Thanksgiving in the Face of Sorrow: Vayetze 5781

On the face of it, Leah has been dealt a dreadful hand. Her marriage to Jacob was born of subterfuge, and the Torah relates that “God saw that Leah was hated, and opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah’s fertility failed to win her husband’s affections as testified by her statements in naming their first three sons, Reuben, Shimon and Levi. Each name is plaintive, speaking to her sorrow and desperate hope for improvement in her marriage. Jacob’s absence from the naming of his first three sons is notable; does he even notice these boys? Finally, with her fourth son, Leah shifts focus from her indifferent husband to her munificent God, saying, “this time I thank the Lord,” yielding the name Judah, the child of thanksgiving.

Our sages puzzle over the shift in Leah’s perspective and the precise meaning of her words. In the Talmud (B. Brakhot 7b) Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai notes that Leah is the first biblical character to use this language of thanksgiving, but what does it mean? Midrash Bereshit Rabbah looks to arithmetic—Jacob had 12 sons from four wives, so it should have been three apiece, but Leah has borne four (so far). Her gratitude is the product of excess—the prophetic knowledge that she has been granted more than her fair share. This sense of plenty, her relative fortune despite her unhappy marriage, leads Leah to invent the language of thanksgiving. This reading is affirmed by Rashi in his Torah commentary, though in its one-ups-woman-ship it is not entirely honorable.

Midrash Tanhuma gives Leah even more prophetic insight—for each child she anticipates future failures among their descendants. For Judah, she foresees his own failure. Yet Leah also anticipates Judah’s remarkable willingness to admit error in the matter of Tamar (and I would add, in the matter of Joseph in Vayyigash). The name Judah hints at another meaning—modeh—confession, and it is this humility of her son that causes Leah to thank God. Indeed, the Midrash adds that it is due to Judah’s willingness to admit error that the entire Jewish people is named for him, and that King David and the messiah will descend from his line. We Jews are intended to be the people who acknowledge—error, dependence, and gratitude.

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Making Love in the Field: Hayei Sarah 5781

Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. He raised his eyes and saw camels approaching (Gen. 24:63). This scene, this moment before Isaac and Rebecca first meet, is dramatic and full of mystery. The two protagonists have come physically close, but remain each in their own world, and that never really changes. True, they will soon occupy a tent together, and Isaac will love his wife,  but just now Rebecca is alone on her camel, and Isaac too is alone in his field. Each seems psychologically wounded. We don’t know much of Rebecca’s background—her parents are ciphers, but her brother Laban is a piece of work. He takes advantage of her, and will do worse to her son. She wastes no time leaving home, as her one word answer אלך, “I’ll go” makes clear. As for Isaac—mourning his mother’s death, and not so close to Abraham since Mt Moriah, he is alone in the dark.

To meditate. What was he thinking? Could the ambiguous verb לשוח relate to the shoots or shrubs growing in the soil? If so, then he was taking advantage of the cool time of day to inspect his crops, a symbol of renewed vitality. Or does the verb truly mean to meditate, as the rabbis insisted in B. Brakhot 26b when they said he was praying Minhah? Meditate? That’s an after the fact translation. The verb means to speak, but with whom? Is Isaac speaking with God? If so, then what is he saying?

In the field. A promising place to meet one’s partner, a place of fertility. It is also a place of concentration, as I often experience when outdoors in a quiet space. In mystical thought, “the field” refers to Shekhinah, the divine presence, and this time of day, Minhah, is when “judgment is dangling toward dusk,” as the Zohar states. Isaac himself is a symbol of divine judgment or gevurah, and so this evening scene is tense and potentially dangerous. The field is a place of encounter—but will it be a struggle, an embrace, or both? The same ambiguity will recur during Jacob and Esau’s reunion in the field. Is Isaac preparing for battle, or is he battling against judgment itself, seeking an opening for compassion? Hasidic writers imagine Isaac engaged in an exalted campaign—to “sweeten judgment,” not only for himself but for the world.

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Dreaming of the Future: Vayera 5781

Once again the pollsters blew it. As in 2016, so in 2020, predictions about election results have born little resemblance to the outcome. Why are we surprised? It is hard enough to describe events that have already happened with accuracy and perspective. The future? Who are we kidding? No doubt, explanations will be found for the significant gap between expectation and reality, but pollsters are no prophets.

Were even the prophets prophets? Did they hear the divine voice, see divine sights, and discern divine secrets? Or was their experience more like a dream or hallucination—vague patterns of uncertain significance? This question pits the two titans of medieval Jewish thought, Rambam and Ramban, against each other. Rambam stakes out a skeptical position in his Guide of the Perplexed, Section II: 42. Because for Rambam there is no material aspect to the divine realm, it is simply impossible for a prophet or any person to see or hear God or angels using sensory perception. Even Moses “heard” God speak through a process of intellection, not auditory perception. Rambam writes, “It should by no means occur to your thought that an angel can be seen or that the speech of an angel can be heard except in a vision of prophecy or in a dream of prophecy, according to what is stated as a principle: I do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream.”

That “principle” comes from the story in Numbers when God rebukes Aaron and Miriam for criticizing their brother, and indicates that prophets such as them are limited to dream like revelations. But Rambam leaves out the next verse, “Not so my servant Moses…” Moses sees the image of God, speaking face to face as if to another person. For Rambam this claim is unacceptable. That which is reported of the prophet’s experience is truly a reflection of their internal vision—a dream or an apparition, not an encounter in time and space.

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An Activist Covenant: Lekh Lekha 5781

Destiny is a seductive concept. The idea that our personal and even national history is somehow predetermined can be comforting, especially when hazards abound and the best path forward is hard to discern. Historian Niall Ferguson surveys the tenacity of deterministic thinking among religious and secular thinkers through the ages in his book Virtual History. Marxists have often matched religious fundamentalists in their conviction that history is governed by inexorable forces and their sense that personal agency is an illusion.

Ferguson responds to this fatalistic tendency with chapter after chapter of counterfactual accounts—moments when a different decision by an individual or group could easily have changed the course of history. What if the American revolutionaries, many of whom were loyal to the Crown just months earlier—had found a way to settle their differences without violence in 1776? Would American slavery have ended earlier and without civil war in the 19th century? Would the British Empire have survived the 20th? Ferguson’s point is not to promote a parlor game of what if, but rather to provoke readers into taking responsibility for major decisions in their own lives, and in their society.

Given the enormous uncertainty about how next week’s election will play out and the staggering ramifications of various outcomes, it remains tempting to throw one’s hands up and say, “what will be will be.” Of course—spoiler alert—that will not be my take away, but don’t we believe that “all is in the hands of heaven”?

Parashat Lekh Lekha presents a zigzag account of divine providence and human agency. God seems to be in control, commanding Abram to set out for “a land that I will show you.” But hadn’t Abram actually begun the trip of his own initiative last week? In chapter 14 Abram responds to Lot’s capture by taking charge and rushing to battle without so much as a prayer. Thanksgiving can wait until the work is done. If God is really in control, then the strings seem quite loose.

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Miracle of Miracles: Noah 5781

What to make of miracles? They are among the most dramatic and beloved features of biblical narratives, but are distant from what most believe about reality. Wait, are they? Many modern people operate on a split screen, their rational analyses coexisting with magical thinking about fate, luck and miracles. Neuroscience has alerted us to the presence of parallel response systems in the brain. The prefrontal cortex engages in rational analysis, while the limbic system governs emotional life. So there may be an organic basis for inconsistent interpretations of reality. Is there a way to integrate our thought processes, to reconcile irrational belief in miracles with data driven analysis? If so, can this help us relate to Parashat Noah as more than myth?

Consider the approach of Nahmanides (Ramban, Gerona, 1194-1270) the great scholar of halakhah and kabbalah who served also as physician and communal leader. It is difficult to extract a systematic theology from Ramban because he intentionally veils his esoteric ideas and scatters elements of them across many different works. Fortunately we have assistance from modern scholars, most recently Moshe Halbertal with his masterful book, Nahmanides: Law and Mysticism (Yale UP).  Chapter 4, “Miracles and the Chain of Being,” draws on Ramban’s Torah Commentary as well as Sha’ar Ha-Gemul, the final chapter of his book Torat Ha-Adam, which presents Jewish beliefs and practices around death and the afterlife.

Ramban’s version of modern science was a popular theory that the world was generally governed by the constellations. Before you dismiss this as astrology (which, I concede, it is), consider that this concept might be more akin to physics. Constellations are vast celestial systems that demonstrate order and predictability in the universe, and therefore model the physical laws that govern reality. Ramban asserts, however, that there are exceptions. The Land of Israel evades this type of control, as do the original and ultimate eras of creation, and so too do certain righteous individuals. These exceptions link reality to the realm of miracles.

Rebounding from Crisis with Strength: Bereshit 5781

Like millions of American children in the 1970s, I tuned in weekly to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The opening sequence showed skiers gracefully racing down a mountain, and then spectacularly wiping out while the narrator promised viewers “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Something tragic and true was contained in this message. The possibility of calamity makes moments of triumph precious and worth pursuing.

The same narrative device is employed by the Torah. Dazzling victories are paired with ignominious defeats. Consider, for example, three victorious moments in the Torah: The dedication of the Tabernacle; the declaration by Israel at Sinai that they will “heed and hear” God’s teaching; and God’s proclamation at the end of Creation that all of it was “very good.”

Each moment completes an arduous process, signaling blessing and joy. Yet the Torah barely allows one to celebrate before delivering a devastating narrative twist. What does this say about the nature of victory, and what can it teach us about resilience in a pandemic?

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Yom Kippur 5781: By Consent of the High Court

Kol Nidre begins with a dramatic declaration, “by consent of the court on high, and by consent of the court below, we permit prayer with transgressors.” This formula is attested already in the circle of Rabbi Meir of Rotenberg (Germany, 13C) as reported by his student Samson b. Tzadok (Tashbetz Katan 131), and then in the Tur (OH 619). Most scholarly attention focuses on the final word, “avaryanim,” (transgressors, or perhaps Iberians—conversos?) but I want to know who are the justices of the court on high? How were they nominated and confirmed?

The expression, “court on high” (ישיבה של מעלה) occurs throughout rabbinic literature. In Bavli Bava Metzia 85a we learn that whoever teaches their friend’s child Torah merits to be seated on the court on high. On the next page we hear that when Rabbah bar Nahmani died, he was caught pronouncing the words, “pure, pure” (טהור טהור). A heavenly voice was heard saying, “fortunate are you that your body was pure and your soul departed in purity.” Then a note fell from the heavens right into Pumbedita saying, “Rabbah bar Nahmani is invited to join the court on high.”

From these and other rabbinic sources it seems that the court on high, or heavenly court, is a place where the greatest sages serve after death. Why then do we invoke their authority on Kol Nidre? Releasing people from vows is one of the most complex and controversial areas of Jewish law, requiring a Beit Din of three senior scholars to review each case. But on Yom Kippur the entire Jewish people asks for release, so mortal judges will not suffice. Thus the invocation of the heavenly tribunal.

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A Note of Confusion: Shabbat Rosh HaShanah 5781

Do you find the shofar service confusing? Good, because it is supposed to be that way! Many rabbinic traditions about shofar, such as blowing it daily for a month prior, but then stopping the day before Rosh HaShanah, and then blowing it at different points of the service are supposed “to confuse Satan.” Poor Satan—Jews around the world in all the time zones are blasting away on their horns at different times—what’s an ornery angel to do?

Shofar confusion runs deeper and more serious than this charming folktale. The Torah refers several times to the blowing of the shofar in the seventh month, using different words, tekiah and teruah among them. What do these terms mean? Numbers 29:1 refers to Rosh HaShanah as יום תרועה, “a day of shofar blasts,” which is translated into Aramaic as “a day of wailing” (יבבא). This leads to the idea that the teruah is a sound which reflects and instills sorrow and brokenness. Still, is it a sobbing sound or more like wailing? How about both?

In Bavli Rosh HaShanah 33b-34a there is a long discussion about these notes, especially teruah. The sages can’t quite decide how it is supposed to sound, so they give us three versions, familiar to synagogue goers as shevarim (three notes, each 1/3 the duration of a tekiah), teruah (9 staccato notes, again adding up to one tekiah) and then a combination of the two. Why would one bout of sobbing suffice when you can expand it to three? So much of Judaism is captured here!

On that same page the rabbis interpret Leviticus 25:9, with its two references to “passing” the teruah through the land to mean that the broken notes must always be preceded and followed by a simple extended note of tekiah. Those “straight” notes are unbroken, indicating a posture of confidence and joy. For all our tears, we begin with strength and end there too.

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The Gates of Tears: Nitzavim VaYelekh 5780

A student touched me deeply today when I opened our Zoom meeting and found them weeping. “Why are you crying?” I asked. They said, “How can I stand before my community and lead them in prayer when such terrible things are happening? How can I pray for blessing when things are so wrong?”

How indeed? What gives us the strength and the hope to ask God to bless the world when we are ravaged by pandemic, scorched by massive wildfires in the West, brought low by economic collapse and demoralized by a political system and politicians who shock us with selfish and irresponsible conduct? How can we summon the confidence to ask for blessing when we are isolated and concerned, dreading whether worse is yet to come? In such a moment, tears are the most rational response.

Bavli Brakhot 32b says that since the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer are closed, citing Lamentations 3:8 (And when I cry and plead, [God] shuts out my prayer), yet claims that the gates of tears always remain open. Still, as you may know, the mourner’s kaddish is missing the “titkabeil” paragraph (“Accept the prayers and requests of all Israel…”) because it seems unreasonable, cruel even, to tell mourners to expect the granting of their desires while tears flow down their cheeks. And in a sense we are all mourning, whether for relatives and friends who have died, or for many other losses that we have experienced in recent months. How indeed can we pray?

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Covenantal Judaism: Ki Tavo 5780

About fifteen years ago Rabbi David Wolpe suggested that Conservative Judaism be rebranded as Covenantal Judaism. I felt this to be an attractive solution to our brand challenge. Wolpe spoke of the covenant on numerous levels—a theological covenant between Jews and God, a national covenant between Jews and each other, and an ethical covenant between Jews, other peoples, and our very planet. This was an aspirational framing, a bridge between ancient and emerging Judaism. “Conservative,” in contrast, felt like an attempt to cling to a possession before it slipped away. It also had political overtones that were unrelated to the original intentions and unpopular with many if not most members of the movement. This has not exactly changed. Neither has our brand name, at least in America, and maybe it doesn’t really matter.

However, covenant is one of the core frameworks for understanding the Torah. Both in Exodus and in Deuteronomy the relationship between God and Israel is described as a treaty that is mutually binding and beneficial. This framework is on display throughout the portion of Ki Tavo, including its fearful list of curses that will follow failure to abide by the agreement.

Let’s focus on a brief passage of four verses, and even closer on just two words at their center. Deuteronomy 16: 16-19 is a pithy encapsulation of the entire Torah. “On this very day,” Moses tells Israel, “the Lord commands you” to obey all the these statutes and laws with all your heart and all your soul. The sages took this literally—that forty years since Sinai Moses finally revealed the fullness of Torah to the people–and deduced that no student can assume that they have understood their teacher until they have studied with them for forty years! But I prefer Rashi’s take (based on Bavli Brakhot 63b)—the words of Torah should always remain fresh in your eyes, as if they were given today.

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Who’s a False Witness? Shoftim 5780

Honesty is the bedrock of justice. Legal proceedings to determine innocence or guilt, obligation or exemption, depend on honest and truthful testimony. For this reason, the Decalogue includes the prohibition of false testimony among its list of severe social crimes, beside murder and theft (Exod. 20 and Deut. 5). In Parshat Shoftim we learn that all testimony must be cross examined, and that false testimony must be identified and punished.

The subject of false  or “plotting” witnesses (עדים זוממים) is of great concern to the sages of Israel. The first chapter of Mishnah Makkot is dedicated to this subject, and many sections of the Talmud return to it. In Makkot 1:6 we learn from the rabbis of a disagreement they had with the Sadducees regarding false testimony in a murder trial. The Sadducean position (according to the rabbis) was that a false witness could not be executed unless the person they framed had already been executed. For the rabbis, guilt for false testimony is incurred as soon as the verdict is passed, even if the falsely accused person is exonerated before execution.

In Tractate Hagigah (16b) the rabbis mention a dispute between two Temple-era sages, Yehudah b. Tabbai, and Shimon b. Shetah. The former swears that he supervised the execution of a false witness whose victim had not yet been executed, as a demonstration against Sadducean law. Shimon b. Shetah swears that Yehudah has killed an innocent man, because his proof of the false testimony was defective. Interestingly, the oath expression they each use is “I ]won’t[ be comforted unless…” (אראה בנחמה אם לא) . The sages have staked their own personal comfort on the protection of justice in society. Indeed, Yehudah concedes error and immediately engages in several forms of contrition. Ironically, the penalty he invoked comes to pass even though, or because his statement was true! He accepts upon himself a professional demotion—never to render a verdict without consulting Shimon, and he spends the rest of his life weeping and pleading forgiveness at the grave of the man he had executed.

On a literary level, this text is very rich. Yehudah “prostrates” on the grave—the text uses the word משתטח, which includes Shimon’s patronymic. And the phrase “his voice was heard” is ambiguous—whose voice was heard? That of the weeping rabbi? That of his victim from the grave? At each stage of this story, a voice has been heard, but the result has been fatefully unjust. There may even be allusion here to Jeremiah’s description of a voice heard weeping on high (קול ברמה נשמע), Mother Rachel bitterly weeping for her children who are no more.

The rabbis famously described slander as equivalent to murder, and sometimes, as with false testimony, or bad judgment, this is literally true. The rabbis go a bit beyond what you might expect in their understanding of false testimony. According to them, testimony can be false even if the content of the testimony is true. If Person A testifies, “I saw X murder Y,” and it turns out that X did indeed murder Y, but Person A could not have seen the act, then it is false testimony.

A person must not testify unless they have direct and unmediated knowledge of the events. This concept can apply to our lives, even if we are not involved as courtroom witnesses. As the rabbis teach, “accustom your tongue to say, “I do not know.” I was once rebuked by a beloved aunt in Israel. She would ask me questions in Hebrew, and I would often reply, אני לא בטוח, “I’m not sure.” She looked at me once and said, actually, you don’t know, so say it, אני לא יודע. I learned from her Israeli directness and have tried to admit ignorance more readily ever since.

But here is a theological twist. Is it possible that we are all false witnesses on a great and important matter? Isaiah says (three times) in God’s name, “you are My witnesses.” When we recite the Shema, it is a form of testimony (hinted at by the supersized letters ע and ד). But can we be sure about our belief? Remember, the plotting witnesses are guilty, even if the content of their testimony is true, if they had not seen with their own eyes. Who can claim that they have seen God directly?

This problem is discussed by a Hasidic rebbe, R. Shmuel b. R. Avraham Borenstein. He says that it is not sufficient to testify to God because that is the tradition you have received from others, or even from philosophical speculation. No, you have an obligation to “know” that God is God. Well, how can you do that? His answer is through devoted Torah study. The Torah itself is called testimony (עדות), and Psalm 19 says that it is “faithful,” and makes the simple wise. By immersing ourselves in sacred study, we can become wise and faithful, so that our words of prayer are not aspirational, but true reflections of our heart.

I find this teaching to be quite daunting. I would much prefer to believe that as long as I behave with integrity, as long as I utter my prayers, and practice the mitzvot, I will have achieved a sufficient level of virtue. This Hasidic teaching says, however, that if we do all those things without deep faith, then it can actually be the opposite of virtue, a false testimony. I’m not entirely convinced—virtuous acts are beneficial even if their motivation is tainted. But still, as we enter Elul, I think this challenge is important to consider.

Let us use the month of Elul to patch up frayed relationships, to beg forgiveness from those we have wronged, to admit when we are ignorant or in error. But the month of Elul is not only about repairing social damage. It is also about strengthening our faith. Let the Torah that we learn in the coming weeks enter not only our minds but also our hearts, helping us to experience directly the revelation. With that faith we can then express our prayers as true testimony, so that in 40 days when we chant the words “the Lord is God,” we will know them to be true.

דברים פרק יט, טז-כ

(טז) כִּֽי־יָק֥וּם עֵד־חָמָ֖ס בְּאִ֑ישׁ לַעֲנ֥וֹת בּ֖וֹ סָרָֽה: (יז) וְעָמְד֧וּ שְׁנֵֽי־הָאֲנָשִׁ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־לָהֶ֥ם הָרִ֖יב לִפְנֵ֣י יְקֹוָ֑ק לִפְנֵ֤י הַכֹּֽהֲנִים֙ וְהַשֹּׁ֣פְטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִהְי֖וּ בַּיָּמִ֥ים הָהֵֽם: (יח) וְדָרְשׁ֥וּ הַשֹּׁפְטִ֖ים הֵיטֵ֑ב וְהִנֵּ֤ה עֵֽד־שֶׁ֙קֶר֙ הָעֵ֔ד שֶׁ֖קֶר עָנָ֥ה בְאָחִֽיו: (יט) וַעֲשִׂ֣יתֶם ל֔וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר זָמַ֖ם לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת לְאָחִ֑יו וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִקִּרְבֶּֽךָ: (כ) וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִ֖ים יִשְׁמְע֣וּ וְיִרָ֑אוּ וְלֹֽא־יֹסִ֨פוּ לַעֲשׂ֜וֹת ע֗וֹד כַּדָּבָ֥ר הָרָ֛ע הַזֶּ֖ה בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ:

שמות פרק כ

לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה בְרֵעֲךָ֖ עֵ֥ד שָֽׁקֶר: ס

משנה מסכת מכות פרק א

משנה ו   אין העדים זוממין נהרגין עד שיגמר הדין שהרי הצדוקין אומרים עד שיהרג שנאמר נפש תחת נפש אמרו להם חכמים והלא כבר נאמר (דברים י”ט) ועשיתם לו כאשר זמם לעשות לאחיו והרי אחיו קיים ואם כן למה נאמר נפש תחת נפש יכול משעה שקבלו עדותן יהרגו תלמוד לומר נפש תחת נפש הא אינן נהרגין עד שיגמר הדין:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חגיגה דף טז עמוד ב

גמרא. תנו רבנן: שלשה מזוגות הראשונים שאמרו שלא לסמוך, ושנים מזוגות האחרונים שאמרו לסמוך, (הראשונים) היו נשיאים, ושניים להם אבות בית דין, דברי רבי מאיר. וחכמים אומרים: יהודה בן טבאי – אב בית דין, ושמעון בן שטח – נשיא. מאן תנא להא דתנו רבנן: אמר רבי יהודה בן טבאי: אראה בנחמה אם לא הרגתי עד זומם, להוציא מלבן של צדוקין, שהיו אומרים אין עדים זוממין נהרגין עד שיהרג הנידון. אמר לו שמעון בן שטח: אראה בנחמה אם לא שפכת דם נקי, שהרי אמרו חכמים: אין עדים זוממין נהרגין – עד שיזומו שניהם, ואין לוקין – עד שיזומו שניהם, ואין משלמין ממון – עד שיזומו שניהם. מיד קבל עליו יהודה בן טבאי שאינו מורה הלכה אלא בפני שמעון בן שטח. כל ימיו של יהודה בן טבאי היה משתטח על קברו של אותו הרוג, והיה קולו נשמע. כסבורין העם לומר שקולו של הרוג הוא, אמר להם: קולי הוא, תדעו שלמחר הוא מת ואין קולו נשמע. אמר ליה רב אחא בריה דרבא לרב אשי: ודלמא פיוסי פייסיה, או בדינא תבעיה? מני הא? אי אמרת בשלמא רבי מאיר, דאמר: שמעון בן שטח אב בית דין, רבי יהודה בן טבאי נשיא – היינו דקא מורי הלכה בפני שמעון בן שטח. אלא אי אמרת רבנן, דאמרי: יהודה בן טבאי אב בית דין, שמעון בן שטח נשיא – אב בית דין בפני נשיא מי מורה הלכה? – לא, מאי קבל עליו דקאמר – לאצטרופי, דאפילו אצטרופי נמי לא מצטריפנא.

ירמיהו פרק לא, יד

(יד) כֹּ֣ה׀ אָמַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֗ק ק֣וֹל בְּרָמָ֤ה נִשְׁמָע֙ נְהִי֙ בְּכִ֣י תַמְרוּרִ֔ים רָחֵ֖ל מְבַכָּ֣ה עַל־בָּנֶי֑הָ מֵאֲנָ֛ה לְהִנָּחֵ֥ם עַל־בָּנֶ֖יהָ כִּ֥י אֵינֶֽנּוּ:

ישעיהו פרק מג, י

(י) אַתֶּ֣ם עֵדַי֙ נְאֻם־יְקֹוָ֔ק וְעַבְדִּ֖י אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּחָ֑רְתִּי לְמַ֣עַן תֵּ֠דְעוּ וְתַאֲמִ֨ינוּ לִ֤י וְתָבִ֙ינוּ֙ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֣י ה֔וּא לְפָנַי֙ לֹא־נ֣וֹצַר אֵ֔ל וְאַחֲרַ֖י לֹ֥א יִהְיֶֽה: ס

שם משמואל ויקרא פרשת בחקותי

ונראה דהנה כתיב (תהלים י”ט) עדות ה’ נאמנה מחכימת פתי. ויש לפרש דמה שנקראה התורה עדות אף שאין עדות מפי כתבם, אלא שהתורה עשתה את האדם לעד מעיד על יחוד ה’. והנה בעדות כתיב (ויקרא ה’) או ראה או ידע, ואם לא ראה וידע בעצמו אלא שהוא סומך על אחרים שהגידו לו אף שהדבר אמת מ”מ הוא נקרא עד שקר, וכמ”ש בעדים זוממין (דברים י”ט) והנה עד שקר העד אף שהמעשה הוא אמת אלא שמזימין את העדים ואומרים עמנו הייתם במקום אחר וא”א שתראו את המעשה קרינן בהו והנה עד שקר העד. ובהכרח לומר שישראל המעידין על יחוד ה’ הוא כאילו ראו בעיניהם ממש ולא מחמת מסורת שבידם ולא מחמת השערה ואומדן דעת שכל אנושי, שכל אלה עדיין אינם נקראים עדות נאמנה, אלא ראי’ ממש, והוא מחמת התורה שכשנכנסו דברי תורה לתוך לבו של אדם הרי היא מאירת עינים ונפקחו עיני שכלו לראות מה שאין בו ספק ואומד כלל אלא דבר ברור. וזהו שאמר עדות ה’ נאמנה, שהתורה מעמדת עדים נאמנים להעיד מה שרואים בעיניהם, והטעם מפני שמחכימת פתי ובגדר החכמה שיהי’ כאילו רואה הדבר בעיניו ממש כאמרם ז”ל (סנהדרין ז’ ב) אמור לחכמה אחותי את אם ברור לך הדבר כאחותך וכו’:

Remembering Rabbi Steinsaltz z”l

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has been a towering presence in my Jewish learning for the past forty years. I did not have the privilege of knowing him personally, but I feel that he has been my steadiest hevruta since ninth grade, when our high school presented us each with his Hebrew edition of Brakhot for Talmud class. I subsequently purchased and read many Steinsaltz Talmud volumes, starting with The Essential Talmud, and his Hebrew reference guide to Talmud study (מדריך לתלמוד). Later, I read his books on Jewish mysticism (The Thirteen Petaled Rose), on repentance, and on Jewish prayer.

I recall one speech that I heard from Rabbi Steinsaltz in Detroit, maybe 25 years ago. He was speaking before the holidays on the subject of Teshuvah and said that many people make the mistake of setting Rabbi Akiva as their role model. Illiterate at 40, but a towering Torah scholar soon thereafter—wouldn’t we all like to become so accomplished! Yes, Steinsaltz said, Rabbi Akiva is very impressive, but is he a realistic role model? When it comes to our own return to Judaism, we should seek not to sprint, but to become long distance runners. Do not fret, he told us, that you are still only beginning to gain knowledge of Torah and practice mitzvot. Establish long term goals and good habits, and your soul will be as beloved to God as that of any great scholar of our history. If Rabbi Steinsaltz had only preached this message, that might have been enough, but instead he created an entire library to give access and encouragement to Torah students at every level. Now that his Talmud commentary has been translated by Koren and made freely available on Sefaria, the entire world has access to the remarkable world of the Talmud.

I recently began studying Bavli Ketubot in memory of my mother, who was a calligrapher and ketubah artist. I’m afraid that  I am not on pace to finish by her 15th yahrzeit this Sukkot, and I’ll admit that much of the material is painful to contemplate, but she loved Torah and her presence sustains me in my study.

The second chapter of Bavli Ketubot explores the laws of testimony (עדות) which normally requires two independent witnesses who have no personal interest or family relationship to either party or to each other. The (male) rabbis generally prevent women from testifying, but they make some exceptions, even when there are other reasons to disqualify their testimony, as when it affects their own status.

These texts are obviously patriarchal—women are treated as subjects of rabbinic authority. Yet there are moments when the sages reveal flaws in their system, opening windows to a different reality in which women are viewed as legally competent and authorized to exercise agency in their own lives. Some of these texts fault men as irresponsible custodians of women’s lives; this awareness has consequences for both men—who are forced into actions that they would resist—and for women, who gain a measure of control previously denied them.

A story is told at Ketubot 23a of a group of captive women who were redeemed in the city of Nehardea, where Shmuel and his family were the dominant rabbinic leaders. Shmuel’s father recruits guards to protect these women, but his famous son asks an impertinent and shockingly insensitive question—“Who was guarding them until now?” Implicit in Shmuel’s words is that he views these women as damaged goods, hardly worth the effort of further protection. Shmuel’s father replies sharply, “If they were your daughters would you disparage them so?” The editor cites Kohelet 10:5, saying that the father of Shmuel’s question was, “like an error committed by a ruler.”

This observation precedes a horrific development when Shmuel’s own daughters are soon taken captive and brought to Palestine to be sold as slaves or redeemed by the local community. Yet this information is presented neutrally–after all, the point of the story is really a point of law, in this case a principle established in the prior Mishnah, and expanded upon by Shmuel’s father. If a woman presents negative information about herself prior to other reports, then she is trusted also to present positive information, even if it is in her self-interest, and even if independent reports subsequently become available. Indeed, this is precisely what plays out with Shmuel’s daughters.

The girls ask their captor to remain outside while they each enter the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Hanina to announce their own status: “I have been taken captive, but have not been violated.” If this testimony is accepted, then they will improve their marital prospects; this motivation would normally raise suspicions about their testimony. But because they themselves revealed their captive status, compromising their own position, they are trusted to also testify on their own behalf, even though their captor is just outside the door, and the truth will soon be known (it seems possible that the captor shares their self-interest, since he may get a higher redemption fee for unmolested captives).

These girls demonstrate remarkable familiarity with the workings of rabbinic law, and are quickly identified as members of an elite rabbinic family. Rabbi Hanina learns that they are related to one of his students, Rabbi Shemen [=Shimon] bar Abba, and tells him to take care of his relations—that is, to redeem them, and perhaps to marry one of them. Rabbi Shemen tries to object based on legal interpretation, but Rabbi Hanina pushes his proofs aside, with a final flourish citing none other than the father of Shmuel—even if witnesses arrive and testify that the girls had been taken captive, and even if this testimony arrives prior to their marriage, the women are nevertheless to be believed.

