Friday, July 29, 2005

How Jacob Neusner misrepresents the Talmud

There's been some talk about Jacob Neusner, he of the 900 published books, in one of the comments in my blog. Without getting into the issue of whether grad students write some or many of his many books and papers or whether he is "nice" or whether he is "respected" (he is) or if his scholarship is lacking in some areas or whether he is a good translator or not--actually I do want to talk about his translating skill.

I do not have with me the exact quotes, but in a book of his called "How Adin Steinsaltz Misrepresents the Talmud"*, Dr. Neusner in his translation of a Gemara has an 'amora say "shit".

Now I am willing to believe that Neusner's intention is literary, to show the flavor of colloquial speech. There is nothing intrinsically objectional to a translation that has 'amoraim speaking like people and not a stiffly worded book in a disjointed King's English.

But sorry, I think that putting profane words in the mouths of people who were not merely "lawyers", as early rabbis are sometimes called, but deeply religious and holy people, people concerned about nivul peh. I am not suggesting that actual, historical 'amoraim would not have spoken in colloquial, even slangy Aramaic. I'm sure Dr. Neusner detected just such useage and that is what he was trying to convey, accurately in his view. But there is a difference between relaxed language and profane language. I am hardly a puritan, but Chakhmenu did not say "shit" and putting that in their mouths is to misunderstand them.

*The title itself is a clue about how caustic he can be. Briefly, the book claims that R. Adin Steinsaltz'
introduction to the Talmud misrepresents the Talmud as basically having no structure apart from some sort of dreamy stream of concsiousness. Neusner argues that the Talmud is extremely well structured and logically and beautifully arranged and demonstrates this.

Personally I don't think this required a book--I doubt R. Steinsaltz really means that the Talmud is the literary equivalent of a pile of paperclips strewn every which way. He was talking to the layman and trying to give a taste of what the Talmud looks like, and for what its worth, Neusner's attacks seems to be considered by him a defense of the Talmud's honor, but I digress.

Talmud Yerushalmi shel zahav

Yerushalmi (Bava Metzia 2:5)

Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach dealt in linen. His students said to him: “Rabbi, desist from this trade. We will buy you a donkey [to make an easier living as a donkey driver] and you will not have to toil so much.” They went and purchased a donkey from a bandit. The students subsequently found a precious stone dangling from it. They went back to Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach and said to him: “From now on you need not exert yourself.” He asked: “How so?” The students responded: “We purchased a donkey for you from a bandit and a precious stone was dangling from it.” Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach asked: “Did the donkey’s seller know that the stone was there?” They answered: “No.” He then said to them: “Go return it.” The students remonstrated with Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach: “Although theft from an idolater is prohibited, is one not permitted to keep an object that an idolater has lost?”

He responded: “What do you think, that Shimon ben Shetach is a barbarian? More than all the wealth of the world, Shimon ben Shetach desires to hear [the non-Jew say]: “Berich Eloko d’Yehudo’ei

IV. Rambam's 4th Principle of Faith

We believe that this Oneness is necessarily primary. All that exists other than Him is not primary in relationship to Him. There are many references in the Scriptures. This is the fourth Principle, as affirmed by the verse (Deuteronomy 33:27): "God who preceded [all existence] is a refuge..."
It's embarassing, but the clear idea in this principle isn't obvious to me without remembering the Ani Ma'amin or Yigdal version of it, that God is the Alpha and Omega first and last, meaning that God is eternal. But it implies more, since the Rambam's prooftext establishes the principles of creation ex nihilo, since the verse says that God pre-existed everything, including, presumably matter ('aretz?).
This principles is also signifigant because the Rambam breaks with Aristotle who believed in eternal matter and the impossibility of creating yesh me'ayin. It's signifigant because the Rambam writes that he was such an Aristotalian (scientist?) that where the Torah contradicts Aristotle (science?) he would be willing to reinterpret his understanding of Torah, that is unless he is intellectually convinced that Aristotle is wrong, and not his reading of Torah. Evidently the Rambam thought it through and juding by the intellectual honesty and independence of the Rambam, he really believed that creation ex nihilo was how it all went down, yo.
The truth is, here I am headed into the drowsy dog days of the ikkarim, creation ex nihilo. This doesn't interest me very much. All I really have to say about it is that eternity of God is difficult for me to wrap myself around, but only because I apparently haven't advanced past when I was six and didn't get how Hashem was always there. Eternal matter is certainly no less difficult, add a pinch of Occam's Razor and "In the beginning" does it for me.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The history of Hashem

Do any of you scholars know when "Hashem" became the common useage?

If I had to guess, it was shortened from the expression "Hashem Yisbarach" rather than as a simple replacement for Adon-ai. Or maybe not.

Does anyone know where and when?

III. Rambam's 3rd Principle of Faith

We believe that this Oneness is neither a body nor a bodily force, nor is He subject to any bodily characteristics -- movement, rest, or dwelling -- be they inherent or by chance. Therefore the Sages repudiated [the possibility of any] cohesion or separation [concerning Him], as they said: "Above there is no sitting, standing, division, or 'cohesion'" (a usage based on Isaiah 11:14). As the prophet (ibid., 40:18-25) said: "Who is comparable to the Almighty...?" For if He had a body, He could be compared to other bodies.

All the corporeal terms used in the Scriptures to describe Him -- such as walking, standing, sitting, speaking etc. -- are metaphorical. As the Sages have said: "The Torah speaks in the language of man."

This is the third Principle, as affirmed by the verse (Deuteronomy 4:15) "You have not seen any image," that is to say, you cannot conceive of Him as having any form because, as stated, He is neither a body nor a bodily force. (italics mine)

This ikkar is going to be one of the easiest of all. I certainly believe it. It states generally that God is incorporeal, even though Scripture generally portrays Him in most corporeal terms. That, says the Rambam, is simply anthropomorphism, which is a perfectly acceptable literary device (I say that).

What is difficult about the Rambam's assertion is that his few prooftexts attest only that God doesn't have a body or that specific people didn't see God. One might think that the abundance of anthropomorphic depictions of Hashem in the Torah suggest otherwise. And "one might think" is the same as "many people think". R. Avraham ibn Daud took the Rambam to task for suggesting that it is heresy to believe God is corporeal, saying that many people who were "even greater" than the Rambam believed God was corporeal.

Be that as it may, it is well attested in ancient sources that the Jews did not believe that God has a body. This was a specific feature of Judaism that apparently frustrated pagans. In a time before microscopes revealed the hidden world of perfectly corporeal and tangible things that are all around us which we cannot see, it was difficult to conceive of a god that is neither physical nor even "spiritual" ala demons and angels, and yet exists.

All kinds of inventive theories were advanced about the true nature of the Jewish religion and the Jewish deity, including the strange belief about Jewish "ass worship" (hint: don't look that up in google).

So why would I believe it, other than the fact the Rambam says to believe it? Or would I believe it if he hadn't? After all, the Torah strongly suggest otherwise, despite single verses to the contrary. I don't honestly know, really. I do know that whether its because I've been socialized to this belief or not, a corporeal God strikes me as immature. It isn't as if the Torah presents a uniform anthropomorphic image of God. God appears in the guise of a mighty warrior, (possibly) as angels, as pillars of fire, as having arms, as a still, small voice and more. To me, all things is the same as saying no things. Therefore it seems like the Rambam is correctly reading these as metaphors, prodded on and supported by the pesukkim that suggest that Hashem really has no body and really cannot be seen.


