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Friday, October 4, 2013

Tirtzah, Damon, The Tower of Babel and Everything

I recently had the unique experience of attending the wedding of my daughter Tirtzah to her husband Damon. The wedding was unique to me for a number of reasons beginning with the fact that Damon is not Jewish.

If you feel a priori that such a marriage is not to be sanctioned in any way or that reading about such a marriage will disturb you deeply and would rather not, let me advise you now to leave this page and to say that I understand.

Interestingly, though, the Pew Survey of American Jews just came out this week. Some of what I say here is pertinent to how I relate to some of the results of that survey. But I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.

I asked to speak at the wedding and found myself by that time in front of a group of one hundred some guests, many of whom I had just met for the first time in the previous hours or days. Many of them, perhaps most (I didn't make a count) were not Jewish. I took this into account as I formulated what I wanted to say and the following is based on that talk:

Tirtzah's marriage to Damon is not a simple thing in my mind and in the mind of many who attended the wedding. I am speaking mainly of perhaps most of the Jewish participants. You see, for a Jew to marry a non-Jew is not at all simple in the eyes of the Jews. Reasons abound as to why it is not simple and I will try to summarize my own feelings.

Historically, Jews have been separated from non-Jews by a kind of de facto mutual choice; that is, non-Jews, particularly in Christian Europe, did not want Jews mixing in their society and thus put Jews into ghettos and did not grant them citizenship until beginning around the Enlightenment. Jews, for their part, did not want to mingle with non-Jewish society and quite a bit of Jewish law which developed in the Diaspora reflects this.

Jews suffered a long history of oppression at the hands of Christians from at least the time of Constantine and up to the present. The idea of marrying someone of Christian background was, and still is, anathema to many Jews. The marriage was seen as consorting with the enemy and a rejection of one's heritage.

While many Jews are acutely aware of this long history of antisemitism, generally, in my experience, non-Jews are not. Non-Jews have by now heard of the Holocaust if only by way of certain pop culture phenomena, such as the movie “Schindler's List” or hearing about one Holocaust museum or another.

In the 'melting pot' atmosphere in the United States, non-Jews may have a hard time grasping why Jews would be reluctant to marry them. After all, we're all human beings, citizens of the world.

I am not advocating intermarriage, I am merely trying to relate to this particular marriage.

Clearly, Damon is a wonderful, caring man. I can see that he loves Tirtzah very much and that she loves him. But, as we Jews often ask, is this marriage good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?

Whereas in the past (and even in the present) when a Jew married a non-Jew they were often making a declaration of disconnection from their Jewish identity. Intermarriage generally led to assimilation and loss of Jewish identity and therefore loss of another Jew and all their future offspring to the Jewish people.

But when I witness Tirtzah and Damon I see something else happening. This wedding, while not halachic (adhering to Jewish law) could only be categorized as a Jewish wedding. We all saw the procession of the bride and groom with a klezmer band (and an outstanding band at that). We all saw the bride and groom stand under a chupah, the traditional Jewish marriage canopy where they read their self-composed ketuba to each other in Hebrew and in English. And we all saw as seven close friends and family, both Jewish and non-Jewish, came under the chupah to bless the couple, reminiscent of the Jewish tradition of reciting seven blessings at a wedding.

Rather than a rejection of Jewish identity and Jewish tradition, this wedding embraced those elements of Jewish tradition which the couple finds meaningful and attempted sincerely to make the ceremony meaningful to all.

So while Jews have very good reasons to remain apart from non-Jewish society, this wedding has brought to mind an oft overlooked and perhaps misunderstood story of the Torah. That is the story of the Tower of Babel.

Just before the story of the Tower of Babel begins, in Genesis 10, we read a list of the generations of Noah's sons. If we count them all up we get a total of 70.

We then read the story of the Tower of Babel. Let's set the scene: This story takes place in the first generations after the Deluge. The Deluge wiped out all of humanity save Noah and his family. Now people are regenerating but perhaps carry with them the fear of being wiped out again despite God's promise that he will not bring another flood to destroy the earth (Genesis 9:11).

At this time, they were all one nation and spoke one language. They plan to build a city and a tower that will reach to the sky in order to make a 'name' for themselves lest they be scattered on the face of the earth.

It is not clear why, and there are no shortage of explanations, but God does not see this as a good thing. Perhaps, though, it is simply their desire to stay together for protection and that they did not trust that God wouldn't try another flood. A tower could possibly afford them some refuge in the face of another deluge.

I believe that at minimum we understand that while the people were united, they did not see themselves as being united with God.

God understands that it is precisely the fact that they are united as a single nation with a single language that allows them to make such a plan. As such, in order to thwart their plan, God confounds their language and, as a result, they no longer understand each other and the building stops. Not only that, but they are scattered over the land, exactly the situation they wanted to prevent!

Chazal understood that this story serves as the basis for the notion that the world is made up of 70 nations. But what is to happen to these nations? According to Chazal, they will wane over time until just one nation remains.

We read in Zechariah, one of the latter prophets, an account of 'the end of days.' Chapter 14 verse 9 states:

והיה יקוק למלך על כל הארץ ביום ההוא יהיה יקוק אחד ושמו אחד:

And the Lord will be as king over the entire world. On that day the Lord will be One and His name One.

In other words, the ultimate goal of humanity is to come together as a single nation recognizing the Oneness of God. It is not the ultimate goal that everyone become Jewish. The Jewish task in this world is primarily to promote the idea of the One God. It is only by embracing that idea that humanity will be truly united.

You might well ask: If God wanted everyone to be united, why didn't He leave well enough alone at the time of the Tower of Babel? But we understand the answer is that this was not true unity as God was left out of the equation.

You might further ask if God wasn't being a bit petty and petulant? After all, is He so concerned with Himself that he had to break up a nice party and wait for God knows how many millenia until they get it together again?

My personal answer to these questions is based on my own notions about God and the nature of God. I will expound on this more in later posts. However, for now, I will tell you that God is not some old man who sits on high and looks down upon us. This is the image we get by reading the story of the Tower of Babel. But I would argue that the account in the Torah here is what those who experienced the dispersion may have felt and perceived and not necessarily the best way to understand God.

In short, I believe that while God is unknowable per se, all of us have a soul and the soul is the spark of God and the Divine within us. Thus, true unity of mankind can only come about when we all recognize and embrace everyone else's humanity and that humanity includes the idea that we were all created in God's image, that all of us are connected to the Divine by being connected to each other.

We don't know the way in which the scenario of ultimate unity will play out. Perhaps, though, when people like Tirtzah and Damon get together, they are actually making their own step toward the coming together of all mankind. May their union be a blessing to us all.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


The following is based on a drasha I gave on the occasion of my daughter Nitza's engagement. More about that later...

We read in Kohelet:

קהלת פרק ב (יג) וראיתי אני שיש יתרון לחכמה מן הסכלות כיתרון האור מן החשך:

Ecclesiastes Chapter 12 (13) And I saw that there is an advantage to wisdom over foolishness like the advantage of light over darkness.

The main theme of Kohelet is wisdom. While the author has many insights and anecdotes on the subject, the quote above encapsulates a basic notion presented in the book: Wisdom implies an awareness of what is actually happening while it is happening, just as one can see what's going on when there is light.

This sort of awareness has a central place in Jewish practice. For example, we read in the first Mishnah of the second chapter of B'rachot:

היה קורא בתורה והגיע זמן המקרא אם כיון לבו יצא ואם לאו לא יצא

(If) he was reading in the Torah and the time for reading (the Shma) arrived, if he directed his heart then he fulfilled (the mitzvah of Shma) and if not, he did not fulfill the (the mitzvah of Shma).

In other words, if one happened to be reading a Torah and happened to be reading the parshah of Shma at the time one is supposed to be fulfilling the mitzvah of reading the Shma, then if one had intention (כוונה , kavanna, literally 'directed his/her heart') then the mitzvah is fulfilled.

But what is meant by 'kavanna?'

The most obvious possibility (and the one assumed initially by the gemara here in Talmud Bavli B'rachot 13a) is the intention to fulfill the mitzvah of Shma.

