Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Definitions and the Passing-On of Tuma

The second shiur in Rav Daniel Wolf’s מנחה טהורה is on the classes of methods by which objects become tamei. The Rav offers 3 options:

1. Hagdara

The object is defined by the Torah as a source of tuma.

The classic example of this are all the avot hatuma defined in the torah: a dead body, a sheretz met, etc.

2. Haavara

Tuma was passed from one object to another.

The classic examples are the basic methods of passing on tuma: a person touching a sheretz met, for example.

3. Hachlala

A less common type of tuma. Here, the tuma is passed by association. The object becomes part of the same whole as the tamei object and thereby becomes Tamei, even though there wasn’t a formal Haavara.

Rav Wolf brings a number of examples, some more clear-cut than other: There’s the mishna in Taharot 1:9 where pure food becomes connected to food that is rishon and it also becomes rishon. Also, kelim that become tamei from being inside Ohel Hamet may be in this category.

Which class is it?

So there are the clear-cut cases, but then there are also the unclear ones. Much of this chapter in the book is dedicated to the unclear ones, and there are also references to later chapters where this chakira arises in other cases.

One of the clear-cut cases of Haavara that Rav Wolf mentions is a person who touches a dead body, Avi Avot Hatuma, and becomes tamei at the level of Av Hatuma. It seems clear enough: the person touches a dead body and the Tumat Met transfers to them at a lower level.

Cherev Kechalal: a simulation
And yet, I wonder if it’s really that simple. Rav Wolf discusses Cherev Kechalal and points out that it isn’t clear whether we’re dealing with Haavara or Hagdara. Is the sword tamei because it absorbed the tuma from the dead body, or is it a new source of Tumat Met, one that belongs to the weapon that struck the blow?

It seems to me that we could ask the same question about a person who touched a dead body. Did they absorb the existing tuma, or is there something in the experience of coming in such close physical contact with a corpse that creates a new source of Tumat Met?

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a chiddush to say that we can have Tumat met that doesn’t pass directly from the dead body. Then again, that’s essentially what Rav Wolf is saying about Cherev Chalal so I don’t see a big difference. That said, I’m still just getting into these sugiot, so maybe I’m missing something…

Monday, 24 November 2014

Pshat and Drash

The idea of midrash(aggadah) has always bothered me a bit. The main problem is the subjectivity of it all. Unlike other realms of Torah Learning, such as Halacha, or studies of chumash that focus on pshat, the rules for Midrash are not well defined and the standard of proof is minimal. To sharpen the question, are we really learning Hashem’s Torah when engaging in such subjective study—it seems more like we are learning whatever message we choose to overlay on the scripture?

And yet, the Torah literature contains tons of books of Midrash, containing drashot from all of our favorite Tanaitic and Amoritic halachists. So what is the deal?

On Reading the Bible as Literature

In answering this question, I’ll just point out that, in addition to the Torah’s halachic role, it has a much broader role of providing us spiritual and moral guidance. As such, Hashem want us to read the Torah and seek meaning in it, even in the case where one cannot prove objectively that one’s exegesis is the definitive one.

This is technically similar to how we read general literature, searching for meaning, symbolism, and insights into the Human experience. That said, we clearly relate to God-given literature differently than that written by Man. Ultimately, I think that one has to conclude that Hashem has given us, the Jewish people, a good deal of responsibility with regard to interpreting his Torah—and here we are obligated to darshan responsibly.

Just looking at the current Sidra. The meanings behind the stories of of our forefathers are anything but explicit. Certainly there are many hints at meaning, but for every tefach revealed, another two seem to be concealed. It is certainly helpful to read mefarshim—midrashei chazal, rishonim, and acharonim, and certain themes do tend to repeat themselves, yet in many cases, it is hard to prefer one explanation over another based on purely textual grounds.

Even the Brisker methodology with its synthesis of induction and deduction, is hard to apply to Tanach. In Halacha, there is a system and an assumption of conceptual consistency within that system. In scripture, this assumption is much weaker since one pasuk may teach us one lesson while the following one focuses on another(Rav Mordechai Breuer’s תורת הבחינות epitomizes this problem, arguing that different parshiot or even psukim can teach opposing lessons as an expression of Hashem’s different names/midot). When learning Tanach, we are often left with only the induction but with no strong deduction to support it i.e. Midrash.

The popularization of pshat-focused learning is certainly a response to this subjectivity. They bring a more scientific approach to parshanut by focusing on the objective portions of Tanach study. Certainly, there is a good deal to be learned from this approach and I don’t mean to detract from that. That said, at some point analysis of pshat runs up against a wall in the face of inherent ambiguity and drash is the only tool that can take our understanding further.


That said, let’s take a look at some of the action in recent parshiot hashavua. We’ll start with a few difficult points that yell to the reader “Darsheni”:

  1. The prophecy says about Yaakov and Easav ורב יעבוד צעיר. Yet we never get to see this. How is this prophecy fulfilled?
  2. Yaakov buys the בכורה, then in next week’s parsha he must marry the בכירה before he can marry the צעירה. He also has to work 7 years for each.
  3. Upon returning from Padan-Aram, Yaakov first encounters angels, about which little is said, and then must fight a mysterious איש. He is then called Yisrael because שרית עם אלהים ועם אנשים ותוכל. What is the significance of these events?

Originally there were supposed to be two complementary roles as expressed by ורב יעבוד צעיר. Easav was meant to provide physical sustenance while Yaakov was to provide spiritual guidance. Together, they were to form the nation of Israel.

This plan goes awry at the selling of the Bechora. Easav couldn’t even provide for himself, much less the both of them. Not only that, but Yaakov, rather than providing him with spiritual guidance, convinces him to give up the בחורה and thus his role in the family.

When it comes time for Yaakov to marry, he must work hard for his bride but is then tricked into marrying her older sister first. The message here is clear: you took Easav’s role from him, you must first fulfill that responsibility before you can start fulfilling your own role(This may also be a punishment for pushing Easav away rather than bringing him back to the right path.)

Yaakov was already fitting for his role as spiritual leader, as is show with is nondescript encounter with the angels, but is he really able to take on Easav’s physical role? Ultimately, he must show his physical prowess against the איש to obtain the name Israel. Only once he proves that he can deal, not only with אלוהים but with אנשים is he ready to be the sole father of the nation of Israel.

Modern Midrash

Note that this sort of explanation is similar to classic Midrash(actually, it’s inspired by Rav Huna’s statement in Midrash Rabba ורב יעבוד צעיר-אם זכה יעבֹד ואם לאו יעבד). It goes beyond the simple pshat to attribute a thread of meaning to the events of the parsha. Note also that it offers very little proof of its correctness. Unlike a Halachik Chakira that ties several sources together, there is no rigid system that demands these events are related. One could claim that because they are part of the same story of Yaakov and Easav they are thematically connected, but this assumption is by no means binding.

So ultimately, where does this leave me with regard to Midrash? I guess I’m still concerned with its subjectivity, but its strong results certainly speak in favor of the method despite its caveats.

(One final note: it may be that I'm defining Midrashic methodology too narrowly here. Rashi insists several times that his goal is to focus on the pshat, by which he means to focus on midrashei Chazal that are consistent with the pshat. The implication is that there are other midrashim that are less consistent with the pshat. My original question, then, still would apply to these. The only answer I have to offer in this case is the insight that I once heard Rav Ezra Bick point out about chassidic tales--even if they aren't Factual, they may still be True...)

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Adam Smith and Judicial Categories

So we had previously discussed the question of why the Gemara in Sanhedrin considers Theft and Damages(גזילות וחבלות) to be a separate category from Admissions and Loans(הודאות והלוות).

Rav Marcus gave two possible reasons then:
  1. Theft and Damages usually involve violence or threat of violence, while Admissions and Loans usually involve trickery or misunderstanding
  2. Theft and Damages started with an illicit act, while Admissions and Loans start with a perfectly legal arrangement and only become a problem later on
I'd like to suggest some other possible answers(I actually made a previous attempt at this, which to my mind wasn't very successful), but to get there we'll need to take a detour to the 18th century in the still young United Kingdom...

Adam Smith on Robbery and Contracts

Vernon Smith’s recently discussed Adam Smith’s “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” on Econtalk. One of his points was Smith's theory of the relative severity of different legal categories:

Vernon: And he also points out that, in that development, that theft and robbery carry a greater punishment than a violation of promises. In other words, contracts. And he says, Why? He says, because robbery and theft take from us what we have already acquired. Violation of contract merely frustrates our expectation of gain. Okay? And he says that's different. And indeed, theft and robbery are criminal offenses. Violation of contract are only civil offenses. You can get redress, of course, but they are considered less serious. And he gets that from another fundamental proposition in Adam Smith, and that's the asymmetry between gains and losses.

Russ: It's incredible.

