Friday, January 22, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

"And in order that you should relate in the ears of your children and your children's children how I have made a mockery of the Egyptians and my signs that I have placed upon them, and you will know that I am the Lord." (Ex. 10:2). This week's parasha opens with the theme that had been emphasized throughout last week's parasha as well - that the Children of Israel should know God. Through the plagues, or more accurately, the signs and wonders, we would come to know God. Not just intellectually, or as theological propositions - that God exists, that God is all powerful - but that through God's actions, and through God's direct providence, we could come to know God directly and intimately.

The experience of yitziat Mitzrayim, of the Exodus, was one of hitgalut haShekinah, of divine revelation, of direct encounter with the Divine. "At midnight, I will go out into the midst of Egypt." (Ex. 11:4) "And I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night" (Ex. 12:12) - "I, and not a messenger; I, and not an angel" (Pesach Hagaddah). This revelation of the Divine reached a new height at the Splitting of the Sea - "This is my God whom I will adorn" (Ex. 15:2) - "A maidservant at the Splitting of the Sea saw what even Yechezkel never saw in his prophecy of the Divine Chariot - 'This is my God' - as if one could point to God with her finger." (Mekhilta). It was this process of Divine revelation that reached its apogee at the Revelation of Sinai, when God reveled God's self to the entire people, in the one never- to-be-repeated moment in history.


This, then, is the meaning of the verb "v'yi'datem" that interrupts the string of verbs at the beginning of last week's parasha, v'hotzeiti, vi'hitzalti' v'ga'aliti, v'liakachti (Ex. 6:6-7). After all these verbs of redemption, there is then, vi'ydatem, "and you shall know that I am the Lord your God", and then, only afterwards, the final verb, vi'heiveiti, "and I will bring you into the land" (Ex. 6:8). What was that event of knowing God that followed the Exodus and preceded entering the Land of Israel? It was, of course, the Revelation of Sinai. It was this event that was the culmination and, ultimately, the goal of the Exodus, and it was this event that was the prerequisite for entry into the Land. To have a land and become a nation, the people had to forge their national identity through the physical act of redemption and through the spiritual act of the Divine revelation, by directly knowing and encountering God. For it was this - the knowing of God - that was at the bedrock of their identity as a people, as a nation.

Knowing God, thus, is the opening and framing of the aseret ha'devarim."Anokhi YHVH E-lokekha" - "I am the Lord your God." This opening proclamation was the moment of v'yi'datem. And this opening proclamation was the framing for all the mitzvot that followed. For the mitzvot are only truly meaningful if they flow out of a recognition that God has commanded them, and they are only truly meaningful if - in our lived lives - they are an expression of and a cultivation of our awareness of the God Who has commanded them.

However, after the event of the Revelation of Sinai has passed into the background, it can be very challenging to sustain this awareness. A life of mitzvot can easily become one of rote observance, or a lifestyle, and we can easily forget the larger framing and the larger goal. The Torah commands us, of course, to keep our awareness of this event alive: "Guard yourself... lest you forget the things that your eyes saw... the day that you stood before YHVH your God at Mt Horeb" (Deut. 16:3). But how are we to sustain this memory? What happens to the reality of "v'yi'datem ki ani Hashem"?

To some degree, Hazal have addressed this by instituting berakhot before the performance of a mitzvah. Far from being redundant, such berakhot remind us that this act is not just some tradition that we are committed to, but that we are rather doing it because of our relationship to God. "That You have sanctified us with Your commandments." The brakha then, is the framing of the mitzvah. It is the "Anokhi YHVH E-lokekha" that precedes the commandments. The problem, however, is that this brakha just becomes another halakha, and its power to frame and to heighten our awareness becomes dulled.

The key, I believe, is found in our parasha. "And it shall be for you a sign on your hand and a remembrance between your eyes, in order that the Torah of YHVH should be in your mouth, for with an outstretched arm YHVH your God has taken you out of Egypt." (Ex. 13:8). How do we keep the memory of the Exodus, and of the Divine revelation which was its culmination, alive? By ensuring that "the Torah of God is in our mouth." This means nothing less than the verse from the Shema, "And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart. And you shall teach them to your children and you shall speak of them, when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up." We are commanded, plain and simple, to thinking and talking about Torah at every moment. We should be so engaged in it, so caught up with it, that it is always on the lips, always what we are thinking about and always what we are talking about.

Halakhically, the Rabbis understand that our formal obligation to learn Torah can be discharged with much less than constant engagement, but the ethos of the Torah and of this verse remains clear. Our relationship to God is sustained and made manifest by our constant involvement in the study of and reflection on God's Torah. True talmud Torah, broadly defined, engages our thoughts, our emotions, and our passions. It raises our consciousness and frames all of our experiences in a religious context. It is talmud Torah that is the "Anokhi YHVH E-lokekha" to our life of mitzvot. It is through talmud Torah that we can, ultimately, achieve "vi'ydatem ki ani Hashem".

Such is on the personal level. How we take the experience of vi'ydatem and move to vi'heiveiti¸ how we bring this ethos to bear on our national identity, its foundation and its aspirations, these are questions that we need to grapple with individually and communally in the context of the current State of Israel. Let us all strive to live a life where the Torah of God is constantly on our lips and in our consciousness, and then work together to bring our personal strivings and transformation to the national level, to our identity as a People. "And you shall be for Me as a People."

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

This week in Lifecycles, we continued to study the siddur kiddushin and turned to the actual act of kiddushin, the giving of the ring. The class focused primarily on the specific halakhic requirements around the groom's owning of the ring (how to ensure that he owns if fully and halakhically), the type of ring to be used (simple, without precious stones), and the giving of the ring to the kallah. This class was followed by another class on the nature of kiddushei kesef kiddushin through the giving of an object of value, and whether kiddushin is an actual kinyan, act of acquisition, or not.

The two sides of this question can be seen in the development of the practice of giving a ring. There is no early evidence to this practice. It does not appear in either the Bavli or the Yerushalmi, or in any external record through the time of the Talmud. Cases of kiddushei kesef are mentioned with great frequency in the Talmud, but they are always done with other objects - cups, fruit, baskets, silk, and the like. The first record of a ring is in the early works from the time of the Geonim, the Sefer HaChilukim, which records different practices between Babylonian Jewry and the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. There it is recorded that in Babylon they would not use a ring for kiddushin, but in the Land of Israel they would. Rav Reuven Margoliot, in his notes on this work, explains that in Babylon, men would marry girls who were still young, and the money would be given to the father, so a ring was not significant. In the Land of Israel, however, they would marry women who were older, and give them the object directly, and thus they wanted to use a more romantic item - a ring. [He also notes the practice to use a ring was common in the Roman Empire, and might have thus spread to the Land of Israel which was under Roman rule.]

Giving of money to the father for the sake of marrying an underage girl is characteristic of an act of acquisition. The focus is on the money, and the woman is not a direct partner to the transaction - she is the object of the transaction. This actually parallels another act, which is clearly about acquisition- the father selling his underage girl as a Hebrew slave. On the other hand, if the woman is an adult, and she is receiving the money, it is harder to see this as an acquisition, since she is a direct partner in the transaction. The use of a ring underscores the symbolic nature of this transaction, and characterizes it as something different from kinyan. It characterizes it as kiddushin.

The use of terms - kinyan or kiddushin - is significant. The earliest mishna relating to kiddushin (Kiddushin 1:1) refers to the act as one of kinyan. However, in the entire remainder of the mesekhet the act is referred to as kiddushin. Indeed, when this first mishna was paraphrased and rewritten in a later mishna (Edyot 4:7), the term kinyan had been transformed into the term kiddushin. The Talmud itself (Kiddushin 2a) recognizes this evolution, and states that kinyan is a Biblical term, whereas kiddushin is a rabbinic term. What had happened to effect this change?

It seems that the shift came as a result of another shift - the moving of the mohar payment, a large amount of money given up front from the groom to the bride's father, and characterized either as a bridal gift or a bridal price. In the time of the Rabbis, the mohar moved from money given at the beginning of the marriage to becoming the ketuvah to be paid at the end of the marriage (see Mishna Ketuvot 8:8, Tosefta 12:1, and Yerushalmi 8:11). This transformation of mohar to ketuvah was done at an early stage in the Tannaitic period, by Shimon ben Shetach (early first century BCE), and was done to protect the interests of the woman - so that the husband would not capriciously divorce her.

This act in itself made the woman less of an object - to be disposed of at will - and more of a subject and protected person in the marital relationship. [The other stipulations of the ketuvah - the tenai ketuvah - further protected the woman's rights during the marriage.] Moreover, as regards to the act of kiddushin, this shift transformed how the act of kiddushin was perceived. With a large sum of money no longer part of the act, the money for kiddushin stopped being a payment, and transformed into a small, symbolic amount. Thus, it is Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who lived after Shimon ben Shetach, who state that it is sufficient to use a minimal amount of money for this act (a dinar or a p'rutah). Thus, in all later mishnayot, once the mohar had become the ketuvah, and the kiddushin money had become a symbolic amount, the very act of marriage was now referred to as kiddushin, and the use of the term of kinyan ceased.

This transition continued over the centuries. Together with the use of a ring, which started in the Land of Israel, the early ketuvot that were written with the Eretz-Yisrael style reflected a concept of marriage that was one of partnership. As studied by Mordechai Friedman, and recorded in his masterful two-volume "Jewish Marriage in Palestine," these ketuvot used such terms as "partnership," to refer to the marriage and "wife of my covenant" to refer to the bride, and reflect the existence of a practice of the bride's verbal acceptance of the kiddushin. As Dr. Friedman notes, there were probably few legal differences between Eretz Yisrael and Bavel in this regard, but what is clear is that there was a different conception of the nature of kiddushin and marriage itself.

Also paralleling these changes are differing attitudes towards polygamy. Polygamy was accepted in Bavel, whereas strongly discouraged in the Land of Israel, and finally prohibited in Ashkenaz through cherem Rabbeinu Gershon, the ban of Rabbeinu Gershon (10th Century). The prohibiting of adultery, together with the other cherem prohibiting a husband to divorce his wife against her will, combined to strengthen the wife's position in marriage and to make her more of a subject, more of an equal partner.

As we saw a few weeks ago, this shift from kinyan to kiddushin is reflected in halakhic writings as well. While Neziv states that a husband owns his wife as sexual property, Hatam Sofer states that in kiddushin there is no purchaser and no object being purchased, but - echoing an earlier statement by Rashba - both husband and wife are reciprocally and in parallel obligating themselves to one another.

Thus, it is in the use of a ring for kiddushin, and in our very use of the term kiddushin, that we symbolize our understanding of kiddushin to not be the acquisition of the woman by the man, but rather the sanctification of the union of the bride and the groom in the partnership of marriage.

Happenings At The Yeshiva

This Tuesday, we welcomed Elana Stein Hain, Community Scholar of Lincoln Square Synagogue, who taught a Lifecycles class, and addressed the group on dealing with cases of adultery. Ms. Stein-Hein presented challenging cases with great insight and sensitivity and the students gained an understanding of the challenges that will confront them in dealing with such complex situations.

On Thursday, we welcomed back our students who are Wexner fellows and had been away at the semi-annual Wexner retreat. Shmuly Yanklowitz, our fourth-year student who has done such amazing work with Uri L'Tzedek, graduated the Wexner fellowship this last week and became an official Wexner alum. Mazel Tov, Shmuly!

Our bringing Torah to the larger community continues. This Sunday, we will be having a YCT-SAR Yom Iyun on Talmud and Torah She-Ba'al Peh and next Monday night, February 1, we will be having a Leil Iyun on Agunah. Please let your friends know about these events. It would be wonderful to see you there.

We will also be beginning our weekly community programming this week, and inviting the community to participate in Rav Nati's Thursday parsha class (at 2:15 PM) and Thursday's Orah Hayim class (at 4:30 PM). Beginning February 8, we will be opening a Community Beit Midrash on Monday evenings, from 7:30-9:30 PM, for people in the community to come and study bi'chavruta with YCT students, and then to hear a shiur from one of the YCT rebbeim. We are excited to be connecting and contributing to the community in this powerful way.

Finally, on a sad note, we extend our condolences to Biti Roi, our dear friend and past teacher in Jewish Thought at YCT. Biti's mother, Dr. Ruth Stein-Reisner, passed away suddenly, earlier this week. May she and her family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim.