Thursday, October 20, 2005

New Home for Dilbert

All new posts from me(Dilbert) will now be posted at Bava Dilbert because of the problem with spam comments(I dont have access to the controls to stop them. Its been a fun time squatting here and my thanks to Nisht and company for the hospitality and wish him all Hatzlacha(he's kind of like Charlie, occassionally heard, but never seen by the principles).

Comments-[ comments.]

Monday, October 10, 2005

Doing what God wants you to

There has been a very interesting post and discussion over at Shira's house about the sacrifice of Isaac. Specifically, would you be willing to follow God's directive and do the deed?

It seems to me that if you are certain the directive is from God, and there is absolutely no ambiguity about what is being asked, then, as a believer in an all-Powerful, all-Merciful, all-Just(you get the idea) Deity, one must obey, believing that the All-Powerful has His/Her reasons, espcially ones that are not apparent to mere mortals.

Following God's word is easy when it coincides with what is pleasurable. And, if there are few to no rules, its even easier. Also, even orthodox Jews do not have monolithic certainty about exactly what it is that God wants us to do. However, I think that the hallmark of the religious person who has faith in God is that he or she is willing and does perform the acts that he/she believes that God has commanded, even when they are not pleasureable or seem reasonable. Now, one can argue that suicide bombers fall in this category. Unfortunately, that is true. Anyone can skew a religion(or even make up a religion) so that their actions conform to the beliefs. But, that is making the religion fit your beliefs, not believing in your religion.

What is the point? The believer in God walks around with the idea that they are doing God's will, and at frequent junctures stop and ask themselves, am I doing what God wants me to? Am I making choices consistant with my beliefs? This is a heavy burden to bear, but after all, if you believe, it is the only way.

Comments-[ comments.]

Friday, September 23, 2005

The walls we put up are not sukkat shalom

I finished reading the recently published biography of R. Saul Lieberman. It not only gives a fascinating view on R. Lieberman, but also sheds light on how the denominations of Judaism view themselves and others. R. Lieberman from the outset had impeccible credentials, went to Yeshiva at Slobodka, studied at a Mussar Yeshiva , was the cousin of the Chazon Ish, and came from a distinguished line of rabbonim. However, there also were aspects of what he did that put him "outside the club" or cast doubt in some people's eyes about his "kashrut." R. Ruderman(of Ner Yisrael fame), a classmate at Slobodka, noted that R. Liberman was suspect even back then because he went to movies and read books. Others, like R. Kamenetsky, admired him tremendously for his learning.

R. Lieberman tried going to medical school in France, but wound up in Israel, and learned and taught at Hebrew U., where he was exposed to "critical methods of scholarship"- in other words, how to approach Shas not just from the point of view of the Rishonim and commentators, but looking at the text and the history and the context. However, he maintained that the text of Shas was something to be learned, not a corpse to be dissected. He published his first studies of Yerushalmi, and since Hebrew U. would not hire him full time, looked around for other employment and was offered a job at JTS. Others who were considered for that job were RYBS, and R. Belkin.

R. Lieberman viewed the position at JTS as an opportunity to study, since he only had to teach 6 hours a week, and also a way to influence the American rabbinate. At the time, R. Louis Ginsburg and R. Finklestein, the heads of JTS, viewed the institution as traditional, aligned with the orthodox in opposing the changes introduced by the reform. In fact, later they tried to have a joint bet din with the RCA(they also tried to have one with the reform rabbis) but it fell through when the RA(conservative rabbis) refused to be bound by the decisions, and R. Lieberman didn't want to force the issue.

R. Lieberman did not view himself as the halachic decisor for the conservative movement. More telling, he viewed himself as trying to keep the rabbis as traditional as possible and influencing them as much as possible to stay on "the path." All agree that personally his shmirat mitzvot was impeccable. His religious influence lasted only until his death, and obviously we have seen JTS and the Conservative movement move to the left, until sometimes it is hard to distinguish Conservative from reform at times.

In summary: He had yichus, went to impeccable yeshivot, was a genius and wrote brilliantly, was personally shomer mitzvot, tried to keep JTS traditional and yet, there are those who would not put a R. in front of his name, or put his books in a brown wrapper to study from them. And apparently(I dont know if this is true) a major publishing house wont even allow his name in its books.

Worse, it appears that there was an opportunity for intellect-based traditional judaism(my substitute for what would pass as modern orthodox) to flourish. After all, how much difference was there really in the approaches of R. Lieberman, R. Ginsburg, RYBS, or R. Belkin? Couldn't they have all worked together, instead of having been pulled to extremes? Or at least have their legacies claimed by those who are more to one side or another? It was very interesting reading the introduction written by the present chancellor of JTS. Obviously, someone who does not have the same Hashkafa as R. Lieberman did. He does all sorts of gymnastics to cast R. Lieberman in a more liberal light, which is clearly not accurate at all.

So now, we have a small part of the what used to be the Conservative movement, the true heirs of R. Lieberman, the UTJ(Union for Traditional Judaism) on one side, and the dwindling masses of Conservative Jews heading leftwards at an increasing pace(it seems that gay/lesbian ordination is on the horizon)on the other. On the orthodox side, we dont seem to have a true heir to RYBS(R. Aharon is probably closest in intellect and learning), but a group holding down the more liberal end(Edah, Chovevei Torah) and a group moving rightwards(rest of the YU world).

The sad part is that when you put a label on someone or some group, like Conservative, or Orthodox, people automatically make assumptions about what you do, and decide whether to affiliate or invite you to things, based on that label. If R. Lieberman had taught at any other school(except obviously the reform seminary), he would not have been denigrated by those termed orthodox. Similarly, RYBS would have commanded a lot more respect in the "yeshiva" world, if he had taught at a different school. Neither would have had to say a thing different, do a thing different, just have a different address and title. Interestingly, those who had an open mind and were scholarly enough to recognize genius and erudition, usually held both of those rabbis in great respect, regardless of the affiliation, but usually were not able to publically express it because of the political ramifications.

Worst, we continue to have these artifical walls and continue to make decisions on who to listen to and who not to, just based on an address. And this goes both for the right and the left, selective hearing has no prediliction for sides.

Comments-[ comments.]

Friday, September 09, 2005

Outside culture and Jewish philosophy

If you look around at what Jews wear, eat and, pray in, it is very clear that surrounding cultures have affected us. Chassidim wear the dress of Polish noblemen. Ashkenazim eat Russian/Polish/German food. Sefaradim build shuls that look a bit like mosques, while the Ashkenazim seem to reflect churches a bit. Look at Jewish music. It is quite clear that the outside culture affected food, dress, architecture, and other aspects of Jewish life. What about philosophy? How much have non-Jewish philosophical trends and developments affected what and how Jews think about their religion? Have the non-Jewish trends affected our basic beliefs and attitudes?

Clear examples:

the Rambam reflects classic Aristotilian philosophy.

The Rav(RYBS) reflects Kant and Hermann Cohen(obviously a Jew, but not observant and so would not count as a philosopher of Judaism)

As noted in the post below, R. Nadler notes that ascetic trends in Judaism seem to reflect the non-Jewish religious philosophy of the surrounding time and culture.

It may be possible(and I am sure someone has done it, if you have a reference, please let me know) to look at when ideas are first noted in Jewish philosophy(life after death, eternity of the soul, etc) and see how it compares with the presence of those ideas in the history of philosophy in general.

Has Jewish philosophy simply used the tools provided by general philosophy to refine and better express what we think and believe? or have our beliefs been significantly affected by what has been believed around us? It could be that different aspects of our beliefs have been muted or expressed to a greater or lessor extent either to agree with or provide more seperation from the outside philosophical milieu.

Shabbat Shalom

Comments-[ comments.]

Friday, August 26, 2005

I have been a lazy blogger, but here is a topic for discussion

I have not posted recently because of laziness, a tremendously busy schedule, meetings, etc. However, I have managed to finish a number of books, including Rabbi Allan Nadler's "Faith of the Mithnagdim". I hope to discuss it in more depth in the future. One point caught me eye, and I am in the process of researching it more fully. R. Nadler notes that the Mithnagdim had a tremendously pessimistic view of life in this world, viewing it as sort of a neccessary evil that needed to be endured in order to reach the next world. Only the study of Torah and doing good deeds mitigated the uselessness of this world. Therefore, they believed that one should not derive pleasure from this world. One ideally should eat only what is neccessary to be able to study Torah, sleep in order to study Torah, have shelter and clothing only what is neccessary to study Torah etc.. Not that in the main they advocated pain or self inflicted punishment for its own sake, because the did not believe in any benefit from that either, rather an anhedonic existence.He then went on to briefly review the role of asceticism in Judaism. He notes that the Bible promises worldly rewards for good deeds, and only with the Mishna and Gemara does the idea of the world to come spring into prominence. He also claims that the main sources of asceticism in Judaism were directly influenced by other religions, namely Sufi Islam and ascetic versions of Christianity. So..... what is the role or place of asceticism in Judaism?

Comments-[ comments.]

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Moshe, b'not Tzelofchad, and the details of the Law

Most kids who go to day school know the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad, part one of which is in this last week's parsha, and part two is at the end of Ma'asei. However, a careful reading of the peshat tells us a lot about Hashem's law and how it is applied. The problem: Even Divine law can't account for every single possible situation in one or two sentences. For example " Do Not Kill" seems to be straightforward. However, what about someone who is coming to kill you? can you kill them? what about war? That one sentence doesn't cover all the eventualities. We apply the Divine rules to situations as they come up.

The daughters of Tzelofchad, who was dead, wanted to take part in the inheritance of the land, which was declared to be for the male head of the household. Since there was no male head of their household, they were being left out. Moshe brings their case to God. The reply from God comes in the form of "vayomer Hashem el Moshe laymor." The classic, "God spoke to Moshe saying....." and proceded to set out rules for daughters to inherit the land of their fathers when there weren't any sons. God also sets out rules for how the extended family inherits, a sort of heirachy.

At the end of Ma'asei, the elders of the tribe of Menashe(the tribe of Tzelofchad and his daughters) complain to Moshe that, should the daugters who own land marry someone of a different tribe, the land will eventually become the property of that other tribe(because the land will be inherited by male children who will by definition be members of that other tribe), and the land of Menashe will diminish. In this case, the Torah doesn't record Moshe going to Hashem and asking a question. Instead the wording is "Va'Yitzav Moshe et b'nai Yisrael al pi Hashem lamor" Moshe instructed/commanded the children of Israel according to the word(lit. by the mouth) of Hashem saying: Ze hadavar asher tziva Hashem l'vnot Tzelofchad lamor- this is the word that Hashem commanded to the daughters of Tzelofchad saying.

In other words, Moshe doesn't go back and ask Hashem for the answer, like he did the first time. This time he instructs the people 'according to the word of Hashem.' Now, the believer can say that what that the words literally mean from the mouth of Hashem. However, it seems to me the common usage of al pi in Torah is that it does not denote a new utterance, but means consistant with or in accordance with a previous utterance. So, Moshe takes the rule that Hashem gave, and interprets it govern the circumstances that he is confronted with. Clearly what Moshe comes up with is not contained in the initial rule, or at least it wasn't written out, and the elders of Menashe obviously didn't know this new info, or they wouldn't have asked the question. We are left with the conclusion that Moshe derives the new rules on his own, based on his understanding of the previous utterence of God. And his solution is that women who want to maintain their inherited land have to marry someone from their own tribe. Ironically, the new rules serves to eliminate 11/12ths of the eligible men from the dance card of the daughters of Tzelofchad, or any other land owning woman who wants to maintain her ownership of that land.

What is my point? Firstly, we have(I think) the first instance of interpretation of what you could call Halacha to make it apply to a situation that was not obvious from the letter of the Law. Secondly, for the liberal in me, it shows how the Law of God can be interpreted, starting with the Word of God protecting the rights of women, and winding up with the words of man(albeit Moshe) restricting the rights of women(a theme expanded upon at length by R. Eliezer Berkowitz in Jewish Women in Time and Torah and to a lessor but still signficant extent by R. Y.H. Henkin in Equality Lost).

Comments-[ comments.]

Artscroll redux

The ADDeRabbi has a review of the Artscroll women's siddur here. and a further comment here. I had earlier posted my objections to the Artscroll translation/commentary on Shir ha'Shirim. The bottom line is that certainly Artscroll has made many texts available to many many non-Hebrew speakers. They have simplified learning. But they have also used their Bill Gates-like near monopoly(not their fault that they have this monopoly, but it is one none the less) to promulgate their view of Judaism, rather than a more ecumenical(covering the spectrum of orthodoxy, I am not meaning that they need to include reform perspectives) Orthodox view. Since Judaism takes "facts on the ground" into account in issues of Law(minhag has halachic power) establishing "minhag artscroll" and reinforcing it via myriads of publications diminishes those who do not hold by this minhag. Also, by presenting one view as THE Way when in reality there are a number of legitimate opinions, Artscroll manages to eliminate any debate or thinking from those whose sole source of information is Rabbenu Artscroll.

While I certainly agree that they are entitled to print what they want, and to push their viewpoint above any other, It is wrong to portray halacha as a monolith supporting only what they see as correct.

Comments-[ comments.]

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Role of God in psak

When I first started thinking about halacha, I assumed that there was a "right" answer for halachic questions. That, if one knew enough, thought hard enough, and had the right intangibles, one could find the answer that God wanted. Or, even if one couldn't find the right answer, that right answer did exist, and finding it was the goal. In other words, God has the answer for all of our halachic questions, but sometimes we cant find it.

The Gemara records the famous story of the dispute over the oven, and despite R. Yehoshua calling in miracles, and even a bat kol(voice from heaven), the issue is decided by a majority of rabbis, not the voice from heaven. In fact, Moshe is the only prophet from whom we take explicit normative data. "Lo ba'shamayim he"- it is not in Heaven, the law is for us to decide.

So, it turns out that there may not be an exact right way that God wants, and, even if that way exists, it only has validity if the majority agree with it. But who are the majority? Who gets to be counted? How do they decide? Obviously, there are tools and parameters to establish psak: Torah, Nach, the ways to establish concepts(rabbi Yishmael's 13 for example), Mishna, Gemara, and then Rishonim, Acharonim, and more books and opinions. But, not everything published gets accepted.

We seem to rely on those who we think have an idea of what God would want. In other words, some form of da'at Torah. Now, da'at Torah can have a minimalist meaning: only that the person possessing it(by studying the Torah) has an idea of what the Torah intended, with no supernatural implications. It can also mean that the person, either by dint of study, or being chosen in some way, has Supernatural help and vision to see what the Torah intended. The difference, although small, is that in one case it is totally dependent on the person their talents, and study, and in the other case, there is some sort of Divine intervention in addition to the talent and study. God, in this scenario, influences halacha by whispering in the ear of the posek.

Are we supposed to look for those with divine guidance? In the same paragraph as "lo ba'shamayim he" we find "mi ya'ale lanu ha'shamayma v'yikacheha lanu" who is going to ascend to the heavens and take it(the Torah) for us. We are not supposed to use this paradigm, because the Torah is "b'ficha oo'b'levavcha la'asoto" it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to do.

Conclusion: We have guidelines from God on how to decide halachic questions, but aside from creating parameters, God has left it up to us to discern His will. In the absence of a Sanhedrin(not the one being constituted in Tiveria), the ideal situation is for each of us to achieve the learning neccessary to be decisors. Techically, those who claim to have Divine assistance actually should not have an advantage over those without Divine assistance.

Comments-[ comments.]

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Approaches to Chazal and implications for present day halacha

The brouhaha over R. Slifkin has revealed that most of the center-left(probably even moderate right) orthodoxy believe that the Tannaim and Amoraim in the Gemarah were not always right with regard to science. Once that opening is established the next question obviously becomes: is there anything else that they were not right about? The answer to this question obviously has profound implications for Halacha and Judaism as we know it today.

Scientific facts(as we know them) are facts because they are verified by repeated observation and validated by fitting a theory that not only explains the observations but predicts new findings that can also be verified by observations. That is the scientific method that we are familiar with. Seen in this context, we can establish a category of statements by Chazal that are in the realm of "natural science", ie biology, astronomy, agriculture, medicine, chemistry, physics, etc. We are also not surprised that statements made 2000 years ago regarding these topics reflect the scientific understanding of the day, and are frequently wrong, given what we know about these topics today.

Taking one step away from the purely "natural" sciences(those based on observation of nature or human BIOLOGICAL function), are the social sciences, those based on observations of human interactions. It is harder to prove or disprove contentions in this arena, because of the variability of human behavior. An observation that might apply to one person may not apply to a different person. A generalization about one society may not apply to a different society. Chazal made a number of statements regarding society and human behavior as well, and a number of them have become normative. Were they accurate in these assessments? or were they again somewhat reflecting the social attitudes of the times? One statement for example, that a woman would rather be married(implied that it is not an ideal marriage) than not married, has had significant impact on marriage law. Does this statement reflect Torah m'Sinai, or is it a turn of the era sociological observation? Similarly many statements, particularly regarding women and the place of women in society have obviously had significant impact on Halacha. R. Eliezer Berkovits(Jewish Women in Time and Torah) wrote that when these statements contradicted Torah directives and values, they can be put aside. (R. Shalom Carmy, in the most recent edition of Tradition, reviews one or R. Bekovits's books and rebuts this approach). However, the initial question is still valid and unaswered, are the social statements in the Gemara refective of society, or Torah m'Sinai?

If that wasn't a difficult enough problem, we now come to the legal statements of the Gemara. Are they entirely Torah m'Sinai, or do they too contain at least some element of the times? This outside influence could come in at least two ways: simply reflective of the general culture, and/or, specifically shaping statements to achieve a goal related to a certain contemporary situation. In other words, are there notes of general Greek/Roman law that crept into the Talmud? Did the Tannaim write, in some cases, not for the ages, but to shape practice in response to specific situation? Obviously, trying to unravel, if there is any unravelling to be done, one bit of law from another, or looking at the political/social situation and trying to identify an attitude or legal statement that was more to address that situation but not reflective of a tradition for the ages would be incredibly difficult and uncertain.

The final question is: what is Torah m'Sinai? What are the actions and beliefs that define Judaism? Can we go through the gemara, weed out what we think are outside influences, and go back to a 'pure' form of Judaism? is it possible? Leopold Lipman(Yom Tov) Zunz, one of the first to advocate the academic study of Judaism(who also put together clues and theorized the existance of pesikta d'rav kahanna, which was subsequently found- no lightweight) tried this approach and basically came out with Reform Judaism- discounting the Talmud in favor of prophetic Judaism.

Ordhodox Jews do not want to throw away the Talmud, and believe that at the very least the legal statements reflect the path that God wants us to be on. I have not addressed the issue of the path being right becuase it is the one we are on, or if it is intrinsically right(majority rule trumping heavenly voices and deeds). This has to be an item of belief, or at least acceptance. There is no way to "prove" the validity of the gemara. However, while accepting the legal decisions, it seems reasonable to be skeptical of the science when it contradicts what we know today, and following that rationale, to judiciously look at the social science carefully as well. The opposite views, either totally rejecting the gemara, or claiming its infallibility in all cases, to me are unacceptable. comments appreciated, as always

Comments-[ comments.]

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Belief and rabbinic interpretation part 2

(see part I below)
Lets start with not saying amen to a blessing by a heretic.

R. Yosef Karo follows the Rambam and says(S.A. 215.2)

One who hears a Jew recite any of the blessings...must say amen. But if the one who recites the blessing is an apikoros, a Samaritan, or a minor(who is practicing) or an adult who alters the fixed form of the blessing, one does not respond amen.

R. Moshe Isserles adds:

One responds amen to an idolator if one heard the entire blessing from his mouth.

The basis for these statements is in Mishna Brachot:

One responds amen to a Jew who blesses, but one does not respond amen to a Samaritan(kuti) who blesses, unless one hears the entire blessing(this is in response to berachot nehenin("enjoyment bracha") the wording in the Tosefta(3.26) is similar but there the discussion is on the brachot of the Amida)

The Rambam and the Shulchan aruch go against this, but the Tur, paskens according to this mishna. The Vilna Gaon wrote:

These words(or R. Yosef Karo) indicate that one should not respond amen to a Samaritan, even if one heard the entire blessing. All this is simply astonishing. It seems to me necessary to conclude that there is a scribal error in Rambam. For the law is perfectly clear that one responds amen when one hears teh entire blessing from a Samaritan, and even part of a blessing from a Jew. But the ruling of Rambam..simply cannot be explained. (Biur HaGR'A, OH 215.2 s.v. v'onin)

(Most of this is obviously not my scholarly work, I will be happy to provide a reference on request. R. Moshe Feinstein extends the rule of not saying amen to the brachot of conservative and reform rabbis, but that is a discussion for another day)

The conclusion of the Mishna, Gemara, Tosefta, Vilna Gaon, Tosfot Yom Tov, Tur and others is that one does say amen to a bracha of a Samaritan. How can this be? Does the Samaritan not hold heretical beliefs? The answer it seems to me is in the bracha. If you hear the entire bracha, it is the bracha that counts, not the beliefs. The problem with the shechita by a sectarian would now seem to be not that the intent is wrong, but the worry that it would not be done according to code. Therefore, the problem is not that the person is a sectarian, or an apikoros, and his beliefs are non-halachic, rather that his ACTIONS will be non-halachic, and the use of apikoros or sectarian is only a marker for someone whose actions might turn out to be objectionable. In other words, a apikoros/sectarian is one upon whom there is suspicion that they will not perform the ritual act correctly. There is an assumption that one with proper beliefs is not suspect, but one with improper beliefs is a suspect. Theoretically, by this construct, an apikoros who could not(for some reason) do shechita incorrectly would not be banned from performing it.

Part III to follow

Comments-[ comments.]

Are Principles of Belief Subject to Rabbinical Interpretation?

R. Gil Student, in his essay reviewing Marc Shapiro's book on Principles of Faith(and discussed in a few places on his excellent blog), makes the following points, among others(and if I have misconstrued anything, I apologize):

1. In the Shulchan Aruch(code of Jewish law), those in certain categories cannot perform certain functions: the shechitah of an epicurian is not kosher, a Torah scroll written by a sectarian must be burned, one must not say amen to a blessing by a sectarian.

2. Because of these limits, a definition of these states in neccessary, ie we need to know what a sectarian is, what a epicurian is.

3. These definitions, in keeping with how Halachic issues are usually decided, are in the hands of the poskim-decisors.

4. Therefore, a posek can determine what is a sectarian and what is not, what beliefs constitute heresy and what is not heresy, and this definition can be different over time and place, depending on the posek and what he/they deem appropriate, of course, as long as it is within the bounds of tradition.

5. The conclusion is that not only are beliefs mandatory in Judaism, but that the mandatory content of that belief can be different, depending on the posek. Therefore, according to this line of reasoning, a ban such as the one that came out on R. Slifkin's books, declaring them to be heresy, is not only a reasonable Halachic outcome, but binding on those who choose to follow the rabbis who pronounced the ban.

Part II to follow(sorry, too much work)

Comments-[ comments.]

Clean clothes vs. a happy tummy

Interesting discussion of Torah im Derech Eretz(TiDE) vs. Torah u'Maddah(TuM) courtesy of R. Bechhofer(a very impressive talmid chacham, for those who do not know him or have read his works, he used to teach in my town)

Comments-[ comments.]

Thursday, June 16, 2005

belief and action vis a vis modern orthodoxy

"It is neccessary to distinguish between two types of modern Orthodoxy. One may be called philosophical, while the other is more appropriately characterized as behavioral. Within the category of philosophical modern Orthodox, or centrist Orthodox, would be those who are meticulously observant of halakhah but are, nevertheless, philosophically modern. Within this context, being modern means, at minimum, having a postive perspective on general education and knowledge, and being well disposed to Israel and religious Zionism.

The behaviorally modern Orthodox, on the other hand, ore not deeply concerned with philosophical ideas about either modernity or religious Zionism. By and large, they define themselves as modern Orthodox in the sense that they are not as meticulously observant as the right wing states one should be. "

Chaim Waxman, in "Towards a Sociology of Pesak" found in Tradition 25:3 12-25 and Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, ed by Moshe Sokol.

My childhood, by Dr. Waxman's definitions, would have been a combination of the two types of MO. My parents actually were deeply concerned and involved in the philosophy of MO, and inculcated it in us, but as far as observance, we were behavioral. In thinking about where I want to be, and should be, it is quite obvious that the only place is strictly philosophical MO. If one believes in Torah and mitzvot, and wants to call oneself Orthodox, then one should observe the details of mitzvot, big and small. One can of course argue about the exact details fo the mitzvot, but for most mitzvot there isn't much debate.

My children frequently have little friends over at the house, most come from MO homes and go to day school. I rarely hear any of them say a bracha before eating. Even more rare is hearing them say a bracha afterwards before they run off and play. To be honest, my children dont have a perfect record either, but they remember more often than not, and when I remind them, smile and say it, without looking at me as if I was from Mars.

A valid criticism of behavioral MO from the right is the lack of attention to mitzvot. Public mitzvot, like going to shul or observing Shabbat in public, or even keeping kosher in the home(counts as a public mitzva because the public wont eat in your house if you dont) are easy to keep. Its the little things. Brachot before eating. Washing hads in the morning. davening three times a day. Kashrut when eating out or away from the 'hood. The behaviorly MO(and I have been there, and am trying to escape) seem to lack a constant awareness of God, or at least a frequent awareness of God. God only appears on Shabbat, Holidays, school, or other specific occasions, but not as part of regular life. I think that keeping the minutiae of mitzvot, and the small(as far as time commitment) mitzvot, keeps the idea of God around. If you say "asher yatzar" after using the bathroom, you mention God, even if only with minimal attention, a few more times a day.

The philosophical MO are the leaders of the MO movement. There are some more to the right, like the YU Roshei Yeshiva, who seem to attract philosophical MO followers(and those who are behaviorly strict), and some more to the left, like R. Saul Berman, Edah, R. Yitz Greenberg and others. They seem to attract both the philosophical MO, and those who are a mix of philosophical and behavioral. (The strictly behavioral would lean to the left, but may not be very involved in looking at the philosophy and beliefs of orthodoxy). In other words, there is a significant group who care deeply about the philosophy, but are lax(by traditional standards) in observance. It seems logical that one of the goals of the left wing of MO should be to increase the levels and standards of observance in their followers. Halachically based differences about beliefs and large issues like the place of women in religion certainly are items for discussion. Making a bracha before and after eating should be taken for granted by all who call themselves orthodox.

Comments-[ comments.]

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


My 9 year old was bugging me because she wanted to go to tikkun leil Shavuot. She had a busy Sunday, what with preparing for the chag, a dance recital(ballet and jazz), and enjoying a very nice day. I tucked her in at 9, and told her I would wake her at 11, and if she could get herself out of bed, she could come with me. I figured she would mumble something about being tired, roll over and go back to sleep. NOPE. She bounced out of bed, got dressed in a jiffy(much faster than her usual, in fact) and we went and learned for 2 hours(actually, I was the one who was getting tired). Not only did she absorb a pretty adult shiur on Ruth, but we had excellent discussions on the walks to and from shul. And she certainly didn't go because of the snacks. One of the things I worry about is passing on a love of learning and Torah to my children. So far, so good.

Comments-[ comments.]

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Pre Shavuot belief check

I started reading Professor Menachem(Marc) Kellner's book Dogma in Medieval Jewish Thought..(I have not yet read Marc Shapiro's book on the 13 principles of faith). He states that Torah and Rabbinic Judaism actually was pretty dogma free. It was much more concerned with actions rather than beliefs. Dogma was introduced first by Saadya Gaon in Emunot v'Deot as a response to the challenges of other faiths, mainly Karaiites and Islam. Other religions(including Christianity) had been considered Avoda Zara and therefore did not pose a theological threat. It was only the rise of monotheistic beliefs with a defined theology that required a Jewish response in kind. Obviously, Rambam(Maimonides) further catagorized and classified Jewish beliefs into his famous 13 principles.

The Mishna in Sanhedrin discusses people who have no part in the next world. As Prof. Kellner puts it, dogma is neccessary only to define who is part of the group, and who will achieve salvation(however you want to define salvation). He posits that the Mishna that discusses those who do not have a part in the world to come really doesn't constitute dogma, because many of the things that make one inelgible are actions, not beliefs. I would add that the use of the word "says"(as in " one who says....") may reflect an action as well, and may not apply to a privately held(and unspoken) belief.(I have not looked up the gemara in a while, so I may be wrong, feel free to correct).

Prof. Kellner holds that Judaism was more concerned with "belief in" rather than "belief that". If you think about the Ten Commandments, the first is "I am the Lord Your God." It is a statement, not a command, like "keep Shabbat" or "you may have no other gods." According to this, we are obliged to have belief in God, and follow His dictates, not neccessarily to believe a whole list of things about God. An analogy can be made to an earthly king or government(lehavdil). It is sufficient to accept the rule of the governement and keep the laws. One doesn't neccessarily have to believe all sorts of other things about the government.

However, Prof. Kellner doesn't address the command of v'ahavta, you should love God. That wouldn't be a belief, but a state of mind, something else entirely. Food for thought, to go along with the blintzes.

PS. R. Gil Student references a critique and Charles adds historical context in the comments.

Comments-[ comments.]

Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth

The Yated Ne'eman wrote recently that they purposefully do not always give all the biographical details when they write articles and stories on people. They want people to learn a moral lesson and a behavioral style, rather than give the complete and unvarnished truth. Their goal is shaping morals, not being a completely accurate recording of history.

This is in contrast to what Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky write in the introduction to his book, The Making of A Gadol. Thanks to R. Gil Student and his open access program(yes, I am giving it an advertisement, but it is well deserved), the introduction to the book is available here.

R. Kamenetsky writes about his thinking and the pros and cons of writing history, as opposed to moral storytelling. He quotes R. Shimon Shwab in favor of moral telling, and R. Shwab's brother on the other side. Ultimately, with few exceptions, he comes down on the side of telling the truth as best as he knows. It is too bad his attitude is not more common.

I highly reccomend spending a few minutes and reading what R. Kamenetsky wrote. Not only because of this issue, but insights into other issues as well. Hopefully the entire book will be more accessable soon.

Comments-[ comments.]

Friday, June 03, 2005

Why I blog

Lisa, in a comment on the previous post, noted that I seem to spend(waste) a significant amount of time blogging. Probably more than most, less than some. I find it is fun, but the main reason is that it allows me to have a dialogue on topics that I care about.

Bloggers and commentors come with their own backgrounds. Some are incredibly well educated, some are well read, some are curious, some are just curious, but there is a wide variety of experience and education mixed in.

I come from a kind of maskili(enlightenment) background. My parents, while not Israeli, spoke Hebrew at home to me, and while I only spent two years in day school, I had tutors in Hebrew literature, Nach, and we read parshat hashavua at home every week. My family drifted from driving to shul(orthodox) on Shabbat to not doing that. I have always considered myself orthodox, but didn't know a lot about hashkafa and other topics. As an adult I have always been shomer shabbat and kashrut, but didn't really look into all the details. I also essentially took 11 years off from life to go to medical school and train in my speciality. Now that I have had time to read and think, I am trying to find my way to the hashkafa and practice that I think is right and true. Believe it or not, blogging, and reading other blogs has helped me sort out what I think, order my beliefs, and plot out what I want to impart to my children, which I think is most important. I will probably address this issues(among others) in the future. So, 8 months into my blogging experience, I would like to thank all the commentors, and ba'alei ha'blogs for helping me, and even thank Lisa for making me think about the topic. I certainly will admit that blogging is fun, but it has been immensely helpful to me, and I dont regret doing it (yet).

Comments-[ comments.]

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Sushi for thought

Over the weekend it was reported that a few World War Two Japanese soldiers were still hiding in the Philipines. About 20 years ago the last known soldiers were found, still hiding out, not knowing that the war was over. They had to find thier 82 year old former commanding officer to convince them that the war was indeed over. The more recent soldiers apparently had left their unit back in 1945 or so, and were hiding out for fear of being court martialled if found. Which gets me to my point: Is that a life? Has sad is it to spend 50 years either fighting a war that is already over, or hiding needlessly? How do they feel when they find out that the main governing objective in their life is null and void?

Obviously, one can say the same about those who pursue pleasure and then find spirituality, and realize that hedonism, ala King Solomon in Kohellet, is a futile pursuit as well. But, at least they had fun, and enjoyed themselves while doing it. However, there are people for whom achieving the goal, no matter how purposeless or futile, bring fulfillment.

A friend in his young and foolish days ran up large amounts of credit card debt, and over 10 years has gradually paid it down. Recently, the companies have raised the interest rates to over 20%, although he has never missed a payment. He still has a rather large balance, and over time, has repaid in interest several times the initial loan amount. His has put his life on hold until he gets it all payed off. He refuses to declare bankruptcy because for 10 years he has dedicated his life to this goal, and now, even though the finish line has been pushed back a few years(or more), he refuses to take a short cut. Paying off his credit card debts rather than living the life he wants to live, has become the purpose in his life. I wonder if he will be happy when he accomplishes it, or if he will look back and regret not taking an easier way out.

Comments-[ comments.]

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Does your Gadol understand you?

Someone reading my posts may think I am against the gedolim. They would be wrong. I admire everyone who dedicates their life to learning Torah, teaching others, spending their time in leadership positions of our people, and making difficult decisions about what Hashem wants from us, and what path He wants us to take. As I have noted previously, Halachic decision making often requires balancing competing views and values. I think the people usually identified as gedolim dont have the same values as I do. Now, they may claim that my values are not consonant with Torah, while I would have to bring proof that they are. Lets take a specific example:

The role of women in learning and society. I encourage my daughters to learn mishna and gemara. All the fairy tales in our house end with the princess getting an advanced degree in something before she gets married to the prince. Since it was published in Yated, I assume many gedolim agree with this . For those who dont want to read the whole thing, it is an article about careers that are appropriate for Jewish women, the emphasis being on those that can avoid problems of yichud(being alone with another man) and maintain tzniut(modesty). I am certainly in favor of modesty, but my definition of modesty is different than that of the author of this article.

In my previous post I mentioned a poster(I cant find my copy, if anyone has it, or a link, please let me know) requesting women to leave shul before adon olam so as not to have mixing of the sexes after shul. This was signed by some identified as gedolim. Again, they are balancing the need for seperation with the desire of women to daven.

The Gedolim in these situations decided that tzniut(modesty) is more important that career aspirations for women-indeed, that there is no way around the tzniut issues in most careers, and that it is better to eliminate even a small chance of mixing, rather than have women stay in shul for the entire davening. From a strictly halachic point of view, it is an easy decision to make. Career aspirations or a desire to stay in shul and daven are subjective things, difficult to quantify. There isn't anything in Shulchan Aruch that says to let women have a career or have them stay in shul. However, there is lots in Shas and Poskim about tzniut and keeping women and men apart. So, one would have to put a significant amount of halachic value on what the women want to counterbalance the lessening of observence of tzniut, and in order to come out in favor of women staying in shul, or being allowed to have different careers.

My challenge to those who say we have to follow the gedolim, or those that say the gedolim understand women's issues: Do you(for a woman) or your wife leave shul before adon olam to avoid mixing? do you(for a woman) or your wife have a job that goes against the yated article? If you do, contact R. Elyashiv or one of the other gedolim and ask if it is ok.

If you are going to claim that the article or the poster applies only to women in the chareidi community, then the logical inference is that the gedolim only understand the women in that community, and dont understand that a lot of frum women want to daven, and want to have a wide variety of jobs. And they really dont understand that a lot of frum women want to learn more than a few halachot and stories of our forefathers. So, either the gedolim understand you, and pasken for you, or they dont understand you. If they dont understand you, are they still going to pasken for you?

(Sorry for the loss of the last sentence)

Note: the gedolim in this article refer to the eidah hacharedi type that sign posters. I am not referring to RHS, or other "modern orthodox" type of gedolim.

Comments-[ comments.]

Friday, May 27, 2005

What do gedolim know about women- a response to Mrs. Toby Katz

Mrs. Toby Katz, over at Crosscurrents, makes the claim that gedolim(the great decisors of the generation) understand women and women's concerns. She answers the question of:

regarding the tendency of some in feminist quarters to question the ability of “the rabbis” to evince sufficient empathy for female concerns….

with this statement

The notion that only blacks can understand blacks, only women can understand women, and so on, undercuts the bedrock of our common humanity.

Gedolim rise to an exceptionally high level of refinement, but all humans who are sufficiently mature and intelligent can understand the feelings of other humans.

An understanding or a response to women can be either on a personal level, or on a policy/communal level. She and some of the other CC bloggers bring nice stories about the personal kindness and generosity of some gedolim. This personal concern for a fellow human being reflects kindness, concern for others, charity and other middot tovot(good traits). However, being nice to people, women included, is different from recognizing problems that are unique to women as a group of people. For example, many people, faced with a demonstrably poor person will give the person money, or help him. It is(I hope) human nature to do so. And, it is only some change, or a few dollars. But how many then go on vote against increasing taxes to help the poor? or give large amounts of money to a faceless organization that will provide better housing for the poor? There are two differences: With one there is a name and a face on the problem, and it is a personal issue related to that one person. With the other there is no one face to the problem, and it is not a personal issue, it is a societal issue unique to one set of societies members. There is a big difference between being nice to a person who shows an obvious need(one which you yourself probably has had, or can imagine yourself having) and understanding the needs of a group of people that you have been shielded from for the majority of your life.

I posted a response noting that male members of the Chareidi community have limited to no interactions with members of the opposite sex except for their immediate family, and their wife. However, Mrs. Katz maintains that the gedolim understand the needs of women. How do they obtain this understanding? A number of possibilites occur to me:

1. By being a gadol, one axiomatically understands the needs of all. This is a bit mystical and since we require proof of miricles, we will put this claim to the side for know.

2. One can only be a gadol if one understands the needs of others. In other words, understanding the needs of women is a criteria for being acclaimed a gadol. Is this in operation? It seems to me that the gedolim are more noted for learning and paskening and PERSONAL middot, than for learning the issues relating to women. We have instances of gedolim who did not suffer fools lightly. Not to be critical, but would they have been less than awesome in the middot of pity or concern for others?

3. Gedolim understand women through their vast learning of Tanach, Shas and Poskim. Obviously, one criteria for being a gadol is tremendous knowledge. However, are women only the sum total of what is written about them in Shas and Poskim? Are men? Can one understand and relate to either sex if all they have is our mesora, but limited to no personal experience?

My answer to that question is a paraphrase(I forgot the author): I truly believe that all knowledge is to be found in the Torah, but that we do not know how to find it all. Even knowledge of plumbing can be found, if one is on a deep enough level. However, until we have reached that level, when I need plumbing work, I will call a plumber.

The proof in the lack of understanding on the part of contemporary gedolim of women's issues is in the posters that went up last year requesting women to leave shul early so as not to have mingling of the sexes after davening. Mrs. Katz, are you leaving shul early? Do you think that the gedolim who signed this understand your desire to daven? to attend shul? If they do, they felt the possibility of your mingling with men was far more dangerous than the benefit to you of finishing davening. Have you asked a gadol how he can accept the instances of heter meah rabbonim that have been increasing? Why they have not put a stop to it? put the perpetrators in cherem?

One of course could argue that the gedolim understand the women's issues in their community- which is the very chareidi one. However, what about the issues of a more moderate chareidi woman? Or the Modern Orthodox? Where can the understanding end?

Comments-[ comments.]

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