Dvar Torah: A working theory on the first two parshiyos in Bereishit

In my last dvar torah, I attempted my own interpretation of the first sin of Adam HaRishon, and its effects on humanity. Very briefly, seizing upon an idea from R’ Hutner on a “partition of the heart” which prevents a person from fully recognizing religious and/or philosophical truth by presenting plausible and valid alternatives, the sin of Adam HaRishon (even though it is technically the sin of Adam and of the First Woman, who is not yet named Chava, I will use the term ‘Sin of Adam’ for its colloquial recognizability) introduced such a partition in the heart of humanity by making sin and disobedience of God’s will a plausible alternative. Pre-sin, Adam lived in a state where there was one path set in front of him, that of the Truth and Authority of God’s word and harmony with nature. By eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, Adam opens up the possibility of multiple paths, which include possibilities of sin and disobedience, thus making obedience to God’s will not a matter of his nature, but a path that must be chosen over other alternatives that seem to be equally plausible and valid. It is this partition of the heart, that makes man unable to naturally and effortlessly recognize truth, which is created by Adam’s sin. This approach not only appears to be a justifiable approach in the peshat, but it also seems to me to be a serviceable synthesis of a variety of approaches to Adam’s sin, most notably the Ramban who believes that humanity’s free will was created by Adam’s sin, but also the Rambam (subjectivity was created by the sin), the Abarbanel (humanity’s alienation from nature was created by the sin), and the Nefesh HaChaim (humanity’s potential for evil as a real part of him, rather than something external, was ingested along with the fruit of the tree.) Of course, another appeal of this peshat is that it speaks to the modern condition. In a world where any given religious narrative is no more privileged than narratives opposed to it, where, to borrow Peter Berger’s phrase, the sacred canopy of religion has been punctured, a partition of the heart, where we assert religious ideas to be true despite the existence of other alternatives that could also be true, has been created.

The question is, where does that leave us? What do we do, or what can we do, about this partition of the heart?
I think the proceeding chapters in Sefer Bereishit, that make up the parshiyot of Bereishit and Noach, are, at their core, about humanity trying to undo the effects of the sin of Adam HaRishon. Each time, those attempts are rebuffed, for there is no going back to Eden; the flaming sword and the cherubs remain impassable. Each time, God enacts a punishment that is a corrective for the mistaken attempt to undo the Adam’s sin.

The first attempt is made by Kayin. Faced with the possibility of other alternatives, which may be correct, he chooses to eliminate the other option. His reaction to Hevel’s sacrifice being accepted is not to attempt to change his worldview to accommodate new facts, but to kill Hevel. Kayin seeks to undo the partition of the heart by the mere elimination of that which causes doubt. His punishment goes in the opposite direction; God tells him that נָע וָנָד, תִּהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, he will be a wanderer, without a home, without a truth to return to, forever at the mercy of other opinions.
The second attempt is made by the Generation of The Flood. This generation denies the problem altogether. There is no partition between what I want and what is right, there is only what I want, and that it is right. There is no objective right or wrong, there is only the multiplicity of individual perspectives, which have no objective criteria to be judged by. וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי-הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם, כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה; וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ They see that the daughters of men are “good”, and they take for themselves wives from whatever they choose. The only criteria they use to judge their decisions is “good”, which is defined by their own choice. This once again, is an attempt to undo the sin of Adam, this time by denying that there ever was a pre-sin state where there was objectivity and clarity. Since all we know is ambiguity and multiplicity, that must be all that there is. There is no partition of the heart. God’s punishment once again, is a corrective. The waters of the flood bring uniformity and unity where there was once multiplicity. Only one family of man, and one pair of each animal, are saved.

The third attempt is made by the builders of the Tower of Bavel. I have previously detailed my understanding of the story here, but essentially, the Tower of Bavel builders go in the exact opposite direction of the Generation of the Flood. Since we see the dangers inherent in multiplicity and doubt, we will attempt to forcefully unify and obliterate differences. We will נַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם:  פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, we will take mud and put them in molds and make them into uniform bricks, stacked higher and higher until its top reaches the heavens. We will forcefully break down the partition of the heart and make doubt and multiplicity yield to our will. And God’s response is once again a corrective. He confuses their language, instituting difference and multiplicity despite the builder’s best efforts.

