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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)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Prayerful Mindset — BT Berakhot 30b (part 2) — #98

GEMARA: Whence this law [that one should achieve a state of koved rosh to pray the Shemoneh Esrei]? [1] R. Elazar said, “Scripture states: Bitterly dispirited, she (Hannah) [prayed to Adonai] (1 Samuel 1:10).” How do you know this? Perhaps Hannah was different in that she was very bitter at heart. [2] Rather, R. Yose the son of R. Chanina [derived it] from here: But I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy temple (Psalm 5:8). How do we know this? Perhaps David [the presumed author of Psalm 5] is different because he tormented himself asking for mercy. [3] Rather, R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “From here: Prostrate yourself before Adonai בְּהַדְרַת-קֹדֶשׁ in holy splendor (Psalm 29:2). Do not read בְּהַדְרַת (in splendor) but rather בְּחֶדְרַת (in trembling).” How do you know this? Perhaps I will tell you that בְּהַדְרַת (in splendor) is, in fact, meant, just as Rav Yehudah would first adorn himself (by dressing up) and afterward pray. [4] Rather, Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak said, “It derives from here: Serve Adonai with awe and rejoice with trepidation (Psalm 2:11).”

TMT #97 examined Mishnah Berakhot 5:1, which claims that one should achieve a certain state of mind—koved rosh—for prayer. Three interpretations of koved rosh were explored in TMT-97. With TMT #98, we now turn to the Gemara’s discussion of the mishnah. The Rabbis seek the  Mishnah’s source for claiming that one must achieve a state of koved rosh to pray the Shemoneh Esrei. The amora’im (the Sages who wrote the Gemara) offer four opinions concerning what the tanna’im (the Sages during the period of the Mishnah who preceded the amora’im) meant, supporting their claims with scriptural verses. (For clarity, I have numbered the four opinions.)  The Gemara questions the legitimacy of the first three but offers no further commentary on the fourth. 

A question underlies the four opinions presented: when can the example of one individual be deemed representative of a broad principle concerning the behavior everyone should aspire to, rather than be seen as the behavior of that particular individual on that particular occasion in that particular circumstance?

Mishnah did not provide a source for its claim that one should achieve a state of koved rosh to pray the Shemoneh Esrei, which is not unusual. Gemara offers four opinions. The first is ascribed to R. Elazar. He cites the story of Hannah in First Samuel because it recounts the experience of an individual explicitly praying to God. R. Elazar understands marat nefesh (“bitterly dispirited”) to mean “in an extremely serious mood.” The Gemara challenges this suggestion, asking whether Hannah’s state of mind can serve as a general rule for all who pray, or rather pertains only to Hannah on this particular occasion, which seems a more reasonable explanation.

Next, R. Yose offers the example of King David, credited with authoring Psalm 5 (see verse 1). He understands “bow down in awe” as an expression of prayer in which the request is for mercy is central. Indeed, this is the thrust of the entirety of Psalm 5: David beseeches God to save him from his enemies because his life is endangered. The Gemara reasons that David was in a state of personal torment rather than koved rosh. Thus this example, like the first, concerns an individual’s personal state of mind and should not be generalized prescriptively to all people when they pray.

R. Yehoshua b. Levi offers a third explanation. Drawing on Psalm 29:2, he instructs us to read b’hadrat kodesh as b’chedrat kodesh, changing the letter hay (ה) to the letter chet (ח). Hay and chet are visually similar, distinguished only by a tiny stroke of ink. Read this way, R. Yehoshua instructs us to be so keenly aware of God’s power that we tremble when we pray. In other words, fear (yirat Adonai) should dominate our mental state during prayer. The Gemara counters that we could just as reasonably not exchange the hay for a chet and understand the verse to instruct us to dress up to pray (look splendid) as we would do when meeting a powerful human sovereign. Indeed, Rav Yehudah would don good clothes for prayer, his time to “talk with God.”

Fourth and last is Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak’s interpretation based on Psalm 2:11. He understands “serve” to connote prayer. He says that our attitude in prayer should combine awe, joy, and trepidation. It’s not clear if he means that one should aim for all three states of mind simultaneously, or draw on whichever emotion most honestly reflects one’s state of mind at the moment. The Gemara does not challenge his view, communicating that a spectrum of emotions are all appropriate and conducive to prayer.

  1. Which do you think is preferable and more appropriate: (1) prescribing a specific state of mind for prayer, or (2) encouraging people to  channel their personal emotional state into prayer? What are the advantages and disadvantages to each approach in theory and for you personally?
  2. Rambam (Moses Maimonides) was an advocate of strict kavanah (intention) in prayer. He counsels us to train ourselves to expel all extraneous thoughts and focus solely on the words of the prayers. (See below.) How does this strike you? What is gained? What is sacrificed?
  3. What mood or state of mind do you find most conducive to prayer? What other factors (e.g., environment, music or silence, public or private) do you prefer? How do you prepare to pray?

Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read the Shema or during the [Shemoneh Esrei] prayer… After some time when you have mastered this, accustom yourself to have your mind free from all other thoughts when you read any portion of the other books of the prophets, or when you say any blessing, and to have your attention directed exclusively to the perception and the understanding of what you utter.” (Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed III:51)