Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chayei Sarah—The Blue Cup

“A balabusta takes instructions only from her mother.”

“Gayst du Bais Yaakov?”
“B-b-bais Yaakov? Dort…dort…dort men lernen Chimmish!!!”

Recently I attended a tour of Satmar Williamsburg conducted by Freida Vizel, who was herself raised in the Satmar community.  Among the various anecdotal sociological observations she shared during the tour two particularly stood out.

One was how she specifically was Judaically educated: completely sans "original texts".  I asked her “Not even Tzenna Urenna?”  She said in her schools, not even Tzenna Urenna, although--she clarified later-- "while we did not study from any original Jewish texts, we had Yiddish schoolbooks from which we learned. They were for instance, pieces of history written out in Yiddish, bits about the parsha, etc."  Still--when even the classic text-to-eliminate-the-need-for-women-to-ever access-any-other-texts is kept out of the curriculum, that goes even beyond "not study[ing] from any original Jewish texts".

The other—which actually preceded the above anecdote but really provided the explanation for the practice—involved what involved what might illustrate a special method of social control.  Ms. Vizel mentioned that it wasn’t a belief or faith-based system that was preached and enforced; instead, her teacher used this analogy: you have a stack of white cups, and right in the middle of it is this blue one—what happens to the stack if you pull out the blue cup?--and, well let Ms. Vizel tell it: "[S]he built a cup tower to demonstrate."

[Ms. Vizel also pointed out that teachers like the tower-builder "weren't anyone but little eighteen year old girls in pretty suits!", indicating that this demonstration wasn't exactly on the level of a Rebbe's psak, and therefore not necessarily all that representative of, for lack of a better term, "Satmar Da'as Toireh".  However, "little eighteen year old girls in pretty suits" whose teacher training likely also "did not [include] study from any original Jewish texts" probably don't come up with such trenchant analogies sui generis; the Blue Cups likely have communal legs.]

Immediately a friend I had brought with me asked: why was the cup put in the middle of the stack and not the top?

And I asked: why was it painted blue?

[While we’re using drinking analogs [spoiler alert, based upon one of the Rashis [24:16] to be quoted [or not quoted] below]—a favorite kiruv industry bon mot regarding womens' sexuality is to compare it to a bottle of soda, which loses fizz when you open it.  Well—if you wait too long and never open the bottle, the soda STILL loses its fizz.  And believe me, even the soft drink industry AND Mayor Bloomberg would agree that expiration dates are a good idea.]

[Not that I’m advocating for either mass soda-bottle openings [especially not on Shabbos, r”l [:P]] or for storing long-past expired dusty bottles of flat Dr. Brown’s that hibernate in your basement from one Pesach to the next as the only alternatives.  However: the kiruv industry might want to employ a less tenuous analogy.  [If they do I'll stop using run-on sentences [with multiple brackets [what's the halacha about where to put the punctuation?]]]]

[But I digress, as usual…]

Again: why was the cup painted blue?

Suddenly it raised an interesting question in my mind: maybe the Satmar’s particular brand of pedagogy for females dovetailed with what might actually be the ideal Torah approach, if you think about it for half a minute.  Torah she-ba’al peh was never supposed to be entexted at all, much less codified; its publication was an emergency measure.  Maybe the Satmar method paralleled a “purer” form of transmission?   And the “nashim tzidkanios” would be the standard-bearers, because of AND in spite of the restrictions on texts?

I was almost hearing “See?  Women ARE on a higher level—they don’t NEED the learning; men do!”

And then I remembered what the linchpin of R' Yoel d’Satmar’s reasoning for restricting women’s education to text-free syllabi: all women were ipso facto “talmidim she’einam kehogen”, or “unworthy students” [cf. TB Berakhot 28b] and therefore precluded from study, because they could ultimately only use their knowledge to conceal illicitness [cf. TB Sotah 21b].  It’s actually a consistent policy: the women aren't chained to a pedestal because they aren't placed on one.  However, this obviated my initial hava amina of this being an/the ideal approach.

