5th Candle: Shimon Ha-Tzadik and the Encounter with Greece, Part I

According to the Gemara (BT Megillah 11a) Shimon Hatzaddik was instrumental, along with Matityahu and the Hasmoneans (see the Gemara and Maharshal, ad loc, for some interesting textual variants), to God’s salvation of the Jewish people during the Ionian (=Yevanim – Fred will like that) domination. This is curious because Shimon lived at least a century before the events of Chanukah occurred.

[Note: All chronological references to the times of the 2nd Temple in this post will presume Chazal’s memory of that chronology. The goal is to understand how Chaza”l themselves related to and memorialized those events, and the historicity of the actual events is a moot point. In other words, I’m concerned with how Chaza”l viewed Shimon Ha-Tzadik, and not at all concerned about the actual historical figure. This shouldn’t be a shock to regular readers of this blog]

According to the genealogy in the first few mishnayot of Avot, Shimon Ha-tzadik is the link between the era of the Prophets and the Hellenistic era. His main pupil, Antigonus of Sokho, betrays Greek influence by his very name (not that Antigonus was himself a Hellenist – insert requisite # of ‘chas ve-shalom’s here – but that Jewish culture was already being penetrated by Ionian culture). Chaza”l therefore saw him as a crucial figure in shaping the Jewish response to Hellenistic penetration.

There are two Talmudic narratives that involve Shimon Ha-tzaddik. Both narratives have parallels in non-Rabbinic sources. By constructing these narratives around the figure of Shimon Ha-tzaddik, Chaza”l teach us something about the collision between Jewish and Ionian culture and an appropriate Jewish attitude/response to that collision.

a) Shimon Ha-tzadik and Alexander: A Reading of BT Yoma 69a

[When the Samaritans had obtained permission from Alexander to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, messengers] came and informed Shimon Ha-tzadik. What did he do? He dressed in the Priestly vestments, and wrapped himself in the priestly vestments. Some of the distinguished men of Israel were with him, and they had torches of light in their hands. All night, these were walking in this direction, and those were walking in that direction, until the dawn broke. Once the dawn broke, he asked them, “Who are they?” They replied, “The Jews, who have rebelled against you.” When they reached Antipatris the sun rose, and they confronted each other. When he saw Shimon Ha-tzadik, he descended from his chariot and bowed before him. They said to him, “A great king such as yourself bows to this Jew?” He replied, “The image of this man’s visage triumphs before me when I go into battle!”

This narrative was a later addition to the early Rabbinic work ‘Megillat Ta’anit’, a list of ancient Jewish holidays (which, incidentally, is the earliest record of the celebration of Chanukah). The original text, in Aramaic, consisted of a date and a very brief description of the date (like January 1st – New Year’s Day; February 6th – Groundhog’s Day; June 14th – Flag Day, etc.). Later, much longer narrative descriptions of the significant events which occurred on those days were added to the work. This excerpt is the later addition to the original, which simply stated “The 25th [of Tevet] is Mt. Gerizim Day, and it’s forbidden to eulogize on it.” This narrative is clearly a literary construction, as will be demonstrated, first of all, by comparing it with Josephus Flavius’ account of the same event in “Antiquities of the Jews”:

Now Alexander, when he had taken Gaza, made haste to go up to Jerusalem; and Jaddua the high priest, when he heard that, was in an agony, and under terror, as not knowing how he should meet the Macedonians, since the king was displeased at his foregoing disobedience… whereupon God warned him in a dream, which came upon him after he had offered sacrifice, that he should take courage, and adorn the city, and open the gates; that the rest should appear in white garments, but that he and the priests should meet the king in the habits proper to their order, without the dread of any ill consequences… And when he understood that [Alexander] was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens. The procession was venerable, and the manner of it different from that of other nations…Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance, in white garments, while the priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head, having the golden plate whereon the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high priest. The Jews also did all together, with one voice, salute Alexander, and encompass him about; whereupon the kings of Syria and the rest were surprised at what Alexander had done, and supposed him disordered in his mind. However, Parmenio alone went up to him, and asked him how it came to pass that, when all others adored him, he should adore the high priest of the Jews? To whom he replied, "I did not adore him, but that God who hath honored him with his high priesthood; for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very habit, when I was at Dios in Macedonia, who, when I was considering with myself how I might obtain the dominion of Asia, exhorted me to make no delay, but boldly to pass over the sea thither, for that he would conduct my army, and would give me the dominion over the Persians; whence it is that, having seen no other in that habit, and now seeing this person in it, and remembering that vision, and the exhortation which I had in my dream, I believe that I bring this army under the Divine conduct, and shall therewith conquer Darius, and destroy the power of the Persians, and that all things will succeed according to what is in my own mind."

While the central elements of the stories – the High Priest and the Priestly vestments, Alexander at the head of a conquering army, threatening Judea, and Alexander’s dream and it’s role in the salvation of Judea – are identical in both, there are significant differences. It’s within these differences that Chaza”l’s contribution lies.

Whereas Josephus writes like a chronicler, giving names of people and places and vast amounts of detail (much of which I left skipped with ‘…’), the Gemara is much more terse. The Gemara employs literary devices – the interplay of night and day and darkness and light chief amongst them. In Josephus, the Jews of Jerusalem passively await Alexander’s arrival, whereas in the Gemara, the two groups are marching toward each other. Finally, the High Priest in Josephus’ account is Jaddua, whereas in the Gemara it’s Shimon Ha-Tzaddik. If I’m correct that Shimon, for Chaza”l, is a paradigm for encounter with Ionia, then his appearance in this narrative is more than simply a miracle-tale of salvation; it’s an account of the initial collision between these two great civilizations. It’s no longer an historical or quasi-historical story; it’s mythic.

To be continued – it’s 4 minutes before licht bentchen…


4th Candle: The Problem of Translation

It once happened that five elders wrote the Torah for King Ptolemy in Greek, and that day was as ominous for Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made, since the Torah could not be accurately translated
Minor Tractates, Soferim 1:7

When the work was completed, Demetrius collected together the Jewish population in the place where the translation had been made, and read it over to all, in the presence of the translators, who met with a great reception also from the people, because of the great benefits which they had conferred upon them. They bestowed warm praise upon Demetrius, too, and urged him to have the whole law transcribed and present a copy to their leaders. After the books had been read, the priests and the elders of the translators and the Jewish community and the leaders of the people stood up and said, that since so excellent and sacred and accurate a translation had been made, it was only right that it should remain as it was and no alteration should be made in it. And when the whole company expressed their approval, they bade them pronounce a curse in accordance with their custom upon any one who should make any alteration either by adding anything or changing in any way whatever any of the words which had been written or making any omission. This was a very wise precaution to ensure that the book might be preserved for all the future time unchanged. When the matter was reported to the king, he rejoiced greatly, for he felt that the design which he had formed had been safely carried out. The whole book was read over to him and he was greatly astonished at the spirit of the lawgiver. And he said to Demetrius, 'How is it that none of the historians or the poets have ever thought it worth their while to allude to such a wonderful achievement?'
From "The Letter of Aristeas"

Here we have two texts describing the same event: the original translation of the Torah into Greek, the Septuagint. The first account is from a beraita, a work of the Rabbinic Tannaim. The second is from an apocryphal work which was produced by the Jews of Ptolemaic Egypt, and was not included in the Jewish canon.

[Linguistic sidenote: the Latin word apocrypha and the Aramaic word Beraita mean basically the same thing – a work that remains ‘outside’ a canonized text]

Taken together, these texts present the basic problem of translation. The translation issues recently discussed by Gil and Krum (esp. in the comments) touch the tip of the iceberg – the difficulty in finding the right words to convey the literal sense of the original. In every act of translation, something is left behind and becomes inaccessible to the new audience. At the same time, that audience gains access to a previously unintelligible source of wisdom. I discussed some of these elements in a post about the relationship between translation and mysticism here.
Translating from Hebrew into Greek has much higher stakes. On one hand, it’s an attempt to bridge an unbridgeable gap, to convey the language of revelation in the terminology of reason. On the other hand, it made the Torah into something that the entire world could access (see F. Rosenzweig quotation here). Greek translation occupies a special Halakhic status as well, according to the Mishna in Megillah. The Greek language, the beauty of Japeth, belongs in the tents of Shem.
This task, the translation of the Torah into Greek, continues in our day. As a Rabbi in the USA, I often think of my job as that of a translator, and still from Hebrew into Greek, just Greek today happens to be English (unless you ask the French). It’s still hard to capture the Torah in English, but it’s something we must do if we are to open the hearts and minds of contemporary Jews (and I’m not talking about “kiruv”). I’ve often considered accepting the 8th of Tevet, traditionally the day that the Septuagint was completed, and not observed as a theme of the 10th of Tevet, in order to reinforce the tension inherent within the awful but necessary task of translation.

Rather than continuing to (poorly) articulate this challenge myself, I’ll recommend three essays by Emmanuel Levinas, for whom this is a major (if not THE major) philosophical theme. The first is his introductory essay to Nine Talmudic Readings. The second is called “On the Translation of Scripture” and appears in a book called In the Time of Nations. The Third is called “The Pact” and appears in both Beyond the Verse and The Levinas Reader.


3rd Candle: R' Nachman's Dreidel

I’ve only got a few pages left of Arthur Green's book “Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav”, and I hope to post a more thorough review when I finish and digest it. There’s one passage, Chanukah-related, that i really liked. It’s part of a segment on R’ Nachman’s critique of medieval cosmology, and is taken from Sichot HaRan #40, and p. 309 of Green’s book, whence the translation:

Their books contain questions as to the order of Creation: How is it that a star merited to be a star, or that a constellation deserved to be a constellation? What was the sin of the lower creatures, animals and all the rest, that consigned them to their lowly state? Why not just the opposite? Why is a head a head and a foot a foot?...

This entire pursuit, however, is a vain one. One should not ask such questions of God, who is righteous and upright. For in truth, the entire universe is a spinning top, which is called a dreidel. Everything moves in a circle: angels change into men and men into angels; the head becomes a foot and the foot a head. All things in the world are part of this circular motion, reborn and transformed into one another. That which was above is lowered and that which was below is raised up. For in their root all of them are one.

R’ Nachman locates the flaw of philosophy in its being static and bounded. In the real world, boundaries between objects are fluid, artificial, and often non-existent. Though R’ Nachman refers specifically to the cosmological world and its hierarchies, the same can be (and has been) said about social hierarchies. Medieval philosophy spent much time and ink justifying why kings are kings, nobles are nobles, serfs are serfs, women are women, and Jews are Jews. The real reason that nobles were superior to serfs is that a man on a horse can kill ten men on foot, but that wouldn’t pass muster with the morally-attuned folk, so a hierarchy had to be invented. This type of thinking (called essentialist in philosophical terminology) was the hallmark of philosophy from Plato onward, until it faded with the advent of modernity. Thus, R’ Nachman, a contemporary of Napoleon, is an early critic of essentialism.

A later but very well-known critic of essentialism in the social sphere wrote a passage which is strikingly similar to R’ Nachman’s in both content and literary power, though he saw an end to the non-stop ‘spinning’ that does not include God’s Unity:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.
-Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto”, 1848


2nd Candle: Chanukah and Commercialism

These thoughts aren’t fully articulated, but I feel like I’m on to something, and would be grateful if anyone can help me flesh this out. Two quick stories:

  • Last week, in one of my proudest moments as a Jewish parent, my wife took my 5-year-old daughter to shop for a Chanukah present for a cousin with whom she ‘exchanged’ gifts. She couldn’t understand why we were buying a gift. After all, this cousin’s birthday wasn’t until the summer. I was very proud that, for my little girl, Chanukah hadn’t yet been commercialized.

  • Earlier today, I bought a 21-oz. bag of Reese’s Tree-shaped milk-and-white chocolate peanut-butter cups for a mere 99 cents. Comparing that to the buckfitty (thanks, Fred) that the qualitatively and quantitatively inferior chocolate coins cost, one is tempted to consider baptism.

Of course, the sale is directly linked to the fact that the hyper-commercialization of the American/Christian (let’s not be fooled by wishes for ‘Happy Holidays’; the sales start of the 26th) holiday season has passed its climax, and stores are purging whatever they have left (so stock up on Sukkah decorations).

It got me thinking that there are elements of our celebration of Chanukah which have a particularly anti-commercialist bent. The notion of ‘pirsumei nisa’, so central to the mitzvah of lighting candles, seeks to counter the adverse effects of hyper-commercialization which is endemic to our culture, and perhaps to the urbane and market-centered Greco-Roman world (see my discussion of R’ Shimon b. Yochai’s critique of ‘marketplaces’ here).

Two points from the Gemara in Shabbat 21b-22a, which discusses the lighting of Chanukah candles, reinforce this point. The first relates to the time of lighting, which is formulated as ‘until the feet are done at the marketplace’. Indeed, ideally the lights themselves should be as close to the public domain as possible. It almost as though the candles are intended to stand in opposition to the market, to serve as a reminder to those who traverse it that there is something else, something beyond, that ought to be kept in view.

The second point is a strange reiteration of Rav’s position that it’s forbidden to make use of the Chanukah lights. R’ Assi formulates it thus:
“It is forbidden to arrange (i.e., tabulate) money by the light [of the Chanukah candles]”
The Gemara concludes that this would be a disgrace of the mitzvah (and not because of any inherent sanctity of the candles, to the contrary of what we say in the ‘Ha-neirot Halalu’ paragraph after candle-lighting). Of all activities that can be performed by candle-light, the Gemara singles out the counting of money as being most incongruous with the theme of the Chanukah candles.

Fame and Ambiguity

The JIB nominees are out and it seems I've been nominated for 'Best Religion Blog'. Here I ask, what does the word 'best' modify? 'Religion' or 'blog'? I already know that I blog about the best religion. I think it means that someone thinks that this is the best blog about the Jewish religion. I mean, someone besides me. And the ADDeRebbetzin denies that it's her. It's nice to be loved, though I need MONEY more than glory.

Day 1: Reading of Menachot 99b - on Learning Greek Wisdom

This will be the first in a 7 or 8 part series for each night of Chanukah, exploring some element of the interface between Judaism and Hellenism, the two great civilizations whose relationship has yielded the Western world.

The first ‘installment’ is a reading of the Gemara in Menachot 99b:

Ben Damah the son of R. Yishmael's sister once asked R. Yishmael, May one such as I who have studied the whole of the Torah learn Greek wisdom? He thereupon read to him the following verse: This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night (Joshua 1:8). [He continued], “Go and find a time that is neither day nor night and then learn Greek wisdom.”
This disagrees with R’ Shmuel, son of Nachmani, who said in the name of R’ Jonathan:
This verse is not an obligation or a commandment, rather a blessing. God saw that the words of Torah were beloved to Joshua, as it says, “And [Moses’] apprentice was Joshua ben Nun, a youth who would not depart from the tent (Shemot 33:11)”. God therefore said to him, “Joshua, words of Torah are so beloved by you? This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth!”

Though this passage is well known, there are certain elements which are often ignored. For example, R’ Shmuel’s position, that the ability to study Torah day and night was a reward granted to Yehoshua because it was so beloved to him, is not nearly as well-known as R’ Yishmael’s position.

More fundamentally, however, this passage seems not to be of a halakhic nature; it doesn’t view itself as a true dispute about the scope of the obligation to study Torah and the permissibility of studying ‘Greek wisdom’. For instance, the ‘disputants’ are R’ Yishmael, a tanna, and R’ Shmuel b. Nachman, an amora. The Talmud would not set them up on equal footing if this were truly a legal dispute; rather, the R’ Yishmael story would be marshaled as a prooftext against R’ Shmuel. There is a prior discussion in the Gemara about the minimum requirements of Torah study, and this passage seems to be associatively linked but remains a separate discussion.

Furthermore, the dialogue between R’ Yishmael and his nephew is not constructed as a halakhic conversation. Ben Damah’s question presupposes that he has mastered the Torah, a bold claim; he asks specifically about Greek wisdom, and not about absolution of the obligation to study Torah. It’s also very difficult to take R’ Yishmael’s answer seriously at face value. Does he really think that there is such a time? Is that what his prooftext from Joshua is trying to communicate?

Finally, the discussion is about how to understand a verse from the book of Joshua, which is not considered a source of laws and mitzvot.

Taken together, these elements allow for a literary approach to the conversation between Ben Damah and his illustrious uncle.

It would not be far-fetched to accuse Ben Damah of presumptuousness for claiming that he has completed the Torah. He is relating to Torah study as a field to be mastered, an obligation that must be discharged. Having done so, he wishes to move on to something, apparently an academic pursuit, of his own choosing. R’ Yishmael responds by denying Ben Damah’s assumption; there is no ‘end’ to Torah study. The job is never finished. R’ Shmuel would respond differently – Torah study is a reward, an opportunity, to be loved, not discharged.

R’ Yishmael’s attitude toward ‘Greek Wisdom’ is ambivalent. Is he euphemistically suggesting that it has absolutely no value, or that, relative to Torah, it’s insignificant? Is there a time which is ‘neither day nor night? And how would R’ Shmuel respond?

From a variety of sources (notably Tosafot in Sotah 49), ‘Greek Wisdom’ pertains to some sort of mode of thinking and speaking that was uniquely Greek, a mode of discourse or rhetoric. R’ Yishmael felt this mode of thinking and speaking to be antithetical to Torah and maintained that in a situation where the infinite obligation to Torah remains, there is no room for dual allegiance.
Except, of course, when it is ‘neither day nor night’.

Day and night often represent different modes of existence – clarity and confusion, redemption and exile, etc. Perhaps R’ Yishmael is suggesting that there really is a limited space in which ‘Greek Wisdom’ can – or must – be studied. At ‘night’, when the Jewish people are persecuted, overwhelmed, or enslaved, reaching out to the prevailing ‘high culture’ is entirely inappropriate. As long as there are survivors, Wagner will not be played in Israel. The dominating culture forfeits the right to set the language of debate and discourse when it’s used as a vehicle of control. The Jew, in this situation, is enjoined to remain exclusively within his own set of symbols and meanings.

Similarly, during the ‘day’ we may develop our own culture, our own modes of expression and discourse, and need not import a foreign one. Let others come and learn the language and discourse of Torah study. Let them absorb its values.

However, there are times, few and far between, when it is neither day nor night. We don’t have the good fortune of a redeemed, autonomous culture, yet are welcome and creative members of the broader world. In such a situation – early Moslem Spain, Renaissance Italy, contemporary America - the study of the disciplines of ‘Greek Wisdom’, cultural literacy, adoption of certain modes of discourse, becomes warranted.

And what about R’Shmuel? For him, the Torah is not a place to retreat to. It is completely open and inviting, demanding nothing but offering the world. For him, nothing is a threat to the Torah. All can and ought be absorbed into Torah, even Greek Wisdom itself. For him, the struggle between Torah and Greek Wisdom is resolved when one’s love of Torah ‘overflows’ – is blessed – and incorporates the totality of that person’s being, bringing the ‘beauty of Yafet’ into the ‘tent of Shem’.


Funny Stories (that might make you cry)

This past week, I was at a conference for professionals in Jewish organizations. The spectrum of people there was extremely diverse, pretty much in any way that you can think of it. There were three elements that really leap out as being, well, just bizarre.

1) They had posted quotes from a number of well-known Jews about their own relationship with Judaism. There were three adjacent to each other at the entrance to the main meeting hall, one from Barbara Streisand, one from R’ Soloveitchik, and one from Natalie Portman. It goes without saying that the opinions Yentl and Amidala are at least as significant as the Rav’s; I just didn’t know that the Rav was so famous…

2) There was a banquet toward the conclusion of the conference. The band played a mixture of pop-culture and Jewish songs (they could’ve brought in Matisyahu and knocked out two birds with one stone), and there was intermittent dancing (mixed) during which I and my colleagues got fat. At one point, the band played Carlebach’s ‘Im Eshkachekh’, at which point some of the younger crowd began slow-dancing. It’s like, ‘let my right hand forget it’s way to my partner’s tuchus’.

[side note: ever notice that the word ‘tuchus’ is so much funnier than any English alternative? It can get a message across without it being confrontational or crude. To wit, threatening to bust out a can of whupa** is far more antagonistic than turning to the equally potent but far more diffusing whuptuchus. Next time you feel like using the word ‘butt’ or ‘a**’, substitute ‘tuchus’ and see how different it is, ve-acamo”l]

3) There was a session for Rabbis on conversion and intermarriage. An Orthodox colleague of mine and I attended, along with three other, non-Orthodox Rabbis (I believe all 3 were Reform, but I’m not certain). It was a great session, and we articulated ourselves pretty well. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I recently posted thrice on this issue over at MY, and had put a lot of thought into these issues in general. Also from that session:
  • A surprising phenomenon, that my heterodox colleagues pointed out, is that as one’s level of observance increases, one’s acceptance of Jews of different ethnic or racial backgrounds also increases. I suggested – with the agreement of all in the room (which shocked me) – that this is because if one’s Judaism is defined solely on ethnic grounds, then someone from a different ethnic background isn’t ‘really’ Jewish, whereas one who understands their Judaism as something more content-driven is much more likely to accept someone with common values, regardless of language or skin color.

  • One of the non-Orthodox Rabbis presented a dilemma where a non-Jew who was taking ‘conversion classes’ was offered, and accepted, gelilah. She (the Rabbi) approached him and asked if he had already converted, and when he answered in the negative, instructed him to decline the honor. Her point was that there are times when we need to draw lines and be somewhat non-inclusive, as much as it might be awkward. My Orthodox colleague and I agreed that in that situation, we would have allowed the person to continue rather than potentially embarrassing him, because glilah, is an honor which doesn’t require any type of legal stature from the honoree. We wouldn’t have given it out like that a priori, and the gabai would’ve been approached at a later time, but we wouldn’t have stopped in mid-stream. Our non-Orthodox colleague was very thankful for the explanation; so, bizarre as it may sound, I gave a hetter to a Reform Rabbi. I never would’ve thought it possible.


Interesting New Books

With Chanukah coming up, and many of you wondering what to get for the curious Jew in your life, there are two new books that you may want to consider (for yourselves as well).

The first is of the 'cofee table' variety, and is called 'Sticking to Israel' by Elan Katz Mosbacher. It consists of 80 pages of photos of different Israeli bumper stickers and graffitti (with translation captions). It succeeds in capturing the tone and variety of Israeli religious, political, and social life as expressed through sloganeering, and perusing this book is both enjoyable and stimulating.

The second book I haven't yet gotten the chance to read, but I saw it for sale and was very intrigued. It's called Off the Derech by Faranak Margolese, and analyzes the phenomenon of people raised as Orthodox Jews who stop adhering to its regulations. I hope to get a chance to read it soon, but if you have comments on it, feel free to post. The topic is certainly an interesting one. The book wasn't written from an academic or scientific perspective, rather from that of an insider trying to understand a lamentable situation.



Shabbat 33b-34a: Part VI - R' Shimon and Eliyahu

Continued from here.
Thus they dwelt twelve years in the cave. Then Elijah came and stood at the entrance to the cave and exclaimed, Who will inform the son of Yohai that the Emperor is dead and his decree annulled? So they emerged.

Within this narrative, and throughout Rabbinic literature, the number twelve represents wholeness, recalling the twelve months of a year or the twelve tribes of Israel. The number is invoked regarding R’ Shimon’s first and second times in the cave, and his growth in relation to R’ Pinchas b. Yair. After 12 years, it’s time for R’ Shimon to leave the cave. Twelve years is also enough time for the attitudes to soften, for a generation to mature, and for Roman domination to feel secure enough to tolerate and even welcome the contribution of its fiercest critics.

This news must reach R’ Shimon through his only, tenuous connection to the world outside: the door of the cave. The door of the cave is where R’ Shimon’s total isolation is broken into by the rest of the world and humanity. If there is any hope of R’ Shimon rejoining the world of men, something must cross that doorway.

Elijah, always the harbinger of change, hope, and ultimate redemption, bears this news. The appearance of Elijah at this point in the story is striking on several levels, which must be understood by referring to Elijah’s own story:
1 And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying: 'So let the gods do [to me], and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to-morrow about this time.' 3 And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. 4 But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom-tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said: 'It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.' 5 And he lay down and slept under a broom-tree; and, behold, an angel touched him, and said unto him: 'Arise and eat.' 6 And he looked, and, behold, there was at his head a cake baked on the hot stones, and a cruse of water. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. 7 And the angel of the LORD came again the second time, and touched him, and said: 'Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee.' 8 And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meal forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God. 9 And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said unto him: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' 10 And he said: 'I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.' 11 And He said: 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.' And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13 And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' 14 And he said: 'I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel
have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets
with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.'
(I Kings 19)
Elijah’s story bears remarkable similarity to R’ Shimon’s. Both are outspoken critics of the ruling order. Both are condemned to death for their outspokenness and are forced to flee for their lives. Both subsist on bare rations of bread and water, initially. Both hide in a cave. Both have been immortalized in Jewish lore, their influence continuing long beyond their lifetimes. Eliyahu stood at the opening of his own cave in the Biblical narrative, providing an image which makes a remarkable reappearance in the Talmudic narrative. Both are censured by God for their attitudes, which may be described as an idealism which is unwilling to meet reality. Thus, the composition of R’ Shimon’s story is, in a sense, superimposed over the earlier, Biblical story of Elijah. The stories end differently, though, as R’ Shimon manages to reintegrate with reality, whereas Eliyahu moves on to a place where his idealism need not be marred by human frailty.

Elijah’s story itself includes some difficult points to understand. The sequence of events from when Elijah reaches the cave is puzzling: he complains to God, then witnesses several cataclysms in which God is not present, until finally hearing God in the ‘still, small voice’, whereupon he emerges to the ‘entrance of the cave’ and repeats his complaint verbatim, after which he is commanded to appoint his successor, his mission concluded. The repetition of the complaint forces us to ask what happened in between the two complaints.

It seems that there’s a dual critique of Eliyahu: the first relates to his teaching methodology, which can be described as ‘evangelical’. Eliyahu’s sound and light show of the previous chapter ends in failure. It provides a temporary inspiration, but only lasts as long as the feeling lasts. The word of God is not heard in the whirlwinds and the earthquakes, but in the consistent, quiet voice.

The second critique, rooted in the first, relates to Eliyahu’s attitude toward his contemporaries; he is unable, or unwilling to understand their culture. The prophet’s role is to castigate the people, yet remain part of them. Eliyahu, in his own words, sees himself as utterly alone. His inability to communicate with his generation in a sympathetic manner moved him to use teaching methods appropriate only for the most immature audience, unable to draw its own conclusions. It is against this attitude that God calls Eliyahu ‘out of the cave’, but Eliyahu remains mired in disenfranchisement and loneliness.

In the Biblical text, Eliyahu’s fate is to be taken to Heaven while yet alive. As noted when describing R’ Shimon’s position earlier, idealist positions are rarely appropriate for the reality of this world. Eliyahu’s stance is better suited for a different, more ideal world. Thus, the punishment fits the crime.

Jewish tradition, however, as well as the Biblical book of Malachi, give Eliyahu a different fate: he is to remain a harbinger of hope and redemption. He is to eat the words that he uttered at the door of his cave. Whereas he insisted that Israel had forsaken its covenant, he is traditionally present at circumcision ceremonies, where that selfsame covenant is ever renewed. Whereas he felt that there was no hope for Israel to change, he will announce the ultimate redemption, the Messianic era, confirming the ultimate perfectibility of this world.

In our narrative, he is placed once again at the ‘door of the cave’, and heralds change. The world that R’ Shimon fled from, dominated by Roman culture and, for him, inhospitable to Jewish life, is itself in flux and open to change. J. Rubenstein points out that this segment of the story, the arrival of Eliyahu, is the structural center of the composition, the focus of its chiastic structure. Thematically, this is the moment that R’ Shimon learn that he will have something to contribute after all.


Hillel, Shammai, and the Converts

I've posted part 2 of the well-known (relatively) stories of Hillel, Shammai, and the 3 potential gerim, and it can be found over at Maven Yavin.


The Conversion Experience

How should the term ger be translated?
Find out here.

Good Acting or Wishful Thinking? Why I can Fake Being Yeshivish

I’m not chareidi. I don’t pretend to be chareidi. Or yeshivish. However, whenever I’m with chareidi friends, relatives, or colleagues, unless it’s a setting which would really allow my ‘true colors’ to come through, I’ll inevitably leave the impression that I’m chareidi as well. I’ve often wondered about my ability to do this.

I used to think that it was because I’m a good actor (‘faker’), but that can’t be the whole story. Having gotten a pretty yeshivish education through middle school, somewhat yeshivish through high school, and then 9 years in yeshiva, YU, and kollel, grown up in a fairly chareidi neighborhood, and had family which runs the gamut of Orthodoxy, I got pretty comfortable with the language, idiom, and cliché, and share the same girsa de-yankusa as much of the chareidi community. Moreover, I’m in the Rabbinic profession, and have a shtella in a location that would scare many off (and not because of lack of options).

However, I was never really trying to hide anything. I don’t dress ‘in uniform’, right up to the knit yarmulke, and will often take controversial positions in these discussions (like: television isn’t so bad; the internet is a great tool; there are heterodox clergymen who are as ‘le-shem shamayim’ as you and I; etc.). I also don’t hide the fact that I learned in yeshivot that are anything but yeshivish.

So it dawned on me that there’s something else going on. Namely, that they see me, a meticulously observant, learned Jew, and this translates directly, automatically, into being chareidi. There’s no alternative. MO is a way-station on the way to being Chareidi (BTW- I think that many MO probably think the same of Conservative Judaism). Everything about me that diverges from the model chareidi Jew would somehow be explained away – I dress this way to gain rapport w/ the balabatim, value secular learning because it makes me sound more intelligent and therefore gives me more credibility when I talk about why they should be frum, etc. They want to see me as one of them much more than I care to been seen as one of them.

Just a few minutes ago, I got a telephone call from AJOP, asking questions about the last conference and recommendations about the upcoming one. They asked if there were any issue that I felt should be addressed. I thought that the entire scenario was simply bizarre. AJOP asking me what I thought should be on the agenda for this year’s convention.

I responded that they should address issues of Torah and Science, writ large, since many of the methods offered to those of us ‘in the field’ have been rendered treif. I’ll be sure to report if they address it, and if I attend the conference.


Yitzchak Avinu The First FFB

Yitzchak Avinu: The Fisrt FFB

I’ve been trying to post different things here and at Maven Yavin instead of cross-posting. Stuff that I think falls more in the category of ‘Torah’, especially if it’s better thought out, will probably be posted there.

The latest is an analysis of Yitzchak’s story in this week’s parsha, focusing on his experience as ‘the first FFB’.


More on the Bird Story

Well, it appears that the word is out about the MMY bird. Yesterday, I had a hard time finding the Ya Libnan story pasted into the post. Today, it's everywhere! Check out the jpost and ma'ariv stories, and other blogs which picked this up. And remember where it was posted first!

I also find it amusing that Jewish blogs and sites now account for the top 5 links to the Ya Libnan website (I'm #s 2 and 3 in 'importance') according to Technorati.

Here are some of the other sources:

I'd also love to hear more about this from our old friend tmeishar, who is spending the year at MMY.



"And the Dove Found No Rest..."

You can't make this stuff up.
The following article appeared in several Lebanese media outlets:

Kfar Tibnit, Lebanon - A courier pigeon with a love letter from a girl thanking her boyfriend for a "terrific night they spent together" has flown across the border from Israel, triggering bird flue scare throughout southern Lebanon.

postal carrier _pigeon 4.gifThe love letter which was from a girl thanking her boyfriend for a "terrific night they spent together" has flown across the border from Israel and landed on the roof of Ahmed Kamel Zaytoun in south Lebanon's Kfar Tibnit township on Friday. He found the letter concealed in an iron ring with figures identifying the trained carrier.

According to local media, the letter was written in English and Hebrew. The girl from Israel's upper Galilee panhandle speaks fondly of the night she spent with her lover, thanking him and asking him to acknowledge receiving her message to her e-mail address.

postal carrier _pigeon 3.gifShe also wrote in the message a postal address in the Kafar Qassem district in the Galilee, the Beirut daily newspaper As Safir reported. But the name of the lover and his address were not mentioned.

Scared that the pigeon may be carrying a bird flu virus, Zaytoun, who had no difficulty catching the love messenger, rushed it to the police station of Nabatiyeh town, which in turn rushed it to the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture laboratory in Al Fanar to determine whether it is clean or contaminated.

The Beirut ANB TV network, which aired a full coverage of the pigeon being seized and inserted in a big cage by Zaytoun, said the incident sent a bird flu scare sweeping across the region. The population is awaiting an assurance from the ministry of agriculture, ANB said.

Sources: Naharnet, ANB, Assafir, Ya Libnan

The real story? The following letter was sent by an administrator from the MMY (Michlelet Mevasseret Yerushalayim) seminary for post-high school English-speaking girls:

Last week MMY went on its annual Galil Tiyul. And as we always do, we went on Wednesday night to Mitzpe Hoshaya - to the "Kfar Kedem" site – and rode donkeys, made pita, had a bar b q and ate in a tent (all of course in ancient garb). The whole idea of this site is to recreate what Jewish life was like in the times of the Tanaim when Rav Yehuda Hanasi compiled the Mishna in Tzipori (the mountain across from Hoshaya).

This year, there was something new. As we were leaving, Menachem – the owner of the place, gets us together and says he wants to hear feedback from us the next morning about how we enjoyed our visit. But we shouldn't use modern technology to contact him, rather we should use a homing pigeon. And sure enough he hands us a bird in a box and says "tomorrow morning attach a note to the leg of the bird using this letterhead i am giving you, and send it back from Tzefat. It will take about 2 hours to return home and i will call you to tell you i got your note and then i will email you a copy so you know it is for real".

So sure enough we take the boxed bird with us to the hotel in tzefat, the girls care for it overnight, and we are ready to send it back the next morning. The girls called the bird " Uga" since it was in a box and it looked like a cake-box.

Thursday morning we drove a bit north of Tzefat and at 9:35am we had a whole ceremony to say farewell to our feathered friend. The note was attached and read something like "We love you Uga. Thank you for a wonderful evening. Rabbi Katz you are soo cool (ed. This was an inside joke from earlier that day) Esther Goldstein is our backup pitcher (ed. Also an inside mmy joke). We look forward to your email reply when you get this " It had BS"D on the top and the school email address.

Moshe Ben Baruch, our tour guide who knows everything, quoted the various pesukim in Tanach where the homing pigeon , the "Yona" is used as an allegory for Am Yisrael who knows ultimately how to come back to Eretz yisrael (for example – see the haftara for Parshat Ki Tavo). And after a quick chorus of the song "Uf Gozal" we sent Uga on his way.

But he did not return home. We called and called but the answer was "he didn't come back yet". The girls were very bothered and kept bugging me to call more. But he just wasn't going to come back and at some point we gave up hope and assumed that he was dead.

But then we got the newspaper this morning! Maariv dedicated most of its back page to a story it picked up from the…. Lebanese Press! (and I just heard a rumor that it was on CNN TV in the usa !) The article is long and in Hebrew (I am trying to get a digital copy to send you) but basically the bird landed on the roof of Achmed Kamal Zeitun in the town of "Kfar Tavnit" in Lebanon. They assumed that the message was from an Israeli arab girl from the town of "Kefar Kassam" (notice it looks like kfar kedem) and was being sent to her boyfriend in Lebanon to "thank him for a wonderful evening". But others claimed it was a coded message and thus the bird is being checked at the Lebanese secret service and the agriculture ministry. Everyone was stumped as to why anyone would use a pigeon in today's modern world – especially considering that the message asked for a reply via email!! And of course it was written in English, and had BS"D on the top. Israeli "experts" were stumped because "everyone knows women don't use pigeons". (I am not embellishing!) . And also "it cant be that the bird just got lost. These birds don't make mistakes". Experts were also stumped as they were not aware that letterhead is used for messages on birds.

I contacted both Maariv and CNN is getting a bcc of this email. The Maariv writer wrote a follow up piece with the full story about our American Seminary with pictures of us sending off the bird. We hope it gets published! And if CNN would like to follow this up – I will be in the United States as of Sunday!!!!

As always, the truth is far, far stranger than fiction.

Give Turkey to God, for he is Good

First of all, I've got another new post on Maven Yavin here. It's on the relationship between contemporary Conservative Judaism and is 'Positive-Historical' roots.

Now, to inyana de-yoma. I always thought, with a chuckle, that turkey on Thanksgiving was very appropriate, since the Hebrew word for turkey (tarnegol hodu, or just hodu) also means "Give thanks" or "Give praise".

However, a student of mine recently pointed out that they are pronounced differently. "Give Thanks" is milra - the emphasis on the last syllable, thus hoDOO. The bird is mil'eil, thus HOdu.

Of course, neither is the same as the word from the end of Psalm 148, which is hoD'OH (I spell it that was so Simpson's fans wont forget how to pronounce it), menaing "His Majesty"

Thus "HoDOO HoD'OH al ha-HOdu" means "Give thanks to His Majesty for the turkey!"


NYT article on Orthodoxy and Internet

November 23, 2005
Maintaining Connections, but Keeping the Web at Bay
His blogger pen name is Shtreimel, the Yiddish word for the round fur hat that a Hasidic man wears on Sabbath.
He styles himself a heretic, a Brooklyn Hasid with beard and earlocks who does not believe in God, sneaks away to snack on Yom Kippur and sometimes grabs a hamburger that isn't kosher at McDonald's. On three blogs that he has kept - changing them like safe houses out of fear of exposure - he has confided his spiritual misgivings and mused about hypocrisies he sees among Hasidim, like a willingness to beat up adherents of a rival sect.
Within his community, he scrupulously keeps up appearances because, he said, if he were ever identified as an iconoclastic blogger he would be ostracized and might lose his wife and children.
"People can get connected to each other, and once ideas that are not implanted by the establishment spread, they can explode," said Shtreimel of the Internet, speaking at a Starbuck's on the condition that he and his sect not be named.
Although he and other cyberspace renegades make up a sliver of the ultra-Orthodox world, leaders of insular Orthodox communities are coming to regard the Internet - a gateway to louche American culture and the voices of doubters - as treacherous, even subversive, and are grappling with how far to go in outlawing its use.
Just before Rosh Hashanah, the Orthodox schools and institutions of Lakewood, N.J., a community of 6,500 families in Ocean County, issued a proclamation forbidding children and high school students from using Internet-linked computers.
"Many children (and adults) have fallen prey to the immoral lures that are present on the Internet, and their lives have been destroyed," the seven-page proclamation began.
It barred even adults from going online at home except for the needs of a livelihood - and then only with rabbinical authorization.
Other faiths have also grappled with the Internet, though outright bans are rare. In 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a "user beware" policy that warned parents to exercise some common-sense precautions like filters to ward off pornography.
More liberal Orthodox believers see the Internet as "an unbelievable tool" that must be used with sensible precautions, said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the Center for the Jewish Future, a division of Yeshiva University.
"Judaism does not believe in a Robinson Crusoe type of lifestyle," he said. "Our responsibility as Jews is to bring light into a larger society, and you don't do that by retreating."
For many zealously Orthodox Jews, the Internet is fraught with paradox. In some ways, it has proved a godsend. Knowledge of the Talmud is spread on dafyomi.org. The site onlysimachas.com is a bullhorn for gossip about marriages and births. At aish.com, a round-the-clock view of the Western Wall in Jerusalem is offered.
One Hasidic sect, the Lubavitch, aggressively uses the Internet to disperse its messianic message on sites such as Chabad.org .
"The rebbe taught that everything in this world is created for a divine purpose," said Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a spokesman for the Lubavitch, referring to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the grand rabbi who died in 1994. "The medium itself is neutral. How we use it makes all the difference."
In the heavily Hasidic Borough Park section of Brooklyn, Touro College operates an institution called Machon L'Parnassah - or preparation for a livelihood - which instructs young men and women to use Internet-linked computers for such careers as medical billing. Issac Herskowitz, chief academic computing officer, took pains to note that computer labs are always supervised to avoid private surfing.
So many haredim depend on the Internet for their livelihoods that the irony was not lost on them that the Lakewood ban displayed a keen sophistication about the Web.
Hella Winston, author of "Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels" (Beacon Press, 2005), said Hasidim have had to confront the fact that the Internet has sparked Craigslist advertisements for liaisons between "frum," or observant, married people and has made available explorations of maverick philosophers.
And Shtreimel is not alone in posting his doubts in a public forum (conartistic.blogspot.com is his latest address).
Hasidim and other haredim have never been Luddites opposed to technology. But in building what they call a fence to safeguard Torah observance, they discourage enrollment in college, and social contacts between men and women. Some yeshivas will expel a child if they learn the family has a television.
"If television wasn't banned, we wouldn't have kids studying and learning Torah 16 to 18 hours a day," said Rabbi Shalom Storch, principal of Yeshiva Nesivos Ohr, a day school in Lakewood.
In Lakewood, the rabbis were spurred not by worries about dissension but by the dangers of the Internet for young people. They were troubled by online chats they heard about, like one between an 8-year-old yeshiva student on Long Island and a predatory adult.
Shtreimel said that he first dipped into the Internet out of curiosity and soon was confiding his religious skepticism in e-mail messages. Now he gets about 300 readers a day on his blog and savors writing for the same reasons other writers do.
"When I get a comment from a person and he says he likes what I wrote, that's good," he said.


The ADDeRashbam

There's a Rashbam on the Akeida that's doubly contrarian: it's contrary to what everyone else says about the Akeida - in a very fundamental way - and it speaks about contrarianism. I just posted about it over here, at Maven Yavin.

It's nice to know that there were contrarian Rishonim; makes me feel like part of a tradition of contrarianism (if that's not an oxymoron).


Current Reading List

some of you have asked for an updated reading/learning list. Here goes:

Ke-afapei Shachar by Haim Sabato
Tormented Master by Arthur Green
(still reading) Apologia Pro Vita Sua - John Henry Newman
The Hedgehog and the Fox - Isaiah Berlin
The Social Construction of Reality - Peter Berger
Seinfeld and Philosophy (trash) - William Irwin

Gemara Eruvin (i'm giving a Daf Yomi shiur)
Gemara Ta'anit
Sefer Yirmiyahu
Pirke Avot
Shulchan Arukh Hilchot Bishul
And the coolest thing on the list: Sefer Motza'ei Mayim by R' Chaim Hirschenson. Thanks to a reccomendation by Menachem.

Maven Yavin: The utility of heresy

Mississippi Fred discusses R' Nathan Lopez-Cardozo's lecture in which he suggests that heretics perform a valuable service for the community. I remember once suggesting that good 'ol Mis-nagid is a 'Holy Heretic'. I posted about this topic a while ago, in a post called 'Holy Heresy' and another, which was a reading of a famous Gemara in Menachot, which talks about the paradox of those who would move our religious consciousness forward.


Matza Min Es Mino

Note: The post title is a double entendre.

After the last post on Ibn Ezra, I was thinking of changing this blog's name to 'Hamaskil Yidom'. Well, I didn't, but I did join Lamed, S, and Krum in 'Maven Yavin'.

With our combined readerships and intellects, perhaps we can make some REAL money with GoogleAds.


Who Wrote the Bible (according to Ibn Ezra)?

Who Wrote the Bible (according to Ibn Ezra)?

     Ibn Ezra famously makes a very cryptic statement in his commentary to Bereishis 12:6:
     “and the Canaanites were then in the land” – it makes sense that Canaan [the man – AR] took the land from another. And if that’s not the case, then there’s a secret here, and one who is enlightened will remain silent.

     The standard interpretation of this passage is that Ibn Ezra believes that these three words, “Ve-hacna’ani az ba-aretz” were a later addition to the Biblical text. This interpretation, obviously flies in the face of the Rambam’s principles of faith which denies any non-Mosaic authorship and is the standard Orthodox belief.

     In the Chareidi world, this interpretation of Ibn Ezra is rejected outright; I once heard the following argument against this interpretation from R’ Yehuda Copperman, one of the most well-known and well-respected master teachers of Parshanut Ha-Torah in the world, author of the annotations to the Meshech Chochmah, and founder of the Michlalah College for Women in Jerusalem (I’ve paraphrased the arguments, but believe that I understood his intent correctly):
  • Ramban, in his introduction to his commentrary to the Torah states that he has “open repuke but hidden love” for Ibn Ezra. Ramban doesn’t take issue with this comment of Ibn Ezra [though he gives an alternative explanation – AR], which implies that he didn’t think this comment of Ibn Ezra was problematic, or else he wouldn’t have ‘hidden love’ for Ibn Ezra.

  • The originator of the ‘heretical’ interpretation of Ibn Ezra was Baruch Spinoza [The philosopher, not the blog commenter – AR].

  • When there’s a machlokes between Ramban and Spinoza about what Ibn Ezra meant, we go with Ramban.

The argument fails in two ways. I will grant that when there’s a machloket between Ramban and Spinoza, that we follow Ramban (WADR to Alan Brill). I will, however, take issue with his other two premises:
  • Ramban’s ‘hidden love’ for Ibn Ezra doesn’t preclude the possibility that Ibn Ezra believed that certain verses were of non-Mosaic origin. Perhaps Ramban didn’t think that this belief warranted hatred, either because it wasn’t heresy or wasn’t terribly problematic. Perhaps he was unaware of the true meaning of that comment. Perhaps he thought that Ibn Ezra mentions it but doesn’t believe it himself, and was going good by remaining cryptic about it. Regardless, it’s certainly by no means a logical conclusion that since Ramban speaks of a ‘hidden love’ for Ibn Ezra in his Intro, and that Ibn Ezra makes a cryptic and potentially problematic statement in Chapter 12 of Bereishis, that the true meaning of the passage must be in line with Ramban or Rambam’s view of biblical authorship.

  • This interpretation did not originate with Spinoza. Spinoza popularized it, by seeing Ibn Ezra as an antecedent to his own views that the Torah was of human origin. However, this interpretation of Ibn Ezra can actually be found in the 13th century supercommentary of Ibn Ezra composed by R’ Yosef Tuv Elem (Bonfils). His comments are so unequivocal, and so jarring, that it’s worth citing the whole thing.

R’ Yosef Tuv Elem on Ibn Ezra to Bereishit 12:6:
     “If that’s not the case there’s a secret, and one who is enlightened will remain silent”. The explanation: If the word ‘az’ [of Ve-hacana’ani az ba’aretz] is not coming to acknowledge that it was then that the Canaanites took it from others, then its explanation is difficult and obscure and ought to be suppressed, and he hinted at his ‘secret’ at the beginning of the book of Devarim (1:2). Its explanation relates to the problem with using the word ‘az’ – ‘then’ in this context, which implies that at the time of the writing they were no longer there, whereas Moshe wrote the Torah and in his lifetime the land was in possession of the Canaanites! It doesn’t make sense that Moshe would use the word ‘az’ because logic dictates that it was written at a time that the Canaanites were no longer in the land, and we know that they were not removed from the land until Yehoshua’s conquest after Moshe’s death![i.e., the use of the term ‘az’, if from Moshe, is anachronistic – AR].
     Therefore, it appears that Moshe did not write this word, rather, Joshua or another prophet wrote it; we find similarly in the Book of Mishlei (25:1) which states “These, too, are parables of Shlomo which the men of Chizkiya King of Judah transcribed”. If Shlomo authored the book, why would it mention Chizkiya, who was born many generations later? Rather, they had an oral tradition back to Shlomo which they wrote and considered it as though is was written by Shlomo himself. So, too, here, Israel had a tradition that the Canaanites were in the land during the days of Avraham, and one of the prophets wrote it in here, and since we must believe in the words of the tradition and the words of the prophets, what do I care if it was written by Moshe or another prophet since all of their words are true and prophetic.
     One can ask, doesn’t the Torah write of itself “Do not add to it” (Devarim 13:1)? The answer is that which R’ Abraham (Ibn Ezra) himself wrote in his commentary to Va-etchanan (Devarim 5:5) that the words are like bodies and their meanings like souls; therefore, there are many sections of the Torah which are repeated two or three times, where each adds something that the others don’t, yet are not considered ‘additions’ to the Torah. Furthermore, in his first comment in Lech-Lecha (Bereishis 12:4) he states that ‘do not add to it’ was only said with regard to the commandments, meaning, that when the Torah warned us not to add, it only warned not to add to the number of mitzvoth or to their fundamentals, but not about adding words. Thus, if a prophet added a word or words to explain something about which he had a tradition, this is not considered an ‘addition’.
     A proof to this can be adduced from the story of the elders who translated the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy, as I mentioned in Parshat Noach, who made 13 emendations, as is written in Mas. Sofrim (1:9) and BT Megillah (9a). And should you suggest that they merely replaced words but didn’t add any, the response is that the in fact replaced words with phrases, like “he drove them upon a donkey” (Shemot 4:20) with “…upon a person carrier” of “and the hare” (Devarim 14:7 – and yes, it’s definitely a hare! – AR) which they translated as “the short-legged”. And if you suggest that they only did that out of fear from the king, who authorized them to change, add, and subtract because of a king’s threat? And if the king would have learned our writing and seen that they emended, this would have been a public desecration of god’s name, about which our Rabbis ob”m said that in such a situation one should die and not transgress by desecrating God’s name (BT Sanhedrin 84a). And since they were unconcerned with all of this, it becomes clear that they had the power to add words in order to clarify, and so certainly (orig. – Kal Va-chomer) that a prophet had the power to add a word to the words of a [fellow – AR] prophet to explain his words, and especially since it’s not a matter of commandments, rather the narration of past events, it therefore wouldn’t be considered an ‘addition’.
     And if you ask, behold, our Rabbis ob”m state in Sanhedrin, Chapter ‘Chelek’ (99a) that even if one says that the entire Torah with the exception of a single verse that God did not say, regarding him Scripture says “he has despised the word of God” (Bamidbar 15:31), one can respond that this pertains to the commandments, as we have stated, and not about the narratives. And I need not elaborate since R’ Yehuda and R’ Nechemiah expounded in Makkot, Chapter ‘Elu Hein Ha-Golin’ (11a) [the following verse – AR]: “And Yehoshua wrote these words into the book of the Torah of God” – and one of them says that it refers to the “eight” verses in the Torah [i.e., the final verses – AR], and one says it refers to the segment about the cities of refuge, and there you have it explicitly. And that which it states in Chapter ‘Ha-Kometz Rabbah’ (BT Menachot 30a) requires further study.
     This secret ought not be made known to people [i.e., non-bloggers – AR] so that they don’t disparage the Torah, because one who is unenlightened cannot distinguish between verses in which commandments are written and verses in which events are recounted, and also because of nations [i.e., Muslims – AR] who tell us that our Torah was true but we substituted and changed it. Therefore, he {Ibn Ezra – AR] writes that ‘the enlightened shall remain silent’, because the enlightened know that this will not cause damage. Only the fools will find fault with it.


Two questions on the Documentray Hypothesis from the Parsha

1) The 2 verses that describes Noah’s ‘olah’ use terminology of Sefer Yayikra. The term ‘rayach nichoach’ especially. It’s also a very abrupt shift – Elokim to Havaya for the Korban (korbanot always have shem havaya) and immediately beck to Elokim. Korban terminology, in the DH, is much later, from the P source, whereas the flood story is a classic ‘J/E’ couplet. These 2 verses are a problem for the DH.

2) When God re-establishes His covenant w/ Noah, the Torah exclusively uses the name Elokim. DH scholars see the 2 accounts of covenants w/ Abraham from next week’s parsha as being a J/E couplet; the brit bein habetarim being an E source, and Brit Milah from a J source. However, the Brit Milah episode is much more closely linked, textually and thematically, to the covenant established w/ Noah, which ostensibly is from a different source.

Considering that the flood narrative is ostensibly the neatest couplet in the entire Torah, the fact that the DH runs into problems even here can give a decent impression of the difficulties w/ the theory in general.


Happy or Pathetic?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. Partly because I’ve been insanely busy. And partly for another reason that’s been bugging me.

Living with ADD presents many challenges and opportunities. It means finding the best way to live and work and relate to those around you. Part of what makes it work is finding the right combination of pharmaceuticals, exercise, diet, etc.

About a month ago, I went back to a drug which I hadn’t used for a while called Zoloft, an antidepressant. For me, Adderall had the effect of helping me to focus, which meant that I could stay on tasks and control where I place my attention without overfocusing. It also had the effect that I became somewhat brooding and overly pensive. The Zoloft, which I take in a small dose, basically is a set of rose-colored glasses. Especially my interactions with others, a very crucial component of my job, improve because of this. It’s for that reason that I stay with it, even though I personally don’t mind being a bit too serious or grumpy sometimes.

I think that contributes to the fact that I don’t feel as agitated about issues, bothered by questions, etc. I don’t feel the same pressure to record my thoughts, and creative thinking itself is less a part of my life. It comes and goes.

On one hand, I really miss that part of myself. On the other hand, I’m on Zoloft, so even though I miss myself, it’s no big deal, ‘cuz the chemicals keep me happy, and because my professional life has improved. Everyone seems to like me better this way, except me. I think I sold out, but don’t feel bad about it (probably because of the drugs).

Part of me think that I’m like the guy from ‘A Beautiful Mind’; part of me says ‘get over yourself’.

I’m going to try to start blogging again. Steg – I still have your meme-request to contend with (though it’s SO 5 minutes ago), and I’ve finally finished the RSB”Y exposition but haven’t yet written it down in any kind of coherent form.

For the record, it’s not that I have no free time, it’s just that it hasn’t gone to blogging or reading, rather, to computer games and sports.

If my brain wasn’t taking a dopamine bath, I’d probably feel pretty pathetic.


Peter Berger's 'Heretical Imperative'

OK, I’ve finished Peter Berger’s Heretical Imperative, and though he makes some great points, it was generally unsatisfying. Probably because he reduces ‘religion’ to ‘belief’ and sees conflicting or untenable beliefs as the crux of modern religious ‘heresy’. This shouldn’t be too shocking from a person writing out of a Protestant milieu, but it’s a bit of a disappointment nonetheless.
     I was also disappointed in his description of the three ways for modern religion to engage modernity – what he calls the deductive, reductive, and inductive approaches. Respectively, and in a nutshell, the possibilities are reaffirming authority of tradition in defiance of challenges to it, secularizing tradition, and retrieving the experienced embodied in the tradition. I think there’s a fourth and even a fifth approach, and that there are crucial divisions within the approaches he outlines.
     He looks to 20th Century Protestantism as the original religious confrontation with modernity. He missed out on some great 19th century religious thinkers and responders to modernity, both Jewish and Catholic.
     Finally, I was kind of disturbed by his likening of the Protestant faith to the ‘Suffering Servant’ of Isaiah 53 for its willingness to be the first to confront religious dilemmas. Speaking as a Jew, I find it insulting that he suggests that the Protestants who were sitting in their seminaries in Germany working out responses to modern religious crises while Jews were being slaughtered by the millions are somehow ‘Suffering Servants’. Those poor theologians.
     In any event, any ‘overview’ book will be oversimplified, and he certainly provides some context for evaluating modern religious thought. For example, in his chapter on the deductive possibility, he describes the religious attitude of Karl Barth at length. I had never been exposed to Barth, so I couldn’t have known the degree to which R’ Y. B. Soloveitchik employs Barth’s religious categories.
     There are a number of great observations and ideas that Berger suggests, and some great one-liners, too. Here goes:
  • On his venture from sociology to theology (xiii): What the “professional theologians” have done of late is not so inspiring that we unaccredited types must feel constrained to stand watching in awed silence.

  • On man’s ability to transcend his situation(8): There are a thousand dull conformists for every Socrates…Of course modern man tends to think of himself and of his thoughts as the climax of evolution to date. In this he is no different from just about any preceding variety of the species.

  • Plurality of alternatives is the core of the modern experience. If there are no option, then what is can be interpreted as what must be; in the modern condition, there’s less and less of what must be. Fate becomes choice. Destiny becomes decision.

  • Religion begins as religious experience, which is not equally distributed. Therefore, the experience must become embodied by traditions, and by doing so brings the experience which braches ordinary life into ordinary life, which tends to distort. His predicament is that of the poet amongst bureaucrats.

  • A fundamental distinction must be made between religious experience itself, and later reflection upon and attempts to understand that religious experience.

  • On the danger of overcontextualizing and psychologizing religious experience (p.123): The final point is not that Marco Polo was an Italian – and, who knows, an Italian with all sorts of class resentments and with an unresolved Oedipus complex – but that he visited China.

Ultra Orthodox vs. Ultra Sound

After reading this article, I was reminded of a conversation that I had with a fairly well known and respected poseik, originally American, now in Jerusalem. He is of the opinion that it is forbidden for women to undergo ultrasounds while they are pregnant. His rationale is based on anecdotal evidence of stress caused by misdiagnosis, and some examples of cases where misdiagnosis resulted in unnecessary operations, from which the infant died. He felt that the potential costs far outweighed the potential benefits that may result from such a procedure.

Mind you, I am far from neutral on this issue. My oldest child was born with a very serious condition that was diagnosed in utero, and which allowed us to make all of the necessary preparations for the birth, which included prearranging a specific time for a Caesarean delivery so there would be no surprises, researching the condition, finding the right doctors, etc. Not knowing about it beforehand would have meant that my child wouldn’t have made it; babies with this condition didn’t make it until very recently, like the last 30 years or so. I was basically confronting this poseik with the fact that, according to him, my child should have died, and he did not deny that point.

Of course, he and I are both marshalling anecdotal evidence; it just so happens that my anecdote is sleeping peacefully in the room next door, so it hits a bit closer to home. Nevertheless, I think that his entire analysis is junk, and here’s why:

  1. Ultrasound technology, genetic testing (amniocentesis), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are all constantly improving, medicine learns from its mistakes, and the threat of lawsuits, at least in the U.S. is a strong deterrent against cavalier diagnoses.

  2. There are techies, and there are pros. There are second opinions. There is common sense. From my (now extensive) experience with the medical establishment, I know the value of doing the research and asking good questions. Whenever we learned about something new, we researched it on the web, and came back armed with all kinds of questions and ideas.

[Side story on this point: once, my oldest had a pneumonia – related to the birth condition – and wound up in the PICU. After the condition stabilized, my oldest’s lips were bluish. I asked the doctor about it, and he responded “Oh, that’s labial cyanosis”. I responded, “Labial cyanosis is Latin for ‘blue lips’; calling it a funny name isn’t going to satisfy me; what is going on?”. His next response was much more substantive and detailed. I’m glad I asked]

  1. Did I mention the common sense thing? Whatever. I can’t emphasize it enough.

I don’t know the people who were victims of ultrasonic misdiagnosis; whomever they are, my heart truly goes out to them. But it’s essential to realize that they were not the victims of technology, rather, the victims of human error and human failure. If anything, it’s reason to turn the brain back on and try to make things more foolproof (though the quality of fools seems to be improving as well), minimize the potential for human error, and for God’s sake (really!) corroborate the initial findings with some other evidence!

Needless to say, that particular poseik didn’t get any more queries from me.
I would also add that his position doesn’t reflect the mainstream halakhic position, haredi or otherwise.


Lying in the Liturgy

There are parts of davenning which are simply untrue; maybe they once were, but they are no longer. Maybe they are rue for others, but they aren't for me.

Sometimes we can relate to them as prayers - not something we are, but something we aspire to be. But sometimes that simply doesn't work, either.

3 examples:
1) In tachanun, Nusach Adshkenaz says, from Tehillim, "With my tears I will soak my bed". I don't cry over my sins, and it seems ludicrous to beg forgiveness for those sins based on my
crying over them.
2) On Tisha B'av, we say a version of Nacheim which describes Jerusalem as being 'desolate from lack of inhabitants'. That's not Jerusalem's problem anymore. Most of the lament is relevant, but that part isn't.
3) At the end of bentching we say 'I was young, and I aged, and I never saw a righteous man abandoned or his children begging for food'. What if I have seen an abandoned tzaddik, or his children going hungry? Doesn't it happen?

So what's the conclusion? Skip? Change? Ignore?
As usual, the best solution seems to be the most common one - simply daven without kavvanah.

Leave it to the Jewish people, eh? Heirs of the prophets!


Monkey Suits

Yesterday’s Daf noted the curious fact that in Babylonia, the Rabbis were ‘metzuyanim’ – distinguished, i.e., by their clothing. There are two reasons given for this fact: one by R’ Assi, which is apparently rejected in favor of R’ Yochanan’s opinion.

R’ Assi believes that it’s because Babylonian Rabbis aren’t b’nei Torah. Thus, they must distinguish themselves by their clothing to compensate for their lack of other distinctions.

R’ Yochanan corrects him, stating that Babylonian Rabbis are no less distinguished, but since they are not in their ‘place’, they cannot rely on reputation alone to exhibit their distinction, thus they must dress in a distinguished manner.

Since I perceive myself as a ‘Eretz Yisrael’ style – Rabbi in ‘Babylonia’, this Gemara really resonated. I long to be where there’s no need for a rabbi to be self-conscious about his appearance, or to distinguish himself by anything but knowledge and understanding of Torah.

For what it’s worth, though I can think of all kinds of people to whom R’ Assi’s judgment applies, it may simply be a side-effect of the phenomenon that R’ Yochanan points out; there may indeed be distinguished Rabbis in Babylonia, but their distinction would remain unrecognized if they didn’t mark their distinction with their clothing.


Morality and Polygamy

Hirhurim has a post wich debates certain aspects of polygamy, and discusses whether we hold like the Taz, who suggests that if the Torah permits something explicitly, we have no right to forbid it.

I posted a while back on this issue, and thought that I demonstrated pretty conclusively that the Torah is anti-polygamy, and suggested reasons why it was permitted then.

What would the Taz say about someone who took an Eishes Yefas To'ar? What would we say to an Israeli soldier in a defensive war who committed rape and then took her home with him?


My Zaydie, the Swiss-Army Jew

My grandfather was a Rabbi, but of a different mold. He’s more of what I call a ‘Swiss-Army Jew’, or a ‘Utility Jew’, or a ‘One-Band Jewish Band’, or a ‘Jew-of-all-Trades’. He was a shochet, a mohel (though I hope he never got the two confused), a chazzan, a ba’al korei, a shammas, and a gabbai. I don’t know if there was any system or ideology or method to his Yiddishkeit, and I don’t think he had any formal schooling in anything, but had this incredible, visceral Jewish ‘gut’, a strong vindictive streak, and a fantastic Jewish sense of humor (which could be terribly bitter and biting) that served as the vehicle to teach some very valuable lessons. His entire context was Jewish, and he succeeded in translating it, and appreciation and love for it, in some way, to those around him. Had he wound up in Brooklyn like his contemporaries, I doubt his contribution would have compared to what he accomplished ‘out-of-town’.

He decided to open a shul in America. He went out to the suburbs, found a Jewish neighborhood with no shuls, and opened his ‘shtiebl’ which was also his home. I still remember his old balabatim with their taleisim like scarves jingling the change in their pockets on Shabbos morning.

At the same time, he was a closed book. I never had much of a relationship with him. I remember that he once showed me a Satmar responsum on yarmulke size to show me that the small ‘sroogie’ that I was wearing was inadequate. Of course, he didn’t show me the first siman in Igros Moshe, Orach Chaim, which the Satmar teshuvah was ridiculing, which takes a completely different view of the ‘shiur’ of a yarmulke. He was generally hard of hearing, and often chose to be even more so. In general, our conversations went like this:

Me: Hi, Zaydie, how are you?
Zaydie: Four O’clock.

His own father died in the Spanish Influenza epidemic that decimated Europe in the late 1910s, when Zaydie was 7 years old and the oldest of 4 with one on the way. He never knew a normal family situation, never learned to show affection, and then emigrated with a young family to a different continent, language, and culture. These barriers were too much to overcome, especially since in my youth and teenage years I was too immature or too ‘cool’ to appreciate him. He passed away during my first year in Yeshiva after high-school.

There’s one story that happened with me which, for me, characterizes much of who he was and what his attitudes were. When I was in 3rd Grade, my father went away on a business trip (yes, the Rabbinate sometimes skips generations, sorta) and instructed me to call Zaydie every night to review the psukim that I had learned in Chumash that day. My class was learning the Parsha of Miketz, specifically 42:21, where Joseph’s brothers confront their own guilt for not having listened to Joseph ‘be-hitchanenno eileinu’. When reviewing w/ Zaydie, I translated this latter phrase as ‘when he found favor with us’. Zaydie corrected me, stating that it means ‘when he begged use’. I suggested that the root is from the word ‘cheyn’. He insisted that it was similar to ‘tachanun’, a concept that I wasn’t yet familiar with.

When my father returned home, he asked for a report on my Chumash-reading skills (and you still wonder how I became a Rabbi?). Zaydie informed him that I ‘don’t know teitch (translation)’. My father informed him that if that’s how I translated it, then that’s how I learned it.

That Shabbos morning, Zaydie (who had retired and moved, and attended a different shul) saw my Rebbi at Shacharis. He approached him after davvening and said, ‘You’re my grandson’s Rebbi?’. After an affirmative answer, Zaydie went to the bookcase, took out a Chumash, opened it to the verses that we had studied a few days earlier, and said to my Rebbi, “Sit down.” He pointed to the passuk and commanded, “Read”. I can just picture the scene - Zaydie simply overpowering this poor Rebbi (who undoubtedly deserved it) by sheer force of personality, in a way that no act of physical violence could.

Sure enough, my Rebbi mistranslated the psukim as I had. After correcting the Rebbi, Zaydie suggested that since the expertise in matters Jewish required from him constituted the ability to read and translate perhaps a half-dozen parshiyos and one Mesechta of Mishnayos, he really ought to make sure that he knows it.

Zaydie didn’t make us laugh (we didn’t get his jokes).
He didn’t make us sing (certainly not after the hearing started to go; he was utterly tone-deaf). He did make a Seder on Pesach night, though, but it was unspectacular.
I can’t really say that I loved him. I barely knew him.

But man did he leave an impression.


An Ashkenazi Ambiguity

Thrice daily, in Alyenu, those of us who speak with the Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew say, ‘le-sakein olam be-malchus Shakai’.

[what follows is a cute ‘Chassidishe’-style vort, which is clearly wrong as a plausible explanation of the text, but nonetheless expresses some truth]

This vocalization can be understood in 2 ways, depending on the two ways to spell ‘le-sakein’ Hebrew. It can mean either

to repair the world into the Kingdom of the Lord

to endanger the world with the Kingdom of the Lord

Motivation to establish God’s dominion on Earth is quite the double-edged sword…