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.