Giving a Voice to the Silenced: #MeToo One Year Later; By – Rabba Claudia Marbach

October 29, 2018

The MeToo movement is a year old, but the abuse of women is much older. Bereshit provides numerous examples of women in uncomfortable sexual situations. As usual, the Torah does not reveal  the interior experience of its characters, so the midrash comes to fill that gap.

When Sarai is taken into the palace of Pharaoh, the Torah tells us only וַתֻּקַּ֥ח הָאִשָּׁ֖ה בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה׃the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace (Gen. 12:15). The midrash, in contrast, acknowledges her anguish and her sense of abandonment and violation:

אף היא אמרה רבונו של עולם אברהם בא עמך בהבטחה, מפני שאמרת לו ואברכה מברכיך (בראשית יב ג), ולא הייתי יודעת כלום, אלא כיון שאמר לי שאמרת לו לך לך, האמנתי לדבריך, ועכשיו נשארתי יחידה מאבי ומאמי ומבעלי, יבא רשע זה ויתעולל בי, עשה למען שמך הגדול, ולמען בטחוננו בדבריך!

Sarai, cried out, saying: “Master of the Universe! when I heard from Abraham that You had told him, ‘Go forth,’ I believed in what You said. Now I remain alone, apart from my father, my mother, and my husband. Will this wicked one come and abuse me? Act for Your great name, and for my trust in Your words. (Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha 8).

In the midst of Sarai’s MeToo experience, she calls out to God with righteous indignation. The events that had led her to this moment were not of her own making; God had made a pact with Avraham to which she was at best a passive participant. Now, she demands, it is God’s job to make things right. The outcome is reported in the Torah:

וַיְנַגַּ֨ע ה’ אֶת־פַּרְעֹ֛ה נְגָעִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים וְאֶת־בֵּית֑וֹ עַל־דְּבַ֥ר שָׂרַ֖י אֵ֥שֶׁת אַבְרָֽם׃

But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account (of the words) of Sarai, the wife of Abram. (Gen. 12:17)

The midrash thus reads Pharoah’s affliction by God as the direct result of Sarai’s demands. The midrashist continues:

אמר לה הקב”ה, חייך אין דבר רע נוגע ביך, שנאמר לא יאונה לצדיק כל און ורשעים מלאו רע (משלי י:כא), ופרעה וביתו אעשה בהן דוגמא

And God said to her, “By your life nothing bad will touch you, as it says ‘No harm befalls the righteous, But the wicked have their fill of misfortune.’(Proverbs 10:21) I will make an example of Pharaoh and his household.

How contemporary it seems that the midrash not only seeks to punish Pharaoh but to publicize his misdeeds. Yet while Sarai was being threatened within the palace, a place with many people, no one answered  her cries — or perhaps they chose to ignore them, out of fear or indifference.

Then, as now, one of the hardest questions was to determine whether consent had been given. If in the field, the Torah tells us (Deut. 22:23-26), consent is presumed not to have been given because if a woman called out she would not have been heard. The clear implication is that a woman who does not cry out must have consented.

Commenting on this pasuk, the Chizkuni (13th century France) doubts this implication, and recognizes a different possibility:

אילו צעקה לא היה אדם מושיעה והיתה יראה פן יהרגנה. אם כן ספק הוא לן אם נתרצית אם לאו ומספק אין להרגה דספק נפשות להקל.

If she had cried out no one would save her and she would fear for her life. Therefore, whenever there exists doubt about the victim of a rape having consented tacitly, no court will punish her.  

Sounding very modern, the Chizkuni recognizes, psychologically, that silence does not constitute consent. But he does not extend his reasoning to the case of the city. The  presumption of the Torah is that when one cries out in a city one will be heard and saved. Today, though, city life seems more isolated and private than the cheek-by-jowl existence of ancient times. Our city spaces can be inaccessible,more like the field of old, and in them, voices are not necessarily heard.

The MeToo movement is giving volume to silenced voices. The Torah instructs us to listen to those with no voice — the stranger, the widow and the orphan — and to address injustice. Just as God listened to Sarai, we should strive to listen carefully not only to what is said, but also to what is unsaid and unable to be said.

