Friday, December 30, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

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Parshat VaYigash - The Sound of Silence


Silence is the last word one would think to use to characterize the climax of the story of Yosef and his brothers.   Indeed, our parsha opens with Yehuda's heartfelt and impassioned plea to Yosef to free Binyamin, and the words so powerfully convey Yehuda's unflinching loyalty to Binyamin and the anguish of his father, Yaakov, that Yosef can no longer contain himself.  His emotions burst forth, and he reveals himself to his brothers.   And if Yehuda's words can stir powerful, positive emotions, Yosef's words have the power to calm turbulent, potentially destructive ones:   "Now, do not be anguished, and do not reproach yourselves that you have sold me here, for it is to be a source of life that God has sent me ahead of you." (Breishit 45:4).

Even as the story reaches its dénouement, there is much talking.  Talking about how to report back to Yaakov about what has happened, talking about how the land of Egypt is open to Yaakov and his family and how they should arrange their emigration from Canaan, talking to Yaakov about what has happened, Yaakov's exclamation of wonderment at the news, God's talking to Yaakov before he leaves Canaan, Yosef’s talking to his brothers to prepare them for their meeting with Pharaoh, Pharaoh's talking to the brothers, Pharaoh's talking to Yaakov, and finally Yaakov's blessing of Pharaoh.  So there is indeed much, much talking in this parsha.  But in the midst of all this talking, and the beehive of activity that surrounds it, there is a profound, poignant moment of silence:

And Yisrael said to Yosef, "I can now die, after that I have seen your face, that you are still alive."
And Yosef said to his brothers and to his father's household, "I will go up and report to Pharaoh, and I will tell him, "My brothers and my father's household from the Land of Canaan have come to me."
(46:30-31)

What just happened here?  Yaakov and Yosef meet after a 22 year separation, Yaakov having believed Yosef to be dead, but perhaps not so sure, perhaps suspecting that the brothers had something to do with the whole thing.  And Yosef wondering - who knows what?   Perhaps thinking that his father didn't care that he was gone, perhaps even suspecting that his father was unconcerned the danger that befell him, or even more so believing that his father had conspired by sending him to his brothers when they were shepherding while knowing how much they hated him.   Or even if these troubling thoughts were kept at bay, Yosef certainly after hearing Yehuda's passionate speech knew how bereaved his father now felt and how his absence had taken such a serious toll on Yaakov.     

And now, after these long 22 years, they finally reconcile, and Yaakov lets forth an exclamation of joy, tinged with his past suffering, but of joy nevertheless.  And then what?  Silence.  Yosef does not respond.  He says not one word to his father.  Or rather, not silence, but a lot of irrelevant talking.  Talking to the wrong people - his brothers and his father's household, but not to his father - and talking about the wrong things - "Oh, let's go tell Pharaoh that you are here."   The abrupt transition in these two verses is the conversational equivalent of "Great to see you Dad.  Oh, look at the time.  Gotta go."  A lot of talking, a lot of busy-ness, but a profound silence.  No one is talking about what needs to be talked about.  Not just, "I missed you so much.  I can't believe we are together again."  But also, "What really happened that day, 22 years ago?"   "Why did you send me to check on my brothers, knowing how much they hated me?"    No, we'll talk about that later.  There is too much to do now.  Too much other talking that needs to take place.

People talking without speaking…

And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows…”

("Sound of Silence," Simon and Garfunkel)

The impassioned, heart-wrenching communication at the beginning of parsha, is replaced by a lot of pragmatic, businesslike talking at the end of the parsha.  The words that are unspoken continue to hover in the background.  The silence grows like a cancer, eating away at Yosef and at Yaakov from the inside, continuing to fester, preventing them from bringing these difficult issues to the surface, so that they can be dealt with, and resolved. 

And the silence also grows like a wall to divide Yaakov and Yosef.  It prevents them from ever truly connecting again on a deep, personal level.  Yosef is too busy to talk to his father when he arrives, and remains too busy to talk to his father throughout the rest of his life.  So much so, that when Yaakov finally speaks to Yosef again, it is at the end of Yaakov’s life , on his deathbed, and it is for the very practical purpose of arranging for his own burial.    During the exchange, we find out that they have communicated so little that Yaakov does not even know his own grandchildren.  He knows about them - the facts he has - but he does not recognize them.  "And Yisrael saw the sons of Yosef, and he said, 'Who are these?'  And Yosef said to his father, 'They are my sons…'"  (48:8-9).   Because Yaakov and Yosef are not able to talk about what needs to be talked about, they wind up talking about very little.  Or, at least, very little that really matters.

There is, finally, one moment when the silence is broken.   But then it is too late.  For when Yaakov dies, Yosef's brothers grow very concerned about how Yosef will now treat them.  "And the brothers of Yosef saw that their father had died, and they said, 'Perhaps Yosef will now nurse his hatred against us, and return to us all the evil that we have done to him." (50:15).   So what did they do?  They invented a conversation that never happened:

And they commanded that Yosef be told, "Your father commanded, before his death, saying: 'So shall you say to Yosef: Please forgive the iniquity of your brothers, and their trespass, for they have committed evil against you.'  So now, please forgive to sin of the servants of your father's God."   And Yosef wept when they spoke to him.
(50:16-17)

Why did Yosef weep?  Perhaps because they thought ill of him, or suspected that he could still be harboring resentment and ill will about what had happened oh so many years ago.   Or perhaps he wept because he saw that his brothers were so anguished and fearful.  But I believe he wept for a different reason.  I believe he wept because he realized that his father never said - never could have said - such a thing.  His father had never, and would never, break the implicit pact of silence around these matters.   He wept because what was said after his father's death - what had needed to be said for so long, was never said in his father's life. 

He wept for Yaakov, for Yaakov died having never had a chance to talk about what was eating away at him - his suspicions about Yosef’s brothers and what they might have done - and he went to his grave with this cancer inside him.  And he wept for himself, for never having been able to bring himself to talk about his own suspicions, his own doubts to his father.  For never having been able to bring up all the messiness, so that it could be expelled, and so that a true relationship could be reestablished.

And he wept for his brothers.  For his brothers who could not talk to him about these things before.  For his brothers who even now could not talk to him about it directly - having to send someone to present their case in their stead.  For his brothers who even now could not talk about these things in their own voice, but who had to attribute them to their father, Yaakov. 

And perhaps he wept for his own silencing of his brothers.  For the fact that he was so quick to forgive them when he first revealed himself to them, that he did not give them a chance to talk about their guilt, about their remorse.  Here was a time when he needed to be silent, so that others could be heard.  To be forgiven before asking for forgiveness is a blessing, but it is also a curse.   It silences voices that need to be heard.   It prevents true healing from taking place.

