How Do We Deal With Sin: An Analysis of A Strange Aggadeta

דתניא, רבי אילעאי אומר: אם רואה אדם שיצרו מתגבר עליו – ילך למקום שאין מכירין אותו, וילבש שחורים ויתעטף שחורים, ויעשה מה שלבו חפץ, ואל יחלל שם שמים בפרהסיא.

For R. Il’ai says, If one sees that his inclination is gaining sway over him, let him go away where he is not known; let him put on black clothes, don a black wrap and do what his heart desires rather than profane the name of Heaven openly.

-Moed Katan, 17a

It’s Elul, so a lot of people are talking about repentance; what is repentance, how to repent, what repentance means, etc etc. Which is all well and good, as repentance is probably one of the more important concepts in Judaism to be aware of and to practice in one’s own life. But let’s go a little bit deeper than that. For repentance can only be possible when there is sin. So let’s talk about sinning. We don’t often talk about sin. We talk about avoiding sin. We talk about why people sin. We talk about feeling sorry for sin. We don’t often talk about sinning itself, even though everyone sins, and sins more or less constantly. Some people do big sins, most people do small sins, but we all sin. That’s pretty much undeniable. 

So first of all, what is sin? My personal favorite article on the subject is by Francis Spufford, who happens to be my favorite religious thinker from outside the Jewish tradition, for his passionate, thoughtful, and occasionally profanity-laced version of religious existentialism. I highly recommend the first half of his book, “Unapologetic“, and its worth buying just for that, even if the second half he turns towards talking about Jesus which is of little utility for an Orthodox Jew (though maybe some Hasidim.) But anyway, in his book, in an excerpt that can be found here, he attempts to come up with an understanding of the concept of sin that actually resonates with people instead of the titillating connotation it has acquired in our society. What he hits upon is what he calls HPtTFU, an abbreviation for “The Human Propensity to (word that starts with F) Things Up”. In his words,

“It’s our active inclination to break stuff — “stuff” here including moods, promises, relationships we care about and our own wellbeing and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.”

 

Sin, thus defined, is our propensity to do things that are destructive, whether to ourselves or to others we care about, a group which would include families, friends, even deities. We do these things for a variety of reasons, expedience, greed, anger, lust, but the common denominator is that we don’t really want to do them. We want to be good friends, good family members, good Jews, and we identify ourselves accordingly. But we, to paraphrase Spufford’s phrasing,  eff things up for ourselves. We crack under pressure and do things that are wildly out of sync with the people we wish to be. 

Now, how do we deal with that? Much ink has been spilled on how to avoid sin. Much ink has been spilled about how to feel sorry about having sinned. But how does one sin? This is a question which is obviously difficult to address, as it may seem as a tacit excuse, even approval, for sin. But people sin, and they do so constantly. So what does one do if they have already lost the battle that raged in their soul against the parts of themselves that are incommensurate with the person they wish they were? What is there to do at that point? Repentance is not an option yet, for repentance cannot be possible while one is yet involved in the sin! How should one, in the moment in which they have yielded to temptation, understand what is happening to them? 

I believe that the strange aggadeta cited at the top of the page points the way towards an answer. R. Il’ai states that if someone knows that he is going to sin, he should wear black, go to a place where no one knows him, do what he needs to do, and not desecrate God’s name in public. Now, a surface, perhaps cynical reading of this aggadeta would be that R. Ilai is saying “If you’re gonna do something stupid, at the very least try not to do it in public”. But were that the case, why the dressing in black? Why the going to a different town? Just say, “do it in private not in public?” What’s the point of the extra stuff? 

It thus seems to me that there is a deep psychological insight into the human condition and the nature of sin being made by R. Il’ai here. Let us put ourselves in the minds of the sinner spoken of here. He has tried to resist temptation. He has tried to be the person he wants to be. He has sent the forces of his will out to battle against the forces of his inclination. And they have been roundly defeated, and they have beat a hasty retreat. The battle is over, and he has lost. 

But there is still a war, the war for his soul, and for his identity. He may justly conclude from the fact that he has sinned that he is a sinner, that there is no hope for him to become the person he wishes to become, that he is doomed to not just sin, but be a sinner. The battle outside the walls of the city has been lost, and the enemy now knocks at the gates, waiting to storm in and conquer. The end of the war is in sight. 

To have any hope in the long run, our sinner must use any means at his disposal to defend his sense of self, and not become a sinner, though he has sinned. He must defend the city wall with everything he’s got, with the last of his ammunition and anything that can be loaded into a cannon. He must fight tenaciously for every possible inch, because giving any more inches is a death sentence. 

How does he do this? R’ Il’ai gives us two ways that seem at odds but are accomplished with the same prescription. The first is to disassociate one’s identity from the act he is committing. R. Il’ai’s directions are not just for the purpose of hiding from the judgement of one’s peers, they are to strip the sinner of any identification with the self that is committing the sin. He is to dress head to toe in black. He is to go to another town where he is unknown, without an identity. He is to do his sin in private, so that he not become publicly identified with the sin he commits. He is to do all that he can to ensure that, though he may sin, he does not become a sinner, that the sin not become part of his identity. 

The second is to conserve one’s desired self by any means available. One could have said to the sinner in question that if you don’t care about whatever sin you’re committing, why should you care so much about Chillul Hashem, such that you dress up in black and go to a different town? What kind of hypocrisy is this, that he should care more about possibly causing a chillul hashem than the act he is committing? But R. Il’ai takes a different route. Not only should you not despair of keeping the rest of the mitzvot, but you should be just as concerned, perhaps even more concerned and extra punctilious in your observance of them. Even when you fall victim to temptation, you should be asking yourself “Ok, but how do I do this without causing a chillul hashem”, as jarring and hypocritical as that sounds. You need to grab every opportunity you can to reassert the fact that you are in fact a person who wants to be a good person and a good Jew. And you should remain a good Jew even as you  sin, even when you lose the battle against yourself, because that is the war you are fighting. 

R. Il’ai’s advice, essentially, is if you sin, (and you will, because you’re a human being), you need to do everything you can to avoid becoming a sinner. This is a problem that I feel a lot of Orthodox Jews have. As R. Yitzchak Hutner once wrote in a letter, we tend to see our great people as men without fault, sin, or struggle, and when we sin, struggle and have faults, as we’re bound to do in a religion with 613 different ways to do so, we view ourselves as incapable of greatness, as sinners, not people who sin. And that’s unhealthy. We need to be able to not just do good things, but know how to properly process and bounce back from the bad things we do. And I think this is an important thing to keep in mind for Elul and the Aseret Yemei Teshuva. The goal of our endeavors over this time period should not just be to klap al chet and feel bad for the bad stuff we did, but actively try to reaffirm ourselves as good Jews and good people. 

The Moral Price of A Justified War: A clarification of my position

Yesterday, I decided to post a facebook status, meaning it to be the last word on my thoughts on the current conflagaration in Israel. As evidenced by my writing of this blog post, it was not. But whatever. Man plans, God laughs. Anyway, here’s what I wrote:

I hereby completely give up on talking about what’s going in Israel, as I can’t stomach arguing against both sides. It’s clear to me that Israel’s actions in Gaza have justification, and that merely counting bodies to indicate who is in the moral high ground is not only inane, it plays right into the hands of Hamas PR, which is very clearly attempting to use its own civilian casualties as a pawn towards that end. Furthermore, there seems to be a vocal minority who believe the problem can only be solved by Israel ceasing to exist or else ceasing to attempt to protect its citizens, which is, at the very least, untenable, if not outright unfair. Such people seem to believe that all criticism of Israel is fair, there is no such thing as anti-semitism, and we would be better off if we were still persecuted in Europe, for at least there our body count would be sufficiently high to grant us the eternal moral high ground. Adopting such positions seems to me to be, in some respects, heretical, showing a lack of concern, even contempt, for the Jewish community. Whether you like it or not, the global Jewish community, with the exception of Satmar Chassidism, have pinned their hopes to a greater or lesser extent with the Zionist enterprise. Denying that enterprise legitimacy, seems to me to be tantamount to abandoning the Jewish people, particularly in a time of need. 
On the other hand, civilian deaths are not okay, and while I have no idea what Israel can or can’t do to prevent them, they should not be just waved away like David waves away the death of Uriah HaChiti, כָזֹה וְכָזֶה, תֹּאכַל הֶחָרֶב, and its something that should concern us, and something we should be asking questions about. Are we really so certain that every measure has been taken to prevent civilian deaths, or are we accepting that merely because we are told so? The answer may very well be that every measure has been taken; that does not preclude us from asking. Yes, we need to defend our homeland, but what kind of people do we wish to become in the process? We should be taking an honest look at our Israel’s policies and decisions, and questioning what type of country we want the first flowering of our redemption to become. Furthermore, the racism towards Arabs, the self-righteous triumphalism, the ignorance of geopolitical realities, and persecution complex shown by members of our community, despite the fact I find myself on their side, makes me extremely uncomfortable. We point to Palestinian rejection of two states, their preaching of violence and hatred of the other side, their ideological unwillingness to compromise, as proof of their unsuitability for negotiations, but how many of those criticisms can be lodged just as easily against our own community? Yes, there is anti-semitism, and yes, it sometimes is responsible for criticism of Israel, but no, its not responsible for every criticism, because Israel has its problems, that manifest itself in such things like the murder of an innocent Arab teenager. True, we have to defend ourselves, but we are not immune to mistakes and should not be closed off to criticism, and there is no way to defend what happened to Muhammad Abu Khdeir. This is true regardless of how much worse the other side is, or how imbalanced the criticism is. We should be moral because we should be moral, and act in a way that allows us to look in the mirror and like what we see, not out of some futile attempt to look good. 
I have compared the Jewish state to adulthood in the past, the independence and autonomy that come with newfound responsibilities and obligations, and we need to put our big boy pants on and be able to accept criticism, to take an honest accounting of our positives and negatives and morally refine ourselves without expectation of a shiny medal for our efforts. 
So I stand with Israel, I stand with my homeland and my people, and I will not budge in that regard. I just hope to God we deserve it.

The status hit a nerve, to say the least. On the plus side, it got a lot of likes and shares and wall posts and all the other nice things that I use as surrogates for self-esteem. On the negative side, I was condemned pretty harshly, including by a number of people I have a high level of respect for. I was accused of not supporting Israel, despite my explicit statements to the contrary. I was accused of aiding the enemy by implying that Israel might be at fault for something, and I was accused of being insensitive to the plight of Israeli citizens by focusing on moral reflection instead of unequivocal support. 

I’d first like to say that, before anything else, I don’t mean to offend people, and I don’t want people to be hurt by me. And I’d like to further say that, as I tried to highlight, my support for Israel, its right to defend itself, its right to exist, and the right to do what it is currently doing in Gaza remains steadfast and unwavering. And I’d like to additionally state that I do not necessarily have any specific criticisms of the IDF’s actions in Gaza. 

So, to clarify my position, I want to turn to a theoretical discussion of a halachic matter. This is all theoretical because, as you’ll see, R. Ovadia Yosef paskens against my understanding, which means its practically inoperable, but I think we can still gain much from a discussion of some of the conceptual underpinnings, and that theory would not invalidate practice or vice versa. At the very least, I will have given over a work of pure derash, the chosen medium of Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. 

The gemara in Brachos 32b states:

אמר רבי יוחנן: כל כהן שהרג את הנפש לא ישא את כפיו, שנאמר ידיכם דמים מלאו. 

