Friday, February 19, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Let me share with you the a thought on the parsha that draws on my remarks from our semicha ceremony last year.

Our parasha begins the second half of the book of Shemot, and from here on in the book of Shemot has one focus: the building of the mishkan. "And they shall make me a Sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst" (Exodus 25:8). The mikdash, the sanctuary, the sanctified space, was also a mishkan, the dwelling place of God. It was the structure that, when built, would bring God's presence into the midst of the Children of Israel.

If we wish for God to dwell in our midst, we must build a house. While God can be experienced in nature, our ongoing experience of God's presence will be in a house. Our Rabbis expressed this beautifully:

R. Eleazar also said, What is meant by the verse, "And many people shall go and say: 'Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, To the house of the God of Yaakov" (Isa. 2:3) the God of Yaakov, but not the God of Avraham and Yitzchak? Rather, not like Avraham, in connection with whom 'mountain' is written, as it is said, "As it is said to this day, 'In the mountain where the Lord is seen.'" (Breishit 22:14). Nor like Yitzchak, in connection with whom 'field' is written, as it is said, "And Yitzchak when out to meditate in the field at eventide." (Breishit 24:63). But like Yaakov, who called Him 'home', as it is said, "And he called the name of that place Beth-el [The house of God]"(Breishit 28:19).[Pesachim 88a]

Not like Avraham, who encountered God on a mountain, or like Yitzchak, who encountered God in the field, but like Yaakov who understood that God is to be encountered in a house, "This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven" (Breishit 28:17). Why? What is the importance of a house?

First, a house must be constructed; ve'asu, "and they shall make." It requires sustained effort and labor. To quote Teddy Roosevelt: "Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty." Only when we dedicate ourselves - when we truly put our whole selves into something - does it become a thing of lasting and enduring value. When God's presence departed from Mt. Sinai, its sanctity evaporated; when the Temple in which we invested our time and labor to build was destroyed, the sanctity of its space endured (Megilah 28a).

And such labor, labor dedicated to a holy end, is itself holy labor. When we work to achieve our ideals, when we work to reach God, we sanctify our work, we sanctify every day, every moment.
But we must be careful. For what do we create with our labor? Do we create a House of God, or do we create - God forbid - a substitute for God, a Golden Calf? What is the difference between the Mishkan and the Golden Calf? A house has walls, boundaries, which delimit and structure the space inside. The Calf is not the empty space, it is the thing itself.

When we project only ourselves into the world, we make a Golden Calf. When we project our image of the other into the world, we make a Golden Calf. When we labor not to make a thing but instead to structure a space, we allow the other to enter, we allow true encounter to occur. When we strive to encounter God in our prayer, in our learning, and in our religious striving, how much are we projecting ourselves onto God, and how much are we making space to allow God in? To have God in our midst requires not only sustained effort, it requires tzimtzum, it requires pulling ourselves in, nullifying our ego, to allow God to enter, to allow us to encounter that which is truly outside of ourselves, the ultimate Other.

What is true in our relationship with God is true in our relationships with the other people in our lives. As any teacher knows after having posed a question to the class, it is only by suffering through those few moments of uneasy silence that finally the student emerges from her shell, and true connection and true learning occurs. As any parent knows, it is when we stop talking and start listening that we really hear our children, we really connect with them and they with us. Only when we stop our efforts, stop our talking, stop our projecting of ourselves, only when we open a space, does the other enter. In such a space, God is met. In such a space, the other is met.

In each of our lives we must begin with ve'asu, "and they shall make." We must find an ideal and dedicate ourselves to it. We must throw ourselves into this labor, for only labor to which we dedicate ourselves will be meaningful, will be holy. We must never waver from striving to achieve our ideals and our vision, for in this way will we sanctify every act, every moment.

However, we must be very careful. We must not become so enamored with our work that it becomes the thing itself, that it become the thing that we worship, that it becomes our Golden Calf. We must always remember that there are others in our lives, that there is God in our lives.

We each must thus also work to build a mishkan, to bring God in, to bring others in. We must work to create space, the space in which true encounters and true relationships occur. Even in our religious activities, we must pull back so that we can encounter God. And in all our activities and pursuits, we must learn to pull back so that we can encounter the other - our spouse, our children, our friends; a coworker, a student, a stranger.

Finally, in our relationship with others, we must strive to build a space that is a house, that has walls and boundaries. Such a space is protected, is a safe space, a space of warmth and intimacy, a space the builds nurturing relationships, relationships of security and protection. And such a space has boundaries and limits, for to love is also to instruct and guide, to set limits on appropriate and acceptable behavior. Such a space is a house - loving and nurturing, guiding and empowering.

