Sunday, December 30, 2012

Blessing for Birth of Down's Syndrome Baby

Last week (and again this week) Rav Shlomo Aviner publicised a p'sak halacha that parents should recite two blessings on the birth of a child with Down's Syndrome, both shehechiyanu and dayan ha-emet.

Shehechiyanu for the Birth of a Child with Down's Syndrome

Q: If someone has a baby with Down's Syndrome, does he recite Shehechiyanu? After all, he is sad.

A: He is both sad and happy. He therefore recites "Shehechiyanu" and "Dayan Ha-Emet." This is similar to a case in which one's wife gives birth but dies during the process, or one's father dies but leaves him an inheritance. He recites both blessings since he has both feelings (Berachot 60a. This is unlike the ruling of Ha-Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who rules that Shehechiyanu should not be recited in our case, since the parents are not joyous but sad. Kav Ve-Naki #70).

And this is the follow up response:

Shehechiyanu for the Birth of a Child with Down's Syndrome

Q: Ha-Rav answered that if a child is born with Down's Syndrome, one should recite "Dayan Ha-Emet" on the distress as well as "Shehechiyanu" on the joy. We – with Hashem's kindness – had a baby with Down's Syndrome born to us and we were very happy and are still happy, and we don't see any reason to recite "Dayan Ha-Emet"?

A: Fortunate are you! May those like you increase in Israel. But most people also feel some sadness, and one should therefore recite "Dayan Ha-Emet". Ha-Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ruled that Shehechiyanu should not be recited at all, and he is discussing a case where the parents are only sad and have no joy (Kav Ve-Naki #70). But the usual case is that there are mixed emotions.

I cannot claim to be as great (in anything) as Rav Aviner, but I feel that this requires a response (the always excellent Bill Kolbruner wrote a great response, but does not address the halachic aspects of the p'sak)

With all due respect to Rav Aviner, I think there are three aspects to this question (and I'm not convinced that he is correct on any of them): The halacha, the psychology and whether such a teshuva should be published.

The halacha:
The source for the blessings of dayan ha-emet and shehechiyanu is the gemeara in Berachot 59b-60a

Come and hear: If a man's father dies and he is his heir, first he says: Blessed is the true Judge, and afterwards he says: Blessed is He who is good and does good?
OVER EVIL A BLESSING IS SAID etc. How is this to be understood? — For instance, if a freshet flooded his land. Although it is [eventually] a good thing for him, because his land is covered with alluvium and becomes more fertile, nevertheless for the time being it is evil.7
AND OVER GOOD etc. How can we understand this? — If for instance he found something valuable. Although this may [eventually] be bad for him, because if the king hears of it he will take it from him, nevertheless for the time being it is good.

This is also codified in Shulchan Aruch Orech Chayim 242-3.

The basic concept is that if something happens which is both good and bad, one recites both blessings. However, in the first case, when a person makes two blessings, there are two separate things happening, a death, and an inheritance. I haven't found any source for reciting two blessings for a single event (even if it contians mixed emotions).

Furthermore, why does Rav Aviner consider a baby born with Down's Syndrome to be like a case of someone dying, or even like a case of finding something valuable which will eventually be taken away. To me it seems more like winning the lottery (because the parents have a lovely, beautiful child) and find out that you will have to pay taxes on it - perhaps not as good as it could have been, but much better than not winnning the lottery at all. (I accept that this is a psychological consideration, and you may disagree with me - though I hope not).

I also looked at the responsa of Rav Elyashiv and Rav Scheinberg that Rav Aviner quoted (because they are available online . They discuss whether or not to recite the blessing of shehechiyanu (which anyway the Rema says that we are not really accustomed to say). Neither Rav Elyashiv nor Rav Scheinberg mention reciting dayan ha-emes.

In fact, I haven't found anyone else who says to say this bracha. At the very least, there doesn't seem to be any requirement to recite any blessing. If in doubt leave it out?

Thus far halachic discussion (there is more to say, but the post is already too long).

As for the psychological aspect - even if I were to accept that there is halachic basis for reciting dayan ha-emes (which I don't), I think that actually reciting it could create a barrier between parent and child. It is as if the parent is giving up on the child as soon as he/she is born. I would suggest that the role of Rabbis is to be supportive and encouraging. Anything which has even a tiny chance of safek pikuach nefesh should not be said. Ufortunately, even today there are parents who do not want to take a Down's Syndrome child home with them. Unless it is an absolute obligation to say the bracha of Dayan Ha-Emes it should not be mentioned at all. Rather, Rabbis should be encouraging, supportive, doting etc and doing everything possible (within the confines of halacha) to help parents who are undoubtedly going through a crisis. Perhaps shehechiyanu is not the right blessing to say. But then say nothing at all.

Finally, even if it is the correct halacha and even if there is a specific parent for whom the Rabbi feels that reciting Dayan Ha-Emes would be beneficial - such a p'sak should not be made public. Writing this in a public forum is incredibly damaging. Imagine a child with Down's Syndrome reading (or hearing about) this p'sak. How will he relate to his/her parents and Rabbis? And how will others relate to them?

So, I'll end here. As you can tell I am very upset by this p'sak. Perhaps some will say that it is forbidden to argue with a godol. I don't agree. But in this case I feel very strongly that the potential for damage is enormous, and so far I haven't seen anyone write an alternative view. In addition, from the fact that they dont' mention it, I think that neither Rav Elyashiv nor Rav Scheinberg would agree with Rav Aviner's p'sak.

And apologies if I caused any offence to anyone with this post.


