Sunday, September 30, 2007


well, I'll share them, even if they aren't "for the ages".

Where is Oneonta (a city in New York) mentioned in Psalm 27 (Ledovid Hashem Ori Veyishi, which many Orthodox Jews recite twice daily from the beginning of Elul through Hoshana Rabbah)?

Where is coffee praised in the same psalm?

1) Ki yitzpeneini be-SUCO [State University College at Oneonta] beyom ra-ah. For He shall find me at SUCO on a bad day...

2) Kaveh el H' chazeik veya'ameitz libecha - Kaveh is Turkish for coffee, and the origin of our word. So Kaveh to God, which strengthens our hearts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

You get what you pay for

Needed a new light for the sukkah this year. The old drop-light, which I had left out all year, the switch went south. Tried one of the local fly-by-night sukkah suppliers, who had a small fluorescent shop-light, a box of them, to which he had attached power plugs (they came with bare wires, to install directly to the house wiring. How much? Five bucks. Since they said "for indoor use only", and the guy had invested some effort to attach the plugs, we figured, "what truck did these fall off of?" and went elsewhere.

In the event, K-Mart, where I got a new drop-light, with separate extension cord. Works fine.

Went to decorate the sukkah. Put up the usual tinselly things that came with the EZ-Lock Sukkah Kit, reconfigured the "Baruch Ata Bevo'echa/Betzeitecha" signs to actually hang over the door inside and out, rather than twisting in the wind inside the sukkah, and hung my only two Rabbi Pictures - our shul's patron saints, R' YB Soloveitchik and R' AYH Kook. Why "patron saints"? The rabbi, R' Moshe Sokol, is a big fan of both. Although I don't think he ever learned at YU, he is a philosopher, and both of those wrote a lot in a philosophic vein about twentieth century Man's approach to Judaism. We say Kel Moley for both of them at Yizkor.

At any rate, Hhag Sameiach, Moadim Lesimhha, and any other greetings you can think of.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fifteen Minutes

My fifteen minutes of fame continue. After getting 450 hits in one day, thanks to Gil's post pointing to my "Long Yisroel's Journey into Levite" post, the host of a Jewish radio program in Baltimore asked to interview me about it this Sunday. So IY"H, without too much hemming and hawing, you can hear my nasal voice (it sounds much better inside my head, really - I'm always surprised to hear how I sound on tape) on the Shalom USA Radio show, with Jay Bernstein, on Baltimore's WVIE (abc-affiliated) 1370-AM radio station, sometime around 9:45 AM, thus Sunday (Chol Hamoed), September 30, 2007. They have a web feed.

Chag sameach.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Gay Thing and Yom Kippur

The whole homosexuality issue, which comes up with the Yom Kippur Torah reading (why more than adultery or relations during niddah?), is a difficult thing to deal with. It has come up on Hirhurim; I thought I’d put together some review and my thoughts.

Commenter (Chakira) made the point that it seems sadistic of God to create beings whose essence is forbidden by the Torah. Another commenter, Gandalin pointed out that this was affected by Freud’s position (in Civilization and its Discontents) that we should accept only those Divine "commandments" which are in accord with what you perceive as our underlying composition.

I pointed out, rather:

that even the Freudian interpretation doesn't seem to correspond to the Torah's reality, at least as understood by a number of admitted homosexuals of my acquaintance. It's not the total suppression of gay activity, it's the d'oraita suppression of one specific act.

In that, it parallels exactly every other activity that is regulated by the Torah - some forms are permitted (your wife), others are prohibited (your wife's sister). So too here, the argument is made that the Torah forbids one act, but that other acts are at most forbidden rabbinically, and if one is (Freudially?) created with such urges, then the existential nature of the desire overrides the rabbinic prohibitions for them. Homosexual activity for those who are otherwise attracted to women (that would necessarily include bisexuals), would be right out, both rabbinically and toraitically.

That reasoning addresses acts, not inclinations. Very few mitzvot address inclinations. But we don't see massive public opprobrium of men who say they're attracted to other women.

It seems to me, then, that between the ideas of chezkat kashrut and dan lekaf zechut, we should not assume that homosexuals are breaking any laws, and thus should not reject them davka for having the inclination and daring to talk about it. Chibuk venishuk in public is just as much a problem, halachically, for heterosexuals as homosexuals, but we don't see a lot of social rejection of a married couple who hold hands or embrace in public.

