A Famous 18th Century Rabbinic Appraisal of Jesus (more to follow)


*Reprinted from the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 19:1, Winter 1982

Rabbi Emden(1697–1776) was one of the leading Torah authorities of the past several centuries. Historians of the rabbinate have often compared. him to Maimonides, both having written on all branches of Jewish knowledge, and both having shared a pragmatic and even innovative approach. Even those who disagreed with him sought his opinion, and he is read with interest to this day. Thus, Moses Mendelssohn, founder of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement, wrote to him as “your disciple, who thirsts for your words.” Although Emden did not approve of the Hasidic movement–which had its beginnings in his time–his books are highly regarded amongst Hasidim. R. M. Sofer referred to him as a “prophet” (Hatam Sofer 6:59). Thirty-one works were published during his lifetime, ten posthumously while others remain in manuscript. In his time, he was a fearless champion of Orthodox Judaism.


For it is recognized that also the Nazarene and his disciples, especially Paul, warned concerning the Torah of the Israelites, to which all the circumcised are tied. And if they are truly Christians, they will observe their faith with truth, and not allow within their boundary this new unfit Messiah Shabbetai Zevi* who came to destroy the earth.

*(Shabbetai Zevi, a seventeenth-century mystic [d. 1676], represented himself as the Messiah, and many Jews initially believed his claim. When the Turks threatened him with death unless he converted to Islam, he meekly acquiesced, expiring in ignominy. However, secret cells of believers still followed his teachings and hoped for new leadership.)

But truly even according to the writers of the Gospels, a Jew is not permitted to leave his Torah, for Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 5) “I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, the Messiah will do you no good at all. You can take it from me that every man who receives circumcision is under obligation to keep the entire Torah.” Again because of this he admonished in a letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7) that the circumcised should not remove the marks of circumcision, nor should the uncircumcised circumcise themselves.

Many have asked that Paul appears to contradict himself here. In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 16), it is mentioned that Paul circumcised his disciple Timothy. And they found this very puzzling, for this act seems to contradict the later text which seems to indicate that he considered circumcision a temporary commandment until the Messiahs arrival; but this took place after the time of the Nazarene! Therefore you must realize–and accept the truth from him who speaks it– that we see clearly here that the Nazarene and his Apostles did not wish to destroy the Torah from Israel, God forbid; for it is written so in Matthew (Mt. 5), the Nazarene having said, “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Torah. I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. I tell you this: So long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Torah until it is achieved. If any man therefore sets aside even the least of the Torahs demands, and teaches others to do the same, he will have the lowest place in the Kingdom of Heaven, whereas anyone who keeps the Torah, and teaches others so, will stand high in the Kingdom of Heaven.” This is also recorded in Luke (Lk. 16). It is therefore exceedingly clear that the Nazarene never dreamed of destroying the Torah.

We similarly find Paul, his disciple, in a letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5), accusing them of fornication, and condemning one who had lived with his fathers wife. You may therefore understand that Paul doesnt contradict himself because of his circumcision of Timothy, for the latter was the son of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father (Acts 16), and Paul was a scholar, an attendant of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, well-versed in the laws of the Torah. He knew that the child of a Jewish mother is considered a full Jew, even if the father should be a Gentile, as is written in the Talmud and Codes. He therefore acted entirely in accordance with the Halakha by circumcising Timothy. This would be in line with his position that all should remain within their own faith (1 Cor. 7). Timothy, born of a Jewish mother, had the law of a Jew, and had to be circumcised, just as he was enjoined to observe all commandments of the Torah (Pauls condemnation of the man who lived with his stepmother is similarly understandable, as such an act is also forbidden to Noahides), for all who are circumcised are bound by all the commandments. This provides a satisfactory reply to the question.

This will also solve the apparent contradictions in the Nazarenes own statements. Christian scholars have assumed from certain passages in the Gospels that he wished to give a new Torah to take the place of the Torah of Moses. How could he then have said explicitly that he comes only to fulfill it? But it is as I have said earlier–that the writers of the Gospels never meant to say that the Nazarene came to abolish Judaism, but only that he came to establish a religion for the Gentiles from that time onward. Nor was it new, but actually ancient; they being the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah, which were forgotten. The Apostles of the Nazarene then established them anew. However, those born as Jews, or circumcised as converts to Judaism (Ex. 12:49; one law shall be to him that is home-born, and unto the stranger) are obligated to observe all commandments of the Torah without exception.

