Listening to the lyrics of Jewish Law

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Parshat Ki Teitzei - When was the last time you listened to the lyrics, poetry and sounds of the mitzvot? Join Geoffrey Stern, Rabbi Adam Mintz and special guest poet, Haim Nachman Bialik in a live recording of our weekly disruptive Torah on Clubhouse. We are told that there never was nor never will be a case of the Biblical Rebellious Son and that we are simply to be rewarded for its study. We explore how all of the commandments provide similar rewards for those willing to listen to their lyrical nature.

Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/342083

Transcript:

Geoffrey Stern

Madlik is weekly disruptive Torah on clubhouse. But we record every week. And we then publish as a podcast. And we're available on all of the major podcast platforms. And you are welcome to give us a few stars and give us a review. And this week, I want to thank our faithful listener Bob, for doing just that giving us some stars, five stars, you can't get better than that, and a beautiful review. So thank you, Bob. And I invite all of you even if you've been on the clubhouse, to check out Madlik on your favorite podcast platform, and give us a review and a few stars and thank you for that. So this week, the name of the Parsha is Ki Teitzei and as Rabbi Adam said in the introduction, it has more commandments more Halachot and mitzvot than any other parsha. And I am only going to focus on one Halacha and it might be considered the most unique Halacha in the Torah and before I tell you why it's unique. Let me read it to you. It's called Ben sorer u'morer otherwise known as the Rebellious Son, and it goes as follows in Deuteronomy 21. "If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them, even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, this son of ours is disloyal and defiant. He does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard, thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst, all Israel will hear and be afraid." Boy, that's a powerful one, especially this week when we are reading about the Taliban. It certainly brings parallel to a very fundamentalist strict notion of the law and how one keeps people observant. So why is this unique? It's unique because the Talmud in Sanhedrin says that there has never been, and there will never be a ben sorer u'morer; a rebellious son, it was given to us this halacha, this law, this practical injunction was given to us so that we made "darosh umekabel schar" we may expound and receive reward. So first of all, Rabbi, is this a mainstream opinion? Or is this a unique opinion? And what's at issue here?

Adam Mintz

So, first of all, it's a great topic. I mean, there's nothing like ben sorer u'morer. The idea that you have a wayward son, and that you put him to death, actually, before he commits any crime, because better he should die innocent than die guilty. That the first point which is amazing. But the second point is that it never happened. And the reason we studied isDrosh vekabel schar, which really I would translate to mean, let's learn a lesson from it. What lessons can you learn from how you handle a rebellious son? But it happens to be Geoffrey that if you go on in that Gemora, the opinion of Robbie Yochanan, who was a rabbi who lived in Israel in Tiberius, around the year 400, he says, quote, "ani rei'iti" I saw a wayward son in my life, "veyashavti al kivro". And I sat on his grave, meaning it did happen. And he was punished. So actually, there were two opinions. I don't know which opinion is more prevalent. But there were two opinions. One opinion is it never happened.... And one opinion is yes it happened, and I saw it with my own eyes, and I sat on his grave. And I thought we were going to talk about what are those two opinions. They're so different in their views? One opinion is that it never happened. The other opinion is I saw it and I sat on his grave, how do you come two such different opinions?

Geoffrey Stern

Well, and that also begs the question of what does it mean to "sit on his grave"? Did he sit on his grave and cry? So the question then becomes this that we say, "never happened and never will happen? Is that descriptive or is it prescriptive? Is it to say it never should happen. And it reminds me of the Mishnah actually in Makkot that literally talks about the death penalty in general. And you know, those of you who have read the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible know that it is full of Mot Yamut "Die you shall certainly die". But this is what the Mishnah says in Sanhedrin. "It says the Sanhedrin that executes someone once in seven years, is characterized as a destructive tribunal. Rabbi Eliezer b. Azaria says, once in 70 years, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say, if we had been members of the Sanhedrin, we would have conducted trials in a manner whereby no person would have ever been executed." So here too I don't know whether the Talmud that you quote, which is beautiful, about the rabbi who said he actually saw a ben sorer u'morer whether that is distinct from or an agreement with, because of the fact that he sat on his grave. And at least in my mind, I think he cried.

Adam Mintz

Good. I liked that a lot. Now, of course, the question of whether or not they ever actually carried out the death penalty is the same debate that we have in 2021. whether or not we're in favor of death penalties. And basically, what the rabbis say is that we don't want to actually carry out the death penalty. But we want you to think that if you violate Shabbat, you deserve to get the death penalty, we're not going to kill you. Because that's not what we do, because that is counterproductive to kill you. We want to try to rehabilitate you. But the idea is that we have the death penalty on the books. And maybe that's what Rabbi Yohanan says, I saw, I sat on his grave, I cried. It really happened. Or maybe it didn't really happen. The point is that we need to know that we need to rehabilitate those kinds of children.

Geoffrey Stern

So so far, we've really discussed, I would say, black and white, life or death. But in this parsha that you so aptly said, contains so many laws, many of the laws refer to personal status. And the one word that I think, puts shudders down, anyone who follows Jewish laws of identity is the word bastard or Mamzir. And that occurs in Deuteronomy 23. And basically, it says that someone who is a Mamzir, and that we'll describe in a second, cannot enter into the congregation, even to the 10th generation. And it is as close to a social death sentence as you can get. And just as you brought up the death penalty is something that reflects on a current discussion, it's a very heated area of debate, even till today, in Israel, this law of status where a child is born, and maybe the parents didn't get a proper divorce and had a child and the child is then called a Mamzir. Again, it is something that there are many, many people that look at and say, well, it's a law, it's on the books, and it has to be enforced. And of course, like anything that relates to power, there's the potential for it to be misused. And in the in the source papers that I shared with you, Rabbi, I had heard many years back and I think it was in a lecture by Rabbi Riskin, the colloquialism or the phrase Ain Mamzerim B'Yisrael" that there are no bastards in Israel. And what was meant by that was that any Rabbi worth his or her salt would find a way, some way, any way to make sure that this law was really in the same category as the rebellious son in the sense that it might be on the books, but it never was put into practice. Have you heard this notion of "Eyn Mazmzerim B'Yisrael" and even if you haven't, does that resonate with you in terms of Jewish learning?

Adam Mintz

Geoffrey, that I heard that phrase "Eyn Mazmzerim B'Yisrael" from the same source you did: Rabbi Riskin and when you asked me earlier this week, to find the source, so I was able to do something that we weren't able to do in the early Rabbi Riskin days. And that is I googled it to see where'd Rabbi Riskin come up with it. And, you know, he's very creative and very good Rabbi Riskin, but I couldn't find it anywhere. So I think that the explanation that you gave is really right on the mark, what Rabbi Riskin was telling us "Eyn Mazmzerim B'Yisrael" It's not a comment about sexual relations between man and woman and whether they got divorced or whether they didn't get divorced, or all of that. Nothing to do with any of that. What it has to do with is about the rabbis, Are the rabbis willing to be creative and courageous enough to always find a way to get people not to be called Mamzerim. I think that's a very, very important voice. And what Rabbi Riskin was saying was exactly like you said, if you're worth your salt, you can figure out how not to have someone be a Mamzer. And that's exactly the same idea. As if you're worth your salt, you're going to make sure that there's no such thing as a Ben Sorer u'morer and maybe Geoffrey, that even follows to the other opinion. "I saw a Ben Sorer u'morer" , and I sat on his grave, and I cried because I wasn't able or the rabbi's weren't able to get him out of that status. And that's a tragedy, because "Eyn Mazmzerim B'Yisrael", the rabbi's need to have the ability, the creativity, the courage to get these people out of that situation.

Geoffrey Stern

And I would like to interject a personal story an account that I have that puts some meat on this concept of if you are worth your salt. I have a friend a roommate from yeshiva came from a town. Norwich Connecticut, his father was the Orthodox Rabbi there. And about 15 years ago, he was living in Israel, he came to see me and I said, Well, what are you up to? He says, Well, I'm going to Norwich, Connecticut. And I'm going to make a marriage improper to disallow a marriage. And he explained to me, and this is just I think, interesting. So we can all understand how these things work. A student showed up to the yeshiva, and his parents had been remarried. And his mother's first marriage was in Norwich, Connecticut. And he had not gotten an orthodox divorce. So my friend Shmuel was going back to his hometown, and he found people who knew one of the witnesses for that first wedding. And he wanted to invalidate the marriage by invalidating the witness... And he would ask, Well, did he ever gamble? Did you ever see him playing cards, and he would find some way that would make the first marriage nullified. And again, you have to do what you have to do. And the Halacha is something that can be and seem very splitting of hairs, full of minutia and technical, but in a sense, what he was doing was full of humanity. And the challenge, of course, is there aren't enough rabbis who have the learning, who are dedicated to doing it for not only a student that shows up at the Yeshiva, but for any Jew. And that's and that's really the challenge.

Adam Mintz

Well, Rabbi Riskin would love that story. Because"Eyn Mazmzerim B'Yisrael", your friend had the courage to make sure that this child was not going to be called a Mamzir.

Geoffrey Stern

We could spend probably the rest of the half hour just talking about how maybe Judaism, or laws that seem more rigid or dated or even Taliban-like, have been nullified and changed. And that would be a perfectly good use of our time. But I want to take the discussion in a totally different direction. Because I am intrigued by the fact that the rabbis said that this Halacha of the rebellious son was there only for us to discuss and learn. And it seems to me that there's an aspect of what some consider the dry halakhah or the daily practice of the Jew, that we all need to listen to, that it is a language in and of itself, looking at the Halacha at Jewish observance, as a language more than even a religion or a code. And every Shabbat when I say my prayers, there's one verse that I say after the Shema, that I think of in this regard, and it says Ashrei Ha'Ish Shyishma l'mitzvotecha" "Happy is the person who listens to the commandments". And what I want to do for the balance is to explore not only capital punishment and not only questions of status and these earth-shattering laws, but potentially how every one of the Jewish traditions and customs can be looked at in a whole new way. And we're given a license by this kind of takeaway, throwaway comment of the rabbi's to look at the whole corpus of Jewish observance as a lyric as a language as something that we can smile to, dance to, struggle with, but interact with in the way that we do maybe with a poem.

Adam Mintz

Okay, great.

Geoffrey Stern

So I'm inviting a third player to our to our panel today. Unfortunately, he's not alive, but his name is Haim Nachman Bialik. And he was considered the national poet of Israel. He actually made Aliyah, lived in Israel, but he died in the 20s before the state. But what you might not know about him is that he started as a very observant Jew, he went to the Yeshiva in Velozhin. And he actually went there. So his grandfather would think that he was studying and then he went, and he became the great poet that he was. And he saw in the paper that they closed the Yeshiva in Velozhin, and so he had to rush home because he knew his grandfather would know that he wasn't at the Yeshiva so to speak. But he in his later days, when he was no longer observant, wrote a three-volume tome on the Aggadah. And the Aggadah is the legends of the Jews. The Aggadah is always contrasted to the halakhah. There's the law and there's the fable, there's the practice, and there's the narrative and the stories. So you would expect that someone like him, would really be a major fan of the legends of the Jews, and not so much for the Halacha. But he has an article that he wrote called the Halacha and Aggadah, and in the source feet, if you if you go to the podcast when it issues early in the week, you'll see the source sheet there. I have the full text in both English and Hebrew, and it's worth reading. It's very lyrical, but in it, he actually makes an argument that the Halacha is as much a song, a poem a lyric as anything else. So with your permission, I'm going to read a little bit and then I welcome all of us to to kind of discuss, he says "halakhah and Aggadah the law and the legends are two things which are really one two sides of a single shield. The relation between them is like that of speech to thought and emotion or the action and sensible form to speech. Halacha is the crystallization the ultimate and inevitable quintessence of the Aggadah legend. The legend is the content of Halacha. The legend is the plaintive voice of the heart's yearning as it wings its way to its Haven, Halacha is the resting place where for a moment the yearning is satisfied and stilled. As a dream seeks its fulfillment in interpretation, as will in action as thought in speech as fruit. So Aggadah in Halacha. But in the heart of the ruit, there lies hidden the seed from which a new flower will grow. The Halacha which is sublimated into a symbol and much Halacha there is, as we shall find becomes the mother of a new Aggadah, a new legend, which may be like it or unlike it, a living and healthy law is a legend that has been or will be. And the reverse is true. Also, the two are one in their beginning and their end." So it's really so lyrical. And I had to read it in his words because he is a poet. But here was a man who literally and we'll see he gives some concrete examples of how he saw the song in the minutiae of the law. Does this resonate with any of you in terms of the music in Jewish custom and activity?

