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:

Book Review: Shalom Aleichem

Author: Rabbi Shiloh Ben-David. Book: Shalom Aleichem: A Collection of Halachos, Aggados, and Anecdotes about Greeting People.

ISBN-13: 978-9657599136; 217 pages; Publisher: Self-Published; Price: $23.95. Rating: 2.5 * out of four.

The 20th century Orthodox scholar and philanthropist Irving Bunim, in his monumental study on Pirke Avoth, makes a profound observation about the significance of an ordinary greeting.

  • “There is many a person whose petty conceit will not permit him to recognize anyone unless he is recognized first. The other person must make the first move. This is his way of establishing and maintaining his ‘dignity.’ Others will hesitate from a sense of insecurity to be the first to extend a warm greeting to those they meet. They are afraid to give a token of friendship and receive only an icy stare in return. They will therefore insist on waiting until the person they meet takes the ‘emotional risk,’ while they ‘play it safe.’ Whatever the reason, such behavior is wrong. Take the initiative, says our Sage. Do not seek a sense of importance, or an illusion of security, at the expense of another’s feelings. Give him a friendly greeting with a warm smile, and inquire of his welfare.”[1]

With this thought in mind, I shall now introduce a fine new book written by Rabbi Shimon ben David entitled, Shalom Aleichem: A Collection of Halachos, Aggados, and Anecdotes about Greeting People.

The first part of the book details the practical application regarding greeting someone with respect to mourners, interrupting prayer to greet a parent, a teacher, or even a potential enemy, such as a Roman King.  However, the author points out that even greeting someone has its limitation. For example, during prayer it is considered in appropriate to greet someone while the Cantor is leading a service. Modern synagogues could probably benefit from less socializing and more focused prayer. The author’s knowledge of the Halachic sources is impressive; he carefully annotates the legal discussions on the bottom of the page in Hebrew so that scholars might look into the Responsa literature that is written on the subject.

While most people would not think twice about the propriety concerning greeting a woman, the author mentions that many rabbis see nothing wrong with simply being polite. Yet, among the Ultra-Orthodox, such social niceties are considered “sinful.” Many of today’s Ultra-Orthodox rabbis fear that it might lead to a relationship (or possibly mixed dancing?).  Moreover, many scholars assert that a man is not even allowed to hear the voice of a woman (pp. 39-41).  Such reasoning only proves why there is such a degree of dysfunction in the Ultra-Orthodox world whenever it deals with gender interactions. This is very sad because young Orthodox people objectify the opposite gender.  Even making eye-contact with the opposite sex is considered “sinful.” Yet, we must not forget that when Jacob greets Rachel for the first time, the Torah tells us that he kissed her![2]

The author weaves many stories how rabbis of the past—from ancient to modern times—taught their followers about the importance of greeting a fellow-human being. Examples include:

  • Take care to greet one another with “Shalom”[3] (p. 109).
  • Anyone who greets another is as though he has given that person food and drink (p. 110).
  • R. Helbo further said in the name of R. Huna: If one knows that his friend is used to greeting him, then he ought to greet his friend first, for it is said: Seek peace and pursue it (Psa. 34:15). Should his friend greet him first, but he does not return the greeting, such a person is called a robber, for it is said: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses (Isa. 3:14).[4]

There is one quote from Rabbi ben David’s book Shalom Aleichem that I really liked from Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein.

  • A person might belittle this simple act. He might think that nothing is accomplished by simply saying “Good Morning” respectfully to someone he passes on the sidewalk instead of looking the other way as if he does not exist. You never know, however, how much that person is looking forward to a warm greeting from another human being (p. 123). Continue reading “Book Review: Shalom Aleichem”

Can a Person sell a Defective Torah to a Heretical Congregation?


From Jewish Values Online:

The Chofetz Chaim (Of Blessed Memory) states that a Torah written by a heretic must be burned. At an economic loss of $15,000 upwards, Is it permissible ethically and according to Jewish values to make full disclosure of the defects of such a Torah, and sell it under those conditions to a Conservative or Reform (or any) congregation that is in need of one? It is assumed that the text of the Torah itself is without error or shmad (heretical defect). 

Thank you for writing to me about your concern. Now, let us take a look at the issues you raise.

Part 1: Defining the Problem

There are many issues and presumptions that you make in your question that are in my opinion, dubious in nature. For example, you presume that a Torah written by a “heretic” “ought to be burned.” However, you never define “Who is a heretic?” Just as the “Who is a Jew?” is a debate, so too is the question, “Who is a heretic?” Still and all, you never defined your terms and such assumptions can only lead to erroneous conclusions that are not warranted by the Halacha. Given the political nature of Judaism today, I must question whether it even proper to assert that “Reform” or “Conservative” rabbis are justly considered “heretics” because of their alleged “heretical” views.”

Historically, unlike Christianity that posits proper belief is essential for salvation, Judaism has historically been more concerned about “Ortho-prax,” proper religious behavior rather than the matter of “Orthodox” (“correct opinions”). According to Webster’s Dictionary, “orthodox derives from the Latin orthodoxus, Greek ὀρθόδοξος; ὀρθός right, true + δόξα opinion, δοκεῖν to think.” Webster goes on to add.

  1. Sound in opinion or doctrine, especially in religious doctrine; hence, holding the Christian faith; believing the doctrines taught in the Scriptures;—opposed to heretical and heterodox; as, an orthodox Christian.
  2. According or congruous with the doctrines of Scripture, the creed of a church, the decree of a council, or the like; as, an orthodox opinion, book, etc.
  3. Approved; conventional.

As you can see, the very term that many “observant” Jews use to define themselves reflects—ironically and paradoxically—Christian influence. One might even say that many observant Jews today are oblivious to the Christianization of Judaic belief; throughout Jewish history, no one rabbi has ever had the authority to speak “ex cathedra,” so to speak. (Please pardon my pun.)

Part 2: The Talmudic Origin of the Law Regarding the Heretic’s Torah

Before going any further in answering the other halachic issues you raise,  I think it is important to examine the origin of this particular halacha, which derives from the Talmudic tractate Gittin 45b:

  • R. Nahman said: We have it on tradition that a Torah scroll that has been written by a Min should be burnt, and one written by a heathen should be stored away.

In the interest of brevity, we need to define what exactly is meant by the term “min”  and after we define this term, we need to determine whether one may apply “min” to anyone who happens to be a non-Orthodox rabbi or a member of a non-Orthodox synagogue.

According to the Soncino Talmud (which was written by Modern Orthodox scholars led by R. Isadore Epstein), the term “min” refers specifically to “either a heathen bigot or fanatic.” The reason that a Torah written by a pagan is forbidden to read is because the “Torah scroll may have been written for an idolatrous purpose.”

R. Adin Steinsaltz explains that the “heretic” in the Talmud probably refers to someone who was a member of the Christian faith. Since the element of intentionality is significant and has profound halachic importance whenever the scribe writes any of the Divine Names, we fear that the Jewish Christian scribe most likely associated God’s Name with Jesus and the Trinity.[1]

The Jerusalem Talmud lists that twenty-four types of minim (heretics) existed in the first and subsequent centuries that followed the destruction of the Second Temple. Alleged heretical beliefs included many types of belief:

(1)   Anyone who denies God’s unity.

(2)   Dualism in all of its forms (Gnostic, Trinitarian, or Zoroastrian)

(3)   Denial of Providence

(4)   Denial of Israel’s mission to the world

(5)   Denial of salvation

(6)   Denial of Resurrection

(7)   Denial of a Messianic Redeemer or Messianic Age[2]

Maimonides himself viewed minut as atheism, or anyone who denied the existence in the theological doctrine of creatio ex nihilo “creation from nothing”) or the notion that man requires an intermediary to worship God (MT Hilchot Teshuva 3:7).

Contrary to many Talmudists—both ancient and modern—there is an impressive list of Jewish thinkers who rejected the belief in creatio ex nihilo and argued that bara does not necessarily mean “creation from nothing.” Ibn Ezra and even Maimonides both felt that creatio ex nihilo need not necessarily be implied by the verb bara. The 15th-16th century Jewish philosopher, R. Josef Albo concluded that creatio ex nihilo is not a fundamental principle of the Torah.

Maimonides’ own views are far more nuanced than one might realize for he himself did not really believe in physical resurrection—a point that many of Maimonides’ greatest critics suggested. If you wish to familiarize yourself with this discussion, see  Marc B. Shapiro’s brilliant book, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Portland Or; Littman Library, 2004), pp. 71-78; 132-157. Any Orthodox person reading this book must come to the inevitable conclusion that beliefs have always varied throughout Jewish history and that any attempt to create a Procrustean theology that consists of one voice is wrong-headed and foolish. [3]

 Part 3: The “Heretic’s Torah Scroll”

It is astounding in my view how any responsible Orthodox thinker could think that  profiting from a “heretical” Torah scroll is considered permitted—especially when one can make a tidy $15,000 profit selling such a scroll to a “heretical” place of worship such as a Conservative or Reform synagogue. One gets the distinct impression from your original letter that whenever there is a profit to be made, one can sell anything to the “heretic,” for all money is kosher.

Such an attitude is not God-centered, but it is mammon centered.

Halacha provides an interesting analogy to our situation: A person is forbidden by law to sell a forbidden unkosher mixture of meat and milk, or for that matter—any forbidden substance to a Jew. Aside from the fact that one is placing “a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14). With regard to your original question, it seems to me that you have no right—ethical or religious—to financially benefit from a Torah scroll that you consider to be defective by selling it to members of a “heretical” Jewish community. The very use of such terminology when used regarding Jews of different beliefs is potentially incendiary and divisive; such attitudes lead only to more sinat hinnum.

Since Conservative or Reform Jews and their rabbis are clearly not the heretics that the Talmud was originally speaking of.  I suggest to you that it is permitted to sell a defective Torah scroll provided you inform the purchaser that it needs repair. Heresy is a complete non-issue here. In short, under no circumstances should you burn the Sefer Torah. If its errors cannot be corrected, I suggest you give the Torah to a skilled scribe who knows how to repair it.



Notes:

[1]Peter Schäfer’s new book, Jesus in the Talmud, takes umbrage with the old Christian view that asserts “min” to be invariably  “Christian,” whenever it appears in the Talmud.

[2] Cf. BT Sanhedrin 38b-39a; BT Sanhedrin 91a &  91a.

[3]  Incidentally, Shapiro completely demolishes the responsa of R. Moshe Feinstein who alleges that all Conservative and Reform rabbis are “heretics” and that it is even forbidden to answer “Amen!” to their prayers. See Igrot Moshe YD Vol.1, Responsa 172; OH Vol. 4: 91. Like Rabbi Schnersohn and R. David Bleich, R. Feinstein believed anyone who rejected Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles was and is a “heretic.”

Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 2)

Let me apologize if the following material seems obtusely worded. Some rabbis have a serious problem expressing coherent thoughts that appeal to common sense. Clearly, some of our ancestors were lacking in this department. The Talmudic style of reasoning called, “pilpul” (“peppered” didactic reasoning) can appeal to the inner sophist we all have. At times, I like to refer to this style of argumentation as, “rabbinicspeak,” and to understand or argue with it, you have to almost think like a mental contortionist.

Continuing with our last thought, how could Deborah in the Bible (Judg. 4:4) serve as a judge, according to the Talmudic and medieval rabbis?  The 13th century of scholars known as the Tosfot, try to make sense of the problem posed. To their credit, Tosfot offers at least adds fluidity to much of its interpretation; they are a lot like the girl with the curl, when they are good . .  . you know the rest of the story. The same may be said of the Tosfot interpretations.

Ba’ale Tosfot discuss the problem from a variety of perspectives:

A. One answer proposed suggests that that Deborah was a judge because her community accepted her. Tosfot also admits that a woman is considered to be an equal in every matter of jurisprudence, except when it comes to serving as a witness. [1]

B. The Jerusalem Talmud rules that a woman is not allowed to act as a judge [2]; the case of Deborah is the exception–and certainly not the norm. Deborah was chosen by virtue of the Shekhinah resting upon her.[3]

C. Alternatively, one may accept a woman to serve as a judge, just like two litigants may accept a relative to serve as a judge–provided each party agrees. [4]

D. Some scholars say that Deborah could only “teach,” but she could not render legal decisions–only men could do that.[5] Continue reading “Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 2)”

Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 1)

This past week, the Jewish Star updated its article about the maverick Modern Orthodox named Rabbi Avi Weiss, who recently backed down from a confrontation with the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) over his decision to offer ordination to a Sara Hurwitz, as an Orthodox rabbi.

Frankly, I am not surprised at all by the series of events that ensued. Surprisingly, Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran admitted that the issue whether women may become rabbis or not is not a matter of “Torah law,” or not; in his opinion, it is morally wrong. Shafran remarked, “[If] Weiss had the backing of a world-class posek (halachic decisor) he would have a claim that he’s not departing [from the mesorah], but he does not have any such backings on the recognized Orthodox spectrum, chareidi or central. He’s changing the face of mesorah without anyone of stature behind him.”

I am curious: Where does the Torah speak about rabbis in the first place, since “rabbis” did not exist in biblical times?

But wait, it gets more interesting than just that.

Rabbi Shafran further argues that the ordination of a woman ran counter to the concept of tzniut, (modesty). It includes the idea that women are demeaned, not honoured, when they are placed in the public eye,” said Rabbi Shafran, “and that a position like the one suggested here is violative of that concept.”

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck, NJ, expresses a similar position in his blog: “There are two greater objections: the utter disregard of norms of tzniut, with which ModOs generally struggle, and the corruption of the methodology of psak that transmits the Mesora and Jewish cultural norms and societal values. The only way to consider in this context the compelling Jewish value of “the glory of the King’s daughter is within” (kal kevuda bat melech penima- Tehillim 45:14) is essentially to discount it and say it has no relevance in the modern Western world. Thus, this ideal of Jewish femininity – the disinclination to seek a public spiritual role, cited by Chazal hundreds of times – is simply written out of the Torah system. And why ? …” Continue reading “Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 1)”

Deciphering the Symbolism of the Burnt Sacrifice

Whenever I teach a class on Leviticus, inevitably my students ask: “What is the psychology that inspires one to offer a sacrifice in general, and the burnt offering in particular? Why is the burnt offering mentioned first in the opening chapter of Leviticus?”

To the modern mindset, the mentality that believed in animal sacrifices must seem very strange. Even Maimonides viewed sacrifice as a form of retrogressive religion, tolerated in the Torah only because of the unsophisticated spiritual maturity of the Israelites.

Ironically enough, in Israel, today many students are studying Maimonides’ Laws of Sacrifice on the hope and expectation that Jews will at some point rebuild the Temple and offer the animal sacrifices just like their ancestors did in ancient times. Right . . .

I can just imagine Maimonides turning over in his grave. Maimonides would have undoubtedly have been surprised to see that we have evolved so little over the past 800+ years.

If you think the money changers made a killing when Jesus created a ruckus that chased them out (obviously, many other pilgrims must have felt the same way), just imagine what today’s Haredi rabbis would do today if he had a new Temple, replete with animal sacrifices.

No thanks, but no thanks.

An anthropological approach demands that we view a society’s customs through the eyes of those individuals who practiced animal sacrifice. There is a symbolism and significance that moderns can learn and may even apply in their own spiritual formation and development.

An analogy from human behavior might serve to answer this question. The giving of a gift, even between human beings, is not a purely external transaction but at the same time establishes a personal relation between giver and recipient. This would explain why bribery is morally offensive; by accepting a bribe  the judge becomes, at the very least, psychologically beholden to the litigant  (cf. Gen.32:14-19).

Many scholars in the field of anthropology note that archaic man often offered sacrifices as a bribe to the gods for personal enrichment; or to placate the gods from harming the worshiper. Think of it as a form of divine “protection money.” Personally, I think that in the story of Noah, Noah offers the olah shortly after the ark rests upon dry land. He brings the olah as bribe because he is uncertain whether God might change His mind and will eventually bring a new flood on Noah’s descendants.

Perhaps the most forceful antecedent to the Israelite practice of the burnt sacrifice is from Isaac’s near sacrifice of Isaac at Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22ff). Illustrating this eternal truth, God beckons Abraham to offer Isaac “as an olah.” More than any other incident in Abraham and Isaac’s life, the Akedah taught both of them how to be wholly given over to the Divine. Continue reading “Deciphering the Symbolism of the Burnt Sacrifice”

Haredi Rabbis “declare war” on the Internet (Part 1)

JONATHAN ROSENBLUM is a fine and articulate Haredi columnist for the Jerusalem Post. In one of his most recent articles, Rosenblum writes about the Haredi rabbinic decision to “declare war” on the Internet. “Declare war” you say? Ah, them’s fightin’ words!

On the surface, the Haredi Guardyoureyes looks like an organization that has some positive potential. After going to the website, the webmasters state its purpose in unambiguous terms:

Welcome to GuardYourEyes, a vibrant network and fellowship of religious Jews of all affiliations, struggling to purify themselves and break free from inappropriate behaviors stemming from Lust addiction. With the advance of technology and the ease of availability and privacy that the internet provides, it has become a daily struggle for many religious Jews to remain erlich (morally and ethically upright) even in their own homes. Jewish Leaders, Rabbis and Experts worldwide, are beginning to speak out about this serious problem more and more. Our network is comprised of a website: www.guardureyes.com, a dynamic blog-site at …

Rosenblum supports the goals of the organization and thinks that this type of self-policing is a good thing for members of the Haredi community. Many Americans in this country are also concerned about the problems and challenges posed by the Internet for their families–especially considering that the average adolescent spends more time on the Internet than watching traditional television.

In addition, Rosenblum also complains about the “various chat rooms, or erotica Web sites, or instant communications devices that make it easy to establish illicit relationships.” I know many Christian believing families in this country who would concur.

So, what’s so bad about this type of organization? Actually, the Guardureyes.com does not bother me  in the least. I think the issues of pornography addiction are a serious problem for the repressed world of the ultra-Orthodox, which has yet to teach its people how to relate to women as people and not as sex objects. For whatever the reason, the yeshiva world has done a poor job in instilling proper impulse control in their students–as evidenced by their students frequenting the erotic websites. In this respect, religious adolescents will behave like adolescents do in the secular world. This  particular website at least tries to help its followers get a better grip on their behavior. The fact that Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, M.D  is a part of this organization, speaks very well of its goals. Rav Twerski is one outstanding Haredi.

Kudos deservedly go to Guardyoureyes. Continue reading “Haredi Rabbis “declare war” on the Internet (Part 1)”

A Halachic Reductio ad absurdum

One of my favorite concepts in logic is the reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to the absurd”)  argument, which is a logical method of argument that proves the falsity of a premise  by following its implications to a logical but absurd conclusion.

“Fortifying the Walls of Conversion” ?

Today, at a conference dedicated to “fortifying walls of conversion,”  the Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger expressed moral support for Rabbi Sherman, who annulled thousands of conversions carried out by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who has been the past acting  director of the National Conversion Authority in Israel.

In the past couple of years or more, Haredi politicians in Israel have on a number of occasions tried to oust the rabbi, most notably under the corrupt leadership of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert , but Rav Druckman refused to go and there was nothing his critics could do to force him to leave. Even after his departure from the directorship, Haredi politicians and rabbis are still trying to overturn all of his conversions, which may affect the status of about 15,000 converts in Israel.

Explaining Why Revoking Conversions is Wrongheaded

The concept of revoking a conversion is a recent innovation in rabbinic law. As we have posted in other places, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) does not sanction revocation of conversions at all. Should a convert return to his former gentile roots, the halacha still considers him as a “sinful Israelite.” [1]

Simply stated, revoking conversions is risky business and can cause unspeakable harm to countless innocents who are indirectly or directly  triangulated in the rabbinic web the Haredi rabbis have woven.

Reductio ad absurdum in Action

Say, for example, a woman converts from Catholicism and becomes a pious Haredi Jewess at the tender age of 20; she then raises a Haredi family and has  20 children of her own–all who live pious Haredi lives. Now each of those 20 children of the second generation have 20 children of their own, and they too, remain pious and God fearing Haredim.

As time passes, each person of the the third generation of 20 children produces  20 children–all who remain within the Haredi community. Continue reading “A Halachic Reductio ad absurdum”

What Inspired the Rabbis to say, “Thank God for not making me a woman!”? (Part 1)

As we have pointed out in other postings, a strong case can be made that one of the most serious  “deadly sins” of history is the sin of misogyny. Every faith grapples with this problem in one form or another. In Judaism, there is a well known blessing men say every day upon getting up in the morning:

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler the universe who has not created me a woman.”

The Original Rabbinical Source of the Blessing

The origin of this prayer is found in the Tosefta to Berakhot 6:16 that reads:

R. Judah says: “A man is bound to say the following three blessings daily: (1) ‘[Blessed are You . . .] Who has not made me a heathen’, ‘. . . . (2) Who has not made me a woman’; and  (3) ‘ . . . who has not made me an uncouth person.’”

The Tosefta then explains its rational:  (1)    “. . . a heathen,” because it is written:  ‘Before him all the nations are as nought, as nothing and void he accounts them,’” (Isa. 40:17). (2)   “. . . an uncouth person,” because it is said, “an uncouth person cannot be pious” (Avot 2:5). (3)   “. . . a woman,” for women are not legally required to observe all the precepts.

To what is this matter (i.e., gentile, uncouth people, women who perform the precepts) analogous to? A mortal king once said to his servant, ‘Go cook a meal for me.’ However, unbeknownst to the king, the servant had never cooked a meal in his life! After cooking a meal, the king got upset with him. Another analogy: A king once asked his servant to hem a garment for him, but having never hemmed a garment before, the servant ruined the garment, thus angering the king. [The moral of the story: Let those who are unfamiliar with the observance of the commandments be exempt from observing them, lest they be an affront to their Maker.]

It is interesting to note that unlike the canned apologetic responses seen in subsequent rabbinic literature, which purports that women are essentially exempt from the performance of certain time-bound precepts because of her family obligations, the Tosefta dismisses such a perspective. Her legal exemption from the commandments is because of incompetence and not because of the lack of opportunity.

Re-interpreting the Tosefta

The Talmud discusses part of the Tosefta in BT Menachot 43b:

A learned discussion began: “ R. Judah [1] used to say, ‘A man is bound to say the following three blessings daily: ‘[Blessed are You . . .] who has not made me a heathen’, ‘. . . . who hast not made me a woman’; and ‘ . . . who hast not made me a brutish man.’

One of the Sages, R. Aha b. Jacob, once overhead his son saying ‘[Blessed are You. . .] who has not made me a brutish man’, when he immediately said to him, ‘Isn’t this blessing a tad bit presumptuous?’ (Who says the rabbis didn’t have a wry sense of humor?) His son retorted, ‘OK, what would you have me say instead?’ Surely it is better to say, ‘. . . Who has not made me a slave.’ Once again his son retorted, “ How is this blessing different from that of a woman (seeing that neither one is fully obligated to carry out the precepts of the Torah; in fact they are on equal footing in terms of their obligations)?  His father rejoined, “A slave is more contemptible” (since his character is generally prone to licentious behavior, which is not the case with women).

Now the 2nd century Roman emancipated slave Epictetus would have certainly took serious offense to the Talmudic discussion, had he been included as one of the respondents–but that too, is another discussion for a future date.