Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, nose for a nose, ear for an ear...

Monetary compensation?? Those namby-pamby rabbis just didn't have the nerve to be literal. Here's how it's really done!

Pakistan court orders brothers' noses, ears cut off
LAHORE, Pakistan
Tue Dec 22, 2009 7:55am EST

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - A Pakistani court has ordered that two brothers should have their noses and ears cut off after they were found guilty of doing the same to a woman who refused to marry one of them, a government prosecutor said on Tuesday.

The judge at an anti-terrorism court in the eastern city of Lahore handed down the sentences on Monday in line with the Islamic law of Qisas.

Full article here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Criteria for a Divine Text - Part Deux

The following post, with my comments (in italics), is from a Jerusalem Post article by Yocheved Miriam Russo, published on Dec. 3, 2009.

Mere coincidence or divine truth?
A niggling curiosity about colors started the whole thing. "For many years, I found myself idly wondering if the name value of colors mentioned in the Bible had any relationship to their wave frequency," says Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Professor Haim Shore.

"In the scheme of things, that's an outrageous suggestion - why would anyone think that the Hebrew name for colors mentioned in the Bible - red, green, yellow - would bear any relationship to the wave frequency of the color itself?" he asks. "Finally, just for fun, I checked it out. When I saw the results, I was stunned. It was a heck of a coincidence, but the two were linearly related."

"The Hebrew word for the color actually matched the color's wave frequency," Shore says. "How could that be?"

Shore's methodology was relatively simple. He took the Hebrew names of five colors that appear in the Bible - red (adom), yellow (tzahov), green (yerakon), blue (tchelet) and purple or magenta (argaman) - and calculated a numerical value for each word by adding the total values of the letters, with aleph as one, bet as two, etc. Then he plotted them on a graph. The vertical axis charted the colors' wave frequencies, which are scientifically established, while along the horizontal axis, the 'CNV', Color Name Value, appeared. When it was complete, "I was astonished," Shore recalls.

"The five points on the graph formed a straight line - which means that the names of the colors related directly to their established wave frequencies." It was a straight-out statistical analysis, Shore says. "I didn't manipulate a single number in doing the analysis."

"I didn't plot anything at all until I had all the data," he says. "But when I saw it, I was like a lion in a cage, pacing around. I couldn't believe it. Then I went on to other words in the Hebrew Bible, plotting the value of the letters against known scientific data. The whole thing blew me away."
I had to try this out. It's been many years (sigh) since I had to do statistical analysis, so I just bothered with basic scatter plots. Also note that each color is represented by a range of frequencies, and I used the high end for each. (Click on any of the images for a larger, more legible view.)

Certainly this does not display any frequency/gematria correlation. Violet/argaman really throws things off. Something must be amiss, I thought. At first, I decided to play with the numbers; the Mispar Gadol method of gematria (which gives a value of 700 for the Nun Sofit of argaman, rather than 50) gave a little better fit, but still not great. So I did some additional digging and finally found the values that Shore used. This required a number of modifications to my original assumptions. First, he says that "green" (ירוק in modern Hebrew) isn't found in the Bible (contrary to what is stated above!) So for some reason he decided to use ירקון, which is found in Jeremiah 30:6. Mechon Mamre translates this as "paleness" as in "all faces are turned into paleness". Shore states that it is common usage to use paleness for green, such as in English where someone might say “his face turned green” to mean "paleness". UH OH, we are starting to get into major fudge factor territory here, folks! The second change is that he opts to call "argaman" magenta, rather than purple. This means that I had to change the frequency to correlate against argaman. The problem is that magenta is a mixture of red and blue and thus has no discrete frequency! Most sources use a range midway between red and blue, or 500-530 Thz. Shore uses 546 which is actually in the green range. Finally, he omits the vav for yellow (spelling it צהב) but claims that this has no effect on the statistics. Here is a graph with his values:

And here is the resultant graph:

Now I understand that the visual representation of a relationship can be deceiving (for example, the line looks much straighter if one way increases the range of values on the Y-axis), but I just don't see the "straight line" correlation that Shore claims. Statisticians feel free to jump in.

One final important note here, is that the preceding exercise is suspect to begin with, since it is difficult - if not impossible - to state what each color term corresponds to in the spectrum. For example, according to R. Shimson Raphael Hirsch (Collected Writings), yarok represents both yellow and green, while techeiles represents both blue and violet! For interesting discussions on colors in the Hebrew language, refer to these Balashon archives.


"What I found is that there's an astonishing number of 'coincidences' in which the Hebrew name for some 'entity' in the Bible relates directly to that entity's scientifically established physical property," Shore continues. "I began recording it all, and finally published it in a book which contains about 20 different analyses - statistical, scientifically verifiable findings."

"I have no intention of trying to tell anyone what this means, or how this information should be interpreted. All I did was publish what I found," he says. "As a scientist, as a matter of integrity, I felt compelled to offer what I'd found for discussion."

Shore's book Coincidences in the Bible and in Biblical Hebrew offers dozens of incidents in which the Hebrew words in the Bible offer hidden information about the objects or people they represent, information which, in many cases, couldn't have been known or measured until modern times.

"This is not gematria," Shore says. "Gematria, adopted by rabbis and Jewish Bible interpreters, suggests that if two Hebrew words share the same numerical value, there's then a 'secret' that binds them together. By contrast, the Hebrew word, 'heraion' (pregnancy) has the same numerical value as the duration of human pregnancy, 271 days."

"That is not gematria," he insists, "nor is this a 'Bible Code' sort of thing, with overtones of prophecy. What I have attempted to do, with as plain and non-technical means as possible, was to offer several quantitative analyses that demonstrate that major physical properties are probably reflected in the numerical values of Hebrew words."
No, it actually IS gematria, regardless of his pseudo-scientific term "color numeric value". Shore is just applying it in a novel fashion. And regardless of his assertion, it is quite similar to Bible Codes since it will almost certainly be used by the same group of kiruv workers that use codes to "prove" the divinity of Torah.
Colors were one thing. Celestial objects were another - moon, earth and sun. "It is well known from Kabbalistic literature that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet were created first, and that thereafter, by use of these letters, God created all the worlds. Ancient Jewish sources repeatedly stress that idea," he says.

"Could there be a linkage between numerical values of biblical words and certain physical properties, as demonstrated by the heraion example?" Shore asks. "In Hebrew, yareach is moon, eretz is earth, and shemesh is sun. One thing that distinguishes the three bodies is their size, expressed by the diameters. I used their diameters as listed by NASA, and plotted them on a graph, just as I did with the colors.

"On the horizontal axis is the numerical value of the Hebrew word, on the vertical axis is the planetary diameters from NASA (on a log scale)," he continues. "To my astonishment, the phenomenon repeated itself. The three points aligned themselves on a straight line - an exact mathematical relationship would have given a linear correlation of '1,' whereas these three points had a linear correlation of 0.999. Again I thought, 'What an amazing coincidence!'"
Here is the graph that I plotted:

Pretty cool, huh? (Yes, the log scale is critical due to the diameter of Sol being two orders of magnitude greater than Earth.) So I guess that Babylonians were really onto something when they named their sun god "shamash" (this goes back to at least 2600 BCE, more than 1000 years before the traditional dating of the Torah)...
IT'S NOT as though the Tiberias-born Shore was intellectually primed to believe what he was seeing. "My research has been in the areas of statistical modeling and quality and reliability engineering," he says. "I graduated from the Technion in Industrial Engineering and Management, received a Masters in Operations Research, plus a BA in Philosophy and Psychology, then a PhD in Statistics from Bar Ilan. I've worked as a management consultant, taught at Tel Aviv University, then came to BGU in 1996. But beyond that, I'm an engineer. I don't accept anything as true unless there is quantitative analysis - without that, everything is debatable."

"But not this," Shore says. "It's a universal principle of engineering that if you have two sets of data, you put them in ascending order, plot one set on a horizontal axis and the other on a vertical axis and they fall on a straight line, that means both data sets are measuring the same thing, only on different scales."

Nor did he start out believing what the Sages had written, that within the Hebrew words lay an additional layer of information, hidden to us, which can be exposed by relating to the numerical value of the word.

"Not at all," he says. "For many years I was utterly convinced all that was based on superstition - pure myth, no different from those provided by any number of other religions and cultures. But what I was seeing made me think twice about what was written in the Talmud, like in Midrash Rabba, where it says, 'Thus was God observing the Torah and creating the universe,' and in Berachot, 'Bezalel knew how to assemble letters with which Heaven and Earth had been created.'"
This seems like a phony statement. Shore says that he was convinced that it was all superstition and myth, so why would these far-out claims in the Midrash and Talmud make him "think twice"??
Shore's postulations don't amount to scientific evidence, he says, but he's now moved beyond terming the multitude of correlations he found as mere "coincidences."

"Initially, I related to these incidents as curiosities, things that had no scientific basis. But over the years, I've come to see these 'coincidences' evolve into something more," he says. "By 2006 I'd reached the conclusion that the number of instances I'd assembled had reached a critical mass, which justified putting some of it into print."

One of the things that fascinates Shore is how modern science and technology reflects or reinforces Biblical terminology. "The word 'year' - in Hebrew shana - is numerically equivalent to 355, which happens to be the average duration of the lunar (moon-based) Hebrew year," Shore explains. "Or ozen which means 'ear' in Hebrew, which comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for 'balance.' That's curious, because it was only at the end of the 19th Century that we discovered that the mechanism responsible for the body balance resides in the ear."
The length of a lunar year is closer to 354 days. But that's ok, since with gematrias you can always be "off by 1"! Regardless, wouldn't it be more reasonable to speculate that the word "shana" was derived from observing a lunar year?
Another curiosity relates to the name of the Biblical character, Laban, one of the more menacing personalities in Genesis. A passage in the Passover Haggada reads, "Go and realize what Laban the Aramean wished to inflict on Jacob our Patriarch. Pharaoh decreed against the males only, however Laban wished to uproot all."

"Laban represents a total loss of Jewish identity," Shore says. "He wanted everything mixed up, with no one, or no culture, having any distinguishing features. He mixed his children, his wives, his religious faith, his language and his property. He idealized the 'everything goes' maxim - the 'global village, as we'd say today - where everyone and everything is just alike."

"As every Hebrew school kid knows, the name 'Laban' means 'white' - which is extraordinary," he continues. "'Laban' is the only personal name in the Bible that's also the name of a color. Up until 1666, when Isaac Newton came along, every scientist since Aristotle believed that white was a single basic color. Not until Newton passed a thin beam of sunlight through a glass prism did anyone recognize the spectrum of colors. White, Newton argued, is really a mixture of many different types of rays that are refracted at slightly different angles, with each ray producing a different color. White, then, is a mixture of all colors."

"Isn't that bizarre, if it's just a coincidence? That in the Bible, Laban, the man who mixed everything up, should be named 'white'?" Shore asks.
Lavan wanted to "mix up" everthing. Lavan is White. Ergo, the Torah knew that White is a mixture of all the colors. Is he serious?? It's a fun Shabbos drasha, but it is neither bizarre nor a coincidence. However it is one of the lamest "Torah science" claims that I've ever seen!
THE BOOK of Genesis, especially the creation story, comes in for special treatment. Together with Prof. Yehuda Radday, Shore analyzed Genesis and published a book in 1985.

"Prof. Radday, who passed away on Sept. 11, 2001, was one of my closest friends. We first met when I was a teaching assistant back in the 1970s and he was affiliated with the Technion doing statistical analysis of Biblical texts," Shore recalls. "At that time, the theories of German-born Julius Wellhausen were in vogue, and we set out to statistically test Wellhausen's theory that there were multiple authors for Genesis."

Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) was a German Bible scholar who argued that the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, were not written by Moses but rather resulted from oral traditions that evolved from a nomadic culture which, relatively recently, had been pieced together. Wellhausen named the four sources "J", "E", "D" and "P" distinguishing individual verses and segments on the basis of terminology and by perceived differences in philosophy. For many decades, Wellhausen's theories enjoyed general acceptance among Biblical scholars.

"Yehuda and I published our research - which statistically affirmed the position that the book of Genesis was homogenous with respect to authorship (namely, a single author) - in several research papers and ultimately in a book published by the Biblical Institute Press in Rome (Romae E Pontificio Instituto Biblico) of the Vatican," he tells. "So when I began looking at the book of Genesis again, I already had considerable background."
I can't provide sources off-hand, but I seem to recall that this study suggesting a unitary nature of Bereshit was been widely criticized for its methodology, and remains convincing only to those are already convinced!
One of the elements Shore analyzed was the Biblical timeline of creation. In the Genesis story, the universe was created in six "days," whereas in modern day cosmology, it's measured in billions of years, which sets off the faith vs. science debate.

"I started by taking the events of the first chapter of Genesis - just the facts as given, no interpretation. 'Light' was created on the first day; on the second - the sky; on the fourth - the sun and the moon were set in place; on the fifth - marine and bird life; and on the sixth day, according to oral Torah, Adam and Eve were created at the end of the 14th hour," he says.

"I took the six points and correlated each Biblical day - '1 day,' '2 day' - with the scientifically established time period. For example, science has established that galaxies started to be formed about 11.8 billion years ago, the sun and the moon, 4.5 billion years ago, etc. I plotted the cosmological age on the vertical axis and the Biblical timeline (day - one through six) on the horizontal axis. I found them to be arranged in a straight line," Shore says.

"Is that possible that the two sets of data, the biblical and the scientific, represent the same 'timeline,' just expressed in different time scales?" he asks.

"Statistical analysis shows that the probability that would happen by chance alone is less than 0.0021%," he continues. "If you take out day 2 and day 5 - there's scientific debate about when life as we know it came into existence, or when exactly large scale structures had appeared in the early universe - you can plot just four points. The probability of those four points aligning themselves on a straight line, the way they did, by chance alone is still less than 0.0165%."
The flaw in his reasoning is really apparent with this example. The account in Genesis is:

Day 1: light
Day 2: firmament ("sky" according to Shore)
Day 3: Earth, seas, grass
Day 4: Sun, Moon, stars
Day 5: sea creatures, birds
Day 6: land creatures, human

One doesn't have to resort to any plot to know that there is no way that the scientific ages will correlate with the biblical days. Earth comes before the Sun and stars? G
rass comes before Sun, Moon, and stars? The Earth and the Sun both date to the creation of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago. The oldest star in the Milky Way is more than 13 billions years old. If we are liberal with the definition of grasses and just stick with "earliest plants" (Cyanobacteria), those date to about 3.5 billion years before present.

He throws out day 2 (?) and day 5, ostensibly because "there's scientific debate about when life as we know it came into existence, or when exactly large scale structures had appeared in the early universe". This is silly and smacks of discarding data that he didn't like.

Shore now believes he might have used a word other than 'coincidences' in the book title. "The title reflected my attitude towards many of the examples given in the book. But during the short span of about two or three months when I feverishly wrote it all down, something changed. I'd now say it's highly probable that hidden information in biblical words supplements the exposed information submitted."

What did Shore hope to gain by publishing his findings? "I knew very well I was putting my reputation on the line with this book," he says. "What I hoped would happen is that it would start a discussion, that people would begin to talk about it."

"That hasn't happened so far, probably because I've been reluctant to publicize it," Shore admits. "I finally went ahead because the data is significant. Everyone can figure out for himself what it all means - I'm not saying anything here about God or the Bible or biblical Hebrew. But there's something here that should be discussed and analyzed further."

Several more 'coincidences' have helped shape Shore's life. At present, he is statistically processing data received from a web-based feedback survey, conducted at the end of the 18th Maccabiah. "We're measuring participants' satisfaction, which involves analyzing questionnaires submitted by e-mail to athletes, delegation officials and Maccabiah staff," he says.

"The Maccabiah is special to me because in 1932, my father, Daniel, came to Tel Aviv to participate in the first Maccabiah as a member of the Polish football team. Once here, he stayed - which meant that he escaped the Holocaust (most of his family did not). Because of that, I told the Maccabiah Organizing Committee, who had approached me with a request to conduct this feedback survey, that I would conduct the survey and analyze its results free of charge, on a voluntary basis only," Shore recalls.

Then, too, Shore was stunned to find that he wasn't the first Shore to write a book on Genesis. "My father's grandfather, Baruch Schorr, was a famous cantor in Lemberg, called Lvov today," he says. "He wrote two books, one about Ecclesiastes and another about Genesis that he named Bechor Schorr. I only learned about Baruch's book of Genesis - which was published in Lemberg in 1873 - long after my book about Genesis, with Prof. Radday, was published."

"That's just one more coincidence," Shore adds.
Although I have not (yet) read Shore's book, a table of contents preview shows that he has many more examples. Although skeptical, I'm still intrigued and will eventually get my hands on a copy. For those who want to check it out, it is available on Amazon: Coincidences in the Bible and in Biblical Hebrew

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Criteria for a Divine Text?

On a recent Hirhurim post "anon" responded to the question "Is there any way that G-d could have written the Bible so that it would be clear that no one other than G-d could have written it? The answer is plainly no.":
Errmm, the answer is plainly yes. It would just have had to include predictions for each year of the next few thousand. And make it meteorological predictions to avoid self fulfilling prophecies. Also, if it had contained detailed instructions on how to build a space ship rather than a mishcan.
Now I'm assuming that the space ship comment was written tongue-in-cheek. But if not, I would discount this as a "proof from God". After all, if the raison d'etre of Torah is to be an "instruction book for living", why would God include such things that were irrelevant for such a purpose? Yes, a blueprint for some advanced technology would argue for a superior life form, but a rationalist/skeptic would likely claim that it was the product of an alien author rather than the Creator of the Universe! [As an aside, the intentional inclusion of scientific data now known to be erroneous is one of the main reasons that we know the Urantia Book was fabricated by a human author(s) who relied on the science of his time. Oh wait, the Torah also includes the "science" of its time (e.g., the Creation story and the Flood story) that we now know are not scientifically true. Dang! Well at least we can allegorize the Torah stories or rely on "non-overlapping magisteria"...]

But let's grant anon's assumption and disregard the question of why God would include material whose only function were a proof of His authorship. Besides, a midrashic tradition would certainly produce a rich corpus and apply ethical teachings to such proof-texts. Let us also ignore Clarke's 3rd Law (any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic) and assume that most folks would default to the God explanation rather than that of a super advanced culture. So posit that the Torah is exactly the same as we have it now, but with the addition of a very long Parashat Mezeg Avir (whose reading would be on a Yom Tov with either fasting or plenty of shnapps!) that contains meteorological predictions for each year of the next few thousand years.

At first, I thought that writing the Torah so that it was undeniably written by God would violate a core principle of Judaism, that of the imperative for free-will. After all, if folks KNEW with 100% certainty that God wrote the book, they'd be so much more likely to follow it. However, even leaving aside the rebellion stories (Golden Calf, Korach...) that some like to point to in countering this assertion, I realized that nothing would really change from what we have today. The difference would be in the details.

Tanach would be filled with stories written by "meteorological neviim". The influence of the priestly caste - with their claim to exclusive use of divine weather instruments (wind gauges, crude thermometers) - would wither after the destruction of the Second Temple. They would be supplanted by the Pharasaic rabbinic tradition who would use hermeneutic principles to expound the many faces of Torah behind each weather prediction. An unbroken chain of tradition would eventually give rise to gedolim who were well-versed in cloud formations, but also involved with creating tznius patrols to dictate the color and length of foul weather gear, and proclaiming bans on books (the Modern Orthodox Farmer's Almanac) and TV (the Reform Weather Channel.)

Of course, Judaism would still be a minority religion since the "offshoot religions" of Christianity and Islam would accept that the "Old Weather Testament" was God-given, but that its proscriptions were supplanted by later and more-perfect revelations. The former would give rise to many climate sects (the Temperates, The Tropical Evangelicals) and various end-of-day messianic cults (we'd be close to the end of the 3000 years of weather predictions so there would be plenty of 2012-type wackos).

We'd still have OrthoFundies that believed every word was from God and was literally true. Countering them would be adherents of the JEPDW Documentary Hypothesis (the "W" being the "Weather Document".) We would also have some Orthodox scholars (sorry, I mean Orthopraxic Heretics) a la James Kugel that would argue for a prophetic tradition mediated by a lesser divinity like Af-Bri!

In one of my earliest posts I asked, "if you consider yourself an atheist or agnostic what would be sufficient proof to you for the existence of God?" In a similar vein, what would be sufficient proof to you for the existence of a God-given document?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On Saturday, Rabbi-to-Be Eats Pork

Oh, sorry, my mistake. On Saturday this Rabbi-to-Be punches other folks in the head in an attempt to rattle their brain inside their skull in order to knock them unconscious.

This last Shabbos, Yuri Foreman defeated Daniel Santos of Puerto Rico in an upset match to capture the World Boxing Association’s 154-pound championship.

Then there's Dmitriy Salita, an Orthodox Jew with an undefeated record in over 26 career bouts.

Regardless of such rationalizations (mentioned in the Salita article above) that "It's not really true that in order to win you have to damage the other person or beat them up... it's really about scoring more points than your opponent, and that's not unlike chess.", boxing is a brutal sport that frequently results in dementia pugilistica (similar to Alzheimer's dementia), Parkinson's disease, and other neuro-degenerative diseases. Whether it's "deracheha darchei noam" (the ways of Torah are pleasant), or prohibitions of "sakonos nefashos" (danger to life), or the many possible Shabbos restrictions such as creating a wound, this occupation is completely anathema to Jewish ideals.

Chabadnik Dov Ber Pinson is the rabbi who is studying with Foreman. The fact that a so-called rabbi would consider granting semicha to a student with such an occupation is unconscionable. It should be no different than if the student said, "I want to be a rabbi, but also want to eat pork on Yom Kippur."

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Great Sin of a Dying Man

I usually enjoy Rabbi Michael J. Broyde's halachic analyses, although I didn't find that his long post on women and halacha in this Hirhurim post added to the topic in any meaningful way. It really could have been reduced to this single sentence that he included: "is this conduct a mitzvah, mutar or assur?", possibly with the addition of "End of discussion."

But I found his footnote #1 quite troubling:
Recently, I entered the hospital room of a dying person who was intensely davening shacharit (he was in the middle of birchot keriat shema when I arrived) but the time of the day was after chatzot. This conduct was sinful, but I chose not to say anything, even when he asked me if he was doing something wrong, in the view that a sincere person like this can maybe rely the view of the Rambam that birchot keriat shema can be said all day, as the Peri Chadash accepts le’halacha, or maybe simply this was not the time and place to explain the issue.
WOW! The guy is on his deathbed. He is intensely praying what may be his last shacharit, and Rabbi Broyde's first thought is that this was a sinful practice? I can just picture the heavenly court now: "hmmm, what should we do? He's a beinoni - his mitzvot are in perfect balance with his aveirot?" "Wait!", says another ministering angel - "we just realized that he was davening after chatzot and he isn't a hassid. Send him to gehinnom!"

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My Daughter, the Not So Virginal

In the post My Daughter, the Virgin, I mentioned the prevalent custom of including the phrase "the praise-worthy virgin bride" on chareidi wedding invitations. So what is a poor girl to do if she strayed before marriage and doesn't want the chosson to know? It's Gigimo to the rescue with their Artificial Virginity Hymen! "When your lover penetrate, it will ooze out a liquid that look like blood not too much but just the right amount. Add in a few moans and groans, you will pass through undetectable." [sic] Made in Japan, the world leader in sex toys.

Conservatives in Egypt are apparently up in arms about this device, as it is "an assault on Islamic and Arab values."

No word yet from our gedolim.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why Are You Testing Me, God?

Moshe Bernstein discussing Biblical Scholarship*:
What if anything would cause me to say, well maybe I'm wrong? So the answer is if somebody showed me a piece of J from the 8th century BCE and there was no P with it, and I was convinced that it was from the 8th century and that this was an individual thing... and I believed that, so I'd look up and I'd say, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, why are you testing me? ... If it's a question of emunah, I am perfectly willing to be a fundamentalist... and to say that those are the parameters within which I operate. I may push the envelope as far as I can, I may choose to operate in a broader way than many others whom I know, but that's where I draw the line.
A true OrthoFundie can never be challenged with facts that contradicts his beliefs. Regardless of how overwhelming the evidence is, one can always brush it aside as a test of one's faith. And this, of course, is true of any fundamentalist, regardless of religion.

*Unfortunately, I cannot find the original web source for this audio lecture. I believe that it was from YUTorah.org, but if so, it is no longer available there.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Find the Jew...

Doonesbury from 9/27/09:

Here is a closer look at the panel in question:

Not only does it appear that Trudeau added a couple of "Jewish graves" as an afterthought, but he apparently doesn't even know how to draw a 6-sided Magen David!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"It doesn't damage my faith in any way."

The death of another sacred cow?

"Genetic researchers have revised an earlier hypothesis that members of the Jewish priestly caste, the Cohanim, can trace their paternal lineage to a single progenitor, perhaps the biblical Aaron, brother of Moses."

"Additional Y chromosome lineages that are distinct from that defined by the extended Cohen Modal Haplotype, but also shared among Cohanim from different Jewish communities, reveal that the priesthood was established by several unrelated male lines."

"I think it's still sort of amazing that there is a genetic marker. The question of whether it was one progenitor or was it four or five, it doesn't damage my faith in any way." said Sam Cohon, rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Tucson.

Will Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman now add a chapter to his book consisting of only "Never mind."? Nah, expect OrthoFundies to put an interesting spin on this latest research, mitigating its significance.

An interesting side note: opponents of the Documentary Hypothesis have long been critical of the claim that in addition to the Ahronite priestly line there was also a rival "Mushite" priestly lineage that originated with Moses. It seems that the latest research suggests that such a claim, rather than being baseless, turns out to be quite a conservative suggestion!

News articles here and here, scientific abstract here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why Believe in Prophecy?

Of all of Rambam's 13 Principles of Faith, only one or two can theoretically be empirically verified. These have to do with prophecy, to wit #6 (prophecy in general) and #7 (Moses as the most exalted of prophets.)

