Friday, February 20, 2009

Mishpatim: The Question of Slavery

When questions arise from certain quarters (secular or otherwise) regarding the moral relevance of Torah in contemporary times, the attack usually comes from one of two directions:

1) The Torah holds people responsible for inclinations they have no control over (e.g., homosexuality).

2) The Torah is irredeemably sexist and racist (if not borderline genocidal).

Usually included as part of challenge #2, the question arises as to why the Torah not only tolerates and condones slavery, but institutes ostensibly racially based codes of slave law for the Jews to follow, much like they had just suffered in Egypt. More poignantly, the question arises (as it does regarding other aforementioned issues) that if the Torah is the eternal, immutable fount of all morality, either slavery is morally neutral or even good, or the Torah’s “good”-ness is open to question. Additionally, avdus—in its most extreme manifestations—remains a pillar of classical Judaic practice and hashakfa; witness how every Rosh Hashanah we ask if G-d sees us as children or servants.

Answers run the gamut, but usually don’t help. Not only that, it seems that more people than one would expect are willing to go so far to defend Kavod HaTorah that they will slavery is a benign, even beneficial concept.

There’s the following statement of Rabbi Ze’ev Leff: “The Jew is not free. ‘Frei’ is the password of alienation from Judaism.” Succinct.

There’s the following statement about eved ivri:

The criminal becomes apprenticed to a single Jew who acts as his mentor and social worker. This person has total rights over the criminal (monetary, sexual etc). In the ideal world the Jew uses these rights to show the criminal how to do a decent days work and treat people nicely. The result: when he "earns back what he stole" he is a transformed person and goes free. True in our present world no one individual should be trusted with such a responsibility (which is why there is no slavery today). But when the Mesiah comes the slavery method will be preferable to the prison method.

This attempts to reduce the conflict to a semantic one: one can claim that this isn’t really “slavery” per se, but a form of penal servitude, or even, a systems of “corrections” not only whose morality no one disputes, but which might warm the cockles of a bleeding heart, at least, if the term “slavery” hadn’t been used. However, it does not mitigate the question of the morality of a human being ever being reduced to the status of chattel. Also, because of the principle “hakoneh eved ivri kanah rav le’atzmo” (one who acquires a Hebrew “slave” acquires oneself a master)—one someone who is quick to proclaim his/her support of the morality of slavery from these halachos must be ready to equally support the halachos regarding the possible “spoiling” of one’s eved.

Then theres this:

Similarly, when we find the concept of slavery in the Torah, while we certainly may and should question and try to understand, it must be with the realization that our Torah is actually the only code of morals that we have that we can be certain is correct (based on our beliefs), and we must accept the Torah whether it fits into our own preconception of what is moral and what is not.

This talented author simultaneously tautologizes, whitewashes, AND begs the question. (This after the author engages in a series of questionable historical analogs between how Jews treated their slaves, vs how non-Jews treated their slaves; after he glosses over the posuk “ta’avidu bahem be’farech”; and, how he undermines his support for his own position by providing a link to a site that features the story of a prominent frum Civil War-era abolitionist who actively assisted escaped slaves.)

Then there’s Dr. Ronen Ahituv, member of the Midrasha in Oranim, providing what might be a salient defense of the institution of slavery as a “good thing”:

When slavery is viewed as a normal and legitimate arrangement it may also serve as a model for the relationship between humans and God. It is a title of honor for the greatest of saints to be called "God's slave" (see Devarim 27), and the Jewish People as a whole is seen as a slave to God. It is not that slavery is prohibited in principle, but rather that God's slaves are enslaved to Him, and, therefore, they are not available to serve people. This is not a matter of a humanistic value, but rather of a religious value. As a result, classical Jewish texts do not call for the freeing of all slaves. Instead, they represent the Jewish People - and the Jewish People alone - as a nation of free men and woman. This freedom does not entail the rejection of all authority; rather it replaces the yoke of human authority with that of divine authority. The approach which recognizes servitude, which regulates it within a system of rights and obligations, prevents both cruel exploitation on the one hand, and illusions of nihilistic abandonment of responsibility on the other.

An entire novel, “Every Man A Slave”, written by Sender Zeyv, is dedicated to the concept of slavery as a good thing. From the publisher’s website::

The book primarily targets two of the social transitions that were indicative of the times, the abolition of slavery and the modernization (reform) of Judaism. To the adept reader, the Biblical attitude toward human bondage and how the institution fit in with meta-history, receives an in depth treatment. To those interested in the workings of the destruction of faith and immutable morality, the book offers, hopefully, satisfying explanations.

The implication that the abolition of slavery was a malign historical development analogous to the advent of Refrom Judaism would serve as the most salient Torah-bashing soundbite I’ve heard in years.

Closer to bridging the gap is Rabbi Eliezer Berkowits’ theory that he expounds “In Time And Torah”. He maintains, using Rambam’s suggestion in Moreh Nevuchim that G-d commanded the sacrifices for no other reason than to give man an outlet for his potentially idolatrous desires as a template, that the Torah did not outlaw practices that we may now find objectionable because the Jews were not yet ready to abandon them; one such example would be polygamy, which for the most part we eventually outlawed ourselves. Similarly with slavery: it may not have been realistic to outlaw a manner of socio-economic intercourse that was so widespread as to be the very backbone of trade at the time of Matan Torah, and there were limits to the isolation that the Torah wanted to impose on Bnei Yisrael.

This goes far, but not far enough. It attributes a built-in flexibilty to Torah that may or may not be there. For the record, I believe that it is, but just view the many aforementioned arguments to show how trenchant the idea remains that it is not.

So, I’ll take another template and work from there.

In "War Resistance in Jewish Law", in a collection entitled of essays entitled "Encounters”, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan marshals an array of sources to prove that Torah is actually fundamentally pacifist. His conclusions have been, for the most part, textually refuted, but his premise remains salient: if not outright assur, war is never morally desirable. The halachos governing war keep an already bad situation from getting worse.

I would make the same argument vis-à-vis slavery, combining Rabbis' Kaplan and Berkowits’ premises. The Torah, far from actually promoting slavery as morally beneficial, likely views its existence as a necessary evil, but morally suspect at best, repugnant at worst. (I wouldn’t go so far as to call practitioners of slavery in ALL eras as menuvalim birshus haTorah, although the very concept proves that there are some things that may be “muttar” but are morally repugnant, for whatever the reasons.) And like the prophecies that preach of the days that war will be eradicated, the Torah also yearns for the day of, to quote Dr. Ahituv above, the replacement the yoke of human authority with that of Divine authority.

But that’s not all.

I would also like to proffer another theory as to why the Torah would not insist upon the abolition of slavery. More than a universal moral code, the Torah is (obviously) Judeo-centric, and exists for us and our protection. The Torah might have been telling us, in a sense: Al tihyeh tzaddik harbeh. If you are the first to abolish slavery, don’t for a second think the rest of the world will follow your example and not enslave you when given the chance. Similarly with war: an insistence on pacifism as an absolute will result in your complicity in your own murders. To be sure, abolition and peace are good things. Let the rest of the world do it first; you do NOT have to stake your existence on it.

History bears this out. Slavery was never a good thing for anyone, but was nearly ineradicable. It took until 200 years ago for anyone to even contemplate its feasibility, and even now, when slavery is universally outlawed, it is estimated that 26 million people worldwide are enslaved in one form or other. Regarding the universal eradication of war, all we have to look at to understand the difference between theory and policy is the Kellogg-Briand pact.

The ultimate lesson, then, here is:

Universal "moral" proclamations, however salient, MUST ALWAYS be subject--at the very least--to whether, in the final analysis, they are or are not "good for the Jews."

We come first. Always.

Becuase, as Yonatan Netanyahu said, if we don't take care of ourselves, no one will do it for us.

Side Note: Maybe This Is Why There Are So Many Singles

A colleague of my father's who has never met me tells my father she is, is his words, "desperate" to get me married. After my asking whats driving her, this was his response:

She is desperate to fix you up because she wants to do mitzvos.

