Building a Parapet for Our Roofs

Parshat Ki Tetze contains 76 of the 613 commandments in it, more than any other portion. One of them which has often struck me is the following: “When you build a new house, make a parapet for your roof so that blood will not be on your hands.” To what is this referring? In biblical times, those who could not afford to build a house often slept on the roofs of other houses and without a proper safeguard, they could fall off. Therefore, the portion commands those who build a house to build a parapet, protecting anyone who would be sleeping on the roof.

The way I like to think of this is that when we have a home, a structure in which we spend a considerable amount of time, we need to take responsibility to maintain and strengthen it. We need to ensure that the foundations are strong and sturdy so that the home will not only last for us but for our children and for generations yet to come. This at times means making difficult yet crucial decisions in order for the house to stand. As a congregation, we are a family, and we need to continue to respect one another but also to look at and not neglect our future needs. If we are only maintaining our spiritual homes for ourselves and not looking at how to strengthen their foundation for the future, we are engaging in neglect and in danger of the entire house coming down in the future.

This reminds me of a well-known story from Talmud Taanit 23a. One day Honi the circle drawer, a man who would beseech God whenever there was a drought, was walking alongside the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for your tree to bear fruit?” The man answered, “Seventy years.” Honi then asked, “Do you think you will live another seventy years to eat from this fruit?” The man replied, “Probably not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

This wise man taught Honi a lesson: sometimes we have to do things not for us, but for the future. Often this is hard to do-after all, we are drawn to do things which are tangible to us and for which we can see the “fruits” of our labor. Why engage in a task from which we do not directly benefit? The approach from our tradition is that we are responsible to do our part to pay it forward. Look around at this magnificent Sanctuary. There are so many who have financially contributed towards its adornments and beauty, many of whom are here today. There are others who are no longer with us who gave so much to establish our congregation. We need to encourage people to give from their hearts and of their time for the well-being of our congregation.

However, it is not just giving in this sense but understanding what it will take to grow the membership of our congregation. For that I will return to the metaphor of the parapet on the roofs. As committed congregants, we are the ones inside the house, inside the walls of our synagogue. We feel comfortable stepping into this building, and many of us have some of our best friends as fellow members. There are others who are not directly part of our synagogue yet at times might come to the outskirts of our synagogue, to “sleep on the roof.” We must build parapets, safeguards to welcome in and retain these individuals. If we do not do so, they will fall off and we will lose them. In order to have a strong and sustainable house, one must have the proper safeguards in place and it is up to us as a congregation to build those safeguards. What are they? For some it might be social action, for others havurah programming; for some traditional services, for others meditation, musical or yoga services. The bottom line is that we cannot just keep doing business as usual in this day and age. The days when people move to town and instantly join a congregation are over; now, if anything, they are looking for a reason not to join. We must prove to them, sometimes over a matter of years, why a synagogue is a vital and important part of their lives. Let us build the safeguards we need (the more the merrier) to ensure a strong future for our congregation. Equally as important, let us understand when changes are discussed that we do not like that sometimes we have to do things we are reticent about in order to bring in others to our congregation, to embrace them fully rather than leaving them on the roof. May we have the strength and willpower, the wisdom and the foresight, to do so.

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Jewish Witnesses: Who Qualifies?

Have you ever served as a witness in a legal matter? Was it as part of a criminal or civil legal case? Was it at a Jewish life-cycle ritual? What did it feel like to give testimony which was recognized?

We might not think the role of a witness is that important, but Judaism tells us otherwise. Parshat Shofetim more than any other portion centers on the legal system and how to create a just society. It begins by requiring the appointing of judges and officials, so important that the rabbis in Talmud Sanhedrin list it as one of the seven Noachide laws applying to non-Jews. However, the establishment of courts is not enough by itself to determine how to adjudicate justice. Parshat Shofetim goes on to state “A person should only die based on the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deuteronomy 17:6) and later “A matter can only be valid by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (Deuteronomy 19:15)

It makes sense why one witness is not enough, as s/he might see things incorrectly or purposefully give false testimony, both of which are harder to do when there are more witnesses involved.  In both cases, the Torah mandates that there be two or three witnesses. We know of examples where only two witnesses are required, such as the signing of a Ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) or a Get (Jewish bill of divorce). There are other examples when three witnesses are required, as three creates a Beit Din (court of Jewish law), used for a conversion or when giving out a Get. Tractate Makkot Chapter 1 Mishnah 7 it asks why does it say “two or three.” The answer given is that two are equated to three. Two witnesses can invalidate the testimony of three, and vice versa.

Why do we jump from a conversation about the number of witnesses to one where we have witnesses invalidating or discrediting the testimony of others? The Talmud is very interested in the concept of עדים זוממים, scheming witnesses. While this section of Talmud is fascinating, I have chosen instead to discuss the topic of witnesses in Judaism in general.

How are valid witnesses determined? Maimonides, a 12th century Spanish and Egyptian commentator, discusses who qualifies as a witness in his Mishneh Torah Laws of Edut (Testimony). He states that ten types of people are invalid from being witnesses: women, slaves, minors, the insane, those who are deaf and mute, the blind, the wicked, idlers, relatives and those who have bias. Some of these categories make sense-I would not want someone who is partial to one side or who is legally insane to be a witness. Others can be very challenging for us-for example, excluding half the population from being a witness in a court of Jewish law.

Why are women excluded? Maimonides states that it is because the bible uses the masculine form (עדים) when speaking about witnesses. Joseph Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, also includes women in his list yet he is bothered by Maimonides’ rationale, stating that “the whole Torah always uses the masculine form.” In fact, the Tur, the law code which preceded the Shulchan Aruch, omits women from his list entirely (Hoshen Mishpat 35)! The Talmud, in Shevuot 30a and Gittin 46a, states that a woman cannot be a witness because her place is at home and not in court. As a result, women were only used as witnesses in matters related to them (things involving their families or their bodies), for identification of people or for events regarding places frequented only by women.

How we handle women as witnesses in the Conservative movement is a topic which has been hotly debated. Rabbi Joel Roth, in his Responsa from 1984, which allowed for Conservative female rabbis, did so on condition that they not serve as witnesses. This position, while the norm for a number of years in the Conservative movement, created an awkward situation where a female rabbi could not sign a Ketubah, give a Get or finalize the conversion of her student. In 1992 the Rabbinical Assembly passed a paper entitled “Gender Equality in Halakhah” which allowed for women to participate as witnesses in all aspects of Jewish ritual.
The issue does not end there, however. While the State of Israel has allowed female witnesses in a civil court of law since the Equality of Women’s Rights Act of 1951, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel does not allow for female witnesses for ritual purposes. Therefore, anyone who gets married outside of Israel with female witnesses on their Ketubah and later moves to Israel will not have their marriage religiously recognized. Some try to get around this (including many of my classmates) by having four witnesses on their Ketubah: two men and two women. Others will have a woman sign as a Ketubah witness with the understanding that the couple will not move to Israel. I am in the later camp-in fact, Karina and my Ketubah is signed by one man and one woman.

Personally I am fully egalitarian. In this day and age, where we give females every opportunity to succeed in secular realms, I strongly believe that we need to do the same in the religious sphere. “Separate But Equal” was not equal, and it died with Brown vs. Board of Education. My personal beliefs, however, do not necessarily need to reflect the ruling of a synagogue-there is room to embrace multiple beliefs at our congregation. For those women who want to serve as Jewish witnesses, the opportunities must be presented so that they can, provided that we make clear at the outset that there are people who would not hold female witnesses as valid. For those who want to continue with the traditional approach, having only male witnesses, that is fine, as long as they do not impinge on other people’s rights to do differently.

What I propose is the following: that we give people the opportunity to tell their stories and share their opinions and that we listen with open ears. When someone says something with which we disagree, let us try to understand where the other is coming from and accommodate his or her perspective whenever possible. In doing such we will continue to function as one community, albeit a “community of communities,” where everyone can feel welcome and secure. Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

The “False Prophet”

One of the central institutions of our tradition is that of the prophet. Prophets are “men of God,” having direct revelation as to what God wants of us. They have great power-even to cause changes in the behavior of the kings! An entire section of our Bible is devoted to the great prophets of our tradition. It is with this in mind that there is a peculiar section in the middle of the portion.

Deuteronomy Chapter 13 verses 2-4 read: “If there arises in your midst a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives a sign or a wonder which comes to pass, and then he tells you ‘let us go after other gods, which you do not know, and let us serve them’-you should not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer of dreams; for God is putting you to the test to see if you love God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

The biblical commentator Nechama Leibowitz asks why such a man is considered a prophet in the first place, as the definition of a prophet is one who carries out God’s will. She answers that the Torah took the view of the audience, who is not aware as to whether or not this individual was sent by God, and so views him as a prophet. There are other questions to be answered, however. Is such an individual considered true or false? After all, his sign or wonder came to pass and the word navi is used, which leads one to believe that he is a prophet of God. Also, why would God choose such a means of testing our faith? It feels like trickery!

Rabbi Akiva was also troubled by this individual’s sign coming to pass. If he is an imposter, a “false prophet,” it should have never come into fruition. Rabbi Akiva argued that God would only allow one to perform a sign or wonder if he was an “apostate prophet,” one who was formally true and who had turned false. He cited the example of Hananiah ben Azzur, who had been a true prophet until he prophesied that God was with Israel and would lead them to defeat the Babylonians. Rabbi Yose the Galilean disagreed, asserting that this applies also to idolaters. In his view a non-Jewish diviner can perform a natural wonder the same as a Jewish prophet. The difference is that the non-Jewish diviner is sent to lead the people astray, whereas the Jewish prophet is a true representative of God. The diviner will eventually be proven false through his leading the people towards idolatry; the prophet will be proven true as God’s representative.

Now we arrive at what is the most perplexing issue for me-why would God need to test His people in the first place? Testing Jews’ behavior is not something brand new in this portion-it goes back to the ten trials of Abraham, the last of which was offering his son Isaac on the altar. God also tested our ancestors in the desert, depriving them of water immediately following their departure from Egypt. Why does God need to test our faith and our belief in Him? Furthermore, why would God create us with a tendency to go astray and wayward, after our hearts’ desire?

When I went to JTS for my rabbinical school interview, one of my Assistant Deans asked me if I had any doubts. Taken aback by the question, I thought for a second and then I said no. After all, I was thriving at the University of Wisconsin, with more friends than I could count and I knew I wanted to become a rabbi and serve a congregation. The dean then asked me what I would do if I had doubts during my time in rabbinical school. I said I would deal with them as they came up. During my time in rabbinical school, I had doubts about almost everything: about God, about my decision to become a rabbi and about my faith in humanity. It was an extremely hard period of my life, one in which I could have easily been shaken off my course and swayed to go in a different direction. Somehow I struggled through it and persevered, largely due to the help of teachers and mentors.

I’m not sure if God was testing me during rabbinical school, but it did give me understanding of what this section of Torah is about. There have or there will come points in all of our lives in which our faith will be tested: our faith that we are doing the right thing with our children and grandchildren, that we gave the right advice, that our beliefs are correct. It is at moments like these that we need to be reflective and introspective but also that we need to stay the course, continuing to believe that who we are and what we are doing is making a difference. It is at those moments of vulnerability that we have the greatest chance of turning astray and that we must be most mindful of what we are doing. Even if we see a flash or a wonder coming out of left field, beckoning us to reverse course, we must think if such action is really in our best interests. May we always have faith in ourselves, in our families and in our traditions and may they lead us to pass all the tests, the challenges and the obstacles that come our way.

Circumcise Your Heart

One of the more bizarre verses is in this week’s Torah portion.  Moses says to the Israelites, “You shall circumcise your hearts. And no longer be a stiff-necked people.”  What does it mean to circumcise one’s heart?  Do our hearts have a covering that we must cut off?  Not literally I hope!

The commentators present many ideas, all of which are thankfully metaphorical.  Ibn Ezra, wrote, “to distance oneself from the heavy, baseless desires of the uncircumcised.”  While we might disagree with his opinion of the uncircumcised, it is clear that Ibn Ezra holds us to a high standard, that we should not pursue what those around us desire if it is not right for us, or for a higher purpose.  Ramban, or Nachmanides, a 13th century commentator who lived in Spain and Israel, disagreed with Ibn Ezra, presenting two interpretations. His first interpretation was that the generation that wandered in the desert had uncircumcised hearts, as they were not open to the Torah and its commandments. He wrote: “Your hearts will be open to understand the truth and not be like your forefathers, a rebellious generation.”

It is Ramban’s second interpretation that is my favorite: Not to favor the great people in their quarrels with the small people, and not taking bribes from the rich…for one who does justice for the orphan and the widow is the one who is truly great.”  Here to circumcise one’s heart means to side with those marginalized, who need justice.  It is easy to identify with the rich, or with someone who is a celebrity.  It is much harder to side with those who are destitute, to help the people we see on the streets in downtown Manhattan.  At times it might even be difficult to believe that our help can make a difference or to see these individuals as human.  That is where the principle of circumcising one’s heart comes in, cutting away the hard edged, cynical layers and getting to the softer layers which are open to helping those in need.

