Ran on Nedarim 28a and Israeli Democracy

The Ran (R' Nissim of Gerondi, 13th century Spain), in an oft-quoted commentary, especially by would-be Israeli tax evaders, explains the concept of 'Dina de-malchuta dina' (The law of the kingdom is the law) in the following way:

The Tosafot wrote that the concept of 'dina de-malchuta dina' applies exclusively to non-Jewish Kings; since the land is his and he can say that if one doesn't obey his command, he will expel them from the land; however, Jewish kings may not because all Jews are partners in the Land of Israel
Tosafot are predicating 'dina de-malchuta dina' on the presumption that kings actually, in some way, own their kingdoms. The approach seems to be akin to the common sense 'As long as you in MY house, you play by MY rules' theory. Israel is the exception, because, since every Jew is a partner in it, no one partner may tell an ostensibly equal partner to get out.

Thus, many understand that the Ran would deny the validity of the laws of the modern State of Israel to the extent that they don't corroborate the laws of the Torah. It also opens the door for all kinds of abuses of the system for anyone who is 'kim lei' like the Ran.

However, I'd pose another question to the opinion of the Ran. How would he relate to a democracy in general? On one hand, it's similar to the latter case in that it's acknowledged that every person has an equal stake in the government under the 'one-man, one-vote' system. Or, in the words of the famous paytan 'this land is your land; this land is my land'. Ostensibly, then, no person has greater rights than any other, and then 'dina de-malchuta dina' would not apply in any democratic state.

However, specifically in a democracy one might argue the exact opposite. In the monarchy that Tosafot describe, the power of the king, manifest by the right/ability (big nafka mina in how to translate the word yakhol; I think it's closer to 'right') to deport untolerated segments of the population, means that no others have the true, inalienable right of residence. The King's will can always supersede the will of his subjects. Modern democracies, however, were framed so that each citizens has the inalienable right of residence ('property' in Locke's formulation) , and where citizenship implies that one can return to and not be deported from his homeland. Thus, in a modern democracy, every citizen is 'king'. However, citizenship also implies that one has agreed to abide the law of the country or its constitution. Each of the many 'kings' casts his ballot, or has the right to, as his say in how the country runs. It's his little slice of the 'monarchy'. Thus, the aggregate of 'the people - the demos takes on the role of the 'king', which each individual has contracted to abide. Failure to recognize the law can constitute either a renunciation of citizenship or a forfeit of the rights - such as freedom, or in extreme cases, life - that citizenship entails. Thus, even though all citizens are 'equal partners', 'dina de-malchuta dina' can still apply (though it would sound more like the formulation of the Rashbam in Bava Batra; Tosafot might agree with the Rashbam in a non- or constitutional-monarchy).

Thus, in the modern State of Israel, which is democratic and which extends the right of immediate citizenship to all Jews everywhere, the law of the land in no way undermines the 'partnership' of each individual. The Ran is essentially saying that Jews have an inalienable right to domicile in the Land of Israel, a right which the modern State of Israel upholds. Therefore, as long as the constituted Israeli democracy respects the rights of its citizens - even if some of its laws are non-halakhic, as long as every Jew is invited to participate in the decision process - the law of the land is, in fact, the law. However, if the rights of certain individuals are abrogated because of a non-universal rule - i.e., a particular segment of the population is singled out for unfair treatment, then members of that segment need not abide by the principle of 'dina de-malchuta dina' (a point which echoes R' Tam as quoted by the Beit Yosef in Ch"M 369, which would make the position of 'Tosafot' consistent in this matter).

When You've Got a Hammer, the Whole World Looks Like a Nail

סַבּוּנִי גַם-סְבָבוּנִי; בְּשֵׁם ה' , כִּי אֲמִילַם.
They compass me about, yea, they compass me about; verily, in the name of the LORD I will cut them off.
Tehillim 118:11

One one side, there's stuff like this:
"a tradition (mesorah) is a much more powerful and better path to knowledge than sensory observation based on induction"
On the other side (sitra achra) stuff like this:
How about you stick to the facts? Oh wait, that would make you an atheist.
And so, pulled from two directions, the call goes out:
Is Faith the opposite of Reason ?
No. Perhaps according to Mordechai Plaut, but not here. Not on my blog.
My critique of Mordechai Plaut's thinking and Mis-nagid's thinking is actually the same. They both set up a faith vs. reason dichotomy, and they pick their sides. I don't think there's really the dichotomy that they describe - at least I don't experience it. Let me try to explain.

Let's start with the flaw in Mis-nagid's thinking. He writes:
The rule you can draw from every observation ever is that everything we've ever observed has natural or unknown causes.
This is a classic rationalist bias. Rational, and therefore, scientific thinking views the world in terms of cause & effect. Every observed phenomenon must have been caused. Some things we've found the causes for, and for others we're still searching. But everything is cause & effect. This is the rationalist bias from Aristotle to B.F. Skinner. The flaw is that it presupposes c&e to be the explanation for EVERYTHING, and therefore will classify everything as a predetermined effect of a past state of affairs. From the moment of the Big Bang, it was predetermined that I was going to have pizza for dinner tonight. Cause-effect-cause-effect-cause-effect. Our universe is a closed system where what you see is what you get.
I'm not trying to argue against causality. Well, perhaps if I would have thrown a baseball through the neighbors window, I'd have tried to pull some Hume-schtick by contending that the most we can ever prove is a correlation between the ball striking the glass and the shattering of the glass. Hume had some great ideas - great questions, really - but Kant had some great answers. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant acknowledges that causality can never be objectively 'proven', but that's irrelevant because I don't live in or have access to an 'objective' world. My faculty of perception, conditioned by experience, constructs for me the world which I occupy. Causality is an integral part of that constructed world, and a part that is shared (intersubjectively) by nearly all of humanity.
The moment that one extends the hegemony of causality beyond that which is directly observed or deduced, is the moment that it ignores Kant's critique and oversteps its boundaries.

