Monday, December 13, 2010

The Jew and the Other

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

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 In that respect, they are perfectly understandable - albeit outdated - beliefs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jacob's Sophie's Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 8, 2010

What's Not Bothering Rashi?

Did Abraham or Isaac "name" Beersheva?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Needless to say, Bible critics love this one.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Modesty and Job Interviews

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

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

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

Reply: Thank you Rebbe.

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wordle Madness

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

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

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

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

The prolific Mr Dov Bear:

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

Hirhurim/Torah Musings (nothing surprising here):

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

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

And finally, one from the Jewish Atheist:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chazal Knew the Number of Stars!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) I've saved the best for last.

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

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

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Shafran and the Jewish Observer Promote Avodah Zarah in the Frum Community!

Avi is again getting a lot of blogging press after his recent interview with Baruch Pelta. This particular quote - which refers to an article that Shafran wrote on Moses Mendelssohn for the Jewish Observer - caught my eye:
So they accepted the article, they published it, and I think what made it stick in the craw of a lot of people was the fact that many [frum] people have a visceral, automatic reaction to the name Mendelssohn - for whatever reason. Rabbi Wolpin told me afterward was that he thinks it was a mistake for them to put in a photograph of him [Mendelssohn]. It was in fact a prominent photograph, I think maybe it was facing Rav Hirsch or something like that - there was some sort of a juxtaposition. And a photograph of him altogether - they don't generally put in photographs of people that are not intended to be put up on a wall in a frum house and, you know, venerated.
WOW - it's bad enough that the Jewish Observer would publish a photo of Mendelssohn, but it's simply outrageous that they are willing accomplices in promoting idol worship!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

This is Rationalist Judaism?

R. Natan Slifkin rhetorically asks:
What do the events of the Purim story, the lottery via which the Land of Israel was divided, the survival of the Jewish People over millenia of persecution, the weather in Israel, and the creation of the State of Israel, all have in common?
and then answers:
The answer is that they are all events which secular scientists/historians would attribute to the random, unplanned, circumstantial luck of history, but which religious Jews perceive as being orchestrated by God.
Rabbi Slifkin (whom I have the utmost of respect for), touts the "overwhelming convergence of evidence" when it comes to the theory of evolution. But there is likewise an overwhelming convergence of evidence against the historicity of the Purim story. Secular scientists and historians do not attribute the Purim story to the "luck of history", as they do not believe that it even occurred.

Monday, October 11, 2010

We Lack a Community

Three Jews' Bruce decries a lack of participation of the younger crowd at his Conservative synagogue.

He states "The result is problematic for several obvious reasons. We lack a community; the families do not regularly see each other at synagogue." Then he goes on to state several causes of the problem.

Seems to me that this causal chain is a bit bass ackwards. There is no participation because there is a lack of community, not the other way around. And the one overriding reason for this? Because more than 50 years ago Conservative Judaism permitted driving on Shabbat. Once that was allowed, there was no compelling reason to live within walking distance of a shul. Orthodox Jews have to live near one another. Voila - Jewish neighborhood. And Jewish community.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Name That Text!

Read the following sacred text quote and ponder for a brief moment as to what the source is. Don't take the easy way out with a Google search. The answer will be seen shortly.

And Omri was king over Israel for twelve years. And he built an altar to YHVH in Jericho saying "because He has delivered me from all kings, and because He has made me look down on all my enemies." Mesha was the king of Moab, and he oppressed Israel for many days, for YHVH was angry with His land. And his son reigned in his place; and he also said, "I will oppress Israel!" But YHVH has looked down on him and on his house, and Moab has been defeated; it has been defeated forever! And Mesha took possession of the whole land of Jerash, and he lived there in his days and half the days of his son: forty years. But YHVH restored it in Omri's days and he built an altar to YHVH, and a water reservoir next to it. And he built Beit El. And the men of Moab lived in the land of Dibon from ancient times; and the king of Moab built Atarot for himself, and he fought against the city and captured it. And Omri killed all the people of the city as a sacrifice for YHVH and for Israel.

If you don't have a background in the early monarchy period of the Bible, you might not have noticed that this account is totally out of whack. Otherwise you will recognize a clumsy attempt at making something read as if it were a section in Kings or Chronicles. But it isn't. It is the first half of the Mesha Stele (see here), written with the "good guys" and the "bad guys" (and place names) reversed.

Look at things through Moabite eyes. Israel under King Omri and his successors were oppressors of Moab. But why was Israel able to subjugate the mighty nation of Moab? Because Chemosh (Moab's God), was angry at His people. Eventually Chemosh relented and restored Moab's land. The divinely commanded massacres against Israel were carried out dutifully. King Mesha would build altars to Chemosh after these successful military campaigns where people could bring their thanksgiving offerings.

We aren't reading our sacred Moabite stories today because it is the Jewish nation that survived, not the Moabites.

I guess that shows that God really is on our side.

Or perhaps it's just because history belongs to the victor.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

What Happens When You Cross the Muppets with Pat Metheny?

While searching Youtube for the Pat Metheny (one of my favorite musicians and composers; his place in the pantheon of great guitarists is assured, not that he needs my haskamah...) piece "45/8", I came across this bizarre video assemblage using music performed by the Israeli almost a capella group, Coral Vocal Ensemble. (According to their Myspace page, "Coral is the representative vocal ensemble of Tel Aviv Municipality".) This is a strange juxtaposition of Doom (video game) and Muppet characters with (mostly) clever synchronization with the music.

Here's another one of zzaltz's video mixes, which is also quite fun to watch and even more random.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

More Moronic Ravings from Avi

I really don't like ragging on people (and it most certainly isn't a frequent topic on my occasional blog post), but "Rabbi" Avi Shafran is one individual that really gets to me. Not only is he is a knee-jerk apologist for the chareidi lifestyle, but he does not hesitate to trash those who don't live up to his own religious standards. His response to a very workable remedy to prevent future agunot:
Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for the Agudath Israel of America, agreed that pre-nuptial agreements are not common in the charedi world. None of his six married children has one, he said. “My understanding of the reason is that detailing what will happen in the event, G-d forbid, of a divorce would start a marriage off on a negative, dangerous note,” Rabbi Shafran explained. “The message a newlywed may take from it, especially in our times, sadly, is that marriage is like any business agreement. Clauses in a contract establishing a legal partnership would understandably deal with the event of the partnership’s dissolution. But a joining of two people into one is qualitatively different, and incomparably important. So, to begin the challenging but holy enterprise of married life amid thoughts of what will transpire at a divorce is neither prudent nor proper.”
Ah yes, the holy enterprise of matrimony cannot at all be sullied by the thought that the woman needs to be protected just in case of divorce. A pre-nup makes a marriage too much like a business transaction.

IDIOT! Isn't a marriage sealed with a business-like transaction (kesef or shtar)?? IDIOT! Isn't a ketubah already a pre-nuptial agreement of sorts, as it stipulates the monetary obligations of the husband in case of divorce??

