Purim Thoughts

Wrote this a couple of years ago as a Facebook status. I still like it.

People don’t understand something:
The megillah does not have a happy ending.
The Jews have evaded one genocide attempt, but what makes them any less vulnerable if another Haman arises to try again?
The fact that the King is now married to a Jew? Read the beginning of the megillah to find out how permanent that position is.
The fact that a Jew is now a trusted adviser to the King? Read the end of the megillah to find out how permanent that position is.
Esther is trapped in a marriage she entered into unwillingly, forced to stay to protect her people, כאשר אבדתי, אבדתי.
It’s far from a happy ending.

Most Jewish holidays are about miracles, moments of transcendence in our physical world, a brief light in the darkness and confusion.
Purim is different. On Purim we are involved in the physical. We eat and we drink and we take care of each other’s physical needs and wants.
On Purim we are confused. We put on masks, we drink. On Purim we don’t try to find the light in the darkness.
On Purim we wring the light out of the darkness itself.

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Book Review: Mavericks, Mystics, and False Messiahs, by R. Pini Dunner

Full disclosure. Toby Press sent me this book for review, though I do think my review will be fair regardless.

Jewish education has failed its students in many ways, but one of the ways it has done so that is particularly near and dear to my heart is we don’t give our students the sense that Jewish History is awesome. We focus a lot on the bare facts and dates and important personas, but don’t provide any color to those pictures, color that not only is important in its own right as facts that deserve their own airing, but stuff that would go a long way to making learning about history much more exciting and less boring. The fact that students come out of our educational system knowing that the Ibn Ezra is a commentary on chumash (if that!) instead of knowing him as the wisecracking world traveller who writes witty put downs of his opponents and probably brought the zero to Europe is a missed opportunity. Learning R. Chaim Brisker becomes more fun when you learn about how his students would chant his name when he entered the room, and learning the Chazon Ish was, according to those who knew him, hilarious, provides valuable color to a black and white stern picture.

I was therefore gratified to see that R. Pini Dunner has authored a book, “Mavericks, Messianics, and Mystics” specifically to discuss the kinds of Capital C Characters that get left out in the typical discussion of Jewish history. R. Dunner writes in his intro about his motivation for this book being his soft spot for the eccentrics and misfits of Jewish history, and his desire to examine the trends that led to their existence, seeing them as a mirror for the societies they came from. but also because this stuff is fun and interesting on its own. His book is a long overdue bit of awesome for students of Jewish history.

The book has 7 chapters, each dealing with a different historical figure or event. It begins with Shabtai Zvi, giving an account of his rise and fall as the messianic hope of early modern Jewry. I loved the fact this chapter exists; I grew up hearing Shabtai Zvi put in the same sentence as Hitler without knowing what exactly he did, only that he was bad. This was, looking back, a missed opportunity, where I was denied the pleasure of learning about this weird, bizarre personality and the possibly the strangest event in Jewish history, merely knowing Shabtai Zvi as a bad guy. The story is told well, if quickly, going through the basic timeline of events, outlining Shabtai’s travels, detailing his meeting with Nathan of Gaza, and then its sudden conclusion with Shabtai’s conversion to Islam. A reader will get the basic gist of the events, if not fine detail.

The next chapter deals with the “Baal Shem of London,” whose portrait has been erroneously said to portray the Baal Shem Tov, founder of hassidus, detailing his life and his odd array of pursuits (magic! kabbalah! alchemy! philantropy! possible Sabbateanism!).

Chapter Three, taking up the bulk of the book, is a dramatic retelling of the Emden-Eyebeshutz story, complete with dialogue taken straight from the participants’ accounts. The story hits all the important notes, and is well written, building tension and suspense out of what is one of more compelling stories in Jewish history. The account in the book, it should be noted, seems to privilege Emden’s account of events, which is understandable being as a) Emden wrote a ton, and his stuff accounts for most of what we know b) he was probably right that Eyebeshutz was a Sabbatean (the evidence is such that it would be more surprising if he wasn’t.) Still, it struck me as unnecessary to take R. Emden’s word that he, passed over for the rabbinic job in the Triple Community (which had previously belonged to his father) by R. Eyebeshutz, had absolutely no personal stake in the controversy.

