Nullified by the Majority

Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that on my birthday, there is widespread celebration, no tachanun is recited, and a lot of normally level-headed people get seriously intoxicated with joy — because my birthday is on Shushan Purim. But this year’s Shushan Purim will be more significant for me, because it is the birthday at which I feel confident saying I passed the “halfway mark.” At age 45, I will have spent more than half of my life as a self-described orthodox Jew.

I have anticipated this milestone for years, but now that I am upon it I am not quite sure what to do with it. I was wondering, however, if we can consider the principle we have in halacha called bittul b’rov, or nullification by the majority. Where one treif piece of meat is mixed with two kosher pieces of meat, we say that in theory at least you can eat any of them: Because the majority are kosher, it cannot be said any one of them is treif, and if none is treif, all are kosher, even though we “know” one is not kosher. (Married men: Do not try this at home.) The halacha of course is complex as applied to different situations, but that is the concept. We “round up” from 50% plus.

So do I get the benefit of bittul b’rov now that I have lived more than half of my life keeping Shabbos publicly, and holding myself out as an orthodox Jew? After all, I have been “frum” longer than I was not frum. Assuming we can compare a mixture of unlike objects to a mixture of unlike minutes, am I mostly frum, hence all frum?

Of course not. Even assuming a bona fide frum second half of my life — a big assumption — obviously the first 22 and a half years will never be undone. I will always be me. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter taught us that it is easier to learn the whole Talmud than to correct a single bad personal quality! And the mishna in Avos reminds us of the sad truth, that there is no comparison between writing on a smudged slate, and writing on a clean slate.

Smudged? I’m working toward smudged! Each time I bang out the erasers, though, I’m overcome by the rancid dust and have to get some fresh air.

In fact, the … problematic… aspects of the old me will never be buttel, null. Neither can I pretend that what was, or is, treif is actually kosher, merely because it’s hard to pick out of the mix, too. Indeed, the simple rule of bittul b’rov does not apply to a food mixture (as opposed to separate pieces of food) where the forbidden substance adds its flavor to the permissible.

On the other hand, wait. If there is any value in the term “baal teshuvah” (which as is well known is arguably a misnomer when applied to people who have never been frum, who become frum) — if I have ever done a touch of true teshuva, or if I give it to myself as a Shushan Purim birthday present, or if I do it on my deathbed — then we are taught that our transgressions become reckoned as mitzvos. Forgive a smudgy intellect the very mixed metaphor — but we are after all dealing with reckoning mixtures: Here, it seems, we are allowed,after the fact of course, to reckon as “kosher” something that we objectively know to be made of non-kosher ingredients!

Mixtures are one thing; this is beyond metaphor-mixing and verges on the scrambled; but I will serve up what I’ve put together and expect you to pretend to like it. Of course there’s no such thing as “mostly frum” on a time scale. After all, someone can be frum for his entire life and one day, as the old cliche goes, throw his teffilin in New York Harbor. As of that moment, and unless and until he repents, his 99:1 ratio of frum to non-frum life may not look so good if that boat doesn’t reach the dock.

A person can acquire, we are taught, his World to Come in one moment, for good and for bad. The real measure of a Jew’s life is not found on the scale of how many minutes he spent officially affiliated with this or the other religious affiliation, or even how many minutes were spent with a halo as opposed to those cartoon horns on his head. Rather, what matters is what he does with the whole cocktail right now… and tomorrow.

OK, I doubt I will hang up my briefcase and consider a carer in mixology — even though it is Shushan Purim! There is a certain satisfaction in getting past the “halfway point,” I suppose. Most days I get better because of the world I have built, and allowed to be built, around me in the last 22 and a half years. In the moments when I perhaps slip back, or seem at best to plateau, that bulwark holds me from rolling all the way down the hill to 1985. If there is any accomplishment in reaching this point, perhaps that, really, is the one that I can identify. With God’s help, he’ll keep me in the mix for more iterations of 22 and a half.

26 comments on “Nullified by the Majority

  1. Yaakov, I mean no disrespect to anyone. Rabbis Gottleib and Morgenstern are just the two that I know and have relationships with. MIT has been called a precious natural resource. Now I see that it’s one of OUR nation’s precious resources.

  2. Ron and MiriamP should learn the gmara Shabbos 89b (I think) where Yitzchak uses similar calculations to reduce the amount of sinning done by bnai yisrael (1/3 of the day they were asleep, some time was spent doing other things that cannot be forbidden).

    RC, as an alum I can tell you there have been many ba’alei t’shuva from MIT.

  3. In some ways it’s the opposite point, stressing the benefits of the carry-over rather than the costs.

  4. Ron,

    Considering the balance or paradox between our free will and HaShem’s plan, is it not possible that your “lost” early years played out as they did for some higher purpose, such as to to enhance your later perspective and skill set?

  5. >The other two baalei teshuvah I know from MIT are Rabbi David Gottleib and Rabbi David Morgenstern.

    Dr. Gerald Schroeder was from MIT, too.

  6. “I’ve been anticipating reaching the same milestone, IY”H, this Chanukah.”

    Wow, I didn’t know that people actually kept track of these things.

    Happy B-Day and Happy BT-Day.

  7. RC, thank you for your very kind words! Now take some advice from me — “Mister Focus” — and get back to work!

    Miriam that’s a nice point, but yes, of course you see mine! Of course it reminds us of how we will be called to account for every one of those moments… hoo, boy…

  8. Bob,
    It has to do with quality. The other two baalei teshuvah I know from MIT are Rabbi David Gottleib and Rabbi David Morgenstern. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that growing up in Boston I took civic pride in all its world-class hospitals and institutions of higher learning, but for some reason I was always more partial to MIT than, say, Harvard. It was always on the top of my “proud of” list (not counting a brief period of BC glory during the Flutie Era, for which I have since repented).

  9. I think you’re cheating. ;-) You’re already over the halfway point, because you’re counting the part where, as a child in your parents’ house (certainly while under Bar Mitzvah) you really had no conscious choice in the matter. And aren’t we not liable in the heavenly court until the age of 20? So only 2.5 years of your life actually count against all the years since.

    But really, I do see your point, that where we are now counts more than how many seconds/minutes/hours/days/months/years you spent “elsewhere” (spiritually). Happy Birthday.

  10. Mazal tov!

    I’ve been anticipating reaching the same milestone, IY”H, this Chanukah.

  11. I only stumbled on to this website two days ago and already I’m hooked on Ron Coleman. I’m afraid if my boss catches me spending any more time reading his posts, he’ll fire me!

    Ron, Bob is right. (I’m also a fan of Bob’s, from Cross-Currents; he is one more support for my theory about MIT baalei teshuvah). His trampoline metaphor is the traditional interpretation of the saying of Chazal that, “In the place where baalei teshuvah stand, the tzaddikim of the world do not stand”.

    Happy birthday, and keep up the good work. This FFB is finding BBT very inspiring..

  12. Quite the spiritually starry eyed/ soul stirring / piercing/ potent and earnestly erudite mixology potion for pondering and wondering.
    I was actually thinking about the whole concept of “mixology” recently.

    I was celebrating a friends birthday at this trendy colorful drinking establishment and the guys next to us ordered shots of the most mesmerizing alcohol concoction I have ever chanced upon. Each jewel colored liquid stayed obediently in its own little space in the glass, so you had this lick able, rainbow like liquor/alcohol concoction in cute mini cocktail shot-glasses.I’ve never seen the concept with so many colors used.
    I cant remember the name or alcohol ingredients of that colorful shot, but the drink style reminded me of my life in a hazy way.
    Different stages of distinct shades of color just creating the heavily hued drink mix, firmly embedded and imbued with a constant need and influx of real life color.

    There is one stage of color (midnight onyx) that keeps ruining my otherwise perfectly colored and hued cocktail and color structure system though.
    This midnight onyx color represents my high school experience (obviously experiences and opinions like life itself are always subjective just saying) and no matter how many times I’ve taken midnight onyx out of the cocktail ingredients instruction , it insists on showing up in the color mix when least expected like one of those default settings that you just cant switch.

    The problem is, it just ruins the whole color scheme and actual drink taste in more ways than many.
    Midnight Onyx should never be a part of a colorful cocktail it just renders every other pure shade of color, off-color.
    And in the most random and obscure of moments and happenings.
    Its just so annoying and so much harder to decide/ reason and argue objectively.
    You end up writing options off, as bad ideas so much quicker too without realizing why.

    I guess the perfect life cocktail has everything to do with the inherent ingredients subsequently chosen, but that has everything to do with the ingredients taught/provided/force fed initially.

    I guess if you’re creating a religious cocktail from scratch its a different experience than creating a religious cocktail from a spiritually spoiled cocktail, liberally laced with rancid reasoning’s and heavily seasoned with thou shalt not sin salts.Served condescendingly on spare and spartan no nonesense bar tables modestyl covered with material coverings comprised mainly of rayon reasonings and polyester platitudes.

    Hope your birthday is merry and your cocktail continues to be the perfect religious & spiritual mixture.

  13. On some level, the events from the first Pesach to Matan Torah recur during our sefira period.

  14. Because that was a special case. None of us heard Hashem speak as they did, much less experienced prophecy as even the most modest servant-girl. Indeed it could also be that, apart from the real-time experience of Special Revelation, that the phenomenon you describe only works when you in fact do descend down to the edge of the 49th level, which one hopes none of us does.

    In any event, no, it is not obvious to me that this should be the case.

  15. “Does it really work that way, Bob? For us, as opposed to the generation of the Exodus?”

    We’re Jews, too, so why not?

  16. May we all be zoche to do teshuvah m’ahavah!

    Then all the past transgressions, even those done willfully, are turned into mitzvos.

    That’s what Purim’s all about–the Jewish people accepted Torah once again, this time out of free will and not because of having been forced at Mount Sinai, out of the love of the miracle (Tosafos, Shabbos 88a).

  17. The previous life can be a sort of trampoline, in that the lows, once corrected, lead to highs. Think about the sefirah period. We start, so to speak, at the 49th level of bad and end up at the 49th level of good. You’d think that correcting each level would only get you one step closer to a neutral point, to zero, but really it flips over, like a switch with only a (-) and (+) setting, or binary code.

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