Weekly Dvar Torah

Parashat Tetzaveh

Purim, Anti-anti-semitism, and Modern Orthodoxy[1]

Megillat Esther opens with a massive all-male drinking party at King Achashverosh’s palace, then cuts to an all-female drinking party at the queen’s palace.  Disaster strikes when the king demands that Queen Vashti switch parties* while “wearing the crown of royalty, so as to show the nations and the officers her beauty”.  The midrashic suggestion that she was ordered to come wearing only the crown captures the atmosphere of the verse perfectly, although the specific facts necessary to create that atmosphere may well be culturally dependent. 

                Vashti refuses, and the king (at least) banishes her and removes her queenship.  It’s not clear whether we are supposed to sympathize with her (in which case her role in the story is to help establish Achashverosh’s character and explain Esther’s handling of him), ignore her, or celebrate her downfall (thus the midrashim which suggest that Achashverosh was essentially imitating her humiliation of Jewish women).

                A key question is whether Achashverosh’s demand of Vashti is a breach of Persian morals or not.  If it is, it generates a whole social breakdown, as all the virgins in Persia are now put on display for the king, and all the women are put on notice that they may not refuse any of their husbands’ requests.  Ironically, it is precisely this breakdown that enables the reversal of fortune at the megillah’s end – Esther invites the king and Haman to drinking parties, and Haman’s fate is sealed when the king reasonably suspects that such drinking parties lead to debauchery.

                Now how do the Jews relate to all this?  The midrash reasonably assumes that they participate in the party (the midrash also notes that no reason is given for the party, and suggests that it was about the failure of the promised Jewish redemption to arrive – thus the use of כלים מכלים שונים in 1:7, which the midrash identifies with the Temple vessels), and there is no hint in the text that they object to the chauvinist decree or the taking of the virgins.  To all accounts they participate כדת*, in accordance with the law – a term which appears in 1:8 (describing the drinking), in 1:15 (regarding Vashti’s fate), and in 2:8 and 2:12 (regarding the collection and preparation of the virgins, described as “in accordance with the דת of women”). 

                But Haman does not see it that way.  The Jews, he declares in 3:8, have different דתs than any other nation (ודתיהם שונות מכל עם – note that the word שונות recalls וכלים מכלים שונים, and is likely a basis for identifying those with the Temple vessels), and they do not follow the דתs of the king.  Is Haman correct?  Or is this an anti-Semitic projection?*  Regardless, in 3:15 the king’s דת becomes that the Jews are to be exterminated.

                The truth is that one Jew – Mordekhai – refuses to obey one order[2] of the king – bowing down to Haman.  I suggest that Mordekhai sees Haman as ambitious and a threat to the king, whose life Mordechai has already saved.  ונהפוך הוא – it is Mordekhai’s loyalty that exposes him to the charge of being a Vashti.  At the same time, we learn that Haman may be somewhat hen-pecked, despite the king’s banishment of Vashti.

                In 4:16, the plot turns when Esther agrees to approach Achashverosh אשר לא כדת, after protesting that all the people of all the nations know better.  In other words, she makes Haman’s charge true – her דת is not the king’s, and different from those of all other nations.  In 8:13 the king overwrites his דת of extermination, and in 9:13 we learn that the new Jewish דת involves hanging the ten sons of Haman.

                Is that all there is to Persian Judaism – does ונהפוך הוא (see 9:1) change only who’s on top and who on bottom, but not the nature of society?          

                As of 8:17, that seems to be the case – the Jewish reaction to victory is – a drinking party!*  In which they are apparently joined by many nonJews, who are now afraid of them.  In other words, they have become Achashverosh.

                But in 9:19, a new feature (mitzvah – דת?) is added to the day – now in addition to the drinking, there must also be mishloach manot, reflecting some recognition of community,  and in 9:22, a radically new דת – מתנות לאביונים, gifts to the poor.* 

                Until 9:22, the Megillah is a court farce, and one might be forgiven for thinking that the entire plot relates only to the wealthy elite –perhaps the extermination plan seemed total to them because they simply didn’t consider the poor.  But over time, the Jews – perhaps prodded by Mordekhai and Esther – recognize that this episode should cause them to question the whole moral structure of Persian society, and so their דתות in fact become different than those of other nations.*  .  (If I were a dyed in the wool liberal I would connect this to Mordekhai raising taxes as well, but I’m not.) 

                Most specifically, the Jews become the antithesis of Amalek, which attacks specifically the weak.*  We reject the evolutionary imperative and preserve those who cannot protect themselves.

                The challenge of this reading is that it makes anti=Semitism the spur of Jewish morality.  We are blessed to live in a society in which caring for the less fortunate or less able is an almost universally agreed upon דת, although we disagree strongly about how best to accomplish that.  But there are other areas in which there is profound pressure to fall into step with the immoral moral expectations – the דתות – of the society that surrounds us.         

This is especially true of Modern Orthodoxy.  I confess that the first chapter of the Megillah always puts me in mind of a group of male Orthodox college students I once knew who would drink themselves into oblivion each Friday night, but tried hard to send the female students home (to their own parties?) before they completely lost control over their behavior.

                Nonetheless, I don’t think that self-ghettoization is effective, and it has its own corruptions.  The yetzer hora (evil inclination) finds its way through cracks in the walls, and is all the more effective when unrecognized. 

But openness to influence must be balanced with a firm sense of identity and moral self-confidence – we must be willing to be out of step, even if that causes us to pay a heavy social price – even if we are no longer invited to the parties, or lose influence in political parties.  “Everyone thinks that” is no more an excuse for us than it was for Esther.


[1] I had the pleasure of listening as Rabbi David Silber taught Megillat Esther to one of my tenth grade classes at Gann Academy in 2013, and thought that several of his ideas deserved to be passed on.  So this dvar Torah is admittedly derivative, although of course I take full responsibility for any errors.  I have asterisked the points I recall specifically from Rabbi Silber.


[2] Which is, interestingly, never called a דת, but rather a צווי

Parashat Terumah

Some Kind of Blue? Tradition, Tekhelet, and the Rav

The color of an object can be defined by the wavelengths of light that it reflects, which means that objects really have no color at all.  Identical reflected lightwaves can then hit human retinas and generate wholly different mental experiences.  Wittgenstein thought that our capacity to communicate about color at all was miraculous.  Regardless, there is no way to convey subtleties of color reliably through pure language.   

For this reason, halakhic treatments of color are heavily based on practical tradition.  Which colors create niddah and which don’t is learned by show and tell, not by reading ArtScroll.  

