Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dropping onto Babies and Dropping Bombs

There is a discussion in the gemara (Sanhedrin 74a) about whether you are required to give up your life to avoid being a passive participant in a murder. If someone threatens to kill you unless you allow him to throw you onto a baby, thereby killing it, should you passively allow him to? Tosfos on the gemara says that just as we learn that you may not kill another person to save your own life because "his blood may be redder than yours," that is, his life might be more important than yours, so too you do not have to resist being a passive participant in a murder, because your life may be more important than his. You are not in a position to judge whose life is more important. Resisting would be a judgment that the baby's life is more important. So you shouldn't interfere, and should allow the baby to be killed.

After the Holocaust, Jews around the world (rightly) condemned the world powers for allowing the Holocaust to happen. They excoriated the lack of resistance in Germany, in nations the Nazis conquered, the reluctance of people to help their Jewish neighbors escape the Nazis, and the refusal of the Allies to bomb the camps, railroads, and other infrastructure that made the mass slaughter possible. But why? The world was just following halacha according to Tosefos! You don't have to risk your own life to not be a passive participant in a murder. Whether that means Germans resisting the Nazi government, or Poles hiding their Jewish neighbors, or American and British airmen risking their lives to bomb railroad lines to concentration camps.

For halacha l'maisah, it becomes more complicated. The Yerushalmi learns from the pasuk, "Lo ta'amod al dam re'echa," “Do not stand by your brother's blood.” that one is obligated to put himself at risk to save another's life. But can we fault the world for paskening like Tosofs?

This is what happens when you turn moral questions into legal questions. The question of whether to allow yourself to be thrown onto a baby is strongly reminiscent of the Trolley Problem, and is a question for  philosophy, for ethicists, not jurists. Most people would find it immoral to be complicit in a murder. Turning it into a legal question strips it of its ethical dimension, and allows the question to be decided in a legalistic rather than a moral framework. Even the Yerushalmi, which obligates one to risk himself to save another person, comes to that conclusion on legal grounds based on a proof text, without consideration of the morality of the question.

I wonder if this might tie into the recent spate of arrests in Lakewood. In a community immersed in Talmudic legalism, there may be some who have lost sight of the moral dimension of their actions. They have learned to judge the permissibility of an action based on its halachic legality, without considering its morality. If it's muttar, it's allowable, even if, when on the other side of it, they might complain about its immorality.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Yeridos hadoros

It occurred to me that one reason great scholars of the past appear far smarter than they were is because generations of subsequent scholars have ironed out their work and added layers of supposed depth. A large part of this is the assumption that when a scholar contradicts himself, the solution is never that he changed his mind, or forgot what he had said possibly decades earlier, and certainly not that he made a mistake. Instead, the "apparent" contradiction is reconciled. So a taana's words accrete the clever insights of amoraim  and geonim who lived hundreds of years later, rishonim who lived a thousand years later, and continues to have depth added by current achronim. These centuries of accreted cleverness contribute to the perceived greatness of the taana, who is assumed to have meant all the things that later scholars attribute to him. All of these insights are seen to reflect the scholarship and intellect of the taana, and he appears far more brilliant than he may have been.

So too with amoraim, geonim, etc., but each epoch of scholars has a couple of centuries less worth of clever commentary than the one before it. The older a source is, the more commentary and clever reconciliations is has accreted. So the older the source, the greater it seems, and we have a seeming confirmation of yeridos hadoros.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Shelo asani isha

The bracha "Shelo asani isha" is often defended by Orthodox apologists as being about mitzvos. It's not about men thanking Hashem for not making them someone of lower status, but about thanking Him for not making them someone who had fewer mitzvos. Non-Jew, slaves, and women have fewer mitzvos than men, and so men thank Hashem for not being in a category of people with fewer mitzvos to perform.

I don't think this explanation works.

1. If it is something to thank God for not being, then that means it is undesirable. At the least, the bracha implies that being a woman is less desirable than being a man.

2. It is part of a group of brachos thanking Hashem for not being afflicted. We bless him for opening the eyes of the blind, releasing the bound, straightening the bowed, clothing the naked, etc., giving the Jewish people might and glory, and not making us non-Jews, slaves, or women.

3. If it's about mitzvos, why do women say the bracha thanking God for not making them slaves? Women and slaves are obligated in the same number of mitzvos.*

4. In the same vein, why is there no bracha for kohanim, "Shelo asani Yisrael?"

*Does anyone happen to know offhand where the gemara says this? I found a reference to gitten, but it was four blatt, and I'm not in the mood to comb through it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

God or Superman?

He is far more powerful than any human. He wants what is best for people. He rescues people from disasters.

Am I describing God, or Superman?

I've realized that many people think of God as Superman. Rather than the omnipotent omniscient deity they would describe if you asked them to tell you about God, they seem to think of God as a powerful and benevolent but quite limited Being. He is dealing the best He can with bad situations. The disasters, even the natural disasters, are not His fault, as they must be if He is omnipotent and there is hashgacha pratis, but just kind of happen. Then, like Superman, He swoops in and tries to rescue people. He may even try to mitigate the disaster. This must be why people say things like, "Thank God, it wasn't worse."

Thank God it wasn't worse?! God caused the earthquake or the tsunami or the plane's engines to fail or allowed the terrible war to happen or guided the bomb to land here instead of there. That it was bad at all is God's fault! Except that they don't think of Him that way. The God they're thinking of isn't the theologically correct God, what someone once described to me as "The Sunday School version" of God. The God they're thanking is Superman, who came rushing over when he heard the plane's engines suddenly go quiet and managed to save one little girl before it crashed. It's sad that the other passengers died, but it isn't His fault. He managed to divert the plane away from the nearby town and save the little girl. Thank God it wasn't worse.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Learning League

There's a gemara that says it is the duty of every Jew (by which it means men, of course) to learn Torah. It runs through excuses that people might offer after death to the Heavenly Court, and counters them with examples of people who overcame those problems.

To the poor person who says he had no time to learn because he had to support his family, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Hillel, who spent half of the small coin he earned each day to enter the Beis Medrash, and supported his family on the other half.

To the rich man who says he had no time to learn because he had to look after his business, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Rabbi Elazar, who had a thousand ships but never saw them because he was busy learning.

To the person who says he was too wrapped up in the pleasures the world has to offer, the Court will ask him why he wasn't like Yosef, who was tempted daily by Potiphar's wife and didn't succumb.

Let's leave aside the unfortunate implications of these stories: that Hillel let his children go hungry so that he could go learn, that no hard work is necessary to be successful, and that all people have similar experiences of temptation.

My first thought when I came across the above today was that this was silly. These weren't real people. They were legendary and mythical figures. Maybe a real person had been the seed of the story, but these versions of them weren't real. This gemara was little different than  saying that anyone can be a crime fighting vigilante hero.

To the person who says that childhood trauma prevents him from fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Bruce Wayne, who fights crime as Batman even though he lost his parents at a young age.

To the person who says that a fear of hurting people prevents him from fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Clark Kent, who fights crime as Superman even though he has to constantly take care that his super strength doesn't destroy everything around him.

To the person who says that he is too young to fighting crime, we can ask him why he isn't like Peter Parker, who started fighting crime as Spiderman while still in high school.

And then I realized that there's no going back. Even if I were convinced tomorrow that God is real and Judaism is the way He wants us to live, I would still see the figures the gemara cites as legends and myths. Once your perspective changes, and you see these stories for what they are, you can't unsee it. They might be inspiring, in the same way some people might find Superman inspiring, but they're not real.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What is Morality? Some Thoughts

First, what it is not. It is not merely those things I dislike, those things which make me angry or which I find disgusting. I may dislike immoral things and find them disgusting, but that is not sufficient  to make them immoral.

Morality is that system of evolved instincts and evolved social norms which allow people to live together in societies, and so to benefit from living in societies. Nothing more, nothing less. That is moral which allows the largest number of people to participate in society without abridging the ability of the individual to reap full benefit from being a member of the society.

That which makes the society one is part of larger is a moral good, so long as it does not do so to the detriment of current members of the society or those who are joining the society as a result of the enlargement.

Morality serves first to allow us to live with and benefit from our immediate social circle, then the next layer of society, and the next, all the way out to humanity as a whole. Therefore it is most moral to benefit your immediate social circle, then the next layer of society, and so on, so long as benefiting one social layer does not harm other members of the wider society.

Morality is that which allows people to live together, and so applies most immediately (only?) to beings which can be classified as people. That is, conscious, sentient social beings. It applies to humans by default, as we cannot meaningfully distinguish humans who meet the criteria for personhood from that subset, if any, who do not.

Morality concerns the well-being and thriving of people as individuals and as communities.

This is not a fallacious Appeal to Nature. That is, I am not saying that this is how morality has developed naturally, therefore this is what it should be. Rather, I am saying that this is what morality is. Morality doesn't have its own ontology, so that it can be shaped by naturalistic (or any other) framework. Morality simply is the system of evolved instincts and evolved social norms which allows people to live together.

Some may object that this robs morality of its moral force, reducing it from something transcendent to something pragmatic. I would argue that it cannot be reduced to pragmatism, because that is simply what it is. That seeing it for what it is may rob it of some of its force is unfortunate, but irrelevant to what it is.

I realize that the description I have given of morality neatly matches by own moral biases. It may be that my moral instincts are perfectly informed by the reality of the nature of morality, in which case I can carry on secure in the conviction that my moral compass is true. But I have to acknowledge that it is more likely that my description of morality has been influenced and shaped by my biases, and so needs review and refinement by people who don't share my particular set of moral assumptions.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Matrilineal Descent

Halacha and the frum world take it for granted that whether a person is born Jewish is determined by whether he or she had a Jewish mother. It is assumed that the principle of matrilineal descent goes back as far as there have been Torah-abiding Jewish people.[1] Yet we see in Tanach many examples of Jewish men marrying non-Jewish women. Yosef marries an Egyptian, Moshe a Mdianite, David a Pilishti, and so on. Their children are all considered Jewish. There is an assumption that these women were migayar, and in the case of Yosef and Osnas, a medrash that claims she was really Jewish all along, but there is no indication of this in the pesukim. There is also some indication in Tanach that a woman who married a non-Jewish man was then considered part of his nation, and their children were not Jewish.

The principle of matrilineal descent doesn't appear in any extra-biblical sources, either. Writers such as Philo of Alexandria and Josephus seem unaware of it, as do the Dead Sea scrolls and various early works which survive but were not canonized as part of Tanach. The earliest recorded instance of the principle of matrilineal descent seems to be in the mishnah.

The Mishnah in Kiddushin 3:12 discusses potential valid and invalid marriages, and states that in a halachically valid marriage, the status of the children is that of the father, i.e., whether the children are cohanim or not. When the marriage is invalid, the children are hallachically fatherless, and follow the status of the mother. A marriage between a Jew and non-Jew in not hallachically valid, so the children's Jewish status depends upon their mother's Jewish or non-Jewish status.
Under Roman law, a child is legally his father's heir only if he is the product of a valid legal marriage. Marriages recognized by the law were restricted to unions between Roman citizens. If a citizen married a non-citizen, the children followed the status of the mother. A Roman father and a non-Roman mother produced non-Roman children. A Roman mother and non-Roman father would theoretically produce Roman children, but a separate, later law dictated that the children follow the parent with the lower status.

The logic is identical to that found in the Mishnah. The Mishnah developed during the period when Judea was ruled by Rome. It seems more likely that the law of the powerful Roman Empire, which was legally binding throughout the empire,  influenced Jewish jurors in the Roman province of Judea in the first centuries CE than that a hitherto unattested law from the backwater kingdom of Judah influenced Roman jurors hundreds of years earlier.[2] It is likely, then, that matrilineal descent, the method by which we determine who is Jewish, is originally not a Torah principle but a Roman one. That something so fundamental to Jewish identity could have originated in another culture undermines the idea that Judaism as practiced today in the frum world is essentially the same as it has been down through the ages.

[1] The following discussion of matrilineal descent is based on Cohen, S.J.D. (2001). The Matrilineal Principle in Historical Perspective. AJS Review. Retrieved from
[2] The author of the article provides another suggestion for the origin of matrilineal descent. He says that it may be part of the mishnah's fascination with categorizing things, and points to a discussion of kilayim, an animal such as a mule which is the offspring of two species. There is an opinion there that the species of the animal follows the mother, and so too, the author suggests, in cases of two nationalities the child follows the mother. I would suggest that it is more likely that his first explanation is correct, and matrilineal descent was borrowed from Roman law. The logic of the Roman law and of the Mishnah is identical, and given the historical timing of the Mishnah is probably not a coincidence. If so, then the principle of matrilineal descent with regard to children may have been applied to cases of kilayim, rather than the other way around.