Monday, April 20, 2009

Netilat Yadayaim Shel Shacharit - Ritual of Crisis or Dedication?

Previously, I posted about Rabbi Dr. Martin Gordon's superb essay on mezuzah, now permanently linked on the sidebar. He also wrote an essay regarding netilat yadayim shel shacharis that follows the same model - showing the dramatic transformation from the rationalist perspective that was dominant amongst the Rishonim to the mystical perspective that replaced it. And, like the other article, it is available on the internet for free. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Comment That Didn't Get Through

On this website, my policy for posting comments includes two main criteria. One is that they should contribute constructively to the discussion. This doesn't mean that they have to agree with me on the point in the post, but it does mean that they have to be coming from the same basic framework of rationalist Judaism which is the objective of this website. The second main criterion is that the comment be written appropriately. Comments are rejected if they consist of tossed-out words with no respectable or coherent formulation (e.g. the comment which in its entirety said "Oh yeah? One word: mabul"). Just as a magazine/newspaper would toss out such letters to the editor and not print them, so too on this website. And sometimes, I reply to comments privately rather than post the comments (so it helps if you have an ID with email). I know that there are blogs which run comments freely, and that's fine and great, but I am trying to run a different kind of website here (I don't even like to call it a blog).

Cross-Currents takes a similar approach to printing comments. However, I do not see how their criteria justify their rejection of the following comment that I posted on Rabbi Avi Shafran's retraction of his Madoff-Sully article. Since I have my own website, I can post my comment here:

I don't understand this apology. If Madoff and Sully were "unsuitable examples" for the "eternal Jewish truths" that Rabbi Shafran sought to impart, what are those truths? Is it still the case that the consequences of an act of theft are irrelevant to how wrong it is, and that someone performing a heroic action as part of their job is not to be praised as a hero? What are the suitable examples? Can someone explain this to me?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

RYBS on the Miracles of the Exodus

“What is a miracle in Judaism? The word “miracle” in Hebrew does not possess the connotation of the supernatural. It has never been placed on a transcendental level. “Miracle” (pele, nes) describes only an outstanding event which causes amazement. A turning point in history is always a miracle, for it commands attention as an event which intervened fatefully in the formation of that group or that individual.

“As we read the story of the exodus from Egypt, we are impressed by the distinct tendency of the Bible to relate the events in natural terms. The frogs came out of the river when the Nile rose, the wind brought the locusts and split the sea. All archaeologists agree that the plagues as depicted by the Bible are very closely related to the geographical and climatic conditions that prevail in Egypt. Behind the passages in the Bible we may discern a distinct intention to describe the plagues as naturally as possible. The Bible never emphasizes the unnaturalness of the events; only its intensity and force are emphasized. The reason for that is obvious. A philosophy which considers the world-drama as a fixed, mechanical process governed by an unintelligent, indifferent principle, may regard the miracle as a supernatural transcendental phenomenon which does not fit into the causalistic, meaningless monotony. Israel, however, who looked upon the universal occurrence as the continuous realization of a divine ethical will embedded into dead and live matter, could never classify the miracle as something unique and incomprehensible. Both natural monotony and the surprising element in nature express God’s word. Both are regular, lawful phenomena; both can be traced to an identical source. In the famous Psalm 104, Barkhi nafshi (“My soul will bless”), the psalmist describes the most elementary natural phenomena like the propagation of light in terms of wonder and astonishment—no different from Moses’ Song of the Sea. The whole cosmos unfolds itself as a miraculous revelation of God. The demarcation line between revelation and nature is almost non-existent!

“In what, then, does the uniqueness of the miracle assert itself? In the correspondence of the natural and historical orders. The miracle does not destroy the objective scientific nexus in itself, it only combines natural dynamics and historical purposefulness. Had the plague of the firstborn, for instance, occurred a year before or after the exodus, it would not have been termed “with a strong hand”. Why? God would have been instrumental in a natural children’s plague. Yet God acts just as the world rule. On the night of Passover He appeared as the God of the cosmos acting along historical patterns. The intervention of nature in the historical process is a miracle. Whether God planned that history adjust itself to natural catastrophes or, vice versa, He commands nature to cooperate with the historical forces, is irrelevant. Miracle is simply a natural event which causes a historical metamorphosis. Whenever history is transfigured under the impact of cosmic dynamics, we encounter a miracle.”

(The Emergence of Ethical Man, pp. 187-188)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Moses the Giant

There are several statements in the Gemara about Moshe Rabeinu being 10 amos (15 feet) tall, about twice as tall as Zhang Juncai in the picture above. While some of those statements can easily be interpreted allegorically, others are used in halachic contexts and do not appear possible to interpret allegorically (I know that Rav Moshe Shapiro does so, but it seems forced, and lacks basis in the Rishonim):
Rabbi Elazar said: One who transfers a load [from one domain to another] at a height of more than ten handbreadths above the ground, is liable (for violating Shabbos), for thus was the carrying done by the sons of Kehath. And how do we know that this was the way in which the sons of Kehath carried? As it is written, “…surrounding the Tabernacle and the Altar” (Numbers 3:26), comparing the Altar to the Tabernacle; just as the Tabernacle was ten cubits tall, so too the Altar was ten cubits tall… and it is written, “He spread the Tent over the Tabernacle,” and Rav said: “Our teacher Moses spread it out” – from here you learn that the height of the Levites was ten cubits. There is a tradition that any load that is carried with poles has one third above [the carriers’ shoulders] and two thirds below. We thus find that it was [carried] well above [ten handbreadths]. (Shabbos 92a)

In my book Sacred Monsters there is a chapter devoted to this problem, with a solution based on a machlokes in the Gemara regarding some of the assumptions in the aforementioned sugya. Meanwhile, are there any illustrated Haggados that depict Moshe or Aharon in the Mishkan as being 15 feet tall? And how do those that depict them as being normal height deal with these statements in the Gemara? My feeling is that when it comes to actually visualizing such things, many people suddenly find themselves possessing latent rationalist tendencies.

Mezuzah: Protective Amulet or Religious Symbol?

What is the purpose of mezuzah? Is it solely to focus our minds and hearts on God? Or does it also have a protective function for the home?

Dr. Martin Gordon published an article on this topic, “Mezuzah: Protective Amulet or Religious Symbol?” in Tradition 16:4 (Summer 1977) pp. 7-40. It is superbly researched and provides an excellent example of the striking difference between the rationalist and non-rationalist worldviews, as well as the decline of the rationalist worldview in Judaism. (A similar pattern can be shown for many other mitzvos, as I hope to discuss in future posts.) Best of all, the full article can be freely downloaded in PDF format here. Strongly recommended for anyone with an interest in rationalist Judaism!

(If anyone knows how to contact Dr. Gordon, please let me know by e-mail).

Ten Bites

There was a game going around Facebook in the last few days, in which people would give lists of ten types of "something" that the...