Guest: He says, we suffer, and I can tell you this one almost verbatim: He says, 'We suffer more when we fall from a better to a worse state than we ever gain when we arise from a worse to a better.' And he goes on, explains this, that it's loss of fortune, of reputation, of esteem. I mean, it isn't just money and fortune. He mentions, as I recall, three other things, but they have to do with our rank, our status

Russ: People don't pay as much attention to us. And that's a huge factor for Smith.

Guest: Yes. And we will be very careful to avoid that. And so this notion of the asymmetry between gains and losses is not only clearly stated more than one place in Adam Smith, but it's actually used to derive some of his results.

Smith distinguishes between theft and contract violation based on the severity of suffering imposed on the victim:
  • Theft takes away what a person has—diminishing their status, which has a profound effect on a person socially/psychologically
  • Violations of contract take away expected gains—also no fun, but at least the person’s current status is preserved

We can formulate a similar distinction with regard to our Sugya, focused on the effect on the victim:

  • Theft and Damages- take away what a person has, causing them great suffering
  • Admissions and Loans- take away property they expected to gain or, in the case of loans, money that they regarded to some degree as “extra” because they were willing to loan it out at zero interest as the Torah proscribes. This presumably causes them a lesser degree of suffering.

An Anthropological Explanation

So this is an interesting distinction, but I think we can delve a bit deeper. There is something just more basic about cases of Theft and Damages than Admissions and Loans(and Theft vs. Contract Violations too, for that matter). Here I'd like to draw on a distinction Professor Roberts makes in his book "How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life":

Before Einstein discovered relativity, before Rodin sculpted The Burghers of Calais, before the Eiffel Tower and the Chrysler Building, before Brutus of Troy founded Lon­don, before the first human being realized you could plant a seed and wait for it to grow, before the ambition deep within us caused all these changes in the human condition, we were, it appears, hunters and gatherers in small bands and clans. Subsistence was the most one could hope for, and it was not easy to achieve. Life was fragile; death came early and often.
In such a world, how we interacted with those around us made the difference between life  and death. There was no insurance company to insure your spear. There was no government to provide disability payments if you broke your leg chasing dinner. People must have leaned  heavily on each other. Trust was essential. Failure to chip in, to help out, to do your share must have been punished relentlessly and cheaply, through shame and anger the first time, but eventually with expulsion and exile if such behavior contin­ued. Every family, every extended family, and maybe every band and clan shared what they had with each other out of necessity.

The point is that some of our societal rules are conventions that evolved to cooperate better as part of human culture. To put it bluntly, a young child, or even an ape, understands the concept of Theft and Damages. One individual takes something from another or hits another--we understand that as wrong institutionally at the most basic of levels.

Admissions and Loans, on the other hand, are another story. Our child or primate would be hard put indeed to understand the obligatory power behind a verbal commitment or the obligation to return a loan once it's been given. As Jonathan Haidt's quote of primate expert Michael Tomasello goes:

It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.

Our unique Human ability to cooperate with one another by means of complex social conversions is something that belongs more to the realm of Culture than to the realm of Instinct(though Haidt argues there is also an innate component). Admissions and Loans belong to this category. Theft and Damages are a more basic part of our psychology, that because they are wrong in a more universal sense.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Passing On Tuma

Let's back-up and look at the first chakira in מנחה טהורה. Tuma can be passed from object to object, starting with an Av Hatuma and progressing through various levels of Vlad Hatuma. For instance:
  1.  a Sheretz Met is an av hatuma
  2. A kli that touches it can become rishon
  3. Food that is put in the kli becomes sheni
  4. Truma that touches the food becomes shlishi
  5. Kodshim that touch the Truma becomes revii

Rav Wolf points out that there are two ways two understand this passage of Tuma from object to object:

1. Tuma Weakens as it is Passed On

Tuma weakens as it is passed on. The various categories of Av and Vlad hatuma represent the current strength of the Tuma.

2. Avot and Toldot


Only avot pass on tuma. Toldot are tamei but cannot pass it on. Truma/Kodshim become pasul but not tamei. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein suggests this explanation based on the Gemara in Bava Kama(ב.) that compares levels of tuma with Avot and Toldot from Melachot Shabbat(שיעורי הרא"ל טהרות עמ' 85). 

Difficulties with Both

Rav Wolf ultimately points out a number of difficulties with both explanations. For instance, if Tuma weakens as it is passed on, then why the distinction between Avot and Toldot? On the other hand, if only avot pass on Tuma, then how can we understand חרב כחלל where Av status is passed on to the kli?

In any case, I wanted to bring-up this chakira now since it is so basic and will no doubt be relevant in numerous places in the future.