Friday, January 14, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

"And they Believed in God and in Moshe, God's Servant"

A dominant theme is Parsha Beshalach is that of emunah, belief - having it and losing it.   That the Children of Israel should believe in God after witnessing the miracles and plagues in Egypt is to be expected.  What is more of a question is how long that belief will last - will they continue to believe even when they are not experiencing miracles, and even when they are beset with hardship?   As one story after another of their wanderings in the desert make clear, the ability to sustain belief was a chronic challenge for the Children of Israel, one they failed in time and time again.

The faltering begins at the beginning of our parsha.    One minute they are leaving Egypt "with an outstretched arm" (Shemot 14:9), and the next minute, when Pharaoh and his troops draw near, "They said to Moshe, 'Are there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us out to die in the Wilderness?'."  What is the reason for such a quick loss of faith?  Did they no longer believe that God exists?  Did they no longer believe that God could make miracles?  While we can acknowledge that this generation were complainers and had a slave mentality,  this seems insufficient as an answer to this question - even for such people, how could belief be lost so quickly?

In answer to this, it is important to distinguish between two types of belief: 'belief that' and 'belief in'.  To 'believe that' is to believe or accept that a certain statement is true; to 'believe in' is to have trust in a person, and to believe in that person's trustworthiness.  I believe that the world is round, not in the world being round.  A child believes in her father - this is not the assertion of some fact about him that is true, it is that she trusts her father, she knows that her father will always be there for her, and she trusts that he will protect her.  

The word emunah can refer to either of these two meanings, and this is reflected by two parallel words - amen and o-men (spelled aleph-vav-mem-nun).  Amen is a word uttered to indicated agreement and concurrence with a statement or sentiment.   It is to assert something as true.  O-men is to nurture and raise, and an omanet is a nursemaid.  The emunah that is connected to amen is a belief that, the emunah that is connected to o-manet is a belief in.   The first form of belief is intellectual and connects to the mind, the second is emotional and relational, and connects to the heart.

What type of belief, of emunah, is our parsha most concerned with? The Children of Israel, recovering from their earlier faltering, see God's power at the Splitting of the Sea, "believed in God and in Moshe, God's servant" - was this a belief in or was this a belief that?  Is the Torah telling us that they trusted God and Moshe, or is it telling us that they believed that God existed and that Moshe was God's prophet?

Rambam, in his famous discussion in chapter 8 of his Yisodei HaTorah, Fundamentals of the Torah, his first book in Mishne Torah, asserts that the Torah is concerned with our belief that, or belief that God exists, and that Moshe is God's true prophet.  Rambam in concerned with the question of how we can know, as an absolute certainty, that Moshe was communicating the direct word of God.  Rambam's answer to this is that it was not due to the signs and miracles, because "one who believes due to signs and miracles, always has some doubt in his heart, for perhaps the sign was done through some trickery." (Yisodei HaTorah 8:1).   Thus, says Rambam, when God says to Moshe that Bnei Yisrael will believe because of the signs that Moshe will do (cf. Shemot 3:11-4:9), Moshe was troubled that this would not lead to firm belief, and thus God told Moshe that that would come when the Torah was given at Sinai, and everyone saw with his and her own eyes that God gave the Torah and spoke directly to Moshe.  

For Rambam, the philosopher and the one who authored the list of the Thirteen Principles of Faith, what was and is of central importance is that the Jewish People believe that certain propositions about God and Moshe are true.  Thus, Rambam also begins this book, indeed the entire Mishne Torah, by stating that it is a mitzvah to know that God exists.  What is key is what we intellectually assert, and - better yet - what we know as fact.

This emunah, however, is not the type of belief that our parsha is concerned with.  There is, in fact, a way to tell what type of emunah we are talking about.  Just as the divergent meanings of belief in and belief that are marked in English by the use of different prepositions, so is the case in Hebrew.  Li'ha'amin or li'ha'amin li… is to believe that, li'ha'amin b…is to believe in.  When, in Parshat Shemot, God tells Moshe to do signs so that the people will believe that God has sent him, the Torah says, "v'ya'aminu ki" - and they will believe that [God has appeared to you], and "im lo ya'aminu lakh," if they don't believe you (that what you are saying is true), then "v'he'eminu li'kol ha'ot ha'acharon" - they will believe the evidence of the last sign (Shemot 4:5, 8).    These are all to prove that something is true, that God has sent Moshe to redeem the Children of Israel.  This is the specific concern at the beginning of the Exodus.  This, however, is not the abiding concern of the Torah.

The abiding concern of the Torah is a belief inV'he'eminu ba'Hashem u'vi'Moshe avdo," - and they believed in God, and in Moshe, God's servant.  The experience at the Splitting of the Sea was imbued in them a faith in God, they knew that God would always be there for them, they knew that God was there to care for them.  They knew that they were protected by God, and protected by Moshe.  It was the faith of a relationship, not the belief in a fact.   Let us not forget that when they lose faith, it is often a questioning of God's or Moshe's trustworthiness - "And they said to Moshe, 'Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the Wilderness."  What they lacked was a full placing of trust in God, a full placing of trust in Moshe.  This is what they achieved at the Splitting of the Sea.

This also explains a troubling verse that appears before the Splitting of the Sea.  As Pharaoh and his troops are drawing near, God says to Moshe, "Why do you cry out to me, speak to Bnei Yisrael and travel forth." (Shemot 14:15).  Why is Moshe being castigated for crying out to God?  Isn't that what one does when one is in trouble?  The answer is, that since God had promised that God would redeem them from Egypt, to cry out is to lack faith in God.  By crying out to God, Moshe signaled - in contrast to his firm assurances 2 verses earlier - a certain doubt as to whether they would be saved.  To fully believe in God, to fully trust God, would be to know that God will protect you.  You can ask God what to do, but there is no need to cry out.  It is for this reason that the Rabbis say that when Moshe was unnecessarily extending his prayer, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped in and caused the waters to split (Sotah 37a).  While Moshe's actions could be interpreted as a lack of full trust in God's promise, Nachshon acted in a way that showed complete  and uncompromising faith in God.  He trusted God, and he could take this leap of faith.

This helps us understand how the People's faith readily faltered.  As opposed to belief that a fact is true, which should persists once proven, belief in a person, or in God, trust in a relationship, even trusting God, is something that is built over time.  Although God had shown God's might in Egypt, could the People really believe in God in the future?  Would God be there for them at all times?  This type of belief, this trust, is something that gets cemented only when it is validated time and again.   That is how relationships work, and that is how the People's belief in God worked.

What the Torah is primarily concerned with is not that we assert certain principles as true.  The Torah's concern is that we listen to God and that we believe in God.  That we have a strong relationship in God, and that we trust that God will always be there for us.  Sadly, much of our community focuses on Rambam's belief that, and ignores the importance of belief in.  While Judaism undoubtedly has principles of faith, we cannot call ourselves truly religious if all we do is follow halakha and assert our faith principles.  Religiosity, as opposed to observance, requires an ongoing relationship with God, a trust in God.  This lived relationship, this trust, can be fragile, especially at a time when God is not performing regular miracles, and we are still living in the shadow of the Holocaust.  It is a relationship that has been built over time - over thousands of years, but one that also needs regular nurturing.

According to Ramban, we may not be commanded to believe that God exists (he notes that the first of the Ten Commandments is phrased as a statement, not an imperative), but we are commanded to remember and not to forget the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai.  To remember the events - drawing on our collective, not individual memory - is quite different from Rambam's approach, to believe in  the faith principles that we learned from these events.   To remember the events is to relive them, is to draw on the experiences, is to strengthen our relationship with God, to strengthen our trust in God.

