Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nitzavim/Vayelech: The Song Is Over

“And Moshe spoke [in] to [the ears of ] all the congregation of Israel words of this song until they finshed (Devarim 31:30).

And what was the last verse at the end of this song? Basically, Moshe telling Bnei Yisrael: you’re all gonna blow it after I die.

What prompts this unbridled pessimistic prophecy?

I would go back to the beginning of Nitzavim, where the Torah singles out a specific type of person condemned to having “his name erased from under [the] heavens”. This retribution is more in reaction to an attitude than a specific action or sin: as the Torah details, this person will tell him/herself: “All will be well [lit., peace] with me, for I will do as I see fit [lit., in the stubbornness of my heart I will walk]”. The Torah adds: “So that the watered be added to the thirsty [le’ma-an sephos ha-rava es ha-tze’me-ah]”, which Rashi explains to mean that his shegagos will be counted as zedonos.

While it seems as if Rashi explains the result, he may actually be providing an elucidation of the stated attitude. The best way I can explain this attitude may be through an old joke about a certain tzaddik who used to confuse the yetzer hara by giving in without a struggle.

I would venture that the reason this attitude is singled out for such opprobrium is that it describes someone who wants all the benefits of belonging to the community without having to put in any effort at all to be part of said community. This person hasn’t even had to advance to the kefira of a “mah ha-avoda ha-zos lachem”; in a sense, the attitude is simply parasitic. There are actually worse things than being a “self-hating Jew.”

I knew someone who once got up in front of an Orthodox college community and presumed to lecture them upon thier apparent unwillingness to respect all elements of a tzibbur, or as he put it, the “tzaddik”, “bet”, and “resh”—the tzadikkim, benonim, and reshaim, who were all integral parts of the community.

Normally, I wouldn’t confuse a message with a messenger, but I knew for a fact that his (religious—and other) views were, to be kind, questionable (because he had told me be-ferush; beyond his pontifications regarding G-d’s existence, or lack thereof, he had strongly asserted that the halachos of intermarriage were irredeemably racist).

Nevertheless, I did wish him a yasher koach (he did have a point), but in the interests of intellectual honesty, I asked him what place porshim had in the scheme of things. He laughed; he knew I had him.

Whether or not this person actually fits the category is eminently debatable (although, since I know him pretty well, if he was asked, he might actually gladly claim to fit the bill). However, the point I want to make is similar to what I discuss in Re’eh, where I detail the draconian legal process associated with mesis u-mediach and its insistence on securing a conviction, and its counterpoint in the ir hanidachas, where the legal system is set up to ensure it is never carried out. My point there was that the punishment associated with the former was so severe because, if the behavior was unchecked, it eventually led to the latter.

Here we have something similar. G-d singles out the individual with the parasitic attitude, because unfettered individualism only leads to the breakdown that Moshe sadly but confidently prophesies.

May this year see the fabric of the tzibbur—all parts—stay together strong, and may the words of The Song prove Moshe Rabbeinu wrong (he would want nothing more).

Gmar Chasima Tova to all.

Addendum to Ki Savo

Dov Hikind has informed me via e-mail that the Agudah no longer opposes fingerprinting.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ki Savo--Child Predators: Makah Be-seser

"Arrur makeh re'ehu ba-seser ve'amar kol ha'am amen."

According to Rashi, this refers to lashon hara.

I would propose an unfortunate but I think rather appropriate interpretation.

I can't imagine a stronger "maka be-seser" than molestation.

Except this: anyone who goes out of their way to not only protect predators, but who go so far as to sanctify the protection of these malefactors as a religious obligation. One might say they bear more responsibility than the actual predators themselves.

One could go on and on describing the various socio-cultural excuses masquerading as halacha that lead people to act this way.

I don't want to make a habit of calling out rabbis or rabbinical organizations; I'd be treading on more dangerous ground than I usually do. Besides, there are people who are truly being moser nefesh to put an end to this plague, and, having been victimized myself by religious predators (thank G-d in my case it could have been a lot worse than it ultimately was), I am not unaware that I have a axe to grind, however justified I may be.

I'll be blunt: Agudas Yisroel has no excuse to resist the fingerprinting of educational staff in any of its institutions. Certainly not now. The impression conveyed by their intransigence far outweighs any ostensible religious positive in circling the wagons.

I can draw one more parallel: the Mishna in Avot says--"ha-me'chalel shem shamayim be-seser nifrain mimenu be-gilui."

Can anyone imagine a more salient paradigm of chilul shamayim be-seser than the molestation of child by and individual entrusted with said child's spiritual and physical welfare in settings that are supposed to be pervaded with Torah and kedusha? Is there any action that maligns the Torah and Yahadus more than this?

It's not my place to speculate exactly how the priyah be-gilui comes into play. However, it isn't so much the existence of the problem more than the impression given of protecting the predators; that's where the real public chillul occurs.

Its time for our institutions to take the lead and fingerprint. No matter who objects.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

An Unrelated Note About The Election

If you give a pig a bris, talis, tefillin, a yarmulke, semicha, and then give it chassidishe shechita and check the lungs and declare it glatt...'s still a pig.

Ki Tetze—Marriage and Divorce

The old joke about why Gittin appears before Kiddushin in Shas (because G-d created the refuah before the makkah) is somewhat upended in this weeks parsha, where the sources for marriage and divorce appear in the same verse (24:1), with “kicha”, the term used for kiddushin, clearly preceding the appearance of “sefer kerisus”, the term denoting a get. The way the verse is written almost makes marital discord and divorce appear to be an inevitable consequence of marriage.

Further study of much of the halachos regarding marriage and marital conduct seems to mostly deal with what can, and will, go wrong, this even before it deals with issues of marital misconduct and divorce, a world all its own. (Maybe my Shabbas Nachamu criticism of religious figures’ involvement in matters of the heart may have been a bit harsh, at first glance; the halachic literature ostensibly doesn’t really give them that much to work with.)

I think the Torah boils the notion of marriage down to one very basic premise: no sexual relationship should ever be commenced until the parties are prepared to sign a contract regulating it. No matter how committed or in love two consenting adults really think they are, without this willingness, the relationship won’t be worth the paper its printed on. The Torah points out that there are going to be times this happens even when said paper does exist.

Furthermore, the marriage verse may seem to warn us that, if we are to think that the Torah is inevitably androcentrically misogynist, sometimes we might think again. We can examine a few of these bon mots, starting with 24:1.

The assumption in the verse seems, at first glance, to blame the ostensible dissolution of the marriage on the woman—“ki matza ba ervas davar”, he has found some unseemly thing in her. It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to propose that the fault is with the male for being so fault-finding, maybe he is simply looking for a way out. (Why does the Torah give it to him? That’s another discussion.  Start with the machlokes Bes Shammai/Bes Hillel at the end of Gittin about grounds for divorce.  Rabbeinu Gershom must have thought along similar lines.)

The Gemara  (Bava Basra 132b and elsewhere) states unequivocally that a woman wants to marry more than a man. In light of everything we’ve seen up to this point, this might simply be a topical restatement of the notion that women are simply more inclined toward monogamy than men are. That would make evolutionary biology as androcentric as the Torah, which complicates matters considerably.

The last item I would like to examine is the Talmudic statement “Tav le’meitav tan du mi’lemeitav armelu”, which at its most basic is translated “Better to settle as two than to settle [alone][lit 'a widow']”. This has been seized upon to mean that the Talmud is suggesting a woman is better off settling, even with a “bad” match, than with no match at all. This unnecessary translation is something that both what I would call Ultra-Right Fundamentalists and Doctrinaire Marxist Feminists would have us believe.

A closer examination of the hermenuetuical makeup of one of the sugyas in which it appears (Kiddushin 41a; this statement appears in Shas four other times) should put the lie to both sides of this debate. The Gemara has just finished explaining why a man must see his prospective bride before betrothal, lest he not like what he sees and then find himself in violation of “You should love your neighbor as yourself” (!). The Gemara uses this statement to answer why the converse would not apply to women; one might even say it means that, all other things being equal, looks aren’t an ultimate dealbreaker from her end the way they might be from his. All in all, the Talmud just finds its own way of stating that the male is more spatial. Hardly politically correct, but just as hardly misogynist.

(If you think the two are synonymous, you are just as much a fundamentalist as leftist, if not worse of one, than your religious/right counterparts. But that’s another discussion still.)

The debate regarding halacha’s ostensible misogyny will never end as long as there is ink to spill (better that than blood, though at times it seems we might be coming a little too close). My contribution in this discussion is the following suggestion: the Torah has its own agenda. One must be careful in explaining it in terms of other socio-political labels and phenomena, no matter how much of a surface resemblance there seems to be.

We do ourselves—and Torah—no favors by attaching labels to its precepts. They stand on their own.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Shoftim—The Political Is Personal

This week’s parsha closes with the passage of egla arufa, the procedure to be undertaken when the body of an apparent victim of murder is found in between two jurisdictions.

The egla arufa ceremony serves as an indication of an instance when a breakdown in the social fabric occurs, and the various authorities summoned to perform the various functions are enjoined to examine whether they have been remiss in keeping order, even inadvertently, to the point that an ostensible innocent has perished.

As R’ Avraham ibn Ezra and Chizkuni delineate, this passage follows the passage regarding the ethics of besieging an enemy, because, as they put, it links a national state of war with a personal state of war that resulted in murder.

Chizkuni also asserts that the process of measuring meticulously to determine the locale last responsible for the deceased allowed for investigation as to the identity of the deceased, because word would inevitably get out, indicating that a cover-up was never to be an option.

Rashi, quoting the Talmud in Sotah, states that the Sanhedrin HaGadol administrates the beginning steps of the procedure, indicating that the case is given national import.

Rashi also explains what the declaration “yadenu lo shafchu et dam hazeh” means: there was no reason to assume that this man was not provided with provisions and an escort when he left town. Interestingly, it seems the authorities were realistic enough to discern the need for escorts and protections, even among and between members of clal yisrael.

The medrash states that when Yosef sent “agalos”, or wagons, to Yaakov back with his brothers after revealing himself to them, this was a code, of sorts: Yosef was reminding Yaakov that the two of them were learning the halachos of egla arufa when they had last seen each other. We might see that Yosef wasn’t simply assuring his father that he hadn’t forgotten to open a sefer in the prior 22 years. Instead, Yosef may have been telling his father: I may have an incredibly powerful position, but I know what it really means in terms of responsibility, especially regarding preservation of life and provisions.

With the conventions over, running mates selected and the campaigns now in full swing, its easy to forget, what with all the promises and issues bandied about, the real meaning of leadership and responsibility. This applies both to candidates and voters. Keeping in mind the lesson of egla arufa might serve as a reminder that, while the personal may be political, the political is always personal.