R. B. Barry Levy asks a very good question, which is also the title of a lecture he gives:

'Does the Bible Speak to Us Before We Tell It What To Say?'

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

What did Rashi say? Re: Dr. Alan Brill

There's a post on Godol Hador by about a piece by Dr. Alan Brill on Jewish relations with other religions. In it, he makes an error that is so strange that it is not to be believed. He writes, regarding Rashi, that
Even his very first comment on the Bible contains his own gloss on the Midrash, viewing the gentiles as armed robbers.
I must say, this isn't how I remembered the first Rashi. After reading it a good ten times, every which way, I still cannot imagine how he read that Rashi (which basically mentions "listim/ armed robber" in the context of the non-Jews potentially accusing Jews of being armed robbers*coughanti-Zionistscough* with regard to possession of Israel). It is an error that defies explanation.

In the comments thread this strange mistake was rightly pounced upon, and Godol Hador, seemed taken aback by this because Alan Brill is "well respected"....wasn't he?

So some commenter said "make a note of *by whom* he's well-respected, and never take their word for anything on Judaism anymore."

Now I assume he meant Modern Orthodox Jews? After all, on RIET's web site there are fully 67 audio shiurim by Alan Brill.

I have to be mocheh. Even if it is true that Alan Brill's "bad" article disqualifies him as a serious Torah source (I haven't yet read the article, so for all I know it may be gold except for that unexplainable mistake, and I would think he deserves the benefit of the doubt) where is the logical leap that suggests to "never take their word for anything on Judaism anymore"? If single individuals represented entire paths in Torah in that way, well, there simply isn't anywhere one could take anyone's word on anything in Judaism. At the very least, not if the individual in question isn't a R. Hirsch, a R. Chaim Brisker or someone who is basically the originator and exemplar of that derekh.

The glee with which that person jumps to discredit an entire world of Torah is sad.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005


I have no idea what happened to the fonts. As soon as I can figure it out I'll change the template and things will look normal again.

Clearly there cannot be a tuition crisis

This morning there is a post on Hirhurim about Yeshiva tuition. R. Gil quotes R. Feivel Cohen, in 1994, saying (based on Gemara Beitzah 16a)

All of one's livelihood is determined from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur except for what one spends on Shabbos, on holidays, and one's children's Torah education because [for these three things] if one reduces [the expense] they reduce [one's income] and if one adds [to the expense] they add to one's income.

Clearly, said R. Cohen, there cannot be a tuition crisis. The more you pay for tuition, the more one receives as income to make up for that expense. At least according to the Gemara and "We know what we call people who do not believe what the Gemara says."

I cannot begin to say how disappointed I am by this. This is leadership? What is going on? This is addressing a problem? Denying it and even implying that those who have identified a problem are "what we call people who do not believe what the Gemara says"?

There is a tuition crisis. And it isn't only a bunch of whining rich people who cannot live without an extra brand new Lexus or two (Lexii?). The crisis is real. To make a dire prediction: if things aren't ameliorated in some way within a few years, frum people will stop sending their kids to yeshiva in noticeable numbers, and a
Malthusian kind of thing will happen to American Orthodoxy. In a generation or two we may end up where we were in 1900. Or at least that is what we need to think may happen, because it really might.

Limud zechus: R. Cohen might have since changed his mind.

The 37th Tzaddik points out that "The Gemara states the VERY SAME PROMISE for hotza'ei Shabbat - money spent on shabbos meals. So does R' Cohen protest the existence of Tomchei Shabbos?"

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Biblical geneology lists

I am jumping the gun here, but I was thinking about the 8th of the Rambam's Principles of Faith, or at least the part that says

There is no difference between "And the sons of Ham were Cush, Mizraim, Phut, and Canaan" (Genesis 10:6), "And his wife's name was Mehetabele, the daughter of Matred, the daughter of Meizahav" (Genesis 36:39), "And Timna was concubine to..." (Genesis 36:12), and "I am God, your Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" ( Deuteronomy 5:6), and "Hear O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4).

(translation of this and all ikkarim on my blog taken from R. Mordechai Blumenfeld)

I will deal with the entire principle in a later post, but my question is about this specific part. It seems axiomatic in Orthodox Judaism that this is so--but that is because it has been said so. Yet because it has to be said demonstrates that the following question is valid: why? Why are geneology lists which are scattered in the Torah and throughout Tanakh relevent at all?
I've can think of a few approaches to address this question.
  1. They are there because it is a feature of ANE (ancient near east) literature. Put into more traditional terms, it is lishna be-dei adam, in common language.
  2. It is very relevent, but its relevence has yet to be discovered. As far as I know this was the case with the extensive Biblical geography which proved very useful in modern Israel in understanding the land of Israel, in warfare and in industry. Maybe in the future the geneologies will be useful.
  3. The geneologies and the like are part of shaping a Torah-influenced worldview. We are "Semites". Ancient Mesopatamia, hosted the cradle of civilization, Sumer (Shinar) and so forth. Maybe these lists are there to give Biblical names and markers for things to the world, so that it be influenced by the Bible even more.
  4. It's a "test of faith" of sorts. It is there in the sense of the idomatic expression "from A to Z", with Z seeming less important, but as in an alphabet, still necessary.

1 doesn't seem adequate, 2 is unproven, 3 is a little compelling to me and 4 makes no sense, but it just came out of my keyboard. ;)

Edit: I thought of a 5th reason. Maybe these lists are a reinforcement of the injunction to "Remember the days of old, Consider the years of ages past" (Deuteronomy 32:7).

A 6th reason which people might posit is that deep sodos are hidden in these lists. That one is really an adjunct of reason 2 though.

Lashon hara lamed-heh, you belong in Pre-1A

So went the childhood chant.
I have to call attention to an excellent comment by one david g.
Yes Loshon hara is forbidden but it is not a ritualistic prohibition. It is meant to make us better so that we dont see the negative in others. The person that sees the issur as a ritual will not talk Loshon Haro but still look down on every other person that is not exactly like him. Yotzo schoro behefsedo.

The dilemma of the Orthoprax II

It is a dilemma indeed.

II. Rambam's 2nd Principle of Faith

We believe that this Primal Cause [God] is One. [His is] not like the oneness of a pair, nor like the oneness of a species, nor like man, whose complex oneness may be divided into many units, nor like the oneness of a simple body, which is one in number but may be divided and separated without end. Rather, He is One with a Oneness that knows no parallel in any manner. This is the Second Principle, as affirmed by the verse (Deut. 6:4): "Hear O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One."
This ikkar, about God's unity, isn't a statement of monotheism, but rather a definition of the Jewish (original!) version of it. It posits that there is a complete difference between God and all other things in that only God is fully united.