Underscoring this was Ms. Vizel’s assertion that even faith or belief wasn’t instructed [and, though it might have been unclear whether this was actually a direct result of the sex-segregated pedagogical method, one could infer that the undeniably intensive text-based education of the Satmar male population would include some instruction in belief and faith, so even if only by default, this also could be a uniquely female experience in that—and similar—communities].

So where would the religious transmission come from?   What underpins the behavior represented by the pyramid of cups?

In this week’s parsha we may get a hint from the way Rashi and the commentaries explain how Rivkah Imenu may have actually exemplified the blue cup in the stack.  Despite her beauty--noted clearly in the posuk--she was singularly chaste, in contradistinction to the locals [Rashi on 24:16]; there's your blue cup.  But it wasn't just the locals making up the stack needing to be tumbled: her own family not only featured the paradigmatic Biblical con artist, but a father whose very name implied his defining inclination—“lord of the virgins”—and who was ostensibly slain by the angels before he could solve his dilemma as to whether to exercise his usual droit du seigneur with his own daughter [ironically enough, his own constituents were planning to kill him if he DIDN’T subject his daughter to the treatment he meted out to theirs].

Somehow she maintained her standards to the point that her aforementioned family of criminals was forced to admit through clenched teeth that they were powerless [24:50, 51] to change her personally freely chosen [24:57] destiny even though—after the father’s sudden death [24:55] didn’t provide enough of a hint what the consequences were for interfering—the brother and mother [!] tried one more time to at least slow down the process, and even though they finally realized they couldn't stop her [24:58], they might have been demonstrably upset about being overruled by their little sister [24:59].

Where would the shidduch with Yitzchak Avinu been if she hadn’t been the blue cup that tumbled the stack?

[Parsha PSA re: Rivka marrying Yitzchak at age 3--this particular vort has to be quashed with extreme prejudice from being taught in classrooms, and maybe even from pulpits.  As my mara d’asra put it: even Rashi [25:20] doesn’t hold by Rashi.  The fact that a children’s book was published with the frum community as its target market with this meme as its central theme—and that some people don’t seem to have an issue with it, don’t seem to understand what the issue might be, or do and deny it--is horrifying.  Anyone in chinuch who insists upon relating this as p’shat should be terminated with cause and chased from the field forever.  And possibly be subject to a mandated report.]

[And now back to our show.]

What’s even more interesting here, however, is that in lieu of a text-based transmission, there has to be some sort of “mesora” for Satmar women.  The numbers don’t lie: the model has proved sustainable for almost 70 years; even if one can claim that the future is uncertain, something has worked until now.  Hence the quote at the beginning of this piece: the ultimate preservative; an almost parallel “mesora”.

Or is it?

Back to the parsha: we know very little [nothing?] about Rivka’s mother.  From what we know about her husband’s tendencies, her marriage probably did not provide a suitable model for her daughter to follow.  Yet we see again from Rashi [24:67] that Rivka’s model was someone she never got to meet: her mother-in-law, whose pre-Sinaitic “Shabbos table” that had disappeared with her passing reappeared with Rivka’s arrival: pace Rashi, “dugmas Sarah imo”.

Like before--where I must clearly reiterate that I am not advocating for a wanton mass-opening of soda-bottles—I am not necessarily calling for a carnival booth of cupstack knockdowns.  However—in theory, at least—the Chassidic movement that gets increasingly trenchant in the process of sustaining its model originally started out by tumbling more than a few stacks of cups, and the premise that half your population remains barred from the sources of tradition in the name of sustaining the transformed model might lead to more than one cup wobbling in the stack.

One might deduce from Ms. Vizel’s observations that the transmission for women involves an almost nebulous method of social control with no attendant system of faith principles—let alone access to the texts that codify these principles.  One might then wonder where the system of transmission comes from, let alone where it leads.   The “anan kashur al ha-ohel” won’t always appear just because most of the cups aren’t painted blue.

