Friday, October 30, 2009

A Thought on the Parsha

We are told that Avraham was given 10 tests and withstood all of them. There is no doubt that in Lekh Lekha Avraham has many trials, but it is somewhat of a question of whether he withstood them all or not. Ramban states that when Avraham goes down to Egypt because of the famine, he did a grave sin, for he did not have enough faith in God's promise to give him the land. Similarly, when Avraham complained - "Behold to me You have not given a son," it sounds like Avraham is doubting God's promise. This is too much for Ramban, who reinterprets this as Avraham's concern that his sins would cause him to lose the blessing that God had promised him. Ramban expects Avraham to have this absolute faith in God, and takes him to task or reinterprets the verse when this seems to not be the case. In a similar fashion, Ramban is bothered by the verse, "He believed in God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness," stated immediately after God reaffirms the promise to Avraham that he will have a son. Why, asks Ramban, should it be a big deal that Avraham had faith in God's promise? To answer this question, Ramban reinterprets the verse to not be referring to Avraham's faith at all.

However, perhaps the issue in all these cases is not faith or lack of faith, but a question of the kind of faith that one has. Ramban wants Avraham to believe that God will sustain him in Canaan even in the midst of a severe famine. Consider, however, Malbim's approach. Avraham, says Malbim, passed the test by going down to Canaan. He continued to have faith that God would keep His promise, even when all the evidence pointed to the contrary, and at the same time he did not think or expect that God would perform miracles and change nature just for him and just to make this happen.

This approach is the key to understanding these episodes with Avraham. The touch on the nature of faith which, in some way, is connected to one's understanding of God. What was Avraham's understanding of God? Consider the debate between Rambam and Ra'avad. Rambam states (Hil. Avoda Zara 1:3) that Avraham spent decades grappling theologically and philosophically until, at the age of 40, he came to the philosophical truth about God's existence and understood that God was the First Cause of all of creation. Ra'avad comments on this and states that there are those who disagree and say that Avraham recognized God at the age of 3. For Rambam, the rationalist, Avraham's knowledge of God was a rational one reached at the age of 40. For Ra'avad, the kabalist, it was one outside of reason, and achieved at the tender age of 3.

This is not just a question about how one knows God; it is also a question of the nature of one's faith in God. For some, to have faith in God is to believe that God can and will constantly work outside of nature and will shape history and events at the macro and micro levels. For others, God is the ultimate Creator of all things, and God's promises and plans will ultimately be fulfilled, but at the same time we must know that we live in a natural world, governed by laws of nature, and we should expect the world and events to follow these rational laws.

The latter is a type of emunah that can be hard to maintain. If one truly believes in God's promises but also truly believes in the natural course of the world, then it is often unclear how the promises will be fulfilled. At times, it may even seem absurd. And yet, nevertheless, one has faith. Avraham goes down to Egypt, and still has faith - although it seems to make no sense. Avraham does not know how he will have a son. "Behold You have not given me a son." He believes, but he cannot understand, so he is torn up inside, and he shares his feelings with God. And because he does believe although he does not understand, "God considered it as righteousness." If he had been less rooted in the real world, it would have been easier to believe. But he was able to believe in two contradictory things - in God's promise and in the natural way of the world - and that was a major accomplishment.

If one can embrace the absurd, then such a faith can be made easy. But if one is a realist, then such a faith can cause much anguish. It is for this reason, perhaps, that when God tells Avraham that Sarah will bear him a child, he asks God - "Were that Yishmael would live before you." Avraham is saying to God, "You have already fulfilled your promise to me that I will have a son. It was hard enough to keep that faith alive when the real world was constantly contradicting this and I could see no way that this could happen within the natural order of things. Please don't now promise me that I will have a son through Sarah. How - in the real world - can a 100 year old man and 90 year old woman have a son? I will believe it, of course, but it will be a belief of struggle and anguish."

The flip side of all this struggle, however, is that with such a rootedness in the real world coupled with a deep faith in God, one not only passively sees God working in the real world, but one also see it as his responsibility to actualize God's presence and God's promises. This is a faith that leads to action. If things must happen whithin the natural order of things, then we must be the agents to make them happen. When Avraham's nephew is taken captive, Avraham does not wait for a miracle. He runs after Lot's captors with his small army and is victorious. And at the same time, because of his faith, he sees this as God's hand, and gives a tenth of the captured wealth as a gift to God. This is one of the profound messages of the institution of income tithing, of ma'aser kesafim, which is traced back to this event. We must act ourselves to accomplish in the world, but when we act, we must realize that our success and our wealth is not our own accomplishment, and thus the money that we have earned belongs to God as well.

Ultimately, this is a faith that can fill someone with a deep sense of mission and purpose. If one believes in the world, and one believes that God's will and promise will be realized in the world, but also believes that the nature of the world will not change and that miracles cannot be relied on, then one will realize that it is up to him or herself to be a part of making God's will become reality. Avraham is the one figure in Torah who is most inwardly driven by a sense of mission. He is the one who goes everywhere, calling out in the name of God, trying to heighten the awareness of God throughout the world, trying to actualize God's presence in the world. This sense of mission is a product of his faith. Because he believes in God and because he believes in the world as it is, he must also believe in himself. Ayn hadavar taluy ela bi, "The matter is dependant only on me." It is he who can and he who must call out in the name of God, and thus will God's promises be fulfilled.

Torah from our Beit Midrash

This week I would like to share Torah not from the Beit Midrash, but from a lecture that I gave at the JCC on Women in the Modern Orthodox Community - In the Synagogue and in Communal Leadership. This is a three-part series, and last Monday I spoke on Women in the Synagogue - the Mechitza and the Ezrat Nashim. (The audio and the sources will be on our website soon).

Regarding mechitza we find 3 models in the achronim. There are those that say that it is to prevent kalut rosh - levity (based on the Gemara in Sukkah regarding the simchat beit HaShoyeva, the festival on Sukkot for the water drawing). This then divides into two possibilities: (1) To prevent men from seeing the women and having sexual thoughts (Chatam Sofer) and (2) To prevent an intermingling of men and women, as a mixed-gender environment is deemed inappropriate for the experience of tfillah (Rav Moshe Feinstein). Finally, there are those who base it not on kalut rosh but (3) on the Beit HaMikdash, where there was a women's section - an ezrat nashim, other than the men's section - the ezrat Yisrael (while women could go into the ezrat Yisrael when necessary, that space was primarily designated for the men).

These 3 models lead to very different ways of thinking about women's presence in the synagogue and to very different types of mechitzot. The first approach - that men not be distracted by seeing women - makes women the problem and the men the ones who need protecting. This leads to an attitude which is primarily focused on the purity of men's prayers and not on the quality of women's prayers. It also leads to mechitzot that completely hide the women, as mechitzot to address this concern would have to be over the heads of the women and opaque. To address the "problem" created by women, women are made invisible.

On the other hand, if the problem is a mixed-gender environment, neither men nor women are the problem. Both are treated equally. Both have a right to pray and to pray in an appropriate environment. This is achieved by creating separate spaces for each of them. The result is also more inclusive - according to this, the mechitza can be transparent and it also need not be as high (54 inches according to Rav Moshe, 50 inches according to Rav Soloveitchik, and some would say even 10 t'fachim, although this latter height is only rarely practiced). While the practical parameters are not clear if one follows the final approach, that of the Beit HaMikdash, what is clear is that this model implicitly makes the men's section the only "real" place of prayer, just as the ezrat Yisrael was the only real place of the service in the Beit HaMikdash (the ezrat nashim functioned more like a social hall).

Thus, how we understand the basis for mechitza has a profound influence on how we think of women's place in the shul - do they belong? Are they a problem that needs solving? - and on how we actually construct the mechitza and in practice create shuls that are more or less inclusive. Of course, other considerations, such as where the mechitza is placed, the amount of size relegated to the women's section, and a myriad of other subtle and not-so-subtle architectural features and practices also communicate powerful messages of inclusion or exclusion. [Sometimes it is so subtle we don't even register it consciously. For example, the words da lifnei mi atah omed, "Know before Whom you stand," which are placed over the aharon are in second person masculine. What does that communicate to the men and the women as to who are the true daveners. Wouldn't it be much better if we sought alternatives, such as shi'viti Hashem li'negdi tamid, "I place You God before me always" - a statement in the first-person which applies equally to men and to women.]

This question of whether women are seen as belonging in the shul also relates to the debate about whether when women are considered to be part of the minyan when they are present. Does their tfillah, when they pray with a minyan of men, count as communal prayer, as tfillah bi'tzibbur? There are those who say that the tfillot of women davening with a minyan count as individual prayer, as tfillat yachid, and not as tfillat tzibbur, that even when present they are not part of the tzibbur. Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Vozner and others unequivocally reject this and assert that while women do not make the core minyan, they are unquestionably part of the minyan when present, and their tfillah is considered to be a tfillah bi'tzibbur.

The halakhic status of the ezrat nashim is also related to this question. According to a number of poskim, the ezrat nashim does not have the same sanctity of the men's section, and according to some opinions it has no sanctity at all! Thus, for a synagogue considering making structural changes, these poskim do not allow any of the existing men's section to be used for the women's section, because that would be a lowering of its sanctity. If one assumes, like the opinions above, that women are not part of the minyan or not really part of the shul, then this conclusion is understandable. However, other poskim reject this. The Arukh HaShulkhan, for example, states simply that the ezrat nashim has the full sanctity of the beit haknesset. And Rav Moshe Feinstein, when dealing with the question of whether part of an ezrat nashim can be made into a mikveh, discusses the matter at great length in a teshuva and never considers the possibility that it has any less sanctity than the men's section. This position, of equal sanctity, is what is to be expected if one understands that women are part of the minyan and also if one understands, like Rav Moshe, that the mechitza addresses men and women equally.

Finally, it is worth noting that architecture can effect halakha. Rav Yehudah Herzl Henkin rules in a responsum that if the mechitza does not go up to the ceiling, or if the men and the women can see each other, then they are all considered to inhabit the same space. Thus, if the mechitza is built based on the more inclusive principles above, it actually defines halakhically that the sanctuary is not a space for men, but a space that men and women equally share.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Beyond the learning, this week was one of great chevre-bonding, as our annual hike up Bear Mountain took place this Thursday. It was wonderful for the students, rebbeim, and teachers to spend time with each other, schmoozing and walking and enjoying each other's company. When we came down the mountain we had our traditional barbeque, with hotdogs and hamburgers (and a few vegetarian options), chips and soda. A healthy meal for us all! Some of the guys also brought homemade treats, including a delicious banana bread from Davidi Jonas and a cherry crumb pie from Bradley Hercman.

The day ended with Avi Rosenfeld leading a pre-mincha hachana. We stood in a circle as he shared a teaching from Rav Nachman that everyone has a good point, a nekudah tovah, in him or her and that when we recognize this in the other, it helps bring it out and actualize it. Thus, Rav Nachman teaches, it is the job of the shaliach tzibbur to identify that nekudah and connect to it in every member of the tzibbur during his tfillah. After Avi shared this teaching, we went around the circle with each person saying a nekudah tovah of another person (whose name had been previously given to him), and afterwards moved into tfillah. It was a touching exercise and a beautiful coda to a day of sharing and connecting.

One another note:
Our sympathies go out to David Fried on the loss of his grandmother. Her neshama should have an aliyah and the family should know nechama.

We also extend a mazel tov to Davidi and Natalie on the naming of their daughter, Osher Chen, in memory of Davidi's grandfather, Isser Jonas.