There is clearly no going back to Eden. The sin of Adam cannot be erased, and God seems to expend effort into making sure we understand that. But what are we to do? Being as we have seen God reject both uniformity and multiplicity, it seems there must be a balance and dialectic between the two. But what is that balance?

Perhaps the sign given to Noach after the Flood, the Rainbow, holds a clue. The Rainbow is a single beam of light that is refracted to show the multiple colors that make up that beam of light. God seems to be telling Noach that one must keep in mind that the multiplicity and ambiguity that characterizes the post-Edenic world all comes from and is part of a single source. Both sides of the partition of the heart, the multiplicity we see before us and the unity we posit as true, are true and valid and must be recognized as such. But while that multiplicity is all too apparent to us, and it is very real and must be struggled with, all perspectives are ultimately unified in the God who unites all opposites.

Good shabbos.

Devar Torah, Noach. (From 2012)


Migdal Bavel is a very weird story. I don’t think that claim necessarily requires so much justification, but what makes it so weird? For this, I need to show you the full text of the story:

(א) וַיְהִי כָל הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים:

(ב) וַיְהִי בְּנָסְעָם מִקֶּדֶם וַיִּמְצְאוּ בִקְעָה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם:

(ג) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים וְנִשְׂרְפָה לִשְׂרֵפָה וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה לְאָבֶן וְהַחֵמָר הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹמֶר:

(ד) וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ:

(ה) וַיֵּרֶד יְיָ לִרְאֹת אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת הַמִּגְדָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם:

(ו) וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת:

(ז) הָבָה נֵרְדָה וְנָבְלָה שָׁם שְׂפָתָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ:

(ח) וַיָּפֶץ יְיָ אֹתָם מִשָּׁם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ וַיַּחְדְּלוּ לִבְנֹת הָעִיר:

(ט) עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ בָּבֶל כִּי שָׁם בָּלַל יְיָ שְׂפַת כָּל הָאָרֶץ וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם יְיָ עַל פְּנֵי כָּל הָאָרֶ

And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. 6 And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. 9 Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

So everyone knows the basic story, let’s build a tower, G-d’s all like, nuh-uh, and boom, languages. Which, of course, raises questions, like “Why is that a problem? And why is the solution/punishment to inroduce impediments to understanding?”. Hopefully we will answer those questions in time. But I want to call your attention to some of the some of the things the text seems to go out of its way to stress, quite unnecessarily, which don’t come across when you sum it up. First of all, the passuk goes at length to describe the bricks, the process used to make bricks….a lot of time is spent focused on bricks. Why is that necessary?

Second of all, the way the pesukim describe the people deserves some investigation. These people, at the start of the story, are of one language and one speech, which is supposed to be of some significance. They find this place with bricks,. They make a tower. But why? They seem to have this pathological fear of “spreading across the earth”, and building this tower its top in the sky, will make themselves a name, which will somehow prevent the spreading across the earth thing from happening. What is the relation between “making themselves a name” and “spreading across the earth?”, and how does the former prevent the latter? More fundamentally, though, what underlies this fear? Why are they so afraid to spread out over the earth?

In the end, God, by confusing their languages, ensures that they are in fact spread across the earth, as a consequence of the very endeavor they take to prevent that from happening. God acts specifically to frustrate their intention of not spreading out over the earth, their desire to make a name for themselves. It seems their sin has something to do not with the building of the tower itself, but rather their desire to not spread out over the earth. So, that raises two questions. Number one, what is wrong with said desire, and why does God frustrate it? Number two, why is the confusion of languages an antidote to whatever problem that causes?

Of course, I’m really just writing this dvar torah as an excuse to tell you about the Netziv on this story. The Netziv, writing a century before George Orwell, sees the story of Migdal Bavel as a cautionary tale of a totalitarian government, which is really remarkable to read in the commentary on Chumash of the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin. To the Netziv, He sees the tower built for surveillance, to make sure everyone stayed in the city that had been built. G-d reacts to the tower because he realizes that it will not be long before they start killing anyone who dares raise a unsavory opinion . To prevent such tyranny, G-d frustrates their plan. The Netziv views the danger that God comes to prevent as tyranny and enforced conformity.

I’d like to use this idea of the Netziv and expand upon it to build (no pun intended) my own idea. Why were these people of Migdal Bavel so afraid of spreading across the earth? Perhaps it was the flood, and the generation that brought it. That generation was typified as “chamas”, full of corruption. The Midrashic Literature on this word “chamas” stresses the lack of respect for boundaries and rule of law; theft was rampant, sexual boundaries were violated, etc. It seems to typify a sort of corrupt anarchy, where might becomes right, similar to Hobbes’s “state of nature” where there is “war against all”. To correct this state, G-d brings a flood. One substance, water, covers the earth. Man’s anarchical drives and passions are crushed by the uniform, undifferentiated waters of the flood. The problem was anarchy, the solution was to destroy it all with uniformity.

Migdal Bavel is after the flood. These people know about the dangers of letting anarchy get out of hand. They can’t let everyone just do whatever they want, go wherever they want. Things must be uniform and consolidated, pressed into molds and stacked in neat rows. The emphasis on the bricks convey this idea. Mud, spread out across the earth, is gathered and molded and baked and stacked with a bunch of uniform other bricks to build a tower made up of a bunch of undifferentiated, uniform, bricks, all the same as the other.

So they build a tower. For what? When I think of totalitarian regimes and building towers, I think of Animal Farm, by George Orwell. In his fable of how a noble revolutionary spirit leads to the same tyranny that led to the revolution to begin with, he has a fascinating subplot involving the windmill the animals build. It was originally conceived by Snowball (good guy pig) to make the lives of the animals on the farm easier, but when Napoleon, (bad guy pig) takes over, over the course of time the windmill turns into something not being made for the animals, but rather, for its own sake. Slowly, the windmill becomes more important than any of the animals.

So the Netziv may very well be right that it had a purpose as a surveillance tower at the very beginning. It is possible. But the passuk doesn’t tell us that, it says it was to combat the fear of being spread out, to make ourselves a name. It is interesting how the goal becomes to turn a plural into a singular “name”. The Midrash hints at this when it tells us that if a brick dropped to the ground people would mourn, but if a person fell off the tower, nobody would notice. The goal of the project became not to help the people, but to keep them undiffrentiated cogs in a machine, all putting uniform brick on top of uniform brick, building that tower until the far off goal of its head in the clouds.

It is to that possibility God reacts. If they have begun to do this, to build this tower, to make everyone the same and uniform, than nothing can stop this society from doing anything it wants, no matter how heinous. So G-d confuses their languages. I view this as he introduces differences into human beings. Instead of all being standard-issue bricklayers, they become different, speak different languages, have different cultures, different frames of reference. Now each human being, instead of being a cog in a machine, is uniquely suited for the task that suits him, because he is the only one who “speaks that language”. Each one is now indispensable.

The First Sin and The Partition Of The Heart

In recent years, building upon the theory of evolution, some scientists have begun to try and explain features of human behavior and psychology by appealing to “evolutionary” theories, that theorize that the reason we do xyz is because back when we were cave men, doing xyz served whatever evolutionary purpose. What interests me about such theories is not their scientific value, because I think there is ample reason to doubt the scientific value of guessing what cavemen acted like and what their society was like based on how we act today. One can accept the theory of evolution and the value of science in general while still doubting that drawing a target and then aiming an imaginary arrow at it is bad science. In fact, the fact that it is bad science is what intrigues me. It tells me that even in the secular halls of evolutionary science, man is still prone to myth-making, to trying to come up with stories that explain why humanity is the way it is, stories that posit some prehistoric world in which humanity acquired the traits we recognize today. The only real difference is the terminology. And that they’re really bad myths. They don’t give us any insight into the human condition, they don’t hit upon some basic part of being human, they merely attempt to make science do a job its wholly unsuited for.
The First Sin , that is, Adam and Eve disobeying the divine command, following the advice of the snake, and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, and introducing death and suffering into the world, is on the other hand, a myth. It is quite clearly a myth, what with the world that exists before history described in vivid detail, the talking animals, the use of archetypal characters of “The First Man” and “The First Woman”, and an action that has consequences that speak to human traits. I am relatively confident in stating, perhaps controversially, that it was never meant to be taken as a factual account.  But it’s an exceptionally good myth, much better, and in a sense, heck, considering the bad science, in any sense, truer than any account given by evolutionary psychology. There is something about the story of the First Sin that cuts to the very core of what it is like to be a human being in this world, regardless of whether it happened factually and historically or not.
But what is that something, that feature of the story that speaks to something essentially human? Well, as with most things in the Jewish tradition, that is up for interpretation. I have offered my own explanation previously, adding to the already sizeable literature on the subject, but this year, I’d like to offer another explanation, one that is perhaps independent of my previous one, or perhaps not. I’ll let the reader decide, or future me decide, whether there is a consistent thought between the two. If not, I shall not be pestered by the hobgoblin of small minds.
So let’s ask ourselves a question? How did the first sin affect the first couple? How was humanity changed by it? Obviously, we have the peshat: You will die, you’ll have to work hard, and you’ll have to have painful childbirth. But what underlies all those? And there are further questions: How did the eating of the “Tree of Knowledge” affect them? Did they really become like gods, knowing good and bad? How does the fact that they realized they were naked play into things? I don’t know if I will answer all these questions, I’m kind of writing this with the idea half formed, but the point is that the affect on Adam and Chava was more than merely what the peshat says.
I want to start with an idea from R. Yitzchak Hutner which has, since I learned it, affected me a great deal, and I’ve used it in a number of contexts. Rav Hutner, in Pachad Yitzchak Shavuot 21, talks about the effect the fact of death, brought about by the first sin, has on man’s awareness of philosophical truths. Basing himself off a gemara on Sanhedrin 38a, Rav Hutner writes that man being created alone proves two philosophical truths that are dependent on the same thing: One, that Man is unique, worthy of the world being created for him and him alone, and Two, that all humanity is equal, coming from the same source. Once Adam sins and death is introduced, however, the notion that man is unique and worthy of the whole world existing for him and him alone is seemingly falsified, for the world will continue to exist after each individual dies, seemingly indifferent to that person’s existence. Once that concept, that of the uniqueness of man, is falsified, its twin concept, the notion of the unity of man, is also weakened. Those two concepts, then, according to Rav Hutner, can only be maintained through faith in the ultimate eradication of death, Techiyyat HaMetim. Thus, says, Rav Hutner, death, (and by extension, Adam’s sin) introduces an impassable partition of the heart, between what seems to be true and what is believed and affirmed to be true, between  ההרגשה שבלב and האמונה שבלב. Without the appearance of death, we could fully comprehend without any doubt the twin concepts of the uniqueness and unity of man. Once death comes into the picture, as a result of Adam’s sin, this partition in the heart is created, and now we must posit such truths on faith.

I want to develop this notion of a partition in the heart that’s created as a result of Adam’s sin. Even though Rav Hutner sees such a partition as merely a logical conclusion extrapolated from the fact of death, I want to push it a little further, to perhaps something he never intended. I’d like to say it was not death that created such a partition, but that the sin itself created the partition, which “created”, so to speak, death. How so?
I’d like to bring a somewhat embarrassing example from my own life to illustrate. I wore Tzitzis every day throughout grade school, high school, and camp, through sweaty sports games, through squishy car rides, through everything. And I saw people take them off for sports games, and just generally not wear them, and I couldn’t understand why. They’re not that uncomfortable! I’m fine in them. And then I got techelet tziztis, and then the beged tore, and then I had to wait for a new beged, but I didnt have any regular tzitzis. And I just went without them. And, wow, you know what, this is actually pretty comfortable! And when I got a new beged, it became a struggle every morning to convince myself to put the tzitzis on. I had tasted of the forbidden fruit, there was no going back. What had happened was I had lived my life until that point with the idea of not wearing tzitzis never being a real, live option. But when I went without them, for a couple of days, it created a new, heretofore unseen possibility, of not wearing tzitzis. I now knew that there was a possibility of living my life, not wearing tzitzis. Even if I had known this intellectually, it had never seemed like a live option until I actually did it. My life, had until my point, existed in a narrative that had me wearing tzitzis. Going without tzitzis, even for a little bit, created the possibility of multiple narratives, from which I would have to choose, and struggle with that choice.
Back to Adam and Chava. Adam and Chava are told, “Don’t eat from that tree, or else you’ll die”. They perceive of this command the same way kid me understood rules against not wearing tzitzis: “Why would I do that?” Their Ddenic existence was one in which disobeying God was not a live possibility. They existed in one narrative, that of harmony with nature (according to Abarbanel), and of truth and falsehood (Rambam). There was no notion of choice, or of struggle, of being tested by circumstance. If God told them not to eat from the tree, they weren’t gonna eat from the tree. But the snake comes along, and says to Chava, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to choose one’s own path, to determine good and bad for one’s self, on one’s own criteria? Wouldn’t it be great to know good and bad? And Chava likes the cut of his jib, and she eats from the fruit, and gives to Adam.

