Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Special feature: Midrash Mosaic

In response to Rabbi Rieser's posting of April 15, 2010, Rabbi Ruskin mentioned a mosaic she created. Here it is above. In Rabbi Ruskin's words, the mosaic illustrates the midrash, "'Shall we make a human?' Rabbi Simon teaches that when the Holy One came to create the first Human Being the Ministering angels formed groups. Hesed (lovingkindness) and tzedek (justice) voted in favor of our creation while peace and truth voted against. God broke the tie and human beings came into being. The version I illustrated in my mosaic ends with God breaking the tie by casting Truth to the ground. Thus is Truth scattered over the face of the earth and over the face of our lives. Our task then becomes the seeking and elevating of Truth. 'Attention must be paid' to this ultimate Truth: that each human life is of value, that each of us has the potential for chesed, tzedek, and shalom. And "attention must be paid" to the other truth: that we must be constantly struggling with the yetzer ha-ra luring each of us away from chesed, tzedek, and shalom. Not exactly the point of this piece of Gemara, but on my mind as I observe human behavior around me and the challenges within me."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The value of a human being / Sotah 46a

I have a close friend who does not have children, and who is offended by the rabbinic claim that God commanded procreation. The Rabbis based their claim on Genesis 1:28, God blessed [humanity] and God said to them, “P’ru u’r’vu / Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” I have come to believe that the Rabbis’ decision to read this verse as a prescription, rather than descriptive, is mistaken and deeply problematic. Chapter 1 of Genesis is riddled with phrases that are grammatically similar but pertain to land and ocean, plants and animals, none of which can be “commanded” in the sense of a divine obligation. Rather, Genesis 1:28, like all the other similar expressions in the chapter, is describing God’s creation of a self-sustaining universe – which is astounding enough!

The Rabbis knew their claim was problematic. Requiring women to engage in a life-threatening activity runs counter to Jewish law. So they exempted women (Mishnah Yebamot 6:6 is appended to the end of this blog posting). But how many men can reproduce without a woman? Catch 22.

Masechet Sotah, in chapter 10, discusses the eglah arufah, the calf who is decapitated as part of a ceremony required by Torah (Deuteronomy 21) when a person is found murdered, but the perpetrator is unknown. The elders of the city closest to where the corpse is discovered convene in a valley (presumably at the site of the murder) and recite a formula disavowing responsibility for the murder that took place: “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.” The Gemara is quick to reinterpret this to mean not – heaven forbid! – that the elders could possibly have committed the murder, but rather that the elders did not fail to offer the man food, nor fail to provide him an escort through dangerous terrain (Sotah 46b).

You might well be wondering: why decapitate the calf at all? How does this atone for the murder? We find a remarkable answer offered, rejected, and reworked:
R. Yochanan b. Shaul said: Why does the Torah mention that he should bring a heifer into a ravine? The Holy One, blessed be God, said: Let something that has not produced fruit [i.e. has never given birth] be decapitated in a place which is not fertile, and atone for one who was not given [the opportunity] to produce fruit. What “fruit” mean? If I say “offspring,” then according to this argument we should not break a heifer's neck if [the person found dead] was old or castrated. Therefore [we understand “fruit” to mean] commandments. (Sotah 46a)
I find the three parallels (murder victim, calf, location of murder/ceremony) breathtaking. Because the murder victim will be unable to “produce fruit” (i.e. father children), we decapitate a calf that itself has never given birth, and the ceremony takes place in a valley that has born no “offspring” (i.e. where no crops can grow because it is a harsh, rocky environment).

R. Yochanan’s explanation highlights the murder victim’s loss of opportunity to have children, suggesting that this is the most tragic aspect to his death. The emphasis on reproduction – indeed the elevation of reproduction to a divine commandment – jumps immediately to mind. Is this the most important thing lost when a person is murdered? As the biological parent of four children, I certainly appreciate the value of procreativity, but is this capacity (which to my mind is a blessing) the most important aspect of me, or anyone else? One is reminded of the famous mishnah found in Sanhedrin 4:5:
For this reason was a single man created: to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul in Israel, Scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed an entire universe. And whoever saves a single life in Israel, Scripture credits him with having saved an entire universe. (Sanhedrin 37a)
While this homiletical and ethical teaching references procreation – the first man Adam is regarded as the progenitor of all humanity – this is not the same thing as saying that the essential worth of a human being is encapsulated in his/her ability to reproduce. Rather, it expresses the immense worth of a human being.

