Friday, April 12, 2013

Circumcision and Impurity of Birth

At the beginning of our portion, we read of the impurity brought on by the process of birth. The mother who bears a son is impure for seven days, after which she can become pure. Immediately after this, on the eighth day, the infant is circumcised. The Talmud (Nida 31) asks, "Why does the Torah say that circumcision is on the eighth day? So that it should not be that everyone is happy, while the infant's father and mother are sad." This is a strange statement; since when do we require harmony between a man and his wife before we do mitzvot? On the contrary, at the height of national experience, at Mt Sinai, we are commanded to separate from spouses! Even the very celebration of the coming together of man and wife, the marriage ceremony, is not postponed in case of a bride who is in a state of impurity. What then is the meaning of this talmudic statement which ascribes to the Torah the demand of intimate happiness between husband and wife as a prerequisite for the fulfillment of the mila command? An understanding of the division between the impurity and the circumcision can be attained from another midrash on the same page of Nidah, but first, a short introduction.

Rabbi Soloveitchik in Lonely Man of Faith (p 11) writes of two dimensions to Man, dignified Man and cathartic Man. The "image of God" impressed upon humanity refers to its "inner charismatic endowment as a creative being." Rav Kook also points to the creative faculty of the human as a prime way in which we light up the dark world with the supernal light of divinity. Indeed, the Rambam in his Guide (1:54 second to last paragraph) states that the highest purpose of humanity is to imitate God to the best of our ability. This would include not only just as he demonstrates mercy, so shall you be merciful, but also, just as he creates, so too, be creative1. The creativity of which both these philosophers speak is contingent upon an understanding that mankind is truly free - that Man possesses the ability to choose this or that action at any point. Without this freedom, creativity is prevented by definition, and Man becomes mired deterministically in whatever place he finds himself, and any activity or product in which he engages is not really his in any real sense. Proprietary rights assume freedom; a slave, whose productive freedom is shackled into bondage to his master, is not really a producer, but a tool in the arsenal of his master.

The creative faculty of humanity and its extent are expressed impressively in another talmudic statement on the same page, and this second statement can help explain the midrash with which we started. The second statement is as follows: there are three partners in the creation of a child, his father, his mother, and God. The first thing that immediately presents itself is the term "partners". The polar opposite of the slave is the partner. While the slave is owned, subsumed by the master, the other, the partner, maintains his independent persona, free to decide to maintain or nullify the partnership at will. When partners create something, they both have equal part in its credit2. Man and woman together are essential participants in the creation of a being which never existed before, and will never be created again. Just as one who saves a life (see Sanhedrin 4:5 as quoted in Bavli, Yerushalmi and Rambam for slight variances in the text; see the manuscripts of the Mishna which do not include the phrase, "of an Israelite" as the printed text does), is considered to have saved an entire world, we might safely say that one who brings a life into this world is, so to speak, like God, who created the entire world. Creative Man is compared to God: he creates. The Midrash Tanhuma (Tazria 5) records Rabbi Akiva's answer to Tinnitus the roman, "If God wanted Man circumcised, why was he not born so? For God gave commandments to Israel in order to refine them!" Man is incomplete without circumcision, and the reason he is not born circumcised is to allow him to perfect himself.

This power of creativity, the chance to perfect by our own acts an in complete creature, reflects our task in this world. We are here for no less important reason than to perfect the world. A boy is not born circumcised; he is born incomplete, physically and morally. Just as it takes parental involvement to perfect him physically, it takes years of education, nurturing and training to turn out good deeds, humility, generosity. And so it is with the entire world: born into an unredeemed world, our task is to bring it to deserve redemption.

Rabbi Hirsch explains the idea of impurity as the polar opposite of freedom. A person who is brought face to face with an unsympathetic understanding of the limits of his abilities (for example, one who comes into contact with a dead body), may sink dejected into depression and sadness, quoting Kohelet: the end of humans is the same as the end of the beasts, they share the same fate, the death of one is the same as the death of the other. This dirge can easily bring a person to throw up his hands in defeat, surrendering his holy, creative task in this world.

It is precisely at the beginning of the life-journey of an infant, when all vistas beckon invitingly to him and his parents, at the first free-willed act to be done in his life, that it is unfitting that the dark murmurings of tum'ah be heard. We therefore wait until his parents are together in matrimonial harmony, glad with the שמחה של  מצווה, to circumcise him. Only in a state of complete suffusion of creative, free-willed action can the child be called into his task through circumcision: to build himself, to fashion a good human out of the biological creature born, and generalize this concept into his general purpose, to perfect the world - לתקן עולם במלכות ש-די.
1 The attribute of creativity is a slightly difficult one in this context. It was the subject of intense disagreement between the two major schools of Islamic thought in the ninth to eleventh centuries. The third of the four Aristotelian causes is the efficient cause. This is the immediate actor or event which directly leads to an event (see a discussion of the causes here. For example, the efficient cause of a scroll is the scribe. Early Kalam thought, as propounded by Ibn Sinna and the Mu'tazilie school, see God as the primary cause of the world, but the events of nature dictated by secondary efficient causes. Thus mankind can be said to create, and "creative" can be used as an attribute of mankind. In response to this, al-Ghazali and the Ash'ari school of Kalam set forth a view called occasionalism, that any secondary efficient cause diminishes God's power. Cotton burns not because of fire, but because of God's interference. God's rationality means that he interferes similarly in similar situations, and the repetition of these interferences is what we call the laws of nature (source).
The Rambam writes against the occasionalist school of thought, positing that it's insistence on a constantly created universe does away with the laws of nature (source). While may seem a simple matter for Rav Soloveitchik to make a statement regarding man's creative aspect, it is important to remember the philosophic baggage and historical dialogue that surrounded this issue.

2 See Philo ("On the Life of Moses" (1:155-158), who makes a similar point about partnership. However, he states it as the main difference between Moses and all other humans, what makes Moses' intimacy with God qualitatively different from anyone else.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

סכין של מילה בשבת

הפרשה שלנו פותחת במצוות יולדת, וביניהם, מצוות מילה. "וביום השמיני ימול בשר ערלתו". בספרא דבי רב, פרק א', נדרשת פסוק בפרשתנו שמילה בזמנה דוחה את השבת. אע"פ שבשבת אסור לעשות חבורה, אם זה לידה שיגרתית, ימול הבן, מדיוק המקרא, "וביום, אפילו בשבת". מדרש זה לוקח כנתון מה שמופיע כלימוד לא כה פשוט בבבלי שבת קלב, שיש שם מחלוקת אמוראים מאיפה נדרש דין זה שמילה בזמנה דוחה שבת. לבני מורה על העובדה המעניינת שדרשות הבבלי מופיעות בסדר הפוך מן הסדר הכרונולוגי, ובמקום סדר זה, מופיעות בסדר חוזק טענתם, תופעה החוזרת על עצמה במקומות אחרות בש"ס (מקורות ומסורות שבת עמ' שנד). דין זה מובא להלכה בטור יורה דעה סימן רס"ו.

כמובן, בשביל עשיית מצווה זו בשבת, קיימת צורך להתיר איסור דרבנן של מוקצה בעניין סכין המילה.

באופן רגיל, סכין של מילה הוא מוקצה בשבת. הרא"ש מזכיר את הסכין הזה כדבר המוקצה מחמת חיסרון כיס, דהיינו, שאדם מקפיד עליהם לא להשתמש בהם בדרך שיוכל לפחות את דמיו. וכן הטור ושו"ע בסימן ש"ח פוסקים, שסכין של מילה מוקצה מחמת חיסרון כיס. דבר מוקצה כזה, באמת אסור להזיזו אפילו מחמה לצל, כלומר, לצורכו שלו, כדי להגן עליו. אם כן, בשביל מצוות מילה שדוחה את השבת, קיימת צורך להשתמש בדבר שרוב הזמן נחשב מוקצה ואסור לטלטלו. השאלה היא, האם השתשמות זו שמותרת בשבת היא דחיית איסור מוקצה, או שמא עובדה זו שאנו צריכים את הסכין, יוצרת מצב אשר בו אף פעם לא הקציהו את הסכין לפני שבת, ולכן, לשבת זו, סכין זה כלל לא מוקצה?

שאלה זו יכולה למצא נפקא מינא מיד לאחר המילה. אם למשל, הניח המוהל את הסכין אחרי שחתך, ואחרי טקס הברית הוא רוצה להרים את הסכין ולהצניעו, האם הוא יכול? בזה, באנו למחלוקת אחרונים. לפי הרמ"א בסע' ב', "...מותר לטלטל האיזמל לאחר המילה להצניעו בחצר המעורב, אע"ג דאינו צריך לו עוד באותו שבת, דהא לא הוקצה בין השמשות מאחר דהיה צריך לו באותו שבת..."

ר' ירוחם האומר בשם הרמב"ן אומר דבר דומה, אבל לא מזכיר בין השמשות. הוא אומר בפשטות שמותר לטלטל הכלי לאחר המילה, דמאחר שטלטל הכלי בהתר מחזירו לאי זה מקום שירצה אע"פ שאין לו תינוק אחר למול.

המהרש"ל בתשובה (מצוטט בט"ז) מסביר יותר: כיון שהיה ראוי בין השמשות הותר לכל היום, דאין מוקצה לחצי שבת. אם יש חפץ שראוי בין השמשות, ובשבת נעשה לא ראוי למלאכה, ואז שוב נהייה ראוי בשבת, אין אומרים שהזמן שלא היה ראוי אוסר את החפץ כאילו לא היה ראוי בין השמשות, אלא "אין מוקצה לחצי שבת", ובשעה שנהייה ראוי שוב, סר מעליו שם מוקצה. המהרש"ל משווה דין זה לדין שלנו: בבין השמשות, היה לסכין צורך למחר, ולכן אחרי שהשתמשו בו, וסר מעליו הסיבה שלא היה מוקצה, עדיין, אינו מוקצה.

משמע מהרמ"א והמהרש"ל שבגלל שבבין השמשות ידע שיצטרך את הסכין הזה למחר, המוהל לא מקצה דעתו ממנו, ולכן למחרת, הסכין לא דבר מוקצה, ומותר להביאו למקום שמור כדי שלא ייגנב או ייפגע. (אע"פ שהסכין לא מוקצה לפי הרמ"א, עדיין, אחר שהוא במקום שמור, אסור לטלטלו שוב שלא לצורך, כי אפילו דבר היתר, הרבה אומרים שאסור לטלטלו שלא לצורך כלל, עיין טור ושו"ע ש"ח סע' ד'.)

אבל לעומת עמדה זו, קיימת עמדה אחרת: המהרי"ל (מובא בדרכי משה ביו"ד רס"ו ובט"ז) אוחז שמייד לאחר המילה, צריך המוהל לזרוק את האיזמל (סכין) מידו משום מוקצה. הט"ז מוכיח כדברי המהרי"ל שבין השמשות לא היה עליו שם "רואי לעשות מלאכה", כי הוא עדיין מוקצה מחמת חיסרון כיס. כל ההיתר להשתמש בו הוא רק כי א"א לעשות מילה בלעדו, ונדחה איסור המוקצה עליו באותו שעה של המילה בלבד. המגן אברהם (ראיתיו בספר ר' קדר זצ"ל) מסכים לט"ז ומהרי"ל, ואומר שאף מה שהתיר הרמב"ן, זה רק אם עדיין הסכין בידו, כמו כל מוקצה שבא לידו בהיתר בשבת, שמותר להביאו למקום שירצה לפני שיניחנו (או"ח שח:ג).

כנראה מח' זה בין הרמ"א (ומהרש"ל וש"כ) נגד הט"ז (ומהרי"ל, גר"א ומ"א) תלוי בשאלה שהצבנו לעיל: האם מוקצה מחמת חיסרון כיס שצריכין להשתמש בשבת מותרת מדין דחיית איסור המוקצה ע"י מצווה אחרת, ומיד עם תום המצווה, חוזרת איסור המוקצה לאיתנה, או שמא בין השמשות לא הקצהו מדעתו כי ידע שיש ברית מחר, ולכן, מותר אף להזיזה אחר הברית, אף אם הניחה קודם.

לדעת הא"ר, האוחז כמהרי"ל, יתן הסכין לאחר בשעה שעושה הפריעה, כדי שלא יניחנו ויהיה אסור לטלטלו שוב. אני לא מבין א"ר זה, מאחר שכבר גמר את המצווה, איך יוכל לתת לאחר, הלא רק לו מותר לטלטלו כי נטל בהיתר, אבל האדם השני יטלנו באיסור (כי כבר מוקצה שוב!). שמא מתיר א"ר דבר זה על פי הסברא שמציע הט"ז בדברי הרמב"ן, שאם לא תתירנו, "וודאי מימנע ולא מהיל".

המ"ב פוסק באו"ח ש"י:ג (מובא בשו"ת היכל שלמה עמ' קנ) כא"ר, ומביא את דעתו שבדיעבד, אם לא נהג כט"ז, יכול לסמוך על הרמ"א וש"כ, וגם חכמת אדם המקילים, ולראות את הסכין כלא מוקצה ביה"ש ולכן לא מוקצה לכל השבת.

אבל למעיין ברמ"א, יראה שהט"ז מבין שהוא מבוסס על הר' ירוחם. אלא שבאמיתת הדבר, לא נראה כן, אחר שסיבת הרמ"א והמהרש"ל מבוססים על הקצאה בין השמשות, בעוד ר' ירוחם בשבם הרמב"ן לא מזכיר סיבה זו, אלא רק כיוון שהתחיל בהיתר. לכן נראה שהרמ"א טעם עצמו הביא, או ביסס עצמו על המהרש"ל, אבל שיטת הרמב"ן הינו שיטה שלישית בעניין זה, שמותר אף אם לא הקצה ביה"ש. נ"מ ברור בענין זה הוא שלשיטת הרמ"א ומהרש"ל, אם לא היה בדעתו בערב שבת שיהיה לו ברית, אזי יהיה הסכין מוקצה, ורק יהיה מותר למול בו ומייד לזרקו, כשיטת המהרי"ל. אבל לפי שיטת הרמב"ן ור' ירוחם, אינו כן; הם לא מבוססים על הקצאה, אלא על עצם זה שכיוון שלקח את הסכין בהיתר, אף אם הניחו (דלא כהבנת הט"ז ברמב"ן), יהיה מותר לו לטלטלו למקום שמור, כמו שמסביר הב"י ברמב"ן: "מאחר שטלטל הכלי בהיתר, מחזירו לאי זה מקום שירצה," דהיינו, סיבה חדשה להיתר - כיוון שהסכין מותרת למול, מותרת גם ליטלטל לשמרו.

לפי כל זה, יש לומר שיש ג' שיטות בפוסקים: 1) רמ"א: מותר לטלטל הסכין אחר המילה רק אם ידע על המילה קודם שבת ולכן לא הקצהו ביה"ש, 2) רמב"ן: מותר לטלטלו אחר המילה בכלל, אף אם לא היה בדעתו, 3) מהרי"ל ט"ז וגר"א: מיד לאחר המילה צריך לזרק את הסכין אפילו במקרה שידע על המילה קודם השבת (והט"ז מנסה להבין ברמב"ן כדעתו, ולא כדעת הרמ"א, שהט"ז חושב ביסס את שיטתו עליו).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Literary Devices Serving Moral Messages

Chapters 37, 38 and 39 of Genesis contain early episodes of development in the lives of the sons of Ya'akov. In 37, the reader is introduced to the sons of Ya'akov as active protagonists. The scene is one of envy as the elder brothers begrudge Yosef his favored position in their father's heart, and hate him for what they interpret to be ambitious dreams. When the brothers get a chance, they plot to kill their younger sibling, eventually heeding the advice of Yehuda to sell him, instead, as a slave. His coveted cloak and all that it symbolizes is dipped in blood and brought to Ya'akov, who, upon recognizing it as Yosef's, descends into depths of depression from which no one can redeem him. In chapter 38, our introduction to Yehuda is developed further in his partial estrangement from his family. He commits an indiscretion with his daughter-in-law, who has tricked him into thinking her a common harlot. Yehuda saves her from the death sentence with which her resulting adulterous pregnancy would normally be met, when he admits that it was he who impregnated her. In chapter 39, then, a previously passive Yosef develops his own active role: he turns down the temptations of the master's wife, netting himself an undeserved stint in prison. His virtuosity rewarded at every turn makes the best out of each tragedy that befalls him, and Yosef eventually ends up viceroy to the Egyptian Pharaoh. These stories contain some of the most morally reprehensible tales of the patriarchs, as well as some of the most uplifting. From a literary perspective, the tales are tightly coupled by choice of diction as well as thematic parallelism. Taken together, they demonstrate the contrast between the two personalities of Yehuda and Yosef, and the ethical maturation of Yehuda, progenitor of princes and kings in Israel.

Both chapter 37 and 38 involve trickery. In the aftermath of Yosef's sale, the brothers dip his special coat in blood, and bring the bloody tatters to their father in feigned innocence (37:32): "הכר נא, הכתונת בנך היא אם לא", "please try and recognize this: is it the cloak of your son?"1 Now, the brothers (almost certainly led by Yehuda) know very well that this indeed is Yosef's coat; they dipped it in blood themselves. Their plan is to manipulate their father's emotions by controlling the information he possesses. (Indeed, the midrash has the elder ten brothers binding heavenly and earthly beings in an oath forswearing revelation of the sale of Yosef. Such was the extent to which they are willing to go to keep the truth from their father.) The brothers justify this dishonesty with the belief that their actions are unavoidable: they have sinned, yes, but the end justifies the means; Yosef was planning to supplant them, they reason, and so he must be removed from the equation.

Parallel to this, in the next chapter, Yehuda is now on the receiving end of trickery. Tamar dresses as a harlot and Yehuda turns to her. She demands collateral for future payment, and Yehuda gives her his seal, staff and cloak, personal items that identify him2. When word spreads that Tamar has become pregnant out of wedlock, Yehuda, as her father-in-law and honored son of Ya'akov, is asked what should be done with her. In accordance with standard codes of law at the time (such as the Code of Hammurabi3), he demands her death. Tamar, as she is being led to her execution, reveals the deception and brings her plan to its climax when she produces Yehuda's personal items and demands almost mockingly, "למי החותמת והפתילים והמטה האלה", "to whom do these...belong?" (38:25) In accordance with Hammurabi, the husband has the authority to commute the adulteress's sentence, and this is an authority probably extended to Yehuda as surrogate male-guardian (as she was in between levirate marriages to his various sons). He rescinds the death sentence, admitting publicly that she has bested him and "she is more righteous than I". Tamar thus sins, but expects the ends to justify the means, and she unknowingly completes the saga begun with Yehuda's betrayal of his own father.

In both these episodes, personal articles are used to identify supposedly (to a bystander in the story) unidentified protagonists, though the reader knows through omniscient narration that those who offer up the articles for identification are far from innocent. Yehuda knows exactly whose bloody cloak he is showing his father, and Tamar knows precisely whose seal and staff she is displaying to those gathered to watch her execution. The dramatic effect of the parallel thematic activity here binds the stories together: it is Yehuda's wronging of his father and brother that brings upon him the shame and sin of the Tamar episode.

Furthermore, the stories exhibit an inverse relationship which highlights the character differences between Yosef and Yehuda. While Yosef suffers punishment and trouble that is undeserved, Tamar is pardoned from deserved punishment. Yosef has done little to deserve the years of pain and suffering to which his brothers destine him, and even less to deserve the prison sentence he receives at the hand of Potiphar, but Tamar indeed has enticed a man and committed adultery (in a manner). Additionally, Yehuda gets by the whole incident with only public shame, but no standard punishment for the taking of a betrothed woman. Yosef appears morally superior to his older brother; he suffers in silence the abuse heaped upon him, while Yehuda behaves selfishly, denying his father the knowledge that his cherished son is still alive.4

If the thematic elements were not enough, the two chapters are cinched together by word choice. In the climax of both stories, the words הכר נא, please identify, are used (37:32, 38:25)5. This phrase is not found anywhere else in the entirety of the Bible. We have noted in earlier discussions (here and here) the importance of words that link concepts and stories in the Torah. The singular use of הכר נא in such close proximity, and the fact that the same term is used in both stories to demonstrate a cynical trick being played, certainly relates the two stories and supports the thesis that the events of 38 are a punishment for Yehuda's and his brothers' behavior in 37.

However, Yehuda's shame in the Tamar story is not only retribution for his behavior, but is also evidence of the process of his moral growth. For if we take Yehuda's life as presented by B'reshit, we note three main encounters that act as epoch-defining episodes in Yehuda's life. The first and second we have already examined in detail, but now let us view them through a moral lens. In the first encounter, chapter 37, Yehuda initially agrees with his siblings that Yosef must be killed. However, when he sees a convoy of Arab merchants, Yehuda demonstrates his first step in moral growth: why kill him, if we can sell him and just as surely be done with him? Yehuda's moral superiority to the other brothers is limited: he does not deny their sentiments that Yosef must be done away with. His objection is to active fratricide. He is not above deceiving his elderly father, either, and perhaps only realizes the treachary of it all when a similar deception is played upon him, by Tamar.

And it is in the second encounter, chapter 38, where we find Yehuda taking another step in his moral progress. Whereas in 37, he was willing to lie to his father so that his guilt not be known, in 38, Yehuda admits a shameful truth in public, in order to save Tamar's life. Initially, in verse 23, Yehuda wants to pay the harlot immediately, פן נהיה לבוז, lest it be a shame to us. Rashi explains that Yehuda wants to ensure that no prostitute publicly call for his payment, since this would be shameful to him. And yet, when Tamar reveals her accomplice, Rashi comments that she was careful not to accuse Yehuda in public, and rather hinted to him that he was her accomplice by showing him the seal and staff: לא רצתה להלבין פניו...אמרה אם יודה מעצמו יודה ואם לאו ישרפוני ואל אלבין פניו. "She did not want to embarrass him...she thought, 'if he admits it, he admits it, and if not, I shall allow them to burn me, but I will not shame him publicly'." It certainly took a good deal of moral fiber for Yehuda to be willing to admit the truth and accept the accompanying humiliation. He could have easily ignored her, and allowed the execution to take place, never to hear another word about the matter. Perhaps the Yehuda who tricked his father in 37 might have done this, but not the morally maturing Yehuda of 38. He publicly concedes his sin and absolves Tamar of her punishment. This is Yehuda's growth from brutish to honorable, from lowliness to dignity.

Finally, in our third encounter with Yehuda, in chapter 44, we read the aftermath of Yosef's deception of his brothers in Egypt. Yosef demands that only Binyamin remain behind and serve for life as punishment for robbing the palace. Yehuda again is presented with a moral choice: he can go back to Cana'an, and again tell his father that a cherished son is no longer (as he in fact did in chapter 37), or he can stand up and do what is right no matter the personal cost. Yehuda is given the chance by Yosef to correct the mistake of decades past, and in verses 33-34 he meets the challenge, offering himself as a slave in place of his youngest brother. He places his own family, life and aspirations upon the altar of his father's happiness. He thinks as the leader of a larger group, the nation of Israel, instead of as the egotistical and petty brother from years past. In doing so, he shows Yosef and the audience how far he has come morally, and demonstrates why it is that his tribe is chosen to rule the future Israel.

Thus upon close readings of the episodes of Yehuda's life, it becomes clear that his moral progress is carefully mapped. While Yosef seems to have few moral flaws, what comes naturally to him comes with great difficulty and expense for Yehuda. And from this, readers may glean a valuable lesson: some people are born morally great, and others must work hard for years to attain such stature, but lack of such greatness in one's natural inclination is no reason to give up on it. In Yehuda's footsteps, those of us whose ethical nature must be carefully trained may find encouragement in the fact that it is precisely he who is chosen to forbear the dynasty of Israel's monarchy. Hard work and struggle are no shame; on the contrary, they provide meaning and deeper value to those who overcome natural tendencies to ascend the ladder of integrity.

1Embedded in this seemingly innocuous request hide the brothers' true feelings: Yosef is referred to as "your son". The reason for his siblings' enmity towards him is encapsulated precisely and subtly in this description. It is because you, father, made us feel as though he was your only son, your cherished one, that we went to the extremities that we did; it is because of Yosef's ambitions to be the only bloom from which the future of the Abrahamic covenant would blossom, that we did away with our brother. Because Ya'akov and Yosef allowed the brothers to feel as though they believed that only Yosef was Ya'akov's son, the excluded brothers plotted to begin with. Not "is this the cloak of our brother," or, "is this the cloak of Yosef," but "is this the cloak of your son." The word בנך here, your son, evokes an earlier use of the term, when God commanded Avraham to bind Yitzchak. There too, there were more than one brother. There too, בנך, your son, is used, to signify that the lad under discussion is the only true heir to the father. And so, when the brothers say בנך here, it echoes the בנך, יחידך (Gen 22:2) of Avraham - your son, your only heir.

