Some Thoughts About Food Safety and Overlap with Kashrut

Taking the food safety exam as a prerequisite towards working as a mashgiach, besides for being a delightful voray into so-bad-it’s-good 90’s era-internet graphic design, gave me a little bit of a deeper understanding of something I’ve noticed in Yoreh Deah.
There’s this concept in food safety called “The Danger Zone” which basically posits that any potentially bacteria-harboring food that is allowed to stay for an extended period of time between the temperatures of 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, is now contaminated and should be thrown out rather than served. Food service should be dedicated towards making sure that food stays in the danger zone for as little time as possible, either by getting it above 140 degrees or below 41. Most of the questions on the test that you need to pass to get your food card come down to “danger zone”.
Interestingly, one of the gedolim in the field of Food Science, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, in his book “The Food Lab”, notes that this danger zone criteria has significant issues, which are violated constantly by some widely consumed foods like aged beef or gourmet cheese. Temperature is obviously a factor in killing off bacteria, but so is time, and so is the environment. A cut of chicken that is vacuum sealed in a plastic bag and put in sous vide bath to cook for 6 hours is not the same thing as a cut of chicken left uncovered in a steam table for hours.
Lopez-Alt, however, doesn’t want you to think the danger zone is a dumb concept. He argues that such rules are intended to guide the vast majority of people in the vast majority of situations and give them a simple, easy to remember criteria to remember. Sure, one could pull out a graph of bacteria activity as a function of temperature and time and calculate the likelihood of contamination that way. But most of the people working in kitchens aren’t scientists and a easy to remember, easy to apply criteria that ensures everyone’s safety is much preferable.
I’ve noticed that in many instances of issur v’heter, the Rema in particular has a similar program, something I would call “conceptual simplicity is its own kula”. The Rema would rather give you an easy to remember and easy to apply criteria that may be superficially stricter but would require you to account for a number of other factors. Rather than mess around with trying to define what a taam issur is, which might, in many instances, lead to a more lenient position, the Rema would rather you just remember the number 60. Rather than do what was previously the widely held minhag in Ashkenaz and wait one hour between meat and milk, which would require a number of steps to allow (washing your hands and mouth and cleaning the table), the Rema would rather you just wait 6 hours. I remember running into more examples that I can’t recall offhand.
I think this is important to keep in mind when complaints are made about chumros in halacha. Certainly there are instances where such a complaint is valid. But I think that some thought should be put into understanding the possible “hidden leniencies” that are involved in some of these chumrot, that, while on the surface make more things prohibited, may allow Jews who have no aspiration to master the intriciate halachos involved to keep kashrut without confusion and with peace of mind.
An example of this, one where I’ve changed my mind, is that of stainless steel being used for both meat and dairy, on the argument that it doesn’t absorb taam. (Some summation of the arguments can be found here.) I was initially sympathetic to the argument, considering both scientific and programmatic (one set of pots is less of an expense, lowering the cost of living for Orthodox people)  Maybe so, maybe not, but using a pot for both like that would require making sure that the pot in question is always squeaky clean, which, for anyone who washes dishes, knows is sometimes easier said than done, and also may require knowing exactly when the pot was used for one flavor so as to make sure there was 24 hours between uses, which would be hard to track as well as hard to police other people from mistakenly using it during that period. (To be fair, an argument can be made that it would not require that, but I’ll admit to being b’safek on this point) While yes, its an extra expense getting another set of pots and pans, its a one time expense, usually given to you as a wedding present anyway, which ends up making your life much easier on a day to day basis. Its a stringency that is a conceptual leniency, and much like the US government wants regular people to understand food safety through a simple concept, I’d prefer that observant Jews need not be halakhic experts to follow halakha on a day to day basis. 

Devar Torah for Purim: A Close Reading of Pachad Yitzchak on Purim #4, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Not Trust Translations.

Pachad Yitzchak, by R. Yitzchak Hutner, is my favorite sefer to learn, for a variety of reasons. Number one, R. Hutner was a fascinating, fascinating man, an outstanding and compelling thinker who contained multitudes, an authority firmly within the Haredi community who nevertheless had interests that transcended that world, including a time spent in the University of Berlin learning philosophy. Because of that, number two, R. Hutner is never boring, and always has the capacity to surprise. When you open up a piece of Rav Hutner, you have to throw away any biases and expectations you may have of him, and you have to keep your mind open to what he might be saying, because Rav Hutner was bigger than your boxes. True, he was a Haredi gadol, but he often has ideas that, when subjected to critical analysis, are shocking in their boldness and in the influences he may be reflecting. You can’t discount any possibility when learning R. Hutner. Which is, perhaps, why I love it so much. It’s deeply challenging, and engages me on the level of my weaknesses. I’m lazy, and I like to go into reading something with a basic idea of what I’m dealing with. You can’t do that with R. Hutner. You have to be patient, you have  to be thorough, and you have to cultivate the ability to allow R. Hutner to surprise you. Because when you read him carefully, he can shock you with the boldness of the ideas, a boldness he seems to have concealed behind the artistry of his rabbinic prose.

