Friday, October 8, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

“And from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the entire Earth.”  (Gen. 11:8).  What was the sin of the Tower of Babel, and why was it necessary to scatter them and create many languages?    Are not geographical distance and the differences of language and culture the primary bases of misunderstanding and fear of the other?  What did this people do to deserve that their unity be shattered and that this terrible curse be brought to the world?

While many explanations have been offered to explain this sin, the simple sense of the verse indicates that their very sin was that of unity, of being one.  Immediately upon Noah’s exiting the ark, God had declared: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth.” (Gen 9:1), while those who built the Tower said: “Come…and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4, and see Rashbam there).  When God looked at what they had done, God saw not only one language but also that “behold, the people are one.”  It was this unity, the fact of having one language, being one people, and wanting to stay that way, which was their sin.  After their punishment, the fulfillment of God’s blessing to “fill the Earth,” was realized, and the peoples were “divided in their lands; every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.” (Gen 10:5; and see verses 21, 31-32).

We can understand why God wanted the Earth to be populated, but what is wrong with being unified, with sharing one language and one culture?  But perhaps there is something wrong with this.  It is true that we often speak of achdus, of unity, and assume that it is an unqualified good, but is this actually the case?  Are there no dangers in unity?  Certainly there is a danger when unity becomes uniformity, when dissenting voices are silenced, and when everyone’s thoughts, words and actions are molded by a groupthink mentality.  Those who built the Tower were not only of one tongue, but were also of devarim achadim, which may be best translated as “of one discourse,” or, as Radak translates it “of one consensus.”  To only have one discourse, to blindly commit to one ideology, may create a strong, single-minded following, but it does so at the expense of crushing the individual, of silencing dissent, and of perverting the pursuit of truth.  

Unity which is uniformity is not a good, but an evil.  Debate, dissension and disagreement, when pursued not for selfish or self-serving goals, but to serve a higher purpose, is not an evil, but a good.  It is a machloket liShem Shamayim, a debate for the sake of Heaven.  It is, in fact, the very essence of Rabbinic Judaism, where minority opinions are preserved, differences are respected, and debate is valued for its own sake.  And in the end, the greater truth emerges: “Through such repeated asking [of the same halakhic question to multiple authorities] the two sides pay scrupulous attention to the matter and when there are times where the first one has made an error, and through this the truth of the matter will come to light.” (Tosafot Niddah 20b, s.v. Agmirei). The greatness of Torah she’b’al Peh is its decentralized nature and the multiplicity of voices which have flourished and continue to flourish as a result.

With the punishment of the generation of the Dispersion, with the introduction of a multiplicity of languages and of cultures, the concept of difference was introduced, and thus new perspectives were able to germinate and to grow, and new ideas could enter the world.  Small voices were able to be heard, and one such voice was that of Avraham. 

Avraham was a lone voice, introducing the idea of monotheism into a pagan world.  When he stayed in his homeland, Nimrod – the leader of the Tower project according to the Rabbis – could not tolerate his heresy and tried to have him killed, according to the famous midrash.  The small voice of monotheism was almost silenced before it could be heard.  But he then travelled to a different land, one which was welcoming of him as a foreigner and prepared to hear his unconventional views.  He was free to “call out in the name of the Lord,” his voice could be heard and the Abrahamic faith began to take root and to flourish.

We as a nation have been profoundly enriched because of the many cultures are perspectives that are part of who we are as a people.  “The Jewish People were only scattered throughout the world so that converts could be brought into them” (Pesachim 87b).  The Jewish People have lived in the U.S., in Canada, and in Israel.  They have lived in Iran, Iraq, and Yemen.  They have lived in England, in France, in Germany, in Holland, in Austria and in Italy.  They have lived in Morocco, in North Africa, in Argentina and in Venezuela.   We – like the generation of the Dispersion – have been scattered throughout the Earth.  We have welcomed in converts from all these lands.  We have remained true to the Torah and our commitments, and at the same time have opened ourselves to the cultures, the perspectives, and the intellectual pursuits of the people of these lands.  Our different cultures, our different practices and our different ideas have enriched us and have deepened us.  Nahar nahar u’pashtei, “Each river goes according to its flow,” (Hullin 18b) and different customs and halakhic differences are part of the beauty of our tradition.

Sadly, there are many today who reject this approach, and who would like to believe that all Jews do or should look alike – white and Ashkenazi – and that all Jews should think and act in exactly the same way.   Sometimes this desire expresses itself in a demand for a centralized rabbinic authority, one that would define one standard for all Jews, and reject any differences of practice or opinion.  This is happening more and more in recent years with the Israeli Rabbinate, and has had a tragic impact on so many Jews, and also on so many prospective Jews – prospective converts whose very difference could so benefit the Jewish people. 

This desire has also expressed itself in an importing of the attitude of “da’as Torah” into the Modern Orthodox community, and in the claim that in communal matters only one standard can be practiced, even if other practices are acceptable halakhically.  The argument goes something like this – “In matters of communal policy, which are so important, should we not defer to the opinion of da’as Torah?”   Of course, following one standard is fine, if it happens to be the right one.  But if it is the wrong one, we will all fail.  Would it not be better if we encouraged multiple practices, and let them play out in the free marketplace of ideas?  Perhaps the best thing for the community is a different practice than the conventional one, or perhaps the best thing is having a multiplicity of practices, so that the differences in our community are respected, and all our different needs are addressed.

A story is told of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk.  When the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, a central rabbinic policy making council, was being formed, he chose not to join.   He was asked why he had made this decision, and he replied, “Let me tell you why.  When they introduced electricity into Brisk, it was amazing.  We could do away with the lamps, which were messy and costly, and our entire town is now lit by cheap, clean electricity.  There is only one problem.  In the past, when one person’s lamp went out, the others remained lit, and there was light throughout Brisk.  Now, however, when the generator goes out, the entire town is cast into darkness.”

Let us all unite and work together to promote a committed Jewish society in which difference is valued and treasured.  It is through this that we will escape darkness and that the truth will emerge to light.

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

The underlying principle of almost the entire field of practical Kashrut is that of bitul - the ability of a food to be considered "nullified" when it is mixed with other foods, assuming that it does not impart any taste, that it is not noten ta'am.   This is intuitively understandable when, say, a drop of milk falls into a large pot of chicken soup, that is, when the two are fully mixed together and become one entity.   We can then say: "All we have here is chicken soup.  The milk - since it cannot be tasted - no longer exists."  But what happens when the items remain separate?  What if one piece of treif chicken was mixed with 2 - or even 10, or even 100 - pieces of kosher chicken?  Can we even say in such a case that the treif piece no longer exists?   The first case, the case of the soup is what is called in halakha lach bi'lach, literally "liquid with liquid," the sense being that it all mixes together to become one larger whole.  The second case, that of the pieces of chicken, is called yavesh bi'yavesh, literally "dry with dry," the sense being that the pieces remain distinct.  It was this question - the ability for something non-kosher to become batel in a case of yavesh bi'yavesh - which was the focus on our learning this last week.

A number of mishnayot (Trumot 4:7-8, Arlah 3:1-9, Avoda Zara 3:5, Zevachim 8:1, Hullin 7:5) talk about cases of yavesh bi'yavesh, but always with the implicit assumption or explicit statement that the problematic piece is not batel.  The Gemara, however, assumes that bitul should work in these cases and asks "Let it be nullified by a rov, majority!"  (Chullin 99b, Zevachim 72a), and then explains that each of these cases is an exception.  While it is possible that the mishna did not accept this principle - and for good reason, because each piece, being independent, does not lose its identity - the Gemara nevertheless takes it for granted that bitul does work here.  The question is why?

Two answers are found in the Rishonim.  The first, mostly identified with Rashba (Torat HaBayit 4:1), but also found in Tosafot Rid (Baba Batra 31b, s.v. Shetei), and perhaps implicit in Ramban (Hullin 97b, s.v. Ha di'Amar) is that it functions based on the principle of azlinan batar rubah, in cases of doubt we go by the majority.  This principle, the focus on a sugya earlier in Hullin (11a-12a), is a principle for determining how to deal with situations of doubt.   How do we know that a certain man is actually the father of a child?  How do we know - or why can we assume - that an animal does not have any punctures in its spleen or brain which would render it a treifa?  The answer - we go by majority, and we make halakhic assessments and assumptions based on the probability that such is the case.  

This, says Rashba, is the operative principle here as well.  If 1 treif piece gets mixed up with 2 kosher ones, I can take each piece separately and say - "In most likelihood this is not the treif piece."  Halakha determines it to be the kosher piece and I can eat it.  Then I can repeat this with the next 2 pieces.  Although in the end I would have eaten all 3 pieces, and thus definitely the treif one, each action on its own was permitted.  [The Vilna Gaon compares this to a similar case of two people walking down 2 roads, where you know that a grave is under one of the roads.  When the people come to the rabbi separately, he is able to rule that each one is tahor].   Of course, the logical consequence of this is that 1 person cannot eat all 3 - or even 2 of the 3 - at the same time, because then he will definitely (or, in the case of 2, most likely) be eating the treif piece.  Rashba says this explicitly, and then goes on to say that similarly one cannot cook all 3 pieces together because then each piece will have the taste of all 3, and the person will definitely be eating treif no matter what piece he eats.  This logic is taken to an extreme in the Tosafot Rid who claims that if one person eats all 3 - even sequentially - than he has definitely eaten treif, he has sinned, and he must bring a sin-offering.  Other Rishonim do not go as far, but Tosafot (Hullin 100a, s.v. Birya) does say that it is possible that one person should not eat all 3, even sequentially, and Rashi (Avoda Zara 74a, s.v. Tarti) says that one of the mixture should be discarded.

In opposition to Rashba, Rosh (Hullin 7:37), along with Raah (Bedek HaBayit, ad. loc.), says that the principle that operates in the case of yavesh bi'yavesh is identical to the one that operates in lach bi'lach.  The Torah considers it all one mixture, even though in this case the pieces are independent, and thus the piece that is in the minority loses its distinctive halakhic status.  In the words of the Rosh, issur hofekh li'hiyot heter, the prohibited piece becomes a permitted piece.  There might still be a difference between this and lach bi'lach.  Whereas in the case of lach bi'lach we could go so far to say that the drop of milk, say, that was added, actually ceases to exist, here - in the case of yavesh bi'yavesh - the piece clearly still exists, and the most that we can say is that it is no longer forbidden.

According to Rosh, then, it is obvious that one person can eat all 3 pieces together and can cook them together, and Rosh says so explicitly.  Rosh, however, is left with one problem:  If everything is permitted in such a case, how can the Talmud talk about cases of treif meat in a stew and assume that you need 60 times it to be nullified?  The principle at work here is that since everything is cooking together it is not enough to have a rov, you need to have enough to negate the taste.  But, says the Rosh, if all the pieces were mixed together outside the stew and then put in the stew, the treif piece would already become permitted, and you could even intentionally put it in the pot.  Why, then, do you need 60 times to create nullification?  To answer this question Rosh introduces a principle into the field of kashrut that plays out in a number of different cases.  That is the principle of noda ha'ta'arovet - when one becomes aware that there is a problematic mixture.  The halakhic change - from issur to heter - says Rosh, does not happen automatically, but only takes place when the person is aware of the mixture.  It is at that moment that bitul occurs.  Thus, if one became aware of the mixture before putting the pieces of meat into the stew- then bitul would take effect, and they could be intentionally added to the stew.  However, if one was not aware then, and only became aware once the pieces were cooking, then it is at that moment that bitul takes effect, and then there is a mixture of tastes, and 60 is required.

[It is unclear from this Rosh what the scope of this concept of noda ha'ta'arovet is or should be.  Would it apply also to create issur?  What would happen if a drop of milk was cooked with 30 times as much meat, without the person being aware of the mixture, and then this piece of meat was cooked in a stew that had 100 times the amount of the drop, and it was then the person became aware of the problem.  When do we assess if the meat became basar bi'chalav - during the first cooking, or when the mixture was known - during the second cooking?   Or another scenario.  Let's say that one piece of treif meat was mixed with two pieces of kosher meat, and a person ate all 3, and only after she ate it did she become aware of the problem.  Did bitul ever take effect?  Did she eat heter or did she eat issur, albeit unintentionally?  Is Rosh's principle one to use for determining if bitul will take place, or is it only relevant when there are two possible times to determine bitul  - the first mixture and the second - and thus used to determine not if, but when bitul will take place?]

