Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Moshe's 13 Torahs

Midrash Devarim Rabbah (9:9) says that Moshe wrote thirteen Torahs; one for each tribe and one to be kept in the Ark of the Covenant.

I realize this is a midrash. But how do Midrashic literalists understand writing thirteen Torahs in one day? (Or even in ten years?) This is something that I've never seen addressed, neither the mechanics of writing thirteen sifrei Torah or what sort of metaphorical message lies in this midrash. Any thoughts?

Time for a new Encyclopaedia Judaica

Anyone have any info on the forthcoming new edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica? It is supposed to be published in 2006.

In 2003 Thomson Gale announced that it had acquired a "cultural treasure", the rights to publish the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica.
The first edition was published by Keter Publishing House, a leading publisher in Israel. With the 2nd Edition, Gale will be working hand-in-glove with Keter to create an equally rich yet more robust version. Gale's revision - to be published under its Macmillan imprint - will be the first completely updated print edition in 30 years, said Allen Paschal, president of Gale. "Jewish studies have transformed significantly since the original edition. We are working with Keter to line up an editorial board of Israeli, U.S., and European Judaica scholars that reflects the state of Jewish studies today."

In addition to giving due attention to important Judaica subjects of recent decades, the Gale edition will introduce a key improvement: seamless integration of the base set, supplements, updates from the CD-ROM, and new content.

The Encyclopaedia Judaica is considered a cultural icon in Israel and throughout the world and is universally acclaimed as the definitive reference source on Jewish life, culture, religion and history. "The reverence for this book is apparent when watching political coverage on Israeli television where it's common to see the first edition of The Encyclopaedia Judaica located near officials' desks," Paschal said. "It's a symbol of learning and culture."

Marketplace conversations with librarians have indicated that a single, synthesized version of The Encyclopaedia Judaicawould be a valuable improvement over the current formats. Subject areas likely to be targeted in the new edition include events of the last 30 years; the State of Israel today; bibliographies; archaeological discoveries; new areas of scholarship; and the Holocaust studies. As great as the EJ is, it was published in 1972 so the prospect of a new one excites me inordinately.
Here is the entry on the late Nahum Sarna that will be in the new edition.

As great as the EJ is, it was published in 1972 so the prospect of a new one excites me inordinately. The new edition has big shoes to fill. Here's wishing it won't be a lemon.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Karaites, tefillin, masorah and archaology

A very interesting discussion about Karaites in this DovBear comment thread. The Jewropean mentioned that
There also are different groups of karaism who can't seem to stand each other, but I am not really aware of the details here. The Karaite World Union seems to be Egyptian dominated though and [Karaites] of Crimean origin seem to make several of these claims

1) Tefilin should be worn, since archeologist findings prove that the "tefilin verses" in Torah are not a metaphor.
2) The KWU's conversion requirements don't meet the Tanach's requirements.
3) The structures of the KWU contradict the Tanach.
A split among the latter day Karaites? I didn't know about that, but could it be that the Egyptian Karaites have become "Rabbanized"? The Crimeans, more willing to follow archaeological findings, rejecting their "masorah"?

Conversely, we "rabbanites" seem may have split or are splitting into neo-Karaized and non-Karaized factions regarding our own texts and traditions.

Nishtaneh ha-trousers

Believing wholeheartdely that the old scholars are infallible, Ludwig Duret (16th century) tried to solve in a peculiar way a contradiction between Hippocrates and Galen. According to the former each lung consists of three lobes; the latter, however, maintained that it consists of two lobes. Duret explained that in the time of Hippocrates all human beings were stronger, no doubt because their organs were better developed.

Similarly, when Vesalius (1514-64) proved that Galen's description of hip-bones were wrong, the excuse offered for Galen's error was that man's shape had changed through wearing tight trousers.

Zimmels H.J., The Signifigance of the Statement "We are not acquainted any more" as Echoed in Rabbinic Literature (New York: Shulsinger Brothers, 1962), pp.229 in Leo Jung Jubilee Volume

Monday, August 15, 2005

Too many books, not enough minutes

Mexican poet Gabriel Zaid wrote one of those little books that are described as "stimulating or "a delightful little book" called So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. As the title and cover indicates, it is about the problem that there is simply too darn many books and what can be done about it. Godol Hador posted recently about a depressing trip to Barnes & Noble.

Zaid convincingly estimates that since the invention of moveable type printing in the mid-15th century, something like 52 million titles have been published. The number is obviously huge, but how huge? Zaid goes on to put things into perspective. Were one to make reading their full time vocation, with reading an average of four books a week, fifty years into the project you'd have read about 10,000 books. That is, one out of every 50,000 books.

Let's try to pare down 52,000,000 to a manageable number. After all, most of them are junk anyway. Drop two million for fun, and let's assume that 90% of the remaining 50 million are complete and total trash. Of the 5 million remaining, let's assume that 90% are essentially repetitious; in the genre of great novels, for example, if you've read Huckleberry Finn then you don't really need to read Tom Sawyer. If you've read one Dostoevsky that's enough--enough Dostoevsky and enough great Russian literature.So that leaves us with 500,000 books that are not complete trash and that are not essentially restatements of other books. Let's assume that by eliminating those books that aren't available in, say, only English or Hebrew* and books that aren't really meant to be read (e.g., dictionaries) that we're left with 100,000 books that aren't total trash, that aren't info you can get in other books, that aren't technical and that aren't only available in English or Hebrew.

If in 50 years of reading full time you can read 10,000 max, if you become a masmid and read 16 hours a day then you can read 20,000. If you're granted long life, then in a hundred years you can read--just one time--40,000 or so of the 100,000 books that are worth reading. By satisfying almost impossible conditions you can read 40% of the worthwhile reading that is available to you, and read them only one time each. Of course that's just crazy talk. A much more realistic estimate is that a voracious reader will read two or three thousand books in their lifetime, and let's not pretend that a great deal of it won't be things that would have been better not to have read.

¡Ay, caramba!

Zaid's book is actually a celebration of books. He freely acknowledges that he isn't ever going to read all of the 10,000 books in his library and says that no one with great libraries is under a different illusion.

*Oh, and speaking of sefarim does anyone have any idea of a reliable estimate for how many Judaic works have been written? Realizing the borders on this are really hard to define, if I had to guess it wouldn't surprise me if a cool million separate Jewish titles have been written.

Elazar ha-Kalir's J'Accuse; Ey koh

The most moving kinnah of all, to me, is אֵי כֹּה 'Ey Koh' "Where is 'so'? by the great R. Elazar ha-Kalir. The 'ey koh' refrain is a brilliant pun on the word אֵיכָה 'Eichah', 'Alas'. The kinnah lists many instances of the word כֹּה, 'so', as it is used throughout Tanakh. For example, it begins by asking "ey koh", where is "so" that was promised to Avraham by the bris bein ha-besarim and it quotes the relevent verse, "ko yihiyeh", so shall your offspring be [as numerous as the stars]. It continues with many "so"s, where is the so when Moshe looked this way and that way and killed the Egyptian oppressor ("veyifen ko ve-cho").

To me, the kinnah reads like a J'Accuse, R. Levi Yitzhaq Mi-Berditchev style. It's very moving; it basically wants to know what the heck happened, God? But since it is coming from a place of pain it doesn't read like rebellion, but rather despair. Taken alone I don't think that this kinnah would be so healthy on Tisha B'Av since it isn't a day of anger towards Hashem (or maybe only for someone with an immediate and personal tragedy), but as part of the liturgy its excellent.

I was a little disappointed that the Artscroll Tisha B'Av compendium translates Ey ko as "Where is [the merit of the word] so". As far as I can tell, that isn't the meaning of the kinnah at all. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that without the Artscroll kinnos would have been far less moving for me yesterday, so kudos to them, including especially the notes.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Sof horaa and the redaction the Talmud

Who redacted the Talmud? The Gemara famously says "Ravina v-rav Ashi sof horaa", "Ravina and Rav Ashi were the final decisors", (Baba Metzia 86a). That's as close to a statement about this question from within the Talmud itself. Ravina died later than R. Ashi, in the equivalent of about the year 500 CE, according to R. Sherira Ga'on.

Clearly, it is unlikely that Ravina himself wrote "Ravina v-rav Ashi sof horaa". So who did? According to R. Sherira, following the death of Ravina rabbis who could no longer be called amoraim but whom R. Sherira calls saboraim continued the work intitiated by R. Ashi and continue by his student Ravina, the final compilation and redaction of the Talmud. The Gemara quotes by name the opinion of saboraim (a term, which incidentally, is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi) . R. Achai, for example, is thought to have been a sabora. Although the saboraim considered there to be a marked distinction between themselves and the amoraim, evidently that didn't preclude them from adding some of their own, by name, into the mix.

In short, the saboraim are a short shadowy group with no precisely defined role. Their existence is surely acknowledged by all, but the popular and traditional view of the Gemara scarcely makes room for them. How much of the Gemara was written by them? There are minimalist and maximalist views; a lot? A little? Does it matter?

What I think is interesting in itself is the fact that history doesn't really record the appearance of the Talmud (although it is unsurprising for its time). It was just there by the time later geonic authorities were commenting on it and about it. Who wrote it? When? There are educated guesses but the silence is deafening.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fresh lemon juice on fresh wounds

DovBear posted about what one might learn from the impending Gaza event. He says that

the Gaza withdrawl is an act of Teshuva. The nation and the people are repenting for abiding 30 years of Jim Crow conditions in Yesha
Now, it is obvious if you read the entire post that DovBear meant no malice and that he worded it very carefully. After citing Rashi on tzaraas, he says it is his "abiding hope that a "treasure of gold" waits for the nation and the people who complete this process."

And yet, the only substantial differences between this post on the eve of the impending disaster for the people so affected and Toby Katz's posts on the Holocaust is, arguably, that Toby didn't bend over backwards to appear as sensitive as she could have, although I don't think she was being malicious either. But there is another difference in that the Holocaust ended 60 years ago. Is it a closed wound? Certainly not. But some scar tissue has built up there. The Holocaust 'takes' far worse than Toby Katz' Holocaust theology.

The wounds of Monday's Gaza disaster (if one can define the eviction of 8000 people as a disaster, which I think one can) are so fresh that the cut's haven't even started bleeding yet (metaphorical blood, I hope). No matter which way I read DovBear's post I see lemon juice being poured into wounds. Put aside the Jim Crow issue--I think he meant well despite my strong disagreement, and that's what distresses me about it so much. Its so insensitive that it's mean.

Koffehouse kabbalah

When I was a kid in sleep-away camp they used to have a 'Cocoa Club', which was an inducement for the kids to get up early before davening to learn. Since the morning air in the mountains is chilly, we could chill with our mishnayos and cocoa while other kids in camp still slept. (ahh, fond memories.... :)

This very interesting post by Chakira called to my attention an article called 'Coffee, coffeehouses, and the nocturnal rituals of early modern Jewry' by Elliott S. Horowitz (AJS Review 14,1 (1989) 17-46.) The premise: Kabbalistic midnight rituals, such as tikkun chatzos or tikkun leil shavuos came to be in each place that it did with the introduction of coffee. The use of coffee as a stimulant might have encouraged the mystics of Tzefat to focus on all-night and late-night rituals because they couldn't sleep anyway. Horowitz demonstrates that such midnight rituals happened where and when coffee became available; in Tzefat in the mid-16th century. In Italy, in the early 17th century, and in Germany in the 18th century.

summary of Friedman's article

What's the point? Nothing. It takes nothing away from tikkunei chatzos or leil shavuos. But it is an interesting correlation.
Krum as a Bagel passionately posts about how the vibrancy of living Torah, especially after the rebound from the Holocaust only two generations in the past, is proof enough that the Torah is true, that it is an etz chaim ( my own paraphrase). Read his post, its excellent.

However I have a two-part question. His answer suffices for today what will be the answer in a hundred years from now if Orthodoxy is still vibrant, as it hopefully will be? You can't really give the rebound-from-the-brink answer forever.

Secondly, what would he have said is the compelling answer 60 years ago when it looked like it was all over?

In other words, I think his wonderful post is very time-bound. So what is the timeless answer?

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Torah and popular culture: Milton isn't just an 80-year old Jewish guy

There's been some j-blog talk today about Torah U-Popular Culture. Understandably, proponents of Torah U-Madda reject Torah U-Britney Spears, but is there anything valuable in popular culture at all? R. Gil argues, in an old post, that there is:
not everyone sees the same insights in the same place. Some people (like me) gain very little from Shakespeare because of a pitiable lack of background and interest. Sure, if Rabbi Carmy or R. Aharon Lichtenstein spell out a valuable tidbit from Milton then I will grasp it. But, sadly, I lack the interest in searching for such insights myself.

....It is my belief that Torah Im Derekh Eretz (which Dr. Lamm classifies as a form of Torah U-Mada) includes contemporary popular culture. The only reason to exclude it is old-fogeyism and cultural bias. Is there bad pop culture? Yes. Is there bad 19th century literature? Yes. Are there aspects of pop culture that are assur? Same thing goes for 19th century culture. The bold TIDE-nik will find the gems and utilize them for positive purposes.

Figure out how to concentrate in tefillah and don't despair

A blogger called Doresh asked some tough questions about kavvana and tefilla. He writes
Many years ago I bought some seforuim on various tefilos are learnt them. However I quickly discovered that given the time to for instance say ashrei, it’s not realistic to be mechavain anything.....The problem with tefilah - is that the point is to communicate and think NOT mumble through an extraordinary number of words per minute and space out. Yet we do. And you see from how the halacha is set up - we are forced to. And despite asking numerous talmidei chachomim and looking around in various acharonim I have never seen any kind of explanation. It’s maddening.
I say that the problem is that people think halakha is like chemistry. H20 = water and all that.

The truth is that if it will aid your tefillah to spend the 10 minutes of pesukei de-zimrah saying only ashrei, then by all means do so. Same goes for all teffilos that are in the siddur. There are certain ones that have priority, and even in the certain ones (such as the amidah) there are certain berachos with priority.

Unfortunately "they" won't tell the rabbim that one really doesn't have to daven every single word if it will damage his tefillah.

Use your head, man. It's like when they tell you that if you say a single word of lashon hara as defined by the Chafetz Chaim then every good thing you did in your entire life promptly disappears. Take it for what it is, a polemical point that lashon hara is a sin.