Take, for example, the matter of free choice. I've chosen the white socks over the black socks. A purely causal system will assume that my decision must have been determined, ultimately, by the sum-total of factors in my life that would have influenced my decision. Any variable that one might try to introduce that would grant the decision-maker true autonomy must be subjected to the same line of reasoning, and so forth. Ultimately, since my decision was made for a reason, that reason must be the cause. Even though the human mind/brain is a black-box - nobody really understands its processes - when one looks at the world through the lens of causality, it becomes IMPOSSIBLE to describe any phenomenon in any other way. The fact that I experience an internal struggle when making a decision is explained away as a byproduct of having to decide against a strong pull. Choice must be an illusion in a purely causal worldview.

One of the greatest implications of Kant's critique is that a person is capable of multiple 'worldviews', though perhaps not simultaneously. The electron microscopist can relate to all matter as packets of energy behaving in predictable patterns, but he's still in the doghouse if he forgets to buy his wife flowers for their anniversary. If he brings his work home and begins to relate to his family as packets of energy behaving in particular patterns, then he's gehockt in a tzoores and his marriage will fail. He must be capable of looking at the world through different sets of lenses at different times.

The greateest tragedy of modernity is that it attempted to reduce everything to a rational, causal worldview. It created this Flatland where the full range of human experience, culture, emotion, art, and ethics are reducible to laws and rules and predictable patterns. What's 'good' became a function of utility in the skewed mind of J.S. Mill. Theories abounded for the 'rules' by which something would be deemed 'beautiful' and why. Much of the 20th century has been the rebellion of various groups and cultures who began to resist this monistic European male way of looking at reality.

Thus, pure causality is the way in which a detached outsider looks at the world to determine its surface space, to categorize the phenomena that he sees. It can be very dangerous if allowed to invade the inner spaces - the experiential, the mystical, the beautiful, the good, the cultural, the kind, the loving, the religious - of human individuals and human groups, and reduce them all to neural impulses and plots on a graph. I'm not trying to denigrate the causal view of the world. Far from it; it is the only way for man to advance his knowledge of the universe and to innovate technologically. But it's imporant not to let that view overstep its boundaries.
There are other, completely different ways of looking at the world. As conscious human beings, we experience a range of phenomena that are not reducible, or that we don't reduce, to causality in any fundamental way. We balme; we assign guilt; we feel insulted, loved, hated, etc. All of these experiences are meaningless in a causal system, but very meaningful in our consciouness. They belong to an entire different realm - much like the above-cited electron microscopist; perforce, he must look at the world in two different ways, one with the eyes of a physicist, and one with the eyes of a husband and father.
[BTW - R' Zadok quoting the Arizal seems to use this type of thinking to mediate the tension between determinism and conscious choice; see Tzidkas HaTzadik #40, ve-acamo"l]
It's also important to note, as Kant instructed us, that neither of these two world-visions actually represents the true reality. They are phenomena - the world as perceived and interpreted, not noumena - the world as it truly is, which humans have no access to (Schopenhauer might disagree and see in consciousness the individual experiencing himself qua noumenon, but I don't think he's right, ve-acamo"l).
Faith and tradition belong to the realm of consciousness, not to the relam of causality. I believe that it is this mixing of realms that generates the entire conflict between Torah and Science, and I believe that this is what the Rav, zt"l (RYBS) meant when he explained that he was not bothered by scientific questions regarding creation.
Faith is a conscious experience of God in this world. Greater faith, at least according to R' Kook zt"l, means acheiving a more sublime vision of Godliness-in-world, i.e., a paradoxical situation where the more God is hidden from the world, the more He's embedded in it. Faith does not see God in the details. God forms the entire substructure through which I can see the universe. Trying to think of a Godless world is like trying to watch TV without electricity. The man of faith doesn't 'see' God any more or less than anyone else, at least not as a perceived phenomenon. Rather, he experiences more of life as a expression of Godliness, and ultimately experiences the whole of existence as a unified manifestation of Godliness.
Tradition is a hermeneutic, the translation of the faith experience into the observer's realm, and somewhat narrow in scope. It tells me how to look at things. It doesn't provide an alternative source of information. People interpret the same things differently. A tradition guides my interpretation.
[For a beautiful, and funny, application of this phenomenon, see IBN Ezra on this week's Parsha, 35:3]
It's pretty tough to overstate the importance of shared interpretations in the formation of any human group. EVERY person assimilates new data into schema, stories, fundamental narratives, that inform the way he looks at the world. Tradition, or 'mesorah', is comprised of those modes of vision, those ways of viewing the world, into which all new data are assimilated. I'd reccomend Yosef Yerushalmi's Zakhor for an excellent introspective look at the evolution of Jewish historical consciousness in this vein. ve-acamo"l.
Thus, setting up sensory data and mesorah as opposites betrays a gross misunderstanding of the concept of 'mesorah'. Mesorah informs how I view and interpret data. It does not provide an alternative to sense data. Of course, the explosion of sensory data that has been made available in the last 200 years has severely overburdened the 'traditional' way of looking at the world.
Some have reacted by putting mesorah up as a counter to all of this new sense data.
Some have reacted by jettisoning the mesorah in favor of all of this new sense data.
Most probably don't think about this stuff much.
And a very few are actually trying to expand the palace of our tradition by looking at all of creation through the eyes of tradition. It may force us to rethink many of the things we've always assumed, may engender certain ideas that hadn't been articulated before in the context of our mesorah, but we really have no other recourse.
Fortunately for us, it's been done successfully before.

גַּל-עֵינַי וְאַבִּיטָה נִפְלָאוֹת, מִתּוֹרָתֶךָ
Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law.
-Psalms 119:18


Evening, Morning, Resurrection, Evolution, and Entropy - and a Talmudic Reading of Shabbat 10a

Let's start with a bit of common sense: destroying is easier than creating.
It takes a lot of expertise to make a Tiffany vase, but my infant son can break one.
The processes involved in creating life - reproduction, differentiation, defense - are far more complex than those which stop life. Life is engaged in a march toward death; there are numerous ways to terminate life, but none has yet been found that will terminate death.
So much of what we see and know regresses in this fashion. Health deteriorates. Relationships sour. Peace crubles into war. Light bulbs burn out. I leave a room clean, and before you know it, it's messy - it never happens the other way around. Order must be chosen and actively pursued. Disorder is a much more natural state of affairs. As the old joke goes, Beethoven ultimately decomposed.
Dead matter becoming living matter requires effort, energy, input. Life becoming death requires nothing. This is the trend of the universe in its entirety, whether in the sphere of biology or thermodynamics.

There are two phenomena which seem to swim upstream. The first is the application of man's genius.

Human beings are unique in that they can impose order upon a disordered universe. Law and justice can defeat anarchy and violence only if humans choose it. Diseases can be cured, buildings built, climates controlled - all by humans harnessing the unbridled forces of nature.

The second is evolution. Of all things in the entire known universe, life on this planet has developed an amazingly sophisticated and diverse array of organisms. Evolution has produced a human mind which, despite it's realively slow speed and small capacity compared to contemporary computers, can still, through processes that are still now well-understood, give the best of those computers a run for their money in the game of chess. Somehow, evolution has transformed the primordial soup into a humanity capable of music, poetry, philosophy, and atomic bombs.

Granted, there are scientific explanations for the exception of evolution from the general rule that things fall apart (I'm not specifically referring to entropy, though it's an example of this trend; I'm referring to the much broader notion that anything constructive is the product of conscious choice or active input, whereas anything can deteriorate into destruction).

Chaza"l juxtaposed these two phenomena in a very jarring comparison (Shabbat 10a):
R' Chiya b. Rav of Difti taught them: "And the nation stood over Moshe from morning until night (Shemot 18)" - do you really think that Moshe sat the whole day long? When was his Torah made? Rather - this is to tell you that any judge who carries out true justice for the sake of truth, even for one hour, Scripture treats him as a partner in the creation of the universe. Here it states, "And the nation...", and over there (Bereishis 1) is written, "And it was evening, and it was morning: day One".
Not only is the comparison jarring, but the textual tether that binds the two ideas together - 'morning and evening' - is suggestive as well. The Hebrew term 'erev' has a connotation of confusion, being mixed-up, unclarity. 'Boker' is the opposite - clarity, sense, understanding. The recurrence of this movement from unclarity to clarity in the story of creation (as well as the trend of evolution) underscores that creation was a making-productive that which had been untamed.

(idea - perhaps the quintessential productive, domesticated animal - the bovine family - is called bakar in Hebrew because it's thematically linked to the notion of productivity. Also - the tension in the Torah's creation story is between unharnessed energy and productivity, not between order and chaos, which are Greek concepts. Feel free to add your constructive criticism = bikoret).

As I mentioned two posts ago, the Torah's story of creation is not value-neutral. God is modeling what he wants done with the world, both through construction (the six days) and refraining from construction (Shabbat). And God left that task incomplete, so that man can continue the task. Thus, the judge, who really and truly carries out justice, who makes the world a more just place, is really and truly continuing the work that God began, and becoming a partner in creation.

By extension, then, evolution can only pose a 'challenge' to Torah to the extent that it is deemed 'value-free'. As long as it manifests some kind of built-in striving toward greater complexity, greater productivity, and higher consciousness, even if the path it takes isn't necessarily a guided one, then it's perfectly consonant with the themes of Genesis chapter I. I'm not even advocating an Intelligent Design approach which has God pre-programming how and when mutations will take place. Rather, that the universe itself is purposeful, is somehow aware of its own purposefulness, and evolves in the direction of greater consciousness of its own purposefulness. The pinnacle of evolution to date - the human mind - manifests just that.

Personally, I am comfortable calling this underlying, universal consciousness which manifests itself in the ongoing formation of a purposeful universe, and especially in human consciousness - God.

More on Entropy and Resurrection

Another application of the same idea:It's a bit bizarre that a future resurrection should be a cardinal Jewish belief. Not that the actual belief is terribly problematic, but the insistence that one who doesn't believe in it forfeit's his share in the next world seems a bit harsh. That this theme is the quintessential expression of God's might (witness - 2nd bracha of Shmoneh Esrei - on resurrection - called gevurot) exacerbates the prblem. However, we've now seen that the power of life overcoming death - a power that really goes against the grain of all that we know - that will ultimately be expressed through a 'cure' from death, would be the single greatest expression of power and control, a culmination of God's and man's historic struggle against entropy and desolation.

