Imitatio Dei, With Science

I recently gave a lecture on Torah perspectives on genetic engineering. One classic source commonly adduced as a potential argument against such tinkering with nature is a rationale offered by Ramban for the prohibitions of interbreeding:

והטעם בכלאים, כי השם ברא המינים בעולם, בכל בעלי הנפשות בצמחים ובבעלי נפש התנועה, ונתן בהם כוח התולדה שיתקיימו המינים בהם לעד כל זמן שירצה הוא יתברך בקיום העולם. וציוה בכוחם שיוציאו למיניהם ולא ישתנו לעד לעולם, שנאמר בכולם “למינהו” (בראשית א), והוא סיבת המשכב שנרביע בהמות זו עם זו לקיום המינין כאשר יבואו האנשים על הנשים לפריה ורבייה. והמרכיב שני מינין, משנה ומכחיש במעשה בראשית, כאילו יחשוב שלא השלים הקב”ה בעולמו כל הצורך ויחפוץ הוא לעזור בבריאתו של עולם להוסיף בו בריות. והמינים בבעלי חיים לא יולידו מין משאינו מינו, וגם הקרובים בטבע שיולדו מהם כגון הפרדים ייכרת זרעם כי הם לא יולידו. והנה מצד שני הדברים האלה, פעולת ההרכבה במינים דבר נמאס ובטל.1

As R. J. David Bleich puts it:

Ramban states that every creature and every plant is endowed by G-d with cosmically arranged distinctive features and qualities and is designed to reproduce itself as long as the universe endures. Interbreeding and cross-fertilization produce a reconfiguration of those distinctive qualities and also compromise reproductive potential. By engaging in such activities man usurps the divine prerogative in producing a new species or entity with its own novel set of attributes and, presumably, a species less than optimally suited to fulfill the divinely ordained telos associated with the original species.2

R. Bleich himself argues that the position of Ramban is not dispositive with respect to the modern bioethical dilemmas associated with genetic engineering:

Were it to be assumed that tampering with the ostensive or presumed nature of animal species is always forbidden, most forms of genetic engineering would be illicit. No bacterium is designed by nature to clean up oil spills by metabolizing petroleum or to excrete human insulin for use by diabetics. In the absence of evidence in rabbinic sources to the contrary, it must be assumed that, even accepting Ramban’s explanation of the prohibition against interbreeding … biblical strictures must be understood as limited to those matters explicitly prohibited.

There is, to be sure, a perceptible tension between the [concept] enunciated by Ramban … and the many midrashic sources indicating that man is an active partner in the process of creation, and, as such, is charged with bringing creative processes to completion. … The problem is readily resolved if it is understood that, in general, the functions and teloi of the products of creation are not immutable; that the Creator did not intend to bar man from applying his ingenuity in finding new uses and purposes for the objects of creation; and that there is no injustice to animal species or inanimate objects in doing so. Immutability of function and telos is the exception, not the rule. … The exceptions were announced by the Creator as formal prohibitions. It is precisely because human reason cannot intuit, or even comprehend, when and under what circumstances contravention of the natural order is inappropriate that these commandments are in the nature of hukkim.3

R. Bleich’s treatment of Ramban’s remarks is typical of most discussion of the topic, in that it does not cite any classic opinion directly rejecting Ramban’s position, but contents itself with limiting his strictures and distinguishing between kilayim and genetic engineering. R. Avraham-Sofer Abraham, however, notes that no less an important thinker than Maharal strongly rejects as theologically incorrect Ramban’s basic idea that artificial improvement of the natural biological order is blasphemous:

אלא שקשה לי על טעם זה שנתן הרמב”ן כי המרביעים כאלו אומרים שהקב”ה לא השלים עולמו דמה בכך דהא אמרו חכמים כל דבר שהקב”ה ברא בששת ימי בראשית צריך תיקון כמו החטין לטחון ולאפות ולא אמרינן בזה שהקב”ה לא השלים עולמו וכמו שאמרו על המילה שלא נברא עם האדם והושלם על ידי בשר ודם ואם כן מה שייך בזה שנראה כאלו אומר שהקב”ה לא השלים עולמו4

R. Abraham does not understand Maharal’s objection:

ולא הבינותי, כי הרמב”ן ז”ל מדבר על בריאת מין חדש ולא על תיקון והשלמת הקיים בלבד וצל”ע בדברי הגור אריה.5

Maharal might counter that this is difference without a distinction: if artificial improvement of the natural biological order is legitimate, and indeed an essential aspect of G-d’s plan for the universe, why should we assume that this legitimacy does not extend to the creation of new species? But the truth is that Maharal does, in fact, accept Ramban’s other point of the basic wrongness of the commingling of distinct species:

אבל בודאי בהמתך לא תרביע כלאים יש טעם דהוא משנה תקות העולם להדביק המינים הנבדלים זה מזה כי כל מין ומין נבדל בפני עצמו והוא מחבר לאחד הדברים הנפרדים והנבדלים אבל בשעטנז דאין כאן שני מינים מובדלים דאין הצמר מין בפני עצמו כי הצמר לאו מין בפני עצמו כמו כל עשב שיקרא בריאה עצמו שהרי כל אחד ואחד בפני עצמו נברא ובוודאי בזה יפה פירש הרמב”ן …

My lecture, with accompanying handouts, is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. רמב”ן ויקרא יט:יט []
  2. R. J. David Bleich, Survey of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature, Tradition 37:2 – 2003, p. 67. []
  3. Ibid. pp. 68-69. []
  4. גור אריה שם []
  5. נשמת אברהם (מהדורה שנייה מורחבת), כרך ד’ חו”מ עמוד קפד אות ג’‏ []

Wives, Work and Wages

Over the past couple of years, I gave several lectures, and published a couple of my weekly halachah columns, revolving around the right of a wife to make charitable donations without her husband’s consent:

Vayakhel: Wives, Work and Wages

In the course of its narration of the donations to the Tabernacle, the Torah relates (35:22): “The men came with the women; everyone whose heart motivated him brought bracelets, nose-rings, rings, body ornaments – all sorts of gold ornaments – every man who raised up an offering of gold to HASHEM.” The Sforno explains that the men needed to accompany the women in order for the officers to accept the latter’s donations, since the halachah prohibits accepting donations larger than a de minimis amount from (married) women (without verifying their husbands’ consent) (cf. Meshech Chochmah beginning of parashas Terumah and Or Ha’Chaim 25:2).

The Panim Yafos, on the other hand, while also understanding the Biblical text to imply the necessity of the husbands’ consent, nevertheless limits this to the donations of jewelry that are the subject of this verse, since a wife cannot sell her jewelry without her husband’s consent. When the Torah subsequently relates (35:25): “Every wise-hearted woman spun with her hands; and they brought the spun yarn of turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool, and the linen”, no mention is made of the husbands, since although a wife’s earnings belong to her husband, this is a rabbinic institution, and had not yet been established.

The Talmud explains that a husband is granted his wife’s earnings in exchange for the obligation to maintain her (Kesubos 47b). The halachah follows the view that this arrangement is for the wife’s benefit, and she therefore has the right to opt out and declare: “I decline to be supported [by my husband] and I will not work [for him]” (ibid. 58b). Some maintain that a wife who makes this declaration is merely exempt from the duty to earn money for her husband, but is still obligated in the housework duties enumerated in the halachah (such as cooking and laundering – see ibid. 59b), while others rule that she is exempt from all labor on behalf of her husband. Since the question remains unresolved, a wife who has declined support cannot be compelled to perform any work for her husband (see Rema EH 80:15; Chelkas Mechokek s.k. 27; Beis Shmuel s.k. 21; Piskei Din shel Batei Ha’Din Ha’Rabaniim Be’Yisrael, Vol. 2. p. 3).

