Article from the SD Jewishworld: Rabbi Samuel Introduces Philo to the Modern World

Rabbi Samuel introduces Philo to the modern world

 

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel and his 5-volume set on Philo’s Torah commentaries

CHULA VISTA, California  – The 1stCentury Jewish philosopher and religious scholar, Philo, was very familiar with the Torah, commenting here and there on different portions of the Five Books of Moses in writings that were spread over approximately 40 publications in the native Greek language that he spoke in his home of Alexandria, Egypt.

Growing up in a Reform Jewish home, Michael Leo Samuel had been a fan of Philo’s since his early teenage years. His passion for reading Jewish texts eventually led to Samuel being ordained through the Lubavitcher (Chabad) movement, and then going on to serve as a Hebrew school teacher and a pulpit rabbi in Modern Orthodox and Conservative congregations.  Recently, Samuel, who serves today as spiritual leader of Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista, has completed publication of a five-volume work, Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria,  in which he pulls together Philo’s thoughts about Jewish scripture from Philo’s many writings and puts them into sequential order, thus creating for the first time Philo’s comprehensive commentary on the Torah.  The books are available via Amazon.

To undertake this project, Samuel, who speaks Hebrew also taught himself Greek so he could read Philo in the original.  He also drew upon the thoughts of some of Judaism’s later, and perhaps better known, commentators like Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and Ibn Ezra to illustrate how Philo’s commentaries in some cases presaged the thoughts of these great commentators and in other instances contradicted them.

Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria relates in order Philo’s commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

In a wide-ranging interview, Samuel, who contributes occasional columns to San Diego Jewish World, discussed his books and the philosopher who inspired it.  He also is accepting invitations to discuss the book at synagogue, chavurah, and club gatherings.

He said that while living in First Century C.E. Alexandria, Philo faced two conflicting forces during his life.  On the positive side, Alexandria was a cosmopolitan port city which treasured learning, as was exemplified by its world-famous library.  On the other hand, many native Egyptians harbored anti-Semitic attitudes, making life in Alexandria a wary experience for Jews.  “One of the great pogroms in Alexandria that took place in the year 30 or so, resulted in the death of 50,000 people,” Samuel commented.  “It was the first modern pogrom of late antiquity.  Philo gives eye witness to how Jews were not even allowed to bury the dead, and the Roman prefect in Alexandria, Flaccus, was always trying to curry favor with the local anti-Semitic population.”

Nevertheless, Philo manage to enjoy some of what life had to offer.   “One of the things that I like about Philo was that he was an Alexandrian Jew, much like today we are American Jews,” said Samuel. “He would attend the gymnasium, watch wrestling matches. He would attend Olympic-style games.  He would go to horse races, and he had an interest in sports and would often draw some profound spiritual analogies about Jewish spirituality from sporting events that took place in his time.”

As a commentator, Philo was willing to opine on issues that continue to be controversial to the present day.  Abortion, homosexuality, and how Jews should treat other religions were among the subjects to which Philo gave deep thought.  Living in the pre-rabbinic era of Judaism, his commentaries often were in sharp contrast to those of later Jewish scholars, according to Samuel.

Whereas many later commentators took every word of the Torah literally, Philo was one of the first Jewish scholars to suggest that it must instead be understood as an allegory from which lessons may be learned, even if every word is not true.  In Philo’s view, according to Samuel, the Torah was given to the Jewish people at a time when they were not far removed from slavery.  Intellectually, they were like children, unable to understand complex rationales.  So, in the Torah, God warns the Jews of adverse consequences if they don’t follow His law, much like a parent warning a child, “Eat your dinner, or there will be no dessert.”

Philo differed with more recent commentators over the passage in Leviticus which describes as an “abomination” or an “abhorrence” the situation of a male lying with another male as with a woman.  Samuel said, “Philo explains that this is a statement that deals primarily with pedophilia and he gives many examples from Greek society how boys were often paraded around like women, under the tutelage of an older male adult.  He said this was what the Torah forbids; the reason that he said this was forbidden was a man has to be manly; to make a man womanly is degrading …. That approach might not fly in modern times, but his concern about the exploitation about children is definitely an important issue to bring up.”

Most rabbinical commentators in later periods did not address the problem of pedophilia at all, according to Samuel.  What little discussion there was seemed to wink at the problem, Samuel said.  “The rabbis (of the Talmud) did not have a concept of pedophilia, one of the shocking aspects of Talmudic history that frankly is very embarrassing,” he added.  “Philo stands head and shoulders above.”

On the issue of abortion, Philo definitely would have been on the “pro-life” side of the debate, rather than the “pro-choice” side, said Samuel.

“Philo had tremendous respect for prenatal life,” Samuel said. “He considered abortion to be immoral.  It is not clear whether he believed that life began at conception, but certainly in the last trimester of a fetus’s life, he said that the fetus is like a statue that has been prepared—only needs to be uncovered and exposed to the world.  Beautiful analogy.”

In contrast, others in the ancient world seemingly were unconcerned with the unborn babies.  “If a woman was accused of adultery, she would drink this potion that came from the earth of the sanctuary—and if she was guilty her stomach would explode,” Samuel said.  “So, if she were pregnant with another man’s child, she would die and the child would also.  That’s implied in Scripture,” Samuel said.

In some early rabbinic writings, he added, “If a woman is a murderess and is about to be condemned for that murder, but she is pregnant, the rabbis say you take a club and you smash her stomach even to the time till she is almost ready to deliver, to kill the baby.  Because the mother is so unhappy that the child is going to grow up without a parent; better for the child to die than to endorse such a sadness.  Rabbinic thinking!  If those rabbis had been familiar with Philo’s argument, he had turned that argument on its head.  He said, just as you are not allowed to slaughter a calf and its mother on the same day, this applies to animals, how much more so to human beings.  So, if you have a case where a woman is condemned, and she is about to give birth, you do not execute her with the child – that would be an act of murder.  That would be treating a human with less dignity than an animal with its young.  Therefore, you have to wait for the mother to give birth, nurse the child, and a later time execute the mother.”

Samuel added, “These discussions were really theoretical, the reason being that Rome did not allow Jews to practice the death penalty.”

Respect for all religions was a hallmark of Philo’s thinking, Samuel said.  “One of the laws in the Torah is that we are not allowed to curse God – and Philo understood this to mean not only are you not allowed to curse God; you are not allowed to curse the gods of other peoples.  Now when I was a yeshiva student many years ago, I remember how many of my friends in the Lubavitcher community would walk by a church and they would always spit on the sidewalk.  In fact, they spit whenever they mentioned idols in the Aleinu prayer, and even from the most Orthodox perspective that is considered a risqué and halachically scandalous behavior.  You don’t spit in a synagogue; it is considered inappropriate.”

Samuel’s first book was an outgrowth of his doctoral thesis at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.  The Lord is My Shepherd: The Theology of a Caring God was followed by five other books on diverse topics, and then this five-book series.  A workaholic, Samuel said he never lets a day go by without writing at least three pages and sometimes, if the juices are flowing, he might write 20.  He said that he has as many as 50 books in various stages of completion, with some of them likely to be published later this year or early in 2019.

Rabbi Israel Drazin, one of the most prolific writers on biblical topics with books to his credit about the Prophet Samuel, King David, King Solomon, Jonah, Amos, The Aramaic translation of the Bible known as the Targum Onkelos, and various other commentaries, has reviewed Rabbi Samuel’s work on Amazon, giving it a five-star rating.   “Until recently, it was Harry Wolfson’s 1962-1968 two-volume work Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that was considered the authoritative book on Philo of Alexandria, Egypt (ca. 20 BCE to about 50 CE),” Drazin wrote. “Today, because of the wealth of scholarly material contained in his five volumes and their presentation in a very readable manner, Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel’s books can now be considered the authoritative work on the great Greek Jewish philosopher.”

*
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via donald.harrison@sdjewishworld.com

 

Book Review on “The Israel Bible” **** (out of five)

 

The Israel Bible (Hebrew and English Edition) by Rabbi Tuly Weisz

Hardcover: 2212 pages

Publisher: Menorah Books; Bilingual edition (July 10, 2018)

Language: Hebrew, English

ISBN-10: 1940516803

Cost: $44.00

 

In today’s world, there are all sorts of different types of commentaries on the Scriptures on a variety of scriptural subjects.  Therefore, it was with great surprise I discovered this week a new Bible commentary known as, “The Israel Bible” that centers on the theme of Eretz Yisrael—the “Land of Israel” and its historical and religious relationship to the Jewish people. From the inside flap of his book, the author explains:

  • In the 70 years since the modern rebirth of the State of Israel, the Jewish State has been at the forefront of the world’s attention. Today, there are countless efforts to vilify the Jewish state. Yet, there is also an ever expanding movement of biblical Zionists who stand with the nation of Israel as an expression of their commitment to God’s eternal word. As we seek to understand the clash between these two conflicting ideologies and look to make sense of the modern world’s great interest in Israel, the need for The Israel Bible has never been as important.

This large opus is 2190 pages—the sheer size is massive! The author, Rabbi Tuly Weisz, is also the founder and CEO of Israel365. The Hebrew font is crisp looking; the author also uses the NJPS translation—a venerable work in itself.  I think the book certainly lives up to its name. This project has taken the author five years to complete.

When asked why he wrote the book, Weisz explained:

  • Today, there are countless efforts to vilify the Jewish state. Yet, there is also an ever-expanding movement of biblical Zionists who stand alongside the nation of Israel, as an expression of their commitment to God’s eternal word. As we seek to understand the clash between these two conflicting ideologies while seeking to make sense of the modern world’s great interest in Israel, the need for The Israel Bible has never been so timely or important.

This statement makes a very important point not only to Jews but also for Christians who tend to deny the Jewish people’s special relationship with her homeland. As a rabbi, I am sometimes surprised by the enthusiasm Christian Zionists feel for the Land of Israel and I wish more liberal-minded Jews felt the same, but unfortunately, the political agendas of the Left are moving further and further away from Israel. Many Jews who have supported liberal causes in the past find it difficult to associate Israel as a pariah state—on par with South Africa.

Rashi, commonly regarded as the greatest Jewish commentator, anticipated our modern problem. Rabbi Weisz mentions the famous passage Rashi articulated:

  • “In the beginning . . .”   Rabbi Isaac said, “The Torah need not begin with the precept, “This month shall be unto you …” (Exod. 12:2), which constitutes the first precept of the Torah. Why did the Torah begin with this particular verse? In order to convey the point, “You showed powerful deeds to your people by giving them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For when the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan].” They will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy Blessed One; He created it and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe once explained, “The fact the tiny State of Israel fought so many wars aimed at its destruction and survived is proof positive that God’s blessing of the Land to the Jewish people is no fortuitous happening.” I suggest the author include this thought in any future update of his book.

As we mentioned earlier, today there is a constant ideological war waged—not just on the battlefields, but in the media to delegitimize the State of Israel throughout much of the Western European world. This animus is evident in virtually every college campus in the United States. Jewish students often find themselves harassed and targeted for violence by groups who promote anti-Semitism. While anti-Zionism is not a focus of ANTIFA, a fair number of its members tend to be anti-Zionist as part of their far-left activism. Anti-Racist Action groups, he said, had taken part in anti-Zionist events in the past.

Israel gets it from all sides.

This tarnishing of Israel’s image is one of the reasons why I enjoyed reading R. Weisz’s fine book, which is written much in the manner of many modern day Christian Study Bibles, except for the fact he presents a very traditional Orthodox perspective on the text.

There are likable things about this book. It has a clean appearance and the text is easy to read. Many of the comments are poignant. In the Book of Leviticus, the author goes into considerable detail about the various precepts associated with the Land. In the passage regarding the biblical curses concerning the future of the land (Lev. 26:32), I enjoyed this exposition in particular:

  • “26:32: I will make the land desolate.” Though this verse is frightening, Nachmanides explains that it is actually a blessing in disguise. “I will make the land desolate so that your enemies who settle it will be appalled by it” implies that throughout the ages, no matter how many foreign empires occupy Israel, the land will not cooperate to bring forth its bounty. Indeed, in his book Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote about his visit to Palestine in the 1860’s: “A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action ….” Only when the Jewish People return to the Land of Israel does it give forth its blessing and return to its former glory. Today, thanks to the return of the indigenous Jewish population, Eretz Yisrael is once again thriving and prosperous (p. 317).

I was hoping he would mention this interpretation and he certainly did! In one interview, Weisz offered an interesting perspective on his target audience, “The Israel Bible is the only Bible that’s exclusively dedicated to the Land of Israel, the people of Israel and the God of Israel,” Weisz told CBN News.”[1]

  • “The Bible has had such a great impact on civilization; yet it’s also been the greatest source of friction and division between Jews and Christians, who both claim to love the Bible,” Weisz, director of Israel365, explained. “So now the vision of the Israel Bible is that we’re going to have the opportunity to use the Bible as a source of unity between Jews and Christians and everybody who loves the Bible.”

This would explain why the author did not expound the biblical passages in a more comprehensive manner; I suspect he wanted to present a distilled message drawn from the texts of Jewish tradition for a predominantly Christian community.

I would recommend this book to anyone wishing to gain an introduction to the Land of Israel according to classical Jewish sources.

Review by Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel, Author of Rediscovering Philo of Alexandria series

 

=====

NOTES:

[1] http://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/israel/2018/july/this-is-the-bible-that-jesus-read-new-israel-bible-draws-christians-and-jews-alike

Trump and Jerusalem

Image result for jerusalem picture 

Don’t worry about Trump’s motives. His actions count

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel 

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — The theme of brotherhood is central to the entire Book of Genesis. On Shabbat we chant the words, “Hinei ma tov uma na’im, shevet achim gam yachad.” (“Look how good and pleasurable it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

Yet Genesis did not begin that way. The Cain and Abel story embodies the story of Western Civilization in a nutshell. “Am I supposed to be my brother’s keeper?” Cain’s defiant question does not merit a response from God because the answer is all too obvious.

Ironically, it is the worship of God that leads to the first fratricide. What was true then is no less true today as fanatics threaten Israel today—especially since Trump’s announcement to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Once a dying king said to his two sons: “Get on your horses and travel to Jerusalem. The one whose horse arrives last will inherit my kingdom.” So off they went. Due to their love for one another, the brothers stopped at the outskirts of Jerusalem; neither one wanted to win at the expense of the other. So what did they do? They rode together on one horse! This story ought to serve as an inspiration for today.

Unfortunately, the wisdom of the past fails to inspire us as it should.

Some of my congregants wondered whether Trump was “playing the Jewish and Evangelical card” for the 2020 election. When King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, did he act out of the sincerity of his heart? Or did he act out of political considerations? In any event, God called Cyrus, “My shepherd” for God utilized a weak human being to serve a divine resolve. In fact, biblical theology always shows how God utilizes weak mortals to serve His purpose—perhaps even someone like President Trump!

