Rabbi Meir’s Rhetoric

Rav Meir disagrees with the other sages on a number of topics involving logic.

1- When framing a tenai, a condition on a business dealing, an oath, a pledge or the like, the majority opinion and the halakhah is that for a condition to be binding, it must be stated in both the positive and the negative. In other words, the person or contract must state what will happen if the condition is met, and what will not happen if the condition is not met. So, an example conditional oath might be, “I will donate this cow to the Temple if my child arrives home in the next day, and I will not donate it if my child does not arrive by then.” Rav Meir holds that the tenai is binding even without the second, negative, clause.

It would seem that Rav Meir is a believer in the dictum that “the exception proves the rule”. That if I say “I would never eat a garlic bagel” it implies that in general I would eat bagels, which is why I singled out the particular kind I wouldn’t eat. Whereas from a strict logical point of view, if I didn’t eat bagels at all, it remains true that I wouldn’t eat garlic ones either. Rav Meir is basic himself on a rule of rhetoric — I wouldn’t have phrased it as an exception if the rule (that I generally do eat bagels) wasn’t true. So to Rav Meir, the positive implies the negative condition.

The Chakhamim, on the other hand, are being more formal about it. Not judging it by laws of rhetoric, but by laws of logic. And therefore the negative clause DOES need to be spelled out explicitely.

This dispute in oaths and contracts. When it comes to interpreting Chumash, all the sages do deduce the negative case from the positive one. Perhaps because the Torah’s parsimony with words makes it even more compelling to assume that the conditional wouldn’t be there if the case weren’t the exception to the rule. (The exception thus proving the existence of the rule.)

The pasuq states (Shemos 22:10)

שְׁבֻעַת ה תִּהְיֶה בֵּין שְׁנֵיהֶם אִם לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ בִּמְלֶאכֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְלָקַח בְּעָלָיו וְלֹא יְשַׁלֵּם.

The oath of Hashem will be between the two of them, if he did not put his hand against [i.e. break] his peer’s work, then the owner shall accept [the oath] and he need not pay.

If a rentor takes an oath that he didn’t damage the rented item, he need not pay the owner. But what if he didn’t take an oath? For example, what if he were someone already suspect of making false oaths, and the court doesn’t want to tempt him into lying again to make an oath that isn’t trustworthy anyway? The Yerushalmi Shavuos 7:1 (vilna 33b) opens by assuming that Rabbi Meir would have to conclude that the verse implies that in that case, the rentor would indeed have to pay. After all, stating a condition implies that if it isn’t met, the reverse conclusion holds. But Rabbi Chiya concludes that in when it comes to verses, the Chakhamim and R’ Meir would agree.

Perhaps because rules of rhetoric only apply to how people speak. And so, when we talk about the exception proving the existence of the rule, this is only when a person bothers making a condition. The rules of rhetoric for the chumash are the rules of derashah – they operate somewhat differently. Even under Rabbi Yishma’el’s “diberah Torah belashon benei adam – the Torah is written in human language. That rule speaks to what kinds of things are subject to derashah, the meanings of phrases, not analyzing syntax. {Although, Rabbi Meir is a student of Rabbi Aqiva, Rabbi Yishma’el’s disputant on this point.) Rabbi Yishmael says that the meaning of a word includes idiom; Rabbi Meir goes further and says it even includes usual intent.

2- A second case is when there is a list of clauses in an oath, or a number of contracts on one parchment with one set of witnesses’ signatures (Yerushalmi Shavuos 26b). Rabbi Yehudah holds that if a person swears not to eat “wheat and barley and spelt”, with the connecting vav meaning and between them and he happens to eat all three, he sinned only one time. However, if the grains were simply listed with no conjunctive — “wheat, barley, spelt” — then each of three is its oath, and therefore eating all three types of grain would be three violations. Rabbi Meir says the reverse — with the vavs eating all three would be three sins, and without, one sin.

Similarly, consider the case of when two contracts are written on the same parchment, but the whole thing is only signed once, on the bottom. Rabbi Yehudah says that if the second contract begins “Ve-” (and) then the signatures apply to both contracts, but without it, the second contract is valid but the first contract is not signed and unenforceable. Rabbi Meir again says the reverse: with the ve- the witnesses only validate the second contract, and without it — both.

This also appears to be a question of logic vs rhetoric. Rabbi Yehudah feels that since the vav means “and”, it inclusion explicitly binds the two parts into one whole. Otherwise, they remain independent. Rabbi Meir is using rules of rhetoric. The fact that the person didn’t even bother pausing to connect the clauses verbally shows how tightly coupled they are in his intent. Thus, without that ve-, R’ Meir feels they are more connected.

3- There is a notion in the halakhos of contracts called an asmachta, where the clause is so outrageous, it clearly wasn’t made seriously, and since one clause of the whole contract is invalid, the contract as a whole is void. (This is a problem that needs to be avoided if a prenup were added to the kesuvah. Is the groom promising something that he had no intent of honoring because the odds of divorce seemed so outrageous at the time of marriage?)

In Sanhedrin 3:2 (mishnah, not Y-mi), the chakhamim rule that if someone promises to accept a ruling of a court that includes his father, the other party’s father, or even three cow hands, the court’s ruling is valid. Rabbi Meir says that the person can indeed reneg.

Because Rabbi Meir looks to how people talk rather than what was actually said, he has a much broader scope to the rule of asmachta than the majority opinion. Such a claim would clearly be a boast about the strength of his case, and not an actual promise to accept the ruling, and therefore Rabbi Meir takes it as such. This too is beyond “belashon benei adam” of Rabbi Yishma’el, where we are talking about idiom, not intent.

4- A case that may not seem related is whether one may neglect a minority possibility. In general, we say that if the permitted is more likely than the prohibited we can neglect the minority and assum the item is permitted. Such as if three pieces of fat were mixed up, two from areas in the animal where the fat is permissible, one a prohibited fat, one may pick a piece up and eat it. However, “Rav Meir chayash lemi’utei — Rav Meir does worry about the minority.”

This doesn’t sound like a logic issue, except that I have already suggested that Rabbinic logic doesn’t deal in true-false black-and-white questions. (In technical terms: it’s multivalent, not boolean.) So that questions of more vs. less likely would be viewed by our sages as logical ones.

It would seem that while the sages can rule that a halachic state depends on an item’s more likely physical state, but Rabbi Meir, dealing in rhetoric rather than logic, would have to worry about a person’s niggling “what if?”

More on this topic:

In The Semitic Perspective I listed a number of differences between what I called the Yefetic perspective and the Semitic one.  Differences that are sometimes so fundamental, they can group the various schools of Western, Yefetic, philosophy — whether we speak of Aristotle to Derrida — into one camp by comparison.

One of these differences is that in general, it doesn’t appear that Chazal embraced simple true-false all-or-nothing logic. In Aristotle’s world, something is either true or false, and ideas like exactly where the line is between red and purple are addressed as secondary, exceptions to the norm. It was only in the 20th century that Western Logic started exploring systems where sets have blurry edges. Like “tall” in “a tall man”. Someone who is 6’6″ is definitely tall, someone who is 5’4″ is certainly not. But what about people just around at the edge?

In Jewish Thought, it is quite the reverse — everything is a matter of degree, and all-or-nothing situations are the degenerate case where the options happen to lay at the ends of the spectrum. And this runs from Leah being called the “senu’ah”, the “hated” wife of Yaaqov, all the way through history to the Yiddishism of calling someone “not dumb” or “not ugly”. In reality Leah was not hated, although certainly less loved than Rachel. Attributes are always meant in a relative sense, it is taken for granted that the reader who sees a contrast between “beloved” and “hated” would see them as comparative, not absolutes. In my second example, the person who attempts to avoid an ayin hara by voicing a compliment in the negative is basing it on the idea that the listener will assume that their calling someone “not stupid” is because their bright, but technically the words include also the average and so no conspicuous bravado is uttered. In halakhah we find this idea recognized when we have rules telling us when we can ignore the chance that something came from the minority of possibilities (e.g. a piece of meat in a store where nearly all the butchers are kosher) or simply improbable.

Note, though, that if we were concerned with minorities, as R’ Meir does, there would be only two logical states — definitely permitted, and everything else.

This might even be connected to Rabbi Meir being willing to learn from Acher, the sage Elisha ben Avuyah after he chose Greek wisdom over Torah. Is it that Rabbi Meir’s logic ends up being the Greek two-valued sort, which gave him an affinity to Acher’s spin on things? Was it his like of rhetoric over abstract logic that made him more immune to the negative elements in Acher’s teachings? More likely it was both — the constant awareness that comes from seeing the world slightly differently than the sages made him alert to Acher’s divergences.


Toward a Torah Definition of “Ethics”

A short thought, maybe a conversation starter…

There is a paradoxic obligation: it is prohibited to conform in all ways only to the letter of the law. One must stay well within it (lifnim mishuras hadin; or using the contrasting English metaphor: “beyond the letter of the law”) both in ways that prevent violation through error, habit or negligence and in ways that implement the law’s ideals.

So, to give an example from Bava Metzi’ah 83a:

רבה בר בר חנן תברו ליה הנהו שקולאי חביתא דחמרא. שקל לגלימייהו. אתו, אמרו לרב. אמר ליה, “הב להו גלימייהו.” אמר ליה, “דינא הכי?” אמר ליה, “אין — “למען תלך בדרך טובים.’ (משלי ב)” יהיב להו גלימייהו, אמרו ליה, “עניי אנן, וטרחינן כולה יומא, וכפינן, ולית לן מידי!” אמר ליה, “זיל הב אגרייהו.” א”ל, “דינא הכי?” אמר ליה, “אין — ‘וארחות צדיקים תשמור’ (משלי ב)”:

Rabbah bar bar Chanan had some porters who broke his barrel of wine. He grabbed their cloaks. They went and told Rav. Rav said to [Rabbah] “Give them their cloaks.” He said to [Rav], “Is this the law?” [Rav] said to Rabbah], “Yes — ‘so that you will walk in the ways of the good’ (Mishlei 2:20)”. He gave them their cloaks. They said to him, “We are poor, and we labored all day, and now we are exhausted, and we don’t have anything!” [Rav] said to Raba, “Go give them their wages.” He said to [Rav], “Is that the law?” [Rav] said to Rabbah], “Yes — ‘and the way of the righteous you shall observe’ (ibid)”.

(In the parallel Yerushalmi [6:6 27a-b], the employer is R’ Nechemiah, who hires a single person to carry a pot [qadar]. R’ Nechemiah seizes his shirt, and the question comes before R Yosi bar Chanina.)

We also have the prohibition that is paradoxically phrased by the Ramban as banning being a “naval birshus haTorah — disgusting with the permission of the Torah.” Such as someone whose life revolves around the quest the next glatt kosher mehadrin min hamehadrin gourmet meal. Since it’s a prohibition implied by “Qedoshim tihyu — be holy”, you don’t really have the Torah’s permission. But there is no express specific halakhah. Usually I put a bracketed “[otherwise]” when translating this Ramban.

But that prohibition can be seen specifically in terms of a person’s relationship to their own souls, or to the Creator. Later in parashas Qedoshim the Torah lists interpersonal mitzvos and caps the specific duties with “ve’asisa hayashar vehatov – and you will do the upright and the good.” The Ramban explains that this is because the full scale of human interaction cannot be spelled out in a specific list of laws, so the generality is given.

The Rambam would refer to these mitzvos — the obligation to become holy, upright and good (as opposed to acting those ways) as hilkhos Dei’os.

\Start with the natural ethic, as described by Hillel — “that which you loathe do not do to your peers, that is the whole Torah”. But many of the things we think we or others would loathe, we would reassess if we had more complete insight into the human condition and foresight to know what would be best in the longest run. Realizing that, we continue Hillel’s words, “Now go learn!” further the ethic as implied by halakhah and described in aggadita.

I would therefore suggest that a definiton of Ethics compatible with the Torah’s worldview would be going lifnim mishuras hadin in a manner aimed at furthering the ethics of the Torah. The Torah’s ethics are in line with the ethics Hashem planted in our soul, but reflect His knowledge of situations and people, giving us more to rely on than our own understanding of the context.

Your thoughts?

Temimus and Deveiqus

The mitzvah of Beris Milah is introduced with the words, “אֲנִי קֵל שַׁקַּי, הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים — I am Kel Shakai, walk yourself before Me, and be whole.”

To me, this pasuk addresses the focus of the most basic open question in Jewish philosophy. Clearly the attention of Yahadus is on keeping mitzvos. But what is the goal of following mitzvos? What is the goal of life, that mitzvos are to help us accomplish?

How are we supposed to read the quote? Is the walking before G-d that is primary, and being whole a side-effect? Or, is being whole the focus of the pasuq, and walking before G-d is a means to reach that temimus? On a deeper level, these two approaches are different aspects of the same idea. A person lives in tension between his spiritual and physical sides — neshamah vs. guf. To achieve wholeness, so that the entire person is working harmoniously, he would necessarily be serving his spiritual goal, and walking in Hashem’s path. In reverse, if one strives for deveiqus to a singular G-d, how could he be a chaotic battleground of warring urges? Cleaving to G-d forces His priorities to be yours, leaving temimus.

This is not to say that there is no distinction in approach. By stressing different elements, there are profound practical implications. For example, consider the debate between Chassidim and non-Chassidim on the importance of davening in the appointed times. We should be clear that the Chassidic position is that one must invest time to prepare for davening, even if this is at the expense of timeliness — it is not blanket permission to ignore the clock.

Chassidus is a deveiqus-based hashkafah. Therefore, when weighing the relative merits, it is more important to be able to invest time to prepare one’s mind and heart for the act of tephillah, for relating to Hashem, than when the tephillah actually begins.

To someone with a temimus orientation, however, zehirus, meticulousness, care in how each facet of the mitzvah is done, is the more important consideration. Zerizus, haste to do what’s right, is an important middah (personality trait). Both come into play when considering the timeliness of tefillah.

Both Mussar and Chassidus saw a predecessor in the Ramchal. I think this too is possible because the Ramchal appears to echo the Torah’s dialectic. For example, they have two contrasting ways of understanding the beginning of the first chapter of Mesilas Yesharim:

יסוד החסידות ושרש העבודה התמימה הוא שיתברר ויתאמת אצל האדם מה חובתו בעולמו ולמה צריך שישים מבטו ומגמתו בכל אשר הוא עמל כל ימי חייו. והנה מה שהורונו חכמינו זכרונם לברכה הוא, שהאדם לא נברא אלא להתענג על ה’ ולהנות מזיו שכינתו שזהו התענוג האמיתי והעידון הגדול מכל העידונים שיכולים להמצא. ומקום העידון הזה באמת הוא העולם הבא, כי הוא הנברא בהכנה המצטרכת לדבר הזה. אך הדרך כדי להגיע אל מחוז חפצנו זה, הוא זה העולם. והוא מה שאמרו זכרונם לברכה (אבות ד): העולם הזה דומה לפרוזדור בפני העולם הבא.


The foundation of saintliness and the root of perfect service [of G-d] is in a person obtaining clarity and realizing the truth of what is his duty in the world, and to what he has to set his sights and aspirations in all of his activities all the days of his life. This is what Chazal taught us, that a person was created for nothing but finding pleasure in God and enjoy the splendor of His Presence; for that is the true pleasure and greatest joy of all forms of enjoyment that can be found. The true place where this pleasure may be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avos 4:21), “This world is like a corridor to the World to Come.”

So the question becomes what is the nature of this “corridor”? We cannot get the full pleasure of Hashem’s presence in this world. So, do we try our best to achieve deveiqus, connection to Him, in this world and thereby earn success in the world to come? Or is the purpose of this life to refine oneself to be capable of as much connection — and therefore as much enjoyment — in the next world, and that refinement is significantly different than connecting itself?

I would suggest that Chassidus sees itself in Mesilas Yesharim because they take the former stance, whereas Mussar sees itself because of the latter interpretation. This ambiguity is possible also because the middos listed in the beraisa of Pinechas ben Yair which the Ramchal uses as his list of topics for the rest of the text is on the one hand an exercise in self-refinement, but on the other hand framed as a latter up to holiness, Divine Inspiration (Ruach haQodesh) and the revival of the dead (Techiyas haMeisim).

As the Ramchal writes later in the chapter:

ואמנם ראוי לו שתהיה כל פנייתו רק לבורא יתברך, ושלא יהיה לו שום תכלית אחר בכל מעשה שיעשה אם קטן ואם גדול אלא להתקרב אליו יתברך ולשבור כל המחיצות המפסיקות בינו לבין קונו, הן הנה כל עניני החומריות והתלוי בהם, עד שימשך אחריו יתברך ממש כברזל אחר אבן השואבת. וכל מה שיוכל לחשוב שהוא אמצעי לקורבה הזאת, ירדוף אחריו ויאחז בו ולא ירפהו. וכל מה שיוכל לחשוב שהוא מניעה לזה, יברח ממנו כבורח מן האש.


It is indeed fitting that his every inclination be towards the Creator, may His Name be blessed, and that his every action, great or small, be motivated by no purpose other than that of drawing near to the Blessed One and breaking all the barriers (all the earthy elements and their concomitants) that stand between him and his Possessor, until he is pulled towards the Blessed One just as iron to a magnet. Anything that might possibly be a means to acquiring this closeness, he should pursue and clutch, and not let go of; and anything which might be considered a deterrent to it, he should flee as from a fire.

Deciding what is of value in this world in terms of what brings us closer or further from G-d became the centerpiece of Chassidic thought. Whereas the Mussarist would see a couple of sentences later:

…כיון שביאתו לעולם אינה אלא לתכלית הזה, דהיינו, להשיג את הקירבה הזאת במלטו נפשו מכל מונעיה ומפסידיה.


… Since our coming to [this] world is for nothing but this goal, which is to obtain this closeness by rescuing his soul from all the deterrents to and detractors from it.

And so they can conclude that no, the Ramchal is talking about dealing with those issues now, in the corridor, to enable true cleaving to G-d in the World to Come.

Perhaps this plurality is the whole point of the Torah’s doubled phraseology. Because there are two groups of approaches to the same ends, we don’t want to eliminate one in favor of the other. Each person can pick out a derekh that best suits him — as long as he aims for the proper goal.

A Thought About Maoz Tzur

(Updated again for 2009, and again for 2013.) One line in Ma’oz Tzur I particularly love.

The 5th verse of Ma’oz Tzur describes the Chanukah story. One phrase in this verse is “ufortzu chomos migdalai“, which would be literally translated “and burst open the walls of my citadel”. Mentally, I used to picture breaking down the walls of the Beis haMiqdosh, or perhaps a fortress. However, I found the following mishnah in Middos (Ch. 2, mishnah 2 in the Yachin uBo’az edition, mishnah 3 in Kahati’s — who splits up the Yu”B‘s mishnah 1 into 2 parts). The second chapter describes the Beis haMiqdosh as it would appear to someone walking in from outside the Temple Mount to the Altar. This mishna picks up right after you walk through the gate and onto the Temple Mount.

Inside of it is the soreg, 10 tefachim [appx 2'6"] high. It had thirteen peratzos (broken openings) there, that the Hellenist kings partzum (broke open). They returned and closed them off, and legislated corresponding to them 13 prostrations.

To help you picture what a soreg is, the root means woven. The Bartenura describes the soreg as a mechitzah woven out of thin wooden slats running at diagonals. The Bartenura compares it to the part of the bed used to support the mattress, with plenty of open space inside the weave.

He goes on to say that the Hellenists opened up holes in the soreg opposite each of the gates in the outer wall to let anyone see in. Note the shoresh used /p-r-tz/, the same as in the piyut. The soreg marked the limit for gentiles, they were not allowed in beyond that point. To the Hellenist mind, this havdalah bein Yisrael la’Amim, separation between the Jews and the other nations, was repugnant. It ran against their assimilationist efforts.

Rav Hutner (Pachad Yitzchaq, Chanukah 1:5) explains that emphasizing this division is why the mishnah has no mention of Chanukah. It is the Oral Torah which separates the Jews from non-Jews. Anyone can pick up a text and study it. But it’s the fact that the majority of the Torah is “written” on the hearts of the Jewish People, that halakhah is dynamic, not written ink-on-parchment, but a creative partnership between Hashem and the Jewish People, that makes it uniquely ours. This is why there is a prohibition against teaching Oral Torah to non-Jews, a prohibitions our sages debate is a kind of theft, or akin to marital infidelity. Therefore, there was special resistance against codifying the laws of Chanukah in particular, a desire by Rav Yehudah haNasi to keep them oral.

Chomos migdalei, the walls of my citadel, were not the mighty walls around the Temple Mount or the walls of a fortress. They were a see-through mechitzah, the realization that the Jew, as one of the Mamleches Kohanim, has a higher calling.

One possible reaction to assimilation is to build up the fortress walls. We can hope to stave off negative influences by reducing out exposure to the outside world. The idea that we need to stay distinct is not necessarily one that isn’t heard, but perhaps one that we are overly stressing.

I think this too is a message of the soreg. Yes, there is a separation between Jew and non-Jew, but it is only waist high and woven of slats with far more space than wood. The “walls of my fortress” are a reminder, not a solid barrier.

We are charged to be G-d’s “mamlekhes kohanim vegoy qadosh — a country of priests and a holy nation.” We need to balance the separation implied by the concept of qedushah with our role as kohanim, a priesthood providing religious leadership. We can not be priests if we do not stay to our special calling, but our special calling is self-indulgent if we do not use it to serve others. “Ki miTzion teitzei Sorah — because from Zion the Torah shall come forth.” By wallling ourselves in we not only protect ourselves, we prevent ourselves from teaching others.

This is an important facet of R’ SR Hirsch’s concept of “Torah im Derekh Eretz“. Yes, it does mean that we are to import derekh eretz, the ennobling elements of our surrounding culture and its sciences. But it also means that we are are to be the world’s moral voice, to contribute to the nobility of that society.

In the centuries of passion and scorn our mission was but imperfectly attainable but the ages of mildness and justice now begun beckon us to that glorious goal that every Jew and every Jewess should be in his or her own life a modest and unassuming priest or priestess of God and true humanity When such an ideal and such a mission await us can we still my Benjamin lament our fate?

- R’ SR Hirsch, “The Nineteen Letters”, 9th letter, tr. R’ Dr Bernard Drachman, pg 86

For this future which is promised us in the glorious predictions of the inspired prophets whom God raised up for our ancestors we hope and pray but actively to accelerate its coming were sin and is prohibited to us while the entire purpose of the Messianic age is that we may in prosperity exhibit to mankind a better example of Israel than did our ancestors the first time while hand in hand with us the entire race will be joined in universal brotherhood through the recognition of God the All One On account of this purely spiritual nature of the national character of Israel it is capable  of the most intimate union with states with perhaps this difference that while others seek in the state only the material benefits which it secures considering possession and enjoyment as the highest good Israel can only regard it as a means of fulfilling the mission of humanity Summon up I pray you before your mental vision the picture of such an Israel dwelling in freedom in the midst of the nations and striving to attain unto its ideal every son of Israel a respected and influential exemplar priest of righteousness and love disseminating among the nations not specific Judaism for proselytism is interdicted but pure humanity…

- Ibid. pp 162-163

Noach blessed two of his sons, “Yaft E-lokim leYefes, veyishkon beohalei Sheim — G-d gave beauty to Yefes, and dwells in the tents of Sheim.” To Rav Hirsch, this is a description of a partnership, Yefes’s mastery of derekh eretz and Sheim’s spiritual gifts.

When David Dinkins ran for mayor of New York, he called the city’s diversity a “glorious mosaic”. Not the melting pot metaphor that my grandfather encountered when they came to the U.S., the idea that convinced so many others of that generation that being a “real American” meant to assimilate. Being part of the whole and contributing to the whole by maintaining and celebrating our nation’s unique identity and perspective.

We are forced to find some kind of balance: we are supposed to both be a “unique nation in the land” and also contributors of religion, spirituality and ethics to the general society. I think this same tension informs the dispute among American halachic decisors over the appropriateness of celebrating Thanksgiving. Very indirectly, Thanksgiving is derived from Judaism. It commemorates a meal the Pilgrims ate in an intentional imitation of Sukkos in worship of the Creator that we taught the world about. The very name Jew derives from that of the dominant surviving sheivet, Yehudah, who was named by his mother “for this time odeh es Hashem — I shall thank G-d”. The entire concept of Thanksgiving would not exist without us. On the other hand, it was enacted by people who thought of the trinitarian god of Christianity, and the tradition itself comes from them, not us. Does this practice belong “behind the soreg” or within it? Are we advancing the cause of our national priesthood, or are we tearing down the walls of the citadel necessary to preserve its existence?

This too underlies the tefillah of Aleinu. The first paragraph is all about the uniqueness of the Jew. “It is up to us to praise the Master of Everything… For He did not make us like the nations of the world, and didn’t position us like the nations of the land… For they bow to vanity and emptiness… and we bow, prostrate and acknowledge before the King, King of Kings…” And then, the second paragraph switches to a universalist theme. “… That we soon see the Splendor of your Might… to repair the world into a kingdom of Shad-dai, and all children of flesh will bow to Your Name, to turn to you all the heads of the land…” And what’s the connector between these themes? “Al kein nekaveh — therefore we are expectant.” Because we are Hashem’s unique people with the unique role He entrusted to us, we await the day that all of mankind come together, and “they will recognize and know, all the dwellers of the globe, that to You all knee bows, and every tongue swears allegiance.”

Unfortunately, by building up the fortress walls, we miss many opportunities to act as a priesthood. It is a shame that it’s not the most observant Jews who are most vocal about Darfur, global hunger, or the ease of reducing the loss of life to malaria. If we accuse the world for their silence during the Holocaust, then people who feel that the events in Darfur do qualify as genocide can not stand by when it happens to someone else. How much more so if we recognize ourselves as kohanim to the world! More recently, the Union for Reform Judaism is currently raising money for the Nothing but Nets program, an initiative to distribute mosquito netting in malaria ridden parts of Africa. (Communities in which they have distributed $10 nets show a 90% decline of incidents of malaria.)

Similarly, helping out at the local soup kitchen. Earlier today I received an invitation from a synagogue to serve meals there. I was disappointed, although not surprised, to see that the synagogue was not Orthodox. Yes, we need to worry about Jewish causes; there are far more people out there to see to the general need. But I was proud of the local Young Israel, who used to staff a similar kitchen on days like the upcoming Thursday (Dec 25th), when non-Jewish volunteers tend to have family obligations.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting all this as a nice Shabbos-morning style derashah on the concept of a woven 2-1/2′ mechitzah as “the walls of my citadel”. I believe this is the actual meaning of the serug, which was sufficient as a reminder, and yet allowed Jew and non-Jew to serve the same G-d at the same Temple. “For My ‘home’ shall be called for all the people ‘a house for prayer’.”

Antiochus breached the soreg in an attempt to unify his empire as a melting pot, everyone Hellenized. This would have destroyed our goy qadosh, our nations unique voice in the world. However, the ideal soreg defines a distinction, not forces a separation. Once the tile that is the Jewish people, our role as teachers, moral guides and a conduit of sanctity, is protected and intact, then it can and must be part of Hashem’s glorious mosaic. Only by having a serug can we balance integrity and priesthood.

The word migdalai not only means “my towers” or “my citadels”, it can also be read “those things that make me great.” Only by having both separation and contact of a soreg can the walls of our miqdashei me’at, our synagogues and batei medrash, truly be chomos migdalai.

The Miracle of Oil

Ask someone why we celebrate Chanukah, and of course the first answer out would be about the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. This allowed the reconsecration of the Beis haMiqdash to be done at its halachic best, without relying on leniencies like “tum’ah huterah betziburtum’ah is permitted in public”. When everyone is tamei, no one is tamei. However, the Chashmonaim wanted to do it right, and therefore relied on the one tahor jug of oil for the eight days it took to produce more.

The earliest discussion of the laws of Chanukah is an appendix to Megillas Taanis, a list of dates from the late Bayis Sheini era which were minor holidays upon which declaring a fast was forbidden. I like the idea found in the Chida, the Eishel Avraham’s intro to Megillas Taanis and the Gra as for why there is no mishnah addressing the laws of Chanukah. (Although it is assumed and comes up in a number of places, so we know Rebbe considered Chanukah a holiday [Bikurim 1:6, RH 1:3, Ta'anis 2:10, MQ 3:9] with a specific Torah reading [Megillah 3:4,6] in which enough people lit something near their doorway that the person whose merchandise got burned by a Chanukah menorah is considered personally negligent and can’t sue for reimbersement [BQ 6:6].) They say that because it was already well documented in the appendix to Megillas Taanis, there was no need for a mishnah; and as you note — without need, there is no permissibility either. (Although why we assume this rule applies to rabbinic law rather than only interpretations of the original Oral Torah is beyond me. Also, the Gra’s son says his father speaks of “Mesechtes Chanukah” which I am only assuming is the appendix.)

But there is no mention there of the miracle of oil in Megillas Taanis. Nor in the Al haNissim we insert into Shemoneh Esrei and benching. In the Apocrypha, the reasons given relate to winning the battle for the Temple Mount, and the subsequent celebration of a quasi-Sukkos for eight days to compensate for the missed opportunity to celebrate Sukkos at the Beis haMiqdash while it was in desecration. The latter explains Beis Shammai’s position, that we light 8 lights the first night, then seven, then six, etc… to parallel the cows of the Musaf offering of Sukkos, which also decrease over time: 13 the first day, 12 the second, and so on. Clearly in their time, the connection to Sukkos was still a given.

The miracle of the oil would also be an odd reason for a holiday. How many people could have witnessed the miracle? The subset of kohanim who were tahor and working in the Heikhal that week so frequently that they can attest that no one refilled and re-lit the menorah while they were elsewhere. But a major feature of the importance Judaism ascribes miracles is their public nature. The entire word neis, miracle, is more literally a flag or military standard, something that calls attention to Hashem’s Presence. We have no (other?) holidays set up to commemorate private miracles.  I therefore think it makes sense to take the book of Maccabees and Al haNisim at face value and say the holiday was at that time about the restoration of some level of political autonomy and of Temple worship for the next two centuries.

The first mention of the miracle of the oil is in the gemara, written centuries later. The gemara goes off on a tangent in the middle of the laws of Shabbos lights to discuss those of Chanukah. At some point (Shabbos 21a) it asks, “Mai Chanukah — What is Chanukah?” and answers with the miracle of the oil. But given that we know that Chanukah was codified even before the mishnah, anchored — even if in a few mentions — in the mishnah, how could the rabbis of the talmud not know what Chanukah is about? And why is the answer one that was not given in any of the texts we have from before the gemara?

So I would assume this gemara records a conscious attempt to change the theme of the holiday. When instituted, Chanukah was about the restoration of the Beis haMiqdash and the autonomy possible under the Hasmonean kings. But then we lost it all. No autonomy, the majority of the community of the land of Israel forced to join their brothers in exile, no Temple.Notice it’s the Babylonian Talmud that is asking this question! The laws are on the books and they weren’t empowered to repeal a law enacted by a Sanhedrin in the Lishkas haGazis in the Temple. But the meaning was gone; rather than being a celebration, it became a reminder of everything lost.

And so the amora’im set out to reassign meaning to the mitzvos of the holiday by emphasizing a miracle than until then was a tangential thing — but at least related to the central mitzvah of the holiday, lighting the menorah. The Talmud isn’t asking “What is Chanukah?” in the abstract theoretical plane, it is asking pragmatically. In a time of exile, when Hashem’s influence in world events is more hidden, the most inspiring part of Chanukah is the one small way Hashem showed that the victory wasn’t merely incredible milirary prowess and good luck, but His intervention, the one explicit violation of the laws of nature — the miracle of the oil. Chanukah is very much a festival of light, reinvented as such in the darkness of exile.

Halakhah and Orthodoxy

(Much of this is a popularization of things already posted in this category, originally posted to Facebook.)

As I see it, halachic decision-making involves the weighing of numerous items — the strength of the legal logic, the authority of one’s sources, the breadth of acceptance (in both time and population) of the particular ruling, and which ruling better enables the asker to fulfill their obligations to “be holy for I am Holy” and “you shall do the upright and the good”.

And then different communities give each domain different weights. Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l focused on the authority of the Shulchan Arukh and on numbers of preceding decisors and then on legal weight. Overturning precedent wasn’t an issue for him, and often that precedent was the Ben Ish Chai’s putting practice in line with Qabbalah — his framework for looking at the pursuit of holiness. German Jews look at the age of the longevity of existing pesaq (“authentic Minhag Ashkenaz”), being loathe to overturn precedent, in a way few other communities do. The Gra and then later the Briskers and others in the Lithuanian Yeshiva world, focused on strength of the halachic logic. Etc…

Halakhah decision-making is an art, not an algorithm. It requires comparing apples and oranges for their importance, and thus can’t be reduced to clear numbers and programmable results. The result is that the rules of pesaq cannot be articulated. To cast it in terms used in Computer Science, in particular the field of Artificial Intelligence, we would say that the halachic process is a heuristic, not an algorithm. While a poet who isn’t writing coherent clauses doesn’t make sense, the person who takes poetic license is not following the rules of grammar as formalized in a textbooks for immigrants learning English as a Second Language. (H/T Dr. Moshe Koppel, who composed that metaphor.) And like a language, to fully learn the way it’s used one must be immersed in its culture. An aspiring halachic decisor needs shimush, apprenticeship, under a skilled poseiq to truly learn the craft. Studying the texts in a formal teaching setting is insufficient.

The process of identifying expertise and bequeathing halachic authority might seem circular. Solomon Schechter’s system was prone to this flaw: He considered “halakhah” to be the practices accepted by Catholic Israel, and Catholic Israel the community of Jews who observe halakhah. The hole in this definition is that nothing prevents a group of Reform Jews to decide that they are part of Catholic Israel, that thus their practices are halachic — and because they’re following halakhah, their claims to being within Catholic Israel are justified. Schechter  failed to articulate anything about “Constitutional Law”, something that anchors current process to defining elements existing halakhah. To provide rules for knowing which changes in Catholic Israel’s norms are valid, and which not.

I would say it’s more a cycle than a circle. Those with the expertise to understand what halakhah IS are those who decide what halakhah WILL BE. The skill has to reside among the poets who mastered the feel of the system from existing law; they are the ones we empower to make future law. And as R Moshe Feinstein told the NY Times, halachic authority comes from public acclimation. R’ Moshe told the interviewer something like “Someone asked me a question, he and those he interacted with liked my answer, so more people started sending me questions…”

Going back a moment to the factors being weighed themselves,two of them take halakhah beyond black-letter law. The first is that precedent has legal import. To give more strength to this idea: the Oral Torah is a dialog down the ages. If we allow too frequent overriding of the precedent, we rob the past of its voice in that dialog. Mesorah loses its continuity, and contemporary practice is cut off from the Sinai moment. We give the past authority because they were closer to Sinai — both in culture and simply as links in the chain we ourselves depend on.

The second is that being that holiness and being upright and good are themselves calls to go beyond black letter law, and to not be — as the Ramban put it — “disgusting with the ‘permission’ of the Torah”.) There are halakhos (Hilkhos Dei’os and parts of Hilkhos Teshuvah in the Rambam) that obligate us to pursue the Spirit of the Law to the best extent we can understand it in addition to its specific letter.

This does mean that decisions can at times be ends driven. For example we seek ways to free agunos from being locked into dead marriages. But those ends must be Torah values, and not convenience. And only as one weighting factor among many — the importance of the goal does not mean that we can find “solutions” that violate halachic process. Not every time that there is Rabbinic Will can we necessarily find a Halachic Way, and often when a mechanism does exist, that Way can only be found after generations of searching.

Thus all of Orthodoxy’s defining practices are halakhah. In fact, I would say that’s a tautology; a definition of Orthodoxy. However, some are specific laws, and some are the laws about trying to remake oneself into a holy person who pursues the Torah’s ideals. And unlike Catholic Israel, Orthodox subgroups can accept practices that violate the feel of the process and thus to a greater or lesser extent they could cease being Orthodox.

Rav Wolbe’s World part II: Middos

This is the second part of a translation of Rav Shlomo Wolbezt”l‘s contribution to Bishvilei haRefu’ah [In the Paths of Medicine], volume 5, Sivan 5742, “Psychiatria veDat” [Psychiatry and Religion], section beis (pp 60-70). In this section, the Mashgiach prepares the background for the discussion by laying out his basic worldview, his view of the purpose of Torah and life, from a very Mussar-based perspective.
In part one we saw the Mashgiach’s idea that the world of Torah is a World of Yedidus [Affection / Dearness]. Halakhah is a tool to create an emotional bond between us and G-d, a bond between us and other people, and an internal bond and wholeness. Our generation is characterized by fear playing a central role in our lives, and this ill is a consequence of the lack of emotional connection which is manifest in a lack of trust and faith in G-d, and the distrustful way we interact with other people in general.
Now we continue at the three stars subdividing section beis, on page 65. Rav Wolbe now continues with a description of how we are to bring this world about.
Without harnessing Middos (inclinations, attitudes and character predispositions) to build yedidus, we tend to descend to the opposite extreme, cruelty. Free will does not go so far as to include the ability to create or destroy any of the soul’s powers, including one’s middos. Much of the battle within the soul and mind occurs without our awareness, among the physical desires and tendencies of our subconscious, and the spiritual longings of what Rav Wolbe calls our “super-conscious”. The Torah does not call on us to suppress or repress any of these powers, but to learn to use each in its appropriate time and constructively.
The following translation, section headings and footnotes are my own.

Alienation and Cruelty

The World of Yedidus is not an idealized world without any opposing forces. Forces of alienation stand in its way and constantly threaten to harm or even destroy it. The World of Yedidus is a unified world, built upon great closeness between a person and their Creator and between people and their peers. But there is a force within a person that does not want this closeness — estrangement that grows step by step until all connection to others is lost, and until it is the worst of all middos: akh-zariyus [pure alienation, an unpacking of the word akhzariyus, cruelty], that is to say, absolute alienation. The akh-zar person is happy to gloat over his peer, gets pleasure from his pain. The final step of alienation is that the person is a zar (a stranger) to himself and even akh-zari (cruel) to himself. (See at length in Wolbe, Bein Sheishes leAsor, Jerusalem 1976, the essay “Olam haYedidus” on p. 15 ff.)

We find in the Talmud (Shabbos 105b):

One who tears clothing in his fury, who breaks his vessels in his fury, or who scatters his money in his fury should be in your eyes like an idolator. Because such is the job of the evil inclination: today it says to him “do this” and tomorrow it says to him “do that”, until eventually it tells him “worship idols!” — and he goes and worships. Rav Avin said, “Where is the scripture (Where is this written in Tanakh)? ‘Do not have within you a zar (foreign) god’ — What is a foreign god who is within a person’s body? This says it is the evil inclination.”

This text outlines evil as a force of alienation. The Talmud here portrays the process of alienation which begins with a person’s alienation from himself through anger, and from there he reaches alienation from G-d — idolatry. It is not for naught that pagan gods are called by the term “avodah zarah” (foreign worship), to point to the source of the phenomenon in the power of zarus (alienation / foreignness).

Middos and Intellect

What is this process of alienation? There isn’t any power in the soul which is specifically evil (Naftali Wessley, Sefer haMidos part I, ch. 4). Every power has some place in the World of Yedidus. Even egotism and anger are necessary sometimes. When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary. However, in order to build the World of Yedidus, there has to be coordination of all the forces together, so that they work together in cooperation and a proper distribution of their duties.

The ruling power, which sets each of the other powers in their proper place, is the intellect, which is therefore the central power of yedidus in a person. (Cf. Kuzari, Rav Yehudah HaLeivi, 3:2 onward.) Without the rule of the intellect, there is no World of Yedidus. When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its boundaries and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control — this power alienates itself from the other powers and rebels against the intellect. This is where zarus begins, and that power thereby changes to become “evil.” This process is depicted in the Talmud quoted above with the example of anger. Elsewhere the Talmud depicts the same process of alienation with regard to sexual lust (which the Gemara describes as “[Rav said:] someone who intentionally stimulates himself [should be excommunicated. And why is it prohibited? Because he incites the evil inclination against himself.]” — Niddah 13b)

Free Will

Here we reach the question of free will. We explained that there is no power in a person that is specifically evil. We are able to use our powers to build the World of Yedidus, through the coordination of those powers by the intellect. The excessive use of one power or a rebellion against the intellect cause the destruction of the World of Yedidus. This choice is in the person’s hands, whether to choose yedidus or alienation. Indeed, he can choose.1

In the Talmud we find an example of this (Shabbos 156a): “A person born under the sign of Mars will be a person who sheds blood — a blood-letter, a thief, a ritual slaughterer [for meat] or a mohel.” A person cannot change the basic attribute, in this example — the inclination to shed blood. But this attribute can be used for good, and the spectrum of possibilities is broad: he could be a doctor, a slaughterer or a mohel. Only the thief who won’t flinch from murder uses his attribute in a manner of alienation. Here we have an example of an extreme inclination, and there is still nothing that compels a person to be evil because of it. He has the choice to use it for more beneficial ends.

For the sake of completeness, we will give a historical example from our Sages on this topic (Yalkut Shimoni, Samuel I, 16:124):

When Samuel saw that David was “red”, he grew fearful. “This one will shed blood like Esau!” The Holy One said to him, “With beautiful eyes” — Esau killed by his own decision, but this one kills by the decision of the Sanhedrin!

In any case, there is a limit to choice; the basic inclination cannot be changed! In the above example, someone born with the inclination to shed blood cannot uproot this inclination. The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or to destroy it.2

Torah and Middos

Here the Torah comes to the aid of the intellect, to strengthen the person to choose good. The Torah of Israel wages an all-out war against all the forces of alienation. Therefore, first of all, “The intent of the Torah is to extend the intellect to all the desires of the soul, and to assert its power over them” (Chovos HaLevavos, Shaar Perishus, ch. 2). The intent is not to to suppress desires, but to put each force in its proper place. For that is the way of Torah in all its mitzvos. Torah has three pillars: “On three things the world stands — on Torah, on worship and on supporting kindness” — taught Shim’on haTzaddik (Avos 1:2). Learning Torah completes the person himself. Worshipping God — whether in the Beis haMikdash or with his prayer — connects us with the Holy One. Supporting through acts of kindness is yedidus toward the other. These are the parts of Torah.3

The Torah is also meticulous about subtle instances of alienation: “When you see your enemy’s donkey collapsing under its load, you refrain from removing it? You should surely remove it with him!” (Shemos 23:4-5) Ignoring damages to one’s peers is also alienation — “you may not hide!” (Devarim 22:3-4)

Subconscious and Super-Conscious

There is one last question for us to discuss: Does the Torah recognize the [existence of a] subconscious? The answer is in the affirmative. In the Tanakh we find that “Hashem [Tzevakos is a righteous judge] who examines the kidneys and heart” (Yirmiyahu 11:20). And the Talmud establishes, “the kidneys advise, the heart understands” (Berakhos 61a). The heart is the seat of the conscious, the kidneys — an idiom for the subconscious.

However, the subconscious known to Torah scholars is not that of Freud, which is created by the suppression of desires or unpleasant experiences. It is also not the unconscious of Jung, who believes in archetypes which reside in a collective unconscious. We must turn to the words of the Gra, “the Vilna Gaon”: “All of a person’s ways follow the original desire; the original desire as it initially arises is correct in his eyes.” (Commentary on Mishlei 16:1-2) As if to say, the desire is formed in such depths that our conscious has no dominion over them. The “I”4 that is known to us is only a very small part of the essence of a person. Hidden desire directs our ways — they are the “advising kidneys” in the idiom of Tanakh and our Sages, which we don’t directly feel in our activities. For the sake of brevity, we will have to refrain here from bringing examples from the Torah about how this “original desire” acts. Suffice it here to say that the hidden desire has the ability to strive for things of the body or the spirit.

From the Torah’s perspective, we would have to speak of a subconscious and also of a super-conscious. There are lofty desires which originate in the godly soul within us. They push us to ethical elevation and closeness to God, and they bring us to more lofty emotions. This spiritual original desire is appropriately called “super-conscious”, and we must leave the term “subconscious” for original desires that draw one to satisfy physical indulgences. The desires of our super-conscious are certainly no less strong than the desires of the subconscious. This understanding of super — and subconscious does not invalidate the mechanisms of repression. We already saw above that it was already known to Rabbi Yisrael Salanter 60 years before Freud. But the Torah understanding does contradict Freud in a sharp way in that he only finds the Libido in the subconscious, and in dreams which are the window into the subconscious, only sexual matters. (Cf. [Victor] Frankl’s writings, Das Menschenbild der Seelenheilkunde, Stuttgart 1959, and Der Unbewusste Gott — Psychotherapie und Religion.)

