Monday, January 19, 2015

The War on Miriam?

While preparing a class on Miriam last week, I came across essays (here and here) which show that Josephus and Pseudo-Philo, in the first century CE, presented a diminished version of the midrashic tradition regarding Miriam.

In rabbinic tradition - which Josephus and Pseudo-Philo demonstrate that they knew, even as they report it in an altered form - Amram and Yocheved, parents of Miriam and Aharon, separate from each other when Pharaoh decrees the death of Jewish baby boys. Miriam reports a prophetic vision that her parents will produce a son who will rescue the Jews, and she convinces them to return to each other. Then, when that baby (Moshe) is put into a box in the river, Miriam stands guard over him. [See Exodus 2 and Talmud Megilah 14a.]

In Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews II 9:3-4, per the Whiston translation available here, there is no separation of husbands and wives. Amram has a vision that his son will rescue the Jews from Egypt, and Miriam goes to the water to watch over Moshe only because her mother has told her to do so.

In Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities of Philo 9, per the James translation available here, the husbands and wives separate, but Amram is the one to insist that Jews continue to have children. Miriam does then have a vision regarding Moshe, but she does not watch over Moshe on the river at all.

What is this evisceration of Miriam's role about? Is it simply misogyny? Or an attempt to conceal from the Romans the possibility of Jewish insurrection, as represented by a fearless Miriam? Or something else entirely?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Moshe the Superhero (Vaera 5775)

Long-time readers of this blog (=those who remember the days when I would post three times per week) know that I am unable to get Moshe Rabbeinu out of my mind. I've written a lot about Moshe, from various perspectives. But this week I had a new thought - new for me, at any rate - which I have turned into a derashah/parshah article for Toronto Torah. I'd love your thoughts:

In 1951, a lawsuit by Detective Comics against Fawcett Publications, over copyright infringement with its Captain Marvel character, reached the United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit. In its decision, the court defined a superhero as having three key elements: Mission, Powers and Identity.

By this set of criteria, Moshe Rabbeinu was a superhero. His mission was to bring the Jews out of Egypt, to Sinai, and to their land. Moshe was given miraculous powers. And even without a codename and costume, Moshe did maintain a superhero’s secret identity, as seen in Parshat Vaera.

The secret identity
Scholars of comic books discuss the purpose of secret identities. Beyond protecting loved ones from harm, the secret identity is a tool:
· It is a mask, affording the hero a respite from being heroic;
· It is a divider, allowing her to develop multiple sides of herself independently;
· It is a shield, enabling her to avoid persecution for being different.

However, Danny Fingeroth, author of Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero, suggests that the secret identity may be the hero’s true nature. Isolating a part of himself from conflict, heroics and the public eye, keeps the hero’s personal character pure.

This privacy, which Michah 6:8 would name tzniut, may be at the heart of the second account of Moshe’s development, in Parshat Vaera.

Moshe 1.0 – Shemot 2:1-6:13
An anonymous Levite man and woman conceive a child. When the child is too old to remain hidden from the Egyptians, his mother puts him in a basket in a river, while his anonymous sister stands guard. The Pharaoh’s anonymous daughter saves the baby, and names him Moshe.

The baby is raised in the palace. One day, he intervenes to save an anonymous Jew from an equally anonymous Egyptian, killing the latter. On the following day he disrupts a fight between two anonymous Jews, but his identity as the killer of the Egyptian becomes known. Moshe flees to Midian, where he is identified as “an Egyptian.”

Decades later, Moshe encounters G-d at the Burning Bush, and G-d charges him to take the Jews out of Egypt. Despite his repeated refusals, Moshe goes to Pharaoh, armed with miracles and accompanied by his brother and prophet, Aharon. Pharaoh reacts with increased brutality to the Jews, and Moshe protests to G-d.

Moshe 2.0 – Shemot 6:14-7:13
Yaakov’s eldest son, Reuven, produced four sons, whom we name. We then name Shimon’s six sons. We then detail Levi’s sons and their families, ultimately yielding Moshe and his extended family.
G-d picks Moshe to take the Jews out of Egypt, and he refuses. G-d assigns Aharon to be his prophet, and empowers the pair to perform miracles to impress Pharaoh. They visit Pharaoh and perform the miracles, and Pharaoh rejects Moshe’s message.

The lesson of the two accounts
Perhaps the first account is Moshe’s public face, the heroic story which the Jews and Egyptians will know. This is the Moshe who will lead the Jews through religious ecstasy and distance from G-d, who will inspire them to brave hunger and war and fear and mutiny and Divine threats of eradication. He is larger than life, framed by miracles and heroism. And in this story, the other figures have no names; they are just part of the Moshe Story.

