Parashat Behukotai – Holiness Inside and Out – Redux

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מִמֶּנּוּ לַי-הוָה יִהְיֶה-קֹּדֶשׁ

 

The large part of Parashat Behukotai is taken up by Vayikra 26, known as the תוכחה, the Rebuke. It is essentially a description of the consequences for following or disobeying the Law of ‘א, and as such is a fitting end for Sefer Vayikra. It even ends with a verse which clearly summarizes a much larger section, “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which the LORD made between Him and the children of Israel in mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Vayikra 27:46). This organizes Vayikra into a collection of laws and a motivational speech about the importance of following them[1], a wondrous and logical construction, which is absolutely ruined when you get to the end of chapter 26 and discover chapter 27. Vayikra 27 is known as Parashat Ha’Arakhin, “the passage of values”, and contains laws regarding personal vows and consecrations to the Mishkan/Mikdash. While a very important set of laws, this section completely destroys the previously beautiful structure created by ending the book with chapter 26. However, a closer analysis of the chapter and its role in Sefer Vayikra will reveal that it replaces the original plan with an altogether more important structure, closing the book and highlighting its most important values.[2]

Parashat Ha’Arakhin is one of two bookends to Sefer Vayikra.[3] It is matched, on several counts, by the first few chapters at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra that discuss the animals brought to the Mishkan as Korbanot. The sections share a basic structure. The early chapters first discuss the Voluntary korbanot, the Olah and Shlamim, followed by the Obligatory korbanot, the Hatat and Asham. This same pattern of Voluntary-Obligatory is mimicked in parashat ha’arakhin, which starts off by discussing the monetary values of people, animals, and land that someone could voluntarily donate to the Mishkan, and then discusses first-born animals and produce-tithes that a person is obligated to give. More important than the structural similarity is the thematic one. Both parshiot involve people bringing things (animals, produce, money, etc.) to the Mishkan. Sefer Vayikra opens and closes with people taking what is theirs and giving it to ‘א. This focus on the Mishkan defines Vayikra, with it’s lengthy descriptions of the laws of Korbanot, Purity/Impurity, etc. However, as chapter 27 reminds us, it is not the only important theme of Vayikra.

Vayikra 27 also closes a smaller section at the end of the book, beginning with chapter 25. Chapter 25 deals with issues of God’s ownership, both of the land and the nation of Israel, and the legal manifestations of that.[4] This does not in and of itself seem to be similar to chapter 27, which deals with evaluation and donations. However, reading the two chapters side by side, one is struck by the numerous repetitions of conjugations of the word “גאל” (redeem, redemption, etc.) in both chapters. With 18 appearances in chapter 25 and 10 in chapter 27, Redemption is not only a common theme to both chapters, but also a fairly dominant theme in each chapter individually.[5] However, the word “redemption” here is not intended in the manner people usually use it; it has no spiritual, national, or historical, connotations. Rather it refers to the return of a person or their property to their own, personal, ownership.[6] In chapter 25 it refers to the redemption of a person, or their property, that was sold to avoid bankruptcy. In chapter 27 it refers to persons or properties that are dedicated to the Mishkan, either by default or intentionally, and their redemption from that state. This connection, between redemption in Vayikra 25 and redemption in Vayikra 27 affects how we view chapter 27. Redemption in chapter 25 is obviously positive, but in chapter 27 it’s not clear. One could suggest that redeeming items intended for the Mishkan is something only meant to be done when absolutely necessary, permitted but far from positive. The similarities to chapter 25 (Particularly 27:16-24, dealing with redeeming land in relation to the Yovel) indicate that the redemption of chapter 27 is the same as the redemption in chapter 25. Redeeming things from the Mishkan must then be seen as similarly positive to redeeming the destitute from slavery. While this seems perhaps a little strange, with all the focus on the Mishkan in Sefer Vayikra, and the simple fact that the Mishkan is where Bnei Yisrael could most easily feel ‘א’s presence, it makes perfect sense when one takes into account the second half of Sefer Vayikra, which deals almost exclusively with life outside the Mishkan.

Parashat Ha’Arakhin was chosen to finish off Sefer Vayikra because it encompasses what are perhaps the two most important values of the sefer: the Mishkan and life outside of it.[2] Bnei Yisrael brought dedications and Korbanot to the Mishkan the same way we dedicate our lives to ‘א. We are pulled towards the presence of ‘א, and in embracing this, in taking the rest of our lives and dedicating them to this, we are wrapped up in His majesty. But the is life outside the Mishkan. The Torah lays down laws for a holy society, but a society needs people to do the work and maintain it (Bereishit 2:15). The Holy Society idea is in direct tension with the Mishkan. Instead of bringing ourselves to ‘א, building a holy society requires bringing ‘א to the rest of our lives. That’s why the Torah lays down laws for agriculture and property ownership, because then the observance of those laws is innately godly.[7] This tension does not have a resolution, it’s something we have to live and struggle with on daily basis. How much of our day is just for ‘א? How much is for ‘א’s world? There’s no set method for determining this, but that doesn’t excuse us from the question. Each day we must ask ourselves anew, and each day we must do our best dedicate ourselves to ‘א while still dedication ourselves to building His world.

 

[1] It’s worth noting that their is a large debate among the commentators regarding which laws the Rebuke is giving consequences for.

[2] For more on this, see my discussion of it here: https://levimorrow.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/parashat-vayikra-the-mishkan-the-people-and-the-land-holiness-inside-and-out/.

[3] Ideas found in this paragraph are from Jacob Milgrom’s Commentary to Vayikra, Yale Anchor Bible Series, Vole. 3 Ch. 27, Comment B; and form R’ Menachem Leibtag’s commentson Parashat Behukotai, found on www.tanach.org.

[4] For more on that, see my discussion here: https://levimorrow.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/parashat-behar-the-property-law-of-man-and-god/.

[5] This paragraph is also largely based on Jacob Milgrom, Op cit.

[6] This has a lot in common with a more national-historical form of redemption, but it’s not quite the same thing.

[7] This is the greatness of the rabbinic requirement of דינא דמלכותא דינא, “the law of the land is law” (תלמוד בבלי, מסכת בבא בתרא, דף נ”ד, עמוד ב’. תלמוד בבלי, מסכת גיטין, דף י’, עמוד ב’.). It give halakhic weight to any civil law, and essentially makes it a mitzvah to eva good citizen.

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Parashat Vayikra 5774 – The Mishkan, the People, and the Land – Holiness, Inside and Out

וַיְדַבֵּר יְ-הוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Sefer Vayikra[1] is certainly the most law-oriented book of the Torah. While most of the books of the Torah include a significant narrative section, Vayikra has only a few scattered narratives, all directly connected to the laws of Vayikra. Adding to the uniqueness of this characteristic, most of the laws are very ritually oriented. While this section does include plenty of ethical laws, the vast majority are concerned with rituals and worship. This peculiarity led Julius Wellhausen, the founder of modern biblical criticism, to say that Vayikra is actually a very late addition to Tanakh, a ritualistic corruption of earlier prophetic ideals. More recent scholars have concluded that this was largely a manifestation of Wellhausen’s anti-Semitic beliefs, an intended denigration of what he considered to be the most Jewish part of the Torah. In this one facet, he may have been right. Vayikra is ostensibly the most Jewish book of the Torah. Much of the laws and rites we follow on a daily basis have their roots in Sefer Vayikra. Moreover, the entirety of Sefer Vayikra, down to its very structure, expresses characteristically Jewish ideas.

Sefer Vayikra can be very neatly split into two parts, Chapters 1-16 and Chapter 17-27. These two sections each deal with their own unique subject matter, and where there is overlap, the overlapping law or idea is discussed in two very different ways. The topic of the first section is fairly easy to determine, namely the Mishkan, the Korbanot, and the people responsible for both. This also includes the various persons that are not allowed to enter the Mishkan due to temporary “impurity”, and the ways those people acquire that status. The second section,  however, is a little more complex.

The second half of Vayikra jumps rapidly from topic to topic[2]. It starts off with the laws regarding animals slaughtered outside the Mishkan, moving quickly to forbidden sexual relations and the requirement not to live like the nations that previously inhabited the Land of Israel. It also discusses the laws of the Shabbat and the Holidays as well as the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Surprisingly, peppered throughout the expected ritual laws we find an unexpected amount of moral laws. Finally, near the end of the Sefer we find the punishments awaiting those who fail to live up to the laws of the Torah.

While the laws of the first half of  Sefer Vayikra focus on the Mishkan. the proper way to act therein, and who may enter and who may not, the second half focuses on the life of Bnei Yisrael outside the Mishkan. It covers most, if not all, aspects of life. It deals with the sanctity of the People, the Land, and the special designated times of the People in the Land. Quite beautifully, the switchover from the first section to the second (in chapters 17 and 18) centers on A. The laws of slaughter outside the Mishkan, and B. The command to live differently than the nations that once lived in the Land of Israel. Slaughter outside the Mishkan means taking something that normally occurs inside the Mishkan and moving it outside. That external movement brings us outside the Mishkan and into the land, upon which Bnei Yisrael must behave according to certain moral laws.

These two sections are not simply two sets of laws put side by side, however. On the surface one might think that they both ended up in one book simply by virtue of each being too small to merit its own book. But in fact the first half of Sefer Vayikra very delicately and deliberately sets up from the second half. There are many linguistic and literary connections between the two sections, but the most significant by far are the usages of the words “מעל”, “טמא”, “טהור”, and “נדה” (in their various conjugations). All of these words possess great significance in both sections of Vayikra, but their meanings are not the same. While there are many words simply repeated in the two sections, these words are repeated with entirely different meanings. While in the first section they have an explicitly ritual connotation, in the second they assume very moralistic intentions[3]. “Impure” becomes “Morally Corrupt”,  and “Purification” becomes “Forgiveness”. Ritualistic terminology becomes Moralistic analogy. The language of the Mishkan becomes the language of the Nation in the Land.

The function of the second half of Sefer Vayikra is to take the first half and apply it to the rest of the life of Bnei Yisrael. It essentially analogizes the concepts of the Mishkan to the daily life of the people. The first half of the sefer describes the Mishkan as the dwelling place of ‘א and what that means for the people who go there. The second half of Vayikra describes the People and the Land as the dwelling place of ‘א and what that means for the actions of the people on an individual and collective basis. Just as certain actions mean that a person cannot share ‘א’s space in the Mishkan, so too certain actions mean that ‘א cannot live in the daily life of the people[4]. The laws of Sefer Vayikra are not simply complex ritual laws. They are a description of what it means to try to live in ‘א’s world and to have Him live in yours.

[1] This essay draws heavily from ‘Introduction to Sefer Vayikra’, a lecture by Rav Menachem Leibtag easily locatable on www.yutorah.org, and the Jacob Milgrom’s Introduction to his commentary on Sefer Vayikra, part of the Yale Anchor Bible Series.

[2] Note: This paragraph is just a quick summary. There are plenty of other laws in this section, but these are some of the big ones.

[3] This division isn’t necessarily 100%, rather it is general trend.

[4] It’s worth noting that of its 51 appearances in the sefer, 49 of the uses of the phrases “אני י-הוה” are in the second half of Vayikra.

Parashat Behar – The Property Law of Man and God

לַצְּמִיתֻת לַקֹּנֶה אֹתוֹ

 

Parashat Behar discusses a variety of laws all based upon the idea of ‘א’s property rights. The laws of Shemittah assume that ‘א owns the land and thus Bnei Yisrael must treat it in accordence with His wishes (Vayikra 25:23). Similarly, the laws of the redemption of properties and the return of ancestral lands in the Yovel is due to ‘א being the one true owner of the land, and thus has the unique ability to apportion it as He sees necessary (Ibid.). Even the laws of the slaves are included, as ‘א has taken Israel to be in His service, and thus they cannot serve others, at least not as formal slaves (25:42). This in itself, the idea that ‘א owns things and that people therefore cannot treat those things however they wish, is of great importance. But it is the exception to the rule of property return that teaches us perhaps the most important idea of all.

The exception to the return of property in the Yovel is any property inside a walled city. This property can be redeemed within a year of its sale, but after that it belongs fully to its new owner (25:29-30). If the law of the return of property is based on the idea that the land belongs to   ‘א, then it seems a little incongruent that there would be an exception to this rule. It seems to imply that urban properties don’t get returned in the Yovel because urban land doesn’t necessarily belong to ‘א but rather whomever legally acquires it. Due to its location, what would otherwise be the property of ‘א is instead the property of Man.

An argument against this might be that ‘א as Creator of the World owns everything in it, and thus there must be some other explanation for this exception. However, ‘א’s conditional ownership is clear from the contrast between the laws of Israelite and non-Israelite slaves in Vayikra 25:39-46.

39 And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee, thou shalt not make him to serve as a bondservant. 40 As a hired servant, and as a settler, he shall be with thee; he shall serve with thee unto the year of jubilee. 41 Then shall he go out from thee, he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. 42 For they are My servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as bondmen. 43 Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God. 44 And as for thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, whom thou mayest have: of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45 Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them may ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they have begotten in your land; and they may be your possession. 46 And ye may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession: of them may ye take your bondmen for ever; but over your brethren the children of Israel ye shall not rule, one over another, with rigour.

Israel belongs to ‘א as a result of His taking Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. By contrast the nations who live around Israel are not ‘א’s, and can thus be taken as slaves. Clearly not everything belongs to ‘א as a result of being created by Him.

While it is clear that urban property has left the realm of ‘א’s property and moved over into that of man, it is far from clear whether or not this is a good thing. On the whole, cities in Tanakh are not depicted very positively. The first city ever mentioned is Bavel, in the Tower of Bavel narrative in Bereishit 11. That city is so negative that ‘א has to personally intervene and destroy it. The next big city mentioned is Sodom, which is also destroyed by ‘א. It continues like that, with really the only positive city being the priestly city of Nov until the founding of Jerusalem by King David. The prophet Tsephaniah in particular takes a harsh view of city life, considering it to be innately evil and corrupt. He predicts the total destruction of the cities of Israel, utilizing imagery from the Flood and Tower of Babel narratives in order to make it clear that the destruction is due to the absolute corruption of the cities. In their place he suggests that society move back toward the more pastoral, shepherding lifestyle of the forefathers. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggested that this tension between cities and shepherds is a theme throughout the entirety of the Tanakh, going all the way back to the first conflict in the Torah. While Abel was a Shepherd, Cain was a farmer, whose descendants would go on to develop much of civilization (Bereishit 4:21-22). When the Jews go down to Egypt, the fact that they are shepherds is appalling to the Egyptians, who maintaine an agricultural society (Bereishit 46:31-47:4). The one real exception might be Yeshayahu’s prophecies on Jerusalem. Much like Tsephaniah, Yeshayahu uses imagery from the Tower of Bavel to demonstrate the total corruption of the city. However, instead of predicting the city’s destruction, Yeshayahu declares that the city must become better. It seems that in Yeshayahu’s view, urban life is not innately corrupt, and could in fact be ideal if the people acted properly. Thus the portrayal of cities in Tanakh is definitely not particularly positive, but also doesn’t have to be negative.

Just as the Tanakh’s view of cities seems more complex than simply ‘good or bad’, we can’t really determine if the nature of urban land as the property of Man is positive or negative. Certainly, it could potentially be either, which highlights the incredible fact of the exception itself. The Torah describes the laws of Shemittah, Yovel, Redeeming the Land, and the Return of the the Land, as all being based on ‘א’s ownership of the land. And then it says that by building walls and cities, the land becomes the property of Man. Bnei Yisrael are apparently able, in this case, to overwrite ‘א’s ownership with their own. This is an example of a much larger theme in Tanakh and Judaism, that of the importance and value of human initiative. Human initiative is real and has meaning, despite the presence of an all-powerful god. In Sefer Shoftim, the measure of a good leader is how little he requires ‘א’s involvement in saving the people. When ‘א helped the people conquer the land, the Kedushah was only temporary, but when the people returned of their own volition in the period of Bayit Sheni, the Kedushah was permanent. The ability for Bnei Yisrael to make property their own through urbanization is an incredible demonstration of the power of human actions. However, the Tanakh makes it clear that this has the potential to be either incredibly good or incredibly bad, and it might even be easier for it to go bad. If humans have such great power, then incumbent upon them is also great responsibility. We are meant to build a perfect world, and we have the power to do so. This by definition means we also have the power to ruin the world we’ve been given to work with. This is the great challenge of humanity. We’ve been given great ability and the material to utalize. What we do next is up to us.

 

[1] Translations from Mechon-Mamre.org

[2] One could still argue that ‘א, as Creator, owns everything, but one still has to explain the distinctions between the the rural and urban properties and the Israelite and non-Israelite slaves as per Vayikra 25 as being somehow different levels of ownership, and so nothing has really been accomplished in terms of ‘א’s ownership.

[3] ספר שמואל א’, פרק כ”ב, פסוק י”ט

[4] Divrei HaYamim Alef 11:4-5

[5] Rabbi Hayyim Angel, “Zephania’s use of the Genesis Narratives”, available on yutorah.org

[6] As a massively agricultural society, Egypt was actually the first civilization to develop leavened bread, which may explain the prohibition of Chametz on PEsach. For more information, see this link: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2014/04/why-do-we-eat-matzah-on-pesach.html

[7] Rabbi Hayyim Angel, Op cit.

[8] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Yevamot, 82b.

[9] Voltaire, “Œuvres de Voltaire, Volume 48.” Lefèvre, 1832; Uncle Ben, Amazing Fantasy #15.

Yom HaAtsma’ut 5774

Yom HaAtsma’ut commemorates the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948. It marks a moment in history, a turning point at which everything changed. The world was not the same place on the 15th of May, 1948, as it had been at the start of the 14th. In remembering this, in marking this day, we are presented with a challenge from both ‘א and the Nation of Israel, asking us if we are living up to our potential.

History is guided by ‘א’s hand. From the first spark of Creation through the Messianic Era, history moves according to the Will of ‘א. Great events like the Exodus from Egypt and the founding of the State of Israel are how ‘א reveals His will. Moments like the Revelation at Sinai are calls for a response from mankind. How will we respond to the will of ‘א?

The problem with this concept is that it is difficult to ever say that we know why ‘א did something. He controls history, but we do not know the specific reason why any one event happened. Thinking that we do is the kind of thing that leads to giving reasons for the Holocaust and other tragedies, which is an irresponsible and unthinkable thing to do. Unfortunately, once we say that we cannot give a reason for tragedies, we can’t honestly give a reason for any historical event. Once upon a time, Bnei Yisrael had prophets, messengers of ‘א, to tell us what ‘א intended by any event, what He wanted from us at any given nexus in history. Nowadays, all we have is the words of the prophets recorded in Tanakh and the words of HaZaL to tell us what we ought to be doing and what our goals ought to be. But in spite of this difficulty, Yom HaAtsma’ut still stands as ‘א’s challenge to us, asking us if now, in the new era of the State of Israel, we will live up to who we are supposed to be.

We face a similar challenge, perhaps even stronger, from the Nation of Israel, specifically from our fallen soldiers. Yom HaAtsma’ut follows on the heels of Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. In cities across Israel there are transitional ceremonies that start as mournful remembrances and end as joyful celebrations. This contrast colors the experience of Yom HaAtsma’ut. The happiness of the day is diluted, tinged with a strong sense of the sacrifice required to make that joy possible.

The juxtaposition of these two days creates a strong sense of  purpose for the deaths we remember on Yom HaZikaron. Far be it for us to say why they died, but we do know that their deaths helped create the State of Israel that we know and love today. However, this sense of purpose should color not just the past, but also the future; not just how we see their deaths, but also how we see ourselves, our lives, our goals. The purpose that their holy blood has served, the reason they gave their lives, cannot be ignored.

We don’t get to live our lives passively. We have to have the future in mind. This is true on the both the religious and moral levels. We have to respond to ‘א’s challenge, the challenge of history. We need to find our place in ‘א’s plan, to live up to his Torah. And we need to make sure we honor those who gave their lives for the State of Israel. This doesn’t mean that everyone should move to Israel tomorrow. Making hasty and reckless decisions honors neither the holy dead nor ‘א. But we can not pretend that the State of Israel is inconsequential or that those who died for it never existed. We have to feel the challenge. And we have to respond to it.

 

Parashat Emor – Distinction and Equality

מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח יִהְיֶה

Parashat Emor includes the second of the two narratives in Sefer Vayikra, the story of the Blasphemer, found in chapter 24. Upon its first reading, the story seems a little strange, but a closer examination reveals that this strangeness in fact discloses the great importance of this narrative.

10 There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. 11The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses-now his mother’s name was Shelomith daugh­ter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan 12 and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them. 13 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 14 Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. 15 And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; 16 if he also pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death.  17 If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. 18 One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. 19 If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. 21 One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. 22You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God. 23 Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Lord had commanded Moses.[1]

Why does the text go out of its way to detail the man’s half-israelite heritage? And why is the narrative interrupted by law of Lex Talionis, “an eye for an eye” (vss. 17-22)? As we shall see, a proper understanding of Lex Talionis will answer both of these questions, and thus unlock the meaning of the entire story and its purpose in Sefer Vayikra.

Lex Talionis, known more commonly by its refrain “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, is the biblical doctrine of exact compensation. It means that when a person commits a crime against another person that causes damage, the punishment or reparation must match the crime exactly. This doctrine is commonly thought of in Western society as a manifestation of a primitive need for vengeance, the likes of which society has long since outlived. This view is only possible when the law is examined superficially and out of its proper historical setting. Lex Talionis is found in plenty of law codes from the same time period as the Torah, and examining the law in context of those codes, and others, makes the real purpose of the law clear. The true purpose of Lex Talionis is not vengeance, but equality. The doctrine is a reaction to the common cultural and legal milieu of the time wherein the law treated people differently based on their class. People of higher social classes received preferential treatment. The biblical law explicitly fights against this in its requirement of one law for all people, “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Lord am your God.” (Vayikra 10:22) One rule for all members of the society means no preferential treatment for higher classes. Even further, most law codes that mention Lex Talionis intend it literally, and this serves to create even more legal equality.[2] Monetary compensation innately favors the rich upper classes. If a poor person has to pay X amount for stealing, it’s going to cause them to suffer a lot more than a rich person who has to pay the same amount. Thus, on several levels, the doctrine of Lex Talionis is meant to create equality amongst the people of Israel.

If we take this idea of an anti-caste polemic and paste it into the narrative of the Blasphemer, the reason for many of the oddities of the story becomes clear. Moshe’s lack of clarity regarding the punishment for the blasphemer flows from the blasphemers mixed parentage. While the law regarding blasphemy is clear, Moshe was unclear on whether or not the same law applied to someone who was only a half-Israelite. The law was given for, and applies to, the Nation of Israel. But what degree of Israelite parentage is necessary to make a person fully Israelite? Full Parentage? Half? What if only one of a persons grandparents is an Israelite? ‘א’s response is unequivocal: there’s no class distinctions among the Israelites. Lex Talionis: If you’re an Israelite then you’re an Israelite; There’s no legal distinction between groups of people.

This same theme is present in the laws of the holidays, mentioned in Vayikra 23 and in other places in the Torah. In the laws of Sukkot (Vayikra 23:42) the Torah specifically states that the holiday of Sukkot is for every member of Israel, “You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths.” Part of the purpose of Sukkot and the other Regalim, the three times all of Israel gather in Jerusalem, is to create unity in the nation. This is made clear when the laws of the holidays are discussed in Sefer Devarim, chapter 16,

“11 You shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. 12 Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey these laws… 14 You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communi­ties.”

The holidays are there to remind the Nation of Israel that they all used to be slaves and thus there is no real distinction between them.

However, this lack of distinction is in direct contradiction to one of the largest themes of Vayikra, that of the distinction between different groups within Israel, the priests and the laymen. Within Parashat Emor itself this is a major theme. All of chapter 21 and the first sixteen verses of chapter 22 of Sefer Vayikra discuss the additional restrictions on the Kohanim as a factor of special status, distinct from that of the average Israelite. Their added restrictions cover not just the rituals of the Mishkan that they are in charge of, but also other aspects of their lives like who they can marry and under what circumstances they are allowed to become impure. This distinction, and so many others, permeates all of Sefer Vayikra, and much of the rest of the Torah, yet stands in direct contradiction to the ideas of Lex Talionis and the Regalim.

There are two values in the Torah, “Distinction/Purpose” and “Equality”, that stand in direct contradiction to one another. This contradiction does not have a resolution. Instead, the laws and ideology of the Torah exist in a state of tension. Neither value is compromised on, nor is either one victorious, on the large scale. Instead, certain laws promote one value and certain laws promote the other. There is no compromise on the level of the ideas; compromise on the practical level happens perforce. This method can serve as model for dealing with tension and competing values in the modern world. We don’t have to give up on values just because they’re not our only values. Being positive and accepting of all peoples, and treating them equally regardless of the differences between them, is a positive value. But so is recognition of those differences and of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, and treating them accordingly. Neither ideal should be compromised as a general principle. In each individual situation one ideal, practically speaking, must be compromised on. However, that does not mean that we have to give up on our ideals, or ever stop striving to live up to them as much as possible.

 

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[2] The Oral Torah makes it clear that the Torah intended Lex Talionis non-literally, and instead intends monetary compensation, but this is also clear from a close examination of the places it occurs in the biblical text. To use the story of the Blasphemer as an example, it’s clear from here that the law is not meant to be understood literally from the simple fact that it’s not employed literally here. He blasphemes god’s name and is killed as punishment. This is not exactly “an eye for an eye.” Clearly the literal meaning is not intended.

Engagement Party Speech

Engagement Party Speech

For those of whom I have not yet been fortunate enough to meet, I’d like to start with a little bit about who I am. I am currently in my first year of a teaching degree focusing on Tanakh and Jewish Philosophy. I became interested in teaching, and in teaching Jewish Philosophy in particular, after attending Yeshivat Orayta, a post-High School American yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. One concept from my learning there that I found to be particularly foundational for my growth was the Kabbalistic idea of the Tsimtsum.

The Tsimtsum (from the root “לצמצם” meaning to contract or withdraw) is a concept from the teachings of the Arizal which, while rooted in earlier sources, depicted a whole new way to understand Creation. The tsimtsum depicts the primary act of creation as ‘א creating a space within Himself in which reality as we know it will exist. This deals with a variety of philosophical problems regarding creation, while perhaps creating a slew of new ones, and there are many incredible and inspiring concepts built upon this idea. I was incredibly moved by this idea and I based much of my personal philosophy upon it. However, a few months into my relationship with Tikva I realized that I had not previously understood its full significance.

Not too long after Tikva and I began dating, someone asked me if I was going to be in Jerusalem for shabbat. I responded that I didn’t know yet, but as I did so it occurred to me that what I really meant was, “we don’t know, we haven’t talked about it yet.” I had stopped thinking of shabbat plans, of all my plans really, as being simply about me, but rather they were about me and Tikva together. I no longer identified simply as myself, but rather as part of a unit composed of both myself and Tikva. I had made a space within my identity, where I wasn’t concerned with my self but with hers. I no longer thought about “my concerns” and “her concerns”, but about “our concerns. I had experienced my own personal Tsimtsum.

This merging of concerns; this sense of a complex identity; this is what the Arizal is conveying with the metaphor of the Tsimtsum. Our existence and identity as creations, our concerns, are a very real part of ‘א’s concerns. And in regards to our own perspective, we shouldn’t just be concerned with ourselves and our own personal identities. As parts of a much larger whole, it is our job to not feel that god’s concerns, and His goals for creation, are external matters, but that they are very much our own concerns. We have to feel as if the communal concerns are our own personal concerns, because that’s what they are. We are pieces of a much larger whole, and our identities and concerns ought to reflect that.

On that note, Tikva and I would like to thank everyone here, and those who could not come today, for all of their enthusiasm and support. The level of communal excitement we’ve encountered has been nothing short of incredible. Thank you all so much!

 

Carbs and Keys – Schlissel Challah

There’s been a lot of talk floating around the internet in the last week regarding Schlissel Challah, the custom of baking challah either in the shape of keyskey-challah or with an actual key pressed into the bottom on the shabbat after Pesach. While slim to none of the participants have been in support of the custom, opinions have ranged from thinking of Schlissel Challah as a pointless but tolerable practice to thinking of it as actual Avodah Zarah. Many have used the minhag as a jumping off point for larger discussions about Judaism, such as open-mindedness and hypocrisy, or Hishtadlut (the idea that personal initiative is both necessary and important in everyday life). What these discussions have largely missed is that Schlissel Challah isn’t it’s own phenomenon, rather it is part of a much larger stream of thought in Judaism.

Since its very beginning, Judaism has possessed both Mystical and Rationalist streams of thought. This dichotomy can be found even in the Torah itself, such as in the discussion of the reasons for Korbanot in Vayikra 17:5-7. The presence of this debate in midrashei HaZaL is so prevalent that A.J. Heschel wrote his three-volume magnum opus, Torah Min HaShamayim BeAspeklariah Shel HaDorot, on the topic. This split continued through the generations, with Mysticism peaking with the Arizal and the Kabbalistic Renaissance in Tzefat, and Rationalism probably peaking with Rambam and Ralbag. Schlissel Challah, while it only goes back to the Hasidic Movement, is a manifestation of this much larger debate.

Part of this debate is the question of the greater purpose of mitzvoth. Rationalists tend to view mitzvoth as being for the purpose of Mankind and its improvement, on global, societal, and individual levels. Torah learning enables people to keep halakha and encourages intelligence. Giving tsedakah provides support for the destitute while making the giver more charitable. Mysticism sees mitzvoth as being for the sake of ‘א and the mystical health and sustenance of reality. Learning Torah brings godly sustenance to all levels of reality. The giving of tsedakah is a mystical necessity for the world. While some thinkers, such as Ramchal, created syntheses that utilized aspects of both approaches, most approaches to the purpose of mitzvoth fall squarely into one of these two camps.

One aspect of the debate regarding Schlissel Challah has to do with this idea of spiritual mechanics and the meta-divine. Part of the innovation of Monotheism that Judaism brought to the world was the absence of meta-divine, things that are outside of ‘א. Idolatry is thus based on the idea that there’s something outside of ‘א. This means that any implication of sustenance or help being received via a process, without the direct influence of ‘א, is absolutely forbidden.[1] Thus assuming that putting a key in a piece of bread would cause one to receive more sustenance would be absolutely forbidden. However, that’s not the only way to view segulot such as Schlissel Challah. This negative view assumes that segulot somehow affect a system of reality outside of ‘א, but that’s only one way to conceive of such a system. Such a system of mystical processes could just as easily be a part of ‘א, or a system he set up that is totally within his control. If that were the case then Schlissel Challah would not at all be Avodah Zarah. How you conceive of segulot is just a question of how you conceive of reality, and that is already very subjective.[2]

A perfect example of the way this debate affects mitzvoth is the commandment of Shiluah HaKen, sending away the mother bird before taking its eggs.[3] The rationalist approach to this mitzvah believes that it’s purpose is to make man more merciful. The mitzvah is not an obligation so much as a proper method. It’s not that a person is commanded to take eggs and send away a mother bird, rather if a person is going to take the eggs, then they must send away the mother first, as this is a more merciful method for getting the eggs. The mystical approach is completely different. From the mystical perspective, the command is intended to activate ‘א’s attribute of Mercy to influence the Nation of Israel. Thus the mitzvah of Shiluah HaKen is not simply a method, but a full on obligation. This is more than just a theoretical debate. The first practical difference is whether or not a person should search out eggs to find. From the rationalist approach, this mitzvah is not an obligation. Like the command to give a get, a divorce document, it is simply the proper method to perform a certain task, if and only if a person finds this situation before them. Without the need for the eggs, the mitzvah would decrease a person’s compassion rather than increase it. For a mystic the command is a full-on obligation. The second ramification of the debate isn’t just about whether or not one must perform the mitzvah, but whether one is even allowed to. According to many who say that the mitzvah is a matter of mercy, sending the mother bird away unnecessarily would fall under the biblical prohibition regarding cruelty to animals. Thus a person who did not need the eggs would actually be prohibited from fulfilling the mitzvah. From the mystical perspective this issue does not exist by Shiluah HaKen, and nobody claims that Schlissel Challah is anywhere near that problematic.

The practice of baking Schlissel Challah can be, and has been, challenged on numerous grounds. However, all of these attacks come from a fundamentally different perspective than that of those who actually practice the rite.[4] Challenging Schlissel Challah is itself essentially meaningless, as all a person is really doing is challenging the axioms upon which the practice of Schlissel Challah is based, and thus challenging a very large stream of the modern Orthodox world-view. This isn’t certainly allowed, but a person should be conscious that this is more or less what they are doing when they challenge Schlissel Challah, and it begs the question of if it’s even worth it. As pointed out above, from the Rationalist prospect, Schlissel Challah is hardly as problematic as Shiluah HaKen. The advantage for challenging Schlissel Challah would be its relatively recent development compared to other rituals, but it’s still a matter of differing axioms more than anything else. At that point, one might as well challenge Shiluah HaKen, a rite practiced commonly in the modern era, despite possibly being prohibited on a Biblical level. Cruelty to animals is a big deal, and something that ought to get paid more attention to in modern Judaism. If you’re going to challenge mystical practices, one involving animal cruelty would be a much better place to start. Otherwise, it might be worth getting used to the fact Judaism always has included both Rationalist and Mystical approaches, and it probably always will.

 

[1] It’s unclear to what degree practitioners actually believe there is a direct causative relationship between putting the key in the bread and receiving more sustenance. For many, the rite is simply a reminder that ‘א is the source of all sustenance, certainly a Jewish concept.

[2] It’s worth noting that a person can object to segulot without being a rationalist. HaRav Yaakov Peretz, Shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of the Beit Midrash Sefaradi, is known for saying that he knows of “four segulot better than any others: Torah, Tefillah, Teshuva, and Tsedakah.” While he clearly is not denying the potential validity and power of segulot, he simply believes that they’re not meant to be the focus of a jew’s attention.

[3] For more information on this topic, see Rav Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha, a truly excellent resource.

[4] Ignoring, of course, those who make Schlissel Challah simply as a reminder that all sustenance really comes from ‘א.