R. Yochanan says, any kohen that kills someone, cannot lift his hands [to say birchas kohanim], as it says ” [And When you spread forth your hands I will hide my eyes from you, even when you pray I will not listen, for] Your hands are full of blood”

We have here a Gemara that states that a kohen who kills someone cannot say birchas kohanim. Well, at a very surface level, this may seem obvious. Why would you want a murderer to bless the people? But what if he’s not a murderer? What if it was an accident? What if he was defending himself? Does that count? What if he repented?  Probably not, if all we’re concerned about is an unsavory character blessing the people. But that’s not what we’re concerned about. In fact, the Rambam (Hilchot Tefilla 15-16), based on a Yerushalmi, goes and makes sure we know that’s not the reason:

 

כהן שלא היה לו דבר מכל אלו הדברים המונעין נשיאת כפים אף ע”פ שאינו חכם ואינו מדקדק ה במצות או שהיו הבריות מרננים אחריו או שלא היה משאו ומתנו בצדק הרי זה נושא את כפיו ואין מונעין אותו, לפי שזו מצות עשה על כל כהן וכהן שראוי לנשיאת כפים ואין אומרים לאדם רשע הוסף רשע והמנע מן המצות.
ואל תתמה ותאמר ומה תועיל ברכת הדיוט זה, שאין קבול הברכה תלוי בכהנים אלא בהקדוש ברוך הוא שנאמר ושמו את שמי על בני ישראל ואני אברכם, הכהנים עושים מצותן שנצטוו בה והקב”ה ברחמיו מברך את ישראל כחפצו.

 

A kohen… even if he is not wise and not strict regarding the performance of mitzvot, or the people gossip about him, or he behaves dishonestly in business transactions, he should still raise his hands… One should not tell an evil person  “Refrain from fulfilling mitzvot.”  Do not be puzzled and ask: how will the blessing of this common person help?  The blessing is not dependent upon the kohanim, but rather on Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu…  Kohanim should perform their mitzva as they are instructed, and Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu, in His mercy, will willingly bless Israel.

 

In other words, the moral quality of the kohen in question is not a determining factor in his suitability to say birchas kohanim. If so, what are the parameters of this law? Returning to the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 15:3)

 

כהן שהרג  את הנפש אע”פ שעשה תשובה לא ישא את כפיו שנאמר ידיכם דמים מלאו וכתיב…

…ובפרשכם כפיכם וגו

…A Kohen who kills someone, even if he does teshuva, cannot lift his hands, as it says “Your hands are full of blood” and says “When you spread your hands, et.al…

The Rambam holds that regardless of his moral culpability for this killing, regardless of whether he has the guilt of this murder on his record or not, he is still disqualified for the priestly blessing. Though he says nothing here about an accidental murder, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 128:35) does in fact rule that even an accidental murder would disqualify a kohen from reciting birchas kohanim. The Rema there differs only in regards to someone who repented, and only for the purpose of not closing a door in the face of the repentant. So we have a law here that murder, even accidental, even repented for, regardless of the moral culpability of the perpetrator, nevertheless disqualifies a Kohen from reciting birchas kohanim. What concept underlies this law? Rav Soloveitchik, in a footnote in Lonely Man of Faith (page 73 in my copy)  addresses this issue:

…The Talmud treats the problem of disqualification; whoever committed murder forfeits the prerogative and right to bless the people. In Halakhic terms, I would say the murder results in a “pesul gavra”, in the emergence of a personal inadequacy. Indeed, in Maimonides’ view, it is not the moral culpability for the sin of murder but the bare fact of being the agent and instrument of murder which causes this disqualification. Hence, the disqualification persists even after the murderer has repented…

 

In other words, the Kohen is not disqualified by virtue of having a moral flaw or having necessarily done something wrong, but merely by being an agent of this horrific act of murder. To understand this idea, I’d like to propose that killing, regardless of whether it is right or wrong or justified or unjustified, has an effect on one’s whole personality. To use a Harry Potter analogy, it rips one’s soul into shreds. Yoni Netanyahu, (The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu: The Commander of the Entebbe Rescue Force, 288), describes something of that sort:

To kill at such very close range isn’t like aiming a gun and pulling the trigger- that’s something I had already done when I was young. I’ve learned since how to kill at close range too- to the point of pressing the muzzle against flesh and pulling the trigger for a single bullet to be released and kill accurately, the body muffling the sound of the shot. It adds a whole dimension of sadness to a man’s being. Not a momentary, transient sadness, but something that sinks in and endures.

 

The Netziv, in a comment on the “brit shalom” given to Pinchas (Bamidbar 28:12) also notes the adverse affect even legitimate violence has upon the perpetrator, seeing the “brit shalom” given to Pinchas as a divine guarantee that the violence he committed would lead him to become a violent person. The danger of even the most legitimate violence is in fact a theme in the Netziv’s thought. (It is interesting to note that the Chizkuni sees the “brit shalom” as allowing Pinchas to recite birchas kohanim). From these sources, the Netziv’s theory, Yoni Netanyahu’s experience, and Harry Potter’s illustration it would appear that even the most justified and legitimate violence still has an effect on the perpetrator, desensitizing them to death and violence and reducing the natural recoil human beings have to the prospect of violence. And I would venture to say that this concept finds partial expression in the law that a Kohen cannot do birchas kohanim when he has been an agent of murder.

To be fair, both Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Ovadia Yosef did not practically pasken this way (though I have seen it quoted from one of Rav Shachter’s books that Rav Soloveitchik did), and thus, it does not have any practical application for that specific law. But I will say that this concept has value to keep in mind when we go to war. It is, to my mind, absolutely true that Israel’s actions are moral and justfied, certainly in its killing of terrorists, and, provided that it has exhausted all realistic and practical options to spare civilian lives, which I believe is the case, in its inadvertent killing of civilians as well. But just because something is morally defensible and justifiable, even absolutely necessary, does not mean that we are unaffected by it. When we kill, even when our reasons are good, we become desensitized to violence and death, and we take steps towards becoming violent people. If that is true even when we kill terrorists, that is all the more truer when we kill innocent civilians and children, when our natural horror at the concept of dead children takes a backseat to the political realities. This is not to say that we should stay at home and not fight, allow rockets to fall on our heads and terrorists to attack our borders, rather than risk our moral sensitivity. Such an approach would be foolhardy, even cruel, and I believe Gandhi’s suggestion that the Jews of Europe do just that during the Holocaust cements his place as one of the most overrated human beings of all time. But that desensitization is something to be aware of, and something to guard against, and our reaction to innocents dying, even when we are not morally culpable, should be tempered by a horror at the thought of violence, and the full knowledge that this is not a l’chatchila situation. 

My great-great uncle, R. Baruch Rabinowitz, in an essay entitled “Dor V’Dor”, attempts to compare the Biblical epoch with our modern era of Zionism and the state of Israel. His account of the biblical era concludes with what he calls “the tragedy of David”, that a great, righteous leader such as David, whose commitment to his nation was unparalleled, who risked his life in battle numerous times, could not build the Beis HaMikdash because, as Divrei HaYamim I 22:8 relates, he had fought too many battles, spilled too much blood, become too accustomed to violence for the Beis HaMikdash to be built by him. And he concludes his account of the modern era with this (my translation from the Hebrew):

With blood and fire the State of Israel has protected its existence, and a generation came that was educated in war, a generation that will soon be victorious. But, the world as it stands, instead of seeing the righteousness and justice, calls out on Israel as a conquering nation, a militaristic nation, a nation of murders.
And the tragedy of David returns. Am Yisrael, born for greatness and nobility, will not in this generation, that is like King David’s, become a light unto the nations, not in this generation will we turn our country into a model society. But there will come a generation, a generation similar to that of Shlomo, a generation that knows rest, a generation that does not need to lead wars, a generation that knows to put the power of wisdom before that of strength-that generation will establish the state as a model, a state in which there is knowledge of Torah, Ethic, Righteousness, and equality will serve as basis for all life of humanity, and then Mashiach Tzidkenu will come, a offspring of David our king, and from Zion shall come Torah, and the word of God from Yerushalayim.

In our imperfect and unredeemed world, we must fight for our existence, and we are necessarily tainted by the violence we have justly committed. But we must yearn and prepare for the day that we will be able to be have peace and be peaceful, that we will no longer need violence. My goal for myself is to try, to best of my ability, to ensure that the people who will emerge victorious from this war will be able to adjust back to peace. Which entails, to my mind, keeping people aware of the desensitizing nature of violence, trying to keep alive a small flame of compassion for when we need it. That is all I am trying to do. May we see the need for such a fire sooner rather than later. 

Regularly Scheduled Programming: Holiness, Idolatry, and Korbanot

I want to return back to our regularly scheduled programming, which is, expounding a system of Jewish philosophy based on our metaphor of a relationship between two lovers. I think we can use such an analogy to come up with a theory of holiness, and then, using that as a foundation, come up with a theory of the attitude towards idolatry in Judaism, including an explanation of that famous Rambam on korbanot.

So, let us begin by taking your average romantic relationship between two lovers. Their relationship is a loving and romantic one. But do they spend their time engaged in primarily romantic pursuits? Is every day completely subsumed by their stretching out luxuriously in bed, whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears, feeding strawberries to each other? No, because that’s not real life, and they have to go to their jobs and earn enough money to pay for those strawberries, and the bed, etc. etc. So their life is not spent continually in what we would call intrinsically romantic endeavors. But, they love each other, and that fact underlies their entire relationship, and more importantly, the way they view the world. Because of the fact they love each other, certain times are imbued with a romantic feeling, even though there is nothing necessarily intrinsically special about that time otherwise. For instance, a couple’s anniversary has no romantic significance to anyone else except for that couple, but to that couple, the fact that it is a date significant to their relationship imbues that date with romantic significance. Certain objects also become imbued with romantic significance. An engagement ring has no intrinsic romantic significance unless it is used as part of the romantic relationship between a couple; once it is so used, it becomes a romantic object. This extends to even the most seemingly insignificant of things; movies, songs, jokes, random one-liners, anything can attain romantic significance if it becomes part of a romantic relationship. And it is that ability to imbue romantic significance to anything which strengthens the relationship, that allows the two lovers to construct a reality around each other.

So, that’s how I understand holiness. We are not actively engaged in dialogue or union with God at all times, but our love for him and our relationship with him transforms the way we construct our reality even when we are not. It alters our perception of time as we commemorate times of the year that were significant in our relationship. We imbue certain objects, certain books, certain places, certain people with significance because of the role they have played in our relationship. The quality we bestow on these things, the recognition of something as imbued with significance by virtue of the role they have played in our relationship with God, is what we call holiness.

 

But there is a dark side to this quality. For before we entered into our relationship with God, we served idols. We loved others before we met him, were seduced by their specific charms. We knew these charms were illusory, that nothing compares to the one true God, that we have committed to a loving relationship with him, and we do not desire to return to our previous, obviously inferior loves. But yet, polytheism still had a power over us. Polytheism does not demand commitment to any one god, it does not demand that one act in accordance with one true moral law and obedience to the source of all goodness. It merely demands sacrifice and ritual to the numerous powers that control man’s destiny, who have little regard or fondness for humanity, and after that is offered, man is free to pursue his own pleasure and/or destruction. Whereas monotheism is a loving monogamous relationship between equals, polytheism is a series of one night stands with people who want nothing but to use someone for their own pleasure, and are willing to be used themselves to get it. Which is to say the former is obviously preferable, but the latter has its appeals. And with this comes its own set of imbued significance, memories of hedonism and license, the food we ate for free in Egypt, free of commitment, free of responsibility, free of difficulty. And there are times and things which recall those times, festivals and objects and places, all of which recall that sweet hedonism of despair, a sort of inverse of the idea of holiness we spoke of previously.

The Torah thus demands to rid the Jewish people of any such thing that carries such associations, like someone who was dumped trying to delete their former lover’s name and memory from their life. Break their idols, smash their mounds, burn their temples. Even things that may have been okay, even praiseworthy beforehand, like the mounds (matzevah) erected by the Avos, must now be destroyed, for they are now tainted with other, pernicious associations. Everything associated with these former dalliances must either be forcibly removed from consciousness, or else be forcefully distanced from.

But yet, not everything gets destroyed. (And here’s where the analogy kind of breaks down a little, but bear with me) The same power of a loving relationship to imbue anything with romantic significance can be of use here. It can take something which previously had associations dangerous to this relationship, and turn it into something positive. Such a process can even be helped by the already present emotional urgency in such negative associations, diverting such turbulent emotional waters towards a new, more positive goal. This is basically the Rambam on korbanot, who says in the Moreh Nevuchim that they were instituted to wean the Israelites off of idolatry. In other words, according to our thesis, the Israelites had a practice, korbanot, which to them, was strongly emotionally associated with the drive to paganism. By instituting korbanot, the Torah seeks to turn the practice, motivated by an emotional need to sacrifice an animal in a bloodthirsty frenzy to a bloodthirsty God who demands sacrifice, and incorporate it into a monotheistic worldview, keeping and incorporating the emotional drive but ultimately doing away with its conceptual foundations, so it receives a new understanding in light of this new, healthy, relationship.

The real thing I’m adding to the Rambam here is that I’m assuming that once incorporated, it receives a new interpretation. In this way, the questions asked on the Rambam, how a mitzvah could be contingent upon the existence of idolatry, can be dismissed. The initial reason is not the final reason, what matters more is how its incorporated into the framework of the existing relationship. This makes sense with the fact that the Rambam himself says in the Mishneh Torah not only that the korbanot will return when the beis hamikdash does, but that they are a mitzvah whose meaning is beyond human comprehension. He’s not saying he doesn’t know the reason they were instituted, because he does. He’s saying he does not know yet what significance they have within a religious system that no longer sees idolatry as a threat. But yet, they remain within the system, their meaning to be figured out in the messianic era when they will be reinstituted.

 

A Grown Up Zionism for Mature Adults

In all of this recent misfortune and horror, I’ve recently been thinking about what it means to be a Religious Zionist, to believe in the State of Israel as the “first flowering of redemption”, as we say in the Tefillah L’Shalom HaMedinah. What exactly does such a belief entail? What does it mean to have a Jewish state, and why do we have one? Why now? And what do we do with it? I’d like to put forth my own understanding of the issues, taking the form of an extended analogy, which you can take or leave, but one that I think can at least provide food for thought for those who give me the time of day. 

Imagine, for a minute, a child who is orphaned at a young age. He’s lost his parents and his home, and he is forced to go into foster care. But there are complications. Every home he goes to, he’s an outsider, someone who the parents had mercy on and allowed him a place to stay, but someone who does not fundamentally belong there. The other kids in those homes, they pick on him sometimes, sometimes they beat him up, and sometimes he’s forced to move to a different foster home, where the process repeats itself. Over this time, he grows and matures, and he begins to think about what kind of person he wants to be when he grows up, how we wants to act, how he wants to run his household, what kind of ideals he will value, how he’ll treat people in his house. His ideas are starkly different from the people around him, sometimes they make an positive impression, sometimes they laugh at him for his strange ideas, sometimes worse. Sometimes he borrows from his own surroundings, noting things he likes in some of the foster homes that take him in. Sometimes his ideas are a reaction to things and people he really doesn’t like. But, everything remains theoretical, as long as he’s still in the care of others.

Soon, however, he starts to consider that maybe it would be a good thing if he went out on his own, got his own place, and started putting all his ideas into practice. And he starts asking the board in charge of dealing with orphans, hey, maybe you can get me a new place, because I’m getting sick of this whole foster home thing, it isn’t working out. And they hem, and they haw, they send him a letter admitting that it’s a decent idea, but they don’t get around to doing anything about it, because there aren’t really any houses for sale right now. So they say, listen, it looks like your new foster home is really trying to be nice to you, why don’t you stick it out for a bit. Okay, says this kid, but he’s still scouting out houses. One day though, one of the other kids in the new foster home flips the hell out and beats our hero within an inch of his life.  The board in charge of orphans visits him in the hospital and says “Okay, this foster home thing isn’t working out. It’s very clear you need your own place. So, I got good news and bad news. We actually got you the house that your parents lived in, which still technically belongs to you. The bad news is, there is someone living in it now. So we split the house in two, and made two apartments. Here’s your key”

(So this is where the metaphor gets insufficient because of wars for control of a house doesn’t really make sense. But anyway.) So our kid, he’s got control of his part of a house that could be said to technically belong to him. Finally, he can put all his youthful ideas into practice. But there are issues. For one, didn’t he want a real, full house for himself, not a house he has partial control over? And isn’t it really his house, really? But he can’t just kick the other guy out, for two reasons. One, he can’t really break the laws of the town they live in. The dude did buy the house, at one point. For another, it would go against those youthful ideals, borne of being kicked out of every foster home he was in, and to kick someone else out of their home seems hypocritical.  But fact is, this guy isn’t so nice, because this guy also thinks he’s entitled to the whole house, so he occasionally goes in and vandalizes our hero’s apartment. So, y’know, it’s a bit of a difficult situation. They’ve tried to talk it out, but nothing’s worked. So does he throw out the very ideals that led him to wanting a house? A small part of him wants to, to abandon any responsibility to his ideals in the face of expedience, to ignore those who condemn him as hypocrites who never were all that concerned about him, but the vast majority of him simply refuses; what use is this house if the you throw out the reasons you wanted it? If something is wrong, does it become right simply because it was done to you? This is symptomatic of a larger problem: When his youthful ideals about what kind of person he wanted to be and what kind of house he wanted to have don’t seem possible for whatever reason; practically, morally, legally, what does he do? Does he throw them all out and just become the same kind of person as all the people that he railed against as a kid? Does he stubbornly stick to them regardless? 

Basically, our kid must now become an independent adult. He must figure out how to reconcile his youthful ideals with the real, dangerous and confusing world, to navigate between selling out and being an obstinate fool, and must be mindful of his own past without being bitter about it. He must take responsibility for his own actions, and deal with any potential consequences on his own. He’s got to buy his own groceries, lock his own doors, and make his own rules. He’s got to deal with other people now, often the very same people who tortured him in his youth, all grown up and very sorry, and know when to trust them and when to distrust them. He has to know when to compromise with others and when to not back down from others, and to differentiate between situations he needs other people’s help and situations where other people should mind their own business, knowing how to say the latter without alienating them, and ask for the former without ceding his independence and autonomy. He can no longer rely on someone else to make the rules for him, to deal with bullies for him, to make decisions for him. He’s on his own now. And in a lot of ways it’s terrifying and an almost impossibly daunting challenge. And he’s gonna mess up sometimes. And maybe he wasn’t even ready for it. But he didn’t have his ideas to have them stay theoretical forever. He believes that he can contribute something to society at large, that he can be a person who other people look at and say “let’s be like that guy!”, that he can help bring everyone to a better place. So he’s gonna try his best to figure it all out. 

Listen, not everything in the metaphor lines up perfectly, especially because many facts are in dispute among various parties, but hey, that’s how I understand it. And I don’t mean to propose any answers to any questions, merely to raise the questions. 

Thoughts on Another Tragedy

Yesterday, our worst fears were confirmed. The horrific death of an Arab boy, abducted, burned alive, and left it in the Jerusalem forest, was perpetrated by Jews, with six suspects hailing from Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, and Adam held in custody. I would like, if you don’t mind my French to call them bastards. Not just in the usual, perjorative sense. But based on a Rambam, Hilchos Matanot Aniyim, Perek 10, Halacha 2:

וכל מי שהוא אכזרי ואינו מרחם (ה)* יש לחוש ליחסו

Anyone who is cruel and non-merciful, we suspect his lineage

While the Rambam is talking about giving to the poor, I think I’m safe in assuming that “lighting an innocent teenager on fire” is not exactly merciful. Which leads me to doubt their lineage, and thus I am forced to assume that they are in fact, bastards. Or not really Jewish, as the Rambam goes on to say. I’d like to, but I can’t. I can’t say that our community bears no responsibility for this occurrence. Because we do. We’ve allowed racist, violent streams of Jewish thought a place at the table in our society. We tolerate people who preach that killing non-Jews is no sin, that Jews have “higher souls”, that Arabs are inhuman creatures solely out to destroy us. We don’t all subscribe to these beliefs, and a majority of us don’t. But we allow them a place at the table. You can find the works of Meir Kahane in most Jewish bookstores, even as only a minority would agree with his positions. We even sometimes allow ourselves to admire their resolve, their dedication to their country, to the Jewish people, all admirable traits, admittedly, but we allow ourselves to think their positives outweigh their negatives. That calling for the indiscriminate murder of innocents is excused by their other admirable traits. We have allowed such intellectual trends a place in our society. We should not be surprised that someone acted on it.

At this time, I think of one of the kinot of Tisha’a B’av, one I’ve always found to be incredibly interesting, Kinah 17. It starts off with a chop right to the jugular: “If women can eat their own children, woe is me”. Wow. But think about what that’s mourning. It’s not mourning what the Romans did to us, necessarily. It’s mourning what became of us, what became of our morality, our humanity, that we were sunk so low that women went ahead and overcame their natural, human desire to protect their children, and cooked and devoured them instead. The kinah jumps back and forth between things done by us, and things done to us, recounting people tied by their hair to speeding horses and children digging up their parents for food, all in the same vast, horrific tapestry of a people who are treated inhumanely acting inhuman. There are similar stories of the Holocaust. In a famous speech, Chaim Rumkowski, leader of the Lodz Ghetto, implored the Jews there to give up their children to meet the quota for deportations, pleading:

The ghetto has been struck a hard blow. They demand what is most dear to it – children and old people. I was not privileged to have a child of my own and therefore devoted my best years to children. I lived and breathed together with children. I never imagined that my own hands would be forced to make this sacrifice on the altar. In my old age I am forced to stretch out my hands and to beg: “Brothers and sisters, give
them to me! – Fathers and mothers, give me your children…” (Bitter weeping shakes the assembled public)… Yesterday, in the course of the day, I was given the order to send away more than 20,000 Jews from the ghetto, and if I did not – “we will do it ourselves.” The question arose: “Should we have accepted this and carried it out ourselves, or left it to others?” But as we were guided not by the thought: “how many will be lost?” but “how many can be saved?” we arrived at the conclusion – those closest to me at work, that is, and myself – that however difficult it was going to be, we must take upon ourselves the carrying out of this decree. I must carry out this difficult and bloody operation, I must cut off limbs in order to save the body! I must take away children, and if I do not, others too will be taken, God forbid…(terrible wailing).

In times of great stress and great trouble, humanity may be pushed aside by the need for survival, and people find themselves justifying the most horrific and inhuman things, based on their fear and their desire to survive at all costs. And that is worthy of mourning on Tisha’a B’av, that in our long exile, oppressed and persecuted at every turn, fighting for our survival, we have forgotten our humanity, our mercy, our kindness. That still today, with a state and an army and independence, we have yet to get that back, that there are people in our society so fearful and so terrorized by any threat they lose all sense of humanity in responding to it. That there are people who are willing to burn another human being alive, an innocent random teenager because they feel so threatened by Arabs, they abandon any natural sense of what is right and justifiable. I mourn the loss of life, an innocent life, taken senselessly. But I also mourn the loss of our soul, the loss of our Jewish moral compass, the loss of the kindness and compassion that is supposed to typify us, and I pray for the day that we find it once more.

Personal Reflections on a Tragedy

I heard the news from a friend, who just the night before voiced his fears that the kidnapped teenagers were dead. I was in the middle of asking him for clarification on a particularly difficult Tosfos, when suddenly our discussion was disrupted by his sudden pronouncement of a word not usually spoken in such contexts. It goes without saying I cannot repeat it here. I thought that perhaps my understanding of Tosfos has been that bad. But he continued
“I might have been right about the Israeli kids who got kidnapped”
I quickly took a look at my facebook news feed. And the news hit me in torrents; “Baruch Dayan Emet” abounded, some repeated with no other addition, people relying on a standard formula to convey their grief. Others were more anguished, pained, even angry. Calls were made for peace, for repentance, for prayer, for good deeds, while others for war, for justice, for the killing of guilty parties, at the very least.
I found myself wanting to add to this collective mourning, to convey my own emotional response to this tragedy. I started typing, then backspacing, typing again, backspacing again, retyping and backspacing again and again. What could I possibly write? What could I possibly say? I had nothing to say, the blank canvas of the status box seeming to be the best depictor of the empty horror I felt. But to say nothing is entirely different from saying “nothing”. How do I say “nothing”?
I found myself thinking of Sefer Shmuel Bet, 12:22-23. After David’s sin with Batsheva, Natan tells him that the child of this union would die, and indeed, it was struck with an illness, and despite David’s fasting and prayer, the child died. David’s advisers don’t want to tell him though, but David infers on his own that yes, the child is dead. Whereupon he gets up, and he eats, as if nothing happened. And his advisers don’t understand. His child just died, and he’s acting like he doesn’t care? So they ask David, what are you doing? You fasted for this child, you prayed for this child, and now that he’s dead, you’re just going on about your business? David’s response:

  וַיֹּאמֶר–בְּעוֹד הַיֶּלֶד חַי, צַמְתִּי וָאֶבְכֶּה:  כִּי אָמַרְתִּי מִי יוֹדֵעַ, יחנני (וְחַנַּנִי) יְהוָה וְחַי הַיָּלֶד.וְעַתָּה מֵת, לָמָּה זֶּה אֲנִי צָם–הַאוּכַל לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, עוֹד:  אֲנִי הֹלֵךְ אֵלָיו, וְהוּא לֹא-יָשׁוּב אֵלָי

He gives what seems to be at first to be a heartless and callous, though accurate, statement. I cried and fasted for him when he was still alive, now that he’s dead, what am I supposed to do? This sentiment is accurate but it is also completely not understandable. Is there not any sort of sadness for this child? That’s why the end of David’s statement is so interesting: “I will go to him, but he will not go to me”. David is talking about his own mortality here, fatalistically so. He’s already accepted death, he’s just waiting for his train to arrive at the station. He has accepted his child’s fate because he’s accepted his own, and he’s unwilling to put any more effort in. This inaction and unwillingness to put in effort becomes a key theme in the continuation of the David story, as he watches helplessly as his children rape and kill each other, and eventually is forced out without so much of a fight by Avshalom.
So, at first, we may be forgiven for thinking like David, looking at all the mass tefillos and mitzvot and everything done for those teenagers, looking at their effect, and thinking “why did we even bother?”, and then wondering “why do we even bother?” What point is all of this effort, if tragedy strikes nonetheless? Why even pray, if God doesn’t seem to take notice, why even do good deeds, if this is Torah and this is its reward? Better to just accept it as how life works on this earth, don’t try to think about whether God is good or not, don’t try to make sense of this world, and just wait till death eventually overtakes you. We may throw up our hands and say, “we did what we could, but, now that its happened, there’s nothing to do anymore”
This approach, like David’s reaction, makes logical sense, but it is also  a wrong one. Being Jewish entails belief in an all-powerful God who is good, who desires good for all his creations, who demands that we perfect the world in accordance to his will, who works through and guides nature and historical processes. That belief is not just something you sign off on, it is something that has implications for your life and for your identity and for the way you see the world. And throwing up your hands and saying “it’s out of my hands now” is being too much of a coward to accept the implications of your religion. It is saying God does things for no reason, capriciously ending people’s lives tragically so that observers can look on and not make conclusions, which is why the Rambam calls such a belief “cruelty.” It is possibly even saying that God isn’t powerful enough to stop such things from happening. But most of all, it is assuming that your belief in God has no bearing on how you interpret events, and makes no demands on your worldview, that being Jewish is just the yarmulke you wear and the chulent you eat and the shacharis you attend. It is an approach that seeks to place responsibility anywhere but yourself. I reject that, and I reject that vehemently.

But, let’s note something about David’s response: It’s very frum! What God does, he does for the best! Who am I to argue with God’s plan? If he killed my own child, it must be because it was the best thing! Though such a response begins from a noble and pious place, it too, is insufficient. All it does is again, abdicate one’s responsibility towards alleviating suffering in this world by explaining such suffering as really a good thing. I thus also reject any approach that seeks to minimize the very real suffering that goes on in this world, as if a crying child must be silenced for the theological problem they pose. Rav Soloveitchik, in Kol Dodi Dofek, says my point more elqoquently than I can hope to accomplish:

“Judaism, with its realistic approach to man and his place in the world, understood that evil cannot be blurred or camouflaged and that any attempt to downplay the extent of the contradiction and fragmentation to be found in reality will neither endow man with tranquility nor enable him to grasp the essential mystery”
So, what then, is the proper response to tragedy? I would say, responsibility. God demands that we react to evil, to eradicate suffering, to improve ourselves and the world. Thus, we must react towards tragedy with responsibility, using it as an opportunity to strengthen our resolve to carry out God’s will. Misfortune and suffering are thus things that we should be very much aware of, because our goal is a world in which those two no longer exist. Any existence of suffering, misfortune, injustice or immorality thus calls upon us to correct it. Note that this is not the same as knowing for sure why God did x or y or whatever; anyone who claims they know for sure is probably lying to you. That, however is not the point. Our religion is not concerned with figuring out why things happened; it is concerned with what do we do now that they did. As Rav Soloveitchik continues:
We do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty but, rather, about the path wherein man shall walk when suffering strikes. We ask neither about the cause of evil nor about its purpose but rather about how it might be mended and elevated. How shall a person act in a time of trouble? What ought a man to do so that he not perish in his afflictions? The Halakhic answer to this question is very simple. Afflictions come to elevate a person, to purify and sanctify his spirit, to cleanse and purge it of the dross of superficiality and vulgarity, to refine his soul and to broaden his horizons. In a word, the function of suffering is to mend that which is flawed in an individual’s personality. The Halakha teaches us that the sufferer commits a grave sin if he allows his troubles to go to waste and remain without meaning or purpose.
So, I can hear my “liberal base” already shouting at me. You’re one of the crazies! You’re one of those guys who would blame hurricanes on gays and women not being modest and people wearing crocs! You’re one of those irrational mystics! Well, partially. I suppose I am one of those irrational mystics who believes that when God does something, he does it for a reason. I am one of those irrational mystics who believes that when God does something, we ought to act upon it to improve ourselves and our community, and thus, I am one of those crazies who believes that it is valid to call for greater observance in some mitzvah as a response to tragedy. I do, however, differ with such people on a crucial point: It needs to be responsibility, not blame. It needs to something we do, not something they should do. There is a large difference between blaming a tragedy on others and blaming it on yourself. The latter leads to self-improvement. The former leads to nothing.
So, now that I’ve rejected the numerous different schools of theodicy that I disagree with, and outlined an approach that I agree with, one that prioritizes action and improvement of the world, have I come to terms with this death? Of course not. Because theodicy or no theodicy, action or no action, three innocent teenagers are now dead, and there is no bringing them back, and that is a terrible thing, and nothing makes that into a good thing, or even an okay thing. That needs to be the first step. Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak Shavuous 21) notes something very interesting about what we say when we hear tragic news: “Baruch Dayan Emet” If we really believed what we were saying, that we are blessing the true judge, then we would never say it! Every single tragic event wouldn’t really be a tragedy, it would be an action of the true judge! If evil and suffering did not really exist, we wouldn’t say a bracha on it! Rather, says Rav Hutner, in this unredeemed world, there is an impassable barrier between what we believe to be true and what we feel to be true. We know, we believe that God is one and all-powerful and that all is for the good, but we see evil and unfortunate things around us, and it is on that emotional reaction we are making the bracha. That emotion Rav Hutner speaks of, that unredeemed and unmitigated sense of horror and recoil at misfortune and evil, has validity enough to make a bracha on it, even if there is a acknowledgement on our parts that there is something we can do to redeem that evil. And that’s what brought me to Vayikra 10:3
 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.
Reacting to the news of the death of his two sons, to Moshe’s explanation of its cause, Aharon is silent. Not because he’s just accepted passively, not because he because he likes or doesn’t like Moshe’s explanation. Because right now, there is nothing to say. Later, there will be service to do, new laws to be learned out, action to be done. But right now, Aharon has nothing to say. Which is why I made that my facebook status. There is action to be done, sure. Death and suffering must be redeemed by man’s search for meaning. But right now, there is death, and there is suffering, and I have nothing.

A Religious Approach To Art and the Aesthetic

This weekend, I had the great honor of driving up with some friends to Detroit to visit my friend Boris, who had just had a son. It was pretty awesome, seeing him and his wife, seeing the new baby, etc etc. On the way back, I decided to do something I hadn’t done in a while, which is, listen to my mp3 player the whole time. Music used to be a much bigger part of my life than it is now, and for reasons I can’t entirely explain, my music taste kind of froze when I left my teenage years, and now music is just something I play when I’m doing something else, for the most part. I don’t know why or how this has happened, but it has. But the other day, for a moment, I was back in that mode of really appreciating good music, where I’m listening to a song and just end up repeating it for 5 times in a row because I’m just in awe of how great it is. And that day, that song was Voodoo Child (Slight Return) by Jimi Hendrix. It’s just Jimi Hendrix being awesome, his unbelievable technical skill paired with a real sense of soul behind it, taking a very basic blues song and pushing it farther than anyone had, will, or could possibly ever hope to push it. I found myself needing to play that song, over and over and over again, not because I hadn’t listened to and paid exclusive attention to every searing note played by that guitar, because I had. I listened to it over and over because, this may sound cheesy, there was something about that song that hit me right in my soul, not anything I could put into words necessarily, not something that expressed a particular emotion, like the guitar solo in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Scar Tissue that is the single most perfect expression of “loneliness” I’ve ever heard. No, it was something beyond that, it was a perfection that didn’t need to represent anything, didn’t need to be anything other than itself. What I was hearing was beauty, and that Hendrix song was, and is, friggin’ beautiful, and God put it here for it to be heard and admired by his creations, and that is pretty damn cool of him. And thus I found myself having A Religious Experience listening to Jimi Hendrix in some godforsaken corner of Ohio. 

So I’d like to write about where such an experience, one that finds divine beauty in the humanities and aesthetics, fits within a religious worldview. Classical Jewish sources actually tend to be mostly light on the subject, with a bunch of different kinds of art being halakhically problematic, music also frowned upon, and fiction not really existing so much. This is not to say its entirely negative, as we shall see, particularly with the advent of Chassidus, but there’s a very strong “misnaged” streak, as it were. But its important, to figure out how to make sense of art and the humanities as a religious person, especially considering the unprecedented importance they have in our culture, where people not only have incredible access to music, movies, books, art, and the like, but often use them as a crucial part of their identity, as fans of this band or this TV Show. Additionally, in terms of Modern Orthodox Judaism, much ink has been spilled about reconciling Judaism with Science and Knowledge, but your average Modern Orthodox person comes much more in contact with art and the humanities than the sciences. What often seems to define Modern Orthodoxy is not whether a person is a scientist, but whether they watch movies. So we need to formulate an approach that accounts for that reality, that can ascertain whether there is any validity or basis for appreciating the beauty of a Jimi Hendrix song or not. Is Jimi Hendrix even something I should be listening to instead of Yaakov Shwekey or the Yeshiva Boys Choir or whatever, even if I find both of those inferior and extraordinarily annoying? 

I’m going to start off with this picture my wife took of a picture in the art museum of Berlin:
Image

This is a self-portrait by Rembrandt, of Rembrandt (obviously). 
Now, despite what you may be led to believe by this post, I’m not really an art person, especially an Art capital A person. I appreciate the things I appreciate, I like the music I like, I like the books I like, and I don’t really have much appreciation for the Great Art of Western Civilization or whatever. Perhaps this is to my detriment, I can accept that. So, browsing through an art gallery of the Great Art of Western Civilization was not the most exciting thing in the world for me. But when I saw that they had Rembrandt, well, now I was excited. Because it’s not every day you get to see The Divine Light of Creation in person.
What’s this about Divine Light of Creation? 
Rav Kook, when he was stranded in England during WWI, apparently visited art museums in England, and took quite a liking to Rembrandt. He remarked to one A. Melnikoff:

I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one and of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty.”

So, that’s an interesting statement you don’t hear every day, isn’t it? The divine light of creation, which lights up the world from one end to another, too strong for our imperfect reality, hidden away for the Messianic Era, for the righteous, and a 17th century Dutch guy who could paint pretty pictures. What does Rav Kook mean here? So let’s unpack Rav Kook’s statement a bit. What are the qualities of this light? It is strong, obviously, too strong for our imperfect reality, where the wicked might abuse it. It exists before our reality and after it, but only rarely during it, when great people can tap into it. With such a light, you can see from one end of the world to the other.

At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets, to whom God said, “But as for thee, stand thou here by Me” (Deut. v. 31), and of whom it is written “the skin of his face shone,” etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 29). [Some perceive the prophetic flash at long intervals; this is the degree of most prophets.] By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. This is the case with those of whom we are informed, “They prophesied, and did not prophesy again” (Num. xi. 25). There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals; others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night; and to them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were “the flame of the rotating sword.” 

-Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, Introduction

The Rambam writes about our world being like the thick darkness of night, occasionally illuminated by brief flashes of light, which makes things as clear as day. A select few have a continuously recurring light leading to clear vision, some of have frequent flashes of light, and some can get only the occasional glimpse of light. That light, to the Rambam, is the light of prophecy, which is attained by people to varying degrees. People have the ability to grasp divine knowledge that reaches beyond their time, beyond their place, beyond their specific context, to catch a glimpse of the world as it looks illuminated from one end to the other, from creation to the messianic era. What I’m saying is, Rav Kook knew that Rambam, and knew exactly what he was saying when he talked about the divine light of creation; he was referencing a kind of quasi prophecy (without checking the sources quoted here, admittedly, it seems to back me up). Art is a quasi prophecy in that it can tap into timelessness, things whose beauty and humanity transcends the context they emerge from. Prophecy is being able to see the big picture of God’s plan in its complete form. Art is being able to bring back a taste of it. I’ve always liked to say that I’ll admit to Rashi having ruach hakodesh as long as Shakespeare has it too, as both had the unique ability to create something that contained enough of this vision of the world “from end to end” that they struck a nerve in the human condition that endured. With Shakespeare, I like to illustrate this with one of his greatest speeches, Shylock’s speech in A Merchant of Venice. 

He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

This is one of the most stirring speeches ever committed to the page, a challenge in the face of persecution and discrimination, put in terms of the essential unity and shared experiences of all humanity. It is uttered by a bad guy who is a completely unsympathetic character except for this speech. It’s like Shakespeare almost couldn’t help endowing his characters, even his villains, with the kind of essentially human traits that endure long past the time he lived in. 

This brings us to a Pachad Yitzchak I like. Rav Hutner is especially relevant here, because he seems to have had a much deeper appreciation for the humanities and the aesthetic than other Jewish thinkers. He enjoyed going to the opera, wrote poetry in his notebooks (including the text for the popular song “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh”), would occasionally demand a chauffeur stop a drive through the catskills so that he could write a poem based on the views he was getting, who hired full bands for the Purim and Channukah celebrations in his yeshiva. With that, It seems to me that his thought is more appreciative of the creative than other thinkers. But what I really want to get into is his thoughts on song, which I have mentioned previously he observes is primarily sung at the downfall of the wicked. In Pachad Yitzchak Pesach, Maamar 15, he attempts to explain why song is the appropriate response to the downfall of evil. He developes an idea that the power of speech is the connection between the natural soul (nefesh t’vii), involved in the regular function of the body, and the spiritual soul (nefesh ruchani), involved in thought, spirituality, imagination, etc. Ie, it is a physical action that is impossible without intellect, and vice versa. This tie is referred to with the word “peleh”, which appears as a synonym for speech in a number of places. He then relates this to the topic of song:

And one who understands this matter will better understand the concept that song is said upon the downfall of the evil. The regular understanding is that we sing when evil is defeated because we are happy that evil is defeated. Certainly this is correct. But there is further depth to this concept. Because just as there is this concept of “peleh” within a human being, there is also this concept by the ways the universe is run. Also in the ways of the universe there is an idea of a tie between the natural and the spiritual. The way of this world, of evil succeeding, is the natural way of things occurring. The way of the world to come, of evil getting its just desserts, is a spiritual (moral) way of things occurring. So when events occur and we see the downfall of the wicked in this world, that is a connection between the natural order and a higher, more moral order….And now we see the connection between the downfall of the wicked and the singing over it. Because what is song if not speech except the full development and glorification of the power hidden within it? So when evil is defeated in the world, and that connection between the natural order of things and a higher, more moral world is revealed, man also evolves the same aspect within himself. And the power of life contained in speech….girds glory, and song bursts forth. And then it is found that song said by man and the downfall of the wicked go hand in hand”

To Rav Hutner, then, song, and perhaps, by extension, art, is a symbol of the physical world trying to break free of its temporality and grasp transcendence. Which is, when you think about it, quite similar to what religion attempts to do. 

So, back to my Jimi Hendrix Religious Experience, which I only now realize is quite a good pun on his band name. Anyway, what are we to make of it as religious individuals? I would say that what I was experiencing, an appreciation of the sublime beauty of Hendrix’s guitar, was a flash of divine light, by whose illumination one can catch a small glimpse into a harmonious world of the future, where good has defeated evil, where the world is full of the knowledge of God, where Jimi Hendrix is still alive and Justin Bieber isn’t. This is our starting point. Now, we can start discussing which music really does have that element to it, which music does not, and whether any of the Jewish music today can really said to provide such sublime beauty (No.). But, I’ve written enough, and while this is a bit more cluttered than I like, I think there may be an interesting point to be gleaned here. This isn’t a finished product.

More Thoughts on the Halakhic Process that may or may not be Clarifying, Feminism, and a Pretty Crazy Chiddush I Have that you Shouldn’t Necessarily Trust Me On: The Musical

So, a review on my thoughts on the halakhic process, as introduction to headier topics. I may be repeating myself. I may not be. I don’t know. But it’s still a necessary introduction.
Is Judaism entirely determined by communal norms?
No, that would mean incorrect practices would always become okay, as long as enough people are fooled. If everyone would eat pork, would it become kosher? I’d venture to say probably not.  It would also make change difficult, and make arguing with the community impossible, and in fact invalidate any discussion at all about what the community is doing.

So, what other factors exist besides communal norms? I see two: Texts and Authority.

Texts are the anchor of Jewish religion. The most important thing to know about text is that it doesn’t answer questions. It’s raw material. It can be interpreted in a variety, but finite amount, of convincing ways. This is especially true when you consider that the texts of the Jewish religion, in particular the Talmud, contain a multitude of different ideas, streams of thought, and opinions, all of whom stem from the same authoritative source.
Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, text anchors communal practice. The communal practice is predicated on textual authority. In other words, we do what we do because that is what is written in the Gemara, Rishonim, and Acharonim, and those who don’t do that are in violation.
Other times, it serves as an anchor for change and/or difference in communal practice. People will go back to the sources and discover the communal practice is wrong, either because it’s not consonant with the text or not applicable to the reality, and therefore argue that the textual sources demand a change in communal practice. I have found, from my own studies, that most successful religious movements in Jewish history see themselves as a return to the the original sources, even as they change things tremendously. Most of the time, due to the multivalent nature of those original sources, they aren’t even necessarily wrong, just picking one or two texts that provide leverage for a new approach to the entire corpus. For instance, in modern times, Hilchos Niddah underwent a change in its predominant conceptualization from laws related to health and hygiene to laws to preserve and enliven family life. But, this was not a matter of there being no sources for the latter approach and the sources only containing the former. Rather, the latter approach takes a statement by Rabbi Meir that the separation engenders endearment between the couple, and uses that source as the foundation of its approach, seeing all other sources in that light.
But, for such change to actually take hold, they need to be listened to by the community, which is a tautology of sorts, but worth saying because its corollary is indeed counterintuitive: Any reading of the sources’s validity is not decided by its actual consonance with the original intent of the sources but by the community’s acceptance of the reading of those sources.
Sometimes, the reading of the sources themselves is compelling enough to be convincing of the whole community. The community does not necessarily consist of illiterate idiots, and it is able to critically evaluate whether a source indeed fits with the text.
Other times, the authority of the interpreter of the text plays a larger role in the acceptance of the interpretation of the text. Authority, by definition, means that people are willing to listen to you. So an authoritative person’s interpretation of the text has greater leeway, because of the community’s willingness to accept his interpretation and put it into practice. That authority, though, is predicated on that person’s knowledge of the text, and their ability to interpret it, meaning if they give an interpretation that is extremely unlikely, the community has the right to reject it. Furthermore, his authority is also based on his standing in the community, and his interpretations are sometimes limited by the communal norms, while other times he has to justify the community’s standards.
To complicate things even further, when that authority decides to sit down and write a book, he adds the decisions he made, affected by communal norms and other texts, to the textual corpus of Judaism.

Halakha thus has 3 components, which constantly interact with each other to produce Jewish Law.
1. Text
2. Authorities
3. Communal Practice.

Communal practice is established by text, as interpreted by authorities recognized by the community for their textual proficiency and fitting in with the community, whose interpretations are affected both by the text and communal standards, whose decisions than become part of the text that establishes communal practice. I hope that wording isn’t too confusing.

There can be multiple authorities that are accepted by multiple different communities, thus accounting for halakhic differences.

Are all interpretations of the text thus correct? Not necessarily. I can think of two ways that an interpretation can be wrong.
1. An interpretation can be rejected by all, perhaps even most members of a community, for whatever reason, and without communal acceptance it becomes invalid.
2. An interpretation can be accepted by a community, but be so rejected by other communities it makes it impossible for them to accept the other community, making it not accepted by the larger community of Orthodoxy. This is very tricky, and I’m not sure I have a good theory to account for this. I’m working on it.

At any rate, this serves as an introduction of sorts to my thoughts on Feminism.

Feminism, which we are here defining for our purposes the idea that men and women are equal and should be afforded equal opportunities, is something Orthodoxy has to come to terms with, because it is not going away, and it is reality.

So let’s be clear what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about “Yeshivish straw man” feminism, that women and men should be the same in every way, the “Oh, they’re going to demand to pee standing up” stuff. We’re not talking about the angrier radical feminists, the Jezebel commenters and Tumblr accounts. What are we talking about?

