Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What a recent controversy about Israel’s chief military rabbi nomination can tell us about the relationship of Jewish law and ethics

As the Supreme Court delays the appointment of R. Eyal Qarim until he clarifies his opinion on the yefat toar (English article - behind paywall), the time seems right to post a conversation I had on the whole affair with Dr. Dana Hollander, a professor at McMaster University who specializes in modern Jewish philosophy.

The conversation below is a conscious, intellectual exploration. But at the height of the yefat toar controversy, I also received a number of emotionally urgent requests to clarify the position of halakhah on the subject of sexual assault, or failing that, to explain how I could continue to be devoted to halakhah. One sees an echo of this even in the response of Justice Salim Joubran when he asks, "עד כמה שאני מכיר את התורה נאמרים רק דברים טובים, איפה זה נאמר בתורה?" ("As far as I know the Torah, only good things are said [in it] -- where is this said in the Torah?"). In other words, I felt the weight of a moral and religious obligation to excavate and clarify halakhah.

I am deeply grateful to Dr. Hollander for her expertise, lucidity of thought on the issues at stake, and for the time she took to collaborate with me.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Mongoose Dung

The presence of excrement interferes with a person's ability to recite the Shema. But what kind of excrement? Human, of course, but what about that of animals? Here a difference is described between species:
ר' יוסי בר חנינא אמר מרחיקין מגללי בהמה ארבע אמות רבי שמואל בר רב יצחק אמר ברכים ובלבד בשל חמור ר' חייא בר אבא אמר בבא מן הדרך לוי אמר מרחיקין מצואת חזיר ארבע אמות ותני כן מרחיקין מצואת חזיר ארבע אמות ומצואת הנמייה ארבע אמות ומצואת התרנגולין ארבע אמות ר' יוסי בר אבון בשם ר' חונא ובלבד באדומים
- ירושלמי ברכות פרק ג הלכה ה
R. Yose bar anina said, “One distances onself from animal dung four amoth” [before reciting the Shema].
R. Shemuel bar R. Yitsaq said, “With soft excretions, and only then of a donkey.”
iya bar Aba said, “When it is arriving from a journey.”
Lewi said, “One distances onself from pig dung four amoth.” And that is what is taught: one distances onself from pig dung four amoth, and from mongoose dung four amoth, and from chicken dung four amoth.
R. Yose bar Avun said in the name of R. Huna, “As long as [the chicken dung is] red.”
- yBerakhoth 3:5
So pigs and mongooses are classed together with sick chickens and exhausted donkeys as especially noxious; outside these cases the akhamim (except for R. Yose bar anina) do not seem to require distancing at all. Now here is the similar approach of the Shulan Arukh:
צואת חמור הרכה לאחר שבא מהדרך וצואת חתול ונמיה ונבלה מסרחת דינם כצואת אדם
א"ח סימן ע"ח סעיף ג
‎The soft dung of a donkey after it arrives from a journey, the dung of a cat and of a mongoose, and rotting carrion follow the same [strict] law as human excrement.
Ḥ Siman 78 Seif 3
Again, this is as opposed to normal animal dung, the law of which is more lenient:

צואת שאר בהמה חיה ועוף... אין צריך להרחיק מהם אם אין בהם ריח רע
א"ח סימן ע"ח סעיף ד
The dung of other domesticated and wild animals and of birds... do not require distancing from them at all, unless they have a bad smell.
O.Ḥ Siman 78 Seif 4

Now my burning question while reading this was what is going on with the mongoose. With a little rural background it is easy to gain enough experience to understand why many of these animals have been singled out, as opposed to cows or sheep. The manure of cows and sheep is not so noxious; one can easily be socialised to mildly enjoy them, as hard or even disgusting as it is for one who has only known urban environments to understand. I remember as a child being told the smell would make my hair grow thick and curly. A connection was being made for me between the action of this manure on the ground, fertilising and enriching the earth, speeding and strengthening the plants, and my own person. The good of the soil must also be my good and so I should work on my perception until appreciation is reflexive. This socialisation is not possible with something as impossibly disgusting as human or pig feces.

But when it comes to the mongoose I have neither experience nor a serious possibility for experience. We can deduce from context that mongoose dung is especially smelly, of course, but one does not like to be lazy and uninvestigative enough to rely on that kind of reading.

Fortunately, a blogging field biologist can help us out.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

נידה בין נשים


נראה ראוי להוסיף פה הקדמה קטנה. לאחרונה, עמית אחד שאל אותי למה התעסקתי בעינינים שקשורים ללסביות בלי לברר תחילה אם הומוסקסואליות בכלל מותרת או אסורה. ונדהמתי, שהרי התעסקות בשאלה זו אינה מעשית כלל, ועוד עצם ההתעסקות בשאלה היא משפילה לגמרי. אינו מוצדק שחברי הקהילה הלהט"בית יצטרכו לשמוע הרהורי רבנים בנוגע לפרט קיומי מחייהם שבכלל לא שאלו עליו כל פעם שישאלו שאלה כלשהי אחרת. מגמתם של רבנים צריכה להיות לעזור לשואלים, ולמצוא דרכים לשלב אותם בחיים הלכתיים, עד כמה שאפשר.