Terumah: Charitable Contributions From Married Women

Parshas Terumah begins with Hashem instructing Moshe to accept donations “of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart”. The Meshech Chochmah explains that donations could only be accepted from men, but not from [married] women, as reflected in the Talmudic prohibition against accepting large charitable contributions from married women (Bava Kama 119a). Classic halachah assumes that husbands and wives retain individual ownership of their respective assets, so a wife may not on her own authority donate her husband’s assets to charity (nor, presumably, may a husband donate his wife’s). Nevertheless, some halachic authorities have argued that in contemporary times, donations may be accepted from married women, for a variety of reasons, including the following:

  • The Raavan (end of Bava Kama) declares that “contemporary” (twelfth century German) women have the status of “guardians” (apotroposos) over their husbands’ assets (i.e., they are generally so entrusted by their husbands, but cf. Yam Shel Shlomo ibid. Ch. 10 #59).
  • The standard text of the traditional engagement contract (tenaim) includes the phrase “[the spouses] shall rule over their assets coequally”. R. Yechiel Michel Hibner (Mishkenos Ha’Ro’im, Kuntres Eis Dodim p. 13) argues that this constitutes an explicit contractual stipulation that the spouses shall have equal control over all their assets. R. Shlomo Kluger (Shut. Tuv Ta’am Va’Da’as 3:181) strongly disagrees, arguing that the phrase in question is not legal language, but merely a blessing for marital harmony, to the extent that the spouses shall willingly share control over their assets.
  • R. Yehuda Leib Graubart (Shut. Chavalim Ba’Ne’imim 5:34) argues that since modern secular law treats wives as partners in their husbands’ assets, this becomes the prevailing custom, and husbands therefore tacitly accept this arrangement when marrying (but see the sharp dissent in Shut. Va’Yevarech David, Even Ha’Ezer #127, and cf. R. Chaim Jachter’s “Bittul Chametz and Contemporary Financial Arrangements”).

My lectures on this topic are available at the Internet Archive:

Urim, Astrolabes, and Overallegorization

From the ArtScroll Chumash:

Vilna Gaon gives a classic interpretation of how the message of the Urim v’Tumim could be misunderstood. When Hannah, the future mother of the prophet Samuel, entered the Tabernacle to pray for a child, the Kohen Gadol Eli saw her unusual demeanor and reckoned her to be a drunkard, rather than a supremely righteous woman (I Samuel 1:13). The Gaon contends that Eli consulted the Urim v’Tumim regarding Hannah, and the letters ש,כ,ר,ה lit up. Instead of reading them correctly as כְשֵרָה, a worthy woman, Eli mistakenly read the letters in the wrong order as שִכֹּרָה, a drunken woman.1

ArtScroll provides no source, but the one published version of this idea of the Gaon that I was able to find is clear that the correct interpretation of G-d’s message to Eli was not כְשֵרָה, “a worthy woman”, but כְּשָרָה, “an anguished, barren woman like [the Matriarch] Sarah, praying for children”:

ונראה שמ”ש שאין נשאלים אלא למלך ולמי שהצבור צורך בו הוא רק באורים ותומים של הכהן הגדול, אבל באפוד בד היו שואלים כל מי שידע השמות והיה רוח הקודש שורה עליו, ולכן כאשר ראה עלי את חנה שהיא מדברת על לבה ורק שפתיה נעות, והוא היה מכירה שהיא מהנשים הצדקניות תמה מאד על זה והיה חפץ מאד דעת מה זה, ושאל באורים ותומים שלו, ויצאו בולטים או מאירים האותיות ה כ ש ר, והוא צרפם שהוראתם היא “שכרה” ולכן אמר לה כדבר ודאי עד מתי תשתכרין הסירי יינך מעליך, על זה ענתה לו חנה לא אדוני, לא אדון אתה ולא רוח הקודש איכא גבך לצרף האותיות שלא כהוראתם האמתית, שצירופם באמת היא “כשרה” כלומר שאני אשה קשת רוח עקרה מתפללת על בנים כשרה, אם כן למה דנתני לכף חוב לצרף האותיות לומר שהוראתם “שכרה” ולא דנתני לכף זכות שהוראתם “כשרה” שהיתה עקרה, ובמדרש הוסיפו יותר באור כשרה רבקה רחל2

