Friday, October 28, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

It is just a few hundred years since the world has been created, and everything has gone to pot.   When the world was freshly minted and created, we heard the refrain with each act of creation, "And God saw that it was good," and that the world as a whole was "exceedingly good."  Now, humans have come and made a mess of everything, and a different refrain is heard: "And God saw that "massive was the evil of man on the earth, and all the thoughts of his heart were only evil the entire day." (Breishit 6:5).  How did we get to this stage?  How did man bring evil - in his heart and in his actions - to the earth that God had made.  Undoubtedly, this is the result of eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Man now knows evil, and as a result, evil has entered into the world.  So God starts again.  God wipes out the entire world and preserves only Noach, hoping that this time humans will choose the good.  All of this, because of the tree.

What was the knowledge that the tree imparted and how did it introduce evil into the world?  There are those that say that the eating from the tree gave humans free choice, gave them the ability to choose between good and evil.  But if this is the case, if they did not have this ability prior, how could they have chosen to eat from the tree, and how could they have been held accountable?  A more satisfying explanation is the one offered by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and, more recently, the philosopher Michael Wyschograd.   Rav Hirsch explains that the tree did not give them the ability to choose, it gave them the ability to know, that is, to judge.  Until they ate from the tree, they only knew of God's definition of right and wrong.  They could violate God's commandment, but with the clear knowledge that they were doing something wrong. 

We, of course, all the time make choices that we know are wrong.  Cheating on our diet, speaking lashon hara, and the like.  These bad choices come from weakness of will what Greek philosophy terms akrasiaThis is the source of much wrongdoing.  But it is not the only source.   For when humans ate from the tree, they began, for themselves, to determine what is good and what is bad.  The gained not moral choice, but moral judgment, an ethical sensibility.   Now, not only could they choose to disobey, but they might also decide that what God has determined to be bad is, in their eyes, good.  They could do the wrong, thinking that it was good. 

The Biblical verses bear out this interpretation.  We are told, not only by the snake, but by God as well, that the tree will make the humans "like God."  What is it that we know about God so far in the narrative?  We know that God creates.  We also know that God assesses and makes judgments.  "And God saw that it was good."  And what do we hear as soon as the woman chooses to eat from the tree, "And the woman saw that it was good..." (Breishit 3:6).  The tree has made them like God.  Man and woman will from this day forward see, for themselves, whether something is good or evil.  They will make their own moral decisions.

And what is wrong with that?  According to Hirsch, what is wrong is that the moral decisions of humans will, oftentimes, be incorrect.  We are not omniscient.  We have our own drives, lusts, and self-interest.  What about the tree did the woman see that was good?  She saw "that it was good for eating, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and desirous for gaining wisdom."   It is good from a self-interested perspective, from a perspective of satisfying desires, but not from a moral perspective.   For Hirsch, the problem is that we might decide that something is good, when it is, in fact, bad. 

Wyschograd goes one step further.  He states that even were we to judge correctly, there is a sin in making the judgment ourselves, in being independent moral agents.  If we are to be in a truly faithful relationship with God, then only God should define what is good and what is bad.  To judge other than God, even if we choose in the end to obey, is to have left the Garden of Eden, to have left a perfect relationship with God.

Read this way, the narrative of the first two parshiyot of the Torah is one of a fallen humankind.  How much better would it have been had we never eaten from the tree, had we not known of good and evil, had we never become independent moral agents.   But... really?   Is this how we think of our own humanness?  Don't we feel that in not having the ability to make moral judgments we are giving up a very central part of what it means to be human, of the value of being human? 

Rather than seeing the eating from the tree as a "fall", Nechama Leibowitz offers a different explanation of this newfound state.   Isn't it odd, she asks, that God has placed such an irresistible temptation in front of Adam and Eve?  Imagine a parent saying to a child: "I am leaving some delicious candies right here in the center of the table - you can't miss them - they are really delicious, and they will make you feel like an adult - but don't eat them.  I'm only going to be gone 5 minutes.  Bye."   Is there really any question what the child will do? 

The sin of the first man and woman was inevitable.  It was a necessary act of becoming independent, of growing up.  Adam and Eve had been living like children - everything was provided, all decisions and rules were made for them, all they had to do was obey the rules.  But this is not the life of an adult.  And to become independent, to leave the home, inevitably some rebellion, rejection, statement of separateness will have to take place.  The sin was an act of individuation, it was what allowed Adam and Eve to become adults, but it forced them to leave home, where everything was perfect and taken care of for them.  Now they would have to go it on their own.

And when our children leave home, we want them to think for themselves.  We want them to make their own judgments, their own decisions.  Just one thing.  We want those decisions to be the same ones we would have made.   This will be the challenge for humans from here on in.   As independent moral agents, we can make judgments, decisions, that are not as God would have us choose.  But the other side of the coin is that as independent moral agents, we bring something important into our relationship with God.  We bring our own thoughts, ideas, and judgments.  Many of them may be bad and misguided, but some will be good, worthwhile suggestions and contributions.

