Wednesday, November 28, 2007

We can help Jerusalem

A great site allows you to contact President Bush, the Israeli government and Secretary Rice in under 90 seconds.

I urge you to use it:


Many people think that since Abbas, Olmert and even Bush are relatively weak, the dangers of their meetings and declarations are negligible. This is a very dangerous way to think. Weak leaders are in the wobbly position to grab at any straw to enhance their perception abroad and at home. Olmert has been running on the general population's apathy since the Lebanon War. He is obviously trying to cook up something big. See this piece on Arutz-7. We really must come together to forcefully explain the catastrophe that is imminent, if Israel is to again make concessions of land and security on the naive hopes of a penitent Arab population.

However, there is a silver lining. Annapolis seems to have finally awoken the sleeping giant that is the religious-nationalistic community, as evidenced by Rabbi Rosen's and Rabbi Dov Lior's migration towards support for אצ"ל- and לח"י-type activity. "It is not always necessary to be good boys..." It is still vague, but a change is occurring.

The Israeli government must be made to understand that they have no authority to take more chances on the tab of Jewish lives.

UPDATE: Commenters have pointed out that the post is misleading. Allow me to clarify:

I don't think Rav Rosen is promoting terror, I think he is saying that resistance to the government plans to uproot settlements has to be take a more serious coloration than the 'hug and tears' of Gush Katif. He is using rhetoric that shows how serious these issues are.I can see that my post was not clear.

Let me clarify that I do not promote terror. Perhaps לח"י and אצ"ל language is misplaced. What I mean (and think they mean) is that there has to be strong opposition to the government's plans, protests, and a willingness to remain in places the Israeli government abandons, and for brave people to defend themselves there. I think this is the לח"י and אצ"ל spirit.

I am not sure how realistic these ideas are, but the fact that they are discussed will certainly give the government reason to stop and think; no longer can they expect people to follow meekly their destructive orders.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Los Angeles - Spread the Word!

This is a sticky post until next Tuesday. Please scroll down to see new posts.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Update to Midrash Post

Last week, I discussed how we are meant to read the midrash, and explained that the literal reading obviously falls short of the authors' true intent. Today, by chance, I came across a quote from Rav Kook, that butresses my point. I found it on Chanan Morrison's site, and it is adapted from Igrot HaRe'iyah (vol. I, p. 135):

"A scholar once wrote Rav Kook that this statement cannot be taken literally. How could Abraham know what the rabbinical courts would decree a thousand years in the future? The Sages must have intended to convey a subtler message: Abraham's philosophical mastery of the Torah was so complete, his understanding of the Torah's theoretical underpinnings was so comprehensive, that it encompassed even the underlying rationales for future decrees.

Rav Kook, however, was not taken with this explanation. In his response, Rav Kook emphasized that the Torah's theoretical foundations cannot be safeguarded without practical mitzvot. We cannot truly absorb the Torah's philosophical teachings without concrete rituals.
(This in fact is the fundamental failing of Christianity. With its reliance on faith alone, Christianity retreats to the realm of the purely spiritual; it abandons reality and leaves the physical world unredeemed. The Torah's focus on detailed mitzvot, on the other hand, reflects its intense involvement with the physical world.)

Rather, Rav Kook elucidated this Talmudic tradition in a slightly different vein. Clearly, Abraham did not literally perform the ritual of "eiruv tavshilin" as we do today. Nonetheless, Abraham was able to apply the essential concept of this ceremony to his day-to-day life. This was not just a theoretical understanding, but a practical knowledge that guided him in his actions.

What is the essence of "eiruv tavshilin"? This ritual teaches us to distinguish between the sanctity of the Sabbath and the lesser sanctity of the holidays. Abraham was also able to make this fine distinction - in his actions. In his life and deeds, he was able to differentiate not only between the sacred and the profane, but also between varying levels of holiness. "

It is great to find that Rav Kook agrees with my post! Baruch shekivnani!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Anah and The Mules

It is always interesting to see a word that appears only once in all of the Tanach. Invariably, words like this are subject to theories of scribal error. In this week's portion, we are treated to just such a word. "הוא ענה אשר מצא את הימם במדבר ברעתו את החמרים לצבעון אביו". "This is Anah, who discovered 'yemim' in the desert, while shepherding his father's donkeys." (Bereshit 36:24) (The word ימם does appear once more in the Bible, but there (Bamidbar 6:5) it clearly is the חסר (defective) spelling of ימים, days.) The word ימם is a hapax legomenon, and while the traditional commentaries and translations use 'mules', some raise the thought that perhaps it is really the word מים, water, changed by the process of metathesis. Thus, the verse would be talking about Anah, whose discovery was springs in the desert.

The reason this theory is advanced is that the word ימם is a singularity, appearing only once in Tanach. Also, it might be argued that מצא is a weak word for inventing a stronger, sterile animal. If Anah really discovered that mating donkeys and horses will produce a mule, one might expect a stronger word for this discovery, one that remarks on the innovation. For example, in 4:21 and 22, the inventors Yaval, Yuval and Tuval-Kayin are called אבי and לטש, fathers and instructors of new trades. Also, נמרד began the trend of being mighty, and he החל, began the trend. מצא is simply found, or discovered, and seems like a weak verb for an innovator. However, מצא is used time and again referring to finding water.

There are a number of reasons that I tend to reject this theory. First of all, with regard to the possible question of מצא, I find this question weak. It could be that the discovery of mules was by chance, and Anah simply found the results of the horse-donkey mating after the fact. He did not necessarily have a hand in the experiment, and just found the results when the baby was born. Thus, מצא could be the best verb to describe Anah's role in the new breed. Further, the verse's explicit statement that Anah was watching over donkeys certainly does legitimate the discovery of mules.

In regard to the text, we have the general principle of difficilior lectio potior, that the more difficult reading, all things being equal, holds more authority. This is because we assume that the scribes who copied the text read what they wrote, and that a more obvious scribal error would quickly be caught. The offending copy would be destroyed or, at least, clearly marked as un-authoritative. Tiny errors, because they do not necessarily change the meaning of a text, or render it unintelligible, are much more likely to be allowed to creep in. However, corruptions that make the text unreadable, are very likely not able to make it into a guarded text. Therefore, if there is a singularity in the text that, if considered an error, would have been a big one, we tend to believe that the singularity is meant to be there.

It also seems, from a reading of the rest of Tanach, that the construction of the sentence if we exchange מים for ימם is quite awkward. There are many instances of water being found in the Bible. Let us examine some of them, and compare them to the theoretical reading of 36:24 with מים.

In Bereshit 8:9, we have, כי מים על פני כל הארץ. In 26:32, the servants of Yitzchak tell him that מצאנו מים. In Sh'mot 15:22, we have Israel traveling in the desert, שלשת ימים ולא מצאו מים. In Sh'muel I 9:11, girls are found יוצאות לשאוב מים. These are just a few examples of water being found, and it is always referred to as an indefinite article. This suggests that water should be referred to grammatically in Hebrew as it is in English, indefinitely.

It is true that water is sometimes referenced as a definite article. For example, in Sh'muel II 17:20, עברו מיכל המים, and Vayikra 14:6, על המים החיים. However, in these examples, the water is modified; either it is in a container, or it is presented with an adjective. In these situations, it is understandable that usually indefinite water becomes definite: it is now specific water, defined by its container or adjective. However, in general, water is simply indefinite -- water.

With this in mind, if one argues that ימם is really water, he would have to argue that this verse is still singular in Tanach. Instead of the singularity of the word ימם, now the singularity of a grammatical construct treating plain water as a definite article would have to be posited. The acceptance of a theoretical grammatical singularity instead of a hapax seems weak ground, indeed, to claim scribal error.

After writing this, S. provided me with the Vulgate and Peshitta. They both translate ימם as water, as opposed to the Samaritan chumash, which uses אימים, mules. The Septuagint transliterates the word as a proper noun. S. further says that it does not have to be metathesis to allow the word to mean water, it could be 'yamim'. This would do away with my point about the definite article, because ימים needs a definite article to mean 'the springs' in the desert. However, it would still be a singularity, with the defective spelling of ימם (missing the אם הקריאה of 'י'). So this reading still admits a hapax.

Be that as it may, it does not seem that there is any reason to treat ימם as an example of metathesis. If anything, it seems the lack of נקודות led to an ambiguity as to the meaning of the word ימם itself.

S. has a great follow-up post to this discussion on his blog that I know you will love.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Fifth Column

There is an amazing article in Arutz Sheva, about a Sapir College lecturer who is Arab. He tried to throw an IDF uniform-wearing student out of class, saying that he does not teach soldiers. When the soldier refused to leave, the instructor spent the period trying to degrade the Israeli Army.

What better example of Arab hostility can there be? This Arab was educated by Israel and given a job at an Israeli college. He was not forced to do any type of community service to compensate for his lack of army time. He lives in Israel in comfort and peace, and most of all, security, thanks to soldiers like the student he tried to eject. And this happened, not in the UK, but in Israel.

Shame on a college and society that has allowed its enemy to mock its sons without consequence. Israel needs to gain back its self-respect.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Literal Midrash

In Yoma (28b), a midrash is related concerning Bereshit 26:5. The verse speaking of Avraham's loyalty to God's teachings is used to teach us that the forefathers kept each minute detail of the law, even the rabbinic enactments that came thousands of years later. The same thing is taught about Yitzchak and Ya'akov, from different verses. This has raised some lively debate, and I wish to discuss this midrash's literal meaning, and the irony of reading any midrash literally.

There are many problems with a literal reading of this midrash. For example, if Ya'akov kept the Torah, how could he marry two sisters? Further, how could the midrash state that Shimon married Dinah, his sister? These are clear עריות. Also, more technically, how could Avraham have kept the rabbinic dictum to pray מנחה and ערבית, if the Talmud (Brachot 26b) tells us that Yitzchak and Ya'akov set those prayers, respectively?

The rishonim and acharonim take great pains to iron out these inconsistencies. The Ramban explains that the progenitors of Judaism only kept the laws voluntarily, and in Israel. Outside its bounds, they did not bind themselves to keep the laws. The Maharal, on the other hand, disagrees. He explains that the forefathers were pure in body and soul, and were able to penetrate the depths of creation. As Rav Kedar, זצ"ל, taught, just as God looked into the essence of the Torah to create the universe, so were the forefathers able, with their clear minds and holy spirit (רוח הקדש), to examine the world around them, and re-create the Torah. They willingly accepted the precepts on themselves, and kept it all.

However, the Torah has situations in which a prophet can uproot even a negative commandment as a הוראת שעה, an extra-legal ruling that lasts for a limited amount of time. The prime example for this is Eliyahu at Mt. Carmel, sacrificing upon an altar outside the holy Temple. In the same way, the same רוח הקדש that compelled the spirits of our forefathers to keep the Torah, also, at times, commanded them to break certain laws, as a הוראת שעה. And so, Ya'akov saw that he needed to marry two sisters, in order to bring forth the twelve tribes.

However, the Maharal ends up rejecting the Ramban's explanation, as well as his own first one. He finally settles on the idea that the avot kept only the positive commands, but did not keep away from the negative ones.

Rav Tzuriel, an expert on Maharal who lives in Bnei Brak, directed me to an answer to the third question we raised. Avraham did, in fact, pray mincha and arvit, as the Talmud itself (Yoma 28b) says. The passage in Brachot that claims that Yitzchak and Ya'akov instituted mincha and arvit is talking about setting the prayer as a tradition for their children after them. The forefathers set traditions for their children to follow called תורת האבות, and these traditions were studied and kept by some until the end of the bondage in Egypt. While Avraham prayed mincha, it was Yitzchak who instituted this and handed it down to his children.

In our discussion about this midrash, Rav Tzuriel made a point about reading midrashim literally in general, which I believe reflects the position of the Maharal, as well. He said that midrashim must be read allegorically. A midrash is meant to teach deep truths about our traditions, not to teach us literal facts about the lives and times of those who came before. When the midrash states that the forefathers kept the whole Torah, even the rabbinical decrees, it means to tell us that the process halacha from Sinai to the rabbis, is not some abstract field that has a limited relationship to the world around us. Rather, the commandments are the organic part of the spiritual side of this world, and honest and pure reflection on the world would bring us to a knowledge of the Torah and God. Even עירוב תבשילין, a seemingly insignificant loophole made to allow cooking on a holiday for a shabbat that immediately follows, is part of the spiritual chemistry of the world. Maharal explains the spiritual meaning behind עירוב תבשילין. (I will only say that it seems clear that this rabbinical decree embodies the importance of using the physical and spiritual world in a beneficial way to other human beings.)1

Reading the midrash literally is like reading Shir HaShirim literally. It seems clear to us that wise King Shlomo utilizes the passion of a couple in love to allegorize the relationship between God and His chosen nation. A reading that focuses on the literal meaning of the words does injustice to the work and strays from the true meaning the author had in mind. So too, we should expect depth of allegory and metaphor from the sages in their cryptic writings.

The reading of any midrash literally, and insisting that the literal meaning is the true point of the rabbinic wisdom encapsulated within, is demeaning and belittling to the wisdom of our great sages. The Rambam writes against this as well, in his introduction to the mishna. In it, he writes that one should not confuse his own inability to plumb the depths of חז"ל's teachings with the notion that חז"ל wrote silly, literalist things. The agad'ta of our sages is a repository of depth and metaphor, not the actual height of Moshe or Og.

(Recently, David Guttmann pointed me to an even more explicit and to the point quote from the Rambam's introduction to פרק חלק:

"והכת הזו המסכנה רחמנות על סכלותם לפי שהם רוממו את החכמים לפי מחשבתם ואינם אלא משפילים אותם בתכלית השפלות ואינם מרגישים בכך, וחי ה' כי הכת הזו מאבדים הדר התורה ומחשיכים זהרה, ועושים תורת השם בהפך המכוון בה, לפי שה' אמר על חכמת תורתו אשר ישמעון את כל החוקים האלה וכו', והכת הזו דורשין מפשטי דברי חכמים דברים אשר אם ישמעום העמים יאמרו רק עם סכל ונבל הגוי הקטן הזה. והרבה שעושין כן הדרשנין המבינים לעם מה שאינם מבינים הם עצמם, ומי יתן ושתקו כיון שאינם מבינים מי יתן החרש תחרישון ותהי לכם לחכמה, או היה להם לומר אין אנו יודעים מה רצו חכמים בדברים אלו ולא היאך פירושו, אלא חושבים שהבינו, ומעמידים את עצמם להבין לעם מה שהבינו הם עצמם לא מה שאמרו חכמים, ודורשין בפני ההמון בדרשות ברכות ופרק חלק וזולתם כפשוטם מלה במלה."

Marc Shapiro also points to an interesting reason put forth by the Rashba as to why some מדרשים are written in such a hyperbolic manner: "לעתים היו החכמים דורשים ברבים ומאריכים בדברי תועלת והיו העם ישנים, וכדי לעוררם היו אומרים להם דברים זרים לבהלם ושיתעוררו משנתם."

Additionally, see the Ibn Ezra in his introduction to Eicha: מדרשיה אל דרכים רבים נחלקים/מהם חידות וסודות ומשלים דבוהים עד שחקים/ומהם להרויח לבות נלאות בפרקים עמוקים/ומהם לאמן נכשלים ולמלאת הריקים...ודרך הפשט הוא הגוף בדברים נבחרים ובחוקים...)

If the preceeding is true, we must re-examine the extent to which Ramban and Maharal, and, indeed, many other מפרשים go in their desire to explain the literal meaning of the midrash. If it is all an allegory, why do we care how the little details work into the literal meaning of the metaphor? The answer, of course, is that any metaphor needs to maintain a level of internal consistency. Only through consistency can the deeper meaning behind the allegory come through, and not be obscured by tangental questions that inhibit clarity.

With humility and patience, we can learn great things from the agadot of our sages. By blending the stances of Rambam and Maharal with a level-headed reader's approach, we can truly see the wisdom and wonders of our Torah.
110 Sh'vat 5769: In an important essay on the topic of Maharal and midrash, Rabbi Chaim Eisen gives some history and context for the Maharal's view. I offer in this parenthetical comment a short summary of an essay that is critical for anyone interested in Maharal or midrash.

Rishonic philosophic formulations were made on the backdrop of the neo-rationalist philosophers that flowered in the Arabic countries. Though the Jewish responses to this were rooted in the Talmud, they were formulated towards the philosophers of their times. In those times, most Geonim and Rishonim did not see אגדתא as binding, and R' Shmuel and R' Hai, his son, wrote in the manner that one does not rely on midrash if it is unattuned. Rather, if it is in the Talmud, we do our best to reconcile it [allegorically] with reason, and if we cannot, we disregard it as we do matters that are not in accordance with halacha. If not in the Talmud, we do not even do this much. There is no ruling in agadta, if there is no halachik implication. Similarly and yet very differently, the Rambam saw midrashim as a foundtain of deeper knowledge, allegory and metaphor that could be dismissed by the masses without danger to their souls, while at the same time, be held in waiting for the truly wise to study. The Moreh is a work that attempts to systematically review the allegories of agadta. Rambam wrote that those who misunderstand agadta or take it literally (and either force that upon themselves or reject it) are behaving foolishly, but are not going against the tenents of faith. R' Sherira held that midrash and agada are umdena.

There was a small number of rishonim who held that midrashim must be read as literally true (see K'tav Tamim), the breadth of thought, rationalist and mystical, that they reject to support this, points to the singularity and uniqueness of this approach.

The Ramban saw a duality to the physical and metaphysical worlds. Where the Rambam would see the garden of Eden, for example, as a non-physical reality, and the K'tav Tamim would see it as earthly, the Ramban discusses at length a duality in nature between reality on earth and spiritual reality in Heaven. Both are true, and are linked so that the words of the Torah describe the events in both spheres.

However, as the Enlightenment moved across Western Europe, Jews began to see the statements of the midrash and agadta as an excuse to leave the ways of their fathers. Whereas de Rossi in his Me'or Enayim essentially continued this tradition from the Geonim, willing to dismiss midrashim as non-binding, the Maharal saw in this a reaction to the outside attacks, instead of a re-examination and deepening of understanding of the texts in question. (To quote Rabbi Eisen, "de Rossi responded only to objections from the outside, without subsuming them in an inclusive system cominf forth essentially from the inside.") The Maharal found his roots in the Rambam's view, and this was the path of the Maharal. He saw the midrashim and agadtot as allegory, and once the allegory is understood, the words of the midrash make sense in their plain meaning. The secret of wisdom is unlocked, and the allegory takes over, giving the true, lofty meaning to the seemingly mundane words in which our sages couched their great thoughts. (This is not to detract from the disagreements Maharal had with Rambam's explanations, as Maharal was a student of Ramban's willingness to incorporate kabbalistic-mystical elements in his explications of passages.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Olmert vs. Rabbi Kahane

Ya'akov and the Spotted Sheep

A few years ago, a rabbi from M'chon Pu'ah delivered a series of lectures to our s'micha class in Israel. The lectures were designed to give future rabbis insight into the complexities of fertility treatments and halachot which deal with reproduction. At the end of the first session, he told us a fascinating, novel approach he had regarding Ya'akov's spotted and striped sheep. While it may not be quite the pshat, it certainly is interesting.

In the story, Lavan gives Ya'akov only block colored animals. The striped, spotted and banded ones stay with Lavan's sons. Ya'akov puts striped branches within the sheeps' sight when they drink, and when they mate, they somehow give birth to striped animals. Of course, this seems non-sensical. I always understood the story as Ya'akov doing his best hishtadlut and Hashem lending a hand. But how?

When Ya'akov explains how he is so successful to his wives, he tells them of a vision he had when approached by an angel of God. "Behold, all the males that mated with the ewes, were striped, spotted and banded." How does Ya'akov's vision match the reality of the situation?

In genetics, there are dominant and recessive genes. In peas, to use one facet of Gregor Mendel's experiments, green peas are recessive, and yellow are dominant. The way genetics work is that a plant or animal inherits two sets of genes, one from each parent. As long as there is one dominant, the pea expresses a fully dominant phenotype, and will be yellow. Only when both inherited alleles are recessive will the phenotype be expressed as green.

It has been some time, but I hope that I accurately relate what Rabbi Brownstein explained: Striped and spotted sheep are the result of a recessive genetic mutation. The block colored ones are dominant. It so happens, he said, that the recessive gene also relates to earlier heat seasons.

When Ya'akov had a flock of block colored sheep, he had homozygous and heterozygous males and females. The sheep that were ready to mate earlier would likely carry a recessive gene for spotting and striping, heterozygously. Thus, the ewes ready for mating earlier, even though they were identical in phenotype to the homozygous sheep, were ones that could produce homozygous recessive babies, if mated with males that also carried the recessive gene.

This is the 'opening of the eyes' that the angel performed on Ya'akov. He allowed Ya'akov to 'see' the stripes that were latent in the block colored animals, and taught him that the only way to have a high number of striped offspring would be to allow heterozygotes to mate with heterozygotes. Allow the animals that were ready to mate early to mate together, and then segregate all striped and spotted offspring, permitting them only to reproduce amongst themselves, maintaining the homozygous recessive genes in his flocks.

All that is left are the branches in the watering troughs. It seems that in ancient times, this type of trick was believed to have worked. In fact, the Talmud records just such a popular belief in the idea that what one sees can influence the look of one's offspring (see Brachot and Niddah; exact pages forthcoming). Ya'akov's actions are nothing more than the use of the best animal husbandry knowledge of his time. It is a model for us of hishtadlut.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Poetry I Like II

In the second installment of "Poetry I Like", I present to you Gerard Manley Hopkins, and King David. Hopkins was born in 1844, on July 28. He became a Catholic priest, but found himself better suited to writing and teaching. He studied Welsh, and incorporated into his English poetry what he called "sprung rhythm". This constantly changing rhythm, rising and falling, was meant to demonstrate the immanence of God in his poetry. Later in life, he became depressed, and feared that his prayers did not reach God. This doubt was painful, but, as he died of Typhoid fever in 1889, he said, 'I am happy, so happy.'

Below is my favorite of all his poems, which recalls to mind very strongly the verses of chapter 104 in Psalms. I find the lilting meter and substance of Hopkins echoing these verses. And so, first Hopkins, and then the psalm.

Glory be to God for dappled things—For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.

--GM Hopkins

תהום, כלבוש כיסיתו; על הרים, יעמדו מים.
מן גערתך ינוסון; מן קול רעמך, ייחפזון.
יעלו הרים, יירדו בקעות-- אל מקום, זה יסדת להם.
גבול שמת, בל יעבורון; בל ישובון, לכסות הארץ.
המשלח מעיינים, בנחלים; בין הרים, יהלכון.
ישקו, כל חיתו שדיי; ישברו פראים צמאם.
עליהם, עוף השמיים ישכון; מבין עופיים, ייתנו קול...

הכפירים, שואגים לטרף; ולבקש מא-ל, אוכלם.
תזרח השמש, ייאספון; ואל מעונותם, ירבצון.
ייצא אדם לפועלו; ולעבודתו עדי ערב.
מה רבו מעשיך, ה'-- כולם, בחכמה עשית;מלאה הארץ קניינך.

תהילים קד:ח-יב, כ-כד

Modesty and Openness

I am sure that there are some people out there who have been following the discussion in which I have made the point that modesty is necessary even when discussing adult topics. As it seems that many have misunderstood my point of view, and feel that I am trying to 'police' other blogs, I will clarify my position here.

First of all, let me begin with the good. I think it is great that people want to know the halachik view of matters between husband and wife. It speaks of the holiness that an authentic Jewish life can engender, when bloggers ask important questions regarding intimacy within the framework of Jewish law. It happens far too often that both women and men, when meeting their 'marriage teachers' (חתן or כלה teachers), are too embarrassed (or too naiive) to ask detail-oriented questions. Teachers should be bringing up these issues if the prospective bride or groom do not mention them. All to often, tragically, these classes are the first and last exposure the couple has to a religious figure that invites them to ask anything they need. I believe that people require open relationships with honest, trustworthy clergy, so that questions can be posed and answered in a professional and private manner.

It is inevitable that many people will not be exposed to this kind of support system. In this day and age, people turn to the internet, and lately, blogs, to find answers and camaraderie in their quest for fulfilling relationships and lives. This is fine, and there are many sites where rabbis answer anonymous questions in a respectful and halachik way. (Without endorsing any, here are some links: askmoses, kippah, and shoresh.)

When we find out about the details of what is permitted, we fulfill our responsibility to build a healthy relationship with our spouse, while attending our duty to act within the framework of the Torah. However, the danger that lurks at the edges of this important exploration is that a public discussion of these issues, innocently begun with the best of intentions, can quickly degenerate into the presentation of salacious details for the voyeuristic excitement of the audience. This is what happened on one of the threads in the blogosphere, and it is the inherent danger of any public discussion of what traditionally was the most private of issues, discussed between man, woman and respected halachik authority.

The Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer 21:1-15) and Yad Hachazaka (Hil. Issurei Biah 21) make it clear that experiences which cause a person improper thoughts for unacceptable reasons is against the law. We are a holy nation. When we learn about what is permitted and what is forbidden, we do it with seriousness. We do not do it in a forum where the discussion will turn into the lowest talk of pubs and beer-halls.

I applaud the desire to know more about how we treat intimacy in halacha. I think the internet can be a good source of information. However, everyone who takes part in such discussions is responsible to make sure that the information is in keeping with the halachik standards of tzniut, and cut off any wandering from the goal honest and serious study of issues between man and woman.

May we merit our Nation שוכן לשבטיו, with love and happiness in abundance, within the bounds of our holy Torah.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fortitude and Patience

The following poem reminded me of the Yerushalmi I quote afterwards. Both remind us of the calm inevitability of the גאולה.

Say not the Struggle Nought Availeth

Say not, the struggle nought availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright.

--Arthur Hugh Clough, 1869

ר’ חייא רובה ור”ש בן חלפתא הוו מהלכין בהדא בקעת ארבל בקריצתא ראו אילת השחר שבקע אורה א”ר חייא רובה לר”ש בן חלפתא בר ר’ כך היא גאולתן של ישראל בתחילה קימעא קימעא כל שהיא הולכת היא הולכת ומאיר מאי טעמא (מיכה ז) כי אשב בחשך ה’ אור לי.

The rabbis were walking in a valley during the harvest time, and witnessed the day-break as its light broke forth. One said, "Such is the redemption of Israel: first, it is bit by bit, but as it goes on, the light continues to grow, as the prophet states, 'Even as I sit in darkness, God is my light'."

-- ירושלמי יומא, פרק ג, דף מ, עמ’ ב

Friday, November 02, 2007

Rivkah and Avraham

When Eliezer goes to find a wife for Yitzchak, the Torah tells us that he found 'Rivkah coming out, who was born to Betuel'. (Gen. 24:15) This seems quite redundant, as in 22:23, the Torah has already told us the exact same fact, that Rivkah was born to Betuel. What is being added here? Further, the verb used in our verse is pu'al, effectively making Betuel's fathering of Rivkah passive. Why this change from 22:23 and, indeed, most other similar situations in scripture, where the verb is active?

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv has an interesting explanation. Rivkah, he says, was born to Betuel, it is true, but not in his merit, and not for him. Rivkah was given to Betuel for Avraham. Avraham is the hidden cause for the birth, and she carries his personality, as a proof of authenticity. Rivkah's capacity for loving-kindness is unique in her generation, and recalls Avraham's chessed. It is for this reason that Eliezer was so sure of his selection.

All middot must be balanced by an opposing one. Too much strictness is dangerous, and so is too much kindness. Especially in raising a family (or, in the fore-fathers' cases, a nation), we need to make sure we provide a balance of traits as examples for our children. Each fore-father had a specific characteristic. Avraham was full of loving-kindness, while Yitzchak exemplified gevurah, strict justice. In order for them to produce successful families, they needed the input of opposing traits from their wives. It is clear from last week's parashah that Sarah was able to provide the trait of gevurah, as we see from her sending away Yishmael when he became a bad influence.

Yitzchak needed a balance, and this was provided by Rivkah's loving-kindness. The proper mate for Yitzchak had to be inspired by Avraham's trait.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 16b) records an argument. Some amoraim hold that Avraham had a daughter, implied by the verse stating that Avraham was blessed with everything. Others hold he had no daughter. Perhaps this view of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak in his Kedushat HaLevi can make peace between the two views.

It is only with a harmonious balance of traits on display in a Jewish home can children be raised with a healthy atmosphere of love and strictness. Our fore-bearers are a lesson to us in how we must structure our homes for the benefit of our children and, indeed, for all of Israel.