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

 

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/

 

 

A Rabbinic Commentary on Trump’s Tallit

Image result for trump wears Tallit image

 

This past weekend, Detroit pastor Bishop Wayne Jackson draped a tallit around Donald Trump’s shoulders at service. What was the Jewish reaction? Well, that takes us to the rest of the story that I am about to tell you.

Most Jews I know are probably confused about seeing Donald Trump wearing a tallit. Some of my congregants said, “He looks ridiculous!” Another said, “Non-Jews are not supposed to wear a tallit!” One old friend of mine from San Francisco reacted with righteous indignation: How dare these Christians co-opt our religious symbols and heritage!

One Conservative Rabbi, named Danya Rutenberg twittered: “You guys, a Jewish prayer shawl–a tallit–is a ritual garment. Meant to be worn only by Jews. This is the worst kind of appropriation,” Conservative Rabbi Danya Rutenberg wrote on Twitter. She also called the move “disrespectful” in subsequent tweets. “Yes, my people also suffer cultural appropriation,” Twitter user Andy Rivkin added.

Let us flip this question on its proverbial head: What if Bishop Jackson had given the tallit to Hillary, or Barak Hussein Obama to wear? Would our reaction as a community be the same? In all candor, Rabbi Rutenberg would probably qvell and wish Hillary or Obama a hearty, “Yashar Koach” with  raucous applause–especially if she were in the picture!

One question that most people haven’t asked yet is, “Why do some Christian evangelicals insist upon wearing a tallit in the first place?” Some Christian evangelical ministers I know have told me that they wear the tallit because Jesus wore a tallit in the first century during his ministry.

Interestingly, one of the oldest references to the wearing of tsitsit outside the Talmud or Midrashic literature can be found in the Book of Matthew, where Jesus criticized some of the Pharisees of his day, “They perform all their actions to be seen by men. They broaden their phylacteries; they wear outsize tassels” (Mat 23:5). Yet despite Jesus’s criticism of what he felt was a gaudy display of religious piety, Jesus wore tsitsit (Mat. 9:20). Evangelicals often feel that more of their people should try to practice the Judaism that Jesus practiced in his day, so that they may become more like him. A lot of evangelical ministers actually sound the shofar at the beginning of their services.

Frankly, that’s not a bad idea.

Their motivation in my view is not a sign of disrespect, but actually a sign of respect that we should all admire. Evangelicals believe that by blessing the people of Israel, they too will be blessed:

 Those that bless you I will bless,

those that curse you, I will execrate.

All the families on earth

will pray to be blessed as you are blessed.’

(Genesis 12:3).

The phenomenon of Christian Zionism has proven to be a tremendous source of moral and financial support for our brothers and sisters living in Israel. Orthodox rabbis like Shlomo Riskin heaps praise upon the Evangelical community every Christiams. Palestinian merchants too are glad to see these Christian pilgrims as well. During the war with Hezbollah, one of my Reform colleagues from Illinois felt deeply moved when he saw the number of Born-Again Christians and evangelicals travel to Israel in the middle of the war to assist the country any way they can.

Are they not infinitely superior to the self-righteous Presbyterians, Methodists, and  the United Church of Christ who often demonize the State of Israel in their weekly Sunday services?

Beyond that, in praise of the Evangelicals, I will go one-step further.

It is this writer’s opinion, if Christians wish to observe certain Jewish customs, they have every right to do so, moreover such a view is actually well-attested in traditional rabbinic sources.

Now some of you might be surprised to know that the Talmud speaks about Gentiles following Jewish traditions.