Shafran's rationalization is BULLSHIT, plain and simple.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Women's Suffrage Destroys Domestic Tranquility and Leads to a Deterioration of the Nation

Happy 80th Birthday Women's Suffrage!

On August 18, 1920, women were granted the right to vote in the USA when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.

This was a time of great political upheaval, and the idea of women's suffrage was being discussed and soon being granted among most European countries. However, "no country in the Mediterranean Basin (Spain, France, Italy, Albania, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Greece), Asia (except Russia), Africa or the Middle East recognized women’s suffrage."

The issue began being discussed in Palestine after the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Many turned to Rav Abraham Ha-Kohen Kook — the Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi of Jerusalem — for his decision. "To the shock of many", he announced his unequivocal opposition to women's suffrage. And this opposition was - he claimed - "the unanimous voice of all Jewish culture and halakhah." To Kook, the idea of suffrage was not only a betrayal of Jewish ideals, but also represented a trend towards accepting European culture which he claimed was defunct in both morality and purity of virtue. Kook supported a boycott by religious Jews in the 1920 elections unless women were barred from the electoral process.

Rav BenZion Meir Uziel - the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jaffa - composed a responsum in 1920, strongly supported for women’s suffrage for religious, moral and political grounds. "Out of respect for Rav Kook, he never identified his intellectual adversary, but it is clear that much of his teshuvah is a point-by-point rebuttal of arguments Rav Kook had raised in the two letters."

R. Kook's first letter can be summed up with this quote:
Regarding the law, I have nothing to add to the words of the rabbis who came before me. In the Torah, in the Prophets, and in the Writings, in the halakhah and in the aggadah, we hear a single voice: that the duty of fixed public service falls upon men, for “It is a man’s manner to dominate and not a woman’s manner to dominate” (Yevamot 65b), and that roles of office, of judgment, and of testimony are not for her, for “all her honor is within” (Ps. 45:14).
His second letter is even more of a blockbuster and I really have to excerpt a lengthy section of it.
We believe our outlook on the life of society is more delicate and pure than that of the other civilized nations in general. Our family is sacred to us in a much deeper way than it is to all the modern world, and this is the basis of the happiness and dignity of the Woman of Israel. In other nations, the family is not the foundation of the nation, nor is it as stable and deep as it is amidst us. For this reason, they are not so taken aback by the cracks in family life, and the consequences of those breaks will not cause such harm to their national life. The psychological basis for calling for public participation in elections by the name of “women’s rights” arises fundamentally from the unhappy position of the mass of women amidst these nations. If their family situation had been as peaceful and dignified as it is generally in Israel, the women themselves, as well as men of science, morality and high ideals, would not demand what they call “rights” of suffrage for women, in the common fashion, a step that might spoil domestic tranquility (shalom bayit) and ultimately lead to a great deterioration of political and national life in general.

But out of their desperation and bitterness, the result of male coarseness that spoils family life, the women of other nations thought to receive, through some public empowerment, help in ameliorating their wretched situation at home, without regard to the further breaches made thereby, since those breaches are so numerous. We have not descended, and shall not descend, to such a state, and will not want to see our sisters in such a low state. The home for us remains a dwelling place of holiness, and we dare not obliterate the splendor of our sisters’ lives, and embitter them through exposure to the din of opinions and disputation that are characteristic of electoral matters and political questions.

The Israelite woman bases her rights on the refined content of her unique spiritual value, not on measured and limited laws, formed in a mechanical cast, which are for her iron horns, which do not suit at all her psychic refinement and which she is generally, according to her natural character, not strong enough to utilize. They lack the power to repair and are more able to spoil the fundamentals of spiritual relations. These laws govern every arena of life.

The family is for us the foundation of the nation. The house of Jacob (beit Ya`aqov—an allusion to women—ed.) will build the people of Israel. We prepare the building of the nation in a manner consistent with the nature of our psyche. We are always prepared to declare the moral obligation of listening to women’s opinions throughout the house of Israel, including those with reference to general social and political questions. But the accepted opinion must come specifically from the home, from the family in its wholeness; and the one whose duty it is to bring it into the public domain is the man, the father of the family, on whom is placed the obligation of making known the family opinion.

When we demand of the woman that she go out into the political public domain, and become entangled in expressing her opinion on electoral and political questions in general, then one of two things will result: either she will learn through this flattery to flatter the man and to cast her vote according to his, not according to her conscience, thereby spoiling her morality and inner freedom; or raging differences of opinion will destroy domestic tranquility (shalom bayit), and the rifts in the family will fracture the nation. At the same time, we lower our collective dignity in the eyes of the nations by showing the world that we have no original political system stemming from the content of our own spirit, which is revealed through our teachings and holy traditions. These are for us not only symbolic matters, but embody real life values. Instead, we act, at the beginning of our first step toward political life, as lesser disciples of contemporary civilized people who themselves still stand very confused concerning their difficult life issues, especially with regard to their spiritual and moral values in general and with respect to this difficult problem of home and state in particular.
The complete content of R. Kook’s two letters and R. Uziel’s formal responsum are presented here, from which all quotes in this post were taken.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Is it rational to be an atheist?

So asks Gideon Slifkin. In doing so, he attempts to make an equivalence between string theory and the existence of God:
"The universe we live in is one great mystery. Until that mystery is solved, theorizing God, Strings or refusing to Theorize at all is all about the same. Either way, you are stuck in an absurd mystery, and there's not a lot you can do about it. Except Theorize. Or not. "
One hundred years ago, one might have made a similar statement regarding relativity. But the effects of relativity were soon experimentally verified. Indeed, before Arthur Eddington tested Einstein's theory of general relativity via the bending of star light during a solar eclipse, the latter was asked what he would think if Eddington's measurements failed to support his theory, Einstein replied "Then I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct."

During subsequent decades one might have made a similar statement regarding quantum mechanics. Yet we can observe many quantum phenomena, such as quantum strangeness (Feynman included the double slit experiment as one example), entanglement (action at a distance), etc.

Relativity and quantum mechanics are still mysterious and non-intuitive, and perhaps will always be. Yet we take for granted practical applications that utilize both of these ideas, such as GPS units and devices that rely on electron tunneling (VLSI chips, microscopes, etc.)

Using string theory is a red herring, since it is a theory in its infancy, is currently untestable, and may in fact have no predictive value!

Gideon's error is that God is simply not a scientific postulate. It is not predictive, nor is it falsifiable. Even the argument "Does God exist?" is framed as an evidence-based argument, for when we use the term "exist" we generally mean something along the lines of "is it testable via scientific means". God is a faith-based idea, and thus a pure materialist has no basis for believing in God.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Brain of Fundamentalists, The Brain of Skeptics

The Pew Forum's biannual conference on religion had a fascinating conference a couple of years back on neuroscience and belief. One intriguing point made by Andrew Newberg:
...There have been some studies that have looked at political perspectives, trying to understand what happens in the brain of people who are Republicans and the brains of people who are Democrats. We talked about some of this, and I'd just highlight a couple of interesting studies. One was an fMRI study, which is a magnetic resonance imaging that looks at blood flow and activity in the brain, and it showed that people who scored higher on liberalism tended to be associated with stronger what they called conflict-related anterior cingulate activity. Now, what that means is, you have a part of your brain called the anterior cingulate, which helps you mediate when things are in conflict with the way you already believe.

