Saturday, October 21, 2017

When the Flood Met the Tower

      Parshat Noah is framed by two cultural models, the generation that engendered the Flood (Dor Ha-Mabul) and that which was its result, that of the 'Tower of Babylon' (Dor Ha-Plaga). Both are condemned by the Torah, and excluded from the World to Come by the Mishnah (M. Sanhedrin 10, 3).

       What was the sin of the Generation of the Flood? The Torah, cryptically, states:

 וַתִּשָּׁחֵ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ לִפְנֵ֣י הָֽאֱ-לֹהִ֑ים וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ חָמָֽס:  וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר אֶת־דַּרְכּ֖וֹ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ:  וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ(בראשית ו, יא-יג:) 

And the earth was corrupt before G-d, and the earth was filled with violence. And G-d saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth:

  • And G-d said unto Noah: 'The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.(Gen. 6, 11-13) 

  • What was the sin of the Dor Ha-Mabul? The Torah doesn't say. Hazal, echoed by Rashi, were quite clear on the subject:

    רש"י, פסוק יא:
    ותשחת - לשון ערוהח ועבודה זרה, כמו (דברים ד טז) פן תשחיתון, כי השחית כל בשר וגו'
    ותמלא הארץ חמס- גזל
    Was corrupt:  וַתִּשָּׁחֵת is an expression of immorality and idolatry.
    And the earth became full of  חָמָס: robbery.


    According to Hazal, Dor HaMabul was a society the was characterized by a moral melt down and anarchy. It was corrupted by Idolatry and Sexual Immorality. These two, actually, go together. For, idolatrous society is typically self-serving, fundamentally hedonistic and inevitably orgiastic. It's supreme aim was focused upon obtaining personal, individual happiness. With man and his desires at the center of all considerations, it was inevitable that boundaries began to dissolve under the pressure of self-gratification. All societal lines, sexual, familial and more, were viewed as an obstacle to personal happiness. Robbery and theft, then, were the inevitable result of this societal behavior. If boundaries are rejected in the interest of self-gratification, of what use or importance are rights to private property?


    The Dor HaPlaga, that which built the tower, was of another order (pun intended). 
     וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵ֗הוּ הָ֚בָה נִלְבְּנָ֣ה לְבֵנִ֔ים וְנִשְׂרְפָ֖ה לִשְׂרֵפָ֑ה וַתְּהִ֨י לָהֶ֤ם הַלְּבֵנָה֙ לְאָ֔בֶן וְהַ֣חֵמָ֔ר הָיָ֥ה לָהֶ֖ם לַחֹֽמֶר:וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־ הָאָֽרֶץ: וַיֵּ֣רֶד ה֔' לִרְאֹ֥ת אֶת־הָעִ֖יר וְאֶת־הַמִּגְדָּ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר בָּנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֥י הָאָדָֽם: וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה֗' הֵ֣ן עַ֤ם אֶחָד֙ וְשָׂפָ֤ה אַחַת֙ לְכֻלָּ֔ם וְזֶ֖ה הַחִלָּ֣ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת וְעַתָּה֙ לֹֽא־יִבָּצֵ֣ר מֵהֶ֔ם כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָזְמ֖וּ לַֽעֲשֽׂוֹת  :(בראשית פרק יא ג-ו)
  • And they said one to another: 'Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said: 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' And God came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.And God said: 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. (Gen. 11, 3-6). 
  •  
  • Those who built the tower, perhaps as in reaction to the sins of the Dor HaMabul, valued unity and uniformity above all. Everyone spoke the same language, thought the same thought and subscribed to the same rational, architectonic vision of a society that was embodied in and expressed by the Tower. All was subordinated to the common goal of building the tower and establishing societal dominion over the earth, and the implied usurpation of God's dominion (with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name). In contrast to the Dor HaMabul, though, the individual in this generation was stripped of all value. His or her status was measured solely to the degree that they were useful to the common mind-set and cause. In a famous comment, the author of Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer, observed:


  • פרקי דרבי אליעזר (היגר) - "חורב" פרק כד
    כשבעה מילין מקנה מעלת היו לו במזרחו ובמערבו, ואלו שהיו מעלו מעלין לבנים היו עולין ממזרחו, ואלו שהיו יורדין היו יורדין ממערבו, ואם נפל אדם ומת לא היו שמים לבם עליו, ואם נפלה לבנה היו יושבין ובוכין ואומרין מתי תעלה אחרת תחתיה, 
  • There were seven staircases on its eastern and western sides. Those who were bringing up bricks, would ascend from the east and those who were descending would go down from the west. If a man fell and died, they would pay him no heed. If a brick fell, they would sit and cry and say: When will another [brick] come up to replace it. (Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer, ed. M. Higger, ch. 24)

    The builders of the Tower, then, created a disciplined, totalitarian society in which the common good paid no heed to the individual, the moment he no longer participated in the actualization of the common vision of society, as focused and expressed by the Tower. As made clear by the Torah, this type of society is dependent upon mind-control and uniformity of thought in order to succeed. And, it was precisely that kind of totalitarianism that led to the scattering of the people and the breaking of its dehumanizing uniformity.
    Prima facie, these two extremes represent polar opposites. The society the preceded the flood was self-indulgent, narcissistic and valued the satisfaction of its drives and needs and happiness above all other considerations. It strove to destroy boundaries and create a world of natural freedom. The world of the Tower, while equally self-centered, was predicated upon the pursuit of a higher ideal through tightly regimented thought and action. It was disciplined to a fault and (by implication) Hobbesian in its view of humanity and its prospects, hence the regimentation (governmental?). 
    The Torah makes it patently clear that both societal models are to be utterly condemned. Each may contain positive elements such as the value of the individual or that of sacrifice for common goals. These, however, must balance one another and cannot become absolute values. Furthermore, and far more important, each is a nefarious form of Alien Worship, Avodah Zarah--- the absolute opposite of all for which the Torah stands. The proper definition of Avodah Zarah is the worship as God, of someone or something, which is not, in fact, God. Both the generation of the Flood and of the Tower, each in its own way, worshiped man, and reject the subordination of Humanity to its Creator: either as a subjective individual or as an unyielding, absolute ideal.
    Despite the Flood and the Destruction of the Tower of Babylon, both approaches have never disappeared. Hellenistic Society, and Post-Modern Western Society, very much embodied (bon mot intended) the patterns of the former. Totalitarian systems (Communism, Nazism, and Fascism) perfectly fit the pattern of the Tower Builders. Today, however, I sense that a new phenomenon is upon us: a merging of the two. Western 'culture' (certainly in the area of personal identity, sexual morality, family structure etc) while, apparently rooted in the ethos of the Flood generation, increasingly and aggressively uses the coercive tools of the Tower Builders to force its world view on all who might disagree. I am, personally, not quite sure what to make of this development. I do think it's very ominous and potentially disastrous.
    The above Midrash recounts that the young Abraham watched the tower abuilding. He was revolted by all it represented. He, cursed it and prayed to God to break up their unity/uniformity. The builders, for their part, ignored him as if he were a rock thrown on the ground. However, it was only Abraham and his Progeny, in their acknowledgement of God's Dominion (and, by implication, submission to His Word), that the anathema of the Tower could be undone. a fortiori is that true when Flood and Tower are merged.
  • Saturday, August 26, 2017

    An Open Letter to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Riskin's Reply

    [Two weeks ago, I wrote this letter to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, in the wake of an interview that he gave to Makor Rishon. At His request, I suspended the letter, pending his reply. I received the latter on Thursday and am publishing both together. Though I am glad to see that he conceded a number of points, I stand by the key points of my original critique and its implicaations. I am preparing a detailed rejoinder.]



                                                                                                       י"ט מנחם אב תשע"ז לפ"ק
              11.8.2017


    Dear Rabbi Riskin,
               טרם אענה אני שוגג.
               After long deliberations, it is with a mixture of sincere regret, deep pain and (I admit) a measure of shock that I feel compelled to write to you regarding your remarks concerning Homosexuality that appeared in last week’s Maqor Rishon (and subsequently in the Kippa news site). If the published interview reflects your actual words, and I truly hope that they do not, then your statement represents an egregious distortion of the Torah; one which is fraught with dangerous implications for Torah, for the Orthodox and broader Community, and for your own many salutary communal activities.
               There are two points (inter alia) that you mention, with which I would like to take issue here.
               First, you acknowledge (and express concern for) the extremely difficult situation faced by Homosexuals who wish to lead a life of Torah and Mitzvot, while coping with their sexual impulses. The latter consideration leads you to apply to them the principle of compulsion (אונס), as a method of excluding them from the Torah’s prohibition against homosexual activity, the severity of which is underscored by the dire punishment attached thereto.
               However, your alleged use of the principle אונס רחמנא פטריה is both incorrect and misleading. Coercion, which is almost always external, does not provide license to perform a prohibited action. All it does is to exempt the performer of the deed from punishment. It remains a grave sin, with all that that implies. An act performed under compulsion, furthermore, constitutes an act of volition. As our revered teacher, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל put it (in the context of the sugya, ,תליוהו וזבין BT Baba Bathra 47b), an act performed under coercion remains an action of volition on the part of the actor(מעשה דעת). Coercion, however, can be invoked to either revoke a commercial  transaction (מסירת מודעא) or to avoid punishment (אונס רחמנא פטריה). Coercion is totally irrelevant to the categorization of an act as sinful or not, in this case of גילוי עריות.
               As I noted when Halakha invokes coercion it almost always refers to external coercion. Failure in the struggle against one’s drives and impulses is not an exculpating factor, as excruciating as that struggle might be. To say otherwise is to deny freedom of will and to undermine the basic structure of the Torah’s moral system—especially in the area of sexual conduct.
               This leads to the second point that is attributed to you in the article, namely the proposed distinction between the present regnant understanding of Homosexuality, wherein the individual has no choice in determining their sexual preferences, and the voluntary, self-indulgent and licentious social norms that you attribute to Greco-Roman society. Again, according to the report, the Torah only intended to prohibit the latter, not the former.
               This contention is so deeply problematic that I hardly know where to begin to address it. What has Fifth Century Athens to do with a Torah that we firmly believe was given some 800 years earlier? Even if the Torah was referring was to contemporary Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Canaanite mores, we have absolutely no clear idea what the circumstances that obtained there. Even if we did, what difference would that make? There is absolutely no basis in our tradition for such a distinction.
    The serious implications of this argument do not end there. Your allegedly proposed contention is predicated upon an historicist-reductionist argument that could potentially undermine Halakha entirely. It is against precisely this type of approach that Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל so emphatically inveighed. Needless to say, we have both seen its effects in the Gotterdammerung of non-Orthodox American Judaism. [You may, of course, correctly object that Halakha is not static. However, measuring such change is a very nuanced and delicate matter. And such change only comes as an outgrowth of the tools with which the Oral Law provides us, not as a result of subordinating it to Academic or Cultural conjecture.]
               I must admit when I read the interview my first thought was not even for the long-term, corrosive implications of the position therein expounded. My first thought was for the future of your most blessed and important initiative in recent years, Giyyur ka-Halakha. I greatly admire the fortitude with which you have essayed to finally resolve the status of the non-halakhic Jews in Israel. You are not only performing a Hessed for them. You are effectively preventing a schism among the Jews of the Land of Israel, itself a matter of both spiritual and physical security. Yet, I cannot help but sense that adopting the stance expressed in your name in the press, will have a profoundly negative impact upon your important efforts to have these converts recognized, with all that implies.  
               This has not been easy for me to write. We have known each other for many years. I have the deepest respect and affection for you, as an older colleague, a leader of our community and a friend. My comments here are offered with humility and sincere concern (hence my opening line, drawn from Ramban’s letter to the Tosafists of France).
               הכותב וחותם בענווה ובדמע,
                                          Jeffrey

    Rabbi Riskin's Reply:





    23 August 2017

    Dear Rabbi Woolf,

    I must admit to having been taken aback by your letter, which did not take into account the actual words of my interview, such that you grossly misrepresented the position which I espouse.

    You take issue with my application of   אונס רחמנא פטריה regarding the homosexual, which you believe to be "incorrect and misleading," since, as you wrote, "Coercion, which is almost always external, does not provide license to perform a prohibited action. All it does is to exempt the performer of the deed from punishment. It remains a sin, with all that that implies."

    Well, it seems that you agree with me, as that is precisely my position. In fact, I began my response in Makor Rishon to the question regarding the halakhic attitude towards homosexuals with the words, "We cannot permit what the Torah prohibits," stated in a clear and unequivocal fashion, meaning that the act remains a transgression, and one who carries out the act is a transgressor.

    I then went on to explain that Annus Rahmana Patrei – the "compelled" individual is freed from the punishments (chiyuvim) ordinarily emanating from having committed the act.

    The act, however, remains forbidden. Neither I nor anyone else granted "license" to commit the act initially. I do however believe that the transgressor is "patrei," that in the usual words of our Sages, he is "patur aval asur." Despite the fact that the act is forbidden, he is freed from earthly punishment.

    Moreover, in order to buttress the fact that I was not suggesting a post-facto freeing from punishment of every type of homosexual – such as one who was seeking sexual variety, or one attempting to avoid the complications of procreation (as in the case of the Greek philosophers, which I brought as an example) – I suggested a possible interpretation of the Biblical text based upon the Talmudic suggestion of to'evah not as an abomination with dire consequences, but rather as 'to'eh atah bah' -- you are making a mistake in this homosexual decision, (B.T. Nedarim 51b). And since I subscribe to the scientific opinion that there are two types of homosexuals – those who are incapable of an intimate relationship with a woman and have no sexual option other than with a male or celibacy, and those who voluntarily choose homosexuality – perhaps it is only the latter type of homosexual whom the Torah is punishing so strictly, since I believe that Annus Rachmana Patrei applies only to the former.

    This is merely a suggestion which everyone is free to reject, but I hardly think that leaving the punishment to God in this instance could "potentially undermine Halakha entirely," nor do I think that it so potentially damaging as to be opening a door to the kind of "Gotterdammerung" of non-Orthodox American Judaism, as you seem to think. I leave it to God to make the ultimate decision as to how to punish the transgressor.

    Moreover, regarding your statement, "when Halakha invokes coercion it almost always refers to external coercion," this is correct, and in general I certainly agree. But, as you know, there are some cases within the Rishonim in which even if it’s a case of "yitzro tokfo" the rabbis understood the struggle. The individual himself is seen as a sinner, but with mitigating circumstances.

    For example, the Baalei Tosafot (B.T. Gittin 41b  s.v.) "They forced the master (כופין את רבו)," where it is maintained that "men who were cavorting sexually with women forbidden to them, even though they are sinners, because the women were running after them and seducing them to immorality, they are considered as annusim."
    The Baalei Tosafot in B.T. Sanhedrin 26b go even one step further; one suspected of sexual immorality is permitted to give testimony "because his evil instinct has overtaken him."

    It is important to note that Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook uses these sources in a path-breaking fashion. In a letter to a distraught father who is thinking of disowning his son who has "left the derekh," the renowned first Chief Rabbi of Israel implores the father to be understanding of the son and to treat him with love, because such youth are not be seen as willful sinners. He writes, "Those children who have departed from the path of Torah because of the turbulent 'current of the times' (post-Emancipation), I say to you with a full heart, that just like Tosafot in Sanhedrin taught that those who succumbed to sexual immorality because their evil impulse overtook them are to be considered as annusim; it was the Gentile maidservant who enticed them, and they too may be considered as acting under compulsion, affected as they were by that shameful maidservant known as the 'current of the times' (Letters of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen, Epistle 138).

    Certainly, it must be clearly understood that no one would suspect Rav Kook of permitting an individual to succumb to a strong sexual urge ab anitio or even to whitewash such actions after the fact. The act is still sinful and he is still a sinner – but with mitigating circumstances. Rav Kook is merely utilizing the Baaalei Hatosafot to teach us not to be judgmental – especially when dealing with a victimless crime. And I also believe that Rav Kook was encouraging us to hold out loving teshuva even to those sinners who grappled with their evil instincts and lost the fight.

    In the case of the homosexual who is incapable of intimate relations with a woman, I would hope that classifying him as an annus would be much easier to understand. I would like to offer a concluding source from the Tosefta Avot D'Rabi Natan, Chapter 16 Law 4, in the name of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, who says that no Israelite will ever see the face of Gehannom. He brings the example of a landowner who rented out portions of land to tenant farmers who paid their rent to the owner from the fruit, grain and vegetables that grew on the leased land. The landlord agreed with one renter that he would receive ten "kur" of grain in exchange for the parcel of land he gave him – land which was uncultivated and infertile. At the end of the season, the individual came with just one "kur" of grain. When the landowner complained that this violated their agreement, the tenant farmer protested that the landlord knew the poor quality of land which he had rented. "I worked as hard as I could and this was all I could give you," the renter said.
    Rav Shimon bar Yochai said, "In the future, every Israelite can say to the Holy One Blessed be He, Master of the Universe, 'You know the evil instinct that You placed within us to entice us, You also know that we did the best we could do.'"

    It seems to me that this is what the homosexual will be able to say to God when he stands in front of the Throne of Glory. "You know how You created me. I tried as hard as I could, but this was best that I could do."

    I believe this is what the Bible means when it refers to God as a loving and forgiving God who is a נשא עוון. Who takes our sins upon himself…

    And in any case, I would maintain that it must be God who is the only judge. 

    B'virkat Kohen B'Ahava,
    Shlomo Riskin