Torah Min Hashamayim: Some Brief Reflections on Classical and Contemporary Models – Guest Post – Rabbi Nati Helfgot

July 21, 2013

Torah Min Hashamayim: Some Brief Reflections on Classical and Contemporary Models

Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is on the faculty of the SAR High School and serves as the Chair of the Bible and Jewish Though Departments at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ and is on the steering committee of the Orthodox Forum. He is a member of the RCA and an officer of the IRF. He is most recently the author of Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation (Maggid/Koren, 2012).

He is also the author of  Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Ktav, 2006) and served as the editor of Or Hamizrach and the assistant editor of the Meorot Journal.

 

1. For the last two centuries theories of higher Biblical Criticism have challenged traditional notions of the Divine authorship of the Torah. Classical academic theories claimed multiple human authors composing various portions of the Torah at different points in history, as a purely human creation.

This directly flies in the face of traditional notions of revelation and authorship of the Torah.  The challenges of academic theories of the authorship of the Torah continue to engage the thinking of many believing Jews who struggle in their attempt to reconcile their faith commitments and the serious questions and dilemmas posed by critical study of the Torah.

At the heart of any traditional notion of Judaism lies the principle of Torah Min Hashamayim- the truth claim that the God is the source and origin of the Pentateuch. The Mishnah at the opening of the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin which states “Haomer Ein Torah Min Ha-Shamayim Ein Lo Cheilek Leolam Haba” itself does not spell out what the exact meaning of the phrase “Torah” is. In classical rabbinic literature the phrase Torah has a range of meaning from a narrow reference to the Decalogue, to the Five Books of Moses to the entirety of the Bible to the whole corpus of the written and oral law. From the Talmudic discussion it emerges that Hazal understood this unique dogma to refer specifically to the Torah proper.   In one formulation in the sugya that discusses this concept, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) asserts that one violates this principle if one maintains that the entire Torah comes from God except for “one verse which was not said by God but by Moses on his own”. This phrase is ambiguous as it may be interpreted to be focusing only on the Divine source of the Torah, or that notion plus an insistence on Mosaic authorship. In other words, is the Talmud insisting only on the Divine authorship belief or that this must be coupled with Moses being the vehicle for all of that communication. The practical ramification would be if one maintained that part of the Torah was directly from God but not through Mosaic authorship. (The original and primary valence of this passage has been discussed in the writings of Rav Hayim Hirshcenson z”l and in a seminal essay by the Jewish philosopher Shalom Rosenberg printed in the classic volume “Hamikra Va-anchnu”.  This dispute in interpretation is at the heart of the famous dispute in the Talmud in Bava Batra (15a) as to whether the last eight verses in the Torah were written by Moses in anticipatory prophecy or were written by Joshua subsequent to Moses’ demise.

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Of Sexual Abuse, Yeshiva, and Teshuva by Yosef Kanefsky

July 7, 2013

Between September 1977 and June 1981 I attended Yeshiva University High School,  commonly known as MTA. During that time Rabbi George Finkelstein was the principal, and Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm  – a once and forever hero of American Orthodoxy – was the President of the University.. I of course knew during those years, that there were certain students whom Rabbi Finkelstein aggressively invited into his office to “wrestle” with him. I  “of course” knew, because everybody knew. Everybody already knew about it in the years before I got to MTA, and everybody continued to know about it in the years following.

For 30 years after graduating MTA I never thought about any of this, until this past December when the stories of what we now call sexual abuse – committed by Rabbi Finkelstein and one other faculty member – were detailed in the Daily Forward. Also detailed by the Forward was Rabbi Lamm’s eventual decision to quietly dismiss the abusers, without either reporting anything to the police, or telling their subsequent employers about what he knew. The months that followed the Forward’s revelations brought only half-apologies and mumbled rationalizations from YU. But this past Monday, Rabbi Dr. Lamm, now 85 and in failing health,  resigned as university chancellor, and spoke at length about the scandal in his resignation remarks. A few representative sentences:

“At the time that inappropriate actions by individuals at Yeshiva were brought to my attention, I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived. [I submitted to] momentary compassion in according individuals the benefit of the doubt by not fully recognizing what was before [me]. And when this happens—one must do teshuvah. So, I too must do teshuvah. True character requires of me the courage to admit that, despite my best intentions then, I now recognize that I was wrong.”

