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.

Advertisements

A religious dilemma -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 25, 2011

My friend and former student Esther (not her real name) embodies all the values and qualities that are deemed praiseworthy in the Orthodox Jewish community…except for one.   She is a leader of Jewish people helping to form observant and learned communities wherever she goes.  She is smart, modest, humble, learned in Torah, observant with the punctiliousness and passion that is the Orthodox ideal, and she even grew up Orthodox, the perfect match for any Jewish man…except that she is, and has always been, only attracted to women.

Esther tried for many years to figure out what her observant Jewish life would look like.  She knew two things for sure, she was gay and she was Orthodox.  The question for her and for many Orthodox Jews who are only attracted emotionally and sexually to people of the same gender is: How should I live my life?   Should I be celibate?   Should I live with a roommate of the same gender and raise children but not tell the world in any official way that we are as loving, supportive and as one person as much as any married heterosexual couple?  Should I have a partner and be open about it and raise an Orthodox family and risk being ostracized?  The easy fixes like not being gay or not being religiously observant are usually not options for people who really are gay and who really are observant Jews.

I always knew the time would come when Esther would realize that she would not really be able to live alone her whole life.  A woman of community and family, steeped in the beauty of Jewish family values, of Shabbat (Sabbath) tables filled with rejoicing, singing, and words of torah study, and of community.   A woman who knows what the important values are and is not moved by the narishkiet (Yiddish for nonsense) that larger American society and its superficial media driven values constantly churns out to us.   Esther is a woman steeped in Orthodox Jewish family values and Torah through and through.

The time that I knew would come, has come.  She met someone she loves, someone she can create a loving, religious Jewish family with which will embody the very best of Orthodox values.   Is creating a Jewish home with another woman and raising Jewish children the best thing for Esther’s Jewish life?   I believe it is.

Esther wants to take the values that Judaism teaches about relationships, as embodied in its writings about Jewish family and weddings and in the Jewish wedding ceremony itself, and utilize them in a ceremony that will deepen and solidify the relationship with her same gender spouse that will serve as the foundation for their “bayit neeman biyisrael,” their house of faith among the Jewish people.  Instead of slinkingly living with a “roommate” she wants to publicly solidify this relationship and foundation for her new family in front of friends and community in order to encourage its longevity and strength.

The halachot (Jewish laws) of Jewish marriage pertain only to a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who are permitted to each other.  True, it is not forbidden in Judaism to ceremoniously read sections of the book of Ruth about relationships, or the Song of Songs, or to make a blessing on a cup of wine, or to offer a prayer on behalf of a bride and a bride.  On the other hand all of the paradigms of marriage in the Torah are only between men and women.

Is it the time to say our focus on drawing lines and holding ground against gays, their relationships and their marriages is wasted energy?  To say as Rabbi Shmuly Boteach recently has that we should stop focusing on gay marriage and worry about the 50% of heterosexual marriages that fail?  To acknowledge that marriage does not have to prompt a community analysis of what happens in people’s bedrooms but can just see what happens in their dining rooms and living rooms such as loving children and teaching them Judaism in a house of Jewish celebration and faith among our people?

Maybe this is the moment to stand up and say it is better for gay orthodox Jews (at least those who can not be celibate and still keep the rest of the Torah with joy) to be in monogamous relationships which are the most observant ones they can be?  To say why  assume every relationship is only judged based upon what we think might be going on in the couple’s bed room and not on the building of a traditional Jewish home?   That when it comes to heterosexual couples who may be violating things in their bedroom that are forbidden by the Torah we turn a blind eye but when it comes to gay couples whose bedroom violations may be much less, perhaps only rabbinic, that suddenly we are up in arms?

If I believe the best thing for Esther is to “marry” a woman and raise a Jewish family and I do not help facilitate that because I fear the reverberations in the Orthodox community am I a hypocrite?   On the other hand I am a Jew committed to Jewish law and tradition and same gender marriage has never been part of that, indeed has been seen as outside of it.

So what is a rabbi to do?


Rabbi Lopatin clarifies his respect for Rav Shai Held

May 7, 2010

Friends,

As an addendum for more comments regarding Rav Schachter’s shiur at the RCA, I wanted to clarify a few things:

1)      I have tremendous respect and admiration for Rabbi Shai Held who wrote the critique of Rav Schacter, at least in terms of “chidush”.  Rabbi Held is a talmid chacham and already an accomplished Jewish thinker and liturgist.  I have used his liturgy on the Tsunami disaster in my shul!  So any rejoinder I have to his critique is said timidly and humbly.  I apologize that I may not have come off sounding this way in my zeal to defend the “chidush” nature of Orthodoxy.  I look forward to continuing discussions and debates with Rav Held in the future.

2)      Rav Schachter himself, in this same shiur at the RCA conference, allowed for disagreement with his points.  Rav Schechter emphasized how any halachic authority could disagree with another halachic authority, from an earlier time or contemporary, and therefore, I felt exhilarated after his speech as it legitimized my decision to  follow halachic authorities – in the Orthodox world –  who disagree with his stance on the ordination of women to the rabbinate.  Every posek (halachic decisor) must rule what his or her understanding, and every individual must honestly chose which decisor they follow: there will be disagreements, but no one is bound by anyone else’s truth.  If the Gaon from Vilna could disagree with the Gaonim 1000 years before his time, we can certainly feel OK in ruling according to a contemporary posek – or poskim – who disagrees with Rav Schachter.

3)      Thus, I do not think that there is any halachic prohibition on ordaining women as rabbis, and while the time may not be right in Orthodoxy at the moment for this practice, I look forward to the time when it will be appropriate.  In the meantime, within Orthodoxy, I hope to see more and more shuls with full time women in the clergy, and I hope there Yeshivat Maharat, and the programs which confer other titles to women, such as Yoatzot Halacha, will continue to grow and thrive.  I hope that Orthodox leaders step up to the plate to fund those programs and those positions.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Understanding Orthodox Halachic Innovation: Rabbi Lopatin’s Tribute to Rav Hershel Schachter, shli”ta

May 5, 2010

Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Hadar in New York,  recently wrote an Op Ed critical of Rav Hershel Schachter’s position prohibiting the ordination of women as rabbis.  Rabbi Schachter, perhaps the preeminent Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University and a student of Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, was one of many speakers at the recent Rabbinical Council of America convention where the issue of women rabbis in Orthodoxy – and, women’s roles in Orthodox Jewish communal leadership in general – was discussed and eventually voted on.  Rabbi Held mentioned, accurately, that Rav Schachter put the ordination of women in the category of “yehareg ve’al ya’avor” – those things that a person has to give up his or her life for rather that doing them.  Rav Schachter further invoked the ruling of his rebbe, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, that it was halachically impermissible for a woman to be a rabbi.  Many of the speakers at the convention, some of whom are poskim, halachic decisors like Rav Schachter is, disagreed with this understanding of the scope or application of Jewish law.  Moreover, even Rav Schachter, to the best of my understanding,  is in favor of women’s Torah learning and teaching on the communal level;  everyone at the convention, including Rav Schachter, would agree with Rabbi Held’s view that, “one of the crucial mandates of the hour is to create more opportunities and contexts [within halacha (ed.)]for women’s voices to be heard in Jewish life.”

Where I want to strenuously, and lovingly, disagree with Rabbi Held is in his implication throughout his Op Ed that Rav Schachter, and those of his ilk, are against “chidush bahalacha”, new, innovative ways of understanding the classic texts and traditions.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, especially since Rav Schachter’s speech at the conference delved specifically into the requirement  of every contemporary halachic decisor to examine the tradition and the text based on his (or her) own understanding: “l’fi r’ot eini hadayan” – according to the way the judge – of any era –sees it.  Rav Schachter spoke eloquently and passionately of how all the rules which seem to prohibit a lesser and later court from ruling against a greater and more numerous earlier court did not apply to understanding halacha, but, rather, only to rescinding a “takana” an edict.  When it comes to understanding the infinite word of God, especially in the world of Halacha, Rav Schachter proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that that understanding cannot  be based on “status quo”, as Rabbi Held claims, but, rather, by the most contemporary understanding of the halachic decisor who is examining it.

Rav Schachter gave as examples of this new and fresh approach that is required in learning and issuing halachic rulings, Rav Moshe Feinstein of the 20th century and the Vilna Gaon, the great Lithuanian decisor of the 18th century.  The Vilna Gaon regularly disagreed with Rishonim and Gaonim, authorities of the centuries and millennium before him.  He had no choice: he had to be honest, and if he felt they didn’t read the tradition and the texts (Talmud and Midrash) correctly, he had to disagree with them.  When it came to Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Schachter said that Rav Moshe, zt”l, wasn’t even so familiar with many of the opinions of the Acharonim, the big names of the three or four centuries before him,  and that he didn’t feel a loss: It’s always interesting for a halachic decisor to see what others are thinking,  but in the end of the day it doesn’t matter: halachic decisions are not just copied from the past, they are based on the latest, freshest thinking of the individual halachic authority.  Independence and, yes, innovation, where it is called for to bring out the truth of the Torah, are the hallmarks of the Orthodox halachic process, and from what Rav Schechter said at the RCA convention, he was their biggest advocate.

