Winning by Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 26, 2018

nizchuni banai, nizchuni banai

My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me. (Bava Metzia 59b)

I hope these thoughts begin a conversation.

I have been thinking about winning and losing lately. The build up to the midterm elections and their aftermath provide examples of just how far people are willing to go to win.

Personal attacks against candidates and their family members, unverified claims of voter fraud and election tampering are just some of the examples of what candidates and citizens are willing to do.

We know that love and hate can cause people to act in ways that are out of the ordinary or even destructive.  We know this, perhaps, from our own actions, or from watching others. The Midrash (Lechach Tov) and the Gemara (San. 105b) put it well when they state that love and hate corrupts normal behaviour.

במדבר כב, כא ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבוש את אתונו תנא משום רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אהבה מבטלת שורה של גדולה מאברהם דכתיב (בראשית כא, יד) וישכם אברהם בבקר שנאה מבטלת שורה של גדולה מבלעם שנאמר ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבוש את אתונו

  • It is stated: “And Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey”(Numbers 22:21). It was taught in a baraita in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: Love negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Abraham, as it is written: “And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Genesis 22:3). Atypically, he saddled the donkey himself and he did not wait for his servants. Likewise, hatred negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Balaam, as it is stated: “And Balaam rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Numbers 22:21).

Jewish Law teaches us that there must be other factors that we consider other than getting what we want, even when the stakes are high and the cause noble. Rabbi Soloveitchik makes this point when he talks about retreat regarding sexuality and ultimately claims that the greatest hero is the person who lives in a dialectic between advance and retreat. What is so unfortunate is that people accept this mode of living in their religious life, but not in politics, national, local or communal.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816 – 1893) uses the episode of Shimon and Levi’s revenge for Dina’s rape to powerfully illustrate how people can go overboard when fighting for even the noblest of causes.

He admits that there was an important reason to punish the people involved in the attack, yet, he also notes this:

:ומ״מ מאש כזה ג״כ יש להזהר הרבה לכוין המקום והזמן. ובל״ז היא מקלקלת הר

“Nevertheless, from such a fire (a righteous cause) one must also be careful to choose the proper time and place otherwise it can lead to great destruction.”

Later in Bereishit, the Netziv adds:

:שע״י כעס נעשה דברים זרים יותר מהנדרש לצורך הענין ובזה יהיה קלקולו יותר מתיקונו

“Because of anger, strange and exaggerated actions are taken, which result in more destruction than repair.”

The Netziv’s marshals a Gemara in Massechet Taanit to make root his approach in the teachings of Chazal.

ואמר רבא האי צורבא מרבנן דרתח אורייתא הוא דקא מרתחא ליה שנאמר (ירמיהו כג, כט) הלא כה דברי כאש נאם ה’ ואמר רב אשי כל ת”ח שאינו קשה כברזל אינו ת”ח שנא’ (ירמיהו כג, כט) וכפטיש יפוצץ סלע

  • And, incidentally, the Gemara relates that which Rava said: This Torah scholar who grows angry, it can be presumed that it is his Torah study that angers him. Therefore, he must be given the benefit of the doubt, as it is stated: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29). And similarly, Rav Ashi said: Any Torah scholar who is not as hard as iron, but is indecisive and wavers, he is not a Torah scholar, as it is stated in the same verse: “And as a hammer that breaks rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29).

Yet, the, despite this rabbinic praise of the toughness of the Torah scholar, the Talmud then offers a counterbalance.

אמר רבינא אפ”ה מיבעי ליה לאיניש למילף נפשיה בניחותא שנאמר (קהלת יא, י) והסר כעס מלבך וגו

Ravina said: And even so, one is required to teach himself to act gently, as it is stated: “And remove anger from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh” (Ecclesiastes 11:10).

We are living in a time when we do not appreciate the value of retreat even if the only way forward leads to, as the Netziv noted, more destruction than repair. We pay a high price for this and it erodes our social fabric.

It is interesting that the Netziv did not question the ethics of Shimon and Levi’s actions (as much as we may find their killing of every mail difficult to explain), his point is much more subtle and has nothing to do with legality. The Netziv reminds us that even if we act in accordance with the law , there are still things that we might do for a good cause that are not worth the ultimate price we pay.

We can learn from God who surrendered to the Rabbis in the case of the Tanur Shel Achnai. Of course, God was “right” and has a just cause, yet, He practices retreat for the sake of the greater good.

 

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The Voice of Women in Holy Song and Prayer by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 12, 2018

In the beginning of this past week’s Torah portion,Toldot, the Torah writes, “These are the generations of Isaac…” Surprisingly, we are told in the next verse that there are no generations, that Rivka, like each of our ancestors, was  barren. The Torah comes to describe the empty space of no children and the need for prayer to fill that void. In the next verse Isaac prays for a child opposite Rebecca which Rashi explains to mean that Isaac and Rebecca each prayed on their own, he in one corner of the room and she in the other, – i.e. the first Shul.

 

Though communal prayer is something comparatively recent in Jewish history (since the destruction of the Temple), nevertheless it seems to play a central role in our public Jewish life today, and procedural concerns surrounding it can loom large in a community.   Recently, I was asked about women saying kaddish in shul and whether hearing the voice of a woman saying kaddish is of halachic concern.

 

The question of whether a woman may say kaddish for a loved one has been treated extensively in halachic literature.   Raav Yosef Henkin famously permitted it and this has become the normative practice in many modern orthodox Shuls, and indeed, according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was always the custom going back many generations.  Even so, for some the voice of women saying kaddish along with men sounds incongruous in an orthodox synagogue.

 

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wrote the following on the question a woman saying Birchat Hagomel in Shul with regard to the voice of women (Yichave Daat 4:15):

 

….In our times (genders are less separate) and women are together with men in the marketplace, and additionally, a Shul is a place where we stand in awe of the Divine, thus we do not have to worry about hearing kol ishah, the (sensual) voice of a woman (in shul).  As the Bene Yissaschar writes, in a place where the Divine presence is revealed, men and women may sing together. Furthermore, we can prove that a woman’s (singing) voice is not problematic in a synagogue from the following piece of Talmud (Megilah 23a): “All are called up for the seven aliyot to the Torah, even women….Though we do not do this due to kavod hatzibur, we see that in the essence of the law it is permitted.  Why is this not a violation of hearing a woman’s singing voice?…We thus must conclude that in a holy place the Rabbis were not worried that the singing voice of a woman would result in sexual thoughts.”

 

Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote the following regarding women coming to the Beit Midrash to say kaddish where there is no mechitza (Igros Moshe, OC, 5:12):

 

“Regarding the question of the need for a mechiza outside of a Beit Kineset, for instance in a house of mourning or in a Beit Midrash (where there is no mechitza) in which people pray on weekdays or at mincha on Shabbat …In all previous generations the custom was that at times a needy woman would come in the Beit Midrash to collect tzedaka or a woman who was mourning to say kaddish…If a woman will be coming every shabbat regularly to mincha then we should not be lenient and should require a mechiza.  If it is only periodic then perhaps we would permit her to attend without a mechiza, even up to two women, but more than two would require a mechitza.”

 

Recently a visitor in my Shul from a Charedi community in the New York area commented to me:  “I know there is halachic writing both ways about women saying kaddish. I am not addressing that. I am a Chasidisha yid from ____ and tonight as I was leading the davening in your shul it came time for Kaddish.  Suddenly not only were men saying kaddish but women also. In my community men and women do not interact socially at all. But, I thought to put myself in the shoes of the women in your shul work who in the larger world, work with men and lead organizations of men.  For them to walk into a shul and sit behind a mechitza must be very strange.”

 

Several years ago a woman in the process of converting asked me why in my synagogue women sing along with men during the davening while in other Orthodox shuls she had been to they do not.  I told her in Judaism there are opinions which do not allow women to sing in the presence of men and there are opinions which do allow women to sing before men in shul. When it comes to the honor of heaven, to involving all Jews in prayer, we must follow the halachic opinion which allows this.  If we do not, we may think we are being strict with regard to not allowing the voice of women in front of men but we are being lenient on prayer itself and its level of inclusion and inspiration, thus reducing the Kavod Shamayim, the Honor of Heaven.

 

As with all halchic decisions, when strict in one area we are simultaneously lenient in another.  Thus, we must weigh both sides very carefully to be sure we are producing the most kavod shamayim, honor to God, in guiding the Jewish people.

 


The Secret of Jewish Unity Rabbi Dan Margulies

November 5, 2018

In the days following the Pittsburgh shooting, that tragically left 11 of our Jewish brothers and sisters dead and many others and law enforcement officials wounded, and which brought reports of still further anti-semitic vandalism and other hatred around this country, I have drawn some strength and resolve from a rather odd source: a fantastical legend recorded in a medieval Talmud commentary.

The Talmud, in the midst of the main discussion of the intricacies of the mitzva of tefillin (phylacteries) in tractate Menahot (37a) records that the sage Peleimu raised the following dilemma in a conversation with Rabbi Yehuda haNasi:

?מי שיש לו שני ראשים באיזה מהן מניח תפילין

A person with two heads—on which should he wear the tefila shel rosh?

The student of Talmud is usually prepared for questions and dilemmas which push the envelope, which test how far a law or legal principle can be applied, but even to the seasoned scholar, this seems a bit too much. Really? A man with two heads?

The Tosafot here comment (s.v. O Kum):

בעולם הזה ליכא אבל …

In this world there are no such people; however …

And with that “however” the Tosafot introduce the following story (the full version presented here is preserved in the Shita Mekubetzet of Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi Menahot 37a #18):

The demon-lord Asmodeus (Ashmodai) wanted to test the judicial prowess of Shlomo Hamelekh, so he brought up from the netherworld a man with two heads. And over the years that followed that man married a human woman (with one head!) and had several sons. Some of the sons took after their mother and bore only a single head. And some took after their father and bore two heads. And when their father died, the brothers with two heads tried to claim each a double portion of the inheritance—to be counted as two individuals not one.

To resolve their dispute, they came before the ever wise Shlomo for judgement. How was Shlomo to determine if these two-headed men were to be considered each a single individual or each as two individuals who happened to share a body? Shlomo in his wisdom determined a cleaver plan. He boiled a pot of water, and blindfolded one of the head, and poured the boiling water on the other. He noticed that both heads cried out in pain. Shlomo said, “This is proof that both heads grow from a single root.” Thus the two-headed men were judged each as a single individual.

Shlomo was able to determine what it means to be a single individual, a single entity, to be united by testing the response to suffering. How do we—the Jewish people—respond when some of our brothers and sisters are suffering? When they are mourning? Even if we are not those immediately affected‚ even when we live in New York and the tragedy is in Pittsburgh or when we live in america and the tragedy is in Israel, if there are Jews in pain then we are all in pain. That is what it means for us to be one people. That is what it means for us to be united.