Adam Mintz

I think what he's telling you is that Halacha means the way we live. The minute you describe the way we live, all of a sudden, that's a legend. All of a sudden, that's a story. That's the tradition. Everything in this week's parsha... all these 77 laws are part of the way we live. If it's the way we live, it's a legend. This week's parsha tells us if you get divorced, you have to write a get (divorce document) if you get married, you go through the formalities of a marriage ceremony of a Chuppah? Those aren't laws, those are legends. So it's the stories, how many stories have come out of those two laws? And he can't distinguish between the two? Is it a law? Is it a legend? Is it a legend? And is it a law. And the truth of the matter is that the law leads to the legend. And then the legend leads right back to the law. I feel exactly what he says.

Geoffrey Stern

So I was thinking of this, when a week or two ago, we discussed vegetarianism. And this whole concept of eating meat Basar Ta'aiva" (meat of desire), only on special occasions. And again I was struggling with the fact that so much in the Bible seems to lean towards vegetarianism. And I was wondering, where does it bear itself out? Where does it come through? And then I started thinking of all the laws that I've studied whether it's for Hanukkah, whether it's for Shabbat, of if you have limited resources, what do you spend it on? If it's on Shabbat? Do you use the money that you have for the candle for the wine for the meat? And it seemed to me that again, this was looking at the life of the Jew. And you really understood then, in ways that you and I never could, what Baser Ta'aiva" what the meat of desire... that moment of when every pintela Jew, every poor little peasant could feel something and it was that treat, not a part of everyday life. So to me that was an example of where the minutiae of the Halacha that might be dealing with something very monotone and trivial, actually bore within it, a whole weltanschauung of the Jewish people and their relationship, to poverty, to spirit to a little treat once in a while. And to me, it was the answer. I really felt that in my heart that no, our tradition has spoken about the place of eating meat at special times at Holy times. And it's spoken loud and clear, even if I don't find one piece of prose, or one piece of narrative that directly touches upon it.

Adam Mintz

I think that's a beautiful example. I mean, I think right off the mark, poetry and prose, narrative and law. What he's saying is, those are just words, really, they merge into one entity, and that's really Jewish life.

Geoffrey Stern

So I'll give one more example that he brings. And he talks about a law of carrying on Shabbat... you're not allowed to carry in a public domain. And it says, a man may not go out on the Shabbat with a sword or a bow or a shield or a club or a spear. Rab Eliezer says, they are ornaments, and therefore may be worn. But the sages say they are only a disgrace, as it is said, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. Here we have, and this is Bialik. Here we have ideas about beauty and ugliness in dress-and whence are they taken? From the words of the sweet singer and the great seer. And in what connection? In connection with carrying on the Sabbath. So again, what he's saying is that in these minutia, if we listen to the commandments, .... and let's not neglect to say that there's no question that Judaism is an orthopraxy it's correct practice more than an orthodoxy correct belief. And so much of what we do is dictated by how we do it and what we do but in that seems to me to be just a beautiful song. And I think that's the flip side of saying that some laws are just written on the book. They're just for us to study. And actually, isn't that what we do on Madlik?

Adam Mintz

That's right. I mean, it's hard, though, Geoffrey to know how you distinguish between the different kinds of laws?