Excursus: Jewish Mysticism

This is the right point to dwell briefly on Jewish Mysticism. Judaism does not recognize that which we call unio mystica.5 A creature could never be entirely unified with his Creator. A person can greatly purify himself through the power of his Torah and worship; he can lower and abnegate himself before his Creator until he feels God’s closeness to him, but he remains constantly aware of the great distance that is between creature and His Creator. Non-Jewish sources which speak of a unio mystica apparently refer to specific ecstatic states from within which they feel as though they are in union with God. Jewish mystical enlightenment.6 entirely negates the possibility of actual unity. However, there is a section of the Torah called “the esoteric Torah” which Kabbalah deals with. It is part of the Oral Torah like the Talmud. However, whereas there is an obligation on every Jew to learn Talmud, only “people of stature” involve themselves in “Kabbalah.” Until our generation there were Kabbalists who developed deep insights in the area of Kabbalah. We will briefly follow their means of innovation.

The Torah’s system has two axes: The horizontal axis are the practical mitzvos which obligate every Jewish individual — they create the World of Yedidus of the entire nation. The vertical axis — these are the ways of ascent of each person according to their ability. These ways of ascent are primarily built upon the service of the heart, like love for, yirah (awe-fear) of, attachment to [God], etc… The more a person delves into the depths of Torah, the more he feels the subtle nuances of holiness. These sublime powers we discussed aid a person in this. The more deeply he delves into Torah, the more these powers are strengthened within him. With this he can reach the point where in the purity of his heart and clarity of his mind he could grasp very deep knowledge of Godliness, the world, and humanity.

This is the direct opposite of ecstasy, where through the nullification of consciousness one sees visions of secret worlds. On the contrary, the conscious is in operation at the time of comprehension, and the Kabbalist feels with total certainty that he is grasping the truth. A superlative example of this is the Gra from Vilna, about whom those close to him were known to say that they sent him [angels] from heaven to reveal to him lofty secrets. He refused to accept these revelations, because his mind was only at rest with ideas that he himself established with his study (introduction by Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner to the Gra’s commentary on Sifra deTzeneiu’sa, p. 4).

Therefore the person of Torah can reach purity of thought and sacred behavior until he merits sublime understanding and truths that reach the depths of creation. But this is the exclusive realm of the Torah of Israel. Psychiatry cannot bring one to these kinds of spiritual states, and also one cannot benefit from the ideas which are revealed in them.

  1. I believe this is why it was so important for Rabbi Wolbe to assert in the prior installment that everything has its role in creation, buttressing it with an entire digression about even insanity serving its purpose. As he quoted, “Despise no one and disdain nothing, for there is no person who does not have his moment and there is nothing that does not have its place” (Avos 4:3). Every inclination and power of the soul has its role. Therefore the Torah does not compel us to suppress any of them, rather it teaches us how to find its purpose within the ultimate goal of a World of Yedidus. []
  2. Maimonides famously describes the proper tuning for each inclination to be the Middle Measure (Code, Laws of Dei’os 1:2). The Orchos Tzadikim (introduction) likens it to a recipe or a meal; some ingredients, such as the meat, is desired in large quantities, others, like salt, in far smaller ones. We saw this kind of description in the previous essay, when Rabbi Wolbe writes, “When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its limits and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control…”

    However, it is notable that his primary focus in both that section and the current one is not so much the quantity or intensity of each inclination, but coordinating when and how each is used. As when he writes, “When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary.” Or as we find here, “The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or destroy it.” []

  3. Note that these are also the three forms of relationship that Rav Wolbe earlier said characterize the World of Yedidus.

    There is an interesting comparison here between Rabbi Wolbe’s model and those of two earlier figures of the 20th century.

    Rabbi Shimon Shkop (introduction to Shaarei Yosher) also speaks of the goal of the Torah in terms of the person who is connected to others:

    The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people… And there are higher levels of this in a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and (even) all of creation.

    However, Rabbi Shkop’s notion is more radical; his perspective is outright humanistic. Spirituality is only the second step in a progression towards connecting to all of humanity. He opens by telling us, that God “planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator…”

    Similarly, Dr. Nathan Birnbaum’s Ha-Olim Society carried a three-part motto of “Da’as, Rachamim, Tif’eres” to parallel Shimon haTzaddik’s three pillars. Translating, it called for “knowledge (of God), compassion (toward others), and a splendorous harmony (within).” And yet, he too gave his vision a very humanistic hue (Yavneh, year 3, issue 156-157 — Kisleiv-Teiveis 5691, published in Lemberg, p. 8-9). He describes Hashem’s Good as flowing from under the Throne of Glory and our job to aid its bestowal on ourselves and others. This requires being close to Him and thus connected to the Source, compassionate and thereby connected to others, and to form and master ourselves to become conduits through which that Good can flow.

    Whereas R’ Wolbe makes each kind of relationship — God, others and self — equally primary, both of these earlier thinkers speak of the value of relating to God and being whole in ourselves as deriving (at least in part, although possibly in total) from their being necessary to properly assist others. []

  4. Perhaps: “Ego” in the Freudian sense. []
  5. The Latin is in the original: a mystical union between the practitioner and God. []
  6. Behirus means mystical enlightenment, in contrast with Haskalah. []

Rav Wolbe’s World part I: Yedidus

Rav Shlomo Wolbe was a transitional figure in Jewish thought, presenting pre-Holocaust yeshiva mussar to students steeped in modern Charedi idiom. A German-born, university-educated ba’al teshuvah, he studied in one of the premier East European yeshivas and became a Mussar devotee, eventually marrying the daughter of R. Avraham Grodzinski, the martyred mashgiach of the famous Slobodka yeshiva. Until his passing in 2005, R. Wolbe disseminated a unique, sophisticated version of traditional Mussar that spoke directly to the concerns of traditional yeshiva students while still attracting university-educated newcomers to Orthodoxy.

In two installments, I will be translating part of an important essay in which R. Wolbe lays out his basic worldview. Our text is a 1982 article titled “Psychiatria veDat” [Psychiatry and Religion]” that Rav Wolbe contributed to a Torah journal published by Laniado Hospital in Kiryat Sanz (Bishvilei haRefu’ah [In the Paths of Medicine], volume 5, Sivan 5742). We will be examining the second section of that article (pp. 60-70), in which R. Wolbe discusses the purpose of Torah and life, from his Mussar-based perspective.

In this first installment, R. Wolbe describes the world of Torah as a World of Yedidus (affection, closeness). Halakhah gives us a set of tools. Mussar and the “Torah of the Heart” show us how to use those tools to develop personal relationships with God, other people, and an internal bond with our own souls that are characterized by that yedidus. Rather than stifling the spirit, Torah unleashes it.

(In part ii, Rav Wolbe explains how the Torah views the human makeup and how we are equipped to make this world manifest.)

The following translation, section headings and footnotes are my own.

A World of Affection
If we wish to outline the Torah of Israel in great brevity, literally “on one foot,”1 we would call it: “a world of yedidus” (affection). A great closeness predominates between Israel and God. “You are close, Hashem” (Tehillim 119:151) The Nation of Israel is called “His close nation” (Tehillim 148:14). The Jew does not approach God with celebration like to a god who is a rare, exalted guest, but like a son who approaches his loving and devoted father. A typical statement in the Talmud (Menachos 53a):

[God said:] “Let the yedid (dear one) the son of a yedid come and build a yedid for a Yedid in the portion of a yedid and the yedidim will be atoned with it.”

“Let the yedid come” — this is King Solomon (… [called] “Yedidyah…”) “the son of a yedid” — this is Avraham.… “And build a yedid” — this is the Beis ha-Mikdash (“How much yedidus have Your Tabernacles…” Tehillim 84:2). “For a Yedid” — this is HaKadosh barukh Hu (… “I will sing to my yedid” Yeshaiah 5:1). “In the portion of a yedid” — this is Binyamin ( … “[to Binyamin he said] ‘Hashem’s yedid…’” Devarim 33:12) “and the yedidim will be atoned with it” — they are Israel….

This closeness is not uni-directional. Not only did Avraham and subsequent generations draw themselves close to the Holy One, but He also draws Himself close to us. He gave us His Torah and rested His Shechinah on us. The clear feeling of Hashem’s closeness — which is called Shechinah — accompanies us in all periods: “Every place where they were exiled — the Shechinah was exiled with them” (Megillah 29a). This closeness is pervasive in all areas of life and even gratifies one’s physical life. The closeness between Israel and the Holy One establishes a yedidus and closeness between a person and his friends, which is what Hillel the Elder answered the non-Jew who wanted to convert on the condition that [Hillel] teach him the entire Torah “while he stands on one foot.”2 Hillel said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend — this is the entire Torah, and the rest is its explanation. Go study!” (Shabbos 31a). We see the central point of the Torah: “Fellowship”! This establishes a very close bond with each Jew, behavior in accord with the “ways of peace”3 with all people, caution against causing pain to any living being, and a positive relationship toward everything in the Holy One’s world. This finds expression in the maxim, “Despise no one and disdain nothing, for there is no person who does not have his moment and there is nothing that does not have its place” (Avos 4:3).