Let us - as individuals, as parents, and as a community, work to cultivate and nurture our relationship with God, work to develop our belief in God.  Let us try to connect to those past experiences, our collective memory of the Giving of the Torah, of God's protective presence throughout history, that will nurture this belief.  And let us work to identify, to notice, those moments in our own lives which allow us to feel God's presence, and go back to them again and again, so that we may truly be able to trust in God, to believe in God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Brain Death and Organ Donation

There has been much discussion in the Orthodox community recently around the issue of brain-stem death and organ donation, and last week I authored a statement in strong support of the brain death definition and of the mitzvah to donate organs upon death.   

As of now, the statement has been signed by over 100 rabbis, including some of the most prominent ones in the Modern Orthodox community.  Signers include: Rabbi Avi Weiss, Rav Yuval Cherlow, Rav Benny Lau, Rav Yehuda Gilad, Rav Dovid Bigman, Rav Yoel Bin Nun, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi Binyamin Walfish (past Executive Director of the RCA), Rabbi Herzl Hefter, Rabbi Yosef Adler, Rabbi Joel Tessler, Rabbi Mayer Lichtenstein and Rabbi Tully Harcsztak.

Thankfully, we have received a good deal of press, which will hopefully do some good in shaping the public perception of the permissibility and mitzvah of organ donation. See the articles in:

Please urge your local rabbi and other rabbis that you know to consider signing on as well.  They just need to send an email to with their name and location (and affiliation, if they desire).  You can be part of this important effort to change the community's perception and to help save lives!

Torah from Our Beit Midrash

Brain Death and Organ Donation
While we did not learn the topic of brain death and organ donation in our beit midrash this week, it was certainly the topic of the week, and it is worth laying out what the halakhic debate around organ donation is all about.

It is unquestionably a mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, saving of life, to give organs after one's death.  There are times where up to 8 lives can be saved with the organs from one body.  While a person does not fulfill mitzvot after death, signing an organ donor card, or a living will is a mitzvah in that it is an act that will lead to the giving of life to others.

When some rabbis come out against organ donation, it is not the mitzvah of organ donation per se that at is under debate.  It is the issue of when the organs are taken from the body.  Organ donors are usually people who die under tragic circumstances, where the body is still healthy, although the person has suffered a fatal injury, such as a gunshot to the head or a stroke.   These injuries can destroy the brain or cause it to cease to function.   A person will be declared brain dead only when her upper brain (which controls consciousness and the like) and brain-stem (which controls breathing) have ceased to function.  In these cases there is no possibility that the person will regain consciousness, and because the brain-stem has ceased to function, the person will also stop breathing.  Nevertheless, because the heart has an internal pace-maker, it will continue to beat for a few hours after breathing has stopped.  Without artificial intervention, the lack of oxygen will eventually lead to the heart to stop beating, even on its own, and the person will have suffered pulmonary and cardiac death.

In the past, then, there was no need to precisely define the moment of death.  Brain death would automatically lead to the cessation of breathing, which would then lead to the cessation of circulation a few hours later.  However, nowadays, it is critical to define the exact moment of death for two reasons - we have artificial respirators, and we have the possibility of organ donation.  Artificial respirators allow for a person's lungs to continue to bring oxygen into the body - and the heart - even after brain-stem death.  And the possibility of organ donation hinges on when the moment of death is defined.  If it is defined when brain-stem death occurs, the organs can be removed after the body is taken off the respirator, and they will be in a healthy state.  If, however, death is defined as the moment that the heart stops beating, then in those hours between the removal of the respirator and the cessation of the heart-beat the organs will become oxygen-deprived and will no longer be usable for transplantation.

At what moment, then, does halakha define to be the moment of death?   One gemara, Yoma 85a, seems to address this question directly.  The Gemara discusses a person who is underneath a collapsed building and may still be alive.  In such a case, we can remove the rubble, even on Shabbat, because we may be able to save this person.   What happens, the Gemara asks, if when we uncover the person his entire body is crushed?  How are we to know whether he is still alive -and we must continue to save him - or whether he is definitely dead, and we should stop our salvage effort, because it would be a violation of Shabbat?  The Gemara brings a Tannaitic debate on this issue, where the first, anonymous opinion states that we check the nose, and "others" state that we check the heart.   This would seem to be the debate between defining life based on breathing or based on circulation.  However, it is questionable whether the position of "the heart" is speaking about circulation.  The best place to test for circulation is not the heart, but the wrist, and it is possible that the Gemara means to test breathing by the rising and falling of the chest.  More to the point, many Rishonim have the text as "the navel" and not "the heart" and this is much more consistent with the following Gemara.

Regardless of how this position of "others" is understood, in the continuing discussion the Gemara clearly favors the opinion that says the nose, stating that all would agree that checking the nose suffices.   In halakha, both Rambam (Shabbat 2:19) and Shulkhan Arukh (OH 329:4) state that we determine life base on whether there is breath coming from the person's nose.    And throughout history Jews have always tested for life or death by placing a feather under a person's nose to see if she was still breathing.

If, then, the definition of death is cessation of autonomous breathing, why do some poskim require cessation of circulation?  This is really a new criterion, and it was first introduced when the larger world recognized and used circulation as a sign of life.  How was this made consistent with the Gemara?  Either by emphasizing the rejected opinion that (possibly) states "heart," or by saying that breathing was not the definition of life, only a sign of life, and that the actual definition was circulation.  And, until very recently, this issue was academic, as cessation of blood flow occurred soon after cessation of breathing, and very little was at stake in pinpointing death more precisely.

Now, of course, this question is of critical importance.  It should thus be clear that if one were to use the traditional halakhic definition of autonomous breathing, that brain-stem death would constitute halakhic death, because the person can no longer breath on her own.  Those who want to use circulation as the definition are introducing a new criteria into halakha.  They may do so by claiming that breathing is only a sign of life, not the definition, but if so, there is no evidence that the definition is circulation.  The definition of life - if we are coming up with new definitions - could just as easily be the functioning of the brain.

Thus, brain-stem death, with the focus on cessation of autonomous breathing, is the traditional definition of halakhic death.  And, brain-stem death as an new, independent definition of death, makes at least as much sense, if not more, than using the cessation of circulation as the definition.  First - there is possible Talmudic support for brain-stem death as a per se definition: the famous Gemara that a decapitated animal is considered to be dead, although there a number of questions about how relevant that Gemara is.    Secondly, I believe that for many of us, it is intuitively obvious that if a person's brain has ceased to function and there is no possibility of recovery, and that the person is not breathing, and the heart is beating only because of its internal mechanism, that it does not make sense to call the person alive.  His heart may still be functioning, as it winds down, like a fan that has been shut off and is petering out, by why should the circulation of blood on its own define life?   I am not saying that this is the only possible definition, but once we are treating breathing as a sign, and not as the definition, brain-stem death is a more reasonable of a definition of death than circulatory death is.

I, thus, am a strong proponent of the brain-stem death as the halakhic definition of death.  This definition not only allows for a person who has suffered brain-stem death to be taken off of a respirator, but also allows for a person to donate her organs to be used after brain-stem / respiratory death.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Our Spring zman started this week, with the Yoreh Deah students beginning to learn Basar BiChalav, and focusing this week on the definitions of cooking and the relationship between the prohibitions of cooking, eating, and deriving benefit.  The Shabbat students turned to the topic of amirah li'goy, of asking a non-Jew to do melakha for you on Shabbat.

We also hosted a Meorot program for college students.  Although we only had a small group - 6 students - it was a huge success, with these students learning in our beit midrash, hearing shiurim from the rebbeim, and lectures from guest speakers.   We believe that this will continue to be a successful program in years to come and a wonderful way of inspiring young people to enter the rabbinate and fields of Jewish leadership. 

Finally, late Thursday afternoon, a group of HUC rabbinical students visited the yeshiva, together with Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman and Rabbi Kim Geringer.   Our students met with the group for a stimulating discussion around what they share and how they differ as rabbinical students and as future rabbis.   Every remarked on what a powerful event it was, and many students stayed an hour after the end of the day to continue the conversations.