Let me show you an example I uncovered when looking for a very short piece of Pachad Yitzchak to learn with a chavrusa. We’re gonna look at the full text, and you’re gonna come with me on this journey as we subject it to a close reading, and consider the full import of what R. Hutner is saying.

The full text of Pachad Yitzchak on Purim 4:

יום נקם בלבי’ ואמרו חכמים על זה ‘לבא לפומא לא גליא’. כלומר, אותו יום שבו עתיד הקב”ה לנקום נקמתה של כנסת ישראל, אותו יום נעוץ הוא בלבבו של הקב”ה כביכול וגנוז הוא אותו יום במעמקי התעלומה של אותו לב, עד שלא יגיע ממנה שום גילוי לפיו כביכול. וכל זה הוא בשאר ימות השנה, אבל ביום הפורים שבו נקהלו היהודים להנקם מאיביהם, נקמה זו היא גם נקמתו של כביכול. ביום זה נפלה המחיצה בין הלב והפה של כביכול. לבו של הקב”ה הוא קרוב מאד לפיו ביום הפורים. וזו היא אחת הטעימות שאנו טועמים בשכרות דפורים. שכן מצב השכרות הוא מצב של סילוק המחיצות בין הפה והלב. לבא לפומא גליא 

The text, as translated by R. Pinchas Stolper, in his “Purim in a New Light” Translation of Pachad Yitzchak on Purim, which will give us a basic, and, as I will go on to argue, erroneous understanding of this Ma’amar:

I have set a day of for revenge in my heart (my heart anticipates the day of final retribution and vegeance)” (Yeshaya 63:4)”

Concerning this quote, our sages taught, “the heart of G-d has not yet revealed its intentions to the mouth” (Midrash Sochar Tov, Tehillim 9:2)

The day on which the Holy One will avenge Israel is hidden within the folds of the Lord’s heart. That day is so deeply concealed that we have no hint when that day will be and when G-d’s intentions will be revealed. All of this is true on all the other days of the year, with the exception of Purim, “the day on which the Jews gathered to take vengeance on their enemies” (Esther 9:2)

On this day, the curtain which separated G-d’s heart and G-d’s mouth metaphorically parted. On Purim the heart of the Holy One is close to his mouth. This is one of the tastes that we are able to savor in the midst of the drinking of the Purim feast. Imbibing liquor brings about the removal of the partition between the mouth and the heart. The heart reveals itself to the mouth.
We know that on that day, this will again happen! And experiencing this day each year assures us that this day will happen soon.

The things that R. Stolper gets right are the basic components of the maamar. There is a medrash on a quote from Sefer Yeshaya about the day of G-d’s vengeance being in his heart, which says that the heart of G-d has not revealed its intentions to its mouth. R. Hutner then explains that to mean that the day of vengeance is hidden deep in the recesses of God’s heart, to the point it is not revealed by G-d’s mouth. However, on Purim, unlike all the other days of the calendar, that separation between G-d’s heart and G-d’s mind is parted. And that getting drunk on Purim has something to do with that.
The last paragraph is not a translation, but seems to be R. Stolper’s attempt to sum up the content of the maamar. The experience of Purim provides a taste of the ultimate divine day of vengeance, and experiencing Purim provides an assurance that it will happen in the future.

However, I think that, when one reads closely, a greater depth to this ma’amar can be ascertained, a depth R. Stolper could not adequately present in translation.
The key to this ma’amar, I believe, is the term כביכול, “as it were”, which is the rabbinic term to denote that a description of God is meant to be taken as metaphor, which dampens down the heretical potential of any given description of God. By way of example, “God’s hand lifted the man up and took him to heaven” is a little heretical. “God’s hand lifted the man up, k’viyachol, and took him to heaven” is pretty much fine. Its a way of denoting that our descriptions of God are ultimately insufficient and we merely use such language for a lack of better alternatives.

But watch how R. Hutner uses the term “k’viyachol” over the course of this maamar.

The first couple of lines, R. Hutner is using the term k’viyachol to describe the notion of God’s heart and God’s mouth being in partition, and using it fairly typically, as rabbinic writing goes:

כלומר, אותו יום שבו עתיד הקב”ה לנקום נקמתה של כנסת ישראל, אותו יום נעוץ הוא בלבבו של הקב”ה כביכול וגנוז הוא אותו יום במעמקי התעלומה של אותו לב, עד שלא יגיע ממנה שום גילוי לפיו כביכול.

The day of vengeance referred to by Yeshaya is in God’s heart, k’viyachol, and is not revealed to his mouth, k’viyachol. Fairly typical usage, letting the reader know that the notions of God having a heart and having a mouth are mere allegory.

But then, when it comes to Purim, something odd happens:

וכל זה הוא בשאר ימות השנה, אבל ביום הפורים שבו נקהלו היהודים להנקם מאיביהם, נקמה זו היא גם נקמתו של כביכול

On the day of Purim, we are told, when the Jews gathered to avenge themselves on their enemies,  נקמה זו היא גם נקמתו של כביכול, “this vengeance is also the vengeance of k’viyachol”. K’viyachol does not seem to be modifying a clause here, making the vengeance referred to one which is only metaphorical. Rather, it is a vengeance “shel k’viyachol”. The vengeance belongs to, or is of, “k’viyachol”. This is an odd clause, and R. Stolper doesn’t translate it at all. The next sentence, however, returns to this odd phrasing:

ביום זה נפלה המחיצה בין הלב והפה של כביכול

“On this day,” R. Hutner continues, “The partition between the heart and the mouth of k’viyachol falls”. R. Stolper translates this phrase as G-d’s mouth and G-d’s heart, but that is an imprecise translation. G-d is not a subject which appears in this sentence. Either the subject of this sentence is “k’viyachol”, which would make it k’viyachol’s heart and mouth that has the partition, which would in turn require more explanation, or k’viyachol is, in fact, modifying this partition. In other words, the partition between G-d’s heart and G-d’s mind is “k’viyachol“. That the division between the God we imagine and the God we intellectually comprehend is what is overcome on Purim. This is too crazy, right? Look at the next line.

לבו של הקב”ה הוא קרוב מאד לפיו ביום הפורים.

The heart of God is very close to his mouth on Purim, says Rav Hutner. What’s missing here? K’viyachol. The rabbinic qualifier of divine metaphor, that he used in the opening of this very maamar with this very metaphor.
This, in turn, explains the connection between the idea of this maamar and the idea of drinking on Purim day, a connection which seemed tenuous in R. Stolper’s reading.

וזו היא אחת הטעימות שאנו טועמים בשכרות דפורים. שכן מצב השכרות הוא מצב של סילוק המחיצות בין הפה והלב

Drinking blurs barriers, not only between “Baruch Moredchai” and “Arur Haman”, but between our cognition and our emotion, our intellectual  and philosophical comprehension of God’s limits and our imaginative depictions of God’s actuality, all stemming from the blurring of lines between our in-progress imperfect world and the perfected world where good has triumphed over evil, a day that God winked at us through the veil of history and we caught a glimpse. A day in which we break free from the constraints of k’viyachol and apprehend God, for a brief moment, as physical reality. And a day in which we, in an act of imitatio dei, remove the barriers between our hearts and our mouths for ourselves, שכן מצב השכרות הוא מצב של סילוק המחיצות בין הפה והלב

Rav Hutner concludes the Maamar by, perhaps in the spirit of Purim, turning the rabbinic phrase that served as the backbone of this piece on its head.

לבא לפומא גליא

On Purim, unlike all other days, the heart is revealed to the mouth.

Purim Sameach.

What Might the Organic and non-GMO Food Movements Teach Us About The Jewish Community and Bugs In Vegetables?

Over the recent decades, there has been a push in some circles of society towards organic food and away from Genetically Modified food. Many reasons are given; health, fear of chemicals, a moral stance on what kind of farming ought to be done by people, whatever. This despite the fact that there is overwhelming scientific evidence that GMO’s are safe, and that organic food is not necessarily any better for you. Why, then, does this persist? There seems to me to be a class element to this movement. It used to be that what set different classes apart was the quality and quantity of food available to each wealth sector. With the advances in farming and agricultural science providing an unprecedented amount of food to an unprecedented amount of people, I suspect there were people who unconsciously started to think, “well, my food must be better than that which is eaten by the common peasant”. And thus, organic food movements and anti-GMO movements are born, both of which reject methods to increase agricultural yields and concurrently access to food by the poor, preferring more expensive alternatives that are supposed to be a more refined and more ideal product. In this way, the more well-off get to establish themselves as better for having paid a premium price for food they see as more ideal, and get to set themselves apart from the unwashed masses of peasants eating peasant food. This despite the fact that this movement is a net loss for humanity, especially when companies start satisfying demand for these “natural products” by deliberately choosing agricultural policies that decrease their yield, driving up food prices and pricing out the poor. In other words, when rich people are allowed to set the market operating under the unconscious assumption that they must set themselves apart from the peasantry, the market tends to follow their lead, to the detriment of the poor.