Additionally, the Emden-Eyebeshutz chapter, along with the previous two chapters, suffers from a tell, not show approach when it comes to the quirks of its participants and the bizzarre/lurid details of the relevant events. R. Dunner will tell us about Shabtai Zvi participating in bizarre rituals and the Sabbateanism cult having extremely disturbing and bizarre beliefs that necessitated Emden taking action as he did, but will seldom provide details as to what those rituals or beliefs were, besides some references to forbidden things being permitted.

There may well be a very good reason for this: the need to keep this book PG. The bizarre rituals and beliefs of the Sabbateans were frequently sexual in nature, as once you’ve abrogated the need to avoid sins, one imagines you start thinking of which sins you would want to do, and its just a hop skip and a jump from there to some real deviant stuff. Many of Emden’s more severe accusations aimed at Eyebeshutz were accusations that Eyebeshutz engaged in prohibited sex, including, one accusation went, that Eyebeshutz had sex with his own daughter. Even the Baal Shem of London chapter leaves out the details of some of his diary entries describing his visions, which were occasionally pornographic in nature. The obvious problem is, it’s very hard to market that kind of book to Orthodox people. R. Dunner does his best with what he’s been given, even sneaking in a note about the “reputation” of Shabtai Zvi’s bride.

Quibbles aside, its quite a good narrative exposition of the events, and I recommend its use to teachers of Jewish history.

The rest of the chapters, perhaps freed from the need to hide the sexual hangups of its protagonists, are more detailed and flow better. Chapter Four, though, does not deal with a personality, rather than an event: The Get of Cleves, in which one beit din stubbornly and puzzlingly held on to its ruling despite opposition from pretty much everyone. While it detracted a little bit from the theme, it was still a pretty great, if somewhat infuriating story. The last 3 chapters are back to dealing with people. Chapter Five deals with Lord George Gordon, a great story I had never heard before of a member of British nobility known for his social activism and wild partying who, in jail for inciting a rash of riots that rampaged across London, converted to Orthodox Judaism. It’s a really great story and R. Dunner contributes a personal ending (in the concluding chapter) that is an incredible twist. I will not ruin it for you.

Chapter Six deals with R. Yudl Rosenberg a respected rabbi who also had a second career as a literary forger. R. Rosenberg forged works of the Maharal, writing a haggadah claiming to have been written by the Maharal, as well as writing many of the stories that became the basis for the legend of the Maharal making a Golem, something none of the legitimate works of the Maharal allude to. R. Rosenberg was so brazen a forger, he even rewrote a Sherlock Holmes story to be about the Maharal. I personally have known this story for years, because I am a killjoy, but R. Dunner ably relays the facts here, and does a good job of setting R. Rosenberg up as an enigma, a respected rabbi who probably didn’t need to forge stuff, but did anyway.

Chapter Seven, finally, deals with the very strange story of Ignatz Timothy Trebitsch-Lincoln, a man who started out an Orthodox Jew in 1879, and ended in 1943 as a (illegitimate) Dalai Lama. What happened in between? So much. Sooo much. It’s a wild story. I can’t do it justice here. Read the book.

R. Dunner, in conclusion, has put together a book that, with its cast of fascinating and weird characters, contributes much to the awesomeness of studying Jewish History. For that he is to be commended, and I hope this opens up a new wave of discussion of Jewish History as awesomeness.

Some Thoughts on The Anti-Vaccine movement and Religious Morality

First of all, vaccinate your kids. Let’s get that right out of the way. Anti-vaccination is not only dangerous, stupid, and dangerously stupid, it doesn’t feel great, as an autistic person, to hear that you’d rather risk your child dying than becoming autistic.

But something about the public discussion over vaccination public policy has interested me. See, there’s now discussion over to what extent people should be forced to vaccinate their kids. On the one hand, anti-vaccine parents defend their decision to not vaccinate as personal choice that they have the right to do in their own homes as long as they’re not forcing anyone else to vaccinate. On the other hand, you have the sane people correctly pointing out that people not vaccinating damages herd immunity, which ends up harming immuno-compromised people. So its not just a personal choice, its a choice that ends up harming other people.

What interests me is that that discussion seems to be a hole in the structure of accepted secular morality. What do I mean by this? Here is the system of right and wrong we’ve come to accept in Western Society, for better or for worse. I, as an individual, have a right to do things, say things, or think things. What makes things wrong to do is when I infringe on the freedom/rights of other people to exercise their own individual choices. The focus is on the rights of the individual, and society is structured in a way that infringes upon those individual rights as little as possible.

The vaccination debate pokes a hole in that structure. On an individual level, a personal choice to not vaccinate your kids is an individual decision, and the defense taken by those individuals falls along those lines. What do you care about what I do in my home, I have a right to make my own decisions, if it doesn’t affect you directly. I’m not forcing you not to vaccinate, you’re free to vaccinate if you want, just I’ve made the choice to not do so.  The response is, then, no, your individual choice has societal/communal impact because we are all contributing to herd immunity, and your decision weakens that immunity to the point that people could be harmed. Thus your freedom and your rights, need to take a back seat to needs of the community/society. Not because you’re infringing on the rights of other individuals, but because your decision has detrimental effects on society.

The same people, will often turn around and ask religious people why do they care if this person does x in the privacy of their own home. I’m not here to take a side on any of those issues in particular, but perhaps there’s a disconnect in moral systems that’s driving this argument. Secular morality dictates that the rights of the individual take precedence, and that people have the right to do whatever they want as long as its not directly infringing on the rights of other individuals. Religious morality, however, is more like our case of herd immunity. Its not that you’re directly infringing on someone else’s rights directly, it’s that you doing what you’re doing weakens the bonds of the society we’re trying to uphold, to the point that it could break down and the particularly vulnerable will be led astray. In other words, religious society has built up herd immunity to whatever, and your personal decisions affect that herd immunity.

It’s just a thought. Maybe it’ll help us understand each other better. I dont know.

My Educational Philosophy

(This was originally written as part of an interview process. The original assignment was 3 pages. I wrote 5. I had a lot to say. I didn’t get the job, but my essay was appreciated, so I thought I’d put it here)

I have been asked to lay out my academic and pedagogical approach to teaching Jewish texts, and what makes me passionate about doing so. To best describe my approach, I want to list the expectations I have for my own approach, with a little explanation as to why each item on the list is important, how I expect to implement it, and my own experiences with implementing it. I hope that this perhaps untraditional response better portrays my approach. I put these expectations into three different categories: What My Students Should Expect from Me, which describes the expectations for how I act and what kind of person I am; What Students Should Expect from my Class, which describes the expectations for my pedagogy and teaching style; and What I Expect from My Students, which describes the goals I have in my teaching. Without further ado:

What my Students Should Expect from Me

1. Honesty and Integrity

First and foremost, students must trust their teacher. They must trust that they are fair, that they say what they mean and mean what they say, and that they take their position of authority seriously.  Especially when the teacher is representing a subject which is supposed to be associated with morality, honesty and integrity are supremely important, and if you don’t have that, you shouldn’t teach. Anything I have been able to accomplish in my life has been due to the fact that people trust me, and people trust me not because I don’t lie, but because I cannot. (My mother’s advice to my wife when we got married was in fact “don’t worry about him, he can’t lie”.)

2. Caring about all my students, not just some of them

People have asked me why I want to be an educator. And my usual response is, because there are students who are falling through the cracks, who we should be teaching. I grew up with a twin brother who was very different than me, much less bookish, more street-smart, and a constant discipline problem, a contrast to my goody-two shoes self. I never was able to deny the humanity of people who weren’t like me. In high school, I founded a Jewish philosophy club, because I noticed that many kids my age asked tough questions on Judaism, and those questions were being ignored because they weren’t seen as classically smart. As if to prove my point, the school took over my club, christened it “The Torah U’Madda Society”, barred entry to all those who weren’t in the top classes, and advertised solely in Hebrew. It was at that indignity that I decided I wanted to teach. Everyone is entitled to their portion of our tradition. Not just the people who are already there. Everyone. And I decided to make sure they got it.  
In my first year of teaching, that attitude was noticed and appreciated by my students. Many students who were otherwise not interested in academics were interested in my class, and other teachers were surprised by which kids I was winning over. The fact that I was unwilling to give up on them, that they were just as important as any of my other students, was something they genuinely appreciated.
This also played a large role in how I taught. I began my class on Gemara with a primer on what Torah she’baal peh is and how it works, even if some of the more advanced students already knew that. Not only that, I chose to put it in terms everyone could understand. Instead of just saying “its what was passed down to the chachamim,” I put in terms of rules and interpretations of rules. Because I wanted the class to be accessible to everyone, not just the kids who already were into it.

