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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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Lethal Words

02/27/2020 10:09:44 AM

Feb27

During a legal dispute between two Talmudic giants, things got personal. The objects of their dispute, appropriately, were knives and swords.

These two luminaries, whose words are found on nearly every page of the Babylonian Talmud, were not adversaries outside the study hall. There is no indication that one was irritated with the other. But Rabbi Yohanan, in agreeing with Reish Lakish, mentioned the latter's unsavory past. Mortified, Reish Lakish responded with his own verbal dagger straight to Rabbi Yohanan's heart. In fewer words on the page than years of their friendship, both were dead (b. Baba Metzia 84a).

A slip of the tongue in the throes of a legal dispute. Sticks and stones can only hurt, but words can kill. Earlier in the same Talmudic tractate, there is a mishnah that prohibits reminding someone of their past misdeeds once they have turned themselves around (b. Baba Metzia 58b).

We have entered a dangerous season. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" which is why "he who guards his tongue preserves his life" (Proverbs 18:21 and 13:3). The Talmud lists the personal, concluding prayers of eleven sages. Only one was elevated to the liturgy. Mar, son of Ravina, began with this line from Psalms: "God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile" (Psalm 34:14).  

In biblical poetry, the second half of the verse intensifies the meaning of the first half. Mar and the psalmist are asking for divine assistance to not speak evil when true, and all the more so not to even mumble untruths, or irrelevancies, to ourselves. Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish, brothers-in-law and brothers in the law, let down their guard and loosened their tongues. May we be blessed with the strength to guard our tongues, redeem their deaths, and preserve our lives and those of our brothers and sisters.

Esther Moments

02/21/2020 10:48:53 AM

Feb21

Rhetorical questions can linger. The most haunting line from the Scroll of Esther is asked by Mordechai to each and every one of us: Who knows if you’ve arrived at this moment for greatness?

The question prompted Esther to concoct a plan that preempted a pogrom. Our Esther moment may be less consequential but equally ripe. The Torah’s first rhetorical (?) question, in which God asks Adam, “Where are you?,” is the logical prequel to Mordechai’s question. We need to know where we are in order to know what to do. It’s deceptively difficult to know where we are because most of our frames of reference travel right along with us. We are jolted out of our unconscious inertia when we see someone after a lengthy hiatus. What has every moment of our life prepared us for?

Esther’s greatness was believing that she had, indeed, arrived. The sum of her harvests prepared her.  

Each Shabbat we can pause long enough to catch our breath and glimpse where we are. On Purim, we hear Mordechai’s question. Then we throw out everything — every crumb — that rises and distorts our sense of self and our priorities. On Passover, we remind ourselves that we’re free. We’ve arrived at our Esther moment and with everything we have we pivot toward greatness.

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

The Piety of Procedure

01/23/2020 11:25:07 AM

Jan23

Witnessing is so important, our Torah capitalized it. Although big letters are few and far between in the Torah, there is one verse which boasts two big letters:

שמע ישראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד

Listen up, Israel, LORD, our God, LORD is one (Dt. 6:4).

In every Torah scroll, the ayin and the dalet are larger than the surrounding letters. Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, a 12th/13th-century sage from Worms (in modern-day Germany), was the first to comment that when those letters are read together they form the word eid, witness. Since the verse proclaims the unity of God, Rabbi Eleazar was suggesting that proclaiming divine oneness without witnessing divine oneness through our behavior is incomplete. If we talk the talk, we need to walk the walk. That’s why loving the Lord (Dt. 6:5), the following verse, is understood by the Rabbis as engaging in the commandments lovingly.

According to the Rabbis, a legal system is just as obligatory for gentiles as for Jews, although the specific laws are different. Nevertheless, it is forbidden to undermine the rule of law in either system. Jewish legal procedure requires at least two witnesses to convict anyone of a crime. Thus, the Torah obligates testimony from those who have relevant information (Lev. 5:1). The Talmud praises judges who probe witnesses to determine if their testimony withstands scrutiny. The idea of suppressing testimony is un-Jewish. The question before the U.S. Senate is whether it is unconstitutional. The question before each of us is whether it is un-American.

Mr. Spock, Chicken Heads, and Herd Immunity

01/16/2020 11:39:01 AM

Jan16

Maimonides describes a situation where a dad wants to give his son a toy to keep him distracted. He looks around, and all he sees is a chicken. So, he cuts off the chicken’s head and gives it to his son to play with. 

What’s the problem Maimonides is illustrating in this case of premeditated decapitation? Shabbat. Although the Talmud sees nothing inherently wrong with cutting off animal heads on Shabbat, assuming the animal is yours, it is forbidden to kill an animal on Shabbat. Thus is born the Talmudic principle of: p’sik reisha v’lo yamut? (Can you cut off the head and it not die?)

Acts have consequences. When the consequences are inevitable, even if the acts are permitted, Jewish law holds you liable for the act. The problem isn’t burning coal or eating meat, the problem is the inevitable consequences of those actions to our global environment. Choosing to leave your children unvaccinated to avoid their personal risk of exposure to live antibodies might be permissible. But if too many parents opt out of vaccinations, we will lose herd immunity. Then all kids will be at risk. It is unavoidable, like the chicken dying once its head is cut off.

In a collection of rugged individualists, personal choice might be tolerated regardless of its consequences. But Jewish ethics requires us to be responsible for our brothers and sisters — All Israel is responsible for one another (b. Shevuot 39a). If the consequences of our individual acts will be to the detriment of others, those acts are forbidden. Mr. Spock (and John Stuart Mill [1806-73]) had a similar principle: the good of the many outweighs the good of the few.

Nothing New Under the Sun

12/19/2019 11:45:22 AM

Dec19

Although Moses’ cousin, Korah, did attempt a coup d’état, it is King Saul who has the distinction of being the first deposed leader of the Israelites. His crime? Abuse of power. When waging war against the nasty Amalekites, rather than following divine orders and putting to the sword all the enemies’ livestock, King Saul spared the sheep and oxen for his own personal interest. He spared the King, too. (Apparently, he liked other monarchs.) When confronted by the prophet, rather than immediately admit his transgression (as King David was later to do), King Saul lied. One of my teachers, Reuven Kimelman, said that the role of the prophets has now been assumed by the fourth estate, the free press.

Can the prophet/press sometimes become overzealous? Absolutely! The prophet whom we anticipate welcoming in the messianic days is Elijah. He was discharged from his duties because of his intolerance for the necessary compromises of our messy world. Only in the coming world, when our messiness will have been mitigated, will Elijah be comfortable enough to return.

Democrats charge Trump with abuse of power; most Republicans argue that his crimes don’t rise to the level necessary for impeachment. God regretted that He had made Saul king, but God also fired Elijah for being zealous for the Lord. As the winter solstice approaches, we search in vain for something new under the sun.

Don't Let Theology Interfere with Ethics!

12/12/2019 11:51:26 AM

Dec12

Why be good? In the Torah, although there were various mechanisms, good deeds paid off in terms of national security. Indeed, there were periods of biblical history when the Israelites did enjoy national security.

B’yamim hahem bazman hazeh, but at about this time of year, nearly 2,200 years ago, this world (olam hazeh) was looking bleak for the Jews. We were being murdered for just doing our own thing: circumcision, Torah, and Shabbat. The biblical link between our actions and our rewards was severed. Since olam hazeh seemed inexplicably miserable, given our piety, rewards were projected onto a different dimension: olam haba, the coming world.

A group of Jews who became known as the Pharisees offered a new way of reading Torah that included a new venue to reward a righteous life. The Book of Second Maccabees, a product of Hellenistic Judaism, features the first Jewish martyrs
imagined to have been resurrected to eternal life. Immortality of the soul, another post-biblical idea, takes root during this period, too.

As an historian of ideas, I nod in assent when people ask if Judaism believes in bodily resurrection and immortality of the soul — “rewards” that are in tension with one another. (One is pro-body, the other is pro-soul.) But as a rabbi, I qualify my nod and say that not all Jews believe such notions. The Mishna punishes anyone who says there is no olam haba by denying them admission!

My teacher, Elliot Dorff, emphasizes that whatever we believe about resurrection, we are still obligated to donate our organs upon death. His point is that we can’t allow theology to get in the way of ethics. As the Torah teaches, the best path to
whatever lies ahead is righteous attentiveness to the here and now.

Principles, Consequences, Democracies, and Hanukkah, Too

12/05/2019 11:55:44 AM

Dec5

Without going too far out on the limb of speculation, the majority of American Jews would prefer Trump impeached and removed from office. On the other side of that same tree, the majority of Israeli Jews would prefer Trump serve a second term.

When the Greek empire held sway in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, the Seleucids of Syria attempted to impose Greek religion on the Jews of Judea. Although some Jews were quite happy to trade Judean particularism for Greek cosmopolitanism, others refused. Those refuseniks, the Maccabees, engaged in such immoral behavior, the Rabbis later
refused to permit their story to enter the canon of our sacred texts.

We think of the Hanukkah war as being waged against the Seleucids, but Mattathias’ first victim was a Jewish neighbor about to sacrifice to a foreign god. Mattathias murdered him in cold blood. The Mishnah explicitly prohibits murdering someone to stop them from engaging in idolatry. Thus, when I charged Mattathias with murder, I was channeling the Rabbis.

Here’s the thing: had Mattathias NOT murdered that Jew and initiated the war against other Hellenizing Jews and the Seleucids, the Rabbis might never have emerged. Judaism would have atrophied to the point of extinction in the name of universalism. But, in the wake of the Maccabean victory, governmental corruption became systemic. Ultimately, 235 years later, the Romans destroyed our seat of power in Jerusalem and ushered in nearly two thousand years of statelessness.

Civil war in Hebrew is milchemet achim, a war between brothers. As we deliberate about the future of American and Israeli democracy, let us not forget the Talmudic lesson of Kamtza, bar Kamtza, and the Temple’s destruction:  do not neglect likely consequences in single-minded pursuit of principle.

Fri, January 15 2021 2 Shevat 5781