Friday, August 25, 2017

Parashas Shoftim: How to Say Tehilim for the Sick Without Violating Halacha

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Artwork: Devout Invocation, by David Palumbo
(Note: If this is what you think you're doing when you say Tehilm, then you're doing it wrong.)

Parashas Shoftim: How to Tehilim for the Sick Without Violating Halacha


Broadly speaking, there are two ways to say Tehilim (Psalms) for the sick: one which is halachically permitted and in line with Hashem's will, and the other which is halachically prohibited and is considered by Hashem to be an "abomination."

In Parashas Shoftim Moshe Rabbeinu warns Bnei Yisrael:
When you come to the Land that Hashem, your God, gives you, you shall not learn to act according to the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you one who causes his son or daughter to pass through the fire, a kosem kesamim (diviner), a meonein (astrologer), a menachesh (omen-reader), a mechashef (sorcerer), a chover chaver (one who recites incantations), one who inquires of Ov or Yidoni, or one who consults the dead. For anyone who does these is an abomination of Hashem, and because of these abominations Hashem, your God, banishes [the nations] from before you. You shall be whole with Hashem, your God. For these nations that you are possessing - they hearken to astrologers and diviners; but as for you - not so has Hashem, your God, given for you. (Devarim 18:9-14)
The Torah prohibition we will be discussing is chover chaver with a focus on its application to reciting Tehilim for the sick. In Part I we will examine the Sefer ha'Chinuch's treatment of the topic. In Part II we will summarize the various halacha l'maaseh (practical halacha) views.

Part I: Sefer ha'Chinuch on Chover Chaver

The Sefer ha'Chinuch [1] defines chover chaver as follows:
We are prohibited from making incantations about any matter. By this we are referring to a person who will recite words and tell people that those words cause benefit or harm in a certain matter. About this it is stated, “There shall not be found among you … a speaker of incantations” (Devarim 18:10-11). The Sifri says: “whether one charms a snake or a scorpion,” meaning to say, one who recites words upon them so that they will not bite him – according to his view. So too, if one recites words over an affliction in order to gain relief from the pain, etc.
According to this definition it would seem that if a person recites Tehilim and believes that the words themselves will have a beneficial effect on a choleh (sick person), then this would be a violation of chover chaver

The Sefer ha'Chinuch anticipates this question and addresses it head-on by citing a Gemara which ostensibly endorses the practice of reciting Tehilim in order to save a person from harm:
Now perhaps, my son, you will pose a question to me from what we read in the second chapter of the Talmud tractate Shevuos (15b): 
"The psalm against afflictions is with lutes and harps; and one says, 'He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,' until 'For You, Hashem, are my refuge' (Tehilim 91); then he says, 'Hashem, how many are my foes,' until 'Salvation belongs to Hashem' (ibid. 3)." 
In other words, [the Talmud seems to indicate that] the recitation of these psalms works to provide protection from harm. And it was stated in the tractate Berachos (3a): "R. Yehoshua ben Levi would say these verses before going to bed [to protect himself from harm]."
The Sefer ha'Chinuch answers this difficulty by making a distinction. In doing so, he instructs us in how to say Tehilim in a manner which has a beneficial effect on our physical well-being without straying into chover chaver territory:
However, this matter is not similar to the matter of chover chaver that we mentioned, God forbid! Long ago, the Sages of blessed memory said in this regard (Shevuos 15b): "It is forbidden to heal oneself with words of Torah." Yet they mentioned to say these psalms since they contain words that inspire the soul that knows them to shelter in Hashem, to take security in Him, to establish a reverent fear of Him firmly in his heart, and to rely on His kindness and goodness. As a result of this inspiration, he will be protected from every harm, without a doubt
Therein lies the answer. If a person says Tehilim, believing that the words themselves will have a beneficial effect on the physical world, then - according to the Sefer ha'Chinuch - he or she has violated the Torah prohibition of chover chaver, and is considered on the basis of that act to be an abomination to Hashem, as the Torah unequivocally states: "for anyone who does these is an abomination of Hashem." However, if a person recites Tehilim, understands the meaning of what he is saying, and is inspired to trust, fear, and rely on Hashem, then he will not be in violation of halacha, and he will be protected from all harm.

The Sefer ha'Chinuch reinforces this distinction by quoting the Gemara's formulation of this same question, and the answer given there, which he explains in accordance with his view:
This is what was answered in the Talmud in this regard, for it was asked there: "But how could R. Yehoshua do this (i.e. recite these chapters of psalms against afflictions) when R. Yehoshua, himself, said it is forbidden to heal oneself with words of Torah?!" and the reply was given: "to protect is different." In other words, the Torah did not forbid a person to say words of Torah so as to inspire his soul in a good direction, so that this merit should shield him to protect him [but rather, the Torah only prohibited the recitation of words of Torah in order to heal].
The Rambam [2] codifies this distinction as halacha:
One who recites an incantation over a bodily affliction and reads a verse from the Torah, and likewise one who reads [Torah] over an infant so that he not be frightened, and one who places a Torah Scroll or tefilin on a child so that he will sleep – it is not enough that such people are included among the chovrim (incantation-sayers) and menachashim (omen-readers), but they [are also] included among the kofrim ba’Torah (the deniers of Torah), for they utilize words of Torah as remedies for the body, whereas they are truly only remedies for the soul, as it is stated, “[the words of Torah] shall be life for your soul” (Mishlei 3:22). But if a healthy person reads Scriptural verses and chapters from Tehilim so that the merit of their reading will protect him and save him from suffering and harm, this is permissible
It is reasonable to assume that the permissible type of Tehilim reading ("so that the merit of their reading will protect him") qualifies as using words of Torah as "remedies for the soul," as described by the Sefer ha'Chinuch. In other words, if a person reads Tehilim with the intention of "inspiring his soul in a good direction" and making an effort to internalize what he reads, then this will bring him merit, and save him from suffering and harm. 

Part II: Practical Halacha

While it is usually the policy of this blog to stay away from commenting on matters of halacha l'maaseh, I fear that some will read this post and feel at a loss about whether their own way of saying Tehilim constitutes a violation of halacha. They would then either cease saying Tehilim altogether, which would be detrimental insofar as this would deprive them of a means of connecting to Hashem, or else they would continue saying Tehilim, thereby running the risk of violating a Torah prohibition.

Thankfully, I found a tshuvah (responsa) by the Tzitz Eliezer [3] which summarizes six different views on how to (and how not to) recite Tehilim, in practice. Here is my summary of his summaries (i.e. I didn't go back and learn through all of the primary sources; I just paraphrased the conclusions as stated in his tshuvah). I've appended the psak (ruling) of my Rosh ha'Yeshiva to the end of this list, since this is the view I follow, and since it wasn't mentioned by the Tzitz Eliezer:
(1) Rambam / Shulchan Aruch [4]: It is prohibited to read Tehilim - indeed, any pesukim from Tanach - for the sake of healing a choleh, but it is permissible for a healthy person to read pesukim so that the merit of their reading will protect him (i.e. the healthy person) from harm.
(2) Meiri [5]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if it is being relied upon as the primary remedy, but if the choleh is also taking medicine or undergoing medical treatment, then it is permissible to supplement this medical care with the recitation of Tehilim. 
(3) Maharsha [6] / Toras Chayim [7]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if they are recited in the manner of an incantation, but if one uses Tehilim as a vehicle of tefilah (prayer) or learns Torah for the sake of learning, and requests from Hashem that the merit of this tefilah or learning should heal a choleh, then this is permitted. [8]
(4) Ritva [9] / Ohr Zarua [10] / Rabbeinu Yeshaya [11]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if there is a physically manifest bodily affliction, but to relieve a non-manifest pain (e.g. a headache) is permitted. 
(5) Tzitz Eliezer #1: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if one selects specific Tehilim (or pesukim to say), but if one chooses Tehilim at random or follows one's normal routine (e.g. reciting Tehilim daily), then this is permitted.
(6) Tzitz Eliezer #2: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if said exclusively for a choleh, but if it is also said for the sake of those who are healthy, then this is permitted, since it demonstrates that the Tehilim are being said for the sake of merit and protection, as the Sefer ha'Chinuch described. 
(7) My Rosh ha'Yeshiva [12]: The recitation of Tehilim for healing is only prohibited if only Tehilim (and/or pesukim) are recited, but if one adds a tefilah (e.g. Mi she'Beirach) before or after the Tehilim, then this is permissible, since in this case, one is using the tefilah as a vehicle of beseeching God - as opposed to relying on the words of the Tehilim themselves. 
I hope that this list provides solace and guidance for those who choose to recite Tehilim for the sake of healing. While I advise those who plan on reciting Tehilim for the sick to consult their own posek (halachic decisor), that the Tzitz Eliezer can serve as a backup option for those who have not yet asked a shaila (halachic inquiry).

Concluding Thoughts

I think that the widespread practice of saying Tehilim for the sick is a good thing. I believe that most people relate to Tehilim exactly as they relate to tefilah, and that their recitation of Tehilim for the sick is in line with the view of the Maharsha and Toras Chaim cited above. 

Nevertheless, I think it is also important for people to be aware of the halachic and spiritual perils of relating to the recitation of Tehilim for the sick in the wrong way. There are definitely people out there who mindlessly recite Tehilim, in the manner of an incantation, without any idea what they're saying, and who relate to the Tehilim as a sort of magic charm. These are the people whom the Rambam condemned, and about whom Chazal said: "one who says an incantation over a wound has no portion in the World to Come" (Shevuos 15b; Sanhedrin 90a).

I believe it is important for all people - especially those just described - to be educated about the topic of chover chaver and to be informed of the Sefer ha'Chinuch's method of using Tehilim as a legitimate way to become closer to Hashem, in order to take refuge "in the [protective] shade of the Almighty" (Tehilim 91:1).

[1] Sefer ha'Chinuch, Mitzvah #512
[2] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer ha'Mada, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 11:6. It should be noted that whereas the Sefer ha'Chinuch defines chover chaver as "a person who will recite words and tell people that those words cause benefit or harm in a certain matter," the Rambam defines it as "a person who speaks words which do not belong to any language and have no meaning, but he – in his foolishness – imagines that those words produce a beneficial effect." And yet, the Rambam writes in our halacha that one who uses words of Torah to heal is included in the category of chover chaver
[3] Ha'Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 17:30 
[4] Ha'Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch: Yoreh Deah 179:8
[5] Rabbeinu Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri, Beis ha'Bechirah: Shabbos 67a
[6] Ha'Rav Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha), Chidushei Aggados: Shabbos 67a
[7] Ha'Rav Abraham Hayyim ben ha'Rav Naftali Tzvi Hirsch Schor, Toras Chaim: Shevuos 15b
[8] The Tzitz Eliezer learns that this is also the view of the Sefer ha'Chinuch, who only differentiated between the manner in which the Tehilim are being said, but didn't distinguish between a healthy person and a sick person.
[9] Rabbeinu Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli (Ritva), citation not provided by the Tzitz Eliezer
[10] Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Moshe (Ohr Zarua / Riaz), citation not provided by the Tzitz Eliezer
[11] Rabbeinu Yeshaya di Trani (I think?), citation not provided by the Tzitz Eliezer
[12] I heard this verbally, but do not know whether an audio or written source is available. However, the Tzitz Eliezer cited the Mishnas Yaakov as suggesting an answer along these lines. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Four Phases of Learning a Sefer in Nach

This post actually began as a preface to another post I'd like to write on "How to Learn Tehilim." Eventually I realized that this preface was long enough to be its own post. 

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Artwork: Pore Over the Pages, by Magali Villeneuve

The Four Phases of Learning a Sefer in Nach

On average, I teach a new sefer of Nach each year. Some of these sefarim I've learned on my own before teaching them; others I teach and learn for the first time, at the same time. Thus far I've taught eleven out of the thirty sefarim of Nach.

Whenever I learn a sefer of Nach, I typically proceed through the following four stages:
Phase #1 - Floundering in Chaos: When I learn a sefer for the first time, I feel like I have no idea what it's about or how to approach it. Maybe "no idea" is an exaggeration; for example, I knew Sefer Yirmiyahu is about the destruction of the Beis ha'Mikdash, and that Sefer Yonah is about Yonah's prophetic mission to Ninveh, and that Sefer Daniel is about Daniel's life in Bavel. What I mean is that I don't know what the purpose of the sefer is - or how it fits into the Torah regimen - and I certainly don't know how best to approach the sefer in order to achieve that purpose. 
Phase #2 - Discovery of Order and Direction: Eventually, after immersing myself in the sefer on a bekius and b'iyun level for an extended period of time, I gradually begin to sense order in the chaos. Usually I'll find one or two meforshim who point to the purpose of the sefer and give me enough to work with to be able to start learning the sefer in a consistent manner. By following their guidance and my intuition, I'll eventually be able to work out some concrete method of approaching the sefer - enough to be able to "test it out" and get results. At this stage I still have a healthy sense of doubt about the soundness of my approach, but the only way to test these doubts is to forge ahead and test out my theories. 
Phase #3 - Development of Method and Purpose: After much trial and effort, I'll arrive at the point where I am confident that my understanding of the purpose of the sefer is on the right track (even if not spot-on) and that my method of approaching the sefer is a valid one (at least, insofar as it gets good results). At this point I'll set aside my lingering doubts and proceed on the assumption that I am correct. My aim switches from the question of "Is this the right approach?" to "What can I learn from this sefer by using this approach?" I take the method as far as it can go, learning as much as I can while working out any leftover kinks and gaps in the method. 
Phase #4 - Refinement of Method and Purpose: The line between Phase #3 and Phase #4 isn't always clear, but I usually know when I'm in Phase #4. Usually I'll arrive at this phase after successfully teaching the sefer for a semester or a year at Phase #3, or after learning the sefer at Phase #3 for a year or two. I feel confident enough to give shiur on this sefer to a more advanced audience, and to advise others on how to learn and teach the sefer.
Phase #5 - Reboot: (What? Phase #5? I thought this post claims that there are only four phases?) I decided to acknowledge Phase #5 because I know it exists, even though I can't say I've gotten there yet with any sefer. Phase #5 occurs when a person's current theoretical framework reaches the point where the questions, difficulties, and/or insights lead to a complete revolution of understanding - the same way this happens with any scientific theory. When one's level of comprehension reaches this stage, it's time to set aside one's paradigm, return to the drawing board, and start from scratch - through fresh eyes, with a fresh mind. 
[Similarly, I've seen the meforshim (e.g. Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, Malbim) write in the introductions to their commentaries things like: "I've studied the commentaries of my predecessors and found that none of them have done a satisfactory job of explaining this sefer in accordance with its true meaning. For this reason, I have seen fit to write my own commentary with my own approach." I'm sure that most (if not all) these meforshim proceeded through Phases #1-4 with the help of their predecessors, and only after "completing" Phase #4 using a "tested method" arrived at their conclusion that this method was lacking. While you could argue that this should all be included in their Phase #2 or Phase #3, it is certainly possible that was experienced by them as a Phase #5.]
Here are a few examples of sefarim I've taught in my classes, and which phase I am currently at for each:
Phase #4 - Mishlei, Koheles, and Iyov: These are the sefarim for which I am the most confident in my approach. I've learned them and taught them for years, and I have enough confidence in my understanding and in my methods to "have a shitah" on what these sefarim are about, what their main ideas are, and how to approach them - even though I haven't learned through these sefarim in their entirety yet. 
Phase #3 - Yonah, Tehilim, Daniel: I feel comfortable enough in my understanding of these sefarim to teach them, and to feel that I've done them justice. Either I have a methodology of my own with which to approach them, or I have a solid handle on one of the meforshim's approaches to be able to know my way around the sefer.
Phase #2 - Yirmiyahu, Melachim II, Esther: I can definitely teach these sefarim, but unlike the sefarim in Phases #4 and 3 which will be perceived by my students as unified and purposeful, these Phase #2 sefarim will feel like a series of loosely connected ideas. Don't get me wrong: the ideas I have learned from these sefarim are solid, but I don't feel that I've gotten to the core of the books themselves. I can't say: "This is the real purpose/message/theme/methodology of Sefer _____."  
Phase #1 - Shir ha'Shirim and Yeshayahu: These two sefarim have been classified as Phase #1 for different reasons. In the case of Shir ha'Shirim I have a sense of what it's about and how it fits into the Torah regimen. I just haven't found any inroads yet. Whenever I try to learn it, I feel paralyzed - especially since the whole thing is an allegory, and I am at a loss to know how to approach it. The meforshim make things even more confusing, since each of them seems to have a different take. Yeshayahu, on the other hand, is more accessible in the particulars. There are pesukim, paragraphs, and even whole chapters that I feel I have a handle on. But as for the sefer as a whole? - I'm totally lost. Ditto for the methodology. 
Being aware of these four phases is helpful for me, even if it's not always clear "where I'm holding." Having a sense of where I'm at helps me to better plan how I am going to teach the material. 

For example, if I know I'm going to teach a sefer at Phase #2, I'll incorporate the element of discovery into the way I teach. I might begin the semester by presenting several theories from different meforshim for what the sefer is about, and revisit these theories as we move through the sefer in an effort to figure out which theory fits best. Alternatively, I might treat the question, "What is this sefer about?" as one of the main missions of our learning. And when, over the course of teaching the material, I begin to discover an answer to that question, I share that experience of discovery with my students, and they love it!

If I'm at Phase #3 then I know my job will be to spend that year of teaching honing and tweaking my approach to the point where I'll be at Phase #4 by the next time I teach it.

And if I'm still at Phase #1 I'll ask my principal if I can do a broad overview of the sefer the first time I teach it, rather than trying to teach the material in-depth and "failing." 

Anyway, I just thought I'd share this with you in case you found it useful. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Parashas Re'eh: When Mitzvos Are Curses

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Artwork: Cursed Scroll, by D. Alexander Gregory

Parashas Re'eh: When Mitzvos Are Curses

Vegan Tefillin

A few weeks ago I came across a post on a Jewish Facebook group by a woman inquiring whether there is an option to use "vegan tefillin" (i.e. tefillin made from non-animal products). When asked what prompted her question, she responded: "How could I wear the skin of a dead animal?! The thought of leather tefillin absolutely disgusts me! I'd only put on tefillin if I could find a vegan version." 

There are many things to discuss here - too many for a single post. I'm only going to focus on one angle: this woman's disgust at the thought of mitzvas tefillin k'hilchesa (i.e. the mitzvah of tefillin as defined by halacha).

Disgusted by Mitzvos

The first thing I associated to was one of the opening pesukim of the tochahah (Rebuke) in Parashas Bechukosai: "if you are disgusted by My decrees, and if your very being is repulsed by My ordinances, so as not to perform all My commandments, so that you annul My covenant - then I will do the same to you etc." (Vayikra 26:15-16). If a person is "disgusted" and "repulsed" by the mitzvos - sentiments which this person on Facebook openly expressed about the mitzvah of tefillin - then Hashem will be "disgusted" and "repulsed" by that person. 

What does it mean for Hashem to be "disgusted" by someone? And why is this the "punishment" for being disgusted by Hashem's decrees and ordinances? The Sefer ha'Chinuch [1] addresses both points in his commentary on the Chumash's use of the term "abomination":
[The Torah states:] "and you shall do none of these abominations" (Vayikra 18:26); this includes all these matters which are an abomination to Hashem, meaning that anyone who engages in these activities becomes distanced from the good and removes himself from Hashem's providence. This is the meaning of "abomination to God" in every instance, according to what I have heard.  
So likewise, what is written at the end of the matter: "for all these abominations the men of the land did who were before you and I abhorred them" (ibid. 20:23). Its sense is to convey that the quality is most ugly; every unusually bad and repulsive thing, Scripture describes as though Hashem detests it, all along the lines that we have stated, and in the vein of what the Sages of blessed memory said in every instance: in order to convey intelligibly to the ear what it is able to hear. 
According to the Sefer ha'Chinuch, when the Torah calls something "an abomination," this means that a person who engages in this behavior is "distancing himself from the good and removing himself from Hashem's providence." Just as a person distances himself from that which he finds repulsive, so too, Hashem "distances Himself" from those who do actions which He regards as "abominations."

To have difficulties and struggles with keeping a mitzvah is natural (for everyone except Moshe Rabbeinu). It is even natural to feel "disgusted" by certain mitzvos. But if a person embraces this disgust to the point where he or she modifies, neglects, or delegitimizes the mitzvos, then this person has actively chosen to distance himself or herself from Hashem's beneficence. In other words, Hashem's statement "then I will do the same to you" should not be understood as a retaliatory "tit for tat" punishment, but as a natural consequence of this person's free-will decision.

Mitzvos as Curses

This week I came across an idea which took this insight even further. The idea is from the Abravanel's commentary on the first pasuk in our parashah, which reads:
See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your God, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow other gods, that you did not know. (Devarim 11:26-28).
Rashi [2] understands the "blessing and curse" in our pasuk to be referring to the blessings and curses on Har Gerizim and Har Eival, which are stated much later on in Parashas Ki Savo (Devarim 27:11-26). His interpretation is based on the fact that the very next pasuk states:
It shall be that when Hashem, your God, brings you to the Land to which you come, to possess it, then you shall deliver the blessing on Har Gerizim and the curse on Har Eival. (ibid. 11:29).
The Abravanel [3] challenges Rashi on this matter, based on the following argument:
[Moshe] stated here: "See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse." He did not say this about the blessings and curses that were given on Har Gerizim and Har Eival; since [those blessings and curses] were not given "today," how could  he say "that I  place before you today"
The Abravanel then gives a creative and convincing interpretation:
Rather, Moshe stated that these mitzvos which he gave before them today would be as if he presented them with a blessing and a curse.  
How could the same thing be a blessing and a curse, which are two opposite, contradictory things ...? Namely, [the mitzvos] will be a blessing if [Bnei Yisrael] hearken to them, but they will be a curse to the person who doesn't hearken to them. For even though the mitzvos are good in and of themselves, they [differ] depending on the recipient: sometimes they are a blessing, if they are hearkened to, and sometimes they are a curse, for when they are not fulfilled, they will be for them like a snare and a curse. 
This is in line with what the navi (prophet) said: "for the ways of Hashem are upright: tzadikim (the righteous) walk in them, but posh'im (sinners) stumble in them" (Hoshea 14:10). In other words, they themselves are upright and good; however, on account of the recipients, they can be either good and proper to follow from the standpoint of the tzadikim, but from the standpoint of the sinners they are regarded as a bad path of stumbling. 
This type of thing also happens with good food, like bread, meat, and wine: they are beneficial forms of nutrition in and of themselves, and when a healthy man takes them, he will be sustained, and strengthened, and his health will increase; however, if a sick man [4] takes them, they will harm him or even kill him - not because of the nature of the food, but because of the nature and corruption of the recipient. 
In this vein, [Moshe] said to all of Klal Yisrael - or to each and every one of them, according to the Ibn Ezra - "See, I place before you etc." This means to say: "See through the eyes of your intellect that I am placing before you etc." - not that this blessing and curse is verbal [such that it would be "heard" rather than "seen"], but rather, [both the blessing and curse] potentially exist in the mitzvos, and either blessing or curse can proceed from them, without any in-between state. For if "you hearken to the mitzvos of Hashem, your God, that I command you etc." then I have given you a blessing, for they are good in and of themselves, and they will be a blessing for you - but if you don't hearken to them, they will be considered a curse for you. It is in this sense that I have placed a blessing and curse before you today, in that I have given the mitzvos, which will be a blessing or a curse depending on the recipient. 
This is why [Moshe] made this statement before reminding [Bnei Yisrael] of the mitzvos [throughout the next four parshiyos]. He even said at the end [after reviewing all of these mitzvos]: "See - I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the bad" (Devarim 30:15), and he explained how He has given them these things by saying: "to keep His commandments" (ibid. 30:16) - for by commanding them He has given them "the life and the good" if they hearken to them, but "the death and the bad" if they do not hearken to them and do not observe them. 
The Abravanel's interpretation flows directly from a literal reading of our pesukim: "See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, your God, that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem." Hearkening to the mitzvos is the blessing - both the cause and the effect. Not hearkening to the mitzvos is the cause and the effect of the curse.

The first instance in Chumash of the mitzvos being a blessing to those who keep them and a curse to those who don't keep them is the very first sin: Adam and Chava eating the fruit of the Eitz ha'Daas Tov v'Ra (Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad). Hashem commanded them not to eat from this tree for their own benefit: "for on the day you eat from it, you shall surely die" (Bereishis 2:17). But once the nachash (snake) talked its way into Chava's head, she began to view this mitzvah as a curse rather than a blessing. She viewed this mitzvah as holding her back from the real good.
The nachash said to the woman: "You will not surely die, for God knows that on the day you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and bad." And the woman perceived that the tree was good for eating, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the three was desirable as a means to wisdom, etc. (ibid. 3:4-6).
The Rambam [5] explained that both the cause and effect of the sin of Adam and Chava was the fact that they gave in to the distorted world of subjective values, which tainted their perception of objective truth and falsehood and objective good and bad. (For a detailed explanation, see this post. Also, for the record, I think that the Abravanel's insight sheds light on the curses which resulted from the sin of Adam and Chava ... but that would take us beyond the scope of this post.)

This "warped view of good and bad" is the basis of the blessing and curse in our pasuk, as explained by the Abravanel. To the extent that we set aside our personal, subjective, flawed notions of "the good" and "the bad" and allow ourselves to be shaped by our adherence to the system of Torah, we will move towards an increasingly accurate view of objective reality. We will then be able to recognize the inherent good of the mitzvos, and will regard them as "a blessing," and will actually receive the blessings (i.e. the increase of objective good) that result from their observance.

But to the extent that we cling to our preconceived notions of "the good" and "the bad" and allow our personal value system to compromise our adherence to Torah, we will be held back from clarity and knowledge of objective reality. We will then perceive the the mitzvos as "a curse" and will actually be cursed (i.e. suffer harmful consequences, both objectively and in accordance with our subjective value system) when we neglect their observance.

The Emptiness Comes from Within

To the woman who insisted on only using "vegan tefillin," Moshe Rabbeinu (according to the Abravanel) might offer guidance along the following lines: "I understand and sympathize with your feeling that the use of animal leather in tefillin is inhumane and immoral. However, the fact that the Creator requires tefillin to be made from leather means that He does not share your view - and since His view is objective reality, then there must be some flaw in your thinking. I encourage you to learn from Torah she'bi'Chsav (the Written Torah) and Torah she'baal Peh (the Oral Torah) to try to understand wherein lies your error. Yes, this does mean that you will have to give up your personal view, but if you succeed in arriving at a true understanding, you will come to recognize that all of the mitzvos - including tefillin - are 'for your benefit' (Devarim 10:13), and you will then regard them as 'a blessing' and they will be a blessing."

Chazal midrashically express this approach by expounding on the pasuk: "for [the Torah] is not an empty thing for you (lit. "from you"), for it is your life, and through this matter shall you prolong your days on the Land to which you cross the Jordan, to possess it" (ibid. 32:47). The midrash (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1) states:
"for [the Torah] is not an empty thing from you (ki lo davar reik hu mi'kem)" - and if you find it to be "an empty thing" (davar reik), then it is "from you" (mi'kem hu).
It is natural to perceive "emptiness" (or "deficiencies") in Torah. The question is: Where do we go with this perception? If we regard our own views as the objective reality and conclude that the Torah is flawed, then we are mistaken. Rather, we must recognize that the perceived flaw stems from our own ignorance, and we must search for a true understanding which reveals the holes in our thinking.

To the uninitiated this might sound like a form of intellectually dishonest religious apologetics, but to those who understand the relationship between science and Torah and the place of the proof of Torah mi'Sinai, this is no different than the scientist who must set aside his or her personal opinion in light of the empirical data. Just as we wouldn't accuse the scientist of "apologetics" for subordinating his or her personal opinion to the scientific data, so too, we shouldn't consider it to be "apologetics" when subordinating our personal opinion to the data of Torah she'bi'Chsav and Torah she'baal Peh.

I feel like this post should end with a conclusive "takeaway" message. In that spirit, I would say the following: we all want to be "blessed" by Hashem, and we know that according to the Torah, observance of mitzvos results in "blessing" - but what Moshe Rabbeinu intends to teach us (according to the Abravanel) is that the mitzvos are the blessing. Hence, it's not as though we do the mitzvos and have faith that Hashem will bless us. Rather, by doing the mitzvos, we are guaranteed to receive the blessings which are inextricably bound up in the mitzvos themselves.

Nobody said it better than the Malbim [6] in his commentary on Iyov (which I wrote about in these posts). We will conclude with his analogy:
This may be compared to the following: an ill patient doesn't seek out a reward from his physician [in payment] for obeying his instructions to safeguard his health, nor does the physician punish the patient if he fails to heed his warnings, for the reward and punishment are consequent upon the action itself. If he obeys [the physician’s instructions], he will be healed from his sickness, and that is his reward. If he doesn't obey, he will die, and that is his punishment. [This reward and punishment are not meted out] by the physician, but by [the patient] himself.  
Similarly, the reward [for good actions] is the good path itself, since he acquires perfection of his soul [by following it]; and if he does good for others, he will enjoy benefits from the society [in which he lives]. Conversely, “one who does evil corrupts his soul and his flesh” (Mishlei 11:17), and if he does evil to others, he will suffer from the wickedness of the society. 
If we want Hashem's blessings, then we must see that He has placed them before us, today, in every mitzvah we observe.

[1] Sefer ha'Chinuch, Mitzvah #118
[2] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 27:11
[3] Don Yitzchak Abravanel ("The Man"), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 27:11
[4] The Abravanel here specifies two types of sickness: "מחלת הצד" and "מחלת המוקדח", but since I wasn't sure which sicknesses he was referring to, I omitted them from my translation.
[5] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Moreh ha'Nevuchim 1:2
[6] Ha'Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer Iyov 35:8

Friday, August 11, 2017

Parashas Eikev: What is Yiras Hashem (Fear of God)?

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Artwork: Oveverwhelming Splendor, by Richard Wright.
The question: Does the fear depicted in this artwork have anything to do with yiras Hashem?

Parashas Eikev: What is Yiras Hashem (Fear of God)?

Only Yirah

This week's parashah contains of the many "fundamentals of Judaism" pesukim in Sefer Devarim. Moshe Rabbeinu declares: 
"Now, O Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God, to go in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Hashem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit." (Devarim 10:12-13)
Chazal (Talmud Bavli Berachos 33b) are astonished by Moshe's use of the word "only" asking: "Is fear of heaven a small matter?!" They answer: "Yes - for Moshe it was a small matter. This may be compared to [the following case:] if a man is asked for a big item and he has it, then it seems like a small item to him, but if he is asked for a small item and he doesn't have it, then it seems like a big item to him." 

According to Chazal, Moshe's statement was difficult. According to the meforshim (commentators), Chazal's answer is difficult. And every time I've taken up this topic with my chavrusas, it's proven to be difficult.

This week, however, I stumbled upon a 10-page analysis by the Abvravanel [1] of the topic of yiras Hashem in his commentary on our parashah. The Abravanel paraphrases the view of his predecessors (i.e. the Ran and the Rambam), states his objections to it, then offers his own view. His presentation is so valuable that I decided to write a "Set Table" style dvar Torah, with a walk-through of his analysis.

Ordinarily my practice on this blog is to translate and incorporate as many firsthand sources as possible into my treatment of the material. In this case, for the sake of brevity, I will summarize rather than translate - with only a few direct quotations/translations. 

The View of the Ran (and the Rambam - according to the Abravanel [2])

The Ran [3] begins by explaining that there are two types of yirah, in general (i.e. not specifically in relation to Hashem). 

The first type of yirah he defines as "a withdrawal of the soul and a mobilizing of its faculties when it senses something intimidating." In English we refer to this emotion as "fear." We experience this "yirah of fear" when faced with anything that we perceive to be a threat of any kind. The Ran explains that this type of yirah stems from the "animalistic soul" (nefesh ha'chiyunis) and can therefore be found in many animals as well (e.g. the fear felt by a lamb upon seeing a wolf). Examples of this "yirah of fear" in Tanach include: "Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav, for I fear him lest he come and strike me down, mother and children" (Bereishis 32:12) and "for I was afraid to say, 'This is my wife,' lest they kill me" (ibid. 26:7).

In contrast, the second type of yirah is a product of the intellect (seichel) and stems from the recognition of something or someone that is exceedingly great. In English we refer to this emotion as "awe." Examples of this "yirah of awe" include: "Why were you not afraid (i.e. sufficiently awed) to speak against My servant, Moshe?" (Bamidbar 12:8) and "And [Yaakov] feared (i.e. was in awe) and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gate of the heavens!" (Bereishis 28:17) and "Let your fear (i.e. awe) of your teacher be like your fear of heaven" (Avos 4:12).

The Ran explains that both types of yirah can be found in relation to Hashem. Those people who are deficient (anashim chaseirim) are afraid of the punishments that are sent forth from Hashem. Those who are perfected (shleimim) have no such fear. Instead, they have an "intellectual awe of His exaltedness" (yirah sichlis l'romemuso), based on their comprehension of His creations and the lowly place of man in the totality of existence. 

The Rambam [4] provides a beautiful description of this "yirah of awe" in the Mishneh Torah. Since the Rambam maintains that the experience of ahavas Hashem (love of God) and yiras Hashem (fear of God) go hand in hand, and since we will revisit the topic of ahavas Hashem later in this blog post, I will quote his definitions of both yirah and ahavah here:
What is the way of loving and fearing God? When a person contemplates His great and wondrous works and creations and sees from them His infinite and incomparable wisdom, he immediately loves, praises, and extols and is filled with a great desire to know the Great Name, as David said, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalms 42:3). 
And when he reflects on these same principles in relation to himself, he immediately recoils back with fear and dread, and knows that he is a small, insignificant, unenlightened creature standing with a frail and puny mind in the presence of Perfect Knowledge, as David said, “[When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that you have set in place, I exclaim,] ‘What is frail man that You should notice him, [and the son of mortal man that You should take note of him?’]” (Psalms 8:4-5).
Later on, the Rambam [5] writes another description of ahavah and yirah, from a slightly different angle:

When a person contemplates all of these things (i.e. all of the phenomena in the universe) and recognizes all of the creations – from angels, to celestial bodies, to man, etc. – and sees the wisdom of HaKadosh Baruch Hu in all of the forms and creations – his love for God will increase, his soul will thirst, and his flesh will yearn to love God; and he will be in fear and trepidation from his own lowliness, insignificance, and frailty when he compares himself to even one of these large, holy bodies – and certainly to one of the pure forms which are utterly separated from matter – and he will find himself to be like a vessel filled with shame and embarrassment, empty and lacking.
This is what the Ran means when he characterizes this yirah as "intellectual" awe: it will only be experienced by a person in proportion to his knowledge and understanding of God's wisdom as manifest in the universe. The Ran adds that this type of yirah will also have an effect on a person's actions: just as one would be ashamed to do something improper in front of a great person, although he doesn't fear any harm, so too, one who recognizes Hashem's greatness will feel ashamed to act contrary to His will. 

Having established these two types of yirah, the Ran returns to our pasuk and asks: Which type of yirah was Moshe Rabbeinu talking about when he said, "what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God etc."? Was Moshe referring to both types of yirah, or was he referring solely to the "yirah of awe"? 

On the surface, both answers present difficulties. If we assume that the yirah mentioned by Moshe includes the "yirah of fear," then there are two problems. The first is that this type of fear doesn't distinguish between between good and bad, true or false, just or unjust. The individual who operates based on this fear is simply responding to a threat, and doing whatever is necessary to avoid the perceived harm. For example, after witnessing Chur get killed by Bnei Yisrael (Shemos Rabbah 41:10), Aharon decided to build the Eigel ha'Zahav (Golden Calf); in other words, his fear led him him to do an aveirah (transgression), for which he was punished with death. [6] It is inconceivable that Hashem would demand a type of avodah which stems exclusively from the animalistic part of man, and doesn't even differentiate between good and bad.

The second problem stems from the aforementioned statement of Chazal, that this type of yirah was "a small thing for Moshe but a large thing for us." Is "yirah of fear" really such a "large thing" for us? Of course not! Even young children and animals have a basic fear of punishment. It would be absurd for Chazal to describe this type of primal fear as "a large thing" for us. 

On the other hand, if we assume that Moshe was only talking about the "yirah of awe," then we run into an even bigger problem: this type of yirah can only be found in the greatest chachamim (wise men) and neviim (prophets), who have reached such a superlative level of scientific knowledge. How could Moshe expect this level to be attained by the entire nation? Even Moshe, at the outset of his prophetic career, was praised for this type of yirah, as it is stated: "and Moshe concealed his face, for he was afraid to gaze at God" (Shemos 3:6). This shows that this was a "big thing" even for Moshe, at this point in his development. To expect all of Klal Yisrael to reach this level is unrealistic.

The Ran proposes a creative answer. He explains that Moshe was, indeed, referring exclusively to "yirah of awe." Why, then, did he describe this yirah as though it were easy and universally attainable? Because he was trying to make a point about the nature of this yirah. Since this yirah stems from the intellect, and since man's intellect naturally yearns for knowledge [6], then this type of yirah is actually an easy thing for the intellect - like walking up the stairs on an upwards escalator. This is what Moshe Rabbeinu was speaking about when he described yirah as "easy." In other words, we shouldn't think about love of learning as something foreign to our nature, which we must fight and work to instill within ourselves. Rather, as human beings, we naturally enjoy learning and seek knowledge.

However, we all have a major impediment which makes things difficult: our physicality, which includes our body, our psyche, and all of our drives, tendencies, and personality traits. The surest way to prevent our physicality from overcoming us and impeding our quest for yirah is to subdue it with threats of punishment - that is, by strategically employing the "yirah of fear" to control our inner animal. For this reason Moshe Rabbeinu follows up his discourse about the intellectual yirah with by reminding Klal Yisrael of the punishments that Hashem wrought in Egypt and in the Wilderness (see Devarim 11). 

Thus, the Ran holds that Moshe Rabbeinu's exhortation was designed to convey the full picture of how to develop yiras Hashem. On the one hand, yirah [of awe] is easy, since the mind of man naturally yearns for knowledge. On the other hand, yirah [of fear] is necessary to keep the animalistic part of man at bay, so that the rational soul can be properly nurtured to the point where it reigns supreme.

The Abravanel's Critiques of the Ran

I liked the Ran's approach quite a bit ... but the Abravanel doesn't. Not only does he disagree with the Ran's explanation of our pasuk and Chazal's commentary, but he even objects to the Ran's two types of yirah and maintains that they cannot be considered "yiras Hashem" in any sense, whatsoever!

The Abravanel begins with a critique of the Ran's explanation of our pasuk, saying that "the rav (i.e. the Ran) wanted to combine two types of yirah as both being necessary - on account of the intellect and physicality - to acquire success." He then explains that the two types of yirah as defined by the Ran are so fundamentally different that they cannot be subsumed under a single category, nor can they coexist within a single person. The "perfected person" will have no need for the "yirah of fear" and the "deficient person" will have no access to the "yirah of awe." 

[My chavrusa and I still feel that we aren't grasping the Abravanel's argument here. Didn't the Ran acknowledge the inherent differences between these two types of yirah? Didn't he explain that because man has an intellectual and an animalistic nature, both types of yirah are necessary? We figured that perhaps the Abravanel is objecting to the fact that Moshe speaks as though he is referring to one type of fear. If these two types of fear only differ quantitatively, and exist on a spectrum, it would be possible to say that he was referring to both types of yirah, and addressing both types of people. But since these types of yirah are qualitatively different, then they cannot be subsumed under Moshe's statement "only to fear Hashem." We're still working on this point.]

Next, the Abravanel dismantles the Ran theory that these two general types of yirah correspond to two levels of yiras Hashem. He explains that the "yirah of fear" cannot possibly have anything to do with Hashem, "since all avodah (service) towards Hashem in all matters must be directed by knowledge and understanding, which are activities of the intellect - whether the theoretical intellect or the practical intellect - but not from the animalistic soul." He explains that the animalistic soul is only affected by physical stimuli, but not by comprehension and intellection. For this reason, fear of Hashem's punishments should not be classified under "animalistic fear," since the former involves knowledge the intellect to some degree. 

Moreover, animalistic fear can't be considered "avodah" because it is really just a form of oneis (duress) and compulsion. As proof the Abravanel cites the midrash (Shabbos 88a) that Hashem held Har Sinai over Bnei Yisrael, saying: "If you accept the Torah - great! If not, this will be your grave," to which Chazal raise a difficulty: "From here we see a strong objection against [our obligation to keep] Torah!" Chazal respond to this difficulty by saying that the Jews accepted the Torah out of love during the days of Mordechai and Esther. Regardless of how we understand Chazal's answer, we see from their question that acceptance of the Torah under a threat which arouses animalistic fear (e.g. being crushed to death by a mountain) does not constitute a valid acceptance of Torah and mitzvos. How, then, could an animalistic fear be a valid form of avodas Hashem - one which Hashem actually desires? The Abravanel even goes so far as to say that doing mitzvos out of an animalistic fear doesn't even qualify as the type of avodah she'lo lishmah (divine service which is not for its own sake) which leads to lishmah (divine service for its own sake).

Next, the Abravanel argues that "yirah of awe" also cannot be what the Torah means by "yiras Hashem." First of all, this type yirah should really be called "chochmah" (wisdom) or "yediah" (knowledge), since - according to the Ran - the injunction to "fear Hashem" practically means "gain knowledge of Hashem's wondrous creations and a recognition of your own place in the universe." And if you'll say that it should be called "yirah" because of the emotional affect which emerges from this level of knowledge, it would be more fitting to call this "pliah" ("wonderment"), since the experience creates wonder but doesn't lead to "fear" in any sense. To the contrary, the more knowledge one has of Hashem's exaltedness and man's lowliness, the less yirah he has because he feels even more distant from Hashem. But the more he knows, the more pliah he experiences.

Furthermore, the term "yirah" in Tanach always implies action - not study or knowledge. In fact, the pasuk says: "Fear of Hashem is the beginning of wisdom, good intelligence to all their practitioners" (Tehilim 111:10), which implies that yiras Hashem is a precursor to wisdom - not the result of wisdom. Throughout all of Tanach "yirah" never refers to "advanced knowledge of the universe." 

Lastly, the experienced described by the Ran as "yirah of awe" would more aptly be described as "ahavah" (love) - but it is impossible to simultaneously love and fear someone, since love is a force of attraction and fear is a force of repulsion. And if the Ran is so comfortable saying that there are two categories of yiras Hashem (i.e. intellectual awe and animalistic fear of punishment) then why doesn't he also posit that there are two categories of ahavas Hashem (i.e. intellectual ahavah and animalistic desire for reward)? 

The Abravanel concludes is breakdown by saying that the Ran's view "is not dictated by intellectually straight thinking, nor is it warranted by the pesukim, nor can it be found in the words of Chazal." 

The Abravanel's View

The Abravanel now introduces a completely different paradigm for ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem. He starts with the foundation of his entire view of avodas Hashem, ahavas Hashem, and yiras Hashem. Since this part is relatively concise, I will translate it instead of summarizing it:
Our avodas Hashem is proper and obligatory on account of the kindnesses which we have received from Him - the bringing into existence of creation and its preservation, as well as His love for our forefathers, His bringing us out from Egypt, His giving of the Torah, His [enabling us to] inherit the Land, and all of the other acts of goodness He did for us that are outside of the patterns of nature, as miracles, in accordance with His absolute will. 
Because of this beneficence which Hashem has done for us, we are obligated to love Him - and from this love, [we are obligated] to serve Him with all of our heart, and all of our soul. This is due to the fact that avodah and ahavah are two in name but one in existence, like the oneness of "potentiality" and "actuality." Ahavah towards Him is a potentiality that is found within the soul that is bound up in it, and avodah is the actualization of that ahavah
In addition to the ahavah which is proper towards Him in order to serve Him, man also must guard himself to the utmost degree from sinning before Him or provoking Him, for it would not be proper to have ingratitude to someone who bestowed such kindness and benefits. 
Thus, we have in relation to God an obligation of love, to do His avodah, as well as an obligation to guard ourselves and to be afraid of provoking Him. And there is nothing here that involves His exaltedness, or the wonders and and harmony of of His creations, such that one would need a high degree of understanding and wisdom beyond [a basic recognition] of His kindness in the creation and preservation of the universe, which every person knows. 
And in addition to the fact that this perspective [based on the creation and preservation of the universe] obligates us to love Him and fear Him, there is additional good reward for those who love Him and keep His mitzvos, for Ha'Kadosh Baruch Hu will benefit them and give them reward for their love and their avodah. Likewise, their [additional] yirah and caution against sinning will save them from the harms and misfortunes of the world. 
To summarize: our obligation to serve, love, and fear Hashem all stem from our "indebtedness" (so to speak) to Him for all of the good He has done for us, both in creating and maintaining the universe and in the abundant goodness He has shown to our forefathers and our nation. This hakaras ha'tov (gratitude) is equally applicable and accessible to all people, regardless of their level of intelligence and comprehension of His works. No amount of knowledge will change the extent of our indebtedness. The chacham and the simpleton owe equal amounts of gratitude to Hashem for the benefits they have received. This is the Abravanel's view.

Before explaining Moshe's statement, the Abravanel directs our attention to the context in which our pasuk appears. In the pesukim leading up to our pasuk, Moshe reminds Bnei Yisrael of their many rebellions in the Wilderness - the worst of which was the Cheit ha'Eigel (Sin of the Golden Calf). The Abravanel explains what Hashem could have done, and what He actually did:
According to the strict letter of the law, even if Hashem forgave them and atoned for the incident of the Eigel, He could have increased upon them the yoke of Torah and mitzvos. This is what kings do with those who rebel against their service, namely, that even though they are forgiven for their sin and they return to their work, the king imposes upon them more laws than they previously had. But Hashem did not do this. He didn't increase the weight of their yoke, nor did he add even a single mitzvah. Instead, He only warned them that they should be exceedingly vigilant in guarding those mitzvos which He had already given them.
On the basis of his conceptualization of avodah, ahavah, and yirah, and in light of the context established by Moshe's speech, the Abravanel explains our pasuk:
Therefore [Moshe] said: "What does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Him" for this request is not hard, but easy - and all the more so after [Bnei Yisrael] wickedly sinned with the Eigel
Chazal explained that because "man's inclination is evil" and always inclines towards sin, they asked: "Is yirah a small thing?" Their answer was that in relation to Moshe, who guarded himself from sin, this vigilance was easy. And even in relation to Israel, based on the goods they had received from Him, [yirah] would be proper and right. 
According to the Abravanel, the following analogy may be made. A student is given a generous scholarship to attend a prestigious university - a scholarship which was not earned by merit, but was given out of generosity. But instead of working hard to excel in his courses, he slacks off, disrespects his professors, trashes his dorm, and violates the terms of his student contract. The dean calls him in and says, "Look. We have given you this tremendous opportunity, for your benefit. We will give you another chance to boost your grades, we will forgive you for your chutzpah, we will overlook the damage you have caused to university property, and we will forgive your breach of contract. The ONLY thing we are asking is that you guard yourself from future infractions. Is that an unreasonable request?"

It would seem that the Abravanel is learning Chazal's interpretation of Moshe's statement in the same vein. Moshe was saying: "Yiras Hashem ought to be easy, considering all of the good that Hashem has done for you, and the tolerance He has shown you despite your many rebellions. Not only has He forgiven you for these transgressions, but He has even refrained from increasing your yoke. The only thing He is asking you to do is to exercise vigilance and not violate the mitzvos with which you have been charged." 

Concluding Thoughts

Unfortunately, my chavrusa and I were only able to work on this for two days before I had to write and post this dvar Torah. There are still many questions that we need to resolve, including:
  • Which of the Abravanel's critiques of the Ran have merit and which do not? 
  • What are the Ran and the Abravanel really arguing about? What is at the root of their disagreement? 
  • Which explanation of the pasuk is smoother and more convincing? 
  • What is this the Abravanel's concept of being obligated to serve Hashem out of this hakaras ha'tov? How does this differ from other views of the nature of our avodah (e.g. the Ralbag's conceptualization of Torah as part of the unfolding of the hashgachah in the universe)? 
  • According to the Abravanel, how do the Ran's two types of yirah fit into Judaism? Was he really serious about animalistic fear playing absolutely no role in our avodah?
Lastly, there is another answer that I'd like to develop based on my understanding of yiras Hashem in Mishlei. That, along with these other questions, will have to wait until a later time.

[1] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 10:12
[2] I say "the Rambam - according to the Abravanel" because that is the view of the Rambam I intend to write about in this blog post. In other words, this will not be an examination of what the Rambam holds on his own terms. Instead, this should be understood as the Abravanel's understanding of the Rambam's view. 
[2] Rabbeinu Nissim ben Reuven, Drashos ha'Ran #10. Full disclosure: although I have learned this drashah inside several times, I am relying on the Abravanel's presentation of the Ran's view.
[3] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer ha'Mada, Hilchos Yesodei ha'Torah 2:2
[4] ibid. 4:12
[5] This is according to the Abravanel's interpretation, which I wrote about in Parashas Chukas: Moshe Rabbeinu's Sin.
[6] "[Hashem] instilled within [people] the capacity to learn and to understand - for this tendency is present in every man, that the more he is drawn after the ways of chochmah (wisdom) and tzedek (righteousness), the more he desires them and pursues them" (Rambam, Mishneh Torah: Sefer ha'Mada, Hilchos Teshuvah 6:4)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Mishlei 17:13 - Mishleic Karma

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Mishlei 17:13 - Mishleic Karma

משלי יז:יג
מֵשִׁיב רָעָה תַּחַת טוֹבָה, לֹא תָמוּשׁ רָעָה מִבֵּיתוֹ:

Mishlei 17:13

If one repays good with bad, badness will not depart from his house. 

The questions on this pasuk are:
(1) How does this work? Our pasuk appears to be describing a karma-like effect. The problem is that karma - in the sense of "a mystical force of retribution" - isn't real. Since Mishlei deals with consequences within the laws of nature, how can we understand the phenomenon in our pasuk?
(2) What "badness" will not depart from his house? The term "badness" (raah) is as vague as can be. Is this the same type of "badness" as the "bad" in the first half of the pasuk? If not, what is it? And why was Shlomo ha'Melech so vague? 
(3) What does it mean when it says that the badness "will not depart from his house"? Why focus on the house instead of the person himself? And what are the implications of "will not depart"? This would seem to indicate that the "badness" was always there, and could have departed were it not for this guy's repaying of good with bad.
[Time to think! Read on when ready.]

Here is my four-sentence summary (with an extremely liberal definition of "sentence") of the main idea of this pasuk:
It is human nature to expect that the beneficiaries of good actions will (or should) repay these actions with good; consequently, the person who repays good with bad will be universally abhorred. Such an individual is exceedingly egotistical in that he believes he is entitled to be the recipient of good from others, but at the same time, feels that he doesn’t owe them anything; not only that, but he feels free to treat them however he pleases, as though they are nothing but his pawns who exist only to serve him. As a direct consequence of this insensitive, egocentric way of relating to others, the “house” (i.e. system) of such an individual will be continually “plagued by badness” in four ways: (1) the members of his household/system will resent him, and that resentment will yield harmful consequences; (2) they will not be willing to do good for him, and he will miss out on those benefits; (3) his sense of entitlement will cause him to be remiss in his responsibilities towards the members of his household/system; this will harm the household/system as a whole, and he – as a part of that household/system – will suffer as a consequence; (4) his egotism will generate excessive and unrealistic expectations of how others should relate to him, and these unfulfilled expectations will breed perpetual frustration, dissatisfaction, and anger. Although there is no such thing as actual Karma, the victim of this type of evil recompense can take solace in his knowledge of “Mishleic karma” and know with certainty that the perpetrator will suffer greatly as a “punishment” for the way he treats others. 
This is an example of what I call a "list-pasuk." Many pesukim in Mishlei state a specific consequence for a specific behavior. In contrast, "list-pesukim" simply identify the behavior of the fool/rasha and leave it to the reader to figure out the consequences, of which there are many. "List-pesukim," such as our pasuk, will typically make general reference to the consequences in vague or categorical terms, so as not to lead the reader to focus on a narrow set of consequences.

The phenomenon of "list-pesukim" exemplifies one of the many differences between Shlomo ha'Melech's proverbs and (for lack of a better term) "English proverbs." English proverbs are essentially spoon-fed truths which are instantly understandable: "the early bird catches the worm," "no pain no gain," "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." In contrast, the vast majority of Shlomo ha'Melech's proverbs are not readily understandable; their ideas can only be accessed after thought and analysis.

I believe that the main reason for this is because Shlomo ha'Melech is trying to do more than just deliver content. His goal is for his students to train their minds and acquire a different way of thinking about life. By stating these ideas in cryptic language, he forces the student to explore the subject matter of each pasuk in-depth and try out different ways of learning. In the end, the students gains more from the analysis of the pasuk than a single idea.

"List-pesukim" fit into this paradigm because there isn't even a specific idea that he's conveying. Instead, these pesukim are like Shlomo pointing to a certain behavior and saying, "Hey - check that guy out. What do you think is going to happen to him? What mistake(s) is he making?" The "lesson" of the pasuk ultimately comes from the student's own analysis, with zero spoon-feeding. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Harmful Notion of the "Jewish Soul"

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The Harmful Notion of the "Jewish Soul"

Disclaimer and Context

This is more of a "rant" than a strictly "lishmah" post. I have consciously chosen to write this post as more polemical than dialectical. For this reason, do not expect this to be a comprehensive treatment of the topic at hand, in which both sides of the issue are examined from a detached, analytical, non-judgmental perspective. Unlike most of the posts on this blog, which I strive to write from a neutral standpoint, this post has an agenda: to articulate why I object to the notion of "Jewish souls."

I think it would help to provide some context for how I came to write this post. Last week I was invited to join a new (secret) Facebook support group for gerim (converts). Hearing so many personal stories of discrimination and insensitivity towards gerim has caused me to revisit some of the ger-related topics which I hadn't thought about for a while.

In Friday's dvar Torah (Which Souls Were at Sinai?) I mentioned a pet peeve of mine: when born-Jews learn that I'm a ger (convert) and exclaim, "Oh, but you're such a good Jew! You CLEARLY must have been born with a Jewish soul!" or "You CLEARLY have a spark of Yiddishkeit in your soul!" or "You MUST have had a Jewish ancestor, and now your Yiddishe neshamah (Jewish soul) is just finding its way back home!" 

I am irked by comments like these for three reasons: (1) they are racist, in the sense of being "anti-goyim," (2) they minimize my journey to Judaism and my conversion, and (3) according to my understanding, the notion of a "Jewish soul" is false. 

We will now discuss each of these three reasons. 

Reason #1: Racism / Anti-Gentilism

I know that in most cases, born-Jews don't mean anything bad or malicious by such statements, but that doesn't change the anti-goyim undertones of their words. The underlying message I hear in their words is: "It simply cannot BE that you were once a GOY! Goyim can't POSSIBLY be part of the Jewish people! Therefore, you MUST have been a Jew SOMEHOW! Heaven FORFEND that a dirty goyishe neshamah could have found its way into our holy ranks!"

Now, before any of the born-Jews start "Jewsplaining" to me how I'm reading too much into statements like these, let's see if we can agree to the following four points: (1) there are born-Jews who say these things WITHOUT these intentions, even on an unconscious level; (2) there are born-Jews people who say these things who DO harbor such intentions, even though they aren't aware of them or don't mean anything bad by them; (3) there are geirim who are NOT bothered by such comments, and might even find them to be welcoming and affirming of their Jewish identity; (4) you, as a born-Jew, have never been on the receiving end of comments like these, and therefore, you have a different perspective than I do; you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but you cannot tell me how I feel. 

I've even had students who love my classes and have learned from me for years, but will nevertheless speak in my presence about "the disgusting goyim" and how "goyim don't have souls" or how "goyim were made to be our slaves." Whenever I hear such comments I usually respond, "You know, I used to be a 'disgusting goy.' Are you saying that I didn't have a soul? Was I born to be your slave" to which they respond, "No, Rabbi ______, I wasn't talking about YOU! Obviously YOU are different!" These kids are too young to realize the weaknesses of "the friend argument" (i.e. "I'm not racist! I have friends who are black!"), but that is essentially the argument they're trying to make.

It's no secret that Jewish tribalism and elitism has always "been a thing" in our nation, and has been reinforced by millennia of Antisemitism. This is understandable, and even excusable insofar as it is a natural defense mechanism which is (arguably) necessary for Jewish survival. But the historical reality of Antisemitism certainly does not validate anti-goyim beliefs or sentiments, nor does it justify making anti-goyim remarks in the presence of those of us who used to be goyim.

Reason #2: Minimization of Geirus (Conversion)

When you tell a ger (whether explicitly or implicitly) that he or she "was destined to be Jewish," be aware that you might be perceived by the ger to be minimizing the significance and/or hardship of his or her journey and conversion process. 

There are so many different types of paths that people take to Judaism, some of which are harder than others. I have heard horror stories from gerim that you wouldn't believe, filled with instances abuse, discrimination, and despicable behavior from Jewish laypeople and rabbis alike. Think about what it means to tell a person who has been through such a difficult journey, "Oh, that? Yeah. That wasn't your free will decision, and had nothing to do with your perseverance, or your love for Hashem and His Torah, or your sacrifices you made, or your trust in the truth of your convictions, or your courage. It was in your spiritual DNA. You were basically programmed to follow this path. It had to happen." 

Would you ever say something like this to a veteran who survived a war, or to someone who went through therapy, or to a person who is in recovery from an addiction? These may sound like "negative" comparisons to geirus, but they are apt analogies for those whose path to Judaism was fraught with challenges and hardships. 

Without knowing the full story of the ger to whom you are speaking, making statements such as these can easily stray into the territory of onaas ha'ger (abusing a convert).

Every day, those who are born Jewish make the berachah of "she'lo asani goy" ("Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the universe, Who did not make me a gentile"). I, as a ger, do not make that berachah because Hashem did make me a goy[1] Let me say that again: Hashem made me a goy, and I chose to become a ger. Don't minimize my life and my decisions by telling me that my soul was already Jewish. 

Reason #3: Falsehood

Since the topic of "the soul" is extremely broad and deep, I will confine my remarks here to a general summary of my reasons for rejecting the notion of a "Jewish soul," and point the way to resources for further reading.

As far as I know, based on my own research and the research of academic scholars I have read on this matter, the idea of a "Jewish soul" is an entirely "Kabbalistic" [2] and/or Chasidic concept. The distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish souls cannot be found anywhere in the Written Torah, the Oral Torah, or in any of the non-"Kabbalistic" works of the Kadmonim [3]. Sure, it can be read into these sources - but if you learn through these classical sources on their own terms, without the influence of "Kabbalah" or Chasidus, you would not encounter any distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish souls. 

Does this lack of sources mean that this belief is false? Not necessarily. "Ee efshar l'beis midrash b'lo chidush - it is impossible to have a study hall without innovation" (Chagigah 3a). Nevertheless, whenever I see a concept which only appears in "Kabbalistic"/Chasidic sources with no basis in the Written Torah, the Oral Torah, or the writings of the non-"Kabbalistic" Kadmonim, then I am suspicious - especially if the concept in question is purported to be a fundamental of Judaism. If there is no evidence that Chazal and the Kadmonim were aware of a particular concept, then at the very least, this means that it is not an essential part of Judaism. At worst, this means that it is not part of Judaism at all. 

According to my understanding of the Written Torah, the Oral Torah, and the writings of the non-"Kabbalistic" Kadmonim, people only have one kind of soul: a human soul. This is the soul that the Torah refers to when it says: "And God said, 'Let us make man in our form (b'tzalmeinu), like our likeness (ki'dmuseinu)'" (Bereishis 1:26) and "God created man in His tzelem (form); in tzelem Elokim He created him; male and female He created them" (ibid. 1:27) and "Hashem-God formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils nishmas chayim (the soul/breath) of life, and man became a nefesh chaya (living/speaking soul)" (ibid. 2:7).

According to all of the Kadmonim, the tzelem Elokim refers to the human intellect: man's capacity to apprehend and seek conceptual knowledge and understanding. There is no inherent difference between the tzelem Elokim of a Jew and that of a non-Jew. Frankly, I don't even know what it would mean to differentiate between a "Jewish intellect" and a "non-Jewish intellect." [4] 

The distinction between Jew and non-Jew is a legal one - not metaphysical one. In other words, "Jew" and "non-Jew" are halachic labels, indicating the particular system of Divine law by which one is legally bound. A Jew is someone who has entered into the covenant of Torah - whether by birth or by conversion - and is legally obligated to keep the system of Taryag mitzvos (613 Commandments). Non-Jews, on the other hand, are only obligated to keep the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach (Seven Noahide Commandments), which have been binding on all humans since the time of Noach, and which were "renewed" with the giving of Torah at Sinai. [5] 

Maybe someday I'll write a post in which I compile sources from the Kadmonim which state these points explicitly, alongside a list of the "Kabbalistic"/Chasidic sources which assert a metaphysical distinction between the souls of Jews and non-Jews. However, as I pointed out in my disclaimer, this is a polemical post - not a dialectical one. Suffice it to say, the burden of proof is on the "Kabbalists"/Chasidim to show that their belief has its source in the Mesorah (or to show that their belief is valid despite not having a source in the Mesorah). 

[Incidentally, if you would like to peruse a fairly comprehensive list of sources from both sides, check out The Soul of a Jew and the Soul of a Non-Jew, by Hanan Balk, published in Hakirah. This article also does a great job of illustrating why I consider the belief in "Jewish souls" to be harmful, dangerous, and repugnant.]

There is only one of the Kadmonim who, at first glance, might seem to hold that Jews and non-Jews have different souls: R' Yehuda ha'Levi. In his famous work, "the Kuzari," R' Yehuda ha'Levi [6] writes that only Jews possess the "Inyan ha'Elohi" ("divine quality") - a metaphysical quality which allows Jews to become prophets. Non-Jews do not have the Inyan ha'Elohi. Not only that, but even gerim lack the Inyan ha'Elohi; our conversion doesn't endow our souls with this special quality that only born-Jews possess.

Much has been written about R' Yehuda ha'Levi's view on this matter, but for the purposes of this post we are only interested in one thing: Does this view of Inyan ha'Elohi imply that the souls of Jews and non-Jews are inherently different? The answer is: no. R' Yehuda ha'Levi clearly held that Jews are born with a special quality which non-Jews lack, but their souls are fundamentally the same. Professor Menachem Kellner expressed this eloquently in his book, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism:
It is important to emphasize: Halevi does not affirm that Jews differ biologically from non-Jews, that Jews have special souls, or that Jews are a species apart. He does not hold that non-Jews are any less created in the image of God than are Jews. He maintains that Jews have a special property (the potential to become prophets) lacking in non-Jews. This property is in some fashion (never explained by Halevi) transmitted through lineage. 
[For a detailed exposition and clarification of R' Yehuda ha'Levi's view, I recommend Professor Norman Strickman's article Misrepresenting Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi.]

The bottom line: I will continue to maintain that the Kadmonim did not recognize any difference between the soul of a Jew and that of a non-Jew, until someone shows me that I am incorrect. The only difference between a Jew and a non-Jew is obligation in mitzvos. Our souls are inherently the same. [7]

Jews and Non-Jews: A Common Soul, and a Common Path

I'd like to end this post on a more positive note.

Because Jews and non-Jews have the same human soul, we share a common path. As we said before, the Torah that Hashem gave through Moshe Rabbeinu was intended for Jews and non-Jews alike; the only difference is which system of mitzvos we are legally obligated to keep. According to Judaism, a righteous non-Jew has a portion in the World to Come. [8] Not only that, but a non-Jew is capable of reaching the same spiritual heights as a Jew. Adam ha'Rishon, Shem, Eiver, Chanoch, Noach, and Avraham Avinu were all non-Jews - yet, all of them were able to achieve high levels of closeness to God. The Gemara says (Sanhedrin 59a):
R' Meir says: How do we know that even a non-Jew who involves himself in the study of Torah is equal to a Kohen Gadol (High Priest)? As it is stated, "[You shall observe My decrees and My laws,] which man shall carry out and by which he shall live" (Vayikra 18:5) - it does not say, "Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites" but man. From here we learn that even a non-Jew who involves himself in the study of Torah is equal a Kohen Gadol.
The Rambam [9] codifies this principle at the end of his discussion about the special role of Shevet Levi (the Tribe of Levi). He writes:
Why didn’t the Tribe of Levi merit in the inheritance of the Land of Israel and its spoils along with their brethren? Because they are set aside to serve Hashem and to minister to Him and to teach His upright ways and righteous laws to the masses, as it is stated, “They shall teach Your laws to Yaakov and Your teachings to Israel” (Devarim 33:10). 
Therefore, they are separated from the ways of the world. They do not go to war like the rest of Israel, nor do they receive an inheritance, nor do they acquire for themselves with their bodily power, but rather, they are the legion of Hashem, as it is stated: “Bless, O Hashem, His legion” (ibid. 33:11), and He, Blessed is He, provides for them, as it is stated: “I Am your Portion and your Inheritance” (Bamidbar 18:20).  
Not only the Tribe of Levi, but each and every member of humanity whose spirit generously moves him and whose understanding of his knowledge [of all existing things causes him] to separate himself to stand before Hashem to minister unto Him and to serve Him in order to know Hashem, and to walk with uprightness as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many calculations which people seek – he becomes sanctified as holy of holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and ever, and He will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the Kohanim and the Levites. And thus David declared: “Hashem is the lot of my portion; You are my cup; You support my lot” (Tehilim 16:5). 
This halacha is predicated upon the fact that Jews and non-Jews possess the same tzelem Elokim, and are drawn to the truth in the same way, as the Rambam [10] writes in Hilchos Teshuvah:
He instilled within them the capacity to learn and to understand - for this tendency is present in every man, that the more he is drawn after the ways of chochmah (wisdom) and tzedek (righteousness), the more he desires them and pursues them. 
Yes, it is true that our nation has a special status among the nations of the world. Nevertheless, our national identity as "the Chosen People" does not indicate any inherent superiority on our part, nor does it imply that Jews have different souls. Rather, it is a reference to our role in humanity: to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shemos 19:6), to teach mankind to fear and love Hashem. 

It is for this reason that the prophets promise that one day, all of humanity will be united by our pursuit of knowledge of Hashem, which stems from the tzelem Elokim within each and every human being. "For the earth will be filled with knowledge of Hashem, as water covers the sea bed" (Yeshayahu 11:9). "On that day, Hashem will be One and His Name will be One" (Zechariah 14:9).

[1] To my knowledge there is no non-"Kabbalistic" halachic view which maintains that a ger should make the berachah of she'lo asani goy. If anyone knows of such a view, please let me know.
[2] I have chosen to write the word "Kabbalistic" in quotation marks so as not to enter into the dicey analysis of which so-called "kabbalistic sources" are authentic, which are innovations, and which are fabrications. All I mean by "Kabbalistic" (with quotation marks) is that the proponents of these works consider them to be Kabbalistic. 
[3] By "Kadmonim" I am referring to the Geonim, Rishonim, and early Achronim. These Kadmonim include, but are not limited to: Rambam, R' Avraham ben ha'Rambam, Rav Hai Gaon, Saadia Gaon, Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Ralbag, Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Paquda, Rif, Sforno, Rashba, Rashi, Baalei Tosafos, Ritva, Radak, Rashbam, R' Yosef Albo, R' Yehudah ha'Levi, Meiri, Avudarham, Raavad, Ran, Rabbeinu Yonah, Sefer Ha'Chinuch, Abravanel, Chazkuni, Rabbeinu Bachye ben Asher, Rosh, Tur, and more. See my post Neglecting the Thinkers of the Past for more details on this group.
[4] It can be argued that there are "Jewish types of thinking" (e.g. Talmudic analysis, Scriptural analysis in accordance with the principles of Torah she'baal Peh), and one can even try to argue that there are quantitative differences between the intellects of Jews and non-Jews (though I personally don't buy this), but these are a far cry from claiming that there is a qualitative difference between a Jewish intellect and a non-Jewish one.
[5] Taryag is a regimen designed to bring those who practice it properly to true human perfection, whereas the system of Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach is designed to keep mankind from descending to the level of animals, thereby granting them the opportunity to pursue human perfection on their own, or with the aid of the Torah regimen.
[6] Rabbeinu Yehuda ha'Levi, Kuzari 1:95
[7] There is also an ideological definition of Jew, as defined by the first mishnah in the 10th chapter of Sanhedrin, whose meaning and implications are heavily debated by the meforshim (commentators). This definition of Jew is even narrower than the halachic definition. In other words, there are a significant number of people who are halachic Jews (i.e. they are obligated to keep Taryag), but are not considered a part of the Jewish people (i.e. they do not hold by the foundational ideas that define the people "Israel"). This is a separate topic, but I thought it would be worthwhile to mention in passing.
[8] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer Shoftim, Hilchos Melachim 8:11
[9] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer Zeraim, Hilchos Shemitah v'Yovel 13:12-13
[10] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer ha'Mada, Hilchos Teshuvah 6:4