It is wonderfully Hofstadterian that in the context of an exegetical idea involving the possibility of multiple solutions to Divine anagrams, confusion has arisen over what the correct solution actually was …

My weekly column for פרשת תצוה:

Parashas Tetzaveh (28:30) contains the mysterious instruction: “And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim”. There are but a handful of other references to the Urim and Thummim throughout the Bible, and nowhere are we told what they are, and even the corpora of Midrash and Talmudic literature are mostly silent on this question. It is not until about a millennium ago that we begin to find various expositions within our tradition of the meaning of these most obscure terms:

  • Some understand that they were Divine names, written and inserted into the pouch formed by the folding over of the rectangular breastplate (choshen) into a square (Rashi, Ramban and cf. Rashbam).
  • Others interpret them as a reference to the stones of the choshen (or ephod – Otzar Ha’Geonim Berachos responsa p. 4, “Chazal” according to Ralbag, Rambam according to Mirkeves Ha’Mishneh and Ha’Kesav Ve’Hakabalah).
  • R. Yosef Bechor Shor explains that they were records of the tribal borders [within Eretz Yisrael].

The Talmud (Yoma 21b) states that the Urim and Thummim were “missing” during the era of the Second Temple. Tosafos and Rambam (Beis Ha’Bechirah 4:1 and Klei Ha’Mikdash 10:10) explain that they could not have actually been absent, since the complete set of eight priestly vestments is an absolute requirement for the High Priest, and the Talmud merely means that their prophetic function was not operational. Raavad disagrees, asserting that they were indeed absent, but that there was nevertheless no problem of missing vestments, since “they are not among the enumerated vestments”. The commentators explain that Tosafos and Rambam understand that the Urim and Thummim (at least in this context), refer to the choshen itself (or its stones, as above), which certainly could not have been absent, as it is one of the eight vestments (or at least an integral component thereof), whereas Raavad understands that they were separate entities placed inside the choshen.

My weekly parashah lectures, on the basic question what, exactly, the אורים ותומים were, are available at the Internet Archive.

Here’s R. Yosef Bechor Shor’s remarkable suggestion that the אורים ותומים were actually a centralized land registry, serving to forestall border disputes:

ונראה לי ש”אורים” לשון מדינות, כמו: באורים כבדו את ד’ [ישעיה כד:טו] וכמו [בראשית יא:לא] “אור כשדים”. תומים: לשון גבולים, מקום שהגבולים כלים ותמים שם, שהיה כתוב שם תחום פלוני לפלוני, וגבולין ומיצרין נתונים בתוך החושן, וכן לכל שבט ושבט הכתוב באבן, תחומו וקבולו נתון כנגדו, וזהו משפט בני ישראל: שלא יוכל זה לערער על גבול זה כלום, וכשהיו בימי יהושע מטילין גורלות, היה נופל הגורל כמו שכתוב בחושן, וגם הכהן היה מכוון ברוח הקודש כן, ולא היה מערער ומתרעם כל אחד על חלקו, כי היה יודע כי מן המקום ברוך הוא הוא לו וכן מפרש בבבא בתרא [קכב.] “וקלפי של שבטים וקלפי של תחומין מונחין לפניו, והיה מכוין ברוח הקודש וכו’ ובשעת הצורך היו עולות האותיות הכתובות, ואומרות מה שצריך להם לשאול.3

  1. The Chumash [ArtScroll: Stone Edition], p. 471. []
  2. דברי אליהו ספר שמואל א’ []
  3. בכור שור שמות כח:ל []