Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rabbi Zev Farber's "Crime" and religious hypocrisy

There are a lot of issues that need addressing, but moderation won't allow some of them to be addressed in the proper forum.

1) I see lots of people throwing around technical terms like "apikorus" "heretic" etc., but not actually defining them. Rambam in the 3rd chapter of Hilchot Teshuvah defines them.

a. Min = heretic.  i. no God, ii. no Divine Providence, iii. multiple gods; iv. corporealism; v. worships a created object as a god or as an intermediary to God.

Nope, don't see R' Farber falling into any of those. OTOH, one major division of contemporary Orthodoxy does fall afoul of the fifth definition.  Which division of contemporary Jews talk about a "ממוצע המחבר"?

b. Apikorus: i. no prophecy or other Divine communication with Man; ii. refutes the prophecy of Moses (ding ding! - if Moshe didn't exist, he was no prophet); iii. God does not pay attention to the actions of man (that's another contemporary rav's view).

c. Denier of Torah: i. says that one word or letter was written by Man without direction from God; ii. one who denies the Oral Torah like Tzadok and Boethius; iii. one who claims God has overturned any mitzvah.

So, R' Farber seems to fall afoul of being an apikoros by definition ii. I don't see him actually falling afoul of c.i - even the prophets were guided by God's "wave".  Certainly not c.ii - the Oral Torah is valid, whatever its origin.  The Sadducees denied the whole Oral Torah, process as well as details, preferring nevuah as a source of psak

2. Disavowing: this is a broader issue.  YCT via R' Helfgot and R' Katz speaking in the name of the school, disavows the ideas, but does not disavow the person.  Which is probably wise, and follows precedent.  Has anyone ever lost their smicha from RIETS for changes in personal ideology?  Has the RCA ever cast anyone out for it?  There was an attempt 20+ years ago to revoke R' Avi Weiss' membership in the RCA.  Ironically, given his later IRF/YCT leadership, R' Angel was head of the RCA trying to expel him, and they couldn't find it in their hearts (or the RCA constitution) to do so.

R' Gordimer, by the same token, doesn't have a leg to stand on.  He belongs to the RCA, which has not cast out Chabad.  Why is that relevant?  The situations are analogous.  Many in Chabad hold a view that the Rambam describes as heretical.  The central organization won't cast them out, because it would break up families including their own.  And the RCA won't condemn them and declare them a heretical movement for a) having them as members, b) tolerating them.  This is RD David Berger's "scandal of Orthodox indifference" all over again.  If the RCA won't reject Chabad (and really, for institutional reasons, they can't - it would traumatize the kashrus inspection business), why would R Gordimer think that YCT must be rejected for tolerating R' Farber?

3. R Gordimer and RYA go overboard in their criticisms.
a. I don’t see RZF denying the Oral Law one bit. Not even its divine origin – that remains, even though the Written Law’s origin is demoted to the same prophetic level.
b) RYA quotes a Gemara and Rashi saying that denying that resurrection is from the Torah makes one a kofer – but I don’t see RZF denying either resurrection or its origin. And I don’t think even the Mishnah requires that one see it as coming from the Torah. I’ve never understood this need for it to be sourced in the Torah, which Rashi and (for political reasons) Rambam demand – it’s not a mitzvah, which would have to be present in the Torah, it’s a prediction of future events, which the Neviim are full of. So what’s wrong with it being sourced in the Neviim, where it’s explicit?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Rabbi Zev Farber's Choice

Rabbi Zev Farber has caused quite the online tumult.  It remains to be seen whether this will remain a tempest in an online teapot, or spread to the larger Jewish world of press releases.

After rereading the long essay, and some of the attacks and defenses, and discussing this with others, I'm left feeling rather sad about the whole business.  Namely, that R' Farber has real concerns, but that he may not have been the person to express them, or that this may not have been the time to do so.

As it is, most of us laypersons are being presented with a choice as to what should be an Orthodox approach to the textual problems of Torah.

