Friday, October 15, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Avraham bursts onto the scene in the opening of Parshat Lekh Lekha.  He follows God's command, goes to the Land of Canaan, and everywhere is calling out in the name of God, and bringing monotheism to the world.   Late in the parsha, God appears to Avraham and commands him in the brit milah.  This section opens with God saying to Avraham, "Live in My presence and be perfect." (Gen. 17:1).  This verse invites comparison with a similar verse in parshat Noach, "Noach was a righteous man, perfect was he in his generation, with God did Noach live." (Gen. 5:9).  Rashi already emphasizes the difference between "with" and "in My presence," although he emphasizes this contrast by translating "presence" as "in front of Me."  Noach, says Rashi, was not so righteous and needed to live with God's support, but Avraham could strengthen himself in his righteousness and did not need God's support.  Drawing the contrast this way, however, ignores the fact that Noach is described as "perfect" and "righteous" whereas Avraham is commanded, "be perfect," suggesting that right now, he was not perfect, that he was perhaps even on a lower spiritual plane than Noach.

I believe, however, that it is not a question of a lower or higher spiritual plane, but of different types or personalities in general and of religious personalities in particular.  Who was Noach?  The basic answer is - we have no idea.  There is no sense of Noach the person in the Torah.  He does not speak, he does not initiate.  The only time he speaks is at the end of the entire narrative when he is reacting to the actions of his sons.  As to his initiative - the narrative is very clear.  God commands, and Noach does.  "Make for yourself an ark"...  "And Noach did everything that God commanded him, so he did (5:14, 21).  "God said to Noach - enter into the ark"... "And Noach did what God had commanded him." (7:1, 6).  Even when it comes to getting out of the ark, Noach waits for God's command: "Get out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you." (8:16). 

It is true, that there is some initiative -he does send out the raven and the dove, he does bring a sacrifice to God (perhaps he got the idea, according to Rashi, because he was told to bring 7 pairs of the tahor species), he does plant a vineyard and get drunk.  These actions, however, are totally unremarkable.  He remains a person without personality, without initiative.  And this - perhaps in addition to survivor's guilt - is why he gets drunk immediately after exiting the ark.  God has now given him an entire planet, a blank slate, and it is his task to fill it, to build a new society, and help God create a new world.  And he has no idea what to do.  Give him an order, and he will follow it.  Give him a world, and he is overwhelmed- he gets drunk, he runs to escape.

Noach, then, is righteous and is perfect, but in the narrow sense.  He does exactly as he is told, but he lacks the capacity to do anything on his own.  Noach lives "with God."   He walks lockstep with God, and his actions are exactly what God has commanded.  He is the perfect student - the one who gets down every note, does every assignment, gets 100 on every test, but has no personality, and never says, thinks, or does anything original.  There is no creativity, there is no spark.  Such a person's life -unless their personality changes -will remain very static.  There is no dynamism, and no growth.  Noach is already perfect.  God cannot say to him "be perfect," because he will never "become."  What he is, he already is.  If there is one phrase to describe Noach, it is that he is the faithful servant.  It is great having faithful servants, but they can be a little boring.

Avraham, in contrast, is all personality, initiative, speech and action.  Avraham already began going to the Land of Canaan before God commanded him (Gen 11:31 - of course, this may have been Terach's idea).   God does not spell things out for Avraham as he does to Noach.  Compare the detailed commands regarding the ark (5:14-21, including how many levels and what material to use), to the simple statement "Go, you, to the land which I will show you."  Avraham needs not to be told, but to be shown.  He needs God to point the direction, but then he must be allowed to search for it and to seek it out.  He brings - and needs to bring - the fullness of his personality to serve God, all of his passion for God, all of his love, all of his creativity.  And this means pointing the direction and then getting out of the way.  To give Avraham detailed commands is to stifle him, is to reduce him. It must be he who is serving God, not an automaton.  Perhaps this is the use of the word lekha, Go for you, in the opening verse.  While commanded by God, the going must also be your going, it must be uniquely yours.

Avraham does not need to be saved to build an altar to God -  even the promise of the future inheritance of the land fills him with hope and gives him direction: "And he built an alter to God who appeared to him" (Gen 12:7).   Once inspired, once given the spark and shown the direction - he can be left to his own devices, and the next time, he builds an altar without waiting for God to appear to him, and spreads the word of God without being commanded: "And he built an altar to God and he called out in the name of God" (Gen. 12:8). 

Avraham is not the obedient servant.  He does not need to be told exactly what to do.  He also does not always do exactly what he should do either, but these slips are minor.   God knows that he can trust him, that he will bring his energy and his passion to his serving of God - that he will be not just God's servant, but also God's partner.  "Because I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him to observe the way of God, to do righteousness and justice."  (Gen. 18:19).   And because Avraham has a mind of his own, and a personality of his own, he is able to argue with God.  He complains that God's promises have not yet been fulfilled, "and I am still going childless," (Gen 15:2), he argues for Yishmael not to be overlooked: "Were that Yishmael would live before You." (Gen 17:18), and of course - in contrast to Noach he never tried to save his generation, Avraham argues passionately and profusely, yet humbly, for God to spare the evil city of Sodom.

Avraham lives not "with" God, but in God's presence.  All of his actions are inspired by and directed to God, but he is not walking lockstep with God.  He is his own person, with the fullness of his personality, who is living his life in God's presence.  And because of his passionate, creative, and complex personality, there is dynamism to the relationship and there is growth and change.  "Live before Me and be perfect."  It is a constant striving towards perfection.  A striving that will never be realized, but is that much more valuable because the striving, and with it, the growth and the dynamism, the creativity and the passion, will always be present.

This idea of "becoming" rather than "being" is thus the perfect introduction to God changing Avraham's name and commanding him to perform the brit milah.  Avraham's relationship with God is such that he changes in the process.  He started as an Avram, but he has now become an Avraham.   He is now to make a covenant with God, and make the sign of it in his flesh.  But he was not born circumcised.  The nature of the brit is that it is one of making oneself better, the relationship with God is about "becoming" perfect, not being perfect.

Said another way, Avraham is not the "Avraham the faithful servant," he is rather "Avraham, the one who loves Me." (Isa. 41)
'Love the Lord your God,' - like Avraham... what this means is, that because Avraham loved God, as the verse testifies, "Avraham who loves Me," (Isa. 41)... he therefore expounded to people about the true faith because of the strength of his love for God." (Rambam, Positive Mitzvot, 3). 
To love God is to always be thinking about God, always talking about God:

What is the proper [degree] of love? That a person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick.  [A lovesick person's] thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman. He is always obsessed with her; when he sits down, when he gets up, when he eats and drinks. With an even greater [love], the love for God should be [implanted] in the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times as we are commanded [Deuteronomy 6:5: "Love God...] with all your heart and with all soul." (Rambam, Laws of Repentance, 10:3)

In our interpersonal relationships this is what we look for as well.  We look for love and relationship, not lockstep obedience.  We want our children and our spouses to be their own, full, wonderful people with creativity and personality.  We do not want them to be attached at our hip, to live "with" us.   We want them to be the fullness of themselves, but to always be living their lives in our "presence" - always in the context of family and relationship.

Of course, in our relationship with God, obedience is key.  We must be fully faithful to God's commandments, and fulfill them to the best of our ability.   But, when we serve God, when we obey God's mitzvot, we still can choose between two types of relationships.  We can choose the "faithful servant" mode, which asks us to jettison our personality, and to do everything perfectly, exactly as told, no more, and no less.  Or, we can choose the "one who loves Me" mode.  A relationship where we can - nay, are asked to - bring the fullness of our personality into the relationship, that there is dynamism and creativity in the relationship.  That we spend our lives striving to become perfect, not to stay perfect.  A life where we can sing, dance, eat, make love, build buildings, heal patients, go on vacations, drive the car, study science, study literature, learn Torah, go to shul, do mitzvot - all in the presence of God.  A life where we will sometimes argue with God, but that our relationship will be that much stronger because of it.   

Some people choose the first mode, and live the lives of faithful servants.  Others are told to live the first mode, and find it stifling of their personalities.  They find their relationship to God to be a straitjacket, and cast it off at the first possibility.  This first mode is the life of Noach.  The story of the Jewish People is the life of Avraham.  Let us make our relationship to God one of bringing our complete selves into the relationships.  Let it be a life not of being perfect, but of striving to be perfect.


Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

In our learning of Kashrut, we progressed this week from yavesh bi'yavesh - mixtures of distinct entities - to address the more common case of lach bi'lach -mixtures where the forbidden food is totally intermixed with, and whose taste is completely dispersed within, the permissible food.   Because the forbidden food is completely intermixed, it is easier to understand why bitul occurs - it becomes as if this food no longer exists (or, at least, that its halakhic status is defined by the rest of the mixture).  Thus, if some forbidden pork fat fell into my chicken soup and was dissolved, I can look at the entire mixture and say that all there is is chicken soup - there is no pork here (or, alternatively, that since the chicken soup is in the majority, and it is heter - permissible food, and now everything is one entity, then even the pork becomes heter).

While the principle of bitul may make more sense in the lach bi'lach case than in the case of yavesh bi'yavesh, it is one aspect that makes it harder for bitul to work - the presence and diffusion of taste.  In the chicken soup scenario, it might be true that the chicken soup overwhelms the presence of the pork, but if I can still taste the pork in the soup, can I really say that there is no pork here?  The halakhic significance of this reality is addressed in the sugyot in Pesachim, Avoda Zara, and Chullin (as well as others).  These sugyot discuss the principle of taam ki 'ikkar, whether this taste is considered to be like the original food, and thus equally forbidden.  

Rav Chaim (Psulei Hamukdashim 10:12) clearly articulates the two conceptual categories that can be used for thinking about ta'am ki 'ikkar.  One is to say that the presence of taste prevents bitul from occurring - since the pork can be tasted, there is no way to say that it has lost its identity in the mixture.  The other is to say that bitul occurs - the pork is no longer here - but that what is left is taste - ta'am.  The question then is, what is the halakhic status of this taste?  Ta'am ki 'ikkar says that the status is that it is forbidden as well, just like the pork itself is forbidden. 

The first approach is probably the most logical  of the two - we can understand why bitul would not occur in such a case.  This would also be able to be expanded to other ways in which the food can continue to be felt -for example, what if it cannot be tasted, but it changes the color of the mixture?  Or what if it causes the mixture to congeal, or to ferment (ma'amid or machmitz)?  According to this approach, there is good reason to say that it would not be batel and the mixture would be forbidden. 

The second approach - that there is a new prohibition of taste - is a bigger innovation (why should such a new prohibition exist?) but it is also the simple meaning of the phrase ta'am ki 'ikkar - the taste is considered like the thing itself -and it is consistent with the Gemara's need to derive this law from verses and through rabbinic hermeneutics.   This approach, while not extendable to non-taste areas, could be extended to cases where there is none of the original prohibited food present.  Consider a pot that was used to cook pork and now is being used to cook my chicken soup.  In this case - if we assume that some pork taste comes out of the pot -it is not enough to say that the taste is not batel.  We must actually say that taste of pork alone is forbidden, even if there is no pork present.

Rishonim debate how we rule regarding ta'am ki 'ikkar.   Some Rishonim (Rashi Hullin (98b) s.v. Ta'am Ki 'ikkar, and elsewhere) states that we rule that this is not d'oraitta, Biblical, and the status of ta'am is only rabbinic.  Rabbeinu Taam, Rosh and Ra'avad all rule that it is d'oraitta, whereas Rambam distinguishes between cases where there is a large proportion of the prohibited food (kezayit bi'khdei achilat prass, an olive's worth per half-a-loaf of bread - either 1/9 or 1/8 of the mixture), where the taste is forbidden d'oraitta as opposed to cases of a small proportion of the prohibited food where the taste is only rabbinically prohibited.  Rashba weighs in favor of those who deem the prohibition to be d'oraitta, and this is the de facto ruling of the Shulkhan Arukh (there are poskim who believe that the position that it is rabbinic has not been totally rejected in halakha).

It should be noted that while Rashi is often understood as completely rejecting - on the d'oraitta level - the significance of taste, a close read of Rashi actually shows that he splits his vote between the two understandings of ta'am ki 'ikkar.  Basing himself on the phrasing and distinctions of Rav Yochanan in Avoda Zara (67a), Rashi states that when all that is present is the taste, for example, when a piece of pork fell into the chicken soup, but is then removed, so only its taste remains - when it is ta'amo vi'lo mamasho - the taste but not the essence of the thing, then such taste has no halakhic significance.  Ta'am ki'ikar  is not d'oraitta - the Torah does not recognize the significance of taste alone.  This is a halakhic rejection of the second understanding of ta'am ki'ikar.  However, when the thing itself is present, but intermingled - when pork and beef were chopped and blended together, or when liquefied pork fat fell into the chicken soup - that is not ta'am, but mamash -ta'amo u'mamasho.  In such a case, the presence of taste prevents the pork from being batel, and the mixture remains forbidden d'oraitta

Rambam, it seems, makes the same conceptual distinction, but rather than defining taste versus essence based on the physical realities, he defines them based on their proportions.  When the proportion is small, it is considered only the taste of the thing.  When it is large, it is considered like the thing itself is present, and the taste prevents bitul from occurring.  Ta'am alone has no Biblical status, but when we are dealing with mamash, the thing itself, but it is just intermingled, then its taste prevents bitul.

Finally, according to those who rule that the Torah treats ta'am as forbidden, even when it is physically only ta'am and even in small proportions, the question still remains what is the nature of this prohibition of the taste of forbidden foods?  Is this a new, generic prohibition - one is not allowed to eat the taste of forbidden foods - or is it a derivative prohibition of the original food - don't eat pork, and that includes the taste of pork?  This is debated between Rabbenu Tam and Rabbenu Yosef in Tosafot (Avoda Zara (67b) s.v. Amar Rebbe Yochanan).  Rabbenu Yosef states that taste is a new prohibition, and it is only prohibited by an issur aseh, a prohibition derived from a positive mitzvah, whereas Rabbenu Tam states that after we learn that ta'am is forbidden, we understand that it is exactly the same as eating the original item, and one gets lashes for eating the taste of the pork, just like they would for eating pork itself.  Presumably, according to Rabbenu Tam, if one ate the taste of blood, or the taste of chametz, one would get karet, divine excision, assuming that one had eaten a kezayit's -worth of it, and this seems to be the qualification of Rav Yochanan (Avoda Zara (67a), that one only gets lashes if she eats a kezayit, an olive-sized amount, of the prohibited food that is in the mixture.

The final issue is whether - in such a mixture - every bit of the mixture is now considered forbidden, or only the part of the mixture that is the pork or the taste of the pork.  Almost all Rishonim state that it is only the part of the mixture that is pork that is forbidden, but Rashi (Pesachim 44b) and Rosh (Hullin 7:31) say that every part of the mixture now becomes forbidden.  That is, that taste is reverse bitul.  Whereas bitul makes the prohibited permitted, the presence of forbidden taste makes the permitted forbidden.   Now, according to Rashi, this is exactly what is rejected when we rule (according to him) that ta'am ki 'ikkar is not d'oraitta.  However, Rosh rules that it is d'oraitta and also that we rule that in such a mixture the Torah prohibits not just the pork or the pork taste, but the entire mixture.  Thus, if one were to eat even 1 kezayit, and even if the mixture is only 3% pork, one would get lashes.

Rosh's position is largely ignored.  It assumes, clearly, that ta'am ki 'ikkar is not just a prevention of bitul, but a new prohibition of taste, and that the scope of this prohibition is to say that as long as a mixture has some taste of pork in it, then every bit that has that taste is considered like a piece of pork itself.    However, most poskim are not prepared to assign taam such transformative power.  This idea is usually associated with the principle chatikha na'asit neveila­ -" the entire piece becomes like a piece of treif meat."  However, the general consensus there is that we either do not hold of such a principle (outside of meat and milk) or we say that such a principle is only rabbinic. 

So, in the end, while ignoring the Rosh, the Shulkhan Arukh rules that this principle of ta'am ki 'ikkar is d'oraitta even in small proportions and even when there is only the taste of thing present.   This has relevance to cases of doubt, and means that we will be strict when we cannot determine if the taste is present, since the prohibition is Biblical.  We will continue next week to see the practical application of these laws.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

The learning at the yeshiva continues at a strong, steady pace.   Years 1 and 2 covered all the mishnayot in mesekhet Shabbat, and are now getting into the sugyot looking first at the general principles and then moving on to the specific categories of work.  Years 3 and 4 have now begun chapter 98 in Yoreh Deah which lays down the foundation of the laws of mixtures of non-kosher foods with kosher foods - when we are concerned with taste, and how much is needed to nullify, and how to deal with related cases of doubt. 

Our machshava and professional classes continued this week.  Rav Nati's class on "Fundamentals of Jewish Thought" read through sections of Tanakh with an eye towards how God is literally described in the Tanakh itself.  A careful reading shows that the Tanakh never says, for example, that God does not have an appearance or a "face," just that no one can see that face and live.    It is thus understandable why - prior to Rambam, and for some even post-Rambam - many Jews believed that God actually did have a form.  This class will continue to explore classical Biblical, Rabbinic and Jewish philosophical texts as they relate to God, Israel, selection, free choice, and reward and punishment.  And - in that vein - Rabbi Katz completed his mini-seminar on Iyyov and Schar v'Onesh to the second year students in preparation for their chaplaincy internships.  They will be hearing two classes over the next two weeks from our musmach - R. Jason Weiner - on the practical challenges and opportunities of doing Jewish chaplaincy, and what it means to do such work in a authentically Jewish way - informed by Torah values and guided by halakha.

Finally, this week we began our student dvar Torah after mincha.  This year, students are presenting only once a week, so they have 7 minutes (as opposed to the standard 5) to present, at which point they must sit down even mid-sentence.  This is great preparation for them as future rabbis, who must be able to give short and pithy divrei Torah and divrei Halakha.  This year we will be doing Ben Adam LiChavero topics as they relate to monetary matters, from general principles and prohibitions, such as not stealing, restitution, not using property without permission, returning lost objects, and the like to specific applications, such as workers' rights, invasion of privacy, copyrights and intellectual property, gambling, and the use of secular courts.  Students are very excited to be covering these topics this year, and Seth Winberg started us off this week with an excellent presentation on lo tachmod, not coveting.