Friday, April 21, 2017

What Did Nadab and Abihu Do and What Has It to Do With Us? / Parshat Shemini 2017-5777

The story of the deaths of Aaron’s two sons Nadab and Abihu is bewildering and has sparked considerably speculation concerning what they did to evoke God’s wrath and deserve such a violent end. Told succinctly (in just three verses!) the story generates far more questions than the words required to tell it.

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה--אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָםוַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Adonai alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when God said: ‘Through those near to Me I show Myself holy and gain glory before all the people.’” And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10: 1-3)

Rather than provide a review of the many interpretations that have been proffered over the ages, I want to share with you just one from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 63a. The discussion has relevance for us, living as we do in a society where the wisdom of the elderly, and the opinions of teachers, scholars, experts, and figures of authority often evoke more disdain and contempt than respect.

The Rabbis are discussing the imperative to respect scholars and older teachers.

Rava said, “[A disciple] is forbidden [to render halakhic decisions] in the presence of his teacher and is liable to death [for doing so]. If he is not in the presence of his [teacher’s] presence, he is forbidden but not liable to death.”

There is no way to soften Rava’s claim. He is telling us that Heaven will cut short the life of a student of Torah who, while in the presence of his teacher, renders a legal decision that contradicts his master’s opinion; to do so while not in the teacher’s presence is forbidden, but will not result in punishment from Heaven. For Rava, countermanding one’s teacher is tantamount to undermining his authority, a breathtaking act of disrespect that Heaven will not tolerate. For us, it is Rava’s claim that is breathtaking. Let’s exhale and see where the Gemara goes.

If he is not in his [teacher’s] presence, is he not [liable to death]? Was it not taught [in a baraita]: R. Eliezer [ben Hyrcanus] says, “The sons of Aaron (i.e., Nadab and Abihu) did not die until they rendered a halakhic decision in the presence of Moses their teacher.”

Gemara asks: Are you so sure that he doesn’t warrant death just because he’s not in his teacher’s presence when he renders his contrary decision? Perhaps he deserves death even when he renders a decision at a distance from his teacher. Gemara brings a baraita that will ultimately prove Rava correct: rendering the decision in the master’s immediately presence is the far greater crime that provokes Heaven to retaliate. The baraita is attributed to R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, one of the primary disciples of the leader of the rabbinic community at the time of the destruction for the Second Temple, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai. R. Eliezer sees a parallel between Rava’s teaching to the story of Nadab and Abihu: he claims they did precisely what Rava said is forbidden and that is why they died. How do we know that Nadab and Abihu intentionally undermined or ignored Moses’ authority? Talmud provides scriptural support:

What scriptural inference did they (i.e., Nadab and Abihu) make? The sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar… (Leviticus 1:7). They said, “Although [it says] Fire came forth from before Adonai (Leviticus 9:24), it is a mitzvah to bring ordinary [fire].

Leviticus 9:24 says that God will bring forth fire from heaven for the altar, but Nadab and Abihu concluded on their own—without consulting Moses, and that is the primary point here—on the basis of Leviticus 1:7 that they were commanded to bring fire to the altar. Leviticus 1:7 but does not specify precisely when or how to bring fire to the altar and so the brothers brought the fire they would normally bring to the altar. The “alien fire” of 10:1 (see above) is their ordinary fire, which the Talmud understands to be in defiance of Moses’ opinion as expressed in Leviticus 9:24. Nadab and Abihu effectively render a halakhic decision that contradicts that of their teacher, Moses, who in Leviticus 9:24 stipulates that God will supply divine fire. Therefore, Heaven punished them with death.

R. Eliezer recounts an episode from his experience that reflects his interpretation of the incident surrounding the death of Aaron’s sons. He, too, suffered a student who rendered a halakhic decision contrary to his own and did so in his presence.

R. Eliezer had a disciple who rendered a halakhic decision in his presence. R. Eliezer said to his wife Ima Shalom, “I will be amazed if this one lives out the year.” [Ima Shalom] said to him, “Are you a prophet?” He said, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet (Amos 7:14), but I learned this [from my teachers]: Anyone who renders a halakhic decision in the presence of his teacher is liable to death.”

R. Eliezer speculates that Heaven will respond punitively to his student’s audacious act. His wife, Ima Shalom, unaware of the teaching that students who act in this way will be punished by Heaven, asks how he can know what will happen in the future to this student. Is he a prophet? No, he responds, quoting a famous verse from the prophet Amos, it’s not a matter of prophecy, but rather of Torah law: “Anyone who renders a halakhic decision in the presence of his teacher is liable to death.”

So extraordinary is the claim—we’re tempted to say radical or extreme—that the Talmud goes out of its way to let us know that R. Eliezer’s story was not allegorical, emphasizing that it really happened.

And Rabbah bar bar Chana said in the name of R. Yochanan, “That disciple’s name was Yehudah b. Gurya and he was three parasangs[1] away from [R. Eliezer].” He was in his presence. But [R. Yochanan] said he was three parasangs away from him! Then according to your reasoning, why [did R. Yochanan say the disciple’s] name and his father’s name? Only so that you would not claim that this was merely a parable [and did not really happen].

But even more: There is reason to believe that the student, who apparently died within the year, did not render his decision in the immediate physical presence of R. Eliezer. He was three parasangs away (see n. 1: he was nearly 1.8 miles, well beyond the distance that would make him liable for death; nonetheless, Heaven saw fit to mete out the ultimate punishment. Gemara goes on to debate whether the student was three parasangs away when he rendered the decision, or lived three parasangs from R. Eliezer, but in the end, it concludes that his death confirms Rava’s statement to be true.

This interpretation of Nadab and Abihu’s death, and the story of Yehudah b. Gurya’s demise, are troubling on many levels. On the theological level: The claim that God operates in this way might well contribute to greater constraint (borne of fear) on the part of students vis-a-vis delivering legal rulings that contradict and undermine those of their teachers, but it promotes a view of God as vindictive and punitive. Moreover, although the intent of the teaching may be to promote respect of teachers, it invites speculation concerning what those who suffer an untimely death may have done to provoke the wrath of heaven, a decidedly dangerous judgmental stance to infuse into the rabbinic community.

On a historical level: This interpretation of what lies behind the deaths of Nadab and Abihu signals the Rabbis’ anxiety about their own authority, and the prospect of seeing their opinions upended by their own students. Perhaps, given the likelihood that rabbinic authority in the Jewish community at this time was not nearly as established, entrenched, and respected in the broader Jewish community as the Rabbis themselves project through their stories, Rava’s ruling  and the supporting baraita reflect the attempt to construct the values and procedures for embedding rabbinic authority in the culture of the Jewish community.[2]

This is an anxiety felt in every generation, and in every profession. It is about expertise, but also about basic respect for the learning and wisdom of those who came before.

Yes, this is about the unique quality of halakhic interpretation in the Talmudic period and the teacher-disciple relationship in the Amoraic rabbinic world. But there is also something universal about the anxieties expressed here. Those who are young fear they will not have the opportunity to spread their wings and have their opinions taken seriously. Those who are older fear they will become irrelevant, surpassed by their own students. The Rabbis provide a useful insight for any age.

One last thing: Rather than see ourselves in competition for authority, we might strive for greater cooperation and sharing. The jobs website has posted an article detailing what older and younger workers can learn from one another. While this does not address the relationship between teacher and disciple, or jockeying for authority, it is related because learning and conveying various kinds of wisdom are tied up with respect and authority. The author, Dan Woog, notes:

For the first time ever, four distinct generations share the workplace: the Silents (who are in their mid-60s on up), Baby Boomers (mid-40s to mid-60s), X-ers (mid-20s to mid-40s) and Millennials (the newest workers). The work and life experiences of each group are unique, but the divide is clearest between the two oldest generations and the two youngest.[3]

Nonetheless, Woog asserts, each group has something to teach the other. Older workers can teach their younger colleagues how to cope with hard times and regret, the importance of loyalty, and interpersonal skills; they can share their vast experience and encourage independence and self-reliance. Younger colleagues can help older workers to learn new technology, and open their eyes to the value of diversity, the reality of job-hopping, the necessity of risk-taking, the importance of balancing work and life, and renew in them the sense that they can fulfill their dreams.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] A parsing is a measure of distance: one parasa is approximately four kilometers or 2.5 miles.
[2] In yet another direction, Dr. Rabbi Richard Hidary’s PhD dissertation (New York University), "Tolerance for Diversity of Halakhic Practice in the Talmud," explores the extent to which Talmudic rabbis tolerated diversity in halakhic practice, a direct offshoot of halakhic decisions. From the abstract:
            By comparing dozens of Yerushalmi and Bavli parallel sugyot, we have found that the Yerushalmi generally views diversity of practice negatively, preferring a monistic view of halakha, while the Bavli takes a more pluralistic attitude. Tannaitic sources mostly tend towards a monistic view, but also include some of the most strongly pluralistic statements in rabbinic literature.
            One explanation for the split between the two Talmuds is the difference in the distribution of the Jewish population in each country. The rabbis in Babylonia were scattered in various cities and were thus able to maintain independence from each other as they legislated for their local populations. The rabbis in Palestine were concentrated in a few neighboring cities in the north such that different practices in close proximity lead to tension.
            A second and more important explanation is rooted in the intellectual culture of the rabbis in each location. The Yerushalmi sees halakha as a mimetic set of static traditions and so it seeks out the one most authentic practice. The Bavli intellectualizes halakha and so recognizes the validity of multiple views and practices that result from rational argumentation. This difference between the Talmuds corresponds to findings of previous scholars regarding the value of multiple opinions and debate.”

It would seem to me that while geographic dispersion and distance might well promote a broader spectrum of practices, given the physical impediments to travel and thereby to checking up on what others are saying and doing, that might also augur for tightening the reigns of authority in one’s own district.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Sacrifices and Secrets / Parshat Vayikra 2017-2777

Three seemingly disparate questions: If you are engaged in business, is bluffing, lying, cheating, and offering bribes in secret wrong, or simply the tools of a skilled deal maker? How do sacrifices brought to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later to the Temple, relate to what people do in secret? If you cannot constrain yourself from doing what is wrong, does it dishonor God more or less to do it in secret? The answers to all three questions come together in consideration of this week’s parashah, Vayikra.

We open the Torah this week to the Book of Leviticus—a priestly pocket manual on the myriad details of the sacrificial cult. It’s not to everyone’s liking; for some, it will feel like a slow slog for the next two months. The exciting, challenging, and inspiring narratives of Genesis and Exodus are behind us. Israel has escaped Egypt, received Torah, constructed the Mishkan, and is settling in to a routine of life in the wilderness: learn God’s ways, offer sacrifices, move forward, and mark time until the nation can enter the Land of Israel. While Leviticus offers us only two narrative stories, taken together with insightful commentaries, it feeds our souls and enriches our lives with a wealth of wisdom concerning human nature.

Parshat Vayikra lays out the major categories of sacrifices, the circumstances under which offerings are to be brought, the content of the offerings, the rituals for offering them, and the disposition of the sacrifices once made. We read about the olah (burnt offering), the minchah (meal offering),  the shelamim (sacrifice of well-being), chatat (sin offering), and asham (guilt offering). We learn the distinction between violations committed intentionally and unintentionally. We even learn that a person who cannot afford to bring the prescribed offering may substitute a less costly sacrifice.

Many of the sacrifices catalogued in Vayikra are to atone for sin. Torah stipulates mechanisms for dealing with wrongs committed by one person against another, including the consequences and fines, but ultimately sacrifices are required because wronging another person is de facto sinning against God.

While Torah deals with the rules and standards of behavior that are deemed violations of the covenant, as well as the ritual mechanisms for obtaining forgiveness, Talmud delves deeper into the nature of sin and the human psyche. In tractate Chagigah, we find a mishnah that enumerates four subjects one should not speculate about (at least, not in public) because of the danger of inadvertently enticing others into apostasy.[1] The mishnah concludes with this comment:


Perhaps you’re wondering how the Mishnah justifies making such a drastic and dramatic claim? Gemara explains on BT Chagigah 16a.

What does this mean? R. Abba said: It refers to one who looks at a rainbow. R. Yosef said: “It refers to one who commits a sin in secret.” “One who looks at a rainbow,” as it is written: Like the appearance of a rainbow that shines in the cloud on a day of rain, such was the appearance of the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of Adonai (Ezekiel 1:28[2]). R. Yosef said, “This refers to one who commits a sin in secret,” which accords with what R. Yitzhak said, for R. Yitzhak said, “Whoever commits a sin in secret, it is as though he pushed away the feet of the Shekhinah, for it is said, כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, הַשָּׁמַיִם כִּסְאִי, וְהָאָרֶץ הֲדֹם רַגְלָי Thus said Adonai: The heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool (Isaiah 66:1).” But is this so? But R. Illa the Elder said, “If a person sees that the [evil] inclination is overpowering him, he should go to a place where no one recognizes him, don black clothing and wrap himself in black, and do what his heart desires, but he should not desecrate God’s Name publicly!” There is no difficulty (i.e., contradiction). This [R. Yosef’s opinion] concerns one who is able to overcome their inclination; this [R. Yitzhak’s opinion] concerns one who is not able to overcome their inclination.

R. Abba offers an example of behavior that fails to honor God: looking at a rainbow. No doubt you’re wondering how on earth gazing at a rainbow can be construed as failure to honor God, especially since there is a berakhah to say when one sees a rainbow.[3] However, as beautiful and aesthetically uncomplicated as a rainbow is for most of us, it is theologically complicated for the Rabbis. The first rainbow appeared after the Flood that destroyed virtually all of humanity and the animal kingdom, save the remnant preserved in the ark. It is a sign of God’s promise never again to flood the earth, but at the same time a sign of God’s disapproval of humanity’s behavior.  But there is more, as R. Abba’s use of the verse from Ezekiel makes clear. Describing God’s glory, Ezekiel likens it to the radiance of the rainbow. It would seem that R. Abba is concerned lest people gaze upon a rainbow and think they are seeing God.