Gil’s response to the sadistic-God was “look at the AIDS baby”. Which is, it seems, not so much a response to homosexuality being forbidden, but to the idea of mamzer (being the parents’ fault). God being by definition Good, the AIDS baby is not God’s fault and God’s fault alone, but the parents’ failure. Or does Gil subscribe to the (outdated) theory that homosexuality is the result of a poor home life, frigid mother, etc.?

Commenter Gandalin calls our attention to R’ Steve Greenberg’s prayer on behalf of Jewish homosexuals for Yom Kippur, at the Social Action website. He decries how Greenberg has fallen into “the cult of victimization.”

But victimization is a big part of Judaism. Even apart from the Holocaust industry, where the Holocaust has been elevated to the center of American Jewish identity for far too many Jews, victimization is a very large part of our identity.

I suppose Greenberg fails in that he stops at the victimization, rather than, as RYBS might have put it, what does the victim status motivate me to *do*?

After all, we do obsess on victimhood - oppressed by Lavan, slaves in Egypt, exiled by God twice, our city, temple and land destroyed, bash our enemies' children as they did to ours, Muslim invasions, Crusader invasions which destroyed the ancient community of Eretz Yisrael, Cossacks, N_zis, lots and lots of others.

But we go through to the other side, and talk about how this is punishment for our sins, so it has to motivate us to do mitzvos. Also, as we have always been victims, we must sympathize with, and support, other victims. Whether as darchei sholom - sympathy, or as mipnei eivah - so as not to be further victimized, our victim status motivates our charitable giving, transforms it from an act of individual generosity (karitas) into an act of righteousness, doing our Divinely-assigned work in the world, restoring balance.

Reading over Greenberg's prayer, he also fails in that he seems to create a "burning-times" myth, of thousands of years of oppression, and thousands of deaths at the hands of, the Torah Jewish community. In reality, the social oppression of homosexuals is quite recent, probably mostly coinciding with the rise of a "gay lifestyle" - shove it in our faces, we react with horror as we did to Reform shoving their non-observance of Shabbos in our faces. If there had been big social opposition to homosexuality, surely it would have appeared in the Gemara and Responsa literature?

Some have noted that Greenberg has departed from Orthodoxy in his halachic reasoning in “Wrestling with God and Man”. Perhaps he has, but he continues to identify with the Orthodox, and the issues he raises, while many of us may not like his answers, do call for being addressed.

It's a difficult issue, in many ways.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Original Tefillah Zakah

The Chayei Adam's Tefillah Zakah, a long prayer to be recited just before Kol Nidre, claims to originate in the allegedly Sabbatean Chemdas haYamim. R' Danzig (the author of the Chayei Adam) cites the Chayei Adam, then says that he brings a prayer in simpler language, for those not steeped in kabbalah (as kabbalah was, by his time, being removed from the Ashkenazic non-Chassidic yeshiva curriculum), from unspecified "early works."

Here is the original prayer from the Chemdas haYamim, thanks to the Digital Book Repository at the Jewish National and University Library. It shows some similarity, but it's far from identical, even aside from the kabbalistic content. The ideas expressed in the two prayers bear further study.

Provided as a service for the readers of Seforim blog. Ricght-click on the picture and download it, or view it in separate tab/window, to get the full-resolution image.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Zeide’s Tallis

Rabbi Sokol told the story of his zeide’s tallis this evening just before Neilah. His Zeide had been a European-trained rabbi, a talmid chacham. When he died, 37 years ago, R’ Sokol was learning in Israel, and attended the funeral, on a cold February night, on the Mount of Olives.

When a man is buried in the United States, he is buried in his tallis. So he was prepared for burial wrapped in his old, yellowed tallis that he had worn for years. It protected him on his journey to Israel. But in Israel, they don’t bury in a tallis, so he was put into the ground without his old familiar protection. Instead, the tallis made its way back to R’ Sokol’s mother (amu”sh) in the States.

Then the question arose – who will wear Zeide’s tallis. Nobody wanted to wear it, since it had been wrapped around the dead body, so it went into Mrs. Sokol’s trunk of precious things. And there it sat, for 37 years.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah this year, R’ Sokol’s uncle died. Nobody could find his tallis for burial, but Mrs. Sokol remembered her father’s tallis sitting in the trunk. Finally, it was buried, albeit not with its longtime owner, with its owner’s son, where it should protect him as his father had.

R’ Sokol went on to speculate about everyone’s tallis and how they reflect one’s personality, stained with tears from years of tefillot, twisted from someone who was under tension, unused from someone who never went to synagogue. He expanded on this theme, that each of us has, on Yom Kippur, the chance to reweave our talleisim, to reconstruct and redirect our lives, particularly as we draw to the close of Yom Kippur.

