Friday, August 30, 2013

Lesbians and levirs

 A guest post by Y. Bloch

Here are some quotes for you from a famous Torah blogger:

There is more to the Torah than forbidden and permissible. Those areas also teach us about values.

It seems clear from multiple places in rabbinic literature that some prohibitions are considered worse than others. And some permitted but frowned upon acts are also considered terrible.
You continue to pursue the permitted/forbidden line of argument so we are just talking in circles, which is not worth either of our times. I am not interested in repeating that we [need] to look to the Torah for guidance beyond permitted/forbidden...

As you might have guessed from the title, these are from Rabbi Gil Student, proprietor of Hirhurim (now called Torah Musings). Honestly, I do not frequent the site, but this week I saw a link to David P. Goldman's "Can Conservative Religion Survive Gay Marriage?" It's an interesting piece, although much of it was lost on me because I don't have a background in Catholic theology. I commented, and Goldman responded to me very politely. I had some remaining issues, so I responded, at which point Gil stepped in. His point seems to be that even though there is no halakhic ban on lesbianism among non-Jews, we still need to fight for DOMAesque legislation based on "values." So I asked what the value was. That was the end of that thread. Gil independently raised what I had written, so we engaged anew, until I asked: "What about gay marriage is improper based on values? If you say that they cannot form sacred unions, why not? Because the Torah forbids it? That is a forbidden/ permitted argument QED." We went back and forth, and I asked again, "What is this value that gay marriage does not have?" R. Student has informed me (thanks for the prompt response) that I am not banned, but my further comments were deemed repetitive and therefore not approved. See his comment below.

 I'll give you my take on the one Jewish source mentioned in the article, raised two months ago by another blogger...

In the weeks since the rulings of the United States Supreme Court on the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Proposition 8, there has been a lot of hand-wringing as to what Judaism has to say about the issue. Despite what Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann may think, the Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament and what Jews call the Written Torah, can hardly be read as defining traditional marriage as between one man and one woman. After all, the favorite verses of those who attack same-sex relationships, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, mention men only, leaving our lesbian sisters (you know, like Edith Windsor, the widow who challenged DOMA) out in the cold. Moreover, the whole passage is about sex, not marriage, an issue which was settled a decade ago. What authentic Jewish source talks about gay marriage anyway?
This brings us to a source cited by Rabbi Micha Berger of the Aspaqlaria blog. Lev. 18:3 commands the Israelites to shun the practices of both Egypt, where they were born, and Canaan, where they are headed, then concludes "And you shall not walk in their ordinances." What does this mean? The Sifra (ad loc.) writes:
One might think that one may not construct buildings or cultivate plants as they do, so the verse says, "And you shall not walk in their ordinances" -- I have only said this regarding the ordinances ordained for them, their parents and their grandparents. What would they do? A man would marry a man, a woman would marry a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would be married to two men.
There it is, black on white: not just gay men, but lesbians too; not just sex, but marriage as well. And this is not just midrash, exegesis; it is the Sifra, the volume of halakhic midrash for Leviticus. And everything in halakhic midrash is halakhic, right? As in legally binding? And we're talking about what the Egyptians were doing wrong, so it applies so to non-Jews as well, to all the children of Noah, right?
Ay, there's the rub. You see, halakhic midrash is NOT halakha. There are many opinions recorded in it, some of which are accepted and some of which are rejected. This formulation falls in the category of the rejected, because the Talmud in Sanhedrin 58a, as codified by Maimonides (Laws of Kings 9:5), actually allows a non-Jew to marry his wife's daughter, even though a Jew may not do so, even after divorcing his wife.
Woody, I've got good news and bad news...
R. Berger explains:
Again, even according to the Torah, the ban on homosexuality is Noachide, and was part of human morality before it was included in the Sinai Covenant... The question isn't whether halakhah forbids it, or even (which is what we're arguing here) the Torah testifies that natural law forbids it. (That the Egyptians who did contract gay marriage are held accountable because they should have known better.) The question is whether US law is in the business of enforcing morality.
R. Berger decides that morality is not the province of US law. However, I must dispute his formulation of "natural law" or "human morality" which the Torah only "testifies to" or has "included." Who decides what makes the cut? If we use Leviticus 18-20 as the template, how do we deal with the fact that there are sixteen forbidden relationships listed, only six of which are forbidden for Noahides as well? If these are all universal, and the Egyptians are held "accountable" for them, why do they get to stay in their land? Why does this concept get nary a mention in the Book of Exodus? What of all the great people born from relationships banned in Leviticus 18-20, including Moses and David? What of all the people involved in such relationships, including 3 out of 4 matriarchs and 2 out of 3 patriarchs? (Isaac and Rebecca, of course, were just first cousins once removed, which is fine; almost two dozen states don't even care about the "removed" part.) Are all Jews "natural" or "moral" bastards, born out of incestuous unions?

Let's take just one example from this list of moral/ natural laws: "You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife: it is your brother's nakedness" (v. 16). Pretty straightforward, right? Universal, moral, natural. Yet there is a mitzva of yibbum, of levirate marriage, already embraced in the Book of Genesis--and ultimately carried out not by the brother-in-law, but the father-in-law, another forbidden relation. His name is Judah, and there's a whole people named after him now. Is that unnatural?
The greatest strength of Judaism is that we have a morality ensconced in law: knowable law, revealed law, debated law. This law grapples with the changing reality every day. Undermining it in a search for something beyond is a fool's errand.

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Taliban Jews

Are there any normal people left in the RW world? How do you morons allow your wives and daughters to be erased?
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Thursday, August 29, 2013

David Greenfield Doesn't Understand His Community...Or Does He?

From an ad on Yeshiva World News this morning:
"'I remember getting mugged when I was a kid on my way to yeshiva. Ever since Joe Hynes was elected District Attorney our community has been safe. That's why I support Joe Hynes.'
--Councilman David Greenfield"

Yes, you did just read that. Yes, founding Director of TEACH NYS and City Councilman David Greenfield does think that "ever since Joe Hynes was elected District Attorney our community has been safe."

If by his community, Greenfield means the people of Brooklyn or even just the Jews of Brooklyn, then he's sadly mistaken. He apparently doesn't know what their children have gone through. But I guess it's true if by his community, Greenfield is referring to his more powerful constituents who protected abusers and his chevra at Fox & Friends.

I don't live in New York and don't know all the issues there, but might be kedai to consider voting Jacob Flusberg for City Council of the 44th District in the primary.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

 A guest post by Y. Bloch

Earlier this year, I was deposed by a private firm investigating sexual abuse allegations at Yeshiva University High School.

I can understand why they wanted to talk to me. Though one of the main alleged offenders, Macy Gordon, was before my time, I knew the other, George (Gedalia) Finkelstein quite well. My father served under and eventually succeeded him as assistant principal of YUHS for Boys, also known as MTA, and as rabbi of our shul. He was also our neighbor, in the next apartment building over on Fort Washington Avenue in Manhattan. His daughter was my first crush.

But apparently, there was a lot I didn't know about George. I didn't know about his habit of "wrestling" students in the 70's and 80's, although apparently then-YU President Rabbi Norman Lamm did, as reported by The Forward's Paul Berger. The door was taken off his office to prevent this from recurring, but eventually he "was quietly forced out" in 1995. Don't worry, he landed on his feet, taking over a huge Jewish school in Florida before making aliya a few years later to work for Jerusalem's Great Synagogue. Complaints have been lodged here as well--with our old friends at Takanah.

When these allegations surfaced late last year, current YU Pres. Richard Joel issued the following statement:
The inappropriate behavior and abuse alleged by The Forward to have taken place in the past, and described in statements attributed by The Forward to Dr. Lamm, are reprehensible. The actions described represent heinous and inexcusable acts that are antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for. They have no place here, in our community, or anywhere at all. The thought that such behavior could have occurred at our boys’ high school, or anywhere at this institution, at any time in its past, is more than sufficient reason to express on behalf of the University, my deepest, most profound apology.
It's a forceful statement, until you analyze it a bit. Joel is reacting to the Forward, what they "allege" and what they "attribute." He does not mention any victims, except to talk about the great YU guidelines for aiding theoretical people. After all, it's just a thought of such behavior, and only in that context does he "express... my deepest, most profound apology." Are there victims? Did any of this occur? Did Rabbi Lamm say this? Who knows!

A week later, they hired a firm to investigate these allegations, and their report came out yesterday, with another statement from Joel:
There are findings set forth in this report that serve as a source of profound shame and sadness for our institution. On behalf of the Board of Trustees and the entire University community, I express my deepest and most heartfelt remorse, and truly hope that our recognition of these issues provides some level of comfort and closure to the victims. Although we cannot change the past, we remain committed to making confidential counseling services available to those individual victims in the hope they can achieve a more peaceful future.
Now that he has an actual report, he's not apologetic, but remorseful. I guess we should be happy that he acknowledges the existence of victims, although he does not offers apologies or remorse to them. The problem here is that remorse (from the Latin remorsus) refers to a gnawing sense of guilt, pangs of conscience. However, what does not appear in this statement are the words "sorry," "apologize," "regret," "teshuva," "repentance" or "forgiveness." But that might imply liability.
After all, people have informed me on social media, and I quote, "This is as good as it gets when you are being sued for $680 milllion." Well, it's true that more than a dozen of the victims filed suit against YU for $380 million in July. Hm, maybe they should thank George for this potential windfall. I mean, once you sue, you're not a victim anymore, right? And it's inconceivable that there are other victims out there who didn't sue, right? Phew, glad that's over.

So why am I "fixated on a word," to quote another commenter? Because this sort of stuff matters to abuse victims. Check out Yerachmiel Lopin's Frum Follies blog or follow Dorron Katzin on Twitter; they are excellent at covering these scandals. You'll quickly get a sense of how important a clear, unambiguous, direct apology can be. Moreover, the lack of consequences for associating with abusers after their crimes have been exposed was recently dissected by former RCA Pres. Rabbi Heshie Billet. YU can and must do much more right now, even though Joel's through-line seems to be "we cannot change the past" and touting the awesomeness of the university's guidelines for the future. What about the present?

Indeed, Sir Elton, sorry seems to be the hardest word. In fact, one of the classic questions about this season of penitence is the following: why does it matter? Why should saying "sorry" or "we have sinned" change anything? Isn't it just an empty ritual?

No, it's not. It means something, because it implies the need to do something to rectify the error, as best we can. At least that's what I thought until Pres. Joel set me straight:
...on Yom Kippur, Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the second set of luchot, the Ten Commandments. These tablets differed from the first in that they were written by God and yet fashioned by Moses...
In the season of introspection, we must fortify that relationship by recommitting to the ongoing work of creation. If our future is to align with the ethical and personal imperatives of our sacred Torah, then we must not wait – we must make it so, not merely in word but in action.
Did you think Yom Kippur was about past misdeeds? No, it's about moving on. Take two new tablets for that remorse, and don't call me in the morning. Assuming you can sleep through the night.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

The case against Pius 12

There's been some loose Twitter talk lately about how Pius 12 is again on the verge of being canonized. The Church, of course, can do what it likes, but canonizing Pius 12 would demonstrate that the stain of Jew hatred that the church wore for nearly 2000 years remains intact and is perhaps indelible. 

Read on for the case against Pius 12 in brief.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Repentance is hard, remittance is easy

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Just a brief after-Shabbat report from the Holy Land. While we Ashkenazim are breathing a sigh of relief that we have one more week before Selihot start, our Sephardic brothers are in full penitential mode. Luckily, their greatest living rabbinic star, Maran R. Ovadia Yosef, has a solution.

Send $99.99 to his favorite charity, and he will pray FOR you on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur eves! Yes, you will be named as a co-supplicant with Maran!

I exaggerate, of course. By today's exchange rate, 360 shekels would actually be one hundred dollars and thirty-one cents. Still, keep your eyes on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange--the annual salvation of your soul may get cheaper yet.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

DovBear revises his thinking (again)

All credit to Rabbi Josh Yuter for showing me this rabbinic teaching:

דברים רבה (וילנא) פרשת כי תבוא פרשה ז מה השמן הזה אין יכול להתערב במשקין אחרים אף ישראל אין יכולין להתערב בעובדי כוכבים

I don't know who said it, or when it was said, but the words mean, "Just as oil doesn't mix with other liquids, so doesn't Israel mix with idol worshipers." If you've been around the blog this month, you know that similar words appeared on a controversial summer camp project.

Originally, I denounced the thinking behind this project, both here and on Facebook. But after reading something Ksil wrote, I had a change of heart and put this on Facebook and the original post's thread:
A commenter on my blog made a very solid point about the arts and crafts project with the nasty label on it. I am going to rephrase it here: 
Anyone one observant should think twice before they criticize the message found here. Sure it sounds nasty, but does an observant person who really thinks about his observances disagree with the point? Observant people won't eat food cooked by a nonJew or drink wine that a non Jew has touched, or take cheese that came from a nonJewish cow. Why? Because (in the view of Chazal) Jews and Gentiles don't mix, so they enacted restrictions to keep us apart.
Fair point, no?
So two points:
1) Ksil is definitely right that the idea that Jews don't mix with Gentiles is built into normative Orthodox Judaism' therefore it was wrong for us to treat it like some kind of crazy Hasidic bias. Any Orthodox Jew who abstains from eating their cooking or avoids their wine and cheese tacitly agrees with the statement found on that label.
2)  The passage from Devarim Raba (cited above) seems to make those decrees unnecessary. If it is true that Jews are incapable of mixing with Gentiles, why are the Akum this and Akum that decrees necessary?  You can throw water and oil into the same glass, and they will never mix. You don't need artificial decrees to keep them apart. Nature does the work for you.  If Jews are like water and Gentiles are like oil, assimilation should be impossible and interactions should be permitted.
There are a few members of the blogging community who are dead certain that I never revise my thinking, offer corrections or apologize for mistakes. In particular I am thinking of one of the many Michaels and a person called Abbi. It would be wonderful if you could help me let them know of the existence of this post, and many others like it.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Moses: soft on gays?

A guest post by Y. Bloch
The phrase "Let this year commence with its blessings" is a a common pre-Rosh Hashana greeting, but it is its converse. "Let that year conclude with its curses," which has a much longer history. It's the reason that we always read the 98 Curses of Deuteronomy 28 at least a week before the new year, according to the Talmud (Megilla 31b). However, that same passage indicates that, frightening though they might be, these curses are the mild ones. The ghost-pepper curses are the ones in Leviticus 26. Rashi (Deut. 28:23) explains the distinction:
These curses were stated by Moses of his own accord, while those at Sinai he pronounced from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed is He. This is demonstrated by the verses themselves... Moses made his curses milder, by expressing them in the singular form. Furthermore, in this curse, Moses made his milder... saying that the skies will sweat, and thus, even though they will not pour down rain, there will not be a consuming drought in the world.
The part about Moses stating these of his own accord is a philosophically thorny issue which I wrote about earlier this week. Regardless, it does force us to look at the Book of Deuteronomy in a different way, especially in its relationship to the Book of Leviticus.
  • In Lev. 25:1-7, the sabbatical year is about letting the land observe "the sabbath of the Lord;" in Deut. 15:1-6, it's all about debt relief.
  • Lev. 25:46 says "You shall enslave them forever," while Deut. 23:16 demands that the runaway slave be welcomed. (These dueling verses were used by supporters of slavery and abolition respectively in 19th-century America).
  • Lev. 18:3 utterly rejects Egyptian culture, while Deut. (23:7-8) commands: "You shall not abominate an Egyptian."
  • Speaking of abominations, while this is a term used exclusively for illicit sex in Lev. 18 & 20, in Deut. it denotes a wide range of taboos: from idolatry and non-kosher food to various types of commercial, ritual and sexual fraud and those actual threats to traditional marriage: prostitution and divorce.
  • In Lev. 23, holidays are about sacrifices; in Deut. 16, they are about sharing the wealth with one's family and the poor.
  • In fact, Leviticus mentions joy once; Deuteronomy talks about it a dozen times. In fact, Deuteronomy has three times more cheer than all of the other books combined! Truly, Deuteronomy is the gayest Book.
Hey, that reminds me, what about the gays? The fundamentalists tell us that their battle against "the homosexual agenda" (I can only assume it involves a dictatorship under Andy Cohen) is so exigent because society cannot survive if gays are tolerated, recognized or allowed to marry. Surely, if shrimp are an abomination in Deuteronomy, gays must be as well.

This makes the preamble to the Curses all the more curious. You see, before the (Blessings and the) Curses in chap. 28, chap. 27 details what would make the nation cursed. The whole people must assemble, upon crossing the Jordan, and forge a covenant; but since no one knows what happens behind closed doors, the people as a whole must execrate eleven types of covert transgressors. What secret sins undermine society? Well, we find the expected stuff about not abusing parents, neighbors, the blind, orphans, widows and strangers (yawn), but where's the sexy stuff? Right in the middle (vv. 20-23):
Cursed be he that lies with his father's wife; becase he uncovers his father's bed. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lies with any kind of animal. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lies with his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lies with his mother-in-law. And all the people shall say, Amen.
Wait, that's it? Where are the gays? Doesn't any decent society need to strongly express its condemnation of their lifestyle?

In fact, sex between men is mentioned just as many times in the Torah as sex with one's daughter-in-law: namely, once each in Lev. 18 and 20. (Fewer, if you count the Judah and Tamar story.) Say, how many organizations are out there combating daughter-in-law love?
Moses knows what he is doing. It's first-degree incest and bestiality that challenge society, not two men registering at Sur La Table.

I'll leave you with this thought. Next week, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Great March on Washington, but I remember a different event, 25 years ago, the one for Soviet Jewry. I was too young to go, but my parents did, and it was an exhilarating experience. It was the clearest civil-rights issue of my youth: Russia was oppressing people who just wanted to be who they were, in public and without fear; so many were afraid to embrace their identity, rightly concerned about what the totalitarian government might do to them as "subversive elements" and "enemies of the state." Beatings, imprisonment or worse--the brutality of bigotry in the starkest terms.

So, when's the March on Washington for Russian gays?

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Why the Ben Sorer is an apikores

וסובא -מרבה לשתות והוא המשתכר, והנה זה כמו אפיקורוס כי לא יבקש חיי העוה"ז כי אם להתענג בכל מיני מאכל ומשתה.

This is a very straightforward ibn Ezra comment, I think. He is saying here that the wayward son discussed in Deuteronomy 21 is "like an Epicurean who seeks nothing from the world other then to savor all kinds of foods and drink." The trouble is that in Hebrew the word apikores has undergone a semantic shift. Today it means any kind of Jewish heretic, but in this comment ibn Ezra clearly has in mind an actual follower of Epicurius, the Greek philosopher who discounted everything supernatural and taught that pleasure was the greatest good.

The difficulty is that Epicurius was not a hedonist as we typically use the word. Though he did put the pursuit of pleasure above all other things, arguing that we should use our time in the world for the pursuit of pleasure alone, he would not have agreed that "savoring fine foods and drinks" were the greatest pleasure. He taught that true pleasure came from knowledge of the world, and control over ones desires. In Rabbinic lore he is remembered as a hedonist and disbeliever which is how his name became our word for those who dissent from Jewish dogma. However, I don't think ibn Ezra is using the word this way. I think he means the boy is pursuing pleasure for the sake of pleasure in the manner of an Epicurian.

This misunderstanding leads to hilarity and confusion. Here's one of our blogging Rabbis getting caught up in the problem and going to great and unnecessary lengths to untangle himself:
The Ibn Ezra says that a ben sorer umoreh is punishable by sekiloh because since his sole goal in this world is to pursue the pleasures of food and drink he has acquired the status of an apikores. Why does such a person deserve the extreme appellation of an apikores?  
A person who conducts himself in a completely unbridled manner without any desire to achieve closeness to the Creator is presumed to eventually become a robber, and is already currently considered to be an apikores (heretic) because he has two disadvantages. Firstly, he does not believe that he will be held to account for his actions before Hashem, and secondly, his actions of stealing from his father and being a glutton indicate that his character traits are also corrupt. Someone with only bad character traits and correct views can overcome his corrupt nature with some intellectual effort, and someone with some positive character traits can utilize those to improve his behavior, but a ben sorer umoreh, who has neither advantage, has no hope.
I'm not unsympathetic to the Rabbi's predicament. I remember quite clearly being taught, in the ibn Ezra's name, that someone who eats and drinks all day long at the expense of Torah learning and commandment performing is no better than disbeliever. This error comes from an inability on the part of our pious ones to recognize the sense in which ibn Ezra employs the word apikores.

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Peek-a-Jew: White House Edition


Jeffery Goldberg pointed out on twitter that the cover photo currently up on The White House website is of the President and Jews. (Click on the picture to view a larger version).

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Something most of you have never done: Meet a real Palestenian

For the last several weeks, I've been following @ellekay_ on Twitter. All I know about her comes from her profile and feed. Here is what I have determined so far:
  • She is a Muslim Palestinian who lives in the US where she attends University. She is pre-med
  • Currently she is in Israel on a visit. She's mentioned trips to  friends and relatives.
  • She has first hand experience with Israeli settlers and soldiers. You get the feeling that they have mistreated her and/or her family.
  • She's entirely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, in a way that borders on jingoistic. Honestly, this reminds me of many of the Modern Orthodox Zionists I know. They say everything Israel does is wonderful, and that no Palestinian can be trusted, while she takes precisely the opposite view.  
  • I do not believe that she supports terrorism or violence, but I admit that is a hunch, based on nothing concrete.
  • That said, I believe she may be sympathetic and somewhat understanding of the violence she doesn't support, in the way too many of my friends were sympathetic and understanding when Goldstein went on his rampage. My own father-in-law denounced Goldstien out of one side of his mouth, while explaining and justifying what he did out of the other. My sense is @ellekay_ takes a similar view of her terrorists, but I am not certain.
What I find most appealing about her Tweets is that they provide a side of the story too many of us forget exists. She's writes about what it feels like to see Israeli soldiers everywhere and to encounter fellow Palestinians who are desperate and hopeless. She tells us what its like to go through checkpoints, to see the security wall from the Palestinian side, or to hear IDF drones and gunfire outside her building. She tweets about kids who throw rocks, and the welcome home receptions that released prisoners received.

Best of all there seems to be nothing contrived, or overtly political about her Tweets. This is just a real person, reporting real experiences, honestly encountered. That fact that these experiences are so different from ours, while simultaneously being so familiar,  is what makes them so intriguing.

Here's a sampling:

Lara ‏@ellekay_22h
At bus stops in WB, illegal settlers get to stand under the shade and sit on the bench and Palestinians have to stand far away, in the sun.

Lara ‏@ellekay_20 Aug
On our way to Haifa. 💚❤ Forever mesmerized by the beauty of every inch of this land. 

Lara ‏@ellekay_20 Aug
It's no wonder Zionists always brush the apartheid wall off as if its nothing. You don't even notice it on this side.

Lara ‏@ellekay_17h
Just had an interesting drive home. Came across several IOF jeeps so we had to turn around, had my first experience w/ tear gas.. ouch

Lara ‏@ellekay_19 Aug
@nadiadaniali @MayanFT I'm here now. The whole West Bank is settlements and checkpoints. We're unwanted + banned strangers in the rest.

Lara ‏@ellekay_19 Aug
The Arabs suck. They only care about Palestine if it suits their current political agenda

Lara ‏@ellekay_19 Aug
This guy was killed yesterday in a refugee camp while passing out wedding invitations. Why is the world so sick? 😪

Lara ‏@ellekay_18 Aug
@JareerKassis @Widgitt today, some guys got into a fight and killed each other for no reason in the refugee camp. corruption everywhere.

Lara ‏@ellekay_18 Aug
. It took 5 hours to get to Yaffa 2day (45 min away).Our"birthright" is apparently suffering

Lara ‏@ellekay_18 Aug
The whole West Bank is expanding settlements and checkpoints, Palestinians are strangers in "israel", and the people are sick of resisting.

Lara ‏@ellekay_18 Aug
I was thinking before that the whole Middle East is up in flames while Palestine is relatively calm.. no, Palestine is almost gone.

More on this in the next post

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Marry a man you don't love

Here's something true and powerful I saw on Facebook. Don't doubt this happens. The only criticism is that it fails to acknowledge that there is also a male side of this equation.

Marry a man you do not love. Hear about him from your great-aunt Faiga, and then from your great-aunt Shprintza. Nod politely as they gush about his middos. Smile graciously as they rave about his learning. Agree respectfully that he will, indeed, be the next gadol hador.

Concede to their pleas to meet him just once. Put on your Shabbos suit – the navy one, not the black. Blow-dry your hair in front of the mirror. Apply a small amount of pale pink lipstick and some blush. No eye makeup. Slip into your navy 2” heels with the large hideous bow. Walk down the stairs. Groan inwardly when you see him, shifting uncomfortably in the straight back chair.

Russian Gays may one day be German Jews

Like I told the social networks this morning:

Any Jew who can't understand why no one stopped Hitler back in 1935 needs to ask himself what he is doing today to help Russian gays.

Predictably, some took offense at this comparison, and delivered responses endeavoring to make it abundantly clear that Germans murdered Jews, while the Russians are merely talking smack. True. But as I said in my follow-up:

I said 1935. In 1935 no one anticipated genocide. In 1935 the issue was persecution and outrageous public statements and pre-Olympic posturing. Sound familiar? Moreover, just two years earlier, in 1933 German Orthodox Rabbis (including the Sridei Aish) wrote to Hitler pledging loyalty and expressing the belief that his antisemitism was mere political posturing that could be dropped now that he was securely in power.

That letter the rabbis sent to Hitler, by the way,  ranks as one of the top unintentionally embarrassing things our leaders have ever done. You can be sure the German Rabbis meant well, and consulted Daas Torah and everything. They  probably believed that Hitler was a rational actor who could be trusted to behave sensibly. History proved them wrong, of course, but its hard to blame them for not knowing in 1935 what we know in 2013.

Monday, August 19, 2013

What proof is the Torah?

 A guest post by Y. Bloch

This summer, the Knesset passed a draconian law unfairly targeting a segment of the Israeli public of which I am a proud part: alcoholics. Taxes on liquor shot up across the country, and the higher the alcohol content, the higher the price. Shocking! Who's to say that 4% Coors Light should be cheaper than Yekev HaGalil's 96% Gold?

Oh, it's our Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Never mind then, I can't say no that beautiful, beautiful man.

Maybe he has a point. Maybe there is a difference between different types of alcoholic drinks. After all, there's a reason that we drink beer in steins, wine in goblets and vodka in shot glasses. The proof is in the proof.

What does this have to do with this summer's raging debate on Torah mi-Sinai? Perhaps more than one might think. We keep obsessing over the eighth Maimonidean Principle of Faith, in which he basically quotes the Talmud's statement that anyone who declares that any verse of the Torah was "not said by the Holy One, Blessed be He, but by Moses of his own accord" is a heretic (anonymous beraita in Sanhedrin 99a; also R. Eleazar of Modiin, Sifrei, Num. 112), but the Talmud itself elsewhere (Abbayei in Megilla 31b) says exactly that, in the same words, about the Curses in this week's Torah portion (and, presumably, the rest of Deuteronomy).

It seems to me that Maimonides is a bit of a straw man here, or maybe a scarecrow. We don't really know what he means because he does not explain it. He merely codifies both Talmudic rulings (Laws of Repentance 3:8, Laws of Prayer 13:7).  Furthermore, the core of the objection seems to be that one is attributing the given verse or letter to man and not to God. As far as I can tell, the current debate has nothing to do with this, as everyone seems to concede that the Torah comes from God. True, he does introduce the topic in his Mishnaic commentary (Sanhedrin 10:1) by saying that "the whole Torah which we have today was the one given to Moses," but he goes on to explain that the problem is in viewing some parts of the Torah as having greater holiness than others, and this introductory part is mentioned only there, not in Mishneh Torah.  It's also worth noting that Maimonides also attributes the Oral Torah to Moses, knowing full well that the Talmud is full of arguments and disputes.

So can we move on from Maimonides? What is more concerning to me is the idea of our Torah being the Torah of Moses, and this is where our alcohol analogy is relevant.

Sure, there are Tannaitic opinions that the last eight verses of the Torah were written by Joshua, leaving the Mosaic content at just under 99.9%. Or maybe it's the last twelve, since Moses never comes down after ascending Mt. Nebo, bringing the Mosaic content to just under 99.8%. Or maybe it's those last four chapters, since in Deut. 31 the Torah is already handed over to the Levites, complete, bringing the Mosaic content down to below 97.9%. There's still a world of difference between that and saying that Moses only wrote a few chapters of the Torah, maybe some poems, travelogues or genealogies. There's a world of difference between saying that Abraham didn't have camels or live until 175 and saying that he never existed. Is it really so ludicrous to distinguish between the Coors Light and the 96% Gold?

Excuse me, it's time to refill my tumbler.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

The new Hirhurim look familiar.

Gil has unveiled his new Hirhurim. The plan is to include lots of writers, many of them famous in their own right. Also, comments have been nearly eliminated and he says they will be moderated with extreme prejudice. Wow. He's reinvented Cross Currents.

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It isn't heresy.

We can agree, I think, that all of us, including RYA, are 8th ikkar heretics. All of us know that some Tannaim and Rishonim recognized that some verses, or phrases, or letters were added later. All of us have studied these teachings, and all of us understand that if those great men, beginning with  R. Yehuda on BT Bava Batra 15a can say that some verses in the Torah weren't written by Moshe, then clearly, it is not kefira to suggest that there are parts of the Torah that were written later, by people other than Moshe.

If all of us agree that the 8th ikkar is not operative or enforceable, why are the YCT rabbis being attacked as heretics? How can they be persecuted for violating a rule everyone of us knows is a bad rule, a rule violated by great Rabbis, too? Let the gentlemen of Cross Currents (plus Menken who, lets be truthful, is no gentleman) say that Farber et al are wrong. Let Gordiner and the rest fight their corner, and make their arguments as forcibly as possible. But, at the same time, let's demand that they make their case without hurling around the H word.  Farber et al simply can not be heretics if the ikkar they are accused of breaking is an ikkar no one acknowledges as having any validity.

(This isn't the time or place to speculate on the RCA's real motive for attacking the new rabbinical seminary, but suffice it to say that established organizations always get their noises bent out of shape when upstarts encroach on their turf. This heresy nonsense might very well be a tool, a tool used knowingly by men who should know better, for the purpose of rubbing out their professional rivals.)

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

War of words

 A guest post by Y. Bloch 

As Shabbat Ki Tetzei ends here in Israel, I can't help but notice how many of the weekly parasha sheets decided to focus on this week's release of the first 26 of 104 Palestinian prisoners ahead of the latest round of peace talks. I've already written about my personal reaction, as a terror survivor, elsewhere, but I wonder about the use of Jewish sources, especially the Torah itself, to approach these difficult hot-button issues. 

It strikes me as disingenuous the way some invoke verses like the final one in last week's portion (Deut. 21:8), "And you shall clear out the innocent blood from your midst;" after all, those verses refer to what we define here as "criminally-motivated murder," a personal grudge between two individuals. "Nationalistically-motivated murder," on the other hand, is about tribal grudges, the waging of war by other means. The immediately following verse is, "When you go out to war against your enemies, Lord your God will put him in your hand and you will take him captive." So the Torah itself acknowledges that there are captives, prisoners of war, those taken during war whom we do not subject to the criminal justice system.

But perhaps it is I who is being disingenuous now. The Torah goes on to talk about the "woman of beautiful form," since there is no concept of adult males being taken captive in biblical war. (I'm unsure if there is any significance to the shift from the masculine shevi to the female shivya as a term for all those taken captive.) Incarceration is a post-biblical concept, so there really are no prisoners of any sort in the Torah, and the only enemies who would survive war would be children and women, all of whom would be enslaved.

So maybe there is nothing to be learnt from the Torah on this subject. But if so, how can we say that it guides our morality? It's one thing to say that tzaraat is not leprosy and reinterpret over a hundred verses of text as a roundabout warning against slander, but is war not war anymore? Or are we simply left with Maimonides, since he is the last Jewish sage to seriously deal with these laws? This at least I'll say about the parasha sheets: they are dealing with the question, even if I find their answers at best unsatisfying and at worst dangerous. 

Shavua tov.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Spelled naar, but vocalized as naara.

In the whole Torah we find just one place where the word נַּעֲרָה is spelled plene (malei). Everywhere else the word appears as נַּעֲרָ, that is with consonants of the words naar, but vocalized as naara.

One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that a semantic shift occurred. Once a word with the consonants of our naar (we can't guess how it was vocalized) was a general world for child, or perhaps tween, with context indicating if a male or female child/tween was intended. Gradually, that word changed, or narrowed, to mean "male child/tween", with the original word preserved in the Torah.

This sort of narrowing has occurred many times in the English language. A famous example is the world "girl" which once was a gender-neutral word meaning child.

Interestingly enough, it follows from this explanation means that Deuteronomy is older than some of the books of Nach, where the word naarah is spelled in the more modern way.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Abraham's betrayal of Sarah or the most feminist post I've written yet

At the beginning of his adventures Abraham travels to Egypt to escape a famine. Along the way a thought occurs to him. He turns to Sarah, his wife, and says: "Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” 

What is Abraham's plan? What is he saying but not saying? I see two possible interpretations:

CHOICE ATell the Egyptians you're my sister, and (lucky!) they won't bother us at all. We'll stay together, but the Egyptians will be so impressed with the fact that you're my sister, that they will treat me well and spare my life, and no harm will come to you.

Tell the Egyptians you're my sister. Yes, they will still take you to the harem but at least I'll get some money as a result. Look, they are going to take you away no matter what we do, but if they think we're married, I'll get killed. At least let me make a buck from this unfortunate situation.

Traditionally, I don't think either of these two readings is assigned to the verse. In the second interpretation, Abraham is exhibiting the morality of a pimp. In the first, he's clueless. I don't know of any Rabbinic commentary that understands Abraham's behavior in either way.

When we learned this verse in third grade, I think the teacher interpreted it something like this:

Tell the Egyptians you're my sister. They're probably still take you and make you the Pharoh's wife, but that's ok; anyway, God will eventually come to the rescue. Meanwhile, thanks to you, I'll get rich. After God steps in and solves the problem, we'll enjoy the bounty together. 

That works for third graders, but only because third graders don't understand sex and violence. When you're eight years old, becoming a king's wife doesn't sound so bad. Sarah will probably get a nice vacation in the palace where, at worst, she might run into some trouble with the kashrus or have a hard time finding a private place to daven. For a third grader, I suppose that's a perfectly appropriate reading, but as you get older, and the blind spots shrink, it becomes untenable. Sarah isn't being taken away to enjoy the king's indoor swimming pool. She's not going for her pleasure at all. The king is going to rape her, and then he's going to keep her around, like a bird in a cage, until he feels like raping her again. This is the plan Abraham's words are setting in motion.

Just as a third grader has blind spots, so do adults. All of us read from a certain perspective and in light of the other things we know. I think most Orthodox Jews encounter this story from Abraham's perspective. The classical commentators speak of Abraham's tests and inner dialogues are invented for him, but to the best of my knowledge no energy is exerted toward imagining Sarah's experience. Moreover, while they show no reluctance to say that Abraham sinned against God, they fail to see that he also sinned against his wife. The crime against Sarah is neither discussed nor identified.

Nowadays, our OJ Rabbis likewise see only part of the story. They use the story to drive home points about modesty, without seeming to understand just how immodest Abraham's proposal is. Instead of using the story to remind wives to avoid tempting foreign men, why don't they use the story to remind us of our obligations to our wives? An appropriate modern moral might be: Don't focus on your career (the accumulation of riches) at the expense of your wife. Their reason for choosing the former over the latter isn't that the Torah tells us one thing and not the other, but that the Torah tells us nothing at all, leaving us to find or create interpretations that do the Torah's speaking for it.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Who's a priest?

In Deuteronomy the priests are called הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם. In Leviticus they are בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֲנִים or הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן. Ever wonder why?

The theory of the critics is that Leviticus is the work of Aaronid priests who were protecting their prerogatives. They wanted it perfectly clear that they, and not anyone else, were the true priests. Outside of the material attributed to the Aaronid priests (specifically Deuteronomy) the priests are often called הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, which say the critics, suggests some sort of rivalry between the Levites, or a family of Levites, who thought they were entitled to serve in the Temple or bring offerings and the Aronids who wanted it made clear that right belonged to them, and them alone. (Preceding shared for informational purposes only. DovBear is not trying to steal your soul and he may not even accept the truth of the summary he has just shared.)

Being honest: I don't know how the Rabbinic interpreters dealt with this inconsistency. Can someone point me to their solution?

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Look what they are sending home from camp!

One of the Facebookers put this up to protest the despicable pedagogue his or her child is receiving at one of those horrible Brooklyn camps. The item you see is some kind of salad dressing container. Its label reads: Oil and water don't mix; Yidden and Goyim remain separate.

What a great Arts and Crafts project! Is Shlomo Goebels the head counselor?

Remember, though: Modern Orthodox camps where kids might mix swim or straggle back from the pool without their tzitzis are the real danger!

UPDATE: Look what I found on the Interwebs!

"To try to make a hybrid of Germans and Jews is as absurd as suggestingthat Christ and Satan should form a partnership"
 Friday, April 08, 2005 8:01 AM
 Re: Germans who still want to be Germans

Since the end of WW II, Jews have been working very hard - within the framework of the so-called "Holocaust" of course - to crush and squeeze "German-ness" out of the Germans. The ancient enemy of the Jews is the family of White nations of Europe but, for at least a couple of centuries, the German nation has received the special focus of fear and loathing, born of envy, of those Jews who are driven to reduce Europe to a Jewish domain.
Can Germans and Jews be made to form a hybrid of the two? In my opinion, they cannot. To try to make a hybrid of Germans and Jews is as absurd as suggesting that Christ and Satan should form a partnership. Remember, oil and water don't mix! Germans and Jews are polar opposites, even more sharply opposites than are Christians and Jews! The classic German character is one of honor, candor and independence, whereas the classic Jewish character rests on lying, concealment and a preference for authoritarianism.
The most that can be said of a mix of Jews with Germans is that a few Jews may discard or lose their Jewishness and, in essence, take on the psychic orientation of Germans. I believe it works the other way only superficially.
It is no mere accident of history that Hitler has become the number one whipping boy of the Jews. This was inevitable not only because Hitler led the Germans in WW II, but because deep within the Jewish psyche there is a model of their opposite and the one whom they most deeply fear and hate. There is no flesh and blood person who so closely conforms to that model as Hitler.
It may be said as well that deep within the psyche of the racially intact White man and White woman lies a model of themselves, of their own race, lying even deeper than the model of the Christian man and woman.Those Jews who are so assiduously effacing and trashing what is left of traditional White society are profoundly offensive and menacing to the instincts of those White people who are still racially intact.It is inevitable that Germans, bye and bye, will rediscover their deeper instincts. I can't believe the day when that happens is very far away.
One of the marks of a psychically badly damaged White person is that he behaves as though he believes his race is already defeated by the Jews. He believes in his own inferiority and weakness. He believes Jews are superior to his own people. He cannot find within himself the capacity to resist his own extermination, or to believe that it is even possible! In fact, he tries his best to emulate the character of Jews.
Mel Fowler

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Who wins: Torah or Science?

The question "Who wins: Torah or Science?" contains an underlying error. It rests on the familiar but false assumption that the Torah says something. In fact, the Torah says nothing. The talking is done by people, and when the people talk about Torah what they do is called "interpreting."

Now, of course all interpretations are not created equal, But what can't be denied is that there exists a plurality of Torah interpretations that are generally accepted by the Orthodox Jewish community as legitimate. Some of us call that collection of legitimate interpretations "authentic" or "Torah True."

Many of us first encounter these "authentic"  interpretations without realizing that they are interpretations. For instance, almost all of use were taught that Rivka is three years old when she marries Yitzchak and this was presented to us as a historical fact. In reality, Torah interpreters deduced Rivka's age based on their interpretation of various verses. Some interpreters concluded that she was three; others concluded that she was 13, or even older on her marriage day. Because we have no extra-biblical information about Rivka - a diary, for example, or a marriage license - the truth is unknowable. All we have are the competing interpretations (and by the way I can't say this too often: Its a disgrace and embarrassment that school teachers never teach the controversy, instead choosing to present one particular interpretation as if it was a true, universally accepted fact.)

Let's say an intrepid archaeologist were to uncover a set of artifacts that were unquestionably Rivka's. And let's say that those relics clearly and incontrovertibly demonstrated that she was 13 years old on her wedding day (as taught by Tosfot et al). How would Judaism respond? Would we continue to teach that she married at age three, or would we embrace Tosfot's equally valid, but less famous interpretation?

In the realm of science, something like this has happened many times. Once, wise man believed in a geocentric universe and this was reflected in Torah teachings that put the earth at the center of creation. After Copernicus, some Torah authorities resisted, but gradually, gradually, as the evidence became insurmountable, they came around. Now, any verse that suggests the sun moves is read differently. Instead of reading those verses in light of Ptolmy, we read them in light of Copernicus.  Interpretations of verses that suggested the sun moves, were replaced with interpretations which acknowledge that the sun never moves.


This is only the most famous example of a Torah interpretation reconciling itself to science, but there are many others. A favorite of mine relates to an interpretation of Exodus 16:20, a verse that tells us that leftover maan became wormy and then, afterwards, became rotten.

According to the science of the ancient world this is backwards: First food goes bad, and then worms spontaneously generated from the putrid food. Both Rashi and Ramban catch this, and both of them reinterpret the verse in light of what they understand to be the scientific reality.  Today, we aren't bothered by this because we're relying on a different set of scientific facts, and we read and interpret the verse in light of those facts


Before Copernicus everyone read verses about the sun moving as if that was the reality - because they thought the sun actually moved. After Copernicus, no one had to officially decide to reinterpret the verses. It just became obvious. Because its incontrovertible fact that the sun doesn't move, it was also incontrovertible fact that those verses couldn't be read to mean that the sun was moving. 

Or to say it more correctly, before Copernicus we all were wearing one set of goggles, so we read the verses one way. After Copernicus we all had on a different set of goggles so we read the verses differently. 

Now, those of us who have studied evolution are not wearing the same pair of goggles, anymore. The evidence for evolution is that strong. Its that insurmountable. So those of us who are aware of the facts of evolution have no choice but to read verses related to creation differently. This is unavoidable because of the goggles we wear, the goggles that become impossible to take off once we become aware of insurmountable facts.

So, who wins: Torah or Science? Science of course. But it isn't Torah that is being defeated. Torah endures. All that's lost is a particular interpretation. And because the facts tell us that the defeated interpretation was false, what's the real damage?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Deuteronomy is Different (Part 3)

The first post in this series, presented a ruling by Abaya that treats Deuteronomy differently. The second, shared a quote from Ezra and asked why Ezra refers to a law from Deuteronomy as being merely a decree of the prophets when he should have identified it as a Torah law. In this post, I provide a list taken from Wikipedia (yes, I am that lazy):

Laws unique, within the Torah, to the Deuteronomic Code

Laws of religious observance
  • Ordering idolaters to be stoned to death, at Deuteronomy 17:2-7
Laws concerning officials
  • Ordering judges to be appointed in every city, at Deuteronomy 16:18
  • Ordering there to be a supreme central tribunal, at Deuteronomy 17:8-13
  • Restrictions on the king, at Deuteronomy 17:14-20
  • Concerning the rights, and revenue, of the Levites, at Deuteronomy 18:1-8
  • Concerning the future (unspecified) prophet, at Deuteronomy 18:9-22
  • Restrictions on admittance to the priesthood, at Deuteronomy 23:1-8
Military law
  • Concerning behaviour during war, at Deuteronomy 20, and 21:10-14
Criminal law
  • Ordering a ritual atonement by the people for untraced murder, at Deuteronomy 21:1-9
  • Concerning the corpse of a criminal, at Deuteronomy 21:22-23
Civil laws
  • Ordering undutiful sons to be stoned to death, at Deuteronomy 21:18-21
  • Prohibiting taking a mother bird at the same time as its nest, at Deuteronomy 22:6-7
  • Ordering roofs to be constructed with parapets, at Deuteronomy 22:8
  • Prohibiting newly married women from being slandered, at Deuteronomy 22:13-21
  • Concerning escaped slaves, at Deuteronomy 23:15-16
  • Against religious prostitution, at Deuteronomy 23:17-18
  • Concerning the crops of a neighbour, at Deuteronomy 23:24-25
  • Concerning divorce, at Deuteronomy 24:1-4
  • Against punishing the family of a criminal, at Deuteronomy 24:16
  • Limiting the number of lashes, at Deuteronomy 25:1-3
  • Against muzzling oxen during threshing, at Deuteronomy 25:4
  • Concerning levirate marriage, at Deuteronomy 25:5-10
  • Ordering women to be modest, at Deuteronomy 25:11-12
  • The ritual of the first fruits and of the tithe, including a prayer, at Deuteronomy 26:1-15
Why aren't these law mentioned earlier in the book? Were are they withheld? Several of the laws that appear in Deuteronomy are repetitions, at times with minor variation, but the list above consists of laws that are unique to Deuteronomy.
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Deuteronomy is Different (Part 2)

In the previous post, I provided a Talmudic passage in which Abaye treats Deuteronomy as categorically different then the rest of the Torah. As the following passages show, it seems plausible that an earlier authority shared that opinion.

“And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ - Ezra 9:10-12

In this passage, Ezra denounces intermarriage, a practice that he considered a scourge and fought with all his vigor. Oddly enough, he says that intermarriage was "commanded by your servants the prophets"  However, this law was first set down in the book of Deuteronomy (7:3). Why does Ezra appeal to the prophets in his denouncement of intermarriage when an appeal to the Torah itself, or even to the single chief prophet who wrote the law, would carry much more authority?

Deuteronomy is Different (Part 1)

If I'm reading my scorecard correctly, the current and continuing  conversation about Orthodox Jewish heresy was initiated when A. Gordiner accused Rabbi Zev Farber of denying the "singular Divine authorship of the Torah."  One wonders what he would say to Abaye? 

Quite by chance I discovered this passage at the end of BT Megilah. (31b). The gentlemen of the Talmud are discussing the curses that are announced in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and wondering if we are permitted to interrupt them to start a new aliya. We join the conversation in progress:

Said Abaye: This rule (against making an interruption  was laid down only for the curses in Leviticus, but in the curses in Deuteronomy a break may be made. What is the reason? — In the former Israel are addressed in the plural number and Moses uttered them on behalf of the Almighty;in the latter Israel are addressed in the singular, and Moses uttered them in his own name.

Tosoft and others are quick to point out that Moshe spoke through prophesy. Even so,  you  can not deny that Deuteronomy is viewed by Abaye as categorically different from the other four books. As a result, his halacha treats Deuteronomy differently. 

Is this the same as denying the "singular Divine authorship of the Torah"? It depends on how much credit Moshe is given. Most of the book is made up of his speeches. Was he the author of hs own words or not? On Megillah 31B Abaye, plausibly, is saying he was.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Shema: Don't be haredi?

 A guest post by Y. Bloch

When is a Jew required to say the words "Shema Yisrael"?
This question brings to mind the classic image of putting a hand over one's eyes and uttering the most famous verse in the Torah (Deut. 6:4): "Hear O Israel, Lord our God, Lord is one." However, those specific words are not mandatory. As the Shulhan Arukh rules (OH 42:2), "One may recite it in any language, as long as one is as precise in pronunciation and grammar as one would be in the Holy Tongue."
In fact, the phrase "Shema Yisrael" appears a half-dozen times in the Book of Deuteronomy, but the only time that one is required to read those precise words is on the battlefield, as detailed in the Torah portion we read yesterday, Shofetim. Maimonides writes this in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Kings and Their Wars 7:3):
When the armies assume battle positions and will shortly join in war, the war-annointed priest stands in an elevated place before the array of the entire army. He addresses them in the Holy Tongue: "Hear O Israel, today you are about to wage war against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted. Do not be afraid. Do not panic and do not be broken before them. God, you Lord, is the One accompanying you to do battle for you against your enemies to deliver you." (Deut. 20:3-4).
What is so special about this script that it must be recited in its original Hebrew? What would have been lost in translation?
At first glance, it might seem that the Torah is merely using synonyms for being scared in this exhortation. However, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, the 12th-century sage known as the Rokeach, explains in his Siddur (p. 117) that there are actually four types of fear in biblical parlance, the third of which is listed first in our verse (rakh levav), and for good reason:
Hared is faint-hearted, hared of sin. "And who is hared for My word" (Isaiah 66:2) -- fearful of war.
Indeed, throughout Scripture, we find the terms rakh-levav and hared used interchangeably. In fact, haredim is used in the final chapters of Isaiah (66:5) and Ezra (10:3) to refer to penitents, what we now call baalei teshuva. Similarly, the penitence of the righteous King Josiah (II Kings 22, II Chron. 34) is referred to as his being "rakh-levav" (literally, "soft-hearted"), while Pharoah's intransigence in Exodus is referred to as strong-, heavy- or hardheartedness.
Thus, being hared or rakh-levav when confronting one's own sins is appropriate (and timely for the month of Elul). However, when facing enemies, being hared or rakh-levav is inappropriate. One must be steadfast; one must not lose heart. One must have the courage of his or her convictions; one must stand and fight these external enemies. One is forbidden to be hared or rakh-levav when fighting to save the nation.
We can now understand the view of Rabbi Jose the Galilean in the Mishnaic tractate of Sota (8:5): "'He who is afraid and rakh-levav'--this refers to one who is fearful about the sins he has committed." R. Jose is trying to use the same definition for rakh-levav here as we do for Josiah, but we rule that this is qualitatively different. The haredim, the penitent, should be the first in the ranks. Ultimately, the Torah allows military exemptions only for wars of choice, and this is the ruling in both the Mishna (ibid. 7) and the Mishneh Torah (ibid. 4):
In which instances are the above-mentioned individuals sent away from the battlefront? In a war of choice. By contrast, in a war of necessity, the entire nation must go out to war, even a groom from his chamber and a bride from her canopy.
We look forward to the day when Israel's heavy military burden will be a choice; but as long as it is exigent, we do not have the hared/ rakh-levav option. We cannot let ourselves be faint-hearted.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

If Trayvon Were Tuvia: The Orthodox (Non)response to the Zimmerman Verdict

Yes, yes. This first appeared on Cross Currents. Now I am running it here. More on why later. For now, what do you think?

If Trayvon Were Tuvia: The Orthodox (Non)response to the Zimmerman Verdict
By Guest Contributor, on August 7th, 2013
by Chaim Saiman

A Jewish boy¬— lets call him Tuvia Mendel— is walking home one night. Maybe he is a bit drunk, maybe not. Tuvia attracts the attention of a non-Jewish neighborhood watchman who describes him as wearing a dark suit, white shirt, black hat and white strings hanging out of his pants. The watchman calls the police, who advise him to hold back. Activities ensue and Tuvia is shot by the watchman. The watchman maintains that he was acting in self-defense and the jury so finds.

Other than changing Tuvia’s name and identity, lets try and hold all the other elements of the Trayvon Martin case constant, simply replicating the debates about the facts and the inferences to be drawn from them from the real case into our own. True, the trial brought out wildly different accounts of what happened, but if it was Tuvia rather than Trayvon, is there any doubt the Orthodox community would resolve these ambiguities differently?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

"Off the derech" - a crisis?

A guest post by dstaum

Today, Harry Maryles wrote about the "off the derech" phenomenon, which many have labeled a "crisis".

Harry makes some good and compassionate suggestions, such as families remaining accepting of their children, no matter the path they choose.

I'd like to look at this from another perspective, with just a few short points:

  • Who says that Orthodoxy is the right path for everyone? Even if you believe it contains ultimate truth, one-size-fits-all is a very doubtful proposition when it comes to religion.

  • Young, autonomous individuals should have the right to make their own choices, and those choices should be respected, not seen as mistakes that should only be tolerated in the name of compassion and family harmony.

  • Here is my biggest point: by declaring an "OTD phenomenon", Orthodoxy lumps all young people who have left that sect into one group. It lumps someone like Abandoning Eden, a blogger who is a successful academic and has a happy marriage, into the same pool as young yeshiva dropouts who may be on drugs and have no jobs, no marketable skills, and sometimes, nowhere to live. Not only is this disrespectful of the Abandoning Eden types, but far worse, it treats the very real problems of the young dropouts as symptoms of their having left Orthodoxy. And their real problems, which need solutions like rehab, job training, and support sytems, get ignored.

    Until we look at young people with such problems as individuals, we won't be able to help those who actually need help.

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