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.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Pesach: Power Corrupts


Tucked away in maggid in the middle of the Mitzrayim narrative is the “Arami Oved Avi” passage, a seeming non sequitur that turns into an immediate prequel: what drove Yaakov’s family into Egypt in the first place was his treatment at the hands of Lavan.   Still, why would a passage most famously associated with the mitzvah of bikkurim make its way into the Pesach narrative?

While the timeline doesn’t necessarily add up that way—the midrash about Yosef having to go to Egypt in chains so Yaakov could go to down there in a dignified manner comes to mind—one can see historical parallels between the houses of Pharaoh and Lavan and their patterns of oppression and the nature of the power dynamics that existed.

What might follow are lessons not only about the redeemed [“us”] but whom we were redeemed from [“them”].  In other words: these paradigmatic eliminationist anti-Semites had something to gain from their attitudes and policies; they weren’t necessarily “sonei yisrael” 100% “lishmah” [not that it made them any less nefarious].

“Arami oved avi” in a way hints that the story of yetzias mitzraim actually begins with that passage, which would behoove us to examine Lavan first.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, the combination of Lavan’s sordid family history in addition to his propensity to attach a price tag to everything drove how he related even to his own flesh and blood, so it would make sense that when his power dynamic was threatened and he lost his family, he would at least have an eliminationist impulse cross his mind [as evidenced by the discussions about “machshavah k’maaseh”].

Bear in mind it takes Yaakov at least 14 years to DO anything [his breeding strategy with the sheep], and the full 20 years to SAY anything [after Lavan chases him down].  As we’ll see this is important when you consider the truth-to-power dynamics inherent in his relationship with Lavan, and Moshe’s relationship with Pharaoh.

Like Yaakov [although not quite in the same manner], Moshe is an honored member of the very household responsible for engineering the eliminationist oppression.  In a manner different from Yaakov, it didn’t take all that long for him to actually speak up effectively [as per the medrash that he asked for the enslaved Hebrews to get Shabbos off].

Furthermore, we see both antagonists pursue their aims differently in reaction to Divine messages: Lavan, as it were, backs off; Pharaoh doubles down repeatedly until he essentially destroys his own nation. 

What motivates the different responses?

Both Lavan and Pharaoh are driven by a combination of material and “spiritual” concerns.  Lavan—as indicated by Bereishis 31:2 as a starting point—finally realizes in a way that the con game he’s run is up, and his son’s reaction in the previous possuk indicates that he was beginning to feel his loss of influence and power over the other part of his own family, which would have inevitably had a further negative impact on his reputation in the neighborhood.  And finally, when he catches up with Yaakov and essentially realizes his power over them is at an end, he plaintively asks where his “gods” are.  The irony here is that Lavan still wants to hold on to the “trafim” even after G-d Himself has stopped him with a divine vision, now as if they are all he has left.

Pharaoh has similar concerns, if not in the same order.  As with most despots, his main concern is maintaining his iron grip on power and his nation's viability, as indicated a] in Shemos 1:10 where he first uses the “fifth column” threat [“hava nischakma lo”] as an excuse to subjugate the Hebrews, and b] his repeated trips to the riverbank in the morning to hide from his populace that he is, actually, less than divine.

A curious effect thus occurs:  at the same time that his feared loss of power and influence comes to pass with each plague and the concomitant devastation to Egypt, Pharaoh—who at first doesn’t completely buy into his own deification, a necessary concession to then maintenance of power—begins to actually buy into his own divinity in a way he previously hadn’t, thinking he actually can fight G-d.  Ironically—it might be all he thinks he has left.

In this way, we have an additional Pesach theme: not only to speak truth to power in the name of freedom, but to realize that since the political is almost always personal, there is always an element of the elevation of self to levels that lead to similar levels of near absolute corruption.