We know well the power of speech.  We know how words can kill and how words can heal.   We also must know the power of silence.   Silence can kill - kill a relationship, kill a friendship, kill a marriage.  But silence can also heal.  Silence that is there not to cover up, to avoid, to distract, but a silence that is there to make space, to listen, to open up, to allow another in, to allow another to speak, that is a silence that can give life, that is a silence that is a blessing to the soul.  "There is a time to be silent, and a time to talk." (Kohelet 3:7) Let us always know which is which, so that both our talking and our silence bring with them life and healing to ourselves and to others.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

Last week, I mentioned that I had given a shiur at the yeshiva on aspects of tzniut and on how the cultural interpretation of that concept - in theory and practice - was at odds with its halakhic definition, and was damaging to both men's perception of women and to women's perception of themselves and their own sexuality.   I was asked by a number of people to elaborate on these issues, and what follows is a summary of the shiur that I gave last week.

Tova Hartman, in her chapter "Modesty and the Religious Male Gaze," from her book Feminism Encounters Traditional Judaism,  discusses the topic of the male gaze, and how the culture around tzniut reinforces this - accepts it as a given - and the status of women as sex objects.  The only difference between this approach and that of Western culture is whether the response is for women (and men) to leverage it or cover it up, but the "traditional" Jewish approach doesn't critique the male gaze, per se, and demand the non-objectification of women.  This is, indeed, the religious Jewish cultural reality, but it is not the halakhic one. 

The sources in the Gemara (in particular Berakhot 24a: hair is 'ervah, voice is 'ervah, shok (thigh?) is 'ervah, etc.) are directed to the man and his need/obligation not to look at women sexually (unless in the context of marriage or getting married).  Admittedly, the Gemara's directives are, as a rule, focused on men, and its concern here is about sexual thoughts (see also AZ 20a-b and Avot d'Rebbe Natan, version B, chapter 2).  - more an issue for men, according to the Gemara, than for women.  Nevertheless, the halakhic obligation is how man should and should not look.  It is all about the male gaze - "Do not look at women (who are not your wife, and whom you are not considering marrying) so that you do not have illicit sexual thoughts" is not very far from, and can be translated as "Do not look at women as sex objects."  Similarly, in Shulkhan Arukh, both in Orah Hayyim (75) and Even HaEzer (21), the obligation is directed at men, and at how they look at women.

There are some Gemarot that talk about women's responsibility in this regard.  The Gemara in Shabbat (62b), in particular, is a strong critique against women who would dress and walk in sexually provocative ways.  This, it should be noted, is not the specific issue of how much of one's body needs to be covered, what is or is not an ervah, etc.  It is about being intentionally sexually provocative, seducing others to sin,  and a general concern of tzniut in all ways (not just dress - even how one walks, etc.), that applies equally to men and to women.  The other Gemara that talks more about norms of modest behavior/dress for women is the Gemara in Ketuvot (72b) regarding dat Yehudit for married women.  What is notable about this Gemara - besides that it is about married, not unmarried women - is that again, it does not quantify body parts, etc., or focus on men's sexual thoughts.  It is rather Jewish societal norms of modest behavior. More to the point, if one looks at the mishna and what is included in dat Yehudit, it will become immediately apparent that the issue here is violating the appropriate intimacy and exclusivity between husband and wife, and the types of behavior that is required to protect this intimacy and trust.  Truly, tzniut as the general concept of modesty - applies for men and women, and is much more than dress.  What we do not have is women's responsibility for men's sexual gaze and sexual thoughts.

The one Gemara that puts the responsibility for men's inability to control their sexual desires, although the women are acting innocently, is the story of the daughter of R. Yossi from Yukrat in Taanit (24a).   The Gemara relates that his daughter was very beautiful, and one day he caught a man peering at her from behind some bushes.  The man said: "If I can't marry her, at least I can derive pleasure from looking at her."  Rather than criticize the man, R. Yossi of Yukrat said to his daughter: "My daughter, you are causing anguish to God's creatures. Return to your dust."  Now, when this Gemara is taught, one can easily derive the lesson that - aha! Men can't control their urges, and their sexual thoughts are women's responsibility.   What is lost - significantly and profoundly! - is that the sugya opens with R. Yossi bar Avin saying that he used to be a student of R. Yossi from Yukrat, and he left him because he (R. Yossi of Yukrat) didn't even have any compassion on his son and daughter.  This story is the evidence to his lack of compassion on his daughter.  In other words, it is his actions and perhaps the entire attitude that is being critiqued here, not endorsed.

The cultural shift that moved this from men's obligation to women's had a profound impact.   We have abandoned the idea that men can control their sexual thoughts, their lusts or their male gaze.  So our (implicit) estimation of men has been diminished.  What type of a religious system gives up - or implicitly tells an individual to give up - on the possibility of religious growth, even in areas where there are strong counter desires?  And  by placing the responsibility on women, we have reinforced their status as sex objects, saddled them with the responsibility and guilt of men's sexual desires and thoughts, and have told them to respond to this by covering themselves up - by de-sexualizing themselves, and as a result, we have problematized and made them highly conflicted about their own sexuality, a problem with significant repercussions in marriage and elsewhere.  

This entire problem could be solved by a return to the halakhot and approaches to tzniut in the Gemara and translating this into our culture and education.   Such an approach would teach men to not look at women as sex objects, would teach women that they are not responsible for men's sexual thoughts, and unless they are dressing or acting in a particularly provocative manner, there is no lifnei iver (causing others to sin) or such concerns, because it is within men's control whether and how to look at them.  It would teach both men and women that tzniut is about more than dress, it is about comportment and behavior, it is about modesty before God and in relationship to all people - men and women - and that it applies equally to both men and women.

A final word about the quantification of tzniut concerns.  The Gemara Berakhot talks about shok (thigh) being an 'ervah, and the Gemara in Ketuvot about the problem of a married woman appearing with her zro'ot (upper arms) uncovered.  This leads to the "halakha" that women (married or unmarried) must cover the legs to the knee (top of the knee, bottom of the knee, middle of the knee?) and their arms to the elbow.  Besides the fact that the Gemara about shok (and the Shulkhan Arukh) is talking to men, not to women, another central critique is in order.    The assumption of all discussions around these topics is that these are strict, objective categories.  There is only one problem.  The Mishna (Ohalot 1:8) and Rishonim (e.g., Tosafot, Menachot 37a, s.v. Kiboret) are clear that shokshok is not the thigh.  It is the calf.  So, the conclusion should be that women must wear ankle-length dresses and skirts.  But of course, that has rarely been the practice.  So the claim is made that these refer to the thigh, a claim completely untenable based on the evidence. 


The true solution is that these statements are not absolutes, but change based on historical and societal contexts.  Hence, in the time of the Gemara, even the lower leg was usually covered and for a man to gaze at a woman's lower leg would be unacceptable.  But when societal norms change, so did the parameters of what is normally covered and what cannot be male-gazed upon.  Hence, in Shulkhan Arukh, OH (75) one will not find any mention of the shok.  Rather, both regarding body parts (except for the actual genital areas), and regarding women's hair, or (singing) voice, the concern is only with what is normally covered in modest society.  [In the case of hair covering, the Gemara in Ketuvot attributes this norm to dat Moshe, a Biblical norm, so it is much more questionable whether it can be societally contingent.]


