When rabbinic leaders fail us: The Motty Borger Tragedy (updated)

Talmudic wisdom urges us to be circumspect with our behavior as a community when a tragedy strikes home. Because of our collective and corporate sense of identity, we are all responsible for the moral condition of our communities. This idea can be seen in one of the more peculiar precepts found in the Torah known as the  eglei aruphah. The precept derives from Deuteronomy 21:1-9, which centers on the discovery of a corpse near a community.

“If the corpse of a slain man is found lying in the open on the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you to occupy, and it is not known who killed him, your elders and judges shall go out and measure the distances to the cities that are in the neighborhood of the corpse.”

Explanation: The court must ascertain the cause of death; was there foul-play? What kind of crime occurred, and why? Was the man accidentally killed by a wild-beast? In any event, the death of the innocent person demands justice. There must be an atonement sacrifice to purify the earth of the blood that cries out for justice (see Genesis 4:10). At the end of the ritual, the court declares: “‘Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes did not see the deed; forgive  O LORD, your people Israel, whom you have ransomed, and let not the guilt of shedding innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel.’ Thus they shall be absolved from the guilt of bloodshed . . .” (Deut. 21:7-9).

Talmudic discussions on this chapter raise an important forensic question on the text: Would it occur to anybody to suspect that the elders would be responsible for such a crime? Who could be more honorable than the judges?

The Sages point out that in biblical and in rabbinic times, it was considered unsafe to let a guest leave a host’s home without being escorted for at least part of that person’s journey. The judges of a community are to some degree indirectly accountable for allowing a murder to occur on their watch, “The victim did not come to us hungry and we sent him away without any food. He did not come to us alone and we offered him no protection.”

The American legal system has a category of law termed, “accessories after the fact.” This would include people who aid or abed a criminal after he does something wrong. Judaism teaches that there is another category “accessories before the fact” – this would include decent people who are good and respectable. Biblical ethics demands that each leader and citizen do his part in preventing a crime from taking place; silence or apathy is akin to complicity. In the final analysis we are our brother’s keeper.

This past week, a tragic incident occurred in Brooklyn that pertains to the message of this particular ritual and its wisdom. A young man named Motty Borger, two days after his marriage, commits suicide by jumping to his death from the motel he and his young bride were staying. Evidently, the young man felt tortured by memories of being molested while he was in yeshiva. Filled with shame, he could not approach his young wife, Mali, and consummate their marriage.

The sexual exploitation of children by clergy is not just a problem that occurs in the Catholic community; it is a Jewish problem as well; Jewish leaders across the denominational spectrum need to address its existence and develop some preventive solutions. While this is obvious to the non-yeshiva world, it is not so obvious to the yeshiva world. Haredi rabbis are more interested in “looking good” than they are in helping their students learn to overcome the tragedy of their lost innocence. Rather than bring such matters to the attention of the police, the tendency of these closed communities is to bury the problem and hope it will go away—but it won’t. Continue reading “When rabbinic leaders fail us: The Motty Borger Tragedy (updated)”

Is Heaven reserved only for Jews?

Q My cousin said to me that when we pass away, we automatically go to heaven.  I have searched the Talmud and cannot seem to find anything like that at all. Would you please tell me where I can find this or any reference to us going to heaven?

Answer: It seems to me your grandfather was referring to a famous Mishnah found in the beginning of the 10th chapter of Sanhedrin which states:

All Israel have a portion in the World to Come (Olam Haba), for its says, “And your people, all of them righteous, Shall possess the land for all time; They are the shoot that I planted, My handiwork in which I glory” (Isa. 60:21).

Jewish wisdom teaches that the existence of an afterlife suggests that there is more to our soulful existence than what we physically see. We have a kinship with a Spiritual Reality that points to the Divine. Such an awareness would not be possible were it not for the belief that we are made in the image of God. Yet, to become aware of this inner reality, the soul must learn to expand the trajectory of her spiritual consciousness. To achieve this purpose, the soul undergoes a journey into this world where it gradually learns how to love and live a spiritual life that takes it beyond the boundaries of ego. Paradoxically, such growth cannot occur in the heavenly realm–but only in the earthly realm–in order  to taste and enjoy the possibilities of transcendence.

Is the afterlife reserved only for Jews? Judaism does not make any such claim. Jewish tradition teaches that the just and righteous of all people have a stake in the world of Eternity, but the degree of our soul’s awareness depends upon what she accomplishes in this world, which the Kabbalah calls “Asiah,” “the world of deed.”

Note how the Mishnah purposely cites a verse that utilizes the metaphors of gardening; this usage is not happenstance, for as every gardener knows, growing anything requires a labor of love. Our sojourn in this world can be seen and spiritually understood through the metaphor of gardening. Continue reading “Is Heaven reserved only for Jews?”

Who were the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4?

The identity of the נְּפִלִים (něpîlîm) is a matter of considerable speculation. It has often been suggested that their name might have been derived from the fact that they were the sons of the semi-divine beings referred earlier as the בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים (běnê hāělōhîm). Another conjecture suggests the Nephilim were the children of “the fallen ones” who “fell” נָפַל   (näpäl = “fall”) from heaven, hence they were “fallen angels.”

With respect to the first two theories, if this forbidden co-mingling between the human and the heavenly realm is at the heart of the narrative, then once again the Torah is stressing  how human beings seem to continue violating the moral boundaries governing its existence (cf. Gen. 3ff and 4ff).

A third theory argues that the Nephilim and the בְנֵי־הָאֱלֹהִים were one and the same. Their huge, powerful presence instilled fear into the hearts of the enemy soldiers, causing them to fall at the battlefield or in their presence. They utilized intimidation and fear to obtain whatever they wanted. The verb נָפַל (näpäl = “fall”) is often used in association with a military assault.[1] Regardless of whether one wishes to believe that they were “fallen angels” or just “fierce warriors,” these people made the earth autocratic, where only the aggressive and the strong ruled. The Nephilim imposed a gangster-like rule over the masses wherever they went. Rashi’s pithy Midrashic statement probably sums it up best: “They were men who brought destruction and desolation into the world.”

Biblical scholarship since the time of Ibn Ezra has raised an intriguing question: Did these people survive the Flood? It would seem based on the verse in Numbers 13:33 that they did.  Did they later become the aboriginal inhabitants of Canaan, living at the time of Moses? Ibn Ezra and Rashi suggest that they might have survived. It is much more likely, though, that the words of the spies were deliberately exaggerated so as to induce fear in their listening audience. This use of hyperbole is consistent with their concluding remarks about the Land of Canaan “and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Num. 13:33).That is to say, the spies evoked the memory of the Nephilim even though they had long perished centuries before.

Alternatively, the term “Nephilim” may be a generic term referring to anyone who is of a tall and mighty stature. Personally, I am partial to this particular interpretation. The 20th century Israeli biblical scholar U. Cassuto further argues that these warriors may have been called “Nephilim” because of the common fate these warrior peoples shared, for ultimately they both “fell” to their own destruction, either during the Flood or during the Israelite conquest and violence. Cassuto draws a direct allusion to Ezekiel 32:12, which also speaks of theגִּבּוֹרִים  (gîbôrîm = “the mighty warriors”) who had descended to Sheol.

[1] Ibn Ezra, Keter Torah. Interestingly enough, Symmachus renders Nephillim as bivaioi, “violent ones.” For other examples of this nuance in the Tanakh, see Jer. 48:32; Isa. 16:9; Josh.1:15; Judg. 15:18.

Maimonides’ famous Responsa on “Converting for the sake of marriage”

Maimonides once wrote in his Responsa about a certain Jewish man who was living with a non-Jewish maid-servant. The man was suspected of having a sexual liaison with this woman.  The Beit Din found out about this–what was the man to do? Remove the woman from his house?

In response to this question, the Rambam stated that technically according to the law, the woman should be forced out–period. After it learned of his wrongdoings, the beit din was required to exert all its power to have the Jewish master free her and then marry her. However, the Talmud tells us that if a Jewish man has an immoral affair with a gentile woman, he must free her and not marry her (Yevamot 24b).   Maimonides  arrives at a different conclusion from the Talmud and judged in such cases that the man should free her and marry the maid.

What is the reason given by Maimonides?

“Such a position,” maintained Maimonides, “is Halachicly warranted since it is necessary to make things easier for repentents  (Takanat HaShavim).” Maimonides then cites the verse: “It is time for the Lord to act, for your law has been broken.” (Psa 119:126). In other words, there are times when it is necessary to relax the halacha for the greater good of the Jewish people. The Rambam concludes “May the Lord forgive us of our sins.”

Maimonides’ Practical Advice: On Feigning Apostasy . . .

Maimonides’ famous Iggerot Hashmad (“A  Letter Concerning Apostasy”) was written in the year 1160 during a time when Almohades Muslims were forcing people everywhere to recite the Muslim Creed. Failure to comply meant execution.

One rabbinical scholar in Fez, Morocco exclaimed that any Jew who publicly uttered the Moslim confession–regardless whether they in truth practiced Judaism incognito—could no longer be considered a Jew. Outraged by this rabbi’s insensitive rabbinical response, Maimonides wrote a letter, where he demonstrates how this Moroccan rabbi  was seriously mistaken.

Such a view of martyrdom was in Maimonides’ eyes,  a misrepresentation of Judaism ‑‑ and could only push Jews away from Judaism. The mere utterance of a meaningless formula could NEVER render a Jew an apostate. In addition, the Talmud mentions how even some of its greatest Sages–Rabbis Meir and Eliezer (cf. Avodah Zara 18a)–feigned apostasy in order to save their lives.

“Even heretics,” Maimonides argues, “were worthy of reward for a single act of piety. Those who practice the mitzvot secretly are even more worthy of reward despite the circumstances of their forced conversion.” In summary, Maimonides succeeded in saving an entire Jewish population by keeping the door to their faith open for them to return.

In contrast, the Tosafists (a school of medieval French commentators to the Talmud) refused to follow such a halachic interpretation. They held that in the case of idolatry one should be slain and not transgress, “even in the presence of one person.”

Maimonides held on to an unusual attitude: so long as a person is alive and breathing, there is always hope that an ember of faith, if aroused will turn back into a mighty flame!

A Controversial Subtext to Maimonides Epistle

Maimonides’ liberal attitude toward the Jew who was forcibly converted to Islam may have an interesting subtext. Some Jewish and Muslim scholars (see the Islamic Encyclopedia for the bibliography) think that Maimonides was forced to convert to Islam as a child. However, at the first opportunity to return to his faith, and returned he did.

The source for this claim derives from an accusation a Muslim visitor to Cairo from Fez, who allegedly remembered Maimonides as a Muslim when he lived in Morocco. Thirty years later, the Muslim acquaintance was traveling through Egypt and was surprised to discover that Maimonides had become Egypt’s most distinguished rabbi. Outraged, the Muslim denounced him to the authorities as an apostate.

However philosopher and historian Allan Nadler observes:

“Maimonides practiced the time-honored medieval Islamic tradition of Taqiyya, or prudent dissimulation, by dressing and behaving like a Muslim publicly, perhaps occasionally presenting himself at a mosque, while remaining an observant Jew during the darkest period of Almohad persecution, which forced Jews to dress in hideous costumes and resulted in thousands of forced apostasies and deaths. There is simply no credible evidence that Maimonides converted, let alone that he was a “practicing Muslim.”

Haredi Politics and the British Chief Rabbi’s Moral Quandary

The British conversion crisis in Britain illustrates why a separation between Church and State is vital for everybody involved. The job of being a Chief Rabbi is not without its politics and intrigue.

Yet, in the everyday politics of the job, even the Chief Rabbi occasionally yields to the intransigent forces that define the Haredi community of Great Britain.

It was the year 2005; two women, who had undergone an Orthodox conversion in Israel, apply to get their children enrolled in the prestigious Jewish Free School of London. Rabbi Sack’s Haredi beth din, however, refuses to admit the children.

Political rivalry between Israel and Britain goes back a long way; back in the 1970’s, even the Chief Rabbi himself, Rabbi Shlomo Goren discovered that his conversions were not recognized by the London Beth Din. In rabbinical terms, this amounted to a public humiliation to the Israeli Chief Rabbi!

Rabbi Sacks realizes that he cannot succeed in his job without placating this radical element in his community—even if he must violate the very liberal principles regarding pluralism that he has endorsed in his books.

Unfortunately, the Chief Rabbi buckled under the pressure. He refused to certify either woman as Jewish. As the issue is examined, we discover that there are certain “procedural irregularities” in the conversion of Helen Sagal, he said; and Helen Lightman — herself a teacher at JFS — could not have been a “sincere” convert, because her husband, whom she married under Orthodox auspices in New York soon after her conversion, was a kohen. Jewish law requires that a kohen not marry a convert. However, if such a marriage occurs, the marriage remains intact, but at a loss of the kohen’s personal status in the community, e.g., he would not be able to receive a special honor being called first to the Torah when it is read.

To enforce its standards, the Jewish Free School initiated a litmus test to test the religious attitudes of its students—standards that are not really required by the Halacha itself—as the rabbis attempt to micromanage the families involved. For example: each family had to have a mezuzah on their door; students and families had to attend at least four services a year at the synagogue. During the High Holy Days, shuls of every denomination placed a box at the entrance, into which parents could slip a card with their names, proving attendance. Continue reading “Haredi Politics and the British Chief Rabbi’s Moral Quandary”

Why is Abel’s sacrifice accepted, while Cain’s is rejected?

4:4 וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם־הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן  — and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions—In contrast to the Scripture’s silence with regard to Cain’s sacrifice, considerable detail is lavished on the quality of Abel’s offering. First of all, he offered his “firstlings,” which the Torah would later view comes from the best of one’s flock. Second, he offered the animals’ fattest parts, i.e., he sacrificed his choicest animals.

Note that Abel does not just offer the firstborn of his flock; he also offers even the very best of his flock—even if the animals weren’t necessarily the firstborn. Third, the verse intimates a clever pun in the words: וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם־הוּא (wüheºbel hëbî´ gam-hû´) — “he also brought himself.” A literal translation of the text indicates that Abel realized that the true sacrifice reflects the inner person and the heart of the person offering it.

But why was Cain’s sacrifice rejected? The Torah does not explicitly say, but the absence of detail spent describing Cain’s sacrifice indicates that it must have been quite ordinary. Even if his sacrifice was no less exemplary than his brother’s, it is also possible that his attitude marred the quality of the sacrifice.

Behind the theology of Jewish Terror

The latest news article about the Jewish terrorist Yaakov (Jack) Teitel, a man who has allegedly murdered two people, not to mention, attempted three other murders and committed other acts of violence, has been arraigned in a Jerusalem court today.  “It was a pleasure and an honor to serve my God. I have no regret and no doubt that God is pleased.”

While the story is pretty exceptional, the ideology of Jewish terror is a grim reminder that we, as Jews, have plenty of work ahead in keeping our own spiritual house clean. In an age that is witnessing resurgence in anti-Semitism, it behooves us all as a religious community to be mindful of how we can generate anti-Semitism without the help of the neo-Nazis, skinheads, or Muslim extremists.

In a yesterday’s edition of the Ma’ariv Israeli newspaper, there is another  story that describes a Chabad “settler rabbi”[1] named Yitzchak Shapiro, who recently wrote a book named “The King’s Torah,” where he gives permission for Jews to kill gentiles who threaten Israel.  The book is quite radical and claims that one may even kill the righteous among the nations—regardless whether that person has sinned or may have violated one of the seven Noahide commandments. According to Shapira, any gentile who fails to observe even one of the Noahide precepts forfeits his life.  Beyond that, even babies and infants can be killed if they pose a threat to the Jewish people. Shapiro states:

‘It is permissible to kill the Righteous among Nations even if they are not responsible for the threatening situation,’ he wrote, adding: ‘If we kill a Gentile who has sinned or has violated one of the seven commandments – because we care about the commandments – there is nothing wrong with the murder . . .’ Rabbi Yitzchak Shapira Rabbi Shapira also determined that it is permissible to kill gentile babies “because their presence assists murder, and there is reason to harm children if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us … it is permissible to harm the children of a leader in order to stop him from acting evilly … we have seen in the Halakha that even babies of gentiles who do not violate the seven Noahide laws, there is cause to kill them because of the future threat that will be caused if they are raised to be wicked people like their parents.”

One might wonder: Did this particular rabbi express a viewpoint that is unique to him, or was he merely echoing an ideology that he had been indoctrinated from his faith-community? Among the Haredi and Chabad communities, it is customary to receive an endorsement from a prominent and respected rabbinic scholar who approves of his work. In this case here, Shapira received an endorsement from Rabbi Yitzchak Ginzburg, a leading Habad rabbi in Israel, better known for his books dealing with themes from the Kabbalah. Rabbi Ginzburg has a long history of supporting Jewish violence and was also instrumental in putting together a memorial book to Baruch Goldstein (who butchered Muslim worshipers many years ago in Kiryat Arba); he even contributed a chapter discussing Goldstein’s killings as a “Kiddush Hashem,” a “sanctification of God’s Name.” Continue reading “Behind the theology of Jewish Terror”

Did Abraham marry a Caananite wife after the death of Sarah?!

Very little is known about Keturah (Gen. 25:1). Rashi identifies her with Hagar while Rashbam, Ramban, Ibn Ezra and others argue that she was Abraham’s third wife.[1] Contrary to Midrashic and early rabbinic tradition, there can be little doubt that based on the genealogy of 1 Chronicles 1:32,  Hagar and Keturah were two separate women.[2]

Although Abraham would later insist that Eliezer not find Isaac a wife among the Canaanite women, that was essential for Isaac, for only he was considered the rightful heir of Abraham, but the children of the concubines were not.  As to her place of origin, the Torah does not mention which people she originated  from and this would probably suggest that she was a Canaanite. Sensing the scandalous implications of this interpretation, Bahya writes:

“Don’t ask how it was possible for Abraham to marry a local Canaanite woman after he specifically made Eliezer that he would not take a Canaanite woman for his son Isaac. The proscription never applied to anyone else but  Isaac, who was yet to carry out the lineage of Abraham . . .  Once Isaac was married, there was no reason why Abraham couldn’t marry any woman presuming she was a suitable mate for him and was a woman of virtue . . .[3]

Whether Keturah might was of Canaanite origin is questionable;  it is possible that she might have been from another non-Canaanite people who inhabited the such as the Perizzites or the Hittites, or from any one of the peoples who inhabited the Arabian peninsula. Little is said about her background, for after all, she was only a concubine who did not come from a family of distinction.

[1] As explained by Abarbanel, Ramban, and others.

[2] Judging from  Rashi’s commentary to 1 Chronicles 1:32, it would appear Rashi did not sense the inherent contradiction posed by his view that Hagar and Keturah were one and the same person. Rashi writes is “And the sons of Keturah, Abraham’s concubine . . . Anything disgraceful that he could tell about them, the narrator relates these details in order to enhance Isaac’s honor, i.e., they were all the children of a concubine, but he [Isaac] was the mainstay and the master of the household.”

[3] Bahya’s interpretation of this verse is based upon Ramban’s commentary.

Who Is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises an Important Question

The Orthodox attempt to create a monopoly is not just a coercive religious force acting in Israel where the Haredi rabbis impose their will whenever they feel like it. Haredism is attempting to flex its muscle in Great Britain, as an English court is faced with one of the most important discrimination cases of modern times in English history.

Here’s the background to the case. A Jewish father married a woman who had a conservative conversion; by all accounts this family takes their Judaism very seriously but not seriously enough for the Orthodox Jewish High School, which denied their young man admission to the school on the grounds that his mother failed to convert in accordance with “Halacha,” as interpreted by the Haredi-Chabad rabbinic establishment.

But some religious (Orthodox does not have a monopoly on this term either) people have backbone and courage.

To the family’s credit, the parents finally decided to sue the school for discrimination and lost. However, the Court of Appeal, however, reversed that decision on grounds that question one of the foundational tenets of Jewish identity: that, short of conversion, the only way one can be Jewish is to have been born to a Jewish mother. Conversion to a non-Orthodox movement is also a viable path. As the Court of Appeal noted,

“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined. The same reasoning would apply to a Christian school that “refused to admit a child on the ground that, albeit practicing Christians, the child’s family were of Jewish origin,” the court said. Continue reading “Who Is a Jew? Court Ruling in Britain Raises an Important Question”