Friday, June 06, 2008

Naso - Shabbat Kallah (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog at June 2006. For more teachings on Shavuot, see May 2006.

The Nazirite, and Other Vows

Unlike last week’s parasha, which dealt with events in the desert and procedures related to the Sanctuary of that period, Naso is filled with numerous mitzvot—ranging from the laws of the Nazirite, the trial by ordeal of the wife suspected of adultery, the Priestly Blessing, as well as other passages dealing with specific aspects of the Sanctuary/Temple. Indeed, the Talmud relates that this parasha, which in terms of time is still connected to the day when the Sanctuary was dedicated, the 1st of Nissan of the year following the Exodus, was one on which eight separate parshiyot were given. Many, if not most, of these are inapplicable today, but they bear interesting lessons.

One such mitzvah is that of the nazir, or Nazirite: an individual who wishes to live an ascetic life, and who vows to adopt a certain “package” of practices—to refrain from cutting his hair, from drinking wine or consuming any grape products, from entering cemeteries or otherwise having contaminating contact with the dead (much like the kohanim, members of the hereditary priesthood). The language used of such a person is איש כי יפליא, a phrase also used of one who vows to bring the “evaluations,” arkhin, mentioned in Lev 27, alluding to something “unusual, out of the ordinary, wondrous” (the same root, פלא, is also used to refer to miracles).

The Nazirite is a specific, rigorously structured case of the broader category of neder, a vow or oath. A person may make a neder to do anything, or to refrain from any thing, that he wishes (provided that it’s not something prohibited by the Torah, or phrased in a trivial or frivolous way, or physically impossible)—e.g., to bring a gift or offering to the Temple (or make a donation to a synagogue); to refrain from eating meat for a certain period of time, or forever; to avoid all contact with a given person; to make a pilgrimage to a certain place, perhaps to the grave of a Tzaddik; etc.

There are, so to speak, two central concepts governing the idea of neder. The one is that a person must fulfill his vow: When you make a vow to the Lord your God…. that which issues from your lips you shall guard and do” (Deut 23:22-24). The essential concept is that the individual’s will has become embodied in a vow; by articulating this will in a vow or even, in most opinions, by deciding in his heart to do something, a person has made a binding commitment to do that thing. The essential idea is that there is religious significance, not only to the mitzvot a person does, but also to those choices that a person makes of his/her own free will. These are buttressed by the Torah, implying that the halakhah wishes a person to take seriously his own commitments, his own choices, even when the act involved is not a mitzvah per se. One might say that the idea of neder adds force to the entire realm of reshut, of voluntarily chosen acts. (We will discuss the entire question of Judaism’s attitude towards individual will vs. determinism in a few weeks, b”n, on Parshat Korah.)

But there is a second, opposite, halakhic institution relating to this same area: hatarat nedarim, the “releasing of vows.” (This week I officiated at such a procedure, so it is much on my mind.) When a person wishes to be released from a vow or commitment he/she has made which he realizes he cannot follow through, he goes to a tribunal of three learned Jews, who constitute a Bet Din, and asks to be released from the neder. In order to do so, they must find a petah, an “opening,” based on some factor that the person did not or could not have taken into consideration at the time of undertaking the vow.

An example from my own life: as a young man, I accepted a number of pious practices of synagogal behavior of my revered teacher, Rav Soloveitchik—acts that, while mentioned in the halakhic sources, are not generally considered as obligatory halakhah: namely, to stand throughout the Reader’s Repetition of the Amidah and the reading of the Torah, on weekdays, Shabbat, and even during the lengthy prayers of the Days of Awe. Over the years I gained weight, and began to find it physically painful and difficult to stand for lengthy periods of time. I made a hatarat nedarim, based on the fact that, as a young man, though I knew in the abstract that I would one day be older, I never visualized in a concrete way that I might find it difficult to fulfill this practice.

