Friday, June 27, 2008

Daas Torah?

I just saw a great quote in a Tradition article (by R' Sperber, edition 36:3).

"Nothing could be more praiseworthy and honorable to the Hazon Ish himself than that people should study his words and occasionally come up with different conclusions."
-Igrot Moshe, YD 3:8

R' Bazak on the Spies

I would like to critique R' Amnon Bazak's article in the Shabbat BeShabbato parsha sheet for parshat Shelach.

The Issues

In parshat Shelach, each tribe contributes one spy, and the list of spies along with their tribe is given. Here is the order of tribes from which the spies come. (In a few cases I have included the spy's name because it will later become relevant.)
Yehudah (Kalev ben Yefuneh)
Yisachar (Yigal ben Yosef)
Efraim (Yehoshua bin Nun)

This list raises the following questions:

1. The tribes are out of order. Most lists of the tribes in the Torah are by order of birth, by mother (Leah/Rachel/concubines), by encampment, or by eventual territorial inheritance. Here, no obvious order is followed. For example, in all four of the classification systems I just mentioned, the tribes of Efraim, Menashe, and Binyamin are adjacent to one another. But here they are separated by Zevulun, a tribe which bears no relationship to them. Why this order?

2. The tribe of Menashe is mentioned here as being a subset of the tribe of Yosef. This is normal procedure in the Torah for both Efraim and Menashe. But here it is done only for Menashe, not for Efraim. Why not for Efraim too?

3. The spies are supposed to be "prominent men, leaders of Bnei Yisrael". But they are not the same people who were previously listed as being the princes of each tribe. Why weren't the princes chosen as spies?

R' Bazak's Answers

R' Bazak assumes that Moshe, fearing that the spies' mission would end the way it did, maneuvered to have his trusted associate Yehoshua named among the spies. He hoped this would influence the other spies for the better. Unfortunately, in the end Yehoshua's influence was not enough to change the outcome.

In pursuit of this goal, Moshe decided to send not the princes (this would have disqualified Yehoshua who was not a prince) but rather people of slightly lower stature. (question 3) To emphasize Yehoshua's centrality to Moshe, Yehoshua and his tribe Efraim were moved forward from their expected spot in the list. (question 2) Beforehand Efraim had been listed next to Menashe and thus subsumed under Yosef. But when their name moved, the mention of Yosef did not move with it. (question 1)

My Criticism

1. It is hard to understand why, in R' Bazak's explanation, the reference to Yosef did not move along with the name Efraim. As it is, it would appear (wrongly of course) that Efraim is not a son of Yosef. If the mentions of Yosef and Efraim were moved up together, it would be clearer that Efraim is a son of Yosef, and then (after a digression) that Menashe was too. Alternatively, the mentions of Yosef, Efraim, AND Menashe could be moved up together, and all confusion about Yosef's descendants could be avoided. (We know that Binyamin "moved up" along with Efraim; as long as multiple tribes are moving, Menashe is a much more natural choice than Binyamin.) According to either of these suggestions, the "moving up" would make much more sense that it does with R' Bazak's choice. Yet the Torah did not choose either "sensible" option.

As further support for my point here, looking throughout Sefer Bamidbar, we see that Efraim is mentioned before Menashe in cases of leadership and war, while Menashe is mentioned first when discussing tribal structure and land inheritance. Our case seems to be in the former category, so Efraim should have been mentioned before Menashe, and the mention of Yosef which precedes both Efraim and Menashe should have "attached" itself to Efraim. Yet we see it did not move with Efraim.

2. It is not clear what is gained by moving Yehoshua from 7th to 5th in the list, as R' Bazak says was done to emphasize Yehoshua's role. If Yehoshua were so important, why wasn't he placed 1st on the list? 5th on the list does nothing more than confuse you. Nobody before R' Bazak saw a sign of Yehoshua's importance in his place on the list, hinting perhaps that such a sign does not exist.

3. Moshe's great faith in Yehoshua, according to R' Bazak, seem slightly misplaced when it was Kalev not Yehoshua who did the bulk of the arguing against the 10 evil spies. If Kalev too was chosen for his good qualities, why is he not "moved up" in the list too? More significantly, why weren't the other 10 spies chosen for their good qualities? Given that Moshe had abandoned the idea of sending each tribe's prince, couldn't he have found a worthy choice among any of the other 10 tribes?

For these reasons, I think R' Bazak's answers must be totally rejected as an explanation for the list's oddities.

Alternative Resolution

3. I am surprised that anyone would possibly presume that the spies would be the princes. When governments communicate with each other, it is rare for the highest executives to travel from one side to the other. For full-time communication an ambassador is used; on more special occasions a foreign minister or other envoy does the job. Summit meetings between top leaders are a rare occasion. When sending spies into hostile territory, it is all the more clear that the top leaders should not be used.

Thus it makes perfect sense that second-tier leaders are chosen to be spies. Yehoshua, who has already demonstrated himself as an able military commander but who is not yet a political leader, is as good a choice as any. His righteousness surely didn't hurt, but there's no indication that it was the most central factor.

2. Based on the above considerations, it seems to me that the "mention of Yosef" problem is insoluble if we approach it as R' Bazak has. However, there is a happy accident in the text which I think provides the correct solution.

Notice the name immediately preceding the tribe of Efraim in the list: "Of the tribe of Yisachar, Yigal son of Yosef. Of the tribe of Efraim, Hoshea son of Nun." The father's name is exactly the "Yosef" we thought was missing! I assume that having the name Yosef appear twice in a row, referring to different people, would have been confusing and weird sounding. Thus while Yosef should have appeared before both Efraim and Menashe, it was "removed" from before Efraim.

Of course, we all know that Efraim is a son of Yosef. Normally we would mention it anyway because that's the Torah's style. But here, where the normal style sounds bad, it is abandoned.

1. Why, then, was Efraim moved in the list, away from Menashe, in the first place?

I don't have a conclusive answer for this, but I don't think I need one. We really know very few details about the spies' mission. There are any number of possible reasons why the individuals should be mentioned in a specific order or grouping, and there is no a priori reason why the order of individuals should be the same as of the tribes. Of course, the fact that the list mostly corresponds to the normal tribal list is very suggestive, but it is easy to think of scenarios that account for that.

For example, imagine that the spies divided themselves into three groups of four, for tactical reasons. The first group included 4 tribes descended from Leah. The second group included the remaining Leah tribe as well as the 3 Rachel tribes. The third group included the 4 concubine-descended tribes. Within each group the spies were ordered by authority level. Due to his background Yehoshua was given the highest authority in the second group. This earned him the 5th spot on the overall list, putting him above the Zevulun spy and thus making the list incompatible with the order of tribal birth.

Another possible direction of inquiry would be to look back to Sefer Breishit where the 10 brothers were accused of being spies. There too Yosef and Binyamin have an anomalous position in a story about spies, perhaps related to their anomalous position on our list. I am not sure what consequences if any this comparison has, but it might be worth looking into.

In short, I see no difficulty with the fact that spies - not tribes - are not in the expected order.

Random Comments

R' Bazak's essay here, and others that he has published in Shabbat BeShabbato, are well below the standards that he has set for himself in such brilliant articles as this one.

This just goes to show that if you are expected to produce an original high-level thought every week indefinitely, at some point you will run out of interesting things to say and will occasionally have to post something of inferior quality.

It is a lesson I myself have learned well, through a long period of blogging.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Ki hem chayenu veorech yamenu

R' Soloveitchik in "Halachic Mind" proposes a philosophy in which halachic and scientific inquiry are conducted in very similar manners. As he describes it, Jewish sources form a kind of "landscape" which we explore, investigate and categorize, just as we investigate the natural world, in order to develop an approach to running our lives.

R' Soloveitchik's formulation resonates with me, and probably with many other people. It also provides a starting point for recognizing the ways in which scientific and religious inquiry are not alike.

In particular, I see one fundamental difference between Torah knowledge and scientific knowledge. If all the scientific knowledge in the world were forgotten, it would only be a temporary inconvenience for humanity. The same natural world would continue to exist as before. All the experiments performed over the last few thousand years could be re-performed and all the scientific laws and models rediscovered.

The same is not true of Torah knowledge. If the Bible, Talmud, and other traditions were to be forgotten, then barring miracles, they would be forever unrecoverable. Unlike the workings of nature which are forever present and testable, Torah knowledge was introduced into the world through a limited number of revelatory events. If we lose our memory of what happened at those events, the laws of nature do not guarantee us any future revelation.

It seems to me that this is the reason for the great emphasis Judaism places on Torah study. By studying Jewish tradition, and transmitting it to our children (this is an integral part of the mitzvah, see the first paragraph of the Shema), we do our part to ensure that the Torah is accessible to an infinite number of future generations. Unlike every other investment in the world which may pay off for an hour or a year or a thousand years, Torah study is an investment which can pay off literally forever.

This consideration seems to be the basis for the Jewish commitment to Torah study, a commitment which often seems so incomprehensible to outsiders, but can in fact be readily understood in practical terms.