The researchers then interpreted this, and we can go into all the questions about how should we interpret these studies. People who had greater liberalism seemed to do better or were more sensitive to altering some habitual response pattern, implying that they were more open to change, more open to other ideas, more open to conflict, than people who scored lower on liberalism. Does that mean something about people who consider themselves to be liberals versus conservatives, Republicans versus Democrats?

Of course all people, regardless of what their particular perspectives are, when they're viewing their own candidate, that has a different effect in their brain than when they are viewing a candidate from the opposite party. When you're looking at somebody from the opposite party, or thinking about them, it tends to activate the amygdala, the limbic areas, again, that tend to trigger more of an emotional response, whereas when you're looking at people who are concordant with your views and beliefs, that tends to activate some of the areas of the frontal lobe and also that anterior cingulate that helps you mediate your conflict-resolution powers.
Can one extrapolate from this study to make implications regarding the brains of skeptics versus the brains of religious fundamentalists?

I think it is a fair assumption to suggest that there is a much higher rate of skepticism in the scientific community versus the religious community (bear with me, I realize that this is an oversimplified dichotomy.) Yes, there are exceptions on both sides: folks who reluctantly leave a secular lifestyle for a religious one based on what they believe to be legitimate arguments ("proofs"), as well as "fundamentalist skeptics" (including some fundamentalist atheists) who refuse to consider arguments against their beliefs.

But the advancement of science requires intellectual conflict and challenge; those who resist such conflict are at best relegated to a footnote in science history books. The same can not be said for religious orthodoxy (by definition); in this world, the great leaders always operate within a very constrained a priori belief system. For example, in Judaism it is verboten to challenge the notion of a God given Torah (TMS). Otherwise one is marginalized and branded a heretic.

Interestingly, many OTD ("off the derech", although I prefer OAD - "on another derech") people may have more in common with baalei teshuvah than they would like to admit - both have altered some habitual response pattern possibly because of stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity!

Supporting evidence for my hypothesis is the well-known correlation of conservative politics with the more fundamentalist factions of both Christianity and Judaism.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shades of Grey

I'm a big fan of Sinfest.

(P.S. Clicking on the image will take you to Tatsuya Ishida's site for a larger view.)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On This Tisha B'Av...

...hundreds of thousands of Jews commemorate the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples and pray for its restoration.

From an old news article:
Saudi court rejects plea to annul 8-year-old girl's marriage to 58-year-old man

A Saudi court has rejected a plea to divorce an eight-year-old girl married off by her father to a man who is 58, saying the case should wait until the girl reaches puberty. The divorce plea was filed in August by the girl's divorced mother with a court at Unayzah, 220 kilometres (135 miles) north of Riyadh just after the marriage contract was signed by the father and the groom.

"She doesn't know yet that she has been married," the lawyer said then of the girl who was about to begin her fourth year at primary school.

Relatives who did not wish to be named told AFP that the marriage had not yet been consummated, and that the girl continued to live with her mother. They said that the father had set a verbal condition by which the marriage is not consummated for another 10 years, when the girl turns 18.

The father had agreed to marry off his daughter for an advance dowry of 30,000 riyals ($8,000), as he was apparently facing financial problems, they said. The father was in court and he remained adamant in favour of the marriage, they added.

The mother's said he was going to appeal the verdict at the court of cassation, the supreme court in the ultraconservative kingdom which applies Islamic Sharia law in its courts.

Arranged marriages involving pre-adolescents are occasionally reported in the Arabian Peninsula, including in Saudi Arabia where the strict conservative Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam holds sway and polygamy is common. In Yemen in April, another girl aged eight was granted a divorce after her unemployed father forced her to marry a man of 28.
OrthoFundie: An arranged marriage of an 8-year-old to a 58-year-old man? Does the girl's mother have no say? Does the girl have no say even when she comes of age? What is it with these strict Wahhabi Muslims?

SkeptoPrax: What's the problem? It seems eminently practical and just!

OrthoFundie: Wha??

SkeptoPrax: Well, you went through tractate Kiddushin. Sound pretty close to the practice of yiud.

OrthoFundie: Sure, based on Shmos [Exodus] 21:7-11 where an impoverished father sells his minor daughter as a maid-servant...

SkeptoPrax: ... and the master has the option of marrying her - or having his son marrying her - when she comes of age at 12-1/2.

OrthoFundie: But she has the right of miyun [refusal], and can refuse to be married at that time!

SkeptoPrax: Sorry, you must have dozed off a bit when learning. I know that those late nights at the yeshiva can really take a toll. First, we have a general presumption that the father is acting as his daughter's agent and is only doing what is in her best interest; therefore his da'as [knowledge, thoughts] becomes a substitute for his daughter's. Second, what 12-year-old girl has the wherewithal to defy her father??

OrthoFundie: OK, granted. But that was a different time. This is no longer an acceptable practice and all of the poskim would agree to that.

SkeptoPrax: Don't you recall the notorious "kedusha ketana" incident in Boro Park a number of years back, in which Israel Goldstein did this as a way of punishing his agunah wife?

OrthoFundie: You can't bring a proof from one wacko. Besides, this was widely condemned by Agudath Israel. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach invalidated such unions even though he didn't write up the opinion before he died. R. Moshe Sternbuch concurred with this opinion.

SkeptoPrax: But certainly you agree that the law is still "on the books" as it were? And don't you pray three times a day that there is a restoration of a Jewish theocracy? Are you saying that some Torah laws will not be reinstated?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Why I Am Not an Atheist

I believe that when "set and setting" are rightly aligned, the basic message of the entheogens - that there is another Reality that puts this one in the shade - is true. There is no way that the prevailing view of the human self (which depicts it as an organism in an environment that has evolved purposelessly through naturalistic causes only) can accept that claim, which means that its Procrustean anthropology must go. That it will go, has been the critical (as distinct from constructive) burden of all my writing, for it rests on assumptions that are too arbitrary to escape scrutiny indefinitely.

... I do not see how anyone can deny that the traditional, theomorphic view of the human self which the entheogens endorse is nobler than the one that common sense and modern science (misread) have replaced it with. Whether the theomorphic view is true or not cannot be objectively determined, so all I can ask of the opposition is that it not equate noble views with wishful thinking...

I believe that there is a spiritual dimension to reality that we are not normally able to perceive or understand. Call it YHVH, call it BrahmaN, call it Einstein's God, or call it the Great Cosmic Muffin. From the rarest and briefest experiences of "it-ness" (no affirmation or denial of entheogenic catalyzed experiences is implied here!), I have come to believe this as much as I believe anything about existence. I simply cannot agree with the uber-skeptical-materialist-atheist approach that "this is all there is". That there is no purpose to existence beyond what each of us makes our individual purpose. SOMETHING goes beyond all this.

