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Archive for August, 2009

More Mitzvahs, More Mitzvahs

Posted by rabbiart on August 26, 2009

We left off our study of Ki Tetzei’s mitzvot with #556 – not to punish anyone compelled to commit a transgression, or in the Hebrew שלא לענוש האנוס. The Torah’s verse on point deals with the case of a man who forces himself on a woman without her consent, and states clearly that guilt is not ascribed to the woman, and she is not punished in any way וְלַנַּעֲרָ לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה דָבָר . We can pause here for two thoughts; the first is to notice the alarmingly large number of societies where – to this day – the blame and punishment falls not on the man but the woman, and the disturbing tendency of even women’s rights organizations and their advocates to gloss over these terrible injustices in favor of continually hounding you know which country I mean where – in the main – women have equal rights and protections. We can only lament the fact that some of the more traditional segments of klal yisrael are a bit less progressive in this regard.

The Torah anticipates “more modern” systems of jurisprudence which also operate to avoid punishing individuals who commit offenses under compulsion, against their will, and without intent.  This includes the three cardinal transgressions which one is not supposed to commit even under the threat of death.  For a system often described (some might say accused) of being patriarchal or male oriented, the Halachah makes an interesting exception to this rule.  A male who has – under duress – forbidden sexual congress is still subject to penalty, because, as Raba says in Talmud Yebamoth 53B (Soncino translation) “there is no compulsion in sexual intercourse since erection depends entirely on the will!

The specific case is made into a general rule that applies in every place and time – that we are duty-bound to to punish a compelled person with any penalty.

We come next to a seemingly strange and cruel mitzvah – #557 the duty of a rapist to take his victim for a wife.  Having just absolved – of any court imposed punishment – a woman who is the victim of a rape, does the Torah now intend to sentence her to a life of living with the rapist?  Not only this, but the next mitzvah – #558 – is that the rapist is never to divorce the victim.  How can this be? How can the Torah be so cruel as to command these mandates?!

The answer is clear. The Torah does not intend for these consequences of rape to occur.  The Torah (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing for convenience) designs – and is designed for – a world in which people carefully consider the consequences of their contemplated actions.  The Torah firmly believes – as it were – in the power of deterrence. To quote from Sefer HaHinuch “when he [the rapist] is aware [of the consequences of his actions] he will overcome his passion and refrain from committing this villany, in view of this penalty.

Rabbinic tradition quickly learned that deterrence is not a fail-safe mechanism. Rapes do occur. Men are not dissuaded by potential consequences.  Gradually, the Halachah created a set of exceptions and conditions so that a raped woman would not be sentenced to marriage and life alongside a person who had committed a horrible crime upon her.

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Ki Tetzei – We’ve got Mitzvahs

Posted by rabbiart on August 25, 2009

This parshah has a special significance to me because it is the Bat Mitzvah portion of our older daughter. You try helping a 12 year girl embrace a parshah that begins with describing the treatment of women captured in war. And you thought bridge requires many a finesse! Hah!  If that weren’t enough, the parshah has the most mitzvot of any parshah in the Torah. There are 27 positively phrased and 47 negatively phrased mitzvot.  (No mitzvah should ever be described as “negative”) According to Sefer HaHinuch, these are the first 25 mitzvot in Ki Tetze. Even this subset of the Ki Tetzei mitzbot shows us how the Torah encompasses every aspect of life.

532 the law of a beautiful woman –  אֵשֶׁת, יְפַת-תֹּאַר –  captured in war

533 not to sell a beautiful woman captured in war

534 not to make a beautiful woman captured in war work after a slave after conjugal intimacy

535 the law of hanging someone after his execution

536 not to leave someone hung overnight on the gallows

537 to bury someone executed by court order

538 to return a lost object to its owner

539 not to ignore a lost object

540 not to leave someone else’s beast lying under its burden

541 to lift up a load for an Israelite

542 a woman should not wear men’s clothing

543 a man should not wear women’s clothing

544 not to take the mother-bird with the young in the nest

545 to send the mother-bird away from the nest

546 the duty to build a parapet

547 not to leave a stumbling-block around

548 not to sow mixed kinds of seeds in a vineyard in Israel

549 not to eat the produce of mixed seeds in a vineyard in Israel

550 not to do work with two kinds of animals together

551 not to wear cloth of wool and linen

552 that a man should marry (a woman)

553 that a wife who is motzi shem ra should stay with her husband forever

554 that a man who is motzi shem ra is never to divorce his wife

555 the duty of a court to enforce a proper sentence of stoning

556 not to punish anyone compelled to commit a transgression.

Of course there are some mitzvot in just this list alone that we might feel called upon to reinterpret. But no worries there, because reinterpreting the mitzvot to fit in with the just and proper needs of our time is a tradition that dates back at least to  the great sage Rabbi Hillel.

Each of these mitzvot cry out for further study and serious contemplation, either to understand why they are given and what they mean, or to ponder how we might go about designing a society in which they can be carried.  And how we might motivate ourselves to observe them.

To borrow from The Sound of Music, let’s start at the beginning, its a very good place to start.  We don’t need a Jewish Israeli on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition to understand the lure – to men – of a beautiful woman.  (By the way, does this mean that the Jewish people have finally become “normal”?)  Unfortunately, the bad conduct of soldiers seems to be as endemic as war itself.

Passing over the distressing subject of capital execution – but remembering the statement that a court which executed one person in 70 years has blood on its hands – we arrive we arrive at the subject of  basic human courtesy; the duty to help other’s keep their possessions.  We press onward through the list and find ourselves commanded with not one but two mitzvot to be kind to birds. While that subject is in the air  we learn that it is our duty to keep people from falling off our roof.

After mixing in some prohibited mixtures we find ourselves  with one easy (or… maybe not) and two mysterious mitzvot having to do with marriage.

The Torah – and rabbinic judaism – did not find itself compelled as we are in our day to wrestle with the issue of two people wanting to construct a loving, life-long relationship, who happen through the mystery of HaShem’s creative powers to be of the same sex.  Our mitzvah here (#552 in the list) is not concerned with either permitting or prohibiting same-sex union; it lives in a world where man-woman marriage is taken for granted.  This mitzvah details the three ways in which a marriage may be effected; by money, by a document, or by magic of loving union that ought to take place in the privacy of two people (Hollywood sex videos on Youtube notwithstanding).  The Jewish wedding today – marriage by ceremony – is nowhere mentioned in the Torah, nor is it described in this mitzvah, although we see marriage by document as part of the “modern” Jewish wedding.  It was a great simchah and honor to watch over the Ketubah signing at our younger daughter’s wedding, much less than to actually stand under the Chuppah and assist the bride and groom to marry each other.

Mitzvot 553 and 554 seem at first reading to make no sense whatsoever.  At the heart of these mitzvot is a great question that is with us to this day. How do we discourage individuals from bad or unacceptable actions that cause harm, without causing harm by the methods we employ to prevent the bad action?

These two mitzvot apply to the specific case of a husband publicly accusing his wife of not being a virgin on the day of the wedding, and claiming that she became “not a virgin” after the couple were betrothed to each other. We could take refuge in the easy way out by mentioning that Jewish weddings now combine betrothal and marriage into a single ceremony. As long as bride and groom stay under the chuppah, it is exceedingly unlikely that the bride will change from virgin to non-virgin after the couple has been officially betrothed.  Provided, of course, that the officiating clergy are not too long winded to the point of distraction and inattention 🙂 .

The specific interpretation of how husband and wife are too live forever in enmity, as well as how we might do anything other than chuck these two mitzvot overboard entirely leave me with no choice but to take refuge in “that’s beyond the scope of this particular post”.  Better yet would be to simply say that – in my time as a Rabbi – no husband and wife have ever come to me with a dispute on this issue; it should always remain so.

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One Brachah from the #Torah – It’s in #Ekev

Posted by rabbiart on August 7, 2009

Readers may know that – in Halachic thought – there is a great divide between mitzvot on the Torah level – d’oraita – and mitzvot that are ordained by the rabbis – d’rabbanan. We also have the teaching to say a minimum of 100 brachot a day. Most of this threshold can be reached by davening three times a day, or even twice a day. Obviously, the saying of brachot cannot be commanded from the Torah, cannot be d’oraita because that form of worship did not exist at the time of the Torah, regardless of one’s point of view on when and how the Torah came into being.The one exception to the rule stated above is Bircat HaMazon the brachah of sustenance (aka Grace after Meals). The commandment to say Bircat HaMazon is understood to derive from a passuk in our parsha this week.

וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ

When you eat you will be satisfied, and you should bless HaShem your G-d for the land G-d has given you. (Devarim 8:10)

Rambam (and Sefer HaHinuch) articulate the brachah as being specifically Bircat HaMazon, but the commandment is also understood to encompass a variety of brachot that we say, depending on the type of food we are about to eat, or have just finished eating.

The definition of what it means to be “satisfied” by food is compelling, and also demonstrates why our sages and those who follow them should never need to diet, or go to the club to work off calories, or follow any kind of weight maintenance program.  “Satisfaction” (which by the way, we know, Mick Jagger was never able to achieve, but that’s another song for another time) is achieved by eating the equivalent of the amount of an egg (liquid) or the amount of an olive (solid food). (See Sefer HaHinuch in English Translation Volume 4, page 318 (Feldheim Publishers) for references to commentary on Rambam’s Hilchot Brachot.

Because the verse mentions the land HaShem has given us, we might be moved to ponder whether this set of obligations only pertains to people living in the Biblically described land of Israel at a time when the land of Israel is occupied according to the mandate of the Torah. (And not a political state founded by mostly agnostic refugees from Eastern Europe and whose perhaps most well-known citizen appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but that is yet another discussion for another time).

Ponder as we might, the accepted interpretation is that this commandment is in force everywhere for all times without regard to the existence of a Jewish homeland for Jewish people.  For those of us who practice equality of women (count me in, please!), the commandment applies equally to women as well as to men.  From the halachic point of view, there is also no question that – d’rabbanan – the commandment applies to women as well as men.  For men, the commandment is considered to be d’oraita – from the Torah. For women, there is a dispute among the Talmudic sages whether the obligation stems from the Torah or is only a rabbinic enactment, but either way, women and men are both obligated to say Bircat HaMazon and other food-related blessings.

Moving on, we might wonder also about the purpose of this bracha.  Why not start by quoting that great moral authority Bill Cosby, who said, “Man does not live by bread alone…. he must have peanut butter!” But seriously, this set of brachah practices serves to remind us that, no matter how successful we are (or think we are), no matter how self-sufficent we are (or think we are), food does not arrive on our table only through our own efforts.  Many, many people (and in our community, people who are most likely much less fortunate than we are) work to grow, produce and deliver food to our tables, just as many, many people are involved in the work that produces our financial ability (may it always be so) to have food on our table.

Why say these brachot?  In one word – gratitude!

Shabbat Shalom

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