Volume 47 Number 77
                    Produced: Fri Apr 22  8:20:56 EDT 2005

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

         [Miriam Weed]
         [Binyomin Segal]


From: Miriam Weed <miriam.w@...>
Date: Thu, 21 Apr 2005 12:08:40 +0200
Subject: Pesach-Freedom

Pesach is zman heiruteinu.  So what is freedom all about?  We've all
heard the comment on the phrase "harut al ha'luhot" [carved on the
tablets] - "Al tikre harut ela heirut, ki ein ben horin eal mi sh'osek
b'torah" [Don't read "carved" but rather "freedom", for there is no free
person other than one who is occupied with Torah.]  This statement tends
to strike us as counterintuitive. Whether the reference is to the study
of Torah or to the performance of mitzvot, the concept that having every
moment and action dictated certainly does not fit the usual definition
of freedom - the ability to do anything we want.

Perhaps we can gain some insight by analyzing another concept important
to Judaism, that of Bihira Hofshit, free choice.  The claim that man
does indeed have free choice is fraught with difficulties.  First of
all, most of us spend much of our lives constrained by various external
forces from doing much of what we desire.  And most of us have
encountered the seeming contradiction on the philosophical level between
this concept of free choice and that of attributing everything that
happens to Hashem.

While I believe that the acknowledgment that we do have free choice on
some level with regard to our actions is imperative in order to
emphasize our responsibility for these actions, I would like to suggest
that, at its essence, free choice is really about deciding how we
interpret the world around us; what makes sense to us.  Most of us can
quote Descartes's, "I think therefore I am," but we don't always
remember that his impetus for that remark is the difficulty he has being
sure that anything exists at all.  And all he really can prove is that
some sort of consciousness does indeed exist, not necessarily anything
physical.  (He does indeed go on to prove this as well, but I have
always found his problem to be much better than this "proof".)  The
point is that if we were to require proof that things exist before
acting upon/with them, we would never get up in the morning.  Some
people do act this way; it's called depression.  Most of us, however,
are never even bothered by Descartes's dilemma.  Rather, we spend our
days acting as if these things are real, and we do believe that things
are real.  In fact, we even believe that most of the time we have a
reliable system to figure out what is real and what is illusion or
dream.  When this breaks down it is unusual, and if it happens on a
regular basis we consider seeing a psychologist.  Nothing can be proved
- that's the point - the question is what we perceive as most likely to
be real.  (And this is where free choice differentiates us from animals
as well.  Animals do not question whether something is real or an
illusion - ever see an animal trying to attack its own reflection?)

(As an aside, I think attempts to prove existence of God and the truth
of Torah are misguided at best and often dangerous.  If, however, such
discussions are redirected to point out information or a new perspective
that helps someone decide that believing in God and Torah makes sense,
then they can be quite valuable.)

That's why there is no contradiction between God's knowing and even
causing everything and free choice.  On most fundamental level free
choice has nothing to do with how we act/what we do but with what we
choose to know as opposed to believe.  On the one hand we have no "leap
of faith" required by many Christian theologies because there is no gap
between what is reasonable or rational and believing in God.  On the
other hand, this is because we have ongoing/constant miniscule leaps of
faith relating to everything.  Nothing - including God - can be proven,
but we can (and this is our life's challenge) interpret our world such
that belief in God and in Torah fits in; makes sense; "works".

Our biggest challenge is that of bridging the gap between an infinite
God and finite man.  Examination of the world can only bring us to a big
question mark, an openness to revelation but cannot bridge this gap.
This simply cannot be done on the rational/logical level; it requires
revelation/experience;tradition.  Once revelation exists, however,
observations of the world can be put into context and can be used to
enrich our understanding, especially when the revelation is not direct
but is based on tradition.  (I speculate that once Christianity rejected
tradition, it was left with this unbridgeable gap which is why it had to
come up with making a human being into God - without of course taking
away from indivisible oneness of God).  The link to tradition can come
from parents, a teacher, or a friend.  This is almost exactly the same
as basing any knowledge of something not personally experienced on
tradition (oral or written).  The difference is that those subject to
the direct revelation experience were convinced of the reality of a
dimension of reality that we find impossible to put into human words.

This then may be why Pesach is called zman heiruteinu.  This is the time
for emphasizing and passing on to the next generation the foundations of
this tradition.

Hag Kasher V'sameah


From: Binyomin Segal <bsegal@...>
Date: Thu, 21 Apr 2005 20:32:19 -0500
Subject: Re: Truth

Yaacov Shachter's recent argument against lying had two flaws: 1. it was
(to my eyes) purposefully inflammatory, and 2. it was (again in my
opinion) incorrect.

In regard to the inflammatory nature of his post. Yaacov states:
> God did not lie when He told Avraham what Sarah had been thinking.
> ...
> Nowhere does our oral tradition tell us that we may lie.

Certainly Yaacov is familiar with the fact that most people do in fact
understand our tradition differently. The clue to understanding Yaacov's
real intent is hidden in his discussion of the Rambam:

> This is the one passage in all of Rambam's code upon which liars
> attempt to find support for their conduct, but note Rambam's choice of
> words.  He does not say "yshaqqer", which means to lie; he says
> "yshanneh" which means to alter, by emphasizing, or de-emphasizing.

This then is really - at least in my mind - the crux of Yaacov's
argument. That our tradition allows "shinui" and not "sheker". It should
be noted here that it is not fairly the Rambam's choice of words, but
rather it comes from much earlier sources. However we interpret this
word will have implications far beyond the Rambam. An interesting idea,
and one worthy of discussion. But not nearly as obvious or as universal
as Yaacov implies throughout his post.

Before I discuss this point in detail though, there is another point
Yaacov raises which while tangential to Yaacov's main point is
troubling. Yaacov states:

> Second of all, the imitatio dei argument is worthless.

I would think Yaacov would be familiar with the teaching of the house of
Rebbi Yishmael, it is especially noteworthy because the context of the
gemara in yevamos 65b suggests that G-d's permission for "shinui" for
shalom is implied by the fact that G-d did it. And that is certainly the
implication of the tanna's words: "great is peace for _even_ G-d "shina"
("altered") for it. Certainly the word even implies a kal v'chomer that
grants us permission to do the same, as many rabbis and scholars before
me have suggested.

But even beyond the specifics of lying, Yaacov's arguments against
imitatio dei are phrased as a more general issue:

>That God does something does not mean that it is moral by any human standard.

This clearly contradicts numerous sources within our tradition. The
Rambam, at the beginning of Hilchos Deos lists "lihdamot b'drachav" (to
imitate his ways) as the first of the relevant mitzvot. And in halacha 6
he quotes the famous chazal: "ma hu nikra chanun, af atah tehe
chanun..." (just as He is called graceful[?], so you should be
graceful...). The Rambam explains that this is why Tanach ever describes
G-d's attributs at all - that is, describing an attribute of G-d is a
way of telling us what we should do. As an aside, this may be a partial
response to Yaacov's concern. We do not imitate EVERYTHING G-d does, we
imitate those things described in Tanach as the actions of G-d. And
therefore, if G-d finds shalom a sufficient justification for "shinui"
then so should we.

So now back to the main point: is there anyplace in our mesorah that
permits (or even encourages) lying? And related to that, is there a
difference between "shinui" and "sheker".

I believe there are a few other sources beyond the one quoted by Yaacov
that do indicate a clear permission to lie, but before I address those,
let's discus "shinui" vs "sheker". While yshanneh does mean "alter" or
"change", it is not at all clear to me that it excludes lying. The
implication might be altering the truth - ie a polite euphemism for
lying, or it might mean altering the emphasis - ie NOT lying. If the
only place chazal used the phrase was in the description of G-d's
conversation with Avraham, I would be inclined to agree with Yaacov that
the implication is altering the emphasis - after all, G-d did not lie!
However, there are other places in chazal where the same word is used,
and there the implication seems to more clearly suggest lying. 

First, consider the gemara in Yevamos 65b mentioned earlier. There the
gemara describes three situations of "altering for peace". The third is
the conversation of G-d and Avraham. The second is G-d's command to
Shmuel to hide the reason for his mission when he goes to annoint Dovid
as king. And while in this case, it is possible to still understand it
as "change emphasis" I find the reading less likely here. But the first
case mentioned in the gemara is very clear. The brothers of Yosef LIE
and tell Yosef that their father made a command that he never made. And
lest that reading of the text is unclear, Rashi (in the gemara) says
explicitly: "Yaakov did not make the command, but they altered for
peace". It seems to me that there is no way to understand this unless
alter means to alter the truth - ie lie. And once it means that in the
first case in the gemara, context would argue for the same
interpretation throughout. 

Now consider the gemara in Baba Metzia 23b where Shmuel says: "In these
three things it was the norm for the rabbis to 'alter': in learning, in
fruitfulness, and in hospitality." Reading Rashi here makes it clear
that these are lies. The rabbis would say they did not know a tractate
that they did know, and they would deny having relations with their wife
when they had. Clearly one can understand the motivation for these lies
- humility and privacy - but the fact remains that the gemara approves
of this lying and calls it "altering". 

This all implies to me that "shinui" is a euphemism for lying. But there
is still a troubling point: how could the gemara possibly permit
lying. It is after all clearly forbidden in the Torah. Yaacov states
this clearly when he says:

> Exodus 23:7 states "middvar sheqer tirxaq" -- not only may we
> not lie, but also, we may not even come close to a lie.  I do not know
> how the author cited in v47n69 intends to live his life, but as for
> myself and my house, we shall do as the Torah commands.

To my mind, this would seem to be Yaacov's strongest point. The Torah
seems to explicitly forbid lying in no uncertain terms. It is therefore
vital that we look carefully at a famous gemara in ketubos 16b-17a. The
gemara asks: kayzad merakdim lifnei hakallah (what does one say about or
before a bride)? First the gemara records the answer of bais shammai
"kallah kmos shehi" (the bride as she is) that is, we truthfully
describe whatever good points she has. But Bais Hillel has a different
answer "kallah naeh vchasuda" (the pretty and gracious bride) we
describe her in these terms regardless of their truth! Bais Shammai
responds to this in much the way that Yaacov might, they point out that
the Torah requires us to distance ourselves from falsehood. Bais Hillel
responds to this by saying (my paraphrase): according to your
understanding of the Torah's requirement for truth, how do you deal with
the following situation - a person made a poor purchase in the market,
do you point out his error, or lie to make him feel better? Of course
you lie!

This gemara suggests to me that while bais shammai read the verses in
the torah much like Yaacov, bais hillel understood them in a more
limited sense. A discussion of exactly how they understood them is
beyond an erev pesach post, but clearly they permitted lying under some

I do acknowledge that one might read this gemara too as talking about
"altering emphasis" rather than about "altering truth" however it should
be pointed out that if that is so then what becomes clear is not that
lying is always prohibited, but rather that lying and altering emphasis
are morally equivalent. This thing that Hillel is calling for is
referred to as sheker first by Shammai's reference to "distance from
falsehood" and second by Tosfos. So to assume this gemara means
"altering emphasis" would lead to the conclusion that altering emphasis
is no different from lying - and therefore the distinction is no longer

Having said all this, I do want to clarify a few points. First, I made
it clear in an earlier post that this lying as part of "history" is in
my opinion a _really bad idea_. Nothing I said here should be construed
to change that. Second, despite what I have said here, it is NOT a good
thing to lie - though there does seem to be justification (even the
requirement) to do it if it is necessary for peace. There are more
sources to bring here, and perhaps a more refined conclusion - but it is
erev pesach after all. For now though, I think I have demonstrated that
there are indeed sources within our tradition which allow lying under
certain circumstances.

Wishing everyone a chag kasher v'sameach -


End of Volume 47 Issue 77