Geoffrey Stern

Well, absolutely. But I would argue that really, we should not relegate this to different laws, but that every law has this element within it. And that's, I think, what my big takeaway is. Bialik goes on to say, he says, "not all laws, Halachot are equal or are the same and unproductive. Another bears fruit and fruit that reproduces itself. one is like an empty vessel that is put away in a corner till it is wanted. Another is like a vessel that is uninterrupted use, always being emptied and filled again with something new." So I think what we do is we look through our narrative to find practices that have fallen into disuse, or misunderstood or taken in one direction. And we have the license to take it in a totally new direction. Lately, I've been very stiff. And I've been doing a lot of yoga. You know, many of the yoga teachers give you a thought to think about and give you a practice to aim for. And I just thought wouldn't it be magnificent to combine yoga and Tefilla, I want to call it yogafilla. The idea is to take the bowing that we do already in the tefilla. It's there, ... When we are thankful we say "modeem anachnu Lach" and we bend our knees and our knees are "berchayim", which is the same word for "bracha" to bless. So I'm just saying this is kind of little things that have come up in my past week, where I look at the Halacha, I look at the practice at the minhag. And I'm saying these are vessels that might have been emptied. But they're there for us to fill up.

Adam Mintz

I think that's right, first of all, tell you that I think there's a synagogue on the west side, Romamu where they have yoga on Saturday morning, followed by tefilla, so come to the west side. And you can do yoga and tefilla. But the idea is really exactly right. And I think that's the idea that the law, what you sometimes think of ..... you needed to relax. So you're doing yoga. And what Bialik would say is no follow the Halacha. Because even though the Halacha feels rigid, but actually the Halacha gives us the ability to play out that narrative, and to live our lives in a special way. Jessica, you asked to come up?

Jessica

Oh, I just wanted to quickly say that the Cantor from Romamu is here on Fire Island. And she's amazing. So that's all thanks. I

Adam Mintz

Send her our regards and tell her she got a shout out on Madlik this afternoon.

Jessica

I will do that. Thank you.

Adam Mintz

So Geoffrey, the ability and the choice of Bialik's poem this week, when the Parsha is so filled with laws. I think it's so special, and really gives us something to think about. We started today with ben sorer u'morer and whether or not that really happened. And we go from there to the question about generally, about what the role is of law within the halakhic system. And Bialik really gives us kind of a poetic view of what law is all about. And I think we can use that in ben sorer u'morer, and we can use it in so many other places.

Geoffrey Stern

I totally agree. And if you haven't sensed from the tone of my voice, I discovered Bialik recently, but it's so personal with me. He has a poem that he calls "Before the Book Closet". And it was written while the secular Jew was spending three years aggregating all of the Aggadot and it's coming back to the Beit Midrash, to the study hall. And he says "Do you still know me? I am so and so. Only you alone knew my youth. You were my garden, I learned to hide in your scrolls." And then at the end of the poem, he says, "and now after the change of time, so my wheel of life has brought me back and stood me once again before you hiders of the closet, and once more my hand turns among your scrolls and my eye gropes tired among verses." And so with me, I studied Torah in my youth. And when I study Torah at this stage in my life, it is revisiting my youth and I am trying to see if I have that relationship. But I would argue that all of us studied our texts when we were young. And we need to find ourselves and to see if we are recognized once again in those texts. And that is, I think, the invitation that the rabbi's give us about the ben sorer u'morer.. . And the last thing that I will say is, you know, Bialik, was a rebellious son. He was told by the head of the Velozhin Yeshiva as he left, just don't write anything bad about us. But the truth is, we are all also rebellious sons, even though the rebellious son doesn't exist and if we aren't, maybe we should be, but we have to rediscover ourselves and rediscover the mystery and the magic of our ancient texts. And with that, I bid you all Shabbat Shalom.

Adam Mintz

Shabbat Shalom, Geoffrey. That was an amazing discussion today and Bialik was beautiful as he always is, and ben sorer u'morer. Shabbat Shalom to everybody. Enjoy and we look forward to seeing everybody next week. Be well, Shabbat Shalom,

Geoffrey Stern

Shabbat Shalom.

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