Thursday, October 29, 2009

False and True Leadership

I wish to juxtapose two passages, from two very different leaders that the Jewish nation has produced. Suffice it to say, one demonstrates false leadership, while the other demonstrated honor, bravery and dignity, dying for the Jewish cause. Let us mourn for him who has been lost, and learn from the failures of him who remains. חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין...

Ehud Olmert, former PM of Israel (currently defendant in a number of criminal suits):

"We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies, we want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies. We want them to be our friends, our partners, our good neighbors. "

Rabbi Kahane (God avenge his blood), approximately 15 years earlier:

"We are weary? We are weary of having to serve in the army each year to defend our state? How much would a Jew in Auschwitz have given for the opportunity to see a Jewish army, a Jewish tank, a Jewish plane – and with what joy he would have agreed to serve each year in a Jewish army of a Jewish State, created so as to help guarantee that never again will there be an Auschwitz for its Jewish citizens!

Peace? Of course we want peace. Who does not want peace? It is not the monopoly of the guilt-ridden and self-hating hypocrites, the artists and intellectuals (sic) of the left. We all wish peace; we all fervently pray for peace. We all look for the day when the nations shall beat their swords into ploughshares. But, meanwhile, as they continue to have swords with which to destroy us, let us not be so mad as to wave ploughshares.

Give up land. For “peace” that the “poor Palestinian” is prepared to grant us? The ultimate peace of the dead? Are we mad? The ones who launched four wars of aggression against Israel and lost for wars of aggression, dictate terms to us? The ones who launched four wars of aggression and a thousand terrorist attacks, who slew thousands of Jews, and who lost – now present us with demands? They insist that we, who won, give up land? Let the Arab aggressors and murderers learn a very basic rule of life: Losers lose. Winners win. Losers and especially losers who launched wars of murderous aggression, do not dictate terms. Aggression is not a game in which one attempts to wipe out innocent people, loses and then returns to “Go”. No, aggression is a gamble and if the aggressor loses – let him know the full bitterness of his reality – that he has lost. Then, perhaps, he will think deeply and carefully before embarking on another adventure. For let the “poor Palestinian” know in every fiber of his body, that he had best leave well enough alone. Let him accept a peace that will see him establish a state of his own in Jordan, if he can do it. For should he be so foolish as to begin another murderous war of aggression, let him be certain that that which he still possess in Jordan will be ours too.

Land for peace? By all means. The Jews who were the victims of countless efforts to destroy them and who are the rightful owners, will keep the land and be prepared to graciously give the murderous Arabs, peace."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Noah and Self-Control

When Adam and Chava sinned in their first hours in the garden of Eden, it was a sin of passion. The allure and promise of a fruit that would make them into gods was something that they could not resist. And with this sin, the seeds of mankind's ultimate failure are sown. Cain kills Hevel in a fit of passion, and history spirals downward. Humanity seems controlled by its baser instincts, with desire and passion in control.

On Noah's release from the ark, the Torah talks of God's resolution to never destroy all of mankind again. "ויאמר ה' אל לבו..." "God said to his heart...." The sages (quoted by Rabbi Hirsch) point out that whenever a biblical figure who is a model of virtue speaks in his heart, it is in this mode 'to his heart'. In contrast, when evil men do so, it is בליבו, in his heart. In this first post-diluvian proclamation by God, the very wording is a lesson to humanity: make sure that your heart-seated passions are not the decisors of your actions. Let your emotions be subservient to the intellect.

This lesson is repeated in the three brothers. Shem, model of intellect, and Yaphet, representing aesthetics and beauty, the noble elements of our passions, are told by Cham, symbolic of the base passions, that their father has shamed himself. Noah's reaction is to curse Cham and make him the slave to Shem. Yaphet is blessed, but dwells only within the tent (the parameters and limits) of Shem.

The three brothers are embodied in every human being. We all have base passions, noble desires, and an intellect and spirit. It is our task in life to enslave our base passion to our intellect. Even our noble aesthetics must be tempered and used only within the limits that our intellect must set; otherwise, it is easy for the Yaphet that is within us to lead us to Cham. Our intellect is subservient to God's will, and allows us to use it to bring out the good and decent in all our other attributes.

This idea was articulated by Plato as well, in book  four of the Republic. The soul, says Plato, is triumverate, composed of three parts: the appetitive, the rational, and the spirited. The appetitive is the source of the base desires of mankind and society. The rational is the seat of wisdom and drives towards truth. The spirited is the source of "higher" desires, such as (platonic) love, honor, and victory. The ideal man has the rational controlling the appetitive with input from the spirited. The platonic republic contains these on a macro level: the king-philosopher is the rational, the auxiliary class (made up of soldiers and enforcers) is the spirited, and the worker class is the appetitive. By correctly applying the mastery of the one over the other, with the assistance of the third, individual and society can find the best way forward for private and public life.

(One distinction between the Republic and the Jewish ideal is the the purpose of society. According to Plato, society is a necessary tool to find the best result for each individual. Society is not an end in and of itself. However, the Jewish ideal is a nation, a כלל, serving God, in which the individual and the collective each have purposes and importance in and of themselves. Humanity is of a dual nature, as an individual and as a group, and each purpose provides sustenance to the other, and allows the completion of the other within itself. A Jewish society is nothing without individuals, but a Jewish individual is very little without his כלל.
There is nothing more noble than a person whose intellect controls his urges. In contrast, there is nothing more ignoble and pathetic than the opposite. And, looking back at a life mis-spent, nothing seems easier than to have lived it correctly. In The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene (an English playwright) tells the tale of a priest who lives a life guided by his passions. As he stands before a firing squad, "He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted - to be a saint."

As we look back at our actions, it seems so petty, a little self restraint and a bit of courage were all that it would have taken to turn a sinner into a saint. This sentiment is an echo of the talmud (Sukah 52a): לעתיד לבוא מביאו הקב"ה ליצר הרע ושוחטו בפני הצדיקים ובפני הרשעים, צדיקים" נדמה להם כהר גבוה ורשעים נדמה להם כחוט השערה, הללו בוכין והללו בוכין, צדיקים בוכין ואומרים היאך יכולנו לכבוש הר גבוה כזה, ורשעים בוכין ואומרים היאך לא יכולנו לכבוש את חוט השערה הזה" At the end of days, God will slaughter the evil inclination before the righteous and sinners. It will seem to the saints as a high mountain, and they will cry [in joy] and marvel how they were able to conquer such a mountain. On the other hand, it will seem like a hairs-breadth to the wicked, who will lament that such a small distance they were unable to go in order to be good.

Those who place their desires and passions at the service of their intellect will ultimately see how easy it would have been to do good. On the other hand, the righteous will remember the hardships over which they prevailed to control their urges.

Self-restraint is something that seems easy to have in retrospect, and yet, at the point of struggle, can be the hardest thing to attain. It may be even harder to maintain the belief that we can repent and re-arrange our lives after years of sin. However, every breath we breathe is testament to the fact that Hashem has not given up on us, and we have no right to resign ourselves, either. May we all succeed in our individual and national struggles against the evil inclination.

Friday, October 16, 2009

There's a Fly in my Soup!

Disclaimer: As in all halachik discussions on the internet, what appears below should not be taken as a ruling, but as discussion only. Please discuss any practical applications with an orthodox rabbi.

In honor of my fifth rabbanut bechina in about 10 days:

In the halachot of food, insects are particularly hard to defend against, since they are small they often show up in the most unexpected places. Insects furthermore carry the distinction that if eaten whole, they encompass multiple infractions, or לאוין.

If an insect falls into a cup of juice, one may immediately remove it, and may continue to drink (although practically, one may wonder where the insect may have been, and what disease it may carry). This is because the taste of the forbidden insect did not transfer into the food or drink. However, in a situation where the offending insect falls into cooking liquid, or is steeped in liquid for 24 hours (see SA YD 105:1), the situation is more complex. Here, we assume that taste has transferred (as happens during cooking), and therefore, the taste of the forbidden insect has been diffused throughout the cooking. In a case like this, one may only eat the food once the insect is removed if there is sixty times the forbidden taste (approximated by volume of the offending insect) in the food (ששים כנגדו). However, there is a more subtle case, where the food is hot but not cooking on the fire. This discussion will center around a fly in soup, and the worm that is often placed in a bottle of tequila.

Normally, an item is considered cooked with another item if it is brought to a temperature at which a hand is burnt, or if it steeps (כבישה) in it for 24 hours. The later authorities discuss the temperature "at which a hand is burnt" or יד סולדת בו. The פתחי תשובה brings two opinions (105:2), that it is either heat that would burn a baby's stomach, or that which makes it impossible to hold a vessel. He says that the practical reality is that people rely on the second opinion, which is approximated at 120o F (see the Star-K site).

Once the soup is placed in a bowl, however, it is considered in a כלי שני and thus not capable of cooking. However, the Rashba posits that even though it does not cook, it still transfers taste (מפליט ומבליע) and so it can still create forbidden mixtures. In this case, the soup with the fly may be forbidden even after the fly is removed, since the taste of the fly is considered by Rashba to have transferred into the soup (כדי קליפה, only into a thin layer surrounding the food). However, the Shulchan Aruch (105:2) only rules stringently as the Rashba in an ideal situation (לכתחילה); practically, if the accident has already occured, he allows one to behave as if a second vessel, a כלי שני does not pose the problem of flavor transferral. The ש"כ goes further and says that most authorities rule that כלי שני presents no problem whatsoever.

In addition to this reasoning permitting the soup in a bowl after the removal of a fly, even a pot on the fire could be permitted in the case of a fly falling in. In YD 104:1 (which rules like Rava in ע"ז סח:), we read that mice, flies, ants and other things that are disgusting to everyone, would be considered in essence things that give off a bad flavor (נותן טעם לפגם). In this sistuation, the requirement of sixty times the forbidden amount is unneeded, since that is in place only to ensure that the benefit from the forbidden part is imperceptible. So, you could remove the fly and eat the rest of the soup, even if the fly fell in while the pot was on the fire.

(This reasoning is restricted by a caveat: if we are dealing with beer or vinegar into which the forbidden item fell, even if the item is something that is essentially disgusting, they may, in these media, somehow enhance the flavor. In this case, we would need sixty times the forbidden item after it is removed in order to permit the soup.)

At the end of 104:3, the Shulchan Aruch rules thus, and permits these disgusting things, even if they are dissolved and mixed so completely as to make it impossible to remove them. However, we are required to do the best we can to remove them, like straining the soup before serving it. This issue is brought up again in 107:2. While the Rema there permits as did the Shulchan Aruch, the Bach quotes the שערי דורא who is strict and forbids it. The ש"כ mentions there are many who forbid.

And so, if the fly is visible or locatable, remove it. Otherwise, the Shulchan Aruch and Rema both would permit the soup. If the item is removed, and the soup has more than 60 times the forbidden item, everyone would permit.

The Aruch Hashulchan says its not reasonable to assume that a fly would be so mashed and dissolved by regular cooking as to permit it simply by being lost, according to the Shulchan Aruch and Rema. Therefore, how can we allow eating the soup? The same question applied in their days when the flour was full of bugs (as opposed to today, when there are so few bugs in our packaged, expiry dated flour, that you do not have to sift if the flour is not passed its expiration date and it has been stored safely).

The Aruch Hashulchan says that when something is completely lost in the soup, and is bad-tasting, it is completely unimportant, and therefore you can eat it. Otherwise, one might still say that the cooking according to Shulchan Aruch does dissolve even ants(which most would disagree with), or that it is only permitted if one sees a wing or something, to ascertain that it has been mashed.

Thus in the final analysis, a fly in soup (on the fire) must be removed. If it is, or it is mashed and dissolved (or even just lost according to the Aruch Hashulchan), it is permitted even without sixty times the forbidden item's volume of permitted matter (ששים כנגדו). According to the Bach's stringency, we would still require sixty. And if the fly has fallen into a כלי שני, then the circumstance is one of בדיעבד, and it is permitted after the fly is removed.

Now, in the case of a worm in liquor (as is common in bottles of tequila), the question is, what is the worm's purpose? Is it there to add flavor or coloring? Chardal, my resident alcohol expert, claims that the worm in tequila is simply for show. He says that "while it does not harm the taste of the liquer, it also does not enhance it. Frankly, no one can tell the difference between tequila with a worm or without one (assuming it is the same quality base tequila)."

If the worm had been there to enhance the flavor or look of the drink, certainly, we would need sixty units of permitted matter for each unit of forbidden matter, after removing the worm. However, we may be sure that the taste is still there, since the worm is in the bottle to demonstrate that the liquor is flavored (as is traditional) with that worm. Therefore, even if there is sixty in the bottle, it would not help, because either 1) the one worm is enough to give its taste to that bottle or (more likely) 2) the liquor was steeped in enough worms to make it taste, and the worm in this bottle is just for show. Either way, the liquor certainly has the taste of the worm. (This ignores the possibly relavent fact that if the worm is מעמיד, that it makes up an integral part of the liquor making process, then a מעמיד of איסור is not ever בטל (See end of YD 87).

However, in light of Chardal's insight into alcoholic bevarages, the worm does not add flavor. However, even in this situation, the Shach (based on the הגהות אשרי) forbids the mixture even when the forbidden does not add taste, unless there is a measure of sixty units of permitted volume for each unit of forbidden volume, and of course, requires the forbidden item to be removed. Thus, if the tequila can be proven to never have been in a situation where the tequila was less than sixty times more in volume than the number of worms, the tequila may be allowed if the worm is removed. (See the Rama, who may be lenient and allow something of neutral taste contribution to be removed and בטל without ששים כנגדו.) Of course, all this applies only if the tequila itself is kosher. The only issue under discussion here is if the worm forbids otherwise kosher tequila.

Again, the above is not meant as ruling, but as discussion only. Please discuss any practical applications with an orthodox rabbi.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Kohanic Gene

A number of years ago, researchers delighted the Jewish world by discovering that the Y-chromosome of Jewish kohanim points to one unique ancestor. The Y-chromosome is, of course, passed patralinially, and thus can serve as proof of familial relation for males.

The science is fascinating. However, I never felt that the purported religous implications claimed by some were strong at all. Throughout history, there were undoubtedly families who were priestly who, over years of secularism and the pressures of the exile, forgot their lofty status. Certainly, there were also families that accidentally or not, took on the kohanic traditions mistakenly. It seemed too pat, and worked out only too well, that all kohanim tested seemed to point to one ancestor. Support for this reservation can be found in the mishna Midot 5:4, where the Oral Law records the fact that the Jewish High Court had to sometimes sit in judgement on questions of priestly lineage, and would attempt to clarify a family's status: a man who was found to be an authentic Kohen would wear white, and one found to be unpriestly wore black. Furthermore, in Eduyot, 8:7, Rabbi Yehoshua states that in the times of the redemption, Eliyahu the prophet will not come to confirm or deny the legitimacy of families accidentally mixed, but only to do so regarding families that attempted to mix themselves in with higher station willfully. (See Kehati's commentary here that expressly includes the kohanic honor as one of the items that this statement includes.) For all these reasons, the kohanic Y-chromosome was never much more than a curiosity to me. I found the underlying science much more compelling and fascinating than the religous implications.

Today, I have learned that my reasoning to be less than impressed was well-guided. New research seems to agree that there was not one ancestor for the kohanim, but a number of ancestors. Those who feel this to be a blow to the authenticity of the Torah's narrative would do well to remember the line of thought I mentioned in the previous paragraph. For if in 2008, a (for example, reubenic) family is erroneously assumed to be kohanic, they would be, in the eyes of the study, full kohanim, just as authentic kohanim would be. Thus, when the study looks at the Y-chromosomes of true kohanim and faux kohanim that they assume to be true kohanim, they would find that some of these Y-chromosomes trace back 3000 years ago to kohanic roots, and some to reubenic roots. However, because the study in 2008 does not know that the reubenic Y-chromosome is being mistaken for kohanic, it will assume that both Y-chromosomes have equal claim to kehuna, and thus conclude that there are multiple ancestors for the kohanic tribe. This is not a deficiency in the genetics or the science, but an epistemological deficiency; we simply cannot guarantee that everyone who claims (even in good faith) to be a kohen, is indeed a kohen!

Of course, it does not matter when the error was introduced; whenever this occurred, the Y-chromosome of the "new kohen" would automatically join the genetic pool of "known kohanim" and wait patiently to be discovered.

(It is important to note that people who are halachikally Jewish can still come from differring Y-chromosome branches, since Judaism has always accepted converts, even at the time of the Exodus. However, converts could never become kohanim, as this was strictly a birthright.)

Thus, the new study should not at all be seen in any way as denying or disproving the Torah traditions. It is however interesting to note that, "Cohanim Y chromosomes from both Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities, is virtually absent in non-Jews..."