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

 

Bad Girls of the Bible and Beyond

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Anyone who really knows the Bible, probably knows that it is a book that is full of sexual themes—from one end of Tanakh to the other. Lot sleeps with his daughters; Reuben’s affair with his stepmother Bilhah, and the biblical version of Romeo and Juliet are evident in the Shechem and Dinah story. Rabbi Burt Visotzky candidly called the Bible “one ugly soap-opera” and while I do not agree with his sweeping characterization, I will admit that human sexuality plays a dramatic role in many of the biblical stories.  We certainly know about the exploits of Madame Potiphar and Joseph—a story that tantalized the imagination of many young teenage yeshiva students. Then there are the sexual exploits of King David, who like Bill Clinton, found it hard to resist the temptations of feminine beauty and strength. He never met a beautiful woman he didn’t desire or want. Rabbinic literature feasts upon stories involving Adam’s first wife, Lilith, a marriage that ended horribly, resulting in the world’s first divorce.

Temptation, seduction, and yielding to the flame of sexuality is basic to the biblical psyche.

You might be surprised to know that prostitutes in the Bible are actually sympathetic personalities; some of them have been known to be quiet brave and heroic at times. This revelation might come across as peculiar and strange to many people in the Jewish and Christian communities.

  1. TAMAR

In the Book of Genesis, we read about Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar, who waited for her father-in-law to provide her with a brother to perform the levirate marriage. After losing two of his other sons, Judah felt reluctant to give Tamar his third son, Shelah. After Shelah grew older, it became clear to Tamar that she would have to take matters into her own hands, and she laid a trap for her single father-in-law Judah, one which he fell hook, line, and sinker. She dresses up as a prostitute and makes an offer that Judah could not refuse; for the price of a goat (goats are very popular in the Genesis stories), she would be his for the night. After consummating the deal, she mysteriously disappears. Soon she discovers she is pregnant, and so do the people of Judah’s family. Tamar anticipated her father-in-law’s moral duplicity, and she announces she has evidence that will completely exonerate her innocence. Confronted by the truth, Judah had no choice but to admit he was at fault.

Tamar emerged as the ancestress of the House of David.

  1. RAHAB

One of the most famous cases involved espionage. Two Israelite spies are looking to find out how to conquer the Canaanite people. A prostitute named Rahab, aids and abets both these strangers, whose mere presence set the local Canaanite peoples ill-at-ease. Although she risked her life saving them, it was not without strings attached—“red strings,” you might say. She exacts a promise that the invading Israelite armies will not harm her or her family in any manner. Although the people of Jericho would meet a violent death, her family would be spared.

Before the spies left, they instructed her to leave a red cord hanging down from the window through which they had escaped. The “dangling red cord” would be a visible cord for the Israelite soldiers to keep their distance.

According to the Talmud, Joshua married Rahab (BT Ta’anit 20a) thus becoming an ideal proselyte and was also considered one of the four most beautiful women (with Sarah, Abigail, and Esther) and one of the four most seductive (with Ruth, Jael, and Michal). In one of the more bizarre passages in the Talmud,

Rabbi Isaac said, “Whosoever repeats the name “Rahab, Rahab” experiences an orgasm.  Then  R. Nahman replied, “I have repeated it and was not in any way affected.” R. Isaac replied: I speak only of one who knew her intimately and recalls a woman in her likeness.” I suspect Sigmund Freud would have had a field day psychoanalyzing both of these rabbis.  Freud spent much of his career analyzing men who struggle with sexuality and often view women either as debased whores or as saintly individuals.

The famous Madonna-Whore archetype captures the contradictory waves of male uncertainty, who desires a woman who is as virtuous as a Madonna, but as sinful as a whore in the bedroom. Whereas the man loves women in the former category, he distrust despises and devalues the latter group. The Talmudic rabbis like men in general probably felt uneasy about both these tensions, and therefore transformed sexually free women like Rehab, Tamar into virtuous women.

  1. Gomer

The third story involving prostitute involved a prophet and God. God tells the prophet Hosea to take a prostitute for a wife. The woman he marries is Gomer. There is scarcely a rabbinic commentary that accepts this reading at face value. Rashi, for example, sounds more like Maimonides and says that the story occurred only in a prophetic vision. The scandalous implications of a pious prophet marrying a “fallen” woman probably not only entertained the listeners and readers of this story, Gomer became a metaphor for the Jewish people—who went astray by worshiping other gods. Thus, idolatry and adultery—two similar sounding words, though different seemed to have a common thematic ethical message. Gomer became a symbol of penitence.

  1. Mary Magdalene

In Christian tradition, one of Jesus’ most favorite disciples was the mysterious Mary Magdalene, whom many scholars believe might have been the wife of Jesus. Curiously, three gospel narratives mention her as the only witness of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Four gospel narratives say she was present at Jesus’ alleged resurrection. Whether she or some other woman might have been a prostitute who might have had a similar first name remains unclear. But in the popular imagination—especially as fueled by the Jesus Christ Super Star production, many Christians like depicting Mary Magdalene has a fallen woman who repented.

As you can see, prostitutes have fared remarkably well in the biblical canon—both for Jews and for Jews.

Why am I mentioning all of this?

Partly because the archetypes of “Bad Girls” of the Bible are psychologically alive in modern society—especially in the way men perceive feminine sexuality.

Against this backdrop, when the country watched the Stormy Daniels interview on the Sixty Minutes program, the once well-known lady of porn probably made some Christian people think of other women like her from the Bible. Her alleged relationship with Candidate Donald Trump over ten years ago shows that our society’s fascination with prostitutes still remains a permanent part of the Americana political landscape.

We all know that Donald Trump is a challenged person in many ways, but what he did ten years ago really doesn’t concern me. I am only interested in how he is doing his job now as President. 

Time will tell whether Stormy’s allegations will have any meaningful impact on President Trump, but based on the sexual exploits of President Clinton and Kennedy, it is doubtful. Unfortunately, powerful men often succumb to desire.

Just ask King David.

The Talmud itself says, the greater a person, the greater their temptation for the forbidden is. This theme runs like a current of electricity in the pages of the Bible itself. Human behavior being what it does not change—unless one is willing to learn wisdom from temptation and desire.

The biblical stories teach us a valuable lesson, namely, every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.

An Ancient Ethical Controversy: Preserving Human Life and Its Moral Implications

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 Another one of the most interesting questions found in the Talmud dealing with the matter of human survival in a hostile environment where the possibilities of survival remain limited. [1]

Two are walking on the road. In the hand of one of them is a canteen of water. If they both drink-both will die. If only one drinks—he will reach his destination alive. Ben Petura contends that it is better for both to drink and die, rather than for one to see the death of his fellow. This was the accepted teaching until Rabbi Akiba came and interpreted the verse from “That thy brother may live with thee,” (Leviticus 25:36), i.e., “your life precedes the life of your fellow.” [2]

There is an interesting parallel to the Ben Petura and Rabbi Akiba debate that may be found in the Stoic writings of Cicero, who cites the Stoic philosopher Hecataeus, regarding two equally wise men who survived a shipwreck and were holding to the same wooden spar that was capable of supporting one of them. The question posed was this: Should one relinquish his hold and save the other, and if so, which one? The Stoic thinkers reasoned that the decision had to be made based on the individual’s utility to society. The person whose objective value is less to the republic has the duty to sacrifice himself for the more “valuable” citizen. [3]

Lest we think this discussion has no relevance for our modern age, think again. When the famous Titanic sunk in 1912, 1,514 people drowned out of a total 2,224 people on board – impacted mostly the lower class passengers it’s now revealed by experts who point to the very rich as being saved first over women and children–according to Don Lynch, the historian of the Titanic Historical Society.

Yes, first class has its benefits.

This Stoic position disagrees with both Ben Petura and Rabbi Akiba, for at no point in their deliberations does the utilitarian value of the individual ever come into play in the Talmudic discussion regarding the canteen of water.

Beyond that, it is important to note that Ben Petura does not say that say that the owner of the canteen is obligated to relinquish his portion of the water to save the life of his fellow—only that they must share it.  One could surmise that according to Ben Petura the fact that we have two human beings in need of water for their survival, respecting the image of God demands that one must do his best to preserve the life of his fellow while not endangering his own life in the process for perhaps both individuals will forage their way to civilization in the nick of time.  Rabbi Akiba, on the other hand, seems to think that the individual has the responsibility to preserve one’s own life, for who is to say that the life of his neighbor is more important than his own?

Inevitably, the Ben Petura/Rabbi Akiba controversy invites comparison to yet another perspective championed by Jesus in the first century, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man gives up his life for his friends”  (John 15:13). Every act of heroism and self-sacrifice epitomizes the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching. Ben Petura beckons us to rise above self-interest. I for one do not believe Jesus recommended that someone must morally sacrifice himself to save another’s life; rather, in real life, we see people like soldiers falling on hand-grenades to save their platoon; firemen running into blazing buildings to rescue human–and sometimes even animal life! Heroism can never be commanded, but those who unilaterally give themselves to save others–they are truly deserving of our praise because they remind us why the heroes of our society are very special.

Ultimately, nobody in an ethical dilemma is going to say, “Time out! I need to look this up in the Code of Jewish Law!” Rather the problems we examined call for a response from our conscience.

Like philosopher Emmanuel Levinas observes, “the human face commands us to respond ethically toward our neighbor.”  In short, it is my opinion that Ben Petura’s view offers a more enlightened ethical view and in practice, the halacha has almost invariably followed Ben Petura rather than Rabbi Akiba.


Notes:

[1]   BT  Baba Metzia 62a, Sifra, ed. Weiss, Behar VI, p. 109 c.

[2] Ben Petura’s view does definitely not represent the typical  Jewish outlook on life and love that is later expressed in rabbinic literature; in fact, Ben Petura’s opinion reminds us of the Christian interpretation of love which claims to be universal. It, therefore, does not come as a complete surprise that some scholars have expressed the opinion that Ben Petura is, in fact, a corruption of the name Ben Pandora or Ben Pantera. Pandora or Pantera is the name of Joseph, the father of Jesus. (See Targum 11 on the scroll of Esther ) If so, it is quite possible that Ben Petura is none other than Jesus himself (See also Tosefta Chullin 2:22,24)! In that case, the Talmud states both opinions so as to counteract early Christian interpretations of the Torah.

[3] Cited from Ephraim E. Urbach,  The Halakhah: The Sources and Development  (Jerusalem: Masada Lmtd. Yad LaTamid 1986), p. 204.

You Shall not Covet: Getting Caught Within the Web of Desire Part 2

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(Picture: Nathan the Prophet confronts King David’s theft of Bathsheba)

The covetous road often entangles numerous other prohibition in its web. Below is a famous medieval parable about the dangers of coveting, and how the covetous person may ultimately get much more than he originally bargained.

On Shabbat eve, he went and broke down a thin wall between them, thus transgressing “Remember and observe the Sabbath.” As if that weren’t enough, he then rapes the woman whom he lusted after, and in the process, he violated the proscriptions of “Do not covet,’ and “Do not commit adultery.”

Alas, his appetite for the forbidden knew no bounds. After having his way with his neighbor’s wife, he helps himself to the family jewels.  The woman cried out, “Is there no end to your base character?” To silence her, the sinful man murders her, thus violating the law, “You shall not murder.”

After breaking a medley of biblical precepts found in the Ten Commandments, the man’s parents castigated him. And in defiance, the sinful son struck his parents, thus violating the precept commanding him to “Honor your father and mother.”

When he was arrested, he was taken to court and he cleverly testifies falsely with the help of his friends, that he had taken only his own property (i.e., also known as “The O.J. Simpson Defense”). He claimed that everything he took, was really his. Until now, he could not reclaim his property. However, once the robbers had broken the wall and killed his wife,  the opportunity was ripe for him to collect his property. Such a person has also transgressed, “Do not testify falsely.”

And kept on denying the accusations, one after the other. In doing so, he also transgressed “Do not swear falsely.” But in the end, his evil was revealed and his offense publicized. His shame was so great that he gave himself up to corruption and denied the Living God, thus transgressing “I am the LORD your God.” Finally, he became addicted to idol worship and bowed down to and served idols, thus transgressing “Do not have any other Gods beside me” and “Do not bow down to them and do not serve them.” And all this was caused by coveting. We see, then, that he who is covetous is close to transgressing the entire Torah. [1]

And now you know the rest of the story . . .

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Notes:

[1] Orchot HaTsadikim, Chapter 14: The Gate of Jealousy.

You Shall not Covet: Is it Possible to Legislate a Feeling? Part 1.

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From Maimonides’ description, it is clear that the man who covets is someone who has an unhealthy soul and may not realize it. By being unconscious of this problem, his behavior embarks on a path of self-destruction and moral ruin. Based on this reading of Maimonides, it becomes clear the role of Nathan the Prophet played in confronting King David for his illicit affair with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11). From a purely Maimonidean perspective, Nathan acted as a physician of the soul for David by prescribing him a regimen for David’s complete moral and spiritual rehabilitation. It is always intriguing to see how Maimonides’ exposition of coveting compares with other famous Judaic thinkers of history. Some of these scholars also examined the psychological component in the negative imperative “You shall not covet.” Yet, it is strange Maimonides did not illustrate his point by mentioning this famous biblical story!

Abraham Ibn Ezra: Now I shall present a parable: Know that a peasant who is of sound mind, and who sees a princess who is beautiful, will not covet her in his heart, to lie with her, for he knows that it is impossible. Do not consider this peasant to be like a lunatic, who would desire wings to fly to heaven, even though it is impossible. Likewise, a person does not desire to lie with his mother, although she may be beautiful, for he has been accustomed since his youth to know that she is forbidden to him.

In the same way, an intelligent person must know that he will not find a beautiful woman or wealth because of his wisdom or knowledge, but only if God allows it to him… and therefore an intelligent person does not desire it or covet it. When he knows that God has forbidden his neighbor’s wife to him, then she is more elevated in his eyes than the princess in the eyes of the peasant. Therefore, he is satisfied with his portion and does not allow his heart to covet and desire something that is not his, for he knows that God does not wish to give it to him; he cannot take it by force or by his thoughts or schemes. He has faith in his Creator, that He will provide for him and do what is good in His eyes.”[1]

Philo of Alexandria: While Philo‘s explanation is similar to Maimonides, but he expands much further on the proscription’s psychological aspects:

This commandment aims to curtail desire, the fountain of all iniquity, which from it flows all the most serious offenses—whether of individuals or of states; whether important or trivial; whether they relate to one’s life and soul; or whether the coveting pertains just to external objects. Like fire consuming wood, desire expands, consuming, destroying everything that is in its path. Indeed, many other subordinate sins subsumed under this proscription. These laws exist in order to correct those persons who are receptive to improvement; these other laws also serve to chastise those stubborn people who dedicate their entire lives to the indulgence of passion.[2]

The law here aims to curtail desire, the fountain of all iniquity, which from it flows all the most serious offenses—whether of individuals or of states; whether important or trivial; whether they relate to one’s life and soul; or whether the coveting pertains just to external objects. Like fire consuming wood, desire expands, consuming, destroying everything that is in its path. Indeed, many other subordinate sins subsumed under this restriction. These laws exist in order to correct those persons who are receptive to improvement; these other laws also serve to chastise those stubborn people who dedicate their entire lives to the indulgence of passion.[3]



[1] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:17.

[2] The Decalogue 173-174.

[3] The Decalogue 173-174.

From Medieval Book Burning to Modern Internet Censorship

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 Information is the currency of democracy. —Thomas Jefferson

When I was a young sixteen-year-old, I remember becoming involved in the Chabad movement in Los Angelos, CA. I remember purchasing a translation of Judah Halevi’s classic theological work, “The Kuzari” that was translated by the early 20th-centuryOriental scholar Hartwig Hirschfeld. When an Orthodox rabbi looked over the book, he declared it, “heresy”, and ordered me to burn my newly purchased book. At the time, I protested and asked, “Could I merely pull out the Introduction and burn that section, but keep the book?” He said that would be fine.

For many years, I felt ashamed of my behavior. Several decades later I decided to use this personal anecdote as a teachable lesson. Often, I have long since pointed out to my students, burning ideas is a cowardly approach to dealing with personal insecurities about faith, as Freud observed long ago in his book, The Future of an Illusion. The only way to defeat ideas you don’t like is to come up with better and more convincing ideas and solutions.

The historian Norman Bentwich (1883-1971) wrote, “Philosophers tend to be viewed with suspicion by a large part of the community. Philosophers, by the very excellence of their thought, have in all races towered above the comprehension of the people, and have often aroused the suspicion of the religious teachers.” [1]

Bentwich makes a valid point. In the history of Judaism over the last 1900 years, Talmudists often viewed Jewish philosophers with a measure of mistrust, accusing them of harboring beliefs that were too dangerous for the masses. Throughout much of the yeshiva world, from the 18th century to the 21st century, no rabbinic student dared pick up the Guide to study—at least during the daytime, but you could see students huddled in their rooms, or sometimes even under a table reading the Guide clandestinely.

Maimonides’ philosophical ideas met considerable resistance in his day, and in the year 1233, not long after his death, Jewish leaders solicited the Dominican inquisitors and claimed Maimonides’ “heretical” teachings threatened to undermine all faiths. As one might expect, they burnt Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed at Montpellier, in southern France.

But a change of heart even amongst Maimonides’ greatest critics occurred once they realized they inadvertently made themselves vulnerable to future Dominican incursions. Within almost a decade, Pope Gregory IX led a campaign to burn other books held sacred by Jews, such as the Talmud. In the year 1242, the Catholic clergy collected twenty-four wagons of the Talmud, which they burnt in Rome. Thus, a dangerous precedent became established.

This condemnation was all the more ironic, considering how the Dominican theologians Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) each appropriated many ideas from Maimonides.[2] In the Summa, Aquinas quotes R. Moses twenty-four times, always reverently referring to him as, “Rabbi Moses.”  Aquinas, in particular, was an Italian Dominican priest and Doctor of the Church.

After Aquinas’ death, William of Ockham (1285-1321) and John Duns Scotus attempted to ban Thomas’ works as dangerous to the Church. Yet, the quest for a pure and acceptable theology did not end with William of Ockham’s condemnation of Aquinas, for in 1324, the Catholic Church later condemned some of Ockham’s works as containing heretical ideas,[3] thus proving that Bentwich’s point was correct, as mentioned above.

Back to the Present

You may ask: Is this relevant? It definitely is! The above historical discussion about censorship proved to be one of many indictments for the medieval Church and rabbis who engaged in that kind of intellectual internecine warfare against their faith’s freethinkers and other intrepid intellectual explorers. But nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight, it is all the atrocious for Facebook and Twitter to engage in blocking political content of ideas its leaders and engineers find “offensive.”

Today, James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas released a surprise but damning report on Thursday that shows Twitter employees admitting they censor people’s’ right-leaning accounts, including banning them from the network because they do not agree with their political views! Had this happened in Russia, Iran, or China, none of us would be surprised—but in the 21st century United States? This is truly an affront to our society!

One Twitter employee named Pranay Singh, admitted that the majority of their algorithms are geared in such a manner that they target people with certain political views. Their method is insidious, they “shadow ban” right-leaning accounts, which essentially bans them from the platform without letting them know that they have been banned while allowing left-leaning accounts to slip through without the same scrutiny.” And they unabashedly admit:

  • “Yeah you look for Trump, or America, and you have like five thousand keywords to describe a redneck,” Singh explained. “Then you look and parse all the messages, all the pictures, and then you look for stuff that matches that stuff.” “I would say majority of it are for Republicans,” he confirmed. [4]

Many friends of mine on Facebook often get in the Facebook jail for asserting political views that the Facebook leadership does not like or approve. Let us hope that a class action suit is initiated. This is a battle that anyone along the political spectrum ought to agree upon. The Left would not like it if the political right behaved this way. Ideas deserve to be heard and debated in the public forum.



[1] Norman Bentwich, Philo of Alexandria (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1910), p. 7.

[2] See Jeremiah M. Hackett (ed.), A Companion to Meister Eckhart: Brill’s Companions to the  Christian Tradition (Boston: Brill, 2013).

[3] Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999), p. 350.

[4] https://www.projectveritas.com/video/hidden-camera-twitter-engineers-to-ban-a-way-of-talking-through-shadow-banning/

 

 

Reflections on the Iranian Uprising in 2018: The Silence of Liberals and Feminists

 

Image result for women hijab pictures protest Iran

Most of us are aware that the Islamic leaders of Iran have blocked all forms of social media, yet images continue to flow across the Muslim Curtain of Iran. By far the boldest symbol of the people’s revolt are the images of Iranian women taking off their hijabs, staring silently and defiantly. These brave women risk getting tortured and beaten by Iran’s Phallicratic State—while Western feminism reveals the depth of their apathy and indifference to their sisters who are fighting for the same human rights they enjoy in the West.

Yet, the silence has been deafening.

Instead of promoting war against other nations, in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, the Iranian government must invest in its people. “Death to the Ayatollah! Death to Hezbollah—music to Israel’s ears.

The European Union has been dead silent; Canada has been silent. Most liberals in our county has been silent. Facebook and Twitter have no unfrozen the accounts shut down by the Mullahs. Their silence is complicity.

Most interestingly, the Obama cabinet—including Obama himself has been dead silent. Their silence reminds me of 2009, the time of the first Green Revolution that was spurred on because of obvious election fraud. I remember thinking that this development posed the first major international test for the newbie President elect. I wanted to see whether he was capable of rising to the defense of the oppressed marching in the streets of Tehran.

And the reaction was that of complete silence. Yes, we walked down that road before. A real statesman who believed in freedom and democracy would have done so much more—our ambassador to the U.N., said and did nothing. The rest of the world followed in goosestep. The Iranian Secret Police took lots of names, arrested, tortured, and murdered thousands of the dissidents, as President Obama attempted to rehabilitate Iran’s international image to the Western world.

On Jan. 16th, 1979, Jimmy Carter acted no differently, as he paved the way for the Ayatollah Khomeini to seize the reigns of power. One would be hard pressed to find another example of ineptitude of American foreign policy until the dynamic duo of Barak Obama and John Kerry in 2016. The Iranian mullahs made their intentions known, as our presidents—Democrat and Republican alike—adopted a supine position, or more precisely, the traditional Muslim position of submission.

The Italian journalist Oriana Falachi, in her autobiography met with the Ayatollah Khomeini, and she had her lovely nails polished in red just the other day as she prepared for the famous meeting. The aid to the Ayatollah warned her, if she did not remove the polish from her fingers, the Ayatollah would have her fingers chopped—yes, I said, “chopped” off for being so immodestly dressed. This was a dreadful experience she never forgot. Ayatollah Khomeini was known to have his thugs cut off women’s breasts in his country if they wore a low-cut blouse.

Within hardly a wink of an eye, Khomeini moved swiftly to impose sharia. In March 1979, the new government issued a decree mandating that women must wear the hijab whenever they ventured outside, on pain of arrest. This was not without a harsh reaction. On March 8 that year, over 100,000 women, took to the streets of Iran to protest against this — to no avail, of course. The hijab became the most visible symbol of the totalitarian sharia backwater that the Islamic Republic of Iran became.

Yet, in our great country, the politicians and outside lobbyists did their best to make the hijab a thing of beauty. Now, in 2016, I am proud that my President and his cabinet are doing their best to cheer and support the Iranian women. Nikey Haley’s speech in the United Nations,

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley praised Iranian protesters Tuesday, adding that the US is seeking emergency meetings with the Security Council in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva regarding Iran.

·         “The people of Iran are crying out for freedom,” Haley said. “All freedom-loving people must stand with their cause.”

 ·         “This is the precise picture of a long oppressed people rising up against their dictators. The international community has a role to play on this. The freedoms that are enshrined in the United Nations charter are under attack in Iran,” she said. “If the Iranian dictatorships history is any guide, we can expect more outrageous abuses in the days to come. The UN must speak out.”

Haley continued: “We must not be silent. The people are crying out for freedom. All freedom loving people must stand with their cause. The international community made the mistake of failing to do that in 2009. We must not make that mistake again.”

I am so proud of how Israelis are offering their moral support on the Internet.

I suspect that Obama is afraid to speak out on behalf of the people, because he went out of his way to praise the current Iranian regime when he concluded his nuclear-arms agreement with Iran, as the Iranians mused how spineless the United States had become.

Whether you like Trump or not, history will remember him well for standing up to the rogue state and for its oppressed people.

A Tale of Two Perspectives

Image result for I am Muslim Image result for victims of the New York Attack park pictures Image result for victims of the New York Attack park pictures Image result for victims of the New York Attack park pictures Image result for victims of the New York Attack park pictures

4 days ago

It is one thing to hear people pray in a Mosque saying “Allahu akbar” in unison, for we all have our unique way of expressing prayer.

However, when you hear somebody on a jet that is flying 40,000 feet in the air screaming to the top of his lungs, “Allahu akbar!”, what is your reaction? What is your heart and mind telling you? If you’re like any normal human being, you are most likely experiencing a sense of terror; you fear that your life might be ending within the next couple of minutes or seconds, as your life flashes before you.  I can guarantee you the last thing you are worried about is whether feeling this way might get you  labeled as “Islamophobic” or a “racist” despite the fact that Islam has nothing to do with race.

Once again, another Muslim terrorist named Sayfullo Saipov, proudly screeched, “Allahu akbar!” after running down some twenty people, killing eight people. One outspoken Muslim imam named Omar Suleiman has successfully persuaded Google to bury anything that is remotely, “anti-Islam.” He complained on CNN how the media perceives “Allahu akbar!” serves what he called, “a nefarious agenda.” Once again, instead of identifying with the victims of the terror attack, Suleiman and his ilk seem as though are trying to get us to identify with the perpetrator.

George Orwell referred to this kind of logic as “doublespeak.”

Frankly, if I were a true Muslim, I would be outraged—but not by those who are complaining about Muslim violence and deviance. Instead I would redirect my rage toward my fellow Muslims who are through their fanaticism single-handedly destroying their religion. They are the ones who have created this problem in perception. It’s time the civilized world of Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and responsible Muslims take a different approach and unequivocally condemn religious inspired violence.

It is disturbing that organizations such as CAIR and other Islamic affiliates seldom organize large 100,000-person rallies condemning the kind of violence that is perpetuated by its apostles of hate. Such gatherings now and then occur in Europe, but not in this country. Islamic apologists created a new word, “Islamophobia” as a means of suppressing any kind of criticism toward Islam as a religion. It may seem strange, we do not ever hear of someone being “Judeao-phobic” or “Christian-phobic” because being afraid of Judaism or Christianity doesn’t really make any sense. Being afraid of Islam (which is what Islamophobia suggests) has nothing to do with being afraid of Muslims. I think the Muslim propagandists should have come up with a better term. Criticizing any religion is not a crime in a country that champions free speech.

People often attribute the following remark to the atheist philosopher Christopher Hitchens, who allegedly said, “The word Islamophobia is a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons.” Actually, it was the brilliant physicist Richard Dawkins who made this remark. While I would not use the same caustic language Hawkins uses, I do agree the term “Islamophobia” is a contrived linguistic weapon to suppress honest dialogue about how people feel about Islam as a religion. Islamophobia means “the fear of Islam,” and not the fear of Muslims.

Christopher Hitchens described Islamophobia in the following terms:

  • “A phobic is a person suffering from irrational or uncontrollable dread. I don’t choose to regard my own apprehensiveness about Muslim violence as groundless or illusory” “Fundamentals,” Tablet Magazine 5/24/10
  • “This is why the fake term Islamophobia is so dangerous: It insinuates that any reservations about Islam must ipso facto be phobic. A phobia is an irrational fear or dislike. Islamic preaching very often manifests precisely this feature, which is why suspicion of it is by no means irrational.” “A Test of Tolerance,”[1] Slate 8/23/10

Think about it.

Criticism of religion should not equated with hatred; nor should people who criticize ANY religion be tarred and feathered, or shamed for expressing their concerns about militant behavior of certain Muslims who promote violence in the name of the Quran. Nor does criticizing Islam make one into a racist.

Whatever you wish to call it, it is a term designed to suppress criticism of Islam. Whether you are a rabbi, priest, a Zen Roshi, a Catholic priest or a Protestant minister, you have every right to criticize your religion of origin for the problems pertaining to it as a faith. In ancient times, the prophets pulled no punches on criticizing the Judaism of their times and the way it was practiced. Quite the opposite. Judaism benefited from the prophetic critique.

Islam can also benefit from an honest critique of its doctrines, its holy books, and the way people practice their faith. Islam is not the exception, but it can be a great example if its followers pursue this fearless path of moral integrity. Let us pray that responsible imams take this criticism not as a sign of hatred or intolerance, but as an invitation to examine and discuss a topic that demands an ethical response.

In my next column, I will discuss the overuse of “anti-Semitism” to add further balance to the topic I have raised about religious labels.

[1] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2010/08/a_test_of_tolerance.html

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

Wisdom from the Septuagint: Do Not Blaspheme Gods

Translations of the Bible often reveal more about a translator’s world view than they do about the actual text. Once we decipher the context, a translation reveals something that is hidden to the reader.

This is especially the case with respect to one of the more straightforward passages pertaining to the laws of blasphemy found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Mishpatim. The verse that is relevant to this passage reads, “You shall not revile God… (Exod. 22:28).

Blasphemy, you say? Blasphemy laws have been out of vogue for centuries. The U.S. Constitution as defined by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . .”

Just imagine what our country would be like if critics of religion like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Cristopher Hitchens had not offered their sharply worded barbs against religious and iconic people and the institutions they represent.

Arguably, blasphemers may actually provide a necessary public service in helping us correct the excesses of religion. If nothing else, the critics of religion keep us honest and accountable. Lampooning religious beliefs whether in the press or at gatherings is considered fair game. Anyone attempting to limit free speech is guilty of censorship. Moreover, this applies to all faiths. The government has no right to get involved in cases involving real or imagined attacks upon any given religious doctrine.

Yet, as straightforward as this position might be, Jewish history has sometimes taken a different perspective. Toward the beginning of the Common Era, Jews found themselves living in a world that was full of graven images; their neighbors believed in a pantheon of deities. The scholars who translated the Septuagint deliberately subverted the biblical law.

Their textual reading reflected a very different understanding about the nature of blasphemy—one predicated upon a philosophy of expedience and Jewish survival “You shall not revile gods…”

Not only is blaspheming God a sign of extreme disrespect, so is blaspheming the gods of other peoples. Anyone reading this might wonder: Wait a minute, the Bible is famous for its polemics against paganism and idolatry. How can the translators of the Greek Bible ignore this fact?

Philo offers an important explanation, “Since the entire inhabited world is full of statues and images, and similar constructions, it is most prudent for us to refrain from speaking insultingly of these national deities, lest any of Moses’ disciples fall into the habit of treating lightly the name “god” in general, for it is a title worthy of the highest respect and love. Philo was not the only one who felt this way. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus echoes Philo’s words, “Let no one blaspheme gods whom other cities believe in, nor rob foreign temples, nor take a treasure that has been consecrated to some god.”

Why did these thinkers take a view that almost inverts the meaning of the biblical verse? We know from the story of Purim how dangerous anti-Semites can be to a Jewish community struggling to survive in the Diaspora.

Any Jew disrespecting a pagan belief not only endangered himself, he also endangered other members of the Jewish community. In Alexandria, during the first century, over 50,000 Jews were murdered by anti-Semites. Jewish life in one of the most dynamic and ethnically rich ancient cities proved dangerous at times.

Jewish history bears witness to this sad historical reality—even as we see it today unfold in our communities.

When we think about the recent vandalism that we have witnessed in Jewish cemeteries, threats to blow up JCC’s in our country, Jews in the United States have been complacent for a very long time. We have enemies on the far right, as well as enemies who are on the far left. Hating Jews has become fashionable in some circles.

Whether from the right, or from the left, Jews still have plenty of enemies who seem to be coming out of their hiding places. Hating Jews, Zionists, and Israelis seem fashionable in certain places—especially on the university campuses.
As the vanguard of Western democracies, Jews often meet stiff resistance from those on the political right. In hard times, everyone loves a scapegoat—enter the Jew.

A week ago, the Forward featured an article about the comedian Sarah Silverman who on more than one occasion said, “I hope the Jews did kill Christ…I’d F_cking do it again in a second.” Granted Silverman is a comic, and a mediocre one at best (in my opinion), but her thoughtless comments can infuriate certain Christians who may have a latent hatred toward the Jew.

As a minority people, we have had more than our fair share of enemies threatening to kill us and complete the job started by Hitler in the early 20th century.

As Jews, we have often been our own worst enemies. Pogo famously said, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”

Anti-Semitism is a lot like a virus; it may remain dormant, but sooner or later it will awaken and explode. The words of the ancient Jewish thinkers of the first century offer us some practical advice. Don’t exacerbate hatred by making thoughtless insults about another person’s religion. In addition, the laws against blasphemy remind religious people not to behave in a manner that inspires hate, ridicule, and revulsion.

Judaic wisdom from the Hellenistic era offers a sober prescription for the modern world.

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

Trump’s Missed Opportunity…

Image result for pictures of president trump inauguration

 

This past Friday, the world witnessed a peaceful transition of power in our country. Indeed, it is the kind of event we ought to be celebrating regardless how we may feel about the new President being elected.

In North Korea, Muslim theocracies, and in other totalitarian regimes, the citizenry can only dream of having an open democratic election. The clergy certainly added a rich evangelical flavor to the program, as church choirs that might have made a number of people of other faiths feel awkward.

Many colleagues of mine do not feel comfortable when a minister invokes “…In Christ’s name, let us say ‘Amen’” and I would imagine that Muslims probably felt uncomfortable not seeing an Imam add his prayers in Allah’s name. A Buddhist, Hindu minister might have given a broader appeal to the event.

It is true, many Evangelical Christians helped to propel Candidate Trump to victory, and in all probability, President Trump is appealing to his religious base. I think it is also a sign that he plans to move the country in a more traditional religious direction where it will no longer be politically incorrect to wish somebody in December, “Have a Merry Christmas…”

In many ways, I think the politically correct culture (a.k.a. PCC) is responsible for the ascent of President Trump. Political correctness reigned supreme for the past eight years and a sleeping giant arose in this past election that finally proclaimed, “Enough already!” Whether you like it or not, President Trump is President Obama’s legacy.
Still, regardless of our political orientation, I do think President Trump deserves a chance. As Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said in his invocation, “All of us should pray for [Trump’s] great success, because his great success means our great success.” I am certain that many liberal-minded Jews probably felt Hier was endorsing Trump was wrong. Still, we need to see how he is going to govern. Many conservatives had to accept the results of Obama’s election results, and that is how a democracy works in our country.

Hope springs eternal—even in politics.

Nevertheless, I wonder: Why didn’t any Muslim Imam or spokesperson participate in the preliminary prayers? It is true, some members of CAIR objected to Reverend  Franklin Graham, who has a been an outspoken critic of militant Islam. Perhaps a number of Imams might have been asked, but they refused. To some degree, I can understand their reluctance.

Now it is true that in the National Prayer Service that took place soon afterwards on January 21, Imam Mohamed Magid took his place among other faith groups at Washington National Cathedral at a service in honor of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.  His credentials are impressive. Magid is the executive director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center and former executive director of Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

But as the respected Clarion Project noted, of all the Muslims to speak at this event, Magid (a nice Jewish name!) was the wrong Muslim to offer his prayers. As Meira Svirski observed:

  • In September 2014, Magid endorsed a letter opposing the Islamic State terrorist group’s tactics, but endorsed sharia governance’s brutal hudud punishments, the recreation of a caliphate and the Islamist doctrine of gradualism. The letter also implied that journalists that are viewed as dishonest are acceptable targets for violence.  Declassified FBI memos reveal that ISNA was identified as a Brotherhood front as early as 1987. A 1988 U.S. Muslim Brotherhood document states ISNA is part of the “apparatus of the Brotherhood.”  A 1991 U.S. Muslim Brotherhood document, which says “its work in America is a kind of brand jihad in eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within,” lists ISNA as the first of “our organizations and the organizations of our friends.”

And just in case you may not know, the Muslim Brotherhood is an international terrorist group that is the creator of HAMAS and has murdered thousands of Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Simply put: President Trump made a strategic error and chose the wrong Muslim.

As a far better alternative, he might have chosen Dr. Zudhi Jasser who has advocated a separation of mosque and state and spoken against the ideology of “political Islam” or Islamism. Jasser has written for prominent newspapers such as The Dallas Morning News, The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Times.

Better still, Dr. Tawfik Hamid is an author from Egypt. He used to be a member of the militant  “JI” (al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya of Egypt) with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawaherri who later became the second in command of Al-Qaeda. After being radicalized in the JI (approximately thirty-five years ago), he had an awakening of his human conscience, recognized the threat of Radical Islam, and started to teach modern peaceful interpretations of classical Islamic core texts. He is famous for saying, “By faith I am a Muslim; by spirit, I am a Christian; by heart, I am a Jew, but above all, I am a human being.”

Dr. Tawfik Hamid is also a personal friend of mine on Facebook. We briefly spoke about the omission, and I asked him what he thought of my observation that this was a missed opportunity. He wrote back to me:

  • MLS: Hi there, I think President Trump made a mistake not asking you or Zudi Yasser  to give the benediction. It would have made a very powerful statement to the world. The world needs to hear that there are champions of Islam who wish to see democratic change where civil rights and democratic principles are respected.
  • Do you have any thoughts on this?
  • TH: I agree with you…fully!
  • MLS: I hope Trump welcomes President Al-Sisi to speak to him about the changes he is trying to make in Egypt. He has called for a Muslim Reformation
  • TH: I hope too! I believe a lot of things will happen….I pray for President Trump to lead the US and the World to the better…He is a great man and Al-Sisi is also a great person….Many thanks for sharing your thoughts with me.

Imagine how the Muslim world would have responded… This might have been one of Trump’s finest moments, but it was not meant to be—at least for now.

Although this was a missed opportunity, I believe when President Al-Sisi comes to the United States to speak with President Trump, this meeting could set in motion the Muslim Reformation that Muslims really need. The world is counting on President Trump to help shepherd the world in this positive direction.

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



[1] http://www.clarionproject.org/analysis/trump-chooses-wrong-imam-natl-prayer-service

[2] http://www.mzuhdijasser.com/about/

[3] http://www.tawfikhamid.com/