Friday, October 16, 2009

Happenings at the Yeshiva


The yeshiva is now beginning its regular learning for the year. First and second year students are in two shiurim, one learning Baba Kama and one learning Ketuvot, and both years are learning Hilkhot Orah Hayyim in the afternoon. Third and fourth year students are learning Hilkhot Niddah in the morning and Lifecycles in the afternoon - with a synchronized (and sometimes integrated) Pastoral, Officiating and Halakha Lifecycles curriculum. This week in Lifecycles Halakha we began with bris milah, addressing the question of the nature of the father's obligation, if there is a value in the appointing of a shaliach (agent), the timing of the bris, and whether there is an obligation and/or value of doing hatafat dam bris (a pin prick to extract a little blood) when the original bris was invalid (e.g., done in a hospital before the 8th day). We also discussed interesting issues that arise if the baby was born as a result of artificial insemination. We will continue to learn about bris, pidyon, naming ceremonies, and bar and bat mitzvahs, as well as have a class devoted to creating inclusive ceremonies, over the next few weeks.

Most of the Lifecycles curriculum will be devoted to marriage and its related topics (including tzniut (modesty laws), the wedding ceremony, marital sex, birth control, adoption, abortion, infertility, infidelity, and divorce). As in the past, we will be bringing psychologists, sex therapists, and the like, as well as kallah teachers, yoatzot halakha, and community rabbis as part of the morning learning of Niddah and of course as part of the Lifecycles curriculum. These experts will bring critical other dimensions to our learning and truly deepen our understanding of the Torah we are learning and of how it plays out in the real world.

We will also be having a number our own musmachim teaching some of these lifecycle classes. Students deeply benefit when Chovevei rabbis come back to present on these topics. The musmachim present for the students live examples of what they will be in a few years, and allow them to really grasp the role they will be playing and the challenges that they will face, and enable them to learn from their experiences in serving Jewish communities.

Later in the year we will be learning aveilut in the morning, and devoting the afternoon to medical ethics and end-of-life issues, as well as a segment on conversion. Also, this year we have added a lifecycle-shadowing component, where all of the third- and fourth-year students will be required to shadow a rabbi for both a wedding and a funeral, and the rabbi will spend time reflecting with these students before and after the event. A good number of senior rabbis from the NY-NJ area have agreed to participate in this shadowing program, and we know that it will provide invaluable training for the students.

All in all, this Niddah-Aveilut-Lifecycles year promises, as always, to be very rich and exciting as we deal with these very relevant topics which touch people's lives so deeply in this multifaceted, integrated, and real-world way.

Refuah Shleima

Thank you all for your tfillot for Elnatan Strossberg, Elnatan Meir ben Devorah Ze'eyva. He is doing so much better. He has regained consciousness, is alert and talking, has his sense of humor, and is moving his own body, although not yet walking. He recently played his drum at a hospital concert. Ruthie and the entire family are very grateful for your tfillot. Please continue to keep him in your prayers.

Sadly, the father of our dear friend and supporter, Howard Jonas, is gravely ill. Please keep him in your tfillot as well. His name is Issar ben Leiba Freydal.

Torah From our Beit Midrash


In this week's Lifecycle Halakha class, we discussed the nature of the father's obligation to give his son a bris. Is he obligated to perform the bris himself (if possible), or only to take the responsibility to make sure that the bris is performed? The practical relevance of this question is twofold: (a) Is there a preference for him to do it himself if he is able and competent and (b) is it meaningful for him to appoint the mohel his shaliach (agent) if he does not do it himself?

The Rishonim are divided on this point. Ramban, Tosafot, Tosafot Rid, and Maharch Or Zarua (son of the Or Zarua) all state that it is only the father's responsibility to see that his son get a bris, not to do it himself. They infer this from the discussion in the gemara about the mother's obligation, which is ruled out because of the verse "as God had commanded him (Avraham)" - "him" not "her". Why, these Rishonim ask, did we need such a verse? Isn't the woman exempt because it is a time-bound mitzvah? Tosafot go further - according to the opinion that a woman cannot be a mohel (an issue debated in the gemara), how could the Gemara have thought that the mother was obligated? The answer, according to these Rishonim, is that the discussion is not about her personal obligation, about an obligation to do the milah herself, but only about an obligation to see that it gets done. Thus, it does not follow the normal rules of time-bounded exemption (Tosafot Rid elaborates on this by stating that the handling of the arrangements is not limited to any time of the day!). In this way it also parallels the obligation of Beit Din if the father is not present. Theirs is an obligation to make sure the child has a bris, not to do it personally. This is also the obligation of the father. As such, Maharach Or Zarua states that even if the father is a mohel, there is no need or value in his doing the bris himself.

On the other side of the debate is a statement quoted by the Rema in the Darkhei Moshe (YD 264:1) in the name of the Or Zarua (the Maharach Or Zarua's father) that if the father can do it himself it is forbidden for him to have someone else do the milah. Clearly, he understands it to be the father's personal mitzvah. This position also seems to be supported by the Rosh in a discussion regarding stealing a mitzvah from someone else. He states that if the father was planning to do the milah and someone else did it, it is considered that he stole the father's mitzvah and must pay the father a fine. The Rema in Choshen Mishpat (382) rules like the Rosh, and the Shakh agrees and states that the conclusion from this is that if the father is a mohel, it is forbidden for him to give the mitzvah to someone else. Thus, we find nowadays some fathers who follow this opinion and choose to do the bris for their own son (with the mohel setting it up beforehand and being present at the moment). However, it should be noted that even according to this opinion, it was only stated that the father should do it if he is a mohel, and did not say this for an amateur. Moreover, the poskim say explicitly that if there is someone better available, then the father should have the more competent person do it. There is an infant and his well-being at stake here, and, in my opinion, being "machmir" for this approach is a classic example of a chumrah at the expense of others and should not be done.

Now, if the father is not doing it himself, should he appoint the mohel as his shaliach? This is what the Darkhei Moshe (YD 264:1) says. However, his ruling in Choshen Mishpat (382) in the name of the Rosh contradicts this. There he rules that once the father has given the mitzvah to a mohel, it is not the personal mitzvah of the mohel (and one would not be fined for "stealing the mitzvah" from the mohel). It seems according to this that, even if it starts as the father's personal obligation, when he chooses not to do it himself, it stops being a personal obligation and becomes an obligation to see that it gets done. Now, why is this the case? Why not consider it as his obligation that is done through a shaliach? The Ketzot explains that if it is a personal mitzvah, the idea of shaliach is not relevant. I cannot make a shaliach to take lulav for me, or eat matzah for me. Personal mitzvot must be done personally. Thus, if someone else is doing it, it must be (at least at this stage) a mitzvah to get it done, not to do it oneself. The Rema in Darkhei Moshe understands that for some reason the idea of shaliach is relevant here, perhaps because the Torah had to allow for it given that fathers are mostly not able to do it personally.
Thus, the practice to appoint the mohel as his shaliach assumes: (1) that it is the father's personal mitzvah and (2) that the concept of shaliach is relevant here. I think that both these assumptions are questionable, and thus while no harm is done in appointing the mohel a shaliach, I do not believe that there is much of a point in the practice.

The two brakhot we make at the bris - 'al hamila and li'hakniso b'vrito shel Avraham Aveinu - actually reflect these two components. The mohel's brakha, 'al hamila, is over the act of the bris itself, as distinct from the responsibility to have it done. The use of "'al hamila" as opposed to "la'mol" is because it is not his personal obligation. When the father does the milah, there is a debate if he says "al hamila" or "la'mol et haben" (see YD 265:2), and this may reflect the above debate about whether the father has a personal obligation to perform the act, although it is possible that other issues are at play.

The second brakha is made by the father, and is done partly to express the larger significance of the act - it is not just a simple mitzvah, but it brings the child into the covenant. [It is interesting to think about other brakhot over mitzvot that express the larger significance of the act. Some are particularly tied to lifecycle events - birkhat kiddushin in particular. Others to very central faith issues - birkhat kriat shema is a prime example of such.] Beyond this, however, it reflects the father's obligation to see that the bris be performed, as distinct from doing it himself.

The congregations response is significant here. The congregation then responds -" ki'shem she'nikhnas labrit..." Now this response was originally subtly but significantly different. It was - "ki'shem she'hikhnasto la'brit, ken takhni'seihu l'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim." "Just as you have brought him into the bris, so should you bring him into Torah, chuppah, and good deeds." There response was a blessing to the father to fulfill his other obligations to his son - to teach him Torah, to see that he gets married, and to teach him a trade and make him a responsible member of society. Thus, the father's brakha of "li'hakniso" is a statement that he has discharged this obligation towards his son. In this context, it is clear that the obligation is to see that the bris be performed, and not that he do it himself, just as it is not his obligation to personally teach him Torah and a trade and to find him a wife, but just to ensure that all of these are done.

Whether the mother has an obligation to take care of the bris if the father is not available is debated in the poskim. On the basis of the gemara in Yevamot (71b), the Maharach Or Zarua concludes that the mother does have such an obligation before the obligation reverts to beit din. Others disagree. An important ramification of this debate is whether, in such a case, the mother could make the brakha "li'hakniso". The current practice in such a case is to have a male relative make the brakha as a representative of the beit din.

As a final note, it should be mentioned that the reason that the brakha was changed to the passive tense ("just as he has entered into, so he shall enter into..") was because of cases of babies who fathers had died, and thus there was no father to give this blessing to. Thus, the text was changed to refer to the baby and not the father. So as not to make such families feel different and possibly embarrassed, this revised text was then used in all cases. This is a very important lesson for all of us regarding the sensitivity that we must have in general, and in particular around lifecycle events.

A Thought on Beginning the Torah Cycle Anew


This Shabbat we move from Simchat Torah, where we rejoiced in the completion of another cycle of reading the Torah, to starting the Torah again with the reading of Parashat Bereshit. At this moment, it is worth reflecting on the significance of Simchat Torah and of starting the new year with a new cycle of Torah reading.

Simchat Torah is the second day of Shmini Atzeret and, indeed, in Israel they are celebrated on the same day. In some Sefardic and Chassidic communities the themes are also somewhat merged, as such shuls do hakafot on the night of Shmini Atzeret as well. Now, Shmini Atzeret is certainly a day that is in need of definition. The Torah makes it clearly distinct from Sukkot - there is no lulav or Sukkah - but does not tell us anything about its historical or theological significance. All we are told is "On the eighth day, you shall have an 'atzeret." What does this atzeret, gathering, mean? The Targum Yonatan translates this as "an ingathering from the Sukkah into the house." According to him, the nature of Shmini Atzeret is the leaving of the sukkah and the entering into the house. This is supported by the Mishna is sukkah that states that one must start moving from the sukkah into the house on Hoshana Rabbah, just before the night of Shmini Atzeret. But why should we have a yom tov dedicated to moving out of the sukkah?

Shmini Atzeret is, according to this, a yom tov of transition. We need to take out time and focus on our moving from one experience to another. We cannot just leave one meaningful experience and then put ourselves in another context. We must pause and be thoughtful about the critical moment of transition.

The end of Sukkot is the end of a profound period. It is a period that begins in Elul and intensifies throughout Tishrei. By the end of Sukkot we have gone through weks of self-reflection, prayer, of teshuva and of drawing closer to God. We have lived in the sukkah and been reminded of God's protection of us in the Wilderness, when that protection was palpable because we only had a flimsy hut to protect us. And we realize that even in our firm and stable homes we only succeed in this world only because of God's help and God's protection.
And then it is time to move back into our homes. Will we take any of these messages with us, or will soon get used to our comfort and our routine, and lose our sensitivity to God's presence? How will we ensure that the experiences of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot do not get quickly forgotten when the realities of day-to-day living take over? To ask ourselves this question - which is the first step in answering it - we need to focus on the moment of transition. We need the yom tov of Shmini Atzeret to make us realize that we are in a critical moment and we must at this moment think seriously about how we can bring the lessons of the sukkah back with us into the house.

But if we have asked this question, what is the answer? How will we be successful in this transition? The answer is the transition of Shmini Atzeret into Simchat Torah. What will keep us sensitive to God's presence as we enter the new year. The learning of Torah. And not just the learning of Torah, the joy of the Torah, the joy of connecting to the word of God through the learning of God's Torah. It is astounding when one realizes how many psukim in Tanakh describe the joy of learning Torah. "How I love Your Torah, all the day it is my delight." Observance of halakha is the bedrock of our commitment, but if that is all that we have, we can lose a connection to the sense of God's presence, to the meaning of it all. It is through the learning of Torah, and connecting to the joy of such learning, that we can not only deepen our understanding of Torah and our commitment to our religious life, but that we can cultivate, sustain, and heighten our experienced connection to the Ribbono Shel Olam. It is through the simcha of the Torah that we can bring the lessons of the Yamim Noraim and Sukkot into the rest of the year.

As we begin again the reading of the Torah with Parashat Bereshit, let us all commit anew to increasing our own learning of Torah for this coming year. And let us devote ourselves to a learning of Torah that resonates with us, one that connects us to the simchat Torah, so that we can continue to feel God's presence in our lives throughout the year.