I am writing about this today neither to applaud Rabbi Lamm for his honesty and courage, – although such applause is appropriate – nor to point out what was missing from his statement – which spokespeople for the victims have already quite correctly  done.  I am writing rather, in order to open the question as to how it hapenned that an entire generation of MTA students – including me – failed to speak up about what we knew was happening (even if we didn’t yet have the vocabulary to describe it)?  And even more to the point, how is it that faculty members –  our teachers! – as well as members of the administration remained silent, never raising their voices? Why did we remain silent, and what responsibility do we have now?

There are surely at least a half-dozen different explanations that can be offered for why people remain silent in the face of these kinds of things. They range from fear of ridicule or even reprisal, to apathy and indifference to the problems of others. But there is also our  deep-seated  – and not incorrect – belief in the vital importance of our basic religious institutions, and the tradition, stability, and reassurance that they provide. Consciously or perhaps sub-consciously, we are afraid to do something that might destabilize the couriers of  our faith and identity, the shepherds of our historical continuity. Which is why we have a long-standing  habit of overlooking institutional flaws and even misdeeds, in the name of preserving stability and continuity.

My father, my sister, all 4 of my brothers-in-law, my son and I are all graduates of one or more YU school. Every single member of the Modern Orthodox community is directly or indirectly a beneficiary of YU, its educational vision, and the services it provides.  We all owe a historic debt of gratitude to the institution, and to Rabbi Lamm in particular.  Which is precisely the reason why there are people, even as the investigation is going on, who feel that the most important thing to do is to continue to protect the institution. And which is undoubtedly why there were so many who remained silent back in the 70’s and 80’s when Rabbi Finkelstein’s bizarre behavior was a completely open secret within the school. But what must be obvious to us now is that it is both folly in practical terms, and corrupt in spiritual terms to think that we are in any way strengthening Judaism through turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of the innocent. Indeed, if Judaism means anything at all, only the precise opposite could possibly be true. Rabbi Lamm, in his final act of leadership, opened this discussion. It is upon all of us to continue it.

I have come to realize that as a schoolmate of many of the victims I have my own teshuva to do as well. It is my hope and intentions to begin organizing my MTA classmates, not God forbid to bash our alma mater, but to communicate to the University that it still has the opportunity to model for the Orthodox world how an institution investigates itself and how it cares for the victims of its past failures. And to organize my classmates to offer our own apology to those whose distress we ignored.

If you are an MTA alum, and would like to join me in this, please email me at yosefkanefsky@gmail.com


What Threatens the World and the Rabbinate? by Rav Yoel Bin Nun

July 4, 2013

What threatens the Torah world and the rabbinate? It is not the “draft decree” into the IDF, nor the “equality of burden” proposal, nor even budget cuts or the elections for the Chief Rabbinate. All these things do not threaten the Torah world or the rabbinate in any way.

If the elite members of the hareidi yeshivot will serve in some form or arrangement, their Torah world will only grow and deepen. This will be especially the case with those who are talented, especially with the Talmidei Chachamim amongst them.

During my service in the IDF, both during my initial service and during reserve duty, I was forced, by circumstances, to engage in in depth study of sugyot (areas of Talmud) and halakhot that by and large are not generally studied, such as Hilkhot Eiruvin as I was obligated to construct an eiruv by myself in the field during training missions, on more than one occasion, and of course to check the eiruv every Friday. In addition, I learned many laws of Kashrut and Shabbat in depth during my service in the IDF, because that is where one is confronted by many unusual circumstances. It is impossible to study daf yomi or the pristine sugyah in the standard tractate that is learned in the yeshiva. In the IDF one learns to live by the Torah in all situations, even in difficult circumstances, and on Shabbat one cannot simply call one’s posek.