We ended our learning of this topic by learning the related siman in Shulkhan Arukh (YD 109).  There, the Mechaber rules like Rashba, with all the attendant qualifications, whereas Rema, while advising lichatchila, the preferred practice, that one follow Rashba, fundamentally rules like Rosh.  A close reading of Shach and Taz on that siman reveal that they understand that even Rashba fundamentally agrees with Rosh that the operating principle is one of bitul, nullifying the status, and not one of azlinan, using probability to deal with doubt.  Shach implies that even Rashba's demand to eat the pieces separately is only a rabbinic requirement to ensure that one is not definitely tasting treif at this moment (although the piece is technically kosher).   He proves that Rashba would allow a person to eat 2 of the 3 at one time, and thus it is not probability that is the issue, but a rabbinic requirement, as stated above.  A close reading of Rashba in Torat HaBayit reveals that this read is correct, and Rashba states this explicitly in his Mishmeret HaBayit.  In contrast, the Beit Yosef, Arukh HaShulkhan, and apparently even the Gra, assume that Rashba argues fundamentally with Rosh, and does require the principle of azlinan to explain how this bitul works.

Having clarified of the bitul of yavesh bi'yavesh works, we turn next week to the classic case of bitul - lach bi'lach and the principle of taam ki 'ikkar, that the taste given off by a forbidden food is forbidden as well.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week we began our Fall zman at the yeshiva.  We begin our professional classes only in the Fall, so that Elul can be devoted completely to talmud Torah and preparing spiritual for the chagim.  Elul had been quite intense - the yeshiva learned HaKones, the sixth perek of Baba Kama, which is somewhat of a distillation of the early five chapters, and covers a range of topics on mamon hamazik­, property that damages othersStudents also had a bekiut seder in the afternoons during which they covered the second and third perakim of Baba Kama.   

There was also a range of machshava and Elul-related classes in the afternoons.  I gave a class on Rambam's Iggeret HaShemad, focusing on Rambam's approach to kiddush haShem, and who to deal after the fact with those who did not choose martyrdom.  In addition to exploring Rambam's halakhic innovations, we read and analyzed Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik's and Dr. David Hartman's warring articles on this topic, which debate to what degree Rambam was doing policy or halakha with this letter.   Rabbi Katz gave a course on the Zohar on Yamim Noraim; Rabbi Love on the Vilna Gaon's commentary on Mishlei; and Rav Nati on the aggadata of mesekhet Yoma.  

It was a tremendous month of learning for all the students, and it ended with a wonderful extended Night Seder / Leil Iyyun devote to Yom Kippur and Sukkot.  We opened the Night Seder to the larger community and had a great turnout - more than 60 people participated.  Many people told me that it was just what they needed to bring them into Yom Kippur.

With the beginning of Fall zman this week, the Yeshiva began its morning Halakha sedarim.  Years 1 and 2 are learning hilkhot Shabbat with Rabbi Katz and Rabbi Love, and Years 3 and 4 are learning Hilkhot Kashrut with myself and Rabbi Love.  This week we focused on fundamentals of bitul, and covered the topic of bitul yavesh bi'yavesh, nullifying of dry mixtures.

We also began all of our professional classes this week.   Joining Michelle Friedman in our Pastoral Counseling classes, is Miriam Schachter, who is supervises and mentors the students in their chaplaincy and pastoral field work, as well as teaching pastoral counseling courses.  This is the third year that Miriam is with us, and her wisdom and insight, combined with a loving forthrightness, have been a gift to the yeshiva and its students.   We are also thrilled to welcome Rabbi Marc Angel, Rabbi Emeritus of Shearith Israel, and head of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, to our staff.  Rabbi Angel will be teaming up with Rabbi Marder in the teaching of homiletics and sermons to 3rd and 4th year students.  It is a true blessing to have him on our staff.

Finally, as this year is a machshava year, we began our afternoon Fall machshava classes this week.  Rivka Haut and Adena Berkowitz gave their first class in a course on the History of Orthodox Jewish Feminism.  Rabbi Nati Helfgot began his two courses as well - one on Sefer Shmuel and the other on Fundamentals of Jewish Thought.  Our regular Parsha class, was guest taught this week as Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner - father of our new student Yisrael Klitsner - gave a fascinating shiur on the parallels between the story of Noah's drunkenness and his sons and the story of Lot's drunkenness and his daughters.

It was an intense week of talmud Torah and we look forward to another wonderful year of growing in Torah, in avodat Hashem, and in serving Klal Yisrael.