Friday, December 18, 2009

A Thought on the Parsha


The story of Yosef and his brothers continues in this week's parsha when Yosef is taken from the dungeon and raised to be the viceroy of Egypt. It is then that his dreams begin to become reality, as his brothers come to Egypt and bow down to Yosef, eventually bringing their youngest brother, Binyamin, with them. It is at this stage in the narrative that Ramban (on Gen. 42:9) asks a penetrating question - how is it that Yosef, now the viceroy of Egypt, did not attempt at any time in the last 9 years to send a message to his father that he was still alive? While many creative answers have been given to this question, Ramban gives the most obvious - Yosef, when he rose to power, saw that the dreams had a chance of materializing, and believed that they could only be actualized if he did not inform his father of his whereabouts. He thus chose to remain silent and to wait for his father and brothers to come to Egypt and bow down to him, so that his dreams, and God's will, could be fulfilled.

This interpretation is, I believe, the key to understanding Yosef's character. Yosef saw himself merely as a vessel of God's will - it was through Yosef that God worked in the world. On the one hand, this can be a position of humility, because such a person takes no personal credit for his accomplishments: "And Yosef said to Pharaoh: Not I! God will see to the welfare of Pharaoh." (Gen. 41:16). And, indeed, according to the Rabbis, Yosef is the "tzaddik," the one always talking about and thinking about God, always crediting God for his successes. "And his master saw that God was with him - that is, the name of Heaven was constantly in his mouth" (Rashi, 39:3).

This trait, however, is not all good. It can, at times, lead to arrogance, and almost certainly leads to an overlooking of real, human concerns. Consider Yosef's response to the baker and the wine steward. "And Yosef said: Behold to God is interpretations. Tell your dreams to me." (Gen. 40:8). That is to say - "I can't take credit, it isn't I who will interpret, it is God. But tell me - because I am God's conduit and God will speak through me."

Now, it is possible that Yosef did not believe that God worked only through him. Someone with this outlook on life - a deeply religious person - will see God working through all people. And, in fact, when, after Yaakov's death, the brothers express their fears that Yosef will now take revenge on them, he responds to them, "Do not fear, for am I in God's stead? You planned to do evil to me. God intended it for good - to bring about as this present day - to sustain a large nation." (Gen. 50:19-20). That is - God was working through you as well. I do not hold you personally responsible for your actions - it was all God's work.

If Yosef believed that God is working through every one and directing all actions, then arrogance would not be the issue. Personal responsibility would be. If God is always working through a person, then can someone ever be fully responsible for his or her actions? Of course it is possible to believe both that God works through a person and that a person has full freedom of choice and is fully responsible for his actions. "All is foreseen and freedom to choose is given." (Pirkei Avot). However, a heightened sense of the former often leads to a diminished sense of the latter. The brothers had done evil to Yosef. Such an act was not to be dismissed because God had manipulated events to come out for the best. It should have been forgiven because they were contrite and had repented. Teshuva, taking responsibility for one's actions, both past and future, is the corrective to evil or sinful actions which one did and is responsible for. The corrective is not - as Yosef would have it - a dismissal of one's responsibility because of a belief that it was God's will. The other side of not taking credit for one's positive accomplishments is not taking responsibility for one's wrongdoings either.

If personal responsibility can be dismissed after the fact, then it can also be downplayed prior to the fact, when one is choosing a course of action. If it was God's will that the dreams be fulfilled, then that is what must happen, even if it means that Yaakov will continue to suffer for untold years. If, as many commentators understand, Yosef manipulated the brothers to bring down Binyamin and then accused him of robbery to see if the brothers had changed and if they would stand up to protect his brother, then that was justified in Yosef's mind as well. Such an outcome - forcing the brothers to be better than they had been - would clearly be in keeping with God's will, and Yosef could and must act to bring this about. The fact that it involved deceit and trickery, not to mention the anguish of his brothers, was not a matter of concern, since it was God's will that was being followed.

Seeing God's hand in everything is truly the sign of a tzaddik. But, as the entire halakhic system teaches us, true righteousness combines this religious perspective with a deep and profound recognition of our responsibility for our own actions, good or bad. And it teaches us that even when we are working to achieve God's plan in the world - to the best that we can understand or have a glimpse of that plan - that we cannot let such an end justify a means that involve the hurting or causing suffering of others.

Halakha, if it teaches anything, teaches that each action matters in the here and now. It teaches that each action must be judged for its rightness on its own terms, and an aveira, a sin, cannot be justified or dismissed because of some lofty goal that is motivating it. Halakha does not speak the language of the tzaddik - of the person who is always thinking about God and who sees God acting through him. It speaks the language of the concrete realities of this world, of the nuts and bolts of day-to-day existence, and it never lets us forget that every action that we do matters - it matters to God, it matters to us, it matters to other people. And that a life that is not only religious, but that is halakhically religious, is a life that sees God in the world and in us, but that never lets us forget that we are responsible for our actions, and we are responsible for how our actions impact upon others.

Torah From Our Beit Midrash


Every year around Chanukah time, Rabbi Katz's shiur learns sugyot related to Chanukah. Usually, the sugya they will study is one of the classic ones from Mesekhet Shabbat (21b-23a). This year, however, R. Katz chose a more obscure sugya - "The violators (pritzim) came and profaned it" in Avoda Zara, 52B. Based on this verse from Ezekiel 7:22, the Gemara states that when the Beit HaMikdash was violated in the time of the Hasmoneans, the altar lost its sanctity and, when the Hasmoneans were victorious, they needed to dismantle and bury the now desacrlized altar.

While this statement is, prima facie, a simple and straightforward one, almost all of its specifics are debated. Three issues in particular are debated by the Rishonim:



1) Which parts of the Beit Mikdash can be profaned? Is it just the altar, or all the Temple vessels, or perhaps all aspects of the Beit Mikdash?

2) Who were the profaners? Was it the Greeks (Ramban) or was it the mityavnim, the Hellenized Jews who were Greek sympathizers? (Ba'al Ha'maor).

3) How is the word, u'vau, "and they came," to be understood? Was the Temple profaned by the violators merely by entering it, or did they do a particular action that
caused it to be profaned?

One of the things that R. Katz likes to do for every sugya is to see how an issue plays itself out over the course Jewish history. In this case it was fascinating for the students to see how this sugya came up in different ways at different periods in Jewish history. While the Gemara is discussing the Beit Hamikdash, the Rishonim and Achronim apply the principle to Jerusalem and Israel, asking whether the concept could be extended to those areas as well and whether they too would lose their kedusha because of pritzim? (See Ramban and Ritva Makot 19A; Responsa Rema Me'panu 25 and Hatam Sofer Y.D. 233) Finally, and more practically, would this concept apply to non-Beit Mikdash devarim sh'be'kdusha, sanctified objects? The Rambam (Responsa 131) and the Tashbatz (Responsa 3:5) discuss the status of a synagogue that was occupied by non-Jews or a sefer Torah that was taken over by non-Jews, and question whether these would retain their sanctity or not as a result of such a violation.

R' Ovadya Yosef references a fascinating teshuva on this topic. The Shut HaRe'eim, 81 (R. Eliyahu Mizrachi) discusses a tragic event where a sexton of a shul was caught molesting a child in the shul. There were those in the community who argued that his actions should invalidate the kedusha of the shul based on the principle of "the violators came and profaned it." He ultimately rejects this on technical grounds, but it nevertheless is an fascinating extension of this concept, and certainly reflects a sensitivity to how such actions are a profound violation of a synagogue and all that it represents.

R. Katz ended by reflecting on the philosophical implications of this concept. Given that the kedusha of an object cannot normally be removed without an act of pidyon, redemption, and sometimes not even then, what are we to make of this law of the "violators came"? Does the violation of sacred space create such a rupture that general rules are overridden? Is kedusha an objective or subjective reality, and what happens when our perception of reality changes? And, finally, to what degree is sanctity created and sustained by God, and to what degree by human beings?

In all, it was an excellent week of learning a serious halakhic topic in great depth, a topic that relates to the human and Divine actions necessary to create and sustain kedusha, a theme central to the Chanukah story.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week, in addition to the busy-ness around the move, we continued our end-of-semester learning, with years 1 and 2 learning Chanukah topics, and years 3 and 4 spending three days on a leadership training retreat with Eitzah and then beginning their review for a major test in hilkhot Niddah.

As it was Chanukah, we took a break from our regular post-mincha dvar halakha, and each day a student from a different year presented a dvar Torah on Chanukah. They all spoke beautifully. Jeremy Baruch, a year 2 student, referred to the field of narrative psychology - how the stories that we tell both reflect and reinforce our values and ethos - and he brought this to bear on the different ways in which the story of Chanukah is told (in the Gemara, Rambam, and the Al HaNissim), and how these different tellings shape the chag in different ways. Following up on this, we had the wonderful opportunity on Thursday to hear a lecture from Noam Zion, father of our student Mishael, and master educator from the Harman Institute. His lecture described how Chanukah had been appropriated in radically different ways in the 20th century by three different groups - secular Zionists, American Reform and Conservative Jews, and Chabad - each one re-telling the story and shaping its message to reflect and broadcast their distinctive, and often diametrically-opposed, ideologies and worldviews.

