Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Farber Affair (part II) What would Rambam Do?

This is the second in a series on the “Farber Affair”. To read the first post, including my reasons for writing this series, click here.

When Rambam wrote the Moreh Nevuchim, he knew that he was heading into potentially dangerous waters. In attempting to reconcile the Torah with Aristotelian philosophy, he recognized that his conclusions would not, indeed could not, be understood by everyone, and that some people would see his views as dangerous, or even heresy. Therefore, in his introduction to the Guide, he wrote that there would be seeming contradictions within the text, and that it was up to the reader to resolve them on his own. Notwithstanding the fact that in some segments of the Jewish world, he was vilified, he was successful enough that ultimately, his views remained hidden enough as to make him a virtual Rorschach test for Jewish scholars. From Rav Soloveitchik to Satmar, from Strauss to Rav Schneerson, from Shapiro to Schweid, they are all certain that they know the “real” Rambam.

I do not know Zev Farber personally, so my analysis will focus on his actions and words, and not his motivation. I will refrain from analyzing him, and focus on the article that started it all, and to a lesser degree, to his followup responses.

To begin, I will state clearly that I do not blame Farber for struggling with how to create a balance between the worlds of of Torah, religion and belief on the one hand, and scholarship, intellectual honesty and autonomy on the other. The questions with which he struggled are real questions and can not simply be dismissed. I have great respect for anyone who attempts to deal with these issues in a serious and thoughtful way.

That said, I have several questions:

  1. Why was there a need to publicize the conclusion that he reached? In other words, even when he concluded that the Torah does not contain any objective history, and was somehow revealed in some other way to some other prophet or leader, why share that view publicly? Surely he knew that such a departure from even the most open traditional views would ruffle feathers.
  2. Even if Farber hoped that by sharing his belief, that he might help others who were struggling, why do it in such a public direct manner? There are others who have attempted to deal with the same conflicts who have come up with answers that are seen as controversial. Still, by sharing their views in more scholarly forums, they remain relatively unknown outside of those circles, and have thus, not been the subject of any articles, critiques or attacks in the non-scholarly Jewish world.
  3. Finally, if Farber felt the need to share these views openly and publicly had value-perhaps with the assumption that many needed help reconciling these two worlds- why use a tone that suggests that he is among the few who are brave enough to want the real answer? Even if there was value in sharing his views in a view that it would be readable to the non-scholar, taking such a tone virtually assured that he would ruffle feathers. Even when he subsequently backtracked somewhat, there were still comments he made suggesting that his initial take reflected his real views. Calling one's philosophical opponents “dinosaurs” does nothing to lead to calm and thoughtful discussion. While I can certainly imagine how painful the attacks against him must have felt, to some degree, they were self-inflicted.

I began this post with the Rambam, as I think he suggests a better way. For anyone who attempts to reconcile somewhat conflicting worlds, much foresight is needed. The intended audience, potential reaction (to both the author and his institution), manner of speaking, and chance of being understood and accepted by the intended audience, are among the lessons that such an author would be wise to consider.

Although I strongly disagree with the conclusions that Farber reached, as well as the manner in which he shared his views, I admire his willingness to deal with questions which are troubling to many within the Jewish world. It is my hope that future attempts will learn from Farber's mistakes, as well as from the reaction to him, to emulate the Rambam in proceeding with extreme sensitivity and care.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dirt and Ashes- Is there anything more?

This past Shabbos, I found myself thinking of the conversation that goes on between HaShem and Avraham, when HaShem is about to destroy Sedom. Although I read this story many times, I thought of something new, which might be worth exploring.

It is HaShem who initiates the conversation:

יז וַֽיהוָֹ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמֲכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה: יח וְאַ֨בְרָהָ֔ם הָי֧וֹ יִֽהְיֶ֛ה לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל וְעָצ֑וּם וְנִ֨בְרְכוּ־ב֔וֹ כֹּ֖ל גּוֹיֵ֥י הָאָֽרֶץ: יט כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַ֩עַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַֽחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָֹה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם
אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו

HaShem rhetorically asks whether he can hold back from Avraham that which he is about to do. After all, it is through Avraham that the whole world will be blessed. Additionally, Avraham is the one who will teach his family and descendants about righteousness and justice.

Immediately upon being told of the impending destruction, Avraham starts to argue, saying:

כג וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע: כד אוּלַ֥י יֵ֛שׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים צַדִּיקִ֖ם בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעִ֑יר הַאַ֤ף תִּסְפֶּה֙ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֣א לַמָּק֔וֹם לְמַ֛עַן חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים הַצַּדִּיקִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבָּֽהּ: כה חָלִ֨לָה לְּךָ֜ מֵֽעֲשׂ֣ת ׀ כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה לְהָמִ֤ית צַדִּיק֙ עִם־רָשָׁ֔ע וְהָיָ֥ה כַצַּדִּ֖יק כָּֽרָשָׁ֑ע חָלִ֣לָה לָּ֔ךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט֙ כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ לֹ֥א יַֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה מִשְׁפָּֽט:

Using the very same terms that HaShem used to describe Avraham, Avraham asks God how he can punish the righteous along with those who are evil. Surely the city should be saved if there enough righteous people within its borders. "Will The Judge of the whole earth not do justice!?!". At that point Avraham begins to negotiate, starting off with the possibility that there might be 50 righteous people in Sedom. Ultimately he gets God to agree to spare the city provided there are at least 10 righteous people in the city.

