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)

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 In that respect, they are perfectly understandable - albeit outdated - beliefs.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:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chazal Knew the Number of Stars!

Here's an oldie but goodie. (I have a lot of 'em, but am slow in cleaning them up for the FH blog.)

Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 32b:
Resh Lakish said: The community of Israel said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of the Universe, when a man takes a second wife after his first, he still remembers the deeds of the first. Thou hast both forsaken me and forgotten me! The Holy One, blessed be He, answered her: My daughter, twelve constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty divisions, and for each division I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for thy sake, and thou sayest, Thou hast forgotten me and forsaken me! Can a woman forsake her sucking child?
I find this piece of aggadah especially fascinating because of what some claim is an amazing correspondence between it and astrophysical reality. I first came across this idea in the Proceedings of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists (unfortunately I no longer have the article) in which S. Aranoff explains that if one multiplies to the point of "30 camps" one arrives at 2.9 x 108 galaxies in the universe. Multiply to "myriads" and one gets 3.65 x 109 stars per galaxy. Multiplying these numbers gives a value of about 1 x 1018 for the number of stars in the observable universe.

Let's now compare the Talmud numbers with current (2010) scientific estimates:

Galaxies in the known universe:
Talmud: 2.9 x 108
Science: minimum 8 x 10
Difference: 2 orders of magnitudes
Stars per galaxy:
Talmud: 3.65 x 109
Science: 4.5 x 1011
Difference: 2 orders of magnitudes
Stars in the known universe:
Talmud: 1 x 1018
Science: 3-7 x 1022
Difference: 4 orders of magnitudes
This is astounding! Resh Lakish is from the 3rd century CE, and he is passing on a tradition that is within a few orders of magnitudes from what science has estimated for the number of stars in the known universe. The fact that there was even a conception of such large numbers is absolutely amazing! This passage is used by many kiruv workers to prove that Chazal must have had a God-given mesorah. It is easy to find references on the 'net suggesting this. (When in doubt, check Aish. They claim that Chazal even knew about galactic clusters, estimating it at 30 galaxies per cluster (the Milky Way cluster contains more than 40 galaxies.) They also speculate what other groupings might mean, and suggest that another "30 grouping" might be "megasuperclusters".)

Once again, it is time to be a party-pooper. So let us now deconstruct this amazing "coincidence".

1) There is in this proof an assumption that the Talmudic passage has embedded within it a statement about physical reality. But there is no reason to suspect that this was the intention of Chazal; it is likely that they are just using hyperbole to emphasize how beloved Israel is to God, which - of course - is a major theme in the written and oral law. (As an aside, note that the actual terms used refer to Roman army units.)

2) The ancient Hebrews basically believed in the astronomy (and astrology) as developed by the surrounding cultures in which they lived, such as Assyria and Babylonia and - later - Greece. So perhaps - assuming a very old mesorah - we should give the Assyrians the credit for their understanding of the vastness of the universe??

3) Even if we were to grant the raw numbers (I don't), it works both ways: many more sources show an incorrect knowledge of astronomy. For example, regardless of the feeble attempts of "scientific" OrthoFundies to reconcile the creation story of Genesis with modern science, the much more compelling argument is that those who passed down and eventually wrote down the story believed, like other ancient peoples, that the sky was a solid dome with the Moon, Sun, and stars all embedded in it. And need we mention the myriad of old rabbinic sources (and, embarrassingly, even modern ones such as statements by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe) that insist on a geocentric universe (usually accompanied by some claptrap about relativity proving that geocentricity is "as valid" as heliocentricity.) Other examples in astronomy (and other knowledge disciplines) abound.

4) The twelve constellations are an arbitrary convenience for astronomical observations. The stars in a constellation have no relationship to one another besides an apparent proximity. 30 hosts per constellation is an implied relationship in the proof (but not necessarily the Talmud itself) and is actually a meaningless mathematical relationship. And what is the basis for "multiplying up to camps" to get the number of galaxies? What do hosts, legions, cohorts, and divisions represent, anyway? Some deep, mystical secret that our puny minds are not privy to?

5) Why is God off by even 1 order of magnitude?

6) I've saved the best for last.

From ancient India comes the Lalitavistara Sutra, a Buddhist text that recounts the miraculous deeds of Gautama Buddha. French scholar Georges Ifrah describes in an interview with Robert Krulwich how the Buddha was in a counting contest with a mathematician named Arjuna. One contest consisted of counting the "atoms" (that is, the smallest unit of matter) in a yojana (about 10 km). See the article for the specific formula which - according to mathematician Alex Bellos - shows that the Buddha determined quite accurately the size of a carbon atom! One notable difference from the Talmudic story is that the intention of the Buddhist text is to represent a very large number. (By the way, Indian culture - unlike that of Judaism and the ancient Near East - had actual words for VERY large numbers. They didn't just give up at "10,000"!)

Of course, a true fundie would probably claim that the Indian religions (and its later Buddhist offshoots) were ultimately derived from Judaism anyway and will point to the story of the children of Abraham being sent away to the East (see Rashi to Genesis 25:6). So don't expect that arming yourself with facts will win any arguments with missionaries kiruv maniacs.