Sunday, January 19, 2020

Why We Keep Kosher.

A number of people asked me to respond to a provocative article entitled "Why Keep Kosher?" by Reform Rabbi Michael Harvey. The article bases itself off the premise that the Torah's laws of kashrut reflect zoological ignorance. The Torah describes the hare and hyrax as bringing up the cud, whereas modern zoology says otherwise. (Rabbi Harvey is apparently unfamiliar with the hyrax, referring to it with the archaic name of "daman.") To quote Rabbi Harvey: "Do I really want to follow ancient laws set out in a document that isn’t factually accurate?"

Now, I literally wrote the book on this arcane question, The Camel, The Hare & The Hyrax, which is summarized online at this link. It is true that the Torah describes hares and hyraxes as bringing up the cud, and it is also true that hares do not actually do that (whether hyraxes do it is not as clear as Rabbi Harvey believes). But the bottom line is that there are all kinds of statements in the Torah that are not scientifically accurate, whether describing the universe as being created in six days, a global flood four thousand years ago, the sun setting (as opposed to the earth rotating), dew descending, the sky being a firmament, and several verses about the heart and kidneys housing the mind. Religious people following in the approach of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook accept the approach that "The Torah speaks in the language of man" - that it packages its theological lessons in the worldview of the generation that received it. Others reject this as a religiously legitimate approach, or reject it a reasonable approach (if they are atheists). But the question of the Authorship of the Torah hardly rests on a single verse about the hare and hyrax.

Rabbi Harvey then segues to discussing potential reasons for keeping kosher. He spends some time dismissing the notion that kosher creatures are healthier to eat. That's something of a straw man; true, Rambam believed it, but how many people seriously argue that today?

The Torah doesn't give reasons for kashrut. But contrary to Rabbi Harvey's description of this as a "problem," it's not a bug - it's a feature. There are only two cases where the Torah gave reasons for commandments, and we know how that ended. It's much better for the Torah not to spell out the reasons for the commandments.

Rabbi Harvey writes that "If you ask the literalist (by which he appears to mean the believing Jew - N.S.), the answer is a short one: “Because God said so.” On the other hand, says Rabbi Harvey, if you keep kosher for reasons such as making oneself feel closer to God, or identifying with the Jewish nation, or connecting to Jewish tradition, or some other reasonable explanation, then you're in line with Reform Jews who keep kosher.

This is nothing less than a hijacking of the classical rationalist view of kashrut. Yes, we are obligated to keep kosher because God said so, but God said so for a reason! For centuries, rabbis have been suggesting various rational explanations for the laws of kashrut - it's not a Reform invention!

And while we might not be able to determine all the reasons with certainty, we can certainly suggest several rational possibilities. There may even be layers of reasons - one reason for having a dietary code of any sort (in terms of learning and practicing control, and/or maintaining a distinct Jewish identity), and then a secondary layer of reasons determining which animals would be permitted and which would be forbidden (which could be due to the cultural circumstances as the time of the giving of the Torah, as some Rishonim imply). And then there can be a third layer of reasons as to why people keep kosher today - in terms of connecting to Torah, to the Jewish nation, to three thousand years of tradition.

Rabbi Harvey says that his point is that Reform Jews (unlike Orthodox Jews) can make an "informed choice" as to whether they find any of the reasons adequate, and whether they wish to keep fully kosher, "kosher-style," or nothing. But Orthodox Jews can also be informed; we can be perfectly aware that hares do not bring up the cud, and we can believe that there are rational reasons for keeping kosher.

The difference is as follows. Michael Harvey, as a Reform Rabbi, believes that people are perpetually entitled to choose whether to implement their informed choice. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, means choosing to consider oneself commanded - choosing to commit.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

An Inspirational Event?

There were several Siyumei HaShas in the last few weeks. Some of them created a lot of inspiration and received a lot of publicity. Others received somewhat less publicity, but are more deservedly a source of inspiration.

All the Siyumei HaShas are an incredibly testimony to the Jewish People's passion for Torah. It's simply incredible when many thousands of people get together to celebrate those who day in, day out make the time to study a difficult page of Gemara.

My father, of blessed memory, did not grow up in a religious home and did not have the benefit of a yeshivah education. While he became religious at a young age and always learned Torah in various settings, it was only when he moved to Israel and decided to plunge into Daf Yomi that his studies really took off. Every single day, for nearly twenty years, he walked a half-mile, no matter what the weather, to his Daf Yomi shiur. And there are countless thousands of people like him! Truly incredible.

But the Siyumim, as events, were also taken as being inspirational in another way. They are presented as examples of incredible achdus, unity. The tagline of the Agudas Yisrael Siyumim in the US and London was "One Nation, One Siyum." And they are also presented as a kiddush Hashem with regard to the decorum and good manners of everyone presented. There was a letter widely circulated from the operations manager of Wembley Arena, which hosted the London siyum, stating as such.

Alas, the truth is not so simple.

It's not that the letter from Wembley Arena is a fake, as some people thought. As far as I can ascertain, while Agudas Yisrael apologized to Wembley Arena for disseminating it, it was simply an unauthorized letter.

There's a different problem.

Yes, there was incredible decorum and good manners and unity at the London Siyum HaShas. But do you know why?

It's because the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain wasn't invited!

That's right. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, was disinvited from the largest Torah event in Britain. Had he come, some other rabbis would have made trouble, and so Agudas Yisrael decided to disinvite the Chief Rabbi rather than stand up to the other rabbis.

Why? What was the Chief Rabbi's terrible crime?

In September 2018, Rabbi Mirvis backed LGBT sex education at Jewish schools in the UK. He published guidelines stating that despite prohibitions against the act of homosexuality, the Torah still demands "sensitivity to the feelings of everyone, including LGBT+ people" and there should be a zero-tolerance approach to either homophobic or transphobic bullying or disregard for the wellbeing of LGBTs as well. He also stated "Young LGBT+ people in the Jewish community often express feelings of deep isolation, loneliness and a sense that they can never be themselves. Many are living with the fear that if they share their struggles with anyone they will be expelled, ridiculed and even rejected by family and friends. They may even be struggling with a loss of emunah (faith, trust in God) and the fear of losing their place of acceptance and belonging in the Jewish community." So because he tries to help young people who are caught in a terrible situation, he is persona non grata in certain circles.

Now, at this point it might still be possible to judge his opponents favorably. Perhaps one could argue that they maintain such a strict and sacred approach to kedushas hamishpacha that they do not want to invite a high-profile person who is famously associated with dealing with non-Torah behavior in this regard.

But that defense falls flat on its face when you find out who was invited to sit at the dais and was featured with a photo in the official souvenir publication.

Rabbi Chaim Halpern.

For those who don't know, Rabbi Chaim Halpern was infamously arrested in 2013 on charges of exploiting around thirty women who were coming to him for "counseling" sessions. Ultimately the police did not find sufficient evidence to prosecute and the charges were dropped. But five senior rabbanim in London, including Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, conducted a personal investigation and wrote that "We are confident of our conclusion that the Rav concerned is not fit and proper to act in any rabbinic capacity. This unequivocal decision was taken after painstaking and extensive investigations, including interviews with alleged victims." (Incidentally, Dayan Ehrentreu, who is one of my personal heroes, pulled out of attending the London Siyum HaShas after discovering that the Chief Rabbi had been disinvited.)

You can put Rabbi Chaim Halpern on the dais and in the brochure, but not Chief Rabbi Mirvis?!

So, I don't think that the Agudas Yisrael Siyum HaShas in London is a great kiddush Hashem. And I know a similar, albeit somewhat less serious, story with the Siyum organized by Agudas Yisrael at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, but the victimized party personally asked me not to write about it.

However, this doesn't mean that one shouldn't draw inspiration from the Siyum HaShas. It's just that one should be contemplating a different siyum, one not organized by Agudas Yisrael.

During "Siyum Season" there were three Siyumim held in Jerusalem at Binyanei HaUmah. One, ran by my former mentor Rav Mordechai Kornfeld of Kollel Iyun HaDaf, was synchronized with the MetLife siyum. But there were also two other Siyumim held that week, which you won't read a word about in Ami Magazine or HaModia or Mishpachah.

At both of these other Siyumim, there were thousands of people present. There were outstanding, inspirational speakers of tremendous intellectual and moral stature. There was nobody disinvited because of their attempting to help people in need or because their haskafos don't fit within the narrowest of boundaries. These events were an inspirational Kiddush Hashem, through and through.

So why weren't they reported in the aforementioned publications? Simple. The first one was held by the Religious-Zionist community, and these publications try to avoid acknowledging the existence of Torah in communities other than their own (Mishpacha sometimes breaks from this policy). And the second was a siyum for women!

Yes, that's right. Thousands of people, mostly (but not entirely) women, crowded into Binyanei HaUmah to celebrate women that completed the entire Shas. (Read the articles here and here.) Just the idea of it gives many men the heebie-jeebies! And the youngest woman to finish Shas was a girl of 17, who started when she was ten years old!

Now that's something to be inspired by!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Resolving the Quandary

Yesterday I posed the following question:
Let's say something happened which caused many, many people to feel greatly inspired and happy. (No further effects beyond that.) And let's say one were to find out that it didn't actually happen, or that it actually happened in a way that wasn't so inspirational. Should one tell people?
The question wasn't theoretical; it was regard to something that actually happened recently. It received an enormous amount of responses, on the blog and especially on Facebook.

Some people didn't even appreciate the question. They said that truth is obviously the most important thing, and that's that.

Personally, I disagree strongly with that approach. Certainly within classical Judaism, truth is not the most important value (there's a long out-of-print book by my cousin's cousin, called Lying for Truth, which discusses that). And if one is talking from a non-religious perspective, who's to say that truth is more important than happiness and inspiration?

Other people said that it's more complicated, and there are all kinds of different factors to consider. For example, if it's something that is part of religious faith, then discrediting it has all kinds of effects to consider. I tried to preempt that in the way that I phrased the question, when I wrote that in this case there are no further effects to consider.

Eventually, after reading the comments and thinking the matter through further, I came to the following realization: There is no such question. That is to say, there is no real-life scenario in which one is choosing simply between inspiration/happiness and truth. There are always going to be further ramifications. Sometimes even disillusionment can have positive effects, as well as negative effects.

In the particular situation that I was thinking of, there are certainly ramifications. Right now, people are feeling inspired and happy about a certain event, in several different aspects. If I reveal certain truths about the event, one of those aspects will be blown out of the water. But on reflection, I think it's an aspect that deserves to be negated. On the other hand, other aspects, which still deserve to be a source of inspiration, will naturally suffer a hit. Yet at the same time, I think that I can provide a report of another event which will provide comparable inspiration. All things considered, I am leaning towards it. But I haven't reached a final decision yet.


Sunday, January 12, 2020

A Quandary

Let's say something happened which caused many, many people to feel greatly inspired and happy. (No further effects beyond that.) And let's say one were to find out that it didn't actually happen, or that it happened in a way that wasn't so inspirational. Should one tell people?

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Ghosts, Demons, and Bacteria

In honor of Daf Yomi reaching this topic, here is a re-release of a post from a few years back:

Concurrent with the release of the new Ghostbusters movie, somebody asked me about Judaism's position vis-a-vis ghosts. The truth is that the term "ghost" is somewhat vague. The ghosts in Ghostbusters are a mix of the spirits of dead people, demonic entities, and strange slimey things.

In various Jewish texts, the spirits of dead people are described as appearing in terms of gilgulim and dybbuks. Rabbi Reuven Margolies, for example, explains that the reason why a murderous ox is put on a human-like trial is that it houses the reincarnated spirit of a person. Belief in such gilgulim, first discussed in the era of the Geonim, is found with many authorities, though it was also rejected by many others.

(Opponents to the belief in gilgulim include Rav Saadiah Gaon, Emunos v’Dayos 6:8; Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam (see R. Margolies, in his introduction to Milchamos Hashem p. 19 note 11); Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud, in Emunah Ramah 7; Rabbeinu Yitzchak ben Avraham Ibn Latif, Rav Poalim, p. 9 section 21; Rav Chasdai Crescas, Ohr Hashem, ma’amar 4, derash 7; Rav Yosef Albo, Sefer HaIkkarim 4:29; and Rav Avraham Bedersi, Ktav Hitnatzlut leRashba. See too Rashash to Bava Metzia 107a. Also see Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, commentary to Genesis 50:2. For further discussion, see Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, “Body And Soul: Tehiyyat ha-Metim and Gilgulim in Medieval and Modern Philosophy,” The Torah u-Madda Journal vol. 10, 2001.)

A much later belief is that in dybbuks - malevolent spirits that take over a person's body. One of the most famous such accounts is that of Rav Elchonon Wasserman, who told about an exorcism performed by the Chafetz Chaim. However, in Making Of A Gadol, Rav Nosson Kamenetzky cites various members of the Chafetz Chaim's family who said that the woman concerned was mentally ill, and the Chafetz Chaim was simply catering to her beliefs.

Neither gilguls nor dybbuks are found in classical rabbinic texts such as the Talmud or Midrash. However, there are countless references in these texts to sheidim and mazikin. What are these? In a very strange column published yesterday in Hamodia/ Cross-Currents, Rabbi Avi Shafran quotes the statement of the Talmudic sage Abba Binyamin that "Were the myriad mazikin that constantly surround us visible to us... we would be frozen in terror." Rabbi Shafran adds that "Whether he had in mind the fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses that regularly seek to invade our bodies must remain speculation."

Personally, I think that "wishful thinking" would be a better description than "speculation." It is, frankly, rather odd to posit that Chazal knew about such microscopic phenomena. First of all, considering how many very basic things about the natural world they did not know, such as the sun's path at night, why on earth would they have known about microscopic phenomena? Second, if they did indeed know about bacteria and viruses, then why on earth didn't they issue basic medical advice which would have saved countless lives over history, instead of all kinds of bizarre potions and procedures? Third, let's look at the full statement from the Gemara:
It has been taught: Abba Benjamin says, If the eye had the power to see the mazikin, no creature could endure them. Abaye says: They are more numerous than we are and they surround us like the ridge round a field. R. Huna says: Every one among us has a thousand on his left and ten thousand on his right. Rava says: They are responsible for the crushing in the Kallah lectures, fatigue in the knees, the wearing out of the clothes of the scholars from rubbing against them, and the bruising of the feet. If one wants to discover them, let him take sifted ashes and sprinkle around his bed, and in the morning he will see something like the footprints of a cock. If one wishes to see them, let him take the afterbirth of a black she-cat which is the offspring of a black she-cat, the firstborn of a firstborn, roast it in fire and grind it to powder, and then let him put some into his eye, and he will see them. Let him also pour it into an iron tube and seal it with an iron signet that they should not steal it from him, and let him also close his mouth, so that he should not come to harm. (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 6a-b)
That hardly sounds like a description of fungi, protozoa, bacteria and viruses!

The mazikin and sheidim of the Gemara are demons. Many rabbinic scholars over the centuries believed in the existence of such entities, in part due to the authority of the Talmud. Others, notably Rambam, dismissed the notion of demons.

There is a comprehensive discussion of all the different rabbinic views on demons in my monograph, Wrestling with Demons: A History of Rabbinic Attitudes to Demons. As I conclude in my study, the mere fact of someone ultimately accepting that demons exist does not at all necessarily mean that he is not a rationalist — it all depends upon the historical context.

The monograph can be downloaded after making a donation via PayPal account or with a credit card. The recommended donation is $5, but if you have gained from the Rationalist Judaism enterprise and would you would like to take this opportunity to express your appreciation with a larger donation, it would be gratefully appreciated! You can make a donation by clicking on the following icon. After the payment, it will automatically take you to a download link for the document. (The monograph will also be included in my forthcoming book, Rationalism vs. Mysticism: Schisms in Traditional Jewish Thought.)


Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Koren Talmud: A Landmark in Jewish Publishing

A while ago, in a post entitled The Publishing Renaissance, I wrote about how when Religious Zionist/ Centrist/ Modern Orthodox Jews in North America and the UK complain about the "slide to the right" in Orthodoxy, or about how their children have become charedi and expect to be financially supported for the rest of their lives, it irks me. After all, it's their own fault! They have failed to make a basic effort to perpetuate themselves, whether with regard to producing educators, or with regard to literature.

We are the People of the Book, and books form a major part of our lives. They influence us in all kinds of ways, from the role models that they choose to present, to the sources that they choose to quote, to the hashkafic outlook that they reflect - often very subtly. And yet, for many years, Religious Zionist, Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy ceded this important field almost entirely to the Charedi community.

Sure, there were always non-Charedi publishers. But they were small operations that did not present a comprehensive range of publications, and just published whatever came their way. It's ArtScroll that has been overwhelmingly dominant. Every shul in North America has ArtScroll Siddurim, Chumashim, and Gemaras. Many people like to mock or protest ArtScroll for their approach, which includes such things as censoring the non-charedi opinions of Torah scholars and altering texts. But I don't think that such criticism is entirely fair. ArtScroll had a comprehensive vision. They went ahead and exerted enormous effort to fill a huge gap, for which they deserve much credit; of course they are going to reflect the approach of their own community. Where on earth was everyone else?

The donor pages of ArtScroll publications are astonishing. Few donors are charedi - they are mostly modern Orthodox (or even non-Orthodox) Jews. Why are these people sponsoring publications which are from a different community and do not reflect their worldview? The answer is that there was no alternative. There was no YU Talmud or OU chumash to compete. Only ArtScroll was serious about publishing a full range of Jewish literature.

Well, finally, things have been changing. There is a serious alternative to ArtScroll, which finally marks a publishing renaissance for Religious Zionist, Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy: Koren. Koren is the only Jewish publisher aside from ArtScroll to have a comprehensive publishing vision. They are putting out siddurim, machzorim, chumashim, and a series of works on Tenach. And the flagship project is, of course, the Talmud.

The NoƩ Edition of the Koren Talmud Bavli is an outstanding accomplishment, which stands out in a number of ways. It is based upon the Steinsaltz Hebrew translation, but also includes a wealth of input from other Talmudic scholars as well as experts in various fields, under the general editorship of Rav Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. The title page notes the contribution of language scholars in the fields of Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic as well as Aramaic. When the Gemara, as it frequently does, makes reference to all kinds of objects, plants, animals, unusual words, and so on, the notes surrounding the translation explain these authoritatively and at length, and often with the aid of photographs and illustrations which not only assist with comprehension, but also with making Talmud study more interesting. Significantly, the sides of the pages also quote (in translation) the halachot that emerge from the Talmud.

From a design standpoint, the Talmud is of the high standard common to all Koren publications. There is an aspect which I think is particularly helpful in wading through Talmud study, and that is the judicious use of spacing. Koren breaks up both the original Hebrew/Aramaic text and the English translation into paragraphs that are generously spaced. By turning the Gemara in bite-sized chunks, it makes Gemara study much more digestible.

Interestingly, Koren offers several formats for their Talmud. Aside from buying the physical volumes, either in a complete set, by masechta or by subscription following the Daf Yomi cycle, one can also purchase it in PDF format!

Congratulations to Koren on completing the Talmud Bavli, and I hope that it enjoys much success!


Why We Keep Kosher.

A number of people asked me to respond to a provocative article entitled " Why Keep Kosher? " by Reform Rabbi Michael Harvey. The ...