If I had my druthers, I would test all of the bnei yeshiva in the country in Hilkhot Eiruvin and the like in order to demonstrate to the rashei yeshivot that it precisely the most talented and capable students who should serve in the IDF.

In the quota of those exempt from service in the army, if implemented, I would only include those whose religious commitment is weak and who may end up abandoning Torah observance during their service-as they are the ones who will not be asking the questions in Hilkhot Eiruvin.

In such a scenario, the quota of exemption would become a sign of shame, and the service in the IDF a symbol of pride for the Torah world (even that which is not Zionist). This is what is correct from a Torah and halachic perspective.

In passing, it should be pointed out that the members of the tribe of Levi in the desert also had a quota, and it is explicit in the book of Numbers. He who relies on the words of Maimonides (at the conclusion of the laws of Shemitah and Yovel) and compares yeshiva students to the Levites, cannot be opposed to a quota that limits the amount of who is exempt.

 

The Threat of the Agunot

What truly threatens the Torah world and the rabbinate?

The women- just the women. And it is not the women who may be joining the body that elects the Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel. It is the women who are suffering, the women who are abused and crying, the women who are agunot and are refused a get. It is they that threaten the Torah world, with the potential of leading to its utter destruction, God forbid.

Why?

As the Talmud teaches (Ketuvot 2b-3a) “Because of the meek (tznuot) women and because of the uninhibited (perutzot) women [the rabbis were lenient and accepted the validity of a get that was not technically valid].”

In the world of truth that Hazal inhabited one gave a get immediately. One did not wait a month or a year. A man could return and marry the women he divorced and so there was no reason to postpone the giving of the get. Only for a Kohen who was prohibited from marrying his divorced wife, would they write a special type of get (get mekushar) in order to postpone the effectuation of the divorce in case he might have second thoughts. This also lasted a far shorter time than the quickest get procedure in today’s rabbinical courts.

It is enough simply to look at the statistics provided by the rabbinical courts themselves. In Israel, there are currently 200 women who have not received a get after a rabbinical ruling that the husband must give a get. It is known, of course, that such a ruling is not given immediately and has only come after many months, years of deliberations in the rabbinical courts. There are also 200 men whose wives refuse to receive a get for various reasons. However, these men can live with other women and even sire children who are halachically kosher. If we examine the numbers of women who have not received a get from a recalcitrant husband, whose cases are being stretched out in the rabbinical courts, and who have not yet received a ruling, the numbers reach into the many thousands.

What happens to the women who are agunot, whose beloved of youth has abandoned them, and in many cases already lives with another woman?

The “meek (tznuot)” amongst them weep, and their tears reach the heavenly throne because the gates to accept “those who are oppressed” and the gates to accept “tears” are never closed (Bava Metziah 59b) And when a tear fell from the eyes of the wife of Rav Rachumi, who was expecting his return on Erev Yom Kippur, and he was immersed in his Torah learning and di not return to his home as was his yearly habit, Rav Rachumi died (Ketuvot 62b).

The “uninhibited (perutzot)” amongst them say, what can I do if the rabbis and judges do not pay attention to me, and allow the man to make demands and conditions for giving the get. In such a case, I have no choice and I will also find myself a man to live with, for I cannot carry such a heavy burden, the burden of raising children and my own personal burden, all alone. And then, God forbid, there is adultery, and it becomes viewed as justified, because it is done out of sense of “no options” available, viewed by many men and women as something akin to an oness – a situation in which one is coerced into a violation, so much so that many lawyers and rabbinical advocates admit that such a reality can often spur the rabbinical court to move with a bit more alacrity to resolve the situation.

What did Hazal , in the rabbinical court of truth state?

“Whoever betroths a woman, betroths on the (condition) of the acquiescence of the rabbis” (Gitin 33a). They found ways to uproot the kiddushin (betrothal) and the nissuin (marriage), if there was no other path available such as in the case that a man sent his wife a divorce via an agent and then canceled the agency in the middle of the mission.. Now all rabbis in the world, all of us, teach grooms to recite the formula “According to the laws of Moses and Israel” under the bridal canopy. “Israel” is a reference to the rabbis who stand under the canopy with the grooms and brides. However, we do not stand with the women when they find themselves in their difficult hour, when they request a get.

It is clear, that in the court of truth of Torah, the burden falls squarely on the shoulders of the rabbis and their disciples, and the adultery of the women who wait months and years, all alone is the responsibility of the rabbis before God.

The tears of the meek women also will determine the judgment, and may possibly bring a destruction of the Torah world and the rabbinate. It is impossible to know which is more serious—adultery caused by a sense of having no option or the tears of the women refused gittin, who will never be able to live with a man without a kosher get.

 

The Responsibility of the Rabbis

If the rashei yeshivot, rabbis, rabbinical court judges and poskim, thought that they would stand before the heavenly court and be held accountable both for the adultery and the tears of pain, and that their entire Torah would, God forbid, be tuned against them as an agent of prosecution, if they understood that the Master of the Universe stands: “By a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand” (Amos 7:7 see Bava Metziah 59a), that is that there is no protective wall, and everything  is breached, they would immediately come together- Lithuanians and Hasidim, Sefaradim and Ashkenazim, Zionists and Hareidim, Moderates and Zealots in order to make decisions- not as to who will sit on the chair of Rav Kook, the founder of the Chief Rabbinate of Eretz Yisrael, buit rather on the question as to what the Chief Rabbis and all the rabbinical courts should do to save themselves from the guilt of adultery and the tears of the women that rest on their shoulders.

However, those who grab hold of the Torah do not truly believe that the Master of the Universe stands upon “the wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in His hand”. They shut their eyes and do not see the adultery that they cause to the “uninhibited” women and do not hear the cries of the “meek” women who have not received gittin at the hands of recalcitrant husbands.

They only hear the threat of women being included in the body that will elect the Chuief Rabbis, and will soon quote for us what Rav Kook wrote about women being elected or having the vote, without understanding the full import of the position of Rav Kook and his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda on this serious question.

For many years, rabbis and dayanim have told me that it is only permitted to teach Tanakh based upon the midrashim of the sages. Listen carefully to what the rabbis stated about the destruction of Shiloh together with the Tabernacle that exited in Shiloh.

In the book of Samuel 1 (Ch 2:22) it states: “Eli was very old and heard all that his sons were doing to all of Israel, and that which they would sleep with all the women who would congregate by the Tent of Meeting”.

Rashi and Radak interpreted the text according to its plain sense and then cite a midrash of Hazal (as is my practice as well in teaching). However, most rabbis in our day only teach this according to the words of hazal. And this is what it states in the Talmud (Shabbat 55b). “Whoever states that the children of Eli sinned is mistaken…rather because they tarried and did not bring the sacrifices of the women who had given birth (in a timely fashion) thus causing them not to be allowed to be with their husbands, The Torah considers it as if they slept with these women.”

It is a clear kal vachomer (a fortiori argument). If the Talmud considered the sons of Eli who prevented women from engaging in procreation for a number of nights (until they paid up the terumah that the sons of Eli demanded –see Samuel 1:2:12-16) as having slept with these women, (of having committed a grave offense)-and thus it explained the words of the prophecy, what will be the judgment of the rabbis and dayanim who postpone and prevent the giving of gittin for months and years. According to the sages this can be considered similar to the actions of the sons of Eli, as they harm the women who congregate at the doors of the rabbinical courts begging to receive a get according to halacha.

It is for these actions and inactions that the Torah world and the rabbinate may, God forbid, be destroyed just as the Tabernacle at Shiloh was eradicated.

 

Rav Yoel Bin Nun is the former rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Kibbutz Hadati and a founding faculty member of Michlelet Herzog of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and a faculty member at Yeshivat Har Etzion and other Torah institutions. He is a pioneer of the modern day study of Tanakh in the Religious-Zionist world in Israel and beyond and a leading thinker, activist and educator in the Torah world. This essay originally appeared in Hebrew in the June 20th edition of Makor Rishon. The essay was translated into English by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot.