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On Intellectual Consistency and the Moral Compass
I come to you in great humility, as I have been too distracted to prepare a proper Drasha this week because I have been busy raising money for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Yes, Hillary is fixated on her own sense of entitlement. Yes, she unilaterally decided to manage her own e-mail private e-mail server while Secretary of State, thereby bypassing the checks and balances of transparency that we all expect from a public servant. Yes, Hillary allowed her lawyers to unilaterally erase tens of thousands of said e-mails. Yes, Hillary disregarded the agreement she entered with the Obama administration about making transparent all foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation. Yes, the Clinton Foundation apparently did not accurately report all donations. Despite all of this, I am raising money for Hillary. That is because I am hoping that once Hillary becomes president I will be appointed Ambassador to Israel, so I can issue a formal protest over the efforts to force the Ultra Orthodox to serve in the military, instead of learning Toirah Yoimum V’Laylah, day and night.
This is indeed a burning issue for our community throughout history, and it has been the subject not only of debate, but of action as well.
In a Mishnah in Kesubois, Rabbi Meir points out the Passook from the Toirah that tells us that newly married husbands are exempt from military service. Rav Papa cites a Braisah that notes that Rabbi Meir, to avoid military service himself, would marry a different woman every two weeks, and that by the age of 30, he was the most successful pimp in all of the Gallilee. A Tosefta in Yevamois refers to Rabbi Meyer as having gold teeth and frequently pronouncing to the Sanhedrin, “I treat my bitches well”.
Rabbi Sheyshess discusses how in Babylon, rabbinical students were officially exempt from the local military draft. Consequently, several "Yeshivas" were created in Sura and Pumbedisa so that Buchrim could avoid serving in the army. In fact, many of the Buchrim even received Smicha, rabbinic ordination, even though they were not even capable of changing a light bulb by themselves.
However, there is a beautiful Medrish in Esther Rabbah that brings down the story of Reb Ari, who actually joined the military in order to avoid becoming a rabbi. He ultimately succeeded in assassinating Osama Bin Laden by arranging a meeting with him under the pretense of getting Bin Laden to autograph his military issued Bible, which he then used to bash Bin Ladin's skull in. Reb Ari ultimately received Smicha and the title "Rabbi", not because he studied for years in Yeshiva, but because there was a screw up in the Veterans' Administration benefits department that administered the GI bill. VeHameivin Yavin.
These stories go to the heart of the real life complexity facing many of us: How do we relate to people who demonstrate attitudes and behaviors that conflict with some of our principles, yet align with others of our principles? For example:
- How can a Democrat who believes in transparency and honest government possibly vote for Hillary Clinton?
- How can a Republican who believes in decreasing the role of government in our everyday lives favor policies that provide profitable companies with billions of dollars in government hand outs, advocate a constitutional amendment that institutionalizes prayer in schools, and propose various laws that seek to legislate which sexual positions are legal in the states south of the Mississippi River on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays?
- How can many Orthodox Jews favor a strong Israeli military, an expansionist territorial policy which includes the retention of the West Bank and the reconquering of Gaza, while at the same time be opposed to able bodied Ultra Orthodox young men serving in the army because they have to study the proper ways to slaughter a goat and sprinkle its blood in a building destroyed nearly two thousand years ago, or have to learn to calculate whether a full moon seen at dusk in Jerusalem on a Tuesday should impact the ingredients in Zchhhhhhug being made in Yemen two days later?
- How can many rabbis and lay leaders, who present themselves as paragons of morality, look the other way when reality becomes inconvenient, say... When a fellow rabbi or community stalwart is accused of sexually abusing a child? For example, how is it that Rabbi Yisroel Belsky remains the #2 Posayk in the Orthodox Union (the OU), even though he supported - and continues to support - the convicted child molester Yosef Kolko in Lakewood, even participating in the persecution of the victim and his family. Are we to assume that the OU itself tolerates sexual abuse of minors? If yes, is that information known to Drakes, Entenmanns, Kelloggs, General Mills, Coca Cola, Heinz and the myriad other manufacturers of food products targeted at children certified by the OU?
What's Pshat, you Menuval?
Rabboisai, such questions are the pondering of the pure-at-heart, people who see the world as we would like to see it, versus the world as it really is. The fact that you would even ask such questions shows that you have a moral compass. And if you do not ask such questions, I suggest you stop reading this Drasha right now and go perform an act of Metzitza BiPeh on yourself.
Rabboisai, one of the key lessons of the Toirah, not necessarily how it is written in Toirah SheBichsav – the Written Law, but how it is interpreted in Toirah SheBaal Peh – the Rabbinic Oral Tradition, is the purist approach to the great figures of the Toirah.
When we discuss Avraham Avinu, we do not think about the sadist who was prepared to slaughter his own son, or the heartless man who sent his other son and concubine to die in the hot desert. Farkert! We think of the “institutional founder” of the monotheistic tradition upon which Yiddishkeit is based. We think of the man who haggled with Hakadoshboruchhu to find even one worthy man in order to save a city from destruction. We think of the man who displayed his faithfulness to the Reboinoisheloilum through his willingness to sacrifice his own son. That’s right; we do not think of Avraham Avinu as a living, breathing, multi-faceted human being. Rather, we think of him as a naïve schmuck.
Similarly, when we think of Yankif Avinu, we do not think of him as a man who deceived his father and stole his birthright from his brother. We do not focus on the man conned by his father-in-law into marrying the colluding sister-wives, or the inept father who could neither see through the lies surrounding his son’s disappearance nor protect his daughter from being raped nor prevent the brutal revenge on an entire town of mostly innocents by his bloodthirsty sons. No. Through the lens of CHAZAL we picture Yankif as the ultimate Tzaddik, a righteous man, who spent fourteen years studying Toirah in the mythical Yeshivas Shaym V’Eyver and fathered the nation that is Israel. We picture him as the paradigmatic Chassidishe male, Kleinah Shmaaser and all. (Note: According to Beraishis Rabbah, Eisav HaRasha was a Litvak Misnagid, which means he was hung like Bilaam’s oversized donkey.)
We can say the same for Aroin HaKoihain, the Minuval, who initiated the Eigel HaZahav, yet is celebrated at the father of the priestly line of Israel. We can say the same about Duvid HaMelech, “Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King”(1), whose murderous and adulterous crimes are forgotten as he is presented as the founder of the Aimishteh’s chosen monarchy.
And so on.
What motivated CHAZAL to retell the stories, all of which are readily available for us to read, in a way that exaggerates the good and ignores the bad of these Biblical figures? Could it be that CHAZAL thought us stupid? Or could it be that CHAZAL themselves spent a bit too much time smoking Besomim out of a Babylonian Hookah?
I would like you to think about that for a while, you Mechutziff. I have to go make Mei Raglayim, and will return to my Drasha in a moment.
Ok. I just recited Asher Yatzer. Please say “Amein”.
Now, where were we? Oh, yes. Why did CHAZAL recast flawed, three dimensional, very human Biblical figures as two dimensional heroes?
I would like to suggest that CHAZAL were not simply driven by an urge to rewrite historical tradition. Rather, they were using familiar cultural figures to craft a vision of “the world as we would like to see it, versus the world as it really is.” They were trying to model for us optimal behaviors in dimensions such as leadership, religious observance, loyalty and faith, so that we would know that in a world of conflicting needs and desires, we must aspire to a set of moral principles that define our behavior. This was not specifically an effort to inspire Halachic observance; rather, this was an effort to instill Jewish society and culture with a moral compass.
So when we are troubled by inconsistencies in behaviors, the lying, the hypocrisies, and the cover ups, we should not view ourselves as naïve and doe eyed and unrealistic and unwilling to compromise. We are inspired by the teachings of CHAZAL, by the moral compass embedded in Jewish culture. Judaism is not simplistically defined by Halacha; Yisroel Belsky strictly follows Halacha, yet he defends a pedophile. On the contrary. Judaism is defined by its moral compass, that tells us,
“Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; New Moon and Sabbath, the holding of convocations--I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.
“Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.“ (Isaiah, Perek Aleph, Psookim Yud Gimmel – Yud Zayin)
So fret not, my Beloved Talmidim and Talmidois, when you are disturbed by the intellectual inconsistencies of politicians and other public figures, religious institutions, and simple, regular people. There is nothing wrong with you. They are the assholes.
You aspire to the loyalty and integrity envisioned by CHAZAL. You aspire to an ideal perfection. You aspire to be the Goy Kadosh, the Holy Nation, and to be the Ohr LaGoyim, the Light Unto The Nations.
As is well known, Hillel HaZakeyn was once approached by a Roman and was asked to summarize the teaching of the Toirah on one foot. Without hesitation, he replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another: this is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary” (Maseches Shabbos, Daf 31, Amud Aleph, Talmud Babli). This fundamental teaching echoes the words of the Passook, “VeAhavta LeReyachah KaMoichah”, “Love thy neighbor as you would love yourself” (Sefer VaYikrah, Perek Yud Tess, Passook Yud Chess).
To put it is modern parlance, the clear message of the Toirah – both Toirah SheBichasav and ESPECIALLY Toirah SheBaal Peh, through the teaching of CHAZAL: “Thou Shalt Not Be An Asshole”.
The world is full of assholes, in politics, within the religious community, and in everyday life. But the essence of Judaism is to NOT be an asshole, to stand up to assholes, and to call out assholes when they are being assholes.
What would a world without assholes look like? Some would call it morally and intellectually consistent. Some would call it a time of peace. I would call it Yemei HaMashiach, the Messianic era.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Menuval
(1) A reference to a great work of Biblical scholarship, “David's Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King” by Baruch Halpern (Bible in Its World) Paperback – November 12, 2003
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess