Our Tradition,Ourselves: Desire, Power, and Abuse. Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

December 25, 2017

From Kiddushin 81a : Young women whom the community had just redeemed from captivity were brought to spend the night in the upper story of the home of Rav Amram the Pious. When one of them stepped out for just a moment, Rav Amram the Pious grabbed a ladder that ten men together could not lift, and began climbing.   כי מטא לפלגא דרגאן, when he was halfway up the ladder, he locked his knees and cried out: There is a fire in the house of Amram. Upon hearing this, the Sages came and found him in that position.

The urgent and ubiquitous social discussion about sexual misconduct and power differentials, presents us with invaluable opportunities. As people, to ask why are things going so terribly wrong? And as Jews to look with fresh eyes at our own sources, for the guidance that they offer us, and so that we can raise  the important questions that we might need to ask. Of course this is a very large discussion, but let’s start it by suggesting some of the points of departure.

While not the central issue of the stories breaking every day, these stories nonetheless give us the opportunity to think hard about the surprising – even shocking – power of illicit sexual desire. On Kiddushin 81a the story of Rav Amram Chasida is just for starters:

רבי מאיר הוה מתלוצץ בעוברי עבירה יומא חד אידמי ליה שטן כאיתתא בהך גיסא דנהרא לא הוה מברא נקט מצרא וקא עבר כי מטא פלגא מצרא שבקיה אמר אי לאו דקא מכרזי ברקיעא הזהרו בר’ מאיר ותורתו שויתיה לדמך תרתי מעי

Rabbi Meir would ridicule transgressors by saying it is easy to avoid temptation. One day, Satan appeared to him as a woman standing on the other side of the river. Since there was no ferry to cross the river, he took hold of a rope bridge and crossed the river. When he reached halfway across the rope bridge, the evil inclination left him and said to him: Were it not for the fact that they proclaim about you in heaven: Be careful with regard to Rabbi Meir and his Torah, I would have shattered your reputation, and reduced your value to two ma’a.

And then, the same story, this time with Rabbi Akiva!

Rabbi Akiva would likewise ridicule transgressors. One day, Satan appeared to him as a woman at the top of a palm tree. Rabbi Akiva grabbed hold of the palm tree and began climbing. When he got hallway up the tree…

The surprising power of illicit sexual desire.

Bur the Talmud doesn’t tell these stories simply for their shock value. As the best way it knew how to explain the rabbinic injunction of yichud – the prohibition upon placing ourselves in situations in which we are alone with someone of the opposite sex. And laws that limit physical contact, and laws that demand that we examine and take responsibility even for our thoughts. Current events, though primarily about something else, still invite us – indeed urge us! – to think seriously about these halachot.

What current events are primarily about of course, is the exploitation of power differentials.  Which is a theme that is central both to scripture and to halacha. The abusive potential of the power differential between creditor and lender, produces scriptural laws forbidding the taking of interest, preventing creditors from invading the homes of borrowers and seizing collateral – in particular from widows, and even from subjecting the borrower to subtle social humiliations. It produces laws that determines when wages are due and forbids employers from delaying payment, laws that hold employers liable if they cannot produce the work opportunities that they had promised, and even laws that give a slight legal advantage to employees locked in a wage dispute with employees. The concern over the exploitation of power differentials produces laws which guarantee the stranger equality under the law, specifically forbids taking advantage of the stranger’s unfamiliarity with the local commercial practices, and even prohibits – in the strongest terms – verbal bullying of the stranger. The sin for which King David is sentenced to suffer for the rest of his life is the sin of abusing his power in taking the wife of, and then directing the death of Uriah the Hittite. The sin that seals King Achav’s fate is not idolatry, rather the convening of a kangaroo court to sentence a commoner named Navot to death and to then appropriate his vineyard to the crown. And, among the sins that bring the priests Chofni and Pinchas to their untimely ends is their taking advantage of their position to lie with women who had come to offer sacrifices to God.  Intentional abuse of power to bring suffering and ruin upon the weaker, is reckoned in our religion as a direct affront to God, a shameless denial of the sacredness of the human being, a mocking of the image in which all were created.

 ה’ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת׃

God watches over the stranger, encourage the orphan and the widow, and confounds the ways of those who exploit them.

And we also need, at this moment in time, to also acknowledge that when it comes to the power dynamic between men and women, our very same Biblical and rabbinic tradition strikes notes that are unsettling and problematic to the modern ear, notes which can be used – and have been used – to justify dangerous, abusive behavior. We think about the fundamental structures of the marriage and divorce laws, the barring of women from positions of judicial, and religious legal authority even when the matters being deliberated materially affect their welfare. Even the subtle yet deeply affecting matter of who “counts” and who does not. Current events have given us the opportunity, and frankly the responsibility to continue thinking about how – as people faithful to Halacha – we work to mitigate the potential and real abuses of our system.

In this vein, I will leave us with a few quotes (my translations) from a shiur that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l gave 20 years ago. Rav Licthtenstein was reflecting on the punishment the Torah metes out to the rapist, who is required to pay 50 silver shekels to his victim’s father, and offer to marry her.

“The perpetrator is perhaps punished, but the victim’s suffering is not addressed. One must honestly admit that it is difficult to digest this approach…, and that through modern eyes we would certainly take the assault itself much more seriously.

One cannot claim that our disgust at violence arises from reading too many romantic poems or too much 18th century French philosophy. It arises from our cleaving to God and the values of kindness and mercy with which our entire tradition is shot through.

If we were functioning today according to Biblical law, would we apply the laws of rape as they appear in the Torah, or would we say, “this is our eternal Torah, our Torah of truth, but in our present reality in which rape has an entirely other dimension, causing trauma that perhaps didn’t exist in bygone days, we must address the matter differently?”

אני סבור שהתשובה השנייה היא הנכונה

I believe that the second answer is correct.”

This is our eternal Torah, our Torah of truth. And, we must know how to apply and live it so that no one winds up abused by it. There is a fire in the house. It is our opportunity to think deeply about desire, power, and about our religion.


Hanukkah’s Light, and God’s Light, by Yosef Kanefsky

December 19, 2017





Judaism has many lights. The lights that we kindle on Friday night. Yahrzeit lights, the light of Havdalah, and of course the Hanukah lights. All are Judaism’s lights. But none is the one that earns the moniker נר ד’ – God’s light. That designation is reserved for something else.

In a habit as old as time itself, every tribe, every people, seeks to isolate the one or two traits or qualities that define that tribe’s, that people’s essential nature. It is true that the habit has a downside. Over the course of human history it has frequently led nations to the invariably mistaken belief that these noble qualities are not found among others, a belief which then fuels dangerous forms of chauvinism and ultimately legitimizes unconscionable deeds. That having been said, there is also considerable value to this old habit as well. For when a people explicitly identifies its essential qualities, it is implicitly challenging itself, and challenging each of its constituent members to strive hard to embody these qualities. Proclaiming “This is who we are; this is what we are”, is a powerful means for bringing out the best in one’s folks.

We, the Jewish people, have engaged in this too. In several places, the Talmud lists the essential qualities that make us the Jewish people, implicitly charging us to live up to them. What essential Jewish qualities would you guess the Talmud came up with? Wisdom? It’s not a bad guess, as it written, רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה. But that’s not it. Rugged stubbornness? Yes, we are the עורף עם קשה but this too is not the Talmud’s answer. It’s not even the capacity to stand alone against the world – though the verse עם לבדד ישכון praises our ability to so when necessary.

When our Sages looked to define who we are and what we are, this is what they said:

(Yevamot 29a)

שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים

There are three distinguishing marks of this nation, the Jewish people. They are merciful, they are sincerely humble, and they perform acts of kindness.

Rambam codified this statement as Halacha in several places in his Mishna Torah:


(Issurei Biah 19:17)

כֵן כָּל מִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בּוֹ עַזּוּת פָּנִים אוֹ אַכְזָרִיּוּת וְשׂוֹנֵא אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת וְאֵינוֹ גּוֹמֵל לָהֶם חֶסֶד חוֹשְׁשִׁין לוֹ בְּיוֹתֵר שֶׁמָּא גִּבְעוֹנִי הוּא. שֶׁסִּימָנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָאֻמָּה הַקְּדוֹשָׁה בַּיְשָׁנִין רַחֲמָנִים וְגוֹמְלֵי חֲסָדִים.

(Gifts to the poor 10:1)

חַיָּבִין אָנוּ לְהִזָּהֵר בְּמִצְוַת צְדָקָה יוֹתֵר מִכָּל מִצְוֹת עֲשֵׂה. שֶׁהַצְּדָקָה סִימָן לַצַּדִּיק זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ “

(Avadim 9:8)

וְאֵין הָאַכְזָרִיּוּת וְהָעַזּוּת מְצוּיָה אֶלָּא בְּעַכּוּ”ם עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה אֲבָל … יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהִשְׁפִּיעַ לָהֶם הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא טוֹבַת הַתּוֹרָה וְצִוָּה אוֹתָם בְּחֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִים רַחְמָנִים הֵם עַל הַכּל. וְכֵן בְּמִדּוֹתָיו שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶּׁצִּוָּנוּ לְהִדָּמוֹת בָּהֶם הוּא אוֹמֵר (תהילים קמה ט) “וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו“..

You have to admire the tactical brilliance of the Talmudic tradition in choosing these as our essential aspirational qualities. The Talmud – in the second and third centuries – is operating against a backdrop of no small amount of anti-Jewish hostility that’s out there in the world. And it presumes that Jewish history will continue to generate within us ample emotional, intellectual and even moral justification to be suspicious of those outside of tribe, indifferent toward their needs, and to focus of all our efforts, energy, and emotional capital inward. And so, it davka insists that the qualities of compassion, humility, and kindness to all of  God’s creations, are the qualities that make us who we are, and that if we were to abandon them, we would cease to be worthy of our name, worthy of our God.

We are lucky and blessed to be living in a time and in a land in which anti-Semitism is not a feature of our daily, personal routine; it isn’t an obstacle that stands in the way of our reaching our best Talmudic Jewish selves. The great head wind today, is something else. It’s the prevailing, pervasive, and pernivious social and political culture “out there”, of denunciation, mockery, and civic warfare. We’ve all been affected by it, and have been changed by it. We’re all more condescending and sarcastic, quicker to go on the attack, slower to listen and to engage. Not by conscious decision, God forbid, just through daily exposure to zeitgeist. And we’re drifting. Drifting from Yahadut, from the qualities of Jewishness that are so basic that we really aren’t Jews without them: instinctive compassion, reflexive humility, indomitable kindness – like Avraham’s.

Yet, there’s every reason to have confidence in our ability to reroot ourselves. Because in the end we are way too stiff-necked a people to be torn from our moorings by prevailing cultural winds. We are way too willing to be a people that dwells alone, that is countercultural, one that champions civility rather than warfare in debate, and which religiously extends kindness to God’s creation. And we are way too wise a people to think that anything good will ultimately come from interminable line-drawing, labeling, and confrontation.

שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים

This is who and what we are, when are truly ourselves.

Judaism has many lights. But only one is identified as the light of God. נר ד’ נשמת אדם. The light of God, is the soul of the human being. The light of God exists neither as particles nor as waves. It is not on the visible spectrum. The light of God is seen and felt in only one way. Through the religiously inspired soul of the human being. The kind of soul which sees the sorrow of another, and runs to bring comfort. Sees the anxiety of another, and offers an ear that listens and a heart that feels. One that senses the potential for strife, and projects the humility that is the trademark of peacemaker. This is how the light of God manifest. Through the compassionate, humble, and kind human soul.

Every Friday night we recite the Mishna that asks, במה מדליקין …..?. It’s a question about materials, about oils and wicks. The same question is of course also asked concerning the lights of Hanukkah. And as important as it is to use the right kind of oils and wicks, the ultimate question we think about as we light is not “which oils and wicks will produce a fitting Chanukah light?”, rather which qualities of the soul will produce the light of God?”  We are blessed with one more night to go.

(Tehillim 18)

כִּֽי־אַ֭תָּה תָּאִ֣יר נֵרִ֑י ה’, אֱ֝לֹקי יַגִּ֥יהַּ חָשְׁכִּֽי׃

It is You who lights my lamp; the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness