Sunday 30 December 2007

Do Scientific Paradigm Shifts Impact Halachic realities?

Originally posted 12/30/07, 7:20 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Do scientific paradigm shifts impact Halachic realities?

On Dec 25, 2007 7:04 AM, Richard Wolberg
wrote on the Avodah List:

What I find most interesting is that the Gemara believed in spontaneous generation which has been scientifically disproven as the world was proven not to be flat. What I find to be ironic and paradoxical is that only God can create something from nothing. You would think this would have occurred to the great minds of the Talmud. True, their argument could conceivably have been that God put that law into motion, but it still could have raised a red flag. The following came from a link given in a previous discussion by Reb Micha [Avodah's Moderator]:


Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

"It was frustrating" : The Rabbis Who Quit Shul

Originally posted 12/30/07. Link no longer works.
I received this from a rabbinical colleague:
There is an article in the Jewish Chronicle (England) that we all would do well to read...
I was about to go into the a shul meeting”, a rabbi recalled, “when a senior board member turned to me and said ‘You might be the rabbi, but remember I’m paying your wages. Make sure that you agree with everything I say’.”...
For the rest see:

Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Saturday 29 December 2007

Being Thankful Can Change the Way We see Ourselves and the World

Originally published 12/29/07, 11:08 PM, Eastern Daylight Time. This link no longer works.
From a Student/Talmid where I teach - Visit:
to read the story.

Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Tuesday 25 December 2007

Is Religious Zionism Racism?

Originally published 12/25/07, 11:54 AM, Eastern Daylight Time
Recently, the Blogger News Network featured a piece by Shimon Z. Klein entitled "Religious Zionism is Racism". See

In Canada, free medical services are available to people who need them, but a person has to be a Canadian citizen or meet certain legal requirements under the immigration laws. That is discrimination. Some poor person from Central America who happens to be in Toronto can die from a disease for which a Canadian citizen will get free medical treatment. The fact is that distinctions exist between peoples based on a variety of criteria including nationalism, IQ, beauty, family, etc. The charge of racism cannot be simply thrown out because there are distinctions made between people. The challenge is to define the distinctions that are problematic, i.e. racist, and those that are not. This demands further definitions.
For example, are the territories won after the Six Day War occupied or liberated? Is it Jewish land that was taken from us close to 2000 years ago that we finally got back or are they new conquered land? Does the fact that we were exiled 2000 years ago, rather than yesterday, change the situation? How do we deal with those who started to live on this land in that past 2000 years? These are the questions we need to address -- but to do so one has to work on the definitions and confront the issue of language and differing definitions. In reading this article, I just found someone who really doesn't get the depth of the situation.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Sunday 23 December 2007

Incredible Shoah Story

Originally published 12/23/07, 2:00 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Someone recently wrote me with the following story, asking me for the Halachic response. I thought I would throw it out to the blog to see what others may say as well.

A very close friend of one of my dearest friends recently went to a wedding in New Jersey. A Jewish wedding. Before the ceremony both families were on the stage or bima. The parents of both children had met before, although I'm not sure how many times, but the grandparents, who are all alive and in their 80's, had never met before. The grandfather of one of the children getting married who had been looking and looking at the grandmother of the other child, finally says to her, "you were my wife". There was silence and he says again, "you were my wife". After talking to each other they confirmed that they indeed were married. They were married very young in Eastern Europe, had no children and were taken by the Nazis and put into concentration camps where they were separated. Both looked for each other after WW2 ended, but each thought the other was dead. Since all of their relatives had been killed, they had no one to check with and records were terrible. Sixty plus years later after they had moved to the United States and had families of their own, there they were, sitting on a stage watching the grandchildren of their new families getting married to each other and once again becoming family.

I will present my thoughts on this case in a later comment.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Teddy Bears, Reverence and Affection

Originally published 12/18/07, 3:41 PM, Eastern Daylight Time. Note: link no longer works.
The events surrounding the teddy bear named Mohammed truly identifies how some people view their religion and their deity. In many ways, it shows that you cannot just dismiss this form of Islamic fundamentalism as a blip on the horizon but truly reflects a theological position albeit one that we may think is flawed.

For more on this, please see the article on the subject that I recently wrote for the Jewish Tribune in Toronto. The url for this week's edition of the paper is:

The article is on page 5.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Thursday 13 December 2007

Why we don't hear all the news?

Originally published 12/13/07, 7:31 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
A friend of mine set me the following link, asking me why I had not written about it

I answered that I had not even heard of it. Between the two of us, that became the real question: why are these events not reported in our local media?

The story was about a baby that was used in a suicide bombing. Is that a surprise? Well, if one considers the frame of reference of the suicide bomber, one could see how a person could actually think that he/she is doing the baby a great favour, through purchasing them a ticket to heaven. That, in itself, raises many issues and matters to consider. While it is important to know the thought processes of those who wish to harm us, it may be more important to know why people ignore these realities. A suicide bomber is a suicide bomber; at least we know what we are dealing with. Hiding the truth and describing these people incorrectly, though, may extend the potential harm, for we thereby hide the truth.

The question is: why not tell the whole story?

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Sunday 9 December 2007

The Irony of Chanukah

Originally published 12/9/07, 12:48 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
In the Nishma Spark of the Week 5754-11, I wrote:

"...It, therefore, is most bizarre that of all the holidays of the Jewish calendar, the one that has been most influenced by the forces of the galut that surrounds us is Chanukah..."

(See for the full article)

Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenists, the victory of Torah over the forces of assimilation. Is it not ironic, therefore, that the most assimilated of the Jewish holidays is Chanukah? Ever think about it? People who don't celebrate many of the major Torah holidays seem to get into the "Chanukah spirit." Do you think that has something to do with the external influences that suround this time? What about the way in which Chanukah is celebrated, a bit of external influence there as well would you not say? Let's go beyond the holiday. Is there anything more ironic than the fact that the "Jewish Olympics" are called the Maccabiah?

The Spark concerns these issues, but in a larger way opens a whole new discussion on assimilation. That is what Chanukah is about. Your comments?

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Our hearts are in the East: a post-Annapolis reflection

Originally published 12/4/07, 12:11 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Posted with permission of the author Douglas Aronin.


"My heart is in the East, and I am at the end of the West." These well-known words of Yehuda Halevi, the medieval Jewish philosopher and poet, are an apt description of the pain of exile. Over the centuries, the identity of the West has changed -- as I sit in New York today, the Spain from which Yehuda Halevi wrote doesn't seem so far west anymore -- but the meaning of the East has remained constant. Jewish bodies may be in many places throughout the world, but the heart of the Jewish people is in Jerusalem.

There are places more distant from Jerusalem in geography, but in concept the farthest west last week was Annapolis, Maryland. There, on the grounds of the United States Naval Academy, representatives of Israel, the titular leadership of the Palestinian Authority, most Arab countries and an odd agglomeration of others (can someone explain to me what Senegal was doing there?) came together in a meeting/ summit/ conference/gathering (choose your own nomenclature -- the assembled representatives had trouble agreeing even on that) aimed at trying once again to find a viable foundation for real peace between Israel and the Palestinians. They didn't fail -- at least not yet -- but it requires a willful naiveté to call the results of their efforts a success. And one of the most important tactics that the participants at Annapolis used to avoid outright failure was to keep Jerusalem as far away from their minds, and especially their mouths, as possible.

Yes, I know. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas solemnly agreed at Annapolis that Jerusalem would be one of the issues to be discussed in the course of final status negotiations, which they promised that they will try to complete by the end of 2008. But promising to talk about Jerusalem is one thing, and agreeing on what to do about it is something else entirely. So for those seeking to make their own naiveté contagious, an important task in the months ahead will be to promote widespread amnesia about Jerusalem -- not only about its significance to the Jewish people throughout history but also about its current status as an almost certainly insurmountable obstacle to a negotiated peace agreement.

Anyone listening to the torrent of words, official and otherwise, that have flowed since the Annapolis gathering ended, can surely see the beginning of that amnesia promotion project. Not only political leaders and their official and unofficial spokesmen, but also many luminaries of the punditocracy, have sought to frame the negotiating process ahead in a way that ignores or at least downplays the centrality of Jerusalem as an issue. One op-ed in last week's Forward, though of no great significance in its own right, so well exemplifies the tenacity of those promoting Jerusalem amnesia that it deserves a closer look.

The op-ed in question was written by Daniel Levy, who is identified as a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the Century Foundation, and who served in some unspecified position in the office of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Levy's piece takes as a starting point the fact that last week also marked the sixtieth anniversary of the UN General Assembly's adoption of Resolution 181, which in 1947 sought to partition what was left of mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. As is well known, the Zionist leadership under David Ben Gurion, though far from happy with the contemplated borders of the proposed Jewish state, accepted the partition plan, but the Arabs preferred war.

Levy's op-ed takes note of the fact that the partition plan would have given Israel 55% of western Palestine while the Arabs would have received 45%. (He doesn't mention, of course, that eastern Palestine, which was originally part of the mandatory territory, had been separated out by the British in 1922 to create the Emirate of TransJordan, which today is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.) By contrast, a complete withdrawal to the 1967 lines (including, he specifies, East Jerusalem, his only mention of Jerusalem in the entire piece) would give Israel 78% of that territory and the Palestinians only 22%.

From Levy's perspective, this plan appears to be a no-brainer. Is Israel really prepared to pay the price of continued conflict, he asks, "in order to edge the percentage we can call ours from 78% to, what, 80% or 81%?" To him, apparently, one acre is the same as another, whether in the Negev or on Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount). Jerusalem? What's Jerusalem?

It's precisely because they understand that amnesia is Jerusalem's enemy that a group of organizations -- including several right-wing Zionist groups and much of the institutional Orthodox Jewish leadership, as well as one Christian organization -- have come together to create a coalition that they call the Coordinating Council on Jerusalem. Its purpose, according to its website, is " to use all educational, diplomatic, political and other legal means to ensure that Jerusalem remains intact, secure, undivided and under Jewish sovereignty." Apparently spearheaded by the Orthodox Union, by far the largest Orthodox organization in the US, the CCJ has called on the Israeli government to take the sovereignty of Jerusalem off the table.

The CCJ is not the only locus of concern about the status of Jerusalem. Agudath Israel, the primary institutional address of the chareidi community, has not joined that coalition, but its convention (coincidentally held less than a week before Annapolis) passed a resolution expressing concern about the possibility of ceding any part of the Holy City to Palestinian sovereignty. And Jerusalem's mayor, Uri Lupoliansky, who was in the US to speak at the Agudath Israel convention, took advantage of his visit's timing to warn persistently about the danger of contemplating the redivision of Jerusalem.

Among the unreconstructed supporters of the "peace camp," the focus of attention on Jerusalem is unwelcome, to put it mildly. Steadfast peacenik Leonard Fein, in his weekly column in the Forward, attacks the CCJ's call to take Jerusalem off the table because "if Jerusalem were to be taken off the table there would be no negotiations at all." The Forward's editorial page makes its position on Jerusalem chillingly clear, stating that "when peace comes, Israel will have to make a deeply painful concession in Jerusalem, and the Palestinians will face an equally painful compromise on refugees." To the Forward, in other words, the ultimate peace deal would be for Israel to give up all claim to the eastern part of Jerusalem in return for the Palestinian concession that the Palestinian refugees' "right of return" will have to be limited to the new Palestinian state.

Is the Jewish future of Jerusalem really at risk? Unfortunately, the answer to that question may depend mostly on the Palestinians. If Abbas is able to take the interim steps required by the Roadmap, particularly serious steps against terrorism, and if the Palestinian leadership is willing and able to concede on the refugee issue, then Jerusalem would become the make-or-break issue, and the pressure on Olmert to give half the city to the Palestinians would be enormous. But given Abbas's political weakness, and with Hamas controlling Gaza, those two conditions will be tough ones for him to meet.

Back in 2000, when then Prime Minister Ehud Barak seemed desperate to give away the store, Palestinian terrorist-in-chief Yasir Arafat saved the day by storming out of Camp David instead of making a counter-offer. Abbas is nowhere near as popular among his people as Arafat was, but he may be more politically astute and thus better able to manipulate events to make Olmert seem like the bad guy when the negotiations break down, as they are likely to do. Jerusalem was so far down on Barak's list of priorities that he had to be briefed on the city's historical and religious significance. But one need not be a fan of Olmert (does he have any fans these days?) to recognize that he would have trouble even feigning Barak-level ignorance about Jerusalem; before becoming a minister in Ariel Sharon's government, after all, Olmert served for a decade as the city's mayor.

In an interview with the Jewish Week, Mayor Lupoliansky (who succeeded Olmert) acknowledged that Olmert's current intention is to limit concessions on Jerusalem to peripheral Arab neighborhoods like Abu Dis, many of which have been added to the municipality since 1967. But that doesn't give the mayor much comfort because he is "afraid about the influence of the world." If negotiations reach that point, he fears, the pressure on Olmert will be too great to resist.

He has a point. There are an awful lot of people out there -- including many whom we don't necessarily see as enemies -- who will automatically blame Israel for the failure to sign a peace treaty by the prescribed deadline, regardless of why the talks break down. Take New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, for example. (Please!) On Wednesday, the day after Annapolis, she wrote a column devoted to attacking the Bush administration for waiting so long to begin focusing on the Palestinians. In the middle of that column is this gem: "W. couldn't be bothered to stay in Annapolis and try to belatedly push things along and guide Israel with a firmer hand."

Guide Israel with a firmer hand? The negotiations haven't even started yet, but already Maureen Dowd "knows" that Israeli obstinacy will be the primary obstacle to be overcome. Never mind that the Palestinian Authority has failed to keep the commitments it made in Oslo. Never mind that it was Arafat who scuttled the proposed agreement in Camp David II. Never mind that Gaza is under the control of a group that doesn't even pretend a desire to live in peace with Israel. If peace is to come, Dowd and others of her ilk will tell you, it is Israel who must be pressured for more concessions.

On one level, unfortunately, she's right. Abbas can't make significant concessions and expect to live to the end of his presidential tenure. If anything resembling a peace agreement is to come out of this process, it will require Israel to pile one concession on top of another on virtually every disputed issue -- including, of course, Jerusalem.

So the amnesia promotion project has already begun. Not only the Palestinians and their Arab backers but supporters of the "peace process" in Europe, in the US and even in Israel itself want us to develop amnesia when it comes to Jerusalem. They want us to be so dazzled by the prospect of something that can be called, however tenuously, a "peace" agreement that we will forget both the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people and the repeated proclamations of every Israeli government since 1967 that Jerusalem will never again be a divided city.

But we can't forget. Long ago, by the rivers of Babylon, our ancestors made a pledge that binds us still: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour." (Psalms 137:5-6, JPS translation)

Douglas Aronin

Friday 30 November 2007

Recent Poll Results re: Original Purpose of Torah

Originally published 11/30/07, 1:16 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Our recent poll produced the following Results:
For Which Principle Purpose Did God Give the Torah to Israel?
  1. To Provide a Common Historical Narrative 0 (0%)
  2. To Bring About the Messiah (4%)
  3. To Justify Israel's Right to its Homeland 0 (0%)
  4. To Provide a Basis for Humans to Relate to God 11 (50%)
  5. To Provide a Roadmap for Self-Perfection 2 (9%)
  6. To Provide Israel with a Constitution 0 (0%)
  7. To Promote a Just and Holy Society 6 (27%)
  8. To Provide a Text for Religious Instruction (4%)
  9. To Make Israel Unique (4%)
As I see it, [aisi] the original purpose is stated in the Torah itself, just before the giving of the so-called "10 commandments". I construe this as analogous to the US Constitution's Preamble.

Can any0ne "guess" as to which verse I refer?


Vayeishev: What is Morality?

Originally published 11/30/07, 1:08 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
From the archives of Nishma's Online Library, we have chosen an article that relates to the week's parsha, both to direct you to this dvar Torah but also for the purpose of initiating some discussion.

This week's parsha is Vayeishev. The topic is the nature of morality. Does morality have its own inherent value or is it simply defined by the Will of God?

The story of Yehuda and Tamar begs this question. How are we to understand why a tzaddik, such as Yehuda, went to a prostitute. Was he coerced by the Divine? Or was there no problem, as prostitution was not forbidden until Sinai? Was it still immoral? What is morality? Nishma Spark of the Week 5754-10.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Getting the Facts Straight about Works of Fiction

Originally posted 11/27/07, 4:50 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Recently I posted about a misquote about a Midrash. Several people on some lists plus a friend of mine seemed to say - Big Deal? The Midrash is not literal anyway! It's fictional, legendary etc.

Here is my response:
My original post was to point out how a text got misquoted and misconstrued.
If a guest lecturer in Literature were to Confuse:
  1. Hercules with Achilles in discussing Homer's Illiad or
  2. Tom Sawyer with Huck Finn while discussing Mark Twain or
  3. The Revolutionary War wtith the Civil war when talking on Gone with the Wind

Would they be wrong because these literary classics are ONLY fiction?

Many list members seem to be Treating the Midrash as LESS than a simple literary work! It was like hitting a raw nerve by articulating the N word or something! I would suppose [I cannot say for sure] that they would be critical of any speaker for mixing up facts about a work of literary fiction but when it comes to Jewish legend - who cares if the speaker misquotes? After all it's not a historical/factual book anyway? Frankly - I do not fathom the point. Misrepresenting a text is simply misrepresenting a text...

I used to laugh at the Song of Roland for projecting a Christian -style Trinity onto the Moslems. It was so silly. Now you could ask - as a Jew who cares what the Christians say regarding the Muslims? It's just the sheer inaccuracy of it all that bothers me, plain and simple. It just seems obvious to me that people who have a passion for truth must be concerned with accurately transmitting even fictional accounts
Bottom line, good quality demands quoting the Midrash accurately as no worse than any other piece of literature. Its intrinsic factual basis is irrelevant on that point


How Kosher Was Your Turkey?

D's note: originally published 11/27/07, 12:13 AM, Eastern Daylight Time. Note: Link is obsolete.
How Kosher Was Your Turkey?
Some Jews Demand Better Treatment for Birds
By JULIE WIENERwsj November 23, 2007; Page W11
Yesterday, 24 New York City households served turkeys that were not only free-range, organic and raised on a nearby family farm -- but also 100% kosher. For that, their guests can give thanks to Simon Feil, a 31-year-old actor who has devoted the past 1½ years to starting Kosher Conscience, a "kosher ethical meat co-op." The co-op, which 90 people have expressed interest in joining when it begins regular poultry and beef deliveries in a few months, will offer kosher meat that has been treated humanely "at every stage," he says.
Judaism's taboos on pork and shellfish, as well as the requirement to separate meat and dairy products, are well known even among gentiles. Yet for many contemporary American Jews the taboos can feel arbitrary, cumbersome and devoid of meaning (only 17% say they keep kosher homes). At the same time, some Jews who do find spiritual meaning in the dietary laws have become frustrated that kosher food production does not always reflect their values.
For the remainder of this article see:

Thursday 22 November 2007

Learning Hashkafa from the Gemara

Originally published 11/22/07, 7:02 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.Link no longer works.
How does one learn haskafa in and from the gemara? We are often instructed in how to learn, but generally we are taught how to approach a sugya connected to Halacha. How, though, are we to learn a sugya in Hashkafa? The question is often more difficult in regards to deriving the philosophical concepts of the Talmud properly, for how do we further analyze whether we are truly understanding what the gemara is saying or whether we are just reading it into our own philosophical perspectives?

Tikva Hecht, a frequent contributor to Nishma, weighs in on this issue in an article she recently wrote for Kol Hamevaser. entitled "A Hebrew Beyond Hebrew." This article is available on line at:

We welcome your comments here both on Tikva's article and the general issue of how to properly derive philosophy from the Talmud

Tuesday 20 November 2007

History, Fires and Da'as Torah

Originally published 11/20/07, 6:45 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
If, on the other hand, our faith in the sages must be unequivocal, as Rabbi Dessler argues, then it is impossible for them to be mistaken. Therefore, there is no need to defend them on the level of historical analysis. This leads to the far-reaching conclusion that religious leadership has the all-encompassing authority to issue instruction in all matters pertaining to reality and history, but they are exempt from any criticism – including, apparently, even self-criticism.
So why did Gedolim back off from advocating duchening in the face of a few fires? If their p'sak is correct, then they are correct! Wouldn't Lo bashamayim hi preclude factoring in heavenly messages in the contemplation of the p'sak?

Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Monday 19 November 2007

Vayetze: Reflecting upon Quality Control

All things considered. It is a wonderful thing to live in a Free Society here in North America. People are free to talk and say what they want. Unlike Driving an automobile, there is no license required, just find yourself a soap-box and speak away.
One of the consequences of this freedom is that since anyone may say anything, and speech is therefore 'free" you sometimes 'get what you pay for it!"

Upon reflection, I realize lately how much absolute nonsense can be passed off as "Torah". Perhaps more insidiuous, how many inaccuracies are passed off by speakers as 'fact" when they are really misquotes or half-truths.


I worked many years in data processing. Usually some sort of quality control went into a product – such as a program, a design, or even documentation. Rarely was something written without texting or without some kind of peer review. At any rate, most errors were readily discovered by users, often accompanied by embarrassing results.


One of the early mis-steps I heard years ago. A member of my old Congregation [viz. COS] would fill me every Friday night on our way home from shul. He attended a local parsha class and would share with me some of the thoughts of the weekly speaker. This one week, he told me a D'var Torah re: Vayetze that it was the ONLY Weekly Sidrah that had no [i.e. zero] Parsha breaks. I exclaimed: "That is no true! Parshas Mikketz ALSO has zero parsha breaks!" FWIW, Mikketz was my friend's own bar-mitzvah Sidrah! The D'var Torah would have probably worked even if were not the ONLY exception but I was disappointed that the speaker was not more meticulous with his facts.

Fast Forward to this past Friday Night. The speak said an excellent D'var Torah all around, but at the end he inserted a very mis-leading interpretation. He stated [as per Rashi who quotes the Midrash Rabbah] that Vayishkav Ya'akov bamakom hahu meant Ya'akov had not slept his entire 14 years at Yeshivas Sheim vo'ever. I corrected the speaker later on, in private. I explained that Rashi/Midrash meant he had not "LIED DOWN to sleep" not that in fact had never slept! The implication is quite far different. Never sleeping for x number of days is an impossibility as per the Gmara re: Nedarim. OTOH, not lying down for a period of time merely presents Ya'akov as an ascetic not as a magician! After all, my own rebbe, R. Moshe Heinemann related to us that he slept in a sofa-chair for a period [a year or so?] whilst attending Lakewood. Sleep - Yes; lying down - No. Today, I confirmed that the Midrash Rabbah Hamevo'ar specifically interprets lack of Shechiva as meaning he did not lie down in a bed any sheinas keva. This can be further confirmed by the lack of Midrash on Vayalen SHAM. Point? A story of Ya'akov's p'rishus and hasmaddah is changed to a kind of Hassidic miracle story by lack of attention to the details!

But I'm not off MY soap box yet! In another faulty transmission, a noted Rav and Talmid Chacham was discussing the reading for Shabbos Hol Mamo'ed Sukkos. In his speech, he claimed that unlike the first luchos, Moshe himself WROTE the second set! Well the passuk says: "Pesal LECHA … v'chaszvTI" that God tells Moshe to CARVE the Luchos and God will write the 2nd set! I avoided correcting this rabbi because I had corrected him in the past and I did not wish to become a pest! But it is a shame the his audience may be unaware of his transmission error.

I was just informed a few hours ago that yesterday someone in gave a D'var Torah that the argument between Ya'akov with Shim'on/Levi was that Ya'akov was in favor of assimilation while Shim'on/Levi were opposed. Even the audience found that one shocking! While we can question Dinah's motives "lir'os bivnos ho'oretz" as possibly wanted to assimilate local fashion into her wardrobe, attributing assimilation to Ya'akov himself is quote a stretch.


Maybe Torah Authors and Speakers should have their writings go through quality control first. In the meantime, caveat emptor.

Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Saturday 17 November 2007

The New Challenge of Atheism

Originally published 11/17/07, 6:07 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Rabbi Ben Hecht:
The following link is to post on another blog by a former Orthodox rabbi who has become a secular humanist:
When this link was first forwarded to me, I was actually looking forward to reading it. Atheism is now all over the news. Books are being written declaring that it is new frontier in human understanding. For Torah Jews, it is the new challenge that must be faced and so it is our call to read such presentations as this one. The famous statement from Pirkei Avot, dah mah she'tashiv l'apikoprus, "know what to respond to a heretic, is to me more that a call to know how to defend the faith. In knowing how to respond to the heretic, one actually gains a better understanding of Torah for, in clarifying principles and concepts in order to respond, one gains further knowledge of it.

Unfortunately, I was somewhat disappointed. He really doesn't say anything new. The historical arguments are all old hat. It seems that on both sides of the fence we find arguments that make everything seem so simple when, in reality, it is not so. There is a reason why the Chazon Ish stated there were no real apikorsim today, as without open miracles, we do not have absolute proofs. Even miracles, the Rambam states, are not absolute proofs. And I think that all the secular arguments have their a prioris which are not questioned, as Rabbi Sholom Carmy described, a secular bias.
I thought that in hearing the path taken by this former rabbi, further issues would unfold. We would see some discussion of how we know truth, of how we evaluate the info placed before us. He touches upon this but only minimally. It is that indescribable personal yardstick within us that has to be viewed in all such discussions. He gave us a glimpse of his. Is that enough to open up our search for ours?

Sunday 11 November 2007

A New Approach to Modern Orthodoxy

Originally published 11/11/07, 6:04 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
The latest Nishma Introspection (5768-1) is out and features an article by R' Dr. Michael Schweitzer entitled "A New Approach to Modern Orthodoxy." The article's objective is not to give definite answers to what ails Modern Orthodoxy but to open a fresh discussion on how to revitalize Modern Orthodoxy. The article is available on line at The Blog of Garnel Ironheart. We invite you to look at it and comment either here or there.

You are also invited to request a copy of the latest Introspection, which contains the print version of the article, by joining the Nishma mailing list. Click on the icon to the left to sign up for more Nishma, then just complete the on-line form.

Friday 9 November 2007

Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God

Originally published 11/9/07, 12:41 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Enjoy a very thoughtful investigation on God, and Good vs. Evil by Stanley Fish!

See the Article here

Brief Bio of the Author:

About Stanley Fish - Think Again

Stanley FishStanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books.


Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Just what ARE the rules of p'sak anyway?

Originally published 11/6/07, 6:59 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
It took me a while to get some rules of p'sak - Klalei Hora'ah on the Avodah list.
Finally, Avoda's moderator, Reb Micha Berger, pointed us to this document. Menachem Elon's works are indeed more thorough, but are really difficult to encapsulate

Quoting Micha:
BTW, for a nice outline of some of these kelalim, see:

I am not endorsing every last conclusion, just having a point to start arguing from is nice. But the citations seem solid, so far.


Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Monday 5 November 2007

Hatikva @ Bergen Belsen - A Chilling Sound

Originally published 11/5/07, 5:29 PM, Eastern Daylight Time. Note: either the link no longer works, or requires registration.
This week marks the anniversary of Kystallnacht; how appropriate! -RRW

It was recorded by a British reporter on April 20, 1945 in Bergen-Belsen when the British army liberated the few thousand survivors in the concentration camp, half of which were Jewish, most of them at the extremes of their strength. It was recently discovered and apparently was loaned to NPR by the Smithsonian Institute.

The British priest organized prayers for Kabbalat Shabbat for the Jews. It was the first time after six years of war and after more than 10 years of persecution. With a lot of effort the Jews organized themselves and, knowing they were recorded, sang " Hatikva".

As you can hear they sang the original version as it was written by Naftali Imber. Picturing them in the midst of the concentration camp singing after all they had been through renders this a very moving scenario.

This is a rare recording of "Hatikva " from almost 62 years ago. If this doesn't give you goosebumps nothing will.

Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Saturday 3 November 2007

Chafets, Schick and the Intermarriage Problem

Originally published 11/3/07, 9:04 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
A comprehensive Media Comment from Douglas Aronin, esq.
Yishar Kochecha,

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine, as part of an issue devoted primarily to money and wealth, ran a piece, written by Zev Chafets, about the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn. The article included considerable discussion of the community's affluence, but its main focus was what Chafets called the Edict -- a community-wide policy, apparently dating to 1935, that not only excludes from the community anyone who intermarries but refuses to recognize converts to Judaism and thus treats marriage to a convert as the equivalent of intermarriage.

Chareidi iconoclast Marvin Schick didn't like the article. In his regular paid column in last week's Jewish Week, Schick attacks both Chafets for writing it and the Times magazine for publishing it. Schick takes Chafets to task for some inaccuracies in the article, like reporting as fact the community's exaggerated claim of 75,000 members and accepting uncritically the inaccurate assertion that community members in good standing receive free day school education and other services for their children. Schick also criticizes Chafets for including a brief account of the financial and other shenanigans of Eddie Antar (a/k/a Crazy Eddie), one of the community's best known members, nearly two and a half decades ago. In addition, Schick questions the article's failure to explore in depth whether the community's reputation for affluence is accurate and ponders whether "the magazine's editors decide[d] that they could not publish a money issue without an article on Jews."

Some of Schick's complaints about the article's biases are valid, but some are overstated. Crazy Eddie was not a major focus of the article, but it would have been difficult to write a comprehensive article examining the Syrian community's history over the course of decades without mentioning him at all. As to the Syrian community's storied affluence, Chafets does attempt to temper the mythology with some realism, quoting one of his informants as saying that only about 50 Syrian Jewish families are "very successful" while another 20 to 30 percent of the community is "what you could call upper middle class."

These issues are probably not Schick's main concern, however, and they certainly weren't Chafets's. Schick correctly points out that "the main story" in Chafets's article "is the [Syrian] community's strong opposition to intermarriage." He notes that Chafets himself is intermarried and suggests, quite reasonably, that Chafets's own intermarriage could have interfered with his objectivity and thus should have been disclosed in the article. Recalling the pro-intermarriage piece by Noah Feldman that was published in the New York Times Magazine over the summer, moreover, Schick also ponders whether "the Times or the editors of the magazine are on a pro-intermarriage crusade."

Maybe they are, but that's really beside the point. Whether the Times magazine's publication of two pieces sympathetic to intermarriage in such close proximity is a product of design or happenstance, these articles underscore the undeniable reality that, in twenty-first century America, traditional Judaism's condemnation of intermarriage is substantially counter-cultural. It was not all that long ago that adamant opposition to intermarriage could be taken for granted among strongly identified Jews, even those far removed from traditional observance. Today, however, the corrosive effect of the larger society's pro-intermarriage bias often creates ambivalence even among strongly committed Jews.

One of the three letters that the Times magazine's editors published in last week's magazine in response to the Chafets piece clearly exemplifies that ambivalence. While insisting that she "absolutely" wants her children to marry other Jews, the letter writer criticizes the Syrian Jews for being "more fearful of their place in that society than they are of severing their relationships with their children." She sarcastically comments that she "must have missed the day in Hebrew school when you were taught to turn away from your children and grandchildren because they made a choice you don't agree with."

That last phrase says it all. When I was growing up in the 1960's -- not all that long ago, historically speaking -- most committed Jews saw the prospect of their child's intermarriage as a betrayal of a fundamental parental and communal value. Today, increasingly, it is seen merely as "a choice you don't agree with."

How did this happen? To a large extent, this change in attitude is the natural result of the attenuation of residual Jewish identity over time. For those of my parents' generation, who grew up as the children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants in the old immigrant neighborhoods, there was an ingrained Jewish loyalty from which they couldn't easily be severed. However limited their religious practice, they were still Jews, first and foremost -- a sense of identity that was further strengthened by the two "epoch-making" (to borrow Emil Fackenheim's phrase) events that occurred during their lifetimes -- the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel.

It was inevitable that the children and grandchildren of these Jews, lacking the formative experiences that shaped their parents' identity, would not necessarily share the previous generation's instinctive aversion to intermarriage. Growing up not in the Jewishly saturated immigrant neighborhoods of old but in the ethnically mixed and quintessentially American suburbs and quasi-suburbs to which so many American Jews flocked during the baby boom years, the baby boomers and those who followed them could be expected to value finding a Jewish mate only to the extent that active expressions of their Jewishness played a major role in their lives. Fackenheim's famous "614th" commandment -- "thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory" -- helped for a little while, but it was inevitable that this post-Holocaust imperative would lose strength over time as the survivors died out and the historical memory of that era faded.

But whether we like it or not, there's also an ideological component to the destigmatization of intermarriage in recent decades. American society -- and much of the rest of the world as well -- has become obsessed with racism as the quintessential evil. Those Jews whose religious practice is a substantial feature of their lives may sometimes receive a pass, but for the rest, insistence on endogamy is seen by many in the larger society as a manifestation of racism. And since most American Jews inhabit the left side of the political spectrum, where the obsession with racism is most endemic, all too many Jews seem to have internalized this attitude.

In the context of this societal reality, the Syrian community's hard line against intermarriage is emphatically counter-cultural. By rejecting conversion entirely -- one of the most surprising vignettes in Chafets's article was the community's rejection of a personal appeal from Rav Ovadia Yosef, probably the most widely respected Sephardic rabbi in the world, to accept a conversion that he had performed -- the Syrian Jewish community provides further support for those who claim that opposition to intermarriage is fundamentally racist. If your aim is to put OPPOSITION to intermarriage in a bad light, focusing on the Syrian Jewish community's manner of dealing with it would seem to be an effective strategy. I have no inside knowledge, but it's hard not to wonder whether that's one of the reasons that Chafets wrote the article.

Regardless of what motivated Chafets to write his article or the Times magazine to publish it, the difficulty of fighting against intermarriage in the context of contemporary American society is an unavoidable reality. One of the most impressive aspects of the Syrian community's position, at least as Chafets described it, is its sturdy indifference to how its policies are perceived by the world outside. I'm certainly not recommending that the Jewish community at large adopt the Syrian approach to the problem in its entirety -- I do seem to recall that there's a halakhic prohibition against rejecting sincere converts -- but that community's willingness to ignore the opinions of the outside world is worth admiring, and emulating.

Douglas Aronin

Thursday 1 November 2007

Reform Judaism - Resurrecting Techi'yat haMeitim!

Originally published 11/1/07, 11:44 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Is Reform Judaism finally resurrecting the idea of Techtyat Hameitim? Maybe it took a few "gilgullim" but it appears to be making a comeback! See this Cross Currents article, "Resurrection", containing Rabbi Safran's review of the New Reform Prayer Book

I submitted the following comments to the Cross-Currents blog:
It is refreshing to see that the Reform Movement is beginning to "See the Light". I suggest that Torah-True Jews pursue the following stance:

1) On the One hand be firm with our Beliefs and Practices
2) On the other hand - Be open to extend a hand to those who - though far away now - are heading back in the Torah direction. [Shalom Shalom larachok v'lakarov...]

Rabbi Safran has apparently fulfilled both of the above. While remaining loyal and Torah-True, he sees the glimmer of light {pintele-yid perhaps?] amongst those who used to abandon Torah more completely.

And if I may add a third lesson - Torah Education will help lead the non-Observant to a higher Torah Consciousness. While indeed it may be forbidden to teach non-Jews Torah, there is no such prohibition (at least as far as I know) to teach the not-yet-Observant. Eventually, that education will lead to greater observance. Today - unlike say 180 years ago - most Reform Jews ignore Halacha because they are ignorant of Torah. With a more Torah-True prayer book, they may work their way back. And with proliferation of many user-friendly tomes - such as the Shottenstein Talmud this possibility is greater than ever before.

Kol Tuv,

Tuesday 30 October 2007

For Those Who Don't Not Watch TV (But Still Don't Watch It)

We direct your attention to the following article:
For Those Who Don't Not Watch TV (But Still Don't Watch It)
by Nishma Researh Assistant and Stern College student, Tikva Hecht,
appeared in Kol Hamevaser 1:2 and is available on line at:

The article raises some important issues regarding the interplay of secular society, specifically culture, and Torah. We look forward to your comments.

Friday 26 October 2007

Do They Really Deserve a Beating?

Another Contribution from Cantor Wolberg!

The willow which symbolizes the Jew without Torah learning and good deeds and also symbolizes the "mouth" is taken in our hands and beaten (havatat aravot) on the floor five times. There are many, many different reasons given for this obscure ritual. I would like to offer my own: I see the beating of the willows parallel to the azazel ritual. In other words, the willows become the scapegoat.

Why five times? Five is a significant number: Five senses, Five Books of Moses, Five pointed star, (this symbol of the five-pointed Star and the corresponding number five have been consonant symbols for Man for as long as there has been written record, dating back to the earliest centuries, Five fingers on each hand, Five toes on each foot and the word "quintessence" means the fifth essence. In physics, quintessence is a hypothetical form of dark energy postulated as an explanation of observations of an accelerating universe. The ancients saw a link of God to man in the number five. Geometrically it is a pentagon. In three dimensions it is a pyramid, like the Great Pyramids in Egypt. So as you can see, beating the willow 5 times may have greater meaning than meets the eye.

Another beautiful thought: The word for willow "aravah" also means "sweet," so that our prayers should be sweet before the Almighty.

So when you beat the willows, be sure to pray for a sweet year and a quintessence of Avodas HaShem.

-Cantor Richard Wolberg

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Etz Hada'as - So What IS So Bad about Knowing Good from Evil Anyway?

Originally published 10/23/07, 6:17 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
Q: So wasn't the nachash [snake] right? After all, what is so bad about knowing Good from Evil?
A: Because now we are stuck in a judgmental paradigm that we cannot escape.

Q: Whatcha mean?
A: I guess, before the "sin," we were all like Zen monks. Everything just IS. We only lived for the present moment. No discussion, no planning, no remembering, just being and experiencing.

Now, we are constantly stuck in the mind game
  • Did I do the fight thing?
  • Did so-and-so do the right thing?
  • Were the Yankees GOOD to Torre?
  • Was Torre's firing good for the Jews?
We are STUCK evaluating every last detail of our existence on this veil of tears and there is no escape!

Q: Wow! So what can we do NOW?
A:Hashiveinu Hashem...Hadesh Yameinu kekdem. Restore us to our original state of ignorant bliss. But, please hurry, it has taken way too long already!


The Proverbial "Fig Leaf" - Is This Torah Hi - v'Llilmod Ani Tzarich?

Originally published 10/23/07, 4:50 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
During my years at yeshiva, there was a small set of students who were interested in Torah but also had certain "voyeuristic" tendencies. In order to satisfy their hormones - and perhaps their intellect too - they would read the sections of Halachah that dealt with marital and sexual relations. For example, Rambam Hilchos Issurei Bia'h, or other related texts, became reading material in the Beis Midrash.

Was this a legitimate channel for the libido? Or was this merely to cover up for their voyeurism and was a violation of the spirit - if not the letter - of "Do not stray after your eyes" - lo sassuro acahrei ... eineichem?
  • On the one hand, reading Shas/Rambam/Shulchan Aruch can be construed as better than staring at centrefolds.
  • On the other hand, are they actually "faking" or "feigning" an interest in Halachah merely to cover-up what they are REALLY doing?
Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Monday 22 October 2007

Finally - I have completed Marc Shapiro's Book.

Originally published 10/22/07, 11:57 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
Dear NishmaBlog Readers,

I have finally completed reading Marc Shapiro's book on the 13 Principles of the Rambam. I will do a book review BEH in several installments forthwith.


Thursday 18 October 2007

P'sak: Using Talmud vs. Using Secondary Sources.

Originally published 10/18/07, 10:12 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.

The idea of midgets on the shoulders of giants goes back to at least medieval times. In a monograph by R. Dr. E. Kanarfogel [RDEK] on Progress and Tradition in Medieval Ashkenaz, this topic came up several times.

I want to focus on a Ri Migash. The Ri Migash is quoted as recommending that rabbis are better served by using Gaonic works [secondary sources] than by going back to examine the Talmud itself. This is a classic "midgets on the shoulders of giants" argument. The problem: The Ri Migash disregarded this rule himself.

Well, as the article goes on to say, such programmatic or formulaic statements are meant to be disregarded at times at the very outset. In other words, no one takes such generalities as absolutes.

What was the Ri Migash REALLY saying?
 One explanation is simple. Unless one is a a master of the entire Talmud, it is better to use secondary sources. Secondary sources have already predigested the entire corpus and so can provide a more holistic point of view on any issue.

As such, as I see it, only the GREAT masters of Talmud have the right [maybe the obligation at times] to go back to the Talmud to render Halachah.

The Rosh seems to recommend that approach for everybody. IMHO the Rosh simply over-estimated the gravitas of the average or mediocre rabbi. Few of them are even CAPABLE of using this methodology. Many that do are likely subject to errors of omission or perhaps even hubris.

I would posit that even for masters of Talmud, it is a slippery slope to go back to the Talmud if it overturns precedent. Once a GREAT rabbi uses this method to overturn tradition, it becomes fair game for other rabbis - of admittedly lesser stature - to follow suit. Given that a certain Poseik may have the RIGHT to go back to the Talmud, he should not necessarily exercise that right.
 Why? He is opening up a Pandora's box for other rabbis. Hachamim hizaharu b'divreichem. In this case, be careful of what techniques you use lest you send others on a problematic path.

Now I can think of 2 caveats where going back to examine the Talmud is desirable:
  1. New case law. Issues that have little "common Law" type precedent.
  2. Urgent issues or Hora'as sho'ah issues. E.G. to help out Agunos.
In fact, most Poskim do factor in Rishonim and Acharonim even when they do go back to the Talmud. It is always a good idea.

The Aruch Hashulochan limits himself in p'sak. Regarding  the issue of al nekiyyus Yadayim he favors the logic of the Rashba to use the original formula of al netilas Yadayim and not to be meshaneh the matbie'a to al nekiyyus.
However, he submits himself to the rulings of the Rosh and Tur. This might be due to his humility. Or perhaps he sees precedent as binding in a way analogous to that of Common Law. This is the technique favored by Ashkenazim throughout the period of the Rema.

Shach YD 1:1 ratifies this. Lo Ra'inu IS a Raya in the realm of Minhag. Introducing new practices is contra-Tradition. The fact that women Halachically are ABLE to slaughter does not mean we should change the Minhag to allow them to slaughter. Why not? Since it is a time-honored tradition, granting this permission would break with common Law Precedent and act to repeal of 'settled case law "to do so."

If you were to ask why Ashkenazim refrained from permitting women to slaughter, and was this due to some misogynist agenda? The answer is, according to the Levush - it is due to women being subject to fainting. This kind of G'zeria is common to the Talmud. Something goes wrong, and if Hazal see it as a potential problem in the future, they then make a g'zeira not to do it in the future .[ e.g see Hullin regarding: omitting Mayyim aharonim might lead to eating hazir]

 Primary sources would have ignored this g'zeira. So did Bet Yosef - probably because Sephardic communities did not have this situation as a precedent in Sephardic communities.

Kol Tuv / Best Regards,
Please Visit:

Noah's missing year

According to the Torah:
  1. Noah lived 600 years before the Flood
  2. The Flood lasted 1 full solar year
  3. Noah lived 350 years AFTER the flood
  4. Noah's total life-span is 950 years.
  5. But - Since 600 + 1 + 350 = 951, Therefore Noah SHOULD have lived 951 years!
Where is Noah's missing year?
What Commentaries deal with this?
Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Tuesday 16 October 2007

YC's The Commentator - Are You 'Rabbi' Enough For Young Israel?

Originally published 10/16/07, 12:55 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.

For the past century, attendees of Young Israel synagogues dotting the country have known what to expect: junior congregations that excite kids, congregational singing and a commercial-free environment which enliven adults and shomer Shabbat policies to ensure an Orthodox atmosphere for all.
Read Full Article
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Copyright 2007 The Commentator and College Publisher

Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Football, Tailgating, and Jewish Pride

Originally published 10/16/07, 12:25 pm, Eastern Daylight Time

Despite some controversies surrounding Chabad in particular and Hassidim in general, there is no question that they are "unapologetic" Jews. They wear their Yiddishkeit on their sleeves and have no problem dealing with the outside world on their own terms. Read on:

Have prayers and Packers, too

Orthodox Jews worship at Lambeau tailgate

Posted: Oct. 14, 2007
Green Bay - If you're going to have a kosher tailgate at Lambeau Field, you might as well go all the way. That means you light up the coals of the kosher grill and bring out the kosher hot dogs, beef, chicken and brats. And you recite morning prayers in Hebrew, even if a rock band is on a nearby stage blaring "Brown Sugar."
So Sunday, Rabbi Shais Taub of the Chabad Lubavitch of Wisconsin led a group of 10 Orthodox Jews on a pilgrimage from Milwaukee deep into Packerland. They tailgated across the street from Lambeau, in a grass-covered parking lot, next door to Kroll's West, where butter burgers - definitely not kosher - are a specialty. And they prayed, with some of the men and their sons donning a prayer shawl called a tallit and phylacteries, two small leather boxes containing verses of Scripture....

For the rest of this story See:

Note: There is a bona fide minyan prior to the New York marathon and Glatt Franks are served AFAIK in both NYC ball parks as well as in Baltimore and Cleveland. My son's Day School davened Mincha at Yankee Stadium several years ago near the Glatt Frank stand. During the Amidah, Bernie Williams hit a home-run that was heard over the p/a system. Our Prayers had been answered!


Friday 12 October 2007

Noach: The Question of Dual Moralities

From the archives of Nishma's Online Library at, we have chosen an article that relates to the week's parsha, both to direct you to this dvar Torah but also for the purposes of initiating some discussion.

This week's parsha is Noach and the topic is the Noachide Code. Most individuals believe this Code to be an abbreviated form, a subset, of the Taryag Code that applies to Jews. In fact, the Noachide Code is a fully independent system which, at times, yields conclusions that are in conflict with the Halacha that Jews are suppose to follow. One example of this is found in the rules of judgement and justice and the noted Insight investigates this surpristing reality, for how can two moral systems originating in the Divine have such distinctions. The Question of Dual Moralities is at

Tuesday 9 October 2007

A Grandfather Clause, Halachah and Minhag in Yemen

I just came across an interesting post on the web:
Where the Halacha is not like Rambam" (See file in the group's File Section, in folder entitled "Customs which are Different")
Although the Yemenite Jews accepted as a whole the halachic rulings of Rambam, especially where Rambam came to contend with other exponents of Jewish law over difficult halachic issues, still, where they found contradictions between their own halachic traditions and those prescribed by Rambam in his Code of Jewish Law, the practices and customs bequeathed unto them by their forefathers were those that were generally upheld by the community- despite their great love and respect for Rambam. This only goes to show that the Jews of Yemen were not devoid of Torah in themselves, before the light of Rambam shone upon them in Yemen. Rambam's epistle to the Yemenites, as also the following selection of thirty-two, so-called, anomalies found amongst them proves this fact beyond any reasonable doubt. By their persistence in their own particular customs, they showed thereby that halacha and religious observance did not begin for them with Rambam.

For more details see

From the above we can clearly make the following observations::
That local custom is not necessarily superseded by canonical text. Au contraire, at least SOME earlier customs remain as a legacy - grandfathered in DESPITE the subsequent canonization of a code such as the Rambam's Mishneh Torah was in Yemen.


Dealing with the Passionate vs. the Reasonable

Originally published 10/9/07, 1:45 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
From the Avodah list:
On 10/7/07, regalkit@aol.comwrote:
The sefer, [i.e. Vayoel Moshe] in my humble opinion, is full of these misrepresentations; can someone guide me as to how I can understand a Godol Hador's writings?
Thank You.
Binyomin Hirsch

Never having  read this sefer, I cannot comment on the specifics...
Let me quote these principles on the general question:
  • "As soon as passionate advocacy enters, reasonable judgment and fair-minded balance exits"
  • "One can be either an advocate for a position, or be a dispassionate objective observer but it is well-nigh impossible to serve both causes justly."
  • "Hevu masunim bedin"
  • and al Tadin Yehcidi, etc.
Maybe the best check for any published work is constant peer review and to never accept the position of a "gadol" by his own authority alone.

Example: The Rambam was a Gadol but he stated many controversial positions. AFAIK only Teimanim accept his positions [almost] wholesale. Certainly, R. Yosef Karo did not. The beauty of the Beis Yosef and the Rema is that generally they surveyed a wide-consensus of "gedolim" and rarely relied upon a single idiosyncratic view. I endorse that methodology wholeheartedly. In that sense I would state of myself that I am accepting of Gedolim in general and a skeptic regarding any specific Gadol 's pronouncements.
Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Halacha - Stability and Revision Pt. 1 Parallels from American Law

Originally published 10/9/07, 1:21 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
 I generally see three schools of Judicial thought:
  1. Fundamentalism
  2. Traditionalism
  3. Activism
The original intention of the earliest canonical sources RULES. This actually can provide a great deal of activism in the sense that Fundamentalism can lead to a form of REVISIONISM.
In the USA this might read like this: Since the First Amendment NEVER put up a wall between Church and State, and only addressed Congress' ability to establish religion, therefore any law that requires a GREATER separation is either null and void, or at least VOIDABLE.
To stick to canonical documents. To highly restrict revisionism of original intention, in favor of revising laws that fail to conform to fundamentalistic reads of the tomes.

This is based upon the principles of Common Law. The rulings of course are all factored in to make the law. The higher the court the more influential the precedent. Texts and tomes are secondary to how the courts rule in practice. New rulings can introduce new law, but ONLY if other courts ratify this as precedent. Otherwise, Stare Decisis [let the decision stand] is the underlying assumption. Illustration:
In the USA this might read like this: Since Roe vs. Wade is SETTLED LAW, and has even been used as a basis to create other law, the decision stands DESPITE the fact it might have been flawed or not in consonance with fundamental texts.
To create a stable, albeit evolving society, businesses need stability upon which to project their decisions. Property needs protection in order to encourage improvements. Protect values that created the society and to perpetuate these values across generational boundaries.
Since the principles of Liberty and Justice for all are META-LAW, all texts and Traditions may be disregarded in favor of a liberal agenda of maximizing liberty Illustration:
In the USA this might read like this: Since traditional marriage has been restricted for generations to heterosexual couples, we may wish to liberalize these laws and let gays and polygamists have the SAME rights as traditional hetero-marriages. This is in order to spread the most rights to the most people. Fundamental readings of text, as well as history and tradition - take a back seat. They may even have a voice, but not a veto.
To pursue a liberal or a libertarian or a libertine] agenda. To promote progressivism. Maximize rights for the people.

NB: Since I first authored this, I have been informed that there can be more than 3. For Example: "reactionary" - where one would do things OUR way as opposed to the ways of other cultures.

BEH I will stick with these 3 American Models for now. When I do a Jewish parallel, I will add a 4th Jewish/Religious Model.

Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Ad hominem as Formal Folly

Originally published 10/9/07, 12:27 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.
While it is true that many bloggers, propagandists etc. seem to appeal to human's lower, baser nature - see

Nishmablog, on the other hand, is doing its best to appeal to our higher nature. Our meta-goal is V'chal dracheha darchei no'am.


Monday 8 October 2007

A Tale of Two Skeptics

Originally posted 10/8/07, 11:35 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Recalling earlier posts on Nishmablog about Faith and Doubt, I decided to relate this story to our readership.
Once upon a time, three people discussed the history of Megillas Esther
  1. Rabbi W
  2. Mr. X
  3. Rabbi Y
Rabbi W gave possible proofs about the origins of the story; he showed how it could mesh well with some of the points made by Herodotus.

Mr. X felt intrigued. He listened to hear more.

Later on, Rabbi Y came along. He stated firmly that Megillas Esther never actually happened and, like "Iyyov," was merely a religious story, a myth, a legend to teach a lesson.
Furthermore, Rabbi Y asserted the following: "If Rabbi W were so certain about the authenticity of the literal existence of Megillas Esther, he would need not speculate about Herodotus etc. this PROVES that Rabbi W. is just as skeptical as I am." Then Rabbi Y left the discussion.

Mr. X felt shaken, He liked what Rabbi W had to say but now he had doubts himself. He wondered if ANYONE believes The Esther story to be true.

"Say it ain't so Rabbi W! I want to believe that the story of Esther REALLY happened. Do YOU harbor any doubts?" asked Mr. X.

Rabbi W. thought for a few minutes. He then proceeded to explain his position.
"I'd like to believe it is true, too. And it is true that Rabbi Y and I do share a sense of skepticism about certain events and texts. We can both be critical of "conventional wisdom" and we both enjoy to promote a new angle on old ideas. BUT - and I must emphasize this - you must NOT confuse our very different positions re: Megillas Esther!"

"Rabbi W, you are a skeptic, and so is Rabbi Y! So how are any different after all?"

"You ask a good question Mr. X! I will explain. You see Rabbi Y is not JUST skeptical, he is also a bit cynical. It is not like he finds historical problems on Megillas Esther, and therefore has a doubt about its authenticity. Rather, he has FIRMLY MADE UP HIS MIND, that Megillas Esther CANNOT be historical! And following that conclusion he is now adamant about not listening to any proofs to the contrary! On the other hand, I have some doubts. I am not certain it IS historical and I am not certain it is NOT historical. But as a skeptic - and NOT a cynic - my mind is far from made up. I am researching and looking for more and more points. In fact I would prefer to find solid evidence that it IS historical after all. On the other hand, I do share some of Rabbi Y.'s doubts about some of the accounts. So my mind is not 100% certain that this book is to be taken literally! Can you see the difference?"

Mr. X pondered it a bit. "I think I can understand a distinction... but it seems neither of you are believers!"

"Well, it seems that way. I am actually saying that I AM a believer to an extent but that I harbor some doubts. Let's say I keep my options open."

Mr. X persisted: "What's the point of that?"

"Let me give you an example. Let's say that the story DID happen, but not 100% as reported in the Megilla. Rather, let's say there was a dose of literary license, a bit of hyperbole, or perhaps some symbolic messages embedded in the way the text is presented. IOW, like many legends, the story has been embellished. By taking a wait and see attitude I can find out just how much of this story is history and how much is allegory. Let's say there are about 3 categories:
  1. Almost 100% historical
  2. Almost 100% non-Historical
  3. Somewhere in between!
This is like during the 10 days of Penitence. There are:
  1. 100% righteous people
  2. 100% evil people and
  3. The vast majority in between.
God immediately deals with the 100% people first. With the majority in between - God HIMSELF takes a wait and see attitude. On the other hand, Rabbi Y. has given up. He has made up his mind. And perhaps those that firmly believe the story is 100% true have done the same thing at the opposite end. They really do not care about the history of the event from any other source. I am trying to get to the truth of what happened and what is so-called "legend". I realize that harboring doubts is not necessarily the ideal for a religious person, but I am not a denier either. I am just human and trying my best to sort things out."

Mr. X tugged at his chin. Rabbi W.'s points were sinking in after all It had been a bit of a shock for him to see any Rabbi as not having 100% faith, but now he kind of understood that faith can allow for some doubt, and that not everyone was 100% filled with faith. He also realize that Rabbi Y in a way WAS filled with a strong faith, but his was a faith in the negative sense. And he could see how Rabbi Y.'s cynicism blinded him from seeing any new facts emerging from archaeology that might give a more positive historical spin on this story. Mr. X also appreciated that faith, reason, doubt, skepticism, etc. could be gray and not so black-and-white - and that there was room for variety of perceptions. He also appreciated Rabbi W.'s candor, realizing that other rabbis might have doubts, too but are not up-front enough to admit them.

Rabbi W told Mr. X. "Now let's have some tea and cake, something in which we can BOTH believe in equally!"


Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

The Year of Living Biblically

Originally published 10/8/07, 6:59 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Maclean's magazine featured an interview last week. with A. J. Jacobs. The book he wrote, "The Year of Living Biblically," is based upon the author's year of living according to the literal word of the Bible. His interview is available on line here.

I have not seen the book but I found the interview most interesting. I am still not sure how to respond. Obviously, this person's year of following the Bible literally does not really reflect Orthodox Judaism. It most likely was closer, in practice, to the Karaites or the Sadducees. Nonetheless, Mr. Jacobs' comments are still worth noting. I found myself torn in my reactions.

I would be most interested in your comments.

Wednesday 3 October 2007

Ahmadinejad Meets Neturei Karta Rabbis

Originally published on 10/3/07, 11:57 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.
First, I invite you to view the video of Ahmadinejad's meeting with some Neturei Karta rabbis here.  You may find it somewhat disturbing but it is clearly something worth watching.

I have dealt before with the issue of members of Neturei Karta meeting with Ahmadinejad, specifically their attendance at that infamous conference at Tehran. My position is actually quite simple -- as far as I am concerned there is no justification for meeting with someone who wishes to attack Jews. Even if Neturei Karta has "all" the Torah arguments in the world to justify their theological positions including their view of Israel, in that the majority , the vast majority of Jews, even the vast majority of Torah Jews, do not share this view and those who oppose this mainstream Jewish view have declared a willingness to harm these Jews, there is no explanation for sitting with a sonei Yisrael, one committed to harming Jews.

Having said this, though, this video is the first time I have actually seem these members of Neturei Karta present their views, and opens new issues that demand investigation.

1) Eilu v'Eilu -- In the Sifkin Affair, people argued Eilu v'Eilu in the name of tolerance. Would these same people argue it in this case -- afterall are these NK people not making Torah arguments. But they do not invoke Eilu v'Eilu so why should we? Is that the way Eilu v'Eilu works? Do you know that Reform Judaism also invokes Eilu v'Eilu? Don't we still apply this concept in other cases while rejecting it in regard to Reform? Don't we apply and not apply Eilu v'Eilu? Is that not what these NK people are also doing? Eilu v'Eilu is a problematice concept and one cannot fully comprehend its depth and its difficulty until we confront situations like this one when we recognize that we have to be tolerant to other Torah positions but also understand that Torah tolerance still only works within certain parameters. Working out those parameters, and recognizing the possibility of arguments regarding those parameters For further insights on this topic see my various articles on the Slifkin Affair which are available in the Nishma website's Index to Commentaries.

2) Religion v.s. Nationalism -- If you follow the words of the NK spokesman, you truly see an aspect of the Jewish world that is often overlooked -- the difference between religiously motivated Jewish identity and nationally motivated Jewish identity. If you look at Islamic fundamentalists without a consideration of their anti-Israel stand, do you not find a group close to religious motivated Jewishness? There is a belief in One God. There is some semblance of a sexual morality albeit its actual manifestation is not in line with Jewish values even for the most right-wing Orthodox Jew (and more so for more liberal views within Orthodoxy). But think about this. In America, we are siding with the Christian fundamentalists against secularists but vis-a-vis Muslim fundamentalists we seem , to some extent, to find ourselves siding with secularists.
Israel is a major reason for our definitions of allegiance -- but think about what we would be thinking if Israel was not the issue. What you see in the video is one monotheist praising another monotheist against secularism. How do you respond to that? Is it not interesting that in so many ways we side with the secularists against monotheists? Is that not something to ponder? And what about this generic view of religion anyway? I find it also strange that Israel has drawn individuals closer to Christian fundamentalism. In any event viewing this video does also raise issues of our identity as well.

Questioning, investigating, analyzing should not be understood as in any way giving value. I find this video disturbing, period. But it is still worthwhile to contemplate.