Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mishpatim—Final Answer[s]?

Like I described in my post Eikev: Where Does It Say?…, the part of Matan Torah that appears at the end of this week’s parsha may serve as an example of an educational misimpression, in this that being that two of the central themes of Matan Torah—“naaseh v’nishma” and Moshe’s 40-day/40-night private shiur—are here, and not in Yisro [where “naaseh” appears, as opposed to the double formulation here].

As I discussed in more detail in Yisro—Bechira vs. K’fiya: Infantilization, this may have a lot to do with the fact that, as the Gemara Shabbos 88b details, the real k’fiya involved the “nishma”, or the ba’al peh part of Torah. So it’s no accident that there are both a “naaseh” in one place and a “naaseh v’nishma” in another: more specifically, despite another educational misimpression—that being that saying “naaseh” before “nishma” was an unqualified ma’alah—we see that the situation is more complicated. In a certain sense one can entertain a solid hava amina, at least, that it was easier to simply say “naaseh” if one could just never have to deal with the “nishma”.

Where these themes come together here can possibly be found in the Rashis on 23:2 [“Lo sihyeh acharei rabim le-ra’os”], which, when I took Intro to Bible at YU with Rabbi David Sykes, was held up as the paradigmatic stating-his-thesis Rashi, where he possibly picks the one pasuk in the Torah that, ironically, completely confounds his approach [not only that, but he says so beferush: he quotes most of the Gemaras explaining the various inyanim, but he says that “none of this explains the pasuk “al ofanav”, which he then declined to even attempt to do].

What might even more ironic is the theme of the pasuk itself: voting and other democratic procedures of Sanhedrin and batei dinin. This is as close to a “nishma” as a “naaseh”: that is, the centrality of this pasuk as both a linchpin of halachic jurisprudence and the ultimate resistance to Rashi’s penchant for p’shat indicate how much more process- than result-oriented Torah is.

To be sure, the results count for—a lot. In a shiur I attended given by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder about the halachic implication of free inquiry, one inescapable conclusion was that reaching certain conclusions were certainly halachically and hashkafically out of bounds. However, using Maimonidean examples from both Mishneh Torah [Avodas Kochavim 2:2,3] and Moreh Nevuchim [2:25], he showed that restrictions on said conclusions don’t always necessarily preclude the legitimacy of pursuing the inquiries that precede them.

Two further ironies, both touched upon by Rabbi Wieder: one, that Rambam needed to follow his own line of inquiry to arrive at the conclusion in Mishneh Torah where he expresses extreme misgivings about conducting said inquiries, and said line of inquiry certainly, on the surface, violated his own proscriptions; and two, that [like most such Rambam’s] reading between the lines leads you to a halachic conclusion other than the one ostensibly so strongly proferred. In this case, that would mean that restrictions placed upon inquiries can never be as proscriptive as those placed upon conclusions.

The more yeshivish contemporary conventions that militate against asking questions [despite the proclamations issuing from various publications from said corners that deny such mind-control tactics are being used in their chinuch approaches] may actually prove to be more counterproductive: it may actually ultimately lead to one reaching the WRONG conclusions when one doesn’t learn to ask the right—and wrong—questions. Or, even better: the key might be to learn how to turn what might be a “wrong” conclusion into just another question, so that the correct conclusion is eventually arrived at.

Just to sum up, the fact that the posuk upon which all this centers has to do with Sanhedrins and batei dinin indicate that this is not simply a “chinuch” issue. This eventually goes to the highest levels.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Yisro—The Job

My Rav Muvhak, Rav Aharon Bina, used to always quote “ahz ze Blues Brozzers Movie” which was his favorite movie [“ahz for me is kosher movie cause I not understand all ze dirty words”] in his own inimitable way:

“Ahz we are on mission of G-d job”.

To [over simplify], one can use two ways to explain this concept, both from this weeks parsha.

The first: in explaining to my senior class at MTA why we shouldn’t go to rock concerts, Rabbi Mayer Schiller simply quoted two pesukim: Bereishis bara Elo-kim es hashamayim ve-es ha’aretz. Anochi Hashem Elo-kecha asher hotzesicha me-eretz mi-beis avadim. The second pasuk sets the demarcation line from the first; not all of Bereishis is for us. This basically qualified as a stronger re-statement of the first Rashi on the Torah [and it worked, a little; it was another four years before I attended my first rock concert.]

The second: the exhortation to be a “mamleches kohanim ve-goy kadosh”. Interestingly, Rashi has very little to say, other than to explain that “kohanim” simply means “princes” [as opposed to “priests”]. This has been one way to describe our “job”, or “mission”, as Jews, along with the occasional “tikkun olam” and “or lagoyim” one hears from time to time.

Like Rabbi Schiller, I am going to focus on current events to highlight a[nother] possible interpretation of what is not our “job”/”mission”.

The recent Israeli humanitarian efforts in Haiti have received a lot—and not nearly enough—press. Yet this may be an indication of the world’s grudging recognition of the fact that the Jews—and Israel—have a mission to fulfill; so—doing our “jobs” isn’t necessarily all that praiseworthy, even if it is “lifnim mi-shuras hadin”. It also doesn’t sell papers.

What might actually sell papers, however is the story involving 10 American Baptists arrested in Haiti for attempting to kidnap 33 Haitian children. Pastoral pronouncements that Haiti was experiencing divine payback for a deal with the devil wasn’t bad enough; taking advantage of tragedy to further one’s belief definitely does not fit into our mission, especially at the expense of children. [This is why I was fervently pro-prosecution in the Helbrans-Fima case years ago.] It’s cases like these where Hillary Clinton’s assertion that “organized religion stand[s] in the way of faith” actually make sense, and another reason for us to very wary of alliances—political, spiritual, otherwise—with the “religious” right.

Anu amelim, hem amelim.