All this by way of introduction to the topic of tekhelet, the dye of uncertain color (sky-blue? sea-green? wine-dark like the Homeric ocean?)  that was used in the High Priest’s garments and that we have a mitzvah to place on our tzitzit.  The fundamental halakhic difficulty with tekhelet is that it disappeared from history for a millennium.  In “Two Types of Tradition” (שעורים לזכר אבא מרי ז"ל כרך א), the Rav made famous a family tradition about his great-grandfather the Beit Halevi’s response to the Radziner Rebbe’s attempt to recover tekhelet in the late nineteenth century.

ידוע מה שאירע 

בין זקני הגאון רבי יוסף דוב הלוי ובין האדמו"ר הגאון מראדזין 

,בנוגע לתכלת שבציצית 

.שהרבי מראדזין חידשה וציוה לכל חסידיו להטיל תכלת בציציותיהן

האדמו"ר ניסה להוכיח על יסוד הרבה ראיות 

.כי הצבע הזה הוא באמת התכלת

רב יוסף דוב טען כנגד ואמר 

שאין ראיות וסברות יכולות להוכיח שום דבר 

.במילי דשייכי למסורת של שאל אביך ויגדך  

:שם אין הסברה מכריעה כי אם המסורה עצמה  

.כך ראו אבות וכך היו נוהגים וכך צריכים לנהוג הבנים

It is well known what happened 

between my ancestor the Gaon Rav Yosef Dov Halevi and the ADMOR Gaon from Radzin 

with regard to the tekhelet in tzitzit,

that the Rebbe from Radzin renewed it and ordered all his chasidim to put tekhelet among their tzitzit. The ADMOR tried to demonstrate on the basis of many proofs 

that this dye is in truth the (halakhic) tekhelet.  

Rav Yosef Dov countered that proofs and rational arguments cannot demonstrate anything 

with regard to matters that affiliate with the tradition of Ask your father and he will tell it to you

In such matters, reason is not decisive, but rather the tradition itself:

This is what the fathers saw, and so they practiced, and so the children must practice.

 The Rav understood the Beit HaLevi to be sealing the issue of tekhelet off from the realm of argument and discussion.  What is not clear is exactly what aspect of tekhelet is off-limits to reason and evidence. 

I always thought the issue was color; how could we possibly know that we had matched the Torah’s intent or Chazal’s practice?  The discovery of ancient tekhelet textiles would not help with that, as surely even a colorfast dye will change significantly over a thousand years.  The fascinating disputes about how best to restore medieval paintings suffice to demonstrate this.

But rereading the Rav’s essay this week, it seemed more likely that he had in mind the identity of the chilazon, the creature from which the dye is produced.  But this made his claim much harder to accept - why shouldn’t archaeological or chemical evidence be sufficient to identify ancient dye works, and then the chilazon?  

The Rav makes the identity of the chilazon a quasi-halakhah l’Mosheh miSinai, and analogizes identifying the chilazon to identifying the etrog as the pri eitz hadar required by Vayikra 23:40.  Let us accept the analogy for the sake of argument.  If the identity of the etrog were lost for a thousand years, there would be a reasonable basis for claiming that it could not be restored on the basis of arguments from texts, no matter how clever or clear.  But if we found an ancient repository of palm, willow, and myrtle branches, and together with them the right quantity of one and only one species of fruit, would that not be sufficient grounds to reconnect us with the original tradition?  

Proponents of contemporary tekhelet make this argument, with a shiur by Rav Herschel Schachter providing far and away the most coherent and compelling version I have heard or seen.  But Rav Schachter adds a wrinkle.  As part of the ongoing debate over his tekhelet, the Radziner published on p. 13 of the introduction to his Ein HaTekhelet a letter that he described as being an authorized representation of the Beit Halevi’s position.  That letter seems to undermine the Soloveitchik family tradition.    


הגאבד"ק בריסק דליטא שיחיה 

מסר כל טעמו ונימוקו בדבר מיאונו במצות התכלת 

לאחד ממיודעינו 

:שיכתוב ויאמר לנו משמו בזה הלשון

,כמע"ל לא ביאר בדבריו מה זאת מצא אחר שנשכח

,אם מציאת הדג או הוצאת צבעו

,ורק אחרי אשר כמע"ל יברר זאת, היינו האם היה בזה דבר הנשכח והוא מצאה

.אז נהיה מחויבים לשמוע אליו וללבשו

,אכן אם נאמר כי  הדג היה במציאות

,וגם הוצאת צבעו היה ידוע בכל זמן מהזמנים שעברו עלינו מעת שפסקה התכלת בישראל

,ועל כל זה לא לבשוהו אבותינו ואבות אבותינו

הרי הוא כאילו יש לנו קבלה ומסורה מאבותינו

כי זה הדג וצבעו איננו החלזון והתכלת

,אף שהוא בכל הסימנים שסמנו חז"ל

.כי אפילו נרבה כחול ראיות, לא יועילו נגד הקבלה והמסורה

ורק אחרי אשר יברר לנו כי דג זה או מלאכת צבעו נפסק ונשכח מציאתו או ידיעתו בשום זמן מהזמנים ונפסקה בזה הקבלה, אז יהיה לנו דברי ההלכה לראיה

.ע"כ דבריו שיחיה

The Gaon Av Beit Din of Brisk in Lithuania, may he live, 

gave over all his reasons and rationales in the matter of his eschewing the mitzvah of tekhelet

to one of our intimates, 

so that he would write and say to us in his name, as follows:

Your Honor did not explain in his words what it is that he found after it had been forgotten.

whether it is the finding of the fish or of the way to extract its dye,

and it is only after Your Honor explains this,

namely whether there was something here that was lost and that he found,

that we will be obligated to heed him and to wear it.

However, if we say that this fish was in existence,

and the extraction of its dye was known in all the times that have passed over us from the time that tekhelet ceased to be in Israel,

and that despite all this it was not worn by our fathers and our fathers’ fathers,

that would be as if we had a received tradition from our ancestors

that this fish and its dye are not the chilazon and the tekhelet

even if it fits all the identifying characteristics given by Chazal,

and even if we multiplied proofs like sand,

they would not prevail against a received tradition

Only after it became clear to us that this fish or the craft of making its dye had its existence or knowledge ceased and forgotten at some time and this interrupted the reception,

then we would use the words of the halakhah as proofs.

Rav Schachter reads this letter as saying that empirical evidence is perfectly sufficient in the absence of a positive tradition, but cannot overcome a negative tradition.  In this case the negative tradition was that no known creature and manufacturing process could yield tekhelet.  Rav Schachter then cites Rav Elyashiv as finding the Radziner’s letter a more plausible account of the Beit HaLevi’s position than the Rav’s report, and this seems clearly to be his own opinion, even though the Rav’s report is confirmed by other branches of the Soloveitchik family.

Now the whole point of “Two Types of Tradition” is that students can challenge their teachers’ intellectual traditions but must simply receive their practical traditions.  Rav Schachter implicitly points out that this metatradition of the Rav is grounded in intellect, and therefore can be challenged and even rejected by his students.

I suggest that metatraditions by their nature as abstractions are always grounded in intellect rather than pure reception, and therefore can never have unchallenged authority.  A claim of authority on the basis of tradition is therefore never self-sufficient.  It can succeed only if there is a shared prior metatradition about the authority of tradition, and that metatradition will be accountable to the ordinary intellectual processes of Torah.

Even without Beit HaLevi’s authority, however, I find the argument that color requires a live tradition to be powerful.  Furthermore, Beit HaLevi seems to have been quite right in doubting that the Radziner had properly identified the chilazon with the cuttlefish, and I remain unconvinced by the partisans of murex trunculus (with the caveat that Rav Schachter argues that neither precision of color nor of mollusk are necessary).  The barriers to reconstructing lapsed traditions such as tekhelet should not be impassable, but they can and should be quite high.

Parashat Mishpatim

Moral and Other Sevarot

A fundamental premise and moral of Talmud study – the one lesson without which (in my humble opinion) one has learned little or nothing – is that reason (practical and pure) and revelation need each other.  It is arrogance to believe that one can discover the truths of Torah simply by looking into oneself or by unaided contemplation of the world; it is megalomania to believe that one can understand Torah without the mediation of human intellect.  

Our tradition demands that we develop a dialectical epistemology, an approach to truth that balances and interweaves autonomous investigation with acceptance of the received Word.

Talmud is often taught and learned without explicitly referencing this issue, and “dialectical epistemology” is not a self-explanatory phrase.  So I’ll try to provide in this week’s essay a clear illustration of what I mean.

Bava Kamma 46b records a halakhic dispute between Symmachus and the Sages in the following case:  An ox gored a pregnant cow to death, and the cow was found next to its stillborn calf.  Do we presume that the stillbirth occurred before the goring, or rather that it was caused by the goring?  Symmachus says that the issue is in doubt, and so the gore-r pays half of what he would pay were his responsibility clear; the Sages say המוציא מחבירו עליו הראיה = “The one who wishes to take something away from his fellow has the burden of proof”, and so the gore-r pays nothing.

Several hundred years later, R. Shmuel bar Nachmani asks: What is the Biblical source for the Sages’ principle?  He responded by citing Exodus 24:14.

וְאֶל־הַזְּקֵנִ֤ים אָמַר֙

שְׁבוּ־לָ֣נוּ בָזֶ֔ה עַ֥ד אֲשֶׁר־נָשׁ֖וּב אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אַהֲרֹ֤ן וְחוּר֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם

מִי־בַ֥עַל דְּבָרִ֖ים יִגַּ֥שׁ אֲלֵהֶֽם

יגיש ראיה אליהם.

To the Elders he said:  

Sit for us in this situation until we return to you

and behold Aharon and Chur with you

whoever is a baal devarim (= plaintiff) yigash (=will draw near) to them

meaning that he will draw-near a proof to them.

R. Ashi then attacks Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani’s premise:

הא למה לי קרא!? סברא הוא!?

דכאיב ליה כאיבא, אזיל לבי אסיא!?

Why should a verse be needed?!  This can be derived from sevara (=reason)!?

The one who experiences the pain goes to the house of healing!?

Rav Ashi’s attack appears to be based on the claim that unaided practical reason can reliably derive some Halakhic truths.  The relevant halakhic truth here seems roughly equivalent to “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”  Since not all halakhic truths can be derived in this way, Revelation is still needed, but only to supplement reason.  We therefore expect Rav Ashi’s attack to be followed by an understanding of the verse as teaching such a supplemental truth, and we are not disappointed:

אלא קרא לכדר"נ אמר רבה בר אבוה,

דאמר רב נחמן אמר רבה בר אבוה

מניין שאין נזקקין אלא לתובע תחלה,


מי בעל דברים יגש אליהם –

יגיש דבריו אליהם.

Rather, the verse is needed (as the basis) for R. Nachman in the name of Rabbah bar Avuha,

for R. Nachman bar Avuha said:

What is the Biblical source for the principle that we take cognizance only of the plaintiff initially?

Scripture says:

Whoever is a baal devarim (=the plaintiff) will yigash (=draw near) to them –

meaning that he will draw-near his words to them.

This new conclusion seems unrelated to its predecessor; rather than establishing who has the burden of proof, it establishes a principle of judicial procedure.  However, Rashi draws a connection:


ראובן תובע משמעון מנה שהלוהו (בעדים או בשטר)

ושמעון משיבו 'תפסת משלי - החזר לי מה שתפסת',


'משכון היה בידך ונפחת מדמיו, שנשתמשת בו' –

בתחילה נזקקין לטענת ראובן ומוציאים לו המנה משמעון,

ואחר כך נזקקין לו לטענת שמעון לדון על דבר התפיסה והמשכון.

An example (of taking cognizance only of the plaintiff initially) is

Reuven sues Shimon for a mana that he has lent him

Shimon replies: ‘You (illegitimately) seized something of mine -  return what you have seized’


‘You had my pledge in your possession and it lost value, because you made use of it' –

We initially take cognizance of Shimon’s claim and extract the mana from Shimon for him,

and afterward take cognizance of Shimon’s claim to judge the matter of the seizure or the pledge.

According to Rashi, Rav Nachman is not introducing a new axis.  Rather, he introduces a special circumstance in which Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani’s principle is true but its implications are not obvious.  What happens when the defendant counterclaims, and offers to bring proof?  The verse teaches that the burden of proof needs to be met only with regard to specific claims, rather than to the general financial balance between the parties.  To extract money from Shimon, Reuven needs to prove only that Shimon’s owes him, even if the possibility remains that he has equal or greater counter-obligations.  

Rav Nachman’s statement should end the sugya.  Instead, the Talmud cites an astonishing coda:

אמרי נהרדעי:

פעמים שנזקקין לנתבע תחלה.

והיכי דמי? דקא זילי נכסיה.

The Nehardaens say:

Sometimes we take cognizance of the defendant initially.

When is that?  When his assets are losing value.

Rashi provides two illustrations of losing value.  

