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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Death of the Heretic — BT Chagigah 15b (part 2) — #105

When Acher (Elisha b. Abuya) died, they said [in heaven], “We cannot judge him (i.e., consign him to punishment in Gehenna) and we cannot bring him into the World to Come. We cannot judge him because he engaged in Torah study and we cannot bring him into the World to Come because he sinned.” R. Meir said, “It would be better to judge him [and punish him accordingly] so he will [then] enter the World to Come. When I die, I will raise smoke from his grave.” When R. Meir died, a pillar of smoke rose from Acher’s grave. 
 R. Yochanan said, “Is it a mighty deed to burn his teacher? There was one among us—can we not save him? If I take him by the hand, who will take him from me?” R. Yochanan said, “When I die, I will extinguish the smoke from his grave.” When R. Yochanan died, the pillar of smoke rising from Acher’s grave ceased. A certain speaker [at R. Yochanan’s funeral] began his eulogy for [R. Yochanan], “Even the watchman at the entrance [of Gehenna] did not stand before you, our teacher.”

In TMT #104, we met Elisha b. Abuya. In rabbinic literary tradition, Elisha came to be the quintessential heretic or apostate. When and how Elisha came to be viewed as a heretic or apostate is an interesting question, particularly because we lack any historical data to support this view of Elisha’s life. However, the historicity (or lack of same) of Elisha’s heresy is not a  question we will address here. Rather, we follow Sages’ story of what happened after his death and what that story reveals.

Heresy is defined as beliefs that controvert the established beliefs of a religious organization or authority; apostasy is the renunciation or criticism of established religious beliefs.

The Rabbis held that after one dies, they face judgment by a heavenly tribunal that weighs their good deeds against their bad deeds. If punishment is warranted, they are consigned to a stint in Gehenna (purgatory) to pay their debt, after which they enjoy their reward in the World to Come (olam ha-ba). For the heavenly court, Elisha is a confounding case: the merit he accrued during his life by studying and teaching Torah is so great that it mitigates against punishment in Gehenna, but his sin (which is not here unspecified—we are supposed to “know”) is so great that he cannot be brought to the World to Come. As a result, Elisha remains in a limbo that is both untenable for the rabbinic system of thought and intolerable for his student and advocate, R. Meir, who says that far preferable to limbo would be for Elisha b. Abuya to be punished in Gehenna so he could pay for his sins and then enter the World to Come. It is unclear why heaven could not arrive at the same conclusion: rather than refraining from punishing him because of his merit, and refraining from rewarding him due to his sin, punish him for his sin and reward him for his merit. Heaven’s inaction suggests that Elisha b. Abuya was unique: one whose Torah scholarship was so great and whose heresy was so complete.

In an effort to end his teacher’s limbo, R. Meir explains that when he dies, he will cause smoke to rise up from Elisha’s grave as a signal for those in this world to see that his advocacy in heaven on behalf of Elisha—that Elisha be punished and then sent to the World to Come—had succeeded.  

The process begun by R. Meir is completed by R. Yochanan. Elisha b. Abuya’s limbo—marking his ostracism from the Jewish community in general, and the rabbinic community in particular—is ended when R. Yochanan forcefully escorts him from Gehenna, presumably to his reward in the World to Come.

More than a century later, R. Meir’s rescue of Elisha b. Abuya from limbo is completed when R. Yochanan escorts him from Gehenna to his reward in the World to Come. Observing that smoke continues to rise from Elisha’s grave, R. Yochanan observes that all Meir has accomplished thus far is to “burn his teacher.” His criticism is not truly directed at R. Meir; it is intended for the community of rabbis, of whom Elisha b. Abuya was part, who failed to “save” him in life, and now fail to advocate for him in death. Therefore, R. Yochanan promises, when he dies, he will complete the task of escorting Elisha to his reward in the World to Come. 

After R. Yochanan dies, the pillar of smoke ceases, signaling his success in securing Elisha’s release from Gehenna to the World to Come. This inspires R. Yochanan’s eulogizer to note that even the guard at the entrance to Gehenna could not prevent the powerful sage from escorting Elisha b. Abuya out.