There is also a parallel between brit milah and milat halev, circumcision of the foreskin and of the heart.  The former is a sign of a male entering the covenant of the Jewish people.  The latter is a sign of both males and females taking their place in the covenant through doing gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness.  While a brit milah or a simhat bat is a wonderful sign of one’s Judaism, these rituals are done when one is a child.  When one is an adult, how can he/she show his/her commitment to Judaism?  Through an open heart used for helping those who are in need.

During this Shabbat, let us take the time to reflect on how each of us might demonstrate an open heart, one in which the calloused, rough edges are cut away, creating room for serving our communities.  May we take the steps necessary to lose our pessimistic, jaded outer edges to make room for optimistic, active inner edges that are set on making a difference in the world.  In doing so, we will be on our way to fulfilling the Torah and God’s commandments.

Don’t Add or Subtract

Have you ever been in a situation where you’re confused about what to do? Where you want to know exactly what’s expected of you-nothing more and nothing less? If that’s the case than you’re in luck because that’s a core principle of this week’s Torah portion.

At the beginning of Chapter 4 in Devarim (Deuteronomy), we are told by Moses “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of God that I enjoin upon you.” There is actually a commandment not to add, bal tosif, for which the preeminent example the rabbis give is that one cannot add a fifth species to his/her lulav or a fifth portion in one’s Tefillan. Similarly, one cannot subtract a commandment, proclaiming “I won’t keep kosher because I don’t like it.” Instead, we need to take the middle road, doing exactly what God expects of us.

The problem with this is figuring out what we are commanded to do. How many commandments are there? 613. From where do we know that? An aggadeta (non-legal section) in Babylonian Talmud Tractate Makkot 24a is the source for the 613 commandments in the Torah, stating that the numerical value of the word Torah is 611 and that plus the first 2 commandments (which God told us Himself rather than Moses) is how we get to 613 commandments. However, the Talmud does not state what those commandments are and it’s not even clear that this was a guiding principle in Talmudic times, as there are many sections of the Talmud that are not codified as laws. In Geonic period, beginning in 8th century Babylonia, different rabbis created their own lists of commandments. It became a tradition for a rabbi to create his Sefer HaMitzvot, his book in which he listed and enumerated on the commandments. The preeminent list is that of Maimonides of 12th century Spain and Egypt who has 14 guiding principles that he used to derive the Torah commandments. However, Nachmanides of 13th century Spain and Israel wrote a commentary on Maimonides’ book in which he takes out some commandments and adds others! For example, Nachmanides stated that a commandment is to make Aliyah to Israel, and he did this in his lifetime. In contrast, Maimonides does not have Aliyah listed and does not even visit the land of Israel during his lifetime.

The dispute is not only between Maimonides and Nachmanides; Maimonides disagreed with multiple earlier authors, including Shimon Karraya, the author of the Halachot Gedolot, in 8th century Babylonia. Karraya included in his list of 613 commandments the reading of the Megillah and the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, which Maimonides viewed as derabanan, or “rabbinic” commandments, and hence not part of the 613 Torah commandments. Thus you can see that what is included and what is excluded from the 613 is not cut and dry.

This becomes more complicated when one understands that over half the commandments do not apply to anyone today because they required a Temple in Jerusalem. We are no longer able to sacrifice animals, nor are we required to spend Festivals (and all they entail) in Jerusalem. Of those commandments which remain, at least 25 do not apply to those of us living in the Diaspora. What therefore are we obligated to do and how can we ensure that we do not add or subtract from that list?

Unfortunately there is no cut-and-dry answer to this quandary. I appreciate the approach of the note in the Etz Hayim Chumash that states “a modern Conservative perspective would see the Torah as a living organism, constantly shedding dead cells and growing new ones, changing and adapting to new and unprecedented circumstances.” I’ve pointed out before examples of how Judaism has made changes to existing procedures, such as the rabbis eliminating the situation of the rebellious son without uprooting that law. Similarly, Hillel issued a prozbul, having the court take control of debts so that lessors would not lose any money they had loaned out during the Sabbatical year. Ours is a tradition where laws have often been adapted to meet modern needs and I believe the Conservative movement has continued in this tradition. In our ever-changing and evolving world we need to continue to make adjustments to meet modern needs but at the same time not lose sight of tradition and custom. That is how I understand the law of not adding or subtracting-it includes both making fences around the law and changing how the law is applied as long as we do not lose sight of the core principle that the law is teaching us. Of course this is easier said than done but I believe it is important to engage in the struggle and the discomfort and from it try to apply the laws in a way that works for the majority of our community and for our continued growth and betterment. Ken y’hi ratzon, May it be our will to do so.