Excursus: Everything Has a Place, Even Insanity4

It should be stated quickly that our Sages also saw mental illness from this perspective. This is why they said (Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel 1:21 #131):

“He made everything beautiful in its time” (Koheles 3:11) — everything the Holy One made in His world is beautiful. David said before the Holy One, “Master of the universe, everything that You made in your world is beautiful. Wisdom is the most beautiful of everything. Except for insanity; what benefit exists in this insane person? A person walks in the marketplace, tears his clothing and children laugh at him and run after him, and the people laugh at him — this is pleasant before You?” The Holy One said to him, “David, you call a challenge over insanity?! By your life, you will need it!… You will be pained and pray for it until I give some [insanity] to you.” David didn’t do anything but [immediately] went to the Philistines… The Holy One said to him, “You are going to Akhish [the Philistine ruler of Gath]? Yesterday you killed Goliath and today you go by his brothers with his sword in your hand, and his brothers are Askhish’s bodyguards. The blood of Goliath hasn’t yet dried!” When David reached Askhish, they came to Askhish and said to him, “Let us kill the one who killed our brother!” … At that point David became afraid… he started to pray and said, “Master of the universe, answer me at this time!” The Holy One said to him, “David, what do you request?” He said to Him, “Give me some of that thing [insanity]!”… He made himself like that insane person, writing on doors, “Akhish the king of Gath owes me 10,000, and his wife — fifty [thousand]….….” Akhish said to them, “You know I am short on fools?”, as it says, “Do you think I lack crazy people?” (Shmuel I 21:16)

As is well known, in this way David was then saved. Our Sages didn’t reveal to us the reason, the need for which God created mental illness in the world. They only said that David questioned the existence of mental illness and through this he entered the domain of “despise it.”5 His punishment was that he himself needed to appear like a mentally ill person in order to be saved. Our Sages implied to us with this that even the mentally ill have a place in the Holy One’s world. Let us return to our topic.…

Torah, Halakhah and Yedidus

When we enter the world of Torah, we find ourselves in the world of yedidus. This yedidus is not an abstract theory. The Torah speaks in the language of action: It gives us commandments. They are what establish the connections between a person and his Creator, between a person and his peers, and between a person and himself.

Here there isn’t merely a religious ritual but a lifestyle that encompasses all aspects of life. All the mitzvos, even though they are many, would still remain isolated points in the broad expanse of life if it were not for the thread that ties it all together, and like a faint web which actually surrounds all the situations of life: this network is the halakhah. The Talmud from which we draw practical rulings is not a collection of stringent decrees but a profound and specific wisdom. As the Rambam expressed, “Its way [of halakhah] is exceedingly deep” (introduction to Mishneh Torah). This wisdom is not the privilege of rabbis; every Jew is invited to take part in it.

Halakhah is the workshop of the Jewish lifestyle. One who stands on the outside would perhaps think that the mitzvos and halakhah do not leave space for an emotional life and stifles individual development. Later we will see that this is not the case. Of course, the Torah does not declare that the spirit is a hostile power to the soul, as [Ludwig] Klages[6. Ludwig Klages (1872-1956) was a German philosopher and psychologist.] thinks. On the contrary, the spirit completes the soul. Halakhah guides a person even in confusing and unusual situations in a sober, objective manner without giving the person the feeling of being alienated. That approach which characterizes the modern psychologist’s relationship to his patient is precisely the approach of halakhah and [its] decisors, even to questions about ethical failings. Instead of causing a person to be mired in guilt feelings, halakhah determines how to behave and fix his failings according to his abilities.

The Torah of the Heart

The high road of Judaism is halakhah. However, a unique segment established for itself the “Torah of the Heart.” Its fabric was woven by the prophets and poets (Tehillim!), the masters of agadata in the Talmud and Midrashim, philosophers and kabbalists. Two later developments in this area are the Chassidic (established by R’ Yisrael the “Baal Shem Tov,” 1700-1760) and Mussar (established by R’ Yisrael Lipkin — Salanter, 1808-1882) Movements. Emotion occupies a central position in Chassidus; the sublime experience of communal unity around the Chassidic Master, and the encouragement and paternal supervision of the Chassidic Master — the rebbe for his chassidim — are the mainstays of Chassidus.

In the Mussar Movement, too, emotion occupies a central position. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter emphasized that a person could not reach sheleimus (wholeness) if he doesn’t straighten out his subconscious forces. He calls these “dark forces.”6 (Rav Yitzchak Blazer’s Or Yisrael, ch. 6) His classical example:

A man has a wild son whom he hates because of [the child's] belligerence, and an excellent and very beloved student. The son and the student live in the same room. A fire breaks out in the house and the father-teacher rushes to rescue the two youths. He runs to their room, and who does he save first? His son, even though he hates him. His love for [the son] was suppressed into the subconscious, but in the chaos of the danger it overcomes the love of the student that was in his conscious. (Even Yisrael, Jerusalem 1954, p. 62) (These things were written some 60 years before Freud!)

Rav Yisrael Salanter further found that the subconscious forces are not influenced by intellectual persuasion alone, but specifically by hispa’alus [working on oneself experientially and emotionally] (Or Yisrael, ch. 30). (This principle is also known from psychoanalytic technique, and as already said — Rav Yisrael preceded it by sixty years!) We achieve this hispa’alus through Mussar study “with the soul’s feeling and the spirit’s storm” (Ibid., “The Mussar Letter,” [ch. 10]) in other words, self-study. The Mussar Movement also created an institution like the Chassidic Rebbe in respect to authority and stature–the spiritual dean of the Lithuanian Yeshiva (called “The Mashgiach”). He guides his students with Mussar talks, small working groups, and a close personal connection with the students.

We tried to portray, in a nutshell, the “World of Yedidus” of Judaism. In practice, every congregation that Jews establish, on foundations of its assistance and the mutual feelings of responsibility of the community members, makes a microcosm of the “World of Yedidus.” Here we have a complete lifestyle based on the mitzvos of the Torah, enhanced by halakhah and the Torah of the heart and feeling.

Yedidus vs. Fear

It can be said that the fundamental feeling of someone who lives in the world of Torah is bitachon—trust. “Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid!” (Yeshaiah 12:2) Or, “[A psalm] of David: Hashem is my light and salvation, of whom would I fear? Hashem is the stronghold of my life, of whom would I be afraid?” (Tehillim 27:1) This is the spirit that blows through all of the Holy Scriptures — and in the Jewish home established in the World of Yedidus of Torah.

It is clear that the cold world that is embedded in “the battle of life,” which is essentially materialistic, is fertile ground for fear. It is not coincidence that fear is a common theme for modern philosophy and psychology. Martin Heidegger claims that fear is man’s basic sense in the world (Sein u. Zeit). There is no need to point out the broad space that fear occupies in psychology and psychiatry. Perhaps fear is the stigma of our generation. It is made that way by the economic faithlessness and certainly also the development of nuclear arsenal. But there is no doubt that also the loss of faith in God is a strong cause for the spread of fear. A person born and raised in the “World of Yedidus” knows and feels that the main existential feeling is not fear but specifically yedidus. (Of course, these explanations are not said about fears caused by trauma in one’s youth or the like, but in existential fears like the feelings of life’s emptiness.)

  1. This idiom, “on one foot”, is a reference to an exchange in the Talmud later retold in this article between Hillel the Elder and a conversion candidate. It is usually taken in accord with the literal translation: that the explanation is quick, fitting within the time someone could balance standing on one foot. However, it could also mean “foot” idiomatically: to explain a major concept using a single foundational principle. This second interpretation also fits here and in the Talmud. []
  2. Or, a demand that Hillel teach him the entire Torah as stemming from a single principle. See above, footnote 1. []
  3. An idiom used in a number of places, e.g. Mishnah, Gittin 5:8-9; BT Sotah 61a, describing our duty to uphold peace and amicable relations, both among Jews and in our relationship to non-Jews. []
  4. I presume this paragraph was added because of its role in the larger paper. Insanity does not play a central part of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe’s worldview, but here serves to highlight the contrast between how psychology and Torah view the world. Everything has its place, as Rabbi Wolbe was saying. Mental illness is a means of pulling a person, in this case King David, toward yedidus. Insanity is not only something to be cured and disposed of, but first poses an opportunity for growth. Perhaps this growth happens by overcoming the malady, perhaps in another way — “our sages didn’t reveal to us the reason and need.” []
  5. By denying the value of insanity, he violated the previously cited dictum from Avos of “Despise no one and disdain nothing.” []
  6. Emanuel Kant refers to unconscious aspects of our thoughts as occurring in der dunkel, the dark. []

Who in his time?

There were two lines from the Shemoneh Esrei of Rosh haShanah that particularly spoke to me this year — “mekhalkeil chaim bechesed – Who sustains the living with lovingkindness”, and the line from Unsaneh Toqef which tells us that on Rosh haShanah it is written and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed… mi beqitzo umi lo beqitzo — who in their time, and who not in their time”?

Less than 24 hours before Rosh haShanah began I was at JFK Airport, at the funeral of a young man I watched grow up next door to me. “Sustains the living with kindness”? Can I see the generosity of allotting him a mere 22 years of life? “Who in their time”? How can that be the fate sealed for someone who was just beginning his life?

