Did Scientists Discover a “God Spot” ?

Q. For centuries scholars have long wondered why the belief in God is so ubiquitous in cultures all around the world. Recently, neurologists propose a possible explanation suggesting that the belief in God is deeply embedded in the human brain. Simply put, the brain is hardwired and programmed for religious experiences. A study involved forty participants, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and Buddhists. For the analysis, researchers used a functional MRI machine, which can identify the most active regions of the brain. Each of the individuals was asked to ponder religious and ethical dilemmas dealing with issues of faith. As they answered, three areas in the brain began to light up, indicating that these same areas control religious belief and has been dubbed as the “God spot.”

Continue reading “Did Scientists Discover a “God Spot” ?”

Feminine Imagery in the Bible

In a gender conscious society, people often ask if there are any specific references in the Tanakh and within Jewish tradition where God  is depicted in feminine terms. Without going into considerable detail, we will briefly one example:

In Isaiah 42:14, the prophet also depicts God’s biocentric passion for justice in feminine terms:

For a long time
I have held my peace,
I have kept still
and restrained myself;
now I will cry out
like a woman in labor,
I will gasp and pant.
Isaiah 42:14

The imagery of God acting as a mother giving birth to her child, portrays a Divine Presence that is present alongside those people who are trying to midwife a new world where human degradation, apathy and suffering no longer exist. This organic depiction of God does not portray the Divine Reality as being extrinsic or unaffected by the harsh presence of evil that is incarnated by malevolent people. The Talmud and the Midrash both describe the unfolding of the Messianic Redemption as the “Hevlay HaMashiach”–the birth-pangs of the Messiah.

According to the Talmud, the Messiah was born on the day of Tisha B’ Av, the Ninth of Av for the number nine symbolizes birth and new life. One of the most popular and intimate rabbinic names for God is Rachmana – “The Merciful One.”

The Hebrew word for “compassion” “rahameem” comes from the Hebrew word “rechem” for “womb.” God’s compassion and mercy are not extrinsic for in a metaphorical sense, we come from God’s womb. The womb is the place where all life is mysteriously conceived, carried and born. Throughout the Talmud and Midrashic literature, the Divine Presence as it is manifested among earthly mortals is called the “Shechinah.” The Talmudic depictions always convey a feminine quality that one does not find in the more traditional masculine metaphors of the Divine.

Perhaps one of the oldest Kabblalistic teachings dating back to the 2nd century posits the radical belief that the entire creation forms God’s own “mystical body” and are organically interrelated. All this suggests a profound mystical view: God’s Presence is wholly inseparable from the world. It was only later in the Kabbalah (and subsequently in Hassidut,) the creation of the physical and spiritual cosmos occurs through process of the Tzimtzum—Divine contractions. These contractions resemble the contractions and movements a mother has culminating in the birthing process of a human being. The bond between mother and child continues beyond pregnancy—a mother’s love never ceases to flow even when a child behaves disrespectfully. As a spiritual metaphor for the Divine, the mother/child imagery represents both interdependence and relatedness. Continue reading “Feminine Imagery in the Bible”

Respecting the Human Face

Martin Gilbert in his book on the Holocaust tells the story about a young sixteen year-old named Zvi Michalowski. On September 27, 1941, Zvi was supposed to be executed with 3,000 other Lithuanian Jews. He had fallen into the pit a fraction of a second before the Nazis shot their guns. That night, he crept out of the pit, and fled to the closest village. He knocked on a door of a peasant, who saw this naked man, covered with blood. He begged the elderly widow and said: “I am Lord Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in.” The widow threw herself at his feet and begged for forgiveness and she hid him for three days. The young man managed to survive as a partisan (The Holocaust, [London and New York, 1986]) 200f.

One cannot help but compare this anecdote to the passage one of the most famous of the pastoral parables:

“You may remember, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ ” (Matthew 25:35-40).

What does the human face say to me when no words are ever verbally said? The human face says, “Look at me; treat me with humanity; I am like you.” In the parable of Jesus, the 1st century rabbi gently reminds his disciples that kindness and compassion must find tangible expression in the language of good deeds.

When we look at the children who Hitler killed in the millions, what do their faces say to us from their pictures? The human face, as you know, is capable of almost infinite expressions; the face is the mirror to the soul. According to the French philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas, the human face always challenges us to respond ethically toward others. No commandment even need be given, when I see the human face looking back at me, I cannot deny his humanity without destroying my own in the process. In the age of push-button warfare, it is so easy to kill millions without ever having to look at the human face that commands us to be aware of our mutual humanity.

Remembering the victims of the Holocaust must be more than a brief recollection. The act of memory in the Bible is always dynamic as it is transformative. How we remember the death of the six million is important, for as the philosopher George Santayana said, “He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it.” But are we really faced with a similar menace like the Jews were in the days that led to the Holocaust? Most certainly!

The ghost of Adolf Hitler is alive in well in Iran’s dictator Mahmud Ahmadinejad—whose Holocaust denial is has made him a cult-hero to many of his fellow religious fanatics—even as he develops the nuclear weapons to someday create a new Holocaust in Israel. The world cannot afford to take a passive or indifferent attitude toward the one country that has done more to export international terror than any other terrorist organization in the last several decades. No other country in the civilized world has vowed to wipe another country off the map like Iran’s leaders. Yes, the human face demands a response. But how we ultimately respond to the bellicose threats of this demented regime will determine the fate of millions in the world today.

As always, the choice is in our hands.

Etiologies in Genesis 1-3

Q. What is an etiology? What is its role in biblical literature? 

A. An etiology concerns itself with the study of causes and origins. As a philosophical investigation, the philosopher tries to understand the nature of existence and how it came to be. In Genesis for example, etiologies serve to explain the origin of a custom, an event, a name, a geographical formation, an object, a shrine, and so on. The first Jewish thinker to arrive at this was the 15th century Jewish thinker, R. Joseph Albo, who noted that the stories of the Edenic garden are meant to account for the difficulties of life that human beings experience.[1]

More often than not, etiologies[2] in the Tanakh correspond to a negative evaluation and many people throughout the ages have read the story of Genesis 3 as a justification for  why women must be subordinated to men. This is precisely the point of encounter where a modern reader must insist that while etiologies provide explanations for the causes and origins of a social attitude, they should not be read as prescriptions for how the world ought to be. To go one step further, many of these prescriptions characterize a world as it ought NOT to be.

Etiological explanations have their limitations, especially when ethical issues are involved; they should never prevent a person or a community from critically reexamining the basis of the etiological explanation’s internal logos. The failure to do so can sometimes lead to disastrous consequences. One example that comes to mind is the use of anesthetics in childbirth. In 1847, Church leaders quoted God’s curse to Eve: “in pain shall you bring forth children.” How could she fulfill the biblical punishment of bearing children in pain while being under the influence of chloroform? One wise doctor countered that scripturally, there was no harm in giving anesthetics to men, because God Himself put Adam into a deep sleep when He extracted his rib. However, the ecclesiastical bodies remained unconvinced when it came to the suffering of women who were in childbirth.[3]

Former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth Immanuel Jakobovits writes in his Jewish Medical Ethics that as late as 1853, even before the discovery of anesthesia, there was an incident in France where two women—one pregnant and one who aided her with some artificial means to ease the pain of her delivery—were both burnt to death for attempting to circumvent Eve’s curse. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, chloroform was banned by the Catholic Church. The ban remained in effect until 1949, when painless births were permitted.[4] A society’s etiological explanations when left unanalyzed, can become a source for social dysfunction. There are broad implications that go beyond just the Edenic story, and a contemporary believer ought to take etiological explanations of any practice and hold them up to ethical scrutiny.

Lastly, in the Pseudepigraphal Book of Adam and Eve, the ancients propose a surprisingly sensitive reading of the text that demonstrates a willingness to deconstruct the text in a manner that is respectful toward women in general, and Eve in particular: “And he went and found her in great distress. And Eve said: ‘From the moment I saw thee, my lord, my grief-laden soul was refreshed. And now entreat the Lord God on my behalf to hearken unto thee and look upon me and free me from my awful pains.’ And Adam entreated the Lord for Eve.”[5]

[1] Sefer ha-Ikkarim, 1:11.

[2] Other etiologies include: the first act of Creation, the first day, the first week, the first Sabbath, the origins of marriage, menstruation, pregnancy, family dysfunction, the first dietary law, the first farmer and shepherd, the first conflict between the shepherd and a famer, the origin of sibling rivalry; the first fratricide, the first fugitive, the first city, the first ship-builder, the first natural catastrophe, and so on.

3] See Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, originally published by Appleton in 1896, reprinted in 1993 as part of the Great Minds Series by Prometheus Books, Vol. II, p. 60.

[4] Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1959), p. 104.

[5] Book of Adam and Eve 20.1.

Chess Genius 7.2 vs. the Rabbi

As many of my friends know, I am an avid chess player, but rarely do I defeat the chess programs that are on the market today; oftentimes I can draw them, but seldom do I ever score a victory. So although this article may not have much topical interest, it is my website, so I decided to post my hard fought victory;

[Date “2009.03.11”]

[Round “01”]

[White: Chess Genius 7.2]

[Black: Rabbi Michael Samuel]

[Result “0-1”]

[ECO “D06”]

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 d5 3. cxd5 Qxd5 4. Nc3 Qd6 5. Nf3 Bf5 6. Qb3 Qb6 7. Qxb6 axb6

8. Bf4 c6 9. e3 Nbd7 10. Be2 e6 11. O-O Be7 12. Rfc1 O-O 13. a3 h6 14. Nd2 Bh7

15. Nc4 b5 16. Bd6 Bxd6 17. Nxd6 Rfb8 18. Bd1 Nb6 19. Bf3 Nc8 20. Nde4 Nb6 21.

Nxf6+ gxf6 22. Ne4 Bxe4 23. Bxe4 f5 24. Bd3 Nd5 25. g3 Nf6 26. Rc2 Rd8 27.

Rac1 Kg7 28. Be2 h5 29. Bf3 Rh8 30. Kg2 h4 31. Rc5 hxg3 32. hxg3 Kf8 33. Rh1

Rxh1 34. Kxh1 Ke7 35. Kg2 Ra4 36. Rc1 Kd6 37. Rh1 Ke7 38. Rh8 Ne8 39. Be2 Ra8

40. Kf3 Rd8 41. Kf4 Nf6 42. Rxd8 Kxd8 43. Bf3 Ke7 44. Bg2 Kd6 45. Kf3 Nd5 46.

Bf1 Nb6 47. b3 Nd5 48. Bd3 Nf6 49. Bc2 Kd5 50. Kf4 Kd6 51. b4 Ke7 52. Kf3 Nd5

53. Ke2 Kd6 54. Kd3 Nb6 55. Bb3 Nd5 56. Kd2 Nf6 57. Ke2 Nd5 58. Bxd5 Kxd5 59.

Kd3 b6 60. f3 f6 61. Kd2 Kc4 62. Kc2 e5 63. dxe5 fxe5 64. g4 fxg4 65. fxg4 Kd5

66. Kd2 Ke6 67. Kc3 Kf6 68. Kd3 c5 69. Ke4 c4 70. Kf3 Kg5 71. e4 Kh4 72. Ke2

Kxg4 73. Ke3 Kg3 74. Kd2 Kf3 75. Kc3 Kxe4 76. a4 bxa4 77. Kxc4 a3 78. Kb3 b5

79. Kxa3 Kd3 80. Kb2 Kd2 81. Kb3 e4 82. Kb2 e3 83. Kb3 e2 84. Kb2 e1=Q 85. Ka3

Kc2 86. Ka2 Qb1+ 87. Ka3 Qb3+ 0-1

Hassidic Rabbi sentenced 50 years for child abuse

Question: I read in the newspaper today about a Satmar Hasid named Rabbi Israel Weingarten, who  faces 50 years in federal prison for having raped, sodomized, and abusing his daughter. I cannot make sense of this story. What gives? Why are there so many cases of pedophilia in the Orthodox Jewish community?

Answer: Historically, incest has always been a serious problem to our ancestors; it is not a modern problem per se, but has ubiquitously present throughout history in all strata of human society. Jewish communities are not immune to this tragedy.

Curiously, in Jewish tradition during the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah service, the section from Leviticus 18 is read dealing with the forbidden sexual relations. Many years ago, when I was serving as a rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue, a gay member asked me: “Why we must read the section in the Torah forbidding homosexuality on Yom Kippur?” I answered him that the real reason we read this section is not for the homosexuals, but for those who are guilty of incest! By reading this passage, it is hoped that those guilty of incest and other sexual improprieties will take the necessary steps to repent and banish such evil behavior from their lives. Remember: Had this issue not been so rampant in ancient societies, it would hardly have been necessary to create all sorts of laws proscribing such deviant behavior.

Continue reading “Hassidic Rabbi sentenced 50 years for child abuse”

Banning Women from Funerals?

Q. I read recently in the Jerusalem Post about a funeral that took place in the Yavneh cemetery, where the women were prohibited from walking near the graves, and one of the reasons given was because it “damages their wombs.” Another Orthodox woman said, “Due to the high rate of deaths of young people in Yavneh, the community undertook a vow not to approach the grave during a burial – and that would be the tikkun (healing) of Yavneh.”

A woman defending the custom, explained:

We implored the woman from the cemetery. We argued with her and amongst ourselves. In the meantime, some men were already returning from the burial. As they passed near us, they said we could approach the grave now since the burial had been completed. Yet the cemetery woman still refused and said, “It is not good for the departed. Don’t you understand? You are sinning against the dead. You are harming his soul” and with that she silenced us. She overwhelmed us. The father of my departed cousin is religious and some of the women said he might want us to obey these shocking orders. We did not want to endanger him or his son in any way in the world to come. So we stopped trying …) [Jerusalem Post, March 12, 2009]

What is the reason for this antiquated custom? Why is there an association between a woman’s menstruation and death? Can a woman serve as a pallbearer?

A. Great questions!

The Talmud in BT Sanhedrin 20a discusses funeral etiquette:

“Our Rabbis taught: Wherever it is customary for women to follow the bier, they may do so; to precede it, they may do so likewise. R. Judah said: Women must always precede the bier, for we find that David followed the coffin of Abner, as it is written, “And King David followed the bier” (2 Sam. 3:31). They the Rabbis said to him: ‘That was only to appease the people, and they were indeed appeased, for David went to and fro, from the men to the women and back from the women to the men, as it is written, So all the people and all Israel understood that day that it was not of the king to slay Abner’ ( 2 Sam. 3:37).

Ba’ale Tosfot cites two views from the Jerusalem Talmud regarding this Talmudic passage: one approach suggests the reason why women should not lead a funeral procession, because it was Eve, who introduced death to the world.[1] However, others contend that because of modesty, it became customary for men to lead the procession (which is contrary to the view expressed by R. Judah cited above).

There is a big difference whether the custom of women following the bier is because of modesty or whether it is attributed to Eve’s sin.

Now, the Zohar (ca. 12th century) complicates the discussion and adds an entirely new wrinkle to the above Talmudic discussion.

R. Simeon further said: ‘I swear to you that the majority of people do not die before their time, but only those who know not how to take heed to themselves. For at the time when a dead body is taken from the house to the place of burial the Angel of Death haunts the abodes of the women. Why of the women? Because that has been his habit since the time that he seduced Eve, through whom he brought death upon the world. Hence, when he takes a man’s life, and the males are accompanying the dead body, he mingles himself on the way among the women, and he has then the power to take the life of the sons of men. He looks on the way at the faces of those who come within his sight, from the time they carry the dead body out from his house to the place of burial until they return to their homes. It is on their account that he brings about the untimely death of many people. Regarding this it is written: “But there is that is swept away without justice” (Prov. 13:23). For he, the Angel of Death, ascends and brings accusations and recounts man’s sins before the Holy One, blessed be He, so that the man is brought to judgment for those sins, and is removed from the world before his time.

The Zohar now offers its own view of proper funeral etiquette:

What is the remedy against this? When the dead body is carried to the place of burial, a man should turn his face in another direction, and leave the women behind him. Should the latter pass in front he should turn round so as not to face them. Similarly, when they return from the place of burial he should not return by the way where the women are standing, and he should not look at them at all, but should turn a different way. It is because the sons of men do not know of this, and do not observe this, that the majority of people are brought up for judgment and are taken away before their time..[2]

The Zohar’s position ought to be fairly clear: all women must atone for Eve’s sin. The connection between menstruation and death has long been a part of Western religion, for among the punishments Eve receives in Genesis 3, according to rabbinic folklore, was the beginning of her menstrual cycle—all this is subsumed under the penalty “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing” (Gen. 3:16) as noted by Seforno and Malbim in their biblical commentaries.  Women are thus viewed in early rabbinic tradition as being responsible for the presence of death in the world, and the menstrual cycle is a collective punishment all women must bear for a substantial part of their lives.

Kabbalists sometimes cite another verse in Scriptures that associates women with death, “Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave” (Proverbs 5:11)–as an allusion to Eve! For this reason, women are forbidden to serve as pallbearers among the Orthodox. Non-Orthodox brands of Judaism allow women to serve in this capacity.

R. Joseph Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch rules that women should not participate in the procession to the grave, lest they bring harm to the world.[3] Rabbinical scholars like  the Kabbalist R. Isaac Luria[4], as well as the Vilna Gaon, urge women not to even enter a cemetery until they have gone to the mikveh (a ritual bath for purification).[5] According to Luria, the law applies no less to men who had sexual relations or a seminal emission as well, for they too, must immerse themselves in the mikveh since the demonic forces of evil are believed to cling to an individual who has not immersed.

The Kabbalah influences the Jewish legal system known as “Halachah” more than most people realize. Halachic authorities are divided whether this applies when the woman is counting her “seven clean days” after her menstrual bleeding has ceased. As a side note, some rabbis believe that a woman should not go to a synagogue while she is bleeding, but most authorities think it is permitted during her seven clean days.

As mentioned above, nowhere in the Talmud is there any mention at all of this custom. Jewish mysticism modifies the Christian doctrine of Original Sin, and redirects the blame–to the women [men have been blaming women for the ills of the world since ancient times], who are believed to represent the incarnation of Eve. These mystics influenced the tradition, and that would explain why the incident in Yavneh created a ruckus.  Of course, this law, like many others, is rooted in classical misogyny. To our regret, sexism retains an honored place in the Zohar and for those who admire the study of the Kabbalah, it is imperative we realize that its authors had feet of clay, and were indeed men of their age. The Zohar is far from being an inerrant work of religious literature.

In the spirit of speculation, I would add that customs, such as this one, may have a basis in something tragic that occurred in a Jewish community long ago. Perhaps a pregnant woman attended a funeral one day, and she miscarried while she was standing in front of a grave. The horror of such an awful experience might have left the community in a state of trauma, and as Kabbalists and rabbis tried to find a connection between the events (the funeral and the miscarriage).[6]

Lastly, the term “kever” (that typically means “grave”), but may also signify uterus and womb.[7] This could partially explain basis for the Zohar and subsequent Lurianic custom about women not entering a cemetery in a funeral procession.

[1] Tosfot, s.v. Nashim – Sanhedrin 20a.

[2] II Zohar 196a-b.

[3] YD 359:1-2.

[4] Cited in the Magane Avraham O.H. 559, s.k. 19.

[5] Cited in the Pitechei Teshuvah Y.D. 119 , s.k. 119.

[6] Of course the idea that women are responsible for the evil and death of the world derives from texts that are even more ancient than the Talmud or Midrash, e.g., Sirach 15:24,25:24; Life of Adam and Eve 44:2; Apocalypse of Moses 14;2. Long before the Zohar or Kabbalah was a twinkle in some rabbi’s eye, generations of people attributed the evils and problems of the world to women; subsequent rabbinical tradition only confirmed a belief that amounts to an early Judaic version of Original Sin that eventually influenced Christianity.

[7] For an illustration of this concept, the Talmud in tractate Nidah 21a raises the question whether it is possible for the uterus to open without bleeding, see also Even Shoshan Hebrew Dictionary s.v. “kever.”