Friday, March 12, 2010

Go'al Yisra'el Quandary

A special 4-part series (combined) from Cantor Sherwood Goffin:

MUSICAL NOTE by Cantor Sherwood Goffin

It is common to hear a Shliach Tsibbur ending the bracha of Go’al Yisrael in a whisper. Yet, as your Chazzan, I do not do so. What is the rule and why are there different ways to recite this? The practice of whispering is a relatively recent innovation. Prior to modern times, every chazzan would always recite the entire Bracha of Go’al Yisrael out loud. In fact, there is NO valid custom of not audibly finishing a bracha. Where did this custom originate and why?

In the next few Notes paragraphs we will examine this phenomenon.

To begin with: In the Talmud (Brachot 42a) and reinforced in the Shulchan Aruch, there is a concept of “Semichat Geulah L’Tefillah.” That is, to link “redemption/Geulah” to tefillah/Amida – and to not interrupt the connection of the blessing of Go’al Yisrael to the Amida. The Talmud seems to treat this as simply a “nice thing” to do.

Rashi and Rabbeinu Yonah give varied philosophical reasons. I prefer the explanation of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966) of Montreux, the “Seridei Aish,” who explains that Go’al Yisrael relates to the past, and that the Amidah is a prayer for the future Redemption. He further states that “a future that is not rooted in the past is unsustainable.” Linking the two, however, seems to present a quandary, since we are required to answer Amen to every blessing that we hear, and saying Amen would constitute a problematic interruption. What are we to do?

[Two] The Mechaber of the Shulchan Aruch (Sfardic minhag) says, based on the Zohar, that one should NOT answer Amen to the blessing of Go’al Yisroel. At that point, the Rama (Ashkenazic minhag) states that Amen is part of the tefilla and MUST be recited. It is therefore apparent that in their day (early 16th century) the Chazzan always said the bracha out loud. Rabbi Ari Zivitofsky, who thoroughly researched this topic, could not find ANY early authorities who suggest that it is to be said silently, or in a whisper.

To further complicate matters, the Aruch Hashulchan (1829-1908) says, that while it is PERMISSABLE to answer Amen there, “the common practice is NOT to.” In Hungary and the Ukraine in the early 1800s, leading rabbis first began to write that the bracha should be said silently. In our times, the great American Lower East Side posek, Rabbi Yosef Henkin (d.1973), strongly condemned “this new custom” of reciting it silently.

Rabbi S. Neuberger, Menahel of Yeshivat Ner Israel, told me that Rav Henkin wrote in the journal “Pardes” that, if the chazzan neglects to say the beginning and end of EVERY bracha in the Birchot Kriat Shma, “he has failed to fulfill Tefillat Hatsibbur (The obligation of communal prayer).” The quandary remains: There those who still recite it softly, and others – such as your Chazzan - who recite it out loud. Which is correct?

[Three] Many contemporary poskim, such as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Wosner have written in favor of saying it out loud, saying that even if the bracha is said inaudibly, one must answer amen. Rav Wosner opposes ending it silently because "it is a slight against the honor of the bracha." Some famous recent halachic giants all insisted on saying the bracha out loud. These include Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Weinberg and Rabbi Dushinsky of Jerusalem. Other authorities have defended the practice of saying it silently - a practice "standard in the Lithuanian Yeshiva world."

Rabbi Ari Zivitofsky, writing in Jewish Action says, "All of these opinions indicate that throughout most of Jewish History, the chazzan recited the entire bracha of Go'al Yisroel aloud. Apparently, at some point in recent years, the practice of ... concluding Go'al Yisroel in a whisper came about. This practice appeals to many because it allows one to satisfy most halachic opinions." [Next], dear readers, I will give you the final opinion concerning this issue.

[Four] [At least half a dozen recent Ashkenazic authorities thus] insisted that the bracha of Go'al Yisroel be said out loud. It is also true that some Lithuanian authorities have defended the practice of saying it silently - a practice "standard in the Lithuanian Yeshiva world." It comes down to this: Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach writes (Halichot Shlomo) that the practice in the Gra Shul in Jerusalem was to end the bracha out loud. Since it is the minhag of Lincoln Square Synagogue generally to follow the customs of the Gra (The Vilna Gaon), it therefore appears to be very clear that this should be our LSS custom.

The only thing that we have to deal with is the opinion of the Rama - whose opinion we follow - that one should say "Amein" after hearing the bracha. Since that still seems to be controversial, let me make the following suggestion, if I may: The chazzan should say the last paragraph somewhat slower than the rest of the davening, so that the congregants can 1) catch up to him and say the bracha of Go'al Yisroel with him, or 2) start the Amida a bit ahead of his finishing the bracha. In both cases it would obviate saying "Amein," and thereby accommodate all opinions. However, if one is elsewhere in the prayers, and hears the bracha, if he is able to, he should answer "Amein," softly. This should please all viewpoints, and give LSS one custom to follow. Try it - and see how it works for you!


(c) Sherwood Goffin and Lincoln Square Synagogue, 2010

Part Three was dedicated "in loving memory of [Cantor Goffin's] student, Jonathan Spanbock."

Some paragraph transitions adjusted with square brackets.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Perception and Reality

My interlocutor (R Micha Berger) in the last thread was disappointed that I could not rise to the level of Beis Hillel, and understand where the other side is coming from, while still maintaining my position.

He seems further to want me to understand this without negative value judgments, such as "ignorant of science", "fool", "charlatan", "unwilling to admit the they're out of their depth", etc.

As it is, we only discussed one figure, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, for whom I had actually given a reasonable excuse for maintaining an idea, largely because the Rebbe's position is out in public for all to see, in English, and can thus be easily critiqued.

The Lubavitcher lays out his position in a letter from 1962, included in Carmell and Domb's book on the interaction of Torah & Science, "Challenge."

That letter was critiqued for flaws in logic and superficial readings of science, by Mark Perakh, here.

There is a reference to an earlier exchange on this topic from 1963, with a Dr. Velvl Greene, a biologist in Minnesota, who was in process of becoming a Lubavitcher, in which the Rebbe refutes the critique, but I don't know if or where the letters were published. Dr Greene himself does not appear to subscribe to the ideas in the Rebbe's 1962 letter, preferring an allegorical/mythological approach.

As I said in the previous post, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe may be excused for dismissing the evidence of an old universe, because part of the Lubavitch theology, is that the universe has no real existence separate from God, because God's infiinitude nullifies the finite universe next to it. They call this the "upper unity". They also maintain a "lower unity", which says that the universe is perceived to have real existence, but we know intellectually that it is all part of God.

To quote R' Norman Lamm, in "The Religious Thought of Hasidism," p. 50:

click on picture for larger image

That idea, it seems to me, undoes creation ex nihilo - if the physical universe is made of "God-stuff" rather than Sagan's "star-stuff", then the matter of which the universe is composed, even if it's "spiritual" matter, is as old and eternal as the rest of the Divine Essence. It's only the form of the Universe which was applied to this pre-existent "matter", to bring the Universe into existence. In view of this complete reordering of the understanding of the Universe, the question of old vs. young earth is battel, since both space and time, which Kant demonstrated had to really exist, don't really exist for Lubavitchers. We may experience them, and be commanded in certain behaviors while "existing", but space and time have no real existence.

This seems further related to the question of whether the "tzimtzum" was real or metaphorical. The major source discussing it, the Etz Chaim by R' Chaim Vital, which presents the teachings of the Arizal, is ambivalent. The Tzimtzum was the moment where God withdrew from the space in which the physical universe would be created, since two things (God and not-God) cannot occupy the same space.

From Etz Chaim, Shaar 1 section 2:

דע כי טרם שנאצלו הנאצלים ונבראו הנבראים היה אור עליון פשוט ממלא כל המציאות ולא היה שום מקום פנוי בבחי' אויר ריקני וחלל אלא הכל היה ממולא מן אור א"ס פשוט ההוא ולא היה לו בחי' ראש ולא בחי' סוף אלא הכל היה אור א' פשוט שוה בהשוואה א' והוא הנק' אור א"ס. וכאשר עלה ברצונו הפשוט לברוא העולמות ולהאציל הנאצלים להוציא לאור שלימות פעולותיו ושמותיו וכנוייו אשר זאת היה סיבה בריאת העולמות כמבואר אצלינו בענף הא' בחקירה הראשונה. והנה אז צמצם את עצמו א"ס בנקודה האמצעית אשר בו באמצע אורו ממש (אמר מאיר בערכינו אמר הרב זה וק"ל) וצמצם האור ההוא ונתרחק אל צדדי סביבות הנקודה האמצעית ואז נשאר מקום פנוי ואויר וחלל רקני מנקודה אמצעית ממש כזה

Is the tzimtzum in "atzmo" or in "oro"? Does it really create a "hollow, empty air/space"? Ambivalent.

The Lubavitchers believe the tzimtzum was metaphorical, that God did not remove Himself, because He is unchanging, but rather designated this space as a space of veils, where whatever bits of Himself were there, would not perceive that they were bits of God. Further, the Lubavitchers maintain that physical Tzimtzum is heretical.

The more common view is that the tzimtzum was real, that God created, as it were, a vacuole in Himself of finite size, in which the Universe could be created, presumably out of bits of God-stuff that were now separated from Him.

What troubles me more, is the apparently bad logic and poorly understood science, masquerading as a real response, that makes up the Rebbe's letter in 1962. That, and his position on geocentrism, which seems to be based on a confusion between perception and reality. That is, in reality the earth and sun revolve around a common center, with perturbations from the other planets. An exact formula may be hard to construct, because of the intractability of the n-body problem. Whereas relativity in terms of frames of reference, as the Rebbe cites it, is only about perception. Given the relative sizes and distances of the bodies, it is still approximately correct, within perhaps 1%, to say that the Earth revolves around the Sun in reality.

Evidently it bothers many people who read the 1962 letter, including the aforementioned Dr. Greene and Mr. Perakh. Now, perhaps the Rebbe felt it was useful in the case of his correspondent, I have no idea to whom he was writing. Perhaps it was better to write a letter which impressed the correspondent, even if a close reading reveals it to have serious problems, than to try to explain very high level spiritual concepts, ideas which, after years of (occasional) study, I'm just barely beginning to grasp. Perhaps this was the "Hashem's secret" that R' Berger referred to.

Perhaps I should just rest assured that others made the critique during the Rebbe's lifetime, and he had answers for the problems, which satisfied Dr Greene.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Theological Absurdities

In a private group communication, I had expressed my rejection of R' Avigdor Miller on the basis of having read a few pages of his book "Rejoice O Youth," at the recommendation of a Chasidic friend. R' Miller sets out to explain the young-earth anti-Darwin perspective as being the proper position for a Jew to hold. To do that, he says that you have to start from ground zero, assuming that scientists are insincere and lying.

Being related to many scientists, whose good-faith I take for granted regardless of their theology, and having some (minimal) science training, I was ready to throw the book across the room. But I just put it down (it not being mine), and decided I wasn't going to try R' Miller any more.

Someone responded that, to be fair, I should try to understand such positions, given that various major Talmidei Chachamim held them, such as R' Miller or the last Lubavitcher Rebbe.

I disagree. If Talmidei Chachomim held such positions, I have to believe it was based on one form or another of ignorance. Knowledge of Torah does not automatically confer expertise in non-Torah areas, nor does it confer the ability to judge among extra-Torah ideas. It does, however, confer a bias in favor of opinions expressed by other Torah scholars that may disagree with scholars in other fields, even where those opinions and fields may be orthogonal to Torah.

But a lot of these positions are absurd. They are logically inconsistent, and theologically difficult. We Jews don't say, Credo quia absurdum est, but we do say, the seal of God is Truth, which idea is derived from the final letters of bara Elokim et, the beginning of Creation. What God communicates to us, through Torah or the physical world, is Truth. And, as the Meiri and Rashi and other Rishonim say, if it's clear that the text cannot be literally true, there's still an allegorical Truth to it. Textual interpretation is malleable (up to a point); physical reality is real truth.

Young earth, the idea that the Universe is no more than 5770 (+162) years old, requires one to posit that not only are all scientists anti-religious liars, but that all science is wrong - even that which produces the life-saving medicine that cures your cellulitis infection, or strep infection, or metal poisoning, or which allows surgeons to stop your heart for some hours while they repair it, etc. It requires one to believe that God is lying to us through physical reality - that the Universe, that behaves as if it were older than 5800 years in factor after factor after factor, from radioisotopes to erosion to fossilization to species diversity, is a all a sham.

Now, for people who believe that the entire universe is just a figment of God's imagination, I can see that. One such system is the Lubavitch "upper unity", where all physical reality is just as much "God-stuff" as the soul or the Infinite Nothingness, but is masked (by itself) from being perceived by us (who are itself). But that way leads to logical absurdities too, in terms of "how do I know the universe wasn't created 5 minutes ago?" Answer: there's no way to tell, therefore, there's no evidence the Torah was ever given to us, and therefore Judaism is false from page one.

So I guess, to be charitable, we can attribute the Lubavitcher Rebbe's young-earthism to

1) a lack of scientific training (his engineering trade school, ESTP, today requires only one semester of physics, even less than I got and a lot less theologically problematic, at the undergrad level, than say biology or geology). I don't imagine he had even the equivalent of high-school biology in preparing himself for secular university studies.

2) a belief that the universe does not have real existence

3) faith in certain earlier sages, who knew even less about science than he did, but who adopted, unfortunately, an obscurantist approach to the new biology and geology of the 19th century. As opposed to, say, the Tiferes Yisroel, who managed to incorporate physical reality into his worldview.

Similarly, I had an encounter with R' Dr. J. Immanuel Schochet once, when he came to speak as a scholar-in-residence at my old synagogue in Park Slope. At the time, I was still trying to convince myself of the plausibility of a Divinely-originated (rather than human-originated) Oral Torah; I felt it was the last hurdle keeping me from calling myself "Orthodox."

I had been bothered by the argument that "the Oral Torah supports the authenticity of the Written Torah; the Written Torah supports the authenticity of the Oral Torah," and found an excuse to find out if he held that position. He did, and he and I argued fruitlessly for a while, my trying to get him to see that it was a circular argument, and in fact, he was just basing his belief on, well, belief. He could not see past his religious biases; his philosophic training (and philosophy almost always begins with Logic, be it from Aristotle or Quine) fell by the wayside in the face of a challenge to dogmatic Truth.

I'm not trying to davka pick on Lubavitch here, it's just that they put themselves and their beliefs up for public view and argumentation, in English, more than other groups.

So, like it or not, my most charitable, caf-zchus explanation for major Rabbinic figures believing things that seem absurd to me, is that they just don't know any better, and their priority being Torah, aren't actually all that interested, nor do they really have the time, to learn enough to know better.

R' Dr. Alan Brill, in one of his YU course tapes, notes that until the mid-19th century, when it became an issue for young-earth Christians, Torah scholars did not insist on a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2. In fact, he gave a whole catalogue of allegorical explanations, by various Rishonim and Acharonim, and noted that (following Rashi) NOBODY took it literally until then. So in effect, it seems to me, insistence on a young Earth might be chukos hagoyim, and inconsistent with our Mesorah. Similarly, R' Hershel Billet has no problem with the various modern reconciliations of physical reality and Genesis on the age of the Universe.

Now, science is not without its dogmas, its paradigms, its blind spots either, as Thomas Kuhn explained so well in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. But as evidence builds up for new theories, it is not totally inflexible. Given sufficient evidence, scientists will change their minds to fit the better perception of reality. And scientists do have their biases for or against religion, which will affect the way they think.

An evolutionary biologist of long acquaintance, who is inclined towards atheism, while admitting that current theories of evolution do not adequately explain the diversity of species, is willing to wait for a naturalistic answer to be found, while I might take a God-of-the-gaps position, and say that God is directing evolution to produce Man and sufficient biota to support him, at this particular moment in geologic time.

For me, the Grand Canyon is evidence of God's hand in an old Earth - that the Canyon, and humanity, each exist in an eyeblink of geologic time; but He placed both of us on the Earth at the same time, giving us the sense of beauty and awe to appreciate His handiwork on the large scale.