Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Collective Bargaining Agreements

I’m not an economist or a labor lawyer, but there are certain features of any labor dispute which seem obvious. There are always three parties involved: ownership, labor, and the consumer. The consumer is the engine that drives the whole thing. When two people own a goose that lays golden eggs, they might bicker over the details and responsibilities of ownership, but ultimately they understand that what’s at stake is more than just schnitzel. They know that keeping it together is ultimately beneficial and necessary for both parties.

The immediate cause for thinking about this is the expiration of the NFL’s CBA. Football is such a cash-cow that it’s simply impossible that there won’t be some kind of agreement reached between ownership and the players. In order to bring the product to the consumer, i.e., the fans, there must be a CBA. Ownership has everything, but can’t play the game. The players can play, but don’t have the resources to bring the game to the world. The needs of the fan dictate that the owners and players must figure out a way to get along, and re-enter into a contract with each other.

OK, but that’s football, right? Wrong.

17 You have agreed this day that the LORD is to be your God, and that you will walk in His ways, and keep His statutes, and His commandments, and His ordinances, and listen to His voice. 18 And the LORD has agreed this day that you are to be His treasure, as He hath promised thee, and to keep all His commandments; 19 and to raise you above all nations that He has made, to be a praise, a name, and a model of glory, and that you will be a holy people unto the LORD your God, as He has spoken. {P}
-Devarim 26: 17-19

The above passage is but one which discusses the nature of the covenant between God and Israel. It’s a bilateral covenant, wherein each side agrees to certain responsibilities. Using the sports analogy, God is Ownership, Israel is the players, and the rest of the world is the fan, the consumer. For better or worse, through thick and thin, God and Israel are ‘stuck’ with each other.

Essentially, Moshe was the first to point this out, in this week’s parsha, when he argues that once God has selected Israel, to destroy them would undermine the very message that He’s trying to broadcast to the world. The basis of this covenant, invoked by Moshe in our Parsha, is the ‘thirteenfold covenant’ which both names God’s attributes and describes for us how we can become ‘Godlike’, how we can ‘walk in his ways’. It also ‘forces’ both both parties involved, God and Israel, to renew the ‘contract’ every year (specifically every Rosh Hashana), where we agree to wipe the slate clean and give it another chance, basically because neither party has a choice in the matter.

There’s also the idea of a ‘Players’ Union’ which is so important. Individually, each player is expendable. Collectively, their bargaining power becomes formidable. Similarly, the bargaining power that each member of Israel has is pretty weak. Any one of us is ultimately expendable. It’s only through ‘collective bargaining’ and ‘unionization’ that we can ‘force’ God back to the table with us.

Haloscan comments

Derech HaLimmud and Theology

Krum as a bagel
What is the relationship between one's derech halimmud and theology?

I use the "yeshivish" term "derech halimmud" intentionally to refer exclusively to different traditional styles of learning. I exclude the academic study of Talmud, as such an approach, which takes into account the historical contingencies involved it the developments of Talmud, certainly reflects a non-traditional outlook towards torah she'll baal peh.

For example, it is fashionable to portray R' Chaim Soloveitchik's development of the "Brisker" method of Talmud study as reflecting some deeper innovative spirit that animated his broader religious thought as well. In fact, some of his contemporaries villified him for this. The Ridbaz is quoted as saying:
"One rabbi invented the study of chemistry ... and this has been very, very bad for us, for it has introduced a foreign spirit from the outside into the oral tradition, which has been handed down to us from our teacher Moses from the mouth of God."

And indeed, his grandson, RYBS, sought to portray R' Chaim as an exmplar of the "Halachik Man," and built a broad theological idea around this idealized personality.

However, this is most likely incorrect as a historical matter. R' Aharon Lichtenstein notes:
[S]ome may be sorely tempted to relate the conceptual approach to a specific theological infrastructure. I am certain that Reb Hayyim would have resisted the suggestion vigorously; and I, for one would take him at his word. I do not believe that his basic assumptions in the area of emunot ve-de'ot, or the quality of spirituality that characterized him, were much different from the tradition in which he was reared, or that any presumed differences significantly affected his innovation.
This is borne out by the "Israeli" branch of the Brisk dynasty, which is religislously conservative to an extreme.

Which is fine. At least this approach fosters critical thinking and intellectual curiosity in one area -- limmud torah.

Contrast this with the derech halimmud advocated by R' Shach (Hattip: S.):
Maran's [note: Maran=R' Shach] grandson, HaRav Ben Zion Bergman shlita, related that in his early years he used to study with Maran every day when he returned from yeshiva for the afternoon break. When he reached shiur alef in yeshiva gedola, they studied the chapter, Naarah Hameorasah, and dwelled at length upon the innovations on it.

Maran asked him, "What did they say about the words of the Ran concerning `Nisroknah?" R' Ben Zion expounded on all the commentaries he had heard on the subject.

Rabbenu listened, and then said, "All that you need to know from what you just said is that the Ran says thus and the Rashba challenges it and replies as he does. The reply is not quite satisfactory, however, and can be reconciled in this manner. But more than that, you need not know at all!"
"More than that, you need not know at all"? What about plumming deeper into the sugya? What about trying to understand the conceptual basis of the machlokes between these rishonim?

R' Shach's conservatism in derech halimmud is even more starkly indicated in the following excerpt which seems to equate deviations from R' Shach's approach with a fundamental flaw in character:
In his letters, Maran says that this is how he studied. What he did not initially understand, he would skim over, and not dwell upon, but proceed onward. Afterwards, he would review time and again. Repeatedly.

He once warned a young student and told him, "Don't learn slowly. Don't look for complex explanations and sevoros. Don't do what they call iyun, in depth study. Study to cover ground and review a great deal. I know that you won't listen to me (for he knew that his approach was not accepted), but nevertheless, I am telling you this so that you won't come to me later with complaints as to why I didn't tell you this before. The time will come when you will understand what I am telling you, and will regret not having listened to me."

That very person told me, confessing, "Now I really understand what he was saying. But it is too late . . . "

Maran HaRav Shach wrote about this in many letters and used to speak about it frequently, and was painfully aware that the popular approach to learning was not what it should be. But, he admitted, people were blinded to his view; they were bribed by self-serving interests. They thought their way led to success, but did not realize that it was all wrong.

It's like diabetics who allow themselves to eat sweets, deluding themselves that no harm will come but are blind to the eventual outcome. And even if those students heard and knew, still, conflicting interests got in the way. Even in [deciding on] the approach to study, one encounters deceptions and bribery which we cannot go into here.
I have no doubt that there is a link R' Shach's conservatism in his derech halimmud and his broader theological conservatism.

What I don't understand about R' Shach's derech is thit is how it is effective. Intense, conceptual Talmud study that characterizes the "brisker" derech at least gives an intelligent young student an arena to exercize his mind. In light of R' Shach's firm opposition to any sort of secular study, how is such a student supposed to express his creativity and intellectual curiousity?

Haloscan comments

The Rav zt'l on Boneh Olamos U'Machrivam (God Built Worlds and Destroyed Them)

Krum as a bagel
From the Rav's 1957 Yahrtzeit Drasha (as quoted in "The Rav," Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkof):

The Midrash relates that God created and destroyed many worlds before He allowed this world to remain in existence. Some of the earlier worlds were even more beautiful than the present one, but the Creator eliminated them. He then went ahead and created this world, which has endured.

What are the rabbis teaching us? What does it mean that God created and destroyed worlds? After all, He could have made this world to begin with, so why did God experiment with the earlier creations?

This Midrash conveys a very important concept to us. A person must know how to continue building and creating in life, even if his previous efforts are demolished. He cannot lose hope and must not give up. He must go ahead and build again. Perhaps the new world will not be as beautiful as the earlier one; nevertheless, he must continue to rebuild. God was able to say about His final world: "Behold it was very good". That it, the final, permanent world is very good, even though some of the earlier ones may have been more beautiful. They are gone, and we must maximize what we have now.

Today, we must judge the Torah world we are reconstructing after the Holocaust as "very good," even though earlier ones may have been more beautiful. I am very proud of the Maimonides Day School in Boston. Many times I test the students on the Humash and Rashi that they are studying. I am impressed by their knowledge and inspired by their achievements. Then I ask myself why I am so excited by such small accomplishments. After all, I saw the giants of European Torah Jewry before the Holocaust. I discussed talmudic topics with my topics with my grandfather, Reb Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. I visited with Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzinski in Vilna. I debated with Reb Shimon Shkop concerning the explanation of certain talmudic passages. I spent entire nights with Reb Baruch Leibowitz of Kaminetz attemptin to comprehend difficult rulings in the Code of Mainmonides. Why am I so impressed that American youngsters can master a little Humash with Rashi, the rudiments of Torah study?

This is the message of the re-creation of destroyed worlds. A Jew has to know how to emulate God, and, like God, to continue to create even after his former world has beem eradocated. True, what I have in Bostom may not be as beatiful before the Holocaust. Nevertheleess, it is the world we now have. We have to continue to buid it and not look back. We must not be cynical, and we should direct our atttention and efforts to the future. We must look ahead.

The Rav may not have answered the big "why the Holocaust?" question in this drasha, but he was able to extract a profound insight from a maamar chazal that no doubt brought comfort to an audience that in 1957 still hadn't even fully come to grips with the enormity of the tragedy.

What the Rav did again and again in his derashos is as important as answering the big theological questions of our time, something Rav did not do (and it is ironic that the Chazal in question is often used by apologists to explain how the fossil record is consistent with the Torah). The Rav showed that the Torah is a relevant, living thing. This very notion -- that the Torah contains sophisticated messages that speak to a modern generation -- no doubt gave enormous comfort and chizuk to his followers perhaps more than the content of those messages themselves.

Haloscan comments

Responding to the Holocaust Cartoon Contest

I wrote yesterday that I think that Iran’s call for Holocaust cartoons, though it misidentifies the responsible party, is the best Muslim response to the Danish Cartoon Fiasco. It challenges the West to ‘put its money where its mouth is’, and employ freedom of expression to run these cartoons just like they ran the Mohammed caricatures.

It betrays a bit of a lack of understanding of what freedom of expression and the press entail – I CAN publish whatever I want, but don’t HAVE TO publish whatever I want. And after I publish whatever I want you can call me whatever names you want to call me because I published it, and you can cancel your subscription, and you certainly aren’t required to grant me a forum to air my views. And the government simply cannot interfere.

Thus, there are two potential responses that we, as Jews, can take to these Holocaust cartoons:

  • We can protest their publication in Western media outlets, but would need to also protest the publication of the Mohammed caricatures. If we complain that Holocaust cartoons are inappropriate because they cross a certain line of offensiveness, then we should not distinguish between the two sets of cartoons. One might argue that it’s not our responsibility to protect Islam from defamation, to which I’d counter that

  • If we have perfected a nonviolent mechanism for protecting ourselves from defamation – and we have, by and large, at least in the USA – then we should definitely extend it or share it with those who simply have not. Ta’aninan Le-Yatmi (a halakhic principle which is invoked to enter a plea for those who can’t be expected to enter one for themselves). We can’t expect these countries to take a lesson that, “See, the Jews can influence the media through nonviolent measures, we should, too” because that message would be completely lost. Admittedly, this thinking is a bit paternalistic, but, then again, the entire notion of a ‘Light unto the Nations’ is a bit paternalistic.

  • In these particular circumstances, if we defend only ourselves it will reinforce the conviction that the Iranian leadership is trying to make, namely, that ‘freedom of expression’ is a farce which is selectively employed to defend only those controversial or insulting ideas which are not part of the media’s agenda.

  • This is the approach that I prefer, namely, that we shouldn’t protest against the publication of these cartoons. I think that any paper which published the Mohammed caricatures should publish the Holocaust cartoons. The statement must be made somehow that independent media outlets have the right to publish this garbage, and the best way for that statement to be made is if, just this once, it’s actually published. More than apologizing, let’s demonstrate that it’s never worthwhile to get all worked up over something which is, at the end of the day, a cartoon. Let’s demonstrate that we value the freedoms that we enjoy even if they sometimes cause us pain. So let’s take a collective deep breath and take one for the team (cf. Isaiah Chap. 53).

So far, the responses of some high-profile Jewish organizations, as reported by Reuters have essentially played directly into Iranian hands. Were the Mohammed caricatures not ‘deliberately inflammatory’? Are we as adamant when we protest against the Danish cartoons? In the ADL’s statement on this, they address the issue in the first and last line, while using the rest to talk about Moslem hate. This report does pretty much the same. We really can’t afford to be perceived as employing a double-standard (whether in reality we are or aren’t). We either condemn is all, or let it all ride.

Haloscan comments

January 2006

Dilemmas for a 'Trembling'-Related Program

I’m writing something for a program that an Orthodox community is running. They will be screening the film ‘Trembling before God’, followed by a breakout discussion section. I composed the following set of dilemmas for the group to discuss after the film. The goal is to get people thinking about the issues in a more complex way, and not, as is common, as a zero-sum game (see here for an earlier post on this topic). I’m curious what others have to say about these dilemmas, and feel free to propose other dilemmas as well.

  1. Should a shul grant a ‘family membership’ to a gay couple?
  2. If a monogamous gay man gets an aliyah, should he be allowed to make a mishebeirach for his partner? How would he refer to him? ‘Ba’ali (my husband)? shutafi (my partner)? Chaveri (my male friend)?
  3. Should the Orthodox community differentiate between gays with Jewish partners and gays with non-Jewish partners? Between gays with one partner and gays with multiple partners?
  4. Should the laws of ‘negiah’ apply to gays for members of their own sex? The opposite sex?
  5. What should a gay person do when in shul, if they are distracted by someone on their own side of the mechitza?
  6. Should gay women be encouraged to keep ‘taharat ha-mishpacha’ with their partners? What about gay men?
  7. Should our schools accept Jewish children of same-sex marriages?
  8. Should you pay a ‘shiva’ visit to someone mourning his or her same-sex partner?
Haloscan comments

R' Soloveitchik on Torah and Science

Krum as a bagel
It has been noted that R’ Soloveitchik didn't spend much energy addressing the conflicts between Torah and science. For example, his statement regarding evolution is hopelessly vague.

His essay “Catharsis” sheds at least some light on his view of the issue. The essay is based in part on the Midrash that describes the purpose of the Torah as "litzaref," to purge, his creations. RYBS describes this "purging" or "catharsis” as part of a dialectical process:

The Torah wants man, who is bold and adventurous in his quest for opportunities, to act heroically, and at the final moment, when it appears to him that victory is within reach, to stop short turn around and retreat.

RYBS explains how this concept is expressed with respect to our desires, our emotions and intellect. In the first two categories he gives concrete examples of where halacha requires us to retreat. With respect to human desire (the "aesthetic-hedonistic realm"), the example is the couple on their wedding night:

"Bride and bridegroom are young, physically strong and passionately in love with each other. Both have patiently waited for this rendezvous to take place. Just one more step and their love would have been fulfilled, a vision realized. Suddenly the bride and groom make a movement of recoil. He, gallantly, like a chivalrous knight, exhibits paradoxical heroism. He takes his own defeat. There is no glamor attached to his withdrawal. The latter is not a spectacular gesture, since there are no witnesses to admire and laud him. The heroic act did not take place in the presence of jubilating crowds; no bards will sing of these two modest, humble young people. It happened in the sheltered privacy of their home, in the stillness of the night. The young man, like Jacob of old, makes an about-face; he retreats at the moment when fulfilment seems assured."

In the emotional realm, RYBS gives the example of the laws of mourning. According to halacha, shiva is interrupted by a holiday. The halacha requires a person to suspend his mourning and replace it with happiness.

RYBS also talks about catharsis in the realm of the intellectual. If RYBS believed that the science of the Torah was infallible, whether with respect to the manner of creation or the scientific pronouncements of Chazal, than RYBS could have easily cited this as an example of catharsis: the scientist is obligated to search out the truth but if it conflicts with a gemara, he must retreat and be "mivatel his daas." But no. Rather, RYBS affirms the importance of free inquiry:

When I speak of cognitive withdrawal and self-negation, I do no mean to suggest that the scientist should conduct his inquiry without throughness or inconclusively. On thte contrary every schoilar is guided intiuiotively by an ethical norm, which tells him to search the truth assiduously and to rest until he has it wihtinm his reach. Cognitive withdrawal is related not to the scientific inquiry as a logical operation…

Instead, according to RYBS, catharsis in the intellectual realm means that the scientist must understand the limits of science, namely, that science does not give answers to the fundamental questions of existence, human consciousness and values. While this may put some limits on scientific inquiry (e.g., neuroscience’s attempt to identify a purely biological process for explaining consciousness), these limits come from the broad premises of religion rather than specific maamarei chazal or passages in the Torah.

Of course, I am reading between the lines. And we certainly don't know how RYBS dealt with the conflicts between Science and Torah. But one gets the sense that for him it just wasn't a kasha to begin with.

Haloscan comments

A Manufactured Midrash - Name, Speech, Garb, part II

[sorry it's longer than usual; it's good, though]

In my previous post, I discussed the fact that the ‘well-known’ Midrash that states that the Israelites in Egypt never changed their names, lanuage, or clothing, doesn’t actually exist. I also discussed (a bit) what I think similar midrashim really mean.

But I want to address some other questions which have bothered me since that last post, namely:
  1. What motivates the different lists that we get in the various midrashim?

  2. Perhaps more importantly, how is it that this non-midrash gained such currency? That two midrashim are conflated isn’t a great surprise, but that the conflation, and this particular conflation, gained such wide popularity in Orthodox circles? (if you don’t believe me, look at this, this, or this). Most discussions of Jewish identity in Egypt will list at least these three elements.

There are two basic lists in the midrashim. There are variations within each list, but it seems that there are only two groups of lists. Here’s one example of each (translation mine):

ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשה לב
רב הונא אמר בשם בר קפרא בשביל ד' דברים נגאלו ישראל ממצרים שלא שנו את שמם ואת לשונם ולא אמרו לשון הרע ולא נמצא ביניהן אחד מהן פרוץ בערוה

פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) דברים פרשת תבא דף מו עמוד א
דבר אחר ויהי שם לגוי. מלמד שהיו ישראל מצויינים שם. שהיה מלבושם ומאכלם ולשונם משונים מן המצריים. מסומנין היו וידועין שהם גוי לבדם חלוק מן המצריים:

Yayikra Rabbah section 32
R’ Huna said in the name of Bar Kapparah: Because of 4 things Israel was redeemed from Egypt: They didn’t change their names or their language, they didn’t speak lashon ha-ra (we’ll leave the translation for now), and none of them was promiscuous.

Minor Pesikta, Devarim (Ki Tavo) 41a
Another interpretation: “And there they became a nation” – this teaches that the Israelites were distinct there, in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians’. They were identified and known as a separate nation, apart from the Egyptians.

The first midrash describes four things that the Israelites actively maintained. Their non-change was reactionary and counter-cultural. The two non-cultural elements on the list can be understood in this way as well. Their chastity prevented an intermingling of bloodlines, preserving the ethnic character of their group, and perhaps also can be read in a way that’s similar to Malcolm X’s call (as told in his Autobiography) for black men to recognize that his infatuation with white women is a vehicle of oppression (indeed, Malcolm X’s thought provides a lot of insight into the complete annihilation of identity which slavery entails; jettisoning his ‘slave name’ was another manifestation of his countercultural assertion of separate identity).
Lashon Ha-ra fits with the group if we recognize that it doesn’t mean gossip. In fact, there are versions which say ‘lo hilshinu’ – they didn’t slander or incriminate each other. When the Egyptian cops came around with a photo of a wanted Israelite, they got a lot of ‘never seen him before’.
Thus, the sense of this midrash is that the Israelites actively maintained a sense of reactionary ethnic pride in the face of a persecuting and enslaving culture.

The latter Midrash is an expansion of the Sifra which is recited as part of the Haggadah. Some early commentaries, such as Ritv”a, Rashbam, and R”I b. Yakar mention that the Jews wore distinct dress, even suggesting that they wore tzitzit! (as can be seen in the astounding artwork of the Katz Haggadah). The Midrash is describing the manner in which the Israelites remained metzuyanim (or, according to some versions, mesuyamim). This can have one of two connotations (which are similar in English as well): they were distinct or they were distinguished. If the former, then the point of the midrash is that they remained a separate nation even within Egypt – which is even the sense one gets from the verse (“and there they became a nation”). As I mentioned in the previous post, there’s nothing to redeem if there’s no distinct entity. If the former, then it’s suggesting that the Israelites did more than simply maintain an ethnic identity; they remained proud and dignified about it.

Regarding the second question, as folks pointed out in the comments of the previous post, the three elements of the popular version of the midrash already appears in the Abarbanel’s Zevach Pesach, and in a book called the Meturgeman by R’ Elijah (Bachur) Levita, both composed around the late 15th, early 16th centuries.

However, this version doesn’t really ‘take off’ until the 19th century, and following the trail backwards leads to the document I mentioned in the previous post, namely, the Tzava’ah (Ethical Will) of the Chatam Sofer (translated in the work ‘Hebrew Ethical Wills’), in which he instructs his descendants:

Beware of altering your Jewish names, language, and attire. A clue to this is found in the verse, 'Jacob arrived in peace (shalem), in Shechem' (Genesis 33:18) The Hebrew word shalem is a pneumonic (sic) for Shem = name, Lashon = language, Malbush = attire…

His spiritual heirs, which included the Mahara”m Schick and R’ Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, began to take this statement as normative. The Divrei Yatziv, who was Rebbe of the Sanz-Klausenberg Chassidim for the latter part of the 20th Century, invokes this ethical will when prohibiting speech in any language but Yiddish in a Jewish home (though I doubt that Sephardim were part of his intended audience), explicitly mentioning Hebrew and English as verboten alternatives!

R’ Ovadya Yosef (in a Responsum on using the ‘Christian’ secular calendar) mentions these three together, and specifically mentions that they were singled out in the European milieu of emancipation and haskalah, when name, dress, and spoken language became bones of contention between modernizing and reactionary elements of Jewish society. The Chatam Sofer’s instruction (which, incidentally, doesn’t mention the Israelites in Egypt) must be read in this light (which isn’t such a great chiddush).

What I find interesting is that it appears that only after these three cultural elements – name, dress, and language – became rallying cries for the nascent Haredi movement in Austria-Hungary that they were made a part of the movement’s ‘meta-narrative’. In other words, the popular ‘version’ of this Midrash was manufactured by the Haredi movement to see its own values in the very infancy of the Nation of Israel.

Haloscan comments

The Etz HaDaas and Pretty Thoughts

Krum as a bagel
As I noted here, the Rambam's view of the effect of the Etz HaDaas was to substitute man's cognitive ability to discern objective truth with an ability to make judgments regarding what is appealing.

What does the Rambam mean? Some have suggested that the Rambam is taking an approach similar to the Ramban, who understands "tov v'ra" as referring to "ta'ava" or desire. According to this reading, the Etz HaDaas caused man to follow his passions or desires rather than his intellect.

However, I think the Rambam is saying something different. The Rambam's conception is a profound insight into the nature of human psychology. The brain is essentially a pleasure seeking organ. Much research has been conducted about how people enjoy and are persuaded by marketing pitches or political soundbites that are pleasing to them. In a similar vein, I often find myself in a shiur, reading a book, or just thinking about a problem, when suddenly a beautiful idea emerges resolving a seemingly insurmountable problem. The sensation is no different than hearing a pretty melody or watching a good movie. It's the neurological equiavalent of a backrub.

However, just because a thought is pretty doesn't mean it's correct. The best example I can think of is the attitude of the yeshiva world to the academic study of talmud (a ficitonalized treatment of the topic can be found in Chaimn Potok's The Promise). The dominant approach to gemara study in the yeshiva world today is the "Brisker derech," or some variant of it. This approach seeks to resolve contradicitions or explain disputes in a highly conceptual way. A classic "brisker" shiur might set out a number of seemingly irreconcilable, contradictory positions of the Rambam and resolve them elegantly by providing a single conceptual framework that explains why the Rambam ruled one way in one context and a different way in another.

The acedemic approach, on the other hand, seeks to take into account scholarship regarding the genesis and development of the talmudic text, the society in which rabbinic figures lived, ancient lanuages, etc. Thus, a dispute between between the Rambam and the Rosh may be explained by the different manuscripts prevalent in Spain and Germany rather than a conceptual difference in how each understood, say, the nature of kiddushin. Scholars that follow this approach would scoff at the "brisker" derech as pure sophistry.

However, the academic approach has been rejected by the yeshiva world. Why? Many hashkafic arguments have been invoked, but the real reason is simple -- it delivers less pleasure to the brain. It does not involve pretty thoughts. It is tedious and boring. Even if it were deemed perfectly acceptable, it would not catch on. But is it more correct?

At the risk of pushing this idea too far, I think it has broader implications. Take the Chazal v. Science debate. Were Chazal infallible as to matters of science or not? Clearly there is a basis in the mesorah for either position. How does one account for how people come out on either side of the debate? For the pro-Science crowd (like myself) the answer is simple -- we want our religion pretty. It simply inconceivable for me to accept a assertions regarding religion that contravenes what I view as rational. Whether the issue is taking fantastical misrashim literally, segulahs, or the view of Chazal as brilliant scientists, I instinctively reject them. And I understand there are various approaches which are strictly speaking logical that would allow one to uphold the correctness of Chazal without denying modern science -- such as nishtaneh ha'teva ("nature has changed"). However, I recoil from these ideas. My friend LZ made a comment in response to a particularly extreme statement regarding the infallibility of Chazal which typifies this attitude:

If I actually cared about what some anonymous commenter thinks I think I'd be shaken to the core. If RHS or RAL or someone else whose opinion I seriously respect said such comments I'd probably not be able to sleep again tonight.

Indeed, this is precisely one of the criticisms leveled against Slifkin in the initial "kol kore": ein l'shum adam baaulus al ha'emunah l'shnosah k'dei "l'yafusa" leynei mi shehu. No person has rights over our faith to change it in order to make it "look pretty" for the eyes of others.

By the same token, those on the other side of the debate seem to revel in being machnya their daas to the gadlus of chazal. This comes through clearly in the following words of a commenter on an other blog:

And please do not think that a "frum egyptologist" could ever prove anything about the truth of Mabul or Mitzrayim, which are truths regardless of papyri - regardless of video, if you could produce some - it only proves something about you.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes: I accept the mesorah as superior to my own senses and judgments.

There seems to be an almost proud, stridency in the manner in which these ideas are expressed, where science and rationalism is rejected in a heroic act of self-abnegation. Ironically, this sort of approach is reflected eloquently in the writings of the icon of Modern Orthodoxy, RYBS, where he describes the "heroic act" of the newly married groom on his wedding retreating from his bride upon the sight of a drop of blood (more on this in a later post).

Thus, for what ever reason, what is "appealing" to the mind of one person may be revolting to another. In either case, the message is that our minds, as powerful as they may be capable, are ultimately imperfect tools that can fool us. The key is to be counscious of the fact that what may be appealing to us may not necessarily be true.

Haloscan comments

Name, Language, and Dress


I recently got a question from a student, asking where the well-known Rashi that the Israelites didn’t change their names, language, or style of dress in Egypt is located. I wasn’t sure if it was a Rashi or another source, so I started digging.

Amazingly enough, that list first appears in – the ethical will of the Chasam Sofer!

He, and especially his students (Mahara”m Schick and others) were very insistent on preserving various elements of Jewish culture during the upheavals of the 19th Century.

Of course, there are Midrashim that discuss different ways in which the Israelites preserved themselves, and interestingly enough, one of the ways mentioned it that they maintained a distinct diet. They ate different foods than the Egyptians. I think I’ll mention this to anyone who knocks ‘gastronomic Judaism’ or ‘Lox n’ Bagels’ Judaism; according to that particular Midrash (it’s in the Psikta on Devarim, by the vidui bikkurim), dietary habits make the list, but names don’t. Sorry, Shloymie. Give up the Chinese food and we’ll talk.

Regardless, the notion that the Israelites preserved an identity in Egypt is mentioned in the exegetical (tzei u-l’mad) section of the Hagaddah – ‘this teaches that the Israelites remained distinct there’ (especially according to the version that has ‘mesuyamim’ instead of ‘metzuyanim’, but it works either way). The notion that their ultimate salvation was a result of this distinction is also pretty early.

If so, then a) why do we downplay the elements listed (i.e., if a Jew is named Howard, wears business suits, speaks English, and frequents Dougie’s, we don’t really look askance at any of that)? b) how do we reconcile that with the numerous statements that the Israelites were just as bad as the Egyptians, or that they were of the lowest level of ‘tum’ah’ etc.?

I had the following thought, and just saw that it’s echoed by a Romanian poseik, R’ Sperber (not ybl”ch R’ Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan). The Israelites preserved an ethnic identity. Without anything else to bind them together, they stuck with those basic cultural elements – language, dress, cuisine, etc. – that preserved them as a subgroup. Some form of distinction was necessary if the Israelites were ever to be redeemed. You can’t redeem what doesn’t exist. These elements did not, however, keep them ‘above’ everyone else.

I’ll illustrate by a personal example. I studies at YU. YU is in a neighborhood with ethnic groups who have not changed their names, language, style of dress, or cuisine. Yet, to my knowledge they are not on a very high level of kedusha, at least no more than any other American subgroup.

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The Akeida, Sodom and the Etz HaDaas

Krum as a bagel
Many observers have noted the contrast between Avraham’s boldness in his prayer on behalf of the people of Sodom and his submissiveness to God’s command at the Akeda. In the Sodom story, Avraham boldly questions the justice of God’s decree (“shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?”), yet at the Akeda, the angels question God’s justice (according to this midrash), while Avraham remains silent.

The contrast might be explained by the key difference between the stories. While both involve Divine decrees that conflict on some level with our sense of justice, the Akeda decree is aimed at Avraham (and his son), while Sodom is not.

When Adam and Eve ate from the Etz HaDaas they became “yodei tov v’ra.” What does that phrase mean? Gil at Hirhurim had an interesting post regarding how the Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim understood tov v’ra. All of the interpretations cited by Gil agree that the Rambam had some sort of subjective judgment in mind - either aesthetic judgment or moral judgment (“proper and improper.”) According to the Rambam, as a result of the etz hadaas, this subjective faculty replaced man’s ability to discern objective truth and falsity.

Whatever the precise articulation of this subjective faculty, I would suggest that the Etz HaDaas didn’t completely displace man’s objectivity , it just diminished and compromised it and subjected it to risk of being skewed by this other subjective “tov v’ra” faculty. Thus, a human being as spritual and lofty as Avraham certainly could apply this objective intellectual faculty, and did so when it came to Sodom.

Not so the Akeida. As the father of Yitzchak, the intended korban, Avraham realized that his intellect was incapable of passing moral judgment on God’s command. In this context, his subjective faculty was so overwhelming that he could not be certain whether any qualms he had regarding God’s command were the result of a subjective judgment or true objective discernment of truth or falsity. This idea is borne out by the Midrash that describes Avraham crying as he stretched out his hand to slaughter his son: “the tears fall on the eyes of Yitzchak from the pity of a father.” His tears are attributed to the pity of a father - Avraham’s subjective sadness over the impending loss of his son. He understood that he was in no position to convert his subjective feelings into a judgment against God. It was left to the angels, who are not subject to this human weakness, to speak up.

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Put Down the Duckie

I’d like to mention 3 examples of where children’s literature, though it seems very innocuous, can contain meanings below the surface. Of course, there’s all kinds of stuff out there psychoanalyzing ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or whatever, and sometimes there nursery rhymes reflect historical memories, like ‘Ring Around the Rosie’. These are three examples that I really like, find interesting, or have a good, Jewish lesson. I’m probably the only yutz in the world who ‘learns’ bedtime stories with his kids. Sheesh. No wonder they can’t fall asleep.

a) Sesame Street aired a song a long time ago called “Put Down the Duckie”. As with many, many Sesame songs, the lyrics are outstanding. In this skit, Mr. Hoots is trying to teach Ernie how to play the saxophone, put since Ernie insists on clutching his little yellow friend, there’s an inevitable squeak which accompanies each chord. Thus, the refrain, “Put down the ducky if you wanna play the saxophone”.

Wise Hoots is pointing to a valuable lesson about human maturity. Intellectual maturity is not an incremental process. Often, it entails jettisoning earlier, preconceived notions about a whole variety of things, some of which can be very dear. Remaining in a very secure but ultimately childish zone can be the most comfortable path, but is also the least rewarding and fulfilling. Indeed, you gotta put down the ducky if you wanna play the saxophone.

b) There’s an old Yiddish song entitled “Hob ich mir a Mantle” (I had an Overcoat). It’s been turned into 2 different children’s books, one called “Something from Nothing” and the other called “Joseph had a Little Overcoat”. I own a copy of the latter, and it’s really well done, especially if you pay attention to the illustrations and newspaper clippings embedded on each page.

The story is about a fellow who has an overcoat which gets worn out, so he turns it into a short jacket, then a vest, a tie, a handkerchief, a bowtie, and finally a button which wears out, leaving the poor schlamazal with nothing at all. So he writes a song about it, proving that you can always make something from nothing. At each phase, the song/story describes the character as doing some activity – visiting his sister in the city, dancing at a wedding, drinking a glass of tea with lemon, etc.

The story is really about modernization, urbanization, and assimilation of traditional East European Jewry into Western Europe/ America. Each successive retrofitting of the original coat (and, of course, a ‘mantle’ has connotations which simply don’t translate into the word ‘overcoat’) describes a weakening of traditions grip on the Jewish people, until all that’s left is a sense of nostalgia. In the version that I own, the artistry really reflects this process. Though the book is upbeat, I find it very painful to read.

c) The last example was brought to my attention a number of years ago by Rabbi Yehuda Rock, now Rosh Kollel in Boca Raton, but who is a far better ‘AddeRabbi’ than I – a true contrarian and creative genius in the reading of texts. My kids know and sing this song now, so I was reminded of this point. It’s about the well-known Israeli nursery rhyme “Nadnedah” – the ‘See-Saw’ song. The composer of this rhyme is none other than the great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who, as I’ve posted before (almost a year ago. Wow), doesn’t get the credit he deserves as someone who really struggled mightily with questions of religion and whose insight and poetic creativity in describing his own struggle with matters of faith are truly beautiful and heart-wrenching.

It turns out, Bialik is describing the ‘see-saw’ of his own mind when it comes to faith in God. This translation of the brief rhyme doesn’t do justice to the original, but it captures how it can be read as a description of a crisis of faith:

See-saw, see-saw
Descend, ascend, ascend, and descend
What’s above? What’s below?
Just me.
Me and You.
We are both balanced in the scales
Between the Earth and the Heaven

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Where does God Live? A Reading of Brachot 48a

[The first Talmudic Reading that I posted, exactly one year ago, was of a narrative on the same Daf as this one. It can be accessed here, and is a personal favorite.]

Abaye and Rava were sitting before Rabbah. Rabbah said to them, “To whom do we pray?”. They said to him, “To The Merciful One.” “And where does The Merciful One live?” Rava gestured toward the rafters. Abaye went outside and gestured toward the Heavens. Rabbah said to them, “You will both be Rabbis”. And so people say, ‘The gourds are known from their sap’.
This is one of my favorite Gemaras to teach. It starts off seeming so silly, and by the end of the lesson, everyone’s blown away. On the surface, I mean, geez, my little kids run around singing Uncle Moishy’s ‘Hashem is here’! What makes Rabbah so proud of Abaye and Rava?

[I should point out that the Tosafot already point out that this Gemara is only linguistically connected to the Halakhic discussion that precedes it, but doesn’t really suggest that little kids can be included in a mezuman.]

Let’s assume that the Gemara is more sophisticated than Uncle Moishy, and that the discussion between the youthful Abaye and Rava, and the question posed by Rabbah, were more than first-grade theology. Furthermore, the method by which Abaye seemingly ‘one-up’s Rava is silly. Why would the Gemara communicate that? Is Abaye really giving a different answer?

Maybe the question is, “Where do you encounter God? Where can you find Him?”

When I pose the question in this format, and ask what the difference between the answers of Abaye and Rava are, it’s like someone turned on a faucet. All kinds of great suggestions simply start spilling out of the students, be they high-school students of adults. They start picking up on the fact that Rava’s approach is more ‘sheltered’ or ‘structured’ or ‘closed’. Rava looks for God in the details, Abaye in the big picture. I’ve had suggestions that Rava is a ‘Misnaged’ and Abaye is a ‘Chussid’, or that Rava is ‘Orthodox’ and Abaye is ‘Reform’, or that Rava is ‘Haredi’ whereas Abaye is ‘Modern Orthodox’, that Rava is like R’ Soloveitchik whereas Abaye is like R’ Kook, or that Rava is the ‘Halakhic Man’ whereas Abaye is ‘Homo Religiosus’, which actually seems to be the suggestion of R’ Kook in Eyn Ayah ad loc. Some have said that Rava is a conformist whereas Abaye is ‘out of the box’. Rava is religious, but Abaye is spiritual. Rava is a learner, but Abaye is a doer (sounds like another Gemara). Rava needs a framework, but Abaye is free-spirited.

The point is, it’s a wonderfully open-ended piece of Agadah (which, according to R’ Kook’s intro to Eyn Ayah, is as it should be) which acknowledges that indeed there are more than one path to God. I don’t think I’d agree with all of the suggestions I elicited, but the fact that a single Gemara can elicit this variety of responses really engenders that sense that indeed there ARE many ways to find God, each of which can be affirmed and developed, and each of which can lead to greatness, and each of which can be tailored to the individual searcher or worshipper.

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Two cheers for Artscroll

Mississippi Fred MacDowell
Us Mavens agreed that from time to time we would repost blog posts from our other blogs, posts that we feel ought to be considered by a new audience, since the blogsphere is every-changing. This one was posted at On the Main Line seven months ago, which is more like 25 years in the blogosphere.

Dinesh D'Souza was a Ronald Reagan staffer and is an Indian immigrant. He is a bit of a starry eyed America enthusiast -- and why shouldn't he be? In his book What's So Great About America he has a chapter called 'Two Cheers For Colonialism', a provocative title. But he explains inside that Colonialism accomplished great good for the colonized societies. For example, in the country of his birth, India. The British built a railroad system and abolished wife burning. India was left stronger and more ready to confront the world than it had been before. But that said, it wasn't shangri la. Colonialism itself, the stealing of an entire land and the creativity and labor of its people, cannot be excused on the grounds of the greater good. D'Souza says that he fully understands that his grandfather, who experienced it, will always resent the British and never see the good. But that aside, some good obviously came of it and it wouldn't have happened otherwise. That is why D'Souza gives two cheers for colonialism. He cannot give it three, because it was bad. But he gives it two for the good it accomplished. Personally, I think one cheer is more appropriate than two, but I get his point. I guess 'One Cheer For Colonialism' would not have sounded right for his point.

Which leads me to ArtScroll, that publishing house that everyone loves or loves to hate. I give ArtScroll two cheers. It cannot get a third cheer for all the hagiography, the books that they'd never translate (Moreh Nevuchim anyone?), the spin they pull on their works etc. But neverthless there is no one who can say that a tremendous amount of effort does not go into their works. And the fact is that they are making a tremendous amount of Torah primary sources available for all. True, their translations and notes spin the texts in ways they'd like. But who else is doing the work? Is Jacob Neusner's Talmud as good as the Schottenstein Edition?

And to the extent that exasperation with ArtScroll has (or will, or should) drive competition to produce alternative, high quality works in English that is a good thing. In short, would all us ArtScroll detractors not see a void were ArtScroll and all its works to disappear? I think we would.

So two cheers for ArtScroll!

Haloscan comments

December 2005

Kidushei Ketana: A Case of Halakhic Flexibility?

Krum as a bagel
To anyone who contends that halakha does not evolve, that it is an unchanging, inflexibile corpus handed down from Har Sinai, I challenge them to explain the following gemara in Kiddushin about one of the rather “icky” halakhic institutions, kedushei ketana, or betrothal of a minor daughter.

The mishna rules as follows:

“a man can betroth his daughter directly or through an agent.”
This ruling comports with the biblical law, which quite plainly recognizes and permits this practice.

The amora, Rav, having no patience for apologizing for what he sees as a bad practice, simply rejects the mishna’s ruling, and the entire practice of kiddushei ketana:

It is forbidden for a father to betroth her while she is a minor until she becomes an adult and declares that she desires her prospective husband.
That’s it. No biblical verse (and certainly many such verses could have been cited), no pithy aggadic sayings, nothing. Just an out and out rejection of of kiddushei ketana. It’s assur.

But that’s not all. Despite the gemara’s prohibition of kiddushei katana, the ba’alei tosafos, aware of the prevalence of the practice in Jewish communities of the time, rule that assur doesn’t really mean assur:

And today, when it is our custom to betroth our daughters even when they are minors, this is because with the passing of each day the exile overwhelms us more and more (hagalus misgaber alenu) and if a man has enough money for a dowry for his daughter, maybe he won’t have that money after the passage of time and his daughter will remain unmarried forever.
Wow. Talk about shidduch crisis.

But seriously, how to understand Rav's rejection of the mishna and Tosfos' rejection of Rav? Note that Rav is the one amora who has the status of a tanna status, so his rejection of the mishna's ruling isn't that odd. In addition, Rav's statement is also quoted in the name of Rabbi Elazar, who I believe is a tanna. Still, we are dealing with a biblically authorized practice. As noted above, one would at least have expected Rav to cite a biblical verse as support for his ruling. The most obvious explanation is that Rav is telling us implicitly that considerations of morality and yashrus can be invoked to prohibit that which is legally permitted. Although no verse is cited, the reason for the prohibition is clear.

As for tosfos: first, tosfos may suggesting that based on the circumstances of their day, the underpinnings of Rav’s ruling no longer applied. Rav reasoned that it was immoral and unethical to force a person into a marriage when her will can’t be taken into account even though the practice was permitted by the Torah. Tosfos is saying that while it is appropriate to apply morality and ethics to forbid the permitted, based on the circumstances of their day, the value of respecting the girl’s will is outweighed by our concern for long term economic welfare. Under prevailing circumstances, the moral calculus yeilds a different result.

A more realistic interpretation of tosfos is that they are simply being melamed z’chus on the Jewish community's de facto rejection of Rav’s ruling by looking for some justification for the practice. The message of tosfos is about the importance of established practice in determining the content of halakha even where it means overturning a clear prohibition.

Haloscan comments

Talmudic Reading of Shabbat 33b-34a: R' Shimon b. Yochai - Part I

My fellow Mavens and I have discussed reposting some stuff that had been up on our individual blogs that's Maven-worthy, like once a week for each of us, or something like that. I've been working on a series - just posted Part VI at 'home' - expositing the story of R' Shimon b. Yochai. Rather than posting part VI here, I've decided to repost part I on MY, and eventually catch up by the time I've completed the exposition. The story itself serves as a very fruitful paradigm for understanding the interplay between Judaism and a dominating culture.

The text of the narrative can be found in the original here and in English (Soncino) translation here (follow at your own risk; the site itself is an anti-semitic site. It just so happens that they are also the only site with a translation of the Talmud). At times I've taken the liberty of doing my own translations.

To my knowledge, there are two extant expositions of this Talmudic passage. The first is R’ A. Y. Kook’s commentary to the Aggadic sections of Shabbat, Eyn Ayah vol I, which has been translated into English in Bezalel Naor’s Of Societies Perfect and Imperfect. The second treatment is in Jeffrey Rubenstein’s Talmudic Stories. R’ Kook’s exposition is the direct inspiration for my own, though still different enough to warrant a separate treatment. I read Rubenstein’s book only after developing the approach presented here. Nevertheless, by the sheer fact that I am treating this Talmudic narrative as literature, I have assumed one of the basic characteristics of his approach, or of an academic approach in general. I will inevitably incorporate textual and literary considerations that he addresses, but my goals are vastly different from his.

Axiological Assumptions

Two conflicting tasks confront the Talmudic commentator: on one hand, his goal is that of the objective scientist, using objective methodological tools to unravel, to the greatest degree possible, the meaning of the text for its intended audience. Thorough knowledge of the language and culture of the composition, in their broadest sense, is crucial to understand the meaning of any text. By definition, objective text study, to the degree possible, means divorcing one’s self from the normative implications of the subject matter.

At the same time, Torah study[1] is the religious gesture par excellence. The sacred texts where God’s mind and man’s mind meet, and where man employs his God-given intelligence to understand, appreciate, and carry out God’s revealed Will, thereby become the focus of the ongoing relationship between the Creator and His elect.[2] One who studies Torah within this frame of mind will demand meaning and relevance from the text.

Ignoring the former goal, one would run the risk of rendering the Torah irrelevant. The meanings that had been invested in the texts would contribute nothing to any type of contemporary discourse. It would remain a closed book. Those who would purport to ignore objective tools in the name of preserving the integrity of Torah undermine the Torah’s intelligibility, the basis for the ongoing conversation between God and the Israel. Nevertheless, ignoring the devotional elements of Torah study allows the Torah to petrify completely by consigning it to the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Studies. As long as the Jewish people lives, the Torah is its constitution from and covenant with God. Treating it as a dead-letter violates its very essence.

Reading the current segment of the Talmud, as any, is limited by these constraints. This particular segment is unique because it is reflecting upon the very tensions described in the preceding paragraphs. Therefore, the following presentation is both a description and an example of an earnest attempt to mediate the dual constraints of objectivity and relevance.

The Setting

Our story is set in the middle of the 2nd century, CE.[3] The three Rabbis who open the story with their conversation are all considered later students of the great Rabbi Akiba. Although Rome had been a major player in the local politics for nearly two centuries by then, it was only in that generation, after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, that the Jews living in the Land of Israel sensed that they were no longer sovereign over their own land, and that they were in a state of unredeemed exile and would remain so for the foreseeable future. For two centuries, Jewish and Roman cultures existed side-by-side, sometimes at war and sometimes at peace. With the failure of Bar Kochba’s revolt, Jewish culture was swallowed entirely into the Roman world, and forfeited its status as an autonomous culture. The task fell to the leaders of that generation to shape the proper attitude toward the newly dominating culture, and it is with this in mind that the story begins.

[1] Torah here is the generic term for any Jewish text whose status is normatively or formatively canonic.
[2] The previous two paragraphs are oversimplifications of two very broad topics – the task of the historian and the nature of Torah study. My purpose is to briefly describe the tensions that characterize the impulse to incorporate both. For a broader description of this interpretive duality, see R’ Kook’s introduction to Eyn Ayah. On the necessary interdependence of these two general tasks, see Eyn Ayah to Brachot 45a, s.v. ‘eyn ha-meturgeman’.
[3] The importance of the setting is not to establish or posit its literal historical value. Rather, the setting of the story will indicate to the reader (or originally, listener) to recall the collective memories of that period and its traumas, triumphs, and dilemmas. As I hope to demonstrate, the generation in which the story is set is of extreme significance to understanding the story itself. The historical ‘data’ that I marshal here is to characterize the way that composers of the story would have retrospectively viewed the generation in question. Each bit of information can be substantiated as part of Chazal’s (the generic term I shall use for the formulators of Rabbinic literature) understanding of the period discussed.

Haloscan comments

Why blog?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell
An interesting post at the Biblical Theology blog called 'Why blog?'.

His three reasons:
Facts are facts, I think. The first fact that is inescapable, is that, no matter how long we live, we will all one day die. Given that fact, many of us of something of an intellectual bent or possessed by academic inclinations wish to produce something that will outlive us, validate our lives, and provide at least some sort of legacy and memory.

Fact two- none of the books we write or the papers we will present will be remembered, or read, in 50 years. Most of what we produce on paper will be unavailable except from obscure bookshops in 10 years. In 5 years, the books we must have and must read will be gathering dust. The fact that Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and Augustine are still read and valued proves this rule- since there scarcely seem to be any Luthers or Zwinglis around any more. Even Barth's memory is beginning to fade; his name is unknown to most people, most Christians, some theologians, and a ton of Biblical scholars. Brunner, too, suffers the same fate- but worse. In the next 30 years Bultmann and Strauss will be nothing more than mere historical curiosities. As much as it might pain us to think so, our much vaunted, highly priced, studies of the "entrails of the gnat" will rot in forgottenness before our own lives end.

Fact three- the birth of the internet and discussion lists and web publishing and yes, even blogs, has given many of the formerly voiceless a voice and those with a voice for a small and secluded local audience, a worldwide platform from which to share their ideas, research, and perspective. But as all of us know, the dreaded "page not found" error message shows that things once available become, in an instant, unavailable. That is, even the internet does not provide immortality (though it does offer the opportunity for data storage of a more permanent nature).

But what the internet does do is allow widespread dissemination of thought. And though that thought may one day be lost or discarded on the main server, someone, somewhere, may have "saved a copy" on their hard drive and thus one remains "alive" through one's work- immortal.

Immortality. That's why.
I'm not really sure that immortality comes into it much for me. I am not a published author or an academic who frets about months or even years of labor being consigned to nothing and I don't feel that the most important things in life are that strangers will know what I thought once I'm gone from this earth.

For me the third reasons ring especially familiar, with elements of the second as well.

I also have to mention that in our own communities, one doesn't have to go back to the 16th century or the 5th to find exceptions that prove the rule. This is indeed a major, major strength.

Haloscan comments

The Long and Short of the Ba’al Teshuvah Experience

This past Shabbos, while schmoozing with a scholar-in-residence and a local student, the student made a point which he thought was pragmatic, and I thought pointed to a very fundamental reality. This particular student comes from a non-observant but traditional Conservative home. Over the past couple of years, especially in college, he has become steadily more involved with the Orthodox community. Nevertheless, he probably would resist identifying himself as ‘Orthodox’ for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that he hasn’t really bought into all of the ‘dox’. He gave two main reasons for his attraction to Orthodoxy:
  1. Its emphasis on life-long learning

  2. The closeness of Orthodox communities
I told him that those 2 reasons were at the top of my list as well (and in fact I blogged a similar point from R’ Kook’s writing here). In other words, for this student, and for many others that I’ve met over the years, the process by which one joins the Orthodox community is very gradual and devoid of experiences that one might call ‘Conversion Experiences’.

I remember another occasion when I was on a Beis Din for a giyur of a young gentleman who, while becoming more involved in observance, recognized that the giyur that a matrilineal ancestor underwent was entirely insufficient. The Av Beis Din (who, I guarantee, is accepted across the board) asked all of the questions about accepting the mitzvoth, easy ones and hard ones, and summed up by asking if this young man undertakes to be an Orthodox Jew to the best of his ability. He responded that he’s uncomfortable with the label ‘Orthodox’. The Av Beis Din then reformulated the question, asking if the young man undertakes to live a halakhic lifestyle to the best of his ability, to which he answered in the affirmative, and, to make a long story short, the giyur was fine. Again, for this young man, the process was gradual and devoid of conversion experiences.

This isn’t just a ‘one-step-at-a-time’ approach; that approach, which is also pretty common, can mean that one accepts the truth of something, but hasn’t yet overcome old habits enough to implement it. I’m trying to describe a process in which there’s no ‘jump’ or ‘leap’, rather a continuum of natural development.

I find this type of ‘Ba’al Teshuva Story’ to be much more inspiring than instances which involve running away from or rejecting a prior lifestyle. It strikes me as a more complete, organic, and individuated process with a very high rate of ‘mainstreaming’.

I’ll close by citing two high-profile examples which I find to be particularly inspiring:
The first is the noted klezmer artist Andy Statman. After he had already become an accomplished jazz and bluegrass musician, and had decided to explore his own Jewish roots through klezmer, he began a journey which took him to the roots of klezmer in Chassidic niggunim, and as he deepened and developed his own musical style, he became a chassid himself. I’m oversimplifying, but the upshot is that what brought him ‘tachat kanfei ha-shechina’ was a natural progression of what he already had become.

The second example that comes to mind is the late French-Jewish philosopher and activist Benny Levy. A pupil of Levinas and Sartre, his own penetration into the quandaries of existential philosophy led him back to the Judaism that he forsook in his youth. I think that he’s the person who the main character in the central novella of Sabato’s ‘Emet me-Are”tz Titzmach’ (Aleppo Tales) is based.

Haloscan comments

The Slifkin Affair: A Post Mortem

Krum as a bagel

Last week marked a rather depressing end to the Slifkin affair. Or at least the end of a chapter. I am not sure these recent events have been fully digested by the pro-Slifkin camp, whose attitude has been characterized by an almost comical sort of self-denial throughout. I include myself in that category, by the way. I hesitate to blog about this because my own thoughts on the matter are not fully developed, but if my thoughts were fully developed, I wouldn't be blogging, right?

From the first issuance of the ban back in fall 2004, those in the charedi world who felt blindsided by the apparent prohibition on beliefs they understood to be legitimate with support in the masora twisted themselves into pretzels trying to explain why Slifkins views were still valid despite the ban:

They never said the books were kefira, right? Just assur. Oh, they said kefira? I mean they never said he was a kofer, just that he was a person with kefiradik views. Right? They never said I would burn in hell if I read it.

R' So-and-so told me in private that he really really is against the ban, but just won't say it publicly.

I heard that R' So-and-so is going to issue a letter next week saying it was all a big misunderstanding.

I spoke with someone who testified that R Elyushiv was being sarcastic. It was all a monty python-esque spoof. His barber told me that he can recite the entire Life of Brian backwards.

If you take R' Elyashiv's letter and fold it like so and put in on your head, it looks more like a hat than a ban.

The ban was never issued in Chinese so they couldn't have really meant it.

The response from the Gedolim was close to unambiguous:


R' Aharon Feldman subsequently clarified that R' Elyashiv stands by the ban and so does he. R' Shternbuch indicated his support as well. R' Feldman and R' Shternbuch both attempted to give the much requested justification for the ban. Instead, more than anything, these letters showed that the Gedolim are not used to having to explain themselves clearly and coherently. No retractions of the ban or clear statements of support from other cheradi gedolim were forthcoming. In an almost Orwellian manner, institutions such as Aish HaTorah stopped teaching that the world could be billions of years old and many rabbonim in kiruv publicly renounced views they had previously espoused. And then a couple of weeks ago, any remaining doubt was removed when three Major League Gedolim who had not signed the ban, including R' Shmuel Kaminetsky, a Godol with impeccable credentials, whose haskama of his books was the main Charedi pillar of support fo Slifkin, all condemned him.

Quite predictably, even then the pro-Slifkin crowd (including me) questioned the autheticity of R' Shmuel's signature. But then reports issued confirming that the signature was valid.

So where does that leave us? It means that anyone who continues to count themselves as part of the "follow the Gedolim" Charedi world, the world of the Yated and the HaModia, the world of the Mo'etses Gedolei Torah, has to subscribe to a sort of Da'as Torah on steroids. Not only are the views of the Gedolim on any topic authoritative and binding, but the gedolim are empowered to uproot the mesora. This was a central point of R' Moshe Shternbuch's letter (hattip to R' Daniel Eidensohn who makes a similar point at Avodah):

Furthermore these people mistakenly think they have found support for their views amongst our traditional sources. In fact, however, we are obligated to always give precedent to Daas Torah. These are the accepted mainstream Torah views expressed in the Talmud as well as the writings of the great rabbis through the ages. Only those views which have been widely accepted are valid - and not minority views that have been rejected or ignored.

A similar point was made in R' Aharon Feldman's letter, namely that the "revelation" of the Arizal showed that the view among Rishonim that Chazal erred in matters of science was no longer acceptable. I have heard similar things over the last few weeks, like its assur to criticize the Avos without a source in Chazal, and that its assur to offer an explanation of a pasuk contrary to a Chazal, even though the Rishonim did both things fairly regularly. What is happening is a displacement of Judaism of the Rishonim with the Judaism of the Gedolim. The legacy of the Rishonim was truly diverse and rich: they hailed from Spain, the Middle East, from Italy, from France and Germany. They included figures such as the Rambam and the Ramban who truly did have mastery over the secular knowledge of their time in additon to a mastery of the Torah. Their replacement: a narrow group of Israeli and American Torah scholars who all went to nearly identical yeshivas and are all more or less similarly uninformed regarding secular knowledge.

This is why I think the affair is over as far as the Charedi world is concerned. Even if the Pro-Slifkin crowd's fantasy were realized -- an Edah-style public roundtable discussion involving all of the Gedolim regarding the ban -- the result would be the same. There is no way to reason with this type of thinking because it is self executing. It's assur because R' Elyashiv and the other Gedolim said so and no marshalling of sources or logical argumentation can change that.

For many, this is may not be relevant. There is thankfully a diversity of rabinnical views out there, rabbis who have a narrower view of what Daas Torah means. Rabbis who follow the footsteps of the Rishonim, and who value rationalism and science. And these rabbis are not only in YU, but can be found in Charedi yeshivos as well. But to follow them means rejecting the hashkafa of R' Shternbuch, R' Elyashiv, R' Perlow, R' Dovid Feinstein, rabbonim who I and many others follow on issues of halakha and respect greatly.

There. That's my last Slifkin post. (Until my next one :-)).

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Did the Chafetz Chaim say "Kook shmook"?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell

Without dredging up the old Frumteens controversy, Rael Levinsohn posts a letter from R. Aharon HaKohen, son-in-law of the Chafetz Chaim, to R. Kook in 1928 which clarifies his father-in-law's attitude towards R. Kook.

Let's just say the assertion by the Frumteens moderator that the Chafetz Chaim dismissed R. Kook saying, "Kook, shmook" (e.g., schmuck בלע"ז) is quite impossible and seems definitely refuted. Rav Aharon HaKohen
Author of the book ‘Avodat HaKorbanot’
Son in law of the Gaon Israel Meir HaKohen Shlit”a author of the book Chafetz Chaim and Mishna Brura
Tel Aviv, Eretz Yisrael

With Hashem’s help, 5688 (1928)

Even though my heart was always greatly pained when people who claim to be observant of Torah and mitzvoth dare to disparage the brilliant and righteous, pious and modest, leader of the land of Israel, our teacher Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook Shlit”a – I refrained from public protest regarding the honor of the Torah. [This is because] I know that my master and teacher, the Chafetz Chaim Shlit”a – who honors and is very fond of the honorable Gaon Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Shlit”a and whose heart was greatly sickened when he heard of the persecutions against [the Rav] – did not come out with public rebuke regarding this, saying that silence regarding such matters and the reduction of their publicity is [the proper way] to repair them – [that is] to lessen and reduce their value. (nevertheless, no one dares utter words of disparagement against our teacher Rav Avaraham Yitzchak HaKohen Shlit”a in front of our master[, the Chafetz Chaim,] and he would turn his eyes with contempt from any posters [disparaging Rav Kook -ed]).

However, when I recently saw that a periodical that has appeared – which arrogantly dares to call itself “meeting place of the sages” – wrote horrible, cursed, and blasphemous words against our teacher Rav Avaraham Yitzchak HaKohen Shlit”a – [words which] are forbidden to even put in print – I find it a holy obligation in my soul not to be silent (as is explicit in the Rambam הלכות ת"ת פ"ו הל' יא-יב). [This is because] someone who disparages a Torah scholar has no portion in the world to come, and is in the category of one who “despises the Word of Hashem” (כי דבר ה' בזה), and we are obligated to banish him. [And this is especially true regarding] this brilliant and pious [rav] – that it is forbidden to remain silent [on this matter] and we must go out and rebuke this humiliation of the Torah, and join ourselves to the protest and great anger of the rabbis and sages of the Holy Land and the exile regarding these words of villainy. [Thus] we should not see [that which is] Holy destroyed, G-d Forbid.

And may Hashem, may His Name be Blessed, remove the disgrace from the children of Israel and raise the honor of our Holy Torah. These are the words [of one] who writes with a wounded and agitated heart regarding the honor of our holy Torah which is [being] given over to disgrace.

Aharon HaKohen
Son in law of the brilliant Rav, the righteous Chafetz Chaim, Shlit”a

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Reading of Shabbat 31a, Part II

[continued from here]

Now that the context and character of this/these stories has/have been set out, the interpretations of the stories themselves becomes much more focused. Here’s an English translation (Soncino) of the text under discussion (From ‘Our Rabbis taught on 31a).

In each of these stories, the potential ger is motivated to find his way ‘under the wings of the Shechinah’, but is also held back by certain barriers. Whereas Shammai disqualifies each for not having what it takes, Hillel works with the individual until the barriers are overcome.

The following is my own attempt to make literary and religious sense out of each episode, and shouldn’t be read as an attempt to define the authoritative meaning of the texts. If my readings seem somewhat autobiographical, well, it’s to be expected:
  1. Why would a person coming in off the street ask “How many Torahs/Teachings do you have?”? Furthermore, if one of us were asked such a question, how many of us would answer like Shammai, and how many would go with the more intuitive answer of “One”? It seems that he’s looking for something authoritative. THE Truth. The Singular, Unadulterated, Immaculate Word of God. Shammai makes it clear to him that there’s really no such thing in Judaism. Sure, we have such a text, but that text isn’t the sole basis for Jewish worship. The Gentile only wishes to encounter the Word directly, and have no truck with anything that might have been corrupted by human fallibility. Hillel’s lesson is less about the authority of the Oral Law and more about the need to trust and rely on fellow human beings in the search for religious meaning; there is no encounter with God, or with His Truth, which is not filtered through human beings. Nevertheless, Hillel recognized that the Gentile’s impulse was good, though immature.
  2. The second, and probably most famous of these episodes, involves the Gentile who asks to be taught the Torah while he stands on one foot. The expression ‘al regel achat’ has entered modern Hebrew from this narrative as an expression of extreme brevity. What’s this fellow looking for? He wants to learn the whole Torah, but as he stands on one foot. He’s tougher to profile, as this can be the result of a number of factors and a combination thereof. Perhaps he’s simply a shallow thinker, who needs a slogan, a bumper sticker. Perhaps he knows that he’s got no attention span to sit and learn. Perhaps, beyond both of these, stands an ‘activist’. He’s a ‘doer’, not a ‘learner’, and he needs a slogan that can become his raison d’etre. Shammai and Hillel, we’ll assume, are both aware of the irreducibility of the Torah to mere slogans. Shammai even uses a ‘yardstick’ to drive the person away – an instrument of precision and insistence upon detail – as if his medium is itself his message. Hillel, however, sees someone who is restless and driven and in search of a cause to devote his life to. In a brilliant move, Hillel responds to this ‘activist’ by giving him a ‘passive’ cause, and then encouraged him to explore it further on its own. This guy’s rarin’ to go do ‘Tikkun Olam’ (said with the best American accent) and Hillel throws a monkey wrench into his thinking by suggesting that the Torah’s purposes are fulfilled by what we don’t do as much, if not more, than by what we do, in the human sphere. Must’ve confused the heck out of the guy, putting in position indeed, to continue his studies.
  3. The third Gentile, I’m convinced, really was Jewish from the outset, because I believe that he had a Jewish mother. He comes in with the attitude of “I can be whatever I want to be, as long as I put my mind to it”. If he’s impressed by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the High Preist, and that’s what he wants to do, then by golly he can do it and nobody can tell him otherwise. There are really two issues with this fellow: one is that he doesn’t have the lineage to be the High Preist. The second, which isn’t really addressed by the Gemara, is that his attraction to Judaism is the funky priestly J-bling. Even if the first reason can be overcome, the second issue seems to be a far more serious problem. Cool Chai necklaces isn’t necessarily the best reason to become Jewish. Hillel, however, saw something beyond. The priestly garments and the pomp surrounding their ceremony, is not for the glory of the wearer, rather, for the Glory of God – kavod u-tiferet in the words of the Chumash. The guards at Buckingham Palace – you know, the fellows with the spodeks – are ‘honor gaurds. The ceremony and pomp surrounding their uniforms are not their own glory, but reflect the glory of something much greater than themselves. I think this would be more akin to someone saying that they have ambition to become a baseball player so that they can don the revered Yankee pinstripes. Hillel takes a very sound educational approach: let the learner discover for himself what his own shortcomings are. If one aspires to be a doctor, let them take organic chemistry. It has this amazing ability to weed out the underqualified, more than a heart-to-heart-you-don’t-have-what-it-takes speech. Hillel encourages him. Once he begins studying, he realizes how far away he is. He’s ‘coming with his staff and wallet’. He’s eaten his humble pie. He tells Shammai his chiddush; amazing how with people like this the only way for something to register is for them to learn it on their own. Yet, Hillel, even with this fellow, found a way to bring him under the wings of the Shekhinah.

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The Conversion Experience

When referring to gerim and the process of giyur, the terms are often translated as ‘converts’ and ‘conversion’. Probably because nobody knows what the hell a ‘proselyte’ is. Had I not grown up on the Blackman Mishnayoth, I’d think it’s the opposite of an electrolyte, but I digress.

The term ‘conversion’ implies a radical break, and rather instantaneous. The paradigm ‘conversion experience’, for William James, the father of comparative religion, is Saul of Tarsus (aka St. Paul) beholding the vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. He’s not the same after the experience.

If the issue were belief, then I suppose a conversion can happen fairly instantaneously. I don’t believe in Jesus. BAM! Now I believe in Jesus. By the yidden, the process is far different. One can experience an epiphany and decide to believe in the Torah and the Covenant, but for us that’s just the beginning.

I think Chazal were onto something when they referred to ‘Jews by Choice’ as ‘gerim’. The term literally means ‘immigrants’ (not ‘strangers’ as is often translated). The process of becoming Jewish is very similar to the process of immigrating which, incidentally, is a highly traumatic experience. It means learning a new language, culture, attitudes, laws, you name it. Granted, there is a ‘moment’ when the legal (read: Halakhic) status of the ger changes from non-Jew to Jew, but the process is really much longer than that.

To illustrate, compare the process of giyur to the process of naturalization. In the US, the process of naturalization culminates with conferral of legal citizenship by the court. In halakha, a beit din confers the status of ‘ben brit’ upon the ger. In both, there is an agreement to protect and uphold the Law (Constitution/Torah) of the nation, and a binding of one’s fate with the fate of that nation. The parallels here are stronger than parallels to other types of religious conversion.

I find this line of reasoning helpful when trying to explain a) why being Jewish isn’t simply a matter of ‘personal choice’ or ‘identification’; citizenship (or enfranchisement) is a real, legal construct which has broad consensus and must be conferred by a representative body of the absorbing nation; b) why Orthodoxy doesn’t accept heterodox conversions.

Another implication is that nowadays, the baal teshuvah experience can also be a process akin to immigration, just without the issues of personal status (kinda like making Aliyah). Thinking about it in this way can help identify what some of the attractions and difficulties of taking on a Halakhic lifestyle involves.

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R' Elyashiv on Passing Judgment on Books

Krum as a bagel
Over at Krum, I posted a letter of R' Aharon Feldman recently printed in a number of Israeli newspapers regarding R' Elyashiv's views on rabbinic judgment of books. As I noted, the contrast with the process that led to the ban on R' Slifkin's writings is quite stark. For the benefit of the Maven readership, a rough translation:

This to certify that yesterday I asked Rabbi Elyashiv shlit"a about his opinion on the books regarding marital issues by Tehila Abramov. He answered me that he approved of the books [lit.: leaned his hands on them] after they (including the english editions) were subjected to examination by a bes din of experts which did not find in them any flaw except for a number of minor matters that were corrected in the new edition. And I am certain that those that oppose the books have not read them and we should not rely on their opinions.

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