a practical authority requires interpretation of the Scriptures and all such interpretation involves preconceptions that exist, at least in part, independently of the text. This is true even for those groups that entirely deny the existence of such a tradition. The Sadducees, the Karaites, the Christians, and even the modern “liberal” Jewish denominations (e.g. Reform) all have their own approaches to Scriptural interpretation that conform to and support their various beliefs and ideologies.

The point being that you can't avoid utilizing some kind of interpretive preconceptions in studying Scripture. A true "sola scriptura" approach has never really been possible. For someone who accepts the Divine origin of the Torah, there is no way of avoiding the fact that God clearly wrote the Torah to be interpreted by human authorities. This is actually explicitly stated in Deuteronomy 17:11, “According to the Torah which they shall teach you, and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do; do not not turn aside from what they shall tell you, to the right or to the left.”

The existence of an unwritten Divinely revealed interpretive tradition is implicit in many places in the Torah. The mere fact that numerous major obligations (e.g. tefillin, mezuzah, and the prohibition against “work” on the Sabbath) are imposed without any clarity as to their practical nature indicates that this is so. The prohibition against work on the Sabbath is particularly telling, as Scripture mandates the death penalty for its violation. Is it really plausible that God would instruct us to give the death penalty for a crime which is never clearly defined? I mean, what, exactly, counts as "work"? Is this really something that we are supposed to determine on an ad hoc basis?

There are also explicit Scriptural references to Divinely revealed teachings that are not to be found in the Written Torah (e.g. Deut. 12:21 re:the laws of kosher slaughter). 

These facts clearly indicate that the existence of an authoritative oral tradition is not only supported by Scripture, but is actually demanded by it.

Obviously, those who deny, to whatever degree, the Divine origin of the Torah, will similarly have no reason to accept the authority of the Oral Torah. But for those who accept the authority of the Torah as a Divinely revealed document, there is no way to avoid the necessity of accepting that there is also an authoritative interpretive tradition that was revealed by God together with the Torah.

The question that remains is to determine which interpretive tradition has the strongest claim to authenticity. The first thing to determine is, from a historical point of view, whether a given tradition can plausibly claim to have originated at Sinai together with the Written Torah. Obviously, interpretive traditions that first came into existence long after the Sinai Revelation simply don’t qualify. 

Once we have eliminated all such obvious latecomers, we then have to deal with the second question. This is whether the specific interpretive tradition can be said to be consistent with the basic themes of the Written Torah. While the premise of the Oral Torah gives the Oral Torah the authority to interpret the Written Torah, this does not mean that the Written Torah is simply an inert piece of clay that can be reshaped at will. The Torah may be vague on some points, and there is certainly plenty of room for non-literal interpretation of many verses, but there are certain themes that are so central to the Jewish Scriptures that there is simply no way to deny them. An interpretive tradition that clearly flies in the face of these central themes is not plausibly authentic.

Of the existing, living, interpretive traditions, there are really only two that can can plausibly claim to be of genuine antiquity, the Rabbinic/Talmudic tradition and the Christian tradition. (I am using the term “Christian” in the broadest possible sense, referring to the mainstream beliefs held in common by most of the innumerable sects, denominations, and religions that fall under that term.)

Christianity claims to be fully in consonance with the teachings of the Jewish Scriptures, which Christianity refers to as the “Old Testament.” Indeed, Christianity claims that the Old Testament clearly attests to the truth of Christianity, and that the Christian interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures to this effect is not an innovation, but reflects the true interpretation and that the denial of this interpretation by the overwhelming majority of Jews who lived in the time of Jesus was a falsification of the true, indeed, self-evident, testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The problem with this claim is that it is simply not supported by the facts. On the contrary, many of the basic concepts of Christianity  - e.g. the identification of the human messiah with God (“the divinity of Christ”), the idea of the messiah coming (and then dying) without bringing about any significant political change, the abrogation of the laws of the Torah, and the supersession of the Jewish people by the Christian church - are fundamentally inconsistent with what one would get from a straight reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. These inconsistencies are not on minor details but on major Scriptural themes (e.g. idolatry, the eternal nature of the laws, the role and destiny of the Jewish people, the function of the messiah).

Accepting the basic premises of Christianity therefore has the effect not only of rendering the “Old Testament” a “dead letter”, but an extremely misleading and illogical “dead letter”. The most basic themes of the Hebrew Scripture are disposed of entirely, and are replaced with ideas that are completely unsupported by the text. It is simply not plausible that this was the authoritative interpretation given to the Jewish people at Sinai. (This is asides from the simple matter that, if it had been, then the Jewish people wouldn’t have rejected Jesus in the first place. It is this inconvenient fact that forced medieval Christians to conclude that the Jews were a consciously evil people, who knowingly denied the divinity of Jesus. From there it was only a short jump to the insane accusations of “Host desecration” and the blood libel that resulted in the death of untold thousands of innocent Jews.)