The Gemara asks this question, as well, by posing a legalistic question: would we dispense with the ceremony if the murder victim were old (and therefore beyond the age of procreativity) or castrated (and hence incapable of reproducing)? It is a rhetorical question because Torah commands the ceremony whenever someone is slain and the murderer is unknown. Gemara’s answer is wonderful. What is lost is the person’s mitzvot – all the good things he would have done, all the divine obligations he would have undertaken, all the ways he would have lived in response to God have been lost irrevocably. An image of God has perished, stolen from humanity and from God, and all that the victim would have done and could have become has tragically been lost. This interpretation of “fruit” raises it to a much higher, more humane, and indeed holier level.

Addendum: for those interested, here is Mishnah Yebamot 6:6. (It is worthwhile to examine the discussion on Yevamot 65b–66a where a significant minority express discomfort with the exemption of women.)
No man may abstain from keeping the law, Be fertile and increase (Genesis 1:28), unless he already has children: according to the School of Shammai, two sons; according to the School of Hillel, a son and a daughter, for it is written, Male and female God created them (Genesis 5:2). If he married a woman and lived with her ten years and she bore no child, he is not permitted to abstain [from fulfilling this legal obligation]. If he divorced her, she may be married to another and the second husband may live with her for ten years. If she had a miscarriage the space [of ten years] is measured from the time of the miscarriage. The duty to be fruitful and multiply falls on the man but not on the woman. R. Yochanan b. Baroka [dissents from this view and] says: Of them of both it is written, God blessed them and God said to them: “Be fertile and increase” (Genensis 1:28).

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, April 15, 2010


“I don’t say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
(Death of a Salesman, Act 1, by Arthur Miller)

The cry of Willie Loman's wife echoes across the generations. The Psalmist asks a similar question:
O Lord, what is man that you should care about him, mortal man that you should think of him?” (Psalm 144:3) What is it that makes a human being unique, worthy of attention?

If the midrash is correct, this may have been one of the earliest questions ever asked. Bereshit Rabbah 8:5 records the opinion of Rabbi Simon who reads the verse in Genesis 1, na-aseh adam, let us make Man, as a question rather than a statement: “Shall we make a human?” Rabbi Simon teaches that when the Holy One came to create the first Human Being the Ministering angels formed groups. Hesed (lovingkindness) and tzedek (justice) voted in favor of our creation while peace and truth voted against. God broke the tie and human beings came into being. The Midrash reminds us that human beings possess equal measures of holy and destructive traits.

The Ministering angels apparently weren't sure we were worthy of being created, much less of continuing notice. But God disagreed. Human beings were formed in God's image and likeness; every human being bears that stamp. Even “if one is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day, for an impaled body is an affront to God.” (Deuteronomy 21:22:23) Rashi (ad loc) comments that it is a cheapening of the image. Even the worst of the worst don’t forfeit the image of God implanted within them.

Too many people are willing to say that human life is expendable. Millions have been lost to genocides, organized murder on a national level: Armenians, Hutus, Cambodians and more. The Nazis declared the Jews to be vermin, not true human beings. Some individual hold similar beliefs. The Social Darwinists accuse the poor of deserving their poverty. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina some declared the destruction came as punishment for imagined mis-behaviors on the part of some victims. These and more adopt the attitude that certain human beings are expendable, not worthy of attention.

The Torah disagrees. Every person deserves attention in the eyes of Torah. If Arthur Miller put a face to the plight of everyman when he created Willie Loman, the Torah removes any face and leaves us with an anonymous, faceless victim; the ultimate blank slate. Nonetheless, attention must be paid.

If someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer unknown, Your elders and your judges shall go out and measure the distance form the corpse to the nearby town. (Deuteronomy 21:1-2) No one knows this victim. He/she is found in the countryside. We are given no information about this forgotten soul. Since responsibility cannot be assigned to the one who perpetrated the crime, Torah requires those at the highest levels of communal leadership to step forward.

M. Sotah 9:1 teaches that “three from the high court in Jerusalem,” members of the Great Sanhedrin, be present. The elders and judges of the two closest towns were present. Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob even suggests that the king must be present. (B Sotah 45a) The distance was measured and the closest town was charged with the responsibility for that death.

Once it is decided which of the two towns bore responsibility then the corpse was brought down to a rocky valley. “A heifer from the herd which has never been worked and which has never pulled in a yoke,” (Deuteronomy 21:3) was brought to the site and decapitated with a hatchet from behind. The site where this takes place “is prohibited for sowing and for tilling.” (M. Sotah 9:5) It remains barren, a physical and visible reminder of death.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul, by focusing on the odd requirement to bury the body in such a forlorn site, asks the unspoken question: Why does this anonymous death deserve all of this attention?
Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul asks: Why did the Torah specify, “bring the heifer to a valley?” The Holy Blessing One said: Bring something that produced no fruit and break its neck in a place that produces no fruit, to atone for one who was not allowed to bear fruit.
What are those fruits?
Shall we say it is “to be fruitful and to multiply?”
If so, then [if the victim were] an old man or a eunuch we would not break the heifer's neck.
Rather, [the fruits we speak of are] mitzvot. (B. Sotah 46a))

Here Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul answers the Psalmist. What is Man that God should care about him? Human beings, the Rabbi responds, possess intrinsic worth in both the physical and the spiritual realms.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul would dismiss all those who would measure the relative worth of human beings. He would reject those who claim that some people are sub-human, not the same as you or I. He would put out of mind those who demonize others for their lifestyle or their life choices. Human beings possess intrinsic worth.

He sees the burial requirement as a metaphor. The barren site reminds us of the fruitfulness lost when this person was murdered.

One rabbinic voice asks how we are to understand that fruitfulness. The obvious answer reflects Yohanan’s choice of words. The very first command, perhaps the most human of impulses, is to be fruitful and multiply. If the murder prevented this soul from being fruitful in that way, perhaps it is understandable. But if they are unable to fulfill that biologic function, as an old man or a eunuch would be, perhaps they are indeed expendable.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul is not so easily trapped. Without denying our physical fruitfulness, he asserts we are not limited by our physical fruitfulness. “The fruits we speak of are mitzvot.” Rabbi Yohanan ben Saul sides with God and the angels who advocate creating human beings, even knowing in advance our potential destructiveness and evil. Every mitzvah we perform – from lighting Shabbat candles, to acts of tzedakah and lovingkindness, to honoring parents, to honesty in business, to preventing causeless hatred in the world – transforms the ordinary into the holy. Our life can bear fruit from our first breath to our last.

We mark the untimely, lonely and anonymous death of that person found abandoned in the field. The loss is not merely to him or his family; not a simple matter of loss of income or offspring. Humankind is made the poorer by his loss. Attention must be paid.

© 2010 Rabbi Louis Rieser

Friday, April 9, 2010

Calling the troops to battle / Sotah 44a

In a curious diversion from the topic at hand, the Gemara discussion on Sotah 44a jumps from a detailed explanation of the nooks and crannies of Deuteronomy 20:5 to an idealistic understanding of the role of sacred texts in our lives, via a midrashic leap into a verse from Proverbs.

How does this happen? Much of the latter portion of Sotah is devoted to a protracted discussion of which prayers and official legal formula must be recited in Hebrew, and which may be recited in the vernacular. Mishnah 8:2 on Sotah 43a begins by citing Deuteronomy 20:5 which describes the procedure whereby “officials” address battle-ready troops in a citizen army on the eve of war to stipulate who is exempt from fighting: And the officers shall speak to the people saying, “What man is there who has built a new house and not yet dedicated it? Let him go back to his home [lest he die in battle and another dedicate it]…” The verse in Deuteronomy continues by exempting one who has planted a vineyard but not yet harvested its fruits, and one who has betrothed a woman but not yet married her. Mishnah Sotah 8:2 explicates each: What constitutes a new house? What constitutes a vineyard? Precisely which marriages exempt a man from battle? Thus far, concrete and pragmatic.