I think a similar thing has occurred in the Jewish world when it comes to the idea of bugs in vegetables. With food suddenly plentiful, the well-off and well-educated unconsciously search for reasons to pronounce their own food as being of higher quality than that available to lower classes. And what they found was that bugs in vegetables fit that bill. That a new badge of pride would be the high prices paid for checked produce, or even the total avoidance of certain produce altogether. And by doing so specifically within a religious context, it meant that the poor had to keep up on these religious standards, (unlike people who can just go ahead and buy unorganic and GMO food), as they become seen as a important aspect of being an Orthodox Jew. The effect, unfortunately, is a regressive tax on Orthodoxy: poor people depend on produce for a higher percentage of their diet than the rich who can afford to dine on (kosher-slaughtered and glatt) meat. Suddenly, if they want to keep within the frum community, produce is out of their price range again. Even for those communities which are okay with checking vegetables at home, there is a certain person who can afford to spend as much as an hour of their time merely prepping the vegetables, and its not, say, a single mother of 5 who has a full time job to pay for yeshiva tuition. The effect is essentially pricing the poor out of Orthodoxy by allowing the rich to set the standards of religious practice.

Rabbinic decisors ought to be cognizant of these trends and their deletritous effects of the community and stop them before they become widespread. It is not enough to offer poor families certain dispensations on a case by case basis; the fact that certain trends become standard within the community such that a given parent will feel that they can’t afford to keep halakha is itself a problem. In the case of bugs and vegetables, there have been poskim, most notably the Aruch HaShulchan, who have recognized the undue burden that being machmir would place on members of the Orthodox community. I’m not offering any practical suggestions for psak, nor do I have any right to, but I am wondering aloud; would it be so terrible if the Orthodox community agreed to follow the Aruch HaShulchan, and be mekil on this issue, so that the poor would feel more welcome in our community?

A More Detailed Critique of R. Avrohom Gordimer’s campaign against Open Orthodoxy/Things That Make Him Uncomfortable

(The first version of this post accidentally failed to refer to R. Gordimer by his proper rabbinic title, and I apologize deeply for that error. If I were to point to a cause for this error, and if I were to be honest with myself, it is likely due to participating in too many conversations where R. Gordimer was not granted the basic respect of being referred to by his proper title, to the point it had been normalized in my mind. I resolve in the future to insist that he be referred to by his proper title as a matter of “what is hateful to you don’t do to your friend”. This post should furthermore not be construed as an attack on R. Gordimer’s basic character; according to everyone I’ve ever spoken to, R. Gordimer is a wonderful and nice person in real life. I myself was privileged to hear R. Gordimer speak to an OU Kashrut course and found his shiur engaging and informative. The only reason I did not go up to thank him after the shiur was because I feared my name being recognized as someone who had written a scathing critique of an article he had written for the YU Commentator. So, R. Gordimer, on the off chance you read this, I apologize profusely for failing to refer to you by your proper title, and thank you for that shiur) 
Last night, in a fit of passion, I wrote a post about what I percieve to be problems in the ways that Open Orthodoxy has been criticized, particularly by R. Avrohom Gordimer. I neglected to bring specific examples of R. Gordimer exhibiting the trends that I ascribe to him, as I as more musing aloud than writing a fully documented critique. But I want to back up what I said with actual references, so I have selected a R. Gordimer “kefira roundup” article at random to illustrate what I’m talking about.

Let’s go with this one.

Right off the bat, R. Gordimer identifies the point of the mitzvah of Matzah as teaching us a lesson in humility and submission before God, as is his wont. Having confidently identified the true reason for the commandment, he then goes on to assail anyone who goes against the True Meaning of Pesach by having the gall to disagree with him.

The first object of his ire is R. Shmuly Yanklowitz, who proposes we remove Shefoch Chamascha from our Haggadah. I will admit, I was no fan of this proposal. I feel that this suggestion is insufficently receptive to the genuine pain of our ancestors in exile, and recognizing that pain and that anger has its value. Do I think removing it constitutes heresy? No. No ikkar emunah is being impinged on if R. Shmuly Yanklowitz decides not to say Shefoch Chamascha. Making such a passage, one so jarringly dissimilar from anything in Jewish liturgy (even the Kinot are much much more muted in their calls for divine retribution) central to one’s notion of Judaism is the very definition of picking a bad hill to die on. But, because R. Yanklowitz is liberal, and he’s expressing something R. Gordimer sees as a liberal value, its treif.

The second object of R. Gordimer’s displeasure is R. Dov Linzer for having ” just postulated that we insert our own characters and values into the Haggadah:” and having the temerity to suggest rabbinic opinions were rejected. For the latter crime, I’m not sure why R. Linzer is not allowed to interpret a Gemara or suggest rabbinic opinions get rejected, or give reasons why. As for the latter, you can judge for yourself, but as far as I can tell, R. Linzer is merely offering an interpretation of the concept of “seeing yourself as if you exited Egypt”, and gives a nice little devar torah on it, which R. Gordimer rejects because how dare he say that anyone’s allowed to have their own viewpoint?! So R. Gordimer didn’t like the devar torah. That’s not heresy. That’s you not agreeing with a point of a devar torah. Maybe even that’s you having a different philosophical orientation towards text in general. But, because R. Gordimer believes that there’s only one kind of rabbi, one kind of Jew, and one kind of Orthodoxy, and R. Linzer doesn’t fit into those categories, therefore, its heresy, non-Orthodox, nu-conservative whatever and now he needs to write a blogpost about it.

