Monday, August 01, 2011

Pluralism and its limits in early Judaism

This past weekend was the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts annual Unity Shabbaton. One of the scholars-in-residence talked about his idea that many of the discussions in Mishna Eduyyot are trying to deal with the aftermath of zealotry on the Jewish community of the second century. Eduyyot consists entirely of rulings on a wide variety of topics where the source of those rulings is 'thus and so directly learned the tradition from Great Rabbi X'. Some historians think it was the first part of the Mishna written down.

The Mishna whose interpretation I found problematic (In Eduyyot 4:8) discusses how Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai had a number of differences of opinion which impacted personal status and ritual purity. These differences were consequential. It mean that there were people who Beit Hillel thought could marry a Cohen, or even marry a regular Jew, who Beit Shammai thought were ineligible and vice versa. The dispute also extended to whether certain utensils were ritually pure or not. Widespread disagreement on this could have theoretically meant that members of Beit Hillel could not have eaten in the houses of followers of Beit Shammai and vice versa.

However, the Mishna concludes "And although these pronounce unfit and these pronounce fit, Beth Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from [the daughters of] Beth Hillel, nor did Beth Hillel refrain from marrying women from [the daughters of] Beth Shammai." (and similarly reagarding utensils).

When I learned this, what I was taught it meant was that if a member of Beit Hillel wanted to marry a daughter of Beit Shammai, he might be told "Although Beit Shammai holds that this woman is fit to marry, by the rules of Beit Hillel she is not." and vice versa. The teacher told me this was the view of the medieval rabbi Ovadiah Mibartenura.

The teacher's view, which I have previously seen ascribed to Judith Hauptman (Masoret Magazine v7n3), is that this meant that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai each accepted the other's definition. Thus if my daughter is acceptable for marriage according to Beit Hillel, a man from Beit Shammai would be willing to marry her.

I have a very hard time accepting this interpretation. There are two ways to look at it, and for each I will provide a source for refuting it. One interpretation is that Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai each said "Well, we'll accept the other's ruling." This obviously doesn't work. Now the man from Beit Shammai would say "I will marry you since you are acceptable according to Beit Hillel, but the daughter of Beit Hillel would say 'but I must refuse because I am forbidden to you according to the rules of Beit Shammai." This provides no gain in what is actually permitted and has the further problem that each person think their own decision is the wrong one. This scenario makes me think of the saying in Pirke Avot "One who says - What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine - this is an ignorant man."

The other interpretation is that if either Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai ruled that a woman was fit for marriage then both groups accepted the ruling. But in the Talmud (Chullin 43b - 44a) the Gemara quotes a Beraisa that states, "One who follows the lenient rulings of Beis Shamai and the lenient rulings of Beis Hillel is a Rasha. One who follows the stringent rulings of Beis Shamai and the stringent rulings of Beis Hillel -- of him the verse says, 'The fool walks in darkness' (Koheles 2:14). Rather, one must follow either Beis Shamai consistently, both his lenient and stringent rulings, or Beis Hillel consistently, both his lenient and stringent rulings."

This conflict has consequences in the present as well. The overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews will not accept the validity of the overwhelming majority of conversion conducted under Conservative Jewish auspices. I know people who reason as follows "I follow the halacha as understood by the Conservative movement. By these rules my conversion is valid and I am a Jew. Therefore, when I enter an Orthodox synagogue I can simply tell them I am Jewish, and be counted towards the minyan, lead services if asked, etc." To me, the Mishna in Eduyyot should cause these people to say "Even though I am a Jew according to my rabbis, I am not according to yours and therefore you should not count me towards the minyan."

UPDATE: Rabbi Hauptman's article can be found on the Internet Archive

UPDATE 2: Reading other people's commentary on the article, Meredith Warshaw brings out the point that while a member of Beit Hillel would not marry a woman of Beit Shammai who was prohibited according to BH's understanding, he would marry a woman of Beit Shammai who had no obvious defect. This isn't inevitable - one could imagine someone saying 'Perhaps 4 generations ago this woman's ancestor was a mamzer according to me, but not according to Beit Shammai. How can I take the risk?'

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Selling Bliot

Bliot were described by the person who taught me the laws of kashrut as 'massless particle of taste that nevertheless have volume'. When (for example) you heat milk in a pot, even after you pour the milk out and wash the pot some bliot of milk remain,

I get into an argument each year with my rabbi when I cross off the line about selling the bliot in my pots. The argument point and counterpoint goes:

P) I couldn't deliver the bliot to him even if he wanted them.
C) If he wanted the bliot, he could just boil some water in the pot and he'd get some. If he kashered the pot and somehow kept all the water involved he'd get all of them.

P) Nobody wants the bliot anyway - it isn't anything useful.
C) A manufacturer can package something you want and something you don't want together and your choices are to buy both or neither - you don't get to split the products up.

P) Schmutz is not chametz, and bliot are even less than schmutz.
C) Jews love to be machmir on pesach - it is the custom to be stringent where possible.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The way it sadly is today

I think this is a good introduction to the conversion crisis as it applies to O Jews. The damage this is causing and will continue to cause is terrible - and absolutely unnecessary. Notice how often conversions are now being nullified because of the beit din rather than because of the convert. Sincerity is no defense.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

After cardiac death, what? Part 2

Part 1 (summary of some non-brain stem death positions) to follow.

So let's assume for the moment we get agreement on the idea that Orthodox Jews may not donate organs prior to cardiac death but are permitted to receive organs that were harvested after brain stem death. Where do we go from there?

I would suggest there would be two negative consequences to concern ourselves with.

Firstly, Orthodox Jews would be in a position where with regards to transplants they would largely be takers and not givers. We are supposed to be a light unto the nations and a generous people. Without violating halacha, we need to consider how we can live up to those goals.

Secondly, there will be a backlash from many people who will not understand the halachic principles that drove us to this point. We need to be able to provide concrete, relevant examples of Jewish generosity to others in order to counter these perceptions.

I'd suggest that the Orthodox Jewish leaders might want to encourage the following:

  1. Orthodox Jews should be routinely donate blood several times per year.
  2. Orthodox Jews should strive to be registered as potential donors for transplants that can be done by a live donor, for example kidney transplants.
  3. Orthodox Jews should routinely register to donate organs which can be harvested after cardiac death e.g, corneas.
  4. Orthodox Jewish philanthropists and medical researchers who are looking for areas in which to do their work should consider supporting research into alternatives to transplants as the technology to support them becomes practical - artificial organs, cloned organs, etc.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On Moral Untenability

Once a man came to Hillel and asked him "Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot."

Hillel replied "That which is hateful to yourself, arrange to be done to others by an agent for a group of people that includes you. All the rest is commentary, now go and study."