Philo’s Commentary on Numbers & Deuteronomy will soon be released…

Yes, I have great news for everyone who has inquired when the last volumes of the Philo Torah commentary series will be released, the answer is hopefully within the next couple of weeks. In fact, I will also be releasing Philo’s Commentary on Deuteronomy, which I must confess is my favorite volume of the entire series. The rest of the Philo series from Genesis to Leviticus will soon be out as well, newly edited, along with brand new introductions and commentary selections, notes, and so on.

Here is what the new cover looks like: (Click below)

 

Newest Review on Torah from Alexandria: Philo as a Biblical Commentator Volume 1 Genesis

 

 

Philo Commentary Blurb
          About two decades before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, another Jew, Philo of Alexandria, was born and destined to   became the most prolific writer of Hellenistic Judaism. Philo’s thought is primarily centered on Scripture and theology, yet his works have often remained, unknown, unread, inaccessible or obscure to many Jewish and Christian readers. Thankfully, in this modern commentary on Philo and the Torah, Rabbi Michael Samuel, himself a master of texts and their meaning, has provided a very readable, creative, scholarly work on Philo.
This commentary “cuts to the chase.” Torah from Alexandria helps clarify much of the mystery associated with Philo’s rambling, allegorical “airborne” style by conveying the thinking of Philo in a relevant, down-to-earth manner that both scholar and layperson can grasp and appreciate. Enhanced by an abundance of notes, cross references and indexes, this commentary on the Torah will prove a valuable companion for Torah studies and provide new insight and angles of theological conversation useful to Jews and Christians.
Philo is one of the great thinkers of the ancient world, he need no longer remain an enigma to biblical interpreters. I enthusiastically recommend Torah from Alexandria.

Marvin R. Wilson, Ph.D.
H. J. Ockenga Professor of
Biblical and Theological Studies
Gordon College
Wenham, MA

Rabbi Yosef’s Surprising View on Plagiarizing

The Jerusalem Post featured an unusual article about the Chief Rabbi of Holon Rabbi Avraham Yosef, the son of the late Sefardic-Haredi leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. His son sits on the Israel Chief Rabbinate’s council and commands considerable influence in Orthodox politics in Israel and abroad.

In one of his Moreshet Orthodox website, somebody asked him the following question:

  • My friend needs to submit university work; she took the work from someone else and asked me to change the wording so that the work will not look like the same. Is it permissible for me to help my friend to re-word the work?” a woman asked.

Rabbi Yosef said that it is permissible to plagiarize and cheat. “[It is] permitted. And it is [fulfilling the] commandment of bestowing kindness, especially if she has a good command of the material,” Yosef ruled.[1]

There are several halachic problems with R. Yosef’s advice. The primary problem I wish to point out is the issue of ge’nei’vat da’at, which in Hebrew means, “stealing one’s mind,” which can easily apply to all forms of misrepresentation, taking credit for someone’s work. Anytime a person deliberately tries to create a mistaken assumption in the minds of others, this is considered a major breach of Jewish ethics and law. Arguably,ge’nei’vat da’at goes far beyond just lying. It is also a clear violation against bearing false witness—a law that is considered one of the most important of the Ten Commandments.

It is surprising that some medieval scholars thought this is only a rabbinical prohibition, but the verses pertaining to all forms of theft are well-known. In fact, the Tanakh even mentions the crime of plagiarism “See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from one another” (Jer.  23:30). More seriously, Rabbi Yosef is misleading others to sin, which is arguably Judaism’s most cardinal sins and violates just about every biblical law pertaining to fraud and deception. [2]

Then again, there is a famous rabbinical dictum: R. Eleazar further said in the name of R. Hanina: Whoever reports a saying in the name of its originator brings redemption to the world, as it says, And Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai (Esther 2:22). [3]

The literal meaning of ge’nei’vat da’at in Hebrew is theft of one’s mind, thoughts, wisdom, or knowledge, i.e., fooling someone and thereby causing him or her to have a mistaken assumption, belief, and/or impression. Thus, the term is used in Jewish law to indicate deception, cheating, creating a false impression, and acquiring undeserved goodwill. Ge’nei’vat da’at goes beyond lying. Deliberately creating false impressions about one’s behavior is also subsumed in this prohibition—whether in words or in deeds.  The Tosefta reads:

There are seven kinds of thieves.

(1)   The first among them is the one who steals the minds of people.

(2)  He who urges his friend to come as his guest, but in his heart does not really wish to invite him.

(3)  One who excessively offers gifts to his friend, knowing that the latter will not accept them;

(4)  One who opens up barrels for another, that were sold to a shopkeeper;

(5)  Anyone who falsifies measures.

(6)  One who secretly pads scales . . .

(7)  Anyone who deceives people is called a thief, as it is written: “And Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (2 Samuel, 15:6).[4]

As a case in point, the sages believed that there are seven types of thieves and, of these, the most serious offenders is someone who “steals the minds” of people.

The Talmud  discusses the principle of ge’nei’vat da’at  and cites the 3rd century scholar named  Shmuel, who taught: It is forbidden to steal the mind of anyone, even idolaters.” [5] The Talmud observes that Shmuel never expressly stated such a law, but it was deduced from an incident in which his attendant duped a heathen ferryman. Scholars were not sure what exactly happened, but here is how the discussion went: One view asserts that Shmuel once told his attendant to give the ferryman a chicken and the latter thought he was getting a kosher chicken but was actually given one that was unkosher. Another opinion is that the ferryman thought he was receiving undiluted wine but was instead given diluted wine.[6]

The “Lemon Laws” of our country certainly have strong antecedents in biblical and rabbinical laws that demand personal integrity and moral excellence.

After the death of his father, the Israeli rabbinate considered him as a possible successor for his the Sephardic position of Chief Rabbi. However, when the police began Examining alleged issues involving a breach of trust, and other sundry ethical violations, they forced him to withdraw his candidacy. “Yosef was a candidate for Sefardi chief rabbi but his candidacy ended when police began investigating him for alleged breach of public trust and an illegal conflict of interest. Yosef allegedly coerced store and restaurant owners to get kosher supervision from a private kosher supervision company started by his late father and run by one of Yosef’s brothers” (JPost). [7]

So what can we deduce from all of this?

Shakespeare perhaps said it best:

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

An evil soul producing holy witness

Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,

A goodly apple rotten at the heart.

O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

  • William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, I, iii, 93);

When one examines the religious politics and chicanery in Israel today, we could also add, “The devil can cite Talmud, Halacha, Midrash, Hassidut and Kabbalah as well.”

When one considers the amount of fraud that is publicized on the Web involving kickbacks, racketeering, and other numerous criminal offenses, the Rabbi Yosef embarrasses his community as well as every non-Orthodox Jewish community. If we wish to become a light unto the nations of the world, then we had better start becoming a light to ourselves first.

====

Notes

[1] http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Rabbi-rules-copying-work-in-university-is-permitted-in-Jewish-law-346738

[2]  Regarding theft:

Exod. 21:16. 22:1-5, 7-13. Le 6:1-7. 19:11, 13, 35-37. 25:17. Deut 5:19. 19:14. 23:24, 25. 24:7. 25:13-16. 27:17. Josh 7:24, 25. Job 20:19-22. 24:2. Ps 37:21. 50:18. 62:10. Pro. 1:13-15. 3:27. 6:30, 31. 11:1. 16:11. 20:10, 23. 22:22, 28. 23:10. 28:24. 29:24. 30:8, 9. Isa 1:23. 61:8. Jer 5:26-29. 7:8-11. 22:13. Ezek 33:15. 45:10. Hos. 4:2. 12:7. Amos 3:10. 5:11, 12. 8:4-6. Mic. 6:10, 11. 7:3. Zach. 5:3, 4. Mal. 3:5,

Regarding Fraud and Dishonesty, see Lev. 19:11; Lev. 19:35–36; Lev. 25:14; Deut. 19:14; Deut. 25:13–16; Deut. 27:17; Job 24:2; Ps. 37:21; Prov. 11:1; Prov. 11:26; Prov. 16:11; Prov. 20:14, 17, 23; Prov. 22:28; Prov. 23:10–11; Hos. 12:7–8, 14; Amos 8:5–6; Mic. 6:10–13; Hab. 2:6.

Regarding the sins involving hypocrisy: Job 17:1, 3–9; Ps. 5:9; Ps. 26:4; Ps. 50:16–23; Isa. 29:13; Isa. 32:5–8; Isa. 48:1; Isa. 58:1–2; Ezek. 33:31–32.

Lying and Falsity:  Exod. 20:16; Job 15:35; Job 21:34; Job 24:25; Job 31:33; Ps. 5:6; Ps. 31:18; Ps. 50:19; Ps. 52:2–4; Ps. 55:20–21; Ps. 62:4; Ps. 63:11; Ps. 116:11; Ps. 119:69; Ps. 120:3–4; Prov. 2:12–15; Prov. 6:16–17, 19; Prov. 10:18; Prov. 12:22; Prov. 17:4; Prov. 19:22; Prov. 21:6; Prov. 26:23–26; Isa. 59:2–3; Jer. 5:2; Jer. 7:8; Jer. 9:3–6; Hos. 4:1–2; Hos. 11:12; Zech. 8:16–17.

Causing others  to sin: Num. 25:1–2; Neh. 6:13; Prov. 1:10–16; Prov. 4:14–15, 25–27; Prov. 16:29; Prov. 28:10; Isa. 33:15–16.

[3] BT Megilah 15a, Mishnah Avot 6:6 

[4] Tosefta Bava Kama 7:8; it is shocking that some medieval scholars think that the prohibition against ge’nei’vat da’at is not Biblical but rabbinical (Semak, 262). Such rationalizations only create scandal in the Jewish community and it also reenforces the impression that all Jews are dishonest in business.

[5.] BT Chullin 94a-b.

[6] Tosefta Bava Kama 7:3.

[7]  http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Rabbi-rules-copying-work-in-university-is-permitted-in-Jewish-law-346738

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.

Rabbinical Thoughts on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly


 File:Good the bad and the ugly poster.jpg

 

Our society seems so bent upon the politics of personal destruction. When people fall–as famous and powerful people often do, there is a certain delight and comfort many folks experience in knowing that even the great ones have “feet of clay.”

But where is our reverence for human life? Is not every human being made in the Divine Image? As I write this new article, I wonder: What are the ethical implications of being made in God’s image?

Obviously killing somebody in cold blood is something that fills us with horror. But what about killing somebody’s soul?  What about killing somebody’s reputation? What about destroying a human being’s life dream? Yes, murder comes in many different forms–and our penchant for violence often blinds us from realizing just how barbaric and cruel we really are as a species.

I recall hearing a story about a Christian missionary who spent many years while working with cannibals. When asked about his success, he replied, “Before I arrived, they used to eat their meat with their hands, but after I worked with them, they now eat with forks and knives instead!”  I often think this aphorism describes the violent impulses that permeate our contemporary society. We may appear to be “civilized,” but the shadow nature of our souls remain uncivilized.

Jewish tradition teaches that murdering a human being is considered like one who has harmed the figure of the king; i.e., the likeness of God. R. Tanchuma points out the relational dimensions of the Divine image have important practical implications: Anyone who despises his fellow man is considered as though he despises the Creator, in Whose image he is created.[1] Going one step further, there is a poignant rabbinic story that illustrates this important idea:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, returning from a trip in Migdal Eder, from his teacher’s house met a certain man who was exceedingly ugly. Rabbi Shimon said to him, “Raka (simpleton), how ugly are the children of Abraham our father.” The other man replied, “What can I do for you? You may want to speak to the Craftsman Who made me.” Rabbi Shimon immediately alighted from his horse and bowed before the man and said, “I apologize to you, please forgive me.” He replied to him, “I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman Who made me and say, “How ugly is the vessel which You have made!”

Rabbi Shimon walked behind him for three miles. When the people in town heard of Rabbi Shimon’s arrival, they came out to meet him and greeted him with the words, “Peace be unto you, rabbi.” The other man said to them, “Who are you calling Rabbi?” They answered, “The man who is walking behind you.” Thereupon he exclaimed, “If this man is a rabbi, may there not be any more like him in Israel!” He told the people the whole story, and the townspeople begged him to forgive the rabbi, and he agreed, only on the condition that he never act in this manner again toward anyone. [2]

The story highlights an important truth: the willful mistreatment of another human being, in effect, devalues the image of God because we are all created in the Divine Image. The human face—regardless how disfigured it may be—commands that we show a respect to the uniqueness of the human person which transcends one’s physical attributes. True beauty emanates from goodness and a love of ethics. Without these traits, we might as well be living in caves.


[1] Genesis Rabbah 24:7.

[2] Tractate Derech Eretz (Chapter 4).

 

Creating an Inner Space for God to Dwell

 

 As Creator, and the Source of our being, God continuously brings our existence out of the abyss of nothingness, and is renewed with the possibility of new life.  God’s love and compassion is bio-centric and embraces the universe in its totality.  God’s power is not all-powerful (in the simplistic sense); nor is it coercive in achieving this end, but is all-relational in His capacity to relate to the world—even suffer with it as well. God’s love initiates new beginnings and endless possibilities ex nihilo to a suffering people. In the Exodus narrative, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה   (´e|hyè ´ášer ´e|hyè) “I will always be present as I will always be present.”

The early rabbis referred to God’s indwelling among mortals by the designation of שְׁכִינָה (“Shekhinah”), which signifies, “that which dwells.” The root word שָׁכֵן, (shakhen), or שָׁכַן, (shakhan) “to dwell,” “reside,” cf. Isaiah 60:2). Rabbinical wisdom traces this epithet of God to the well-known biblical verse,  וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם   “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 25:8). Most biblical translations overlook a more literal meaning that conveys a mystical meaning, “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that  I shall dwell in them.” God dwells not outside the human heart, but within the human heart. Hence, the idea of the Shekhinah best means “Divine Indwelling.”

Throughout much of the Jewish midrashic and mystical literature, the rabbis depict the Shekhinah in feminine terms; this aspect of the Divine personifies God’s maternal love. Although the Shekhinah freely embraces suffering, She is not overwhelmed or defeated by human evil and stubbornness. Whenever the Shekhinah sees suffering, She identifies with the pain of her errant children, “My head is heavy; My arm is heavy.  And If God grieves  over the blood of the wicked whose blood is justifiably shed,  how much more so is the Shekhinah grieved over the blood of the just!”[1] The Shekhinah represents the part of God that each human being possesses. In William Blake’s famous depictions of Job, the observant reader will note that the face of God and the face of Job are the same. This aspect of God corresponds in biblical terms to the “image of God” that each of us bears inside us.

One Midrashic text connects the Shekhinah with the opening passage of Song of Songs 1:1, which speaks about the Lover (God) entering into the Garden (symbolizing Eden), to be alone with His beloved (symbolized by Israel):

I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.

According to the Midrash, all of Song of Songs is an extended metaphor about God’s love for Israel. The word “my garden” has Edenic overtones and significance. The term “gani” (“My garden,”) implies not just any “garden,” but specifically to “My garden,” i.e., the bridal chamber where a bride and groom consummate their love for one another. By saying “My bridal chamber,” the text mystically suggests a return to a time when God’s Being was originally present and revealed.

The Midrash teaches that when Moses built the Tabernacle, the Shekhinah returned to co-inhabit the earth just as She did in the days of Eden before the primal couple’s great fall. In Eden, God “walked” alongside mortals (Gen 3:8). However, after the primal couple sinned, the Shekhinah began retreating Her Presence from the earthly realm. Bereft of Her divine intimacy, Adam and his wife hid themselves because they felt alienated from the deepest dimension of their souls.  Adam’s spiritual stature underwent a radical reduction.

However, the Shekhinah’s mystical ascent was far from finished, for when Cain murdered his brother Abel, the Feminine Presence felt disgusted with human violence and retreated unto the second level of Heaven in a panic. Alas, Her ascent away from the earth still continued;  Enosh forgot his Creator when he worshiped idols, so the Shekhinah retreated to the third level; after watching more of man’s inhumanity to man, a flood occurs, and the saddened Shekhinah retreats because She could not watch Her children perish. With the passage of time, the Shekhinah develops revulsion for violence. Once again, human cruelty chased Her, one more degree away from the earth.

After the Tower Builders announced their designs to conquer the heavens, the Shekhinah retreated yet another degree because she found human arrogance repugnant. The violence of the Sodomites upset Her even more, as she wanted nothing to do with men because of their barbarism and sadism. The Shekhinah’s withdrawal from the world reached Her zenith after the Egyptians mistreated their fellow earthly brothers and sisters, by enslaving the Israelites to a life of suffering and pain. She could not bear to watch. She wondered, “Could the rift with humanity get any worse than this?”

However, the Shekhinah could not remain in a permanent state of estrangement from humanity—despite its errant ways. Abraham was the first to recognize the Shekhinah’s reality and he sought to make her more intimate with mortals once more. Isaac’s willingness to die for Her, as a show of his love and devotion, made the Shekhinah yearn yet more for intimacy with mortals. Through his many struggles within himself, Jacob comes to discover the Shekhinah’s luminosity and beauty and finally understands the true meaning of blessing.

In an effort to purge himself from the violence that defiled his life after he and his brother Simeon massacred the inhabitants of Shechem (Gen. 34-31), Levi sought to renew his relationship with Her. The Shekhinah pitied this pathetic excuse for a human being and granted him a peacefulness of mind. She was determined to make Levi’s descendants do penance for their forefather’s crimes against humanity  by making them serve as priests to their Maker. She mused, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future–this applies even to Levi!”

The Shekhinah brought Yochebed and Amram together, and they became the parents of Moses—the liberator of Israel.  Mysteriously, She finds herself drawn back to the earth. With Moses, the Shekhinah found a lover who decided to build a new home for the Divine—The Tabernacle–a place that would permanently restore Her Presence to our world, where She would walk once more with humankind. [2] From the various rabbinical texts written about the Shekhinah, She appears in a world that suffers from the ruptures of history. She is vaguely Present when the fullness of God’s reality seems absence of God in human history because of radical evil and senseless suffering. Yet, the Shekhinah is the often associated with the Spirit of God that gives shape to the chaos of Creation, forming it into a cosmos. In the Midrashic imagination, the purpose of the Creation is to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Creation. However, only human beings can create the space for the Shekhinah to dwell.

[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5.

[2] Numbers Rabbah 12:13.

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

 

ArtScroll App Main Portfolio Image

Steinsaltz Talmud sample page 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-Paganizing Phylacteries and Mezuzah: An Example of Retrogressive Religion

 

Rabbi Kamin’s interesting article on the subject of Halloween reminded me of many of my own childhood experiences.

Is Halloween “permitted”? Is the children’s ritual of “Trick and Treating,” considered forbidden because it emulates the practices of the non-Jewish world?

Many years ago, a learned colleague of my from Yeshiva University once mentioned to his Young Israel congregation in Binghamton, NY, something that I have never forgotten. He claimed to have come across an Italian responsa dating back to the 17th century that claimed that the ritual had no religious significance whatsoever, and he concluded that there was nothing Halachically forbidden for Jewish children to dress up and collect candies on the night of Halloween.

Unfortunately, I have never been able to locate the source of this mysterious responsa. I have attempted many times to look it up in the Bar Illan University database, but with no success. However, the logic of the responsa makes sense to me. Rabbinic scholars have also pointed out the pagan roots of Halloween, which has its roots

Many Jews seem to forget that many practices in Jewish tradition had their origins in pagan culture and beliefs. For example, the practice of wearing tefillon (not to be confused with Teflon) originated in the pagan world of Babylonian magic. In one issue of the Bible and Review Magazine, the author showed a picture of a Babylonian prostitute wearing golden phylacteries! The word “tefillin” is better known in English as “phylacteries,” which derives from the Greek word φυλακτήριον (phylaktērion), meaning “defenses,” as in charms and amulets.

One late 19th century scholar correctly noted:

  • [Among the Jews] It was customary to tie certain kinds of phylacteries into a knot. Reference to this ancient practice is found in certain Assyrian talismans, now in the British Museum. Following is a translation of one of them: “Hea says: ‘Go, my son! take a woman’s kerchief, bind it round thy right hand; loose it from the left hand. Knot it with seven knots; do so twice. Sprinkle it with bright wine; bind it round the head of the sick man. Bind it round his hands and feet, like manacles and fetters; sit down on his bed; sprinkle water over him. He shall hear the voice of Hea. Darkness shall protect him, and Marduk, eldest son of Heaven, shall find him a happy habitation.'”[1]

The famous Assyriologist A. H. Sayce (1846-1933) cites another reference that may explain why Jews wind the tefillin straps seven times:

  • Even medical science, however, was invaded by superstition. In place of trying the doctor’s prescription, a patient often had the choice allowed him of having recourse to charms and exorcisms. Thus the medical work itself permits him to ‘place an incantation on the big toe of the left foot and cause it to remain’ there, the incantation being as follows: ‘O wind, my mother, wind, wind, the handmaid of the gods art thou; O wind among the storm-birds; yea, the water dost thou make stream down, and with the gods thy brothers liftest up the glory of thy wisdom.’ At other times a witch or sorceress was called in, and told to ‘ bind a cord twice seven times, binding it on the sick man’s neck and on his feet like fetters, and while he lies in his bed to pour pure water over him.’ Instead of the knotted cord [121] verses from a sacred book might be employed, just as phylacteries were, and still are, among the Jews. Thus we read: ‘In the night-time let a verse from a good tablet be placed on the head of the sick man in bed.’ The word translated ‘verse’ is masal, the Hebrew mashal, which literally signifies a ‘proverb’ or ‘parable.’ It is curious to find the witch by the side of the wizard in Babylonia. ‘The wise woman,’ however, was held in great repute there, and just as the witches of Europe were supposed to fly through the air on a broomstick so it was believed that the witches of Babylonia could perform the same feat with the help of a wooden staff.

Historians of ancient Near Eastern culture and religion have taught us much about the practice of phylacteries among the Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations. In the marketplace of ideals, every culture has influenced its neighboring culture and religion. The ancient peoples of Egypt also were phylacteries as protective symbols of the deity. Cultures around the world used phylacteries for a variety of magical purposes.

So, what does all of this prove? Nobody has ever lived in a cultural vacuum. Subsequent Jewish tradition managed to detach the pagan roots of this custom. Maimonides heaps criticism upon anyone who thinks the mezuzah and tefillin are designed to ward off evil spirits. In a rationalistic manner, he writes:

  • It is a common custom to write [God’s name,] Shaddai, on the outside of a mezuzah opposite the empty space left between the two passages. There is no difficulty in this, since [the addition is made] outside. Those, however, who write the names of angels, other sacred names, verses, or forms, on the inside [of a mezuzah] are among those who do not have a portion in the world to come. Not only do these fools nullify the mitzvah, but furthermore, they make from a great mitzvah [which reflects] the unity of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, the love of Him, and the service of Him, a talisman for their own benefit. They, in their foolish conception, think that this will help them regarding the vanities of the world. [3]

Elsewhere he adds:

  • A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah, who recites a verse over a child so that he will not become scared, or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is considered to be a soothsayer or one who cast spells. Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah, because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as [Proverbs 3:22] states: “And they shall be life for your soul.”[4]

Maimonides sums up the essential purpose of the ritual:

  • For as long as one wears them on his head and arm, he is obliged to be humble  and God-fearing; he will not allow himself to be carried away by laughter or idle talk, nor indulge in evil thoughts, but must turn his attention to the words of truth and justice.[5]

Toward the end of his life, Maimonides reaffirms the purpose of the mezuzah in his Guide for the Perplexed.  He notes that the express goal of this precept and others aims to instill a love for God that produces a God-consciousness that is permanent:

  • The precepts of the ninth class are those enumerated in the Section on Love. Their reason is obvious. The actions prescribed by them serve to remind us continually of God, and of our duty to fear and to love Him, to keep all His commandments, and to believe concerning God that which every religious person must believe. This class includes the laws of Prayer, Reading of Shema, Grace, and duties connected with these, Blessing of the priests, Tefillin, Mezuzah, Zizit, acquiring a scroll of the Law, and reading in it at certain times. The performance of all these precepts inculcates into our heart useful lessons. All this is clear, and a further explanation is superfluous, as being a mere repetition and nothing else.

Despite Maimonides’ attempt to redefine the precept of mezuzah and tefillin, subsequent rabbis like R. Menachem Mendel Schnersohn (a.k.a. Lubavitcher Rebbe) did his best to restore the precepts of tefillin and mezuzah as modern day talismans and amulets for the modern era.

Throughout his lengthy career as the leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schnersohn always instructed his followers to check their tefillin and mezuzot when they were ill or had any number of problems in their lives. Schnersohn’s followers believed that hundreds and thousands of Israeli soldiers’ lives were saved due to the tefillin campaign the Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated during the six-day war. This brought protection and salvation to the soldiers.  The Rebbe’s theological position became internationally known shortly after the terrorist attack of the northern town of Ma’alot on May 15st, 1974. The massacre of seventeen children was due to the fact the school building did not have any “kosher” mezuzahs. Continue reading “Re-Paganizing Phylacteries and Mezuzah: An Example of Retrogressive Religion”

Thoughts on Aging: From Abraham & Sarah to Satchel Paige

 

Isn’t it amazing that Americans are living longer than ever before in recorded history  More than 87 million Americans will be over 65 by the year 2040, according to the National Institute of Aging.  Today, the over‑65 group accounts for about 30 million people; the elderly make up over 15% of the nation’s population.  Life expectancy and other demographic trends will have a profound impact on health‑care costs in the future.

About 200 years ago, the average life expectancy in America was 35 years.  A child born today can expect to live to be at least 75 years. In a short 200 years, the average life expectancy has more than doubled.  The National Institute on Aging projects that in 2040 the average life expectancy will be 86 years for men and 92 years for women.  About 66% of all the people who have lived beyond 65 in the entire history of the world are alive today. Statisticians describe this phenomenon has as, “The senior explosion.” One wonders, what does Jewish tradition have to say about growing old?

This week’s parsha deals with the subject of growing old. A wise man once said, “There are three ingredients to the good life and they are: learning, earning, and yearning.” Let us examine the Midrash’s exposition of Abraham and Sarah’s life, “She lived 100 years and twenty years and seven years –so were the years of Sarah’s life” (Gen. 23:1).

Why did the sacred narrator use such an unusual configuration?

Rashi explains that the Midrash tells us that all the years of Sarah’s life were marked with the quality of goodness. When she was 100 years old, she still had the beauty of a 20 year old. When she was 20, she still had the child‑like innocence of a 7 year old.

Sarah  kept those qualities all her life, even into old age. Did Sarah hang out at the local salon to maintain her beauty? Did she have periodic face‑lifts? I doubt it. Sarah’s beauty emanated from within. Her life was truly remarkable when you consider it. Both Abraham and Sarah began their careers when most would have filed for Social Security.

In short, both Abraham and Sarah taught us that growing old does not mean we cannot achieve our dreams and aspirations.  Sarah’s personal narrative bears this truth out. For many years, she was childless. Sarah experienced many hard years of traveling in the desert. Sarah lived with famine; she endured the stigma of being a childless woman in a society that valued women solely in terms of their ability to bear offspring.  She was forcefully taken into the homes of Pharaoh and Abimelech. She had the thankless job of being a stepmother to a problem child. How did she do it?

Rabbi Zusa of Anapol explained that Sarah had an optimistic attitude about life.  For every uncomfortable situation, Sarah would always say, “This too is for the good.” Even in bad times, Sarah learned to view negative situations as opportunities for growth.

Unfortunately, many people forget that one’s life is not dependent on external circumstances. We may not always be able to control our circumstances, but we do have autonomy as to how we will react to the circumstances.

Sarah and Abraham teach us that we need to view life as something that is unconditionally meaningful. According to Erik Ericson, the primary problem facing us when we get old is simply this: Shall we face our twilight years with integrity, or shall we face it with despair?

Attitude is, indeed, important. Some years ago, I visited a woman who was celebrating her 99th birthday. As I left, I cheerfully said, “I hope I will be able to come back next year to celebrate your 100th birthday with you.” Her reply was unique and precious, “I hope you live long enough to make it.”

Since life is a gift, we must learn to treasure it at any age. Indeed, many great people of history have done exactly achieved great things in the last segment of their lives.  In the Bible we find that Abraham was 75 when he first went forth from his father’s home to start a new nation. He sires a child at 100, while Sarah becomes a mother at 90.

Moses was 80 when God called and, although he cited many excuses, he never mentioned his old age.   Socrates gave the world his wisest philosophy at 70; Socrates even managed  to learn how to play on musical instruments in the last years of his life.   Plato was only a student at 50. He did his best after reaching 60.   Michelangelo was still composing poetry and designing structures in his 89th year. He painted the ceiling of Sistine Chapel on his back on a scaffold at near 90.

The story of Sarah teaches us that we need to see every epoch in a person’s life as an opportunity to grow . Sarah was that kind of person.

This week, the Cardinals are playing the Red Sox for the World Series Championship. There is a wonderful story in baseball history about growing old. One of baseball’s most remarkable pitchers was Satchel Paige who played for some of the most prestigious teams of the oldNegro League.

After Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier in baseball in 1947, Satchel Paige became the oldest “rookie”  to ever debut in the major leagues, at the age of 42 years and two days. With the St. Louis Browns beating the Indians 4–1 in the bottom of the fourth inning, Boudreau pulled his starting pitcher, Bob Lemon, and sent Paige in. Paige, not knowing the signs and not wanting to confuse his catcher, pitched cautiously. Chuck Stevens lined a ball left field for a single. Jerry Priddy bunted Stevens over to second. Up next was Whitey Platt, and Paige decided to take command—and took command he certainly did!

In 1965, Kansas City Athletics owner Charles O. Finley signed Paige, 59 at the time, for one game. On September 25, against the Boston Red Sox, Finley invited several Negro league veterans including Cool Papa Bell to be introduced before the game. Paige was in the bullpen, sitting on a rocking chair, being served coffee by a “nurse” between innings. He started the game by getting Jim Gosger out on a pop foul. The next man, Dalton Jones, reached first and went to second on an infield error, but was thrown out trying to reach third on a pitch in the dirt.  Continue reading “Thoughts on Aging: From Abraham & Sarah to Satchel Paige”

How We Sometimes Lose and Rediscover Our Faith

victory of light over darkness........( right is always victorious )

Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox is someone I admire. As a clinical psychologist and researcher living in Israel, he has researched a social and religious phenomenon about a subject that many of us rabbis would sooner deny than admit: there are an increasing number of Orthodox and Conservative atheist rabbis! By “Orthodox,” I do not necessarily mean your typical Modern Orthodox rabbi. For Shrell-Fox, his list includes Zionist Orthodox and Haredi rabbis.

By now, I hope I have your attention.

These rabbis have something in common: they live religiously duplicitous lives. During the day, they function as icons of their faith, but when nobody is watching them, they live in an “atheistic closet.”

According to Shrell-Fox’s study:

  • Most of them are still there because they love community life, their friends, the Kiddush after the Shabbat morning prayer. Most of them are 40 and 50 years old – not exactly an easy age to start a ‘cultural emigration.’ Moreover, and that’s a very important parameter, most of them make a living off the profession, and their livelihood depends on their faith, even if [that faith is] just outwardly [observed].[1]

A ninth century Jewish philosopher named Saadia Gaon was the first Jewish thinkers to examine the question: Why do so many people have doubts about their faith in God? Although he was speaking to a medieval audience, his ideas are very relevant for the people of 21stcentury. Saadia writes:

  • My heart grieves for humankind and my heart is affected on account of my own people, Israel, who I see in my own time. Many who follow their faith, but they have a distorted understanding of their faith; consequently, their faith is replete with unenlightened views and absurd beliefs that are current among those who follow Judaism. Others, who deny their faith, proudly denigrate their unbelief, ridiculing those who truly believe . . . I also saw people drowning in a sea of doubt, overwhelmed by the waves of confusion with no diver to raise them up from the depths, with no swimmer to bring them to rescue . . .[2]

I wonder: If Saadia were living in the present, what would he say about today’s times? Had Saadia lived in today’s era, he most certainly would have spoken about the state of spiritual anarchy that is so pervasive in today’s religious societies.

Men and women of all faiths have abdicated their responsibility to care and shepherd their people. Every day, there are countless stories about clergy either participating or covering up crimes of pedophilia, fraud, or committing what seems to be an endless string of social crimes. Unenlightened views of God and religion are especially evident in communities around the globe where religious leaders often encourage their followers to commit acts of violence, terror and mayhem against its political foes.

Such amoral behavior hardly inspires belief in a kind or benevolent Deity, especially when God’s followers commit the worse kind of human atrocities and moral indecencies in God’s Name! Religious people are guilty of the worse kind of moral atheism that makes people proudly say, “I cannot believe . . .” Is it not any wonder why serious-minded people have arrived at the conclusion that religion is an illusion that has long outlived its contemporary usefulness?

While I commend Dr. Shrell-Fox for interacting with the disillusioned rabbis he has encountered, whose stories he has recorded, I would not really call these rabbis “atheistic.” The term “atheist” derives from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning “without god(s).” However, the Greek letter ἄ (alpha) may connote something oppositional and it could mean, “against God.”

The real atheist is not someone who is lost in a state of agnosia, “not knowing” whether there is a God or not. Grappling with the absence of God’s Presence and reality is a theological theme that permeates much of the Tanakh. Perhaps the most famous prayer is found in Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

Why so far from my call for help,

from my cries of anguish?

My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;

by night, but I have no relief. (Psalm 22:2)

Within the Jewish community, the real atheists are the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who use their religion to exploit the public for any kind of pecuniary gain—regardless how insignificant it might be. The real atheists are the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis who seek to expand and dominate the collective psyche of their communities; such demagogues have no respect for contrary viewpoints. They wish to homogenize all Judaic thought into a monolithic formula that promises salvation to those who believe and damnation to those who won’t believe or vote for the religious candidate of their choice. [3]

The modern critics of religion since the time of Spinoza, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Hitchens, Dawkins and others, have done a marvelous job in pointing out the inner corruption and deceit that exists within the religious world of the “true believers.”

Religious minded people owe these secular thinkers a great debt of gratitude. They behave much like the biblical prophets of old, demanding that we throw our false idols out of God’s Temple. Rabbinical wisdom bears testimony to this obvious truth. Someone asked Rabbi Reuben: What is the most reprehensible act a man a person can possibly do? He replied, “to deny God’s existence. For no man violates the commandments, ‘You shall not murder’, ‘You shall not steal’, till he has already renounced his faith in God.” (Tosefta Shavuoth 3, end)

Maimonides would probably have more in common with an atheist like Christopher Hitchens than one might imagine. For Maimonides, before one can arrive at a belief of God that one can logically accept, one must first arrive at an understanding of what God is NOT (a.k. a. the via negativa — the path of negation.”) When we read about the religiously inspired violence of the religious fanatics of today’s generation, we are witnessing the atavistic power of religion that deflates and flattens religious consciousness.

We must not let these charlatans destroy all that is good and sacred.

Most importantly, we cannot let them destroy our faith in a moral and ethical God.

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