 

Advertisements

What Was The Sin of Sedom? By: Rabbi Dan Margulies

October 24, 2018

A perennial question which every commentator must grapple is the question of identifying exactly what was the sin of sodom its people. Why did they deserve to be destroyed? What was the failing of their society? One answer which deeply resonates with me, and which I think can serve as a lens for examining broader hashkafic themes was given by Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel ztz”l.

As his starting point to answer the question Rav Amiel took the mishna in Avot (5:9):

ארבע מידות באדם: האומר שלי שלי ושלך שלך זו מידה בינונית; ויש אומרין זו מידת סדום. שלי שלך ושלך שלי עם  הארץ. שלי שלך ושלך שלך חסיד. שלך שלי ושלי שלי רשע

שלך ↓          שלי ← שלי שלך
שלי רשע עם הארץ
שלך בינוי או מדת סדום חסיד

According to the mishna there are four archetypal character types based on how one relates to their own possessions and how one relates to the possessions of others. One to whom “mine is yours and yours is yours” is a hasid—pious. One for whom “mine is mine and yours is mine” is a rasha—wicked. One for whom “mine is yours and yours is mine” is an am haaretz—ignorant, foolish, plebeian. These are less interesting than the final archetype. The mishna gives two alternate interpretations of a person for whom “mine is mine and yours is yours.” The stam mishna considers this person a beinoni—an average individual. However, the mishna relates that others declare—yesh omerim—that this is the trait of Sodom.

Rav Amiel was troubled by the fact that the opinion in the stam mishna and the opinion of the yesh omerim are such polar opposites. It seems as if the stam mishna sees this attitude as relatively benign while the yesh omerim condemn it harshly. Rav Amiel suggested a novel way to read the mishna that harmonizes this tension and results in the mishna reading as a singe message. He would have translated  … האומר as “If one person says ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ it is an average trait” but …  ויש אומרים “… as soon as there are multiple people who say ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ it is the trait of Sodom.” According to Rav Amiel, a society can function and can sustain a basic ethical underpinning if there is a critical mass of hasidim in the society, whose generosity and altruism support the needy around them. As soon as there are too many benonim in the society, as soon as there are many who are guided by indifference and selfishness the society will collapse under the weight of its own iniquity.

I think this four-part classification (so common in Avot) and in particular the ambiguity in the fourth class are a useful lens for examining a core question that lies at the heart of many hashkafic debates today, and for isolating an orienting principle for a Modern Orthodox outlook, based on a story told by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz”l. (N.B. When I posted this story on Facebook on Tuesday it received over 40 “likes” and “loves”).

“A couple of years after we moved to Yerushalayim, I was once walking with my family in the Biet Yisrael neighborhood, where R. Isser Zalman Meltzer used to live. For the most part, it consists of narrow alleys. We came to a corner, and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging from their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul,based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b), about whether they should help him or not. They said, ‘If he walks around bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asarot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce …

“I wrote R. Soloveitchik a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, ‘Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.’ My feeling then was: Why Ribbono shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to chose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to chose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him.

“… When all is said and done, you have to be guided not by what you love; you have to be guided by Torah. And the Torah tells us what is good: ‘… to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. (Mikha 6:8)”

I find this story powerful because through the use of a strawman it isolates a core divide between “our camp” and other approaches to Judaism. Indeed, Rav Lichtenstein’s typology can be aligned with the one proposed in the above mishna, and developed by Rav Amiel. Rav Lichtenstein’s ideal, those who would help the man and know the sugya in the gemara we can call the hasidim who say “mine is yours and yours is yours.” Those ignorant of the contents of the gemara who would refuse to help the man are the mishna’s reshaim who say “mine is mine and yours is mine.” Rav Lichtenstein’s critique is thus. There are people who know the gemara, and based on it would refuse to help the man. In his strawman depiction, this attitude is embraced by the haredi street (even if not necessarily endorsed by its leadership). His own humanistic ethical answer to the dilemma is to see this behavior, not as that befitting a benoni but as that of Sodom; to see it not as simply less than ideal but deeply flawed and more problematic than the ignorance of the am haaretz.

In a scenario guided by both universal ethical principles and the laws of God’s Torah, the am haaretz is ignorant of the Torah but guided by enough basic ethics to decide to help the man. One guided by midat Sodom uses the technicalities of the Torah to skirt the ethical imperative; afterall, midat Sodom is not as bad as being a rasha. According to Rav Lichtenstein, the ideal is neither of these. The ideal, somewhat paradoxically, is to know the laws of the Torah well enough to be able to formulate the argument that one is exempt from helping the man. And then to take up the ethical imperative to help him nonetheless. To hold fast to nothing but the abstract law of the Torah, under this model, is not even the bare minimum. It is a failure. In order to achieve the heights demanded of us, to make ourselves hasidim, we need to transcend what is halakhically/legally required and contemplate the ethical requirements we have as well.

In Torah, we can suggest, there is no supererogatory, because in fact the super-erogatory is actually just “erogatory” (cf. Bava Metzia 83a). We have a mandate to exceed our mandate. And so “mine is mine and yours is yours” isn’t enough; it’s significantly less than enough. And the false premise that it could be enough is the kernel of what it takes for a civil and just society founded on Torah principles to decay into the indifference and cruel selfishness of Sodom.  


Be Aware! Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

October 16, 2018

True, it doesn’t come immediately to mind when we think about the qualities we most want to possess. It doesn’t typically top the list of the morally refined character traits that we work to cultivate in ourselves. But let’s not overlook the modest, simple quality of awareness. Because awareness is apparently next to holiness.

The sage Rabbi Hoshaya taught that “at the time that the Holy One created the first human being, the ministering angels erred and sought to say ‘Holy, Holy, Holy….before him (as they do daily before God). So what did the Holy One do? ‘He cast upon him deep sleep’ [Genesis 2:21] and then the angels knew that he was merely human.”  (B’raishit Rabba 8:10)

The internal logic of this teaching is not immediately clear. How would sleepiness demonstrate that the human is less holy than God? The assumption that Rabbi Hoshaya is working with is that holiness is characterized by maximal awareness – awareness of everything that is going on around one, awareness that never flags and is never compromised. God who neither sleeps nor slumbers is therefore holy, and we humans, who have no choice but to surrender to sleep on a periodic basis, are less holy. And it’s not just our sleepiness that hampers our awareness. We each know well from daily experience, that we are highly vulnerable to distractions of all kinds, that we are drawn a little too deeply into the awareness of ourselves and our own needs, and that we’re just plain not very perceptive all the time. Our holiness, Rabbi Hoshaya teaches, is compromised by our lapses of awareness. Thus when first human being falls asleep, the ministering angels are set straight.

But this is clearly not the end of the story. After all, God clearly instructs in Vayikra, “You should be holy, just as I, God, am holy”. This call to holiness is the call to consciously develop, expand, and deepen our awareness of the things and of the people around us. It is a profound call that we can respond to both retrospectively and prospectively. When something has gone wrong on our watch as the result of our having been unaware of the needs of the hour or the needs of the person who was in front of us, we need to resist the temptation to hold ourselves blameless (“after all, I was unaware!”) and to instead realize that our unawareness was probably the outcome of some decision that we had made along the line. God’s call to holiness beckons us to not be defensive in situations like these, to accept critique, and to take a hard look at what it was that we not-so-benignly excluded from our awareness.

And prospectively, God’s call to holiness requires us to actively cultivate our awareness of the people around us, of their needs, their emotions, and their hopes. We do so through making a habit of listening more attentively, through being more curious, through getting outside of ourselves a little more and freeing up energy to be aware of others.

Awareness isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we contemplate the meaning and content of personal holiness. But I’d bet then we think of the people we know who regard as holy, we are thinking about people who are deeply and continuously aware of all that is unfolding around them.


What Is Torah For? By Rabbi Barry Gelman

October 10, 2018

One of the more beautiful and meaningful Jewish customs is the practice of  starting the Torah again right after we complete it on Simchat Torah. The reason we do this is so not to give the appearance that once done with the Torah we no longer have interest in it, that we have lost our love for the Torah.

At first glance, it does not seem to be a realistic fear. After all, before we read the Torah, we will dance with the Torah, hold the Torah close and even kiss the Torah. Such intimacy seems to be enough to remove the suspicion of losing our love for the Torah.

Rabbi Avraham Pam suggests that while all of the affection we show the Torah is lovely, it may not be enough.

He points to a fascinating midrash that talks about,  of all things, kissing.

אָמְרוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה, כָּל נְשִׁיקוֹת שֶׁל תִּפְלוּת הֵן, חוּץ מִשָּׁלשׁ, נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל גְּדֻלָּה, נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרִישׁוּת, נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרָקִים.

(Shmot Rabbah 5:1)

Our Rabbis of blessed memory have said: All kisses are silly, save three: The kiss of greatness, the kiss of parting, the kiss of meeting.

The midrash goes on to give examples of each type of kiss.

The Kiss of greatness refers to when Samuel anointed Saul as king. The Navis says that after he anointed him, he kissed him. 

.נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל גְּדֻלָּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמואל א י, א): וַיִּקַּח שְׁמוּאֵל אֶת פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן וַיִּצֹּק עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וַיִּשָּׁקֵ

The kiss of parting refers to when Orpah kissed her mother in law goodbye once she decided to part after he husband had died.

.נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרִישׁוּת (רות א, יד): וַתִּשַּׁק עָרְפָּה לַחֲמוֹתָה

The kiss of reunion refers to Aaron going out to greet Moshe. 

.נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרָקִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֵּלֶךְ וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ בְּהַר הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּשַּׁק לוֹ

Each three of these types of kisses is valued by our tradition as can be seen by the midrash.

Yet, there is one that seems to rise above the others – that is the kissing of greatness – נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל גְּדֻלָּה. 

According to the Malbim this type of kiss is meant to transfer or to share some aspect of one person with the other.

When Samuel kissed Saul, says the Malbim, he conveyed some of sanctity to Saul.

The kisses of greeting and parting leave the recipient in the same state as they were before the kiss. The kiss of greatness elevates the recipient to greater heights.

Rav Pam continues that on Simchat Torah, all of the kissing may be misunderstood to be either the kissing of greeting or the kissing of parting.

Beginning to read the Torah again, right after we have finished it, defines the kissing of the Torah that we did as a Nishika shel Gidula -a kiss wherein we feel the Torah kiss us back and we absorb some of its greatness. We declare that as we danced , hugged and kissed the Torah, we will never be the same.

This is not only a lovely image, it is advice as to how to approach Torah study. Each time we study Torah, we should do it, not only with an eye towards mastering the material, but also towards absorbing ohw the messages of the Torah influence and alter our worldview.

We will never look at the world the same way again, We will never look at other people the same way again. Our outlook on life will be forever filtered through the lens of the Torah .

This is the plain meaning of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (6:1) that states:

שָׁנוּ חֲכָמִים בִּלְשׁוֹן הַמִּשְׁנָה, בָּרוּךְ שֶׁבָּחַר בָּהֶם וּבְמִשְׁנָתָם

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה… וּמַלְבַּשְׁתּוֹ עֲנָוָה וְיִרְאָה, וּמַכְשַׁרְתּוֹ לִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק וְחָסִיד וְיָשָׁר וְנֶאֱמָן, וּמְרַחַקְתּוֹ מִן הַחֵטְא, וּמְקָרַבְתּוֹ לִידֵי זְכוּת, וְנֶהֱנִין מִמֶּנּוּ עֵצָה וְתוּשִׁיָּה בִּינָה וּגְבוּרָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ח) לִי עֵצָה וְתוּשִׁיָּה אֲנִי בִינָה לִי גְבוּרָה. וְנוֹתֶנֶת לוֹ מַלְכוּת וּמֶמְשָׁלָה וְחִקּוּר ,

The Rabbis taught in the language (style) of the Mishnah: Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake…He is clothed in humility and reverence, and it prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, and it distances him from sin, and draws him near to merit. We enjoy from him counsel and comprehension, understanding and strength, as it is said (Proverbs 8:14): “Mine is counsel and comprehension, I am understanding, mine is strength.” It gives him kingship and dominion, and [the ability to] investigate in judgement…

When we look at the world via torah tinted lenses, everything is different. Chance meetings becomes opportunities for kiddush hashem, eating becomes an opportunity to elevate what is seemingly plain in life to sanctified act. Even politics can be an opportunity to exercise the Torah value of V’ahavta L’reiacha Kamocha, and to activate the true meaning living in a society where everyone’s Tzelem Elokim – Godly image –  is recognized. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it beautifully when he wrote: “The awe that we sense or ought to sense when standing in the presence of a human being is a moment of intuition for the likeness of God which is concealed in his essence…The secret of every being is the Divine care and concern that are invested in it. Something sacred is at stake in every event”

If we truly connect ourselves to the Torah and take seriously the messages of the Torah then each encounter with it changes our life – like a nishika shel gedula – like the kiss of greatness.


Religious Materialism continued…by Elana Stein Hain

October 8, 2018

In my first post,(here) I asserted the religious value of an upscale Jewish lifestyle.* But this approach raises significant challenges. I would like to outline some challenges here by focusing on questions rather than on answers.

While we often encourage engagement in Jewish life for ulterior motives because it may lead to genuine commitment (mi-tokh she-lo lishmah ba lishmah) in this context we must be wary of the reverse: that what begins as genuine commitment may become vacuous.  What I mean is that the very construction of our Jewish lives may become more about the medium than the message: beautiful shuls, high end schools, fine kosher restaurants.  And being seen in our beautiful shuls, high end schools and fine kosher restaurants.

How can we prevent this from happening, and where this is already happening, how can we change course? I would ask us to consider two sets of questions.

For the first, let’s reach back to Yom Kippur. The Gemara in Yoma 35b relays an incident involving a kohen gadol’s expensive Yom Kippur garb:

אמרו עליו על ר’ אלעזר בן חרסום שעשתה לו אמו כתונת משתי ריבוא ולא הניחוהו אחיו הכהנים ללובשה מפני שנראה כערום

They said of R. Eleazar ben arsom that his mother made him a tunic worth 20,000 minas. But his fellow priests would not let him wear it because [it was so transparent that] he looked naked.

His clothing was immodest, literally and metaphorically.

When does our use of wealth in Jewish life become immodest, more about exposing what we have than about fulfilling religious duty? Avoiding this pitfall means asking honest questions about spending: How much is too much? When does abundance become its own religion, with hiddur mitzvah (beautification of commandments) giving way to naked indulgence? Moreover, if a kosher version seems to always be available, what happens when there is not kosher version, and one must choose between halakhah and material gain or comfort, as in the case of business ethics, for example?

Vigilance about this also means introspection about our religious focus: How often do we discuss spirituality or what and why we believe, with our children and amongst ourselves? Do we do this enough in our homes, or do we leave such conversations too often to outside providers in shul or in school?

For the second set of questions, we return to R. Elazar ben Ḥarsom, who the rabbis depict quite differently outside of the Mikdash:

אמרו עליו על רבי אלעזר בן חרסום שהניח לו אביו אלף עיירות ביבשה וכנגדן אלף ספינות בים ובכל יום ויום נוטל נאד של קמח על כתיפו ומהלך מעיר לעיר וממדינה למדינה ללמוד תורה פעם אחת מצאוהו עבדיו ועשו בו אנגריא אמר להן בבקשה מכם הניחוני ואלך ללמוד תורה אמרו לו חיי רבי אלעזר בן חרסום שאין מניחין אותך

They said of R. Eleazar ben arsom that his father left him an inheritance of 1,000 villages on land and, correspondingly, 1,000 ships at sea. And every day he takes a leather jug of flour on his shoulder and walks from city to city and from state to state to study Torah [from the Torah scholars in each of those places]. Once, his servants found him, did not recognize him, and pressed him into service for the master of the estate. He said to them: I beseech you; let me be and I will go study Torah. They said: We swear by the life of R. Eleazar ben arsom that we will not let you be.

Here, R. Eleazar ben Harsom represents a different extreme. He leaves his wealth to others for the sake of study Torah. In the process, he gets a taste from his own servants of what his life would be like if he was actually underprivileged: pressed into service to ensure someone else’s wealth. Ultimately, he is immune to such problems because of who he really is.