  1. Caring about my students as whole people

One of the best pieces of advice on teaching given to me by one of my teachers was “Never hide in the teacher’s lounge”. By going to the teacher’s lounge during breaks, not only do you miss out on the ability to form a connection with your students, you miss out on being able to observe them in their “natural habitat”. People don’t cease being people when they enter your classroom, and if you want to teach those people, you need to understand them as whole people, not just students. Doing so will be enable to understand them in a manner much more sophisticated than a list of pluses and minuses. The social circle your students belong to or want to belong to, their home life, their hobbies or interests, all play a role in their performance in your classroom, and a good teacher makes it their business to understand their students. Understanding, for instance, that one student’s family had recently become religious without their input, goes a long way to explaining why they’re not behaving in your Judaics class. Parents frequently expressed admiration for my ability to understand their children, and my supervisor had to stop me from writing novella-length character sketches for my students’ report cards.

  1. Desire for them to succeed

I want every student in my class to get an A. My job is to teach and convey information, not to outwit teenagers. Furthermore, I want to find ways to celebrate the successes of all my students, even if it means snatching victory from the hands of defeat, by celebrating the thought process behind a wrong answer, for instance. One of my best students in my first year of teaching started off as one of my worst, until I pointed out that an answer he had given (without any research or paying attention in class) showed the workings of an agile talmudic mind in need of expression. The next day he came back and said “I’m gonna be your best student now”, and he was. All because I pointed out the merits of a wrong answer.

 

What my Students Should Expect from My Class

 

  1. Textual Skills

 

If my desire for my students is to give them their portion in our tradition that is their birthright, they need access to that tradition. Probably the biggest influence on my pedagogical approach was the two years I spent at Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah, a now closed post-high school program whose focus was on teaching their students textual skills, with the goal of enabling them to find their own path within Judaism through their own readings of the relevant sources. Textual skills, in my view, are important not just because reading text is important, they are important because they enable independence. Someone who can read the text doesn’t have to take the meaning or content of a text on faith, and they can form their own ideas through their readings of a text unmediated by authority figures or translations, which are always interpretations. I believe we owe our students that ability and the freedom that comes with it.

  1. Big Questions

    The dirty secret of Jewish education is that most students do not care about Judaism. Most students are uninterested in the exact times for prayer, or the laws of the holidays, or ritual in general. This is not their fault, or anyone’s fault, this is just the reality. Not recognizing that reality leads to the stratification of educational attention I am allergic to, as teaching about Judaic subjects becomes a process of self-selection.
    However, middle schoolers and high schoolers are beginning to think about Big Questions; What are we here for? What’s the point? What is moral? What is fair? What is happiness? Instead of shying away from such questions, those ought to be the focus of our Judaics teaching. Part of my love of teaching Bava Kama is that it is only about cows goring other cows on the surface. What is it really about? Fairness. The definition of responsibility. What makes people different than animals. Whether past experiences tell us about what will happen. All that stuff is lurking right under the surface, ready to lead to vigorous discussions from all your students, not just the ones who already learn Talmud.