This is definitely not an argument against being medakdek in halakha or striving for that. But it is an observable fact that it is impossible for a human being to excel in every fine point of every law as codified in the texts, or at least not for an average human being (e.g., most people). What if you don't get out of bed like a lion (first siman Shulhan Arukh)? Does that mean that you "don't follow the Shulhan Arukh" and thus aren't frum? Nonsense. The point of halakha isn't to make people drown, and if someone is drowning in it then they have to assess how they will stay afloat. If in the case of tefillah it is a choice between having kavvana for a couple of things or having no kavvanah at all and frantically mumbling it all out the choice is clear.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005



Every letter of the English alphabet ultimately has its equivalent in the Semitic alphabet of old, of which Ketav Ivri is a beautiful example. My only question was whether "the" would become "sav" (which can also be read as "thav") "heh", from which "e" is derived, or if I should go the distance and put in a "ches" too, which is equivalent to "h". "THE", with the "ches/ h" looked nicer.

Steg had a good peshat:
You do realize, don't you, that the Ketav ‘Ivri in your title says ‘onat hhaham, ein lina don't you? I assume that hhaham is a scribal error for original hhakham, and therefore the inscription reads "in the season of a sage, there is no rest". deep."
In the season of a sage, there is no rest. I like it!

They hear but do not understand, they have eyes but do not see

Some good stuff going on at Godol Hador. I, perhaps naively, asked
I'm curious how people can learn something without understanding it and apparently thinking that they do understand. They must think they understand, right? How else could they learn it? What does someone who knows nothing of math or science think he's doing when he learns Gemara that deals with these subjects? How can he not be aware that he doesn't know what's going on??
I was immediately reminded not to underestimate the power of cognitive dissonance. How many people "have heard the word "firmament" but have never looked up what it means?", Mis-nagid pointed out. I was also reminded that people sometimes "daven" a Gemara, something I remember kids doing. Good point. It's's weird.

Tefillin blog

Interesting. Paranthetically, has anyone noticed that today's kids (I think I just channelled my great-aunt Fruma) look like they stepped out of 1984 (the year)?

Monday, August 08, 2005

The F word

If I could generalize one thing about fundamentalists I would say that it is that they eschew the word fundamentalist.

Like all great generalizations that's misleading though, since the original fundamentalists were American Protestants who called themselves fundamentalists in the 1920s. But apart from them and some strays today who embrace the fundamentalist label the way some black people embraced "nigga", it is a word that no fundamentalists like and most misunderstand.

I used to think that to be a fundamentalist meant to hold a literalist interpretation of Scripture. If that was the case, then the only Jewish fundamentalists were Karaites (more on them in a post to come). Torah she-b'al peh Judaism, as it developed, is by definition not fundamentalist.

That's exactly what a fundamentalist Jew who didn't like the label might say, but its irrelevent since a fundamentalist isn't one who holds a literalist interpretation of Scripture. You could look the word up in a dictionary or find a more expanded definition in Wikipedia. Charles Isbell defines fundamentalism as follows:
In theory, all religious fundamentalists claim that their beliefs are grounded in Scripture or other sacred texts. In practice, however, such groups come over time to propound a fixed list of beliefs or "traditions", each one individually considered a sine qua non for remaining acceptable with the group (and thereby to God!). Because it is unwavering acquiescence to their own system of beliefs and practices that is required membership in the group itself is not grounded upon a rational or intellectual basis, but is actually determined primarily by a combination of psycho-sociological and/ or political factors. Criticisms of group leadership of questions about group values and customs are disallowed and regarded as dangerous or sinful. Thus, to be or to remain a "member", one....must adhere faithfully both to all tenets collectively, and also to each tenet individually, because every single tenet is perceived as one of the foundational = "fundamental", hence essential, truths."
If the shoe fits...

Note please the bit about "lists of beliefs or practices", because there are indeed many beliefs and practices that are more or less ubiquitous to Jewish fundamentalists that are not of the Rambam's 13 Ikkarim (part and parcel for Orthodoxy). Many Jewish fundamentalists will actually acknowledge that there are other legitimate ways within Torah Judaism but they still do not regard these ways and persons as fully equal.

For example, the Torah-only issue. If the Torah and halakha is meant to regulate a living society then it follows that halakha expects there to be Jewish doctors and lawyers and gardners and electricians and poets and thousands of other things that any society must have. Yet according to the tenets of some Jewish fundamentalists none of these pursuits are even possible according to the values of these fundamentalists.

Or the dress issue. In theory, most Jewish fundamentalists will acknowledge, a person can be an oved Hashem and wear blue shirts. Yet in principle one cannot really belong to the group and hence not really the best Jew one could be if one wears blue shirts. A list could be expanded of "tenets" that are NOT essential to Judaism but are essential to a certain type of Jewish fundamentalism.

What of listing concrete proofs in the form of great historical rabbis of impeccable reputation who deviated from the present-day values and tenets of this form of Jewish fundamentalism?