  1. Just as divine reward and punishment run through the Bible (see, for example, Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28) so, too, Gehenna and the World to Come, classic elements of rabbinic theology, bespeak heavenly punishment and reward, respectively, after death. What questions and concerns do the presumption of Gehenna and the World to Come answer? Do you believe there is judgment, purgatory, and heavenly reward after life?
  2. Most people are a combination of positive and negative traits, good and bad deeds. Some might consider a person righteous while others might condemn the same person as evil. R. Meir is convinced that Elisha’s goodness outweighs his sin and advocates on his behalf. What does this story teach about finding the good in people? Do you look for the good in people even when it may be challenging to find?
  3. R. Yochanan focuses on the community’s responsibility for Elisha. What does his viewpoint suggest about the role a community should play in a person’s life?

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Heretic — BT Chagigah 15a, b (part 1) — #104

The Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: An incident concerning Acher [sobriquet for Elisha b. Abuya) who was riding a horse on shabbat as R. Meir walked behind in order to learn Torah from his mouth. [Elisha] said to [R. Meir], “Meir, turn back for I have calculated by the footsteps of my horse that the shabbat boundary is here.” [R. Meir] said to him, “You, too, turn back!” [Elisha] said to him, “Haven’t I already told you that I have heard from behind the partition, ‘Return, rebellious children (Jeremiah 3:14, 22)—except Acher.’” [R. Meir] grabbed hold of him and thrust him into a bet midrash (study house). [Elisha] said to a young child, “Tell me your verse.” [The child] said to him, “There is no peace for the wicked, says Adonai (Isaiah 48:22).” [R. Meir] brought him to another synagogue. [Elisha] said to a young child, “Tell me your verse.” [The child] said to him, “Even if you wash with niter and much soap, your iniquity remains a stain before Me (Jeremiah 2:22).” [R. Meir] brought him to another synagogue. [Elisha] said to a young child, “Tell me your verse.” [The child] said to him, “And you who are doomed to ruin, what do you accomplish by wearing crimson, by decking yourself in jewels of gold, by enlarging your eyes with kohl? You beautify yourself in vain: [Lovers despise you, they seek your life!] (Jeremiah 4:30) [R. Meir] brought [Elisha] to another synagogue until he had brought him into thirteen synagogues.

It is common fare for cultural and political groups to establish boundaries concerning what is appropriate in-group behavior or thinking by telling stories about those who transgress the norms. The classic Jewish example is Elisha b. Abuya, the teacher of R. Meir, who is said to have left the rabbinic circle and become a heretic or an apostate. Early rabbinic literature uses his name, but the Babylonian Talmud refers to him by the pejorative “Acher” (the Other, or Outsider). Explanations abound concerning why Elisha turned away from Judaism: he became an atheist; he became a gnostic; he was swayed by Greek philosophy—each highly speculative and without historical foundation. Tractate Chagigah spends a good deal of time telling stories about Elisha, but goes beyond excoriating him to ask: What about the Torah he taught? If the community rejects Elisha, must it turn its back on his Torah, as well? The stories about Elisha broach another serious question: Does Elisha’s sin wipe away the merit of his study of Torah and the portion in olam ha-ba he earned through study?

The Gemara preserves a highly symbolic and meticulously composed story about an interaction between R. Meir and his beloved teacher Elisha b. Abuya. One shabbat, Elisha is riding a horse in violation of a Torah commandment. What is more, he travels beyond the shabbat techum (travel limit of ~.6 mile from the city border), a violation of a rabbinic commandment. In a scene redolent with contradictions and irony, although Elisha has left the rabbinic circle and no longer adheres to halakhah, he is nonetheless keenly aware of its limits and warns R. Meir lest he violate them. Apparently, R. Meir is distracted by the Torah he is learning from the mouth of “Acher,” who still teaches his favorite student despite his own personal lack of faith and commitment.

When Elisha warns R. Meir to “turn back” and not transgress the physical shabbat boundary, R. Meir uses the same words metaphorically to implore his beloved teacher to spiritually “turn back” to Judaism. Elisha responds that he has already heard from beyond the Divine screen that separates heaven and earth that Jeremiah’s promise that Israel would return to God does not include him. R. Meir, unwilling to accept Elisha’s application of the verse from Jeremiah to himself, hauls Elisha into a nearby school where young children are studying. What follows is a long passage, from which I have excerpted the initial anecdotes, which follow the same pattern: Elisha asks a random child to recite the verse he is learning, which turns out to be prophetic for  him. This is called cledonism, a form of divination common in classical antiquity, that is based on chance events or encounters, including words uttered (in this case, verses). The passage recounts that R. Meir took Elisha to thirteen different schools, in each of which Elisha asks a random child what he is learning. The verses mentioned (Isaiah 48:22 and Jeremiah 2:22 and 4:30 above, and further on Psalm 50:16) are all understood to condemn Elisha as wicked and assert that there is no hope of his returning to the rabbinic fold or reconciling with God. In the final anecdote (not included above), the child mumbles and Elisha mishears the child’s recitation of Psalm 50:16. Rather than hearing V’la’rasha (“But to the wicked”), Elisha hears V’le-Elisha (“But to Elisha”), confirming for Elisha that there is no path back to God and the rabbinic community.