ויש סיבה נוספת להתעניין ב"שאלות קטנות" ברצינות: לעתים קרובות הן עוזרות לנו להבהיר מהי נקודת המבחן האמיתית בהלכה; בלעדי שאלה זו, לא היינו צריכים לברר. למשל, האם יש לגר דין זונה? מתי בדיוק יש לבת כהן דין כהונה, ומתי דין זרות, ולמה? האם ההבדל בדין בין נשים וגברים מבוסס על פרטי הגוף או על פרטי תפקיד בחברה? וכן הלאה.

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Trade

Someone gathered goose feathers as a present for me, so in exchange I wrote him a mezuzah with one of them (barely there in the picture). I'm very pleased with the margins.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

האי מגין והאי לא מגין

One goes without shoes to better encounter sorrow. By “better” I mean both more deeply and more wisely. On the wheel of ascetic practices, it sits directly opposite self-flagellation, the object of which is the blunting of pity even towards oneself. But forgoing shoes, like forgoing food and drink, provokes a ginger compassion. One must pick one's path carefully for the least harm, and so one enters into relationship with the ordinary detritus of the street. Power is ceded to the pavement cracks, the gravel, the grass, such that one must use a slower step and a downward eye to request safe passage. Vulnerability is thus experienced as a demand for care. This is a critical insight, one which deserves internalisation whenever our calender draws our attention to human sorrow, in particular on Yom Kipur and Tisha BeAv. 

But are shoes prohibited on those days, or only leather shoes? Although the Mishnah (Yoma 8:1) does not specify any kind of material, suggesting an expansive prohibition, Tur and Shulḥan Arukh make an explicit distinction:

אסור לנעול מנעל או סנדל של עור, אפילו קב הקיטע וכיוצא בו, אפילו של עץ ומחופה עור – אסור. אבל של גמי, או של קש, או של בגד, או של שאר מינים – מותר אפילו לצאת בהם לרשות הרבים.
It is forbidden to wear shoes or sandals of leather, even the prosthetic of an amputee and the like; even wood overlayed with leather is forbidden. But [footwear made from] bullrushes, or straw, or cloth, or any other type of material are permitted, even for use in public. (OḤ 614:2)

This listing of “bullrushes, straw, or cloth” comes from the example of Amoraim:

עמד רבי יצחק בר נחמני על רגליו ואמר אני ראיתי את רבי יהושע בן לוי שיצא בסנדל של שעם ביוה"כ ואמינא ליה בתענית צבור מאי א"ל לא שנא אמר רבה בר בר חנה אני ראיתי את רבי אלעזר דמן ננוה שיצא בסנדל של שעם בתענית צבור ואמינא ליה ביום הכפורים מאי א"ל לא שנא רב יהודה נפיק בדהיטני אביי נפיק בדהוצי רבא נפיק <בדיבלי> [בדיקולי] רבה בר רב הונא כריך סודרא אכרעיה ונפיק
R. Yitsḥaq bar Naḥmani stood on his feet and said, “I saw that R. Yehoshua ben Lewi went out with sandals of bamboo on Yom Kipur, and I asked him, 'What is the law on a public fast?' He said to me, 'No different.'” Rabah bar bar Ḥana said, “I saw that R. Eleazar from Nineweh went out with sandals of bamboo on a public fast, and I said to him, 'What is the law on Yom Kipur?' He said to me, 'No different.'” R. Yehudhah went out in reeds. Rava went out in palm leaves. Rabah bar Rav Hunah wrapped scarves on his feet and went out. (Yoma 78a-b)

A modern reader immediately intuits what these materials have in common, and, critically, how every one of them differs from a sneaker. Rava understood it too when he articulated why something wooden overlayed with leather can be a “shoe” but something cloth cannot: האי מגין והאי לא מגין -- “One protects, and one does not protect” (Yevamoth 103a). Ramba”m tunes this language even more finely:

אסור לנעול מנעל וסנדל אפילו ברגלו אחת. ומותר לצאת בסנדל של שעם ושל גמי וכיוצא בהן. וכורך אדם בגד על רגליו ויוצא בו שהרי קושי הארץ מגיע לרגליו ומרגיש שהוא יחף
It is forbidden to put on shoes and sandals, even on one foot. And it is permitted to go out in sandals of bamboo or bullrushes and the like. And one may wrap cloth on one's feet and go out with it, since indeed the hardness of the ground comes through to the feet, and one feels as if one is barefoot. (Hilkhoth Shevithath Asor 3:7)

It is quite possible that the Tur and Shulḥan Arukh in fact agree with these more conservative statements, and that their apparent permissiveness is an artifact of style: in both Yevamoth and Ramba”m, the key restrictive quality (protectiveness) comes out only to answer the question of why, a question that the Tur and Shulan Arukh do not raise. No pressure existed for any of these authorities to describe a forbidden non-leather counterexample, since sturdy, wearable non-leather shoes were not worn in their societies. Although a wooden “shoe” might seem to be described in Shabbath and Yevamoth, the actual object under discussion is a prosthetic for someone with a disfigured or partially amputated leg (a person known as a qitea). It was not something which an able person would choose to wear. The entire discussion in Shabbath hinges on the likelihood of the qitea taking off their wooden “shoe.” This temptation existed despite the fact that it was required for the qitea to walk, indicating that it was uncomfortable and perhaps painful. Such an object is far from Dutch-style klompen carved for the comfort of the wearer, and so conversations in Sha”s about the shoe-ness or non-shoeness of the qitea's prosthetic should be separated from considerations of fast-day prohibitions (as noted by Rabeinu Tam on Shabbath 65b, “HaQitea,” seeming to follow the statement of Rava on Yoma 78b).

Let us now return to this expression of Ramba”m: “the hardness of the earth comes through to the feet.” Here he cuts through to the productive essence of the prohibition against shoes, but the insight is older than him, indeed older than Rava. Its first and most complex phrasing is found at the revelation of the burning bush:

וירא יהוה, כי סר לראות; ויקרא אליו אלהים מתוך הסנה, ויאמר משה משה--ויאמר הנני. ויאמר, אל-תקרב הלם; של-נעליך, מעל רגליך--כי המקום אשר אתה עומד עליו, אדמת-קדש הוא.
When God saw that he had turned to see, God called to him from within the bush, saying “Mosheh, Mosheh.” He said, “Here I am.” [God] said, “Come no closer. Remove your shoes from your feet, because the place on which you are standing is sacred earth.” (Shemoth 3:4-5)

How is “sacred earth” an explanation for this command? We might guess that shoe-wearing in holy places was an obvious act of disrespect, and summon dozens of cross-cultural tidbits to support our hypothesis, but the rabbis refute it directly when they say that keeping one's shoes on is not דרך בזיון – “a usual way of showing disrespect” (Berakhoth 62b). In a similar vein, commentator Or HaḤayim (ad loc, “אל תקרב) makes a careful distinction: “Remove your shoes” is not expressing a negative commandment, i.e. a ban on shoes, but a positive one, i.e. the demand for activity which cultivates כבוד, honour. How so? R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch teases out the mechanism of this gesture, translating physical motion into a language of service:

“Instead of attempting to understand a phenomenon that is beyond your ken, contemplate the lofty destiny of the ground on which you are already standing and devote yourself to it with all your heart.” Removal of one's shoes expresses total commitment to the significance of a given place... Similarly, the כהנים [kohanim] in the מקדש [Sanctuary] were obligated to serve barefoot... The Sanctuary is not an outwardly imperssive, gaudy display. The impression it makes is an inner impression, on the personality. If one wishes to act in the service of the Sanctuary, one must attach oneself to it and be sanctified by it. (Hirsch, note 5 to Shemoth 3:5)

This is a sharp observation, as the revelation at the burning bush is first and foremost the revelation of a responsibility which is also responsiveness. God's choice of a thorn bush, as opposed to another species of tree, is a reminder of the sorrow of the other Jews whom Mosheh has left behind, and a denial that experience of the divine can be separated from awareness of human suffering (Rash”i to Shemoth 3:2, מתוך הסנה). 
So it is with the fast days: an encounter with God is inseparable from an encounter with the pain of others. To command that the people afflict themselves is to command responsiveness; even on an etymological level, עינוי, affliction, shares a root with מענה, response (ע-נ-ה). Going without shoes is an intuitive part of this mechanism. There is nothing mystical in R. Hirsch's association of barefootedness with openness to “inner impression”: the emotional and social effects blossom from the physical surrender of one's person to the solidity of place. This is difficult indeed to accomplish with a factory-made (indeed, unjustly made, although this is a subject to grave to cover here) synthetic shoe whose sole was explicitly designed for maximum impenetrability. In The Relation of Dress To Art (a piece worth reading in its entirety; let me not reduce his thought here to a quip), Oscar Wilde wrote, “A nation arrayed in stove-pipe hats, and dress improvers, might have built the Pantechnicon, possibly, but the Parthenon, never.” A congregation arrayed in unyielding sneakers is unnecessarily impaired in their achievement of the radical openness so necessary for repentance.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

כוהנות נושאות כפיים

I wrote this after someone asked me about the practice of someone in the women's section of their synagogue to somewhat surreptitiously give birkath kohanim to the women during the repetition of the amidah. About a year later, the issue of kohanoth giving birkath kohanim became an issue for Women of the Wall; someone sent them what I wrote and they liked it, perhaps because it was a serious halakhic exploration of something both sides were simply taking for granted (namely, that women giving the berakhah was either self-evidently wrong, or that it naturally falls under the aegis of egalitarianism in tefilah; both these positions are incorrect). Below the cut is the full text of my response.