The upshot of all of this is that a true approach to tzniut, in addition to focusing on modesty  in all ways for men and for women, and in addition to directing men to control their male gaze, would also reject the quantification of the concept of tzniut and the objectification of women's body parts towards this end.  It would talk to men and women about a general approach of dressing and acting modestly, and to attend to communal norms of modest dress and behavior.  Now that would be truly refreshing.  It could not only counteract all the negatives that the current approach has engendered, but also put us on the path - finally, and again - of embracing the true value of tzniut and fulfilling the verse in Micha (6:8) of "walking humbly with your God".

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

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A Thought on the Parsha and on Chanukah
Yosef the Tzaddik, Religious Arrogance and the Miracle of Chanukkah

Yosef is known throughout Rabbinic literature as "Yosef the Tzaddik."  This phrase alludes to the verse in Amos (2:6), "their selling the Tzaddik for silver", which is understood to be referring to brother's selling Yosef for the 30 pieces of silver.  It is a description, however, that finds deep resonance with the character of Yosef.  If we close our eyes and conjure up an image of a tzaddik, what picture comes to mind?  Someone who is scrupulous about following mitzvot, for sure.  But also someone who is Godly, who sees God in the world, and who sees godliness in others.  Because he sees God working through him, he takes no credit for his own good deeds, and because he sees God equally working through others and world events as the unfolding of a divine plan, he is nonjudgmental and forgiving when other people act improperly.  Rather he sees in them that which is good, he sees their godliness, and he sees how that which is less than perfect as somehow fitting into God's ultimate plan. 

Such was the personality of Yosef.   Yosef saw God everywhere.  In a particularly exceptional case, his faith in God allowed him to resist Potiphar's wife - "How can I do this terrible thing, and I will have sinned against God?"   But more importantly, it shaped his day-to-day reality:   "And his master [Potiphar] saw that God was with him" (Breishit 39:3).  How did his master see that it was God, and not Yosef, who was the cause of his success?  Because that's how Yosef saw it: "the name of Heaven was constantly on his lips." (Rashi, quoting Tanchuma).

The most explicit articulation of this viewing of reality through a Godly lens comes from Yosef directly, and particularly in the case of dreams.  Although it is Yosef who gives the interpretations, he takes no credit for this.  This is true in the case of the baker and the wine steward: "Behold to God is the interpretations.   Please tell me your dream." (40:8), and this is true in this week's parsha, in the case of Pharaoh: "That is beyond me; it is God who will respond with Pharaoh's welfare."  (41:16).   But it goes beyond dreams as well.   When, after having revealed himself to them, the brothers are overcome with guilt for having sold Yosef, he reassures them that it was God who was working through them all along: "And now, do not be anguished and do not be angry with yourselves that you have sold me here, because it was to be a source of life that God has sent me here before you." (45:5).

This is the quality of the tzaddik, the person who always sees God in the world.   For such a person to be a tzaddik, however, it is important that this perspective be coupled with humility.  For if this faith becomes certainty, when a person not only thinks, but knows, in his own mind, how God is operating; then this righteousness will become religious arrogance and can be very destructive indeed.   If a person is certain about God's plan for him and for the rest of humanity, then nothing else matters.  Even if people have to suffer, it is justified because it is all in service of God's will.  

The ease with which one can slip into this mode of thinking was a danger that perhaps even Yosef did not completely avoid.  Ramban asks why Yosef didn't tell his father where he was when he became viceroy of Egypt.  He answers, because he wanted the dreams to come true.  "And were it not for this reason, Yosef would have sinned gravely, to cause his father so much anguish, and to be bereaved ... for such a long time... but rather all worked out in its proper time, so that the dreams would be fulfilled."  (Ramban on 42:9).  While we can agree with Ramban that it all worked out according to the divine plan, one wonders if we can fully agree that Yosef acted correctly.  For while Yosef did not proactively cause hurt to others, he also did not do anything to alleviate it.  Let's wait and see how this might be the unfolding of God's plan, seems to have been his approach, but perhaps this view needs to be bracketed when others might suffer.   Regardless, Yosef never allowed his belief to give him license to bring hurt upon others.   That would require certainty, which would require arrogance.

We do not need to think hard to consider how such religious arrogance can translate into violent fundamentalism.  Present day examples in other religions abound.  But we can also find examples of this in our own religion, both present day and in the past.   Sometimes the violence takes the form of "merely" destroying someone's reputation or standing in the community.  And sometimes it can take the form of actually killing someone in the name of God:

... A Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modiin as the royal edict required. When Matityahu saw this, he was fired with zeal; stirred to the depth of his being, he gave vent to his legitimate anger, threw himself on the man and slaughtered him on the altar.  Then Matityahu went through the town, shouting at the top of his voice, 'Let everyone who has any zeal for the Law and takes his stand on the covenant come out and follow me.'
(I Maccabees 2:23-27)

Now, Matityahu's declaration, "Who is for Law, come to me," evokes Moshe's declaration at the foot of Har Sinai, "Who is for God, come to me," which was followed by the tribe of Levi killing all those who had worshipped the Golden Calf.  The subtext of this passage from the Book of Maccabees is that just as the Levites were justified in their actions because of their zeal for God, so was Matityahu in his actions.  There is only one small difference.  The Levites were acting under God's direct command (see Shemot 32:27), whereas Matityahu was acting on his own religious zeal and certitude.    While we see God's hand working through the Maccabees, and while were it not for Matityahu's rebellion the miracle of Chanukah never would have happened, we do not have to endorse this initial act of killing another Jew who was violating the Law.  We do not have to endorse an approach that turns a tzaddik into a kanai, a zealot.

We must be very careful how we transmit the message of Chanukah.  For me, the message has always been one of religious freedom, of the Jews fighting against the Seleucid Greeks for the right to worship freely.  But the historical record is more complex, and it is easy to draw out a different message.  Consider this, from a column two years ago in the New York Times:

The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics...they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first...

"The Hanukkah Story," David Brooks, NY Times, Dec 10, 2009

So, is Chanukah a message of religious freedom, or rather one of religious intolerance, of forced circumcisions and forced conversion, of imposing one's religious beliefs on others?   The answer to this is up to us.  The question is not what happened, but what we choose to remember, how we shape our collective memory and the message we choose to learn and to live by.  Note that the Book of Maccabees is not part of the Tanakh.  Rather, the Sages preserved the memory of Chanukah in our liturgy, and in that retelling there is no mention of the slaying of the Jew at the altar.  In fact, in that telling there is no memory of the Jewish Hellenists at all.  Rather, the message in the liturgy is the fight against the oppressive Greeks.  "When the evil Greek kingdom arose... to make Your people forget Your Torah and to transgress Your laws..." is what we remember in the al ha'nissim prayer.  We fought against the Greeks so that we could freely worship God.

And thus the emphasis on the miracle of oil, a miracle not even mentioned in the Book of Maccabees.  Why is that so central to our memory of Chanukah?   Because it takes us away from the possible and dangerous lesson on religious fanaticism, and focuses our attention on the message of God's presence in the world as a source of light.   We choose what to remember, and we choose how to see God in the world.  If we perceive God and God's plan with arrogance and certitude, then it will become religious zealotry, and it will lead to violence and destruction.  We have enough kanayim.  What the world needs is a few more tzadikkim.  Let us instead perceive God and God's plan with faith and humility, then it can help us become a tzaddik like Yosef, forgiving and accepting, seeing the divine in all and bringing light to the world.

Shabbat Shalom!

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This was the final week before we go on a two-week break, and the first two years, and the Beit Midrash year, we all doing intensive chazara and taking their final exams.  Years 3 and 4, who had taken their finals two weeks ago, continued to learn Niddah, moving on to the topic of stains and colors.  They also began doing their shimush, practical apprenticeship, with Rabbi Love on marot, learning how to discern different colors and determine what stains are problematic or not.
 
On Tuesday afternoon, Years 3 and 4 continued their Lifecycle curriculum, which is now dealing with the high school and college years.  At the end of the afternoon, students had a session with Rabbi Yehudah Sarna and Ms. Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin on the important topic of dating and interdating in college.   Prior to that, they had first heard a shiur from me on the topic of tzniut and clothing - how these ideas have been drastically changed, in unhelpful ways, from their original articulation in the Gemara and poskim, and how different halakhic and cultural approaches to this topic have a profound impact on women's and girls' self-image regarding their body and sexuality.  The goal is to embrace an approach to tzniut which is true to the original approach in the Gemara and poskim and which combines - for men and women - a modesty of dress, on comportment, and of being with a healthy self-image and sense of self.

As it was Chanukah, we had a number of special events.  On Tuesday after mincha, Gabe Greenberg (Class of 2012) gave a brief and inspiring talk on the topic of the miracle of Chanukah.  On Wednesday, Rabbi Weiss gave a sicha to the entire yeshiva on the connection of Chanukah to the principle of gratitude, and how important expressing gratitude was not for the receiver, but for the one who shares it.

On Tuesday night, we had a wonderful chagiga at the yeshiva, with a latke cook-off (in which I did not participate this year!), Chanukah gelt, dreidel, and menorah making.  It was a great evening of connecting for the students, rebbeim, teachers, staff, and their families.  A special thank you to Joel Dinin (Class of 2015), David Bookbinder (Class of 2015), Aaron Lerner (Class of 2013), and Brachyahu Schönthal (Class of 2013)  and Allison Batalion for all their hard work in making this such a special evening!

Finally, it is with sadness that I share with all of you the passing of Dr. Charles (Chuck) Feldman, longtime board member and supporter of YCT, builder of the Roemer Synagogue and community, and a true leader of the Jewish People.   The funeral took place at the Roemer Synagogue yesterday, Thursday afternoon, and shiva will be observed this week at the Feldman home, 1649 Hanover Street, Teaneck, NJ.   My his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Chuck was someone who I consider to have been a true tzaddik, and I dedicate my Parsha and Chanukkah dvar Torah below in his memory.    May his memory be for a blessing.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha


Parshat VaYeishev - To See and to Acknowledge

Yosef's brothers, not content with the treachery of throwing him in the pit and then selling him to the Ishmaelites, proceed to engage in a cover-up.   Using the very cloak that was the target of their jealousy, they dip it in the blood of a kid goat, and send it to their father:  "And they said, 'This we found.  Please, examine it (haker na).  Is it your son's tunic or not?'" (Breishit 37:32).   Their physical absence at this stage is critical.  If they had been present, the mere reality of seeing them holding the tunic would have led Yaakov to be suspicious about their involvement in Yosef's fate.   In their absence, Yaakov was left contemplating Yosef and the tunic, and imagined a scenario which did not involve the brothers.    And the brothers knew that by not feeding Yaakov a story, but rather allowing him to arrive at an explanation on his own, he would own it more, believe it more.  It was his story, not their story; thus the deception was complete.

Of course, the key to the whole deception was the cloak, and the finishing touch was Yaakov's recognition of it as Yosef's.  The word that this turns on in the text is haker, to recognize.  "Please, examine it" (haker na), they said.  "And he recognized it (vayakira) and he said, 'It is my son's tunic.  Yosef has been devoured!"   Now, this word, haker, plays a central role in a number of related stories in the narratives of Yaakov and his sons, and the Torah seems to be encouraging us to consider how these stories may relate to one another. 

The midrash already notes the connection between this haker na and the one in the immediately following story of Yehudah and Tamar.  Why was the narrative of Yosef interrupted with the story of Yehudah and Tamar?  "Said R. Yochanan: to juxtapose haker na (please identify this cloak)with haker na (please identify whose signet, wrap and staff these are)." (Breishit Rabbah 85).  R. Yochanan understands that it was Yehudah who sent the cloak to his father, and thus he was paid back with the events of Tamar.  "You said to your father, 'haker na', by your life, Tamar will say to you, haker na."   While Yehudah does not suffer and is not punished in this story, he is compelled - by his conscience at least - to come clean, to own up to the shame.  In his owning up, he also chooses to embrace the honesty and integrity that comes with a true haker na.  The brothers used haker na to deceive, using a truth - Yosef's correctly identified cloak - to cover up a bigger lie.   Yehudah, in his recognition, not only acknowledged the true owner of these items, but also the bigger truth that they represented, "He said, she is righteous.  The child is from me." (38:26).

While the haker na of Yosef's cloak is juxtaposed with the story of Yehudait also connects us to a much earlier story in Yaakov's own life.  Not only did Yaakov's children deceive him, but Yaakov himself deceived his father as well.  Yaakov was able to pull off that deception by tricking his father to misidentify him.  "And he did not recognize him - vi'lo hikiro - because his hands were like Esav, his brother, hairy, and he blessed him" (27:23).  And how did he impersonate Esav; how were his hands hairy?  Because he wore Esav's garments, and because he had placed on his hands the skin of a kid goat.   Just as he tricked his father with a brother's garment and with a kid goat, his sons tricked him with their brother's garment and with the blood of a kid goat.  He deceived through a wrong identification, and he was in turn deceived by a correct identification with a wrong conclusion. 

In the end, deception is deception.  Whether the whole thing is a lie or a surface truth hiding a deeper lie, it is all the same.  The first lesson is to those would-be deceivers: that "technically telling the truth" is not a defense for lying and deception.  The second lesson is to those deceived.   It is a lesson about how we must not be misled by surface appearances, how we must strive to go beyond the surface hakarah of Yaakov to achieve the true hakarah of Yehudah.   What led Yaakov to be misled?  Not his senses, but himself.   His fears, his imagination, and - as we explored last week - his unwillingness to confront and challenge his children.   What allowed Yehudah to not only recognize, but also to acknowledge, to own up?   The strength of his own character.  Yehudah refused to fool himself.  He had the courage to see the situation for what it was - what the signet, cloak, and staff signified, and where his responsibility lay.  

To see correctly and to acknowledge, li'hakir, is actually commanded in one place in the Torah.  At the beginning of parshat Ki Teize, we read:

If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and they both bear him sons - the loved and the unloved - and the firstborn son is the son of the unloved.  It shall be, when he bequeaths his property to his sons, he may not make the son of the loved one the firstborn... Rather, the firstborn, the son of the unloved one, he shall acknowledge, yakir,to give him the double portion, for he is the first of his vigor, to him is the birthright due
(Devarim 21:15-17). 

Here, a person is commanded to identify and to acknowledge.   Do not pretend that the second born is the firstborn.  Do not fool others, and do not fool yourself.  Rather, you must see things as they actually are, even if you do not like them.  You must see, you must acknowledge, who the firstborn truly is.

Now, who is the man who had two wives, one loved and one unloved, and whose firstborn was born to the unloved wife?  Of course, it is none other than Yaakov (a point already mentioned in the midrash, Tanchuma, VaYetze).  Did Yaakov follow this commandment?  On the one hand, he gave Yosef "two portions", designating Yosef's two sons as equal heirs with the other brothers.   On the other hand, he did exactly what the Torah commands.  He did recognize Reuven as the firstborn, as the first of his strength:  "Reuven, you are my first born, my strength, and the first of my vigor..." (49:3).  

Yaakov here was not going to fool himself.  Although it would have been easy to convince himself that Rachel was his true wife and Yosef his true firstborn, he refused to do so. He had the courage to face the situation, to acknowledge, and then to deal with the consequences.   It certainly is easier to say, "The other son is the true firstborn," than "It is true you are the firstborn, but I am still not going to give you a double portion, and here's why."  But we are required to do the latter, no matter how difficult.

Acknowledging a difficult situation does not necessarily mean giving up on one's interests.  For even after recognizing Reuven as the first born, he still found a way to give Yosef a double portion.   It seems he was even able to do this legally, for - as the Talmud understands this law - one is allowed to redistribute his estate, as long as it is not done through misidentifying the heirs or the firstborn.   

We often allow ourselves to be fooled.  It is hard to do a true hakarah, to look at things as they actually are.  It is easier to live in our own imagined reality.  But we must have the strength to be makir, to see the facts for what they are, and then to act accordingly.  We must take responsibility and suffer the consequences when that is what is called for.  And if we are avoiding confrontation with a particular situation or person, we must go out of our way to confront it, confront that person that we are avoiding, that we are lying to ourselves about -  a child, a co-worker, a friend, a parent - and to have that difficult, honest conversation.    For when we leave our fantasy world and confront the truth, not only will the situation improve, but we will embrace the ultimate truth, being true to ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom! 

Torah from our Beit Midrash


As both Chanukkah and Christmas draw near, it is appropriate to wrap up our discussion of the evolution of halakha's approach to Christianity.  Tosafot in Bekhorot, 2b, had said that one does not transgress by having a Christian take an oath in the name of God and a saint.  For although this is an act of shituf, of "combining", such an act is not prohibited to non-Jews.  Now, the simple meaning of that statement, as we saw, is that non-Jews are not prohibited in taking an oath in the name of both God and something else, for example, the Christian saints.  However, the concept of  shituf is applied in one Gemara to the prohibition of avoda zara, of worshipping other beings together with God.  So, it is possible to read Tosafot's assertion as a broader claim - that Christians are not prohibited in worshipping other beings, as long as this is conjoined to the worship of the Supreme God.   It could be argued that this logically derives from the similar assertion regarding oaths.  Since the problem of conjoining God with other beings in an oath is that it implicitly equates these other beings with God, and since this is not prohibited to non-Jews, it thus stands to reason (perhaps) that it is also not prohibited to worship other beings together with God.

So does this mean that Christianity would not be avoda zara, at least for Christians.  This is certainly the way that many, many poskim understand Tosafot.   Let us consider, however, why  Christianity was considered to be avoda zara.  Although this is not spelled out explicitly by the Rishonim, there are a number of obvious reasons for this definition.   It is important at the outset to dispel a common misconception.  One will find many contemporary authors who assume that this categorization was due to the understanding that the Trinity was a form of polytheism.  This is then often followed by the assertion that Christians firmly maintain that they believe in and worship only one God, and thus - such authors continue - we must conclude that it is not really polytheism and we should no longer deem it to be avoda zara.

Many will disagree with this conclusion, and start by pointing out that the belief in the Trinity is a belief not in three aspects of God, but in three which are one, which is clearly not a pure monotheism. But even putting this aside, the argument is faulty in its very premise.  Halakha does not define avoda zara as polytheism.  Avoda Zara is either (a) the worship of a god other than the one, true God or (b) the worship of God through the use of images.  One does not need to define the Trinity as a type of polytheism to assert that the concept of God that it represents is a "different God" than the one that Jews believe in.   Even framing this as "a non-pure monotheism" somewhat misses that point, as the issue is not thenumber per se, but the nature of the God that is believed in and worshipped.   The problem with the Trinity is that it - in its concept of God who is three-that-is-one - is a radically "different God" from the one in which we believe.

Which brings us to the second problem.  Not number, but physicality.  For the Christian God is also an incarnate God.  Belief in such a God can be considered avoda zara from both perspectives - it is the worship of God through images, in the extreme form (the merging of God with the physical) and, in conceiving of God in this fashion, it becomes the worship of a "different God."   Added to all this is the practice of worshipping through images, statues and icons - practiced by all Christians until the Reformation, and by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox today.  This worship is avoda zara not because of the type of God who is worshipped, but because the form of worship is prohibited.   The problem here is no that the God is foreign, but that the worship is.

So now we return to Tosafot's statement about shituf.  Let us assume that this means that non-Jews are not prohibited in worshipping other beings alongside God.  Which problems does this address?  From the perspective of the worship of a "different God" this approach would state - minimally - that if the belief in the Supreme God is pure, than a concomitant worship of other gods is not forbidden.  But that doesn't get to the root of the problem here, which is that the Christian concept of God is fundamentally different from ours.  The logic to apply it to that case would seem to run as follows.  The belief in another god is not prohibited.  But certainly the belief in another god compromises the concept of the one, Supreme God.  Apparently, then, even when this concept is compromised through the introduction of other gods, it - for non-Jews - is still considered to be a belief in the true God.  Thus, if other gods can be believed in, then a non-Jew can also believe in the Trinity, or even the incarnate nature of God.    The belief in the Christian God is not, for non-Jews, the belief in a different God.  It is close enough to our concept that it remains, for them, the belief in the true God.