UPDATE: in a sicha by R' Aharon Lichtenstein I saw the following very relevant source:

R' Hoshaya said: Wherever [a Biblical verse] says "morasha", the word is talking about the future.
- But it is written "[Torah tziva lanu Mosheh,] morasha kehilat yaakov"?
- He said: There is nothing more connected to the future than [the Torah].

(Yerushalmi Bava Batra 8:2)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Things I bet you didn't know

1) If you want to give Aharon Barak a call, an office number which he actually answers can be found here.

2) Ruth Gavison has a number of religious friends in Jerusalem and enjoys singing zemirot at Shabbat meals.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Thoughts on Yehoshua's spies

The two spies sent by Yehoshua to Jericho chose to spend the night there in the house of a prostitute named Rachav.

Understandably, this choice has scandalized generations of Biblical commentators. (Artscroll, for example, says Rachav was an "innkeeper" rather than a prostitute. Some older commentators translate "zonah" as "food merchant", which at least has a plausible etymology.) Why would the spies, who by all accounts were upstanding people who performed their job professionally, visit a prostitute in the middle of their mission?

One reason is that prostitutes, by the nature of their work, are required to be good at keeping secrets. Many of their customers would not be happy if news of their sexual escapades became well-known. Thus the spies could trust Rachav to keep their secret, more than they could have trusted a citizen chosen at random.

Another reason is that since the spies were probably nervous, suspicious-looking people, it was in their interest to behave like other such people and pretend just to be looking for sex. Thus their erratic behavior would be ascribed to a desire to avoid embarrassment, rather than a desire to avoid being revealed as spies.

A third possible reason is that prostitutes were probably lower-class and had less to lose by betraying their city for the enemy, Israel.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Politics and religion

People can be broadly generalized as right-wing or left-wing on any particular political issue. (Obviously.) Among the religious Jews whom we would identify as right-wing, it seems to me that their political and religious beliefs come about in two very distinct ways.

First, there are people whose primary motivation is religious, and due to certain Jewish commandments or attitudes have come to reject "land for peace" and other more left-wing political approaches. Unfortunately, these people are hard to conclusively identify as being in this category, since deep questions of "what came first, politics or religion" cannot be answered based on a few superficial observations.

The best example I can think of in this category is R' Yaakov Medan. The depth of his involvement in social, judicial, and educational issues, his innovation and enthusiasm when engaging in a broad range of religious scholarship, and (I posit from personal experience) the way he interacts with people, are all out of character for someone whose driving motivations are nationalistic. And yet there should be no questioning his right-wing-ness: I'm fully convinced that he regrets not expelling the West Bank Arabs in 1967, and would likely be willing to do the same today.

However, R' Medan is unusual in that the scope of his accomplishments allows us to carefully evaluate what he does and does not value. For normal people like us who make only a limited contribution to the public domain, it is very difficult for others to know what really motivates us.

The people on my second category are much easier to identify. They are those whose religion is simply an appendage of their nationalism. They often don't make a substantial time and effort commitment to learning Torah or engaging in chessed activities. The males among them don't always even go to minyan! But if you ask them to name the person who they most respect and who best exemplifies their worldview, they will invariably point you to a rabbi (generally named Kahane). In a certain sense, therefore, their religiousness is quite deep. But their deep allegiance makes a peculiar contrast with the lack of enthusiasm they show in acting on the more trying of their beliefs.

How does such a combination come about? The answer is simple. Aware that contemporary moral expectations do not allow for wars of conquest or killing Arabs, these people find in certain Jewish sources an alternative basis for their jingoism. A little honesty requires that they adopt the whole of Jewish practice in order to feel justified in believing in what they see as Jewish attitudes. But rarely do they show the same enthusiasm for these "derived" beliefs that they do for mouthing off about the latest comments by an Israeli government minister.

Now, you will tell me that most of the religious right-wing Jews you know fit neither of my stereotypical descriptions. They are neither entirely focused on the Torah to the exclusion of political attitudes not found in the sources, nor is their Judaism a crutch used solely to legitimize their political views. My hypothesis is that rather than fitting neither category, they fit both. Their are motivated by purely religious and purely political beliefs, to greater and lesser extents depending on the person. These motivations, while of separate origin, are mutually reinforcing to a certain extent and generally they live in happy coexistence.

But in their roots, one of these motivations is pure and the other impure, and religious Jews would do well to remove the latter from their consciousness. The prophet Amos tells us that God does not do special favors for the Jews any more that for the Ethiopians, Philistines or Arameans. Our privileges over the Arabs in Israel are limited to the extend of our observance of the Torah. If like secular Zionists a century ago we lose sight of that fact, then we will end up losing not only the Torah, but also our rights in the land and eventually our very will and ability to continue living there.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Beit Yishai

David Hamelech's family tree, based on Sefer Shmuel. The more important people are in bold. Women are in red.

It's interesting how many of the events took place "within the extended family". The same seems to be true of Shaul's family. The Bushes and Clintons still have a long way to catch up...

Friday, June 06, 2008


At some point I was translating online between English and German (which are very similar languages linguistically), and I noticed the following curious phenomenon.

English - German
street - strassen
hot - heiss
nut - nuss

Each of these words, and many others, is essentially the same in English and German. The only difference is that the "t" sound in English is replaced with a "ss" sound in German.

This is, of course, the exact difference between the "normal" and Ashkenazi pronunciations of Hebrew!

My theory is that, about a thousand years ago, everyone in Germany forgot how to say the letter "t" and started pronouncing it as "s" instead. So words in German that had a "t" in them were now pronounced differently, and eventually this was recognized through the use of a new "ss" letter. For the Jews in Germany at the time, this affected their pronunciation of Hebrew as well as German. Based on the common German pronunciation, the letter "taf" became a "saf".

These Jews and their descendants moved east and became the Ashkenazi population of Europe. Despite their migration and dispersion, they remained remarkably faithful to their customs of speech. Their day-to-day language remained a variation of German (Yiddish), and their pronunciation of Hebrew retained the oddities of the non-Jewish population their ancestors had lived among in Germany.

Today Yiddish has virtually died out, but if you want proof that Ashkenazim indeed have ancestry in Ashkenaz, look no further than the "Ashkenaziss" pronunciation which remains alive and well to this day.

Kimsos chatan al kalah

There is a custom at Jewish weddings that the bride walks in a circle around the groom several times before taking her place under the chuppah. I have never seen a good explanation for this, but skimming through Tanach this afternoon I came across an idea which HAS to be the correct explanation.

Yirmiyahu 31:20-21 says:
שובי בתולת ישראל, שבי אל עריך אלה. עד מתי תתחמקין, הבת השובבה? כי ברא יהוה חדשה בארץ, נקבה תסובב גבר

I would roughly translate this as "Return, O virgin of Israel, return to these your cities. How long will you turn away, you elusive girl? For Hashem has created a new thing in the earth: a woman shall circle a man."

The metaphor, of course, is that God and Israel are the man and woman courting each other. Historically men took the active role in courting women; similarly, God courted us by performing miracles and giving us land and the Torah. But in the messianic era, the equation will be reversed as Israel, the "woman", will "circle" and thereby court God by reaching out for Him with unprecedented spiritual enthusiasm. "I will let loose hunger in the land - not hunger for bread or thirst for water, but to hear the words of Hashem."

The wedding custom seems to be a direct acting out of the verse in Yirmiyahu: literally, the woman circles the man.

If you know the verse's context, it is clear that the custom alludes to the Jewish people's collective destiny and our continued hope for redemption. In this respect, it is like the smashing of the glass done a few minutes later. Both customs indicate our longing for the rebuilding of the Temple and for the messianic era, at which point our rejoicing will finally be complete.

Thoughts on Ruth

Devarim 10:18 describes God as one "Who performs judgment for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger..." Intuitively, it seems from this verse that there is a distinction between the orphan and widow, who need support and protection - and the stranger, who needs "love".

This distinction seems to be at the core of Megillat Ruth. Contrary to appearances, I think Naomi and Ruth were relatively financially secure after their return. Naomi's family was well off, and Naomi had sold their plot of land and they were presumably living off the proceeds. Ruth does go out to earn some extra income, but there seems to be no urgency in her decision to do so.

Rather, the book's tension comes from a different question: whether and with whom Ruth will be able to marry. Naomi originally tells Ruth to return to Moav because Naomi has no sons left whom she could marry. When a number of weeks working in Boaz' field have not led to a "shidduch" for Ruth, Naomi takes the initiative in arranging the meeting which leads to their marriage. This is the conclusion of the story: Naomi is once again part of a family, and Ruth - despite coming from the hated Moavite people and having no social standing of her own - gets an appropriate husband. Ruth has been rewarded, not by being rescued from poverty, but by being rescued from loneliness.

The laws of tzedakah obligate us to protect the rights of the poor. It seems from Megillat Ruth that this obligation is not only financial. We are equally obligated to seek out lonely and isolated members of society and to make them feel valued and welcome. It as just as easy to ignore the emotionally poor as the financially poor, so the mitzvah to help them is equally important, and the reward for doing so equally great.