Another Observation Regarding the Public School Proposal

How's this. During summer vacations from public schools, the Orthodox students who are enrolled in them during the year can spend their summers exclusively with other Orthodox kids, immersed in a wholly Orthodox environment which can provide a much more powerful supplement to the few hours daily.
We can call these environments "summer camps".
Wouldn't that be a great idea?

Q: Why are camps and years in Israel so much more effective at generating passion and commitment, instilling pride and values, and creating formative Jewish experiences? Far more successful than schools, proportionally?
A: Immersion, immersion, immersion.

To my mind, the proposal isn't about undermining the day school system. It's about the reality that when there are finite resources, one tends to maximize the most efficient and minimize the least efficient uses of those resources. If the PS proposal was accompanied by insistence on camp experiences and at least a year of intensive study in Israel, it would be a different story.


Maimonides Magical Mystery Tour: Part II

Having spent a good part of Shabbat with the Rambam, jumping from the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot to the Yad to the Moreh, a clearer picture of his attitude toward magic and divination. The desire to do this was motivated by the discussion that emerged between myself and an anonymous friend over a recent post. Here's what I've come up with. First, the 'Mar'eh Mekomos':

Yad Hilchot A"Z 11:4-16
Yad Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 10:3

Sh"M Lavin 31 & 32

Moreh II:37, III:29 (toward the beginning), III:37 (beginning)

There's a distinct group of sources (Yad YHT, SH"M 31, and Moreh II:37) which grant at least some credence to 'kosem', i.e., divination or fortune-telling. It's this type of behavior which must be distinguished from prophecy, which is thecentral theme of both the Yad and MOrah sources here. In the Yad, the distinction is whether the fortune-teller is correct 100% of the time or not. In the Moreh, Rambam derscribes the theoretical underpinnings of the differences. He writes that prophecy comes to a person who has perfected both the rational faculty and the imaginative faculty. Wisdom is for one who has the former and not the latter. If one has a strong imaginative faculty (which the Rambam says can only be developed from 'raw material' which you've either got or don't have) but hasn't developed the rational faculty, he will be a fortune-teller, prestidigitator, or a politician. However, even though they may apprehend something from a higher source, their intellects won't be able to truly understand what they see, so they end up with confused and garbled ideas. Thus, it's fair to say that 'kosmim' have acheived a 'partial truth'.

Other forms of magic and witchcraft, such as kishuf, chover chever, ov, yidoni, and necromancy, the Rambam believes are pure charlatanism. He states explcitly in the Moreh that anyone who participates in it is either a dupe or a charlatan. He believes that it all stems from an idolatrous worldview, but not even a necessary extension. Nowhere does the Rambam say that this stuff is anything but illusion designed to maintain control over the igniorant masses.

In fact (this is in Moreh III:29, and check out Kapach's footnote #46 if you have that edition), Rambam seems to be suggesting that the ONLY reasoon that the Torah explicitly forbids all of these things is because they are connected to idolatry, and the Torah tries to uproot any practice associated with idolatry. Otherwise, the Torah never would have had to forbid them because they're so self-evidently silly.

Going back to the Yad that we started with (A"Z 11:16), the Rambam relates to those practices which are simply charlatanism. Is the exceptional case of 'koseim' (and some forms of 'me'onein') included in this? It's hard to know exactly how far back it goes whn the Rambam writes 've-chol ha-devarim ha-eleh' at the beginning of 11:16. But from elsewhere it seems that he's referring specifically to those behaviors which have no efficacy at all. After describing all of the forbidden acts, all of which come under the rubric of things that are forbidden because they are associated with idolatry (see the beginning of that chapter, which describes practices which are forbidden because of 'chukoteihem'; these things are an extension of that category), the Rambam makes it clear that the prohibition doesn't imply that there's efficacy to these things, just that the Torah forbids them anyweay, for whatever reason. Rather, he forcefully states that there's no efficacy to these things whatsoever, and that it's unbecoming for a Jew to believe in them. He explains that to be the purpose of the verse 'Tamim Tihiyeh', which is juxtaposed with these prohibitions to say that even though these things are specifically forbidden, it's not because they actually work. Rather, one ought to strive for the wholeness of mind that would lead him to the right conclusion. namely, that this stuff is meaningless charlatanism.

Thus, while not specifically a Mitzvah, the Rambam understands it as a rejoinder to keep a critical eye and not fall prey to nonsensical notions.

I hope this clarifies the apparent contradiction between the various sources in the Rambam and the consequent confusion surrounding his deployment of the passuk of 'Tamim Tihiyeh'.


Religious Zionism from an Unexpected Source

See if you can identify the source:

In my humble opinion, R' Yishmael [in his dispute w/ R' Shimon b. Yochai on Brachot 35b regarding the permissibility of setting aside Torah study in order to engage in the pursuit of 'gathering grain', i.e., earning a living - AR] only invoked the verse of 'you shall gather your grain' regarding the land of Israel when the majority of Israel is on thier land, when working the land is itself a mitzvah of 'yishuv eretz yisra'el' and to bring forth its holy fruits. Regarding this, the Torah commanded 'and you shall gather your grain'...and as it's absurd to say "I will not put on tefillin because I'm busy studying Torah", so, too one can't say "I will not harvest my grain because I'm busy studying Torah". And it's possible that even other trades which improve the world are all included in this mitzvah...
Anyone care to guess who penned these words?


The Politics of Sports

I think this one's worth changing my standard fare for:

Israeli basketball star and lantzman of R' Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, Sarunas Jasikevicius, recently signed a 3-year contract with the Indiana Pacers. This was reported in many mainstream media outlets, local and international, including:

One report remains a bit different from the rest. The AP, when reporting the deal, doesn't mention Tel Aviv, doesn't mention Israel, and doesn't mention Maccabi, even though it's a pretty long article. It goes out of its way to AVOID mentioning Israel.
See for yourself. It's unbelievable:

If Jasikevicius' right arm unexpectedly starts giving him trouble, he'll know who to blame.

"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem..."

The Hardest Mitzvah (Which Also Happens to be my Favorite One)

It’s not melaveh malka during the summer.

It’s not Shaleshudis during the winter, either.

It’s not even metzitzah be-peh for a middle-aged convert.

It’s from Devarim 18:13, the passuk of ‘Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokekha’, especially in the manner that the Rambam understands it. Here’s what he writes in the Laws of Idol Eworship, 11:17, at the end. Throughout Chapter 11, he discusses those things which we would call ‘magic’, basically anything that you would find in a Harry Potter book – divination, necromancy (although there’s none of that in HP, otherwise Harry would be able to contact Sirius), sorcery, and magic, all of which are prohibited by Jewish Law. Here’s how he concludes the chapter:

ױכל המאמין בדברים האלו וכיוצא בהן ומחשב בלבו שהן אמת ודבר חכמה אבל התורה אסרתן אינן אלא מן הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת ובכלל הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלימה, אבל בעלי החכמה ותמימי הדעת ידעו בראיות ברורות שכל אלו הדברים שאסרה תורה אינם דברי חכמה אלא תהו והבל שנמשכו בהן חסרי הדעת ונטשו כל דרכי האמת בגללן, ומפני זה אמרה תורה כשהזהירה על כל אלו ההבלים תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיך.

Anyone who believes in these and similar things, and thinks to himself that they are real and full of wisdom, but that the Torah prohibited them, is a fool lacking in intelligence, and is in the category of women and children whose intellects are incomplete. But intelligent people of whole mind will know with clear proofs that all of these things that the Torah prohibits are not matters of intelligence. Rather, they are meaningless vanities which attract stupid people, causing them to abandon the path of truth. Therefore, when the Torah warns about all of these matters it says “Tamim Tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha.”

In other words, according to the Rambam, there’s a mitzvah not to be naïve, stupid, or gullible. I’d have put this one in the Ten Commandments:

Thou shalt not be a moron.

Thou shalt use the brain that I gave you.

It’s also a great weapon to have in the arsenal. Whenever anyone suggests that something is silly but harmless and innocuous, it’s always good to quote the Rambam that it’s an issur de-oraysa. Thee are no excuses for being that dense. It’s always very comforting when I can transform my exasperation with imbeciles into religious zeal.

NOTE: I've edited the original version of one of my examples of a 'difficult' mitzvah. The three examples aren't actually mine; I heard them in the name of the Klausenberger Rebbe, believe it or not, and I doubt that he meant to mean anything other than an unexpected jolt, wherein lies the humor.


