Monday, April 26, 2010

Someone is Going to be Killed

Within the next few years, an unprecedented event in the history of the Jewish People is probably going to take place. It will happen just a few hundred yards away from my home, on Nahar HaYarden in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. A religious Jewish teenager is going to be beaten to death by a gang of religious Jewish men for the "crime" of being in their neighborhood and not conforming to their idea of Orthodoxy.

You don't have to be a prophet to see this coming. Over the last few years, there have been numerous stonings of vehicles and mob beatings of dati-leumi teenagers who pass through Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet on their way between Bet Shemesh and Ramat Bet Shemesh Aleph. A few months ago, a girl was thrown to the ground by a group of men and beaten.

Last week, one of the worst incidents so far took place. Today I spoke with a neighbor of mine who is the mother of one of the victims. Her teenage daughter was walking with about ten boys back from a Yom Ha-Atzmaut celebration, late at night. They were not being especially noisy or rowdy. One had an Israeli flag wrapped around him. Another engaged in a small act of vandalism, spraying a Magen David on the wall (which is decorated with various posters declaring Zionism to be idolatry, and pictures equating the Magen David with the swastika).

A group of adult men, estimated at around SEVENTY in number, descended upon the group of teenagers, armed with various implements. According to the local "Chadash" newspaper, which blamed the teenagers for the incident, the men first warned the kids to leave. According to my friend's daughter, the "warning" consisted of the mob rushing at them while yelling and brandishing weapons.

The mob knocked the teenagers to the ground and proceeded to beat them, including my neighbor's daughter. She suffered multiple bruises all over her body, and an especially large injury to her head, which is still causing her headaches and loss of sleep a week later. At one point she saw that one of her friends was being strangled, and she managed to bite the hand of the strangler, causing him to let go. Her friend thanks her for saving his life. Several of the kids had to go to the hospital, one requiring stitches in his head.

The police arrived after fifteen minutes, but the group dispersed and no arrests were made. It's too difficult for the kids to identify the men that beat them. The police are reluctant to take action in an area with thousands of hostile citizens. Nothing will be done.

This has happened before, and several dati-leumi people from my area have required medical treatment over the years. But it seems that each time, it gets more extreme. The thugs are emboldened by their success, and probably also by the new mayor, who never takes a stand against extremist influences here. And of course, while it's "only" a few dozen men actively engaged in the violence, there are many, many more who encourage it, tacitly support it, or are reluctant to speak out against it. Others detest the situation, but simply have no idea what to do about it. There is also a group of 5-6 families in RBS-B who feel terrible about what is going on and want to publicly offer their homes as safe houses for anyone who is being attacked. This shows that not everyone is guilty in that neighborhood, but also indicates how bad the situation is.

Eventually, someone will be killed. At which point perhaps the national uproar will be sufficient for firm action to be taken.

It's a tragedy that we will have to wait for a child to get killed in order for something to be done.

(Read more on this story at Arutz Sheva and Life in Israel)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ibn Kaspi and "The Torah Speaks in the Language of Men"

In several previous posts, I referred to the phenomenon of scientifically incorrect information in the Torah, such as the description of the heart and kidneys as the seat of the mind and consciousness (which I plan to summarize in a future post), the account of dew falling from Heaven, the firmament, etc. I proposed to address these with the principle of "The Torah speaks in the language of men," according to the way that it is developed and presented by Rav Kook. But I just realized that Rav Kook was not the first to use the principle of Dibra Torah in this way. Six hundred years earlier, R. Yosef Ibn Kaspi had already presented this approach. R. Yosef was certainly on the extreme end of the medieval rationalist spectrum, but he was mainstream and important enough to merit a lengthy biographical sketch in Artscroll's "The Rishonim."

Here is an extract from Isadore Twersky, “Joseph ibn Kaspi: Portrait of a Medieval Jewish Intellectual,” Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, volume 1 (Harvard University Press, 1979), Isadore Twersky, ed., pp. 239-242:

Kaspi frequently operates with the following exegetical premise: not every Scriptural statement is rue in the absolute sense. A statement may be purposely erroneous, reflecting an erroneous view of the masses. We are not dealing merely with an unsophisticated or unrationalized view, but an intentionally, patently false view espoused by the masses and enshrined in Scripture. The view or statement need not be allegorized, merely recognized for what it is. Where did such a radical hermeneutic originate? How could Kaspi validate such an unusual methodological construct?

The key factor is Kaspi's use of the well-known rabbinic dictum: dibrah Torah bileshon bene adam, "The Torah speaks in the language of men," famous for its medieval use in the realm of anthropomorphism. Actually, in its original context, this statement, a cardinal rule of the school of R. Ishmael, applies to a wide range of grammatical-lexical-interpretive issues but never to anthropomorphism. Maimonides, foreshadowed by R. Judah ibn Koreish, R. Nissim Gaon, R. Abraham ibn Ezra, is responsible for converting this dictum into the basis and rallying point for all anti-anthropomorphic interpretations.

"You know their dictum that refers in inclusive fashion to all the kinds of interpretation connected with this subject, namely their saying: “The Torah speaks in the language of the sons of man." The meaning of this is that everything that all men are capable of understanding and representing to themselves at first thought has been ascribed to Him as necessarily belonging to God, may He be exalted. Hence attributes indicating corporeality have been predicated to Him in order to indicate that He, may He be exalted, exists, inasmuch as the multitude cannot at first conceive of any existence save that of a body alone... In a similar way one has ascribed to Him... everything that in our opinion is a perfection in order to indicate that He is perfect in every manner of perfection and that no deficiency whatever mars Him. Thus none of the things apprehended by the multitude as a deficiency or a privation are predicated of Him."

As Maimonides continues to establish the foundations for his theory of attributes, he parenthetically defines leshon bene adam: "However, in accordance with the language of the sons of man, I mean the imagination of the multitude." In its Maimonidean adaptation, the rabbinic dictum may then be paraphrased as follows: "The Torah speaks in conformity with the imagination (and frequently crude perception) of the multitude" and therefore uses anthropomorphic imagery when speaking of divine attributes.

Now, Kaspi rather boldly takes a third step and more or less systematically extends the parameters of this philological principle to include issues and problems totally unrelated to anthropomorphism. In so doing, he converts it from a pedagogic principle which provides a license for allegorical interpretation to an hermeneutical principle which provides a lesson in what we would call historicism. Many scriptural statements, covered by this plastic rubric, are seen as errors, superstitions, popular conceptions, local mores, folk beliefs, and customs (minhag bene ‘adam), statements which reflect the assumptions or projections or behavioral patterns of the people involved rather than an abstract truth. In its Kaspian adaptation, the rabbinic dictum may then be paraphrased as follows: “The Torah expressed things as they were believed or perceived or practiced by the multitude and not as they were in actuality.”

...Leshon bene adam
is not just a carefully calculated concession to certain shortcomings of the masses, that is, their inability to think abstractly, but a wholesale adoption of mass views and local customs... The Torah did not endorse or validate these views; it merely recorded them and a proper philosophic sensibility will recognize them... Leshon bene adam, which insists that the text be interpreted in accord with all rules of language as well as all realia, including folk beliefs, enables the exegete to sustain a literalist-contextual approach, thus obviating the need for excessive allegory and yet not doing violence to philosophic conviction... [Ibn Kaspi] proposes an alternate exegetic procedure, simple yet far-reaching, which will yield a literal understanding of the text without adding or emending or shuffling. This procedure combines exegetical naturalism — trying to understand everything in the context of ordinary experiences — and historicism — noting cultural realities, differences in manners, habits, geography, expression.

You can download the full article here. Note that Ibn Kaspi's approach was also discussed by Joel B. Wolowelsky, “A Note on the Flood Story in the Language of Man,” Tradition 42:3 (Fall 2009) pp. 41-48.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Worm Controversy

A number of people have asked me for my thoughts on the current Worm Controversy. I must confess that I have not studied this current episode in great detail. However, I have extensively studied a closely related topic - that of the Talmud's license to kill lice on Shabbos due to the belief that they spontaneously generate. I strongly urge anyone who has a desire to fully understand this topic to read the last chapter of my book Sacred Monsters. Meanwhile, here are the conclusions on the lice, and my thoughts regarding its ramifications for the worm controversy.

Chazal clearly believed that lice spontaneously generate. They described them as "not reproducing," and explicitly rejected the notion that they hatch from eggs.

Based on this, Chazal granted permission to kill lice on Shabbos.

We now know that lice do not spontaneously generate. There is no reason to believe that any lice ever spontaneously generated.

There were some authorities, such as R. Yitzchak Lampronti, who therefore recommended that one not kill lice on Shabbos.

Others, such as R. Dessler, suggested that Chazal were merely giving an explanation for a law whose reason has been lost in antiquity (but there seems to be little basis for this).

Another approach is taken by R. Yitzchak Herzog, and it is one which I personally believe to be the most appropriate, for a variety of reasons. R. Herzog says that even though Chazal did apparently base their permission on a mistaken understanding of the natural world, their ruling still holds true, due to their authority.

I realize that this last approach is hard for many people to understand, which is why I recommend that people read my book Sacred Monsters, which has a lengthy explanation of the reasoning behind it. Basically, as we see from several other areas of Torah, halachah has its own priorities and protocols involved in its determination, in which conforming to objective reality is only one factor and not the highest priority. Being an Orthodox Jew means accepting the halachic authority of Chazal, period.

But aside from the innate reasons for following Chazal's halachic rulings no matter what their basis, there are also consequences to doing otherwise that people do not appreciate. Once you say that we should change Chazal's rulings in accordance with our understanding of the world, there are going to be all kinds of halachos that people will argue should be changed; most people do not realize how explosive this Pandora's Box will be. And what about the ramifications for previous generations who observed Chazal's rulings? Changing halachic practice from that instructed by Chazal has the potential to fundamentally undermine Judaism.

Now on to the topic of the anistakis worms in fish. The Talmud permits certain worms found in the flesh of fish, because "mineh gavli." This means that they are generated from the flesh of the fish rather than being swallowed by the fish. (It does NOT mean that they "reached their recognizable form in the flesh of the fish".) It is abundantly clear that this is the meaning of the Gemara - first of all, from the context of the Gemara itself (which states that if worms were swallowed, they would only be found in the gut), and second, from the fact that such spontaneous generation was clearly absolutely normative belief for Chazal and there is no reason to suspect that they meant anything else.

As with lice, we know that this belief is mistaken. But as with lice, I would again concur with Rav Herzog (and R. Dessler, though not for his reason) that Chazal's ruling still holds true regardless. Claims that Chazal "weren't talking about the worms that we see" are unconvincing, to say the least. From what I understand, there is no convincing reason to believe that the physiology and life-cycle of these worms, or the way in which fish are processed, has changed (in a relevant way) since the Gemara/ Shulchan Aruch (although I am, of course, open to being corrected on this). And it is unreasonable to say that Chazal were referring to a different species altogether, and thereby entirely misleading everyone for centuries into believing that all worms found in the flesh of fish are permitted. The Shulchan Aruch likewise gives blanket permission for worms found in the flesh of fish. Chazal permitted such worms; for thousands of years, Jews have been eating such worms; thus, it is still permitted to each such worms.

To say otherwise is, in my view, opening a very dangerous can of worms.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Readers of this Website

The results so far of the survey (lower right) are interesting. 129 people generally identify with the approach of this website (although apparently only 22 of these felt that they had benefited sufficiently to make a contribution), and another 38 sometimes identify with it.

What amazes me is that a whopping 83 people voted to say that they do not, and I assume that most of them are from the right (yes, I know that there are also skeptics who reject the very notion of a Creator and revelation). I'm not at all surprised that there are so many of these people who disagree with my approach - there are tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews who disagree with it! But what I do not understand is, what are all these people doing reading my website? Exploring alternate perspectives, because they are think that their existing Torah resources might not have all that there is to offer? Learning about the enemy, to know how to fight him? Or satisfying a secret, subconscious desire for forbidden literature?

Anyway, if your rabbinic authority says that you should stay away from reading material that is harmful to your selected spiritual path in life, I fully agree. Don't visit this website!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Economic Ruin

In the previous posts, I discussed what I feel to be the tension between academic study and religious learning, and I expressed my uncertainty regarding whether reaching historical truth or attaining religious inspiration is more important. Obviously, this dilemma rests upon the belief, which I possess, that being Jewishly inspired is a good thing! It is my belief (and, I hope, that of my readers - otherwise, this blog is not for you) that Torah and Judaism is a force for good in the world. Thus, it is good for people to grow in their Jewish inspiration.

However, there are certain aspects of certain sectors of Orthodox society which are extremely harmful - perhaps to the extent that they cause that sector of Orthodoxy to be fundamentally problematic. I am thinking right now of the approach in the Charedi world to demote economic self-sufficiency from being a value.

In one of the yeshivos that I learned at, the Rosh Yeshivah (with whom I was very close) would regularly mock those parents that tried to encourage their children to leave yeshivah and join the workforce. One of his peeves was the parents' telling their son that "Imagine if everyone were in kollel - then where would we be?!" As he would point out, if everyone were a dentist or a lawyer, we would also be in trouble, but you don't find parents of prospective dentists or lawyers using such an argument.

It was only much later that I realized that this was facile, for three reasons.

First of all, what the parent is really saying is that being in learning and not acquiring employment skills or employment is not responsible. The saying "Imagine if everyone were to do that..." merely serves to dramatically illustrate that point. And it is indeed true that dentists/ lawyers are usually financially self-sufficient, whereas people in learning are dependent on charitable support.

Second, the son who desires to stay in learning rather than enter the workforce is usually doing so not because he considers this to be his personal choice, responsibility and niche in society, but rather because he believes that basically everyone is obligated to do this. There is no mass-movement for vast swathes of society to become dentists - if there was, then parents of prospective dentists would be equally concerned! Hence, the point behind the challenge of "Imagine if everyone were in kollel - then where would we be?!" is that the notion that most people should be taking this path is ludicrous and dangerous.

Third, this son is not just making a decision about his own path in life; he is simultaneously choosing a path in life in which all his children will likewise take the same route. They will attend schools in which there is little in the way of secular education, and a strong message, accompanied by peer pressure, that they should be in yeshivah/kollel long term rather than train and enter the workforce.

Why do I bring this up? Because in the last few days there have been a spate of articles illustrating the extent of the problem with the economic situation and the outlook of the charedi world. See this article from the Israeli Yated Ne'eman which dismisses the importance of going to work as a way to emerge from poverty, this critique by Brooklyn Wolf (while I think that some of his readings of the article are a little uncharitable, overall he makes excellent points), this article in the Jerusalem Post about the problems facing Israel, and this article from Vos Iz Neias about the increasing number of charedim who are not in the workforce (at least, that part of it which is on the books).

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Drawbacks of Academic Torah Study

My previous post was misunderstood by many people in several different ways. I was not addressing the study of conflicts between Torah and science, or the question of the truth of Judaism. Rather, I was talking about learning anything and everything, from Chumash to Gemara to Rishonim and Acharonim.

Here is a quote from Rav Aaron Lopiansky about the academic study of Jewish thought:

"...One begins to feel that it is a subdiscipline of literary taxonomy rather than a serious attempt at understanding. The writer or speaker holds up Maimonides and Nachmanides with his literary tweezers for all to see and compare. "Note this about Nachmanides and this about Maimonides," he dryly points out. An attempt is then made at some broad academic classification, such as, "Maimonides was a universalist and Nachmanides a parochialist." ...For academicians, it is heresy for the analyst to become identified with the material he is studying. He must retain a cold distances from the subject being probed.

"The problem here concerns not merely the question of whether these statements are true or even proper to make. Rather it lies in the fact that whatever else it may be, it is not Torah, and certainly not the area of Torah it purports to be. Torah, especially Aggadata, enriches and enlivens a person with da'as Elokim; it perforce produces ahavas Hashem....

"The surest indication that the Torah one has studied is indeed the "right" Torah is his reaction to it. If a deep humility sets in, his approach and understanding were on the mark. If, however, his study leaves him smug and conceited, it is not the genuine article. No professor of machshavah ever had tears coursing down his cheeks, overwhelmed by the depth of Shir HaShirim. No lecturer or Jewish philosophy has grown in humility with the years. And no doctoral dissertation ever lit a fire in the neshamah of the reader." (Time Pieces, pp. 16-17)

I certainly disagree with many of his formulations, but I will leave that for future posts. For now, I just want to comment on that which I agree with.

One drawback with academic study from a religious perspective is the type of analysis that is done. The academic approach involves asking questions such as, "What does our knowledge of history tell us about what these words were intended to mean?" and "Is this statement true?" and "What historical/ cultural forces and attitudes may have led this person to this view?" The goal is to understand the source in context. This is very different from the traditionalist approach of viewing the sources as timeless parts of Torah miSinai. For example, when studying Rabbeinu Bachya's Chovot HaLevavot, the traditionalist sees it as a timeless hashkafah manual, whereas one who takes an academic approach realizes that both its objectives and content are heavily influenced by Greco-Muslim culture. This makes it much more difficult to draw inspiration from it. Even merely asking the questions of the academic approach means that one is taking less of a reverential attitude.

A second drawback is the way in which the academic analysis is done. The goal is to critically evaluate, and to do so as objectively as possible. While everybody has their biases and nobody can be fully objective, with the academic approach the goal is to try to do be as objective as possible. The best way that one can attempt to do so is by detaching oneself emotionally. That way, one is open to drawing the correct conclusions, even if they run squarely against one's worldview. But this very act of emotional detachment means that one is making it less of a religious experience. Similarly, one uses all available sources of information that may contribute to reaching the correct historical truth, whether or not they come from a "kosher" source.

This is why I see serious drawbacks in the academic approach from the perspective of religious growth. But, on the other hand, there are advantages to it, which are overlooked in Rav Lopiansky's account. I plan to discuss these in a future post.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Traditionalist vs. Academic Torah Study

Growing up, I learned exclusively in charedi institutions, including eight years in yeshivah gedolah. Now that I have moved into academic Torah study, I am fascinated by the differences between the charedi/ yeshivish/ traditionalist approach to Torah and the academic/ rationalist approach. I do not feel that one or the other is better in absolute terms - rather, each has its advantages and disadvantages. The academic/ rationalist approach is superior in terms of ascertaining the historical reality of what is actually going on in the Chumash/ Nach/ Talmud/ Midrash/ Rishonim. But the charedi/ yeshivish/ traditionalist approach is generally superior in terms of imparting religious devotion. Of course, in some cases, and for some people, the charedi approach is a major turn-off from Judaism. But in general, it is a more inspirational and motivational approach.

This dichotomy is unavoidable. Reaching truth requires intellectual honesty and objectivity; this requires a detached, critical analysis, which harms the reverential experience required for religious inspiration. Whereas those who devote themselves to Torah study with passion often end up unable to evaluate matters objectively.

Which is ultimately more important - reaching historical truth, or attaining religious inspiration and growth? I certainly don't feel qualified to answer that question.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Did you see the show?

Did you see "Beasts of the Bible"? I still haven't! If you saw it, please can you tell me which of the sequences that they filmed with me actually appeared? (They filmed me with dolphins, rhino, crocodiles, hippo, vultures, salamander, oryx, and possibly others that I don't remember.) And if you recorded it, do you have a way to send it to me, preferably electronically? The producers will send me a copy, but that may take a while, and I'm itching to see it!