* * *

What of my zeide’s tallis? I have it, after all, in the closet.

My zeide, for one, was never called zeide. His first language was Yiddish, he had a solid cheder education in Europe – 75 years later, he still could recite the first page of Elu Metzios. But he had cut off his payess at his bar-mitzvah, and by the time he married (his first cousin) and arrived in the States two years later, they had shed all Jewish practice. My father never went to shul with his father, which led to the confusion over my being a Levi. In America, they decided, we will speak English. So Dad never used Yiddish in the home. He had to learn it to speak with his other relatives who didn’t hold the same policy. But to me, they were always Grandma and Grandpa Beckerman.

After they died, in 1985, Dad and Uncle Max cleaned out their condo. I had visited them once there (they moved to Florida in 1975, after Grandpa’s bout with double pneumonia the previous summer); the apartment was basically their one-bedroom in Boro Park transplanted – the same furniture, the same plastic dustcovers, but the food was worse. Grandma’s mind was starting to go, and she had stopped cooking, so Grandpa suddenly had to learn how to cook at age 90. He didn’t do so good. He could still play clarinet, and one of the highlights of the trip was getting to play some duets (Pleyel) with Grandpa.

So anyway, while cleaning, they found Grandpa’s tallis. It must have been the one from their marriage in 1912 in Berdichev, in the Ukraine. It’s an odd design – lined, like many frum talleisim meant to go over the head; a strip down the middle to protect the fold, and no atarah. Not even a cloth strip, just two intertwining lines of stitching to mark the top. Regular Ashkenazi tzitzis, though, even though the only atarah-less talleisim I know of today, are Lubavitch, and they have a special way of tying their tzitzis. My parents, as the more-religious children, brought it home, and put it away, figuring I would use it eventually.

Meanwhile, on a trip to Israel, my parents bought two very nice, colorful (mine has red & silver stripes, my brother’s has multicolored stripes) talleisim for us when we should grow up and marry. I still use that tallis as my main tallis. And Mitch finally got his, marrying (at the ripe old age of 38) last September.

When I got married, I thought of Grandpa’s tallis, sitting in the closet, which I had sometimes used if I were leading services in my parents’ shul. I wanted it to be at my wedding. And so it was, it was the chuppah at my wedding. My grandparents were long gone, but a reminder made an essential part of my wedding.

* * *

So there can be life after death, not only death after death. For Rabbi Sokol, whose zeide was a talmid chacham and a tzaddik, the zeide’s tallis was only useful after death for another death. For me, my zeide’s tallis, while not so useful during my grandpa’s life, because he kept it as a reminder of his wedding, from house to house to house, it became used to start another generation in a wedding. Where his wedding may have been the last religious thing he did for decades, the tallis he had then, came to us, to start us out right building a bayis ne’eman beyisrael.

It’s wearing out now, the squares of fabric at the corners are frayed, so I don’t wear it for davening much any more. But it’s still there in my closet, a bit of my Grandpa with us forever.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I Repeat: Shaniti

Repetition. It’s at the heart of Jewish life. Every day, shachris mincha maariv. Every year, the cycle of festivals. Even the language in which we talk about law involves repetition – the bearers of the tradition in our (until late antiquity) oral culture were the Tannaim, the Repeaters, those who carried accurate renditions of oral legal and narrative traditions in their heads, to be recalled at need. Tanu rabbanan, our Rabbis taught, but literally, our Rabbis repeated. Tenan, we teach in our mishnah text, but literally, we repeat.

The essence of ritual is repetition – to create familiarity, to create echoes and impressions of how one reacted to a situation in the past, or how our ancestors reacted, we repeat their stories, to inspire us through familiarity, and, one hopes, informing through repeated exposure. By repeating the command to love God with all one’s heart, one’s life, and one’s money, we hope that in extremis, we will know to do the right thing instinctively, to sanctify God’s name by living, or by dying, as the case may require. By repeating the words of the Torah, we fulfill the minimal daily requirement to learn Torah. Using the Misinai tunes for the High Holidays, tunes that Ashkenazim have used since at least the 14th century (according to Cantor Goffin), we build the emotions necessary to frame our teshuvah experience by linking with every other Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we’ve ever experienced – the familiar strains leading into Barechu rise, evoking the season and bringing us, emotionally, home.

The Jewish Museum is hosting a display of contemporary art building on this theme. See Richard McBee’s review in this week’s Jewish Press. They bring home themes of daily repetition that forms our inner lives – weekly or daily donations of charity, repeated lighting of Chanukah candles, invoking the mitzvoth with the Ner Mitzvah – a set of 613 candles marked with each of the mitzvoth. It looks like an interesting exhibit.

Chazan and Long Davening

Chazan – inspiring or boring? Chazzonus – uplifting or showy? As will happen at this time of year in particular, this subject has come up on Hirhurim.

A few older posts on the subject:

Davening: Drawn-Out or With Kavvanah

The Chazzan's Responsibility

Repetition in Davening

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lest Ye Be Judged - Rosh Hashanah

According to R' M. Willig of YU and Riverdale, the main theme of Rosh Hashanah night is coronation, while the theme of Rosh Hashanah morning is mishpat (judgment). All 6,000,000,000 people are judged sometime between midnight and chatzos (noon) on Rosh Hashanah morning. So you want to be doing something worthwhile, or at least not exposing oneself to the chance for sin, during that period.

While you're asleep, you're OK, you can't be doing anything wrong. While you're awake, though, you have to worry about temptation. If you're in shul, you're davening, you're thinking about Hashem, you're worrying about being judged - so God-willing, odds are that your microsecond of judgment will happen while you're doing the right thing.

So, since the hour of mishpat ends at chatzos, there's no good reason to finish davening before then, and expose the congregants to more temptation than necessary.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Long Yisroel's Journey Into Levite

Long Yisroel’s Journey Into Levite

My twenty-year quest to discover the truth of our heritage came to a successful conclusion this summer, a conclusion marked by tragedy to a journey plagued with doubt.

Sufficiently melodramatic? In short, my father, my brother and I recently became Leviim, members of the tribe of Levi.

The Levites (Leviim) served as janitors, choristers, security guards and musicians in the once and future Holy Temple. All modern Jews are descended from the ancient Kingdom of Judea (the Kingdom of Israel having been exiled to Assyria in 726 BCE); thus, almost all contemporary Jews are descended from the tribes of Judah, Manasseh, Benjamin or Levi. Very few non-Levites know whether they descend from Judah, Benjamin or Manasseh, since one’s mitzvah-obligations are the same either way. Levites, and that subset of Levi who are Kohanim, priests, descendents of Aaron, since they each have different customary or legal obligations and privileges, have done better in maintaining their family tribal identity. But without other information, all Jews are considered Yisroel – descended from some other tribe than Levi.

Why is this an issue for us?

22 years ago, in 1985, my father’s parents died, a few months apart. Grandma Beckerman was buried in the wintertime, so the gravestones in the family plot were covered with snow (I remember it being a snowy week). Grandpa Beckerman passed away in the spring, so I got a chance to look at the gravestones, and … what? Uncle Willie’s gravestone says “Zev ben Yitzchak Halevi”. Halevi? He thought he was a Levi? I couldn’t ask my grandparents, since there they were in the ground. I called up Willie’s son Phil, who told me that “Dad always maintained we were Leviim, so I put it on the stone.” On a recent visit, I saw that Phil was gone too, and also had Halevi on his stone.

I started asking around. I asked a couple of cousins at the cemetery about it. One thought his grandmother had mentioned it, others didn’t think so. Later I called my father’s first cousin Sidney Beckerman, and asked him. He thought yes, but later asked his sister, who said no.

At the time, I brought this information to R’ Saul Berman, then at Lincoln Square Synagogue, my home shul. He said that there wasn’t enough data to change, I should stick with my chazaka (presumption) of being a Yisroel, and if more information came to light later, we could look into it again.

And there it sat for 22 years. I would go around telling people I was a “safek Levi”, doubtful-status Levi. Which of course means nothing halachically, but it was good for a laugh. (as I said – plagued with doubt). Since my parents had not given me a Pidyon haBen ceremony, redeeming a firstborn son from the priesthood, I wondered if I should have such a ceremony, since I might be a Levi and not need one. At the time, they had belonged to a Reconstructionist synagogue, which didn’t hold with such old-fashioned claptrap as redemption of the firstborn. Also, as a first-born, since the first-borns had originally been intended to be the Temple servitors (we lost that status when firstborns participated in the sin of the Golden Calf, while the Tribe of Levi stayed away from it), I had washed the Kohanim’s hands about three or four times. Why? If there are no Leviim in synagogue on a day when the priests bless the congregation, the firstborns go to wash the priests’ hands.

During this period, I had an officemate who was, among other adjectives (Sefardi, BT, Chabad, diabetic), a Levi. I had told him about my uncertainty, and he figured that I was probably a Levi, based on

a) our family is musical (Dad was a professional trumpeter, he & I both are amateur chazanim, Dad's whole family is musical - classical on his mother's side [the Philharmonic Fishbergs], klezmer on his father's side);

b) we all like to help out around the shul, cleaning up especially;

c) a migo argument: if someone wanted to pretend to have an ancestry undeserved, he would have gone all the way to Kohen - why bother to pretend just to Levi?

* * *

Last Pesach, my father’s cousin Sidney Beckerman died. He had played at my wedding, he was an old-time klezmer clarinetist, who had learned from his father Shloimke Beckerman, one of the three great klezmer clarinetists in the interwar United States (the other two being Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein). Sidney hadn’t been all that religious, and we weren’t that close, so we didn’t hear about it until a couple of weeks later, when someone sent us an obituary. I found a notice of a memorial service set up by his klezmer buddies (colleague Pete Sokolow, student Margot Leverett), and Dad and I went. Dad shared stories of playing with the klezmer greats in his childhood (he had been a bit of a prodigy), and of the family.

There we met Sidney’s son Dr. Bruce, and his sons, who are in college and grad school. After the program was over, I asked the sons, “This may seem like a strange question, but are you Leviim?” The answer: “Yeah, so?” Which I regarded as rather “mesiach lefi tumo” sort of answer – matter-of-fact, not “the answer you’re looking for.”. So I told them about the whole thing, the gravestones, my asking their grandfather Sidney, etc. Bruce’s response: “Dad didn’t know his own Hebrew name”. They belong to a UTJ synagogue in Manalapan, NJ, so they’re clearly at least somewhat religious. Bruce would have known his own grandfather Shloimke, who died in 1973 or so, and presumably knew from him.

Why didn’t Dad know about any of this? He grew up totally non-religious. My grandfather apparently cut off his payess at his bar-mitzvah (1903). Dad never went to shul with his parents, growing up. His grandfather took him to an interview with a rabbi, where he demonstrated he could read a little Hebrew – this was his bar-mitzvah (he learned to lein at age 69). And when Grandma & Grandpa came up from Florida for my bar-mitzvah, he didn’t mention anything. He may have forgotten himself, although he did remember some interesting stuff. One day we were standing around in the pool at their condo colony in Florida (1979, summer), and Grandpa asked what I’d been learning in school. Well, we had started Talmud a year before, so I told him we had done the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Bava Metzia. He starts reciting the whole first page of the 2nd chapter by heart, something he hadn’t looked at or cared about in probably 75 years. After he died, we found his tallis in the house, presumably from their marriage in1912 (they were married 73 years). I used that tallis as the chuppah at my wedding, so we had something of my grandparents present.

So I brought all this evidence to R’ Moshe Sokol, our local Orthodox rabbi, including R’ Berman’s earlier demurral, the ambivalent evidence, etc. He said he’d think about it. He tried passing it up the line, but his higher resources didn’t bother to respond. Finally, at the end of the summer, he said that it was sufficient to decide that we really were Leviim (obviously had always been, even if not knowing, since it’s descent-related). For Kohen (priest) status, there would have to be more definitive evidence, since a Kohen deals in money matters, redeeming firstborn sons, and acts as a divine channel in blessing the congregation – a mistake there would have been much more serious.

Meanwhile, Mom and Dad had brought all this stuff to R’ Saul Robinson, the current rabbi at Lincoln Square (they had buttonholed him on Shavuos). He too thought it convincing, and arranged for Dad to be called to the Torah as a Levi a few weeks later. Dad has since had more Levi aliyot, and will wash his first priestly hands on Shemini Atzeret (they’ll be away without a minyan the first two days of Sukkot).

This week, then, Rosh Hashanah, I washed my first hands as a Levi, and had my first aliyah to the Torah as a Levi. Stu Feldhamer, the president and my study partner, announced this to the congregation as “Now you see what can happen if you donate a lot of money to the shul. (wait for laughter to die down) But seriously, he just found out he was a Levi.”

So all my waffling was vindicated. Not having a pidyon haben, washing hands as a firstborn all foreshadowed the eventual discovery of the Truth – that my father’s family is Levitical.

For reference, here is the relevant subset of my family tree. Uncle Willie was my grandmother’s brother, Uncle Shloimke was my grandfather’s brother, but Grandma’s and Grandpa’s fathers were brothers, so whatever held for the boys in my grandmother’s family, also held for my descent through my grandfather.

1 Solomon BECKERMAN b: WFT Est. 1797-1826 d: WFT Est. 1851-1911
__2 Isaac Beckerman FISHBERG b: 1848 d: 1949._HAS HARP ON GRAVE
___+_MASSIA b: BET. 1858 - 1859 d: 1907
____3 Rebecca FISHBERG b:
1 JAN 1892 d: 29 JAN 1985
_____+ Harry BECKERMAN b: 14 JAN 1890 d: 11 MAY 1985
_____(see below for their descendents, to me)
____3 William FISHBERG b: 15 DEC 1890 d: MAR 1973_
_____+ Eva COHEN b: 21 MAR 1902 d: 8 DEC 1976
______4 Philip FISHER_
_______+ Living RUDES
__2 Boruch BECKERMAN b: WFT Est. 1827-1869 d WFT Est. 1875-1950
___+ Sarah
____3 Samuel (Shlomke) BECKERMAN b: 1883 d: 1974
______4 Sidney BECKERMAN b: 1919, d: April 2007
_______+ May ?? (still alive)
________5 Bruce Beckerman (cardiologist), b. c. 1950-1955
_________+ ??
__________6 William (grad school, Penn), b. 1985
__________6 Mark (college, NYU), b. 1987

____3 Harry BECKERMAN b: Jan 12, 1889 or 1890 d. May, 1985
_____+ Rebecca FISHBERG b: 1 JAN 1892 d: 29 JAN 1985
______4 Sydney BAKER
_______+ Wendy WISAN
________5 Jonathan BAKER
_________+ Debra KORPUS

My ancestry in male line
My newfound cousins’ ancestry in male line

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Symbol, Not the Act

Simana, la milsa

Gil Student brings a piece from R' Arnie Lustiger's new Machzor Mesoras HaRav for Rosh Hashanah, on the significance of the symbolic foods. The Gemara in Horayos 12a talks about anointing a king at a spring as a portent that his reign should continue as the spring pours out water. This example serves as the basis for the symbolic foods eaten at the seder.

This, to me, sounds like sympathetic magic - do an act in small, so that the Power[s] That Be will yield a similar blessing in large. That does seem to be the basis on which many eat the symbolic foods - that the act of eating the food be linked, through its name in a Yehi Ratzon prayer, to absorbing a blessing from Above with a similar-sounding name. Sympathetic magic, however, is largely an idolatrous practice. We are a people of Words - the Book, the Tannaim, the Amoraim, etc., so our non-causal link is through punning words. But the motive and spirit still seem the same.

The Rav (YB Soloveitchik zt"l) remaps the Gemara into a purely symbolic act. Eating the symbols reminds us of the Divine Judgment by the King of the Universe that takes place on Rosh Hashanah. It is meant to inspire thoughts in us, rather than influences from Above. This mapping seems a bit difficult to me:

1) it takes the king part of the Gemara, rather than the symbolism part, as being the determining factor - if the symbol reminds us of the King of Kings of Kings, it's useful.

2) it removes the specific symbolism of the food pun, which seems an integral part of the ritual. One item should suffice for this (as we personally do - only apple and honey).

I found some explanations in a similar remapping vein, in the new Machzor Avodas Hashem for Rosh Hashanah, an incredible snippet collection on all aspects of the chag. Apparently others among our Acharonim were also uncomfortable with the semi-magical aspect of this ritual, even those who normally wrote in a kabbalistic vein.

The Shelah haKodesh tells us (in Mas. Rosh Hashanah, ch. Ner Mitzvah, sec. 22) that the symbolism isn't in the eating of the food, but in its power to arouse associations in ourselves towards the idea with which it is associated. It is to arouse us to teshuvah in that area, so that we pray for improvement in that area. So it is not an act of sympathetic magic meant to influence the One Above, but an act of pure symbolism meant to arouse us to teshuvah in a variety of areas. This preserves the variety of the foods, but avoids the magickal aspect.

So what about the Yehi Ratzon? Generally, they seem to ask for Divine aid in that which we ourselves do. E.g., the Yehi Ratzon for the sick in the Amidah - we have to make our efforts to heal the sick, but God should help the healing to work. So too here, we're not asking God to do the work of giving us the pun-things, but to help us to succeed in them as we engage in our own hishtadlus. After all, the Torah is the expression of God's Will (Ratzon) in the world. By following Torah we make ourselves into instruments of God's Will. So by asking "Yehi ratzon", may it be Thy Will, we ask that our efforts fit His Will.

This approach agrees with R' SR Hirsch's ideas about symbolism - the symbol is not efficacious in itself, but in how the ideas of the Originator, inform our thinking and actions with those ideas. The originator and the target of the symbol are equally important.

May it be Thy Will that we work on ourselves this and every year, to better fulfill Thy Will.

May all of us be written and sealed for a good and sweet 5768.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Peshat and Derash

There’s an argument on the relative value of Peshat and Derash rolling in a comment thread on the Seforim blog. One commenter has taken a position that

a) Drush is the by far more important, and probably the only correct, form of biblical interpretation.

b) Certain unnamed “Modern Orthodox” scholars, by engaging in pshat” style interpretation, are, by doing so, demonstrating their favor of the Documentary Hypothesis. By implication, they oppose Orthodox Judaism, which takes the accurate transmission of the Biblical text from Sinai as an underlying truth of its system.

I don't think any of the Orthodox rabbis and other personae (Dr. Nechama Leibowitz, and even her brother, Dr. Isaiah Leibowitz) reject the drashot that engender/support Torah sheb'al Peh (Oral Torah). In fact, as Orthodox personae, by definition they can't reject such interpretive models, because how else do Chazal (our Sages of blessed memory) link the Torah text to the halacha given at Sinai, and the halacha practiced today?

Chazal's interpretive mode was drush (exegesis following hermeneutical rules) - their interpretive works are the Midrashim, even down to the Zohar, which is ultimately a halachic midrash, even if a late one in final redaction - a midrashic-style work with the authority of a Rishon. (high-medieval sage)

But halacha as engendered by drush from pesukim (verses) does not happen any more. The authorized drashot are already authorized, there really can't be any more. So what else is there left open to modern exegetes, but pshat? Maybe one can come up with drashot, which support the predetermined conclusions of Chazal, but they will generally be rejected. Pshat, however, is almost by definition not legally binding, while still bringing out subtleties in the God-given text.

One can always make diyukim (points based on grammatical or morphological subtleties) on mishnayot or gemaras, and find more details of halacha that way, but doing so on verses is not kosher any more, unless it's just in support of existing halachic or ethical values. And that's where contemporary pshat (literal/literary) interpretation comes in.

Not everyone inclines to Talmud, but may have a head that likes to engage in Torah interpretation. For instance, my cousin Dr. Ed Greenstein, wanted to devote his life to Torah, but was not particularly interested in Talmud, so he got a PhD in Bible.

The Rishonim led the way by beginning the enterprise of pshat-style interpretation, finding the literary level of the Torah text as opposed to the legal level. Both should ideally lead to an ethical lesson. Even the so-called "fault-finding school" looks to the Avos for lessons in life; even if they find apparent faults in the lives of the Avos, the way they or we overcame them, gives us chizuk to overcome our own faults, particularly at this time of year.

In the time of the Rishonim, there was still some reliable Oral Torah tradition from Sinai, so drush was still a useful mode of interpretation for creating halachic lessons. Today, we don't really have anything authoritatively from Sinai that has not yet been written down, so what is left for us, but to approach the text on its own terms, and see what lessons it has to bring itself?

Not every commentator, even in history, had equal strengths in Talmud and Bible. So too today. Don't write off the entire enterprise of contemporary Biblical interpretation because you choose to dismiss "ein mikra yotzei miydei peshuto". It still holds (except where the literal level is totally unbelievable; see Meiri in Avos on "megaleh panim shelo kehalacha"); it may not be the level of interpretation that generates halachoth - that's the interpretation of the 13 Middoth, the Midrashim, the Talmud, but it is still a valid, and valued, approach to the text.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

You Are Called Man

Discussion rages on Gil's blogs about R' Aharon Feldman's shiur where he rationalizes the Torah's statement that "You [Israel, to the exclusion of non-Jews] are called Man [Adam]":

The message of the Gemara is not that Jews are inherently different from Gentiles. Rather, it is that Jews have the Torah which enables them to more easily fulfill their purpose. Jews, who have received the Torah, have the keys to fulfilling their purpose in life. Therefore they are called "Man". Gentiles, who do not have this tool, have greater difficulty in accepting God's yoke and therefore are not necessarily called "Man".

which commenters on the Reshimu site dismiss as "tired apologetics". I find it lacking in that Gentiles, who may not have the Torah, also do not have as many mitzvot. Is the Torah a universal code, that all Homo sapiens are called upon to fulfill? And non-Jews, not observing Torah, are not thereby living up to their potential?

I thought non-Jews are only obligated in Seven (or 66, according to R' Aharon Lichtenstein, cousin to the one in Israel) Mitzvot. So it's easier, if anything, for them to live up to their potential. Which means R' Feldman's rationale doesn't work, and we're thrust back on this peculiar statement in the Torah.

There are various ways to perceive non-Jews, I think. One is to embrace the racism, as does the first chapter of Tanya, based on the Eitz Chaim of the Arizal (16th century):

מה שאין כן נפשות אומות העולם הן משאר קליפות טמאות שאין בהן טוב כלל

The souls of the nations of the world, however, emanate from the other, unclean kelipot which contain no good whatever,

כמו שכתוב בע׳ חיים שער מ״ט פרק ג׳: וכל טיבו דעבדין האומות לגרמייהו עבדין

as is written in Etz Chayim, Portal 40, ch. 3, that all the good that the nations do, is done out of selfish motives.

[Since their nefesh emanates from kelipot which contain no good, it follows that any good done by them is for selfish motives.]

Which I'm sure made the Alter Rebbe's audience in 18th-century Belarus feel better about being downtrodden by animalistic non-Jews. But why make socioeconomic circumstance into existential claim?

Or, we can take Chazal in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot:

3:18. Rabbi Akiva used to say: Beloved is the man that he was created in the image of G-d; an extra love is made known to him that he was created in G-d's image, as it says (Genesis 9:6) "for in His own image G-d made humankind". Beloved are the Jews that they are called sons to G-d; an extra love is made known to them that they are called sons to G-d, as it says (Deuteronomy 14:1) "You are children of the Lord your G-d." Beloved are the Jews that there has been given to them the precious instrument; an extra love is made known to them that they were given the precious instrument of the world's creation, as it says (Proverbs 4:2) "For I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching."

  • So Man is created in God's image. Man is himself beloved because God let him know this.
  • Israel is called sons of God; they are beloved because God let them know this.
  • Jews were given the Torah; they are beloved because God let them know that this was the instrument of the world's creation.

Somehow this manages to portray all mankind as human, and Jews as extra beloved because of God's relationship with them. The non-Jews are not portrayed as sub-human, but the Jews are portrayed as receivers of extra love, because they are given extra work to do.

Still, that leaves us with the problematic statement in the Gemara in Yevamos 114b, "You are called Man [Adam], and the non-Jews are not called Man." This seems patently untrue, since the Torah often uses Adam for all of humankind, and the Mishnah in Avos above clearly uses it to refer to all humanity, not just Jews.

However, that mishnah gives us a somewhat gentler understanding of the statement than R' Feldman's, which doesn't fall afoul of the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah. The key can be found in the following Zohar (II, 86a), tr. R' Moshe Miller:

Rabbi Shimon taught: How privileged Israel is that the Holy One calls them "adam" ["man"], as is written, "You are my flock, the flock that I pasture; you are man (in Hebrew, "adam")" (Ez. 34:31); "When a man ("adam") will sacrifice..." (Lev. 1:2). Why does the verse refer to them as "adam"? Since it is written, "And you who cleave to the Lord your G-d..." (Deut. 4:4).

R' Miller comments: The word "adam" is a derivative of the word "domeh", meaning "like" or "similar to." (See Radak, Shorashim s.v. Adam.) Because the Jewish People cleave to G-d they are in His likeness, as in the verse, "We shall make man in Our image in Our likeness" (Gen. 1:26). Note that the word for likeness is "kidmuteinu" - also a derivative of "domeh".

Israel is extra beloved because it has the Torah and knows it, and knows the Torah's place as the blueprint of Creation. Since the Torah is the expression of God's will in and for the world, we who follow the Torah are those who make ourselves most like God. Since Adam was created in the image of God (kidmuteinu), in following the Torah, Jews make themselves most like Adam.

So it's not an inherent higher status (per the Tanya) which makes the others lesser, but an act of will and love. Avraham so loved the Lord that the Lord chose him and obligated his descendents to keep the Torah. We collectively accepted the mission at Sinai and again in the time of Esther and Achashverosh. Non-Jews are addressed as Adam, because they, like us, are descendants of Adam, created in God's Image. But only Jews strive to return to that primordial state, the state most like God, the state of pre-sin Adam. Thus, only the Jews are called Adam in that only they strive to be Adam.