1) Tradition, including the principles of Maimonides, based on 2000 years of biblical interpretation, most of which we don't actually know (how many of us have studied 20 supercommentaries on Rashi, as is included in one collection from the publisher of the big red modern Mikraot Gedolot?), but which we take on faith to have dealt somehow with the apparent inconsistences; or

2) Modern Biblical Scholarship, as presented by R' Farber, which includes:

  1. treating all of the narrative in the Torah as allegorical/legendary;
  2. treating at least some of the legal material in the Torah as affected by then-common social mores;
  3. eliminating Divine Providence "if the stories are nothing but history, then the details are nothing more than the random accidents of history" - do we eliminate Divine Providence, or do we make the Torah into legends?  Either way, a massive part of tradition is cut away.
  4. as a result, several of Maimonides' principles become no longer tenable.  The Wave Theory undoes the Seventh Principle (the primacy of Moses, who never existed anyway), and the Eighth Principle (which is today widely tempered by the knowledge of a few spelling differences between known Torahs), and even impinges on the Ninth Principle by partially abrogating the Law.  
    1. And the Wave Theory itself is based on solid texts in Jeremiah - where the people go to Chuldah to get a more merciful prophecy, rather than Jeremiah, because while she taps into the same flow of Divine will, women are more merciful. R' Farber loses me when he applies the Wave Theory to hypothetical pseudo-Mosaic prophets.

In other words, a choice of authorities as to who gets to define one's view of Judaism. Since most of us haven't spent the years it takes to master either approach, let alone both, we are left choosing who to believe has the correct interpretation of revelation and transmission of Torah.

And that is really no choice.  Do we go with the weight of 2000 years of tradition, hundreds or thousands of expert interpreters, communal acceptance of the model, and a mostly-consistent axiomatic system?  Or do we go with a model that is less than 200 years old, which was promoted largely by 19th-century antisemitten and Wissenschaftliche Reformers who deliberately wanted to undermine traditional Judaism?  A model which, by R' Farber's own admission, necessarily undermines practice and faith?

Others have proposed "heretical" ideas in the past 50 years, but generally from a position of a long history of building up the community, both institutionally and intellectually.  

  • R' Yitz Greenberg has some odd ideas about theology, but he keeps them in his academic writing, not his popular writing and speaking; meanwhile, he has built a life as a pillar of Modern Orthodoxy, developing institutions, writing, advocating.  Most people don't even know about his odd theology, and he & they are quite happy keeping it that way.
  • R' Rackman z"l proposed and built a court for freeing agunot based on questionable psychological premises; while the idea was rejected, nobody was going to reject the whole person, because he had spent 80 years building up Modern Orthodoxy in the US and Israel, at Bar-Ilan and YU, in his shuls, in his capacity as an officer-chaplain in the US military for over a decade, helping Soviet Jews, etc.
R' Farber, on the other hand, is at the start of what looks like a promising career. He doesn't have the broad communal record on which to maintain his reputation.  Reading the comments to the attacks, he seems to be mostly known for writing a series of increasingly radical articles on Judaism. 

So whose opinion should we take on authority as a dogmatic model for Judaism?  Hundreds of writers over thousands of years, ratified by communal acceptance, or a young (well, not that young, after earning a PhD, many years in several yeshivas, and working in day schools, he has to be past 40) upstart, who proposes a theory of Revelation almost indistinguishable from those put forth by Conservative and Reform thinkers, except for a repeated claim of fealty to halacha?

Having struggled for years to convince myself that (a minimalist form of) the traditional view is plausible hence believable, I know where I'm putting my money.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Spiritual Blemishes

Dvar Torah: Lv 1:2 - one may bring offerings from the cattle, from the herds, and from the flocks.

Why three froms?  Rashi (from B. Tem. 28a-b, Toras Kohanim)- exclusions: not from animals that were used for bestiality, nor used or even just set aside for idolatry, nor a goring ox - but all of these are only for cases without sufficient evidence for conviction and execution.

What's the commonality?  They are all metaphysical/spiritual flaws in the animal.  I.e., not just physical blemishes can disqualify offerings, but also use of the animal for anti-holiness (big-3 prohibited behavior).

What's the takeaway? Just as animals used for anti-holiness but not convicted are still disqualified, so too when we do the wrong thing,  it has consequences beyond simple reward/punishment.  Which is why we pray to the Investigator of Failures and Hearts (bochein k'layot valeiv) for forgiveness.  Let's remember the spiritual meaning of chametz (leavened food) qua bad behavior, and remember to clean up our behavior while we're cleaning our houses of chametz.  Repentance/forgiveness are not just for the High Holidays, they're for every day, as we pray thrice.

Monday, November 26, 2012

First they came for the Imahot

A Reconstructionist minyan in Germantown is considering adding Bilhah and Zilpah to the text of the Amidah.  Of course, this comes after adding the usual Fore Mothers (Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah).  They have a lengthy post with discussion both pro and con.