Someone has kindly pointed out to me that Rav Aviner's p'sak is explicitly arguing on the Chofetz Chaim, who writes in Be'ur Halakha in siman 222:

דיין האמת - אמרו לו שנמצא הרבה והרבה עשבים בקמה שלו או שאשתו הולידה נקבה ותשוקתו היה רק לבן זכר אין שייך לברך ע"ז דיין האמת אף שיש לו צער מזה כי לא נתקן ברכה זו אלא על דבר שמתחלה ניתן לו ואח"כ נתקלקל או נאבד משא"כ הכא החטים לא נהפכו לעשבים והבן לא נהפך לנקבה אלא שמתחלה לא ניתן לו בן [וכה"ג בחטים לא ניתן לו מתחלה הכל חטים] ואין שייך לברך דיין האמת על מה שלא ניתן לו [א"ר בשם אבודרהם].

"Dayan HaEmet: If they told someone that his field had grown a lot of grass instead of wheat, or that his wife gave birth to a girl and he really wanted a boy, it is not relevant to recite the blessing of Dayan HaEmet on this, even though it causes him pain. This blessing was only established for something that was given to the person and afterwards became ruined or was lost to him. However, in this case it wasn't that the wheat turned into grass, or the son turned into a daughter. Rather he was never given a son or wheat from the beginning. It is not relevant to recite the blessing of Dayan HaEmet on something that was never given to him.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Kabbalah will win it for Mitt (Moses)

To be honest, as a New Zealander, and someone who believes that Obama has been quite good for Israel, and Romney wouldn't be any different, I don't really care who wins the US Presidential election (though I do think it is a hard choice for Americans, because neither of the candidates is particularly good). However, it seems that some people in Israel really care A LOT! To the point that they are using kabbalistic prayers to force the outcome. Ynet reports:

A quorum of kabbalists on Tuesday staged a secret prayer meant to land Mitt Romney win the White House.

The 10 ultra-religious men convened at Jerusalem's Ish Chayil yeshiva to open the Torah ark – a ritual saved for special occasions – and chant a series of invocations calling for divine intervention to "bring down" incumbent President Barack Obama.

For the sake of the exclusive ceremony, the Republican challenger, a Mormon, was dubbed "Moses Romney" with the suffix "Shlita," an honor usually granted to the most venerable of rabbis.

"This kind of prayer can turn worlds upside down," said Shmuel Ben-Atar, a haredi radio presenter who took part in the service. "We ask the people of Israel to pray that Obama – who doesn't like Israel – is brought down."

According to Ben-Attar, the formula that is certain to get Romney to win the presidency includes the repeated recitation of certain Psalms, a prayer for victory said over the open Torah ark – and giving a shekel to the needy.

"People called us from America and asked us to bring about heavenly mercy," he said. "People around the world will pray tonight for Moses Mitt Romney."

Just in case Tuesday's session isn't enough, a delegation of worshippers from the yeshiva is scheduled to travel to the Western Wall at midnight, where they will continue to read Psalms.

"Tonight we will pray profusely for an American leader who will hear our plight," Ben-Attar said.

In my opinion their kabbalah learning has given them a false picture of the reality of the Israel/USA reality. I'm not sure where it says in the Zohar that Obama does not like Israel (though I'm certain that someone can show me where it does say exactly that).

But more importantly, if this is a prayer which is certain to give victory to Romney - does that mean that I can stop believing in the power of kabbalistic prayers if Obama wins? Surely they are setting up a case which is testable, and falsifiable. Let's see whether kaballah works or not.

This seems to me to be similar to a recent study done in London to see whether mediums (media?) could really know something about people under proper scientific test conditions. Of course, they failed the test. Which won't stop people believing in mediums and other superstitions. But does seem strong evidence against their efficacy.

An Aspiring Mekubal is proving the validity of the kabbalah by showing an unbroken tradition of kabbalah. He claims that Rambam is the only person in history who doubted the truth of kabbalah. Furthermore, he has somehow managed to turn things upside down, and claims that it is the anti-kabbalists who are unable to show any kind of mesorah. It seems to me to be a rather unique approach.

Personally, I am happy to believe in the authenticity of the kabbalah, but I am certainly skeptical of many of the things that are done and/or said in the name of kabbalah. The outcome of the US Presidential elections won't disprove the mesorah of kabbalah, but will show (again) that there are many unscrupulous people out there (or perhaps we can judge them favourably and say that they are just very misguided in their Torah learning).

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Masechet Purim

I know that Purim is still a long way away, but I just discovered this fact (in the very interesting book Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg To Schottenstein

Nowadays, a spoof of a current event has to be made within a few hours, or at most a few days, otherwise it loses its bite. However, it wasn't always so.

The first complete set of Talmud Bavli was printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice and completed in 1543 (it took 23 years to put out the entire set)

It was bound in pigskin (which was the best quality leather for binding) and the first printing was of 1500 copies. It was reprinted several times and was a 'best-seller'.

But only 9 years later the first 'spoof tractate' was printed in 1552, also in Venice. It was entitled "Masechet Purim" and was printed together with Sefer Havakbuk Ha-Navi (a parody of Habakuk Ha-Navi - which translates as "The Book of the Bottle Prophet")

You can download a copy from the amazing - save it for Purim and learn it with your friends and family. Or condemn it for being leitzanus.

It just amazes me that someone invested the time and money to create and print a spoof talmudic tractate - especially when printing was so new and still quite rare.

Noach and the Flood

*** Possible potential heresy warning ***

Over on his blog, Dovbear asks what an Orthodox Jew is supposed to do with the story of Noah and the flood. He provides several answers, and to be honest, none of them are totally satisfactory.