Much has been made of the ultimate sustainability of a religious model that depends on increasing strictures and isolation even as it grows exponentially, and there are salient sociological reasons to believe that the jury is out on its ultimate staying power despite the generational explosion.  But there is a starker [shtarker?] reason beyond sociology to question the model: the premise itself is tenuous.  Ms. Vizel—maybe without even realizing it—illustrated why that is.  And it has nothing to do with “modernity”, or the “internet”, or other more tangible external threats: it’s built right into the very model itself.

It IS The Blue Cup.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Vayera: The Akedah and the Aisle

With all the back and forth in the blogosphere and elsewhere re: the ostensible “shidduch crisis”, people seem to forget a basic underpinning of halachic marriage which might make the prospect more frightening if they ever considered the implications.

To wit:

Every Jewish woman who enters into a halachic marriage is making a commitment involving a level of mesiras nefesh that can NEVER be equaled by a male counterpart. 

In other words: every woman who is ever mekudeshes undergoes her own personal akedah. 





Some lawyers consider it legally unethical to ever advise a woman client to enter into the kind of contractual relationship entailed in an Orthodox marriage because there is never an option for her voluntary exit.   This indicates that any Jewish woman who has consented to kiddushin has thereby expressed that she places notions of Kedusha and Torah above anything having to do with “freedom” or “Western values”.   For all complaints from all quarters about the pernicious influence of “modernity” upon Yiddishkeit, the fact that kiddushin is practiced and that women enter into it willingly points to the fact that in some cases said “modernity” will never become a complete  “ikkar”.

There are hints to this level of mesiras nefesh in the classic literature.   One that I find pertinent in light of this parsha is the Talmudic statement [Kesuvos 72b] when discussing possible reasons for summary divorce:  im ken, lo henachta bas le’Avraham Avinu!”  [e.g. our father Abraham has no daughters if you hold them to [x] standard].  Not by accident do Chazal realize what a nisayon there is in every marriage on her part—and bring the one who was tested through the Akedah to make the point.

Beyond that—and if you want to accuse me of actually suggesting this be done, fine, because we all know nothing of the sort will ever come close to happening on any level—if women realized what they were being asked to give up, what would keep them from staging a grand “walkout” and declaring [Bava Basra 60b]: “we ought by rights to bind ourselves not to marry and beget children, and the seed of Abraham our father would come to an end of itself”?  The fact that said seed perpetuates—and is traced back to Avraham, particularly--indicates, again, the mesiras nefesh involved.

That is why the still-maligned halachic pre-nup is actually grossly undervalued—on RELIGIOUS terms. 

Because if people knew what mesiras nefesh was entailed on the part of every woman who underwent erusin, they’d be tripping over themselves to find a male equivalent that was that automatic.

[And if one will claim that the implication of divorce/death is “peripheral” to the kesuva—should I mention Kesuvos 11a: “…she has a Kesuvah…lest it be light in her husband's eyes to divorce her”?  Or maybe I should mention Rashi on Kesuvos 82b, where he says “lo rotzos lehinasei”—women were NOT MARRYING because the terms of the Kesuva [e.g. in regard to the nature of the assets attached to it] were unfavorable for the woman—and Chazal acted to fix it?  Twice?  Hardly “peripheral”, then, to “focus on the possible dissolution of a marriage when it is just beginning”.]

Because if you think that it’s “unromantic” to sign a pre-nup—actually, it might be the most “romantic” gesture a guy can make in the context of a halachic marriage.  In effect he says: I realize exactly what you’re doing, and I want to join you to whatever degree I can by making a similar commitment, even though it can never be the complete halachic equivalent.  The prenup might probably the most salient way to express that sentiment.

Because, even if you can back up your claim that there are “entirely defensible reasons” to “[not] embrace the prenuptual approach”, you may not realize what a disservice you do to the very “nashim tzidkanios” you end up chaining to the pedestals you continually place them on.

If “nashim tzidkanios” are going to bring the geulah—let’s hope it’s as simple a process as the act of kiddushin which for all intents and purposes involves an akedah.



[P.S.  After running this by an otherwise sympathetic Rabbi friend, he mentioned that the kesuva itself is hardly "romantic".  Then I remembered--

Maybe it is:

"From this forward, all my property, even the shirt on my back, shall be mortgaged and liened for the payment of this kesuva, dowry and additional sum, whether during my lifetime or thereafter"...

 "Even the shirt on my back"...sounds pretty romantic, no?

"Whether during my lifetime or thereafter"...still think divorce/death is “peripheral” to the kesuva?]

Friday, July 18, 2014

Matos--"Just One Look..."

The Gemara [Shabbos 64a] relates that the soldiers who came back from the revenge battle against the Midianites offered the gold and jewelry they captured in battle as a penitential tribute, because, even though Moshe initially suspected them of illicit relations [precisely because they offered the booty under their own volition], they said “’We did not do a sinful action, but perhaps we had sinful thoughts’…they taught in the House of R’ Yishmael: the soldiers needed [to bring the Kelim for] an atonement for getting pleasure from seeing forbidden women.”

This is one of the myriad Talmudic sources detailing restrictions regarding ogling—or, more likely, gazing that would fall far short of ogling.

Sefarim do exist that actually explicate “hilchos re’iyah” in great detail.  Suffice it to say it’s not one of my strong points.  It reminds me of the story a former shana bet colleague told me about the time he and a chavrusa, having been able to make the commitment to be “shomer negiah” and stick to it [more or less, at least for a measureable period of time], wanted to go the next step and try to be “shomer re’iyah”.   According to him, that might have lasted a few minutes.

[There is also guardyoureyes.com, which involves a “battle” that didn’t really exist yet in my Yeshiva days.  [But I date myself.]  Should I mention the irony of a website that helps one combat the vagaries of the Web?  I just did?]

This vignette is also usually a jumping-off point to most summer-period mussar shmuessen about watching what you—well, watch.   But it might not present as the paradigm of self-control it’s held up to be when you take a closer look.

This battle was the quid pro quo for Avel Shitim, the joint Moabite-Midianite turning-out of almost their entire flower of young womanhood to seduce Bnei Yisrael into Pe’or-worship and concomitant oblivion [cf. Sanhedrin 106a].  [Not-so-side note: the mass executions taking place during the incident were for the Pe’or worship, not the illicit liaisons; the only exception was Zimri, and there were other reasons for that.] 

There are midrashic indicators that soldiers weren’t too far removed by degree from the precipitating factors.  Rashi on 31:16 via Sifri relates that the soldiers actually recognized which particular woman had snared which particular Israelite offender: "this is the one through which so-and-so had his downfall."  [Since, as the aforementioned Sanhedrin 106a relates how Bilaam planned out the gradual seduction technique through business relationships, personal knowledge of at least who some of the participants were may not have been all that farfetched.] 

Tosfos Shabbat 64a [s.v. “midei hirhur mi yatzanu”] actually indicates one more interesting tidbit: the halacha of the “yefat to’ar”/captive woman was already known to the soldiers, but a reminder was needed that it applied to “the one you liked [“ve’chashakta”], but not her friend”. [I’m unaware  of anything indicating whether anyone actually made use of the loophole, but this Tosfos indicates that at least there was some consideration on the part of the soldier which would have been halachically legitimate, insofar as the boundary as to where it would not have been was delineated.]

So, not to necessarily downplay “lo sasuru”, but there were plenty of cues to hirhur here which made the situation other than a case of “re’iyah be’alma”.  Hardly paradigmatic, then.

Beyond that, however, is the extension that this might take to another realm that is the complete inversion of this case.  I can’t locate where I saw this, but a [well-meaning?] advocate of more sex-segregation in religious activity justified his position because, as he put it, he might be having a “spiritual moment”, which is then ruined by a female either singing or giving a dvar Torah.

