Book Announcement/ Review: The Single Volume Rambam

[Full disclosure: I was involved in the publication of this volume, as I translated the Hebrew introduction into English and have helped them with their website and English language communications. That said, I gain nothing from increased sales.]

Debate has long raged between the community of philosophers and the community of Torah scholars regarding the intellectual legacy of the Rambam, with each side claiming him as his own. The Rambam of the beit midrash and the Maimonides of the university can seem so different that it is hard to reconcile them into one person. In fact, many have gone to great lengths to minimize or discount those aspects of the Rambam that seem at odds with the beliefs of the particular scholar.

There is, however, a third Rambam, who is often ignored. He is not the contemplative, philosophical Rambam of the academy, nor the great halakhic authority whose every word teaches mountains of halakhot. He is everyman’s Rambam, the Rambam that was preserved best by those Yemenite communities who saw the Rambam and his Mishne Torah as a practical guidebook for every aspect of Jewish life. Of course, some could delve deeper and some remained closer to the surface, but the image of the Rambam was one of inherent and supreme simplicity. They viewed the Yad as its author intended it – as a comprehensive but intelligible guide to Jewish life.

The vision of the editors of this volume is to restore this forgotten image of the Rambam. They did so by doing primarily two things, though they have done a host of other things as well: they have published the entire Mishne Torah in a single volume with no commentary, and they have meticulously restored the version of the text based primarily on the best Yemenite manuscripts, omitting the thousands of errors that have crept into the various printed editions. In addition, there are several helpful indices to help the reader navigate the text.

I recall hearing Rav Lichtenstein opining that learning Rambam Yomi is far more useful than learning Daf Yomi. With the Rambam, one truly gets a systematic overview of the entire Torah she-Be’al Peh in a coherent, organized fashion.If the goal is ‘beki’ut’, mastery and familiarity with a broad corpus of information, the Yad is a far better vehicle to that end than Daf Yomi. Furthermore, the Yad presents a much more holistic vision of all of Torah that is best appreciated through the overall structure of the Rambam’s magnum opus. It remains, to this day, the single best restatement of Torah she-Be’al Peh, and perhaps the single greatest monograph, ever produced by the People of the Book. The present volume refocuses the learner on that aspect of the Rambam which is the aspect that the Rambam himself chose to highlight in his introduction, and which guided the name that he chose for his masterwork.

Of course, the present volume certainly has value as a desk reference and in schools where multi-volume editions can be cumbersome or where specific passages of the Rambam are studied on their own. The volume is quite beautiful as well. Nevertheless, its greatest contribution is in the restoration of that aspect of the Rambam that has been omitted from the yeshiva as well as the academy – the man who created a digest that would allow the average Jew to understand and live the fullness of his heritage.

The volume is (or will be) available at local Jewish bookstores. It is being distributed in the US by R. Yankel Levitz (718-377-0047), and available worldwide through the project’s website: http://www.mishnetorah.com/en/


Mesachek be-Kubia and Wall Street

According to this article, should Wall Street investors be disqualified from bearing testimony in Jewish courts? Read on...

might be my favorite masechet. I've learned the whole thing through 4 times, and have had several other sedarim to learn various parts be-iyun, and am currently learning the first parts of Choshen Mishpat, which is heavily based in Sanhedrin. I've always found it to be a great mix of material. But I digress.

The third chapter of Sanhedrin deals with those who are disqualified to bear testimony, including relatives and those whose professions are 'shady'. Outright criminals are presumed by the Mishnah to be disqualified (for at least certain types of case, ayen sham), but there's another class who are considered to be rabinically disqualified.
One of those is the 'mesachek be-kubia' - the dice-player, the gambler. The Gemara records a dispute regarding the rationale for this disqualification - is it because they take money that the original owner really had no intent to part with (asmakhta lo kanya), or because they do not positively contribute to society (eino oseik be-yishuvo thel olam)? In other words, who is disqualified - the hustler or the gambler?

The practical difference between the rationales would be an occasional gambler - he participates in society with his day job, but then makes people part with their money on weekends. He's disqualified by the first rationale, but not by the second. Similarly, a particularly poor gambler, who only loses money, would be disqualified according to the latter, but not the former.
Practically speaking, the Rambam, and the Shulchan Arukh in his wake, ruled in accordance with the latter position, that oseik be-yishuvo shel olam determines the status of the potential witness.

A number of years ago, I asked the following question: what about someone who 'gambles' in a different way - a speculator, for instance. One could argue that investment - especially speculative investment - is what allows economies, and everything else in their wake, to develop. Investments were a bona fide contribution to society. Furthermore, investors often made money for others - perhaps if I gamble (and win) with other people's money, I'm oseik be-yishuvo shel olam because I'm not just in it for myself?
OK, then, so what about a day trader. His investments are very short-term - not helping to develop anything - are designed to be small enough not to create or upset trends, and is often done with one's own money. Perhaps such a person is truly not oseik be-yishuvo shel olam.

My thinking was largely theoretical, but I was reminded of it when reading this article. The description (caricature?) of the Wall Street investor in the article is very close to the mesachek be-kubya described by the Gemara the one who plays games of chance as a profession, and who engineers it so that he always comes out on top. It even fits with both rationales (asmakhta lo kanya has been taken to an entirely new dimension in the last year). So the question remains - if that NYT article describes what you do for a living, would you be fit to bear witness in a Jeiwhs court? If I was one of the judges, I'd have some serious doubts.

[Someone recently asked me for an example of something that I'm machmir on. There you go.]


On Tzohar Rabbis Accepting Pay for Services

There was a news report today that Tzohar rabbis will now be allowed to accept payment for providing religious services such as officiating at weddings. This is ostensibly a response to the financial reality, but it's probably more complicated than that. I have no doubt that Tzohar is suffering financially; their original sugar daddy, Avi Chai, is slowly cutting off funding (they fund organizations for a fixed amount of time and then gradually phase out their funding, expecting the organization to stand on its own two feet), and donations are not coming in like they used to. Tzohar has a hard time fundraising in general, since they are not perceived to be addressing an urgent concern in the same way that, say, MADA and ZAKA are, they don't have big buildings or programs that one would be likely to contribute to in memoriam, and, frankly, the people they serve are not usually what you would call 'needy'. We're talking about average Israelis - perhaps even above average when you consider that Israel's poorest sectors - the Arab and Haredi sectors - have little or no use for Tzohar.

That being the case, why did Tzohar make themselves 'free' in the first place? The answer is, basically, to distance themselves from the status quo. If the official rabbis were taking money under the table, then Tzohar made it a policy to take no money for services. The other elements of their commitment - to be on time and to meet with the bride and groom beforehand - have the same objective.

In truth however, it is the official rabbis who should not be charging to officiate and the Tzohar rabbis who should; the official rabbis make a very nice living and their job description is to provide religious services to those in their jurisdiction. Demanding money under the table is nothing short of corruption. For the average Tzohar rabbi, however, the situation is reversed (and I know this first hand, from friends and acquaintances who perform weddings for Tzohar). He usually is not terribly well paid doing whatever it is he does (part time rabbinic position + teaching + hustling around and doing whatever); furthermore, given the commitments that the Tzohar rabbi must make when officiating, there is often a significant time commitment (let's say, including travel, up to half a day). He is permitted to be reimbursed for travel expenses, but that's it. As the old saying goes, altruism is nice, but you can't eat it for dinner. It makes perfect sense for a Tzohar rabbi to be able to charge for his services as long as it is not part of his regular job (for example, if he is the rabbi of a synagogue and a constituent is getting married).

I think, then, that the voices within Tzohar that were advocating allowing rabbis to accept payment have been growing, and the 'financial crisis' rationale is convenient excuse but not the whole truth. Consider that Tzohar does not pay its rabbis; how is Tzohar saving money by allowing the rabbis to accept payments?

Alternatively, it is possible that Tzohar will begin charging membership dues, and this is one of the benefits that would accrue to members. If they do that, I would hope that they publish - far and wide - a standard rate for officiating at a wedding, so that this will not turn sour like the system it strives to replace.


Follow-up n the Issue of Ordaining Women

In addition to the post I linked to below, I made another point about this issue here.
I see four sources of pressure that push toward the ordination (call it what you want) of Orthodox women:
  1. Feminism within Orthodoxy - the desire of Orthodox women to gain titular recognition of their achievements and positions. This is part of the general trend toward egalitarianism and feminism (two separate movements, of which I';m more comfortable with the latter than with the former, ve-acamo"l) within the Orthodox world. This pressure, on its own, is generally counterproductive in that it generally provokes disproportionate reaction. It's necessary, though, in order to drive the movement once other pressures are created. Note, for example, that the institutions of to'enet din and yo'etzet halakha were both born of necessity (the former from the misogynist structure of Israeli divorce courts, the latter from the recognition that women are far better purveyors of hilkhot niddah than men are).
  2. Other Jewish movements - this is not to say that other denominations put pressure on Orthodoxy to do anything. That would, again, only provoke reaction. However, the fact that there ARE non-Orthodox women serving as rabbis in non- or quasi-rabbinic positions (Hillel directors, federations, funds/ endowments, think tanks, community learning programs, NPOs, etc.) puts pressure on the Orthodox community. Many Orthodox women who are equally or better qualified than non-Orthodox applicants to the same position are at a disadvantage due to their lack of recognized credentials. This flaw is not fatal, but it is definitely an obstacle.
  3. The changing role of the "Rabbi" - the historical role of the 'rabbi' is the subject of many books and dissertations. There is no doubt however, that it has changed yet again in the US in recent generations. Any religious functionary is now a 'rabbi' - from the first-grade rebbi to the kashrus supervisor to the 'kiruv professional'. Some would argue that the title has been rendered meaningless. I would not go that far; rather, it has a connotation of being a provider to Jewish religious services. Semikhah itself has followed suit. One may get semikhah online with shemayisrael.org. Ner Israel offers a semikhah for mastering 5 volumes of the Mishnah Berurah; I've even heard of a semikhah in Israel (for 'kiruv professionals') which involves a test on 50 blatt Gemara of your choice as well as mastery of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh. It's hard to know why exactly this change took place, but here are some possibilities: a) the desire to generate more respect for these otherwise minor functionaries (it would be interesting to look at Torah U-mesorah archives to see if they ever made a decision to have the rebbeim addressed as 'rabbis'); b) the general compartmentalization of Jewish proficiencies due to advances in technology and communications: a rabbi used to have to know all about paskenin maros as well as treyfos. With the advent of refrigeration and overnight mail, he needs to know neither in order to be effective. Thus, instead of a single, general role, you have numerous smaller ones, all of which are called 'rabbi'. It could be that smaller roles existed in earlier times, but were not called rabbi> Rather, it was melamed, magid, shochet, mohel, etc. Those divisions may still exist, but all are still titularly 'rabbis' (Rabbi Ploni Almoni, Certified Mohel) - kind of like 'doctors'. Thus, the term has become a marker that says 'this person is an authority/ service provider in the following area'. As this perception grows, there would be an increasing need to do the same for female 'service providers'. In several senses, this has already happened - both with new titles like 'yo'etzet' and 'to'enet' (which, I believe, will ultimately be subsumed under 'rabbi' like 'mohel' and 'shochet' were), and older ones like 'rebbetzin' and 'rabbanit'. Nevertheless, none of these terms offer the blanket coverage that 'rabbi' does. Only the wort ostriches still believe that women do not fill roles that are currently being filled by 'rabbis', or that they lack the requisite knowledge that it takes to be a rabbi. It's about title, nothing more.
  4. Money - there's money to be made and money to be saved by women who have some type of clerical title. Perhaps the financial pressure is not yet so great, but it's there, and it will grow. As we all know, economics are a much greater stimulus of halakhic innovation than ideology or anything else.
There is not yet pressure to find a title for the husband of such a female Orthodox clergyperson. That's why I like Maharetzin.


I Am the Maharetzin

[Note: My wife is not a Mahara"t, though she has, for many years, filled roles that may easily be described as rabbinic]
As part of my husbandly duties as Maharetzin, I would like to announce that my wife will be speaking 3 times in the next two weeks in the Baltimore/ Washington area: For the next two Tuesday nights (7/7 and 7/14), 8-9:30pm at the National Synagogue (free of charge), on the topic "Asking for What you Want: Chana and the B'not Tzelophchad"; Wednesday, July 15 at WIT Baltimore, 10-11pm. The topic has to do with the biblical DIna, and there is a charge for the class, but I don't have any more details right now. All shiurim are for women only.

This gives me the opportunity to write about a topic I've been avoiding for a while - the Maharat. The record shows that I wrote, in February 2006, that "that there's a real problem that there's no way to recognize a learned Orthodox woman" and that "there's actually a pressing need for some way to recognize the achievements of Orthodox women so that they can get the benefits that they would accrue if they were a different gender or denomination". Will the title "Maharat" allow its bearers to claim parsonage on their income taxes, or land those non-rabbinic jobs that are reserved for those with ordination (e.g., Judaic studies principals, Hillel directors), only time will tell. Time will tell if this is attempt to address the issue will succeed; there's no question, though, that it is addressing a very real need.

In truth, there are many "Maharat"s out there already - perhaps not 'officially', but in terms of all but name (and pay scale) they fill those quasi-rabbinic roles (since I'm no longer practicing as a rabbi, but my wife still serves in a quasi-rabbinic capacity to many of her students, I guess that makes me a Maharetzin).
By the way, the Maharetzin often fills a major role (I propose that there be a session at the next JOFA conference entitled: 'The Role of the Maharetzin'). In my case, I help prepare the shiurim - often providing an idea and a few sources, which the Rebbetzin/Maharat then runs with and teaches better than I ever could.


Notes from the First Day in the Alter Heim

we're back in the US for a good chunk of the summer. We'll be in the DC area for the next few weeks (let us know if you're in the area and want to get together) before heading up to camp. The rebbetzin has a few teaching engagements lined up in Baltimore and DC.

Although I normally like having the opportunity of listening to regular MLB night games. Last night, the combination of jetlag and disappointment had me turning it off in the 4th inning, with the Sox up 6-1 and threatening to run up the score. What a mistake!

The rental car comes equipped with Sirius satellite radio. I found some stations with music from the 80s and 90s - amongst the first few song I heard were People are People (Depeche Mode), Welcome to the Jungle (GNR), and Mysterious Ways (U2). Needless to say, they're now pre-set and I'm trying to figure out how to get this set up in Israel.

The woman behind the service desk at the airport (I will not provide any more detail, though it should be fairly obvious that this took place at BWI) had a name tag that said LEWQUANDIS. And she wasn't even that talkative.