By eating from the fruit, they have not just disobeyed God; they have created the very concept and possibility of disobedience. They have learned that multiple, indeed, infinite, narratives exist from which they can choose. They can choose to eat from the tree or to not eat from the tree, or just avoid trees altogether. They can obey or disobey, be good or evil, virtuous or sinful, peaceful or warlike, tolerant or oppressive. They are like Gods, able to see the multiple paths of good and bad. But it is that realization that creates the partition Rav Hutner speaks of. If all narratives exist side by side, all of them possible, all of them within grasp, how do we know which one to choose? Before the sin, there was one narrative, the true word of God, the state of nature, and no possibility of others. Now, other possibilities than the state of nature exist, and they realize they are naked, and they will now have to work hard to produce food. Now, other possibilities than God’s word exist, and they attempt to hide from God when he calls to them. Now, other possibilities than their uniqueness exist and thus death is introduced into the world. The partition that Rav Hutner describes is the impassable barrier between the multiple possibilities and narratives of this world, and certainty in the true one. As long as there are other possible narratives that can be followed, religion remains something posited based on faith and revelation.
What are we to do about this state of humanity? On one hand, we work towards and pray for the day of the fulfillment of Devarim 30:6, וּמָל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְאֶת-לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ:  לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ–לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ.  But in the meantime? There is a famous vort of the Kotzker, on the words of Devarim 11:18,  וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת-דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה, עַל-לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל-נַפְשְׁכֶם. The Kotzker asks, why “on your heart”, why not “in?” Answers the Kotzker, because the heart is blocked by an impenetrable barrier, and one cannot just place truth in their heart. They must place it on their heart, in stacks and piles, and wait for a moment that your heart’s barrier opens, in a moment of clarity or inspiration, so that in such a moment, truth merely needs to fall in.

Good Shabbos.

Dvar Torah Bereishis (from 2012)

I’ve decided to start putting up my old divrei torah up on this website just for ease of access and so that I have at least a kind of head start on this blog being productive. I’m going to still try to write new ones every week, but this will at least give me something.
Here’s one I wrote in 2012:
There are very few things that seem to make sense about Chapter Three of Bereishis, also known as “the one with the snake, the apple (not really an apple, btw), and Chava”. For one, there is a talking snake. Additonally, there is a command to not eat from a certain tree. No justification is given for this command. Then this talking snake, for some reason, really wants Chava to eat from this tree, which brings us to a very unhappy conclusion. What is going on here?


First of all, it must first be established that it is very doubtful that the Torah here means to bring us historical fact, for a number of reasons. The talking snake is one. The pains taken to describe a location that does not exist is another. The description of a reality fundamentally different from ours, and how our reality came to be. Point is, there are a lot of elements that convey to us that this is to be read as a mythical account,not “myth” as in lie”, but as a story talking about fundamental human truths, rather than just a story about why snakes don’t have legs.


What would be the purpose of this kind of mythical story being put into the Torah in this fashion? The theory goes that the Jews receiving the Torah at Har Sinai were no doubt familiar with the pagan myths of creation that existed in the culture around them. Thus, in order to show the fundamental differences between the pagan religions around them and the new religion they had now accepted upon themselves, some of the stories in the Torah are put into a mythical format, while making fundamental changes that show the Jewish perspective over the pagan perspective. One famous instance is comparing the account of the Great Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh with that in parshas Noach. Whereas the gods bring the flood upon humanity in Gilgamesh because humankind has become an annoying, overpopulous, noisy, neighbor, the Torah attributes the flood to man’s moral corruptness. In fact, the pesukim seem to take great care to point out that a population boom is not to be blamed here. Perek 6, Passuk 5, states that “G-d saw that mankind’s wickedness had multiplied on the earth,” specifically inserting “wickedness” there to show it is not due to mankind’s reproductivity, but due to their evil, that the floodwaters come. 