To said complainant: if your “spiritual moments” are a] all about your having them and b] they are so fragile that they dissipate when a woman might simultaneously engage in something [at least] equally legitimately spiritual in the time and place where you are—then you probably have to reassess either what you call “spiritual”, your actual “spirituality”, or both.

This notion has actually been addressed in the contemporary literature.  In his “Understanding Tzniut”, Rav Yehuda Herz Henkin takes issue with a lot of what’s written in Rav Pesach Eliyahu Falk’s “Oz Vehadar Levusha” [I’ve heard that at least one BT women’s seminar tells their students to particularly NOT use that sefer as their tznius arbiter].   Or, as Rav Henkin puts it, it’s a sefer “as much about ideology and outlook as [it] is about halacha.”

Most germane to this issue—and the aforementioned complainant—is where R’ Henkin addresses R’ Falk’s approvingly relating the “rebbetzin who never displayed her vast knowledge…she would listen quietly and closely as if the words were new.  She never hinted that she was fully acquainted with what was being quoted.”  R’ Henkin: “An alternative—that she should share her knowledge with others and deliver a d’var Torah—is not considered.  Apparently, that would be displaying special skills and a lack of tzniut.”

And, the coup-de-grace: “There is a danger here of losing sight of the real basics of modesty—not to mention being so concerned about not thinking about women that one can think of nothing else.”

Res ipsa loquitor.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Side Note: The AGT Kid With The Yarmulke

I wish Rabbi Fink was right.

In the tradition of the Berditchever, he tried to find a “silver lining”, a limmud z’chus to whatever extent possible for the kippah-clad 6th grader who appeared on America’s Got Talent telling dirty jokes about his parents’ sex life while his parents shepped nachas onstage.

[I haven’t watched it.  I’m afraid if I do, the authorities will come looking for me; I’d look kind of the way Robin Thicke did mid-twerk with Miley, as if he was waiting to be arrested for statutory offenses.]

The reason I wish Rabbi Fink was right is because I’m a nogea b’davar, big time.  Leave alone my Saw You At Sinai resume which indicates that “I plan on: Definitely Owning A TV—Definitely Going Out To Movies—Definitely Watching Movies At Home”.   My SYAS essay details how I “embrace popular culture”.  [That might explain why I’m still single.  But maybe not.]

I play in cover bands.  Female-fronted.  Have been for years.  I’m not even going to publish our set list.  I’ve been known to say that I’m very makpid on kol isha: I try to hear as many women singing as possible.  [And yes, I generally keep my kippah on while onstage, or at least have my head covered.]

So while I definitely agree that, as Rabbi Fink put it, “we need more work on our image of being normal than our image of being religious”, this particular incident will swing the pendulum in the other direction; it’s given the right-wing crowd and/or anyone who eschews TV and the like a bigger pischon peh against MO than, to paraphrase Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “reams of Yated Ne’eman”.  

This makes even ME think twice about how steeped in pop culture I am.  [I’ve drawn some lines, occasionally asked some shailos from various LOR’s [and been actually pleasantly surprised by some of the answers I’ve gotten.]  But I admittedly haven’t viewed my immersion in pop culture through a purely halachik lens.]  So actually—I’m pretty ticked off at the kid’s parents; they’ve made it harder for the rest of us, especially those really involved in the arts who actually care.

However, maybe that’s where the silver lining Rabbi Fink looked for is.

First--at least judging from the facebook universe, most of the commentary was decidedly negative.  The term “Chilul Hashem” was bandied about—by MO practitioners who don’t necessarily have smicha.  Even R’ Yaakov Menken didn’t use the term in his Cross-Currents piece on the incident.  [Maybe he thought it was so obvious that it didn’t bear mentioning, but maybe not.]  This indicates that the MO universe is definitely NOT comfortable with this, and that something needs to be done.

Second--while we now recognize the need to draw lines somewhere, the involvement of Orthodox Jews as Orthodox Jews in the arts—performing and otherwise—isn’t going away.  We had the case of Ophir Ben-Sheetrit, suspended from her HS for singing in public; we have Orthodox dancers and dance teachers dealing with varying levels of communal tensions; and from my experience, many more kippah-wearing musicians in various beis mishtaos [some doing it for a living, some not].  When I did it in 1991 it was still a novelty, and somewhat controversial [especially since I was a Shana Bet guy].  It’s less so now.  There are going to have to be conversations and parameters, but maybe if the realization hasn’t yet sunk in that this is a viable option as far as Orthodox participation beyond mere spectating, maybe it will now.   There was a time when religious authorities tried to dissuade their charges from entering certain [actually, a majority of] professions, for various reasons [“Jewish boys/girls don’t do that”].   Some felt compelled to choose between the said professions and religion, and religion lost.   Then Orthodoxy adjusted--someone figured out: you can do both.  Same thing here.

Third--see some of the comments on facebook and elsewhere about “levels” of chilul hashem:  “Well which is worse, the MO kid with the dirty mouth, or the Chassid/black hatter who [insert malfeasance here]?”  In theory, that might be beside the point, with one important caveat: the widespread discomfort and [with the possible exception of me] lack of cognitive dissonance in the widespread criticism indicates that, unlike some of our more right wing cohorts, there seems to be less wagon-circling.   No one is saying that this is being used to attack our way of life.  [Except me.  And I’m admittedly an interested party.]

One more point: R’ Menken opined this happened because deviancy has been defined down.  I would—and have—argued—the opposite: sometimes the bar is raised too high, and there is a backlash.   This can—and has—happened in too many areas to detail, but maybe some people want to define themselves in contradistinction to perceived extremism, and this is what results.

So maybe Rabbi Fink was right after all.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Korach: "We're All Individuals!!!"

I’ve written before about how Korach, under the guise of egalitarian protestation, used his own prophetic vision to advance his personal position to get what he thought was rightfully his at the expense of those who were deluded enough to follow him and the democratic pretensions he actually didn’t believe in, or care enough to even give credence to.

Even if he himself didn’t believe what he was preaching, “kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim” being the catchphrase employed, it might be interesting to compare this case of Biblical democratic pretension to another: the story of migdal bavel.

The catchphrase there, as pointed out by the Netziv, was devarim achadim.  In HaEmek Davar Bereishis 11:4, he asserts that Tower-era Babylon prefigured the Iron Curtain in its legislation: “..if some would leave they might adopt different thoughts…[] so they saw to it that no one left their enclave…[] anyone who deviated from devarim achadim would be sentenced to burning…”  Judy Klistner refers to this as “coercive conformity”.

We see a lot of this, particularly on the Left and in academia, to the point that former Mayor Michael Boomberg admonished a graduation audience at Harvard about the disturbing trend of "liberals silencing voices "'deemed politically objectionable.'"   On the Right, it didn’t start with “You’re either with us or against us”, but the recent primary-season brouhahas between Tea Party and Chamber of Commerce candidates—and the insistence in some Republican enclaves that the party dedicate itself to a unitary religious vision—indicate for the tendencies for groupthink in those quarters.

That being in the word at large, how does this “vision” translate to the Jewish world?

One can note the difference between the respective Divine paybacks:  Korach dies. The dor haflagah doesn’t.   Why is Korach’s punishment so much more draconian?

He used religion to do it.  He not only held himself up as the leading light of egalitarianism, he held himself up as that of religious egalitarianism.  Despite the fact that he had ascended to his then-already lofty communal position because of his DNA [as Moshe pointed out to him], and his assertions of “kulam kedoshim”, he also intimated he would make changes to mitzvos, both bein adam lamakom [the “talis she’kulo techeiles”] and l’chavero [his rantings about tithing as an onerous system of taxation were a surefire way to score political points with the public].

There are many ways conformity can be introduced into religious practice, from all corners.   There’s no reason to point them out [although one might say that because there are so many of them—as Professor Lawrence Kaplan might say, “Which Da’as Torah?”—conformity is an impossibility].  But if someone tried to use “kulam kedoshim” as a justification…