We are talking about the fact that women, comprising 51% of our population, have limited opportunities within our community. We’re talking about the fact that a woman of a similar temperament to myself, a thoughtful person, who finds themselves fascinated by Judaism and Jewish sources, who attains a good base of knowledge in the subject, who knows how to learn, knows her stuff, cannot attain a position of religious authority within the religious community without a fair bit of debate, getting called a heretic, and public calls for her to be “modest”. To make things worse, all of these attacks are based in Jewish sources, sources that say she cannot learn Torah, that her brain can’t handle it, that its better if she stayed at home and took care of the kids, that her wisdom is the spinning wheel, and though she recognizes that those sources need to be respected as authoritative, practically, she knows more Torah than most of her male peers, and she knows that those sources weren’t written by women because women weren’t given the chance to. The closest she can get to an uncontroversial position of religious authority is by marrying a man who has it, which is quite possibly infuriating to an independent person rightly proud of their own achievements. And we’re not counting having a PhD in Talmud or whatever, those are secular achievements in Jewish sources, not a recognition by the religion of religious achievement. But, if she would use her intelligence and resourcefulness in the secular world, in academia, in medicine, in business, there would be much less barriers to her success. Some do leave for a secular world which will value their achievements, and that’s a problem, one that I have seen happen to friends of mine, and that alone should spur us to action, that we’re pushing intelligent and morally sensitive people out of Orthodoxy.

But let’s deal for a second with the ones who stay, who try to live with the cognitive dissonance of being an accomplished woman in a community that devalues their accomplishments. Occasionally, they will hear of a halakhic argument that allows them to live with a little bit less of cognitive dissonance. They can maybe wear tzitzis! They can maybe wear tefillin! Maybe they can get an aliya! Maybe being a rabbi isn’t so problematic! Maybe even if they’re not rabbis, they can decide halakhic shailos under the official supervision of a rabbi! And then they hear the reaction from the Orthodox community: We can’t do that, because it might lead to feminism, it might strengthen the notion that men and women are equal and deserve equal opportunities and the right to be judged based on their actual achievements and not gender, and we can’t have that, because denying women that right is, for some reason, an ikkar emunah, that it is an absolute rule of our community that your achievements and your person can never be recognized because of your gender.  I’m not saying anything about the halakhic validity of those arguments, and I think that at least some of them do not pass muster. But let’s be less offensive and a little bit more knowledgeable about what we’re actually saying, and little bit more sensitive about what the way we say it. This is not to say that halakha should necessarily be dictated by such concerns; that’s a different discussion. But those concerns should absolutely dictate the way we discuss it, especially as long as women’s opinions are not part of the discussion, because they don’t have semicha and thus lack the religious authority to take part in these halakhic discussions. Let’s stop using “feminism” as a scare term, let’s stop thinking that every woman who advances a halakhic argument is trying to destroy the Judaism from within, and let’s stop thinking that Judaism has to deny women opportunities.

As may or may not be clear from what I have written so far, to my mind, the main issue presented by feminism is the lack of religious authority afforded to women. This issue presents itself on two fronts. Number one, and most obvious, woman’s religious accomplishments do not give her the same opportunities as a man, which is problematic. Why should two people who know the same amount of Torah, have the same personal piety, and have the same qualifications for the job be afforded different opportunities? (To say nothing of the fact that there are numerous women who are actually more qualified than the rabbis currently employed) Number two, and less obvious but more important, how can halakha discussion deny any idea of participation of 51% of the people it is binding upon? How can we make halakhic decisions, especially those that exclusively obligate women, without their input, especially considering they are now often educated enough to take part in those discussions? To me, this is the key issue, and the one that needs to be addressed before anything else is. Women need a seat at the table. Once we get them a seat, then we can discuss everything else, and the reality of women becoming more educated and more liberated becomes the reality that reacts with the halakhic texts. So how do we get them that seat? More importantly, can we get them that seat? Arguments have been advanced in favor of women rabbis, working on the assumption that the halakhic considerations against women rabbis, especially those of serarah, are largely inoperable in today’s environment. These arguments, putting aside the question of how valid they are, have been largely not accepted by the Orthodox community, a significant fact in the system I’ve been outlining. Other solutions include Yoatzot Halacha, women authorized to decide Hilchos Niddah under the aegis of a rabbi, which is a solution gaining acceptance in the community, but still has holdouts against it.

I’d like to suggest my own solution, based on a chiddush I have in the sugya of women’s hair covering, but not actually pertaining to the question of whether women should or should not cover their hair. IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: It is probably insane. It likely has holes in it. Nobody is likely to listen to it, and I don’t mean to pasken anything for anyone. It is purely a theoretical exercise I found interesting. I’m not a rabbi, I’m just in semicha, and if you would not ask a guy in medical school to perform open heart surgery on you, you shouldn’t listen to me. Nevertheless, I present in the name of practice, getting feedback, public interest, and maybe getting people to think outside the box.

One of the main foundations of the idea that a woman needs to cover her hair is a Mishna in Ketubot (7:6):

[*] ואלו יוצאות שלא בכתובה העוברת על דת משה ויהודית ואיזו היא דת משה מאכילתו שאינו מעושר ומשמשתו נדה ולא קוצה לה חלה ונודרת ואינה מקיימת ואיזוהי דת יהודית יוצאה וראשה פרוע וטווה בשוק ומדברת עם כל אדם אבא שאול אומר אף המקללת יולדיו בפניו רבי טרפון אומר אף הקולנית ואיזו היא קולנית לכשהיא מדברת בתוך ביתה ושכניה שומעין קולה

 

A woman can lose her ketubah for violating two different things: “Dat Moshe”, which, includes, according to the Mishnah, giving her husband food that is not tithed, having sex with her husband while a niddah, not setting aside Challah, and vowing but not fulfilling her vow; And “Dat Yehudit”, which includes, going outside with her hair uncovered, spinning in the street, and speaking to everyone, and then Abba Shaul says cursing her husband’s parents, and Rabbi Tarfon says a “screamer”, woman whose voice could be heard by the neighbors (though the gemara will go on to give differing opinions as to what “screamer” means)

So, what interests me here is what exactly is Dat Yehudit, and how exactly does it differ from Dat Moshe? There seems to be a prominent conception that Dat Moshe is Halachos D’Orayta, and Dat Yehudit is Hilchos D’Rabanan, perhaps ones exclusively related to tzniut. This approach appears to be based on the gemara’s wording in its interrogation of the mishnah, asking how hair covering is Dat Yehudit when it seems to be a D’Orayta:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף עב עמוד א

ואיזוהי דת יהודית? יוצאה וראשה פרוע. ראשה פרוע דאורייתא היא! דכתיב: הופרע את ראש האשה, ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל: אזהרה לבנות ישראל שלא יצאו בפרוע ראש!דאורייתא -קלתה שפיר דמי, דת יהודית – אפילו קלתה נמי אסור.

Despite this, I will contend that the difference between Dat Moshe and Dat Yehudit is not a difference between D’Orayta, mitzvos commanded from the torah, and D’Rabanan, which we’re defining, for our purposes as decrees made by Chazal whose authority stems from them and not the Torah. Furthermore, I maintain that at the very least, there is a large amount of rishonim who also did not think of the difference between the two categories as such. Instead, we are dealing with two entirely different realms of Jewish Law and Religion. Dat Moshe is our system of halacha encompassing both Hilchos D’Orayta and D’Rabanan. Dat Yehudit is a different system entirely, comprised mostly of communal norms about What Jewish Girls Do, specifically how they act and dress.

The basis of my claim is that the word that the rishonim seem to prefer to describe Dat Yehudit is not “gezeirah”, or “divrei chachamim” or any other term that would imply that these are halachot D’rabanan. Instead, they prefer to use the term “minhag,” which would seem to indicate that this a system of communal norms, not of decrees made by Chaza”l. First, Rashi:

רש”י מסכת כתובות דף עב עמוד א

דת יהודית – שנהגו בנות ישראל ואע”ג דלא כתיבא

The Shitta Mekubetzet brings down an earlier version of Rashi that further underlines this point.

מתני’ דת יהודית. דברים שאינם אסורין מן התורה אלא מנהג בנות ישראל הם לצניעותא בעלמא והיא עוברת על דת המנהג.

Again, he does not say they are gezeirot d’rabanan, rather, they are the customs of Tzniut of Jewish Girls, What Jewish Girls Do, even though they are not written. Someone who violates those laws violates “dat haminhag”, not the words of the chachamim or the like. Though it is true that the counterexample to the laws of Dat Yehudit are “assurin min hatorah”, the fact that they themselves are not given any kind of description that would seem to indicate they belong under the rubric of Issurei D’Rabanan is significant. It also is important that this holds true for most of the rishonim I have seen thus far, who use the term “minhag” rather than anything that would imply that these are hilchos d’rabanan. I have yet to find anyone who explicitly refers to Dat Yehudit as d’rabanan, and while I’m loathe to use arguments from unanimity, because there’s always one guy you haven’t found yet, the fact that this appears to hold true for a vast majority of rishonim is significant.

The Piskei Ri’az adds an important point:

פסקי ריא”ז מסכת כתובות פרק ז – המדיר

או העוברת על דת יהודית שהוא מנהג צניעות שנהגו בנות ישראל בעצמם

Like Rashi, the Piskei Ri’az views Dat Yehudit as primarily minhag-based, but makes a crucial, one-word addition. It is the minhag accepted by B’not Yisrael on themselves. It is not decreed by an external authority, it is simply the accustomed ways and standards of modesty of Jewish Girls, ie, What Jewish Girls Do.

The Meiri splits between Dat Yehudit and Dat Moshe in a way that may shed light on Rashi.

בית הבחירה למאירי מסכת כתובות דף עב עמוד א

אמר המאירי אלו יוצאות שלא בכתבה העוברת על דת משה ויהודית כלומר לא סוף דבר בזינתה תחת בעלה שאיבדה כתבתה אלא אף העוברת על דת משה ויהודית ודת משה נאמר על מצות הכתובות בתורה או הרמוזות בה ודת יהודית הוא נאמר על מנהגים הנהוגים באומה מצד צניעות להיות בנות ישראל יתירות במדת צניעות על כל שאר נשים

The Meiri’s split between Dat Moshe and Dat Yehudit has Dat Moshe comprising all that is written in the Torah and all that is hinted to in it, and Dat Yehudit comprising customs of modesty that the nation is accustomed to. It’s noteworthy that the Meiri sees Dat Moshe as comprising Torah SheBichtav plus, which indicates its not pure d’oraytas. It is possible that included within “hinted to in it” contains Hilchos D’Rabanan as well, and that may be what Rashi means by “assur from the torah”. I’m not entirely confident on this point, and if anyone can point me towards the Meiri’s thoughts on the matter of the relationship between the two, but it makes some kind of sense, especially within Rashi. At any rate, we see that the Meiri also does not call Dat Yehudit anything that would imply they are hilchos d’rabanan, and also prefers the term “minhagim” to describe it. Very interesting is his notion of what Dat Yehudit accomplishes, which is making sure that Jewish Girls are more modest than all the other women out there. This seems to convey that Dat Yehudit also has an element of a sociological marker, to serve as an identifier of Jews as opposed to non-Jews.

So far, we can say a few things about Dat Yehudit
1. It is a system of minhag, not issurei d’rabanan
2. It is the communal norms accepted upon themselves by Jewish Girls
3. It serves as a sociological marker of Jewish Identity.

I think all of these three things are present in the Rambam, (Hilchos Ishus 24:11-12)
First, his explanation of what comprises Dat Moshe:

ואלו הן הדברים שאם עשת אחד מהן עברה על דת משה: יוצאה בשוק ושער ראשה גלוי, או שנודרת או נשבעת ד ואינה מקיימת, או ששמשה מטתה והיא נדה, או שאינה קוצה להחלה, או שהאכילה את בעלה דברים אסורים ואין צריך לומר שקצים ורמשים ונבלות אלא דברים שאינן מעושרין. והיאך יודע דבר זה כגון שאמרה לו פירות אלו פלוני כהן תקנם ליועיסה זו פלוני הפריש לי חלתה ופלוני החכם טיהר לי את הכתם ואחר שאכל או בא עליה שאל אותו פלוני ואמר לא היו דברים מעולם, וכן אם הוחזקה נדה בשכנותיה ואמרה לבעלה טהורה אני ובא עליה.

A number of things to note:
The Rambam’s explanation of Dat Moshe seems to be adding in scenarios that specifically are hilchos d’rabanan. First of all, from the fact he makes a kal v’chomer with maaser as the kal indicates that it is in fact kal, which seems to point to him talking about maaser b’zman hazeh, which is d’rabanan. Secondly, in giving an example of how a wife would fool her husband about hilchos niddah, he uses the example of “x told me this ketem was tahor”, and ketamim are d’rabanan. The Rambam seems to go out of his way to express that Dat Moshe includes both D’Orayta and D’Rabanan halachos.
Additionally, he adds in “walking out with hair uncovered” to the list of laws in the category of Dat Moshe, in accordance with the conclusion of the gemara.
Now, his explanation of Dat Yehudit:

ואיזו היא דת יהודית, הוא מנהג הצניעות שנהגו בנות ישראל, ואלו הן הדברים שאם עשת אחד מהן עברה על דת יהודית: יוצאה לשוק או למבוי ה מפולש וראשה פרוע ואין עליה ורדיד ככל הנשים, אע”פ ששערה מכוסה במטפחת, או שהיתה טווה בשוק וורד וכיוצא בו כנגד פניה על פדחתה או על לחיה כדרך שעושות הגויות הפרוצות, או שטווה בשוק ומראה זרועותיה לבני אדם, או שהיתה משחקת עם הבחורים, או שהיתה תובעת התשמיש מבעלה בקול רם עד ששכנותיה שומעות אותה מדברת על עסקי תשמיש, או שהיתה מקללת אבי בעלה בפני בעלה.

Important Notes:
1. His explanation of the difference between the Dat Moshe law of walking out with your hair uncovered and the Dat Yehudit law of walking out without the right kind of hat is contained in the words ככל הנשים, ie, one is a matter of halakha, and one is a matter of communal standards of tzniut.
2. He stresses that the things forbidden by Dat Yehudit are the things that are  כדרך שעושות הגויות הפרוצות, lending credence to the notion these are partially markers of Jewish identity.
3. He refers to them as minhagim, and not as any of the terms the Rambam uses to describe halachos d’rabanan, which is very, very significant considering how carefully the Rambam uses such words.

Taking all this together, along with the fact that I have been largely unable to find any rishonim who refer to Dat Yehudit as hilchos d’rabanan (though, again, I am hesitant to offer arguments from unanimity, because there’s always one guy you overlook), I think we can reasonably state that Dat Yehudit, instead of being a term to describe Hilchos D’Rabanan, or even a certain section of hilchos d’rabanan, is a term to describe the general standards of the Jewish community when it comes to women’s actions, and particularly dress. These standards are not halachic, but they are binding. What we therefore have is a binding system of the Jewish religion, pertaining exclusively to women, which is based primarily on communal norms.

Now, taking my introduction about the different components of halakha into account, what Dat Yehudit is a system that is like halacha, minus, for the most part, texts and authorities. There are Things That Jewish Girls Do, and Ways That Jewish Girls Dress, that have no texts to be based on, and, consequently, no authorities to become experts in those texts and interpret those texts. But what we do have is a system within Jewish religion which is completely determined by women, and what the community of religious women accepts on themselves. And if we want to have female religious leaders within Judaism, one way to do that is to formalize this system, having some women be considered, by glint of their personal piety and wide respect, experts in What Jewish Girls Do, and have them write texts detailing the requirements, shaped by and shaping the communal norms of present-day Orthodoxy. As it is, I already think women should be writing and teaching tzniut to other women, as having a man get up in front of a class of women and say “here’s what people like me find sexually appealing, make sure you don’t do that” is bad on so many levels.

But allow me to be a little crazy.(WARNING: ENTERING HALAKHIC SCIENCE FICTION ZONE) Such women would have their own title to indicate their religious achievements in the area of Jewish religion uniquely their own. Perhaps their expertise in that area would give them authority in matters not formally covered by Dat Yehudit, and they’d find themselves gradually getting more questions on other areas of halakha they do actually have the expertise to pasken in. As for the texts themselves, the requirements recorded in the texts written by such women need not be predicated on worrying about male sexual impropriety, but could be predicated purely on Jewish identification, an idea which has pretty much happened with hair covering anyway. Even if they are, at any rate, time would pass, contexts would change, and the requirements recorded in these texts written by these women would gain unquestionable status, and the reasons given for why Jewish Girls wear say, three-quarter sleeves, I dunno, would shift by themselves, and the requirements would continually attain new meanings, growing further and further from their original intent and context. What would emerge is a legitimate system of Jewish law which is wholly determined by women, comprised of texts by women, and with women authorities.

I realize talking about such controversial things is dangerous, both because I could be called a heretic or a sexist, but, again, the purpose of this blog is to think out loud, and I am probably very wrong about many things. I’m trying. So, um, I hope I’m not a heretic. Or a sexist…..I was young and stupid!

This post is indebted to Joshua Skootsky, who helped me flesh out my thoughts and called me out on BS.

How to Relate to Someone Who Is No Longer Religious

So yesterday, my blog got posted by Rabbi Pesach Sommer, and I got a lot of comments on my last post, specifically my defense of mysticsm, and I do want to respond to that eventually, but right now, I’m more concerned with a more important issue. 

Bram Glazer, a person I worked with at Camp Stone but barely knew otherwise, committed suicide a couple of days ago. The news has hit the  YU and Modern Orthodox communities pretty hard, as the death of a young man should. Part of what has shook me about the news is an article Bram wrote a couple of years ago, describing how he stopped wearing a kippah and the flack he encountered within YU for his decision. I lack the arrogance to make any kind of causal relationship between the article and his death, but it couldn’t have helped, and he raised some very valid concerns about the way our community deals with people who are no longer religious. Here is what I wrote on the memorial page on facebook:

I barely knew Bram. We worked together in Camp Stone, I knew who he was, and I believe he actually may have rejected a facebook friend request. So I don’t know how much right I have to speak right now.

But I find myself reading and rereading and rereading again the article he wrote, linked to here before, about not wearing a kippah in YU, and the flack he got for it. I’m not going to judge the validity of his argument, nor do I have the arrogance to ascribe a young man’s death to any one factor. But I can’t help but see someone who described himself as a “malcontent” who did not feel welcome within the YU community, who felt he had no place here, whose criticisms of our community were treated with harshness and coldness. All this despite the very real things a person like Bram, a person who, I’m reading, was genuine and kind and funny and who I honestly regret not knowing that well. I have no idea what relationship that feeling had with his state of mind, and again, I don’t have the arrogance to make any such claims. But it couldn’t have helped matters, and it couldn’t hurt to actively endeavor to make a community that deals with our “malcontents” in a more sympathetic and compassionate way, or at the very least to have a space within YU that is non-judgmental and inclusive. I sense that Bram was cognizant of the need for such a space, looking at his involvement in AEPi, and I hope that AEPi continues to be such a haven in our community. But this is something the Modern Orthodox community as a whole really needs to improve on. Just because someone isn’t wearing a kippah, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve basic human dignity and respect, besides for the obvious fact that treating them in such a manner isn’t going to help at all. We need to, instead of yelling at “malcontents” like Bram, take the time to sit down and talk and understand and be a damn decent human being. It should not be so hard.

All that being said, my sympathies and prayers go out to the family and friends of Bram. I have no other words, except to pray for a day where suffering and death will be finally defeated. 
בִּלַּע הַמָּוֶת לָנֶצַח, וּמָחָה אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה דִּמְעָה מֵעַל כָּל-פָּנִים; וְחֶרְפַּת עַמּוֹ, יָסִיר מֵעַל כָּל-הָאָרֶץ–כִּי יְהוָה, דִּבֵּר

 

But I want to, on this occasion, discuss something I planned to discuss anyway. How do we relate to a Jew who has left religion? This is an important question to consider in our current environment, and one that I will have to deal with as someone who plans to enter the world of kiruv. And there are multiple things to consider. On one hand, you want to bring people back to Orthodoxy, back to fulfilling God’s will, back to the beauty of a Jewish life. On the other hand, this is an individual who has a right to make their own decisions with what they do with their life. You want this person to be religious, but you also want this person to be happy, and to make informed, good decisions, because you care, or should care, about this person as an individual. Some people forget about that last part and consider all means justified towards the end of making a person more religious, considering it a holy endeavor to lie and manipulate someone towards being religious. On the other hand, if you’re a kiruv person who’s not actually trying to get people more religious, you’re not actually a kiruv person. 
So, I guess, here’s my approach, bearing in mind I am just 23 and have little experience in life. First of all, never underestimate the good you do by just being a religious person who’s a decent human being. The established narrative is that religious people are crazy, pushy, intolerant, and ignorant, and if you accept that narrative, of course you’d reject religion. Being a decent person who is religious has the effect of throwing a wrench in that narrative, showing that it is possible to be a religious person who is none of those stereotypes, and that, maybe, you could be one too. On the other hand, being a pushy and intolerant individual has the opposite effect of strengthening those stereotypes and making the idea of being a religious person even less palatable. So, on a practical level, the most effective kiruv is to be respectful and tolerant and an overall decent human being. 
Of course, we haven’t actually answered our original question, of how to balance the desire to bring someone closer to religion with your need to respect them as a human being. We’ve just said that it the best way to accomplish the former is through the latter. Which seems to mean that the only concern is bringing someone to religion, and if it was possible to bring someone to religion by lying to them and ruining their lives otherwise, you should probably go ahead and do it. I am strongly opposed to such a conclusion. The desire to save souls should not override the concern for people’s physical well-being, and a concern for a person’s olam haba does not negate their right to olam hazeh. As The Rav puts it in Halakhic Man:

See what many religions have done to this world on account of their yearning to break through the bounds of concrete reality and escape to the sphere of eternity….There is nothing so physically and spiritually destructive as diverting one’s attention from this world. 

(This idea is actually a theme in his thought worth exploring, he goes at particular length about it in some of his recorded lectures)
So, for the millionth time, how do we balance the two?
Let us return for a second to our paradigm of the Jewish Religion as a relationship between lovers. Normally, the relationship works okay, there are sacrifices to be made, but we get through them, and the relationship itself is worth it. When someone leaves religious observance, I see them as a friend who left a relationship with another friend of mine. It would be wrong of me to judge either of the parties involved. I don’t know what kind of things happened that caused them to leave the relationship. I can’t judge them for doing so, nor can I tell them that they should go back to it right away, and I definitely shouldn’t lie to them or manipulate them into returning to their former lover, because I don’t know what went on, how hard it was for this person to keep it going, how hard they tried, and what finally made them give up on it. But I do know The Person (capitalized so that you can better keep track of this convoluted metaphor) they left. And I know that Person does love them, and does want them back, and does want to make things better. I know that Person still has a place in their heart for their lost lover, and that, were they to change their mind, that Person would have them back immediately. And I believe that this Person is capable of being good, better than they have been before. And thus, I still believe, in my heart of hearts, that relationship can be salvaged, and I will do what is possible to lead to that reconciliation. But they have to be ready, and they have to be willing, and they have to be able to put the past painful experiences behind them, and I should not necessarily expect that they can, or even should, and not all reconciliations are possible or even a good idea. 
To bring that back into the nimshal, what we as a community don’t often realize is that when someone leaves the community, they do so for good reasons, because they were bothered by things they couldn’t explain, actions they couldn’t condone, and people they couldn’t tolerate. They left because their relationship with God was broken, and that’s not their fault. But, as a religious person, I believe that God loves everyone, and has a place for all types of people within the Jewish community, more, that he must love everyone, and, himdamnit, there must be a place for them in our community. Indeed, this is what I often think has kept me religious; the conviction that, unlike any other institution, there must be a place for me here, by definition and theological impossibility. And I believe that, with a little work, we can succeed at finding such places. But I would never demand that a person just return to Judaism without any consideration of their personality, without any consideration of how much they have suffered and how much they stand to suffer if they resume a broken relationship without any prior thought. It should go without saying that O, would never try to manipulate someone into doing so. In sum, my approach is to, best I can, fight to find a person a place within Judaism where they can have a healthy relationship with God, and not force them back into a bad one. 

As I mentioned in the post, it seems that Bram tried to carve out a space within YU for people who otherwise did not fit into the religious community, and that is a great thing, and I don’t mean to denigrate in any way. But using that as an example of the kind of community that can exist within YU, I wonder if YU would be served well if it had in-house kiruv of the sort I’ve described above, dedicated not merely to addressing symptoms of problem, like people not wearing kippahs, but the roots of those issues, the inability to find a place within our community where they could conceive of a healthy relationship with God. I know a lot of people who would stand to benefit from such an initiative, freshman self absolutely included, and maybe even current self sometimes. Sometimes I feel we’re at a disadvantage to students who go to secular college in that regard, who have a campus rabbi whose job it is to make people feel welcome and a smaller community to be a part of and find oneself in. I mean, officially, we have a mashgiach ruchani and mashpia, but I think we all can admit to ourselves that those positions and people are not appealing to the kind of crowd we’re talking about helping here. Same with most religious events, which cater to a crowd who wants their social opportunities gender-separated and formal dress, as opposed to the “Drink Beer, Have Chulent, and Have a Kumzitz” which is the norm on most college campuses. Obviously there are limits to what is realistically possible in this regard, but perhaps, I naively hope, there is more wiggle room than we have now. 

Further Thoughts and Clarifications on The Process of Change of Judaism, and A Defense of Mysticsm

So I didn’t post yesterday because I was absurdly tired, so today I will try to post on two topics to make up.

First, some further thoughts and clarifications on my last post about change in Judaism. It was mostly devoted to talking about the philosophical and theological basis for the idea of change in Judaism, but it only briefly and inadequately touched upon the process of said change (in my talking about the criteria for acceptable change.) But, how does this change happen? Is it, like was asked to me in the comments, a conscious decision by halakhic decisors to change things in Judaism? Or is it an unconscious process? How does it actually work?

I’m prone to think of these changes as a mostly unconscious process. I’ll begin first with the most practical reason for this: Change is dependent on the Jewish community accepting it, and the Jewish community is much more likely to accept a change if it doesn’t seem like one. One could cynically say this is because the unwashed masses of the Jewish community are stupid. I would like to avoid such cynicism if at all possible. Not that I am opposed to principle to cynicism; as anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m very unopposed to cynicism. But such cynicism stems from arrogance, that *real* religion is only accessible to an intellectual elite who need to keep the masses stupid. Any philosophy of Judaism should be equally accessible and understandable to everyone, and its important for me to keep my ideas grounded in a concern for the entire Jewish people, not just the intellectual. I like cynicism. I hate elitism.
Okay, but how do we uncynically and un-elitistically (can that be a word?) explain the fact that change must not seem apparent for the purpose of appealing to the Jewish community? I think we have to see the Jewish people, to reiterate an earlier point, as the filtering mechanism of God’s will on this earth, which we’ve previously defined as constituting the combination of revelation and reality. But God’s will itself doesn’t change, being eternal and timeless, and the Torah, to paraphrase a midrash, precedes creation. Judaism changes; God’s will does not. We can see the process of Judaism as the continuous attempt of to uncover that timeless truth, and the Jewish community as the mechanism of finding it. In such a search for timeless and eternal truth, the idea of change would defeat the purpose of the whole endeavor, because the Jewish community is committed to uncovering eternal truth, not truth subject to change. Rather, change In Judaism is the uncovering of lost or latent ideas from the original timeless and eternal truth of God’s will. Thus, Judaism ends up incorporating outside ideas into its tradition, but as timeless truth, not momentary adaptations. This may be the explanation of the idea that the whole Torah, even chiddushim of students in yeshiva, was given to Moshe at Sinai. Moshe was given the ability to understand God’s will in its perfect form, but each successive generation of Judaism comes closer and closer to that understanding.

So how does such change happen? I like a passage in Moshe Halbertal’s book “People of the Book” where he describes the concept of “charitable reading” of religious texts. To steal from my description of it in the comments of my previous post, generally speaking, religious communities assume sacred texts are truthful and good and represent the eternal and unchanging will of God. No chiddush there. However, when sacred texts are challenging to the reader, due to developments in the reality, be it morally, practically, truthfully, etc, benefit of the doubt is given, but in either of two ways. Either “I don’t understand how this text can be true or moral or practical, but it is a sacred text so I assume it knows better than me and I will thus accept it”, or “I don’t understand how this text can be true or moral or practical, and therefore, it can’t actually be saying that, it must be saying something else.” My idea is that change in Judaism occurs when the second approach is taken. This leads to change, but does not impinge on the eternality and timelessness of God’s will. On the contrary, its the eternality of God that actually prompts the change. The question that must be asked by religious people is not “How can we change Judaism to fit with our age?”. It is “What could God realistically demand from us in our relationship with him?”

With that, we can lead into the second thing I want to discuss, which is, A Defense of Mysticism.

Mysticism gets a bad rap in the community of the intellectually sophisticated Modern Orthodox. Maybe it’s the roots of Modern Orthodoxy in the Lithuanian Misnaged tradition, but defending Kabbalah will get you some funny looks, and most people tend to say “they’re not inclined towards mysticism.” Certainly there are some benefits to being wary of Kabbalah, especially in its use by unscrupulous organizations to fool the gullible into thinking there are shortcuts to personal and religious success. But such trends are not the same as ascribing some validity towards more mystical streams of thought.
I see the critiques of mysticsm in Modern Orthodoxy as the following:
1. It’s irrational, and inferior to more rational philosophies of Judaism. People are not “inclined” towards irrationality. Only gullible idiots believe in such hocus-pocus.
2. Related to #1, we risk turning people off to Judaism by teaching them silly things.
3. Kabbalah contains ideas borrowed from other religions and traditions, and Judaism should contain no outside elements.
4. It has no practical purpose.

So my critiques of these critiques:
First of all, for #1, Let’s stop pretending that any version of Orthodox Judaism is entirely rational. At a certain point at any point in Judaism, you have God, the eternal, the unknowable, the great and perfect and powerful, comes down from his heavenly throne and gives us a book. This is not a rational thing, especially in today’s environment in which religious skepticism is a norm. To say nothing of miracles and prophecy and prayer and all the various other things that don’t make sense. I mean, you can claim Judaism is rational all you want, but the reason you get up in the morning to recite hebrew prayers and wrap your arms in leather straps is not because it makes sense. Which leads me to skeptical of #2. Who are we trying to impress by purging Judaism of all irrational elements except the couple we actually kind of need? Do you think anyone who’s inclined towards secularism is gonna be impressed by the fact we made Judaism less irrational, when it still is somewhat irrational? I could argue the opposite, by making it clear that some religious doctrine is subject to critical appraisal and subsequent dismissal, you lower the barrier to questioning the fundamental irrationality. Rationalist Judaism, especially in its more radical adherents (think Faur and followers, not Slifkin, who is often saner than given credit for) seems to be an internal form of New Atheism, in that it takes pride in mocking everyone else as irrational idiots and upholding itself as the only possible truth. The New Atheists just have a little bit more guts. Though, in all seriousness, it may be a kind of good thing that there exists room within the Jewish community for the kind of smug arrogance that is the domain of the New Atheists, where a kid is reading and preaching Jose Faur instead of Sam Harris. Then again, should we be encouraging that sort of thing?

One more thing, the guillible idiots who believe Kabbalah happen to include a fairly large portion of Jews and Jewish authorities throughout history. I mean, read Jose Faur’s Anti-Maimonidean Demons to see how many huge rishonim and acharonim he just dismisses because of their mystical tendencies. The Rashba and Raabad, obviously, but the Rosh, too, and, most vociferously, the Ramban. These are big names who our current practice of Judaism is built off of. To call them gullible morons, or worse, in Faur’s case, is irresponsible. Not to mention the fact that Kabbalah was huge in the Jewish world through its history, and left no part of it untouched, save, maybe, a small corner of Yemen. Maybe. It’s highly irresponsible to call entire generations of Jews idiots, or worse, not really practicing Jews. This is especially true within the context of the system of halacha I’ve been expounding. If the Jewish community accepted Kabbalah, then it has validity that needs to be respected and dealt with, even if not necessarily blindly accepted.

This leads me to #3, the notion that there elements of kabbalah that come from other traditions, which necessitates kabbalah being placed outside the tradition. First of all, the hypocrisy of people who view the Rambam as their main authority and encourage the adoption of religion to modernity castigating mystics for appropriating ideals from other traditions is amusing, even if they insist, a historically, that Judaism was always like that. Second of all, it may not even be true. Certain mystical ideas are remarkably universal to humanity, and the origin of some of these mystic notions that are seen as problematic may stem from being a human being, not a heretic. For another, there is the possibility of a consistent tradition of Jewish mysticism that runs parallel to these other traditions. But all this is besides the point. There’s nothing really wrong with change, as long as its passes through the filtering mechanism of the Jewish community. And it should be mentioned that mysticism is remarkably better at implementing change in Judaism than rationalism, and has had way more endurance in the Jewish community than any “Rationalist” philosophy has ever had. We could discuss why this is, the use of religious language, the portrayal of new ideas as eternal truths latent in the original sources (which I relates to what I discussed above), the usual percieved piety/ascetism of its  main voices. Whatever it is, mysticism does a much better job of incorporating new ideas into Judaism in a way acceptable to the Jewish community.
Which leads me to #4, having no practical usage. Why learn about these complicated metaphysics, these sefirot and partzufim and tzimtzum and the like? Well first of all, this is stuff which affected Jewish History, and is important to a lot of philosophies, so you should know it, not be contemptuous of it. But my point, and again, I hope this isn’t heresy, is that us Modern Orthodox Jews, committed to a continuing healthy relationship with God, committed to coming to terms with the secular world in a way faithful to our tradition, have ignored a crucial tool in the toolbox of the innovative religious thinker, that of mysticsm and mystical language. We cling resolutely to a sort of half-rationalism that denies the validity of some irrationality but must uphold the value of others. We need to widen our horizons, to use all of the vocabulary and philosophies available to us in the Jewish sources to build a firmer foundation for a Judaism that finds itself on the quickly shifting sand of modernity. We need more Rav Kook, a thinker brave enough to use kabbalistic ideas to make sense of modernity, both in our curriculum and in our ranks, as a text and a personal example. We need to use mysticism in a sophisticated and nuanced way, like we would use any philosophy, and not just be scared off by its current abuse as a tool of charlatans. We need mysticism.