Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Es" and Naming

A transitive verb takes a direct object. In Hebrew, this object is preceded by the word es. But there is a caveat to be entered. Transitive verbs come in two kinds. Crudely speaking, a transitive verb represents an action taken in regard to an object. Now, sometimes, quite often actually, this object (its existence) antedates the action taken, as represented by the verb. However, in other instances, the object is brought into being by this action; it did not exist previously. Now, if we look around, we find that it is not in all instances that the direct object of a transitive verb is, in the Torah, preceded by es. Often it is; but sometimes it isn’t. What accounts for this? Without yet explaining it, I want to suggest that the situation bifurcates itself with whether the object of the verb in question is being brought into existence by the the action represented by the verb or it is not being brought into being but, already existing, is merely acted upon. In the letter case, there occurs an es; in the former one, not. It is as if the es implied that there was something there for the designated action to operate upon.

To this it will immediately be objected that the verse uses es with bereishi bara elokim. And here, the heavens and earth are represented as being first brought into being! This, to be sure, is a seemingly powerful rebuttal. But in amelioration, I want to suggest that the situation there is distinctive, in that not only did the object of the verb not yet exist, the materials from which it was to be composed were not in existence either. In other words, the heavens and earth were to be created ex nihilo. Indeed, the object in question was matter itself (see the Ramban). Now, I want to further suggest, that the reason that es is not used in conjunction with an object that does not already exist is that there is a lack of definitiveness; and an indefinite object does not command an es prefix. This indefiniteness arises from a state of affairs in which an object needs to be formed by means of a certain composition of preexisting matter; and the manner of composition is (as yet) unknown. It is indeterminate. However, where it is to be created ex nihilo, there is no unknown quantity, matter, to speak of. The object is thus independent of any unknown source. Consequently, it is not wanting in definitiveness. So it is suitable for taking an es prefix.

Good. But now another, seemingly more formidable problem comes to the fore. In countless places in the Torah we find es omitted in conjunction with an object that already exists. Furthermore (to make matters worse), we find one and the same object sometimes prefixed by es, sometimes not. A case in point (actually a series of them) is the use of es in this week’s parsha (Vayeitzei), where the word for a name - sheim - occurs several times in the position of a direct object, fully complemented by an es prefix. Thus we read: (Bereishis: 30,11) vatikra es shemo gad. And a few verses ahead we find vatikra es shemo asheir. There are similar other such instances. Yet, remaining ensconced in this very same context, we also find vatikra shemo re-uvein, vatikra shemo shimon, and other comparable instances in which the leading es is omitted. How are such disparities to be accounted for (on my theory)? Is giving a name creating something new or not?

Let us try to reason it through. Should shemo re-uvein be prefixed by an es or shout it not? On the principle that es is used to prefix an existing object but not to prefix a non-existent one, it might appear that it should not. After all, the name re-uvein had not pre-existed; it was first being formulated by Leah and applied, for the first time, to the newborn (unnamed) child. This logic would, then, account for all those instances in which sheim was not prefixed by es. But what about those instances in which it was? Perhaps we can conjure an entirely different logic. Perhaps, true though it be the the infant was newborn and being named for the very first time; nevertheless, the name that he was given was not per se new. The name had a semantical, connotative origin, delineated in the verse itself as an explanation of Leah’s decision to name him thus. Moreover, it was being applied to the infant who had already been born and, therefore, very much in existence. (Vatikra shemo... can thus be parsed something along the lines of vatikra es hayeled

This thinking, then, accounts for the instances in which es is used. But seemingly, it has got to be one way or the other, not both ways! Why, then, do we find vacillation among the verses in this regard – seeming inconsistency?

Here, then, is what it occurs to me to say. There are, indeed, two ways in which to refer to something (designated by the direct object of a transitive verb). One is as a fully specified independently existing thing. It needs merely to be identified, that is, picked out. Its description (or, at least, one of them) is presumed already known. The other is as something not so definite and not so objective. Its identity is not presumed already known but is furnished in place through description, provided in the very context in which mention of it is made. In the latter case, there is no occurrence of es; only in the former.

One and the same type of thing can be referenced in either way: as something needing merely to be identified or as something with whose essence acquaintance has first to be made. So it is with, for example, a newborn’s name. The name can be thought of as preexisting, taking the shape of an idea previously encountered, familiar from other contexts. It is merely being here re-applied. It can, on the other hand, also be thought of as conjuring up something novel: a newly configured aspect under which something is to fall, one whose contours have yet to receive definitive concretization. In the latter case only is a process of dynamic creativity at work. For this reason, it makes do without an accompanying es.

In the one case, the act of naming is conceived as merely specifying. The child is conceived of as inherently having a name; the mother (in this instance) does something to it, by specifying its identity. It is as if the name per se had preexisted. All that was needed was for it to be called something or other. It could be called any of a number of things. Whatever it is called, it remains the child’s name, something (a name) which the child had all along. It is as if an as yet unnamed child already had a name (which awaits being called something)! Perhaps the idea is that the name a child is ultimately given is one it had had all along – existing initially in an inchoate or undisclosed state. The act of naming merely crystallizes it or reveals it. In any event, in the other case, though, a name is thought of as something brought into existence through the act of naming.

It would be interesting to see if this theory is borne out. If it is, it will then turn out that es is withheld not only in connection with objects that reference things first being brought into being but, as well, with objects representing preexistent things whose contours have not, however, been (adequately) fully defined – and whose definitions therefore await elaboration from the very contexts in which these objects appear. 

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In philosophical anthropology we hear it said that language creates things, or that it at least creates properties of things. What properties a thing is seen as having is, it is maintained, a function of human interest. Man conceptualizes to suit his needs; consequently, untold (latent) aspects of things go unnoticed. They are unnoticed, because man has not (as yet) found any use for the thing in question under the aspect in question, a use that draws attention to it and gives it the status of an (identifiable, recognizable) aspect. This being so, the need to have a word corresponding to such an “aspect” does not arise. Thus it is that language creates features. In keeping with this, it is further said that different cultures employ different languages, having differing powers of conceptualization. Some languages make room for this-and-that aspect; others do not. What you see is therefore a function of the language you speak – the culture to which you belong. This is familiar philosophy.

Perhaps this is the idea behind the absence versus the presence of es of which I have been speaking.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

There Is No G-d Other Than You

Ein elokim zulasecha. How is this to be read?

A) Other than the G-d that You are there is none.

B) A “god” other than You there isn’t (i.e., does not exist).

