Friday, September 13, 2019

Ki Teitzei--Borders


The various currently suspended halachos regarding which converts of which various nations can marry into Israel might prove to be instructive in another way.  Specifically, they might be indicative of how to draw borders and maintain border security; or, at least, they might obviate the idea that an "open borders" policy is a "Torahdikke" one.

In this week's parsha, we discover that of converts from Edom and Egypt--of either gender--may marry into the Jewish people after three generations, but male Moabite and Ammonite converts may never marry into the Jewish people.

Meanwhile the Jews have been admonished earlier to not harrass the Ammonites and Moabites, ostensibly owing to their being related to us through Lot.  This might explain why--before the incident at Shittim--the Jews are as respectful of the Moabite and Ammonite borders as they are of the Edomite borders; and while the Edomites meet them fully armed at their border, innthe immediate term Moab and Ammon, while not helping ["lo kidmu belechem ve'mayim], weren't overtly hostile.

This begs the question: why do they come in for the most draconia level of exclusion, while the Edomites (who were overtly hostile) and the Egyptians (who enslaved us and attmepted genocide on other occasions) don't come in for the same level of restriction?

Vis a vis Moab, we have a rathe simple explanation: the nonaggression policy wasn't reciprocated by the Moabites.  As Tosfos BK 38a s.v "Nasa Kal Vachomer" explains, the Moabites broke the pact when they hired Bilaam.  

The Kli Yakar explains that Bilaam told the Ammonites and Moabites not to offer bread and water, and in their hunger, the Jews would eat from the altars of Moab's idols, and due to their thirst, the daughters of Moab would be able to ensnare them by giving them wine and then offering themselves on condition that they worship their idols first. 

These incidents explain however indirectly how: there are legitimate ways to defend borders; there are illegitimate ways of gaslighting under the guise of "aid"; and, finally and most importantly--because this bears repeating--a "ger" is not an immigrant.

In a sense, Egypt dealt with us in part in a more legitimate fashion than Moav: the Egyptians invited us in unconditionally as legal immigrants, and then changed their minds.  Moav at first didn't invite us (and we weren't even looking to settle!!!),  and then gaslit us and used our hunger to "invite" us in on their own terms which was to our detriment.  Furthermore, the Egyptians didn't deliberately destroy their own society to get at us--G-d did that for them with the plagues.  Moav did, by pimping out its entire womanhood (which might further explain why only the men were closed out of conversion: the women might have been "drafted").  Also, by engaing Bilaam, Moab's war became as much about annihilation as Egypt's slavery.  In the end, they're a lot cloer to Amalek than Mitzrayim, or even Edom, Amalek's grandfather, Edom, who met us en masse at the border, but didn't make any other hostile pretenses.

So what we have is Egypt, who invited the Hebrews/Jews as guests under legitimate pretenses and then turned on them; Edom, who made no pretenses other than defending their borders; and Moav, who repaid nonaggression with both physical and spiritual war.   

Egypt was severely punished, but the punshiment ended at the Red Sea; the reason to not be “hate Egypt” is because they took you in when their government forced you to and endured wholesale changes to their way of life and then were destroyed when they became xenophobic.  The xenophobia was severely punished, but national integrity and borders were a legitimate issue.  So they get 3 generations, as do Edom, who fares no worse than Egypt.

Moav/Ammon are the most restricted, commensurate with the level of hostility and treachery: they weren’t foreign to you; there may have been least some split in the popular opinion, seeing that the women are exempt from the restriction, and even the ones who were in the avel shittim averaged may have been “drafted”.  Moav, essentially, had less respect for its own borders than the Jews did.

It's been mentioned several times in these pages that no matter how many times the Torah says not to oppress the "ger", it doesn't bring the definition of "ger" any closer to "immigrant" .  BT BM 59a lays out why: the primary reason given to not oppress the ger is that the convert will be tempted to defect, indicating that the primary issue is a religious one rather than a political one.  Even when the same Gemara mentions you were "gerim", it brings us back to our orignal point: you were legal invited immigrants,  THEN you were betrayed.  A "ger" who committed oneself to all the protocols involved in gerus: THAT'S who you're supposed to love and not oppress and not betray.  If gerus were a real model for immigration, we might attempt to dissuade every potential border crosser three times before we considered allowing them in.  

Those who would link shibud mitzrayim with the ostensible plight of border crashers commit a rather egregious form of cultural misappropriation; even worse, they commit it from within.  Not only does advocating for stricter immigration law not violate this injuction, but the two "mumin" of gerus mitzrayim and "Abolish ICE" are not remotely comparable. The analog is at best intellectually dishonest, and at worst--disloyal.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Pinchas: Zimreality Bites


As has been detailed previously in these pages, the "zealotry" and "extermism" of Pinchas is often misunderstood, sometimes deliberately (the self-proclaimed "zealot" who murdered Shira Banki in Jerusalem being one such example of the misapplication).  

Yet discussions of not only Pinchas' action, but also the sordid deeds of Zimri sometimes gets limited to the direct halachic implications surrounding the narrative; larger hashkafic questions about why this became the climax of the national emergency, and why, get lost in the legal details. 

The narrative as related in TB Sanhedrin 82 indicates how a "Prince in Israel" was overcome by Balaamic tendencies in the midst of a national emergency, indulging his need to conquer on political and personal fronts.  As Bilaam's "desperation pass" ("come let me advise", 24:14)  has hit its mark with a mass idolatrous orgy, a concimtant plague, and near mass executions, Zimri takes the opportunity to execute a Balaamic grand slam: 

  • He asserts his leadership bonafides: "Kozbi: I am the king's daughter. My father asked me to have Bi'ah with the most important Yisrael Zimri: I am Nasi of a Shevet, and my Shevet was born second to Yakov, before Levi (Moshe's Shevet), which was third!";
  • He tries his hand at p'sak: "Zimri took her in front of Moshe, and asked 'is she permitted or forbidden? If you say that she is forbidden, who permitted you to marry Yisro's daughter?!";
  • He (over)indulges his lusts: "He had 60 acts of Bi'ah";
  • He does this all not simply befarhesia, but in the Ohel Moed itself.
What might even be more disconcerting about this is how first his tribesmen, and then the populace at large, at first encourage, then enable, and then defend the executed Zimri and disparage Pinchas:

  • Encourage: "Shevet Shimon complained to Zimri (its Nasi) that they were being sentenced to death. He took 24,000 Yisraelim and asked Kozbi to have Bi'ah with him."
  • Enable: "They thought [Pinchas] also wanted to sin [-] [Pinchas] removed the dagger at the end of his spear and put it in his garment. He used it as a walking staff and came to Shevet Shimon [and said] "Where do we find that Levi is greater than Shimon?" (Also we can do like you!)[-] so they allowed him to enter the tent of Zimri."
  • Defend: "The tribes were scorning Pinchas - 'this son of Puti, whose grandfather (Yisro) was Pitem (fattened) calves for idolatry, killed the Nasi of a Shevet!'"
Zimri, in effect, becomes the archetype of one who would sell out his own people to their enemies for his own aggrandizement and gratification.  Even Korach didn't do this: while there was certainly something egregious about tying up his quest for power in a spiritual guise, the fact that Korach at least "merited" a miraculous intervention to being about his demise indicates that, as inappropriate as his power grab was, it was an internecine offense.

Zimri's offense wasn't that. Zimri, as it were, sided with the enemy in a time of war: while the Moabite mass seduction was aimed at the general populace, the Midianite harlotry was aimed right at the upper echelon.  Unlike Korach, Zimri's motivations aren't as extensively parsed, but the results are spelled out: he influenced a not insignficant number of his tribesmen that his conduct was preferable.  The fact that he met a rather and sordid and ignoble in public indicates the baser nature of his offenses.

In other words, Korach, while trying to upend the system, wasnt employing completely alien influences to foment his rebellion.  Zimri was, and his primary influence was Bilaam, even if he was was too libidinally addled to realize it.

Finally, we saw last week that Bilaam was among other things a master cultural appropriator: 

  • Balak, told about Moshe that "his power lies only in his mouth", and is compelled to engage an antagonist "whose power was also in his mouth"; 
  • Bilaam has pretentions toward nevuah, and in fact is identified in the literature as one, but the nature of his visions are downgraded, and he eventually has to fall back on his original divination skills, betraying his envy for the former when he declares "let my end be like his".
What Zimri does by executing the aforementioned Ballamic power play resembles the methods of misapprorations and gaslighting used by contemporary internal enemies of the Jews: taking our own principles ("is this allowed? Who allowed you?") and using them against us in battles against our enemies; somehow managing to attract a mass following (his whole tribe was behind him); whilst arrogating unearned poitical legitimacy to oneself ("the most important Yisrael").  

The list of current ostensible/erstwhile Jewish eminences who defend our people's most ardent detractors while insisting that their approach is the true expression of Judaism is too long to recount here. But those Zimris are carrying out Bilaam's mission all over again.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Balak: Balaamic Vinegar


In Parshas Korach, we meet a disingenuous liberator: Korach proclaims "kol haedah kulam kdeoshim", while--as On ben Peles' wife pointed out to her husband--he likely meant to rule just as ostensibly absolutely.  Posel b'mumo, indeed.

Last week, in Chukas, we saw--if you would--the "preseason" of the wars of conquest: Edom and Moav massing at their border, the mountains crushing the lying-in-wait Amorites, Sichon, and Og. 

This week, we meet another disingenuous liberator: Bilaam.  In fact, a surface glance at Bilaam's personality as per midrashim ostensibly borders on libertinist anarchism:  Bilaam is deemed to be the first public advocate for unfettered carnality since the Mabul; and he is deemed to be "belo am", a one-world, open-borders guru.  

Several ironies in the narrative expose his blatant disingenuousness woith regard to his ostensible cosmopolitanism and liberitnism:

*Bilaam uses his libertinism as an tool of war, counting on the licentiousness to invite Divine retribution--knowing it would make G-d angry at the Jews and not the Moabites indicates that he was aware of indelible national distinctions, and the libertinism he preached would ultimately not be as freeing, but destructive to both his emeny and ultimately his client.

*Bilaam is presonally even more--er--libertine than he is willing to let on, the donkey revealed the "ishus balaila".  One can speculate that either Bilaam is so frustrated by turning his libertinism into a chiyuv of sorts that he seeks out [ahem] comanionship where he could finally find it, because being libertine became an obligation, rather than an "alternative".  Yet he even he feels constrained enough by some baseline morality that he can't make everything he does public.

(It's also possible that Bilaam's ultimate attitude resembles King Amon as related in Chelek, while in bed with his mother [!]:)"Do you have any pleasure by engaging in intercourse from the place from which you emerged? He said to her: I am doing this only to express insolence to my Creator...)

*The Belo 'Am, open-borders Bilaam is less a dissident and more a mercenary with an impressive client list: Kush, where he batlles the exiled Moshe; Egypt, where he advises Pharaoh to promote slavery and genocide; Sichon, who hires him to curse Moav when Moav was winning that war; and Moav, where he uses Midian--an erstwhile enemy of Moav--to aid Moav.  Somehow--not unlike contemporary Palestinian nationalism's most ardent external sycophants--all of his efforts are aimed to erase one nation, not any of the others (while he is credited with the elegy for Moav at the end of Chukas, it didn't prevent him from working with them later.)

In being forced by G-d to speak in complete contradistinction to his desires, Bilaam is also forced to publicly undercut (for all time, having it encoded in the Oraitic text) his professed tenets:

*He praises the Jews' privacy/tznius in "Mah Tovu": Bilaam is forced to praise a belief system that completely undercuts his libertinism.

*He desires a "mos yesharim": he hopes (almost like St. Augustine--"give me chastity, but not yet") that he can gain a Heavenly portion without the effort of abandoning his libertinism. 

*He is forced to endure "nationalist" visions ("reshis goyim malek"): he is forced to acknoweldge that the ultimate eschatologiscal vision ("acharis hayamim") involves national demarcations, as opposed to his porfessed utopian "belo am".

The Balaamic penchant for erasing moral baselines and the concomitant domino/boomerang effects are bipartisan maladies.  One one hand, Peter Singer, the eminent animal liberator who has been called "the most influential philosopher alive", has written about removing the moral stigma from bestiality (more of inyana deyoma than one might think, considering Bilaam's secret), infanticide, and even rape.  On the other side of the political fence, as I wrote in 2003, just when the Catholic Church's history of depredation was finally just beginning to be exposed and condemned: 

"The "terminal decline" of the Church’s influence on moral, political, and cultural life in the West, so lamented by Mr. Johnson, did indeed begin when it abrogated what he calls its mission of "challenging the assumptions of its environment": i.e., once the Church decided to not halp save the Jews, it wouldn't be a stretch for them to not save their own internal victims of sexual assault and child abuse."

The second area where ostensible crusades for "freedom" succeed is that they become more dogmatic and oppressive to a degree that far exceeds the systems overthrown for their purported "benightedness", and those in power will nearly always exempt themselves from the maintaining the conduct they demand of their adherents.  Korach knew well enough how the system worked that even if he was going to survive the test, none of his followers would; he was willing to sacrifice the for his own aggrandizement.  Bilaam's crusade for freedom was all about enriching and gratifying himself at everyone's expense; he was willing to employ the very systems he was ostensibly trying to overthrow--political and spiritual--partiuclarly because he recognized their truth, even up close.  

Furthermore, as per TB Sanhedrin 106, the Moabite women conscripted into the Balaamic scheme used his gaslighting method, first making their prey believe they were doing nothing wrong--"He then said to her: Submit to me and engage in intercourse with me. She then removed the idol that she worshipped from her lap and said to him: Worship this. He said to her: Am I not Jewish? I am therefore forbidden from engaging in idol worship. She said to him: And what is your concern? We are asking you to do nothing more than defecate in its presence. But he does not know that its worship is conducted in that manner"--and then, after playing the "libertine" card, she would become dogmatic: "Once he did so, she said to him: Moreover, I will not leave you until you deny the Torah of Moses your teacher, as it is stated: “But when they came to Ba’al-Peor they separated themselves to the shameful item; and they became detestable like that which they loved” (Hosea 9:10)."  

One should note how badly gaslit the offenders were by women who had basically been turned out en masse by their own Moabite leaders...and then one fo our own joined the gaslighting: Zimri, whose public demise ends the sordid part of the narrative.  Next week, we examine how that worked.

The Balaamic gaslighting continues to this day, and too many of our co-religionists continue to fall for it.  This has implications on both macro and micro--or, political and personal--levels.

As far as the macro/political--very few can explain it better than Rabbi Berel Wein:

"Bilaam is a non-governmental, allegedly not-for-profit, one man organization, proclaiming great ideals while at the same time condoning enslavement and murder of thousands. And, in spite of his protestations of idealism and even-handedness, he is for hire.  He is the original spin artist, the public relations genius, the amoral unprincipled guru looking always for new clients."