But what about the use of images in their worship?  Is this not also a form of avoda zara.  Apparently, for this reading of Tosafot, the answer is no.  If a non-Jew's concept of God does not have to be defined along the narrow parameters of the Jewish concept of God, then the worship as well does not have to be defined in such narrow terms.  For what is the problem of the use of images if not that it leads to a misrepresentation of God?   But if the concept of God can - for them - allow for the idea of an incarnate God, then why can the object of worship not involve such physicality as well?

Putting all this together, then, we have a very broad definition of what is acceptable belief and worship for non-Jews.  Now, it should be noted that this reading of Tosafot is notpshat, and it was vigorously argued against by the son of the Nodah BiYehuda (see Nodah BiYehuda, Tinyana, Yoreh Deah 148).  Nevertheless, it is implicitly adopted by no less a figure than Rema, the authority for Ashkenazic Jewry (see Darkhei Moshe, Yoreh Deah 151, and Rema, Yoreh Deah, 151:1).  Rema is followed in this by Shach (Yoreh Deah 151, note 7) and by countless later authorities.  What then emerges, as almost a taken-for-granted assumption by most poskim, is that Christianity is not avoda zara for non-Jews, although it remains avoda zara for Jews.

Now, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that this is a stance of religious pluralism.  The implicit statement is not that we recognize the Christian belief as an alternate legitimate theological position.  Rather, the (implicit) claim is that Christians can be a "little off" in their belief and worship, and that's still okay, at least for them.   It is a position that evokes the Biblical verse in Devarim 4:19,

And lest you lift up your eyes to the skies, and when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of the skies, should you be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the Lord your God has allotted to all nations under the whole sky.

Let them have their faulty worship, yours must be of the purer sort.

So while this position is not true pluralism, it certainly goes a major step beyond other accommodating approaches towards Christianity in halakha.  For until this approach came on the scene, the way halakha dealt with negotiating some of the avoda zara-related restrictions when it came to Christians was by asserting that while Christianity was avoda zara, Christians were not true believers in their own faith, and thus were not, themselves, worshippers of avoda zara (see Tosafot, Avoda Zara, 2a).  This approach had the triple disadvantage of being condescending and patronizing to Christians about the sincerity of their own belief, of being factually incorrect, and also being of limited scope in its usefulness.  For were a Jew to do something that would advance the worship of a true believer, say, sell a chalice to be used for mass to a priest, there would be no way to permit.  So, this was useful, but problematic and limited.  Enter the new approach.  Christianity is not avoda zara for Christians.  We now do not have to make counter-factual assertions, and we now can allow even more cases.  Jews can sell religious items to priests and Churches, since for Christians there is no problem in this worship.

The usefulness of this new approach is apparent.  I believe, however, that its widespread adoption and use was based on more than just its usefulness.  It is my belief - although I cannot prove this - that this approach, while by no means truly pluralistic, was much more accepting and tolerant in its general thrust than previous approaches.   Halakha aside, did we really want to say that Christians were worshippers of avoda zara?  (It would be interesting to track the spread of this approach.  It is my suspicion that after the advent of the Enlightenment its spread accelerated considerably).   And perhaps its coming short of true pluralism was its strength.  For a general challenge for anyone who is pluralistic is how does one stop his pluralism from becoming relativism?   How does one maintain his sense of truth, of belief in his own religion, while respecting the beliefs of others at the same time.  This approached offers a solution.   For Christians, their belief is not avoda zara, is totally acceptable.  But for Jews, for me, it is off-limits, it is taboo, it is avoda zara.

The benefit here is not only religious and philosophical, but practical as well.   For too much pluralism can lead to a blurring of boundaries, to an attitude of "we all basically believe in the same thing."  Not only can it undermine one's sense of the deep theological importance of the distinctive nature of his beliefs, but it can also lead to an attitude of "well, if it isn'tavoda zara, what would be so bad for me to become a Christian?"  At a time when conversion to Christianity - due to duress or the desire for social and economic advancement - was a very real threat, it was critical that Christianity remain - at least for Jews - completely taboo.   And hence the wonderful position that it is avoda zara for Jews, but not for non-Jews.  We can be totally accepting, totally non-judgmental of the beliefs and worship of non-Jews, while at the same time not compromising one iota on its verbotenstatus for Jews.

Next week we will look at how this approach is used in practical halakhic applications, how far it can be extended and what are its limitations.

Happenings at the Yeshiva


The events at the beginning of this week at the yeshiva took place in my absence, as I was participating in a retreat for the Avi Chai Fellows at the Pearlstone Retreat Center, in Maryland.  The students were well served in my absence, however, as on Monday we were once again privileged to have with us Rabbi David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ma'ale Gilboa.  Rabbi Bigman gave a sicha on the thought of Rav Yitzchak Hutner and then a shiur on the Gemara in Shabbat on Chanukkah, analyzing it through the lens of his historical source-critical methodology.   We were also happy to welcome the students of the Maharat Yeshiva, to participate in the sicha and the shiur.

Students continued their regular learning throughout the week.   Those students learning Niddah took their Fall final on Monday and on Tuesday began to study harchakot, the separation practices in effect during the Niddah period.  In my Modern Orthodoxy class, first year students delivered their semester-end presentations, looking a primary text relevant to a Modern Orthodox theme, and analyzing it through a critical lens.  First-year students also spent Tuesday afternoon at the Atria, an assisted living facility, as an in-service clinical day.    As the week draws to a close, students can look to an intense week next week devoted to chazara and preparing for their semester-end finals.  As Niddah students have already taken their final, they will be beginning the study of, and the apprenticeship in, the inspection of marot - a challenging but critically necessary role for any rabbi who will pasken in Niddah.

On a sadder note, the father-in-law of Allison Batalion, our Academic Coordinator, suffered a massive heart-attack last Friday.  He remains in stable but critical condition.  Please keep him - Yaakov Mordechai ben Eta - in your tefilot.  May the Ribono Shel Olam send him a refuah shleima bi'meheira biyamenu.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: 
Click here:  Parshat Vayetze

"Give truth to Yaakov, loving-kindness to Avraham..." (Micah 7:20), the prophet Micha asks of God, and thus, in kabbalistic literature, Avraham comes to represent the attribute of chesed, loving-kindness, while Yaakov represents the attribute of emet, truth.  While it is not at all difficult to see how Avraham is associated with loving-kindness  - witness his welcoming of the angelic guests -  it is quite challenging to see Yaakov as embodying the principle of truth.  Whether in his dealings with Esav - exploiting Esav's weariness to purchase the right of the firstborn, and misrepresenting himself as Esav to his father - or in his dealings with Lavan, and his use of striped rods to affect the coloration of the sheep - Yaakov seems to be a person who is, at times blatantly dishonest, and at times a schemer and certainly a less than trustworthy character.   How can we come to terms with Yaakov's character? Where is the attribute of truth?

Two approaches are possible.  One is to find a way to read the stories so that Yaakov is acting truthfully and faithfully.   The other is to see that Yaakov does not start out as a man of truth, but actually transforms into one.   The first approach is that of Rashi.  The famous Rashi on the verse "I am Esav your firstborn" - "I am the one who is bringing you food, and Esav is your firstborn." - is representative of Rashi's approach throughout these stories.  Thus, in the story of the purchase of the birthright, Rashi tells us that Esav was conceived second and not deserving of the firstborn, the truly deceitful one who was constantly duping his father, a murderer, an idolater, and a glutton.  Such a person was not deserving of the right of the firstborn, and even realized this himself, and thus made a calm, rational decision that Yaakov was the one who truly deserved it.    

The problem with this approach is that while it protects our idealized image of Yaakov, it does violence not only to the pshat of the text, but also to the very principle of emet.  If Yaakov acted correctly, then a person in his or her own life can live by Rashi's principle of "I am / Esav [is] your first born."  One can misrepresent oneself, as long as the words are (somehow) technically true (remember, "It depends what the meaning of the word 'is' is"?).  One can engage in deceitful acts, as long as one is doing it for the right reason, and certainly if the person being deceived is a bad person.   And so we find that Rashi tells us that when Yaakov declared that he was Lavan's "brother", he was saying: "If he is a good person, I will be truthful with him, but if he is a deceitful man, I am his brother [and will match him] in deceit."   This, I believe, is not the lesson that we want to be learning from Yaakov or these stories.

The alternative is to see Yaakov as initially flawed, and more so as someone who grows in the process.  Dr. David Berger has already noted in his wonderful essay, "On the Morality of the Patriarchs in Jewish Polemic and Exegesis," that when the Bible was accepted as God's word, it was Jacob's character - and through him, the character of the Jewish people - that needed to be defended against the Christian critics.  However, once the Bible's divine nature was challenged, and its morality brought into question, commentators protected the Torah's moral integrity by reading the stories, and particularly those in our parsha, as critical of Yaakov.   For us, we can say that our sensitivity to pshat and our desire to protect the value of the principle of truthfulness, also demands such a reading.

Yaakov starts off as deceitful, but then he grows.  How do we see this in our parsha?  Perhaps the first thing to note is that after the opening and powerful scene of the ladder and the angels, the first story of Yaakov in Lavan's country is one which shows Yaakov not as a man of deceit, but as a man with a strong work ethic, who understands the seriousness of one's obligation to his employer.  "And he said, behold the day is still long, it is not yet time to gather in the sheep, water the sheep and return to your shepherding." (Breishit 29:7).   Perhaps, the cynical person will say, Yaakov is good at moralizing to others, but does not himself follow his own teaching.  The end of the parsha shows that the opposite is the case.  "These twenty years that I am with you, your sheep and your goats did not miscarry, and the rams of your flock I did not eat.  A torn animal I never brought to you - I would bear the loss...  By day scorching heat consumed me, and bitter cold at night."  He says all of this to Lavan, knowing that he will not be contradicted, for he was the most trustworthy employee one could ever hope for, going even beyond his legal obligations (see Shemot 22:12).  Yaakov is someone who works hard and faithfully, never taking off time, or helping himself to some office supplies.  How many of us - and in particular those of us who are so quick to criticize his other actions - could say the same thing of ourselves?  In these stories he unquestionably represents honesty and faithfulness, and it is Lavan who "switches his fee a hundred times".

So what about his lying and his deceit in the other stories? I believe that Yaakov's struggle with emet was not when it came to the everyday occurrences, nor even when it came to sacrificing of his time or effort, or even money for the sake of truthfulness.   No.  His struggle with emet was when there were no alternatives, and the thing had to be done.  This was the episode with Yitzchak's blessing, and it is for this that he is punished - and learns his lesson - in the house of Lavan.  For after working seven years for Rachel, he wakes in the morning to discover that he has married Leah.  "This is not the way we act here," says Lavan, "to give the younger one before the older one."  Perhaps, he is saying, that is how you acted back in Canaan, but here we do things right.   Yaakov has been punished measure for measure, and learns that deceit begets deceit.  If one benefits from deceit, then ultimately one will pay the price. Even if there is no alternative, one must do the right thing and trust in God that all will work out for the best.

And this lesson is repeated with the sheep.  Yaakov does not act deceitfully.  As we have seen, it is Lavan who constantly changes the agreement, and it is Yaakov who meets the deceit with uncompromised honesty.  But, with that, he was still scheming.  He tried to rig the results by placing striped rods in front of the sheep when they copulated.  Many people are bothered by this story, because it seems to indicate that the Torah believes that this scheme actually changed the physical characteristics of the sheep.  I believe that the story is telling us the opposite.  For when the angel appears to Yaakov, as we hear in his speech to Rachel and Leah, the angel tells him, "Behold all the he-goats mounting the flocks are ringed, speckled, and checkered, for I have seen all that Lavan is doing to you." (31:12).   The angel was effectively saying: "It is not your trick that did it, it was I - the angel - who was ensuring that the right cross-breeding took place.  It was I that ensured that the outcome would be to your benefit."  And Yaakov learns this lesson, for he tells Lavan at the end, that were it not for God watching over him, he would have been left empty handed.  Not only was the striped rod trick ineffectual, but it would not have done any good regardless, since the terms of the agreement were constantly changing.

In the end, the lesson is clear.  Honesty is not a situational ethic.  If one is a paragon of honesty, then one not only is fully faithful to his employer, is scrupulously honest in day-to-day events, even at the cost of his own time, money, and effort, but one is also honest even when there is much to be lost.  If you engage in dishonesty in such cases, you will get your comeuppance, and regardless, it will often prove ineffectual.  Deceit breeds deceit, and you are just as likely to be the one who is cheated.   One must never compromise his or her honesty, and trust in God that all will turn out for the better.    "Give truth to Yaakov and loving kindness to Avraham as you have sworn to our fathers in the days of old."  If we live up to the highest standard of honesty, the honesty that was given, was taught, to Yaakov, then we will be deserving of the God's loving-kindness, and of God's protection.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah from our Beit Midrash


While a little postponed, I would like to finish up the discussion from two weeks ago on the topic of attitudes towards Christianity, which arose in the daf yomi at the beginning of Bekhorot.  The Talmud (Bekhorot 2b) had stated that a person could not enter into a partnership with a non-Jew, lest the non-Jew have to take an oath, and he would then do so in the name of his god.  The taking of an oath in the name of another god is something that not only a Jew cannot do, but also cannot be the cause of having been done, even by a non-Jew.  The obvious question for the Tosafists then became, how could Jews enter into partnerships with Christians.  Tosafot first notes the possibility that we do not rule according to the statement in the Gemara that partnerships per se are forbidden, as there are cases in other Gemarot which accept Jewish-non-Jewish partnerships.  Nevertheless, Tosafot finds himself pressed to articulate a better answer, since in his day Jews actually would not only enter into partnerships, but would actually demand and accept oaths from non-Jews, which - when done in the name of another god - is unquestionably forbidden.  How, then, was this practice accepted?  Here is Tosafot's answer:

