Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lech Lecha: Free Agency?

"There's no point in direction; we cannot even choose a side"--
Peter Gabriel, "Here Comes The Flood"


More often than not, I was the last or second to last picked when it came to team sports.

In this week’s parsha, Avram finds himself cementing an ostensibly strange wartime alliance, in a way that the “side” is essentially chosen for him.

One might not initially be surprised that Avram would be fighting to save his nephew and against the Amraphelite coalition; after all, as Rashi (pace TB Eruvin) notes, Amraphel is Nimrod, who wanted Avram executed for his iconoclasm.

Yet Avram finds himself fighting on the side of a coalition that includes the “five towns” that will be utterly destroyed for their unfettered depravity in next weeks parsha; in fact, a hint is given in Rashi as to the character of the coalition’s ostensible leading monarch, Bera the Sodomite king: “רַע לַשָּׁמַיִם וְרַע לַבְּרִיּוֹת”, “evil towards God and evil towards mankind”; his coalition partners are similarly described.

Notwithstanding the Patriarch’s plea next week to possibly spare the towns’ destruction, Rashi pace the midrashim goes more out of his way to impugn the character of Avram’s allies, sparing moral opprobrium from his opponents other than Amraphel himself. In fact, Chedorlaomer, identified by Rashi as the בַעַל הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, is the king of Elam, named after the ostensible firstborn of Shem, who praises Avram after the battle in his official religious capacity (as per Rashi identifying Malkitzedek as Shem) being mevarech al hara’ah when his progeny is routed on the battlefield—שֶׁאֵין בְּלִבּוֹ עָלָיו עַל שֶׁהָרַג אֶת בָּנָיו (wouldn’t he be as inclined to come to their rescue as Avram did for Lot?)

And let’s look at the character of whom Avram is coming to save: Lot who chose to live in Sodom (“עַל שֶׁהָיוּ שְׁטוּפֵי זִמָּה בָּחַר לוֹ לוֹט בִּשְכוּנָתָם”, Rashi hinting that it was specifically FOR that reason); Lot, who said to himself “I want neither Abram nor his G-d”; Lot, who eventually actually became a judge in Sodom (though apparently he tries to buck the trend of blatant judicial perversion to the point where he loses a daughter and his own life in eventually threaten by his constituents).

As detailed by Rabbi Dovid Green, there are arguments from both sides regarding the propriety of Avram having anything to do with Lot. But what further highlights the irony is that there was one prospective proselyte who came to Avraham of her own accord, unlike Lot who actively wanted to remove himself from Avram "kiruv" mission; yet she is rejected, and in her desperation to make any connection, she liaises with Esav’s son Eliphaz—her half-brother—and the resulting offspring is…Amalek.

The possible result of rejection as opposed to rescue.

And the result of rescue?

To further illustrate parallel ironies, Lot himself engages in incest with his daughters and the resulting offspring also manifest a level of Judeophobic hostility to the point that their male descendants are forever banned from joining the Jewish nation, although the females not only are NOT banned but are destined to produce the Messianic line. Either way, the Patriarch comes under Rabbinic scrutiny for some of his ostensibly less successful kiruv projects.

What conclusions can be drawn from all this?

First, while it may seem obvious, every political issue has some admixture of moral concern built in, which by extension means it can always be examined legitimately through a Judaic lens. (That almost NEVER means that a foregone conclusion is attached, which often seems to be a reflexive assumption, but neither does that invalidate the attempt—or more to the point, the necessity—of employing said lens. [Without delving into the socio-politico-philosophical implications of how the word is used, “hashkafa” contains the root used for “lens”, so no matter what one’s “hashkafa”, if there’s any Judaic consciousness of whatever stripe, the aforementioned examination might already be in the process of being administered, whether the examiner is aware of it or not.]

Second, even if one is on the right side of an issue and is for all intents and purposes working leshem shamayim, one shouldn’t necessarily assume that the lines currently drawn will stay that way in perpetuity, and sometimes alliances might have to be pursued even if cementing them is painful while necessary. A number of examples in the classic literature come to mind in addition to Avram’s dilemma, like these two:
  • Elisha is sent to facilitate the succession of the Assyrian line, even though he cries because of his simultaneous vision that the Assyrian heir “will do [harm] to the Israelite people: you will set their fortresses on fire, put their young men to the sword, dash their little ones in pieces, and rip open their pregnant women”; and the reluctance of Jonah to carry out his mission to Nineveh because it success would spell doom for his fellow Jews; 
  • Yoshiyahu haMelech, who, if he hadn't been specifically instructed by G-d through Yirmiyahu to allow Pharaoh Necho to pass through, would have otherwise been making the right call by standing up to the incursion that eventually did happen and cost him his life at Megiddo;
  • Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, during the Churban and on his deathbed [see below].

A more contemporary example is described by Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein

“Growing up, I used to mock the idea of a “Judeo-Christian” legacy…Attempts to find their commonality could only be made by wearing lenses made to eliminate the vast majority of the spectrum. My thinking has changed…There is, indeed, a Judeo-Christian legacy. The Torah contributed it to Mankind, and – as the Rambam writes at the end of Hilchos Melachim – Christianity was one of the vehicles for spreading some of its content to the rest of humanity.”

[For the record—as a number of my previous pieces regarding the reflexive assumption that these socio-political alliances are ipso facto advisable illustrate, particularly this one—I think R Adlerstein’s provides a necessary baseline even while possibly oversimplifying the conflicts because, as he himself points out, “[s]ome of this owes to practical considerations. We find ourselves on the same side on important legislative issues, so we form alliances of convenience.” But in any case, the point stands: longstanding hostile relationships—even theologically hostile ones—can evolve.]

Even more instructive might be the story of Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai’s deathbed scene, as Rabbi Avi Weinstein explains:

“R. Yochanan asked for Yavne and its sages; [o]ther sages criticized him for not requesting that the Roman forces depart, leaving the city and the temple standing. R. Yochanan thought that asking for too much runs the risk of losing everything… According to [The Rav]…[t]hose aware of the complexity of questions of national significance which demand balancing competing ideals understand our lack of confidence in making such decisions. In fact, even years after the event, we remain unsure what the right decision was. For the remainder of his life, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai lived with the nagging question that perhaps he should have asked to save the city.”

Recently an embattled Conservative Rabbi in Atlanta was pressured to apologize for a Rosh Hashanah sermon that was perceived to be reflexively anti-Left. The Rabbi did acknowledge being too broad, but he stood by the substance of his remarks: “[A]s Americans and Jews, we must pick sides.” Sometimes the side is picked for us whether we realize it or not, whether we admit it or not. And sometimes “our” side will—switch sides.

The hidden “luxury” of having this fear is that it forces us to be ever vigilant—and allows us to be “free agents” in picking our “teams”. That’s something we should never forget we have, something we should never wittingly give up, and something we should not allow others--or our own, in many cases--to force us to give up.

(Postscript: The author is well aware of Mr. Gabriel's unfortunate and rather longstanding sympathy for BDS.)




































Thursday, September 14, 2017

Nitzavim: The Shmooze Not Given

In this week’s parsha Rashi [29:28 s.v. Hanistaros, quoting Sotah 37b] pinpoints where Bnei Yisrael were na’asu arevin zeh lazeh, when they received the blessings on Har Grizim and the curses on Har Eval, though punishment for failures in this regard didn’t begin until the actually crossed the Yarden [Rashi again, quoting Sanhedrin 43b].

The interesting thing about the Rashi is how it expounds on the possibilities of both ascertaining a collective responsibility and to what extend said collective is actually held responsible.  However, it can also be instructive about how to give mussar [or whether to give it at all] on a more individual level, and possibly how important it might be to gauge both the intent behind the actions of the person being “instructed”, and even the person giving the mussar.

One of the more important reasons for giving mussar in the first place when warranted is to stop the commission of an undesired action or correct it in mid-course.   While one is supposed to accept the truth from whomever says it, and at times it behooves the recipient of the corrective to realize that the actual truth of the message being imparted is independent of its conveyor, it bears mentioning that the conveyor of the message must also realize that the perception of truth can be easily distorted when disseminated from a source clearly unqualified to convey the message.  

Kedoshim 19:17 delineates three steps: no hating [lo sisna], give rebuke [hocheach tochiach], but don’t put the target in a position where the infraction will be compounded [lo sisa alav chet].  Hence the degree of importance ascribed to both the motivation of the message carrier and the necessity to gauge the ultimate impact of the message.  In a day and age where anything with theological import is viewed with a jaundiced eye, and the political is almost always personal, not for nothing does Rashi say on Sotah 49b [s.v. v’ein tochachas] that the day will come where the effectiveness of mussar will be parried by the retort “you’re just like me”.

A recent mid-commute encounter might illustrate how a dilemma as to whether or not to give mussar might look.

A friend of mine regularly posts pictures on facebook of fellow commuters she finds acting in…well, a less than derech eretz-dikke manner on public transportation [“manspreading” being a frequent infraction of space occupation protocol].  In my case, it turned into, for lack of a better term, what I would call an anti-mussar moment.

The scenario was more or less that as I got onto the train, there was a “manspreader” taking up two seats when I could have used one.  Only he wasn’t a classic manspreader: despite the fact that he wasn’t quite parting like the Red Sea, nor nearly hefty enough to have an ostensible excuse to simultaneously take up a pair of seats, he had decided to occupy the centerpoint between the two seats.

The kicker in this case was that he was wearing a velvet yarmulke and sported a significant beard and visible tzitzis.  [Any more descriptors and one might actually begin to identify a particular sect, if I haven’t already given it away.]

So I had a dilemma pulling from all sorts of directions, but it came down to this: whether to point out what he was doing, and if so, how.

The dilemma centered around a number of issues, one set regarding whether he should have had his “infraction” pointed out, and the other set regarding whether it was appropriate for me to have given the rebuke. 

Regarding him:
  • Did he know what he was doing was inconvenient for other passengers?
  • Was he aware of straphanger protocol and simply ignoring it, or was he otherwise oblivious? 
  • Was he aware of the possibility that since he was so readily identifiable as an Orthodox Jew, he might not have been giving the best impression to a subway car full of rush hour commuters?   Or, again, did he not care?   Did his fellow passengers not care either?   [The latter question theoretically being the hardest to gauge an answer to.]

Regarding me:
  • Did I just want to give him mussar initially because I wanted one of the seats he was taking up for apparently no good reason?
  • Was I more inclined to “give him mussar” because, from his obvious appearances, chances were he was “frummer” than I was? 
  • Was I actually NOT inclined to give him mussar because of his appearance because, as I strongly identify as modern/left, I wanted to maintain my initial impression of his acting inappropriately as indicative of something lacking in his hashkafa and therefore his entire “brand” of frumkeit, and I wanted to continue to justify my ability to maintain my preconceived notions?
  • Was I—in an ironic manner worthy of Alanis Morrissette [or not]—actually now engaging in giving MYSELF mussar for both wanting to maintain an attitude of modernist self-congratulation, and for possibly—because of that—I have therefore almost deliberately disqualified myself from actually giving mussar in case where it might have been warranted and therefore will keep missing the opportunity to possibly fix a situation where something can be fixed, even if not necessarily this one?
  • A further irony: as I’ve always been disinclined to give mussar in a situation where I’ve gauged that the situation required “instruction” rather than “intervention”—would I now have to reverse that approach?

As it turned out, I disembarked long before the occupier, so I never did point out the infraction.  I also wonder whether another commuter who might give off a more aggressive or intimidating vibe than I usually do might have been able to end the occupation with a simple “Excuse me”, for the simple reason that he/she would have wanted the space [without giving a first thought to the hashkafic implications].

In any case, pace my still-held position that moral offense is [or should be] a contradiction in terms, or where the nefarious consequences meted out to those using spiritual means to further personal ends were previously illustrated, the real mussar haskel from this OCD-esque mental exercise might simply be this: if you stand to directly personally benefit from the administration of a moral admonition—better to defer, or demur.

It simply becomes something other than mussar.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Naso--Sotah Re-"Examined": Male Privilege?

[Reposted from May 29, 2014, after an accidental erasure]


The recent mass murders committed by Elliot Rodger reawakened heated discussions of misogyny, harassment and male privilege, along with the usual re-heating of the cultural battles over guns in the US.  However, I came to question notions of male privilege in parshas sotah not because of the Rodger case, but because of a posting by Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz.

Ironically, I agreed with some of what he wrote, particularly that "[p]eople feel that when they see people sin, or act in a way that perhaps doesn’t live up to all the ideals a Jewish person could exemplify, they have a right to denounce them, curse them, and write them off."  

However, his use of the parshas sotah as a paradigm for saving broken marriages--that the entire purpose of the administration of the mayim hame'arerim was "G-d [] figuratively jump[ing] through hoops to pacify the husband...[] do[ing] a miracle to convince her husband that she didn’t betray him"--got me to do what the Rodger crime didn't.

G-d-ordained male privilege?

Let's take a closer look.

To be sure, let's assume two things for arguments sake.  One, the obvious--it took a lot to get us to this point: a warning to not be secluded with a particular man was blatantly ignored, so there was some wrongdoing on her part. Second, let's assume--in line with Rabbi Gewirtz' piece--that the woman came through the ordeal and was proven innocent of the accusation.  

Much is made of the woman's behavior; the series of Rashis that illustrate how all the steps in both the offering of the minchas sotah up until the actual administration of the oath and the waters are a mida-k'neged-mida for various elements of her waywardness.

In fact, the entire process is set up to get her to confess; if guilty, she faces a choice between a gruesome death on one hand, or divorce, penury [losing her kesuva] and general opprobrium for infidelity on the other.  And, just in case she doubts the efficacy of the waters, the process leading up to the drinking is supposed to tip the scales [and avoid the possible erasure of G-d's Name] by eventually forcing a confession.

This, then, raises the question: if she knew she'd have to go through this to prove her innocence, what would stiffen her resolve in the face of this humiliation? I posit that she knows what awaits at the end: she gets her kesuva back, and she gets the brachos of "ve'niksa venizre'a zara". I'll take it a step further: she now has the opportunity to WALK, take her money and her brachos. [Notice that the posuk says she'll conceive. It doesn't say it has to be with the current cad.] 

Wait...is he really a cad?  Well...if after trying to get her killed [and using the name of G-d to do it] he would refuse to give a get, that might prove it further, but even granting that point can't be directly supported from sources, other indicators of the cad's character can:

1] Rashi on 5:12 indicates that the guy, for starters, is stingy: he withheld the matnos kehuna, so he drags himself to the Kohen to deal with this;

2] Sotah 2a states that a man's zivug is commensurate with his deeds, indicating that somewhere along the line, he should have looked in the mirror [the converse--that a man's deeds reflect his spouse's--is not necessarily true, which is why it remains unstated];

3] Sotah 3a that posits that the kinui which sets the whole process in motion is actually forbidden, and is prompted by an "impure spirit"...

But--didn't G-d allow His name to be erased for shalom bayis? Isn't that the whole point of the story?

Actually...if you jump to the mishnah on 47a, where a proliferation of adultery leads to the suspension of the practice of mei sotah, where the water has lost its efficacy [especially when the husbands were themselves unfaithful] indicates that clearly there were lost marital causes not worth saving--possibly even mandating divorce; but G-d as it were no longer got involved, at least not in the same way.

It's eminently possible that G-d was willing to go so far to have the Name erased to protect the WIFE's honor, even given the appearance of impropriety on her part [which she suffers for.  Very much in public.]

Now she has a marriage settlement and can present the case of a murderous spouse...and even use the kohanim who administered the process to prove it.


There is a reason we have the Shalom Task Force and Bat Melech. Not all marriages are worth saving. For a long time "go back, for shalom bayis" was the communal default. Parshas sotah might have been used to promulgate that once upon a time. But if one is "bodek" the parsha again--like the waters, when they work--one will see that it can be used to indicate the opposite.