In one Talmudic passage, the King Arteban of Persia one day sent a gift to Rabbi Judah.  The gift was an exquisite and quite expensive pearl.  The king’s only request was that the rabbi send a gift in return that was of equal value.  Rabbi Judah sent the Persian king a mezuzah. King Arteban was displeased with the gift and came to confront the rabbi.  “What is this?  I sent you a priceless gift and you return this trifle?” The rabbi said, “Both objects are valuable, but they are very different.  You sent me something that I have to guard, while I sent you something that will guard you.”[1]

What kind of protection was Rabbi Judah alluding to? The divine Name Shaddai is written on the back of every mezuzah. Shaddai is an acronym “Shomer Dalatot Yisrael” “Guardian of the Doors of Israel” and not people like King Arteban!

One might wonder: What good is sending a mezuzah to a Gentile King who is not a member of the “Jewish tribe”? Yet, the Talmud seems to suggest that just because a non-Jew is not obligated to observe Jewish rituals, if he did observe Jewish rituals, he certainly receives a reward for doing so! Non-Jews are not necessarily excluded from observing Jewish traditions–contrary to Rabbi Rutenburg.

Maimonides makes a remarkable point in his Mishnah Torah, for he writes: We do not prevent a non-Jew who wishes to perform one of the Torah’s mitzvot in order to receive a reward for doing so—provided that he performs it properly.[2] Unfortunately, Maimonides was not always consistent in this regard, for Torah study is meant for Jews only—not non-Jews.[3] He also felt the same about non-Jews wishing to observe the Sabbath.[4] Despite some old rabbinic attitudes that prohibit non-Jews from studying Torah, in practice most rabbis will probably acknowledge that non-Jews (often along with their Jewish spouses) are certainly permitted to study Torah in a synagogue class.

In practice, most Jews are open-minded when it comes to inviting non-Jews to a Passover Seder, a Bar Mitzvah, or a Shabbat service. Even Chabad invites gentiles to light a menorah during Hanukkah!

Perhaps most importantly, how can perspective proselytes know how to observe the mitzvot if we do not grant them access to much of our sacred traditions?

In short, during the medieval world, positive and respectful Jewish-gentile relations were rarer than they are today. When Trump received the tallit from Bishop Wayne Jackson, instead of getting irritated, we should feel proud that Trump gladly donned the tallit. We should feel the same whenever anyone in the non-Jewish community wishes to show respect to our faith and heritage.  Sometimes in our zeal to be “self-righteous” we often demonstrate a lack of broad-mindedness and generosity of spirit.  Only God knows what is in the hearts of mortals, and we would be wise to recognize that everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.

 


[1] JT Peah 1:1; 15d.

[2] MT Hilchot Melachim 10:10.

[3] BT Sanhedrin 59a. Cf. Tosfot on BT Hagigah 13a s.v. Ein.

[4] MT Hilchot Melachim 10:9.

Torah from Alexandria is now available on Amazon.com!

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe that the birth of a concept I had when I was about 18, has finally come to fruition! The rest of the series is moving at warp speed and Exodus will be coming out sometime in November or possibly December. It looks to be a longer work, perhaps the longest of the series.

Leviticus will be out around Purim and Numbers will be out in the early spring of 2015. By summer of 2015, Deuteronomy will be out as well.

For anyone who has ever studied the weekly parsha with Rashi, Ramban, or Ibn Ezra, you will discover a new but long forgotten Jewish exegete–Philo of Alexandria.

Philo has a unique way of making the simple meaning of the Torah come alive! Volume 1 of Torah from Alexandria has lots of notes and comparisons between Maimonides and Philo, not to mention many other unique insights long forgotten by Jewish tradition. Arguably, Philo could be considered one of the very first Torah commentators of the 1st century. If nothing else, he certainly composed the first philosophical exposition of the Torah.

Enjoy!

http://www.amazon.com/Torah-Alexandria-Biblical-Commentator-Volume/dp/0692291725/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1412303037&sr=8-3&keywords=Philo+of+Alexandria+2014

 

Nero and Obama: A Remarkable Parallel in History

  • If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”—Sun  Tzu, The Art of War

The words of Sun Tzu convey new significance in light of President Obama’s disclosure. In his most recent speech, the President was asked an important and obvious question many Americans are asking themselves: How will we defeat ISIS? With blunt honesty and candor, the President said, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

As I listened to his words, I found myself asking, “Did he really say that?” Then I wondered. “How is ISIS reacting this statement?”