Who cares about motives?  It’s the actions that count!

The Catholic Church along with the Protestants have long taught their followers to say to the Jew, the Latin insult “Hep! Hep!” an acronym for the words, “Hierosolyma est perdita,” ‘”Jerusalem is lost.” Historically, the Vatican moved to improve relations with Jews in 1965; and, eventually, the Vatican formally recognized Israel in 1993. By 1998, the Vatican issued an apology for the Catholic failure to do more for the Jewish people during the Holocaust. But Jerusalem is another matter—since the days of the Early Church Fathers, the Catholic Church believed that the Jew is condemned to wander the world; bereft of their ancestral home, bereft of their ancient Temple, bereft of their city of Jerusalem. I think David Ben-Gurion said it best: “The Catholic Church has a 2,000 years old reckoning with the Jews. The Vatican doesn’t want Israel to rule. There is a dogma (replacement theology, ed.) which has existed for 1,800 years and we gave it the coup de grace by establishing the State of Israel.”

Islamic armies have often tried to change the narrative of peoples they have conquered. The history of Jerusalem as the spiritual epicenter of Jewish life; Israel has always honored all faiths to worship in the spirit of brotherhood in Jerusalem. The Muslim intolerance toward the Coptic Christians, the Zoroastrians, the Armenians, the native African faiths, Yazidis, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucians tells an altogether opposite story.

In the spirit of fellowship, there is no reason why the Arab quarter of East Jerusalem may not serve as a future capital for a peaceful Palestinian state—for peace is only possible if there is mutual respect for the Other.

Let us not forget that over a year ago, one of President Obama’s most unfortunate legacies was his decision to change American policy by supporting the United Nations Security Council resolution declaring Judaism’s holiest places in Jerusalem to be occupied territory and a “flagrant violation under international law.” He did so because of his personal animus of the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

This strident decision ignored the fact, as Allan Dershowitz observed, “Before June 4, 1967, Jews were forbidden from praying at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site. They were forbidden to attend classes at the Hebrew University at Mt. Scopus, which had been opened in 1925 and was supported by Albert Einstein. Jews could not seek medical care at the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, which had treated Jews and Arabs alike since 1918. Jews could not live in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, where their forbearers had built homes and synagogues for thousands of years.”

Thank God, President Trump has corrected the record.

*
Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com

Shirley MacLaine: Aging Without Saging

 Shirley MacLaine is a better actress than she is a philosopher or theologian. Jewish groups are justifiably upset with some comments she penned in her new memoir, “What If… A Lifetime of Questions, Speculations, Reasonable Guesses, and a Few Things I Know For Sure.”

The quote that is generating a lot of criticism suggest, the six million Jews and others who died in the Holocaust were “balancing their karma” by paying for sins in a previous life.  But MacLaine did not stop with just the six-million Jews, or for that matter the other eighteen million people killed by one man’s hatred, she also compared  Stephen Hawking to Jesus, writing that just as Jesus chose martyrdom, Hawking “chose to live” with a debilitating disease.

Gee, that must make the Holocaust survivors along with their children really great knowing that somehow, they “karmically” managed to survive. As  a child of an Auschwitz survivor and as a parent of an ALS child, I take great offense to her words.

Let us briefly examine MacLaine’s comments:

  • What if most Holocaust victims were balancing their karma from ages before, when they were Roman soldiers putting Christians to death, the Crusaders who murdered millions in the name of Christianity, soldiers with Hannibal, or those who stormed across the Near East with Alexander? The energy of killing is endless and will be experienced by the killer and the killee.” (pp. 240-241)

Over twenty-years ago, I encountered this kind of muddled thinking once before.  On one occasion I debated a Religious Science minister who said  something almost identical to MacLaine. The minister claimed that if a young child is raped or mutilated, it is I order to clear the child’s soul of his/her “karmic debt.” The Church of Religious Science is an example of a New Age religion sometime ago in the 1980s—based on the metaphysical theosophical thought of Ernst Holmes. Although Holmes never advocated anything that was even remotely similar to what this minister asserted, many of his disciples seemed to developed this idea on their own.

The popular New Age self-help writer, Louise Hay, author of  the NY Times best-seller “You Can Heal Your Life” maintains that every human being is responsible for creating every circumstance that occurs in one’s life. According to her, all disease comes from a lack of self-love and unwillingness to forgive others. This is true regardless whether you have headaches or hemorrhoids—all disease comes from a failure to “love yourself.”

A Pulitzer prize journalist named Michael D’Antonio wrote about a conversation he had with Hay. Her views on Third World nations and AIDS victims prove to be revealing:

  • People starve amid the “abundance of the universe” because of low self-esteem,” said Hay. “A poor self-image is more damaging than one might expect and attracts the kind of experience that seems appropriate. That’s why, she said, women who are raped are responsible for what happens to them. They attract the rapist because they expect and fear an attack. Similarly, the poor of the world are responsible for their plight, as are those afflicted with AIDS…[1]

In another conversation, D’Antonio commented about Hay’s remarks regarding the Holocaust. She mused that the AIDS victims were the reincarnated souls of the Nazis, who were being paid back for “their crimes against the Jews!”