  1. when Shimon has a deal in place to sell the object he is counterclaiming from Reuven.  

  2. when Shimon is under financial pressure and will have to sell his real estate at a below-market price in order to pay Reuven.  

The common denominator of these cases is that the Nehardeans disregard R. Nachman’s clarification when they see it as generating injustice, despite its Biblical derivation, and even though their standard of injustice is derived solely from intuition.  What entitles them to do this?

With this question in hand, let us return to Symmachus and the Sages, and ask an almost opposite question.  If the Sages’ principle is so obviously true that no verse is needed to teach it, how could Symmachus disagree with them?  

The answer is that Symmachus also addressed a special case.  How heavy is the burden of proof?  In many areas of halakhah, a probabilistic argument (=rov) is sufficient – if it can be demonstrated that possibility X is more likely than possibility Y, halakhah will treat X as true.  Symmachus held that such a demonstration was also sufficient for the purposes of extracting money, but the Sages disagreed.  (Perhaps the Sages believe that Revelation is needed to overrule Symmachus.)

ROSH (Bava Kamma 5:1) collects several interpretations that disagree with Rashi’s.  Rabbeinu Tam, for example, thinks that Reuven’s claim must be for personal injuries rather than property damage, and ROSH thinks that in such a case Shimon doesn’t even get the standard 30-day stay of judgment to collect exculpatory evidence.  RIVA interprets “taking cognizance of only the plaintiff initially” as meaning that the plaintiff gets to put his full case on before the defendant rebuts, and wins the case even if the defendant plausibly claims that his witnesses died or left town owing to the delay.  RAAVAD interprets it as giving the plaintiff the right to suspend his case indefinitely without prejudice, even if the defendant asks for a verdict.  

What matters for us is ROSH’s summary comment:  

וכל הני פירושי סלקי אליבא דהלכה

דסברות גדולות הם:

All these interpretations come out in accordance with the halakhah,

because they are in great accord with reason (=sevarot gedolot).

What sort of reason?  Remember that Rav Ashi gave what appeared to be homespun wisdom via analogy – the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, as why should the healthy party (=the party in possession) go to the doctor (=beit din)?  Shitah Mekubetzet cites Rav Yehonatan as offering a very different interpretation:

כלל גדול נתן משה רבינו עליו השלום לשבעים זקנים ואהרן וחור

שלא ידינו שום אפוקי ממונא בדעת מכרעת וברובא

אלא בראיה.

סברא הוא דכאיב ליה כאיבא אזיל לבי אסיא –

לא היה צריך משה להזהירן,

דפשיטא הוא דלא גרע דין אחד ממשפט הרופאים,

שאין הרופא דן את החולה לפי סברתו לבדו

עד שאומר לו החולה 'ראשי כבד עלי ובמקום פלוני', 'ומשתנה עלי במקום פלוני למקום פלוני',

ולפי שהוא מראה לו פנים הוא דן אותו

כך התובע צריך להראות לו פנים שתביעתו חזקה וברורה

כלומר בעדים.

Mosheh Rabbeinu of blessed memory gave a broad principle to the seventy elders and Aharon and Chur

that they should not extract any money judicially on the basis of compelling reason or probability

rather (only) via proof.

But (Rav Ashi held that) “the one who experiences the pain goes to the house of healing”

and therefore Mosheh did not need to command them about this,

since it is obvious that legal judgement does not require less care than medical judgement,

and a physician does not judge the patient on the basis of his unaided reason

rather he waits for the patient to say “My head is heavy and hurts in that place”, or ?

and he judges in accordance with what the patient makes apparent to him

so too the plaintiff must show that his claim is strong and clear,

namely via witnesses.

According to R. Yehonatan, reason teaches that one cannot extract money on the basis of reason alone!

Bottom line: Reason can be a source of halakhic truth.  When this appears to make a verse of Revelation redundant, we may interpret that verse as limiting or countering the halakhic truth derived from reason.  But this does not shake our underlying epistemological faith in reason, so we may limit that limit on the basis of reason.  This cycle can and should be iterative.  Shabbat shalom.      

Parashat Yitro



Based on a lecture by Rav Michael Rosensweig.  Rav Rosensweig’s later written version was published as Personal Initiative and Creativity in Avodat Hashem" in The Torah U-Madda Journal Vol. 1.

summary written by Aryeh (Robert) Klapper, originally published in Hamevaser, Iyar 5748/May 1988)   All errors of formulation, fact, etc, are Rabbi Klapper’s.


In the beginning, God performed the utterly inimitable creation ex nihilo, out of nothing.  Yet man is required to emulate all of His ways - “lehidamot lo kemah she’efshar”, “to be similar to him to the extent possible”.

Creativity and submission clash constantly in Jewish thought.  “One should not rely on miracles”, but Ramban claims that each moment of existence is a hidden miracle.  Prayer and Kabbalah are means of “affecting” the Divine, but both are aspects of avodat Hashem (service of G-d).  And finally, “No one is free except those who have accepted upon themselves the yoke of heaven.”  From that paradox, the necessary synthesis emerges.  Human beings must create, but only for the greater glory of G-d.  And we must realize that we can at best rediscover Divine truths or develop our own tzelem Elokim (Divine image); we can but transform the yesh G-d brought into being.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik teaches in Lonely Man of Faith that human beings have a religious obligation to create in both the physical and metaphysical realms, to build the world physically, spiritually, and even aesthetically.  And while the rigid Halakhic system limits human autonomy greatly, unmoderated inflexibility leads to the ritualism Yeshayahu denounced and the legalism so often criticized today.  Judaism must provide a way for human beings to achieve a personal relationship with G-d.

Gershom Scholem writes that every religion creates mysticism in reaction to increasing formalization, surviving undivided if the formal structure allows accommodation.  Kabbalah, however, is neither accessible nor attractive to all.  And extra-halakhic religious systems hold the danger of subjectivism, which Rav Soloveitchik teaches in Halakhic Mind is actually self-worship.

Torah provides several non-mystical outlets for human creativity within the halakhic system.  Sefer Hachinukh, for example, believes circumcision to be an act of self-perfection, and possibly the mitzvah of “zeh keli v’an’veihu”, of beautifying mitzvot, allows human beings to redefine cheftzot shel mitzvah, mitzvah-objects.  Rambam in his Commentary on the Mishnah explains that God gave the Jews many mitzvot so that each would find one to excel in and be particularly inspired by.  The permission of tefillas n’dovoh, voluntary prayer, provides similar opportunities to personalize religion.  Finally, most rishonim encourage the search for ta’amei hamitzvot. rationales for commandments.  Sefer Hachinukh among others believes that each commandment has multiple reasons, enabling each Jew to personalize their kavannah while performing it.

The Yerushalmi extends the tension between creativity and submission to the realm of talmud Torah.  
“Kol mah she’atid talmid vatik lechadesh k’var ne’emar l’moshe misinai”, “Everything a veteran student will originate in the future was already said to Moshe at Sinai”.  The tradition is both vast and rigid.  But it also contains ample evidence of individual contribution.  “Chayav adam lomar davar b’shem omro”, one must identify the Torah one has learned with the one who taught it.  The dialectic method pioneered by the Ba’alei haTosafot revolutionized Talmudic studies in the Middle Ages, as did the pilpulists in the fifteenth century and Brisk in the nineteenth.  Various scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries claimed that Eliyahu haNavi had revealed himself to them, giving their works a legitimate source outside the received tradition.

David Singer and Moshe Socol recently argued in Modern Judaism that the Rav’s description of his grandfather as a revolutionary resulted from the influence of modernity on his thought, that chidush is actually antithetical to halakhah.  Their position was considered and rejected by the Tanna Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who once asked his students “Mah chidush ne’emar hayom?”, “What of originality was said today?”  They replied in surprise “v’halo talmidekha anu?”, “Are we not your students?”  How can we say anything that you have not already heard?  And he told them: “There cannot be a House of Study without chidush”.  The Yerushalmi itself believes that a veteran student can be mechadesh.  Yet the concepts of mesorah and y’ridas hadoros (continuous decline of the generations dating from the Sinaitic Revelation) would seem to exclude any sort of development or progression.

Judaism solves the creativity-submission conflict by incorporating chidushim into the Mesorah.  A talmid vatik can be mechadesh, but the chidush is valid only insofar as it can be included within the Sinaitic revelation, only to the extent that it is rediscovery.  

This solution does not, however, account for the concept of “eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim Chayim”, “These and those are the words of the living G-d”.  The Talmud applies this concept to directly contradictory opinions.  Such opinions cannot be contained within an ordinary tradition.

But the Mesorah is no ordinary tradition.  The Mishnah tells us that every word heard at Sinai divided into seventy voices, that multi-dimensionality was built into the Mesorah at its start.  When Moshe Rabbeinu went up to the heavens, he saw the Heavenly Court developing forty-nine reasons for both permission and prohibition on ritual issues, and he was told “nims’ru lechakhmei yisrael vehahakhra’ah k’mosam”, “They have been given to the sages of Israel, and the decision is theirs”.  Maharal believes that all opinions arrived at by legitimate methods on halakhic issues have significance, albeit those accepted lehalakhah have more; each issue has “aspects of tum’ah and aspects of taharah”.  And Ritva believes in multiple truth, that somehow mutually exclusive opinions on halakhic issues can be true simultaneously.

The justification for this fragmentation of tradition is Judaism’s acceptance and validation of the uniqueness of every human being.  The Mishnah tells us that because of that uniqueness, “chayyav kol Adam lomar: ‘bishvili nivra haolam’”, “Every human being must say: ‘The world was created for me’”.  And Tanchuma points out that individuality is more than skin deep: “Just as their visages differ from each others’, so do their minds”.

If initiative is permitted, then it is obligatory; imitatio dei cannot be disregarded in talmud Torah, the most spiritual activity of all.  The passion of the Beit Hamedrash, “milchamtah shel Torah”, derives from the religious nature of the intellectual battle in Torah.  But again the emotion and the creativity must be within the system: “afilu av uvno v’rabi v’talmid bish’as limud na’asim oyvim v’eynam zazim misham ad shena’asim ohavim”, “Even a father and son or Rav and student become enemies during study, but do not leave (their studies) until they become friends”.  The words of Torah are “ever-multiplying” yet “fixed as driven nails”.  Chidushim are valid only insofar as they possess both characteristics.

Perhaps the most poignant testimony to the value of human initiative in Torah comes from the Vilna Gaon, who turned down a dream-maggid’s offer to teach him the entire Torah effortlessly.  But throughout Jewish history scholars have defended man’s right and need to earn the Torah and make it his own.  Geonic opponents of codification argued that its costs outweighed its benefits, that preventing misinterpretation was not as important as making sure people learned the original sources.  The Maharal’s brother protested the Shulchan Arukh on Tanchuma’s grounds; as people’s minds differ from one another, each can extract something unique and valuable from halakhic texts.  The Maharal in Netivot Olam railed against those who pasken from sifrei psak (handbooks of halakhah) without checking the original sources.  “Ein l’dayan ela mah she’eynav ro’os”, “A judge cannot take into account anything other than what his eyes see”; psak given from secondary sources is a case of the blind leading the blind.

The abuses feared by opponents of codification have never been more evident than in our era, in which reliance on summaries and English “how-to” books, and to a lesser degree on the Mishnah Berurah, have made the Magen Avraham and even the Taz obsolete.  Sadly, never has the need for such reliance been more widespread.  Yet specific historical eras encourage sensitivity to certain issues, and we must believe that our generation has something unique to contribute.  If this seems presumptuous of us, if we are accused of ignoring the concept of y’ridas hadoros, our response must be an abiding faith in the progression of ideas and the unfolding of mesorah.

Even those less experienced and less talented are valuable links in the chain of mesorah.  Individual responses are important in both lomdus and hashkofoh, and the inevitable subjectivity created by the order and amount of the posek’s exposure to sources plays a legitimate role in psak.  But one must constantly challenge his or her own objectivity to avoid subjectivism and self-worship.

Not all ideas about and in Torah are worthwhile.  Tosafot denounces “charifus shel hevel”, “worthless sharpness”, as does Maharal “pilpulo shel hevel”.  Capacity to be mechadesh requires a minimum level of knowledge, method, and the parameters of conceptual plausibility in halakhah and machshovoh, plus exposure to real and textual rebbeim.  But given those conditions, every Jew has the right to view themselves as a potential contributor to and transmitter of the Mesorah.  We have the obligation to pursue truth with passion yet with the utmost respect for our predecessors in the eternally unfolding Mesorah.

Parashat Bo 5777

Dear Rabbi Klapper,


In the last number of years the question of women's role in spiritual leadership in the synagogue in the Modern-Orthodox community has been a contentious issue. The issue has touched on both halakhic discussions as well public policy concerns, the pace of evolution in the halakhic community and "political" concerns related to relationships with other segments of the community. Wherever one falls on the question of the wisdom of whether move "x" or "y" should have been done at point "a" or "b" in the last five years, certain realities now exist in a number of shuls throughout North America. To that end I would like to hear your perspective, in writing, on the following questions:


1. On a halakhic level, do you believe that an Orthodox shul that employs a God-fearing, observant, learned woman in a clerical role, consistent with the shul's understanding of kedushat beit haknesset and within the other parameters of Orthodox halakha (e.g mehitzah, use of traditional prayerbook etc.) fully retains its status as an Orthodox shul and "mikdash me’at"?


2. What is your view, if the woman employed fills the exact same role as in #1 but uses the title "Maharat"?


3. What is your view if the woman employed plays the exact same role but also has the title "Rabba" or "Rabbi"?


Kevod Horav X,

I am honored by the request you convey, and will do my best to convey my opinion.  I hope it will be helpful as the Orthodox community ponders these weighty issues.

On issues of such moment and controversy, clarity and nuance are both vital.  I will therefore begin by stating two bottom-line commitments as clearly as I can, and then proceed to nuanced analysis.  Here are those commitments:

1.  It is necessary and positive for women to be hired as religious professionals in Orthodox communities.  Any such role can be defined as “clerical”; therefore I oppose any blanket ban on women playing clerical roles.  

2.  It is necessary and positive for Orthodox women to attain semikhah-level competence (and far beyond) in Talmud and halakhah.  Women who attain such competence must be given titles that attest to their achievement, for both practical and ethical reasons.

And now for the nuanced analysis:

One challenge in dealing with the question as formulated is that so many of the terms used have no direct halakhic translation.  For example, the category “clergy”, and the term “clerical role” are English words derived from categories external to Judaism.

The question of whether hiring women to play “clerical roles” violates halakhah is therefore one of definition.  Those who seek to exclude synagogues with female clergy will argue that such women will inevitably, now or in the near future, play all clerical roles; those who seek to include such synagogues will argue that all such roles will be tightly circumscribed in accordance with “mainstream” halakhah.  The flexibility of the category even within Orthodoxy is easily demonstrated by a review of the literature about the parsonage tax privilege.

Another challenge is that “Orthodox” is not identical with “halakhically defensible”.  Shuls have been accepted as Orthodox that engage openly in halakhically prohibited behavior, and “Orthodoxy” can legitimately choose to exclude synagogues for halakhically defensible behavior that it deems immoral, unethical, or unwise.  Orthodoxy is a religious coalition whose parameters are legitimately determined by hashkafah, realpolitik and sociology as well as halakhah.

Mikdash me’at is somewhat different.  The term is almost certainly a melitzah, but it may be one with a halakhic definition, namely that what takes place within it fulfills the obligation of avodah shebelev, and that we would encourage someone to daven there betzibbur rather than davening alone.  

By way of illustration: I believe that there has been an Orthodox consensus for some time that one should rather pray alone than pray in a mixed-pew congregation, and a plausible argument that one who prayed in a mixed-pew congregation is obligated to pray again.  By contrast, the famous proclamation that one should choose to not hear shofar on Rosh HaShannah than to hear it in a mixed-pew congregation is hard to justify on technical halakhic grounds, as to my knowledge no one has argued that a mehitzah is necessary for shofar-listening.  Rather, that proclamation must be understood as an attempted or actual takkanah, a legislative act by prominent rabbis who believed themselves to be broadly accepted as having such authority,

There is a reasonable ongoing prudential debate as to whether the titles given to women with semikhah-level competence in Torah and halakhah should include “rabbi”, רב, רבי, or an obvious feminine analogue such as רבה.  Those in favor argue that only such titles can create the proper equal respect for Torah scholarship etc.; those opposed argue that such titles will create a presumption that women can play all roles currently played by male rabbis, and that this presumption is false.  However, the legal arguments about whether one can give “semikhah” to someone who cannot fulfill all the roles of a “samukh” generally relate to intellectual competence, not to personal status issues such as gender, and have long been decided in practice on the side of minimal qualifications.

The prudential argument can only be settled authoritatively by a legislative act that enjoys consensus support within Orthodoxy.  I am not currently aware of any such act.  Therefore, while it is perfectly legitimate to oppose such titles with might and main, I think it is incorrect to say that the granting or acceptance of such titles is per se a violation of halakhah.  This is true kal vachomer of newly minted titles such as Maharat.  

Therefore, I think it would be greatly overreaching to declare that a synagogue that hires a woman as a member of its clergy, and calls her “rabbi”, has thereby violated halakhah, or that one who prays with a minyan in such a synagogue does not fulfill the mitzvah of tefillah betzibbur.  It remains a mikdash me’at, even if one thinks it has erred.  בדידי הוה מעשה - I myself have willingly davened in such shuls, without halakhic qualms.

The question of whether it remains an “Orthodox shul”, however, is very different – one can be halakhic on an ideological island, but one cannot meaningfully be Orthodox if the rest of what one recognizes as “Orthodox” excludes you.  It is also possible for such exclusion to eventually have a legislative as well as a sociological impact, and certainly more strident opponents will aim for and claim that impact.  Synagogues considering such innovations must consider the risks and rewards of their choices, as must the opponents of such innovations.

This cheshbon will necessarily be affected by one’s opinion as to the qualifications, piety, and observance of the women who have assumed these titles and positions or are likely to do so in the future.  If, for example, the most qualified, pious, and observant women are less likely to use the title “rabbi”, it seems foolish to fixate on the title.

I have a further difficulty with the question as formulated.  You ask my opinion solely about cases where the clerical roles in question are “consistent with the shul's understanding of kedushat beit haknesset and within the other parameters of Orthodox halakha (e.g mehitzah, use of traditional prayerbook etc.”  The problem, of course, is that the shul’s understanding of these concepts may differ from that of those who oppose hiring women for such roles, and its understanding, played out in practice, may have halakhic ramifications.

Note also that I have made no effort here to explicate which if any roles of the samukh or rabbi are not available to women, or to limn my own definition of kedushat beit knesset.  I am in the course of addressing some of the technical issues in my ongoing series on women and serarah.  But I want to set out here three negative principles.

  1. The halakhic consensus among religious Zionists is that Golda Meir could legitimately become Prime Minister of Israel.  At the least it must be acknowledged that many significant halakhic figures held this way.  Any limitation on women’s roles based on a concept such as serarah must be tested for plausibility against a sentence such as “women can be Prime Minister of Israel but not President of a Young Israel”, which to me is self-evidently absurd.

  2. There is no halakhic barrier to women issuing halakhic positions in areas for which they have been properly trained, and very likely there are situations in which they are obligated to do so.

  3. There is no reason that women cannot play the pastoral roles that make up the bulk of the duties of the contemporary synagogue rabbinate.

In the hope that this is useful to klal Yisroel and that I have not erred in my interpretations of Torah

Aryeh Klapper

15 Tammuz 5776/July 21, 2016


Parashat Va'eira

Do True Lovers Have Free Will?  A Philosophic Pilpul

in honor of the marriage of Tzipporah Machlah and Yehuda


Principle #6 of the Thirteen Principles of Belief reads: “I believe with perfect belief that all the words of the prophets are true”.  It is therefore astonishing that Meshekh Chokhmah asserts in his Introduction to Sefer Shemot that such belief is impossible.  


Here is his argument:

The prophecy of Mosheh is above the prophecy of all the prophets,

because the prophecy of the others is (certified) on the basis of signs and wonders,

and anyone who believes in signs, has in his heart an imperfection = יש בלבו דופי,

or else is certified via a prophet who is (already) presumed to be a prophet (on the basis of signs and wonders), such as Elisha via Eliyahu,

just that the Torah said to believe a prophet who displays signs and wonders,

just as it commands that we believe witnesses, even though it is not necessarily inevitable that they will always testify truth.

Chananiah ben Azor demonstrates this, as he was a true prophet but in the end became a false prophet, as they say in (the chapter titled) “Those Who are Strangled”.  

Not so Mosheh Rabbeinu, because all Israel heard the Holy Blessed One speaking to Mosheh face to face, and all of them reached the level of prophecy and saw how the Holy Blessed One spoke to him,  therefore Shemot 19:9 says: “Behold I am coming to you in the thickness of cloud, so that the nation will hear when I speak with you, and they will believe also in you forever”,

because so long as they believed on account of the signs, as they did in Mitzrayim – it would have been easy to nullify (whatever Mosheh commanded) via another prophet who displayed signs and wonders;

not so now – even if a thousand myriads of prophets came with signs and wonders to say in the name of Hashem that the point of a yud of Mosheh’s Torah should be altered, we will not heed him, and we have a mitzvah to execute him in accordance with the law of a false prophet,

since regarding the prophecy of Mosheh we ourselves are witnesses, and so Scripture says: and they will believe also in you forever”.


Meshekh Chokhmah contends that belief in prophets other than Mosheh is a legal rather than religious category, and reflects obligation rather than conviction.  Belief in Mosheh is different because it originates in direct experience.


Meshekh Chokhmah’s argument echoes Mishnah Avot 5:16’s reflection on interhuman relationships:

All love that is contingent on something – when that something ceases, the love ceases;

But (love) that is not contingent on anything – will not ever cease


Belief in Mosheh is emunah she’einah teluyah badvar = noncontingent belief; belief on other prophets is emunah heteluyah badavar = contingent belief.


But even this does not convey the full radicalness of Meshekh Chokhmah’s position.  He actually offers two grounds for the contingency of belief in prophets.  The first is that the evidence for their status is irrelevant.  The second is that prophets are human beings with free will, and someone may be a true prophet one day and corrupt the next.  Mosheh Rabbeinu is an exception to the first issue because his status is established differently; but how could G-d tell the Jews to believe in Mosheh forever?  Shouldn’t they keep in mind that even he might be corrupted?  As Meshekh Chokhmah writes:

If so, how could G-d command that they believe forever in Mosheh – does not Berakhot 33a teach that “All is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven”, and (therefore) that knowledge does not compel choice?  (Should they not be concerned) lest Mosheh afterward choose, G-d forbid, to add (to the Torah) out of his own mind?!


He concludes:

Against our will, (we must say) that Hashem the Blessed removed choice from Mosheh utterly, and he was left determined, as the angels are.

Two subtly ironic touches show that he understands just how extreme this conclusion seems.  The first is his statement that the position that Mosheh Rabbeinu did not have free will is reached al karchin = against our will.  The second is his citation of the source for his argument:

Investigate closely all the words of Rabbeinu (=RAMBAM) in the Laws of the Foundations of the Torah Chapters 7 and 8, because all his words are holy, and they were said in the spirit of prophecy without a doubt.


In other words, Meshekh Chokhmah’s argument for the possible falseness of all prophecy other than that of Mosheh Rabbeinu, derives from the words of Rabbeinu Mosheh (ben Maimon, RAMBAM), but the prophetic authenticity of RAMBAM cannot be doubted.  Why not?  Was Rambam also deprived of his free will?


Note also that in this reading Mosheh becomes the mirror image of Pharaoh.


But let us focus once again on the nexus of love and belief.  Meshekh Chokhmah suggests that Mosheh’s becoming angelic led to his separation from his wife.  In his formulation, the issue is a lack of physicality; Mosheh literally becomes an angel.  


But it seems to me that a better argument can be made directly from the issue of free will.  Genuine relationship requires that both parties maintain the relationship of their own choice, and a man without free will cannot be a real husband.  Indeed, while Meshekh Chokhmah tries hard to present Mosheh’s apotheosis as a reward, G-d created humans precisely because angels cannot freely choose to love Him.


But here is the problem.  We argued above that love and belief are parallel.  Contingent love, like belief in non-Mosaic prophecy, is subject to change and decay.  Love based on direct experience of the other, like the Jewish people’s prophetic experience of Mosheh’s prophecy, is eternal.  How can this be so?  Why doesn’t it depend on the lover’s choice to act in accordance with his or her experience?  

One might suggest that true lovers are deprived of free will.  But we just argued based on Mosheh that true love requires free will!


I’m not at all sure that we should try to resolve this contradiction.  As Rabbi Akiva does with the apparent contradiction between Divine foreknowledge and human free will, sometimes you just have to embrace the paradox: “Everything is foreseen, and yet autonomy is granted”. (Avot 3:15).  

Instead, we should bless the newly married couple that their love, so deeply grounded in genuine experience of each other’s souls, provide them with both the security that stems from a promise of eternity and the wonder generated by the constant experience of freely choosing to share one’s life, and of having that choice freely reciprocated.


Parashat Shemot


Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, Dean

What is the difference between heroism and ordinary goodness? Is heroism, like the miraculous, necessarily unexpected? Is a hero someone who behaves better than we could reasonably expect ourselves to behave in the same situation, or better than we expected them to behave? Can it be heroic to simply do one’s difficult but obviously correct duty?

These questions are addressed by R. Eliezer son of R. Eliyahu Ashkenazi (1513-1586) in his commentary Maasei Hashem.

