Friday, May 20, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

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Click here: Parshat Bechukotai

Parshat Bechukotai - A Relationship Strained, but Not Broken

The book of Vayikra culminates this week with the "blessings and the curses," the rewards that are to be the consequence of keeping the laws and commandments, and the punishments that will result from for breaking them.   This section, coming as it does at the end of the book of Vayikra, is clearly intended as a coda for what has preceded it, it is the penalty clause of the brit at Mount Sinai.
Thus, parshat Behar opens with the framing of Mount Sinai (Vayikra 25:1).  And our parsha closes with the same framing(Vayikra 26:46; 27:34).  

As a closing to the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, our parsha can be seen as the final clause of the brit.   First, there are the terms of the contact, the responsibilities of one party to the other.  These terms are spelled out clearly in the book of Shemot: the Ten Commandments and all the laws that follow in Mishpatim.  All the do's and don'ts, the mitzvot and the laws, are the specific terms of the covenant, the way in which the brit and the relationship is translated in practical, day-to-day terms.   And after the terms of the contact comes the penalty clause, comes the blessings and, more significantly, the curses.  Bechukotai, then, is the natural culmination of the brit at Sinai.

But if it is such a natural culmination, why is it only coming at the end of the Book of Vayikra?  Why did it not close the parsha of Mishpatim?  

The best explanation of this is that a profound rupture occurred between the end of Parshat Mishpatim and the book of Vayikra.  That rupture was the sin of the Golden Calf.  Until that sin, the Torah could hope that the covenant in itself would suffice.   Not every contract needs a penalty clause.   While violating the terms of a contract will - or can - have its consequences, they need not be spelled out in the contract itself.  God could have reasonably hoped that the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, of those who first had this brit with God, would be committed to the brit for its own sake.  God could have reasonably hoped that a people whom God had just been freed from bondage would understand what it means to be in  a covenant with God.  But, of course, the people failed God, and at the first opportunity violated the covenant, and compromised and challenged the very relationship. 

God realizes that this is a stiff-necked people.  God (as it were) realizes that this is a people that need the positive and negative reinforcement of the blessings and the curses, that need to penalty clause, in order to stay committed to the terms of the contract.    But the shift in the relationship is more profound than that.  Because what happens after the Golden Calf is that the relationship learns to survive even times of violation and profound strain.   As those of us who are parents know well, we can wish that our children would do what is right because it is right, but human nature being what it is, punishments (however labeled) are a necessary form of parenting.  And they are just that - a form of parenting - an expression of love and concern, an expression of commitment to the relationship.   If we did not care, we would not punish.  And if the relationship could not survive disobedience and misbehavior, if a parent would (God forbid) walk away from a troublesome child, then punishment would be unnecessary.  

God's initial high expectations of us also meant that when we failed God, God was ready to give up on us.    God was prepared to drop us and to walk away from the relationship: "And now, leave me, and My anger will kindle against them and I will destroy them, and I will make you - Moshe - into a great nation"  (Shemot 32:10).   Even when God relents, and agrees to not destroy the people, and to stay in the relationship, God does not want to get too close.  God is looking for a long-distance relationship: "And I will send an angel before you... for I cannot go up in your midst, because you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way" (Shemot 33:3).  It is only after Moshe's importuning that God again agrees to resume the relationship as before: "And God said, my Presence will go [among you] and I will give you rest." (Shemot 33:14).   God renews the covenant (Shemot 34:11-26) and appends to it the penalty clause the is parshat Bechukotai.

The renewal of the covenant, the reaffirmation of the relationship, is the key turning point.  It is at this moment that God declares that God will not give up on the relationship, that God will keep God's Presence among us even when we violate the covenant.  God will not walk out on us.  But then how to deal with our imperfect humanity?  How to deal with the fact that we will fail God, that we will not always live up to the covenant?  The answer is the blessings and the curses.  He will deal with our misbehavior by parenting us when necessary.  God accepts that we are less than perfect, accounts for it, gives us positive and negative reinforcement, and is prepared to deal with our transgressions and failures, and stay committed to the relationship all at the same time.

Why, then, the gap between the reaffirmation of the covenant and our parsha?  How does the entire book of Vayikra factor into this structure?  The answer is that if one, as a parent, really cares then it is not all about rewards and punishments.  Good parenting also means good education, and it means setting up systems that are reinforcing and the cultivate growth and success.  The entire book of Vayikra is devoted to setting up just such systems.  It is devoted to setting up a system of kedusha, holiness, in the Temple and, as we saw last week, a parallel and reinforcing system of kedusha in the camp.    It is these systems of kedusha that will reorient our lives and our society so that we will be focused on God, and be able to truly abide by the covenant.

However, sometimes even these very systems are themselves threatened.  But God, committed to the relationship, has given us ways to protect and, if necessary, restore these systems.  When the sins of the nation threaten the sanctity of the Temple, we are given the rites of Yom Kippur to cleanse the Temple from its impurity.   God has made this possible, because, after the Golden Calf, God has agreed that the Temple will "dwell amongst them, [even] together with their impurity." (Vayikra 16:16).  The Temple can survive the tumah of the nation.