Maybe this belief actually originated subconsciously as a coping mechanism for the existential horror of the void (tho' the belief does not completely immunize me against the random intrusion of thoughts of nothingness, and not in a good Zen-like way.) Maybe it is a very deep need to believe that both for those who commit evil acts and for the victims of evil (including the victims of "Acts of God") it will all eventually make karmic sense. And while this belief is almost certainly not a result of any early childhood influences, maybe it is explainable on a purely physical (biochemical/psychological) level as just an ingrained proto-memory from our collective evolution as self-aware beings. A God gene?


But it seems that a thinking person can take two (forgive me for creating a false dichotomy of choices here) main approaches when considering what a believer might refer to as "miracles" of the universe. One can consider the so-called anthropic principle ("miracles" of the Planck, gravitational and other physical constants, properties of water), consciousness and other aspects of human-ness (and I must include the experience of music), etcetera, etcetera, and certainly respond "in an infinite of universes anything can happen". And the non-nihilistically inclined may get deep satisfaction at the amazing dance of evolution or experience an almost mystical exhilaration at studying the music of the spheres from the quantum to the cosmic, even in the absence of the belief in any higher power. But this perspective - while appealing - ultimately leaves me wanting.

The other approach - "it makes more sense to me that it's not the luck of the cosmic lottery - that there is some higher power and purpose to it all" - the approach in which one maintains at least one eye focused on God, and being, and purpose, and morality, and what is a meaningful way to live with spiritually infused structure and context, this seems to have the potential of paving a far richer path for the 80 or 120 years that one is (hopefully) privileged to experience during this sojourn upon the planet.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Scientists Admit to a Young Earth

News Flash! Those anti-religious, God-hating scientists have finally admitted that they were wrong, wrong, wrong about the age of the Earth and the Moon!

Details can be found in this article from Science Daily:
Earth and Moon Formed Later Than Previously Thought, New Research Suggests

Astronomers have theorized that the planet Earth and the Moon were created as the result of a giant collision between two planets the size of Mars and Venus. Until now, the collision was thought to have happened when the solar system was 30 million years old, or approximately 4,537 million years ago. But new research shows that Earth and the Moon must have formed much later -- perhaps up to 150 million years after the formation of the solar system.
OK, so Earth was created not 4.537 billion years ago but perhaps closer to 4.387 billion years ago. Nevertheless, it just goes to show you that the scientific method is fraught with uncertainty and constantly changes at the whim of whatever the latest "research" suggests.

150,000,000 years down, 4,386,994,000 more to go. We'll get to 6000 years, just you wait and see!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tied to the Whippin' Post

So some young Afghanis girls get forty lashes by Muslim warlords because they tried to escape forced marriages.

Cruel. Sick. Barbaric.

Yet the greatest hope of OrthoDOX Jews is the restoration of a theocratic monarchy. (I won't presume to suggest that people are not honest in their tefillah, or in the near-unanimous "amen" audience approval of just about every drasha that ends with "the building of the Beis HaMikdash, bimheirah v'yamainu".) And part and parcel of such a monarchy is the administration of capital and corporal punishment in accordance with Torah law. In Judaism, lashings are theoretically given for everything from violation of (non-capital) Torah prohibitions to violation of rabbinic decrees. Although there is some debate as to how lashes are actually administered (and here I am only presenting some of the opinions), malkus d'oraisah (a violation of a Torah decree), consists of up to 39 lashes (13 on each shoulder, 13 on the stomach), with the actual number reduced if the life of the recipient would be endangered. They are administered with full strength. Makos mardus (a violation of a rabbinic decree) are less severe in some respects (not administered with full strength, the victim is fully dressed which lesses the pain), but much more severe where it counts - there is no limit to the number of lashings, even if the individual will die from the wounds!

I qualified my statement above with "theoretically given", because we don't know if a future Torah court would actually administer lashings, since rabbinic law might mitigate such punitive measures by numerous means (and malkus d'orasiash at least has similar constraints regarding witnesses as capital crimes). And, of course, we are ba'alei rachamim, and would seek to avoid such severe penalties without extenuating circumstances, wouldn't we?? But then I think, perhaps, but malkus are "on the books", and indeed corporal punishment (and even capital punishment, albeit indirectly by turning over Jewish criminals to a government authority) was administered by Jewish communities throughout the Middle Ages. Are the present-day gedolim any more enlightened? Doubtful.

I honestly can't say that I'm 100% opposed to the idea of lashings. On the surface, it sounds like an effective deterrence for certain criminal behaviors (perhaps for some non-sexual violent crimes?) But for eating a cheeseburger? For eating matzah on erev Pesach? For not honoring your parents properly? For offending a rabbinical representative? For a woman refusing to cover her hair?

Think about it the next time you say the 11th, 14th, and 15th blessings of Shemoneh Esrei.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

What Really Happened on Shavuot?

Occasionally one is presented with the assertion that the connection of Shavuot with the giving of the Torah is a late innovation with no real historical basis. For example, Rabbi Shael Siegel states:
Upon closer examination it may appear as though there may have been a distortion made by our esteemed sages and rabbis as to the meaning of the holiday. In reality, Shavuot is a national festival celebrating the offering up of the “bikkurim” at the Temple. The holiday is centered on ownership of land and nationhood...

The sages and rabbis in their wisdom, not wanting the holiday to fall by the wayside attributed a new significance to Shavuot as a result of the new reality. Living in the Diaspora it became impossible to fulfill the biblical commandment of bringing the “bikkurim” to the Temple. Without the viability of the command, the holiday would have lost it purpose had the rabbis not made the new connection, the celebration of the giving of the Law.
Such a claim can be made because while the other two of the shalosh regalim are mentioned in conjunction with both historical and agricultural events (Pesach - Ex. 13, Lev 23:10; Sukkot - Ex. 23:16, Lev. 23:39, 43), Shavuot mentions only an agricultural connection (Ex. 23:16, 34:22).

Of course, the traditional point of view accepts unconditionally that the Sinaitic Revelation occurred on Shavuot. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag attempts to demonstrate how one can arrive at 6/7 Sivan for Ma'amad Har Sinai:
In the Mechilta (and in Mesechet Shabbat 86b), Chazal calculate that the Torah was given on either the sixth or seventh of Sivan (see also Rashi on [Exodus] 19:2->19), yet the fact remains that the Torah clearly prefers to obscure the precise date of this event. There is an additional manner by which it is possible to calculate the approximate date of Ma'amad Har Sinai. It is based on the assumption that the specific date of the tenth of Tishrei was chosen as 'Yom Kippur' because it marks the date when Moshe descended from Har Sinai with the second "luchot". If so, then we can calculate 'backwards', using the three sets of 'forty days' as described in the story of chet ha'egel in Devarim chapter 9; thus arriving at the following approximate dates: Forty days - second luchot: 1 Elul -> 10 Tishrei. Forty days - Moshe's prayer: 19 Tamuz -> 29 Av Forty days - first luchot: 6 or 7 Sivan -> 17 Tamuz.
The main problem with such a calculation is that it relies on other assumptions (e.g., the Yom Kippur/2nd Tablets association) and not on any clearly stated textual chronology.

However we do have a very early source (300-400 years earlier than the Mechilta) that explicitly connects Shavuot with an historical event!

For those unacquainted with the fascinating Book of Jubilees, it is the earliest non-(Jewish)-canonical "Biblical book" extant, having been dated to approximately 150 BCE (examples being found among the Dead Sea Scrolls). Jubilees is also known as "Lesser Genesis", since it is a re-working of the books of Genesis and Exodus. Jubilees follows a tradition that is very strict in its approach to halacha. For example, 15:14 states: And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin on the eighth day, that soul shall be cut off from his people, for he has broken My covenant. Fortunately, the Pharasaic rabbis either mitigated the severity of an accepted halachic tradition or relied on a different one. But the important point here is that Jubilees records many early Jewish traditions, some of which are found in later midrashic sources (as well as some that are falsely ascribed as being Christian in origin, such as that of fallen angels!)

So what does Jubilees say about Shavuot? 6:15-17 states:
And He gave to Noah and his sons a sign that there should not again be a flood on the earth. He set His bow in the cloud for a sign of the eternal covenant that there should not again be a flood on the earth to destroy it all the days of the earth. For this reason it is ordained and written on the heavenly tables, that they should celebrate the feast of weeks in this month once a year, to renew the covenant every year.
(Shavuot is again mentioned in chapter 22, but in connection with Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael celebrating it as the feast of first fruits.)

So Jubilees associates Shavuot with a quasi-historical event - the covenantal renewal of God's promise not to destroy the earth! But this was a universal promise made to all of mankind rather than a unique covenant made exclusively with the Jewish people. It would surely pale in comparison with the Revelation at Sinai in the eyes of Jews in the 2nd century BCE. If there were a tradition connecting Shavuot to Sinai - THE seminal event of Judaism - surely the authors of Jubilees would have mentioned it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Greatness of Shimon Bar Yochai?

In an attempt to explain why the yartzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is a day of celebration and festivities, Rabbi Ari Enkin gives this reason (without attribution):
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai specifically promised that he would advocate in Heaven on behalf of klal yisrael every year on his yartzeit and to have them saved from every trouble and woe. Since we are confident that Rabbi Shimon will certainly be successful in his mission, it is a day worthy of celebration.
Looking at the past 2000 years of Jewish history, can there be a greater case of cognitive dissonance than such a belief? If Rashbi did indeed claim this, why is he not seen as a charlatan?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My One and Only Rubashkin Post

This blog has never been one for discussing the countless scandals plaguing the Orthodox Jewish world. Indeed, I have never even mentioned the name of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin before. But I want to comment on one aspect of the case that seems to perturb many folks - the attempt of the Chabad community to muster all of its forces to attempt to mitigate the sentence meted out to Rubashkin. See, for example, the many Failed Messiah posts or this particularly well-written one by Daas Hedyot.

I have a very close friend who is doing serious time in prison. Just before sentencing, many people in the community wrote letters or made personal appearances before the judge to try and reduce the time that he would surely have to serve. Although many folks dropped all contact with this individual as a result of his quite unsavory misdeeds, many others (include myself), acted as characters witnesses and spoke up on his behalf.

This is what family does.


What we did not do was to lie to the judge. My friend never denied his serious mistake, nor did the letters that we wrote deny the seriousness of the crime. We did not produce slick videos that glossed over the facts of the case. We did not speak in public alleging anti-Semitic motivations for his arrest. We never once applied the label of pidyon shevuyim, the redemption of captives. We did not bring irrelevant comparisons to sentences meted out to other criminals in completely different circumstances, or in completely different legal venues. The plea was simple: the person contributed much to the community (as indeed he did, and I am not referring to monetary contributions) who had a lapse in judgment which he fully admits and is willing to take responsibility for. Please, judge, have some mercy in your decision.

No, one doesn't just wipe one's hands clean and ignore the plight of a family member, even if that member is guilty of a great chillul Hashem as Sholom Rubashkin certainly is. However, to use lies and deceit to accomplish one's goals is contemptible. And this is why I part company with the Lubavitch community and its many allies in the chareidi and - yes - even Modern Orthodox world.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

J.D. Eisenstein on Bible Criticism - Pt. 2

This continues my summary of Eisenstein's Commentary on the Torah. Part 1, covering chapters 1-3, can be found here.

Again, since my primary purpose here is to document the objections that traditionalists make against Biblical critics, I will refrain from interjecting personal comments in this summary. Readers can judge for themselves the merits of the author's case (as well as the merits of the critics' arguments.)

Chapter 4: Genealogy and Chronology
“The critics find discrepancies in the genealogical connections of the Bible, particularly in Genesis and the first part of Exodus. From this they wish to prove that the Bible (and particularly the Torah) was compiled from various sources in different periods and by many writers. But the contrary is true. The chain of genealogy in the Bible is unbroken and is linked by the events in the historical narratives. Certain explanations in the Talmud, Midrashim, and by authoritative Jewish commentators sustain this viewpoint.
Eisenstein doesn't cover any new ground here; he details the standard chronology through the patriarchs, discusses the 430/400 years of exile (Gen 15), briefly mentions the opinions regarding the age of Jochebed when she gave birth to Moses (130 per Sotah 12a, which Ibn Ezra criticizes and Ramban defends.) Eisenstein calculates that she was actually 83, a "normal" age to give birth "in this period".

Eisenstein takes issue with a number of objections that Spinoza raised regarding the Torah's chronology:
  1. Problem: Ishmael was sixteen years old when he was cast out of Abraham's household. Yet the Torah calls him a yeled, "child" (Gen 21:13-16). Resolution: the word child is used to arouse sympathy, to show Hagar's helplessness her son became ill with thirst. After relief was round. Ishmael is called naar, "lad".

  2. Problem: Jacob was 84 years old when he married Laban's daughters, 93 when Joseph was born, 130 when he stood before Pharaoh. Why didn't Jacob marry sooner? Resolution: Jacob had to travel to Padan Aram, he was in constant fear of Esau, he had to work for Laban before he could marry.

  3. Problem: Judah was 21 at the time of the sale of Joseph, yet during the migration to Egypt he brought down his grandchildren. Resolution: Judah could have been 43 at the time, old enough for grandchildren.

  4. Problem: Dinah was only 7 years old when she was violation by Shechem, who sought to marry her. Simeon and Levi were youngsters and couldn't have killed all of the inhabitants of Shechem. Resolution: Eisenstein calculates that Dinah was about 11, and the brothers about 14. That was old enough for them to "easily overcome the defenseless invalids of Shechem".
Chapter 5: Geography and Demography

The Torah mentions only the countries of Egypt, Canaan, Cush, and Philistia. "If, as the critics, say, the Torah was compiled in the time of Ezra, who lived in the fourth century B.C.E. under Persian rule, how do they account for the omission of these cities and counties? Persia is mentioned frequently in Esther, Daniel, Ezra, and in Chronicles, which was written by Ezra".