Rabbeinu Tam further explains that nowadays they (Christians) all take oaths in the name of their saints and they don't attribute to them any divinity.  And although they mention the name of God and their intention is to something else (i.e., Jesus), this is not considered the name of a foreign god because their intention is for the Creator of Heaven and Earth.   The And although they "join" (mishtatef) the heavenly name with another thing, there is no prohibition of "before the blind do not place a stumbling block," because Noahides are not prohibited on this issue, and for us (Jews), we have not found that there is a prohibition to bring about such "joining."
(Tosafot, Bekhorot 2b, s.v. Shema).

Let us a dissect this statement.  First, Tosafot points out that Christian oaths which are taken in the name of a saint, are not oaths in the name of another god, as saints are not treated as gods.  But these oaths are not only in the name of saints, but also in the name of God.  (Remember Henry V (Act 3, scene 1):  Follow your spirit, and upon this charge / Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!').   Now, here is the interesting question - when Christians say "God", not Jesus, is this the "name of other gods"?  Tosafot says that it is not, for both (a) they use the same name that we do and (b) it refers to the same Being - the Creator of Heaven and Earth.  Both the symbol (the word "God") and the referent (the Being referred to) are the same.  The exact meaning here - that the referent is not "another god" -  is open to interpretation.  I believe that Tosafot is saying that when Christians say God, rather than Jesus, they are referring to the Christian concept of God the Father, which is totally consistent with the Jewish concept of God.  

Some may argue - although I do not believe this was the intention - that Tosafot is saying that even if they are referring to the Trinity as a whole, or to any part of it, since this concept includes the idea of God who is the Creator of Heaven and Earth, it is not considered the name of another god.  This reading would seem to come very close to saying that Christianity is not avoda zara - if it is the same God, how could it be avoda zara?  However, Tosafot consistently and unambiguously asserts that Christianity is avoda zara.   What, then, about the above statement?  There are two possible explanations.  Either that Christianity is avoda zara not because their concept of God is different (which it is, but, according to this approach, not sufficiently so) but rather because their worship uses images.  If this were the case, then strands of Christianity that developed after Tosafot, in particular Protestantism, which does not use images, would not be avoda zara!  An alternative explanation is that while their concept of God is, indeed,  "another god" (because of the belief in incarnation and the Trinity), nevertheless, taking an oath in the name "God" while referring to  any part of the Trinity, is not "swearing in the name of another God" since the symbol is the same and the referent is close enough.  Thus they symbol, the word "God" cannot be said to be the name of another god, although that is, in fact, what the Trinity is.

As previously stated, if Tosafot is specifically referring to the Christian concept of God the Father, then the theological implications of the statement are much narrower.  Nevertheless, this first statement in significant in that - in the middle of the Tosafists halakhic world in which Christianity was defined as avoda zara -  there is an assertion to the overlap of the Christian idea of God and the Jewish idea of God.  However, what has not been stated is that Christianity is not considered avoda zara.  For this we must turn to the last statement of Tosafot - what it means and how it has been interpreted.

Tosafot, after addressing the concern with the "name of other gods", turns to the problem ofmishtatef, of joining God with something else.   What is this problem to which he refers?   Here Tosafot is referring to the statement in Sanhedrin (83a) about the worship of the Golden Calf:

There are those who say, that were it not for the vav (which pluralizes) in '[these are your gods, Israel, who have brought thee up', the people of Israel would have deserved extermination [for the worship of the Calf.  But the vav indicated that they were worshipping the Calf together with God].  Thereupon R. Shimon ben Yochai remarked; But whoever  combines (mishtatef) the Heavenly Name with anything else is utterly destroyed [lit., 'eradicated from the world'], for it is written, He that sacrifices unto any god, save unto the Lord alone, he shall be utterly destroyed (Shemot 22:19).

Here the issue is worshipping another being together with God, which, according to Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai's statement, does not stop the act from being avoda zara.   However, there is another context of this statement, which is not about worship, but about verbal praise:

[When the people, on Hoshana Rabbah, departed from their procession around the altar, they would say, according to R. Eliezer, "To God and to you, oh Altar, (we praise).] But does not one thereby associate (mishtatef) the name of God with something else?  And it has been taught, Whosoever associates the name of God with something else is uprooted from the world, as it is said, Save unto the Lord alone? -Rather, what they said was: To God we give thanks, and to you, the Altar, we praise".  [Thus praising them separately]
(Sukkah 45b).

Here the concern is much broader - God cannot be joined with any other thing or being, even in an act of praise.  Rambam (Laws of Oaths 11:2) thus uses this extended concept to prohibit taking an oath in the name of God combined with any other thing or being, "for there is no being to whom it is appropriate to show the respect of taking an oath in its name, save for the One, blessed be He."   The midrash, in fact, uses this application to explain a verse in this week's parsha:

"And Yaakov took an oath in the name of the Fear of his father, Yitzchak" (Breishit 30:53) - so as not to mention any part of what Lavan said (for Lavan had mentioned the name of Avraham's God, which was holy and the name of Nachor's god, which was profane).  This was so he would not combine, lishatef, the profane with the holy.
(Psikta Rabbati, 31)

The issue, then, of Tosafot's understanding and use of the scope of the prohibition against "joining",mishtatef, God with other beings, is critical.  Read narrowly, it seems that Tosafot is only raising the question of the local problem of taking an oath.   Although - Tosafot is saying - we have demonstrated that the oath that Christians take is in the name of God and in the name of saints, neither of which are other gods, is there not a problem that a Jew is causing a Christian to take an oath by combining the name of God with the name of a saint?  Isn't this prohibited?  To this, Tosafot answers, that this problem of combining, shituf, God and another being in an oath, is only a problem for Jews, not for non-Jews.  And there is no prohibition for a Jew to cause a non-Jew to take such an oath.  Read this way, Tosafot has only solved the problem of oaths, but has not made a statement with larger implications for the halakhic understanding of Christianity.

However, we have seen that the problem of shituf also extends to worshipping God with other beings.  If this is Tosafot's meaning, then his answer - that non-Jews are not prohibited against shituf, has profound implications for the halakhic status of Christianity.  While it seems quite clear, from the context and the wording, that Tosafot's meaning was the narrower oath context, his statement was read to refer to the broader, worship context.    Next week we will continue to explore this issue, and see how this latter (historically incorrect) reading of Tosafot changed the way that halakha dealt - and deals! - with Christianity.