Friday, September 29, 2006

The Avot and the Amidah

The Shulchan Aruch states that if one cannot keep kavanah during the recital of the silent Amidah, one should at a bare minimum strive to do so during the recitation of the first bracha. Accordingly, I've spent a lot of time on that one bracha. I'd like to tie this in to my previous discussion about imitatio dei.

All translations are from the ArtScroll Nusach Ashkenaz siddur.

The first bracha is about Hashem and his relationships with the founders of our religion - Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Hashem is listed as their God both collectively and individually - God of our Fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. I was taught this was to show that while they all were worshipping the same God, their relationship with Hashem varied by individual. The prayer then goes on to list some of God's attributes. These are listed in ascending order of might and are drawn from the Tanach - the great, mighty, and awesome God, the Supreme God. Having described the solitary might of Hashem, we then talk of Hashem's relationship to the world - Who bestows beneficial kindnesses and creates everything.

Next we describe Hashem's relationship with the founders. What is it that Hashem chooses to remember about our ancestors? Usually we speak of zechut avot the merit of the founders. Surely the Amidah must speak of their devotion and love of Hashem, of their piety and eagerness to serve? Not exactly: - Who recalls the kindness of the Patriarchs. Just as Hashem is described as one Who bestows beneficial kindnesses so what he chooses to remember of our ancestors is that they themselves were kind. And kind to whom? It is not possible to be kind to Hashem, who is complete, perfect, and beyond all needs. Rather what we emphasize in the key prayer of our liturgy is Hashem's remembrance of the excellence of our founders at mitzvot ben adam l'chavero - between man and man.

Once again we see the importance in Judaism of being kind to others. It is because of our founder's kindnesses that we were chosen to be Hashem's Am Segulah - Hashem's treasured people.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

On Lakewood Yid

Over on his blog LakewoodYid is soliciting opinions on whether he should continue blogging (both posting and commenting) or not.

I find LakewoodYid fascinating. I grew up Conservative, lived most of my adult life largely in secular environments, and even as I returned to observance I kept a strongly rationalist attitude towards Judaism. LY comes from a completely different world. The science fiction editor John Campbell, who was active from approximately the 1930s to the 1960s used to challenge his writers 'Show me an alien who thinks as well as a man, but not like a man'. In Campbell's milieu, the word 'man' had the unrecognized adjectives 'white Enlightenment European' in front of it. The most successful authors to meet his requirements generally tended to steal lavishly from non-European cultures to formulate their aliens. LY serves this same purpose in my mind - he thinks as well as I do, but nothing like I do. If he reads this I know he will be sincerely sorry for the handicap of my upbringing.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talks about Judaism having a dual epistemology. Knowledge about the universe or Teva may be drawn from observation. In additions Jews have the Mesorah - the oral and written law. This is knowledge given by revelation.
Much of it may simply not be derivable from observation. Many modern orthodox Jews hold that these two source of knowledge are disjoint - the do not overlap and thus there are no conflicts between them. LY seems to hold that mesorah is primary - that when there are apparent contradictions between the two sources of knowledge we make no effort to reconcile - we simply follow the mesorah and ignore our observations of Teva. See his post Rambam - Ignore the evidence. Furthermore, LY is a classic example of a scholastic approach to knowledge. His perceived job is to mine the works of his predecessors to come to an insight on a problem. He modestly avoids chiddush. And he doesn't seem to seek factual data from the real world - I don't recall him ever citing a survey or referring to scientific data.

As far as LY's actual question of continuing to blog or not, I think it is clear that we don't have enough in common for my answer to be relevant to him. But I will draw on my well of non-mesorah knowledge and share a quote from Roger Zelazny This is the curse of the Buddha - you will never be the same as once you were. One more data point - I tell the pre-converts and early stage BTs I mentor to stay away from the J-Blogosphere until they are well grounded in a community. For someone without a lot of grounding, posters such as XGH and LY are too heady a brew. Four went to Pardes, but only Rabbi Akiva returned whole.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch

My post on 'How not to ask a shailah' has mostly generated comments on the uses and abuses of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. I tend to discourage its use by both beginning BTs and beginning pre-converts. If it must be used, then it should be an introduction to study b'chevruta - with a partner - as otherwise the book can serve as a stumbling block to future understanding of Judaism. There are editions of the kitzur that include footnoted commentaries which point one to contradictory rulings from sources such as the Aruch Hashulchan and the Mishna Berura. Studying from that sort of edition strikes me as substantially more useful. Incidentally, as a frequent mentor and contributor to on-line fora for beginning BTs and pre-converts, it usually takes a significant amount of explaining to show the difference between the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and the real Shulchan Aruch. Even a surprising number of people who have been BTs for years don't understand the distinction.

It is an unfortunate accident of history that the kitzur is available in a uncopyrighted English translation, which gave it a leg up on popularity over other halachic guides. I really wish that there was an English translation of the Aruch Hashulchan available.

