Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria Vol. 5 on Deuteronomy–Book Review by Rabbi Israel Drazin

 

Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria: A First Century Jewish Philosopher
Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel has made a significant contribution to philosophy in general and Philo of Alexandria in particular. Samuel knows Judaism well and is an expert on the first-century philosopher Philo. This is his fifth very informative volume on the pioneer philosopher Philo. With this book, he has completed his collection of Philo’s ideas on all five books on the Pentateuch.

His series on Philo is a much needed contribution to the understanding of the Bible. Samuel drew Philo’s ideas from the wealth of this philosopher’s exegetical comments and arranged them according to biblical verses. He gives readers a very readable translation of Philo’s own words and adds extensive easy to read explanatory notes, which frequently include opinions about the subject being discussed from modern scholars, the writings of rabbis in rabbinical literature, Christian theology, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and non-Jewish philosophers and historians such as Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, and Josephus. As a result, readers get a multi-dimensional understanding of the biblical text.
He includes an informative sixteen-page introduction to Philo’s life and thought, about the book of Deuteronomy, a general discussion of how Philo treats this fifth book, the structure of Philo’s Special Laws, thoughts on when Judaism began to actively proselytize, the Jewish temple of Onias vs. the temple in Jerusalem, and much else. Who was Philo?
Philo (about 20 BCE to about 50 CE) of Alexandria, Egypt, is one of Judaism’s great philosophers. The noted scholar Harry Wolfson wrote in his book Philo that Philo was the first Jewish philosopher who “contributed anything new” to Jewish-Greek philosophy.

Philo’s philosophy is based in large part on the somewhat mystical opinions of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (about 428 to about 348 BCE). About forty books that Philo wrote still exist. His books are, in essence, a collection of intelligent sermons and commentaries in which he explains the Bible very frequently from an allegorical perspective.

Philo was convinced that the Bible should be understood on two levels. The first level contains its literal or plain meaning: words mean what they say. The second is an underlying or allegorical layer, which requires alert intelligent readers go beyond the obvious and delve deeper into the text. Philo used allegory to interpret virtually everything in Scripture, including names, dates, numbers, and events. Philo’s opinion of allegory was that although parts of the Torah are not literally true, they should be understood metaphorically or allegorically, and they transmit truth by these methods, often truths that can be applied to other situations.
In this book, for example, commenting upon the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments), Philo explains why the last command prohibiting coveting is the most grievous and harmful passion to oneself and others. Samuel tells us of the numerous scriptural references that support Philo’s point: David’s covetous desire of Bathsheba, Ahab’s of Naboth’s vineyard, the prophet Elisha’s servant Gehazi who desired a handsome reward for Elisha’s healing of Naaman, and more; and Samuel compares these biblical teaching with the Greek myth of Tantalus, gives the teaching of Ecclesiastes, Maimonides, Abraham ibn Ezra, and much more, all on this one issue.
Samuel tells us about Philo’s explanations of the divine names, how the Greeks handled divine names, how the Jews copied the Greeks in translating God’s names in the Bible, the discussion on the subject by the scholar Harry A. Wolfson, and more.

He informs readers about the Greek Historian Hecataeus who visited and wrote about the Temple of Jerusalem around the fourth century BCE. We read also the understanding of Philo, Maimonides, Josephus, and others opposing augury (divination); and Samuel includes a fascinating story about a Jew Mosollamos who proved that augury does not work. Samuel tells Philo’s explanation on how Moses could have written about his death and compares Philo’s idea to the one in the Talmud. He explains why the order of the Ten Commandments is different in the Greek translation called Septuagint and in Philo than in the Hebrew Bible. He gives the metaphorical interpretations of the Shema in Philo, Rashbam, ibn Ezra, and biblical scholarship.
These few examples show the scholarship contained in Samuel’s book, scholarship presented in easy-to-read English, information that will fascinate and inform Samuel’s readers.

From election’s dissonance, perhaps comes a pathway

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Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — After everything that has been said and done, this election will probably be remembered as one of the most acrimonious elections, full of mudslinging, accusations of improprieties, and personal attacks that our country has ever seen.

The brilliant French political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) wrote to Ernest de Chabrol on June 9th, 1831, the following famous words, “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.”
It is an unfortunate fact that the best candidates don’t always run for office.
Neither candidate  has the statesmanship of an Abraham Lincoln, or the personal moral integrity of a Mother Teresa, or a Martin Luther King Jr. But such people are not running for office.
For better or for worse, Donald Trump is our new president. In a democratic republic such as ours, the voice and choice of the people is inviolate. I listened to the post-election speeches given by Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Here is some of what they had to say:
  • Trump said in his acceptance speech, “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats, and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all Americans, and this is so important to me.
  • Hillary Clinton said, “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.” Clinton, who was composed and dignified even as she admitted how painful her defeat was in her first public comments on the result of the election.
Most interestingly, President Obama’s remarks, in my opinion, were especially apropos, and maybe offered the best wisdom to leave us with:
  • You know, the path that this country has taken has never been a straight line. We zig and zag and sometimes we move in ways that some people think is forward and others think is moving back ….The point though is that we all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy. That’s how this country has moved forward for 240 years. It’s how we’ve pushed boundaries and promoted freedom around the world. That’s how we’ve expanded the rights of our founding to reach all of our citizens. It’s how we have come this far.
In a democracy, unanimity is not always desirable. If it were really the goal, what incentive would there be for new interpretive ideas? Conversely, dissent is not necessarily indicative of a communications breakdown. Dissent can be beneficial, and often leads to new discoveries and ideas. Moreover, dissent ensures that there will be some sort of accountability on the part of the originator.
Our American political system demands there be dialectical tension. No leader has the right to rule by fiat, but when we differ with the ruling status quo, there must be elasticity and a willingness to compromise, to “make the deal” as Trump is fond of saying.
The issue of Obamacare is an excellent case in point. Bright minds—regardless of one’s political proclivity—can and must reach a new consensus. Obviously, there will be bitter arguments, but this kind of dialectical tension is necessary to ensure the strength and vitality of the American democracy. To Obama’s credit, he pushed us toward a nationalized health insurance plan, but the real work on improving this plan is now in our hands.
If Trump’s new ideas lead to a dramatic reduction of our national debt, and if his plans to bring jobs back to the United States proves successful, or if his New Deal proves to be helpful in helping the black inner cities, we might realize that many of our fears were unfounded. Bringing back factories jobs will lead to a revitalization of cities like Detroit and other cities that look like ghost towns since our jobs have vanished.
Thomas Sowell is a conservative has been critical of both candidates, but his remark on Trump’s “New Deal” with the African-American community is surprising. He writes:
  • Who would have thought that Donald Trump, of all people, would be addressing the fact that the black community suffers the most from a breakdown of law and order? But sanity on racial issues is sufficiently rare that it must be welcomed, from whatever source it comes…
In addition, if Trump’s populist movement leads to term limits for all members of Congress, and the banishment of lobbyists, we will rid the country of one of the most serious problems that undermine our faith in Congress. Most of us—regardless of political affiliation—would love to see that occur.|

 In terms of foreign policy, giving support to old but recently chastised countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Israel can only make our country and Western world stronger in its battle against Radical Islam. Trump will not tolerate the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the godfather of Hamas. Their access to the White House will be a thing of the past.

Iran, Algeria, and numerous other Jihadist countries will be returned to the list of pariah nations who threaten the world with their vision of religious dystopia.
Trump often has been described as a Democrat in Republican clothing. I predict that Trump will create a feasible pathway for Hispanic integration, a Reaganesque amnesty program, while getting rid of the drug cartel criminals from Mexico that threaten the stability of the United States and Mexico.
Walls surrounding a country’s border are common in most countries around the world. Even Mexico has walls protecting its border, and in an age of terror, it is very prudent to err on the side of caution. The world at this time of its history is not ready for a borderless society, as globalists would like to see.
Every government has a “social contract” with the populace to act morally and ethically in how they treat the people.
Let us pray that President Trump will not squander the good will he has at this juncture in time.
In short, we need to give the new President-elect the benefit of the doubt. 

*
Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via

The Downfall of Abimelech and Hillary Clinton

Image result for Abimelech in Judges death images

 

The Book of Judges speaks of a time of great social chaos in the generations leading to the formation of the ancient Israelite monarchy. The author of Judges bluntly says, “In those days there was no king in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). Although we view each of the judges in a favorable light, there is one judge in particular, whose ruthless will to power stands apart from all the rest.

His name was Abimelech, the son Gideon and his Canaanite concubine (Judg. 8:31). His father Gideon was a remarkable leader, respected by everyone. The people even offered him the opportunity to become monarch, and like George Washington would later do after him, he refused.

But Abimelech was different—different indeed! After the death of his father, Abimelech (with his mothers’ help) killed his seventy brothers by hiring thugs to execute his closest of kin. Only Gideon’s youngest son, Jotham, survived, but the people of Shechem made Abimelech King of their community (Judg. 9:1-6). After a peaceful reign of three years, the author of Judges pointed out that God did not allow Abimelech’s numerous crimes to go unpunished. Autocratic dictators like Abimelech will always attract men like himself, who will do anything to quench their bloodlust for power.

Abimelech’s men split from him and pledged fealty to a man named Gaal, and asked him to take over as their leader, while Abimelech was absent. Fortunately for Abimelech, his commanded Zebu managed to repell the revolt against Abimelech’s authority.  Meanwhile, in another nearby battle where Abimelech and his men were attempting to conquer the city of Thezbez, something totally unexpected happened.

  • Abimelech came up to the castle and attacked it. As he approached the entrance to the castle to set fire to it, a woman threw a millstone down on his head and fractured his skull. He called hurriedly to his young armor-bearer and said, ‘Draw your sword and dispatch me, or men will say of me: A woman killed him.’ So the young man ran him through and he died  (Judg. 9:52–55).

The Book of Judges often loves to show how God ironically  shapes the events that unfold in its stories and historical narratives. In ancient times, the millstone was used to grind corn. This ordinary household kitchen appliance was not unlike today’s toaster.  Abimelech realizes the humiliation he has endured, “What could be worse than be killed in battle by a woman?” So he does his best to save face, and he orders one of his own men to kill him. Nevertheless, his downfall is preserved in Israel’s sacred memory.

Abimelech’s political ambitions remind me much of Hillary Clinton’s political will to power. Often described as a Teflon politician, fewer people in modern American history have been able to dodge as many pitfalls and scandals like Hillary Clinton. Her willingness to use any means to obtain political power is reminiscent of Abimelech. Mysteriously, many of her critics and potential adversaries miraculously died before they could bring her any political harm.

Like the robot from the first Terminator movie, Hillary Clinton is relentless. This past week alone, we learn how CNN fired Donna Brazile, the interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman for allegedly sharing questions with the Clinton campaign before a debate and a town hall during the Democratic primary, and has accepted her resignation. CNN said they felt “completely uncomfortable” with hacked emails showing that former contributor. Despite the countless scandals listed in the WikiLeaks, nothing seems to deter her.[1]

Readers should not forget how Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was fired as the head of the DNC  because she and her cronies sabotaged the Sanders campaign[2]. After the Wikileaks exposed her, she resigned immediately afterward. Within a day, Clinton hires Wasserman-Schultz was hired to work in her campaign. Rarely do we see in society such unethical behavior rewarded, unless your name happens to be Hillary Clinton. If Hillary is willing to resort to foul play and sabotage the congenial Bernie Sanders, what do you thing she would do to her enemy Donald Trump?

The real question I find myself asking: What won’t she do to achieve her objectives?

Oct. 18th, two top Democratic strategists left the presidential campaign after explosive undercover videos showed them conversing about voter fraud and their roles in planting paid agitators at campaign events for Republican candidate Donald Trump. Robert Creamer, founder of Democracy Advocates and the husband of Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat, both stepped down from the campaign Tuesday,[3]  one day after Scott Foval was fired from his post as national field director of Americans United for Change. Note that Creamer met with President Obama during 47 of those 342 visits, according to White House records. Creamer’s last visit was in June 2016.[4] Just in case you did not know, Creamer is a convicted felon.

If a man is judged by the company he keeps, what does that say about our President and Hillary Clinton? This is obviously embarrassing to the President and Hillary for good reason. What we see is a culture of corruption that is systemic and needs to be condemned by all people who believe in the integrity of our democratic elections.

Relentless, Hillary is so close to winning it all, she will not let anything get in her way. “Not now, not ever”

Then out of the blue, the ignominious Anthony Weiner, perhaps out a desire to either protect himself from Hillary’s fabled wrath; or out of a desire to get even with his wife Huma for divorcing him, produces over 650,000 emails that nobody expected existed. Whatever may have been on these files forced FBI Director James Comey to reopen the case given the gravity of the case against Hillary and her loyal legionaries.

But wait, there is still more!

The hacking group,  “Anonymous” promises they have many more new revelations that will keep our nation entranced as we watch the latest episodes of the Clinton Soap Opera, Season 2.

Does this story have the same irony as the biblical Abimelech story of Judges? Who would imagine that man named Weiner, a disgraced politician and suspected pedophile, might bring down the invincible Hillary Clinton. The story has an element of paradox, does it not?

What both stories illustrate is one important theological point worth remembering. God often uses weak and fallible people to achieve His purpose in punishing wayward and unethical and ruthless individuals. If Hillary indeed loses the election, Antony Weiner may well go down in history as the man who changed the course of American history.

You could even say, it is Hillarious.

Does God have a sense of humor? In both Yiddish and German, there is an old Jewish proverb, Der Mensch trachtet und Gott lacht. (דאָס עפּעלע פֿאַלט ניט ווײַט פֿון ביימעלע)”– Men plan and God laughs, or as the comedian, Woody Allen expressed it, “If you want to make God laugh tell him about your plans.” I personally prefer, “What man proposes, God disposes.”[5] This aphorism may well be a fitting epitaph for the political career of Hillary R. Clinton.



[1]  http://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/10/cnn-severs-ties-with-donna-brazile-230534#ixzz4OmUta1nY

[2] http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2016/07/debbie_wasserman_schultz_fired_as_dnc_chair_on_eve_of_philly_convention.html#ixzz4OmZfj5KI

[3] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/18/undercover-video-shows-democrats-saying-they-hire-/

[4] http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/10/19/robert-creamer-okeefe-investigation-fame-visited-obamas-whitehouse-340-times/

[5] Thomas à Kempis,  The Imitation of Christ by the German cleric Thomas, Book I, chapter 19.

Zombies and the Fringes of Consciousness

 

Image result for pet cemetery

This past week, I enjoyed watching some of scary zombie movies on Hulu and Netflix; it’s a custom I have kept since I was a boy of seven or eight years old.

Halloween was always a fun time for me as a child. Watching scary movies still remains a ritual every time of this year.

Horror films often give us a rare opportunity to examine our deepest questions about the nature of our existence, of life and death, and life beyond death. To some degree, they force us to examine our deepest fears about the postmortem existence of our souls. When we die, is there any part of our soul that remains present in the body itself?

Horror writer Stephen King’s Pet Semetery, reminds me of a Kabbalistic teaching about the different manifestations of the soul. The highest level of the soul is identified as neshamah—the soul breath of God that gives us the capacity to wonder about our nature and inspires us to act humanely toward one another. The second level is ruach—the spirit realm that inspires within us a capacity to feel emotion and compassion toward all living beings.  And then there is nefesh—the lowest manifestation of life that we share with the vegetative kingdom. On this level, we exist only to physically survive and nothing more.

Stephen King’s movies illustrate what happens when human beings forget what it is that makes all of us “human.” According to this definition, a zombie is a being whose residual soul is bereft of all its humanity. It lives to consume; it consumes only to live.

By all accounts, it seems that the  life of a zombie is pretty simple and uncomplicated. So some of us might wonder: Are zombies merely mythical creatures? Do they or do they not exist? Could a zombie apocalypse really occur?

Inquiring minds really want to know…

While rabbis across the world may wonder, “Who Is a Jew?”—on this night of Halloween, I am going to pose the question: “Who Is a Zombie?” Are zombies “human,” or are they something “Other” than human? The question has profound implications not just in the sphere of science-fiction, philosophy, religion—but also in the area of medical ethics.

The 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes viewed animals as machine-like creatures, bereft of a soul. Every aspect of the animal could be explained in terms of its physical “mechanical” movements. Descartes even entertained the idea of a mechanical person what we could call today, a robotic being. How would one differentiate such a creature from the “real deal”? For one thing, the machine would never be able to spontaneously formulate sentences; its non-verbal behavior would also be limited. (Bear in mind that the rabbis arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the artificial being known as the “golem,” for it too was incapable of human speech.)

“So what is it that defines our humanity?” asks Descartes—it is the presence of the immaterial mind, the soul, which interacts between the brain and the other organs of the body.

But this raises an important question regarding the nature of “personhood,” (to use the more modern terminology). At what point does a human being, cease being “human”? If we apply Cartesian philosophy to our question, it might very well be when our brain ceases to function adequately.

Could this apply to zombies as well? (Not that they care very much about our deep philosophical deliberations!)

Of course, this begs the question: Do zombies really exist? Or, are they merely mythical creatures created out from Hollywood?

In general, many mythic stories of primitive peoples have some sort of basis in fact. This principle would apply to zombies as well.

Ever since I watched that great movie, “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” I have been fascinated with this question. Harvard botanist, E. Wade Davis and Dr. Lamarque Douyon, Canadian-trained head of the Psychiatric Center in Port-au-Prince, have been trying to establish the basis for zombies, and according to them—they do exist![2] By the way, the book is much better than the film!