To no avail; according to another (unwritten) "tenet", great rabbis provide exceptions rather than rules.

For example, it is obvious that R. Avigdor Miller z"l read extensively in many heretical disciplines, including the holy books of other religions. I once tried to cite R. Miller as 'proof' that one could read such material, at least to fulfull "da ma she-tashiv". The response I get was fahkert, R. Miller could read it but we can't. This isn't different than the idea that "RSRH could say it, but we can't".

The fact that R. Ovadia Seforno taught Johannes Reuchlin isn't a proof of anything at all but rather it demonstrates what is permissible to an early Aharon but impermissible, according to fundamentalism, for "us".

Or the fact that R. Saadya Ga'on outlined four principles by which a person may reject the literal meaning of scripture is taken only as proof that a Ga'on may do so but not "us".

The word is a description and not a value judgement. Unfortunately the fundamentalist label applies to groups who fight holy wars against innocents and men who abuse large numbers of women and children as well as people who only want to do their own thing without harming anyone. Since that's the case it is no wonder that fundamentalists themselves have no wish to be counted with some really harmful people. And yet, fundamentalism isn't definitionally about causing bloodshed--it's just that some fundamentalists cause harm while others do not.

Could the biblical Isaiah have understood Ivrit?

Objections to the Lashon ha-kodesh-ness of Ivrit are well known, usually lodged by ideological opponents of Zionism motivated by religious ideology that denies a priori any Jewish creativity to non-traditional Jews. They rarely explain why, if so, essentially non-Zionist posekim like R. Moshe Feinstein would use words like chashmal (electricity) in his responsum. That is as far as the religious objection to Ivrit as the modern Hebrew language.

A non-ideological objection comes from Israeli linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, whose thesis is that modern Ivrit is more accurately a hybrid, both Semitic and Indo-European, thus, the term Israeli is far more appropriate [a name] than "Israeli Hebrew".

In his controversial paper, he writes that
The Mutual Intelligibility Assumption posits that Israeli is Hebrew because an Israeli speaker can understand Hebrew. Edward Ullendorff has claimed that the biblical Isaiah could have understood Israeli. I am not convinced that this would have been the case. The reason Israelis can be expected to understand the book of Isaiah – albeit still with difficulties – is surely because they study the Old Testament at school for eleven years, rather than because it is familiar to them from their daily conversation. Furthermore, Israelis read the bible as if it were Israeli and often therefore misunderstand it. When an Israeli reads y?led sha‘ashu‘?m in Jeremiah 31:19 (King James 20), s/he does not understand it as ‘pleasant child’ but rather as ‘playboy’. Ba’u banim ‘ad mashber in Isaiah 37:3 is interpreted by Israelis as ‘children arrived at a crisis’ rather than as ‘children arrived at the mouth of the womb, to be born’. The available examples are not only lexical: much more importantly, Israelis are often incapable of recognizing moods, aspects and tenses in the Bible.
Languagehat quotes more from the paper. Very interesting topic. Especially (to me) the intriguing part I italicized. What about the reverse? And what, if anything, does that say about the nature of Ivrit?

One more excerpt
Yet, Israeli children are told that the Old Testament was written in their mother tongue. In other words, in Israeli primary schools, Hebrew and Israeli are, axiomatically, the very same. One cannot therefore expect Israelis easily to accept the idea that the two languages might be genetically different. In English terms, it is as if someone were to try to tell a native English-speaker that his/her mother tongue is not the same as Shakespeare’s. The difference is that between Shakespeare and the current native speaker of English there has been a continuous chain of native speakers. Between the biblical Isaiah and contemporary Israelis there has been no such chain, while the Jews have had many mother tongues other than Hebrew...
I think the difference that Zuckermann posits is a chiluk that stands on a very thin wire. Hebrew did develop over the centuries organically, albeit in a more limited way than if it had remained a spoken, native language.

On the Main Line, now with tags:

Buying tzoah shel-sora

Stories, anecdotes, help us understand celebrated personalities better. There is a vast genre of Great Rabbi Stories. The provenance of some are better than others.

But is there a way to test if an anecdote might be true without really knowing the facts?

Biblical scholars looking to find the historical Jesus buried within the Greek Testament realize that most of the material just lionizes him and is only useful in telling us what people who esteemed him thought about him. But the rule they use is that details in the text that jump at us because it seems so out of character provide clues that are likely to be authentic. Thus, if he is said to be a carpenter than he probably was, after all the people who elevated a man into a god weren't likely to have invented a humble profession for him. If the text has him saying something harsh, something that doesn't seem very sar shalom-like, then he probably said it too.

I don't know how useful that really is, but there you have it.

