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.