Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Iran's Jews and Gaza

Iranian Jews, in what looks like a display of loyalty to the country's Islamic majority, demonstrated against Israeli attacks in Gaza. If they are scared at the moment, who could blame them? (courtesy of the Huffington Post). Perhaps it is worthwhile to point out, that Israeli Arabs are confident enough not to feel the need to display their loyalty to the Jewish majority.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Animals and Prayer

An odd post for an odd verse: In the longest discussion between man and God in the Bible, Job is asked rhetorically about animals and prayer:
Who provides food for the raven, when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food? - Job 38:41
The implied answer is, of course, God. But it's highly unusual to hear animals spoken about in terms of prayer, perhaps even more so in the Bible!

I do wonder whether the point of ascribing to animals a supposedly human action (perhaps
the human action) is to equate human suffering and animal suffering from God's perspective. In other words, surely God cares about all His creations.

On a lighter note, I am reminded of the howling dog in John Steinbeck's
The Moon is Down:
down toward one end of the village, among the small houses, a dog complained about the cold and the loneliness. He raised his nose to his god and gave a long and fulsome account of the state of the world as it applied to him.
Perhaps prayer is more natural than we think?

Not by bread alone...

From Leon Kass:

It seems like only yesterday that the Enlightenment overthrew the rule of religious orthodoxy, promising an earthly paradise of human fulfillment based solely on scientific reason. Yet today, the enlightened children of skeptics are discovering for themselves that man does not live -- or live well -- by bread alone, not even by bread and circuses, and that science's account of human life and the world is neither adequate to the subject nor satisfying to the longings of the soul.


Saturday, December 27, 2008


David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post:
We are now going to find out whether those lessons from 2006 - on military preparation, on the need for effective military-political coordination, on operating in an immensely complex regional and global context, and on setting realistic goals for the use of military force - were indeed well learned.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Chanuka 5769

My friend Calev asks what the lesson of Chanuka's military victory is for us today:
for every Judah the Maccabee who fought against all odds and successfully freed his people from an occupying empire (Greece), there is a Bar-Kokhba whose revolt against an occupying empire (Rome) ended in defeat and mass slaughter and expulsion
Although the Maccabee/Bar Kochba question remains open, Chanuka's significance is important - and perhaps is not as ambiguous as one might think. Implicit in the Al Hanisim prayer's lack of military emphasis is Chazal's reluctance to celebrate warfare. Their shift away from a military emphasis towards a spiritual one sends out the message of Chanukah - power without purpose leads nowhere.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Joseph's Dream and Psalm 126

we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves came round about, and bowed down to my sheaf

My friend Alex recently pointed out that there are only two places in the Bible where the Hebrew word Aluma (sheave) is used. The first time is in Joseph's first dream (Genesis 37:7) and the second time is Psalms (126:6).

I love textual parallels, and I wonder if this one is significant. Joseph's life is perhaps the classic story of holding onto faith. Betrayed by his brothers, jailed by his master, Joseph rises to win
Pharaoh's trust and becomes his most powerful advisor. Then, in Genesis 45:8, during an emotional reunion with his brothers, he tells them not to fear his retribution because

it was not you that sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt

At a moment where Joseph could be forgiven for feeling at least some animosity towards those same brothers who sold him into slavery, he reassures them: God did this, not you. God's hand was in my life, from the very start to the present.

This is a deep faith.

Perhaps this is also the faith echoed in Psalm 126, that other reference to sheaves. Here, we sing

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Though he goes on his way weeping carrying the seed bag, he shall come home with joy, bearing his sheaves.

I cannot help wonder - did the Psalmist have Joseph's faith in mind?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Biblical Criticism and Yirat Shamayim

Rav Moshe Liechtenstein argues that we should study Tanach not as a source of faith but rather because of faith:

At its root, the issue is not unique to Biblical Criticism; rather, it is part of the broader subject of faith and science that has engaged religious philosophy over the past millennium, since the essence of the issue pits the analytical findings of the human intellect against the plain meaning of the Scriptural text. This leaves us with three options: (1) accepting the findings of science and rejecting the plain meaning of the revealed text, either by denial of the text’s authority or by reinterpretation of its meaning, (2) holding on to the literal meaning of the text and rejecting scientific knowledge as the product of fallible human reason, or (3) attempting to find middle ground, in which part of the scientific finding is recognized and integrated into the textual meaning while other portions are denied. In theory, yirat shamayim can accommodate all three of these alternatives, although the first only by a radical redefining of many basic tenets and texts. Therefore, the traditional approach has been to choose the second or third options in varying degrees. Thus, even though the classic sources relate mainly to natural science and not to Biblical Criticism, which is a more recent phenomenon, the basic methodology is applicable in the case of Biblical Criticism and biblical archaeology as well. However, since Biblical Criticism is not a natural science, the prevailing tendency has certainly been the third approach that declines any acceptance of critical theories.

A radical break with this tradition was initiated by R. Mordechai Breuer who established a method of interpretation that is based upon adoption of the first alternative regarding Biblical Criticism. The method is predicated upon the assumption that the textual conclusions of Biblical Criticism are accurate and their findings indisputable, so that intellectual honesty requires us to validate them. The religious challenge, therefore, is not to deny the textual claims but to provide them with a metaphysical framework that is compatible with an Orthodox viewpoint. R. Breuer’s approach figured prominently in a previous Orthodox Forum, whose papers have subsequently been published, there is not much point, therefore, in entering into a lengthy discussion of it here, despite its relevance for our topic. However, the discussions of that forum focused upon the theological implications of the method and did not relate to the educational aspects of it. These, though, are a crucial element for any evaluation of his Shitat Habechinot and its relationship to yirat shamayim.

The inherent dangers of contact with Biblical Criticism and the attempt to integrate it into an Orthodox framework from an experiential point of view are of a dual nature. The first is a function of its content. Aside from the dilemma of adopting (or adapting) interpretations that were arrived at by a method whose implicit metaphysical axioms are foreign to any God-fearing outlook and the concern that these principles may unknowingly be the motivating force that underlies the suggested interpretation – which was the subject of the previous forum – there is the additional problem of the slippery slope. Exposure to a body of work that is academically impressive but whose theological premises are in contradiction to yirat shamayim may cause a student to go beyond R. Breuer’s policy of accepting the details and rejecting the framework and induce him to accept the metaphysical structure as well. Essentially, such a person accepts the premise of R. Breuer’s critics that the interpretations and metaphysics are inseparable, only like R. Breuer and unlike his critics, he is so convinced of the interpretations that he does not have the option of rejecting them. Therefore, he has no choice but to redefine his beliefs. Even if this is sincerely done out of deep religious motivation, the result will be a system of belief totally incompatible with traditional Orthodoxy. R. Breuer himself brought attention to this phenomenon in a very poignant piece that he wrote in Megadim a few years ago.

The additional risk of this method is the emotional aspect. The constant contact with texts and/or people that treat Tanakh as an ancient piquant text lacking divine authority can have a corrosive influence. If the intellectual framework of reference is an academic milieu that treats Torah as fodder for deconstruction, then there is an existential price that is often exacted. The sense of awe, dignity, and reverence that we feel towards Torah as d’var HaShem is readily compromised in the soul if critical concepts become routine and cease to jar the ears. References to “the Biblical narrator” or other similar phrases that convey a detached academic aloofness and the loss of intimacy and varmkeit that must accompany the study of Tanakh are not worth any intellectual gains that may have been gotten by exposure to such materials. To employ a metaphor, if a person has to choose between knowing more about his father or mother, but at the price that the additional understanding will come at the expense of the warmness and intimacy, isn’t it self evident that it’s better to know less and feel more rather than vice versa?

This brings us to the heart of the issue of Tanakh and yirat shamayim. To paraphrase John Henry Newman’s remark about God and Nature, we do not believe in God because of the Tanakh, rather we accept the Tanakh because of our belief in Him.

Thanks to Hirhurim for the heads up. Article here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman z"tl

In a tribute to Rabbi Emanuel Rackman z"tl, Rabbi Michael Broyde ends with four lessons he learnt from his teacher:

(1) Jewish law is a truth seeking venture which must live by the currency of logic and analysis, always living in the present and being driven by the data, both Talmudic and scientific.

(2) Ethical people live lives of compassion with the understanding that life is more complex in fact than in theory and are ready to recognize that sometimes people are frailand in need of help. Ethical people are measured by how they show compassion to the weak.

(3) Hard work is extremely important. Torah comes to those who work hard to acquire it, and virtually no one is a natural master of Torah. Regular and intense learning is imperative in being a torah scholar.

(4) Never be too sure of yourself and listen closely to the voices of the wise people around you. Rabbi Rackman once remarked to me that “everyone really needs a mentor, since a mentor serves the purpose of checking that one is not egregiously in error.

(Many thanks to Menachem Yoel Butler for the reference. The full article can be found at Hirhurim, here.)

Judaism is not "the opium of the people"

From the Chief Rabbi:

Judaism is not an escape from the world but an engagement with the world. It is not "the opium of the people," as Karl Marx once called religion. It does not anaesthetise us to the pains and apparent injustices of life. It does not reconcile us to suffering. It asks us to play our part in the most daunting undertaking ever asked by G-d of mankind: to construct relationships, communities, and ultimately a society, that will become homes for the Divine presence. And that means wrestling with G-d and with men and refusing to give up or despair.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Isaiah 43:9

I just happened to notice that there are different versions of Isaiah 43:9.

The American King James Bible:

Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled: who among them can declare this, and show us former things? let them bring forth their witnesses, that they may be justified: or let them hear, and say, It is truth.

The Douay-Rheims Bible:

All the nations are assembled together, and the tribes are gathered:
who among you can declare this, and shall make us hear the former things? let them bring forth their witnesses, let them be justified, and hear, and say: It is truth.

More complete set of translations here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Henry Townsend and Rabbi Akiva

Henry Townsend is a black slave turned slave master in Edward Jones' novel - The Known World. It's unusual for a black man to be free in America in the 1800's, let alone be an owner of slaves. In his penultimate moment, Henry is disappointed to find himself deceived, renting, uncomfortable and denied an opportunity to share feelings with his wife. It is a moment of realization - a final reckoning of sorts: His idealization of ownership of land and slaves have led him to an unexpected place.

What is one to make of Edward Jones' description of Henry's death? With Henry's life accounted for in a single disturbing moment, I am reminded of Rabbi Akiva's teaching in Pirkei Avot, 3:20 -

"...the judgment is a judgment of truth. And everything is prepared for the BANQUET."

What 'banquet' was Rabbi Akiva reffering to? I have always understood it as referring to a final reckoning, a moment where the forces that dominated a person's life are examined by truth itself. A moment, much like Henry Townsend's, where falsehood, if it is there, is exposed.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Here I am in London, the rain tapping against the window of a room overlooking nowhere in particular. You know you’re no longer a kid when a cab driver old enough to be your grandfather speaks to you like you’re his boss. Sitting next to an old, rather chatty judge on the plane, I got a glimpse at a liberal-English Jewish world view. “Civil rights for women and um, Palestinians” he explained. How different the world sees Israel to the way it sees itself. I sat humbly next to him. Maybe ten years ago I would have taken the endless road to nowhere and tried to change his view. Explain how right we are. But we’re not “right”, we are just scared. It is all about fear. Fear of a Mumbai in one of our cities. “I’m against torture” he said. "That Guantanamo Bay is a disgrace". I agreed. But torture? What if on September 10th …..? He conceded that was a tough situation. Of course, he is right. It is a tough situation. And we go on.

Is there a balance to be struck? Can we only torture bad guys? Can we only occupy terrorists?