The bulk of the passage, however, focuses on R. Yosef’s example: a person who sins in secret. The one who sins in secret does so out of the sight of other people, believing either that God does not exist or does not matter. The Gemara supports R. Yosef’s contention by citing R. Yitzhak’s more graphic teaching that sinning in secret not only sidelines God, but actively disrespects God (“pushing away the feet of the Shekhinah”). His proof text, Isaiah 66:1, uses the term rag’lai (“my feet”), to say that one who sins in secret is, effectively, pushing God’s authority, meaning, and presence, out of this world.

No sooner have R. Yosef and R. Yitzhak made what appear to be solid and thoughtful arguments then Gemara challenges them: Really? Are you so sure that sinning in secret is the epitome of dishonoring God? Perhaps it is the opposite!

R. Illa the Elder presents the novel and controversial idea: Sinning in secret, he holds, can be preferable to sinning in public. He asserts that someone who is overwhelmed by the compulsion to sin should disguises himself and go off to a place where he is unknown to do what he must. At least he will not be recognized by people who know him, conveying open and public disrespect for God’s laws.

The question of whether or not one should engage in improper behavior in secret took an interesting philosophical twist when, in 1968, Albert Z. Carr published an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?”[4] Few articles have generated as much discussion and controversy, which is ongoing now nearly fifty years later. Carr argued that the world of business is special realm in which the tactics for success permit a different standard of behavior. As business ethics specialists Robert E McNulty and W. Michael Hoffman noted:

Albert Carr, claimed quite brazenly that businesses were perfectly justified in lying, cheating, and bribing, all in the name of achieving business objectives. According to Carr, the ethics of ordinary life were inapplicable to business because the latter was governed by its own “gaming” morality that required the businessman to leave at home the Golden Rule and his commitment to principles such as honesty and fairness.  To make his point, Carr quotes a Midwestern executive who had “given a good deal of thought to the question.” According to this person, “If the law as written gives a man a wide-open chance to make a killing, he’d be a fool not to take advantage of it. If he doesn’t someone else will. There is no obligation on him to stop and consider who is going to get hurt. If the law says he can do it, that’s all the justification he needs. There’s nothing unethical about that. It’s just plain business sense.”

In the same article, Carr goes on to assert the legitimacy of lying on one’s résumé, engaging in industrial espionage, and deceptively adulterating the contents of consumer goods in order to increase profits.[5]

For Carr, one has no obligation to go beyond the letter of the law—and certainly no obligation to adhere to standards of decency in the context of business. Carr’s argument led many to believe “business ethics” was a oxymoron. Whether his views reflected the state of business practices or inspired them, business ethics became a field of study in the mid-70s. Today, most corporations have promulgated  a code of ethics and established an officer responsible to oversee compliance.

Carr’s style of business is roundly condemned as immoral by Jewish ethical standards, which are spelled out in the Torah and elaborated upon at length in the Talmud and later law codes.[6] In fact, there is a rabbinic tradition that when one dies and stands before God for judgment, the first question God will ask is, “Did you conduct your business with integrity?” (BT Shabbat 31a) Often, in discussions of Jewish business ethics, the principle of livnei iveir lo titein michshol / “do not place a stumbling block before the blind” is invoked; it speaks directly to Carr’s tactics.

I’m sure it has occurred to many familiar with Albert Carr’s controversial claims and the discussion surrounding them that the President Trump and his close advisors appear to be a card-carrying subscribers to Carr’s philosophy. He has imported into the White House the sense that his brand of business dealings, which entails distortions, disinformation, and outright lies, is simply employing the tools of the trade, that in the “game” of politics one is required to win at any cost.

We would do well to recall R. Yosef and R. Yitzhak’s discussion. “Pushing away the feet of the Shekhinah,” shoving morality to the curb and engaging in secretive dishonesty, is socially caustic and spiritually corrosive whenever and wherever it occurs.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Those familiar with tractate Chagigah will recognize this as the mishnah that leads to rabbinic discussions of mysticism and tells the story of Elisha b. Abuyah, also known derogatorily as Acher.
[2] The verse continues: when I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face. And I heard the voice of someone speaking.
[3] Talmud itself provides the blessing: ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם זוכר הברית וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתוֹ וְקַיָם בְּמַאֲמָר Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, Who remembers the covenant and is faithful to his covenant and keeps his promise. (BT Berakhot 59a)
[4] Albert Z. Carr, “Is Business Bluffing Ethical?,” Harvard Business Review 46, no. 1 (1968): 146. Available at:
[6] Suggested sources include: Elliot N. Dorff and Jonathan K. Crane, The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality;; Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, “Jewish Business Ethics: An Introductory Perspective”;