Monday, September 26, 2011

The Book of Abraham: Online Resources for Chapter Three

This is another guest post in a series by Rabbi Dr. Avi (Seth) Kadish. Part One can be found at http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/05/book-of-abraham.html.

Personal Musings on the Principles of the Torah

Chapter 3 of The Book of Abraham deals with “principles of the Torah” (ikkarim). What are the fundamental principles of the Torah? In fact, what is a principle of the Torah? What makes certain ideas “principles” while others are not? Chapter 3 is about these questions, but especially about the literary form that they took: It is about the books that deal with principles of the Torah, about how and why they were written. Maimonides publicized his famous list of thirteen principles during his his younger years (he finished his commentary on the Mishnah at age 30), but it is striking that there was little or no discussion of the topic afterward for about 250 years. Systematic analysis of what a principle of the Torah is, and what those principles are, began only with Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (the Ran), and was further developed in the books that his students devoted to the topic. This was an issue of special interest within a very specific beit midrash.

Rabbi Yosef Albo's Sefer ha-Ikkarim is the most famous and popular of these books. Early in the book, right after he introduced his system of three principles as opposed to Maimonides' thirteen, he illustrated them by means of a lovely derashah which compared them to the three special blessings in the Musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah (Ikkarim I:4):
  • The first principle, that God exists, is implicit in the theme of malkhuyot (the blessing that declares the Kingship of God): “Therefore, we place our hope in You, Lord our God, that we may soon see the glory of Your power, removing abominations from the earth and idols being utterly destroyed, and the world being perfected under the sovereignty of the Almighty... May the world's inhabitants realize that to You every knee must bow and every tongue swear loyalty. May they all accept the yoke of Your kingdom...”.
  • The second principle, that God gives His Law to human beings, is implicit in the theme of shofarot (the blessing declaring that God mercifully hearkens to the blast of the shofar): “You revealed Yourself in Your cloud of glory to speak to your holy people. You made them hear Your voice from heaven... Amidst thunder and lightning You revealed Yourself to them, amidst the blasting of the shofar You appeared to them...”.
  • The third principle, that God holds human beings accountable for their actions, is implicit in the theme of zikhronot (the blessing that declares God's remembrance of all His dealings with mankind): “You remember Your ancient work, and are mindful of all that was formed in days of old. All secrets are open to You...”.

Albo chose these three principles because he considered them to be logical axioms to the very idea of a divine law: A person cannot conceive of a Torah unless he first accepts that God exists, gives His Law to human beings, and holds people accountable for their actions.

However, note that the Rosh Hashanah prayer has no interest whatsoever in axioms, and is entirely concerned with relationships: Idolatry is an abomination not because it is the worst possible intellectual error (as per Maimonides) but because it is a form of terrible betrayal. (It is no accident that idolatry parallels adultery in the ten commandments!) What the malkhuyot blessing cares about is the sovereignty of a God whose presence is vivid, and about utter loyalty to Him, but not about abstract proofs for His existence. The same is true of the shofarot blessing, which describes a reciprocal relationship: Just as God gave the Torah to His people amidst the blast of the shofar, so does He hearken to His people when they sound the shofar. And as for zikhronot, God remembers what his human partners have done, and His covenants with them, because He cares for them out of love and kindness. The point is not establish divine providence as a fact, but to plead with a loving partner who remembers the history of the partnership because He cares.

Albo's teacher, Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, gave a completely different list of principles in Or Hashem. At the very top level (see the chart on p. 9) he dealt with shorashim (“roots”), which are the existence of God and His basic nature (unity and incorporeality). Crescas notably rejected the idea that belief in the existence of God could possibly be a commandment of the Torah, for how can the intellect be commanded? Actions can be commanded, and perhaps attitudes, but not facts. We might compare this to a marriage: A husband and wife may have various ups and downs over the years, but it would be ridiculous for one of them to wake up in the morning and consider whether the other spouse exists as an abstract issue. Crescas illustrated this point with the midrash of the Illuminated Fortress (which we already analyzed towards the end of chapter 2): Abraham became certain of God's existence only when he began to have a living relationship with Him, i.e. when God began to speak to him. In other words, knowledge of God is not an intellectual issue but rather an experiential one, whether it is the personal experience of an individual or, as in the case of Israel, the historical experience of the nation. But in neither case is it something that can be “proven” through reason to other individuals or nations. That God is self-evident as a partner in a living relationship (for better or for worse!) is clear in the Bible, which never bothers to discuss whether He exists. And the same is generally true in midrashic and talmudic literature as well.

It is perhaps for this reason that the next tier in Crescas' list of principles of the Torah (pp. 9-10) is all about personality, both the personality of God and the personality of human beings. It is because they are both personalities (as opposed to intellects or forces of nature) that a meaningful relationship between them is possible. Crescas' six pinnot (“cornerstones”) of the Torah are:
  • God is aware of events in the world (divine knowledge).
  • God wants to act in the world (divine will).
  • God is able to act in the world (divine power).
  • God communicates with people (prophecy exists).
  • Human beings possess free will (which makes them potential partners for a relationship).
  • The purpose of human life lies in the potential for a positive relationship with God.

On the one hand, to say that God knows, wills, and is capable of acting and communicating means that He is a personality, and thus a potential partner to human beings within a relationship that can be lived in human terms. On the other hand, that human beings possess free will establishes them as personalities too. It is crucial to point out that for Crescas, neither the idea of God as a personality nor of a human being as a personality were self-evident: The former was denied by the Aristotelians, while the latter clashes with the determinism that is evident in nature. Deterministic naturalism has no room for “free will,” neither for a will called “God” nor for a will called “man” (Crescas' iconoclastic views on human free will derive from this problem, but we will not deal with them now). For Crescas, that any “will” at all exists is perhaps the most revolutionary idea in the Torah. That is why he needed to establish both the personality of God and the personality of man as “cornerstones” of the Torah.

Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona shared the idea of God as a personality with all of his students, and it was the distinctive characteristic of his school's philosophy. Chapter 3 of The Book of Abraham will show that every single one of the various theories of ikkarim that were developed by the Ran and his students derived from the need to establish the will (ratzon) of God, and this even determined the structure of the books that they wrote. This was especially true of Duran's Magen Avot.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the Ran and his students remind us that what God looks for in us, and what the Torah demands of us, derive from a relationship and a covenant in very human terms: Loyalty and love, kindness and fairness, honesty and humility. The Torah demands these of us when we deal with other people and when we deal with God. It is these which are the true “principles” of the Torah (as opposed to acceptance of an axiom or conformance to a creed or submission to human authority). To serve God with love, wrote Crescas in his introduction to Or Hashem, is the very purpose of human life, and he intimated that the potential to do so is what is called “the image of God” in man. May God in His kindness and mercy protect Israel, the people of His covenant, over the coming year, and may He grant them prosperity and peace.

Chapter 3 of The Book of Abraham is available in PDF and ODF; the full index of chapters and blogposts is here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Admitting Errors and Credibility

A number of people wrote to me about last week's report that a group of scientists at CERN tentatively claimed to have measured neutrino particles traveling faster than the speed of light - which modern science, based on special relativity, deems impossible. "If scientists were wrong about this, then maybe they were wrong about everything!" Maybe the universe isn't really 14 billion years old - maybe it's only 5771 years old! Maybe the kidneys really do provide counsel to the heart! Maybe elephants really do jump to reach food!

And maybe the world really is flat?

Of course, the correct view is that some scientific facts are better grounded than others. Scientists might have to change their mind one day about the universe being 14 billion years old, but they are not going to discover that it is only a few thousand years old. We have oodles to learn about how the mind works, but we're never going to discover that it is housed in the kidneys and heart rather than the brain. And, as many surprises as there will be in zoology, I don't think that we will ever discover that elephants jump to reach food. For the non-specialist, it might be difficult to determine how well-established different scientific facts are. But it should be relatively easy to find out that the issues which concern (some) Jews - the antiquity of the universe, the common ancestry of living creatures, the non-existence of a global Flood, the non-existence of spontaneous generation, the sun traveling on the other side of the world at night rather than behind the sky - are very well grounded and will not ever be overturned.

A second important point to realize is that, even if there is a slight chance that one of these scientific facts will be overturned, so what? Right now, they are overwhelmingly well supported. We use airplanes and X-rays regardless of the possibility that science might one day overturn the principles of aerodynamics and radiation.

There's another interesting point to be made here. I recently noticed that some people feel that if a person admits to making an error, he subsequently has less credibility. When I admitted a while ago that I erred in my identification of one of the creatures in Perek Shirah, someone responded that if that is so, then how can I have credibility for anything?! And, of course, there is a popular view in the charedi world that the Gedolim could never be wrong - because they have never been wrong! My own view, on the other hand - and this is standard in rationalist circles - is that if someone admits to error, then they have more credibility. But someone who never makes any such admission is more likely to be intellectually dishonest and thus has less credibility.

Finally, I came across the following cartoon, which I think nails it: (note that if you read this blog via email or RSS feed, you might not be able to see it; in which case you'll have to visit www.rationalistjudaism.com)
On another note, if anyone is coming from the US to Bet Shemesh and can bring something for me, please email me at zoorabbi@zootorah.com.

Friday, September 23, 2011

More on Antipodean Esrogim, and Upside-Down Shofars

A number of readers misunderstood my explanation of Rav Ettlinger's question regarding esrogim from the other side of the world, and looking back at how I explained it, I see that I did not use the right words. Rav Ettlinger did not view the world in the same way as, say, Rav Moshe Taku, who held that the heavens (and God) are vertically above us and not also on the other side of the earth. Rav Ettlinger was well aware that there is no absolute frame of reference. Indeed, in formulating his question, he himself says that the same question applies the other way around - i.e. that Jews in Australia who import arba minim from Israel might have to turn them upside-down relative to them.

But in my view (and apparently some disagree), this sort of question would not be asked today. It would be inconceivable to us to be concerned about the position of the tree in Australia relative to Israel, and vice-versa. I doubt that even the most fervent Brisker would also make sure to hold arba minim imported from such countries upside-down in order to fulfill his obligation (but then, I am often surprised by people). This question was only asked by Rav Ettlinger because people at that time were still in the process of internalizing the knowledge of the shape of the world. He had to explain why Australians don't fall off the bottom of the world by invoking gravity; today, it is "obvious" that there is nowhere to fall to, and nobody would have to explain it. And my point was this does not reflect any foolishness on his part; even we today have still not entirely internalized the correct view, and we feel uncomfortable with an "upside-down" map of the world.

By the way, I was led to this discussion by reader Yaakov Yehudah who attended (and arranged) a presentation that I gave this week on the subject of exotic shofars. In the lecture, I raised the question of whether the requirement of holding an item derech gedelaso also applies to shofar, which would have very strange results when applied to a shofar from a kudu - one would have to hold it upside-down from the position in which it is normally held. If you would like to attend this presentation, I am giving it online on Sunday via live video feed - you can sign up at http://torahinmotion.org/virtproglib/e-tim/index.htm. The software allows for participants to also IM their questions during the shiur, and even to speak up and be seen if they have a webcam. This is basically the same material from my essay that can be freely downloaded at http://www.zootorah.com/essays/ExoticShofars.pdf, but in the live presentation I will be showing some additional artifacts.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Upside-Down Lulav

If you import a lulav or esrog from Australia, do you have to hold it upside-down?

This was a halachic question that was seriously discussed back in the nineteenth century (see the discussion at this link). There is a halachic requirement that the arba minim be held derech gedelason, "in the way that they grow," which is why we must hold them pointing upwards. What, then, do we do with arba minim that come from countries on the other side of the world? Perhaps they should be held upside-down?

No less an authority than Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, famed author of Aruch LaNer and a university graduate, discussed this question. He suggested that it was more reasonable that they should be held in the normal position. Others, however, apparently disagreed.

To the modern reader, this sounds ludicrous. Australians are not "upside-down"! There is no absolute frame of reference!

This case exemplifies the challenge that I have faced many times in teaching the rationalist approach to Chazal. Very few people are able to appreciate that errors made by people in very different eras and cultures do not reflect any sort of stupidity. Most people think that if someone is alleged to have believed something that we today consider "obviously" wrong, then that person is being alleged to have been foolish. This can have two types of harmful consequences. Some will simply refuse to believe that people could have made such errors - and thus err. Others will accept that such errors were made, and will look down on those who made them - which is unjustified.

I always try to give examples of how intelligent people today can be wrong about things without it reflecting badly upon them. For example, I show people that they would believe certain incorrect things about animals, for the best of reasons. But in this particular case of the upside-down lulav, I can think of a better way to make my point. Take a look at the following map of the world (you can click on it to make it fill the window):



Most people will have part of their brain screaming that it's wrong, even though another part of their brain acknowledges that there's nothing objectively wrong with it. "North" is not "up"! Yet, despite the fact that we've been educated since children to know this, and we've seen pictures of the earth from space, it's still hard to come to terms with it sometimes. All the more so in times past would it have been challenging for people to internalize the idea that north is not up.

In earlier times, it was not foolish to believe that insects spontaneously generate, that the heavens are a solid dome, that the heart is the seat of the mind, or that God is corporeal. There is no reason whatsoever to look down on people who possessed such beliefs. If we can internalize that idea, then we can be more objective in our analysis of which such beliefs were actually held, and by whom.

(Hat-tip: Yaakov Yehuda)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mars Attacks!

About fifteen years ago there was a black comedy movie called Mars Attacks! It wasn't a particularly good film, but the central theme was a perfect parable for Israel. And it also answers the objection of one reader to my previous post on the Palestinians, who objected that it had nothing to do with rationalist Judaism.

In Mars Attacks!, a fleet of Martian spaceships arrives at Earth. The US launches a welcome ceremony, in which the Martians initially participate, announcing that they have come in peace. But then, after a pigeon "makes a deposit" on a Martian, the Martians suddenly kill everyone. The US is convinced that this was a tragic misunderstanding caused by the pigeon incident, and arranges for the Martians to address Congress. The Martians agree to do so. The Martian ambassador makes a speech before Congress - and then kills everyone there.

At this point some people are saying that there is obviously a war to be fought, but the president does not agree. He has a personal conversation with a Martian, in which he makes a very moving speech about cooperation. A tear glistens on the Martian's cheek. Finally!

And then the Martian kills the president.

Throughout the movie, it's clear to us that the Martians mean to annihilate all the humans. But we can only recognize that because it doesn't matter to us (since, after all, it's only a movie). For the human characters in the story, however, it's a different matter. Faced with an alien civilization who is technologically superior, the thought of a war is just too terrible to accept. As a result, the humans constantly grasp at straws and fall for the Martian lies, even when there's no reason to believe them and the humans are fatally compromising their own security as a result. They are "taking risks for peace"!

The black humor of the film is in mankind's refusal to acknowledge the true intentions of the Martians. Even after fifteen years, I remember one particular scene in which a Martian is charging down the street in a war machine, shouting "We come in peace! We mean you no harm!" while he is firing his laser cannons and killing everyone. It's absurd... or is it?

When Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo accords, there was very little reason to believe that he was actually serious about wanting peace. After all, in his Arabic speeches back at home, he was telling people that it was a strategic move as part of a longer campaign to destroy Israel. Nevertheless, many intelligent people fell for it - because they were so desperate for peace. One very well-known rabbi (who I will not name) also fell for it and subsequently publicly admitted his error - but how many others did?

Over the years, the Israeli left has made a number of concessions to the Palestinians. Each time, their predictions have been proven wrong. When Israel armed the PA police forces, Peres assured Israel that these weapons would never be used against Israelis - and that if that ever happened, Israel would come down in force against the PA. Well, lo and behold, the weapons were used against Israelis, and Israel did very little in response. When Ehud Barak decided to withdraw from Lebanon, he assured Israel that if there was any trouble, Israel would be free to come down hard on Hezbollah. Well, there was trouble, and Israel was made to feel extremely constrained in its response. When Sharon decided to withdraw from Gaza, he assured Israel that if there was any trouble, Israel would be free to come down hard on Hamas. Well, there was trouble, and Israel was made to feel extremely constrained in its response.

Some of us were not surprised at any of this, and had been saying it all along. But others, especially the secular left, were so desperate for peace and normalization of relations with the wider world (and, unlike the religious right, incapable of resigning themselves to the impossibility of it in the short term), that they blinded themselves to the facts. One would think that their repeated errors of judgment would cause them to have some humility and hesitations about continuing in the same path, but like the humans in Mars Attacks, it doesn't.

Cognitive dissonance is not restricted to narrow-minded religious fundamentalists. Even the most intelligent, educated, "enlightened" people can blind themselves to facts when it goes against their deepest emotions and desires. And the desire to be loved is very powerful.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Halachic Reality and Empirical Reality

The latest volume of Techumin has a terrific article by Rav Shlomo Dichovsky entitled "Halachic Reality vis-a-vis Empirical Reality" (מציאות של הלכה בצד מציאות עובדתית). I was pleased to see that he follows the approach of Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner and Rav Yitzchak Herzog, recently ignored by Rav Bleich. That is to say, he openly admits that Chazal's rulings are occasionally based on beliefs that are refuted by modern science, but argues that this is irrelevant for halachic purposes. Thus, lice may be killed on Shabbos, and worms in fish may be eaten, even though Chazal based these rulings on the mistaken belief in spontaneous generation.

Rav Dichovsky's way of presenting his case uses an interesting strategy that had not occurred to me before. He points out that even within halachah (i.e. regardless of science), there are times when there are conflicting realities. For example, if a man is lost at sea, he is presumed to be alive vis-a-vis his wife (who thus may not marry someone else), but presumed to be dead vis-a-vis his heirs. An even more potent example is from a case in the Gemara regarding two pathways, one of which contains tum'ah, but we don't know which one. If two people walk on the two pathways, and separately inquire if they have become tamei, we reply to each that they are tahor - even though one of them certainly walked on the tamei pathway. Halachic reality is sometimes independent from empirical reality.

It's an excellent article. Note that as well as buying the book on Techumin's website, it is also possible to purchase the individual article as a download for 15 NIS.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Questionable Assumptions about the Palestinians

An excellent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal made me realize that many well-meaning people make many assumptions about the Palestinian campaign in the UN that are questionable at best. I'm not saying that these assumptions are all necessarily false -- just that they aren't necessarily true.

1. The Palestinian People deserves a state.

The common assumption is that every people should have its own state. But there are plenty of peoples without a state. The Kurds, the Tamils, the Flemish are all peoples without a state, and there are countless others. Indeed, these others have a much better claim than the Palestinians - check out this old video, where Azmi Bashara, of all people, insists that there is no Palestinian People!

2. The Palestinians currently lack a state.


But what about Jordan, where Palestinians are the majority? Why is this not a Palestinian State?


3. The Palestinians want a state that is equivalent to the Jewish state.

Israel, the Jewish State, has a huge number of Arab citizens. In some ways, they may be second-class citizens, but they do have full legal equality, and certainly a better life than they would have in any Arab country. The Palestinians, on the other hand, want their state to be Judenrein, as the Palestinian ambassador to the UN recently stated (and made more clear in the past, despite recent efforts to change the meaning of his words).

4. The Palestinians want a state alongside Israel.

Of course, this is what they claim that they want. But is this really what they are working towards? Abbas said that “We are going to complain that as Palestinians we have been under occupation for 63 years.” Shouldn't that be 44 years? I guess not, seeing as the PLO was founded before Israel captured Judea and Samaria in 1967. It's pretty clear that the Palestinians are working towards acquiring all Israel, not a Palestinian State alongside Israel.

5. The Palestinians' UN bid is driven by a desire for independence and statehood.

That's what Westerners would assume that it is about, since that is what Westerners would want. But is that what is driving the Palestinians? A long time ago I wrote a post about how whenever people give two reasons for something, the second reason is always the real driving reason, and the first reason is secondary, but placed in the first position in order to make their position more palatable. This is what Abbas wrote in the New York Times a few months ago:

"Palestine's admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only as a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Criminal Court."

That's what the Palestinian UN bid is really about. Not about creating a state, which they had much better opportunities for, and rejected. Rather, it's about attacking Israel.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Who Doesn't Believe That Kollel Students Are As Good As Soldiers?

In an otherwise excellent article in Mishpachah arguing that the charedi community should accept that those who serve in the IDF should receive certain benefits not granted to kollel students, Jonathan Rosenblum writes as follows:
"We will not convince secular Israelis that kollel students protect Israeli society no less than IDF soldiers."

Never mind secular Israelis - you won't convince anyone of that. On a theoretical level, it has a very shaky foundation. On a practical level, nobody really believes it - not even charedim.

Let's start with the theoretical level. To be sure, there are a small number of statements in Chazal which, at first glance, would seem to indicate that kollel students are as effective as soldiers. However, as with all statements of Chazal, these are tersely stated, open to a number of interpretations, and must be considered in light of various interpretations that have been presented by Rishonim and Acharonim - as well as in light of the factual reality.

The Gemara (Sotah 21a and Makkos 10a) says that the study of Torah protects a person from certain types of harm. Elsewhere, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 108a and Bava Basra 7b) rules that Torah scholars are exempt from the expense of building protective walls for the city, since they are protected by virtue of the Torah they learn. The Baal HaTurim (Devarim 1:3) says that a Torah scholar can protect forty thousand people around him.

But to which kind of Torah scholars does this apply? Maybe, for example, it only applies to those who are teaching others and are thus connected to them? And to which kinds of circumstances is it referring? Who says that it applies to kollel students of today, with regard to protection from the Arabs? And how exactly does it work - is it a linear correlation? When the country goes from twenty thousand people in kollel to forty thousand, by what percentage does the number of untimely deaths in Israel allegedly decrease? How many lives would be lost if twenty thousand people left kollel for a year to serve in the IDF?

Note that Responsa Radvaz 2:752 greatly restricts the extent of the Gemara's ruling about Torah scholars being exempt from contributing towards security, including stating that it does not apply in cases where the rabbis consider themselves in need of protection. (I have seen quotes of other sources that the exemption only applies to situations where the protection is from theft, and not when lives are in danger.)

Second, and most significantly: Regardless of the sources that someone might dig up/ reinterpret to claim that yeshivah and kollel students are protecting Israel, the bottom line is that (a) the facts on the ground demonstrate otherwise, and (b) when push comes to shove, the charedim don't even believe it themselves.

The facts on the ground - as the Gemara would say, הא קא חזינן דלאו הכי הוא! From the tragedy of the Holocaust, to the 1929 massacres in Chevron, to the murders several years ago at Mercaz HaRav Kook, it is evident that Torah students are not even automatically protected from harm themselves, let alone protecting others. And this is only military harm - there are plenty of other kinds of harm that affect Torah students, from illness to fires to road accidents. And Israel does not seem to be any safer now than in 1948, despite the fact that there are 40,000 extra people learning in yeshivah/ kollel.

The charedim don't even believe it themselves. In Kiryat Sefer and Betar, bastions of the charedi community which are full of kollelim, they have the same security fences and armed guards as every other town in Israel that is over the Green Line. They have the same protections against different types of harm; in fact, charedim often seek to get the best doctor, not just a regular doctor! Any charedi person, given the choice of living in a settlement with a kollel but no guards, or a settlement with guards but no kollel, would choose the latter.

Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, in a classic article on the drafting of yeshiva students (translated in Tradition, Fall 1985), put it best:

In 1929 at Hebron... didn't young students of the yeshiva, whose holiness shone like stars in the sky, fall before the malicious enemy? Please, did these martyrs need protection or not?... If you understand that the scholars don't need protection in relatively peaceful times and are exempt from building the protective walls, what consequence has this when compared to a life-and-death struggle, a war which is a mitzvah and in which all are obligated? The defense authorities ordered everyone to cover all windows as protection against shattering glass in case of an air raid. Would anyone think that some rabbis will not do so, claiming, "Rabbis do not need protection?" ...Why did rabbis leave areas under enemy fire along with the rest of the general population? Why did they not rely on this maxim?

So, if you want to claim that we need lots of people in kollel in order to rebuild Torah after the losses of the Holocaust (although there is vastly more Torah learned today than before the Holocaust), fine. But don't claim that you believe that kollel students are remotely equivalent to the IDF in terms of protecting the country. They're not, and you know it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Swords, Guns and Judaism

The Mishnah (Shabbos 6:4) states that a man may not go out in the street on Shabbos, where there is no eruv, wearing a sword or other such weapon. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees, arguing that such weapons are adornments, and may thus be worn in the same way that jewelry is worn. The sages are of the view that weapons, rather than being enhancements to a person, are “gennai” (a difficult word to translate; perhaps “shameful” or “detractions”), citing the verse "They shall beat their swords into plowshares..." (Yeshayah 2:4).

In the Gemara, the sages ask Rabbi Eliezer why, if weapons are adornments, they shall no longer be used in the Messianic Era. In one version, he responds that they are simply unnecessary at that time; in another version, he responds that weapons will indeed still be necessary in the Messianic Era.

The Gemara further states that Rabbi Eliezer’s own view is based on the verse, "Gird your sword upon your thigh, O hero, in your splendor and glory" (Psalms 45:4). A question is raised that this was traditionally understood to be a metaphor for Torah study, to which it is answered that a verse’s literal meaning is never entirely negated.

Curiously, the Gemara does not explain how the view of the Sages is to be reconciled with this verse. Still, the fact remains that according the majority view of the Sages, weapons are only tragic tools of necessity; never something in which to find glory. They even explained that the reason why iron tools could not be used in the construction of the Temple was that iron is used to construct tools of war.

Even in Scripture, recording the battle-filled days of Biblical times, there are no famous, celebrated individual weapons or types of weapons. There is no Excalibur, Anduril, or lightsaber-equivalent. The only famous weapons in Scripture, and indeed all Jewish history, are a slingshot and the jawbone of an ass! And the legacy throughout Jewish history, as expressed by the Sages, is that weapons are items that are regrettable. This presents a sharp contrast to various other cultures, in which weapons are tools of glory, to be manufactured in decorative forms, to be worn at ceremonial events, and to be fired at celebrations.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Killing in the Name Of God

Civilians. Men, women and children. Killed in cold blood by a small group of people who believe that they are fulfilling God’s will by doing it.

The attacks of 9/11, ten years ago today, fill us with moral revulsion. The problem is that the above paragraph is an equally accurate description of the Jewish People killing the tribe of Amalek, or the seven nations that occupied the Land of Israel. What is the difference between us? What is the difference between the Al-Qaeda terrorists, who kill Israelis and Westerners out of the conviction that it is Allah’s will, and the Children of Israel, who proclaim fealty to the Torah which commands us to kill various nations?

This question arose in my mind after 9/11. One person that I discussed in with insisted that the answer is simply that we are right and they are wrong. He considered this to be a vitally important aspect of emunah. I did not and do not find this answer satisfactory. To be sure, we believe that the Islamic terrorists are incorrect in thinking that they are doing God’s will. But we don’t just believe that they are following a mistaken interpretation of God’s will; we see them as fundamentally evil. Likewise, we don’t merely believe that it is correct to obey the Torah; we believe that “its ways as being ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” If pleasantness and peace is defined as doing God’s will, then the verse becomes meaningless.

It seems to me that there are several components to the answer. Since I detest discussions which get unfocussed, with people arguing at cross-purposes, I will break down this discussion into separate components, restricting each blog post to one component. (Note to those who are commenting: Stick to the specific aspect of this topic that we will be discussing!)

I think that at least part of the answer to this rests upon differentiating between goals and processes. Every person subscribes to a system of values, in which judgments are necessarily made as to who should live and who should die. But then there is the question of one’s attitude to carrying out a death sentence. With Islamic terrorism, we see that they take pleasure and perceive glory not merely in infidels dying, but even in the actual act of killing them. War is jihad, a “holy” war.

In Judaism we see a very different approach. Now, some would claim that one is always supposed to enjoy doing a mitzvah. I believe that this is misleading. A mitzvah involves two components; obeying God’s words, and committing an act. One can feel satisfaction at fulfilling God’s command at the same time as feeling revulsion at committing an act.

Before giving examples, let us look at a parallel concept in the world at large. We certainly find that one can commit an act which one feels to be ultimately good, and to take pleasure in that knowledge, even while the performance of the act is itself brutal and repulsive. The simple example is a surgeon or a dentist. The dentist is happy to be healing someone, even though drilling out his tooth is a brutal, painful act. Judaism likewise acknowledges that certain acts are themselves brutal and unpleasant, even though they are performed for ultimately noble purposes. There is no celebration of bloodshed.

For example, King David was not allowed to build the Temple because of the blood on his hands—notwithstanding the fact that he was absolutely justified and even praised for all the blood that he spilled. And, in a very different sphere, according to many halachic authorities, one does not recite the blessing of Shehechiyanu at the circumcision of one’s son, for the reason is that one cannot pronounce such a declaration of joy at an act that is a source of pain to one’s child.

One case that would appear to contradict our thesis is that of Abraham’s planned slaughter of Isaac. The Midrash tells us how Abraham complied with this command with alacrity, joyous at the opportunity to fulfill the will of his Creator. Yet further analysis and contemplation proves otherwise. The Midrash also tells us that Isaac was blinded by the tears that Abraham spilled. Abraham had mixed emotions; joy at fulfilling the Will of his Creator, grief at spilling the blood of his son.

Everyone has different beliefs as to who is worthy of punishment or execution. But one crucial difference between us is how we feel about carrying out these tasks.

(Please remember that, as noted above, I was only discussing here ONE ASPECT of the difference between Judaism and Al-Quaeda. In the next post, I plan to explore another aspect to this discussion: Comparing and contrasting Judaism's approach to weapons with that of other cultures. I will discuss still other aspects in future posts.)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bet Shemesh Update (UPDATED)

Here are some important updates to yesterday's post about Terrorism in Bet Shemesh. First, a mailing from Rabbi Dov Lipman:

Many people saw the scary videos from Tuesday and question whether the police take action.  While we were sleeping late morning, the professional detectives of the Bet Shemesh police station who want to protect the community as best they can (many grew up in the city) spent a few hours making arrests.  Those whose girls had to walk through those crowds can also reassure their daughters that the police arrested people.  This is not to say that they won't be out in the streets again and it may mean that even more come out today but the police do deserve credit for taking action.

Thank you to everyone who came to Orot Banot yesterday to help escort the girls home and to their bus stops.  The police specifically asked that we continue to do so and expressed their thanks because it does help them as well.  Please make every effort to come today at 12:50p.m. and we will daven mincha right after we know that every girl has gone safely.  Those who were posted throughout Herzog and at the kikar yesterday are asked to do the same today.  Thank you in advance for your help and let's hope today passes quietly.  Dov

Second, a mailing from a moderate-charedi shul in Ramat Bet Shemesh Aleph, Beis Tefilla, to its members:

Subject: [btya-members] Men - please give half an hour to protect Orot girls from abuse - and make a Kiddush Hashem

I have been asked by someone from Orot to put together a group of at least 10 men to be outside Orot girls' school tomorrow at 12:50 pm. The presence is intended to deter anyone from starting up with the girls. It will be a peaceful gathering, with no intention to interact directly with any "protestors."

There would be added Kiddush HaShem value in at least some of the participants being of chareidi appearance. (You can get dressed up for the occasion if you like :-)

If you can make it, please let me know. Rides may be available. If you need mincha gedola, it is planned there for about 1:15 pm.

Third, a later mailing from Rabbi Lipman:

God is proud of Am Yisrael.  A number of chareidi men and women came to Orot Banot to show support for the right of the girls to walk home safely today including from Beis Tefila and Chabad, and some yeshiva bochurim came from a yeshiva in Nachala Umenucha.  This demonstrated incredible achdus and will serve as a merit for the community in the month of Elul.  To remind everyone - this is not about anti-chareidi
and no one has expressed such sentiments in this saga.  It is about the simply right for parents to know that their children can go to and from school safely and that we can livein a city in total harmony even if we have different ways that we live our lives.  This is why I have only used the word "extremist" in my posts about the people harassing
the girls and never chareidim.

I am happy report to that the police did not allow the extremists onto the sidewalk today so the girls had clear passage to their bus stop. They even arrested the one extremist who insisted on remaining on the side walk.  As a result of our public pressure campaign and contact with government officials which included videos of what happened on Tuesday, the police presence today was strong and effective.

I want to call to all chareidim who support Beit Shemesh and RBS as being a city for all Jews and we can live together and respect one another to please be in touch with me.  I will put you in touch with a group of Chareidim which is forming to join the rest of the city's populations in working to create such a city.

May we continue to hear only good news.  Dov Lipman

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Terrorism in Bet Shemesh

Over the last week or so, there has been a war by terrorists in Bet Shemesh. A fringe element of extremist Charedim objected to a dati-leumi elementary girl's school opening adjacent to their neighborhood (note that the adjacent dati-leumi neighborhood existed long before any Charedim moved into the area). They broke in to the school and vandalized it, and threatened violence to the children. Such threats, while dismissed as fictitious by the local charedi newspaper rag Chadash, are only too real; this is the same group that injured some of my neighbors' children, causing them to be hospitalized, as described in an earlier post. The (charedi) mayor of Bet Shemesh wanted to capitulate to their demands and relocate the school, but after massive protests by the dati-leumi community and orders from the education ministry, the school opened as planned.

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. The charedi zealots have been harassing - verbally and physically - the young girls from the school and others in the community. These are girls in the same class as my daughter - eight years old!

A local hero, Rabbi Dov Lipman, has been at the forefront of efforts to safeguard the dati-leumi community. I am posting a mailing that I received from him, along with videos of the latest incidents. But before doing so, I would like to make an observation of my own.

A friend of mine argued to me last week that this is not a charedi vs. non-charedi issue, because the thugs involved are a fringe element that are despised and feared by other charedim in their own community. I agreed with him, until I went to the massive demonstration at the school last week. I did not see a SINGLE charedi person there. Not one! Nor, with the exception of a statement by Eli Friedman of the TOV party, am I aware of any efforts by local Charedi leadership to address the problem or even to express solidarity with the students of the school. If the wider charedi community - including all the nice Anglo olim that are friends and neighbors of mine - are not willing to do anything at all about this terrible situation, even to show a minimal level of public support for their dati-leumi neighbors, then I think that the issue can be classified as a charedi vs. non-charedi issue.

Following is the email and videos from Rabbi Lipman:

Hello everyone.  I was really expecting a quiet day today.  We went to the school to protect the girls at dismissal and someone saw a group of the extremists up the block where girls were going to have to walk.  We went up there to make sure the girls would have the ability to pass without feeling scared.  As we approached they began to scream at us (including me by name, a bit scary) but we managed to get the girls through despite terrible shouts at them of "shiktza" and "prutza." They then surrounded me and others and one did spit in my face.  At the same time, two very young girls (first and second grade) from Ahavat Yisrael were chased by at least one of the extremists in Rechov Gad in Sheinfeld.  The sad videos below capture a lot of it and it is worthwhile to watch to see how bad it has gotten.

So what are we doing about it?  I have spent the entire afternoon in touch with some local police (not the chief) and the Public Security Ministry.  the latter plans to help but they are not yet responding in the immediate manner we are demanding which is additional forces tomorrow.  There is some action on a local police level and I will report about that at a later point.

I personally believe that all local schools should strike tomorrow since all parents are sending their kids to school without knowing that they are truly safe.  I am not trying to scare anyone, just sharing the reality.  I understand that it is being discussed by the vaad horim but not likely.

I want to also emphasize that in conversations with chareidim not in this group, they are scared for their lives and their children's lives in terms of coming out against these guys who will simply "do more to any of us than we will do to them."

An action committee will be developed and I am actually thinking of a massive protest in front of the public security ministry in Jerusalem which will only be effective if we have a few hundred people there.  I will send more later but for now please watch the videos just to understand.

Please just watch and internalize.  Again, no provocations, just escorting little girls.


See how they begin chanting my name (a bit scary) as we approach and see the venom and hatred - and we are simply there to escort the girls.  The woman being there was necessary as she literally had to put her arms around crying girls to help them through (for anyone who would even think to suggest that having a woman there was a provocation)


This is our police chief saying that he cannot arrest them or even move them away since "all they are doing is screaming."  Go back to video #1 to see the "simple screaming" at little girls. Then he refuses to commit to having some policemen on that sidewalk.


See how we had to escort the little girls and how they were screamed at.

http://www.iba.org.il/bet/?entity=784533&type=1&topic=0&page
click on the speakers to hear me explain what happened to me (including being spat on and called "nazi" and "sheigitz") and the other speaker to hear an 8 year old girl from Ahavat Yisrael explain what it was like to get off her bus and be chased by one of the extremists.

Thus concludes the email from Rabbi Lipman. I urge my charedi friends in Ramat Bet Shemesh to show up to the next demonstration, wherever it is. Otherwise, you are effectively assisting the terrorists. I also urge them to reconsider their voting for Abutbol in the last election.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Circumcision

Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

I just learned a little about your work... I understand that your writings explore traditional rabbinic perspectives and how they may relate to issues of interest in modern science.

Please consider writing about the topic of male infant circumcision in our modern society, as there are a growing number of physicians who are speaking out against this procedure... Also, there appears to be a growing debate about human rights and constitutional issues related to this topic...

I look forward to reading some of your writings soon.

R

Dear R,

My parents vaccinated me against certain diseases when I was an infant, without my consent; I am grateful to them for having done so. Likewise, I am certainly extremely grateful to my parents for circumcising me when I was 8 days old, and not waiting until I was old enough to make my own decision.

Best wishes,
Natan Slifkin

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Exotic Shofars

It's shofar season, and so for those who aren't aware of it, I am posting my annual reminder that you can freely download my illustrated monograph, "Exotic Shofars: Halachic Considerations," at this link: http://www.zootorah.com/essays/ExoticShofars.pdf. This is the third edition, complete with discussion of jackalopes as well as the biggest shofars in the world! Please feel free to circulate this monograph widely.

For those readers living in Israel: I have a presentation on this topic, for which I bring along my huge collection of shofars and related artifacts for a unique hands-on experience. If you are involved with a shul/ yeshivah and are interested in arranging to have me come and present it, please write to me at zoorabbi@zootorah.com.

Chicken Shtick

Question: Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer: To ask the posek if he needs a mesorah . Many news outlets this week were reporti...