Thursday 27 June 2019

20 Years of JWR

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Rabbi Gil Student

I just realized that I missed the twentieth anniversary of Jewish World Review, run by Binyamin Jolkovksy. [Below is the link to] his opening editorial from December 10, 1997. The internet was different back then. It was still experimental and mostly text-based, with no revenue model. I have no idea how he has survived financially but he has gained national exposure in right wing circles.

Rabbi Gil Student

Sunday 23 June 2019

Memorial for Jewish Community of Argentina that was attacked 25 years ago in the UN- Sponsored by Mission of Argentina to the UN, the AMIA, and WJC

This year, we mark the 25th anniversary of the horrific attack on the Jewish community organization of Argentina, the AMIA, in Buenos Aires. As you know, it was the deadliest attack on Argentina’s Jewish community to date, occurring on July 18, 1994, with 85 people murdered and hundreds injured.

Over the years, the perpetrators of this vicious crime have never been brought to justice. This case  has been dogged by unresolved questions and by accusations of ineptitude and cover-ups on the part of authorities.  On 25 October 2006, Argentine prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcelo Martínez Burgos formally accused the government of Iran of directing the bombing, and the Hezbollah militia of carrying it out.
In 2015 Alberto Nisman filed a 300-page document accusing the government of covering up Iran's role in the incident. Alberto  Nisman was murdered hours before he was due to testify, and those responsible for the terrorist attack on the Jewish community center still remain at large. This, despite the fact that INTERPOL has issued Red Notices, which are international wanted persons notices, for the suspects.  

We will remember the Jewish community members who were the victims of this horrendous terrorist attack on the AMIA on Monday, June 24th, at 12:00 noon at a special ceremony co-sponsored by the Argentinian Mission to the UN and the World Jewish Congress. It will take place in the UN, in the Trusteeship Council Chamber.

Thank you,
Betty Ehrenberg
Executive Director
WJC North America

Thursday 20 June 2019

Book Review: The Biblical Maimonides

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                   “The Biblical Maimonides: Exodus” by Alec Goldstein (2019)

      Let us assume you are a lover of Rambam. What do you do each parsha when you want to give a devar torah?  Despite his voluminous writings, Rambam never wrote a commentary on the Torah.
     Now, however, a new genre of literature has arisen. People collect Rambam’s writings from elsewhere, i.e., commentary on the Mishnah, Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, Mishneh Torah, Guide to the Perplexed, and numerous responsum, and present them in the order of the Torah verses. There are several works like this in Hebrew. But to my knowledge, this work by Alec Goldstein is the first work of this genre in English. This work only covers the book of Exodus, but it is still 488 pages (plus useful indices).
      (With regard to the books of Genesis and Exodus, we have a surviving commentary on these books by the son of Rambam. Sometimes he records interpretations of his father and some of these interpretations are included by the author as well.)
    The best part of this work is that the author does not just collect Rambam’s comments on the verses.  He then tells you how this interpretation differs from that of Rashi. Then he will quote Nachmanides and tell you whose side he is on. By doing this, the book makes a major contribution to Rambam and parsha studies.
    The author quotes dozens of other sources as well.  When you buy this book, you think you will be learning mainly the interpretations of Rambam. But you will be amazed how much you will learn about the views of other Rishonim, Acharonim, and modern-day rabbinic scholars.
     Let us go through a sample of the hundreds of interpretations included in this work:
   1.    At Exodus 2:14, Moses intercedes between two Hebrews fighting and is asked by one of them: ”ha-le-hargeini ata omer”?  Here the author quotes from Rambam’s statements in the Guide that the roots A-M-R and D-B-R are synonymous, and that they have three different meanings: 1) speech, 2) thought, and 3) will (=desire). In the Guide, Rambam had cited examples for each of the meanings, and for the last, Rambam had cited our verse.
         Then the author points out that this view of Rambam differs from that of Rashi.  Rashi had written that the root D-B-R is always “lashon kashe,” while the root A-M-R is always “lashon tachanunim.” See, e.g., Rashi on Num. 12:1.
         The author explains further that Rambam would understand our phrase at Ex. 2:14 as meaning: “Do you desire to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” In contrast, Rashi (based on a midrash) assumes a very literal understanding of the verse: “will you say something that will kill me, in the same manner that you killed the Egyptian, i.e., by uttering the ‘shem ha-meforash’?”
       (The widespread view today is that Rambam never saw any of Rashi’s commentaries, as he never cites him. But it has been suggested in recent years that Rambam may have become aware of some of Rashi’s commentaries later in life.)
         2. At Exodus 4:2-4, God turns Moses’ rod into a serpent and then turns it back into a rod. Why would the second stage be necessary when Moses showed this sign to others?  Here the author quotes from a responsum of Rambam’s: “ [If a miracle persists, it opens] the way to suspicion. If the rod remained a serpent, the uncertainty would be entertained that it had originally been a serpent, so that the miracle is achieved by its return to the rod… If, in the incident of the followers of Korah, the ground had burst asunder, and stayed open for good, the miracle would be challenged. In fact, the miracle was completed when the ground returned to its former condition…”
         3. Exodus 6:18 mentions Amram.  Here the author quotes a passage from the Mishneh Torah (Melakhim 9:1) where Rambam states that some commandments were given to Amram before the Torah was given.  The author raises the question of where Rambam learned this. He quotes Meshekh Chokhmah, Yad Eitan, and Rabbi Israel Eliezer Rubin for some suggestions.
         4. Exodus 12:8 tells us that the Passover meat had to be eaten with merorim. The Torah does not give us any reason for this. Of course, in the Haggadah we explain that the merorim reflect the bitterness of the slavery, citing verse 1:14: “va-ye-mareru et chayeyhem….” (I find this explanation compelling.) The author first quotes Rambam’s Haggadah, which matches ours. But then the author adds an interesting suggestion by the Hizzekuni. The Passover offering was a symbolic slaying of an Egyptian deity and eating the lamb with merorim (as opposed to something important and sweet) was a further way to show contempt for it.
      In the introduction to the work, the author raises questions such as what sense of “peshat” the Rambam had, and whether it is legitimate to take statements from scattered works and other contexts and turn them into a running commentary. The author also quips that if Rambam had wanted to write a commentary on the Torah, perhaps he would have!
     In this connection it is interesting to mention some other works that Rambam mentions that he hoped to author. In one letter he mentions that he hoped to write a work where he lists the sources for his statements in the Mishneh Torah. But he never had time to do this. In a different letter he complains that he wished he had the time to translate his Arabic writings into Hebrew. A famous letter (quoted in the Encyclopaedia Judaica 11:757) describes his daily life as a physician to the sultan and how busy and tired he was at that time.
      Obviously, the author could not include every statement or allusion of Rambam that was relevant to a verse in Exodus. The author explains his methodology in the introduction.
       The author writes that he has been studying Rambam for most of his adult life. He mentions an old joke that men know where a verse is in the Gemara and women know where it is in Tanach. He jokes that he knew neither but knew where Rambam quoted it!
     The author has semikhah from Y.U. He also has an excellent knowledge of ancient languages and nuances of words. This makes him an excellent writer and translator. Hopefully, he will continue with the other four books of the Torah!   
 One can collect Mitchell First’s Link articles and make them into a book as well. (Actually, he already did that! But only for the first two years of his columns; another book is necessary for the columns of years three and four.)   Full disclosure: Alec Goldstein runs Kodesh Press which has published two of my books.

Monday 17 June 2019

Making Hate Solely Generic -- and Thereby Avoiding the Issue

The Nazis yms"z not only were virulent anti-Semites but they hated across the board -- although their view of Jews was especially vile. It is not by coincidence that we can speak of Anti-Semitism as the 'canary in the coal mine' in regard to a society's view of others -- for how a society treats Jews can often indicate how it will, in general, treat others. Hate can be a generic response to any other. The challenge, though, is that it also may not be -- and there can be a problem if we see hate as solely generic.