The first generations after the sin tell the story of how easy it is for this independence to lead us astray.  Left totally to our own devices, we will make one wrong decision after another, we will turn "good" into "bad."   We continue to see, to judge, but to see wrongly, and to act wrongly.  "The sons of elohim saw the daughters of men that they were beautiful; and they took as wives all those whom they chose." (Breishit 6:2).  We have what to contribute, but for this relationship to succeed, we will need more guidance.  And thus, when God starts the world all over again, God formalizes our relationship and God gives us the needed guidance.  God makes a covenant, a brit, and God gives commandments.  With these clear directives, with a relationship built on brit and mitzvot, it is hoped that humans, if they act like responsible adults, will be able to take a world that is good, and to build it. 

This is the complicated and complex reality in which we live as humans in a relationship with God.  Even with a covenant, even with commandments, we can continue to see, to judge and to choose wrongly: "And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside." (Breishit 9:22).  Of course, because we can now think and make decisions for ourselves, it is also possible that we can introduce something new, something that God has not commanded, but that is nevertheless good: "And Noah built an altar to the Lord ...  And the Lord smelled the pleasing odor..." (Breishit 8:20-21). 

Consider the greatest religious leader, Moshe.  In the last verse of the Torah that we read just last week we are told that no prophet has ever arisen in Israel like Moshe, "for all that mighty hand, and in all the great and awesome deeds which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel." (Devarim 34:12).   This verse extols Moshe as the faithful conduit of God's mighty hand and awesome deeds, as the perfect vessel for God's mission.  Rashi, however, turns this verse on its head:  "In the sight of all Israel - that his heart carried him to break the tablets... and God approved of this decision, as it says, "which you have broken," i.e., strength to you for having broken them!"  The last image of Moshe that Rashi leaves us with is that of a leader who used his own judgment to act radically and decisively, not in violation of God's command, but certainly without God's explicit command.  Here was a different type of seeing, a good type of seeing:  "And Moshe saw the calf and the dancing... and he cast from his hands the tablets."  (Shemot  32:19). And it was this act that was exactly what was needed at this moment.  "Strength to you for having broken them."

We are adults.  We can judge and choose, and we must face the responsibility of doing so wisely, with a commitment to God's covenant and God's mitzvot.  And because we are adults, because we are able to think for ourselves, because we are able to innovate and contribute in the moral and religious realm as well, we have the ability not only to preserve the good of the world, but to increase the good within it.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

And yet... it seems that more is at stake and more factors have to be considered.    First, some qualifications to this ruling (see the Hebrew Wikipedia article for a nice summary of some of these points).   A number of poskim rule that this limit does not apply when a life is at stake.  Under such circumstances, any price needs to be paid.  As to the other lives that may be endangered in the future- that is a future, non-defined danger, which does not outweigh the immediate, present danger.  Another important qualification is that of family.  Basing himself on another Gemara, Tosafot states that when it is one's spouse who is endangered, one can pay any price, just as one can do so for him- or herself.  A number of contemporary poskim rule that Israel's relationship to its soldiers is the same as that of husband and wife, all the more so when there is a prior commitment that it will leave no one behind. 

I would like to focus on a different factor from those two.  The whole issue at stake here in the mishna, embodied in the phrase tikkun 'olam, is the weighing of the community's needs, the betterment of society, against the present needs and rights of, and our obligations to, the individual.   Can one do wrong by an individual for the sake of society, for the greater good?  Our mishna teaches that sometimes this is justified, sometimes we must make rulings for the sake of tikkun olam.  But this is the exception, never the rule.  Halakha,  in its very focus on the details of each action, their particulars and their rightness, consistently trains us to make sure of the rightness of how we are acting in the present.   Some bemoan the fact that there is not more discussion in halakha and the Gemara about values.  But too much discussion of values can be dangerous, because it can be a license for doing wrong acts to achieve an abstract value - the ends justify the means.   Halakha tells us that the means - our day to day actions, each act that we do - are the ends, and must be right in themselves.  If there is a sugya in the Gemara about aveira li'shma, sinning for the sake of higher religious goal (Horiyot 10b), this is never incorporated in halakha and is used more for rhetoric purposes.  Halakha teaches us that the means are the ends, and we cannot do wrong for the sake of a greater good.

So the mishna's teaching runs against the grain of the halakhic system.   It is thus not surprising that we find throughout history that captives were often redeemed even when the price was high, despite the mishna's teaching.  Sometimes justifications were given, ways of qualifying the mishna's ruling, and sometimes not.  But it was the present need that created an obligation that could not be ignored.  