A human being is the sum of its parts, organs, bones, cells, atoms. There are many, many ways of dividing a person into parts. In fact, it is an amazing feature of being a human that we are not really aware of the many parts that make us up. R. Aharon Soleveitchik wrote a very dramatically titled article called 'A Glimpse At Eternity From A Hospital Dungeon' in Tradition Vol. 21:3, Fall 1984. But he had a right to the dramatic title; he was then suffering from a terrible stroke. R. Soleveitchik, being a great man, took the opportunity from the hospital bed to contemplate and pen very interesting observations he made about the nature of the soul. He wrote that "Every time I raise my left arm or my left leg I feel a biological sensation analagous to the sensation I would perceive prior to the stroke whenever I picked up a heavy child. It is as if I had been competely detatched from my left leg and my left is it that even now I perceive the biological sensation of being a carrier of an arm and leg only when I raise my left arm or leg but not when I elevate my right arm or leg....It seems to me the let side is not "me"--only the right side of my body is "me"."

This very moving account reminds us that when all is well we simply don't perceive lifting our leg as lifting, I don't know, 20 pounds (?). But that is only because we are fortunate to perceive unity in our body.

According to the Rambam the above does not apply in any way to God, who could never, even in theory, be disunited in the way that we all are and that R. Soleveitchik personally felt. But as God isn't physical (stay tuned for the 3rd ikkar), a closer analogy may be our intangible side, our intellect, emotions etc. People are complex. How many times do we encounter people who have contradictory aspects to their personality? How many times has it been said that the late Shlomo Carlebach was a "complex" person? Of course all these contradictions co-exist within a person. Yet according to the Rambam the God whose "anger will blaze against you" and the God of "kol demama dakka" is one and the same, but unlike humans, there is no contradiction, no complexity, no disunity. Unlike people who at times are mad and at times are happy, God is always the same. And that is what is difficult about this ikkar.We can use all the prism analogies we want and we can explain that the Bible uses anthropomorphism, but it is, frankly, no small matter of reconciling the God of rahamim and din without recourse to compromising God's simplicity. If one could take a three-leaf clover, as St. Patrick did, and point to Irish pagans and say that God is a compound unity (why not 30,000 instead of 3?) that would be easy. However, that is not Judaism's God.

So do I believe it? To me what is compelling about the idea of the absolute unity of God unlike any other unity is that I think it is what is befitting of God. Mono theos, there is one God. Wouldn't the one God then be more one than one itself is (1 / 2 = .5)? Admittedly it isn't easy to swallow the dogmatic assertion that God's "anger" and God's "love" are literally the same thing. But to posit otherwise is not befitting God.

Again with the Artscroll! B. Barry Levy's "Judge Not A Book By It's Cover"

At the risk of flogging a very dead horse, there is a very interesting critique of Artscroll by B. Barry Levy that I'd only heard about, but finally read, called "Judge Not a Book By Its Cover", published in Tradition Vol. 19:1, Spring 1981, p.89-95. Now, obviously, it should be borne in mind that this critique is from 1981. 2005-1981=24. That's a pretty long time. However, I think several of his points are still valid, even if Artscroll's projects are done better now and render certain of his criticisms obsolete.
Levy's critique ranges from wishing that Artscroll were something it isn't (i.e., "Artscroll is not modern*....The first volume of the series appeared in 1976, but a recent publication date is no guarantee of being modern. ") to pointing out many errors (i.e., "...what is perhaps most astonishing is the number of plain, old-fashioned mistakes....the Artscroll effort has not achieved a respectable level. There are dozens of cases where prepositions are misunderstood, where verb tenses are not perceived properly and where grammatical or linguistic terms are used incorrectly....These observations, it should be stressed, are not limited to the Bible text but refer to the talmudic, midrashic, targumic, medieval and modern works as well. Rabbinical passages are torn out of their contexts, presented in fragmentary form to enable distortion of their contents).
Levy asks "How these errors have managed to escape the eyes of the many sages whose approbations adorn the volumes may seem somewhat puzzling, but again, it is the presentation of these letters - the Madison Avenue blitz - which makes these documents what they are . Anyone who reads these "approbations"...will see that the rabbis who wrote the letters did not read the commentaries themselves. These letters are more like personal good wishes, character references and the like than testimonies to the work's accomplishments."
That is to say, they are haskamos. Again, wishing something is something that it isn't.
His critique about Artscroll not being "modern" is, frankly, like a critique of Judaism for not being Christian. Artscroll is a Chareidi publishing house (for lack of a better term).
But he raises good points. He notes that "the use of manuscripts on the dustjackets points to some value to be derived from the "human sciences" but careful study of the work shows that the manuscripts never made it past the covers. Frequent citations of inaccurate versions of talmudic, targumic and medieval texts make it clear that vulgar texts have been preferred to critical ones. Artscroll has thus relied on, popularized and to some extent even sanctified certain errors in its desire to avoid being scientific.....Artscroll is making the claim that nothing of value for understanding the Bible is to be found outside the sources which it has used**. "
Further, Levy writes that "Conspicuous by their absence are names like J. B. Soloveitchik, A. J. Heschel. M. Buber, N. Leibowitz, U. Cassuto, A. I. Kook, and M. Schneerson. It is clear that no moderns of suspected heterodox tendencies have been cited, but it would have been useful if Artscroll has defined the criteria for exclusion, as other less desirable figures are cited with approval: e.g. Josephus and Yefet ben Ali, the Karaite."
Come to think of it, in the Artscroll tashlich*** there is a commentary note that quotes the Chovos Ha-levavos quoting (but not attributing)....the Islamic Hadith. (My observation, not Levy's).
Regarding Josephus, Artscroll cites his citation of Berosus, a Babylonian priest born around 350 B.C.E., whose historical writings included an adaptation of the Mesopotamian flood legends. Levy asks, "If Berosus' analysis of the Atra-hasis legend is admissible, why is Cassuto's work on other Mesopotamian texts ignored?"
Finally, Levy accuses Artscroll of essentially plagiarizing material from the Encyclopedia Judaica, modified at times and mentions numerous simple errors, mistranslations, distortions and the like. A lot of ink has been spilled and a lot of electrons have been moved noting these. I don't for sure, but I bet that in a quarter century Artscroll has greatly reduced the number of simple errors and that the quality of scholarship has gone up, although it is also possible that it has gotten errors of the distortion variety down to a science, while Artscroll " presents itself as a 'a Chazal's eye view' of the Bible'".
Anyway....Artscroll is an easy target, and one that probably takes more heat than it really deserves. Partly it is a victim of its own success, but in the main Levy subjects it to fair criticism, even if he is plainly wrong about Artscroll having to be something it simply doesn't want to be.
*Here he means that it rejects all modern scholarship. "Modern Bible study differs from classical study primarily in its attempts to visualize the characters and messages of Scripture in their ancient contexts rather than in their contemporary ones."
**The sources are: "Talmud, the midrashim and the best known medieval and modern commentators: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban, Abarbanel, Malbim, Hirsch,. Additional material is culled from the targumim, the medieval philosophers, the medieval philologists, and more than a few important exegetical works which are relatively unknown and worthy of consideration. A large sampling of mussar and hasidic thought rounds out the selection and has, in many ways, shaped the series."
***Pg. 643 of the Rosh Hashana machzor cites the Chovos Ha-levavos' citation of the famous distinction between the lesser jihad (war) and the greater jihad (internal war with oneself).

Monday, July 25, 2005

Women needed

In Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism Tamar Ross writes that
One of my sons once remarked to me that most of his women acquiantances were much more sophisticated religiously than his male friends. The reason was obvious to him: a Jewish girl raised in the Orthodox tradition realizes from the outset that she must adopt a more complicated relationship to the classic Jewish sources, because so much of the picture of women in the sources simply does not correspond to what she knows herself to be. Like Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain who discovers that he has been speaking prose all his life, Orthodox women are constantly appropriating a nuanced approach to Torah.
Ross goes on to explain that she is not saying that all Orthodox women do this or that among those who do it is usually even a conscious matter.

This is an interesting point. It is relatively easier for a man to take an oft-quoted rabbinic statement like "nashim da'atim kalot", (a MWM), at its simple meaning. That must be less so easy for women, who presumably, must deal with such a ma'amar Chazal, a saying of the Sages, while many men can get away without thinking about it too deeply.

I am reminded of something that is really quite different, but seems appropriate to mention. A Jewish writer of note (don't remember who) said that nothing less than the Blood Libel prevented most Jews from internalizing the demonization and hatred of the Jew throughout the millenia. Every Jew knows that the Blood Libel isn't true and because Jews were charged with this, every Jew knows that he is charged unjustly. But I digress.

Ross's son raised an interesting point, but is it true? I hope to hear from women specifically, although obviously everyone is welcome and asked to discuss this idea.

A "making of a godol" story about zealotry and hooliganism

On shabbos someone told me something he heard directly from R. Mordechai Gifter.

When R. Gifter was a bachur in the Telshe Yeshiva a certain maskil came to town with the intention of lecturing. R. Gifter and three friends would not let this be and had a plan. The four of them each took to a corner of the crowded hall in which the lecture was being given and no sooner had the maskil begun speaking, they all yelled "Fire!". Pandemonium ensued. There is a reason that "shouting fire in a crowded theater" is very nearly the textbook case of the limits of free speech. But the goal of disrupting the lecture was accomplished.

Feeling proud and certain of himself, young R. Gifter was shocked when the Telshe rosh yeshiva called him into his office and made it clear that he was very angry with him. He barred R. Gifter from entering or having anything to do with the yeshiva for two weeks and explained to him that there is a difference between zealotry and hooliganism.

Unfortunately the person who told me this didn't remember what the punchline was, if there was one; what R. Gifter was told the precise difference is. Come to think of it, the story itself is kind of the punchline.

Mordecai Kaplan and the Bat Mitzvah

Cross Currents's Eytan Kobre has evidently been reading some of the recent blog discussion about the Bat Mitzvah celebration as an example of the 20th century adaptation by Orthodoxy to modern mores. There are a number of posekim who discuss the permissibility of the Bat Mitzvah, from the Seridei Esh to the Iggeros Moshe. Kobre is skeptical that Mordecai Kaplan really did "invent" the Bat Mitzvah (although he allows that Kaplan is the "dude who invented Reconstructionism (patent pending)").
How, you ask, do I know the bat mitzvah was Kaplan’s baby? Because, over the years, I must have read the same sentence in at least 5 or 6 different Jewish papers or books, and always with a sober air of authority (those familiar with the literature know that received wisdom of this sort about the Orthodox tends to get regurgitated repeatedly), in roughly these words: “Even the Orthodox have been influenced by the other movements to accomodate modernity*, as in their adoption of the bat mitzvah ceremony first performed by Mordecai Kaplan.” What a gas.
To an extent I agree with Kobre. I don't think that Orthodox Jews who make Bat Mitzvah parties for their daughters are consciously influenced by Reconstructionism. But the Orthodox Bat Mitzvah was not created ex nihilo. It came from somewhere. Unless Kobre can provide a different, plausible point of origin, there is little reason to assume that the seeds of this idea wasn't initiated by Mordecai Kaplan in the 20th century. No one is saying that Orthodox Jews said "Hey, those Reconstructionists (patent pending) have a great idea. Let's make a party for our Chani when she turns 12 just as we made one for Shloimy when he became 13." Or at least I'm not saying it. Sometimes that is how influence works. It is overt. But it is likely-to-certain that this isn't the case here.

What happened was that the Bat Mitzvah celebration was initiated by Mordecai Kaplan and the latent idea was released, as it were, into the atmosphere. Formerly a young lady's ascension to gedola-hood went marked primarily by fasting with the adults. Fast forward 60 or 70 years later and even in chareidi circles (although not in all) a young lady has the occasion marked by, if not a seudas mitzvah, then a party with her friends. This did not happen and probably would not have happened in the 14th century. It happened in the 20th century. Why? Because of external influences and pressures on Orthodox Jews to adapt to the reality that 12 year old girls cannot accept that their transition to halakhic maturity would go unnoticed while that of their brothers would be a communal celebration (to say nothing of a catered affair, another 20th century adaptation to something-or-other).

*In fact there are obvious examples of this, notably the patently-not-controversial-now idea of a rabbi addressing his congregation in the vernacular.

Friday, July 22, 2005

I. Rambam's 1st Principle of Faith

Rambam's 1st Principle of Faith is

To believe in the existence of the Creator, may He be blessed, i.e., that there is an Existence that is perfect (and absolute) in all facets of existence. He is the cause of all that exists, the sustenance of all, and through Him all is maintained. There is no possibility that He does not exist because without Him, all existence would cease to be and nothing would remain. [Whereas] if we would imagine the absence of all existence other than His, the existence of God would neither cease nor diminish. For He is self-sufficient in His existence, He suffices in Himself, and His existence requires nothing other than Himself. [For] among the intelligences -- the angels and the constellations and all that they contain and all that is below them -- they all need Him for their existence. This is the first Principle, as affirmed by the verse (Exodus 20:2) "I am God, your Lord..."

In summary, God exists and is perfect in His existence and is the primary cause of all that exists.
This one is easy. Yes. Well it isn't easy, but if the answer was "no" then I could hardly continue the series.
At the outset I want to mention that even though I think about theological matters a lot and struggle with faith, for whatever reason I've never doubted God's existence or what the Rambam says that implies. I just haven't. Seriously. Evidently, for me, that isn't the issue to deal with. Someone recently told me to "try debating a[n knowledgable] atheist and watch what happens", meaning then I will then have doubts. Actually that doesn't interest me. Not because I'm afraid of doubts, but because it so happens that this is something I've always been sure of.
Why? Don't expect any new ground to be broken here, obviously. I find the Intelligent Design argument compelling. The Talmud attributes this very realization to Avraham's "discovery of God". Now is it evidence beyond a reasonable doubt? Let's put it this way: if I was on a jury I would not have a reasonable doubt. And yet I believe we would have a hung jury, since some would have reasonable doubt.
Now I must be honest with myself though and point out that I am something of a skeptic by nature. I have to recognize that if I wasn't raised religious (whatever the religion) in all likelihood I would not reach the conclusion that God exists from the apparent intelligent design on the intricate universe and all within it. If I had lives 4000 years ago I might have doubted the pagan pantheon, but sadly I must admit that I probably wouldn't have discovered God myself.
This is a bit troubling to me. Doesn't that indicate that socialization is responsible for my belief? Well, yes. But it also tells me that my own skepticism should be employed in doubting myself (until the day I die I could become a Sadduccee ). Since I believe in God and am glad I do that reminds me that leshitasso I should also doubt my own doubts and be cognizant of the fact that there but for the grace of God go I.
The issue of whether God exists is actually quite separate from the issue of whether God is the God of Torah, but that can be addressed by a good point made by Abraham Joshua Heschel

It may seem easy to play with the idea that the Bible is a book like many other books," a "fairy tale," but "consider what such denial implies. If Moses and Isaiah have failed to find out what the will of God is, who will? If God is not found in the Bible, where should we seek him? If God had nothing to do with the prophets than He has nothing to do with mankind."