The Tuition Crisis and Disengagement: A Common Denominator

These are hot issues in the Orthoblogs right now. Don't take my word for it; type 'tuition crisis' or 'Gaza disengagement' on Blogdigger and see what turns up. I'm smirking about a whole bunch of the issues that have been raised regarding the tuition crisis, from integration into public schools to comparisons with Israel. A number of my very first posts were critiques of the current state of Jewish education. I wouldn't post my 2 cents about this, except that my 2 cents don't look like anyone else's 2 cents. Here goes:

The integration of Jewish students into public school wouldn't be such a terrible idea because:
  • It will shift primary responsibility of Jewish education from the schools back to where it belongs, namely, upon the parents. Since day-school education has been taken for granted, parents have left more and more of their chindren's education to their teachers (and then complain when the kids 'frum-out' or 'fry-out' or otherwise end up exactly like them). Parents will have no choice but to be actively involved in raising their children. Parents becoming more active in their childrens' schooling, more sensitive to their childrens' needs, paying closer attention to who their childrens' friends are, what values are being absorbed, etc. would be great. IMHO, most parents have totally dropped the ball on this one, assuming that the schools and their tuition dollars is adequate. No more 'You've gotta get through to my kid! What the hell am I paying you 15 grand a year for!?'. If the lion's share of Jewish education is outside of formal schooling, there's a risk of becoming like non-Orthodox synagogue affiliated religious schools - unless the parents are actively involved and reinforce what their kids are learning in these schools.
  • There are two great advantages to Jewish schools: Jewish literacy and a Jewish social setting. The latter, if there are enough students doing it, can be overcome. The former is the major loss, but can also be overcome. And what's to stop public schools from teaching Hebrew language and literature?
  • I've seen way too many students ruined - I'll say that again - R-U-I-N-E-D by the procrustean bed of Jewish Education. It's not always exclusively Jewish education, but that contemporary educational institutions in general ruin too many kids. If they're in public schools, negative school experiences won't be associated with Judaism. In fact, their experience with Jewish education will tend to be more individuated, more emphasis on that particular student's needs and wants, and more enjoyable.
Of course, there are many drawbacks as well. I'm still pretty ambivalent about the whole thing, but I strongly believe that the primary influence should be the parents. I'm pretty pessimistic about what we can expect from formal Jewish education in general, which, for me, means that this issue is pretty minor.

It's hilarious that this proposal is coming out of the Five Towns. Freaking hilarious.

On those who are praising the Israeli system, where there's no tuition crisis:
  • Right. No tuition crisis. Just budget crisis. Underfunded schools and classrooms with 40 kids, where the national system is hijacked by smaller 'independent' school systems which are rife with corruption, and with a national ministry which rewards mediocrity. In short, you get what you pay for. There are some great schools in Israel, but (shocker of all shockers) the quality of the kid's education in Israel usually rises in proportion with the parent's direct involvement in their child's schooling.
  • Israelis pay income tax through. the. nose. That money returns to the average citizen primarily in the form of security, education, and health care. When you're taxed that much, the choice of 'education vs. SUV' is made for you. R' Feivel (and R' Gil) are correct that a stinky priority scale is a major root cause of the 'crisis' on the communal level (but not on the individual level. In other words, nobody says "this SUV is more important than MY kid's education", but they DO say "This SUV is more important than YOUR kid's education"). In Israel, a more responsible priority scale is enforced by the government. Therein lies the difference.
Finally, the common denominator with disengagement:
  • The disengagement crisis traces its roots to the fact that a particular segment of Israeli society, namely, the National-Religious, have, for the past 30+ years turned almost completely inward and created a culture which shares increasingly less with the prevailing 'secular' culture. The alienation of these two worlds from each other has come to a head over disengagement even more than it did over Oslo. Granted, there has been an attempt at rapprochement since the Rabin assassination, and while the first and second generations of Hesder Yeshivot, with very few exceptions (e.g., Ha-Kotel and Kiryat Shmonah) were located either in post-67 territories (e.g., Gush, Otniel, Ma'aleh Adumim, Beit-El, Har Bracha, Shiloh, Shadmot Mecholah, Hitzpin, Sha'albim, etc., etc., etc.) or in some completely isolated part of pre-67 Israel (e.g., KBY, Or Etzion), most Hesder Yeshivot that are now opening are in urban areas (e.g., Petach Tiqwa, Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, Yerucham) where they are more involved in the fabric of the general culture (Kaspit can tell us how Peter Berger would conceptualize this phenomenon); nevertheless, as R' Medan spelled out in his Ha'aretz interview, this crisis will break the back of N-R culture as an independent culture, and force them to reintegrate with the general culture. I think this is actually a good thing; the N-R have a tremendous amount to offer genreal Israeli culture, which they have been neglecting by isolating themselves on Judean hilltops. The hilltops were necessary for a horribly self-conscious N-R population to discover its own identity and feel its own strength, but it's about time to come down now and share what they've found with the rest of the country.
  • I think the history of Orthodox education in the US follows an amazingly similar trajectory. It's only over the last 10-15 years that Conservative and then Reform finally figured out how powerful a tool day-school education is in rebuilding a tattered identity. Torah U-Mesorah's oases saved American Orthodoxy from certain death in the American desert (wow, it sounds like I ripped that line off of some Agudist propaganda, but it's true). The segregationist attitude of retreat (R' Yosi's position on Shabbat 33b, which I've blogged about) was absolutely necessary for survival. But it came at a tremendous cost, which we don't often think about. It drove a tremendous wedge between Orthodoxy and the rest of American Jewry. It generated communal norms which are oversuspicious of anything coming from outside of its four ells (just read the Godol; he'll tell ya'!). And it created a financial burden which would necessarily have an expiration date; it couldn't go on forever. Perhaps this will force American Orthodoxy out of its shell. It is no longer so small and weak that it needs to circle the wagons and take a position of retreat.
  • I will finish this analsysis with one example of where this has worked well: the Israeli army. For many years, there was a steady religious criticism that the army is a secularizing influence upon religious youth. Through Hesder, mechinot, nachal charedi, etc., this criticism is less and less relevant, and there are even stirring that the opposite it the case, that Tzaha"l is TOO religious. A handful of datla"shim and kippot z'rukot wouldn't have had the muscle to have the top brass reeling over potential refusal of orders. N-R soldiers are known for their morale, camraderie, and willingness to take the tough jobs. Observance may still slip amongst religious soldiers, but hey, it's the ARMY; the Torah knew that observacne slips in the Army. Read Devarim. 'Secular influence' no longer poses a serious threat, at least in the larger combat units toward which religious soldiers gravitate. On the contrary (ADDeRabbah)! It is probably the forum for the most meaningful and successful interface between religious and secular in Israel. If Orthodox Jews would enter en masse into the public school system under the right conditions (i.e., accomodations to their lifestyle, and in a place where the schools aren't downright dangerous) I suspect that the effect wouldn't be the 'watering down' of Orthodox education as much as it would be an unparalleled Kiddush Hashem, go an incredible distance toward rapprochement and mutual understanding between orthodox and heterodox Jews and their communities, and ultimately mark Orthodoxy's re-entry into the public sphere on the communal level after 50 years of retreat (more on this when I continue by exposition of Shabbat 33b-34a, which you'll find the first parts of in the Table of Contents in the sidebar).


A Postmodern Read of the Nishtanu Ha-Teav’im Theory

The notion of ‘nishtanu ha-teva’im’ (‘nature has changed’) as an explanation for why ancient (and not-so-ancient) Rabbinic statements about the natural world don’t corroborate modern scientific understandings and observations has gotten a lot of press recently, and, let’s face it, it seems pretty weak.

I wanted to try to understand the idea in a different way, which perhaps will make it appear a bit less naïve and/or delusional.

Everybody has certain incipient understandings about the way the world works. As we grow up, it changes (hopefully) to reflect our education and understanding. The key question about it is this:
When understandings about the world change (or undergo what Thomas Kuhn calls a paradigm shift), what exactly changes?

What most of us would respond right away is that the world obeys the same laws that it always obeyed, but that our minds have come closer to apprehending the truth of those laws.

This response reflects a bias that the human mind is capable of constructing a completely representative model of the world inside itself. Beginning with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (though perhaps beginning with Hume), this bias has been shown to be inadequate. The human mind can’t apprehend the world as it really is. The laws of nature themselves are not objective realities, but patterns which our minds impose upon observed phenomena. We inhabit the world that our minds and cultures construct for us. That world has rules. But the rules are part of the world as we perceive it, not of the world as it objectively is (NOTE: as Kuhn would often point out, this doesn’t mean that all of science is ‘subjective’ in the sense that it’s arbitrary and the result of personal whim. Rather, it means that it’s a very real reality which presents itself to the observer. Call it an ‘aspaklaria she-einah me’irah if you will).

Thus, in a paradigm shift, it’s not only the observer’s mind which ‘changes’, but it’s an entirely different world which the observer now inhabits. It’s like those 3-D illusion pictures – by looking at it in a different way, you’re actually looking at an entirely different picture.

So perhaps that’s what ‘nishtanu ha-teva’im’ means: scientific revolutions have determined that we occupy what’s actually a differently constructed world, with different rules and laws. Nature itself has ‘changed’ – it presents itself to us in an entirely different way, and can’t be called the same ‘nature’. Earlier paradigms, which have been replaced, were as real to their adherents as contemporary ones are to us. Our predecessors constructed worlds out of them. Their laws reflect not only their ‘understanding’ of the world, but their ACTUAL world.

The task falls to us, who essentially occupy a different world, to find a way to translate from their world into ours. We also must face the reality that a lot will be lost in translation. ‘Nishtanu Ha-Teva’im’ is an acknowledgement that we occupy a different world, but are not absolved from engaging theirs.

Monogamy as the Biblical Ideal

Thesis: The Torah, views monogamy as an ideal, but permitted polygamy as a concession to reality, mainly economic reality. The ancient Rabbis shared this view.

To prove this, I will need to demonstrate positive visions of monogamy in the Torah and Chazal, negative views of polygamy, and evidence for why the Torah permitted it nonetheless. It will also need to explain why later Rabbis could forbid polygamy and not have to worry about the economic consequences.

Torah – pro-monogamy:
1) The creation of man and woman as two individuals who were originally one, and that the Torah presumes only one wife per man when describing marriage in the creation story, implies that a monogamous relationship is the ideal.
2) Shir Ha-shirim, the love story understood as a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel, but using imagery of an erotic relationship between a man and a woman, is monogamous.
3) In the prophers, especially Ezekiel, the theme of marriage and divorce between God and Israel constantly recurs. There is no indication, ever, that God, who is considered the ‘man’ in the metaphors, has more than one ‘Chosen People’. In fact, it seems absurd to suggest otherwise. That marriage can be a metaphor for chosenness implies that marriage is ideal constructed as a monogamous relationship.

Torah anti-Polygamy:
1) The positive example of polygamy in the Torah: none.
2) Neutral examples: Lamech, Nachor, Esav (I’m sure there are more, but like these two, they’re peripheral characters at best).
3) Negative examples: Avraham, Yaakov, David, Solomon, Elkanah. Major players all.
4) When the Torah describes the laws of birthright for a man with two wives, it begins by saying, “When a man has two wives, one beloved and one hated…”
5) The Biblical and Rabbinic word for co-wives is ‘Tzatah”, which literally means ‘enemy’.

In Rabbinic works, there are all kinds of statements about marriage, wives, etc. There are too many to begin listing. I don’t know of any view that’s pro-polygamy in Chazal.

The economic benefits of polygamy:
1) In a tribal society which fights wars, there will be more women than men.
2) Women did not have the earning power to sustain themselves. Thus, they were always supported either by their fathers or their husbands. This responsibility is a central portion of the ketubah – marriage contract. It stipulates that the husband must undertake to feed, clothe, and shelter his wife. In return, anything which she produces goes to him. The Gemara in Ketubot explicitly allows her to opt out of this condition if she wishes. After all, the condition was instituted for her benefit. If she’s independently wealthy or has sufficient earning power, she need not take his support in exchange for whatever she profits. In other words, the default reality was that a woman would not be earning enough to support herself, so marriage was an economically advantageous option for her. If each man would only be permitted to marry one woman, there would be a preponderance of poor unmarried women.
3) There’s a Gemara, and I can’t for the life of me remember where it is. It describes how during a year of famine, a Rabbi who was a Kohein and received the Terumah of many people, married five widows so that they wouldn’t starve. He had an abundance of Terumah’, which is only permissible for a Kohein and his wife (wives), slaves, and children to eat. In this instance, extreme but, I believe, paradigmatic, polygamy is clearly a concession to economic realities.
[UPDATE: it's a Tosefta, Ketubot 5:1, about R' Tarfon, who betrothed 300 (!) women so that they could eat Terumah. Thanks, Bob, for the reference].

Medieval Ashkenaz:
I can’t nail this one down. If my hypothesis is correct, though, then the conditions in Ashkenaz in early medieval times would have afforded women more financial independence. Why? Was the greater social security? Were inheritance laws different? Was the fact that the economy was more mercantile in the areas of Jewish settlement, so there were more economic opportunities open to women? There are many possible explanations. It should also be noted that, in general, women enjoyed a higher social status in Ashkenaz than in Sephardic lands at this time (ex., more examples of learned women, reports of women making a mezuman or laying tefillin, the issue of ‘Nashim Chashuvos’ that Tosafos discuss in Pesachim, other decrees that improve the lot of women, such as consent to divorce, etc.
If anyone has specific ideas on what could have been the immediate catalyst for this legislation, I’m all ears.

What I've tried to demonstrate here is that there is a moral progression through history which goes beyond the law as proscribed by the Torah, but does so by developing values which are latent within the Torah. I believe this to be the true essence of chumrah, as I posted a while back.
Thus, it's possible to be 'frummer' than the law of the Torah, but only by further developing the spirit of the law.
This phenomenon can have much broader application - think of slavery, vegetarianism, and the list can go on.
It's a relatively narrow and discrete example of 'progressive revelation', but gives a good model of how it can work.


Who pos' de mos'?


Just gearing up for the 17th of Tammuz.

Have an easy and meaningful fast, and may we merit the healing of our national wounds speedily.

UPDATE: I hate having to explain my jokes. If you don't get it, say the title and first word of the post out loud, and follow the links. Sheesh!


Historically-conditioned Exegesis and Progressive Revelation

This is a follow-up to yesterday's post (which also relates to an older post on Yeridat Ha-Dorot) and an attempt to deal with the following dilemma that pertains to 'chiddush'. In the interim, Phoebus forwarded an article by Stanley Fish called "Intentional Neglect" from Wednesday's NYT. I liked the way he framed the issues, so even though, in many ways, comparing the interpretation of the US Constitution to the process of Torah She-be'al peh is apples and oranges, most of the issues he raises are applicable to both:

On the one hand, if a chiddush is something new, how can it be accorded the status of Torah?
On the other hand, if it's not, why hasn't it surfaced until now? If the Rashba knew R' Elchanan's chakira in migo, why didn't he say so? If he didn't, then it's not what the Rashba said, and therefore not more than a cute idea which certainly should have no legal or theoretical weight.

One can posit that Torah is different, because it's not a human composition and therefore interpretations of it need not be limited to Authorial intent. That only works for about 5 books from amongst the hundreds of thousands that occupy the Torah library.

Perhaps human authority to determine God's will is an inevitable concession; we can't really ever know what's TRUE, so let certain people decide. As long as they're not self-conscious of the process by which they distort original intent, the process of interpretation can continue to expand. Perhaps 'al pi ha-torah' is more ambitious - it gives the green light for further expansion of the Torah even if not based on authorial intent. I'm wary of saying that, though. I don't like the idea that there would be license to self-consciously distort the original meaning of the Torah. There's another possibility which doesn't go quite that far, though.

Just because meanings of texts are real and intended, doesn't mean that they're arrived at passively. The same work can be construed as a comedy of a tragedy, a memoir or a satire. There may be a number of valid ways to interpret the same text, all of which meet the criteria of attempting to discern the author's intent. Of course, each possibility must be reevaluated whenever new facts come to light. The constant re-evaluation can definitely open the door for later re-interpretation. Moreover, we can posit that with regard to Torah, even the interpretations which can't stand up to what we know today, by virtue of their having been a genuine attempt at discerning God's will, allows for those works themselves to be incorporated into the corpus of Torah. They become instructive not because of their correctness per se, but as living examples of the fruit borne when God's Will strikes man's mind. Collectively, we've had a knack for discerning which of those attempts are more instructive, and which were not. Rashi and Ramban on the Torah are the prime example of those that are. Anyone who has studied Rashi seriously can tell you that his greatness does not lie in the correctness of his exegesis.

There's another phenomenon which informs this discussion: the fact that the world into which the Torah was delivered is very different from the one we occupy, on so many levels. Given that the Torah, as a constitutive document, MUST be relevant for us today, we are FORCED to ask the question: What would God say about X, which couldn't have been creamed of by the Torah's original audience?
This question can be applied to human authors as well. What would the Rambam say if he knew about electricity, or if he had been exposed to the Brisker Derech, or if he had encountered feminism? In many ways, the question is unfair: the Rambam DIDN'T deal with any of those things, and we still need to find a way to apply the Torah to our lives today!

Thus, we engage in a process by which we demand relveance from texts which, objectively, has none to offer. This process is called drasha, from the Hebrew root DRSh - to search, to seek, to solicit. This process is not always conscious; when one learns Torah seriously, but at the same time is perplexed by contemporary issues and phenomena, the Torah's relevance for contemporary dilemmas will arise by themselves. God's Will striking man's mind produces renewed meaning.

I would go as far as to say that there are elements within the Torah that 'wait' for the person with the right sensitivities in the right generation to 'discover' or 'redeem' that which has been there all along.

To use a quick example: Rambam, according to RYBS in 'Ra'ayonot al Ha-tefillah', 'redeemed' prayer by bringing it from the periphery to the center of Jewish consciousness. An academic will tell you that the Rambam's emphasis on prayer was conditioned by his encounter with Sufiism in 12th century Egypt.

I think that they can both be right. Prayer had always been there, always been part of Torah, Written and Oral, but still neglected until someone who had learned a bit of Sufiism came along, read the psukim, read the Gemaras, and articulated a full-blown and important art of prayer in Judaism.

This process - the culturally-specific and historically conditioned exegesis of the individual learner of God's Torah becomes included in the corpus of Torah itself and validates the conditions under which that particular exegesis arose. This process is what can be termed 'Progressive Revelation', an ongoing communication between God and man, where God's initial input, the Torah, is reframed and reunderstood in the minds of those who study it, who, by applying it to their particular situation, contribute to its actualization. This contribution in turn becomes part of the corpus of Torah itself, to be studied by later generations.

Of course, this description is insufficient. Not every idea or insight becomes part of Torah; a shverrer Rambam is still part of Torah. A shverrer ADDeRabbi is not. Perhaps that's for another time (an apology for Daas Torah, which I will eventually get to). Nevertheless, the process described stands at the very center of the mission of the Jewish people. It's no accident that the theology contained in the 4th Gate of Nefesh Ha-Chayim has become so influential; when you peel back the layers, I really haven't said much here that he didn't say. Other articulations are R' Kook's intro to 'Eyn Ayah', and Levinas' chapter entitled 'Revelation and the Jewish Tradition'.

The Greatness of Gush

Gush is like no other Yeshiva on Earth.
Read this and this.
Too bad that Haaretz's interview with R' Amital is restricted.

UPDATE: Thanks to ayinyud, we have a Wikipedia article on R' Amital here.


Broken Vessels

Now that the review has been posted and read by a whole lot of new readers (thanks in large part to DovBear, Presence, Devarim, and the Back Row, all of whom linked to it), I've asked myself the following question:

What did I accomplish by it? Was it constructive? Is it only adding fuel to the fire? How did I further the cause of Torah?

I can't claim that I wrote that piece totally 'le-shem shamayim', that it was devoid of any frustration or anger; however, I feel justified in it and would like to try to articulate why. Some of the points - such as the problem of 'frowning' upon' women saying Kaddish, I feel are obviously justified. I feel that I should address the general thrust, however, more broadly.

"God has spoken one; I have heard two" - One Torah was given at Sinai. 600,000 Torahs were recieved. Every Jew has a unique grasp of Torah, and an individual relationship to it. How so?

"There is no Beit Midrash devoid of innovation" - the process of innovation, chiddush, isn't about thinking of something that hasn't been thought of before. It's not about the intellectual tricks and gymnastics. It's about an Eternal Will of God striking my mind, with all of its flaws and shortcomings, to produce something that had never existed before: my Torah. In the authentic experience of Torah study, chiddush is inevitable. If I remain honest with the text and honest with myself, my study will bear new fruit.

Perhaps one could suggest that this vision is elitist; not everyone will reach a level of learning where they will be able to offer new interpretations that remain in the spirit of the Totality of Torah. Indeed, there's a lot of junk out there that's passed off as 'Torah'. The devil himself can quote scripture.

"A person doesn't learn, but what his heart desires." - I would counter that anyone is capable of being honest, anyone is capable of thinking about what they learn, and everyone has personal experiences that makes what they learn resonate in a different way. In truth, it's when it resonates in this way, is approached in this way, that the encounter with Torah becomes more real. The pleasure, the fulfillment, dare I say, the orgasm of the true encounter with God through the vehicle of Torah study is at its height when who's learning is really, really me, and what's being learned is really, really God's Will.

Perhaps you'll say that I'm reccomending Karism or antinomianism. Doesn't there need to be a unity, a uniformity, a standard of what ought be done, lest each person practice their own religion?

Well, yes and no. Anything that I produce through my learning is perceived and judged on two different levels - the theoretical and the practical - and in two different modes - internally and externally. Theoretical - these ideas, these understandings - do they corroborate the rest of Torah? Practical - if the implication of my learning is to behave in a particular way, how does that relate to the way that Jews have behaved historically? Internal - how does this relate to what I know. External - how does this relate to what is generally understood in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people. The theoretical naturally has more leeway than the practical, in that it's always allowed for more possibilities and that theoretical variance is obvious than practical variance. Practical variance exists but is much more strongly rooted in precedence or perceived precedence. Theoretical innovation has a much greater chance of absorption than practical innovation.

There's a term for this set of constraints, which inform and critique the way I understand and apply the Torah. The term is Mesorah. The only new Torah which will be incorporated into the ever expanding Totality of Torah is that which germinates within the constraints imposed by mesorah.

But what about all of us who weren't taught to think? Who haven't been granted the opportunity to make Torah our own (kinyan Torah), who find learning it to be interesting and informative at best, boring and obsolete at worst, but have never experienced - never been allowed or encouraged or taught to experience - the all-consuming passion of encountering God through Torah, engaging and applying every fiber of my being, seeking (lidrosh) meaning from every word, struggling to break beyond the word to find the Light and Life that they contain. What are we supposed to do?

There's an esoteric Jewish teaching that when God came to create the world, he broke something. Oftentimes, we experience creativity in the same way; it is often preceded by destruction.
[this concept has its parallel in the laws of Shabbat, in which only 'constructive destruction', to coin an oxymoron, is Biblically prohibited.]
Moving forward demands freeing one's self from whatever holds one back.

"My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God. When will I approach and see His Face?"
"All that God has created, He created only for His Glory..."
I have posted my criticism for the sake of those Jewish souls whose growth has been stunted from lack of fresh air and sunlight, completely unaware of their own possibilities and potentials. Created to live, they are imprisoned by conformity. Yearning for the Living God, they cannot move beyond those who claim to be His spokesmen, who calm them by singing beautiful but empty lullabys.

I feel that I have done them a service by sounding the alarm.


YU's Tzelem Project

YU is launching a sex-ed project for teens and singles.
You can read about it at the following links:

This is a great start. Some (actually, probably very few) of you might remember the 'kol koreh' that I issued about this a few months ago. It's good to see that some young mechanchim who care are practicing in the mirror.

I'm not sure it's enough, though. This really has to start much earlier - we're talking early elementary school, when core values are being internalized. Children don't need to understand these things in an explicit manner, but the values must be communicated on their level (like the overjustified 'muktza' and 'treif', 'not tzniyus' can become a taboo-buzzword to the mind of a 4 year old).

Another few issues:
  • Not to sound obnoxious, but the two project chairs are not married. Given that Jewish sexuality can't be divorced from it's vision of marriage and family, I can't help but wonder if that won't inhibit the efficacy of this curriculum. Perhaps, like Ben Azzai, perhaps we can say 'Sod Hashem le-yerei'av', but the question must be raised.
  • Don't get me wrong. I went to YU. I love YU. But YU students are a bit naive about sexuality. Most Orthodox students aren't going to YU. They're in much more sexualized contexts. YU is not where most of the high-school students that this program reaches will be going. A discussion of "intimacy, relationships, dating and sexual identity among the Orthodox" falls way short of what the average MO student will encounter. LGBT, porn, casual sex, morning-after pills, and sexuality when it comes to non-Orthodox or non-Jewish members of the opposite sex are real challenges. If the goal is to awaken students to their own sexuality, then the project's leaders must be prepared to deal with whatever walks through the door. And it'll all walk through the door. The YU senior interviewed suggested that pre-marital sex is a very troubling topic for many MO singles. Well, it may not be as troubling as we'd like to believe.

In short: Great idea, good start, too little, and too late in life.

The OU and Stem-Cell Research

No this has nothing to do with Eric Cohen's in First Things that Hirhurim and Kaspit have already critiqued.

This has to do with the incredible impact that stem-cell cultures can have on the kosher meat industry. If a way can be found to culture muscle tissue massively and cheaply, then the kosher meat industry will be forever changed, as will, more importantly, the crisis of world hunger. It won't be long: theck this out!

I'm wondering alou about the kashrus issues that will be involved - they didn't have it in their FAQ's, for some reason.

1) What will be the relationship between the original cells and the cultured proliferations?
This has MASSIVE kashrus implications; if the original cells, once proliferated, are 'bateil be-rov', then any cultured meat can become kosher. If the cells have the status of 'davar ha-ma'amid', then if they are taken from a treifah, neveila, or tmei'ah, then they won't be kosher. Of course, how difficult will it be to get cells from a kosher fetus? Is it possible that they will be considered carbon copies of the original cells - beyond ma'amid - so that they will be considered exactly as the original cells are? That's the only way I can see this meat being 'fleishig'. As we all (should) know, davar ha-ma'amid is batel when it comes to basar b'chalav.
Also, once the cells begin to proliferate, the original cells will be the minority of cells. Once that happens, it's no longer necessary or even sufficient as a 'ma'amid' for massive proliferation, so eventually it may all be kosher.

2) Though the cells will be 'living' when harvested, as long as they're harvested from a non-living organism (a non-living or dead animal can still have living tissue), there shouldn't be an 'ever min ha-chai' issue.

3) will the nutrients in which the cells are 'bathed' need to be kosher? Will their synthesis into the cell structure eradicate their original identities, like when food is digested? Will it depend on the 3-way dispute amongst the rishonim regarding milk found in a calf's stomach (the positions breifly: a. kosher. b. treif. c. depends if the milk is curdled)?

Can you imagine the effect that this can have in Israel? It'll cost the shochtim and meat-certifying kashrus organizations a pretty penny, but it will make nutritious foods much more affordable! Perhaps more importantly, it can completely annihilate the religious one-upmanship that revolves around everybody's suspicions about everyone else's kosher meat.

Looking forward to that first cheeseburger.

Counting the Cars...

Having recently logged over 2000 miles with the ADDeMishpacha, I'd like to share some observations about driving through America:

  1. There is regional flavor in America, but you need to leave the Interstates in order to experience it. Along the interstate, it's the same strip-mall over and over again. Switching to US Routes can provide a lot of unexpected charm.
  2. On the other hand, it can take a lot longer. Make sure you know what type of byways you'll be switching to.
  3. The Interstate system is incredible. I finally figured out its structure. Some rules (odd #s are N-S, even #s are E-W, odd prefix denotes a spur, even prefix denotes a loop) are pretty well known. It just dawned on me, though, that the entire thing is a grid. Starting with 5 on the west coast and 95 on the east, highways ending in 5 tend to be major, and the #s are in order. i.e., the higher the inserstate #, the more easterly it runs. Same goes for E-W highways and multiples of 10. It's essentially a giant grid (at least theoretically). If you name any 2 interstates that intersect, I should be able to guess pretty well where they intersect, as long as one is odd and one is even. Try me!
  4. There are some really cool towns in this country. Morgantown, West Virginia is one of them. Wish we could've stayed there longer. Mountains, rivers, unique WV culture, a major university, these cute little trains. And, as an added bonus, it's so far off the beaten track that I can say that I was there without betraying my origin or destination!

A True Story Concerning Women and Kaddish

This is a follow up to this post .

When the Bostoner Rebbe (of Boston and Har Nof) was asked by approached by a female congregant who expressed the desire to say Kaddish, his response was 'Beis Yaakov lechu ve-nelcha'. When this woman would say Kaddish, he made a point of standing next to the mechitza so that it would be clear that he was responding to her Kaddish.

Thanks, ADDeRabbetzin, for the story.

You won't find this story in the ArtScroll biography. You won't find this either.


The ArtScroll Women's Siddur: Men and Women, Dumb and Dumber

Where to begin?

ArtScroll wants to have their cake and eat it, too. They've created an entirely new genre, an entirely new custom for women's prayer, and taken it upon themselves to present complex and disputed issues in a one-sided manner, ignoring age-old customs and halakhic positions, and yet market the thing as though it's something that your alter bubbe davened from. This isn't 'old wine in new vessels'. On the contrary (adderabbah!), it's new wine in old vessels.

The issue of women and zimmun is a travesty. They mention that it's 'not the accepted custom' for a woman to ever lead a zimmun. A full explanation of the issue is a separate post, but suffice it to say that the majority of Rishonim (Rosh, Ritva, R' Yonah) consider it an obligation. Ther are even several Rishonim (R' Yehuda Ha-Kohen and R' Simcha of Vitri, cited in the Tur and BY, OC 199) who hold that 3 Jewish men and women, in any combination, constitute an obligation to be mezamen. Rashi and Tosafot (Brachot 45b) consider it optional, with Tosafot giving specific examples of daughters of Ba'alei Ha-Tosafot who were mezamnot. The Ba'alei Tosafot give no indication that they 'frown upon' these women, but go out of their way to justify the prevalent custom of women who are not mezamen. If it's optional, then the fact that people choose not to doesn't mean that the custom is not to! Most people chose not to. Some women choose to. Why has ArtScroll taken it upon themselves to eliminate an optional observance simply because most people opted out? Why is that choice better than the other choice?

The majority position is that women don't say kaddish yatom. The minority position is that they may. ArtScroll 'paskens' that it's 'generally frowned upon'. They are adamant enough about this that it's mentioned at every opportunity. The thing is, there's this book that I have called the Torah. In it there's this commandment (Shemot 22:21-23) that God seems pretty serious about. It's called not tormenting widows and orphans. Isaiah (Chapter 1 - it'll be the Haftarah in a few weeks, and it's a pretty ugly one) had a lot to say about people who were concerned with their own personal worship (in those days, sacrifice; today, prayer) to pay too much attention to the widows and orphans. Isaiah compares their insensitivity and selfishness to that of the destroyed city of Sodom. I don't know about you, Reb Art, but I try to make it my habit not to 'frown upon' orphans. You want to take a position that women shouldn't say Kaddish? Fine. But to generate a sense that one who does is doing something wrong, and to insure that any woman who does will draw the glares and frowns of everyone in the women's section who happens to be using this siddur, well, read your own commentary on Chumash. I know, the Stone Tanach isn't up to Yeshayahu yet, so we can't expect your readership to be familiar with it.

In Temple times, will ArtScroll discourage women from offering a Korban Todah? In Israel, at least, women universally bentch gomel. Again, ArtScroll asserts that this isn't the prevalent custom. Why? Because American Orthodox women are ignorant of this Halakha? In my religion, that's called a minhag ta'us - a mistaken minhag. ArtScroll is canonizing stupidity.

All told, perhaps the most insidious problem here is the desire not to confuse people with reality If there are two options for a woman when it comes to zimmun, the ArtScroll generation starts having conniptions. 'BUT WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO???'. So there can be no complexity, nothing left up to the reader's discretion, nothing left up to differing sensibilities, instincts, intuitions, or customs. ArtScroll seeks to treat adults as children.

I guess this is fitting now that they've finished their shas. The grand project to take all of the intellectual effort out of learning Gemara, of demolishing whatever shred of true ambition in Torah that was left in the typical American baalabus, they now embark on the next big project. Apparently, they felt that the dumbed-down men-folk were dangerously close to that of their balabustas. Thus, further dumbing down the women is a great service to Klal Yisrael, as it keeps the 'pants' where they need to be.

God help us all.

[UPDATE: The Siddur comes in 3 COLORS! Rosedale SiennaWedgewood Royal Blue,
Rosedale Sienna, and Ultra White.
Personally, I think it's very misleading for them to sell this siddur as 'Ultra White'.]

Why I Love Levinas

I just finished reading "Beyond the Verse", an English translation of a bunch of Talmudic lectures delivered by Levinas. His stuff consistently blew me away. In this book, he comes off as a great apologist for Rabbinic Judaism, and consistenly sets Talmudic reasoning as a counterpoint to the Greek philosophic tradition.

But that's not his greatness. His writings contain a comprehensive Jewish sustem, with a nexus of Revelation, Exegesis, Heteronomy, Responsibility, and Ethics at its core.

This guy is a really important Jewish thinker who has been completely neglected within our circles. We can't let the academics keep the monopoly on this guy. I'd estimate that the translator of the work that I just read missed about half of Levinas' references to Biblical and Rabbinic passages! We need to rescue and redeem him!

It's not easy reading, but it's extremely rewarding. If you start reading and have some difficulty with his vocabulary, email me. I'll try to help if I can.

A while ago, I listed thinkers who will be important in the emerging postmodern Halakhic Judaism. Forget the list. It's going to be R' Kook, R. Dr. Berkovits, and Levinas.

Two Types of Ethics

There's an old machlokes as to what exactly makes one ethical: is it the embracing of certain virutes, or acting/behaving in a certain way. Aristotle (and Rambam) were all about virtue-based ethics. Kant and JS Mill were all about action-based ethics. This is an oversimplification, but it'll do for now.

Then we come to this past week's haftarah, in which the prophet Micha, when explaining what God seeks from man, narrows it down to three things: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (hopefully I'll get a chance to discuss why specifically these 3 in a later post).

Interestingly, when it comes to justice (mishpat), the emphasis is on doing (asot), but when it comes to kindness (chessed) the emphasis is on loving (ahavat).

This distinction makes intuitive sense, and acknowledges the partial truth of both the Aristotelean and Kantian ethical systems.

Justice is worthless as a virtue if it isn't executed. When justice is carried out without intention, we still perceive it as 'poetic' justice, or just desserts. The goal of justice is to come to fruition, and if it doesn't it has failed.

Chessed, on the other hand, is all about the love. Punctilious observance of chessed can be kind of insulting - do something nice for me because you care about me, not because you have to. Jeez, you want to do more mitzvos? Go shake a lulav. I have no interest in being your cheftza. Do we say 'efshi ve-efshi' by chessed? 'Gee, I wish I could shove that old lady into oncoming traffic, but what can I do, the Torah commanded me to help her cross. Nu, nu.'

So where does walking humbly fit in?

Stay tuned...


Is it a Mitzvah to be Happy?

R' Nachman of Breslov notwithstanding, the answer is no.

Many, however, will quote from Devarim 28:47 to substantiate the claim that the Torah places a premium value on being joyful.

As usual, I think there's a common misunderstanding of this verse.

The verse reads:
תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה' אלהיך בשמחה ובטוב לבב מרוב כל
The common translation is (I'm filling in what's implicit, as it's obvious that this verse is an incomplete sentence):
[all of these horrendous things will befall you] because you didn't worship HASHEM your God with joy and good-heartedness, while you had everything.
Really, the verse begins a thought that continues in the next verse:
"And you will serve your enemies who God will send against you out of hunger, thirst, lack of clothing, and lack of everything; and he will place an iron yoke upon you intil he destroys you."
These two verses are a clear cause-and-effect tit-for-tat structure. You didn't serve God - therefore you'll serve your enemies. You had it good then - you'll have nothing now.
The translation of 'lo avadeta et H' Elokecha be-simcha' isn't "...Because you didn't serve God joyfully", rather, it's "Because you didn't serve God while you were joyful..." . The crime isn't a joyless service of God, rather, a joyful non-service.
A look at verse 45, 2 verses prior, reinforces this claim; it specifically points to non-observance as the cause for the punishment described.
As a final perplexing question, though, the misunderstanding of this verse seems to originate with Maimonides in the Laws of Lulav 8:15, where he writes:
שהשמחה שישמח אדם בעשיית המצוות ובאהבת האל שציווה בהן, עבודה גדולה היא; וכל המונע עצמו משמחה זו, ראוי להיפרע ממנו, שנאמר "תחת, אשר לא עבדת אתה' אלוהיך, בשמחה, ובטוב לבב" (דברים כח,מז).
The joy that one should enjoy when performing mitzvot and in loving God who commanded them is a great service. One who hold himself back from this joy deserves punishment, as it says "because...(our verse)"
I believe that Rambam doesn't mean that the punishment is reserved for one who doesn't serve God out of joy, rather, in context he's specifically referring to the Mitzvah of joy on holidays which deserves punishment, and the intent of the prooftext is purely homilletic (a drasha and nothing more).
Where do I get off saying that when the Rambam quotes a verse he doesn't really mean that it as the literal sense of the text?
Well, in this case, it's easy.
Rambam quotes this verse in two other places: Yom Tov 6:20 and Talmud Torah 3:13 . He understands this verse differently in each of those cases. In the former, he uses it to demonstrate that the only worthwhile joy is the joy that's actually in the service of God, and there's no mitzvah in empty joy on any holiday. In the latter, he understands it much in the way that I suggested, that this verse is the Biblical equivalent to the Rabbinic dictum that 'anyone who neglects the Torah while wealthy, will eventually neglect it out of poverty". Thus, Rambam quotes a single verse on 3 occasions in the Mishneh Torah, interpreting it differently and to different ends each time. Still think he meant it as pshat?
The implications of the verse, now that we have pshat, are wild. It condemns joy that is not somehow related to or accompanied by Divine service.