Only on reading A is the word elokim holy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

More on the Bechor

The Gemara struggles to understand why the Mishnah found it necessary to enumerate all these cases and not rely on our independent inferential powers. The Gemara offers that, if the Mishnah had only mentioned the case of buying a fetus from a goy, we wouldn’t have inferred the case of selling one to a goy because, by selling a fetus to a goy, the seller divests it of its sanctity. And although this distinction is irrelevant to the animal’s status as a Jewish-owned one, it might still have impacted on our disposition to treat the two cases alike as far as the requirement to redeem a first-born is concerned. In might have led us to think that the case of selling should incur an obligation to redeem, so that the amount expended in fulfillment of this requirement might serve as a penalty for the injustice of relieving the animal of its sanctity. Notwithstanding the fact that the animal is not Jewish-owned and, therefore, not subject to the Torah-imposition of redemption, we might nevertheless have supposed that the injustice perpetrated by causing the animal to be relieved of its sanctity would justify a rabbinic imposition of such a penalty and a requirement to treat the animal as if it had conformed to the specifications of a first-born donkey with regard to which the obligation to redeem applied. So that we are not thus misled, the Mishnah made it a point to specify the case of selling a fetus to a goy in its enumeration of instances with regard to which the obligation to redeem is relaxed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Peter Chamor

Ok. Suppose you’re a Jew and the one next to you is goy. His donkey is carrying an as yet unborn offspring, and you buy it from him. Assuming that this will have been the first offspring that the donkey in question has produced, are you obligated to treat it as a peter chamor and redeem it? The Mishnah says no. Now suppose that you have one (you have a donkey that’s carrying an offspring) and you sell it to him (the as yet unborn offspring). The Mishnah says two things. First, you are not really allowed to sell it to him. And second, if you sold it to him anyway, you are not obliged to treat it as a peter chamor. What if you and the goy are partners in the ownership of a donkey or of its as yet unborn foal? There too, the foal is not treated as a peter chamor. What, now, if you have entered into an arrangement with him, whereby you get a share in the donkey’s offspring, receiving some of them? Here too, the firstborn offspring you receive is not subject to the requirements of peter chamor. What if, instead of an arrangement whereby you receive some of the produce of his donkey, you enter into one by which he receives some of the produce of your donkey? Are you required to treat the firstborn foal of this donkey of yours as being subject to the laws of peter chamor? No. In each case, the criterion of being that of a yisra-el has not been met.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Befallen with calamity, the Shunamis had come to see Elisha. Upon approaching his abode, she was initially met by Geichazi, who immediately asked her how things were. She responded saying things were fine. Only when, finally, meeting with Elisha did she reveal her true state of desperation and anguish. Evidently, she hadn’t come just to brood. Her mission was purposeful and urgent. Her example is a true inspiration and merits a lot of contemplation.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Certainty and Doubt

Within thirty days, if someone forgets mashiv haru-ach, he’s supposed to repeat. If he’s unsure, he’s also supposed to repeat. Suppose he’s unsure but he does not repeat. Suppose, further, that in point of fact (kamei shemaya galya) he said it. Does he miss out?

When they said that someone who is unsure has to repeat, did they assimilate it to the case in which someone has no doubt that he failed to mention it, in which case they impose on him to repeat? Or did they not assimilate this case to that one, but instead said that this is what you do to resolve your doubt: take the stringent path and act as if you knew that you had not said it? On the first view, they assimilated the case of doubt to the case of certainty objectively, giving them the same status and, therefore, the same ruling. (Their thinking may have been that chances favor his not having said it. THEY thus resolved the question for him and rendered their ruling.) In the one case, like in the other, they obligated him to repeat. On the second view, by contrast, they did not pronounce on the objective status of the situation but, instead, addressed themselves to the subjective condition (characterized by a state of doubt) of the individual, instructing him how to go about in resolving this inner tension.

There is something to be said for the suggestion that on the resolution of this latter conundrum depends the resolution of the former.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Obligation to Give

In the Shulchan Aruch it says that someone who is approached by a poor person asking for a donation is not allowed to let him go empty handed. He needs to oblige him. To this Reb Ya-akov zl stipulated that it applies only when being approached by the poor person himself. It does not, however, apply when someone is approached by someone who collects in behalf of a poor person or poor people. Much less, he added, does it apply when someone is approached via a mailed solicitation.

It happened that someone announced in shul that he was authorized by the administration of the shul to appeal to the congregation for funds for the benefit of a certain cause. The members of the congregation made pledges in response to the appeal. It transpired, however, that he had made his claim falsely and had never been so authorized. Reb Ya-akov zl ruled that the responders were not required to honor their pledges, and that their pledges were considered to have been made in error and were, therefore, not binding.
(Adapted from Bemechitzas Rabeinu)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Hatov Vehameitiv

Shebechal yom vayom hu heitiv hu meitiv hu yeitiv lanu... Ostensibly, it isn’t so! On any given day, He does good for us on that day, for that day. What He did for us yesterday was good for us then. It is not, however, good for us now, today! What is good for us now is what He does for us now. Similarly, what He will do for us tomorrow will be good for us tomorrow. But it seemingly has nothing to do with what is in our interest vis-à-vis today! So, then, why does not the mevareich stop at saying: shebechal yom vayom hu meitiv lanu?

From this we see that it isn’t so. We see that His having done good for us yesterday is in our interest today, and that He will bestow good on us tomorrow affects us today and makes it good for us in the very present. Why so? Because an isolated benefit, as good as it is, pales in comparison with a continuous one. If I receive something as an extemporaneous gift, I may be very pleased and ingratiated to my benefactor. But my worries aren’t over, as I’ve still got the future to think about. When, on the other hand, I receive something that is ongoing, it makes a difference to my exultation and gratitude in the very present. I am secure and provided for! This is the sense by which I am overcome.

But there is also another point. A person doesn’t live just for the present day. To meet his goals, a person needs a whole expanse of time, the greater perhaps the better. Consequently, I am grateful to Him today not only for what He does for me today but, equally, for what He has done for me yesterday and the day before, inasmuch as the past has been crucial to my ability to accomplish what I’m trying to accomplish today. And the sustenance that I will receive tomorrow, and so on, is likewise essential to by ability to bring my accomplishments of today (and yesterday) to fruition in the period lying ahead. Therefore, I’m never just grateful for His beneficence to me today; I’m always grateful to Him for the good He has already bestowed upon me and for what He will bestow upon me going forward. All of this matters to the present, which is importantly continuous with, and linked to, the past and the future.

And it goes even beyond this. On any given day, He does good for us not only for today but, also, for yesterday and tomorrow. By sustaining me today, He makes it so that what I did yesterday will potentially reach fruition, which is a goodness vis-à-vis yesterday. And by the same token, He makes so that it will be good for me tomorrow, whose success depends on what will have foregone today. By sustaining me today, He makes it so that yesterday was good and so that tomorrow will be good, in addition to making today good.

(Of course, in a more literal vein, you could interpret it as saying that, with regard to each and every day, He either did good for us, does good for us, or will do good for us.)

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On each and every day, He did us good, He does unto us good, and He will do for us good. Why so? Isn’t it rather that on each day He does us good: period? That He did us good is something that occurred prior to today; that He will do us good looks to beyond the present day. Does it not? All He does today, though, is what is good for today! On the other hand, it is true today that He did us good yesterday, and that He will do us good tomorrow. But why is this important? The answer is that the good of the present, the past, and the future are inextricably intertwined. Today’s good builds on yesterday’s and supports tomorrow’s. The good that He bestows upon us has a long-term trajectory. Today’s good is but an element of the total good, in which it takes its appropriate place.
Another thing: Apart from the fact that the continuous span of good bestowed upon us is all intra-connected, we want to thank Him each day for all three of what He has done, what He does, and what He will do. We have so much to thank Him for...all the time! 

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With regard to each and every day it is true that He has (previously) done good for us, He does good for us, and He will do good for us. I want to thank Him for all three on each and every day.

Furthermore, they all connect, in a significant way, to what He does for us today. What He did for us yesterday led up to the good He does for us today. And what He will do for us tomorrow flows out from the good HE does for us today. Past and future good meet in the present.

My ability to appreciate the good of the past is heightened by my perception of the good of the present. My appreciation of the present at the same time makes it possible for me to recognize and acknowledge the good that the future holds in store, which will improve on and further my present condition. In each case, one good leads to the next.

The good that He bestows upon us is not discrete. It is continuous and multifariously integrated and interconnected. It forms a seamless web.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How One Pays

In Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, it is ruled that any excess of funds raised for the benefit of a given indigent person belongs to this indigent person. In other words, if more money was raised than this person needed to extricate himself from his squalor, he gets to keep it. Even if he had already gotten out of his predicament before the entire sum of money was depleted, the residue is his for him to use at his discretion. Reb Ya-akov zl was approached for an explanation of this seemingly enigmatic ruling. Why not return the excess funds to their donators, or direct the monies to someone else who is a needy state? His reply was that the indigent person paid for the entire sum collected in his behalf through the toll it took on his honor and sense of dignity. It was not money got for nothing: the beneficiary paid dearly through the disgrace he endured. This is why the Shulchan Aruch goes on to rule that, in the event of this erstwhile poor man’s demise, any remaining funds is passed on to his inheritors. It is also why, Reb Ya-akov continued to explain, it is ruled that, if he is a kohein, he is entitled to reject a particular presentiment of teruma on grounds of its being beneath his dignity. As someone whose honor has been sacrificed and compromised, he retains the discretion to spend it as he sees fit. (From Bemechitzas Rabeinu)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Form and Matter

Bereishis bara elokim eis hashamayim ve-eis ha-aretz.

What does bereishis mean?

In the beginning. The verse says that in the beginning G-d created heaven and earth.

What does this mean?

It means that heaven and earth were the first things G-d created.

Does Rashi interpret the verse this way?

No. Rashi offers two possible (alternative) interpretations.

What are they?

The first is homiletic. The verse is understood to mean that because of the Torah and because of the Israelites, both of which are called reishis, G-d created heaven and earth.

The second transforms the verb bara into a noun and reads the verse as saying that in the beginning of G-d’s creation of heaven and earth. Accordingly, the verse is not saying that heaven and earth were, sequentially, the first things to have been created. Instead, the verse is detailing what heaven and earth were like when they were initially created. It is saying, in particular, that veha-aretz hayesa sohu vavohu.

Does the Ramban agree?

No, he vehemently objects.

What does he say?

He says that bereishis is to be understood as meaning the first. The first things that G-d created, the verse tells us, were heaven and earth.

How does the Ramban get around Rashi’s objection that the creation of water preceded the creation of heaven?

The Ramban offers an original way of understanding the thrust of the verse and of the verses that follow.

What would that be?

He distinguishes between matter and form.

Isn’t that an Aristotelian distinction?

I suppose it is.

According to the Ramban, the first things to have been created were two types of formless matter: heavenly and earthly. For reasons of manageability, we’ll confine our attention to the earthly type.

Did Aristotle posit a primordial formless matter?

This is a good question: but our subject is not Aristotelian philosophy.

The verse of bereishis is understood to mean that the first thing that G-d created was formless matter (called in Greek yehuli). Its creation constituted creation ex nehilo, something out of nothing. The remainder of the story of creation, on the other hand, is a story of the forms that G-d went on to impose on this original matter (formless). It is, in other words, not a story of creation ex nehilo.

How does the Ramban interpret the second verse: veha-aretz...?

He understands the words veha-aretz hayesa sohu vavohu as an allusion to the transition from formless matter to formed matter that G-d’s initial creation had undergone. The words veru-ach elokim merachefes al penei hamohyim, in turn, give a description of the initial form that matter took. In particular, it ascribes to it the form of the four elements: water, earth, air, fire. (The Greeks knew of this too.) (Here the Ramban seems to offer a Ptolemaic view of the cosmos.) With this initial arrangement in place, G-d went on to fashion the earthly world. On the first day He created light, and so on. In so doing, He was working with materials that had already been created.

I see.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Drama on the Parkway

It was the second day yomtov, sukos. I was making my way up Ocean Parkway, headed for the Bodners. I had just gotten through davening at the Mir, shacharis and musaf including, of course, the duchaning. We were going to have the yomtov se-uda. It was to be very yomtov-dik, the tables set majestically and the suka walls adorned magnificently with no-i suka. Lighting fixtures would be found gallantly suspended from the spaces interspersing the expanses of sechach, illuminating the interior and enhancing the ambiance immensely. The suka was to be filled to capacity, bla”h, family surrounding the methodically configured tables, sitting in neatly arranged chairs, close-together enough to economize, small enough to fit, but big enough to comfortably accommodate. Children would leap to and fro, making joyous noises, music to the ears. Obedient they would be, cleaving to every order to quiet down and stand still as to the roar of a royal trumpet. At length the masterly recital of the Kidush would commence, each word enunciated articulately and rendered melodically. All attention was concentrated on the blessing over wine, the intention, on the part of all assembled, to be yotzei through the reader’s agency felt palpably. Then would come the washing, then the betzi-as hapas, then the fish, and then, finally...the question.

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Something on the order of an hour before, as I stood listening to the shali-ach tzibur as he repeated the amida and anticipating his arrival at the section designated for birchas kohanim, I found myself caught by surprise by something on the page of the sidur. It had to do with the nusach of vesei-areiv (other say, veserav) that is recited in the midst of the birchas avoda during the chazaras hashatz of musaf, just ahead of the enunciation of the duchening. The birchas avoda begins in retzei and, ordinarily, concludes with vesechezena eineinu beshuvecha letzion berachamim, whereupon the chasima, baruch ata heshem hamachazir shechinaso letzion, is recited. The formulation of vesei-areiv is, when it is recited, inserted toward the end of retzei.

In the nusach that we, benei ashkenaz, follow, the vesei-areiv addition, which is, indeed, incorporated into retzei, occupying the trailing part of it, closes with vesechezena eineinu beshuvecha letzion berachamim. And in this respect it resembles the ordinary birchas avoda (which is to say, retzei). However, there is something that contravenes this similarity. After the usual vesechezena, and before the final chasima, there occurs the following insertion: vesham navadcha beyira kimei-olam uchshanim kadmoni-os. This is something that is not usually said in retzei. And in conjunction with this change, there occurs another, this time affecting the chasima of the beracha. Instead of concluding, as we usually do, with baruch ata hashem hamachazir shechinaso letzi-on, we conclude: baruch ata hashem she-osecha levadecha beyira na-avod. I found myself puzzled by this realization and couldn’t put my finger on the reason for it.

As I pondered the perplexity, I noticed something else in the sidur. It featured an alternative formulation that it imputed to the benei eretz yisra-el – displaying the two formulations side-by-side. In this other formulation, which in most respects concurs with the first, ashkenazik one, the words vesham na-avadcha... occur not immediately following the words vesechazena but, on the contrary, right before them. Concomitantly, the beracha concludes in the way in which it ordinarily does, with the vesechezena clause. In addition, the chasima takes its ordinary form, baruch ata hashem hamachazir..., as well. This only added to my consternation. After all, both formulations were of the same content, but for a seemingly minor juxtaposition of clauses toward the end. More than being puzzled by the difference in the two formulations of the inner content, I found myself bewildered by the differing chasimos. Given that the content of the two formulations was identical in both cases, why should a slight modification in the sequencing occasion a major change in the chasima?

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As I sat at the suka table partaking of the delicacies and enjoying the ambience, I took the initiative to pose this question to the host. It did not take him long to respond with a ringing reply. He made the (now obviously simple) point that a beracha’s chasima reflects the content of the closing segment of the beracha’s inner content. This is something of which I had not been fully aware. I had thought that it simply reflected the inner content as such, without regard to whether it occurred later or earlier in the formulation of the beracha. On the basis of this assumption of mine, I deduced that, the content in the two cases being substantially the same, there ought not be any difference in the respective chasimos. This is something on which Reb Moishe (Bodner) corrected me (in effect). He made the point that a chasima reflects the specific content that closes the inner formulation of the beracha. And since, on the reading of nusach ashkenaz, the close reads vesham na-avadcha..., the appropriate chasima is, indeed, she-osecha levadecha beyira na-avod.

As to why the two formulations differ internally, this is an interesting historical question.

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When it was over, I had Reb Moishe & Co shychyu to thank not only for the delectable se-uda and festive atmosphere, but also for the splendid insight into the davening

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Appendix to the Previous Post

Reviewing the last post, I had a thought. I had said that the reason for using the singular al chet in the first three sections was that the single chet of rebellious disobedience was referred to. Any chet committed, no matter what the motivation, instantiates the general concept of rebellion toward, kevayachol, the Al-mighty. This represents an all-encompassing chet; and it is the subject of confession in the first three groupings.

However, it occurs to me now that there is an alternative way of viewing the matter. Drawing on the same basic ideas, we might explain the use of the singular in the first three sections in the following way. In the these sections, the focus is not on the different aveiros considered from the perspective of their defining prohibitions. It is, rather, on them considered from the perspective of the motivation (techunos hanefesh) leading up to them. When regarded in this way, acts of sin are not subsumed under universal classifications, like: eating this or doing that. Each act is particular and unique. It is simply and purely ill-motivated, ill-begotten. (It is rebellion.) It is, you might say, sui generis: an instance unto itself. So it is singularly formulated as a chet, meaning an individual instance. In the fourth section, on the other hand, chata-im are, as noted, delineated by the obligations they incur. What obligation a given perpetration of a chet incurs depends on the prohibition – the category – under which it is subsumed. Moreover, each type of obligation is incurred by any of multiple such prohibition-categories (e.g., different types of aveira obligate the same karban). Accordingly, the plural form – al-chata-im – is used, to denote these various aveira types.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

What We Confess To on Yom Kipur

We begin the al chets by saying al chet shechatanu lefanecha be-ones uberatzon. Then we continue with the whole litany of al chests. My question: Once we’ve said the first al chet, be-ones uberatzon, we’ve covered all the ground. Any chet is either a chet be-ones or a chet beratzon. There is no other possibility, no middle ground. What then is the purpose of continuing with the whole list of other al chets? It seems superfluous!

Another question. As we get to the fourth grouping of al chets, we encounter a change in language. Instead of saying al chet, in the singular, we begin to say al chata-im, in the plural. Thus, al chata-im she-anu chayavim aleihem ola, etc. This new question is in two parts. First, why should there be this change of expression from the singular to the plural? Wouldn’t it have been more congruous for the entire listing to follow a single, consistent form, whether it be the singular or the plural? And second, on the face of it, the plural form is the correct! What justification is there for formulating all the preceding al chets in the singular form? For example, al chata-im shechatanu lefanecha besimhon leivav would seemingly have been preferable to our al chet shechatanu lefanecha besimhon leivav. After all, it is a whole slew of individually committed chata-im (acts of transgression), all falling under the general rubric of besimhon leivav, that we are expressing our remorse for! Or so it would seem.

What I want to suggest is that there are two aspects to the repugnancy of chet. There is, on the one hand, the chet itself. By this I mean, every chet defines a category of action (or inaction, as the case may be) that is deemed intrinsically repulsive and undesirable. The Torah’s mitzvos teach us what modes of behavior need to be avoided on the their own account: whether it be partaking of certain foods; engaging in certain relations; doing work on Shabbos; doing this, that, or the other type of work; and so on. The fact that a given act instantiates one or another of these classifications makes it sinful and inherently offensive. In this way, it wears its repugnancy on its sleeve.

But then there is also another aspect. Any chet that is committed constitutes an act of rebellion (merida) against the hegemony of, kevayachol, the Ribono Shel Olam. This is because the mitzvos of the Torah represent (the definition of) His will vis-à-vis us, His chosen people. They tell us, as it were, what He expects of us. So when someone flouts one of them, he is manifesting disobedience and rebellion against His will. This is something that all chata-im share in common. Whatever the classification that a given aveira belongs to, its perpetration constitutes an act of disobedience, and of refusal to subject oneself to His will. This, then, is point one.

In addition, I want to interject another item of background perspective. I said that to perform one aveira or another was to commit a sin of (general) disobedience. But I want to enter a refinement on this point. Disobedience is not monolithic: there are different ways of evincing disobedience. Furthermore, they emanate from correspondingly different internal states of mind or traits of character (techunos hanefesh). Ones, for example, is one state of mind, ratzon another. Simhon leivav is yet a third. Even things like neshech umarbis and machal umishteh, for example, represent inner tendencies of the person (just as much as they represent  forbidden acts). As a rule, when the Torah prohibits a certain act, the Torah is, at the same time, faulting the inner state of mind that prompts and motivates its performance. The prohibition against the act may be viewed as, at least in part, an admonition that the tendency to perform it should be uprooted – as if to say, its presence stands at the root of the problem.

With this as background, I want to suggest that the viduy is structured so as to have us confess to each of the two aspects separately: the common (disobedience-based) and the individual (act-based). The first three sections of the al chets, I want to say, occupy themselves in making confessions for disobeying and rebelling against His will in the myriad specified ways. For as said, there are different ways of evincing rebellious disobedience. Each one introduces its own failing, its own character flaw. Thus, for example, disobedience of, kevayachol, His will can be demonstrated through carelessness as much as through deliberateness; it can be displayed through speech no less than through haughtiness; through sight as much as through flight. And so on down the line. Each al chet expresses another way in which sinful rebelliousness may be manifested and brought into being. However, the fact notwithstanding that each al chet represents another (particular) way of exemplifying rebelliousness, the basis of their repugnancy is ultimately one and the same: it is rooted in the fact that His will has been disobeyed. This being so, it is understandable that the singular term, al chet, should be used. For in each case, it is one unitary chet that is confessed to: the act of rebellion.

Al chet shechatanu lefanecha betifshus peh, for example, is to be understood as a confession to the act of rebellion, performed through the use of tifshus peh. And similarly for all the other of these al chets.

The situation changes, however, once the fourth section is reached. In that one, the focus turns to aveiros taken in their individuality. We move from confessing to committing disobedience, in its various guises, to confessing to performing acts that are intrinsically repugnant, as demonstrated by the fact that the Torah has proscribed them. We do not enumerate the different categories of sin themselves, as that would make for a very long list. So instead we encapsulate the different sins under heads corresponding to the obligations they incur: But it is individual (types of) sins that we are discussing (no longer the single sin of disobedience). Consequently, we invoke the plural form, al chata-im, in expressing them.

Ones and ratzon do not refer to types of sin but to ways of exhibiting rebelliousness. They are but two ways among a whole slew of others, which are given expression in the al chets comprising the first three sections. True, every sin committed is either ones or ratzon; but it is not in every act of sinning that willfulness or inadvertence stands out as the most salient psychological (motivational) characteristic.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Wondrous Mechanism of Repentance

The velt asks: The Rambam says in regard to the judgment that is passed on everyone on Rosh Hashana, tzadikim are unremittingly sealed for life; rasha-im are immediately sealed for death; and beinunim are left suspended. If they perform teshuva, the balance is tilted in their favor, and they are spared and earn life. If they fail to do so, the scales are tilted in the opposite direction, and they are doomed and meet their fate. Why is it that the Rambam singles out the mitzva of teshuva as if it were the one good deed that a beinuni could perform so as to have the scale tipped in his favor? There are myriad mitzvos, and doing a sufficient amount of any of them should ostensibly be effective in tipping the scales in his favor!

To this I wanted to offer the rejoinder that the Rambam holds to a concept of teshuva that identifies it with azivas hachet, which is to say, total abandonment of the transgression. This abandonment is its core essence. When a person transgresses, the tally of his transgressions is incremented and, in time, comes to exceed that of his merits, i.e., good deeds. When he mends his way and ceases to commit transgressions, his good deeds are gradually increased, ultimately reaching the point where they are trailed by the count of his offenses. This is what abandoning his transgressions accomplishes. And this is, in part, what the Rambam means when he says that teshuva has the effect of tipping the scale in his favor.

In other words, the Rambam is taking the position that to set this person's standing aright it won't do (for him) simply to add to the cumulative store of his mitzvos so that it will outweigh that of his aveiros. It's not about numbers. And in this respect, the mitzva of teshuva is no exception: it's not a matter or adding this particular mitzva to the total mix. For the Rambam, the only dependable way of altering this person's standing (with its attendant consequences) is by eradicating the (effect of) the particular transgression he committed (that for which he is enjoined to do teshuva). This is what makes doing teshuva efficacious. It targets this particular aveira, and it has the effect of ridding the person of it. For it is the presence of this aveira that is precipitating this person's lopsided imbalance. His teshuva accomplishes its eradication by having him completely abandon it. 

But actually there is more to it. For it is not sufficient that the erstwhile transgressor should simply mend his ways, in the sense of ceasing to do bad and doing only good, from here on in as it were. By this alone, the blot on his record remains unaltered. He has, after all, committed transgressions in the past, and they are not left undone. To clean his record, they need to be undone; which is to say, he requires kapara (atonement). Achieving it calls for teshuva: but teshuva must now be understood as entailing more than just ceasing to commit the transgressions of the past. It requires a positive act done in the present, one of taking upon oneself never to repeat one’s transgression and resolving decisively to do only good going forward. This in turn entails showing remorse for the evil that one has perpetrated; indeed, it requires articulate confession.

But neither is this enough! The requirement of total abandonment remains in place; and until one has displayed this latter, one has not completed fulfillment of one’s teshuva (and kapara) obligation. Yet, the satisfaction of this latter element lies in the future: it depends on the individual’s capacity for carrying through on his voiced determination. How, then, could the kapara take effect now? And it must take effect in the present; for if it doesn’t, then what’s to keep this individual from succumbing to the fate ordained by his sins immediately?

This, I imagine, is what prompts the Rambam to say that his repentance and dedication must be of such intensity that the Knower of the Hidden testifies in regard to this individual that he will not repeat his transgression. This is not merely a point about the intensity of the feeling. It is an answer to the question: if kapara requires teshuva, and teshuva requires azivas hachet (total abandonment), how can one possibly achieve kapara until one has lived his life (when it is already too late!)? Who is able to say that the person has abandoned his transgression with such a degree of finality? The answer: kevayachol the Ribono shel Olam Himself! Only He knows that his psychological abandonment is such as to keep him from lapsing as time passes. If it is, his act of teshuva has been consummated, and he merits forgiveness (kapara) at once: he is spared the depredations of his transgressions’ consequences.

So to repeat, teshuva requires azivas hachet. Azivas hachet has two aspects. On the one hand, it consists in the fact of abandonment, which is to say, non-repetition of the transgression. It is this aspect that accounts for the ba-al teshuva’s not incurring the fate of someone overladen with transgressions. His slate is thereby reconfigured. At the same time, however, it includes a component of strong disavowal, which is a psychological state. This latter serves to confer immediate kapara for the transgressions already committed. Encapsulated in it is the fact that there will be no future relapse. This is what gives (this aspect of) teshuva the power for the individual to avert the consequences of the sin that has been committed. It makes it now so that the slate will be reconfigured in this individual’s favor.

May we merit to achieve complete teshuva.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sanhederin and Semicha

Here are some of the details of the mitzvah to appoint judges, as expounded by the sages. [This continues the exposition of the Chinuch’s text at mitzvah 491.]

The first set of details addresses the seating arrangement of the seventy Sanhederin. The ablest among them would be seated below the Nasi (also known as the Rosh Yeshiva). He is given the title Av Beis Din. The remaining sixty-nine would be seated alongside the Nasi in a sequence reflecting their learnedness and their age. That is, the more learned someone was, the closer to the Nasi would be his position in the series. If two (or more) individuals were of equal rank as far as learnedness was concerned, they would be seated earlier or later in the sequence based on their age. They formed a semi-circle, so that each one would be visible to everyone else.

Apart from the main judiciary body, that is the Beis Din Hagadol, two additional judiciary bodies, comprising twenty-three judges each, would be stationed nearby. One would be situated at the entrance to the Azara; and the other would be situated at the entrance to the Mount of the Temple.  The most learned individual of each of these bodies served as the Head of his respective body.

The only ones qualified to be appointed to any of the judiciary bodies (big or small) were individuals possessed of wisdom and deep understanding of Torah knowledge. They also had to possess some amount of knowledge of other areas of inquiry – including, for example, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, sorcery, and magic. They needed to be able to fall back on knowledge of these areas of expertise, in case circumstances demanded it. In addition, in order to qualify, a person – whether a kohein, a leivi, or a yisra-el – had to have privileged pedigree, sufficient to make his daughter eligible for betrothal to someone of the priestly lineage (kehuna). That it is so is derived from the verse vehisyatzvu sham imach, which is interpreted as implying that the judges that Moshe would appoint had to resemble him (in point of pedigree). [And so too for judges generally.]

Now, the only ones who could be appointed to a judiciary body, whether it be the Sandederei Gedola or the Sanhederei Ketana, were individuals who received ordination. Moshe our teacher performed ordination by hand upon his pupil Yehoshu-a – as it is written vayismoch yadav alav. He likewise performed ordination by hand upon the seventy elders whom he had assembled (to form the original Sanhederei Gedola). They, in turn, performed ordination upon others, who in their turn performed it on yet others…continuing a process that culminated in the last of the properly ordained. However, the ordinations performed subsequent to those conferred by Moshe differed from those of his in that they were not performed by hand. Instead, the issuers of ordination would carefully examine the candidate receiver of ordination. If he was found to be well versed in the knowledge of Torah; if, further, he proved himself to be well informed and of sound mind; and if, finally, he exemplified a set of personal traits that included love of truth and detestation of inequity in all its forms – then, provided that he glowingly passed all these tests of personality and intellectual ability, he would be pronounced ordained by three people who included in their number at least one who was himself ordained. Thenceforth, he would be designated with the appellation of rebbi (which is to say, master-teacher). He would, from that point onward, be empowered to adjudicate matters pertaining even to the imposition of fines.

There are numerous additional details that pertain to the qualification for appointment to judgeship. They are spelled out and discussed with due amplification in Tractate Sanhederin.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Appointing Judiciary Bodies

The Chinuch goes on to say: Judges are to be appointed over cities and, also, over the entire Jewish nation. Here is how it works. Each and every city is to have a judiciary body consisting of twenty-three appointees. Assembled in one central location within the city, they are referred to as sanhenderei ketana. They are to be chosen from amongst the choicest of the city’s intelligentsia. In addition, a body called the beis din hagadol, consisting of seventy judiciary appointees, is to be assembled into a central location in Yerushalayim. Atop the seventy is to be appointed an additional one who is to serve as Rosh Yeshiva or, as he is also referred to, the Nasi – making for a total of seventy-one. Importantly, they are all to function in the singular location especially designated for the purpose. Now, it will happen that some locales will be too small in size to purvey sanhederei ketana (small judiciary bodies) of their own. In such a case, a panel consisting of three judges should be appointed in lieu of a full-fledged (small) judiciary body. To the extent that they are able to adjudicate an issue on their own, they are empowered to do so. If, however, the resolution of an issue should be beyond their reach, they should then escalate the matter to a higher court.

Similarly, a contingent of law enforcers should be stationed along the periphery of a city, to oversee the goings on in the city’s streets and byways. They should exercise oversight over the commercial dealings of the city’s inhabitants, making sure that they are not infected by improprieties of any kind. The command from which these injunctions derive is that expressed by the verse shofetim veshoterim titein lecha bechal she-arecha. Thus the Sifri: “From where it is derived that a judiciary body is to be appointed with jurisdiction over the entirety of the Jewish people? In this regard is it written shofetim veshoterim. And from where it is derived that one judge should be appointed to stand above all the others? It is derived from titein lecha. And from what source, further, is it known that each and every tribe should have its own body of judges? The textual source in this regard is bechal she-arecha. Raban Shimon ben Gamliel contends that the source is from the juxtaposition of the words lishvatecha veshaftu. This is understood as meaning that a command is imposed on each and every tribe to carry out the judiciary function over itself. And what is the intention behind the phrase veshafetu es ha-am? It connotes that the people are to be judged forcibly.”

This is not a transient mitzva, but a permanent one.

What is the mitzva’s rationale?

It is to get people to conduct themselves in a righteous way. Ideally, people will be self-motivated to conduct themselves properly; they will not need to be prodded by external forces – such as a system of judges and law-enforcers.

However, conformance to the desirable way does not come naturally; it needs to be induced. Imposing it on the people, by force, acclimates them to it. Arousing fear in people makes them dread the consequences of ill-begotten behavior. It helps get them accustomed to doing good.

Once having become accustomed to conducting themselves properly, the people will acquire a natural propensity toward exemplary conduct. The point will be reached where they lovingly embrace justice and lawfulness, requiring no externally imposed inducement. Such is the power of habituation through compulsion. It is as effective as nature itself in bringing people to a state where the motivation to do right comes from within.

With the state having been reached where people are following in a just and faithful path and choosing to do good, the good with attach itself to them; and the Al-mighty will derive satisfaction from them.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Command to Appoint Judges

The following is a paraphrase of the text of the Sefer Hachinuch, at the beginning of Mitzvah 491.

In this week’s parsha, Shoftim, we are commanded to appoint judges and law enforcers. Why? So that they will compel the people to perform the mitzvos of the Torah. What else will they do? They will force those who have diverted from the the way of truth to return to it. They will also issue edicts, clearly obligating the people to do what is required of them and ought to be done. They will, likewise, issue decrees, delineating certain practices as being unworthy of people’s occupation. And there is more. They will establish and enforce protective barriers, rules intended to safeguard people, so that they do not perform actions that are prohibited. What advantage does having these safeguards offer? It spares people the need to decide for themselves on a case by case basis. Having to exercise one’s own discretion on a continuous basis can be fraught with danger: it exposes people to the possibility of erring and succumbing to temptation. By requiring people to conform their behavior to the protective rules that serve as barriers, the judges distance the population from the pitfalls associated with coming into close contact with (spiritually) hazardous conditions. It helps reduce people’s vulnerability to falling short and transgressing.

The command to appoint judges is governed by certain specifications. Among them is a specification that mandates that judges be selected from the those in the highest tier of greatness (righteousness).

Monday, August 22, 2011

An Aberration

I would like to see if McGrath’s piece can be used as a springboard from which to launch a discussion of moral education. The dominant Schefflerian view (see MEDI) is that morality is like science, and that therefore moral education is like science education. With science, there is no finished theory: theory is perpetually in the making. There is, however, a critical method that science deploys; and, in it, reasons are adduced back and forth for the viability of current theory, and for its possible modification or withdrawal. In education too, current theory is not presented as if it were final. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Instead, it is presented along with the reasons that have been adduced in its support; and students are encouraged to assess those reason and decide for themselves whether they are adequate to the support of the theory that they are alleged to support. Students are, that is, invited to approach received theory in a critical spirit. In this way, educational activity in relation to science is seen to be modeled after scientific activity (or the scientific process) itself.
Scheffler says that it is this way in the domain of morality too. Morality should not be looked at as a finished code, one that is to be educationally imbibed or ingested. Current morality is a point of view that emanates from an ongoing process of rational deliberation. It is exactly like science. Popular convictions are subject to change, in light of outcomes of this ongoing deliberation. What morality really is, is nothing more and nothing less than this process of ongoing rational deliberation about social affairs and interrelations. Sure, students can, and should, be familiarized with current moral thinking. But this is merely ancillary to what moral education should really do. It should introduce students to a way (a method, if you will) of deliberating morality, one that relies on adducing reasons and seeing how far they stand up to scrutiny, offering alternatives if need be, and so on and so forth. Because this is the essence of morality itself, it should likewise be made the core of moral education.

Note: Does this mean that current morality should be followed and practiced in no more than a tentative (questioning) spirit? If so, this may be where the weakness of the Schefflerian approach lies.

McGrath’s thinking serves as a counterweight to this point of view. From her perspective, science is real (not experimental), and morality is no less real than science. Taking this as her point of departure, she comes up against a conundrum. There appears to be an important asymmetry between the empirical domain and the moral one. In the empirical domain, deference to expertise makes sense. It is, in any event, widely regarded as making sense. When someone seeks knowledge about something, he naturally consults a recognized expert (an authority); and he is (epistemically) warranted in accepting what he learns by doing so. On the other hand, says McGrath, when one is confronted with a moral question needing to be resolved, one does not fulfill one’s moral responsibility by acting on the basis of (moral) information obtained from another party, no matter how expert this other party may be deemed to be. Focusing on the notion of moral knowledge, she contends that one does not acquire moral knowledge through the testimony of others. (Consequently, action taken on the basis of such putative knowledge is morally impugned.) This, despite the fact that, in the empirical realm, well-chosen testimony is regarded as adequately supportive of a claim to knowledge.

McGrath’s stress is on the (alleged) fact that we are not prone to regarding moral action taken on the basis of deference to a presumed expert as being truly moral action. This, contends McGrath, poses a problem for realism. For on realism, there is a fact of the matter about this or that moral question; and provided that information about it has accrued to the moral agent in a justifying/justified way, this should suffice to such an agent’s attaining moral knowledge and performing a moral act on the basis of this knowledge. For what else might be missing? McGrath devotes the bulk of her treatment to probing possibilities as to an answer to this puzzle.

I want to suggest that there are important repercussions for a theory of moral education here. According to the premise of this puzzle, morality cannot be taught by conveying moral facts, principles, or what have you. The matter may be cast in the form of a dilemma On the one hand, it should seemingly be possible to teach morality in this way. If realism is true, then it is (as McGrath contents) facts that count. (And so too for science!) And these facts should be teachable. (Morality teaching should be entirely assimilable to, say, history teaching.) On the other hand, if McGrath is right, then moral realism notwithstanding, morality cannot be taught by the mere conveyance of facts. This, because to teach by conveyance of facts is to rely on the authority/expertise of the teacher as purveyor of the facts which, ex hypothesi, is illegitimate where morals are concerned. This, then, raises the question not only of why not but, perhaps more urgently, of whether morality lends itself to being taught at all. If a Scheffler-type approach proves unviable/untenable (as per the above-mentioned objection), then, just maybe, moral education is entirely doomed.

I want to devote the remainder of this paper to probing whether there is, indeed, cause for despair about the prospects of a viable moral education.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Of Tape Recorders and Shtenders

It was Erev Shabbos Parshas Eikev. The zeman hadlaka had arrived, and it was already beginning to become ominously cloudy on the outside. Showers were virtually definitely in the offing. After hadlaka, I set out at once for Kabolas Shabbos at shul, in the beis medrash of the Mirrer Yeshiva, in hopes of outpacing the imminent onslaught of drenching rain.

But to no avail. By the time I stepped out the door downstairs, it had already begun pouring down, big time. I was wearing that full-length plastic rain cover, the one with the hood for a hat; and on that basis, I warily ventured out onto the street and walked up the sidewalk, briefly. But no sooner had I begun than I realized I needed to find temporary shelter at once. There was no point in compromising the dryness of my Shabbos pants, even if wetness threatened no more than its bottom extremes. I thereupon made my way over to the entrance of the neighboring building, where I took cover for a few minutes, until the pace of the downpour let up some. Then, off to shul I was once again, being careful to tread between the drops as best I could.

When I got to shul, I first went downstairs to the cloak room to hang up my dripping plastic rain coat. Then I went back upstairs and entered the beis medrash, where Kabolas Shabbos was just getting underway. I took my usual route to the place I sit, on the left side towards the rear. As I maneuvered over to the siddur shelf in the corner of the room, my attention was caught by the sight of a shtender standing in the back, in front of a seat, adjacent to the shelf. What was eye-catching about it was that on it was perched a tape recorder. 

“What was a (muktza) tape recorder doing sitting on a shtender at the onset of Shabbos?” I wondered. “Won’t it interfere with someone’s use of the shtender and of the seat in front of which it was situated?" This would be a good question for Rav Nelkenbaum shlita,” I thought to myself, Rav Nelkenbaum being one of the roshei yeshiva of the Mir and a real bal halacha. But would I have an opportunity to ask him?

After Kabolas Shabbos came the roughly forty-minute intermission, designed to synchronize Ma-ariv with the time of nightfall. As is his wont, Rav Nelkenbaum entered the beis medrash a few minutes before Ma-ariv. As is his wont, he took a seat for the few intervening minutes in the rear of the beis medrash, not far from where I was. Actually, he hadn’t quite taken a seat, but he was just about to – on the other end of the very row of seats in which I was myself sitting. His presence thereby caught my notice; and I immediately lunged over to him and made ready to put to him my question. I had already rehearsed it in my mind, and made sure to so formulate it that it took on the aura of an halacha issue.

The question I posed was then this. Given that the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim, siman 308, se-if 3 rules that it is permissible to handle (on Shabbos) a davar shemelachto le-isur if it is done letzorach gufo or letzorach mekomo, should it not be alright for someone to physically remove that tape recorder – I pointed to it – from the shtender in order to daven by that shtender? To which he responded that it was not permissible, not at least according to the Mishne Berura. In particular, he said, the Mishne Berura rules that one should not handle a davar shemelachto le-isur letzorach gufo o letzorach mekomo if another alternative is available. In the case in point, he intimated, there were plenty of other seats and shtenders at which someone who wanted to daven could sit and stand. So an alternative was indeed available!

This is the gist of what he said. (I pressed him for an answer to a hypothetical case where it was crowded and no other shtenders were available. In regard to this, he recommended tiltul min hatzad.) Naturally, I accepted his answer, at the time, surprised by it though I was.

But after a while, I took the opportunity to check out the Mishne Berura. What I found was that, to my way of reading it, the situation was other than what Rav Nelkenbaum had made it out to be. The Mechabeir states that it is alright to handle a davar shemelachto le-isur if it is letzorach gufo or letzorach mekomo. The Mishne Berura glosses the words letzorach gufo with the comment that if another davar is available to serve the tzorach, one that is not melachto le-isur, then one should use such a davar instead. In other words, one should restrict one’s use of a davar shemelachto le-isur letzrach gufo to cases where it is absolutely necessary.

Seeing this, I immediately sensed that, by any straightforward reading of the Mishne Berura, the Mishne Berura did not intend to restrict use of a davar shemelachto le-isur letzorach mekomo in a similar fashion. The gloss is a gloss on letzorach gufo only. And it seems to be stretching it a bit (much) to presume that it is also intended as a qualification on the dispensation of tzorach mekomo.

I say this because it seems to me that there is a sound basis on which to distinguish the two in this regard. Let us begin by noting that the rationale behind the dispensation of handling a davar shemelachto le-isur in cases such as these is that a davar shemelachto leisur is a relatively weak manifestation of hakta-a, and that therefore, where there is a need for its use, its weak haktza-a is not deemed a factor to be reckoned with.

Let us now zero in on the idea of need. When there is a need for something to be done, there is, in effect, a need for utilizing an instrument with which that thing gets done. Even so though, the need for this instrument is secondary to the need for getting the thing done (with its use) per se. The latter is, after all, the raison detre of the whole affair.

Keeping this in mind, we can readily distinguish between the cases of letzorach gufo, on the one hand, and letzorach mekomo, on the other, insofar as these needs serve as dispensations for handling a dava shemelachto le-isur. Where the need is legufo, the concern is with  an instrument that is to be used in bringing about the desired effect. Substituting another instrument (one that is not melachto le-isur) instead in no way impacts negatively on achieving this very desired result. Consequently, fulfillment of the need is not seriously thwarted by the imposition to use another instrument. By contrast, where the need is lemekomo, what is at stake is the very thing whose realization is sought: having an uncluttered place in/on which to perform one’s activity. It is not merely a question of what instrument to use for the purpose but of actualizing the purpose itself. That other places are available is therefore irrelevant: the sought objective is, after all, centered on this place in particular.

Now, the case in point concerned a situation where the tzorach was a tzorach mekomo: the shtender was needed to daven at. So if my reading of the Mishne Berura is correct, the fact that other shtenders were available should not affect the permissibility of using the one upon which the tape recorder sat, by removing the tape recorder (in the normal way).

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Structure of the Kadish

In Kadish (shaleim) we say: yisgadal...shemei divera chirusei veyamlich uvizman kariv. And here we say: ve-imru amein. We continue: yisbarach...da-amiran be-alema ve-imru amein. This is followed by: tiskabeil...kadam avuhon divishmaya ve-imru amein. Then comes: yehei yisrael ve-imru amein. Finally: oseh kal yisrael ve-imru amein.

Notice that the reciter is constantly importuning the congregants to say amein. Why does he have to do this? Couldn’t the congregants answer with amein without being asked by the reciter to do so (each and every time!)?

Perhaps, you will say, not. The congregants are answering in response to the reciter’s elicitation. To this I offer the rejoinder: it is not in every case that the congregants’ reply of amein comes in response to the reciter’s importuning. Consider the amein that is said at the beginning, right after yisgadal veyiskadash shemei raba.

In response, you will likely say that this instance is indeed aberrant. Not only is it perplexing why this amein, unlike all the others throughout the Kadish, is answered uninvitedly; it is, on the face of it, strange that amein should be said here at all. The problem is that the thought has not yet been completed. It is being interrupted in mid-course for a response of amein. Why should this be so? Why shouldn’t the reply of amein patiently await the conclusion of the thought: ba-agala uvizman kariv?

Here you might interject: the verse of yisgadal is a composite of two disparate thoughts. One comprises the words yisgadal veyiskadash shemei raba be-alema divera chirusei. The other, then, comprises the words: veyamlich malchusei bechayeichon...ivizman kariv. But the rejoinder to this is that, first, if this were so, the amein shouldn’t be said until after the words veyamlich malchusei. Why is it said as soon as after shemei raba?

And second, it seems incongruous in the extreme to suppose that here being inserted as an entirely independent clause (if you will). Why should the recital of the praises of the Kadish be interrupted by a prayer for the restoration of His Kingdom. It seems far more natural to suppose that the stream begun by veyamlich is a continuation of the larger stream begun by be-alema. What is being asked is that: His great Name should be glorified and sanctified in the world that He created according to His desire and in which His Kingdom will be restored...speedily. It is as if the verse had read: yisgadal veyiskadash shemei raba be-alema divera chirusei veyamlich BEI malchusei...

But on reflection, I don’t suppose this is right. I think that there is no missing bei. The verse is to be read as saying, yisgadal veyiskadesh shemei raba be-alema divera chirusei. And veyamlich malchusei bechayeichon...

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Political Multiculturalism

America is a democracy. It is a liberal democracy. It is democratic in that it decides political issues, issues of governance, by popular election. The public elects its political office holders. They, in turn, legislate and execute legislation. It is liberal in that it is committed to limited government, a precept enshrined in its constitution. It promotes public liberty by leaving its citizens free to go about their business without (undue) government interference.

Now there is talk of multiculturalism. Is it compatible with liberal democracy? There appear to be cross-currents of thought on this  question. On the one hand, the freedom that liberalism promotes carries in its tow the freedom to freely adopt any particular cultural orientation, without impediment.

On the other hand though, the liberalism that promotes this freedom is itself a cultural orientation. As such, it competes with alternative cultural orientations, some of which are inimical to the very freedom touted by the liberal view. Accept multiculturalism wholesale, and you have exposed yourself to infiltration by cultures hostile to the freedom you cherish. You have opened the floodgates to incursion by the foes of freedom. You have set up conditions favorable to the spread of cultural opposition to the various freedoms, including the freedom to freely choose and adhere to a given culture, including liberal culture. How to escape this dilemma?

Ostensibly, it is inescapable. This, then, augurs ill for the adoption of multiculturalism by a liberal democracy. If its liberalism is to be preserved, multiculturalism must be jettisoned. Multicultural liberal democracy is an oxymoron.

Or so it would seem.


It may be argued that there is no problem here. Contrary to what has been assumed, liberalism is not a culture. It is a culture-neutral determination not to impose a culture (which, in itself, does not constitute any kind of cultural orientation) and to leave everyone free to adopt, individually, any culture. It relies on the good sense and good will of the people to perpetuate adherence to this governing norm, and to make political choices that will keep it in place. (In and of itself, it is merely a starting point, an initial position, one whose continuation strongly recommends itself to the sensible mind.) However, by pursuing democratic procedures, people are, in principle, perfectly at liberty to adopt an orientation that is entirely at odds with this norm, and to endure the consequences. To be sure, there is a liberal cultural orientation that is diametrically opposed to the denial of individual freedom. It has its many adherents; and they abhor any form of extraneous imposition. They will cast their ballots in a way reflecting their championing of freedom. But this is something apart from the basic political norm of liberalism, makers of this case will say.


Suppose society has a culture that promotes freedom. It encourages everyone to be free to adhere to the (political) outlook they please. Now suppose that some people freely choose to subscribe to a philosophy that says that people should be compelled to conform to certain practices. It says, that is, not that people should be free to conform to those practices if they so choose. Rather, it says that they should be made to conform if they should fail to do so of their own volition. (How it will impose its will is a separate question. It may resort to educative measures, for example.) The inevitable outcome is that the society no longer has the culture of freedom it had originally espoused. Initially, this might affect only a certain segment of the larger population. That is because the sub-culture in question presumably does not control the larger society. Consequently, only that segment over which it does exercise control will be affected. Now, this already points up the unviability of the principle upon which this society is based. The principle is, after all, meant to assure freedom to all its members. However, matters are liable to become further exacerbated. Suppose the freedom-opposing segment wrests political control of the government. This is particularly possible in a democracy, where governance is decided by popular vote. In that eventuality, the group in question is now in possession of a great deal of coercive power. Before long, everyone will come under its dominion. Individual freedom will no longer be anywhere in evidence. What this shows is that promoting a policy of freedom to be free to suppress freedom is a losing proposition. It is not self-sustaining. It eventually undoes itself. If a society values its freedom, it has no choice but to limit individuals’ freedom to actions that do not curtail other people’s freedom – their free exercise of choices.

In political philosophy texts they ask what justifies political authority. Why should people, like me and you, submit to it? But what kind of question is that? What choice have we? Political authority is coercive. And it has the means of enforcing its mandates. It is from this that it derives its power: sheer brute force. It is too strong to be subdued by a competing power. If it weren't, it would give way. Power always goes to the mightiest. This is the way of nature. At any given moment, a political configuration reflects perceived (strategically adjusted) distributions of power.