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.


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 Yoḥanan says: The excessive humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.”

Friday, January 25, 2019


There are two moments in this week's parsha central to the narrative of the revelation and transmission that establish a baseline: Torah is essentialist and binary.

(The much-touted “six genders” theory proves the binary rule: the androgynos is forced to follow the chumras of each gender; the tumtum, whose gender is undetermined, is ultimately either one or the other; the saris is male; the ailonis female.  But we digress.)

Yet it is that very binarism that makes it flexible towards what one might term either “Orthodox feminism” or “feminist Orthodoxy”.

It must also be noted that the two pesukim that set up that binary—כה תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבני ישראל on the one hand, and אל־תגשו אל־אשה on the other—are often misunderstood, sometimes deliberately, by those either trying to prove that the Torah gender definitions mandate restrictive gender roles, and/or that the Torah is invariably androcentrist and/or misogynist.

The אל־תגשו אל־אשה issue has been oft overplayed to the point that a radical feminist notion of an androcentric Torah that excludes women: aside from this imperative ostensibly only being directed at men (never mind that כה תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבני ישראל should indicate that not only were women included, they went first), there are actual questions raised by Tosfos in Yevamos 46a that question whether women had a “diminished” experience at Har Sinai.  Ultimately this is solved tautologically (“The women had to have immersed, because if they did not, by what method would they have entered into the Jewish People?”), but even that indicates that the conventional wisdom with regard this question is to ultimately be inclusive rather than exclusive.

The posuk כה תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבני ישראל delineates an ostensibly invariably traditional approach to gender divisions in education, to the point that not only are separate schools mandated, but even the educational tracks are supposed to be divided; this comes into play most often in discussions regarding women learning Gemara.  Without going too far into the controversy that persists even today, one work in particular by a non-feminist scholar—Shoshana Pantel Zolty’s 1993 “And All Your Children Shall be Learned: Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History”—provides ample historical evidence that if there was ever a “ban” on women studying Torah sheba’al peh, it was observed much more in the breach, and for so long that the truly “modern”/“innovative”, less “traditional” approach might be the more recent attempts to ban it (and the successful bans in Chassidic circles).

The other distortion comes from the notion that a “curse”—in this case, the curses of Eve—are ipso facto directives, and attempts to alleviate them flaunt Divine will.  One wonders whether one should note that it was the Catholic Church that mandated that women receive no pain relief during childbirth until 1949 owing to Genesis 3:16 if one wants to consider how Jewish this notion is; either way, as TB AZ 22b notes, ma’amad Har Sinai (hence the connection to this weeks parsha) alleviated some of the more pervasive זוהמא (or “moral contamination”), which should indicate for propitious conditions for working towards alleviating her curses.

The irony of quoting Rav Soloveichik on this issue must be noted, as he was clearly uncompromising on certain issues regarding the metaphysical feminine; referring to metaphysical chazakot regarding women, and specifically “tav lemetav tan du milemetav armelu”, the Rav asserted that questioning that “metaphysical curses rooted in feminine personality; this is not a psychological fact, it is an existential fact” render one an apostate; yet it also must be noted that he famously taught Talmud to women, which still causes no end of controversy even today.  Regarding the metaphysical “tav lemetav tan du milemetav armelu”, beyond the question of whether a woman actually would rather want to actually either remain with “trouble” rather than be alone, it would seem that certain mekoros argue against the ontology of this interpretation, specifically (but not limited to): in an individual case, the Mishnah on TB Kesuvos 77a that delineates where a man who proves impossible to physically live with is compelled to grant a get, and what some call the “shidduch crisis gemara” on Kesuvos 82b, where women en masse revised to marry until the general terms of the kesuva were altered so that wives and there families received more equitable distributions and so husband’s families couldn’t hide the attached assets.   Additionally, the statement itself appears five times in the Talmud, expanding the parameters of its definition and application enough from within the halachic system that “more recent responsa reflect a change in the deterministic approach and construe it more flexibly. They demonstrate a venue to apply the law differently to changing perceptions and social norms.”

However, ironic as it may remain, one can encapsulate the approach towards Sinaitic binarism by paraphrasing what the Rav said about halacha: it’s not a ceiling, but a floor.  The relationship between binarism and women’s roles should follow TB Taanis 20b: “be flexible like a reed, and not rigid like a cedar”.