Our Rabbis, in Shabbat 118b, tell us that it is the same Yaakov who understood the secret of the house that was also blessed with a nachala be'li maytzarim - an inheritance without bounds:

R. Johanan said in R. Jose's name: He who delights in the Sabbath is given an inheritance without limits, for it is written, "... and I will feed thee with the heritage of Yaakov thy father," (Isa. 55:14). Not like Avraham, of whom it is written, "Arise, walk through the land in the length of it," (Breishit 13:17) nor like Yitzchak of whom it is written, "For unto thee, and unto thy seed, I will give all these lands," (Breishit 26:3) but like Yaakov, of whom it is written, "And thou shalt burst forth to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south" (Breishit 28:14).

Building a house with walls and bounds, leads ultimately to the blessing of an inheritance without bounds. We must first create a home that nurtures and empowers those whom we care about, a home that imbues them with our faith in them. When we have done so, then these dear people - our children, our students, anyone for whom we build our houses- having benefited from this space and these walls, will know no limits, and will be able to burst forth and fly in the world. When we have created this space with walls, this house, we will have given them an inheritance that knows no bounds.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

There is a debate in the gemara (Ketuvot 10a) whether the ketuvah is mi'di'orraita, Biblical, or mi'di'rabanan, rabbinic. The position that ketuvah is Biblically-based is an individual one, that of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, and he even states this position somewhat tentatively - mikan samkhu li'ktuvat isha min haTorah, from here the Rabbis found support to the institution of the ketuvah from the Torah. It would seem that the position that ketuvah is from the Torah is somewhat tentative, and indeed, most Rishonim conclude, based on this and other sugyot, that the halakha is not like Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and that ketuvah is only rabbinic. The practical implications of this conclusion is that if the ketuvah is only rabbinic, its value is much lower, as the currency referred to would be considered to be kesef medinah, a lesser-valued currency, and not kesef Tzuri, a currency of much higher value.

A number of Rishonim, however, are not able to accept this opinion, since - at least in Ashkenaz- the standard text of the ketuvah is zuzei matan dichazi likhi mi'di'orraita, "two hundred zuz that you are entitled to from the Torah." This would seem to indicate that the ketuvah is from the Torah. Tosafot (Ketuvot 10a, s.v., Amar) concludes that we do in fact rule like Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, and that the institution of ketuvah is from the Torah. Others reject this conclusion and advise emending the text of the ketuvah to just say "two hundred zuz that you are entitled to." Rosh (Ketuvot 1:19) suggests a compromise - the ketuvah is a rabbinic institution, but the amount of the two hundred zuz is based on Torah currency, kesef Tzuri. Thus, the text of the ketuvah should be read as "two hundred zuz, which you are entitled to [rabbinically], [computed] according to the [currency of the] Torah." In the end, this is a debate of the Shulkhan Arukh and the Rema, with the Shulkhan Arukh ruling that we determine the value based on the lower currency, and do not use the text mi'di'orraita, and the Rema stating the we determine it based on the higher currency and use the text mi'di'orraita (Shulkhan Arukh, Even HaEzer, 66:6). This debate continues until today, with Ashkenazic ketuvot using the phrase dichazi likhi mi'di'orraita, and Sefardic ketuvot saying simply dichazi likhi.

There is perhaps a better way to resolve the contradiction in the sources whether ketuvah is Biblical or rabbinic. On the one hand, the Gemara states frequently that ketuvah was instituted by the Rabbis in order that it not be too easy for the husband to divorce his wife (Ketuvot 39b), a very pressing concern in a period prior to cherem Rabbeinu Gershon, when a man could divorce his wife against her will. Since the man would have to pay a large sum of money upon divorce, he would think twice before casually and capriciously deciding to divorce his wife. On the other hand, it seems clear that the institution of the ketuvah derives from the Biblical mohar, as is stated by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel. This was a sum of money - 50 kesef, which equals 200 zuz - that was given by the prospective husband to the bride's father. The ketuvah, like the mohar, is 200 zuz, and, like the mohar, its 200 zuz value is set specifically for the case when the bride is a virgin. It is hard to escape the conclusion that mohar was the basis for ketuvah, and, in fact, Rashi on the Torah identifies the two (see Rashi, Shemot 22:15 and Ramban there).

It seems that both of these conclusions are correct. Ketuvah is both a Biblical institution based on mohar and a rabbinic institution to prevent too-easy divorce. Let us first consider the reason for the ketuvah. Certainly, the statement that it is to prevent too-easy divorce does not cover the entire, or even the primary, function of the ketuvah. It seems obvious that the primary function of the ketuvah is to ensure that the woman is financially provided for in case of divorce or the husband's death (remember that wives do not - according to Torah law - inherit their husbands unless special provisions are made for this). In a society where women did not work (and especially when they devoted their married years to building their household and raising their children), they would need to be provided for in such cases. The reason "that it should not be too easy to divorce her" does not seem to address this basic function of the ketuvah.