Even the President’s media supporters are scratching their heads on the latest Presidential gaffe, whose optics makes our leader appear as though he is totally disengaged from an evil that makes Nazism pale in comparison. How can any moral and sensible human being say that the ISIS conflict is an Iraqi problem to solve? When we look at the decapitated heads of Shiite, Christian and Yazidi children,  how can we not take arms against a religious and political movement that joyfully slaughters in the name of psychotic Islam?

According to Maimonides, the first step in a person’s moral and spiritual rehabilitation involves coming to terms with one’s past sins and mistakes. Acknowledging  that one did anything wrong is perhaps the hardest but most significant step one can take.

For the President in particular, he has yet to admit the most obvious fact that is staring at his face: Jihadist Islam is at war with the United States and the Western civilization as a whole. It is also at war with other forms of Jihadist Islam, e.g., Shiite Islam as represented by the repressive Iranian regime. In short, Islam is at war within itself and it has been probably since the inception of its religion.

This is actually good news, for when a house is divided, it can be conquered much more easily. ISIS recognizes its Achilles heel and this is the principle reason why ISIS has targeted other Islamic movements and states (with the notable exception of Turkey, which is the only western country supporting ISIS—this is a subject for another article because of its seriousness).

Obama’s stark admission is all the more surprising since ISIS did not emerge ex nihilo over night. They have been a major thorn in our side since the beginning of the Iraqi war. This new political entity makes Al Qaeda pale in comparison. It has approximately two billion dollars of money it stole from the Iraqi people and it is offering salaries of $33,000 to any young dysfunctional thug who is willing  to join its ranks. Judging by the slick marketing, they are probably offering a nice retirement plan and other terrestrial incentives.

All right, in the interest of problem solving, what kind of strategy should our government be focusing on? Is it reasonable to expect that economic pressure will work, e.g., the threat of sanctions (as we have tried with Putin)? Will diplomatic pressure work? It appears that ISIS could care less about these possibilities. Military pressure with an objective of eradicating the infrastructure of this evil organization is the only viable solution. If left unchecked, hundreds of millions in human lives will die if we adopt a supine attitude.

In addition, Western media outlets such as YOUTUBE, Twitter, and Facebook need to all ban these retrograde people from using their technology from promoting Jihadism.

In addition we need real international leaders who will not take a neutral attitude about ISIS.

Thankfully, the English PM Cameron continues to model the kind of leadership we need in our country. Cameron said last week:

  • The threat we face today comes from the poisonous narrative of Islamist extremism. The terrorist threat was not created by the Iraq war ten years ago. It existed even before the horrific attacks on 9/11. This threat cannot be solved simply by dealing with the perceived grievances over Western foreign policy. We cannot appease this ideology. We have to confront it at home and abroad.

Applying his words to actions, the UK raised the terror threat level from “substantial” to “severe,” Cameron said they will introduce new laws to fights terrorists and seize passports from terror suspects. He also plans to offer more details on the UK’s plans in a few days.

Cameron’s remarks remind us that we need leadership that understands the problems posed by Jihadist Islam.

Even the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has a message about Iraq for Barack Obama: Get back to the White House and do something:

  • I know it is the holiday period in our Western countries,’ Fabius told a radio interviewer Tuesday in France,’ but when people are dying, you must come back from vacation.

Ditto.

In the Great Fire of Rome, historians—both ancient and modern—are unsure who caused this great conflagration. Some historians think that Emperor Nero instigated it and he fiddled, as Rome burned. Some blame the Christians because Nero persecuted them. In any event, some day historians may make a similar analogy about a morally confused President, who preferred to play golf and conduct Democratic fundraisers rather than defend his people when they needed him the most.

After 9/11, President Bush put together fifty countries to combat the Al Qaeda. Our President ought to be assembling a similar coalition, which may offer him an opportunity to demonstrate true statesmanship—if he is up to the moral task.

Jewish leaders in particular have also been too sheepish on this danger as it threatens not only Israel, but the United States.

  • Open borders with Mexico is viewed as a golden opportunity to create numerous attacks that could threaten the American homeland. If the President was really concerned about the border, he would close it up as soon as possible to minimize this threat from ever occurring.
  • ISIS can easily hire Mexican drug cartel terrorists to attack the country’s electrical grid. Were this to occur, there would be a paralysis that could result in tens of millions of people dying because of the collapse of our country’s infrastructure. An EMP bomb could easily lead to the death of 270 million Americans and take years to reconstruct.
  • President Obama should be building our military at this perilous time of history and use the country’s money to strengthen the electrical grid from terrorist attacks.[1]
  • Instead of cutting military aid to Israel, the President should be increasing greater aid to ensure Israel has the means to protect herself from ISIS and Iran.

The inclusion of Muslim Brotherhood leaders like Mohammed Elibary in Obama’s Department of Homeland Security is troubling. This is a man who considered the late Ayatollah Khomeini as a “great Islamic leader”[2] and even praised the emergence of a new Muslim caliphate taking place in Iraq on June 13 in his Twitter log, and in other places,[3] clearly shows that either Obama’s judgment is severely impaired, or that he is identifying with the Jihadist agenda in its effort to unite the Muslim world. Either scenario ought to make each of us cringe.

To conclude, as the philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Considering everything we  are witnessing in the world today, not only does it appear that we have learned nothing from the Holocaust, our country’s foolishness combined with the foolishness of the European community will lead to a destruction far greater than anything we have witnessed in the 20th century. However, this time it will be fueled by the religious zealotry of Jihadist Islam, the scourge of modern times.

Historically, Jihadist Islam threatened the world once before in the annals of human memory. The murderous Jihadist Timur Khan (1370–1405) wiped out close to twenty million non-Muslims as he carved out his empire in India, the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan, and parts of China, all of which constituted 5% of the world population.

Jihadist Islam has always been greatest mass-murdering force in the history of humankind. As a champion of freedom, the United States cannot take an apathetic stance regarding the expansion of ISIS and its legion of Jihadist supporters.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Hasidic Atheist?!

Generation X. You gotta love ’em. That’s my son’s generation. He grew up in a Haredi and Hasidic home with an overbearing step-father; and now he is an agnostic, in search of his own spiritual identity. Like Jacob, Moshe struggles with God. I am proud of the fact that he refuses the pat answers of religious zealots.

This takes us to the next part of our story . . . a man, who calls himself Pen Tivokeish–a rather ingenious and clever name. After being brainwashed by the Haredim, he is now very ambivalent about God. Who could blame him? Pen also happens to be a God-wrestler, just like my son.

Here is how his story began. While attending the Discovery Seminar at Aish HaTorah, Pen felt reasonably confident that the critical arguments justifying the belief in an historical Exodus, as well as the arguments refuting evolution and Genesis were unassailable. Or were they? Pen decided to refine his arguments on his own, and discovered that the answers he had ingested were no longer adequate. The more he investigated the issues on the Internet, the more the old Aish arguments began to unravel–along with his faith.

In the end, Pen decided to do what other Generation X-ers do–start a blog as a soliloquy for expressing their deepest spiritual yearnings.  By the way, he has a blog called Penned-In – a pun on both his own sense of confinement and his writing – has proved an outlet for “stuff I probably can’t say in any other settings”, he explained . . . .

Good idea, the spirit of Maimonides must be smiling on Pen Tevakashe.

Freud’s insights in the psychology of fundamentalists is especially poignant here. Freud writes in his Future of an Illusion, that any time people feel a compulsion to justify their faith by resorting to rational proofs, it is because they harbor an unconscious cynicism and really, deep down in their heart of hearts, do not believe in the theological rhetoric they have been forced-fed. Freud obviously describes what young people like Pen and Moshe have struggled with through much of their lives.

“Let us try to apply the same test to the teachings of religion. When we ask on what their claim to be believed is founded, we are met with three answers, which harmonize remarkably badly with one another. Firstly, these teachings deserve to be believed because they were already believed by our primal ancestors; secondly, we possess proofs which have been handed down to us from those same primeval times; and thirdly, it is forbidden to raise the question of their authentication at all. Continue reading “A Hasidic Atheist?!”

Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 4)

The 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart writes that true love must transcend selfish interests; love begins by being genuinely concerned with the welfare of the Other.

Whoever dwells in the goodness of his [God’s nature dwells in God’s love. Love, however, has no “Why.” If I had a friend and loved him because of all the good I wished came to me through him, I would not love my friend, but myself. I ought to love my friend for his own goodness and for his own virtue and for everything that he is in himself. . . .This is exactly the way it is with people who are in God’s love and who do not seek their own interest either in God or in themselves or in things of any kind. They must love God alone for his goodness and for the goodness of his nature and all the things he has in himself. This is the right kind of love.” [1]

Rav Dessler arrives at a similar conclusion. If a person’s love for God does not produce a loving or awaken a loving response, then the love we profess in our prayers to have for God is powerless and ineffectual–the love of God must translate into a love for life.  Anything less is a love of that is based upon receiving rather than giving. If the goal of prayer is to promote our capacity to take, then the ultimate concern of prayer is not the worship of God but the worship of the human ego and desire.

The only way we can ever come to the sincere realization that God is truly a dispenser of love and mercy, occurs when we emulate God by giving of ourselves towards others.  This is the attitude we must cultivate in Jewish life today–especially in the synagogue, for if we continue promoting a philosophy of consumption, we may die from spiritual obesity. Creating a spiritual community takes hard work, caring, sharing in creating ambiance of mutual support. Continue reading “Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 4)”

Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 2)

Human beings, since the earliest stages of its history, has always participated in a world of prayer. The English word “prayer” derives from the Middle English preiere, which derives from Medieval Latin precāria, from feminine of Latin precārius, “obtained by entreaty.” In the last posting, we briefly talked about some of the difficulties modern people experience with prayer.

One of the most intriguing critiques regarding prayer expressed in Late Antiquity, comes from one of the most famous and brilliant of the Early Church Fathers–Origen (c. 185-254). Deeply influenced by Hellenistic thought, Origen felt that the idea of asking God for things seemed absurd, for if God is omniscient, He knows what we need without us having to tell Him so. Furthermore, if God is good, He will give us want we need without being asked. He writes:

God knows all things before they come into being and there is no nothing becomes known to him from the fact of its beginning for the first time when it begins, as though it were not previously known. What need then is there to send up prayer  to him who knows what we need even before we pray? For the Heavenly Father knows what things we need of before we ask him (Matthew 2 6:8). And it is fitting that he, being Father and Maker of all who loves all things that are, and abhors nothing which he has made (Wisdom 11:24), should order in safety all that has to do with each one, even without  prayer, like a father provides for his little children, and does not wait for them to ask, either because they are quite unable to ask, or because through ignorance they often want to receive the opposite of what is of use and help to them. And we fall short of God more than those who are quiet children fall short of mind of those who begot them.” [1]

Among modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant wrote nothing about the efficacy about petitional prayer in any of his three great critiques, but in his  philosophic classic, Religion Within the Limits of Reason, Kant  blasted petitionary prayer much in the style of Origen and Maimonides:

“Praying, thought of as an inner formal service of God and [183] hence as a means of grace, is a superstitious illusion (a fetish-making); for it is no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such information regarding the inner disposition of the wisher; therefore nothing is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to which, as commands of God, we are obligated; hence God is not really served. A heart-felt wish to be well-pleasing to God in our every act and abstention, or in other words, the disposition, accompanying all our actions, to perform these as though they were being executed in the service of God, is the spirit of prayer which can, and should, be present in us ‘without ceasing.’ But to clothe this wish (even though it be but inwardly) in words . . . ”

He notes, “It is no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such information regarding the inner dispositions of the wisher; therefore nothing, is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to which, as commanded of God, we are obligated, hence God is not really served.” [2]

As we mentioned above, Maimonides probably would have agreed.

However, not every modern Jewish thinker thinks so critically about prayer. Rabbi Eliahau Dessler, one of the 20th century’s greatest  Judaic teachers of  the Mussar Movement, takes a different tact. According to Rav Dessler, utilizing prayer as a means for obtaining goods is nothing more than spiritual consumerism; such religious devotion cheapens the very act of worship.

Once this happens, the worshiper becomes what he terms as “a spiritual taker” and that all his/her prayers will  inevitably be by definition, devoid of sincerity. True prayer must divest itself from any tinge of selfish interest for profit. Every worshiper should specifically pray that, “May God’s Name be sanctified through me.” He adds, “If we are to be solicitous of anything, we should pray our prayers should enable us to pursue our ultimate goal and concern: to increase the light of God’s Presence in the world.

The goal of all worship should not be aimed at taking from God whatever we want but instead ought to be dedicated towards giving, for it is by giving we can discover Transcendence. We become most like God only when we give of ourselves. Rav Dessler’s point reminds me of a well known aphorism of the 20th century preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, who  often said, “God is not a cosmic bellboy for whom we can press a button to get things done.”

========

Notes:

[1] Origen and Eric George Day (trans), Treatise on Prayer (London: SPCK, 1954), 94.

[2] Immanuel Kant and Stephen R. Palmquist (trans.), Kant’s Critical Religion (Farnham, UK: Ashgate Pub Ltd, 2000), 456.

Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 1)

Hello everyone,

I thought it would be nice to focus on a topic that I think many of us struggle with–prayer. Here are a few of my meditations.

In our modern age, it is not uncommon for people to think of traditional prayer as childish, if not absurd. Many years ago, I came across an interesting theological objection to the enterprise of petitionary  prayer: If God is allegedly “Omniscient,” then surely God knows what we mortals need, without having us to remind Him!” The question gets even more complex. The individual of the 21st century generally believes more in the physics of natural law than the metaphysics of mysticism.

In a universe governed by natural law, is asking God to alter the laws of physics even appropriate? To petition God in prayer, or to suggest that God can somehow be persuaded to “change His mind,” or show “sympathy” and “mercy” is, from a strict Maimonidean perspective, theologically pointless—even ridiculous. Following Maimonides’ attitude on this subject, the late Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Lord Jakobovits plainly admits:

“What purpose can be served by formulating our pleas to God? Does the all-knowing God, who knows our needs better than we do, require their articulation of what we feel in our hearts? Still more difficult theologically, how can we hope by prayer to change His will? Our very belief in the efficacy of our petitions would seem to challenge God’s immutability, and even questions His justice, since we should assume that whatever fate He decrees for man is essentially just; why, therefore, do we seek to reverse it?…  But such questions are based on a false, indeed pagan, understanding of prayer as a means of pacifying and propitiating the deity and thus of earning its favors. It was against these perverse notions that the Hebrew Prophets directed their denunciations so fiercely when they fulminated against the heathen form of sacrifices, the original form of worship later replaced by prayer. Like sacrifices, prayer is intended to change man not God. Its purpose is to cultivate a contrite heart, to promote feelings of humility and inadequacy in man, whilst encouraging reliance on Divine assistance. Through prayer, the worshiper becomes chastened, gains moral strength and intensifies the quest of spirituality, thereby turning into a person worthy of response to his pleas.” [1] Continue reading “Rethinking the Theology of Prayer (Part 1)”