And the Jews? Well, they too deserved their “karmic fate.” [2]

For Jews, this is nothing new. We have been accused of karmic crimes for a long time. Unfortunately, many of the Christian world’s greatest theological minds—ancient and modern—expressed  ideas that also resonated with MacLaine’s view of karma. After the night of  Dietrich Bonhoeffer became famous for saying on the night of Kristallnacht, ““If the synagogues are set on fire today, it will be the churches that will be burned tomorrow.” But who would imagine him, saying only minutes later to one of his colleagues, “that the Nazis were merely giving what was owed to the Jews. After all, “they nailed the Redeemer of the world to the cross,” they had been forced to bear an eternal curse through a long history of suffering, one that would end only “in the conversion of Israel to Christ”?[3]

Here is one more example of Bonhoeffer’s animus against the Jews:

  • The Church of Christ has never lost sight of the thought that the “chosen people” who nailed the redeemer of the world to the cross must bear the curse for its action through a long history of suffering…. But the history of the suffering of this people, loved and punished by God, stands under the sign of the final homecoming of Israel [the Jews] to its God. And this homecoming happens in the conversion of Israel to Christ…. The conversion of Israel, that is to be the end of the people’s period of suffering. From here the Christian Church sees the history of the people of Israel with trembling, as God’s own, free, fearful way with his people, because God is not yet finished with it. Each new attempt to solve “the Jewish question” comes to naught…[4]

Deicide is not a new accusation, it goes back to the earlier period of Christian history.[5] All of these attempts to explain the suffering of the Jews ignores what I believe to be the only truth worth discussing: Karmic reasons play no role whatsoever in why one people  suffers and not another. When looking at the real causes of human suffering, one thing is clear. Human beings are responsible for the moral evil they perpetuate against other people. Continue reading “Shirley MacLaine: Aging Without Saging”

Book Review: The Making of a Halachic Decision (3* out of 5)

 

Author: Rabbi Moshe Walter. Title: The Making of a Halachic Decision The Making of a Halachic Decision. Pages: 231.

Price: $24.00 Publisher: Menucha Publishers.ISBN: 1614650896. Rating: 3* out of 5.

Any student of Jewish law has often wondered about the origin of the Halachic decision making process. True, the Talmud is full of arguments. If you ask a Jew his opinion, he will give you at least two different answers.

Rabbi Moshe Walter’s new book, The Making of a Halachic Decision The Making of a Halachic Decision, examines such questions as, “What constitutes a halachic decision? How we arrive at a conclusion when there are a myriad of perspectives to choose? Why are some decisions considered more valid than others? What about minority opinions?

For many years, I have grappled with many of these same questions. So, with great interest, I read Rabbi Walter’s book to see how an Orthodox scholar arrives at his conclusion.

The first part of the book attempts to define the Halacha. The root of the term “Halacha” derives from the verb, halach “to go.” Halacha is thus, “a process; just as one walks from point A to point B, so too, halachah is a process that begins at point A and finishes at point B” (p. 19).

Sounds pretty simple, but wait!

The author goes on to stress that the study of the halachah is more important than the actual study of the Talmud. This is a refreshing perspective. Too many yeshivas tend to worry about Talmudic pilpul, a process that involves intricate hair-splitting arguments over the thought processes of the Talmud.

Walter stresses that halachah is vital because it has a practical application; of course, the halachah can be quite theoretical as well. Among the other points Walter stresses is the importance of studying the section of Jewish law dealing with everyday issues, known as “Orach Hayyim,” the “path of life.”

Thus far, I agree with his observations. The practical matters of prayer are activities we do every day. Yet, it is amazing how ignorant even young rabbis are when it comes to applying these basic principles at a Torah reading, or when the minyan is less than ten.

Walter divides his book into three sections: Klalei Hapsak (Principles of Decision Making), The Halachos of Hora’ah (Laws of Rendering Decisions), and Klalei Haposkim (Principles utilized by the Halachic scholars in rendering their legal decisions.

The section on Klalei Hapsak provides the reader with a short synopsis of the medieval authorities that created the Codes that would later inspire the creation and formation of the Shulchan Aruch. These sources include:  Rif, Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah, the glosses of the Rosh, and Tur, and why each of these sages decided to write their books and codify halacha the way they did and the reactions they received.

One of the questions Walter raises is whether Maimonides ever intended to create a substitute  for the Talmud, or did he intend for his Mishnah Torah to be used concurrently with it?

In the second section, “Halachos of Hor’ah” Walter raises some interesting questions about the dynamic relationship between the person making a halachic query to the rabbi he is asking. He touches upon questions such as:  What information must the questioner share with the rabbi? When may a questioner ask a different rabbi? What is the role of the rabbi? Which rabbis are bona fide halachic authorities? How is a rabbi expected to respond to a halachic question? What is semicha today?

In the section pertaining to not creating factionalism in matters of Halacha, (lo tisgedenu based on the verse “Do not make a bald spot between your eyes in Deut. 14:1), the author attempts to explain the rational for not challenging a decision once rendered in a court. Walter correctly notes that other courts within the city are free to make their own decisions (p. 135).

My objection to Walter’s work is that he fails to take into consideration the reality of realpolitik  when it comes to making halachic decisions. Aristotle said it best, “Man is a political animal destined naturally for political life.” Rabbis of the Haredi community would do themselves a favor and utilize Aristotle in their deliberations of Jewish law.

Walter also fails to discuss why the Israeli and Haredi environment routinely disrespect this principle and insist that every Jewish community in the Diaspora or in Israel, follow the rulings of a Haredi scholar, whom has a large following. Questions like whether a Jew can accept the definition of brain death is important since it pertains to the importance of organ transplants. Yet, many Haredi rabbis claim that a Jew can receive a heart from someone who is brain dead, but can never return the favor in reverse. Such intellectual chicanery disgraces and discredits the halacha as we have witnessed countless times in Israel.

In practical terms, these rabbinical scholars routinely negate other rabbinical conversions if a woman should fail to cover her hair (if she is married), or if she wears pants. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s wife did not cover her hair. Would today’s extreme Haredi rabbanim dare to negate the Rav’s halachic rulings?

There is an outstanding work entitled HaMachloket b Halacha edited byHanina Ben-Menahem, Neil Hecht, Shai Wosner.  This massive two volume work spans over a 1400 pages. I am astounded that Walter did not think to quote from this study. The authors systematize the material far better and Walter should familiarize himself with this study in the next revision of his book.

Here is another criticism I have of the book.  Walter quotes Maimonides:

  • Know firstly that I did not say, Heaven forbid, not to engage in either the study of the Gemara or the halachas of the rav, Rabbi Yitzchak [the Rif] or another besides him . . .For I did command or think that I would burn all the sefarim that were authored prior to me as a result of my work? Did I ever state explicitly in the beginning of my work that I only wrote it  . . . for one  who is unable to delve into the depths of the Talmud and will be unable to understand from it the way of the forbidden and the way of the permissible [p. 44].

Walter’s view of Maimonides does not convince me at all. Maimonides makes his position super-clear in his Introduction to the Mishnah Torah:

  • A person should study the written Torah first, and then read this [book], and thereby know the entire oral Torah, so that he will not need to read any other book in between them.” The criticism also reflected divergent local traditions and custom (minhag).

Maimonides’ greatest Ashkenazi critic, R. Abraham b. David of Posquières (Ravad),wrote these scathing words in his Introduction to Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah:

  •  Maimonides “has abandoned the method of all the authors who preceded him, because they brought proofs for their words, and cited their sources … But this way, I do not know why I should disregard my tradition and my proof for the sake of this author’s book.”

Ravad saw through Maimonides subterfuge.

Frankly speaking, Maimonides had no illusion of what he was attempting to accomplish. Bear in mind the Talmud in his time hardly resemble the Vilna Shass used by Artscroll today. The Talmud was a scattered document; haphazardly produced. Maimonides penchant for order viewed the Talmud with disdain—especially because of its theological penchant toward anthropomorphism.  His inclusion of theological ideas represented a vast improvement over the original Talmud.

In short, Walter’s book is a fine for a beginner interested in explaining how halacha is arrived, but the Hebrew encyclopedia work HaMachloket b’Halacha mentioned earlier does a vastly better job for anyone familiar with Modern Hebrew and the halachic sources the authors quote.

 

Book Review: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Brilliant Torah Commentary on Genesis

 

Chumash Mesoras Harav – Chumash with Commentary Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – Sefer Bereishis by Dr. Arnold Lustiger: OU Press and Ohr Publishing; First edition (2013) ISBN-10: 0989124606. Price: $38.24 Rating: 5*

As one of the most important Orthodox thinkers of his time, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (a.k.a. the “Rav”) frequently combined classical Talmudic concepts with insights drawn from the great secular thinkers of Western Tradition.  The ensuing synthesis of his thought makes his theological worldview existential and challenging to Jews of all denominations.

Unfortunately, in his lifetime, the Rav never wrote a systematical commentary on the Torah. However, Dr. Arnold Lustiger, surveyed the vast corpus of the Rav’s writings and put together one of the most remarkable Pentateuch commentaries I have ever read. The name of his magnum opus is entitled, Chumash Mesoras Harav – Chumash with Commentary Based on the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik – Sefer Bereishis.

This volume speaks in a single voice—a rarity when one considers how committees of scholars typically write most of  today’s contemporary expositions on the Torah.

Here are a few examples of how the Rav creates a timeless ethical lesson from the familiar stories of the Torah. A reader of a the Torah might wonder: Why does Noah later curse Ham so severely? R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains:

  • Ham wanted to find deficiencies and defects in his father, to reveal his nakedness to the entire world. According to Ham, it was incumbent to show the world that Noah was in fact not as righteous as his reputation might have suggested. Despite the fact that the Torah itself testifies that Noah walked with God (6:9), Ham was nevertheless interested in demonstrating that this was not the case, that Noah was hypocritical. . . [as if to say] ‘Look at Noah, the vaunted savior of the world as he wallows in a drunken stupor . . .’ One must remember that Noah had experienced an extraordinarily difficult time, responsible for the tempest-tossed ark and all its inhabitants while the outside world was being destroyed. After his travail, he drank a little too much wine. It was in Noah’s interest that this incident be forgotten, that his shame not be publicized. The Torah attests that Shem and Japhet did not see their father’s nakedness. Why didn’t they see what Ham saw? Because they, in contrast to Ham, did not want to reveal Noah’s impetuous mistake.”[1]

In another well-known passage in the story of the Fall, God informs Eve that her husband shall exert authority over her (Gen. 3:16).

  • The wondrous personal confrontation of Adam and Eve is turned into an ugly attempt at depersonalization. Adam of today wants to appear as master-hero and to subject Eve to his rule and dominion, be it ideological, religious, economic, or political. The Divine curse addressed to Eve after she sinned, and he shall rule over you, has found fulfillment in our modern society. The warm personal relationship between two individuals has been supplanted by a formal subject-object relationship, which manifests itself in a quest for power and supremacy. [2]

I would add that the subjection of women described by the Rav is not necessarily a new phenomenon as the Rav thought it was. Men have been using the biblical text to justify the institution of patriarchy for thousands of years. The exploitation of women in much of the Islamic and Ultra-Orthodox world today reflects a social reality that derives its inspiration from Genesis.

While most married Orthodox women cover their hair, the Rav’s wife did not. The Rav respected his wife’s choice to embrace a post-Genesis social reality where women would never have to show their inferior social status ever again.

After Abram’s debacle in Egypt, the Rav explains why Abram returned to the place where he had dedicated his original altar (Gen. 13:4).  The Rav explains:

A Tale of Two Digitized Talmudic Translations: The Artscroll and the Steinsaltz Digital Talmud

 

ArtScroll App Main Portfolio Image

Steinsaltz Talmud sample page 1

In his Torahmusings,  R. Gill Student cites an endorsement of R. Steinsaltz’s translation from R. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. His comments are especially important for anyone interested in the science of translation as it pertains to the translation of the Talmud:

  • Every translation is to some extent a commentary… However, I think a good translator has to know not to give too much of his own ideology or his own commentary. Commentary is necessary to explain the text but a good translator gives over the text, the flavor of the text, with just enough extra commentary to make it clear and the rest is up to the student. What we’ve tried to do in this whole project is to allow the student to study and ask. It’s designed to provoke discussion and to provoke questions, not to provide answers but to open things up.[1]

This pithy statement certainly sums up the nature of translating a monumental work such as the Talmud. In this brief article, we shall examine two new digitized translations of the Talmud: The Koren Edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud and ArtScroll’s The Digital Library of the  Schottenstein Edition of the Babylonian Talmud. Each translation gives the reader a remarkable glimpse into the world of the Talmud as seen from Rabbi Steinsaltz and the rabbis of the ArtScroll Publishers, one of the world’s most successful Jewish publishers of Orthodox books.

Very few publishers have revolutionized the study of the Talmud like R. Adin Steinsaltz and ArtScroll Publishers. In this article, we shall examine some of the fascinating aspects of their newly digitized editions of the Babylonian Talmud.

In many ways, R. Adin Steinsaltz deserves credit for starting the Talmudic revolution; he began making a Hebrew translation of the Talmud in 1965 and completed the project in 2010. This is no small feat. One could arguably say that R. Steinsaltz is like a modern day Rashi—a comparison that makes much of the Haredi world (who also happen to be the producers of the ArtScroll Talmud) bristle with disdain. Random House published a number of volumes between 1989 and 1999, but the project met with little success.

The new Koren Edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud  made several improvements in the design of the Talmudic text and added color pictures to illustrate the various creatures the Talmudists commented upon in their legal discussions. Steinsaltz did something very bold: he altered the text in order to make it a little less cumbersome for a growing and interested Israeli populace. ArtScroll considered Steinsaltz’s innovation heretical. Many Haredi friends of mine used to say, “Who does Steinsaltz think he is to change the Vilna Talmud?”[2] The fact that Steinsaltz is a Chabadnik may account for part of the animus the Litvisher yeshivas feel toward him. In addition, Steinsaltz added partial punctuation for the Tosfot, which made it imminently more readable. Talmudic purists generally look upon these types of innovations as crutches.

Less than a decade ago, Steinsaltz gave in and finally made a Vilna version of his Talmud—one that would appeal to other young yeshiva students of the Haredi yeshivas. It is a pity that the ArtScroll Talmud project has never given any credit to Rabbi Steinsaltz; in many ways, he is the godfather of their magnificent translation. Currently, ArtScroll is rapidly translating the Jerusalem Talmud.[3]  There is also an excellent translation of the Jerusalem Talmud written in Hebrew by the Israeli scholar Rabbi Bar Lev (1943–). Aside from being a Talmudic scholar, he also received his doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Arizona in 1976 and has written several books on Jewish mysticism. Unlike Steinsaltz, he frequently adds philosophical and psychological perspectives to his expositions. Unlike the Steinsaltz and ArtScroll Talmud translations, his work is free (!). His approach is similar to Steinsaltz and there is no doubt that this excellent work will someday be translated into English.

As a student, I can recall the days when the yeshiva administration discouraged the study of the Steinsaltz edition because it was too modern looking of a text. Years later, I discovered that all the yeshiva teachers all had their own Steinsaltz volumes proudly displayed in their dining and living rooms. Steinsaltz’s volumes help Israelis and Haredi scholars alike to learn Talmudic Aramaic. His comparison to Greek and Latin cognate terms makes his study a wonderful resource to have—and now, the English speaking public will find these features very useful and effective.  Steinsaltz’s summaries on the bottom of the Hebrew or English page, along with the biographical sections of the rabbis, or his expositions about rabbinical life in the days of Late Antiquity—make the modern study of Talmud crisp and easy to follow.

The ArtScroll Digital Library  has been described as “a revolutionary new way to study the Talmud! Ground breaking technology enhances the bestselling Schottenstein Talmud – and will allow you to study the Talmud in ways never before possible.”

This statement is quite accurate.  The Schottenstein Edition of the Babylonian Talmud by ArtScroll (hence referred to as the “ArtScroll Talmud”) is much more of a Lithuanian rabbinical product—one which captures the rich intellectual environment of a forgotten era. Anyone who wants to delve into intricate halachic details of a Talmudic text will never tired studying the ArtScroll Talmud, which replicates most of the great debates of the Rishonim (medieval) and Achronim (modern rabbinical) scholars. Unlike the Steinsaltz edition, the ArtScroll edition is not terribly interested in the historicity on how the Talmud originated. Unlike R. Steinsaltz’s herculean stamina in producing his translation and commentary, ArtScroll uses a committee of several rabbinical scholars. In this sense, R. Steinsaltz is more like Rashi and Maimonides—both of whom did not employ a committee in producing their works.

ArtScroll preserves the Vilna Talmudic text’s classical style. However, it is important to note that they too—like Steinsaltz—added a Modern Hebrew translation on the opposite side of the page (in the Hebrew editions). They did the same with their English translation as well.  Each Hebrew page is contrasting a page of English translation—one Hebrew folio takes approximately six to eight pages of English to translate. This layout can be a tad bit tedious—certainly much more tedious than the Steinsaltz edition, or for that matter—the Vilna edition itself.

The ArtScroll Talmudic notes are superlative; as an avid student of the Talmud, I thoroughly enjoy the scholarship the ArtScroll writers demonstrate. Since their work is annotated with countless cross-references of the Talmud and the legal codes, one would have to sometimes open several volumes to flow the train of Talmudic thought. In my opinion, the newly digitized version of the ArtScroll Talmud’s best feature is its ability to hypertext a Talmudic text to other discussion found elsewhere in the Talmud. Moreover, when you read a specific section of the Talmud, the text immediately is highlighted in yellow—both in the text and in the ArtScroll notes. Note that the ArtScroll Talmud has the strange habit of transliterating in Ashkenazic Hebrew rather than Sefardic Hebrew. (Incidentally, this was one of the principle reasons why I sold my English ArtScroll Talmud for the Modern  Hebrew translation. One suspects that the Brooklyn-based company has always felt somewhat ambivalent about the Modern State of Israel, but that’s for another discussion.).

Unlike the ArtScroll Talmud, R. Steinsaltz is far from finishing his English translation. That being said, Koren is rapidly keeping up with the Daf-Yomi (a lectionary for the daily study of the Talmud). In addition, the ArtScroll lets you know which Talmudic tractate is being studied so that one may study with the international Jewish communities whom have made the Talmud an important part of their daily lives.

The new Digital Steinsaltz Talmud is printed in a PDF format, and it assumes that the purchasers of these books will not illicitly use a pirated copy. On the heading of each folio is a warning to that effect. Personally speaking, I have always found it odd that yeshiva students would literally “steal” an electronic rabbinical text in order to study Torah. Such behavior is strangely reminiscent of Alice and Wonderland. However, there is must be a kosher way to go down the “Rabbi hole.” As a PDF, the text files are easily downloadable for and PC or Android device. The Digital ArtScroll Talmud is produced in an Apple and Android version. Sorry, this product is not available for Windows. Since I wanted this product so much, I went to the Sprint store to purchase a cheap Samsung Tablet for $50 and I have downloaded the volumes from the Android shop. Continue reading “A Tale of Two Digitized Talmudic Translations: The Artscroll and the Steinsaltz Digital Talmud”