The third object of R. Gordimer’s displeasure is the “Joy of Text” podcast, which discusses matters of sex and Judaism in a podcast. R. Gordimer does not like that they’re doing this. Okay. I have my own issues with it, chiefly that it plays off this voyeuristic fascination with religious people’s sex lives, but also that I do think that our halakhic system values privacy when it comes to matters of intimacy. That said, the fact that they have this podcast is not an act of heresy. They’re discussing Torah and halakha, and such discussion might be incredibly valuable in an increasingly sexualized society, making sure an authentically Jewish and compelling view of sexuality is put out into the public sphere. Like with everything, there is a balance that ought to be struck between two extremes, and R. Gordimer seems not only unwilling to negotiate that balance, as is his God given right, but seems unwilling to grant the right to grapple with that balance to others, because the type of Orthodox people R. Gordimer envisions in his head are not the type of people to have that discussion.

The fourth point of contention is R. Ysoscher Katz’s responsa on Breastfeeding women in shul. R. Gordimer has an issue with it because he doesn’t agree with it. Nu, he’s allowed to not agree with it, he’s allowed to attack it, and being as this is on an actual point of halakha, its not really the focus of what I’m critiquing, unless it is meant to be brought as evidence for R. Katz’s heresy, which would be a little much. People can be wrong on halakha without being heretics. What seems to distinguish heresy from simple wrongness in R. Gordimer’s book is the ideological direction the error comes from. And that strikes me as dishonest.

R. Yaakov Kamenetsky, in last week’s parsha, has a fascinating piece, beginning with an explanation of God’s command (Shemot, 19:3) of כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב, וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “This is what you shall say to the House of Yaakov, and this is what you shall tell to B’nei Yisrael”, which seems to imply a specificity to the words Moshe is to say. R. Yaakov writes that God wanted the Israelites to accept the Torah not out of being convinced by Moshe in any way, but purely from their own free will, and thus Moshe was given specific words to say. Working off this, he gives a fascinating explanation as to why Moshe hitting the rock in the desert, after God had told him to talk to the rock, resulted in such a harsh punishment for Moshe, ie, dying and not entering into the land. If Moshe had been allowed to get away with a ever-so-slight deviation from the exact divine command, than it would mean we would have no ability to trust that what Moshe had relayed to us in the Torah was exactly what God had commanded. Even the slightest distortion of the exact text of the divine command would completely destroy any notion of trust in rabbinic authority.

So while R. Gordimer concerns himself with people who deny that Moshe wrote the Torah because of the disastrous effect that would have on the foundations of our faith, I worry that the constant misrepresentation of the boundaries of heresy, such that the mere lack of conformance to a very narrow vision of Orthodoxy is taken as unforgivable heresy, will have even more deleterious effects. If the accusation of heresy is bandied about constantly , with flimsy basis, in an attempt to force Orthodoxy into a tiny box, then it will lose any sort of meaning, and all respect for rabbinic authority will erode. R. Gordimer and his ilk claim that his targets are tearing the fabric of Orthodoxy. I suspect that they have more than their share of blame in the matter.

On the Victims of Communal Strife: Or Why R. Avrohom Gordimer Scares Me

I’d like to start with a story of an event that made me sad.

There was a guy I went to elementary school with, let’s call him M, who was, is, and always will be a brilliant brilliant
guy. Math genius, gemara genius, all around genius. We were good friends, not just because I was a smart kid, he was a smart kid, and we’d get bullied a lot, but because we were both very big baseball fans. We used to debate about which players were the best, passing notes to each other in which we detailed our personal all star teams. We collected and traded baseball cards, played baseball video games, etc etc. We were big baseball fans. Both of us.

Time went on. We went to the same high school. We drifted apart a little bit, but stayed on good terms, for the most part. He had a stronger work ethic than I, and he got put in top gemara shiurs, top Math classes, and he became a poster boy for our school’s academic excellence. I went in a different direction, not an opposite one, but a different one. I became more interested in philosophy, Gemara bored me even as I remained pretty good at it, and I got into movies, music, and other stuff that M never really touched, to my knowledge. And of course, I remained just as into baseball as I always had been.

One day, I don’t even know how it came up, I casually mentioned that M was a big baseball fan. My interlocutor was incredulous. “M?! A baseball fan, I thought all he did was learn gemara!” No, I insisted, M was a big baseball fan. We used to talk about baseball all the time! My interlocutor demanded proof, so I proposed we ask M. We went over to M, and said “hey, you’re a big baseball fan, right?” M didn’t know what we were talking about, or at least, said he didn’t. “Baseball….is that the one with the baskets?” he asked.

M damn well knew it wasn’t.

Now, let me explain why this makes me sad. It doesn’t make me sad because I think M is a bad person. He’s not. I haven’t talked with him in a while, but he has always been an incredibly nice, down to earth, humble person who at this moment is probably in the process of becoming a leader of Orthodox Jewry. It doesn’t make me sad that M grew out of his baseball fandom. That is his right, and if he felt that his time could be better spent learning than following the wild card standings, then all the power to him, and maybe I should have that kind of willpower.

What makes me sad is that he felt the need to pretend that he had never even heard of baseball, that the idea of a budding Talmud Chacham even being acquainted with sports was such an unheard of idea that he had to pretend he was someone he wasn’t.  He could have said, “you’re right, I used to be a baseball fan, but I kind of grew out of it.” He did not. He pretended he had never heard of baseball.

What makes me sad about that is that if all my teachers had been like M, there’s a chance I wouldn’t be frum today. Looking back at the people who most affected my spiritual journey (ugh, I hate that term. Whatever), I found myself drawn to people who expressed a broad array of interests yet never lost sight of the primacy of Judaism and Torah. One of the (many) reasons I picked the yeshiva I picked was specifically because both of the Roshei Yeshiva were (and still are) huge baseball fans, and I learned from them that one can be a baseball fan and also a ben torah, also a Talmid Chacham, also an oved hashem, and that Judaism always comes first. That the person I was was not incompatible with a life suffused by the divine. R. Yitzchak Hutner, in a letter to a student concerned about how having a career may constitute “living a double life”, talks about how one should value not leading a “double life”, but having a “broad life”. From my mentors, I learned that it is okay to have a broad life. And to this day, I am grateful for that. And yes, we still talk baseball.

I thought about this story when I saw yet another broadside launched against “Open Orthodoxy”/Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, this time by one Shmuel Landesman for Yated Ne’eman. Just to preface, I am not Open Orthodox. I am a proud RIETS student. I have my issues with Open Orthodoxy, and the article did indeed raise what I think is a fair point regarding the rigor of the YCT curriculum. But what concerns me, at this moment, is the straws that are being grasped in this debate, and why those straws are actively harmful to the future of Orthodoxy. I’d like to hone in on this paragraph:

It is fascinating to read the information Chovevei puts out about its current students. Its students are primarily graduates of secular universities; only a small minority attended Yeshiva College/YU. Most Chovevei students graduated from state schools (University of Connecticut, Brooklyn College, Queens College), while a few are Ivy League grads (Columbia, University of Pennsylvania). Most were liberal arts majors – i.e., sociology, religion, psychology, education; though a few majored in the hard sciences – i.e. chemistry, biology. Today’s Chovevei students formally list an amazing array of interests: reading comic books, playing banjo, harmonica, rapping, beat-boxing, films, movies, comedy, raw foodism, craft-beer tasting, social justice, art history, art museums, antique home restoration, knitting, badminton, squash, tai chi and qi gong, yoga and German idealism.

The YCT Students have hobbies and interests! Perish the thought! I’d like to publicly state here first, before the House Committee of Un-Rabbinic Activities comes for me, that I enjoy movies *and* films and reading comic books, I’ve been known to drink a craft beer from time to time, and I own a harmonica, even as I never could figure out how to play it. Kidding aside, what seems to be underlying this paragraph is the unstated assumption that rabbinical students ought to have no interests besides learning Torah, such that quoting their varied interests is relevant in an article attacking their institution. What is being attacked, then, is not so much a breach of halakha but a breach in what the writer considers to be appropriate rabbinic activities when compared to a preconceived notion of what a rabbi ought to be interested in. In other words, its not that there’s anything necessarily wrong halakhically with all these things, its just that the author is uncomfortable with rabbis doing these things.
The problem is that demanding that all of our rabbinic leaders conform to a specific prefabricated mold necessarily means that there is only one type of Jew with which we ought to supply only one type of rabbi, that no one with a broad view of the world or a broad array of interests ought to be a rabbinic leader and thus no one should have broad interests. This is an approach that, had it guided my education, would have led to me leaving Orthodoxy, no question.
But this goes beyond this one article. Whatever you want to say about Open Orthodoxy, the attacks on it, particularly from R. Avrohom Gordimer, (which, if you’re reading this on your weekly jaunt through the blogosphere, hi!) have all too often consisted not of a sourced halakhic critique of certain activities, but the mere expression of discomfort with other people’s approaches that is then equated with heresy. R. Gordimer has attacked people for beginning a lecture with a provocative question (with no mind given as to what the eventual answer was), or for even entertaining the possibility of certain questions. My personal favorite was when R. Gordimer attacked R. Dov Linzer for having the temerity to quote a gemara that he thought was inappropriate to be discussed in public, one that said that the Keruvim in the Beis HaMikdash were engaged in coitus. Yeah, its a weird gemara, but who are you to decide which gemaros ought to be quoted? The overall impression from R. Gordimer’s oeuvre is not that he has a critique of Open Orthodoxy based on particular issues, but based on their character; R. Gordimer has issues with a certain kind of person who asks certain kinds of questions and has certain kinds of views being considered Orthodox, and has a very specific pre-fabricated notion of what an Orthodox person ought to look like.

This terrifies me. I feel like I have been caught in a cross-fire. Do I agree with the conclusions made by some people within Open Orthodoxy? No, and occasionally vehemently so. But I am not the kind of person R. Gordimer believes ought to be Orthodox. I find myself sometimes, perhaps even often, having the same questions, sometimes having the same approaches, as people within that movement. I furthermore have other interests besides Torah and Judaism; baseball, detective fiction, blues music, Quentin Tarantino’s movies, I’m not a guy who dresses in white shirts and black pants, and I’m politically liberal. I worry that all this communal strife is paving the way towards a future where all those things will be seen as incommensurate with a life lived according to halakha. I don’t want to live in an Orthodox world that only allows one type of rabbinic leader. I don’t want to be part of a rabbinate that would have turned my high school self off from Judaism. And I fear for an Orthodox world that totally rejects the notion of living a broad life.

On the matter of Rivkah being Three Years Old.

I see people all the time talking about Rivkah being three years old, as is brought down by Rashi, being “just a medrash”. People deny that it has any basis in peshat, that its purely a midrashic reading, even that it ought to be taken figuratively. I have even see people say that Rashi and medrash in general ought to be discarded for saying such disturbing things like Rivkah being three years old.

I think this approach is wrong.

Outright dismissing the Medrash that says Rivkah was three, or ascribing it figurative meaning, or any other approach that relegates the idea to drash instead of peshat, is not only, I think incorrect, it is more educationally dangerous. 

There are some sound textual reasons for concluding Rivkah was 3 years old.

  1. Her nurse coming with her (24:59)
  2. The quick succession of Akedah, Birth of Rivkah, and Death of Sarah in the narrative could lead one to plausibly assume they happened in quick succession chronologically as well. That would place Yitzchak’s age at the Akedah at 37. 25:20 tells us Yitzchak was 40 when he married Rivkah. That would then place Rivkah’s age at 3. Put into the larger context of Chazal trying to establish an exact chronology for the events of Bereishit, Rivkah being 3 is the puzzle piece that fits, even if it looks funny.

Chazal, when saying Rivkah is 3 years old, are interpreting the data they see in the text, perhaps impassively so. To say they are doing any more than that is, if I may be blunt, to call them perverts who seek to convey moral messages by the sexualization of a toddler. Such implications are infinitely more dangerous than the other alternative, which is, Chazal didn’t necessarily have the right peshat.

Some compelling textual reasons to say Rivkah is not 3 years old:

  1. All the shlepping and feeding and drawing water is rather beyond a 3 year old.
  2. Perhaps this is too drash-y, but in 24:58, she is asked for her consent in going with the servant. If she is under 12, she does not have da’as and her consent doesn’t work. (The more lomdish among you can quibble, its just a thought, though a weak one)
  3. There are reasons to doubt Chazal’s exact chronology. Ibn Ezra’s point about the Akeidah, that if Yitzchak was 37, why is it a test for Avraham? What about the guy whose neck is on the line, literally? is well taken, (though R. Yaakov Kamenetsky, k’darko bakodesh, gives a psychologically astute defense of this chronology). Based on this reasoning, and the fact that we see Yitzchak able to carry wood and talk and stuff, which makes him a little older, Ibn Ezra places his age at “close to 13” which I think is correct. Yitzchak is referred to as a na’ar, which I think should place him under Bar Mitzvah. You don’t have to buy that, particularly, but I think saying Yitzchak was preteen or early teens is a reasonable peshat explanation. Fine. You would then run into other chronology problems. People smarter than me could figure that out.

I’d rather Chazal have a justifiable but not necessarily correct peshat ( edit: that was advanced on purely technical grounds) than be perverts. Doing so has the danger of further eroding respect for rabbinic authorities throughout the generations. 

On The Importance of Gedolim: R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Remembered.

I just want to write up my thoughts on the passing of R. Aharon Lichtenstein. Unlike many of those sharing their thoughts, I was not a student of R. Aharon in the classic sense, though his writings have certainly helped shape my worldview. I did not attend Yeshivat Har Etzion, and certainly had no personal relationship with him, besides for one question I asked in a Q&A session in 9th grade and the times I shook his hand and said Good Shabbos to him when I stayed in Gush for Shabbos.  He was not my Rebbe. But he was my, hell, our Gadol.

“Gadol?!” I hear you ask, “Gadol?! Does Modern Orthodoxy believe in Gedolim?! Is that not one of the main issues that sets us apart from the Haredi world?! Do we not reject the notion of all-powerful and unquestionable Gedolim in favor of personal autonomy and independent decision-making? By calling R. Aharon your ‘Gadol’, are you not subscribing to an ideology that R. Aharon himself would have condemned (okay, probably politely but firmly differed with)?”

The answer is, no, of course not. Because that’s not what a Gadol should be, and one of the worst outcomes of the debates and strife between the Modern Orthodox and Haredi worlds is the Modern Orthodox world letting the concept of “Gedolim” become a Haredi concept they don’t believe in, because there is truly something religiously valuable in there, once you dig deeper, past the unquestioning obedience and abdication of personal responsibility that’s been piled up on top of the concept over the years.

And that something is this: Every society, especially religious societies, need their role models. Every society needs people who represent the fullest expression of the values it holds dear, if only to show that living a life in tune with those values is a goal that can actually be accomplished, if one dedicates themselves to the task. Every society has to have people who it can point to and say, “this is the kind of person I want to be”, not to imitate, but to emulate. Every society has to have people it can point to and say, “this is the pinnacle of what a human being can accomplish”, in accordance with what kinds of things it believes important for a human being to accomplish. In short, every society has its Gedolim who reflect its own values and ideal self-image. For American society, that means “Gedolim” like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr, figures who fought for democracy, freedom, and equality. For the Haredi world, that means Gedolim known for their accomplishments in Torah scholarship and their personal piety.

And for us, the Modern Orthodox? Our Gadol was R. Aharon Lichtenstein, someone who was an outstanding Torah scholar and also an outstanding secular academic, who was uncompromising in both his Judaism and his Humanism, who was able to confidently and assuredly navigate the contradictions inherent in being both religious and modern, with honesty, level-headedness, and humility and an unwavering moral voice. He served as living proof that the Modern Orthodox life did not have to mean a compromise on either Torah or being part of the modern world, that one could be an outstanding Torah scholar with an outstanding secular education and be an outstanding human being. And in that, he was our gadol, he was that person who perfectly reflected our community’s ideals and aspirations. (Even some of the humorous stories told about R. Aharon being mistaken for a driver or janitor because of his clean-shavenness and unassuming demeanor seem to represent something about Modern Orthodoxy’s self-image, that Modern Orthodoxy believes itself to be just as religiously accomplished even if it doesn’t necessarily look the part)

This is not merely theoretical. I do not remember myself when it was I first heard that R. Aharon Lichtenstein, respected Rosh Yeshiva, also had a PhD in English Literature from Harvard. What I do know is that it was, at the very least, before I was 13, and that this piece of information was, without knowing anything else about R. Aharon, life changing. I was always someone who had loved reading and other activities of a secular nature and was (and still am) quite religiously inclined, and the “Little Medrash Says’s” of my youth presented those two goals as being in total opposition. Either you throw out everything besides Torah, or you embrace godless heathenism. All that changed when I merely heard of the existence of R. Aharon Lichtenstein. One could be religious and one could be worldly, and that need not represent a compromise.

And from that point on, R. Aharon became my role model, even if I didn’t quite understand who he was, or even the nuances of the position I found so inspiring. I remember, inspired by the little information, trying to read his collection of essays,  Leaves of Faith, which was in our shul’s library. Being as I was 12 or so, suffice to say it didn’t go quite as planned. When my mother decided that, for our Bar Mitzvah, my twin brother and I were going to write short biographies of Gedolim to be used as centerpieces for the party, there was only one rabbi I insisted be included, and that was R. Aharon Lichtenstein. My Bar Mitzvah speech (yes, I wrote my own), which used Sherlock Holmes as an example of literature that be valuable religiously, approvingly cited R. Aharon’s example.  And when R. Aharon came to my high school and had an open Q&A session with my grade, I sat all the way in the front row (a rarity for me) and asked him about how his English Literature PhD helped him in the service of Torah, he answered in his typical humble and understated manner, and I wish I remember what he said, because I was too busy internally freaking out to actually listen to what he was saying. (I vaguely recall him saying that it helped him understand Tanach much better).

As time went on, and I got to the point where I could understand his writings better, I began to appreciate him as not just “the rosh yeshiva with a PhD”, but as a brilliant thinker with complex and nuanced things to say about the relationship between Modernity and Orthodoxy, one who, let’s be realistic, would have been none too pleased with my using his example as blanket heter for secular pursuits (In one passage in Leaves of Faith, he decries how Gemara now has to compete for attention with the likes of Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, which hits pretty close to home for someone who, if we’re being really really optimistic, spends as much time playing fantasy baseball as I do involved in Torah, and that’s only if one counts Facebook discussions about Torah on my ledger, and even then its almost arrogantly optimistic).  But it is no exaggeration to say that R. Aharon Lichtenstein is one of the prime reasons I am Modern Orthodox, or, perhaps, Orthodox at all. And looking around the Modern Orthodox world, as it stands now, I see no one who can truly fill those shoes of Modern Orthodox Gadol, shoes with feet planted firmly in both the religious and secular worlds, someone who truly represents the idealized vision of what Modern Orthodoxy can accomplish. We lost more than just a brilliant man, we lost more than just a deeply moral man, we lost more than just our leader, our teacher, our voice of reason, our conscience, though he was definitely all those things. We lost our Gadol. And without him here, I truly feel lost.