Thursday, August 28, 2008

Re'eh--Dry Cleaning

During the Nuremberg trials, it was said of the Nazi war criminals that the farther away from the actual killing they were, the more actual responsibility they bore. Responsibilty stemming from influence is a major theme in the parsha, where chapter 13 lays out in succession three different paths to idolatry and their consequences: false prophecy (navi sheker), the private seducer (mesis/mediach), and the idolatrous city (ir hanidachas).

Each category has unique halachic characteristics. Chizkuni, quoting Sifri and Bechor Shor, asserts that a navi sheker never starts out that way; rather, he will be a once bonafide prophet with proper spiritual credentials who, upon becoming corrupted for whatever reason, will use the same “signs” (os/mofes) for idolatrous purposes that he once utilized for G-dly service.

In the case of mesis/mediach, Rambam in Hilchos Avodas Cochavim 5:3 details how this is the one case in all of Torah/Halacha where legal entrapment is not only permitted, it is encouraged. This follows all of Rashi’s quotes from the Sifri that, whereas in all other capital cases all efforts are to be made to spare the defendant from execution, in this case the opposite pursuit is to be the ultimate end.

The ir hanidachas, of course, is unique in halachic literature (along with the ben sorer u’moreh) that its relevant halachos actually prevented the possibility of it ever being carried out.

What’s the link between all these?

Knowing who and what your influences are and where they are coming from is the strongest common denominator. Specifically, the Torah is warning us that sometimes the worst kind of behaviors happen right in front of our noses and can be perpetrated by the people we love the most and are supposed to admire most, as opposed to the city streets, or “ir”, where we might be less surprised to find widespread moral turpitude. The Torah tells us not only that it can happen here, but that it will.

Regarding the consequences, while it seems that the mandated earth-scorching of ir hanidachas seems to be the most draconian of the three cases, the legal barriers to the punishment ever being carried out actually mitigates that: there comes a point when you simply can’t mete out widespread punishment, even if you should. No such barriers exist in the other two cases. The Torah is directing us to stop the influences in its tracks with extreme prejudice when we see them, before it becomes too late and results in widespread destruction, executed judicially or otherwise.

A tangentially related note: I’m going to go out on a limb here, but one might possibly draw an analog to stories of home and clergical abuse one hears about nowadays; irrespective of their (purported) infrequency, or possibly even because of it, there exists an admonition of sorts to administer the consequences harshly—and publicly. The mishna in Avos that says “Hamechalel shem shamayim ba-seser, nifra’in mimenu be-gilui”—clandestine chilul hashem usually results in a very public payback—may be more than just hinting at this.

Religious communities of all sorts have a built-in aversion to “public washing of dirty laundry”. The Torah indicates that such notions are not necessarily Jewish values.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Eikev: Where Does It Say?…

We learn from this week’s parsha that one is not allowed to eat on Yom Kippur.

This while Yom Kippur is nowhere in the Parsha.

The halacha is derived from a gezera shava between “Va-ya’ancha va-ya’arivecha” in this week’s parsha and “ve-inisem” in Acharei Mos and Emor.

Many examples abound of fundamental Judaic practices with extremely oblique, if not outright ostensibly flimsy, Torah textual support—not least, shechita (“ve-zavachta ve-achalta”), tzenius (“ervas davar”), hair covering (“upara rosh ha-isha”), minyan (a triple gezera shava) and tefillin (no such word in the chumash). This one may be the most surprising (“What? The Torah doesn’t say be-ferush that you can’t eat on Yom Kippur?”).

I don’t at all mean to imply this phenomenon of “mountains hanging from a hair” (as the Gemara describes the actual textual supports for most of hilchos shabbos) renders the salience of these practices questionable, or diminishes in any way from their Divine and compulsory nature.

What I mean to point out is that there needs to be some reframing done in how the relationship between Torah text and halacha is presented in educational circles. The best formulation I’ve seen belongs to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Halacha changes because Torah does not change.” But I would go a step further.

The Torah is, fundamentally, code. One can discern this from the fact that the actual base text of what we call the Torah she-bichtav has no vowels or punctuation. One might even say that bichtav ends and ba’al-peh begins simply with the addition of vowelization and punctuation.

There are many practical and educational conclusions that can be derived from this notion, which I will discuss in detail in later posts, but for now I will bring it down to one basic point: when we say that Torah is our Morasha (cf Devarim 33) and not anyone else’s, it means that we make a sharp fundamental distinction between what we call Torah and others call the “Bible”. Only we as Jews know what the “Bible” really says. The “Bible” was the first book subject to deconstructive tendencies, first as the Gemara in Megilla details with the advent of the Septuagint, and then later with the various politically denomination-driven Christian translations and finally the Criticisms. I once heard a NCSY Rabbi say that the Torah is possibly the worst written work of literature in existence. And it would be, if it was written by man. Or if it was a work of literature. But it’s neither.

Jews and Torah Judaism should be extremely wary of making any alliances, philosophical, political, or otherwise, based upon notions of “shared Biblical heritage[s]”.

They don’t really exist.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Nachamu: Single?

One can say the Jewish analog to “Spring is here and a man’s thoughts turn to…..” would be this period between Tu B’av and Yom Kippur, bookended by the Dancing of the Girls in White. (Nowadays, one can say this season extends to Simchas Torah, especially on the upper west side.)

I’ve been known to put a Churcillian spin on the upper west side: it’s the worst place for a religious single person to live, except for all the other places. I’ve lived up there for 12 years now, and I can emphatically say that the neighborhood is NOT to blame for my unmarried “predicament”.

And that’s the point I’m trying to make. This “predicament”—singlehood and the consequent delaying of marriage, irrespective of the fact that it slows down the kilui neshamos min ha-guf—does NOT a crisis make.

I think what the well-meaning crisismongers have to realize is that while today’s singles may be “pickier”, or more materialistic, or less “spiritual” than our ancestors (dubious assertions at best, but lets assume their partial truth just for the sake of argument), they forget that what probably scares us most is the actual unrealized depth of our commitment to the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, a lifestyle that incurs extraordinary expense and diligence. We may not be picky as much as we are smart: if we’re going to make it work the way it has to, we had better make sure we pick the correct partner.

A further irony can be found just in the title of a book written by the founder of Speed Dating: it’s called The Death Of Cupid. This irony is especially delicious, because aside from using a Greco-Roman avoda zara as the avatar of romantic love, it is frum culture that is much more responsible for the death of notions of romantic love among its adherents than any secular cultural force. For millennia, the system of shidduchim and/or marrying one’s cousin or niece was supposed to be a bulwark against romantic frivolities seeping into the bayis ne’eman. And now suddenly it’s a good thing?

There is a reason that religious authorities lack credibility in matters of the heart. So I would say this to them:

We want to marry.

We'll do it when we think we're ready.

In the meantime, leave us alone.

Va-Etchanan: Intermarriage and Gilgulim

This week’s parsha is where the sources regarding intermarriage and matrilinieal descent appear.

I once mentioned to somebody—a reasonable Chabadnik—that even though no one can (metaphysically, at least) opt out of the Jewish people, its almost as if halacha provides an escape route, notwithstanding the level of sin ascribed to it: that a man could choose to have children who would not be Jews.

He related to me a kabbalistic concept that the non-Jewish children of mixed marriages—or other liaisons—often come back to be our worst enemies. That’s one of the reasons I always believed that somehow Hitler yemach shmo somehow KNEW that his father had been the product of a liaison between his grandmother and the teenage son of the family she worked for. (Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler gives a stark account of the author’s researching this very question.)

I also was told by a convert whose father was Jewish of another kabbalistic concept: that non-Jewish children of mixed marriages are gilgulim of Jews who intermarried and now must exercise the choice to get back in.

The first is just why the concept of gilgulim makes sense in the first place. The world population is currently six billion; it didn’t reach one billion for the first time until early in the 20th century. Also, consider that the world lived much the same way for almost 10000 years until the advent of the industrial revolution. One should be able to correlate that, as well as the later technological revolution and consequent exponential population explosion over the last half of the 20th century and beyond. I’m just too lazy to do the math.

In any case, my point is this: anyone who lived and died before, say, 1750, might have been a reincarnated to live in the current world in some form or another.

Which brings me to my next point. Why would they be reincarnated now?

The social scientists Alan Wolfe has said, loosely, that the 19th century was about economic freedom, the 20th was about political freedom, and the 21st will be about moral freedom. The current climate of moral freedom provides an opportunity to exercise bechira chafshis on a level that just was not truly possible in any other era. That’s why it would make sense that anyone who lived at a time where moral choices were severely circumscribed by one’s social circumstances might be reincarnated—and possibly “retested”—in a time when the moral climate is different.

That may be the ultimate message of intermarriage. The choices may not be condoned; they may even be condemned. But they’re there. Hare’shus nitnah.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Devarim-Chazon: Victimology and Militancy

The story of the meraglim and the ma’aseh dibbah ra’ah, which the Gemara in Taanis relates occurred on (the first) Tisha B’Av, is repeated in this weeks parsha.

Afraid of the possible loss of their lofty status following the move across the Jordan, the meraglim embarked on a program of dual victimology: we aren’t militarily strong enough, and even if we were, we aren’t spiritually strong enough.

It worked too well. Everyone in klal yisrael—males between the ages of 20 and 60—were taken in.

The Divine response indicates what the Torah thinks of victimology: you call yourselves victims, you will be victims in perpetuity. Bechiya shel dorot.

The counter-response—the ma’apilim--seems to be equally ineffective, both as a militant and spiritual exercise. Similarly, Chazal in Gittin seem to fault the biryonim (“zealots”) for the Churban as much as anyone.

So, as much as across-the-board quietism is decried, nationalist revolutionary militance may probably seen as worse. Often they are two sides of the same coin; these are early examples, but there are many others, Jewish and non-, throughout history, where self-preceived victims become as tyrannical as their former persecutors, often toward the very people they were trying to “liberate”.

This is one lesson of Tisha B’Av that seems to be heeded even less than that of sinas chinam. In fact, it may be more a cause than effect of sinas chinam, and consequently more dangerous.

As a side note: Chazal and the midrashim state that no women were caught up in the sin of the meraglim. That they would not have been militant would be no surprise; that they weren’t susceptible to the national self-pity instigated by the meraglim might tell us something.