Friday, September 26, 2008

Madcap Journalism Logistics

The Jewish Voice & Opinion, a monthly publication published in New Jersey by Susan Rosenbluth, is about as far to the right as you can get without falling off the edge and cutting yourself. The highlights are always the many rants disguised as advertisements sponsored by "Friends and Family of the Victims of George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon". The name of this pseudo-organization (it's likely the product of a single individual, possibly even the editor herself) changes from time to time; for example, if I recall it used to be called "Friends and Family of the Victims of Oslo". The "ads" in the September issue are primarily devoted to anti-Obama rhetoric, such as "Barack Obama's Involvement with the Communist Party" and "Like Father, Like Son: The Audacity of Socialism".

But these "ads" pale beside the cover feature articles, because the latter are portrayed as news pieces, not as the one-side agenda-driven editorials that they actually are.

On one side (the left, of course) you have a very flattering picture of "Tehran's Favorite Senator", Joe Biden, and on the other you have the eye-candy VP pick of the Republicans, "Pro-Israel Gov Sarah Palin". The joke, of course, is that Biden is one of the most vocal supporters of Israel, while Palin's support for Israel consists solely of a flag (almost certainly the result of her evangelical outlook towards Israel and not for any great love of Jews, but hey, I'm not going to knock any support that Israel can muster; we'll let the "end of times" sort things out) and a hawkish viewpoint in general but specifically towards Iran. The stupidity of the article is further exemplified by statements such as "it is open to question what the late Menachem Begin would have to say about [Biden's Zionist identification]." Well, of course it is "open to question", idiots, the man is dead! You can speculate all you want in your feeble effort to destroy the Democrats.

As a disclaimer, I am an Obama supporter, but don't feel that either side can make a better pro-Israel claim. It is important, however, for folks to understand that Obama does have a 100% pro-Israel voting record. Just Google it and see for yourself.

Oh yeah, the title of this post "Madcap Journalism Logistics"? It's an anagram for the Jewish Voice's subtitle, "Promoting Classical Judaism".

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Nicole Kidman Solves Some Conceptual Difficulties

Having trouble conceiving? Doctors and fertility clinics too much cost & bother? Don't worry, you still have lots of other options.

First, daven! Just refer to the article Prayer Works published in The New York Times. Yes, I know about Columbia University 'Miracle' Study: Flawed and Fraud, but the Times is the "paper of record", so it must be true! You'd rather listen to some atheist skeptics??

If that fails, go to your local Baal Mofes (miracle worker). Even a dead one will suffice, as this article states; heck, it could even be better for your pocketbook: I personally know someone who went to a rebbe for a bracha, and the rebbe required a 10% of yearly income donation to the rebbe's yeshiva if the man's wife became pregnant. (She did, and he made the donation happily.)

Finally, if all else fails, don't worry - head out to the Australian outback for both fun and babies. Nicole Kidman credits fertile water with pregnancy.

And don't me any of that "confirmation bias" crap.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Frum Heretic Defends the Traditional POV!

Recently I came across a blog post in which the writer, Diane, took offense at a midrash, feeling that it "insulted womanhood". The post:
R. Hanina, son of R. Adda, said, From the beginning of the Book until here, no samech is written, but as soon as she [Eve] was created, Satan was created with her.

The leading English translation notes laconically, in effect, oh by the way, "Satan" is not actually spelled with a samech (usually). So here would be a timely analogy, about equally well-reasoned:

Osama Bin-Laden is obviously connected to Barack Osama. Oh by the way, his name is actually Barack OBAMA.

In other words, what we have is not only a baseless, pointless slander against womankind (in our original aggadah), and of a rather extreme type (the appearance of femininity coincides with the appearance of evil in the world) -- but it is actually based on a MISTAKE, and what is obviously a sort of deliberate, pointed mistake. (Surely, we are not expected to think the rabbis didn't know how Satan was most typically spelled.)

So we might begin by asking, where is the counter-text (we find them often), which would read something like this, R. X, son of R. Y, replied, Satan is not spelled with a samech, davka, you're a moron. But that text is missing. We just flow right on to the next thing.

So if we want to read against the text, without inventing new midrash, here is one way we might do it: The idea that femininity is evil is based on a mistake. Isn't that actually exactly what the text tells us? The idea that the introduction of femininity into the world brought with it or somehow coincided with the arrival of Satan is fundamentally based on a mistake -- here, the silly grammatical/spelling mistake of thinking Satan starts with a samech, but a mistake, nonetheless. Put another way, thinking the introduction of femininity (or, if one wished to read more broadly and in a slightly different direction, the introduction of gender difference) is the source of evil in the world is exactly as stupid and misguided as thinking Satan begins with a samech.
The few comments that were left suggested, for example, that "R Hanina may have a reading problem as well because a samekh occurs earlier", another wondered "how much of the hatred in the world is based on a stupid mistake/misunderstanding."

I felt that I had to step in here, not to defend the honor of Chazal (well, who knows, perhaps Elul is affecting my perspective...), but because I felt that the post was guilty of being superficial in its approach to midrash:
[FH]: "Satan is not spelled with a samech, davka, you're a moron." blah blah blah

You obviously don't understand that interchangeable sounds (like with the samech and sin) are frequently the source of Torah exegesis. (But I wouldn't say that "davka, you're a moron", just ignorant of this fact.) R. Hirsch uses this technique time and again when discussing the meaning of 3-letter roots.

Far be from me to resort to apologetics (I am a heretic, after all), but it has been my experience that too many people take a very superficial approach to midrash and thus fail to understand the deeper meanings that are being conveyed. You are certainly free to presume that Satan=woman was the intention of the midrash, but it would be intellectually dishonest to do so without looking into how it has been understood by various meforshim.

So here is an alternative explanation: When someone succumbs to the Satan, or evil inclination, it removes them from Godliness by dragging them down to base animalistic behavior. With the creation of woman, sexual desire was also created. Sexual desire is arguably the most powerful human drive; Judaism seeks to transform that drive into an elevating force rather than a degrading one.

See how easy it is to interpret a midrash in a more positive light?
To which Lawrence King replied:
Actually, I quite expect Diane does understand this. But even if we allow that the rabbis freely confused shin and samekh, the fact remains that before Woman is created in verse 2:22, there have already occurred two samekhs (2:11 and 2:13) and dozens of shins (1:1 ff.)

So R. Hanina's argument is evidently false to any careful reader today. Could it have been otherwise to his contemporaries?
I couldn't let this one go either (by the way, note his choice of words, "freely confused"):
[FH]: Yep, another example of trivializing a midrash by assuming that "he must have made a mistake". You really think that R. Hanina - one of the most important students of R. Yehudah haNasi - or the rabbis that he discussed this with didn't know about earlier samechs? Gimmeabreak. And certainly the masoretic text had been firmly established by the 3rd century. But the samechs in 2:11 and 2:13 have nothing to do with the creation of man. The Zohar explains that 2:21 is the first instance of a samech relating to the creation of woman and then uses this to make a theological statement. The Zohar, however, makes a different point: it says that man was an imperfect being until the creation of Eve and that this is indicated by the absence of the letter Samech - which denotes "help" - until this passage.
At this point I lost interest in continuing the thread. Besides, I didn't want this post to grow too long.

I'm not an expert on midrash, nor do I play one on TV. But I learned long ago that aggadic statements cannot be trivialized as if they were nothing more than naive fairy tales. Much deep meaning is often encoded in the statements and stories of Chazal (I highly recommend The Juggler and the King: An Elaboration of the Vilna Gaon's Insights Into the Hidden Wisdom of the Sages )

Yes, I do feel that much of what Chazal believed, and the way in which they expressed such beliefs, were often deeply affected by the cultural milieu in which they lived. And I certainly have many issues and concerns regarding the role of woman as perpetuated by traditional Judaism. But I don't automatically take any statement made by a gemara or a midrash in a negative light if it is possible to interpret it otherwise. (Sorry, I couldn't interpret the Sifrei otherwise in my post Women - Don't Speak Unless Spoken To!)

The bottom-line is that if one wants to view Chazal as being misogynous old-farts who couldn't even read the Torah properly, well then there is nothing I can say to convince such a person otherwise.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

For The Morons At Conservapedia

Conservapedia is often good for a laugh when you don't have anything better to do on the internet (i.e., rarely). But with their post on evolution they have really scraped the bottom of the barrel. Why? Simply because of Reductio ad Hitlerum. As a result, I have redesigned their logo slightly; they have my permission to use it without remuneration.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Great Mikvah Coverup

Another interesting letter in the September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review is from one Urban C. Von Wahlde, Professor of New Testament at Loyola University, Chicago. In it, Professor Wahlde reminds us of a halacha that – if adopted by the Orthodox (I believe that some Conservative Jews already rely on it) - will promote both greater modesty and less anxiety during a woman’s tevilah.

The gist of the letter relates to a debate concerning the Pool of Siloam uncovered in Jerusalem. Archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron identify it as a huge mikvah meant for public use by crowds coming to the Holy City for the Shalosh Regalim (Pesach, Shavuos, & Succos). Israeli scholar Yoel Elitzur, however, argues that it must be a swimming pool because bathing in a mikvah must be in the nude and there is a Jewish abhorrence of public nudity.

Wahlde brings a couple of very good arguments against Elitzur's swimming pool hypothesis by challenging the "mikvah in the nude" claim. For example, Josephus mentions that men of the Essene community would wear a loincloth in the mikvah, while women who married (most Essenes were celibate) would wear a dress. Since the ritual purity laws at Qumran were more strict than those of other Jewish sects, "the fact that the Essenes could wear a loincloth or dress would indicate that this would also be possible for other Jews whose interpretation of the Law was less strict than that of the Essenes."

He then quotes Mishna Mikvaot 9:1 (he says 9:5, but it must be a typo or a different compilation) regarding chatzitzah (interposition) which states that strips of wool or linen "interpose" between the skin and the water and so the person remains unclean. Rabbi Yehudah says that strips of wool do not interpose since the water can penetrate them. "Whatever opinion ended up being considered the correct one, the only reason for such a ruling in the first place was that it was common for people to wear some items of clothing while immersing. If this was true of strips wrapped closely to the body then all the more so would a loose-fitting garment be allowed." (By the way, although Wahlde uses the mishna in Mikvaot as a source, Kehati refers one to Shabbos 57 which discusses this at much greater length.)

Wahlde continues to describe the clothing used in 1st-century Palestine. It "typically consisted of two loose—fitting garments: an undergarment or tunic, called a chiton in Greek, and an outer garment or mantle, called a himation. Both of these garments were loose-fitting and would allow proper circulation of water during immersion. Of course, only one garment would need to be worn in the mikvah. The other one would be dry and donned on emergence."

His conclusion: "There should be no hesitancy in identifying the Pool of Siloam as a mikvah."

(By the way, I'm surprised that - as a Professor of New Testament - Wahlde didn't also quote John 9, which mentions that Jesus - as part of his blindness miracle cure - sent a blind man to immerse in the Pool of Siloam. It seems pretty clear that the story is about purification in a mikvah and not about taking a dip at the neighborhood pool.)

That one could wear clothes in mikvah is more explicitly stated in the gemara, Beitzah 18a: "Come and hear, for Rav Chiyah bar Ashi said in the name of Rav: A niddah who has no [ritually clean] clothes, may use guile and immerse herself in the mikvah".

The topic of the gemara relates to the general prohibition of purifying impure objects in the mikvah on festivals. Here it states that a woman may immerse herself wearing unclean clothes and we aren't worried that she will later come to immerse only her clothes in order to purify them. The gemara obviously takes it for granted that there is no problem wearing clothes in a mikvah!

So, ladies, feel free to wear (loose-fitting) clothes to the mikvah the next time you go. But if the mikvah lady tries to stop you, don’t even bother quoting the gemara. Just tell her – in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi ( – that she only has one job, and that is to make sure that your hair is fully immersed!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Women - Don't Speak Unless Spoken To!

If a man takes a wife, is intimate with her and despises her, and he makes libelous charges against her and gives her a bad name, saying, "I took this woman, and when I came to her, I did not find any evidence of virginity for her." Then the girl's father and her mother shall obtain evidence of the girl's virginity, and take it out to the elders of the city, to the gate. And the girl's father shall say to the elders, "I gave my daughter to this man as a wife, and he despised her; And behold, he made libelous charges, saying, 'I did not find evidence of your daughter's virginity.' But this is the evidence of my daughter's virginity!' And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city.
Deuteronomy 22:13-17

Rashi sez on pasuk 16: And the girl’s father shall say [to the elders]. [The father, but not the mother.] This teaches us that a woman has no permission to speak in the presence of the man (i.e., her husband.) [Sifrei 235]

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Documentary Hypothesis Confirmed!

In the September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Jeffrey Tigay, Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literature at University of Pennsylvania, confirms the Documentary Hypothesis. This was a letter to the editor in response to Yosef Reinman's letter in the May/June issue in which Reinman stated "The very idea [of the DH] is amazing. Never in the history of the world has a book been spliced together from multiple documents by the kind of elaborate surgery that the critics perform on the Bible text."

Tigay's reply, "I wonder how hard Rabbi Reinman looked before concluding that no book was ever composed this way. In fact, there are several examples, from ancient to modern times, of exactly this process. As Biblical scholars have known since the late 19th century, the second-century Syrian bishop Tatian composed the Diotessoron, a single running biography of Jesus, by splicing together the four Gospels using exactly the same techniques supposed by the Documentary Hypothesis. In the same way, in the version of the Torah used by the Samaritans, the two separate versions of Moses’ appointment of subordinate judges found in Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 1 were spliced together in a single narrative. So were the two Mt. Sinai narratives from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. The Temple Scroll from Qumran was composed by splicing together passages from Deuteronomy and other books of the Bible plus several extrabiblical works. In modern times, the Hebrew writers Hayim Nachrnan Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Rawnitzki composed their classic anthology of Jewish legends (Sefer Ha-Aggadah) by using very similar techniques. In the 1980s I edited a volume, Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism, in which several colleagues and I presented these and other examples of such methods. The book was reprinted in 2005 by Wipf and Stock Publishers of Eugene, Oregon. There, readers will see that the methods of composition supposed by the Documentary Hypothesis are very far from being outlandish and unparalleled in the history of the world."

OK, so these examples don't really "confirm" the DH, but they are certainly more than an adequate refutation of Reinman's assertion. (Perhaps Reinman will respond in a future issue. If so, expect him to use a "moving target" rebuttal.)

By the way, Tigay was also the author of the marvelous JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy, so stay away from this if you can't handle an historical/critical approach to Torah.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Whip Him Good!

"When you come to the land which the LORD your God gives you, and you possess it and dwell in it, and then say, `I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me'; you may indeed set as king over you him whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not multiply horses for himself, or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to multiply horses, since the LORD has said to you, `You shall never return that way again.' And he shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply for himself silver and gold.
- Devarim 17:14-17

(By the way, does anyone have a good on-line Jewish source for the text of Tanach in modern English besides mechon-mamre? I can't stand all of the "thees, thous and "shalts").

The Gemara in Sanhedrin 21 explains that the maximum number of wives that a king may marry is eighteen and that he may accumulate only enough horses as is needed for his army. It also states why the reasons for most Biblical laws were not revealed, since "in two verses reasons were revealed, and they caused the greatest in the world to stumble." That "greatest" was Shlomo Hamelech who reasoned "'I will multiply wives yet not let my heart be perverted', yet we read, When Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart [I Kings XI, 4]. Again it is written: He shall not multiply to himself horses; concerning which Solomon said, 'I will multiply them, but will not cause [Israel] to return [to Egypt].' Yet we read: And a chariot came up and went out of Egypt for six [hundred shekels of silver]. [I Kings X, 29]"

It is to the great credit of our sages that they were willing to criticize someone who they considered to be "the greatest in the world". It is especially appropriate in Elul to reflect upon the fact that if the greatest tzaddik can stumble, we must also recognize the need for introspection and correction of our personal shortcomings.

OK, that's enough musar for today - I don't call myself a Frum Heretic for nothing.

First, let's look at what Rambam says in Hilchos Melachim [3:2-4] regarding the restrictions of a king.

1) If he took more than 18 wives - which includes both wives and concubines - he is liable for lashes.

2) If he accumulated more horses than was needed for his mounted troops - even a single one - he is liable for lashes.

3) If he hoarded silver and gold to glorify himself and accumulated more than was needed (communal needs, the upkeep of the Temple, for wars and personal attendants), he is liable for lashes.

Shlomo Hamelech was obviously guilty of all three transgression, yet nowhere does anyone suggest that he actually received lashes (presumably 117 or 39 administered on three different occasions) of which he was certainly deserving according to Rambam. Ask your LOR about this, but be prepared for some interesting apologetics (two responses that I was given: 1) "His punishment came after his death" [I Kings 11:11-12]. But excuse me, why was he able to defer a punishment to be meted out to his descendents? Didn't we just read צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף - Justice, justice you shall pursue? 2) Even better - and this was given as a shocked reply - "How can you give Shlomo Hamelech lashes??).

Now let's take an honest look into this "greatest of tzaddikim."
  • Shlomo Hamelech was obviously an egomaniac, thinking that his wisdom put him above the laws of the Torah

  • He could not keep his penis in his tunic

  • He allowed his wives to built altars for idol worship (according to the most generous interpretation of "his heart turned after other gods")

  • His profligacy was legendary (Abravanel learns out from I Kings 5 that he had 60,000 guests at his table daily)

  • He cared more about his own house than with the Temple - it took him 13 years to build the former and only 7 years to build the

  • And most contemptible, he imposed forced servitude upon the inhabitants of northern Israel to build his house. This was so burdensome that when Rechavam refused to lighten the 'grievous yoke" of daddy Shlomo, it resulted in the breakup of a United Monarchy into two kingdoms and the consequent destruction of the majority of Israel.
Yet somehow Shlomo is still mythologized as the wisest of individuals and as a tzaddik. It is near impossible for someone living under a democracy in the 21st century to imagine living under a theocratic monarchy of 950 BCE, but ask yourself: would you like to live in a society in which this "wise" "tzaddik" was king?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pillars & Trees & Goats & Michael Jackson

"You shalt not plant an Asherah of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Hashem your God, which you shall make for yourself. Neither shall you erect for yourself a pillar, which Hashem your God hates". Deuteronomy 16:21-22

Rashi comments: An altar of stones and an altar of earth He commanded to make, but this He hates, for it was the custom of the Canaanites. And even though it had been beloved by Him in the days of the Patriarchs, now He hates it since these (Canaanites) made of it a custom for idolatry.

The reference to the Patriarchs is to events such as is described in Genesis 21:33:

"And Abraham planted a tamarisk-tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God."

and Genesis 28:18,22:

"And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it...and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house"

and Genesis 35:14-15:

"And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where He spoke with him, a pillar of stone, and he poured out a drink-offering thereon, and poured oil thereon. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Beth-el."

According to Rashi, God was originally fond of these customs during the time of the Avos but then changed His mind a few hundred years later and decided they were a no-no because the Canaanites adopted the same practices.

Now contrast this with what Rambam says regarding animal sacrifices in Guide for the Perplexed (3:32): The custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them... It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used.

Thus an interesting conclusion can be derived from the opinions of these two Rishonim: if Jews started a custom that was later adopted by Gentiles, it is verboten. God just doesn't like it!
  • The Reform were decried for their incorporation of music into their services since this was looked upon as a Christian practice, even though we had long before relied on vocal and instrumental music during Temple services.
  • Although the custom of covering one's head is an ancient one, it was once primarily adopted only by the pious and by married men (see Kiddushin 29b); going with an uncovered head - even in synagogue - was customary in the middle ages (see, for example, Shulchan Aruch O.C. 91:3). But, the theory goes, the universal Ashkenazic practice of covering the head became entrenched when Jews became accustomed to seeing Christians church-goers with uncovered heads.
  • The Vilna Gaon annulled the long observed custom of erecting trees and greenery in shuls during Shavous because it eventually became a gentile custom.
On the other hand, if the Gentiles started the custom, we are now free to claim it as our own! Thus, we have things like yahrzeit candles, upsherin, Lag b'Omer fires, 18th Century modes of dress adopted from Gentile aristocrats, possibly tashlich and kapporos, etc.

And, oh yes, the common practice of incorporating gentile tunes into Jewish liturgy - regardless of what certain esteemed rabbinic leaders say about goyishe African music and beats.