    3. Conceptual Simplicity
    One of the books that had the most influence on my teaching style was a book about college football. The book in question describes the genesis of the “Air Raid” offense, which took college football by storm in the late 90’s and 2000’s. The basic novelty of the system was not that it was able to confuse opponents with multiple plays, or their players were better. Quite the opposite in fact! They were able to succeed with a very small playbook and inferior athletes not recruited by the bigger schools, athletes often not good enough to become professionals. What made their offense revolutionary was its simplicity. Instead of asking the Quarterback to memorize a whole playbook, it asked the quarterback to know only a couple of plays, and instead of asking the quarterback to read a whole defense, it would require to the quarterback to ask himself a series of if-then questions. Did the Linebacker drop into coverage? Then you throw to this receiver. Do you see grass up the field? Then the deep receiver is open, throw to him. The real revolution was not the complexity, but the ability to boil down complexity to a series of concrete, easier to answer, individual steps.
    That’s how I try to teach. I try to boil down complex processes into individual steps, “reads” as I call them, borrowing football terminology. The Talmud itself is structured for this kind of reading, as the Talmud gives you “code words” to indicate that its about to do certain things. Some words introduce a question, which is subdivided into different types of questions, some are answer words, some are introductory words, and so on and so on.
    Where I took most advantage of this approach is my curriculum for Mishnah Bava Kama, where, after dividing “damage” into four different categories, like the mishna does, I had my students learn the unique qualities of each category, and then, through a series of “reads”, decide the proper law in a number of complex cases. One of the more complex and intimidating tractates in the talmud was thus essentially mastered by sixth graders.

 

  1. Appreciation of multiplicity
    If there’s a theme that runs through my academic work, it is that traditional texts are best understood through a multiplicity of approaches, each of which has validity in the text but different lenses through which they view it. That means a few different things for my teaching. First off, that my approach to multiple interpretations is less “who’s right” and more “why do they think they’re right”, and understanding the methodologies of different interpreters and what lens they’re viewing the text through is particularly important. Second of all, that means there is a healthy respect for opposing views. Even if you disagree with an interpretation, it’s likely that the person who advanced that interpretation has a good textual reason for it. That goes for the Gemara, but that also goes for class discussions, and that also goes for how I understand my students’ own readings. Third, an understanding that multiple approaches to a text are possible hopefully leads to a nuanced, complex worldview, in which people are able to discuss hot button issues in good faith.  

 

What I expect from My Students

1. Ability to read a text independently, and formulate their own, textually grounded perspectives on Judaism

They should be able to read a text on their own, without translation or mediation, and be able to look up sources quoted to them to verify their correctness. They should be able to take their reading of the text, and offer their own perspective on Judaism grounded in a coherent understanding of the text, and claim their portion in our tradition

2. Ability to take concepts and apply them to new situations

They should be able to take the concepts they’ve learned, those “reads” I spoke about, and be able to implement them to new situations, and build further concepts on the foundations of older concepts.

  1. A Worldview which values nuance and complexity

    Understanding that multiple valid perspectives on texts and concepts can exist simultaneously should lead my students to understand the world in a complex way, which is able to see the multiple perspectives on any issue and the factors that influence each. This should be applicable not just to Jewish Studies, but to life in general. Judaism is not just a subject, but a way of seeing the world, and the Talmud indicates that part of that worldview is an understanding of multiplicity.

    4. Ability to prove me wrong

If a student is able to prove me wrong based on a compelling read of the text or other texts, then I will have succeeded. The goal of teaching is, and should be, to be rendered unnecessary. Success is when you are able to laugh and say “my children have defeated me, my children have defeated me” (Bava Metzia 59b)

Torat R. Ozer: An Ongoing Series. Part I: Halakha should be Comprehensible

R. Ozer Glickman, YU Rosh Yeshiva and noted personality, died earlier this week, and as someone who learned Yoreh Deah with him one on one, it hit me pretty hard. I want to honor his memory somewhat by writing essays/divrei torah inspired by things he taught me or exemplified. I can’t guarantee this will be my most polished essays, but I’m gonna try to put them out nonetheless over the next couple of weeks.

I’d like to start out with the following statement, which I believe should be a foundational principle of halakhic determination.

Halakha should be comprehensible to the average Jew.

What do I mean by this? I mean that if we assume, as we should, that Jews should follow halakha, then we have an obvious problem: Halakha is very complicated! As anyone who’s listened to a semikha level halakha shiur can tell you, each question of Jewish law comes with innumerable complications each of which have opinions that branch off into other opinions each with their own set of broader implications. As an educator, I do believe that people are capable of understanding this information when its taught well and time is dedicated to it, but understanding halakha on a rabbinic level is basically a full time job, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that your average Jew understand halakha on that level. But, Jews need to keep halakha! How can they keep halakha if they don’t know what to do?

There are three options to resolving this problem:
1. All Jews should devote the majority of their time towards understanding every intricacy of Jewish law.
2. All Jews should have a relationship with a rabbi where they are able to be advised on every single halakhic decision that comes up every day.

Option 1, as I said above, is simply unrealistic. Of course, ideally everyone would be at that level. But they won’t be, because that takes a lot of time and effort, and Judaism isn’t only for people who have semikha.
Option 2 is also a non-starter, because I do believe we want people to live Judaism as a natural part of their lives, not as a constant advisement from an outside source. Additionally, we do want people to be able to live halakhic lives with some degree of independence. Obviously, rabbis should be consulted in hard cases, but for most of the time, people should be living halacha as a natural part of their life that is part of a comprehensible decision making process by themselves, not by constant fiat from a rabbi.

That brings us to Option 3: View simplicity and comprehensibility in psak as a worthwhile value to consider when formulating halakhic opinions.

To be precise: An average person should be able to make independent halakhic decisions relying on a mental flow chart of heuristic yes or no questions. If this, then that. If not this, then that.

By way of example, one thing I’m learning for semikha right now is the laws of pikuach nefesh on shabbos, and when you’re allowed to violate shabbos to get someone medical care. What we’re asking is, “What level of danger is necessary to mean that we can violate shabbos to save their life?” This is a very fraught question! Because, define “level”, define “danger”, define “Violate”, define “save”. And it’s a life and death situation! Messing up, by definition, means someone loses their life when its not necessary to do so. And the answers to all those questions are complicated sugyos! Obviously ask a rabbi, right? A Talmud Yerushalmi actually says that a rabbi who is asked such a question is a disgrace! Why? Because he didn’t give his congregation the tools to decide that question for themselves, and thus they are playing with someone’s life on his account. Its with this consideration in mind that the Arukh Hashulkhan sensibly rules that the criteria for violating shabbos on account of saving someone’s life is “would you go to the hospital if this happened during the week?” If yes, its something that obviously is medically concerning enough that one may credibly claim they’re concerned for their life. If no, they can’t.

What we see here is a complex sugya being boiled down to a simple yes or no question, because a) we want people to be able to make these halakhic decisions independently, b) we want regular people to be able to make that decision based on a simple, easy to remember yes or no question, instead of an extensive knowledge of the relevant sources.  While you can credibly claim that I can’t draw any conclusions from this case because it has to do with life and death, I do think the basic premise holds true for halakha in general: We want people to keep halacha. We want people to be independent. We want people to be able to make independent halachic decisions on a daily basis. Therefore it behooves us to make the heuristic behind those day-to-day halakhic decisions as simple and intuitive as possible, within reasonable limits of the law.

Learning Yoreh Deah with Rav Glickman, he of course wanted me to know the relevant sugyot and sources extremely well, but focus was put on forming a simple and intuitive halakhic methodology. R. Pesach Wolicki quoted R. Glickman as saying that “halakha is not a memorization of sources, its a way of thinking”. That is a nice summation of his derech halimmud. He didn’t want us to think through halakhic decisionmaking by consulting a library of sources in our heads, he wanted us to to go through a flowchart in our heads. Is this yavesh b’yavesh or lach b’lach? Is it min b’mino or min b’eino mino? Was there a transfer of taam, or wasn’t there? Is there substance of the issur still remaining? Is it davar chashuv? Is it davar she”yesh lo matirin? Was heat applied? Was it davar charif? Was it kavush?
Each of those questions branches off into its own decision tree. Going through those questions, and knowing the answers, you basically know issur v’heter, and know it intuitively, as a lived aspect of your life, and not as a bunch of information you have to look up.

And I think that also may speak to what made R. Glickman so great. First of all, he was a genius who was also an everyman. He wasn’t going to just sit there and throw out complicated chakiros or chiddushim, though he certainly could have. He wanted people to understand halakha, not just the elite. Second of all, R. Glickman saw Judaism as something lived, not just studied. Halakha wasn’t something you looked up in a book, or got from following directions, it was a way of thinking through every day decisions.

Stay tuned for further essays.

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.