This element of the portrayal raises questions for us that are typical of any upper middle class community: Given the available communal resources, how might we (continue to) relate to the problems of those less financially fortunate and the vulnerable? To be sure, we aim to provide for those in need in our communities in both America and Israel through tzedakah, charity. Moreover, in context of the religious spending mentioned above, many provide housing and invitations for guests to partake along with them.

But how might we also work towards systemic change to make Jewish life more affordable and/or to reduce obstacles to self-sufficiency?** Moreover, how might we consider the urgency of these issues with respect to people outside of the Jewish community, given our need to prioritize our own? And in this polarized political moment, can we consider this deeply religious question in a non-partisan way?

These questions are not meant to be quickly asked and answered, raised and resolved. We must continually resurface them for reflection and discussion.

*I also asserted the religious value of a more tempered Jewish lifestyle. I will return to that topic in a future post.
**See Dyonna Ginsburg, “Re-Anchoring Universalism to Particularism: The Potential Contribution of Orthodoxy to the Pursuit of Tikkun Olam,” Ed. Shmuel Hain, The Next Generation of Modern Orthodoxy (2012) who differentiates between tzedakah as technical charity and tzedek as systemic change.

Tefillin on Chol HaMoed and the Unity of the Jewish People

October 5, 2018

With regard to wearing tefillin on chol hamoed (intermediate days of the festivals) the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states (OC 31:2):

“On Chol HaMoed it is prohibited to wear tefillin for the same reason as on shabbat or a holiday, namely that Chol HaMoed is an ot, a “sign” (rendering tefillin, which is also a “sign,” superfluous).”  The Ram”a, Rabbi Moshe Isserless, (who records the Ashkenazic custom) adds: “There are those who maintain that one is obligated to wear tefillin on chol hamoed and the custom in all these regions is to put on tefillin with a beracha. The only difference is that the beracha is not recited out loud in shul as is normally done.”

The Mishnah Berurah comments:

“…Many latter authorities write that it is not correct  in one minyan for some to wear tefillin on chol hamoed and some not to, for this violates the negative command of “lo titgodidu” (the principle that it is improper to appear as if the Jewish people are divided and in disagreement).  Additionally one who does not wear tefillin on chol hamoed and prays in a minyan where the custom is to wear them, should also wear them, but without a blessing.  A congregation whose custom is to wear tefillin on chol hamoed should not change their custom.”

When I tell people about this halacha, that a shul should not have some people who are wearing tefillin on chol hamoed and some who are not since it would create the appearance that the Jewish people disagree with each other and are divided into groups, they laugh.  The reason for their laughter is obvious, for, we are in so many ways a divided people. Even within Orthodoxy, we are right, left, and middle; Ashkenaz and Sefard; modern, haredi and chassidish; -we seem anything but unified and conforming. And yet, this principal of lo titgodidu, of retaining the appearance (and by extension reality?) of unity, seems here to be not only an abstract principle but a serious halachic one, whose source is a Biblical verse:

בָּנִ֣ים אַתֶּ֔ם לַֽיהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם לֹ֣א תִתְגֹּֽדְד֗וּ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֧ימוּ קָרְחָ֛ה בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶ֖ם לָמֵֽת׃

You are children of the LORD your God. You shall not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of (in mourning of) the dead.   -Deuteronomy, 14:1

Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: I read here the verse: “You shall not cut yourselves [titgodedu]” (Deuteronomy 14:1), which is interpreted as meaning: Do not become many factions [agudot]….  

“You shall not cut yourselves”(Deuteronomy 14:1), which is interpreted to mean: Do not become numerous factions. Abaye said: When we say that the prohibition: “You shall not cut yourselves” (i.e. divide yourself into groups) applies, we are referring to a case where two courts are located in one city, and these rule in accordance with the statement of Beit Shammai and those rule in accordance with the statement of Beit Hillel. However, with regard to two courts located in two different cities, we have no problem with it.   (Talmud Yevamot, 13b-14a)

The talmud above is interpreting the double meaning of the word titgodidu.  Though it means “to cut,” it can also mean “a group (agudah)”.  Thus rendering the verse: “Do not divide into groups.”  The Talmud concludes based on this that it is forbidden for two courts in one city to hold two different practices.   

Though it is true that the Jewish people are divided, and often I see this as a point of strength, for as we are creative, argumentative, independant, and bring more to the world and to each other by not being the same, by the same token, I am very glad there is such a halacha as “lo titgodidu.”   At least the principal exits and, in its limited way, has some power to govern our actions and impact our values.   If we take lo titgodidu seriously I think it can be part of an important synergy and dialectical tension for us.   We will not all agree, but at least in certain circumscribed areas of halcha we can practice, appear, and feel for a brief moment, as if we do.   

In light of this halacha and the, at least theoretical, unification it can facilitate, I think the direction many modern Orthodox synagogues have taken in regard to this issue is dangerous.  Due to several sociological and historical factors (among them that more young people studying in Israel for a year or two where the universal custom is not to wear tefillin on chol hamoed, and the proliferation of Chabad whose custom is not to wear tefillin on chol hamoed)  more and more synagogues which are fully Ashkenazic, and in which 40 years ago all members wore tefillin, are quickly becoming places in which 80%-90% of attendees on a given chol hamoed morning are not wearing tefillin while only 10%-20% are.

Many rabbis have chosen to ignore this phenomenon, and deem lo titgodidu not worth the effort of putting their halachic foot down.   But I think we must. At the same time the Mishnah Berurah’s method of forcing everyone to wear tefillin in synagogues where that is the custom, can not work.   If we attempt to force those who do not wear tefillin to wear it, they will respond that we are forcing them to violate the sanctity of the holiday and will not cooperate.   On the other hand if we ask tefillin wearers to abstain from wearing tefillin during services on chol hamoed they can still have the option of donning them before or after the service.  

And so we are faced with competing values as we often are in halcha.  Do we change the custom of the synagogue and ask that no one wear tefillin during the services on chol hamoed, or do we say nothing, as I think many of us are want to do, and violate the principle of lo titgodidu?


On Taking Down the Sukkah: A Prayer, by Yosef Kanefsky

October 3, 2018

There’s something about taking down the Sukkah. It conjures up that phrase from the book of Yonah: “It appeared overnight, and is gone overnight”.  It is reminiscent of the final scene of “The Purple Rose of Cairo” in which, when the marquee in front of the movie theater is changed, the entire story in which the characters had been living and dreaming disappears as if it never was. Yes, a lot happened in the Sukkah this year. Lots of family, and friends, and even guests whom I was meeting for the first time. A lot of joy and laughter. But when the last bundle of bamboo poles came to rest on the table in the tool shed…… “poof!”

It’s not completely “poof” of course. Memories remain, and all the friendships endure, strengthened and nourished.  Yet something is irretrievably gone, never to return exactly the way it was. A year from now we’ll build the Sukkah again. It will look very familiar to be sure. But it won’t be identical.

Taking down the Sukkah feels to me like it ought to be a time of prayer.

God of our fathers and mothers: As the footprint that had been the Sukkah has returned to being just another corner of the backyard, my wife and I thank you for what our family’s Sukkah held this year. For the first time, it held not just one daughter-in-law, but two. And it held not just three generations, but four, as my father-in-law caressed his first great-grandchild beneath its schach. Our Sukkah this year was truly one of the Clouds of Glory, God. How can I repay all of Your kindnesses?

In the same breath though, I ask that you send healing of the body and spirit to my mother, who for the first time was unable to make the trip to be with us. I know that a person who is ill is exempt from the Sukkah, but that doesn’t mean that her absence isn’t felt.  

God, I do not mean this in a melodramatic way, but as I take down take down the Sukkah I always find myself asking, “Who will return to our Sukkah next year? Which of our children will be in town to help me put the sukkah up, and which of them will be many miles away, hopefully doing wonderful things wherever they are? What will be the state of the world the next time we take shelter beneath Your wings, in our sacred temporary dwelling? What will remain the same, and what will change?

I pose these questions only to You. For it is You who causes the winds of time to blow, and the rains of blessing to fall.