  1. How is it possible for Elisha, who rejects the theological premises of Judaism, to continue to teach Torah to his beloved student, R. Meir? How is it possible for R. Meir to accept Elisha’s teachings as legitimate Torah? Is the righteousness of the source the measure of wisdom’s value? Can a highly imperfect vessel convey wisdom? How should we think about and treat the art, music, inventions, and scientific research of people we deem morally repugnant? (Consider the music of Wagner and the research data of Nazi scientists.)
  2. Elisha considers himself beyond repentance. Do you think his statement that when Jeremiah proclaimed in God’s name, Return, rebellious children that an exception was made for him reflects Elisha’s emotional and spiritual state, Talmud’s way of saying that God has deemed Elisha beyond return, or the Rabbis’ judgment of Elisha? Does the way Elisha mishears Psalm 50:16 support one or another of these possible interpretations? 
  3. Is there anyone who is beyond repentance? If so, how would you know when to give up on a person? What is the danger of giving up on people? The context of the story of Elisha b. Abuya is the religious realm—it involves heresy or apostasy. Consider  prisoners convicted of violent crimes: Are people who commit acts of violence beyond redemption? Should we constrict prisons to sequester, punish, rehabilitate, or some combination?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Power of Compassion — BT Baba Metzia 85a — #103

Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] said, “How precious is suffering!” He accepted upon himself thirteen years [of suffering]: six years of kidney stones and seven years of scurvy, and some say seven years of scurvy and six years of kidney stones. The stableman at Rabbi’s house was wealthier than King Shapur [of Persia]. When he would throw fodder to the animals, the noise [they made] could be heard three miles away. He would arrange to throw [fodder to the animals] just as Rabbi entered the bathroom. Even so, [Rabbi’s] cries were louder than the noise [of the animals] and were heard by seafarers. Nevertheless, the suffering of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon was greater than that of Rabbi, for whereas those of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon came through love and departed through love, those of Rabbi came as the result of a certain incident and departed as the result of an incident. [His sufferings] came as the result of a certain incident—what was this? A calf was being led to slaughter. It tried to hide in the folds of Rabbi’s garment and it lowed. He said to it, “Go, for this you were created.” They said [in heaven], “Since he does not show mercy, let suffering come upon him.” And [his sufferings] departed as the result of an incident—one day, Rabbi’s maidservant was sweeping the house. There were baby weasels there and she [intended] to sweep them away. [Rabbi] said to her, “Leave them be. It is written, [God’s] tender mercies are upon all [God’s] creatures (Psalm 145:9).” They said [in heaven], “Since he shows compassion, let us show compassion to him.”

Human suffering is both ubiquitous and troubling. It is therefore unsurprising that the Rabbis frequently discuss why it happens, what it means, and how to cope with it.  Given the limited physical and mental health options in the ancient world to alleviate suffering, the Rabbis’ capacity to mitigate suffering lay in their ability to reframe it, often in positive terms. Hence, viewing suffering as a gift from God that will be repaid many times over is one strategy employed by the Rabbis to explain suffering. This passage, however, suggests that suffering can be God’s punishment for offensive behavior—here, a failure of compassion.

For the Rabbis, suffering could be punishment from heaven, 
atonement for sin, or it could be a gift from God that will be repaid with interest.

The passage above follows a long treatise on the self-inflicted sufferings of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon and the merit that accrued to him for accepting these sufferings willingly: after he died, his body lay in an attic for many years without decomposing (84b). Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi (whom Gemara refers to as “Rabbi”) understands this to be a sign of R. Elazar’s greatness.

