Friday, February 5, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

When Bnei Yisrael receive the Torah, they do much more than passively receive it. They actively enter into a brit, a covenant, with God. The brit preceded the giving of the commandments and was the framing of it: "And now, if you will listen to My voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be unto Me a treasured possession from all the nations... And Moshe came, and called to the elders of the nation, and he placed before them all of these things that God had commanded him. And the entire nation answered together and said, "Everything that God has said we will do." (Shemot 19:5-8). The brit also came after the Ten Commandments, as the opening of parashat Mishpatim: "And these are the laws which you shall place before them" (Shemot 21:1) - echoing the "placing before them" of Shemot 19:7, the intention being, place it before them for their approval and their willing acceptance. And it is the close of that same parasha: "And Moshe came and he related to the people all of the words of God and all the laws" - the "words" presumably referring to the aseret ha'devarim and the "laws" to the mishpatim of parashat Mishpatim - "and the entire nation responded as one voice and said, all the words which God has spoken we will do... And he took the book of the covenant and he read it to the people, and they said - everything that God has spoken we will do and we will hear. And Moshe took the blood and he sprinkled it on the people and he said, "Behold the blood of the covenant which God has made with you concerning all these commands" (Shemot 24:3-8). The laws are placed before them, they accept them, and they enter into a brit with God, a binding, two-sided covenant.

Bnei Yisrael, thus, are not just commanded, but actively and freely accept the commandment of God and enter into a brit with God. Why, we may ask, does commandedness not suffice? Would they not be obligated to follow God's command even had they not entered into a brit? In fact, the shift from unilateral commadedness to a two-sided brit occurs much earlier, at the beginning of Bereishit. Adam and Chava had been given a unilateral Divine command, and they had violated it. The next time God commands, God does so in the framework of a brit, a relationship: "And I will establish my brit with you, and you will come into the ark..." (Breishit 6:28), and later, when Noah and his family exit the ark: "One who spill the blood of man/ By man shall his blood be spilled / Because in the Image of God / God made man... And I, behold I will establish my brit with you and with your seed after you... And I will establish my brit with you and no more will all flesh be destroyed from the waters of a flood, and there will no longer be a flood to destroy the land." (Breishit 9:6, 8, 11). While the brit with Noah relates to the protection of the human species and the world, and not to the keeping of mitzvot per se, the mitzvot nevertheless are given in the context of this committed relationship, and not merely dictated unilaterally from the all-powerful Lawgiver.

The significance and specificity of brit deepens next when God commands Avraham to inscribe in his flesh the sign of the brit, and commands him in the brit milah. There, the purpose of the brit is not merely the survival of the human or animal species, but "an everlasting brit between Me and you, and between your children after you for all generations, to be to you as a God and to your children after you." (Breishit 17:7). It is the very relationship between God and the children of Avraham. And finally, in our parasha, in Yitro, the brit deepens further. It is a brit wherein God chooses the nation of Bnei Israel, and where our end of the brit is not just one of identity, but to live up to a code of standards, to do "all the words and all the laws."

What is the difference between being commanded unilaterally and between accepting the commands as part of a brit? It is the difference between being a child and being an adult. Adam and Chava in Gan Eden were like children - they had no real, mature opinions of their own, no real values of their own, no autonomy. They were unilaterally commanded, and all that was asked from them was to obey. All they could do to assert their autonomy was rebel - was to refuse to follow God's command. Once, however, they rebelled, and were kicked out of Gan Eden, kicked out of the parental home, only then did they become autonomous beings able to make their own value judgments - "you will be like God, knowing good and evil." Now, in the post-Edenic world, for humans to reenter into a relationship with God, we must do so as adults. Not only to be commanded and to follow, but to bring the entirety of our will, our personality, our values and our autonomy, to bring all of this willingly and freely into a relationship with God. God wants more than followers; God wants partners.