Recently someone mentioned of the Klauzenberger Rebbe z"l the following:
The kloisenberger rebbe went through many incomprehensibly painfull years in the consentration camp. The 1st thing he did when freed was jump into a river, to be toivel the first time in years. To the people who started straying after they where freed, he said , if this is how you act, better you would have been killed in the camps.
That someone put those words into the mouth of the holy rebbe of Klauzenberg blew my mind. That statement is very cruel. The rebbe was not only not a cruel person, on the contrary!--he was a paragon of righteousness and is known specifically for being a comfort and source of strength to survivors in the immediate aftermath of the war--even as he lost a wife and ten children. To me it is inconceivable that he'd have said the thing attributed to him. I do not accept it, and not only because it is yet another one of the unreliable stories about rabbis that float around. It would really distress me if in 1900 years from now scholars would take the statement attributed to him as true precisely because it is uncharacteristic of him, but I digress.

It's a strange thing, in any case, that a person would believe that he said it and not only believe that he said it but agree with it because he said it. How could a person not see that to say this thing is cruel? The answer is as follows: some people do not think critically and they work bckwards. If such-and-such is known to be a tzaddik then it doesn't matter what anyone has the tzaddik doing. If he acts inappropriately, if he even acts with cruelty then by definition the action is still blameless and no one should question it. This is exactly why certain rabbinic personalities of recent decades who said really terrible things about people they opposed got away with it.

Friday, August 05, 2005

How did you learn to read Hebrew?

10th century, children's Hebrew exercise book, Cairo Geniza

I learned to read Hebrew beginning at age 4 the traditional way, rote recitation after a rebbe* ("qamatz aleph aw, qamatz beis baw, qamatz gimmel gaw etc.). Our primary text was a beautiful book called Alef Bina, bound in a handsome brown (later editions used lots of color and always looked cartoony to me). Of course I already came prepared, having learned the Aleph Bet at home.

How did you learn to read Hebrew?

* He was a wonderful rebbe.

On the Main Line, now with tags:

Rashi Wein

Soccer Dad notes Rashi's 900th yahrzeit as well. He also writes that
Rabbi [Berel] Wein estimated that 80% of Ashkenazi Jewry is descended from Rashi. Michael Gerver's calculations led him to believe that the percentage was somewhat higher.
Is that even a remotely plausible statement? It sounds really, really off to me. I honestly don't know what to make of it.

Sir Sacks faces suit

British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks apparently faces a possible defamation suit because his bet din doesn't recognize a woman named Helen Sagal's conversion and said she isn't Jewish. Apparently she was converetd by a bet din in Israel that is recognized by Rabbi Sacks' bet din. Don't know what the full story is or how it will develop. Link

Not knowing what the story is I don't know if the outcome could be a precedent for something bad or not.

Halakha isn't chemistry

In the '40s the DuPont Corporation had a slightly-Orwellian sounding slogan to promote its products--Better Living Through Chemistry. It was the exciting era of asbestos. But apart from the chemical mishaps it is undoubtedly true that chemistry really did and does enhance the quality of life in the modern world. Content halakhic Jews will agree that Better Living Through Halakha is a slogan that works for them. But there is where the similarity between chemistry and halakha ends.

Culture--minhag, actual practice--is an intrinsic part of halakha. Today some of us tend to look at halakha as if is is a science in the sense that there are exact formulae and predictable answers to questions. No, that isn't what it is.

Minhag plays a real role in halakha. It still does and it always did. And that can be proven from the Gemara and the responsa literature of the past 1500 years. The attempt to turn halakha into chemistry is fairly modern and unlikely to succeed completely, because it is NOT chemistry.

Why do I write this? Because I had a little friendly spar with DovBear about the very issue. He says that the taboo of women wearing tefillin is "cultural nonsense", since woman routinely take the lulav on Succos. Great sevara, right? But he's wrong, since he is treating halakha like its chemistry. That woman "always" took the lulav and esrog but did not don tefillin is relevent in the halakhic context. That isn't to say that women's issues are irrelevent-- on the contrary! There are historical examples of women adopting practices en masse and so making it halakhically binding for women. Who knows what a snapshot of the Jews will look like in a hundred (or twenty) years compared to today? It is because halakha isn't chemistry that its evolution is unpredictable!

Rabban Shel Yisrael; 900 years since Rashi

Today is the nine hundredth yahrtzeit of Rashi, who died on 29 Tammuz 4865.

(not sure what origin of the picture is, but it's a depiction of Rashi that I've been seen for years)

Who can adequately say anything about Rashi? Since there is nothing I can add, I will just quote something only tangentially related from the 1906 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia

When printing was introduced, the selection of a style of type depended upon the same conditions as in the case of the execution of manuscripts. Square or block letters were cast for biblical and other important works; in the various countries different models for letters were often followed; one form was preferred at one time, another at another; however, the style selected by the Ashkenazim prevailed and maintained its preeminence over all the others. Books of a secondary character, works which accompanied another text, such as commentaries and the like, were printed in the cursive; and here a style of type became popular which very closely resembled the Hispano-African cursive Since the script occurs oftenest in commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud by Rashi, it has become known as the Rashi script.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Ish das

Reb Lamedzayin asks what a rabbi's answer to the following question would be: "If you were born a Moslem would you be an Imam today?" He further clarifies that he wants to know "whether our religious leadership is drawn towards Judaism specifically or religion in general. If Lustiger had remained in Judaism would he be a gadol today instead of a Cardinal?"