Regarding the Garden of Eden place-names - such as the rivers commonly translated as Tigris and Euphrates - Eisenstein says that we cannot identify with surety the translations. "We may be sure that the description of these places was not written in the Babylonian exile or during the Second Commonwealth, for the geography of Babylon and the principal rivers were better known then and could be easily identified. Notwithstanding this conclusive evidence, Jean LeClerc insists that these place-names in the Torah are of late origin."

Eisenstein argues against a number of other place name problems that critics bring up. For brevity, I'll only mention a few examples.

Mount Sinai or Mount Horeb? "According to the Talmud, the different names refer to different ways of describing the effect of Torah upon idolaters (Shabbat 89a). But the critics insist that Sinai and Horeb are separate mountains in different places. They claim that the author of the Torah confused them, and, in order to maintain his idea that Sinai was the site of the Revelation, he used the term Sinai thirty-one times in the Torah and four times in the other books, inserting "Horeb" twelve times in the former and four times in the latter. The critics do not even give the author, or as they call him, the editor, credit for knowing that he could easily have blue-pencilled the word Horeb and avoided this so-called confusion."

"Rachel was buried on the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem. (Gen. 35:19) Evidently both names were known at the time of Moses, as they have the same connotation. Efrat, from the root parah, means productive, fruitful; and Bethlehem connotes a store-house for bread."

Eisenstein states that a number of other place name problems are simply the result of them being known by multiple names, such as Bela/Zoar, Hebron/Kiryat Arba, the location of Aharon's death, etc.

"Abraham, in his attempt to rescue Lot from his captors, pursued the enemy "as far as Dan." (Gen. 14:14) The critics say that a place called Dan was non-existent in Moses' time; that until the period of the judges it was named Laish (Judges 18 :29). Ibn Ezra (in his commentary on Numb. 13 :23), however, points out that the Dan in Genesis was another place. The Targum Yerushalmi calls it "Dan Caesaria." There are twenty-five cities named Springfield in the United States of America and no critic asks questions about their relationship. [FH: That's why no one knows where the Simpsons live!!] It is equally possible for two cities by the name of Dan to have existed in Canaan."

Beyond the Jordan. A common objection by critics who interpret this phrase in Moses' farewell address (Deut. 1:1) to refer to Transjordan; they therefore felt that the text was written by someone residing in Canaan and not by Moses. However, the term "eber-ha-Jarden" really means "beyond" in either direction... To the one who stands in the east, Trans-Jordan means west of the Jordan, and to the one who is in Canaan, Transjordan means east of it. The text reads "beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab" (Deut. 1:5), which is east of Palestine. Also: "And all the Arabah beyond the Jordan eastward." (ibid. 4:49) Hence "beyond the Jordan" in the land of Moab means west of the Jordan.

Regarding Demography, Eisenstein doesn't discuss the problems of 600,000 adult males (>2 Million total population). He only describes the multiple counts (Ex. 12:37, Num. 1, Num. 26) and supports this large number by the descriptions of King Saul mobilizing armies of 330,000 and 200,000 both of which were confirmed by census (I Sam. 11:8, 15:4).

Chapter 6: Designations of and References to God.

The fallacy of Astruc's theory that relates YHVH and Elohim to the J and E documents can be shown by the admixture and interchangeability of both names in one running story (e.g., the sacrifice of Isaac, the story of Jacob's dream, the Balaam story). This indicates that they emanate from one source.

That the patriarchs knew of God not just as el-Shaddai (Ex. 6:3), is seen in the multiple occurrences that indicate they also knew of YHVH (Gen. 15:2-8; 26:2, 24, 25; 28:16).

The critics say that the name "Israel" was substituted for "Jacob" by J. However, they concede numerous exceptions in Genesis (46:2, 48:8, 11:21, 50:25). Eisenstein also mentions Gen. 31:3 and - curiously - a number of references in the Prophets.

According to the critics, E alludes without offense to a matzevah, J never. Eisenstein shows a number of places where the so-called J author DOES refer to such stone pillars (e.g., Gen. 28:18, 35:20, etc.) which were used for memorials and oil libations.

Before discussing the traditional meaning of the divine names, he mentions Prof. Erdman of Leiden who withdrew from the Graff-Wellhausen school because the divine names were meaningless with regards to authorship. "So the conflict among critics goes merrily along".

Then the discussion of divine names, which is based on the mission or attribute of God represented (Elohim is God as manifested in nature, and can also refer to judges or mighty and powerful men; attribute of judgment. YHVH is the attribute of grace; it is the only name associated with sacrifices. Elohim with YHVH is tiferet - justice tempered with mercy. And so forth.)

The suffix YH is used only once in a proper name in the Torah - Moriah (Gen. 22:2) - but 107 times in other biblical books. Some names ending in EL were changed to YH (e.g., Uzziel to Uzziah), showing that the spelling was changed after the era of Torah. This nullifies the theory that some parts of the Torah were composed at the same time as the Books of Prophets.

Finally, anthropomorphism. Torah uses human attributes in its descriptions of God because that is due to the lower state of civilization among the Israelites in the Wilderness. The prophets utilized anthropomorphism "because of custom", but in a lesser degree. They were eventually eliminated during the Second Commonwealth. This disproves the notion that Torah was written in a later time.

[End of Part 2.]

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ignorance is Bliss

The length of the Second Temple is known securely to us from the Sages... and it is incumbent on one to remove from himself any doubting thoughts on this matter. Happy is he who has not read the outside books...

- Chazon Ish, Kovetz Iggerot v. 1 #206, as quoted in Jewish History in Conflict.

Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

What's the Deal with Tikvah Layeled?

I am no "gevier" and thus have to be somewhat selective with my tzedakah money. I generally attempt at least a modicum of due diligence before supporting a charity. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to figure out who the primary recipients of a charity are. For example, many Jewish charities hide behind a "church" status and thus do not have to provide the IRS with 990 reporting information. In addition, strictly Israeli charities do not - of course - have to comply with any US reporting requirements.

Occasionally I have to go with my gut feeling, which is why I contribute to Hazon Yeshaya. But usually I refrain from giving to a charity that does not practice transparency. Nor will I give to one such as Chai Lifeline that has what I consider to be excessive salaries for their officers.

In my current pile of tzedakah envelopes is one for "Tikvah Layeled - The Foundation for Cerebral Palsy Children in Israel". I have contributed to them in the past and decided to update my information. Guidestar did have Form 990 information on them, and I found some curious details there. Here is the top of page 3 :

The first interesting thing is that their stated purpose is "Support of Jewish Religious Education". HUH? I thought I was supporting an organization to help children in Israel that had cerebral palsy! Now take a look at who they are distributing money to. Let's leave the major recipient aside for the moment.

