Saturday, October 28, 2006

My Noah Problem

I was asked to give a talk at shul this afternoon, but when I tried to put something together, I couldn't wrap my head around the Noah-flood story. My wife Debbie put it into words: it seems all so arbitrary.

The deeds, the punishment, the covenant, the tower, the tower's punishment - it's the acts of a capricious God. The Torah in Genesis end of ch. 6 says that "vayinachem", God reconsidered His creation of man, who were all behaving with incredible evil. His response? Wipe out all humans, and all animals, with the flood. Who is his messenger? Noah - the most righteous of his generation, but he never once in 120 years of construction goes out and tells anyone why he's building this ark. God tells Jonah to bring his message of doom and repentance, but He doesn't tell Noah anything.

So after God brings this flood, without really giving Mankind a chance to repent, he then says to himself, "I don't think I should do this again."

We have God saying "it was a mistake to create humanity, and I'm going to wipe them out and start again." Then after doing so, "it was a mistake to be so draconian, I'm not going to do that again," and when confronted with an anti-God threat, at Babel, comes up with a less-drastic punishment.

It's a classic repentance tale, except that God is the actor, not the receiver of the repentance. He does something wrong (the Flood), he regrets, decides not to do it again, and when again presented with a threat, goes through with his promise not to do so again. Is that it? Did all those people die so that God could make an example of repentance?

I guess part of it depends on how literally you take the story. If you're willing to take it all as an allegory, the repentance-tale explanation works. If you need the Bible to remain literal, taking Rashi's dictum of "the text does not depart from its literal meaning" as applying to the whole Torah, including the narratives, then you are faced with this arbitrary God. It's like we're expecting God the Great and Powerful, and we get God the charlatan from the Kansas state fair, who doesn't know how to turn the balloon around.

Maybe it's just that our usual medieval paradigms of God, whether of the Philosophers or of the Kabbalists, as omniscient and omnipotent, just don't fit a narrative that was written to be understood by the Israelite exiles from Egypt, 3300 years ago. Maybe there's some other message here. But if we are forced to take the narrative literally (even leaving aside the issues of geological evidence of a global flood), it still makes no sense in terms of contemporary God-ideas.

Men starbt nisht fun a kashye, one doesn't die from a question, but it seems a fairly obvious one, surely it has been addressed in our 3300 years of literary history.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Chazzan's Responsibility

(gacked from the LSS Echod, their weekly newsletter)

MUSICAL NOTE by Cantor Sherwood Goffin

The Chazzan's Responsibilities

The Chazzan - anyone who leads any service in any shul- has a tremendous responsibility when he stands as the Sh'liach Tzibbur. Many of us who function as Chazzanim take our responsibilities too lightly. The Chazzan is the one person responsible for the Kavannah (concentration, intent) of everyone seated in the shul. He must constantly keep this in mind, since he is davening for every individual there whose mind may not be on his/her davening, as well as praying on behalf of the entire community as a whole. The way the Chazzan davens is the way the Congregation davens. If his intent is on the mark, his melodies effective and his grammar correct, all those in his minyan are uplifted and fulfill their obligation of prayer. In fact, according to the Talmud, the Chazzan also fulfills the obligation to pray for every Jew in the community who is not in shul!!

Daven Well and Sing Along.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Wolfson Notes IV


Readings: St. Th. I Q2; Maimo II Intro, Ch 1.

St. Thomas

Cf Q1, article 3: Is Sacred Doctrine a single science?

Are the things true of secular science also true of sacred doctrine?

Classification of science: (Aristotelian)


Speculative, practical, productive

Problem: is there a parallel subdivision of revealed science?

The rational is divided by faculty:


Theoretic area

Subject matter



Immovable (immaterial) objects



Movable material objects

Memory – imagination


Movable immaterial objects

Thus, theoretical science is divided accordgin to object, that is, its subject matter.

Revealed science:

Angels – immaterial

Corporeal creatures – material

Human behavior – practical

No division! Because

1) revealed science involves only one faculty, since all knowledge here comes from revelation.

2) All subject matters are studied only in their relation to God. Therefore, there is only one subject matter.

There is no subdivision between practical and speculative philosophy, but is it one or the other or both? Both are combined in Revealed Science.

Plato & Aristotle: the speculative life is better than the practical life.

Stoics: practical life is more important than the speculative.

But religious commands, unlike philosophy, were categorical. Therefore, each good is intrinsic, and therefore both speculative and practical life are necessary.

[Philosophic scholastics still thought of the speculative life as higher, though not exclusive of practical life.]

Nobility of science:

Speculative higher than Practical. Within speculative science:

Metaphyscis – noblest


Physics - least noble.

Distributed according to

1) measure of certainty;

2) “nobility” of science.

Problem: since faith applies only where an idea will never be proven by reason, articles of revealed science can be doubted, therefore sacred doctrine is less noble.

No! “certainty” = 1) certain to us;

2) certain in themselves

demonstrability implies that it is certain to us but this is only relative to the prover.

Revelation may not be certain to us, but is objectively certain (and can never be overthrown).

Therefore, Sacred Doctrine is most certain and therefore most noble.

Note phrase: other sciences are “handmaidens” of sacred doctrine. It began with Philo as a religious term, though it was defined by the Stoics

Stoics: Science is

1) encyclical (school), grammar, etc.

2) Philosophy: dialectics, logic, ethics, Physics.

Encyclical studies (liberal arts) are the handmaidens of Philosophy.

Philo added revealed science as “wisdom”, “just as encyclical studies are the handmaidens of philosophy, so is philosophy the handmaiden of religion.”

Monday, October 23, 2006

Wolfson Notes III

Please comment, if you read, I'd like to know if I'm getting it more or less right. I sometimes include a {?} when I'm not sure of something; if someone has a better idea what it might be, please chime in.

* * *


Averroes (cont.)

Philosophical Faith consists of 1st premises and demonstrables

Religious Faith consists of both demonstrables and undemonstrables.

The two kinds of faith are found in two kinds of people in that the pastor can demonstrate what smiple people cannot.

Boht kinds are equally good for the kind of man for whom it is adapted

(!) – Each kind of man ought to have and stick to the kind of faith suited to him.

Therefore, the Philosopher must be able to demonstrate, while the Simpleton must not try to demonstrate. It would lead to abuses (like popularized medicine) to do otherwise. [Note political reasons (causes).]


Double Faith, like Averroes, but it is better to demonstrate and it is every man’s duty to try to prove. Therefore, the Philosopher is the best type of man.

St. Thomas (#2 {II-II}, question 2)

Faith is an assent but is not identical with it. Faith is a species of assent.

Assent may applie to syllogisms, prime premises or whatever, while Faith is a voluntary choice of one side of a moot point, and then belief in its certainty.

As a religious term, Faith applies onlyt to what isn’t demonstrated. Faith implies that one believes before getting proof.

One can study demonstrations, but when proved, it is no longer an object of faith for hime. Though for others it remains an object of Faith.

Demonstration (and thus demonstration of faith) does not lessen merit, and may increase it,provided that faith precedes science (i.e., demonstration)

There is a problem: why are some demonstrables revealed? [Note: this implies that God (and nature) does nothing in vain.]


[held that Greek Philosophy was a kind of revelation] à why two revelations? Philosophy as revealed is a short-cut to salvation. But why a short-cut?


God could not leave Man to his own (intellectual) devices because of the ”necessities of life” (people canpt spend the time) and the “weakness of man” (inadequacy of some at reasoning).

Maimonides (Guide I:34-6)

1) Study of Metaphysics is difficult

2) Some people are inadequate

3) Metaphysics (study of religion) has prerequisites

4) Some people are not “the philosophical type”

5) Metaphysics must be free of financial troubles.

{marginal note – “cf. Summa Contra Gentiles”}

St. Thomas

Because if we use human reason alone

· The ideas are only known to a few

· Only after a long time,

· And are mixed with errors

Question 1: Is the Sacred Doctrine a science, one science, or the noblest science? (cf Aristotle, Nic. Ethics VI ch. 3-6)

It’s a science, vs. Art, Wisdom or Prudence

Science à object of science is a necessary truth

Which can be taught and learned

The scientific faculty is that of demonstrating the less-known from that which is better-known and/or self-evident.

Its Principles come from the Nous (intuition, reason. Therefore science comes from Reason.

Since religious knowledge comes from revelation, is it science?

1) rational


1) science

2) revealed

2) revelation


General line of argument:

Though here Aristotle defined science so, elsewhere he indicate that primary premises may come from:

1) Intuitive, direct knowledge; or

2) Conclusions of another science; or

3) Popular probabilistic assent

Therefore, it’s also legitimate to posit that one’s primary premises come from revelation.

Therefore: Sacred Doctrine is a species (revealed) of science.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Wolfson Notes II


“Religion” – knowledge found in scriptures. Knowledge here is of Divine origin.

“Philosophy” – knowledge found in what the Greeks had written & called “Philosophy”. The origin is in human reason.

There is a large overlap between religious and philosophical problems, e.g. nature, origin of Man and the world; ethics; God, etc.

The job of Medieval Philosophy is to correct philosophy according to religion, and to clarify religion according to philosophy.

The Concept of Faith

As a religious term (mainly from the OT), faith is the acceptance of the content of revealed writings as true.

As a philosophical term, it has been defined differently by various writers:

Aristotle: a judgment that partial knowledge is true (correspondence), i.e., a consciousness of the truth of a doctrine. We classify knowledge in which we may have faith as follows:

1) direct knowledge

a. sense perception

b. first principles (a priori “primary premises”)

2) Scientific knowledge (indirect, through reasoning)

Sometimes Aristotle implies (as the etymology suggests) the necessity of persuasion; i.e., one does not automatically believe.

Regarding evaluation, he uses the term “assent”, albeit only once.

Stoics: saw it differently

“Faith” = “strong opinion.”

“assent” = Aristotle’s “faith”, as well as “assent”, i.e. regarding both knowledge and evaluation. Assent is clearly voluntary

Religious: (Church Fathers)

Clement: used the Stoic term “assent”, but combined it with faith.

“Faith” equals by definition “an assent of the soul” (cf. James)

Interpret in religious terms of “faith” thus:

There are three kinds of knowledge in Scripture

1) That which cannot be rationally demonstrated;

2) That which is self-evident as primary premises (or like sensation)

3) That which can be pvoed through that which is more or less self-evident, like Aristotle’s scientific knowledge.

Later: Faith implies that there is sometimes doubt, therefore it is applicable only to rubric #1, not to what must be believed.

Others: held that there is always eventually doubt.

Since Faith must be voluntary, a child or a simple-minded man has faith; but does the philosopher have faith? Therefore, is the man who accepts sans reason, better than one who proves the idea?

[Insertion from loose sheet; seems a logical place to add:]

Arabian Philosophy

529: the Schools in Athens were closed, but philosophy had already been imported by the scholars of Rhodes into Persia.

Philosophical tradition:

No Plato

Mostly Aristotle, though a couple of neo-Platonic treatises were attributed to Aristotle which tended to blend the two.

[note medieval anti-purism, whereby one can attribute to a man any doctrine which can be reconciled with his works] Arabs never thought of two competing philosophis (Plato vs. Aristotle) but of one philosophy with two masters.


Applying Religion to Faith

Unicity of God, justice of divine will [independent of divinity (?)]

Contra anthropomorphism (negative theology)

Doctrine that God conforms to justice [not the reverse] implies that there is an objective Law (or values) discoverable by Religion.



Orthodoxy contrasted with the application of Greek philosophy to Theology.

This led to a secularization of philosophy – studied for its own sake. In Arabic tradition, the philosophers were not the clerics or theologians [and it was the philosophers and laymen that influence Christian theology].

Al-kindi (d. 873)

De intellectu: concerning distinctions: possible – active intellect. Separation of active intellect from individual soul always in action, superior to soul on which it act.

Beginning of Arab doctrine: one (1) active intellect for all men [cf Berkeley one over-mind source of ideas in souls].

Al-Farabi (d. 950)

Distinguished Essence – Existence by way of saving the Greek rational world (Causes {?}) and OT, unlimited absolute power of God (and therefore, the contingence of the world). Notice in Aristotle that this was only a logical distinction, [that a thing is not implied by what it is]. Here it is metaphysical. Existence is always an accidental predicate of essence. [unlike St. Thomas, for whom there exists that which is neither included or accidental but the act of essence or being].

The cause of what things are is that of our knowledge

Averroes (d. 1198)

Maimonides (1204)

St. Thomas (1274)

Averroes (Ibn Rushd):

mainly known as a commentator on Aristotle. – therefore the “Pure Philosophy” is but one book on the relation between religion an dphilosophy (i.e. Applied Philosophy).

Double Truth theory (Averroist heresy – beware of Medieval tendency to ascribe all heresy to him)

Double Truth – there exist two truths, one for philosophers, one for people.

Actually, it’s a Double Faith theory:

Faith =

1) belief in what can be demonstrated (scientific faith); or

2) belief in what cannot be demonstrated.

Wolfson Notes I

A new continuing feature: my late uncle Richard Wisan's notes from Harry Austryn Wolfson's class on Medieval Philosophy, from Harvard in the fall of 1950. Wolfson was one of the primary scholars on medieval philosophy, particularly in the Arab world.

The course focuses on comparing and contrasting Moses Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas, who, according to Uncle Dick, really said a lot of similar things, even if one was in the Judeo-Arabic milieu and the other in the Church.

* * *

Definition & delimitation of Medieval Philosophy:

Equation of Medieval Philosophy with Scholasticism leaves a gap of 200 years between the closing of the Greek schools and the opening of the Medieval ones, & thus between Ancient and Medieval Philosophy.

The close parallel between Philosophy and Politics is artificial.
Boethius (480-525 – near the Fall of Rome); Augustine (354-430 – near the dissolution of the Empire) are sometimes taken as the first medieval philosopher, but these men were in the middle of a transition, not the founders of M. P.

The equation of Christian thought with Medieval Philsophy also fails, because

1) Christian philosophy begins with St. John (of the Church Fathers);

2) Muslim & Jewish philosophy were clearly in the same tradition-pattern as contemporary Christian philosophy.

Hegel and others, equating Christian and Medieval Philosophy, saw Jewish and Muslim philosophy as peripheral, or even as by-products.

From Plato to the 17th century, Western philosophy was written in



15th C.



17th C.



13th C.



12th C.



16th C.

1st-century BCE – there was a split in the kind of Religious literature referred to by Philosophers in Greek and Latin.

1) originally “religion” meant Paganism.

2) The “Hellenizing Jews” of Alexandria begain to write Greek philosophy in Hebrew. They also wrote down Jewish, and later, New Testament traditions.

Syriac: mainly used for Christian philosophy

Arabic: mainly used for Muslim philosophy, which was a tradition very close to both Jewish and Christian. Some Jewish and a little Christian philosophy were also written in Arabic.

All this new tradition is interrelated. All included Greek and Pagan philosophy; they addressed the same problems with the same methods and “tone” or Weltanschauung.

Thus, the departure begins in the 1st century BCE, in Alexandria, and continues, universally unchallenged down to about the 17th century. The first great break with this tradition was Spinoza.

The differences among Christian, Muslim and Jew were religious, not philosophical.

Medieval Philosophy

Pure (technical) analysis of Greek problems:

1) Logic (e.g. Universals, not the problem of medieval philosophy)

2) Physics (matter, forms, prime mover, etc.)

3) Psychology (soul, faculties, immortality …)

4) Ethics (good, virtue, …)

Applied philosophy – analysis of scriptural traditions.

1) Relations between Faith and Reason

2) Existence of God

3) Nature of God

4) Relation between God and the World (creation & government)

5) Man (soul – body)

6) Communication between God & Man (revelation)

7) Ethics (free-will, evil)

No difference here among the three monotheisms


1) Trinity – Christian only

2) Attributes – Muslim only

3) Eternity of the Law – Jews only

4) Resurrection – all three.

We must make a selection, so we’ll concentrate on Applied Philosophy, since medieval pure philosophy is really a part of ancient philosophy.


Basic Writings of Thomas Aquinas (Random House)

Guide to the Perplexed – Maimonides

Friday, October 20, 2006

Not so Amazin'

Yeah, so I watched the game last night, with Debbie gnashing her teeth beside me through the last inning. She couldn't bear to watch - she likes the abstraction of the Mets, but not enough to actually watch any games, because it's too disappointing when they don't do well. So I watch the occasional playoff game, me, the Yankee fan.

And as the strains of "Casey at the Bat" rolled through my head all through that last half-inning, well, we weren't the only ones feeling like denizens of Mudville last night.

A writer friend put it into words: Beltran at the Bat.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Black Dahlia Willow

This year, as always, my aravos are almost black (today being 3rd day Chol Hamoed).

One year, I found the perfect system to preserve them, but I can't do it any more. For about a year, Ziploc (S.C. Johnson, a family company) sold something called "vegetable bags", made of clear plastic with rows of tiny holes in it, meant to release the moisture of vegetables at a natural rate, so they won't rot so quickly as in a sealed bag. I made a 3-layer wrap: tinfoil on the outside, a damp (NOT wet) paper towel next, then a layer of vegetable bag (cut in half, so it makes a long narrow piece). Wrap all of this around the aravos/hadassim in or out of their basket, and store in the fridge. Rewet the paper every day. I had reasonably green aravos until Hoshana Rabba. If I put the paper towel in contact with the leaves, the leaves turn black. If I do nothing, the leaves turn black.

But this vegetable bag is not sold in the US any more, and I can't even order it from the company (I asked). It is, however, sold in Canada. So I guess, by next summer, I'll have to ask a Canadian contact to send me a box of gallon-size vegetable bags.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Davening: Drawn-Out or With Kavvanah

Ari Kinsberg commented on this blog, responding to a post I had made at Hirhurim, so I'm promoting my response to a post.

>most people i know simply don't care for a chazzan who
>shlepps with oy yoy yoys and very often is just not that good.

Well, neither do I, but it's a fine line, and often depends on how well you know the chazan. For instance, Cantor Goffin (one of the big guys at the Belz Cantorial School) at LSS (where I grew up) shleps things out somewhat, but you can feel how he means every word. I've timed his Shabbos mussaf amidah, and it's 17 minutes: 9 through kedushah, 8 for the rest. At my fanciest, it's not more than 12-13 minutes, 7 through Kedushah, 5-6 for the rest, but then I'm not professionally trained.

On the other hand, Cantor Malovany (the other big guy at Belz) does Selichos like a throwback to Yossele Rosenblatt. With a choir. It's an experience. You can see he means it, but I really don't need that geshlept Slichos. He did a marvelous job at my great-aunt's funeral, though, not stretched at all.

However, if you get a rent-a-cantor who does a long drawn-out fancy service, it's often hard to tell how much is kavvanah, and how much is gaavah (we used to get that at the LSS downstairs service on High Holidays - my parents didn't have money to spring for Main Sanctuary seats).

But that leads to the attitude I see among many in my own shul, of "I don't like chazzonus", because the showy aspect has, for too many, overshadowed the kavvanah aspect. So even the one or two cadenzas I do in RH/YK davening (most often mincha in my new shul, used to be shacharit in the old place where there was a dearth of local talent) can draw complaints.

I like them, they frame the service (one on Ram V'Nisa, a sort-of drawn-out turn, and one on mekadesh Yisrael veyom hazicaron (3 turns up, an arpeggio down, ending on another turn; 9 measures in 2/4)). Similarly I like to do a somewhat geshlept end of Yekum Purkan (start off with a nice opener) and Shema Yisrael in kedushah, both copied from Cantor Goffin, and somewhat abridged because I don't have his ability. Just timed the V'chol Mi, came to 1:07, and Shma-Hu Elokeinu to 1:00.

People used to like the long, repetitive, redundant, fancy stuff, and found it inspiring. Times change. However, I do agree with Cantor Goffin and R' Rich Wolpoe that nusach is imporant. The Shlomo Carlebach tunes for the piyutim are nice, congregational singing is fun, but it only works if one also has a solid grip on nusach. A lot of tunes, e.g. Aleinu, Unesaneh Tokef, Maariv nusach - are considered "misinai" tunes, going back at least to the 14th century, uniting all of Ashkenaz Jewry with each other and with its heritage. Falling out of the High Holidays nusach into, e.g., Yom Tov, which is easy enough to do if you haven't practiced enough, especially in Yaaleh Veyavo, can be jarring, ending a bracha G-D-c instead of on a minor triad (G-Eb-c) - that half-tone is the difference between YT and HH.

Fortunately, the biggest complainers about that don't come to shul all that often.

Interesting YK Coincidence

Far be it from me to have fun at the expense of the many people who suffered because of this man, but I noticed something interesting during vidui yesterday. The Butcher of Monsey's name was Moshe, beginning with 'מ', and sure enough, it was the intersection of the two 'מ' lines in the Al Chet in which he failed: 'מאכל ומשתה' and 'משא ומתן' (food and drink; and business).

The associated lines for 'י' are pretty general, Evil Inclination and Knowing/Unknowing. Which I suppose means I should watch out for the yetzer hara leading me into unknowing sin, which then might lead to despair, and then intentional sin. Good advice for everybody, I guess.

For those who haven't apologized to Stephen Colbert yet (1-888-OOPS-JEW), remember, you have until Hoshana Rabba to appeal unfavorable Yom Kippur verdicts.