2The seal in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, was a personal item that was marked with etchings, and could be rolled in clay or ink to to impress one's unique signature to documents or items. It was often worn pinned to a cloak, and was an item of pride. As for the cloak, פתילך is translated thus by Rashi.

3See the code online, here, §129.  Traditional rabbinic exegesis has Yehuda presiding over a Jewish court, and deciding the law in accordance with Torah law for a daughter of a priest who sins. However, there are a number of problems with this position, whose answers do not seem entirely plausible. First of all, how could Yehuda preside over any case (especially a capital one) to which he was a נוגע בדבר, related to a party involved? This is the  classic situation requiring a judge to recuse himself from the case.

Secondly, even if we were to ignore the first question, and assume that this case did indeed come before a court including Yehuda as a judge, then the judgment is wrong. In Jewish law, levirate marriage, or yibum, is only valid, indeed, permitted, between the widow and one of her brothers-in-law. The father-in-law would never be permitted to take a daughter-in-law in as wife, which would be against the biblical injunction (Lev. 18:15).  Thus, if indeed the judgment were to be conceived in Torah-law parameters, Tamar would still be subject to punishment (and Yehuda to atonement for inadvertent sin)  for her actioins.

On the other hand, if taken in the context of ancient Near-Eastern law, this criticism falls away. For the levirate laws of the surrounding cultures allowed any male relative to act as surrogate husband for a widow. Thus, while Tamar waits for Yehuda's third son, Shela, to come of age, she is bound to Yehuda's household as a betrothed woman, a betrothal that could technically apply to Yehuda as well, as a male relative of the first two dead sons. So, at the start, when the people of Tamar's town find her pregnant and assumed adultery, they and Yehuda are technically  justified by the laws of the time (and by Torah law, as well) to demand her execution. However, when the fact comes to light that it is Yehuda who was Tamar's accessory to impropriety, Torah law and Near-Eastern law would differ: according to Torah law, it would make no difference that Yehuda was the man who impregnated Tamar, the situation would still be one of adultery. But according to the surrounding culture, it is a crucial difference: impregnation by an unrelated man would be adultery, but with Yehuda, it would simply be a consummation of the levirate act.

Finally, a question might be put forth to our thesis: if Yehuda, as the Code of Hammurabi allows him, simply pardons Tamar as he had the power to do, then why does he have to admit the embarrassing detail that it was he who impregnated her? He can pardon her for any or no reason! The answer reveals further the moral growth of Yehuda. Had he simply used his position to forgive her transgression, her twin sons would still be mamzerim, illegitimate, and Tamar would still carry the stain of her actions forever. Almost certainly, she and her sons would be forsaken by Yehuda's family, and Ya'akov's clan. Their rejection would have been a moral hypocrisy of epic proportions. The new Yehuda of chapter 38 would not allow this to happen. He would rather suffer his own humiliation than allow another to suffer undeservedly, and this is his moral superiority over the Yehuda of chapter 37, who, in an effort to hide his misdeed, allowed Ya'akov to suffer for many years. His willingness to hold himself accountable allowed Tamar and her sons to become a natural part of the Jewish people, and indeed, the twins are counted amongst Yehuda's legitimate offspring.

In general, the rabbinic position has been that to a lesser or greater extent, the stories of Genesis can be read in the context of Torah law. Certainly in chapter 38, a less dogmatic approach seems more plausible, and better demonstrates the moral growth of Yehuda. This should not be seen as a rejection of the rabbinic exegetical enterprise, but as an alternative in this episode which may be more historically acceptable, and contributes greatly to the moral and ethical teachings that are the express purpose of the first book of the Torah.

4In fact, there is another parallel, this time from chapter 38 to 39. While in 38, Yehuda strays and commits sexual impropriety. Although Tamar sets him up, in the sense that she dresses as a prostitute and stands on the road, other than this, she does not seduce him. It is Yehuda in his full free will who allows his eyes to stray, and commits what is certainly a moral failure (if not an outright sin). This is to be contrasted with the episode related in chapter 39, where Yosef is continuously and resolutely seduced by the wife of his master. Even under such intense pressure, and while so far from his family, he is able to keep his father's image in his mind and resist the extreme temptation before him. This temptation is doubled in that his rejection of Potiphar's wife was not only a rejection of a seductress, but additionally a crisis point in his employment: Yosef probably knew that his saying no would result in the irony of being labelled an attempted rapist, being thrown in prison (or worse), and a total loss of everything for which he had worked so hard these past years. That he was able to walk away under such duress surely demonstrates Yosef's moral constitution, the purity of which is contrasted with Yehuda's low behavior with Tamar.

5After noting this unique diction, I saw that Victor Hamilton also notes it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Israel's Two Wars

In Israel today, there are two wars going on, and each one has its own goals, tactics and results, and it is conceivable that the tactics of one may act against the other's interest.

I explain: war A is the physical one. It's cause is incessant rocket fire and other cross-border violence perpetrated against Israel. War B is the PR one - an abstraction of sorts - it is less "real" than the rockets but also important, since in our geo-political reality, it matters what other nations think. Let us look at each one in isolation, and then examine their convergence in the real world.

The physical war: Essentially, this goes back to the partition plan and the Arab refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist. The historical justification to our establishment in the Middle East is attacked by Negationist history - cynically and purposefully revised against historical evidence - to deny the facts. This battle is fought in many spheres, from the audacious denial of Holocaust to the philistine destruction and removal of artifacts attesting to 3,000 year old Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. While the PLO switched tactics in the '70's, and instead of announcing its plans to liberate all of Israel, discussed peace and a Palestinian State in pre-1967 borders, they never changed their open and honest plans described in their Arabic speeches - talking of the destruction of the State of Israel. What this all leaves Israel with is a hostile de-facto city-state on its southern frontier which is dedicated, not to statehood, but to the destruction of Israel. If we step back for a moment to a decisive (though ill-conceived, from the viewpoint of Israel's security) point in history - the Disengagement from the Gaza Strip, this all becomes quite clear. Israel took away any logical or defensible reason for the Gazans to assault Israel: their stated goal of "liberating Gaza from the oppressive occupation" (or as a friend calls it, the neo-colonialist argument), and yet still Gaza chose to ignore the well-being of their population and the building of their society, and rather used their new-found independence to attack Israel, now from up close - using the newly destroyed Jewish towns in the northern part of the strip as a base. At this critical point, there was no more rationale for attacks on Israel, unless one is willing to take the Gazans at their word: their purpose is not to liberate Gaza or the West Bank or even Jerusalem, but to destroy Israel.

