The Paradox of Bee Honey

Bumblebee (Photo: Wikipedia)

Updated March 6, 2017

We all love bee honey. No Rosh Hashanah meal would be complete without it. Yet, in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini, we find ourselves with a conundrum that has puzzled many rabbinic minds since the days of Late Antiquity. I am referring to the verse in Leviticus, “But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you” (Lev. 11:23). Maimonides explains, “Honey made from bees and hornets[1] is permitted. The reason is that the bees do not actually make the honey from their bodies. Rather, the bees bring the nectar into their bodies, and then it is collected into their mouths from herbs, which they regurgitate into their hive. The purpose of this enables them to provide themselves with food during the rainy season.”[2]

A klatz kashe in Yiddish is an obvious question that any fool can ask, “But all other winged insects that have four feet are detestable to you” You  might counter: Bees have six feet and not four! Actually, bees use its two front arms for gathering pollen, and its four back legs for walking.

The Talmud in BT Bechorot 7a-b discusses an intriguing question: Can something pure come from an impure source? Or, do we say that whatever comes from an impure source, remains ceremonially impure? On the subject of bee-honey, Rashi offers a different exposition from Maimonides; according to him, “The bees bring into their bodies—they eat from the flowers of the tree, and from this they make honey in their intestines.” Scientifically speaking—Rashi’s exposition comes a bit closer to a modern scientific explanation. Perhaps Maimonides might consider Rashi’s exposition as an example of a permitted substance coming out of an unclean source, which the Sages ruled remains “unclean.” However, the science does not really support Maimonides’ explanation. However, according to Livescience.com:

  • Nectar is a sugary liquid that derives from flowers using a bee’s long, tube-shaped tongue and stored in its “crop.” While sloshing around in the crop, the nectar mixes with enzymes that transform its chemical composition and pH, making it more suitable for long-term storage. Once in the comb, nectar is still a viscous liquid — nothing like the thick honey you use at the breakfast table. To get all that extra water out of their honey, bees set to work fanning the honeycomb with their wings in an effort to speed up the process of evaporation. When most of the water has evaporated from the honeycomb, the bee seals the comb with a secretion of liquid from its abdomen, which eventually hardens into beeswax. Away from air and water, honey can be stored indefinitely, providing bees with the perfect food source for cold winter months. [3]

Ultimately,  R. Sheishet in the Talmud differs from the view and follows R. Yaakov’s opinion that theoretically, were it not for explicit biblical passages permitting honey, bee honey too would have been prohibited as being the product from an unclean source. The passage he is alluding to is from the story of Samson (Judg. 14:6-9; and his famous riddle regarding bee honey to the Philistines.[4] R. Sheishet evidently felt ambivalent about his colleagues’ explanation as to how honey is produced and felt that given their lack of knowledge on this matter, he could find stronger footing in citing a biblical verse to prove his point.

There is an intriguing interpretation found in Philo of Alexandria, who explains on Leviticus 2:11: “Moreover, it also ordains that every sacrifice shall be offered up without any leaven or honey, not thinking it fit that either of these things should be brought to the altar. The honey, perhaps, because the bee which collects it is not a clean animal, inasmuch as it derives its birth, as the story goes, from the putrefaction and corruption of dead oxen, just as wasps spring from the bodies of horses.”  Was Philo thinking of the story regarding Samson, which describes what he discovered after he ripped the lion in half, “… he turned aside to look at the remains of the lion, and there was a swarm of bees in the lion’s carcass, and honey” (Judg. 14:8)?  Still Philo’s interpretation offers  a theoretical novelty—that is if one assumes the verse is speaking about bee honey. Although its food is edible for human consumption as seen in the Tanakh,  it is considered unworthy for the altar because of its unclean status. This position has no parallel in rabbinical literature. [5]

Among modern scholars, there is a fairly wide consensus that much of the honey referred to in the Bible was not bee honey at all, but is really a sweet syrup that is produced from the fruit of figs, grapes, carobs, and dates. Both kinds are still made in the East and are called dibis (honey) by the Arabs. Hence, the famous expression, “a land flowing with milk and honey” may not be referring to bee honey, but rather to a land blessed with ample fruit.

However, among modern scholars, there is a fairly wide consensus that much of the honey referred to in the Bible was not bee honey at all, but is really a sweet syrup that is produced from the fruit of figs, grapes, carobs, and dates. Both kinds are still made in the East and are called dibis (honey) by the Arabs. Hence, the famous expression, “a land flowing with milk and honey” may not be referring to bee honey, but rather to a land blessed with ample fruit.

 


[1] Maggid Mishnah points out that Maimonides derives his view from a Talmudic discussion where he follows the opinion of the Baraitha namely, that hornet honey wasps are “clean: and permitted for consumption. However, R. Shashet and R. Yaakob differ and regard both of these products as forbidden. Among medieval rabbinic scholars, Ramban and the Rosh take a stringent position on this matter. R. Moshe Isserseles rejects their opinion given the scarcity of hornet honey, thus making it a moot point) See  S.A. Y.D. 81:9.

[2] MT Hilchot Ma’achalot Assurot 3:3.

[3] http://www.livescience.com/37611-what-is-honey-honeybees.html

[4] For other references to bee honey in the Tanakh, see Ps. 19:11; Prov. 16:24.

[5] Spec. Laws 1:291-293.

Book Review: God and Politics in Esther-

 

Yoram Hazony:  Title:  God and Politics in Esther 2nd Edition. Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition (2015)

ISBN-10: 1107583454; Price $18.27 on Amazon.  Rating ***** out of 5 Stars.

Reviewer: Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Yoram Hazony’s exposition of the Book of Esther is priceless.  In my Judaism 101 class, everyone read a little bit from God and Politics in Esther and the discussions that ensued made the time move so quickly . . . All my students quickly ordered their copies; they are all having an exciting time discussing it with their friends.

The Book of Esther has always been one of the most enigmatic books of the Bible. The absence of God’s Name in this charming book gives it a unique distinction among all the other biblical books. As Hazony points out in his introduction:

  • When the rabbis spoke of the giving of Torah to the Jewish people, they argued that it had been accepted not once, but twice: Once at Sinai at the beginning of the Bible, and then again at the end, in the time of Esther.  (p.2).

The nexus of Sinai and Esther provides a remarkable contrast. The theophany (revelation) at Sinai is replete with what moderns describe as “special effects,” the background and sensory images overpowered the people. But the acceptance of the Torah in Esther’s time marks an absence of the Divine Presence. God is hidden, and Esther’s name intimates a very different kind of reality, Hazony argues, one where the voices of the prophets are no longer discernable:

  • Esther describes a world in which the Jews are distant from their land, their tradition, and their God . . .(p.2)

Like a master artist, Hazony describes Jewish vulnerability at this point in history, where the Jews are no longer master of their own destinies; they exist at the whim of a Persian King who with the power of a word, could decree life and death—as Queen Vashti quickly discovered. He notes:

  • In exile, the Jews must live in dispersion, their institutions weak, their concerns wandering far from Jewish things, and their politics alienated from every obvious source of cohesiveness, direction and strength.  It is clear at the outset that under such conditions, there is no possibility of freely seeking and implementing any Jewish ideal …  (p.2).

Esther reveals the fragility of the Jewish people who are a minority living in a powerful empire that can scarcely notice its Jewish subjects. The Jewish people themselves are not sure where and how they fit; their ambivalence can be seen even in how Mordechai and Esther regard their Jewish heritage by assimilating to their new home. Mordechai’s message to Esther, when she is taken to the harem, “ Just fit in!”

Most Orthodox friends I know might not agree with Hazony’s view that Mordechai and Esther were assimilated Jews (p. 1). However, a similar argument certainly could be made about Joseph, who takes on a completely new identity once he becomes the viceroy of Egypt (Gen. 41:41-45).

Reminiscent of Malbim’s commentary on the Book of Esther, Hazony points out that King Achashverosh never regarded his wife Vashti as a life partner and mate. He viewed her as  yet another, “accoutrement in his demonstration of total power: The empire is to admire her object beauty and to be impressed that the king has—as the Talmudic scholar Rav depicts Achashverosh as saying—such a “vessel” for his “use” (p. 11).

Although there is an almost surreal quality to the Book of Esther, modern readers often fail to take its message seriously. The old Jewish joke about the common theme of most Jewish holidays, “They tried to kill us but failed; let’s eat!”  But Hazony’s Esther reveals the serious issues pertaining to our people’s minority status in a superpower that would have been scarcely aware of our existence, had Haman not scapegoated us.

Haman is a descendant of the warlike Bedouin people of Amalek, and the hatred of the Jew for him comes quite naturally. In his treatment of Amalek, Hazony shows that this once ancient marauding people of the Sinai had one simple objective, namely, terrify the Israelites and strike fear into the hearts of their foes so they will not approach their land (Exod. 17:18)

  • Damaged enough in early rounds of applied terror, even the most physically powerful opponent may be made to feel that control is lost and that further engagements will bring worse—even that capitulation “and peace” are preferable to further confrontation. The most basic method of terror even today is just this: the use of applied cruelty against innocents, the more efficiently to forestall the need for military engagement.   (p. 65).

Excellent points!

Hazony goes on to develop a relevant distinction between Amalek and Israel. Amalek has no “fear of God” which manifests itself in his contempt for life; in contrast, God beckons Israel to always show a “fear of God” through reverence. By treating the widow, the poor, the resident alien along with the more vulnerable members of society—with respect, justice and with dignity, we individually and collectively demonstrate a respect for God, Who is always triangulated in every human relationship we encounter.  The absence of this reverence for God makes every conceivable evil deed possible (see pp. 67-68).

(Buber has already written much on this subject as well.)

At any event, Haman is out to get Mordechai because he fears that the King will wake up to Haman’s real goal and political objectives. Mordechai is constantly campaigning daily against Haman and manages to influence the King “to reevaluate the wisdom of relying upon Haman” (p. 186).

In the end, Esther and Mordechai succeed in raising serious doubts to the King about his loyal vizier’s hidden agenda.

Hazony makes his most dramatic point toward the end of the book:

  • Esther is written so as to ensure that the following teaching cannot be missed: God’s salvation is not a thing that exists in the world without reference to the actions of men and women. God’s salvation is emergent upon the salvation that Esther and Mordechai bring about through their own efforts in the policies of Susa. If one looks for it anywhere other than in political endeavors—for example, if one’s eye is fixed on fasting and the sackcloth—then one will still have witnessed a wonder and a miracle, for one will still see that the Jews have been spared, when the warrant for their destruction had already been sealed and delivered. But one will not have understood what this miracle was, or what is that God did for the Jews. (p. 206).

His observation is certainly true. Throughout the pages of the Bible, redemption and salvation never occurs in a vacuum. There must be human actors in every biblical story of redemption. For there to be an Exodus, there must be a Moses, an Aaron, a Miriam, a Shifra and Puah. And this pattern is visible in every story of how our people managed to survive. A thought from the Zohar captures much of Haznony’s theology succinctly and clearly, “Blessings from above descend only where there is some substance and not mere emptiness” (Zohar 1:88a). And from this perspective, Esther serves to remind us that we must do everything that is politically possible within our own means to survive and hope that God will do the rest.

Had some of our European Hassidic leaders realized this important lesson about political activism during the Holocaust, many more people might have been rescued.

Book Review: Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism by Samuel Katz

 

Ghost Riders: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism by Samuel Katz  —  Publisher: Berkley  (2016) ISBN: 1592409016–Price (Amazon) $18.00–Rated: 5*

Reviewed by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

There is hardly a day when we don’t read another story about a terrorist attack. For the most part, Radical Islam has demonstrated an almost uncanny ability to raise itself from the ashes of death. Whenever I read about the latest terrorist attack, I cannot help but think about Hercules’ battle with the Hydra. According to Greek myth, the Hydra was a nine-headed serpent. The middle head was immortal. As the creature ravaged the country of Argos, Hercules went out to destroy the creature. But no sooner did he cut off one of the Hydra’s heads, two more grew in its place. With the help of his nephew Iolaus, they managed to burn off the stumps of the other heads—all except for the middle head, which Hercules buried under a huge rock.

The Israeli battle against the forces of Radical Islam  are no less daunting than the battles of Hercules, for unlike Hercules–who lived in the realm of myth–Israel fights the Hydra in real time.

Samuel Katz’s books on Radical Islam always make an exciting read. His latest book, The Ghost Warriors: Inside Israel’s Undercover War Against Suicide Terrorism, from the first page onward reads like a modern day spy thriller.  Katz reminds us that the seventh of the eight Israeli wars was fought between October 1, 2000, and April 30, 2008. It was the longest protracted conflict in Israel’s brief and bloodstained history, and it was waged inside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as inside most of Israel’s town and cities. The battlefields weren’t barren stretches of no-man’s-lands where two armies clashed. They were cafes and city buses, shopping malls, even children’s bed rooms . . .”

Katz reminds us that there was no master plan at work here. The sole purpose of the Intifada was to make Israel bleed  . . .and it worked. However, what distinguishes Israel from all other Western countries of the “civilized” world (I use  the term “civilized” much like Gandhi did when he defied Britain), is her ability to reinvent her strategies in dealing with this religious culture of death that threatens the world today.

This asymmetrical war demanded a new response. What did Israel do? Katz reveals that Israel assembled a Special Forces unit that functioned underground incognito called, Ya’mas– special undercover operations unit of the Israeli Border Police.  This group is the Israeli equivalent to CTU—this organization would make Jack Bauer proud. Ya’mas draws from a variety of ethnicities. Most applicants that apply for this unit typically end up getting rejected. They function so effectively in getting rid of terrorists, bomb makers, suicide bombers—their effectiveness is legendary. They are affectionately called “Duvdevan” (Hebrew: דובדבן ; lit. cherry) because of their elite  status.