But don’t take my word for it:

One of the best treatments of this topic is Berel Lerner’s "The Ten Curses of Eve (an unpublishable article on women in Judaism)"; he explains: Non-Orthodox publications refused to print it unless I made it more stringently critical of Orthodoxy, while Orthodox publications found it too hot to handle. Since I remained unwilling to change its conclusions to make it more congenial to the views of various editors, it remains unpublished.

And his conclusion encapsulates the issues better than most:

“[A]lert and thoughtful students of traditional texts [] are bound to discover that the notion that the roles of women in Jewish life are equal in dignity and importance to those of men is an essentially modern notion formulated in response to modern concerns and conditions…One might say that full respect for the role of women is a truth of the Torah which has remained hidden from the eyes of earlier generations, waiting for us to be its discoverers. However, we cannot pretend that those earlier generations had already made this discovery. That would be a fabrication of history and a sin against intellectual honesty.”

Friday, January 18, 2019

Beshalach—Sorry Not Sorry

In the previous two parshiyos, the question arises regarding Pharaoh’s ultimate responsibility for his actions owing to G-d “hardening his heart” repeatedly from the sixth plague on, after his repeated displays of instransigence of his own free will.  Rabbi Shmuel Goldin in his treatment of the question in Parshas Va’era lists several commentators who discuss and delineate how and why this ostensible Divine interference with “free will” did or did not violate the principle of bechira.  

Then Rabbi Goldin takes it one step further: based upon the Maimonidean principle that Heaven will occasionally make it very difficult if not impossible for an offender to repent.  Rabbi Goldin addresses two specific issues: the first, that there are seem sins that are so grievously injurious that the notion that one can repent for them will is well-nigh offensive; the Pharaonic racist enslavement and genocide would qualify as one of those sins.  (To provide a crude yet illustrative analogy, in his novel “Cat’s Cradle”, Kurt Vonnegut observes one of his characters—a Nazi doctor who committed innumerable atrocities during the war who now saves lives—who might approach evening the ledgers after about three millennia practicing conventional medicine.)

Rabbi Goldin also wants to draw a distinction between what he sees as the Christian notion that everything is forgivable.

One might want to add three additional dimensions to this discussion.  

  • The first expands upon the Pharaonic and Egyptian “hardheartedness”, and that, even leaving aside Rabbi Goldin’s salient notion that there are unforgivable things, more often than not the associated attempted  “repentance” fall far short at best, or later proves to have been completely insincere in its face at worst.  
  • The second adds a loosely analogous “hate-crime” dimension, even if an ostensibly Judeocentric one: when it comes to crimes against the Jews, and that the otherwise ostensibly well-behaved forfeit any claim to righteousness, and can be accounted with the truly wicked based solely on their expressed intransigent Judeophobia, on a personal but especially on a national level.
  • The third, unfortunately, points to a trend within certain frum circles where an inappropriately expansive definition of teshuva and mechila has been adopted and insisted upon as a, if not the, default Jewish position regarding certain offenses and offenders.  The distortion might owe more to pop psychology than the aforementioned Christian notions of forgiveness; it finds considerable favor in therapeutic circles where the lines between therapy and teshuva get blurred.

The first explains why the theme of “hard-heartedness” more conceptually central to the parshiyot in Sefer Shemot that precede Beshalach—especially Va’era, where one first views the shift between Pharaoh hardening his heart first without, and then with, Divine “assistance”—actually not only in central to the events at the Red Sea, but finally ties together the entire Egyptian attitude.  

In essence, Pharaoh, his court and subjects cancel whatever teshuva they might have done at the time of makkas bechoros when they completely reconsider having set the slaves free (or, possibly, even having only given them a three-day furlough).  The favorable attitude they had toward the Hebrews referred to during the period between choshech and makkas bechoros; their fear after makkas bechoros “we are all dead”—any self-reflection and regret is now erased: the chase to the Sea is on.  In our day and age, one can identify this kind of insincere or even completely false repentance with individuals like Dr. Lara (rhymes with Phara) Kollab, the Touro graduate who showed her gross ingratitude in a series of revealed antisemitic tweets and, when caught, issued a fauxpology blaming her tirade on the “oppression of Palestinians”.

The second point explains how theoretically G-d-fearing, well-meaning people can harbor the word Judeocidal impulses even while ostensibly exhibiting righteousness: consider how the Egyptians labeled as “G-d-fearing” during the plague of barad who saved their livestock are identified as the same Egyptians comprising the garrison chasing the Jews into the sea.  This should serve as a contemporary analog to public figures like Jimmy Carter and Louis Farrakhan, who are lauded for their charitable efforts at the same time they issue repeated antisemitic platitudes.  A “good” antisemite may be an even worse antisemite.

The third element—the aforementioned trend within certain frum circles to inappropriately expand definitions of teshuva and mechila—describes issues different from national enemies: rather, it can be seen particularly in the insistence that miscreants like sex offenders and domestic abusers are too often given the benefit of religious doubts because “anyone can do teshuva”.  As Rabbi Goldin points out, this notion is a misnomer, but it hasn’t stopped stop some from insisting upon the opposite notion bordering on an ikkar emunah.   

One example might be a facebook thread on the wall of a very prominent shadchanis discussing harassment and even date rapes unexpectedly occurring in shidduch settings; some commenters insisted that even a rapist can’t be turned in for his crime if he has done teshuva.  

Another example might be a frum psychologist insisting that an abuser doing teshuva for wife beating can be trusted to get married again because “anyone can do teshuva”, and that would qualify as an indicator for rehabilitative success  (in fact, if an abuser wanted to truly repent, he should express the willingness to consign himself to celibacy and release his victim unreservedly from the marriage to find safety elsewhere). 

Yet another example might involve a discussion about Amnon ostensibly doing teshuva for the rape of his sister Tamar by fasting and never leaving the bes medrash for the last two years of his life before Avshalom kills him as revenge.  Some use this medrash as a paradigm of how one can repent even the worst crime; a closer examination of the narrative might indicate how this kind of outward “repentance” usually is somewhere between woefully incompletely and grossly insincere.  One thing one might note is that the medrash details Amnon’s outward displays of piety, but it never says he apologizes or makes restitution to his sister, who becomes a recluse as a result of the assault. 

In effect the real takeaway, then, is that it is more likely that expressions of regret and penitence for certain gross iniquities can be legitimately responded to with even extreme skepticism.

As a final recent example of how this works (or doesn’t), one can view the example of a prominent Rav trying to use Bernie Madoff’s expressions of regret at his sentencing as “help[ing] people understand eternal Jewish truths”.  Even as the Rav was removing his piece because the intense backlash made him consider that he might have “chose[n] unsuitable examples for the concepts [he] sought to impart”, Madoff, like Pharaoh, ended any penitential pretense in a later jailhouse interview: “**** my victims.”

Eventually, false teshuva always outs itself.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Bo—Need To Know

Moshe Rabbeinu makes an executive decision.

As explained in TB Brachos 4a, Moshe tells Pharaoh and his court that the Plague of the First Born will strike “kachatzos”—as “on or about midnight”, loosely translated—in slight contradistinction to G-d’s directive, that the plague would strike “bachatzos”, or “at midnight”, exactly.   The implication in the Talmudic text is that Moshe’s editing received a Divine imprimatur: if Pharaoh’s astrologers had miscalculated and it would have appeared that the plague had not occurred at midnight, they would have considered it an opening to discredit the Divine provenance of the plague.

In theory, one might question how likely that scenario was.  Consider that Egypt was already on edge; the country had all but been destroyed by the previous nine plagues, the nation seemed to be siding with the Jews against Pharaoh and the court [see 11:3], and the court itself had issues with the Pharaonic stance [10:7]: would a slight astronomic miscalculation truly have any appreciably significant effect on the Egyptian reaction to the result of Makkas Bechoros, where אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת, and the whole population thought כֻּלָּ֥נוּ מֵתִֽים?  If the astrologers had tried to make an issue of it, would anyone have paid attention?

Moshe’s “edit” might have been a case of עת לעשות לה׳ הפרו תורתך : if Moshe had given Pharaoh's astrologers even the slightest opening at that moment, it might have even just slightly diminished the “unity” that prevailed among the Egyptians after Makkas Bechoros—כֻּלָּ֥נוּ מֵתִֽים as the Egyptian bizarro כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד —from Pharaoh on down to even the other non-Hebrew slaves who were almost as Hebrephobic as their Egyptian masters.  Moshe took into account what he saw as entrenched local cultural tendencies, and predicting the that the real Kiddush Hashem would resulted from the effect of the plague, he didn’t want to leave open the possibility of that moment being diminished even slightly.   Hence the edit, which, pace the midrashim, seems to have been approved after the fact at least.

