Monday, December 17, 2018

Impurity, Treife, and the Monsey Butcher Scandal

One of the differences between rationalists and mystics is their different views regarding metaphysical entities. Rationalists minimize the number of supernatural entities and forces; mystics, on the other hand, tend to maximize the number of supernatural entities and forces.

In the mystical worldview, metaphysical entities are not restricted to the world of angels and demons. Rather, there are metaphysical forces which lie at the core of basic principles of Judaism. Rationalists, on the other hand, understand these principles to be independent of a metaphysical framework, the existence of which they do not accept.

The concept of tumah, usually translated as "impurity," lies at the heart of many commandments. Corpses and dead vermin transmit impurity. The emission of certain bodily fluids renders one in a state of impurity, as does childbirth. Animals that are forbidden from consumption are also described as "impure" (the colloquial term "treife" is inaccurate).

But what is this "impurity"? According the mystical approach, this impurity is a metaphysical state—a sort of invisible, spiritual "dirt." It has objective existence, regardless of how people relate to it. According to the rationalist approach, on the other hand, impurity is not a metaphysical state. Rather, it is a designation, a state which we (following God's instructions) ascribe to certain people, creatures and objects.[1] And we are forbidden to eat certain foods, in order to accomplish various functions relating to perfecting our characters and our society; there is nothing inherently metaphysically impure about these foods.

The differing views on the nature of impurity are also seen in the laws of accidental and forced transgression.[2] The Torah is explicit that if someone sins by accident, they must nevertheless bring an offering. But why? Ramban, following the mystical approach, explains that even though it was an accident, the impurity has nevertheless tainted one's soul.[3] Rambam, on the other hand, explains that he has to atone for being somewhat negligent, as had he been more careful, the accident would not have happened.[4]

What if someone ate impure food through absolutely no negligence on their behalf, or in a case where it was halachically required (such as for survival)? According to Rambam, there are no negative consequences whatsoever.[5] Indeed, in a situation where kosher food items are mixed up with a non-kosher food item, according to many views one is entitled to rely on the majority of items and eat all the food, because with any given item, the odds are that it is kosher. This is despite the fact that if one eats all the items, one has certainly consumed the non-kosher item! Evidently, there is no concern for metaphysical harm; the only problem of eating non-kosher food is transgressing institutional prohibition.

According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, even if one eats non-kosher food in a situation where it is halachically permissible, or where there was no negligence at all, it has nevertheless still harmed one's soul. This was seen in the discussion following the notorious scandal in Monsey, where a respected butcher was discovered to have been selling non-kosher meat for years. Responsa published after the event made no reference to Rambam's view (they were probably unaware of it) and quoted numerous opinions from the mystically-inclined Rishonim to demonstrate that even though it was a case of onnes (no negligence at all), there would still be metaphysical harm caused to peoples' souls.[6] (The few opinions quoted in opposition stated that the metaphysical harmful characteristics of non-kosher food only come into existence where eating them is a sin, not in a case of onnes, but this is far from straightforward. The Rishonim who advocate for non-kosher food possessing metaphysically harmful qualities certainly appear to see this as a property of the food itself, which is the very cause of it being halachically forbidden, rather than being generated as a consequence of the prohibition.)

The differing views of the nature of non-kosher food may also explain the differing approaches with regard to checking vegetables for insects. Those who advocate for a far more intensive search than was traditionally done are usually of the mystical mindset, and are concerned for actual metaphysical harm that will be sustained by eating insects. Those following a rationalist approach, on the other hand, are of the view that following the classical halachic requirements is all that is required, and there is no metaphysical harm about which to be concerned.

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[1] See Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Mikvaos 11:12. For extensive discussion, see Menachem Kellner, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, chapter 4.
[2] See Kellner, Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism, chapter 2.
[3] Ramban, Commentary to Leviticus 4:2.
[4] Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed 3:41.
[5] Guide 3:41; Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Maachalos Issuros 14:10-13. In fact it would seem that Rambam would define the category of onnes as a case where there was no negligence, whereas others would have a more limited definition.
[6] See Rabbi Gedaliah Oberlander, "Timtum Halev MeiAchilas Ma'achalos Issuros B'Onnes," Ohr Yisrael 45 pp. 103-109, and the rejoinder by Rabbi Yaakov Dovid Luban, Ohr Yisrael 46, pp. 49-52, available online here.


48 comments:

  1. I would encourage readers to check the sources, in the Rambam and the Ramban. This machlokes needs a strong shoe horn, because nowhere does the Ramban say that שלא כדרך הנאתו is אסור and the Rambam is not discussing טמטום.
    Yes, the Rambam says that טומאה וטהרה is a גזירת הכתוב, but his context is that mikva is not intended to provide a physical wash, because the impurity is not physical. If a גזירת הכתוב were to create a metaphysical reality, the Rambam has not discounted it.

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  2. interesting . the main source for this discussion is the gemora in Yoma. עבירה מטמטמת ליבו של אדם .the simple meaning is indeed that sin does have actual affects on the heart , but that this is only if it is an actual sin, עבירה, and not just by virtue of being a forbidden item , such as in the case of ones or bittul or reliance on Rov and chazoka etc. the Rema's advice against allowing a baby to consume milk from an impure source is an exception to this and could show that the forbidden substance itself is formative, even in th3 absence of aveira, but the maharal clearly says differently re forbidden foods . also interesting is that מתעסק בחלבים ועריות חיב שכן נהנה , despite the absence of an intentional sin

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    1. You could only interpret the phrase 'מטמטמת את הלב' the way you do because of your inherent pro-mystical tendencies thanks to your largely pro-mystical educational and upbringing. Jews who lived prior to the rise/spread of mysticism would have gone for the more obvious reading 'sin leads one astray'. There's nothing inherent in that phrase to suggest that the 'simple meaning is indeed that the sin does indeed have actual effects on the heart.'

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    2. @Fozziebear
      You could only interpret the phrase the way you do because of your inherent anti-Torah tendencies thanks to your intellectually secular upbringing and your immersion in contemporary kefira. Your translation 'sin leads one astray' is entirely inaccurate. It is neither literal nor takes account of the meaning of the term מטמטמת in context, or of classic interpretations. Please try harder.

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    3. @BB

      Never write in anger/pettin3ss, you'll give the blog comment you'll ever regret.

      You're last few sentences are falsehoods.
      Rashisays מטמטמת - אוטמת וסותמת מכל חכמה:
      Which is close (but not exactly) what I said and definitely not what אחד said.
      Sefaria brings no commentators (classical or otherwise) who you could bring in support of אחד's mystical interpretation, although I'm sure you can find some modern rabbis who have said it.
      And whoever said literal translations are correct? Especially with regard to idioms.

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    4. Correction : that should be "Kosher Excursions mystical interpretation" and not "אחד's mystical interpretation"
      Apologies to אחד

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  3. Good post. Many Machlokes Tannaim and Amoraim also turn on this fundamental divide in human thought, but that subject has not been as well treated as it has been with regard to the Rishonim. Intellectual sketches of Chazal have been around for a long time. But they would need to be repackaged for today's readers, and in a way that focuses specifically on how the mystic/rationalist divide also animates many disagreements in Chazal. Any doctoral students looking for a thesis topic?

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    1. "Many Machlokes Tannaim and Amoraim also turn on this...."

      Any example(s)?

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    2. Sure. Chulin 56a.

      ובפלוגתא דר"י ורבי נחמיה חד בדיק בידא וחד בדיק במחטא מאן דבדיק בידא אמר ליה למאן דבדיק במחטא עד מתי אתה מכלה ממונן של ישראל אמר ליה מאן דבדיק במחטא למאן דבדיק בידא עד מתי אתה מאכיל לישראל נבלות נבלות

      Its debatable, sure, but seems to me this debate can easily turn on a rational v mystical point of view. A similar, though different, machlokes appears in Bechoros 40a, which can also be explained this way. I also think the debate between Bais Shamai and Bais Hillel in Chagiga 61 over which takes precedence, the Olah or the Chagigah, can also be explained this way.

      Of course, many Agaddos can also be seen in this light, such as how to view the Romans (were they great builders of civilization, or did they just build everything for themselves) and various other perspectives.

      But again, this is really a topic for a full length book, not a blog comment.

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  4. Yes I was thinking about the range of approaches to bug checking/produce prep, how in a Rav-Vaya-trained class the teacher would call an item "infested" if even one bug would be found in a large amount of food, and how Rav Vaya rejects any percentage whatsoever to classify "matzui" but instead a more subjective "if you can find it then it's common"

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    1. How do you make that argument? Why would מצוי be more likely to be classified as a percentage in the so called rationalist belief system than the mystical? I would say the opposite. If you cannot find the bug, you are not personally liable for its existence. And מאכלות אסורות is, in the rationalist religion, more about personal aristocracy and uplifted spirit, which should be subjective. Whereas a metaphysical existence would be governed by rules of ביטול and suchlike. There is an absolute objective reality to this impurity, why would percentages not govern its existence?

      What I am saying is, people are taking sociological differences between Charedim and non Charedim, and trying to create a case around them as though non Charedim are rationalists, subsequently shoe horning the differences into the סברות, weak as they are.

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  5. MT Kings and Wars Ch 8:
    חֲלוּצֵי צָבָא כְּשֶׁיִּכָּנְסוּ בִּגְבוּל הָעַכּוּ''ם וְיִכְבְּשׁוּם וְיִשְׁבּוּ מֵהֶן מֻתָּר לָהֶן לֶאֱכל נְבֵלוֹת וּטְרֵפוֹת וּבְשַׂר חֲזִיר וְכַיּוֹצֵא בּוֹ אִם יִרְעַב וְלֹא מָצָא מַה יֹּאכַל
    strongly backs up your theseis re Rambam's view. Coincidently, Ramban disagrees with this ruling.

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    1. Doesn't that machlokes contradict this entire thesis? Ramban says it is always muttar, what happened to the objective impurity of קדלא דחזירא? Whereas Rambam only permits it when in desperate straits.

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    2. Ramban says its only permissible during the initial conquest of Canaan. At that time, it is not "forbidden food" on account of the Torah's dispensation; hence not transmitting impurity. Rambam says it's permissible for soldiers to eat forbidden food at any time of war, under "dire straits" as you say. Note that "dire straits" is a much lower standard than a life-threatening situation, where every "issur" is permissible. In other words, Rambam's ruling is that in times of war, forbidden food is "dechuya."

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  6. Men and women were forbidden to have relations for three days before Mattan Torah, lest they be impure.
    If there is nothing metaphysical about tumah, what was the concern? The Torah commandments which creates the state has not yet been given!

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    1. Isn't that a commandment in and of itself?

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    2. Perhaps this prohibition related to the state of mind Hashem wished for the Bnei Yisroel at Sinai. Tameh here could indicate that having intimate relationships on ones mind could prevent proper focus on the Aseres HaDibros.

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    3. Anonymous, your approach is supported by the Gemara in Brachos which discusses the early practice of banning men who had had a seminal emission from Torah study

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    4. Actually,the Gemara says that the reason for the prohibition was that for three days, semen that leaves a woman's body renders her tamei.

      Yerushalmi -
      Yes that was a commandment, but why would such a commandment be given right before Mattan Torah just to create a problem?

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    5. The פסוק states that the purpose was to make themselves holy, not pure.

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  7. Two of the commenters here bring sources from the Talmud, something R' Slifkin didn't do in his article. I hope he follows up with Talmudic sources both sides use to buttress their positions.

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  8. The Torah doesn't specify a reason for the three-day separation prior to Matan Torah. Maybe mystically-minded Meforshim added "lest they be impure." A rationalist might have substituted "lest they be distracted," which in the absence of purity laws seems a perfectly good reason.

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    1. Incorrect. See my comment above.

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    2. The פסוק states: וקדשתם.

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  9. A rationalist can also admit of the historical possibility (even probability) that the worldview underlying the Torah's impurity laws held tum'ah to be a "force" and not just an institutional prohibition. That is the consensus among modern scholars. See e.g. Milgrom (Anchor Bible commentary) who describes impurity as "a dynamic force, magnetic and malefic to the sphere of the sacred, attacking it not just by direct contact but from a distance." What Israel did was expunge any demonic origins of impurity, a notion which was widespread elsewhere in the ANE.

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    1. Yes, well-stated. Sometimes the rationalist "pshat" is a mystical one. And likewise, a modernist phsat forced onto a mystical source is just as bad as a mystical interpretation of an obviously rational law.

      With Tummah, it would appear one has to distinguish between the various strands of it. That of leprosy (tzaras) might be for institutional reasons, while that of a corpse might be because of the evil "force" surrounding it. However the case, your point is important for moderns to keep in mind.

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  10. For a completely mystical religion, it’s so interesting to me that people try to rationalize it. I think that’s why so many young people leave or reject observant Judaism altogether, may their eyes and hearts be opened soon and they return. They have not been provided with sufficient answers- they see thru false claims and want the truth. Rationalism doesn’t really make sense to them- lighting candles for Shabbat? Really? I’m hard pressed to find a “rational” reason for it _that sticks_. It’s a mystical religion, period. Our youth know that, internally. And many refuse to accept things “just because it’s written” or because “Hashem said so.” What works in the chinuk of a young child does not usually satisfy a teenager (and up). My 2 cents.

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    1. There isn't even a word in Tanach for 'mystical' or 'spiritual.'

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    2. I’m hard pressed to find a “rational” reason for it _that sticks_.

      You aren't allowed to light fires on Shabbos. Eating in the dark is not conducive to Oneg Shabbos.

      There you go, a perfectly rational reason. Now, if you're going to ask why we still do it today, that's a different thing altogether, and is related to how we don't abnegate Rabbinic decrees even though the clearly-stated reasons no longer apply. Being strongly traditionalist is not at odds with taking a rational approach to understanding ones religion.

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    3. That can go the other way the other way, too.

      Some people who were exposed only to the mystical approach might need something more than an explanation of the effects on the Olamos. If they are misled to believe that that is ALL there is, they might decide that the Torah is otherworldly, and they prefer the real world, G-d forbid.

      That's why I'll always be grateful for Rav S.R. Hirsch's "19 Letters". Finally, someone who spoke to me!

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    4. I'd argue that young Jews who strictly follow the mystical approach are more likely to leave the fold because nothing makes sense to them, and when they ask questions they are given nonsensical responses that further deepen their confusion about the religion.

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    5. You can debate this as much as want. Look at the statistics: Rationalists are a meeyoot sh'bmeeyoot. The chaseedishe retention rates are the highest amongst all Orthodox streams and has been growing in number since the Besht.

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  11. I have my own issues with rationalism - at least Rabbi Dr. Slifkin's version of it - but the example brought above of Shabbat candles completely confounded me. The real mitzvah of lighting candles is to...provide light for Shabbat dinner! Nothing mystical there. As to the symbolic candles women light today while the electric lights are blazing, it's the subject of a great deal of halachic discussion what value that has. Many women turn on the lights right then and consider that part of the mitzvah.

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  12. Response to your general point: aren't you aware of the large numbers of people who leave Judaism because all they are given are mystical understandings that seem nonsensical (at least to them)? So many ask questions that are easily answered by rationalism yet the society they are taught in is unprepared to provide them! Rationalism is not the absence of spirituality.

    Response to your specific point: of all of the concepts in the Torah, the one idea you picked was Shabbos candles? First of all, this mitzvah is only rabbinic (right? Apologies if I'm wrong). But more importantly, this is the most rational of all things we do: light a fire in your house on Shabbos so you can see what you are doing! So that you can enjoy your Shabbos meal! So that you don't trip and fall and hurt yourself or others! We mock the Karaite view of Shabbos (which involves no light at all bc of "Lo t'va'aru aish" being taken as an absolute status of no fire rather than an injunction against actively lighting one) because it's ridiculous for us to celebrate Shabbos without the enjoyment of being able to see it!

    Now maybe you are talking about in today's world, where we have timers and electricity, so lighting a candle is clearly a more mystical or symbolic act. Well, there are those who say that we should have kavanah for the electric lights when we light Shabbos candles! It is still something with a concrete purpose.

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    1. sorry - these two comments (this one and the following) were replies to Ms. Pluscarr, above, not to the blog post itself.

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    2. Igrot Moshe opposes shabbat clocks / timers for what could be called mystical reasons.
      Of course, keeping shabbat without timers would be so strange, few follow that. No one interested in that as a chumrah, or as straight halacha.

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  13. Anyway, who says that Judaism is a "completely mystical religion"? Do the rabbis of the Gemara who spend pages logically trying to figure out legal implications of an extra letter?

    I would find it difficult to say that there is absolutely no mysticism - we have concepts of angels and middos of Hashem and maaseh avos siman labanim and lots of other stuff. But certainly a religion that prides itself on logic cannot be labeled "a completely mystical religion."

    (Also, a lot of Jewish mysticism didn't exist before the rise of Kabbalah and Chassidism. And much of the stuff that did show up earlier came from other sources (Zoroastrian, Greek, etc.) But that is besides the point...)

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    1. And much of the stuff that did show up earlier came from other sources (Zoroastrian, Greek, etc.)

      chas vesholom.

      why is it hard for you to accept that we have an independent mystical tradition that goes back to Avrohom Ovinu (sefer yetzira), and perhaps even further. The logic stuff came later as people were less aware of the spiritual and needed rules to guide them - like you would drive with a map if you couldn't see the road.

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    2. I didn't say EVERYTHING comes from secular sources (though I'm sure that some scholars do). Let's assume a middle position, where there is some mysticism that indeed is truly ancient and of Jewish origin. Fine.

      That does not negate the possibility that some amount of the stuff that comprises much of Jewish philosophy and mysticism is indeed of "external" origin. (Again- I am no expert on this, but here:) Just the idea of a detailed World To Come seems later than Tanach. In Tanach, and certainly in Torah, we are only ever told of "She'ol." It is only later, after Hellenism was involved, that a Jewish Heaven and The Other Place are discussed. Even the name for the latter - Gehennom - implies a late origin for this concept.** Gey Ben Hinom is the valley to the west/SW of the Old City. Supposedly, some idolatrous rites were performed there - possibly even fiery Moloch worship* - and the Chachamim linked that place with Hell. The midrash of course searches and searches for indications of Olam Haba in Torah Shebichtav (finding some, I will not deny), of course telling us that to know this clearly would unfairly tip the Free Will balance. But it IS suspicious, regardless, as it is fairly circular: the lack of evidence is an indication that the Thing itself is so important that we cannot have proof of the Thing. But then how do we know that the Thing itself is real (or of legitimate origin)? Now, I won't deny that there is some difficulty here with how Torah Sheb'al Peh is supposed to work, but isn't that exactly the issue - are we raising peripheral issues (mysticism, for example) to the same level as halacha and rules of behavior?

      * no I am not saying this was what ancient Israel as a whole worshipped Ch"VSh - just this fleshes out what we ARE told in Sefer Melachim about how almost none of the kings were truly righteous (even in Yehuda).

      ** kinda like how upshirin cannot possibly be of ancient origin as it only has a Yiddish name (and don't say Chalakah as that is clearly a recent Israeli invention)

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  14. It seems entirely plausible to me that what we see as "magical" in classical mysticism, is actually a deep understanding of human psychology and character, expressed as allegory. Whether the originators of mystical thought intended it as allegory is not as relevant as the truths that the allegory points to. For example, saying that sins taint the soul is simply a way of saying that there is a negative affect to the character and psychology of one who commits a sin. This concept is very easy to understand with certain sins (e.g. stealing, lying, murdering), and more difficult with others (e.g. treif). But then again, it is difficult to understand how some are detrimental under rationalism as well.

    That Halachists would use mysticism to conclude that one's soul is damaged even in a case of an uncontrollable circumstance, should pose as much of a question to mystics themselves, let alone rationalists: is not Teshuva a way to "untaint" your soul? And if so, how would one do Teshuva for something they had no control over? To propose a possible solution, perhaps once one is aware of the sin he committed, that awareness comes with a trace of the negative affect that would have been much greater had he committed the sin intentionally. One can do Teshuva by recognizing that trace of negativity, and repudiating it. This isn't necessarily at odds with rationalism.

    Mysticism and rationalism seem to me to be more two different styles, and less two diametrically opposed world views. Which is better? Allegory, or blunt, straightforward reasoning? Perhaps it simply depends on one's style.

    I think there is far more convergence between rationalism and mysticism than either school of thought gives the other credit for.

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  15. Please pardon my ignorance here, but what am I missing in the Rambam? All he says it’s permissible due to פקוח נפש. No argues with that. The question is regarding lasting effects that consuming מאכלות אסורות supposedly inherently have. I didn’t pick up anything in the Rambam regarding that. Please help

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  16. "According to the mystical approach, on the other hand, even if one eats non-kosher food in a situation where it is halachically permissible... it has nevertheless still harmed one's soul."

    Slightly different but still relevant: Or Hachaim says at end of this Sedrah that one who believes he is feeding someone poison but actually feeds them wine needs no Kaparah.

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  17. The Gemara suggests that the Shichvas Zera of a Nochri has different properties from that of a Jew, since the Nochri eats non-Kosher foods and is physically affected by his diet. The Chasam Sofer (Teshuvos YD 175) writes that this Gemara is relevant in practice.

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  18. Rambam Hilchot Meila 8:8 seems to say the laws of kashrut is an unknowable, are not the words mystical and mystery related...
    וְהַחֻקִּים הֵן הַמִּצְוֹת שֶׁאֵין טַעְמָן יָדוּעַ. אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים חֻקִּים חַקֹּתִי לְךָ וְאֵין לְךָ רְשׁוּת לְהַרְהֵר בָּהֶן. וְיִצְרוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם נוֹקְפוֹ בָּהֶן וְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם מְשִׁיבִין עֲלֵיהֶן כְּגוֹן אִסּוּר בְּשַׂר חֲזִיר וּבָשָׂר בְּחָלָב וְעֶגְלָה עֲרוּפָה וּפָרָה אֲדֻמָּה וְשָׂעִיר הַמִּשְׁתַּלֵּחַ. וְכַמָּה הָיָה דָּוִד הַמֶּלֶךְ מִצְטַעֵר מִן הַמִּינִים וּמִן הָעַכּוּ''ם שֶׁהָיוּ מְשִׁיבִין עַל הַחֻקִּים. וְכָל זְמַן שֶׁהָיוּ רוֹדְפִין אוֹתוֹ בִּתְשׁוּבוֹת הַשֶּׁקֶר שֶׁעוֹרְכִין לְפִי קֹצֶר דַּעַת הָאָדָם הָיָה מוֹסִיף דְּבֵקוּת בַּתּוֹרָה

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  19. What is more stringent, Shabbos or Kashrus? When the nascent Polish army was formed the Jewish soldiers were given a choice-Shabbos or Kashrus. The Chofetz Chaim decreed for Kashrus, because it
    impurifies the soul. Shabbos in the interim would be an Oness for the draftees

    The leading rabbanim in the era concurred.




    Thanks for proving that "rationalism" never was normative Judaism.
    A shame after spending 100+ months incessantly rationalizing your modus vivendi.

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    1. One can make the claim that food, which is a daily requirement, was a more important thing to focus on than a once a week observance, important as Shabbos is. Being careful day-in and day-out to never eat nonkosher, when that is a huge sacrifice in the Polish army, I imagine that gives the soul quite a workout, "purifying" it ways that we cannot imagine... and yet is completely rationalist (especially if "soul" can translate in this case to "character").

      (Though I freely admit that this is likely not what the Chofetz Chaim meant, I offer it as a rationalist understanding of the scenario.)

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    2. It's wonderful to keep on trying..

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  20. The Czarist government prosecution for the 1913 pre trial for the Mendel Beilis blood libel gave implication
    to defence witness the[government appointed ]Rabbi of Moscow Mazeh that they were okay with so called rationalist Judaism And with him defending that

    Their issue


    primarily waswith the less rationalist rest,
    which was expected for him ..to disavow


    "Tell us who your friends are.."

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