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Torah On the Grow, a weekly blog by Rav Shai Cherry

01/31/2020 12:00:46 PM

Jan31

Not everyone has the luxury, or patience, to learn Torah every week. Torah on the Grow is for that audience. The goal is to bring a Jewish perspective to topics that surround us in our non-Jewish environment. The hope is to grow in our Jewish knowledge, in our appreciation of Jewish wisdom, and in our desire to learn more.  –Rav Shai Cherry

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Environmentally Protective Torah

02/13/2020 11:58:25 AM

Feb13

Among the many things I love about Judaism is that nothing human is alien to it.

Here's how the Torah treats human waste disposal: even in wartime, designate a place outside of the camp to relieve yourself and "when you have squatted you shall dig a hole with a spade and cover up your excrement" (Dt. 23:14). Don't leave your waste lying around for someone else to step in.

The Talmud, predictably and gloriously, takes non-human waste disposal into the realm of torts. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says: "Whoever leaves things that are injurious in the public domain, and these cause damage, they must make restitution" (Mishnah, Baba Kamma 3:3).

I spent this Tu b'Shvat with a group of young Jews in their twenties and thirties. My generation, and the ones who came before, have left dangerous things in the public domain. I was ashamed to acknowledge that I am part of a generation that is bequeathing to them and to their children my generation's mess. We have befouled our environment and neglected to take responsibility. It is unconscionable that we are refusing to make restitution.  

One of Robert Fulghum's lessons in his All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was: "Clean up your own mess." How can we teach that lesson to our kids if we're too hypocritical to clean up our own messes? The Talmud and our kindergarten education demand no less.

Rav Shai

Who are Today's Kidnapped Infants?

02/07/2020 09:23:56 AM

Feb7

The Talmud has a category called “kidnapped infants.”  

Suppose, God forbid, a Jewish baby was kidnapped and raised by heathens. At some point, the truth is discovered. There is no question about her Jewish identity. As the Talmud says, “Even a sinning Jew is a Jew.” The question the Talmud asks is, “How many animal sacrifices is she required to offer?”

Here are a few possibilities: she is required to offer a sacrifice for each category of prohibition that she unknowingly transgressed; she is required to offer a single sacrifice for all her heathen-esque transgressions; or, since all her actions were committed without knowing she was a Jew, no sacrifices are required.

There’s another category in the Talmud called “coerced.” All agree that one who is coerced is not responsible to bring a sacrifice. Here’s my question: are third-generation “kidnapped infants” coerced? They grew up in a home where their folks and grandparents all believed and acted the same way. Does that constitute coercion?

In the Middle Ages, there was a group of Jews who rejected the Talmud. They were called KaRAites or biblicists. (The Hebrew word for bible is miKRA-cognate to the Arabic word KoRAn.) Although the founders of the movement should have known better, according to Maimonides, the next generations of KaRAites were only acquiescing to their parents’ worldview. Maimonides, therefore, considers them coerced.

The truth, as we now recognize, is that we are all like infants kidnapped by the worldviews of our parents and communities. Perhaps Maimonides recognized that, too, and so sought to remove any barrier to re-entry.  As he wrote in the Guide of the Perplexed (1190): “Anyone who prefers an opinion [merely] because of his upbringing or for some advantage, is blind to the truth.

Torah on the Grow: Self-Inflicted Wounds and Abuse of Power

01/31/2020 11:53:31 AM

Jan31

Rabban Gamliel II (d. 114 CE) had wealth, learning, and a pedigree. One needed wealth to be respected by the Romans, learning to be respected by the Rabbis, and pedigree for good measure. Alas, Rabban Gamliel confused being authoritative with being an Autocrat. As a result of such confusion, he was deposed and eventually killed.

Rabban Gamliel publicly humiliated Rabbi Yehoshua. Repeatedly. Better to leap into a fiery furnace than to humiliate someone in public, insists the Talmud. Such behavior is unworthy of a leader, so he was deposed. As Maimonides reminds us in his discussion of Moses' punishment for striking a rock, leaders should be held to the highest standards of behavior.

Ultimately, what killed Rabban Gamliel was his complicity in excommunicating Rabbi Eliezer. The Talmud is ambiguous as to whether Rabban Gamliel was killed because the excommunication, itself, was excessively punitive; or because of the public display of burning all the items that Rabbi Eliezer had previously declared pure was pure spite.

What we know is that Rabbi Eliezer felt deeply aggrieved, and when he poured out his hurt, Gamliel died. In the magical realism of the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer's wife, who happened to be Rabban Gamliel's sister, knows of her brother's death even before the public pronouncement. When asked how she knew, she shared a tradition from their father's home: All the gates of heaven are locked except for the gates of abuse. (Image at right: Crying Man, by Ben Shahn)

Rabbi Eliezer's cries over the abuse of Rabban Gamliel's power pierced heaven, and not even pedigree could save Rabban Gamliel from himself.

Rav Shai Cherry

Thu, February 20 2020 25 Shevat 5780