Now that we have that idea, how can we apply it to understand the whole tree episode? I don’t know if the following works at all, but its an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a couple of days, so here it is. I want to focus on two aspects that we see frequently in pagan creation myths that relate to our story. The first is where the Gods and man originate. In both of the creation stories given to us in this parsha, there is no origin story given to God. God is merely taken as a fact from the very beginning, quite literally in this instance. In pagan creation stories, this is not so. There is no creator, or originator of all that exists. Rather, the Gods just emerge from this primordial “stuff”, and usually start fighting right after that. There is no God that creates the other Gods, or is in of itself superior to any of the other Gods, which is why they have to start fighting for supremacy. This makes sense, as pagan gods were based on the forces of nature, and there are no forces in nature that are necessarily superior to any other, a sense likely magnified by the lack of technological sophistication of that age. The rain does not just decide, “Okay, I’m going to fall now, I don’t care what anyone else has to say about it”. This explains why there are all these fertitlity rituals. You have to give the fertility gods the strength to fight off the powers of drought and famine. There is no god that transcends the very concepts of space and time and nature, and can make his own decisions uncontested. 


Man usually ends up being created, as an afterthought, from some mud made by a god’s blood, after he has defeated the powers of chaos (we’ll get to that). While one result of this is that man is regarded to be fairly lowly, an afterthought of creation, made merely to serve the gods, the other result is that, fundamentally, there is no difference between man and god, save the fact that gods are just more powerful. Pagan gods are much more similar to superheroes, very talented versions of ourselves, then to our conception of God as a perfect and transcedent being. The gods in pagan theology are rather similar to mob bosses, actually. If you pay them tribute, they will provide you with protection from chaos and infertility, but if not, they will get very mad at you and cause you much harm. But, they, like mob bosses, though powerful, are still bound by the fact they are part of a closed system. The gods and man originate from the same stuff. So if you can find a way to manipulate the “stuff”, you can force the Gods to do your bidding. Thus, the concept of magic. By saying certain words, doing certain rituals, you can limit the Gods or manipulate them to your advantadge. By way of the mob boss example, I can’t necessarily defeat his whole criminal infrastracture, but I can, if I wanted to, put a gun to his head and tell him to go somewhere else. While in reality, that may not be a good idea, it illustrates that doing so is within the realm of possibility, as me and the mob boss are both human beings bound by the rules of nature. There are even accounts of people trying to defeat the gods, or win the secret of immortality from them, as in Gilgamesh. All of this would be impossible under a transcendent god, which, to my great chagrin, cannot at all be compared to a mob boss.  The second aspect of creation stories is the accounts of the gods’ defeat of the forces of chaos, usually represented as a sea monster of some sort who is defeated by a god in a big bloody battle. This goes back to what we’ve been saying; in pagan theology, forces must be defeated, and there is no such thing as divine decrees just becoming reality. In fact our first creation story seems to be polemicizing against this very idea. God creates everything in an orderly fashion, there is no opposition or battle. Even the great sea monsters, the terrifying creatures that feature so prominently as forces of chaos, were created by God on the fifth day (1:21).


Until this point, none of this have been chiddushim, instead established ideas I’ve read from authors like Yechezkel Kaufmann (worth a read, btw) and others. Now, here’s where I attempt to be mechadesh. The first story is neat, orderly, and conveys the idea of a perfect divine system. But look around you. Is the world really that perfect? I think not. How did things get messed up? Which of course, mythologically speaking, is just asking how *do* things get messed up?

  So, in the second story, we have a man created from the dust of the earth, breathes into his soul the breath of life (nothing in this story about tzelem elokim), and he becomes a living creature. He needs a companion. So woman is created, out of Adam’s rib. Instead of man being fashioned out of a piece of a god, meaning they are fundamentally similar, yet different, it is woman who is fundamentally similar to man, yet different. While this has a lot of more implications, specifically for gender issues, which I do not intend to touch with a 10 foot pole in this piece, an attempt is made to define man not vertically, by his relationship to a god, but horizontally, by his relation to a being both fundamentally similar and different than him.


  Now, they are given a command. Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, or else you’ll die. No justification is given on God’s end. (I don’t think the “you will surely die” is a justification, rather a consequence) Nothing about needing that tree for something else. Just don’t eat it. Now say you are used to a pagan world view. Now imagine, back to our mob boss analogy, the mob boss saying to one of his “protected”, here, eat at any restaurant you want, except that one. What incentive does he have to make such a request? He must be hiding something. Whatever’s at that restaurant must be fantastic.


