Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Mishlei 17:12 - Hell Hath No Fury Like a Fool Scorned

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Artwork: Awaken the Bear, by Svetlin Velinov

Mishlei 17:12 - Hell Hath No Fury Like a Fool Scorned

משלי יז:יב
פָּגוֹשׁ דֹּב שַׁכּוּל בְּאִישׁ וְאַל כְּסִיל בְּאִוַּלְתּוֹ:

Mishlei 17:12
Better to for a man to confront a mother bear bereft of its cubs than a ksil (fool) in his eeveles (foolish rage).

This translation is based on R' Moshe Kimch (printed in the standard Mikraos Gedolos under the name "Ibn Ezra"), who explains that "shakool" means "deprived of its cubs." The Meiri, among others, adds that "shakool" implies a female bear. Although the second half of the pasuk says "than a fool in his foolishness," Rabbeinu Yonah explains it to mean "than a fool in his foolishness and his anger." Presumably, he gets this from the first half of the pasuk: a bear bereft of its cubs is "crazy enraged" rather than merely "crazy."

There are a few basic questions here:
  1. How? Whenever Mishlei compares one thing to another, the question is: in what framework? "Better" in what sense? 
  2. Really?! This pasuk seems to be an exaggeration. The Wikipedia article on bear attacks makes them seem pretty bad. 
  3. What is unique about the eeveles (foolish rage) of a ksil (Mishleic fool)? All rage is destructive. What makes the rage of a ksil unique enough to single out in this pasuk?

[Time to think! Read on when ready.]

Here's my MORE than four-sentence summary of the main idea:
A mother bear bereft of its cubs is in the grips of a powerful, unthinking, animalistic rage; the same is true of a fool whose ego (or false sense of security) has been threatened and whose anger has been awakened. However, the fool is much more dangerous than the bear for a number of reasons: 
(1) the bear has a very narrow range of activity, making it relatively easy to anticipate its attack and to take the necessary precautions; the fool, on the other hand, has a wide variety of retaliatory actions at his disposal and is willing to go to any lengths to get his revenge, making him unpredictable and difficult to guard against 
(2) the bear’s anger subsides within a short period of time, whereas the fool might harbor a grudge for days, months, years, or decades 
(3) the danger level of the bear is apparent to all, whereas the fool might appear to be totally harmless, when – in truth – he is just waiting for the right moment 
(4) no one in his right mind deludes himself into thinking that he can control an enraged bear, but when dealing with a fool, it is easy to fall prey to the illusion that one has more control than one actually has.  
For these reasons (and more), one should avoid provoking fools, and steer clear of fools who have already been provoked.
The reason why I allowed myself to summarize the main idea in more than four sentences is because this pasuk falls into the category of "list pesukim." I've already explained this methodological point elsewhere, but I'll repeat my explanation here for the sake of convenience.

Many pesukim in Mishlei state a specific consequence for a specific foolish behavior or bad decision. In contrast, "list-pesukim" simply identify the actions 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.

"List pesukim" are also consistent with Shlomo ha'Melech's brand of "mussar without 'should's and 'shouldn't's," which I wrote about here.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

My Educational Philosophy

The most useful assignment I had in graduate school was to write a one-page summary of my educational philosophy. The original version was written in the third person, but I rewrote it in the second person - addressed to my students - because this helps remind me that this isn't some abstract theoretical formulation, but an actual framework which ought to guide my day-to-day teaching.

At least once a year I revisit this educational philosophy statement, both in order to remind myself of my personal mission as a teacher, an to assess whether I still agree with my own educational philosophy, or whether I need to modify it. Here is the current incarnation. 

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Artwork: Talisman of Curiosity, by Lindesy Look

My Educational Philosophy

My role as a teacher is to facilitate bechirah ba'Tov – the capacity to make free-will decisions to live as a human being, in accordance with the will and wisdom of the Creator. [1] My goal is to guide you on our mutual journey towards yiras Hashem (self-governance by wisdom [2]) and ahavas Hashem (the yearning to know Hashem – the One Source of all wisdom and reality [3]). This journey will proceed in four stages, which are sequential by nature, but tend to overlap: 
(1) Reishis Daas (The Beginning of Knowledge): My first task as your teacher is to awaken you from the mindless slumber of the unexamined life and to bring you to a state of mindfulness, self-awareness, and the recognition that we live in a world governed by rational lawfulness. This is the reishis daas (beginning of knowledge [4]) – the foundation of real learning.  
(2) Chochmah (Wisdom): After you have been awakened, the true development of your tzelem Elokim (truth-seeking intellect) can commence. I will train you in the art of precise, logical, analytical thinking; I will help you to acquire intellectual virtues and beneficial habits of mind; I will do everything in my ability to encourage your curiosity, creativity, and independent thinking; and I will strive to impart to you a clear knowledge and understanding of Torah, firmly grounded in the yesodei ha'Torah.  
(3) Mussar (Self-Governance): Since chochmah is only valuable insofar as it is real to our minds and emotions, and affects the way we live, I will do what I can to help you align and harmonize your emotions, your personality, and your decision-making with your chochmah.  
(4) Bechirah (Free Will): Lastly, I will do my best to provide you with the knowledge, resources, and support you need for a life of bechirah. However, I will leave that bechirah entirely up to you. I will never attempt to force you to feel, think, or live in any particular way. Instead, I will do what I can to help you to recognize and understand the choices that lie before you. I will do what I can to serve as role model of bechirah and I will try to provide you with the opportunity to learn from my own struggles to be bocher ba'Tov (to choose good). 
This is the current incarnation of my continually evolving educational philosophy. If I am shown that any element of my approach is not in the best interests of my students, I will retract and change my ways – for, as a teacher, I am bound by the physician's rule of primum non nocere: “first do no harm.” 

These are my terms and my values. I do not care to teach on any others. 

[1] This approach follows directly from the derech Hashem: "Behold, I have placed before you today the life and the Good, and the death and the bad ... Choose life, that you and your offspring may live" (Devarim 30:15,19). 
[2] Sefer Mishlei 15:33, as explained by Saadia Gaon 
[3] Rambam: Mishneh Torah, Sefer ha'Mada, Hilchos Yesodei ha'Torah 2:2 
[4] Sefer Mishlei 1:7

Friday, July 26, 2019

Parashas Pinchas: Overcoming Psychological Obstacles to Asking Your Rabbi

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Artwork: Azor's Elocutors, by Johannes Voss

Parashas Pinchas: Overcoming Psychological Obstacles to Asking Your Rabbi


I will preface and contextualize this blog post with a rather vague claim supported by anecdotal evidence. My vague claim is that some women refrain from asking shailos (halachic questions) to their rabbis due to a variety of social, practical, and/or psychological hurdles. 

My anecdotal evidence is drawn from ten years of teaching high school girls, and encountering numerous instances in which my suggestion to "just ask your posek (halachic decisor)" is met with reluctance, anxiety, and even fear. 

Further evidence is drawn from an informal poll I took on various social media platforms in which I asked Orthodox women whether they think it's more difficult for women than men to ask their rabbi halachic questions due to various social, practical, and/or psychological obstacles. The overwhelming majority of women who responded concurred. 

It is in this specific context that I would like to examine the story of the Daughters of Tzelofchad. Let's review the relevant pesukim
The daughters of Tzelofchad, son of Chefer, son of Gilad, son of Machir, son of Menashe, of the families of Menasheh son of Yaakov drew near - and these were the names of his daughters: Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirzah - and they stood before Moshe, before Elazar ha'Kohen, and before the Leaders and the entire assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, saying: "Our father died in the Wilderness, but he was not among the assembly that was gathered against Hashem in the assembly of Korach, but he died of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be omitted from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father's brothers." And Moshe brought their claim before Hashem.
Hashem said to Moshe, saying: "The daughters of Tzelofchad speak properly. You shall surely give them a possession of inheritance among the brothers of their father, and you shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass over to them." 
I believe that there are several lessons we can learn from the fact that the Daughters of Tzelofchad asked this question, and from the manner in which they asked it. These lessons may not help remove the social and practical barriers which Jewish women face, but my  hope is that they provide some chizuk (encouragement) for overcoming some of these psychological difficulties. 

I will examine four psychological obstacles to shailah-asking. The first one applies specifically to women, and the others apply women and men alike. These certainly aren't the only such obstacles, but they are the only ones I managed to identify with corresponding insights from this parashah

Psychological Obstacle #1: Gender

When learning Torah it is often instructive to take note of what the Torah doesn't say, in addition to what it actually says. It is easy to overlook the simple fact that the Daughters of Tzelofchad did not hesitate to approach Moshe, Elazar, and the Leaders of the nation on account of their gender. They didn't say, "we're women, and it wouldn't be appropriate for us to appear before these distinguished men" or "we're women, so these men wouldn't listen to us" or "we're women - of what value is our opinion?" or anything having to do with their gender. 

Likewise, they weren't criticized by these men or by the Torah in any way for asking their question. They received an answer just the same as anyone else, without any fanfare - positive or negative - as the asking of a shailah should be.

There has been an uproar in recent years about certain ultra-religious communities which refuse to feature pictures of women - even modestly dressed women - in magazines or illustrations of women in children's books in order to avoid any form of "gazing at women." In stark contrast, the Daughters of Tzelofchad took center stage, "before Moshe, before Elazar, before the Leaders and the entire assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting." They didn't send their message through an intermediary, nor did they stand behind a mechitzah (partition), nor did they opt to appoint only one of their party to present their case. They all stood there and spoke in public in front of all these men. 

There is something compelling about the stark contrast between the way that these ultra-religious communities would react to the prospect of women appearing in front of their rabbinic council, and the matter-of-fact way that the Torah recounts the case of the Daughters of Tzelofchad. 

But the essential point is simple: when it comes to asking shailos, the Torah is egalitarian, even though the real world (unfortunately) isn't. 

Psychological Obstacle #2: Embarrassment 

The Ralbag derives a lesson for all Jews from the fact that the Daughters of Tzelofchad asked their question. He writes:
[This story] informs us that it is not proper for a person to refrain from bringing his case in front of the authorities on account of boshes (shame); rather it is proper for him to strive to do this (i.e. to present his case) with enthusiasm and diligence in order to get what he deserves. We see that the daughters of Tzelofchad were not embarrassed to bring their case before Moshe and before Elazar ha'Kohen and before the leaders and the entire assembly in order to attain what they sought in regards to the matter of inheritance, which they asked about correctly, as we explained. 
There is no indication from the Ralbag that this "shame" and "embarrassment" - or rather, the lack thereof - had anything to do with gender. It is reasonable to assume that he was talking about the general feeling of self-consciousness which prevents both men and women from asking their rabbi questions. 

Chazal identify this problematic type of boshes in the famous statement in Avos 2:5: "lo ha'bayshan lomeid" ("one who is ashamed / embarrassed will not learn"). Although that mishnah is about learning Torah in general rather than asking shailos, the nature of the boshes is often the same in any case. The intrepid student worries: "What if my question is dumb?" "What if they laugh at me?" "What if they get angry at me for asking it?" The rationalizations generated by such boshes are innumerable. 

The fact that the Daughters of Tzelofchad didn't succumb to this boshes is noteworthy enough for the Ralbag to point it out as a lesson for the rest of us. 

Psychological Obstacle #3: "Never mind. It's Not Worth It"

It is interesting how the Ralbag formulates his praise of the Daughters of Tzelofchad. He says that they "were not embarrassed to bring their case before Moshe and before Elazar ha'Kohen and before the leaders and the entire assembly in order to attain what they sought in regards to the matter of inheritance." He doesn't laud their chochmah (wisdom), or their legal reasoning, or even their devotion to the proper observance of halacha. He praises them for the fact that they went this far in order to get what they wanted. 

This sounds like a trivial point, but I think it's worth mentioning. I've had many students who have wanted to do some enjoyable activity or partake in a pleasure or even obtain a real benefit which they think might assur (prohibited). I tell them to ask their rabbi, in case there's a heter (reason to permit) or a kula (leniency) which they're unaware of. When I check in with them a few days later and ask, "So, what did your rav say?" they answer: "Oh, I decided not to ask him." When I hear this, I want to exclaim: "What? Why! This is something you looked forward to doing! The worst he can say is, 'No,' in which case you'd be right where you are now, but the best case scenario is that he says, 'Yes' and you'll get to enjoy yourself!" And yet, I sympathize with how easy it is to just say, "It's not worth it," and give up on the matter without asking. It's easy to give up long-term pleasure on account of immediate anxiety. 

When I think of the Ralbag's emphasis on the Bnos Tzelofchad asking a shailah to obtain what they want, I am reminded of my Rosh Yeshiva's explanation of an obscure midrash on the pasuk: "When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is good for you" (Tehilim 128:2). The midrash applies our pasuk to a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) who is confronted with the meat of an animal which is a safek treifah (i.e. the carcass of properly slaughtered kosher animal which might nevertheless turn out to be prohibited, depending on whether it exhibits certain physical defects). Rather than just throw out the meat, this talmid chacham applies his halachic knowledge to it an attempt to find a basis for permitting it:
Mar Zutra expounded in the name of Rav Chisda: any talmid chacham who reads [Written Torah], learns [Oral Torah], and is meshamesh talmidei chachamim (i.e. is skilled in the methods of abstract halachic analysis) and assesses a treifah on his own, the pasuk says about him: "you are praiseworthy, and it is good for you."
My Rosh Yeshiva pointed out that this is diametrically opposed to the "frum" (religious) mentality. The frum person would "play it safe" and discard the treifah rather than rely on his own halachic knowledge and run the risk of possibly violating a prohibition. This midrash advocates the opposite approach: as long as a person makes recourse to the halachic system in a responsible and objective manner - in this case, relying on his expert application of halachic analysis and psak (halachic adjudication) - then there is nothing wrong with trying to maximize personal enjoyment from Olam ha'Zeh (This World), even when a halachic doubt is involved. To the contrary, not only is "it good" for him, since he gets to enjoy the meat, but he is even considered to be "praiseworthy" by the Torah. 

Although the Daughters of Tzelofchad were not relying on their own halachic analysis in this case - which would have been an exceedingly arrogant move, given the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu was still alive - the "moral of the midrash" as explained by my Rosh Yeshiva applies. They could have been frum and said, "never mind, I don't need to ask; everyone else is probably right about their application of the halacha anyway" and forfeiting their inheritance, they strove "to attain what they sought," and believed to be rightfully theirs. 

One might object to this line of reasoning, saying: "Of course the Daughters of Tzelofchad asked their shailah! It's their inheritance! Do you really think they ever considered not asking Moshe?" My answer is: you'd be surprised by the cases I've heard in which people have refrained from asking their posek potentially life-changing shailos based on the types of excuses we've been talking about. I don't want to go into detail about these examples (out of respect for privacy), but it's not that hard for me to imagine a person refusing to ask a shailah even when there's a lot at stake. A person's anxiety doesn't care whether or not she's being rational. 

