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.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Reverse Seder

R Moshe Sokol, our LOR, In his Shabbos Hagodol drasha suggested that the modern Seder is the reverse of the pre-Hurban seder. We say maggid then eat. In Temple times, if you read the Mishna, and even in the post-Hurban Tannaitic era, it seems that they ate first, then said Maggid, and benched.

Which fits
  1. Mah Nishtanah - the child asks about the oddness of the meal he has *just eaten*.
  2. the Sages sitting up at Benny Baruch telling of the Exodus - after the meal.
  3. eating the Korban Pesach hot off the spit, rather than 3 hours later.

Ha Lachma Anya then is seen as a later addition, introducing Maggid, when we haven't eaten yet. It reminds us we're in practice mode, in a broken world, waiting for the Final Redemption when we can do it properly.