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Rabbi Lamm's 1974 Article on Judaism and Homosexuality

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As part of our Fundamentals series on Heterosexuality and Homosexuality from a Torah Perspective, Rabbi Norman Lamm's 1974 article is a good reference point - RM

Judaism and the Modern Attitude to Homosexuality
Author / Contributor :: Lamm, Dr. Norman -

Dr. Norman Lamm presently serves as President of Yeshiva University. 
(Posted January 2002) 
Originally appeared Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook 1974, pg. 197 et, al 

Popular wisdom has it that our society is wildly hedonistic, with the breakdown of family life, rampant immorality, and the world, led by the United States, in the throes of a sexual revolution. The impetus of this latest revolution is such that new ground is constantly being broken, while bold deviations barely noticed one year are glaringly more evident the year following and become the norm for the "younger generation" the year after that.

Some sex researchers accept this portrait of a steady deterioration in sex inhibitions and of increasing permissiveness. Opposed to them are the "debunkers" who hold that this view is mere fantasy and that, while there may have been a significant leap in verbal sophistication, there has probably been only a short hop in actual behavior. They point to statistics which confirm that now, as in Kinsey's day, there has been no reported increase in sexual frequencies along with alleged de-inhibition to rhetoric and dress. The "sexual revolution" is, for them, largely a myth. Yet others maintain that there is in Western society a permanent revolution against moral standards, but that the form and style of the revolt keeps changing.


The determination of which view is correct will have to be left to the sociologists and statisticians -or, better, to historians of the future who will have the benefit of hindsight. But certain facts are quite clear. First, the complaint that moral restraints are crumbling has a two or three thousand year history in Jewish tradition and in continuous history of Western civilization. Second, there has been a decided increase at least in the area of sexual attitudes, speech, and expectations, if not in practice. Third, such social and psychological phenomena must sooner or later beget changes in mores and conduct. And finally, it is indisputable that most current attitudes are profoundly at variance with traditional Jewish views on sex and sex morality.

Of all the current sexual fashions, the one most notable for its militancy, and which most conspicuously requires illumination from the sources of Jewish tradition, is that of sexual deviancy. This refers primarily to homosexuality, male or female, along with a host of other phenomena such as transvestism and transexualism. They all form part of the newly approved theory of idiosyncratic character of sexuality. Homosexuals have demanded acceptance in society, and this demand has taken various forms -from a plea that they should not be liable to criminal prosecution, to a demand that they should not be subjected to social sanctions, and then to a strident assertion that they represent an "alternative life-style" no less legitimate that "straight heterosexuality. The various forms of homosexual apologetics appear largely in contemporary literature and theater, as well as in the daily press. In the United States, "gay" activists have become increasingly and progressively more vocal and militant. 

Legal Position

Homosexuals have, indeed, been suppressed by the law. For instance, the Emperor Valentinian, in 390 C.E., decreed that pederasty be punished by burning at the stake. The sixth-century Code of Justinian ordained that homosexuals be tortured, mutilated, paraded in public, and executed. A thousand years later, Gibbon said of the penalty the Code decreed that "pederasty became the crime of those to whom no crime could be imputed". In more modern times, however, the Napoleonic Code declared consensual homosexuality legal in France. A century ago, anti-homosexual laws were repealed in Belgium and Holland. In this century, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland followed suit and, more recently, Czechoslovakia and England. The most severe laws in the West are found in the United States, where they come under the jurisdiction of the various states and are known by a variety of names, usually as "sodomy laws". Punishment may range from light fines to five or more years in prison (in some cases even life imprisonment), indeterminate detention to a mental hospital, and even to compulsory sterilization. Moreover, homosexuals are, in various states, barred from licensed professions, from many professional societies, from teaching, and from the civil service -to mention only a few of the sanctions encountered by the known homosexual.

More recently, a new tendency has been developing in the United States and elsewhere with regard to homosexuals. Thus, in 1969, the National Institute of Mental Health issued a majority report advocating that adult consensual homosexuality be declared legal. The American Civil Liberties Union concurred. Earlier, Illinois had done so in 1962, and in 1971 the state of Connecticut revised its laws accordingly. Yet despite the increasing legal and social tolerance of deviance, basic feelings toward homosexuals have not really changed. The most obvious example is France, where although legal restraints were abandoned over 150 years ago, the homosexual of today continues to live in shame and secrecy.


Statistically, the proportion the proportion of homosexuals in society does not seem to have changed much since Professor Kinsey's day (his book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was published in 1948, and his volume on the human female in 1953). Kinsey's studies revealed that hard-core male homosexuals constituted about 4-6% of the population: 10% experienced "problem" behavior during a part of their lives. One man out of three indulges in some form of homosexual behavior from puberty until his early twenties. The dimensions of the problem become quite overwhelming when it is realized that, according to these figures, of 200 million people in the United States some ten million will become or are predominant or exclusive homosexuals, and over 25 million will have at least a few years of significant homosexual experience.

The New Permissiveness

The most dramatic change in our attitudes to homosexuality has taken place in the new mass adolescent subculture -the first such in history- where it is part of the whole new outlook on sexual restraints in general. It is here that the fashionable Sexual Left has had its greatest success on a wide scale, appealing especially to the rejection of Western traditions of sex roles and sex typing. A number of different streams feed into this ideological reservoir from which the new sympathy for homosexuality flows. Freud and his disciples began the modern protest against traditional restraints, and blamed the guilt that follows transgression for the neuroses that plague man. Many psychoanalysts began to overemphasize the importance of sexuality in human life, and this ultimately gave birth to a kind of sexual messianism. Thus, in our own day Wilhelm Reich identifies sexual energy as "vital energy per se" and, in conformity with his Marxist ideology, seeks to harmonize Marx and Freud. For Reich and his followers, the sexual revolution is a machina ultima for the whole Leninist liberation in all spheres of life and society. Rebellion against restrictive moral codes has become, for them, not merely a way to hedonism but a form of sexual mysticism: orgasm is seem not only as the pleasurable climatic release of internal sexual pressure, but as a means to individual creativity and insight as well as to the reconstruction and liberation of society. Finally, the emphasis on freedom and sexual autonomy derives from the Sartrean version of Kant's view of human autonomy.

It is in this atmosphere that pro-deviationist sentiments have proliferated, reaching into many strata of society. Significantly, religious groups have joined the sociologists and ideologists of deviance to affirm what has been called "man's birthright of unbounded ambisexuality." A number of Protestant churches in America, and an occasional Catholic clergyman, have plead for more sympathetic attitudes toward homosexuals. Following the new Christian permissiveness espoused in Sex and Morality (1966), the report of a working party of the British Council of Churches, a group of American Episcopalian clergymen in November 1967 concluded that homosexual acts ought not to be considered wrong, per se. A homosexual relationship is, they implied, no different from a heterosexual marriage: but must be judged by one criterion -"whether it is intended to foster a permanent relation of love." Jewish apologists for deviationism have been prominent in the Gay Liberation movement and have not hesitated to advocate their position in American journals and in the press. Christian groups began to emerge which catered to a homosexual clientele, and Jews were not too far behind. This latest Jewish exemplification of the principle of wie es sich christelt, so juedelt es sich will be discussed at the end of this essay.

Homosexual militants are satisfied neither with a "mental health" approach nor with demanding civil rights. They are clear in insisting on society's recognition of sexual deviance as an "alternative lifestyle," morally legitimate and socially acceptable.
Such are the basic facts and theories of the current advocacy of sexual deviance. What is the classical Jewish attitude to sodomy, and what suggestions may be made to develop a Jewish approach to the complex problem of the homosexual in contemporary society?

Biblical View

The Bible prohibits homosexual intercourse and labels it an abomination: "Thou shalt not lie with a man as one lies with a woman: it is an abomination" (Lev. 18:22). Capital punishment is ordained for both transgressors in Lev. 20:13. In the first passage, sodomy is linked with buggery, and in the second with incest and buggery. (There is considerable terminological confusion with regard to these words. We shall here use "sodomy" as a synonym for homosexuality and "buggery" for sexual relations with animals.)

The city of Sodom had the questionable honor of lending its name to homosexuality because of the notorious attempt at homosexual rape, when the entire population -"both young and old, all the people from every quarter"- surrounded the home of Lot, the nephew of Abraham, and demanded that he surrender his guests to them "that we may know them" (Gen. 19:5). The decimation of the tribe of Benjamin resulted from the notorious incident, recorded in Judges 19, of a group of Benjamites in Gibeah who sought to commit homosexual rape.

Scholars have identified the kadesh proscribed by the Torah (Deut. 23:18) as a ritual male homosexual prostitute. This form of healthen cult penetrated Judea from the Canaanite surroundings in the period of the early monarchy. So Rehoboam, probably under the influence of his Ammonite mother, tolerated this cultic sodomy during his reign (I Kings 14:24). His grandson Asa tried to cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem of the practice (I Kings 15:12), as did his great-grandson Jehoshaphat. But it was not until the days of Josiah and the vigorous reforms he introduced that the kadesh was finally removed from the Temple and the land (II Kings 23:7). The Talmund too (Sanhedrin, 24b) holds that the kadesh was a homosexual functionary. (However, it is possible that the term also alludes to a heterosexual male prostitute. Thus, in II kings 23:7, women are described as weaving garments for the idols in the batei ha-kedeshim (houses of the kadesh): the presence of women may imply that the kadesh was not necessarily homosexual. The Talmudic opinion identifying the kadesh as a homosexual prostitute may be only an asmakhta. Moreover, there are other opinions in Talmudic literature as to the meaning of the verse: see Onkelos, Lev. 23:18, and Nachmanides and Torah Temimah, ad loc.)

Talmudic Approach

Rabbinic exegesis of the Bible finds several other homosexual references in the scriptural narratives. The generation of Noah was condemned to eradication by the Flood because they had sunk so low morally that, according to Midrashic teaching, they wrote out formal marriage contracts for sodomy and buggery -a possible cryptic reference to such practices in the Rome of Nero and Hadrian (Lev. R. 18:13).

Of Ham, the son of Noah, we are told that "he saw the nakedness of his father" and told his two brothers (Gen. 9:22). Why should this act have warranted the harsh imprecation hurled at Ham by his father? The Rabbis offer two answers: one, that the text implied that Ham castrated Noah: second, that the Biblical expression is an idiom for homosexual intercourse (see Rashi, ad loc.). On the scriptural story of Potiphar's purchase of Joseph as a slave (Gen. 39:1), the Talmund comments that he acquired him for homosexual purposes, but that a miracle occurred and God sent the angel Gabriel to castrate Potiphar (Sotah 13b).

Post-Biblical literature records remarkably few incidents of homosexuality. Herod's son Alexander, according to Josephus (Wars, I, 24:7), had homosexual contact with a young eunuch. Very few reports of homosexuality have come to us from the Talmudic era (TJ Sanhedrin 6:6, 23c: Jos. Ant., 15:25-30).

The incidence of sodomy among Jews is interestingly reflected in the Halakhah on mishkav zakhur (the Talmudic term for homosexuality: the Bible uses various terms- thus the same term in Num. 31:17 and 35 refers to heterosexual intercourse by a woman, whereas the expression for male homosexual intercourse in Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 is mishkevei ishah). The Mishnah teaches that R. Judah forbade two bachelors from sleeping under the same blanket, for fear that this would lead to homosexual temptation (Kiddushin 4:14). However, the Sages permitted it (ibid.) because homosexuality was so rare among Jews that such preventive legislation was considered unnecessary (Kiddushin 82a). This latter view is codified as Halakhah by Malmonides (Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 22:2). Some 400 years later R. Joseph Caro , who did not codify the law against sodomy proper, nevertheless cautioned against being alone with another male because of the lewdness prevalent "in our times" (Even ha-Ezer 24). About a hundred years later, R. Joel Sirkes reverted to the original ruling, and suspended the prohibition because such obscene acts were unheard of amongst Polish Jewry (Bayit Hadash to Tur, Even ha-Ezer 24). Indeed, a distinguished contemporary of R. Joseph Caro, R. Solomon Luria, went even further and declared homosexuality so very rare that, if one refrains from sharing a blanket with another male as a special act of piety, one is guilty of self-righteous pride or religious snobbism (for the above and additional authorities, see Ozar ha-Posekim, IX, 236-238).


As is to be expected, the responsa literature is also very scant in discussions of homosexuality. One of the few such responsa is by the late R. Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook, when he was still the rabbi of Jaffa. In 1912 he was asked about a ritual slaughterer who had come under suspicion of homosexuality. After weighing all aspects of the case, R. Kook dismissed the charges against the accused, considering them unsupported hearsay. Furthermore, he maintained the man might have repented and therefore could not be subject to sanctions at the present time.

The very scarcity of halakhic deliberations on homosexuality, and the quite explicit insistence of various halakhic authorities, provide sufficient evidence of the relative absence of this practice among Jews from ancient times down to the present. Indeed, Prof. Kinsey found that, while religion was usually an influence of secondary importance on the number of homosexual as well as heterosexual acts by males. Orthodox Jews proved an exception, homosexuality being phenomenally rare among them.

Jewish laws treated the female homosexual more leniently than the male. It considered lesbianism as issur, an ordinary religious violation, rather than arayot, a specifically sexual infraction, regarded much more severely than issur. R. Huna held that lesbianism is the equivalent of harlotry and disqualified the woman from marrying a priest. The Halakhah is, however, more lenient, and decides that while the act is prohibited, the lesbian is not punished and is permitted to marry a priest (Sifra 9:8: Shab. 65a: Yev. 76a). However, the transgression does warrant disciplinary flagellation (Maimonides, Yad, Issurei Bi'ah 21:8). The less punitive attitude of the Halakhah to the female homosexual than to the male does not reflect any intrinsic judgment on one as opposed to the other, but is rather the result of a halakhic technicality: there is no explicit Biblical proscription of lesbianism, and the act does not entail genital intercourse (Maimonides, loc. cit.).

The Halakhah holds that the ban on homosexuality applies universally, to non-Jew as well as to Jew (Sanh 58a: Maimonides, Melakhim 9:5, 6). It is one of the six instances of arayot (sexual transgressions) forbidden to the Noachide (Maimonides, ibid).

Most halakhic authorities - such as Rashba and Ritba - agree with Maimonides. A minority opinion holds that pederasty and buggery are "ordinary" prohibitions rather than arayot - specifically sexual infractions which demand that one submit to martyrdom rather than violate the law - but the Jerusalem Talmud supports the majority opinion. (See D. M. Krozer, Devar Ha-Melekh, I, 22, 23 (1962), who also suggests that Maimonides may support a distinction whereby the "male" or active homosexual partner is held in violation of arayot whereas the passive or "female" partner transgresses issur, an ordinary prohibition.)

Reasons of Prohibition

Why does the Torah forbids homosexuality? Bearing in mind that reasons proferred for the various commandments are not to be accepted as determinative, but as human efforts to explain immutable divine law, the rabbis of the Talmud and later Talmudists did offer a number of illuminating rationales for the law.

As stated, the Torah condemns homosexuality as to'evah, an abomination. The Talmud records the interpretation of Bar Kapparah who, in a play on words, defined to'evah as to'eh attah bah. "You are going astray because of it" (Nedarim 51a). The exact meaning of this passage is unclear, and various explanations have been put forward.

The Pesikta (Zutarta) explains the statement of Bar Kapparah as referring to the impossibility of such a sexual resulting in procreation. One of the major functions (if not the major purpose) of sexuality is reproduction, and this reason for man's sexual endowment is frustrated by mishkav zakhur (so too Sefer ha-Hinnukh, no. 209).

Another interpretation is that of the Tosafot and R. Asher ben Jehiel (in their commentaries to Ned. 51a) which applies the "going astray" or wandering to the homosexual's abandoning his wife. In other words, the abomination consists of the danger that a married man with homosexual tendencies may disrupt his family life in order to indulge his perversions. Saadiah Gaon holds the rational basis of most of the Bible's moral legislation to be the preservation of the family structure (Emunot ve-De'ot 3:1: cf. Yoma 9a). (This argument assumes contemporary cogency in the light of the avowed aim of some gay militants to destroy the family, which they consider an "oppressive institution.")

A third explanation is given by a modern scholar, Rabbi Baruch Ha-Levi Epstein (Torah Temimah to Lev. 18:22), who emphasizes the unnaturalness of the homosexual liaison: "You are going astray from the foundations of the creation." Mishkav zakhur defies the very structure of the anatomy of the sexes, which quite obviously was designed for heterosexual relationships.

It may be, however, that the very variety of interpretations of to'evah points to a far more fundamental meaning, namely, that an act characterized as an "abomination" is prima facie disgusting and cannot be further defined or explained. Certain acts are considered to'evah by the Torah, and there the matter rests. It is, as it were, a visceral reaction, an intuitive disqualification of the act, and we run the risk of distorting the Biblical judgment if we rationalize it. To'evah constitutes a category of objectionableness sui generis: it is a primary phenomenon. (This lends additional force to Rabbi David Z. Hoffmann's contention that to'evah is used by the Torah to indicate the repulsiveness of a proscribed act, no matter how much it may be in vogue among advanced and sophisticated cultures: see his Sefer Va-yikra, II, p. 54.).

Jewish Attitudes

It is on the basis of the above that an effort must be made to formulate a Jewish response to the problems of homosexuality in the conditions under which most Jews live today, namely, those of free and democratic societies and, with the exception of Israel, non-Jewish lands and traditions.

Four general approaches may be adopted:1) Repressive: No leniency toward the homosexual, lest the moral fiber of the rest of society be weakened.2) Practical: Dispense with imprisonment and all forms of social harassment, for eminently practical and prudent reasons.3) Permissive: The same as the above, but for the ideological reasons, viz., the acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate alternative "lifestyle"4) Psychological: Homosexuality, in at least some forms, should be recognized as a disease and this recognition must determine our attitude toward the homosexual.
Let us consider each of these critically.

Repressive Attitude

Exponents of the most stringent approach hold that pederasts are the vanguard of moral malaise, especially in our society. For on thing, they are dangerous to children. According to a recent work, one third of the homosexuals in the study were seduced in their adolescence by adults. It is best for society that they be imprisoned, and if our present penal institutions are faulty, let them be improved. Homosexuals should certainly not be permitted to function as teachers, group leaders, rabbis, or in any other capacity where they might be models for, and come into close contact with, young people. Homosexuality must not be excused as a sickness. A sane society assumes that its members have free choice, and are therefore responsible for their conduct. Sex offenders, including homosexuals, according to another recent study, operate "at a primate level with the philosophy that necessity is the mother of improvisation." As Jews who believe that the Torah legislated certain moral laws for all mankind, it is incumbent upon us to encourage all societies, including non-Jewish ones, to implement the Noachide laws. And since, according to the halakhah, homosexuality is prohibited to Noachides as well as to Jews, we must seek to strengthen the moral quality of society by encouraging more restrictive laws against homosexuals. Moreover, if we are loyal to the teachings of Judaism, we cannot distinguish between "victimless" crimes and crimes of violence. Hence, if our concern for the murder, racial oppression, or robbery, we must do no less with regard to sodomy.

This argument is, however, weak on a number of grounds. Practically, it fails to take into cognizance the number of homosexuals of all categories, which, as we have pointed out, is vast. We cannot possibly imprison all offenders, and it is a manifest miscarriage of justice to vent our spleen only on the few unfortunates who are caught by the police. It is inconsistent because there has been no comparable outcry for harsh sentencing of other transgressors of sexual morality, such as those who indulge in adultery or incest. To take consistency to its logical conclusion, this hard line on homosexuality should not stop with imprisonment but demand the death sentence, as is Biblically prescribed. And why not the same death sentence for blasphemy, eating a limb torn from a live animal, idolatry, robbery -all of which are Noachide commandments? And why not capital punishment for Sabbath transgressors in the State of Israel? Why should the pederast be singled out for opprobrium and be made an object lesson while all others escape?

Those who might seriously consider such logically consistent, but socially destructive, strategies had best think back to the fate of that Dominican reformer, the monk Girolamo Savonarola, who in 15th-century Florence undertook a fanatical campaign against vice and all suspected of venal sin, with emphasis on pederasty. The society of that time and place, much like ours, could stand vast improvement. But too much medicine in too strong doses was the monk's prescription, whereupon the population rioted and the zealot was hanged.

Finally, there is indeed some halakhic warrant for distinguishing between violent and victimless (or consensual and non-consensual) crimes. Thus, the Talmud permits a passer-by to kill a man in pursuit of another man or of a woman when the pursuer is attempting homosexual or heterosexual rape, as the case may be, whereas this is not permitted in the case of a transgressor pursuing an animal to commit buggery or on his way to worship an idol or to violate the Sabbath, (Sanh. 8:7, and v. Rashi to Sanh. 73a, s.v. al ha-behemah).

Practical Attitude

The practical approach is completely pragmatic and attempts to steer clear of any ideology in its judgments and recommendations. It is, according to its advocates, eminently reasonable. Criminal laws requiring punishment for homosexuals are simply unenforceable in society at the present day. We have previously cited the statistics on the extremely high incidence of pederasty in our society. Kinsey once said of the many sexual acts outlawed by the various states, that, were they all enforced, some 95% of men in the United States would be in jail. Furthermore, the special prejudice of law enforcement authorities against homosexuals - rarely does one hear of police entrapment or of jail sentences for non-violent heterosexuals - breeds a grave injustice: namely, it is an invitation to blackmail. The law concerning sodomy has been called "the blackmailer's charter." It is universally agreed that prison does little to help the homosexual rid himself of his peculiarity. Certainly, the failure of rehabilitation ought to be of concern to civilized men. But even if it is not, and the crime be considered so serious that incarceration is deemed advisable even in the absence of any real chances of rehabilitation, the casual pederast almost always leaves prison as a confirmed criminal. He has been denied the company of women and forced into society of those whose sexual expression is almost always channeled to pederasty. The casual pederast has become a habitual one: his homosexuality has now been ingrained in him. Is society any safer for having taken an errant man and, in the course of a few years, for having taught him to transform his deviancy into a hard and fast perversion, then turning him loose on the community? Finally, from a Jewish point of view, since it is obviously impossible for us to impose the death penalty for sodomy, we may as well act on purely practical grounds and do away with all legislation and punishment in this area of personal conduct.

This reasoning is tempting precisely because it focuses directly on the problem and is free of any ideological commitments. But the problem with it is that it is too smooth, too easy. By the same reasoning one might, in a reductio ad absurdum do away with all laws on income tax evasion, or forgive, and dispense with all punishment of Nazi murders. Furthermore, the last element leaves us with a novel view of the Halakhah: if it cannot be implemented in its entirely, it ought to be abandoned completely. Surely the Noachide laws, perhaps above all others, place us under clear moral imperatives, over and above purely penological instructions? The very practicality of this position leaves it open to the charge of evading the very real moral issues, and for Jews the halakhic principles, entailed in any discussion of homosexuality.

Permissive Attitude

The ideological advocacy of a completely permissive attitude toward consensual homosexuality and the acceptance of its moral legitimacy is, of course, the "in" fashion in sophisticated liberal circles. Legally, it holds that deviancy is none of the law's business; the homosexual's civil rights are as sacred as those of any other "minority group." From the psychological angle, sexuality must be emancipated from the fetters of guilt induced by religion and code-morality, and its idiosyncratic nature must be confirmed.

Gay Liberationists aver that the usual "straight" attitude toward homosexuality is based on three fallacies or myths: that homosexuality is an illness; that it is unnatural; and that it is immoral. They argue that it cannot be considered an illness, because so many people have been shown to practice it. It is not unnatural, because its alleged unnaturalness derives from the impossibility of sodomy leading to reproduction, whereas our overpopulated society no longer needs to breed workers, soldiers, farmers, or hunters. And it is not immoral, first, because morality is relative, and secondly, because moral behavior is that characterized by "selfless, loving concern."

Now, we are here concerned with the sexual problem as such, and not with homosexuality as a symbol of the whole contemporary ideological polemic against restraint and tradition. Homosexuality is too important - and too agonizing - a human problem to allow it to be exploited for political aims or entertainment or shock value.

The bland assumption that pederasty cannot be considered an illness because of the large number of people who have or express homosexual tendencies cannot stand up under criticism. No less an authority than Freud taught that a whole civilization can be neurotic. Erich Fromm appeals for the establishment of The Sane Society - because ours is not. If the majority of a nation are struck down by typhoid fever, does this condition, by so curious a calculus of semantics, become healthy? Whether or not homosexuality can be considered an illness is a serious question, and it does depend on one's definition of health and illness. But mere statistics are certainly not the coup de grâce to the psychological argument, which will be discussed shortly.

The validation of gay life as "natural" on the basis of changing social and economic conditions is an act of verbal obfuscation. Even if we were to concur with the widely held feeling that the world's population is dangerously large, and that Zero Population Growth is now a desideratum, the anatomical fact remains unchanged: the generative organs are structured for generation. If the words "natural" and "unnatural" have any meaning at all, they must be rooted in the unchanging reality of man's sexual apparatus rather than in his ephmeral social configurations.

Militant feminists along with the gay activists react vigorously against the implication that natural structure implies the naturalness or unnaturalness of certain acts, but this very view has recently been confirmed by one of the most informed writers on the subject. "It is already pretty safe to infer from laboratory research and ethological parallels that male and female are wired in ways that relate to our traditional sex roles... Freud dramatically said that anatomy is destiny. Scientists who shudder at the dramatic, no matter how accurate, could rephrase this: anatomy is functional, body functions have profound psychological meanings to people, and anatomy and function are often socially elaborated" (Arno Karlen, Sexuality and Homosexuality, p. 501).

The moral issues lead us into the quagmire of perennial philosophical disquisitions of a fundamental nature. In a way, this facilitates the problem for one seeking a Jewish view. Judaism does not accept the kind of thoroughgoing relativism used to justify the gay life as merely an alternate lifestyle And while the question of human autonomy is certainly worthy of consideration in the area of sexuality, one must beware of the consequences of taking the argument to its logical extreme. Judaism clearly cherishes holiness as a greater value than either freedom or health. Furthermore, if every individual's autonomy leads us to lend moral legitimacy to any form of sexual expression he may desire, we must be ready to pull the blanket of this moral validity over almost the whole catalogue of perversion described by Krafft-Ebing, and then, by the legerdemain of granting civil rights to the morally non-objectionable, permit the advocates of buggery, fetishism, or whatever to proselytize in public. In that case, why not in the school system? And if consent is obtained before the death of one partner, why not necrophilia or cannibalism? Surely, if we declare pederasty to be merely idiosyncratic and not an "abomination," what right have we to condemn sexually motivated cannibalism - merely because most people would react with revulsion and disgust?

"Loving, selfless concern" and "meaningful personal relationships" - the great slogans of the New Morality and the exponents of situation ethics - have become the litany of sodomy in our times. Simple logic should permit us to use the same criteria for excusing adultery or any other act heretofore held to be immoral: and indeed, that is just what has been done, and it has received the sanction not only of liberals and humanists, but of certain religionists as well. "Love," "fulfillment," "exploitative," "meaningful" - the list itself sounds like a lexicon of emotionally charged terms drawn at random from the disparate sources of both Christian and psychologically-orientated agnostic circles. Logically, we must ask the next question: what moral depravities can not be excused by the sole criterion of "warm, meaningful human relations" or "fulfillment," the newest semantic heirs to "love"?

Love, fulfillment, and happiness can also be attained in incestuous contacts -and certainly in polygamous relationships. Is there nothing at all left that is "sinful," "unnatural," or "immoral" if it is practiced "between two consenting adults?" For religious groups to aver that a homosexual relationship should be judged by the same criteria as a heterosexual one - i.e., "whether it is intended to foster a permanent relationship of love" - is to abandon the last claim of representing the "Judeo-Christian tradition."

I have elsewhere essayed a criticism of the situationalists, their use of the term "love," and their objections to traditional morality as exemplified by the Halakhah as "mere legalism" (see my Faith and Doubt, chapter IX, p. 249 ff). Situationalists, such as Joseph Fletcher, have especially attacked "pilpolistic Rabbis" for remaining entangled in the coils of statutory and legalistic hairsplitting. Among the other things this typically Christian polemic reveals is an ignorance of the nature of Halakhah and its place in Judaism, which never held that law was totality of life, pleaded again and again for supererogatory conduct, recognized that individuals may be disadvantaged by the law, and which strove to rectify what could be rectified without abandoning the large majority to legal and moral chaos simply because of the discomfiture of the few.

Clearly, while Judaism needs no defense or apology in regard to its esteem for neighborly love and compassion for the individual sufferer, it cannot possibly abide a wholesale dismissal of its most basic moral principles on the grounds that those subject to its judgments find them repressive. All laws are repressive to some extent -they repress illegal activities- and all morality is concerned with changing man and improving him and his society. Homosexuality imposes on one an intolerable burden of differentness, of absurdity, and of loneliness, but the Biblical commandment outlawing pederasty cannot be put aside solely on the basis of sympathy for the victim of these feelings. Morality, too, is an element which each of us, given his sensuality, his own idiosyncracies, and his immoral proclivities, must take into serious consideration before acting out his impulses.

Psychological Attitudes

Several years ago I recommended that Jews regard homosexual deviance as a pathology, thus reconciling the insights of Jewish tradition with the exigencies of contemporary life and scientific information, such as it is, on the nature of homosexuality (Jewish Life, Jan-Feb. 1968). The remarks that follow are an expansion and modification of that position, together with some new data and notions.

The proposal that homosexuality be viewed as an illness will immediately be denied by three groups of people. Gay militants object to this view as an instance of heterosexual condescension. Evelyn Hooker and her group of psychologists maintain that homosexuals are no more pathological in their personality structures than heterosexuals. And psychiatrists Thomas Szasz in the U.S. and Ronald Laing in England reject all traditional ideas of mental sickness and health as tools of social repressiveness or, at best, narrow conventionalism. While granting that there are indeed unfortunate instances where the category of mental disease is exploited for social or political reasons, we part company with all three groups and assume that there are significant number of pederasts and lesbians who, by the criteria accepted by most psychologists and psychiatrists, can indeed be termed pathological. Thus, for instance, Dr. Albert Ellis, an ardent advocate of the right to deviancy, denies there is such a thing as a well-adjusted homosexual. In an interview, he has stated that whereas he used to believe that most homosexuals were neurotic, he is now convinced that about 50% are borderline psychotics, that the usual fixed male homosexual is a severe phobic, and that lesbians are even more disturbed than male homosexuals (see Karlem, op. cit., p. 223ff.).

No single cause of homosexuality has been established. In all probability, it is based on a conglomeration of a number of factors. There is overwhelming evidence that the condition is developmental, not constitutional. Despite all efforts to discover something genetic in homosexuality, no proof has been adduced, and researchers incline more and more to reject the Freudian concept of fundamental human biological bisexuality and its corollary of homosexual latency. It is now widely believed that homosexuality is the result of a whole family constellation. The passive, dependent, phobic male homosexual is usually the product of an aggressive, covertly seductive mother who is overly rigid and puritanical with her son - thus forcing him into a bond where he is sexually aroused, yet forbidden to express himself in any heterosexual way - and of a father who is absent, remote, emotionally detached, or hostile (I. Bieber et al. Homosexuality, 1962).

Can the homosexual be cured? There is a tradition of therapeutic pessimism that goes back to Freud but a number of psychoanalysis, including Freud's daughter Anna, have reported successes in treating homosexuals as any other phobics (in this case, fear of the female genitals). It is generally accepted that about a third of all homosexuals can be completely cured: behavioral therapists report an even larger number of cures.

Of course, one cannot say categorically that all homosexuals are sick - any more than one can casually define all thieves as kleptomaniacs. In order to develop a reasonable Jewish approach to the problem and to seek in the concept of illness some mitigating factor, it is necessary first to establish the main types of homosexuals. Dr. Judd Marmor speaks of four categories. "Genuine homosexuality" is based on strong preferential erotic feelings for members of the same sex. "Transitory homosexual behavior" occurs among adolescents who would prefer heterosexual experiences but are denied such opportunities because of the social, cultural, or psychological reasons. "Situational homosexual exchanges" are characteristic of prisoners, soldiers and others who are heterosexual but are denied access to women for long periods of time. "Transitory and opportunistic homosexuality" is that of delinquent young men who permit themselves to be used by pederasts in order to make money or win other favors, although their primary erotic interests are exclusively heterosexual. To these may be added, for purposes of our analysis, two other types. The first category, that of genuine homosexuals, me be said to comprehend two sub-categories: those who experience their condition as one of duress or uncontrollable passion which they would rid themselves of if they could, and those who transform their idiosyncrasy into an ideology, i.e., the gay militants who assert the legitimacy and validity of homosexuality as an alternative way to heterosexuality. The sixth category is based on what Dr. Rollo May has called "the New Puritanism", the peculiarly modern notion that one must experience all sexual pleasures, whether or not one feels inclined to them, as if the failure to taste every cup passed at the sumptuous banquet of carnal life means that one has not truly lived. Thus, we have transitory homosexual behavior not of adolescents, but of adults who feel that: they must "try everything" at least once or more than once in their lives.

A Possible Halakhic Solution

This rubric will now permit us to apply the notion of disease (and, from the halakhic point of view, of its opposite, moral culpability) to the various types of sodomy. Clearly, genuine homosexuality experienced under duress (Hebrew: ones) most obviously lends itself to being termed pathological especially where dysfunction appears in other aspects of personality. Opportunistic homosexuality, ideological homosexuality, and transitory adult homosexuality are at the other end of the spectrum, and appear most reprehensible. As for the intermediate categories, while they cannot be called illness, they do have a greater claim on our sympathy than the three types mentioned above.

In formulating the notion of homosexuality as a disease, we are not asserting the formal halakhic definition of mental illness as mental incompetence, as described in TB Hag. 3b, 4a, and elsewhere. Furthermore, the categorization of a prohibited sex act as ones (duress) because of uncontrolled passions is valid, in a technical halakhic sense, only for a married woman who was ravished and who, in the course of the act, became a willing participant. The Halakhah decides with Rava, against the father of Samuel, that her consent is considered duress because of the passions aroused in her (Ket, 51b). However, this holds true only if the act was initially entered into under physical compulsion (Kesef Mishneh to Yad, Sanh. 20:3). Moreover, the claim of compulsion by one's erotic passions is not valid for a male, for any erection is considered a token of his willingness (Yev, 53b; Maimonides, Yad, Sanh, 20:3). In the case of a male who was forced to cohabit with a woman forbidden to him, some authorities consider him guilty and punishable, while others hold him guilty but not subject to punishment by the courts (Tos., Yev, 53b; Hinnukh, 556; Kesef Mishneh, loc. cit.: Maggid Mishneh to Issurei Bi´ah, 1:9). Where a male is sexually aroused in a permissible manner, as to begin coitus with his wife and is then forced to conclude the act with another woman, most authorities exonerate him (Rabad and Maggid Mishned, to Issurei Bi´ah, in loc). If, now, the warped family background of the genuine homosexual is considered ones, the homosexual act may possibly lay claim to some mitigation by the Halakhah. (However, see Minhat Hinnukh, 556, end; and M. Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe (1973) on YD, no. 59, who holds, in a different context, that any pleasure derived from a forbidden act performed under duress increases the level of prohibition. This was anticipated by R. Joseph Engel, Atvan de-Oraita, 24). These latter sources indicate the difficulty of exonerating sexual transgressors because of psycho-pathological reasons under the technical rules of the Halakhah.

However, in the absence of a Sanhedrin and since it is impossible to implement the whole halakhic penal system, including capital punishment, such strict applications are unnecessary. What we are attempting is to develop guidelines, based on the Halakhah, which will allow contemporary Jews to orient themselves to the current problems of homosexuality in a manner articulating with the most fundamental insights of the Halakhah in a general sense, and consistent with the broadest world-view that the halakhic commitment instills in its followers. Thus, the aggadic statement that "no man sins unless he is overcome by a spirit of madness" (Sot. 3a) is not an operative halakhic rule, but does offer guidance on public policy and individual pastoral compassion. So in the present case, the formal halakhic strictures do not in any case apply nowadays, and it is our contention that the aggadic principle must lead us to seek out the mitigating halakhic elements so as to guide us in our orientation to homosexuals who, by the standards of modern psychology, may be regarded as acting under compulsion.

To apply the Halakhah strictly in this case is obviously impossible; to ignore it entirely is undesirable, and tantamount to regarding Halakhah as a purely abstract, legalistic system which can safely be dismissed where its norms and prescriptions do not allow full formal implementation. Admittedly, the method is not rigorous, and leaves room to varying interpretations as well as exegetical abuse, but it is the best we can do.

Hence there are types of homosexuality that do not warrant any special considerateness, because the notion of ones or duress (i.e., disease) in no way applies. Where the category of mental illness does apply, the act itself remains to´evah (an abomination), but the fact of illness lays upon us the obligation of pastoral compassion, psychological understanding, and social sympathy. In these sense, homosexuality is no different from any other social or anti-halakhic act, where it is legitimate to distinguish between the objective itself including its social and moral consequences, and the mentality and inner development of the person who perpetrates the act. For instance, if a man murders in a cold and calculating fashion for reasons of profit, the act is criminal and the transgressor is criminal. If, however, a psychotic murders, the transgressor is diseased rather than criminal, but the objective act itself remains a criminal one. The courts may therefore treat the perpetrator of the crime as they would a patient, with all the concomitant compassion and concern for therapy, without condoning the act as being morally neutral. To use halakhic terminology, the objective crime remains a ma´aseh averah, whereas a person who transgresses is considered innocent on the grounds of ones. In such case, the transgressor is spared the full legal consequences of his culpable act, although the degree to which he may be held responsible varies from case to case.

An example of a criminal act that is treated with compassion by the Halakhah, which in practice considers the act pathological rather than criminal, is suicide. Technically, the suicide or attempted suicide is in violation of the law. The Halakhah denies to the suicide the honor of a eulogy, the rending of the garments by relatives or witnesses to the death, and (according to Maimonides) insist that the relatives are not to observe the usual mourning period for the suicide. Yet, in the course of time, the tendency has been to remove the stigma from the suicide on the basis of mental disease. Thus, halakhic scholars do not apply the technical category of intentional (la-da´at) suicide to one who did not clearly demonstrate before performing the act, that he knew what he was doing and was of sound mind, to the extent that there was no hiatus between the act of self-destruction and actual death. If these conditions are not present, we assume that it was an insane act or that between the act and death he experienced pangs of contrition and is therefore repentant, hence excused before the law. There is even one opinion which exonerates the suicide unless he received adequate warning (hatra´ah) before performing the act, and responded in a manner indicating that he was fully aware of what he was doing and that he was lucid (J.M Tykocinski, Gesher ha-Hayyim, I, ch. 25, and Encyclopaedia Judaica, 15:490).

Admittedly, there are differences between the two cases: pederasty is clearly a severe violation of Biblical law, whereas the stricture against suicide is derived exegetically from a verse in the Genesis. Nevertheless, the principle operative in the one is applicable to the other: where one can attribute an act to mental illness, it is done out of simple humanitarian considerations.

The suicide analogy should not, of course, lead one to conclude that there are grounds for a blanket exculpation of homosexuality as mental illness. Not all forms of homosexuality can be so termed, as indicated above, and the act itself remains an "abomination". With few exceptions, most people do not ordinarily propose that suicide be considered an acceptable and legitimate alternative to the rigors of daily life. No sane and moral person sits passively and watches a fellow man attempt suicide because he "understands" him and because it has been decided that suicide is a "morally neutral" act. By the same token, in orienting ourselves to certain types of homosexuals as patients rather than criminals, we do not condone the act but attempt to help the homosexual. Under no circumstances can Judaism suffer homosexuality to become respectable. Were society to give its open or even tacit approval to homosexuality, it would invite more aggressiveness on the part of adult pederasts toward young people. Indeed, in the currently permissive atmosphere, the Jewish view would summon us to the semantic courage of referring to homosexuality not as "deviance" with the implication of moral neutrality and non-judgmental idiosyncrasy, but as "perversion" - a less clinical and more old-fashioned word, perhaps, but one that is more in keeping with the Biblical to´evah.

Yet, having passed this moral judgment, we cannot in the name of Judaism necessarily demand that we strive for the harshest possible punishment. Even where it was halakhically feasible to execute capital punishment, we have a tradition of leniency. Thus, R. Akiva and R. Tarfon declared that had they lived during the time of the Sanhedrin, they never would have executed a man. Although the Halakhah does not decide in their favor (Mak., end of ch. I), it was rare indeed that the death penalty was actually imposed. Usually, the Biblically mandated penalty was regarded as an index of the severity of the transgression, and the actual execution was avoided by strict insistence upon all technical requirements - such al hatra´ah (forewarning the potential criminal) and rigorous cross-examination of witnesses, etc. In the same spirit, we are not bound to press for the most punitive policy toward contemporary lawbreakers. We are required to lead them to rehabilitation (teshuva). The Halakhah sees no contradiction between condemning a man to death and exercising compassion, even love, toward him (Sanh. 52a). Even a man on the way to his execution was encouraged to repent (Sanh. 6:2). In the absence of a death penalty, the tradition of teshuva and pastoral compassion to the sinner continues.

I do not find any warrant in the Jewish tradition for insisting on prison sentences for homosexuals. The singling-out of homosexuals as victims of society's righteous indignation is patently unfair. In Western history, anti-homosexual crusades have too often been marked by cruelty, destruction, and bigotry. Imprisonment in modern times has proven to be extremely haphazard. The number of homosexuals unfortunate enough to be apprehended is infinitesimal as compared to the number of known homosexuals; estimates vary from one to 300.000 to one to 6.000.000!. For homosexuals to be singled out for special punishment while all the rest of society indulges itself in every other form of sexual malfeasance (using the definitions of Halakhah, not the New Morality) is a species of double-standard morality that the spirit of Halakhah cannot abide. Thus, the Mishnah declares that the "scroll of the suspected adulteress" (megillat sotah) - whereby a wife suspected of adultery was forced to undergo the test of "bitter waters" - was cancelled when the Sages became aware of the ever-larger number of adulterers in general (Sot. 9:9). The Talmud bases this decision on an aversion to the double standard: if the husband is himself an adulterer, the "bitter waters" will have no effect on his wife, even though she too be guilty of the offense (Sot. 47b). By the same token, a society in which heterosexual immorality is not conspicuously absent has no moral right to sit in stern judgment and mete out harsh penalties to homosexuals.

Furthermore, sending a homosexual to prison is counterproductive if punishment is to contain any element of rehabilitation or teshuva. It has rightly been compared to sending an alcoholic to a distillery. The Talmud records that the Sanhedrin was unwilling to apply the full force of the law where punishment had lost its quality of deterrence; thus, 40 (or four) years before the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin voluntarily left the precincts of the Temple so as not to be able, technically, to impose the death sentence, because it had noticed the increasing rate of homicide (Sanh. 41a, and elsewhere).

There is nothing in the Jewish law's letter or spirit that should incline us toward advocacy of imprisonment for homosexuals. The Halakhah did not, by and large, encourage the denial of freedom as a recommended form of punishment. Flogging is, from a certain perspective, far less cruel and far more enlightened. Since capital punishment is out of the question, and since incarceration is not an advisable substitute, we are left with one absolute minimum: strong disapproval of the proscribed act. But we are not bound to any specific penological instrument that has no basis in Jewish law or tradition.

How shall this disapproval be expressed? It has been suggested that, since homosexuality will never attain acceptance anyway, society can afford to be humane. As long as violence and the seduction of children are not involved, it would best to abandon all laws on homosexuality and leave it to the inevitable social sanctions to control, informally,what can be controlled.

However, this approach is not consonant with Jewish tradition. The repeal of anti-homosexual laws implies the removal of the stigma from homosexuality, and this diminution of social censure weakens society in its training of the young toward acceptable patterns of conduct. The absence of adequate social reproach may well encourage the expression of homosexual tendencies by those in whom they might otherwise be suppressed. Law itself has an educative function, and the repeal of laws, no matter how justifiable such repeal may be from one point of view, does have the effect of signaling the acceptability of greater permissiveness.

Some New Proposals

Perhaps all that has been said above can best be expressed in the proposals that follow.

First, society and government must recognize the distinctions between the various categories enumerated earlier in this essay. We must offer medical and psychological assistance to those whose homosexuality is an expression of pathology, who recognize it as such, and are willing to seek help. We must be no less generous to the homosexual than to the drug addict, to whom the government extends various forms of therapy upon request.

Second, jail sentences must be abolished for all homosexuals, save those who are guilty of violence, seduction of the young, or public solicitation.

Third, the laws must remain on the books, but by mutual consent of judiciary and police, be unenforced. This approximates to what lawyers call "the chilling effect", and is the nearest one can come to the category so well known in the Halakhah, whereby strong disapproval is expressed by affirming a halakhic prohibition, yet no punishment is mandated. It is a category that bridges the gap between morality and law. In a society where homosexuality is so rampant, and where incarceration is so counterproductive, the hortatory approach may well be a way of formalizing society's revulsion while avoiding the pitfalls in our accepted penology.

For the Jewish community as such, the same principles, derived from the tradition, may serve as guidelines. Judaism allows for no compromise in its abhorrence of sodomy, but encourages both compassion and efforts at rehabilitation. Certainly, there must be no acceptance of separate Jewish homosexual societies, such as - or specially - synagogues set aside as homosexual congregations. The first such "gay synagogue", apparently, was the "Beth Chayim Chadashim" in Los Angeles. Spawned by that city's Metropolitan Community Church in March 1972, the founding group constituted itself as a Reform congregation with the help of the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations some time in early 1973. Thereafter, similar groups surfaced in New York City and elsewhere. The original group meets on Friday evenings in the Leo Baeck Temple and is searching for a rabbi - who must himself be "gay". The membership sees itself as justified by "the Philosophy of Reform Judaism". The Temple president declared that God is "more concerned in our finding a sense of peace in which to make a better world, than He is in whom someone sleeps with" (cited in "Judaism and Homosexuality" C.C.A.R. Journal, summer 1973, p. 38; five articles in this issue of the Reform group's rabbinic journal are devoted to the same theme, and most of them approve of the Gay Synagogue).

But such reasoning is specious, to say the least. Regular congregations and other Jewish groups should not hesitate to accord hospitality and membership, on an individual basis, to those "visible" homosexuals who qualify for the category of the ill. Homosexuals are no less in violation of Jewish norms than Sabbath desecrators or those who disregard the laws of kashrut. But to assent to the organization of separate "gay" groups under Jewish auspices makes no more sense, Jewishly, than to suffer the formation of synagogues that care exclusively to idol worshipers, adulterers, gossipers, tax evaders, or Sabbath violators. Indeed, it makes less sense, because it provides, under religious auspices, a ready-made clientele from which the homosexual can more easily choose his partners.

In remaining true to the sources of Jewish tradition. Jews are commanded to avoid the madness that seizes society at various times and in many forms, while yet retaining a moral composure and psychological equilibrium sufficient to exercise that combination of discipline and charity that is the hallmark of Judaism.

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Tisha Be’Av: Mourning Through “Bitul Torah”

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Learning Curtailed
The traditional three-week mourning period marking the process of the destruction of our two Batei Mikdash (Holy Temples) culminates in probably the most difficult day, both spiritually and physically, of the Jewish year. On Tisha Be’Av, the Jew is bidden to internalize the great national tragedy of the Temples’ destruction by adhering to the same restrictions as a person who, God forbid, suffers the loss of a close relative. To this end, the Shulchan Arukh rules that on Tisha Be’Av it is forbidden “to wash, anoint oneself, wear leather shoes, and have intimate relations. It is also forbidden to read from the Tanach (Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim) and to learn Mishna, Midrash, Talmud – including both halachic and allegoric passages.”

Why the prohibition on learning? Basing himself on the Talmud, Rabbi Yosef Karo cites the verse in Tehilim (19:9): “The statutes of God are upright, rejoicing the heart…” Since Tisha B’Av is a day of immense sadness, it is inappropriate to experience the joy that comes with learning Torah.
In his commentary on Tehilim, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezrah notes that the Hebrew term for the “statutes of [God]” employed by the above verse is “pekudei” – and that this word shares the root of the term “pikadon”. A “pikadon” is an object entrusted by one to another, generally for purposes of safekeeping. “They [the mitzvot of the Torah] are present in potential within the soul of everyone obligated in commandments,” Ibn Ezrah explains. “God entrusted [the mitzvot to us by placing them] in [our] hearts.”

Pre-Natal Classes
The concept that all of Torah is embedded deep within every Jew is a famous theme of the early Talmudic period. In Yalkut Shimoni (Bereishit Ch. 38), for instance, the sage Shmuel states that while in his mother’s womb, the fetus is taught the entire Torah. Upon birth, an angel appears, strikes the baby on his mouth, and causes him to forget all of his learning. (A lengthier version of the same theme appears in Talmud, Tractate Nidda 30b)

According to the commentary Akeidat Yitzchak, the midrash is effectively saying that from the very earliest stages of his development, the Jew has the potential to achieve a high degree of spiritual perfection, the kind gained through knowledge of Torah. “Nevertheless,” explains Akeidat Yitzchak, “this potential may never be actualized. It depends on the degree of effort and toil invested in learning.” These pre-natal Torah lessons, he adds, also help explain the conclusion of the midrash: At birth, the baby takes an oath, committing himself to be a Tzaddik (righteous person) and not a Rasha (wicked person). Although the child has forgotten his learning, says the Akeidat Yitzchak, he can confidently take the oath, since Torah absorbed by him in the womb creates within him a predisposition towards righteousness.

That said, what is the connection drawn in the verse in Tehilim between the concept of Torah as a “pikadon” in our hearts, and the simcha – or joy – experienced by us during Torah study? The joy of learning Torah stems from the Jew’s rediscovery of the Torah he internalized prior to birth, the Torah entrusted to him, the Torah that until now, has been lying dormant in his heart and mind, waiting to be given new life. This is the kind of exciting spiritual experience denied the Jew on Tisha Be’Av.

Hazal – our sages of blessed memory – understood that in the course of time, it would be increasingly difficult for Jews to comprehend what was actually lost with the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash. The longer the exile, the harder it would be to appreciate the significance of the korbanot (sacrifices) or, for example, the Avoda (service) of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. One thing that would remain with the Jews throughout the Galut, however, is the Torah. Hazal understood that the committed learner of Torah would feel a great sense of loss and intense sadness when denied the opportunity, for even a 24-hour period, to pursue his daily, lifelong task of rediscovering his Torah.

Applying the Lesson
Many of us may now be asking ourselves: “This kind of halacha may have an impact on seasoned Talmidei Hahamim – great Torah scholars, but what about the majority of us who are simply not on such a lofty spiritual level? How are we to relate to the prohibition of learning Torah on Tisha B’av?” The western concept that says everyone is entitled to monthly, weekly, even daily allotments of leisure time has taken its spiritual toll on us all. As hard as a person studies at yeshiva, if he grew up in a popular culture that values spending hours in front of the television watching football, relaxing on week-long Caribbean luxury cruises etc. – it’s a real challenge for even this dedicated yeshiva student to truly internalize the pain of being denied the ability to learn Torah for the 24-hour period of Tisha B’Av!

A possible approach to this dilemma may be found in the hashkafa, or conceptual outlook, conveyed by the halacha: The reason Torah is denied to us on Tisha Be’Av is so that we feel a loss, a sense of mourning, on that day. Torah learning engenders joy because, as explained earlier, it is a process wherein the Jew rediscovers the gift bestowed upon him prior to birth. When the Torah scholar is held back from engaging in this process of self-actualization, he feels a vacuum in his life, he feels denied.

It may very well be that our sages wished to convey this hashkafa even to those of us who cannot yet totally internalize this sense of loss. In other words, the very formulation of a halacha which declares that, in order to feel a sense of mourning, one just refrain from learning on Tisha Be’Av – is, in and of itself a powerful Torah message! With this halacha, our sages are not simply instructing us to refrain from learning on Tisha Be’Av – they are simultaneously impressing upon us the need to view Torah learning as fundamental to our own personal happiness, our sense of self-fulfillment as Jews.

The Fervent Learner: Role Model or Transgressor?
The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Mo’ed Katan, rules that, despite the prohibition of Torah learning during the week of Aveilut (mourning), “if he (the mourner) was fervent in his need to learn Torah, it is permissible.” The same leniency would seemingly apply to Tisha Be’Av, as well, since its prohibition of Torah learning is modeled on the laws of mourning. Rabbi Yosef Karo, after quoting this Talmudic source in his work, “Beit Yosef”, concludes: “But the poskim (rabbinic decisors) did not record [this leniency].” It was not accepted in normative halacha.

However, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef – in his monumental work of responsa, “Yabiah Omer” – writes that he did succeed in tracking down one noted (lone) posek, the Shibolei Haleket, who adopts the leniency, and permits particular fervent Torah learners to learn as usual during Aveilut. Rabbi Yosef thereupon cites an anecdote (initially recorded in Sefer Binayahu, Berachot 24) that illustrates an application of the principle of the very devoted Torah scholar. “A particular scholar had such a wondrous drive to learn Torah, that when he became a mourner, he continued to secretly immerse himself in Torah. His colleagues reproved him for doing so, [reminding him] that a mourner is forbidden from learning Torah. His response: ‘I know that I am transgressing the words of the sages, and that I will surely receive my punishment for this on Judgement Day, but I am prepared to suffer the consequences and to gladly accept my punishment, because I simply cannot hold myself back, I cannot tolerate the anguish I feel from Bitul Torah – that is as difficult for me as death itself.”

Certainly, the above story presents a serious philosophical problem for the religious Jew. Normative halacha rejects such an approach: namely, knowingly committing even a rabbinic transgression, while declaring that one is willing to “suffer the consequences.” Such an attitude undercuts the very authority of halacha itself! Of what value is the Torah study of such a person if he does not put his study into practice? And yet, this story is cited in a reputable halachic work, and repeated by the most prolific and prominent Sephardic halachic authority of our day, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef!

Halacha recognizes the principle of “Oness, Rachmana Patrei” – one is not held responsible for situations beyond one’s control. A typical example of this rule: I am stuck in a traffic jam and arrive too late to pray with a minyan. Since I allotted plenty of time to reach the synagogue, I am not held responsible for missing Minha with a minyan.

The scholar in the earlier story was similarly, not in control. So much was Torah a part of his essence that the halachic imperative for him to stop learning was like commanding him not to breathe!

This Tisha Be’Av, when we refrain from our daily routine of Torah study, let us try to internalize the loss of Torah on a personal level – and from there move to an awareness of the loss on a national level, the loss of our Bt Hamikdash.
And may our mourning soon turn to joy.

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EB’s Tisha Be’av How-to-Mourn Primer

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Halachot Pertaining to the weeks before Tisha Be'av, and the week of Tisha Be'av

Whereas Ashkenazic custom is not to get a haircut or shave for the entire three weeks between the 17th of Tamuz and the ninth of Av, Sephardic custom is to permit this during the first part of the three weeks, until the week of Tisha Be’av. What does this translate to? The week of Tisha Be’av this year – from Saturday night, July 13th until Tuesday night, July 16th, one is not allowed to shave or cut hair. Rav Ovadia Yosef notes that the prohibition to shave ends immediately on July 16th when the fast is over (9:32 pm). Some Sephardim, along with all Ashkenazim, wait until midday on the 10th of Av (July 17th this year) to shave or cut hair.

Another major halacha for the week of Tisha Be’av relates to laundry and wearing freshly laundered clothing. Mirroring the laws of private mourning, we are not allowed to wash clothes, even if we want to wear them after Tisha Be’av. The prohibition of wearing freshly laundered clothing can be “lightened” somewhat by deciding what you are going to wear from Saturday night till Tuesday night, and by Friday July 12th, wearing each of these garments for a half hour or so. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef notes that this can even be done on Shabbat, and is not an issue of “preparing from Shabbat to the week day.” What does this accomplish? It reclassifies the clothes you wear during the week of Tisha Be’av as “already having been worn”. They are no longer considered “freshly laundered”. Clothing of children under the age of three, that quickly becomes dirty (I know this from experience!) can be laundered even during the week of Tisha Be’av.

Parallel to the laws of private mourning, we are restricted from washing or bathing in hot water during the week of Tisha Be’av. This contrasts with Ashkenazic custom, where this restriction is in force from Sunday night July 7th, ie Rosh Hodesh Av.

A long standing custom – rooted in the Rambam’s version of the Jerusalem Talmud – is to refrain from eating meat and drinking wine during this period of time. Regarding this, there are three customs: a) from the 17th of Tamuz; b) from Rosh Hodesh Av; c) the week of Tisha Be’av. Even Ashkenazic custom is strict only from Rosh Hodesh Av. Although the custom in Jerusalem, according to Rav Ovadia Yosef, is to be strict on this from Rosh Hodesh, it is acceptable to refrain only during the week of Tisha Be’av, and this seems to be the common Sephardic custom outside of Jerusalem. Even those adhering to a more stringent view – eat meat and drink wine on Shabbat.

Poultry and chicken soup and the like are considered “meat” as far as this custom goes. The custom is based on the fact that it was during this period that the “korbanot”/ sacrifices and wine libations in the Bet Hamikdash ceased.  It's Ashkenazic custom and the custom of some Sephardim to continue refraining from meat and wine until mid-day on the tenth of Av (Wednesday July 17th @ around 1:15 pm). For Sephardim, washing and doing laundry is permitted as soon at the fast is over.

Shabbat Hazon: The Shabbat of July 12 & 13th
The Shabbat prior to Tisha Be’av is called “Shabbat Hazon” - the Shabbat of foretelling – as we read the Haftara portion from the prophecy of Isaiah (1:1-27), as the final of the “three of affliction,” readings. Isaiah does not lament because the Bet HaMikdash (The Temple) was destroyed; rather he laments over the underlying causes of that destruction. It’s not enough to bemoan the great loss suffered by our people with the destruction of our Land, Jerusalem and the Mikdash. We must use our mourning as a way of initiating an examination of our present-day feelings, thoughts and deeds. What have we done to eliminate the attitudes and practices that thousands of years ago sent our ancestors into exile – not once, but twice? (courtesy of ou.org)

Erev Tisha Be'av - Monday, July 15th
An important custom on Erev Tisha Be’eav – Monday afternoon – is the “Seuda Hamafseket” – the final meal before the fast. It is a simple meal whose focus is the somber, mournful mood prior to the fast. It consists of one cooked dish. Eggs or lentils are commonly eaten at this meal. Many people wash Netilat Yadayim, say Hamotzi and eat a bread roll as part of the meal. One should sit in a low place, such as a pillow on the floor, during the Seuda.

Once the fast starts at sunset on Monday evening July 15th (9:02 pm) one should not eat, drink, wash, anoint oneself, wear leather shoes, or have marital relations.

Washing in both cold and hot water is forbidden on Tisha Be’av. It is of course permitted to “spot clean” dirt that has adhered to your hands or another part of your body in the course of Tisha Be’av. Ritual washing of the hands, such as the morning Netilat Yadayim, cannot extend beyond one’s knuckles.

It is also forbidden to learn Torah “as usual” on Tisha Be’av, since Torah study is joyful. Sources that deal with the destruction of the Temple, such as the accounts of the Destruction in the Talmud, commentaries on “Eicha” – the book of Lamentations, and the like, can be learned on Tisha Be’av. For a more thorough discussion of the prohibition of learning Torah on Tisha Be’av and its philosophical basis, see my article called “Mourning Through Bitul Torah” @ http://ezrabessaroth.net/leadership/rabbi-s-blog/entry/tisha-be-av-mourning-through-bitul-torah Even pregnant and nursing women, who generally do not fast on the rabbinic fast days, do fast on Tisha Be’av. There are of course exceptions and anyone curious about their own halachic obligation should contact me by email or on my cell @ 206-948-8244

Elderly people who feel too weak to fast, and whose doctor advises that they eat, are permitted to eat on Tisha Be’av. Children are not required to fast until they are Bnai or Bnot Mitzvah (13 for boys and 12 for girls). However, to educate them about the nature of the day, we do not give children treats like ice cream, chocolate, etc.

One is not allowed to sit in a regular chair on Tisha Be’av until midday Tuesday July 16th (1:15 pm). We do not greet each other on Tisha Be’av, in the same manner that one does not greet a mourner. How do we respond to someone who may not know this custom and who greets you anyway? Answer back softly….

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More Sources on Drafting Yeshiva Students

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Here is another article representing Rav Zevin's view on the topic: http://www.traditiononline.org/news/originals/Volume%2021/No.%204/R.%20Shelomo%20Yosef.pdf and for Hebrew readers, see R. Waldenburg's view in http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=20825&st=&pgnum=81

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Cohen Article on Torah Perspective on Army Service

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Rabbi Alfred S. Cohen


Rabbi, Young Israel of Canarsie; Rebbe, Yeshiva University High School for Boy
Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society - No. XXIII, Spring 1992, Pesach 5752



Since the founding of the State of Israel, the need for defense has been the highest priority of the community. Due to the overwhelming needs for security, virtually all able bodied men and many women - serve in the army for a period of a few years and then for additional service for decades thereafter.


However, when the state was created, the then Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, came to an agreement with leaders of the religious parties, whereby 400 yeshiva students were to be exempted from military service so that they might continue the Torah studies without interruption. After the government lifted restrictions on the establishment of new yeshivot, the number began to mount steadily. According to current figures1 18,400 yeshiva students were exempted from military service in 1988. Between 1976 and 1986, the proportion of yeshiva students out of the total population of 18 year olds more than doubled from 2.5 to 5.3 percent, as the government steadily lifted the ceiling on how many students could acquire the exemption.


The exemption of boys and men involved in learning Torah from serving in the army has at times aroused much resentment. It is a practice which has been, and continues to be, challenged, not only by secular Jews but even by many observant and dedicated Jews, even by some who benefit from the exemption.


We are dealing here with a very emotional issue. The families of soldiers who daily risk their lives are far from tolerant when they see yeshiva students strolling casually through the streets. There is anger, too, at the rabbis who instruct their students in the yeshiva to stand at attention on Yom Hazikaron2 to honor the fallen war heroes - but at the same time teach their students not even to consider serving in the army. And there is frustration and bitterness in the yeshiva homes as well, where people live in privation all their lives in order to dedicate themselves to the ideal of learning Torah, and yet have to bear the contempt of their fellow citizens.


The present study will explore this issue, hopefully from a dispassionate and objective position. It is our intention to identify the sources from Jewish tradition which support the practice, as well as those which seem to question the validity of exempting one group from military service. Our aim is an halachic exposition, without recourse to emotional arguments; our intention is to clarify the halachic sources, as the basis for formulating an intelligent position.


Before we consider what role, if any, yeshiva students ought to take in the army, it would be appropriate to consider what Judaism has to say about war - whether it is ever right for any Jew, not only a yeshiva student, to serve in the army.


Jewish thought views war with great trepidation, not as a glorious adventure.3 War is a scourge: lives are lost, families disrupted. When the Jewish Commonwealth existed, the decision to go to war was never undertaken lightly, no matter how pressing the situation might appear to be. Even when war was necessary or defensive, it retained a negative connotation. Thus, when King David expressed his desire to build a House of G-d, Hashemrejected the plan: "Much blood have you spilled, and great wars have you waged, [therefore] you shall not build a House for My Name."4


The rejection of King David is most surprising, in view of the fact that he had dedicated his life to freeing his people form the perpetual onslaughts of their inimical neighbors. His wars had been wars of defense, of retaliation, of prevention, wars of Mitzvah if you will. Nevertheless, a certain opprobrium clung to them.


But Judaism does not condemn war entirely, for there are times when it is inescapable or necessary.5 And although taking someone's life is murder, Judaism does not consider war as murder; there are times when people are justified in going to war, such as when they are attacked or to take revenge for a previous injury.6 While it is true that the Torah commands "when you draw near to a city to battle with her, [first] you must call to her to make peace,"7 the Maharal is of the opinion that the rule applies only when they have not done anything to the people of Israel, but if they have done something, such as "they pressured them to do some abomination, then it is permissible to take revenge upon them."8


Hundreds of years later, the N'tziv echoes the view of Maharal, that at times war is permissible and warranted:9


When is the person punished? At a time when it is proper for him to act with brotherly love, but this is not true during wartime, and it is a time to change... and there is no punishment for this at all, because thus was the world established, as we see in Tractate Shevuot - and even a king of Israel is permitted to wage an optional war.

In Orach Chaim10the Ramo even extends this permission to wage war to such time as the enemy has not yet attacked but only wants to attack the Jews. V'afilu lo bau adayin ela rotzim lavo. Such a preemptive strike is permitted even on the Sabbath.

Cognizant of the reality that sometimes war is the necessary option, despite its negative connotation, the halacha recognizes different types of war.11


  1. milchemet mitzvah - a war to conquer the land of Israel, such as those waged by Joshua when the Jews entered the Land. Another such war is the battle to eradicated Amalek. These wars may be initiated without the mandate of the Beth Din, simply at the instigation of the king, who has the license to draft the people into his army at his discretion.
  2. milchemet reshut - a war fought to expand the boundaries of Israel; this could be done only with the approval of the Beth Din of Seventy. An example is wars fought by King David.
  3. Wars to reduce the heathen influence12 so that they will not attack the Jews. Some scholars consider such wars as mandated (mitzvah) but others consider them optional. The Rambam13 rules that these wars are obligatory, "And which is a mandated war? .. to help Israel from an enemy who might come upon them."
  4. An additional category has been suggested - a war to instill fear and respect into the nations, so that they will not even consider attacking the Jews.14


Behavior in Wartime: The Moral Imperative

The Jewish attitude towards war is singular. Unlike other cultures, we do not glorify the strength, vigor, and triumphs of war so much as we realize the tremendous moral dangers which lurk in the war zone. It is not our tradition, however, to be tolerant of the immorality and depravity which typically are rampant in an army camp, but rather to seize the opportunity to grow spiritually even from such a situation.

Despite the exigencies of war, the Torah teaches us to maintain our high moral code: when a soldier falls in battle, he must be buried individually, not in a mass grave.15 Even though the soldier has the responsibility of fighting, we urge him to study Torah whenever he has free time.16 And if battle is necessary on the Sabbath, all booty of that day is dedicated to G-d.17 Even when serving in a non-Jewish army, the Jewish soldier is expected to observe whatever mitzvot are possible.18 Even while out on the front, the Jewish soldier must light at least one light each night of Chanukah, if he can;19 although he is permitted if necessary to eat before his morning prayer, nevertheless he is expected to pray daily.20


The overriding concern of Judaism is not to sanction the immorality which is prevalent in an army situation, which has not abated appreciably with the passage of millennia. Even today, after thousands of years of civilization, rape, mayhem, looting are daily concomitants of war, and stealing and eating non-kosher foods might be considered only minor infractions.21 It is precisely in such a situation that the Torah admonishes the Jewish soldier. "When you go to war against your enemy, beware of all evil things..."22 That is the time when a person must be most careful in performing mitzvot. Rather than suspend the laws and observances, it is then that a person must be most careful in following the minutiae of the Torah. Thus, it is our philosophy that learning Torah and praying with true concentration are outstanding weapons for the Jewish people to employ in their quest for victory. More mitzvot, more dedication to Torah, will bring us more protection from above.23


This belief, that purity of thought and deed and dedication to the ideals of Torah are the true strength of the Jewish people and the source of any victory they might enjoy, is the core of the argument that the yeshiva scholar is doing his share for the protection of the nation through his dedicated learning in the Beit Midrash. As the N'tziv points out (Devarim 31:1), the troops used to give a share of the spoils to the Torah scholars, in recognition of the fact that their learning Torah had kept the soldiers and the people safe.


If observance of mitzvot is so crucial that a minimum standard is not abrogated even for the soldier, doesn't it stand to reason, argue many, that those who are intensely involved in observing all the mitzvot of Torah, who spend all their hours involved in Torah, are surely adding to the protection of the nation just as are the armaments and tanks?


What role are the citizens supposed to play during a war? Are all equally obligated to serve on the battlefield? Are there distinctions to be made, exemptions to excuse certain people? Some answer emphatically "no", but others contend that the answer might be "maybe" or "yes." Kelal Yisrael is made up of diverse people, with many contributions to be made. An orchestra achieves its fulfillment when each of the musicians contributes his unique talent; so, too, the Jewish people are not monolithic. Different people can and should contribute to the welfare and security of the nation in different ways.


One of the Sages of the Yavneh is quoted as reflecting, "I am a man, and my friend is a man; my work is in the city, and my friend's work is in the field. This goes to show that one complements the other, and no one person can or ought to do all the jobs."24


Is such a differentiation defensible in the case of military service? Can a class of people legitimately claim that, as a group, they are serving a different, equally vital, need for the salvation of the community? On these grounds should they be exempted from military duty in order to fulfill their unique role in national security?25


Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, felt strongly that students in the yeshiva should not be called to the front, for in their batei midrash, through learning Torah, they were assuring the spiritual welfare of the nation, and ultimately, we rely on our spiritual superiority to save us, not on our military might. Others have also strongly maintained that the z'chut of learning Torah is a more effective and more important shield for the Jewish community than military service.26


Others, however, scoff at such an argument. "Will you send your brother to war, and yourselves sit at home?" rails Rav Zevin, in his call to yeshiva students to take up arms equally with their secular brothers. "Is your blood redder than theirs?" he wants to know. Yeshiva lives and families are being threatened the same as everyone else's, and he feels no person can excuse himself from the fray. He cites rabbinic dicta that in times of war, "all go out to fight, even the bridegroom from his chamber and the bride from her chuppah."27



Already in the Torah, there is indication that not all the Jews participated actively in the actual fighting:



Ach et shevet Levi lo tifkod v'et rosham lo tisa


But the tribe of Levi you shall not count [in the military census], nor number their heads.28



The entire tribe of Levi was excluded from active warfare, and therefore there was no need to include them in the military census.29 Rambam rules that the tribe of Levi did not inherit a portion of the land, "because they were separated for one task - to serve [in the Temple] and to teach His righteous ways... therefore they were separated from the ways of the world, and they do not wage war as do the other Israelites."30


But then Rambam adds,




V'lo shevet Levi bilvad, ela kol ish v'ish mikol baei haolam asher nadva rucho oto v'hevino midaato.


Not only the tribe of Levi, but any individual whose spirit moves him to... separate himself to stand before G-d and to serve him, to know Him.. and he removes from his neck the yoke of considerations which most people see, behold this person becomes most holy.


Jewish thinking recognizes and respect those individuals who reject the pursuit of material goods as their goal and dedicate themselves instead to a higher ideal. Such a person should not be called up even for defense of the country.31 The source for this practice long predates the Rambam: the Gemara (Nedarim 32a) criticizes Avraham Avinu for having roused the scholars in his entourage and pressed them into joining his troop which gave chase against the four kings who had raided the land. Similarly, the Gemara in Sotah 10a concludes that King Asa was punished by heaven for conscripting Torah scholars into his army.32

Most nations do not have universal conscription. People understand that not everyone is suited for the battlefield, or that some people should be doing something else. When America had the draft, clergy were excluded, students in the universities were deferred, and others in sensitive positions excused. Can no justification be found for excusing yeshiva students from serving in the Israeli army?33


However, all exemptions advocated by the rabbis seem to be predicated on the assumption that the Jewish army would be victorious without the missing troops; but, if there exists the possibility of their being overcome in battle, all agree that no one can be excused, all must rush out to battle. "And it is a mitzvah for all Israelites who can, to come and go out to aid their brothers who are under siege."34 35 This proviso, obviously, is not a minor issue in the current debate, and we will discuss it more fully further on.36


Alternative Service

No one should imagine that those who were traditionally excused from active duty during war went on vacation instead. On the contrary, everyone was expected to do his or her share in saving the community, but it was recognized that there were a variety of necessary tasks to be performed. Those exempted from active duty were duly expected to serve in some other capacity.

Historically, there is evidence that Torah scholars who were excused from fighting used to accompany the troops to the front and learn and teach Torah there.37 It is hard to imagine a more uplifting practice than thousands of soldiers encamped and equipped for war, each with a man next to him learning the Torah or reciting the Shema. Yet the difficulties inherent in such a relationship are quite evident, and ultimately the practice had to be stopped.


Who Should Be Exempt

When the State of Israel was first established, the number of men learning full time in yeshivot was small; the agreement that yeshiva students would be exempt from military service caused little concern. Today, thank G-d, the situation is quite different in the yeshivot, which are packed with students. As their numbers grow, so do the deferments - and the protests. An added factor is that in Israel many men remain yeshiva students for life, such that military deferment becomes de facto permanent exemption. Under these circumstances, should all yeshiva students be exempt from army duty?

In his monograph against exempting yeshiva men from the draft,38 Rav Zevin rejects the contention that it is more important for them to be learning than fighting. He asks, if everyone were learning in yeshivot, "would we allow our enemies to ravage our land and kill our people without taking up arms to defend ourselves?" And he points to the halacha which teaches that all must go out in case of attack - even a bridegroom from his chamber and bride from under her chuppah. Certainly it should apply to rabbinic students as well! How can one imagine it is right, he asks, to let others die for him rather than protect his own life and family?


Aside from the question of whether it is right to let others bear all the burden of physical defense, there are those who maintain that an exemption from military service based on the individual's involvement with Torah learning can apply only to the relatively few who truly disassociate themselves from all worldly concerns and do nothing but learn Torah. This definition, according to Rav Aharon Lichtenstein would disqualify very many yeshiva people from their present exempt status.39


Finally, even if we grant that the Rambam's statement does imply a categorical dispensation in purely halachic terms, it remains of little practical significance. We have yet to examine just to whom it applies. A levi [sic] is defined genealogically. Those who are equated with him, however, literally or symbolically, are defined by spiritual qualities; and for these the Rambam sets a very high standard indeed. He present an idealized portrait of a selfless, atemporal, almost ethereal person - one whose spirit and intelligence have led him to divest himself of all worldly concerns and who has devoted himself "to stand before God, to serve Him, to worship Him, to know God; and he walks aright as the Lord has made him and he has cast off from his neck the yoke of the many considerations which men have sought." To how large a segment of the Torah community - or, a fortiori, of any community - does this lofty typology apply? To two percent? Five Percent? Can anyone... confront a mirror and tell himself that he ought not to go to the army because he is kodesh kodashim, sanctum sanctorum, in the Rambam's terms? Can anyone with even a touch of vanity or a concern for kavod contend this? Lest I be misunderstood, let me state clearly that I have no quarrel with economic aspiration or with normal human foibles per se. again, least of all do I wish to single out b'nei yeshivot for undeserved moral censure. I do feel, however, that those who would single themselves out for saintliness should examine their credentials by the proper standard

Despite this harsh appraisal of the unworthiness of present day yeshiva scholars to claim exemption from community obligations, it appears that actually it was a widespread practice to excuse Torah scholars from many of the levies put upon all others. Nor were they generally expected to withdraw totally from the ordinary pursuits of most people. The common custom in Jewish communities was indeed to consider the Torah scholar as a person who, because of his holy dedication to Torah, should not be expected to shoulder the same burdens as ordinary citizens.

In truth, the question of military exemptions is adumbrated in similar debates over the centuries. There, however, the issue was generally a different kind of community service, involving payment of taxes levied by the government on the entire Jewish settlement. Back in the 15th century, R. Isserlein, author of Terumat Hadeshen, had to address the problem of taxes which the government demanded from the Jewish community as a unit. There is a long halachic tradition exempting rabbis and Torah scholars from having to pay community taxes, and of course, every individual excused from paying a share meant that the share of the others was that much bigger. The author of Terumat Hadeshen appears reluctant to grant widespread exemption from community taxes.40




Omnam hehamon am einam sovrim klal liftor shum talmid chacham ela im ken yoshev b'rosh yeshiva v'af ze davka b'ostreich... v'haya kim'at minhag pashut sh'lo lechayev bemas harav hayoshev b'yeshiva b'rosh... aval b'gvul d'bnei Rinus kimdume li shelo hayu nohagin liftor talmid chacham... mishum detzarich dikduk yafe sheyachzor tamid letalmudo k'sheyifne me'asakav v'ein nizharin ha'idna.


However, ordinary people do not have any wish at all to exempt any Torah scholar unless he serves as the head of a yeshiva, and this is true only in Austria...and it is virtually a common practice not to require the Rabbi who serves as the head of the yeshiva to pay the tax. But it appears to me that in the provinces near the Rhine, it was not the practice to exempt Torah scholars... since it requires that he be very careful about returning always to his studies as soon as he is finished with his business...


But more than a century later, the Shach does not equivocate when he rules that anyone who makes the study of Torah his major concern, taking time out only to earn the requisites for supporting his family, is exempt from community tax.40

Similarly the Rambam rules:




V'ein cholkin bein shehu tofes yeshiva oh lo rak shehu muchzak ketalmid chacham b'doro...beinyan liftor mimas ein medakdekim baze rak sheyihyeh muchzak letalmid chacham


And it makes no difference whether he runs a yeshiva or not, only that he be known as a Torah scholar in his generation, ...as for exempting him from the tax, we are not overly particular about this, only that he should be accepted as a Torah scholar.42


Perusal of these halachic sources provides a basis for exempting certain individuals from obligations which all other members of the community have to shoulder. Some rabbinic authorities interpret this rule quite broadly, while others give it a narrow scope.

In pleading for a change in the present system of exempting all yeshiva students from the draft, Rav Zevin seeks to find a middle ground. He notes that "a practical fear has been expressed, that if the students go to war, all the yeshivot will become depleted" and who knows what will happen then to the study of Torah in Israel? Therefore, he urges that "a mutually agreeable accommodation" be arranged, whereby the principle of the importance of Torah study would be established without, however, applying it universally.43 The Hesder yeshivot seem to be a direct response to this plea, and we will discuss them shortly.


Saving Lives - or Learning Torah

A talmudic statement seems to give tremendous support to the position that yeshiva students should not join the army. "Rabbi Yosef said, 'learning Torah is greater than saving lives.'" (Megillah 16b). This talmudic text is often cited as evidence that maintaining the spiritual welfare of the nation is more important than maintaining its physical security. However, assuming that the Gemara considers learning Torah to be preferable to saving lives might be a simplistic conclusion. A great wealth of Torah literature leads one to conclude that many major Torah authorities did not take this statement literally.

In the Shulchan Aruch44 we find the following rule:


"It is permissible to take money from the Torah fund in order to pay... the ruler, since it is for saving lives."

The ruling is based on a responsum of the Rosh to the effect that it is proper to divert even a large group from learning Torah in order to save lives. How could the Rosh render a ruling contrary to the Talmud? Numerous scholars have grappled with this difficulty,45 and we shall look at some of their answers.

There are those who contend that the text in Megillah is aggadic in nature; wherever the aggada disagrees with the rules of halacha, it is halacha which takes precedence. Thus, the overarching rule of pikuach nefesh, doing virtually anything in order to save a life, applies in this case as well. Furthermore, it is not possible to take a statement concerning the life of one individual and use it to justify a situation in which the entire Jewish community is threatened. On the contrary, we are confident that G-d will never allow the entire Jewish community to be annihilated, and succor will come to them somehow. In such a situation, it is more important to learn Torah. There is no such assurance of divine intervention, however, for an individual; thus, when one person is in danger, it is surely mandatory to save his life. But for the group, we can rely on G-d's providence.


In resolving the question of apparent contradiction, the Perisha rules that if there are others who can undertake to save lives, it is preferable for those who can, to study Torah.46 However, if there are no others, then the rule of pikuach nefesh takes precedence. Another solution suggested by the Perisha is that in a situation where it is not possible to do both - save lives and learn Torah as well - then learning Torah takes precedence. However, in the case discussed in the halachic text, even though some of the money would go to pay off the governor, some would still be left over to provide for leaning Torah, albeit not in great comfort.47


The persistent lack of clarity in resolving the issue makes it apparent that, the importance of learning Torah notwithstanding, it cannot be the only consideration in determining normative Jewish practice. Our rabbis have introduced many other factors which at times may mitigate the primacy of the mitzvah of learning Torah.


Rabbis Don't Need Protection

In Bava Bathra 7b, the Talmud discusses the need for building walls around a settlement. Since walls are for communal protection, all residents have to share in the cost of erecting them. However, the Gemara rules that Torah scholars are exempt from this expense, since they are protected by virtue of the Torah they learn. Can this talmudic exemption be compared to an exemption from the military draft?

Although the above statement, unlike the one in Megillah, is not aggadic - it is actually codified in the Shulchan Aruch48 - nevertheless, it is not cited by the proponents of exemption as proof for their position. On the contrary, the rabbis opposed to exempting yeshiva students seize on this statement to argue that yeshiva students themselves don't believe that the Torah shields them enough!49


When actual lives are at stake, may we rely on miracles? In 1929 at Hebron... didn't young students of the yeshiva, whose holiness shone like stars in the sky, fall before the malicious enemy? Please, did these martyrs need protection or not?... If you understand that the scholars need protection in relatively peaceful times and are exempt from building the protective walls, what consequence has this when compared to a life-and-death struggle, a war which is a mitzvah and in which all are obligated? The defense authorities ordered everyone to cover all windows as protection against shattering glass in case of an air raid. Would anyone think that some rabbis will not do so, claiming, "Rabbis do not need protection?" ...Why did rabbis leave areas under enemy fire along with the rest of the general population? Why did they not rely on this maxim?

Rav Lichtenstein, too, does not accept the dictum:

It may be stated... that such a claim (that since rabbis "don't need protection" they should be exempt form military service) raises a very serious moral issue. Can anyone whose life is not otherwise patterned after this degree of trust and bitahon argues for exemption on this ground? Is it possible to worry about one's economic future - in evident disregard of Rabbi Eliezer's statement that "whoever has bread in his basket and says 'What shall I eat tomorrow?' is but of little faith" - and yet not enter the army because one is presumably safe without it?50


Effect on Others

No one lives in a vacuum. A person not only has to do that which is right for himself, he has to factor into his decision how his actions may affect the group. This is brought out by the N'tziv in his study of Scripture: The tribes of Gad and Reuven addressed Joshua as he prepared to commence the conquest of Canaan, urging him to be strong, and they would fight along with him. Although they had already taken as their inheritance the provinces conquered by Moshe in his lifetime, they had promised that they would fight along with the other Jews until all the land had been conquered, only then returning to settle in their own fields. Now that he was preparing for his campaign of conquest, they renewed their pledge: "Whoever rebels against your word and does not heed what you say, whatever you command, will be put to death. Only, be strong and persevere."

Isn't that somewhat excessive? Should a person really be put to death for failure to obey Joshua? But the N'tziv explains that the tribes of Reuven and Gad realized that if they failed to join the impending battles, it would have a devastating effect on the rest of the Jews. Perhaps these others would be overcome by fear or panic when they saw part of the army dropping out. Thus, had the two tribes failed to live up to their commitment, they might have fatally weakened the people's resolve. Therefore "be strong and persevere," kill anyone who stands in your way, if that is necessary to strengthen the nation.


Also concerned with the effect exemption of a large group may have on others. Rav Waldenberg cites the Abarbanel51 that Deborah joined in the battle against Sisera, even though she didn't want to, only to placate Barak, the general of the troops. She did it only "because the Jews then were scared and frightened of the army of Sisera and his chariots and his hordes... [and she went along] in order to strengthen the hearts of the Jewish people when they would see the Prophetess with them." (Note that Deborah may even have been transgressing a biblical command - it is forbidden for women to wear armor - in order to raise the spirits of the soldiers.)


Perhaps this factor, too, has to be taken into account - the effect it has on the soldiers and on their families when certain people, for whatever reason, do not share in the common burden and are exempt from the danger and the sacrifice it entails.


Chilul Hashem

Possibly the greatest sin in Judaism is Chilul Hashem - desecration of the Name, which includes anything which lessens the respect and devotion of people for G-d and His Torah. Every sin can be forgiven, other than this one.52 On the other hand, the very greatest act a person can ever hope to achieve is Kiddush Hashem, the exact opposite of Chilul Hashem. Most mitzvot of the Torah can be violated in order to effect a Kiddush Hashem, the Book of Samuel (II 21:3-10) records a dreadful vengeance that the Gibeonites exacted from the Jewish people: God had sent a plague upon the Jews to punish them for King Saul's having put some Gibeonites to death. The only strategem which would placate the Gibeonites and halt the plague was to kill a number of King Saul's descendants, which King David reluctantly agreed to do, at the instruction of the Prophet. But then, instead of burying them immediately as Jewish law requires, the bodies were left hanging on trees for months. How could he allow this to happen? The Gamara answers:

It is better that a letter should be eradicated from the Torah so that the name of Heaven will be sanctified in public. For passersby would ask, "What is the nature of those men [hanging]? [and they would be told] "they are sons of the king," "and what did they do [to warrant such a horrible punishment]?" "They violated the rights of aliens" [and then the passersby would exclaim] "Certainly there can be no nation more worthy for us to become attached to than this one, for if this is how they treat princes [who did wrong to foreigners - i.e., the Gibeonites] how much more so will they be strict with ordinary people!"53

This is the greatest Kiddush Hashem - when people seeing our deeds are overcome with awe and respect for the justice and goodness of our behavior, which is predicated on the Torah's teachings. Kiddush Hashemremains the highest priority of the Jew. Even today, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen warns, before engaging in a war or military foray, we should stop to consider whether the nations of the world might judge our deeds negatively, thus causing a Chilul Hashem.

So, too, Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman relies heavily on the prohibition of Chilul Hashem when considering whether a Jew living in a gentile country may evade the draft. His ruling is that even if the Jew knows that service in the army will inevitably entail desecration of Shabbat and other laws, he is still not permitted to avoid his civic duty.


Is it valid to apply this line of reasoning to the question of yeshiva students serving in the Israeli army? Some say yes, while others disagree. After all, one can only cause a Chilul Hashem if he is doing something wrong. But if a person acts in accordance with what is right and yet others react negatively, it can be argued that that is not his responsibility.54 However, this disagrees with what the Gemara expressly says - that a person has to be careful about the impression he is making, even when he is doing the right thing.55 others maintain that such a delicate evaluation can be made only by a person of great stature and importance in the community, not by ordinary people, who need be concerned primarily that their behavior is in itself unimpeachable.


It is difficult to pin down an answer to the question whether the Orthodox Yeshiva community has to be concerned that the policy which exempts their sons form army duty is well-received by the secular Israeli public. For those who see the policy as arousing much animosity, resentment, and contempt for those who study Torah, it is indeed a terrible Chilul Hashem. For those with a different vantage point, the fact that their policy is subject to misinterpretation should not deter people dedicated to learning Torah from following this pursuit. Just because people do not appreciate their dedication, should that stop the inspired individuals from dedicating their lives to a high ideal?


It is easy to see that both intellectual and emotional arguments can be raised for either point of view, as well as halachic ones. But one truth is indisputable - when the nations of the world see Jews fighting among themselves, that is surely a Chilul Hashem.56


The Hesder Yeshiva

The controversy about drafting yeshiva men for the army has roiled Israeli society for decades. Partly in response to the strong emotions engendered by the situation, there arose the institution of the Hesder yeshiva, where young men alternate months of learning Torah with months of active duty in the army. Many sincerely dedicated Torah students feel very strongly that, living in Israel, they want to participate in the defense of their country and their lives. At the same time, they realize that if they leave their yeshiva for two years while they serve in the army, the chances are slim that many of them will return. The Hesder yeshiva seeks to bridge the gap and indeed fills a very important role. The proponents of the Hesder yeshiva, however, do not see themselves as a compromise but rather as the right way to go.

We advocate it because we are convinced that, given our circumstances - would that they were better - military service is a mitzvah, and a most important one at that. Without impugning the patriotism or ethical posture of those who think otherwise, we feel that for the overwhelming majority of b'nei Torah, defense is a moral imperative.57

There are any number of good reasons for the creation of the Hesder system. First of all, it is considered important that during the formative post-high school years, the ben torah should be firmly rooted in a Torah climate. Furthermore, many sincerely religious people consider it their ethical and halachic imperative to defend the State of Israel, even if only for the reason that they themselves live there. Lastly, in view of the military needs of this small nation, every able-bodied person should be trained for defense, even if only as part of the reserves.58

The Hesder yeshiva is grounded in necessity, not in choice. It does not glorify militarism, but views army training as the necessary response to the critical political and military situation of the Jewish state.


Although this might seem like the perfect solution to the dilemma many in the yeshiva world do not agree. They argue, and many scholars in other fields would agree, that there is nothing equivalent to a person's being able to devote himself entirely only to study, without interruption or distraction. Our rabbis observed in their pithy style: "The Torah cannot be acquired except by someone who is ready to sacrifice his entire existence for it".59



Since the Torah specifically did not want certain people to go to war, does that mean that a person in the exempt category is not permitted to volunteer? Could an individual kohen or levi choose to serve in the army? Is exemption a privilege or a disqualification?

Rav Waldenberg cites numerous sources which, in his view, adequately prove that any individual Levite who was so moved was able to serve in the armed forces. His opinion is in agreement with that of the author of Birkei Yosef60 who contends that although exempt, one may indeed volunteer. He cites a text in Kiddushin which questions whether a kohen who encountered a captive woman in battle would be permitted to marry her (under the conditions laid out in the Torah, in perashat ki teitzeh). How could a kohen even be in a position to take an enemy woman captive, if he could not have volunteered to fight? Obviously, counters Birkei Yosef, he could enlist.61


The question of volunteering is quite a serious one - may a person put himself in a life-threatening situation if he doesn't have to?62 Rav Waldenberg cites a novel proof63 that if a person feels his death may bring salvation to the entire group, it is permitted: The Gemara in Ta'anit 10b praises Lulianus and Pappus, who gave their lives rather than permit a wholesale slaughter of the Jewish community. We know, says Rav Waldenberg, that a person who dies unnecessarily is considered equivalent to a suicide, culpable for his own murder.64 Yet the Gemara praises the two who sacrificed themselves. We must conclude that dying to save many others is a heroic and highly commendable act.


A Non-Jewish Army

What we have said so far applies almost entirely to the situation of a Jew serving in a Jewish army. In a final note, let us turn to the question of a Jew's serving in a non-Jewish army. This is a relatively modern question, for until they were given civil equality, usually some time in the 19th century, Jews were generally not allowed to serve in the army. The Chafetz Chaim wrote a small monograph, Machane Yisrael, addressed to those who were called upon to serve, in which he seeks above all else to strengthen the Jewish commitment of those who are about to undertake this difficult assignment.

Forced to follow the directives of his non-Jewish superiors, the Jew, who will be unable to observe many mitzvot, is nevertheless encouraged to do as much as he can and always to continue to struggle to observe the Torah. The Chafetz Chaim encourages and prods the soldier, no matter how difficult his situation, to trust in G-d. In a homily, he shows that when a person gives another person a gift, to hold for him, if the recipient misuses the gift, the donor will want to take it back. Not so with the Ribono shel Olam; even if a person misuses the precious gift of life, G-d does not want to take it back.65 At all times, concludes the Chafetz Chaim, remember that you are still the child of G-d.66 The Chafetz Chaim advises the soldier not to look for chumrot (stringent interpretations of the Jewish law);67 on the other hand, he urges the soldier not to worry if gentiles make fun of his Jewish practices,68 and to continue to study Torah whenever possible. He further reminds the soldiers that every mitzvah is important,70 and that his yetzer hora will continually try to impede his performance of mitzvot.71. He urges the soldier to be willing to expend considerable sums in order to return home as often as possible.72 And if he finds that his uniform contains shatnes, he must make every effort to correct it as soon as possible.73


If all these precautions are necessary in a gentile army, how much more so do they apply in a Jewish one!



1. Jerusalem Post, 9/12/88 
2. Techumin 4 p. 125. 
3. For a complete discussion of the question whether there is any obligation for a person to place himself in danger in order to save another person from certain death, see Choshen Mishpat 426 and Aruch Hashulchan Pitchei Teshuva, ibid. 
For a discussion if there is an obligation to put oneself in danger to save the Jewish community, see Mishnah Makkot 11a, Or Sameach Hilchot Rotzeach 7-8, Meshech Chochma Perashat Shemot, Mishpat Kohen of Rav Kook, 142-144. See also Rav Shlomo Zevin in Talmud Torah Vesherut Latzava
4. Divrei Hayammim I, 22. See also Rav Shlomo Zevin in Talmud Torah Vesherut Latzava. 
5. For the Jewish position on non-Jews engaging in war, see Teshuvot Chatam Sofer 14-19, Devar Avraham 1-11, and Zera Avraham 24. 
6. Gur Aryeh, Bereishit 34:13. See Hilchot Medina II, Shaar I (written by Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, author of Tzitz Eliezer) 1; see Hilchot Medinah III, Shaar 4, for an analysis of the role of the minority and majority. 
7. Devarim 20:10-11. 
8. Bereishit 32:9. See Torah Umedinah 8-7, Mishpat Kohen 143, and Tzitz Eliezer 12-57 for other differences that apply during a war. 
9. Ha'amek Davar Bereishit 9-5, Devarim 20-8; for a discussion to whom property captured in war belongs, see Or Hahalacha p. 18. 
10. Or Hachayim 329:6. See Or Sameach, Deut. 5-5, who uses the same argument in favor of giving Shimshon to the Philistines even though he was not liable to be put to death. 
11. Rambam, Melachim 5-1. See also Rambam and Ramban end of Hosafot to Taaseh, that the Urim Vetumim are also necessary for all wars. 
12. Mishnah Sotah 44b. 
13. Melachim 5-1. 
14. We do not mean that the attack has started and the war is on, for then all agree this is a milchemet mitzvah; see Meiri, Sotah 43b; also Aruch Hashulchan, He'atid, Hilchot Melachim 74-4. See however, Chazon Ish Or Hachaim 114-2, who does in fact say "who has already come against them." 
15. Jerusalem Talmud Eruvim 1-10. 
16. Megillah 3a. See Machane Yisrael, Chapters 12 and 14. 
17. Tzitz Eliezer 3-9, p. 42. 
18. Machane Yisrael, chapters 2 and 3. 
19. Ibid. p. 165. 
20. Ibid. p. 30. 
21. Ramban, Perashat Ki Teizei. However, see Sefer Hachinuch 566 and also Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 2-6. 
22. Devarim 23:10; also Shabbat 64. 
23. Hachayil Vehachosen p. 99, who interprets the verse (Devarim 6-17) "shamor tishmerun" (you shall surely observe the mitzvot of Hashem) as a directive that in times of war extra care must be taken in the performance of mitzvot. The same is found on p. 160 (Devarim 23-15) "Because the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp to save you, and your camp must be holy, no unholy thing should be seen amongst you." On p. 115, the author maintains that even what one thinks is the purpose of the war is important. One should think that he is fighting for the sake of the group or because G-d so commanded, but not because he is desirous of booty. And surely it is wrong for him to think that "my strength and the might of my hand" win the victory. See p. 89. 
24. Techumin 7, p. 332. 
25. Sanhedrin 42a. If not for his ancestor David's having studied Torah, Asa would not have been successful in the wars he waged. 
26. Rav Waldenberg and Rav Kook. 
27. Tradition, Fall 1985, p. 52. It is interesting that in the book he wrote about war, Rav Zevin does not raise this topic at all. One can only wonder why it was omitted, and then published as a separate article. 
28. Bamidbar 1:49. 
29. Rashbam, Bamidbar 1-39. However, see Hilchot Medinah, II, Perek 3, #2, and Sifre to Matot 31:4. We have not included as a source for this position the statement found in Sifre to perashat Matot: "le-hotzi shevet levi," since the correctness of the text is questionable. Some would read "le-havi shevet levi" which, of course, renders the exact opposite meaning. Moreover, even if the first version, excluding the tribe of Levi, is correct, it can be argued that this directive applies only to the war against Midian referred to in the biblical text and cannot be expanded to apply to all war situations. 
30. Rambam, Hilchot Shemittah 6:2 and 13:12 
31. See Hilchot Medinah II, Shaar 3, Perek 4, for a source for the Rambam and whether this applies to milchemet mitzvah or only to a milchemet reshut. 
32. See Hilchot Medinah II, page 60, #7. See the exchange between Rav Waldenberg and Rav Schlesinger in Hilchot Medinah III, perek 6. 
33. Tzitz Eliezer II, 24, rules that a person who is exempt from taxes because of his status, nevertheless retains all the rights of a paying member of society. 
34. Rambam Shabbat 2-23. Tzitz Eliezer 8, 3, par. 9, #3 and 4. 
35. This ruling is not universally accepted; see Kol Mevaser 1-47, and Chazon Ish Or Hachaim, Eruvim Lekutin 6,3, who disagrees on this point. 
36. Chazon Ish, Avoda Zara 23:3. 
37. Hachayil Vehachosen p. 74-5. 
38. Tradition, Fall 1981, p. 53. 
39. Aharon Lichtenstein, Tradition, Fall 1985, p. 212. See his footnote 30. 
40. She'elot Uteshuvot #342. 
41. Yoreh Deah 243 #7, Hagahot Maimuni; Tefilla 12 #7 
42. Ibid. 243-2. See Keter Ephraim, Tel Aviv 5727, pp. 172-4. Tzitz Eliezer II 25. 
43. Tradition, Fall 1981. 
44. Shulchan Aruch YD 251-14. 
45. Miluim Y.D. Ibid. 
46. Ibid. 
47. Techumin 7, p. 339. Also Techumin I, p. 371. 
48. Yoreh Deah 243-2. The Chatam Sofer Bava Bathra would apply the exemption only to situations where the protection is from theft, however, when lives are in danger, this principle would not be relevant. 
49. Tradition Fall 1985, p. 54. See footnote 25, Techumin I, p. 371. 
50. Tradition, Fall 1981, p. 209. 
51. Hilchot Medinah II, p. 70. 
52. Yoma 87a. 
53. Yevamot 79a. 
54. Techumin 7, p. 333. 
55. Yoma 87a. 
56. Machane Yisrael p. 197. 
57. Tradition, 1981 p. 202. See letter of Rav Shach, Part IV, #320, where he writes that the Hesder yeshivas have diminished the stature and scope of the yeshiva. 
58. Ibid. 
59. Berachot 43. 
60. Even Haezer #6, quoted by Rav Zevin, Or Hahalacha p. 28. 
61. A disagreement exists between the view of Pirkei Avot, chapter 5, (Machzor Vitry) and Siftei Chachamim to Bamidbar 4. 
62. Sotah 44b. In Kol Mevaser, Rabbi Roth writes "I was very much surprised about this, for where do we find that we force someone to endanger his life for the sake of a mitzvah? 
63. Sheiltot, Perashat Ve'etchanan 142. The N'tziv quotes other instances where this approach is applicable. 
64. Hilchot Medinah, II, perek 5. Rav Waldenberg offers many proofs that the concept is already found in the writings of the Rishonim. The same conclusion is found in Mishpat Kohen Responsum 142-4, Note 31; inTechumin p. 162; Shevut Yaakov II 117; Nodah Biyehudah Tanina Yoreh Deah 161
65. Even if volunteering is permitted for the Jewish army, there is some debate whether one may opt to join a non-Jewish militia. In this century, R. David Hoffman (Or Hachaim 42-43) considered it the obligation of every citizen, including Jews, to participate in the army. Even if one can get deferment for 2 or 3 years, R. Hoffman opposes it and says one should enlist right away. 
In a handbook for army chaplains Responsa to Chaplains, published by the Jewish Welfare Board, p. 19, the Chafetz Chaim is quoted as writing in Machane Yisrael that "it is a great sin to evade army service." However, this writer was not able to find that statement anywhere in the book of the Chafetz Chaim. Not only that, but at the end of the "Introduction," the Chafetz Chaim writes that only if one's life is in danger may he transgress the Sabbath. 
On the other hand, Imrei Eish (Responsum 52) was quite comfortable with the prevalent custom in Eastern Europe (and in America) during the nineteenth century, of hiring someone to serve in the army in one's stead. Mostposkim (See Nodah Biyehudah Tanina, YD, 74) hold that once a person has been drafted, no substitute should be sent, and surely no Jewish committee should ever be set up to decide which Jewish boys are t be conscripted. The only method they approve is a lottery. 
Pitchei Teshuva Y.D. 157-13. This, too, is contrary to the JWB, who maintain that since military service is a mitzvah, recruitment to the chaplaincy is perfectly acceptable. 
66. Machane Yisrael, "Introduction." 
67. Ibid p. 10. 
68. Ibid, and also in "introduction." 
69. Ibid, p. 57. 
70. Ibid, Chapter 12. 
71. Ibid, chapter 18. 
72. Ibid. 
73. Ibid, p. 167.


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The Silence of Aharon and the Voice of Modern Jewish History

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quietFriday night, between Minha and Kabbalat Shabbat, we began to recite Shir HaShirim - Song of Songs.  Set as a romantic encounter between a suitor and his beloved, Song of Songs is a highly symbolic text depciting the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. In Chapter five, the pesukim read:

ב אֲנִי יְשֵׁנָה, וְלִבִּי עֵר; קוֹל דּוֹדִי דוֹפֵק, פִּתְחִי-לִי אֲחֹתִי רַעְיָתִי יוֹנָתִי תַמָּתִי--שֶׁרֹּאשִׁי נִמְלָא-טָל, קְוֻצּוֹתַי רְסִיסֵי לָיְלָה. 
ג פָּשַׁטְתִּי, אֶת-כֻּתָּנְתִּי--אֵיכָכָה, אֶלְבָּשֶׁנָּה; רָחַצְתִּי אֶת-רַגְלַי, אֵיכָכָה אֲטַנְּפֵם

2 I sleep, but my heart waketh; Hark! my beloved knocketh: 'Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled; for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.' 3 I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?

Just as the suitor, for whom the young woman has been waiting, arrives, the woman refuses to get up to open the door, excusing herself: she has already donned her sleeping attire, and does not want to soil her feet...

What are we supposed to derive from this passage?

In this week's Perasha, Shemini, we experience the tragedy of the demise of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu after they bring an אש זרה, foreign fire, to Hashem. 

As Jews, we look to our Torah as a guide on how to respond to such tragic events.

This coming week, we observe Yom HaShoah, and the following week, Yom HaZikaron – Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen – followed by Yom Ha'atzmaut - Israel Independence day. 

The traditional response to the Shoah has always been grief over the tragedy coupled with  

וַאֲחֵיכֶם, כָּל-בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל--יִבְכּוּ אֶת-הַשְּׂרֵפָה, אֲשֶׁר שָׂרַף יְהוָה

Your brothers the entire family of Israel should mourn for the ones whom God burned.

But there is another response - that of the father,  Aharon.  The Torah reports:

וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן

Aharon was silent

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who was a guest at Ezra Bessaroth quite a few years ago, relates the following story:

I was present, as a very young boy, at the first Sabbath circumcision of the Klauzemberger Hassidim in the temporary home they made for themselves in New York – their way-station between the European destruction and the rebirth of their community in Kiryat Sanz, Netanya. The Rebbe intoned the time-honored verse, "Then I passed and I saw that you were rooted in your blood, and I said to you, 'by your blood shall you live'" (Ezekiel 16:6), as he blessed and named the newly-circumcised child entering the covenant of Abraham.

At the conclusion of his blessing, the Rebbe commented, "I always understood these words from the prophet Ezekiel, ‘be'damayikh hayii,’ to mean ‘by your blood shall you live,’ because of the sacrifices the Jews have forced to make for our God and our faith, we merit the covenantal gift of eternal life. However, now that we have suffered the unspeakable tragedies of the European conflagration, it seems to me that Ezekiel's ‘damayikh’ comes not from the Hebrew dam, blood, but rather from the Hebrew dom, silence, as in 'Vayidom Aharon’ – and Aaron was silent. It is because we held back from battering the gates of heaven with our cries, because we swallowed our sobs and continued to pray and to learn and to build and to plant, because we utilized our energies not to weep over our past losses but rather to recreate our communities, our synagogues, our study-houses, here in America and, please G-d, soon in Israel, that we continue to live and even to flourish…"

The silence of Aharon is the silence of our people, who understand how to face tragedy, personal, communal and national.  As human beings, we will never be able to grasp the reason: כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם נאם ה' – My thoughts are not your thoughts, says Hashem.  Aharon’s silence is a period of quiet that allows him to meditate and reorient himself, in order to decide what course of action is appropriate in response.

The Klausenberger Rebbe’s approach recalls that of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik in his monumental essay “Kol Dodi Dofek”.  The Rav presents two models of how an individual can potentially perceive his existence: A person either sees himself as an object of history – tossed about aimlessly in a reality beyond his control. The fatalist tends towards esoteric, speculative exercises at analyzing his fate. 

Another approach is that of one who sees himself as not the object, but as the subject of history. Born into a particular time and place, this type of person grapples with the question of personal mission, how to harness his resources in order to achieve his destiny. Instead of engaging in philosophical speculation, plagued by “why"?, he asks the question “what”? What am I meant to do in response? Like Aharon Hakohen according to the Klausenberger, this response is one of silence, of holding back from battering the gates of heaven with our cries, swallowing our sobs and continued to pray, learn , build, plant and flourish…

The Rav’s essay, “Kol Dodi Dofek”, analyzes the tumultuous twentieth century Jewish experience from the perspective of this model.  “Kol Dodi Dofek” refers to the scene in Shir HaShirim of the male suitor knocking on the door of his beloved.  In modern Jewish history, we, the Jewish people, can discern six distinctive “knocks” at our door, by our beloved.

The first knock is political: the astounding vote by the United Nations to grant our people a Jewish state in Palestine.  Rav Soloveitchik declares that the U.N. justified its entire existence with this single historical vote.

The second knock is military.  For those of us who recite “Al Hanisim” on Chanukah, we are familiar with the theme of רבים ביד מעטים – the many were given over into the hands of the few. The astounding victory of a handful of refugees from the Shoah over well-trained Arab armies was truly a modern expression of רבים ביד מעטים.

The third knock is theological.  The return of the Jews to their homeland and to Jerusalem, was a severe blow to certain elements of the Christian world committed to the belief that the Jews had surely been rejected by G-d and that all of the Biblical references to the return of Israel to Zion and Jerusalem was merely an allegorical reference to Christianity and the Christian church….

In his fourth knock, Rav Soloveitchik reflects on the process of assimilation that had overtaken the diaspora Jewish community by the mid Twentieth century. The rise of the State of Israel slowed down this process by providing a broad umbrella under which Jewish youth, who would otherwise have abandoned their Jewishness – could find themselves. It brought to the fore the inescapable reality of their Jewish identity in a way that no other process could have succeeded to do.

The fifth knock is the message that דם יהודי לא הפקר.  Jewish blood is not worthless.  The individuals and nations who have committed grievous crimes against our people will be held accountable.  The capture, trial and subsequent execution of Eichmann is but one concrete expression of this new reality.

I recall growing up in Canada, the book, “None is Too Many”; it documents the discriminatory post WW II policies of the Canadian government towards Jewish immigration. As one reviewer put it, “even when the war ended and the full evidence of the death camps became clear to all Canadians, there was no immediate lifting of the immigration barriers for the survivors”. The sixth knock is that of a homeland committed to opening its gates to all Jews. This final knock should not be treated lightly. “Kol Dodi Dofek”!

Returning now to the verses in Shir HaShirim with which we began: On a number of levels, our beloved, the G-d of Israel, of Jewish history is knocking.  How are we going to respond to our suitor? Are we going to answer, “I have taken off my robe, how can I put it back on once again? I have washed my feet – how can I soil them?” Are we going to see G-d’s hand in history and respond in kind, or are we going to doze off, ignore that knock at the door?

What is our personal, communal and national mission?  

How do we go about living out our destiny?

This past Shabbat, a member of our congregation, Uri Chotzen, was called to the Teva in honor of his upcoming Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.  What an auspicious week, the week of Yom HaShoah, to be making such a profound statement of identification with the Jewish people, with our destiny! 

As we individually and collectively all work to figure out what our response is to the various Divine cues that we’ve discussed, we congratulate Uri and wish him and his family a hearty Mazal Tov on his response! 






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The Wicked Son - Revisited

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naughtysonOn Shabbat Hagadol, we delved into the topic of the “Four Sons” of the Pesach Seder.  It seems each time that one discusses this topic, conversation tends to focus on the בן הרשע, “the wicked son”.  What seems to make us most uncomfortable is the approach we take to answering him, not politically correct nor prudent during an age where Jewish life demands a pleasant, welcoming, “outreach” approach to those Jews who are distant from Jewish learning and tradition.

One approach is that of Rabbi Amnon Bazak; he notes that the question of the wicked son מה העבודה הזאת לכם - What is this worship/service to you? - appears in the Torah in the context of the Pesach sacrifice.  The cynicism with which this “son” asks his question is understood as an attack on the religious value of the Korban.  There are only two positive mitzvot in which failure to act makes one liable for the punishment of כרת – excision from the Jewish people: one is the Korban Pesach, the other: Brit Milah – circumcision. 

What links these two mitzvot is that they both are highly symbolic “signs” of identification with our people.  One who refrains from performing Brit Milah on his son or from offering the Korban Pesach when the Temple is standing effectively opts out of the Jewish community.  Karet/excision is therefore an appropriate consequence of this conscious disconnect. It’s by no coincidence that the Hagadah rebukes the Rasha by saying that had he been in Mizraim, he would not have been redeemed.   

On Shabbat Hagadol, we observed that the Hagadah’s “Four Sons” represents a midrashic, homiletic understanding of the Torah, that on a “peshat (plain meaning)” level, the wise, wicked, and simple sons do not appear clearly in the text. On the second day of Yom Tov, I presented what I think is a more authentic source for the רשע of the Torah:

  יג וַיֵּצֵא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי, וְהִנֵּה שְׁנֵי-אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים נִצִּים; וַיֹּאמֶר, לָרָשָׁע, לָמָּה תַכֶּה, רֵעֶךָ.


Moses went out the next day, and he saw two Hebrew men fighting. 'Why are you beating your brother?' he demanded of the wicked one.

Rashi  observes that the future form תַכֶּה, implies that the one Hebrew was about to hit his fellow Hebrew, though he had not done so yet.  “We derive from here that merely raising one’s hand to smite another person gives a person the status of a רשע, a wicked person.”  The aggressive Hebrew was indeed a רשע, and the Torah is conveying an essential lesson about its view of aggressive behavior.I would like to offer an additional understanding of the passage.  Perhaps the status of רשע – “wicked” was a label that Moshe had bestowed on the Hebrew; in other words, Moshe had assessed his behavior, judged him, effectively “taking him out of the community”.   

Moshe’s appeal: why are you about to hit your fellow (Hebrew) – hoping that their shared nationality would strike a chord in the aggressor – fell on deaf ears:  

 יד וַיֹּאמֶר מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט, עָלֵינוּ--הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר, כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת-הַמִּצְרִי; וַיִּירָא מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר, אָכֵן נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר. 

'Who made you our prince and judge?...Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?'
Moses was frightened. 'The matter is known,' he said.

It could be that we are being taught here that Moshe’s advance judgment of the aggressor itself triggered the unreceptive response:

יט  כַּמַּיִם, הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים-- כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם, לָאָדָם.

(19 As in water face answers to face, so the heart of man to man. (Mishlei/Proverbs 

In other words, Moshe’s assessment itself could have contributed to the negative response; after having himself been “written off,” the Jew rejects Moshe’s appeal to “nationhood” as the basis upon which he should refrain from striking his fellow.

This in turn, prompts Moshe’s response. “The matter is known!”

On a "peshat" level, Moshe means that the word was out that he had killed the Egyptian.  On a homiletic level, Rashi offers the following explanation:

….the matter I was wondering about, [i.e.,] why the Israelites are considered more sinful than all the seventy nations [of the world], to be subjugated with back-breaking labor, has become known to me. Indeed, I see that they deserve it.

Moshe proceeds to paint all of the Israelites with the same brush: the level of wickedness exhibited by this Israelite is symptomatic of the entire nation.  Moshe subsequently flees not only from Paroh’s death threat (plain meaning of the text) but from his own people. Paradoxically, his critique of the Israelites failure to appreciate that which binds them together..... brings about his own voluntary disconnect from his people!

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in “Nefesh HaRav”) suggests that the encounter between G-d and Moshe at the burning bush be understood as a continuation of the passage that we are now identifying as the new passage of the Wicked Son.

When G-d commissions Moshe to lead the Jews out of Egypt, Moshe asks:

 מִי אָנֹכִי, כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.

 : For Rashi, this question can be divided into two parts

  • Who am I to speak with kings?
  • By what justification do the Israelites merit leaving Egypt?

For Moshe, the nation which deserved to be enslaved when he fled Mizraim, remains a nation of רשעים, of wicked people. 

G-d’s answer to Moshe is already built into the image of the burning bush:  G-d speaks to Moshe out of the fiery heart of the bush, but the fire does not spread outwards.  Moshe is perplexed: Why does the bush remain intact and not get consumed by the fire?  

Rav Soloveitchik: The bush represents the Jewish people, a nation with a warm fire burning inside. True, its external behavior has long hidden this inner flame.  The outside of the bush is not consumed: the inner flame has not yet manifested itself.  The Midrash hints at this when it cites G-d’s words:

רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת-עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם

I have surely seen the affliction of my nation in Egypt…

Midrash Rabba: Moshe, you see one dimension, I (G-d) see another…

Rav Soloveitchik: Moshe, you simply perceive the externalities, the apparent wickedness of this people,  but I see the internal flame.  I am sending you to redeem this people; their merit may not be obvious now, but it will become apparent once they accept the Torah on this very mountain.

Over the centuries, Jews have often been at the forefront of major political and social movements.  Jewish participation in these activities may not always strike a responsive chord in each of us, but engrained in the Jewish psyche over the ages is a sincere desire to “repair the world.”  In contemporary Jewish life, authentic Jewish strivings also do not always express themselves in the most traditionally Jewish contexts.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, we often write off our fellow Jews if we think they are too far gone, too secularized, too removed from Jewish life to claim a place in our community.

So Moshe’s conviction that the Israelites do not deserve to be redeemed – a view first expressed in his encounter with the two Israelites in Egypt – continued at the burning bush.  His approach echoes the Hagadah’s declaration about the בן הרשע – the wicked son,

אילו היה שם לא היה נגאל

Were he to have been there, he would not have been redeemed.

It took G-d Himself to convince Moshe to tap into the פנימיות, the fire, burning in the heart of the bush.

Food for thought .... and a profound meditation for anyone questioning the value of Jewish outreach in the 21st century. 


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From the Tent of the Meeting

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Two days ago, Pepsi released a commercial that has gone viral in a big way. On its first day, it had 2.95 million hits; By erev Shabbat, the number stood at 15 million...and as I write, the video has over 24 million views.

usedcarIn the video, race car driver Jeff Gordon arrives at a used car lot somewhere in North Carolina, presenting himself as a simple guy looking for a used car. A series of hidden cameras, including in Gordon's eyeglasses, his Pepsi Max can mounted on the dashboard of the car, and elsewhere, film the ensuing spectacle. The victim? Unsuspecting used car salesman, Steve, who joins Gordon on a test drive in a 2009 Chevy Camaro. What ensues is a five minute terror trip, as the Camaro reaches breakneck speeds, salesman Steve curses Gordon - and hangs on for dear life! As they screech back to the dealership, Steve is furious and runs to call the police. Gordon reveals the prank: fake moustache and beard, cameras all around.... a 2013 version of "Smile- you're on Candid Camera!"

At the recommendation of my wife, I consulted Snopes.com and read of the many clues indicating that the entire event was staged. A stuntman, not Gordon, drove the vehicle and salesman Steve is an actor: Were Steve to have been a real salesman, he could have sued Pepsi for tens of millions of dollars!

A couple of days have passed since I first saw the commercial, and I've had some time to let things gel, so that I can present what I hope is a mature response.

Perashat Vayikra opens: 

 וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר

He called to Moshe - Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of the meeting

On this verse, the midrash says:

ד"א ויקרא אל משה וידבר ה' מיכן אמרו כל ת"ח שאין בו דעת נבלה טובה הימנו תדע לך שכן צא ולמד ממשה אבי החכמה אבי הנביאים שהוציא ישראל ממצרים ועל ידו נעשו כמה נסים במצרים ונוראות על ים סוף ועלה לשמי מרום והוריד תורה מן השמים ונתעסק במלאכת המשכן ולא נכנס לפני ולפנים עד שקרא לו שנאמר (ויקרא א) ויקרא אל משה וידבר להלן הוא אומר (שמות ג) וירא ה' כי סר לראות וגו' בסנה הפסיק אליו בין קריאה לדיבור באהל מועד אין כאן הפסקה בסנה

"He called to Moshe and Hashem spoke to him"...From here, the sages taught: "Any Torah Scholar who lacks wisdom, an animal carcass is better than him!" We can learn this from Moshe, the father of wisdom, the epitome of prophets, who took the Israelites out of Egypt, and through whom a number of miracles were wrought in Egypt along with wonders at the Red Sea; Though he rose up to the heavens and brought us down the Torah and was involved in the construction of the Tabernacle, he did not enter into the holy of Holies until Hashem called him. 

The Midrash goes on to say that in the merit of Moshe's caution, Hashem spoke to him directly and consecutively from the Tent of the Meeting; this stands in contrast this to the manner in which Hashem spoke to him years earlier, at the burning bush, where communication was less direct.

What is the concept of a Torah Scholar who lacks wisdom? For the Torah scholar, what is wisdom but Torah knowledge ? How is a Torah scholar without wisdom worse than a carcass??

The answer, I think, lies in a commentary by Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, the Pachad Yitzhak. Rabbi Hutner distinguishes between pure Torah knowledge - the intricacies, ins-and-outs of the minutae of halacha, vs. what he calls "elective acts" - mundane matters that a person faces on a daily basis not specifically governed by halacha. Following the Rambam, Rav Hutner notes that the extent to which mundane activities are subsumed under the rubric of "mitzvot" depends on the degree to which the individual chooses to imbue them with meaning by approaching them from a Torah perspective; the דעת referred to in the midrash is this second type of understanding: an intuitive sense the Torah's perspective on matters unlegislated by Jewish law. 

Technically, it is possible, therefore, for a Talmid Hacham to lack דעת. Though he may have the entire corpus of Torah under his belt, this is no guarantee that this knowledge impacts on his life in general.

The meat of an animal that was killed or died on its own is halachically forbidden. Though its value is questionable, everyone would agree that the animal during its liftetime was worth something, a purposeful creation. A Talmid Hacham who lacks the faculty we have been describing, however, is completely worthless. Torah knowledge stripped of its ability to impact on our broader lives is absolutely pointless!*

Rambam, following our sages, points out that there are two crowns - Keter Malchut and Keter Kehuna - the crowns of kingship and of priesthood; these crowns are inaccessible to most Jews, since they are positions that one must be born into. Keter Torah, the crown of Torah scholarship, on the other hand, is open for all to access. True, the midrash speaks of a classic Talmid Hacham, but it is relevant for all who engage in Torah study. We must all make sure that our Torah learning impacts on our lives as a whole!

The Torah prohibits something called אונאת דברים, verbal abuse. If I give someone advice that's not in his best interests (especially if I have some self-interest in his decision) or remind a penitent of his past or a convert of the idolatrous deeds of his ancestors, I am guilty of verbal abuse.

Ya'akov Avinu, our forefather Jacob - after whom we are named - is encouraged by his mother Rivka to dress up like his brother Esav in order to acquire the birthright. His response? אולי ימשני אבי -"Maybe my father will feel me and discover that it's really me." The use of the word אולי - denotes a hopeful "maybe", says the Talmud. Even though it was for a right cause - guaranteeing the Jewish future - Ya'akov hoped against hope that he would be found out! So greatly did he detest שקר, deception....

Can the Jewish revulsion towards abuse and deception impact on the sphere of our "elective thought process?"

What should be our response to the Pepsi commercial? It depends on a frank answer to the following question: When we watch the commercial - and the camera hones in on the mortified "used car salesman", why are we laughing? Are we laughing out of nervousness, empathizing with the fear of the terrified passenger? Or is our laughter more sadistic? Do we identify with the perpetrator of the prank?

My guess is that the video's general appeal to the viewer is that we identify with Jeff Gordon; that explains the video's 24 million hits.

As heirs to the legacy of our father Jacob, the deception that frames this prank - real or staged - should be inherently repulsive to us. And if a mere harsh word is a Torah prohibition, we should distance ourselves from the torment - real or staged - that takes place in the film. The דעת that we should have as faithful students of Torah demands no less.

Responding in the spirit of our tradition is an indicator that we have allowed Jewish law to mold our personalities.  If we have been successful in doing so, we will ultimately merit, as did Moshe Rabeinu, being summoned by Hashem, directly -- from the Tent of the Meeting!.

*Commentary of Artscroll Vayikra Rabba

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Re-release of "Outside-Inside" - Last Year's Tribute To Hacham Behar

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hachambeharThis Shabbat, Teruma, is the annual Shabbat honoring Hacham David Behar. Here's a re-release of the Dvar Torah I wrote for the occasion:

This past Shabbat, I had the unique honor of delivering a drasha in honor of the late Hacham David J. Behar.  Each year, on Shabbat Perashat Terumah, the Behar family honors his first Shabbat in 1917 as Hazzan of Ezra Bessaroth.

The Torah describes the ark that carried the Tablets of the Covenant: It must be covered with gold on both the outside and the inside. According to the Gemara in Tractate Yomah, there were actually three pieces to the ark: an outer box; set into it was another box, and yet a third box.  The two boxes on either side are to be layered with gold while the inner box is made of wood.

Our sages understand the Aron (ark) homiletically: “Any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside – תוכו כבורו – is not a true Torah scholar.”  The scholar is compared to the Aron, in that they are both repositories of Torah; just as the outside and the inside of the Aron are gold, so too,  the Torah scholar’s outer presentation must accurately reflect his inner qualities.

The normative understanding of this dictum is that a Torah scholar must be genuine: He should not put on airs and feign a high level of religiosity, when he is actually lacking spiritually.  The same goes for everyone one of us who professes a connection to Torah study and observance: we have to strive for authenticity.

The Talmud, Tractate Berachot, discusses the transition from the leadership of Rabban Gamliel to that of R. Elazar ben Azaria.  The former had a restrictive Bet Midrash (study hall) entrance policy: Only a student whose outside matched his inside would be allowed in; when R. Elazar took over, the Gemara reports, he removed the guard at the door, and Torah learning became more democratic.

Reading the principle as we have to date raises an obvious question: how did R. Gamliel know whose demeanor matched his inner self? How could he possibly be tuned into the degree to which a student was authentic or not?

Rabbi Aryeh Stechler suggests that the Talmudic principle we cited – תוכו כבורו – has a different meaning: Rather than requiring a person’s external appearance to match his inner essence, the imperative is to have your external actions impact on your internal ethical and spiritual development.  The Sefer Hachinuch is known for his theory that more than anything else, our actions impact on our thought processes and emotions; instead of “waiting” to be inspired, we should, says the Chinuch, avail ourselves of the power of mitzvot to impact on our growth.

Viewing תוכו כבורו this way, it is quite understandable how R. Gamliel would assess students: Those he detected were not going the extra mile in mitzvah performance, he sensed were not growth-oriented.  A lax attitude towards Jewish observance was, for R. Gamliel, a sign that the student was on the road to stagnation.

On the other hand, the ability of action to impact on one’s personal growth is no “quick fix”; change is not guaranteed. This is the symbolism of the wooden box, the possible impediments to this process.

I did not know Hacham Behar personally, but from all the anecdotes of his sons and grandchildren – and from Jewish commitment of those descendants,who ably led the Tefillah this past Shabbat - it’s clear that for Hacham Behar, תוכו כבורו was a guiding principle on both levels: He was a genuine, unpretentious man whose outside matched what was going on inside. He was also a “doer”, someone who understood that, at the end of the day, it’s action that cultivates the Torah personality.

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Purim: Seeing the Big Picture

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purimdrinkThe Purim story truly has something for everyone: costumes, treats and surprises for little children, a nail-biting story of suspense and intrigue, and for the more spiritually and intellectually-oriented crowd: profound lessons of irony and Divine Providence. 

That’s why it’s so surprising that one issue attracting so much attention is the mitzvah to imbibe alcohol. The practice traces its way back to the Talmud, where Rava apparently instructs us to drink wine until we do not know the difference between “Cursed is Haman and Blessed is Mordechai.”

That’s like saying that a Jew should drink so much that he cannot differentiate between Ahmadinejad and the Chief Rabbi of Israel!

Many commentaries have noted that the follow-up to this directive – in which Raba becomes intoxicated, “stands up” and kills compatriot R. Zeira - illustrates the dangers of excessive drinking.  Within this view, one commentator suggests that Raba did not directly murder R. Zeira, but merely served up so many drinks that R. Zeira almost succumbed to alcohol poisoning; it was only Raba’s last-ditch fervent prayer vigil that rescued R. Zeira from a tragic demise!  In recent years, the Union of Orthodox Congregations (of which Ezra Bessaroth is a proud member) has warned parents and their teenagers to refrain from excessive indulgence.  Moreover, DUI is not just a violation of American law, it is a violation of Torah law.  Celebration is one thing – putting yours and others’ lives in danger, quite another.

One esoteric interpretation of the story suggests that during their feast, the two scholars indulged in deep mystical secrets, and Raba "stood up,” - rose to a higher level of understanding - and drew R. Zeira after him, sharing Raba’s mystical insights. R. Zeira, whose soul was more limited in its capacity to grasp such concepts, nearly died from the spiritual intensity of the encounter. This interpretation finds support in the names Raba, which means “large” or “great”, in contrast to “Zeira”, which means “tiny” or “small.” According to this view, the limited perspective of R. Zeira simply “couldn’t handle” Raba’s lesson!

At times, modern Jewish life seems to suffer from the Raba-R. Zeira tension. Two centuries ago, the enlightenment ushered in a new vision of what it meant to be Jewish; the Reform movement encouraged the abandonment of what it deemed to be ancient small-minded practices in favor of a broader vision. Put simply, Reform promoted a gradual sell-out of what was hitherto known as Mitzvot Ben Adam Lamakom – Mitzvot between Man and God: Kashrut, laws of family purity and other associated mitzvot were relegated to the dustbins of Jewish history. In the 1888 Pittsburgh Platform, for example, the Reform clergy asserted “that observance [of many of these early mitzvot] in our days is apt to obstruct rather than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

Eretz Yisrael, with Jerusalem at its center, also ended up on the editing-room floor of early Reform. It wasn’t until 1937, when its naïve position on Zionism was called into question by historical and political realities, that Reform backtracked.

As one Reform rabbi notes:
"...from the earliest days of Reform Judaism, back in the 19th Century, long before the Holocaust, anti-Zionism stemmed from an ideology that we may actually consider praiseworthy. The founders of Reform Judaism dreamed of a beautiful and all-encompassing redemption. For them, the mission of the Jewish people was to serve as God’s partners in tikkun olam, repairing a broken and troubled world, for all humanity. They were turned off by a narrow Messianic vision, focused on the Jewish people’s return to its homeland. Instead, they worked for the betterment of all humanity. In their minds, the Jewish people could best do God’s work by remaining dispersed throughout the world, laboring alongside men and women of every race and religion to make the entire Earth a better place.” (Rabbi Barry Block, Anti-Zionism in Early American Reform Judaism)

Seeing itself as the visionary “Raba” of Purim, Reform was determined to slaughter the parochial, insular, small-minded “R. Zeira”, the old world-Jewish perspective. Predictions –bordering on quasi-prophecies - abounded in the 1960’s – foretelling the death of Orthodox Jewish life in America. A smug brand of triumphalism developed: Raba would finally overcome R. Zeira, once and for all!' 

To be sure, parochial elements within the Torah-observant community abound; scholars throughout the Jewish world have documented these inward-looking trends in books, journals and in classes over the past couple of decades, and continue to critique these developments from within the Torah tradition. Yet the past few decades have also seen the increasing professionalization of Jewish education and outreach, with an ambitious mission to reframe the classical Torah tradition for the modern world. With scholars such as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik at the helm, the minutiae of halacha, of Jewish law, and the splendor of Jewish thought have been able to express their essence: Correctly articulated, the true “Raba” is none other than the resilient, eternal, Torah tradition of our past! Paradoxically, approaches within the Jewish world once thought to be leading the way towards broad new horizons, have begun to expose themselves as small-minded efforts to curry favor with popular opinion in both the general and Jewish community, in religion, ethics and politics.  

With Purim around the corner, it’s time to reflect on what it means to be Jewish, to identify which approaches best epitomize “Raba” in his struggle with “R. Zeira.”

Purim Alegre !
Rabbi Meyers


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The Many Faces of Yitro

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In the second chapter of Bereshit, Adam gave names to all the living creatures. Ramban comments:

והענין, כי הקב”ה הביא כל חית השדה וכל עוף השמים לפני אדם, והוא הכיר טבעם וקרא להם שמות, כלומר השם הראוי להם כפי טבעיהם

The Holy One, Blessed be he, brought every beast of the field and bird of the sky before Adam; he identified their essence and gave them their names – ie the name appropriate to them in accordance with  their nature…

In other words, for the Torah, names reflect essence.

Elusive Character

Speaking of names, Yitro, who appears briefly again in Perashat B’ha’alotcha – has multiple names: no less than seven, according to Rashi.

Since names reflect the essence of a person or being, the inquiring classical Jewish mind will want to ask: “What do the various versions of Yitro’s essence have to teach us?”

Religious Coercion

Flashback: In Moshe’s first encounter with him, Yitro is Kohen Midian – literally: the Priest of Midian.   A man of great influence, he imposes his religious views on others.

In fact, the Yalkut Shimoni states that Yitro only grants Moshe Tzippora’s hand in marriage once the Egyptian fugitive dedicates his firstborn to a life of idolatry. For the midrash, it is this commitment that triggers G-d’s “attempt” on Moshe’s life on the way to Egypt.

Only a quick-thinking, resourceful Tzippora rescues her husband from the spiritual and physical abyss: A last-second circumcision redirects Moshe and his family back onto a monotheistic track!


.. to chapter 18 of Shemot, Parshat Yitro:   Moshe is the leader of B’nai Yisrael.   Ten plagues and a miraculous battle with Amalek later, Yitro now rethinks his beliefs:  As Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religious at MSU (Midian State University) the former cleric crowns the Creator, the “greatest of all gods!”

One of the glaring features of the perasha is not so much the wide array of names, but of descriptions used in reference to Yitro: (in the following order): Yitro, the Priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law ; Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law (x3);Moshe’s father-in-law (x2); Yitro (x2); Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law; Moshe’s father-in-law (x6).

A proverbial field day for Bible Critics!  In Perashat Bha’alotcha, yet another reference labels him as “Chovav ben Reu’el the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law.” Surely, the patchwork “four editor” theory can explain the inconsistency of the text!?

Look Again

Classical Jews, holding firm to the conviction that deep messages are embedded in an eternal Torah, will look to the context of these references to unravel the intent of its Divine author…

In other words…

Only once is Yitro labeled as Kohen Midian (Ch. 4)  That’s when we first meet him.  Moshe, fleeing from Egypt, is a foreigner while Yitro is in a ‘good place’ both religiously and professionally.

It is from this comfortable position that “Yitro, the Priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law” begins to read the breaking news out of Mizraim.  With open eyes, he interprets the events of the day.   Distancing himself from his previous beliefs, he seeks to connect himself to Moshe; at this point,  he is now, “Yitro – Moshe’s father-in-law”.

Moshe reaches out to Yitro, now only referred to as Moshe’s “father-in-law”.   In fact, no less than six consecutive references at the end of the chapter use the term, “Moshe’s father-in-law”.

The Message

Consistent with the Mechilta’s declaration that, though Yitro “lived amidst the greatest honor of the world,  his heart prompted him to go forth to the desert wasteland to hear words of Torah” – the text leads us subliminally through the change in labels…. marking Yitro’s shifting values and self-perception.

With his new identity as “Moshe’s father-in-law”, he could have settled with passive membership in the community of Israel.  Instead, he draws on his intuition and talents to streamline the Jewish judicial system.  This is what earns him a perasha in his name.

More life lessons:

  •     Newly-adopted values must not remain theoretical, but need to express themselves practically
  •     Existing talents garnered from past experience should be channeled in creative and productive ways
  •     Altruistic, constructive criticism of the religious status quo does not threaten a society governed by Torah, it enhances it!

Two PS’s

PS #1

Earlier, we noted two mid-story references to Yitro by his personal name, stripped of both the titles “Kohen Midian” and “Moshe’s father-in-law”; the text is followed by a return to “Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law”, then by the six references to Yitro as simply “Moshe’s father-in-law”.


The answer may lie in another midrash cited by Rashi.  Upon hearing the details of the Exodus, including the demise of Pharoah and Amalek,  “Vayichad Yitro”.  This either means “Yitro rejoiced” – or “Yitro got goosebumps…”

Change comes hard, and he greets the graphic retelling of the events with a degree of ambivalence.  After all, these were his former neighbors and fellow idolators!

“Yitro” here hints that he is not yet fully comfortable with his new identity.  Only after Yitro fully digests the story, is he able to return to his identity as first -”Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law”, then, simply: “Moshe’s father-in-law”.

PS #2

Chovav ben Reu’el the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law.“  This is the name used in Perashat B’ha’alotcha.  Rashi teaches us that he was called Chovav because of his love for Torah.  The term “Chiba” in Hebrew means love…

Why, then, recall that he is the son of Re’uel the Midianite, then label him “Moshe’s father-in-law”?

A theory: Here we have a more sophisticated Yitro.  He is no longer giving technical advice; he’s someone who has spent time absorbing the sanctity of what it means to be part of the community of Israel.  What was once a fascination has now become incorporated into his very essence.   No mere outsider or consultant, he is a Jew who possesses Ahavat Torah, love of Torah.

He reflects on and appreciates his path towards religious growth: From the son of Re’uel the Midianite to the father-in-law of Moshe, he matures into a “Chovav”..

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Manti Te'o and the Plague of Darkness

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One of the most prominent stories of this past week here in the U.S. is the story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o.  He is at center of a bizarre story involving a woman that he met online, who supposedly died in the fall of Leukemia.  This past season, Te’o dedicated his games to her recovery, and then sadly, to her memory.

Some say that Te’o was the victim of an elaborate hoax, while others suggest that he fabricated this relationship and death as a way of evoking support from Heisman Trophy judges.  According to the official version of the story, supported by the Notre Dame administration, Te'o never met the woman, the relationship relegated to “Tweets” and phone conversations.

Texas Christian University Prof. Sage Elwell observed that "relationships that solely exist online often times allow someone to overlook red flags, or character flaws, that may only become evident in face-to-face interaction." Elwell added that, ".... if you don't meet face-to-face at some point, it's hard to know if the relationship is a healthy, or real, one."


With the Te’o debacle once again raising the issue of the "the Dark side" of social media.. other related incidents come to mind: Recently, a Connecticut man hijacked a woman's Facebook and e-mail accounts and demanded compromising photos of her as ransom.

Here’s another story from this fall’s devastating Hurricane Sandy:

Shashank Tripathi's resignation from Republican Christopher Wight's campaign will take effect immediately . Wight is running in New York's 12th congressional district for U.S. House.

Buzzfeed first identified Tripathi as the man behind the @ComfortablySmug twitter handle. He tweeted a number of false reports during Sandy, including that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded and that utility company ConEdison was preemptively shutting down power in all of Manhattan.

Tripathi later apologized to the people of New York, but the panic that he generated by his "tweets" had already done its damage.

The sinister side of social media.  (In Tripathi's case, the Conn Edison tweet even claimed that Manhattan would literally be plunged into total darkness!)

These stories got me thinking of a possible connection between the dark use of social media and the plague of חושך, of darkness, in this week's Perasha, Bo.

Bo features the last three plagues wrought on Egypt, including locusts, darkness, and the smiting of the Egyptian first-born.

Rav Ze`ev Friedman (cited in an article by Goldie Guy) suggests that the Egyptians' continued blindness to G-d's dominion over the world - exemplified by Pharaoh`s saying: “Who is G-d that I might heed his voice?” – lead to the physical blindness of the plague of darkness.  Mida k'neged Mida - Measure for measure: blindness begets blindness.

In one internet article dealing with anonymity in the use of social media, the author writes:

...use of social media can go over the proverbial line and become vicious attacks. This is especially true with anonymous or pseudonymous speakers. Identifying anonymous or pseudonymous social media users who act with malice or ill will is not easy.

In an article about the Te’o hoax, the Columbus Dispatch writes,

People can create fake personas fairly easily, said private investigator Dean Boerger of Boerger Investigative Services in Grandview Heights.

“There are ways, easy ways, to cloak yourself and be someone you’re not,” he said.

People can steal photos from another person’s legitimate Facebook page, take on a pseudonym and create a fake phone number on Google Voice, Boerger said.

The perpetrators of the Manti Te'o hoax, the facebook account highjacker, and the Congressional campaign manager whose secret tweets generated hysteria in Gotham City, thrive on the "cover" provided by their social media platforms.

Midrash Hagadol cites this verse in Sefer Yeshaya in reference to the Egyptians:

הוי המעמיקים מיהוה לסתר עצה והיה במחשׁך מעשׂיהם ויאמרו מי ראנו ומי יודענו

Woe is to them that seek to hide their counsel from Hashem, and all their actions are in the dark, saying ‘Who sees us and Who knows’?

This midrash makes the direct connection that we referred to above – the Egyptians’ perceived lack of accountability, the brushing aside of G-d as the watchful eye – in the language of Pirkei Avot – triggered the plague of darkness as more of a consequence than a punishment.

לפיכך לוקין בחושך שנאמר יהי דרכם חשך וחלקלקות

Therefore, they are smitten with darkness, as it says (Tehilim) “Let their paths be darkness and slipping”.

Back in Egypt, another midrash recounts how the Israelites, visiting their Egyptian neighbors during the plague of darkness,  were accompanied by light that would literally follow them into the Egyptian homes and leave with them upon their departure.

כשהיה ישראל בא אצל מצרי לשאול ממנו היה בא האור עמו וכשהיה יוצא היה האור יוצא עמו

The midrash goes on to say that the Israelites on the other hand, had light in their homes because they are involved in Torah and mitzvot, regarding which it says

כי נר מצוה ותורה אור

Because a mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light.

Now, at that time – in Egypt – there were no overt mitzvoth being practiced by the Israelites, since the Egyptian exile of course preceded the giving of the Torah.

Instead, I would like to understand the midrash as referring to the character of our lives both at the time of the Egyptian exile and for generations to come. We Jews are preoccupied with light.  Rooted in our belief that there is no such thing as absolute anonymity – Hashem observes all of actions – we know that each of our actions is intrinsically significant , and that we are accountable for them.

As Jews living in the modern world, we do not believe that the Torah requires us to insulate ourselves from secular knowledge or modern technological developments.  Just the opposite, a Torah agenda for the world bids us to confront the latest developments and channel them in a kosher fashion, seeing them as tools to further the Torah agenda.  The Jew walks around carrying the enlightened perspective of accountability, of a sense that there is no ultimate anonymity. It is this firm belief that generates a consistent commitment to Torah and mitzvot, to a modern Jewish society that utilizes the latest technologies in ways that create meaningful connections and support causes that benefit the world.

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"I got a name"

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igotanameMazal tov to Elana and Josh Zana on the birth of their new baby daughter, Miriam Hila.  We share the joy with the extended Zana, Behar and Okrent families on this great occasion.  This past week, our daughter Yosifa gave birth to a baby girl in Eretz Yisrael, and they named her several hours ago.  Only after Shabbat here in Seattle, will we find what name they gave her!

This occasion is very auspicious as this week's Perasha is called “Shemot” – also the name of the entire Book of Exodus.  In Hebrew, Sefer Shemot means the Book of Names

But this title, Shemot, seems somewhat problematic. How so? Each name that our sages assigned to the various books of the Chumash - fit the theme of the book.  Bereshit - Genesis - is so named because it does not just record the Genesis of the world, but of the Jewish people - as it traces the lives of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs and the foundations of our nationhood. Vayikra begins with Hashem calling to Moshe from the Tent of the Meeting, and focuses on the principles and laws of the proper worship of G-d in the midst of the  Israelite camp.  In Bamidbar, in the desert, we learn of the various events of the Israelites'  40 years of travel in the desert.  Lastly, Devarim is so-called as it includes Moshe Rabenu's final speech on the eve of Am Yisrael's entry into the Land of Israel.

But if we look at Sefer Shemot, while it is true that  the first few verses recall the names of the sons of Ya'akov, the Torah immediately tells us that these sons died along with the entire generation.  From that point on, there is almost no mention of "names." In fact, the Torah seems to deliberately avoid bestowing names on the various personalities in the narrative.

Here are some examples:

  • פרעה - מלך מצרים -Pharoah - the King of Egypt.  Both of these expressions reflect a role rather than a proper name.
  • המילדות העברית - the Hebrew midwives.  Even when the Torah declares that one of their names was Shifra, the other Puah, Rashi - following the lead of our sages - explains that these reflect roles and not actual names.  Shifra cleaned up the babies upon their birth, while Puah cooed and calmed the newborns.
  • איש מבית לוי אשה מבית לוי - a man from the house of Levi marries a woman from the House of Levi.  This reference to Moshe's parents sidesteps their actual names, later revealed to be Amram and Yocheved.
  • הילד, נער – The (young) boy, a reference to Moshe
  • בת פרעה - the daughter of Pharoah.  She also is only presented only relative to her father, Pharoah.
  • Even Moshe's sister, Miriam is referred to merely as אחותו, his sister, while Yocheved, his mother, is soon referred to as אם הילד.

Why does the Torah go out of its way to avoid naming these personalities? Why are they only described in terms of their roles and relationships and not their actual names?

I would like to try to answer this question by pointing to another pattern in the first chapters of Sefer Shemot. It seems that the narrative is saturated with the theme of "rebellion":

Here are some examples:

  • Pharoah shows ingratitude and rejection of the Israelites: “A new King arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef."
  • The midwives resist Pharoah's order to kill the Jewish baby boys at birth, choosing to feed him a farfetched story that the Jewish women gave birth well before the midwives could clandestinely kill the Jewish baby boys.
  • According to Rashi - following the Midrash - Amram had divorced his wife Yocheved, fearful that producing more babies would only lead to the babies' death; given his prominence, Amram is followed by men throughout the Israelite nation.  Miriam, inspired by a heavy dose of “Chutzpah", condemns her father for what she feels is a policy worse than Pharoah, who only decreed death to the Jewish boys; in contrast,  Amram, through divorcing Yocheved, had set an example that could ultimately sentence the entire nation to death.
  • We would have expected that if anyone would adhere to the official Egyptian policy to drown the Jewish boys, it would be Pharoah's child.  Instead, בת פרעה, Pharoah's daughter, comes to wash on the Nile; upon discovering a baby she identifies as Hebrew, בת פרעה saves the baby, and even returns him to a Jewish woman (his actual mother!) to nurse.
  • As an adult, Moshe rebels against his Egyptian upbringing by killing an Egyptian taskmaster attacking a Jew, only to eventually flee to Midian, where he rescues the daughters of the Priest of Midian from bullies at a local well.   Why are the daughters of the Priest of Midian being bullied? Rashi explains: Re'uel's family had been excommunicated once he abandoned idolatry for monotheism.

So whether it's the midwives, Miriam, Pharoah's daughter, Moshe, or Re'uel, Moshe's father-in -law, a strong current of resistance and rebellion runs through the early chapters of Sefer Shemot.  What is the connection between this resistance movement, if you will, and the absence of names at the start of Sefer Shemot?

When Adam HaRishon, the first man was assigned the task of giving names to all of the animals in the Garden of Eden, he wasn't simply asked to choose arbitrary labels for the different species.  A name represents the essence of something.  It follows that when Adam called a horse סוס - he had identified an aspect of the essence of a horse that warranted the name סוס. Our tradition prohibits calling another person by a derogatory nick-name.  Why? A person's name reflects his essence, and mocking that is an affront to the essence, the soul of a person.  This is a very inspiring idea.  In fact, when I was growing up, one of my favorite songs was Jim Croce’s “I got a name”.  I have a clear identity!

The characters at the start of Sefer Shemot are sadly in a state of chaos - their surrounding culture, their belief system, societal expectations - are all calling on them to act unethically, improperly.  The king bids the midwives  to act unethically, to murder innocent children.  The man and woman from the House of Levi feel the pressure to end their marriage due to futility and emotional drain presented by the campaign to drown Israelite boys in the Nile; Bat Pharoah is torn between her father's decree to drown Israelite boys and her humanity and sense of compassion.  The initial "anonymity" of these characters, I would like to suggest, reflects this tension, this pressure, inhibiting their strivings to connect to their essence, their "names".

It's only after Pharoah's daughter rescues the baby, and names him Moshe that actual names begin to appear in the narrative.

  • ויגדל משה - and Moshe grew (in stature)
  • וַתָּבֹאנָה, אֶל-רְעוּאֵל אֲבִיהֶן - and the (Midianite) girls came to their father Re'uel.  Moshe links up with Re'uel, also known as Yitro...In fact, our sages tell us, Yitro has no less than seven names!
  • וַיִּתֵּן אֶת-צִפֹּרָה בִתּוֹ, לְמֹשֶׁה - and he gave his daughter Tzippora to Moshe

Immediately afterwards, Moshe names his son,

  • וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ גֵּרְשֹׁם:  כִּי אָמַר--גֵּר הָיִיתִי, בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה. - She gave birth to a son and (Moshe) called his name Gershom, saying "I was a Ger (stranger) in a strange land."

With the pivotal event of Pharoah's daughter rescuing and naming Moshe - the verses begin their transition to reintroducing characters with names into the story.

Bringing the two themes together - the one of conscientious objection and rebellion together with the absence and reappearance of names, I would like to suggest the following: Before they resist the influences and pressures pressing them to make outright unethical decisions or holding them back from courageous statements of faith, the personalities in the first chapters of Shemot are "nameless" because they are unable to connect to their essence.  Once they display the courage to act on their ethical impulses, these same characters pave the way for a return to essence.  This return to essence expresses itself in the reintroduction of "names" into Sefer Shemot.

This message: the ongoing need to re-examine assumptions and influences that govern our lives --- is true on a communal, congregational, family and individual level. We must always strive to live lives consistent with our essence.

This is a Shabbat of names and we join together with the entire congregation wishing our best to the Zana family on the occasion of the naming Miriam Hila, whose name carries special meaning for members of her family.  May we continue to celebrate many s'machot together!



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Thoughts on "Don't Bury Me In Egypt"

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In this last perasha of Sefer Bereishit, Ya'akov Avinu asks his son, Yosef  to do חסד ואמת -- "Kindness and truth"

...אל נא תקברני במצרים

Please do not bury me in Egypt

Instead, transport my remains to the Land of Canaan, and bury me with my fathers in the Cave of the Machpelah.

Our sages understand the term חסד ואמת as an act of true kindness - not just חסד ואמת -kindness and truth - but חסד של אמת - a unique form of kindness: true kindness, with no strings attached: Preparation and burial of the dead will not be reciprocated by the deceased.

This foundational Jewish idea, though, falls somewhat short of being the simple meaning of the text.  Contextually, Yaakov seems to refer to חסד ואמת not simply as a request for burial per se - but as a specific request to be buried in Canaan.  To ensure compliance, Ya'akov even presses Yosef to swear that he will carry out this mission.

R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch has an original explanation of חסד ואמת: Ya'akov is asking Yosef to ensure that the Hesed, the kindness of burial, be done in Canaan, the true homeland of our people."  He understands that B'nai Yisrael had begun "to see the Jordan in the Nile", that the family was losing a sense of what it truly meant to be in Galut, in exile. Paradoxically, Yosef's successful integration of B'nai Yisrael into Egyptian culture threatened our intrinsic connection to our homeland. 

In response to his father's charge, Yosef says:

אנכי אעשה כדבריך

I will do as you say

Sforno explains:

 אנכי מצד עצמי אעשה כדברך בכל כחי

I will - on my own - do what you ask - with all of my power

The simplest understanding of Sforno is that Yosef is offering some push-back to the idea of an oath.  As if to say, "No need to formalize this, Abba, I will make sure that your wishes are fulfilled!"

But in the next verse, Ya'akov insists on the oath, and Yosef consents.

Ramban is puzzled by Ya'akov's hard-line stance: According to Ramban, Ya’akov was not suspicious of his beloved, righteous son – that he would not follow through on his father's commandment, after saying "I will do as you say".  Rather, Ya’akov did this in order to strengthen the matter in Pharoah’s eyes; otherwise, Pharoah may not have given Yosef permission to leave Egypt, preferring Yosef to send his brothers and servants to bury Ya'akov.  Another possibility: Pharoah would want the prophet, Ya'akov, to be buried in his land as an honor and merit to the Egyptian people. 

Ramban suggests yet another reason for the oath: “Yosef would now have to put in more effort because of the oath…."

In other words,  Ya’akov understands that in order to guarantee fulfillment of the mitzvah,  he must transform his commandment into an internal imperative for Yosef. 

A similar thought is echoed in the famous statement by the great Hillel in Pirkei Avot:  אם אין אני לי, מי לי? “If I am not for myself, who is for me?”  Rabbeinu Yonah explains that fundamentally,  receiving rebuke from another person is fraught with the limitation that the pressure to change one's behavior is external rather than internal. I, says Hillel, must engage myself in a “self-reproof”, critical self-evaluation – and inspire myself to make that change.  While external pressure to alter behavior has only temporary impact, one who engages in self-reproof is more likely to experience permanent change.

After writing these words, inspired by Rabbi Maury Grebenau, I was thinking: According to our sages, the forefathers fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given.  If so, Yosef presumably adhered to the mitzvah of honoring parents.  That means that Yosef would have felt the religious imperative to implement his father's request to be buried in Israel by virtue of Kibud Av V'em - honoring parents.  If so, how does Ya'akov's oath trigger a greater internal imperative for Yosef?


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Idol-Sniffing Camels

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Posted in memory of Yehudah Ben Moshe, Z'L, whose Bar Mitvah Perasha was Chaye Sarah 

On Shabbat, I wished, on behalf of the congregation, a hearty Mazal Tov to Yehuda Yegudayav, who celebrated his 75th birthday over the weekend.  The Bukharian Jewish members are a true institution at Ezra Bessaroth, and we are delighted to share in all of their joyous occasions.  

Hearing about Yehuda’s milestone got me thinking about family; in a couple of weeks’ time, I head once again to Canada to visit my Mom, who just turned 84 years old עד מאה ועשרים שנה.  A few months ago, the doctor told her that her new aortic valve should be good for 17 more years!

502As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the world’s greatest traveler.  Especially intimidating to me are the bomb-sniffing dogs at the airport.  Speaking of trained dogs, this past week, the drug-sniffing dogs at Sea-Tac airport had their hours slashed with the passage of Initiative 502.  Following the vote, Reuters reported that “prosecutors in Washington state's two most populous counties plan to dismiss scores of misdemeanor marijuana possession cases following passage of a landmark voter initiative earlier this week to legalize pot for adult recreational use.”

Not only are there bomb and drug-sniffing dogs, the Torah recognizes the possibility of idol- sniffing camels! 

The evidence? In this past week’s Torah portion, Avraham’s servant Eliezer arrives at the home of Rivka and is warmly greeted by her brother Lavan, whose hospitality knows no bounds:

 וַיֹּאמֶר, בּוֹא בְּרוּךְ יְהוָה; לָמָּה תַעֲמֹד, בַּחוּץ, וְאָנֹכִי פִּנִּיתִי הַבַּיִת, וּמָקוֹם לַגְּמַלִּים.

And he said, come in, the blessed one of Hashem, why are you standing outside? I have cleaned out the home and a place for the camels.

At first blush, this is a pretty innocent verse: Lavan invites Eliezer in, assuring him that there is plenty of room in his home for both Avraham’s servant and his animals. 

On location, Rashi explains the term פניתי הבית I cleared out the house – as Lavan assuring Eliezer that all traces of idolatry have been removed from the house.  Avot D’Rebbe Natan takes this idea one step further: Lavan is also saying that he has cleared away the idols so that the camels would agree to enter the home.  “I cleared out the house – and a place for the camels – by removing the idols.”  According to Avot D’Rebbe Natan, the camels had previously “sniffed out” the idols and were refusing to enter….. 

So not only are there bomb and drug-sniffing dogs, but there are idol-sniffing camels!

This recalls a Gemara in Tractate Hulin, where we learn of the famous donkey of Rabbi Pinchas Benpinchas Ya’ir: R. Pinchas is on his way on a mission to redeem captives, when he stops at a lodge; the innkeepers place some barley in front of his donkey, but it refuses to eat.  They sift and clean the grain, to no avail; the beast remains recalcitrant!

R. Pinchas asks the innkeepers if they had purchased the barley from someone who may not have tithed the produce; they reply in the affirmative.  R. Pinchas’ response? He reprimands the innkeepers,

“This poor beast is on its way to do the will of its maker, and you are giving it untithed crops? “

The Gemara goes on to question the halachic problem referred to in the story – does one really need to tithe crops fed to animals? It brings a proof that only human food needs tithing.  The Gemara’s resolution? If the crops were initially designated for an animal, they need not be tithed; if they are initially designated for a person - and only later served to an animal - they need tithing. 

The ultimate message of this story?  G-d does not bring about misfortune and transgression through the animals of righteous people – how much moreso does He protect righteous people themselves! In other words, divine intervention prevented the beast from consuming the untithed produce. 

I would like to extract a slightly different point from this piece: When someone is on his way to do a mitzvah, all of his resources, his property: inanimate objects, animals….become subsumed within this mitzvah activity.  The property is viewed as an extension of him.  Just as Hashem wishes to facilitate the performance of mitzvot, He paves the way for all of their resources to aid in that effort.

If that’s the case, then it behooves us to begin to appreciate all of the financial and other resources at our disposal – and to utilize them for the purpose for which they were granted us.

This same concept appears in a Rashi in Perashat Vayishlach.  After Ya’akov crosses over the Nahal Yabok, he returns, and soon engages in the famous wrestling match with the angel.  Grappling with the idea of why Ya’akov would remain alone, Rashi explains that he returned to collect some small earthenware vessels.   At first blush, it seems that Ya’akov Avinu is quite petty!  The deeper understanding, though, is that Ya’akov was aware that every person has a purpose for which he was created; G-d therefore also gives everyone exactly what he needs to carry out his individual mission. These earthenware vessels, as minor as they may seem, Ya’akov saw as essential to fulfilling his life’s work.  Like the donkey of R. Pinchas ben Ya’ir, the vessels of Ya’akov were an extension of him.

This perspective reinforces a very refreshing and inspiring theme that we have developed on previous occasions.  Rambam quotes the verse בכל דרכיך דעהו Know Him in all of your ways…. Should someone, engaged in a mundane activity like shopping, have the intention to purchase and prepare healthy food that will energize him to do more mitzvot– the shopping trip itself becomes an extended mitzvah event! 

Eliezer is an extension of monotheist Avraham and the idol-sniffing camels are an extension of Eliezer; they therefore interact with their reality as would their owner.  

This is also hinted at in R. Pinchas Ben Ya’ir’s words in the Gemara in Tractate Hulin: “This poor beast is on its way to do the will of its maker, and you are giving it untithed crops?” R. Pinchas surely did not believe that this beast had the capacity to appreciate that it was on its way to do the mitzvah of redeeming captives!  Rather, R.  Pinchas was actually saying, “I am using this animal to carry out the will of my Maker…..” 



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obamastormThe theme of this past week seems to have been “storms”: A political storm, in the form of a hotly-contested battle for the Presidency, as the polls show a virtual dead heat; the big storm on the east coast, Hurricane Sandy, that brought with it billions of dollars in damages and claimed dozens of lives; and finally, the storm in this week’s Perasha: the graphic description of the destruction of Sdom and Amora: “God made sulphur and fire rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah - it came from God, out of the sky.  He overturned these cities along with the entire plain, [destroying] everyone who lived in the cities and [all] that was growing from the ground.”

I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on the Torah response to the latter two types of storms.

We’ve mentioned it before, but it’s such a fundamental point, that it bears repeating:

The Netziv, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in his commentary on Sefer Bereishit, asks a basic question: Why would Avraham Avinu, ethicist, the champion of Ancient Near East Monotheism, petition G-d to spare the idolatrous, immoral cities of Sdom and Amora?  Does the survival of these people not run counter to everything that Avraham represents and seeks to accomplish?

Netziv’s answer: Our Avot, our forefathers, were “Yesharim”; they were people who were not just sdmamorahonest and ethical; they were invested in the קיום הבריאה – the maintenance and success of G-d’s creation.  Our forefathers played a key role in the Genesis, the building of the infrastructure of G-d’s world.  Abraham’s intervention on behalf of Sdom and Amora represents just that.

The Netziv’s approach appears in other classical Jewish sources, as well. In his commentary on Pirkei Avot, Rabbenu Yonah states:

שיש לאדם להתפלל על שלום כל העולם ולהצטער על צער של אחרים

A person must pray for the peace of the entire world and feel anguish at the pain of others

In a parallel comment, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook states

Love of People must be alive in our heart and soul – the love of every unique individual.  Also, love of all of the nations, and the desire to see their economic and spiritual well-being.  Hatred must be directed only at the wickedness and impurity of the world.

The thread of Netziv’s approach to Avraham’s prayer on behalf of Sdom and Amorah, then, runs through a variety of our classical sources.

A somewhat different approach is taken by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch.  Sensitive to the nuances of language in the text,

אוּלַי יֵשׁ חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה וְלֹא תִשָּׂא לַמָּקוֹם לְמַעַן חֲמִשִּׁים הַצַּדִּיקִם אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבָּהּ:

Avraham asks if G-d will spare the city on behalf of fifty people “within” the city? G-d’s response utilizes the same language.

Rav Hirsch: A Tzaddik who is בתוך העיר – in the midst of city – rebuking and correcting the behavior of others –  is the type of person Avraham invests in during tefilah.  A smug and self-righteous person, satisfied with his own religious level, would have no interest in getting the locals on a proper moral track.  

My inference from Rav Hirsch is that Avraham’s intervention on behalf of Sdom and Amora did not flow solely from his concern for the קיום הבריאה – the maintenance and success of G-d’s creation; rather, Avraham Avinu seeks signs of life that there is a potential for moral improvement in Sdom.  If there are Tzaddikim who are בתוך העיר  - in the midst of the city, who care about the moral fabric of the town.

What the two approaches do have in common, though, is that they both focus on Avraham Avinu’s commitment to others.

Millions of people, including many members of the Jewish community, were harmed, physically and financially, during Hurricane Sandy.  Though we should have our eyes to the plight of all the victims, our first priority is of course to our fellow Jews.  Before Shabbat, I received two emails: one from the Young Israel synagogue movement, and one from the OU.  Both are reliable organizations, collecting funds to help members of the Jewish community.   Please donate to my discretionary fund and I will direct the funds to these fine organizations. 

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Inheriting the Torah

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torahA Lonely Torah Portion

Perashat Ve'Zot HaBeracha is a lonely Torah portion - unlike the other Perashot Hashavua, it does not have a specific Shabbat; instead, it's read on Simhat Torah as we transition into Sefer Bereshit.  As a result, very few shiurim or sermons are dedicated to the content of Ve'Zot HaBeracha.

A verse familiar to many of us, that every Jewish child of school-age knows is

  תּוֹרָה צִוָּה-לָנוּ, מֹשֶׁה:  מוֹרָשָׁה, קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב

Moshe commanded us the Torah - it is an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob

 A mishna in Pirkei Avot poses a seeming contradiction to the declaration that the Torah is "an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob".  In Chapter Two, Mishna 17, we learn:

Rabbi Yosi said: ....Prepare yourself for the study of the Torah, for the knowledge of it is not yours by inheritance.

Is - or is not - Torah our inheritance? A simple solution: The verse is declaring that we are commanded to follow the mitzvot, such that the phrase מורשה קהילת יעקב simply rephrases the first half of the pasuk, "Moshe commanded us the Torah..." But what new information is conveyed through labeling the Torah as a "morasha" or inheritance?

Also, what does the term "Kehilla" connote?  Why did the Torah not say that the Torah is the inheritance of בית יעקב - the House of Jacob? That expression appears no less than 26 times throughout Tanach?

The Gemara in Tractate Makkot, 24a, approaches our verse from a "Gematria" perspective: The Hebrew word תורה has a numerical value of 611.  Says the Gemara: Moshe Rabeinu commanded us regarding 611 of the mitzvot.  Only the first two of the עשרת הדברות - the Ten Commandments - were conveyed to us by G-d Himself.

Although this is an interesting 'derasha' - we should always pursue a deeper understanding of our sages' intentions.   How does the Gematria calculation fit in with the plain meaning and context of our verse?

So we have three questions:

a) Is the Torah an inheritance or not? How do we reconcile the statement from Pirkei Avot with the verse in Ve'zot Haberacha?
b) What does the term "Kehillat Ya'akov" hope to convey?
c) How should we contextually understand the idea that Moshe commanded us 611 mitzvot, while Hashem conveyed only two?

Sukkot in Auschwitz, 1944

A number of years ago, Rabbi Binny Freedman met Ya'akov, a wealthy businessman from Caracas who was spending Pesach with his family at a hotel in Florida. At one point, Rabbi Freedman asked the man if there was anything in particular that stood out in his mind as the reason he had survived. Without hesitation, he responded: “It was one mitzvah; the sukkot I spent in Auschwitz.  When he was a young man, the Venezuelan Jew had been assigned the job of divvying up daily rations in Auschwitz.

One day, while preparing the rations in the dark winter night, he heard banging on the door of the shed, only to discover a man he recognized as a prominent Torah scholar standing in the snow.  His request? Sukkot started that evening, and the man needed two whole loaves of bread for "lechem mishne"; he promised to only eat a small amount, and to return the bulk of the bread to Ya'akov.

"Even more intriguing," Rabbi Freedman continues, "was how on earth this Rabbi had managed to build a sukkah in Auschwitz-Birkenau. As it turned out, that summer and fall of  1944 the Nazis were bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews in a last-ditch effort to complete the ‘final solution’ before the war would end. In the twisted organizational logic of the lager camps world, the Nazis needed to have additional barracks to hold the new prisoners for labor until they could be exterminated. As such, prisoners were dismantling tiers of bunks in the barracks while rows of bunks were being reconstructed in the central parade ground. Seeing the rows and rows of bunks outdoors and realizing the festival of Sukkot was coming, this rabbi had managed to secure some schach and place it atop some of the boards of the semi-constructed bunks beneath the open sky in such a way as to construct a minimally kosher sukkah (booth) for the festival."

Ya'akov consented to dispense the bread if the rabbi would allow him to join him in the sukkah for a couple of minutes. Despite the risk he would be taking, Ya'akov convinced the rabbi to accede to his request. “So together the two of them, and old Rabbi and a student, risked their lives and sat, for a few brief moments, in a sukkah in Auschwitz."

Both the rabbi and the youngster exhibited "Mesirat Nefesh" - a selfless dedication to their Jewishness - in the face of overwhelming danger, in an atmosphere that should have otherwise generated unbridled despair.

Ramban on Ve’zot Haberacha

This story recalls the commentary of Ramban on Ve'Zot Haberacha.  The verse prior to   תּוֹרָה צִוָּה-לָנוּ, מֹשֶׁה:  מוֹרָשָׁה, קְהִלַּת יַעֲקֹב reads:

ג ... כָּל-קְדֹשָׁיו בְּיָדֶךָ; וְהֵם תֻּכּוּ לְרַגְלֶךָ, יִשָּׂא מִדַּבְּרֹתֶיךָ 

3 .... all His holy ones--they are in Your hand; and they sit down at Your feet, receiving of Your words.


Ramban explains:

  יאמר שהם מוכים בכל מכה במדבר ללכת אחריך בכל אשר תלך, לא יחושו לרעב ולצמאון ומכת נחש ועקרב, רק יצאו לרגליך ואחריך ירוצו וזה כענין שנאמר (ירמיה ב ב) זכרתי לך חסד נעוריך אהבת כלולותיך לכתך אחרי במדבר בארץ לא זרועה

....this means that they were smitten with every kind of affliction in the desert to go after You wherever You go...they are unconcerned with famine, thirst, snakes and scorpions, but follow your lead and run after you, reminiscent of the verse in Jeremiah, "Thus says the LORD: I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your espousals; how you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown....."

This dedication and trust in Hashem generates a commitment that prompts the Jewish people to "carry" Hashem's words on their mouths, meditating on words of Torah at every turn.  This is יִשָּׂא מִדַּבְּרֹתֶיךָ - they will carry Your words.  According to Ramban, the next verse details the words that Israel will carry: "Moshe commanded us the Torah"   It is this "mantra' that will be an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob, says Ramban, as subsequent generations remain forever dedicated to G-d's Torah and Mitzvot.

The juxtaposition of the pesukim teaches us that future commitment stems from bouts of Mesirat Nefesh during 40 years in the desert, and thousands of years later ... in Auschwitz.  Bitachon, trust in Hashem, is bequeathed by committed ancestors to their grandchildren and great grandchildren....

Ramban takes this idea a step further;

 ודרשו רבותינו (מדרש תהלים א), שלא אמר מורשה בית יעקב או זרע יעקב ואמר "קהלת יעקב" לרמז שיקהלו רבים עליהם ותהיה התורה לעולם מורשה ליעקב ולכל הנקהלים עליו, הם הגרים הנלוים על ה' לשרתו ונספחו על בית יעקב, ונקראו כלם קהלתו

Our sages taught: It does not say "the inheritance of the House of Jacob" or "the seed of Jacob", but the "congregation of Jacob" - to hint that many people will congregate and join them, such that the Torah will forever be an inheritance for Jacob and all those that "congregate to and join them" - these are the converts that come to serve Hashem and become part of the House of Jacob; they are called its "congregation"...

Ramban's citation of this midrash accentuates the power of the commitment and trust that fuels the eternal utterance of "Moshe commanded us the Torah.."  Although we do not, as a matter of course, proselytize, the pure power of our commitment has a magnetic quality that attracts others in the Jewish community...and beyond.  This is the concept of "Kehillat Ya'akov".

Returning to the Gematria and to R. Yosi

In addition to trust in Hashem, a healthy dose of humility perpetuates Torah and attracts others to Jewish practice and belief.  Perhaps this is the context of the Gemara which notes that Moshe commanded 611 of the 613 mitzvot.  Our level of prophecy at Matan Torah was not sufficiently developed to allow us to hear the mitzvot from Hashem directly; we begged Moshe to serve as an intermediary...

With this, maybe we can reconcile R. Yosi's comment in Pirkei Avot, "Prepare yourself for the study of the Torah, for the knowledge of it is not yours by inheritance." Rabbeinu Yonah understands R. Yosi as stressing the need to develop the kind of character traits that will facilitate the internalizing and retention of Torah.  Only  when we do that, can we inherit the Torah - and transmit it to subsequent generations.  This is the message of the "611 Gematria"; it's also the message of the Ramban and of the rabbi and his student on that fateful Sukkkot in Auschwitz.

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Speechless on Shemini Atzeret !

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speechlessWhat more can be said? After the intense season of the Yamim Nora'im, I am speechless.

But that's very appropriate because today - Shemini Atzeret - is a Hag that is void of specific mitzvot and minhagim. Aside from the laws of Yom Tov - there is nothing particular that the Torah instructs us to do on Shemini Atzeret. In Eretz Yisrael, where there is only one day of Yom Tov at the conclusion of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret merges with Simhat Torah. So the hakafot, the dancing with the Torah, that we will be engaging in tomorrow evening, takes place on the night and during the day of Shemini Atzeret ; although the Torah does not offer specific mitzvot, the Israel version of Shemini Atzeret is filled with the customs we identify with Simhat Torah.

So I am speechless, because I stand before you to discuss a mitzvah-less and minhag-less holiday!

That said, I would like to share with you an approach that I think helps explain the seeming vacuum left by Shemini Atzeret. It starts with that classic Jewish text, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"!

In chapter seven, Steven Covey (alav Hashalom!) tells the story of writer Arthur Gordon.

In a story called “The Turn of the Tide,” Arthur Gordon describes a time when he found his sevenhabitsworld stale and flat. His enthusiasm for life waned, and he was getting worse daily.  A medical doctor found nothing physically wrong with him, but said he might be able to help if Gordon could follow his instructions for one day. He was to spend the next day in the place where he’d been happiest as a child. He was not to talk to anyone, nor to read, write, or listen to the radio. The doctor then wrote out four prescriptions and told him to open one at 9a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 6 p.m.

The next morning, Gordon went to the beach. His first prescription said only this: “Listen carefully.” After some time, Gordon began to hear more and more sounds that weren’t obvious at first. He began to think of lessons he’d learned as a child from the sea: patience, respect for the interdependence of things. He felt a growing peace. The noon prescription read, “Try reaching back.” To what? He thought of the joyful times of his childhood, and felt a growing warmth inside.

The 3 p.m. message was “Examine your motives.” At first, he was defensive. Of course he wanted success, fame, security - he could justify them all. But then it occurred to him that these motives weren’t good enough, and that fact was making him stagnant. “It makes no difference,” he wrote later, “whether you are a mailman, a hairdresser, a housewife - whatever. As long as you feel you are serving others, you do the job well. When you are concerned only with helping yourself you do it less well .."  When 6 p.m. came, the final prescription didn’t take long to fill: “Write your worries on the sand.” He knelt and wrote several words with a piece of broken shell; then he turned and walked away. He didn’t look back; he knew the tide would come in.

The message of course, is that once you have reconnected to the attributes of patience and respect, have tuned in to the positive dimensions of your upbringing, recommited yourself to the value of serving others, many of the problems that preoccupy you can be put into perspective. Quality reflection helps a person appreciate the transitory nature of many of our challenges.

With this in mind, I would like to share with you an approach to the lack of mitzvot and minhagim on Shemini Atzeret. Onkelos understands the term "Atzeret" to mean a gathering. Quoted in an article by Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky, the great German-Jewish scholar Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch articulates what constitutes the unique "gathering" of this Hag:

“We accordingly think we are not wrong if we take azteret to designate a day which is not fixed to bring new lessons and new truths for us all to accept and assimilate, but which has the mission to keep us still before the Presence of God – with this the idea of עצירה ממלאכה would certainly apply – to strengthen and solidify the impressions and knowledge we have already gained, so that they remain with us permanently, and do not become lost in the hurly-burly of life….The purpose of azteret is accomplished by our realizing once again all that we have gained by the festival, and by the firm resolution not to allow ourselves to be robbed in the turmoil and struggle and work our lives of what we have won….Shmini Atzeret would come to tell us, once again to summarize and gather to ourselves all the thoughts and messages and resolutions which the moadim of the whole year have brought to us and to resolve to persevere and hold fast to them before God, To impress them so deeply in our hearts that they become an unassailable part of ourselves which cannot become lost in the course of the ordinary run of our yearly life on which we are now entering.."

Put another way, the absence of mitzvot and minhagim is deliberate - in order to provide us a time for reflection as we usher out the Yamim Nora'im, the High Holidays. What struck a chord with each of us? Was it the acceptance of Hashem's dominion over the world on Rosh Hashana, the cleansing power of Yom Kippur - or the sense of trust in G-d that we absorbed during Sukkot? Some blend of the themes and emotions of the Hagim?

There are no mitzvot or minhagim on Shemni Atzeret, and no rabbi can stand in front of you and tell you what to think or feel on this day - because, by definition, it is an intensely personal day, a time for each of us to gather in and assimilate our thoughts and feelings.

Once we have engaged in this contemplative process, we can then approach Simhat Torah. With a sense of renewal, we can now direct ourselves to finding our place under the broad umbrella of a commitment to Torah and Mitzvot.

The joy of Simhat Torah comes from a sense that: 

אחד המרבה
Whether you do a lot
ואחד הממעיט
...or a little
ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים
..as long as you direct your heart towards heaven..

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A World of Clarity - Yom Kippur 5773

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About fourteen years ago, we received a call toward the end of the week saying that the yishuv
(BetEl) where we lived at the time, was making a fundraising video and they needed to capture a family “making Kiddush” on Friday night. Of course, the filming could not take place on Shabbat itself – so it would have to happen before Shabbat. Our mazal, the Meyers family was picked as the feature family! Since candle lighting was slated for 7 pm that week, I asked that the videographer come at 6:45 pm. “He needs at least an hour,” came the reply. “Please be ready by 6 pm….”

Now, most Friday afternoons we worked down to the wire…showering up to candle lighting time. Once we heard that the video man would be there at six o’clock, we rushed to cook and shower – and were waiting by the door by five minutes to six!  When Hashem needed us to be ready by a certain time, we’d been waiting till the last minute, but when a human being says be ready by six, we’re early…

This incident helped me appreciate the tendency of our sages to say, “If you would respond this way to an earthly King…how much more so to G-d, the King of Kings…”  I have since made an effort to understand my relationship to G-d based on simple daily experiences.

In the past, a few of our discussions have been triggered by sporting events.  I am not going to presume everyone is interested in or follows sports, but something happened on Monday night – less than 24 hours before Yom Kippur, that got me thinking.

goldentateSeattle’s football team, the Seahawks, were losing by five points to the Green Bay Packers.  It was the last play of the game and there were eight seconds left to play in the game.  Seattle’s Quarterback, Wilson, in an act of desperation, hurls the ball to the end zone, in – you’ll excuse the term – a “Hail Mary” pass - over the goal line of Green Bay. The Seattle receiver, Tate, surrounded by three members of the opposing team, gets his hand on the ball and thereupon engages in a furious struggle with one of those defenders. As the two fall to the ground, one referee, one judge - signals that the pass was intercepted by Green Bay; the other referee has the opposite reaction, he signals that Tate had caught the ball, scoring for Seattle.

After the dust had cleared, the referees upheld the view of the second judge, and – a touchdown for Seattle.  One of the rules of NFL football is that a simultaneous catch goes to the offense.

Now, if you look at the replay, not only was there lack of clarity and confusion between the refs, but it seems that the final decision was actually incorrect:  It seems that the defensive player had full control of the ball.  Many have attributed the poor call to the fact that the NFL has locked out the permanent staff of referees due to a contract dispute.  

The game, and its timing led to several Pre-Yom Kippur discussions on the internet. Someone designed the following e-card:


Another blogger wrote: “Good thing Yom Kippur starts tonight: NFL owners can atone for their sins.”

Even President Obama took time off from his busy schedule Monday night to relate to the game; according to Bloomberg Business Week, 

President Barack Obama said a controversial ruling by officials at the end of last night’s National Football League game was “terrible” and shows why the league should settle a dispute with the union representing referees. “I’ve been saying for months we’ve got to get our refs back,” Obama said ....

The message for Yom Kippur?  The fallibility of human judgment.  Angry as some are with the replacement referees, a similar incident could have taken place with the permanent referees.  We are mere flesh and blood.

On Rosh Hashana, G-d’s judgment is exact. Before G-d, all is clear, precise, transparent.  

We have an opportunity to have our judgment held in abeyance until Yom Kippur, but today, Ne’ila, marks the end of the period of grace…  

We have been given a Torah with clear directives, and with clear priorities.  For Rabbi Shelomo Wolbe in his book, “Alei Shur”, the Jew has been gifted an  עולם ברור – a world of clarity. The Torah establishes clear values and priorities that at times may not necessarily jibe with the those of the society around us.  In fact, the Talmud (Pesachim 50a) tells a story of Rav Yosef ¸who became ill “fainted and his soul departed. After some time he returned to life.  His father R’ Yehoshua asked him what he saw. He replied, “I saw an upside down world. People who were considered important in this world are not held in high esteem in that world, and people considered lowly in this world were elevated in that world.”  A follow-up midrash (Ruth Rabba 3:1) records that Rav Maysha, the son of R. Yosef,  was dead for three days!  (Maybe the reference is to a coma, and not literal/clinical death…) Rav Yosef asked his son what he’d witnessed in the World-to-Come; he offered a similar report.  

So not only does G-d have an objective, clear assessment of our actions, He allows us to partner with him in the process by giving us His Torah.   Our Torah’s system of values and the accompanying mitzvot present us with a way of life that has ultimate meaning; these values are clear and constant, whether or not they are completely embraced by broader society.  

This theme of “birur” – clarity is very prevalent in Jewish sources.  A well-known verse in the 24th chapter of Tehilim,  reads,

“Who shall ascend to the mountain of G-d? Who shall stand in His holy place? One who has clean hands and a pure heart.”  In other words, only an honest person can forge a close relationship with G-d.  The midrash, however, has a different reading of the Hebrew term בר לבב; instead of someone with a “pure heart”, the midrash understands the term בר as associated with the word ברור – clear.  It cites Moshe Rabeinu, our teacher Moshe, as a prime example of someone who strove for clarity.  Instead of jumping at the opportunity to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, Moshe politely insists that G-d clarify the many details of this mission: “When they ask who sent me, what should I tell them?”  Moshe’s predisposition towards clarity continues with his appreciation of the value of transparency for leaders.   According to the midrash, Moshe heard murmurings after collecting donations for the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, in the desert; some began to accuse Moshe of diverting funds for his own personal use instead of investing them in the building of the Mishkan.  What did Moshe do? He immediately appointed Itamar to run an audit; guiding Moshe is a love of clarity and transparency.   Upon hearing G-d’s plan to eradicate Sodom and Gemora, Avraham asks, “Will the Judge of the entire world not act justly?” Avraham surely believed that G-d is just – but needed to internalize, to “own” the Divine logic for himself. Before he could accept the decision, he needed to have the logic clarified.

This focus on clarity and transparency has important ramifications for our Yom Kippur experience: What are we doing in Kahal on this, the holiest day of the year? 

I would like to submit to you that we must look at Yom Kippur as a day of self-audit.  Our Torah has given us clear guidelines in both the realms of Ben Adam L’makom – laws between Man and G-d, and Ben Adam L’chavero – laws between man and his fellow. 

This internal audit may include the following kinds of questions: “Have I engaged in conversations this past year in which I allowed myself to be drawn into discussions about others that could be classified as Lashon Hara, gossip that reflects poorly on others?  Am I still perhaps holding a grudge against someone else; have I allowed difficulties with certain people to percolate under the surface, with no closure in sight?

In the realm of laws between myself and G-d – we regularly mention the centrality of the two cornerstones of Shabbat and Kashrut observance:  With all of the resources available teaching us how to connect to Shabbat – are we making an effort to join the Kahal for Shabbat Tefilot; are we careful to recite Kiddush and a prepare meal in honor of Shabbat on Friday evening and Shabbat day? When it comes to Kashrut, the Torah has provided us with clear guidelines on permitted and forbidden foods; just as we must take care of what comes out of our mouths, we have to ensure that we are more aware of what comes into our mouths – both at home and outside the home….

We have a tradition that emphasizes the value of clarity and transparency; let each of us use the time that we have left on Yom Kippur to engage ourselves in this personal, private self-audit!



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Felix, Melky, and Kosher Fish

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After several weeks in Israel, last week, I once again went through a bit of culture shock upon my return to America. The headlines in the respective newspapers of the two countries are so vastly different!  Israelis are of course fixated on the Iranian threat, while American newsmen prophesy about the upcoming elections. 

felixHere in Seattle, last week's topic was the hot summer weather.  And at the top of the headlines: Felix's Perfect Game.

Until this past week, I had never heard of the concept of a perfect game. Back in my home and native land (Canada) hockey and football are popular; we Canadians have minimal interest in baseball.

But I am now enlightened. I now know that a Perfect Game is not synonymous with a no-hitter.  In a perfect game, the pitcher retires each and every batter, without even giving up a walk!

By the middle of the eighth inning in the Seattle-Tampa Bay matchup,  Felix Hernandez had faced and disposed of 24 consecutive batters.  The announcer declared : "One inning until immortality". 

After the contest, the New York Times reported:

"Hernandez Latest to Achieve Perfection, to Fans’ Delight."

Rabbi Chanan Morrison reviews the approaches of Rambam and Rabbeinu Bachaye on man’s striving for perfection:

According to Maimonides, human perfection is attained though the faculties of reason and intellect. Our goal is to gain enlightenment and knowledge of the Divine, through the study of Torah and metaphysics…..By hiding his face at the burning bush, Moses lost a golden opportunity to further his understanding of the spiritual realm. If our fundamental purpose in life is to seek enlightenment, Moses' demonstration of humility was out of place.

The author of Chovot HaLevavot ('Duties of the Heart'), however, wrote that our true objective is the perfection of character traits and ethical behavior….What Moses gained in sincere humility and genuine awe of Heaven at the burning bush outweighed any loss of knowledge. Since the overall goal is ethical perfection, Moses' action was proper, and he was justly rewarded with a radiant aura of brilliant light, a reflection of his inner nobility.

In the sports and entertainment-focused society that is 21st century America, we vicariously live through the achievements of great athletes.  As much as we admire those who excel in the realms of the intellectual and ethical, the Perfect Game of Felix Hernandez is often the closest we come to internalizing the exhilarating drive for perfection. 

I think I have watched the final pitch of the game, Felix’s flinging his arms heavenward, at least a dozen times.  Though I try to avoid clichés, it was truly….. a magical moment.


We are now in Hodesh Elul, less than a month before Rosh Hashanah. It’s a time of reflection and self-assessment: We each have to ask ourselves how far we have come in connecting to G-d, whether through the intellectually challenging and spiritually uplifting study of Torah, or through our Mitzvah performance. 

Question: How close have we come to connecting to G-d, the ultimate Perfection?

This past week’s Torah portion was Re’eh.  One aliyah is devoted to the laws of Kashrut; specifically: the signs that differentiate kosher from non-kosher animals, including cattle and wild animals, birds and fish.

Our classical commentaries have struggled to understand the significance of the criteria the Torah sets forth: Why do cattle have to possess split hooves and chew their cud? Why do fish need fins and scales?

A unique approach to the question of kosher fish appears in the works of the late great Lubavitcherfscales Rebbe:  Back in 1941, the Rebbe explained:

As the armor that protects the body of the fish, scales represent the quality of integrity, which protects us from the many pitfalls that life presents. A man of integrity will not deceive his customers, in spite of the financial profits involved. He will not lie to a friend, despite the short-term gain from doing so. He will not cheat on his wife, in the face of tremendous temptation. Integrity means that one has absolute standards of right and wrong and is committed to a morality that transcends one’s moods and desires. Integrity preserves our souls from temptation. Fins, the wing-like organs that propel fish forward, represent ambition. A healthy sense of ambition, knowing one’s strengths and wanting to utilize them in full, gives a person the impetus to traverse the turbulent sea of life and to maximize his or her G d-given potential. It propels us to fulfill our dreams and leave our unique imprint on the world.

Rabbi Yosef Jacobson cites the Talmudic principle that all fish that have fins also have scales.  But the reverse is not the case:

Symbolically, this means that a human being who possesses ambition but lacks integrity is “unkosher.” Such a person may be full of confidence, driven to make an impact on society. Yet educating ambitious and confident children does not guarantee their moral health.

As we strive for perfection in our professional and personal lives, as we exercise those fins that propel us forward, we cannot run roughshod over those values and behaviors that preserve our integrity. 

This message is a meaningful approach to the new year.

The tension between integrity and ambition is quite evident in baseball. One theme that came out in the wake of Felix’s perfect game was his personal integrity and commitment to be a team player and a leader:

"Felix knows the game and he respects the game," Seattle manager Eric Wedge said. "He's our leader. To get 27 outs like that, you need a little bit of luck. But he also has the intangibles that separate him from the rest. That's the kind of teammate he is."

This stands in sharp contrast to another Major league player.  Ironically, on the exact same day as Felix pitched his perfect game -  August 15 – Giant’s outfielder Melky Cabrera was suspended 50 games without pay after testing positive for high levels of testosterone, suggesting usage of performance-enhancing drugs. cabreraHe admitted using a banned substance and accepted the suspension.  One of Cabrera's associates purchased a website for $10,000 and faked its contents in a way that would have allowed Cabrera to challenge his suspension by claiming that the positive test was caused by a substance sold through the website. However league officials and federal investigators used forensics to trace that website back to Cabrera.  (Wikpedia).

Cabrera’s suspension is predicted to seriously harm the Giants as the playoffs approach.

Using the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s framework, Felix Hernandez could be seen as someone whose scales are in place; he has a team-centered focus that serves as a springboard for his “fins” to thrust him forward.  Melky Cabrera is preoccupied with his own success, with a focus on “fins” over “scales”….

(I couldn't resist):

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