We also had a lovely Chanukah Chagiga in Riverdale on Wednesday night. It was a wonderful chevra event with music, dancing, latkes, quiches, dreidels and Chanukah gelt, and many students and staff, including myself, came with our entire families.

Also this week, Josh Frankel, a fourth-year student, made a siyyum on completing his intensive learning of mesekhet Niddah. May he go from strength to strength.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Thought on the Parsha


Yaakov, having finally endured the hardship and travails in the house of Lavan, and having finally returned to his homeland, the land of Canaan, and having reconciled with his brother Esav who (implicitly) agreed to relinquish his claim to the land, is now able to finally settle in the land of his fathers and to put all his troubles behind him. "And Yaakov settled in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan." However, as soon as this point is reached, the narrative turns to Yosef and his brothers, and Yaakov completely fades into the background, "These are the generations of Yaakov - Yosef was seventeen years..." Perhaps responding to this shift in the narrative, Chazal - as Rashi reminds us - comment on the first pasuk, "Vayeshev Yaakov - bikesh Yaakov lashevet bishalva" - Yaakov wanted to dwell in tranquility, but God would not allow it - "there is enough tranquility for the righteous in the World-to-Come." What is the meaning of this midrash? Don't the righteous deserve some tranquility, some respite from hardship and travail? Does being a tzaddik mean that one must suffer?

I would suggest that the point here is not about respite, but about complacency. To be righteous, to be dedicated to serving God, means that one must always be striving to achieve more. "Said R. Chiyya bar Ashi in the name of Rav: Talmidei chachamim, Torah scholars, have no rest, neither in this world nor in the next, as it states: 'They shall go from strength to strength; every one of them will appear before God in Zion' (Tehillim 119:165)" (Berakhot 64a). To be driven by a vision, a passion and an ideal is to never rest on one's laurels, but to go from one strength to the next, to constantly strive for the next challenge, or - to quote the title of the Tracy Kidder book - to look to scale the mountains beyond mountains. If Yaakov is prepared to settle down, then his story has ended, and the story of Yosef and his brothers must begin.

This Shabbat, Parshat Vayeshev, is the first day of Chanukah. Chanukah is - in many ways - the chag of religious striving, of religious maximalism. When Hellenism permeated the Land of Israel, many Jews fully embraced it. They were not deeply, profoundly committed to a life of Torah and mitzvot. They were not interested in struggle and in striving to see this ideal achieved. Torah was a lifestyle, not a passion, and they were happy to adapt, to be complacent, to go with the flow. When Antiochus demanded that the people worship pagan gods, desecrate the Shabbat, and refuse to circumcise their sons, many lacked the inner strength and conviction to resist. It was only Matityahu, with his cry, "Let everyone who is passionate for the Torah come after me" (Maccabees I, 1:27), only Matityahu with his depth of commitment and passion, who was able to inspire and lead the revolt that ultimately culminated in the defeat of the Seleucid-Greeks, the recapturing and rededication of the Temple, and the miracle of Chanukah.

And, so, Chanukah is the chag of religious striving, of rejecting a disposition of complacency and passive acquiescence. It is thus that we find that the laws of martyrdom were crystallized at the time of Chanukah, at the time when so many were willing to sacrifice their lives because they realized that there was more to life than just getting along, that there was something of ultimate and transcendent value, something worth giving up one's life for.

However, such passion can also be dangerous. It can lead to a dismissal of human realities and human concerns. All that is important is the ideal, the vision. We find sometimes that activists for causes can act in obnoxious or unethical ways to the people around them. For them, only the cause matters - real people are insignificant.

This actually was an early misstep of the Maccabees - not to be inappropriately dismissive of others' lives, but of their own. We are told that when they were attacked on Shabbat, they refused to fight and defend themselves, and were slaughtered in great numbers. It was then they realized that serving God required attending to the lives and realities of human beings as well:

And one of them said to another, If we all do as our brethren have done, and fight not for our lives and laws against the heathen, they will now quickly root us out of the earth. At that time therefore they decreed, saying, Whosoever shall come to make battle with us on the Sabbath day, we will fight against him; neither will we die all, as our brethren that were murdered in the secret places. (Maccabees I 2:40-41)

They intuited that it was God's will that Shabbat can and must be violated to save a human life, a ruling that was later endorsed and given prooftexts by the Rabbis.

This, then, is the message of Chanukah. It is the necessity of religious passion, commitment and striving, but a passion that must not become a zealotry that is blind to human concerns and human realities. It is a religious maximalism that refuses to use impure oil for the lighting of the menorah and the dedication of the Temple - although possibly halakhically permissible to do so based on the principle of tumah hutra bi'tzibuur, that impurity is superseded when the entire community is impure. It is a maximalism that insists that only pure oil be used for such a momentous religious occasion. And it is this ethos that we commemorate every Chanukah by not doing the minimum halakhic requirement - lighting just one candle per household - but on insisting that we do the mitzvah mihadrin min ha'mehadrin­ -­ in the best of the best possible ways. And yet, if one must choose between lighting Chanukah lights and Shabbat candles, Shabbat candles come first (Shabbat 23b, Shulkhan Arukh OH 678:1), because shalom bayit, household tranquility, takes precedence over such expressions of religious passion.

As we enter into Chanukah, let us all consider how we can internalize the ethos of Chanukah, how we can bring religious maximalism into our lives. It is easy to be complacent, to live our lives day by day without striving. But if we are committed to a life of serving God, then we must always be asking ourselves - what does God want from me and how can I do more? "More" need not mean more stringencies. Rambam in his Shmoneh Prakim rejects stringencies as a religious value. And yet, immediately after so doing he states that we must dedicate every thought and action to intellectually knowing God. That was Rambam's view of religious maximalism. What is ours? Is it learning and internalizing Torah? Is it careful attention to performing all the mitzvot? Is it connecting to God through prayer? Is it serving the Jewish people? Is it alleviating poverty and injustice in the world? Is it defending and strengthening the State of Israel?

Let us not dwell bishalva, in complacency. Let us strive - each one for him or herself - to understand what it is that God wants from us, and then constantly strive to achieve that day after day, conquering mountains beyond mountains, going from strength to strength. God-forbid that we should trample on others in this pursuit. God-forbid that it should be a maximalism that becomes a zealotry. We must always remember that in a contest between ner Shabbat and ner Chanukah, that ner Shabbat always come first. But let us also never forget that Chanukah demands that we live our lives mihadrin min ha mihadrin, always striving to serve God to our utmost ability, in the best of the best possible way.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash


In Lifecycles class this week, we continued our discussion of onah, focusing on the issue of the symmetry or asymmetry of the halakhically-defined sexual relationship. The Gemara discusses at length the husband's obligation to have sex with his wife (at regular intervals or when she indicates that she is interested) based on the Biblical obligation of onah. However, while the Gemara takes it for granted that a wife must have sex with her husband (and one who regularly refuses to do so is termed a moredet, a rebellious wife, and can be divorced with cause), it never makes clear from where this obligation is derived. In a brief but pivotal sugya, the Gemara in Nedarim (15b) states that neither husband nor wife can forbid their sexual relations on the other through the use of a neder, a vow, because of their obligations to one another. What is of interest is that the Gemara uses slightly different phrasing to describe their respective obligations: "He is obligated (mishtabed) to her Biblically, as it states, "Her fixed time he may not diminish" and, in her case, simply, "She is obligated (shibudei mi'shubedet) to him."

Whether the different phrasings reflect a substantive difference in their obligations is a debate between the Rishonim. Rambam states (Laws of Vows 12:9) that the husband is Biblically obligated to have sex with his wife, whereas, in her case, her sexual rights are owned by him. That is, he is entitled to have sex with her not because of any obligation that she has to him, but rather because he has a properly claim on her. In contrast, Rashba (Nedarim 15b) states that husband and wife are equally and reciprocally obligated to one another, not only because of the mitzvah of onah, but first and foremost because the very nature of nissuim is a contract of marriage, a staple of which is being committed to and obligated to one another in regards to marital sex.

What this debate reflects is a fundamental difference in the halakhic understanding of the concept of marriage. Notably, the first mishnah in Kiddushin refers to kiddushin as a kinyan, a purchase, that the man does to (or with) the woman. How literal and how one-sided is this to be understood? Rambam seems to understand it quite literally, that the man takes possession of the woman as property for the purpose of sex, or - to phrase it less harshly - acquires her sexual rights. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Berlin, 19th century) in his responsa Meishiv Davar (4:35) emphatically embraces this definition, and states that it is parallel to the acquisition of a Hebrew slave. In neither case is the other person owned as property outright, but in both cases - he states - they are owned (or one has rights in them) for a specific purpose: Hebrew slaves for their labor and a wife for the purpose of sex. He then draws the obvious conclusion, that according to this the husband is entitled to have sex whenever he wants, and if the wife is not interested she can be forced (presumably in court, not physically) to acquiesce to his demands. According to this approach, that the wife is considered the husband's sexual property, marital rape would not be fundamentally forbidden and, indeed, while the Gemara states that a husband cannot have sex with his wife against her will, Rambam quotes this passage in his Hilkhot Middot (5:4), clearly limiting it to the context of proper behavior and not of strictly forbidden actions (he quotes it in Laws of Marriage 15:17 in a similar context).

While we are justifiably outraged about the idea of marital rape not being forbidden, it is important to realize that it was not forbidden in the secular world for 1,500 years after the Talmud was written. Indeed, it only began to be outlawed in some states in the US in 1975, and it was not until 1993 - a mere 16 years ago - that it became forbidden in all 50 states (see Wikipedia). Rav Berlin's understanding of the wife as sexual property is thus far from being an exception to other systems of thought. Rather, it was the same underlying concept of the wife as sexual property of the husband throughout countless cultures and over hundreds of years that made the legality of marital rape possible, and that only in recent years has begun to shift.

It is thus significant that Rashba's opposite approach - that husband and wife are equally and reciprocally obligated to one another - was adopted and embraced by a significant number of later poskim already hundreds of years ago. Significantly, Hatam Sofer (Hungary, 19th century), in his responsa (7:25) states that the concept of kinyan in a marriage is bilateral, not unilateral, and that it refers to the parallel and reciprocal obligations that the husband and wife undertake to one another - the husband becomes obligated to provide her clothing and food, and to have regular marital sex with her, and she is obligated to have regular sex with him. There is no asymmetry insofar as their obligations towards martial sex are concerned. Similarly, Mabit (R. Moshe of Trani, Tzefat 16th century) in his Kiryat Sefer (Ishut chapter 15) and his son Maharit (Responsa 1:5) state that a woman can freely choose to refuse to have sex with her husband. In the words of Maharit, "she is not like one taken captive by the sword that she must have sex with him at all times."

Interestingly, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Orah Hayim 4:75) accepts that in principle there is a difference between husband and wife - he has an obligation towards her, whereas regarding her, there is no obligation, but it is rather that he has rights to her. Nevertheless, in practice Rav Moshe bridges the difference. We already discussed last week that the husband is obligated whenever she indicates her interest. Similarly, according to Rav Moshe, the husband has rights to have sex with her, not on demand, but when he is "in pain," i.e., has strong sexual needs. The practical difference between these two scenarios may be very minimal, although a difference of nuance certainly still exists.

In the end, contemporary halakha rejects the "sexual property" model and the idea of sex on demand. The Rashba's approach is the one that has been, and must be, adopted. While a husband and wife may at times have different sexual needs, it should never be understood that they have different degrees of claims on each other. We fully follow the Rashba's assertion that "they have equally obligated themselves to one another for this matter," and any difference of needs and desires must be worked out and negotiated between the two of them to ensure the greatest mutual happiness and satisfaction.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week, we wrapped up our core learning for the semester. Third- and fourth-year students completed their learning of the basic cycle of niddah, from the onset of menstruation through the process of hefesek taharah (checking that the bleeding has stopped), bedikot and shiva nikkiyim (seven non-bleeding days with checks), and then chafifa (scrubbing), removing chatzitzot (obstructions), and the act of tvilah (immersion) itself, with the shiurim this week focusing on the act of the tvilah and its brakhot. First- and second-year students completed learning the respective Gemarot - Ketubot and Baba Kama - and have taken their semester finals. All years will now move on to special classes - shiurim on Chanukah and classes on Gemara methodology for years 1 and 2, and Eitzah - our leadership training - and chazara (review) and finals for years 3 and 4.

Also this week, Rob Golder, a first-year student, spoke in memory of his grandmother, whose yahrtzeit it was this last week. Her neshama should have an aliyah.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Thought on the Parsha


Parshat VaYishlach opens with Yaakov preparing to confront Esav on his return to the Land of Canaan. We, as the reader, are eager to find out not only whether Yaakov will emerge unscathed, but how Yaakov will achieve this goal. Will this encounter differ in character from his last one with Esav, twenty years ago? Has Yaakov's character changed? Will he be the same Yaakov who was willing to use deceit to achieve his goals, or has he somehow learned from his twenty years of hardship, having received his comeuppance and having himself been deceived by Lavan, first by the switching of the daughters and then by the switching of the wages? Has he learned these lessons, or is he the same Yaakov from twenty years past?

We already have a hint to the answer from the story of Yaakov's shepherding of the sheep. On the one hand, Yaakov played the system and worked the loopholes, positioning the striped posts in front of the sheep at the time of copulation so that striped and speckled sheep would be conceived. However, such behavior, while not totally yasher, was still not deceitful, and was still playing by the rules. While less than ideal, such behavior is often the only way a person can survive when he is unprotected and in an inhospitable and foreign land. Such hostile environments have often been the reality of Jews in galut. We as a people have had to learn to survive and adapt, and we have excelled in this ability, learning how to play the system while keeping to its rules, no matter how unjust they may be.

They key in these situations has always been to do what we need to in order to survive, but do so while keeping one's integrity. And Yaakov, in his watching of the sheep, in no way "played the system" - he was the model of integrity and hard, honest work: "That which was torn of beasts I brought unto thee; I bore the loss of it; of my hand did you require it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. Thus I was: in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep fled from my eyes." (Breishit 32:39- 40).

So this "playing the system" was a necessary, adaptive mode for galut, but it was not ideal. And Yaakov is alerted to this, I believe, in the dream of the angel which he relates to Rachel and Leah. In that dream, the angel informs Yaakov that it was only because of God's help - and not because of Yaakov's scheme - that the ewes bore speckled lambs. The scheming was not what led to success, it was God's watching over him that did so.

And now Yaakov comes to encounter Esav. A hard and powerful enemy, but one that he is meeting head-on and in the land of Canaan, not as a guest in another land. Will he be the Yaakov of twenty years ago, and engage in real deceit? Will he be the Yaakov of the house of Lavan, and try to secretly work the loopholes? Or will he confront the challenge directly?

The answer is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Some people are never able to readjust to new situations and to abandon their old paradigms. As a case in point, we find that even today, some of our fellow Jews still approach the government, even the democratic government of the United States, as if they were living in the old oppressive regimes of Eastern Europe. When asked by certain yeshivot if they could deceive the United States government to get more funding for programs than they deserved, Rav Moshe Feinstein (HM 2:30) spends the majority of his response explaining that we live in a country that is not Tsarist Russia, and that in a country that protects its citizens, modes of deceit and trickery learned in previous generations, which were always problematic, are absolutely unethical and completely inconceivable.

Yaakov Aveinu, for his part, was able to learn these lessons on his own, and the path that he adopts is the straight and narrow one. While he prepares a gift, this is an act of appeasement, not of trickery. And he says so directly to Esav: "[It is] to find favor in the eyes of my master." When Esav tries to maintain a presence in Canaan, Yaakov politely but firmly begs off. There is no trickery - everyone knows the purpose of the gift, the meaning of Esav's accepting it (an accepting of Yaakov's apology) and the meaning of Yaakov's begging off of Esav's accompaniment and Esav's acquiescence to this (a waiving of Esav's rights to the land of Canaan). There is sophistication, intelligence and skill in this approach, but no trickery. And Yaakov has also not forgotten the angel's message. He knows that whatever he does, his success relies on God's help. Thus, before this momentous event he prays to God - the first time Yaakov talks directly to God - to beseech God for help and protection.

Yaakov has learned that to achieve his goals he need not use deceit, and he need not make use of loopholes. He can achieve his goals by confronting his challenges head-on, by using intelligence and skill, and by relying on God. This may be a harder path, it may be a riskier path, but it is the correct path. And to fully realize it, he must confront his old self and reject the Yaakov of the past. And thus, on the night before the encounter - "And Yaakov was left alone." He was left alone with himself. He had to look himself in the mirror and confront who he was and who he wanted to be. "And a man wrestled with him" - he had to struggle with his old self, and to reject who he was for who he could become. And when his old self saw that it could no longer define the new Yaakov, it engaged in its old trickery - "And he saw that he could not prevail against him" - when he - the man, the old Yaakov - saw that he could not achieve his ends through honest means, "he touched the curve of the thigh" - he used a dirty trick, touching the curve of the thigh, comparable to the curve of the heel, the ekev, the crooked path that is the old Yaakov. But the new Yaakov would not lower himself to this level. He refused to fight dirty, to give in to the old Yaakov, and he remained upright. And as such, he merited a new name: Yisrael. No longer Yaakov - the bent heel, but Yashar-El: Yashar, the straight one, El - who connects to God.

Yaakov became Yisrael, became the one who recognized that we must always remain straight and upright and rely on God, and that in this way - and not through self-reliance on trickery and deceit - will we achieve our goals. The path may be harder, we may have to sacrifice something as a result, we may come out limping a little in the end, but our integrity will be intact, and we will be better for it. That is why Bnei Yisrael - the descendants of Yisrael, not of Yaakov - will not eat the gid hanesheh that is on the thigh - that we reject the representation of the old Yaakov, and together with it give up some small degree of pleasure. This is a tiny sacrifice to make for being yashar and being with God, and for our meriting to be the true descendants of Yisrael, worthy of being called Bnei Yisrael.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash


In Lifecycles this week, we began the topic of onah, the mitzvah of marital sex. This mitzvah is defined in the mishna in Ketuvot as fixed, regular times that a husband must have sex with his wife. However, another definition emerges from other Talmudic passages - that the husband must have sex with his wife when he sees that she desires it, and this is referred to as lisameyach et ishto bi'dvar mitzvah, to give pleasure to his wife with this mitzvah act.

There is a debate in the achronim which of these two is the fundamental obligation. Rav Chaim Ozer Grodansky (Achiezer 3:83) rules that the fundamental obligation is the fixed times, whereas Rav Moshe Feinstein (EH 3:28), following Ra'avad (12th Century, Provence) in Ba'alei HaNefesh, rules that the entire obligation is for the husband to be responsive to his wife's desires, and states that the fixed times are just a way of estimating and approximating what under normal circumstances this would mean in terms of frequency. A third possibility is that both are equal but different obligations.

It is possible that these two definitions - regular times as opposed to responsiveness to the wife's desires - reflect different attitudes towards marital sex. If one thinks that all sex, including marital sex, is somehow religiously problematic - because it taps into to a person's most basic desires and drives and can lead to over indulgence and sin - then it has to be regulated and limited. Fixed times have to be set for it, and it is only tolerable as a thing for a man to "pay" in regular installments to his wife. This understanding would bundle it together with other debts that a husband owes his wife according to halakha, i.e., clothing and food. Such is the position of Rashi and Rambam who understand that these three - sex, clothing, and food - are equal Biblical obligations that a husband owes his wife.

According to this approach, it is noteworthy that when the Gemara speaks about regular times, it does not use the phrase "to give pleasure to his wife" or the phrase "a mitzvah act." There is no positive valuing of this act, and no emphasis on pleasure - of either husband or wife. Rambam, in particular, adopts this approach, and he can only find value in marital sex if it allows for procreation or if it is beneficial to the husband's health (Deot 3:2). It is thus not surprising that Rambam also sees the times of onah as ideally defining a maximum, not minimum, frequency (Deot 5:4), and even states that a man can, and perhaps should attempt to, persuade his wife to waive her onah rights (Ishut 15:1).

In contrast to this, the approach that emphasizes the husband being responsive to his wife's desires does not have a problem with the idea of pleasure in the sex act. This approach would see onah not as a debt to be paid, but as a way of bringing husband and wife together, and it underscores the intimacy, the romance, and the pleasure of marital sex. Ramban adopts this approach, and he states (Commentary to Shemot 21:9 ) that only the obligation of onah is Biblical, and clothing and food are Rabbinic and are not on par with this obligation. (This is similar to the position of the Sheiltot who states that onah is so fundamental to the marriage that it did not even have to be mentioned as a separate obligation). In this vein, Ramban emphasizes the importance not only of the sex act itself, but of the intimacy, the environment, the sharing of the marital bed and the coming together as one flesh. Thus, Ramban does not mention the idea of regular times, but rather of having sex at times of romance and love. It is significant that at the end of this passage he refers to the act of sex as "et chiburam" - the time of their coming together/cojoining.

According to this latter approach, marital sex is not problematic and something that needs to either be redeemed through procreation or a debt to be discharged. Rather it is something that is intrinsically good as it joins the couple together as one flesh, and pleasure and romance must be attended to. This approach would presumably encourage increasing the frequency, and this, in fact, is the simple read of Rava in Pesachim 72b -that marital sex with a focus on intimacy and pleasure should occur as frequently as possible.

It is, of course, possible to adopt both the fixed times model and the responsiveness model within a sex- positive framework. This would recognize that while ideally marital sex takes place in the context of romance and deep connection, this will not always be the case. If the couple were to wait until a time when they were really motivated, then they might go a long time without sex, something that would be detrimental to the marriage.

Consider, by comparison, tfillah. Ideally tfillah should take place when we are inspired and spontaneously motivated to pray, and it should be the most profound and intense pouring out of our hearts and connecting to God. However, if we would wait for that to happen, we would almost never pray. So we pray three times a day. The regularity ensures that the relationship is there for those times when the inspiration hits us, and it strengthens and sustains that relationship on a day-to-day basis.

The same is true regarding marital sex. The obligation to have sex with regular frequency does not have to fame it as a debt to be paid, but as a way to ensure that the couple remains connected and the marriage remains strong even when they are not experiencing strong sexual feelings. Not-great marital sex is much better than no marital sex, and many marriages break up or are at risk because the couple loses sight of the importance of this concept of onah. This concept was publicized in recent news reports regarding Rev. Ed Young and his challenge to his congregation of 20,000 to have marital sex daily for one week. As the New York Times reported (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/24/us/24sex.html) :



But if you make the time to have sex, it will bring you closer to your spouse and to God, he has said. You will perform better at work, leave a loving legacy for your children to follow and may even prevent an extramarital affair. . .

Others found that, like smiling when you are not particularly happy, having sex when they did not feel like it improved their mood. Just eight months into their marriage, Amy and Cody Waddell had not been very amorous since Cody admitted he had had an affair.

"Intimacy has been a struggle for us, working through all that," Ms. Waddell said. "This week really brought us back together, physically and emotionally."



The one issue that we did not address in shiur this week, but which we will address next week, is that the mitzvah of onah focuses on the husband's obligation, and not the wife's. This could be seen as reflecting a patronizing approach towards women and their needs, i.e., that women are the ones with these base drives and it is the husband who has to provide for their needs. This would, perhaps, be in line with the first approach mentioned above that sees marital sex as something fundamentally problematic. However, in a study done by Tova Hartman and Naomi Marmon (Gender Society 2004), the authors found that the halakhic focus on women's needs is experienced by many women as empowering and as a corrective to the usual norms of patriarchal systems:

In addition to respecting their desire to be nonsexual, the halakhic framework, according to many of our informants, sanctions women's sexual desires within the framework of marriage. The Torah (Ex. 21:10) charges every married man with the mitzvah of onah, that is, the commandment to provide his wife with her conjugal rights. Thus, the halakhic system establishes a sexual sphere within marriage that is distinct from procreation and encourages women to expect, demand, and enjoy an active and vital sexual relationship with their spouses. . .

"A woman can also initiate physical things. It's good to say that I want this or that, especially because the woman is supposed to enjoy. In fact, the husband is not fulfilling his commandment of onah if you don't enjoy. So that means that if you want sex, or whatever, then he has to agree, and you have the right to ask for it." (Yael).

Contrary to Freud's (1963) image of the silent and passive woman sexual partner, because of the mitzvah of onah, Yael feels as though "she has the right to ask" when she wants sex.

Sarah echoed this sentiment: "Whatever a woman wants is the obligation of the husband. I remember that they spoke to us about how important it is that a woman should also enjoy."
This halakhic premium on women's sexual fulfillment can be seen as a stark challenge to broad-based claims that religion represses women sexually and that women's pleasure is achieved through surrender, passivity, and recognition of themselves as sexual objects (Nicholson, 1994).

Jane concurred that this element of niddah affirms, very practically and directly, her own needs within the sexual relationship and validates a woman's rights to sexual fulfillment and desire more generally:

"The general feeling of the mitzvah of onah makes me feel that the tradition goes against the idea that sex is all about him and his needs. . . The mikveh joins the larger value of what does she need, what does the woman deserve.

Just as our informant above felt that the tradition speaks with them in validating their "no" voice within their sexual relationships, similarly, these women felt that it "joins" their "I want/I need/I desire" voice - another voice traditionally silenced by men's power. Their sexual fulfillment is validated . . . [by a system] that demand[s] of its men participants, as a requirement of membership in good standing, that they listen."

Happenings at the Yeshiva


Things have been busy at the yeshiva as the learning continues and students begin preparing for a week of chazara and then finals before the break at the end of December.

This week we had the wonderful opportunity to host a group of lay leaders from Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, a large 1500- family member synagogue where two of our musmachim, Rabbi Adam Scheier and Rabbi Yonah Berman, serve as rabbi and assistant rabbi, respectively. The group heard shiurim from Rabbi Weiss, Rav Nati and myself, and spent time speaking to students over lunch. The group was quite impressed with the yeshiva and the students, and will be sharing their experiences and excitement with their friends.

It was exciting to be able to welcome these guests to our beit midrash, and I would like again to extend an invitation to each of you to come visit our yeshiva and our beit midrash when you are in the area.

Also this week, on Tuesday night, YCT, together with the IRF, sponsored a lecture by Rabbi Chaim Drukman at the HIR. Before the lecture, Rabbi Drukman met with a group of YCT students and a number of IRF rabbis over dinner, and gave a shiur regarding the saying of v'ten tal umatar livrakah, which we begin saying this motzei Shabbat in ma'ariv. He discussed the ruling of the Shulkhan Arukh, following the famous responsum of the Rosh, that even when an entire country needs rain later than Pesach, it still cannot say "vi'ten tal umatar" after Pesach. He explained that this was because the birkat hashanim, the blessing in Shmoneh Esrei where this addition is inserted, is specifically a brakha for Eretz Yisrael, and our tfillot for rain ultimately connect to the needs of Eretz Yisrael. Although we begin asking for rain on a date later than when they begin to ask for it in Eretz Yisrael - we wait until we are in need as well, which has halakhically been set as 60 days after the Julian autumnal equinox - we will, nevertheless, not ask at a time when there is only need in the Diaspora and not in Israel. This is an important reminder of how our tfillot have to always connect to the Land of Israel, and - in our contemporary times - the State of Israel, its people and its needs, and how we must always see ourselves as part of that collective.

After the private dinner, Rav Drukman spoke to a packed house of over 200 people on the state of geirut in Israel, where he is working hard within the Chief Rabbinate to make the process of geirut somewhat more tolerable within that system. The audience turned out in support of him and his efforts, although it is a difficult and uphill battle that he is fighting. May he continue to have strength and be able to make a difference.

We also had the opportunity this last Thursday to welcome to our yeshiva Rabbi Joel Tessler of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, where our musmach, Rabbi Nissan Antine, serves as assistant rabbi. Rabbi Tessler spoke to the talmidim about the challenges and the blessings of being a rav, and of the opportunities to be present to help people in the critical moments of their lives. He also spoke about the crucially important work that the yeshiva, its students and its musmachim are doing, and how much so many lay leaders and rabbis support us and look towards us as the one hope for a true and vibrant Orthodoxy. It was inspiring to hear him talk, and we are blessed to have such a friend and supporter.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Thought on the Parsha


Yitzchak's story is one of the major themes of this week's parsha. Until now, the stories involving Yitzchak have really been stories of other people - Avraham offering up Yitzchak at the akeida, and Avraham's servant finding a wife for Yitzchak. Now, finally, it is Yitzchak's turn to write his own story, to have his own narrative. However, the first pasuk of the parsha already tells us what Yitzchak's story will be - v'ela toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham, Avraham holid et Yitzchak, "These are the generations [or "stories"] of Yitzchak the son of Avraham, Avraham sired Yitzchak." The story of Yitzchak is that he is Avraham's son, that Avraham sired him and that he is a continuation of Avraham. Indeed, we already heard in last week's parsha that he took Rivkah into his mother Sarah's tent - she became Sarah and he became Avraham. He prays for a son, just as Avraham beseeched God for a son; as a result of a famine, he goes into a foreign land, just like Avraham- wanting to go to Egypt, like Avraham, but staying in the land of Canaan, in the land of the Plishtim, on God's behest. He gets in trouble on account of his wife as Avraham did, having told the same story as Avraham that she was his sister. He gets into quarrels with the Plishtim over ownership of the wells, just like Avraham; he makes a covenant with Avimelekh, just like Avraham; and he spends a lot of time redigging the wells that Avraham dug. And then that is it. His story is over, and we move on to the story of Yaakov and Esav.

There is nothing new and innovative in Yitzchak's life. He continued in the way of Avraham. It is easy to dismiss such a life as mundane and meaningless, but in fact, without Yitzchak we would not have survived. Yitzchak took all of Avraham's creativity and innovations, all of Avraham's vision - and he ensured it's continuity. Avraham was the creator, the founder, the leader with charisma. Yitzchak was the one who took that charisma and creativity and institutionalize it. Avraham was chesed - bursting out of bounds, overflowing with ideas and energy. Yitzchak was din - the one with bounds, with limits, the one with rules, and laws, and a fixed way of doing things that must be adhered to. Yitzchak could not go out of Canaan - he could not explore new vistas. He had to stay in Canaan and invest all of his energies in building, in establishing, in redigging the wells. If another Avraham had followed Avraham, nothing would have progressed. All those amazing ideas, visions and goals of Avraham would have been forgotten in the excitement and passion of the new Avraham. The wells would have gotten clogged and the water would have stopped flowing. Redigging the wells, doing the hard work that is necessary to sustain the vision and bring it into the next generation, that day-to-day commitment can often be unexciting and thankless work - that was Yitzchak's task. And yet, had it not been for Yitzchak, all of Avraham's contributions would have been lost.

As a people, we have had a few Avrahams - Rambam, the Vilna Gaon, the Ba'al Shem Tov, the Ari, Rav Soloveitchik, and Rav Kook to name a few. But had they not had Yitzchaks to follow them - to take their ideas and programs and turn them into reality, to commit to the day-to-day effort needed to bring their ideas into the next generation - then their legacy would have been lost to us. While it is exciting to be an Avraham, we have only survived as a people because of our Yitzchaks. Our Yitzchaks have not only preserved the innovations of our Avrahams, but they have preserved for us our mesorah, our tradition, and our way of life.

Yitzchaks are the backbone of our people. They our those countless mothers and fathers who have sacrificed everything so their children would have a Jewish education and a Jewish home. They are the ones who learned Torah every day - not because they would become great scholars, but because it was the lifeblood of the Jewish people. They are the ones who toiled to provide for their family, who endured hardship to keep the mitzvot, who refused to give up or compromise their Jewish identity no matter what the cost. They are the women who used a deep, dark well as a mikveh when no other mikveh was available. They are the men who scrounged to make a living to support their families rather than take a job that entailed violation of the Shabbat. They are the ones who day to day - with or without hardship - have lived and continue to live a committed life of Torah and mitzvot, keeping it alive for themselves and passing it on to the next generation. They are the ones who keep redigging the wells and keep the water flowing.

We all need to be more thankful for the Yitzchaks in our lives. First, to recognize the profound value of our own work as Yitzchaks - what we do in our daily lives as Jews to keep the Torah alive for ourselves, our family, and our community. And we must recognize all those who are the unsung Yitzchaks - the teachers in our schools, the mashgichim of restaurants, the mikveh attendant, those who work in the office of our synagogue - the ones who give of themselves day-to-day for the Jewish community in quiet ways, off of center stage - and be profoundly grateful for their constant redigging of our wells. It is not always easy being a Yitzchak. It is a lot more exciting being an Avraham. But it is only because of Yitzchak that we survive, and that the waters of Avraham continue to flow.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash


In our study of niddah, we began the topic of tvilah, immersion. Interestingly, the Torah never states explicitly that a niddah, zavah, or a woman who has given birth has to immerse in order to become tahor, ritually pure, although it is assumed throughout the Talmud that this requirement exists and that it is Biblical. The Rishonim attempt to locate the source, and while Rambam (issurei Biah 4:3) states that it can be inferred from the fact that all ritually impure people in the Torah must go to the mikveh to become tahor, but Tosafot (Beitzah 11a, s.v. Lo Nitzrecha) rejects this approach and states that one cannot learn from general principles of ritual impurity, because it is possible that the requirements would be different when it comes to the woman's status vis-à-vis her husband.

This debate points to an ongoing theme regarding the status of a niddah - a person who both has standard ritual impurity (like all of us today who are t'mei met - ritually impure due to contact or being in the same building with a dead body), and also a person who is forbidden to have sex. Is the latter status a dimension of the former, or something independent? Rambam certainly assumes these two statuses are combined, whereas Tosafot states they may be independent of one another. Thus, for Tosafot, it would have been theoretically possible to argue that a woman could not go to the mikveh, be a niddah for touching trumah, sanctified food, and the like, and still be permitted to her husband. In the end, obviously, a niddah must go to the mikveh to be permitted to her husband, but it is still an open question whether her two statuses are linked and whether this is the same tvillah of ritual purity and impurity. Earlier this year we saw a similar position of Ra'avad - supported by Ramban - who states that there are some circumstances (poletet shikhvat zera) that a woman's shiva nikkiyim, seven clean days, would be interrupted only for ritual impurity, but not for her husband. Thus, according to Ra'avad, such a woman could go to the mikveh on day seven - ignoring this interruption - and be permitted to her husband, yet still be a full niddah regarding laws of ritual impurity!

Because the tvilah of a niddah and zavah is not mentioned in the Torah, there is uncertainty as to the requirements for the tvilah of a zavah. A zav, a man with an abnormal penile discharge, requires tvilah in mayyim chayyim - a natural well or spring. Is the same true about a zavah? Ramban in his commentary to Vayikra (15:19) states that according to the simple sense of the verses this is the case. And, in fact, there is a mishna (Mikvaot 5:5) that seems to imply this. However, the Tosefta (Megillah 1:14, Zavim 3:1) states explicitly that a zavah does not require mayyim chayyim. Now, this issue is never discussed explicitly in the Bavli or Yerushalmi, and hence there is some debate about how we rule. A number of Geonim were of the opinion that a zavah requires mayyim chayyim, and they went further to state that because of Chumrah d' Rebbe Zeira, our current practice which does not distinguish between the status of niddah and zavah, all women must use a well or wellspring. This was a possible position to hold because many mikvaot in those times were exactly that - wells. However, all the Rishonim reject this position on the basis of the Tosefta, and certainly it would have made mikveh use impossible in communities which needed to use rainwater mikvaot. Of course, we rule this way, and almost all of our mikvaot are rainwater mikvaot. (So, also, were the mikvaot at Masada - but that was before Chumrah d' Rebbe Zeira and hence only needed to be used for niddah purposes, not zavah).

When one realizes what women had to endure to go to the mikveh - climbing many feet down a deep dark well, and immersing in unheated water - we can only be inspired by their example of dedication and self- sacrifice. Of course, for us, the important message is not to feel a need to duplicate this, but to realize our responsibility to make mikvaot as welcoming, hygienic, and pleasant as possible - something that is feasible in our rainwater mikvaot, and happens when sufficient attention and care is given.