The willingness to strive to obtain what we want doesn't seem like it should be noteworthy, but the fact that many people don't means that those who do should be recognized for their success in overcoming their inner impediments. 

Psychological Obstacle #4: Bureaucratic Barriers

The last obstacle I'd like to discuss is based on the Abravanel's interpretation. He writes:
The statement "and they stood before Moshe, before Elazar ha'Kohen, and before the Leaders and the entire assembly" indicates that these Daughters first went before Moshe and said to him: "Our master, we have come for judgment." He responded: "Did I not give Israel officers of thousands, officers of hundreds, officers of fifties, and officers of tens? Go before them! Why are you asking me about a matter of law?" And they went before Elazar ha'Kohen, for Aharon had died, and he responded similarly. And they went before the leaders and the officers of the people and told them their argument. They responded: "This matters in included in 'a difficult matter [of judgment]' and we have not heard its law. Go to Moshe, for it is written: 'the difficult matter they would bring to Moshe [and the minor thing they themselves would judge]' (Shemos 18:26)
Once the Daughters saw that no one would listen to them, this one saying go to the officers, and [the officers] saying to go to Moshe, they acted strategically and waited until all of them - namely, Moshe, Elazar, the leaders, and the officers of the assembly - were gathered together at the entrance of the Tent of meeting: "and they stood before Moshe, before Elazar ha'Kohen, and before the Leaders" and they stated their argument in front of all of them, saying, "Look, now! Whoever is fit to judge this, come and judge it!" 
I find it somewhat odd that the Abravanel explains this pasuk in a manner which paints such a negative picture of the ordeal experienced by the Daughters of Tzelofchad, but if we accept his interpretation, then we see another quality that these women had: fortitude and cunning when dealing with bureaucracy. 

Nobody likes to deal with bureaucracy. It is easy to give up, especially when sent in circles, as the Abravanel described. But not only did the Daughters of Tzelofchad not give up. They cut right through the bureaucratic red tape and set up a situation in which the authorities were forced to respond, on their terms. 

This might not always be possible in real life. Sometimes there's just no way. But we see from the Daughters of Tzelofchad that even when it seems like there's no way, you have to at least try to make a way. 


My heart goes out to everyone - both women and men - who face these psychological obstacles which make it difficult for them to ask their shailos. I hope that these lessons from the Daughters of Tzelofchad can provide some inspiration and encouragement for those who struggle. 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Bruce Lee: Self-Actualization vs. Self-Image Actualization

The following is an excerpt from Bruce Lee's handwritten notes entitled "The Top Dog and the Underdog." The italics and bold are his (though he used capital letters instead of bold).

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Bruce Lee: Self-Actualization vs. Self-Image Actualization

If we examine the two clowns – the top dog and the underdog – that perform the self-torture game on the stage of our fantasy, then we usually find the two characters to be like this:

The Top Dog

The top dog usually is righteous and authoritarian; he knows best. He is sometimes right, but always righteous. The top dog is a bully and works with “you should” and “you should not.” The top dog manipulates with demands and threats of catastrophe, such as, “If you don’t ... then – you won’t be loved, you won’t get to heaven, you will die,” and so on.

The Underdog

The underdog manipulates with being defensive, apologetic, wheedling, playing the crybaby, and such. The underdog has no power. The underdog is Mickey Mouse. The top dog is the super-mouse. And the underdog works like this: “I try my best,” “Look, I try again and again. I can’t help it if I fail.” “I have such good intentions.” So you see the underdog is cunning, and he usually gets the better of the top dog because the underdog is not as primitive as the top dog. So the top dog and underdog strive for control. Like every parent and child, they strive with each other for control. The person is fragmented into controller and controlled. This inner conflict, the struggle between the top dog and underdog, is never complete, because the top dog as well as the underdog fights for his life.

This is the basis for the famous self-torture game. We usually take for granted that the top dog is right, and in many cases, the top dog makes impossible perfectionistic demands. So if you are cursed with perfectionism, then you’re absolutely sunk. This ideal is a yardstick which always gives you the opportunity to browbeat yourself, to berate yourself and others. Since this ideal is an impossibility, you can never live up to it. You are merely in love with this ideal, and there is no end to the self-torture, to the self-nagging, self-castigating. It hides under the mask of “self-improvement.” It never works.

If the person tries to meet the top dog’s demands of perfectionism, the result is a “nervous breakdown,” or flight into insanity. This is one of the tools of the underdog. Once we recognize the structure of our behavior, which in the case of self-improvement is the split between the top dog and the underdog, and understand how, by listening, we can bring about a reconciliation of these two fighting clowns, then we realize that we cannot deliberately bring about the changes in ourselves or in others.

This is a very decisive point: many people dedicate their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like, rather than actualizing themselves. This difference between self-actualizing and self-image actualizing is very important. Most people only live for their image.

Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are so busy projecting themselves as this or that. This is again the curse of the ideal. The curse is that you should not be what you are. Every external control, even internalized external control – “you should” – interferes with the healthy working of the organism. There is only one thing that should control the situation. If you understand the situation that you are in, and let the situation that you are in control your actions, then you learn how to cope with life. For example, you don’t drive according to the program, you drive according to the situation (same thing in combat). You drive a different speed when you are tired, when it’s raining, and so forth.

The less confident we are in ourselves, the less we are in touch with ourselves and the world, the more we want to control.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Mishlei 11:2 - Mishleic Tznius 1.0

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Mishlei 11:2 - Mishleic Tznius 1.0

משלי יא:ב
בָּא זָדוֹן וַיָּבֹא קָלוֹן וְאֶת צְנוּעִים חָכְמָה:

Mishlei 11:2
When zadon comes, disgrace will come, but wisdom is with those who are tzenua.

There are plenty of questions on this pasuk
  1. What is "zadon" in this context? Even on a simple level, the term is difficult to translate. Common translations include "willfulness," "aggression," "malice," "wantonness," "brazenness," but it's difficult to know which of these applies here, or if it means something else entirely.
  2. What is "tznius" in this context? This term is also tricky. It is often translated as "modesty," with an emphasis on physical modesty - usually in terms of attire. Some prefer to translate it as "humility," but then again, we have another word for humility: anavah
  3. What is "kalon" (disgrace) in this context? Specifically, what type of disgrace, shame, or infamy is this talking about?
  4. What is "chochmah" (wisdom) in this context? Although chochmah is a basic term in Mishlei, it can mean different things in different contexts.
  5. What is the cause and effect relationship between zadon and disgrace? How is disgrace an inevitable result of zadon? And if, as many of the meforshim explain, the pasuk means that the ish zadon causes others to be disgraced, why not say so directly? Why phrase so awkwardly: "when zadon comes, disgrace will come"
  6. What is the relationship between tznius and chochmah? On the surface, it would seem that a person could have tznius without chochmah, but the pasuk makes it sound like they go hand in hand. Why? 

[Time to think! Read on when ready.]

Here's my four-sentence summary of the main idea, which I will follow with some thoughts on Mishlei's take on tznius:
“Zadon,” in this context, refers to self-assertive, domineering, kavod-seeking behavior; an “ish zadon” is a person who aggressively seeks gratification by putting others down in order to boost his own self-image. The ish zadon fails to realize that by embracing a competitive, relative, image-based value system, in which his own happiness is contingent on the approbation of other people, he has ipso facto subjected himself to the fate of regularly suffering social disgrace. In contrast, an ish tzenua’s value system is objective insofar as it is based on chochmah (wisdom), and his happiness is not dependent on his image in the eyes of others. Therefore, he is immune to social disgrace, since he relates to any social “failures” as inconsequential, or as opportunities for wisdom and growth, rather than as “disgraceful” losses of kavod.
You may have noticed that the title of this post is followed by a "1.0." That's because I consider my concept of Mishleic tznius to still be "in the works." Still, I felt confident enough in my approach to share my findings thus far. I'd like to further clarify the ideas in my four-sentence summary by giving a play-by-play of how I arrived at my current understanding. 

This post began with a "Yom Iyun" ("Day of Study" = "Special Program") held at the high school where I teach. Every other year or so we have a school-wide program on tznius. In planning that year's event we expressed dismay over how easy it is for a girl to shut down during such tznius programs, saying, "Ugh! Another program where we're lectured on how long our sleeves and skirts can be!" 

This led to an epiphany: What if we designed a tznius program which has nothing to do with how people dress? We realized that many girls probably aren't aware that tznius a middah (character trait), and not merely a dress code. If we could craft a program which explored what the middah of tznius is, and we didn't mention dress codes at all, then even the most close-minded girl wouldn't walk away thinking that the program was about telling her how she can and can't dress. And if the only message she left with was, "Tznius is not just about the length of sleeves and skirts," then we would have accomplished something. 

Each of the teachers involved in the program chose one aspect of tznius to focus on. I volunteered to take on the topic of "tznius and chochmah" because I wanted to focus on Mishlei, and I recalled this pasuk. I was intrigued by two non-intuitive features of the pasuk: (1) the fact that it identifies "zadon" as the opposite of tznius, as opposed to something like "immodesty" or even "arrogance," and (2) the assertion that tznius and chochmah go together. 

In preparing my lesson I found four clues which ultimately led me to the idea summarized above. The first was Saadia Gaon's Arabic translation of the pasuk as: "If azus (brazenness / assertiveness) comes, disgrace comes, and with anavim (humble people) is wisdom." This provided me with my first clue: according to Saadia Gaon, the tznius in our pasuk is synonymous with anavah (humility), and is the opposite of brazenness / assertiveness. 

Rabbeinu Yonah provided a second and third clue by expanding on the definition of zadon, and by commenting on the relationship between tznius and chochmah. Here is a translation of his commentary on our pasuk
when zadon comes, disgrace will come - It is the nature of [an ishzadon to mock and insult people, because he will deride and degrade his fellow for the temporary pleasure of taking pride in [the latter's] shame, or he will not be willing to tolerate the immediate pain of controlling his anger; is there a greater or more powerful zadon than that which culminates in words of shame and insult? 
but wisdom is with those who are tzenua - Tznius prevents a person from [speaking] words of disgrace and obscenity, and minimization of speech is one of the characteristics of those who are tzenua. And tznius causes wisdom for those who possess it, for it is a trait of the wise on account of which they are called wise, for they listen and pay close attention and do not desire to reveal their hearts, as it is stated: “Even a fool who is quiet will be considered wise,[and] one who seals his lips is understanding” (Mishlei 17:28)

This is a difficult Rabbeinu Yonah, and I'll admit up front that I don't fully grasp what he is saying. Nevertheless, I took away several important points about zadon from his commentary:
  • Whatever zadon is, its fullest expression is derision, mockery, and rejoicing in the shame of one's fellow. 
  • The unwillingness to restrain one's anger at another person is also symptomatic of zadon
  • A third feature of zadon is the inability to listen to other people, due to the need "to reveal one's heart" (i.e. to express one's own thoughts and feelings). 
At this point my picture of zadon started to come into focus. What type of person feels compelled to mock others for his own ego-gratification, is unable to hold back from retaliating when he's angry, and is so intent on expressing his own thoughts and feelings that his mind is closed to chochmah? Someone who operates in a competitive, relative, image-based value system, in which the most efficient way to boost your own standing is to put other people down. Bullying is a common form of zadon behavior. 

And what, then, is tznius if the term is being used as the opposite of zadon? Tznius must refer to the type of humility exhibited by a person who operates in an objective value system, whose self-image is based on chochmah rather than the opinions of other people. 

The fourth and final clue supported this conclusion. I looked up the chapter on tznius in Mivchar ha'Peninim - a collection of Jewish and Arabic ethical teachings widely quoted by the meforshim on Mishlei and Pirkei Avos - and I found the following three proverbs: [Full disclosure - there were more proverbs about tznius than these, and even these weren't presented in this order, but since they're proverbs, I feel that it's okay to pick and choose and rearrange.]
They asked the wise man: “What is tznius?”
He answered: “Chochmah.” 
They asked the wise man: “What is tznius?”
He answered: “That a person feels shame from himself.” 
They asked the wise man. “What is the tznius?”
He answered: “That a person shouldn’t do in secret what he is ashamed to do in public.”
The first proverb goes even further than our pasuk. Whereas Mishlei merely asserts that chochmah is found with tznius, Mivchar ha'Peninim says that chochmah is synonymous with tznius, or is at least an essential component of what tznius is. This is what planted the notion in my head that when Mishlei says, "chochmah is with those who are tzenua," it means that tznius cannot exist without chochmah.  

The other two proverbs fill in a missing piece of our pasuk in Mishlei by explaining the relationship between tznius and shame. In contrast to the ish zadon, who feels shame from other people (which he perceives as "disgrace," since views it as a negative thing), the ish tzenua "feels shame from himself," to the extent that his personal conduct will not change based on whether is being observed by others. In other words, the ish zadon might refrain from doing something wrong if it would cause others to look down on him, but he would act differently if nobody were watching. The ish tzenua, whose value system is based on chochmah, which is objective, would refrain from doing the wrong thing even if nobody saw him do it. 

At this point I was able to answer all six questions on the pasuk. Although Rabbeinu Yonah played a major role in helping me to understand the pasuk, I deviated from his approach in one major way. He explains "When zadon comes, disgrace will come" to mean that the ish zadon brings disgrace to other people by putting them down, whereas I explain that not only does he bring disgrace to other people, but he subjects himself to disgrace by pledging allegiance to a relative value system which ascribes importance to how other people view him. Likewise, Rabbeinu Yonah explains "wisdom is with those who are tzenua" to mean that the ish tzenua will acquire chochmah by listening to others, whereas I understand it to mean that chochmah is what makes him tzenua in the first place, as the Mivchar ha'Peninim implies. I think this is a more satisfactory explanation of the awkward phrasing in the pasuk: "When zadon comes, disgrace will come." 

So that's my basic understanding of tznius according to Mishlei. As we emphasized in our Yom Iyun, Mishlei teaches that tznius is about more than the way we dress. And yet, it is easy to see how the importance we place on clothing and appearances can be either consonant with or antithetical to the middah of tznius. A person who lacks tznius will relate to her clothing and appearance as a barometer for her own self-worth, and will make fashion choices designed to garner maximum admiration from other people in order to achieve "success" in the arena of public opinion. A person who has the quality of tznius will base her sense of self-worth on that which is objectively good (i.e. her knowledge, her middos, her mitzvos), and will not attach any real value to how much people admire her external beauty. To the contrary, she will recognize how easy it is to get caught up in such a relative value system, and will take measures to safeguard herself from its allure, and she will find that her dress code is a good method for such safeguarding.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

How TO and How NOT To Apply Tehilim to Your Life

This is a Tehilim methodology post. Although it can be read on its own, you will gain more out of it if you have read my guide on How to Learn Tehilim.

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How TO and How NOT To Apply Tehilim to Your Life

A former student of mine recently attended a class on Tehilim (Psalms). The source sheet for this class included a short paragraph of advice for "how to say Tehilim with more meaning" based on the writings of a certain well-known rabbi. I'm not going to name the source because I don't want anyone to be biased on account of the author's identity. The source sheet said:
Regarding the saying of Tehillim, [Rabbi Ploni] told a student that the main thing is to say the verses directed to one's own life, to apply the messages of the verses to one's own experiences. He further explained that in all the wars which Dovid HaMelech asked Hashem to grant him success, a person should interpret it as relating to his own wars with the yetzer ha'ra (evil inclination).
My student wanted to know what I thought of this rabbi's advice.

Before I share my response, I think it would behoove us to review the Sefer ha'Chinuch's explanation of the practice of "saying Tehilim," as he writes in his explanation of Mitzvah #512, and which I referenced in my post How to Say Tehilim for the Sick Without Violating Halacha. In my learning experience I have found this to be the most eloquent Rishonic statement on what Tehilim is for, and how it ought to be used. The Sefer ha'Chinuch writes:

[These] psalms 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.
In other words, the process involves three steps: (1) learn the pesukim with the goal of understanding their ideational content, (2) read them and recite them with these ideas in mind in order to inspire yourself and strengthen your relationship with Hashem, (3) as a result, you will be protected from harm, in accordance with your level of closeness to Hashem.

Now that we've reviewed the basic idea of what it means to say Tehilim, here is my response to my student's question about Rabbi Ploni's advice.


I have mixed thoughts about the methodology cited in [source text]. On the one hand, I agree that if a person learns Tehilim without applying it to his or her life, then he or she is missing out on the essential purpose of the sefer, which is to improve our relationship with Hashem. 

On the other hand, I am wary of the advice "to say the verses directed to one's own life, to apply the messages of the verses to one's own experiences." If this is done after a person learns the perek - or at least those specific pesukim - then that's great, but if a person merely reads through the pesukim and selects those which feel like they apply to their own life, then they run the risk of merely projecting their own emotions and psychological issues onto the words of David ha'Melech, without actually accessing the ideas that David intended to convey.

For instance, let's say someone is feeling dejected or in a state of suffering. She takes Sefer Tehilim and flips through the pages trying to find something that she feels applies to her own situation. She finds Tehilim 22, which famously opens with the line, “My God, my God – why have You abandoned me? You are far from my salvation at the word of my cry!” This pasuk resonates with her. She recites it with passion, pouring out her heart in crying out to a God that she feels has abandoned her in her time of need.

But unless she has learned through the perek as a whole, in a comprehensive and intellectually honest manner, how does she know whether this pasuk has anything to do with her personal situation? Maybe God hasn’t abandoned her. Maybe she’s just seeking Him incorrectly. Even worse: maybe by “blaming” God for something that’s her fault and not His, she is only distancing Him from herself even more. And what is her understanding of God being “close” or “far,” in general? Maybe the metric she’s using to assess God’s "distance" from her is totally incorrect. Maybe, in her mind, if she davens for something and doesn't get what she wants, then that means God has abandoned her - a view which we know to be false. And how does she even know that this perek is about a person such as herself? Maybe this is David ha’Melech who was making reference to the specific hashgachic  (providential) relationship that Hashem had with him, and to tzadikim who are on his level. Maybe, as Chazal suggest, this is Esther, who was reaching out to Hashem from her position of leadership and responsibility in saving Klal Yisrael (the Jewish People) from Haman’s plot. Maybe, as some of the meforshim (commentators) suggest, this perek isn’t even about an individual being abandoned by God, but it’s about Klal Yisrael as a whole in galus (exile). 

But if our hypothetical Tehilim reciter doesn’t bother to search for true answers to these questions – or doesn’t even ask them in the first place – then all she’ll be doing is using David ha’Melech’s words as an echo-chamber for her own emotional issues. If that's all she's doing, then perhaps she’d be better off reciting poetry or song lyrics, rather than distorting words of ruach ha’kodesh (divine inspiration) through the prism of her own subjective psyche.

I also have problems with the second part of [Rabbi Ploni's] advice. Yes, a person should view the struggle with the yetzer ha’ra as a war. Chazal used this mashal (metaphor), and it’s a good one, since the yetzer ha’ra is a cunning foe, and constant vigilance is a necessity if one hopes to avoid defeat. But to read all of David ha’Melech’s requests as relating to your own battles with your yetzer ha’ra seems to be intellectually irresponsible, and can easily lend itself to just making up our own "ideas" and treating them as David ha’Melech’s wisdom.

Consider, for example, the following pesukim from Tehilim Perek 3:
Hashem, how numerous are my enemies! There are many who rise up against me. Many are those who say of my soul, “There is no help for him in God,” Selah. But You, Hashem, are a shield for me; my glory, and the one who raises up my head. I will cry out to Hashem with my voice and He will answer me from His holy mountain, Selah. I laid down and slept; I awoke, for Hashem sustained me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves around me. Arise, Hashem! Save me, my God, for You have struck all my enemies on the cheek bone; you have broken the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongs to Hashem; Your blessing is upon Your people, Selah.
On the surface, it would seem feasible to read the yetzer ha’ra mashal into these pesukim"Hashem, how numerous are my enemies! There are many who rise up against me" can be interpreted as: "There are numerous yetzer ha’ra temptations all around." "Many are those who say of my soul, 'There is no help for him in God,' Selah" can be read as: "The yetzer ha’ra causes us to doubt that Hashem can help us." "But You, Hashem, are a shield for me; my glory, and the one who raises up my head" can be taken to mean: "Hashem acts as a shield against the yetzer ha’ra." And so on. 

But take note of the introductory pasuk of this perek:
A psalm of David, when he fled from Avshalom, his son.
This perek was written by David about a specific conflict he faced with his son Avshalom, which is spelled out in Shmuel II, and he intended the words of this perek to be understood within that specific context. Sure, the insights one gains from this perek can be applied to a broader set of situations – otherwise, David wouldn’t have recorded these words for us – but his introductory pasuk clearly indicates that he held that the content of the perek should be interpreted in light of the specific situation for which he wrote it.

So if [Rabbi Ploni] wants to takes those words out of the author’s specified context, advising us to “treat this as being about your own battle with your yetzer ha’ra,” is that really an intellectually honest approach? Is it any different than, say, taking a chemistry textbook and interpreting the various statements about chemical reactions a mashal for how our yetzer ha’ra reacts when we do aveiros (transgressions), or taking a cookbook and treating the recipes as a mashal for “the ingredients” of a successful avodas Hashem

You might find these examples laughable, but I’ve chosen them for a reason. Apparently, there were groups of Chasidim or Baalei Mussar who held that the masechtos (tractates) in Nezikin which deal with the laws of damages should be interpreted as a mashal for how to handle the “damage” of the yetzer ha’ra. For example, the laws governing the case of an ox goring a cow should be treated as a mashal for the strategies that the yetzer ha'ra uses to cause damage to the neshamah. To my mind, this is worse than intellectual dishonesty. It’s just foolishness.

So, to sum it up: Tehilim will definitely be more meaningful if you apply it to your own life, but only after doing your due diligence as a student of Torah by attempting to learn and understand the Tehilim you recite before you recite them. If you skip this critical step and simply choose pesukim that resonate with you on a purely emotional level, you run the risk of projecting your own flawed understanding and psychological baggage onto the text, which will stunt the development of your relationship with Hashem. As for the metaphorical readings of David's wars: my advice is to stick to the pshat, and learn your strategies for waging war with the yetzer ha'ra from the pesukim in which David ha'Melech explicitly addresses this subject.


I realize that the problems I've outlined here are not unique to Tehilim. They apply in a similar way to the text of tefilah (prayer). In truth, it is possible for a person to read whatever he wants into whatever text he wants, as I pointed out earlier in the example of those who read Nezikin allegorically. But in my opinion, there is a unique danger in making this error with regards to texts which are regularly recited in a "ritual manner" (for lack of a better term) as a means of drawing closer to Hashem.

Nearly 20 years ago, shortly after I converted to Judaism, my brother and I found ourselves at a Chabad house on the island of Oahu. This was back before Chabad had a regular minyan on the island. Sure enough, we were recruited for a minyan. The Chabad administrator who was in charge of coordinating the minyan had a chauffeur who drove us around. She was a native Hawaiian woman in her late fifties or early sixties. I don't know whether she just worked for Chabad, or whether she was in the process of conversion, or whether she was Jewish.

All I remember is that whenever we had downtime, she would pull out a small sefer (or maybe it was even a pamphlet?) and start chanting a single pasuk from Tehilim. If memory serves, the pasuk was "Adonoi hoshia, ha'Melech yaaneinu b'yom kareinu" (Tehilim 20:10). And when I say "chanting" I mean rhythmically and ritualistically, like a mantra - over, and over, and over, and over. Had I asked her what she was doing, I don't know whether she'd say that she's davening, or utilizing a segulah ("folk charm"), or if she even had an idea of what she was doing. It was the single-minded fervor with which she was saying her mantra that struck me.

Let's assume that this woman knew the English translation of what she was saying: "My Lord, save! May the King answer us on the day we call." If this woman had even a basic comprehension of what she was saying - a recognition that Hashem is able to save, or that salvation belongs to Him, or that He responds to our prayers, or that He is our true king - then this woman's recitation might actually strengthen her relationship with Hashem by "inspiring her soul" in a positive direction, as the Sefer ha'Chinuch explained.

But what if this woman harbored a fundamentally distorted understanding? What if she believed that her recitation invoked an emotion of pity in God? What if she believed that she was praying to an angel as an intercessor between herself and God? What if she, like many native Hawaiians, still clung to her polytheistic beliefs, and had somehow amalgamated them into her practice of this new "ritual"? If any of these scenarios were the case, then her fervent devotion to Tehilim would have an equal but opposite effect, propelling her away from Hashem into the grips of avodah zarah. 

My point in sharing this anecdote is this: Tehilim is a powerful tool. When used properly, it can fortify and elevate the soul of the one who recites it. When used improperly, it can hinder our spiritual development, or even lead us astray. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

17th of Tammuz 5779: Sforno - On the Breaking of the Tablets

Technically speaking, this post can be thought of as the completion of 17th of Tammuz: The Breaking of the Tablets (Unfinished). As it so happens, I completely forgot about that unfinished post when I set out to write this one! That's why I decided to make this a standalone. Perhaps it would have led elsewhere if I wrote it as the completion of the unfinished one, but for now, I'm happy I got the main idea down in writing in some form. 

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Artwork: Karmic Justice, by Ray Lago

17th of Tammuz 5779: Sforno - On the Breaking of the Tablets

Commemorating the Breaking of the Luchos

The mishnah in Taanis 4:6 (Taanis 26a) lists five events which we commemorate by fasting on the 17th of Tammuz:
  1. the breaking of the Luchos (i.e. the stone tablets that Moshe Rabbeinu received at Sinai) 
  2. the cessation of the tamid (i.e. the daily sacrifice) in the first Mikdash (Holy Temple) 
  3. the breaching of the city of Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the second Mikdash
  4. the burning of a Torah scroll by Apostomos (a Greek official) during the second Mikdash era
  5. the setting up of an idol in the Mikdash 
This year when I sat down to learn about the 17th of Tammuz, I found myself bothered by Event #1 the most. Events #2-5 are all related to the Churban ha'Bayis (destruction of the Temple) in some way, but the breaking of the Luchos doesn't quite seem to jive with the others. The basic question is: Why do we commemorate this particular tragedy with an annual taanis tzibur (communal fast) along with the other four events? Does it share any thematic connection with them at all, or do we commemorate it now simply because it happened on the same calendar date? [1]

Even if we can't answer that question, we at least need to answer the most basic question: What insight are we supposed to get out of commemorating this event? The purpose of these annual commemorative fasts is to promote national teshuvah (repentance), as the Rambam explains in Hilchos Taaniyos 5:1:
There are days on which all of Israel fasts because of the catastrophes that occurred on them, in order to awaken the hearts [of the people] and to open the paths of teshuvah. This will be a remembrance of our corrupt actions and the corrupt actions of our fathers that were like our actions today, which ultimately reached the point that [these corrupt actions] caused these catastrophes for them and for us. Through the remembrance of these things we will return to do good, as it stated, “they will confess their sins and the sins of their fathers” (Vayikra 26:40).
What national cheit (sin) led to the breaking of the luchos, which is still extant in our nation today? 

Why Moshe Broke the Luchos

If you ask the average Jew why Moshe broke the luchos, they'll probably say: "Because of the Cheit ha'Eigel (Sin of the Golden Calf)." Although this answer isn't false, the truth is a bit more complicated than that. Let's review the pesukim in Shemos 32 about the Cheit ha'Eigel:
Hashem spoke to Moshe: "Go, descend - for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has become corrupt. They have strayed quickly from the way that I have commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf, prostrated themselves to it, and sacrificed to it, and they said, 'This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.'" 
Hashem said to Moshe, "I have seen this people, and behold! it is a stiff-necked people. And now, desist from Me, Let My anger flare up against them, and I shall annihilate them; and I shall make you a great nation."
Moshe then davens for Klal Yisrael, and is successful: 
Hashem reconsidered regarding the harm that He declared He would do to His people.  
Moshe turned and descended from the mountain, with the two Tablets of the Testimony in his hand, Tablets inscribed on both their sides; they were inscribed on one side and the other. The Tablets were God's handiwork, and the script was the script of God, engraved on the Tablets. 
Yehoshua heard the sound of the people in its shouting, and he said to Moshe, "The sound of battle is in the camp!" [Moshe] said, "Not a sound of shouting strength nor a sound shouting weakness; a sound of distress do I hear!"  
It happened as he drew near the camp and saw the calf and the dances that Moshe's anger flared up. He threw down the Tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.
Interestingly enough, it was not the Cheit ha'Egel itself which angered Moshe and moved him to shatter the Luchos. When he was first informed by Hashem of Bnei Yisrael's cheit, Moshe didn't get angry. When he and Yehoshua heard the sounds of Bnei Yisrael's shouts in the camp, Moshe still didn't get angry. It was only when "he drew near the camp and saw the calf and the dances" that Moshe became enraged and that is when he broke the Luchos. The question is: What was it about the dancing that caused him to respond in this manner?

The Sforno offers an explanation which answers our particular question on Shemos and provides insight into what we are fasting about on the 17th of Tammuz:
When [Moshe] saw that they rejoiced in their disgrace - similar to, "when you do evil then you rejoice" (Yirmiyahu 11:15) - this angered him and he despaired that he would be able to repair the crooked in a manner that they would return to their [former] perfection and be worthy [to receive] those tablets.
The Radak, commenting on the pasuk from Yirmiyahu cited by the Sforno, explains the phrase "when you do evil then you rejoice" to mean that "you lack shame and contrition."  

According to the Sforno, Moshe did not get angry at Bnei Yisrael for the Cheit ha'Egel per se, as we noted in our reading of the pesukim. Rather, he got angry when he saw their shameless joy in their transgression, which revealed that they were beyond the point of teshuvah. That is why he broke the Luchos.

In order to appreciate Moshe's seeming change of attitude upon seeing the dancing, we need to understand why the Cheit ha'Egel itself didn't elicit an angry response from Moshe. The Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik), in his famous shiur On Leadership, provides some context for understanding Moshe's initial take on the Cheit ha'Egel:
The making of the Egel was the result of great primitive fright. The people thought that Moshe was died, they were afraid of the desert, they did not know what the future held in store for them, they were simply overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness and terror, consequently, they violated the precept of Avodah Zarah (idolatry). There were mitigating circumstances - they wanted the golden calf to substitute for Moshe, as all the Rishonim (medieval commentators) say. 
This would explain why Moshe didn't become enraged when he first learned of the Cheit ha'Eigel. Bnei Yisrael's transgression, though egregious, was not an outright rebellion, but rather a severe lapse of judgment triggered by a national panic. The people were overwhelmed by extreme fear which caused them to temporarily revert back to the primitive religiosity that had been instilled during the Egyptian Exile. 

At least, that's what Moshe thought when Hashem informed him of their cheit. But when he witnessed the dancing, and saw that they related to the worship of the Eigel not in the manner of a scared child clutching a talisman, but in the manner of a wild reveler indulging in an unbridled pagan orgy - at that moment he knew that complete national teshuvah would be an impossible task. This wasn't a brief and temporary regression to an infantile mentality. The joyous dancing was evidence that these were people "who speak of evil as good and of good as evil" (Yeshayahu 5:20), whose obstinacy would doom the nation from the start. [2]

To illustrate this point using a loose analogy: there is a difference between a recovering drug addict who, in a moment of weakness, caves to his craving and relapses, in shame and in private, and a recovering drug addict who joyously leaps off the wagon and throws a drug-fueled house party with music and dancing. Moshe assumed that he would encounter the former, and was shocked to discover the latter.

17th of Tammuz in a New Light

Thanks to the Sforno, we now have a better understanding of the tragedy of the breaking of the Luchos. We aren't just mourning the fact that Bnei Yisrael engaged in avodah zarah so soon after Yetzias Mitzrayim, nor are we just mourning the fact that we lost the symbol of the covenant that Hashem made with us at Sinai (i.e. "the marriage contract" as it were). We are mourning the first time that we, as a nation, reached a point of no return in our degree of transgression. This was the first time that we had become so entrenched in our warped mentality and value system that we actually rejoiced in our degradation. This same phenomenon would occur twice more, in what would prove to be a far more disastrous fashion, in the long series of national iniquities which brought about the destruction of the first and second Beis ha'Mikdash

I don't know whether this explanation is sufficient to unify all five events commemorated by the 17th of Tammuz, but at least it gives us something new to reflect on when observing this taanis tzibur. The Jews who worshipped the Eigel crossed a critical threshold in their level of corruption, and we are just as susceptible. Are we close to that point now? Have we already reached it? These are the types of questions we must ask of ourselves as a nation on the 17th of Tammuz. 

[1] I also have a minor question. Maybe it's not even a question, but just something that bothers me. I am 99% certain that the fast of the 17th of Tammuz wasn't instituted until after the destruction of the first Beis ha'Mikdash - an event that took place over 700 years after the breaking of the Luchos. Apparently, the tragedy of the Luchos was not sufficient in and of itself to warrant its own taanis tzibur. If the Beis ha'Mikdash had never been destroyed, we wouldn't observe a commemorative day of mourning for the breaking of the Luchos at all. In this sense, it seems like commemorating the breaking of the Luchos is an afterthought to the essential tragedies associated with Churban ha'Bayis. This just strengthens the question of why we fast for the breaking of the Luchos in the first place.

[2] Rav Hirsch provides a similar explanation of Moshe breaking the Luchos, but with a different emphasis - different enough that I didn't want to include it in the main body of the post, but similar enough that I wanted to at least share it in a footnote. He writes:
As long as pagan delusions, no matter what their form, are based merely on intellectual error and remain confined to the intellect, there is always hope that error will give way to enlightenment, that delusion will give way to truth, and that those afflicted by such notions will readily change for the better. 
Not so, however, when pagan delusion goes beyond intellectual error and corrupts people's character and conduct, and licentiousness is openly worshipped upon the altar of falsehood. In that case, sensuality clings to the roots that offer it such welcome nourishment. Just as it is the character of people sunk in moral corruption, and also difficult to enlighten them.
As long as Moshe knew only of the calf and its deification, he still hoped that he would be able to establish a pure home for the Torah among the people. Hence, when he descended the mountain, he took with him the Testimony of the Torah. But when he saw the calf and the dancing, he realized that the pagan error had already borne its usual fruit - the unleashing of sensuality. He then understood that the nation would have to be re-educated, for the sake of this Torah. So, without hesitation, with both his hands - yadav, the unified plural - he threw down the Tablets and shattered them. By this act he declared in no uncertain terms that the people in its present state was unworthy of the Torah and not fit to receive it. 

Friday, July 19, 2019

Parashas Balak: One Reason Why Women Should Learn Gemara

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Parashas Balak: One Reason Why Women Should Learn Gemara 

Two Like-minded Rebellions 

Zimri ben Salu, prince of the tribe of Shimon, staged a public rebellion against Moshe: 
Behold! A man from the house of Israel came and brought near a Midianite woman in the sight of Moshe and in the sight of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, and they (i.e. Moshe and the Children of Israel) were crying at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Bamidbar 25:6) 
Rashi, citing a midrash in Sanhedrin 82a, fills in the details of Zimri’s public demonstration: 
[Zimi] seized [Cozbi, the Midianite woman] by her hair and brought her before Moshe. “Son of Amram,” he exclaimed, “is this woman forbidden or permitted? And if you say, ‘she is forbidden,’ then who permitted you [to marry] Yisro’s daughter [Tzipora]?” 
This isn’t the first time that a leader of Israel challenged Moshe by attempting to undermine his halachic authority. The most famous instance was the rebellion of Korach. The midrash Tanchuma fills in the details of Korach’s confrontation with Moshe: 
What did [Korach] do? He arose and gathered 250 heads of courts … and he dressed them in tallisos (prayer shawls) made entirely of techeiles (i.e. the blue threads which it is a mitzvah to incorporate into the tzitzis – white fringes – on every four-cornered garment). They came and stood before Moshe. They said to him, “A tallis made entirely of techeiles – is it obligated in tzitzis or exempt?” He said to them, “Obligated.” They began to laugh at him, [saying,] “Is it possible that [in the case of] a tallis is made entirely out of another [color of] material, a single thread of techeiles exempts it, [but] this [tallis] which is made entirely of techeiles will not exempt itself?” 
There are clear parallels between the rebellions of Zimri and Korach. Both were driven by personal motives: Zimri by his lust for non-Jewish women, and Korach by his jealousy over the leadership positions held by his cousins, Moshe and Aharon. Both Zimi and Korach staged public acts of defiance which aimed to discredit Moshe in the eyes of the assembly. Both sought to undermine Moshe’s authority by showing that halacha is ridiculous, and should therefore not be taken seriously

Anyone who has even a basic knowledge of halacha can see through the childish arguments made by Zimri and Korach. Why was Tziporah permitted to Moshe? Because they got married before Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), when there was no halacha prohibiting a Jew from marrying a non-Jew! In fact, before Matan Torah, there were no “Jews” in a technical sense. Both Moshe and Tziporah were halachically non-Jewish, and both became Jews at the same time as the rest of the Children of Israel, after the Torah was given and the covenant was made. Why does a tallis made entirely of techeiles still require a thread of techeiles? Because the halacha states that every four-cornered garment, no matter what color, is obligated in tzitzis and techeiles! Although Korach might be able to argue that there is no philosophical purpose to the thread of techeiles on a tallis made entirely of techeiles, this would have no bearing on the halachic requirements of the mitzvah, since we never make halachic rulings on the basis of philosophical considerations. 

Rationalization of “Going Off the Derech” (i.e. Becoming Irreligious) 

Every year, usually at springtime, I am asked to give a presentation to the 12th graders about how to retain and continue to develop their Orthodox Jewish identity after graduation, when they venture out into the secular world as young adults. One of the main points I make and stress is that the human being cannot tolerate cognitive dissonance for an extended period of time. If there is a contradiction between one’s beliefs, ideas, and values on the one hand, and one’s desires, actions, and habits on the other, the latter will tend to prevail. The most common means by which this will occur is theological rationalization

In other words, a person will not, in the long-run, be able to say, “I believe that the Torah is true and halacha is binding, but I don’t keep such-and-such halacha because I can’t help myself.” The cognitive dissonance and negative self-image will be too much for the psyche to bear for any prolonged period of time. Instead, she will rationalize her violation of halacha, coming up with spurious reasons as to why the halacha doesn’t make sense, or why it shouldn’t apply in her situation, or – in the most severe cases – why halacha as a whole is irrational. The individual will convince herself that her abandonment of halacha stems from her arguments, but in reality, the reverse is true: first she made the decision to abandon halacha, and only afterwards did she come up with arguments to retroactively justify her behavior. 

My decade of experience as a high school teacher, combined with my exposure to hundreds of “off-the-derech Jews” on the internet and social media platforms, have shown me countless examples of how flimsy these types of theological rationalizations tend to be. Every day online I encounter lapsed Jews making laughably fallacious and counterfactual lines of reasoning in support of their irreligious life choices. They think that their Clever, Enlightened, Superior minds have discovered a Truth which their religious brethren are too Dull-witted or Brainwashed to have spotted. They do not realize how ignorant, simplistic, and baseless their arguments are. 

[To be clear: I am not saying that anyone who goes off the derech is ipso facto a self-deceiving ignoramus whose arguments are all straw-men. I have encountered many Jews who do have knowledge of Judaism but have rejected it because of powerful questions and substantial philosophical arguments to which they could not find satisfactory answers. It just so happens that such individuals are rare, and tend not to be as vocal and militantly anti-religious on the internet. I also know Jews who went off the derech for personal reasons (e.g. tragedy, abuse, familial or martial relationship problems, etc.), and while these Jews may also engage in anti-religious rhetoric without substance, their situation ought to be viewed differently.] 

Rav Soloveitchik on Women Learning Gemara 

I will preface this next section with a disclaimer. The topic of whether women may or should learn Torah she’baal Peh (the Oral Torah) and Gemara (Talmud) is vast, nuanced, and fraught with difficulty. We will not even attempt to present an in-depth analysis or comprehensive overview of the topic in this article. Instead, the scope of this topic will be limited to a single statement of a single rabbinic authority: that of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (a.k.a. “The Rav”). 

On May 27, 1953, the Rav wrote a letter to Rabbi Leonard Rosenfeld on the topic of teaching Torah she’baal Peh to girls in a coeducational Jewish day school. Here is the letter in its entirety; the underlined portions do not appear in the original, and were added by me for emphasis: 
Dear Rabbi Rosenfeld,

Please accept my apologies for not answering your letters sooner. The delay was due to my overcrowded schedule. As to your question with regard to a curriculum in a coeducational school, I expressed my opinion to you long ago that it would be a very regrettable oversight on our part if we were to arrange separate Hebrew courses for girls. Not only is the teaching of Torah she’baal Peh to girls permissible, but it is nowadays an absolute imperative. This policy of discrimination between the sexes as to subject manner and method of instruction which is still advocated by certain groups within our Orthodox community has contributed greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism. Boys and girls alike should be introduced into the inner halls of Torah she’baal Peh.

I hope to prepare in the near future a halakhic brief on the problem which will exhaust the various aspects of the same. In the meantime I heartily endorse a uniform program for the entire student body.

With kindest personal regards, I remain
Sincerely yours,
Joseph Soloveitchik 
The Rav is unequivocal in his endorsement of women learning Torah she’baal Peh in exactly the same manner as men. Practically speaking, this means that girls should study Gemara and be trained in the rigors of Talmudic analysis to the same extent and following the same methods and curriculum as boys. Although the Rav was addressing a coed school, there is no reason to believe that he would hold differently about an all-girls school or seminary. 

The only part of the Rav’s letter which is unclear is his statement that “This policy of discrimination between the sexes as to subject manner and method of instruction … has contributed greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism.” The question is: How so? How does teaching women Torah she’baal Peh and Talmud prevent this deterioration? 

Halachic Thinking and Assimilation 

I don’t know how the Rav would answer this question, but I do have my own answer. The failure to train Jewish girls and women in the highest levels of Torah she’baal Peh and Talmud renders them susceptible to the specious arguments used to denigrate and delegitimize halacha

A well-trained yeshiva bochur (a young man engaged in post-high school Torah study in a rabbinic seminary) should be able to spot the flaws in anti-halachic sophistry with relative ease, due to the depth and breadth of his halachic knowledge, as well as the critical thinking skills he has acquired from his Talmudic training. But what about bas Yisrael (Jewish woman) who is only familiar with halacha on a simple level? How would she respond to an accusation of halachic hypocrisy, like Zimri’s, or a pseudo-halachic polemical protest, like Korach’s? Ask her a question about a detail of halachic practice and she may know the answer, but present a critique of Torah as a system which is rhetorically engineered to make halacha seem foolish, outdated, or unreasonable, and what is she supposed to do? How can we expect her to know what to say or think in response? 

This, I believe, is why neglecting to teach young women Torah she’baal Peh and Talmud “contributes greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism.” Women who do not have a firm grasp of the inner-workings of halacha and the nature of halachic thinking are particularly vulnerable to the false claims about halacha and false critiques of its validity. 

If this was true in the 1950’s when the Rav penned his letter to Rabbi Rosenfeld, then it is even truer in today’s world. Almost every Modern Orthodox girl has unfettered access (via the internet and social media) to all of the anti-halacha arguments under the sun. Teenagers and young adults are already at an age that is prone to rebellion and experimentation. Combine this with the dwindling numbers of religious people in general, and the increase in anti-religious sentiment on college campuses – both of which will make her a minority amid a hostile majority – and how can we expect her religiosity to survive intact through the crucible of her college years? Even if she remains religious, her internal conviction in Judaism will undoubtedly suffer due to the questions and doubts that have been raised and gone unanswered. 

This is one of the main reasons why I believe that girls should learn Gemara just like boys. This is also one of the long-term objectives in my own introductory Gemara course. Many of the girls in my class have never learned Gemara before, so the responsibility lies with me to give them a strong foundation. I don’t particularly care whether my female students retain knowledge of the details of what we learn. If they graduate from high school with enough Talmudic experience to appreciate halacha as a system, to be able to differentiate between the taamei ha’mitzvos (philosophical reasons for the commandments) and the technical halacha itself, and to have begun to realize that halacha operates based on its own internal principles and halachic reasoning rather than common sense, then I have done my job. 

And if I have done my job successfully, then perhaps I will have helped stem the tide of assimilation, thereby giving the next generation of Orthodox Jews a better chance to survive and thrive in Torah.