What struck me was the way Avraham describes himself:

כז וַיַּ֥עַן אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הִנֵּה־נָ֤א הוֹאַ֨לְתִּי֙ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֔י וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י עָפָ֥ר וָאֵֽפֶר

He says of himself "I am (but?) dirt and ashes".

I had several questions pop to mind when I thought of this phrase:

  1. If Avraham wants to say that he is insignificant, why you use these descriptors? Why not simply say "I am nothing"?
  2. How can Avraham describe himself in this manner when he is in the midst of talking to God? What greater proof is there of his significance and value?

It seems to me that dirt and ashes refer to two separate aspects of being human. Dirt (symbolically) refers to the substance from which he was created. He is a creature, and not just a creature, but one who is made up of inorganic material. In some ways, he shares certain qualities with inanimate objects. Ashes refers to that which will occur to him, and all life forms; death. Although he is not an inanimate object, he shares certain similarities with animals. Although he is alive, his end and the animal's end are similar (echoes of Koheles?).

Avraham is noting the paradox of man. On the one hand, we are finite, and similar in makeup to objects and in form to animals. On the other hand, we have significance in the eyes of the creator. There is a relationship that we enjoy with him, which is different from His connection to all other creatures. He cares about us not just as a species, but as individuals. God values our prayers, and asks us to imitate His ways, however imperfectly we may do so. Avraham anticipates the Psalmist's cry of "Mah enosh ki tizkerenu?".

Modern science and philosophy sometimes seem very reductionist. Materialists and Positivists suggest that we are nothing more than our chemical and physical makeup. Camus wondered, if this is true, why one should go on living. Although we can not prove it or quantify it, we have what religion calls a soul, which marks us as unique in the physical world. The very tools of the scientist and philosopher, mark us as unique. Is the importance and value we see in ourselves, nothing but a conceit? We are finite, and destined to die. At the same time, our Creator calls out to us, and asks us to be his partner in creating a just and righteous world. Dare we conceal ourselves from Him?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Remembering the Lives that they Lived

Over the past few years, I've spent time reexamining almost everything I thought I knew and believed, to see whether I could continue to hold onto those ideas. Today, on Yom HaShoah, I begin to reconsider my thoughts on the day of Yom HaShoah itself.

For reasons that I have not yet discovered, for many years I kept an emotional distance from the Holocaust. It was not, God forbid, that I did not care. I simply had a hard time processing it. As I became a member of the subgroup of Modern-Orthodoxy that sat just to the left of the yeshivish world, I had an excuse to ignore the day. With what seems like smugness in retrospect, I refused to observe a day of mourning during the month of Nissan, as if I so deeply felt the emotional joy of the month. I also had Rav Soloveitchik ZT”L to fall back on, as he said we did not have the right to create a new day of mourning. This too, gave me an excuse to not deal with that which I wished to avoid. In returning more to the center, I have, thankfully, run out of excuses, and can use the day for thought and reflection.

As I read through the articles, look at the pictures, blogs and op-eds, there is something that for the most part seems to be missing. While the horrors of camp life are shown, and the brutality of the victim's deaths and suffering are documented, the lives that the survivors and victims lived, are rarely shown or discussed. This is made more striking to me as various organizations try and suggest the lessons that should be learned from the Holocaust. Besides my general discomfort with someone suggesting the lessons that are to be drawn from the brutal murder of six million Jews (and millions of other victims), the victims lives are utilized for some purpose other than memory itself. I do not suggest that there are not lessons to be drawn. I am suggesting that the lives of the victims, and particularly their pre-Holocaust lives , and not merely their suffering and deaths, should be front and center on this day.

One reason that I think this is particularly important, is that it seems to be that much of pre-Holocaust Jewish existence has been whitewashed, romanticized or selectively remembered. Whether it is the claim that most Jews in Europe were religious, or happy with their poverty, or other selective or false memories, these claims cheat the victims out of their memory being of who they were, rather than who we might wish them to have been. Additionally, it goes beyond simply having a more accurate memory of Jews who were somewhat similar to us. For those of us who are Orthodox (for lack of a better word) it is good for us to realize and recognize that all the Jews died al kiddush HaShem, whether from Sarajevo or from Satmar, Pressburg or Paris; Bobovers and Bundists alike. I would like to think that on this day, we can see the humanity and holiness in each person, regardless of belief.

I would humbly suggest that for ourselves and for our children, both as parents and as teachers, that we focus on the lives, beliefs and stories of a few victims and/or survivors, and that we reach beyond our comfort zone to learn about and from the lives which they lived.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Amidah Lifnei HaMakom- how I ditched the daf, rediscovered tefillah, and remembered what relationships are really about

When I was in my twenties, I came up with the goal of “finishing” Shas by the time I was 40. Although I had a long way to go, I had finally reached the point where I could make a leining on my own, and I had discovered the joys of bekiyus. I am nearly 43 years old and I failed to reach my goal. Sure I made progress, completing a number of masechtos of gemara, with chavrusas and through Daf Yomi, but I reached my 40th birthday having gone through less than half of Shas.