In contrast, when the kedusha of the camp is threatened, the situation is much more severe.   Here we are no longer talking about ritual sins and ritual tumah, here we are talking about true corruption of society, a profound leaving of God and of God's ways.  And this becomes intolerable when what is threatened is the very system of kedusha, the Sabbatical year and its profound restructuring of society to be one with God at its center.

For this, no ritual, no Temple rites, can provide a solution.  The punishments can hopefully serve their purpose and turn people back to the right path, but when they don't the only solution is to remove the people from the place of kedusha.  The solution is exile.   The cleansing of the land, in contrast to that of the Temple, requires first removing the people from the land, and then allowing the land to "rest its Shabbats [Seventh Years]... which it did not rest when you were dwelling on it."  (Vayikra 26:34-35).  Through the lessons of exile the people will hopefully learn the profound nature of their sin, and can hopefully return to the land, and once again attempt to live on it with full respect for the structures of kedusha that are central to the living and maintaining the brit.

Whenever the supporting systems of the brit, whenever the systems of kedusha, are trespassed whether it is the sanctity of the Temple or the Sabbatical years of the camp that is violated,  the relationship will still survive.  That is what, ever since the sin of the Golden Calf, has been God's commitment to the Jewish People.  God is with us through thick and thin.   Even at times when we could no longer live on God's land, when we failed to build a nation on the principles of kedusha, God remained - and remains - committed to us.  "And even with all of this - when they are in the land of their enemies, I have not despised them or rejected them, to destroy them, to nullify my covenant with them, because I am the Lord their God."   We have come a long way from the sin of the Calf.  Our relationship can survive moments of strain, even severe strain, and it will go on.  And even when a drastic response is necessary, the relationship will survive, because the covenant is forever, because God will always remain our God, committed to a never-to-be-broken relationship with the Jewish People.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

The Mishna (Menachot 70a) lists the five species of grain.  These species are of central importance in many halakhot.  Only bread made from these species of grains is considered bread, and gets the brakha of hamotzi.  Only matzah made from these grains is considered matzah, and can be used on the seder night.  One only takes challah from bread made from these grains and no others.   And it is only these grains which are forbidden prior to the bringing of the omer.

As the Gemara (70b) explains, the key principle here is fermentation.  Only these grains ferment, and therefore only they can become chametz.  Therefore, it is only dough from these grains which is forbidden, Biblically, on Pesach.  The ability of the dough to become chametz, to leaven, is seen by the Rabbis as key to defining the product as bread, or even as bread's counterpart, matzah.  Thus, in any halakha where the status of bread is significant, these grains will be the ones that matter.

Which grains, then, are we talking about?  The Mishna lists five: wheat, barley, kusmin, shibolet shual, and shifon.  These last three are generally translated as spelt, oats, and rye. However, for halakhic purposes, we need to be certain that these correct identifications.  While the Gemara gives the Aramaic names for these three, these names are no more helpful than the Hebrew ones.
When it comes to shifon, Rashi translates this as sigala, which refers most likely to secale cereale, or rye.  However, rye was unknown in the Land of Israel, and cannot be the right identification.  Dr Yehudah Felix, author of "Flora and Fauna in the Talmud" (Hebrew), and many other scholarly works on ancient agriculture, concludes that shifon is Triticum spelta, or spelt, which is also the Arukh's definition.   This is consistent with the fact that the braitta in the Gemara refers to shifon as a type of barley, and spelt has many characteristics which are similar to barley.

When it comes to kusmin, the Gemara translates this as gulba, which Rashi then translates as aspelta, which is spelt.  However, given the above, this cannot be the right identification.  Dr. Felix's conclusion is that kusmin is the same as kusemet, which is Triticum dicoccum, or emmer wheat (faro) which was in use in the land of Israel even before the First Temple period.  This wheat was one of earliest cultivated forms of wheat, and this identification is consistent with the braitta which identifies kusmin as a form of wheat.

So we now have spelt and faro, but no rye.  What about the third of these? Is shibolet shual truly oats, as is the common identification.  Here the Gemara is not of any help, as the Gemara merely translates shibolet shual directly into Aramaic, as "fox stalk."  Rashi, however, identifies it as avina, which is Avena sativa, or oats.  This identification is problematic, however, because oats have no gluten.  Remember that the Gemara stated that the key characteristic of these grains were their ability to become leaven.  Rice and millet were excluded because they did not create leaven, and this is presumably because they have no gluten.   Another reason to question this identification is that while some scholars do believe that oats grew in the Land of Israel in ancient times, almost all the evidence indicates that they did not.  

What, then, is shibolet shual?  Some scholars have suggested that it with sorghum.  This is most likely incorrect, because it has no similarity to barley, the crop that it is considered by the braitta to be a sub-species of.  Dr. Felix concludes that it is Hordeum distichum, a type of a two-row barley, as distinct from se'orim, which is a six-row barley.

So, where does all that leave us?  According to this scholarship, the five species are: wheat, six-row barley, emmer wheat, two-row barley, and spelt.