During their operations, Duvdevan soldiers typically drive modified civilian vehicles and wear Arab civilian clothes as a disguise. Katz points out that some of the Israeli units would dress up like a beautiful woman—with clothes worthy of a Broadway play. Together, these soldiers go into the belly of the beast, giving the Palestinian leadership anxiety-attacks because they never knew who was going to attack them next! (Cf. pp. 16-19.) The unit can perform high-risk arrests, raids, targeted assassination, kidnappings and a range of other urban warfare operations.

The Ya’mas is a unit that never takes a day off; they operate in many places simultaneously, and they function autonomously independent of the normal Israeli army units.

I loved reading this book and if you want to see how a real counter terrorist unit functions, Samuel Katz’s Ghost Warriors is a must read! I rate it 5 stars.

*

Daniel Klein’s New Translation of Shadal Commentary on Exodus

Author: Daniel Klein(editor and trans.)  and Samuel David Luzzato: Shadal on Exodus: Samuel David Luzzatto’s Interpretation of the Book of Shemot . Kodesh Press, 2015ISBN-13: 978-0692522066. Price: $29.95. Rating ***** — Reviewer: Rabbi Dr. Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — One of the most remarkable modern day exegetes of the 19th century was the Italian biblical commentator, Samuel David Luzzato, better known by many as Shadal (1800-1865). His approach to the contextual meaning of a passage is what Jewish exegetes call, “the peshat.” While most medieval exegetes make it a habit to cite other medieval exegetes, Shadal makes it a point to examine and critique many of the well-known Christian scholars’ expositions of his era, as well as other leading Jewish scholars of his day, e.g., Moses’ Mendelsohn’s Biur Commentary, which he criticizes over forty times!

Many Orthodox scholars—past and present—might look askance at the various sources Shadal brings into his commentary. Shadal’s list of non-Jewish scholars included, Nicholas de Lyre (1270-1339), Samuel Bochart (1599-1667), Heinrich Gesenius (1786-1842), who wrote one of the most important Hebrew-Chaldean lexicons of all times, and a list of many scholars. Some learned rabbinical scholars might think that bringing the words of the German anti-Semitic scholar Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791) into a discussion on the Torah could certainly seem inappropriate and even disrespectful. Still, Shadal treated him and others with a modicum of intellectual respect even though some of the German attitudes were truly contemptuous when it came to granting Jews their civil rights. For today’s critical age, Shadal teaches us to be open-minded when considering the truth of an interpretation.

A reader cannot help but be impressed with Shadal’s mastery of the classical literature and cites Roman Diodorus of Sicily, Aristotle, Josephus and Philo of Alexandria as effortlessly as he does the Talmud.

One of the more endearing qualities Shadal demonstrates is way he cites the views of his students in clarifying an interpretation of a biblical text. Lesser men would take credit for other’s interpretive insights, but Shadal takes great pride in inspiring a new generation of Torah scholars (cf. pp.63-64, p. 87). One of his favorite students, Rabbi Abraham Hai Mainster, is cited sixteen times in his Exodus commentary! Yet Shadal could also be caustic and dismissive of other Jewish scholars’ interpretations, as he was with Moses Mendelsohn’s commentary (p. 37 on Exodus 1:9 (p. 88).

Commenting on Exodus 4:9, Shadal cites a well-known popular view that Moses was a chronic stutterer (Ibn Ezra), but Rashbam thinks this is a baseless and that, “This idea is not contained in the words of the Tannaim, and one need not mind the irreligious books.” Actually, this view is found in the Peshitta and some of the early midrashim.[1] Shadal added further, “Moses was not fluent in the Egyptian language, but this, too, is truly unlikely since Moses had been raised in Egypt and in the king’s house.” (p. 73). Ibn Ezra notes that “God would help him annunciate words that he had difficulty articulating.” Shadal scoffs at Ibn Ezra’s remark:

If so, let Ibn Ezra show us which letters are not found in the passages that Moses spoke to the entire people—apart from the fact that it is blasphemous to say that God would choose as His messenger, who would give the Torah to his people, a man who would have to choose the words that he could pronounce (p. 74). [2]

Shadal offers a different explanation, namely, he lacked eloquence and was unskilled in public speaking. While this is a plausible reading, Shadal did not consider the possibility that the problem was not that he was not fluent in the Egyptian tongue (which is very unlikely considering he was raised there since he was an infant). Rather, the problem was his lack of fluency in the Hebrew language! He spoke with a very heavy accent, which might have been difficult for native-born Israelites to understand!

Concerning the identity of the Hebrew midwives (Exod. 1:15), Shadal mentions a debate among ancient and modern commentators as to the identities of the midwives; some think they were Egyptian or alternatively, Hebrew. The former think that it is unlikely that the Hebrew midwives would contribute toward the genocide of their own people by deliberately murdering their male offspring. Shadal suggests a third view, namely, the midwives were not Egyptian, but were another Semitic people who lived in Goshen who assisted Pharaoh. Among modern biblical scholars, W.H.C Propp concurs with Shadal.[3] (This reviewer finds the contrarian interpretation more contextually convincing.)

I was curious to see how Shadal would answer the famous question as to how many Israelites left Egypt. Here is a brief quotation how he handles that conundrum:

The Sages said the Israelite women bore six at a time (Exodus Rabbah 1:7) , and ancient writers attest that the Nile waters increased fertility and that the Egyptian women usually bore twins or even more than two at a time. Aristotle wrote, “Frequently and in many lands, women bear twins as for instance in Egypt especially (History of Animals, Book 7:4).

Shadal attempts to show other examples from Pliny and others to prove there were approximately 2 million people or more who left Egypt. It was here I referred back to Shadal’s own commentary on Genesis 36:43, where he makes the point of stating that word אֶלֶף (ʾelep) can also mean “clan,” family, or “military unit” (cf. 1 Sam. 10:19). This could suggest that the number that left Egypt was not 600,000 men of military age, but 600 military units—a far smaller number! Alternatively, the number may be more symbolic (Cassuto) or pertain to a later time when a census was taken from the entire nation once it had settled; in such a scenario, future generations may have felt that they—literally—had emblematically participated in the Exodus from Egypt.

When considering the naturalistic attitude Shadal has concerning miracles, imagining an army of 600,000 people dissipates once we render elep as clan—especially when the Egyptian army that took on the Hittites in the battle of Kadesh was only 20,000 soldiers! Nobody at that time in history had a standing army of 600,000 except for possibly the ancient Chinese. This interpretation seems more plausible than Shadal’s. It makes biblical text more understandable without wondering how the Sinai Peninsula could possibly hold 2.5 million people without becoming a bio-hazard from the human waste products alone! In addition, 2.5 million people could never have crossed the Sea of Reeds in merely one night.

In any event, despite Shadal’s criticism of Maimonides, the two thinkers share a similar world-view regarding natural religion and the divine unfoldment of the miraculous. In his examination of the plague of blood (Exod. 7:19), Shadal reluctantly approves of Eichorn’s opinion noting that all of the ten plagues were:

. . .natural phenomena that commonly occurred in Egypt ever year, but that Moses’ intention was to make Pharaoh understand that it is the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, Who activated these phenomena, and that He was the Ruler of all the earth” (p. 103).

But Shadal adds that the effects of the river’s bloody appearance was more onerous:

. . . novel in its ill-effects, to the extent that all the fish within it died. . .This is proof that water’s foul odor and quality were more intense than in other years and departed from the course of nature, as if the water had actually turned to blood” (p. 104).

Modern biblical scholars subscribing to religious naturalism take a somewhat different approach, pointing out that it is the intensity and the synchronicity of the plague that the Torah teaches is miraculous. Regarding the Nile River turning into blood, it is important to differentiate between Upper Egypt (the southern portion that is mountainous) and Lower Egypt (the northern portion that is flat). A heavy inundation from the Ethiopian plateau’s earth produced the reddish color in the Nile, whose soil was full of reddish-colored microorganisms called flagellates, turned the Nile blood red, undrinkable and foul smelling.

The smiting of the firstborn in Egypt is of special interest. Shadal dismisses the view of Eichorn who conjectured that a pestilence affecting young men was responsible for killing the Egyptian males. Shadal agrees with the converted Ernst Rosenmuller’s view that such a pestilence would not single out the Egyptian firstborn in particular (p. 146). Shadal’s citations of other commentators—Jewish and Christian—sometimes suggest a more interesting alternative to the view Shadal proposes. Some modern biblical scholars think the firstborn of Egypt might have died from contaminated produce reserved for the firstborn.

Shadal did not consider the possibility that bekhor can sometimes also mean “excellent” (par. to ʿelyon, “highest,” Ps. 89:28[27]), and denoting the superlative (elative), hence with respect to Exodus 12:29, it could denote the “flower of Egypt.”

It is a shame Shadal did not consider a more daring but naturalistic interpretation. Citing Rashi, the Russian iconoclastic thinker V. Velikovsky makes the canny observation, “Thus at midnight, the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 12:29) must be read “all the select of Egypt,” as one would say, ‘all the flower of Egypt’ or “all the strength of Egypt.’ “Israel is my chosen: I shall let fall all the chosen of Egypt.” Natural death would usually choose the weak, the sick, the old. The earthquake is different; the walls fall upon the strong and the weak alike. Actually the Midrashim say that “as many as nine tenths of the inhabitants have perished.”[4]

Proof for the scriptural basis in my opinion for Velikovsky’s novel reading can be found in Psalm 114, which could be read as an intrabiblical interpretation of the events leading to the Exodus—one which involved considerable seismic activity:

When Israel came forth from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from an alien people,
Judah became God’s sanctuary,
Israel, God’s domain.
The sea saw and fled;
the Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams;
the hills, like lambs.

Why was it, sea, that you fled?
Jordan, that you turned back?
Mountains, that you skipped like rams?
You hills, like lambs?

Tremble, earth, before the Lord,
before the God of Jacob,
Who turned the rock into pools of water,
flint into a flowing spring.

(Ps 114:1–8)

In short, I would highly recommend to any reader Daniel Klein’s wonderful new translation of Shadal. This scholar was a very original exegete, but what makes him so compelling and fascinating is the fact that he encouraged all of his students to think for themselves and not merely accept something because of tradition. This approach certainly applies to anyone reading Shadal’s works as well. Creating exciting dialectical discussion with the commentaries is really what Torah study ought to be all about. Shadal’s commentary is full of many original interpretations that will stimulate the mind and heart. Students of Torah everywhere will enjoy Shadal’s Torah commentary, as we look forward to the publication of future volumes. Klein’s introduction is quite informative, but for the purpose of this review, we have only examined a few of the noteworthy comments regarding the Exodus.

[1] L. Ginzberg cites Midrash Yashar Shemot 131b–132b, and, in abridged form, Dibre ha-Yamim 3–4. In ShR 1.26 it is Jethro who advised the test with the burning coal (Legends of the Jews, pp. 482-483)

[2] Shadal’s exposition begs a more subtle question, namely, why does he handle Ibn Ezra so sarcastically? The answer is because that is how Ibn Ezra sometimes spoke of rabbis who came up with interpretations he viewed as nonsensical. For example, in the Book of Genesis 29:17, we read that Leah’s eyes were “tendered eyed” רַכּוֹת (rakkot) and he cites the view of Rabbanu Ephraim who thought that the word רַכּוֹת is written defectively, and the adjective should have been written, אֲרוּכוֹת (arûkot = “long”). Ibn Ezra mockingly replied, that the name “Efraim minus the letter א in his name spells, “parim” (= bull), i.e., only someone who is bullheaded fool would come up with a ridiculous interpretation like that! For this reason, Shadal decided to give Ibn Ezra a taste of his own medicine!

[3] Propp, W. H. C., Exodus 1–18: a new translation with introduction and commentary (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), Vol. 2., p.137

[4] V. Velikovsky, Ages in Chaos (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1952), pp. 33-34.

*
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista, California.  He may be contacted viamichael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com.  Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)

 

The Closing of the Muslim Mind

The Golden Age of Islam extended from the 8th century to the 13th century, when much of the historically Islamic world embraced a flowering of scientific, economic and cultural prosperity until the time of the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 CE , when the Islamic Golden Age officially ended. Before that time, Islam was vastly ahead of their counterparts in Europe, and excelled in just about every ancient secular and scientific endeavor. As I was perusing some of the books from one of my book vendors’ emails, the Islamic name of Ghazali appeared. Being familiar with a number of Muslim medieval scholars like Ibn Sina, Rumi, Averroes, al-Farabi, Ibn Arabi, I decided to look up the Islamic thinker, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1055-1111), a Sufi-thinker who  is well known in Muslim circles for his wisdom:

Some of his wise aphorisms include:

  • People count with self-satisfaction the number of times they have recited the name of God on their prayer beads, but they keep no beads for reckoning the number of idle words they speak.

How true, God’s Name is always being bantered about by “religious” fanatics who use God’s Name as an excuse to commit any kind of atrocity against the non-believing Other. It is also used by politicians who will use God to obtain their fiendish desires.

  • Half of disbelief in Allah in the world is caused by people who make religion look ugly due to their bad conduct and ignorance.

This particular aphorism certainly applies to much of what we see with respect to the Global Jihad taking place in continents all over the world. Yes, bad and evil conduct certainly produces disillusion with faith—and atheism is certainly on the rise today as less and less young people frequent the traditional places of worship.

  • Declare your jihad on thirteen enemies you cannot see – Egoism, Arrogance, Conceit, Selfishness, Greed, Lust, Intolerance, Anger, Lying, Cheating, Gossiping and Slandering. If you can master and destroy them, then will be ready to fight the enemy you can see.

It is significant that both Sufi and Kabbalistic texts found a way to sublimate the violent impulses of holy war, by internalizing it in purely spiritual terms. Sufism for most of its history has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for open-mindedness and tolerance.

However, this broadness of mind never applied to Ghazali’s worldview. Although one might presume Ghazali stresses the importance of fighting the inner enemy—but he evidently had no compunctions about fighting the “external enemy,” and this is where his idealism seems to have collapsed along with his wisdom.

Sectarian differences often make people forget about their idealism and higher values; religion often is more pre-occupied with “being right” than “being righteous.” Ghazali’s disdain for one of Islam’s most brilliant thinkers, Avicenna is a classic illustration of what righteous indignation with a tinge of fanaticism is capable of doing. In his book on “The Incoherence of Philosophy,” Ghazali issued a decree (fatwa) concerning anyone who teaches Avicenna’s philosophy is a “kafir” –an apostate of Islam. Once labeled a kafir, it is permitted for the pious Muslim to kill the apostate.[1]

What were the three heretical views Avicenna espoused?  [For the sake of contrast, I will briefly compare Avicenna and Ghazali with some of Maimonides’ theological positions.]

  1. The theory of a pre-eternal world. Ghazali asserted God created the world in time and just like everything in this world time will cease to exist as well but God will continue on existing. (Maimonides concurred, but also hedged to some degree)
  2. God only knows the universal characteristics of particulars – namely Platonic forms (a view Maimonides seems to have endorsed).
  3. Bodily resurrection will not take place in the hereafter only human souls are resurrected (another view that Maimonides might have supported).

Semites have always been a contentious people when it comes to matters of faith. To this day, the Shiites and the Sunnis still argue over, “Who is an Apostate?” much like Jews still fight among themselves, “Who is a Jew?” Fanaticism has always been a driving force among zealots. Jewish history bears witness to these unfortunate phenomena too over 2000 years ago. This much has not changed over history—even now, as our society is rapidly retrogressing to the darker periods of human history when men like Ghazali, Torquemada, and others determined who would live or die based on their personal belief system.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that Ghazali possessed a gift of wisdom and insight; yet because of his disdain for other scholars’ theological beliefs, he and similar thinkers led the Muslims along a narrow corridor of the mind that has cut itself from the human progress and positive societal development.



[1] Great minds sometimes suffer from moments of moral blindness. I would add that as a side note, Maimonides might have been influenced by Ghazali. According to Maimonides, (theoretically,) a heretic deserved to be executed too. He writes:

The term “Apikorsim” (Epicureans) pertains to any Jewish person who denies the divinity of the Torah and the belief in prophecy. Ideally, they deserved to be executed in public by the sword (beheading). However, if this is not possible, a subterfuge ought to be developed to facilitate their death. For example:  If one sees such a person descend to a cistern, and a ladder is available; he should  find an excuse to take the ladder, saying: “I must hurry to take my son down from the roof. I shall return the ladder to you soon.” Similarly, one should devise other analogous plans to cause the death of such people” (MT Hilchot Rotzach 4:10).

 

In the Absence of Compassion

Since the days of antiquity, shepherds often served as the leaders of a nation. When the prophet Nathan confronted King David for his illicit affair with Bathsheba, he gently reminded him that the role of a leader is to act pastorally toward the flock that God has entrusted him with watching. The life of David should have taught him that a leader must act faithfully toward his subjects at all times. Neglecting the flock is perhaps one of the most serious offenses a king commits ( 2 Samuel 12:1-7). These ancient stories are important because their message about responsible and concerned leadership is true for all times.

The President has a job to comfort and offer solace to those who have been victimized in a national tragedy… Toward the beginning of his tenure, President Obama seemed to grasp this truth.

On November 10, 2009,  at the funeral of the Fort Hood massacre victims, the President took the podium and said, “that the memory of those slain in a rampage here last week would “endure through the life of our nation.” And, one by one, he listed the names of those killed and described their hopes and dreams and the families they left behind. He further added,  “But this much we do know: No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts. No just and loving God looks upon them with favor. For what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice, in this world and the next.”[1]

The President acted and spoke appropriately at that time.

Offering comfort to those who have lost lives due to terrorism is something we ought to expect from our President.  Yet, his record has been less consistent in the course of his presidency. For the record, President Obama has sometimes acted appropriately, and other times he has been “missing in action.” And it is for this reason I find the President’s behavior perplexing.

I was shocked to find out that President Barack Obama is not scheduled to attend any of the funerals for the victims of the San Bernardino terror attack nine days ago. According to Breitbart News, the President has yet to visit the town in the wake of the deadliest terror attack against our nation since 9/11. As of this evening, the White House did not return a request for comment about the president’s schedule. This passive reaction seems strange in light of other past events where the President did take a more active role in events that have shaken our nation. For example: President Obama on occasion has offered sent dignitaries from Washington to express comfort toward those who have lost, as we saw  in Ferguson, MI, after Michael Brown was killed.

  • On Jan 12, 2015, President Obama’s absence from Sunday’s peace march in Paris, said Monday that his team erred in failing to dispatch a high-ranking American official to join the show of solidarity against terrorism. Naturally, the French politely did not make a big issue of his absence—despite the plethora of prominent world leaders who stood in solidarity against terrorism. Even Josh Earnest sheepishly admitted that somebody dropped the ball.[2]
  • Chris Kyle was fatally shot at a Texas gun range on Feb. 2, 2013. Yet, President Obama did not personally attend; nor did he send representatives at the funeral of this important American hero. Nor did he acknowledge the courage Chris Kyle showed that resulted in saving countless American lives.[3]
  • Neither did the President send representatives to the funeral of the journalist James Foley (who was an Israeli Jew), who was beheaded by ISIS over a year and a half ago.[4]  Yet, he did send representatives to the funeral of Freddie Gray, who had died a week after sustaining injuries during an encounter with the Baltimore police.
  • However, Obama delivered the eulogy at the memorial service earlier this year after white supremacist murdered many people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Obama used his remarks to push for gun control: “For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation,” he preached.

Perhaps the President is afraid the Muslim community might be tarred and feathered. Most  fair minded people would think this way, but a few might. However,  speaking out against Radical Islam does not make us  guilty of “Islamophobia.” Yet, if we do not show a modicum of humanity by personally offering respects to the victims of terror, then our President has not only insulted the victims of those slain along with their families, he has diminished the respect of the office that he holds. When a nation grieves, it is inappropriate to worry about political correctness. If we have a scintilla of morality and self-respect, we must raise our voice in protest. We must demand a higher standard from our President’s behavior. While the President may be proud of his war against “global warming,” he has a more immediate task he needs to take seriously—and that is comforting the victims’ families and our nation who have suffered deeply from the evils of Radical Islamic terror.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/us/11hood.html [2] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/13/us/politics/obama-is-faulted-for-not-attending-rally-in-paris.html?_r=0 [3] http://conservativetribune.com/obama-responded-kyles-death/ [4] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/aug/26/obama-sent-three-representatives-michael-brown-fun/

God is NOT Fixing this ….

 

It isn’t every day I come across a theologically provocative new story headline like the  New York Daily did this morning in the terrible aftermath of the mass shooting that took place in San Bernardino, California—which claimed the lives of fourteen people, while injuring over twenty.

The headline said, “God isn’t fixing this,” which referred to the many lawmakers who offered up their prayers for the victims, but failed to act when it came to enacting stricter gun control laws. The article listed a number of tweets from the various GOP presidential candidates, where each of them “offer their prayers for the victims.” The article neglected to mention how President Obama himself, offered his prayers for the victims and their families.

Gun violence is a complicated issue.

I have always felt that some of the gun laws need tightening. More psychological background screening is a good thing, provided it can prevent unhealthy people from obtaining firearms—especially weaponry such as the Kalashnikov AK-47, which is more of a military weapon used in the battlefields. The idea of a homeowner utilizing such a weapon in the home has always seemed rather odd to me. For someone like Rambo, well that’s different. To the President’s credit, he ceded that these changes will not prevent every act of gun violence, but it may prevent some incidents from occurring. Ethnic profiling here in this case might have also prevented Syed Rizwan Farook  from obtaining the weaponry he used. It certainly works for Israel, and it can work for our country too.

Sadly, political correctness may have contributed to this terrible tragedy.

What was the gun merchant really thinking when he sold Syed Rizwan Farook the weaponry he used? The careless gun merchant contributed to the unlawful and criminal violence that occurred. The Torah emphatically stresses, “You shall not insult the deaf, or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but you shall fear your God. I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:14). As Martin Buber notes, “The fear of God” is not the fear of punishment. Whenever the “fear of God” is used in Scriptures, it always denotes the reverence for life. Every gun merchant should have this biblical passage enshrined on the walls of his shop.

While I strongly believe the President has every right to use the bully pulpit to promote new laws concerning gun control, it is important that even more important that  the President walk his talk for justice demands consistency and fairness. Operation “Fast and Furious” scandal is a grim reminder that providing guns to Mexican drug cartel leaders proved to be a dubious and dangerous operation, which ultimately led to the deaths of Mexican civilians as well as the death of the United States Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed December 2010 with these weapons. This affair was so scandalous that the Justice Department demanded documents related to the scandal from Attorney General Eric Holder, who refused to cooperate, resulting in Holder becoming the first sitting member of the Cabinet of the United States to be held in contempt of Congress on June 28, 2012. The President himself, embarrassingly, invoked executive privilege for the first time in his presidency[1]  over the same documents.[2]

Of course, banning such weaponry does not necessarily prevent a person from getting one. As we have seen in the past, where there is a will, there is also a way. Although I find myself differing with the President on most of our country’s national and international issues, I think there is room for a creative compromise for everyone to compromise.

From the theological perspective, Paul Tillich teaches us a valuable lesson worth considering. Too many times, we imagine that God is a “Cosmic Bellboy,” or “Santa Claus (in keeping with Christmas spirit of the season), who bestows all of our wishes and desires. According to Tillich, nothing can be farther from the truth.

Jewish prayer concurs with Tillich’s point.

Jewish mystics teach us that, “Blessings from above descend never descend into a vacuous space” (Zohar I, Genesis 88a). In other words, everything we ask for from God demands that we make a corresponding vessel to receive that blessing.

If we wish to prevent gun violence, we must find ways to tame the human spirit. Passing laws for, or against gun control will mean very little, unless we also make an effort to distant ourselves from violent thoughts, violent words, and violent deeds. While the Hollywood community tends to be outspoken about the importance of gun control, it is counter-productive for these same actors and actresses to promote violent films that enshrine violent attitudes with images that show no reverence for human life.

Prayer in Jewish tradition is not merely a rote recitation of words; it is contains a recipe and a prescription on how we must manifest God’s mercy and justice in the world. Kabbalists have often said that the shapes of the four letters of  God’s Name “YHWH” resembles that of a human being. The image of God that our Creator has endowed each of us with is a reminder of how each of us participates and partakes of God’s divine nature and Being.

Ergo, “God isn’t fixing this” may be a more appropriate name for a headline than the writer might have imagined. However, the word for “prayer” “Tefilah” actually derives from the word to be “self-reflective.”

None of us is so high and mighty to take these issues to heart and in the spirit of shalom, find compromises to a vexing problem that everyone can live with. Maybe then, we will prove worthy enough for God to answer our prayers.



[1] Jackson, David (June 20, 2012). “Obama claims executive privilege; Holder held in contempt”. USA Today. Retrieved June 22, 2012.

[2] John Parkinson,. (June 20, 2012). “Committee Votes Attorney General Eric Holder in Contempt of Congress After Obama Asserts Executive Privilege”. ABC News. Retrieved June 22, 2012.

Why Liberal Jews Should NOT Ignore the Genocide of Christians and Yazidis….

A distraught father in Syria holds the lifeless body of his decapitated daughter, executed by milita

Recent discussions on the Internet deal with the moral question concerning asylum for Syrian refugees. This issue is especially a matter of concern for the European countries as well.

More specifically for Jews, is the comparison between Syrian of today and the German Jewish refugees analogous? In 1938, Jews of Europe had a horrific time trying to gain entry into the United States, which feared the new Jewish refugees might take jobs away from Americans who were just starting to recover from the Great Depression. With today’s struggling economy and dwindling wealth, we hear similar arguments as well.

Some politicians and segments of the population even feared that the Jews might be secretly working covertly for Hitler—of all people! Many Americans did not realize there was a genocide in Europe that the Nazis had initiated. Bear in mind, the world did not have the benefit of Facebook or Twitter, or other media outlets as we do today.

Advocates for the Syrian refugees claim that this xenophobia exists today. President Obama  argues this past week in Manila, “When candidates say we should not admit 3-year-old orphans, that’s political posturing,” he said. “When individuals say we should have religious tests, and only Christians, proven Christians, should be allowed, that’s offensive and contrary to American values.” I think the American people know more about “political posturing” than the President realizes…

From this writer’s point of view, I concur there is a real need for us bring Syrian refugees over to the United States. In fact, the analogy to the 1938 racial laws that existed in the United States may be a fair analogy—at least superficially. Understandably, Jews have a long memory for the discrimination our parents and grandparents experienced. That is fine and good.

The problem with this observation is that for the few years, the Jewish community has been remarkably blind, deaf, and dumb to the genocide of Yazidis and the Christians who are being massacred for rejecting Islam. The Yazidis are one of the oldest religious communities of the Middle East, whose faith includes elements of Zoroastrianism and some forms of the ancient Mesopotamian religions that probably preexists Islam by at least a thousand years.

In one CNN interview reported later by Catholic Online, a Chaldean-American businessman named Mark Arabo, reports “ISIS have beheaded small children and placed their heads on a stick and have them in the park.” He has begged the White House and American politicians to rescue the Chaldean-Christian and Yazidi communities, numbering at least 300,000 people who have tried to flee the ISIS invasion of their country.

We have seen ISIS instruct their children how to play kickball with Christian and Yazidi severed heads. Sometimes ISIS will starve a mother for several days, and give her a lavish meal made from the bodies of her children.

Radical Islam “almost” makes Nazism look civilized; whereas the Nazis believed they were the “master race,” Radical Islam believes they possess the “Master Religion.”

Now this is a comparison that resembles the Holocaust of 1930s and 1940s. Yet, I have not heard the demand from American Jews to do something to bring these people to safety.

So, I ask you the reader—why do you think this is so? Such a probing question is bound to elicit a number of uncomfortable responses. Perhaps many Jews don’t know what is going on in the areas controlled by ISIS. Is it possible that many of our most liberal-minded Jews don’t care to address this problem since our President has refused to come to the aid of these Christians? In other words, liberal Jewish fealty to the current Administration is more important that saving the Chaldean  and Yazidi lives. Perhaps some of our brethren do not wish to confront the dark side of Radical Islam. Denying it a name means denying it a reality. Hence, we will look the other way rather than choose to act ethically.

Historically, we made the same kind of moral mistake when we failed to confront Roosevelt for not letting Jews come in to the United States. In WW 2, we had great heroes who stood their ground and openly challenged the President to act morally.  Rabbi Eliezer Silver (1882-1968) proved to be one the greatest rescuers of European Jewry during the Holocaust. He is credited with saving many thousands of Jewish lives. Early on in 1939, Silver was one of the founding fathers of the Vaad Hatzalah (Rescue Committee), where Silver was appointed as its president. He was instrumental in rescuing the cream of European rabbinic leaders, who along with Rabbis Aaron Kotler, Abraham Kalmanowitz marched up Pennsylvanian Avenue on October 6, 1943.

While standing in front of the White House, the large Jewish entourage of over two hundred rabbis recited the Psalms and announced, “We pray and appeal to the Lord, blessed be He, that our most gracious President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recognizing this momentous hour of history and responsibility that the Divine Presence has laid upon him, that he may save the remnant of the People of the Book, the People of Israel.”

Shortly afterward, the Jewish delegation met with Vice President Henry Wallace and a congressional delegation to make their case for European Jewry. Later, at the Lincoln Memorial, a special memorial prayer was said on behalf of the martyred Jews.  Finally, the five rabbis went to the White House to meet with the President, where the President made his famous backdoor exit rather than meeting with them. Although they did not meet with the President, the publicity of the march led to the eventual formulation of the War Refugees Board, which opened the doorway to over 100,000 Jews. When one considers how many of these survivors went on to have children–not to mention grandchildren–Rabbi Silver really saved millions of lives!

Today’s liberal Jews would never think of challenging Obama for similar reasons. And for this reason, we need responsible Jewish leaders to demand that the Chaldean Christian and Yazidi communities be granted rescue given the imminent threat of danger they face.

I feel ashamed to say that some of my rabbinic colleagues havet taken the cowardly way out. Meanwhile, the ISIS film all of their latest atrocities, adding to their heinous legacy of murder; now, they even harvest the organs while their victims are yet alive, to raise income for their murderous cause. Radical Islam is the new and improved Nazism of our time and I believe we as a Jews have a moral obligation to help the Chaldeans and the Yazidis.

Otherwise, history will remember us for the moral cowards we really are. Not only did we fail to learn any wisdom from the Holocaust, we have repeated the same mistakes made by Europe and the United States in the turbulent years of WWII.

With respect to the Syrian refugees, our first priorities ought to be directed toward, and then the women and small children. The young Muslim men need to wait their turn. They are not endangered because of religious persecution and genocide. We should follow Canada’s course of action and allow only the most vulnerable members of the Muslim Syrian population for the time being.

More importantly, we cannot allow one of the oldest Middle Eastern religious communities to be savagely slaughtered.

France Finally Wakes up…

Islamic State terrorists routinely pose with their victims. It

 

“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, thinking it will eat him last.”–Sir Winston Churchill

The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy is well known. The crocodile he is referring to is Adolf Hitler. For decades, Europe had no problem sacrificing Israel to the legions of Radical Islam. Perhaps in their naivete, they believed that feeding Jews to their enemies would somehow keep the crocodiles of Radical Islam from attacking them–but you can rest assured this illusion has been laid to rest in Europe–especially after the ISIS attack of Paris.

It is surprising how a number of European ministers and leaders are speaking about the Paris attack as the beginning of WWIII. Nation states are starting to express the need for all the Western countries to get together and form a game plan on how to defeat ISIS and thwart the attempt of radical Muslims to convert Europeans to Islam. Radical Islam knows how to take advantage of our weaknesses as a society. They know that in the Western world, their speech is “protected” by the law. They also know that when they deluge us with millions of refugees, our countries will do everything to be accommodating. More seriously, they perceive a weakness and lack of resolve in our countries when it comes to fighting them.

Watching the French and Russians jets bomb the ISIS capital of Raqqa ought to be celebrated. Yet, we must ask ourselves, “Why has it taken so long?” The French attack of Raqqa would not have been possible without the information that the United States gave to the French regarding Raqqa. This raises an obvious question: Why didn’t we bomb ISIS like the French—especially since we know where they live?

The answer has a lot to do with the rules of engagement. The current Administration is of the view that no American may bomb ISIS if there is so much as a noncombatant in the area. To anyone who is familiar with the history of warfare, this strategy is not how we win wars. If the United States took that kind of attitude in WWII, the Nazis and the Japanese would have won the war.

Until this year, many people thought that ISIS was only a Middle East problem. Yet the recent barrage of Radical Islamic attacks may have finally woken Europe to the problem that it is facing, namely, as it faces the possibility of its own existential demise.

The great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides writes about how people often walk around as if they are in a trance—totally oblivious to their environment. He writes, “Awaken from your slumber and examine your behavior and change your behavior for the better.” One would have thought that the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 would have served as such a wake-up call. As a side note, I would add that the symbolism of 9/11 equally 911 could hardly be more portentous. In our desire and wish to live in a peaceful world, we allowed ourselves to be blinded by our own delusion. Maimonides’ dictum applies no less to modern nation states.

Still, defiant and determined, President Obama and his supporters refuse to acknowledge that Radical Islam are still as virulent and dangerous as ever.  It seems to me that his reluctance to seriously engage ISIS is predicated upon the belief that he does not wish for the United States to appear as though it is at war with Islam. This would explain the non-impact our military has had on ISIS and our lack of willingness to engage this enemy has directly contributed to their emboldened spirit, which looks to expand its influence and presence throughout the world.

Of course, everyone ought to know that the United States is not at war with Islam, but Radical Islam is at war with Western Civilization and it has demonstrated that it has a mighty resolve to achieve its goal unless we make a conscious and earnest effort to prevent it.

When a person has a disease threatening his or her health, knowing the name of a disease is essential in prescribing the proper kind of treatment. When the disease has no name, everything becomes a matter of guesswork and a person can die in the meantime since the disease has no known identity.

Yet, certain politicians remain too fearful when it comes to even pronouncing the Radical Islam word, as if the name had were as unmentionable as the secret pronunciation of God’s Name, or Rumpelstiltskin.  How is our country or world ever going to defeat a determined and fanatical foe if we cannot even define who and what this enemy is?

So how can we win the war with Radical Islam? We must call it what it is. Facebook is perhaps one of the most remarkable vehicles for people from all around the world to exchange ideas in a thoughtful and creative manner. Yet, politically incorrect speech is often censored—despite the fact that ISIS, Al Qaeda use Facebook and Twitter to help attract more fanatics to their particular vision of Radical Islam.  I shudder to think how successful Hitler or Stalin might have been had Facebook and Twitter existed in their time.

Prior to Paris attack, the Europeans did not have a problem demanding labels on tomatoes, olive oil, honey, eggs, and wine coming from the West Bank of Israel. Yet, when it comes to naming the threat of Radical Islam, Europeans and many American politicians and leaders (e.g., we will not mention their names for now), are fearful of being accused of Islamophobia—the mortal sin of today’s multicultural ideologues. All of a sudden, the French and other nations are rethinking their former positions. Yes, when Radical Islamic forces explode a Russian passenger plain or shoot people in Paris  just because they happen to be having a fun time at a sports event or a theater—suddenly that AHAH moment occurs.

Let us hope that this moment of clarity leads to taking the steps that are necessary in eradicating today’s spiritual successor to the scourge of Nazism—Radical Islam. In this battle, it behooves all peaceful peoples of the Middle East together with the West to work together in solving creating a spirit of peacefulness and tolerance for all people.

When the Complexities of Life Converge with Jewish Tradition

 

 One of the best-known blessings Orthodox Jews recite every day is the blessing, “Thank you God for not making me a woman.”

The recent transformation on the cover of Vanity Fair’s 22-page cover story featuring Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, raises a number of fascinating questions pertaining to Halacha as well as Jewish ethics.

To begin with, persons wishing to undergo transsexual surgery are a minority—in fact one per million men and even less with regard to women. Historically, such surgery began in Europe in the 1930s and in the United States in the 1960s.

Historically, the subject of the saris (eunuch) is recorded about forty times in the Tanakh. Ancient societies often positioned the eunuch as court officials, military commanders, and other positions of high authority (Gen. 37:36; 2 Kgs. 9:32; 25:19; Esther 1:10). In the case of Potiphar, he was married—and his status as  a eunuch probably became the principle reason Madam Potiphar fooled around when he wasn’t looking (see Gen. 39ff.).

Traditional Judaic texts raise a number of issues involved:

  • The prohibition against castration pertains to human beings and animals (Lev. 22:24; cf. BT Shabbat 110b-111a)
  • The prohibition against wounding or crushing genitalia of any person wishing to enter the Jewish community (Deut. 23:2).
  • The prohibition against cross-dressing, which would some scholars argue includes acting like someone of the opposite sex (Deut. 22:5).

Superficially, castrating or neutering an animal is prohibited in the Torah—and this applies no less to human beings.[1] The fundamental proof text derives from the Scriptural text, “He did not create it as a chaos, but to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18). However, we should note that many people—including homosexuals and transgendered people can raise children to fulfill the precept of procreation, much like a heterosexual couple can if one is medically unable to sire or bear children.

According to the 13th century anonymous author of the famous Sefer HaChinuch:

  • The Creator blessed all living beings, to be fruitful and multiply, and even commanded the male of the species of the human on this, that it might endure. Without this imperative, a species would eventually die, as would all of its kind. Therefore, if anyone who destroys the procreative organs of generation, demonstrates that this person cannot tolerate the work of the Creator and desires the destruction of God’s good world.”[2]

If a man underwent such a surgery, would he have to grant his wife a religious divorce?

This question applies no less to performing the levirate marriage, which is now effectively been made null and void.

Traditionalist also wonder “Is intimacy with a transsexual permitted or not?’

In the case of a woman who undergoes the procedure, is she obliged to observe ritual circumcision?

Already, in Israel a practical question arose: A transsexual Jew was prohibited from praying with men in the men’s section, as well as in the women’s section! If Caitlyn were visiting Israel, which section would she attend services at the Western Wall?

In short, some Halachic scholars think that appearance is the driving issue here; ergo, if a man undergoes this procedure, then he is now exempt from performing all the precepts that are traditionally incumbent upon men.  One notable Orthodox scholar who makes this point was Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, who served as a judge in the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem. [3]

Of course other scholars differ and think that the transsexual surgery does not impact the halacha in any meaningful way.—Caitlyn  is still considered “Bruce” in terms of fulfilling his manly obligations. According to this perspective, human sexuality is something that is fixed and rigid.[4]  Most notably, Rabbi David Bleich’s views offers a sober exposition of the more conservative Halacha perspective:

  • The commandment, “A woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment” (Deut. 22:5)  is not limited to the wearing of apparel associated with the opposite sex but encompasses any action uniquely identified with the opposite sex, proscribing, for example, shaving of armpits or dyeing of hair by a male.” In this vein, “a procedure designed to transform sexual characteristics violates the very essence of this prohibition.”[5]

One must always keep in mind that among many Orthodox scholars the maintenance of the patriarchal order is one of the most important principles that define masculine power in the Orthodox Jewish community. When a person willfully undergoes such a procedure, the act is often perceived as a serious threat to masculine power. In the Muslim community, this same attitude exists as well.

In short, it is intriguing to note that in Jewish tradition, answers come and go, but a good question is an eternal constant. Some of the questions we discussed here in this brief article may be a good case in point. In any event, personal choices like this question are ultimately a matter of personal conscience–and each person must be true to him or herself. In any event, Jewish ethics demands that we never embarrass or shame any human being–which applies no less to transgendered  men and women.

As society continues to change, it is this writer’s view that Halachic responses will continue to evolve with time.

=====

Notes:

[1] See BT Sanhedrin 56b.

[2] Sefer HaHinnukh, No. 291.

[3] Tzitz Eliezer 2:78.

[4] R. Moshe Steinberg, Assia Vol. 1., p. 144; Nishmat Avraham Even HaEzer 44:3.

[5] David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems (  New York: KTAV & Yeshiva University Press) Vol. 1 – Page 100

*