Author Archives: Rabbi Danny Nevins

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.

Complicity and Conscience: Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 5780

The Torah says that Caleb ben Yifuneh was blessed with “a different spirit,” and that this differentiation allowed him alone to survive the curse of death in the desert. At Numbers 14:23, God tells Moses that the entire generation that had witnessed divine miracles in Egypt and the desert but had nevertheless acted testily ten times would never see the land, but rather die in the wilderness. The next verse reads, “But my servant Caleb had a different spirit with him, and followed me, so I will bring him to the land where he had come, and his seed will inherit it.”

This verse occasions many questions. Why only Caleb? What about Joshua? Why is Caleb called “my servant,” an honorific used sparingly in the Torah (though Avot D’Rabbi Natan gives 18 examples)? And what is his different spirit? Our commentators have much to say on this and more. Joshua acquitted himself well, but perhaps only because Moses gave him special attention and protection. His survival is therefore not entirely earned. And at the crucial moment in the prior chapter, Caleb alone spoke out against the evil report of the spies, silencing them with his confident belief in God. For this reason, he is honored with the title “my servant” and singled out to enter the Land. But what was his different spirit?

Continue reading

Separation from Cain: Naso 5780

“When a man or a woman commits any wrong toward a fellow person, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes their guilt, they shall confess the wrong that they have done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who was wronged.” (Numbers 5:5-7).

This passage from Parashat Naso opens a section dedicated to the purification of the camp of Israel prior to its journey toward the Land. It anticipates interpersonal conflict and notes that hurtful behavior has both social and spiritual consequences. The bad actor has wronged both their victim and also God, since brazen behavior denies divine authority. They are required to confess their actions, to pay restitution plus a fine. There is also a required sacrifice—a ram of expiation (איל הכפורים)—to repair the spiritual component of the sin.

The phrase לִמְעֹל מַעַל בַּה’, translated by JPS as “breaking faith,” is rendered in the Aramaic translations as “speaking lies,” before the Lord. Robbery always involves an element of deception. The rabbis notice that back in Levit. 5:21 a similar law is taught, but there the victim is identified as “one’s kinsman,” namely, a fellow Israelite, so this passage comes to be known as גזל הגר, “stealing from a stranger.” Even if the victim has died before the thief can be forced to restore the stolen property, and even if the victim has no heirs, the stolen goods must still be repaid, in this case to the public purse of the priests. The “stranger” is claimed as “one of us.” They are protected from theft, and if robbed, they are owed apology and restitution.

One of the more imaginative and timely expansions of this text is found in the Zohar to Naso (3:122). Who is a biblical figure most associated with both violence and deception? Cain. But we don’t know much of his subsequent history. As always, Midrash abhors (or exploits) a vacuum. There is a later biblical people called the “Kenites,” (קנים), and the rabbis like to associate them with Cain (קין).  In the book of Judges, there is a verse which sets up the valorous act of Yael in defeating Sisera that reads, “Heber the Kenite separated from Cain, from the sons of Hobab, father-in-law of Moses (4:11). What does it mean to “separate from Cain”? Continue reading

As if a slave, as if free: Pesah 5780

Pharaoh says something odd to Moses and Aaron right at the start of their confrontation: “Why do you distract the people from their tasks? Get to your labors!” The first half of the sentence implies that Moses and Aaron are not enslaved like other Israelites with “their tasks.” But by the end of the verse Pharaoh includes the leaders with their people—“Get to your labors!” Well, which is it? At this point are Moses and Aaron free, or enslaved?

This ambiguity is addressed in Midrash Shemot Rabbah. Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi is quoted there saying that the tribe of Levi was free from harsh labor in Egypt. This is why Moses and Aaron were at leisure to walk around and engage Pharaoh in conversation. Apparently he noticed this and decided that their freedom was a problem, and so he commanded them to join in the labor.

This little piece of Midrash is modified by Rashi, who preserves the essential point—the Levites were exempt from slavery. He understands the end of the verse somewhat differently—Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron to return to their housework, not to assume slave labors, since they remained free Israelites in Egypt. Maharal adds to Rashi in his Gur Aryeh super-commentary, saying that Levi was exalted and exempted from the prophecy given to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved. Continue reading

Sheltering in Place: Shabbat Tzav/HaGadol 5780

Confinement is the dominant experience of the Covid-19 crisis, whether one is healthy but avoiding unnecessary outings, or ill and under quarantine. My favorite time of day here in NYC is 7 PM when people lean out their windows and cheer for health care providers and other front line workers. From our apartment we see people across the street hollering appreciation, and it feels good to be part of a public activity, even from a distance. Apparently this Covid custom began in Spain; it is a bright spot of engagement and appreciation in a time of danger and anxiety.

Sheltering in place is a key theme of Pesah—during the plague of hail all those who believed in God’s warning stayed inside, while the brazen remained outdoors and perished. Likewise with the tenth plague—Israelite families sealed their doors with blood and sheltered in place, praying that the destroyer (המשחית) would pass over their homes, not enter and afflict them. They were commanded, “none of you shall depart from the entrance of their house” (וְאַתֶּם לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ ). This remains the essential emotion of the home based ritual of Pesah—to shelter in place and experience the fear of that moment, so that we may celebrate survival and freedom in the future. However, the tenth plague is not the only association with confinement this Shabbat. Continue reading