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.