Friday, April 27, 2007

Shoshanat Yaaqov

I am proud to present a new compendium entitled "Shoshanat Yaaqov: A Guide to the Jewish Wedding and Laws of Family Purity in Light of the Fundamentals of Jewish Thought."

Shoshanat Yaaqov includes practical halachic guidelines on an introductory level, as well as a philosophical perspective on the meaning and significance of these laws.

As it has not yet fully been edited and is still a work in progress, I would very much appreciate your feedback and constructive criticism.

You can download Shoshanat Yaaqov here.

Shabbat Shalom!

The Marital Prohibitions

The arayot, or sexual prohibitions of the Torah, feature prominently in this week's double parasha. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Jewish 'take' on sexual restrictions is the way in which they are conceptualized by the early commentaries. It never occurred to our great Rabbis that we should be stricken with horror at the very prospect of incest or homosexuality. On the contrary, not only Ibn Ezra and Rambam, but even the Ramban asks why the Torah forbids these activities. The implicit premise of their analyses is that the Torah is a system of wisdom, not a set of taboos. It may be true that we have a natural aversion to certain forms of sexual expression, but this is of no significance to the Torah whatsoever.

The Rambam famously explains the incest restrictions from a practical standpoint. We grow up in close proximity to our relatives and spend a great deal of time with them throughout our lives. Were sexual relationships among siblings or between parents and children allowed, the constant availability of these individuals to us would encourage excessive involvement in sensual pleasure. The Ibn Ezra likewise adopts this explanation of the laws.

Nachmanides objects vigorously to the Rambam's analysis on several grounds. He points out that a man's wife lives with her husband and is regularly available to him as well, yet the Torah sets few limits on intimacy within the framework of marriage. Moreover, the Torah allows a man to take numerous wives, which would seem to defeat the whole purpose of minimizing access to sensual pleasure.

The Ramban therefore rejects the notion that the basis for the incest prohibition is related to diminishing the extent of a person's pursuit of instinctual gratification. Instead, he explains the incest restrictions from the perspective of Qabbalah. According to the Qabbalistic tradition, the children of certain marital unions are spiritually defective. These problematic relationships are the ones barred by the Torah.

The position of Maimonides, however, demands our consideration. How would he respond to the challenges levelled against him by Nachmanides?

I believe that the Rambam's understanding of the harmful nature of incest reveals his profound grasp of human psychology. When a person is growing up, it is important for him or her to experience home and family life as something safe and non-threatening. The household environment must be a forum for learning, exploration and development. If a child were to be viewed by his or her own relatives as a sexual object, or were to view his or her relatives as potential sexual partners, the whole structure and focus of family life would be undermined.

Modern literature on sexual abuse and incest fully supports this idea. Homes in which siblings and/or children and parents engage in physically intimate activities with one another are never healthy homes. Parents cease acting in the roles of teacher and mentor and are transformed into predators. Children are treated not as helpless creatures in need of nurturing and guidance but as tools for the personal gratification of more powerful adults. The results are profoundly disturbing; being raised in such a household never fails to scar an individual for life.

A family is supposed to serve as an educational resource and a wellspring of inspiration for its children, preparing them for a healthy existence in the "real world". An incestuous family dynamic moves in the opposite direction. Its energies are occupied with its own immediate satisfaction rather than any transcendent objective or ideal . Members of such a family become steeped in the selfish pursuit of instinctual pleasure - and the youngsters reared in this environment internalize these values, lacking the maturity to "rise above" them.

Anna Freud, in her book Psychoanalysis for Teachers and Parents, discusses this problem at length. She cites one instance in which, from earliest youth, a particular young boy's sexual interests were never allowed to be frustrated. He experienced unlimited gratification whenever he wanted it. The situation evolved over time to the point that, as a teenager and well into his adult years, the "child" maintained an exclusive sexual relationship with his mother.

Anna Freud observed that many people might expect this person to be very happy and productive - after all, he was provided with unlimited, unrestricted sensual pleasure throughout his formative years, and never had to experience the pain or frustration most people endure. However, the opposite turned out to be the case. The boy never developed emotional or intellectual maturity - he was totally stagnant as a human being. He was not capable of succeeding in school or contributing to society. His life was a tragic failure.

This is a perfect example of what the Rambam is saying about incest. Sexuality cannot be a part of the home environment of a youngster. If interactions with relatives cross the boundary of what is appropriate, a child will have great difficulty developing into a mature, sensitive and intellectually attuned human being in the future.

Thus, the Rambam was not simply suggesting that incestuous relationships would allow for too much sexual activity. It is not a matter of quantity alone, as Nachmanides rightly observed in his critique. What the Rambam really means is that incestuous behavior - precisely because it occurs within the confines of a family and cannot be regulated or controlled - stands in the way of the development of a child's personality, and derails the holy objective for which Jewish households are established.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Importance of Review

Since Pesah, many of us have spent our Shabbat afternoons reflecting upon Pirke Avot, The Ethics of Our Fathers. One of the key themes of Pirke Avot is the incomparable value of Torah knowledge and the importance pursuing it wholeheartedly. Although we all attach great significance to Torah wisdom, few people take the time to seriously consider practical strategies for acquiring it effectively. We have a tendency to simply "dive" into the texts of the Torah or Talmud without too much forethought.

In order to enjoy the most enriching Torah Study experience possible, we must turn to the masters of our tradition for guidance as to the proper method of learning. An examination of the words of our Sages reveals that they placed an unusually strong emphasis on the importance of hazara, review. Remarkably, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) asserts that "anyone who learns Torah but does not review is considered like one who sows seeds but does not harvest his crop."

Obviously, no farmer who has spent long hours tilling, sowing and fertilizing his field would pass up the opportunity to profit from his investment. Indeed, the reason for all of his toil is his desire to eventually benefit from the produce of his land. If a farmer neglects to reap what he has sown, all of his efforts are retroactively rendered meaningless. Intriguingly then, the metaphor that the Rabbis employ suggests that one who diligently engages in the study of Torah but fails to review his studies has literally labored in vain.

Certainly no one would question the practical, mnemonic value of review - without review, one is likely to forget at least some of what one has learned. When a student reviews material, he revisits information and ideas that he has explored in the past so as to improve his capacity to remember them in the future. This repetition does not contribute anything to what he knows; he is simply making use of a strategy that will help him hold onto the knowledge he has already acquired. Nevertheless, the Rabbis maintained that if a person does not review his Torah studies, his process of learning itself is somehow incomplete. In their view, hazara does not simply reinforce our memories - it adds a crucial element to our understanding of Torah.

By definition, though, review involves the rehashing of facts and concepts we have already learned. How can this possibly contribute something novel to our body of knowledge?

The answer to this difficulty lies in a clarification of the Torah’s concept of review. A person who wishes to expand his Torah knowledge must begin somewhere. He selects a specific set of laws or halachic topic to research and analyze, and progresses carefully from one aspect of this subject to the next. The only way to explore a Torah topic systematically is to consider its component parts in detail, one by one. By the time he has concluded his investigation, he may have accumulated a vast array of meaningful insights - each fascinating in its own right - that have offered him a glimpse of the inscrutable depth of the Torah’s wisdom.

However, the collection of novel points he has discovered, as beautiful as it might be, remains just that - a collection, loosely knit and lacking unity. Unless the student opts to revisit these insights and synthesize them into a meaningful whole, he will not have reaped the ultimate benefit of his Torah study - the chance to perceive the magnificent conceptual structure that underlies all of the smaller hidushim he has toiled to develop and perfect. It is this search for the "big picture", this process of reevaluating and integrating the results of one’s Torah learning in order to reveal abstract principles of ever more stunning elegance, that constitutes genuine review.

With this in mind, we can better understand the value that our Rabbis attached to the review of Torah learning. What Hazal advocated was not the mechanical repetition of memorized facts or ideas but a fundamental transformation of the way we understand and conceptualize the knowledge we have acquired.

After we have thoroughly acquainted ourselves with a topic of Torah study and have subjected its details to careful analysis, we are presented with the chance to take our comprehension of the wisdom of Torah to an even more profound level. It is now the time for us to review the insights we have gained with the hope of identifying a broader, more penetrating theoretical formulation that will further integrate and illuminate them. We mull over our previous discoveries not as an aid to memory, but as a stimulus to qualitatively deeper intellectual breakthroughs.

Now it is clear why a person who learns but does not review is compared to a farmer who works tirelessly to plant but never harvests his crop. Through his toil, the student has placed himself in a position where he can avail himself of the most precious of opportunities - the opportunity to unlock a whole new realm of Torah wisdom and knowledge of God.

If he fails to review his learning and thereby move beyond his current level of understanding, his comprehension of Torah will never reach its zenith. In effect, he will have abandoned the most delectable fruits of his labor, leaving new vistas of Torah knowledge unexplored.

On the other hand, one who performs hazara in this unique manner experiences the breathtaking beauty of the Creator’s wisdom with an added dimension of clarity. From this new vantage point, the student gains a deeper awareness of the infinity of God’s knowledge as it is revealed in His Torah. Having perceived the untold richness, complexity and sophistication of the Torah’s wisdom in such an exquisite way, he is sure to echo the words of King David, "for every pursuit I have seen an end, but Your commandment is exceedingly vast."

Monday, April 23, 2007

JIB Awards Nomination

It just came to my attention that this blog has been nominated for "Best Torah Blog" on the JIB Awards Site (Group C).

I am honored to have been nominated, especially in view of the fact that my communal obligations have prevented me from posting on a regular basis for the past couple of months.

Of course, I plan to resume my every-other-day posting schedule as soon as I possibly can.

Thank you to my readership for your kind support.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Relationship Between Pesah and Matsah

The Paschal offering in Egypt marked the beginning of the final stage of the Jews' redemption from their oppression. It subsequently became the focal point of the observance of Passover which, despite its absence today due to our lack of a Temple, is still commemorated in several ways at the Seder.

Passover and the Problem of Timing

The Pesah Sacrifice stands out from among all other sacrifices in several respects. The first unusual characteristic of the Pesah that is noteworthy is its timing. Holiday sacrifices are typically offered on the Yom Tov when they are supposed to be eaten. Not so the Qorban Pesah, which is carried out the day before the holiday of Passover.

(Indeed, the Torah assigns the name "Pesah" to the 14 of Nissan, the day we refer to as "Erev Pesah", and calls the 7-day holiday "Hag Hamatsot" instead of "Pesah". That is to say, the 14 of Nissan is treated as if it were a holiday in its own right that revolves around the offering of the Paschal sacrifice. We are indebted to Rabbinic parlance for the change in terminology. )

Furthermore, the Temple obeyed a general rule that forbade sacrifices from being offered in the late afternoon. No sacrifice was allowed to be brought after the fixed Afternoon Offering (Tamid) was completed. The regular communal offering was supposed to be the final sacrifice each day. Remarkably, the Qorban Pesah is governed by the opposite rule - it must be offered after the Tamid sacrifice on the 14th of Nissan!

The problem of timing is compounded by the laws regulating the consumption of the sacrifice. Although the Qorban Pesah is offered in the Temple on the calendar date of 14 Nissan, one is not permitted to eat of its meat until the nighttime, i.e., until the 15th of Nissan! This is quite unusual. As a rule, offerings are to be consumed as soon as possible. Different sacrifices have different halachic deadlines that specify the amount of time within which they must be eaten. However, we almost never find a sacrifice that is offered on one day for the purpose of a meal on the next day.

One more striking feature of the Qorban Pesah deserves mention. In ancient times, prior to the construction of the First Temple, individual and local altars were still allowed to be used for sacrifice. Only communal offerings had to be brought to the national altar that was housed in the Tabernacle. The Paschal Sacrifice, however, despite the fact that it was a personal offering, could not be completed at a local altar - it had to be offered at the national sanctuary. Indeed, the Torah tells us in Parashat Re'eh:

You may not slaughter the Passover Offering in one of your gates which the Lord, your God, gives you. Rather, to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to rest His name - there shall you sacrifice the Passover in the evening; when the sun goes down, it is the Holiday of your exit from Egypt.

Ironically, though, once the 15th of Nissan rolls around and the issue of eating the Paschal lamb comes up, communal seders are prohibited, and individualism is the rule:

In one house it shall be eaten - do not bring any of the meat outside of the house...

The Qorban Pesah is not the only mysterious element of Passover. The prohibition of hametz is also formulated in a way that seems counterintuitive. The Torah explicitly forbids the consumption of hametz during the seven days of Passover. The Torah also tells us that the Passover sacrifice may not be offered "on hametz". Our Rabbis teach us that this means that hametz must be removed from our domains beginning with midday of the 14 of Nissan, i.e., Erev Pesah.

An obvious technical question thus presents itself. Why does the Torah formulate this as two distinct prohibitions, one for half a day on the 14 of Nissan, and one for a full seven days during Passover proper? Why not simply command us to abstain from hametz from midday on the 14 through the end of the 21st?

Exodus - National and Individual

In order to better understand the significance of the 14th and 15th of Nissan, respectively, we must consider the dual function of the Exodus experience. One objective of the offering of the Qorban Pesah was the constitution of a new nation dedicated to the service of Hashem. This was accomplished through the communal participation in the sacrifice "the entire community of the congregation of Israel shall do it." The fourteenth of Nissan is a day on which every individual Jew demonstrates his identification with the Jewish people and its mission. This is reflected most clearly in the fact that the Qorban Pesah, although a personal offering, must be brought in a national setting.

As important as the events of the 14th of Nissan were for establishing the unity of the Jewish nation, they were only one step in the process of creating a holy community. Every household had to implement the concepts of Pesah in its own framework and apply them to its function. This process was initiated through the consumption of the Qorban Pesah in the home. Through carrying the sacrificial meat from the national sanctuary to one's private domain, an individual showed his intention to bring the message of the offering into his personal life.

Indeed, the seven day holiday of Passover can actually be construed as our "response" to the fundamental lesson of the Qorban Pesah. Through the Paschal Sacrifice, we demonstrate our rejection of the materialism of idolatry and our commitment to a spiritual, transcendent purpose in life. This shift in thought should yield a commensurate shift in behavior - an abandonment of leavened bread, the bread of luxury, and its replacement with matsah, the bread of servitude. Our recognition of the metaphysical basis of existence leads us to spurn the pursuit of wealth and pleasure and to dedicate ourselves to the service of a higher objective - knowledge and imitation of the ways of God.

There is a beautiful proof for this idea in a curious verse in Parashat Re'eh which presents the law of the Paschal Sacrifice:

You shall not eat any hametz on it; seven days you shall eat on it matzot, the bread of affliction.

There is an obvious difficulty with this verse. We understand that hametz may not be eaten "on" the Paschal Offering. We also know that hametz is prohibited during the seven days of Passover. But why does the Torah say we should eat matsot "on" the Qorban Pesah for seven days? After the first night, the Paschal Sacrifice is gone!

In light of what we have already explained, the verse makes perfect sense. The seven day holiday of Passover is in fact integrally linked to the Paschal Sacrifice - it represents our response to the spiritual challenge that the Qorban Pesah lays at our feet. Thus, we are actually eating matsot "on" - that is, in the wake of, or by dint of - the Passover Offering, for seven days.

We can now appreciate why the Passover sacrifice had to be brought after the Tamid offering, not before. Although it is offered during the daytime of the 14th of Nissan, its ultimate goal is only realized in the evening, where its consumption becomes a fundamental part of the observance of the Festival of Matsot. The fact that the sacrificial procedure is delayed until the conclusion of the daily order of offerings shows that it is in fact not related to that order of offerings - it is tied to the upcoming night's festivities. The national offering of the Paschal Sacrifices on the 14th of Nissan sets up the theological framework for the observance of Passover in each and every Jewish household on Pesah night.

The difficulty we raised with regard to the prohibition of hametz can now also be resolved. The Passover Offering cannot be completed unless its owners have already divested themselves of hametz in anticipation of the Festival. This is over and above the requirement to avoid hametz during the seven day "Hag Hamatsot" that begins in the evening. Our separation from hametz on the 14th of Nissan demonstrates that, even before we offer the Qorban Pesah, we are already prepared to bring it into our homes on the Seder Night. Thus, through abstaining from hametz on the 14th of Nissan, we underscore the connection between the offering of the Qorban Pesah in the Temple and its function as the "stimulus", as it were, for the Holiday of Passover proper.

We should not overlook the subtle and elegant manner in which the Torah formulated the holiday of Pesah. The central event on Passover is the Seder, which, in contradistinction to most of our holiday observances (Shofar, Lulav, etc.), takes place at night. Nighttime has a dual identity in Jewish Law. From the perspective of Shabbat and Holidays, the evening precedes the morning - "and it was evening and it was morning, one day" - so our holy days always begin the 'night before' their calendar date. From the perspective of the Laws of Sacrifices, however, the daytime is viewed, in the conventional sense, as preceding the nighttime. Offerings brought on a given day are eaten or burned during the night that follows.

The Seder Night, then, embodies both facets of nighttime. It is simultaneously the "end" of the 14th of Nissan - the date of the Paschal Sacrifice - and the beginning of the 15th of Nissan, the first day of the Passover Holiday. The Pesah Offering is consumed at the conclusion of the 14th of Nissan from the vantage point of the Temple's regulations, while serving as a key component of the meal that marks the beginning of the Festival on the 15th. Hence, it is through the night of the Seder that Biblical "Passover" and the "Festival of Matsot" are linked!

Finally, we may now be in a position to understand why the Rabbis chose to refer to the "Festival of Matsot" as "Pesah", despite the fact that this contravenes Biblical usage. Through adopting this terminology, the Sages emphasize that "Hag Hamatsot" ultimately derives from "Pesah". The Jews' ideological commitment, reflected in the Paschal Sacrifice, generates the impetus for the lifestyle change adopted on the Festival of Unleavened Bread. This lifestyle change, in turn, is a manifestation of the Jews' dedication to internalizing the ideas represented by the Pesah Offering. Thus, in a very real way, the "Festival of Matsot" embodies the message of Passover in its fullest form.