Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jewish Prayer for Dummies

Quick synopsis of the Amidah.
  • Praise the Lord. He's holy and we Jews are holy. (1-3)
  • Please grant us wisdom, health, and wealth. (4, 8, 9)
  • Please let us serve you better so that you will forgive us and we can be redeemed. (5, 6, 7)
  • We really, really want to live under a theocracy. And while you're at it, please destroy all those sinners. (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15)
  • Please accept these prayers. (16)
  • By the way, we really do want to sacrifice animals to you once again. (17)
  • Thanks for listening. (18)
  • Please give us Jews peace and blessings. (19)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Intellectual Dishonesty

One of the many topics that fascinate me is how traditionalists deal with the historical-critical method of Bible study. So I downloaded without hesitation the lecture "Who Wrote the Bible?" by Rabbi Ari Kahn found on YU Torah here. Now I didn't for a minute believe that any lecture with such a title hosted by YU would have as its answer anything but "God". And indeed Kahn stated that people would be disappointed if he gave the answer to the topic as a "one syllable word". Nevertheless, I am interested in all approaches to this topic, from the fundamentalist Chareidi to the minimalist DH adherents.

I initially gave up on the lecture no more than five minutes into it. Why? Because of a statement that Kahn made which was only peripherally related on a content level, yet told me all I needed to know about his approach. Here is an accurate paraphrase of what irritated me so much:

"Have any of you heard of the 2nd theory of thermodynamics? It is the principle that things on their own moves towards entropy, towards disorder. Is that a theory or is that a law? That is a law of physics. On the other hand, evolution - is it a theory or a law? It's a theory. Have any of you noticed that the theory of evolution flies in the face of the laws of physics? Did that occur to anybody till this point? There is a law of physics that things left on their own go from order to disorder. Nonetheless, we are being told that something has developed from complete disorder." He further adds, "the statisticians say the likelihood of this is what we call impossible". (Throwing a bone to the "rationalists", he parenthetically says "please don't misunderstand me. Judaism can absolutely tolerate a theory of evolution.")

OMG. Did he really say that? I screamed at the mp3 player in my car and advanced the playlist to the next selection.

When I calmed down, I reflected as to why this offended me so deeply.

1) Kahn starts off the lecture with attempting to implant the seeds of doubt regarding EVERY academic discipline, not just that of scholarly Biblical criticism. He does this by stating that all fields of study may be guilty of bias (e.g., people in universities who want to protect their positions, people who want to advance...) In fairness, Kahn does state that he has a bias, having been brought up in a religious home. Nevertheless, an honest look at the question "who wrote the Bible" should examine arguments on their own merit, not start off with an insidious attack on individuals engaged in scholarly pursuits.

(Kahn has lectured at Aish Hatorah, and I wonder whether this is where he learned - or perhaps promoted the use of - this technique, as I have experienced it many times with Aish kiruv workers.)

2) Kahn is obviously clueless regarding entropy and evolution since he brings up one of the most laughable arguments that young Earth creationists make: that the "theory" of evolution requires greater order while the second "law" of thermodynamics requires greater disorder. Ai yai yai. I'm not going to discuss the flaws of this assertion here (basically Kahn does not understand the difference between a "closed" and an "open" system); those unacquainted with his inanity are directed to Mark Isaak's Index to Creationist Claims or his Counter-Creationism Handbook.

After I cooled down, I returned to the lecture and was unsurprised to find that Kahn did not redeem himself. Here are some of his other gems.

"Is my starting point going to be that this is a book that God gave to people or that the book is basically a lie... that it was written by others to deceive people".

Don't you just love this false dichotomy and a very polarized one (bordering on a claim that smacks of "good vs evil") at that? (It reminds one of the "Was Jesus Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?" false trichotomy.)

"When I got to University and took undergraduate and graduate courses in the Bible"... and then he adds "specifically I took a course in Bible and the Ancient Near East"

Huh? You took a course??

"I was so disappointed with the level of the questions that were raised because these questions only worked when one's starting point is that the book is not what it claimed to be."

Seriously? You took a college course in Bible and the Ancient Near East and were disappointed because they didn't start off with the belief that God wrote the Bible??

Kahn then sets up a straw-man argument by stating that a cornerstone of the DH theory is that the use of YVHV vs Elohim represents different documents, rather than different relationships between God and man. Obviously he is unaware that DH adherents use the "names of God" as only one of several converging arguments (see Richard Elliot Friedman's "The Bible with Sources Revealed" in which he discusses the seven main arguments.)