[A brief digression is in order regarding Principle #8, the idea that the entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses, although my purpose here is not to argue for or against the various claims made by multiple source document advocates. Leaving aside such quibbles as chasair and yosair (missing and additional vowels that don't change the meaning of a word) as well as the last eight sentences relating to Moses' death (and even then, one tradition says that Moses wrote this with tears), it is highly unlikely that any ancient "J/P/E/D" documents will ever surface to "falsify" the idea of the unity of the Torah. This has nothing to do with whether they once existed and everything to do with such concepts as the longevity of parchment and what documents would be promulgated by professional scribes once a particular textual tradition was officially or unofficially canonized. But even if they were to surface, fundamentalists can always claim that such documents were the product of non-mainstream sects, similar to what some claim for certain Dead Sea Scroll texts or apocryphal and pseudo-epigraphical books. So this is largely an argument between traditionalists and scholars who start off with very different assumptions. The former accepts a priori a God-given cryptic text that requires the oral tradition and various principles of hermeneutics to be properly understood while the latter makes no such assumptions and relies on textual evidence alone. Indeed, the subject of this post - prophecy - is something that scholars simply cannot accept in their study of scripture and which traditionalists often rely upon to understand problematic text.]

Prophecy is - according to Rambam - a principle of faith. However, prophecy is also by its very nature something that can be tested. Indeed, the Torah tells us in Deuteronomy 18:21-22:
וְכִי תֹאמַר, בִּלְבָבֶךָ: אֵיכָה נֵדַע אֶת-הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-דִבְּרוֹ יְהוָה. אֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר הַנָּבִיא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה הַדָּבָר וְלֹא יָבֹא--הוּא הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-דִבְּרוֹ יְהוָה: בְּזָדוֹן דִּבְּרוֹ הַנָּבִיא, לֹא תָגוּר מִמֶּנּוּ.
Now if you say to yourself, "How will we know the word that the Lord did not speak?" If the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, and the thing does not occur and does not come about, that is the thing the Lord did not speak. The prophet has spoken it wantonly; you shall not be afraid of him.

So a prophecy either comes to pass or doesn't. And even if a prediction does come to fruition, Rambam states that it can't be a one-shot deal. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 10:1-2:
א כל נביא שיעמוד לנו ויאמר שה' שלחו, אינו צריך לעשות אות כאחד מאותות משה רבנו או כאותות אלייהו ואלישע, שיש בהן שינוי מנהגו של עולם; אלא האות שלו שיאמר דברים העתידין להיות בעולם, וייאמנו דבריו, שנאמר "וכי תאמר, בלבבך: איכה נדע את הדבר . . ." (דברים יח,כא).

ב לפיכך כשיבוא אדם הראוי לנבואה במלאכות ה', ולא יבוא להוסיף ולא לגרוע, אלא לעבוד את ה' במצוות התורה--אין אומרין לו קרע לנו את הים או החיה מת וכיוצא באלו, ואחר כך נאמין בך. אלא אומרין לו, אם נביא אתה, אמור לנו דברים העתידין להיות; והוא אומר, ואנו מחכים לו לראות היבואו דבריו: אם לא יבואו, ואפילו נפל דבר אחד קטן--בידוע שהוא נביא שקר.
Any prophet who arises and tells us that God has sent him does not have to [prove himself by] performing wonders like those performed by Moses, our teacher, or like the wonders of Elijah or Elisha, which altered the natural order. Rather, the sign of [the truth of his prophecy] will be the fulfillment of his prediction of future events, as [implied by Deuteronomy 18:21]: "How shall we recognize that a prophecy was not spoken by God?..."

Therefore, if a person whose [progress] in the service of God makes him worthy of prophecy arises [and claims to be a prophet] - if he does not intend to add [to] or diminish [the Torah], but rather to serve God through the mitzvot of the Torah - we do not tell him: "Split the sea for us, revive the dead, or the like, and then we will believe in you." Instead, we tell him, "If you are a prophet, tell us what will happen in the future." He makes his statements, and we wait to see whether [his "prophecy"] comes to fruition or not. Should even a minute particular of his "prophecy" not materialize, he is surely a false prophet. If his entire prophecy materializes, we should consider him a true [prophet].

We should test him many times. If all of his statements prove true, he should be considered to be a true prophet, as [I Samuel 3:20] states concerning Samuel, "And all of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel had been proven to be a prophet unto God."
Rambam later explains that a prophet arises for the sole purpose of telling us the future events which will transpire in the world, whether there will be plenty or famine, war or peace, and so forth. And after the words of a prophet have been proven true time after time (or if another proven prophet declares the person to be prophet), it is forbidden to doubt him or to question the truth of his prophecy.

Jewish tradition states that there are no longer prophets that would allow us to test the veracity of a prophetic statement in particular and prophecy in general. "R. Yochanan said, since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children" (Bava Basra 12b). Thus we must rely on prophecies that have already been recorded. But herein lies the rub: prophecy is never specific, either in the nature of the prediction or the time period in which it is supposed to occur. A prophecy means whatever the interpreter wants it to mean. Thus we are left with a situation where there is little difference between the prophecies contained in the Bible and those of Nostradamus! A corollary to this is that a Jewish interpreter of prophetic scripture often can make no greater claim to authenticity than a Christian one. Thus, for example, the Christian fundamentalist will "clearly" demonstrate how the seventy weeks of Daniel 9 is a perfect prediction referring to Jesus. The Jewish traditionalist will respond that the Christian is manipulating dates, is erroneously using a 360 day year, is misunderstanding the term 'moshiach', is breaking up the passage incorrectly, and so forth. He may point to Rashi, who says that the 490 years refers to 70 years of exile after the destruction of the First Temple plus 420 years of the Second Temple. The Christian will counter-punch and explain why their way of breaking up the weeks is superior to that of Rashi, will show Biblical references to a 30-day month, and so on.

And let's be honest folks: One clear advantage to many Christian interpretations of Biblical passages - including this one - is that there is a single interpretation that is agreed upon (sometimes with relatively minor variations, such as recalculating Daniel based on a 365-day solar year.) This doesn't mean that a Christian interpretation is a superior one, only that a single voice often allows better refinement of rejoinders. Jewish parshanim frequently vehemently disagree on passages that seem to be fairly unambiguous, all the more so when it comes to cryptic passages such as are found in Daniel! Can one look at the passages carefully and truly say that Rashi's explanation is a satisfying one?

In either case, however, believers are guilty of a tautology: people may argue about the interpretative details of Daniel, but they believe it to be a prophesy about an actual event that came to pass because they believe that Daniel is prophesying!

Of course, the scholar may simply point out that the passage in Daniel is a re-interpretation of Jeremiah (chapters 25 and 29) who promised the restoration of the Temple after 70 years. Jeremiah got it wrong, and so the author of Daniel (dated to the 2nd century BCE, not the traditional date more than 200 years earlier) extended the prophecy to 70 groups of 7 years so that it would refer to Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He'll buttress his claim by pointing to similarities with another 490 year interpretation found in the Prophetic Apocryphon Dead Sea Scroll (4Q387) which uses a 10 groups of 49 years (Jubilee cycles) to describe a reign of apostasy that would eventually give way to the Kingdom of Heaven (see The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation.)

Kiruv workers and other OrthoFundies are fond of using prophetic texts to prove that the Torah is from heaven. One of the most frequently quoted prophetic passages - Deuteronomy 30 - describes how the Jews will be scattered among the nations only to eventually return to Israel. How could the Torah predict such a thing unless it were divine? This indeed seems to be a very powerful argument. But let's look at the passage more closely.
And it will be, when all these things come upon you the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children, hen, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you. Even if your exiles are at the end of the heavens, the Lord, your God, will gather you from there, and He will take you from there. And the Lord, your God, will bring you to the land which your forefathers possessed, and you [too] will take possession of it, and He will do good to you, and He will make you more numerous than your forefathers. And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, [so that you may] love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life. And the Lord, your God, will place all these curses upon your enemies and upon your adversaries, who pursued you. And you will return and listen to the voice of the Lord, and fulfill all His commandments, which I command you this day. And the Lord, your God, will make you abundant for good in all the work of your hands, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will once again rejoice over you for good, as He rejoiced over your forefathers, when you obey the Lord, your God, to observe His commandments and His statutes written in this Torah scroll, [and] when you return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul.
Now ask yourself? Has this prophecy come true as described? Did the Jews "hearken to God's voice" - a precondition to the in-gathering? Aish even says that the return to God is a prediction of the "Baal Teshuva Movement" (hmmm, do you think that Aish has a vested interest in making such a claim? Nah, that would be intellectually dishonest!)

Au contraire mon frere, it was largely secular Zionists who led the movement to return to Israel and were responsible for building up the land. And Aish-holes conveniently ignore the simple fact that the Baal Teshuvah movement developed long after the return to Israel.

Have all of the curses been put on the enemies of Jews? Ahmadinejad and his sympathizers around the world laugh at such a suggestion. Remember, that Rambam says that a prophecy has to be true in all of its detail.

No, only by carefully picking and choosing, or by separating the prophecy into two (or more) distinct time periods contrary to what the passage implies, or by taking passages out of order, can this be said to be an "accurate" prophecy. All three of these techniques are exactly what Jewish anti-missionary workers and publications accuse Christian missionaries of doing!! I cringe inside whenever the rabbi at my shul speaks about the incredible prophecies of Deuteronomy having come to pass.

Prophecy is supposedly subject to rational, scientific analysis and individual prophecies are theoretically falsifiable. But the absence of modern-day prophets doesn't allow us to properly test the prophecy hypothesis. And thus all we are left with are flimsy attempts at proving it via creative interpretation of Biblical passages. There simply is no good reason to believe in the historical existence of prophecy and in the end the believer must accept it as a matter of faith.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Daughter, the Virgin

Selection from a typical Chassidic wedding invitation:

If you are unacquainted with this phrase, it means "the praise-worthy virgin bride".

I've always found this almost universal custom not only anachronistic (after all, the family is not also parading around the bloody tokens of her deflowering, are they?) but also somewhat offensive. It seems no different from saying (albeit more crudely), "Hey everyone, our wonderful daughter hasn't been shtupped yet!" Yeah, it's implicitly understood, so why do people feel the need to publicize it? (Note also that in these circles it is likely that the chassan is also a virgin, but it isn't so praiseworthy that it needs to be advertised.)

Publicizing their daughter's sexual status - sheesh, haven't these people heard about tznius?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Jesus Prophecy in the Torah

In the post Why specifically the son of your mother?, Parshablog discusses why the pasuk in Deuteronomy 13:7 "seems to suggest that it is specifically your maternal brother who will try to tempt you to serve idols."
ז. כִּי יְסִיתְךָ אָחִיךָ בֶן אִמֶּךָ אוֹ בִנְךָ אוֹ בִתְּךָ אוֹ אֵשֶׁת חֵיקֶךָ אוֹ רֵעֲךָ אֲשֶׁר כְּנַפְשְׁךָ בַּסֵּתֶר לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה וְנַעַבְדָה אֱ־לֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַעְתָּ אַתָּה וַאֲבֹתֶיךָ: ח. מֵאֱלֹהֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתֵיכֶם הַקְּרֹבִים אֵלֶיךָ אוֹ הָרְחֹקִים מִמֶּךָּ מִקְצֵה הָאָרֶץ וְעַד קְצֵה הָאָרֶץ: ט. לֹא תֹאבֶה לוֹ וְלֹא תִשְׁמַע אֵלָיו וְלֹא תָחוֹס עֵינְךָ עָלָיו וְלֹא תַחְמֹל וְלֹא תְכַסֶּה עָלָיו: י. כִּי הָרֹג תַּהַרְגֶנּוּ יָדְךָ תִּהְיֶה בּוֹ בָרִאשׁוֹנָה לַהֲמִיתוֹ וְיַד כָּל הָעָם בָּאַחֲרֹנָה: יא. וּסְקַלְתּוֹ בָאֲבָנִים וָמֵת כִּי בִקֵּשׁ לְהַדִּיחֲךָ מֵעַל יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים: יב. וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּן וְלֹא יוֹסִפוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת כַּדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּה בְּקִרְבֶּךָ:7. If your brother, the son of your mother, tempts you in secret or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your embrace, or your friend, who is as your own soul saying, "Let us go and worship other gods, which neither you, nor your forefathers have known." 8. Of the gods of the peoples around you, [whether] near to you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; 9. You shall not desire him, and you shall not hearken to him; neither shall you pity him, have mercy upon him, nor shield him. 10. But you shall surely kill him, your hand shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. 11. And you shall stone him with stones so that he dies, because he sought to lead you astray from the Lord, your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 12. And all Israel shall listen and fear, and they shall no longer do any evil such as this in your midst.
Josh Waxman, as usual, does a bang-up scholarly job in his discussion of ibn Ezra's approach (not to mention his far superior formatting of text!) However, I'd like to share an unusual explanation that a Chassidic rav once told us in yeshivah.

The pasukim are actually a prophetic reference to Jesus.
What did Jesus do? He led fellow Jews astray, and for that he was chayiv misah (The fact that the Romans killed him via crucifixion is not really relevant here. But according to John 10, Jews did attempt to stone Jesus.)

But more importantly, Jesus was the "son of your mother" simply because he supposedly had no father!

We laughed at the time at this cute little drasha, and many years later I like to think that he was just having a bit of fun. But in the back of my mind there is still a nagging feeling that he was being perfectly serious and truly believed this explanation.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Warm Kugel

It would have been Hot Kugel, but his book The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible is a few years old now:

...Neighboring civilizations can, of course, influence one another, sometimes quite unconsciously, and this influence may extend to matters of religion. Indeed, scholars are familiar with the phenomenon known as syncretism, whereby the god of religion X is identified with another god from religion Y; or X’s god is worshiped in some ceremony derived from religion Y. This happened a great deal in the ancient world, and items such as the “Hanukkah bush,” adopted by some American Jews in imitation of the Christmas tree, or the recent espousal of a very Christian-style messianism by a group of Hasidic Jews, show that syncretism is not dead in our own time.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Barack Obama is Moshiach!

Pack your bags and get ready to move to the Holy Land! World peace and the building of the Third Temple are close at hand! I can say this in all certainty because it is obvious that President Barack Obama is the messiah!

I understand that I am late to the game here, and that other prophets have also made such a claim (see here and here, the latter being the source from which I ripped off the above image). But for the skeptics among you here is undeniable scientific proof of this assertion.

The gematria of משיח‎ - moshiach - is 40+300+10+8=358.

Barack - ברק - is 2+200+100=302
Obama - אובמה - is 1+6+2+40+5=54
So Barack Obama = 356. Add 1 for each name (a common technique in gematriot) or spell his last name אובאמה as some are wont to do and add 1 for the full name. You get 358.

משיח=ברק אובמה


Can there be any greater proof than this???

Is this any more ridiculous than the moronic drivel promulgated by Dreaming of Moshiach? Or the apocalyptic ravings of Torah code "researchers" Gallis and Wolf"? Or the vitriol spewed by Lazer Brody?

I think not.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Living Up To The Truth

Is religion, or in our case historical Traditional Judaism, relevant? Yes, of course it is. Historical Traditional Judaism is relevant because, given the concerns that people typically have, the Torah has a very good track record of producing results.


Everyone wants to live with as little crime as possible. Again, Jewish Tradition is very proud that within Torah communities, crime, violent crime in particular, is almost unknown. Imagine interviewing the presiding police officer in a precinct in Williamsburg, Borough Park, Flatbush, Monsey, Monroe, or any place where you have large concentrations of Traditional Jews. Ask him how many times he is called out on a murder charge, rape, assault and battery, mugging, child abuse, etc. The incidence of these sort of crimes in Orthodox communities is very low.
It is fortunate that Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb limited his list of crimes to violent ones. That way he doesn't have to worry about removing money-laundering, tax evasion, organ trafficking, child labor violations, identity theft, bank fraud, immigration violations, etc., from the next edition of his booklet "Living Up To The Truth" (although he probably should delete child abuse from the list of "almost unknown" crimes.)

(As readers of my sporadic blog may know, Gottlieb's writings generally rank very high on the bogometer, as described more fully in God is a Mafia Boss. But if you are ready for some more Gottlieb-style logic that allows him to conclude his thesis with "Therefore, Judaism is the only justified way to live.", you may view the booklet in its entirety here.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Chabad - Moon Landing Shows That Mortal Intellect is Worthless

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing - July 20, 1969. I found this fascinating Chabad perspective that dates back to the landing.

Spiritual "spaceship danger"

This year marked an extraordinary event, the landing on the moon.

We can perceive two ideas from the moon landing: There formerly was scientific proof that it is not possible to land on the moon, since it was thought that it was impossible to achieve the necessary takeoff velocity without breaking or burning up the rocket, and the like. From this we see that mortal intellect is worthless and unreliable, given that whatever man thinks today may very well be proved erroneous tomorrow.
So one of the greatest intellectual achievements in history - the landing on the moon - actually proves that humankind's intellect is "worthless and unreliable"! What a skewed (not to mention logically nonsensical) perspective!

The article is not attributed, but its attitude - which essentially denigrates scientific discovery and achievement - is certainly in keeping with other positions of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, including his beliefs in geocentricity and young earth creationism.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Losing One's Share in The World to Come

  • The Sages say that for three transgressions one forfeits his portion in the World to Come: murder, adultery, and idol worship, and that lashon hara is equivalent to all three. (B. Erchin 15b)
  • The following have no portion therein: he who maintains that resurrection is not a biblical doctrine, the Torah was not divinely revealed,and an epikoros. R. Akiva added: one who reads non-canonical books. Rav and R. Hanina both taught that an epikorus is one who insults a scholar. R. Yochanan and R. Joshua b. Levi maintained that it is one who insults his neighbor in the presence of a scholar. A Tanna explains that when R. Akiva says "non-canonical books", he is speaking about books of the Sadducees. R. Yosef says that it is also forbidden to read the book of Ben Sira. (Sanhedrin 90a)
  • One who talks during the repetition of the amidah is called "a sinner whose sin is too great to be forgiven. (Mishnah Berurah 124:27.)
  • One who converses during Krias ha-Torah is called "a sinner whose sin is too great to be forgiven." (Bieur Halachah 146:2)
  • R. Eleazar of Modin said: One who profanes things sacred, and one who slights the festivals, and one who embarrasses his fellow-man in public, and one who nullifies the covenant of our father Abraham, and one who exhibits impudence towards the Torah contrary to halacha, even though he has to his credit Torah and good deeds, he has not a share in the world to come. (Avot 3:11 or 3:15)
  • Among those who lose their share in the World to Come are those who treat Chol Hamoed disrespectfully, as any other weekday (Rashi to above mishna in Avot.)
  • Hillel used to say: He who makes worldly use of the crown of the Torah shall perish. Thus you may infer that any one who exploits the words of the Torah removes himself from the world of life. (Avot 4:7)
  • Anybody who undertakes to learn Torah all the time, not work, and support himself from charity is desecrating God's Name, disgracing the Torah, extinguishes his Jewish spark, causes bad to befall him and destroys his life in the World To Come, for it is forbidden to benefit from Torah matters in this world. (Rambam Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10; see also his laundry list in Hilchot Teshuvah.)
I don't for a minute believe that these are anything more than rabbinic hyperbole, but the next time you are accused of being an apikorus destined for Gehinnom, feel free to respond to your accuser with the appropriate passage. (The two "talking" quotes are perfect for your typical Young Israel, and the last quote is ideal as a response to kollel kanoim!)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Chumash Is More Meaningful If The Stories Didn't Happen - Menachem Leibtag

The following is a transcription of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag's closing remarks in a Torah In Motion lecture entitled Interpreting the Bible: The Relationship between Peshat and Derash. This brief lecture discusses a number of textual "problems" found in the Pentateuch (mostly related to its non-chronological order and seeming disorganized structure), but that these are intentional so that one will actively engage in the interpretative process when learning Chumash. By the way, R. Leibtag is a wonderful teacher of Chumash (I highly recommend his weekly parsha shiur), but his speaking style is somewhat stilted at times. So while it may appear that there are typos in my transcription, I have rechecked it against the lecture and it is very accurate.
Taking a story literally or not, when I read a story in Chumash - again, believing everything is coming from God - whether or not that story actually happened has nothing to do with its message. Do you understand my point? If someone believes, it's like the flood story, so there's an argument - it happened or didn't happen - or the story of creation. It's not a question of when you study it, it's not coming to tell you this happened. Chumash is using that story to give you a message. Now it could be the story did happen. But even if it didn't happen, that only makes the story even more meaningful. It's a tricky point, but it's really important. Meaning, if you believe in God, if you believe in nevuah, if you believe this work is coming from God, if God makes up a story to teach you a lesson that doesn't make the story any less meaningful. In fact, it makes it more meaningful...

Do we keep Shabbat because God created in seven days, or does God create a creation story so that we would keep Shabbat in a meaningful way. Do you follow? The second approach is much more meaningful, it makes much more sense. It could be that it did take 7 days, but even if it didn't it wouldn't make any difference. The message you get from Sefer Bereshit, the meaning that you gain from studying the creation story in depth, and looking at schematics and the way it's setup, it's said so beautifully and so much depth to the story and this deep message with man's relationship with God. That message has nothing do with what happened in physics. Big bang, small bang, middle bang. It has nothing to do with it. That message is eternal. And if someone can prove to you that it didn't take six or seven days, so what? It doesn't mean a thing. And if God gives you that story to teach you a message, then it's only more meaningful if it didn't happen. Understand? So therefore that whole argument of whether something happened or not is trivial.

Now, the danger of that approach is where do you draw the line? You get fundamental fundamentalism where maybe that didn't happen, or maybe the avot didn't exist, maybe yetzias mitzrayim didn't happen, maybe I don't exist. Do you follow? You go on and on and you can't draw the line and therefore what usually happens is because I don't know where to draw the line you don't draw it at all. That's also dangerous.
Of course, Rabbi Leibtag starts with the belief that God wrote the Torah in its entirety, so I guess with this a priori assumption his point is valid. But at the same time, it seems to be nothing more than clever stretchin' and kvetchin'. His assertion can be used for apologists when encountering any piece of evidence - no matter how compelling - that the Torah may be a compilation of multiple source documents.

So whaddya think?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fake Fur Streimels - Coming Soon?

An article in Jewish World discusses recent legislation in Israel that may ultimately affect the importation of fur used for shtreimels.
According to the motion to amend the Cruelty to Animals law, which was submitted by Kadima MK Ronit Tirosh, the importation from East Asia (and mainly China) of fur or textile products made out of the hair of dogs, cats or rabbits will be banned and punishable by a one-year prison sentence.

Tirosh wrote that about 2 million animals are slaughtered each year for the sole purpose of skinning them for their fur and they sometimes get skinned alive. "We as a society must try and prevent this unnecessary murder," the motion stated.

Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, whose office is in charge of implementing the law, even recommended expanding the bill to include fur of wild and domesticated animals from around the world.
What I find most curious is how people are so quick to condemn the Chassidic minhag of shtreimels. Both in the Jewish World article and in the recent FailedMessiah post - A Haredi 'History' Lesson - that covered this topic, you can see how many people are opposed to the custom. Now I can understand such a point of view if one is a radical vegan of the Peta-ilk, but otherwise what is really behind the opposition to shtreimels? So what if it's a custom that goes back "only" a few hundred years or so? The only issue that folks should have (again, other than radical animal rights adherents) is whether the animals were killed humanely. You have problems with shtreimels, fur coats, leather shoes, meat-eating? Fine, don't use them or eat meat. And feel free to try and respectfully convince others not to. But the bottom line is that humans have used animals for food and clothing for tens of thousands of years and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

Although I truly believe that Peta is an evil organization cult, they have brought the issue of animal cruelty to the forefront. And that's a good thing. To those folks who want to forbid shtreimels or fur products (one absurd comment on FailedMessiah was from Michael who said "Shtreimels are clearly forbidden d'oraita"), I would first ask "are you a vegan"? If not, you may want to take a close look at the lives of chickens used for meat and (especially) eggs. See where animal suffering occurs on a truly grand scale.

I suspect that most of the opposition to shtreimels does not stem from a specific aversion to the use of fur, but a more visceral contempt for Chassidim because of their rejection of much of the trappings of modernity. Shtreimels, vasa zocken (white socks with knickers), long peyot, etc., are only the most outward signs of this rejection.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Cucumber Craving

And the mixed multitude that was among them cultivated a craving; and the Children of Israel also turned and they wept and said: 'Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we would eat in Egypt free of charge; the cucumbers, and the melons, leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our life is parched, there is nothing; we have nothing before our eyes but the manna! - Numbers 11:4-6

What's so great about cucumbers anyway? Well I'll tell you!

The Egyptians made a drink from cucumber. When it was ripe, a hole was cut at the end. Then a small stick was inserted into the hole. After much stirring and squashing, the hole was plugged and the veggie was buried in the ground for a few days. When it was unearthed, the fermented pulp inside made for a powerful cocktail.

(See the cool things that you can learn from Uncle John's All-Purpose Extra-Strength Bathroom Reader?)

Yum! How could a monotonous diet of honey wafers (what manna tasted like) compete with a cheap and easy cucumber buzz? Perhaps the memories of the smashing good times that the Jews had in Egypt eventually led to their pre-eminence in the wine and liquor business?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Anachronistic Prayers Part 1 or The Crow of the Cock

When he hears the cock crowing he should say: 'Blessed is He who has given to the cock understanding to distinguish between day and night'. (Berachot 60b)

The ArtScroll siddur quotes Rabbenu Asher ben Yechiel, the Rosh, who interprets "sekhvi" as "the heart" (see Iyov 8:36), thus making the morning beracha

Blessed is He who has given the heart understanding to distinguish between day and night.

It is clear from the Talmud that this late interpretation has nothing to do with the original intention of the composer of the blessing. In a time when there were no alarm clocks, one would wake up to the crowing of the rooster. Indeed, Tehillat Hashem (the Nusach Ari / Chabad siddur) in its halachic note to the blessing states "if he was awake all night and heard the crow of the rooster after midnight, he may recite the berachah."

The Rosh lived from ca. 1250 to 1328. Wiki mentions an interesting contemporaneous fact in its article on clocks: "Between 1280 and 1320, there is an increase in the number of references to clocks and horologes in church records, and this probably indicates that a new type of clock mechanism had been devised. Existing clock mechanisms that used water power were being adapted to take their driving power from falling weights. This power was controlled by some form of oscillating mechanism, probably derived from existing bell-ringing or alarm devices. This controlled release of power - the escapement - marks the beginning of the true mechanical clock." A speculative thought is that the Rosh's reformulation arose out of his prescient awareness that the need for the rooster alarm clock would soon eliminated.

This blessing was at one time a very practical one. Today, however, it has no meaning to us without the creative rendering of Rabbenu Asher.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Once I Was Young

Rabbi Gil Student, in his post Once I Was Young And Now I Am Old, recalls that as a child in summer camp, some campers (but apparently not him) were bothered by the last section of Grace After Meals, "Once I was young, and now I am old, yet I have never watched a righteous man forsaken or his children begging for bread." He then quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who apparently explains this passage to Gil's satisfaction. Interestingly, he also references Alan Dershowitz's book Chutzpah in the comments section, in which Dershowitz states (p. 130ff):
From the time I was in elementary school, I recited in Hebrew the following verse from the Thirty-seventh Psalm several times each day, as part of the prayer after meals: "I was a child and then grew old, but I never saw a righteous person abandoned or his children asking for food." I recall raising questions in class about what these perplexing words could possibly mean. Surely they did not accurately describe reality. The remnants of the Holocaust were all around me - classmates with numbers tattooed on their arms, teachers who had lost entire families, friends who had experienced the displaced persons camps. Righteous people had been abandoned and their children left wanting.

My yeshiva rabbis made heroic efforts to explain this passage. Perhaps those who were abandoned were not really righteous in their souls. An insulting and denigrating rationalization! Surely some of the abandoned were truly righteous — at least more righteous than many who were not abandoned. How dare the commentators, I remember thinking, sit in smug collective judgment of all who were abandoned. Perhaps, the rabbis said, the passage refers to being abandoned by God in the hereafter and not by fallible fellow men on earth. That won't work either, I thought, since the obviously human author ("I was a child and then grew old") is describing what he has "seen," and one does not see the hereafter. Maybe the passage reflects the hope that the righteous will no longer be abandoned, my teachers suggested. Maybe, but that is not what it says. Other proffered explanations fell equally short.

To my mind, the best and simplest explanation is that the passage is wrong. It is pretty poetry but ugly philosophy. There is in fact no relationship between righteousness and good fortune, or unrighteousness and bad fortune. If there was ever any doubt about this sad reality — and I don’t believe there ever was — all such doubt was permanently erased by the Holocaust.

Indeed, the Holocaust, and the world’s reaction to it, make it demonstrably clear not only that the observation is factually false, but also that it is morally unacceptable. The psalm implies, at the very least, that human beings are morally responsible for their misfortunes; had they been righteous, they would not have been slaughtered in the Holocaust, struck down by disease, or devastated by natural catastrophe. This is an obnoxious principle that gives rise to the kind of "naturalistic fallacy" underlying the doctrines of some fundamentalist religions, which declare disasters to be the fault of the victims. Some bigots even blame the Holocaust on the Jews. A religious doctrine capable of such moral mischief must be unacceptable to Jews, especially after the Holocaust.

To be sure, there may be an obscure interpretation that would be entirely acceptable. but even if that were to be so, I would still conclude that the homily is objectionable, since its obvious meaning — the one accepted by millions who daily recite it — is so fundamentally immoral…
To me it's no big deal; either find an acceptable interpretation that resonates with you or omit the passage if it offends you. You've already fulfilled your bentching obligation. Of course, if you are at a Shabbos table where everyone is singing the entire Birkat HaMazon together, you may have a little problem with appearances, but I'm sure that you can find a way to be creative in the commission of your omission.

But even when folks don't sing together, it is quite common to do so for the first bracha. And this one is a much bigger problem for me.
Blessed is The Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe, who sustains the entire world with goodness, kindness and mercy. God gives food to all creatures, for God’s mercy is everlasting. Through God’s abundant goodness we have not lacked sustenance, and may we not lack sustenance forever, for the sake of God’s great name. God sustains all, does good to all, and provides food for all the creatures whom God has created. Blessed is The Lord our God, who provides food for all.
Gives food to all creatures? Provides food for all?

Let's see what Professor Wiki has to say:
On the average, a person dies every second as a result of hunger - 4000 every hour - 100,000 each day - 36 million each year - 58% of all deaths (2001-2004 estimates). On the average, a child dies every 5 seconds as a result of hunger - 700 every hour - 16,000 each day - 6 million each year - 60% of all child deaths (2002-2008 estimates).
A friend of mine insists that this bracha makes a valid assertion since mankind produces enough food to feed everyone (indeed, a source in the wiki article on starvation claims that we could feed double the current world population of 6 billion people.) That the blessing should serve as a constant reminder of our responsibilities to those less fortunate than us.

It's a nice thought, but it is clearly not the intent of the bracha. Such a flawed exegesis also implies that the blessing was not true for pre-industrial history (unless one says that the earth has always had the potential to feed everyone, but that is really stretching things.) And it is humankind's refusal to sit back and say "God will provide" that has made possible the advancement of modern agricultural techniques - fertilizers, pesticides, mechanized equipment, and other crop management techniques.

God does not provide food for all. It is a patently false assertion that becomes absurd to the extreme when one looks at "all creatures", and considers the countless species over geologic history that are now extinct for lack of sustenance, whether via disruptions such as climate change, or competitive exclusion for the same environmental niche. The struggle for survival is mostly the struggle for food.

Of course, one is only supposed to say the blessing after being satiated with bread, so the passage "we have not lacked substance" does have a logical sense of immediacy. And certainly we all hope that "may we not lack sustenance forever." But to make the statement that God provides food for all creatures? It is not true, plain and simple. (I'm not addressing the theodicy issue of "does good to all" with a 10-foot pole.*)

Malcolm Gladwell, in his latest book Outliers: The Story of Success, describes an essential difference between rice growing cultures of Asia and Western farming cultures. Growing rice is incredibly complex and labor intensive. Increasing rice yields requires constant and close attention to a myriad of diverse tasks. A successful rice farmer works hard every day of the year in managing his tiny rice paddy. Contrast this with 18th century European farmers. They typically worked only between late spring and early summer, essentially bedding down to preserve food and energy during the long winter months. The former worked up to 3000 hours a year, while the latter worked approximately 1200 hours! This also explains why China and Japan could not develop the oppressive feudal landlord system so common to Europe. Rice farming is too complex to coerce farmers into maintaining paddies. As a result, it was much easier for a landlord to charge a fixed rent and let the tenant farmer reap the rewards of hard work.

Gladwell then quotes the historian David Arkush who compared Russian and Chinese peasant proverbs. A typical Russian proverb:
If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it.
Such a proverb reflects an attitude of "pessimism and fatalism typical of a repressive feudal system where peasants have no reason to believe in the efficacy of their own work." On the other hand, a penniless Chinese peasant would typically say,
Don't depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load.
Readers should immediately recognize that the Russian aphorism is similar to sentiment expressed in Deuteronomy 8:17:
כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה
[Beware lest you forget the LORD your God] and you say in your heart: 'My power and the might of my hand has given me this wealth'.
The passage implies that the well-off have the greatest difficulty in recognizing - or more accurately, believing in - the hand of God. Yes, the ones that truly believe the admonishment of Deuteronomy are usually those that depend on charity for their survival such as the impoverished kollel and chareidi families with a dozen kids who live in poverty and rely on welfare checks and tzedaka, as well as unfortunate "victims of circumstance". But I think it is more likely that the vast majority of us moderns are simply too far removed from the European peasant cultures and fatalistic Islamic regimes under which most of ancestors have lived over the past 1000 years. I suspect that most of us pay only lip service to "kochi yadi" while avoiding the heretical implications of our disbelief by relying on Ben Franklin's "God helps those who help themselves." Our psychology is largely informed from viewing the world around us, and the world around us seems much more in tune with the aphorisms of the Chinese rice farmer.

Regardless of how the world seems to work, our knowledge of the deep underpinnings of reality is mostly non-existent (and that's true even if you're a radical materialist!) So there is plenty of room for emunah whether discussing concepts of "kochi yadi", or "tzadik v'ra lo" (*ok, a five-foot pole), or many other difficult religious topics. But emunah can only go so far. It isn't something that suffices to explain away a clearly observable fact of nature. If Moses did indeed write the first blessing to Birkat HaMazon, he may have been expressing a desire as to how he would like the world to work, but an honest person cannot recite it in its current form as a statement of how the world works in actuality. God does not provide for all creatures.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

More Segulah Stupidity...

Guess I'm behind the curve because this is the first time I've heard of this nonsense, but if you also have not previously heard about the challah segulah here goes:
If you are baking challah between after Sh'kiya on Wednesday and before Shavuos, and are making enough to make the bracha "hafrashas challah", please email me so that you can be part of the 40 women segulah.
No other explanation was given in the email, but a quick web search turned up an essay by Chabad-nik Rav Yitchak Ginsburgh, gematria extraordinaire. Apparently, the mitzvah of challah is the primary rectification for the nation of Israel abandoning the Land of Israel as a result of the sin of the spies. Since they wandered for 40 years in the desert, I guess having 40 women baking somehow helps to correct that sin. Plus, the gematria of Rachel = 40 when you use the ordinal count of each letter (there is almost always a way to get what you want with gematriot if you are creative enough!), and the mitzvah of challah relates specifically to Rachel.

The amount of superstition that has permeated mainstream RW Orthodoxy is absolutely astounding. But occasionally this obsession with segulot gives birth to a gem of an idea: Rav Ginsburgh suggests that they open up a bakery inside Rachel's tomb!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reb Yoel - "Just Lucky"

R. Itamar Rosenbaum, the progenitor of Nadvorna chassidim ("Ha’admor Hazaken MiNadvorna"), and his very frank opinion of the Satmar Rebbe, R. Yoel Teitelbaum:
When a hasid of Satmar told him that Reb Yoel was the messiah he retorted: "If you were to say that R. Yoel is a great scholar, I would agree. I would also endorse the view that he is a tzadik, a giant among men. But to assert that he is the Messiah, this is ridiculous and preposterous. How could we face the world with him as the messiah?"

He then explained the influence by which R. Yoel wielded such power over such large masses of chassidim in this way: "The owner of a 5th Avenue store is not necessarily superior intellectually to a shopkeeper in the Bronx. The former was just lucky and fortune smiled upon him."

He found it incomprehensible that the Rebbe of Satmar forbade his followers to visit the Western Wall. "If he lived in Israel," said R. Itamar, "he would visit the Wall. Only in heaven is it known who is a genuine rabbi."
I was originally going to make this a "name this quote" contest (complete with a real, honest-to-goodness prize - a hagiography from CIS Publishers.) But I waited too long to post and Google Books has since made available a preview of the book wherein this is found.

Source: Hasidism in Israel: A History of the Hasidic Movement and Its Masters in the Holy Land by Tzvi M. Rabinowicz.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Torah - The Repository of All Scientific Knowledge

"The myriads of petrified Remains which are disclosed by the researches of Geology all tend to prove that our Planet has been occupied in times preceding the Creation of the Human Race, by extinct species of Animals and Vegetables, made up, like living Organic Bodies, of "Clusters of Contrivances," which demonstrate the exercise of stupendous Intelligence and Power. They further show that these extinct forms of Organic Life were so closely allied, by Unity in the principles of their construction, to Classes, Orders, and Families, which make up the existing Animal and Vegetable Kingdoms, that they not only afford an argument of surpassing force, against the doctrines of the Atheist and Polytheist; but supply a chain of connected evidence, amounting to demonstration, of the continuous Being, and of many of the highest Attributes of the One Living and True God."

So says Reverend William Buckland in his introduction to Treatise VI of The Bridgewater Treatises on the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God As Manifested in the Creation. The title of this treatise is "Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology", written in 1836. Buckland was an English geologist and a proponent of creationism, but he was an Old Earth Creationist. Even at a time when geology was in its infancy, he rejected so-called "Flood Geology", recognized that large scale extinctions had occurred many times in the past, and was the first person to describe in depth a dinosaur fossil - Megalosaurus. In short, he was an early Gadol Hador of Geology. (As an aside, one of his hobbies was zoophagy, and he claimed to have eaten his way through the entire animal kingdom - he found mole particularly disgusting!)

What is especially fascinating about Buckland's attempt to reconcile geology and religion, is that it clearly demonstrates that the science of stratigraphy and its correlation with fossil assemblages was not invented by Darwinian dogmatists in an attempt to prove their case. In fact, Buckland shows quite the opposite: many of the early naturalists interpreted what they clearly saw as legitimate scientific observations in such a manner as to support theological beliefs. But Buckland and others did not take the intellectually dishonest approach that many modern day anti-evolutionists are guilty of - claiming that scientists have resorted to a kind of circular reasoning whereby the fossils date the rocks and the rocks date the fossils. Google, for example, evolution OR stratigraphy "circular reasoning" and you'll see that such ludicrous claims are common amongst the Intelligent Design/Creationist propagandists.

Buckland continues:
It may seem just matter of surprise, that many learned and religious men should regard with jealousy and suspicion the study of any natural phenomena, which abound with proofs of some of the highest attributes of the Deity; and should receive with distrust, or total incredulity, the announcement of conclusions, which the geologist deduces from careful and patient investigations of the facts which it is his province to explore. These doubts and difficulties result from the disclosures made by geology, respecting the lapse of very long periods of time before the creation of man. Minds which have long been accustomed to date the origin of the universe, as well as that of the human race from an era of about six thousand years ago, receive reluctantly any information, which if true, demands some new modification of their present ideas of cosmogony; and, as in this respect, Geology has shared the fate of other infant sciences, in being for a while considered hostile to revealed religion; so like them, when fully understood, it will be found a potent and consistent auxiliary to it, exalting our conviction of the Power, end Wisdom, and Goodness of the Creator.
Throughout the book, Buckland recognizes the immature state of the science of his day, yet this is never a reason to doubt its findings. He also repeatedly states that no longer is it appropriate to date the origin of the human race - much less the universe itself - to 6000 years ago. And that it is foolish to look to the Bible for matters of science.
The disappointment of those who look for a detailed account of geological phenomena in the Bible, rests on a gratuitous expectation of finding therein historical information, respecting all the operations of the Creator in times and places with which the human race has no concern; as reasonably might we object that the Mosaic history is imperfect, because it makes no specific mention of the satellites of Jupiter, or the rings of Saturn, as feel disappointment at not finding in it the history of geological phenomena, the details of which may be fit matter for an encyclopedia of science, but are foreign to the objects of a volume intended only to be a guide of religious belief and moral conduct.
Some extreme fideists like to reference such sources as Ben Bag Bag's aphorism in Pirke Avot 5:22: "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it." or Bereshit Rabbah / Zohar: "God looked into the Torah and created the world" to claim that yes, all knowledge - including all scientific knowledge - is indeed in the Torah, but hidden and/or encoded. This would include many adherents of Jewish mystical traditions, such as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as well as some Torah-code advocates. A prime example of those who promulgate an expansive interpretation of "everything is in the Torah" is the radical OrthoFundie that runs FrumTeens, an expert at handpicking quotes from select rabbanim to support his viewpoint to the exclusion of all other legitimate interpretations within Orthodoxy. When it comes to demonstrating the veracity of such a claim with specific examples, however, such individuals can only come up with very generalized and often vague statements from sages of yore (typical lame one: eretz means "running" so the Torah clearly knew that the Earth rotates and revolves around the sun. Although FrumTeens is so wacky that he doesn't even admit to this and falls back on the bogus "The earth revolving around the sun is only relative" claim.) In this they are no different from those who use the same technique in an attempt to prove the divinity of the Koran.

Let us close with the following passage of Buckland's. Rather than twisting the overwhelming evidence that fundamentalists find contrary to their deeply held beliefs, those who believe the Bible to be the inerrant, infallible word of God would do well to consider it.
We may fairly ask of those persons who consider physical science a fit subject for revelation, what point they can imagine short of a communication of Omniscience, at which such a revelation might have stopped, without imperfections of omission, less in degree, but similar in kind, to that which they impute to the existing narrative of Moses ? A revelation of so much only of astronomy, as was known to Copernicus, would have seemed imperfect after the discoveries of Newton; and a revelation of the science of Newton would have appeared defective to La Place: a revelation of all the chemical knowledge of the eighteenth century would have been as deficient in comparison with the information of the present day, as what is now known in this science will probably appear before the termination of another age; in the whole circle of sciences, there is not one to which this argument may not be extended, until we should require from revelation a full developement of all the mysterious agencies that uphold the mechanism of the material world. Such a revelation might indeed be suited to beings of a more exalted order than mankind, and the attainment of such knowledge of the works as well as of the ways of God, may perhaps form some part of our happiness in a future state; but unless human nature had been constituted otherwise than it is, the above supposed communication of omniscience would have been imparted to creatures, utterly incapable of receiving it, under any past or present moral or physical condition of the human race; and would have been also at variance with the design of all God's other disclosures of himself, the end of which has uniformly been, not to impart intellectual but moral knowledge.
The full on-line text of Volume I of Buckland's work can be found here. Volume II, which consists primarily of fossil illustrations and descriptions can be found here.