One group’s hatred towards another emerges either from a perceived perception of the group being hated or of the group expressing the hate. In the former case, the explanation of the hatred flows from a presumed fault in those being hated which is deemed deserving of this response. In the latter case, though, the focus of the hate does not emerge from a perceived fault in those being hated but, rather, a presumed superiority in those hating. This type of self-perception can then lead to a generic hate of all others.  It is not simply that my group is better than the other group because of a fault in the other group. The argument is that my group is inherently better than the other group. This can then be extended to a generic argument that my group is better than all other groups.

In recent times, we seem to be seeing a movement towards defining hate much more in this manner, as a generic expression of superiority of one over all others. This is not to say that this person of generic hate does not also make distinctions between the individual others that this person may hate. It might still be that this person will still define certain people as more deserving of hate than the others. This was clearly the case with the Nazis. They hated Jews more than they hated the other 'others' but the essence of their hate was in their perceived superiority over all others. They had generic hate that then broke down into different degrees of hate depending upon an other's specific grouping. Their hate, though, was generic; its essence was the hate of all others. It emerged from a bloated sense of self-worth. This form of hate obviously still demands our concern. There is, however, a problem if we see hate only in such generic terms, as reflecting solely this type of motivation. Hate emerging from the specific attack on a particular group through the demonization of that group can then be ignored. 

This problem was reflected in various statements made in response to the tragic shooting at the Chabad synagogue in Poway. The gunman, upon being arrested, was also charged with attempting to set fire to a mosque a month earlier. He obviously not only had hatred toward Jews but also possessed hatred toward Muslims -- and that is something which clearly should not to be ignored. But rather than describing him as someone who had negative emotions toward these two distinct groups of the other, his hatred for Jews and Muslims became one. There were those who were trying to define his hate as solely generic; Antisemitism and Islamophobia became one and the same. The pathology of the gunman was defined by his feelings of superiority. He was a White Supremacist. There was, of course, some truth in this assertion. What was lost, though, is that people could thereby ignore the Anti-Semitism - the perceived perception of specifically Jews as negative -- in what happened. By highlighting generic hate, people could avoid addressing the problem of the specific negativity towards Jews.

We saw this in the recent Congressional statement on racism which began as a specific rebuke of Anti-Semitism. The argument was made that it should be a rebuke of all forms of racism -- and, on the surface, there would seem to be merit in such a demand. We should be against any type of such hatred. What is lost, though, in this development is the recognition of these different motivations for hatred. By grouping all hate together, by focusing on generic hatred, we are actually thereby only focusing on one motivation of hatred -- the feeling of superiority. This is not just a quantitative distinction: let's join all the victims of hate in the resolution. A qualitative distinction is also thereby enunciated; we lose sight of the specific roots of hate towards a particular community. The full problem of Anti-Semitism is, thereby, not addressed. It is being swept away with the effort to define any problem of hate as generic.

A further example of this issue also surfaced more recently. Members of the U.S. Congress recently formed a Black-Jewish caucus to deal with issues in the relationship between the Black and Jewish community. I saw this as a positive development. My understanding was that the purpose was to address negative emotions that exist between the two groups. The attainable goal was to find a solution, to deal with the root causes of these negative emotions. Then we heard someone stating that the purpose of this new caucus was to deal with hatred towards Blacks and Jews. The argument was again being made to make the issue generic hatred and, thereby, avoid the real issues facing the relationship between these two communities. This person was, perhaps, afraid of the findings if these issues were actually investigated. My hope is that this caucus does not fall prey to such an argument. I am not saying that it should not deal with the issue of generic hate. It should not, however, allow those who wish to promote this issue of generic hate to prevent any investigation and discussion of the other issues.

All hatred -- or tensions -- between groups are not the same. There may be, indeed, a generic factor but not every problem of hatred necessarily shares the same roots. There are those who are attempting to avoid the specific problems of Anti-Semitism by defining any act of Anti-Semitism as a reflection of generic hatred. This creates its own problems including the creation of a shelter for the specific Anti-Semite. We cannot just ignore the problem of generic hatred. We also cannot accept the created attempt to define all hatred as generic to thereby allow for specific forms of hatred to be ignored.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Saturday 15 June 2019

Mussar: Blaming

From RRW
"Blaming is often an excuse to avoid the effort of making necessary changes in oneself..."

By Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski

Thursday 13 June 2019

The Early History of the Torah Reading Cycle

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

     The Early History of the Torah Reading Cycle

         Today, all synagogues throughout the world read the same parshah every week. (Of course, there are brief periods where the Jews in Israel get ahead of us for a few weeks because of a second day Yom Tov which falls on Shabbat. But after a few weeks, Diaspora Jewry catches up.)
          But this uniformity was not always the norm.  A passage in the Babylonian Talmud at Megillah 29b refers to “the people of the west [=Palestinian Jewry] who conclude the Torah every three years.”  From many post-Talmudic sources, we learn that when the Babylonian Talmud refers to the Palestinian practice of “3 years,” they were oversimplifying. The Torah reading cycle in Palestine actually spanned about 3 ½ years. Moreover, there was no uniform start and finish date there. The different communities would start and finish their 3 ½ year cycle at different times. The ancient practice in Palestine is referred to today, in an oversimplified way, as the “triennial cycle.”
         In this column, I am not going to focus on the details of the triennial cycle and the division of the Torah into 153, 155, or 167 sections (and the many extra haftarot!). Rather, I would like to focus on the 1 year cycle in Babylonia at the time of the Talmud and try to determine when and why this cycle arose.
        We can infer from the above passage at Megillah 29b that Babylonian Jewry was completing their cycle in something other than 3 years. Of course, from later sources we know that they must have been alluding to their own one year cycle. But this one year cycle is not explicit anywhere in the Babylonian Talmud. Nor is there any reference to “54 parshiyyot” in the Talmud. There are almost no references to   parshiyyot by name. (An exception is Meg. 29b-30a; three parshiyyot are named there.)
       If we look at the Mishnah (Meg. chapter 3), it does refer to readings for special Sabbaths (e.g., Shekalim, Zachor, etc.) and for the festivals. But there is nothing to indicate what was read on regular Shabbatot. Also, at Megillah 31b there is reference to a disagreement between two Tannaim about certain details of the reading process. But still we do not know what the basic reading cycle was at the time of the Tannaim.
     But there is one passage that sheds much light on the cycle in Babylonia at the time of the Talmud. It is a passage at Megillah 31a where the readings for all the holidays are listed and briefly discussed. The passage seems to be a Tannaitic passage, but the Talmud includes additional comments by Babylonian Sages on the passage. After describing the reading for the 8th day of Sukkot, the Babylonian Sages comment: On the next day [in the Diaspora], the reading is “ve-zot ha-berakhah.”               
       Let us analyze this choice of Torah reading. The passage is one which is giving readings connected to the holidays. This means there must be a connection between “ve-zot ha-berakhah” and  Shemini Atzeret. What could this connection be? Anyone who learns about Shemini Atzeret in the Talmud will know this answer. The Talmud tells us (Suk. 48a) that one of the unique themes of Shemini Atzeret is “berakhah.”  This is based on I Kings 8:65 that records that on the eighth day of Sukkot, the people blessed Shelomo.  See Rashi to Suk. 48a, and Tosefta, fourth chapter.  (If one looks at the Siddur of R. Saadiah Gaon, pp. 365 and 373, he does not even call the holiday “Simchat Torah.” He calls it “the day of blessing.” See the Arabic term he used.)
             So “ve-zot ha-berakha” was chosen as a Shemini Atzeret reading because of a reason related to this holiday.  It is at least theoretically possible that we had the above holiday readings in Babylonia and then the yearly cycle was constructed in a later period to fit with this. But I think this is not what happened. Rather, it was realized that by setting up “ve-zot ha-berakhah” as the reading for the second day of Shemini Atzeret, the Babylonian Sages could accomplish two things at once. They would have a reading that matched a holiday theme and they could also end the yearly cycle. If I am correct, then this passage at Megillah 31a implies that the Babylonian Sages were on a one year cycle at this time that ended on the second day of Shemini Atzeret. Whenever the time was in Babylonia that the reading for the second days was established was likely the same time that the one year cycle that ends with the second day of Shemini Atzeret was established. Could there have been a one year cycle in Babylonia that ended at some other time, prior to this? No one knows.
             There is a passage at Megillah 31b that states that Ezra enacted that the curses in Leviticus (=the ones found in Bechukotai) must be read before Shavuot and that the curses in Devarim (=the ones found in Ki Tavo) must be read before Rosh Ha-Shanah. The Talmud explains that in this way “tekhaleh shanah u-kelaloteha.” This does not mean that the curses must be read immediately before these holidays, but that they should at least be completed at some time before them. (Shavuot is when “peirot ha-ilan” are judged. Mishna Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:2.) It seems from this passage that at the time of Ezra, mid-5th century B.C.E., there was a yearly cycle in Palestine. But sometime later, no one knows when, Palestinian Jewry started to develop their triennial cycles, even though some communities in Palestine still maintained a one year cycle. (For example, it seems that the paytan R. Eleazar Ha-Kallir, c. 600, lived in a community in Palestine that still maintained a one year cycle!)
            Rambam, writing in Egypt at the end of the 12th century, observed that in his time the triennial cycle was not widespread (Hilkhot Tefilah 13:1). Perhaps the immigration of Babylonian Jews to Palestine led to its decline.
            Finally, there is a famous passage from the traveler Benjamin of Tudela that describes what he saw on his visit to Cairo around the year 1170. There were two synagogues there, one with their members from Israel, and the other with their members from Babylonia. In the synagogue of the Babylonians, they read one portion every week, and finished the Torah every year. In the synagogue of the men from Israel, they divided each portion into three sections and finished the Torah at the end of three years. But he continues: “They have a custom… to join together and pray in unison on the day of Simchat Torah….” (The passage is quoted in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, 15:1247).  (I presume that the men from the Israel-type synagogue traveled to the Babylonian-type synagogue. That was likely where the kiddush was!)
Mitchell First can be reached at  Even though I wrote that nowadays all synagogues throughout the world read the same parshah every week, I have heard that there are a handful of obscure synagogues somewhere that still follow the triennial cycle!
       P.S.    The above is the article that will be published in the Link. But the story of the reading cycle in the several centuries of B.C.E. years is more complex than I presented it. Many questions arise. For example:
                  -When the 2nd century C.E. Tanna at Megillah 31b attributes an enactment to Ezra (5th century B.C.E.), do we have to accept this attribution?
                   -When did batei midrashot and batei kneisiyot arise in Palestine and Babylonia? What went on inside them? Was there Tefillah be-Tzibur prior to 70 C.E.?  How much time was available for Torah and Haftarah readings?
           For interesting speculation on all these topics, see the article by Ezra Fleischer in Tarbitz 61, pp. 25-43. (This article is found in the Tarbitz Tefillah essay collection, edited by H. Mack.) I would like to thank Sam Borodach for reminding me of this article.
           Among Fleischer’s points:
                 -When the second century C.E. Palestinian Tanna at Megillah 31b makes his statement which essentially attributes a one year cycle to Ezra (5th century B.C.E.), perhaps he was responding, in a polemical and exaggerated way, to the fact that the triennial cycle was just starting to develop in parts of Palestine.
               - Both in Palestine and in Babylonia the Torah reading was translated into Aramaic when it was read. But the service was even longer in Palestine. They had a derashah in a long form. This perhaps motivated them to limit the amount of verses read. In Babylonia, they did not have this type of derashah.