When I was younger I dind't understand "דת" this and "דת" that in the theological writings of old. "Religion"? What is this "religion" thing and why are rabbis referring to it?

I think there really is a 'homo religiosus' type. I've mentioned before, although not in these selfsame words, that I am by nature something of a 'homo skepticus' and if I am being honest with myself I have to ackowledge the probability that were I not brought up religious I wouldn't have become religious (that in turn reminds me to be skeptical of my own skepticism).

In short, I don't know if rabbi/ imam/ priest really translates exactly across the borders as the concepts are all rather different, but I do think that religious types would probably be religious in any environment in which they could have encountered religion.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Men Are from Israel, Women Are from Moab

Pumpernickel is Jewish and white bread is very goyish.

Lenny Bruce had a famous routine about what is "Jewish" and what was "Goyish". In part, it went like this
Dig, I'm Jewish. Count Basie's Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor's goyish. B'nai Brith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish. Marine corp – heavy goyim, dangerous. Koolaid is goyish. All Drake's Cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes - goyish. Black cherry soda's very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish - very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish. Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won't go near them. All Italians are Jewish. Greeks are goyish - bad sauce.
If the routine were milk it would be way past the expiration date. It's very dated.

For some Jews culture is a dirty word, at least as pertains to Jews. However it is evident that Jewish culture or cultures exist. What would you say is Jewish and what is goyish?

V. Rambam's 5th Principle of Faith

He [God], may He be blessed, is the only One whom it is proper to serve [worship], to praise, to make known His grandeur, and to fulfill His commandments. This should not be done to any entity that is subservient to Him, be it the angels, the stars, the planets, or the elements or their compounds. For their activity is programmed. They have no control, and no choice but to perform His will. Thus it is improper to serve them as intermediaries in order to come close to God. Rather, one should direct his thoughts toward the Almighty alone and abandon anything other than Him. This is the fifth Principle, warning us against idolatry, as affirmed throughout the Torah.
Do I believe this? Absolutely. With perfect faith, even. Okay, I'm not perfect and neither is my faith. But I am very comfortable affirming this principle.

This ikkar isn't particularly relevent for Jews who only worship and pray to the Almighty alone. Or so it would seem, but a bump need to be smoothed over. People pray at the graves of tzadikkim, and if I am not mistaken that is attested to in the Talmud, meaning that it was not invented in 17th century Ukraine or Morocco. Years ago I came across a book about "Saint Veneration among the Jews in Morocco" (it wasn't this particular book, but I don't remember what it was, but I think "saint worship" was in the title). The title surprised and upset me. No, I thought, praying at the graves of tzadikkim was being misunderstood and called something that it simple isn't.

Or is it? The truth is I'm not sure what the kavvana of everyone who prays at a grave site is. I would expect and hope that the more informed among us aren't directing their prayers towards something other than God. But at the same time I can't help but suspect that the Rambam didn't only have in mind Roman Catholicism when he penned the words of this ikkar.

Don't get me started on prayer directed towards kabbalistic sefiros, which I admittedly don't know a lot about. I also don't know what a melitz yosher is and why it isn't a mediator. I also don't know why angels understanding or not understanding Aramaic has anything to do with whether Hashem hears our prayers.


Do you believe in magic?

DovBear agonizes over whether a public and worldwide recitation of the Shema is magic. At the end of the post he's made up his mind
Using the Shema as if it was a magic spell, with the power to compel an response from God is philosophically unsound, and theologically vulgar.
I can only say that public prayer be-es tzara is Judaism. Period. End of story. No discussion is really necessary, is there?

Is this technically within the lines of an academic definition of magic? It may well be. But is it "theologically vulgar"? Not in this religion!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Guess what, the Jews invented suicide terrorism! Or not.

Paleo-Judaica takes on a new, pernicious 'blame-the-Jews meme' published in the London Times of all places, which blames suicide terrorism on hotheaded Jews of old.

Google records dumb typos for posterity

It's good to know that if you type Umberalla into Google Farsi that I am the first link. Weird world.
Marvin Schick continues to ask tough questions. Good for him and good for Cross-Currents.

Fiddling while Jerusalem burns

Today, R. Gil posts about some halakhic dimension of a potato that is hot or merely room temperature depending on where you are coming from: women and learning Gemara specifically, or talmud Torah more generally.

Commenter charliehall points out that "Formal education for women preceded the Bais Ya'akov movement by half a century -- R'Hirsch in Germany and R'Rice in America. Did either leave any writings regarding the halachic issues?"

