Deciphering the Dialectical Mind of the Talmud

9780873064651: Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure & Methodology

·         Author: Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum;

·         Title: “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology.”

·         Pages: 122 pages

·         Publisher: Feldheim; 2nd edition (1988)

·         ISBN-13: 978-0873064651

·         Price: $29.99 (Amazon prime)

·         Rating: 4 star

·         Reviewer: Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

 

Some Aramaic scholarly friends of mine who speak and know Talmudic Aramaic often complain about the poor syntax of the Talmud. To most English readers, it almost seems as if the rabbis left out every other word in a sentence.

Why is it so hard to decipher Talmudic Aramaic?  It is possible that the Jews who spoke Jewish Aramaic probably sounded like immigrants struggling to express the simplest thought in their communications!

Yet, over time the Talmud did develop its own unique syntax along with its own internal logos that an outsider needs to study and master, if he or she is to become conversant with its message.

That’s how dialects in regional languages are born.

With this short introduction, I will briefly comment about Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum’s  book, “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology.” Talmudic language is a lot like scientific language, and instead of mastering the Periodical Table of Elements, to understand Talmud, you can develop a feel for the language by observing how its language is used.

Most Israelis and people who are fluent in Modern Hebrew will tell you that R. Adin Steinsaltz’s Hebrew translation of the Talmud does a splendid job in helping students master this ancient dialect of Jewish Aramaic.

Despite some of the inherent difficulties present in Talmudic discourse, I think Feigenbaum’s book does a fine job with acquainting the neophyte.

Here are some examples: Peshitta literally means “obvious” and Feigenbaum explains that peshita is an attack question, that while the statement in question is true, it was not necessary to state it. The statement, according to this attack question, tells us something obvious, something we would have known without the statement telling us so.” (Pg. 79).

The author might have considered adding that tonality in Talmudic Aramaic is an important part of how we as human beings communicate. In tonal languages such as Chinese, the slightest inflection in how a word is pronounced may indicate something foolish or wise depending what tone the speaker uses.

Using the case of peshitta, the tonal question might be, “So nuuuuuuuuuuuu! Or, “No daaah, isn’t that obvious???” As you can see the musicality of Talmudic dialogue is one of Talmudic Aramaic’s more endearing and unforgettable qualities I will always remember from my days in the yeshiva world. The yeshiva’s discussion of the Talmud is always animated.

Feigenbaum goes on to say, “The answer to such a question must show why the statement is not superfluous. It must tell us that we would not have arrived at this [logical] conclusion had the statement not been made—and that we would have come to a different conclusion.”

Reading “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology” is full of such examples of Talmudic attack questions. Is not any wonder why only Jewish tradition could create a Freud and a Derrida? The polyvalence of Talmudic concepts also explains why Jews make such excellent attorneys. Truth is fluid and it is always challenging our old suppositions of how we understand a text.  Feigenbaum introduces the assumptions one might have thought (salka da’atcha a’mina) had it not been for the text in question.

Hegel’s dialectic method involving thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is at the heart of Talmudic discourse and yes, had Hegel been Jewish, he would have made an outstanding Talmudist! The same could certainly be said about Socrates who favored truth as the highest value in life.

Rationality always appeals to logic and not emotion; it aims for persuasion and the discovery of truth to guide our behavior. The rabbis were not Sophists, but they believed like Socrates that the logical presentation of ideas provide essential tools for living a holy life.

Faigenbaum does not mention Socrates, but he does mention in the introduction to his book, “We begin with a question. This book is meant, above all, to teach you to ask the right questions. To achieve a precise peshat (understanding) of a section in Gemora, one must first ask the proper questions…” (p. 2). This approach sounds fairly Socratic to me!

To make the arguments easier to grasp, the Feigenbaum uses flowcharting to break the logical sequencing of the discussions and the ideas that they present to the critical mind. Feigenbaum gives numerous other examples of what he calls “attack questions” to his readers to ponder.

Sometimes the rabbis of the Talmud remind me of the person who always hits a bulls-eye by painting a target around the arrow. The rabbis refer to this method as asmakhta – a scriptural support for already existing customs and established traditions. It is a pity the author did not discuss this important aspect of Talmudic thought, for it shows how plastic the biblical text could be in the hands of the Talmudic master.

For the yeshiva alumni, I think the “Understanding the Talmud: A Systematic Guide to Talmudic Structure and Methodology” will provide a pleasant review of the Talmudic concepts yeshiva students once studied but forgot over the years. For the new student of Talmud, I think Feigenbaum’s approach of fleshing out the logic of Talmudic discourse might make the study of Talmud more challenging, and hopefully illuminating for serious students.

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)

 

The Closing of the Muslim Mind

The Golden Age of Islam extended from the 8th century to the 13th century, when much of the historically Islamic world embraced a flowering of scientific, economic and cultural prosperity until the time of the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 CE , when the Islamic Golden Age officially ended. Before that time, Islam was vastly ahead of their counterparts in Europe, and excelled in just about every ancient secular and scientific endeavor. As I was perusing some of the books from one of my book vendors’ emails, the Islamic name of Ghazali appeared. Being familiar with a number of Muslim medieval scholars like Ibn Sina, Rumi, Averroes, al-Farabi, Ibn Arabi, I decided to look up the Islamic thinker, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1055-1111), a Sufi-thinker who  is well known in Muslim circles for his wisdom:

Some of his wise aphorisms include:

  • People count with self-satisfaction the number of times they have recited the name of God on their prayer beads, but they keep no beads for reckoning the number of idle words they speak.

How true, God’s Name is always being bantered about by “religious” fanatics who use God’s Name as an excuse to commit any kind of atrocity against the non-believing Other. It is also used by politicians who will use God to obtain their fiendish desires.

  • Half of disbelief in Allah in the world is caused by people who make religion look ugly due to their bad conduct and ignorance.

This particular aphorism certainly applies to much of what we see with respect to the Global Jihad taking place in continents all over the world. Yes, bad and evil conduct certainly produces disillusion with faith—and atheism is certainly on the rise today as less and less young people frequent the traditional places of worship.

  • Declare your jihad on thirteen enemies you cannot see – Egoism, Arrogance, Conceit, Selfishness, Greed, Lust, Intolerance, Anger, Lying, Cheating, Gossiping and Slandering. If you can master and destroy them, then will be ready to fight the enemy you can see.

It is significant that both Sufi and Kabbalistic texts found a way to sublimate the violent impulses of holy war, by internalizing it in purely spiritual terms. Sufism for most of its history has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for open-mindedness and tolerance.

However, this broadness of mind never applied to Ghazali’s worldview. Although one might presume Ghazali stresses the importance of fighting the inner enemy—but he evidently had no compunctions about fighting the “external enemy,” and this is where his idealism seems to have collapsed along with his wisdom.

Sectarian differences often make people forget about their idealism and higher values; religion often is more pre-occupied with “being right” than “being righteous.” Ghazali’s disdain for one of Islam’s most brilliant thinkers, Avicenna is a classic illustration of what righteous indignation with a tinge of fanaticism is capable of doing. In his book on “The Incoherence of Philosophy,” Ghazali issued a decree (fatwa) concerning anyone who teaches Avicenna’s philosophy is a “kafir” –an apostate of Islam. Once labeled a kafir, it is permitted for the pious Muslim to kill the apostate.[1]

What were the three heretical views Avicenna espoused?  [For the sake of contrast, I will briefly compare Avicenna and Ghazali with some of Maimonides’ theological positions.]

  1. The theory of a pre-eternal world. Ghazali asserted God created the world in time and just like everything in this world time will cease to exist as well but God will continue on existing. (Maimonides concurred, but also hedged to some degree)
  2. God only knows the universal characteristics of particulars – namely Platonic forms (a view Maimonides seems to have endorsed).
  3. Bodily resurrection will not take place in the hereafter only human souls are resurrected (another view that Maimonides might have supported).

Semites have always been a contentious people when it comes to matters of faith. To this day, the Shiites and the Sunnis still argue over, “Who is an Apostate?” much like Jews still fight among themselves, “Who is a Jew?” Fanaticism has always been a driving force among zealots. Jewish history bears witness to these unfortunate phenomena too over 2000 years ago. This much has not changed over history—even now, as our society is rapidly retrogressing to the darker periods of human history when men like Ghazali, Torquemada, and others determined who would live or die based on their personal belief system.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that Ghazali possessed a gift of wisdom and insight; yet because of his disdain for other scholars’ theological beliefs, he and similar thinkers led the Muslims along a narrow corridor of the mind that has cut itself from the human progress and positive societal development.



[1] Great minds sometimes suffer from moments of moral blindness. I would add that as a side note, Maimonides might have been influenced by Ghazali. According to Maimonides, (theoretically,) a heretic deserved to be executed too. He writes:

The term “Apikorsim” (Epicureans) pertains to any Jewish person who denies the divinity of the Torah and the belief in prophecy. Ideally, they deserved to be executed in public by the sword (beheading). However, if this is not possible, a subterfuge ought to be developed to facilitate their death. For example:  If one sees such a person descend to a cistern, and a ladder is available; he should  find an excuse to take the ladder, saying: “I must hurry to take my son down from the roof. I shall return the ladder to you soon.” Similarly, one should devise other analogous plans to cause the death of such people” (MT Hilchot Rotzach 4:10).

 

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

 

Rescuing Spinoza from the Depths of Hell

This past week, the Jewish Chronicle published a remarkable article that caught my attention that I would like to write about, which just appeared in the news for the first time.[1]

The time: 2012

The place: Modern day Amsterdam.

The event:  A group of university scholars and leaders of the Amsterdam Jewish community meet to discuss the possibility of lifting a ban of excommunication made against Baruch Spinoza. This ban has been in effect for 356 years.

The Amsterdam Chief Rabbi, Haham Dr. Pinchas Toledano was asked  to lift the 356-year-old ban of excommunication, but he refused to do so  for several reasons:

He gives many reasons for his position:

  • Spinoza never asked the community to rescind the ban despite the fact that the average excommunication [and there were many in those days] was lifted after 30 days. Therefore, “beyond any shadow of doubt, Spinoza never requested to rescind the herem.”
  • Spinoza never asked for forgiveness and felt his positions were justified within the matrix of Judaic thought.
  • Toledano explains that we do not wish to intimate that we approve of Spinoza’s heresies.
  • Judaism does not recognize the freedom of speech.

While one may or may not accept the first three reasons Toledano offers, the last reason about Judaism being against the freedom of speech is especially offensive and historically untrue. Throughout the medieval era, Jewish thinkers took umbrage with each of Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith. There has never been a catholicity of Judaic belief in Jewish history. This is an important distinction we make between the Christian faith that insists upon correct belief vis-à-vis  Jewish belief.

While one may or may not accept the first three reasons Toledano offers, the last reason about Judaism being against the freedom of speech is especially offensive and historically untrue. Throughout the medieval era, Jewish thinkers took umbrage with each of Maimonides Thirteen Principles of Faith. There has never been a catholicity of Judaic belief in Jewish history. This is an important distinction we make between the Christian faith that insists upon correct belief vis-à-vis  Jewish belief.

Perhaps the Ultra-Orthodox ought to take a lesson from the Catholic Church.

When Galileo first championed his heliocentric theories to Copernicus in 1610, the Catholic Church unleashed the power of the Inquisition, who ruled that such theories of the solar system were heretical. Galileo’s books were banned and burned. Nobody was allowed to even discuss his “dangerous” scientific ideas.  In 1633, he was tried and arrested for heresy and remained in prison until his death in 1642. Oddly, despite the scientific progress the world had seen since the time of his death, only Pope John Paul II finally freed Galileo from the tortures of purgatory in 1999.

People nowadays laugh that it took so long for the Catholic Church to finally honor a truly great figure in modern history. Today, many of the Church’s greatest theological minds are also physicists who believe that a symbiosis of science and religion is possible, as Einstein famously stated: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

In short, anyone who is familiar with much of what Spinoza writes about with respect to God, Bible, and revelation, one can more or less discover many of his ideas in the classical sources. Granted, we have every right to differ with many of Spinoza’s ideas, much like we would differ with Maimonides’s view of Kashrut, or Gersonides’ views regarding Divine omnipresence.

The real problem that we are witnessing today is the attempt of Ultra-Orthodox  (Haredi, Chabad, Haredi Light Judaism, etc.) seeking to homogenize Judaic thought so it will exclude any non-Orthodox form of Judaism. That is the problem that demands addressing.

Our problem boils down to a very human problem: the fear of new ideas. Carl Jung once referred to this problem as  “misoneism” and it is nothing new in the history of human civilization and progress. Stalwarts of the status-quo fear a loss of position and power that comes with the introduction of a new paradigm. History reflects such rigid and intransigent thinking. Unfortunately, it is a problem that is evident in many walks of life—especially when it comes to religion.

The way to fight heretical ideas is not by burning or forbidding these books to be read. We must combat questionable or debatable ideas by coming up with better ideas. This is a legacy that Spinoza tried to start in his own way, and we are greatly indebted for the questions he poses for modern Jews of all denominational movements to wisely consider answering.

 

 

 

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

Santa Claus, Nitel Nacht and Chabad

Chabad Florida Tefillin Santa closeup 12-2013

 

This past week, a newspaper featured a picture of a Lubavitcher rabbi putting tefillon on Santa Claus. It reminded me of a story from Eli Plaut’s  book, Kosher Christmas. Once mentions how an old Ukrainian Jewish immigrant dressed up as Santa Claus and spoke Yiddish. When speaking to Alan King, he quipped, “Men Mahk a leben,” which means, “A man has to make a living!” (p. 135).

Chabad and Christmas seems like an odd combination. Actually, Chabad’s attitude toward Christmas as a holiday has never been especially positive. Chabad Hassidic literature proves this point.

Here is an anecdote.

A Chabad friend of mine sent me the following email that and solicited my opinion. It comes from the Lubavitch Headquarters regarding how the Lubavitcher (Chabad) Hasidim must conduct themselves on Christmas Eve. Many Jews and Christians may find this custom interesting but very strange–and for good reason!!

“December 25th is universally celebrated by non-Jews, as the birthday of the person upon whom a dominant non-Jewish religion was founded and who had the Halachic status as a Jew who lures other Jews to idol-worship. A spirit of impurity therefore prevails on that day.(Additionally, there was a period when members of that religion used to celebrate this eve by attacking Jews, which led to an enactment against keeping the Yeshivas open during the eve of Dec 25th).”

Note that Chabad never refers to Jesus by his proper name. Simply put, Chabad considers Jesus to be a non-person.

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe adds, “It is our custom to refrain from studying Torah on Nittel Nacht until midnight. The reason, as the Previous Rebbe heard from his father, the Rebbe RaShaB (Rabbi Shalom Dov Baer Schneersohn, a.k.a., the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe), is so that one will not add spiritual vitality to that person [Jesus], and those who presently follow his views [i.e., Christians everywhere]. The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe (i.e., Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schnnersohn, the 6th Rebbe) quotes his father in the popular Hayom Yom(Teves 17), ‘I am not fond of those students who begrudge these eight hours and cannot tear themselves away from Torah study!’” [1]

Incidentally, most ultra-Orthodox Jews, like the Lithuanian and Sephardic communities, disregard this custom; for them—the study of Torah is of primary importance.

HOW ARE WE TO UNDERSTAND THE ORIGIN OF THIS CUSTOM?

To understand a Jewish custom, it pays to have the curiosity and determination of a Sherlock Holmes. Most of you reading this Hassidic instruction might be wondering: “What in the world are they talking about? Why should we finish Torah study before Christmas Eve?”

The answer is more complex than most of us realize.

The origin of Nittel Nacht in modern rabbinic literature is one of the more fascinating chapters of Jewish history and folklore. “Nittel ” actually comes from the Latin, “Natalis,” or, “Nativity Night.” It is truly ironic that 99% of all the Hassidic Jews follow this observance, haven’t the foggiest idea that Nittel Nacht means “Nativity Night.” It is also possible that Nittel Nacht may be a corruption of the Latin dies natalis, “birthday,” i.e., the “birthday” of Jesus.[2]

While Christmas is a joyful holiday for billions of people, historically, during the  medieval era and the centuries that followed, Jews were forbidden to appear on streets and public places on the high Christian holidays under penalty of severe punishment; hence the schools and synagogues were closed on those days. [3] Young and old, who were compelled to remain at home, enjoyed themselves with a variety of games; consequently the meaning of the word Nittel received the folk etymological explanation as being an abbreviation for “Nit Iden-Tore-Lernen” (“Jews must not study Torah”).

Of course, the time of Nittel Nacht will vary depending whether one is a Greek Orthodox Christian or not, for they celebrate the holiday on January 6th. Some Hassidic Jews, Ilan mentions, will not study Torah on New Year’s Eve either for the same reason.

In the final analysis, is there a place for Nittel Nacht today? Emphatically, “NO!!!” Not unless one wishes to insult our Christian neighbors. While there are number of customs that originated during the most depraved times of medieval history, it behooves us to let go of our medieval attitudes.

As modern Jews, it behooves us to cultivate a relationship with our Christian neighbors and friends based on the principle of mutual respect. Jewish leaders often insist that Christianity purge itself of its anti-Semitic attitudes, and this is indeed necessary.

Therefore, the custom of not studying Torah on Christmas Eve ought to be discontinued by any person who wishes to cultivate a respectful relationship with their Christian neighbors. This cannot be done so long as we hold on to the old ideas that should have been discarded long ago in the dustbin of history. Fortunately, most Jews have long historically embraced this change in attitude–except for a handful of Hassidic Jews in Brooklyn and in Israel who are still desperately clinging on to the ghosts of Christmas past.

Today, even Orthodox Jews are beginning to explore interfaith dialogue for the first time in recent memory. We are no longer living in an age of religious polemics and religious intolerance. American society is definitely far more tolerant than the world our ancestors left long ago.

No religion is immune to the dangers of promoting religious prejudice; or as they say, “A pig with lipstick is still a pig.” Prejudice and intolerance should not be quietly accepted as if it is normal–because it is not! Unfortunately, the ghetto is more than just a historical space–it is an unhealthy state of mind that we must leave behind.

The medieval and hateful mentality of the past must be banished by all 21st century people of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths. In a world where the Abrahamic religions are at times still in conflict with one another,  the only solution to the conflict is to let go of the symbols and metaphors of religious hatred and intolerance that still unconsciously clings to our own faith communities.

When Katie Goodman sings, “I’ll be Jewish for Christmas,” her song captures the ambivalence many Jews feel in living in a predominantly Christian society. It is true that many Jews tend to be hypersensitive to their status as the “Other” during the Christmas season.

Yet, this need not be the case. We need to live in the present and embrace a love for people of all faiths.

I want to wish all of my Christian brothers and sisters a very Merry Christmas to you all!

=====

Notes:

[1] Anonymous, HaMaaseh Hu HaIkar (Brooklyn, NY: 2006), 10-11. I would also add that the Rabbis of Lubavitch have never referred to Jesus by name, but always through the pejorative designation of, “that man.” In biblical and rabbinic literature, to be without a name is to be condemned to virtual non-existence.

[2] Curiously, but erroneously, Rabbi M. M. Scheneersohn attempts to provide a Hebraic basis for the word’s etymology, “The word  nitel’ implies ‘lack,’ or possibly ‘suspended.’ In Latin, natal means  “born,” i.e.,  ‘the time of birth’”” (Letter dated 9th Kislev 5735, printed in Likutei Sichos Vol.15,  554)

[3] The earliest Halachic reference of this custom dates back to R. Yair Chaim Bachrach (1638-1702) in his Mekor Chaim of the Chavat Yair OH:155

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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Blessings & Gratitude

Once upon a time, some American tourists went to Mexico on a vacation; they toured some hot springs, where they saw the natives washing their clothes! One tourist said to his guide, “My, isn’t wonderful how Mother Nature provides her children with hot water to wash their clothes?” The tour-guide replied, “So you might think, Senor, but the natives complain that Mother Nature doesn’t provide the soap!”

It’s been said that the hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.

Chinese wisdom teaches, “When you drink from the stream remember the spring.”

This truth may help explain why the theme of recognizing blessing versus curses is so important in last week’s Torah portion, (Parshat Ki Tavo):

  • All these maledictions will come upon you; they will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed because you did not obey the Lord your God by keeping the commandments and statutes which he gave you. They shall be a sign and a portent to you and your descendants for ever, because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and with a glad heart for all your blessings. Then in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and extreme want, you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, and they will put a yoke of iron on your neck when they have subdued you. (Deut. 28:45–48)

The absence of joyfulness in our lives leaves us in a perpetual state of misery and want. Yes, attitude has everything to do with our capacity for happiness and self-actualization in life. Nature abhors a vacuum and when we relinquish the positive, it is inevitable that the negative attitudes will take its place.

Psychological studies bear this truth out as well.

Research has shown that people who regularly practiced grateful thinking were more than 25 percent happier, slept better, suffered lower levels of stress and even spent more time exercising. People sure like to complain.

According to one recent author, who wrote a book on Gratefulness, Prof. Richard Emmons explains that” Preliminary findings suggest that those who regularly practice grateful thinking do reap emotional, physical, and interpersonal benefits. […] Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism […] The practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.”

Unfortunately, politicians and the czars of Hollywood love to create and perpetuate the mythos of class-warfare that occurs between the haves and the have-nots. These misleaders try to seduce us into thinking that creaturely comforts hold the key to our inner and spiritual state of mind.

The focus upon negativity and materialism is the end result of such a twisted point of view.

In Yiddish, we have a word for such a mindset, it’s called “Kvetching,” or chronic complaining. It’s as old as the Bible itself. It seems that many folks for whatever the reason, have an innate bias towards being or feeling negative. In other words, for some of us, being a grouch comes naturally. Therapists and psychologists alike tend to focus on the ethos of victimization, and narcissism, rather than engendering a life-attitude of thankfulness.

No society in human history has ever been as medicated with anti-depressants such as ours. Yet, developing an attitude of gratefulness can not only make us happier, it can also protect us from heart attacks, lessen physical pain and confer other physiological benefits.

It is no coincidence that the Founding Fathers looked to this week’s Torah portion pertaining to the first-fruits as the antecedent and inspiration for the American holiday of Thanksgiving.

For our spiritual and psychological healthiness, we need to be thankful for all that is good in our lives; the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus once wrote, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.”

Aesop may have made this point even more forcefully:

  • Once there was a Dog who had gotten himself a piece of meat and was carrying it home in his mouth to eat it in peace. On his way home, he had to cross a plank lying across a running brook. As he crossed, he looked down and saw his own shadow reflected in the water beneath. Thinking it was another dog with another piece of meat, he made up his mind to have that also. So he made a snap at the shadow in the water, but as he opened his mouth, the piece of meat fell out, dropped into the water and was never seen more. The moral: Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow. — AESOP, Fables, The Dog and the Shadow

 

When we lose sight of what we have, by grasping after shadows, we risk losing everything we already truly have.

In a strange and paradoxical way, the cartoon character Bart Simpson illustrates the nature of this problem; who was asked to say grace over the meal. He prays, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing!” Does that shock us? It shouldn’t. The world doesn’t have a clue to the essence of Thanksgiving.

What applies to the life of the individual, applies no less to our nation as a whole.

In words that could have been penned today, Abraham Lincoln knew that the need for remembering God in prosperity is imperative for any time, and constituted a requisite for our nation’s integral character and identity.

  • We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have been preserved, for many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self‑sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.‑‑ April 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation for a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer

WHY BE THANKFUL?

One might wonder: When we look at the evil that engulfs the world with war, famine, and fear, it might seem as though “Thanksgiving” is self-deceiving. Despite the abundance that we have at our tables, it’s also easy to wonder, what should we be thankful for? When we see the ugliness in the world and in our society, it seems like a Herculean task to express happiness and blessing. Continue reading “Blessings & Gratitude”