Sunday, April 2, 2017

Missing You, Dad

A treasured memory from nineteen years ago -
on a canoe with my dad, sipping from coconuts,
during a father-son trip to Mombasa, Kenya.
Yesterday, I was having a discussion with a friend about revisionism in Rambam. We were wondering what Rambam would have to say about it were he alive today. My friend asked me: "If you could choose any figure in Jewish history to come back to life, who would you choose?" Without even consciously formulating a response, I blurted out, "My Dad."

I had my father on my mind because today is his tenth yahrzeit. Professor Michael Slifkin, of blessed memory, was a wonderfully patient and good-natured father, a brilliant scientist, and a man of outstanding integrity. In a career spanning biochemistry, physics, electronics, membrane biology, and nanoparticles (amongst other things), he published 197 papers, including 11 in the prestigious journal Nature. He strongly believed in doing the right thing even if it made him unpopular, such as when he voted according to his conscience and not according to what was "the done thing" in England, or when he took on the position of safety officer for university labs and actually enforced safety regulations, much to the horror of his colleagues. He also had a terrific sense of humor!

Just like last year, due to a scheduling conflict with one of my sisters who is out of the country, a shiur that I am giving in his honor for family and friends is not being delivered on the actual date of his yahrzeit. In case you didn't read last year's post, I mentioned then how someone near and dear to me objected that since it's not being done on the actual date of the yahrzeit, "It won't have the proper effect for his neshamah!"

This is, I believe, a terrific example of the difference between the rationalist and mystical worldviews. According to the mystical worldview, our actions serve to manipulate various metaphysical energies. If they are not done in exactly the "right" way, then they don't have any effect. According to the rationalist worldview, on the other hand, our actions are not manipulating any metaphysical energies. The date of a person's passing is a meaningful and appropriate time to honor their memory. If it's done a day late, in order to better accommodate the family, that honors their memory more, not less.

This also relates to the fundamental nature of what one does for the deceased, a topic that I examined in detail upon the passing of my dear mother-in-law, Anne Samson, of blessed memory - see my essay, "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?" In brief, the mystical viewpoint, of very recent origin, is that one elevates the soul of the deceased by doing mitzvos whose reward is transferred to their mitzvah-account. The classical and rationalist view, on the other hand, is that by doing memorial events we honor their memory, and by performing good deeds we become a credit to their influence.

(As an update to that essay: I just came across something that seemed to raise a challenge to my thesis that there is no classical or medieval source for the notion that you can do a mitzvah to benefit someone who has passed away, unless you are their descendant or were otherwise influenced by them. Today I was looking at a contemporary sefer called Pnei Baruch which said that "Chazal say that Yaakov's son Asher sits at the entrance to Gehinnom and saves all those who learn Mishnayos, and even a stranger who learns Mishnayos on behalf of somebody saves him from Gehinnom." As I looked into it further, though, it became clear that the source in Chazal was only for the first part. The earliest source I could find for the second part was a sefer called Yalkut Das V'Din which was only published in 1945.)

Dad, I love you dearly, and I miss you more than ever. I'm sure you would understand why we are doing the shiur a day late. Because among the many good qualities that you taught me, one of them was common sense!


  1. Particularly poignant. You know, you're quite emotional for a rationalist! I wish you arichut yamim and min hashamayim tenucham.

  2. The gemara says 'bera mezakeh aba, ve'ein aba mezakeh bera' (a child can bring zechut to a deceased father, but not vice versa).

    If anyone can engender merit for anyone else, why could a father not do it for his deceased son? It seems obvious that only a descendant (or possibly direct pupil) can do this.

  3. Fascinating is that similar ideas are found in early Islamic literature.
    Many beliefs and practices in Islam originate from hadith. Hadith refers to reports of statements or actions of the prophet Muhammad by his companions. Though the Quran is the central source of Islamic law, hadith are regarded as important tools for understanding the Quran and commentaries on it. Prophet Mohammed’s acquaintance, Abu Hurairah (Arabian Peninsula, 603–681), was the most prolific narrator of hadith in Sunni hadith compilations.
    Here is a hadith from Abu Hurairah:
    Abu Hurairah reported, “The Prophet (saws) said, ‘When a person dies all his good deeds cease except for three:
    1. a continuous act of charity (which the deceased did in his lifetime),
    2. beneficial knowledge (which the deceased left behind),
    3. and a righteous son (children) who prays for him’.”
    Related by Muslim and Abu Dawood (died 889, Basra).
    Abu Hurairah reported, “The Prophet (saws) said, ‘The righteous works that continue to benefit a believer after his death include the knowledge that he taught and spread among others, a righteous son (children) whom he leaves behind, or a copy of the Qur’an that he bequeaths to his inheritors, or a mosque that he builds, or a rest house that he builds for the wayfarers, or a canal of water that he digs for the benefit of others, or a charity that he gives out of his property during his life while he is sound of health. He will continue to receive reward for all these even after his death.’ Related by Ibn Maajah (Iranian province of Qazvin, 9th century).
    It appears that Islam and Judaism borrowed from one another.

    1. "It appears that Islam and Judaism borrowed from one another"
      i assume that you are aware of the fact that judaism is a bit older than islam, and chazal said what they said long before Mohamed was even a twinkle in his father's eye.
      islam borrowed from judaism (no chidush there) but not the other way around.

    2. The idea in Natan Slifkin's article, "What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?", was that these ideas did not exist in Chazal. I am suggesting they crept into Judaism in post-Talmudic times from Islam.

  4. Wow. 11 articles in nature is no joke! He must be proud of the headway your making in bringing science to the masses!

  5. Beautifully written, R' Slifkin.
    One little comment:
    "If they are not done in exactly the "right" way, then they don't have any effect" is not exactly saying the same thing as: "It won't have the proper effect for his neshamah."

  6. הנאהב והנעים בחייו, ובמותו לא נפרד.

    May the many loving memories of your dad carry you ever forward.

  7. > In brief, the mystical viewpoint, of very recent origin, is that
    > one elevates the soul of the deceased by doing mitzvos whose reward > is transferred to their mitzvah-account.

    Maybe a nitpick but I would word this "by doing *specific* mitzvos". I think that's where this approach really becomes mystical.

  8. Your tribute to your Dad is lovely and fitting. But you are too kind to what you characterize as "the mystical worldview". To my mind, there is a simple term for the belief that "our actions serve to manipulate various metaphysical energies [and i]f they are not done in exactly the 'right' way, then they don't have any effect." that term is magic, and regardless of how many the best of our people have been mislead into it, our oldest and most revered sources are quite clear about the place of magic in our value system.

  9. Between the lines here, I see the fact that your in-laws made a major donation in your father's memory, as testimony to his menschlichkeit.
    יהי זכרו ברוך

  10. Wishing you Arichus Yamim.

    Interesting that I too have Yartzeit for my own father on the same day (6 Nisan), among whose accomplishments was that he too "strongly believed in doing the right thing even if it made him unpopular, " albeit in a different manifestation.

    I decided to learn something Leilui Nishmaso, but chose Hilchos Pesach (Aruch HaSHulchan) so that regardless of the merit to his Neshama, I would also get some benefit in knowing the Halacha!


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