Although it was too late to reach my arbitrary goal, I started doing Daf Yomi again, nearly two years ago. Despite the philosophical struggles with which I was dealing at the time, or maybe because of them, I kept up with the schedule on a nearly perfect basis, falling behind less than a handful of times. I enjoyed the learning, picked up a lot of ideas and insights, and started to imagine that I could attend the next Siyum HaShas, as a misayem, and not just a spectator, as I had been at the last one. Then, during my recent trip to Israel, I stopped doing the daf. Not a temporary break, and maybe not forever, but certainly for the foreseeable future. Although I was sorry to stop, I knew it had to be done.

For a long time, I've struggled with davening. Although part of the struggle was due to my difficulty keeping my mind from wandering, I sensed however, that that was a result of my lack of connecting with tefillah, rather than the reason for my struggles. I couldn't make sense of what tefillah was supposed to be about. It seemed silly and superficial to believe that davening was a way to “get stuff” from God, but I had a hard time getting past that. Besides, if that was the goal, I was either really bad at achieving it, or God just really didn't like me. I came across those who suggested other ideas, most commonly, that fefillah was a form of self-judgement. Although that made some sense to me, it just didn't click with me. Davening became a greater and greater burden in my life. I started learning during davening, not out of piety, but as an attempt to pass the time without thinking about my inability to connect to prayer. Nearly every morning, I completed the Daf during Shacharis. It wasn't that I thought this would help me daven better. Essentially, I was giving up. Then, with the help of some friends and some self-reflection, I realized I was approaching things the wrong way.

What is the goal of spending time with your spouse? What does your friend give you that makes it worthwhile to spend time with them? Intuitively, we recognize the shallow absurdity of these questions. Still, in my mind, I had been asking the same sort of question about God. What do I get for davening? What's in it for me?

The main part of each tefillah, the part we call the Shemoneh Esrei, is more properly called the Amidah, or even better yet, Amidah Lifnei HaMakom, standing before God (interestingly called The Place). Many of the ritual parts of the Amidah are to help us feel that it is just the two of us, me and God, me in God's presence, God, as a presence in my life. Included in this, is how we stand, our posture, bowing and so much more. The goal is to just be there in a Shir HaShirim-lovers sort of way. Not out of compunction, habit or law, but out of love. Sometimes of course that's difficult if not impossible. Sometimes we feel so angry, frustrated or sad, that we hardly want to talk. Surely we've experienced the same feelings in the midst of our most important relationships. We are still asked not to, and are hopefully unable to, negate the one we love, our spouse, and friend. Tefillah at that moment takes on a different tone, but still, we stand together, and communicate, however imperfectly.

I miss the constancy and companionship of doing the daf and I don't know whether I will ever finish Shas, but I do know that I have no desire to so at the expense of my davening. While learning Torah connects my intellect to God, it is through davening that I most closely feel His presence.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Individuality of Spiritual Heroism- A response to David Benkof's article

David Benkof has written a very powerful article on Times of Israel. In it, he discusses his experience as a gay man, and his attempt to live a celibate life. I, along with many others, are impressed by his candor, and willingness to share something so personal. His desire to live a religious life, and thus, be “koveish es yitzro”, is nothing short of heroic. This article will, no doubt, be part of the conversation about Orthodoxy and how it deals with homosexuality. That said, I am worried about how this article might be used.

Benkof is very open about his personal life, including his lack of celibacy before he became Orthodox. This alone means that he is not dealing with the same challenge as an Orthodox homosexual who has grown up as an observant Jew. While Benkof's is a great challenge, it can not be denied that it falls short of what is asked of a homosexual man who is not a Ba'al Teshuva. As such, while his story can serve as an inspiration to any Orthodox homosexual who seeks to live a fully observant life, indeed to any Orthodox Jew who seeks to live a fully observant life, it should be read, as the author wishes it to be read, as a personal account of dealing with a challenge, and not as a message of “If I can be successful, anyone can be successful”.

There is a greater concern, which follows upon my first point. I fear that this article will be used by those who suggest that homosexuals can be celibate as a way of criticizing and attacking those who are not. Even if Benkof was a FFB, and had been celibate his whole life, that would not mean that every homosexual man could pass that test, something with which I believe he would agree. If so, what is the message that could apply to any such man, and to all of us who struggle in the inherent battle to channel and/or overcome our Yetzer HaRa?

I would suggest that an aanswer, if not the answer, can be found in the “Michtav MiEliyahu” by by Rav Eliyahu Dessler ZT”L. In an incredibly psychologically profound essay, Rav Dessler discussed the limitations of free will. Although we like to think that we can choose to do anything we want, or refrain from doing so, he suggests our choices are more limited. There are certain sins with which each of us do not struggle. Although I struggle at times to control my anger, I have never been tempted to murder someone who was the object of my anger. Conversely, which I admire the saintliness of the Chofetz Chaim ZT”L, I do not believe that I could completely stop speaking Loshon HaRa at this point in my life. Rav Dessler terms the middle area between the areas that are out of our control, as the “Nekudas HaBechira”, the point at which we can choose to exercise free will. It varies for each person, and it varies throughout a person's life.

We all have spiritual challenges with which we struggle. My test is not your test, and yours is not mine. What might be easy for one person to overcome, takes tremendous heroic restraint for another person to overcome. While there are objective actions which are halachically forbidden, each of us deals with, and responds to those prohibitions with varying levels of success. For those of us who might feel that we have easier tests to overcome, it behooves us to not be smug and tell others with tougher tests how they must think and behave. Benkof, in writing a first person narrative, has avoided telling homosexual men how to to deal with their challenges. It behooves the rest of us to follow his lead.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Staff Meeting- How archeology helps shed light on peshat and drash in the Torah

Although there are some who see archaeology as a threat to Torah, there are many instances when it actually helps us better understand Torah. What follows is a shiur on מטה משה, the staff of Moshe. I will demonstrate that both the plain meaning of pesukim, as well as a number of midrashim are better understood through an insight I gained from studying and observing Egyptian archaeology.

The מטה משה first appears at the beginning of פרק ד' in שמות.

וַיַּעַן מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר וְהֵן לֹא־יַאֲמִינוּ לִי וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי כִּי יֹאמְרוּ לֹא־נִרְאָה אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָֹה:  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו יְהוָֹה מַזֶּה [מַה־זֶּה] בְיָדֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר מַטֶּה:  וַיֹּאמֶר הַשְׁלִיכֵהוּ אַרְצָה וַיַּשְׁלִכֵהוּ אַרְצָה וַיְהִי לְנָחָשׁ וַיָּנָס מֹשֶׁה מִפָּנָיו:  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה שְׁלַח יָדְךָ וֶאֱחֹז בִּזְנָבוֹ וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיַּחֲזֶק־בּוֹ וַיְהִי לְמַטֶּה בְּכַפּוֹ:  לְמַעַן יַאֲמִינוּ כִּי־נִרְאָה אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתָם אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב:

HaShem is trying to convince Moshe that he should return to Egypt to redeem Bnei Yisrael. When Moshe insists that they will not listen to him, HaShem gives him a sign that they will believe that He appeared to Moshe. The sign involves throwing the staff to the ground, it miraculously turning into a snake, and then, back into a staff. While this is certainly impressive, why would this be the sign? More importantly, why is this the specific sign used?

The staff plays a central role in the story from this point forward. When Moshe finally agrees to go, along with his brother, HaShem reminds him to take the staff with him to Egypt to perform the plagues.

:יז) וְאֶת־הַמַּטֶּה הַזֶּה תִּקַּח בְּיָדֶךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה־בּוֹ אֶת־הָאֹתֹת


The staff continues to play a role throughout the rest of the Torah including by the splitting of the sea, the war against Amalek, and the two stories when Moshe brings forth water from the rock.

If this is not perplexing enough, the staff is made even more mysterious in various midrashim.

In Pirkei Avos there are a list of things described as having been created at the last moments of the sixth day of creation

עֲשָׂרָהדְבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת, וְאֵלּו הֵן, פִּי הָאָרֶץ, וּפִי הַבְּאֵר, וּפִי הָאָתוֹן, וְהַקֶּשֶׁת, וְהַמָּן, וְהַמַּטֶּה, וְהַשָּׁמִיר, וְהַכְּתָב, וְהַמִּכְתָּב, וְהַלּוּחוֹת. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, אַף הַמַּזִּיקִין, וקְבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל משֶׁה, וְאֵילוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, אַף צְבָת בִצְבָת עֲשׂוּיָה:

Most of the list includes some pretty miraculous things; the mouth of Bilaam's talking donkey, the manna which Bnei Yisrael ate in the desert, the worm which cut the stones for the Beis HaMikdash. Also on the list is Moshe's staff. Whatever this midrash is teaching us, and it is clearly not meant to be taken literally, why would Moshe's staff be on this list? Could he not have found a normal staff on his own?

Furthermore, the staff is described as being made from the same material as the luchos, as having דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב written on it, and being extremely heavy. Clearly Chazal are suggesting that there is something unique about this staff.

How can this all be explained?

When one takes a look at images of Pharoh in Ancient Egypt, he is often seen to be carrying a staff. This staff symbolized his power. What's more striking is that often appearing on top of the staff is the head of a snake, an image which also appears on his headdress. I would like to suggest that the episodes and midrashim mentioned above, can be understood if we view Moshe's staff as symbolizing HaShem's rulership. In fact, Chazal seem to say as much

ואני נתתי לך. ר' לוי אמר המטה שנברא בין השמשות נמסר לאדם הראשון בג"ע ואדם מסרו לחנוך וחנוך לנח ונח לשם ושם מסרו [עמוד 230] לאברהם ואברהם ליצחק ויצחק ליעקב ויעקב הורידו למצרים ומסרו ליוסף בנו שנאמר ואני נתתי לך וגו'. וכשמת יוסף נשלל ביתו של יוסף ונתן בפלטרין של פרעה, והיה יתרו אחד מחרטומי מצרים וראה את המטה והאותות עליו וחמדו בלבו ולקחו והביאו ונטעהו בתוך גן של ביתו ואח"כ לא היה יכול ליקרב אליו, עד שבא משה לארץ מדין ונכנס בגן של יתרו וראה את המטה וקרא האותות שהיו עליו וישלח ידו ויקחהו, וירא יתרו ויאמר זה האיש אשר עתיד לגאול את ישראל ממצרים לפיכך נתן את צפורה בתו למשה, שנאמר ויואל משה לשבת וגו' (שמות ב' כ"א).

In a long midrashic explanation found in Bereishis Rabbah, Rebbe Levi suggests that this staff started off in the hands of Adam HaRishon, who passed it to Chanoch. It continued to be passed from Chanoch to Noach, Shem, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef and then, through the hands of Yisro to Moshe. This list is certainly reminiscent of the Mesorah of those who accepted God as the master of the universe. The midrash goes on to say that this staff was passed from king to king, and that it will be used by Moshiach as well. The clear implication, is that the kings, who represent God's Kingship, in a more limited form, and Moshiach, who will usher in an era of Divine rule are making use of this staff to show that they act through the power given to them by God. Furthermore the midrash makes clear that the same staff was used by Moshe and Aharon and was also referred to as the Staff of God.

ויקח משה את מטה האלהים . לפי שבו חקוק שם המפורש, לפיכך קראו מטה האלהים: בידו. אע"פ שהיה משקלו מ' סאה, מעשה נס היה בו, שהיה המטה נושא את עצמו ונראה כנישא בידו של משה:

Even more strikingly the midrash says that God's name was written on the staff and that it only appeared to be carried by Moshe and that it in fact, carried itself.

With his understanding, the various episodes from Torah where the staff plays a key role can be understood.

If Paroh is symbolically represented by a snake and staff, then a staff that turns into a snake and swallows up Paroh's staff is a strong indication that Moshe is more powerful than Paroh.

The Seforno suggests that of the ten plagues, only one is a punishment. HaShem tells Moshe to tell Paroh that if he does not send out His first born, then God will kill Paroh's first born. The implication is that there will be one punishment involving measure for measure. Why then, the other nine plagues? They come to teach Paroh and Bnei Yisrael about God, after Paroh says he has never heard of Him. Thus דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב . The first three plagues of blood, frogs and lice show God's mastery over the ground and water. The next three, a mixture of wild animals, pestilence and boils shows God's control over human and animal life. The last three, hail, locust and darkness (which negates the power of Ra, the Egyptian god of the Sun, one of their most powerful gods) shows that God even controls the atmosphere. Together, suggests Seforno, they indicate a total mastery of God over the whole world. What better words should be found on a staff that represents God's kingship?

There is a danger however. Ancient Egypt was a place of sorcery and many gods. Perhaps the Egyptians, as well as Bnei Yisrael would come to think the staff itself is Divine. Chazal highlight this concern viz a viz the Egyptians.

ט אמר רבי סימון משל לבעל הזמורה שהיה מהלך בחוץ והזמורה בידו, אמרו אלולי שהזמורה בידו לא היה מתכבד שמע המלך ואמר לו העבר הזמורה ממך וצא לחוץ וכל מי שאינו שואל בשלומך אני נוטל את ראשו כך אמרו המצריים לא היה יכול משה לעשות כלום אלא במטה, בו הכה היאור בו הביא כל המכות, כיון שבאו ישראל לתוך הים והמצריים עומדים מאחריהם אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה השלך את מטך שלא יאמרו אילולי המטה לא היה יכול לקרוע את הים שנאמר הרם את מטך.

Rebbi Simon suggests, by way of a parable that HaShem specifically had Moshe put down the staff at the sea, so the Egyptians would not think that it was the staff that was splitting the sea.

Later, when Bnei Yisrael battle Amalek (who represent the negation of God's presence in this world) Moshe goes up on a hill. The Torah tells us that when Moshe's hands were raised, Bnei Yisrael were victorious and when they went down, Amalek was victorious. Chazal ask the obvious question. Do Moshe's hands lead to victory or defeat? They respond by saying that his raised hands remind Bnei Yisrael of HaShem, but why should this be true? When we remember that Moshe is holding the staff, the answer becomes clear.

Finally, let us consider the two episodes of Moshe bringing forth water from a rock. In the first instance, he is told to bring the staff and hit the rock and bring forth water. He does so, and the miracle occurs. Later, in Bamidbar, virtually the same thing occurs, only this time there is a significant difference. Although Moshe is told to bring the staff with him, this time he is asked to speak to the rock. One must wonder, what purpose there is in his holding the staff while speaking to the rock. Additionally, when he proceeds to instead strike the rock, both he and Aharon are punished severely and banned from going into Israel. Why such a severe punishment for such a seemingly minor sin? Indeed, the mephorshim all struggle to figure out what sin he in fact committed. Furthermore, the passuk says

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן יַעַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָכֵן לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת־הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה אֶל ־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַתִּי לָהֶם:

In what way have Moshe and Aharon failed to be Mekadesh HaShem? In fact, why is Aharon part of the punishment at all?

Finally, in parshas Haazinu Hashem describes their punishment as

נא עַל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר מְעַלְתֶּ֜ם בִּ֗י בְּתוֹךְ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּמֵֽי־מְרִיבַ֥ת קָדֵ֖שׁ מִדְבַּר־צִ֑ן עַ֣ל אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־קִדַּשְׁתֶּם֙ אוֹתִ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: נב כִּ֥י מִנֶּ֖גֶד תִּרְאֶ֣ה אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְשָׁ֨מָּה֙ לֹ֣א תָב֔וֹא אֶל ־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
He says that Moshe and Aharon have committed Meilah against HaShem, a term used to describe someone who has made use of a holy object in the wrong manner. How does this apply here?

Based on our understanding of the Mateh as the symbolic representation of God's rulership, we can now answer all of these questions.

Moshe is told to bring the staff with him and not use it. This is in order to show Bnei Yisrael, who themselves had been immersed in an idolatrous culture for over two centuries, that the staff is not divine. By showing that water could be brought forth without it, Moshe would have shown them that there was nothing truly divine or magical about the staff. By making use of it, Moshe did the exact opposite. He reinforced the idea that the staff had power. He made use of a religious object in the wrong manner, and thus, is guilty of meilah. He has failed to be mikadesh HaShem in the truest sense of the term. While we are used to thinking of kodesh as meaning holy, it truly indicates being unique and distinct. By giving the impression that the staff has power, Moshe took away from God being seen as the sole power in the universe. We can now understand the sin that Moshe committed, but why couldn't he enter the land, and what about Aharon? I would suggest that the next passuk in Ha'azinu gives us the answer. Moshe and Aharon had been involved in all sorts of divine miracles starting with the makkos and up until this time. Many of them involved the staff. If Bnei Yisrael have been given the false belief that the staff has power, surely they could believe that Moshe and Aharon did as well (in fact, this eemed to lead to the sin of the golden calf). By having them die and not bring Bnei Yisrael into the land, it becomes clear that it is HaShem is the one who does so.

אֶל ־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

While there are challenges that have been raised by some archaeologists, this is just one example where we see how archaeology can shed light on the Torah. If God's seal is truth, we need not fear that any true knowledge can lead us anywhere else.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Farber Affair (part 1)- When Silence is Golden

It has been almost a year since Zev Farber published his online manifesto about Torah MiSinai. The reverberations from that essay continue to be felt and show no sign of quieting down. Although Farber was not the first one to raise questions about the challenges of reconciling TMS and current biblical scholarship, nor was he the first to suggest a less than traditional solution, for various reasons that need not concern us here, his essay was widely disseminated, and thus, read, critiqued and attacked. I have been giving a lot of thought to effect that the essay had, on Farber, Orthodoxy in general, Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy specifically, as well as to the other individuals who entered the fray. It is my contention that each player made a mistake in how they dealt with the article, including Farber himself. Over a serious of essays, I will discuss the errors that were made, and make suggestions on how they might have been avoided. To be sure, I do not do so in an attempt to play Monday-morning-quarterback. I do so in the hope that in the future all involved, or those who might become involved, whether in this specific issue or other similar ones, will learn from the mistakes, and learn how to proceed in a more successful manner. 

For no particular reason, I will begin with the oddest player in the controversy that followed the publication of Farber's essay; the American Charedi-lite position (I apologize for the title, but it seems to be the most accurate descriptor). By this phrase, I refer to Avi Shafran, Yaakov Menken and others who either wrote responses or published them on their websites. I say oddest player, as there are many good reasons why those from this world might have avoided entering the fray in the first place. Additionally, in many ways, for those who care to examine this episode carefully, the Charedi-lite world had the most to gain by remaining silent, and their participation harmed their position considerably. Few of their readers were aware of the major issues in modern biblical criticism, or I suspect, biblical criticism in general. By attacking Farber's essay, they brought his questions to their audience.

This might not have been such a bad thing had they had any reasonable responses to his essay. That might have included a way of reconciling the two somewhat contradictory worlds of Torah and biblical scholarship, or even showing why the questions were wrong. Of course they did neither of the two, while leaving the impression that they did so because they were unable to do so. To make matters worse, they gave the impression that questioning and struggling are not really legitimate, and thus, gave fodder to their opponents who suggest that they do not have the intellectual tools to deal with the challenges of modernity. Even worse, those within their ranks who think deeply, were given a reminder that their questions and struggles are illegitimate, something which our great tradition would certainly reject.

On my recent trip to Israel, I had the opportunity to visit various seforim stores, libraries and batei midrash. One of the things I saw astounded me. While the world of Gush Etzion, Bar-Ilan and their ilk are writing and publishing creative works on Tanach and Jewish thought, the charedi world, for the most part remains silent. I got the distinct impression that for those in the former group chiddush and creativity are not only allowed, but even encouraged, whereas for the latter, it is forbidden to say anything that has not been said. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons.

First, and most important, such an attitude is an insult to God and his Torah. If all that can be said has already been said, what does that say to the modern Jew who is seeking to understand what his tradition has to say to him in the 21st Century? If our Torah, is, as we believe, a Toras Chaim, it certainly should continue to speak to us today. Indeed, our chachamim have always been willing to deal creatively with new challeneges, whether from without or from within the Jewish world. Second of all, there are questions that Chazal obviously could not have dealt with, as discoveries in linguistics, archeology and other areas had not yet been discovered in their time. If we follow the charedi approach of only relying on earlier rabbis who were greater than ourselves, than are we not admitting that we have nothing to say on this and other pressing issues? I say this while recognizing the dangers and difficulties involved in plowing ahead without much assistance from those great thinkers who came before us, but in truth, what other choice do we have? Furthermore, although those like Rav Saadyah Gaon and Rambam did not, indeed could not, have answered our current questions, they did suggest the methodology which might be used. The fact that the charedi-lite world did not do so leads one to wonder whether this was due to a lack of knowledge or the fear to engage in this challenging endeavor.

All of this suggests that the best course for those from the charedi-lite world, silence would have been the preferred approach. That they did not do so, leaves me wondering what their real goal really is.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Loshon HaRa- Why is it so bad if it's true?

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoachai said, 'if I were alive at Mount Sinai I would request from God that he create man with two mouths, one for Torah and one for all his other needs.'

Later he changed his mind and said, 'The world can barely survive from all the lashon hara produced by man's one mouth, how much more so if he had two?'.”

A cousin recently complimented me. I replied with a self-effacing denial. When he accused me of speaking Loshon HaRa about myself, I replied that it might be Loshon HaRa, but it was certainly not Motzi Shem Ra (slander). Being that I have been trying to work on myself, as well as the fact that a few recent public examples of Loshon HaRa spoken about people whom I respect, caused me pain, I have been thinking about how to speak less Loshon Hara.

The question that is commonly asked is a good one. Why is it wrong to speak Loshon Hara, if what is said is true? I would like to offer three possible answers to that question.

Incomplete Picture

The gemara in the last perek of Pesachim (113b) tells the story of Tuvya and Zigud. Tuvya committed some sort of sin (the implication is that it was in the sexual realm) and Zigud testified to Rav Papa that he had witnesses the sin. Rav Papa promptly ordered that Zigud receive lashes. When Zigud protested, Rav Papa explained that by testifying as a lone witness (rather than as apart of a minimum of two witnesses as the Torah requires), Zigud accomplished nothing other than besmirching the name of Tuvya.

Both in the realm of testimony as well as the role of a judge, one person has no power in Jewish law (with few exceptions that do not disprove my point). The implication seems to be that no matter how much one person might think they know the whole story, it is impossible that they do. There is only one Solitary Judge in the world, and we as humans have no ability, nor any right to think we can serve as the sole judge, jury and executioner.

Painting an incomplete picture.

One might protest and claim that in this particular case, they do know the whole story. If so, why not share it?

I have made my share of mistakes and had moments which, if used to paint a picture of who I am, would make for a less than stunning image. Just as I recognize that those unfortunate and disappointing moments do not show the whole picture of who I am, even if I have seen someone commit a heinous act, it is, at best, part of who the person is, and not the entirety of who the person is. I have heard it said that this is one way to read the mishna in Avos which says “Havei Dan es KOL HaAdam L'Kaf Zechus”. While many translate that phrase as “Judge each person favorably”, it can be read as “Judge the entirety of a person favorably”. One action does not make for a bad person.

Harming yourself

If neither of the previous explanations help, there is a third approach which might. There is a well known statement of Chazal that speaking Loshon Hara harms three people; the one about whom it is spoke, the speaker and the one who receives it. While it is clear how speaking poorly of someone hurts that person, by how does speaking negatively about someone, or accepting that report cause harm? The answer is obvious, but (therefore?) worth internalizing. Being negative is corrosive. I have seen it in my own life. As I have imperfectly worked on being less negative and cynical, I have seen how I have changed. If for no other reason than because it hurts you, letting go of negativity, in the form of Loshon HaRa and otherwise, is a must.

May we merit to see the good in others, including ourselves.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Understanding our children's questions- Are we paying attention?

If our students or children have questions about Judaism, we are blessed. It means they are engaged and care about their religion. It's not enough to hear their questions. We need to understand what they are asking.

Much ink has been spilled writing about the four sons in the haggadah. I would like to focus on the question of the חכם, and see what we can learn from it as teachers and parents. (The idea is based on the Ramban Al HaTorah).

The most obvious point is that we contrast the רשע with the חכם, not with the צדיק. It is important to note that child is intelligent, which is not the same thing as being righteous. We confuse the two at our own peril. Understanding the one who is asking is very important if we wish to understand what is being asked.

The חכם asks "מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם" Although his intelligence can be seen from the complexity of his question, he is not asking you to explain what the terms עֵדֹתחֻקִּים מִּשְׁפָּטִים mean. The key word in the question is אֶתְכֶם. He is asking what these laws mean to you. This son observes his parents as שומרי תורה ומצות and he himself is observant as well. He wants to know if it's worth it. He sees some friends and family members growing in observance, while others seem to be casting off a life of Torah and mitzvot. He sees his parents sacricing some luxuries to observe a Torah lifestyle. He wants them to explain why they are willing to do this. What does this mean to you? Is your halachic lifestyle meaningful? Is it real or merely a sociolological phenomena? Do you learn Daf Yomi because learning speaks to you, or is it mostly about doing what others do?

I have written before about some of the weaknesses of the Charedi educational system. One of its strengths, perhaps its biggest strength, is the ability to give over the emotional geshmak of Judaism. Through stories, songs, plays and pictures, a child in a charedi school is given an attachment to his yiddishkeit which goes way beyond the intellect. For those for whom the system works, there is a buy-in during their youth that lasts a lifetime. Even for those who don't, they rarely seem indifferent to the yiddishkeit with which they have been raised. Better a child who is angry at her religion, than one who is indifferent to it.

By contrast, most of the Torah education in Modern Orthodox schools seems to focus on the intellect. Make no mistake. I am not advocating against the importance of skills, yediot and deeper understanding. I am suggesting that those alone are not enough to make it likely that our students and children will wish to continue our lifestyle. The
חכם already knows what the words עֵדֹת חֻקִּים מִּשְׁפָּטִים mean and can give an example of each. He wants to know why he should care. She wants to understand what these ancient laws have to say to her in a modern world that increasingly does not see the value in a religious lifestyle.

It is not enough for us to show our children that we are makpid to daven, be koveiah itim L'Torah, and carefully observe Shabbos. We need to show why. Not only with words, although it can not be denied that that has some importance as well. Our children our watching the quality of our davening. Is it real, or is lip service? They see us learn, but seek to understand whether the Torah we learn speaks to us. Do we mean it when we sayכי הם חיינו ואורך ימינו? Is our Shabbos merely one of dry and punctilious observance of halacha, or does it nourish our soul? Do we sing zemiros to be yotzeh, or do we seem to be transformed through the words and melody? Our children are wise. Wise enough to know the real thing when they see it, and wise enough to recognize someone going through the motions. Which one they see in our homes and classes is entirely up to us.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What's in a Name? (Part IV) - So, how was your trip?