And speaking of REF, Kahn goes on to say that "Who Wrote the Bible... was one of the silliest books that I have ever read in my life". He then repeatedly claims that Friedman is intellectually dishonest. Kahn says "His introduction was precious... He writes that according to Jewish tradition, cuz you have to be a little bit honest, the guy's name is Friedman, he really should be honest [chuckles from the audience]..."

WTF is he implying by this foolish statement - that all Jews are honest? But wait, he's only warming up.

"According to Jewish tradition, REF writes, the author of the Bible is Moses. [Kahn pauses to wait for some more chuckles which are soon forthcoming]. And then he has this way of throwing away all Jewish tradition in the next five lines." Supposedly quoting Friedman, 'the Biblical text says that Moses was the most modest man, a very strange modus operandi for a man who is modest... so therefore how could he really be the author and therefore we can now reject the Orthodox Jewish approach.'

I have the book in front of me and Friedman says nothing of the sort! This text is simply not in the Introduction, nor have I been able to find it elsewhere. I am not going to go through the book page by page again, but will note that the word "humblest" is referred to in the index twice, both references being in the Introduction. Regarding the idea that one would not expect the humblest man on earth to point out that he was the humblest man on earth, REF mentions this in the Intro as an historic overview, writing that this was one of the earliest ideas that led people to posit that the text wasn't written by Moses (he specifically names Baruch Spinoza.) Friedman does say that "some of the discoveries [of the last two centuries] challenge traditional belief". But he most definitely does not say that "we can now reject the Orthodox Jewish approach". (Nor did that quote match anything in Google. Well, maybe now it will with this post. Google did reference the book when I tried a couple of other random quotes.) Whether or not this indeed represents Friedman's beliefs is irrelevant; you don't score points for your side by a wholesale fabrication of quotes.

Kahn says that REF "makes a claim that isn't true, attacks the claim, and that's it, now I've dealt with Orthodoxy". That REF took a position that Orthodoxy Jews consider to be a heretical position (that Moses wrote the Torah, not that he only transcribed what God dictated) and claims that is what Orthodox Jews believe.

Oy oy oy. Kahn completely fabricates quotes and then accuses Friedman of being intellectually dishonest?? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Is Kahn an out and out liar, or is he just majorly confused? (Two can play at the dichotomy game!)

Kahn says that archaeological evidence of other ANE cultures show that these cultures had multiple names for their god. And that this essentially "cuts off the leg" of Wellhausen. Uh, you do know, Ari, that Wellhausen died almost 100 years ago and that the theory that he was largely responsible for turning into a serious academic discipline is today much more sophisticated that your seemingly juvenile understanding of it? But perhaps I am being dense since I don't even understand the logic of his assertion.

His arguments against a redactor bring nothing new to the table. The claim is that Bible critics use the word "redactor" rather than "editor" because an editor would have smoothed out the differences and eliminated textual problems and then we wouldn't have the theory of multiple documents. A redactor just "threw everything together". Did the best seller of all time have the worst editor of all time? Kahn claims that he caught Friedman in about "30 places" where his theory breaks down. Kahn especially does not like it when a single verse supposedly has multiple authors and REF answers that "problem" by saying that the redactor did it. At that point, Kahn says he gave up reading the book.

Perhaps Bible critics do overuse the redactor as a solution to perceived problems, but Kahn seems to be suggesting here that such an immensely popular book cannot be as flawed as it appears to be. I would remind him, however, that it is the Christian Bible that is the best seller of all time since it includes the New Testament. Would Kahn claim that the New Testament editors did a bang up job of smoothing out all of the contradictions and mistakes of the New Testament???

Next, Kahn presents his case study, that of Genesis 37-39; specifically the duplicate description of the sale of Joseph in 37 and 39, interrupted by chapter 38 which tells the story about Judah and Tamar. That time period spans 20 years and it doesn't fit into the time frame of the Joseph story in the order presented. The scholars say that the Torah is a history book and that it is a bad history book. A "bad" redactor just threw the Judah story in here. That's proof of multiple sources. Kahn responds, who said that it's a history book?? Rashi's opinion is that the Torah is not necessarily in chronological order. Just like a movie, where interspersed timelines of different characters do not imply that there were two different directors.

In 1975, Robert Alter published a revolutionary essay in Commentary Magazine which resulted in scholars looking at the Bible as literature, without regards to who the author is, an idea that Kahn is "particularly fond of". But Kahn reminds us that such an idea is more than 1500 years old, and Alter would have realized this had he just read the midrash. Kahn then tells us some deeper connections between the Joseph and Yehudah stories which show that there is a skilled writer weaving together the stories.

Here I actually agree with Kahn's premise. I believe that often there is a very real connection between stories that on the surface look completely disconnected. One of the weaknesses of the Documentary Hypothesis in my opinion is that proponents often ignore the interpretative tradition. It often rings true with me (especially after listening to a Rabbi David Fohrman lecture) that sometimes this tradition really does seem to reflect the original intent and that it isn't just a thousand years of skilled rabbis attempting to harmonize disparate texts. But this belief certainly isn't a proof against a multiple document theory.

One often used "proof of Torah" is that only a divine text would speak negatively about its people. Kahn also uses the Joseph story to this end. He says that the Maharal said that "the Bible itself is proof of divine authorship because only an anti-semite would have written these things." Regarding the selling of Joseph, etc, no religion would have written this about themselves. Christians used to read this on Christmas to show how diabolical the Jews were; just like they sold Joseph, so did Judas sell Jesus. Why would a redactor include such negative material about the Jewish people?

I'm sorry, but this argument just doesn't fly. If the purpose of the Torah is to install God-centered, ethical behavior among its followers, then one would expect admonishment and stories of divine punishment for deviant behavior. The claim (which Kahn does not mention, but which is in the same category) that no man-made religion would claim that its people were originally slaves, is equally bogus. To say that a people were redeemed from slavery by God by great signs and wonders makes it a much more uplifting and powerful story.

At the end of the lecture, Kahn says that the book was brilliant and wonderful... wonderful fantasy. He enjoyed it, but it was completely baseless.

Um, I thought that you "gave up" on the book and didn't finish it? Just one more example of you bending the truth?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Jew and the Other

It's been a long time since I was so offended by a blog post, but this somewhat recent Torah Musings discussion on blood transfusions really got to me.

Some may find this topic no different from, for example, the claim (popularized by the Baal HaTanya and pretty much accepted in all chassidic circles) that non-Jews possess only an animal soul, with Jews being the sole possessors of a Godly soul. Or the idea (also mentioned in the article) that a non-Jew in danger on Shabbat is saved only for the sake of darchei shalom, preserving the ways of peace. Such concepts need to be seen as having largely developed within a context of historical persecution by gentiles. In that respect, they are perfectly understandable - albeit outdated - beliefs.

What differs about this post is that it is largely talking about contemporary halachic authorities. I'm imagining a theoretical round table discussion in which various rabbinic "sages" are arguing the question whether Jews can donate blood to non-Jews, mustering various halachic precedent both pro and con. And totally missing the point that even posing the question suggests some lack of basic humanity.

After a self-congratulatory intro in which Jews are claimed to be a merciful, bashful and kind people, then touting the great generosity vis a vis charity and Israel's assistance in post-earthquake Haiti, Rabbi Lebowitz states that "Recently, some have questioned the halachic propriety of Jews donating blood in America." He then states what is to be his summary, viz. that "giving blood, while not always obligatory is at a minimum, permissible, and more likely a very great mitzvah."

(As an interesting aside, Lebowitz states that "the Torah [not only] values the good Samaritan who goes out of his way to save a life". He is apparently oblivious to the fact that "good Samaritan" is a phrase that originated in the New Testament (Luke 10) in a parable that derides the bad behavior of a Pharasaic priest and Levite towards a beaten robbery victim.)

First we have Rav Moshe Feinstein who - as with saving a non-Jewish life on Shabbos - states that donating blood to gentiles is necessary to avoid severe anti-semitism.

Then we have a discussion regarding the general permissibility of donating due to possible prohibitions of wounding oneself. This is largely irrelevant regarding the distinction between Jew and non-Jew vis a vis donating blood.

The second issue revolves around a prohibition to give “free gifts” to gentiles. But this isn't a problem for a number of reasons. One is donating to a blood bank and not to a specific gentile. Or that (contrary to the Shulchan Aruch) according to "many great poskim" today's gentiles are not idolators. The bottom line is that there is an assumption of a reciprocal relationship in which Jews will be able to receive blood when needed.

The third issue is that most recipients of blood will be gentiles. But because there are many Jews who may ultimately receive blood we can ignore the majority since it is a matter of life and death (for the Jew). Rabbi Michael Broyde states that there is no mechanism to designate which blood goes where and so Jews should shoulder their fair share of the donations.

Rabbi Menashe Klein has some particularly offensive objections (Jewish blood "crying out" from gentile veins) but I don't want to dwell on such lunacy.

The ultimate conclusion is that donating blood is a kiddush Hashem and refusing to donate has a great potential for chillul Hashem. Also, Orthodox blood drives now have the status of minhag Yisrael and we cannot depart from such a long-standing custom. But at no time is there any suggestion in the article that donating blood - regardless of the recipient - is simply the right thing to do. But, of course, such an assertion would be problematic as it implies that the halachic system is insufficient in framing all ethical and moral considerations.

Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (the Seridei Eish) suggested that Jews themselves shoulder at least some of the blame for anti-semitism because of their attitude towards the non-Jewish world and the discriminatory laws against gentiles described in the Talmud (and codified in later halachic works.) The Lebowitz article continues this long tradition, the "minhag Yisrael" of "us versus them", the Jew and the Other.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jacob's Sophie's Choice

I've always found it puzzling why Jacob divided his camp into two parts so that "If Esau come to the one camp, and smite it, then the camp which is left shall escape." (Gen 32:8-9). This never made sense to me, since when the meeting with Esav is about to transpire, Jacob abandons this strategy. One commentator presumed that the division involved only his servants and property, and not his family. Of course, this creates its own problem, as it suggests that Jacob's primary concern was with preserving his wealth over the safety of his family.

So what is the new strategy? Jacob ranks his wives and children in order of his regard for them! Bilhah and Zilpah with their four sons are most at risk as they go to the front lines, then Leah with her six sons and daughter, and finally Rachel with Joseph (Gen. 33:2) at the rear. We are mostly not privy to the inner psychological world of biblical characters so we are free to assume that Jacob did this with much anguish, and possibly lived afterward with some guilt (probably not too much since everything eventually worked out well.) But just imagine your family having to face a presumed murderous enemy and your father puts you in the front of the line - not because you are the most capable of protecting the family, but because he loves you less than some of your siblings! That was how three of Jacob's wives and eleven (Dinah went in front of Joseph) of his children must have felt.

In general, the author(s) of the Genesis stories generally chose to leave the stories fraught with ambiguity, a style that allows for great embellishment and interpretation by later commentators. Unfortunately, this has often resulted in overly simplistic characterizations of both the villains and the heroes. Esav is looked at as intrinsically evil from birth (indeed even prenatally!), and he ultimately becomes the archetype for all of the historical evil perpetuated against the Jews. On the other hand, Jacob - and most of the "Jewish" heroes (forefathers/foremothers/tribal heads) - are often depicted as perfectly righteous beings on par (or even above) the level of angels. In both cases, apologetics - often as aggadic/midrashic glosses - serve to minimize either the positive qualities of the former (Esav's only redeeming quality - honoring his father - is often mitigated by claims that it was motivated by purely ulterior goals) or to suggest, for the latter, that what seem to be very blatant human flaws are in actuality deeds done for the sake of heaven, and at worst relatively minor mistakes that are judged more severely because of the greatness of the personalities involved. A recent example that comes to mind is Reuven sleeping with Jacob's concubine, Bilhah, which is reinterpreted as an "as if". That is, interfering with Jacob's sleeping arrangements after numero uno wife Rachel died was done to preserve his mother Leah's honor, but is treated by the Torah "as if" he slept with Bilhah. The earliest commentary on this story, however - Jubilees 33 - understood Reuben's misdeed literally.

It seems obvious that Jacob did not learn from the mistakes of his father, Isaac, who preferred Esav the hunter to Jacob the simple. (And it is not unreasonable to presume other family dysfunction in a family headed by a man who was almost sacrificed by his father. There is certainly no indication that he and Abraham had any kind of personal relationship after this event.)

Jacob repeats the mistake by showing preference to one son, Joseph, the first born of the woman he truly loved. (As an aside, note that the Torah suggests that Jacob was initially attracted to Rachel for a very understandable yet superficial reason - basically she was pretty hot!) We are all well aware of the tragic results of this preferential behavior, regardless of the "after-the-fact necessity" for the progression of Jewish history - or at least the mythos that surround it.

Jacob is like the woman who - abused as a child - ends up with an abusive spouse. Both are victims of a traumatic upbringing and caught up in a self-destructive cycle. Jacob doesn't seem to learn this lesson even at the end of his life when he gives preference to the younger child of Joseph.

The Choir Apologia may be singing fortissimo by now, but I find the Torah infinitely more meaningful when the heroes are viewed as having the same strengths and flaws as "ordinary" human beings. And doesn't moral ambiguity make for far more interesting analyses and lively discussions?