It isn't easy to figure out who the other recipients are, but here is my best information:
Kahal Adas Yereim - Viener shul
Cong. Ner Baruch - congregation in Boro Park?
Gmach Ezer - gemach in Boro Park?
Cong. Kahal Torah Chaim - Viznitz yeshivah ($100,000!)
Tzedakah V'Chesed - too generic to determine
Cong. Givat Shaul - Bialer Rebbe's shul
Cong. Kehillah Yaakov (there's a shul in Cleveland Heights, but I doubt that this is the one)
EMI - not a clue
Kollel Shomrei Hachomos - Edah HaChareidis charity in Israel
The Cheder - too generic
It appears, then, that a substantial amount (almost 40%) goes to various chassidic shuls and yeshivot. Perhaps they give money to these institutions for the benefit of members with disabled children???

And what about the other 60% - $355,000 - that goes to Tikvah Layeled in Israel? There is only a handful of web articles regarding their work with cerebral palsy. The organization was started by Zvi Braitstein, a man with a child afflicted by CP, and the list of endorsers is not your typical hareidi list of rabbonim - it consists of physicians in both the US and Israel. But seeing as the US foundation is apparently not on the up and up with its recipients (that is, their mailing says nothing about these other groups, nor does it state that its goal is "Jewish education"), is it possible that the Israel organization is likewise diverting money to groups that ostensibly have nothing to do with cerebral palsy?

One other tidbit. They are apparently obfuscating their real address. While the mailing says "322 West 52nd Street, PO Box 1097", and a Google street view shows that this is the location of a post office in Manhattan. The 990 form, however, has an address in Boro Park. On it, Zvi Braitstein is listed as a director as "Rabbi Tzvi Braitstein". (At least it says that he - and the other directors - get $0 salary!)

I will be more than happy to post a followup that says that my suspicions are unfounded (as an aside, no one took me up on my similar offer regarding Chai Lifeline!) I'd like to be dan l'kaf zechus, but without going into the sordid details, we all know that there is good reason for cynicism these days.

In the meantime, Tikvah Layeled is on my S*** list!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

J.D. Eisenstein on Bible Criticism - Pt. 1

Eisenstein's Commentary on the Torah was written as a reaction to modern Biblical criticism. It is a “Defense of the Traditional Jewish Viewpoint” (which is also the subtitle of the book) and the author attempts to call into question many of the assertions of Bible critics. Since this is a relatively hard book to find, I am providing a summary of his arguments on a chapter by chapter basis. This post covers only the first three chapters; I hope to continue at a later date. Please note that I have refrained from personal remarks on Eisenstein's commentary (although I may bold or italicize certain portions); what follows are either direct quotes or accurate paraphrasing of the text.

Judah David Eisenstein finished this book in 1952, but he unfortunately passed away (in 1956 at the age of 101) before he could see it published. Of course, many new developments in biblical scholarship and more sophisticated arguments have arisen in the decades after his death, consequently his treatment may seem outdated to some.


A summary of biblical criticism, including both non-Jewish and Jewish critics. Among the Jewish critics, Eisenstein mentions one traditional commentator - Ibn Ezra - who suggests that some passages of the Torah may have been written after Moses' death. Brief discussion of Talmudic sources, various translations, and faulty translations. Potent quote:
The Rabbis of the Talmud, who lived in the early centuries of the common era and devoted their lives to the study of the Hebrew Bible, are certainly more qualified to judge the authenticity of the Bible in general and the Torah, upon which the details of the Jewish faith and practices are based, in particular. The Rabbis scrutinized every question raised by apparent variants, contradictions, misplacements, or anachronisms, and introduced certain rules by which these discrepancies might be solved and explained. The early Jewish commentators, following these rules, met and even anticipated every type of criticism advanced by the critics. But the critics do not or cannot read the Hebrew commentators; they rely on their own misinformation and prejudice, and consult only those books which coincide with their views.
Chapter 1: The Creation, Flood, and the Tower of Babel

The creation story is not a scientific presentation, but a religious axiom to stimulate faith in God and in the Mosaic Books.
Experience has shown that there is no basis for the fear that children will rebel against such teachings and rebuke us for indoctrinating them with unsound ideas lacking scientific foundations.
Contradictions between the events of the two creation stories are answered by Rashi or - for example - Chullin 27b. For example, the winged fowl of the fifth day in the 1st chapter are insects, as opposed to the fowl of the air of the sixth day in the 2nd chapter which are birds.

The Flood. Shanaim shanaim are “pair by pair”; the Torah does not limit the number of pairs of clean animals, thus there is no contradiction of one vs. seven pairs of animals in the story. The Flood only inundated Mesopotamia. Noah's ark contained only those animals common to the region. Repetitions in the story are due to differences in the style of ancient Biblical writings vs. modern fiction writers.

Chapter 2: Facts, Legends and Miracles
“The sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them with wives whomever they liked. (Gen. 6:2)... is an erroneous translation of the Hebrew. Onkelos of the first century renders “benei Elohim” as powerful or mighty men, not the sons of God, nor angels who cohabited with mortal women. It is not denied that there is some difference between the primeval chapters (Gen. 1-11), and the patriarchal chapters (ibid., 12-50). The former are based on the phenomena of nature and are related to the creation: of the world and its inhabitants in earliest historical times, couched in a language best understood by ordinary people for the purpose of impressing on them the belief in a Supreme being.
A nod to the Kabbalists and a mention of the multiple ways of interpreting the first 11 chapters of Genesis. “The patriarchal chapters, however, are historical facts.” Moses collected the scrolls that the Israelites read while in Egypt, and then wrote Genesis and the first part of Exodus with divine inspiration. He then added his history in Egypt, the deliverance of the people, the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and then Deuteronomy before his death. The miracles of which modern critics are skeptical may be explained in a reasonable way. The Jews passed through the Red Sea at ebb tide, although this does not explain how 600,000 could pass through the sea. The sun standing still by Joshua may be due to the Aurora Borealis. The ravens bringing food to Elijah were actually a family named Oreb (raven). Other phenomena are rhetorical or poetic fancies, such as a the Tower of Babel being expresses as a “tower with its top in the heavens.”

Chapter 3: Script and Language

The Hebrew alphabet was the invention of Hebrews, not the Phoenicians. Archaeological discoveries bear this out: the excavation of Tel ed-Duweir (Lachish?) by Sir Charles Marston shows characters from 1500 BCE which were from early Hebrews. Ras Shamra dates back to 1400-1360 BCE. Phoenician script came into use later, about 1250 BCE during the reign of King Shiram. The Talmudic discussion of what script the Torah was written with (e.g., Sanhedrin 21b, 22a) shows that the rabbis were dealing with a very ancient text, since they no longer knew its original style of writing. Potent quote:
The word sepher mentioned in the Torah does not mean book in the ordinary sense. It was a tablet on which the narrative (sippur) was inscribed with a stylet or with a pointed instrument similar to the modern pen. Jeremiah was the first to mention writing with ink upon a scroll (Jer. 36:16), evidently on parchment. There is an interval of about nine centuries between Moses and Jeremiah. This certainly refutes the theories of the critics, some of whom date the composition of several of the books of Moses later than Jeremiah when inscribing on stones had ceased.
Masoretic corrections. Keri and ketiv notes were made by comparing three copies of the Torah a long time after Moses wrote the Torah. The corrections are found in the margins only, which refutes the theory of the postdating its composition.

Some critics attempt to prove that the talmudists were ignorant of vowels. They quote the story from the Talmud (Baba Batra 21b) that King David censured Joab, his chief of the army, for killing all the males in Edom (I Ki. 11:15), and that Joab’s excuse was that he followed the instruction of his teacher, based on the command of God to Moses, who enjoined Joshua to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek (also known as Edom) from under the heaven.” (Ex. 17 :14) The word “remembrance” in Hebrew is zeker, but his teacher taught him to read zakar, which means males, so he completely wiped out all males in Edom (T. Baba Batra 2lb). This, however, can be accounted for by the fact that the teacher who copied the Torah placed the wrong vowels under the consonants ZKR, or that he read from a copy in which the wrong vowels had been placed by error.
Other examples follow. Jesus quote: Jesus said, “One jot or one tittle shall in nowise pass from the law.” (Matthew 5:18) He referred to the vowels and the accents of the Torah, in existence in his time.

Certain corrections of a euphemistic character were made in the Bible by the Soferim or, according to another authority, by the original authors. This opinion appears in the light of certain changes in the text.
Many examples follow, such as “But Abraham stood yet before the Eternal” (Gen. 1-8:22), instead of “The Eternal stood yet before Abraham”.

Foreign Influences. Eisenstein discusses the many foreign loan words in the Torah which “prove the authenticity of the Torah regarding the historical narratives of Israe1’s sojourn in and exodus from Egypt, including the story of Joseph’s experiences in Egypt.” (This is a quote from a Dr A. S. Yahuda, in Language of the Pentateuch. [hey, it's an old book, why isn't there a full view on Google Books??])
Dr. Yahuda points out the inconsistency in the thinking of the German critic, Edward Meyer, who considers the story of Joseph as fiction and who suggests that it was a mere adaptation from an Egyptian story. Meyer was one of those critics who assumed the author of the Joseph narrative to be completely ignorant of Egyptian literature. The fallacy of his theories is readily recognized when the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible is carefully explored.
Names. An explanation of the variations in personal names mentioned in the Bible. E.g., Esau changed the name of wife Mahalat (daughter of Ishmael, mentioned in Gen. 28:9), to Basemat (36:3) in memory of his former wife (26:34) who died childless. Mahalat means “illness”, and this was replaced by Basemat, which means “sweet spices”.

Detailed Descriptions. There are numerous personal narratives which could not have been described in such minute detail in a later period by various writers. Examples include: details on the generations from Adam until Noah, details on the ark, names of the families that went into Egypt, the Tabernacle dimensions and construction, census of tribes and Levites (“it is quite unlikely that an author of a much later period would fictionalize such events and enumerate in so specific and particular a fashion”), detailed itinerary of the Israelites and the names of the camps they established are evidence of their actual sojourn in the Wilderness before entering Canaan.
Forty-two camps are named individually in the itinerary (Num 33). And yet the critics deny the events of this sojourn in the Wilderness. We may ask them, if all these places are myths, what purpose had the later writer in locating all the camps in the Wilderness, when he could have set them in Canaan or elsewhere. Besides, some of these places were unknown during the time when the Israelites were settled in Palestine; they were identified only in recent years.
[End of Part 1.]

Monday, March 15, 2010

End of Discussion

True conversation. "X" is a well-educated, very intelligent lawyer who prides himself on his rational approach to Judaism. X considers himself Modern Orthodox, and often snickers at what he believes to be silly, naive statements by Chazal.

X: There cannot be any conflict between Torah and Science. And since basic principles of science don't change, any obvious conflicts must require a re-interpretation of Torah.

Me: OK, so what about the Mabul? We know that there wasn't a global flood 4500 years ago, and that all life wasn't destroyed and re-populated from Noah. It's obvious that this is a Mesopotamian flood myth - likely based on the experience of an actual catastrophic event - but the Torah is adapting it to its monotheistic outlook.

X: I agree that the story is mythical, but that God is using this method of discourse to teach us a lesson.

Me: Why would God use a myth to convey a theological message when it could be done without telling a fairy tale?

X: I don't know why God needed to tell a lie [note: he actually used this term], but there must be a reason why He chose to do so.

Me: Isn't it more likely that it isn't God speaking, and that man composed this story?

X: I cannot compromise on my belief that the Torah was given by God to Moses.

I had thought that the conversation began with an intellectual assertion by X, but on later reflection realized that the conversational show-stopper was contained within his very first sentence, and not the eventual explicitly stated unwillingness to compromise his core belief of Torah from Sinai. Really, there was no purpose for engaging in intellectual discourse once "There cannot be any conflict between Torah and Science" was stated - not as premise - but as fact.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Winning the Debate

In the lecture How to Learn Agadah and Midrash, Rabbi Jesse Horn describes the different approaches towards the origins of midrash (e.g., Har Sinai versus Chazal's derashot) and how it should be learned. For example, Shmuel HaNagid - according to most interpretations - takes a rationalistic approach. Midrash is hashkafah and one has the right to disagree with it. However, Rabbi Dessler in Michtav M'Eliahu says that what Shmuel HaNagid really means is how much time one needs to devote to aggadah. If you don't know what it means, just move on to the more essential halachic discussions. [Dessler feels that this represents a defect in one's understanding, rather than implying anything about the content of the midrash itself.]

Horn then discusses Ramban who says - regarding Midrash Aggadah - that one can choose whether or not one wants to believe them. There is no loss if one rejects all of them. Take it or leave it.

At first glance, this seems to be the non-R. Dessler approach towards understanding aggadah. However, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky - in his commentary on Bereshis 44:18 - does not accept that Ramban actually believes this. One needs to realize the context in which it was said. The Ramban was in the middle of a public debate with Christian theologians. "The Ramban - if he would have said that he accepted everything in midrash they would never have accepted it - he would have looked silly. Therefore, the Ramban made a trade off. I'm willing to say something that I don't fully subscribe to in order to win the debate."

"Parenthetically, it's worthwhile to note - how much are we willing to deviate from the truth, to shy away from emes in order to win debates?", asks Rabbi Horn.

It's a rhetorical question, for that is not the subject of the lecture. But once again "lying for the sake of heaven" rears its head. Certainly Ramban - if he indeed did not fully accept his own words - was thoroughly justified in preventing any possible danger to the Jewish community. A similar motivation is perhaps why kiruv organizations like Aish Hatorah play fast and loose with the truth. To them, only Orthodoxy represents the correct belief system and anything less than this is a threat to the future of Jewry. Intentional deception and outright lies are simply means justifying the end. Perhaps they are even relying on the examples of "divine deception" found in the Torah itself! Think Yaakov stealing Esav's blessing, or Moshe's request to Pharaoh for a 3-day holiday. Both are examples of lying to save the future of Jewry.

It isn't about emes. It is about "winning the debate".