On the micro/personal level, too many find themselves enticed by the siren song of belonging at the price of abandoning the core of one's identity, one hears promises of broken chains, only to find oneself in heavier fetters. Instead of working from within our own system of rule--even if/when ostensibly onerous, ultimately some replace it with other regimens that prove to be a lot less forgiving: another series of obligations towards others at your expense, while no one else feels compelled to fulfill any obligations towards you.  To quote Henry Rollins:  Freedom?  You can't handle freedom/And now you're dyin' for it

G-d laments to Yirmeyahu: "They have forsaken Me, the Fount of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, which cannot even hold water";  but when the intoxication becomes particularly acute, they forsake wine for Balaamic vinegar.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Emor—Safe, Legal and Rare



In 1995, Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik sent this message to New York State’s then-Governor-elect George Pataki regarding the death penalty:

“…you have the written law mandating the death penalty and the oral law, saying, in effect, that you can never apply it…Now, the death penalty should be there for use in extraordinary situations, in extraordinary threats to the public order…but if [Pataki] acts on the death penalty, he will be the leader of a bloody government.” 

Placed in the middle of a series of verses dealing with torts—which in and of itself seems to be ostensibly acontextual coming in the middle of the narrative about the maternal Danite blasphemer—verse 24:17 in this week’s parsha is one of a multiple set of Torah directives to administer the death penalty for willful murder.

The aftermath of the recent terrorist massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh engendered a broad media-driven discussion regarding the “true” Jewish view of the death penalty.  The consensus presented classical Judaism as invariably abolitionist.  In light of Rabbi Soloveichik’s 1995 letter—whether today’s pundits were aware of his position or not—one might forgive one particular headline/declaration which took upon itself to declare “Prosecutors want the death penalty for suspect in synagogue massacre. Here’s why rabbis oppose it.  It was a bit glib even more them: the paper felt compelled enough to issue the following caveat the next day: “This story has been updated to clarify the breadth of Jewish views on the death penalty.”

More poignant was the published declaration of a Tree of Life congregant whose husband had survived the attack: “The Pittsburgh shooter could have killed my husband. I still don’t want him to get the death penalty.”   While the author of the piece might capture some of the spirit, but she employs several inaccuracies to get there.

“Although there are many Torah prohibitions that call for a death sentence, our tradition does not interpret them literally.”   This assertion is of a piece with the author’s contention that Biblical tort law—as presented in this weeks parsha and elsewhere—was “literally” lex talionis a la Hammurabi, which the halachic tradition contends clearly and consistently was never the case; the author therefore presents an alternative tradition which is at odds with the normative one, both vis a vis tort and capital cases.  At any rate, the corpus of laws that make up the bulk of Maseches Sanhedrin which instruct when the penalty applies and how it is to be carried out indicates that, at the very least, it certainly wasn’t allegorical.  

“According to the Mishnah, a Jewish court is considered bloodthirsty if it allows the death penalty to be carried out once every 70 years, with some of the rabbinic sages balking at ever approving the sentence. (Mishnah Makkos 1:10).”  The author neglects to mention that very mishnah ends this way: '; Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel said: 'If [no death sentence would ever have been passed], they would have multiplied murderers in Israel.'"  In fact, bas din would administer a standing cell punishment ending in a rather uncomfortable demise for the deliberate murderer whose crime couldn’t be clearly established beyond all doubt by witness testimony, in order to protect the public. There are clearly distinctions drawn between ritual or relational capital offenses, and outright criminal offenses that involve bloodshed, certainly mass bloodshed

The author then cites the example of TB Brachos 10a where Bruria convinces her husband Rabbi Meir to pray that robbers in his neighborhood repent rather than die, and the more recent story of white nationalist Derek Black, who renounced his beliefs after spending time around a Shabbat table at his college.  The author claims that these two narratives should “articulate the Jewish attitude toward those filled with hate.”

They shouldn't, and they don't.

In the case of Bruria, Rabbi Meir and and the robbers, hate wasn’t the issue: it was a public nuisance, not a threat to public order, and the criminals were driven by greed, not hate.  They didn’t present an ongoing clear and present danger to Jews qua Jews.  And for all respect due Mr. Black for his transformation, he hadn’t killed anyone yet; repenting hateful beliefs is of a different order than repenting a hate-driven mass murder.

The author also displays a misunderstanding of what repentance entails: “calling for the death penalty means there is no possibility for the shooter to repent, to change or to improve…I want to affirm that change is possible.”  In fact, the Talmud indicates that the condemned is afforded the chance to confess before the execution, and the sources indicate that Heaven would accept that repentance in a metaphysical sense; but it clearly indicates that is not for the earthly courts to forgive the outrage to the point that the punishment is to be commuted.  It is not up to the author to “affirm that change is possible.” (Ironically, this is sometimes a claim one hears in more right-wing Orthodox circles regarding the possibility of miscreants like sex offenders and domestic abusers to “do teshuva” and who therefore deserve a mitigation of punishment and/or legal consequences, proving this misunderstanding of “teshuva”/repentance is not necessarily a function of denomination.)

In any case, there are strong indications that the clamoring against Bowers’ execution is politically driven, as indicated by the firestorm of criticism aimed at President Trump in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack, and the relatively muted reaction to the Poway attack over Passover, after which the Poway Rabbi praised the President.  In fact, applying the Pittsburgh author’s standard, one might look for more mitigation and possibility of repentance from a 19 year old offender with an adolescent neurology rather than a 46 year old who will clearly remain unrepentant whether or not he dies now or later.  The author herself is consistent: she would afford even Dylann Roof the opportunity to repent.  But the Poway attacks did not engender the discussion that ensued in the wake of Pittsburgh, and one would not be remiss to point he finger at politics.

The author also introduces another red herring, that capital punishment is ipso facto “revenge” : “the true revenge against evil is that our congregation is working to strengthen ourselves as Jews.”  It is not revenge but rather justice that demands the death of Bowers.  Revenge might be if the goel hadam meted out the execution as opposed to the state; either way, there is no doubt that the Torah at least sanctions the notion of blood justice being retributive, even if in a limited sense.

Where does all this leave Rav Aharon’s admonition?  Not to misrepresent this author’s view as his, but one can parse a caveat from his 1995 letter: “extraordinary threats to the public order.”  In a post-9/11, web-driven world, one could proffer that there are more cases of extraordinary threats to public order that would meet an exceptional criterion, both legally and hashkafically.

A contemporary capital punishment that approximates Torah values (for lack of a better formulation) would be safe, legal, and rare. 

“Safe”, in that it would be as antiseptic and painless as possible—the Talmud does say that, under the rubric of “ve’ahavta lare’acha kamocha”, to be “beror lo misa yafa”, that he the earth be as instantaneous and not gruesome, an analog of sorts to avoiding “cruel and unusual” punishment.

“Legal”, in that it follow strict protocols to ensure that the punishment fit the crime and there is no possibility that the wrong person is being convicted—that it be a case where “there won’t be a lot of guilt-innocence maneuverability”, as an Army lawyer described the Nidal Malik Hassan case.  As has been detailed elsewhere in these pages, there is the unexpected appearance of the laws of capital murder, followed by the laws of assault, immediately followed by the exhortation that “mishpat echad yih’yeh lachem”—“you all have one law”:  listing of these cases after the the mecharef, followed by the “one law” exhortation, is a further indication of how the process delineated in the case of chiruf/giduf is as salient a “due process” as one applied in cases of torts and homicide.  As clinical as that might sound, it may be what separates a fully legitimate application of capital punishment from vigilantism.

“Rare”, in that the penalty is applied in cases where strict criteria are met, including but not limited to aggravating factors, where the offender presents an ongoing danger to the public, and where it makes eminent sense to make an offender pay the highest price, even if as a principle as opposed to a deterrent.

This is not to say that the US’ version of the death penalty is always in consonance with Torah law, or even that the abolitionist view is irrevocably at odds with halacha.  It might be possible that the Bowerses, Earnests and Hasans of the world could be the exceptions that prove the rule.  However, it is equally disingenuous to claim that Torah unequivocally supports a complete moratorium on capital punishment in all cases nowadays.  It is especially painful when Jews use those who commit Judeocidally motivated outrages as a paradigm for applying Jewish principles to advocate for said abolition.  It is as much our right and privilege to not forgive those who commit those outrages, and it would further behoove us to not afford the persistently unrepentant the opportunity to change.

Even on pain of death.  Theirs.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Acharei Mos—The N-word



Shalosh seudos, UWS shul.

Rabbi: “If people on a date would be as makpid on Leviticus 18 as they would be on the hechsher of the restaurant…”

Congregant (sotto voce): “Did he just say the N-word?” 


How do you solve a problem like Negiah, especially the unwanted kind?

Eliminate all extra-marital, extraneous communication between genders, especially during teen-age years, and insist on dress codes with varying levels of rigidity?  While one might think that it mostly works, and that there is no deviation from normative behavior in those communities, one would simply have to look at the narratives of more high profile offenders and communal efforts to spare consequences for that whole approach to be called into question.

Suggest that “covering up” will solve the problem? There couldn’t be a more blatantly obvious “blame the victim” approach.

Suggest that “rape culture” is solely the result of “buyer’s remorse” following an unsatisfying hookup, and would be solved if women would behave, while just accepting that “[m]en are creatures who seek physical gratification in the first instance and who, lamentably, could find intimacy with complete strangers and be satisfied”?  If a spiritual eminence wants to attack what he thinks is the over sexualization of the campus and culture, he might a] address that both genders need to behave and b] if he desires extra credibility vis a vis these matters, he might think twice about writing letters to mitigate the sentence of a sex offender who used an educational position to prey on minors.

(TB Kesuvos 10a relates that a newly married groom came to Rav Nachman to complain that his bride wasn’t a virgin.  The first thing Rav Nachman did was give the order to “Lash him with date branches! If he knows this, he must be regular with the harlots of the city!”  A clerical interest in reigning in both male and female sexuality—even making a token effort to recognize it—would be a more credible approach than throwing up one’s hands at the behavior of “men creatures”.)

Suggest that “yichud” might work better than “modesty”?  It won’t work if the predator is a relative, or if the predator is a position of power and can manipulate the environment to his—or her—advantage.

Assume that everyone is shomer negiah”?  Ban all contact—even handshakes—from the workplace?  That it assumes that adult interaction and consent is impossible for anyone, leading to sanctions being levied at inappropriate times, which obviates both the need to draw lines, or the notion that lines have been drawn. 

Set higher strictures on touch because “touch is a potent marker of social power”, and turn shmiras negiah into a social justice mandate?  That would reduce human communication to yet another material currency in almost Marxist terms, and finish the job that pop culture seems to have done with sexuality: make it another currency.  Additionally, the statistics cited by the ostensible social justice warrior advocate for shmiras negiah regarding the incidence of assault within families and by familiar intimates indicate that it might be in those spaces where the restrictions are more palpable and the lines are more clearly drawn that there might actually be more danger.

Is the primary goal, then, a completely touch free-environment?  Is the primary goal drawing distinctions between consent and harassment?  Or, do halachic values mandate that the two are one and the same?

The real issue—and which educators might be able to use as an objective to reach the goal of the “touch-free” environment that they teach as demanded by halacha—comes from the “assumption” suggestion:


It then becomes a question of simple grown-up derech eretz: when someone says no, the answer is no.  At that point it doesn’t matter anymore what the motivation is.  And—if one assumes something along the lines that “no means yes”—it then progresses from a derech eretz issue to a police matter.

Similarly, for too long the price of ostensibly excessive female sexuality has been a lot higher than male randiness.  If nothing else, #metoo has led toward redressing that balance.  There have certainly been excesses and injustices in that pursuit (although the persistent reluctance to punish rapists almost hands a pischon peh on a silver platter to such progressive activists), but leveling the social price for extracurricular carnal activity on the part of both genders in a more equitable manner should be considered an appropriate educational objective, especially in the #metoo era.

Finally, one shouldn’t discount the power of bad publicity.  When R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai was on his deathbed (TB Berakhot 29b) he gave his students the following blessing: May it be His will that fear of Heaven should be upon you like fear of people…[w]hen a person sins, he is concerned that no one see him.”   One day, “conquest” and procurement will go the way of slavery and polygamy.

In the meantime, derech eretz and R’ Yochanan provide the baseline.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Shemini—Ex Post Facto?


“I didn’t know it was illegal.”
“Then why take the money in a brown paper bag in a dark back alley?”
“I had a hunch.” 


One of the reasons given for Nadav and Avihu’s death is that they performed their service while intoxicated.

The question was raised at a morning minyan in my neighborhood this week: did G-d as it were execute Nadav and Aviv for an ex post facto violation?  Wasn’t the command to not drink on the job given to Aharon after his sons’ deaths?  And furthermore—wouldn’t the punishment of the Dor Hamabul also qualify as ex post facto, if the seven mitzvos were given to Noach after the flood?

There are two possible approaches in both cases: one, parrying the notion that the violations were ex post facto; the other, that what led to the imposition of capital punishment was ostensibly extra-judicial, but justified on different grounds.

With regard to the Dor Hamabul: TB Sanhedrin details how the Seven universal (Noahide) Mitzvos were actually encoded into the text of Parshas Bereishis in certain directives given to Adam, indicating that there was some knowledge of those mitzvos in some form even if less formally codified than, say, the sin of the Etz Hada’as.  So in that scenario, ex post facto is less salient: the laws did already exist.

However, even if one grants for argument’s sake that the Seven Mitzvos were technically and chronologically Noahide, one can—as it were--“justify” the Heavenly punishment on the following grounds: the conduct of the Dor Hamabul had risen to the level of perpetual egregious criminality in areas that render one a rodef, as detailed in Bereishis 6:1-8 at the end of the parsha; Rashi’s explanation in 6:13 that “their fate was sealed only on account of their sin of robbery” hints that there was no longer an either de jure or de facto attempt to maintain social order; G-d then read his version of a “Riot Act” with a 120-year warning, with no discernible change in behavior. (You can’t really give hasra’ah for an ex post facto, but we’ll leave that for now.)  The entire society was, as it were, terrorist.

With regard to Nadav and Avihu, a technical argument could possibly be made that the intoxication law was given at Sinai, and based upon how the laws were transmitted as per Rashi on Shemos 34:32, it would be more likely than not that even if Bnei Israel didn’t learn the law, the B’nei Aharon did, as they received the lessons first.

Even if, however, somehow that message was not yet transmitted or received, one might venture that the technical infraction which warranted the punishment wasn’t the intoxication, it was the resulting unauthorized innovation in the service, as per the text in this week’s parsha (10:2) and later on in Acharei Mos (16:1).  The intoxication might have been one of the factors leading to them making the decision to innovate; the (re?) commandment of the mitzvah to Aharon as the ostensible reward for his demimah might have also served as a wakeup call of sorts to the rest of the Kehuna (“NOW do you get it?!?”).

It might also be possible—and this might serve as a connection, however tenuous, between the theoretical ex post facto infraction of the Dor Hamabul and the B’nei Aharon—as much as the mitzvah being given to Aharon was a reward for his demimah, it also might have been a painful reminder of the result of failures in education and transmission.

How?

Aside from both the possibility that there was a command to remain sober that was ignored, and that an uncommanded initiative was certainly performed, the midrashim detail that Nadav and Avihu harbored some inappropriate motivations in terms of their privileged status as Kohanim which had led them to reach certain unfortunate conclusions about themselves (no one was suitable enough for them to marry) and even their mentors (they wondered when Moshe and Aharon would die so they could take over).  Something was getting lost in the transmission even beyond staying sober in the “workplace”.

Similarly, all sorts of transmissions were clearly lost on the Dor Hamabul; whatever relationship Adam had with G-d, and whatever was transmitted, had been lost since Dor Enosh when pace Rambam the first moves toward idolatry were made, until the point where there was no longer a society worth preserving.

Going back to the original question, the speaker wondered what the message could be if one grants that ex post facto punishments were legitimiate in these cases.  He opined that on occasion one has to intuit what might be right or wrong beyond having to have someone—even G-d—tell you so.

In theory, this could be dangerous on several levels, even going back to these narratives: Nadav and Avihu’s ultimate infraction was that they did intuit an uncommanded action, even though their on-the-spot motivation gets a kaf zechus treatment in some quarters/sources; the “final straw” of the Dor Hamabul was that all of them thought they had figured out a way around being held accountable for theft.  One should remember that “your conscience” is still “your conscience”: the ego/id will often too easily hijack or co-opt one’s superego.

Yet one can refine his point: if one begins to intuit a dilemma, more often than not one will—or should—be able to pinpoint what is the impetus for the dilemma; more simply and crudely put, “What might I be doing wrong here?” usually should suffice, the fact that it more often than not does not notwithstanding.  What might have happened instead is that prior knowledge of details of what was appropriate and not had been lost due to a combination of X factors that led to that knowledge being lost; one had either become intoxicated, whether chemically or spiritually or attitudinally, like Nadav and Avihu; or the transmission of important precepts can get lost or distorted, as the Dor Enosh’s misconceptions led to the Dor Hamabul’s thorough social corruption.

In any case, certainly nowadays, there is little no recourse to an ex post facto defense for transgression.  Even in situations where there ostensibly seemed to be—like these two examples—one can almost always find the proximate infraction that elicits the punishment, even capital, often without too much research.

But maybe Bruce Springsteen presents the simplest formula: 

“There's always somebody tempting somebody into doing something they know is wrong.”

They know.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Purim, Progsplained (cross-post from Times Of Israel)


[After posting this on TOI, it occurred to me that I was giving too much credit to the "P'shat wins" camp.  In truth, "p'shat" in the text of Megillas Esther gives very little indication that Vashti was harassed, beyond a refusal to obey a royal request/command; without medrash, there's no hint of a #metoo scenario at all.]


One of the central precepts of Purim is to render oneself so intoxicated “until one can no longer distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and “blessed be Mordechai’.”
More recently this intoxication seems to start a bit before the holiday: there seems to be a tendency to whitewash certain femalefactors past—Vashti; and present—AOC.
One must ask: whence the urge to rehabilitate?  Why does Vashti especially conjure up the impetus to be dan lekaf zechus (judge favorably?)
Queen Vashti’s status as an ostensible feminist icon goes back to the First Wave of Feminism in the 19th century, attributable to Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  More recently she has been elevated to honorary #metoo martyr owing to her having stood up to unwanted male attention.
The narrative in TB Megillah surrounding the #metoo incident: Achasverosh makes some clearly offensive remarks about his Queen that would qualify as harassment at the very least in any setting; Vashti certainly has the right to say no, and her retort about the King’s inability to hold his liquor as compared to her royal forebears’ stable boy (and the implied subtext that she was likely mocking his ability to perform in the royal bedchamber, especially when in his cups) certainly qualifies as a worthy riposte.
So—taken in isolation, which is how the incident is presented in the text—the #metoo-ers might have a point.  (Or, as a Facebook sparring counterpart claimed, “P’shat wins”.)
Except that: Bibliteralism is never a Jewish value.
The Purim story categorically has to occur before the Megillah was written, ergo the text has to be subservient to the oral tradition.  To chain oneself to a closed basic reading of the text without the tradition does a tremendous disservice to the actual “P’shat”, both of the text itself and the actual narrative.  Ergo, the Talmudic and midrashic narratives are the ones that actually “win” over the text.
That tradition overwhelmingly presents Vashti as a scoundrel and enemy of women who didn’t have royal pedigree (here was another area where she was ahead of the curve: slut-shaming those below her “class”.)  Which might explain why there’s an element of Divine poetic justice in her ultimate comeuppance as a result of her suddenly diminished beauty, as payback for her maltreatment of her female charges.  Not to excuse Achashverosh for his overall maleficence (pun intended), but no one is trying to make an icon out of him.
Ultimately, Vashti is hardly a role model for either gender; her apparently justified impudence owes as much to political power dynamics as it does to ancient Levantine male privilege.  Her entire relationship with her husband is bidirectionally parasitic: Vashti is trying to recover the royal status lost when Balshazar was overthrown; Achasverosh is trying to accord himself legitimacy in order to compensate for being a usurper.
In one debate last year, Vashti was compared to a female Harvey Weinstein.  More appropriate might be a cross between Serena Joy as “feminist” and Roy Cohn as “victim”.
Additionally, not only does an ostensibly restrictive “p’shat” reading of the Megillah that holds up Vashti as a “feminist” violate the narrative, it also egregiously shortchanges the true heroine and namesake of the story: Esther.  While she may not check all the progressive and #metoo boxes in her response to being forced into the King’s harem and sexual service, her prudence and guile actually underscores her actual character and how proactive she really was.
While she has to be prodded into taking initiative, when she does she all but issues a p’sak (the 3-day fast), and she even wants to go far as calling out the King (“ish tzar ve’oyev”), but is apparently redirected by an angel–she never forgets who the real enemy is, even the one she has to sleep with.  She’s not exactly a “b’nos Tzelaphchad” feminist either, working within the system: she is pulls all this off while in a very public extramarital liaison (a forced one, to be sure) with a non-Jewish king–which, according to the Talmud, she uses to scare the Jews into doing morefervent teshuvah.  Talk about “outside the box”: if Vashti was “revolutionary”, Esther was smart.
Finally, as the Megillah was written by Mordechai AND Esther (need we mention it having been named for her?), any notions of “mansplaining” are more than canceled out both by that fact and by the nearly two-century old impulse to progsplain the Purim narrative.
Which is why Rabbi Avi Shafran’s recent insistence on taking AOC’s tweets as “p’shat”—especially since he clearly has no truck with progressivism—is so surprising.  Ad d’lo yada AND venahafoch hu?  It didn’t look like Purim Torah. 
Again, one must ask: whence the urge to rehabilitate?  Why does AOC especially conjure up the impetus to be dan lekaf zechus?  One doesn’t even need to use Jewish issues to paint AOC as a villain: there are tons of other reasons.
Rabbi Shafran links to a HaModia piece in order to criticize it for lumping AOC in with the Omar-Tlaib axis of evil, but he fails to address the key charges that are clearly laid out:
“A week ago, after speaking with noted anti-Semite British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, Ocasio-Cortez gushed, “It was an honor to share such a lovely and wide-reaching conversation with you.”…Throw the Women’s March into the mix and you have a veritable smorgasbord of progressive female representation of anti-Semitism.” 
Oy lerasha, oy lishcheno (woe to the evildoer, woe to the neighbor); maasim mevarerim zu es zu (actions prove one another): each principle by itself should override any notion of being dan AOC lekaf zchus.  Kal vachomer when both against one.
And, for the sake of bipartisanship enough, here’s a progressive who recognized the real import of of AOC’s tweet, who recognized what Rabbi Shafran refuses to:
“Liberal Jews aren’t concerned about criticism of Israel. We do a lot of that ourselves. We’re terrified of members of Congress using anti-Semitic tropes that have gotten our people murdered when they criticize the Jewish state.” 
Contra Rabbi Shafran’s insistence that “It would be a regrettable irony if some of us who care deeply about Israel, in fits of zeal, carelessly pushed her in that dark direction”, some very far to his left recognize that she is already there.  The open alliance with evil is obvious.
Also contra Rabbi Shafran, p’shat of the AOC tweets aren’t just what’s on the surface.  In addition to her overtures to Corbyn, and open alliance with Omar and Tlaib, her unequivocal support for the Gaza “demonstrators” at the border should be further proof of AOC’s Judeomisia.  Like AOC, Rep. Omar now has come out for the 2 state solution.  Was Omar lying then or is she lying now?  Why would AOC not be as prone to dissemble as Omar?  As no less a terrorist than Yasser Arafat said: “I would kill for my cause; you don’t think I would lie for it?”
Rabbi Shafran concludes thus: “every person – even a “progressive” – deserves to be judged impartially.”   The evidence impartially disproves his point.  Further: having just read Parshas Zachor, one can be reminded of two of the major mistakes that King Saul made in the war with Amalek, as delineated in the Haftara (I Samuel 13): being merachem al hach’zarim (merciful to the cruel) and al tihyeh tzadik harbeh (do not be righteous overmuch).  For those who are clearly our sworn enemies, being dan lekaf zechus is clearly “Jewishly wrong, not to mention counterproductive”, but also dangerous: “Rabbi YoŠł•anan says: The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.”