This was my email reply.

[ ]’s dedication, and degree of lishma/lo lishma is not for me to question...but im always suspicious of people insistently setting people up just because its a mitzva...remember what Rabbi Tendler said about getting married and its being a mitzva (i heard him say it was like getting a missing pair of tefilin; lenny said he heard him say it was like getting a missing pair of shoes). With all kavod due rabbi tendler that’s not a constructive attitude toward building the relationship necessary for a binyan bayis neeman.

either way...ill meet her, but you might want to let her know that she can also do this on saw you at sinai, if she doesnt already...they probably need a ton of shadchanim, and she can throw people together at her hearts content and see what sticks...

also, between you and, me, im not bothered by my having gotten a haircut, or that you and mom (in the least obtrusive manner possible) "nujjed" me...its your prerogative (ONLY yours), and ultimately, no one told me what to do...but i am INSTANTLY suspicious of someone who says that ill set you up with X but you have to cut your hair...because if its not the hair, itll be something else...the onus in that case is NOT on me, its on the shadchan to find someone who will take my hair, or she can just not set me up and move NOT chayav to make her job easier or pave her way to Gan Eden....

so: unless a) im doing the asking or b) im in yeshiva and the yeshiva shadchan is doing the setting up, it is NOT the shadchans business to give me ANY kind of mussar, no matter how ostensibly salient, or even benign (especially if she never met me)...otherwise shadchanus becomes just another excuse to make sure that there’s the least “shemetz” of “znus” (e.g. a shadchan becomes a “kli sheini” guaranteeing a certain level of “tachlis”…to my mind, a hashkafic c.y.a. G-d forbid anyone should date on their own. Oy.)

plus, in practice, this kind of insistence is poisonous for the romantic possibilities of the setup for both parties, and therefore is ultimately injurious to the prospects of the match's success, which just makes everyone stay unmarried longer. none of us likes it.

this is actually, i think, more of an accurate description of our (singles--and not just west siders') frustration with people (rebbetzin jungreis comes to mind) who wonder why we dont share the enthusiasms of the self-styled shadchanim of the world who wonder why were not RUNNING to get married because they say we should (or must). plus, the concomitant assumption that since were not RUNNING to get married we therefore dont WANT to get married is equally false. maybe, in my case, with me nearing 38, that might be something to consider; but with these people age was never really an issue ([ ] set me up with someone who was---25? poor girl…)

the RIGHT way to do this is either a) again, through the websites that make it easier for the parties to pick and choose with the least amount of concomitant ruffled feathers (like saw you at Sinai; and b) and rabbi [ ], who just suggested somebody off the cuff, which means he wont take it personally if i say no (and i probably will take him up on it).

. ......and while its the 4th quarter and i may behind, i have more than 2 minutes and i havent used up all my i dont need to be a vehicle for someones crusade no matter how well intentioned.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Its typical me; but at least I’m in good company.

Apparently, the reason for tikkun leil shavuos is that Klal Yisrael woke up late for Matan Torah.

Here I am late for the this weeks parsha.

Yisro—Bechira vs. K’fiya: Infantilization

“We must believe in free will. We have no choice.”
attributed to Isaac B. Singer, v’ikka d’amri Albert Einstein

Ma’amad Har Sinai is often likened to a marriage, with—of all things—the kfias har ke’gigis, the uprooting of Har Sinai and its hanging over the heads of Bnei Yisrael, serving as the chupa.

(Interesting method of proposal; imagine its employment on the Upper West Side. On the other hand, if a guy claimed to move mountains and could actually back it up...)

How to explain the explain the apparent the discrepancy between a “na’aseh v’nishma” and the obvious coercion involved in the kfias ha-har? The “kabbalas haTorah” Gemara (Shabbos 88a) even notes that R’ Aha bar Yaakov called this a “moda’a gedola d’oraisa”, loosely translated as: the Jews had an escape clause!!! (Of course, they obviated said ostensible escape clause at Purim—“Kimu veKiblu”).

The Medrash (Tanchuma Noach 3) clarifies: The aspect of Torah that had yet to be accepted was that of Torah She'b'al Peh (The Oral Torah).

Why would coercion need to be employed?

Rabbi Lipman Podolsky puts it: The Written Torah is much easier -- what you see is what you get. The Oral Torah on the other hand is a living, breathing, growing Torah. One must conquer it before one can truly fathom its True understanding. Thus, the Jews at Sinai accepted the Oral Torah only out of coercion.

Contrast that with this theoretical approach, from a vehemently right-wing educator:

Rabbi Heshy Grossman: It is not obedience that we want, but inspiration. Coercion can be maintained for a limited amount of time, while our youth are still under our thumb, but, more often, it creates a negative association with deeds we are striving to have them adopt. Without care and sensitivity, the hostility we create may last a lifetime.

From my experiences with Chareidi/Yeshivish hashkafa, Rabbi Grossman’s approach is, if not counterintuitive, certainly mostly untried in more stringent circles, no matter whether for good reason or not.

I think the tension between the two elements of Kabbalas HaTorah--the "naaseh-nishma" and the k'fias ha-har can be illustrated by what I would call the difference between and “fundamentalist” approach and, for lack of a better term, a, “adult” approach.

A “fundamentalist” approach would be characterized by a) the willingness to almost blindly follow orders and b) the readiness to give up one’s decisions making power/bechira (I use that as a colloquial catch-all of sorts here) to someone/something who knew better. This would have been exemplified by a Kabbalas Torah she’bi-ktav alone.

The idea of coercion, vis-à-vis Kabbalas HaTorah, in the simplest possible terms, was G-d telling Bnei Yisrael: you don’t get to be “Bnei” forever. This is gonna involve intellectual effort, intellectual responsibility, and a lot of growing up. G-d realizes it may not happen right away—which, to my mind, is why the the threat of the k’fias ha’har is couched in the terminology “sham teheh kevuraschem”—your grave will be there, i. e. eventual, down the road, when you need to be grown-up about these things.

In contemporary terms, this plays out in the educational approach to what we might call pop culture. Contemporary pop culture is strongly predicated nowadays on the perpetual adolescence and adolentification (I made that word up) of just about everybody, the strongest examples being the early sexualization of the way-too-young and the acting-as-teenage inclinations of those ostensibly way too old for that kind of behaviorMuch of Torah is a protest against this (part of Torah’s nature as a “sustained protest” against “pagan culture”, to paraphrase Rabbi Jonathan Sacks).

(Full disclosure: as I’ve written be-ferush on my Saw You At Sinai profile, I live and breathe pop culture. I actually turned down a potential date because her profile said “Denfinitely NOT Owning a TV.” Pum fahkert. So maybe I’m as guiltier of “profiling” than the “right-wing.” So much I will be modeh my biases. But again, I digress.)

The problem is, the chinuch “Establishment”—again, I use that as a catch-all, but a relevant one—seems to have employed the perpetual infantilization of its charges as a counter-tactic. Better that they never have to make a decision. Too much of what passes for “da’as Torah” and “emunas chachamim” nowadays falls into this category…and that’s when those concepts are actually textually and intellectually SALIENT. (And this is in “adult” education; never mind schools.)

The message of the k’fias ha-har is that infantilzing your charges is NEVER the answer. It might actually be a “chukkas ha-goy”: witness the “bibliolatry” (Yeshayahu Liebowitz’ term) of the "Biblical Inerrancy" of Christian right and Don't-Flush-Me Koraniacs. (Another reason for the frum to be wary of alliances woth doctrinaire conservative. But that’s another discussion.)

(As are issues surrounding daas Torah/emunas chachamim: believe me. I WILL get to that. Sooner than you might like. But not this week.)

I don't know what a more succesful "adult" approach to chinuch is, or would be.

But I'm not a mechanech.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Beshalach: Erev Rav

[Later note: I fell into the misconception--wherever it came from--that the concept of Erev Rav first appears in Beshalach. The posuk actually appears in Bo. The rest of my points still stand.]

I was all set to write a column about Jews who I thought comprised today’s ‘erev rav.

It was originally inspired by EPSN’s Max Kellerman who has said: “There are no self-hating Jews; there are only Jewish antisemites.”

I was going to list the usual suspects, starting with CAMERA’s comprehensive list of anti-Israeli Jews, then on to Sander Gilman’s Jewish Self-Hatred, and Barry Rubin’s Assimilation and Its Discontents (although be careful of Rubin’s treatment of the story of Yosef; the relevant Rashi was unread or ignored.)

I was further inspired to pursue this inyan when I read that Naomi Klein, dean/queen of antiglobalism, who, having once done some soul-searching (as far as a hard leftist can) about resisting her inclinations to be anti-Zionist, finally fully crossed over when she announced that it was time to boycott Israel—the same way South Africa was boycotted--because of Israel’s “excesses” in Gaza. This from a leading light of the cultural Left with a lot of cachet.

I was all set to present a thesis on how to categorize the various madregas of Jewish self-hatred, or erevravness, apply to different prominent self-hating Jews/Jewish antisemites.

Then I started to actually research the issue further on the Web, and suddenly realized two things:

One, that no matter how well I present my argument, I might be engaging in a machlokes agavra (i.e. ad hominem) as opposed to acheftza (the actual issue), if not being outright tautological; and

Two, I started to get “intern” syndrome, wondering whether I myself belonged in the erev rav category, owing to my political-social-religional proclivities. (Not necessarily in that order.)

A sampling from the blogosphere convinced me to think twice about wielding the term like a bludgeon.

Enter at your own risk.
After a full and productively evil life of about 120 years, the mask has been removed from the Erev-Rav….[] the clothes have been removed to reveal the ugly nakedness of secular Zionism.
“The deep like a garment is its clothing: the waters stood above the mountains”: A cunning person commits his actions by keeping quiet or in darkness. We cannot see it because it's concealed well. This is the Erev Rav (Israel Government).
That the Erev Rav is always with us is all over our seforim. But worse yet, the Arizal (shaar hapesukim, v'eschanan) writes that "nowadays the majority of the geenration is from the erev rav…” and the Divrei Chaim (Moadim, Hashmatos to Vayakhel) writes that "nowadays, the majority of rabbonim and chasidim and baalei batim in this generation are form the erev rav".And if the Arizal wrote that in his generation, and the Divrei Chaim in his, it cause s one to tremble when one thinks how it applies in ours. Especially since even among the erev rav there are different levels. The Zohar in Bereishis writes that there are 5 levels of erev rav, the lowest of which is Amalek!
It is these kinds of souls that are incarnated among the Jews which have been a cause of so much anti Semitism. As people don’t know that these people may be born from Jewish mothers but their souls are not that of incarnations of Jews, but “erev rav”. Its revealed only 1 person out of 5 was a Jew who left Egypt, the rest were “erev rav”. So many of the “Jews” in exile among the nations are certainly “erev rav”. It was said by a wise man that close to 1/3 of the Jews living in Israel today are “erev rav” (mixed multitude). Amalek and these other entities mentioned here are not only incarnated in the MIXED MULTITUDE but among the nations also, so beware.
When possible, please provide a picture with a few sentences explaining why you think this person is a member of The Erev Rav.

(And who said Google was anti-Zionist?)

Prior to my internet research, I consulted a sefer called Eleh Maasei which asserted, based on various Zohars, Or HaChaims, and some bon mots from Rav Yoel d’Satmar (I think the author, Rav Dan Schwartz, is a Satmar kollelnik), that the erev rav:

--Were not chased into the Yam Suf by Pharaoh, did not cross it, and therefore did not experience (at least not as direct benificiaries of) Krias Yam Suf.

--Necessitated a Ma-amad Har Sinai taking place outside Eretz Yisrael and a 40-year galus; without an erev rav, Bnei Yisrael would have gone straight to Eretz Yisrael and received the Torah there.