I have some problems with this proposal, aside from simple Orthodox "my way or the highway."

1. Slippery slope (this seems to have been intentional in many congregants' thinking).  You start adding and there's no end to adding.  The same is said for adding praises of Hashem - start adding and there's no end to adding, which is how we have the list of praises in Yishtabach - these are praises explicitly said by Moshe.  It's also said in the Talmud at the beginning of Tr. Yoma, that one doesn't appoint a substitute wife for the Kohen Gadol, because the first might die and he needs a living wife to do the service - the mishna explicitly says if you do, "there is no end" to the substitutes you'd have to appoint.  

2. National consensus. There has been a lot of regional variation in the texts of the Amidah, some still remains, but everybody (from the Talmud until the 1980s) has followed the consensus text of the first three paragraphs, which are laid out in the Talmud.

3. Theology (I-Thou). It seems to me that we include the Avot because the Torah gives us some clue about their varying relationships to God.  What clue do we have about the varying relationships between the Imahot, let alone Z&B who are barely mentioned as brood mares, and God?  Sarah & Rivka related to God as arbiter of disputes between themselves and their husbands over preferential treatment of the children.  Rachel & Leah's relationships to God only come out of Midrash.

4. Textual. Well, really, we include the Avot because most of the Amidah is made up from verses or phrases from verses.  Is there a verse "elokei Sarah, elokei Rivkah, elokei Rachel Leah Bilhah uZilpah"? Or even of each phrase separately?

Shoehorning the Imahot into the Amidah feels about as awkward as the love interests shoehorned into "The Hunt for Red October" (Clancy's publisher forced him into it) or the movie version of "Fantastic Voyage" (Asimov's novelization has no love interest, but I did learn a lot about biology from it).

Full disclosure: I've been teaching a series on the brachot of Shmoneh Esreh for the past year and a half, intermittently, when the rabbi is not present at seudah shlishit, at the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush.  I cover both interpretation (phrase by phrase and structural, via Baer, Gra, Netiv Binah, RY Emden, and others) and textual history (via Fleischer, and Luger's book on the Genizah texts of the Shmone Esreh).  We're in the middle of the Blessing of the Righteous, and I plan to cover Al Hanisim during Chanukah.  If you're in the area, come on by - mincha at 4 pm Saturdays for the next 3-4 weeks.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Halachic Eras

Addressed to someone who seems to think that the Rishonim are “a movement”:

> there must have been something brewing prior to that time that eventually compelled them... not as individuals but as a movement. After all... isn't that how we think of them... as a movement? Otherwise we

No, why would you think that?  We refer to the Dark Ages as a historical period, not as a movement.  There wasn't a pan-European revival of  obscurantism as a positive value.  But philosophical and scientific  discovery were repressed by historical factors beyond their own fields of endeavour - overcrowding which made it harder to earn a living, followed by plagues which, by emptying out land, made it easier to acquire land and live off of that, but by the same token, it was hard to till all that  land oneself, feudalism didn't lend itself to a society of patronage of the arts and sciences, etc.

> would not refer to them in a group like that. We would refer to them as individuals such as when we refer to the Vilna Gaon vs the Baal Shem Tov and their respective followers.

We do refer to them as individuals.  But as a group, they're a historical era, like the Dark Ages or The Renaissance.
(warning, history lecture coming on: )
Do you really not know how we divide halachic eras?  We have an overarching principle of "yeridat hadorot" - that the farther we get from the Sinaitic Revelation, the less access we have to authentic Oral Law tradition.   Sometimes, throughout history, there are catastrophic events that wipe out most of a generation's intellectual leaders; the next generations,  not having had the time to absorb everything from the earlier generations, are then classed as a lesser era.  Alternatively, during an era of general hardship, a work may be composed which gains universal acclaim, which too can mark the end of an era.
Within a given era, people are assumed to have roughly the same level of halachic authority.  Some individuals may be greater than others, but not sufficiently as to say this individual's word is final within the era.
So the general halachic eras are, as far as I know,
1) Tannaim (from the era of political-intellectual parties during the Hellenistic period until the codification of the Mishnah in 200)
I don't know what historical event might have made 200 a dividing line, I suspect it was simply the universal acceptance of the Mishnah as the starting point for all future rabbinic discussions, giving  a structure to legal thought.
2) Amoraim (from the close of the Mishnah to the close of the Gemara, c. 200-500 CE - interesting how that era-closer coincides with the rise of  Islam) characterized by textual criticism, intellectual rigor and halachic creativity, story-telling, etc. - the period of creation of most of our fundamental texts, the Gemara, most of the Midrashim, etc.  The usual method here seems to be a) establish the correct text of the Mishnah, b) establish that the rule known from Tradition is correct, by comparing it with lots of hypothetical alternatives that make less sense.
3a) Geonim (500-1000), a period of traditionalism, their teshuvot are characterized by laconic answers, without much reasoning.  Their legal texts are likewise summaries of the Talmud, e.g. the Halachot Gedolot,  c. 800.  Many believe that these brief responses reflect the Geonim having the last known traces of authentic Sinaitic traditions, so they could say "this is the answer" without having to prove it from a bunch of alternative ideas.
The next cataclysm, the Crusades, seems to have marked the  boundary between the Geonim and Rishonim.  E.g. the H"G and the Rif are both summaries of the Talmud, but the Rif inserts more interpretive  material, which marks him as the beginning of the Rishonim. [N.B.: there isn't really a difference in halachic authority between Geonim and Rishonim, nor is there an authoritative code that demarcates a boundary.  However, there is the historic dislocation and a shift in interpretive style.  So the next period should be 3b, not 4. See comments for discussion.]
3b) Rishonim (1000-1550): again a period of creativity and explanation  of earlier ideas.  Lots of different rishonim had different agendas, e.g. the Tosfos' agenda, according to RRW and his teachers such as Agus and Grinstein at YU, was to promote the Bavli as the primary study text - while the Yerushalmi and oral tradition were more relevant as psak texts for daily life among the Jews of Christendom.  So Tosfos (as a movement with an agenda) demonstrated time and again how Ashkenazic practice, while differing from the Bavli's ideal, fulfills the same  underlying goals.  E.g., covering the challah on Shabbat/Yom Tov reflecting the change in foodways between Greco-Roman Judaea and Franco- German Europe, in Ch. Arvei Pesachim.  Or the worldwide change in parchment production of the early Middle Ages, being justified against the Bavli in Megillah.  Meanwhile, the Rashba was making stabs at  probability theory, in trying to understand and explain the rules of sfek sfeka - when do we add probabilities, when do we multiply them, how does rov quantify as probabilistic, etc.  The early 19th C. author of Shev Shmaitsa also gropes in that direction, shortly before Bayes systematized probability theory.
We talk about them collectively, because they collectively explain the  Gemara, the main text of Jewish law.  They collectively are the major commentators on Tanach and Talmud, so their ideas on understanding the texts have to be our starting point in understanding them.
4) Acharonim (1550-present?)  I'd guess the global upheavals affected this transition, but it is mostly marked by the publication of the Beis Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch (with Mapah).  If there was a transition era, it might run from the Tur (late 1300s) through the Mapah (1560s). Well, what upheavals?  The Black Death of 1348-1350, which killed 1/3 of Europe.  The Renaissance of the 1400s-1500s, with new wealth generated by fewer people working the same land of Europe, and the shift from  feudalism to patronage.  The end of Byzantine Rome and the rise of the Ottomans in 1455.  Printing in 1450.  Availability of printed Talmuds and printed Rabbinic Bibles starting c. 1521.  And, of course, the end of Jewish Spain - the expulsions, the conversos, the Christianos Nuevos, the re-converted back to real Judaism, the exile all over the Mediterranean basin, the Inquisition (what a show).
The Shulchan Aruch (1565,1578), the Zohar (1558), and the teaching of  the Ari in the early 1570s all happened within a decade or two.  As a marker of a shift in Jewish intellectual history, it's hard to beat that period.
And the Acharonim largely explain the Rishonim, and try to reconcile them to find a final psak, or compare their ideas one to another to decided which is more convincing, or introduce Kabbalah into the
Read the books of R' Zechariah Fendel for discussions of the various eras and major figures in each era.

> The point is... why are we referring to them in such a large grouping? We must recognize that they were doing something different than the previous grouping and different yet again from our current grouping.

Yes, they had a lesser level of connection to Sinai than the Geonim,  and a greater one than the Acharonim.

> On a side note: I think our own era is not well defined as yet because how can we be the last (Acharonim)? Is someone suggesting that the Messiah is in the offing? Then when he arrives, if it is not in my lifetime, won't those folks that come after me be the last?