David Klinghoffer's book The Lord Will Gather Me In has a rant on the deficiencies of the Kitzur as a text for BTs.

Thanks to the wonders of Amazon, here are links to the a search page on the contents of the book. Search on Kitzur Shulchan and look at the rant on pages 193 and 195. (The rant proper begins at the bottom of page 192).

Friday, September 22, 2006

Maimonides' Evil Twin

Last winter we were privileged to have as scholars-in-residence a group from the Stern College Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmud Studies. One of the shiurim they gave was "To know Him is to love Him: Ahavat Hashem in the teachings of the Rambam".

In one of the works we were studying, Rambam cites the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a,

Rav Hama son of Rav Hanina said: "After the Lord your God shall you walk" (Deuteronomy 13:5). But is it possible to walk right behind the Presence? . . . what the verse means is that you are to follow the ways of the Holy One. He clothed the naked: "The Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin and clothed them" (Genesis 3:21). So should you clothe the naked. The Holy One visited the sick: "The Lord appeared unto him in the terebinths of Mamre" (Genesis 18:1). So should you visit the sick. The Holy One buried the dead: "He buried Moses in the valley" (Deuteronomy 34:6). So should you bury the dead. The Holy One comforted mourners: "And it came to pass after the death of Abraham that God bestowed blessing upon Isaac his son" (Genesis 25:11). So should you comfort mourners.

This led me to ask a perennial question of mine, for which I had not yet received a satisfactory answer. Imagine, I said, Rambam's evil twin. He also thinks we should walk in Hashem's ways. He cites the Mirror Mirror Universe Babylonian Talmud

. . . what the verse means is that you are to follow the ways of the Holy One. He destroyed cities full of sinners: " God made sulphur and fire rain down on Sodom and Gomorrah - it came from God, out of the sky. He overturned these cities along with the entire plain, [destroying] everyone who lived in the cities and [all] that was growing from the ground." (Genesis 19:24-25) God declares wars that last forever "God shall be at war with Amalek for all generations" (Exodus 17:16) - So should we war with out enemies until we exterminate them. The Holy One punished complaints with plague: "Moses then said to Aaron, 'Take the fire pan and place on it some fire from the altar. Divine wrath is coming forth from God. The plague has already begun!'" (Numbers 17:11) So should you punish those who complain.

Why do we follow the first set of examples and not the second?

The class and the teacher discussed this for a while. Here's the answer we came up with, which was primarily inspired by Ms. Susan H.:

Hashem is altogether good. Even those acts of Hashem which appear evil to us are actually good, we simply don't understand the reasons why this is so. We are obligated to walk in the ways of Hashem. We understand why the plainly good acts Hashem does are good, so we imitate them. Since we don't understand why the apparently evil acts Hashem performs are good, we do not imitate them, because otherwise thinking to do good we may do actual evil.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

On Beged Ish

The issue of cross-dressing (men and women wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex) is one that comes up from time to time. Most Ashkenazic Orthodox consider it to be forbidden for a woman to wear pants in most situations where men might be present. Some of those who hold differently assert that in the US, men's and women's pants and suits are readily distinguishable from one another, and thus don't fall under the ban. Supporting this view in a completely different context is this comment from Martha C. Nussbaum:

Anne Hollander has written eloquently of the way in which women have claimed the suit, that attribute of the successful man the world over, as their own, replacing with it those billowing petticoats that made women seem vaguely like mermaids, human on top and some hidden uncleanness below. But women's suits never have been and never will be precisely like men's suits -- perhaps because women have better fashion sense, perhaps because color-blindness is a male-sex-linked gene.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

How not to ask a shaila

Names and some identifying circumstances changed to avoid lashon hara.

One of the skills my wife and I teach in our mentoring of BTs and converts is how to ask a rabbi a question. Here's an excellent example of how not to do so, based on a real life experience.

A pre-convert had been told by his rabbi to read the kitzur shulchan aruch (a big mistake, IMHO, but that is another essay) and when he was done come back and they'd talk about it. In one of the sections on Shabbat he came across a section that claimed it was forbidden to violate Shabbat in order to save the life of a non-Jew, unless failing to do so would arouse hatred against Jews. Of course, this is a legal loophole - at least until Messiah comes it will always be the case that failing to do so would arouse hatred against Jews.

Anyway, our pre-convert was upset by this. He was understandably unhappy with the notion that he might be obligated to stand by and watch his birth parents die if the only way to save them was to violate shabbat. He went to his rabbi on Friday night, immediately after services, and when his turn came to shake the Rabbi's hand and wish him good Shabbas, he asked 'Do people really follow everything that is in the Kitzur?' The Rabbi, mindful of the long line of people waiting, his wife and dinner waiting for him at home, and the sheer vagueness of the question, replied 'Of course they do'.

Undoubtedly a small amount of the fault for the wrong information conveyed in this story falls to the Rabbi. But much more falls to the questioner. He asked the wrong question, in the wrong circumstances, and then did not follow up when the answer seemed to make no sense.

Decline in the generations

I have trouble dealing with the concept of yeriadat hadorot - the notion that earlier generations of Jews were 'greater' than later generations. This can be taken literally (I've read and heard people say no one alive is or could be on the same spiritual or intellectual level as Rav Moshe Feinstein) or be referring to 'eras' of time - no Amora (sage of the Gemara) can argue with a Tanna (sage of the Mishna), no Acharon (contemporary sage) can argue with a Rishon (sage who lived from roughly 1000 - 1500 CE), without another authority of the same era to back them up. I've seen this notion expressed in numerous ways:

  1. Earlier generations were spiritual giants who possessed insight that no one alive today can match. Avraham Avinu effectively deduced the entire torah, both mitzvot d'oraita and mitzvot d'rabbanan. The dor Hamdibar (generation of the desert) climbed to such spiritual heights that a common person at the Red Sea had more prophetic insight than the prophet Ezekiel had in his vision of the Chariot. (The question of why this same generation was among the most faithless and ungrateful of all the Jews is generally ignored). There are other examples, but these give the flavor.
  2. Today we are in galut (exile). We lack the Sanhedrin, we lack the beit mikdash, we lack Kings and prophets, we lack the air of Eretz Yisrael that makes us wise. The Jewish legal system is set up such that lacking those institutions we can never have a court that is 'greater in numbers and/or [interpretations vary] wisdom' than the preceding ones. When galut is over things may be different.
  3. The decline of generations is quite simply the decline of knowledge. At Har Sinai the Jews had a complete system - not just the straight halachot but the meta-halachot of the how to interpret the torah (13 middot etc.), the mystical understandings through kabbalah, and vast amounts of now forgotten oral torah. Relentless persecution has resulted in the loss of that knowledge. Even where our ancestors explained their reasoning, we cannot be sure that the reasons given were the only ones, so we dare not change their rulings.
  4. Alternatively, the decline in the generations is not intellectual at all, but rather the loss of cultural familiarity with halacha, also expressed as a loss of yeriat shamayim (fear of heaven). As Rabbi Chaim Soleveitchik says in Rupture and Reconstruction despite our increase in textual knowledge, loss of mimetic culture (learning by watching the previous generations) caused by such events as the Shoah makes us less able to be at home in our own culture. See also Rabbi Micha Berger's essay in Mesukim Midivash.
  5. There is just too much too know now. Rabbi Akiva never had to learn the variant rulings of the Bavli and Yerushalmi. Rashi never had to learn the Shulchan Aruch and supercommentaries. Rabbi Joseph Caro knew nothing of the rulings of the Yeminites. Basically, it is no more possible today to hold all of Judaism in one's head than it is to be a contemporary renaissance man - to be a genius level artist and a world class scientist is not possible today - both fields have too much to master to let one mortal do both.

Despite this idea having a 2000 year pedigree, it feels like a cop out to me. At some level this is undoubtedly the sin of pride speaking. Nevertheless it seems to me that the greatest poskim of the generation have the obligation to make the rulings they believe to be correct, and not just blindly defer to those who came before.

Part of my problem is that I am not one of those poseks, and none of them agree with me. I can't think of a public admission by a posek in the form of 'X seems wrong to me, but it is clearly the decision made by those who came before, and so I follow it regardless.' I on the other hand have to say this sort of thing far too often.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Baby and the Bath water

I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Adderabbi and Curiousjew yesterday. Towards the end of my conversation with Adderabbi I was discussing my views of the various Jewish movements by saying that Jewish traditions could be considered as consisting of a bassinet containing a baby and some bath water.

Please understand all these evaluations are made with humor and love, not necessarily in that order.

The Orthodox are clustered around the bassinet,cooing over the baby and bathwater indiscriminately. Occasionally someone approaches with an eye dropper to remove some of the bath water, but they are usually shouted down. Every so often someone manages to surreptitiously flick some water out of the tub, or more commonly stir it a little.

The Reform are staring at an empty bassinet. Some people are searching for the baby,but others insist the bassinet is enough to keep them together, and everyone should have their own baby and bring it to the bassinet.

The Conservative rabbinate are in the midst of a never ending debate over where the baby begins and the bath water ends. They cluster around the bassinate so tightly that the view of the laiety is obstructed. Much of the laity has gotten bored and has wandered off to one of the other groups.

The Jewish Renewal movement has dropped some acid and is sitting around going 'Wow - look at the baby! Look at the bath water! So many colors! I can see HaShem!'

The Reconstructionists are painting a portrait of the baby and the bath water, in the style of Pointillism.

The Jewish humanists are looking away from the bassinet. They say it is impossible to say anything meaningful about babies or bathwater. But somehow, they just can't bring themselves to wander away from the area. Instead they talk about the people who stood around the bassinette before them, and the lessons they can learn from them