Putting aside the issue later to be addressed that Avraham didn't have the Bible to discover the God, I believe that is a powerful statement. Are there holes in it large enough to drive a pachyderm through?
Emunah peshuta? Emunah complexia.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Forthcoming series: Do I believe the Rambam's 13 Principles?

I plan to being a new series of posts--13 in all--in which I honestly examine my own beliefs as compared to the Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith.

I believe that it has been satisfactorily been shown that "the limits of Orthodox theology" lies further afield than often thought. Although it may have been proved (Hirhurim, The Jewish Worker have both dealt extensively with this) that hashkafah is within the aegis of pesak, for the purposes of determining Who Is A Min, a category with halakhic implications, it can only be demonstrated that some posekim will regard deviation from the Rambam's principles as the limit. Other posekim will rule differently.

The fact (or opinion) that the Rambam's principles are not the beginning, middle and end of Jewish theology, of course, does not impact the factual corectness of these principles. The idea of am hanivchar, the chosenness of the Jewish people, is not an ikkar, but I believe it is factually correct.
Yet whether it is or isn't I've no doubt that there are posekim who would consider a person who didn't believe that the Jews were the am hanivchar to believe heresy, even though it isn't on the Rambam's list. The idea of yerodas ha-doros, the qualitative decline of the generations as they recede from the Sinai experience, is a widely held view yet not an ikkar. It may or may not be factually true. But whatever the case may be, it cannot be denied that the Rambam's principles are widely believed to define the limits of Orthodox theology. It also cannot be denied that there are some historical grounds for granting that this is correct.

Now as far as my new series, I plan to really think about each one and let the chips lie where they fall. I will think about them and try to honestly analyze what I believe without a pre-determined answer (read: that I believe). This doesn't mean that I don't know what the answer to some of them are. Take the first one, belief in God (I will post the detailed version of each one with the appropriate post). I know my answer; I believe in this one. But neverthless I plan to engage in introspection and guage what I believe and why for each of the 13.

I said that the chips will fall where they may. That doesn't mean that I want the answers to be "no" or "no, but...." for any of them. But if it will be, then it will be. Am I worried for myself, should that happen? Yes and no. The Gemara writes "yesh koneh olamo be-sha'ah achas", there are those who acquire olam ha-ba'ah in an instant. R. Moshe Feinstein said a person's olam can be acquired with a page of Talmud. No matter if it turns out that my emunah is derailed, I know that the Rachmana allows people to repair themselves. Rachman liba ba'i. I will try to "get good religion" in the words of the real Mississippi Fred McDowell if it takes a lifetime.

Here is the Yigdal poetic rendering of the Rambam's Principles as found in the Metsuda Siddur
  1. Exalted is the living God, and praised. He exists, His existence transcends time.
  2. He is One, and there is no unity like His; He's invisible, His unity is infinite.
  3. He is unlike the corporeal or even the non-corporeal; His own holiness cannot be compared to Him.
  4. He preceded everything that was created, He was first, and there was no genesis to His beginning.
  5. He is Master of the Universe, and every creature proclaims His greatness and His majesty.
  6. The fullness of His prophecy, He bestowed on those He treasured, and in whom He gloried.
  7. There never arose in Israel another like Moses, a prophet who beheld God's image.
  8. The Torah of truth God gave to His people, through His prophet [Moses], the trusted one of His house.
  9. God will not exchange nor alter His Law. Never will He offer any alternative.
  10. He scrutinizes and knows our secrets. He beholds the end of a thing at its beginning.
  11. He rewards man with kindness according to his deeds. He sends evil to the wicked according to his wickedness.
  12. He will send our Messiah at the end of days, to redeem all who await His final deliverance.
  13. God will revive the dead in His abundant kindness: Blessed forever is His praised Name.
I urge other J-bloggers to try this themselves. Let's see what happens.

'Aza, Gaza, mah zeh?

I am rarely at a loss for an opinion, especially about Israel. Yet the only opinion I can manage to muster about the Gaza withdrawal is sadness--not sadness because I think it is a bad move. That is what I cannot, for some reason, form an opinion about. Sadness because whether it is the right thing to do or not, it is unquestionably a sad moment in Jewish history. I just don't know what to think, but I am sad. I can only pray that this be nothing more than a speed bump in the history of the Jewish people and particularly in the life of the affected settlers, rather than a mountain.

But since Gaza is in the news, I thought it might be interesting to discuss why Gaza is called Gaza when it is spelled in Hebrew with an 'ayin. Now, it is hardly a secret to Ashkenazi Jews who do not distinguish between an 'aleph and an 'ayin that there is a difference. Many people know this and would suppose that this is why Gaza is transliterated with a "G". The guttural 'ayin becomes a hard g in English. Not so pashut. Moses' father, Amram, isn't Gamram.

In fact the reason why Gaza is Gaza and not 'Aza is because of Origen's Hexapla. Origen was a 2nd century Christian scholar who wrote an edition of the Bible in six versions side by side; Hebrew, Hebrew in Greek letters, the targum of Aquila, Targum Symmachus, the LXX and Theodotion's.

The column of Hebrew in Greek letters is especially exciting to Bible geeks, because it gives us greater understanding of how Hebrew was pronounced. In the Hexapla, 'Aza is rendered Gaza, notably because the 'ayin sound does not exist in Greek. However he didn't choose the "a" sound, as one would in English. One might think this was purely arbitrary. A guttural can go other way. Take it all the way to "g" or just leave it out. But no, his 'Amram gets the "a" treatment. Why?

In Arabic there is a letter called ghayn as well as 'ayn. The ghayn is basically a harder version of the 'ayn, but not yet a hard g. This letter doesn't exist in Hebrew. But perhaps, perhaps during the 2nd century, at least, there were some 'ayins in Hebrew* that were pronounced like a ghayn and some like an 'ayn. How would a speaker know which was which? Well, they'd just know intuitively. But we don't. It is for this reason that the twin city of Sodom, 'Amorah, became Gomorrah. Gaza, Gomorrah and Amram.

*Or maybe it was an Aramaic influence on Hebrew of the time.

On the Main Line, now with tags:

Is reading Elie Wiesel and Leon Uris an issur de-oraisa?