Some have proposed a 5th era, tentatively called the Tachtonim (those underneath), marked by the dislocations and death of 1870-1960 -  a unified Germany that led to Nazism, the Shoah itself, the mass migration to America between 1880 and 1924, the expulsions of the Jewish communities in almost all the Muslim countries, the founding and continued existence of the State of Israel, etc.  Certainly death and dislocation have caused a rupture in the Tradition.  I don't see a singular text yet that is accepted by klal Yisrael - maybe a combined edition of Igros Moshe and Yabia Omer?  This postwar era certainly is characterized by  indexing and codification, as well as a revival of Kabbalah among the  Ashkenazim, who had largely suppressed it after 1820 to undermine the Sabbatean movement.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Transliteration or Translation

In reading the bibliography of Zvi Mark's recent "Mysticism and Madness," on R' Nachman of Bratslav, I had to wonder - why the strange spellings?  Between Prof. Mark and two stages of translation, somehow a number of names, transliterated from Hebrew to English, were done by someone who didn't know that some of the authors already spell their names a certain way in English (or German, etc.).

E.g., מ' פכטר, which you would think is Mordechai Pachter, becomes Fechter.
Moshe Hallamish is rendered Chalamish.
Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer becomes Schatz-Oppenheimer.
Chabad bibliographer and historian Yehoshua Mondshine becomes Mundstein.  Since there's no Tet or Tav in מונדשיין, that's just careless.
Mendel פייקאז', usually rendered Piekarz from Polish, is now Feikazh.  Which is probably how the Polish name is pronounced.

And when he cites European non-Jewish authors, whose Hebrew names are already transliterations, we enter the world of Invisible Insanity.

Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens becomes Hoyzinga, האדם המשחק.
And who is Poko, author of Toldot haShigaon?  None other than Michel Foucault, author of History of Madness.

Evidently, Prof. Mark is more comfortable reading in Hebrew than other languages, which is understandable, so he listed his sources as he read them in Hebrew translation, as much as possible.  But somewhere along the line, someone didn't realize that these authors, writing for a wider academic world, had spellings that they used for their own names in Roman alphabets.

I've seen this before, in that R' Yuval Cherlow is often advertised as R' Sherlo, transliterating from Hebrew.  But he prefers that English audiences see his name as it should be spelled, not just as a transliteration from Hebrew.  And then there are names that are just confusing, like Dr. Shlomo Pines.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Angel names

Metatron, Sandalphon, Akatriel - these are the names of high-level angels.  Metatron is the Prince of the Countenance, God's right-hand man and scribe.  Sandalphon stands behind the Divine Throne, taking our prayers and weaving them into crowns, to be passed to the Divine.  Akatriel sounds like Sandalphon's function (I will crown God), but is also taken as a God-name.

What differentiates the first two from the last name?  The first two sound Greek, while the last is clearly Jewish.  The most common name-form for angels in Hebrew mythology is a Hebrew word or expression suffixed with -el or -iel.  E.g. Michael -who is like El?  Gabriel- strength of El. Etc., where El is a God-name.

Metatron is one of the more interesting myths.  Enoch, who lived between Adam and Noah, is not listed as dying in the Begats list.  Rather, he "walked with God".  This anomaly is the basis of the Enoch myth, where Enoch is taken up bodily into Heaven, much like Elijah was centuries later, and is transformed into the chief angel, Metatron.

However, in early apocalyptic literature, Metatron is known under different names, more like the standard theophoric angel names: Yahoel (a combination of the God-names Yaho and El), or Hashem Katan, the small God.  By the time of the Tannaim, though, he is known as Metatron (which sounds like a Japanese robot name, like Voltron; or a 1950s computer, like Datatron).  Sandalphon (which sounds like the late-antiquity version of the Sports Illustrated Sneakerphone[TM]) only appears in the Tannaitic period.

Which leaves me wondering, why the sudden shift to Greek names for the highest-level angels?  Had the names become so holy that they needed kinnuyim (euphemisms)?  Even today, many religious Jews won't even pronounce the Greek angel names, preferring an abbreviation such as "the angel Mitat" for Metatron.  Did a new growth in metaphysical speculation engender a shift to exotic foreign cognomens?

Further, what do the names mean?  The articles below offer a variety of suggested etymologies for Metat and Sandal, but generally leave them as "we don't really know".  I checked out Metatron (with a couple of possible spellings) on Google Translate, and they translate the word as "conversion" or "converted".  I wonder if it could be that simple - Enoch was converted into Jahoel/Metatron - so his name could be "the converted one".

Gershom Scholem, "Jewish Gnosticism and Merkabah Mysticism", JTSA 1965.