Monday, April 30, 2012

Praying For Survival: The Hassidization of Litvaks

Lately, with a number of elderly Haredi Gedolim being very sick, there has been many people in the Haredi community calling upon the community to pray for their health. Previously, I have discussed whether this is as much of a life-changing crisis as some are describing it, but in this post I want to discuss a different point. I was somewhat taken aback to see that much of the talk about the need to pray for the health of the Gedolim asserts that the reason why it is so important is that the Gedolim are needed in order to pray for our own survival.

Let's leave aside, for now, the question of whether this makes the entire effort somewhat selfish. I am more intrigued by the theological concept that is implicitly being presented here. Instead of us praying for our survival, we are better off simply praying for the Gedolims' survival. The Gedolim are assumed to be better at praying for our survival than we are, and thus, to the extent that our prayers are effective, they are best directed towards the health of the Gedolim, rather than directed towards the things that we want the Gedolim to pray for.

Now, this seems to be consistent with Chassidic thought. In Chassidic circles, it is only the Admor that has a significant connection to God. Everyone else connects to God via the Admor - eating his shirayim, etc. But is it consistent with Litvishe thought? My impression is that Litvaks had traditionally subscribed to קרוב ה' לכל קוראיו - "God is close to all that call upon Him." You don't pray for someone else to be able to pray for you - you just pray yourself for the things that you need. Am I wrong?

(On another note, I still have an opening in my schedule for Shabbos July 21 in the NY/ NJ region and Shabbos August 11 in LA - please write if you want to schedule a scholar-in-residence weekend.)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Yom Ha-Atzmaut and Rationalism

(A re-post from two years ago, with new material at the end)

What is the connection between Yom Ha-Atzmaut and rationalism?

I would like to suggest that the rationalist/ non-rationalist divide serves to explain one very minor aspect of the dispute between those who celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut and those who do not.

When I was in yeshivah, I remember that we all viewed the Biblical and Talmudic era as being something like Tolkien's Middle-Earth. There were giants, dwarfs, fabulous beasts, and magicians. Our revered ancestors possessed extraordinary powers; Chazal could instantly incinerate people by looking at them, and any of the Avos would be able to defeat hundreds of people in battle without even raising a finger. These people were of perfect character and of a spiritual level that we cannot even begin to start to attempt to grasp in the slightest degree; if we were to even look at them, we would drop dead. In the wonderful sefer Sichas Chullin, which explains the topics in Maseches Chullin with the aid of diagrams, the author apologizes for including simple illustrations of people involved in slaughtering animals, etc.; he assures the reader that these are certainly not intended to be depictions of Chazal, "who have the visage of a Seraph, and no person shall see them and live." (Which is paraphrasing a verse referring to God, not man.) And this is Chazal; the figures in Tenach were many orders of magnitude greater.

These, it was considered, are the type of people who are involved in events of religious significance. Super-special people; not ordinary people like you or me, and certainly not irreligious people. I think that this perhaps contributes to the Charedi unthinkability of attributing religious significance to the State of Israel and its victorious battles. How could there be religious significance to events in which the pivotal people were ordinary folk, and in many cases not even religious?

People with a more rationalist outlook, on the other hand, don't look at people from the Biblical and Talmudic era as being that different from people today. Accordingly, it is perfectly possible for people of today to be involved in events of monumental religious significance.


See too Rabbi Dov Lipman's article in the Jerusalem Post, where he points out the following:
But what about the claim that monumental steps towards the Messiah’s arrival cannot possibly be driven by secular leaders? This argument holds no weight. The Bible, especially in the book of Kings, reveals that God is willing to perform great miracles and brings salvation through individuals far more anti-religious than any of the state’s secular founders and leaders.

King Ahab, who married a non-Jew, encouraged idol worship and stood silent while his wife killed prophet, was told by a prophet that he would lead troops to miraculous victory (see Kings I 20:13-14). Omri, identified as a greater sinner than all the wicked Jewish kings before him, (Kings I 16:25), merited a long-lasting dynasty because he added a city to the Land of Israel (Sanhedrin 102b) despite the fact that his intention in adding that city was to eliminate Jerusalem as the focus of the Jews! The secular leaders of the State of Israel most certainly have more noble intentions in building Israeli cities and, thus, can certainly merit playing a role in the redemption process.

Kings I, Chapter 14 describes Yeravam as a terrible sinner who caused others to sin, as well. Despite his sins, he led the Jews to victory in restoring the borders of Israel. The Bible its elf explains that the time came for this “redemption” and God used whoever the leader was at the time, despite his being irreligious.
As I mentioned above, though, all this only explains one very minor aspect of those who do not celebrate Yom Ha'Atzmaut. The main reason, especially today, has very little to do with halachic or religious positions, and a lot more to do with sociological factors. See my monographs on "The Novelty of Orthodoxy" and "The Making of Haredim" to understand why the notion of being a fully participating citizen of the State of Israel, and the very idea of incorporating a new entity (The State of Israel) into one's religious worldview, is entirely at odds with the isolationism and traditionalism of charedi society. They'd be uncomfortable with it even if the Ribbono Shel Olam Himself were to say that it's kosher.