The freeing of Gilad Shalit occurred on the cusp of Shmini Atzeret.  One of the central themes of Shmini Atzeret is moving out of the universalism of Sukkot, and having a chag that allows us to have intimate, face-to-face time, as it were, with God.  It is about moving from abstractions to the concrete.  It is about valuing the direct connection and seeing the face of the other.   According to Levinas, it is in this way that Judaism differs from Greek philosophy.  Judaism worries about the details, Greek philosophy worries about the abstractions.  Greek philosophy is about the collective, Judaism is about the individual, is about seeing the face of the other, and the moral responsibility that this face-to-face encounter creates. 

Much violence has and can be done in the name of the "greater good."  Serving the "greater good" can be a license for totalitarianism.    The encounter with the other, however, creates obligations and demands behavior that cannot be argued away.  It is the face of the other that demands the rightness of the action in the here and now.

And this brings us to our final point.  One well accepted exception to the mishna's ruling is the case of a Torah sage.  When a Torah sage is taken captive, even a very high price can be paid.  What is the reason for this exception?  Perhaps it is because of the way the community will benefit from his Torah teaching once he is freed.  But if so, this would be limited to cases of a Torah scholar who is also a teacher.  It seems, rather, that one redeems a Torah scholar because of what it says of the community and of its values.  What would it mean not to redeem a Torah sage?  What type of community would that be?   Certainly not one that valued Torah, or at least that would be the statement that it would be making.  To not redeem such a stage would endanger the health of the community in a profoundly different way - it would endanger its values, and what it stands for.   In such a case, the community's needs are served by paying a high price to redeem the captive.  It is a statement and reaffirmation of everything the community stands for.

In the case of Gilad Shalit we have a different, contemporary version of the Torah sage.  Gilad Shalit represents two profound values, values that are central to Torah and to Israel.  First, because of the images and the media, we have all seen the face of Gilad Shalit.  Gilad Shalit is everyone's son.  To not redeem him, to turn away from his face, would be a rejection of one of the most basic values of Judaism and the Torah - the face of the other, the rightness of the action in front of you, the refusal to justify a shirking of responsibility for the sake of the greater good.   And second, because Gilad Shalit is a soldier who was sent by Israel to defend the country, and who put his life on the line to do so.    What would it say about the values of the State of Israel if it could turn its back on the people who risk their lives to defend it?   To redeem Gilad Shalit is to reaffirm the values that are critical to our survival - not our physical survival, but our survival as the People and the State of Israel.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

This zman also sees the beginning of the first year of our full-scale Educators Program.  Year 3 and 4 students now select between a focus on Pulpit or on Education (with Hillel-bound students adopting a hybrid of the two).   In a Yoreh Deah - Kashrut year, all students learn Yoreh Deah in the morning.  This year, when the morning learning is devoted to Hilkhot Niddah, students who are in the Educators track are learning Gemara with Rabbi Katz in the morning, and having classes by Ruth Fagen on Wednesday evenings to teach content-specific pedagogy, here focusing on Gemara, and building off of Rabbi Katz's shiurim in the morning.  Those students will do a more bottom-line hilkhot niddah after Pesach. 

Educator students are also doing mentored internships at SAR and Heschel, and those focusing on Hillel are doing internships at NYU, Columbia, and Yale.  All educator students are taking classes on Wednesday on pedagogy, teaching and classroom skills, campus educator skills, and  a practicum seminar based on their internship experience.  We are very excited about this new program and look forward to seeing great things!

And in yet another wonderful development here at the yeshiva, this zman we also began a Kollel program.  Students who participate in this program commit, on top of all their other learning, studies, and obligations, to continued beit midrash learning here at the yeshiva for two nights a week.  We currently have 10 students in the program, and the learning is going strong! 

The Kollel program is distinct from Lishma, which we began in Elul and which is continuing this zman.  Lishma is a program for community members two mornings a week to learn in our beit midrash and hear shiurim on Gemara, Halakha and Tanakh, and there are currently 6-8 community members who participate each week.

On the more personal level, we have had some simchas and some losses in our community since the last email.   First, the good news.  Rabbi Yonatan Berman (YCT 2007) is engaged to Rachel Stein!!  Mazel Tov - we look forward to dancing at the wedding!  And talking about dancing at weddings... we are eagerly anticipating the wedding this Sunday of Gabe Greenberg (class of 2012) to Abby Streusand in Baltimore.  Mazal Tov, Mazal Tov.

On the sad side, Nissa Harris, wife of Mordechai Harris (class of 2012), lost her grandfather over yom tov,  and the funeral was this last Sunday.  And, finally, my aunt, Gertrude Linzer, oldest member of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, passed away this week at the age of 103.  This week's parsha thought is dedicated to her memory.  My aunt Gertie lived every moment of her long life with vigor, passion, steadfast commitment to family and steadfast commitment to family and yahadut, and with honesty a wonderful sense of humor.  May her memory be for a blessing.

Our dear beloved Ruthie Simon fell the other day and suffered a serious spraining of her foot.  She is in a lot of pain, and we all wish her a very speedy recovery.  Refuah Shleima.