  On to the snake (I’ll get back to adressing “knowledge of good and bad”, soon). Though the same word is not used, I doubt that the image of a snake did not call to mind the ancient stories of the sea serpents battling with mighty gods for supremacy. Yet our snake is not a mighty sea serpent here. He is a cunning, slick talking fruit salesman. The Chumash may be suggesting a whole different kind of source for chaos and evil and suffering. Not through brute force does evil come to power, but through rationalization and moral weakness. The mind is the battlefield here. So let’s look at the content of the snake’s persuasion. The woman says she won’t eat from the tree, because she’ll die. The snake responds “You shall surely not die; for God  knows  that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as a god, knowing good and evil.”


  Let’s analyze this closely. The consequence of eating from this tree is not death. Rather, you will become a god, which is defined as  “knowing good and evil”. In a pagan worldview, it is eminently possible that this Man and Woman can become like God by eating of this magical fruit, which taps into powers that go above God’s head. They will not just become as powerful as pagan gods, because we’ve already established that there’s only One All-Powerful, All Knowing God. They will advance to becoming all-knowing and all powerful beings, able to understand the cosmos and manipulate nature, and can dispense with the need for God. They now know what is good and what is evil, just as much as God does. They have outgrown such childish, primitive nonsense, they can look at the world with their eyes opened, and make their decisions without his help, thank you very much. And they eat from this fruit, waiting for their eyes to open at a world they can now partake of without restriction, with no authority to answer to. 


And their eyes are opened. And they realize they are naked. They realize how frail and vulnerable they are, not even given a coat to survive a winter, or reptilian thick skin, or claws or sharp teeth or prehensile tails endowed with nothing from nature except their larger than average brains, and maybe opposable thumbs. They are not gods, far from all-powerful, and further from all-knowing. They had disobeyed a divine command, thinking to raise themselves above it, but instead were brutally brought down to their place, far, far, far below God’s. 

The Passing Shade and The Withering Leaves: The Permanent Impermanence of Sukkot

I have an admission to make. I am terrible with Aravot.

Every year, no matter what I do, what measures I take, what advice I put into practice, my Aravot are dead by the middle of Sukkos. I don’t quite know what I’m doing wrong. I look around in shul, and see people with aravot that are still fresh and healthy, and I am overcome with hatred and anger and fear. Fear? Yes. Fear. For are we not all aravot, desperately trying to stave off our own mortality, clinging desperately to the branch as we are shaken during Hallel, slowly drying up and turning purple? Was our fate not sealed the moment we left the sealed package, nay, the moment we were cut from the willow tree? Yet we persist in trying to fool ourselves, to wrap ourselves in wet paper towels, to put ourselves in fridges, despite the knowledge that we will all wither and die and be discreetly replaced by a fresher bunch of aravot bought on Hoshana Rabba and then beaten into the ground, to be later swept up by the custodian, who only knows of Hoshana Rabba as “that day with all the bleeping leaves.” Are we not, when futilely trying to keep our aravot alive, symbolically trying to delay the fact of our own mortality? Is it not natural to be angry at those unperturbed by their fate?

Well, dear reader, I can see you shifting uncomfortably in your seat now, muttering, “wow, that got morbid fast”. It’s not my fault though. I just came out of Yom Kippur. It seems that mortality, and, more specifically, getting humanity to acknowledge and react to its own mortality, plays a large role in the character of the day of Yom Kippur. Be it the Rambam’s reason for why we say vidui at mincha before Yom Kippur, (because you might choke and die during the pre-fast meal, Hilchot Teshuva 2:7), or whether it is the liturgy of the day, particularly U’Netaneh Tokef, with its picture of man as ” broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”, or the whole structure of the day, with a final deadline set for getting one’s affairs in order, and the frequent reminders of the imminent nature of that deadline, all point to a day that is preoccupied with the concept of man’s imminent mortality. Yom Kippur strains to remind us that you are going to die, at possibly any moment, and that you’ve been wasting a lot of your time
In trying to get a person to recognize this essential fact, in trying to spur one to take charge of their life, the liturgy necessarily tends towards the vehement and extravagant.

מה אנחנו, מה חיינו, מה חסדנו, מה כחנו, מה גבורתנו. מה נאמר לפניך ה’ אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו. הלא כל הגיבורים כאין לפניך, ואנשי השם כלא היו, וחכמים כבלי מדע ונבונים כבלי השכל. כי כל מעשינו תוהו, וימי חיינו הבל לפניך, ומותר האדם מן הבהמה אין כי הכול הבל.

What are we ? What is our life ? What is our piety ? What is our virtue ? What is our help? What is our power ? What is our might ? what then shall we say in thy presence, O Lord, our God ! and the God of our fathers ? Are not the mightiest heroes as naught, before thee ; men of renown as if they had not existed ? wise men, as if they were without knowledge ? and the intelligent, as if void of understanding ? For the majority of their actions is emptiness ; and the days of their life but vanity in thy presence ; even the
pre-eminence of man over beast, is naught for all is vanity.



This is all necessary as a corrective, as an overcompensation for humanity’s general mindlessness and laziness, but there is a danger of taking these notions too seriously, of going too far to the other extreme. For if death will come to us all, what value is human action? There is so little time, and so much to do! Where does one start? How does one even start? What use is starting when everything I do is laughably transient and temporary? What purpose is there to building on such shifting sands? Such a destabilizing blow to one’s feeling of security on this earthly plane can be debilitating and paralyzing.

And then comes Sukkos. Now, before we say anything else, Sukkos is a weird holiday. I would wager it is our weirdest holiday, by a rather wide margin. What are we celebrating? Unclear. What are we supposed to be so happy about? Unclear. (this question and answer brought to you by Ashkenazi Jewry! “Ashkenazim: Why Should We Be Happy?!”) Why are we taking a bunch of plants together and waving them and then walking around in a circle with them? Totally unclear. Why are sitting in huts outside? Well, God told us why: Because we sat in huts once, which is the third least satisfying answer given by God in Tanach, behind his answers to Iyov (look at all this stuff I made!) and Yonah (… And a lot of cattle!). So, Sukkos is weird. Trust me, this becomes important.

There does, however, seem to be an overriding theme in the things we do on Sukkos that I’d like to point out. There seems to be many things we use in Sukkos that are temporary by their very nature. First of all, the Arba Minim are all plants, all of which will, being as they are organic matter, will eventually die, some of which do so aggravatingly quickly, as I have mentioned. Yet we are bidden to take them, and attempt, often vainly, to keep them alive and fresh for the whole of the holiday. Secondly and more obviously is the Sukkah itself, the Sukkah is a temporary structure which we relate to as permanent. We are תשבו כעין תדורו, we sit in the sukkah in the manner in which we dwell in our permanent we homes, and each Jew is commanded to עושה סוכתו קבע וביתו עראי, to eat, sleep, and sit in the sukkah in a manner of  קבע, permanence, though the Sukkah itself is עראי, temporary. (Sukkah 26b). There is no attempt to deny the fact that this is a temporary structure, no demand to actually move into the Sukkah, but to sit in it כעין תדורו, “like the way you dwell”. You are sitting in a temporary hut, fully cognizant of its temporary nature, but you are relating to it as if it is permanent. For both the Sukkah and the Arba Minim, we are commanded to treat a temporary object with permanence.

And this all comes back to our destabilized post-Yom Kippur individual, debilitated and paralyzed by the knowledge of his own mortality and transience. Sukkot says to him, that yes, everything is temporary, everything has an end, and you will one day die, and this would seem to render all of your decisions as insignificant. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for passivity. There is yet value in acting as if your actions have significance, despite what may appear to be the case from your perspective. That yes, there is significance to the passing shade of the Sukkah and the withering leaves of the Arba Minim. And to that end, one must leap headfirst into the absurd, into sleeping and eating outside, into the carrying and shaking of plant-bundles, to force oneself to reclaim their ability to make decisions that are not paralyzed by despair and doubt. Perhaps this is why we read Sefer Kohelet on Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos. For 12 Chapters, Shlomo HaMelech muses on mortality, transience, despair, doubt, and insecurity. And despite it all, his conclusion is  סוֹף דָּבָר, הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע:  אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר, כִּי-זֶה כָּל-הָאָדָם, “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.”. He has affirmed that despite the transience of it all, there is still significance to his actions.

To conclude, there is an idea, which I thought was Talmudic, but actually comes from a Metzudat David on Mishlei 15:30, that  אין שמחה כהתרת הספקות, “There is no joy like the resolution of doubt”. Perhaps this is the joy of Sukkos. The resolution of humanity’s doubts in itself and the significance of its actions by using the transient and temporary for permanence.

Chag Sameach!

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.