From time to time, I will be writing about my reasons for choosing "Pesach Sheini" as the name for my blog. The more I have thought about the name, the more I have felt that it chose me and not the other way around. What follows is the second installation. To read the first three, click here,  here and here.

I can't sum up my trip to Israel. Too much I'm still trying to figure out. It would be too easy to fall back into listing the number of people I met and saw, places I visited, miles run, or some other quantifiable fact that would hide more than it would reveal. Instead, I will will share a few experiences, without too much analysis. I suspect there's a common thread here, but I'm too tired to figure it out.

How odd to begin a trip to Israel at the cemetery followed by nichum aveilim. Eric picked me up at the airport to be be Menchame avel by two friends whose father, Herb Smilowitz z”l passed away. On the way, we stopped at the cemetery where my father is buried. I have a hard time dealing with visits to the cemetery. Not sure what I'm supposed to do there. Think? Of course. I do that in spades. Do? Say? That's something else. We follow that up with nichum aveilim. Done well, nichum aveilim offers comfort to the aveilim. I've found that it also does more. I learned about some of Mr. Smilowitz's greatness, his humility, his achievements, why his children are the wonderful people they are. The world has lost a special man. I left feeling inspired having learned from him, and his children.

With the event for Team Just One Life, the charity team I direct, coming so early in the trip, it's almost easy to forget that this was a trip for work. I love the race, I love the people who I meet through the team, I love visiting the Just One Life center and hearing from the amazing women who run the organization. More than that though, I love when we hear from one of the mothers who have been helped through JOL. Somehow, we are wired to better understand one woman's story of hope, more than almost 14,000 babies born. She does not disappoint. I suspect I wasn't the only one to fight back tears. When she has to leave early to put her children to bed, there is not a person in the room who doesn't appreciate what we are running and raising money for.

After the pasta party, I needed to go to sleep. I was tired and drained and my bed was calling. The wonderful young man who was struggling with some serious questions meant more to me than rest. We spoke for hours. I had no doubt I had made the proper choice.

I'd forgotten just how different things were during the period I struggled. I hadn't thought about the fact that for the first time in years, I could walk into a seforim store without wanting to buy half the store. I realized it the morning after an overnight trip in Alon Shevut, where Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush) is located. Needing to prepare for the shiur that I would be delivering at Yesodei HaTorah later in my trip, I walked into the beis midrash at the shul where I was davening. As I saw the many seforim on the shelves, my heart skipped a beat. It was as if I was seeing a good friend who I had never expected to see again. Later, I visited Gush. I had once loved what it represented, then I stopped when I realized they were on the “wrong” team. Now I was back. The kol Torah, the Rashei yeshiva, the young men learning with such fervor. All of it nourishes me once again.

Archeology, midrash and peshat came together in the shiur I gave at Yesodei. What an honor to share Torah at such a wonderful institution. What a pleasure to teach a wonderful former student once again. The rashei yeshiva played a big role in my finding my answer to my questions. I am grateful for the opportunity to teach once again.

One night, I davened at the shul in the Central Bus Station in Yerushalayim. Every type of Jew was there. Not quite, but almost. Not being home, they all davened together rather than with a room filled with people who seem to be just like them.

Outside the bus station, there was a drummer. Young and strong, with dreadlocks and some backup music that is far from what I would ever listen to. I am, nonetheless, drawn to the scene. Young soldiers with crew-cuts, modestly dressed seminary girls, charedi men with the requisite accoutrements and various other people, gather round for a free concert, which is powerful, poignant and, somehow, redemptive.

There are great places to run in the US. Races like the Boston Marathon are, for most people, second to none. I have run on breathtaking trails. Why is it that I feel envious when my friends in Israel discuss where they run? Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side, and more beautiful and holy as well. A trail run with my brother and some soon to be friends, was worth the exhaustion that would come from having woken up after only three hours of sleep. As we ran through a scene of uncommon beauty, we talked when our lungs allowed us to, and ran silently when they did not. I met Chaim Wizman, a man who helped build the Bet Shemesh running scene. I hope he will forgive me for saying that he is a man of humility, warmth and Torah in the best sense of the term. I also met Yarden Frankl, whose writing has brought me to the verge of tears and heartbreak. A few minutes of running together shows the depth of the man who can write with such feeling and power. I savor the run knowing that, in many ways, it is a special experience that I am unlikely to get again, anytime soon.

I had almost given up on the idea of reconnecting with davening, thinking that it was collateral damage from my religious exploration. During this trip, through the help of some friends and some new thoughts of my own, I got it back. As I stood in the back of Rabbi David's shul in Bet Shemesh, I decided to give Kabbalos Shabbos a try. I had long ago given up on it for various reasons. Mostly, out of an arrogant and misguided attempt to show how serious I was about talmud Torah. As we sing sing a beautiful “Lecha Dodi” I look around the room. I see friends, strangers, young and old, living one of my dreams. Although I traded it for other ones, I still find myself thinking about what might have been. As if, had I stayed, I'd be who I have become, and be living and davening there. Emotions however, have a logic of their own. I am davening and feeling and feeling close to God in a way I'd thought I'd lost. Tears start to flow from a deep, deep place. Naturally, (or is it supernaturally?) we are up to the words “Emek HaBacha”.