Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fast in Translation

Tomorrow is the 10th of Tevet, which is a fast day. But did you know that yesterday, the 8th of Tevet, was also a fast day? The oldest document of Chazal the Megillat Taanit (fast scroll), notes:

On the 8th of Tevet, the Torah was rendered into Greek during the days of King Ptolemy, and darkness descended upon the world for three days.'

The story is recounted in a couple of places, once in Megillah and once as a Braita in the minor tractate Soferim.

'King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: 'Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.' God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did' (Tractate Megillah 9[also Soferim 1:8 –jjb]).

(previous two translations from here)

The story is told of five elders who wrote the Torah in Greek for Ptolemy the king and the day was as bad for Israel as the day on which the Golden Calf was made because the Torah could not be accurately translated. (tr. mine; Sofrim 1:7)

We might suspect that these are two successive stories, that Ptolemy hired five sages to translate the Torah, but he suspected that they might be intentionally fooling him by mistranslating passages, so he then hired 72 more, and told them individually, out of hearing of the others, “Translate the Torah for me,” and by a miracle, all 72 came up with exactly the same set of 13 intentional mistranslations. What were the mistranslations? Clarifications, mostly: instead of “In the beginning created God __ the heavens and __ the earth”, they wrote “God created in the beginning…” lest the Greeks believe that there is another deity named “Bereshit” that created “Elokim.” Instead of “Let us make man in Our image”, they rendered it in the singular, lest Ptolemy think the Torah supported polytheism. [I used __ in place of the word "et", which is a particle indicating that the next word is a direct object -jjb]

We should consider the nature of translations.

First, every translation is an interpretation. Rabbi Sokol, when composing his brief dvar torah for the synagogue newsletter, was faced with the word “nivhalu”, describing the state of mind of the brothers when Yosef announced himself. How to translate it? Well, let’s look at how some popular translations render it.

  • Aryeh Kaplan Living Torah: His brothers were so startled, they could not respond.
  • Artscroll Stone Chumash: But his brothers could not answer him because they were left disconcerted before him.
  • Old JPS: And his brethren could not answer him; for they were affrighted at his presence
  • R’ Sokol: the brothers were so agitated, that they couldn't even respond.

Each of these has a different emotional content. Agitation is not quite the same as startlement, or fright. Not that any one is necessarily better or worse, but it may well depend on the writer. For more, see later.

2) Every translation is written for some audience and/or purpose. It may be written for a king, to keep Judaism tolerable in his eyes. It may be written for other Jews, to explain the Torah to a populace that has lost familiarity with Hebrew, or for introducing them to the local language. Letters may be translated to show the inner emotional states of a famous figure. And that agenda affects the way the ideas are rendered in the target language.

3) Every translation is written by people, who are affected by their personal experiences, and by their surrounding cultures, to have certain prejudices and biases. R’ Sokol recounts a conversation he had with Dr. David Berger, the noted historian and polemicist. R’ Berger had written a piece for an academic journal, and the editor asked him to revise the translations, such that some of the masculine words would become feminine. “But that’s the way the text is! That’s the way they wrote!” Dr Berger complained to R’ Sokol. Nevertheless, the politically correct editor insisted on changing the translation. The biases of a writer and an editor may be at loggerheads – is the text to be rendered accurately, or in tune with the zeitgeist?

4) Every translation limits the understanding of the text. We speak of the Torah as having 70 facets, but the translation locks it down to having one facet for the population who will be reading it. And that may be the reason for the three days of darkness. If the Torah is light, as the verse says, we were closing down the light, in limiting the reading to one perspective out of 70.

So the translation of the Torah was indeed a calamity for Israel, as not only foreigners, but Jews too would be reading it, and having their understanding of Torah shaped by it, rather than being allowed to roam through the breadth of rabbinic interpretation. It was a calamity indeed, if only because it raised one interpretation to an authoritative level.

(I forget how R’ Sokol concluded it – if LoZ or someone wants to fill in, please do).

This was R’ Sokol’s sermon for Vayigash, 26 Dec 09

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Maoz Tzur Origins

Musical Note

by Cantor Sherwood Goffin

Each year we sing Maoz Tzur on Chanukah, but have little idea of its origins. The words were written by the 13th Century German "paytan" (poet), Mordechai ben Yitzchak Halevi. It was not originally written for Chanukah. The poem is an historical overview, originally in five paragraphs (the sixth is a later addition), referring to Pesach, Exile, Purim, and only the last mentions Chanukah.

The melody, which became popular among German Jewry in the 16th Century, is written in the German chorale style of the 15th/16th Century. It is first recorded as an old German folk song, "So Weiss ich", and was used as Martin Luther's first Protestant hymn, "Nun Freut Euch" in 1523. This is the origin of the suspicion that this is a "Christian" song. The middle section is thought to come from one of two old German songs, the 1504 "Benzenauer", or an earlier "Narrenweise" melody. "So Weiss ich" was already known to the Jews in Germany in 1450 and, therefore, may even have been composed by a Jew! In any case, we are still singing it and Lutherans are not. So enjoy the melody with your children, as tens of generations have done before you!

[Note: I used to sing Adon Olam to Greensleeves on occasion, but there was one Lubavitcher in the old shul who used to complain that I shouldn't use "that Christmas song." Except, well, Greensleeves was a secular song written by King Henry VIII (who was something of a Talmud scholar). The Christmas words to the same old tune were written in the 1890s. So using it for Adon Olam is just as [il-]legitimate. -jjb]

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Hellenism in Jewish Palestine

I know it's the title of a book by Saul Lieberman. I only have the other one, "Greek in Jewish Palestine". I'd love to see what he says about this.)

Commenter Joseph Anonymous Kaplan wrote:

Chanuka long did it take for greek philosophy to become part of "orthodox" Rabbinic Judaism?

Oh, that was very fast. The entire Talmud bears witness to the absorption of Greek philosophy and culture. The Seder is "how rich people ate"? It's modeled after a Greek Symposium, a dinner and educated debate, with all the forms - heseiba, bringing in the food on tabellach (as my gemara teacher called it in 12th grade when we did Arvei Psachim), discussion around the table on a set theme, heavy drinking (arba kosos), etc. Here's a picture that (except for the nakedness) perfectly illustrates the sort of meal described in the Gemara:

Second, the Socratic method, of picking at a concept to uncover the hidden bases and assumptions - this is the basis of Rabbinic debate in the Talmud, as well as of most legal education in America.

Third, while this took somewhat longer to come into Judaism, we have neo-Platonic emanationism which is parallel to, if not the source of (scholars are divided on this) the whole Kabbalistic creation and structure: the ten emanations that fill the pleroma or fullness, the space between God and the physical world, the totality of Divine powers. And in the war between Aristotelian rationalism and Platonic emanationism, it's quite clear - the emanationists, the neo-Platonists, have won.

The division in Kabbala between the unchanging Infinite, and the shifting and changing Sefiros which are the tools by which the universe was created, formed, emanated, made - this parallels Gnosticism, which was a Greek religion which was more or less created to be antisemitic, from what I can tell - where the transcendent Good God does not communicate with the world, but the world was created by the evil Demiurge, a lesser divine being, who actually communicates with the world.

No, there wasn't any widespread adoption of Greek philosophy per se, but of their methods, yes.

Although Rabbi Akiva does seem to speak of man created after an archetype, which is a central Platonic idea - that of abstract forms, the ideal Man vs. the real.

And (shades of the R' Svei zt"l and yblcht"a R' Lamm argument years ago) there does seem to be some parallel between Plato's parable of the cave, and R' Shimon's and R' Eliezer's behavior on coming out of the cave after 12 years - that having been inside the cave, they no longer know how to deal with reality. In fact, it seems so similar that it may be a re-telling, with some remapping of the concepts to fit Judaism and the reputation of Rashb"i.

Quite likely, Euclid's mathematics was relevant to "sod ha'ibbur" calendrical calculations; certainly the unnamed Peirush on Rambam's Hil. Kiddush haChodesh depends on geometry to explain the relative geocentric motions of Earth, Moon and Sun.

Other influences of Greek culture include the Greek bible; Rabban Gamliel's opinion that one can lein Megillah in Greek because the Greek language is equally holy as Hebrew; the adoption of Greek names into Hebrew (any number of people in the Talmud, such as Sumchus); etc.

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald says, in his Chanukah lecture, "we are all Hellenists" in that we all benefit from, and incorporate ourselves in, modern society, in various ways and to various degrees. None of us reject modern secular American or European society totally.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

You can take the boy out of the Bible Belt...

Commenting on the previous post, Mississippi Fred McDowell wrote:

The same tale is told all over the world, where modern European civilization collided with traditional cultures. Indeed, the fact that you are now typing and probably thinking in English means that some form of compromise with modernity was eventually achieved, but not without much growing pains and casualties along the way. The idea that in Germany it could have been resisted entirely by not giving in to any of modernity's temptations is nice, but it would have resulted in a handful of hardline rabbis without a flock, as such a position would not have taken into account the realities and tempermants of German Jews, who were indeed ready for and on the cusp of speaking in German and the like. They were, in fact, chaleshing for it, and it would have happened with or without Mendelssohn, only perhaps without him it would have taken on the form of total apostasy. Or not; I could be wrong. But the point is that modernity itself was a powerful force seducing away from traditional religion.

Could a Lubavitcher have the perspective to sit back and realize, "it wasn't Mendelssohn it was modernity?" For them, the Rebbe said it, no matter how based in polemical distortions of a century earlier, therefore it's gospel truth. Literally. Because their Rebbes are Tzaddikim as described by the Tanya, and thus embody God's will in this world.

The anonymous commenter in the previous post cannot admit the Rebbe was wrong in attributing "Jew in the home, man in the street" to a man who lived his life as "Jew in the home, Jew in the street, Jew in the courts of kings and scholars." There is a letter where Mendelssohn notes that he had to refuse the wine of a nobleman because of stam yeinam. He wrote "Jerusalem" to defend the Jews in the public sphere. He wrote peirushim on the Chumash and the Rambam to make Judaism remain palatable to those affected by modernity.

(Well, there's some debate as to what extent that was the motivation for the German translation, and to what extent he wanted the Jews to be able to speak clear German, as they were already moving into outer society. There are two letters with contradictory ideas: that he wanted to make the Torah palatable to Germanized Jews, and that he wanted to make German palatable to Torah Jews. In either case, he did want to make sure that Torah remained compatible with Germanized Judaism.)

There is a commenter on some of the J-blogs, whom I know IRL. He lives entirely in the modern world, doesn't consider himself a chasid Chabad, but cannot escape the attitudes and ideas about history and relationships among Jewish groups inculcated by his Lubavitch upbringing.

This is hardly an issue limited to Lubavitchers, of course. I took a course on Islam in college, taught by a Muslim academic. He had no end of frustration with the orthodox Muslim students in his class (he was one himself). He required the students to step back and be able to look at Islam and its history as an outsider, without the prejudices of the believer. The students should be able to step out of themselves, but these students, for the most part, could not.

It may be easier for me, having been an outsider all my life. I was raised non0bservant, although my parents have since grown in observance as well. But they sent me to Ramaz, and we went to Lincoln Square Synagogue, because R' Riskin was more accepting of children than R' Miller at the SAJ, where we had been until 1973 or so. So wherever I go in the Jewish world, it's with the experience of not having come to it natively.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mendelssohn in Lubavitch eyes

An evil star has risen in Germany: Moses [Mendelsohn] of Desau, may his name be obliterated. A man of Torah filled with bitter, rotten grapes. He mixed a batter combining apostasy and Torah, spoiled and rotten. He made a honey-cake (Tzelil Devash, the name of his book) and he fed it to his friends and students. As on the wings of the wind, his students fanned out across the land, making a tumult for the approach “Be a Jew at home, and a citizen in the street.” In a short time, Germany was poisoned, ruined by Mendelsohn and his colleagues. Like a pillar of fire eats through straw, the Rabbis of Germany were devoured right and left. Mendelsohn created a crater in Germany; he ran off with Jewish skulls. He stole the children of Jacob, and he broke the leaders of Jewry; he placed them all in the burning fireplace of the sciences.
This passage appears on a Lubavitch website, I think written by the previous Lubavitcher rebbe, who is known for partisan distortions of history to advance a Chabad agenda.

A tendentious distortion of history. Mendelssohn a"h did not, h"v, say, or maintain in his personal life, that one should be a Jew in the home and a man in the street. That was YL Gordon, a hundred years later. The ones who encouraged the sciences were the Gra and his disciple Boruch Shick of Shklov - the Gra being another person whom Lubavitch writers distort. He was not "under the influence of maskilim" when he critiqued Chassidus, nor did he believe in "tzimtzum kipeshuto", he held his positions out of true knowledge and belief, and believed in the same tzimtzum in the ohr as Chassidim.

Furthermore, all of this was the ORTHODOX haskalah of the first few generations. Reform was something else, a formalization of the wholesale abandonment of Judaism. Many gedolim of the 19th century honored Mendelssohn's commentary, the Biur, and used it themselves. R' Aryeh Kaplan used it for his commentary in the 20th century. The Netziv used it for the Ha'amek Davar. And while the Chasam Sofer banned it, his own children and grandchildren held the Biur in high esteem. This is the historical truth, not distortions meant to keep chasidim uneducated in the ways of the world away from non-chasidic ideas.

Mendelssohn was not the Hitlerish caricature that the writer of this passage uses. Mendelssohn was closest to, I think, the Rav YB Soloveitchik, except that the world was not ready for him. His own children, some stayed Jewish some did not. Why? Because there was no support structure yet for Jews who lived with one foot in the yeshiva, one foot in the secular academy, and one foot in the courts of the mighty. And his children did not have his strength of character, so trying to live his way failed. Because Reform took advantage of the open German society, to become non-religious, is no reason to blame Mendelssohn. Better to blame Napoleon, Voltaire, Rousseau, etc. who preached the open society.

I couldn't really say that over there for fear my userid would be suspended.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Chanukah

from the Ramaz Upper School Chorus, under the direction of [classmate's brother] Daniel Henkin, a fascinating setting of Maoz Tzur - is it Rossi or is it Memorex?

iiiiIiiii :-)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Providence, if not the City

(R' Moshe Sokol's sermon for Vayeshev 5770 at the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush, with my additions/comments)

The Sfas Emes, in his meditation for 5661, notes that Chanukah commemorates our victory over the Greeks. But it was not just a physical victory, it was a moral victory. What moral goal was served? The Seleucids were trying to make the Jews give up on the God idea. The Sfas Emes claims that the Greeks, through their expertise in astrology (Yavan, Ionia, Greece, is numerologically equivalent to Galgal, celestial sphere), saw the world as a completely natural world, where once we understood physical law and the celestial motions, there would be no more need to have a God to explain why things happened in the world. We would know that everything is just an effect of other things acting on it.

In other words, the Seleucid Greeks were trying force us to give up on the idea of Divine Providence, that God controls the world and history. Rabbi Sokol then summarized three major schools of thought about the nature of Divine providence. Apparently, a world that follows physical law, and a world where history is driven by Divine Will, are not as incompatible as the Hellenistic Syrians thought.

First is the Sfas Emes' idea - that the world is indeed mechanistic, following physical laws. However, God reserves the right to intervene when necessary, for His plan to work out. No need for fancy explanations - God has His will, and exerts it when necessary.

Second is Maimonides' idea as expressed in the Guide. There is "general providence" on most of the world, which nations will rise and fall, which species will arise or go extinct. "Individual providence" only extends to Jews, as we are the instrument for implementing His Will, the Torah, in this world.

Third is what I and some other scientifically-minded people in the shul believe, but for which I haven't seen an "authoritative" Jewish source, except that today, R' Sokol, whom I trust, spoke about it. Well, given the opposition to, or ignorance of, modern science among many Torah specialists today, who could talk about it?

That is the idea that God intervenes through manipulating probabilities. There is a lot of uncertainty in the physical universe, from micro effects like quantum uncertainty (the electron is somewhere in the cloud around the nucleus, but we can't locate its position or velocity at any givent moment; or the electron is in several potential states simultaneously, until some event forces the state vector to collapse on one of the possibilities), to macro effects like chaotic and/or complex systems, which can also only be described statistically (such as weather systems, the behavior of crowds, fluid flows, etc.) So, if there's a statistically improbable event, but one which is in the realm of possibility, God may nudge that event to happen such that people recognize it as His will at work.

(this is from me, not R' Sokol:) For example, in Charles Pellegrino's book "Return to Sodom and Gomorrah", he describes Joshua's crossing the Jordan River. He explains it in terms of periodic (once a century, more or less) rockslides in the Jordan Valley, which will block up the river's flow for a period of hours, before the rock-dam breaks and flow returns. Clearly this happened for Joshua and Bnai Israel, and thus they could cross on dry land. He takes this as evidence that there is no God, because there exists a naturalistic explanation. However, look at it from a probablistic standpoint. This event happens perhaps once a century for a period of hours. That state of crossability exists 1:14700 of the time, say. What are the odds that Joshua and the Israelites should reach the Jordan river at just the right time to take advantage of this rare event? Clearly, God brought them to the right place at the right time to cross safely. It was a possible, not probable event, and it worked out just right. I believe that this is Biblical evidence of God manipulating the probabilities to make sure that the improbable event happened correctly.

To sum up, then, the Sfas Emes provides an answer that works for the Chasid who prides himself on his Emunah Peshutah, his simple faith - that God reserves the right to act when necessary. The Rambam provides a philosophically satisfying answer that still enables Jewish pride: that God extends individual providence to the Jews alone. Many moderns would accept this happily. And the statistical answer, which works for scientifically-minded moderns, but which seems to be unsourced in the tradition, which worries me a bit. Although, it sorta answers a different question than the Rambam's: it's not "who gets DP" but "how does DP not come into conflict with the concept of physical law?" Some people claim to have "seen it somewhere", but I'd like to know where.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Onomastic Bubbleplastic

The blogger known as Mississippi Fred MacDowell comments to "Using the Title Rabbi" on Hirhurim blog:

That's true across the board. Almost no one in Europe with a kinnui used their Hebrew name except when they were called to the Torah. The Netziv was known as "Reb Hersh Leib."

But I wonder. Is it just "kinnui", or is there an avoidance of first names? The Netziv's full name was "Naftali Tzvi Yehuda", while "Hersh Leib" only translates the last two names. Yes, I know, the animal associated with the tribe of Naftali is a Tzvi (deer). Still, people used a Yiddish pronunciation of Naftali for people who didn't have other names, e.g. Naftali Brandwein, one of the top klezmer clarinetists in America between the wars. My father played with him once in the late 1930s, when Dad was in the house orchestra in a Catskills hotel. After the show, they all went out to the deli in Monticello, and when Brandwein started playing, windows popped open all over town, people shouting "Naftulle's back! Naftulle's back!"

Anyway, back to the main point. I was thinking about my mother's (Litvish - Kovno and Suvalk, mostly) family, many of whom had double names, whether Hebrew/Yiddish or Hebrew/Hebrew, and in almost all cases, the second name was the one they used. Particularly where they or their parents were the immigrants. Those whose parents grew up here, used first names.

  • Grandpa (Tzvi Hersh on his ketubba) known as Heshke when young, Harold as an adult. (Lawyer)
  • His brother Uncle Joe (Yosef Ezra) Ezzie as a kid, Joe in college and later. (CCNY history professor)
  • Great-grandpa Louis Cohen (Yitzchak Eliezer) - used the name Louis (founded Brooklyn Jewish Center)
  • His brother Joseph H. Cohen (Yechizkiyahu Yosef) - used Joseph (founded The Jewish Center)

And beyond them, what does Shulamith Soloveitchik Meiselman say her brother Yosef Dov was called by his family? Berel - again the second name, not Yossel.

Thinking about your (particularly Litvish) older relatives with two names, who would have followed European speechways rather than American, does anyone else notice a similar pattern?

What does it mean? Debbie (Mrs. Thanbo) speculates that since everybody is named for an older relative, perhaps the older relatives were known by their first names as adults, so children are called by the second name to differentiate. That sounds possible. I, for instance, Jonathan Jay, was named for an uncle who died in childhood. He was called "Jonny" by his parents (my grandparents). But my grandparents called me "Jay" or "JJ", because I was NOT Jonny. Actually, my brother has more his personality. But then, what about Reb Hersh Leib, who was apparently known as such as an adult?

Happy Turkey, everybody. Thanksgiving has some bittersweet memories, as it was the end of shiva for my grandpa (Harold, mentioned above) in 1980. That was the one year we didn't have a Thanksgiving dinner, of course - Grandma used to make it, and she certainly wasn't about to, nor was Mom, both aveilot. So we went out to Fine and Schapiro (the local kosher deli) and had turkey sandwiches for lunch.

But most Thanksgiving memories are fun - we lived on the Upper West Side, so went to the parade every year. Except 5th grade, when it was pouring*. When I got older, I would go to the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue for shacharit and Tgvg breakfast, and watch the parade from their porch. My grandparents lived around the corner from the synagogue, so Mitch & I would go right over to them after the parade and have some just-us time without our parents at Grandma & Grandpa's.

This year, we're hosting my family. Debbie's mother has remarried, and doesn't keep kosher, so she's going to Tgiv with her husband's children.

So Happy Thanksgiving, for those who celebrate it.

* Why do I remember the weather in 5th grade? We stayed home and watched the parade on TV. We were watching band after band march past, with rank upon rank of clarinets, which are the violins of a marching band - the main instrument, if not the flashiest. Mom suggested "would you like to play clarinet, like your grandpa Beckerman (Dad's father)?" "OK, I'll give it a try." And I played all through high school. My fingers still know where to go, if I have no lip any more. But it was good training, and I still play recorder. The upper register on the clarinet has the same fingerings as the C recorders (soprano, tenor), while the lower register has the same fingerings as the F recorders (sopranino, alto, bass)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Chassidic Idiom in English

I've been reading Elliot Wolfson's latest work, "Open Secret", on Chabad and its messianism (not just recently, but as an underlying thread throughout its history). Dr Wolfson (no relation to Harry Austryn Wolfson, AFAIK) has, in recent years, taken to writing in a flowery style affected by contemporary literary theory. This style seems to adapt itself well to the flowery style of the Chasidic maamar, which in essence is the model for his prose.

At times he uses Hebrew terms for Hasidic concepts, since they are the best way to express them. Sometimes, however, he attempts to (re)cover Hasidic concepts using English terms. For instance, the following passage, which struck me:

The forms of contemplation are aligned with two philosophical approaches with respect to the question of the relationship of God to the world. The former and less theologically dangerous orientation, which corresponds to what is usually called by historians of religion panentheism, considers the one reality to be unified in and yet distinct from all matters of the world, and hence everything in the chain of becoming is part of the evolving whole that is the divine source, and the latter is the far more challenging view -- what is referred to as acosmism - that there is no independent ontic status to the world, that God is the only substance in reality and thus the world in all of its multiplicity and differentiation is negated, since it is but a manifestation of the divine essence.

First off, I had never actually seen a differentiation between panentheism, the concept that everything in the universe is part of God, and acosmism, the idea that everything in the universe is nullified as part of God as is the finite against the infinite. I had thought them two different words for essentially the same idea. Wolfson here does draw a distinction, but is it really a distinction that others would draw?

It seems to me that Wolfson is actually trying to fit English words to the Hasidic concepts of yichuda ila'a and yichuda tata'ah, the upper and lower unities. The upper unity, more or less how the universe appears from God's perspective, is what Wolfson calls acosmism, while the lower unity, or how we can perceive the world, is what Wolfson calls panentheism. For the Alter Rebbe's own understanding of these Unities, see Tanya, Shaar Hayichud VeHa'Emunah (second part of the book), chapters 4-7. Much of the book Kuntress Eitz haChaim by the Fifth Rebbe, particularly chapters 6-9, explain how the two different Unities affect us in our lives.

Another example of Wolfson's elliptic prose that reveals as it conceals, as does the prose of the Rebbes in their Maamarim, extended mystical discourses:

(p.27) To be exposed, the Infinite must be camouflaged; to be forthcoming, it must be withheld. Envisionin gthe essence in Habad tradition may be cast as apprehending the "absolute nonbeing of the event,"[134] which "results from an excess of one, an ultra-one,"[135] the oneness beyond the distinction of one and many. The unicity consigned to the end is a visual attunement to the void of all being, the void of all things fully void, the breach of unity by which the unity of the breach (dis)appears in and through the cleft of consciousness. In this temporal crevice and spatial hiatus, the symbolic is imagined as real, the real as symbolic.

134. Yitzchak Eizik Epstein, Maamar yetziat mitzrayim. Vilna 1877
135. Alain Badiou,
Being and Event, 2005

This looping repetitive prose, reflecting in and on itself, echoes another writer trained in Hasidic idiom, R' Abraham Joshua Heschel.

So too Chasidic writings reveal as they conceal. My wife tried reading Wolfson and didn't make much headway, despite (or because of) being a fiction writer and former English & History teacher. Sometimes you have to read through the text to (un)read the text.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Philosophy and Torah

Just listened to the first lecture by R' Eliezer Brodt of the Seforim blog, in the eTIM series on "Rare Minhagim Books and Controversies". The subject was the book Malmad haTalmidim, by R' Jacob b. Abba Mari Anatoli. He claimed it was the first book of drashot arranged by parsha, but I wondered, what about the She'iltot of R' Ahai Gaon? Surely a Geonic work predates a late 13th century collection of sermons. Or were the She'iltot more theoretical constructs, rather than records of actual sermons?

The book is in the philosophical mode, being a series of moral/ethical essays based on verses from Proverbs. The author was a big fan of Rambam, naturally. Starting around 1300 there was a big backlash against philosophical writers and works; R' Brodt surveyed R' Anatoli's defenders and detractors. The book languished virtually unknown for centuries, until published from manuscript by Mekitzei Nirdamim in 1866, and once more a century later. Recordings should be available for a nominal fee in the near future.

It seems to me that affinity for philosophy among the Torah world has come and gone in waves, perhaps following trends in the outside world. Here we have a Jewish flowering of philosophy, in the same period that the Muslims were experiencing their Golden Age and engaging in philosophical speculation, whether as the Kalam, or as Sufism, or as Alfarabi'an Aristotelian, which affected Maimonides so strongly. As dar al-Islam began to lose ground to the Christians in Spain and the Holy Land, Jewish affinity for philosophy began to fall off as well.

In the Renaissance, as Christendom began to open itself up to philosophy, Judaism experienced another round of philosophical speculation, peaking in the 1500s with figures such as Azariah dei Rossi and David Gans, who wrote books on natural philosophy and history; until the 1600s when some (such as Spinoza) went too far. But it continued underground for a little while, until the Sabbatean revolution, and later the publication of the works of the Ari, replaced it with Kabbalistic theosophy. "Preachers of the Italian Ghetto," ed. Ruderman, surveys a number of 17th-century figures who supported or opposed philosophy, in much the same way as the sources surveyed (many drawn from Marc Saperstein's "Jewish Preaching") by R' Brodt did in the 14th century. Some of the open opponents of philosophy reveal that they themselves knew the philosophical idiom even as they openly reject it, which makes for somewhat entertaining reading, extracting layers of meaning.

And in the modern period, philosophy has made various attempts to rear its head, particularly as kabbalah had gone into abeyance in the Western non-Chasidic world. Mendelssohn and his circle engaged in it, just as their contemporaries in the German and French Enlightenment brought philosophy out of the middle ages (Kant, Leibniz, Hegel, Rousseau, Diderot, etc). With its association with Haskalah, and Haskalah's association with Reform, it went somewhat more underground for a time, before re-emerging in interwar Europe, when many who were to become the post-WW2 Gedolim, went to Berlin to study philosophy and secular culture (Heschel, Soloveitchik, Hutner, possibly Schneerson). It carried forth to become the underlying rationale for much of modern Orthodoxy. But as Kabbalah returns to Western sensibilities, it too is fading away.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Solo Restaurant Experience

Debbie & I went to Solo for her (mhm)th birthday, whose executive chef is Hung Huynh, a winner of the Top Chef program. We hadn't been since their merger with Prime Grill, and it is now an amazing experience, instead of just pointlessly expensive.

This post is composed of Debbie's Livejournal description, coupled with my long addition in the comments section.

Debbie's post:

Tonight, [info]jonbaker took me to Solo, which is a fine-dining kosher restaurant on 5th Avenue, with Hung from Top Chef at the helm.

It was LOVELY. The bread came with a humous spread - sun-dried tomatoes, paprika and garlic mixed in. We both had appetizers - Jonathan had grilled eggplant salad with microgreens and tiny tomatoes. I had salmon carpaccio dressed with soy and wasabi, with microgreens in a nice vinaigrette including jalopenos and avocado, plus parsnip chips. It was perfectly balanced between the spicy and the creamy, the smooth and the crunchy.

For mains, Jonathan had a chicken rice clay pot with yu choy (a green) and enoki (a vegetable). It was rich and gingery with caramelized soy sauce. I had short ribs braised in plum and beer with mashed potatoes and turnip puree, and crispy shallots. It was rich and sweet and falling-apart tender. And then we had dessert. I normally do NOT get dessert, but this time - well, on the dessert menu was a list of ice creams and sorbets, and one of the sorbets was papaya-szechuan pepper. There was no way I could resist. It came as three scoops, which could be taken all in one flavor or mixed. I decided to mix - the papaya-szechan pepper, mango-lime and vanilla. That last was an ice "cream." The waiter approved. And then my silly husband told him it was my birthday. So not only did we get the nice dish of ice cream and our espressos, but also a tiny pice of cake with a lit candle and a cookie (a nice, crisp delicate toile) with happy birthday in chocolate syrup.

The ice creams were so amazingly yummy - the vanilla was intense and I couldn't tell it was non-dairy, the mango-lime was nicely balanced, and the papaya-pepper was AMAZING. Sweet, cold, hot and spicy at the same time - it made my mouth very happy. It also went well with the vanilla and the mango.

It was the best meal out ever.

My addition:

The chicken/rice was not the usual Chinese dish, but interesting.

The waiters show up with the pot on a plate (small covered casserole), warns "extremely hot, don't touch", and takes the cover off with a napkin. Second waiter pours a measured amount of sauce (mostly soy) over the chicken and rice, then stirs the whole thing.

First bite of chicken, an explosion of ginger. But the ginger didn't permeate the rice. The remaining pieces of chicken were gingery, and felt like they were covered with a chinese white ginger sauce.

The rice was for the most part wetter/creamier than I think of Chinese rice, and had these things like vermicelli noodles mixed in. But the noodles were the finely julienned "enoki". Not much flavor, but texture felt like vermicelli - sorta rubbery noodles, but when you bite down, you feel the longitudinal plant fibers. Yu choy was somewhere between broccoli rabe and bok choy. Broccoli-shaped pieces with leafy, not flowery ends, with a bok-choy-like flavor.

As I got towards the bottom, I noticed a thin burned layer on the bottom, which was full of flavor from the soy sauce, and didn't actually taste burnt. I think the pot was so hot, that when they poured in the sauce, it ran to the bottom and caramelized on the hot surface.

I encouraged Debbie to have some dessert, so I could have an excuse to ask the waiters to do the birthday thing. Debbie was modestly saying she didn't want the minor birthday fuss, but secretly she did want it, so getting the dessert made an excuse. You can get warm chocolate cake or apple crisp at all these places. She had her eye on some house special dessert, but I thought it looked way sweetsier than she would like. So she looked at the sorbets - she likes sour, and hot mixed with sweet, so the papaya-sichuan-pepper thing called to her. I had the sorbets as well, we both kept taking tiny spoon-dips, and they were terrific. Mixing the fruit flavors with the vanilla made for the most terrific Creamsicle-like flavor.

Dinner that's a sensory delight as well as delicious and nutritious, waiter service that's heavy without being overbearing (lots of guys, but not pestering us too much, and in the case of the chicken dish, having two guys to prepare it at the table made it that much more impressive), and a mostly pleasant ambience (a bit loud, and there was some annoying percussion coming through the PA, and they seated us near the kitchen/service area - but even that was fascinating for Debbie the budding chef), made for a lovely evening, and one of our top three restaurant experiences.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chatan Torah - Ateret Kehillah

Lincoln Square Synagogue started a "new tradition" this year at Simchat Torah. After decades of having three chatanim chosen from the men of the community, and several more or less feminist rabbis, they finally decided to find a way to honor women of the community on Simchat Torah. Their solution: Ateret HaKehillah / Ateret Torah, two new "honors" bestowed on women of the community at the nighttime Simchat Torah service.

My mother, Wendy Baker, (naturally) was one of the first women so chosen, to be Ateret HaKehillah, as she has been "the chesed lady" since Rabbi Berman's tenure in the mid-1980s. She has run weekly food recycling efforts, three food drives and two clothing drives each year, recycling tons of food and clothing each year, recruiting volunteers from the synagogue and its teens (who need chesed-work credits for school), drivers and shleppers two evenings a week, etc. She was also one of the founding members of the LSS Women's Davening Group, the first ongoing WTG ever, and has served on both its board and the shul board. She spends several hours a week learning at Drisha and at the shul's classes. At her summer C-nagogue, she has taught parsha and pirke avot classes, served on the board, and has done as much as possible to encourage halachic observance and traditional prayer. All in all someone who has really done what she can for herself, her communities and God.

For the occasion, she stood up while the rabbi explained her accomplishments. Cantor Goffin composed a poem, in the spirit of the Reshuyot (flowery summons to the Torah) for the Chatanim, based on verses and Rabbinic statements. He sang it to the traditional tune for the Reshuyot, a "Missinai" tune that we also use for the Holiday evening kiddush. The poem for the event was also presented (framed, on nice paper) to my mother as a plaque. The honorees then co-sponsored a kiddush/lunch for the congregation, as is also traditional for the chatanim.

My mother was thrilled, despite my ill-considered attempts to harsh her squee (as my wife might say). I mean, it's a new thing, and interesting to honor women in parallel with the chatanim, but she was using terms like "historic" and "groundbreaking" to describe it, and I just don't see it that way. Shuls honor women at dinners, in newsletters, etc. all the time. But putting it in as part of the service, with a (homemade) liturgy, I think before the Atah Horeisas, makes it more than just yet another announcement, or something done outside the context of the sanctuary.

I posted my mother's part with her permission, but didn't post the other woman's part. If there's interest, I'll scan and post that as well.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Authentic Pnimiyus Hatorah - not

This started as a response to the ongoing thread on parshablog reacting to my earlier post. It got a bit long for a comment box, so I'm moving it here.

In terms of pnimiyus (inwardness, secret meaning of) haTorah - we don't have any of it authentically, it has been reconstituted several times through history, and who are you to decide it's avoda zara?

As another poster noted, we don't have the Biblical nister, it wasn't written down. What other nistarot (hidden wisdoms) have we had?
  • The postbiblical period had something like occultism - see the books of Enoch or Jubilees or whatever. That morphed into:
  • Heichalot mysticism, loosely based on Ezek. 1. Heichalot mysticism ceased to work around the time of the Churban, and was finally given up in the early middle ages. Rambam in Guide III says that the old nister is lost, so he'll create a new:
  • philosophical nister, based on what he learned from his teachers. Meanwhile, in France and northern Spain,
  • Kabbalah was developing, in the sense of 10x4 or 5 mysticisms. (sefirot, olamot, partzufim).
  • Then it was resystematized/remapped in the 1500s by the Ari and his circle.
  • Then it was redigested/remapped by the Chasidim in the late 1700s.

We are so far removed from anything "authentic" that we have nothing.

So if something a) fits the facts of halacha, with only minor k'neitching, and b) fits the basics of Jewish belief, why shouldn't it work? be allowed?

It seems that people want there to be a pnimiyus haTorah, even if the hoi polloi don't grasp all the details. They have their folk religion to fill in the gaps between practice and law, between life and ideals. Angels and demons fill in the gaps between the ineffable God and the mundane world.

Superstition may be distasteful to those of us raised on Mod-O philosophism, but it was real to many of our grandparents and great-grandparents, not to mention the Chasidim (see Lis Harris' book) and my non-religious sister (raised in large part by a semi-traditionalist superstitious grandmother).

People need something to put meat on the bones of halacha. I think midrash tried to do that, and worked for a long time, but by the middle ages it faded, or morphed (via late midrashim like TDBE) into kabbalism.

I've got a lot of inchoate thoughts on spirituality and religion, and need some work to put them into order.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Catholics and Jews and Freemasons, oh my

R' Gil Student has long had friendly relations with the Catholic magazine "First Things," which discusses a lot of general religious issues in a fairly open way. He recently published an essay with them, which appeared in a column called "On the Square."

I find it interesting that a Catholic magazine uses "On the Square" as the title of a regular column. "On the square," like "on the level," is a Masonic expression, meaning someone who is trustworthy. But the Catholics have always been opposed to the Freemasons, not least because of their secrecy - who knows what antireligious, especially antiCatholic, things are going in their lodges?

ObJewish: OTOH, I know plenty of Jewish, even some Orthodox, Freemasons, some having been so for several generations. My father amu"sh was raised (admitted to the third degree) by his father a"h, although my father more or less dropped out after the 1950s.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Yom Kippur Kiddush

(N.B., I am not a rabbi, this is a theoretical construct, since odds are, it's not even said even in extremis, for which see below):

Never heard of such a thing? Well, good. Please God, we won’t have to use such a thing ad bias hagoel. The question only really comes up in context of extreme illness, where one really has to eat a normal diet (for those who even approve of this; most say you have to eat funny small amounts, widely spaced, rather than regular meals), or as in the famous story of R’ Yisrael Salanter, where the city is under threat of a plague and the local rabbi orders people to eat, so as to keep their strength up and not succumb to the plague. Only in such circumstances, it seems to me, would there even be a question of “do I say Kiddush over a Yom Kippur meal?”

Is there even an obligation of Kiddush in such a situation? Probably not. It depends whether the “takkanah of Kiddush” extends to Yom Kippur. On the one hand, it’s a holiday, and partakes of the holiness of Shabbat, so perhaps the Shabbat/Yom Tov obligation of Kiddush extends over to Yom Kippur. On the other hand, the takkanah, rabbinic decree, to say Kiddush only applies in situations where it is normal to eat a meal, i.e., not Yom Kippur. Perhas the doubt whether or not it’s even relevant to Yom Kippur creates a situation where “doubt in a rabbinic matter (which most blessings are) leads to a lenient ruling”, i.e., don’t say Kiddush, being lenient in the laws of blessings.

However, if one really were to say a Yom Kippur Kiddush, what would it look like? I’d like to present a possible reconstruction, based on the structure of the Yom Tov Kiddush, and based on the difference between Yom Tov and Rosh Hashanah kiddushes, and how they reflect the Amidahs of their respective days.

The opening would be the same, as it is always drawn from the first two paragraphs of the central blessing of the Yom Tov or Rosh Hashanah amidah, with suitable change for Yom Kippur:

Baruch attah H’ elokeinu melech ha-olam [standard blessing form]

Asher bachar banu micol am, vermomamtanu micol lashon, vekidshanu bemitzvotav.

Vatiten lanu H’ Elokenu b’ahavah, moadim lesimchah chagim uzmanim lesasson

Et yom hakipurim hazeh. [so far, like Yom Tov and Rosh Hashanah, based on the Amidah]

[long attempt to derive a conclusion to Vatiten Lanu deleted]

(facepalm) as soon as I started davening, I realized the obvious, I should just transplant Vatiten Lanu directly into the kiddush, with the long characterization of Yom Kippur intact. So:

L'selicha vel'mechila ul'kapara, velimchol vo et col avonoteinu,

Mikra kodesh, zeicher liytziat mitzraim.

Ki vanu vacharta v’otanu kidashta, micol ha’amim [standard in all Yom Tov kiddushes]

Now we come to the interesting question – the next phrase.

Here is Yom Tov Amidah from Vetaher Libeinu:

. וְטַהֵר לִבֵּנוּ לְעָבְדְּךָ בֶּאֱמֶת. וְהַנְחִילֵנוּ יְדוָד אֱלֹהֵינוּ. בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְשָׂשׂוֹן. מוֹעֲדֵי קָדְשֶׁךָ וְיִשְׂמְחוּ בְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל מְקַדְּשֵׁי שְׁמֶךָ:

And Kiddush:

וּמוֹעֲדֵי קָדְשֶׁךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְשָׂשׂוֹן הִנְחַלְתָּנוּ:

Rosh Hashanah Amidah:

וְטַהֵר לִבֵּנוּ לְעָבְדְּךָ בֶּאֱמֶת, כִּי אַתָּה אֱלֹהִים אֱמֶת וּדְבָרְךָ אֱמֶת וְקַיָּם לָעַד

And Rosh Hashanah Kiddush:

וּדְבָרְךָ אֱמֶת וְקַיָּם לָעַד

Yom Kippur Amidah:

וְטַהֵר לִבֵּנוּ לְעָבְדְּךָ בֶּאֱמֶת, כִּי אַתָּה סָלְחָן לְיִשְׂרָאֵל וּמָחֳלָן לְשִׁבְטֵי יְשֻׁרוּן בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר וּמִבַּלְעָדֶיךָ אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ מוֹחֵל וְסוֹלֵחַ

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְדוָד מֶלֶךְ מוֹחֵל וְסוֹלֵחַ לַעֲוֹנוֹתֵינוּ וְלַעֲוֹנוֹת עַמּוֹ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמַעֲבִיר אַשְׁמוֹתֵינוּ בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה, מֶלֶךְ עַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ מְקַדֵּשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים:

I brought in the closing beracha, because that will become necessary – the closing beracha is similar in the Amidah and Kiddush for each of Yom Tov and Rosh Hashanah.

What pattern do we notice? After Vetaher libeinu l’avdecha b’emet, there are two clauses introducing the final Beracha, joined with “u”. In Yom Tov, the whole phrase is somewhat shuffled and shortened for Kiddush, while on Rosh Hashanah, the second clause is taken verbatim. Rosh Hashanah matches most closely, in that the first clause begins with “ki” and the second with “u” for both it and Yom Kippur. So let’s take that as our paradigm, and use the second clause from Yom Kippur:

Mibal’adecha ein lanu melech mocheil vesolei’ach

Which nicely captures the essence of what we’re praying for all day on Yom Kippur.

Finally, the closing beracha, taken from the closing phrase of the bracha in the Amidah:

Baruch atah H’, mekadesh yisra’el v’yom hakipurim.

So, to bring it all together,

Baruch attah H’ elokeinu melech ha-olam

Asher bachar banu micol am, vermomamtanu micol lashon, vekidshanu bemitzvotav.

Vatiten lanu H’ Elokenu b’ahavah, moadim lesimchah chagim uzmanim lesasson

Et yom hakipurim hazeh.

L'selicha vel'mechila ul'kapara, velimchol vo et col avonoteinu,

Mikra kodesh, zeicher liytziat mitzraim.

Ki vanu vacharta v’otanu kidashta, micol ha’amim

Mibal’adecha ein lanu melech mocheil vesolei’ach

Baruch atah H’, mekadesh yisra’el v’yom hakipurim.

Has anyone actually seen a Yom Kippur Kiddush, and would they know its provenance?

Gemar chatimah tovah, and may next (well, there isn’t time to train and isolate a Kohen Gadol for this one) Yom haKippurim truly be a Yom Ke’Purim, attending with Moshiach (well, he won’t be a kohen, will he? He’ll be attending like the rest of us) at the Beit haMikdash in the final redemption, bb”a.


Updated motzi Yom Tov: corrected Vatiten Lanu.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Where's the 'Snag Kabbalah?

I went into my neighborhood seforim shop (in Flatbush, we have neighborhood seforim shops, it's the B&N that necessitates a big trip "out of town") to peruse the new translation (by R' Avraham Yaakov Finkel, noted translator of short books for school fundraisers) of the Nefesh haChaim, the central expression of Misnagdish Torah philosophy by the founder of the Lithuanian Yeshiva Movement, R' Chaim Volozhin.

It looked rather small for a book whose modern editions tend to be fairly large and thick. I started flipping through the back and saw that the entire text was included in Hebrew in the back. Whoops - filler! How much actual English text is there? Not a lot, and the print isn't even that small.

Why is that? There was a note from the author at the beginning, that he had not translated the kabbalistic material. Huh?

One of the big strengths of the Nefesh haChaim is that it speaks in the same kabbalistic idiom as the Chassidic books. It was addressing the same early-19th-century audience, and making a case for the primacy of Torah study over other non-prayer activities. I've even seen some of the same imagery in both R' Chaim's writings and in the writings of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe - that the mitzvos are a rope between ourselves and God, strands being severed by sins. By cutting out the Kabbalah, R' Finkel has cut the meat off the bones of the Father of Yeshivos, leaving his work a poor meal indeed.

Note, I haven't extensively studied the Nefesh haChaim, so it will wait for someone more knowledgeable to write a proper review. I'm just talking about the form; the substance needs deeper appreciation.

But what about Kabbalah for Misnagdim? Following the publication of the works of the Ari, Kabbalah spread throughout the Jewish world, supplanting the pure intellectualism of post-Maimonidean philosophy. This led to the Sabbatean disaster, and in an effort to root out secret conventicles of Sabbateans, different communities had different approaches. The Sephardim, I don't know, there was some strong opposition, but did secret Sabbateans continue much among them? The Ashkenazim were plagued with them throughout the 18th century. Two distinct approaches developed:

The Chasidim gave a quasi-messianic role to their Tzaddikim, their Rebbes. Not that "every Chasid thinks his Rebbe is Moshiach", which is a canard put forth by some Lubavitchers to justify their continuing belief that their late Rebbe is/was [a suitable candidate for] Moshiach. Rather, they believe (see, e.g., Beis Aharon by R' Aharon of Karlin) that the soul of Moshiach is distributed among all Jews, with Tzaddikim having a somewhat higher proportion of that soul.

The Misnagdim outlawed Kabbalah. This continues to this day. Until the end of the 18th century, the major rabbinic figures in the Ashkenazic world were almost all Kabbalists, and thought of their Judaism to some extent through its filters. Some of the greatest wrote amulets for the common folk, who believed wholeheartedly in the Kabbalah. It's clear that the general run of educated Jews in that time knew Kabbalah, because the Chasidic writings for them are all written in Kabbalistic idiom. But after the founding of the yeshiva at Volozhin, Kabbalah was taken out of the yeshiva curriculum. So today, Misnagdim don't know Kabbalah. And there are no more Misnagdish Sabbateans, nor are there messianic obsessions such as arose over the last Lubavitcher Rebbe.

However, the Chasidim and Sephardim still deal in Kabbalah. Only kooks and entrepreneurs (such as the Bergs and lehavdil R' Aryeh bar Tzadok) seem to be truly involved in Kabbalah in the yeshivish and modernish world. More and more kabbalah is becoming available, even in English, but it's still frowned upon. The closest one gets is an underground shiur in Tanya at major yeshivos, such as Philadelphia or Ner Israel. Even at YU, the "intro to Kabbalah" is taught in the college and the graduate school, not in the yeshiva.

Hence this edition of the Nefesh haChaim, and both English translations of the Ramban's commentary on the Torah, have excised all Kabbalistic material, even though that's a lot of the meat of the writers' material.

The Sabbateans have been gone for 200 years in western Orthodoxy. Is it perhaps time for the yeshivish world to rejoin the rest of Judaism, and expose its practitioners to Kabbalah in some organized, controlled way?

Monday, September 14, 2009

12x Authentic Judaism

R' Sokol this week (Nitzavim/Vayelech) explored some of the midrashim about the death of Moshe Rabbeinu. One that stood out for me was the idea that Moshe, before he died, wrote 13 sifrei Torah, one to be deposited in the Mishkan as a textual reference of last resort, and 12 to be distributed to the 12 tribes. He reads this as giving two messages.

1) Writing a final reference Torah indicates the closing of the Pentateuchal canon. This is it, this is the Law, there will never be another, it will not be replaced, added to or deleted from. There will be no new Testament of God's Revelation and Will. [Hear that, kabbalists, chasidim and other adherents of Continuous Revelation? -jjb].

On the other hand,

2) Giving each tribe its own Torah acknowledges that each tribe reads the Torah in its own way. There are at least 12 ways to understand the Torah, and to develop an authentic Judaism therefrom.

So we have two almost contradictory positions, but since they are the act of one man, they are connected. There is room for different communities within the Torah world: Ashkenazic and Sephardic and Edot Hamizrach, Modern and Yeshivish and Chareidi, German and Eastern European. They are all Authentic Judaisms. But in the end, there is still the reference Torah in the Mishkan or Temple, the one that sets limits for what constitutes an Authentic Judaism.

I asked R' Sokol if he had been reading the JBlogosphere, since this idea sounds like a direct reaction to the flap that was reflected on Hirhurim and elsewhere, in reaction to a blog reflecting a particularly nasty, derogatory-of-the-Other strain of yeshivish though. He said he hadn't. Still, it's quite timely.

Friday, September 11, 2009

High Holidays Tunes and Tradition

MUSICAL NOTE by Cantor Sherwood Goffin
The Musical Liturgy of the High Holidays

This Saturday night we begin to say Selichot, the Penitential Prayers that will be recited every weekday morning until Yom Kippur, the day that is in itself based on the Selichot liturgy. Every Selichot service begins with the quintessential Kaddish that we will hear once again before the recitation of Musaf, both on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

This Kaddish is one of more than 53 sanctified melodies known as "MiSinai" melodies, the majority of which have existed since before the time of the Maharil, Chief Rabbi of the Rhineland (1360-1427 CE), who declared them Holy and unchangeably fixed. These melodies of the High Holiday period set the tone for our prayers and infuse them with the ethereal and inspirational atmosphere that raises the emotional level of our Tefilla to the "high" to which we look forward each year. It is on the wings of these songs that our prayers for a good year are carried on high to Avinu Shebashamayim.

For those in the Main Synagogue who are davening with me, I pray that I will be worthy to be your messenger to plead for G-d's blessings of a good and healthy year for all of us and our families. I look forward to davening with you.

Batya and I wish all of our LSS family a Shana Tova!


Two classic albums, on one double CD!

Neshomo (1972) & Mimkomo (1974)

Only $14.95 (free shipping)!

Available through LSS Office, or directly from the Chaz

To hear sample clips, visit

Monday, August 10, 2009

Home for Serious Jews

[Modern] Orthodoxy.

So many of the children and descendants of the leaders of the heterodox movements have found a home in Modern Orthodoxy. Is it that they've become Baalei Teshuvah, or is it that Conservative and Reform have become inhospitable places for people serious about their Judaism?

In 18th-century Germany, intellectual rabbis watched their children leave the faith, possibly becoming Reform etc., but today the pendulum swings back, and we see some children of Conservative and Reform rabbis moving into Modern Orthodoxy.

Mind you, I'm not talking about BTs, who will generally move into whatever variety of Orthodoxy made them more religious. I'm talking about Jews who are Serious Jews, which to my mind, coming from a heterodox thinker like Prager, means Jews who are serious about halacha and hashkafa who come from within the heterodox movements, and want to live up to the more observant varieties of the movements.

One can be Conservative and fully observant; in fact, it is a Conservative ideal - to follow the Shulchan Aruch as modified by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. 99.99% the same as Orthodox observance. One can be Reform and fully observant - if one's autonomous position is that full observance is necessary to one's Judaism. It goes without saying that Jews raised Orthodox and continuing so, are Serious (leaving aside the phenomena of MO-Lite and Charedi-Lite).

So why move to Modern Orthodoxy?

Perhaps it's because, as both Reform and Conservative move to more and more liberal positions, the only place for Serious Jews is Modern Orthodoxy. Dennis Prager coined the term over 20 years ago. He summarizes it in "Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism:" "A serious Jew takes Jewish law seriously. It, along with ethical monotheism, is Judaism's greatest achievement, and its observance is the only insurance of Jewish survival." The children of even heterodox rabbis tend to be serious Jews. By the same token, though, they tend to be college-educated, perhaps professionals, certainly involved in the secular work world. So Modern Orthodoxy would be the most likely fit.

- An old childhood friend, whose father was a Reform ordinee with a Conservative synagogue, found himself in Modern Orthodoxy, at LSS and now in Westchester.

- A daughter of the former head of JTSA, davened with us regularly at the Orthodox synagogue in Park Slope.

- A great-grandson of R' Mordechai Kaplan went to Ramaz and davened at LSS, and is still modern Orthodox in his new home (where he has been since college).

- And in Sunday's NY Times, the daughter of R' Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism for the past several years, married another Jewish fellow, with an Orthodox rabbi, in West Orange NJ, a Modern Orthodox stronghold. They're solidly in the world - Yale, Harvard and Princeton, he a lawyer, she a professor to be.

These people were all raised as Serious Jews in the heterodox movements, but can no longer find a home as a Serious Jew in them, outside the rabbinate. So they come to Modern Orthodoxy. My cousin & his wife, she a Conservative rabbi - they're completely shomer mitzvot, AFAIK, she dresses modestly, they keep Shabbos, don't travel on Shabbos, etc. But they go to a modern Orthodox synagogue, because Conservative isn't really a good fit for a Serious Jew any more. Sad, but true.

UPDATED: clarify who I class as "Serious Jews".

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wherefore art thou, Yerushalayim?

R' Alan asked*, wherefore do we say Yerushalayim? Is it not spelled Yerushaleim?

Mr' Jonathan responded, hie thee to Google, and ye shall find.

In summary, Urusalim is attested as far back as the 19th century BCE, and repeatedly in the El-Amarna letters in the 14th century BCE. For reference, Avraham Avinu was born in the 18th century BCE, encountered Malchitzedek King of Shaleim (which is today called Jerusalem) in the 17th century, and the Exodus was in the 13th century.

Why the dual form Yerushalayim? In short, nobody knows. It was a choice of the Masoretes, so it was comparatively late (early Middle Ages), and we don't know why they did it. Perhaps it was a reference to the two cities: the old one below Har haMoriah, and the new one built to the north and west, approximately where the current "Old City" is today on Har Tzion.

* on another list.

Alternate Nacheims

For those who might feel motivated to use an "alternate Nacheim" this afternoon, on the grounds that talking about a desolate Jerusalem and Israel are no longer appropriate after 1948 and 1967, here are the two main options.

תפילת נחם

רחם ה' אלוהינו ברחמיך הרבים ובחסדיך הנאמנים

עלינו ועל עמך ישראל

ועל ירושלים עירך, הנבנית מחורבנה,

המקוממת מהריסותיה והמיושבת משוממותה.

על חסידי עליון שנהרגו בזדון

ועל עמך ישראל שהוטל לחרב.

ועל בניה אשר מסרו נפשם ושפכו דמם עליה

ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה,

לבי לבי על חלליהם מעי מעי על חלליהם.

והעיר אשר פדית מידי עריצים ולגיונות

ולישראל עמך נתת נחלה ולזרע ישורון ירשה הורשת

נטה עליה סכת שלומך כנהר שלום

לקים מה שנאמר : ואני אהיה לה נאם ה'

חומת אש סביב ולכבוד בתוכה,

ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.

(פרופ' אפרים אלימלך אורבך:)

נוסח של הרב שלמה גורן לאחר מלחמת ו הימים

נחם, ד' אלוקינו, את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים ואת העיר האבלה, החרבה וההרוסה. ציון במר תבכה, וירושלים תתן קולה. לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעיי, מעיי על הרוגיהם. ולישראל עמך נתתה נחלה, ולזרע ישורון הורשתה. נערה, ד' אלוקינו, מעפרה, והקיצה מארץ דוויה, נטה אליה נהר שלום וכנחל שוטף כבוד גויים. כי אתה ד' באש הצתה ובאש אתה עתיד לבנותה, כאמור: "ואני אהיה לה נאום ד', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה". (זכריה ב', ט(

[ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.]

Note that R' Yosef Ber Soloveitchik zt"l and yblcht"a R' Ovadia Yosef are both opposed to changing the nusach, on the basis of it being written by the Men of the Great Assembly and thus inspired, and on the basis of Jerusalem still being largely not occupied by Jews, and the Temple Mount still home to two large mosques. Against the first argument, one could say that there are several different nuscha'ot already, so what's wrong with adapting to changed circumstances, as long as the main elements remain? Against the second argument, not much can be said.

R' Chaim David Halevi proposes a compromise: just add "שהיתה" before the words of destruction: העיר שהיתה אבילה...

See Hirhurim from a couple of years ago for halachic references. R' Goren's Nachem was originally published in the IDF Siddur, and Prof. Urbach's was promulgated by Kvutzat Yavneh.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Altar: Before and After

On the one hand, we have Deuteronomy promising us that the Altar (and thus the Temple) will be "in the place that will be chosen [by God]". On the other hand, the Rambam tells us, in the Laws of the Temple 2:1, that the location of the Altar is very intentional (mechaven beyoter), and that it never changes, for which the prooftext is that the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac) was performed in the land of Moriah, and that the Temple was built on Mount Moriah. So which is it? Is Moriah no more or less important than any other location that could have been chosen (which is the simple meaning of the verses), or is it predestined to be the location of the Altar, as seems to be implied by the Binding of Isaac, and countless other stories of offerings made there: Adam, and Cain and Abel, and Jacob's dream, etc.?

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe makes a diyuk (close reading) in the Rambam that resolves the question. When Rambam says "it never changes location," he's literally saying "we never change its location". That is, as long as it was not chosen, it wasn't special, but once God chose it, it became permanently holy and its location cannot change from then on. So what about all the ancestors who used the location for offerings? They knew, through prophecy, that this location would be chosen for the Altar, so they figured it was a propitious location for themselves. Thus, causality is preserved.

This demonstrates an important theological point, one that the late Rebbe probably would not have agreed with, as it doesn't proceed from a Lubavitch panentheism.

This understanding of Rambam demonstrates that God is outside of time (and space). For God, all of Time is an instant, simultaneous. For us, time is linear. We experience events one after the other, and only memory (for most of us) and prophecy (for the very rare few) allow us to see beyond the now.

Consider God as a line, and the universe as a circle. God chooses the place of the Altar in His timeless moment, the eternal Now. The universe is a wheel rolling along the line. C. some date around 970 BCE, God chooses Mt Moriah as the site of the Temple and Altar. At that point in time, some point on the wheel is tangent to the line of timeless time. That point of tangent contact is what we experience as the moment of choice. But that choice reverberates up and down the circumference of the wheel, enabling prophets to pick up on it.

So yes, the Place is chosen once in Time. But prophets, attuned to the vibrations of the Universe and God's effect thereon, pick up on that moment of choice ahead of time, and realize that this is an auspicious place to make offerings. God, outside of Time, affects all of us in Time by His choice, and His Prophets up and down the line. Causality, from our perspective is preserved, yet the prooftexts are also true - that the place was used in the past for offerings, yet that fact did not cause the place to be chosen.

May the chosen moment of our final Redemption be felt speedily in our days.

(P.S.: pls excuse the railfan metaphor)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Shomer Shabbos Skip

Seen on 32nd St. between 6th and 7th Avenues, in Manhattan, end of June 2009

This dumpster collects trash, but never on Shabbos!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Enemy Within

In the wake of the new Star Trek movie, I've been watching some of the old series episodes, available through CBS' website. Yesterday I saw "The Enemy Within", where a transporter accident causes Kirk to split into a "good Kirk" and "bad Kirk".

Well, they start out talking about the good Kirk and bad Kirk, but further qualify it as the intellect vs. the emotions, or perhaps the superego vs. the id. Neither side can exist long-term without the other. The intellectual, compassionate side cannot command a starship without the drive, the ambition, the will to do what must be done even if it will cause pain or difficulty. Much of the show is devoted to showing the two sides, and trying to find a way to reintegrate them before the two split halves die.

Debbie sees it as the Yetzer haTov (will to do good for others) and the Yetzer ha-Ra, (will to do evil by gratifying selfish urges) both of which are necessary for a person to live. She further believes that all have an exact balance of Yetzer haTov and Yetzer ha-Ra. We talk of one yetzer or another being stronger, but if you look at the totality of Jewish literature, it seems that the two are in exact balance. Those who are great personalities, such as Yaakov or David or Shlomo, certainly have great Yetzer haTov, given how they live their lives devoted to greatness in God's name. However, they all are tested by an equally huge Yetzer ha-Ra.

David, with Batsheva, Shlomo with his wives and idolatry, Yaakov with Lavan and Esav, and all are found wanting in Rabbinic literature in the way they meet these challenges. While we are to say that "they did not sin", still, as David told his prophet Nathan, their actions are not uncensured or uncensurable. David did not technically sin, but he was greatly tempted and gave in to temptation.

Yaakov in dealing with Esav has to descend to trickery to ensure he gets the proper blessing, but is in turn tricked by Lavan repeatedly, and his life is made miserable as he is tricked by Lavan, tricked by his children, etc. He was blessed in that all his children, unlike his father and grandfather before him, went in the way of Torah - he was the only sole father of our nation. But he was also punished for his negative acts.

If one is granted a great Yetzer ha-Tov, internal drive to do good, one is also tested by a massive Yetzer-haRa, internal drive to slip up, do the wrong thing. In this, as in many things, there is and must be a perfect balance for the person to be a true servant of God, to have the power to choose rightly, and be rewarded by greatness, even if that is accompanied by the power to choose wrongly.

(updated: changed translation of YhT and YhR)

Friday, May 15, 2009

One for the Diqduq Geeqs

by Cantor Sherwood Goffin

Kamatz Katan in
Reading the Siddur and Chumash

For those of us who pronounce our Hebrew with the Sephardic pronunciation, that is : "..NoTain Hatorah," rather than the Ashkenazic "..NoSain Hatoraw," we have to be very careful to correctly read the kamatz katan. This is especially true when serving as the Shaliach Tzibbur or when reading the Torah in public. If it is read incorrectly, your reading may be invalid! This rule of grammar changes the kamatz (T-shaped vowel) from the sephardic "Ah" to "aw." The most obvious example is the word "Kol," that if read carefully might seem to be "Kawl." This word, however, most people know intuitively: "Asher bachar banu miKAWL..."even though it looks like it should be pronouced "Kal." The rule for Kamatz Katan is complicated and I will not therefore burden you with most of the rules, but there are three rules that are easier to identify:

1) When two kamatzes are together, and the second has a chataf (:), the second one is pronounced as an "aw," as in "tsahoraim".(Some do this for both).

2) When a word originally had a cholam ("oh") such as Kodesh, and is now written with a kamatz ("ah"), it is pronounced "kawdshecha," even though it looks like "Kadshecha."

3) Kamatz katan never appears on an accented syllable.

Other examples are: "Ug'dol" in Ashrei, "Ozi" in Az Yashir, "Uv'shochb'cha" in Sh'ma, "Choneinu" and "V'Onyeinu" in the Shmoneh Esray, and many, many others. The only cure (besides learning all the rules) is to get a Rinat Yisrael Siddur, where all the kamatz katans are highlighted in bold. A reader in Sephardit who doesn't know the rules MUST daven from this siddur - minimally when serving as Shaliach Tsibbur (Chazzan). The same is true, of course for Torah Readers who should refer to the "Simanim" tikkun or the new "Kestenbaum" tikkun by Artscroll when preparing a reading. It's not easy, but you show respect for Davening and Laining when you are careful about this rule. It is clearly wrong to do otherwise.


© 2009 Sherwood Goffin and Lincoln Square Synagogue