But for the Gentiles he reserved the Seven Commandments which they have always been obligated to fulfill. It is for that reason that they were forbidden pollutions of idols, fornication, blood, and things strangled (Acts 15). They also forbade them circumcision and the Sabbath. All of this was in accord with the law and custom of our Torah, as expounded by our Sages, the true transmitters from Moses at Sinai. It was they who sat upon his seat (as the Nazarene himself attested [Mt. 23]). It was they (the Sages or Pharisees) who said that it is forbidden to circumcise a Gentile who does not accept upon himself the yoke of (all) the commandments. The Sages likewise said that the Gentile is enjoined not (fully) to observe the Sabbath. The Apostles of the Nazarene therefore chose for those Gentiles who do not enter the Jewish faith that instead of circumcision they should practice immersion (for truly immersion is also a condition of full conversion), and a commemoration of the Sabbath was made for them on Sunday. — But the Nazarene and his Apostles observed the Sabbath and circumcision as mentioned earlier, for they were born as Jews. They observed the Torah fully, until after a period of time a few of them decided to give up the Torah among themselves completely. They said that its observance was too difficult for them and agreed to remove its yoke from their necks (Acts 15).

But even here they did correctly as far as the Gentiles were concerned, for they were not commanded to observe it. Nor is it proper to make it difficult for them, since they did not receive (accept?) the Torah and are not enjoined to ob serve the 613 commandments. However, it is completely different as far as the Jews are concerned, for they became obligated to fulfill the Torah because God delivered them from the iron furnace (Egypt) to be the people of his possession. Therefore they and their children became subject to it forever. This, their covenant, will not be forgotten from their mouths, nor be discontinued from their children. For it they have given their lives throughout the generations, as the Psalmist has recorded (Ps. 44:18): All this is come upon us; yet have we not forgotten Thee, neither have we been false to Thy covenant.

Certainly, therefore, there is no doubt that one who seeks truth will agree with our thesis, that the Nazarene and his Apostles never meant to abolish the Torah of Moses from one who was born a Jew. Likewise did Paul write in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 7) that each should adhere to the faith in which each was called. They therefore acted in accordance with the Torah by forbidding circumcision to Gentiles, according to the Halakha, as it is forbidden to one who does not accept the yoke of the commandments. They knew that it would be too difficult for the Gentiles to observe the Torah of Moses. They therefore forbade them to circumcise, and it would suffice that they observe the Seven Noahide Commandments, as commanded upon them through the Halakha from Moses at Sinai.

It is therefore a habitual saying of mine (not as a hypocritical flatterer, God forbid, for I am of the faithful believers of Israel, and I know well that the remnant of Israel will not speak falsehood, nor will their mouths contain a deceitful tongue) that the Nazarene brought about a double kindness in the world. On the one hand, he strengthened the Torah of Moses majestically, as mentioned earlier, and not one of our Sages spoke out more emphatically concerning the immutability of the Torah. And on the other hand, he did much good for the Gentiles (provided they do not turn about his intent as they please, as some foolish ones have done because they did not fully understand the intent of the authors of the Gospels. I have recently seen someone publish a book, and he had no idea about what he was writing. For if he had understood the subject, he would have kept his silence and not wasted the paper and ink. There are also found among us foolish scholars who know not their right from their left in the Written and Oral Torahs and cause the people to err with their pompous pronouncements. But there are true scholars among the Christians, just as there are the chosen few among Torah scholars; and there are few of the truly great.) by doing away with idolatry and removing the images from their midst. He obligated them with the Seven Commandments so that they should not be as the beasts of the field. He also bestowed upon them ethical ways, and in this respect he was much more stringent with them than the Torah of Moses, as is well-known. This in itself was most proper, as it is the correct way to acquire ethical practices, as the philosopher (Maimonides) mentioned. We have written similarly in our Siddur. However, it is not necessary to impose upon Jews such extreme ethical practices, since they have been obligated to the yoke of Torah, which weakens the strength of the (evil) inclination without it. They have taken the oath at Sinai and are already trained in proper practice and nature. These are clear words that will not be rejected by a clear-thinking person.

If certain Christians who consider themselves scholars would understand this secret, who believe that they are commanded to abolish the Torah of Moses from the seed of Israel, they would not engage in such foolishness. The people listen to their self-conceived words, something which was never intended by the writers of the Gospels. Quite the opposite, they have written clearly that they intended the contrary.

Because of these errant scholars, hatred has increased toward the Jews who are blameless of any guilt and proceed innocently to observe their Torah with all their heart, imbued with the fear of God. They should instead bring their people to love the ancient Children of Israel who remain loyal to their God, as indeed commanded to Christians by their original teachers.

They even said to love ones enemies. How much more so to us! In the name of heaven, we are your brothers! One God has created us all. Why should they abuse us because we are joined to the commandments of God, to which we are tied with the ropes of his love? We do this not to enjoy the pleasures of the (evil) inclination and emptiness of a passing world. For truly (Ps. 44) we have become a byword among the nations, and with all this (ibid.). In God have we gloried all the day, and we will give thanks unto Thy name for ever. We pray for the good of the entire world, and especially for the benefit of these lands in which we reside, protecting us and our observance of the Torah…

You, members of the Christian faith, how good and pleasant it might be if you will observe that which was commanded to you by your first teachers; how wonderful is your share if you will assist the Jews in the observance of their Torah. You will truly receive reward as if you had fulfilled it yourselves-for the one who helps others to observe is greater than one who observes but does not help others to do so–even though you only observe the Seven Commandments. I have written similarly in my pleasant work Torat Ha-Kenaot– that the Jew who observes the Torah, but doesnt support it, is considered among the cursed; and the Gentile who does not observe the 613 commandments, but supports it, is considered among the blessed.