This is a religion of adulthood, not one of blind faith and obedience, not one of just Commander and commanded, but one of parties of a brit. One in which, in our role of freely accepting the mitzvot, in our role of interpreting and applying the mitzvot, in the very enterprise of Torah she'b'al peh, of the Oral Torah, we are partners with God. Only parties to a brit can both be deeply and passionately committed to its full observance, and at the same time say: "Why should our father's name be lost to his clan because he had no son? (Bamidbar 27:3) or say: "Why should we be excluded from bringing God's sacrifice in its appointed time together with Bnei Yisrael? (Bamidbar 9:7). To be in a bilateral relationship means to be both fully committed and at the same time a full participant with the totality of one's personality, and without silencing the part of one's soul that asks: "How does this make sense? How is this just?" To be a party to a brit is to work to find an answer within the context of the brit.

To be a party to a brit also means something else. It means that we do not discharge our obligation just by doing what is commanded of us. If we are truly partners then we must internalize the commitments and values of the brit, we must follow the na'aseh, we will do, with the nishma, we will listen, we will internalize. We must share and participate in the brit, in its visions and its goals. We must see ourselves as partnering with God in all aspects of our lives, and must work to bring the world to a better place, to a fuller realization of the values and the vision of the Torah, of the brit.

In many ways, we have largely abdicated these responsibilities of brit and have regressed to living a religion of mere commadedness, living our religious lives as children and not as adults. We find ourselves afraid to ask the questions that deeply trouble us, and - if we do - to be willing to put in the hard work that is required to find answers within Torah, to find answers while holding fast to the brit. And we do not want to be troubled to have to do more than keep the mitzvot, we don't want to be told that we need to bring Torah values into our day-to-day (secular) life, and certainly not that we have to internalize a Torah vision into our own, and to define our ambitions, and our place in the world, on the basis of such a brit. Perhaps we are afraid that this would require a total submerging of our own identity, but that is not the nature of a brit. A true brit is the fusing of the fullness of our own personality with the demands, commands, and vision of God and Torah. This is our challenge - will we continue living the childish religion of Gan Eden, of simple commadedness, or will we be able to face up to the challenge of living the religious life of an adult, the religious life of the Torah of Har Sinai, the Torah of a brit?

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

One of the lesser well-known laws of Niddah, requires that husband and wife separate from sex on the day (or night) that the wife is expecting to get her period. This day is called the veset, and this requirement is learned from the verse "And you shall separate the Children of Israel from their impurity" (Lev. 15:31), which teaches that we must take safeguards to not unwittingly violate the prohibition of niddah. Now, this time, the veset, is determined in a formalistic way in the gemara - based on a three-time repeating pattern of a the length of the menstrual cycle (e.g., three months in a row a woman has a 28-day cycle) or the day of the Hebrew month (e.g., three months in a row she starts her period on the fifth day of the Hebrew month).

The problem is that the focus on formalistic criteria, as is particularly evident in the case of the Hebrew month, is not based on any real-world causation. [It should be noted that Ra'ah, 13th century Spain, stated that such a position was untenable, and thus reread the gemarot to be referring not to the day of the Hebrew month, but to the day from the actual new moon, as women's cycles are sometimes influenced by the lunar cycle. His position was not accepted.] In addition, a veset based on the length of the cycle can only be established when it starts either always in the daytime or always at nighttime. Thus, a woman with a regular 28 day 4 hour cycle would not have a veset according to these rules. What results is a system with a lot of formal rules, which are often difficult to remember and to keep, and which are often not good predictors of when a woman will actually get her period. To some degree we have lost the forest for the trees, and in focusing on all the specifics of vesatot have lost sight of the need to exhibit caution when the woman is actually expecting her period.

Consider the case when the veset passes and the woman does not get her period. Let us say that she normally gets her period every 30 days, and now it is day 31 and she has not had her period yet. According to halakha, there is no longer any obligation for her to check, and most poskim will be formalists here and say that there are now no further restrictions or requirements. But from a real-world-based approach we know that unless the woman is pregnant it becomes more likely with every passing hour that she will have her period. As a result, there are a few poskim who would advise checking before sex, or - as some women can tell when they are about to get their period - trying to be conscious of whether they feel that they are about to have their period.

While in a case of a normal period most poskim would follow the formalist approach, and not require any checking after the veset has passed, in the case of the pill the story is quite different. Let us assume that such a woman has established a veset to see 60 hours after she goes off the active pill, and now it has been 70 hours and she has not had her period yet. In such a case, it is hard to ignore the fact that she will see very soon, and thus many poskim here would agree that she cannot have sex until she has her period, or at least that she must do a bedikah, an internal check, before sex. Some poskim go even further, and would say that she must refrain from sex with her husband, not just starting from hour 60, but starting at the earliest time when she has bled in the past after going off her pill (so, even if she normally bleeds 60 hours later, if - from time to time - she bleeds 40 hours later, the couple has to stop having sex 40 hours after the active pill has stopped).

Because the standard periods to check for a woman who does not have a regular pattern are very complicated and often not so connected to the time when the period is actually expected, I advise re-teaching and re-emphasizing an oft-forgotten veset, the veset ha'guf. The veset ha'guf is a physical sensation that is linked with menstruation, i.e., menstrual cramps and related physical sensations. According to the mishna (63a) and gemara thereupon, this is the *primary* veset, so much so that it may not even require three times to establish it. However, to the best of my knowledge, this is almost completely ignored in chatan and kallah classes. This is quite fascinating, given that according to Shulkhan Arukh one needs to be concerned for this veset even if it occurs just once (189:19). Thus, if a woman once experienced such sensations before or during her period, she would have to refrain from sex when the same sensations occur the following month. As far as I know, this is never taught, and these sensations are regularly ignored.

One contemporary posek does address this. Rav Vozner, in his Shiurei Shevet HaLevi, directly addresses menstrual cramps and talks about establishing a veset when bleeding occurs during or a fixed time (or within a range of time) after menstrual cramping. In my opinion, we need to be focusing on this when teaching hilkhot niddah, as this is a veset that is very much linked to the real-world and to the expected time of menstruation. Thus, women who have such cramping and who can establish a veset ha'guf will both be freed from the complicated calendar-keeping that is the norm for a woman with a non-established veset, and will also be keeping a veset that is a genuine predictor of when she will have her period, and thus a genuine fulfillment of "And you shall separate the Children of Israel from their impurities."

Happenings At The Yeshiva

This Monday night we had a Leil Iyyun for the community on the topic of Agunah, with over 80 people attending. It began with chavruta learning which was followed by a shiur that I gave on the proposed solutions to the agunah crisis. The sources for the shiur can be found here. We then heard a presentation by Rivkah Haut on the challenges of dealing with the batei din. Karen Rosenthal, Esq. gave a presentation on the legal issues and the New York Get Law, and finally, Jeremy Stern from ORA presented on the role of power of community activism. People emerged with a renewed sense of commitment to work to finding solutions, whether local or systemic, and a realization that serious solutions will require the concerted effort of rabbis, community leaders, and the community at large. While the prenuptial agreement has been extremely effective in producing gittin, and YCT requires its musmachim to use it at any wedding they perform, it is not a panacea, and we must continue to work together to address this profound injustice.

This Leil Iyyun was the second major community event that we have hosted since coming to Riverdale. We will be continuing our community programming this coming Monday night, February 8, when we will be beginning our weekly Leil Limmud from 7:30-9:30 PM. There will be chavruta learning from 7:30 - 8:30 PM, and a shiur by one of the rebbeim from 8:45-9:30 PM. I will be giving the first three of these shiurim on the topic of Jew/Non-Jew. We trust we will get a nice turnout from the community and that we will continue to make YCT a Torah center in Riverdale.

In the yeshiva itself, we had a number of important guests this week. On Tuesday, Dr. Mark Levy, a gynecologist, spoke to the Niddah students regarding gynecological procedures and makkah related issues. Following that, we had Dr. Valerie Altman, a gynecologist as well, speak to the students on Thursday about issues of menstruation in general, and the use of the pill and other methods of birth control. These expert presentations helped the students fully understand the issues that they were learning, and the complexities of the intersection of the medical and halakhic fields. We hope in the near future to be bringing in other experts, including Sally Mendelsohn, a midwife and midwifery professor, as well as yoatzot halakha and chatan and kallah teachers.