Having seen that suffering marked R. Elazar as righteous, Rabbi pronounces suffering “precious” and seeks to accept upon himself suffering to gain similar merit in the eyes of God. The nature of his suffering is disputed: tz’mirta means stones in the kidneys or urinary tract; tz’farna is understood as scurvy or thrush. The precise length of each ailment is less important than the claim that Rabbi brought it upon himself willingly and that his pain was so intense that his cries of agony were louder than the intensely loud noise made by the animals, whose keeper provoked them to make noise in order to drown out Rabbi’s cries of pain—all this functions to inform the reader that Rabbi suffered greatly.

The Gemara then undercuts the claim that Rabbi accepted suffering willingly by comparing the merit of his suffering unfavorably to that of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon. Whereas R. Elazar’s suffering came about through love (that is, he accepted suffering as a token of God’s love), Rabbi’s suffering came about, and also ceased, due to particular incidents. What were the incidents? Both involved Rabbi’s attitude toward the suffering of animals: His failure to show compassion toward a calf being hauled to slaughter compounded by his callous and erroneous claim that the animal existed only to become food for human beings provoked heaven to punish him with suffering. This is divine retribution: middah k’neged middah (measure for measure). The incident that ended Rabbi’s suffering is the appropriate bookend to the onset of his suffering: when he treats mere weasels with compassion and saves them from his maidservant’s broom, and even more when he quotes Psalm 145:9 as not merely descriptive of God’s compassion toward living creatures but as prescriptive for people’s obligation to show compassion for all animals, he demonstrates that he has repented the fault that brought on his suffering. Therefore heaven repays his compassion to the weasels by showing him compassion—his suffering ceases.

  1. How do you view suffering? Do you consider it a natural part of life that is divorced from questions of behavior and righteousness? Do you think it results from ethical choices and behaviors? Do you believe it is an objective experience or a state of mind? Given your answers to these questions, how should one who holds your views approach their own suffering?
  2. The Rabbis had ample opportunity to observe the residue of suffering on the soul. Does it leave one more compassionate and resilient, or more fearful and bitter? What has been your experience of suffering? Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have written about the possibility of positive personal growth in the aftermath of painful trauma, which they term “post-traumatic growth.” This includes “improved relationships, new possibilities for one's life, a greater appreciation for life, a greater sense of personal strength and spiritual development.” Have you witnessed this in someone else or experienced it in yourself?
  3. Why do you think that the story about Rabbi portrays a failure of compassion as the cause of suffering and the development of compassion as the “cure” of suffering? Is there an inherent connection between suffering and compassion?

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Eat Together, Bless Separately? — BT Berakhot 45b — #102

Yehudah bar Mereimar, Mar bar Rav Ashi, and Rav Acha of Difti ate a meal together. No one of them was more distinguished than his fellows to lead the blessing for them [i.e., Birkat ha-Mazon, the grace after meals]. They said, “Concerning that which was taught in the Mishnah—‘Three who ate together are obligated to join in zimum [the formal invitation by one of a group that ate together for the others to join in the blessings of Birkat ha-Mazon]—this pertains only when one person is distinguished. But where all are equal to one another separate blessings is preferable.” [Hence] each person recited Birkat ha-Mazon for himself. [Later] they came before Mereimar. He said to them, “You have fulfilled the obligation of Birkat ha-Mazon, but you have not fulfilled the obligation of the zimun. And if you say, ‘We’ll go back and say the zimun,’ there is no retroactive zimun.”

On this basis of Deuteronomy 8:10 (When you have eaten and been satisfied, you shall blessed Adonai your God for the good land that God has given you ), the Rabbis ordained and composed Birkat ha-Mazon, a series of blessings to be recited after eating a meal that includes bread. The three sages named above are discussing the zimun of Birkat ha-Mazon. The zimun is the invitation by one person, extended to dining companions, to recite Birkat ha-Mazon. The Rabbis ordained (M Berakhot 7:1, on the previous daf) that when three people eat bread together, they are obligated to join in a zimun, whereby one person “invites” the others to recite Birkat ha-Mazon. The Gemara on 45a explains that Rav Assi derived the obligation of zimun from Psalm 34:4 and R. Abahu derived it from Deuteronomy 32:3, but many authorities hold that the zimun is a rabbinic, not Toraitic, obligation.

The basic structure of Birkat ha-Mazon is four blessings preceded by the zimun. The Talmud explains these blessings on daf 48b as the Rabbis’ interpretation of the Deuteronomy 8:10: (1) When you have eaten and been satisfied you shall bless praise for God who sustains the world with food (blessing #1); (2) Adonai your God the zimun; (3) for the land thanks to God with special focus on the land of Israel, the source of Israel’s sustenance (blessing #2); (4) good → request that God protect and rebuild Jerusalem (blessing #3); (5) that God has given you → general praise of and thanks to God (blessing #4). (Additional short blessings have been added to Birkat ha-Mazon, as well as blessings for shabbat and festivals.) 

An anecdote is recounted concerning three rabbis who eat a meal together but recite Birkat ha-Mazon privately. They do not say the zimun, that is, no one invites the others to recite Birkat ha-Mazon. Gemara wants to know why they neglect the zimun. They explain their decision saying they believe that the Mishnah’s requirement of zimun pertains only when one of the people present is acknowledged as a greater Torah scholar than the others.

Rav’s students were sitting [and eating] a meal together. Rav Acha came [and joined them]. They said, “A great man has come who will recite for us [i.e., lead the zimun]. [Rav Acha] said to them, “Do you think that the greatest one blesses [i.e., leads Birkat ha-Mazon]? A primary member of the meal blesses.” But the halakhah is that the greatest one blesses even though he came at the end [of the meal]. (BT Berakhot 47a)

It may be that the three colleagues have in mind another incident recounted on Berakhot 47a (see above), in which Rav’s students are eating a meal together when Rav Acha (one of the three rabbis who omit zimun since no one of them is deemed a greater Torah scholar than the others) arrives late to join the meal. The students assume that since Rav Acha is a great sage, he will lead them in Birkat ha-Mazon, but he demurs, saying that someone who was there throughout the meal should lead Birkat ha-Mazon. The Gemara dismisses Rav Acha’s viewpoint, promulgating a halakhic decision that a Torah scholar of prominence, even one who arrived halfway through the meal, should lead Birkat ha-Mazon. 

When the three scholars who recited Birkat ha-Mazon privately (although they ate together) recount this incident to Mereimar, he tells them that while they fulfilled the obligation of reciting Birkat ha-Mazon, they did not fulfill the obligation of saying the zimun. Furthermore, Mereimar says, having recited the blessings of Birkat ha-Mazon, one cannot go back and recite the zimun afterward any more than one would issue an invitation to an event after the event took place.

1. Do you think the Rabbis place so much emphasis on the zimun because it is an opportunity to recite a blessing, or due to its potential to create community among people who eat together, or as a “reward” for eating with others rather than alone? How important are communal meals in your life?

2. Rav Acha’s says the one who leads Birkat ha-Mazon should be a “primary” diner. The subsequent halakhah ordains that “the greatest one blesses even though he came at the end [of the meal].” Memeimar holds that someone should lead even if none is considered most distinguished. Which view do you prefer? Often today, a guest at the table is invited to lead Birkat ha-Mazon; does this comport with one of the three views or is it reflect yet another? 

3. The zimun (invitation) applies when people eat a meal together, but what constitutes “eating together?” Imagine a school, workplace cafeteria, or restaurant with multiple tables where people bring or buy their own meal, arriving at different but overlapping times. Or perhaps a large group, such as a family, eats at the same time but occupies several tables. Or imagine people purposefully eating at the same table but each is on his/her cell phone. Under which conditions would you say they are eating “together?”

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

“Everyone” includes whom? — BT Pesachim 108a (part 2) — #101

A woman in her husband’s presence is not required to recline. But if she is a woman of importance she must recline. A son in his father's presence is required to recline. They [the rabbis] asked: What is the law concerning a disciple in his teacher’s presence? Come and learn: Abaye said, “When we were at the master’s [Rabbah bar Nachmani] academy, we would lean on each other's knees. When we came to R. Yosef’s academy he said to us, ‘You do not need to [recline, because] a student’s reverence for his teacher should be as great as his reverence for God.’” They challenged [the view that a student does not recline in the presence of his teacher from the following baraita]: A person reclines in the presence of everyone, even a student in the presence of his teacher. What was the baraita about? It concerned a carpenter’s apprentice. They asked: What is the law concerning a servant? Come and learn: R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “A servant who ate an olive’s volume of matzah while reclining has fulfilled the obligation. If he reclined, yes [he fulfilled the obligation], but if he did not recline, no [he did not fulfilled the obligation]. Learn from this that he [the servant] is required to recline. Learn from this.