Translated by Harvey Falk

The above is part of Chapter 1 of “Jesus the Pharisee, A New Look at the Jewishness of Jesus”, by Harvey Falk, 1985

Chesterton on Private Religion

Chesterton on Private Religion

G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936), “Introduction to the Book of Job”:

The modern habit of saying “Every man has a different philosophy; this is my philosophy and it suits me”—the habit of saying this is mere weak-mindedness. A cosmic philosophy is not constructed to fit a man; a cosmic philosophy is constructed to fit a cosmos. A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.

Any comments?

History at the Crossroads: Evaluating Pope Pius XII’s Legacy

Once again the issue of Pope Pius XII’s potential beatification has come back into the news. Indeed, many people wonder: how could the Pope bequeath sainthood to a man who watched 1000 Jews in Rome being rounded up to the gas-chambers, without so much as uttering a protest? Questions like these are difficult to answer… however, it is easy for us to be critical after the fact; however, it is a huge leap to presume that Pope Pius XII did little or nothing to help Jews as they were being murdered by the Nazis.

The Vatican claims that Pope Pius XII did his best to operate, “from behind the scenes,” and did as much as he could to speak out against the evils of Nazism. While many Jewish leaders find this argument difficult to accept, it is still worth asking, “What if the Vatican is actually correct in making such an argument?”

Let me share with you a personal anecdote that occurred this past year.

When Father Patrick Desbois, the author of the best-selling book “Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews,” spoke at St. Ambrose University this past year, I had the opportunity to ask him his question about Pope Pius XII’s beatification. “Are you for it or against it?” I asked him. He replied, while rushing out the door with a clear but brief response: The Vatican must open its archives once and for all for everyone to see, once they do, then we shall know how to answer this question.

Well, the Vatican plans on doing exactly that and by 2015, and we will see the archival material made available covering Pope Pius XII’s leadership from 1939-1958. I am among a number of people who happen to think that the Pope will be vindicated for the most part. Along with enormous power comes enormous responsibility.  After Pope Pius XII died, many Jewish leaders from the Italian community felt a debt of gratitude toward the historical Pontiff. Continue reading “History at the Crossroads: Evaluating Pope Pius XII’s Legacy”

Behind the Theology of Ecology

For several decades now, many theological and secular ecological  thinkers tend  to blame the ecological woes of the planet on the Bible.  Unfortunately, such a perspective comes from well-meaning people who seldom study the biblical teachings about ecology. By the same token, most ecological advocates are woefully unaware of what the Jewish and Christian traditions actually teach concerning the primacy of biblical stewardship.

Without belaboring the issue, here is one of my favorite midrashic teachings on the subject.

When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first man, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, ‘Behold My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! All that I have created, for your sake I created it. Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My world. For if you do spoil her, there will be nobody to repair her after you.[1]

This Midrashic interpretation highlights the importance of stewardship, not only for the Garden of Eden, but for our taking care of the earth, God’s garden. By taking care of the primordial garden, Adam learns to recognize that all of life is God’s unique design, endowed with spirit, consciousness, and intelligence. Adam’s respect for Creation makes him realize that the human species is a part of the great web of life, which he must nurture for the world to be self-sustaining and productive. Indeed, the degradation of the environment damages the original balance that Adam and his progeny must maintain. Through toil, Adam would realize how all of Creation depends on the Divine as the source of life for its sustenance and continued existence.

Understanding the implications of Adam’s stewardship is vital for our contemporary society.  The science of ecology has shown how ecosystems of the world are delicately balanced; should human beings ruin them through abusive acts (ecocide), future generations will have to endure the consequences. Through work and stewardship, humankind comes to emulate God’s own work and creativity as Imitatio Dei (imitation of God). It was the divine intent from the beginning for humankind to elevate and ennoble itself by means of work, and in so doing, elevate Creation to the realm of the spirit, leading all Creation in song and joyous exaltation of the Divine. Note that God intended to make Adam not a “master” over the Garden of Eden, but rather, its caretaker and steward. Once Adam forgets that he is only a steward of the garden, the boundaries established by the Creator became unclear and ultimately violated.

[1] Eccles. Rabbah 7:20.

The Ethical Problems of Hunting

The rabbis never hunted except with nets or with traps because it still allowed for kosher slaughter, but with regard to the bow and the arrow, or a gun, these methods of hunting rendered an animal a “nevalah” and therefore is not a Kosher manner of slaughter.

Wild animals considered acceptable for food and thus apparently hunted included the hart, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain sheep (all listed in Deut. 14:5). Along with hunting, fishing (Isa. 19:8) and trapping birds with nets[1] are mentioned.

The Sages of antiquity have long taken a negative view of hunting. The 19th century German Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine once observed that Jews have historically identified more with the hunted, than the hunter. Hein’s thought is quite accurate.

Philo of Alexandria (ca. 1st century) observed that hunting was as “a sort of prelude to and representation of the wars and dangers that have to be encountered against the enemy.” Western history with its obsession with violence certainly bears this out.  Another 1st century Jewish intellectual, Flavius Josephus, tells us that Herod the Great enjoyed hunting on horseback and he adds that Herod was one of the most violent men ever to have ruled Judea.[2]

One famous Responsa dating back in the 18th century, Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, was asked whether hunting with a rifle was permitted or not.  In his reply, Landau notes that the only hunters mentioned in the Tanakh are Nimrod and Esau—neither of whom happened to be Israelites. Hunting was never a common occupation among our people. Hunting for sport engenders cruelty within the human breast. In short, hunting for sport or for adventure,  is certainly forbidden; however,  if it is for other constructive reasons (e.g., clothing etc.,) it is then permitted. It goes without saying that if an animal poses a serious public health danger, e.g., a rabid dog, hunting such an animal is indeed necessary. Beyond that, Landau notes that anyone who recklessly exposes himself to danger violates the biblical precept of not endangering one’s health.[3]

Some years ago, when I was touring Mexico, some of the natives asked me if I would like to attend a bullfight. I politely turned the request down, but the invitation did remind me about  a wonderful story I read about Albert Schweitzer, who once wrote in his diary about an invitation he received while he was visiting Barcelona. Schweitzer recalls, “In bright dresses, and fluttering head scarves, all the young women were going in one direction: the arena. They were going to witness how enraged bulls would split open the bellies of poor mules with their horns, and then how they themselves to the jubilation of the crowds were tortured to death. The director of the large music society whose guest I was, addressed me, saying, You must come! You must see it at least once; otherwise you won’t know what Spain is! . . . The man was a deeply pious artist with whom I was seriously conversing just this morning concerning Christianity.”

Perhaps Gandhi was partially correct when he said one can measure the humanity of a civilization by the way they treat its animals. After reading Schweitzer’s passage, something suddenly dawned upon me:  Wasn’t Spain the same country that tortured and persecuted millions of people all over the European and American world when they zealously enforced their infamous Inquisition?  Our Sages stated it eloquently centuries ago:   Human beings are shaped by behavior( adam ni’fal ki’fee pi’u’la’tov).  This observation still holds true even today. How we treat animals in our society does indicate something important about our behavior as a civilized species and our attitude about sentient lifeforms–along with our ethical responsibilities and duties.

[1] See also Amos 3:5; Prov. 6:5; Pss. 91:3; 124:7.

[2] Wars of the Jews, 1.21.13.

[3] Noda B’Yehuda Vol. 2.,  Responsa 10.

How many people really constitute a minyan–and why?

The custom of the minyan is only rabbinic in origin. When examining the minyan’s origins, it is vital we remember that this custom is not something that is etched in stone. However, as a custom, it does have a rich and variegated history that cannot be reduced to a single point of view–nor should it be.

The origin of the minyan is discussed in the Talmud. Some expositions are much more oblique than others  [1], while other suppositions are by far, more lucid. The Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Miketz 6) explains that since the time of Abraham’s famous defense of the Sodomites, namely that a “congregation” consisted no less than ten people, for ten constitutes an “edah” a “community.” On the other hand, that both Talmudic traditions stress only men make up a “congregation,” even though the Abrahamic story clearly indicates that women also made up part of the minyan Abraham was seeking to extricate!! [2]

On the other hand, there are other rabbinical passages dating back to the Gaonic era (8th-10th centuries) that in Palestine, a minyan consisted may have consisted of seven or six people.[3]

The liturgical historian Abraham Milgram notes that after WWII, a number of Jewish communities actually went back to counting six or seven people as a “minyan,” until the time their ranks would grow in number. This specifically happened in the city of Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. Incidentally, the framers of the Halacha were well aware of this possibility and its antecedents in Jewish tradition.  In functional terms they ruled, if a prayer leader began saying the Kaddish, or for that matter any other portion of the service that would ordinarily require ten people[3], one may conclude any of these services so long as at least six men remain in the sanctuary.[4]

Some sources suggest that even nine people could constitute a minyan so long as the Ark is open; this does not mean that the “Ark is a person,” but rather God’s Presence can also make up as the “tenth man” so to speak.  There is some Aggadic basis for this custom. When Joseph disappeared, the verse later says that “his father wept for him,” which could mean either Jacob (the plain meaning of the text) or possibly, Isaac. One Midrashic account raises an obvious question: “If Isaac knew that Joseph was alive, why doesn’t he reveal this fact to Jacob?” The Midrash answers, “The Holy One, blessed be He, has not revealed it to him; am I then to reveal it to him?” This statement gave rise to the odd rabbinic theory that God was part of the brothers’ conspiracy never to reveal the whereabouts of Joseph!!

Elsewhere, the Halacha mentions a number of other secondary Halachic references indicate that even a child may be used to make up the 10th person of a minyan—so long as he knows how to pray or holds a chumash in his hand (O.H. 55:4, see Mishnah Berurah on note 24), or according to another Ba’al HaMaor (cited in by the Rav 55:5), even four minors may be added to the minyan. One medieval source, Rabbanu Simcha adds that even a woman may count as the tenth person; it is remarkable that R. Sheneir Zalman of Liadi rules in his Rav’s Shulchan Aruch (O.H. 55:5) that one may rely on this lenient opinion—despite the fact that one would never expect to see such a leniency ever practiced in a Lubavitcher minyan!!

This type of reasoning is called, “pilpul” (pepper), and such didactic approaches while they may be interesting, are obviously far from being the contextual meaning of the text.

When examining rabbinic traditions regarding the minyan, it is important to bear in mind that in rabbinic times, only men attended the congregations to pray. In reality it is not the interpretation of the verse that creates the custom, but quite the reverse: it is the already existing custom that creates the interpretation that justifies its etiology.  Nowadays, since women also form a part of our society’s leadership, there is ample reason to argue that a woman should be included as part of the minyan. As social realities change, so too does the interpretation. This is the way it has always been, there is no logical or compelling reason to think otherwise.

[1]One traditional source in T.B. Megillah 23b records that a minyan derives a semantic connection regarding the word “midst,” mentioned in the precept of sanctifying God’s Name (Lev. 22:32) and another passage that speaks about Moses and Aaron separating themselves from the “midst,” of the congregation (16:21). Concerning the latter, the term “midst” is used in conjunction with the phrase “congregation,” i.e.,  the ten spies who brought back a negative report of the Land of Israel. This interpretation is hopelessly contorted and forced.

[2] Tractate Soferim 10:8. According to the Zohar: זוהר – השמטות כרך א (בראשית) דף רנה עמוד א
, וכשאינה מוצא חוזרת ופותחת ואומרת רבש”ע אולי ימצאון שם עשרה כלומר אולי ימצא ביניהם מי שעוסק בעשרה מאמרות ובעשרת הדברות בכל יום וכן אולי ימצאון ביניהם עשרה שמקדימים לבית הכנסת דהא תנן כל הנמנה עם עשרה ראשונים לבית הכנסת נוטל שכר כנגד כלם שבאים אחריו מה כתיב לא אשחית בעבור העשרה כל זה יש לנשמת הצדיק ללמד סניגורייא וזכות על הרשעים להשקיט האף והחמה וכיון שלא מצאה שום זכות ללמד

[3] Rabbanu Yona of Gerona (ca. 14th century, Spain)  notes that not all rituals which sanctify the Almighty’s name are classified as “de’varim shebikdusha” ( BT Berachot 21a, s.v., “v’nik’dash’ti”). Such examples would include: Kedusha, Cha’zor’at Hashatz, Ne’si’at Kapayim, K’riat Hatorah, or the recitation of the  Haftorah with its accompanying blessings. Simply put, the acceptance of the heavenly yoke in the recitation of the “Shema” is not a precept requiring a minyan per se.  Wherever there is a sanctification of God’s Name, that is where a minyan is thus required. These specific services cannot be performed in the absence of the minyan quorum. There are other important implications with respect to the precept of martyrdom that requires that one be willing to die in the presence of at least ten Jews–and Maimonides makes no distinction about the gender or even the age of these individuals. Since the laws of minyan derive from this particular biblical precept, it follows that there is ample room for a different and newer kind of deconstruction of the minyan concept that modern Orthodox rabbis have neglected to consider.

[4] O.H. 55:2, with the Mishnah Berurah’s notes.

[5] See Genesis Rabbah 84:22.

“Let me introduce you to the other members of my gang…”

The New York Post and other newspapers around the country (e.g., The Forward and numerous other Jewish papers) printed a sordid story about a prominent Orthodox rabbi, who plays a major role in approving Orthodox conversions. Evidently this rabbi was caught on tape expressing his infatuation toward a “shiksa” he was converting to Judaism.

That part really didn’t surprise me very much. Many rabbis across denominational lines have oftentimes fallen in love with a gentile woman studying for conversion. It’s been going on since the days of Ruth and Boaz. But this case is different. The rabbi involved, allegedly encouraged her to have sex with his Orthodox friends.

Wait a minute–this part does not sound like Ruth and Boaz at all!

The young woman said that Rabbi Leib Tropper of Rockland County used to tell her, “If you fulfill my needs, I’ll fulfill yours – and you need a conversion.”

Some of you may wonder: Who is this guy?

In American and Haredi circles, Tropper is the vanguard for American Haredism and founder of the “Eternal Jewish Family,” until now, has put tremendous pressure on Modern Orthodox rabbis to accept only converts who adopt a Charedi lifestyle as viable candidates.

Not long ago, Rabbi Tropper even nullified a conversion he himself had carried out because the female convert was seen wearing trousers (It is ironic that Tropper had no difficulty for  allegedly offering Ms Orand a conversion for removing hers). Another EJF leader declared in 2007 that any rabbi who believes the world is older than 5,768 years is ineligible to sit on a conversion court. Rabbi Nate Slivkin was totally disenfranchised, tarred and feathered by Tropper and his organization.

Their biggest success came in 2006, when the Israeli rabbinate declared it would not recognize Orthodox conversions carried out in America, except by a tiny group of mostly Haredi rabbis. This was seen as a deliberate (and successful) attempt, spurred on by EJF, to disenfranchise Modern Orthodox rabbis.

Now back to our story…

Tropper encouraged pretty, blond Shannon Orand of Houston to participate in phone sex and actual sex with men the rabbi knows, including one he calls “the Satmar guy.” Based on the alleged charges, Rabbi Tropper could be heard discussing  the possibility of her sleeping with other men and to perform phone sex with them. One tape appears to capture phone sex between Tropper and the woman. Another purports to show the aftermath of a sexual encounter between this woman, Tropper and Tropper’s wife.

Why did such a thing happen? Rabbi Tropper was once considered the darling of the Haredi world; here is a man who possess seven (or possibly four–according to one of his students I personally know) ordinations (I myself only have two), and was considered to be to be a “gaon,” a “Talmudic genius,” by some.

Haredim would be wise to remember that no Jewish court–regardless how Orthodox it purports to be–can “make” a person Jewish. As the scholar Adin Steinzaltz writes, every conversion is something that occurs within the heart of the conversion candidate. All the rabbinical tribunal can do is merely attest that this process has taken place. Tragically, the “Who is a Jew?” issue, largely promoted by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe,” is responsible for creating the kind of divisiveness that is destroying the lives of not only Conservative or Reform “Jews by choice,” but even the lives of Orthodox converts. No rabbi has the right to use his power to retroactively negate a conversion of any candidate. This flatly contradicts the Halacha itself, and it opens the door for the kind of abuses we see in the Tropper case.

To its credit, the Orthodox RCA has come out with the following press release:

We are deeply appalled, saddened and pained by reports that have reached us concerning alleged inappropriate behavior on the part of the chairman of the rabbinic committee of the Eternal Jewish Family, Rabbi Leib Tropper. We need to wait for more complete information before we can react fully.

Nonetheless, at this time, we would make the following points clear:

1.      What we have heard, if true, violates the fundamental elements of all that Judaism holds sacred.

2.      We urge anyone who might have been victimized to seek appropriate counseling and we, at the Rabbinical Council of America, remain ready to refer anyone who needs such assistance to the appropriate professionals.

In the final analysis, we cannot be “a light unto the nations,” until we first become a light to ourselves.

I would also add that the time has come for Jews everywhere to stop using the pejorative Yiddish term, “shiksa” that describes a non-Jewish woman. Although the term is meant humorously, its derivation indicates the exact opposite. The word “shiksa” is partially derived from the Hebrew term sheketz, which means “abomination”, “impure,” “reptile,” or “object of loathing.” Any sane and moral person ought to ask: How can a beautiful creation of God be an “abomination” to anyone?  This type of cultural stereo-typing of non-Jewish persons diminishes human beings in a manner that is truly contrary to the ethical principles of the Divine Image that each of us is made in. If anyone is truly an “abomination,” it is the individual who flagrantly disparages God’s creations.

Musician Bob Dylan once wrote in one of his popular songs he played with the Traveling Wilburys, “Dirty World Lyrics” which reads, “I can’t wait to introduce you to the other members of my gang . . .” Perhaps Dylan’s words best describes Rabbi Leib Tropper’s unorthodox and loathsome behavior.

Amazingly, Ms. Orand remains as determined as ever to get her Orthodox conversion. We can only marvel at her determination and will-power.

Why did God instruct Jacob to move his family to Egypt?

Aside from the obvious reasons, i.e., to ensure that Jacob’s family would not perish during the famine, there were other important reasons that the biblical text does not directly state, but only intimates:

Egypt served to break their family from a long series of family dysfunctions that the narrator has already delineated in the in the lives of Jacob’s children. At this point in time, Abraham’s descendants had pretty much abandoned the spiritual path set out by their ancestral forefather. Early on, Jacob’s children had already begun to assimilate to the ways of the Canaanite population, who were only too happy to intermarry with Jacob’s family.  It was evident that besides Joseph and the patriarchs, the rest of the family didn’t seem to have much of a clue what their spiritual calling was.

Aside from the obvious reasons, i.e., in order to escape the dangers of the famine that had gripped much of the ancient Mesopotamian world, there were numerous reasons why God instructed Jacob to relocate in Egypt even beyond the famine years.

Egyptian society acted as a chrysalis for the Israelite clan to grow and develop apart from their hosts. Canaanite society in contrast, was predicated upon syncretism.  Had the fourth generation of Abraham’s seed remained in Canaan, it is certain that the next generation would have adopted the local Canaanite gods. Providentially, God moved them to Egypt in order to isolate them.  Egyptians were segregationists who shared a mutual disdain toward all foreigners—especially toward foreign shepherds in particular (Gen. 43:32). The hierarchical structure of Egyptian society actually prevented Jacob’s clan from assimilating. In this respect, Egypt posed much less of a problem than Canaanite society, which encouraged syncretism and integration.  Egypt thus became the ideal place for Israel to foster a separate and religious identity. Goshen, in effect, becomes the very first Jewish ghetto–by design!

The suffering they would eventually endure in Egypt, served as an ever-fresh reminder of what humankind is capable of degenerating into without the laws of God serving as the moral basis of society. Israel’s Egyptian experience would later teach the Israelites why God makes restrictions on how we treat the disenfranchised and the helpless, for they too were a vulnerable and defenseless people, who were ill-treated by the Egyptians.

Solomon Maimon’s 18th Century Critique of the Early Hasidim (Part 1)

Byline Dec. 25th 2009–4:00 PM

Solomon Maimon was one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 18th century; not only did he expound the teachings of Maimonides’ famous Guide to the Perplexed in new but contemporary terms, he also established himself as one of Immanuel Kant’s foremost intellectual critics.

For our purposes now, we shall examine Maimon’s autobiographical tale about his encounter with the Hassidic court of Rabbi Dov Baer of Meseritz.

Our story begins with an encounter Maimon had with a young follower of Rabbi Dov Baer. The Hassidic student cited some very impressive teachings that deeply moved the young nineteen year old budding philosopher, when he originally met the aged Maggid (who died within a few years later after their initial meeting). Solomon Maimon wanted to see for himself  what this new movement was all about.

And shortly later, Maimon arrived in Meseritz …

Several weeks later, after listening to many of the deep philosophical sentiments of its master teacher, Maimon briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a part of the Hassidic court. However, he soon becomes disillusioned by the shenanigans he witnesses perpetrated by its leaders and followers. Maimon’s insights represent one of the most important critical reviews of the young Hassidic movement. He writes:

“At last I arrived at M , and after having rested from my journey I went to the house of the superior under the idea that I could be introduced to him at once. I was told, however, that he could not speak to me at the time, but that I was invited to his table . . .

Accordingly on Sabbath I went to this solemn meal, and found there a large number of respectable men who had met here from various quarters. At length the great man appeared in his awe-inspiring form, clothed in white satin. Even his shoes and snuffbox were white, this being among the Cabbalists the color of grace. He gave to every new comer his salaam, that is, his greeting. We sat down to table and during the meal a solemn silence reigned. After the meal was over, the superior struck up a solemn inspiriting melody, held his hand for some time upon his brow, and then began to call out, ” Z of H , M of R ,” and so on.

Every newcomer was thus called by his own name and the name of his residence, which excited no little astonishment. Each recited, as he was called, some verse of the Holy Scriptures. Thereupon the superior began to deliver a sermon for which the verses recited served as a text, so that although they were disconnected verses taken from different parts of the Holy Scriptures they were combined with as much skill as if they had formed a single whole.

What was still more extraordinary, every one of the newcomers believed that he discovered, in that part of the sermon which was founded on his verse, something that had special reference to the facts of his own spiritual life.

It was not long, however, before I began to qualify the high opinion I had formed of this superior and the whole society. I observed that their ingenious exegesis was at bottom false, and, in addition to that, was limited strictly to their own extravagant principles, such as the doctrine of self-annihilation. When a man had once learned these, there was nothing new for him to hear. The so-called miracles could be very naturally explained. By means of correspondence and spies and a certain knowledge of men, by physiognomy and skilful questions, the superiors were able to elicit indirectly the secrets of the heart, so that they succeeded with these simple men in obtaining the reputation of being inspired prophets.

The whole society also displeased me not a little by their cynical spirit and the excess of their merriment. A single example of this may suffice. We had met once at the hour of prayer in the house of the superior. One of the company arrived somewhat late, when the others asked him the reason. He replied that he had been detained by his wife having been that evening confined with a daughter. As soon as they heard this, they began to congratulate him in a somewhat uproarious fashion. The superior thereupon came out of his study and asked what was going on.

At this we were of course greatly astonished by the cause of the noise. He was told that we were congratulating our friend, because his wife had brought a girl into the world. “A girl!” He answered with the greatest indignation, “He ought to be whipped.”[1] The poor fellow protested. He could not comprehend why he should be made to suffer for his wife having brought a girl into the world. But this was of no avail: he was seized, thrown down on the floor, and whipped unmercifully. All except the victim fell into a hilarious mood over the affair, upon which the superior called them to prayer in the following words, “Now, brethren, serve the Lord with gladness.”I would not stay in the place any longer. I sought the superior’s blessing, took my departure from the society with the resolution to abandon it forever, and returned home.” [2]

What I find interesting is that despite Maimon’s ambivalence toward the Hasidic movement, he still nevertheless asked Rabbi Dov Baer for his blessing! We will never know the conversations Maimon had with many of the future Rebbes of the movement. However, the tale nevertheless remains one of the most intriguing testimonies of an era we still know so little about. I am unclear whether Maimon was referring to Rabbi Dov Baer, who ordered the beating of the poor Hasid; perhaps it was someone else who occupied a high position in the Hasidic court. Of the two possibilities, contextually speaking–it seems like it was the former rather than the latter. Maimon deserves a lot of credit for exposing the manipulative manner in how the Maggid conducted himself toward the Hasidim.

Since the very inception of the Hasidic movement, to this very day, Hasidic Jews attribute clairvoyance to its Rebbe. When I was a young Hasid, I cannot begin to tell you about all the miracle stories we heard as students, and the legion of supernatural interventions produced by the Rebbe of Lubavitch. This is not at all unique to the Chabad movement; every Hasidic dynasty has its plethora of such miracle stories–otherwise, the Rebbes would probably go out of business.

While such tales seem to endow the Rebbe (of any generation) with almost superhuman powers, Maimon reminds us not to believe in the hype we hear; Hasidim have always had a penchant for exaggerating the “miracles” of its Rebbes. In reality, the “miraculous” abilities of a true Rebbe lies in his ability to be a pastoral and spiritual influence in the lives of his followers. This is by no means, a small tribute …

In an age where tens of thousands of Hasidim believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe continues to answer prayers for the living, and will even soon come back from the dead–Maimon urges everyone not to let suspend logic and discard rational thought. Still, the power of belief is so great–people will believe in the absurdity of just about anything. Rebbes are not infallible or superhuman beings. Rabbis are mortals like everyone else.

Sigmund Freud used to love telling jokes about Hasidim. In one such tale, Freud describes a few  Hasidim debating about whose Rebbe possesses the most miraculous powers. One student exclaimed that his Rebbe was so great, he could split the Red Sea itself, while another said he could perform even greater miracles. The third Hasid said, “We all know that when a man sins, he deserves to die, but my Rebbe is so great, he prays that the walls of his house should not come crashing down upon the sinner. And guess what? The sinner still lives!”

[1] Maimon notes about the sexism of the early Hasidim, “A trait of these, as of all uncultivated men, is their contempt of the other sex.”

[2] Salomon Maimon, J.Clark Murray (trans), Salomon Maimon: an Autobiography (London: Alexander Gardner, 1888), 168-172.

George Washington and the Miracle of Chanukah

Hi, two  friends sent me the following story[1]…I have scoured the Google Library to see whether it is apocryphal or historically based; clearly it is the former. Nevertheless, it is an interesting read that may also be found  in the Sefer Pardes Chanukah. This is a folk story about George Washington and the Jewish soldier who fought alongside the famous general. The narrative is attributed to a personal journal of a Jewish soldier who fought alongside General George Washington at Valley Forge during the period of Chanukah.

It is Chanukah in the year of 1776. The winter is hard and the cold is fearsome. We are sitting in Valley Forge and waiting. Waiting for what? I do not know. Possibly, for days better than those at hand. I am to my knowledge the only Jew here. Possibly, there are others, however, I do not recognize any as such.

We are starving for bread. We have no clothes to warm our bodies and no shoes for our feet. Most of the soldiers curse General Washington who went to fight the English. There are also those among us who seek and hope for his downfall; however, I believe justice is with him. We need to remove Britain from the colonies. Britain seeks to extend her hand upon all she sees.

I believe with all my heart in General Washington though we suffer here so greatly. I observe the General as he is passing at night in the camp among the sleeping troops. He looks upon them with compassion as they struggle with the cold. There are those among them that he approaches to cover as a father would his son. There are those who suffer with the famine and cold bringing them to the brink of death. However, I do not curse General Washington who fights to bring independence to America.

At these moments, I am reminded of my father in Poland. I recall how much he suffered at the hands of the cruel Baron. I remember I was but a youngster and saw my father dance before the Baron. How terrible was the sight. My father was made to dress up in the skin of a white bear and he danced for the sport of the Baron and his guests. How great is my pain and shame. Father dances as a bear and the Baron jests and revels. I affirm in my heart that I will never be so humiliated myself. At my first opportunity, I set sail to America. Continue reading “George Washington and the Miracle of Chanukah”