The second account is of a Jewish boy with a family that includes many people we will meet later in the Torah – Elazar, Korach, Nadav, Avihu, Eltzafan, Pinchas, etc. The legendary events of Moshe’s youth are played down; the story dedicates its space to the names of Moshe’s family, the people who raised him and surrounded him. Moshe is a human being, and even his conversation with G-d is humble and stripped of drama.

This second account is Moshe’s secret identity, which the world will not see. This is Moshe’s private life; it is tzanua, stored away to preserve the purity of Moshe’s roots and his character, untouched by the violence and conflict that absorb his public life. Unlike his identity as the killer of the Egyptian assailant, this identity will be kept private.

There are other ways to explain the two biblical accounts of Moshe’s origin, but I believe this lesson should carry special power in our day. Our world exposes our identities, on-line and off-line, at work and in shul and in school. Our most popular modes of on-line entertainment demand that we log in and share our names and identities, often with others we have never met in person. Perhaps it would be wise for us to ask ourselves: Can we keep something back? Do we have something tzanua, a secret identity that the world cannot touch and abrade and change? Should we?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Medical Halachah: Treating diabetes on Shabbos

I expect to deliver a shiur in Toronto on Sunday, on Treating Diabetes on Shabbat. Below are the questions I hope to address. I'd greatly appreciate feedback (from doctors or patients) on other questions I should be including:

Dealing with pikuach nefesh and possible safek pikuach nefesh
A situation that could become pikuach nefesh if left untreated
Compliance with medical advice, in halachah

Blood testing
Preparing the site of a stick
Drawing blood
Postponing a test until after Shabbos
Use of a blood glucose meter
Is a battery-operated CGM machine better than traditional lancing and testing?

Delivering insulin
Assembling a needle
Measuring insulin for injection
Status of subcutaneous injections
Carrying an insulin pump outside an eruv on Shabbos

For pills taken by people with Type II diabetes
Taking pills on Shabbos

Delivering sugar
Carrying candies outside the eruv, in case of need
Eating before davening

Concerns related to Shabbos meals
Kiddush – materials and shiurim
HaMotzi – materials and shiurim
Measuring food to gauge sugar impact
Eating seudah shlishit, where that will necessitate a blood test, as well as insulin or pills

What am I missing?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Thoughts on Leelah/Josh Alcorn's death

This week, millions of people learned the story of Leelah/Josh Alcorn, from news stories about her suicide. Briefly, as I understand it, Josh Alcorn was a teenage boy from Ohio who became certain, over a period of years, that he was truly a girl in a male body. He wanted to undergo transgender transitioning; he adopted the name Leelah and the identity of a girl. Leelah's parents, deeply religious Christians, rejected this outright; according to Leelah, they called it "a phase". Leelah grew frustrated and depressed, and finally committed suicide, leaving behind a note describing a life of loneliness and hopelessness.

This post is not a message about transgender transitioning in Judaism; you can read a detailed halachic article on the subject, by Yeshiva University's Rabbi J. David Bleich, here. What I want to focus on is the approach of parents when their children embark on paths that run counter to their parents' Judaism. Transgender teens may not be all that common, but teens who feel personally, emotionally committed to un-Orthodox lifestyles are found throughout our communities. How should we respond?

I cannot judge the Alcorn parents:
* I don't know anything about their actions - other than the little in the news reports, most of which is drawn from Leelah's accounts.
* Teens do go through phases, despite their certainty that the mood of the moment will endure forever.
* Denial is a normal (if unhelpful) way to deal with situations when we are out of our depth.
* Fundamentally, Judaism does obligate parents to educate their children - and even strangers to educate their neighbours (Vayikra 19:17) - in the expectations of our religion.

But I want to identify reasonable, Torah-based ways for parents to handle situations like this one. I would very much appreciate your ideas; please leave your thoughts in the Comments section.

Here are three points which sound to me like reasonable, Torah-based building blocks to me (all of which may have been part of the Alcorns' approach to Leelah):

1. Love - Every child must know that his/her parents love them, and that their parents' commitment to them does not depend upon how they behave. We can show love and disapproval simultaneously, as is implicit in the Chazon Ish's prescription (Yoreh Deah 2:16) of love toward people whose behaviour we believe is inappropriate. Rav Kook was famous for this approach, as well.

2. Respect -  Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, in his Pirkei Chinuch (Volume 1, pg. 128), notes that parents must treat their children with the same respect that they employ when addressing adults. This includes both the style (tone of voice, choice of words) and the substance.

3. Professional Counseling for the Parents - There is a parental inclination to keep everything in-house, since we know our unique situation best. Logically, though, one should err on the side of consulting experts who might be able to help parents discern the difference between phases and enduring issues, and to help them strategize. [Of course, finding unbiased experts is difficult; this is a significant hurdle.]

