Friday, October 22, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Perhaps one of the most dramatic human-Divine interactions in the Torah occurs in this week's parsha, when Avraham challenges God's decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and argues with God at great length to spare the people of these cities.   This scene is powerful not only because of the image of a human challenging God, but also because of the power of Avraham coming to the defense of people that were outside his family and outside his clan.   Judaism is often critiqued on the basis of its particularism, but here we find Avraham embodying what seems to be a universalist ethos.   Is this actually the case?  How are we to understand and how we can best characterize what motivated Avraham to defend the people of Sodom?

Rashi and Ramban offer a number of explanations, commenting on the verses that introduce this story.  In Breishit 18:17-19, we read:

17.  And the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do;
18. Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?
19. For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he has spoken of him.

How do verses 18-19 shed light on why God deems it proper to inform Avraham of God's plans?  Rashi (Gen 18:17) offers the following explanation:

That which I will do - in Sodom.  It is not appropriate for me to do this thing without informing him.  I have given him this land, and these five cities belong to him, as it says, "The border of Canaan is from Zidon... going to Sodom and Amorah" (Gen. 10:19).    

According to Rashi, the reason to inform Avraham - and, presumably, the reason for Avraham to come to the defense of the people of Sodom, was because his interests would be hurt as a result.  His property, his future cities, with all their wealth and human resources would be destroyed.   If we were to translate this into Rabbinic terms, the reason to be concerned for non-Jews is mipnei darkhei shalom, because of ways of peace.  Enlightened self-interest tells us that if we are good to those around us, they will be good to us as well.  Ultimately, however, it is our own self-interest which is the motivator.

Ramban (Breishit 18:18) gives a different explanation:

The simple sense of this verse is thus: Will I hide from Avraham this thing?! Behold, he is beloved to me, that I will make him a mighty nation" - these are the words of Rashi.  But the correct explanation is that God spoke regarding Avraham's honor.  He said: Behold he will in the future be a great and mighty nation, and his memory will be among his seed and all the nations of the land for a blessing, therefore I will not hide this from him.  For [were I to hide it], future generations will say - How did God conceal this from him?! or How did this righteous man act so cruelly regarding his neighbors who lived next to him, and he did not have compassion or pray for them at all?!

While Ramban mentions that it would be cruel to stand idly by and not come to the defense of these people, the primary concern here is what others will say:  "Future generations will say...".  How will his perceived inaction impact how people perceive who Avraham was and the God that Avraham represents.  Put in Rabbinic terms, this is the concern of Hilul HaShem, how our actions might lead to people thinking ill of the Jews or ill of God's Torah and God's people.  It is, again, not problematic in itself, but problematic in terms of the perception that it creates.

While these first two reasons do not speak of a universalist ethos at all, the final comment in Rashi does:

I have called him Avraham, the Father of many nations, and I should destroy the children and not inform the father who is my beloved?!

According to this, all people are ultimately one, and therefore we have a responsibility towards all people.  Rashi, however, falls short of a true universalist ethos, because he is not saying that we are all descendant from Adam, and hence all one, but rather that all people are part of Avraham's family - that is, all people are part of the extended Jewish family.

In my opinion, the best understanding of Avraham's motivation comes from a closer look at the verses themselves.   The key words in those introductory verses are that tzedakkah u'mishpat - righteousness and justice. "... and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment." (verse 19).  Avraham is concerned that the tzaddik, the righteous, are not destroyed with the wicked, and the key word, mishpat, is repeated over and over again when Avraham argues with God.  "Hashofet kol ha'aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat?!" - "Will the Judge of the whole earth not act justly?!" (Gen 18:25).   