Mishnah Pesachim 10:1 (see TMT #100) stipulates that everyone, even the least likely member of the community to have the means—a poor person— eats reclining on Passover night. Reclining, the posture of kings and aristocrats, enacts one’s freedom. However, according to the social mores of the period, one sits in the presence of a superior only with permission and after the superior is seated.

The Gemara considers four categories of people who, in the presence of someone who has authority over them, might be exempt from reclining: (A) women; (B) sons; (C) students; (D) servants.

(A) Women: Although the mishnah presumed that all are obligated to recline, the Gemara says that a woman in her husband’s presence is not required to recline unless she is considered prominent in her own right. This restriction is the invention of the Babylonian rabbis.
(B) Sons: Given a father’s authority over his son, the Gemara asks if a son ought to recline in the presence of his father. Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. The son reclines because, like all Jews, he was redeemed from Egypt. Yet weren’t all women also redeemed from Egypt?

(C) Disciples: In the rabbinic value system, one owes one’s teacher even greater deference for teaching him Torah than one’s father, who gave him life. The Gemara reports, and then rejects, powerful anecdotal evidence: Abaye, who headed the academy at Pumbedita, recounts that when Rabbah bar Nachmani was the head, students adopted an intermediary posture, neither sitting upright nor fully reclining, by leaning on one another’s knees, thus paying respect to their teacher but only partially fulfilled the Mishnah’s requirement to recline. When R. Yosef succeeded Rabbah, he exempted the students from the obligation to recline on the basis of R. Elazar b. Shamua’s teaching that “a student’s reverence for his teacher should be as great as his reverence for God” (Pirkei Avot  4:15). The views of both Rabbah and R. Yosef are challenged with an earlier teaching that affirms that everyone reclines, even a student in the presence of his teacher—explicitly noting that here “teacher” refers to one who instructs him in a secular skill, such as carpentry, here applied to the master who teaches his student Torah. Yet somehow the ruling does not mitigate the previous exemption of women who are not deemed “important.”

(D) Servants: Finally, the Gemara asks about a servant. There is an irony here since the servant who must wait on others at the Passover seder is—at least optically—like a slave. Does such a person cease working long enough to sit and recline during the seder nonetheless? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Yet somehow a woman in the presence of her husband does not unless she is “important.”

  1. The Gemara, unlike Mishnah, treats women differently from men with regard to the obligation to recline. Psychologist Steven Pinker has written that “some [social] categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist” (Blank Slate, 2002). Do you think this passage reflects an example of the Rabbis’ social construction of gender?
  2. The assumption that women, unlike sons, students, and servants, are inferior or subservient to men who have authority over them reflects either overt or implicit bias. In some regards, the latter is more difficult to overcome than the former because we are either unaware or in denial. Consider this: On February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution declared that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Yet while no one questioned that women were citizens, it was another half century before the 19th Amendment granted women suffrage (on May 21, 1919). Where else do you see implicit bias?
  3. Commentators trip over one another in their attempts to explain the Gemara’s treatment of women in the matter of reclining. Today this sounds minimally like a halakhic gaffe and maximally like misogyny. For example, the Rashbam (grandson of Rashi) explained that a woman is apprehensive in her husband’s presence and subservient to him. Rabbi Moses Isserles, who wrote an Ashkenazic gloss to the Shulchan Arukh (O.H. 472) remarks that “women nowadays are all important.” Rashbam’s explanation seeks to justify the Gemara; Isserles’ gloss seeks a work-around. Do you think it best to deal with such problems in the tradition as Rashbam did, as Isserles did, or to confront such inequities head on by rejecting for our time and our understanding of God, Torah, and Jewish tradition?

Monday, March 26, 2018

Drink Up and Lean Back — BT Pesachim 108a (part 1) — #100

MISHNAH 10:1 (99b): On the eve of Passover, close to the time of minchah, one may not eat until nightfall. Even a poor person in Israel must not eat until reclining, and they give him no fewer than four cups [of wine] even [if he receives money] from the charity plate.GEMARA (108a): Even a poor person in Israel must not eat until reclining. It was stated: Eating matzah requires reclining [but] eating bitter herbs does not require reclining. [Concerning] wine: It was said in the name of Rav Nachman that they must recline and it was stated in the name of Rav Nachman that they are not required to recline. There is no conflict: this statement refers to the first two cups, this statement refers to the last two cups. Some explain it this way, while others explain it the other way. Some explain it this way: the first two cups require reclining because our freedom is beginning now. The last two cups do not require reclining [because] what happened already happened. And some explain it the other way around: On the contrary! The last two cups require reclining because then there is freedom. The first two cups do not require reclining because at that time one is still saying, “We were slaves to Pharaoh [in Egypt].” Now, [since] it was stated this way and that way, [today] both these [first two cups] and these [last two cups] require reclining.”

For the final plague that secures their release from slavery, God instructs the Israelites to smear blood on the doorposts and lintels of the houses in which they will eat the very first  paschal sacrifice and then, They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8)—instructions concerning a Passover meal.

From the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.), the Rabbis examined the biblical instructions concerning the Passover meal to work out how to hold held it now that it was no longer possible to bring the paschal sacrifice. The biblical core—paschal lamb, matzah, and maror—was enlarged to include four cups of wine, other symbolic foods, and a variety of rituals that express freedom and gratitude, chief among them reclining at the dinner table because that is the prerogative only of free people.

Mishnah Pesachim 10:1 provides three instructions: (1) Do not eat in the late afternoon before the Passover meal (save your appetite for the feast to come). (2) Everyone, including the poor, is entitled to recline; regardless of the circumstances of their lives, Passover is a time to relive the redemption of the Israelites and experience freedom as they did. (3) Poor people, no less than everyone else, are entitled to four cups of wine, even if supplied by the community charity fund.

The Gemara notes that one must recline (demonstrating the posture of free people) while eating matzah, but not while eating maror (bitter herbs). The distinction seems to be that the Israelites ate matzah after they were freed from Egypt when they knew what it was to be free. Maror, in contrast, conveys the bitterness of servitude; reclining while eating bitter herbs conflicts with the memory of slavery that maror is intended to invoke.

With this distinction in mind, the Rabbis wonder how to apply the principle deduced about reclining to drink the four cups of wine. Should one recline while drinking wine? Two versions of the opinion of Rav Nachman are recorded: yes and no. The Rabbis resolve the problem by accepting both opinions, assigning one to the first two cups of wine (which are drunk prior to the meal) and the other opinion to the last two cups (which are drunk following the meal).

But how does that work? Does one recline for the first two cups and not the last two, or vice versa? Even here, Gemara reports two conflicting opinions. The first view holds that one reclines for the first two cups, drunk during the portion of the seder when one is most actively engaged in reliving the experience by telling the story of the Exodus and most keenly feeling redeemed: reclining mirrors one’s intellectual and emotional experience. After the meal, redemption is a “done deal” so reclining is unnecessary. The alternative view holds that throughout the first half of the seder one is supposed to be in the mindset of slavery, imagining what it was like for the Israelites to suffer enslavement, to endure the plagues, to leave Egypt, and to be chased by the Egyptians to the shore of the Reed Sea. The Israelites were hardly secure and safe enough to recline; hence neither do we. After the meal, however, participants are in the mindset of freedom, completing the psalms of Hallel that praise and thank God for our freedom. This, in the second view, is the time to recline.

The resolution of the differing opinions is that we should recline for all four cups of wine, those drunk prior to the meal and following it, encouraging us to experience freedom throughout.

  1. We hold our Passover seders at a dining table seated on chairs because that is how we customarily eat. Similarly, the Rabbis imagined the Passover meal in the Greco-Roman style of dining in their day: a multi-course banquet featuring many cups of wine, with guests recumbent around a triclinium (a U-shaped arrangement of couches—see here).  Can you imagine other venues or styles for a seder? What would they contribute to the experience?
  2. For many modern Jews, whose dining rooms are furnished with tables and upright chairs, reclining feels awkward and uncomfortable even with a pillow. This is the opposite of the intention. Where and how might you hold your seder so that reclining feels good and conveys a sense of freedom?
  3. The Rabbis are working out how to actualize Torah’s prescriptions for the Passover meal, while also making the Passover evening experience a meaningful reliving of the Exodus. What have you added to your sedarim to bring the experience of the Exodus alive?

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Who’s at Fault? — M Horayot 1:1 — #99

If the court issued a ruling permitting the violation of commandment mentioned in the Torah, and an individual went and unwittingly (bi-sh’gagah) did it on their instructions, whether [the court] did it and he did it with them, or whether they did it and he did it after them, or whether they did not do it and he did it, he is exempt because he relied on the court. If the court issued [such] a ruling and one of them knew that they erred, or a student qualified to issue rulings [knew that they erred], and the individual went and did it because of [the court’s] instructions, whether they did it and he did it with them, or whether they did it and he did it after them, or whether they did not do it and he did do it, he is liable because he was not relying on the court. This is the general rule: If one relies on himself, he is liable. If one relies on the court, he is exempt.

A person who unintentionally violates a mitzvah, and even without knowing he did so, strikes us intuitively as entirely different from a person who knowingly and purposefully commits the same act. For the Torah, as for the Rabbis, there is a world of difference between a sin committed unwittingly (bi-sh’gagah) and one committed knowingly and intentionally (b’meizid). The liturgy of the High Holy Days reinforces this distinction. What happens when a court mistakenly declared a forbidden action permissible and a person relying on the court’s ruling violated a mitzvah?

Torah instructs (Leviticus 4 and Numbers 15:22–31) that one who sins unwittingly must bring a sacrifice as atonement to rectify their relationship with God and wipe the slate clean. Had the same person committed the same act intentionally, he would have deserved the punishment of karet (excision from the community). Horayot (“Instructions”), the last tractate in the Order Nezikim (“Damages”), concerns erroneous judgments made by the High Priest or the Sanhedrin and the consequences for one who acts on the basis of these mistaken rulings.

The mishnah first explains the conditions of the situation it wishes to discuss: A court promulgated an erroneous decision, permitting an act that Torah forbids. On this basis, an individual violated a mitzvah of the Torah, relying on the permission granted by the court. Whether that person committed the act together with members of the court, or whether she saw them do it and imitated them, or whether she merely knew about their ruling and committed the act independently, she is not considered guilty because she earnestly and reasonably relied on the court’s opinion.

If, however, she had reason to know that the court’s ruling was incorrect either because she was a member of the court, or because she herself possessed sufficient halakhic background and knowledge to realize the court’s error, yet she nonetheless acted in accordance with the court’s erroneous ruling (thereby violating a mitzvah) she is guilty of violating the mitzvah whether she did it (as in the first instance) together with the members of the court, in imitation of the members of the court, or independently on the basis of the court’s ruling.

Having expounded these two scenarios, the mishnah concludes by promulgating a general rule: If a person relies on his own judgment and it is wrong, he is liable for his behavior when it violates a mitzvah. If, however, a person relies on the ruling of a court that issues an erroneous ruling, he is not held guilty.

This raises the question: Can you claim you are innocent of violating the law by saying you were following a ruling of a court? According to the mishnah this depends: If you could not be expected to know their ruling was erroneous, you are not held liable. If, however, you had reason to know their ruling was invalid (perhaps because you had sufficient background) yet you go ahead and commit the forbidden act based on their ruling, you are guilty of the violation because you should have known—indeed, had the capacity to know—better.

  1. Oliver North, working for the National Security Council during the Reagan administration in the late 1980s, was a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal. (Weapons were illegally sold to Iran in the hopes of encouraging Iran to release U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. Profits from the weapons sales were funneled to right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua who engaged in massive human rights violations and terrorist attacks. The entire scheme was illegal.) North made clear in Senate hearings that he was proud of his actions, defending himself by saying, “I am not in the habit of questioning my superiors. If [Admiral Poindexter] deemed it not to be necessary to ask the President, I saluted smartly and charged up the hill,” and “I was given a mission and I tried to carry it out.” Where should the line be drawn between following orders and exerting one’s own moral agency? Have you ever faced such a decision?
  2.  In 1945–46, following World War II, twenty-two Nazi leaders were put on trial in Nuremberg, Germany. Many of the defendants claimed innocence, arguing that “befehl ist befehl” (German: “an order is an order”); that is, they should not be found guilty for following orders. This is known as the “Nuremberg defense,” which Adolf Eichmann used unsuccessfully in 1962 to disavow responsibility for his crimes, claiming that he and others were “forced to serve as mere instruments.” When is “following orders” a reasonable defense? When is it not?
  3. Three months after Eichmann’s trial began In Jerusalem, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram designed an experiment (read about it here) designed to study how ordinary people could commit atrocities. Do you know anyone who participated in these, or similar, experiments? Do you think you would administer painful punishments to others? (Most people believe they would not, yet most test subjects did.) What conclusions do you think can be drawn from Milgram’s work about what Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil? (Eichmann in Jerusalem, 1963)