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,