The point of the opening section is thus quite clear.  Avraham represents derekh Hashem, the path of God.  Now, we are told many times in the Torah to follow in the path of God, but only one time does the Torah tell us what that path is, and that is here.  The path of God is to do tzedek u'mishpat.  Now, if that is what Avraham represents to the world, and the message that he has to pass down to his children, then it is necessary that he be given an opportunity to defend that principle in the destruction of Sodom.  If God would not inform Avraham, and Avraham would not rise to their defense, people would either believe that God did not inform Avraham and that  God's act was not in keeping with tzedek u'mishpat, or that Avraham was informed and did not truly represent this principle.  By informing Avraham, and by letting him challenge God on the basis of this principle, and by God nevertheless finding it just to destroy Sodom, it was clear that God's actions were just and that Avraham was a faithful representative of this principle.

The implication is that tzedakah u'mishpat requires one to protect those who are vulnerable, who are oppressed, regardless of race, nationality or religion.  If one believes in justice, and in justice as a Divine trait, as the way of God, then justice must be given to all equally.  If one wants to be like God, then one must always act to protect those who are oppressed, those who are the victims of injustice.

For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, mighty and awesome, which favors no person, nor takes bribes. He executes the judgment (mishpat) of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and garment. Love you therefore the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(Deut 10:17-19).

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

This week, we moved from discussing the principle of ta'am ki'ikar, the taste of something is like its essence, to its practical application in halakha.   If there is a mixture of kosher and non-kosher food, how are we to determine whether the non-kosher food can be tasted?  The Mishna and Gemara speak of two ways to measure this - one, by actually tasting - te'ima, and the other, by a quantitative approximation - the standard of 1/60th.   The question is how these two measurements relate to one another.  Which test is the primary one?  Can either test be used, or is it possible that both tests are necessary?

In the mishnayot (Shi'vi'it 7:7, Challah 3:10, Arlah 2:7, Avoda Zara 5:2 and 8, Hullin 8:3, Tosefta Trumot 8:22), we find that whenever it deals with a mixture of kosher and non-kosher food, it says that it is a problem if it is noten ta'am, if it gives taste, and does not tell us how to determine that this is the case.  The only time the mishna describes a way to measure this is when it is dealing with a case of min bi'mino, of like objects, so that no real tasting can be done (Hullin 7:4-5, and Zevachim 8:6).  The implication of all of these mishnayot is that when it is a mixture of min bi'eino mino, of like and unlike, then it must actually be tasted to determine if there is a problem.

Now, how can this tasting be done?  This is answered by R. Yochanan and Rava (Hullin 97a), that if it is kosher food that got mixed in (for example, some milk got mixed into the vegetable soup, and we want to know if it is now milkhig), we can taste it ourselves to determine whether it is a problem.  And if it is non-kosher food that got mixed in, we can ask a non-Jewish chef to taste it (Rishonim discuss whether in this case a chef is actually needed, or we can rely on any non-Jew to taste it).

What do we do, however, if it is min bi'mino that got mixed together?   Here is where the mishna tells us to use a comparable model.  If it is meat and a gid hanashe, the forbidden sinew, that were cooked together, we look at it as if the meat were a turnip and the gid hanashe were a piece of meat, and if the proportions are such that the meat would impart taste into the turnip, it is a problem.  Now, this seems to be a non-exact model, as a turnip will probably easily absorb the taste of the meat (however, see Meiri, who tries to argue that it is a precise model).  This makes sense, as we are trying for an approximation, and thus we want to be more strict to play it safe. 

[Interestingly, when blood of sacrifices gets mixed with wine, the mishna (Zevachim 8:6) states that we treat the wine as if it were water, and if in such a case the water would have a bloody appearance, then the blood is not batel and can still be sprinkled on the altar.  [When we are not dealing with food items, bitul  is measured by the mixture's appearance not the mixture's taste, on the basis that sight is our primary sense and that appearance is our primary means of identification of objects.]  The two cases are similar in that the model we use is one where we imagine a neutral substance (when it is in a turnip/water, as opposed to meat/wine) in which the issur/additive (gid hanashe or blood) is mixed.  This leads in the case of the gid hanashe to a stringency - we have to throw out the stew, and in the case of the blood to a leniency - we can still sprinkle the mixture on the altar.  It seems that Chazal understood that regardless of whether the model it is strict or lenient, when the actual mixture cannot actually be measured, we use a model of an additive into a neutral, and easily changed, substance.]

The Gemara then describes an evolution of moving from this approximation model to a more standard, quantitative measure.  First it states, in contrast to the mishna, that one should not imagine an entirely different mixture, but rather just change the issur and use the model of an onion.  Treat the prohibited item as if it were an onion, says the Gemara, and determine if an onion the size of the issur would impart its taste into the current mixture.   This model makes more sense, as it keeps the heter as it is, and just creates a substitute for the issur.  An onion, although probably more pungent than the issur, is used because it even an onion can't be tasted, then you can be certain that the issur cannot be tasted.   

The Gemara then records a shift from such substitution approximations to more quantifiable approximation, and tells stories of rabbis who would approximate, or considered approximating, based on numbers such as 30, 43, 45, 47, 60 and 61.  That is, if there is 30, or 45, or 60 times as much heter as issur, then the food is permissible.

In the end, the Gemara settles on the number of 60, and states that this is the number to be used at all times for determining if the issur is batel.  Rava (Hullin 97a-b) pulls all this together and states that if there is a non-Jew available to taste it, one can rely on that, and if there is none available, or if the mixture is min bi'mino, then one uses the number 60.

That would seem to be the end of the story.  However, the issue is not so simple, for the Gemara then introduces an entirely new sugya.  Right after 1 1/2 pages on discussing this evolution of approximation of taste, the Gemara introduces a statement in the name of Bar Kapara that kol issurin she'bi'Torah bi'shishim ­- all prohibited foods in the Torah are determined by 60, together with another tradition that all foods are determined by 100.  The Gemara then goes on for a full page discussing this statement.  In contrast to the earlier sugya, this passage derives the need of 60 or 100 from a Biblical verse, suggesting that it is an independent standard, and it never hints that 60 is a way of determining the presence and absence of taste.  More than that, this sugya seems prima facie to state that the principle of ta'am ki'ikar is not d'oraitta, and this is how Rashi reads this sugya. 

Read thus, this sugya is not concerned with taste, and we are not trying to approximate taste.  Nevertheless, for bitul to occur, it is not enough to have a simple majority of heter, but rather an overwhelming majority is needed.  Or, in the words of Rambam, something is only batel when is proportionately and quantitatively insignificant, m'otzem mi'uto (Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Foods, 15:4).    The numbers of 100 and 60 thus make a great deal of sense.  If the issue is less than 1/100, it is less than 1%, and hence totally insignificant.  Similarly, 60 is a number that we use for measurement (mintues: hour, seconds: minute) because of its high divisibility, and less than 1/60th could also be a measure of total insignificance.  (My student Dani Passow found on Wikipedia that the Babylonians had a 60-based number system going back to 3100 BCE.  This would work very nicely with my thesis).

It thus seems that there were two schools early on.  The school of Rebbe, that was concerned with ta'am and that created models to determine ta'am when it could not be directly measured.  This school finally came to 60 as the quantifiable measure for determining ta'am.  The general principle of this school was kol issurin she'bi'Torah bi'noten ta'am (Tosefta Trumot 8:22) - all prohibitions in mixtures are measured by whether they give taste.  The opposing school, that of Bar Kapara, was unconcerned with ta'am and defined bitul based on something's quantitative insignificance, otzem mi'uto.  The principle of this school was kol issurin she'bi'Torah bi'shishim ­(Hullin 98a) - all prohibited foods in the Torah are determined by 60.  The measure of 60 was always required, and ta'am, if it were a problem, was at most a rabbinic one.

How did the Rishonim reconcile these two sugyot - one that focuses on taste as the core concern, and on that focuses on 60 as such?  We find 3 schools in the Rishonim regarding this - Tosafot, Rashi (and Ramban), and Rambam.  Tosafot (s.v. Kol (98a), s.v. Ela (99a), and similarly Rosh and Rashba) states, like the mishna, that taste is the primary concern.  If something can be tasted by a non-Jew, that suffices, even if there is more than 1/60th of the issur in the mixture.  If it cannot, then 60 can be used as an approximation of taste.  Because 60 is a worst-case approximation, if you know that you have less than 1/60th, you do not even need to find a non-Jew to taste it, because it surely does not give any taste.   [Tosafot so emphasizes taste, that he does not acknowledge that the sugya of  60 and 100 are presenting a different model, and rather attempts to reconcile it with the school that everything is based on taste - see Tosafot 99a, s.v. Ela.]   This approach is the standard one in the Rishonim.

In opposition to this is Rashi, who focuses primarily on the need for 60.  Rashi states that ta'am ki'ikar is not d'oraitta, and thus taste is not the primary concern.  Rashi even suggests that the need for 60 - independent of taste - is a Biblical requirement.  For Rashi there are two criteria for bitul - first and foremost, it must be quantitatively insignificant - it must be less than 1/60th.  After that is satisfied, it needs to be tested - if possible - to make sure there is no taste, in order to address the Rabbinic issue of ta'am.  Because for Rashi 60 and taste are unrelated, 60 cannot be used as an approximation of taste, and both tests are necessary.   Certainly for him, not tasting it does not suffice, as the primary concern is 60. 

Ramban (Hullin 98a, s.v. Kol Issurim) follows Rashi's model, but nuances it somewhat.  Ramban states that if all that is present is taste - if, for example, the piece of pork fell into the soup and was then removed - then one only need to nullify the taste, and does not need to worry about 60 as an independent criteria.  [In this case, 60 can be used to approximate taste, but if a non-Jew tasted the soup and said the pork could not be tasted, it is permissible even if there is more than 1/60th.]  This is the case of ta'amo vi'lo mamasho, the taste and not the essence, which both Rashi and Ramban state is not a Biblical problem of ta'am.  In contrast, when the pork itself is mixed in - when it is ta'amo u'mamasho, the taste and the essence - then in addition to not being able to taste it, there must be 60 times as much heter to create bitul.  When there is real issur present, it is not enough to negate its taste, but it's very essence must be negated by virtue of it being so quantitatively insignificant, m'otzem mi'uto.

Last is Rambam's model (Forbidden Foods, 15:1-5, 13-14, 17, 21-24, 29-30).  Rambam states that ta'am ki'ikar is d'oraitta and therefore the primary test is to taste it or, if it is issur, to have a non-Jew taste it, just like Tosafot.  However, if that test is not available - one cannot ask a non-Jew or it is a case of min bi'mino - then one switches to the track of quantities insignificance.  One uses the measure of 60 to define the presence of issur as quantatively insignificant, and not as an approximation of taste.  This leads to a departure from Tosafot's rulings.  According to this, even if you know that there is less than 1/60th, you must test it if testing is possible, because 60 cannot serve as a taste approximation (this is noted by Beit Yosef, siman 98). 

Rambam apparently derived this model of otzem mi'uto from other cases, such as trumah and arlah, where bitul is defined by small quantities and not by taste.   Misahnayot teach that when mixed in a min bi'mino mixture, Trumah is only batel in 100 times its amount, and Arlah and Kilayim in 200 times their amount.  Clearly this is about proportional insignificant and not about taste. Rambam puts 60 on this list, and makes it another case of proportional, quantitative insignificance.  Because of this grouping, Rambam makes a new ruling, and states that even when Trumah and Arlah are mixed in a min b 'eino mino mixture, one goes by taste, but - says Rambam - if there is no way to taste it, one must use the measure of 100 or 200  (the normal assumption would be that one can use 60 as an approximation of taste).  This is consistent with Rambam's approach - when taste is not possible, we switch tracks and go by quantitative insignificance.

In short, there are 2 models - taste and a trivial quantitative amount (1/60).  Tosafot makes it all about taste, and 1/60 as a taste-approximation;  Rashi states that there are two tests - taste for a rabbinic concern of taste, and 1/60 to create real bitul (Ramban - only when there is mamasho - the thing itself present);  and Rambam states there are two tracks - we first use the taste track (and 60 is meaningless here), but if that is not available, we switch to the track of quantitative insignificance.

In psak halakha, Shulkhan Arukh rules like Rambam, and ignores 60 as a taste approximation, while Rema rules like Tosafot, and states that taste is the primary test, but 60 can be used instead.  In the end, however, Rema states that we no longer use taste and always use 60 (this follows a general Ashkenazic approach to have simple, quantifiable standards).   So, in the end, while Rema starts with a Tosafot approach, the ruling to always use 60 most closely approximates Rashi's approach of always requiring 60.  This shift has a number of halakhic implications, to be explored in a later shiur.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

In the Beit Midrash, first- and second-year students continued to learn hilkhot Shabbat, addressing some of the general principles and starting with melakha she'eino tzrikha li'gufo, a melakha not needed for its own sake, and the famous debate of Rashi and Tosafot, as to its definition - does an act, to be considered a melakha, need to serve the same purpose that it did in the Mishkan (Tosafot), or is the only requirement that it be considered productive and constructive, rather than just negating a negative situation (Rashi)?  Third and fourth-year students continued in their learning of Yoreh Deah, turning from bitul yavesh bi'yavesh, nullification of dry mixtures, to bitul lach bi'lach, nullification in "wet," or fully intermingled mixtures, and the need to have 60 times the heter, permissible food, to achieve bitul in a mixture.

This week also saw a lot of learning and discussion regarding religiosity and spirituality.  On Monday, Rabbi Aryeh ben David from Ayeka gave a 3 hour session to third- and fourth-year students on how one can function as a spiritual leader to his community.  He opened with a simple question: "If an adult Jew came to you asking where should he go for personal and spiritual growth - what would you say?"   This was, sadly, not an easy question to answer, and the afternoon was devoted to learning how to be a rabbi who would be able to give spiritual guidance to just such a person.

On Thursday, Rabbi Herzl Hefter, the sgan Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat HaMivtar, visited YCT and gave the parsha shiur.  Rabbi Hefter is a longtime friend and colleague of mine - we were chavrutas together in the Gush almost 30 years ago! - and we both share a concern for the religious dimension (or lack thereof) in the Modern Orthodox community.   Rabbi Hefter spoke about how the individuals in the stories in the Torah could be understood kabalistically as representing different aspects of God, and how one could read the story of Avraham and Sarah as an interplay between Chesed and Din.  He then spoke about the larger religious implication of this, and what it would mean to live with a religious/theological understanding that we are embodiments of aspects of the Divine, and that our human drama is actually a playing out of a cosmic Divine drama.  An interesting debate ensued as to whether such a theology, while religiously shaping our entire lives, is worth the attendant risk of justifying unethical acts by individuals who see themselves as acting out a divine drama (something that we need to be particularly sensitive to in an age of violent religious fundamentalism). 

All in all, it was a wonderful week of intensive learning of halakha, and grappling with our avodat Hashem and connection to God.

Outside the yeshiva, Rabbi Katz and I have had opportunities this last week to speak on various college campuses.  Rabbi Katz spoke at Harvard last Shabbat to a group of over 100 students on the topic of "Satmar and Lubavitch: Enemies, a Love Story".  A big yasher koach to Rabbi Ben and Sharon Greenberg for arranging the Shabbat, and especially to Sharon who cooked for 100 people!   And last Wednesday, I spoke at Penn on the topic of "Mechitza: Meanings, Marginalization and Membership," to a group of 60 students, and met with 10 guys over dinner beforehand who were interested in finding out more about YCT.  We hope to visit more campuses soon, including Rutgers - where Rabbi Akiva and Nataly Weiss are the JLIC couple - in December.

Finally, a big Mazel Tov to Rabbi Aaron Levy for Makom and Rabbi Ari Weiss for Uri L'Tzedek.   Their organizations were named by Slingshot as among the top 50 most creative and effective Jewish organizations of 2010-2011.  Kol HaKavod!  We are so proud of the amazing work that they are doing.  She'telkhu mi'chayil el chayil!