Friday, January 25, 2019


There are two moments in this week's parsha central to the narrative of the revelation and transmission that establish a baseline: Torah is essentialist and binary.

(The much-touted “six genders” theory proves the binary rule: the androgynos is forced to follow the chumras of each gender; the tumtum, whose gender is undetermined, is ultimately either one or the other; the saris is male; the ailonis female.  But we digress.)

Yet it is that very binarism that makes it flexible towards what one might term either “Orthodox feminism” or “feminist Orthodoxy”.

It must also be noted that the two pesukim that set up that binary—כה תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבני ישראל on the one hand, and אל־תגשו אל־אשה on the other—are often misunderstood, sometimes deliberately, by those either trying to prove that the Torah gender definitions mandate restrictive gender roles, and/or that the Torah is invariably androcentrist and/or misogynist.

The אל־תגשו אל־אשה issue has been oft overplayed to the point that a radical feminist notion of an androcentric Torah that excludes women: aside from this imperative ostensibly only being directed at men (never mind that כה תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבני ישראל should indicate that not only were women included, they went first), there are actual questions raised by Tosfos in Yevamos 46a that question whether women had a “diminished” experience at Har Sinai.  Ultimately this is solved tautologically (“The women had to have immersed, because if they did not, by what method would they have entered into the Jewish People?”), but even that indicates that the conventional wisdom with regard this question is to ultimately be inclusive rather than exclusive.

The posuk כה תאמר לבית יעקב ותגיד לבני ישראל delineates an ostensibly invariably traditional approach to gender divisions in education, to the point that not only are separate schools mandated, but even the educational tracks are supposed to be divided; this comes into play most often in discussions regarding women learning Gemara.  Without going too far into the controversy that persists even today, one work in particular by a non-feminist scholar—Shoshana Pantel Zolty’s 1993 “And All Your Children Shall be Learned: Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History”—provides ample historical evidence that if there was ever a “ban” on women studying Torah sheba’al peh, it was observed much more in the breach, and for so long that the truly “modern”/“innovative”, less “traditional” approach might be the more recent attempts to ban it (and the successful bans in Chassidic circles).

The other distortion comes from the notion that a “curse”—in this case, the curses of Eve—are ipso facto directives, and attempts to alleviate them flaunt Divine will.  One wonders whether one should note that it was the Catholic Church that mandated that women receive no pain relief during childbirth until 1949 owing to Genesis 3:16 if one wants to consider how Jewish this notion is; either way, as TB AZ 22b notes, ma’amad Har Sinai (hence the connection to this weeks parsha) alleviated some of the more pervasive זוהמא (or “moral contamination”), which should indicate for propitious conditions for working towards alleviating her curses.

The irony of quoting Rav Soloveichik on this issue must be noted, as he was clearly uncompromising on certain issues regarding the metaphysical feminine; referring to metaphysical chazakot regarding women, and specifically “tav lemetav tan du milemetav armelu”, the Rav asserted that questioning that “metaphysical curses rooted in feminine personality; this is not a psychological fact, it is an existential fact” render one an apostate; yet it also must be noted that he famously taught Talmud to women, which still causes no end of controversy even today.  Regarding the metaphysical “tav lemetav tan du milemetav armelu”, beyond the question of whether a woman actually would rather want to actually either remain with “trouble” rather than be alone, it would seem that certain mekoros argue against the ontology of this interpretation, specifically (but not limited to): in an individual case, the Mishnah on TB Kesuvos 77a that delineates where a man who proves impossible to physically live with is compelled to grant a get, and what some call the “shidduch crisis gemara” on Kesuvos 82b, where women en masse revised to marry until the general terms of the kesuva were altered so that wives and there families received more equitable distributions and so husband’s families couldn’t hide the attached assets.   Additionally, the statement itself appears five times in the Talmud, expanding the parameters of its definition and application enough from within the halachic system that “more recent responsa reflect a change in the deterministic approach and construe it more flexibly. They demonstrate a venue to apply the law differently to changing perceptions and social norms.”

However, ironic as it may remain, one can encapsulate the approach towards Sinaitic binarism by paraphrasing what the Rav said about halacha: it’s not a ceiling, but a floor.  The relationship between binarism and women’s roles should follow TB Taanis 20b: “be flexible like a reed, and not rigid like a cedar”.

But don’t take my word for it:

One of the best treatments of this topic is Berel Lerner’s "The Ten Curses of Eve (an unpublishable article on women in Judaism)"; he explains: Non-Orthodox publications refused to print it unless I made it more stringently critical of Orthodoxy, while Orthodox publications found it too hot to handle. Since I remained unwilling to change its conclusions to make it more congenial to the views of various editors, it remains unpublished.

And his conclusion encapsulates the issues better than most:

“[A]lert and thoughtful students of traditional texts [] are bound to discover that the notion that the roles of women in Jewish life are equal in dignity and importance to those of men is an essentially modern notion formulated in response to modern concerns and conditions…One might say that full respect for the role of women is a truth of the Torah which has remained hidden from the eyes of earlier generations, waiting for us to be its discoverers. However, we cannot pretend that those earlier generations had already made this discovery. That would be a fabrication of history and a sin against intellectual honesty.”

Friday, January 18, 2019

Beshalach—Sorry Not Sorry

In the previous two parshiyos, the question arises regarding Pharaoh’s ultimate responsibility for his actions owing to G-d “hardening his heart” repeatedly from the sixth plague on, after his repeated displays of instransigence of his own free will.  Rabbi Shmuel Goldin in his treatment of the question in Parshas Va’era lists several commentators who discuss and delineate how and why this ostensible Divine interference with “free will” did or did not violate the principle of bechira.  

Then Rabbi Goldin takes it one step further: based upon the Maimonidean principle that Heaven will occasionally make it very difficult if not impossible for an offender to repent.  Rabbi Goldin addresses two specific issues: the first, that there are seem sins that are so grievously injurious that the notion that one can repent for them will is well-nigh offensive; the Pharaonic racist enslavement and genocide would qualify as one of those sins.  (To provide a crude yet illustrative analogy, in his novel “Cat’s Cradle”, Kurt Vonnegut observes one of his characters—a Nazi doctor who committed innumerable atrocities during the war who now saves lives—who might approach evening the ledgers after about three millennia practicing conventional medicine.)

Rabbi Goldin also wants to draw a distinction between what he sees as the Christian notion that everything is forgivable.

One might want to add three additional dimensions to this discussion.  

  • The first expands upon the Pharaonic and Egyptian “hardheartedness”, and that, even leaving aside Rabbi Goldin’s salient notion that there are unforgivable things, more often than not the associated attempted  “repentance” fall far short at best, or later proves to have been completely insincere in its face at worst.  
  • The second adds a loosely analogous “hate-crime” dimension, even if an ostensibly Judeocentric one: when it comes to crimes against the Jews, and that the otherwise ostensibly well-behaved forfeit any claim to righteousness, and can be accounted with the truly wicked based solely on their expressed intransigent Judeophobia, on a personal but especially on a national level.
  • The third, unfortunately, points to a trend within certain frum circles where an inappropriately expansive definition of teshuva and mechila has been adopted and insisted upon as a, if not the, default Jewish position regarding certain offenses and offenders.  The distortion might owe more to pop psychology than the aforementioned Christian notions of forgiveness; it finds considerable favor in therapeutic circles where the lines between therapy and teshuva get blurred.

The first explains why the theme of “hard-heartedness” more conceptually central to the parshiyot in Sefer Shemot that precede Beshalach—especially Va’era, where one first views the shift between Pharaoh hardening his heart first without, and then with, Divine “assistance”—actually not only in central to the events at the Red Sea, but finally ties together the entire Egyptian attitude.  

In essence, Pharaoh, his court and subjects cancel whatever teshuva they might have done at the time of makkas bechoros when they completely reconsider having set the slaves free (or, possibly, even having only given them a three-day furlough).  The favorable attitude they had toward the Hebrews referred to during the period between choshech and makkas bechoros; their fear after makkas bechoros “we are all dead”—any self-reflection and regret is now erased: the chase to the Sea is on.  In our day and age, one can identify this kind of insincere or even completely false repentance with individuals like Dr. Lara (rhymes with Phara) Kollab, the Touro graduate who showed her gross ingratitude in a series of revealed antisemitic tweets and, when caught, issued a fauxpology blaming her tirade on the “oppression of Palestinians”.

The second point explains how theoretically G-d-fearing, well-meaning people can harbor the word Judeocidal impulses even while ostensibly exhibiting righteousness: consider how the Egyptians labeled as “G-d-fearing” during the plague of barad who saved their livestock are identified as the same Egyptians comprising the garrison chasing the Jews into the sea.  This should serve as a contemporary analog to public figures like Jimmy Carter and Louis Farrakhan, who are lauded for their charitable efforts at the same time they issue repeated antisemitic platitudes.  A “good” antisemite may be an even worse antisemite.

The third element—the aforementioned trend within certain frum circles to inappropriately expand definitions of teshuva and mechila—describes issues different from national enemies: rather, it can be seen particularly in the insistence that miscreants like sex offenders and domestic abusers are too often given the benefit of religious doubts because “anyone can do teshuva”.  As Rabbi Goldin points out, this notion is a misnomer, but it hasn’t stopped stop some from insisting upon the opposite notion bordering on an ikkar emunah.   

One example might be a facebook thread on the wall of a very prominent shadchanis discussing harassment and even date rapes unexpectedly occurring in shidduch settings; some commenters insisted that even a rapist can’t be turned in for his crime if he has done teshuva.  

Another example might be a frum psychologist insisting that an abuser doing teshuva for wife beating can be trusted to get married again because “anyone can do teshuva”, and that would qualify as an indicator for rehabilitative success  (in fact, if an abuser wanted to truly repent, he should express the willingness to consign himself to celibacy and release his victim unreservedly from the marriage to find safety elsewhere). 

Yet another example might involve a discussion about Amnon ostensibly doing teshuva for the rape of his sister Tamar by fasting and never leaving the bes medrash for the last two years of his life before Avshalom kills him as revenge.  Some use this medrash as a paradigm of how one can repent even the worst crime; a closer examination of the narrative might indicate how this kind of outward “repentance” usually is somewhere between woefully incompletely and grossly insincere.  One thing one might note is that the medrash details Amnon’s outward displays of piety, but it never says he apologizes or makes restitution to his sister, who becomes a recluse as a result of the assault. 

In effect the real takeaway, then, is that it is more likely that expressions of regret and penitence for certain gross iniquities can be legitimately responded to with even extreme skepticism.

As a final recent example of how this works (or doesn’t), one can view the example of a prominent Rav trying to use Bernie Madoff’s expressions of regret at his sentencing as “help[ing] people understand eternal Jewish truths”.  Even as the Rav was removing his piece because the intense backlash made him consider that he might have “chose[n] unsuitable examples for the concepts [he] sought to impart”, Madoff, like Pharaoh, ended any penitential pretense in a later jailhouse interview: “**** my victims.”

Eventually, false teshuva always outs itself.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Bo—Need To Know

Moshe Rabbeinu makes an executive decision.

As explained in TB Brachos 4a, Moshe tells Pharaoh and his court that the Plague of the First Born will strike “kachatzos”—as “on or about midnight”, loosely translated—in slight contradistinction to G-d’s directive, that the plague would strike “bachatzos”, or “at midnight”, exactly.   The implication in the Talmudic text is that Moshe’s editing received a Divine imprimatur: if Pharaoh’s astrologers had miscalculated and it would have appeared that the plague had not occurred at midnight, they would have considered it an opening to discredit the Divine provenance of the plague.

In theory, one might question how likely that scenario was.  Consider that Egypt was already on edge; the country had all but been destroyed by the previous nine plagues, the nation seemed to be siding with the Jews against Pharaoh and the court [see 11:3], and the court itself had issues with the Pharaonic stance [10:7]: would a slight astronomic miscalculation truly have any appreciably significant effect on the Egyptian reaction to the result of Makkas Bechoros, where אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת, and the whole population thought כֻּלָּ֥נוּ מֵתִֽים?  If the astrologers had tried to make an issue of it, would anyone have paid attention?

Moshe’s “edit” might have been a case of עת לעשות לה׳ הפרו תורתך : if Moshe had given Pharaoh's astrologers even the slightest opening at that moment, it might have even just slightly diminished the “unity” that prevailed among the Egyptians after Makkas Bechoros—כֻּלָּ֥נוּ מֵתִֽים as the Egyptian bizarro כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד —from Pharaoh on down to even the other non-Hebrew slaves who were almost as Hebrephobic as their Egyptian masters.  Moshe took into account what he saw as entrenched local cultural tendencies, and predicting the that the real Kiddush Hashem would resulted from the effect of the plague, he didn’t want to leave open the possibility of that moment being diminished even slightly.   Hence the edit, which, pace the midrashim, seems to have been approved after the fact at least.

This incident may have educational implications, with support both Scriptual and post-Scriptural: the Jews at Har Sinai had the Revelation on a personal level “adjusted”—as it were—based upon each individual’s ability to receive and withstand the message.  Yet, prior to that, at krias yam suf, it was said that “a maidservant saw at the sea what Yeshayah (Isaiah) and Yechezkel (Ezekiel) did not see.”  Ostensibly an insistence on the doctrinal can detract from the experiential.  This is true: but only up to the point that said doctrinal isn’t subverted, only that it isn’t necessarily presented all at once.

[Consider, even, the Talmudic narrative surrounding the Ptolmaic translation (TB Megilla 9a), where G-d performed a miracle and allowed for simultaneous translation even with ostensible departures from p’shat; but the anniversary of the date—8 Tevet—was at one time considered a day of national mourning and fasting.]

One attempt to explain this—which, to this authors mind, ultimately further complicated the matter because, even though that author made the claim up front that “you’re lied to in Baal Teshuva Yeshiva”, he couldn’t seem to decide whether to condemn or condone the approach—did say this, which might encapsulate the entire educational conundrum:

“If the Yeshiva is devoted to the delicate art of forming real Jews, the Rabbi’s answer must be complicated…Truth is ineffable and simple, and therefore cannot be communicated, even to the perhaps paltry extent the Rabbi has attained it.  The individual is complex, communicates only through fragmented words, and is looking for an answer.”

In other words, The Message might be received if presented in a more subtle form; and not only will it not detract from the Message, it might enhance it.

That said, there are some approaches that should definitely be considered out of bounds.   Aside from the aforementioned piece—which apparently just describes the philosophical and educational conundra, but doesn’t delve into what some have described as marketing ploys—there are cases where the philosophy itself is twisted, and the justified to “make people frum”.

“The way Prof. Barry Simon and I see it is that nine years ago [1998] we saw the [Torah] Codes as probably without merit, and possibly dangerous.  Things have changed. Today [2007] we regard them as definitely without merit, and certainly dangerous to the Torah community…We understand the methodology of the experimenters much better. We’ve had an opportunity to subject the phenomenon to other tests, including one agreed upon in advance by both sides. We’ve seen some of the problems generated by people coming to believe that this is really a part of Torah.”

In the end, one just has to make sure that what one presents as Torah—or even as part of Torah—really is a part of Torah.