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Bar and Bat Mitzvah

Bat Mitzvah with Big Questions

The problem seems to be: the more I learn, the less I understand. So here I am, a week before my Bat-Mitzvah, wishing to understand more than I do, unsure about even doing my Bat-Mitzvah because I feel that I don’t understand God or the Torah well enough to become a full part of the community, at least, not show acceptance by the celebration.

That doesn’t seem to be a problem at all! If you’re still 14 and you don’t know everything or understand God and His Torah then you’re perfectly normal. If you’re intelligent and honest enough to admit it then you’ve joined a small and precious group.

I think its fair to say that God gave us the Torah in the first place because we as a people and as individuals aren’t yet perfect. We needed a program to become better. The Torah is that program.

Your questions are simply wonderful: they demonstrate that you’ve got a mind thats willing to think and to grow. Let me try to give you some answers and you’ll tell me if they make sense.

In the Torah portion of Mishpatim, the Torah talks about the seduction of a maiden. In my perusal of this topic over the web, I have read that Rashi taught his students that, if a man rapes an engaged woman- in the city- the rapist and the one who gets raped are put to death… I just can’t see why the woman deserves to die. I’m kind of mad at God too, because he put something in the Torah that left room to accuse the person who was raped as guilty! Why would God put that thought into a person’s brain?

It’s important to be as precise as possible and to always try to see the original sources. The Torah has two separate sections dealing with these issues. In Mishpatim (Ex. 22:15) it says if a man will seduce a virgin who was not engaged and lies with her, he must pay [the value of her marriage contract – Ketubah] to the woman. In the case of seduction (where both parties are willing participants) there is no penalty beyond financial.

On the other hand, in Deut 22:23-26 we see a different case:

If there is a young virgin who is engaged to a man and [another] man finds her in the city and lies with her. You should take both of them out to the city gate and stone them, & the girl [is to be killed] because she did not cry out in the city and the man because he was intimate with his fellows wife & [however] if the man finds the engaged girl in a field and grabs her and lies with her, you must kill the man & but to the girl do nothing [because] the girl has performed no capital offense [but is likened to an unwilling murder victim] & as in the field there was no one to save her.

The Torah here uses cities and fields as convenient metaphors to distinguish between rape (where only the man is guilty) and seduction (where both are complicit). In a field (or in similar circumstances anywhere), there’s no use calling for help but in a city (or in similar circumstances), not calling for help is a sign of consent.

The Torah also distinguishes between married and single women, so the case of seduction where the woman is killed is when she is married and she was consenting – not a case of rape. Rape, in fact, is likened to murder as seen above in Deuteronomy.

It is worthwhile pointing out that the term “Airusin” while normally translated as engagement, means far more than a simple agreement between two people to marry. In Jewish law, marriage is divided into two parts: Airusin and Nessuin. Airusin could technically occur many months before Nessuin and creates a legal bond between the two that can only be broken with a “Get” a Jewish divorce. Even so, the couple may not actually live together without the second step: Nessuin. Today, we perform both steps at the same time under the Chupah (Marriage canopy) but the Torah often discusses cases involving only Airusin.

In general, what about the Kaarites? I have learned from my Bible teacher that the Kaarites took each word of the Torah literally. Well then, in the Torah, it says do not cook a kid in its mother’s “Chalav”. That means both fat and milk, so how did the Kaarites handle this situation? And what about accidental killings associated with the places of refuge? If they don’t interpret the Torah at all, how can they tell which death is accidental- yet they have to make sure that they separate these two types of death, for the Torah distinctly separates these two deaths. This is really confusing.

As an orthodox rabbi, I am not likely to stand up in defence of Karaites! These, as you know, were people who rejected the authenticity of the Oral Torah making any intelligent understanding of God’s revelation to us impossible. You are correct to point out their inability to make practical use of the Torah based on these sources and countless others besides.

In reality, I doubt you’ll find all that many passages anywhere in the Torah that make too much sense by themselves. You might want to take a look at what I’ve written on the subject.

The last thing that I’d like to ask about for now is, how can I believe in God when the world we live in, is filled with so much suffering and pain? Each generation seems to be filled with more pain than the next. And my family is made out of two scapegoats escaping the cycle of abuse, so I’ve seen pain first hand from a young age. Many of my friends have as well.

Thats an important question that requires a serious answer. Let me quote from another essay I’ve written.

Why does God allow children to die?

On the one hand, clear knowledge of whyis often kept from us. While we do believe that everything in this world is a planned and perfect expression of God’s positive and creative will (Talmud Brachos 60b), we, as human beings, just cant see it all.

Indeed, the limits to our flesh-and-blood vision are part of the message of the final chapters of the book of Job. And by designating separate blessings to be said upon hearing good news (“...Who is good and bestows good”) and on hearing bad news (where God is characterized as “...the true judge.”) our Sages taught us that, while tragedy and blessing come from the same infallible Divine source, in this world we – all of us – understand them differently.

In other words, there’s a recognition of the basic nature of the human condition that, while we may express our faith that all is indeed for the best and that God is the true and perfect judge, nevertheless, in this world of darkness, we will never see its details in their full clarity.

On the other hand, the darkness isn’t complete. Some possible explanations do exist within Torah thought. Take, as an example, the concept of gilgul neshamos – transmigration of the soul. You won’t find this idea in the Talmudic literature because it was, until recent centuries, part of a hidden kabalistic tradition. The earliest printed reference to the idea (of which I’m aware) is in Nachmanides’ essay on the book of Job (written around 800 years ago).

Here (according to my most limited understanding) is how it goes: There is a finite number of Jewish souls, each of which has been charged with a specific mission. Until a soul reaches perfection in its mission, it hasn’t done its job and might be sent down to this world for another try in order to make up for what was previously left out. If a child should tragically die young, it might well be that it’s because his soul’s purpose was completed in these few years of life and has now been returned to its source enveloped in brilliant success.

One might also look at a short life from the perspective of the impact it left on the world. Some people spend 80 years thinking of nothing but themselves and their personal enjoyment and leave precious little behind them as a legacy. But others seem to inspire thoughtfulness and sensitivity in all who meet them. Their lives are lessons in fine traits like decency and humility and their deaths might also bring out acts and thoughts of goodness and compassion. A life like this can be worth more than another’s full 80 years, can’t it?

Why do bad things happen to good people?

The general question “why do bad things happen to good people” pre-supposes two things: (1) that we know which things are “bad” and, (2) that we know which people are good.

No ones expected to love death. So its reasonable if we dont fully see death as good thing (even though it is…see Psalm 116; 15 and remember Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud who said “all God does is for the best”). Nevertheless, on an intellectual level, we can appreciate that, since God has a complex and constructive design for the world (and is all-powerful and all-knowing), then a particular event – even a death – isn’t bad at all; it just looks that way as a result of our limited understanding.

Our rabbis teach that suffering in this world can help cleanour accounts and thereby enable us to fully enjoy the benefits of our this-worldly righteousness in the next world. The rabbis (Brochos 5b) declared “chavivim yesurim” (“beloved is suffering” – even though we personally refrain from seeking suffering). It is also taught that death itself can provide immeasurable atonement. So how are we to know whats really bad?

Now, who is a good person? How are we to judge others in any absolute sense? Their thoughts and most of their actions are hidden from our eyes. Most of us have a hard enough time just coming to grips with our own failings. Granted, the Torah requires us to judge others in the best possible light (Levit. 19; 15), but that surely doesnt mean that were to assume everyones perfect! Eccl. 7; 20 would certainly seem to suggest differently.

At root, then, the question is no question because we just dont know whats bad and whos good. What you can ask, though, is why did God create the world in such a way that suffering is required. Couldn’t He have done things a bit differently?

One approach to that problem can be found in the Mesilas Yesharim (by the early 18th Century scholar Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato): Man was created essentially to bask in the warmth and goodness of the “Divine light” (i.e., the next world). But in order to fully appreciate that goodness, one must have earned the opportunity first. This is done through the self-perfection of Torah study and mitzvos. These activities prepare our bodies, souls and personalities for closeness with God in a way that can’t happen in this physical world.

However, our tasks being so complex and we, by nature, being so lazy and distracted, we need inspiration and guidance (not to mention correction and rebuke) to keep us, as they say, on task. One of the tools best suited to this guidance is suffering. God could, indeed, have given the pleasure to us for free, but that would fall into the category the kabalists call “nehama d’kesufa” (bread of shame) – something not properly earned. That’s something whose pleasure isn’t nearly as great.

How can God let this happen? I know that God allows us free will, but he also knows the future a little bit, as he says: __ WILL occur. That means he can’t give us 100% free will, that’d be an oxymoron.

This question has been discussed now for many centuries. The classic scholars, Rambam (Maimonides) and Raavad, debated the issue back in the 12th Century and they certainly weren’t the first to take a crack at it. Ill let you digest what I’ve already written and, if you like, we can discuss this point as well.

The bottom line: your questions are vitally important and you have a right to study and understand the Torah. It doesn’t always come easily, but that’s the fun part. I look forward to hearing about any more questions that you might like to share.

With my very best wishes,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

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