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.

Devar Torah for Pesach: Play-Acting Transcendence

There’s a lot to talk about for Pesach, and indeed, I can talk and talk until zeman kriat shema tomorrow morning, but instead I’d like to offer a small insight on a small slice of the haggadah, and maybe I will have shown something about Pesach in general. We read in the Haggadah:

אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה: הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא: שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ, יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הַיָמִים, כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הַלֵּילוֹת. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים: יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ – לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָשִׁיחַ.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaryah said: “I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night-until Ben Zoma explained it: “It is said, `That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life;’ now `the days of your life’ refers to the days, [and the additional word] `all’ indicates the inclusion of the nights! The sages, however, said: `The days of your life’ refers to the present-day world; and `all’ indicates the inclusion of the days of the Messianic Era.”

This paragraph is dealing with the question of when one is required to mention and remember the Exodus from Egypt. R. Elazar b. Azarya and Ben Zoma say the requirement to do so is operative both day and night, and adduce a prooftext for their claim. The Sages, on the other hand, hold that the requirement to mention the Exodus from Egypt is only operative during the day time, and use the proofext offered by R. Elazar b. Azarya and Ben Zoma not to mean that the requirement is also operative at night, but that it is also operative in the messianic era. To summarize, R. Elazar b. Azarya and Ben Zoma think that remembering the Exodus from Egypt is operative both day and night, and the Sages hold that the command in question is operative during the day and in the messianic era. We clear? Cool.
So what I’d like to do is attempt to read this little paragraph as indicative of two different philosophical approaches to the fact of the exodus from Egypt and its significance to the religious life. Let us first, however, define what it is exactly we are talking about. To use a phrase I hate, What do we talk about when we talk about the Exodus? You can offer all kinds of answers to that question, (FREEDOM, ‘MURICA!, ZIONISM! etc etc), but I think a clear and relatively uncontroversial answer to that question is that the Exodus represents the clearest expression of the divine intervention into the historical process. God, through a series of open and astounding miracles, brings the most powerful empire in the world to its knees for the purposes of ending the unjust oppression and enslavement of His Chosen People, culminating in seas being split, powerful armies being drowned, and songs being sung. The Pesach Story is the story of a transcendent God imposing his will upon our earthly reality and showing the path towards a better world order, a flash of transcendence in our ordered world.

So, what do we do with that? How do we as religious Jews relate to that event of transcendence? Let us begin with what I understand to be the approach of The Sages in the paragraph I cited above. The Sages hold that the commandment to remember the Exodus is only in situations of clarity, in the daytime and in the messianic era. The fact of God intervening in history can only be fully appreciated when such moments are clear as the light of day, and in the absence of such clear intervention, it should not be attempted. We should live with the cognizance that we are not in a stage of history resembling the Exodus, that we are in exile in an unperfected world, and should not attempt to pretend that we already live in a paradise. And though the Sages’ opinion is not, in the end, taken, there are still traces of this concept up and down the Haggadah. We, for instance, leave out roasted meat, even though that was what offered in the times of the Temple, as a reminder of our exile. The Holiday of Pesach recognizes that our reality is not a transcendent one, and remains grounded in that reality.

R. Elazar Ben Azarya and Ben Zoma, though, have a different approach, and one that seems to guide most of our observance of Pesach. True, they say, we live in the dark night of exile, a much different scenario than the daylight clarity of the Exodus and the Messianic Era. But, they say, we can recreate that transcendent moment in our own lives by reliving, by play-acting our way through the redemption process. And this, it seems to me, underlies the entire Pesach experience. From the search and destruction for Chametz that parallels the purging of evil from the world, to the Seder where we recreate the experience of going from slavery to freedom, even to the reading of Shir Hashirim, Pesach is about living our lives in a way that parallels and recreates transcendence in our imperfect reality, about allowing ourselves to live life as an allegory. Perhaps that is why, going a little off-peshat here, R. Elazar Ben Azarya introduces his idea with “I was like 70 years old, כְבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה”. R. Elazar Ben Azarya’s opinion, and Pesach in general, is about the “like,” the “as if,” the כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם.

Parshat Shekalim: The Two Sides of The Coin

This week, after reading through Mishpatim, with its laws between Man and Man, Man and God, and Man and Ox, we will read Parshat Shekalim, which is about counting.


Wait, wait hold on there Your Excellency, we have to count in a very specific way. We can’t count by numbers, 1 Jew 2 Jew 3 Jew, because that will lead to a plague, apparently. So count by things! Let them bring in, I dunno, sticks, stones, something. No, we have to count them with money. I guess that makes sense, we could raise some money for The Tabernacle Fund, how about a nice round figure of a shekel a person? Nope. Half a shekel.

What I’m trying to say is, this is a weird kind of mitzvah.

Yet, I think it can give us an important insight into how the Torah resolves the tension between two competing values, of the rights of the individual and the good of the community. The tension between these two values animates many philosophical discussions, secular and religious. Of course, such values are only healthy when they are in tension, because an extreme in either direction is a bad thing. And I believe that the way the mitzvah of the half shekel is structured shows how Judaism keeps those two in balance.

How? So let us think this out. How does valuing the role of the community to an extreme become a bad thing? Well, if individuals are not seen as having their own rights and are merely seen as tools for the greater good of the community, it can lead to those rights being trampled upon for the greater good. Such a community would view its members as not individuals in their own right, with their identities, contributions, strengths and weaknesses, but merely as another faceless statistic in the crowd. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is Nazi concentration camps, where inmates were stripped of any identity, their name, their clothes, their appearance, and given numbers, like commodities.

Thus, to counteract this notion, the Torah demands that we not count people as mere numbers from an undifferentiated mass, but as  individuals, each equally valued and each with their own contribution to make to society. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 38 may deepen our understanding of this concept:

אדם יחידי נברא, ומפני מה….תנו רבנן: להגיד גדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא; שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד – וכולן דומין זה לזה, אבל הקדוש ברוך הוא טובע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון -ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו, 

Our Rabbis taught: [The creation of the first man alone] was to show forth the greatness of the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. For if a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mould of the first man, and not one resembles the other.

Each person, created in the mold of Adam HaRishon and in the image of their creator, is a unique coin that is valid legal tender in the economy of Jewish society.

But, on the flip side of the coin (haha), it is possible to lean too far towards the value of individuality. It is possible for a person to see themselves as the only worthwhile end, that they owe nothing to society at large, and they should only be concerned with their own achievements and their own aggrandizement, subscribing to the idea of greed as good and selfishness as virtue. These people do not recognize the validity of other people’s needs, and they view their half-shekel as the only viable gold standard. To those people, the Torah says, you are never truly free and isolated from larger society. You are not a unit unto yourself. You are a half-shekel, you are incomplete and dependent on others, and you have no identity that exists totally independent from the world around you.
Thus, the Torah strikes a delicate balance between the competing ideas of the rights of the individual and the needs of the community. People are not mere numbers, and we value each individuals unique qualities and contributions, and do not see them as mere means to an end, but at the same time, each person must recognize that they do not exist independently of society, that they are necessarily incomplete and debt to those around them.

To end off, I’d like to quote an interesting/weird midrashic statement (Megillah 13b) and explain it in light of what we’ve been saying:

אם על המלך טוב יכתב לאבדם ועשרת אלפים ככר כסף וגו’ אמר ריש לקיש: גלוי וידוע לפני מי שאמר והיה העולם שעתיד המן לשקול שקלים על ישראל, לפיכך הקדים שקליהן לשקליו.והיינו דתנן: באחד באדר משמיעין על השקלים ועל הכלאים.

“If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver”, Reish Lakish said, “It was revealed and known before the One whose word created the world, that Haman would weigh out shekalim in order to attain the consent of Achashveros to destroy the Jewish people. He [G-d] therefore preceded their shekalim to his, and for this reason we learn that on the first of Adar an announcement is to be made concerning the shekalim. (Megillah 13b)

So, Reish Lakish says that God knew that Haman would weigh out shekalim, so he gave B’nei Yisrael the mitzvah of shekalim to counteract that. How does that make sense? If we look at Haman’s case for the extermination of the Jews, one of the thing he says is that they are מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, “scattered and dispersed among the nations,” which seems to be not only a statement on the Jewish people’s place in Diaspora, but a statement about the Jewish community itself, that it is scattered and and lacking in unity, full of different factions and competing agendas, each believing that the larger community should simultaneously accommodate every aspect of their agenda and deny the place of other agendas in their community. And the antidote to this observation of Haman is this mitzvah of the half-shekel, and the lesson contained therein.

Devar Torah Shabbos Shira: Songs, Songs of Songs, And Our Educational Mission.

I’m going to attempt to keep this relatively short. I find my divrei torah suffer when I try to stuff too much stuff in. Think of this as an exercise in brevity.
This shabbos is traditionally known as Shabbos Shira, on account of the Song at The Sea that occurs in this week’s parsha, sung by B’nei Yisrael after they crossed the Yam Suf and watched their tormentors drown in the sea. R. Hutner, in a number of places, most notably Pachad Yitzchak Pesach Maamar 15, observes that song, throughout Tanach, is always sung upon the downfall and defeat of evil. There is, however, one exception: Shir HaShirim. Shir HaShirim is in fact not about the defeat of evil, and is rather an allegory concerning two lovers. R. Hutner, later on in Pachad Yitzchak Pesach, sees this as a reflection the era Sholomo lived in, one of peace and quiet in which the Temple was built, one relatively uninterrupted by war and discord. In such an era, the focus is not on defeating evil, as that has already been accomplished. Rather, the focus is on imbuing every aspect of one’s life with holiness, such that even one’s mundane activities become an allegory for divine ideas. Thus the name of the book: Shir HaShirim, The Song of Songs, the song sung not because evil is defeated, but beyond that, when good is victorious.
It is worthwhile to consider to what extent we focus on, in Jewish education, defeating evil, ie, staying away from sin, refuting bad ideologies, drawing lines against modernity, at the expense of focusing on building a positive Judaism, articulating a bold vision of what Judaism can contribute to the modern world. May we sing that Song of Songs speedily in our days.