Those interested in Dr. Felix's analysis of these grains, can see the selection from his commentary to Mishna Kilayim, from his book "Mixture of Seeds and Grafting" (Hebrew), on my Daf Yomi Blog under the Resources section.

Now, does this scholarship have any significance as far as halakha is concerned?  This is not a trivial question since for people who have Celiac disease and are gluten-intolerant, the inclusion of oats as one of the five grains is of utmost importance.  Since oats has no gluten - which was one reason to suspect their inclusion in the first place - their inclusion in the list allows gluten-intolerant people to have bread for hamotzi and to eat matzah on the seder night.  Remember, that it was Rashi who identified shibolet shu'al as oats, and this identification was repeated by many Rishonim.  We thus have a prime example of when science and halakha collide.  Which do we follow?  The traditional identification, or the one that scholars have concluded is the original and accurate identification?

A wonderful story illustrating this tension, exactly on our topic, is found on Hebrew Wikipedia under the topic chameshet minei dagan.  Here is the story:

Professor Felix relates that on the basis of his identification, Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, ztz"l, used to make the brakha of shehakol on his morning breakfast of oatmeal.  He did this for two years until Rav Shalom Elyashiv yelled at him with the critique that one cannot change what has been the Jewish custom for hundreds of years, going back to the time of the Rishonim, just because of one scholar['s findings].

This conclusion actually reflects the basic way that halakha operates.  While new information can be integrated and can lead to reassessment, nevertheless, there is a canonization process of certain works (e.g., the Babylonian Talmud) and certain interpretations (e.g., those of the Rishonim), which weigh the most heavily in halakha.  In the end, the halakhic truth may diverge from the historical or scientific truth.   Nevertheless, halakha is what books, authorities, and interpretations have been accepted as binding by the Jewish people committed to halakha.   When conflicts between halakha and science or experience become blatant and incontrovertible, greater reassessment might take place.  That is a discussion for another time.

In closing, it is interesting to compare the methodological issues raised here with those raised in our recent post on my daf blog on the prohibition of chadash.  There, too, an objective analysis of the sources would lead to the conclusion that chadash is forbidden out of the Land of Israel and that we have to be scrupulous about it even today.  Nevertheless, because it had been the practice for hundreds of years in Ashkenaz to not attend to the concerns of chadash, the poskim found various ways to justify the practice.  There, as well as here, how halakha is lived, and the lived traditions around halakha, have ultimately more weight than the most technically accurate read of the sources.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This week, as the penultimate week of the year, is one that we often use for special programming prior to students' immersing themselves in chazara and test-taking during the final week.  Beit Midrash, first- and second-year students wrapped up their Shabbat learning during the first half of the week.  For the second half of the week, they were treated to two days of classes and chavruta-learning on the topic of Emunah and Contemporary Faith Challenges, taught be Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Rabbi of the UCLA Hillel for the last 36 years.  Rabbi Seidler-Feller focused specifically on questions and challenges that young people on campus are struggling with, and students learned sources ranging from Rambam to Chassidut to think through and grapple with these issues.   The learning was a great opportunity not only to prepare our students as future rabbis, but also to help them develop their own hashkafa in a nuanced and sophisticated manner.

Third- and fourth-year students devoted the week to an intensive Leadership Training Seminar, taught by Dr. Bill Kahn and Rabbi Terry Bookman of Eitzah .  Eitzah trains our students to develop the personal leadership skills, leadership teams, and leadership structures necessary to create vibrant congregations in which decisions are made, healthy conflicts are resolved, and organizational transitions are dealt with effectively.  Bill and Terry have been running these seminars for our students for over half-a-decade, and students have found them transformative in preparing them to take on the mantle of leadership when they become rabbis.    This year's seminar was another big success, and our fourth year students - who will become rabbis in just two weeks! - were eager to get into the field and start using their newly-developed skills.

Off-site of the yeshiva, I attended the International Rabbinic Fellowship conference which took place on Tuesday and Wednesday.   The IRF is a body of over 100 rabbis whose mission is to bring together Orthodox Rabbis for serious study of Torah and Halakha, for open and respectful discussion, and to advocate policies and implement actions on behalf of world Jewry and humankind.  One of its particularly distinctive core values is the right, responsibility and autonomy of individual rabbis to decide matters of halakha for their communities, a value that has been the mainstay of Torah Judaism for over 1,500 years, but which is unfortunately being increasingly challenged these days. 

The conference was a wonderful opportunity to share learning, conversation, and challenges with other rabbis.  One particularly moving session was on the topic of the imperative to screen for all Jewish genetic diseases, as we heard from a father who had been screened for the most common 9 diseases, and who had a baby girl with a terrible disease that was lower down on the  need-to-screen list.   The Board of Directors, in a meeting held on the following day, adopted a resolution, which will be publicized in the near future, to ensure that its rabbis would work to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future.   Another critical session was on the adopting of standards for gerut for our rabbis.  These standards, which were a model of a balance of rigor and moderation, were presented by the Va'ad Ha'Giyur and were adopted unanimously by the membership.  We believe that these will provide helpful guidance to the IRF rabbis, and will provide a healthy structure for conversion.