The notion of hatarat nedarim is thus based upon the inevitable limitations of human knowledge and foresight. A person cannot anticipate what will or may happen in the future. It may involve a matter of personal piety, or something involving interpersonal relations. Thus, the Talmud discusses someone who, out of anger, refuses to derive any benefit from a particular individual; some time later that person becomes the only butcher or grocer or teacher in his town. He had not anticipated such a development, and has no real choice but to revoke his vow. Or imagine a bride on her wedding day, undertaking external signs of her devotion and connection to her husband; if she is a traditional religious woman, this might involve covering her hair outside of their own home. Is it conceivable that such a young bride, her heart filled with love and hope and joy, imagines that one day they will end up in divorce court or, worse, in an extended legal struggle where she is an agunah, formally married but, in her own psychological inner reality, chained to someone whom she finds repugnant?

Thus, taken together, the laws of vows reflect a very interesting understanding of human life. On the one hand, the seriousness of human choices; the power and gravity of a commitment a person articulate verbally, on even decides within his heart. At the time it is made, a vow is unequivocal; a person cannot have mental reservations about it, but undertakes it wit a whole heart. On the other hand, the basis for release from vows is some change in the person’s social or personal circumstances that he did not, could not, anticipate; in other words , the inevitable limitations of human knowledge. Thus, these seemingly technical rules reflect the duality of the human being. Man/Woman is at one and the same time a morally serious creature, “little lower than the angels,” the fruits of whose mind and will must be treated with the greatest seriousness; on the other hand, hatarat nedarim is based on the finitude of man’s purview, his weakness and fallibility that stem, ultimately, from his mortality and “creatureliness.”


“Your people are my people, your God is my God”

The entire State of Israel (when not occupied with Ehud Olmert’s cash-filled envelopes from Morris Talansky) has been in an uproar the past month over the conversion issue. To briefly recap the facts: the High Rabbinic Court, led by Rav Sherman, declared invalid all of the conversions made over the past ten or fifteen years by Rav Hayyim Druckman—a leading Religious Zionist rabbi and educator, head of a special Court especially created to handle conversion and thereby relieve the huge back-log of (mostly Russian) immigrants wishing to convert to Judaism. The main argument for this rather drastic step was that Druckman was too lenient, allowing people who are ultimately not committed to a fully observant life style to be accepted as converts.

I will leave aside the political aspect of the issue: i.e., the power struggle aspects, and that over the past few decades the Haredim have gradually come to replace the “Mizrachinikim” as the leading force in Israel determining the direction of religious life, and especially halakhic public policy issues (also regarding issues of marriage and divorce, the agunah question, etc.) Nor will I address the halakhic aspect of the question, including the concept of retroactively nullifying a conversion, which I find most peculiar and difficult to justify, in light of the basic concept of conversion, once performed, as an unqualified, final act (see what I wrote on this and other issues over a year ago, in HY VIII: Vayikra=Vayikra [Rashi]). Nor will I dwell on the grave insult to an entire community of non-Haredi Torah scholars, in the high-handed treatment of Rav Druckman.

I simply wish, in the spirit of Shavuot and the reading the Book of Ruth to make a few short comments about the central issue here: the definition of Jewishness. The core issue is the old one: Is Judaism or Jewishness primarily a matter of peoplehood or religion? The Haredim are clearly pushing a purely religious, halakhic model: one who unreservedly accepts belief in God and His Torah, and commits him/herself to live thereby, may become a Jew; one who does not, cannot do so. (Moreover, even within the religious context, the Haredi model is that of a “sect’ than that of a “church,” to use the language of sociology—but that is another, albeit closely related discussion.) Much of the counter argument, say, in the secular Israeli press, takes the other tack: the Jews are a people, who have lived in Exile, and who have now returned to their homeland. Anyone who participates in the life of the nascent state, serves in its army, speaks Hebrew, participates in its culture and everyday life, and chooses to raise his children here, etc., is a welcome and worthy addition to the Jewish people, regardless of his or her halakhic or theological beliefs or practices, or absence thereof.

Both are in a sense right, and both are wrong. The Book of Ruth presents the classic answer to this question. When Naomi attempts to dissuade Ruth from following her, she replies, “Wherever you go, I shall go; wherever you sleep, I shall sleep; your people are my people, your God is my God. Where you die, there I shall die, and there will I be buried” (1:16-17). In brief, the model for the identity of this woman, seen by our tradition as the paradigmatic proselyte, is that nationhood and religion are welded together inseparably: “your people are my people, and your God is my God.”

In the ancient world, and in medieval Judaism, the two were indeed more or less identical. Thus, R. Saadya Gaon could say that “Israel is a nation by virtue of the Torah.” In the pre-modern world, the sociological reality was that one was born into a given religion and died in it, and only rarely was it a matter of personal choice. Indeed, in the Middle East today religion is largely a matter of communal belonging; in Lebanon, for example, being a Shi’ite or Sunnite or Druze or Christian is first and foremost a matter of birth. There are even those who are atheists, but atheist Shiites, Sunnites, Latin or Greek Christians, etc.

The problem is that, in the modern world, these two elements have come apart. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the only solution to the dilemma—both in terms of intellectual honesty, of stating the simple truth, and in practical terms of public policy—is to understand that Jewish identity is in fact both religious and national/ethnic. Indeed, the Rav made an attempt to provide a theological framework for this insight in his essay Kol Dodi Dofek, where he develops the idea of two covenants: the covenant of destiny (brit ha-goral), i.e., being born into the Jewish nation, symbolized by infant circumcision; and the covenant of purpose (brit ha-yi’ud), symbolized by Sinai, and the voluntary acceptance of the Torah. Thus, a way must be found to conduct conversion to Judaism—which, remember, is also a gateway to Israeli citizenship, under the Law of Return—in a way that recognizes both: the common sense understanding of belonging to the Jewish people, while somehow acknowledging its religious roots. How this is to be done in practice sounds a bit like squaring the circle; particularly as, to avoid a total split within the people, the solution must be one which can be supported, at very least, by a broad reading of the Rabbinic halakhic tradition. (But see on this Zvi Zohar and Avi Sagi’s excellent study, Transforming Identity: The Ritual Transition from Gentile to Jew: Structure and Meaning)

More important, all this will require good will and mutual respect, relinquishing power struggles and hatred of ideological opponents—items in notoriously short supply in our country, not to mention the Middle East generally.


Chapter Six

On the Shabbat preceding Shavuot, known as Shabbat Kallah, “The Shabbat of the Bride,” we read a special, non-canonical chapter added to the liturgical cycle of Pirkei Avot, known as Perek Kinyan Torah, the chapter in praise of the Torah and those who acquire knowledge thereof. We shall bring one passage from this chapter:

6.2. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Every day a voice issues forth from Mount Horev and declares: Woe to the creatures for their neglect of Torah, for whoever does not engage in Torah is called “shunned”; as is said, “A golden ring in the nose of a swine [is like] a beautiful woman lacking in taste” [Prov 11:22]. As it says: “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets” [Exod 32:16]. Do not read “engraved’ (harut), but “freedom” (herut), for none is a free man but one who engages in the study of Torah. But regarding those who engage in the study of Torah, it says, “And from Matanah [lit., “gift”] to Nahaliel [lit., “the inheritance of God’], and from Nahaliel to Bamot [lit., “the heights”; Num 21:19].

Due to lack of time, I cannot discuss this fascinating and difficult text, but leave it as a subject for study and reflection by readers over Shavuot. There is much beautiful imagery here, but there are many questions as well: What is the interrelation among the three diverse parts of this passage? And how are we to understand the rather fanciful, if not downright whimsical, use of proof texts? With the help of the Giver of the Torah, we will return to this, whether before or after Hag ha-Shavuot.


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