Notice that in this story there are “good rabbis,” and “bad rabbis,” with the former distinguishing themselves through hermeneutics that not only protect women but also recognize their legal agency. The “bad rabbis” are not necessarily evil, but they are insensitive, and therefore unworthy custodians of women, even in their own family. This story is certainly not feminist—it is similar to the stories analyzed by Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky in her book on gender play in the Bible, a story that challenges but ultimately reinforces the patriarchy. In the end rabbis like Shmuel and Shemen learn their lesson, the girls are redeemed and married off to proper men, who remain very much in control of their lives. But the story exposes the deficiencies of this arrangement, the tendency of men to mismanage their responsibilities toward women, and the ability and right of women to assert their own interests. For an ancient text, it has much to offer modern readers as they examine systemic discrimination in their own time.

Rabbi Steinsaltz provides his full toolbox to explicate this fascinating and troubling story. He cites parallel texts, manuscript variants, and offers a philological note on a rare word (istan), which he traces to an Assyrian word for north. Steinsaltz adds a paragraph on the story of the daughters of Samuel, supplementing it with material from elsewhere in the Bavli and Yerushalmi. At the bottom of the page, Steinsaltz summarizes medieval commentaries (especially Ritba) and gives citations to the halakhic codes.

With all this assistance, Rabbi Steinsaltz helps a modern reader understand a difficult story. However, we must acknowledge what he does not do. Rabbi Steinsaltz does not offer a critique of the ancient, medieval or modern rabbis for their construction of gender. His commentary presents the Talmud on its own terms, using modern tools such as philology and manuscript witnesses to explicate what is found in its pages, and medieval commentaries to share how the text has been understood and implemented in Jewish practice. He is not a cultural critic, nor are his critical tools used for pure historical inquiry. Rabbi Steinsaltz is very much an Orthodox scholar, confident that our ancient texts do not require apologetics. He does not criticize the sages for their patriarchal institutions, nor does he defend them against modern critics. He simply helps us read the sages and understand them on their own terms.

While Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is not, therefore, the type of scholar who can teach us how to integrate these texts into a modern, egalitarian perspective, he gives those of us who are so inclined the tools to access the world of the ancient sages. With that access, we, and our students, and the students of our students, will be able to add layers of meaning to the Torah, and find within its vast pages a usable past. We are forever in his debt. יהי זכרו ברוך

תלמוד בבלי מסכת כתובות דף כג עמוד א

ואם משנשאת באו עדים וכו’. אמר אבוה דשמואל: לא נשאת – נשאת ממש, אלא כיון שהתירוה לינשא אף על פי שלא נשאת. והא לא תצא קתני! לא תצא מהתירה הראשון. ת”ר: אמרה נשביתי וטהורה אני, ויש לי עדים שטהורה אני, אין אומרים נמתין עד שיבאו עדים, אלא מתירין אותה מיד; התירוה לינשא, ואחר כך באו עדים ואמרו לא ידענו – הרי זו לא תצא, ואם באו עדי טומאה, אפי’ יש לה כמה בנים – תצא. הני שבוייתא דאתיין לנהרדעא, אותיב אבוה דשמואל נטורי בהדייהו. א”ל שמואל: ועד האידנא מאן נטרינהו? א”ל: אילו בנתך הווין, מי הוית מזלזל בהו כולי האי? הואי כשגגה שיוצא מלפני השליט, ואישתביין בנתיה דמר שמואל ואסקינהו לארעא דישראל. אוקמן לשבויינהו מאבראי ועיילי לבי מדרשא דר’ חנינא, הא אמרה נשביתי וטהורה אני, והא אמרה נשביתי וטהורה אני, שרינהו. סוף עול אתו שבויינהו, אמר רבי חנינא: בנן דמוריין אינון. איגלאי מילתא דבנתיה דמר שמואל הווין, אמר ליה רבי חנינא לרב שמן בר אבא: פוק איטפל בקרובותיך, אמר ליה לרבי חנינא: והאיכא עדים במדינת הים! השתא מיהת ליתנהו קמן, עדים בצד אסתן ותאסר? טעמא דלא אתו עדים, הא אתו עדים מיתסרא, והאמר אבוה דשמואל: כיון שהתירוה לינשא אף על פי שלא נשאת! אמר רב אשי: עדי טומאה איתמר.