In fact, formal education for girls preceded R. Hirsch as well. If I'm not mistaken the credit for that innovation goes to Haham Isaac Bernays (1792-1849), rav of Hamburg, who was also a rebbe of R. Hirsch. Isaac Bernays is noted for establishing the first day school for boys and girls. Was he a talmid chakham? Evidently. He was awarded the title of haver at age 7 for his expertise in Babba [One of them, I can't remember].

I think the answer to charliehall's question "did [they] leave any writings regarding the halachic issues?" is that they saw that a house was on fire and they didn't stop to look up what to do in the Mishna Berura, so to speak--or to write it. In fact, neither did the founders of the Bais Yaakov movement, who famously got the all-important approbation of the Chafetz Chaim after the fact.*

These pioneers acted. They knew full well that Halakha simply isn't a system under which masses of Jewish girls would defect because of a halakhic shackle. Even without the teshuva and the pesak written, obviously halakha permits saving these Jews, otherwise halakha is self-negating. And many a Jewish girl in Eastern Europe attrited before the eventual adoption of a system that, while not now controversial in itself, engenders many still-controversial questions.

It is absolutely appropriate today to look up the halakhic parameters of putting out fires and to write the teshuva. But at the time of crises? If it can't be done yesterday, then sometimes the time to act is today.

What of the Satmar Rav, who didn't even permit women to learn Rashi? Well, in his insular community Jerusalem isn't burning (or we can pretend that it wasn't/ isn't). However since that's the case then his halakhic opinion is relevent to a faction, not the kelal. Dr. Eliezer Berkovits wrote in Lo Bashamayim Hi
One might say that in the present conditions the community of an Orthodox Yeshiva is a halakhic society that functions fully democratically. One enters it and belongs to it in complete personal freedom and responsibility. The same might be said about an Orthodox community like New Square in the United States or the Meah Sh'arim quarter in Jerusalem. But are they the kind of society intended by the Torah? The total purpose of Halakha is to guide the life of the nation, not just that of a sect or of a sectional community.
*Menacham Butler points out that
Contrary to the wide misunderstanding, the Bais Yaakov schools were established before receiving the backing of the great sages of the era. Indeed, a forthcoming PhD about this founding of this movement stresses this point, to the disappointment of many in the current Bais Yaakov leadership.

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Sabbatean ghost

The ghost of Shabbetai, or just stam nonsense?

Copyrights and talmud Torah

On my latest Artcroll post someone raised an excellent general point:
[in the past] those who disagreed with Rashi's understanding were free to write their own pirush and incorporate it into a sefer side by side with Rashi (ala Mikraos Gedolos) so that the reader could chose between approaches. Copyright law would preclude a contemporary critic of ArtScroll form copying the commentary into a competing publication with alternate approach.
That's an excellent point, regardless if we're discussing Artscroll or anything else. It seems like at least one time tested convention, namely presenting commentary/ critiques next to a complete text may be stunted by modern copyright laws. I wonder if--how modern copyright law has affected talmud Torah.

"No part may be reproduced in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, for any purpose without the express written permission from...."

How a 12th century English gentile vocalized Hebrew

(Click photo for larger, readable image)

On the Main Line, now with tags:

Oh where, oh where, has the style gone

Sefer Va-YiqraManuscript on parchment, 12th or 13th century, Mediterranean. Oriental square script.Or.4737, f. 41r.¶ The Book of Leviticus in a separate volume, with Masora and illuminations in a typical oriental style reminiscent of Qur’an texts (note the use of verse indicators).Written by Chasdai ben Yeshua in the year 1604 of the Seleucid Era (1292-1293 CE).

Aramaic, dikduk, Chaim Berlin, Zionism

There is a current discussion on mail-Jewish about teaching Aramaic systematically in yeshivos.

Someone posted the following anecdote
"My father a"h used to tell a great story that I would neverhave believed had he not been the one telling it. My father attendedChaim Berlin in Brooklyn in the mid-30's. My father was in a class as aboy and the rebbe/melamad was explaining that we read Bahaalotch onChanukah (the last day) because Chanukah starts with a Chet andBahaalotcha has a Chet (I kid you not). When one of the boys in theclass, who was obviously braver than my father, had the temerity to say:but rebbe, Chanukah starts with a Chet and Bahaalotcha ends with a Chaf!The rebbe screamed : get out my class, you Zionist!
At the risk of explaining the obvious, the story is amusing onat least 3 levels: 1) the melamed/rebbe's unfamiliarity withHeb. spelling, hard as that may be to believe, 2) the assumption thatone needed some specialized knowledge of dikduk to spell, and 3) thatanyone who knew dikduk was a Zionist."
The fourth level: 4) R. Chaim Berlin, son of the Netziv and brother of R. Meir Bar-Ilan (Berlin) was a Zionist.

In fact, a venerable Chaim Berliner once told me a bizarre story about an encounter between R. Baruch Ber Leibowitz and R. Chaim Berlin that had to do with the latter's Zionism and the formers conflicted feelings towards him.


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