The Torah and Science Challenge: Round II

Bereishis Chapter I & II vs. Cosmology and Evolution is, I hope, drawing to a close. It's been a good 6-month run, but I feel that it's time to move on.

Here's an issue that I haven't heard much about: Bereishis 30:32-43 vs. Genetics.

The process by which Yaakov arranges for lambs to look a certain way are not conventional. So what do we say?

Here are some preliminary ideas:
  1. Yaakov did all this 'al pi kabbalah'/magic
  2. Gentics is wrong. All Dor Yesharim clinics should be burned.
  3. Yaakov was using the best science available in his day (his 'hishtadlus'), and HKB"H made it work for him miraculously
  4. Good ol' 'nishtanu ha-teva'im'
  5. Yaakov really used genetics, but since the 'dor ha-midbar' wouldn't have understood, the Torah described the events in a way that would make more sense to them.

Of course, the notion that the male's thoughts during conception affect the nature of the offspring is common in Chazal and all the way until late medieval times. The well-known Gemara in Nedarim which describes 9 different types of flawed conception is an excellent example. Perhaps that's what Chazal meant when they opined that 'the semen originates in the head', and not that Chazal had an incipient knowledge of the human endocrine system, as RAF suggests. They were probably basing themselves on observation: it's obvious that male sexuality can be aroused by what he sees, hears, smells, etc. That, in turn, affects what goes on in other extremities. Thus, something must be 'transmitted' from the brain to the extremities, and the original circumstances of the 'seed' in the brain will determine it's nature. This is a perfectly good explanation until one employs the scientific method.

Thus, as much as I don't like to say it, option #3 above would seem to be the best reconciliation of Torah mi-Sinai with genetics in this instance. I'm all ears for a better explanation.


A Tale of Two Aarons

Baltimore, Maryland, Circa 1943.

A classroom in the old Talmudical Academy building, at the corner of Cottage and Springhill Avenues, in the Lower Park Heights neighborhood.

The highest shiur in T.A. in those days before it opened a high-school was the equivalent of the 8th-grade shiur. It was taught by the European Rav Bobrowski.

That year in particular, his class gained a reputation for being stocked with iluyim, promising young Talmudic intellects. Two in particular stood out.

One was a native Baltimorean, one of three brothers, in an established family in the Baltimore Orthodox community. Nearing the age of Bar Mitzvah, upon completing his studies at T.A., he would go on to Ner Israel.

The second was 3 years younger than the first. A native of Paris whose family did a bit of moving around in his youth, an only son, very shy and reserved by nature and a fan of baseball, he would go on to study in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, celebrating his Bar Mitzvah during his studies there.

Both of these students went on to lead Yeshivot, and to become leaders and spokesmen for their communities.

Both, then, went by the name 'Aaron'.

The elder's last name was Feldman.
The younger's last name was Lichtenstein.

On the Origins of Chasidut

This is a bit of a history lesson, though it should be obvious that it’s also current events.

As is well, known, the Rabbinic establishment, especially in Lithuania, but in plently of other places as well, were vehemently opposed to Chasidism during its rise, and the leading lights of the generation went so far as to excommunicate the early Chasidim. Why? What was the problem?

The most common answers are that the opposition was ideological. While there were definitely ideological differences, to suggest that as the reason for the fierce opposition is naïve.

The issue was power. For hundreds of years, money and Rabbinic power had been concentrated into the hands of an elite group of families who controlled the ‘Va’ad Arba Aratzot’, the recognized organ of Jewish semi-autonomy in Poland/Lithuania. In other words, the Rabbis and their allies (generally relatives) in the Jewish elite had REAL power, real control over all communal institutions, purse strings, access to the government, and access to good education for their children – the vehicle by which they could perpetuate the whole thing. Exceptions notwithstanding, we all know what happens to those in power over the long haul (read Jacob Katz’s Teadition and Crisis for more on this).

Chasidut’s major ‘crime’ was in creating an alternative power base. They created new institutions, new outlets for Jewish money, and new allegiances. It was a major contributor to the erosion of Rabbinic power (to the point that real Rabbinic power became so non-existent, that they had to create the false power known as ‘Da’as Torah’; remember, as long as the Pope was also a King, he had no need for a Doctrine of Infallibility).

Truth is, the opponents were right! Chasidut WAS a threat! It DID erode the Rabbinic power base! Ultimately, though, the flaw lay with a system that had become too inviting for corruption. The people voted with their feet. And the rest is history.

Does history repeat itself?


Rabbinic Power and Rabbinic Force : The Case of Marriage Annulments

Since this week’s Parsha touches on effective use of ‘Rabbinic’ power, I thought it appropriate to write about this now.

The issue of whether contemporary courts can use annulments using the principle that ‘All who betroth rely upon the consent of the Rabbis, and [in this case] the Rabbis have [retroactively] uprooted his betrothal’ (henceforth Afka’inhu, after the Aramaic word meaning ‘they uprooted’) became hot again a few years ago, when a Beit Din was established to ‘solve’ the problem of recalcitrant husbands and anchored wives (Agunot) by the mechanism of annulment.

A lot has been written against them on Halakhic grounds. I wanted to address an aspect of the dilemma which I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else, and which I think cuts to the heart of what makes this new initiative so problematic (I’m speaking like a Gushie; really, that should say ‘the heart of why this new self-proclaimed ‘Beit Din’ is a bastard-factory, creating more problems than they’re solving, discrediting all Rabbis who are sensitive to the plight of Agunot but don’t buy into their claptrap, and making a mockery of the history and development of Torah She-be’al Peh).

Rashi on Ketubot 3b, discussing one of the 4 cases in the entire Talmud where afkinhu is used to retroactively annul a marriage, says the following:

רש"י מסכת כתובות דף ג עמוד א

כל המקדש - כל המקדש אשה על דעת שהנהיגו חכמי ישראל בישראל הוא מקדשה שיהיו קיימין קידושין לפי דברי חכמים ויהיו בטילים לפי דברי חכמים על ידי גיטין שהכשירו חכמים.

All who betroth – anyone who betroths a woman does so by presuming that this practice was instituted by the Sages of Israel for Israel, that the betrothal shall stand bythe words of the Sages, and will be annulled by the words of the Sages, via a bill of divorce that the Sages deem qualified.

In other words, Rashi is suggesting that even though the Rabbis have the implicit power to do whatever they deem fit – even if they wish to annul marriages right and left – they would only do so by accepting a bill of divorce (get) which would otherwise be disqualified. This is actually the case – the Rabbis of the Talmud only employ afkinhu in situations where a bill of divorce that looks perfectly normal is actually invalid because of some external reason (e.g., he sent the bill with an agent and then severed the agency before a single witness).

The Rabbis indeed had the power to completely wreck the institution of marriage. They could have annulled any marriage they wanted. It could have been complete and utter chaos. This power of the Rabbis had the potential for vast destruction. However, the Rabbis only wielded the power in cases where using it would actually strengthen the institution of Jewish marriage. In every case that the mechanism of afkinhu was employed, is was to support the façade of a completely normal-looking get.

The broader political implications are:
· Power is often most effective when it’s least obvious.
· The Rabbis (at least the ancient ones) were aware of their power, but extremely judicious when it came to using it
· The same destructive power that can undermine an institution can, in the hands of the right people, strengthen that same institution.
· The Rabbis (at least the ancient ones) had a strong interest in preserving the communal and religious institutions of Israel, and didn’t want to let their own power undermine the people’s implicit faith in those institutions.

Did I just succeed in criticizing both the left and the right in one fell swoop?

The Science of Tefillah

I think it’s really interesting that facing Mizrach gets our prayers to Jerusalem faster. Good to know. There are just a couple of questions that I have, though:

1. What if I’m slightly off? Like, let’s say I’m facing Teverya? Do the prayers just keep going round and round (assuming the Earth is round, of course) until they eventually hit Jerusalem? It’s bound to happen sooner or later?

2. On a sphere, the best way to travel between two points on the surface is to follow the circumference which contains both points. That’s why, when one flies from the US to Israel, one will overfly Newfoundland. If that’s the case, why don’t we follow the same rules when it comes to prayers? Shouldn’t we all daven facing Newfoundland?

