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

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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)

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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