Friday, November 30, 2018

Vayeshev—The Not So Gentle Art Of Verbal Self Defense

Last year, ancillary to another topic in these pages, the author made this assertion:

“In fact—at the risk of violating a certain level of moreh halacha lifnei rabbanim—anyone who uses Tamar as the paradigmatic example of avoiding embarrassing someone even at the cost of ones own life—STOP IT; making the ostensible halbanah [the] sole locus [of] the Yehuda-Tamar narrative and then generalizing it as a teachable moment for tinokos shel beis rabban ensures that understanding the ma’aseh never gets past that level.  

“It’s frankly….embarrassing.”

The debate about whether halbanah is yehareg ve’al yaa’vor notwithstanding, a closer look indicates why the Yehuda-Tamar narrative may be the exception that proves the rule when it comes to halbanah, the rule being: more often than not, halbanah as a defensive tactic is eminently justifiable.

(Side topic: how the ostensibly all encompassing prohibition on bearing grudges and retaliation might be a lot narrower than one might have been told.  Specifically, one might want to use the Chafetz Chaim (Peticha lavin fnt. 8) that responding to an insult immediately with another insult isn't considered revenge since it is immediate and out of pain; that in and of itself might help some more omega talmidim feel less bullied instead of being instructed to shashtill.)

Why was Tamar reluctant to “name and shame”? 

Tamar had two major X factors to consider as she was being dragged to the stake. 

The first was that she bore some responsibility for what had happened: Yehuda was guilty of what had happened because she had very effectively deceived him; he may have given consent way after the fact, and he may have put her in an impossible position because of his and his sons’ moral failures, but at the time of the assignation, he was not a willing party.  

The second had to do with the Messianic mission that was impetus behind the assignation and the pregnancy: adding a “personal” element by naming and shaming Yehuda even at the cost of her life and the fetuses would have compromised the spiritual nature of the mission, and therefore the entire mission, especially since part of the mission was to get Yehuda to acknowledge his “contribution”, so she could only call him out indirectly.

(As another side point, one might consider that the possibility that the unborn would be destroyed here indicated for another point to consider in the abortion debates: note that as Tamar was NOT guilty of a capital crime here—and therefore the fetuses were not to be considered already dead and subject to execution—the mission seems to actually have taken precedence over their ostensible viability and continuing the pregnancy.  And—it was her “choice”, with which the midrashim seem to concur.  But again: different topic.)

So what would be the actual baseline of an actual halbanah from this narrative?

TB BM 58a—where the Yehuda-Tamar narrative is discussed—tells the story of Mar Ukva who would leave coins behind a poor man's door daily; the poor man wanted to find out who had been leaving coins for him, so when Mar Ukva noticed he was being followed he ran with his wife and hid in a hot furnace as to not embarrass the man.  

One of my marei d’asra told the following story at one his Rosh haShana derashos:  Rav Yisroel Salanter arrived in a town where he was unknown an went to daven mincha in a crowded shul.  Not having access to a siddur, he looked over the shoulder of a fellow in front of him, who then proceeded to berate R’ Salanter loudly and publicly for “shterring my kavvanah.”  

(As a loosely analogous aside, the story is told about a guy at a Friday night “tish” who complained that his “spiritual high” was ruined by hearing a woman sing zemiros.  One can certainly question how “spiritual” his high was, especially as he made it particularly about him, which was also something Tamar was trying to avoid: her mission was too important to personalize.)

My mora d’asra then defined from the R’ Salanter incident what Chilul Hashem was: hurting someone deliberately in order to do a mitzvah.  Tamar and Mar Ukva were attempting to avoid that specific situation: spiritual elevation at the expense of someone’s personal humiliation.

However—both of those are distinct from using verbal weaponry for self-defense in the face of delegitimization.  In the current zeitgeist, when debating tactics aren’t about parsing the truth but actually suppressing it, one might be remiss in shying away from employing an antagonist’s tactics—even adhominous labeling, even gaslighting—if they can be used effectively first.  It might be a stretch, but there comes a point where—like in TB Kesuvos 14b—one might be gaslighted into delegitimation if one doesn’t counter it: in other words, haba le’delegitimecha, hashkem le’deligitimam. אם לרמאות הוא בא גם אני אחיו ברמאות.

Especially when they’ve already made it personal.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Vayishlach—Handling the Truth

You have the Truth.

Can you handle it?

TB Chullin 91a gives an ostensible play-by-play of Yaakov wrestling the angel.  While the most enduring image conjured up is the kicked-up dust rising all the way to the Throne of Glory—where, it is said, G-d keeps an image of Yaakov, who embodies “Truth”—some of the other details from the story itself indicate not only for the struggle involved for even Yaakov attaining the Truth, but that at times this Truth remains inaccessible to one who has it, never mind if that Truth needs to be conveyed.  In fact, the wrestling match presents the climax of Yaakov’s search for truth, not only because of the overarching metaphysically of the event, but because the other events of Yaakov’s life as recorded in Chumash indicate—at first glance—that this relationship with Truth is ostensibly complicated, sometimes because of actions of his initiative, sometimes as a result of others’ efforts.

A partial list:
  • Yaakov pilfering the brachos as a result of his mother’s imprecations as well as her own prophetic visions that she herself does not share with her husband Yitzchak; 
  • Yaakov’s obvious discomfort with the plan to the point that Rashi pace the midrashim is compelled to parse “Anochi…Esav bechorecha”; 
  • Rivkah not sharing her other prophetic vision of Esav’s murderous intentions towards Yaakov with her husband; 
  • Yaakov accusing Leah of being like her father because of the bait-and-switch, only to be immediately pot-kettle-blacked by Leah—“and what about the brachos?”;  
  • Yaakov needing to take both a warlike and diplomatic stance in approaching his brother, and being taken to task for being too pliant in his diplomatic approach (calling himself “your servant” and downplaying the effect of the brachos); 
...all indicating that finding what might be the “best” answer might call for “bending” the Truth.

Even the guise of the angel Yaakov wrestles is up in the air: he may have resembled an idolater; he may have resembled a talmid chacham.

One can discern a progression, even if not a linear one, from where a possessor of Truth then proffers it in a way that at the very least gets lost in translation, beginning with Yitzchak trying to convey it to Esav more than he does Yaakov, while fooled by Esav’s pretentions to piety; Rivkah is more successful, but at a terrible price, even if one she herself prophesies (Gen. 27:45—“Let me not lose you both in one day!”).  This has to complicate Yaakov’s chinuch prerogatives with his family, for lack of a better term, in a ways that are readily evident: 
  • Yaakov wanting to divorce Leah, but staying together for the children (GR 71:2), even after (pace the Artscroll chumash citing R Aharon Kotler) that "his acute spiritual antennae detected nothing wrong" on his wedding night after the swtich, because Leah was his true "spiritual partner"; 
  • Yaakov’s ostensible insensitivity to Rachel’s infertility (Gen. 30:2, to the point of anger: “Can I take the place of G-d?”, and her fear that now SHE would suffer divorce and fall into the hands of Esav); 
  • Yaakov hiding Dinah in a box to keep his brother’s prying eyes off of her because he’s actually afraid she might bring Esav to teshuva; 
  • Yaakov's silence in the face of Dina’s abduction and then his disapproval when action is actually taken; 
  • and finally, Yosef’s coat, which Yaakov uses simultaneously as a token of favoritism and as a motivational tool vis-a-vis the brothers, which backfires spectacularly: the fact that the brothers attach a cherem to the secret of Yosef’s abduction and sale that even binds their grandfather Yitzchak seems to confirm the generational tendencies towards secrecy and miscommunication.  
In theory, two bold statements that this author might have been otherwise afraid to utter but came across a in WebYeshiva essay about this topic while researching this piece which might have more forcefully made the salient points regarding Truth, particularly: 
  • “Human truth isn’t to be dismissed…There is objective Truth, there is human truth, and there is the combination of the two that we find in halachah.”
  • “Avraham is known for the trait of chessed, kindness, and—since Torah is also called a Torah of kindness- that was why he was able to fulfill the entire Torah intuitively… Ya’acov, on the other hand, is known for the trait of truth[,] and therefore could not intuit the Torah, since Truth is the seal of God, and that trait doesn’t fully exist in this world.”
The broader epistemology notwithstanding, one can just view the disparate elements of the narrative to discern the pitfalls of “Truthtelling” as an educational approach, particularly when only one option is presented as “Truth”.  This author has described elsewhere how the Dina-in-a-box incident indicates for an educational failure on Yaakov’s part; but also, the Torah's depiction of the early deaths of Er and Onan indicate for some lessons in Yehuda’s household either not having been taught, but certainly not having been learned, especially on the heels of the lessons not being learned from Yosef’s sale, as described in Rashi on 38:1.  (It’s also possible that the extreme reluctance of Yeshivos to teach Chapter 38 at all indicates that maybe on some level there exists a fear of exposing all of the Truth all at once.)

Even when one “has” the truth (never mind if one isn’t even certain of possessing it), one is not necessarily qualified to communicate it, or the time may not be right for it to be communicated; or: just because you see something, doesn’t mean you say something.  Sometimes there is just as much a mitzvah to say nothing.  Sometimes it isn't the Truth being handled.  Only in tennis is "99% out 100% in"; elsewhere, the claim that one possesses 100% of the truth is 100% untruth.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Chayei Sarah—From Inside The Tent

At the end of Chapter 24, when Yitzchak meets Rivkah, marries her and bring her into “Sarah’s tent”, Rashi pace Bereishis Rabbah notes:

"While Sarah was living, a light had been burning in the tent from one Sabbath eve to the next, there was always a blessing in the dough (a miraculous increase) and a cloud was always hanging over the tent (as a divine protection), but since her death all these had stopped. However, when Rebecca came, they reappeared” (GR 60:16)

The literature is replete with the significance of Sarah’s tent, just even with regard the basics.  Two weeks ago, Rashi on 12:8—where אָהֳלֹ֑ה is written in the feminine but read in the masculine—notes that Avraham made sure Sarah’s tent was pitched first; last week, when the angels-as-guests inquire after Sarah (18:9) and are told הִנֵּ֥ה בָאֹֽהֶל, Avraham—who doesn’t know yet of the Heavenly provenance of his guests, to the point that he assumes they are idolaters—gives this reply to set boundaries: unlike the standard protocols of hospitality at that time, he was making it clear that his wife was off limits.

Yet R’ Soloveichik [in “Family Redeemed”] posits that the angels were asking: “Where is she? Why do people not know the truth? Why does she mot march in front of you? Why has she been trailing behind you?”  While Avrahams answer of “in the tent” is supposed to speak to the role she plays which is yet unnoticed to all but those sensitive enough to perceive it, the fact that the question issues from the angels indicates that, while Avraham’s answer about self effacement remains salient, one still has to contend with the fact that the world remains insensitive to both the role being played and the perceived passivity.

The continuity symbolized by the Rivkah in Sarah’s tent, in conjunction with the more visibly proactive role Rivkah takes, at least just from the text—most particularly, her meeting with Shem about her pregnancy, her directives to Yaakov about the brachos, and then engineering his escape while influencing Yitzchak to bless the journey on a need-to-know basis.  These might indicate that the theoretical offstage, “modest” role that Sarah played wouldn’t always provide the paradigmatic modus operandi for Jewish female spirituality.  In fact, it might provide a model for what is called “Orthodox feminism”.

However, that story was told to tell this one: the “tents” paradigm that argues for Orthodox feminism at the same time would forcefully argue against the trend in some streams of Orthodoxy towards the adoption of social justice tenets as defined by intersectional prerogatives.  The main reason for this is very simple and straightforward: one movement is about participation within the tent; like Rivkah assuming the mantle from Sarah, it’s a family matter.  The other redefines our overall mission with regard to those outside the tent.  

While one can certainly argue that on occasion there have been unnecessary and even counterproductive external dealings between “us” and “them”—not to mention those which are truly religiously inappropriate, even if sanctioned by ostensible religious authorities—the premise that notions of “tikkun olam” not only take precedence over the Jewish national project, but actually now define how it deals with the outside world to the point that the Jewish mission is endangered, is—well, Jewishly unsupported.  Enough ink has been spilled about how “tikkun olam” is a distortion of Judaism.  Suffice it to say that, “tikkun olam”-driven Judaism expertly gaslights: enough people believe that it is the most authentic expression of Judaism, some of whom actually know better.  

Unlike “social justice”/“tikkun olam” Judaism, religious feminism never tried to do that.  In practice, religious feminists wanted more participation in our internal way of life;  “social justice”/“tikkun olam” Judaism drags us outside our unique national narrative and insists that our “universal” obligations to others precede those to ourselves—putting the “k’shani l’atzmi” before the “im ein ani li”.  HIAS, the agency dragged into the spotlight by the Pittsburgh attacks, is a perfect example: holding a “refugee Shabbat” while in the meantime dropping the “Hebrew” from their name as “exclusionary and outdated”…

Is this, then, really a “Jewish” initiative, or do you only pretend to one to score political points?  Is this a “family” matter when convenient?

Inside the tent, or out?