(In the picture: The Israeli flag flying at Ponovezh yeshivah in Bnei Brak)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rabbi Storch Responds

A guest post by Rabbi Ari Storch, in response to yesterday's review of his book by David Zinberg

Prior to responding to the recent critique by David S. Zinberg of my work, The Secrets of the Stars, let me thank Rabbi Slifkin for graciously allowing me to respond on his blog. A careful reading of Mr. Zinberg’s review allows the reader to recognize that he is not criticizing my work inasmuch as he is instead criticizing the use of astrology by many sages. The issues raised with my work such as determinism, are actually concerns non-specific to my work.

My work, herein called SOTS, was intended to give the reader a clearer perspective of the thought processes of many of our sages. It is irrefutable that many great rabbinic authorities, although not all, were firm believers in astrology. While one may simply ignore these statements on the basis that they are “pseudoscience”, those who choose to actually learn from these statements to glean further understanding of Torah would benefit from a knowledge of the outlook and of the mindset of that day. Whether or not astrological beliefs should be rejected or adhered in today’s day and age is completely irrelevant to this discussion. In my work I attempt to build a framework to understand works containing astrological references such as: Midrash Rabbah, Tanchuma, Pesikta Zutresa, Midrash Hagadol, Baraisa D’Mazalos, the Talmud, and many others; similarly, of the later sages: Rashi, Tosefos, Ramban, Rashba, Rabbeinu Bacheye, Rokeach, Recanati, R. Yosef Gikatilla, R. Avraham ibn Ezra, R. Avraham ibn Chiya, Tur, R. Yosef Karo, Rema, and others.

While Mr. Zinberg as dissatisfied with how I address the conflict between determinism and freewill, he ignores that this is not my own conclusion, but rather that of earlier Torah giants who believed in astrology. Mr. Zinberg seems to have ignored that I directly cited from the Ibn Ezra when discussing this matter. As for future predictions, Chazal (Sukkah 29a) make the statement that eclipses are predictions of ominous events, yet, even in their era eclipses were predictable via the Saros Cycle. They understood that throughout history, the world was predisposed to certain occurrences, but that has no bearing on how a person chooses to act. Just because a hurricane will inevitably hit does not take away one’s freewill. Thus, my very isolated statement with regards to the events of six-hundred years were an assessment of the predisposition of the world as based on the imagery utilized by the sages who believed in astrology. I have never suggested nor attempted to calculate when the messiah will arrive. In fact, I am a firm believer that the practice of doing so is frowned upon by our Sages as seen in Sanhedrin 97b. (The reader should not think that there were no authorities who have attempted to predict these matters, though. In his Megilas Hamegaleh, R. Avraham ibn Chiya did, in fact, estimate the date of the messiah via astrological reasoning. This date was then repeated by Ramban and others. Alas, the projected date has come and gone.) Furthermore, this is an isolated comment and the book in its entirety does not address future events, rather, it focuses on the perspective of the many sages’ view of the natural world as it pertains to the celestial realm.

Mr. Zinberg harshly criticized the exclusion of Rambam’s opinion in SOTS. Any student of medieval rabbinic literature is well aware of Rambam’s staunch opposition to the acceptance of astrology. Rambam made that clear in the eleventh chapter of hilchos avodas kochavim of his Mishneh Torah where he expresses an extremely derisive view of astrology as well as in Moreh Nevuchim, Peirush Hamishnayos, his letter to Montpelier (Marseilles), and other works. However, SOTS was never intended to be a comprehensive compilation of Jewish thought regarding astrology. As such, there was no need to cite Rambam or mention his ardent opposition. The exclusion of his opinion was purely because it had no relevance. The purpose of SOTS was to allow one to understand many of those otherwise confounding statements of Chazal, as most of modern day man is not proficient in medieval astronomy or astrology. My goal was to provide the perspective of those sages that did espouse these beliefs and allow one to recognize how these sages saw beauty and significance in this world. Furthermore, throughout much of our history, our Torah writings are replete with these colorful astrological/astronomical references, and neglecting them by simply writing them off as archaic would tragically erase much of their message. One can understand these statements regardless of whether or not he believes astrology to be a valid science.

But to address Mr. Zinberg’s point, in a previously published work, Tiferes Aryeh: Kuntras Hatemimus, I addressed the rabbinic dispute of astrology more comprehensively and detailed Rambam’s approach there. I concluded that, philosophically, one is free to believe or reject astrology. (Although I feel the need to note that practicing forms of astrology is certainly prohibited and one should consult a competent rabbi prior to engaging in this practice. This is even if one feels that these practices are silly and baseless.) My personal positions on the validity of astrology are neither addressed in this earlier work nor in SOTS.

Mr. Zinberg mentions my creativity and provides an example that is intended to show how I have taken quite the literary license and is, in his words, “bizarre.” Although I do believe I have a creative side, it probably would have been best for Mr. Zinberg to have reread that passage prior to mentioning the association of the tribe of Judah to Cancer, the crab. This association was not one fabricated or concocted by me, rather, it is, in fact, mentioned by the Pesikta Zutresa which is clearly footnoted in the text itself. The Pesikta Zutresa mentions that the twelve tribes are associated with the signs of the zodiac and that the tribes are aligned to the months based on the order of their birth. As such, Judah, the fourth son, is associated with the month of Tammuz and the sign of Cancer. I am merely attempting to show the reader how this Midrash understood these associations.

Another concern of Mr. Zinberg seems to be my understanding that much of Greek mythology parallels biblical narratives. I find it difficult for one to reject this assessment. There are numerous examples of both biblical and midrashic narratives bearing an extremely close resemblance to Greek mythology. The story of the twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, invading the kingdom of Attica to save their sister Helen who had been kidnapped by King Theseus bears a striking resemblance to the invasion of Shechem by the two brothers, Shimon and Levi, after their sister Dinah had been kidnapped by Prince Shechem. Procustes’ bed in which he would stretch the legs of short wayfarers and gruesomely amputate those of tall wayfarers is identical to the talmudic account (Sanhedrin 109b) of the ways in which the people of Sedom would act.

Mr. Zinberg attempts to marginalize the Ibn Ezra by painting him as controversial. Despite this attempt, anyone who has studied R. Avraham ibn Ezra’s writings knows that they are piercing, invaluable, and a testament to his great scholarship. Mr. Zinberg mentions that in some circles Ibn Ezra’s views are unpopular and this, no doubt, is an attempt to present me as one who unknowingly rests upon, what Mr. Zinberg feels to be, unstable shoulders. I am fully aware of the views he mentions and have even addressed them in a public forum. Those who are offended by citations of the Ibn Ezra will probably not be comfortable with SOTS (or a standard Mikraos Gedolos for that matter), but somehow I suspect that was not what Mr. Zinberg was getting at with those comments. Although I would have no problem relying solely upon the Ibn Ezra, he is but one of many sources cited in my work. I have not tallied how many times I have quoted specific sources, but I would venture to say that I quote Rabbeinu Bacheye just as frequently, in addition to many other Rishonim and Midrashim. The controversies surrounding Ibn Ezra’s writings are irrelevant to SOTS. Just as I did not mention that science has honored Ibn Ezra by naming a crater on the moon, Abenezra, for him; I did not mention the Ibn Ezra’s views with regards to post-Mosaic authorship. Although these are fascinating tidbits of information, they have no bearing on SOTS.

The attempt to discredit Ibn Ezra, and my usage of him as a source in my work, by citing Maharshal’s scathing critique of Ibn Ezra is at best disingenuous. Mr. Zinberg, very apologetically, rejects small portions of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah due to discrepancies between those writings and contemporary science (“To be fair, much of Maimonides’ cosmology, summarized in Basic Principles of the Torah, the very first section of the Mishneh Torah, is also obsolete ...”), but it seems clear that he has no problem adhering to the rest of Mishneh Torah. If Mr. Zinger defers to Maharshal’s opinion as to which books should be read and which should be censored, then he should wholeheartedly reject the adherence of any opinion espoused by Rambam in Mishnah Torah. Just a few lines prior to Mr. Zinberg’s citation of Maharshal’s criticism of Ibn Ezra, the Maharshal comments on Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, “Therefore, one cannot accept [Mishnah Torah] in an intellectually honest way because one never knows what is the true source [of Rambam’s halacha].” I have tremendous respect for Maharshal, but it would seem that most scholars have not adhered to these statements found in his introduction to Yam Shel Shlomo.

Mr. Zinberg states that my work is part of an increasing trend to prove that the Sages were infallible. Nowhere has Mr. Zinberg shown where this idea was gleaned from SOTS, nor is this concept even expressed in the work. I can only guess that he misunderstood two of my statements (in an over two-hundred page work) that express my amazement of how two interpretations of Chazal bear striking resemblance to scientific thought that had not yet been discovered at their time. Mind you, had these two statements of mine not been included in SOTS, the work would remain entirely intact, and yet, Mr. Zinberg attempts to discredit the entire book based upon them. Furthermore, he has grossly misinterpreted my words as I have NEVER stated in my work that Chazal were infallible. I have not addressed the topic of fallibility of the Sages in this work, or in any other public forum. This topic, albeit fascinating and a point of heated debate in recent years, has no place in my SOTS, as it is addresses an entirely different topic. Once again, the purpose of the work was to display the beauty of the world, specifically the celestial objects, as seen through the perspective of many of our great sages. It does not take a stance, nor does it project an opinion one way or another as to whether or not the Sages were able to err. I hardly see how the Sages’ comparison of the twelve tribes to the twelve signs of the zodiac, or the comparison of Yechezkel’s prophetic vision to the zodiac (matters discussed from pp. 61-164 and which constitute about half of the book), or any similar imagery (of which the rest of the book is compiled but would take a lot more than a quick sentence in a blog to describe), could be taken to advocate the concept that the Sages were infallible. In fact, the overwhelming majority of SOTS has nothing to do with contemporary science. Rather, it explains how the astrological imagery and symbolism of earlier generations allows a better understanding of these writings.

I am not certain, but it seems to me, that Mr. Zinberg assumed that I had some other agenda and he proceeded to attack what he feels is an alarming trend. It appears that he stereotyped me in some way or another. Perhaps this was because my work deals with astrology, or maybe because my publisher was located in Lakewood. It is also possible that as a self-proclaimed “rational person of the twenty-first century” it is his desire to “gladly consign astrology to its rightful place next to alchemy, magic, divination, and other medieval fallacies.” Nevertheless, it seems this bias forced him to read into SOTS an entire perspective that does not exist. Any objective reader of SOTS will notice that the concerns Mr. Zinberg has with SOTS are actually concerns he has with the approach of the sages in our history that believed in astrology. Whether one rejects astrology in today’s day and age or whether he embraces it is his choice, however, censorship of early works or of attempts to explain them, would be tragic as it would undoubtedly be the cause of hundreds of years of rabbinic thought relegated to misunderstandings and misinterpretation.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Review of "The Secrets of the Stars"

Guest post by David S. Zinberg 

Review of The Secrets of the Stars by Rabbi Ari Storch (Lakewood: Israel Bookshop Publications, 2011).

May a Jew believe in astrology? Most modern-leaning, traditional Jews would likely say no. Astrology has long been considered a pseudoscience, and we Jews have a proud tradition of scientific study and accomplishment which has flourished in parallel to our religious legacy. As rational twenty-first-century people, most of us would gladly consign astrology to its rightful place next to alchemy, magic, divination, and other medieval fallacies. Furthermore, from a moral and religious standpoint, we tend to regard free will as an axiom, and astrological determinism undermines the very foundation of human freedom and accountability. To posit a mechanism by which human behavior may be guided by the zodiac and the planets, acting as a sort of providential conduit between God and man – even if man is allowed to overcome that mechanism – is to diminish both man’s freedom and God’s omnipotence.

Yet references to astrology are found throughout the Talmud and the Midrash, and in the writings of great medieval Jewish thinkers. Abraham Ibn Ezra (c.1089-c.1161), for example, wrote several treatises on the subject and generously applied astrological theory in his biblical commentaries. Even Rashi (1040-1105), in his commentary on Exodus (quoting the Midrash), says that Pharaoh received advice from his astrologers on the day Moses was born and, before agreeing to release the Israelites, warned Moses of “a star that is a sign of blood and murder” awaiting them in the desert. So how can we reconcile the undeniable presence of astrology in Jewish texts with our modern conviction that it is nonsense?

There are three general approaches to this problem, particularly with respect to the literature of the Talmudic Sages. There is the historical approach, which places astrology and other discredited notions in the context of the ancient world in which the Talmud was formulated. Despite their greatness, the Sages repeated ideas – including many now known to be false – that were prevalent in the Near East in the first few centuries BCE and CE. They were simply operating within the intellectual climate of their day. The second approach is apologetic; its adherents insist that the Sages would not err, even in scientific matters. Therefore, we misunderstand what appear, only superficially, to be incorrect notions about the physical world. Such statements in the Talmud, according to this approach, must have an esoteric meaning representing a deeper metaphysical, rather than scientific, truth. The third, and most radical, response is fundamentalist. Talmudic fundamentalists reject the historical approach and do not feel compelled to rationalize the Sages’ statements. Much like biblical fundamentalists, they maintain that everything in the Talmud and Midrash, even from the realm of biology and the physical sciences, is literally accurate.

The Secrets of the Stars is a product of the fundamentalist approach to astrology in Judaism. It is based on the premise that astrology is a true science having the full support of Jewish tradition. The author does not argue this position; he takes it as a given, based on passages in the Talmud, Midrash, and medieval Jewish works sympathetic to his thesis. He does not acknowledge the disputes over astrology in both general and Jewish intellectual history, and includes only a passing reference to a debate in the Talmud itself about Israel’s subjection to astrological influence. To avoid being cast as a full-fledged determinist, or as a proponent of predictive astrology, the author attempts to hedge his astrological philosophy with the following disclaimer, in his Introduction: “Despite the power of the mazalos suggested in this work, it does not suggest pre-determined destiny. The Creator endowed man with free choice, a fundamental belief in Judaism . . . While this sefer points to the strong parallels between the events and figures of history and the constellations, never is a cause-and-effect relationship suggested. The argument that as mirror images one affects the other is easily countered. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and it is only after the fact that one can decode the celestial secrets. The stars do not necessarily dictate the future, but history may be read from them.” This makes astrology sound like a purely subjective art form, valid only for past events. But, in fact, this is not the consistent message of the book. In a chapter entitled “Nearing Completion,” for example, the author predicts what will occur when the point of the vernal equinox on the celestial sphere enters the constellation Aquarius (this will indeed take place in approximately 600 years from now – the precise date depends on where you decide to draw Aquarius’ border – due to a real astronomical phenomenon called precession of the equinoxes). Identifying Aquarius as “the mazal of Yisrael,” Rabbi Storch states that this event “will undoubtedly infuse the year with a spirituality that only Klal Yisrael can bring, and ultimately with geulah, redemption.” (This discussion may recall a hit song from the late 1960’s on “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”).

Rabbi Storch is an energetic advocate for astrology as an interpretive method for Judaism and has tapped into deep creative reserves to implement his program. He offers several novel parallels between the zodiac – which he considers divinely ordained – and a variety of themes, such as the Hebrew months, the twelve tribes, and Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariot. But his unbridled creativity leads him down some strange and dangerous paths; he makes a rare proposal for a syncretism of Greek mythology and biblical narratives (though Rabbi Storch maintains that the Greek myths are merely corruptions of our own traditions). Thus, Hercules, who defeated Draco the Dragon, “represents the ideal man who overpowered his evil inclination, in contrast to the failure of Adam and Chavah.” And, “the centaur, a man-like creature with four legs . . . depicts this handicap – Noach’s inability to walk on his own two feet.” Occasionally, his ideas take a turn to the bizarre, such as when he links the tribe of Judah with Cancer, the crab. Adding to the famous midrashic tradition which has Nachshon ben Aminadav jumping into the Red Sea before it parted, Rabbi Storch says that Nachshon “quite literally took on the persona of the crab . . . He was not bound by perceived boundaries.”

Not surprisingly, Rabbi Storch finds a kindred spirit in Ibn Ezra. Describing him only as a “great Torah scholar,” Rabbi Storch cites Ibn Ezra’s astrological works numerous times throughout the book. He fails to mention, however, that Ibn Ezra was a highly controversial figure, in his own lifetime and for centuries following his death. Today, in fact, many of his opinions – unrelated to astrology – are considered heretical in some Orthodox circles. Ibn Ezra often rejected midrashic exegesis on the narrative portions of the Bible, preferring his own brand of natural (peshat) interpretation. He was a harsh critic of Rashi for being inclined towards midrashic commentary. Ibn Ezra pointed to verses in the Torah which could not have been written by Moses and believed that the latter half of Isaiah (from chapter forty) was written by an anonymous prophet who lived at the end of the Babylonian Exile. The great Polish Talmudist, Rabbi Solomon Luria (known as Maharshal, 1510-1574), wrote scathingly of Ibn Ezra, “he did not master the Talmud . . . he frequently criticized great Torah scholars . . . we do not follow his commentaries . . . for he opposed Halakhah on many occasions, and even came out against the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud . . . I believe he has already been punished, since he has lent support to heretics and disbelievers.” Ibn Ezra is hardly a mainstream figure within rabbinic Judaism, and one wonders whether Rabbi Storch has thought through the implications of standing on the shoulders of this particular giant.

While Rabbi Storch champions Ibn Ezra’s astrology, he conspicuously neglects Maimonides. Maimonides stated his objections to astrology explicitly and repeatedly within his halakhic and philosophical writings. Incredibly, though consistent with its fundamentalist approach, there is not a single reference to Maimonides’ rejection of astrology in this book. Responding to an inquiry on astrology from the Rabbis of Provence, Maimonides wrote: “Know, my masters, that every one of those things concerning judicial astrology that (its adherents) maintain – namely, that something will happen one way and not another, and that the constellation under which one is born will draw him on so that he will be of such and such a kind and so that something will happen to him one way and not another – all those assertions are far from being scientific; they are stupidity.” Because it is false, Maimonides insisted, the Torah prohibited astrology as it prohibited other forms of idolatry. Referring to the Bible’s list of idolatrous practices, including astrology (me’onen of Deut. 18:10), Maimonides wrote in his Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Idolatry (11:16): “Whoever believes in these and similar things and, in his heart, holds them to be true and scientific and only forbidden by the Torah, is nothing but a fool . . .” In the Laws of Repentance (5:4), he argued that the fatalism of the “foolish astrologers” is contradictory to all moral and religious law. To be fair, much of Maimonides’ cosmology, summarized in Basic Principles of the Torah, the very first section of the Mishneh Torah, is also obsolete (e.g., the four-element theory and the idea that the celestial orbs are intelligent). But like the Sages, Maimonides could only work with the best science of his day. His rejection of astrology, unique within medieval Jewish thought, remains on target from the perspective of modern, traditional Judaism.

The Secrets of the Stars draws mostly from post-biblical sources or, more precisely, from a carefully selected sample of sources. To gain a wider perspective on the issue, it is helpful to take a step back from the period of the Sages, when Hellenistic astrology was pervasive in the Near East, and return to the Bible. As part of its unrelenting campaign against paganism, the Bible sharply condemns astrology. The Torah and the Prophets repeatedly contrast Israel, who is told to place her faith directly in God, with her neighbors, who divine their future from the stars. Thus, Deuteronomy (18:13-14): “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God. Those nations that you are about to dispossess indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, the Lord your God has not assigned the like”; Isaiah (47:13): “You are helpless, despite all your art. Let them stand up and help you now, the scanners of the heavens, the star-gazers, who announce, month by month, whatever will come upon you”; Jeremiah (10:2): “Thus said the Lord: Do not learn to go the way of the nations, and do not be dismayed by portents in the sky; let the nations be dismayed by them!”

Just as Judaism as a whole evolved considerably since biblical times, the Bible did not have the last word on astrology. However, we need not be overly embarrassed by astrology or by other false scientific beliefs in the Talmud; after all, they represent the Sages’ best attempt at engagement with general culture. On the other hand, we must not embrace these statements as the truth simply because they are in the Talmud.

Viewed in its larger ideological context, Secrets of the Stars represents an alarming tendency within recent Orthodox thought to make the Sages infallible, even on matters of nature and science. But an attempt to bolster tradition by assigning quasi-divine status to the Sages is a desperate measure that is ultimately destined to fail. On a practical level, by adding unnecessary layers of superstition to our religion, we risk alienating a critically important segment of Jewish society that would like to come closer to Jewish tradition, but will be repelled by a theology so obviously out of touch with reality.

Hopefully, Secrets of the Stars will generate further discussion about the interaction of Jewish thought and law, today and in the past, with both good and bad science. That discussion deserves a much deeper and more balanced treatment than is found within its pages.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shlissel Challah: Serious Segulah or Pagan Piffle?

On the Shabbos following Pesach, there is a custom of some to bake "Shlissel Challah" - challah with the design of a key, or challah with a real key actually baked into it. It is alleged to be a segulah for parnassah (sustenance).

Needless to say, this is not exactly consistent with the rationalist approach to Judaism. Parnassah is to be obtained via hishtadlus coupled with good-old-fashioned prayer. And there is a fascinating study of this topic on a YBT-affiliated website which demonstrates that shlissel challah is rooted in Christian and/or pagan practices. Keys used to be manufactured in the form of a cross, and at Easter time, Christians would bake them into a rising loaf of bread to symbolize Jesus rising from the dead. (This is the source of the British "hot cross buns.")

Yet, unlike the hyper-rationalists, I'm usually not so fervently opposed to such things. There's lots of things in Judaism that originated in foreign cultures; but where something originated is less important than what we've made of it. And segulos are often harmless placebos.

In this case, however, I am a little more concerned, given the wider context. In the ultra-Orthodox community, there is a prevalent message that it is wrong and futile to engage in regular efforts to obtain parnassah (i.e. education, training and work). There is a real risk of people focusing on segulos instead of doing the necessary hishtadlus.

Recently I came across a story in one of the charedi magazines which was not as heartwarming as it first appeared. The letter-writer told of how, several years earlier in the supermarket, a person in front of him paid the entire bill for a needy family, saying that "he needs the merits." After this person died, the letter-writer visited the family and told them of their father's generosity, which surprised them greatly, because they were in financially difficult circumstances themselves. So was this person's deed a selfless and praiseworthy act of generosity, or an irresponsible giving away of money that his own family needed "in order to gain merits"?

(See too my post on The Ring Of Power)

In other news, for readers outside of Israel, this week is parashas Shemini - hyrax week! And, by a remarkable coincidence, hyraxes made the New York Times this week (and Wired Magazine). My own pet hyrax is positively giddy with excitement.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Riddle of the Bears and the Grapes; plus, summer

The other day, I picked up what must surely be one of the most arcane books ever published: "Jewish Tombstones in Ukraine and Moldova." It's not likely to ever have been on the New York Times' bestseller list, nor one of Oprah's books of the month. The book is mostly comprised of pictures of these tombstones. Many of them are carved with pictures - menorahs, flowers, animals. Of the animals, the lion and deer are by far the most common. But I was fascinated to find three tombstones, from early 19th century Kishinev and Sadgora, depicting bears standing upright and carrying a cluster of grapes:

From Bear Art
From Bear Art
From Bear Art

(The second tombstone might be argued to be depicting lions rather than bears, given the tails and quasi-manes. However, in light of the person being named Dov, and the other two images, it's probably a mistaken picture of bears.)

What on earth is this about? I've studied the symbolism and significance of bears in Judaism very extensively, and I have never come across any connection to grapes. Google didn't help me, either. Does anyone have any insights?

In other news - I am currently planning my summer lecture tour in the US. I have availability for Shabbos July 21 in the NY region, and July 28 and August 11 in California. If you are interested in arranging a scholar-in-residence program, please write to me.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"How Can You Cite Him?!" Plus, publishing woes

Here is an interesting anonymous objection that I received recently, regarding my book "The Challenge Of Creation":
"You quote certain people in your books that I do not usually see quoted. What are your requirements for someone to be considered a Jewish authority? To be more specific, I am most bothered by your quotation from Elijah Benamozegh who (it is attested in Wikipedia at least) "even considered the Gospels to be a highly valuable Jewish Midrash, comparable to the Talmudic Aggadah". Does this not make him suspect regarding anything he says? Why should you pay attention to him at all?"
The anonymous letter-writer is, I think, under two misconceptions - one regarding the nature of my book, and another regarding people such as Benamozegh.

Although my book The Challenge Of Creation certainly has an ideological slant rather than being merely an academic history of views, it is also intended to provide a history of views. One of my goals in this book was to cite everything of relevance to Judaism and evolution, no matter who said it. At the same time, I try, within the confines of available space, to put the person in context, to explain what larger approach he represents and how he is viewed by others. I make no claim that every person cited is a religious authority to be relied upon.

Thus, for example, I quote non-Jewish atheists on various points - not to claim that they themselves reflect the overall approach of the book, or that they are not atheists, but only insofar as the specific point that they are making. I cite the approach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that God created fossils, not that I agree with it (in fact I explain at length why I don't agree with it), but because it should be discussed. I briefly describe how leading rabbis in the Reform movement, such as Abraham Geiger and Isaac Mayer Wise, were hostile to evolution, and how this subsequently reversed itself in the Reform movement - not because I am Reform, but because I am documenting Jewish approaches to evolution. And I describe how certain 19th century religious Jews such as Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh, Naftali Levy and Yosef Yehudah Leib Sossnitz, accommodated evolution. But at the same time I noted that some of these figures were associated with the haskalah and that the overall attitude to evolution from the Orthodox Jewish community was hostile.

With regard to Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh specifically, I had never heard of his view about the Gospels. However, in my experience, it is often possible to find views amongst accepted Torah scholars that sound very strange to us - especially with rabbis from Italy.

While on the topic of "The Challenge of Creation," I should mention that it is currently out of print, and has been the subject of publishing woes beyond that of the overall disastrous situation these days with publishing in general and Jewish publishing in particular. My nine years of publishing and distributing with Targum/ Feldheim were wonderful, but came to an end with the ban on my books. Rabbi Gil Student rescued me with Yashar Books, but as a tiny Jewish publishing operation it was doomed and he had to close down. I then took up with another distributor, which was a very poor choice and worked out badly, and so now I have to republish "The Challenge Of Creation" yet again - this time distributing with Gefen Books. (There are a few very minor changes from the third edition.) It's ready to go to press, but I still have to raise about half the funds for publication. If you value the Rationalist Judaism enterprise, and are interested in sponsoring this project, please write to me.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Challenge of Blogging

Writing this blog has been valuable and rewarding in all kinds of ways. But I'm feeling quite strained these days over how many projects I am involved in -- my PhD, my encyclopedia, various publishing tasks, and other exciting projects, the details of which I hope to reveal soon. So I think that I'm going to have to slow down the pace of posting to this blog. If you want to be notified when new posts appear, you can subscribe by email using the form on the right, or set up an RSS feed.

Meanwhile, here are three pictures that I took over Pesach:

An Arabian oryx (probably the Biblical re'em) in the Arava wilderness.

My feet, being cleaned by "doctor fish."

An aerial view of Masada, which I took from a helicopter provided by Warren Buffett and piloted by Brigadier-General Ilan Hershkowitz.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why On Earth Would One Eat A Kezayis?

The reaction of many people to my conclusions about the kezayis is one of shock, followed by the question: "So do you yourself really eat such a small portion of matzah and maror?"

This is a very strange question. It also sheds light on problems caused by the evolution of the large kezayis-shiur.

Why on earth would I, or anyone, only eat an olive-sized portion of matzah and maror? The mitzvah comes late at night, after a really long day, when I haven't eaten for hours. Any normal person will eat much more than an olive-sized portion!

The kezayis is a minimum. The halachah says that eating anything less than a kezayis is just not called an act of eating. But any ordinary act of eating is obviously more than the bare minimum!

Does anyone build a sukkah ten tefachim high?!

So why do people wonder if people like me will be eating an olive-sized portion? Probably because the evolution of the large kezayis, along with the change from traditional matzah to Ashkenazi matzah (a.k.a. concrete) and from traditional maror (wild lettuce, sowthistle, etc.) to horseradish, has made eating a kezayis such a tricky and stomach-challenging ordeal that this is all that people aim for. Kezayis becomes not the minimum, less than which is simply not an act of eating, but rather the challenge, the goal. And people become so focused on eating the right quantity that this becomes the main thing that they think about!

But when you eat traditional matzah, and traditional maror (which was the normal hors d'oeuvre in antiquity), and a kezayis is a kezayis, why on earth would anyone only eat a kezayis?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Matzah/ Maror Chart for Rationalists

I am pleased to make available a free chart depicting the minimum quantities required of matzah and of maror, from a rationalist perspective. You can download it at this link. Share and enjoy!

(For details about the reasoning behind this chart, see

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why Do We Eat Matzah? Plus, more on the bear

Why do we eat matzah on Pesach? It's a very basic, simple and obvious question, so it should have a very basic, simple and obvious answer, right?

The usual answer is that the Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach in commemoration of the Bnei Yisrael rushing out of Egypt so quickly that their dough did not have time to rise. But why would this make it so very important? And is that really the straightforward understanding of what the Torah says? It might come from combining two pesukim which are not necessarily to be combined.

In Devarim 16:3, we have the following passuk:
You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you shall eat matzos, the bread of affliction; for in haste (chipazon) did you come forth out of the land of Egypt; that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.
The usual assumption is that the mention of "haste" is a reference to the pessukim in Shemos 12:33-34 talking about how the Bnei Yisrael rushed out of Egypt without time for their dough to rise:
"And the Egyptians were urging upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste; for they said: 'We are all dead men.' And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading-troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders."
But the word chipazon, which appears later with regard to matzos, does not appear in these pessukim. Instead, it appears earlier, in Shemos 12:11, before the end of the plagues, with regard to the korban Pesach:
"And thus shall you eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste--it is a Passover to God."
A few verses later, we have the commandment that on Pesach we must eat matzah and there may be no chametz in our houses. But the tenth plague, and the Bnei Yisrael rushing out, hasn't happened yet!

Of course, one could say that God commanded it knowing what would happen. But then why is there no mention of that? Furthermore, way back in Bereishis 19:3, Lot serves matzos to the angels. Rashi says it was Pesach, and a very non-rationalist person in a book entitled Seasons of Life claims that "the observance of Pesach is based on the spiritual powers in force at that time of year," and "matzah is representative of certain metaphysical forces in effect at that time." But the idea of Lot observing Pesach and serving matzah to his guests is reminiscent of a certain video involving bear-dogs. Is there a more rationalist explanation?

The answer to all these questions is quite simple. And it provides an example of academic scholarship enhancing the Torah rather than challenging it.

Put very simple, the answer is this: Bread, of the chametz variety, is an Egyptian invention.

In Canaan, the lifestyle was a nomadic society of shepherds. The bread that they ate was matzah - of course, not the hard Ashkenazi crackers, but the original, somewhat softer, pita-like matzah. (Which is why Lot served it to his guests.)

Egypt, on the other hand, was a land of farming, which despised the nomadic lifestyle. As Yosef advises his brothers to tell Pharaoh: "You should answer, 'Your servants have tended livestock from our boyhood on, just as our fathers did.' Then you will be allowed to settle in the region of Goshen, for all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians." The Egyptians had mastered the art of leavening bread, which was unknown to those from Canaan (which may be why Potiphar entrusted everything to Yosef except baking bread - see Bereishis 43:32). Baking leavened bread was of tremendous importance in Egypt - that is why there was a sar ha-ofim, a royal baker. There is a list presented by Rameses III which has an amazing variety of breads. But shepherds didn't and don't eat such things - they roam around free, without the burden of heavy ovens and without waiting around for bread to rise.

And so the prohibition against eating leavened bread on Pesach is so very important because it is a way of demonstrating that we left Egypt, the land known for its leavened bread, and we became free, like nomads, to travel to the Promised Land.

For more on all this, see this article from Neot Kedumim, and also this article and this one.

* * *

And now for something completely different. Following my post on Crowdsourcing the Bear, which proved very effective, I have one final bear-related question which has so far stumped everyone that I've asked. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 2b) speaks about the future judgment of the nations, which takes place in order of their importance. First is Rome; second is Persia:
"The kingdom of Rome leaves, and then the kingdom of Persia enters. Why? Because it follows Rome in prestige. How do we know this? As it is written, “And behold another beast, a second, like a bear” (Daniel 7), and Rav Yosef taught that this refers to the Persians…"
Tosafos raises the question that if we are judging the prominence of nations via their symbolism with animals, then surely the lion, as king of beasts, is more important than the bear. Since the lion represents Babylon, then surely Babylon should be judged after Rome, before Persia! Tosafos answers that even though the lion is king of beasts, the bear is more powerful and more devious.

But surely the whole proof for the bear being number two is that it appears after the lion in Daniel’s vision. If the lion is not more important than the bear, how does the Gemara's proof work? And if the Gemara is indeed proving that Persia is second from it being second to the lion in Daniel, then why isn't Babylon before Persia?

Many thanks for any light that people can shed on this!

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