3. Why de we assume that our prayers are affected by the Earth’s gravitational pull? Shouldn’t they just go off into space at the tangent from where I’m standing? Is the best we can hope for that they intersect, at some point, with the line that runs straight up from Jerusalem?

4. Perhaps our prayers penetrate solid Earth. In that case, shouldn’t we all be facing the ground, with the angle depending on how far one is from earthly Jerusalem.

This stuff can get really confusing, no? Perhaps someone should write a book about it. There should be no problem getting approbations.

More on the Big Stick

In case it was missed, this post on Moshe’s sin in this weeks Parsha was not just about the generation of the desert. As the last Lubavitcher Rebbe ZT”L was fond of saying, if one wants to know current events, simply look in this week’s parsha.

I believe that the theme I introduced there, namely, that Rabbinic power shouldn’t necessarily translate into Rabbinic force, is an important one. I will post about another application of it very soon.


''Brachot' on Non-Kosher Food

As I mentioned in my earlier post on this issue, the Shulkhan Arukh is pretty clear on this issue. He writes in OC 196:1:
“If one ate a prohibited food, even if it’s only Rabinically prohibited, he may not be included in a zimun, nor should he make a bracha on it, not before nor after [he eats]."

Mishna Berurah (196:3) explains the SA’s rationale:

“Since it’s a prohibited food, and there is a sin in eating it, he is cursing God with his bracha, as it says (Psalms 24) ‘One who blesses the robber (botzei’a) curses God’”

In OC 204:9 the SA continues:

“ If one ate or drank a prohibited food because of danger, he makes a bracha both before and after.”

The central text of this issue is a fairly well-known braita which the Mishna Berurah refers to in his comment. This beraita appears in several places in the Bavli (Sanhedrin 6b), in the Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 1:1, 18b), and in the Tosefta (Sanhedrin 1:2). Amazingly, there are minor variations in these three occurrences which can have strong practical ramifications. The three occurrences:

תוספתא מסכת סנהדרין (צוקרמאנדל) פרק א הלכה ב

ר' אליעז' בן יעקב אומ' מה תל' לומר ובוצע ברך ניאץ י"י משלו משל למה הדבר דומה לאחד שגנב סאה של חיטין טחנן ואפאן והפריש מהם חלה והאכיל לבניו היאך זה מברך אין זה מברך אלא מנאץ על זה נאמר ובוצע ברך ניאץ י"י:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף ו עמוד ב

רבי אליעזר אומר: הרי שגזל סאה של חטים וטחנה ואפאה והפריש ממנה חלה, כיצד מברך? אין זה מברך אלא מנאץ, ועל זה נאמר: ובוצע ברך נאץ ה'.
תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת סנהדרין פרק א דף יח טור ב /ה"א

תני רבי ליעזר בן יעקב אומ' מה תלמוד לומר ובוצע ברך נאץ יי' משלו משל למה הדבר דומה לאחד שגנב סאה חיטין והוליכה לנחתום והפריש חלתה והאכילה לבניו הרי זה מברך ואינו אלא מנאץ

Rather than translate each source, I will give the general thrust and point out the variations. Each gives a metaphor to explain the verse in Psalms cited by the Mishna Berurah. In this metaphor, a person steals wheat, makes bread, makes a bracha – the bracha is a curse.

The variations:
• The Tosefta describes how he feeds the bread to his children, and asks rhetorically, “How can he bless? This is not blessing; it’s a curse!”
• The Bavli doesn’t talk about eating the bread. The person, upon baking, wishes to separate the challah- gift for a Kohen, a mitzvah which mandates a bracha. Upon this the beraita asks rhetorically, “How can he bless? This is not blessing; it’s a curse!”
• The Yerushalmi follows the Tosefta until the last line. Rather than ask a rhetorical question, it simply states, “Behold he makes a bracha, and it is nothing but a curse”.

It’s very difficult to determine the original text of any of these sources, but it is nevertheless clear that all three of these variants go back a long way. It also just so happens that the differences between these variants reflect a four-way dispute among the Rishonim in this sugya!

• Our version of the Bavli seems to be discussing what’s called ‘mitzvah ha-ba’ah be-aveira’ – a mitzvah which is the result of a transgression, in this case making an offering of stolen bread (another classic example is eating stolen matzah – see Yerushalmi Challah 1:4, 58a). The mitzvah itself is not regarded as a mitzvah, and an attempt to make a bracha on a mitzvah like this only further aggravates the hypocrisy. To bless God who has “sanctified us with his mitzvoth and commanded us…” over and act which is an act of sheer hypocrisy, is no blessing at all. R’ Nissim and Rabbeinu Yonah (to both Sanhedrin and Brachot) invoke mitzvah ha-ba’ah be-aveirahi ad loc. As we’ll see, it also seems to be the position of the Ra’avad (on Rambam Brachot 1:19) who insists that the sole determinant of whether one should make a bracha is whether or not he enjoyed eating it (hana’ah – based on Brachot 35a), and in this case he definitely did! R’ Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi OC 1:38) is the only source that I’ve seen that explicitly distinguishes between brachot on a mitzvah and brachot on food items in this context, though it seems like a very intuitive distinction, and is at least implicit in several Rishonim.

• The Yerushalmi can be understood to be saying that indeed, even when eating stolen food, one is not absolved from making a bracha. Nevertheless, such a bracha is hypocritical and actually constitutes a ‘curse’ of God. [ Imagine seeing someone steal food and then bless on it, and imagine what that makes you think about that person’s Object of worship]. This is how Tashbetz (4:3:29) and Rosh (Brachot 7:2) understand this beraita. Tashbetz even adds the following argument for making a bracha: “Someone who ate garlic and has bad breath, should he eat more garlic and have even worse breath?!” – i.e., just because one stole, doesn’t mean he should compound the problem by not making a bracha!

• The version in the Tosefta clearly implies that the problem is with making a bracha upon eating the food, because of the hypocrisy involved. However, there are two ways to understand why one is absolved from making a bracha:

o Because such a bracha isn’t really a bracha. The hypocrisy transforms it into a curse. Thus, technically one still may be obligated to make a bracha, but with no way of discharging the obligation, it becomes moot. This appears to be the position of Rambam (Brachot 1:19) and Rashba (Brachot 45a), as well as the Shulkhan Arukh and latter-day authorities.
o There’s no obligation to make a bracha, because eating prohibited foods, with regard to making a bracha, is not even considered eating! This is the position of Tosafot and Ritva (Both on Brachot 45a s.v. achal).

A practical difference (nafka mina) between these last two positions would be a case of danger or unavoidable accident. According to Rambam et al., there’s no hypocrisy, and therefore the obligation to make a bracha can be discharged. According to Ritva, such an act is still not considered ‘eating’ because of the prohibition, and even adds that if he has no other choice, then he doesn’t actually derive benefit from the eating! (The Ritva there is fantastic. Very worthwhile to see inside because I’m not doing it justice. It’s beautiful).

To summarize, there are 4 positions in the Rishonim:
1. Ra’avad, R’ Yonah – make the bracha, because, hey, if you enjoy the food, you’re obligated to make the bracha.
2. Tashbetz, Rosh – make the bracha, even though it’s hypocritical, because you’re not absolved from the obligation to make a bracha just because you stole the food.
3. Rambam, Rashba (Paskened by SA) – if you’re violating something by eating, then your bracha is an act of hypocrisy and you’re better off not making it.
4. Ritva, Tosafot – any time one eats a prohibited food, even if there’s no direct violation, no obligation to make a bracha has been generated.

It’s worth pointing out that the Magen Avraham, and in his wake Mishna Berurah, advocate bentching in such a situation for two reasons:
a) we’re machmir on a Biblical obligation like bentching
b) in a case where he didn’t realize it was not-kosher until after eating it, there’s not ‘curse’ involved (this is directly against the Rambam, I might add).

There are other sources which might indicate one way or the other, but each position succeeds in neutralizing any potential disproof against it.

That said, I believe that the Ra’avad hit the nail on the head with this one. Brachot have an educational value and transformative potential. Any time we enjoy this world, we are enjoined to link that joy back to God Who created it. It’s counterintuitive to withhold that element from any joyful experience; after all, even if the pleasure is prohibited, it’s still a God-given pleasure.

[I’m also convinced that the Ra’avad’s understanding of the Mishna in Brachot 7:1 is more plausible, and I also believe that at least the Bavli was being very, very precise in its formulation of that braita].

But what can we do? The Shulchan Arukh and everyone else in his wake paskened like the Rambam!

I’d like to suggest that the way we understood the Rambam (indeed, the way the Taz and Mishna Berurah understand the Rambam), that if there’s no act of hypocrisy, then the obligation to make a bracha yet remains, would apply to most contemporary examples of eating prohibited foods. Whether we’re talking about ‘captive children’ or not, it’s very rare that people eat non-kosher as an act of rebellion, or would be hypocritical by trying to acknowledge God when eating, even if the food is not kosher. In essence, we would be expanding the Rambam’s category of ‘oneis’ to include those who simply weren’t educated about kashrut. Thus, they may be encouraged to say brachot, and even the Shulchan Arukh would agree. Given that this understanding is at least plausible within the Rambam, and given that a strong majority of remaining Rishonim would advocate brachot on non-kosher food in any event, I don’t feel that this position is reversing any kind of trend in psak.