This incident may have educational implications, with support both Scriptual and post-Scriptural: the Jews at Har Sinai had the Revelation on a personal level “adjusted”—as it were—based upon each individual’s ability to receive and withstand the message.  Yet, prior to that, at krias yam suf, it was said that “a maidservant saw at the sea what Yeshayah (Isaiah) and Yechezkel (Ezekiel) did not see.”  Ostensibly an insistence on the doctrinal can detract from the experiential.  This is true: but only up to the point that said doctrinal isn’t subverted, only that it isn’t necessarily presented all at once.

[Consider, even, the Talmudic narrative surrounding the Ptolmaic translation (TB Megilla 9a), where G-d performed a miracle and allowed for simultaneous translation even with ostensible departures from p’shat; but the anniversary of the date—8 Tevet—was at one time considered a day of national mourning and fasting.]

One attempt to explain this—which, to this authors mind, ultimately further complicated the matter because, even though that author made the claim up front that “you’re lied to in Baal Teshuva Yeshiva”, he couldn’t seem to decide whether to condemn or condone the approach—did say this, which might encapsulate the entire educational conundrum:

“If the Yeshiva is devoted to the delicate art of forming real Jews, the Rabbi’s answer must be complicated…Truth is ineffable and simple, and therefore cannot be communicated, even to the perhaps paltry extent the Rabbi has attained it.  The individual is complex, communicates only through fragmented words, and is looking for an answer.”

In other words, The Message might be received if presented in a more subtle form; and not only will it not detract from the Message, it might enhance it.

That said, there are some approaches that should definitely be considered out of bounds.   Aside from the aforementioned piece—which apparently just describes the philosophical and educational conundra, but doesn’t delve into what some have described as marketing ploys—there are cases where the philosophy itself is twisted, and the justified to “make people frum”.

“The way Prof. Barry Simon and I see it is that nine years ago [1998] we saw the [Torah] Codes as probably without merit, and possibly dangerous.  Things have changed. Today [2007] we regard them as definitely without merit, and certainly dangerous to the Torah community…We understand the methodology of the experimenters much better. We’ve had an opportunity to subject the phenomenon to other tests, including one agreed upon in advance by both sides. We’ve seen some of the problems generated by people coming to believe that this is really a part of Torah.”

In the end, one just has to make sure that what one presents as Torah—or even as part of Torah—really is a part of Torah.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Shemos—Minority Report

Even in Egypt, the Pharaohs
Had to import Hebrew braceros
—Tom Lehrer

Themes and memes from Exodus have been circulating cyberspace throughout the current ostensible immigration crisis, and particularly since the Honduran caravan made its way north.

A closer look at how the Hebrews became Egypt’s most prominent minority and then Egypt’s most prominent victim of discrimination should give the lie to most if not all attempted analogs between the Biblical Exodus and the Honduran one in particular, and the entire ultimate open borders project more generally.

The Pharaoh of Yosef wasn’t Egyptian—he was Hykso, a northern minority that had conquered Egypt and was ruling the majority Egyptian population.  After Yosef’s revelation to his brothers, the royal court invited Yosef to bring his entire family, and he negotiated settling them in an area apart from the population—in Goshen.

On one hand, this might have presented an obstacle, as Yosef feared his brothers would have been drafted, but on the other, proved not to be when Yosef raised the specter of religious oppression vis a vis shepherding, so as a fellow minority, Pharaoh proved to be more than accommodating.  In a certain sense, Pharaoh might have been setting the Hebrews as a lightning rod, another minority to take pressure off of the Hyksos, as both he and Yosef were willing to give some credence to the racist and segregationist mentality in Egypt.  

(In fact, while as part of the repeated admonishment to love the get because we were strangers in Egypt, we are commended to not “hate the Egyptian” to the point that they are allowed in as gerim after a three-generation vet: the Torah almost seems to be giving credence to the notion that an attitude adjustment toward foreigners is a long, involved process that doesn’t happen overnight.)

Yet when Yosef executes his command economy, he takes steps to equalize the population (thought admittedly in a theoretically Hebrecentric manner—he legislates national circumcision).  Despite the fact that his radical socialist economy actually SAVES people (as opposed to what would happened in other socialist economies), the population isn’t all that grateful when push comes to shove and are able to reassert themselves as majority rulers and, having driven out the Hyksos, institute a “Blame the Jews” policy first.  

(Interestingly, as part of the justification for this policy—ועלה מן הארץ—the Egyptians never seem to consider actually expelling the Hebrews; they’d rather enslave them, kill the males, and take their women.  (The Egyptian tendency to doublespeak as delineated in Rashi ad loc was a cultural tendency: just as examples of how the Egyptians used “fake news” as official policy, one need only note the erasure of Hatshepsut from all public historical records, and the Merneptah stele, which may have been the first instance of Exodus denial.))

This, towards a population that: was already there, having been invited and vetted as legal immigrants; and  had literally saved the country and its entire population, as opposed to taking it over and forcing their way of life upon it; Goshen proved that.  One also should remember that Yosef was actually ASKED by the population to do everything he did before he put it into policy: he was offered even more draconian terms than he eventually imposed, and he avoided outright slavery; plus, his moves applied equally to everyone.  He has populations change neighborhoods, but he doesn’t deport anyone, and he doesn’t import anyone.

If one were to make an analog between the Exodus and the current migrant crisis, it wouldn’t be having populations moving to foreign lands en masse: it would, instead, be displaced populations returning to their own homelands.

“You were gerim in Egypt”: remember how you were invited and how you negotiated your interaction with the local culture, and respected it even as you distanced yourself from it as you found it in complete contradistinction to your way of life. The gerim you are going to vet are going to have submitted themselves to the same level of vetting and are actually going to adjust to YOUR way of life, not demand to impose theirs while maintain an equal or even favored status.   

And that's just on religious terms.  

The ultimate folly of the ger-as-immigrant analog is even simpler: just as one wouldn't expect that today's immigrants subject themselves to Torah laws regarding gerus in formulating immigration policy, one should certainly not expect that credence is given to the notion that open borders immigration has the force of Biblical imprimatur.

It doesn't.


Friday, December 21, 2018

Vayechi—Not Just The Chairman

Last week’s parsha features the confrontation between Yehuda and Yosef that illustrates competing concepts of ideal leadership for klal yisrael.  The Rav explains how the Yehuda model has to win out in the end, because Yehuda exemplifies gevura, and Yosef exemplifies chesed, and in situation that require not retreat but advance, gevura must trump chewed; the Rav notes that Yosef realized this at that moment that he decided to finally reveal himself to his brothers. 

(Note that even when Yosef institutes increasingly draconian emergency economic measures, the dialogue between him and the Egyptian populace indicates that they seemed to ask him first; he was waiting for them to give him permission to impose.  Yehuda, in contrast, couches his “J’accuse” in diplomatic language, but that’s about the only discernible politesse in the exchange.)

When one arrives at this weeks parsha, the question then arises as to the contrast between the ostensible leadership styles of Yehuda as juxtaposed with the other brother pretenders: Reuven certainly as the bechor, but possibly also Shimon and Levi.  The questions become more trenchant when one realizes that Reuven and his descendants are left with no real unique, discernible role among the bnei Leah: Shimon—pace Rashi on 49:7—became educators, and some say military men; Levi gave rise to the entire Preistly class; Yehuda, as noted, assumed the Kingship; even Yissachar and Zevulun had specifically roles carved out for them.

What was the nature of Reuven’s pachaz—“instability”—that made Yaakov assume he was unfit for any public role?  49:4 refers back to the incident of 35:22, Reuven “upsetting his father’s couch” because he thought his mother was getting short shrift.  Even when TB Shabbat 55b goes out of its way to ensure that it is known that no sin was committed, the entire incident is hardly an endorsement of Reuven’s action if one deigns to take a closer look.

First is the simple question of boundaries: having anything to do with what goes on in one’s parent’s bedroom.  The Gemara says that Reuven was actually sickened by the notion of what he might do, which may indicate that along with his impulsiveness, there was an ick factor the entire time that he was not unaware of.

Next is the fact that the Gemara note that the Shechina would precede Yaakov into whichever one of his respective wives’ tent he was to lodge that evening, so Reuven’s quarrel with his father turned out to be a quarrel with Heaven (presumably Leah wasn’t unaware of this, which may explain why there’s no protest from her, especially given her more proactive propensities as illustrated both how she married Yaakov and the duda’im narrative).  

Additionally—should one attempt to make an analog between Reuven argument with G-d as mimicking his great-grandfather vis-a-vis Sodom—the analog fall flat immediately when one remembers that Avraham was invited by G-d to argue on behalf of the Five Towns, and the argument itself was almost as if G-d was giving them Sixth Amendment rights; all Reuven did was violate his father’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Most crucially, however—and this might encapsulate Yaakov’s assessment—is that Reuven really never comes to terms with not taking everything personally.  Witness what might be his finest moment: stopping the impending slaughter of Yosef, having him thrown in the pit to play for time.  Except that: what does Reuven do once the immediate crisis is averted?  He runs off to engage in sackcloth and fasting for his offenses in the Bilhah matter, and in the meantime Yehuda moves into the power vacuum and Yosef is sold.

As the Rav explains, the teshuva at that moment was Reuven realizing that his impetuousness led the rest of the brothers to be disdainful of Yaakov’s authority and parental/paternal prerogatives, and the internecine hatred towards Yosef was the result.  Problem was, the crisis was still ongoing, and Reuven put his own personal spiritual dilemma ahead of the alleviating the crisis at hand, even as he had begun to blunt the worst case scenario.  Reuven may have still been trying to tenuously hold on to his position and his bechora by not making a public admission of his lapses, so as to not imperil his ostensible position.  

Yehuda is willing to do what Reuven isn’t: both when he admits his infractions with Tamar in public, and when he takes on the responsibility for Yosef that Reuven fails to when he "offers" his own sons as collateral.  As Eli Lebowicz explains: 

When Yehuda promises to Yaakov he’ll protect Binyamin, he’s coming from a different perspective than his brother Reuven is, who Yaakov brushes off when Reuven tries to guarantee it. After Yosef’s sold, Yehuda has two of his own sons die, and having gone through that experience, now he’s appealing to Yaakov as a father who can actually empathize with what he’s going through, having lost children of his own.

Further highlighting Reuven’s demotion is Yaakov’s admonition of Shimon and Levi: Yaakov has a problem with what they did, but doesn’t, as it were, demote them the way he does Reuven.   


The action at Shechem wasn’t an issue of personal aggrandizement for either of them; it was a calculated preemption in defense of the entire family’s honor, rather than internecine squabble about their place of privilege in the ostensible family hierarchy.  Neither one was attempting to maintain a personal privilege.  Reuven might have done just that in the Bilhah incident, which, interestingly occurs after Shechem, indicating that Reuven learned the wrong lessons, and that Shimon and Levi’s action did not undermine their father’s authority, despite Yaakov’s protestations of “achartem osi”.

As  a result Yaakov’s “curse” that Shimon and Levi get split up actually is more than a blessing in disguise, for them AND for the rest of klal yisrael.   In addition to the aforementioned roles ascribed to Shimon and Levi, note that actually was given what was originally supposed to be the province of the bechorim (not Reuven per se, but certainly loosely analogous) after the chet haegel, when they carried out ostensibly extrajudicial executions ; unlike Reuven,  who proved to be too tied both to himself and his immediate family and the ostensible privileges it would’ve conferred, Devarim 33:9 notes vis a vis Levi הָאֹמֵ֞ר לְאָבִ֤יו וּלְאִמּוֹ֙ לֹ֣א רְאִיתִ֔יו וְאֶת־אֶחָיו֙ לֹ֣א הִכִּ֔יר וְאֶת־בנו [בָּנָ֖יו] לֹ֣א יָדָ֑ע כִּ֤י שָֽׁמְרוּ֙ אִמְרָתֶ֔ךָ וּבְרִֽיתְךָ֖ יִנְצֹֽרוּ׃   

Finally, Yehuda, by proving that he knew where and when to face what was and wasn’t necessarily a priority; he distinguished himself from Reuven, who showed that even when he was doing teshuva, he couldn’t abandon that even when the situation called for it, and when he tried to be helpful, it could only go so far.

As Sefer Bereishis concludes with the ostensible short-term resolution of the heated fraternal conflicts between Yaakov’s children, there might be a few small temporary takeaways: 

*If one feels compelled to act impetuously on the basis of righteous indignation—one night want to reconsider;

*If one thinks one’s impetuous act of righteous indignation is justified in defense another’s honor—one might want to make sure the act is not truly about one’s own personal honor;

*One might actually be born to great things, but one still has to (re-)earn that privilege and prove that one belongs in an exalted position;

*Finally—one must be able to truly recognize the stakes and prioritize accordingly, even if and/or especially at one’s own personal expense.