Friday, December 26, 2008

Miketz/Chanuka: Ethnic Tension

This weeks parsha probably has the first blatantly recorded example of pure “racial” anti-Semitism in the Torah, where it records (43:32): “The Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians.” Rashi explains this as religiously-motivated discrimination, because Jews ate the Egyptian deities. (One might say that Jews didn’t invent not eating in each others’ kitchens; does that make it a goyish concept?)

Rabbi Yehuda Herz Henkin theorizes that at the time of Yosef’s ascension to viceroy, the Hyksos were in control of Egypt, which was one of the factors that allowed Yosef to come to power. The ethnic Egyptians became a disenfranchised majority in their own country (compare, Blacks in South Africa until 1994, Shiites in Iraq until 2003, non-Alawites in contemporary Syria).

Yosef was able to take advantage of these ethnic tensions and rule by fiat; we will see how he employed absolute state control over the economy at the end of this weeks parsha and next weeks. But the most interesting thing is that Yosef, in preparation for the upcoming golus mitzrayim, tried to level the playing field, as it were, by forcing the entire male populace to circumcise themselves. (This might somewhat echo the tactic of the Danish under Nazi occupation in 1943 when their King decreed that the entire populace wear yellow stars.)

Confusing the issue further, we have Rav Hutner’s explanation of the uniqueness of Chanukah, or glaus yavan. Unlike all the other galuyos, he maintains that the impetus behind galus yavan was the internal wrangling between the religious Jews and the Hellenists, where Jews actually actively not only aided and abetted their enemies, but actually invited and welcomed the anti-religious persecution.

So this is how the cahin plays out: Yosef, the ultimate victim of fraternal sinah (his brothers thought they were religiously justified in attempting to kill him), takes full advantage of an already politically dubious situation and reduces the entire population to economic and personal vassalage, all for theoretically selfish political ends: to reduce the eventual discomfort his family will experience when they are exiled here.

What does this tell us in terms of our political allegiances?

First of all, we have to examine the two factors at play here which would indicate to us why we would NOT adopt Yoesf’s method as our political attitudes. First of all, the region had been plunged into a dire economic crisis and lives were at stake; states of emergency do not ever lend themselves to any sort of political ideal. The second is that Yosef, operating at the highest levels of nevuah, was, as it were, having his policy dictated to him by G-d. There is (I think) nobody who would make that claim nowadays.

However, I will go out on a limb and say there is another lesson to be learned here, regarding Jews political allegiances and attitudes. The question remains: is it ever politically and morally legitimate to take advantage of ethno-political tensions for our own benefit? (The best current examples I can think of are Israel’s refusing to take sides against the Serbs in the Balkan wars, the Serbs being the least anti-Semitic of all the participants in the conflict, or their refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide as such for fear of offending their allies the Turks. (There was an article in a recent Commentary theorizing that the Armenian tragedy was more a massacre than a bonafide genocide, but that’s somewhat disingenuous, to say the least.)

We have to realize that such a move will, one way or another, come back to get us. Yosef, theoretically, did everything right politically and spitirually; yet, as Rabbi Henkin theorizes, when the Egyptians drove out the Hyksos and retook the country, that’s when the shibud started in earnest. Apparently the Egyptians did not learn the intended lesson from the forced circumcisions; they reasserted their majority status the second they had the opportunity.

Yet we also have to realize, as Yoni Netanyahu said before he led the rescue at Entebbe, if we don’t take care of ourselves, no one is going to do it for us. We always have to come first.

So I will say that the political lesson of this parsha can be summed up as follows:

Sometimes what is never the best course of action may prove to be the only available one. Just make sure that it is.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Vayeishev—Tznius III of III: Er and Onan and Yehuda and Tamar

Parshas Vayeishev provides the paradigmatic event of “too much tznius”: maaseh Yehuda v’Tamar.

The medrash relates just how Tamar was able to seduce her father-in-law Yehuda: she have covered her face while in his house and so he did not recognize her when he saw her. This behavior is simultaneously praised and condemned at the same time in Bereishis Rabbah 85:9; Bereishis Rabbah 35:8 goes so far as to acknowledge the possibility that one might become overly unfamiliar with (the looks of) one’s female relatives to the point that disaster may result.

(This is more prevalent than one might think; I know personally of a scion of a prominent Chassidic family who lost the chance at a shidduch because he refused to look at his potential mother-in-law.)

In her “A Return To Modesty”, Wendy Shalit relates how Muslim men are actually “turned on” by women in the chador. I remember more than one aspiring rabbinic student saying that the most beautiful thing about a woman is her ankle-length skirt. Ironically, it is the use of the veil itself—which Ramban relates was a tool of the trade of both common (zonah) and sacred (kedesha) prostitutes—which allows Tamar to succeed.  Almost a "bizarro tznius", as it were.

Even regarding the “icon” of tznius—Bas Kimchis, who merited to have seven sons become High Priest during Temple times, who, according to the Gemara, is supposed to exemplify “Kol Kevuda de-Ba Melech Penima” because “the beams of her house never saw the braids of her hair” (Yoma 47a) —there might be, or lack of a better term, less than meets the eye.

Rabbi Yossi (Yoma 12b) notes that a Kohen Gadol could be reinstated following his purification, but his (temporary) replacement was stuck with all the restrictions and none of the privileges of his previous position, because of “maalin bekedusha”. The gemara further (ibid 47a) details just how the series of disqualifications and elevations to the position occurred among the brothers: being hit by Gentile spittle. Additionally, the gemara notes that while "she credited her success to her modesty, [] the Chachamim indicated that others had done similarly but had not merited such honor" leading one to re-examine Bas Kimchis’ rewards, and, by extension, though not to take away from her piety, how desirable her conduct really was from an educational standpoint.

In another example of tznius short-circuiting itself, Batsheva, says the Midrash, even when she washed her hair, she had her attendant hold a towel over her hair so that it not become overly exposed, even IN HER HOUSE. King David, shooting at a bird and missing, instead hit the towel and caused Bas Sheva's hair to become temporarily revealed. We all know the immediate aftermath.

In Tamar’s case (who, less than coincidentally, was a Bas Kohen), we can take the too much tznius theme a step further by what happens to her in Yehuda’s house before she feels compelled to seduce Yehuda. This is the famous maaseh Er v’Onan, which became a catchall for shichvas zera levatala (another educational misnomer, but I’m not going to deal with that here). However, the real capital offense here, according to Tosfos in Yevamos 45b and Chizkuni here in the parsha, was exclusive biah shelo ke-darka, and one can surmise that it was nonconsensual. There doesn’t seem to be any solid scriptural or midrashic evidence to this effect, but the circumstantial evidence-- Tamar’s tznius and the fact that she lived while both brothers died—is pretty strong.

One might even view the entire plot from the seduction through Yehuda’s “tzadka mimeni” as Tamar quietly indicting Yehuda for the way he ran his household—specifically, how tznius was at such a premium in a household where sexual deviancy was rampant—and how Yehuda “blamed the victim” by withholding Tamar from Shela because he thought she was responsible for Er and Onan’s deaths.

The parallels to current scandals are obvious.

I have two conclusions after all this. The first is, as I mentioned, that if kol kevuda de’bas melech penima, the benos melech have been mochlos their kavod. Or, to paraphrase author Karen Lehrman, there is no ma’alah involved in being chained to a pedestal.

The second might depend on the degree of which my above statement is descriptive—where there would be no real halachic remedy for the curse of tznius—or prescriptive, in which case one hopes for salient educational approaches to being modest with our modesty.

There is such a thing as too much tznius.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Vayishlach--Tznius II of III: Dina

Dina is the first Bais Yaakov girl.

And the poor child is literally put in a box.

And then, the minute she dares to venture outside the box--literally and figuratively--she gets raped.

The midrashim seem to be of two minds on assessing responsibility. Rashi’s approach blames Dina directly, her assault the result of her tendency to galavant (“yatzanis”). Infuriating? Blaming the victim? In fact, both Ramban—who is more explicit about translating “va-ye’anehah” as rape (ones) as opposed to Rashi’s quoting to midrashic explanation of inui as biah shelo kedarka—and Malbim, who states that the “Vateizei Dina” is meant to exonerate her from the Midrash’s charges—are ahead of the curve here.

The second approach blames Yaakov himself for putting Dina in the box because he was afraid Esav would set his eyes on her and want to marry her. Not that he was afraid he would rape her (although he certainly was not unaware of his brother’s inclinations regarding sexual violence; viz., the drash of “ve-hu ayef” in Toldos); rather, he didn’t want Esav to even THINK of marrying her, even if (and this I where the exegetes take Yaakov to task) she would bring him to tshuva (which, the midrashim generally agree, was a more likely outcome than Esav negatively influencing her.)

Bartenura says that Yaakov's reason for hiding Dina was not the fear of anything negative happening to her, but the fear that she would succeed in reforming Eisav, which would make him worthy of the blessing that he would dominate his brother. This approach might even be more infuriating; Yaakov is ostensibly engaging in some fraternal spiritual power play, and his own daughter suffers in the worst way possible.

However, that may be precisely the point: “punished” or not through his daughter’s rape, Yaakov’s mixing up his own personal spiritual concerns—justified or not (and there are many discussions in the midrashim as to how “lishma” his motivations were in withholding Dina from Esav)—render him responsible for what happens to her. Why?

First, one can look at the box as symbolic of a flawed educational approach. There is no reason to assume that all knowledge and experience is de facto, if not de jure, dangerous. Locking all of it in a box—or, worse, placing the person inside a box—ensures that this is the message conveyed, and it is indisputably the wrong message.

Second, one can see that, even in the case of Yaakov Avinu, there existed the necessity of a parent (and, kal vachomer, an educator) examining his or her own motivations in employing a specific educational approach. Oftentimes, what one thinks is best for the child is really not in the child’s interest at all. Furthermore, if it was as difficult for Yaakov Avinu to at least critically weigh his child’s interests against his own inerests and clal yisrael’s interests—as all the midrashim attest to in one from or other—one can only imagine the near-impossibility of anyone else succeeding in that endeavor.

In this case, the most conservative/restrictive approach had the most disastrous possible result: eventually, people get killed. (Shimon and Levi’s having the last word after the Shechem campaign (“Hachezona yaaseh es achosenu?”) is indicative of what the proximate cause is in Yaakov’s mind.)

As a contemporary analog, I can think of a few very specific current educational programs aimed at women still in practice today, specifically ones which assert that women are not ALLOWED to learn torah she-ba’al peh. Mekoros aside, there is no legitimate reason that this approach should be given quarter in any halachic circles, no matter from whom or where it comes from, and it should be denounced with all the fervor one finds on various Yiddish broadsides (although any proclamation with that sort of tenor would immediately tarnish its credibility).

Too much “tznius”?

A Side Note Regarding Prop 8

It's clear that, halachically, all contracts elevating same-sex relationships to the level of unions are proscribed as a matter of Noahide law. (See midrashim on Bereishis 6:2, and BT Sanhedrin....somewhere between 54b and 59a. I'm still looking)

It's nearly equally clear that there is no solid logical reason to prohibit said relationships and unions, and there even might be salient social policy arguments in favor of the practice. This means that the only remaining objections are axiomatically theological.

Still, if one takes one's belief in Torah MiSinai seriously, one finds oneself intellectually bound to believe in the axiomatic immorality of homosexual unions.

So does that mean that one is therefore obligated to directly support Prop 8?

I'll say no.

My ra'aya?

I just read an article in the Chovevei journal that illustrated the difference between protesting the objectionable and actually having to put a stop to it.

At first glance, one might think that the Mormons' effort provided the paradigm that all "right-thinking" people should follow, particularly Orthodox Jews. ("Da'as Torah" proponents are usually very uncomfortable when religious groups out-frum the frum in formulating public policy.)

However, I think it would be both morally and religiously sufficient to simply--abstain. This is a case where one could be yotzei "protesting" by simply not voting against Prop 8. (And be clear that, even if one's extrareligious conscience is bothered by ostensible religious "homophobia", the Torah's baseline position is not, to say the least, congruent with the current socio-political zeitgeist.)

Why would one not be obligated to go vote for Prop 8 given the opportunity?

There is an argument among liberal cognoscenti (and less-then-cognoscenti) that the full granting of sexual and marital civil rights is an inevitability. This is arguable in either direction; however, the fact that voters in thirty states voted to ban gay marriage does not necessarily postpone the inevitable. Aderabba: one can be certain that when Brown v Board was decided in 1954, even up to the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act in 1965, the majority of (at least) the South's (white) citizens were dead set against the granting of ANY legal equality. One must remember, too, that the objections--when they resembled anything rational--were usually either Biblical (Genesis 9:25-27) and/or sexually Darwinian (even now, black male-white female love scenes in mainstream Hollywood are extremely rare). Yet the legislation passed, and has become an inexorable part of our political culture and zeitgeist.

One can claim that the Mormon effort might actually speed up the process. (One should also appreciate the irony of a Mormon effort to pass legislation restricting marriage to one man and one woman. In contradistinction to the "Da'as Torah" influenced fear of other religious groups' out-"frumming" Jews, I thank Hashem Shelo Asani Fundamentalist. They actually make us look good.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Vayeitzei--Tznius, I of III: Rachel and Leah

The Gemara in Eruvin 100b lists the ten curses placed on women as a result of Chava’s role in the chet etz hada’as. One of the best treatments I’ve seen on the topic is "The Ten Curses of Eve (an unpublishable article on women in Judaism)" on Berel Lerner’s Jewish Bible Blog.

I’m going to concern myself with curse #8: what we call tznius, or according to the Gemara, “…that she stays in the home and does not show herself in public like a man.” There are strong indicators in each of the next three parshiyot that indicate three things about contemporary discussions of tznius, inside and outside the bes medrash:

One, that the popular, go-to translation, “modesty”, might be incomplete, particularly when the focus becomes visual and/or sartorial;

Two, that, in line with Eruvin 100b, it is truly is more of a curse than a desideratum; and,

Three, there is such a thing as “too much” tznius, Rabbi Pesach Falk’s assertion that “What Torah Does For Men, Tznius Does For Women” (chapter title in his “Oz Vehadar Levusha: A Blueprint for Modesty”) notwithstanding.

Before I delve into the relevant passages in the parsha, I will be upfront about what my aim in “attacking” tznius (which, I don’t think I’m really doing, but since I will definitely be giving that perception, I will have to deal with it) by putting it this way:

If Kol Kevuda de-Bas Melech Penima...

...nowadays the Benos Melech have been mochlos said kavod.

In any case, the story in question in Vayetzei which deals directly with my first issue--mistranslation—-is the Gemara in Baba Basra which deals with how becuase Rachel Imenu allowed Leah to marry Yaacov first, Hashem listened to Rachel and said, “Ki yesh sachar li’f’ulaseich v’shavu vanim l’gvulam”-- the Jewish people will indeed go back to Eretz Yisrael. The gemara even refers to this specifically as Rachel’s act of “tznius”. What kind of tsnius is this? Rabbi Usher Laifer, Yeshiva Gedolah of Greater Washington, provides what one might call a “classical” explanation:

“Rachel, when she gave the simanim to Leah, performed an act of tznius- an act of treating something special (Klal Yisroel) with the utmost respect. Regarding our physical bodies the manifestation of tznius is covering and clothing it; regarding the formation and foundation of Klal Yisrael, the manifestation of tznius is by making sure it starts “Al Taharas Hakodesh”- totally and absolutely pure- that not one ounce of hurt or bad can be found in its formation and creation. Thus the Gemarah describes Rachel’s deed as one of tznius.”

I have a different explanation, from someone who has requested anonymity, which I think might be more realistic, in light of how the Gemara and midrashim detail the events of that night.

First, the ostensibly earth shattering assertion from said anonymous source: Rachel was afraid that if she married Yaacov first, her father would rape Leah. (Which, to be blunt, seems to be a better way to explain “achshav techalem achosi” than mere embarrassment.)

I haven’t found a direct corroboration for this, but I have found a strong correlational source: the medrash that says that Besuel was killed by an angel the night before Rivkah was to leave with Eliezer for her marriage with Yitzchak because he intended to carry out his “droit de signeur”, or right to have a virgin before her intended did. Even--or especially--his own daughter. (Indeed, his very name, “Besu-El”, could be translated as “Lord of Virginity”.) In Lavan’s case, it seems that in the end his material greed got the better of his carnal inclinations, but in light of ma’aseh avos siman lebanim, Rachel couldn’t have been sure about that.

Additionally, might not Yaccov’s wedding to Leah could have been a mekach ta’us (Rav Aharon Kotler’s maaleh min hateva explanation notwithstanding)?   Might Rachel have "blackmailed" Yaacov to stay married to Leah (if Yaakov didn't feel compelled already to stay married to Leah for Lavan to allow him to marry Rachel?)

So what was the “tznius”? It seems that the details of this entire affair hardly resemble the "classic" (mis?)-conception of tznius. Indeed, as the gemara and Medrash Eicha details, during the wedding night, Rachel was under the bed doing all the talking while Yaacov was with Leah. (Hardly the most "tzniusdik" approach to tznius.)

Rather, a further definition of “tznius” should include:


Or, more specifically, when one must keep a secret—and when one must not.

When One Must Keep A Secret: Yaacov and Rachel’s “simanim”.

When One Must Not: Rachel giving the simanim to Leah, knowing the possible result of Rachel marrying first.

When One Must Keep A Secret: Rachel not letting on to Yaacov her suspicions….

When One Must Not: …until she could ascertain that Leah’s wedding was a fait accompli. (Here, the more standard explanation of “techalem achosi” would make more sense.)

When One Must Keep A Secret: Rachel and Leah never letting on to what really happened under the bed.

When One Must Not: Leah never letting on to how Rachel was in on it, because when Yaacov calls her “Deceiever, daughter of a deceiver!!!”, Leah doesn’t give up Rachel, but instead comes back with her pot-kettle-black retort: “And what about the brachos?”

We see, from all this, that the real “tznius” involved a delicate operation on Rachel’s part involving what to tell and not to tell, what needed to be “covered up” and what didn’t, and for her to suspend her very strong personal feeling in the process, which is probably why the midrashim elevate this “tznius” to the highest level, because discretion was definitely the better part of valor. Usually, getting discretion to be the better part of discretion is hard enough.