Beyond this, Tosafot (Ketuvot 39b, s.v. Taama) points out that this reason does not explain why the Rabbis instituted ketuvah for a widowed wife. If the entire reason is to prevent too-easy divorce, it should have been limited to cases of divorce. Tosafot is forced to answer that once the Rabbis instituted it for divorced women, they extended it and applied it to widowed women as well. This answer seems weak, and it points to the fact that ketuvah is more than just a device to prevent of easy divorce.

The answer to this lies in the sugya that discusses the development of the ketuvah (see mishna Ketuvot 80b, Gemara Ketuvot 82b, Tosefta Ketuvot 12:1, and Yerushalmi Ketuvot 8:11). What emerges from these sources is that the ketuvah was originally a sum of money that was given to the bride's father and put in escrow in case of divorce or the husband's death. This stage seems to be an early development of the Torah's mohar - money given to the bride's father, as in the case of the Torah's mohar, but to be held for the bride, not to be taken by the father. However, while this provided for the bride if she were left widowed or divorced, it did not prevent the husband from divorcing her too easily. Since the money had already been paid out, he would not hesitate to divorce her when the whim struck him. The Rabbis then changed the institution of the ketuvah, and moved it from a lump sum at the beginning of the marriage to a standing debt to be paid at the end of the marriage. It was this move - from up front to the end, from money to a debt - that was the rabbinic innovation and that was instituted "so that it should not be easy to divorce her."

Thus, the institution of ketuvah as we have it - a debt to be paid at the end - is rabbinic in origin. At the same time, it is also Biblical, in that it originated in the Torah's mohar, that it is based on the amount of the mohar, and that its primary function is not to prevent too-easy divorce, but to provide for the wife if she is left without a husband. Thus, we can rule - like Rosh - that ketuvah, as we have it, is rabbinic, and at the same time rule that its value is determined based on the Biblical coinage, because, in the end, the rabbinic ketuvah originated from the Torah's mohar.
Question: Is the ketuvah d'oraitta or d'rabanan? Answer: It is both.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

In our learning here at the yeshiva we are wrapping up hilkhot Niddah and this week we covered the very relevant topics relating to the wedding night - dam chimmud, chuppat niddah, and dam betulim. Students will be beginning their review-week next week, taking their finals, and then moving on to the learning of the laws of Aveilut. In Lifecycles we are also finishing up wedding issues, and this week covered halakhot related to the writing of the ketuvah. We will next study the laws of sheva brakhot, and then will be moving on the laws of gerut.

This week, I began giving the daf yomi at the yeshiva for the HIR community and for the yeshiva. We have just begun mesekhet Sanhedrin and for those who are participating - at 7:20 AM - they will be able to finish the tractate by the end of the school year. It is a great tractate, that beyond dealing with the structure of the courts and the punishments that are meted out, also addresses the theologically fascinating case of ben sorer u'moreh, the rebellious son, and the cases of ba bi'machteret, the burglar who comes in the tunnel and rodef, a pursuer, which have practical contemporary implications, such as in cases of a fetus who is endangering the life of its mother. Also, the last chapter (or second-to-last, depending on how one orders the chapters) deals with the theological issues of principles of faith and the World-to-Come. All in all, it will be great fun learning it. We have been recording it, and should begin posting it to our website shortly.

As is our yeshiva's minhag, starting on Rosh Chodesh Adar, we randomly pick a student a day to deliver a 3-5 minute Purim shtick on the following day. We began this week with two hilarious presentations - one from Aaron Braun on renting out the spare space at the yeshiva to create the 2020 YCT Olympics, and one from Aaron Lerner on the history of the Berlin Wall, and how it relates to the current configuration of the Beit Midrash and the history of the yeshiva. mi'she'nikhnas Adar marbim bi'simcha!

We announced this week that we will be beginning our Educators Program next year. This is a program that I have been working on, thanks to an Avi Chai fellowship, and will provide structured professional training for YCT students who are pursuing careers in education. The classes and internships will be directed to third and fourth year students, and will begin with an intensive summer seminar prior to students' third year. Ruth Fagen, a master pedagogue, will be heading this summer seminar, and she came to the yeshiva on Tuesday and described the goals and structure of the summer program to the students. The summer program will run from June 28-July 30, and will be incorporated into our summer learning program, with learning in the morning, and sessions and workshops in the afternoon. It will be open to people from outside the yeshiva as well.

For those of you in education who have this time free, and would like to spend a month at the yeshiva in talmud torah and developing your pedagogy skills, we would love to have you join us. If you are not in education, and wish to just spend the month learning, we will have a pure learning track as well. If you are interested or know someone who is, please contact Ruthie Simon ( for more information.

As I am sure many of you know, our annual gala dinner is coming up in a few short weeks. It will be on March 7 at Ramaz. Please consider coming, your presence would mean a great deal to us.