In that vein, it is worth noting a final point that we made in shiur. The Rishonim and poskim discuss going to the mikveh on Shabbat. They are bothered why this is allowed, since the general (Ashkenazic) practice is to not fully immerse oneself (in a pool, a bath, etc.) on Shabbat because of a range of Shabbat concerns (including, but not limited to, carrying the water on one's body and squeezing the water out of one's hair). They justify going to the mikveh on Shabbat either by recognizing that these concerns are not based on the Gemara, and hence in this case one can revert to the core halakha that such immersion is permissible, or by stating that the mitzvah of going to the mikveh at the right time overrides these concerns.

While this general Shabbat issue is largely resolved by the time of the Shulkhan Arukh, later poskim deal with another problem - going to a heated mikveh on Shabbat. Fully immersing oneself in preheated water on Shabbat is explicitly forbidden by the Talmud, and yet we do it in this case. How is that? A number of poskim reject the practice, but most attempt to find ways to justify it - sometimes by ingenious formal definitions (for example, the water isn't hot enough to really be called hot). Rav Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 6:20), after listing such formal distinctions, in the end states that it is possible that the value of not forcing a woman to delay going to the mikveh would override this rabbinic restriction. This is a powerful statement about how far we must go to make the mikveh as welcoming as possible, so that its physical state should never be the cause of anyone not going to the mikveh, or even delaying or hesitating using it.

Happenings at the Yeshiva


This week, in our morning learning, we wrapped up the topic of checks, bedikot, and began the topic of tvilah, immersion, starting with the question of the source of tvilah for a niddah and a zavah (a woman with irregular bleeding), and whether we rule tvilah bizmanah mitzvah, that it is a mitzvah to immerse on exactly the first day, that it is the right time and that it is possible to do so. In the afternoon we continued addressing the teenage years and sexuality, and addressed the topics of zera li'vatalah, masturbation and "wasting of seed" and negiah, sexual touch between non-married individuals.

Following Rabbi Riskin's visit of last week, we had another guest from Eretz Yisrael and Yeshivat Hamivtar this week. Rabbi Chanokh Waxman, a teacher of Gemara at Yeshivat HaMivtar, visited on Thursday and gave the parsha shiur. Rabbi Waxman looked at the episode of Yaakov's deception of Yitzchak in order to receive the blessing, and presented two competing reads of the story - one, that Yaakov acted correctly, as he was following the Divine prophecy, "The older shall serve the younger," and the other that he acted incorrectly, incorrectly assuming that the ends justified the means. Rather, deceit is never the right course, and he should have allowed God to ensure that the prophecy would be fulfilled. A close reading of the later episodes with Yaakov, especially those in the house of Lavan, support the latter reading as they seem to show how Yaakov suffered and was punished midah ki'neged midah, measure for measure, for his deceit.

Dr. David Berger has written a very insightful article on this topic ("On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemic and Exegesis," in Understanding Scripture, 1987. It can be viewed on Google Books). There he shows how in the past, when the Divinity and morality of the Torah were assumed by all, Jews and Christians alike, traditional commentators felt a need to defend the morality of Yaakov (and, by implication, the Jewish people). However, in more recent times, when the Divinity and morality of the Torah have been under attack, traditional commentators have felt a greater need to defend the morality of the Torah, and in so doing, have been more prepared to state that Yaakov did not act properly, and that the Torah (and God) did not condone his actions, and hence to read the stories that follow as a punishment of Yaakov for his actions and deceit.

Also this week, on the professional side, we had an intensive two-day training session run by Makom to train our students to be Israeli-engaged rabbis in the Golah. This will be followed by a project and field work in the context of students' internships, as well as another two-day intensive training session in the Spring. We are thrilled to be partnering with Makom on this important part of our curriculum.

And finally, on the simcha side, Rob Golder was engaged to Sarah Steinberg of Highland Park, NJ. We had the pleasure of having Sarah and her parents at the yeshiva on Monday, and we danced and sang with them after Mincha. Mazel Tov!

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Thought on the Parsha


After the climax of the akeida at the end of last week's parsha, Avraham and Sarah quickly disappear from the scene in this week's parsha. Sarah, of course, dies at the very beginning of the parsha, but even Avraham quickly fades into the background. The spotlight moves to Avraham's servant, to Rivka and her family, and then to Yitzchak. While Avraham remarries and sires many children, this appears almost as a footnote, and we read soon thereafter of his death and burial.

Now, we would expect this fading out of Avraham when the story shifts its focus to Yitzchak, as it does in Parshat Toldot (and as Yitzchak fades into the background when Yaakov moves to the foreground in Parshat Vayetze). However, in Chayei Sarah, Yitzchak has not yet moved to center stage, and yet Avraham has already faded into the background. Why is that?

I believe what we are seeing is Avraham's retirement. Avraham has struggled all his life. To call out in the name of God, to battle kings and to save his nephew, to deal with kings who would take his wife, but most of all to have a son who would succeed him. Finally, after much struggle - first in believing in a divine promise that was not materializing, then in believing it to have been fulfilled through Yishmael only to see that possibility rejected by God, then in finally having a son through Sarah only to have it followed by God's incomprehensible command to bring his son as a sacrifice, and then in offering his son up only to be told to take him down - finally, finally, he has the son that he has been promised, and all is well. "Va'Hashem berakh et Avraham b'kol," "And God blessed Avraham with everything" (Breishit 24:1). Avraham has the son that he has always prayed for, and he has achieved the pinnacle of his service to God - "Atah ya'dati ki y'rei E-lohim atah," "Now I know that you are fearing of God," (Breishit 22:12). He has achieved all that he has set out to achieve, and his struggles are over.

But with the end of struggle, also comes the end of challenge, the end of meaning and of purpose. Consider the contrast that we are presented with at the end of Vayera (this was pointed out to me by my dear friend, Rabbi Yitzchak Halberstam. I also understand that Dr. Uriel Simon has made the same point). Avraham comes down from the mountain after almost sacrificing his one son that Sarah bore to him at his advanced age, and what does he hear? That, in the meanwhile, his brother, Nachor, has effortlessly had eight children through his wife, Milkah. And Avraham is the one with the blessing! But such is the case - a blessing means work, a blessing means struggle. Avraham is at the center of history. Every part of Avraham's life is imbued with meaning - for him, and for future generations. Meanwhile, his brother Nachor might be having eight children and living the good life, but he does not exist on the historical scene. His life is not one of significance, not one of meaning.

What then happens to Avraham after he has achieved all that he has struggled for, when he stops struggling? He moves into retirement and off of center stage. He may now have six more children and another wife, but they are nothing more than a footnote, a parentheses. It is his life of struggle that produced Yitzchak, that presented him with ten challenges that he lived up to in his service of God, that is the life worth recording, that is the life of historical meaning.

A similar point was made this week in an Op-Ed piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. He argues that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which occurred twenty years ago this week, the West and Democracy has ceased to be truly threatened in an existential way. As a result, we have lost our sense of purpose. He states:

And it may be that the only thing more frightening than the possibility of annihilation is the possibility that our society could coast on forever as it is. . . Humankind fears judgment, of course. But we depend on it as well. The possibility of dissolution lends a moral shape to history: we want our empires to fall as well as rise, and we expect decadence to be rewarded with destruction. Not that we want to experience this destruction ourselves. But we want it to be at least a possibility - as a spur to virtue, and as a punishment for sin.

Struggle gives purpose to our lives. More than that, only those things that we struggle for, that we sacrifice for, are the things that we truly hold dear. This point is made in the Jewish context by Yishayahu Leibowitz in "Religious Praxis" (in Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State). There he compares the symbol of Christianity - the cross- with a somewhat analogous Jewish symbol of sacrifice - the akeida. Both speak to the notion of sacrifice, but in profoundly different ways:

[Christianity's] symbol, the cross, represents the sacrifice God brought about for the benefit of mankind. In contrast, the highest symbol of Jewish faith is the stance of Abraham on Mount Moriah, where all human values were annulled an overridden by fear and love of God. . . No doubt a religion of values, an "endowing religion" such as Christianity. . . is capable of gratifying certain psychic needs. Today, "seekers of religion" or "seekers of God" in order "to fill a vacuum in the soul" are legion. Such a religion is likely therefore to attain some popularity. It will never become an educative force. Men like comforting religions which require no effort, but they do not revere them or take them seriously. It is a basic psychological fact that men respect and adore only that which is demanding, which requires sacrifices and imposes duties."

It is in this vein that the midrash teaches that "Three great gifts were given to the Jewish people. . . are acquired only through suffering. . . and they are: Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World-to-Come." (Sifrei vaEtchanan). To achieve the things that are most important, we must struggle to achieve them. And though our struggle to achieve them, they become most important to us.

Anything truly worthwhile in our lives, anything worth having, anything that we treasure, is a thing that we have had to work for, a thing that we have had to sacrifice for.

Just as it was with Avraham's struggles on account of his children before and after they were born, just as it was with all our foremothers who were childless and struggled to have children, so it is with all of us and our children. The more we sacrifice, the more with invest in our children, the more we endure tza'ar giddul banim, the pains of child rearing, whether we want to or not, the stronger our bond with them is, the more they mean to us, the more every moment with them is imbued with meaning.

As Devorah and I wrote in our Jewish Week article, it is an ongoing struggle raising children with "invisible disabilities." There has been much tza'ar giddul banim. Sometimes it has felt like more than we could handle. But now the bar mitzvah of our oldest son is coming up, and we look back and see how much he has grown, how much he has matured and accomplished, and how much he has overcome. And it is because of our struggle over the years, and because of his struggle and his endurance, that every accomplishment is so sweet and so meaningful.

For every one of us, we must make sure that we do not move into an early retirement from life, from its struggles and from its accomplishments. Let us make sure never to lose sight of those things that are truly important - God, Torah, the Land of Israel, Klal Yisrael, and of course, our family and our children. Let us always be prepared to endure the struggle that is necessary, necessary because what we struggle for is so important, and necessary because it is through the struggle that they will become ever so important to us.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash


As I mentioned, in hilkhot Niddah we have been learning the topic of bedikat shiva nikkiyim, the internal checking that a woman does during the seven days after cessation of bleeding. In general, it is a question how relevant the Brisker approach to learning - an approach which posits a chakira, two competing conceptual definitions of a law, and then makes all debates dependant on this question - is relevant to the world of halakha. What is interesting about the topic we learned this week is that at least as far as a number of Rishonim and almost all of the Achronim are concerned, all the halakhic debates revolve around the question of how we conceptualize the nature of these bedikot, these internal checks. Is the purpose of the bedikot to establish that the woman is not bleeding, or - given that she already did a hefsek taharah, a check when she first stopped bleeding, and has already established that fact - the purpose is more to serve the formal function of counting the days and/or designating them formally as nikkiyim, as blood-free days. In the Amoraim, this could be the debate about what constitutes the bare minimum checking according to R. Eliezer in the mishna - is it the first and last days (formally bracketing and thus designating the entire period) or is it the first OR the last day (which could verify lack of bleeding, but does not designate the entire 7 days in the same way). In the Rishonim, this is probably the debate around whether, according to Rav, checking a middle day alone could work (Ra'avad, Rosh, Rashba - because this would suffice to determine lack of bleeding) or not (Razah, Ra'ah, others - because a middle day cannot define the 7 day unit, for which at least 1 if not 2 endpoints are needed).

In terms of practical halakha, we rule that a woman must check all 7 days lichatchila, ab initio, and at least 1 AND 7 b'dieved, post facto. Nevertheless, this debate still plays out in the Achronim regarding a number of cases (for an extended discussion, see Sidrei Taharah 196:18) . The approach that sees a need for a formal counting could lead to more demands, such as the need to have intent and always be somewhat aware that one is in the middle of shiva nikkiyim (Me'il Tzedakah - adopted by many Achronim, but also rejected by many others), or the need to check only during the day and not at night (also debated). The Shala goes so far to say that a woman needs to verbally count the days, but this is roundly rejected. However, it could also lead to fewer demands at times - such as the position of Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Badei HaShulkhan that a woman can do a bedikah soon after she does an internal wash. As a way of determining that she is no longer bleeding, such a check would not be too meaningful, but if the only purpose is to formally designate the days as clean this would suffice.

It goes without saying that our shiur and discussion did not end with this fascinating conceptual analysis. We spent a good deal of time discussing not only bottom line halakha in these areas, but how to be properly sensitive to the challenges - both practical and psychological - that can arise around bedikot, and how to be as responsive as possible to these realities within the demands of halakha.

Happenings at the Yeshiva


With our third- and fourth-year students, we continued learning Niddah in the morning - we are now covering the topics of hefsek taharah and shiva nikkiyim - and Lifecycles in the afternoon. Thursday was a particularly packed day. After my regular shiur on Niddah, I met with the students of that shiur over lunch to discuss the challenges and problematics of learning and paskening hilkhot niddah, given the way the system and the discourse objectifies women and their bodies. While it is clear that halakha does this all the time - whether to pots and pans, to men's bodies, or to women's bodies - such an objectifying system raises unique challenges in the context of women and niddah. There was obviously no resolution to this challenge, but - as I said to our students - it is better that they, rather than someone who is oblivious to or dismissive of these issues, are the ones who will be paskening for their communities. I am proud that we have created a yeshiva where these issues can be discussed openly and honestly, and where we can hold the tension without seeking easy and less than fully honest resolutions.

Also on Thursday, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin visited the yeshiva and gave a parsha shiur, elaborating on the connection between kiddushin, Sarah's burial, and Avraham's purchase of her burial plot. He followed this with a talk to third- and fourth-year students on giving sermons. Following that, these same students heard from Dr. Steve Glicksman on male adolescence and masturbation. We will be finishing this conversation next week when we will have a Lifecycles halakha shiur on masturbation, zera li'vatala, and sexual touch, negiah.

This monday I gave the last lecture in my series on Women in the Synagogue and Communal Leadership at the JCC of Manhattan. The audio is posted on my blog and on our website and the source sheets should be up in the next day or two.

Finally, we extend a nechama to Rob Golder and his family on the loss of his grandmother. Hamakom yenachem etchem b'toch she'ar avalei Tzion vi'Yerushalayim.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'Invisible Disability’ Kids Are Being Left Out

by Dov Linzer And Devorah Zlochower
The Jewish Week, Op-Ed
November 10, 2009

We are the parents of two children with what are often termed “invisible disabilities.” Invisible disabilities can include learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette’s syndrome and other tic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders, mood disorders and behavioral disorders.

Why are these disabilities “invisible?” When you see our children and others similarly diagnosed, you think they are “typical” children. These kids are often verbal and sometimes highly articulate; they are of average intelligence and even extremely bright, and their ability to maneuver physically, socially and emotionally in the real world seems unimpaired.

In reality, these kids are dealing with a lot of complex issues. Many of these children find our loud, smelly, busy world overwhelming and may take refuge by shutting the rest of us out. Some seek out even more sensation and have difficulty modulating their voices, sitting still or remaining quiet. Many of them have trouble making and keeping friends despite an often passionate desire to do so. A need for order and control may make the regular, chaotic play of many children unappealing or scary.

More profoundly, these disabilities are invisible because these children have become invisible in our community. Synagogues do not provide Shabbat programming for children who cannot handle the standard Shabbat groups or junior congregation. Day schools do not educate many of these children, and prayer services in synagogue are not welcoming places for these families.

While there have been a number of stories in the Jewish media recently about the rare programs that do exist, more often, families like ours hear that such programs are too expensive and serve too few children to make them viable. We in turn have pulled away from the community in our search to have our children’s needs met.

We send our children to secular schools and camps that serve the special needs population, we consult with psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists rather than our rabbis, and we create community with each other, the folks who “get it.” And we convince ourselves that we are doing just fine all by ourselves.

The truth is that we and our children need the support and acceptance of our community. We have asked for help in the past, but we have been told “no” so many times that by now we feel it is futile to ask. And we are angry — angry because our children survive by our advocating for them, and advocacy is not always pretty.

Our synagogues and our Jewish communal institutions need to become safe spaces where we can bring our children, confident that their behavior will be tolerated or, better yet, understood. Our children are entitled to learn and live their Jewish heritage, and they cannot fully do so if they continue to exist at the margins of the Jewish community.

We can’t do it alone. We are overextended emotionally and financially. We worry every day about our children’s future. Will they be able to make a living? Will they marry? How will they manage when we are gone? And we have current worries, too. Will we be able to continue to afford the education, the therapies, and the medications that our children need?

We have been forced to accept that we will not find a place for our children in the Jewish day schools, but we can no longer tolerate that this extends to our synagogues as well. For our children, inclusion in the prayer services and programming at synagogue is a last chance to be part of the Jewish community, and they are being pushed out with both hands.

We want to be a part of the community, desperately. But to do so our children must be made welcome. What does that mean? Rabbis and community leaders need to become educated about these populations and they need to share this knowledge with the community.

Address our issues from the pulpit. Teach that Jewish values of inclusion, of justice, of caring, extend to our children as well. Help parents instill in their “typical” children the value of befriending children that are not exactly like them and their peers. Teach all of us that the true worth of the individual goes beyond academic achievement, athletic ability, and earning power.

Develop community programming. Talk to us; we have developed, of necessity, a great deal of expertise on what works and what does not work for our children. Ask us if something can be done to modify existing programs so that they can meet the needs of our children. Seek our input when creating new programs. Our families are hungry for Jewish programming and you will find us willing partners if you just open the door to us.

Most importantly, speak to our children and recognize them for the beautiful souls they are. Our children are poets, artists, philosophers and psychologists; their emotional and spiritual lives are deep and intense ones. Our children are valued by their peers, special educators, and therapists; show them that they are valued by the Jewish community as well.

Rabbi Dov Linzer is Rosh HaYeshiva and dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. Devorah Zlochower teaches at SAR High School; she served as Rosh Beit Midrash and Director of Full-Time Studies at Drisha Institute for many years.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Thought on the Parsha


Parshat Va'Yera has many powerful stories and images, but perhaps the two most powerful are the story of Avraham arguing with God to save Sodom and Amora, and the story that is climax of the parsha, Avraham offering Yitzchak up as a sacrifice. The first of these captures our imagination because it shows Avraham's deep commitment to ethics and justice, so deep that he has the audacity to argue and argue and continue to argue with God to prevent an injustice from being done. "Will the Judge of the entire Earth not do justice?!" This episode is used by some, including Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (By His Light), to demonstrate the importance of independent ethics within the Jewish tradition. Avraham did not meekly submit to the Divine will. He challenged God because God's actions went against his internal sense of right and wrong.

However, if this is how we are to understand the message of Avraham arguing with God, then what meaning should we give to the akeida story, where Avraham is asked to murder his son and he follows God's commands without question or challenge? We should first of all admit that this may not be a question at all. Our understanding of the akeida as a test of whether Avraham would follow the Divine command even when it contradicted morality and ethical mandates is the understanding that has been popular ever since Kierkegaard addressed this issue in his book, "Fear and Trembling". In classic Jewish writing and liturgy, however, the akeida was never seen as a test regarding morality, and has always been cast as a test of Avraham's preparedness to give up that which was most dear to him and to overcome his fatherly love and compassion. Presumably, in a time when child sacrifice was common, such an act would not have been seen as murder and would not have been seen as an unethical act.

That being said, we today cannot help but seeing this as a case that should have demanded equal moral objection from Avraham to what he did in the case of Sodom. And yet, Avraham is silent. Why is that? One way to read this is that this test, this final test, elevated Avraham to a higher plane, to a place where he did not question or challenge God as he had before. However, that would imply that Avraham was wrong to have objected when God came to destroy Sodom, something that seems to run counter to the text and tradition. I believe that there are two other ways of resolving this, both of which force a reassessment of the valorization of the idea of challenging God with our own sense of right and wrong.

The first is to recognize that in the story of the akeida, a demand is being made of Avraham. He is told to act. This is in contrast to the story of Sodom where nothing is being asked of him. Avraham could defend the people of Sodom and know that he was in the right. There was no question of an ulterior motive. He was a completely disinterested party, and thus his moral objection was unassailable. However, in the case of the akeida, were he to object, how could he ever know that he was not doing it as a way to avoid his obligation, his responsibility? As a person with a vested interest, he could not object with a clear conscience, he could not know that he was doing it totally lishma, and hence he listens to God's command without question or challenge.

This is illustrated by a story that is told of the maskil that would come to a great rabbi and say, "Rabbi, I would keep Shabbos and the mitzvot, if only I had answers to all my questions." After which he proceeds to tell him all of his theological questions about God and Torah. The rabbi listens closely and then says, "I am sorry, I can't help you." After the person leaves, the rabbi's students turn to him and say, "But, rebbe, you certainly could have answered his questions. Why didn't you?" To which the rabbi responded, "Those weren't questions. They were answers."

The first thing we need to ask ourselves when we have questions is, are these really questions or are they answers? Can I go on, with all my questions, like Avraham did, remaining fully committed to God and my obligations, or will I not do what is required of me until I can get answers to my questions? Religious struggle is good, even necessary, but to be deeply rooted and to be pure it must come in the context of commitment and obligation, not in the context of withdrawal and rejection.

This, then, brings us to the second approach, and to a revisiting of the text of the story of Sodom and Amora. Is it really the case that Avraham was challenging God with his own ethical standards? A close reading of the text will show that this is not the case. The Torah introduces the story with the verses: "And God said, "Will I withhold from Avraham what I am about to do?. . . For I know him that he will command his children and his household after him to keep the path of God, to do righteousness and justice (tzedakka u'mishpat)" (Gen. 18:17-19). What is the purpose of this introduction? It is to tell us that the reason that God is informing Avraham and giving him the opening to challenge God is because Avraham has been preaching and will pass down to future generations the message of what it means to go in the path of God. And what does following God's path entail - doing tzedakka u'mishpat. Now, since God's destruction of Sodom and Amora might be perceived as a perversion of justice, this might undermine Avraham's mission of preaching this as the path of God, and lead to people questioning whether God's way is truly a way of justice. Thus, it is necessary to give him the chance to challenge God so that it can be demonstrated to all that God's actions are truly ones of tzedakkah u'mishpat.

The upshot of this reading, then, is that Avraham will challenge God - is, in fact, being invited to challenge God - not by Avraham's ethical standards, but by God's own standards, by whether God is conforming to the derekh Hashem. And, in fact, when Avraham does challenge God, he states hashofet kol ha'aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat, "Will the judge of the whole earth not act justly?!" (Gen. 18:25). That is to say, how God can you not keep to your own standards, to the essence of who You are?

The message of Avraham's defending of Sodom and Amora, according to this reading, is no longer one of the power of challenging God with one's independent sense of morality. It is about grappling with God and about struggle, for sure, but a grappling that is an internal one, and for that reason it is - I believe - a stronger one. It is not saying, "How can the Torah allow mamzerim or agunot, that is so unethical!" It is, rather, saying, "How can the Torah allow mamzerim or agunot, when that is so counter to Torah values and to my belief in a loving and beneficent God!" This struggle, like the struggle that takes place in the context of commitment and obligation, has more traction because it is coming from the inside, and because it is coming from a deep place of belief. It is a religious struggle, not a critique of religion from a different system. And as such, it is a struggle that can lead to both a deepening of commitment, and to a clearer understanding of what God wants from us and how to be true and faithful to our commitments to God and Torah.

Torah from our Beit Midrash


In our Lifecycles class this week, we took up the topics of hirhurim and tzniut, of illicit sexual thoughts and modesty. We first recognized that the Gemara (e.g., Avoda Zara 20b, Berakhot 24a) focuses on the man's sexual thoughts as potentially resulting from seeing or looking lustfully at women, but does not address the issue of women's sexual thoughts. To some degree this is consistent with the Gemara's general androcentric approach, but in this case in particular it has the effect of objectifying women - of casting the man as a sexual being and the woman as a sex object to which he is responding. Interestingly, Rav Moshe Feinstein in a teshuva, Even Ha'Ezer 1:69, states that a prohibition against engaging in illicit sexual thoughts applies to women as well (although he notes that the Talmud felt that women would not be as impacted by visual stimuli as men). This position serves to create greater balance in our thinking of these issues, societally and halakhically.

In a similar vein, the entire issue of tzniut is often framed in the community and in our educational system as the woman's responsibility. This is limiting and wrong in two ways. First, tzniut is a concept that is not, and should not be, limited to issue of eroticism and modesty of dress. It relates to a much broader ethos connected to humility and how one sees him or herself in relationship to others and in relationship to God. Ve'Hatzneya lekhet im Elokekekha, "And you should walk humbly (hatzneya) with God" (Micah 6:8), is not about how much of our body we are covering, but about how we comport ourselves in all ways. This is a concept that is often ignored in home and school education, and that needs to be taught, and taught equally to boys and girls.

In addition, when tzniut is defined in terms of modesty of dress, this is not a concept that in the Gemara addresses solely to women. On the one hand, the Mishna and Gemara in Ketuvot (72a) talks about dat yehudit, about standards of dress that are the norm for married women. The Mishna focuses primarily on hair covering, and the Gemara also mentions one aspect of not overly-exposing one's body (72b). That is the sole Gemara addressed to women's obligation. The more oft-quoted Gemara , in Berakhot (24a), states that various parts of a woman's body (and hair, and speaking voice) are considered erva, nakedness. However, that Gemara addresses itself to men: men should not be looking at such erva when they are saying Shema. They also may not look sexually at women (other than their wives). These two Gemarot, if directly implemented, would mean a certain broadly defined standard of dress for (married) women (Gemara Ketuvot) and an obligation on men not to look lustfully at women who are not their wives (Gemara Berakhot). What happens, however, broadly at the communal level and also in some later teshuvot, is that the obligation of the Gemara in Berakhot gets transported from men to women. No longer is it about the inappropriateness of the male gaze, but about how women must dress to prevent men from sinning. This is seen in a teshuva of Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yechave Da'at 3:67) which states that the problem with women wearing immodest clothing is that it is lifnei iver, that it causes a stumbling block for the men. And this happens in our educational system where girls are taught about tzniut and how they must dress, and boys are never educated about their responsibility towards how they look at and think about girls. Rav Yehudah Henkin has written about this problem in his article "Hirhur and Community Norms" in his book, Equality Lost, and Tova Hartman has written a powerful article on this topic entitled "Modesty and the Male Gaze," in her book, Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism. What she argues is that by putting the responsibility completely on the women, this approach continues to objectify them and continues to see them and have them see themselves, through the male gaze, while at the same time telling them to hide from this gaze by covering themselves up.

This is not a healthy approach for girls or for boys (or men and women for that matter). Yes, we must continue to teach our girls the importance of tzniut and of dressing modestly and not provocatively. But we must - following the Gemara in Berakhot and the general emphasis of the Gemarot on this issue - educate our boys towards their responsibilities. We must teach them about the male sexual gaze, and that this is something that halakha condemns. We must teach them that they should not treat girls as sexual objects, that they should relate to them as subjects and as equals. And we should teach both boys and girls that they should comport themselves in all areas with tzniut, a tzniut that goes to their personality, not just their dress, and to learn to walk humbly with God.