Haiti is a remarkable country; much of the contemporary folklore concerning zombies originates in Haiti—but there are legends about zombies that really go back to ancient history. Davis narrates the following story:

On a brilliant day in the spring of 1980, a stranger arrived at L’Estère marketplace in Haiti’s fertile Artibonite Valley. The man’s gait was heavy, his eyes vacant. The peasants watched fearfully as he approached a local woman named Angelina Narcisse. She listened as he introduced himself, then screamed in horror—and recognition. The man had given the boyhood nickname of her deceased brother Clairvius Narcisse, a name that was known only to family members and had not been used since his funeral in 1962. This incident was witnessed by more than 200 people!!

Well, it looks like the zombie can speak—and respond to human questions!!

You might wonder, “What could possibly turn a person into a zombie?” I have other questions as well, like—where did this man eat for the past 18 years, McDonald’s take out? What kind of music groups do zombies listen to? The Grateful Dead? (Sorry for the pun!)

Well, in both the movie and in real life, there is a coma-inducing toxin that comes from the voodoo priest (known as “bocors”), which slows the human metabolism. The sources for this toxin “textrodotoxin,” come from: New World Toad (Bufo marinus), and the Japanese “Puffer Fish,” which is considered to be a delicacy in Japan—after the toxin has been removed. The chemicals of these ingredients can affect both the heart and the nervous system. In Japan, thousands of miles from Haiti, those people who have accidentally consumed the puffer fish toxin behave—well, a lot like zombies—Japanese zombies, I might add.

Godzilla, move over!!

Experiments on rats have proven that the drug can induce a trancelike state as well. So, what does this all mean?

For one thing, zombies do not have an appetite for eating human brains. But there is some scientific evidence that certain drugs can induce the famous zombie-like state. So, would a person be guilty if he killed a zombie, according to Jewish law? Based upon the evidence these two scientists have shown, a “zombie” still remains within the category of a human being. Kabbalists believe there is a residue of the soul that lingers in the body after death. Could this explanation apply to zombies?

BEYOND THE QUESTION ABOUT ZOMBIES . . .

 

However, there is one lingering question regarding the nature of a “person” that is still a difficult to ascertain. Would a person still be considered “human,” even if s/he is in a chronic vegetative state? The case of Terry Schiavo is an excellent example of someone whom the State declared as “clinically dead,” while the family who loved her claimed that she was still “alive,” and even allegedly, “responsive.”

About six months after her life-support was turned off, and while she was also starved by order of the court, Discover Magazine produced a fascinating article that made special mention about people like Terry Schiavo, who suffer from the chronic vegetative condition.

 

Here is one part of the Discover Magazine article that I thought was especially interesting.

 

  • In the 1970s, when intensive care dramatically improved the survival of brain-injured patients, doctors found that if the body can be kept alive, the brain usually shakes off a coma—a totally unresponsive, eyes-closed state—within two to four weeks. At that point some people simply wake up, although they may be delirious and impaired. Others graduate to an in-between zone that New York Hospital–Cornell Medical Center neurologist Fred Plum labeled the “persistent vegetative state” in 1972. At the time, among these patients, it seemed as if only “vegetative” brain functions like breathing, waking, and blinking were working. The higher functions commonly associated with consciousness seemed to be lost.

 

  • The first vegetative patient Schiff saw, the victim of a stroke, had no sign of consciousness. But when he ran into her three years later at a rehab center, he was shocked to find her awake and capable of talking to him.

 

  • The patients, doctors found, usually had widespread brain damage, but two injured areas were especially noteworthy: the thin outer rind, called the cortex, and the thalamus, a pair of walnut-size lumps in the brain’s central core, along with the neural fibers that connect these regions. The two areas are normally in constant cross talk, filtering and analyzing sensory data and making continual adjustments to attention and alertness. Lacking this chatter, someone in a vegetative state seems to be awake but not aware. They might moan and shift around, but they do not look toward a loud hand clap or pull away from a pinch. Given a feeding tube and basic medical care, someone might stay in this condition from days to decades, potentially until death. [3]

 

Well, as science progresses, it is only a matter of time before it can finally resolve this ethical question regarding the chronic vegetative state. Questions regarding the quality of life–even if such person should be revived from the chronic vegetative state–needs to be ethically weighed and considered by the family. If the patient has no quality of life, it is possible that reviving such a person may only cause indefinite suffering. Would this be something desirable? There is a season for everything under the heavens . . . sometimes we need to let go of the people we love. The dignity of the patient is something we must also take into consideration.

Obviously, the border separating consciousness from death is a question worthy of a Solomon to answer. In one of the symposiums I organized and participated in, I argued that ultimately—we may know a lot about the human body, but we still know very little about the nature of consciousness–where it begins and where it truly ends.

Lastly, here’s a piece of trivia that will probably surprise you: Oddly, even some of the Italian rabbis of the 17th century saw nothing wrong with kids having a little bit of Halloween fun–but that is a topic for another time.

====================

Notes:

[1] R. Descartes, Discourse in Method, c. 5.

 

[2] Time Magazine, “Zombies: Do They Exist?” Oct 17, 1983,
www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,952208,00.html – Similarto Medicine: Zombies: Do They Exist? – TIME – Time Magazine

 

[3] Discover Magazine, Kat McGowan, “Rediscovering Consciousness in People Diagnosed as ‘Vegetative,’” March 2011; http://discovermagazine.com/2011/mar/09-turning-vegetables-back-into-humans/article_view?searchterm=Terri%20Schiavo&b_start:int=3

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 September 2013

 

A Rabbinic Commentary on Trump’s Tallit

Image result for trump wears Tallit image

 

This past weekend, Detroit pastor Bishop Wayne Jackson draped a tallit around Donald Trump’s shoulders at service. What was the Jewish reaction? Well, that takes us to the rest of the story that I am about to tell you.

Most Jews I know are probably confused about seeing Donald Trump wearing a tallit. Some of my congregants said, “He looks ridiculous!” Another said, “Non-Jews are not supposed to wear a tallit!” One old friend of mine from San Francisco reacted with righteous indignation: How dare these Christians co-opt our religious symbols and heritage!

One Conservative Rabbi, named Danya Rutenberg twittered: “You guys, a Jewish prayer shawl–a tallit–is a ritual garment. Meant to be worn only by Jews. This is the worst kind of appropriation,” Conservative Rabbi Danya Rutenberg wrote on Twitter. She also called the move “disrespectful” in subsequent tweets. “Yes, my people also suffer cultural appropriation,” Twitter user Andy Rivkin added.

Let us flip this question on its proverbial head: What if Bishop Jackson had given the tallit to Hillary, or Barak Hussein Obama to wear? Would our reaction as a community be the same? In all candor, Rabbi Rutenberg would probably qvell and wish Hillary or Obama a hearty, “Yashar Koach” with  raucous applause–especially if she were in the picture!

One question that most people haven’t asked yet is, “Why do some Christian evangelicals insist upon wearing a tallit in the first place?” Some Christian evangelical ministers I know have told me that they wear the tallit because Jesus wore a tallit in the first century during his ministry.

Interestingly, one of the oldest references to the wearing of tsitsit outside the Talmud or Midrashic literature can be found in the Book of Matthew, where Jesus criticized some of the Pharisees of his day, “They perform all their actions to be seen by men. They broaden their phylacteries; they wear outsize tassels” (Mat 23:5). Yet despite Jesus’s criticism of what he felt was a gaudy display of religious piety, Jesus wore tsitsit (Mat. 9:20). Evangelicals often feel that more of their people should try to practice the Judaism that Jesus practiced in his day, so that they may become more like him. A lot of evangelical ministers actually sound the shofar at the beginning of their services.

Frankly, that’s not a bad idea.

Their motivation in my view is not a sign of disrespect, but actually a sign of respect that we should all admire. Evangelicals believe that by blessing the people of Israel, they too will be blessed:

 Those that bless you I will bless,

those that curse you, I will execrate.

All the families on earth

will pray to be blessed as you are blessed.’

(Genesis 12:3).

The phenomenon of Christian Zionism has proven to be a tremendous source of moral and financial support for our brothers and sisters living in Israel. Orthodox rabbis like Shlomo Riskin heaps praise upon the Evangelical community every Christiams. Palestinian merchants too are glad to see these Christian pilgrims as well. During the war with Hezbollah, one of my Reform colleagues from Illinois felt deeply moved when he saw the number of Born-Again Christians and evangelicals travel to Israel in the middle of the war to assist the country any way they can.

Are they not infinitely superior to the self-righteous Presbyterians, Methodists, and  the United Church of Christ who often demonize the State of Israel in their weekly Sunday services?

Beyond that, in praise of the Evangelicals, I will go one-step further.

It is this writer’s opinion, if Christians wish to observe certain Jewish customs, they have every right to do so, moreover such a view is actually well-attested in traditional rabbinic sources.

Now some of you might be surprised to know that the Talmud speaks about Gentiles following Jewish traditions.

In one Talmudic passage, the King Arteban of Persia one day sent a gift to Rabbi Judah.  The gift was an exquisite and quite expensive pearl.  The king’s only request was that the rabbi send a gift in return that was of equal value.  Rabbi Judah sent the Persian king a mezuzah. King Arteban was displeased with the gift and came to confront the rabbi.  “What is this?  I sent you a priceless gift and you return this trifle?” The rabbi said, “Both objects are valuable, but they are very different.  You sent me something that I have to guard, while I sent you something that will guard you.”[1]

What kind of protection was Rabbi Judah alluding to? The divine Name Shaddai is written on the back of every mezuzah. Shaddai is an acronym “Shomer Dalatot Yisrael” “Guardian of the Doors of Israel” and not people like King Arteban!

One might wonder: What good is sending a mezuzah to a Gentile King who is not a member of the “Jewish tribe”? Yet, the Talmud seems to suggest that just because a non-Jew is not obligated to observe Jewish rituals, if he did observe Jewish rituals, he certainly receives a reward for doing so! Non-Jews are not necessarily excluded from observing Jewish traditions–contrary to Rabbi Rutenburg.

Maimonides makes a remarkable point in his Mishnah Torah, for he writes: We do not prevent a non-Jew who wishes to perform one of the Torah’s mitzvot in order to receive a reward for doing so—provided that he performs it properly.[2] Unfortunately, Maimonides was not always consistent in this regard, for Torah study is meant for Jews only—not non-Jews.[3] He also felt the same about non-Jews wishing to observe the Sabbath.[4] Despite some old rabbinic attitudes that prohibit non-Jews from studying Torah, in practice most rabbis will probably acknowledge that non-Jews (often along with their Jewish spouses) are certainly permitted to study Torah in a synagogue class.

In practice, most Jews are open-minded when it comes to inviting non-Jews to a Passover Seder, a Bar Mitzvah, or a Shabbat service. Even Chabad invites gentiles to light a menorah during Hanukkah!

Perhaps most importantly, how can perspective proselytes know how to observe the mitzvot if we do not grant them access to much of our sacred traditions?

In short, during the medieval world, positive and respectful Jewish-gentile relations were rarer than they are today. When Trump received the tallit from Bishop Wayne Jackson, instead of getting irritated, we should feel proud that Trump gladly donned the tallit. We should feel the same whenever anyone in the non-Jewish community wishes to show respect to our faith and heritage.  Sometimes in our zeal to be “self-righteous” we often demonstrate a lack of broad-mindedness and generosity of spirit.  Only God knows what is in the hearts of mortals, and we would be wise to recognize that everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.

 


[1] JT Peah 1:1; 15d.

[2] MT Hilchot Melachim 10:10.

[3] BT Sanhedrin 59a. Cf. Tosfot on BT Hagigah 13a s.v. Ein.

[4] MT Hilchot Melachim 10:9.

Philo’s Commentary on Numbers & Deuteronomy will soon be released…

Yes, I have great news for everyone who has inquired when the last volumes of the Philo Torah commentary series will be released, the answer is hopefully within the next couple of weeks. In fact, I will also be releasing Philo’s Commentary on Deuteronomy, which I must confess is my favorite volume of the entire series. The rest of the Philo series from Genesis to Leviticus will soon be out as well, newly edited, along with brand new introductions and commentary selections, notes, and so on.

Here is what the new cover looks like: (Click below)

 

The Scandalous Chief Rabbinate of Israel

 

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein vowing to rebuild after a fire at Kehilath Jeshurun caused major damage to his New York synagogue, July 11, 2011. Lookstein, who has guided the Modern Orthodox shul since his father's death in 1979, will be stepping down at the end of this year. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images/via JTA)

One of my favorite concepts in logic is the reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to the absurd”) argument, which is a logical method of argument that proves the falsity of a premise  by following its implications to a logical but absurd conclusion.

The latest news regarding the nullification of one the United States’ most prestigious and venerable rabbis of the United States, Haskel Lookstein, is the rabbi who converted Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, and officiated at Ms. Trump’s  wedding to Jared Kushner in 2009.

What triggered this conundrum?

Back in April, a small rabbinical court the city of Petach Tikvah  (near Tel Aviv) rejected Rabbi Lookstein’s the conversion of a woman named Nicole, who underwent conversion under his auspices.  When she applied for marriage registration with her Israeli fiancé, Lookstein’s name did not on the pre-approved list of rabbis’, whose conversions are acceptable by the Chief Rabbinate.

One thing led to another and the rabbinate decided to invalidate all of R. Lookstein’s conversions, which include Ivanka Trump, the daughter of business magnate and presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The Israel Times report details what happened in the first hearing that took place last week when the Supreme Rabbinical Court reinforced the opinion of the Petach Tikvah lower court. To make a long story short, they denied this woman and others their conversion—despite the fact that Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau approved of all Lookstein’s conversions. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein also said that the Chief Rabbinate recognizes Lookstein’s conversions.

Negating conversions are nothing new in modern Orthodoxy today. A few years ago, the Haredi rabbis and their political allies threatened to overturn over 15,000 conversions of Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who served as the acting  director of the National Conversion Authority in Israel.

For over two thousand years rabbis have respected the right for rabbis in other localities to make decisions for their own communities with complete autonomy. Rabbis who differed with their colleagues on halachic issues generally treated one another with respect and dignity. Unanimity and conformity to a single Halachic standard went against the belief that every community had the right to follow its own traditions and rabbis—even if some of these rabbis followed a minority opinion at times.

But today, we are living in a very different world indeed.

Let me briefly explain why revoking a conversion is wrongheaded and scandalous.

The concept of revoking a conversion is a recent innovation in rabbinic law. As we have posted in other places, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) does not sanction revocation of conversions at all. Should a convert return to his former gentile roots, the halacha still considers him as a “sinful Israelite.” [1]

Simply stated, revoking conversions is risky business and can cause unspeakable harm to countless innocents who are indirectly or directly  triangulated in the rabbinic web the Haredi rabbis have woven.

Reductio ad absurdum in Action

Here is a hypothetical story to consider.

Once upon a time, a woman converts from Catholicism and became a pious Haredi Jewess at the tender age of 20. She raises a family of twenty children. The next generation has the same number of children, as does the third and fourth generation of Haredi Jews. All of them are pious and God fearing Haredim.

By the time this woman reached her 120th birthday, she produced approximately 20x20x20x20 = 160,000 people–not bad for this one prolific Jewish mother!

But something unpredictable happened.

At this matriarch’s 120th birthday, the original convert decides to return to her original Catholic faith on her 120th birthday…

See the problem?

That decision, according to Haredi logic, would jeopardize the Jewish status possibly of up to four generations of Haredi Jews, equaling more than 160,000 Jews!  That would mean all of her offspring numbering 160,000 people would all be technically Haredi Gentiles!  Our little reductio ad absurdum argument explains why our rabbinic ancestors had the common sense not to revoke conversions. Rather, they considered the wayward convert as a “cho’te Yisrael” ( a “Jewish sinner”) and left it at that.

Ethically and halachically, children especially must not be penalized for the sins of the parent, our tradition teaches us. Creating artificial halachic barriers will not solve the problem, it will only compound it–even lead to an exponentiation that will create a scandal for everyone.

I believe the Haredi community has every right to define whom they wish to recognize as a bona fide member of their specific community. However, these Haredi rabbinic leaders do not have the right to legislate for communities outside of its jurisdiction. Every community has the right to decide for itself. That has always been the case in the history of Jewish law. Every community is autonomously responsible for its members.

The fact that all of this is happening near the time of the Three Weeks when Jews are supposed to get along with one another is upsetting and contrary to the spirit of our tradition demands we make the effort to co-exist peacefully and respectfully together.

Let us hope that the Modern Orthodox rabbinate in the United States and elsewhere in the Diaspora  will join the ranks of the Conservative and the Reform in implementing a separation of Synagogue and State, lest we become a mini-me version of the Islamic fanatics who rule oppressively by the force of theocratic law.

We have enough enemies to deal with, we should not be fighting among ourselves.

We Need an Islamic Reformation–NOW!

Credit: Catholic Charities/Jeffrey Bruno (CC BY 2.0).

Reformations are good for the soul. They keep the religious leaders and faiths in check. In the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, people began to read the Bible critically for the first time without having the local priest spoon-feed it to  them while they sat on their Church pews. Of course, the spread of literacy made a huge difference—thanks to the Gutenberg’s printing press. It impacts these technological innovations can probably be compared to the impact that computers and digitalization of literature are having on our society today. The Reformation underwent numerous schisms. Lutherans, Calvinists sprouted up everywhere, and the Baptists were not far behind. Pietist movements, Reformers created enormous conflict—even wars between the Catholics and the Protestants, as recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, written by John Foxe in 1563; he narrated the tortures Catholics and Protestants did to one another in lurid detail.

Yet, Europe managed to survive its birth pangs of a new and more tolerant Christianity. The Catholic Church no longer dominated people’s lives. People wanted not just the freedom of religion, but also yearned for the freedom from religion.
While Orthodox Jews lament the birth of the Reform Movement in Judaism, the Jewish Reformation led to many significant changes that even the Orthodox movement benefits from having. For example, the Bat Mitzvah is one example of a change (introduced by R. Mordechai Kaplan of the Reconstructionist Movement) that is widely observed even in some of the most Orthodox Jewish communities—all over the nation. Often, young women will read to a mixed audience from the Megillah on Purim, or from Megillat Ruth on Shavuoth. These are dynamic changes we have witnessed in our time. The emergence of woman scholars in Halacha threatens to expand the discussions concerning traditional Jewish texts such as the Talmud. A woman’s voice is not only heard at the traditional Orthodox Shabbat tables or at the young women’s yeshivot, women are adding their voice to the formation of modern Halacha.

So what about Islam? Is Islam ready for a Reformation within its own ranks? As outsiders, do we have the right to encourage and even demand that Muslims consider this option and take the steps to implement it?

President Sisi of Egypt is a remarkable man in the Arab world.  He says it best last December when he urged reform of Islamic discourse and called on Islamic scholars to send Christmas greetings to Christians. In the televised speech to Islamic scholars, President Sisi stated, “We talk a lot about the importance of religious discourse… In our schools, institutes and universities, do we teach and practice respect for the others?” He continued, “We neither teach or practice it.”
Egyptian Streets quoted President Sisi during the speech, stating, “God did not create the world for the ‘ummah’ [Arabic for ‘nation’ or ‘community’] to be alone. [He didn’t create it] for one community, but for communities. [He didn’t create it] for one religion, but for religions.” President Sisi continued, “Can I impose upon someone pressure, physically or morally, to change their religion? Would God accept this?… What are we afraid of? Are we custodians of people’s minds or choices? No, we are not. In religion specifically, no. Each of us will be judged independently… and [people] will have to answer [for their choices and what they choose to believe].” [2]
To admit that Islam needs a Reformation might sound like heresy, but without it, not only will Islam as a religion completely implode, it may implode the rest of the civilized world along with it.
While there have been relatively peaceful relations between Islam and the West, there have been atavistic forces within Islam that wish to relive the good old days of the 7th century.
In Europe, we are witnessing retrogressive religion at its worse attempting to bring back the burqa, rape squads, sexual slavery advertised on the Internet and Twitter of thirteen year-old girls. The violence of atavistic Muslim young men who enslave and gang rape young girls continues to be ignored by the press. If you turn on your television, chances are you will not see progressive women march down the streets of Berlin or Paris, Stockholm or London protesting in mass against the seventh-century male mentality that defines considerable part of today’s Muslim world, who wish to make Sharia the law of the West.
Many Muslim countries are very concerned about the radical Islamicists that promote Sharia and ISIS, and a host of other arcane early 7th century Muslim practices—such as child weddings, female circumcision, stoning married women who cannot produce four witnesses that she was raped.
The apathy  or moral indifference of these crimes against humanity stem from their craven fear of being labeled “Islamophobic.”
There is nothing “racist” in criticizing the origins of religious intolerance in Islam, for Islam—like Judaism and Christianity—are predicated upon a belief system and is not based upon color.

The bully pulpit of the Presidency is remarkably silent whenever it comes to criticizing Islamic abuse of women and religious minorities faced with genocide. Yet, the progressive voices who could make a difference are deliberately silenced.

Sister Diana Morneka is probably a name you have never heard of before. She is a Catholic nun from Iraq who wanted to come to the United States to speak about the persecution of women and religious minorities of her country. One would think that the United States of all countries would allow this courageous champion of human rights to come and speak to our Congress, yet, inexplicably, our State Department will not give her a visa.
“Sister Diana represents tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians, forced to convert or die or flee their homes. She’ll tell us the truth about what’s happening,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) told the Catholic News Agency (CNA) May 7.  “Like thousands of other Christians in the region, Sister Diana is a victim of ISIS,” Collins said in a May 5 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. “She has devoted her life to helping other victims and advocating for them.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has won numerous human rights awards for speaking up for women’s rights in Muslim countries. In 2004, she collaborated with the artist  Theo van Gogh (before some radical Muslims killed him) who produced a film called, Islam, which documents the oppression of women living under Islam. She is one of many moderates calling for a Reformation in Islam. Ali has also won numerous awards in various European countries. Yet, she has yet to be invited by the Congress or by the President.
If we want Islam to embrace a 21st religious sensibility, then it behooves us to add our voices demanding that such a change take place. Denying the voices of progressives who have lived or grown up in Muslim countries only serves to keep Islam locked up in the shackles of the 7th century.
Isn’t it about time that our President start inviting progressive voices like Zahudi Yasser, President Sisi, Ayann Hirsi Ali, or Sister Diana to the White House to help present an image of Islam that is introspective and self-critical? These are the kind of voices our country needs to hear, instead of gangster rappers, or people like GloZell, who eats cereal out of a bathtub.
As moral people concerned about the human condition, we need even at the risk of being called “politically incorrect,” to address the issue of modern day Islamo-fascists threatening Christians, Yazidi, and Jewish lives in the Middle East today. Just the other day, an Iranian general boasted how Iran has over 100,000 missiles aimed at Israel.
Why in the world would we ignore their threats to complete the job started by Hitler?
Yes, we need an Islamic Reformation—and we need it now!

*

Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.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 United States.)

Shaking the Foundations of Orthodoxy with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

My history with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin goes all the way back to 1977. He visited a Hillel Academy in Binghamton, New York, where I  taught Talmud many decades ago. At the time, I knew he was already a well-respected rabbi who had brought many Jews back to Judaism when he served as the founder of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.

Rabbi Riskin has often  taken considerable heat from the Orthodox establishment, which always criticizes the maverick Modern Orthodox rabbi’s controversial positions. Even as we speak, the Israeli Rabbinate is mulling over the question whether to expel Rabbi Riskin from the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate. Rabbi Riskin approves the ordination of women and allows them to participate in public prayer. He also advocates the use of prenuptial agreements and other halachic leniencies to deal with recalcitrant husbands. He has also gone on record supporting the legalization of civil marriage in Israel. He has a positive view of Jesus and even favors dialogue with Christian groups.

Sound like heresy to you? You betcha!

In a recent column, he is encouraging the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel to welcome the Reform and Conservative movements of Israel in the spirit of goodwill and reconciliation.

Riskin argues that today’s Orthodoxy ought to respect the Reform and Conservative movement because they are trying their best to promote Judaism and Jewish practices, “They’re not tearing Jews away but bringing them closer… That may have been true at the beginning of the Reform Movement, but it’s very different now – they’re trying to bring Jews closer. Not to the wholeness, the fullness of Orthodox Judaism that I love and that I know, but nevertheless, they’re trying to bring Jews closer.”

I believe Riskin is correct. The warfare thesis that has characterized the Orthodox movement since the 19th century needs to end. As Riskin observed, “they are not our enemies, they’re our partners!” I believe Riskin is making a valuable point. More specifically, Riskin sees nothing wrong with Reform or Conservative Jews use the mikveh (a ritual pool) as a way of enhancing their observance of Jewish values in their lives.

Unfortunately, others see this matter differently.

R. Avraham Gordimer, who serves as the OU Rabbinic Coordinator/Dairy Specialist at the OU, Chairman of the OU Dairy Committee, wrote a stinging critique concerning Riskin’s inclusive view of welcoming non-Orthodox as our partners in faith. Gordimer is a well-known writer and exponent of Modern Orthodoxy who leans to the right of Riskin.

Gordimer thinks that Modern Orthodox Judaism is threatened by many of the innovations Riskin proposes to do—especially in the area of women rabbis, all of which, “flies in the face of normative Torah understanding.” Furthermore, Gordimer contends, “Theologically, the Reform and Conservative (as well as the Reconstructionist) movements reject the Singular Divine Authorship of the Torah and the other Cardinal Principles of Faith, and they have disavowed the binding nature of halakha.”

Orthodox rabbis like Gordimer love characterizing Jewish theology as though it were a monolithic structure—uniform, seamless, and without wrinkles. Nothing can be further from the truth. Many of the greatest medieval rabbis grappled whether God possessed a humanoid form (Moshe Taku) , or whether the Torah speaks in the language of metaphor (Philo, Maimonides, HaLevy). Some of the medieval scholars grappled whether we must believe in a physical resurrection or merely a spiritual resurrection where the soul is reborn into the world of Eternity, or is reincarnated into another human body—as the Kabbalists believed.

And yes, many of the Sages believed that Moses did not write the entire Torah—especially the last several verses that narrate his death (Menachot 30a). Do these discrepancies in Judaic belief make us “heretics” (“kofrim”)? Judaism has always stressed that our faith is predicated upon deeds rather than creeds. Christian theology, in contrast, considers itself a religion of creeds rather than deeds. Belief is essential for Christian salvation, as Pascal articulated in his famous wager.

Perhaps what is most disturbing here is the attitude that the “conservative” wing of Modern Orthodoxy is threatening to bifurcate its own ranks because of its zero-sum theology. The Talmud often said, “These and these are the words of the living God, but the halakhah follows the school of Hillel” (BT Eruvim 13b).

Today’s Orthodox movement has trouble even mentioning a famous early 20th century thinker like Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, because he believed that the theory of evolution is compatible with Judaic thought. His name no longer appears on the OU website. Orthodoxy is becoming increasingly narrower in how it views the world. If Orthodoxy cannot find peace within its own ranks, it will never find peace outside its ranks. Progressive thinkers such as Rabbi Shlomo Riskin are an anathema to men like R. Avraham Gordimer.

This morning on Facebook, I discussed this topic with a number of scholars. I reminded them what the Talmud teaches us in tractate Shabbat about a famous story regarding Hillel.

  • At another time,  it happened a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.’

Similar stories occur with other potential proselytes—neither of whom would ever be accepted in today’s world of Orthodoxy. Yet, Hillel’s optimism triumphs, Sometime later, the three proselytes met in one place; said they, Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shekhinah.

The Talmud concludes elsewhere with another remarkable anecdote about why Jewish law follows Hillel and not Shammai:

  • R. Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years, the Academies of Hillel and Shammai engaged in debate over the Halacha [matters pertaining to Jewish Law]. Each academy claimed the law should be determined in accordance their school’s interpretation. Finally, a Heavenly Voice ruled, “Both views are the words of the living God, but the halacha is in agreement with the rulings of the Academy of Hillel.” Why were Hillel’s Academy more preferable over Shammai’s? Hillel’s Academy acted with kindness and compassion. They would first take into consideration Shammai’s halachic deliberations before arriving at their own conclusions . . . From this we may deduce the following lesson in ethics: He who humbles himself, the Holy Blessed One raises up the humbled. However, the one who seeks greatness will soon discover how elusive greatness is, for greatness flees from those who seek it . . . (BT Eruvin 13b)

As we approach the period of the Three Weeks commemorating the destruction of the Temple, it behooves us to remember that it is not what we argue about that matters—it is how and why we argue that is of great importance. Orthodoxy needs to make peace first within itself, before it can make peace with the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is a hero and he deserves our respect for his moral courage.

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.