Nevertheless, there are two issues that still remain:
1. Is advocating brachot on non-kosher food educationally sound? Would it be construed as ‘condoning’ the consumption of non-kosher food? If yes, then perhaps it’s not the best idea.
2. Though the understanding of the Rambam above makes sense, it’s difficult to maintain that the Rambam himself would accept it. If the dispute remains, then the accepted position, the Rambam as paskened by SA, should remain in practice, especially since one runs the risk of making an unnecessary bracha.

Therefore, I’d advocate the following:
In a situation where one is looking to increase observance, I would encourage them to begin saying brachot and bentching in English (or whichever language is their mother tongue) if they’re eating non-Kosher, but in Hebrew if they’re eating kosher. This resolves the two remaining issues because:
1. By maintaining this distinction between Kosher and non-Kosher, there’s no risk of ‘condoning’ the consumption of non-Kosher, which gets a ‘lesser’ form of the Bracha, though one that’s still perfectly legitimate.
2. The Arukh Ha-shulchan and Chasam Sofer maintain that there’s no issue of making an unnecessary bracha if it’s in a language other than Hebrew. Even though this opinion isn’t accepted as a mainstream position, it warrants use as a se’if le-hakel – a position that can even further mitigate the chance that one would make an unnecessary bracha (i.e., the Rambam might be wrong. Even if he’s right, he might consider most contemporary situations oneis. Even if he doesn’t, if the bracha is in a foreign language, it might not run the risk of a bracha le-vatalah).

Hopefully, this is a temporary solution as we hope for the day that the world is filled with knowledge of God as waters fill the sea.


Link to Full Text of R' Aharon Feldman's Essay

While the Godol continues to fisk this letter (in an incredibly irreverent manner, I might add), I thought it would be important for folks to see the entire letter. I didn't post it, but it's been posted and many, many people already know where.
So here's the link:


Waiting for the Messiah

"I believe with complete and perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, I will nevertheless anticipate his arrival every day."

- 12th of the 'Ani Ma'amin' principles of Jewish faith

This post isn't about what Maimonides really meant with this principle, whether the paraphrases are corrupt, who disagreed with this principle, yadda, yadda, yadda. There are many books on this stuff out there (like R' SY Weinberg's and R' JD Bleich's, and le-havdil Marc Shapiro's for those who enjoy wading in the kiddie pool of kfirah).

All I really want to do is bust the bubble of those - and there are many of them out there - who think there's some kind of religious obligation to naively believe that the Messiah is really, really coming today. You know who I'm talking about - the bozos who are like "In the event that the Messiah still isn't here, chas ve-shalom, by next Tuesday, I have a dentist appointment then".

Let's get this straight. I believe that the world can and will enter into a state of universal peace and harmony, that the Jewish people and the Land of Israel will be central to the ushering in of that era, and that at some point democracy and theocracy will not be a contradiction in terms. More than that, who knows? There's a lot written about this, too, ve-acamo"l.

What concerns me is the notion of 'waiting' for the Messiah. What does it mean that we're 'waiting'? It's actually a serious question; the Gemara lists 'Did you anticipate salvation?' as one of the questions on the short list that we'll all be confronted with someday. Whatever this list really means, it's clear that anticipating salvation was considered important. But what does it mean?

Anticipating the arrival of the Messiah, I once heard (from R' Frand, I believe) is like waiting for biopsy results. You know that they might take a while, but you can't really live normally until they arrive. I thought this was a brilliant analogy, and want to develop it a bit more.

Sometimes it's hard to remember that there's so much in the world that needs to be fixed, that there's still a great deal of distance between our world and God's vision for it. Anticipating the Messiah means never becoming content with the way things are, even if you're powerless to stop it. It means experiencing the alienation of galut right down to your bones.

I may know it's not gonna happen today, but that doesn't mean that I can live normally. The opposite of waiting for the Messiah isn't denial or non-belief that he'll be here tomorrow; rather, it's living as though we're at the apex, as though there's nothing left to accomplish, as though everything's A-OK.

I'm making plans, and I'll admit that the Messiah doesn't feature too prominently in them. On the other hand, nothing I do is entirely divorced from the consciousness that we have so far to go.


Parshat Chukat: Speak Softly, but Carry a Big Stick

Moses blew it. Shoulda spoke to the rock, but hit the rock instead. Too bad, now he can’t enter the land of Israel. Famous story; famous conclusion (Bamidbar 20:1-13).

Now it’s time to try to understand what’s going on, but beyond the 5th grade level.

As usual, the questions first?

1) Moses is a pretty smart guy; WHY did he change things up here?

2) Why is God being so ‘petty’, as it were? If Moses accomplished the mission, what the heck difference does it make if he hit, spoke, kissed, kicked, whatever? A miracle is a miracle, no? And even if there’s an act of disobedience here, does the punishment fit the crime?

3) Earlier in the Chumash (End of Beshalach), a very similar episode occurs, but there Moses is instructed to hit the rock! Some say that really it’s same same story, but one is from E and the other from J, but I have a better answer.

4) At the outset of this episode, God instructs Moses to take his staff. Is God setting Moses up? Why does he need to take the staff if he’s just going to talk to the rock?

5) The most well-known explanation of Moses’ sin (and there are many explanations, as the Torah itself doesn’t spell out the sin other than saying that there was a failure to sanctify God before the people), that he hit the rock instead of talking to it, is the position that Rashi takes on location. However, Rashi to BT Sanhedrin 101b s.v. על מי מריבה says that Moses’ sin was in saying ‘Listen up, rebels!’, i.e., in the way he addressed the Israelites.

6) On the topic of a failure to create a ‘Kiddush Hashem’, the Israelites themselves had no knowledge of what God actually communicated to Moses, so from their perspective, they could detect nothing wrong! So what’s missing that this is considered a failure to sanctify God’s name?

Just thinking about these questions can guide an approach to the episode.

There are different ways to get someone to bend to your will. Some situations require force, and others call for dialogue. For example (I heard this in a talk by Alan Dershowitz), when one’s dollar bill is swallowed by a soda machine, it doesn’t do much to reason with it, even if you’re absolutely correct. Occasionally, though, kicking it gets the job done.

Moses and the Israelites are at the end of their 40-year sojourn in the desert. Moses’ sister Miriam has already died. And then the people go ahead and start complaining like they had done all the way at the beginning of the 40 years. No doubt, they have a legitimate claim – the lack of water – but their response is inappropriate and out of proportion (kind of like the Palestinians). Moses responds in anger and frustration, calling them ‘rebels’, and striking the rock.

Imagine Moses’ frustration at the Israelites making the same petty complaints that they made 40 years prior! Does he feel he’s accomplished anything with them? Have they learned anything?

However, God’s instructions to Moses reflect that the Israelites have grown up a bit. This group was not born into slavery and idolatry, rather into the free desert community. They were an intelligent, mature audience. They could listen, understand, and make choices.

God's instructions are not about the rock; they're about effective projection of power. The first generation lacked the subtlety to understand anything beyond brute force. Striking the rock, pure force, impresses them. The second generation can understand reason. They can make a kal va-chomer for themselves (see Rashi 20:12). Thus, God instructed Moses to talk to the rock, to reason, to engage in dialogue and convince without imposing will by force. Granted, it’s important to display power in this type of situation, but it’s also important not to wield it. Speak softly, but carry a big stick.

Moses, however, treated them like they were that first generation of freed slaves, like children. He doubted their ability to seriously reflect and understand and to learn from their mistakes. This couldn’t have helped his relationship with the generation that was destined to enter and conquer the Land of Israel, and displayed his lack of qualification to continue to lead the Israelites.

At a certain point, even the best parent has to let go. Spoon feeding is unhealthy after a certain point. A parent can’t treat an adolescent the same way he or she would treat a child. Thus, God informs Moses that the Israelites will go on without him.


Lay Leadership Training

[This post is a bit more cynical, which I've been trying to avoid. I'm not taking it down because I do believe that lay leadership trainng is essential but, in the main, non-existent. So try and see through the cynicism and frustration, because I think there are actually some decent ideas here]

There are schools for Rabbis, teachers, cantors, administrators, kiruv workers, and pretty much the entire gamut of Jewish professionals. But it seems that nobody is training the lay leadership. It’s a real problem, because they really could use it. Here’s a preliminary course of study:

Humility 101:

The lay leader learns that he doesn’t know more than the teacher about teaching, more than the Rabbi bout Rabbinics, more than the administrator about administrating, etc.

Wisdom 127:

The value of silence – how to shut up and listen.

Time Management 245:

Applications of the Temporal Equality Theorem: (the value of my time) = (the value of your time) and uprooting the Balabatishe Theorem: (my time) = valuable. (your time) = expendable.

Critical Thinking 302:

How to sort through the gripes of the constituents, distinguishing grumpiness and stupidity from genuine critique before dumping on the professional. How to remove feelings from the process of judging.

Flattery 332:

How to select a standard and apply it evenly, to all constituents and professionals.

Priorities 401:

Why money isn’t the most important thing in the world.

Myopia 414:

The value of seeing past the end of your own nose, and outside of your 4 ells.

Successful Meetings 433:

Learning to take 5 minutes to say what can be said in 5 minutes. Learning not to repeat. Learning to stay on topic.