Unwanted Intrusions

I thought the blog world was a fantasy world.
It's not.
It's a real world, occupied by real people.
When you start affecting people you've never even met, you start to realize the effect it's had on those closest to you, and even on yourself.
And then it's time to hang up your cleats.

In a way it's really sad.
I'm ending this blog with over 9200 hits, from over 4000 locations. That means that I've probably taught Torah to more people through this blog than in my years of teaching.
Maybe if I ever try to do this again, I'll do it responsibly.
Like I mentioned in my second to last post - it's only creativity if you can choose to turn it off. Otherwise, it's a compulsion.

Kol Tuv.


Another Musing on the Transgender Issue

My wife and I have often discussed whether we would observe the custom of letting our young son's hair grow until he reaches the age of 3. It's not my family custom, and I'm not crazy about the fact that everybody's doing it nowadays. It would've been my little protest against people taking on practices unneccessarily.

Because of the recent issues that I've been blogging (and which reflect realities which I encounter), I'm wondering if the custom of the upsherin isn't to create a black-line, a moment in the conscious life of a young boy in which he;s entered into 'boyhood'. Until that point, the child is relatively genderless. At one moment, you get short hair, a yamaka, and tzitzis. Maybe there's something about consciously 'becoming' a boy which generates a stronger gender identity? I'm starting to rethink my position on the upsherin issue. Unless, of course, my yingele gets lice (ch"v).

Alternative version of a well-known Midrash

As an 'appendix' to this post, I couldn't resist posting this alternative to the well-known Midrash.

When it came time to give the Torah, God approached the different factions.

First He approached Chabad. They asked, 'what is written in it?'

Then He approached Satmar. They asked, 'what's it say?'

Then He took it to Lakewood. They asked 'What's written in it?'


More on LGBT and Halakha

First of all, check out 'Aaron Cadeshinn's' comments on that post. It's a post of it's own, and he makes some fantastic points.

Second of all, check out this article on Transgender, a topic that's really new for me and that I didn't really articulate anything about in the earlier post.

Thirdly, from what I HAVE read on the issue of gender reassignment (sex change), it seems that mimah nafshach there could be the real possibility of a female-turned-male marrying a male-turned-female halakhically. The ceremony would probably look pretty darn interesting.

Finally, I'm going to go to hell for this, but I can't resist: If such a shidduch would work out we could say:

מצא מין את מינו

BEHAR - Two Aspects of Holiness and the Price of Tea in China

This weeks parsha begins with a strange juxtaposition in Jewish literature. G-d commands Moshe regarding Shemittah (The Sabbatical Year) at Mt. Sinai. Thus, Rashi asks, "What does Shemittah have to do with Mt. Sinai?". This question is the Modern Hebrew equivalent of "What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?"

Rashi answers generally – that it’s to teach that all Mitzvot came from Sinai. However, the same juxtaposition appears at the very end of the parsha, which states, “And you shall keep My Sabbath and revere My Sanctuary, I am G-d.”. The Sabbath and the Sabbatical year are certainly linked. The Mikdash/Sanctuary is, according to the Ramban (with a whole heck of a lot of textual and forensic evidence) a prerpetual recreation of the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Yet, it’s not really bothersome that Shabbat and Mikdash are put side-by-side. Anticipating a later metaphor of A.J. Heschel, Ramban explains that the term ‘Mikdash’ is a reference to Shabbat itself – it’s a sanctuary in time.

The two imperatives, “Mora” and “Shmira”, highlight two different themes of holiness. One aspect of the Holy is that it’s a complete break from the temporal. It’s Wholly Other, belonging to a different quality of existence. When one steps foot into a Sanctuary, or when the sun goes down on Friday, there is a complete break with everything that came before. The second relates to the way in which the Holy interacts with the world around it. The Holy re-enters the mundane world as a polestar, raising up everything that comes within its sphere, sanctifying the mundane. This duality is reflected in nearly every expression of Holiness, be it temporal, spatial, or human. It is the central theme of the book of Vayikra as well.

The best example of the latter aspect of holiness is in our parsha as well. After recounting the laws of Shemittah and Yovel, the Torah records a number of laws that pertain to commercial and social justice (including a prohibition against overcharging, which could regulate the price of tea in China). The refrain through all of it is that we are enjoined to remember that the Earth all belongs to God, the lesson which the Sabbatical year is designed to reinforce. Thus, observance of Shemittah affects the behavior of the ensuing 6 years. Nonetheless, Shemittah has no independent Kedusha, no ‘Kedushat Ha-Zman’ (as opposed to Yovel, which does).

Mt. Sinai, on the other hand, is almost the exact opposite. It has the independent holiness, but, at least initially, doesn’t reach beck to the world it left. For a brief moment, it was the place where G-d and man met. It was a holy place- no man could set foot upon it The next day, however, nothing persisted. This suggests that the initial experience was completely other-worldly, and couldn’t be ‘unpacked’ and integrated into a mundane reality. Only by placing it at the center of the community on a ongoing basis could God’s Presence begin to affect its context.

Thus, Shmittah and Har Sinai appear as competing ideas of Holiness – other-worldly vs. paradigmatic. The end of the parsha demonstrates that the normal case is that both are present and necessary. On Shabbat, it’s cessation from work on one day which shows that my work on the other six are chosen and meaningful. If I’m forced to create, my creativity is a mere compulsion. If I choose to create, and demonstrate this choice by demonstrating the ability to stop creating, then ipso facto, all of my creative labor becomes meaningful. Such it was with God’s creation, and so it is with our own (See Pachad Yitzchak’s first Ma’amar on Shabbos). It’s also the point that Neo makes when he suggests to the Mayor of Zion that ‘we control the machines and they don’t control us, because we can turn them off’.If you can’t turn them off, then you’re not in control of your world; it controls you. You’re not a creator, you’re a creature of compulsion.

If I may apply this to a contemporary setting – there’s a UO emphasis on the ‘Shmirah’: true holiness and this world are completely separate entities. Never the twain shall meet. God and Caesar, Jacob and Esau, have divided Olam Ha-Zeh and Olam Ha-Bah between them. MO seems to have the opposite problem. Holiness is diluted by being placed on the table with so many other things. Torah in the morning, secular studies in the afternoon. A year of Yeshiva, 4 of college. Shmittah and Torah – which feature prominently in next week’s parsha, and whose neglect are attributed as the cardinal failures of the First Jewish Commonwealth, are specifically prone to neglect. Instead of entering into the profane as holy objects, they are themselves profaned by being lumped together with the rest of the profane world.

True holiness is when these two elements are experienced at two sides of the same coin.

שמור וזכור בדיבור אחד נאמרו


LGBT in a Halakhic Community

My current occupation has put me in contact with a whole range of different kinds of people that I never really had interpersonal relationships with. It's been a very different experience for me, especially having previously worked in the Procrustean Bed that is high-school education (some of my first posts were about that). Amongst others, it has placed me in contact with members of the LGBT community who aspire to live halakhically. It has been an enriching experience for me, and it has forced me to confront several issues, on the personal and on the theoretical level.

On the personal level, it's been much easier than I could have imagined. It means being able to resist the mindset which seeks to transform every gavra into a cheftza, that views people as types or typologies, and places everyone and everything under the modernist panopticon. Some of the choices that members of this community make are truly admirable. It's not an easy life to live, and the plight can be compared to that of an agunah. That's not an exaggeration. Their struggle to find meaning within a Halakhic framework which only really recognizes 2 types of gender identity - man and woman - is nothing short of heroic.

My struggle has been more on the theoretical level. Here it gets really thorny. It's not that the Torah forbids certain behaviors. That, I think, eveyone can live with. It's that the Torah doesn't recognize more than 2 gender identities (I don't know, perhaps 'tumtum' and 'androgynos' should be explored as separate gender identities). The past several hundred years has seen the uncoupling of sex and gender. Modern contraception, medicine, and education makes it possible for people to live out their inner worlds to a degree unthinkable in bygone eras. Gender has been exposed as a human construct, and more than two are possible.I'm not trying to affirm or deny the 'science' of this - I'm writing what I see with my own eyes. Sincere people, frum people, smart people, have gender identities other than the typical ones you'd expect. What is a woman trapped in a man's body to do? I can't say that he/she is being insincere or is somehow ill. I also can't say that the Torah has nothing to say to this person, doesn't address his/her existence. I'm amazed that these people care at all to struggle within a Halakhic system which completely disaffirms their identity. And what does it say for the rest of us? Are we to be happy that we're happily heterosexual and can procreate the old-fashioned way? How do we answer this for ourselves? I, for one, can't ignore a tension just because it doesn't relate to me directly.

The way I see it, there are two ways to mediate the tension. One's more speculative, the other more pragmatic. The speculative one can be more theologically satisfying; I'm just not sure it's true. I'll start with the pragmatic:
  • The Torah's agenda is for people to be born and raised by parents who are present and caring. The best (and until very recently, only) way for that to happen was in a heterosexual, preferably monogamous marriage. The Torah was aware that there are alternative impulses, but that those would be sacrificed for the preservation of the greater agenda. Halakha itself would shoehorn those alternatives into the normative categories - thus, homosexual males sit on the same side of the mechitza as heterosexual males. Essentially, the Halakha doesn't ignore them de jure, but, as a matter of policy, it ignores them de facto. Conceptually, there would be little room for the creation of a different halakhic construct for members of the LGBT community. For example, the laws of tzniut and negiah or any other sexually-linked area of Halakha couldn't be applied to this group as a different group, as the Halakha forces them into a different category (though the categories of tumtum and androgynos, as I mentioned before, could prove to be an alternative gender construct recognized by Halakha).
  • The second, more speculative theory starts with the following question, which is often asked when dealing w/ this issue: why is it that sexuality forms the central element of one's identity? If one has an impulse to eat cheeseburgers, that doesn't make his lifestyle an 'alternative' one? The answer commonly given is that sexuality really DOES form the core of one's identity. Just ask Freud. Denying a relatively peripheral impulse like appetite for a certain type of food can't be compared to an existential state of being gay. Gender identity goes beyond the drive for a particular type of sex. This is what you'll hear often in these discussions. I wonder, however, if the centrality of sexuality is not itself constructed. Who said that everything had to revolve around sex? Freud? Not everyone agrees. It can be power. Or money (R' Tzadok has an incredible piece on this - od chazon la-mo'ed). What occupies the center of a person's being isn't always chosen - it's constructed by the culture and values that prevail in the world around him. This past century, partially because it was possible, partially as a reaction to Victorianism, sex has occupied the center of our cultures. Our cultures are oversexualized. In such a context, anything relating to sex is magnified. An impulse which, in a different cultural setting, might be akin to wanting a cheeseburger, manifests itself as the core part of one's identity. It doesn't deny these impulses - they may be genetic or otherwise hard-wired. But in other settings they might be manageable. Perhaps, in a perfect society, the centrality of familial life would be experienced as a more central part of one's identity than sexual orientation. Alas, we live here and now. The pain of the LGBT community confronting the Halakha is another manifestation of the pain of Golus, the pain of an unrealized autonomous culture of Torah, the pain of the Shekhinah in Exile, unfulfilled. I can affirm the identity of the Jew with an alternative lifestyle, feel his or her pain, see it as a manifestation of a greater alienation of the world from God and Torah, place no 'blame' on the individual, perhaps even address specific Halakhic concerns of the LGBT community, and still believe that the Torah's vision is a fair and just one, and that it may demand sacrifice but not suicide. I think this approach can also dovetail well with what I believe to be Chaza"l's attitude toward mishkav zachar, ve-acamo"l.

Isaiah 56:3-5

ישעיהו פרק נו

(ג) וְאַל יֹאמַר בֶּן הַנֵּכָר הַנִּלְוָה אֶל יְדֹוָד לֵאמֹר הַבְדֵּל יַבְדִּילַנִי יְדֹוָד מֵעַל עַמּוֹ וְאַל יֹאמַר הַסָּרִיס הֵן אֲנִי עֵץ יָבֵשׁ: ס

(ד) כִּי כֹה אָמַר יְדֹוָד לַסָּרִיסִים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְרוּ אֶת שַׁבְּתוֹתַי וּבָחֲרוּ בַּאֲשֶׁר חָפָצְתִּי וּמַחֲזִיקִים בִּבְרִיתִי:

(ה) וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם בְּבֵיתִי וּבְחוֹמֹתַי יָד וָשֵׁם טוֹב מִבָּנִים וּמִבָּנוֹת שֵׁם עוֹלָם אֶתֶּן לוֹ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִכָּרֵת: ס

3 Neither let the alien, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying: 'The LORD will surely separate me from His people'; neither let the eunuch say: 'Behold, I am a dry tree.' {P} 4 For thus saith the LORD concerning the eunuchs that keep My sabbaths, and choose the things that please Me, and hold fast by My covenant: 5 Even unto them will I give in My house and within My walls a monument and a memorial better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting memorial, that shall not be cut off. {S}


Dignified Disagreement

I’m kinda wondering if it’s worth writing about this if I can’t use names, but I was really bugged by this.
I was talking with a Chareidi relative about an upcoming wedding that we’ll both be attending. It’s an interesting shidduch, where the couple is pretty standard American yeshivish, and the father of one of the young couple is a dyed-in-the-wool (literally) YU guy.

The Chareidi relative was saying that one of their’s a struggle about whether a prominent but somewhat controversial YU Rabbi Dr., who may be in attendance, would be getting a Kibbud.

When I asked why not, my relative replied, ‘Because he’s an apikorus gamur’, and the cited a well-known moderate-Chareidi Rabbi in Israel, whose decisions my relative esteems greatly, who, apparently, holds this to be the case and references specific passages in the works of this Rabbi Dr. to bolster his position.

I instructed this relative not to bother being mechabed me at any simcha, because if that Rabbi Dr. is a heretic, then so am I (my relative doesn’t read my blog).

What bugs me isn’t so much the designation of this Rabbi Dr. as an apikorus. People are entitled to their opinions, and if one really holds that to be the case, then I can even see where one would instruct his students in that way. RAL was done so on accasion.

What bugs me is that it turns into a vendetta to make sure that certain people aren’t afforded any respect. An apikorus, one can argue, shouldn’t be an eid kiddushin. But anything else – speaking, a bracha, reading the ksubah, even siddur kiddushin are non-issues.

There’s even a famous story about how RSZA deferred the honor of being mesader kiddushin to R’ Kapach, who was supposed to be an eid, because RSZA held that R’ Kapach’s non-belief in the authenticity of the Zohar rendered him an apikorus. He didn’t disrespect him – even bestowed a greater honor on him. But here we’re talking about a total cold shoulder. It’s a bizayon. Everyone would know it if the prominent Rabbi Dr. in question didn’t get a kibbud, and it really would be a slap in his face. My relative’s Chareidi Rabbi didn’t say anything about kibbudim at weddings. Why is this an issue? Am I wrong for being totally sickened by this conversation?


Historical Twins: Part II – Translation and Esotericism

The true goal of the mind is translating: only when a thing has been translated does it become truly vocal, no longer to be done away with. Only in the Septuagint has revelation come to be at home in the world, and so long as Homer did not speak Latin he was not a fact. The same holds good for translating from man to man.

- Franz Rosenzweig

The translation of the Septuagint is not yet complete…the
translation of biblical wisdom into the Greek language remains unfinished.

- Emmanuel Levinas

This one’s a bit more counterintuitive, that the act of ‘translation’ – which I hope to describe shortly, gives birth to mysticism. It’s related to the issue of Yeridat Ha-dorot as well.

We’ll start with a simple example. The King James Bible famously translates ‘על כנפי נשרים’ as ‘on eagles’ wings’. The correct translation, as is well known, would have been ‘on griffin vultures’ wings’. So is it a mistranslation? No. The original has a literal meaning which also has a cultural meaning. It denotes majesty, maternality, etc. Those meanings are best captured by the term ‘eagle’ than by ‘griffin vulture’. On the other hand, there’s inevitably a loss of meaning – not necessarily literal meaning, but the meaning that terms have within a particular cultural situation. If the manings aren’t really translatable, then there’s always something, by definition, that’s going to be ‘lost in translation’.

Translation is a necessity in order for one to be intelligible. The opening quote is the extreme form of this – I must translate my thoughts, somehow crystallize them and thereby rob them of some content – in order to communicate. Every act of communication runs the risk of complete misunderstanding. Yet, the alternative, complete silence, is even more impossible.

Thus, translation, as implied by the Levinas quote, is an ongoing process, asymptotically moving toward full recovery of meaning. I should add (and this is a thought from Rosenzweig), that full recovery becomes possible as the ‘translated-into’ language is enriched by the ‘translated-from’ language. For example, Jewish language had enriched English to the point that the term ‘Torah’ no longer needs to be translated. It’s but a drop in the bucket, and its meaning isn’t the same as in a sovereign Jewish context, but it has enriched and thereby made itself more intelligible in its new milieu.

This brings me to my definition of esoteric wisdom. It’s whatever remains untranslated. If there’s a language that I don’t speak, or a culture I don’t understand, I can try to translate it, to reconstruct its meanings in a painstaking manner and, as mentioned, run the substantial risk of complete misunderstanding. Alternatively, I can immerse myself in the other culture, appreciate it on its own terms, and internalize its meanings in a completely natural way. Even within one’s own mind, translation takes place. In order to understand that which isn’t translatable into my own thought-structures, an entirely new language must be created. Those initiated into these meanings can then go back and ‘borrow’ terms from a familiar language, but to refer to things that aren’t part of commonly held meanings, and thus begins the process by which the old language enriches the new. This give-and-take between different cultures can get pretty complicated, but the basic dichotomy remains; when translating from one language/culture/context to another, that which fails to translate is esoteric.

With this in hand, there are a few implications for understanding Chaza”l. There are certain statements of Chazal – not to leave fingernails lying around, the obligation of mayim acharaonim or netilat yadayim, etc. (the list is virtually endless) whose original meanings were simply lost along the way. At some point between Babylonia and the USA, whatever basic meanings they had were simply ‘lost in translation’. Thus, their meanings became attributed to ‘kabbalah’ – the danger of fingernails is ‘al pi kabbalah’. Anything pertaining to Ru’ach Ra’ah’ is ‘al pi kabbalah’. It’s not some metaphysical, supernatural powers that are addressed by these halakhot; it once made perfect sense, and no longer does; thus, its meaning is attributed to an esoteric tradition.

Another implication is that, it’s possible, that certain languages or cultures are broader and more ‘translatable-into’ than others. The esoteric and the translated are floating categories – always shifting depending on the prevailing culture. I believe that modern psychology provides the tools to understand much of that which was, in earlier generations, ‘esoteric’. Those meanings can be redeemed from the hidden world of esoteric wisdom to enrich our religious experience from within our milieu. We know of physical models which can provide better metaphors for the understanding of spiritual phenomena.

Taking these two implications together, I would posit that it’s worthwhile to attempt to recover those original meanings. We can be aware of the fact that not all is translatable, but try to do our darnedest to make as much as possible intelligible to us. Is an asymptotic endeavour – we’ll never fully finish the job – but it sure beats chalking up significant portions of our lives to reasons that are unintelligible to pretty much everyone.


Absolute Truth V: Truth vs. Justice

This is a translation of a piece by R' Kook in Eyn Ayah on Brachot 47b (section 18, p.210). It's one of those holy-cow-that's-incredible-fall-off-your-chair pieces. It's part of a discussion of the Samaritans. The entire piece is worthwhile (it includes a critique of overfocus on details of Mitzvot). There's one segment which has an amazing insight into our discussion:

The Samaritans don't recognize the nationality of Israel at all, nationally, they were still considered enemies. Thus, their participation in the Torah is only out of their desire to accrue its potential reward, or, for their elite, because they recognize its truth. Thus, the words of Chaza"l are very precise, in the opinion which gives the Samaritans the benefit of the doubt that they did not convert simply out of fear of lions (Gerei Arayot), says that they are 'Converts of Truth' (Gerei Emet), which is not the usual term for Chaza"l who generally use 'Righteous Converts' (Gerei Tzedek). Meaning, that 'tedek' (justice) refers to the whole community of Israel, whose basic purpose is to bring eternal justice to mankind. And he who has no everlasting connection ('yad va-shem') with the God of Israel, though he may recognize only the grandeur of the Torah as reflected in its aspects of truth, can only be called a 'convert of truth', but not a 'convert of justice'.

In other words, 2 converts: one says he joined because he was convinced that the Torah is God's revealed Truth to man, the other says he liked Jewish values and how they express themselves in the way Jews treat others.

R' Kook is saying that the latter is the better reason. Amazing.


Yom Ha'atzma'ut IV: The Haftarah

For some reason, Isaiah 10 and 11. It's an eschatological vision of world peace and the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. It's eschatological and very pastoral. I suspect that it was chosen because otherwise the Haftarah of the 8th day of Pesach in Chutz La-aretz would be completely neglected, but I can't help but think that the connection of an independent State of Israel and a Messianic vision was very purposeful.
As I've mentioned, I'm not entirely comfortable with the conclusion that the value of the State is entirely dependent upon it being the beginning of the Messianic process.

If it were up to me, I'd choose Isaiah chapter 53 as the Haftarah of Yom Ha'atzma'ut. It speaks of God's long suffering servant - a metaphor for the Nation of Israel - finally getting his just rewards. His persecutors recognize their folly, though he never acted to try to impress them in the first place. It's a very moving section. It'll also be interesting to reclaim that chapter - known for its Christological interpretations - and apply it to something as Jewish as the Modern State of Israel. But really mostly because it's such a beautiful and stirring piece.

Alternatively - Ezekiel's valley of the dry bones.

But I'm not into 'od ha-yom be-nov' for Yom Ha-atzma'ut. Just don't like the implications.

Yom Ha'atzma'ut Part III: The Theme of the Day

I left off the last post by floating the idea that it may be true that YH is very religiously significant, yet it's inappropriate to say Hallel. I'd like to develop that further.

In the first YH post, I suggested that the establishment of the State of Israel is a kiyum of God's promise to Avraham at the brit Bein Ha-Betarim. Baruch Shomer Havtachato le-amo Yisrael.

However, that wasn't the final covenant that God makes with Avraham. In addition to the first, unilateral convenant, there's a second, bilateral one - brit milah. Ths one requires much more from us. It ties our remaining in the Land of Israel to our living up to that covenant, a covenant which was given form by the commandments of the Torah.

The first covenant ties Jews together by a common fate. The second by a common mission. The first envisions the Land of Israel as a refuge, the second as the stage upon which the Jewish people fulfill their Divine mission to found a nation upon the principles of justice and righteousness.

The first covenant can be fulfilled even if we are undeserving. But the second cannot. How long will the first last without the second? I certainly don't know, but thinking about it definitely makes me nervous.

Therefore - my attitude to Yom Ha'atzma'ut is a strong combination of joy and trepidation: Deep gratitude for the salvation and opportunity, but serious stock-taking regarding the fulfillment of the mission. Thus, the comparison to Rosh Hashana: the birthday is the natural time to reflect on one's past - what have I done with my life? Can I do more? Hello, Reality check - is that really important? Is that what's worthwhile? On RH, humanity as a whole, but as individuals, revisits the circumstances of our creation, rethinks our mission and the 'endgame scenario' that we're working toward, and examines the current state of affairs in light of that.

YH, IMHO, presents the same opportunity and challenge on the Jewish national level. Is our society a good one? A compassionate one? Do we care for the widows and orphans? To we take care of the workers? The environment? Do our laws and regulations express concern for the little guy?
I feel it's entirely inappropriate to celebrate the day without this type of stock-taking. Of course - I'm speaking and thinking as an Israeli, not as an American as I write this, and I accept charges of hypocrisy until I move back (which will be w/in 2 years).

There's room for joy - there's a heck of a lot to be proud of. The compassion displayed by the army on the institutional level when deciding not to bomb Jenin from the air, rather to fight hand-to-hand, endangering its own soldiers in order to protect enemy civilians, not only displayed unheard-of compassion, but has actually raised the bar for the behavior of other armies. I'm damn proud of that.
Israel itself has improved on so many levels virtually uninterrupted from the inception of the State. It really brings joy in the sense that we ARE moving in the right direction.

At the same time, there's still far to go. Maccabee bridge disasters and wedding hall collapses are symptoms of systemic flaws that need correction. East European sex-slaves in Israel is inexcusable.

These are examples that come readily to mind - of both successes and failures - and there's a lot to discuss on both fronts. The point is, I think that this type of reflection is entirely appropriate for Yom Ha'atzma'ut.

So is Hallel appropriate? I think that if we recognize the implications of the second covenant, then we can celebrate the fulfillment of the first and the historic opportunity that it has granted us.

Yom Ha'atzma'ut Part II - Hallel

For those confused, Part I is here.

This is a surprisingly simple issue, even though there are so many different evolving customs, namely:
  1. Hallel w/ bracha
  2. Hallel, no bracha
  3. 'Minhag Ben Gurion' (no Hallel, no Tachanun, just like Ben Gurion)
  4. Full Tachanun

The fundamental question is whether or not it's appropriate to say Halllel on Yom Ha'atzma'ut. That may sound obvious, but it really often gets lost in the discussion. The question is not whether or not the founding of the modern State of Israel was a miracle, or whether it's the beginning of an eschatological fulfillment. Rather, is it appropriate to praise God for its establishment. Generally speaking, the Dati Leumi and MO camps say yes - they view the establishment of the modern state, with all of its trappings, as a significant event from a religious perspective.

The chareidi community, by and large, doesn't see the establishment of a secular state as an event which is in any way meaningful religiously. Would you say Hallel on the 4th of July?

One could counter that the provision of a safe haven for Jews everywhere constitutes a salvation - a fulfillment of the Brit Bein Habetarim like I mentioned in the earlier post. That explanation wouldn't go far enough from the MO/DL perspective, but it's a yeshu'ah that all can agree upon. On the other hand, so close to the Holocaust, the inability to get Jews out of the USSR for so long, and the passage of significant time before that salvation was put into practice w/ the absorption of European and Sephardic refugees, makes it difficult to point to a declaration of the right of Jews to return as an immediate act of Yeshua.

If one accepts that Hallel is appropriate, it really doesn't make sense for Ashkenazim to do so without a bracha. Kri'at Hallel is a ma'aseh mitzvah, which requires a bracha when performed, even in a supererogatory manner. That's why we say a bracha over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, which is only a minhag. Similarly, women who perform mitzvot in which they aren't obligated make brachot in the Ashkenazic tradition. Sephardim would have to ask a further question - whether or not Hallel on YH is obligatory on the Rabbinic or Biblical level. The whole 'it's just saying Tehillim' svara is a cop-out, big time. If you read it aloud like you read Hallel, then it's kri'at Hallel. If it's tillem zoggen, then it's tillem zoggen.

If it's an insignificant event, why not say Tachanun? The only way to justify 'minhag Ben Gurion' is to acknowledge that it's significant but doesn't warrant Hallel either becuase:

  1. It's not significant enough (like, say, Pesach Sheni or Purim Katan)
  2. It's highly significant, but not in a way mandates Hallel (like Rosh Hashana).

This maps out the possibilities. The next post will address what I think is appropriate.


Absolute Truth IV

The Torah’s prohibition against lying is formulated like this:

מדבר שקר תרחק

Distance yourself from words of untruth

Why not “Don’t lie”. Why not “Tell the truth”. There are a number of ways to look at this formulation:
  1. It’s saying, not only shouldn’t one lie, but one shouldn’t even come close. Don’t put yourself in position where you might wind up lying.
  2. Nobody is completely truthful. There can’t be a command to be completely truthful, or to completely avoid lying. But one can be enjoined to distance himself from untruth.
  3. Truth and falsehood are not binary categories; they are two poles on an axis, the one pole being ‘pure truth’, the other being ‘pure lie’. It’s impossible to really reach either pole. One can, however, work to distance himself from that pole and become closer to the other.

If it needs to be spelled out, I obviously prefer 2 or 3.

Absolute Truth: Part III - Simon Says

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשה ח ד"ה ה א"ר סימון

ה א"ר סימון בשעה שבא הקב"ה לבראת את אדם הראשון, נעשו מלאכי השרת כיתים כיתים, וחבורות חבורות, מהם אומרים אל יברא, ומהם אומרים יברא, הה"ד (תהלים פה) חסד ואמת נפגשו צדק ושלום נשקו, חסד אומר יברא שהוא גומל חסדים, ואמת אומר אל יברא שכולו שקרים, צדק אומר יברא שהוא עושה צדקות, שלום אומר אל יברא דכוליה קטטה, מה עשה הקב"ה נטל אמת והשליכו לארץ הה"ד (דניאל ח) ותשלך אמת ארצה, אמרו לאכי השרת לפני הקב"ה רבון העולמים מה אתה מבזה תכסיס אלטיכסייה שלך, תעלה אמת מן הארץ, הדא הוא דכתיב (תהלים פה) אמת מארץ תצמח.

R’ Simon says: When God came to create Man, the angels divided into sects and groups, some for, some against. As it says (Psalms 85), “Love and truth met; justice and peace kissed.” Love said – let Man be created, because he engages in kindness, and Truth said - he shouldn’t be created, for he is all lies. Justice said he should be created because he acts justly. Peace said he should not because he is all strife. What did God do? He took Truth and threw it to the ground, as it says (Daniel 8), “And Truth was cast to the ground”. The angels said to God, “Master of the Universes, why are you disgracing your most sublime adornment?”. Let truth rise from the Earth, as it says (Psalms 85 – continuation of earlier verse), “And Truth will grow from the ground”.

What does this say about human truth? Was truth necessarily sacrificed in order to make Man possible? Is the ‘machloket’ between the groups really a disagreement, or are all four right? Man is kind, but full of lies. Man is just, yet full of disagreement. Justice and kindness we can accommodate. Peace and truth are elusive and illusory. Maybe peace is possible – it wasn’t sacrificed. But truth was. We’re supposed to reconstitute it from here on Earth, somehow.


Postmodern Pantheon

Following up on the last post, and to show that there's not a total vacuum, I wanted to put together a list of some areas where postpodern theologies of Halakha are being discussed. It's too haphazard and ephemeral to survey what going on, so I'll just leave with a few people and institutions to keep an eye on. Clearly, anything intereting that's happening is happening in Israel.

  • Beit Morasha
  • Ma'aleh Gilboa
  • Yeshivat Siach


  • R' Shagar
  • R' Bigman
  • R' Yehuda Brandes
  • R' Yuval Shelow
  • R' Yaakov Genack
  • Dr. Tamar Ross

Thinkers of Previous generations:

  • Levinas
  • R' Eliezer Berkovitz
  • R' Nachman of Breslov
  • R' Tzadok of Lublin
  • The Ishbitzer

Nu. We'll leave it at that.

Postmodern Postmortem of MO

Last year, when I lived further out-of-town than I do now, a layman friend and I started a really cool group. About once a month, a group of, say, 10 to 15 guys, all bright and seriously engaged in Judaism, but of a wide range of belief and observance, would congregate in a pub having read an article or two about some controversial Jewish topic, and we'd drink beer and shmooz for about an hour and a half. It was phenomenal. I imagine Olam Habah to be something like that. It's called LagerHeads (I'm in the process of trademarking it, so don't touch). It's been taken over by the local MO Rabbi, and is still going strong, and I still read up on the articles that they discuss.

I was bugged by a recent topic. They discussed the difference between Orthodox and Conservative approaches to Halakha. An article by RAL in Leaves of Faith was chosen as the Orthodox selection. An article by David Golinkin for the Conservative. My critique of the latter, I found, runs very deep, and that's not the point of this post.
I also found that RAL's approach didn't really resonate with me. It's really the same critique as RYBS' Halakhic approach as well: the insistence on seeing Halakhic categories as objective, metaphysical constructs which operate autonomously. In RYBS' grand vision of an intergenerational conversation, where Rava, Abaye, Rambam, Ra'avad, and R' Chaim all sit together and converse, while beautiful, misses, IMHO the basic point that these great men were not talking to each other. They lived in different times, spoke different languages, had different axiological assumptions about a whole host of religious issues, etc. It's not a great conversation through the ages. each participant is constrained and contextualized and must be understood in that way. The attempt to reduce Halacha to a metaphysical system, the attribution of objective status to human constructs, and the relation to earlyier texts as goldmines to be sifted through for the occasional conceptual nugget is a thoroughly Modernist approach and, being totally honest, it doesn't work for me. There's much, much there to be worked through and gleaned from their works, but at its core, it doesn't speak to contemporary sensibilities.

I was disappointed that no other Orthodox approach was presented there, and when I saw this discussion between Steve Brizel and An MO Rabbi in the Godol's comments, I saw that it's not only me who feels this way. In fact, it's an entire generation that's either dogmatically defensive, questioning without answers, or starting to pick up the pieces and construct a new basis for postmodern observance.

Halakhic Man was an acknowledgement that Nefesh Ha-Chayim did not resonate as a foundation for a Torah-based theology. This generation needs its own. As I've mentioned previously, R' ShaGa"R's Keilim Shvurim is too shallow and incomplete. Then who?


A Better Date for Yom HaShoa

The Godol's post on Yom Hashoa makes some good points. There are the pros - that The Holocaust definitely deserves a day of remembrance because of its magnitude, and the cons - non-traditional, in Nissan, commemorates particularly the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which is what resonated more w/ the Zionist founders of the State of Israel (cuz' they didn't go 'like sheep'), etc.

Here's my proposal; the 20th day of Sivan should be commemorated as Yom Ha-Sho'ah.

The 2oth of Sivan was originally declared a fast day in Ashkenaz in the 12th century, after a town was massacred (I can't remember the details, but it's actually quoted in one of the major commentaries on the Shulchan Arukh). It was observed as a fast day for centuries, but gradually fell out of observance. It was renewed in the 17th century as a commemoration of the Chmielnicki massacres, and no less than the Shach, R' Shabsi Cohen, penned a piyut to be recited on that day. It only fell out of general awareness this century. Older and more complete siddurim still have the slichos for the 20th of Sivan.

Thus, it's a day that can't be considered non-traditional, it's not on Tisha B'av, it has a basic liturgy in place, and can be a commemoration of the Holocaust without forgetting about the other great post-exilic European tragedies (the expulsion in 1492 happened on Tisha B'av, making it easier to include there).

I think it's a darn shame that this date wasn't originally selected as Yom Ha-Shoah. Is it too late?

Absolute Truth II

Here's a good application, from a recognized Jewish source, which can characterize some of what I'm trying to say, and also demonstrate how it can actually be meaningful in life. It's from Tzidkas HaTzadik or R' Zadok, paragraph 40. Translation and emphasis mine:

The root of Teshuvah is that God enlightens his eyes so that his sins become as merits, that is, that he become cognizant and understands that all of his sins were also God's will, (prooftext from the Gemara in Brachot 32b), etc., and like the meaning [, i.e., the resolution of the conflict between God's] knowledge and [human] choice, that the Ariza"l explained at the end of his book 'Arba Me'ot Shekel Kesef' that they are both true (emet), each in a place by itself. In the place where there is choice, there is no place for knowledge, and in the place where there is knowledge, there, in truth, is no choice...

R' Tzadok is saying - and attributing to the Ariza"l - that the age-old contradiction between God's foreknowledge and human free choice doesn't exist. Each one of those represents a paradigm for looking at the world. One cannot operate in both paradigms simultaneously. The contradiction, in that case, is real. But each can provide a fundamentally consistent paradigm for us, as humans, to operate and relate to God. The process of Teshuvah, according to R' Tzadok, is the process by which one shifts from the paradigm of 'choice' to the paradigm of 'knowledge'. In the former perception, sin is the result of human choice - poor choice- for which he bears responsibility. In the knowledge paradigm, there is no choice; all is from God, all is in God, all is known by God, and all is God's will. There's simply no room for human choice. If one can acheive that degree of perception - really, really look at the world in that way - then his sins will have been transformed to be from the same 'stuff' - God's will - as his merits.

The question that bugged me for years (literally) was - which of these is true? It seems that R' Tzadok is saying that really there's no such thing as sin, once one realizes the truth that all is God's will! This whole free-choice thing is just a dumb illusion!

The answer that I've found (and confirmed w/ some folks w/ real bona fides) is this:
R' Zadok is saying that the 'knowledge' paradigm is higher and more difficult to attain than the 'choice' paradigm. But NEITHER represents 'absolute truth'. How does God view it? How is the conflict between knowledge and choice resolved in God's mind, as it were? WE DON'T KNOW and WE CAN'T KNOW, and it's really pretty useless to ask the question. We can know this - free choice is real and true. So is Divine foreknowledge. But not at the same time in the same mind.

To use the terminology of the last post, yediah and bechirah, as we relate to them, are phenomena, and as such, are contingent upon the world of perception that I construct for myself. By shifting perceptual paradigms, I've opened myself up to an entirely new set of phenomena. God's Mind is the Noumenon - the way it REALLY, absolutely, truly is. And we have absolutely no accesss to understanding it as such. We can try to understand God's mind from within our own (and attribute to it things like incomplete or complete foreknowledge), but ought to be humble (and sane) enough to recognize that we haven't TRULY been granted access to God's Mind.

Does that make things clearer, Godol?


On Absolute Truth

There are 3 possible attitudes that one can take toward absolute truth:
  1. There's no such thing as absolute truth
  2. There is an absolute truth, and I (or someone else) knows what it is.
  3. There's such a thing as absolute truth, but it's inaccessible to human beings.
I believe #3 to be the most accurate. More or less, here's how I think we relate to truth:
Kant made a very useful distinction between noumena - things as the are, and phenomena - things as perceived.
We have no recourse to noumena, only phenomena, but the phenomena do, somehow, reflect the reality of the noumena. Perception, in this view, is a constructive process; it doesn't just represent the reality that I see in my mind, it generates that reality and integrated new data into existing cognitive patterns (schema, narratives, scripts, etc.).
Thus, although the data itself, the raw material from which each individual's world is constructed, exists absolutely, it's been 'perceived', and thus tampered with, by the time it's represented in our little noggins.
That's not to say that there's no way to 'judge' between levels of representation. The mind of an infant has a represents the world in a way that's less advanced and less mature than an adult mind (hopefully). So, too, within the adult world itself, there are different levels of representation of absolute reality, and it's possible to judge between them. The general rule is that if one must pass through level A to get to level B, then level B is more advanced. Similarly, people can shift between levels, experiencing different worlds of perceptions at different times.

People construct their worlds with the tools that are nurtured in them by their surroundings. Things may look very different from different cultural vantage points.

The upshot is, that our attempt to arrive at truth is an honorable quest, regardless of the fact that we know that we can't 'get there'. My own search for truth may not lead me to the same place that yours will lead you; there's room for critique and disagreement, even value judgement and war, without the certitude that I have the truth and you don't.
It affirms a pluralism in which it can be acknowledge that there's no monopoly on truth in the sense that there can be more than one method of creating truth out of the 'raw material', or if you like, different perprective on the same 'object'.

In this model, God is understood as both the 'raw material' - the Abolute Truth - and the ultimate but unacheivable prespective, i.e., at the beginning and end of this process of understanding, paradoxically.

One last point, the Hebrew world 'EMET' should be translated as 'truth'. It should be translated as 'real'. There are greater and lesser degrees of 'reality' as well. God is more Real than us. We are more real than out imagination. "Truth" is a Greek logical term which has been appropriated into our conceptual world. Our classical sources are more concerned with Real vs. fake than they were with true vs. false. At least that's my impression.


A reading of Mishna Avot 3:7 - not how they taught it in yeshiva

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ג משנה ז

רבי שמעון אומר המהלך בדרך ושונה ומפסיק ממשנתו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה ומה נאה ניר זה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו מתחייב בנפשו:

Rabbi Shimon says: one who is walking on a path and is repeating,
and he interrupts his repetitions and says, “What a beautiful tree! Or, what a
beautiful plowed field!”, the Torah treats it as though he owes his life.

I’ve always been taught that it means that if one is engaged in Torah study, one shouldn’t ‘stop and smell the roses’, or otherwise appreciate nature. What’s at stake here is bittul Torah, which is tantamount to a capital crime. It’s possible to read this into Rashi, who refers to the comments on the trees and fileds as ‘devarim beteilim’, i.e., frivolous things, a category which, in the yeshivas, includes pretty much anything aesthetically pleasurable.

But I’ve got a couple of questions and observations which lead me to a different conclusion (Hey, I’m the ADDeRabbi):
1) Who ever comments on how beautiful a plowed field is? A sunset. A flower. Maybe even a tree.
2) An ilan, as far as I can ascertain, specifically refers to a FRUIT tree. Witness: We only make birkat ha-ilanot on fruit trees (and you’d better hurry up if you haven’t yet). All other contexts that I can think of, it means fruit tree.
3) The terms shoneh and mishnato have very specific connotations. One would be diligently repeating terse statements that he had memorized. Learning was done orally, and repetition was the name of the game. Thus, interrupting one’s mishnah means neglecting one’s learning altogether. If it’s not committed to memory, all is lost.
4) This last point is reinforced by the subsequent Mishna which distinguishes between actively allowing one’s mishnah to atrophy and what we’d call normal memory loss. The Mishna after that might also be relevant to the discussion, as it may suggest that learning won’t last unless accompanied by a requisite degree of seriousness, though that Mishna speaks of chokhma, not mishnah.

Thus, I think that the Mishna isn’t talking about ‘bittul Torah’ in the way it’s understood in the yeshivos. Rather, the Mishna criticizes one who interrupts his study at a time when he risks atrophy, because he’s distracted by something of PRACTICAL value. Like he stopped to check hisstocks or something. Both fruit trees and plowed fields are of this latter category. The Mishna is not criticizing aesthetic appreciation of things; it’s criticizing an attitude which would allow one to interrupt Torah study and allow it to atrophy in order to engage in important but ultimately mundane ‘chayei sha’ah’.

2 points to reinforce my reading:
1) R’ Yonah there doesn’t talk about ‘devarim beteilim’ like Rashi, rather about ‘sichat chullin’ - mundane conversation - which undermines the sense of awe that ought to accompany Torah study.
2) If the correct version of the Mishna is indeed R’ Shimon (some have R’ Yaakov), then the Mishna can be read in light of the Gemara in Shabbat 33b, where R Shimon (b. Yohai), when coming out of the cave, can’t understand how someone would neglect the chayei olam of Torah study in order to engage in the chayei sha’ah of planting a field

עיני העדה and the role of narratives in land disputes and conflict resolution

The Gemara in Bava Basra 4a calls the Sages 'the eyes of the world' and 'the eyes of the congregation'. More than just a cute 'vort', I believe (having actually learned large tracts of Nezikin) that it accurately describes the fundamental role of a judge in Jewish law; their goal is not one of decision, rather, one of perception.

Consider the basic structure of most cases in Chezkas Ha-Batim (3rd chap of BB) - two ingredients are necessary to successfully claim a property: chazakah and ta'anah - basically, a reality and a story which explains that reality. The role of the judge is to listen to the story and to look at the reality. Who is 'right' isn't entertained, even if someone else has a better story. Who does reality and narrative support as being consistent with ownership? Who has demonstrated control over the property? These are the key questions (I'm oversimplifying).

In essence, the one who is stronger is always the one who prevails judicially, but strength, in the normal case, is determined by behaving in a manner that is confident and consistent with ownership.

Another example - even sharper - is the first mishna in Bava Metzia. Two people come into court holding a single garment, each claiming the entire thing. Clearly, one of them is lying. Yet, looking at the facts, we acknowledgee that each is demonstrating control over whatever is in his hand, and the rest must be split down the middle. History doesn't enter the picture, only reality and the story of how that reality came to be.

The Mishna and Talmud include at least 7 potential resolutions to cases of property dispute:
  1. Presumtion that the current possesor is the true owner until proven otherwise
  2. Putting the property in escrow
  3. Putting only the disputed property in escrow
  4. Division after oath
  5. Division
  6. "Whomever is stronger wins' (which is a complicated solution, and might mean a number of things - but it may even be saying that sometimes 'war' is justified)
  7. Judicial discretion

The Talmud assumes that everyone has their narrative, and that even if two narratives conflict, neither is assumed to be lying. Their job is to formally state that which is upheld by a neutral perception of reality. 'History' - i.e., what 'really' happened, isn't on the Talmudic agenda.

I attended a lecture yesterday, where the lecturer was advocating a mutual affirmation of each side's narrative in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I had been thinking along those lines for a while, and was glad to hear a really articulate, informed presentation on the issue.

Since so much of this attitude (for the most part a postmodern one, which seeks to affirm multiple narratives) corresponds with the Talmudic attitude, I thought (and was seconded and encouraged by an Orthodox Professor of Jewish Philosophy who i was shmoozing with afterward, and who, like me, shall remain nameless), that Nezikin should become a strong part of the curriculum in Israel, as it trains the mind to think like that judge would think. Of course, the teachers would have to be sensitive to this type of Talmudic thinking, and I've already lamented the dearth of qualified Talmud teachers.

Add to the curriculum the 1st and 2nd chapters of Bava Basra - which discuss what it means to be a good neighbor and what it means to be a good neighbor - and you've got a dynamite curriculum for teaching peaceful conflict resolution, and for seriously studying Halakhic texts in a way that it can become a serious element of Israeli discourse - a good example of what I advocated in yesterday's post.

As today's Daf states:

תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם, שנאמר +ישעיהו נ"ד+ וכל בניך למודי ה' ורב שלום בניך, אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך.

"The scholars of Torah increase peace in the world, as it says, 'and all of your sons are learned of God.' Don't read this as 'your sons', rather, 'your builders'.

(See what R' Kook has to say on this in Eyn Ayah. It's great. Perhaps for another post.)


מנהג אבותינו בידינו

The title statement is the Gemara’s justification for why Diaspora communities continue to observe 2 days of Yom Tov, despite certain knowledge of the date, because of the fundamental uncertainty of existing in Exile.

There’s a great passage in Nachum Glatzer’s intellectual biography of Franz Rosenzweig (and I can’t find the passage) where he borrows the statement “the tradition of the forefathers in our hands”, to refer to the preservationist tendencies of exilic communities.

I’m not sure if this is what he intended, but it’s a great point: the 2-day yom tov is a paradigm for ‘galus’ halakhic approaches in general; an insistence upon maintaining outdated elements of a tradition, a desire to link with and preserve the past, an overshift toward ‘elokei Avi ve-aromemenhu’ at the expense of ‘zeh Keli ve-anvehu’. It’s really a beautiful idea.

Writings of R’ Kook and Eliezer Berkovitz (and, I now know, the R’ Y. Y. Weinberg thought this way as well; see the last chapter of Marc Shapiro’s biography) are full of contrasts between the nature and role of the Halakhic system in Exile and under Sovereign conditions (like in the modern State of Israel). Dr. Berkovitz (following his Rebbi) makes a much more specific, practical, and polemical argument (chapter 4 of Not In Heaven).

Though I’m not so familiar with their works, R’ Chaim Hirschenson and R’ Shlomo Goren apparently very much thought along these lines as well.

It’s implications for the possibility of a Halakhic renewal in Israel are profound and exciting to think (perchance, to dream) about.
Unfortunately, it seems that the Galuti approach to Halakha yet prevails. Perhaps someday we’ll emancipate ourselves from it. In the meantime, I’d highly recommend those two chapters (in Berkovits and Shapiro) for a fuller picture, and I’ll try to find that reference in Glatzer.