From Medieval Book Burning to Modern Internet Censorship

Image result for book burning pictures medieval              Image result for book burning pictures medieval

 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/

 

 

Rabbi Israel Drazin’s Review of Torah from Alexandria on Leviticus

 

An excellent introduction to an ancient philosopher

By Israel Drazin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 20, 2015

Philo (about 20 BCE to about 50 CE) of Alexandria, Egypt, is one of Judaism’s great philosophers. The noted scholar Harry Wolfson wrote in his book Philo that Philo was the first Jewish philosopher who “contributed anything new” to Jewish-Greek philosophy. Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel offers readers a good introduction to this famous thought-provoking philosopher in this third volume in his series “Torah from Alexandria: Philo as a Biblical Commentator.” Samuel’s prior two volumes were on Genesis and Exodus. This one is on Leviticus. Samuel gives us an easy to read translation of Philo’s own words and adds extensive explanatory notes.
Philo’s philosophy incorporated the somewhat mystical views of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (about 428 to about 348 BCE). About forty books that Philo wrote still exist. They were not composed as a systematic philosophy, as is Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, who based his philosophy on Aristotle (384-322 BCE). Philo’s books are, in essence, a collection of intelligent sermons and commentaries in which he explains the Bible frequently from an allegorical perspective.
Philo was convinced that the Bible should be understood on two levels. The first level contains its literal or plain meaning, words mean what they say. The second is an underlying or allegorical layer, which requires that the alert intelligent reader go beyond the obvious and delve deeper into the text. Philo used allegory to interpret virtually everything in Scripture, including names, dates, numbers, and events. Maimonides also read Scripture on two levels, but his second level was rational, not as mystical as those of Philo, and he used far less allegory.
Philo taught that although parts of the Torah are not literally true, they should be understood metaphorically or allegorically, for they transmit truth. Unrealistic tales, such as a snake enticing Eve or Balaam’s donkey having a conversation with him, can be mined and understood by using the allegorical or metaphorical approaches. Thus, Philo states that the tales of creation, which are not true facts or even remotely real science, are parables with profound truthful life-essential significance below their false literal surface.
Samuel states that Philo’s ultimate aim in interpreting Leviticus is “to teach us how to instill virtue in our daily lives.” One of many instances is the law prohibiting the slaughter a mother animal and its young on the same day which teaches that even among animals a mother feels for its young, and we must treat all God’s creations with respect.
The following examples are only a few of the many Philo ideas contained in this book on Leviticus on just the subject of food laws:

Philo saw the teachings of moderation and self-control in many biblical laws. During the temple days, for instance, the Torah forbid the Israelites from even tasting any foods before separating the first fruits and bringing it to the temple, for this teaches temperance and self-control. The Torah forbids consuming certain animal fats because fat represents gluttony and self-indulgence. Animals in the air, land, and water that are fleshy, fat, and tasty, such as swine and fish that have no scales, are forbidden because they are likely to excite treacherous pleasures. Also, carnivorous animals that feed on other animals are proscribed with only domestic animals being permitted to teach Jews to be gentle, not plot evil, and treat others, Jews and non-Jews, humans and animals, humanely.
Philo goes deeper into this subject by reading the laws allegorically. Scripture gives two signs concerning the animals that may be eaten: they must have split hoofs and chew the cud. The split hoofs teaches that “the course of life is two-fold, one leading to wickedness and the other to virtue,” and we must renounce the first and never forsake the other. The chewing of cuds teaches that just as animals chew the cud slowly, softening it, and then allowing it to descend unhurriedly to the belly, so people must consider new ideas carefully and hold the idea in mind until it is fully understood.
Similarly, fish must have fins and scales which make the fish capable of navigating difficult waters. This teaches allegorically that humans should fight against the turbulence of self-indulgence and incorrect philosophies that lead people astray. Only two classes of birds may be offered as sacrifices, turtledoves and pigeons, because these are gentle birds. Similarly only three species of animals may be offered – cattle, sheep, and goats – because these animals are domestic, even a child could lead them. People are forbidden to eat dead animals torn by wild beasts because it is not fitting for people to share a feast with untamable beasts and become a fellow reveler in carnivorous activities and, besides, it may cause disease.
Leaven bread is banned in temple sacrifices as well as honey. Philo writes that leaven represents arrogance and honey is outlawed because a bee is not a kosher animal and, again, because sweetness and pleasure needs to be moderated.

Modern readers may not agree with every Philo interpretation, especially his overuse of allegory. Maimonides, for example, gave radically different rational reasons for the food laws. Philo’s view that only male animals could be sacrificed because “the female is imperfect” and overly passive, is certainly sexist, as Samuel notes. Samuel explains that Philo was influenced by the Greek misconceptions of women. But even when we disagree this does not detract in any way from learning Philo’s views and certainly not from Samuel’s interpretations of them, because the book teaches us new ideas, many clearly acceptable, and prompts readers to think.

Purim Synchronicities

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During the Holocaust years, Purim celebrations were forbidden to the Jews. Christians and Jews could not even own the book of Esther. Such decrees did not stop the Nazis from poking fun at the Jews on this Jewish holiday. With diabolical glee, the Nazis frequently orchestrated special killings with the Jewish festivals. On Purim in 1942, the Nazis hanged ten Jews in Zdunka Wola to avenge the hanging of Haman’s sons. Similar incidents occurred in the Piotrkow ghetto and in Czestochowa and Radom.

One of Hitler’s leading Nazis was a man named Julius Streicher. The following day after the Kristallnacht attack on November 10th, 1938, Streicher gave a speech and proclaimed, “Just as the Jews butchered 75,000 Persians in one night, the same fate would have befallen the German people had the Jews succeeded in inciting a war against Germany . . . the Jews would have instituted a new Purim festival in Germany.”

Although Streicher’s execution did not occur on the Purim holiday itself, he perceived an irony here that nobody else noticed at the time. Ten Nazi leaders had been condemned and executed for their crimes against the Jewish people and humanity; their mode of execution was hanging, much like the ten sons of Haman were executed by hanging in the Purim story.

Nearly eight years later, Streicher never forgot the words he uttered about Purim. For him and his associates, Purim came early that year.  Streicher and his fellow Nazis’ hangings took place on October 16, 1946. On the Jewish calendar, October 16, 1946, corresponded to 21 Tishri, 5707. This date was the seventh day of the Jewish feast of Sukkot, the day called Hoshana Rabba. The Jews believe that this day represents the coming time when God’s verdicts of judgment upon mortals is sealed.

That is why his last dying words were, ‘Purim Fest 1946.” The words seemed like  the mad ranting of a condemned man, but Streicher could not deny the poetic justice he was witnessing. However, in Streicher’s twisted imagination, he assumed that the Jews would celebrate his death and the death of his Nazi colleagues as a new Purim holiday. That didn’t happen. The old Purim celebration will suffice.

One last note: The book of Esther recorded that the ten had been hanged on a tree (Esther 9:14). The Hebrew word for a tree is eitz, which is also “wood” in English. The hangman at Nuremberg was named John C. Woods, an American army officer. After the executions, Woods burned the hoods and ropes. He refused to profit from the $2,500 offered from people who wanted these items as souvenirs. John Wood’s revulsion for pecuniary gain also corresponds to another passage found in the book of Esther, “The Jews of Shushan mustered again on the fourteenth day of Adar and slew three hundred men in Shushan. But they did not lay hands on the spoil” (Esther 9:15).

How does one make sense of these uncanny coincidences? According to the psychologist C.G. Jung, a synchronicity refers to simultaneous events or coincidences that are not seemingly causally related. Jung regarded synchronicity as predicated upon an acausal connection between two or more -physic phenomena that seem mysteriously interrelated, e.g., such as thinking of an old friend and having that person arrive unexpectedly, or anticipating a telephone call from a long lost friend or relative. Jung’s synchronicity implies there is a web that connects many events together in ways that are not necessarily obvious to the eye–but are clear only to the eye of spirit and intuition.

Although Striecher was not completely correct, for the Jews did not celebrate a new Purim holiday like Striecher imagined, but the Jewish people would within two years recreate the arguably the greatest miracle of modern times—the Jewish State of Israel, which would survive many genocidal attempts to destroy her.

While we may breathe a sigh of relief that men like Streicher finally received justice, it is a pity that so many Nazis didn’t. It is even more disconcerting that Persian descendants of Haman wish to succeed where their ancestor Haman failed.

May we be privileged to outsurvive men like Ahmadinejad and others like him in the future. May each of them meet the fate of Haman and Julius Streicher.

When Court Jews Abandon Their People

 

CHULA VISTA, California –The Mishnah teaches that, “Anyone reading the Megillah backwards (or out of sequence) has not fulfilled his obligation” (BT. Megillah 17a).[1] Hassidic Scholars noted that one should never think that the miracles and the story of Purim are a relic of the ancient past. Rather its message continues to resonate throughout the course of Jewish history.

With this simple thought in mind, we will examine a perplexing passage that appears in the Book of Esther.

  • Hathach returned to Esther and told her what Mordecai had said. Then Esther replied to Hathach and gave him this message for Mordecai: “All the servants of the king and the people of his provinces know that any man or woman who goes to the king in the inner court without being summoned is subject to the same law—death. Only if the king extends the golden scepter will such a person live. Now as for me, I have not been summoned to the king for thirty days.” When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he had this reply brought to her: “Do not imagine that you are safe in the king’s palace, you alone of all the Jews. Even if you now remain silent, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source;* but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows—perhaps it was for a time like this that you became queen?” [2]

Mordecai warns Esther: Now is not the time to do nothing, for to do nothing would only enable Haman and embolden his spirit to destroy the Jewish people. Not even the seclusion of her palace would protect her—she too, will share the same destiny of her people—one way or another. Fortunately, like Joseph before her, Esther uses her influence to save the lives of her people. The story of Purim reminds us of the old Jewish perennial wisdom that most of the Jewish holidays teach us: “The bad guys tried to destroy us; they didn’t succeed, so let’s eat!”

However,  Jews in high political positions have not always served their people well. There was one Jewish leader in particular, whose villainy demands condemnation. Not only did he fail to do anything to save his dying people in Europe, but he went out of his way to thwart all efforts to rescue the Jews.

His name was Samuel Rosenman,  FDR’s closest Jewish adviser and speech writer; he was also a leading member of the American Jewish Committee. Rosenman believed that a large number of Jewish refugees would “create a Jewish problem in the US.”

On October 6, 1943, the day of the march, he was the one person who advised  Roosevelt to snub the “medieval horde” of 400 rabbis, led by Rabbi Eliezer Silver, who had marched to the White House to plead for rescue. With the spirit of a modern-day Moses, Rabbi Eliezer Silver (1882-1968) [3] marched up Pennsylvanian Avenue on and demanded an audience with the President. They said, “We pray and appeal to the Lord, blessed be He, that our most gracious President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recognizing this momentous hour of history and responsibility that the Divine Presence has laid upon him, that he may save the remnant of the People of the Book, the People of Israel.”

Surprised by the large group of rabbis appearing in front of the White House,  FDR managed to quietly escape through the White House’s back door for another event. FDR surrogated the job to Vice President Henry Wallace to meet with the rabbis. Fortunately, the publicity led to the formation of the War Refugee Board, which rescued over 200,000 Jews.

Despite the formation of the War Refugee Board,  Rosenman continued to undermine the campaign to rescue and resettle Jews in the United States. In all the public condemnations of how the Nazis were treating the Poles, Czechs, Norwegians, Dutch, Danes, French, Greeks, Russians, Chinese Filipinos – and many others ethic groups, the word “Jews” did not appear at all in the public announcements. The Jews hardly deserved being mentioned.

Amazingly, the FDR administration had a lot to say to the New York Times about the rescuing of precious European art collections, but they had nothing to say about the rescue of the Jews.

What can we learn from this tragedy?

Hillel said it best, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, then when?” Today’s Jewish leaders—regardless whether they are liberal or conservative—must hold the Obama Administration accountable for giving continuous support to the Iranians. We must insist that the sanctions continue.

I will conclude with a Talmudic tale:

  • Rava and Rabbi Zera made a Purim feast together and became drunk. Rava got up from the table and slit Rabbi Zera’s throat. The next day when he understood what he had done, he prayed for mercy and Rabbi Zera recovered.  The next year, Rava said to Rabbi Zera, “Come let us make a Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zera replied, “No! A miracle doesn’t happen at every single hour.[4]

Israel is a modern miracle and we must do whatever it takes to keep Israel healthy and thriving. The lesson of Purim teaches us that good people of conscience and moral conviction can make a difference.

Let us pray we choose wisely.

[I wrote this article in memory of my beloved father, Leo Israel Samuel, a Holocaust survivor who died on Purim as I was reading the Megillah in Glens Falls, NY for my congregation. Thank you Father for being my inspiration.]


[1] The Soncino Talmud adds in its footnotes, “[Perhaps as a magical incantation for driving away demons.”

[2]   Esther 4:9–14

[3] The only ones who refused to attend was Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schnersohn and his son-in-law; they preferred to wait for the Messiah. Schneerson actually thwarted the Orthodox rabbinate’s efforts to persuade the United States State Department to absorb Jewish refugees, see Bryan Mark Rigg, Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) pp. 64-65, 172.

[4] BT Megillah 7b.

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”

Why Do We Celebrate Hanukah?– A Potpourri of Judaic Perspectives

One of the famous and most important questions asked about Hanukkah reads: What is Hanukkah? [i.e., “Why do we celebrate Hanukkah?”]. The question strikes a modern reader as odd. Surely, the Jews must have known about the holiday’s significance for several centuries! On the surface, one could argue that the question is purely rhetorical in nature. It serves to help provide the rabbinical teachers with a new interpretation of the famous Maccabean triumph over the Syrian-Greeks: The Talmud replies:

  • On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary; they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. When the Hasmonean monarchy emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. There was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The following year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

One 9th century Midrashic work, Pesikta Rabbati, records a legend: Why did the rabbis make Hanukkah eight days? Because … the Hasmoneans  entered the Temple and erected the altar and whitewashed it and repaired all of the ritual utensils. They were kept busy for eight days. And why do we light candles? When the Hasmoneans entered the Temple, there were eight iron spears in their hands, which they covered with wood and drove into the ground, lighting oil in each and using them as lamps.[1] This reinterpretation of the Hanukkah story has no support in none of the 2nd century B.C.E. literature, or for that matter in the  1stcentury stories concerning Hanukkah, which we will soon examine in detail. The miracle of the Hanukkah has a different narrative in the Book of Maccabees 1 Maccabees 4:36-59 —the oldest record of the Hanukkah story that differs considerably from the Talmudic version found in BT Shabbat 21b that was recorded several centuries after the holiday had become a commonplace Jewish observance.

  • 36Then Judas and his brothers said, “Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it.”37So the whole army assembled, and went up to Mount Zion.38They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a forest or on some mountain, and the priests’ chambers demolished. 39Then they tore their clothes and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes 40and fell with their faces to the ground. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.
  • 41Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary.42He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law; 43these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the Abomination to an unclean place. 44They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar of holocausts that had been desecrated. 45The happy thought came to them to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar. 46They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple hill, until a prophet should come and decide what to do with them. 47Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one.
  • 48They also repaired the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and purified the courts. 49They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. 50Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple. 51They also put loaves on the table and hung up curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.
  • 52Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight, 53they arose and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar of holocausts that they had made.54On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had defiled it, on that very day it was reconsecrated with songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals. 55All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.  56For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered holocausts and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. 57They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests’ chambers and furnished them with doors. 58There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace of the Gentiles was removed.  59Then Judas and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev.

Note that the original date of the Hanukkah celebration occurred on December 14th, 164 B.C.E. Hanukkah was thus called, “The Feast of Dedication” and this name also appears in the Book of John 10:22 of the NT. Josephus refers to the celebration as the “Feast of Lights.” Josephus adds an altogether different spin on the story of Hanukkah.

  • (321) This desolation happened to the temple in the hundred forty and fifth year, on the twenty-fifth day of the month Apelleus, and on the hundred and fifty-third olympiad: but it was dedicated anew, on the same day, the twenty-fifth of the month Apelleus, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, and on the hundred and fifty-fourth olympiad. (322) And this desolation came to pass according to the prophecy of Daniel, which was given four hundred and eight years before; for he declared that the Macedonians would dissolve that worship [for some time]. 7. (323) Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon: but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them, by hymns and psalms. (324) Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. (325) And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. (326) Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.

One might wonder why did Josephus refer to Hanukkah as “The Festival of Lights”? Curiously, he does not mention anything about the custom of lighting the menorah, as we commonly do today. One would think he would have gone to greater lengths explaining the tradition, since he wrote The Antiquities of the Jews as guide to curious gentiles who wanted to learn more about the Jewish people. Josephus stresses that the holiday of “Lights” represents the light of religious freedom—the ability to worship God in a manner that is free from foreign interference.

It would seem that the last thing Josephus wanted to do was the extoll the military victories of the Maccabees over their enemies—especially since Titus captured the menorah as the Romans displayed it in the streets of Rome after defeating Judea and destroying her Temple. From this perspective, one may conclude that both the Rabbis and Josephus wished to stress the spiritual victory of the Maccabean revolt—one which would not appear threatening to an anxious Roman government. Continue reading “Why Do We Celebrate Hanukah?– A Potpourri of Judaic Perspectives”

Naomi Ragen: A Remarkable Journey

The Sisters Weiss

Naomi is an unusual Ba’alat Teshuva (returnee to Orthodox Judaism). One might think that Orthodox Jewish women are quiescent and tend to their homes.

Naomi is different.

She is multifaceted leader and bestselling authoress. In Israel, Naomi has been one of the most important Orthodox feminists in a community that prefers to live their lives quietly as though they were still living in the 19th century Shetel.

Last night, she spoke about her personal journey and odyssey at Temple Solel as part of the 2013 San Diego Book Fair.

Having lost her father at a very young age, she looked to her mother for inspiration and strength. Raising three children on Long Island in the fifties was a daunting challenge and for young Naomi, her formative Jewish experiences proved to be a rite of passage—especially given the fact that she had not grown up in a traditional Jewish home.

Her mother spoke to the principal and Rabbi about allowing her children to attend his ivy league day school. Her mother gently reminded the rabbi that the Torah teaches us to act compassionately toward the widow and her children—they are the apple of God’s eye.

Orthodoxy in the fifties was different. Nobody at the school she attended coerced her to become “religious.” The atmosphere was laid back and comfortable. She observed that in today’s Orthodox world in Israel, the yeshiva would insist that one be totally committed to Orthodoxy, or else, the child would never be accepted.

With boldness of spirit, Naomi slowly came to love her newly discovered Orthodox faith. Shabbat was a special time for young Naomi and she  bonded with her Shabbat host family and developed many friends among her peers. Her mother’s busy schedule did not permit her to prepare a Shabbat meal; she often arrived home after dark. Yet, even as a young woman, Naomi took it upon herself to prepare a Shabbat meal for her family. Celebrating the Shabbat created the peace that her home lacked.

Her brothers were so deeply moved by the Shabbat experience, they eventually became Modern Orthodox Jews and sent their children to yeshiva—an obvious tribute to Ragen’s winsome personality.

On one occasion, her mother had a vision of seeing her deceased husband and father at the Shabbat table shortly after she made Kiddush. Rituals have a way of connecting us with our family histories—they help define who we are as people and as Jews.

One of Ragen’s favorite activities as a young teen was writing.

Ragen’s love for Israel inspired her to make aliya to Israel. After arriving, Naomi and her husband decided to become “Ultra-Orthodox” Jews and they believed that their closed society would never suffer from the problems that afflict secular society.

Her friendships with other Ultra-Orthodox women suddenly gave her a perspective that she never expected to find. One married lady, in particular asked her if Naomi could assist her in obtaining a passport to return to the United States. Her reasons shook and shattered Ragen’s naiveté about Orthodoxy: the woman’s husband was a wife beater and also physically abused his children! Yet, paradoxically, her husband was considered to be a “Torah scholar.”

This was not the only experience that shook her beliefs.

There was a lovely Belgium blondish woman—a prize for any young Torah scholar. Despite the appearance of looking “religious”, her learned husband was a sexual predator and molested his young own daughter. Desperately,  she appealed to her father, but her father encouraged her to stay in the marriage for the child’s sake. One evening, she and her daughter jumped from a high-rise apartment in order to free themselves from the daily abuse.

This is why Ragen wrote her first novel, Jephte’s Daughter, which illustrates how a Hassidic father sacrificed his daughter’s happiness by arranging a marriage to someone who was totally inappropriate for her. With tenderness and insight, she takes her readers on an imaginative and unforgettable journey inside the hidden world of women in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

After writing her book, Ragen felt surprised by the negative reactions she received from her book. Paradoxically, the worst criticism came from people who never even bothered to read her books! Yet, on other occasions, she discovered that many Ultra-religious men read her books so that they could better understand their wives—feelings and emotional struggles.

Like a skilled therapist, Ragen’s books provide an important mirror to help the religious community look at themselves through the eyes of the Other.

After listening to her talk, I found that her presentation carried a poignant message about the struggles of being an Orthodox feminist in Jerusalem. Appearances are not always what they seem. I was surprised to learn that many Ultra-Orthodox young men want to join the army—despite the protestations of their yeshiva teachers.  Continue reading “Naomi Ragen: A Remarkable Journey”

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”

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”

Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 1)

A Bridge Across Time?

You have probably heard of  this  story before.  Every time I come across this citation, it makes me pause and wonder. American presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were both tragically assassinated during their terms in office. Despite the difference in time, both of these men share a number of unusual circumstances–or more precisely, coincidences. Consider the following.

– Lincoln’s name has 7 letters
– Kennedy’s name has 7 letters

– In Lincoln’s & Kennedy’s names the vowels & consonants fall in exactly the same place, in the order of c, v, c, c, v, c, c

– Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846
– Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946

– Lincoln was elected president in 1860
– Kennedy was elected president in 1960

– Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln
– Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy

– War was thrust upon Lincoln almost immediately after inauguration
– War was thrust upon Kennedy almost immediately after inauguration

– Lincoln gave Afro-Americans freedom and legalized equality
– Kennedy enforced equality for Afro-Americans

– Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863
– Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963

– Lincoln was loved by the common people and hated by the establishment
– Kennedy was loved by the common people and hated by the establishment

– Lincoln was succeeded, after assassination, by vice-president Johnson
– Kennedy was succeeded, after assassination, by vice-president Johnson

– John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, was born in 1839.
– Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy, was born in 1939.

– Both assassins were known by their three names.
– Both names are composed of fifteen letters.

– Lincoln was shot at the theater named ‘Ford.’
– Kennedy was shot in a car called ‘Lincoln’ made by ‘Ford.’

– Lincoln was shot in a theater and his assassin ran and hid in a warehouse.
– Kennedy was shot from a warehouse and his assassin ran and hid in a theater.

And the lists goes on and on . . . .It definitely sounds like Fringe or X-Files type material.

Are these parallels just an urban legend, which break down upon deeper and more sober analysis? The skeptic in me would probably answer that question in the affirmative. On the other hand, I am fascinated by the psychology that seeks to discover anomalous parallels.

Faces in the Clouds?

While our minds are hardwired to look for patterns and order in the universe,  sometimes our minds sees things of its own fabrication and invention. It’s a little bit like the stories one reads in the National Inquirer about people in Mexico seeing the face of Satan in the clouds, or like pious Christians who see the face of Jesus etched in the snow. The mind can play tricks on itself–as we know all too well. Just ask David Copperfield, the illusionist extraordinaire. Continue reading “Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 1)”