Monday, November 8, 2010

What's Not Bothering Rashi?

Did Abraham or Isaac "name" Beersheva?

Genesis 21: 29-31.
And Avimelech said to Abraham, "What are these seven ewe lambs, which you have placed by themselves?" And he said, "For these seven ewe lambs you shall take from my hand, in order that it be to me for a witness that I dug this well." Therefore, he named that place Beersheva, for there they both swore.

כט. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ אֶל אַבְרָהָם מָה הֵנָּה שֶׁבַע כְּבָשֹׂת הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר הִצַּבְתָּ לְבַדָּנָה

ל. וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֶת שֶׁבַע כְּבָשֹׂת תִּקַּח מִיָּדִי בַּעֲבוּר תִּהְיֶה לִּי לְעֵדָה כִּי חָפַרְתִּי אֶת הַבְּאֵר הַזֹּאת

לא. עַל כֵּן קָרָא לַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בְּאֵר שָׁבַע כִּי שָׁם נִשְׁבְּעוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם

There's a bit of a pun there, since the word "sheva" relates to both the seven lambs and to the oath. Regardless, the Torah states that Abraham was responsible for the name of the place.

A few chapters later we have Isaac in the starring role. After some quarreling over water rights, Isaac goes to Beersheva (so named - anachronistically? - in 26:23) and Avimelech meets him there to make a covenant.

Genesis 26:33:
And he [Isaac] named it Shevah; therefore, the city is named Beersheva until this very day.

לג. וַיִּקְרָא אֹתָהּ שִׁבְעָה עַל כֵּן שֵׁם הָעִיר בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
This time, Beersheva clearly refers to an "oath at the well".

Each passage claims a different personality as being responsible for the naming of the city. One explanation from the traditionalist camp suggests that Isaac simply reconfirmed a name already given - and possibly forgotten - by his father, Abraham. A very unsatisfying answer that smacks of apologetics. It seems obvious that this is not the intention of the verses. I have highlighted the "therefore" (עַל כֵּן) in both passages since each one states an explicit reason for the origin of the name.

So why isn't Rashi "bothered" by this?

Needless to say, Bible critics love this one.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Modesty and Job Interviews

A question in "Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew" and posted on Hirhurim/Torah Musings, with a more realistic response. (Yep, that was an actual question. Really.)

Question: I am a young rabbi, and I have begun looking for rabbinical positions. I have tried to work on my anava [humbleness], but now people advise me to write an impressive resume and stress my talents to potential employers. Wouldn’t doing that make me be leading a double life, or is there some fallacy in my thinking?

Answer: The midda of anava is extremely important and, according to some, is the most important midda. We know that David referred to himself as a worm, Avraham said of himself that he was dust, and Moses referred to himself as nothing. A true anav would not be so chutzpadik as to suggest that he was on the madreiga of these tzaddikim. Therefore, you should imply on your resume that you have really accomplished nothing worthwhile in life except for the effort that you have applied towards your Torah studies (for Torah study is truly the only worthwhile pursuit.) Therefore, I would list your relevant experience, but insinuate that you have been unsuccessful in these various pursuits.

Reply: Thank you Rebbe.

Rebbe: Please come closer before you go. [Slap slap]. Fool! What the hell is wrong with you? Get your head out a gemara for once and think for yourself!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wordle Madness

Wordle generates word clouds from text or blog feeds. It is a really fun time waster but also gives one insight into an author's focus. Check it out.

Here's a cloud of all of my 160 blog postings (as with all of the clouds below, I limited them to the top 50 words). Click on any image to view it larger.


The following are the clouds that wordle grabbed on 11/02/2010 when I supplied just a blog name; it then presumably uses only the most recent rss feeds.

Another Frum Heretic cloud (I simply can't view this one - when viewed larger - without seeing it in 3D with three separate layers. Very cool.):



The prolific Mr Dov Bear:

Scandal-monger Failed Messiah (some serendipitous juxtapositions: Rubashkin - FM's obsession - with "intense" and "evil"; Sholom with "mad"; Rabbinical with "molesting"; etc):

Hirhurim/Torah Musings (nothing surprising here):



Rambam takes center stage in Natan Slifkin's Rationalist Judaism (wordle allows one to select a Hebrew font!).


I would have loved to have done clouds for Gideon Slifkin's previous two blogs, but unfortunately XGH's latest - Ortho Moderndox - is pretty ho-hum:



And finally, one from the Jewish Atheist: