Monday, December 29, 2008

What Future for Israel/PA?

I have periodic arguments with right-wing friends, both here and in Israel, over the long-term prospects for the Palestinian Authority and Israel. They often like to complain that the two-state solution is terrible, unthinkable, etc. But really, it's just the worst choice, except for all the others.

As I see it, there are four possibilities (well, five, but I don't think the zeroth is that viable):

0. Status quo ante. Armed semi-truce with the Arabs in the Territories. Continual low-level shelling or missiling of border areas. Occasional flare-ups of major military activity. What we have now, which is pretty unpleasant for all concerned. Israel holds the water supply, the job supply (if only because the Pal-Arab kleptocrats have no interest in economic development), and food supplies (because they have ports and roads), the Pal-Arabs have the publicity upper hand, and a lot of will for self-sacrifice.

1. Two-state solution. Two states, probably with the PA in two separate chunks with some kind of safe-conduct corridor between them. Totally separate populations. Treating equally as nations for water, electricity, and jobs. Recognizing each other's existence. The Pal-Arabs are totally uninterested in this; if any express interest, they'll probably be killed by the leadership.

2. Heavy-duty armed occupation, as existed before the Intifada I, up to the 1980s. Nobody's happy, planes are hijacked, terrorism is mostly outside the country. Everybody's unhappy.

3. Annexation. The 5 million Jews in Israel would be a majority for a while, but the higher Arab birthrate would, within a very few decades, make an Arab majority within the unified state. That way lies the end of the Jewish state, through demographic suicide.

4. Transfer. The idea that got Meir Kahane declared a racist and thrown out of the government. Expel the Arabs who live in the territories, send them anywhere else in the Dar al-Islam, complete the population exchange that was begun in the 1950s. The Greek/Turkish population exchange worked, not without a lot of pain. The Armenian Genocide was similarly to the Jews, a one-way population transfer, and it was a disaster. Why don't we hear about the Jewish Genocide perpetrated by the Muslim world in the 1950s? This would really turn Israel into a pariah state. It would probably bring in an invasion by America to punish Israel after the expulsion was over. Never mind the poetic justice that Jews have been expelled everywhere, I can't see this working.

So we are left with 4-1/2 unpalatable options. The two-state solution is the least unpalatable, for all parties, but one party for some reason doesn't want to see it that way, would rather, probably for publicity reasons, remain a victim non-state. When my friend starts ranting about the unacceptability of the two-state solution, I post the above list again, and he has no answer.

And so we have the current Gaza invasion. Who knows where it will lead? Back to state 0, as Harold Feld expects? Or is it a move towards another position, perhaps another heavily-armed occupation?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Chanuka for the Perplexed

R' Sokol's drasha this week focused on Chanukah and the philosophical ideas that arise therefrom. He started from the end of the Rambam's laws of Chanukah, where he states that a) Chanukah is very dear to the Jews, b) that one must be very careful in fulfilling the mitzvot of Chanukah, and c) that one must sell the shirt off their back to obtain oil and lamps for Chanukah.

Now, this kind of zeal for a mitzvah is also apparent on certain mitzvot that indicate our love for God, notably tefillin, tzitzit and mezuzah. Using them, wearing them if appropriate, being careful to observe them properly, attach us to God. But these are all commands from the Torah, while Chanukah is a purely human, rabbinic holiday, in fact, about the only such that has remained on our calendar down to this day (other minor holidays mentioned in, e.g., the Fast Scroll, have fallen out of fashion as the events they commemorate have been forgotten). Why, then, is Chanukah so special?

Well, what is Chanukah? It commemorates a battle against Seleucid Greek-Syrians who wanted us to assimilate to their religion. The greatest powers in the Greek system are the Fates, the one who spins the thread (birth), the one who measures the thread (lifetime), and the one who cuts the thread (death). They have powers even over the gods, such as Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite [of the see-through nightie], etc. Belief in the Greek system led to Fatalism, the idea that nothing we did could possibly influence Fate, the path of our own lives. The gods (at least the Fates with real power) were totally uninterested in us.

Various philosophers developed sophisticated philosophical and theological systems based on this idea. One of them was Aristotle, who posited an eternal, unchanging universe governed purely by natural law. God was pure intellect, whose thoughts were the natural laws. Since everything in the universe was created from a substratum, some predecessor thing, matter must be eternal, because the idea of something coming from nothing is nonsensical (for him). God has no will, because he is pure intellect. Since the Universe is unchanging and God is not affectable, everything is just governed by fate, by the interaction of phyiscal particles and energies. This view is accepted today by many scientists who reject religion.

Maimonides refuted this, by positing that the induction of "everything coming from something else" was itself not provable, and that it made as much sense to say that there is a First Cause which is the initiator of the Universe. God has a Will, which He exerted to create the Universe, and which we can affect by our actions and prayers. In fact, in the Guide for the Perplexed II:25, he discusses the refutation of the eternity of the universe, and posits that if Aristotle's idea were provable, the Torah would have to be interpreted allegorically in many places. Thank God that God exists and this is not necessary.

So here, Chanukah, for Maimonides, was the triumph of Judaism over fatalism, God over Aristotle. In Judaism, God does listen to our prayers, accept our teshuvah, rules over the world with reward and punishment, and will send a Final Redeemer bb"a. God cares.

Now, Maimonides did go through various periods of more or less wealth, especially after his brother was lost at sea, the brother who had been supporting him in an Issachar-Zevulun relationship. He seems always to have been able to provide for himself and his family. But there is little doubt, that had it become necessary, he would have sold the shirt off his own back to be able to celebrate Chanukah, the triumph of Torah over Fatalism.

delivered Parshat Vayeshev, 5769, yavneh minyan of flatbush

The Ason - Chanukah Torah

Binyamin, it seems, was a nervous sort of fellow. How do we know this? When Yaakov sends the sons down to Egypt to buy food, he keeps Binyamin back, "pen yikra'enu asson" lest ason happen to him (as it's understood) or lest it call to him (as it's written). So what is "the ason?"

We also see the ason in the Bilaam story, vayiftach H' es pi ha-ason, God opened the mouth of the ason, the donkey and it spoke to Bilaam.

We put the two stories together, and apparently, Yaakov was worried that if Binyamin went down to Egypt, a talking donkey might call out to him, and he would die. This is reinforced by the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, which reads dilma `ar`ineih motha, perhaps he will be awakened to death, from er, awaken, or perhaps startled to death.

The talking donkey didn't surprise Bilaam that much, but Yaakov worried that a talking donkey might scare Binyamin to death, and thus prevented him from going to Egypt. QED.

*to explain the joke, this only works in Ashkenazi pronunciation, it depends on the equivalence of alef-taf-vav-nun and alef-samech-vav-nun, and confusing ayin-resh-ayin for ayin-resh in the Aramaic.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


I've heard sermons for years that claim that Man is free because of the Torah, that in getting the Torah we were freed, etc. How can this be, when the essence of Torah is to limit our lives in dedication to God as slaves are dedicated to serve their Master? It seems paradoxical.

Now, with the economic crisis, and the education I've been getting reading Harold Feld's blogs, I think I understand it. The root of the economic crisis seems to have been the gradual elimination of New Deal era bank regulation from Carter through Clinton, enhanced by Pres. Bush's light oversight of the economy. The return to the pre-Depression banking environment has meant a return to the boom-and-bust cycle that brought us panics in 1837 (and the ensuing depression), 1857, 1873, 1893, 1901, 1907 and the Great Depression, with its crashes in 1929 and 1938.

And that has meant a greater disparity between the haves and the have-nots. The haves, the Wall Street guys, get bailouts; for the have-nots, the union guys, well, the government has been dragging its heels.

Not to get into a huge argument about whose fault it is (I think it was inevitable, esp. since, as Harold says, the Chicago School of free-market economics has dominated policy for several decades), but I now see the analogy with Torah:

Law levels the playing field.

We were all told about the Torah vs. the Code of Hammurabi, at least those of us who went to Jewish day schools, how the Torah removed the distinctions in torts between social classes. The Torah may be full of distinctions between one group and another, but one major source of personal fulfillment is available to all: the crown of Torah. Financial success is not limited to one caste or social or tribal group. If we devote our lives to Torah, in all its aspects, societal as well as ritual and ethical, we have a constitution for a truly free life.

The regulation of banks and markets leveled the playing field between the big companies and upstart companies, allowing true competition to take place. Big companies were not allowed to use their power to destroy all new competitors. This allows for growth in the national economy. So too in Torah, in the academy, the order of speaking is meant to encourage the newcomers, the younger students - they speak first, before the Great Leaders Prounounce their Opinion. Had the great leaders spoken first, that would have ended discussion without the younger students being heard.

The Wiccans have it wrong: an it harm none, do as thou wilt. Without defining harm, without defining regulations for the smooth functioning of a growing society, each person's definition of harm will allow them to get away with things that should not happen in a free civil society.

Only through law, comprehensive definition and equalization of the various classes of individuals, can man truly be free.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Singing in Davening


by Cantor Sherwood Goffin


Our sages were concerned about the Shabbat prayer service, and commented on those who prefer to rush through the service for various reasons (cholent; napping; even Torah study). It seems clear from many sources that the opposite view is encouraged. In the Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 281, the Rema (1525-1572, who is the accepted authority for all of Ashkenazic Jewry*) states:"It is proper to extend the singing of Shabbat melodies (davening) and to render them pleasantly. It is wrong to protest this even under the argument of Bitul Torah (detracting from time for studying Torah)... It should not be excessively prolonged, however, to enable the congregation to eat (lunch) before the sixth hour (astronomical Noon, which is normally later than our standard Noon)."

I hope this will make it easier for everyone to


*Moses ben Israel Isserles, considered the "Maimonides of Polish Jewry," was one of the greatest Jewish scholars of Poland. Born in Cracow, he eventually became Rabbi of Brisk. [Interesting sidelight: Hestudied in Lublin at the Shalom Shachna Yeshiva where he met his first wife, Schachna's daughter. She died young, at the age of 20, and he built the Isserles (later known as the Rema) Synagogue, in her memory. That shul still stands today in the Kazimirz section of Cracow.] One of his most well known commentaries was the Mappa (the Tablecloth), a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh, written by Joseph Caro. The Shulhan Arukh focuses mainly on Sephardic rite and customs, while the Mappa emphasizes Ashkenazic customs, henceforth expanding the influence of the work to Eastern European Jewry. His decisions are followed scrupulously by all of Ashkenazic Jewry.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Whole Prop 8 Thing

Re: marriage - how can it be a religious term, when [civil] marriages can be contracted outside the parameters of any religion? E.g., intermarriages between members of different endogamous cultures.

OTOH, I feel conflicted about signing petitions in favor of gay marriage. We have this mitzvah, "do not do as they did in [ancient] Egypt", which is pretty vague, but is defined rabbinically as "men would marry men, and women would marry women," among other things. So while I wouldn't gay-marry, not being gay myself, I feel that civil rights are civil rights, and should be maximized; on the other hand, I don't really want to enable people to sin, if either partner is a Jew. It would be like signing onto a petition that says "let Jews violate shabbos". Of course most Jews *do*, we live in the real world where people have real choices, but why should I enable them? They're going to do the nasty anyway, so why add on to their Judaeo-legal problems?

Adam, Eve and the Serpent

Rabbi Odess was talking about the Garden of Eden, and it got me thinking - seems to me the whole thing was a necessary set-up. That is, eating from the tree was necessary to complete the creation of Mankind.

Think about it - how could Eve have chosen differently? She didn't have judgment yet. Judgment, the ability to choose between right and wrong action, only comes from knowing the difference between them, between what is good and what is evil. Adam and Eve could only do what they what they had been told most recently (I used to have a boss like that). So Eve was told by Adam, "don't eat, and don't touch". The snake said, "touch", so she did. Then "eat", so she did. Which means she had no way to distinguish between the quality of Adam's command over the snake's command.

Only after eating from the tree, did they gain knowledge of good and evil, and thus the ability to choose between one and the other. Thus they truly became free-willed. And isn't that what God wanted? To create another intellect similar to His own, with the ability to will things and do them? Or, according to Kabbalah, to receive God's goodness - how could they appreciate that God's goodness was ipso facto good unless they could distinguish between good and bad?

So the whole thing was a setup. Perhaps there was a lesson in there to demonstrate that there are consequences to one's actions, such that afterwards, they could understand that their punishment was the result of a choice. But they didn't even have the freedom to choose beforehand. So it's a setup, with a moral lesson for those of us who have a choice.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Customs of the Gra

MUSICAL NOTE by Cantor Sherwood Goffin
The Vilna Gaon at LSS?

Yes! The Vilna Gaon is with us at LSS constantly, because we follow many of the customs for davening established by the Vilna Gaon, also known as the G”ra (Gaon Rav Ayliahu) who lived in the 18th Century. He decreed that at the beginning of the Cantor’s repetition of the Amidah, the “Hashem Sefosai Tiftach” must be said out loud, as well as the “Yih’yu L’ratzon” at the end of the repetition. In addition, the words: “...umorid haGeshem (rather than the usual “Gawshem”) and the pronunciation of the word “ush’vawchacho” in the place of “v’shivchacho” at the end of Kedusha. The most obvious is “Yisgadale” when reciting Kaddish. The original Brisker Rav followed the customs of the G”ra, and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a descendent of the Brisker Rav, taught these customs to his students, who were the original Rabbis of LSS. That is how we established the customs of the G”ra in our davening each Shabbat and weekday since the beginning of our shul!

Daven well and sing along!
(c) 2008 Cantor Sherwood Goffin and LSS

Sunday, November 02, 2008

We’re all connected, Baroque-era Rabbinate

While looking for info whether Rav Shach (20th century Israel, Rosh Yeshivas Ponevitch) is descended from The Shach (R’ Shabsi Hakohen, 1600s), I found someone’s genealogy back to Rashi. Some interesting tidbits in there, that I had not known before:

1) The Rema is the son of the Trumas haDeshen, R’ Israel (b. Israel) Isserlein . Just like “My Man Godfrey.”

2) Moses Mendelssohn, 18th-century Germany, is a 5th-generation descendent of the Rema’s sister, Miriam Beila Isserles Horowitz --> Hinda Horowitz Wahl --> Judah Wahl (Katzenellenbogen) --> Saul Wahl (K..n) --> Beila Rochel Sara Wahl --> Moses Mendelssohn.

3) A couple of years later, this tree picks up the line of the Shach – from whom, along with R’ Akiva Eger, the Barkai’s are descended (the family which assembled this genealogy).

4) The blog that Josh Waxman often remarks upon, for its odd ideas, Dreaming of Moshiach, has a story about the Shach and his “only daughter, Esther,” who is lost and raised as an orphan, later reuniting with her father. But that piece claims that the Shach’s son was Meir, while the genealogy has the Shach’s son as Moshe, while the Shach’s father was Meir.

5) On another branch of their tree, via the Maharal, I find that the Maharsha was a great-grandson of the Maharal.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Remember to Observe

R’ Moshe Odess of Tzohar spoke at Yavneh Minyan this week, as part of a Scholar in Residence program with his wife R’n Naamah Odess (is that Odett in Sefardi havarah?)

Unfortunately, I don’t remember a lot of his points, being somewhat spacey after the Long Yom Tov, but I had other ideas in reaction to them. So, over the next few days, I’ll post some brief summaries, along with the ideas his talks inspired.

On Friday night, he spoke about Shamor vs. Zachor, the requirements in the two versions of the Ten Commandments to Observe (refrain from creative work) and Remember (do actions to sanctify the day) the Sabbath Day. He linked them with the two formative events that the Sabbath commemorates – Creation and the Exodus. This being Parashat Bereshit, you see – the Creation link. The Friday night service focuses on the Creation, with the paragraph of Vayechulu, which is all about resting, so maybe that’s for the Rest aspect? While the Saturday morning service is the paragraph Veshamru, which is a more active paragraph. The Kiddush also bears this out, the first clause about God resting from the work of Creation, while the next clause saying that it is the beginning day for holy assemblies in memory of the Exodus –where we the Nation actively got up and did stuff, went out, followed God’s commands, etc. What’s the connection between Exodus and Shabbat? I don’t remember his point, but maybe someone else who was there can chime in.

My reaction to this was mostly about Veshamru – it integrates both aspects of Shamor and Zachor. Shamor is the rest from melacha, but Shabbat is not just about sitting around like a lump and not doing anything, there’s also the Zachor aspect – we sanctify Shabbat through doing Shabbosdik things, making Kiddush and havdalah, learning extra Torah that we don’t have time for during the week, being careful about our speech and our leisure activities, etc.

Think about the paragraph:

· Veshamru – The Jews Observe the Shabbat

o Laasot – To DO the Shabbat

§ Ledorotam – as an eternal covenant

§ Ot Hee – it is a Sign between God and Israel

o Ki Sheshet – In six days did God CREATE the universe

· Uvayom ha7 – on the seventh day He RESTED

This displays a chiastic structure: A-B-C-C-B-A. It links Shamru (Shamor) with REST. It links Laasot (to DO) with the Act of CREATION. And in the center, the Covenant is an Eternal Sign. What we DO on Shabbat is the Zachor aspect. So Resting on Shabbat is linked to Shamor, Doing is linked to Zachor, and the whole thing is an integrated whole. More, the Shamor aspect, the rest from melacha, creates a context in which the Zachor aspect, the Actions, have actual meaning. They are not symbolic, they are part of an integrated experience.

And what about the link to the Exodus? If the night is about creation, the day is surely about the exodus? Well, the paragraph is in the middle of the description of the Mishkan, the ultimate physical link between us and God during the Exodus. It is linked to the Second Tablets narrative, even if it isn’t the literal Second Tablets version of the commandment (according to R’ Reuven Cohn of Boston). And, as R’ Odess mentioned, the Kabbalah tells us that God looked into the Torah and (used it as a blueprint to) created the Universe. So they are all linked – Creation and Exodus, Torah and Creation, Shamor and Zachor, inaction and action, a complete integrated Shabbat experience.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Chaz: Simchat Torah


During the Yom Tov festivities I was asked two excellent questions. One was why we utilize the Yomim Noroim melody for Simchat Torah night. I responded that it is not for sake of levity, but in fact, just the opposite. It was instituted to remind us that Simchat Torah is considered by Chassidim as a day to change the decree of one’s fate and to achieve atonement through joy rather than fear. And, according to Rabbi Elie Munk (World of Prayer) as quoted by my teacher, Chazzan Macy Nulman, to remind us that “unbridled boisterousness is regarded quite unseemly...”. It was to remind us to temper our unrestricted emotions on this day. Unfortunately, we seem to have forgotten this part of the equation – perhaps, I must admit, for the good. However, we must be careful not to make the Maariv into a “joke”.

Question #2 was – why is there elements of “Eicha” (Lamentations) in “Ata Horaisa” and “Ana Hashem” during Simchat Torah? The answer is similar to the first, as expressed by Chazzan Nulman:”…in order to temper uncontrolled levity. It is also a reminder of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem….parallel to breaking the glass at the conclusion of the marriage ceremony…to recall the great calamity that befell the people of Israel”. As a result of our joyous celebration of the Torah on the beautiful Yom Tov that we just have experienced - may we therefore merit seeing the rebuilding of the Temple in our day, V’chayn Y’hi Ratson!

Daven well and sing along!

© 2008 Cantor Sherwood Goffin and Lincoln Square Synagogue

Thursday, October 02, 2008

God the King at the Head of the Year

Another retread from Mesukim MiDevash -
The Kingship Theme of Rosh Hashanah

Sefasai Tiftach
Rosh Hashanah 5765
Jonathan Baker

Malchiyos. Kingships. These resonate throughout the Yamim Noraim, particularly on Rosh Hashanah. Malchus implies a mutuality between Ruler and ruled, that may be closer than our connection to the King as He is crowned in the daily Kedushah.

The idea of Kedushah is separation, removal from the mundane for a holy purpose, as Rashi says at the beginning of Parshas Kedoshim. The daily Kedushah coronation emphasizes this separateness: our prayers rise up to the angel Sandalphon, who weaves them into crowns, and then pronounces a Name over them, and they fly up to the separate realm of the Ein Sof, the Infinite Transcendent G-d. Our prayers, not we, reach the angels. The crowns, not the angels, can traverse the infinite gulf between the finite spiritual world and the Infinite. There are two unbroachable layers separating us from Hakel Hakadosh.

But during this period of the Ten Days of Repentance, our teshuva is most appropriate, and is accepted immediately (Rambam, Hil. Teshuva 2). We are told Dirshu H’ behimatz’o, kra’uhu beh’yoto karov – seek H’ when He is to be found, call to Him when He is near. How do we reconcile this with the separation of the Holy?

The Gemara gives us a special mitzva on Rosh Hashanah to crown the King. In Musaf, we say Malchiyos k’dei sheyamlichuni – in order that you crown Me. Not the angels, not through separation, but directly. In line with this, we make what R’ Isadore Twersky, the Talner Rebbe z”l, described as the greatest change in the prayers of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah: the third blessing of the Amidah changes from Hakel Hakadosh to Hamelech Hakadosh. In fact, the Rambam refers to a now-lost custom to include the extra Uv’chein paragraphs in the Amidah during the whole 10 days, further emphasizing His kingship. How does this shift make such a big difference?

Malchus, in the ordinary sense, indicates absolute rule. He is the absolute Sovereign, and we absolutely submit to Him.

The kabbalists, however, speak of the sefira of Malchus, as the mouth of the Primordial Man, the node through which power is transmitted from one level of the spiritual world to another. Malchus is thus associated with gilui, with revelation. A few examples demonstrate this:

1) The Gemara in Megillah, recounting the story of David and Naval, David wants to kill Naval for lese majeste, but Avigayil (Mrs. Naval) argues that David doesn’t have the right, as he has not yet been publicly proclaimed king. In Avigayil’s phrasing, lo yatza tiv`o ba`olam, his coins have not yet been minted. He is not yet fully revealed to the public.

2) R’ Velvl Brisker notes that while the restrictions on a king’s wealth, wives, horses, etc. apply always, the king is not obligated to write his second Sefer Torah until vehayah keshivto: he is seated on his throne. Why? From the above gemara – it’s a function of public acknowledgement, of public revelation.

This identification of gilui with malchus thus suggests an intimacy which, aside from this relationship, doesn’t exist. When H’ revealed Himself at the Sea, there was a closeness, an intimacy – we could say Zeh keili v’anveihu, or as we say after Shma, Malchus’cha ra’u vaneicha – we saw Your kingship, in splitting the Sea. It was a revelation that created a closeness.

Later in Hilchos Teshuva, the Rambam talks about the teshuva process. Last night, one was muvdal, separate from G-d; although he cried out, he was not answered. Sin blocked him. Now he is mudbak, cleaving to G-d, after doing teshuvah. The essence of distances us from the Kadosh Baruch Hu. Cheit, sin, is the antithesis of malchiyos. How can the two coexist, be resolved, through this time?

We note a difference in the malchuyos of Rosh Hashanah and the rest of the week. We are not allowed to confess sins on Rosh Hashanah, because of this dialectic. On the day we specially crown God, we cannot concentrate on cheit. But the emphasis on malchus continues through the ten days. Note that the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah 2 tells us that Yom Kippur is keitz for teshuvah. Not just the time for teshuvah, but the culmination of teshuvah during this period.

It is a process, from the mandated coronation on RH, through the 7 days of self-scrutiny and teshuvah, through Yom Kippur when atonement is granted for those who do teshuvah (according to the Chachomim).

Hashem wants to be our King. How is He King? As we say in the Shmoneh Esreh, He is meimis umechayeih. We see from David and Naval that the power to execute helps define earthly kingship. Only He can sustain us. He doesn’t need our permission for this, of course, but he does, as it were, need our cooperation.

The Malbim explains Baruch atah H’ as giving Him something. Following Ramban, it’s something He needs, as it were. He wants to shower us with blessings, but we, to allow Him to do so, must be worthy.

Our coronation, our creation of the initimate relationship, allows Him to sustain, to be fully Melech meimis umechayeih. The mitzva of Malchus obligates us further in Teshuvah so as to attain the malchiyos of the King Who gives death and life.

This is an awesome and terrifying, yet energizing responsibility, as R’ Mayer Twersky says. God comes knocking during this time, by giving us varying degrees of suffering. Are we ready to answer the call, during this time of Dirshu Hashem behi-matz’o?

May H’ give us the sensitivity and strength to answer, to repent, and to merit a good inscription and sealing.

This column is largely based on a lecture by R’ Mayer Twersky on 9/11/2002, available in audio at TorahWeb.

For another take on the Kingship theme on Rosh Hashanah, see R' Micha Berger at Aspaqlaria.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hear O Israel - God is our King

Sefasai Tiftach
Parshat Re’eh 5764
Jonathan Baker

Sanctity and Kingship, Kedushah uMalchut. Thus end Pesukei deZimrah, leading to the first bracha of the Shma. How do they relate? Where is G0d the King before the Shema, why say a Kedushah?

What is a king in Judaism? First, a king relates to his people. As the famous (phantom Chazal) maxim says, “ein melech b’lo am”, there is no such thing as a king without a nation. The human king rules his people, legislates with a word, and holds power of life and death over them. In return, he protects them from enemies, and leads them in following G0d’s word.

How is G0d a King? The analogy should be fairly obvious. In fact, the two are innately linked. G0d lends his power to human beings (as we say in the brocho for seeing a king); their power reflects His, and their honor reflects on Him. The Chronicler notes (I Chr 29:23): Then Solomon sat on the throne of the LORD as king instead of David his father, not that the throne was G0d’s, but that the throne, symbolizing kingship, drew from G0d’s power.

Honor and glory flow upward as well. The credit of the nation reflects well or badly on its king, and through the king to G0d, as David says, (Ps 110:1) The LORD saith unto my lord: 'Sit thou at My right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.' The psalm says of David that he is lord under the L0rd. David says similarly, after the conquest (2 Sam 7:22-26) Mi k’amcha Yisrael…Who is like Your people Israel… And let Thy name be magnified for ever, that it may be said: The LORD of hosts is G0d over Israel; and the house of Thy servant David shall be established before Thee. David praises Israel, whose glory redounds upon him, and thus also to G0d. [1]

Kedushahs appear in the daily morning services: in the Shema, in the Amidah, and in the conclusion of service. Each helps to explain the others; today we focus on the Kedushah deYotzer, in the bracha Yotzer Or.

The kedushos are based on the daily angelic choir described in the first chapter of Yechezkel and elsewhere. These choirs daily crown G0d and acclaim Him King, while accepting upon themselves His Kingship.

Why coronation? We say umamlichim”, the angels make Him King, but it is explicit in the Sephardi musaf kedushah, saying keter yitnu l’cha, a crown the angels will give to You. There are many ways of appointing kings. We anoint Israelite kings, and the community proclaims them by praise. The crown is a badge of kingship, of course, but its placement is not a part of our usual ceremony. That is liturgically reserved to G0d.

The coronation of the kedushah is complemented by the angels’ acceptance of the Divine yoke, umekablim ol malchut shamayim zeh mizeh, and also by our coronation of G0d, as the musaf kedushah goes on to say, malachei hamonei ma`alah, `im `amcha yisrael kvutzei mata, or as we say on Yom Kippur, darei ma`alah `im darei mata’ we crown Him along with the angels above, we accept Him along with the angels. There is no King without a nation, and He rules the heavenly hosts along with the physical realm. This compares to melech ha`olam in the basic bracha text, King of the universe, including the he`elam concealed, spiritual universe.

The coronation theme emerges from a variety of midrashim, both in the Gemara and later midrashic collections. The basic form is in Chagigah 13b, amplified here by variants from parallel versions in the other midrashim, particularly Pesiqta Rabbati 20, and the late Midrash Konen:

It is taught in a Mishnah (really a braita) that (the angel) Sandalphon … stands behind the merkavah and binds crowns (made out of the prayers of Israel) for His Master. Indeed? But does Scripture not say “Blessed is the glory of G0d from His place” (Ez. 3:12) indicating that nobody [including the angels, who speak this verse] knows His place? Rather, he recites a name on the crown and it goes and seats itself on His head. (When the crowns arrive, there is a moment of silence, punctuated by the roaring of the chayot. Then the legions say, quaking, Kadosh kadosh kadosh Then He passes by them, and they respond Baruch cvod H’ mimkomo. They all together say (Ps. 146:10) Yimloch H’ l’olam…)

Our prayers crown G0d. Our words form the core of the angelic coronation ritual. We join their daily crowning and acclamation of G0d the King, and prepare to accept His Sovereignty when we say, Shema … Baruch shem kvod malchuto l’olam va’ed. The Gra comments on et shem hamelech: “this is the Royal Crown” – hinting at the whole trope, of names corresponding to crowns, made from our prayers, ascending to G0d.

Where does the Kedushah fit into the Yotzer Or? We begin the bracha with praise of G0d for creating the physical universe. Then, both on Shabbat (Keil Adon) and on weekdays (Keil Baruch) we get a piyut, that starts with physical creation, concluding with angelic praise. We read, and join in with, the angelic coronation ceremony, return to praise of physical things, concluding with thanks for creating the light sources. Light is of this world, of the physical sun and moon, but light is also a spiritual energy, as the Infinite Light.

These midrashim link us and our prayers with the angelic choirs, and urge us to incorporate them in our daily acceptance of G0d’s Kingship. However, the angels have to praise Him. We choose to praise and crown and accept Him, through free will, and may thus rise higher than the angels.

(Originally published in the AishDas parsha sheet, Mesukim MiDevash)

Source: for the translations and the general idea of the two-phase coronation – Keter, by Art Green

[1] The Temple, by R’ Joshua Berman, Aronson, 1995,101-103.

Saving the Phenomena

R' Josh Waxman responds to my recent post, and comment, on his blog.

He echoes R' Dr. Berger's point about "the scandal of Orthodox indifference." But does indifference make ideas correct? R' Berger argues that it does not.

R' Wolpoe, who has been my teacher in many things, well, I don't see how his post really "saves the pheonomena," to use Duhem's expression. In the final analysis, "Abraham" is addressing his prayer to God, asking God to make the sound system work. When he asks the sound system directly to work, "Eliezer" corrects him gently. Machnisei Rachamim is addressing a prayer to the angels, who in his analogy are the sound system, asking that they convey our prayers accurately.

Now, the angels do convey our prayers to God, as intermediaries, as we say every day in the first bracha before Shma. But there, they are part of the process, taking our prayers and weaving them into crowns with which they crown God (watch for a post on this, originally published in AishDas' short-lived parsha sheet, Mesukim Mi-Devash). We do not pray to them, we only describe their role in the process of transmission. Praying to the sound system is animism, and right out.

R' Waxman indirectly charges the worldwide rabbinate with indifference on a more central point than the actions of a "fringe" group. As he notes himself, much of the yeshiva world has dismissed Lubavitch for decades. Lubavitch doesn't want to join with other groups, the other groups are happy to let them go their own way. But this is a question of OUR actions, the prayers WE say in our shuls.

Sure, most of the hamon am aren't into fine points of theology. We're more concerned with making a living, supporting our families, setting some time aside for learning, doing good works, etc. Fine points of theology, the apparent contradictions between Ani Maamin and Machnisei Rachamim, well, it's tradition that we say both, so we don't worry about it even if we might think about it. Anyway, there are far more mitzvos regarding actions than there are regarding theology. It's just automatic - Jews believe God Exists as One Alone, is the Destination of prayer, etc. What's the need to worry about the fine points of what some other guys are doing in their own synagogues, away from the rest of us?

But R' Waxman implies that the rabbis don't care either, that the rabbis don't make a point of having the chazzonim avoid Machnisei Rachamim. And some rabbis surely do think about it, and either find a rationalization, or don't have us say it. IIRC, we didn't say it at Slichos this Sunday, Stu (who is also an AishDas activist - AishDas, raising consciousness of mitzvah performance) whizzed right by it without giving time to say it. If some people said it to themselves, that was their own call.

It's in the printed booklets, but do people's shul rabbis make a point of skipping it? make a point of telling the congregation and/or chazan to skip it? Or is the Fifth Principle simply not part of the later understanding of halacha? For instance, read Yigdal (the author lived in Italy c. 1400)
- the idea that God be the sole destination of prayer is skipped. Clearly there was disagreement with the Rambam even among Rishonim on this topic.

R' Waxman's title is also misleading - I'm not arguing that bowing to rabbis as a god-window is OK, I'm arguing that it doesn't necessarily disqualify THEM as good Jews, because they have a plausible rationale within the halachic system, even if we think that rationale is wrong. I'm thinking in terms of the (questionable) teshuva of the Rema on the wine of the Moravians - not that their wine is itself kosher, but that since we can conceive a [false but plausible] rationale whereby they could have thought it was kosher, we can't dismiss them as trustworthy to tell us "this is wine we will drink, this is wine you will drink". It's wrong, but it doesn't cross the line of taking them out of the category of "kosher Jews".

R' Waxman wants to save the phenomena, by dismissing the Jews and their thoughtfulness. I'd prefer to save the phenomena by finding halachic precedent for allowing them, even if I personally wouldn't do so.

IANAR - nothing is to be taken as real halacha.

By the way, I just picked up a copy of Al haTzaddikim in the Kehot store in Crown Heights. I hope to read it soon, and see how heretical it really is, or isn't. If it's in the Kehot store, odds are the leadership considers it not too far from mainstream, although it's still the original printing from 1991.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Is the Pendulum Swinging Back

Or are Sephardim just more relaxed about this stuff?

We went to a wedding last night, Ashkenazic groom, Sephardic bride. Beautiful place, good food, lebedik dancing...

Oh, the dancing. The first round lasted an hour, and was the usual Jewish circle dancing, although oddly, some people came over the mechitza (potted tall plants) and found themselves dancing mixed, mostly the chassan & kallah, and their siblings.

During the second round, after the main course, the potted plants were cleared away, and the band (good band BTW, somewhat jazzy - trombone as well as the usual sax & cornet) played some slow-dance music. Debbie & I looked at the dance floor, the chassan & kallah were dancing together, some of the parents and aunts & uncles also started, so hesitantly, we did too.

And it was nice. It was the first time we had done so since the somewhat abortive mixed dancing at our own wedding 17 years ago (most people didn't get into it, so after a short bit, it switched over to the regular Jewish stuff, separate circles). After that we got ready to leave, but as we were passing the band, they broke into Numa Numa, and then another funny song, so I did a bad imitation of internet sensation Gary Brolsma, and we danced together for a bit, on the edge of tears it was so nice.

Is the pendulum swinging back? Or is Chaya's family weird? Or are Sephardim just more relaxed about this? As far as we could tell, it was just married couples, and some siblings, doing the mixed dancing - circles, or dancing together. I suppose most of us younger (premenopausal) people wouldn't want to, because it says "Hey! I'm Tahor!" which most women don't really want to advertise.

I once heard a shiur from R' Willig at Lincoln Square on mixed dancing, and his main objection was to men watching women dance, but I've never been to a wedding where anybody treated this as a real problem, aside from chasidim - men are always going over to the mechitza to watch the women who do structured group dances, and to wave at their wives. Even here, where there was the mixed dancing, the frummiest (guys who never took off their hats, and a few chasidim) didn't avoid watching.

We went to a bat-mitzva recently, Sephardic-modern family, from my shul. Towards the end, the little girls were all doing sorta sexy line dances, led by a woman who was with the band. I thought it was weird (this is little-girl time, this is not for me), and left; I think the rabbi also thought it was weird, and went outside for a while.

So is the pendulum swinging back, or are Sephardim and some families just more relaxed?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

We have met the Rubashkin and he is us

(adapted from a sermon for Shabbos Ki Tetze, 5768)

R’ Sokol spoke this Shabbos, speaking of the commands to help someone’s overloaded donkey. One version is stated here, that one must help one’s friend’s donkey that has collapsed under its load, the other version is stated elsewhere, that one must help reload the donkey of someone whom you hate.

How can this other version even exist, when it is a sin to hate another person (Jew?) in one’s heart?

The Meshech Chochmah makes a distinction: this version is at the end of the wandering in the desert, the version about the donkey of one’s enemy was given before, back at or near Sinai. How does that make a difference?

What does it mean to hate? One shouldn’t hate the person, that’s the mitzvah. But one can hate the sin in a person. If someone is keeping uneven weights or otherwise behaving abhominably, one can, in theory, hate them for their sin, for the way their sin is dragging us all down. However, that only worked at the beginning of the Desert experience. By the end of the desert wanderings, the Jews have made themselves full of sin, through the Golden Calf, through all the complaints, through all the rebellions against G0d, the questioning of God and Moshe. At that point, everyone is burdened with sin equally. So from that point forward, until today, the permit to hate someone, is a dead letter. Because how can we hate the sinfulness of another when we ourselves are equally burdened with sin?

Hence the version expressed in today’s parsha: to help the donkey of our brother, because everyone is our brother in sin.

Throughout all this Rubashkin/Agriprocessors business, and while trying to maintain objectivity and separation, it’s hard to say there’s nothing happening, between the safety violations, the immigration charges, and now the child-labor charges, we have tried to say that there are no moral failings on the part of the Rubashkins. Now, it’s possible with these new charges that there may have been moral failings. But there have been those who say they hate Rubashkins for what they have done. And that crosses a line that, according to the Meshech Chochmah, we cannot cross.

Because we, as much as Rubashkins, are sunk in sin. Can all of us really say that we have never cut corners, never sinned with money, never manipulated people to do things? Much as their actions, and perhaps moral failings, are reprehensible, they are also ours. And the Rubashkins are also tremendous baalei Chesed, baalei Tzedaka. Do their moral failings erase that? Then our moral failings also erase the good we do.

We cannot hate the Rubashkins, because Rubashkin is us.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Chabad, the Rebbe and God – How they are seen

R’ Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg is quoted on the cover, and on p. 105, of R’ Dr. David Berger’s book about Chabad messianism, based on the testimony of the party of the second part, as follows:

"Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, a rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, told an
enquiring student (even before the Rebbe's death) that he should pray
alone rather than in a Chabad synagogue because 'they pray to a
different deity [eloah]'.[82]"

This seems a remarkably dismissive remark, as well as astoundingly off-putting to any Chabadnik who might pick up Berger’s book. Berger himself didn’t want to believe it, until he saw some of the excesses of certain elements after the Rebbe’s passing.

It behooves us, knowing that R’ Weinberg was a major Talmid Chacham, to try to understand where he was coming from, and thus blunt the teeth of his assertion, if only to prevent Chabadniks from returning the dismissive favor.

In short – RSYW had a reasonable response to phenomena that he saw, but not being a devoted student of Chabad texts, did not fully understand.

I reviewed Berger's book. The quote was in context of a discussion of many activities and writings from Lubavitchers that look very much like avodah zarah (AZ).

Berger has an extended discussion of R' Avraham B. Pevzner's "Al Hatzaddikim", published in 1991 while the Rebbe was still alive and presumably compos, which attempts to explain the Rebbe's statement from 1951 that a rebbe is Divine Essence and Existence placed into a body. The line between that and avodah zarah is a very thin one, the distinction Pevzner tries to make is a very subtle one, and from a mainstream Torah perspective, is wrong and possibly heretical. I've tried to buy this book at the big seforim shop on Kingston, but couldn't find it.

It is fundamental to the Ari’s Kabbalah, that to allow Creation to take place, something happened called Tzimtzum, or Restriction. For some, the Tzimtzum is physical – that God’s Essence is Infinite, and for a finite universe to be created, a vacuole, a finite space free of God-stuff, was created within the Infinite Essence. Within that finite space, a finite universe could exist.

For the Chabad and most readers, the Tzimtzum is metaphorical – that rather than removing His Essence from some space, He concealed his essence by a series of veils, screens, conceptual barriers, so that those beings that are part of the created universe don’t see that they are actually entirely made of God-stuff. Everything in the physical universe is part of the unitary God, it’s only an illusion that we are separate intelligences, that the desk is a desk, the computer is a computer, etc. God remains One, Unchanged.

This concept arises out of the later strata of the Zohar, primarily the Tikkunei Zohar. The Ari himself is ambivalent, in two sentences on the same page saying that the Tzimtzum was in God’s Essence (the physical explanation), in another saying that the Tzimtzum was in God’s Light (the metaphorical explanation – the Essence remains unchanged). I don’t pretend to understand these in any kind of depth, but they are the two main positions on the Tzimtzum.

Pevzner discusses the idea of the Rebbe as a "joining intermediary", a tzaddik who has so nullified his individuality that the Divinity which makes up everything and everyone, whose essence is normally hidden by the veils of the Tzimtzum, is revealed, so that if one prays to the Rebbe, one IS praying to God. He adduces evidence from a Kedushas Levi (R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev), which an objective examination reveals to be a distortion of the Kedushas Levi, and from a 16th-century work called Nishmas Chaim.

Now, that idea is problematic on its face, but let's set that aside and assume that a Lubavitcher thinks that it's OK. After all, it was advanced originally by the late Rebbe, in an address during the interregnum year of mourning for his late father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe. Behaviorally, though, four things are prohibited as avodah-zarah when not directed to the Eibishter: prostration, incense, libation, and sacrifice. Bowing towards a person out of honor is OK, but bowing because of regarding that person as Divinity is a problem. Pevzner, however, spends a considerable effort justifying bowing towards the Rebbe.

Suppose an outsider sees this Lubavitcher bowing to the Rebbe, or to his picture. This outsider doesn't know the idea of atzmus umahus areingeshtelt in a guf, (the Yiddish form of the italicized description of a Rebbe above), it was not even that well known in Lubavitch until recently. And it's the Rebbe's own feeling, unprecedented in Torah, as the Rebbe says in his footnote on LS 2 p. 511. The outsider sees the Lubavitcher bowing to a person as Divinity. [This sicha is translated in the book Proceeding Together vol. I] How is the person not supposed to take that as "they're praying to a different deity"?

The Catholic, lehavdil elef havdolos, believes his cracker and wine are the body & blood of his god. The Catholic bows to them, because of that belief. Are we to take their word for it, or are we as outsiders bound to regard them as ovdei AZ, because behaviorally, they are, and we do not, as a matter of principle, accept their beliefs?

So too here, lehavdil, most of Torah Jewry does not accept these beliefs of a section of Chabad. And is it really just a section? Or is it the whole, given that it's based on a cryptic statement of the Rebbe himself from early in his tenure? The whole do at least tolerate this behavior, presumably because they know that it's not being done as AZ.

But this idea was clearly implicit in the Chassidic system from Day One, as it is the basis of the Gra's letter that worries that if they go on the way they are, they will be worshipping the trees & stones. Perhaps not the trees & stones, but some of them do effectively worship a person.

It's clear that there is some philosophical difference between this behavior towards the Rebbe and actually saying Boreinu, or else the central organizations would never have condemned the Boreinu-niks, from R' Marlow on down. There is a difference between a memutza hamechabeir, which seems to be analogous to a [closed?] glass window, and saying that the Rebbe actually is God.

See here and less seriously here for my earlier thoughts on this sort of stuff.

Given that RSYW was a Rosh Yeshiva, a major Talmid Chacham, but to Chabad an outsider, and a) could not accept the Chabad belief system, and b) of necessity regarded the issue behaviorally, was there any other position he could have reached?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Poskim and Styles of Psak

Listening to R' Jeremy Wieder's introductory shiur to teaching Yoreh Deah and Chullin this year. He was talking about supplementary materials one might learn in addition to Tur, Beis Yosef, Shulchan Aruch, Shach and Taz. Here's a paraphrase:

You can learn the Aruch haShulchan, you'll get a great review of the material, and a strong grasp of minhag. Many people think the Aruch haShulchan is meikil, compared to the Mishneh Brurah, but as Rabbi Broyde has shown, he's a defender of minhag, the way we do things. The Mishneh Brurah is full of his own chumras, contrary to minhag, phrased as "baal nefesh yachmir", the master of his soul should be strict here.

R' Schachter tells of R' Amital, who said that when he was a kid in yeshiva, learning Mishnah Brurah, he would come across stuff for the baal nefesh, and say "I'm no baal nefesh, that's not for me." Nowadays, everybody thinks they're a baal nefesh, and has to be machmir.

There was a late lamented Left-Wing Modern Orthodox group, part of whose mission was to translate the Aruch haShulchan, believing that that was the ideal halacha book for the Modern Orthodox. You know, I agree with that - if all of the Modern Orthodox behaved according to the laws in the Aruch haShulchan, Moshiach would come.

There are two kinds of poskim, you'll find - those that respond to the sho'el (asker) and those that respond to the sh'eilah (question). R' Moshe Feinstein was the first kind. You look at his responsa on hearing aids and microphones on Shabbat - the halachic principles are the same - and you see what he says about the hearing aids, it's clear he's trying to help the sho'el. R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, on the other hand, in Minchas Shlomo, his arguments are so clear, so lucid.

A hundred years from now, I don't think anyone will be learning the Igros Moshe. You all, well, were at best toddlers when R' Moshe died. I was a teenager, I never met him, but people around me treated him as this giant. Any talmid chacham in the beit midrash can poke holes in a lot of his arguments. But he was responding to the sho'el. RSZ Auerbach was responding to the question. I think, 2-300 years down the line, Igros Moshe may have vanished, but people will still refer to the Minchas Shlomo.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Us, God and Elul

Been a long time, eh?

A thought for Elul, adapted from Rabbi Paltiel* Jr. (InsideChassidus):

He was addressing yeshiva high school girls, who wouldn’t have a lot of big aveiros to worry about yet, in terms of teshuvah during Elul and the High Holidays. So what should they work on? Two things:

1) Think about God. You went to shul this morning, said a bunch of words on a bunch of pages, same words you said yesterday, same words you’ll say tomorrow, a little different on Shabbos, but when was the last time you thought about the Eibishter while doing so? Try to think about the Eibeshter while you’re praying – you’re praying To Him, after all. And you’ll see how it means more. And don’t worry if you can’t finish everything. I counted, Slichos is about 17 pages, and we say it in 35-40 minutes. If you only say 5 pages in that time, great. Think about what you’re saying and to Whom it is directed.

2) Ask God. He wants you to ask for things. Sure, he can sometimes say no, but if you don’t ask, he certainly won’t answer. And you can look for the answer in your life, but you have to ask. This echoes what R’ Yaakov Feldman has said at numerous AishDas events – get in the habit of talking to God, talk to Him a little every day, so that when you need something, you’re asking a friend, Someone with whom you’re already comfortable.

* Paltiel Jr. - There are two Rabbis Paltiel who have MP3 lectures on Chabad chassidus online, this one, and an older one, R' Abba Paltiel at YeshivaLive. So I think of this one as R' Paltiel Jr., not knowing if they actually are father & son, or cousins, or what.

Saturday, August 02, 2008


A brief observation.

These Three Weeks between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av, which commemorate the destruction of the Temple, in this leap year, has contained three parashiyot: Matot, Mas'ei and Devarim.

What is a noun? A word for a 1) person, 2) place, or 3) thing.

What are these three parsha titles?
1) addressed to Roshei haMatot, the heads of the tribes, or Persons
2) a catalogue of Places where the Israelites camped
3) and Devarim means Things (well, in context, it means spoken things, but in general Davar is Thing)

Who is the ultimate Person? Hashem, even not anthropomorphized, He has various attributes of personhood - individuality, uniqueness, intelligence, etc.

What Place is the center of the [Jewish] world? Jerusalem, of course.

What is the ultimate Thing? The Holy Temple, or perhaps, some of the Things contained in it, such as the Ark and the Tablets. The Temple is the place where (normal, non-prophetic) Man and God interact in their closest manner.

So it is fitting that the parshiyot read during this time have titles that correspond to the three subjects of nouns.

What about a non-leap year, when Pinchas is the first, and Matot-Mas'ei is the second parasha? We can still k'neitch it to fit. Pinchas is a person, a Kohen, through whom the whole descent of Kohanim is established beyond his father Elazar. And where do Kohanim work? Why, the Temple of course. It all fits!

Ah, the joy of free association in a Torah-dic vein.

Gut voch, or Shavu'ah tov, if that suits better.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chazal Made Them Evil

For those of you who take issue with a supposed "fault-finding school" in Biblical interpretation, here's one for the other side - a "merit-finding" post for people whom Chazal uniformly portray as evil. So I won't disagree with Chazal, but I don't understand them, either.

So what is it with Chazal and various non-chosen people in the Torah? Esav, Bilaam – both are painted by the text in very different terms than they are painted by Chazal. The text makes them out to be neutral or even mostly good, but Chazal turn them into the embodiments of true evil.

Esav, for instance comes across as a simple guy, very straightforward, not a bearer of grudges, not vengeful. Yaakov treats him as if he were these things, because Yaakov’s whole being is infused with deception and guile, so he is convinced that everyone around him must be the same (and Lavan’s example, and his mother’s, do tend to support that belief). But we are also given the text, which tells a very different story.

What do we know of Esav?

1) Born first, hairy and red.

2) Lives in the moment – sells his birthright for a snack.

3) Lives a life of Kibud Ov – honors his father, does what his father wants, and his father loves him for it.

4) Is a “mighty hunter” like his ancestor Nimrod.

5) On doing his father’s bidding in return for a blessing, has that blessing stolen by deceitful Yaakov and Rivkah; contemplates revenge.

6) Follows his father’s advice in choosing a wife

7) The next time we see him, Yaakov treats him as if he bears grudges, because we all know Yaakov himself would.

8) Esav himself is “Hey, Jack, long time no see! Is this your family? Glad to see you’re doing so well! I’ve done well too!” And that’s it. None of the revenge that Yaakov dreaded for 22 years. No “Hey, forget about that blessing business – you can see I’ve been blessed too.” The whole thing is gone. Esav just lives in the moment.

9) Esav and Yaakov bury Yitzchak together. Again, honoring his father.

But Chazal treat Esav like the root of all evil. Esav becomes a stand-in for Rome, which really was the source of all evil in the times of Chazal, pagan, democratic, conquering, destroying the Temple and Jerusalem, reducing Beitar and the rest of the North, and by the time of the Amoraim, adopting that religion that started as a Jewish heresy, that has at its core, Judenhass for the Christ-killers. This is the ultimate bearing of a grudge – against the Jews for allegedly killing their god, we are their victims for all time.

Rome, Christian Rome, is so much not like Esav it’s not funny, but for some reason, Chazal use Edom and Esav as a stand-in for Rome in their literature. Is it only that they’re a closely-related sect that no longer exists, so they’re free to reuse the name Edom? But then they cast all their hatred for Rome back onto Esav the character. Why not use Moav, another nation with common ancestry that had by then ceased to exist, and which had actively opposed Israel during the Exodus? Edom just said “go away, go around”, while Moav hired Bilaam to curse Israel, and actually fought them.

Bilaam, too, seems to get a bum rap.

He repeatedly warns Balak “I can only do what God wants.” Balak hires him anyway. When he does what God wants, he’s scolded and punished for it. Here’s a non-Jew with real mesiras nefesh for God, but what do we get in the Talmud? He’s the anti-Moshe, he’s the great Rasha each of whose blessings reflects a curse he intended to hurl at the Jews, his curses mostly came true except for his alleged curse of Israel’s batei midrash and synagogues. See Sanhedrin 105a.

OK, the donkey incident somehow displays God’s displeasure with Bilaam, but it’s hard to understand – God told him to go with the men, he did what God told him to, then God gets angry and tries to stop him. Why is God portrayed as fickle and moody? At any rate, Bilaam learns his lesson, and from then on only does what God wants. God has no more criticism of him.

Whatever God’s motivations, Bilaam is portrayed textually as the great prophet of God, who doesn’t even argue with God as much as Moshe does. But Chazal bring him out as this great embodiment of evil.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Sleeping like a Baby

My brother Mitch and his lovely wife Jocelyn had a baby girl, their first, on Monday, 23 June, or 20 Sivan. 6 lbs 8 oz, everyone healthy. They not being particularly religious, and not wanting to get involved in some synagogue they don't go to (and thus don't know a lot of people in), we organized a Simhat Bat for them last Wednesday, at which

Winifred Celia Baker got her Hebrew name, צביה בת מלך ברוך.

It was held in my parents' apartment, right there in the living room where my brother & I had our brisses. Mom was all excited to clear off the desk on which Mitch and I had had the surgery, despite my reminding her that there's no surgery here, it's not a bris-parallel, etc.

But she's very excited, as this is her first genetic grandchild. Well, you see, my sister is from Dad's first marriage, and she has two kids (one just out of the army, one just out of Tel Aviv University), and Jocelyn came into the relationship with a daughter, Zoe. So it's my parents' fourth grandchild, but the first that is genetically descended from both of them [rather than 0 or 1 of them].

I put together a service using the resources linked from JOFA's web site, particularly the narrative of Joseph Kaplan's semachot bat, and the prayers and suggestions on R' Seth Farber's site. You can find the service here, in PDF.

Winifred is from an aunt, Winifred L. Wisan, an academic, who studied Galileo. She had great battles with the eminence grise of Galileo studies, Stillman Drake, in the footnotes of her papers. Took us for long hikes over the local mountains in Oneonta. Inspired both of us in our academic endeavors - I minored in history of science because of the interest she helped kindle. She passed away 17 years ago last Pesach.

Celia is our mother's mother, Celia Cohen Wisan, much loved, very American (born on the Lower East Side, grew up in Bed Stuy and Crown Heights, attended Adelphi College when it was in Brooklyn), married Grandpa on Lag Ba'Omer 1926, long life raising Mom & Uncle Dick, and volunteering at Vacation Camp for the Blind. Endlessly busy with her roses and rock garden, when they had the country house. Great hostess for yom tov, went sometimes to Spanish/Portuguese, as it was around the corner and her sister was a member. Very close with her sisters, life of the party, amateur painter and sculptor. Full of life, until a few years before her passing in 1989.

Tzivia as a name does double duty - it's Grandma Wisan's name above, but Grandpa was also Tzvi Hirsh, so Tzivia encompasses both grandparents, husband and wife.

May she grow into a life filled with joy, learning, love, and good deeds.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Reading like the Netziv

A fascinating video of a lecture by R' Dr. Gil Perl. Best viewed as streaming video, the download is 339 MB. Hat tip: Areivim List.

Summary and one critique below:

R’ Dr. Gil Perl:

What was the Rosh Yeshiva Reading?

Netziv R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the last Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin – went as a child to Volozhin, spent entire life (1830-1892) there as student and RY. His commentaries exhibit broad knowledge. How was it gained?

A story in Mekor Boruch (by the Torah Temimah, parts of which eventually became “My Uncle the Netziv”). Joseph Steinberg, maskil, grammarian, asks how did the Netziv learn grammar? He responds with a parable about merchants – one gets belts for free with expensive fabric, one has to pay for belts alone – grammar comes with Torah learning, vs grammar being learned with difficulty on its own.

Is the story true? Probably not, not as written.

There is an early commentary on Sifri by the Netziv, never completed, published only 50 years after his death, where he cites sources for things. Now we can know what he read.

  1. Kuzari and Otzar Nechmad – O”N was by R’ Israel Zamosc, an early Maskil.
  2. Grammar of Eshkol haKofer – a 12th-century Karaite. Now we know how the Netziv learned grammar, the same as the Maskil – by learning grammatical works.
  3. Intro to Chumash BES”V and T”A – T”A is Targum Onkelos usually, but BESV if you slightly redraw the Beit as a Dalet, becomes Dessau, and Targum Ashkenaz – the Mendelssohn Chumash. And the issue being talked about here is in fact what Mendelssohn talks about in the intro. The descendents probably euphemized it to BESV; Perl found ms. in possession of family, but family only allowed him to read page by page, because they didn’t want him to see questionable stuff. He had to ask for something a bit earlier, so as to hit the right page without tipping them off, and in fact it was DESV, underlined in pink (probably indicating a change to be made in printing).
  4. Elijah Levita (Bachur) Mesoret haMesoret – suggests that vowels and trup were in fact a later addition.
  5. Azariah de Rosse, Me’or Einayim. Mishmosh. Jewish history non-traditional. Refers to aggadic literature, narratives, as not necessarily intended to be taken literally, but as teaching of Truths based on their then understanding of the world. This got him into cherem, works banned by the Mechaber. Maharal spends pages denouncing de Rossi. Netziv tells us to read the absolute worst areas in the book (by that standard). E.g.,
    1. Netziv talks about different types of exegesis, midrash. He cites parenthetically, (See M”E IV[II]:9) à where de Rossi suggests that the midrash uses verses as a support or mnemonic for story, not story as interpretation of verse. We don’t have to take everything literally.
    2. same section in De Rossi – aggadot mere conjecture on the part of their inventor – this idea was regarded as heretical, if the stories are not based in Mesorah. This is what Netziv wanted us to see.
    3. another midrash: “let us go up to conquer Israel” means that Israel must be higher than all other lands. Netziv comments – this seems to be against geography, so see de Rossi. De Rossi says don’t take it literally.
    4. another midrash: “Kartignin place”. Netziv: Carthage, that Josephus has made famous, also see de Rossi, who says it’s in Africa. How did de Rossi know? Because “Jerome, who was also wise, translates this ref in Ezekiel as Carthage”.
    5. Text of cherem against Slifkin compares Slifkin’s writings to Me’or Einayim, which was banished by Maharal: “Cursed be the day that such things were brought to our vision; How could one who can’t understand the words of our sages at all, talk about the sages as if they were his own friends, criticizing them like his own colleagues?” – still controversial today.

Next question – what brought him to read such heretical things? Turns out he wasn’t alone.

  1. The Maggid of Slonim, RYL Edel, “Afikei Yehuda”, cites Meor Einayim.
  2. R’ Avraham ben haGra cites Meor Einayim, as a great collection of Jewish and non-Jewish sources.
  3. RaDa”L – David Luria, of Obichov, Lita. Comments on Midrash Rabbah, referring to scientific literature, describing change in salinity of ocean at the Pillars of Hercules between Atlantic and Mediterranean.
  4. Kenaf Renanim, by Hanoch Zundel Luria, Maggid of Novardok: cites [German] Letters of Mendelssohn [reads out Moshe ben Maimon – maybe he really meant Rambam?] – read his German works on philosophy.
  5. Yoel Dovber haKohen in Volozhin: Commentary on Yalkut Shimoni. Less-known, that he translated the French political work “Adventures of Telemachus” and the “Fables of Aesop.”
  6. Yitzchak Eliyahu Landau, Maggid of Vilna: “Even if we were all wise and learned in the law” – understood as “Even if we were all scientists, masters of biology and astronomy”

So what happened? Why did the Netziv not cite them in his later Torah commentary? Times change. Reform reached Eastern Europe by the middle of the 19th century. Haskalah and Reform and Mendelssohn become equated, so the RY of Volozhin is not going to tell a student to read De Rossi.

Kenaf Renanim: Later printings remove references to [Moshe ben Maimon].

What does this mean for today? I’ll leave that to you.


  • Q. Where did they have access to this literature? A. Coincides with boom in E. European boom in Hebrew printing. Lots of stuff available. Glut in traditional texts, so new printers want to go find other texts that hadn’t been printed in centuries. Get copies right off the press.
  • Q Did the Netziv know that these texts were put into cherem? A. Can’t say for sure, but cites Maharal elsewhere, albeit not a big Maharal fan, so probably knew. Certainly he would have known how people reacted to Mendelssohn.
  • Q. Maharal and others also talk about exaggerations in midrashim? A. How dare you go beyond what was already identified as non-literal?
  • Q. Self-censorship? A. ha-Amek Davar has a bit of it, also the fact that he never published the commentary on Sifri. Different to self-censor than for others to censor.
  • Q. Hatam Sofer denounced Mendelssohn, A. Pressburg and Lita were very different. Pressburg had no reform movement, but Hatam Sofer comes from Germany so he feels he must oppose Reform.
  • Q. Lita was more liberal towards Haskalah? A. Developed differently in E. Europe, because no Reform movement ever developed out of it.
  • Q. Did it flourish in Volozhin? A. No, just some were reading it. Maybe it was flourishing more in Vilna.
  • Q. Dating of these things? A. He started reading them in his late twenties. The commentary was repeatedly edited and changed throughout his life, but these marginalia were only in the earliest stratum, age 25-30.
  • Q. What do I think of the situation today with all the current controversies? A. As my advisor said, it’s great to be a historian because people are dead and can’t talk back, so I will not speculate.
  • Q. Have the relatives of the Netziv ever read my thesis? A. No, but my relations with them soured, and I can’t go back to look at the mss.
  • Q. Wasn’t the Torah Temimah his brother-in-law? A. Some of the family connections: Netziv’s first wife was the daughter of R’ Itzele of Volozhin, he was 14, she 12. Born 1816, became RY in 1853. Torah Temimah’s mother was Netziv’s sister. Netziv remarries a sister of the Torah Temimah, his own niece, so Netziv was TT’s uncle and brother-in-law. From first marriage came R’ Chaim Berlin, and from 2nd marriage comes R’ Meir Bar-Ilan. Two different people going in two very different directions.


My one issue with this is his citation of Kenaf Renanim, as noted above. He read out in Hebrew, “Moshe ben Maimon”. But Mendelssohn was “Moshe ben Menachem Mendel”, sometimes abbreviated as “Rambeman” to distinguish him from Rambam. What did Kenaf Renanim say? Rambam? “Moshe ben Maimon”? Rambeman? If the issue were Rambam, that puts an entirely different spin on the relationship to philosophy. It wouldn’t be the philosophy of the Enlightenment, but the metaphysical system based in Aristotle which had also lost favor, more significantly foreshadowing today’s Slifkin debate – were these ideas OK for the medievals but not for us?