Now, Israel is in a situation where their ability to fight back is hampered: they have left the alleyways that were otherwise supervised by the IDF, to the terrorists. Hamas controls a clandestine flow of materiel and explosives and uses them to fight Israel. And here we have another element, that of euphemism and newspeak or double-think - for when we say "fight Israel", we do not mean what most countries do - nor what most countries consider valid war. We mean attacking primarily civilians - the killing of civilians to sow terror - a war crime by the Geneva Convention. And yet, the world glosses over this unimportant point - and considers this a war. (The Geneva Convention and war crimes are only trotted out when Israel apologizes for inadvertent civilian casualties.)

And so, Israel must fight back. It is its most basic requirement, above and beyond any rhetoric, for a government to protect the security of its citizens. If a government that taxes citizens without representation was seen as self-evidently deserving of rebellion, how much more so if a government was to abdicate its responsibility to security? The response is far from excessive - and again we fall into the pitfall of double-think (by suggesting the concept we make it a real consideration): since when is any army concerned with proportionality when it is fighting a war? The objective of war is to win; in this case, to bring security to Israel's civilian population. The objective is not to do so while only using proportional methods! Heaven forbid if Hamas were to ever possess the capacity to be "excessive" to Israel – does one think anyone would call on Hamas to behave "proportionally"? Does one think Hamas would listen? Were any of the 5 7-army wars of annihilation fought against Israel since its inception proportional - masses of troops in the millions against a nation with less than 600,000 soldiers? 

Beyond this, the world forgets that Israel is not fighting a recognized country. (Again, it is fascinating how, as Whorfianism claims, language employed defines the categories through which we think - by calling them militants instead of terrorists we lose part of the foundation of our justification to fight them.) The only thing internationally recognized about the Hamas government is that its status as a terror organization. When a terrorist admit publicly in Arabic that its purpose is to destroy you, you don't act with proportion, you destroy them. The fact that they hide amongst civilians and therefore bring upon their population death is their fault, not Israel's. It would be a false morality indeed (not to mention against the ethics of the Torah) for Israel to place a higher premium upon Gazan civilian life than its own citizens'.

From all this, it is clear that from the physical war's perspective, we must go all-out. Israel has a moral responsibility to its citizens to protect them, and not one of their lives can be sacrificed for the PR war, to which we will now turn our attention.

The PR war: From this perspective, each side ignores the truth value and validity of the historical, social and religious nature of the conflict, and tries to impress with sound bites, pictures and video. And here is where "world opinion" holds such sway, for the primary purpose of the PR war is to turn international sympathy to one side or the other. And we must recognize that international sympathy is rooted in western liberal ideology. The problem with this ideology is that it accepts no ethical absolutes, and dogmatically avoids passing judgment upon the relative morality of one side versus the other. Essentially, since WWII, the liberal ideology has hinged upon the proposition that "the underdog is always the victim, and always to be helped". The amoral idea caused liberals to be supportive of Jews as they limped out of the gas chambers. The world saw David as caught between two Goliaths, one being Hitler, the other, a numerically overwhelming Arab world seething with blood-lust for the remnant of Israel. However, as soon as Israel demonstrated an ability to protect themselves and provide themselves, thank God, with security, by the sword if necessary, the Arab world shifted the focus from tiny Israel in a sea of Arab hate, to expansive Israel bullying small and weak Gaza. The world was happy to allow David to [I just had to take a break and run to our safe room, we had a siren with multiple booms following] become Goliath, it simply shifted its reference point.

And so, Israel is fighting a losing battle on the PR front. The fact that militarily Israel is powerful makes the liberals forget the justifications for our military might - that our "right" came before our "might", because they never really cared about the justifications. They only supported us when we were the underdog. Israel is at pains to show itself as the underdog currently, though it truly is, because the Iron Dome limits Israeli casualties, and our military boasts of knowing where all Hamas leaders are make us seem invincible. These things are beside the point. The point should be: does Israel have the moral right to exist? If affirmative, then Hamas is the aggressor completely, and the world must support Israel's destruction of Hamas. If negative, then not. However, liberal world opinion does not concern itself with that question in any real way, and instead side-steps it, and asks, but why should Israel sow such destruction upon a weaker enemy? This question, when asked without the moral judgment component of “who is right?” leads the liberal world to support Hamas, the perceived underdog. 

But how, one might ask, is Hamas winning the PR war? The answer lies in the international news media, who have bought the new Palestinian David vs. Israeli Goliath, hook, line and sinker. While there are plenty of images of wounded and damage on the Israeli side, these are under-reported. On the other hand, the pathetic images from Gaza are over-reported. Furthermore, the background is left out so that the viewer of the media is left with a stilted picture of what happened. The victims are used twice: once as human shields to protect the Hamas, who do their warfare from heavily populated areas, and again as props in the PR war, when their dead bodies are displayed to the world as evidence of Israeli heavy-handedness.

The liberal media is so notoriously against Israel that it essentially ignores the terror that Hamas commits against its own people for the sake of keeping the "Israel as the aggressor" story fresh. For example, yesterday, Hamas shot a number of people and dragged their bodies through the streets, as punishment for "aiding Israel". Did the NY Times publish these images? How about girls being killed for being raped (a capital offense in Gaza’s society)? No. How about the very real problem that western girls who go to "help the Gazans" or "Free Free Palestine" face, that of rape by the hands of Gazans? The international solidarity movements hush these complaints up, and tell the girls not to report these rapes, for they will "damage the cause"? Essentially, the liberal media has chosen sides - it has chosen Hamas, and they are willing to white-wash its sins for the "greater good". 

So, while Israel valiantly tries to get its story out there, it will never be as loud as the story the liberal media allow the Hamas to publish. Israel can mitigate this by being clear, concise, and to the point. Israel can voice insistently that there is evil and there is good, and Hamas is evil. They can publish the above stories, and let the world know. But the sad fact is that as long as Israel wins in war A, it will never win war B, since the liberal deck is stacked against them.

(Israel may decide as well to recognize an incontrovertible fact: the enemies of Israel and the Hamas sympathizers will continue to blame, berate and demonize Israel for even the lowest level self-defense. In this case, with the PR battle so imbalanced, Israel may calculate that it might as well do its best to truly intimidate the enemy into submission in as extreme a way as necesary, since the negative PR is almost certain, anyway.)

And so, Israel must choose: should we win the PR battle, or defend ourselves militarily? It is probable that it cannot win both at the same time. And if so, Israel's first responsibility is to its physical security. The response Israel is displaying is not excessive, it is necessary to remove the attack capabilities of an enemy that refuses to commit to the most basic rules of war. And talk of a cease fire damages Israel tremendously in that it reduces the perceived necessity of the military air-strikes.

Israel can do much to improve its PR campaign, and I hope they do, but I recognize that very few people in the world have not already taken a side in this conflict, based not on justice, but on liberal emotion.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Not in Heaven

The Meshech Chochma, in explaining the verse ושב ה' אלקיך את שבותך ורחמך, quotes rabbinic exegesis found in the Yalkut (brought in slightly different language in Yerushalmi Makot 2:6): "They asked Wisdom, 'what should happen to a sinner?' Wisdom answered, 'the one who sins shall die.'" Wisdom is the characteristic of pure Justice, untempered by Mercy. According to Wisdom, one who sins has forfeited his right to life by acting against the will of his Creator. However, as the rabbis teach regarding the story of creation, although God first thought, as it were, to create the world with strict justice, very quickly it became clear that the world could not survive on this attribute alone, and so God included an aspect of mercy, of loving-kindness, to allow the world atonement and survival.

The rabbis continue: "They asked the Torah, 'what should happen to a sinner?' And Torah answered, 'he should bring a sacrifice and find atonement.'" This is the classical form of forgiveness found in the Books of Moses. A sin committed requires expiation through the symbolic and educational lessons of the offerings in the Temple. The חסד, the loving-kindness, and רחמים, mercy, of God's word to Man allows for a way for sin to be forgiven. No mention of any transformation of the sin into anything different, not even mention of the sin being erased, is made. Atonement through sacrifice does not contradict any legal logic: a person may make good on his misdeeds in the proscribed manner, thus averting punishment for them. This is akin to a person who stole returning the object he stole, making further punishment unnecessary.

However, the midrash does not stop here. It continues: "Came the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and he said, 'let the sinner repent, יעשה תשובה, and it will be atoned for him.'" This is the part of the midrash that the Meshech Chochma aimed at. ושב ה' אלקיך את שבותך ורחמך, it is God himself who comes towards Man and presents a new concept: that of repentance. A person may have no ability to bring a sacrifice, and yet he may still achieve forgiveness through sincere repentance.

But what is it about repentance that is so special that it is an innovation, a חידוש, so to speak, of God's? How is it that it is not attributed to the Torah, and it must be God that comes along and suggests it? Furthermore, what type of distinction is this midrash drawing between God and the Torah? Surely, אורייתא וקודשא בריך הוא חד, God and the Torah are a unity in a certain sense! How can we distinguish between them in their approach to the sinner?

Perhaps an answer can be found in a passage of Talmud (Nedarim 62). There, Rabbi Elazar says, "עשה דברים לשם פועלן, ודבר בהם לשמן", explaining, do your good deeds for the sake of God's name, in the name of God. But all your learning, your give and take in Torah study, do it in the name of the Torah itself." Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (in נפש החיים) explains the distinction: when you learn Torah, do it for the Torah itself, to know and understand, to add lessons and analysis." Rabbi Chaim is saying, לא בשמים היא, this Torah is not in Heaven. Though it comes from God, it is in the hands of Man now, and God gave over its exegesis and interpretation to the human intellect and mind. Even if God were to send sure signs that the correct interpretation is one way, the rabbis, through their intellect, are the arbiters of Halacha. God gave the Torah into the hands of Man now, and relinquished the interpretive authority over it to us. Now, according to the normal human logic, even one infused with the Godly decision to judge our world with mercy (רחמים), and not only by the strict yardstick of justice (דין), a person cannot undo what is done. A sin committed is one that must be atoned for, but cannot be erased. It certainly cannot be turned into a good deed. The best the Torah can do, within reason, is provide a pathway to atonement.

And even so, God says, I can transcend reason, I can sidestep the rational judgment of human reason. If a person comes towards Me in sincere repentance, sorry for his actions and sublimely desirous to reconnect his fractured relationship with Me, I can make the impossible happen: זדונות נעשות לו כזכויות - even the worst sins become virtues. God can turn back the clock, and not only erase the bad, but make it good! This is possible when a person seeks out an immanent relationship with God out of love. This is why the suggestion of God, as brought down in the Yalkut, is specifically related to the verse ושב ה' אלקיך את שבותך ורחמך - since it is specifically God, creator of the world, who can abrogate all reasonable reaction to sin, can transcend the need for atonement, and, overnight (see יד החזקה הל' תשובה ז:ז), recreate a loving bond between the sinner and God.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Jewish sources include many different theories of teshuva. One that is particularly apropos to modern times is that expounded by Rav Kook, in his 1925 work Orot Hateshuva. In addition to discussing the benefits of teshuva, Rav Kook points out some of its potential pitfalls, which are instructive and worthy of mention.

Rav Kook says that repentance repairs the fundamental will, a will which comprises the depth of a person's very life. It is not the superficial will, but that essential will which forms the foundation of an autonmomous living (ch. 9 § 1). It is not hard to see that the will Rav Kook refers to is synonymous with the will described in Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. It is a proto-fundamental will which comes before thought, before reason or logic. This will establishes the psyche as separate and apart from the otherwise all-engulfing will of the universe. It is this will, this ego, essentially, that stakes out the possibility of an independent, free personality. Without it, man fades into the general cosmic will, a will that Rav Kook obviously identifies with the will of God.

Because of this, the will's essential characteristic is pride. Without Man's pride demanding of himself recognition as an autonomous being, he would not be independent, free or creative, since without a sense of his own value, he would regress into stagnation, recognizing no benefit he can bestow upon the world. As the author of the Tanya states (פירוש למגילת אסתר): "Anyone who begins to serve is impossible without the use of the crude characteristics, in that he must set himself up as a 'someone', an ego, that indeed must serve God."  In other words, a being that has no persona of his own, no ego, no 'crude' characteristic of pride at all, feels that he has nothing to offer the world, or even to offer God, as it were, in serving Him. Such a being cannot serve God. It is only when a person feels important enough to have a right to exist as an autonomous entity that he can affirm that his work on earth is pregnant with meaning and makes a difference.

In light of this, what is teshuva? Rav Kook explains that the word, meaning "return", is the return of the fundamental will to its healthy desire, to first stand autonomously, and then set as life's goal the will of  God and the perfection of the world.  Through the abhorrence at sin and regret over the distancing of oneself from the stream of God's will, a person corrects his foundational will, and returns, in deed. Thus, in place of the dischord between a person's pride-will and God, he reconnects himself and his will to the life-flow from God.

Of course, pride comes along with danger. The danger is that a person might place himself too high upon the rungs of importance, and lose his humility, which is necessary in order to subjugate  himself to the will of a Higher Power. This is one danger inherent in the teshuva process.

Additionally, another danger lurks in the paths of repentance: that a person might fall prey to depression. In ch. 9 §5, Rav Kook points out that the penitent must ensure that the feelings of sadness and regret only apply to the bad, and not the good. Thinking thoughts of repentance can remind a person of the existential tragedy and almost certain failures inherent in their sojourn in a mortal body: אין צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא. These themes can evoke regret and inaction - not just in the evil that a person commits, but also in the good. Angst can cause a surrender to fate - better that I not exist, better that I not act, better that I do nothing, though this means I do no good, rather than act, and also do bad. The penitent may end up regretting all actions, even the good ones. This is a danger against which teshuva must defend. The path of active duty is certainly fraught with dangers, but "לא אתה בן חורין להיבטל ממנה", we must not abdicate our duty.

It is for this reason, says Rav Kook (ibid. §10), that immediately after the High Holidays, the calendar brings us to Simchat Torah, the celebration of active service of Hashem in joyful communion. Teshuva must limit its resignation and sadness to the bad, and allow us to still fill ourselves with motivation and alacrity to continue in upright, positive service of God.

Thursday, September 06, 2012


The deep emotions that swell within the heart after reading about a life filled with self-sacrifice, commitment and dignity should be more than transitory. We must try as hard as possible to come away from such an examination reaffirming our desire to live valuable, useful and meaningful lives. I have just finished reading a collection of Jonathan Netanyahu's letters, Self Portrait of a Hero. It is easy to feel the pride and happiness of a young man, soldiering for the first years of his adult life, but this light-hearted feeling melts into the melancholy of a life cut short, of a person of value who was taken from his nation all too soon. The depth of his thought, the nobility of his soul, will live on in those who read this book and allow themselves to be affected by it. Two main thoughts strike me amongst many note-worthy aspects of Yoni.

First, I point out the development of his feelings towards the land of Israel. Obviously from the beginning, Yoni drank from his father's brand of Zionism, influenced by Jabotinsky. However, at the start, Yoni's passion about the army seems commonplace; though he writes with a maturity beyond his young years, his thoughts center around the excitement of being a soldier, and, along with his comrades, becoming an effective fighting unit. However, as time goes on, through his time at Harvard and his experiences during the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, Yoni develops a deeper appreciation for why he fights, and this appreciation keeps him in the army past when he would have stayed otherwise. He writes about his understanding that the IDF needed good officers such as him (p 173). He also sees this as a national responsibility, that our nation's homeland be defended against its enemies. He could not see himself returning to civilian life while Israel needed its reserves called up.

Yoni did not live in a dream-world; he saw many deficits in Israeli society, and sometimes wrote about his memories of the US with longing. He wished his homeland would develop the type of economic and entrepreneurial spirit common in the US. It is a shame that he did not live to see these ideas blossom in Israel in the late 90's. However, he was committed to Israel's security ahead of his own comfort. This continually deepening feeling of responsibility towards his people and homeland is instructive.

This leads into the second aspect of Yoni that is so important, and I think it is representative of Israel as a country and a people, in general. Yoni stands as a metaphor for the entire people of Israel. He constantly writes, piningly, of his desire to go back to school and finish his degree. However, every time he brings it up, he follows it up with the realization that at this critical point in Israel's security situation, how can he leave his men and the army? In a peaceful reality, Yoni would have been a scholar or some other highly educated person. But he had to constantly put this aspect of his personality and desires to the side, to wait for the future possibility of peace. He placed the needs of the country over and above his own fulfillment.

Israel, struggling to develop and maintain a viable economy, an innovative medical community, and a unique culture, persistently must do so with both arms tied behind its back. How many more medical breakthroughs, how many more Nobel Prizes, how much more robust an economy, would Israel have, if its gargantuan military budget could be used elsewhere? Israel's full measure of self-actualization and self-expression is constantly hampered by its need to, with the setting of the sun each and every evening, ensure that it is not destroyed by its enemies by the dawn of the next morning. Yoni's letters intimate this existential struggle, the eternal Jacobian wrestling match with the angel of Esav, always defending our existence, and never allowed by the world to lay to rest the question of its very right to live. Yoni lived a life stunted by military necessity - he did not revel in it, he suffered it, and met it with pride, proud to be a Jew defending Jews in Israel. He left behind many many plans, things he wished deeply to do, but did not, in order to make sure Israel would survive.

Yoni was dealing with a personal crisis of sorts in the weeks immediately before the raid on Entebbe where he died. The men who were with him speak of a peaceful calm that seemed to hold him, and some said that he seemed to know he was not going to come back. Perhaps the realization that he could never fulfill his personal dreams with full peace of mind, as long as the fate of Israel hung in the balance, led him to an ironic peace during this last fateful mission.

And thus, a nation of farmers, scientists, doctors, scholars, and manual laborers continue to struggle, forced to take up the rifle and defend what every other nation on earth takes for granted: the right to exist.

May his memory be instructive to us, and a blessing to our people. יהי זכרו ברוך, ה' יקום דמו.