See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god with Me; I kill, andI
make alive; I have wounded, and I heal; and there is none that can deliver outof
My hand (Devarim 32:39)

The LORD killeth, and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave, and
bringeth up.
7 The LORD maketh poor, and maketh rich; He bringeth
low, He also lifteth up.
8 He raiseth up the poor out of the dust,
He lifteth up the needy from the dung-hill, to make them sit with princes, and
inherit the throne of glory; for the pillars of the earth are the LORD'S, and He
hath set the world upon them.
9 He will keep the feet of His holy
ones, but the wicked shall be put to silence in darkness; for not by strength
shall man prevail.
10 They that strive with the LORD shall be
broken to pieces; against them will He thunder in heaven; the LORD will judge
the ends of the earth; and He will give strength unto His king, and exalt the
horn of His anointed. (I Samuel 2:6-10)

Death will be swallowed forever; and HaShem God will wipe away tears from
off all faces (Isaiah 25:8)


Kosher Sects

The can of worms opened in Israel regarding pre-nups has created an interesting dilemma, which you can see developing in the comments here.

There's a strong and growing consensus about the need to institutionalize pre-nups that protect women from recalcitrant husbands. However, R' Elyashiv opposes them, would consider coercion based on such a pre-nup to be a get me'useh and therefore passul. Without RYSE, there's no way to get the Rabbanut to agree to the implementatin of a pre-nup. Thus, R' Elyashiv is essentially holding everyone else hostage. That's the reality, without making value judgements.

I think that it's a cultural thing- R' Elyashiv makes an 'Umdenah' that people really don't consider that they'll get divorced when they get married. Thus, the pre-nup is an 'asmakhta' which is not binding. While that umdenah may be true within certain communities, it's certainly NOT the case in the communities where pre-nups are becoming the norm. Divorce is everywhere, young, old, wealthy, poor. It's impossible to ignore.

Furthermore, Catholicism treats marriage as a commitment that can never be broken. Judaism doesn't. Divorce is one of the 613. Apparently this umdenah, assuming it's true, isn't necessarily a good thing. It's perfectly legitimate to agitate for better education regarding divorce. chosson and kallah teachers can discuss divorce. Heck - it's mentioned in the ketubah, why would it be taboo to discuss with an engaged couple. There's an ethics of divorce. It's a mitzvah. It's Torah. Ve-lilmod anu tzrichin. The response to R' Elyashiv is not that he's wrong - whether he is or isn't, the entire chareidi world won't be convinced by anyone or anything that can be marshalled as a counterpoint. The response is - good, there's an umdenah - now let's go change the umdenah. Let's teach every naive, starry-eyed groom that divorce is real, and that with all of his great intentions, it can happen to him. No more asmakhta. He knows exactly what he's getting into.

Better - Take him to a Beis Din to watch divorce proceedings, let him see what a shambles a marriage can be turned into, and then go back and show him the same damn starry eyes and ear-to-ear grins in the wedding photos. Gevalt, there are still people out there that think that a successful marriage is easy!? Allowing them to remain in their blissful ignorance is educationally unsound, and now may even have negative implications for the plight of the agunah. Lan"D, that would obviate R' Elyashiv's objections to the pre-nup and advance the plight of agunot.

realistically, let's say that doesn't happen. Let's say some hold of pre-nups, and some don't. Let's say that one group threatens to refuse to marry into the other because of fears of mamzerut. At that point, should the pre-nup supporters, among whom I count myself, back down for the sake of consensus? Offer these agunot as 'martyrs of peace', to use Shimon Peres's term?

Should we, using Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as our paradigm, open the books, attempt total transparency of the system, and be totally forthright when a follower of RYSE comes to court someone who is, le-shitaso, a mamzer?

could this develop into 2 communities that eventually will not intermarry at all? BH and BS didn't let that happen, but there were plenty of other Jewish sects that were completely separate, and wouldn't intermarry. BH and BS were the exception, not the rule.

R' Moshe Feinstein, who obviated the problem of 'Bnei Niddah' and the problem of heterodox marriages with two very creative, controversial, and, ultimately, essential hetterim, was the exception, not the rule.

The Gemara in Pesachim 49b is the rule, not the exception. Think about it next time someone starts singing 'invei ha-geffen' at a wedding or sheva brachos or whatever. You've gotta see the whole Gemara. It's scary. The chachamim and chaverim were strongly discouraging intermarriage between themselves and amaratzim.

Chazal, by casting aspersions on their lineage, wine, and shechita, essentialy legislated the Samaritans out of the community without even calling their Jewishness into question. It was brilliant. Probably even necessary. But certainly proves that application of halakhot in this manner is very scary, very powerful, and very tragic if abused.

Personally, I can't in good conscience kowtow to the right, sacrificing agunot for the sake of consensus. I hope that one of the other alternatives comes to fruition.

10 Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah.
11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the LORD; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.
12 When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts?
13 Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations--I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them.
15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil;
17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Isaiah I


Understanding Shekhina, God's 'Urges' and Why Leonard Nimoy is Out of his Vulcan Mind

Apparently, there's this belief out there, parially encouraged by such well-respected theologians as Dan Brown (author of 'The Da Vinci Code') and Leonard Nimoy (patron of the 'Shekhina' pornography, er, art exhibit[ionism]) that the term Shekhina is some sort of Godess-type figure, the female counterpart of God, who was part of ancient Israelite worship, only to be repressed until She was 'rescued' by contemporary new-age ecofeminist Judeo-Wiccans. Yet another example of how the truth is stranger than fiction.

Since this and next week's Torah portions specifically deal with the Mishkan, and express the telos of the Mishkan as being 've-shakhanti betokham' and 'le-shokni be-tocham', I felt it appropriate to spend some time formulating what I think 'Shekhina' is, and why it's associated with femininity.