What would you add/amend?

Monday, December 29, 2014

The popular practice of resurrecting esoteric prayers

Marking the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yaakov Reischer (6 Tevet), and recognizing the popular trend of adding prayers that come from mystical or otherwise esoteric sources, here is a translation of a segment of Rabbi Reischer's Shevut Yaakov (2:44).

Rabbi Reischer, writing in the late 17th or early 18th century, was discussing a group that had taken upon itself to rise early to pray regarding the destruction of the Beit haMikdash. He was known for expressing himself boldly, and he does not disappoint here:

[The question:] "Let our master teach us: Recently, certain special people have accustomed themselves… to gather in the synagogue at the start of the final third of the night, and to lament the destruction [of the Temple]. Challengers have risen against them, and those who have concluded that this activity is not good and proper, as Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, 'Not all who wish to take upon themselves the title [of righteousness] may do so.' (Berachot 16b)"…

Response: I will begin with his final point, in which he wrote, "We will add that they are a group, and so there should be no concern for [the appearance of] self-righteousness." In my humble opinion, the opposite appears more likely. An individiual, specifically, who reveres Heaven and wishes to be strict for himself, and walks privately, is certainly remembered for the good, and there is no concern for self-righteousness… And even an individual, if he would act unusually in public, would have concern for self-righteousness; it would be appropriate for him to do everything privately…

Aside from all of this, it appears to me that there should be concern regarding doing this communally, since the sages already enacted the order of three [daily] prayers, parallel to the sacrificial offerings. Therefore, one who would add a communal prayer would violate the prohibition against adding. Although we follow Rabbi Yochanan's legal positions, and he said, "I wish that one would pray all day (Berachot 21a)," that referred to an individual taking on a voluntary prayer, if he could say something new therein…

For this reason I have always protested against initiators who have newly arrived, publishers who publish in the siddurim pleas and requests from the book Shaarei Zion and the Shelah, so that people recite these prayers in the community as well. In my humble opinion this is incorrect, and it involves violation of "Do not add" [and] "crossing the border established by the early ones," the order of prayers. There is also concern for Gittin 3a, "If you add words, people will come to remove" from the established prayer, enacted by early authorities. Especially one whose Torah is his trade, he certainly has concern for loss of Torah when increasing prayer inappropriately… If one wishes to add prayer, he may recite Tehillim, which is like involvement in Torah and which holds great power…

מה ששאל עוד וז"ל ילמדינו רבינו באשר שמקרוב התנהגו איזה יחידי סגולה... להתאסף לבה"כ בראש האשמורה השלישית של הלילה ולקונן על החרבן וקמו עליהן עוררין ומסיקין דמסקו אדעתייהו דלאו יאות ושפיר עבדי כדאיתא בפרק ב' דברכות דאמר רשב"ג לא כל הרוצה ליטול את השם יבא ויטול...

תשובה הנה במה דסיים אפתח שכת' "ונוסיף ע"ז דהם ציבורא דלית ביה משום חשש יוהרא" ולע"ד נראה יותר להיפך דדוקא יחיד ירא שמים שרוצה להחמיר על עצמו והצנע לכת ודאי זכור לטוב ואין בו משום יוהרא... וכן אפי' יחיד שעושה דבר בפרהסיא מה שהוא שלא כדרך העולם יש חשש יוהרא כי ראוי להיות הכל בהצנע...

ובר מן כל דין נ"ל דיש חשש לעשות כן בציבור כיון דכבר תקנו חכמים סדר תפילות בכל שלש פעמים כנגד הקרבנות נמצא דהמוסיף איזה תפילה בציבור עובר משום בל תוסיף. ואף ע"ג דקי"ל הלכתא כר' יוחנן הלואי שיתפלל אדם כל היום היינו ביחיד ובתורת נדבה אם יכול לחדש בה דבר...

ומהאי טעמא כל ימי אני קורא תגר שחדשים מקרוב באו המדפיסים והדפיסו אצל הסידורים תחנות ובקשות מספר שערי ציון ושל"ה וע"י כן מתפללין כן בציבור ולע"ד אין זה נכון ואיכא משום בל תוסיף על גבול שגבלו ראשונים סדר תפלות ואיכא למיחש למה דאיתא בגיטין אי מפשת דיבורא אתי למגזיה בתפלה הקבוע מה שתיקנו ראשונים. ובפרטות מי שתורתו אומנותו ודאי יש חשש ביטול תורה להרבות בתפלה יותר מדי... ואם רוצה להרבות בתפילה יוכל לומר תהלים שהוא כעוסק בתורה ויש בה סגולת הרבה...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Tunics

I have a feeling I'm going to get in trouble for the following piece, but I like it too much to keep it to myself...

Bereishit is filled with haberdashery, from Eden chic to Esav's treasured garb, to Tamar's costume, to Yosef's palace ensemble. The clothing of Bereishit protects, conceals, deceives and honours. Perhaps the best-known clothing in this book, though, is Yosef's Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a.k.a. his ketonet pasim.

Yosef's tunic is not the only biblical ketonet, though; another ketonet is a critical part of the kohen's uniform. (Shemot 28:39-40) Indeed, the Talmud connects these two ketonet garments explicitly, saying: "The kohen's ketonet atones for bloodshed, as Bereishit 37:31 says, 'And they slaughtered a goat, and they dipped [Yosef's] ketonet in the blood.'" (Zevachim 88b)

The talmudic logic seems to be that Yosef's brothers dipped his ketonet in blood to provide "evidence" of his death, and so the kohen's ketonet atones for bloodshed. This formula is odd on many levels, but here is a basic challenge: We are taught (Rosh haShanah 26a) that an entity which represents a person's criminality cannot also defend him. For example, the Kohen Gadol does not wear gold when he enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur; gold is reminiscent of the Golden Calf. So how can the kohen's ketonet simultaneously recall the bloody deception surrounding the sale of Yosef, and yet atone for bloodshed?

Let us look more closely at the sale of Yosef. The sons of Leah may have shunned Yosef because of Rachel. (Bereishit 37:2) They may have been turned off by Yosef's reports on their bad behaviour. (ibid.) Certainly, they were antagonized by Yosef's dreams. (ibid. 37:5-11) However, a passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 10b) contends that the sale of Yosef was actually triggered by two sela of wool, which marked his ketonet as unique.

As depicted in that talmudic passage and in Rashi's commentary there, Yosef's ketonet was not luxurious, and the brothers would not have envied such a small difference. Rather, the brothers were outraged by the fact that there was any difference, that Yaakov had marked this son as holding a unique role that they could not share. In their eyes, setting Yosef apart was an unjust attack on their legitimate membership in the family.

Long before the Enlightenment taught humanity to question received tradition regarding class and gender identities, Korach (Bamidbar 16) and King Uziahu (Divrei haYamim II 26) challenged the law that one must descend from Aharon in order to act as a kohen. Today, it is nearly universally axiomatic that "separate but equal" is unjust; as Justice Earl Warren wrote, separate is "inherently unequal." Our sense of fair play demands that human beings choose their destinations. Thus it is no surprise that Yosef's brothers would resent Yaakov's act of segregation, and that the Talmud would criticize it.

On the other hand, separation is fundamental to Judaism. At the genesis of Creation, G-d separates light and darkness, land and sea, and He stresses that life forms are to exist "according to their species". G-d separates Avraham and Sarah from their family. G-d says of the Jews, "I have separated you from the nations" (Vayikra 20:26), and then He separates the Levites from the rest of us. (Bamidbar 8:14) How can we expect a humanity which resists segregation to respect a religion which sanctifies it? How can the same ketonet represent the flawed separation of Yosef, and the sanctified separation of the kohen?

Perhaps a meaningful difference between flawed separation and acceptable separation is the identity of the Separator. As the Talmud Yerushalmi (Berachot 5:2) notes, establishing distinctions requires intelligence – and establishing distinctions which shape the lives of human beings requires the Supreme Intelligence of Hashem. Hashem is the One who distinguishes between sacred and mundane, between light and dark, between the Jews and the nations, and between the seventh day and the six days of creative activity.

The kohen's ketonet highlights Divine separation. True, the ketonet represents the bloodshed which resulted from separating Yosef. However, in donning this tunic the kohen restores the power of separation to G-d, righting an ancient wrong. Further, the nation that accepts the kohen demonstrates its acceptance of legitimate, Divine separation. [And see Talmud Yerushalmi Yoma 7:3, which adds that the ketonet also atones for kilayim – a mixing of species which G-d has deemed separate.]

Realistically, life requires that we assign roles, defining confidants, spouses, political leaders, religious authorities, and so on. We need to define eligibility. But to the extent possible, we must respect the impact of distinctions, and practice humility, minimizing our meddling. G-d has assigned different roles to different nations, to different families of Israel, and to different genders; may we refrain from arrogating the power of segregation and creating novel restrictions and boundaries. May we channel our efforts into accepting our Divinely assigned roles, and fulfilling the tasks vouchsafed to us.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

#BeTheWall for Israel

This campaign is something my Beit Midrash developed with our local Bnei Akiva chapter, and it's been spreading on Facebook. The idea, which is based on The Shmira Project, is simple: Take on a mitzvah practice for Kislev, and dedicate the merit to a community in Israel.

I'm doing it, committing to extra care in my berachot, and dedicating merit to Gilo. If the project appeals to you, please join me.