I am not going to attempt here to respond to the innumerable so-called “proof-texts” cited by Christians to support their claims (except to say that none of these “proofs” hold up under serious analysis). The question of how to deal with specific verses is not my topic here. There are all kinds of interesting verses in Scripture that can be interpreted in any number of ways, and misinterpreted in even more. The question is the underlying assumptions involved in that interpretation. If the underlying assumptions are wrong, then it is inevitable that the interpretation will be wrong as well.

The point in this post is not to critique Christianity. The point is to establish that the “Oral Torah”, as reflected in the Rabbinic tradition, is the only plausible candidate for an interpretive tradition of Divine origin, and that the need for such an interpretation is both self-evident and clearly attested to in Scripture. In practical terms, therefore, despite whatever questions one might have about the Rabbinic tradition itself, it remains the only viable candidate.

I would stress that, while here I am only making the case for the authority of the Rabbinic tradition by a “process of elimination”, in that there simply are no other plausible candidates, the case for the Oral Law is actually far stronger than that. There certainly are more direct arguments for the validity of the Rabbinic tradition. However, these arguments require studying many of the details of the Rabbinic tradition and would be too lengthy and technical for me to attempt in this post (and would also require a degree of competence in Talmudic study on the part of the reader).

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Challenge of Davening in School

Anyone who has taught in a Jewish day school knows that (starting from about seventh grade) one of the most difficult things to teach is "davening" (prayer). The simple reality is that talking in a foreign language to an invisible being does not come naturally to many young people (or old people, for that matter). This creates a situation where students are often, at best, completely "spaced out" through the entire davening. Davening becomes a social event where everyone catches up on what happened since the last time they saw each other. (Sound familiar, grown ups?)

In the long term, we need to work with the students on their understanding of prayer as a concept (what is prayer, why do we pray, what does it accomplish, etc.) and also work on their understanding of the meaning and significance of the specific prayers. All of this needs to be built on a basic foundation of belief in God and His relationship with us. This is a long process (ultimately, it is a life-long process), in which prayer itself plays an important role. Like many things, prayer is something we learn by doing as much as by studying.

In the short term, much depends on the specific situation and every educator needs to find creative ways to deal with their own situation. One of the most important elements is not to have unrealistic expectations. As a general rule, it is not reasonable to expect young teenagers to fully relate to davening. This is especially true when the adults around them don't appear to take davening all that seriously either.

As I mentioned above, in my experience, one of the main challenges with davening in school is that many students have extraordinary difficulty refraining from socializing with their peers during davening. I found that, for some of these students, if some kind of arrangement was made ahead of time so that they would sit separately from their peers, within a short time many of these students would begin to actively participate.

Another thing that can very effective is to have the students be actively involved in "running" the minyan (if you have one) as chazanim, baalei kriah, gabbaim, etc., with the adult(s) acting only in a passive, supervisory role. The more responsible a student feels for the proper functioning of "his" minyan, the more likely he is to buy into the whole thing.

One project that I found to be very successful in increasing student participation was what I called the "Kol Ram Club." I taught the students about the importance of answering "amen" out loud, as well as the relevant halachos (esp. no yelling!). I then tracked each student on a daily basis if I observed him appropriately answering "amen" out loud. The tracking was done on a chart on the wall of the classroom. After a two week period (5 school days a week), if the student had gotten at least 7 (out of ten) days of answering out loud, he got a "star" on the chart and a doughnut. Once a student earned four stars (which took a minimum of two months), he got a fancy certificate (made by me) stating that he was a "four-star" member of the "Kol Ram Club."
"Official" Logo of the Kol Ram Club
The project had a huge impact. The minyan felt more "alive" and active, students weren't as "spaced out", and the general tone of the entire davening was improved. (The certificates also turned out to be highly prized items.) It is a classic example of how minor changes can have a disproportionate impact. I did this project with middle school students, so I'm not sure how well it would go over in a high school. Of course, everything depends on presentation.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Why Does God Allow Us to Do Evil Deeds?

The following question was once posed in an on-line discussion I participated in, to which I wrote the following answer. I have rewritten the question in a more concise fashion.

Q: Why did God give us the freedom to murder and torture other people? If the purpose of free-will is simply to enable us to freely choose to serve God, then why do we need to be free to behave in truly horrendous ways? Why didn't God restrict our free will to a more morally acceptable range? The only choice that really needs to be left free is the choice to serve God.

A: I have two basic points in response, the first dealing with the nature of the question and the second, more important point, dealing with the underlying premise.

The first point deals with the nature of the concern about human freedom being so broad that it allows us to engage in excessively evil acts. That fact is that the acts that we perceive as atrocities are precisely those that are at the extreme limits of the free will of the normal person. Thus, we see killing a baby - an act that few modern Westerners would do (after childbirth) - as an atrocity, but we see a bar fight as merely bad behavior. No matter where God would have drawn the line for free will, there would remain acts that are so close to that line that they would be perceived as "atrocities". The only possible solution would be to eliminate free will entirely except for the one, yes/no decision to serve God. Such a solution would create a host of problems, not the least being that it would result in a completely black and white moral universe with no gradations at all. You would either be totally good or totally evil.

The second point, which I believe is more important, is that the premise of the question is based on an overly simplified understanding of the purpose for free will. While the idea that freedom gives meaning to our choice to do good is certainly important, and provides the basis for "reward and punishment", it is not the entire story.

On a deeper level, free will is a product of the human "neshama" - "soul/breath" - that God breathes into every human being. It is "the image of God" in which Man has been created. Our purpose in existence is to connect ourselves to God. Such connection is achieved by our emulation of God, bringing our Divine image's potential into actuality. To the degree that we "resemble" God, we are connected to Him. The most basic characteristic of God is that He is "free" - entirely independent. For man to imitate God, to share His image, Man must also be genuinely free.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Beshalach - The Role of Philosophy in Judaism

At its most basic level, Judaism is about just one thing: Connecting with God. God created us so that we could enter into a relationship with Him and everything we do in Judaism is intended for that purpose. The first step, on our part, in that relationship is to believe – i.e. to be absolutely certain – that God exists.

At the time when the events of this week’s parsha were taking place, the Jewish people came to know God in a very personal and immediate fashion. They saw His hand in the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the gift of the manna. And then, in the central event of Jewish history, they heard God speak to them directly, as He introduced himself to them at Mt. Sinai, saying, “I am Hashem, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.”

The Jews of that time knew God in the most personal way possible, the same way that we know our closest friends and family members. This direct, personal relationship with God continued for many generations, if to a lesser degree. Throughout the time in the desert, the Jewish people had daily experience with open Divine providence in the form of supernatural events that accompanied them constantly, such as the manna, the clouds of glory, the miraculous well, and much more. Even after their entry into the land of Israel, supernatural events continued to be normal parts of life. Prophecy flourished amongst the Jewish people for hundreds of years, and even after full prophecy ended early in the Second Temple period, lesser forms of Divine inspiration continued to function into the time of the Talmudic sages.

Eventually, however, we lost the privilege of these direct and obvious expressions of God’s presence. God “hid His face” from us, and we now have to struggle to reach the level of belief in God that was once self-evident to even the simplest Jew. In this new state, it became difficult for Jews to remain confident in their knowledge of God, especially in the face of outside challenges.

In response to this new challenge, a new genre of Torah literature emerged, Jewish philosophy. Although the Jewish people had long been known, from ancient times, as a “nation of philosophers”, they had never produced works of formal philosophy. The first such work was Emunos v’Deos (“Beliefs and Opinions”) by Rav Saadia Gaon. However, from that point forward, we see an explosion of such works, including such monumental works as Chovos Halevavos (“Duties of the Heart”) by Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pakuda, the Kuzari by Rav Yehuda HaLevi, and Moreh Nevuchim (“Guide for the Perplexed”) by Rav Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides). These great classics of Jewish philosophy continue to be studied to this day, and new works are written in every generation.

One of the main goals of these works is to provide logical arguments and proofs for the existence of God. While the basic foundation of Jewish belief had always been, and always would be, the historical experiences of the Jewish people, there was now a need to supplement that knowledge with philosophical proofs. The knowledge gained from historical tradition, as important as it was, could not provide the sense of personal connection with God that Judaism demands. Without the direct experiences of God’s presence that earlier generations had experienced, it was necessary to introduce a new way for a Jew to come to “see” God in the world around him. One of the main ways to achieve this was through philosophy.

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (d. 1630), the Shelah HaKadosh, finds an allusion to this idea in this week’s parsha, in the song sung by the Jewish people after the splitting of the Red Sea (ספר של"ה, עשרה מאמרות, מאמר ראשון). The Jewish people sang (Exodus 15:2):

זה א-לי ואנוהו, אלקי אבי וארממנהו
"This is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father's God, and I will exalt Him."

In a classic example of drash (homiletic interpretation), the Shelah Hakadosh interprets the verse to be contrasting two ways of coming to know God and the kind of relationship with God that results from each approach.

זה א-לי” “This is my God” – If  my relationship with God is that He is my God, in that I have come to know Him through my own intellect and understanding, then I will have a close connection to Him, as alluded to by the term “ואנוהו”, which is interpreted midrashically as a contraction of the words “אני והוא” – “I and He” – together as one.

If however, my relationship to God is only as “אלקי אבי” – “the God of my father” – in that I only know God through the heritage I received from my ancestors, then “I will exalt Him”, I will only know God as an exalted Being, far above and distant from me, and I will not have that close relationship with God that Judaism demands.

It is not sufficient for us to simply rely on the teachings of our parents and teachers for our knowledge of God. Each one of us must find ways to know God out of our own understanding. What these means will be will vary from person to person, and they will also change as we grow ourselves. The means that worked for us as teenagers will need to be developed and supplemented as we mature. The knowledge of God is a life-long task which we will never fully complete, but which we also may never abandon.