ואמנם ענין אומרו ״ויעשו להם בתים״

פירש רש״י על פי האגדה ״בתי כהונה ובתי לוויה״

שכן אמרו רז"ל (סוטה יא, ב; שמ"ר א, יג) גם כן ששפרה ופועה היו יוכבד ומרים

ויש אומרים יוכבד ואלישבע

וכבר יפלא מאד זה כפי הפשט

שהיאך יעלה על לב שפרעה יצוה לעבריות שהם בעצמם יהרגו ילדי העבריים

ועוד יש לשאול

מה שנאמר ״ותיראן המילדות את הא-להים״

ועוד ״וייטב א-להים למילדות״

וכן חזר לומר ״ויהי כי יראו המילדות...״

ואם היו הצדקניות ההם

מה זאת החזקת הטובה על שיראו את הא-להים

והלא דין הוא

שאמרו ״יהרג ואל יהרוג״?!

However, with regard to Scripture saying “He made for them houses”

Rashi explains via the Aggada that this means “Houses of priesthood and Levitehood”

as the Sages said as well that Shifrah and Puah were Yocheved and Miriam,

or some say Yocheved and Elisheva.

But this is astounding if considered in terms of peshat,

as how could Pharaoh even have considered commanding Jewish women to themselves kill Jewish children?!

We can further ask:

When Scripture writes “The midwives feared Elokim”

and further “Elokim did good for the midwives”

and it also recapitulates “When it happened that the midwives feared . . .”

if the midwives are properly identified as those righteous ones (i.e. Yocheved and Miriam or Elisheva),

why are they owed gratitude for fearing G-d

when (their refusal to kill the male Jewish infants) was simply rational law,

as the Sages said: “Let oneself be murdered rather than murder”!?

R. Ashkenazi suggests that for Egyptian midwives to defy Pharaoh was heroic, but for Jewish midwives, how could Pharaoh even consider that they would obey?! And if they were righteous Jewesses, why do they deserve any reward for obeying? What is heroic for those who have the choice of ignoring G-d is mere logic for those who inescapably fear Him.

A harsher version of R. Ashkenazi’s thesis is that all sin reflects a lack of belief, and so is tantamount to denial of the Creator. This thesis is often attributed to the Holocaust martyr R. Elchonon Wasserman. R. Ashkenazi himself is gentler, and has no difficulty understanding why Egyptian midwives deserved gratitude for their resistance. Yad Vashem reflects more his attitude, and I think this is a good thing. But it deserves recall that R. Elchonon returned to Europe from an American fundraising trip in full awareness of the looming danger, and there is also value in the stern expectation of proper behavior regardless of cost.

The midrash seems to be more tolerant yet, and to heap rewards on Yocheved and Miriam for refusing to commit mass infanticide. One textual motive for this is the peculiarity of “he made for them houses” – what sort of reward is that (noting that meanwhile the Jews are building cities for Pharaoh)? It seems that these must be genealogical or symbolic houses, and furthermore, that these must have significance later in

the narrative. And so the midwives become the mothers of Jewish Houses, ala Ravenclaw.

There are many non-philosophic difficulties with this approach, however. Yocheved is not the mother of all Levites, and it requires much exegetical effort to make Miriam the mother of the Davidic line. Deborah Klapper noted to me that “houses” in the rest of Chumash are by definition patrilineal. (I afterward found the same point in Chiddushei HaGriZ.) And grammatically, the verse reads “He made for (third person masculine plural) houses,” so the houses seem unrelated to women at all.

Other midrashim and commentators accordingly understand the verse entirely differently. G-d did not make houses for the midwives; rather, Pharaoh made houses for the Jews. How was this a response to the midwives failure to obey orders? Pharaoh built Jewish housing in the midst of Egyptian neighborhoods, so that the cries of Jewish infants would betray them to his loyal people, who would then throw them in the Nile. More radically, he built the Jewish housing amidst houses with Egyptian infants, so that the Egyptian infants would cry and stimulate sympathetic crying by the Jewish infants. Thus Pharaoh made even babies take part in his genocidal conspiracy, and ensured there would be no innocence at all left in Egypt.

This may seem outlandish, but in fact it responds to a deep textual problem later in Shemot. When G-d kills the Egyptian firstborn, He is פוסח, He passes over, the Jewish houses and their firstborns. This image of selectivity fails utterly if the Jews are geographically isolated, and we have been told previously that the Jews all lived in Goshen! The solution is that Pharaoh at least built Jewish young couples housing, or Jewish maternity wards, in the heart of Egypt. (For those wondering how G-d rewarded the Egyptian midwives – He made the Jews extraordinarily fertile, which in turn raised the midwives’ incomes.)

R. Ashkenazi himself develops a wonderfully creative composite approach. Working again with strong assumptions about human motivations, he argues that no king wishes to commit genocide against his slaves, as that would diminish his stature and harm his economy. Rather, Pharaoh must have been concerned with overpopulation. As Jewish fertility increased, Jews spilled out of Goshen into Egypt

proper. Pharaoh therefore decreed that all Jewish male infants born outside Goshen should be killed, and he built Jewish housing amidst Egyptian neighborhoods to ensure that his decree would be enforced.

I believe that historical experience raises serious questions about R. Ashkenazi’s assumptions. Sometimes – maybe always – the urge to genocide is obviously counterproductive from a rational perspective, and people in the throes of hatred take no heed of economic, political, or military consequences, even if their rhetoric seems to suggest otherwise.

The question I want to raise is whether it is easier or harder to defy an evil social order when it is rationally grounded. Which way are the midwives more heroic – if Pharaoh is rationally (albeit murderously) attempting to maintain his slave population below the threshold at which it will constitute a potential threat, or if he is engaged in a rationally unjustifiable genocide?

My sense is that many human beings, myself among them, find it harder to resist irrational rather than rational appeals to evil (although we often seek to rationalize irrational evil). This may be because reason creates a neutral space that lets us play out the confrontation so that it is less a test of wills. To resist a charismatic requires not objective argument but the claim that I am at least as worthy and as reliable a judge of value as you – it requires ego and self-confidence that has no external source of validation.

Ego and self-confidence are therefore necessary components of moral strength, and in many cases the source of true heroism. As with physical musculature, of course, they are also the source of the dangers they are needed to resist. It is vital that educators, and parents, not fall prey to the delusion that there is any single set of characteristics, or type of human character, that guarantees righteousness.

Who is the true hero? The one who conquers their own tendencies when those tendencies lead to moral or ethical weakness. Shabbat Shalom!

(This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2015)


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Sat, 29 April 2017 3 Iyyar 5777