This understanding indicates that the minimum intention required to fulfill a mitzva is cognizance that one is doing the mitzvah.

However, the gemara goes on to offer another possibility: Maybe the person wasn't exactly reading the Torah. Maybe he was just checking the Torah or checking one scroll against another to find any errors. Such 'reading' is not really reading the words as such with all the proper vocalization; it can be done (and I can attest to this as a scribe) by reading letters or reading words in such a way as to make sure all the letters are there.

With this understanding of the Mishnah, the kind of intention changes. Whereas in the first understanding the intention needed would be to fulfill the mitzvah of Shma, now it would be sufficient to read the words as they are written with proper vocalization. If one started off by reading merely to check the scroll and switched at the proper time to reading the words as they are supposed to be pronounced, even if he was unaware that he was performing a mitzvah, he would nonetheless fulfill the mitzvah.

At this point, based on the gemara's two possible understandings, we now have two levels of intention : Intention in the sense of being aware of the physical act of reading and intention in the sense of wanting to fulfill the mitzvah. The gemara is arguing that even the most minimal sense that one is reading the words of the Shma might be sufficient to fulfill that mitzvah.

While the gemara discusses aspects of this question later, I want to point out that the next Mishnah enlightens us about this question in a deeper way. The second Mishnah in the chapter states:

א"ר יהושע בן קרחה למה קדמה שמע לוהיה אם שמוע אלא כדי שיקבל עליו עול מלכות שמים תחלה ואחר כך יקבל עליו עול מצות

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Karcha says: Why does (the paragraph of) Shma precede (the paragraph of) V'haya Im Shamoa? In order that one first accepts upon themselves the yoke of heaven and afterward accepts upon themselves the yoke of the commandments.

Rabbi Yehosha ben Karcha's point here has halachic ramifications in that it explains why the order we read the paragraphs of the Shma is important.

Beyond that, though, we understand that the Rabbi is inviting us to embrace the reading of the Shma with meaning; a deeper meaning than is implied by the minimal requirements of the mitzvah to simply be aware of one's physical actions. Rather he is implying yet another level of kavanna: The awareness not only that one is reading words or even that one is fulfilling a mitzva, but the awareness of the meaning of one's actions.

Embracing this meaning comes as a result of the first two levels of kavanna.

I would offer that the point given here is a metaphor for our lives and part of what Kohelet is trying to teach us, as well.

To be truly wise, we must be aware on many levels of what we are doing, what is happening and what the results of our actions might be.

When I look at my daughters, Tirtzah and Nitza, who are now getting married, I can only be proud of them both for the kind of awareness and consideration which with they have imbued their actions. It is clear to me that each of them has carefully considered their partners and not only where they are now, but where they will be in the future. Marriage to them is not just an action to be cognizant of; it is a vital step in their respective lives.

They have chosen well. I wish them every blessing.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Yeshiva Students and the Army

One of the difficult issues I faced when making aliyah some thirty years ago was accepting the fact that I would be drafted into the army. I grew up in the States during the Vietnam War era and had a kind of reflex reaction against anything military. At the same time, I understood that Israel's situation was one of being under constant military threat from its neighbors and, as such, came to accept that living here entailed personal responsibility to help defend against that threat.

I came to this conclusion in part by consideration of halachic sources. Despite the decision by numerous charedi (ultra-Orthodox) leaders to not allow their followers to join the army, I felt strongly that this was a misguided decision based on what I had learned.

However, knowing that my grasp of halachic sources was (and is) greatly limited, I approached Rav Mordechai Savitsky z”l, whom I have mentioned previously in this blog, to ask his opinion. Rav Savitsky was well known in the charedi world and, in fact, had been asked to be the head of the rabbinic court for the EdahHachareidis back in the 1970s, a highly prestigious position which he turned down (and I intend to speak about that decision in a future post). I had the privilege to study with and ask numerous halachic questions from Rav Savitsky during the time I lived in Boston and even after my aliyah considered him to be my rav.

I asked Rav Savitsky simply if halacha dictated that I must accept going into the army. Rav Savitsky's initial reply was a deflection: he stated that I should not worry and that he had connections who could get me an exemption.

I persisted, though, and presented my argument. I put it to him that if, chas v'chalilah, the Israeli army would cease to exist, the entire Jewish population of Israel would be in mortal danger. Therefore, one should see that being in the Israeli army is, in fact, an act of saving lives (פיקוח נפש – pikuach nefesh). I then pointed out to the rav the gemara which states in a b'raita:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף פד עמוד ב ואין עושין דברים הללו לא על ידי נכרים ולא על ידי כותיים, אלא על ידי גדולי ישראל.

Babylonian Talmud Yoma 84b: ...and we do not do these things (to violate the Shabbat for a person whose life is in danger) by way of non-Jews or by way of Cuthites, rather by way of the great of Israel (gedolei Yisrael).

This gemara is brought down in the most prominent halachic works including the Mishneh Torah of the Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 2:3) and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 328:12).

Thus, I argued, it is davka the talmidei chachamim (the learned sages) and their students who should be the first to volunteer for the army.

Rav Savitsky smiled and replied simply, “You're right.”

I left it at that and, when I was drafted, went to the army. As it happened, I was never actually called for active duty, but that's another story.

Let me point out here that many charedim do serve in the army, although as of yet they are still a minority. Why the charedi leaders do not adopt the position that there is an actual obligation to join the army is another question.

The connection to this week's parsha and my story comes by way of a book called אם הבנים שמחה (Em Habanim S'mecha-The Mother of the Children is Happy) by RavYissacher Shlomo Teichtal. I will elucidate in my next posting.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Zealotry for Whom, May I Ask?

About a dozen or so years ago I was approached by a woman asking to have a pair of tefillin checked. As it happened, I met her in her brother's home which was in a charedi section of Jerusalem. Upon concluding that the tefillin were not kosher she ordered a new pair as well as a used pair for her husband. She did not tell me who the new pair were for.

Her brother walked me outside afterward and told me not to sell her the tefillin as he knew they would be given to her niece for her bat mitzvah. When I pointed out that halacha, while discouraging women from putting on tefillin, does not forbid them from doing so, either (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 38:3, see the RaMa's comment). He became very heated, going on about how terrible things were happening in the States with women's minyans where they put on tallitot and tefillin.

I exited but received a call from him the next day. He told me that he had tracked down my original sofrut teacher (who by then was living in the US) and claimed that my teacher told him that if I sold tefillin for a woman's use he would have no choice but to publicize the matter and see to it that others didn't buy from me. I actually checked with my teacher and while he assured me he didn't say those things I understood that this brother was essentially blackmailing me with the threat of smearing my name in the Orthodox world.

After a bit of rage and bit of shock, I decided to speak with Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, a world renown posek and one whose opinion I greatly respected not only for his halachic mastery but also for what I knew was a sensitivity to the people he rendered halachic decisions for.

I explained the situation to Rav Scheinberg and then asked him two questions:

  1. Was I allowed to sell the tefillin to this woman?
  2. Was this brother in violation of the prohibition against lashon hara for having spoken about me and this matter to my teacher?

Rav Scheinberg answered that in principle halacha would not bar me from selling the woman the tefillin. However, he told me that in this instance I would not be allowed as doing so would risk my livelihood given the threat from this man.

Regarding the question of lashon hara on the brother's part he paskened clearly that, yes, he violated the law of speaking lashon hara.

Lashon hara is not simply gossip; rather, it is specifically speaking ill of someone even though what it is said is true.

I sat back after this conversation in amazement. This brother violated what Chazal considered to be the most severe prohibition of the Torah (see Tosefta Peah 1:1) in order to prevent his niece from fulfilling a mitzvah!

While women are exempt from the mitzvah of tefillin, and in fact the RaMa specifically discourages them, they are allowed to fulfill it if they wish. According to Ashkenazi custom, in fact, they are allowed to say the blessing and include the words 'Who has commanded us to lay tefillin.”

I was reminded of this incident recently with the brouhaha over The Women of the Wall. I have heard various accusations against them including that what they are doing is for their own liberal minded agenda and not l'shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven). I have heard people challenge them about wearing tallit and tefillin and make the claim that they only wear them at the wall in order to incite and provoke and don't wear them every day.

I am puzzled by the uproar, the criticism and especially the attacks, both vocal and physical, against this group of women for a number of reasons.

The one I want to emphasize here is simply this: If the point of the Torah is to become closer to God through his commandments and women voluntarily decide that they want to adopt wearing tallit and tefillin and praying together, why is that so bad? Shouldn't the Orthodox world be encouraging this type of behavior?

After all, I didn't hear the brother go on about how terrible it is that parents in the US (and even here in Israel) spend lavishly for bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, many of which are devoid of any spirituality and often violate shabbat and kashrut laws.

I am puzzled because these Orthodox people who object so loudly and crudely feel that their priorities dictate ignoring specific prohibitions of the Torah in order to prevent women from taking upon themselves mitzvot.

I see a bit of a parallel in this week's parsha. In Numbers 11, after Moshe complains to God that it is too much for him to bear the full responsibility of caring for the children of Israel, God sees fit to transfer some of Moshe's spirit to seventy elders in order to spread that responsibility around.

As it happens, a couple of the newly formed prophets, Eldad and Meidad, under the influence of this Holy Spirit they had just received, continued to prophesy in the camp publicly even as the others had stopped. This was reported back to Moshe and Yehoshua whereupon Yehoshua said to Moshe his master:

במדבר פרק יא : (כח) ויען יהושע בן נון משרת משה מבחריו ויאמר אדני משה כלאם:
(כט) ויאמר לו משה המקנא אתה לי ומי יתן כל עם יקוק נביאים כי יתן יקוק את רוחו עליהם:

Numbers 11 : (28) And Yehoshua the son of Nun, an attendant of Moshe from his youth, replied and said, “My master Moshe, imprison them!” (29) And Moshe said to him, “Are you zealous on my account? And would it be that the Lord would make all of the nation prophets when the Lord would give His spirit upon them!”

Yehoshua saw Eldad and Meidad taking up the mantle of prophecy as a threat to his master Moshe and wanted to suppress that threat. Moshe, about whom we'll learn a bit later that he was the most of humble of men, not only did not perceive a threat but welcomed the spreading of the Lord's spirit however the Lord saw fit.

This word that Moshe uses, המקנא, which I have translated as “are you zealous,” is the same root word used later to describe Pinchas (Numbers 25; 11, 13). In the case of Pinchas, such zealotry was de facto sanctioned by God Himself. However, we see from this story that zealotry is not always a welcome thing.

What is the nature of the zealotry here? Perhaps it is simply that Yehoshua's zealotry in this case was not לשם שמים (for the sake of Heaven), but rather was serving the more narrow purpose of maintaining Moshe's exclusive position as a prophet.

While readers may be quick to point out myriad differences between this story and the current events regarding the Women of the Wall, consider this: Why are the Women of the Wall in particular and women who choose to wear tallit and tefillin in general seen as such a threat by parts of the Orthodox establishment? The halachic argument against their practices is weak at best. Moreover, what provokes some to violate clear halachot in their protests?

I cannot speak on behalf of either side in this controversy. But what it feels like, and what I felt in my own story above, is that these protesters confuse the Torah with their particular lifestyle. What these women choose to do does not fit into a traditional Orthodox narrative as they see it. These women's actions threaten to change norms within the Orthodox world which include changing leadership roles and decision making, just as Yehoshua saw a threat from Eldad and Meidad.

Perhaps Yehoshua thought that maintaining Moshe's position as the exclusive prophet to the people was a pursuit for the sake of Heaven and perhaps those who oppose the Women of the Wall feel themselves to be acting on behalf of Heaven, as well. Perhaps Yehoshua felt that Eldad and Meidad were acting out of self interest just as those who oppose women laying tefillin may feel that they are acting out of self interest.

What we learn from Moshe, though, is that when we see others who are fulfilling mitzvot we should not stop them based on our assumptions. At the very least, until we know otherwise for certain, we should let them be.

Who knows? Maybe their desire to fulfill these commandments, for whatever reason, may bring renewed interest and spirit to the Torah in our day just as Eldad and Meidad must have electrified the crowd around them.