Friday, November 18, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

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Parshat Chaye Sara - When God is Seen and Not Heard

After the climactic event of the akeida, the Torah turns its attention to more quotidian matters,  the death and burial of Sarah and the finding of a son for Yitzchak.  In this shift, and in this transition to the next generation, a number of the major characters move off the scene.  Not just Sarah, who passes away and is buried at the opening of the parsha, and not just Avraham, who quickly moves off center stage at the beginning of the Rivka story, due to his death and burial at the end of the parsha, but also God.   For although God is talked about quite frequently, God never speaks to anyone, nor - outside of prayer - is spoken to at any time during the parsha.  It is not until the opening of Toldot, that God again appears as a "character" (as it were) and speaks to Rivka, and then later to Yitzchak.  

These events - the transition from Avraham to Yitzchak and the shift of God from One speaking to One being spoken about - are, I believe, intimately connected.  The passing of the baton from Avraham to Yitzchak represents a critical stage in the success of Avraham's mission.  Avraham is a visionary, a charismatic leader, a person to whom God has spoken, whose passion for God is magnetic, a person to whom followers flock by the hundreds.  But not everyone can be an Avraham.  For the message, for the belief, for the religion to survive, a Yitzchak is needed.  The next leader needs to be someone who can sustain - and teach others to sustain - this Godly approach even without the charisma, even when God has not spoken to him or to them.     If this can be achieved, then the faith can survive and be passed from generation to generation.

Avraham had the blessing of hearing God's voice throughout his life.  But at the end of last week's parsha, at the denouement of the akeida, a shift occurs: "And Avraham called the name of that place, God Sees, as it is said to this day, on the mount God will be seen." (Breishit 22:14).   God may not always be heard, but God - even to this day - can be seen.   How one sees is a key theme not only in the stories of Avraham, but going back to the story of creation.  God sees that the world is good.  Adam and Eve see the tree as good for eating, and not - as God would have it - as wrong and forbidden.  The later generations see beautiful women and take them for themselves, and God sees that the world has gone from good to bad.  How we see the world, how we judge and interpret what we see, is key.  We must learn to see what is good, what is truly desirable.  We must learn to see as God.  Thus the Avraham story opens with Avraham being told to go to the land which God will show him, that is, will make him see.  This story is then bookended by the akeida, where Avraham is told to go to one of the mountains that God will show him, that is, will make him see.  To be in a brit with God means to strive to see the world as God would see it.  (I thank R. David Silber for first turning my attention to this theme in these two Avraham stories).

Seeing the world as God would see it requires another type of seeing as well.  It requires seeing God in the world.   Only if God speaks to us, can we hear God.   Whether we see God in the world, however, is our choice.   How we see, how we interpret, how we judge events, is in our hands.   The culmination of the Avraham story is Avraham's hope that God should be seen.  Avraham will have succeeded if he has helped shape a world in which we see God, and thus in which we strive to see as God.

How is this accomplished?  First and foremost, by our discourse - how we talk about things, how we describe and interpret the events of our life.  Avraham, wherever he would go, would call out in the name of God.  He would make it clear to all that God is present in his life, that it is God Who shapes all events.  The famous rabbinic story of Avraham drives home this point:

Reish Lakish said, "Read not, 'he called' [in the name of God] but 'and he made to call'."  This teaches that our father Abraham caused the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, to be uttered by the mouth of every passer-by. How was this? After [travelers] had eaten and drunk, they stood up to bless him; but, said he to them, 'Did you eat of mine? You ate of that which belongs to the God of the Universe. Thank, praise and bless Him who spoke and the world came into being'.

(Sotah 10b)

It is not the preaching of the message which is key, but the discourse, the talking about God having given us the fruit, and making this a shared discourse, making others talk about this as well.  Once this discourse becomes consistent and shared, it shapes one's and other's perception of events.  So that when Avimelekh approaches Avraham, he says to him: "God is with you in all that you do."  (Breishit 21:22).  Avraham's "calling" has shaped Avimelekh's perception, has made Avimelekh see God in the world.   As Rashi, commenting on Avraham's speech to his servant in this week's parsha, so succinctly puts it: "The verse says, 'God, Lord of the Heavens and the Earth.'  [While in the past God was only Lord of the Heavens,] now God is also Lord of the Earth, for I have made God's name commonplace in the mouth of all." (Rashi, Breishit 24:7).

The talking about God, which leads to the seeing of God, is the blessing that Avraham passes on to his servant, to Yitzchak, and to the next generation, and it is that which is the theme of this week's parsha.   The God who has taken me from my father's house, says Avraham to his servant, will also be with you to ensure the success of your mission.   This is a matter of faith, but also a matter of perception.   And we find that the servant has learned this lesson well.  For he prays to God, and behold the perfect woman appears to him.  A skeptic would say that this is luck, but in the servant's eyes it is nothing less than God answering his prayers, and by talking about it as such, it makes it such.  "And he said: 'Blessed is God the Lord of my master Avraham... as for me, God has guided me to the house of my master's brother." (24:27).   And in the prolonged narrative where the entire story is retold, perhaps the most important lesson in its retelling is how, through the eyes and in the words of the servant, God is ever-present.  "And God blessed my master..",  "God[, said my master,] will...make your path successful...", "And I said, 'God...[that woman who passes the test] will be the one that God has chosen for my master's son", "And I blessed God... who led me down the true path to take the daughter of my master's brother for his son."   And it is this discourse that is then consciously or unconsciously adopted by his listeners: "And Lavan and Betuel said, "From God the matter has come, we cannot speak to you bad or good." (24:50).

We live in a world in which God does not speak to us directly.  Despite this, we can in fact choose whether or not to see.  Avraham's faith is sustained through learning to see, and how we see is first and foremost shaped by how we talk.  Indeed, "more beautiful is the conversation of the servants of the fathers, than the Torah of the sons." (Breishit Rabbah 60).   For it is through such conversation, such daily discourse, that our worldview, our very world, is shaped, and that God is seen.

[A final thought:  It is quite remarkable how radically different these events could be understood, if seen through different eyes.  The Gemara (Hullin 95b) makes a shocking statement: " Rav... said: Any omen (nachash) which is not like that of Eliezer, Abraham's servant... is not considered a divination."  This seems to suggest that Eliezer's testing of the girl who offered to water him and his camels, was a forbidden act of nichush, divination.  While some Rishonim interpret the Gemara this way, most disagree, but they grapple to articulate why this was not such a prohibition (see Rambam, Avoda Zara 11:4, and Ra'avad and Kesef Mishne ad. loc.; Radak on Shmuel I, ch. 14; Gur Aryeh Breishit 24:14).   The answer, I believe is obvious, and the difference lies not in the test or the sign, but in its framing.  To do what Eliezer did not in the form of prayer, not as a way of making a request of God and of then seeing God in all that subsequently happens, but to do it through a belief in spirits, celestial powers, or mystical powers,  would turn prayer into an act of nichush.  It would be to see the exact same events in a different way,  it would be, to quote the Sefer HaChinkuh on this prohibition (mitzvah 249): "that all things that occur... for bad or good are merely chance, and not though God's providence."  Eliezer saw in his test, in the sign, not chance, but hashgacha pratit, personal providence.  He saw not magic, but God.  He turned a random world into a world suffused with God's presence.]

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

This week the daf yomi finished mesekht Hullin (5 months in the making!) and began mesekhet Bekhorot.   On the very first page (2b), the Gemara discusses, on a bit of a tangent, the statement of the father of Shmuel that it is forbidden to go into partnership with a  non-Jew, lest non-Jew will be required to take an oath to verify his claim in a dispute, and this oath will be taken in the name of a foreign god.  Were that to happen, the Jew will have transgressed the prohibition of "the name of other gods you shall not mention, it shall not be heard on your lips," (Shemot 23:13) which is interpreted to mean that a Jew cannot even be the cause of another person taking an oath in the name of a foreign god.

This statement gives rise to important discussions in the Rishonim and poskim, in particular in reference to halakhic attitudes towards Christianity.   It is well known that, with the exception of the Meiri, all of the Rishonim considered Christianity to be a form of avoda zara, properly defined not as "idolatry" but as "foreign worship" which refers both to a faith that uses images in its worship and representation of God, and to a faith that worships a being which is other than the true God.  Would, then, within this categorization, the above prohibitions apply to Christians or not?

Let's first take the prohibition of not uttering the name of another god.   Does this refer to any mention of the name of a god, or only to its use in an oath?  The Gemara (Sanhedrin 63b) states that the second half of the verse: "shall not be heard on your lips" prohibits using the name of a foreign god in an oath or vow or affirmation  while the first half of the verse: "you shall not mention" prohibits even referring to it in a mundane context.  To wit, one may not even say, "wait for me by the idol of Zeus."   Shulkhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 147:1) rules accordingly: "One who takes a vow in the name of a foreign god receives lashes, and one cannot even mention it by name, with or without a reason."

That being said, this prohibition cannot be as sweeping as it sounds.  First of all, the Torah mentions the names of foreign gods: Ba'al, Kimosh, and so on.  This is stated by the Gemara as a defined exception, and so ruled by Shulkhan Arukh: "One can say the names of gods which appear in the Torah." (Yoreh Deah 147:4).   But in the Talmud we find the names of other gods mentioned: Aphrodite, Markolus, and so on.   How are these allowed?  One explanation is that there is an exception when the names are used to understand and teach Torah and halakha, an exception we find in other areas of halakha (see, for example, Sanhedrin 68a).   Another, more general exception is given by the Haghot Maymoniyot (13th Century, Ashkenaz), in the name of the Yiraim (R. Eliezer of Metz, 12th Century, Germany).  He states that:

"There is no prohibition except when the name is given as a divine name, that it suggests divinity, but if it is a secular name, like the normal names of non-Jews, then even if this being is treated as a god, since the name does not suggest lordship or divinity, and it also was not given in that context, then it is permitted.  For the Torah says, "the name of other gods you shall not mention" - the verse is only concerned with divine names.  And so the mishna states: "These are the holy days of non-Jews: Kalenda, Saturnalia, Kratesis, etc." (Avoda Zara 8a) - and these, [although holy days named after gods,] are all secular names.  And in a number of places in the Talmud it refers to Jesus and his disciples [by name].

(Haghot Maymoniyot, on Rambam Avoda Zara, ch. 5, no. 3).


This opinion is paraphrased by Shulkhan Arukh (147:3), although with narrower scope, but quoted in full by the GR"A.  While exactly what constitutes a "divine name" is unclear, but certainly to say "Jesus" would not be a problem, as this was his given name, and - as the above quote states - he is referred to by name in the Talmud.  To this point, there is a famous story about how a student in Rav Soloveitchik's shiur was saying "Yeshu... you know, oto ha'ish..." and then Rav Soloveitchik interrupted, "What do you mean? Jesus?"   The more important question is to use the second half of that name, a name which - while literally translating as "anointed" or "messiah", is a name which was given to denote his divine status.   This would seem clearly prohibited, and I will not say this name.  I have no problem saying "Christmas" or "Christians" however, as this does not refer to the being identified as a  part of the Godhead.

In this regard, it is worth noting a responsum of Rav Azriel Hildesheimer (Yoreh Deah 180) where the questioner ,a Rav Shimon Tzvi Deutsch, had allowed a teacher in his school to refer to Jesus - with the second part of the name - explicitly, as long as it only happened rarely, noting that to refrain from doing such was only an act of piety (middat chasidut) and not required by law.   However, because of the pushback he received on this ruling, he turned to Rav Hildesheimer for a ruling.  Rav Deutsch had noted that while the Talmud only used the name "Jesus", he argued that the second part of the name should not be considered a divine name, as it only referred to an elevated and important status, and was not an actual appellation of divinity.  Rav Hildesheimer strongly disagreed with this ruling, stating that the use of these names in the Gemara could be attributed to the exception for the sake of understanding and teaching Torah.  He continued, that even if we grant the position of Haghot Maymoniyot, this would certainly not extend to the second part of the name, which definitely suggests his divine status.  He ends by saying that even if the issue were only an act of piety [and here he is perhaps referring to even the name "Jesus" alone], it is nevertheless a piety that is universal Jewish practice and sensibility, and this sensibility must be respected.

What sensibility is Rav Hildesheimer referring to?  It is possible that it is a sensibility that reviles all things, or certainly all religions, that are not Jewish.   But I do not believe it has to be understood that way.  I believe that he can be talking about a sensibility that is of particular importance for those of us who are tolerant and respectful of other religions.   We live in and, in many ways, embrace the values of a tolerant and pluralistic society.  We believe that we should be respectful of other religions and faiths and their adherents.  But in so doing, we run the risk of sliding from tolerance to pluralism to relativism.  If differences are minimized, if there is no absolute truth, if everything is just a choice or preference, then our own convictions, our own faith, our emunah, is made void and meaningless.  With all of our acceptance, we must maintain a sense of taboo about beliefs and theologies that are at odds with our own.   The fact that so many observant Jews have no problem using the name "Jesus" with or without the second part of the name, as an imprecation or for emphasis is a very sad comment on how profoundly we have lost any sense of boundaries in this regard.  It is particularly in an open society such as ours that we must work to sustain a sense of taboo in using language that implicitly assigns a divine status to a human being.

Of course, if we cannot say a name, then the taboo can shift from being a setting of boundaries to a giving of power to that name, to that being.    "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named" in the Harry Potter series exerts power over the minds and hearts of others specifically because they cannot bring themselves to say his name.  It is only Harry, who has no hesitation in calling him "Voldemort" that can free himself from the hold that Voldemort holds over others.  And let us not forget that when it comes to God's name, there is the name that we cannot utter, and even the name that can be said, must not be said for naught.  To never say a name is to give it power.  Thus, I believe that we should not hesitate to say the name "Jesus."  When Rav Soloveitchik said, "What do you mean? Jesus?" he robbed this name of its power.  But to say the last name is to give acknowledgement, or at least to remove the taboo, the sense of boundaries, that affirm the depth of our faith commitment.    This is exactly why such names "shall not be heard on your lips."

Next week we will look at the prohibition of entering into partnership, how this was finessed, and the resultant approach that developed for framing our relationship with Christians and Christianity.  A similar theme will emerge - how to live in a tolerant and inclusive society and to still maintain a sense of profound faith commitment and boundaries.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Learning continued apace at the yeshiva, with the various shiurim progressing in their respective mesekhtot and the Niddah shiur moving from the topic of the counting of the 7 "clean" days to the topic of the timing of the going to the mikveh.   In Lifecycles, years 3 and 4 are continuing to learn about infancy and early childhood, and heard from a visiting expert mohel on practical aspects of brit milah, and heard from a panel of teachers and a high school principal on the topic of Girls' adolescence.   Year 1's class in Modern Orthodoxy this week covered the topic of "Torah u'Madah - Critiques and Justifications" and their class in Pastoral Counseling focused on the fundamentals of how to conduct a "helping interview".

We had a number of honored guests this week.  On Tuesday, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin spoke to the entire yeshiva at the end of the morning seder, and then gave a class on drashot to the students.  On Wednesday, we heard from Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, Rosh HaYeshiva of Sulam Yaakov, who spoke about the religious significance of the "occupy" movements here and in Israel.  He said that even without having a coherent agenda or articulation of how they would make things better, the desire for a better society is, at its heart, a messianic yearning, a belief in a world that can be more perfect.  The talk was followed with some nice give-and-take around various issues of these movements, and whether they are all good, and in particular the concern of anti-Semitism in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  It was wonderful to be discussing these issues through a practical and religious lens, and to have such an open exchange of ideas and opinions.

As if that were not enough, we had two special lunches this week.  Dawne Bear Novicoff from Jim Joseph Foundation visited the yeshiva on Monday, and, after meeting with faculty and administration,  had lunch with a  group of students to hear from them what brought them to YCT, what their course of study was like, and what their vision for the future and professional aspirations were.  And them on Tuesday, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi of Bnei David-Judea in Los Angeles, visited the yeshiva and met with years 3 and 4 to share his  thoughts on religious leadership and to hear from students who are to soon be rabbis about their own sense of vision and mission.

Finally, two wonderful Mazel Tovs.  A big Mazel Tov to Rabbi David Wolkenfeld (YCT 2008) and Sara Tillinger-Wolkenfeld on the birth of a baby girl this last motzei Shabbat.  Baby-girl Wolkenfeld will be spending this Shabbat with her parents and big brothers, Noam, Akiva, and Hillel, and will be given her name at a baby-naming ceremony this coming Monday morning in Princeton.  And a huge Mazel Tov to our Vice President of Finance and Operations, Mati Friedman, on becoming a grandmother for the first time!  Her son Noam and daughter-in-law Shiffy gave birth to a baby girl Thursday afternoon.  To all the parents and grandparents of these beautiful baby girls we say, Mazel Tov v'tizku li'gadlan li'Torah li'chuppah u'li'ma'asim tovim!