Man can't understand why God would create this world. We can't know what He would possibly get out of it. All we can know is that He did create it, that He has goals for it, and that human free will is the mechanism by which those goals can be realized. Human free will is the element which makes this world different. The ability to choose between good and evil, to make to world more or less Godly, lies with man alone.

Chazal expressed God's impetus for creating the world as a 'ta'avah', a lust, an urge. "Nit-aveh lo l-HKB"H lihyot lo dira ba-tachtonim" - "God had an urge' to have a home in the nether worlds" (not 'an apartment in the underwear', which is what it would mean in modern Hebrew).
It's a restatement of a verse "Ivah le-moshav to" - "He 'lusted' a dwelling of his own". It's also expressed in another context in Chazal, who state that God 'has an lust' for the prayers of the righteous. Lusts and urges are not rational desires. The term 'Tayva' has a strong connotation of the sexual impulse - something irrational but intense. To speak of God this way seems blasphemous, yet our Sages do speak this way. I believe that they are trying to emphasize the non- or pre- rationality that characterizes God's motives. Reason is one of God's creations. It does not determine Him, He determines it. Thus, for us humans, God's impulse to create this world is, for all intents and purposes, an 'urge'.

However, this 'urge' puts God at a disadvantage in this world. If his desire is for humans to autonomously choose Godliness, then He is limited in His ability to intervene in man's decisions. He needs man. God relies on man for His expression in this world - it is man that must build God's 'dwelling space in the nether worlds'. Otherwise, the human realm is no different from the 'animal' or 'angelic' world - of either pure instinct or pure intellect, but no automonous choice. It's an interesting reversal - God waiting for us, God 'exiled' from the world that he created, waiting for man to redeem Him. Every person constructs a perceptual world of his or her own, and assigns God a greater or lesser role in that world. The same is true of each community, each culture, and each nation; God is assigned a particular but ever-changing role within the collective or shared perceptions of the group. Within individual perceptions, there goal is to construct a reality in which everything is viewed as a manifestation of Godliness, or God's will. The Torah is God's revealed will, which man, by use of his intellect, applies to this world. The Mitzvot, the Halakha, is the way in which we actively apply Torah to our reality. Worship, Prayer, and Brachot are the tools by which we train ourselves to perceive God within our world. It breaks down more specifically, but acamo"l.

Nevertheless, this is not the sum of God's involvement in our world. There are occasions, which have diminished over time, in which God actively tinkers with history, or continues to create and sustain the world. However, like a parent, God gradually takes a less and less prominent role in the lives of His children. Thus, the relationship between God and man remains a complicated one. Sometimes God is the active partner, and sometimes man. OVer time, the balance of the relationship has shifted toward man's greater activity. Richard Elliot Freidman has a great exposition of this phenomenon (which was already noticed by Chazal) in his book The Hidden Face of God. Ayen sham, ve-acamo"l.

In the symbolism of Chaza"l and to a great degree, even in TaNach, the more active partner in a relationship is viewed as the 'masculine' partner, and the 'acted upon' (not 'passive') partner associated with femininity. As I've demonstrated, when it comes to God's actual 'presence' or 'dwelling' within this world - His 'Shekhina' (literally 'indwelling'), he is waiting for man to make his move. This aspect of God's relationship wiith the world is associated with femininity. Thus, the Shakhina is the feminine aspect of God's relationship with man. (We can't talk of a duality within God Himself, but His relationship with man is definitely complex and multifaceted). Man's failures result in 'Galut Ha-Shekhina' - God's alienation from His own world, in which He has no choice but to wait for us.

This and next week's Torah portion form the end of the story that began with creation - God's plan to dwell in this world (see Ibn Ezra and Ramban on 'le-shokhni betocham', in next week's portion). It gives man the recipe for building a structure around which a community, a nation, a civilization, a culture, in which God's presence is percieved and his will acted out - can be constructed. I believe this is the message of the 'palpability' of God's Presence in the Mishkan, which diminished with time, as man grew up and had to work harder to find God.


Shabbat Shalom.


Genesis Chapter 1, the First Rashi, and Yashar Books

I already read the book, so I don't need the prize for this contest. But I'm going to accept the invitation to comment on the Creation story. I've been writing too much on Gemara anyway.

What's the 'purpose' of the creation story?

Rashi asked that question, and answered it with a Midrash. An oft-misunderstood Midrash. The key phrase it 'le-eit asher yashar be-einav'.
I was always taught that it means that God can say "I created it, I'll give it to whomever I damn well please". I.e., the purpose of the story is to establish G-d's credentials. I don't - and never have - found this approach to be morally or textually satisfying. No need to go into it here, but I wouldn't be comfortable as a Zionist, or wouldn't be a Zionist, if this were the basis for my claim to the Land of Israel (Emmanuel Levinas has a Talmudic Reading called 'Promised Land or Permitted Land in which he discusses this. Ayen sham. It won't disappoint). And there's the problem of the rest of the book of Bereishis.

But I think that this Midrash means something else entirely. That phrase means "To whomever is upright in God's eyes" as in "Ve-asita Ha-Yashar Ve-haTov be-einei Hashem" - and you shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God. Going a bit further, the entire book of Bereishis is sometimes called, by Chaza"l, the Sefer Ha-Yashar - the book of the upright (see Netziv's intro to Bereishis. Again, a must read). After each stage of creation, God surveys ("looks") at what he's created and ' sees' (with his eyes?) that it's good!

[maybe R' Gil's big inside joke is that 'Yashar Books' = Sefer Ha-Yashar, his first publication takes it's title from the above-quoted verse 'and you shall do what is upright (right) and good...', and that he's republishing books that were banned because of a violation of the moral rectitude (yashrut) that God expects from the pious, according to the Netziv's introduction, mentioned above. It's too much for coincidence, no?]

Thus, to answer the question that I started with - the story of creation is a MORAL TALE. God creates goodness, meaning, man in his own image - and this sets the bar for humanity to aspire to, to complete the process of creation. The rest of the Torah - beginning with the legal elements recorded in Ha-chodesh Ha-zeh Lachem - are the translation of that Moral Will into a living system, a way to live, a Halakha. The Torah isn't just a book of laws, but an entire moral and spiritual vision-narrative, the sotry of man's relation to the Divine (like Ben Azzai says - 'zeh sefer toldot Adam be-hibaram' is the epitome of the Torah), the unfolding of a covenant, and that story begins when God created the heavens and the earth.

There are a few more elements that reinforce and deepen this idea:

1) Creation is therefore, fittingly, the opening of the book of Bereishis. The rest of the book is about the deal that God makes with humanity immediately after creation, humanity's struggle to live up to their end of the bargain, God's responses to their failings, God's choice of specific individuals to carry on that deal (covenant), and rejection of others. If man can be expected, from the outset, to have some sort of inner moral compass, there must be a model for it. The story of creation is a story of God's love and humanity as an expression and recipient of God's love.

2) Creation was not accidental or impulsive. It's the expression of God's autonomous choice to create. Creation is only meaningful if it's chosen. The Torah communicates this to us by relating that God stopped creating once he created humanity. Shabbat, the cessation of creation, is, paradoxically, the evidence that the creation of the rest of the first week is chosen and therefore meaningful. The are two implications of this for humanity:
a) that creation is still incomplete
b) that the vehicle for ongoing creativity is autonomous choice, not compulsion
(see R' Hutner's first ma'amar on Shabbos in Pachad Yitzchak).
The 'creation' of Shabbat is both the stoppage of creation and a retroactive validation of everything that preceded it, and therefore the creative act par excellence in that it, in essence, allows for the creation of creativity. This dual aspect is the Zachor and Shamor of Shabbat, v'acamo"l.

3) Within the context of the Ancient Near East, the Torah's creation story was 'competing' with other creation narratives. There are definitely some common elements in the various creation narratives, including Bereishis. However, Bereishis is the only one which is not morally neutral, which isn't accidentally precipitated by some kind of power struggle between the gods, which doesn't involve the formation of the world from the corpse of some deity. In Bereishis, this world is purposeful. This world is good. This world is made of progress and creativity, not regression and entropy. Ancient pagans and contemporary scientists would have us believe that the creation of this world is morally neutral, that man is accidental, that goodness isn't real, and that the law of entropy ultimately dooms the universe. Our story of creation stands in stark contrast to these perspectives and proclaims
The skies tell the story
of the Mighty One's great Glory;
And "the works of His hands"
narrate the heavens.
-Psalms 19:1


Safam Out-takes

it's been revised since that Shabbos in Kiryat Sefer, but the ideas are the same. Alternative lyrics to Safam's "Bruchim Haba'im":

sitting in my home in keeriyat sefer
surfing the internet, my keyboard in my hand
i'm the only non-chareidi in keeriyat sefer
i can read their poster but i just can't understand
i feel like a foreigner in a not-so-foreign land
and i know they are my brothers, though they wouldn't shake my hand
screaming 'koyfer, tzioni, all those books are banned

standing on the street in keeriyat arba
i've got my notebook and my camera in my hand
i'm the only meretz voter in keeriyat arba
i attend their rallies, but they just can't understand
i should be a foreigner in this should-be-foreign land
and our cousins are our brothers if we'd just extend a hand
but we fight and we shoot - and thus the flames are fanned


On Chumra

"Kol She-eino metzuveh de-davar ve-oseihu nikra hedyot"

"Anyone not commanded to do something, yet does it, is called an idiot"

--Yerushalmi Shabbat 2:1

Dem's fightin' words!
But they follow a pretty solid logic. If one assumes that the content of a mitzvah is determined exclusively by God's commandment, then the act is rendered meaningless in the absence of command. It is presumtuous - idiotic, in fact - for humans to think that they can autonomously chart a new path to God, that they can invent new ways to bridge the gap between the infinite and the finite. Certainly, there are types of supererogatory behavior that resonate as silly - sitting in the Sukkah in the pouring rain (see Rama on 'the OC' 639:7), or shaking a lulav on Pesach - these are about as purposeful as lips on a chicken or a hole in my head.

The Bavli (Kiddushin 31a) is softer: "Gadol metzuveh ve-oseh mi-mi she-eino metzuveh ve-oseh" - one who performs out of command is greater than one who performs uncommanded. This statement maintains the primacy of commandedness, but allows for some value for uncommanded performance. It's an open question whether the value is in the actual performance (a class B mitzva) or in the intent (A for effort), but there's value nonetheless. Again, there are certain mitzvot which seem like a good thing to do even if I'm not commanded. Witness the contemporary translation of 'mitzvah' as 'good deed' - it's a mistranslation but not altogether meaningless (unless you use it to contend - which i've actually seen done, in children's literature, no less - that, say, a seeing-eye-dog does a mitzvah by helping a blind person cross the street. Dogs don't do mitzvot.)

Rather than assume that these two statements are at odds, many (incl. Ramban quoted in Ritva on Kiddushin ad. loc., Gr"a in Shnot Eliyahu on mBrachot 1:3) attempt to resolve them by limiting or contextualizing them. Both impulses intuitively seem correct, and it's the job of the commentator to describe the different applications of each. It's not easy to explain why it's religiously significant for a Jewish woman to sit in a Sukkah but not for a non-Jew. Neither is specifically 'commanded'.

My point is not to get into a whole discussion on the issue of chumrah. I'll point out a few other worthwhile mekorot, and then get to the meat of the issue - bashing contemporary understandings of chumra:
1) Chapter in Mesillat Yesharim entitled "Be-mishkal ha-chasidut" - adresses the different factors, internal and external, that must be addressed when deciding whether or not to undertake a chumra. Special attention given to the way one would be perceived by those around him.
2) Rambam Hilchot De'ot
3) R' Gustman's Shiurim on Kiddushin, section 20. In addition to being an excellent analysis of the topic, it's got some nice surprises waiting at the end - OK, I'll spill the beans - he suggests that a woman who undertakes a commitment to a time-bound positive commandment would be akin, at the very least, to the status of a man vis-a-vis Ma'ariv - i.e., option that has become full-fledged obligation.
4) Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's essay "Rupture and Reconstruction" in Tradition, 1994.
5) The machloket between the Issur Ve-Heter and the Torat Ha-Asham, found in the Pitchei Teshuva to YD 116:7. (The TH actually refers to some forms of chumra as 'close to apikorsus) - howdya like THEM apples!
6) the book 'All for the Boss' by Ruchama Shain. Compare to Mesillat Yesharim cited above. Beautifully describes the interface between Judaism and OCD, the physical and ideological origins of the Mattersdorf community, and the beauty of an integrated, balanced attitude toward supererogatory behavior.

beyond this discussion of the characterization of true chumra, there's a broader issue that i think is far more disturbing, namely, that there are different types of behavior that masquerade as chumra but are really very different. i'll address some of those areas:

1) indecision and religious paralysis- when i learned the sugya of tochein, it was pretty clear to me that mashing a banana with a fork doesn't fit the bill. there's no pulverization going on, it's for immediate consumption, it's edible wo/ mashing, and other reasons (it's been a while). in fact, R' Moshe Feinstein, R' SZ Aurbach, and ylch"t R' Ovadia Yosef all agree that there's no problem. The Chazon Ish only permits w/ a shinui, and his logic, esp. his understanding of the responsum of the Rashba concerning immediate consumption, is very innovative. nevertheless, the CI's position is the one you'll find in most contemporary halacha books. why? because it's really not a big deal to mash the banana w/ the back of the fork, so let's be chosheish for the CI. i'm bugged by that impulse. if a poseik learns the sugya and concludes that the CI makes the most sense, by all means, pasken like the CI. but if the poseik learns the sugya and concludes otherwise, and that conclusion concurs w/ major positions amongst contemporary authorities, go with it. a poseik should have confidence in his psak. this impulse toward compliance with more stringent positions is not necessarily problematic in and of itself, but when it betrays a complete lack of confidence in our ability to really understand a halakhic issue, to really move through a sugya, or find someone who has, and arrive at a conclusion. that's the job of a poseik. today, it's chumras on the page, kulas in the footnotes, and no attempt whatsoever made to really engage in the process of psikat halacha. it's a very pessimistic attitude toward our own abilities and responsibilities, and it's repercussions are a greater impulse toward restriction as the tolerance for it increases. however, it's not to be confused with chumra. refusal to submit halakhic positions to the test of logical analysis is cowardice, and not a positive religious impulse.
Ein le-dayan ella mah she-einav ro'os.
Yiftach be-doro ke-Shmuel be-doro.

2) mistrust of instincts - a personal anecdote: a number of years ago, i spent a shabbat in Kiryat Sefer (i wrote a song that shabbat. i'll post the lyrics at the end of this essay). like this week, there was a 2 day Rosh Chodesh on wednesday and thursday. motza"sh was the 4th of the month. after maariv, a number of us instinctively began saying kiddush levana. then some farchnyukte yungerman comes over and says 'Rabboysay, ehhhh, i'm not so sure it's been 72 hours since the moylud'. everyone stopped saying kiddush levana. everyone. i couldn't believe it. i finished up, and then started thinking about it. the molad is the point during the moon's revolution around the earth that it's closest to the sun. the moon is invisible during the molad. the new moon can be seen right after sunset for a few minutes only about 1/2 day after the molad. the first of the month is, by definition, after the molad, and the 4th of the month is, by definition, more than 72 hours after the molad. there are some instances where there's confusion. the 3rd of the month sometimes can qualify, if there was a 2-day RC, whatever - acamo"l. the point is, i was correct on instinct, and later validated it by resorting to analysis. many others there had the same instinct that i had, but when questioned on it, didn't trust their instincts. it's wasn't like the chnyuk had a position, or a good svara. he had an 'i'm not sure...". "i'm not sure if..." isn't chumra. it's ignorance. and the worst thing was that nobody trusted their gut. i grew up in this system, and even though i don't know how everything works, and what every position is, i trust what i grew up with. and i think it's dangerous to start calling it into question unnecessarily. i know that my family doesn't lay tfillin on chol ha-mo'ed, so why would i accept the Mishna Brurah's compromise of Safeik? I know where I stand. hiding behind the path of least resistance rather than confidently continuing to walk the path of mesorah is very dangerous. it's almost Big Brother-ish in its encouragement to students to undermine the traditions of their parents. again, this impulse is not chumra. it's mistrust. it's ignorance.

3) counterpressure - R' Chaim once said that he's not meikil on Yom Kippur, he's Machmir on Pikuach Nefesh. He's pointing to the reality that life is complicated, and many different factors go into our decisions, much like what the Mesilat Yesharim contends in the above-cited chapter. often, people will choose not to recognize some of the other factors involved. one can also say 'i'm not meikil in niddah, i'm machmir on shalom bayis', 'i'm not meikil on talmud torah, i'm machmir on yishuv eretz yisrael'. the issue is not so much failure to recognize other factors, as much as it's failure to see observance in a broader context. think of all of the bozos making minyanim on airplanes and waking up half of the passengers. here, it may be an issue of real chumra, but one whose cost outweighs its benefits. people approach these issues as individuals, neglecting the communal and national repercussions. rationalizations for draft-dodging come to mind as s/t which is widely perceived as 'chumra' but whose cost is, unfortunately, astronoomical. or organ donation - where being 'machmir' on retzicha of an individual entails being 'meikil' on 'lo ta'amod' of many people. very scarywhen the big picture is ignored.

based on the Shnot Eliyahu cited above and some writings of R' Kook, i think chumra reflects a situation where one's religious consciousness demands a standard that is beyond the formal requirements of halacha. a faked chumra is no chumra at all. there are certain standards of behavior which the Torah may tolerate but not necessarily encourage - polygamy for example. as history and society and economy liberate us from ancient constraints, institutions that he Torah itself may have tolerated in other contexts naturally become repulsive - rape, slavery, etc. are, thank God, no longer part of our halakhic universe, though they once were. what's true on a historical level can be true of an individual as well. i think that certain forms of vegetarianism might be a good example. or copyright infringement, which many find morally repugnant though it's very difficult to base intellectual property rights in halacha.

the quintessential 'chumra' from the time of the Mishna was Chullin al taharat ha-kodesh - treated everyday food as though it's a sacrifice. this practice was a result of a consciouness which refuses to recognize that there's really profanity out there, that something is devoid of the potential for holiness. the food we eat every day can be part of avodat Hashem just as a korban is. it's a higher way of looking at the world, which results in more restricted practice. even those who wouldn't normally eat chullin be-tahara, would do so during the 10 days between RH and YK. not in order to display their chazer fisalach and show God how frum they are. please. rather, that the opportunity generated by the Yamim Nora'im, the process of tshuvah and introspection, is expected to bring one into a context of greater God-consciousness - God is 'closer' during these days, His presence more palpable and inescapable, and this should naturally manifest itself in our behavior. it's real chumra. otherwise, it's presumptuous, like the hedyot we started with. (see Maharsha on the story of R' Safra at the end of Kiddushin).
Chodesh Tov.

this is my 2nd write-up of this. the first was better and sharper, but was erased accidentally. oh, well.


Mi-Bnei Banav Shel Haman Limdu Torah Be-Bnei Brak (Sanhedrin 104b)

Tempting as it is, I will not connect the Gemara of the title to the current Ponevezh controversy, not comment on the irony that Chabad, Ponevezh's 'nemesis', has transformed this 'meimra' into a song.

I really have two alternative reads, one which I think might reflect what Chazal were trying to communicate, the other reflecting a more contemporary reality. I like the first one better. We'll start with the second.

The Gemara is essentially comunicating that the Torah that was being studied in Bnei Brak was Torah that was grafted onto an existing value system. It was not organic. This type of Torah is characterized by self-consciousness and bookishness, and lack of trust for one's own intuitions. While I think there's value to understanding this type of description, especially in the contemporary setting, I don't think that our Gemara can truly tolerate this interpretation.

First, some general observations:
a) As opposed to Mitzraim, Ammon, and Moav, an Amalekite convert would be completely accepted into Israel. It's strange for a tribe that's considered the arch-nemesis of Israel to be a potential convert.
b) Though it's not explicit, there's solid basis to presume that R' Akiva is the subject of the above statement. He was the descendant of converts, and taught in B'nei B'rak. There's more basis, vacamo"l.
c) As mentioned previously, R' Akiva, in Chaza"l, represents a watershed in the evolution of Toshba"p. His Torah is unrecognizable to Moshe. He's the hero of the Mishna. He's the brilliant and creative thinker who finds things in the text that had never before been entertained.

Amalek represents many things. One is the expression of human will which refuses to bow to God's will. Amalek won't let God cramp his style. He doesn't deny God; he denies God in life, God's relevance, God's authority.

There are two ways to battle this aspect of Amalek. One is by forcing him to submit. Imposing God's will and declaring it to be superior to man's will. Place the human soul in a straight-jacket. This type of battle can be fought, and even won, but Amalek will still never be destroyed.

The second way to fight Amalek is to enlist him in the service of God. That fierce independence and unconquerable will, the creative drive of humans, can produce chiddush, creativity in the field of Torah. Ultimately, this will is itself Divine; there's no real conflict between God's will and man's; it's imagined by those who only look for God 'out there', and never bother looking 'in here'. Thus, it's the heir of Haman, the defeated Amalekite, whose traits are placed in the service of Torah, and whose contribution to the endeavor of Torah is immense.

There's a machloket acharonim as to whether the obligation to become inebriated on Purim is 'ad ve-ad bichlal' or 'ad ve-lo ad bichlal' - i.e., up to, but not including, the point where the division between Mordechai's goodness and Haman's evil becomes blurred, or even including that point.
The first position reflects the first way to combat Amalek, and distinctions between us and them must be maintained. The second ackn0owledges that, beyond a certain point, beyond good and evil, all is equally a manifestation of God's will, and even Haman can be a source of good.