By and large, Gemara addresses the question of who should be exempt from battle and on what basis, and how to balance the need for an effective army with exemptions for those engaged in building society (a competing priority during a time of war) as well as those who, if they stay, will demoralize the fighters. Amidst this discussion comes a curious diversion.

On Sotah 44a, the Sages consider the phrases asher banah (“who has built”), asher natah (“who has planted”), and asher eiras (“who has betrothed”), which we mentioned above. They draw a parallel to Proverbs 24:27 and use it as a launching pad for an interpretation that takes us far from the realm of the battlefield:
Our Rabbis taught: [The order of the phrases is] “who has built,” “who has planted,” “who has betrothed.” Torah has thus taught a rule of conduct: that a man should build a house, plant a vineyard, and then marry a wife. Similarly Solomon declared in his wisdom, Put your external affairs in order, make ready what you have in the field, and afterwards build your house (Proverbs 24:27: “put your external affairs in order,” that is a dwelling place; “make ready what you have in the field,” that is a vineyard; “and afterwards build your house,” that is a wife. Another interpretation: “put your external affairs in order,” that is Scripture; “make ready what you have in the field,” that is Mishnah; “and afterwards build your house,” that is Gemara. Another explanation: “put your external affairs in order,” that is Scripture and Mishnah; “make ready what you have in the field,” that is Gemara; “and afterwards build your house,” that is good deeds. R. Eliezer, son of R. Yosi the Galilean says: “put your external affairs in order,” that is Mishnah and Gemara; “make ready what you have in the field,” that is good deeds; “and afterwards build your house,” that is expound [upon Torah] and receive a reward. (Sotah 44a)
At this point, a table may prove helpful to lay out the Proverbs verbs laid parallel to Deuteronomy 20:5, and the four interpretations offered in the Gemara.

The first interpretation (C1) of Proverbs 24:27 supports Deuteronomy 20:5 and establishes that this is not a mere set of three items but a chronologically ordered prescription for living. One should first build a home, next plant a vineyard to establish a source of income, and once firmly established, take a wife. The subsequent three offerings (C2 – C4), however, take us in an entirely different direction: we are now in the study house, rather than on the battlefield, discussing sacred texts. Moreover, there is a clear pattern to the last three interpretations (C2 – C4). Each builds on the previous troika. The pattern is ABC, BCD, CDE, as we work out way from “Scripture” to “Expounding Scripture and receiving a reward.” We have come full circle.

This pattern is all the more interesting if we consider the version found in Tosefta Sotah 7:21, which I will summarize with a similar table.

The same pattern emerges, although there are five interpretations offered: ABC, BCD, CDE, DEF, FGH. The additions are “Midrash,” “Halakhot,” and “Aggadot,” terms about whose precise meaning at the time Tosefta was generated we might ask many questions. Perhaps they become subsumed in the category of “Gemara” by the time the Talmud is redacted and codified.

The starting point and end point, however, are the same: “Scripture” and “Expound and collect a reward.” We might ask: is the reward for expounding Scripture truly the ultimate goal? Or is doing good deeds the goal, and the reward is motivation for doing good deeds (when energy and inspiration are flagging)? Or perhaps the Rabbis are telling us that Scripture, mishnah, and gemara – sacred texts through which God speaks to us – sustain us spiritually and promote the society God envisions, in which chesed (deeds of loving kindness) will be routine, and we will all reap the reward both here, and in olam haba, of creating and living in such a society. Scripture, mishnah, and gemara are then the “soldiers” that protect Israel, enlarge her spiritual territory, and protect her from the incursions of life. Time and event have proven the truth of this insight.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Who goes to war? Nations have choices about who they recruit and who they send to war. Over the past decades there has been a debate in America about the values we project though these choices. It is a reasonable debate and one that reflects key societal values.

The rules of war outlined in the Torah describe the steps leading up to battle. A specially appointed priest, the Mashoakh Milkhama, addresses the troops according to a script found in Deuteronomy 20. The Sages divide the address into two parts, first at the border and later on the battlefield. The message, predictably, is a call to courage and a reminder that God is with them, but it also presents a list of those who may not go to war because they have more pressing obligations at home. It is here that we see the societal values promoted by the Torah and the Sages.

My focus is on the address at the border when four categories of people are sent home, and more specifically on the first two groups. Those who are commanded to return home include those who have built a new home but not dedicated it, planted a new vineyard but not used the fruit of it, one who is betrothed but not yet married, and those who are fearful and fainthearted. The Sages could have read each of these categories narrowly, maximizing those who enter the battle, but they chose to broaden the list, sending many people home.

Before venturing off to war the mashoakh milkhama addresses the troops. (B.Sotah 42b) At the border he says, “Obey the words of those who lay out the rules of battle and go home [if you are among those designated to return home].” This is not a matter of choice, an option for those who might be conflicted. Rather it is a command; these people have more important work to do at home.

When Torah says those who have built a house but not dedicated it must return home, the obvious question is what constitutes a house.
“A house”: I know only that the rule covers a house. How do I know that the
rule encompasses “a house built for straw, a house for cattle, a house for wood,
and a house for storage” [as the Mishnah states]? Scripture says, “Who has built a house” — of any sort.

And how far can this category be stretched?
Is it possible, then, that I should include within the rule a gate-house, portico, or
porch? Scripture states, “A house.” Just as a house is suitable for a dwelling, so anything that is suitable for a dwelling [is included, while these unenclosed structures are not included].
(B. Sotah 43a)
The distinction could be that a house has four walls while these other structures have only a roof or that a structure qualifies as a house if it can be used as a regular residence even if it was built for some other purpose. I hear a different emphasis. This allowance includes the outbuildings that contribute to the sustainability of the homestead: the barn for the animals, the fodder to feed them, and the storage necessary for well functioning home. A home includes everything necessary to make a homestead productive.

Similar concerns define what constitutes a vineyard. The Sages are not concerned with the provenance of the vineyard. Does it matter if the vineyard was purchased, inherited or acquired as a gift? Scripture says, “Whoever has planted a vineyard.” (B. Sotah 43b) Regardless of how he comes into ownership, the concern is that he has the opportunity to harvest its fruit. The Sages do demand, however, that it constitute a real vineyard. The Mishnah (8:2) specifies: All the same are the ones who plant a vineyard and who plant five fruit-trees, even if they are of five different kinds. Similarly if one planted such a tree, who sank them into the ground, or grafted them. Other kinds of configurations are rejected; that is, if they are less that five trees, if they are not fruit-bearing trees and the like. Similar to the definition of the home, the concern is that this new vineyard or these trees provide for the long-term prosperity of the homestead and, by extension, the nation.

I see a distinction between the values raised by the Torah and those highlighted by the Sages. The Torah emphasizes the right of the individual who built the home or planted the vineyard to enjoy the first fruits of his own labor. “Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate the home or harvest the vineyard.” The major concern is that the individual reap the fruits of his labor.

The Sages shift the focus and concentrate on what constitutes a home or a vineyard. They do not cite the biblical phrase, “lest he die in battle, etc.” Their focus is on the new home or the vineyard, the basic building blocks of a settled people. The Sages knew of the devastation that accompanied the destruction of the Temple and the devastation that followed the defeat of Bar Kokhba. They understood that war, even when it is a necessary war or a Divinely-commanded war, removes people from the land. War potentially destroys society while the goal of Torah is to establish it.

The Torah’s overriding concern is to establish a livable world. Isaiah (45:18) said it most directly: God, the Creator of heaven, “did not create [the earth] as a waste but formed it for habitation.” When the Sages opt to define what constitutes a home or a vineyard in broad terms, they support the value Isaiah articulated. Despite the call to war, those who have unfinished business in settling the land and building the society must return home. They may have the higher calling, to build for the coming generations.

© 2010 Rabbi Louis Rieser