Why is the term used here for the arrival of the denoted time “qeitz”, at the endpoint (from “qatzeh”, edge, c.f. Shemos 36:33)? How does it differ from saying that the “zeman”, or “eis” (both meaning “time”) had arrived? Fortunately, we have a handle on that question from its use in the Torah.

Parashas Miqeitz opens “Vayhi miqeitz shenasayim yamim — and it was at the end of a pair of years of days”. After Yosef spent two years in prison, Par’oh’s dream leads the wine steward to remember Yosef and eventually leads to his redemption. But why does the pasuq say “shenasayim yamim”, rather than just “shenasayim”?

This duplication of terms for time is echoed later in the narrative, when Ya’akov describes his age to Par’oh as “The days of the years of my travels…” (Bereishis 47:8) as well as at the beginning of parashas Vayechi, in counting out Ya’aqov avinu’s lifespan, “… And the days of Ya’aqov was, the years of his life…” (Ibid. v. 28. Notable is the use of singular “hayah – was” referring to the days.) The repetition implies that there are distinct concepts. Yom and shanah refer to different things.

The Zohar (Pinechas 249a-b) describes a system of grammatical gender follows the conventions of sexual reproduction: Biblical Hebrew uses masculine nouns for those things that we think of as initiators that start a process. Feminine nouns take that seed and develop it into something more complete and usable. “Yom”, being in the masculine is therefore an initiator. “Yom” represents a unit of progress. It is a unit of linear time, a progress from birth to death. The culmination of history is notably called “acharis hayamim” (Eg. Sukkah 52b) and in the navi, “yom Hashem” (Eg. Sukkah 52b).

In contrast, “shanah” is from the same root as “two”, “to repeat”, “to learn”, or “to change”, and perhaps even that of “to age” and “to sleep”, as in “venoshantem ba’aretz“. And notably it’s in the feminine. A shanah is not the end of a line, it’s the means of producing further.

Perhaps this is why the Malbim (Bereishis 47:8) explains Ya’aqov avinu’s reply to Par’oh as having two parts. To Par’oh’s question about years, he answers that he traveled this earth 130 years. About days, Ya’akov laments that he did not use his time as productively as did his fathers, “Few and insufficient were the days of my life’s years, and they never reached the days of the years of my forefather’s lives.” (Ibid v. 9)

Referring to just a zeman or an eis, like referring to a yom or a shanah, cannot represent the goal of the trip. It’s the qeitz, in which both the process of shanim and the progress of yamim reach a culmination. And it was at the qeitz of shensayim yamim“. A qeitz, an endpoint, can only come from both.

Some die of an old age, and some die younger. Hashem supports life, meaningful existence, with lovingkindness. Each trip is exactly the right length for a person to reach their potential. But the tragic would have been dying without getting to where he was supposed to go.

I’ll miss you Buzzy!


From Qeren to Shofar

(Updated after Rosh haShanah 5774 with idea from the Tanchuma.)

The Ramban, in his Derashah leRosh haShanah, writes that a shofar is a keli, a formal utensil in the halachic sense. For this reason, while most rishonim hold that a hole in a shofar invalidates the shofar only if the hole is such that it changes the produced sound, the Ramban holds that any hole disqualifies it. He emphasizes that we take a raw natural qeren, a horn, and produce a new thing from it with a new name — shofar, from leshapeir (to improve).

(Tangent: Students of R JB Soloveitchik might note that he, RJBS, often referred to the shofar as a raw animal cry, emphasizing how un-technological a shofar is. These two approaches appear to be in conflict. But this entry is from the Ramban’s perspective.)

Literally a qeren is a horn (or something shaped like a horn, like a beam of light from Moshe’s head, or the cornerpieces of the mizbeiach). And once this horn is refined, meshaperes, we have the mitzvah of shofar which we are to blow before G-d.

This notion that Hashem left it for us to complete what He began is the topic of a story in the Medrash Tanchuma (Tzaria, Buber #7, Warsaw: second half of #5) that I discussed elsewhere:

Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Aqiva: Which acts are more pleasant, those of the Holy One, or those of flesh and blood?
[R' Aqiva] said to him: Those of flesh and blood are [more] pleasant.
Turnus Rufus the wicked said to him: Behold heaven and earth — can you make anything like them?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: Do not talk to me about something which is beyond creatures [to do], which they do not have mastery of them, but of things that exist among people.
He said to him: Why do you circumcise?
He said to him: I even knew you were going to say to me something llike this, therefore I preempted and said to you “the acts of fless and blood are more pleasant than those of the Holy One.
[Then R' Aqiva said to the staff:] Bring me sheaves and cakes.
He said to him: These [sheaves] are the Holy One’s work, and these [cakes] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
[Again R' Aqiva asked of the staff:] Bring me flax stalks and [linen] garments from Beis She’an.
He said to him: These [stalks] are the Holy One’s work, and these [fine garments] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
Turnus Rufus said to him: Since [G-d] wants circumcision, why doesn’t [the baby] emerge circumcised from the mother’s womb?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: And why his umbilical cord emerge with him, if his mother were not to cut his umbilical cord? Why doesn’t he emerge [already] circumcised? Because the Holy One only gave Israel the mitzvos in order to be refined by them. That is why David said, “the speech of G-d refines” (Tehillim 18:31)

This, then is one message of shofar: A person is not saved by simply trusting in G-d and leaving the job to Him. On the other hand, a person can only succeed in anything by entering in a partnership with the Creator. And so we do not awaken ourselves to repentance with the qeren He made. Nor do we use chatzotzros, metal trumpets that are so reshaped they are keilim, utensils, in which it’s so easy to see our own efforts, it is hard to notice Hashem’s initial contribution. The word “shofar” acknowledges that this is something from the Creator, but “refined” by man.

A second thought can be learned from the transition from qeren to shofar when we note that idiomatically, qeren refers to might or pride. As we say in Shemoneh Esrei, “The sprout of David may You quickly cause to bloom, veqarno — and his pride — You shall uplift with Your redemption…” Or in Tehillim (75:5), “אָמַרְתִּי לַהוֹלְלִים אַל תָּהֹלּוּ, וְלָרְשָׁעִים אַל תָּרִימוּ קָרֶן — I said to the arrogant, do not brag; and to the evil, do not ‘lift a horn’ [i.e. boast].”

So we take this symbol of pride, and we bore a small hole at the end. What used to hold air or liquid now amplifies the cry of another. By sharing the pain of another, self-interest gets harnessed to aid this community of suffering. This too is a sublimation and refinement. Thus the qeren of pride becomes a shofar of empathy.

Hashem gives us a set of middos, talents and desires. We can choose whether to use them to build a world of self-pride or one of yedidus, affection and connection to others.

We associate the shofar with crying. We blow 100 sounds because Sisera’s mother cried 100 times when learning her son (off to war against the Jews) was killed and would not return. There is a dispute whether the broken sound required by the Torah is more like yelulei yalal (uneven wailing) or genunei ganach (sobbing), so we blow both the teru’ah and the shevarim, as well as the two together as a pair.

The shofar is also a royal sound. “With trumpets and the sound of a shofar, call out before the King. The mishnah describes Hashem as saying, “Call before Me with the blast of the Shofar – to show that you accept of Me as your King.” In the same way they blow trumpets to announce that the king or queen is entering the room, we blow Shofar on Rosh haShanah to announce a new year of Hashem’s rule.

Is the sound of the shofar the 100 wails of Sisera’s mother, or the triumphant fanfare of the King?

אמר ר’ יוחנן כל מקום שאתה מוצא גבורתו של הקב”ה אתה מוצא ענוותנותו דבר זה כתוב בתורה ושנוי בנביאים ומשולש בכתובים כתוב בתורה (דברים י) כי ה’ אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדוני האדונים וכתיב בתריה עושה משפט יתום ואלמנה שנוי בנביאים (ישעיהו נז) כה אמר רם ונשא שוכן עד וקדוש וגו’ וכתיב בתריה ואת דכא ושפל רוח משולש בכתובים דכתיב (תהילים סח) סולו לרוכב בערבות ביה שמו וכתיב בתריה אבי יתומים ודיין אלמנות

R’ Yochanan said: Every place where you find the Might of HQBH, you find His anvanus (humility). This is written in the Torah, seconded in the Nevi’im, and stated a third time in Kesuvim. Written in the Torah: “For Hashem your G-d, He is the G-d over all powers and the L-rd over all lords”, and it says after it “who performs justice for the orphan and the widow.” Seconded in the Nevi’im, “As said the High and Exalted Who dwells eternally and Holy…” and it says after it, “and the broken and low of spirit.” And stated a third time in the Kesuvim, as it says, “Extol He Who rides on the skies, through Kah His name” and it says after it, “the Father of orphans and judge for widows.”

G-d’s greatness isn’t just that He is Infinite, but that He is SO infinite so as to not just set the stars on their paths and keeps the laws of physics running, but He has time, attention and resources to care for the needy.

The person who can share another’s cry is the very one who declares G-d’s majesty.

That is taking the qeren and making something new of it, something shofar — refined.