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 ( :

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.