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.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

As part of our focus this year on Hilkhot Niddah and related topics, we chose to devote our night seder this week to our communal obligations around sexual abuse in the Jewish community. We asked Shmuly Yanklowitz, as a fourth-year student, to take a leadership role in helping us shape this program, and he in turn brought in Uri L'Tzedek. In partnership with Uri L'Tzedek, and with the co-sponsorship of Drisha and JOFA, we held an open Night Seder for the community on the topic of Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community. Uri L'Tzedek did an amazing job in shaping the program and in arranging for excellent speakers. Over 80 people participated in the event.

Rabbi Mark Dratch came from JSafe to teach relevant halakhot. The students studied the sources in chevruta beforehand, and R. Dratch then gave a shiur on the topic of certain forms of sexual abuse with an eye towards whether they are or are not clearly prohibited based on the classical sources. One of his messages was that the Torah sources do not always address these issues explicitly, and that is exactly why, when they arise, we should not try to handle them internally, but recognize that it is our responsibility to inform the proper secular authorities and act accordingly. Ben Hirsch came from Survivors for Justice to discuss the concomitant legislation and activism, and doctoral student Shayna Weiss explored these issues and how systems of sexual power within our community enable these crimes to continue.

I trust that we all know that this is a very serious problem in the Jewish community, and sadly one that we often fail to address. It was encouraging to see the large turnout and the serious investment that people have around surfacing these issues and addressing them appropriately. It was a powerful evening and one we hope will help serve as a catalyst for further action.