In fact, even though, in general, the authorities of the Gemarra (Amoraim) committed themselves not to take on the understandings of their predecessors, the authorities  of the Mishna (Tanaim), Rav Schachter showed how in some ways the great Amora Rav actually did disagree with Tanaim, as an Amora, not under the guise of a Tana himself, though he is sometimes called a Tana.  The great halachic and aggadic authority, the Netziv (19th century), Rosh Yeshiva of the storied Volozyn yeshiva developed this concept of “chidush bahalacha” – innovation in the halacha – long before any of the later authorities that Rabbi Held quotes, and Rav Schachter is squarely in the tradition of the Netziv, having studied with Rav Soloveitchik, himself a scion of the Volozyn tradition.

The very idea of ordaining women being “yehareg ve’al ya’avor (die rather than violate)” is based on an innovative understanding of the law in the Talmud of “arkesa d’mesana” – “laces (?)of the shoes”.  Rav Schachter explained this Talmudic concept in his talk that even the smallest infraction can become “yehareg ve’al ya’avor” – even how you tie your shoe – if it is in the context of “she’at hashmad” – a time when Jews are being persecuted for keeping Judaism, even down to the smallest detail like how Jews tie their shoes.  The innovative read on this Talmudic concept was pioneered by Rav Schachter’s teacher, Rav Soloveitchik, in taking on what the Rav saw as the “she’at hashmad” in the and ‘50’s and ‘60’s, when the Conservative and Reform movements’ popularity in Jewish circles created an atmosphere of pressure on Orthodox Jews to compromise their halacha and conform to Reform and Conservative styles of Jewish worship.  Thus, even davening in a Reform or Conservative synagogue, with mixed seating and other infractions of halacha (in the eyes of Orthodoxy), while not normally seen as a central violation meriting “yehareg ve’al ya’avor”, in the context of the social pressures and climate of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s were classified by the Rav as “yehareg ve’al ya’avor”.  Wow!  While we may recoil from this ruling, to use Rabbi Held’s term, it is certainly an innovative and revolutionary way of viewing a two thousand year old halacha from the Talmud.  Rav Schachter continues in Rav Soloveitchik’s innovative interpretation, by seeing the act of ordaining women rabbis as Orthodox Jews knuckling under pressure from a climate of feminism in society and amongst the other movements of Judaism.

Orthodoxy believes in a divine, infinite and eternal Torah that was revealed to Moshe at Sinai and through the 40 years in the wilderness.  To understand that Torah properly, requires each Torah scholar and halachic authority, in every generation, such as Rav Schachter, to think for themselves, to figure out what God told us, to understand the texts of our tradition in a way that feels true to the person reading them.  The halachic process, within the theological underpinnings of Orthodox Judaism, thrives on new understandings of the ancient texts and traditions; these new and innovative understandings, “chidushei halacha” are  celebrated as the contribution of each individual mind, in every era, to give us a better understanding of what God commanded Moses and the Children of Israel in the written and oral law so many years ago.  It is ever fresh, ever eternal, and ever open to debate and new challenges.     RAL


On Line Psak – Bad Medicine

December 8, 2009

I am sure that many are familiar with the phenomenon on internet piskei halach – the popular notion of asking halachik questions, usually anonymously, to a rabbi. Often times even the rabbi who is answering in anonymous as the question is sent to a pool of rabbis.

No doubt there is some benefit to this technological option. It saves time as one can send the question and then great on with their life as they wait for answer. It also allows for sensitive question to be asked with minimal or no embarrassment.

On the other hand, online psak share the same pitfalls that so many other online relationships do. There is no doubt that the internet has allowed many to expand the number of people they are in touch with. The flip side is that while we are in touch with more people quantitatively, the quality of many of those relationships has deteriorated.

Online psak is no different. It allows for no relationship between posek and questioner, a very important ingredient in psak halacha. In on line piskei halaca it is very ahrd to flesh out all the detsil of the question. A fundamental ingredient missing in almost all on line pask is the ability for the Rabbi to ask questions to the questioner. The seasoned posek knows the questions that will assist in finding the proper answer.

Psak Halacha is a very personal matter as no two questioners ask the same question. Even thought on the surface it may seem that the very same question is being asked, the specific circumstances of the questioner, their religious background, their financial, and domestic situation all play a role in making a correct decision.

It is interesting to note that a major issue discussed by rabbis is rabbinic autonomy and that in some areas of life, halacha is becoming centralized One of the main objections to centralized rabbinic authority is that the rabbis of the central authority often lack familiarity with those asking the questions. The same shortcoming exists in the realm of internet psak.

A doctor can do a better job diagnosing a treating a patient when the patient’s personal history is known to the doctor and the doctor has time to ask question and clarify matters. The same is true for a rabbi asked to answer a halachik question. All of the factors mentioned above, if known by the rabbi, an serve an important role in rendering an appropriate decision


Prostitutes, Rabbis and Teshuvah (Return) By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 21, 2009

The Talmud tells two stories of Rabbis visiting prostitutes and subsequently doing Tehsuvah (return, repentance).  A comparison of the two stories yields deep insights about our own work of Tishuvah at this time of the year.   A good and inspiring Month of Ellul to all.

Story #1 (Babylonian Talmud, Minachot 44a)

Once a man, who was very careful about the commandment of tzizit, heard about a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred gold coins for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold coins and appointed a day with her. When he came to  her door the harlet’s maid told her, “The man who sent you four hundred gold coins is here and waiting at the door”; to which the harlot replied “Let him come in”.

When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked. He too went up after her in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes (Tzitzit) of his garment struck him across the face; whereupon he slipped off the bed and sat upon the ground. She also got down from the bed and sat upon the ground and said to him, “I will not leave until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.”  He replied, “never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are; but there is one commandment which God has commanded us, it is called tzizith, and with regard to it the expression “I am the Lord your God” is written twice, signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the future and I am He who will give reward in the future. The tzizith appeared to me as four witnesses”.

She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, the name of your school in which you study the Torah.” He wrote all this down and handed it to her. Thereupon she arose and divided her estate into three parts; one third for the government, one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand; the bed clothes, however, she retained. She then came to the Beth Hamidrash (house of study) of Rabbi Chiyya, and said to him, ‘Master, give instructions that they may make me a convert’. ‘My daughter’, he replied; ‘perhaps you have set your eyes on one of my students?’ She thereupon took out the paper and handed it to him. ‘Go’, said he ‘and enjoy your acquisition’…Those very bed-clothes which she had spread for the student for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully.

Story #2 (Babilonian Talmud, Avodah Zara 17a)

It was said of Rabb Eleazar ben Dordia that there was no harlot in the world he did not have relations with. Once, upon hearing that there was a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted a purse of gold coins for her hire, he took a purse of gold coins and crossed seven rivers to reach her. As he was with her, she had flatulence and said, “As this gas will not return to its place, so will Eleazar ben Dordia never be received in repentance.”

He thereupon went, sat between two mountains and exclaimed: “O, mountains, plead for mercy for me!” They replied: “How shall we pray for thee? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed!”” He exclaimed: “Heaven and earth, plead for mercy for me! They, too, replied: How shall we pray for you? We stand in need of it ourselves, for it is said, “For the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment.””… He then pleaded with the Sun and moon and the stars and constellations to plead for mercy on his behalf but they all gave the same answer.

Said Rabbi Eliezer, “Then it depends upon me alone!” Having placed his head between his knees, he wept aloud until his soul departed (he died). Then a bath-kol (voice from heaven) was heard proclaiming: ‘Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordai is destined for the life of the world to come!’ When Rebi heard this story he wept and said: “One person may acquire eternal life after many years, and another person in but an hour!” Rebi also said: Not only are those who repent accepted but they are even called “Rabbi”!”

Questions and Explanation

Why in the first story does Rabbi Chiyyah’s student do tishuvah without dying and even merit marrying the harlot, but in the second story though Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordi does tishuvah the ending is more tragic?

I would suggest that the difference is in the differing attitude and motivations of the two rabbis with regard to tishuvah.   Rabbi Chiyyah’s student repents out of his appreciation for mitzvoth, for holiness.  He is able to weigh the infinite value of the spirit (his tzitzit) against the fleeting pleasure of the physical.  This well balanced approach brings him to teshuvah without losing himself, and the parts of himself that are of value and can be used for holiness.  He will be able to elevate the physical by his connection to the spiritual, and indeed in the end of the story he truly does this, as the Talmud points out, by marrying the harlot and transforming the bed clothes that were illicit into those of a mitzvah.

In the second story, in contrast, Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordi is only moved to tishuvah when the physical becomes repulsive, only when the harlot, the object of his desire, passes gas, and is thus suddenly stripped of her sensuality and the curtain of his idealization of her and her sensuality is lifted.  He does not have the spiritual tools with which to raise the physical and sanctify it, his obsession and desire are gone and he is left alone and empty.

The lesson is an important one for all of us as we engage in the process of tishuvah at this time of year.  There are many motivations for teshuvah.  Sometimes we feel empty and lost, grasping at straws.  Tishuvah can emerge from there but it does not always sanctify one’s life, rather such tishuvah often functions by jettisoning one’s current identity and replacing it with a different life.  In contrast one can add holiness to the life one already leads and let the mitzvoth not expunge who we are but sanctify us.  The second I think is more organic since it does not demand the severance of one’s self but the sanctification and tweaking thereof.

Much blessing for a New Year that is one not of, not repentance through rejecting who we are, but a “return,” a “tishuvah” to the Godly people that we truly are.  Shanah Tovah.