In The Taryag Mitzvos by R. Aharon Yisrael Kahan Mitzvah, a work based on the Sefer Hachinuch it says in Mitzvah 387 based on Num. 15:39, וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם

It is forbidden for a Jew to introduce into his mind, through reading or otherwise, any ideas that contradict the true Torah values. This includes books, newspapers, magazines, movies, etc. Although the quality of acceptable reading material available might be insufficient to satisfy our knowledge-hungry youth, this does not excusse the reading of anti-Torah literature, just as one may not eat pork, even though no kosher meat may be available. Any Torah-true Jew must forsake the works of the following authors: Ash, Bialik, Buber, Singer, Weisel and Leon Uris, to mention a few. The distorted attitudes and opinions of these shallow minded, non-Torah-true individuals are contradicting to our forefather's [sic] sacred teachings and traditions, and their venomous writing tend to instill anti-Torah values into the minds of their readers, chas v'shalom.

Wow, this is the first time I have ever heard Elie Wiesel's writing called "venomous". Leon Uris?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

From the bowels of the Avodah list

My apologies to Marc B. Shapiro. Future posts in the From the Bowels Of... series will not focus on his interesting posts, but other interesting points from high level Jewish discussion mail archives.

Shapiro writes

"...has caused me to wonder whether halakhic Jews can really be historians and tell the truth, and I think maybe R. Schwab and others are actually representing Jewish law when they call for censorship. Let me explain.

Let's say in doing research on a sage I discovered that he had an affair or that he spent time in jail in his youth. Presumably, in a biography this should be included, but I think it is clearly a violation of the laws of lashon hara. I guess the case can be made that if these events have no impact on the sage's future life, even from the standpoint of history there is no need to record them as this will needlessly tarnish him to destroy someone, However, most historians would no doubt say that this is a judgment that has to be left to the reader (note the controversy over the Arendt-Heidegger letters and the recent Koestler biography). From a halakhic standpoint, even if this fact was well known at the time, it can't be repeated today, since today people don't know it and especially since it can be assumed he repented. (I say this as someone who knows more "dirt" about certain great sages than he ever wanted to know, all gathered from written sources! Is it "listening" to lashon hara to read something?) This is one problem with writing true history.

Or let's say I discover that a rabbinic sage was a Nazi collaborator (I have not!). On the one hand you could say that this action ipso facto removes him from gadol status and since he did a terrible thing it must be revealed so that no one respects him anymore (uprooting wickedness is a positive thing). Or you can say that he must have repented later and thereofore to reveal it is a violation. In this case however, all historians will agree that it must be revealed. What does Jewish law say? If he is respected in the community, and has lived a good life for 40 years, presumably it is forbidden to reveal this. Thus, one cannot write a good biography of this person. Ergo, true history cannot be written by halakhic Jews.

Getting back to the first case. Let's say this well-known rabbinic figure had a child out of wedlock (there is such a case) and throughout his life had a close relationship with the child, or alternatively abandoned the child and refused to support it. These facts certainly say something about the person's character and it is impossible to write a biography without taking them into account. But would Jewish law permit one to?

There has yet to be an article discussing how one can write history within halakhic bounds. If I discover something negative about a person, which was well known in its time, and thus not lashon hara to repeat 100 years ago, but is today forgotten, according to Jewish law it probably cannot be repeated today. How then can one write history truthfully, exposing the flaws as well as showing the good? Presumably you can't, which is why Artscroll chooses to only focus on the good. It is not just that they are interested in creating hagiographa, but they are no doubt concerned with halakhic strictures.

I don't know where this ends? Presumably it would be forbidden to write a biography of R. Jacob Emden because one would have to discuss all the things he did and said and anyone who does this will come off thinking he is totally mad or thinking that R. Eybschuetz is a total low-life. Religously speaking, both of these are presumably not acceptable outcomes. So is it any surprise that the "Orthodox historian" will ignore the entire dispute?

History is about reporting the truth and interpreting it. If I discover that a certain gadol -- actually why do I keep mentioning gadol, even if I discover about a regular guy -- that he was involved in some event which reflects poorly on him, it seems that it is forbidden to report it. And if it is already publicly reported, then how can one interpret it, and cast judgments, which is also forbidden. How then can one do history? Maybe one cannot? Let's take the story of the Belzer rebbe and assume the worst, what is the halakhic rationale for repeating the story? The rebbe was a gadol and even if he erred in the worst way, or even if you think he "sinned", mustn't one assume that he did teshuvah, so why tarnish his reputation? From a religious standpoint, the Haredi position makes perfect sense, although it is of course not history.

A long time ago I told a leading Orthodox historian that the article he should write is how can halakhic Jews write history without falling into lashon hara. I am still waiting.


Marc Shapiro

How broad is the umberalla of Orthodoxy?

J-blog newcomer The 37th Tzaddik asks a stimulating question: Is there a Judaism called "Orthodoxy"? He points out that the label includes everything from Neturei Karta to Edah, which is frankly....weird.

Also check out the Godol Hador's Big Question, with very stimulating comments on this subject.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Tunder ahead

Der Blatt, the blog that produces the Satmar newspaper's content online (if it isn't the newspaper itself?), says there is a Tunder storm warning.

From Ezra to the Steipler Gaon

For no apparent reason. From Ezra to the Steipler Gaon by Avraham Zvi Antokol.

Is it just me or does the title of this book seem a bit non sequitur-y? I can't put my finger on exactly why.

Tznius flap at the White House

What's peshat with the Peshitta?

There is a very interesting translation of the Bible called the Peshitta. It is written in Syriac, which is basically the eastern dialect of Aramaic--as Max Weinreich famously said ah shprakh iz ah diyalekt mit an armey un a flot, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Strictly speaking this isn't true for Syriac, but roughly speaking Syriac is Christian Aramaic, and to the extent that there was a Christendom there could be a completely language called Syriac rather than two dialects of the same language, yesterday called Chaldaic, today called Aramaic. But I digress.

The Peshitta is sort of like the Aramaic targums are, except that it is younger than, say, Targum 'Onqelos. It also was produced by Christians--although there are theories that it actually stems from a Jewish source. R. Chaim Heller (1878-1960), author of Untersuchungen ueber die Peschitta, was of this opinion, although it should be pointed out that the Seridei Esh, who wrote his doctorate in the Peshitta really lambasted R. Heller's scholarship. But I digress.

Any yeshiva bochur knows that peshitta means something like "explanation" although it is also a technical Talmudic term that means, roughly, "duh" (but you have to say it with the proper "I know that already!" inflection).

The Peshitta is useful to Bible scholars (and yes, talmidei hakhamim) because it is an ancient textual "witness" to the Torah.

Update: Devora Khayyat informed me that the Syriac script of the Peshitta is called

Reduce sexual desire with "nonichai", basil and cinnamon!?

Is this a joke? I'm not sure if I'm speechless or not yet because I'm speechless.

Nonichai, is some kind of a sugar pill (actually, it contains "Noni, Basil, and Cinnamon") and is supposedly being marketed to Orthodox men to decrease sexual desire. And it says it is "Certified Kosher by Vaad Harabbonim of Flatbush"

Reduce Desire

(for men and boys 13 years and older)

Who would get benefit from Nonichai Reduce Desire Herbal Formula? Orthodox Jewish Males at one time or another.

  1. By Jewish law the husband is not allowed to have marital relations with his wife when she is nida (having her period). This may take as long as 12 to 15 days
  2. After giving birth the wife can be nida for many weeks.
  3. Often men have to travel without their wives for extended periods of time.
  4. Boys who are either students or not yet married are constantly bothered and their thoughts are distracted. They would definitely benefit and find their ability to study would be improved if they could temporarily reduce their desires and put their energies totally into learning Torah. Needless to say they could also concentrate better on their davening.
  5. it is well understood that bachelors and divorced men would also greatly benefit by temporarily reducing their desires.
I couldn't make this up.

Rachak explains himself

Young Rachak opens up.
I have to say that there are better influences he could find than the Satmar Rav and the Frumteens Immoderator--but no one can say that he isn't thinking. May his thoughts and study and good influences take him to the shvil zahav.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Joe Lieberman observes halakha be-farhesya

Sen. Joe Lieberman sports his shloshim beard.

Hat tip: The Slippery Slope.

Johannes Reuchlin, Chassid.

Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522) was a German humanist and Hebrew scholar. He was also one of the chassidei umos ha-olam according to R. Yisrael Lipschutz, the Tiferes Yisrael on Pirkei Avos. Aside from being a really smart guy and a talmid of the Seforno, he was also a passionate defender of the Talmud when it was under attack from non-Jews seeking to discredit it as a book of blasphemy.

In the words of Wikipedia
Many of his contemporaries thought that the first step to the conversion of the Jews was to take away their books. This view was advocated by the bigoted Johann Pfefferkorn (1469-1521), himself a baptized Jews. Pfefferkorn's plans were backed by the Dominicans of Cologne; and in 1509 he obtained the emperor's authority to confiscate all Jewish books directed against the Christian faith. Armed with this mandate, he visited Stuttgart and asked Reuchlin's help as a jurist and expert in putting it into execution. Reuchlin evaded the demand, mainly because the mandate lacked certain formalities, but he could not long remain neutral. The execution of Pfefferkorn's schemes led to difficulties and to a new appeal to Maximilian.
In 1510 Reuchlin was summoned in the name of the emperor to give his opinion on the suppression of the Jewish books. His answer is dated from Stuttgart, October 6, 1510; in it he divides the books into six classes-apart from the Bible which no one proposed to destroy--and, going through each class, he shows that the books openly insulting to Christianity are very few and viewed as worthless by most Jews themselves, while the others are either works necessary to the Jewish worship, which was licensed by papal as well as imperial law, or contain matter of value and scholarly interest which ought not to be sacrificed because they are connected with another faith than that of the Christians. He proposed that the emperor should decree that for ten years there be two Hebrew chairs at every German university for which the Jews should furnish books.
In others words, he was quite a guy.

These days, wonderful people like Jim Davila continue the work of Reuchlin, albeit in less dramatic fashion.

Artscroll's Stone Chumash disappoints on Balak

I've praised and criticized Artscroll.

In last week's parsha, Balak, the Artscroll Stone Chumash seems to have had difficulty dealing with Balaam. We are certainly not accustomed to the idea of gentile prophets and we're not accustomed to the idea of a wicked prophet. Both of these, or at least the second, seems to turn our conception of what a prophet is upside down.

In the introduction to the parsha (pg. 856) the Stone Chumash says that "God, in His wisdom, ordained that the gentile nations should have a prophet who would be comparable to Moses--though much inferior to him--so that they not would be able to contend that if only they had had someone who could communicate to them the will of God, they would have been as righteous as Israel. Balaam was that prophet."

"Comparable" but "much inferior"? Doesn't sound comparable.

On verse 22:23, The she-donkey saw the commentary says that Rashi and Ramban disagree regarding what the animal saw. According to Rashi, animals are allowed to see spiritual beings that are blocked from human eye, because human intelligence would cause people to live in constant fear if they could perceive everything around them.

Ramban asserts that angels are not physical beings and cannot be seen by people or animals, unless they assume human form--as when they visited Abraham--in which case they are visible to everyone. In Balaam's case, it was not that the she-donkey actually saw the angel. Rather, it sensed that it was in danger, for, figuratively, a being with a drawn sword stood before it.

On verse 22:31 the commentary writes that "it appears obvious that Balaam was not accustomed to seeing angels, for if he was, it would not have been necessary for his eyes to be uncovered. This also proves that he was not a prophet (italics mine), for even Abraham's wife Hagar and the prophet Elisha's servant Gehazi saw angels, though they were not prophets. If Balaam had been a true prophet, he would have had no trouble seeing an angel....Actually, Balaam was a sorcerer, not a prophet. The sublime prophecies he uttered later in the Sidrah were temporary abberations that God granted him only for the honor of Israel."

There are so many inconsistencies in the commentary that I don't even know where to begin pointing them out. Was Balaam a prophet? Can humans see angels or not? If they can't--or if even the donkey didn't see the angel, then in what way does Balaam's failure to see diminish him?

Artscroll cites sources, but it seems like cherry picking sources that contradict each other every few paragraphs or so isn't such a great strategy for a Torah commentary. To be sure, this doesn't happen often in the Stone Chumash. It may have happened in this case because of the difficulty Balaam poses that I raised at the outset. Still, this was a disappointment.

For a first rate analysis of parshas Balak check out Parsha Blog, who points out that Balaam was, in fact, Balak's donkey.

Friday, July 15, 2005

I'm not Aristotle, but...

If you look at a gray scale you will notice that not everything is black or white--but not everything isn't.

Marc Shapiro and cool stuff to be found in the bowels of the Mail-Jewish archives

Now that many people have had the chance to read my new book, The Limitsof Orthodox Theology (if it hasn't been banned from the local bookstore)it is a good opportunity to send out a public message concerningsomething that has been bothering me for awhile.

Since I write about controversial matters and often am in dispute withvarious scholars, I was given mussar from an outstanding scholar andbaal midot some ten years ago. He said that as Bnei Torah it isimportant not simply to write like an academic, and certainly not likean editorialist, but to give proper kavod even to the opinions that youfeel are completely wrong, if they have been stated by someone who isdeserving of respect by virtue of who he is.
Since then I think that I have meticulously kept to this, sittingshiv'ah neki'im for everything I write (even when responding to peoplewho thought it proper to attack me personally). In the latest book,unfortunately, I fell short of this. Although I read it over in proofform, it wasn't until I had the book in hand some two months ago that Irealized that I made a mistake, and by then it was too late. Godwilling, the error will be corrected if the book is reprinted (It mighthave to be, as it has sold out at the YU book sale, showing that thereis an interest, both pro and con, in its argument).
In the book I express my opinion that an argument by Rabbi Parnes(former Rosh Yeshiva of YU) is "ridiculous". Although this type oflanguage is found in academic works, and even in many Torah works (andis only directed at an argument, not a person), it was improper for meto use this expression and I have already apologized to Rabbi Parnes. Ishould have been able to find a better way to register my sharpdisagreement. I say this because Rabbi Parnes has spent a lifetimeteaching Torah, is many years my senior, and has forgotten more Shas andposkim than I will ever know. As such, more respect was called for inattempting to disprove his argument.
Shegiyot mi yavin, ve-ha-shem ha-Tov yekhaper.
Marc Shapiro

Thursday, July 14, 2005

When does Midrash cease being Midrash?

In this Hirhurim post, R. Gil Student posts regarding the story of Zimri and the Midianite woman recounted in this week's sidra.
R. Moshe Shternbuch, in his Tuv Ta'am Va-Da'as (ad loc.), homiletically offers the following background story: The Israelite men were attempting to reach out to the Midianites and bring them to faith in the Jewish God. However, in order to accomplish their lofty goal they needed to breach the chasm between the two divergent lifestyles. Therefore, they embraced some of the Midianite attitudes so as to be better able to influence the Midianites and bring them to the true faith. This corrupted the well-intentioned Israelites and led Kozbi, a Midianite princess, to convert to Judaism for purposes of marriage rather than belief. Zimri went to publicize his successful outreach program by showing off his recently converted Midianite wife.

However, this accomodation was nothing more than a distortion of Judaism that led to disastrous results. This program of outreach was so abominable that it led to the conclusion of the story -- the zealotrous Pinehas killed the two sinners who had brought Midianite attitudes and practices into the Jewish people.

R. Shternbuch continues to apply this to some outreach-oriented people in our day (without naming names) who, in our great sins, accomodate foreign attitudes in order to reach out to others. He strongly disapproves.
In the comments section, someone named Jeff rightfully zeroed in on the fact that R. Shternbuch is said to "
homiletically offer" this take on it and said
I noticed you said that he homiletically offers the following background story. I assume you have been careful with your words: so baiscally R' Sternbuch made it up. The problem with that is, that in doing this, even if he makes a good point, he has twisted the words of the Torah to his own purposes. And since he has a lofty standing in Jewish society, people may come to think of this as true pshat in the parsha.
R. Gil correctly pointed out that "You have just condemned over a thousand years of Torah literature." In other words, the Midrashic approach.

Yet, it seems like there is truth in Jeff's critique. Frankly, anyone can project anything onto the Torah. R. Shternbuch isn't "anyone", but is his peshat no different than Midrash? If it isn't where do we draw the line? Not every accepted Midrashic collection is from Chazal either, so arbitrarily drawing the line at the midrash of Chazal doesn't seem to make much sense.

Off with their heads

DovBear says Jewish dads should be executed.

Chazal and the social sciences

Dilbert at House of Hock explores whether Chazal could be mistaken about social science.

Someone in his comments points out that R. Yosef Ber Soleveitchik concluded that Chazal's social observations need not apply in other social settings when Kruschev denied in the UN that the USSR had missiles in Cuba. RYBS concluded after the US produced photos that milsa d-avidei l-giluyay lo m-shakrei inshei, people won't lie about something that will surely be revealed, is no longer true.

Someone once told me that Jewish women are beautiful (I agree!) but that its an objective fact rather than an opinion since R. Yishmael said that benos yisrael na'os hem.

Projecting the present onto the past?

Question: when the Talmud expounds the halakha of due process in court, can it be taken as evidence that this view prevailed in ancient Israel?

The Talmud often projects a rabbinic view on the past. Thus we find that Biblical figures are routinely portrayed as rabbinic scholars, not very unlike the rabbis themselves. On the other hand while the Talmud does this, even portraying the wicked Menasshe Ha-melekh as a formidable talmid chokhom, it also does not shy from the topic of Jewish sectarianism and the times in which various non-Pharisaic groups held power. However this pertains mostly to the Second Temple period, that is not earlier than what might be called the proto-rabbinic period. The earliest Biblical times are seen as an idyllic golden age and as such only the correct views, that of the rabbis themselves, could have held sway. Anachronism or not, this is how it is viewed, although of course more than a few Pharisaic practices are ascribed to ordnances enacted by Ezra and his successors, which means that there is definitely a rabbinic awareness of where things are properly placed in history as well.

But regardless of the rabbis' own view of the past, the standard traditional view, the one taught and believed in many Orthdox circles today is that unless noted otherwise the Talmud describes Judaism as it occurred in all of the past and not merely in the rabbis' present. For example, take the case of ben sorer u-moreh, a stubborn and rebellious son, a burgeoning juvenile delinquent of unusual proportions. The Torah, worried perhaps about a real social problem in the making, prescribes a solution: the death penalty (Deut. 21). The Talmud, however, relates all kinds of special conditions. The ben sorer u-moreh is not merely a bad seed. He has to do X, Y and Z. And if one of the child's parents has certain disabilities then he won't be found to be a ben sorer u-moreh. And he has to be a certain age. And he has to have a certain amount of physical development. And on it goes until the Talmud concludes that the ben sorer u-moreh never did and never will happen. Why is it in the Torah then? Silly question: its Torah and worth studying for its own sake.

But there are two questions that can be asked. One, is it really true that the ben sorer u-moreh case never occurred in all of history? Two, if we conclude that it must have, are we overstepping bounds in seemingly challenging the Talmud's assertion to the contrary--something that I am loathe to do, especially as concerns areas of halakha?

The Talmud didn't appear one day in the 6th century. It was at least three and as much as five or six centuries in the making. But on the other hand, it wasn't really "in the making" until it was decided towards the end of the period that it would be compiled and completed. When the Talmud speaks of events or views that occurred, say, in the 3rd century it is actually being remembered and written in the 6th. And when it speaks of events or views of a thousand years earlier that is true as well. There is no doubt that the Talmudic sages had every reason to believe that what is, was. Certainly in cases without evidence to the contrary. They could confidently assert that the halakhos of ben sorer u-moreh as they expounded them were the very same halakhos a thousand years earlier. But the simple fact is that we lack any evidence about ben sorer u-moreh in any period. We have the verses in the Torah on the topic and then silence until the Mishna and Gemara. So while we have no evidence that it was carried out, we also have no evidence that it wasn't.

What of the Christian Testament accounts of the adulteress being stoned? We can be reasonably sure that she wasn't convicted al pi halakha. Was she tried in a 23-member court that capital cases require? Okay, maybe. But were there witnesses to her adultery who warned her beforehand and did she orally accept their warning--all in toch kedei dibbur, that is about three seconds after they said their warning? These are requirements for a death sentence according to the Talmud. Obviously the rules make it pretty hard to the point that the Talmud doesn't expect death penalties to really occur, at least not frequently.

Now before one dismissed a Christian Testament account it should be remembered that at least this story had to ring true to its original audience. No one, apparently, would have exhibited surprise that an adulteress was stoned to death. The case would have probably been a travesty of justice to the rabbis, to be sure; it was totally against halakha. Maybe it was even a mob. But the point is that the incident presumably occurred. Halakha didn't prevail in all times. And what of the fact that Jews don't convert gentiles at the point of a sword? Halakha certainly doesn't sanction that, but that is just what the Hasmonean king Yohannan Hyrcanus did to the Idumeans.

The fact that the Talmud informs us of the halakha really can't be taken as evidence for its practice in all times and places. Ayin the Godol Hador, and no, I don't agree with Blu Greenberg. IYH I'll post why.


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