Friday, June 29, 2007
Chazal (cited by Rashi) say “b’derech she’adam rotzeh leilech bah molichin oso” – G-d will lead a person in the direction he/she wants to travel. AddeRabbi beat me to the punch (at least once a week I seem to be writing about something he touched on once before) in citing an amazing R’ Tzadok (Tzidkas haTzadik #64), but after reading his piece I think I interpret R’ Tzadok slightly differently than he does (AddeRabbi – any feedback?).
Just like an ordinary person can marshal tremendous physical energy and invest it in an incorrect cause, a great person can marshal tremendous spiritual energy even to the point of causing miraculous occurrences, but it may all be in the name of a misguided mission. G-d does not lead people astray – people lead themselves astray. A bully who beats people up cannot complain that G-d gave him strength and that caused his downfall; a spiritually great person cannot blame G-d for granting him prophecy.
I think R’ Tzadok means even more than that. Asking why a person would receive nevuah or be able to perform a miracle if they are wrong presupposes that there is some objective definition of “wrong” out there that stands in the way of attaining a deep religious experience like nevuah, and an objective “truth” that opens the door to these experiences. I think R’ Tzadok does not see things that way (see Tzidkas haTzadik #90) – there is no objective truth “out there”; truth is a construct we create as part of our own religious experience. Bilam was sincerely committed to the truth of Torah as he interpreted it, and that sincere commitment gave rise to the power of prophecy.
I’ve been mulling this R’ Tzadok over for 2 days and still am not sure I captured the essence of the idea. It is not easy to digest, and is worth reading in the original.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Next question was whether Hasidic Jews have TVs. He thought they do, but I dispelled that myth and when asked admitted to not having one myself. To the average American, living without a TV is tantamount to saying you live in a log-cabin and read by candlelight near your wood burning stove, because you obviously are not part of the real 21st century world.
How to explain Kiryas Joel in a few simple sentences to your average American Joe is quite a challenge… Anyone have suggestions?
If in the end the consensus of the Chachamim was that R’ Eliezer’s position was wrong, why would G-d perform miracles on his behalf? From a legal perspective we might dismiss miracles as inadmissible evidence, but from a theological perspective, how can we fault R’ Eliezer for standing firm in his position when G-d himself appears to be on his side!
The Radomsker (Tiferes Shlome) asks a similar question regarding Korach. Rashi tells us that Korah was led astray because he saw a prophetic vision that his descendent would be the great Shmuel haNavi. Why would G-d offer such a prophecy to Korach if it would lead him down the wrong path? True, Korach still had free choice to not lead a rebellion, but that does not really address the question – given the seeming justification of his position by G-d himself (as the prophetic vision suggested), how can we fault Korach for not acting on his impressions?
Does G-d (chas v'shalom) lead people astray? One more example later... stay tuned.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Richard Rorty's recent death spurred me to try to read a little of his work, so I started on “Achieving our Country: American Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America” (easier than a heavy philosophical work). In a footnote to the essay “The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature” (this entire essay is online) he notes that Wittgenstein and others in analytic philosophy have been more inclined to dissolve problems rather than to solve them, which does not make for happy colleagues. “Such innovators are always viewed with some suspicion: those brought up on the old problems would like to think that their clever solutions to those problems are permanent contributions to human knowledge. Forty-odd years after its publication, Philosophical Investigations still makes many philosophers nervous. They view Wittgenstein as a spoilsport.”
R’ Chaim Brisker and Wittgenstein – spoilsports of the most intellectually pleasing variety : )
I think the value of the Rambam/Ramban’s position is especially significant for those involved in kiruv. The truth of Torah becomes justified because of its correspondence to other already accepted values, e.g. our society accepts humane treatment of animals as a value, and if it can be shown that the Torah subscribes to the same value, Torah is validated. Precisely because the system is reductionist it is easy to “sell”. The only caveat I have is I am not sure how one distinguishes explanation from apologetics; believers often use the former label and skeptics the latter for the same ideas.
A comment asked why I take such a dim view of reductionism – don’t we need health, ethics, social law, etc.? A Torah that fulfilled those needs is one whose necessity is proven! I find that argument very hard to swallow because the same ends can be achieved via different means. The US Constitution does a good job of setting up an ordered society – why are the Torah’s laws better? The movement toward organic food shows great concern with what and how we eat – why do I need the details of kashrus? In fact, this is precisely the argument of reformers, e.g. see this article. Using the ends to justify the means only begs the question of why we cannot satisfy those same ends using more “modern” or appealing methods.
One critique that runs through the comments is that I am painting extremes – wouldn’t the Maharal agree that there is an economic utility to usury laws, or wouldn’t the Rambam agree that there is a spiritual dimension to certain mitzvos? I agree! But the question is what is cause and what is consequence.
The question of defining women’s role in Judaism illustrates another significant difference between these approaches. An example: Why are women exempt from mitzvos aseh she’hazman gerama? Some (Avudraham) argue that the duties of the home come first; women are freed from mitzvos to devote themselves to household chores. That rationalization presupposes a specific role for women as a value even higher than the service of G-d and reads that into the halachic structure. Going back to the Maharal’s analogy to a tree, one might suggest that just as there are oak trees and maple trees with different botanical needs, the same holds true of the spiritual needs of our different souls, and hence the differing obligations in mitzvos. If the Torah wanted to define social roles, it could have taken a much more direct route to doing so. My wife prefers the latter type of explanations as it removes halacha from externally imposed social values, yet, many a person has been drawn to Judaism precisely because they see strongly defined social roles as “family values” that they can identify with. Chacun a son gout!
Two quotes: 1) A critique a correspondant offered to my BIL: “What difference could it have rationally towards my moral refinement to discuss a stirah in rishonim in zevochim???? Or offer a lmudische disscetion of a machlokes.” 2) A response from another blog when I asked whether there was value to mitzvos performed in ignorance of their supposed reasons: "So in answer to your first question there is no value other than training or the idea of mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma." Whether you are sympathetic to the first critique or the second statement I think depends on whose side in this whole debate you are drawn to.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
This does not mean that there are not benefits to mitzvos that meet our physical needs. However, those benefits are not external reasons for the mitzvos; those benefits are outcomes of the spiritual goodness which is inherent in the mitzvah itself. One need not wonder (as we asked on the Ramban) what value a mitzvah has if the doer is ignorant of the crucial didactic element – how does “bala matzah yatzah” work? – any more than one would wonder how an antibiotic cures an illness for someone who has no knowledge of science. Yes, that didactic element can result from doing the mitzvah, but it is not the reason behind the commandment.
The appraoch also avoids the reductionist elements of the Rambam and Ramban. The Torah is not a book of medicine or psychology alone – the Torah is a book of spiritual growth, sui generis, which may happen to pay dividends in other areas. It is understandable why one should not say “ee efshi b’basar chazir” because the prohibition against pig has nothing to do with it being an unhealthy animal or with inculcating certain ethical eating habits – it has to do with the interaction between the soul and the environment, something which is not reducible to simple rational rules that apply in other areas.
As an example of a debate that may depend on these issues, take a look at this exchange between by BIL, R’ Yosef Bechoffer, and a on whether mitzvos’ value is “salvic” (i.e. to save one’s soul, which sounds very Xstian), or to improve moral character.
So far I’ve set out the shitos with some argument, mostly in favor of the “segulah” approach because I find it appealing. But there is more to be said in defense of the other side, and some practical upshot which I’ll save for a summary. Stay tuned….
Monday, June 25, 2007
What about, say, evolutionary biology or Darwinism? I ask. (Evolution is taught in Egyptian schools, although it is banned in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.) “If you are asking if Adam came from a monkey, no,” Badawy responds. “Man did not come from a monkey. If I am religious, if I agree with Islam, then I have to respect all of the ideas of Islam. And one of these ideas is the creation of the human from Adam and Eve. If I am a scientist, I have to believe that.”
But from the point of view of a scientist, is it not just a story? I ask.
He tells me that if I were writing an article saying that Adam and Eve is a big lie, it will not be accepted until I can prove it. “Nobody can just write what he thinks without proof. But we have real proof that the story of Adam as the first man is true.”
He looks at me with disbelief: “It’s written in the Koran.”
The Ramban bases his approach on a Midrash which asks the rhetorical question whether it makes any difference to G-d whether an animal is killed by having its neck cut (kosher shechita) or some other means – of course not. The purpose of mitzvos, says the Midrash, is to perfect human behavior. It is not because G-d is concerned with the cow’s welfare that he commanded shechita, or because he is concerned with a bird’s welfare that he commanded shiluach hakan. Rather, the reason for these commandments is because if one becomes accustomed to killing animals in an inhumane way, it desensitizes one to cruelty and leads to human moral failing.
Ramban still suffers from some of the difficulties raised earlier. For example, if the purpose of the mitzvah of shechita is to inculcate humane behavior, why the exceptions for ben pakua or melika? There is still a reductionist element to the whole approach, and there is still the difficulty of why not say “ee efshi” when behavior is inhumane or unethical. Nonetheless, the Ramban gets us out of other jams. It is far easier to argue that kosher laws are designed to create a psychology of restraint from gluttony than to argue the health benefits of refraining from pig. I think most of the rationalists writing blogs (no, I have not done a formal survey) who align themselves with the Rambam end up veering into the Ramban’s territory when they address ta’amei hamitzvot.
I think the best illustration of the difference between Rambam and Ramban comes from the mitzvah of tzedakah. A Rambam-centric view would claim that the reason for charity is G-d’s love for the poor. As the gemara itself asks, one could reasonably ask why a G-d who is benevolent to the poor created poor people in the first place! The Ramban’s approach avoids that pitfall. G-d’s will is a gezeirah – an unfathomable decree. We cannot say about G-d that he has cares, like, dislikes, wants, etc. However, what we can say is that G-d gave mankind the opportunity to achieve perfection. Instead of focusing on the benefit to the recipient of charity (Rambam view), the Ramban would focus on the giver – ethical people act with benevolence, and therefore G-d gave us a mitzvah of charity to perfect our ethical character. Mitzvos are didactic; they are designed to teach people a baseline of morality upon which the ethical person will build (Ramban on ‘v’asisa hayashar v’hatov’).
What I see as the biggest shortcoming to this whole approach (again, see Maharal) is that it is inconsistent with practical law. If mitzvos’ ultimate meaning stems from the didactic lesson they impart, why do mitzvos have any value if one is unaware of that didactic lesson? To take one example, “bala matzah yatzah” – if matzah is shoved down a person’s throat on Pesach night willy-nilly, he fulfills a mitzvah of achilas matzah even if unaware of the lessons of freedom behind the deed! According to the Ramban, isn't this awareness the raison d'etra of the mitzvah, the most crucial ingredient to fulfilling the commandment?
The classic starting point for this issue is the Mishna in Brachos that prohibits including in our davening a plea for G-d’s mercy which is so vast that it extends to birds in the nest, referring to the Torah’s prohition against taking the eggs from under a mother bird while she is sitting on them. Why not invoke G-d’s mercy in this way? The gemara offers two explanations: 1) because G-d is merciful on all creation, not just on birds; 2) because G-d’s commandments are gezeiros, decrees, not acts of mercy.
The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim explains the commandment of driving off the mother bird before taking the eggs as based on G-d’s concern and mercy for the baby birds. The Rambam himself notes that his explanation contradicts the second explanation of the gemara above, but says we have the right to rely on the first opinion and offer a philosophical explanation.
According to the Rambam, there is an inherent “good” to performing mitzvos based on some understandable (rational) end – in this case, it is mercy for the birds. A similar example would be the prohibition of killing a mother cow and its baby in the same day – again, G-d wishes to show mercy on his creatures.
There are a number of weaknesses with this line of reasoning, some stronger than others, but combined, they make a devastating case (for more detail, see Maharal’s Tiferes Yisrael ch 6-8):
1) The Rambam’s approach is reductionist – mitzvos have no inherent value other than as a means to some other goal. The Torah thus becomes a health manual (e.g. the command to eat kosher), or a manual for ethics, or psychology, etc.,
2) The Rambam admits that he has swept aside one opinion of the gemara, an opinion quoted elsewhere (Meg 25) as a stam statement
3) The mitzvos themselves seem to have exceptions and details which often undermine their (supposed) intented aim, e.g. if a mother cow and baby cow may not be killed in the same day because of G-d’s mercy, how can one explain the permissibility of killing the mother 5 minutes before shkiya and the baby 5 minutes later after shkiya? If shechita is a humane form of slaugher, why is it not required for the ben pakua?
4) Chazal say that one should not say I dislike pig, but rather even though I may like it, since it is prohibited by G-d it cannot be eaten. If there is a rational reason for not eating pig, e.g. pig is bad for one’s health (Moreh ch 48), why invoke G-d’s command as the justification for the mitzvah when one can offer a reasonable explanation for disliking pig?
5) The principle of mitzvos lav le’henos nitnu implies that the only benefit accrued by doing mitzvos is religious in nature. According to the Rambam, the telos of religion is the many benefits like good health and ethics that it inculcates – isn’t this the greatest form of hana’ah?
The Ramban in discussing the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird offers a very different philosophy of ta’amei hamitzvot than the Rambam’s – stay tuned…
Friday, June 22, 2007
Thursday, June 21, 2007
“I know there are plenty of good Orthodox Jews who go to the opera,” Rabbi Angel said. “How do we understand kol isha [a woman’s voice]? What are its parameters, what does it include and not include?”Huh? It seems that the attendance of “good Orthodox Jews” at the opera is in-and-of-itself evidence enough for Rabbi Angel to throw out the prima facie meaning of “kol isha” and open the issue for examination. In fact, the conclusion seems to have already been reached – opera must be permitted because “good Orthodox Jews” attend, and the only question is coming up with a justification. If Roshei Yeshiva seem unable to square these deeds of “good Orthodox Jews” with halacha, then rather than question whether the nominal Orthodoxy of these Jews is all it should be, R’ Angel directs his ire at the Roshei Yeshiva who just aren’t understanding enough.
I wonder if Rabbi Angel ever asked one of the "good Orthodox Jews" attending Carmen how they prima facie justify their actions in light of the prohibition of kol isha. I think the answer would be revealing.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
But, argue some, don’t we find tacit back-door unofficial OK to attend college? Don’t many turn a blind eye to those who train for a parnasa? This strikes me as a very strange argument. Usually, public disavowal of a philosophical position while privately embracing its fruit is called hypocrisy. If you believe secular studies are OK, then come right out and say so, even at the cost of social or political position (Isn’t that YU’s attitude?) The psychological result of this contorted thinking is evident – who wants to be the bachur who is embracing the b’dieved position? The fact that a program is labeled as being for those “at risk”, or is never publicly touted, or never given a formal haskama, speaks volumes about the attitude towards it, and speaks volumes about the social stigma that is associated it. And even if we acknowledge this tacit back-door acceptance, it amounts to no more than a pragmatic utilitarianism for the sake of “parnasa”, not an intrinsic acknowledgement of the value of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake or the need for “y’geiya kapecha” as an ideal of avodas Hashem.
Rabbi Meyer Schiller put it best. Writing in the Torah U’Mada Journal (1995), he notes (p.28): “Outside of those various segments of Orthodoxy who seek to recreate largely authentic models of Eastern European Jewish life either in Israel or America, every other approach within Orthodoxy embraces the pursuit of worldly knowledge, beauty, and experience to a certain degree. However, there is little in the philosophy which they have inherited from their Eastern Eurpoean predecessors that can legitimate these pursuits.”
I’m afraid that at heart I am still an idealist who does not see pragmatism as a justification for what is intrinsically “treif” and philosophically objectionable. I find it hard to understand the public applause for R' Shteinman's remarks even as those listening to them hold dinners for their institutions which honor "frum" doctors, lawyers, and professionals who obviously have indulged in the "treif" study of secular knowledge. I guess others are less troubled by these inconsistencies or have found better answers than I to resolve them.
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Monday, June 18, 2007
I raise the issue because my son was invited to a bar mitzvah this past Shabbos where davening was scheduled to start at 8:45. I was unsure whether to tell him to daven earlier or not – do I have to impose R’ Chaim Brisker’s opinion on him because our minyan (and I) think it correct even though the majority of minyanim are either ignorant of the chiddush or follow other views and start later? L’ma’aseh, the question became moot because he knows this is what we do even if he does not understand the lomdus, so he got up early to daven at a hashkama minyan and then went over to the bar mitzvah. But the same issue has come up in other contexts – does chinuch mean teaching kids what the majority of “frum” Jews do, or does it mean teaching the views in halacha one thinks are correct, even if they be chumros that others ignore (or kulos that others reject), and even if these practices will not be understood unless or until the child matures and looks into the topic for him/herself?
Friday, June 15, 2007
The gemara notes that the Mishna speaks specifically of a case where one is visiting one’s daughter – only then can we assume that even if one is not far from home one will remain away as a guest. But if one plans to spend Shabbos with one’s son, that’s a different story – the volatile mix of parents with their son and daughter-in-law leaves little assurance that the entire Shabbos can pass without the parents returning to their own home! All I can say is that Chazal were the keenest observers of the human condition who ever lived.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Korach complained that “kol ha’eidah kulam kedoshim”, the entire nation is holy and Moshe is undeserving of his special status. Perhaps Korach’s mistake was failing to realize that the nation’s achievements do not minimize Moshe's uniqueness – to the contrary, they underscore how much of an impact Moshe had.
So much for the Yerushalmi’s question. Maybe more later on the answer, which daf yomi (bavli) learners encountered not too long in the past in Tosfos Yevamos 14.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
The response ends by noting that the moral message of religion does not exist independently from its ritual component. While the Reform movement has taken license to change ritual where needed, since halachically valid sukkot are readily available, there is no compelling reason to do so in this case. Another responsa on the issue of what constitutes a kosher Reform mikveh echoes the same theme – absent pressing need, the legal critieria of the Talmud are binding; one cannot fulfill the spirit of the law but ignore its formal requirements:
Though not everyone will wish to purchase or erect a sukkah, there are those (families with young children, for example) who would find it enjoyable to eat festive meals in their camping tents… Would it not meet the intent, the essential purpose of the observance, by calling to mind the miracles which God did for us when we came out of Egypt? Indeed, given that the rabbinic tradition is divided over whether God actually caused our ancestors to "dwell in booths" in the desert, do we really need to construct huts in accordance with a long list of concrete halakhic specifications in order to remember the wilderness experience?
The question challenges us to consider the meaning of ritual observance in Reform Judaism. Is ritual, in and of itself, ever a "necessity" for us? Does a traditional practice possess any obligatory force above and beyond the moral or religious meaning it conveys? Put in this way, we believe the answer to the question is "yes". And that means that the answer to the present she'elah is "no": it does not fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah to eat outdoors, or in a tent, or in some other non-traditional manner.
The second reason is based upon our attitude toward Jewish tradition as stated above: we do not make changes merely for the sake of making changes. The forms of Jewish ritual practice are often as significant to our religious experience as is the abstract "meaning" which those practices are said to convey. Yes, it is difficult and troublesome to arrange for a proper mikveh. For that matter, it is difficult and troublesome to arrange to have a proper Torah scroll. Yet we do not use a photocopied sefer torah in our worship services. This Committee has spoken out against the substitution of a "non-traditional" sukkah (a tent, a hut, etc.) for the "real thing."
I still have a hunch that the average Orthodox layperson is far more concerned with formalism than the average Reform layperson, but I may be simply ignorant of the facts – it could be that Reform Jews do ask their Rabbis questions like whether their esrog is kosher or how much food a sick person may consume on a fast day. I am a bit baffled by the Reform approach to halacha, but again, it could be because I approach it as an outsider; it would strike any Orthodox Jew as anomolous to sanction eating a non-kosher meal, but insist that a festive holiday meal take place in a sukkah that conforms with precise halachic detail. It would be interesting to investigate this one further, but I need to get back to the day job.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Monday, June 11, 2007
Thursday, June 07, 2007
The Rambam (Terumos 1:22) writes that wheat grown in Eretz Yisrael and exported is exempt from trumah and challah because the obligation is only “shamah” in the Land, as our parsha says. However, with respect to wheat grown outside Eretz Yisrael and then imported, the Rambam writes that there is no obligation of terumah but there is an obligation to take challah. If challah is a mitzvah hateluya ba’aretz like terumah, then just as wheat not grown on the Land is exempt from terumah even if imported to Eretz Yisrael, so too such wheat should be exempt from challah?
It seems that the Rambam disagrees with Rashi’s categorization of challah as a mitzvah hateluya ba’aretz. Both terumah and challah require two conditions for there to be a chiyuv: 1) wheat being in Eretz Yisrael; 2) an act of miruach in the case of terumah (creating a haystack) to finish the process of harvesting, and the act of kneading the flour into dough in the case of challah. R' Chaim Brisker explains: by terumah, it is the fact that the wheat was grown in Eretz Yisrael which creates the obligation in terumah – the miruach is just a necessary part of the processing. Where the grain was grown outside the Land, the fact that miruach was done in Eretz Yisrael does not create a chiyuv of terumah. By challah, the situation is reversed. It is the kneading of dough in Eretz Yisrael which creates the obligation of challah irrespective of where the wheat was grown.
According to the Rambam, a mitzvah hateulya ba’aretz is a mitzvah where the obligation centers on produce of the Land, not just a mitzvah contingent upon the person performing the mitzvah being located in Eretz Yisrael.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Monday, June 04, 2007
R’ Chaim explained that the Angel’s first response meant that Zecharya understood what the olives stood for, which indeed he did – one stood for Bayis Rishon, one for Bayis Sheni. What Zecharya did not understand, which is why he again asked the Angel to explain the vision, is how Bayis Sheni would come to be when the Jewish people lacked independence, an army, and the physical might to conquer the Land. The Angel’s answer is that all that is not needed. The Rambam paskens (hil beis habechira ch 6) that “kedusha rishona kidsha ‘sha’ata”, the original sanctification of Eretz Yisrael was done by Yehoshua through conquest, and was therefore temporary, as it could be undone when the Land was conquered by a mightier power. However, “kedusha shniya kidsha l’asid lavo”, the second sanctification of Eretz Yisrael done by Ezra was permanent because it was not done by conquest or might, but rather through the simple fact that the Jewish people decided to live in the Land and establish a chazakah. The modest action of the squatter who parks himself on the Land can be more effective than the most glorious and heroic battle of a conquering army.
(I think I have seen this R’ Chaim written up somewhere… will update if I track it down or someone points me to it in a comment.)