Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Thought on the Parsha

Defined by Ourselves or Defined by Others?

If the book of Breishit is about family, then the book of Shemot is about nationhood.  While it opens with re-enumerating the children of Yaakov, the narrative immediately turns to the birth and the history of the Israelite nation.  The very phrase bnei Yisrael undergoes a metamorphosis in the first verses.  In the opening verse we read "And these are the names of bnei Yisrael, the children of Israel (i.e., Yaakov) who came to Egypt with Jacob..." (Shemot 1:1),  and then, 6 verses later, this children of Israel, children of Jacob, have undergone a metamorphosis and have become the Children of Israel, the Israelite People: "And the Children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly and multiplied, and the land was filled with them." (Shemot 1:6).  The transformation of the phrase parallels the transformation of the people, from a family into a People, into a nation.

It is also in this week's parsha that Bnei Yisrael are called a nation, an am, for the first time.  "And he [Pharaoh] said to his people, Behold, the people of the Children of Israel, 'am Bnei Yisrael are more populous and mightier than we." (1:9).   They were recognized as a people, and as a separate people.  And because this people was seen as a threat, they were persecuted and enslaved.  It was perhaps this persecution, this "othering," that strengthened their identity, their internal cohesion.  As when one applies pressure to gas in a container, the external pressure excites the molecules and brings them closer together, so with the Children of Israel: " But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew" (1:12).   Oppression brought the people together, and forged their identity as a distinct people.  It is thus the outside, the chief oppressor, Pharaoh, who is the one who is the first to call them a people.  They first became a people because they were defined as such by others, they first cohered as a people because they were oppressed by others.

To have one's identity defined by others, and by being seen as "the other," by being different and separate, is perhaps necessary at an early stage of formation, when individuation is necessary to prevent assimilation.  Indeed, had Bnei Yisrael not lived in Goshen, apart from the Egyptians and Egyptian society, they would have doubtless assimilated and never have become a people.  As it was, they barely held on to markers of their identity.   As the Rabbis teach, they were idolatrous just like the Egyptians were idolatrous.  It was only because they preserved some external vestiges of their distinct identity - they did not change their names or their language (or, according to other versions, their clothes) - that they had not totally assimilated.  In the end, living apart, being held apart, being hated and marked as different, was what preserved their Israelite identity.

[Of course, although such hatred and oppression is good for communal identity, it is horrific for the material and societal well-being of the people.   It was this hatred that led to their enslavement, and this enslavement became possible through casting them as subhuman, as completely other.  Ramban (1:10) already deals with how the Egyptians managed to enslave a free people, and he describes a process that is evocative of the Nuremberg Laws and Nazi Germany.  What he does not describe is how Pharaoh had also laid the groundwork for this enslavement, as the Nazis had, by propaganda that demonized the people and cast them as subhuman.    Their population growth is described in terms similar to that of animals, of insects: " And the people of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, va'yishretzu, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them."    The root of the word, va'yishretzu, is sheretz, a bug - the multiplied like bugs.  The phrase pru u'rvu, be fruitful and multiply, occurs twice in Breishit in reference to humans (1:28 and 9:1), but the verb yishritzu is applied only to animals (Breishit 1:20-21 and 8:17).  When it is said that "the land was filled with them," while echoing the blessing in Breishit of "fill the land," from the perspective of the Egyptians, whose land it was, this was nothing more than having their country being overrun by animals.  They were multiplying like cockroaches!  And thus, "And they were disgusted by the People of Israel." (1:12) - the sight of an Israelite  caused disgust and revulsion.

By dehumanizing them, Pharaoh was able to enslave them and then to begin his program of genocide.  If they were not fully human, it was not murder to kill them.  The Hebrew midwives, however, we able to use this in their defense: "And the midwives said to Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are animals, chayot hena, and deliver before the midwives come to them." (1:19).  You have said they are animals - indeed they are, and thus they give birth in the field without a midwife.  A temporary stay of the decree was achieved, but ultimately, the program of genocide continued.]

Being hated by, and oppressed by the other is not a good, it is an evil.  It was one that Bnei Yisrael needed to be redeemed from, and one that they would devote their existence as a nation to fighting against.   While this oppression was true and perhaps necessary at the time of their national origin, this was not how they should seek to achieve cohesion and identity as a nation.  As a nation, we must define ourselves.

It is only necessary to be externally defined when we have no internal definition.  If we have no mitzvot, and no vision, then all we have is our clothes, our language and our names.   External markers are needed when no internal distinctiveness exists.  The goal is not to live separate, and to be defined by the other and by one's separateness, the goal is to live in the world, and to be defined by oneself and one's commitments.     We must decide - will we be defined by what we are against, or will we be defined by what we are for? 

The answer, at least for Moshe, was unquestionably the latter.  Moshe was a person who did change his name, his language and his clothes.  Moshe was given his name because "And she called his name Moshe, for I have mishitihu from the water."  Many commentators try to find the Hebrew root for this verb, mishitihu, but this makes no sense since Pharaoh's daughter obviously was speaking in Egyptian.  And in Egyptian, the word means "born" - "For I have given birth to him from the water."  [Hence the suffix -mses of the Pharaoh's names, means "born of," so Ramses is "born of Ra".]  His name was Egyptian, and having grown up in Pharaoh's house, his language and clothes must have been Egyptian as well.  Hence when the daughters of Yitro see him, they tell their father "An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds."  (2:19)

And yet.  It was this Moshe, this Moshe who had no external markers of his Israelite identity, that was to become the leader of Bnei Yisrael.  And the reason was not because of external definition, not because he lived apart from those who were not his people, but because he was driven by an inner mission, an inner drive, a deep love and care for his people and for justice.  "And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he spied an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brother..." (2:11)  
To be redeemer, once must have inner definition, inner drive.  To be a redeemed people, we must have a purpose, a mission which defines us.  "When you take the people, the am, out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain." (3:12).  Our true identity as an am would not be defined by Pharaoh, it would be defined by our relationship to God, by our receiving of the Torah.  "And I will take you to Me as a people, li l'am."    (6:7) In the end we are an 'am not because of Pharaoh, but because God has called us to be God's am

And hence, when we are about to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we are not only called a people, but a nation.  "And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priest and a holy nation, goy kadosh." (19:6).  Our identity as a nation is to be holy.  Not to be separate, but to be in this world, to stand for God and to emulate God:

"For what nation is there so great, who has God so near to them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for?
And what nation is there so great, who has statutes and judgments so righteous as all this Torah, which I set before you this day?"
(Dvarim 4:7)

To receive the Torah, to live by the Torah, to connect to God, to emulate God - that is our true identity as a nation.  It is a challenge, undoubtedly, to do this while fully engaged and integrated into the larger world.  To do so requires a strong inner definition; it is not for those who need to be defined by others, or who need to define themselves by being apart, by what they are against.  However, for those who have - as the Torah wants and demands that we have - a strong inner definition, for those who define themselves by what they are for - those are the ones who will carry God's message and God's Torah into the larger world, who will engage the world and bring kedusha to the world.  Let us all strive to be who we are because of what we are for.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

This week I discussed with my Yoreh Deah students a practical kashrut question I had been asked just last Shabbat in shul.  Someone came over to me and asked me the following question -  he had marinated a 4 pound roast in wine, roasted it, and then discovered that the wine was not kosher.   This was to be his Shabbat meal.  What was the status of the roast?

To answer this we first estimate the proportion of wine to roast - was it more or less than 1:60?  I asked him how much wine he used, and he said not more than 8 ounces.  For the measurement of 60 we go by volume, and 8 ounces is about 1/3 of a bottle of wine.  So 60 times that would be 20 bottles of wine, and there was no question that the roast was not that large.   He then stated that much of the wine evaporated when the roasting began, and suggested that maybe we could measure it based on the wine that remained after the evaporation.   This was not an option, because while Shulkhan Arukh (YD 99:4) rules that we determine the ratio of forbidden to permitted food based on the current state of the mixture, Taz (ad. loc., note 4) clarifies that when the permitted and forbidden food get absorbed or evaporate at different rates, and we know what the proportions were at the beginning of the mixture, you must use those original quantities in determining the 1:60 ration.

So, it looked like the roast was forbidden.  However, during our discussion, it came out that he had tasted some of the meat last night before realizing the problem.  I asked him if, when he tasted it, he could taste a wine taste, or whether - while the taste of the roast had clearly been altered because of the wine - the actual taste was not a distinctively wine taste.  He answered that while he could tell it had been marinated in wine, it was not a wine taste per se.  I debated whether this would be sufficient to permit the roast.  Poskim differentiate between: (a) the taste of the forbidden food per se and (b) a taste which is different from the forbidden food's taste, but results from the mixture of taste of the forbidden food and the permitted one.   The first case is forbidden, based on taam ki'ikar, the taste is like the thing itself, while the second case is, in theory, permissible.

At least in theory.  But, I was not prepared to allow this case for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, the roast had been marinated in this wine, so clearly the wine was added to add a flavor and a powerful one.  Although it did not taste like wine per se, it is doubtful, in my opinion, that this taste, even mixed with the meet, was not "winey" enough to constitute ta'am ki'ikar.  Secondly, when he tasted it, he was not focusing on detecting the taste of wine or not.  Thirdly, as Ashkenazim, we as a rule do not attend to the actual experienced taste but always go by 60.   While Shakh states that we can rely on the tasting of a Jew, at least b'dieved, it is questionable if we can do that in such a case - where there was a lot of wine, and the taste had definitely been affected.

So, I told him that the roast was not permitted.  However, as I went to sit down, it occurred to me - what was he doing with non-kosher wine in his house?  So I went back and asked him - was this really non-kosher wine, or was it just eino mevushal that had been handled by a non-Jew.  He said it was the latter - that it was eino mevushal that was left over from last shabbat, and the bottle had been opened, and his non-Jewish babysitter had since been in the house.  Well, I told him, that changed everything.   In a case of eino mevushal wine, the concern is only that the non-Jew poured it, as it is impossible to stick one's finger down the neck of the bottle and touch the wine.  Now, pouring wine only constitutes kocho, the force of the person, but not actual touching.  We generally consider kocho like touching, but it really is less severe.

The base rule is that when non-mevushal wine is poured by a non-Jew, because of kocho, the poured wine is forbidden.  But that is only the wine that was poured.  Here the concern was for the wine that remained in the bottle.   That - which was not affected by kocho, would only be forbidden on the basis that it was connected to the poured stream, a principle known as nitzok chibbur.  Now it is a debate whether we say this principle by stam yaynam.  While the Shulkhan Arukh rules this way (YD 125:1), Rema (ad. loc.) states that there are those who are lenient.  Rema advises being strict unless we are talking about a case of great loss.  The case of a 4 lb. roast for one's Shabbat meal should definitely qualify, so there is already a reason to be lenient based on not being strict for nitzok chibbur

There is another reason to be lenient as well.  Rema states in YD 124:24 that given that non-Jews nowadays are not true ovdei avodah zarah, and do not use wine for religious libations under normal circumstances, that we can be more lenient when they only touch the wine unintentionally or indirectly, and in such cases, when it is b'dieved and when there is a loss (or serious loss) involved, the wine does not become forbidden.  Now, kocho is even less severe than indirect touch, and the Shach in 125:2 states explicitly that b'dieved, in cases of loss, even not serious loss, we can be lenient in a case of kocho.  This was clearly such a case, so I was able to tell him that the roast was permissible.  Just another lesson in how a posek has to find out all the details before rendering psak.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

We began this week with a simcha, as Avi (year 4) and Rachel Rosenfeld celebrated the birth of their baby daughter with a baby naming after kriyat haTorah during a special Shacharit.  The baby was named Meital Chana Bahira.  We all enjoyed a breakfast afterwards with Avi and Rachel's family and friends, and then the students got down to some serious learning.

We also share our mazel tovs with Rabbi Chai (YCT '10) and Rachel Posner who had the bris for their new baby boy this Wednesday.   The bris took place at Beth Tfiloh in Baltimore, where Chai serves as an assistant rabbi.  The boy was named Eliram Yosef, and we wish him, Rachel, and their families much simcha and nachas.

This week is chazara week, and students have been intensely chazering for their bechinot.  During this chazara week there are no afternoon classes, so students can use the entire day for chazara.  Those who are learning Yoreh Deah are taking a two-part test.  The first part began last Wednesday, when each chavruta was given 3-4 practical questions, 1 large one and 2-3 smaller ones, to analyze, research, and render a ruling on.  This week, on Tuesday, the chavrutas presented their psakim to the entire class, and they were discussed and debated.   Through this process, we covered dozens of practical cases, and everyone learned from everyone else's work.  The larger questions included: whether one needs to use separate sinks, or a tub, or whether a rack suffices; the issues around copepods and whether NY water needs to be filtered; the halakhic status of gelatin; and whether a mashgiach can give a hekhsher to a factory that will not kasher its machinery but will wait until it is more than 24 hours since the last use.

Rabbi Avi Gisser, the director of the Council on Mamalakhti-Dati Education in Israel, and head of a new institute for training dayanim who are critical and broad-minded scholars, an which seeks to bring Torah civil law into the academic and judicial spheres in Israel, visited the Yeshiva on Wednesday.  He gave a brief shiur to the students, speaking on the centrality of mishpat to society.  Specifically, he looked at the concept of kofim al midat Sdom - forcing someone to not act like they did in Sdom, where they said "what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours."  In other words, can a court force someone to do a favor that costs him nothing?   Can they force someone to forgo his legal claim when he is not hurt by this?  The prinicple of kofim says that there are times when this can be compelled, and he showed how a case decided in Israel based on this principle, and then publicized through a monograph of his institute, had influence Israeli law in this regard.  I was left wondering whether this is necessarily a good thing, as it removes the predictability of law, since my rights can always be overridden by a judge that decides that I need to forgo them.   Such a rule makes sense in a religious system of law, but does it make sense in a secular one, even a Jewish secular one?  These are questions that we really need to grapple with.

Also this week, in my Modern Orthodoxy class, students presented their semester-end project - a critical reading of a text informed by the issues we have been covering in class.  Most students chose to focus on the interplay of values, policy, and halakha.  Two of these presentations make an interesting pair.  One student, Ariel Berkowitz, presented a teshuva of Rav Moshe Feinstein on smoking marijuana, and showed how the content, language and rhetoric signaled that his strong declaration that it was forbidden was more a statement of Torah values than of halakha per se.  Another student, Dan Milner, presented two teshuvot of Rav Moshe regarding smoking cigarettes, and showed that while Rav Moshe's halakhic approach should have led to a blanket prohibition, Rav Moshe realized that the behavior was too deeply entrenched in the yeshivish community, and thus - using the principle of dashu beh rabbim, the masses have become habituated to this dangerous practice - did not forbid smoking to those who were already smokers.  He did, however, forbid those who were not smokers to take up the habit, and similarly exhorted parents not to allow their children to become smokers.  This was a pragmatic approach by  a posek who realizes the challenges of issuing a psak that will be rejected out of hand, and shapes his psak in a way that can hopefully have the proper long-term impact.    Taking these teshuvot together we see that In one of the teshuvot he is stricter than the sources warrant, and in another he is more lenient.  The common denominator is that in both cases he is not only acting as a posek, but also as a community religious leader, and thinking in terms of the larger societal impact that his teshuvot will have.  Whether, and to what degree, one should use halakhic language for such cases, or clearly eschew the use of halakhic language for religious leadership which is not halakhic per se, is an issue that has been a major topic of conversation.