--Were outside the machaneh from the get go: they were not under the ananei hakavod, they only ate the leftover manna given to them by the Jews, they were not actually at Ma-amad Har Sinai and consequently did not receive the Torah (although the men did get milah, so apparently a mass conversion did take place).

--Can be held responsible for all the major averos committed by the dor hamidbar (when Datan/Aviram and Korach weren’t responsible): in short, everything that Moshe alludes to at the beginning of Sefer Devarim, including (especially) the egel and the meraglim.

So, if the erev ran were so dangerous, why bring them along in the first place? This could be a mistake with national repercussions on the order of Yaakov not divorcing Leah.

Interestingly enough, it was the afformentioned Godssecret website that explained why the erev rav were not only tolerated, but even welcomed:

“Bringing this mixed multitude out of Egypt was the only thing Moses decided to do on his own accord. God did not instruct Moses to take the mixed multitude out of Egypt. Nor did He disapprove of it. Moses reasoned that the souls of Isreal [sic] that would fall among the nations while in exile would be more difficult to find and redeem. This would cause the exile to last longer. Moses made a deal with God that these souls instead of beings scattered to the 4 corners of the earth would be incarnated among the “erev rav” (mixed multitude) which would always be close to the Jewish people. So it is easier to bring these souls back.”

Similarly, the Eleh Maasei explains the apparent necessary evil—or evil necessity—of including the ‘erev rav in geulas miztrayim, which he gets “mitoch hasefarim”: loosely speaking, there was a pegam left from Adam and the chet etz hadaas that was still in need of tikkun, and the “Jewish” portion of his primal (indeed, the Primal) soul got mixed up with the “non-Jewish” portion. Something like that.

(I once heard from a reasonable Chabadnik that those enslaved in shibud mitzrayim were gilgulim of those who had worked on the Migdal Bavel. So this might add up, one way or the other. Tzorech Iyun.)

So the erev rav play a role, however problematic (Satanic, even?). Small comfort. Even, or especially, if it turns out I’m one of them. (I have seen the enemy and he is…or the enemy has seen me and I am….)

So I reverted back original pshat to come to some sort of resolution: what are/were the erev rav in the parsha?

One: it is clear that at the outset, the erev rav who joined up, whatever their motivation, were NOT originally supposed to be included in bris and/or zechus Avos at the time of yetzias mitrayim, as they were not genealogical (nor, it seems, spiritual) descendents of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.

Two: nowadays, like Amalek, we can never know who they are. Which is why it is (at least) hashkafically dangerous to label anyone who is irrefutably Jewish as erev rav; it might be (however loosely) akin to saying that a person is mizera Amalek.

Especially when it is said that the real apocalyptic battle is not with Esav or Yishmael, but the Erev Rav.

Eventually, I will be pursue my original thesis about self-hating Jews/Jewish antisemites, in due time---on my Cognitive Dissidents blog. Conspicuously absent will be any reference to anyone as erev rav.

That said, as most of the references above wield the accusation of erev rav against people who are either insufficiently religious or Zionist, what happens when the “sufficiently religious” actively and openly collude with sworn mortal enemies of their ostensible brethren/sistren? I leave you with this.
Like many other humanists, Jewish and non-Jewish, Neturei Karta members have exhibited concern about the distressing predicament of the Palestinians. One of their members, Rabbi Moshe Hirsch served as a member in Arafat's government, incidentally not the only Jew to hold a prominent position in the Palestinian Authority. Neturei Karta members prayed at Arafat's bedside, toured the Hezbollah territory in Lebanon and met with the current Iranian president. Satmar rabbis visited Iran attempting to free Jewish prisoners there. Neturei Karta regularly demonstrate alongside Palestinians against the very existence of the Zionist state. These activities invite positive coverage of these Jews, complete with beards and side curls, in Arab and Muslim media certainly.

Any of these people in Havana or Caracas yet?

Forget erev rav.

I’d like to know where the precedents for this kind of behavior can be found in any Biblical or Halachic literature.