Monday, August 30, 2010

Who in G-d's Name is "Tamechlom"?

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear someone make hamotzi for some other people (but not for me). To my surprise, the berachah was directed to a deity that I didn't recognize.

"Baruch Tamechlom hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz."

That's a verbatim transliteration of what was said. My transliteration didn't skip any syllables, although I may have subconsciously added one or two.

I've heard some other people praying to this deity, and I just don't understand it. Every other word in the berachah is enunciated properly. So why are the most important words so badly mangled? Is that particular combination of letters a tongue-twister?

I remember that in yeshivah, guys would take turns making havdalah for everyone, until this problem became so bad that the job had to be done by one person who could actually say the words properly. Surely mechanchim could teach their students how to speak Hebrew, especially the most important words of all.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rav Elyashiv on Gedolim being Manipulated

If I recall correctly, the Gedolim to whom he refers includes Rav Shmuel Auerbach and Rav Nissim Karelitz, amongst others.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Safety is also a Mitzvah

Remember the Versailles wedding tragedy of about 15 years ago? There was a third-story event hall in Jerusalem called "Versailles" which was hosting a wedding, and the floor suddenly collapsed, killing a number of people. At the time, there were the usual people talking about how it was a Divine punishment for mixed dancing, or lack of tzniyus, etc. I recall my late publisher Rabbi Moshe Dombey z"l marveling at how they were missing the obvious. The hall had been constructed using the "Pal-Kal" method - a way of building cheap and quick. There was no need to divine any cause other than the obvious: It is dangerously irresponsible to look for quick-and-easy shortcuts in something as serious as constructing tall buildings. And responsibility in such matters as construction is also a Torah obligation, be it the mitzvah of maakeh or venishmartem es nafshosechem.

Driving a car - a potentially lethal device - is also a serious business. I recall once seeing a responsum from one of the Acharonim (I'd be indebted if someone can provide the source) about a wagon-driver who got into an accident and killed someone. It was ruled that he has to fast twice a week for several years, support the victim's family for the rest of their lives, and pray for forgiveness every night for the rest of his life. We tend to think of Torah obligations as being davenning, learning, maybe even tzedakah, but driving safely and responsibly is also a Torah obligation. In that spirit, I am presenting a very, very disturbing video about texting while driving. It is very uncomfortable to watch, but if you ever text while driving, or even talk on a cellphone (and using a hands-free unit is almost as dangerous), you must watch it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Providence in My Life

Hashgachah pratis - Divine Providence - is a very, very difficult topic. In The Challenge Of Creation, I have a chapter devoted to exploring various aspects of it - the extent to which it operates, and the mechanism via which it works. We see that the Rishonim had a far more restricted view of providence than that which is prevalent today.

But I have to say that in my own life, I see incredible providence in all sorts of areas - marriage, career, health, home. Yes, I am aware of all the psychological explanations of how people are wired to perceive patterns where none exist. But I can't help it; there are so many things in my life that seem incredibly providential.

There is one particular area which some people have commented upon. Beginning nearly six years ago, I was the target of a campaign which caused incredible hardship for my family and myself. Today, several years later, Baruch Hashem I am fine. And where are the people who engineered this campaign and who attacked me? One rabbi, who initiated the campaign, has gone to prison for many years. Another rabbi, who was involved in rallying support for the ban and who emailed me at the time to tell me that everyone is appalled at my "nefarious" behavior, had his career and reputation destroyed when it emerged that he was involved in disgusting abuses of power involving women. The rabbi who called me from Bnei Brak to deliver the ultimatum that I must retract my books or "face scandal and humiliation," has had to flee Bnei Brak and go into hiding as a result of his involvement with a financial scandal. A Rosh Yeshivah in Bnei Brak who was also involved in engineering the campaign has had some of his talmidim renounce him in disgust as a result of his involvement with the same financial scandal. And now a rabbi who viciously attacked me in two shiurim and a public letter, who claimed to be motivated by concern for rabbinic authority, is being publicly condemned, with calls for his employers to disassociate from him, as a result of audio recordings of him insulting a distinguished rabbinic authority and equating Modern Orthodoxy with Conservative Judaism.

A Rav that I know commented on the incredible display of Divine poetic justice here. Indeed! But in this particular category of providential events in my life, I can see how it can be reconciled with a certain view of providence. According to this view, providence does not mean God actually intervening, but rather that He has set things up such that those who engage in evil eventually bring destruction upon themselves, while those who pursue good find peace and tranquility. In this situation, it means that people who engage in vicious acts of kanna'us are usually people who are trying to make up for huge shortcomings in their own life, and/or vicious people who eventually go too far. Either way, they end up with their just desserts.

Approaching the Yamim Nora'im, and the sixth anniversary of that fateful call from Bnei Brak, I find this message not only inspirational, but also very timely.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reconciling the Irreconcilable

Rabbi Gil Student has posted an interesting and extremely well-written review of my booklet on shiluach hakein. After some much-appreciated praise of my work, he concludes by saying that he disagrees with my conclusion that the rationalist and mystical approaches to shiluach hakein are irreconcilable:

The upshot is that the Rationalist and Mystical approaches are not mutually exclusive. Mitzvah observance can improve a person’s character and also have metaphysical resonance.

I don't dispute this in theory; there's no reason why a mitzvah can't have more than one function and benefit. But I do dispute it with regard to the specific case of the Zohar's explanation of shiluach hakein. R. Student argues as follows:

While I find his study useful, I am unconvinced by R. Slifkin’s dichotomy. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Yes, one sees the sending away of the mother as an act of compassion and the other as an act of cruelty, but they can both be true. It is, from a bird’s perspective, tragic that her eggs are taken and she is sent away, but it is still a more merciful and compassionate way of taking the eggs.

There are two points to discuss here:

1. Would/ did the Rishonim/ Acharonim have accepted this reconciliation?

2. Can we accept this reconciliation?

Let's begin with the first question. Obviously Rambam and others who rejected kabbalah would not accept the Zohar's mystical explanation of the mitzvah (and I am not sure that Rambam would accept R. Chaim's view that a ta'am for a mitzvah is just a taste, not the reason). Furthermore, R. Student is forced to adopt the mystical position that it is praiseworthy to send away the bird even if one does not want the eggs; but Rambam explicitly writes that the Torah's ideal is that one will leave the nest alone entirely.

R. Student points to Ramban who says that there are mystical reasons for shiluach hakein as well as compassion. But Ramban does not give the specific mystical reason of the Zohar, so this is not relevant. As mentioned earlier, I am not pointing to an inherent conflict between rationalist and mystical explanations of mitzvos across the board, but rather to the specific mystical explanation given by the Zohar.

Clearly some later authorities, such as R. Baruch Epstein, saw the mystical approach as irreconcilable with the rationalist approach: "It is clear that the Torah is only granting an allowance with this, but with someone who does not all want to involve himself, it is certain that he is permitted to simply pass it by. In fact, he is making things even better for the mother and young by leaving them together."

And so on. I think that an analysis of the Rishonim and Acharonim will show that, at least for the most part, they were taking either the rationalist or mystical approach, and rejecting the other.

But is it possible to create a reconciliation, along the lines that R. Student suggests - "It is, from a bird’s perspective, tragic that her eggs are taken and she is sent away, but it is still a more merciful and compassionate way of taking the eggs"?

As appealing as this may be, I'm afraid that it's trying to square a circle. From the mystical perspective that the Zohar's explanation is correct, and the point of the mitzvah is to arouse Divine compassion upon the Jewish People by causing distress to the mother bird, doesn't this mean that there is a correlation between the amount of distress caused and the amount of compassion brought for the nation - and if so, why would one minimize the amount of distress by not having the bird witness you taking her young? Isn't it better for the nation that she is more distressed? And why not be cruel to non-kosher birds and other creatures, in order to have their angels complain and further bring about compassion upon the Jewish People? Wouldn't that be in the spirit of the mitzvah - or at least a good way to improve our national fate?

Conversely, from the rationalist perspective, there's simply no reason to postulate the explanation (and subsequent ramifications) of the Zohar - which is why the Rishonim didn't do so - besides the issue of whether it has any credibility as an authoritative source (as per Chasam Sofer). Furthermore, it goes against the entire worldview of the rationalist approach, as explained in my essay. One earns Divine compassion by being compassionate, not by mechanistic manipulations of angels and God which involve committing precisely the sort of acts that are ordinarily antithetical to Torah values.

We like to think of Judaism as a homogeneous, unified entity. It would certainly make our lives simpler if it were that way. Unfortunately, it's just not the case. But maybe one can take a more positive perspective on this, and conclude that Judaism has developed into a way of life that can offer meaning to very different types of people. (Although in the specific case of shiluach hakein, I can't say that I'm comfortable with the meaning that it offers to mystics!)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Book Of Answers?

Over the years, I heard of certain people who set out to write books that definitively answer difficult questions in the Torah/science field. Their goal was to research all the issues and present answers that would be satisfactory from both a Torah perspective and a scientific perspective. These particular people all gave up, and I think that the reason was that they ultimately realized that they were faced with a difficult choice: either present answers that will be unsatisfactory to the scientifically educated, or present answers that risk getting the writer "Slifskinned alive." (For a while, Wikipedia defined Slifkin as a verb, meaning "to attempt to utterly destroy someone's reputation and career"!) More fundamentally, such an enterprise gets into the difficult question of how to define the limits of Orthodox theology, and a full investigation of this topic would in any case be beyond the scope of such a book.

Last year I met someone who had a different idea as to how to do it. His idea was to present a range of different answers that have been proposed to each question; essentially a list of people who have responded and a description of their response. The idea was that he would not be identifying with, or legitimizing, any particular approach; just documenting their existence. (Unfortunately he never followed up on it.) I think that his idea was a good one, but it needs modification in order to minimize the aforementioned risks. The problem is that the writer would still be held accountable for the most liberal answer on the list by right-wingers, and may be ridiculed for the most conservative answer on the list by left-wingers.

The solution to this may be as follows: The list should be extend so far at both ends of the scale that the extremes would clearly be positions that the writer does not endorse - ranging from a full denial of science to a full denial of religion. It would therefore obviously merely be a list of all responses that exist, to facilitate further research by the questioner, and not an endorsement (either religiously or scientifically) of any given approach. Of course, some people would still object to the very mention of approaches that are unacceptable, but I think that an explicit disclaimer would minimize this problem. On the other hand, such a list could make it a slippery slope that leads people away from Orthodoxy. What do you think?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Not Everything

Rav (insert name of rav that you heard this story about here) said, "Not everything that one thinks, should one say; not everything that one says, should one write; not everything that one writes, should one publish."

I would like to expand upon this, based on my own experiences:

Not everything that one thinks, should one say;
Not everything that one says, should one write in a letter;
Not everything that one writes in a letter, should one write in an email;
Not everything that one writes in an email, should one publish in an academic journal;
Not everything that one publishes in an academic journal, should one publish in a book;
Not everything that one publishes in a book, should one write on a blog;
Not everything that one writes on a blog, should one publish in Hakira.

(The reverse is also true for most of these.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Exotic Shofars and the Great Torah-Science Controversy

I am pleased to release a new, third edition of my essay Exotic Shofars: Halachic Considerations, which you can download here. The most significant addition from the first edition is the section concerning shofars from non-kosher animals, and the most significant addition from the second edition is the section on the "Great Shofar" which discusses the largest horns in the world.

A wise rabbi recently said to me that with regard to the great Torah-Science controversy, this essay does more for The Cause than all my citations of Rishonim and Acharonim with rationalist views. His reason was that, in the public eye, The Cause has become embodied in me (now there's a scary thought), and a non-controversial halachic essay on an intriguing topic of popular appeal will do much more than evidence that actually supports my views. If you agree, and if you support The Cause, please circulate this essay as widely as possible. (Although I must add that the later material concerning shofars from non-kosher animals might be considered controversial by some.)

Needless to say, gaining support for The Cause is not the reason why I researched and wrote this essay. I'm just wild about animals, in case you haven't noticed. But, notwithstanding that passion, I must admit that the creature in this picture even gives me the creeps. I only hung it on the wall in order to photograph it for the essay; I usually keep it hidden in a closet!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Three Different Perspectives on Judaism's Approach to Scientific Discoveries

"If the gemara tells us a metziyus, it's emes veyatziv. There's nothing to think about. Anything we see with our eyes is less of a reality than something we see in the gemara. That's the emunah that a yid has to have... We’re coming to hear new kinds of concepts, that we have to figure out a way to make Torah compatible with modern day science – it’s an emunah mezuyefes! ...Our emunah has to be, and will continue to be, that every word of Chazal haKedoshim is emes le’amitoh! ...And that’s the emunah that we were mekabel midor dor."
Rabbi Uren Reich
Rosh haYeshiva of Yeshiva of Woodlake Village in Lakewood
Extract from address at the Melava Malka of Agudath Israel of America's 82nd National Convention

"Judaism does not fear honest scientific inquiry. We have never had a Galileo episode. Indeed not one of our "baaley mesorah" (authentic Torah scholars) has ever suggested the denial of any scientifically demonstrated conclusions about the natural world. The most absurd idea imaginable to Judaism is to suggest that we deny our senses or our minds. It would mean the denial of the event of Sinai, the very basis of our Torah. No true Torah scholar has ever suggested the denial of what we see with our eyes and what is conclusively proven with our minds."
Rabbi Yisroel Chait
Rosh Yeshivah, Yeshiva Bnei Torah

"Historically, there have been a range of attitudes towards scientific discoveries that challenged traditional views. Many Torah scholars, especially amongst the Rishonim of Sefard, were very accommodating towards scientific discoveries, which they did not see as being fundamentally in contradiction to Judaism. They certainly accepted the evidence of their eyes and the conclusions of scientific/philosophical investigation over the words of Chazal. Others, from the many great Acharonim who condemned Copernicus, to R. Yehudah Brill's rejection of scientist's ability to prove anything in opposition to Chazal such as the non-existence of spontaneous generation, to the Shevus Yaakov's rejection of the scientific enterprise in general due to its anti-Talmudic position that the world is round, denied that empirical investigation and the scientific method is credible and can challenge traditional beliefs. This diverse range of approaches continues today."
Natan Slifkin

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Kiwi, The Mosque, and the Shaliachat Tzibbur

Sometimes, there are lines of questioning and debate that turn out to be futile at resolving anything, and an entirely different type of question turns out to be more useful.

For example, the kiwi (the small flightless bird from New Zealand, not the fruit) lays by far the largest egg in proportion to its body size of any bird. The astonishing photo shown here is an x-ray of a kiwi 15 hours prior to laying its egg. For a few days prior to laying, the kiwi doesn't even have room in its body to be able to eat any food!

Why are kiwi eggs so big? The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his superb essay "Of Kiwi Eggs and the Liberty Bell," shows that this is really not a productive line of questioning. One can come up with all kinds of theories, but none are really satisfactory. It turns out that it's better not to ask "Why are kiwi eggs so big relative to the bird," in the first place, but rather to ask a completely different question: Why are kiwis so small relative to the size of their eggs? And that's a question that can be productively answered: Because kiwis evolved from much larger birds, and as the adults decreased in size, the eggs decreased at a smaller rate. (The full explanation is a quite complex, but that will do for now.)

That is what came to my mind as I contemplated two hot topics in recent weeks: The controversy over the mosque at Ground Zero in Manhattan, and the controversy over the woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat at HIR in Riverdale. Let me first admit from the outset that I know precious little about either topic, and I don't consider myself qualified to have a meaningful opinion. But it did occur to me that the endless debates, which don't appear to ever convince other people, might be avoided if an entirely different question is proposed.

Should the mosque be permitted in order to defend the tolerant values that make America so great? Or is it a disgrace in light of the events of 9/11? Debates rage endlessly, without anyone winning over their opponents to the merits of their position. But there is another question to which virtually everyone can agree on the answer: Will it cause immense distress to the families and friends of the victims? Yes, of course it will. (As I understand it, it was this latter consideration that led the ADL to withdraw its support for the mosque.)

Is it permissible to have a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat, since it's not a proper part of the davening? Or is it completely against Jewish tradition, halachah and values? Debates rage endlessly, without anyone winning over their opponents to the merits of their position. But there is another question to which virtually everyone can agree on the answer: Will this lead to a greater role for women within Orthodoxy, or will it lead to HIR being ostracized from the rest of the community and undoing any headway that they have made in introducing innovations? It seems obvious that the latter is the case - in which case even those who supported it should ask themselves if they're really helping their cause.

(P.S. Apologies to all those who are still waiting for replies to their emails - I have been really busy.)

Tzedakah: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

How do you tell apart a good charity from a bad one? It can be very difficult to know who is actually honest. But the first step is to be aw...