Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Strange Bedfellows

Recently I ran across an interesting article in y net where Amos Oz called for shopping centers to be closed on Shabbat. Another article I perused at about the same time appeared in The Jewish Press reporting on the phenomenon of the OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) syndrome among the frum and how it manifests itself. What, you may ask is the connection between these two seemingly unrelated stories? Indeed they make strange bedfellows but I believe offer us a picture of Jewish values at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Amos Oz is one of my favorite Israeli writers because among other things, he represents the Eretz Yisrael Hayafah; the kind, humanistic, sensitive, intellectual in search of Jewish values rooted not necessarily in religion, ritual and cult but in its total civilization and culture. He represents what Israel was intended to mean as a country that is struggling for identity as a nation among nations and at the same time maintaining its own unique character and profile. He symbolizes a new culture, a culture that is the result of much experimentation by which Judaism of old has merged with more recent trends giving birth to a new Israel that isn’t stuck in minutia or messy details but sees and appreciates the larger picture.

Counterbalanced against his vision of Jewish life is the frum community which is preoccupied with rules that dictate the course of their lives down to the most seemingly insignificant detail like whether or not one can sleep in the prone position and which shoe ought one to tie first when rising in the morning. Details – the preoccupation with details become so important that the larger, more important picture becomes distorted. There are times when I encounter someone putting on tefillin that may or may not be OCD because they have become so totally obsessed with the detail of placing the tefillin correctly on the forehead and arm that they loose sight of the larger picture and frankly are lost, meandering aimlessly through a black hole seeking an exit. I recall as a young yeshiva student that it was standard equipment to carry a mirror with your tefillin so that one can check if the shel rosh was exactly in the right spot. Even then, I was resistant to such obsessive behavior. It wasn’t important whether I was off by a centimeter. What was important was the fact that I was binding myself, recommitting myself daily to a spiritual/cultural rite that goes back to our ancestral beginnings. It was this binding of the tefillin that bound me to my father, grandfather and great grandfather. That to me was and remains the powerful message of putting on tefillin. It matters not in the performance of the mitzvah if one is off by a centimeter.

Another example of this obsessive behavior can be found around the seder table amongst the frumest of the frum. Again I recall a relative we had seder with for years obsess over eating a k’zayit of matzah shemurah. He was totally preoccupied with measuring the matzah concerned that if he didn’t get the measurement right he wouldn’t perform the mitzvah to the fullest. Here again he unfortunately missed the whole point of eating the matzah. By obsessing over the detail he was loosing and missing the beauty of the seder, reducing it to a formulary, a set of measurements and rites that no longer reflected the spirit and message of the holiday.

An interesting example of the corruption of the spirit of the halacha can be illustrated by this excerpt from an article which appeared this past week:

“It was a scientific experiment conducted in the 1700s that would shake the world. It had to do with eggs. It had to do with average thumb widths. And its ramifications reverberated at Passover Seders across the world…
But then, sometime in the mid 1700s, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau—known as the Noda BiYehudah and the chief rabbi of Prague, Czechoslovakia—conducted the experiment that would eventually change the world. He constructed the thumb box and he measured the eggs. He discovered a huge discrepancy. The thumb box was no less than twice the volume of the egg. Rabbi Landau surmised that there were only two possibilities: either the average thumb width had widened in the 1,300 years since the era of the Talmud, or the eggs had gotten smaller. (We find Rabbi Landau’s experiment in his writings on the Gemara in Pesachim. His book is called the Tzlach.)….
Rabbi Landau issued a ruling. He ruled that from that point onward, the sizes used for the revi’is must be doubled. Now a full egg’s worth of matzah must be eaten. Now challah may be taken only for the volume of 86.4 eggs, not 43.2 eggs. Now three eggs’ volume of wine must be drunk on Pesach. Soon the Chasam Sofer issued a similar ruling. For Eastern European Jews, life began to change. Western European Jews, however, were unconvinced; how could you say that our parents and grandparents were wrong?
A century elapsed with the issue still not resolved. Finally, the Chofetz Chaim, author of the Mishnah Berurah, entered the fray. He ruled that in regard to Biblical matters, the more stringent volume should be used; for rabbinic requirements, the smaller shiur could still be used. Slowly but surely, the p’sharah (compromise) of the Mishnah Berurah entered into common practice….
The Aruch HaShulchan (O.C. 168:13, 372:12; Y.D. 324:5–10) was not as quick to accept the new view of Rabbi Landau. He notes that the Gemara in Yuma 80a states that the regular human mouth can hold an amount of food up to an egg. If Rav Landau’s view is correct, the human mouth should be able to hold two eggs’ worth of food comfortably. But what size egg should be used? The Mishnah in Keilim 17:6 states that Chazal are dealing with an average size egg. A group of young men recently volunteered to test the Gemara in Yuma in light of Rabbi Landau’s view. The results indicated that two eggs could not comfortably fit in the average male mouth….
There are, however, other ways to resolve the conflict discovered by Rabbi Landau in the 1700s. We must first keep in mind that although the Noda BiYehudah discovered a volume twice that of the egg method, currently, the thumb box method is only some 40 percent more than the egg-and-a-half method. Average thumb widths are about 0.88 inches….
Possibility number one is that perhaps the eggs around Prague were smaller than the average size of the egg in Eretz Yisrael and Bavel (and now in the United States)…
Possibility number two is that perhaps human beings did grow bigger. And since we are dealing with a three-dimensional object (the thumb box), any increase in volume would be proportional to the cube of the increase in thumb width. Thus the growth in thumb width to resolve the current state of the contradiction would only have to be about 10 percent (11.87%) to cause a 40 percent increase in volume. We are certainly 10 percent taller than the people in the time of the Gemara and in fact in the time of the Middle Ages. Our thumb width could certainly be 10 percent greater as well….
Finally, a third possibility is one that was advanced by a college professor in Israel. Perhaps the thumb width is measured sideways and not frontally. Using a sideways thumb is certainly a faster way of measuring something, because it takes fewer thumbs to span the object. Maybe this is the true meaning of the thumb width….
Nonetheless, the practice of K’lal Yisrael is to be stringent on Biblical requirements. The Piskei HaRosh in Pesachim 10:34 and the Rashbam in Pesachim 119b rule that both the first kezayis of matzah and the afikoman are d’Oraisa. The matzah should be 6.25 inches by 7 inches, according to Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l. Korech is d’Rabbanan, so 4 by 7 inches is enough. The shiur for wine, according to Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, is 3.3 ounces. However, when the Pesach Seder falls out on Shabbos, the Kiddush is d’Oraisa, so the shiur would be 4.4 ounces….”

Quite obsessive! As a matter of fact it would appear that the term OCD wouldn’t half describe the phenomenon.

Having thought about these two paradigmatic models of Jewish living I was reminded of what the intention and spirit of Shabbat was supposed to be. Here, I am reminded that the picture we have isn’t that simple. Is Shabbat which is supposed to be a day of rest a day that is enjoyed as truly restful and thus personalized to fit the needs of that person or is it supposed to be a day where we obsess over the halachic ramifications over whether or not something is “muktzeh”? How ought we to celebrate the Shabbat? Turning to our sources doesn’t make it any easier to arrive at a coherent answer.

Shabbat is mentioned in Torah in two fashions: as an ideal and as a practical means of living with consequences if not observed according to the law. As an ideal, Shabbat is intended as the capstone for God “completing” the creation. God didn’t need to rest, but presented to mankind the idea that one day a week man ought to rest from the burdens and drudgery of survival. One day a week man needed to focus on something other than physical survival. This then is the spiritual Shabbat. The other context by which Shabbat is referenced is when it is positioned next to the construction of the mishkan with dire warnings. Here it isn’t an ideal, but a practical and ordered means by which to live and be governed by rules. Here within this context Shabbat is more concerned with the detail, and presenting the opportunity to obsess.

Amos Oz rejects the halachic approach to Shabbat but believes “it is the most beautiful gift that the culture of Israel has given the world. It is a different day dedicated not only to rest but mainly to spiritual and familial exaltation.” It is within this context, the spiritual Shabbat that Oz finds his comfort and I sympathize with his compelling vision. The only problem with it is that there are no defined borders. Halacha with all its shortcomings is the tool by which those borders can be sketched out. If only there was a way by which we could have the Amos Oz vision fused with halacha minus the obsessive compulsive syndrome that too often accompanies halacha. What strange bedfellows that would make.