I would add another difficulty to the story, which is the great similarity of the wording to the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the words of James Kugel:

the Bible’s Flood story is nowadays generally held to be a recasting of an ancient Mesopotamian legend – one that even retains some of the original wording (“smelled the pleasing odor” and so forth) of the text from which it was copied

(If you look in his book "How to Read the Bible" he discusses this in greater detail)

In other words, not only is there a lot of evidence that the flood did not actually take place as reported in the Torah, but it also looks as though the 'author' of the Torah copied and pasted from the earlier Epic.

I wonder (and I'n not sure if this is heretical or not) whether Rashi provides us with an answer to solve these issues. In Gittin there is an argument between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish as to how the Torah was given to Moshe Rabbeinu.
א"ר יוחנן משום רבי בנאה תורה מגילה מגילה ניתנה שנא' אז אמרתי הנה באתי במגילת ספר כתוב עלי ר"ש בן לקיש אומר תורה חתומה ניתנה שנאמר לקוח את ספר התורה הזאת

R. Johanan said in the name of R. Bana'ah: The Torah was transmitted in separate scrolls, as it says, Then said I, Lo I am come, in the roll of the book it is written of me. R. Simeon b. Lakish said: The Torah was transmitted entire, as it says, Take this book of the law.

(Tosefot points out, quoting from Rashi's commentary on Chumash, that Reish Lakish also agrees with Rabbi Yochanan's basic premise that the stories were given independently. The argument between them is whether they were given in the order in which they were to be written, or in a different order, and were later compiled into the order in which they appear in the Torah)
תורה חתומה ניתנה. תימה דכתיב (שמות כד) ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם ופרש"י בפי' חומש דהיינו מבראשית ועד כאן ונראה לפרש דלא קאמר חתומה ניתנה שלא נכתבה עד לבסוף אלא שעל הסדר נכתבה דיש פרשיות שנאמרו תחילה לפני אותם הכתובים לפניהם ולא נכתבה עד שנאמר לו אותה שכתובה לפניה וכותב זאת אחריה

Rashi there expains Rabbi Yochanan's view:
כתוב עלי. מאז ניתנה התורה הוזכרתי בה ואת שתי בנותיך הנמצאות (בראשית יט) בזכות דוד שעתיד לצאת מרות המואביה ונעמה העמונית אמו של רחבעם כתיב הכא הנמצאות וכתיב התם (תהלים פט) מצאתי דוד עבדי אלמא מגילה איקרי משום דמתחילה נכתבה מגילת בראשית והדר מגילת נח והדר מגילת אברהם והיינו דקאמר במגילת אברהם כתוב עלי:

... First the 'Scroll of Genesis' was written,then the 'Scroll of Noach', then the 'Scroll of Avraham'...

Here is my question - why did Rashi not simply explain (based on his own commentary on chumash cited by Tosefot above) that the entire book of Bereishit and the beginning of Shemot were given to Moshe at once. And the argument between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish is only about the remainder of the Torah - whether it was given at once, or piecemeal.

Rashi specifies that before the Torah was actually written there was something called 'Scroll of Genesis' etc. Is it possible that G-d told Moshe to take existing stories from other the ancient world, and transform them into Torah through editing etc. Everything that happens in the world is ultimately from G-d, so the fact that these stories may have originally been written in other mythologies does not mean that they do not contain an element of G-dly truth.
Perhaps Moshe was told by G-d to take certain ideas from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other works, which teach us ultimate and eternal truths, (and obviously to discard those parts which are not true). This would explain the similarity of wording between the Torah and the Epic.
We know that there were earlier works which the Torah expects us to be familiar with. for example, Bamidbar 21:14 states:
עַל-כֵּן יֵאָמַר בְּסֵפֶר מִלְחֲמֹת ה': אֶת וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה וְאֶת הַנְּחָלִים אַרְנוֹן
wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the LORD: Vaheb in Suphah, and the valleys of Arnon

There is also mention of Sefer HaYashar and others.

And if you will grant me that G-d told Moshe to copy and edit earlier texts - is it possible that the key thing from those texts was the ethical/moral message? Perhaps the historicity of the event was irrelevant to G-d and Moshe. Perhaps the fact that people were aware of this myth, and it became part of Torah, was sufficient. Whether it 'actually' happened the way it was written or not may not be the issue that G-d was concerned with.

It seems to me that if someone does not believe that there was a literal (whatever that means) revelation at Sinai they are putting themselves outside the traditional faith of Judaism. But perhaps Rashi in Gittin (and the gemara itself) is alluding to the fact that the earlier parts of the Torah are based on other texts, and only became 'the word of G-d' once G-d told Moshe to put them into the Torah.

What do you think? Is this a valid reading of the gemara/Rashi? Does it help to answer the flood questions? And is it heresy?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Missing vav in Parshat Noach

There seems to be a vav missing from my Chumash in parshat Noach. Can anyone help explain to me where it has gone?

Let me explain what I mean (I am really no expert in these things, so there may be a really obvious answer):

In Bereishit 9:29 the verse (in my chumash) reads:
וִיהִי, כָּל-יְמֵי-נֹחַ, תְּשַׁע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה, וַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה; וַיָּמֹת.

Which means (according to KJ):
And all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died.

I looked in my tikkun korim, and it says the same thing.

However, if you look in Onkelos, he writes:
והוו, כל יומי נוח, תשע מאה וחמשין, שנין; ומית.

If my rudimentary grasp of Aramaic grammar is correct, והוו is plural. So the Hebrew should say וַיִּהְיוּ instead of וִיהִי.

If you look in the Leningrad Codex (which I think is the oldest text we have, since the Aleppo Codex is missing most of Chumash) the word is with a vav:

And if you look in the first printed mikra'ot gedolot, printed by Daniel Bomberg in 1525 it also seems to have the vav.

As far as I know, this is the text from which all other chumashim were taken. So how come my chumash today does not have the vav?

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Four Suns

Sorry - couldn't resist this one:

The media is reporting a planet that was discovered that has four suns! I thought Tatooine was cool with two suns (I actually spent an hour once at a bar mitzvah discussing with a physicist whether or not that was possible, and what shape its orbit would be - I guess it is possible!). But four suns!

Imagine what their Pesach Seder must be like:

(the wise sun, the wicked sun, the naive sun and the sun who does not know how to ask)

Boom boom (I'll get my coat)

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Open Minded Siyum

Mazel Tov to all those who are learning daf hayomi and made a siyum today on Masechet Berachot. I don't think Hallmark have yet made a card for this milestone event, but mazel tov to all of us, and may we continue to learn, to teach, to observe and to keep the mitzvot.

(I still agree with my brother's post that daf hayomi is not necessarily the best use of a person's learning time, but the strength of the community and being part of a worldwide learning program does give daf hayomi a unique power).

We made the siyum in the Sukkah this morning, and the mesayem quoted a piece from Rav Kook (found in Olat Harayah on the relevant section of the Siddur (p.330):

“Rabbi Elazar said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as the verse states, “All your children will be learned of God, and there will be great peace for your children.” Some people make the mistake of thinking that world peace will only be possible through a single unity of thought and understanding. Therefore, when they see Torah scholars investigating the wisdom and knowledge of Torah, and through their investigations come up with different views and opinions, they think that this causes arguments and is the opposite of peace. The truth is the opposite. For the real peace cannot come to the world except through the value of increasing ‘peace’. Increasing peace means to see all the sides and all the views, and to see that there is room for all of them, each according to its own values, place and ideals. Conversely, those things that appear irrelevant or contradictory can only be understood when the true wisdom is revealed in all its facets. Only by gathering all the parts and the details, all the opinions which appear different, and all the different areas of knowledge, only through that can the light of truth and justice be perceived, along with the knowledge of the fear and love of God, and the light of true Torah. Therefore Torah scholars increase peace, because when they broaden, explain and give birth to new words of wisdom, in many different ways, which leads to many differing ideas, in this way they increase peace.

It struck me as a very different approach from the one I have often heard about Da'as Torah. In fact, just yesterday I was reading Baruch Pelta's article (linked to on Rationalist Judaism) which discusses how Rav Soloveitchik and his views were sidelined by the American 'Gedolim' because his views did not conform to their Da'as Torah. He brings one example, a book review by Rabbi Joseph Elias, the Observer's book reviewer since its founding. He reviewed a volume of sermons by Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shubert Spero and quotes one such speech on Sukkos as teaching the lesson that:
...we have a responsibility toward the Jewish people as a work out a realistic policy of 'integration' which, while saving us from the pitfalls of separatism, will enable us to uphold...Torah truth"...For the reader interested to know what such a policy should be, Rabbi Spero provides a footnote at this point, referring him to an article of his in Tradition in which he takes issue with the Psak Din on Synagogue Council of America membership issued a dozen years ago by the Brisker Rav, Reb Aaron Kotler, and the other Gedolei Hador! In other words, the "realistic policy of [sic] integration" which the author considers the lesson of Sukkos, does not agree with what the Gedolim have taught on the subject.

I have no idea what the 'real' (or authentic) message of Sukkot is, but may we all merit to learn much Torah, and to develop our Torah ideas, and merit to understand and respect the views of others, so that we can all increase peace in the world, and sit together in the rebuilt Sukkah of David HaMelech. (I won't mention the meal of Leviathan there - I'm vegetarian. Though look what Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says about it in his piece on Sukkot. Apparently he does not believe we will actually be eating whale when Mashiach comes. That's fine with me. And probably the Greenpeace people as well).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Is this Torah-true Judaism?

I was looking at Rabbi Zamir Cohen's book The Coming Revolution
today. In it he claims that Louis Pasteur developed his cure for rabies after first reading a French translation of the Talmud. Cohen writes:
While living in Paris, Rabbi Dr Rabinowitz began translating the Talmud into French When his friend, Louis Pasteur, saw a copy of "Seder Mo'ed" - the tractates dealing primarily with the Jewish holiday cycle - it rouse his curiosity. To his amazement he read there the following statement:
"If someone is bitten by a mad dog [affected with rabies], he should be fed the lobe of that dog's liver."
The doctor was amazed at this healing method, which used part of the infected animal itself. He concluded that the Sages knew that an infected body produces antibodies, which attack an invading infection. Moreover, it seems that the antibodies, which concentrate in the liver, could actually help heal a person who was bitten by a rabid dog. Do. Pasteur immediately began a series of experiments that eventually resulted in the saving of millions of human lives.

It really bothers me when people use falsehoods to try and make other people religious. To me, this seems like a complete distortion of both history (and science) and - more importantly - of Torah. Let's have a look at the facts:

About Rabinowitz I only know what google tells me. Apparently Dr. Israel Mikhl Rabinowitz was originally from Grodno, and eventually came to Paris where he qualified as a doctor. But he gave up medicine to devote himself to translating the Talmud into French (the international language of the time). According to this website

Between 1871 and 1880... he published excerpts of the sequence: זרעים, מועד, נשׁים, נזיקין, קדשׁים, טהרות [six books of Mishna: Seeds, Holidays, Women, Damages, Sanctity, Purification] accompanied by forwards and comments.

It is perhaps conceivable that he knew Louis Pasteur. But Pasteur had begun work on vaccination in the mid 1860s. While his vaccine for rabies was first used only in 1885, the concept of vaccines went back to Jenner's work in 1796. Furthermore, Pasteur did not use livers to obtain his vaccine, but saliva from rabid dogs. It is possible that the story Cohen tells is true, but to my mind extremely unlikely that reading the Talmud led to his discovery of the vaccine.

Now let us look at the Talmud:

The Mishna (Yoma chapter 8 number 6) tells us that the idea of eating the lobe of the liver of the diseased dog was actually forbidden by the majority of the Rabbis. Only Matia ben Cheresh permitted it. Soncino translates thus (Yoma 82b):


As Rabbi Dr. Fred Rosner points out, he lived in Rome, and was thus acquainted with the wisdom of the ancient physicians such as Dioscorides, Galen and others. In other words, not only is the 'cure' not agreed to by the Rabbis, its source is not actually Jewish, but from the Greeks. In fact, "Vegetius Renatus (3rd century) recommended that cattle bitten by a rabid dog could be protected by making them swallow the boiled liver of the dog." Perhaps he learnt this from Rav Matia ben Cheresh, but it seems to me equally possible that Rav Matia learnt it from him. It is possible that Matia lived earlier (2nd century) which means that we should credit him with the cure. But I am not convinced that his cure was discovered from his knowledge of Torah, but rather from the medicine that was being discovered in Rome at that time.

If we look at the Talmud (84a) that follows this Mishna, we see that the Rabbis' ideas of cures were very different from those of modern medicine.

‘One whom it bites, dies’. What is the remedy? — Abaye said: Let him take the skin of a male hyena and write upon it: I, So-and-so, the son of that-and-that woman, write upon the skin of a male Hyena: Hami, kanti, kloros. God, God, Lord of Hosts, Amen, Amen, Selah, Then let him strip off his clothes, and bury then, in a grave [at cross-roads], for twelve months of a year. Then he should take them out and burn them in an oven, and scatter the ashes. During these twelve months, if he drinks water, he shall not drink it but out of a copper tube, lest he see the shadow of the demon and be endangered. Thus the mother of Abba b. Martha, who is Abba b. Minyumi, made for him a tube of gold [for drinking purposes].

According to Zamir Cohen, the Rabbis of the Talmud knew all of modern medicine, and should be thanked for inventing vaccines and saving lives. Do you think that even he would go to a doctor who prescribed this kind of treatment? The Rabbis of the Talmud thought that rabies was caused by either witchcraft or an evil spirit:

Where does it come from? — Rab said: Witches are having their fun with it. Samuel said: An evil spirit rests upon it

Is it not dishonest to claim that the Rabbis understood that "infected body produces antibodies, which attack an invading infection." Would Pasteur really have been impressed by this scientific knowledge?

Why does any of this make a difference? Apart from the fact that I think it is a perversion and distortion of Torah (which bothers me a LOT), it has major implications for halacha. The next sugya in the Talmud there is about the definition of death. Do we check the nose (for respiration) or the heart (from cardiac activity)? If the Rabbis of the Talmud knew all of modern medicine, and received their knowledge from the Torah, then there is no possibility that modern medicine knows better than they about things like deep brain stem death. If, on the other hand, the Rabbis were telling us the wisdom of their time, then perhaps we can update Jewish views on medicine to take into account modern medicine and techniques.

Actually, just to finish the thought and remove any doubt, I am sure that the medicinal knowledge of the Rabbis came from their contemporaries. Because it says so on the same page of Talmud! Look at the following story and cures:

R. Johanan suffered from scurvy. He went to a [non-Jewish] matron, who prepared something for him on Thursday and Friday. He said to her: How shall I do iton the Sabbath? She answered him,: Then you will not need it [any more]. He said: But if I should need it, what then,? She replied: ‘Swear unto me by the God of Israel that you will not reveal it’ [to others]; whereupon he swore: ‘To the God of Israel I shall not reveal it’. She revealed it to him, and he went forth and expounded it in his lecture. But he had sworn to her? — [He swore]: ‘To the God of Israel I shall not reveal it’ [which implies] but to His people I shall reveal it! But this is a profanation of the Name? — It was so that he had explained it [the meaning of his oath] to her from the very beginning. What did she give to him? R. Aha, the son of R. Ammi said: The water of leaven, olive oil and salt. R. Yemar said: Leaven itself, olive oil and salt. R. Ashi said: The fat of a goose-wing. Abaye said: l tried everything without achieving a cure for myself, until an Arab recommended: ‘Take the stones of olives which have not become ripe one third, burn them in fire upon a new rake, and stick them into the inside of the gums’. I did so and was cured.

Apart from the problematic issue of Rabbi Yochanan cheating his doctor, it is clear that their treatment of scurvy was taken from the local non-Jewish wise people. Not the Torah. Also, I am not convinced that the Talmud is really talking about scurvy (it is Soncino's translation, and may be correct, because the symptoms sound like scurvy, but perhaps it is not). If it is talking about scurvy, then we know that both the Talmud's idea of the cause, and their cures are wrong.

Whence does [scurvy] come? — From [eating] very hot wheat [-en bread], and from the [overnight] remnants of a pie of fish-hash and flour. What is its symptom? — If he puts anything between his teeth, his gums will bleed.

Scurvy is actually caused by a Vitamin C diffiency, and Captain James Cook is credited as being a pioneer in feeding his sailors foods with Vitamin C to prevent the disease. He was the first to circumnavigate the globe without losing a single man to scurvy.

If G-d's signet ring is 'Truth' should we not at least try to be honest when we present Judaism to others?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

D'var Torah from Gene Simmons

I was reading an old Guitar magazine recently (from April 1996) and found a great vort from Gene Simmons (born Chaim Witz) of the band KISS. He said:

I tell you, this band does not have a self-esteem problem, but we never palled it that way. We just wanted walk our walk, talk our talk and write thh songs we loved writing and singing. And never had any point of view about doing anything more than putting on a great show. Writing great tunes that didn't mean very much. Ear candy. But the one thing that we always had a point of view on was that the single "I", one person, can change the world. The "I" was very important in the lyric over-all. "I want to rock and roll" - not we will, we will rock you. Sure, that's cool, the sense of everyboy together. But all movements come from one person. And maybe that connected somehow... I'm talking to you.

Rosh Hashana is about being part of the community, it is about everyone together. But G-d judges each of us separately. If it is not about 'I' then we have missed the point. If we don't realise that we can change not only the world, but also ourselves, then we aren't doing it right.

(Gene also stressed the importance of kibud av ve-eim because he ended the article with the following:

I want to make sure you put the 1-800-905-KISS in this article for those who want to order the Kisstory book. That's very important. Because my mother does want another house.

Shana Tova to all. And when you dip your apple in honey - makes sure to use the i-phone 4, not the new 5!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rav Elchanan Wasserman on Daf Yomi

I was looking in a book of collected ideas of Rav Elchanan (Kovetz Maamarim ve-Iggrot).

There is a one line comment there about daf hayomi:

דף היומי הוא רעיון נהדר, אבל אפ אין חוזרים על הדף הרבה פעמים, הלא בפירוש הגידו חז"ל סנהדרין צ"ט ע"א) שהוא כזורע ואינו קוצר.
"Daf Yomi is a wonderful idea. But if they don't review the daf many times, then Chazal have told us (Sanhedrin 99a) that it is like planting and not reaping."

Also, while on the topic of reviewing Shas (Talmud) he writes:

אדם מישראל צריך למצוא פנאי לחזור ש"ס בכל שנה.

"A Jewish person must find an opportunity to review Shas every year."

Both of those statements are מפי השמועה - they were heard by students.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Jon Lord and Me

I remember well when, as a new and very young Rabbi, I was woken one Sunday morning at the end of August 1997 by a frantic parent. Sunday school (as it is called in Britain) was beginning for the year, but she implored me to cancel the learning because of the news that Princess Diana had been killed in a car crash. I thought it was terribly sad that a young woman, who had given so much and still had so much to give, had died. But I couldn’t quite understand why someone was crying on phone to me about it. But not only did this parent cry at the news of Diana’s death, but so did all of Britain. There was such a spontaneous outpouring of mourning the like of which I don’t ever remember (perhaps when Elvis died, or John Lennon, the feeling around the globe was similar, but I’m too young to really remember those events well). Somehow Princess Diana’s death allowed people who had no connection to her at all to give vent to their mourning and sadness for all that is wrong in the world (and possibly everything that they felt was wrong with Britain and the monarchy at that time). People who had never met her or seen her were literally crying in the streets.
At the time I didn’t really understand the reaction. Sure, it was sad. Sure it was a preventable tragedy. But why was everyone crying?
Now I am older (and wiser) and I think I understand it a bit better. In fact, I understand it very well. A few weeks ago I heard the news that Jon Lord had passed away. And I was upset for the rest of the day and, truth be told, for the entire week.
Who was Jon Lord? You may know him as the keyboard player for the rock band Deep Purple. Deep Purple were once known as the loudest band in the world. But that would not tell you anything about Jon Lord. For me he was the glue that held Deep Purple together, always a gentleman despite the behaviour of some of the other members of the band. He was also the composer of “Concerto for Group and Orchestra” combining classical music with rock music – which was virtually unheard of in 1969 when it was first performed and recorded. Jon was the elder statesman, but not in the limelight. He quietly ensured that everything worked. In fact, the one and only time I saw Deep Purple perform (in Tel Aviv in 1991) Richie Blackmore, the guitarist, walked off before the encore. The band continued without him – Jon played the guitar part on the keyboard. And the song was “Smoke on the Water” – not easy to do without guitar!
Why was I saddened by Jon’s death? I never met him, I never even knew anyone who met him. I had no connection with him at all – except through his records (remember them?) – and I had a lot of Deep Purple records. I first heard Deep Purple’s Made In Japan when I was 13 years old, in my first year of high school. For the next 4 years I collected as many Deep Purple records as I could find in New Zealand (which wasn’t nearly as many as could be found in Britain, or even Japan – though I did ask my uncle to bring me some records from Japan).
Teenage years are always difficult, and high school for me was not a lot of fun. But the whole way through I knew that Jon Lord and Deep Purple were there for me. And if Jon could combine classical music with rock music, then there was a chance that I could be in a famous rock group too, with my classical music background and my (growing) love of rock music. And yet Jon showed that it was still possible to be a nice guy; rock musicians didn’t have to trash hotel rooms, get strung out on drugs, or become alcoholics. They could still speak eloquently and write ‘grown-up’ music.
Jon Lord was one of only two members of Deep Purple who had been there from the beginning, and through all the band changes. However, in 2002 he left the band to focus on his composing and other projects. That was also part of my connection with Jon Lord – it is important to know when to stop. There is an alternative to Jethro Tull’s statement that “he was too old to rock ‘n’ roll but he was too young to die.” One can bow out gracefully at the opportune moment.
In a job interview, when asked which people I respected and looked up to, I once answered ‘Jon Lord’, but I didn’t get the job and couldn’t express in words the close connection, and the strong influence that he had on me.
I kind of lost track of Jon Lord the past few years. I was busy raising a family and dealing with all the issues of life, and I didn’t need him as much as I had in the past. I didn’t listen to all his later compositions, and didn’t keep track of his honorary degrees. And I didn’t know that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2011. So when I read the news that he had passed away it was very sudden for me. There will be no more music from Jon. There is now one less gentleman in the rock music world. And part of my childhood is gone forever.
Jon, you will be missed by all who knew you. And by thousands, or millions, who never knew you except through your music. Rock in peace Jon.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Richard Feynman meets Rabbinical Students

Richard Feynman was possibly the greatest physicist of the second half of the 20th century. Although he was Jewish, he was very far removed from traditional Jewish learning and practice. But he was always keen to learn (and equally frustrated by others who did not want to learn).

I was rereading a biography of Feynman, entitled Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character (Counterpoint) and was struck (as I am every time I read it) by the following anecdote (p.284-7):

A footnote: While I was at the conference, I stayed at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where young rabbis - I think they were Orthodox - were studying. Since I have a Jewish background, I knew of some of the things they told me about the Talmud, but I had never seen the Talmud. It was very interesting. It's got big pages, and in a little square in the corner of the page is the original Talmud, and then in a sort of L-shaped margin, all around this square, are commentaries written by different people. The Talmud has evolved, and everything has been discussed again and again, all very carefully, in a medieval kind of reasoning. I think the commentaries were shut down around the thirteen or fourteen- or fifteen-hundreds - there hasn't been any modern commentary. The Talmud is a wonderful book, a great big potpourri of things: trivial questions, and difficult questions - for example problems of teachers, and how to teach - and then some trivia again, and so on. The students told me that the Talmud was never translated, something I thought was curious, since the book is so valuable.
One day, two or three of the young rabbis came to me and said, "We realize that we can't study to be rabbis in the modern world without knowing something about science, so we'd like to ask you some questions."
Of course there are thousands of places to find out about science, and Columbia University was right near there, but I wanted to know what kinds of questions they were interest in.
They said, "Well, for instance, is electricity fire?"
"No," I said, "but... what is the problem?"
They said, "In the Talmud it says that you're not supposed to make fire on a Saturday, so our question is, can we use electrical things on Saturdays?"
I was shocked. They weren't interested in science at all! The only way science was influencing their lives was so they might be able to interpret better the Talmud! They weren’t' interested in the world outside, in natural phenomena; they were only interested in resolving some question brought up in the Talmud.
And then one day - I guess it was a Saturday - I want to go up in the elevator, and there's a guy standing near the elevator. The elevator comes, I go in, and he goes in with me. I saw, "Which floor?" and my hand's ready to push one of the buttons.
"No, no!" he says, "I'm supposed to push one of the buttons for you.
"Yes!" The boys here can't push the buttons on Saturday, so I have to do it for them. You see, I'm not Jewish, so it's all right for me to push the buttons. I stand near the elevator, and they tell me what floor, and I push the button for them."
Well this really bothered me, so I decided to trap the students in a logical discussion. I had been brought up in a Jewish home, so I knew the kind of nitpicking logic to use, and I thought "Here's fun!"
My plan went like this: I'd start off by asking, "Is the Jewish viewpoint a viewpoint that any man can have? Because if it is not, then it's certainly not something that is truly valuable for humanity... yak, yak, yak." And then they would have to say, "Yes, the Jewish viewpoint is good for any man."
Then I would steer them around a little more by asking, "Is it ethical for a man to hire another man to do something which is unethical for him to do? Would you hire a man to rob for you, for instance?" And I keep working them into the channel, very slowly, and very carefully, until I've got them - trapped!
And do you know what happened? They're rabbinical students, right? They were ten times better than I was! AS son as they saw I could put them in a hole, they went twist, turn, twist - I can't remember how - and they were free! I thought I had come up with an original idea - phooey! It had been discussed in the Talmud for ages! So they cleaned me up just as easy as pie - they got right out.
Something else happened at that time which is worth mentioning here. One of the questions the rabbinical students and I discussed at some length was why it is that in academic things, such as theoretical physics, there is a higher proportion of Jewish kids than their proportion in the general population. They rabbinical students thought the reason was that the Jews have a history of respecting learning: They respect their rabbis, who are really teachers, and they respect education. The Jews pass on this tradition in their families all the time, so that if a boy is a good student, it's as good as, if not better than, being a good football player.
It was the same afternoon that I was reminded how true it is. I was invited to one of the rabbinical students' home, and he introduced me to his mother, who had just come back from Washington, D.C. She clapped her hands together, in ecstasy, and said, "Oh! My day is complete. Today I met a general, and a professor!"
I realized that there are not many people who think it's just as important, and just as nice, to meet a professor as to meet a general. So I guess there's something in what they said.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Tiferet Yisrael - Jews and non-Jews

Over Shabbat I was reading Rabbi Binyamin Lau's book on the Sages (vol. 2) and found a footnote which sent me to a Tiferet Yisrael in Pirkei Avot. In his commentary there, Rav Lifschitz challenges some assumptions about the difference between Jews and non-Jews. I decided to try to translate it - but I only managed the first half (so far - perhaps more to follow). I strongly suggest that you look at it yourselves (if you don't already know it) and remember to quote it next time you hear someone make a statement about how Jews are inherently superior to non-Jews.
I also find his examples of 'righteous gentiles' very interesting. It seems that advancing the world technologically earns a place in Olam HaBa (according to Tiferes Yisrael). Also interesting is that he thinks the invention of the printing press has made the world a better place. I suppose 400 years after its invention it was easier to see the merit of printed books, but when the printing press was first invented it was considered to be as dangerous as the internet is considered to day (though I doubt they had a 'kenes' in NY against the printing press - mainly because America wasn't invented yet - this was 50 years before Columbus!)

Anyway, here is my (unedited) attempt at translating. I have used the Zecher Chanoch Mishna for the translation.

Tiferet Yisrael (Boaz) on Avot 3:14

Says the commentator: Since we are discussing this topic, let us say something which it is a mitzvah to publicise. My whole life I have been troubled by the statement of the Sages in Yevamot (ibid) which says “you are called ‘Adam’ but non-Jews are not called ‘Adam’.”
I find this difficult – could you think that the Sages would say about an idolater who is in the image of God, as we have explained, that he is considered like an animal? Furthermore, if so, what does it mean when God says, “You shall be more treasured by Me than all the nations”? If all the other nations are only like animals, then this verse is only saying that “You shall be more treasured by Me than all the animals, and all the monkeys who resemble humans with their form.” Furthermore, if so all their actions would be like the actions of animals, who are incapable of receiving reward or punishment. This contradicts what we know that the righteous of the non-Jewish nations have a portion in the World-to-Come (based on Sanhedrin 105 and Rambam chapter 8 of ‘Laws of Kings’).
Even without the holy mouths of our Sages, who tell us this, we would already know from logic, because God is just in all His ways, and righteous in all His deeds. We see many of them are righteous. Not only do they recognise the Creator of Genesis, and believe in His Torah that it is Divine, and they also do kindness like Yisrael. Some have done extraordinary good things for the inhabitants of the world, like the righteous Jenner who invented the vaccine (for smallpox) which saves hundreds of thousand of people from illness, death or disfiguration. And Drake (Sir Francis Drake 1540-1596) who brought the potato to Europe, and thus prevented famine many times. Or Guttenberg who invented the printing press. Several of them were not paid at all in this world, like the righteous Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), who was prepared to lay down his life to prevent the burning of the Talmud. This was commaned by Caesar (Holy Roman Emporer) Maximillian (I) in the year 5262 through the activism of the heretic Pfefferkorn (1469-1523) and the priests, his wicked group. This Reuchlin risked his life and based on his claims he persuaded the Caesar to retract his decree. Because of this he was hounded and the priests, his enemies, made his life a misery. They pressured him until eventually he died in dire straits and broken hearted.
Could we think that all these great deeds would not be repaid in the World-to-Come, behind the ‘curtain’ – Heaven forbid! God does not withhold the reward of any creature.
If you would suggest that even though these righteous people kept all the seven mitzvoth of Bnei Noach (from Sanhedrin 56b), nevertheless they do not have the status of ‘Ger Toshav’ since they did not accept these mitzvoth before three Rabbis (based on Avoda Zara 64b). Furthermore, we do not accept Ger Toshav nowadays, only at the time that the mitzvah of Yovel applies (Erechin 29a). Even so, since they did not act like Esav, they have reward in the World-to-Come (based on Avoda Zara 10b).

Friday, August 03, 2012

Pre-Bat Mitzvah - still old enough to decide

The Daily Telegraph reports that a court in England (Essex) has ruled that a Jewish girl of 10 is old enough to decide that she wants to convert to Christianity.

Apparently her Jewish parents divorced, and her father converted to become a Christian. Now the girl wants to join the father in his religion, against the wishes of her mother and grandparents.

The judge has a job to do, and can only base it on the evidence which he is presented with. He obviously cannot tell her to wait until she is 12 in keeping with halacha.

I wonder how much of a Jewish education and Jewish homelife the girl received from her mother and grandparents? And what is so special about the age 16 when they feel that she would be able to decide for herself? Is there a Jewish source for 16? If not, haven't they just lost their own argument? If they would have said 20 it would have made more sense to me. Though I think in Judaism from the age of 12 her decision should be valid.

But the most interesting part of the article is the letter which the Rabbi wrote, explaining that converting will be damaging to the girl's soul. In the judges words, the rabbi’s letter was made in “inflammatory terms without any supporting evidence”. I wonder what sort of supporting evidence the judge would have accepted. How does one prove the effect on a soul? On the other hand, why did the Rabbi decide to write in terms which the judge considered 'inflammatory'? Could the same letter not have been written in a nice way?

Actually, I just found a report on the Jewish Chronicle website. This article names the Rabbi, and quotes part of his letter:

In Judaism we don't encourage conversion either way as it is unnatural for a person to change the religion they are born into and which thus is ingrained in their soul in a deep way. Although conversions are performed they must be worked at over a number of years when a real change can realistically take place. It is unfair to any child to put them under this pressure and to do something unnatural to their soul.

Is that the inflammatory bit? If so, I really don't understand the judge. I can see why such a letter would not be helpful or persuasive, but I don't see why it is inflammatory.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Daf Yomi - Democratisation of Torah

As the Jewish world prepares for another cycle of daf yomi I was thinking about what makes 'the daf' so special. It seems, on the face of it, to be a crazy thing - to learn a daf of gemara - a whole folio - each day. It is beyond the capabilities of most people (including most of the people attending a shiur). Those few who are able to learn a daf (and both understand and retain it) are probably on a different learning schedule anyway. In my experience, those few people do not learn daf yomi.

My brother has posted about why he will not continue with daf yomi this next time. He points out the costs, both in terms of family time, and in terms of real Torah learning.

In my (humble?) opinion, for most people daf yomi is a waste of time. There are so many more important things that they could be learning instead - beginning with halacha (but including Torah, Mishna and a proper bekiyus seder that would allow them to understand and remember what they have learnt). Yet for some reason daf yomi has conquered the world (except the Satmar world, where it is still treif).

The main/best/only thing that daf yomi has going for it is that people actually do it. How often have you planned or thought about learning something, only to give up soon after beginning (or even before beginning)? People attend their daf yomi shiur 'religiously' - regardless of whether they understand, remember or even stay awake. Taking away daf yomi would not add more Torah - because many people would not replace it with different, more productive Torah learning.

On This and That links to a very interesting description of an earlier kind of daf yomi. (It was also linked to by On The Mainline a few years ago)

In The Fundamental Principles of Modern Judaism Investigated by Moses Margoliouth (who was a Christian (former Jewish) missionary) he describes the different types of learning groups. The first (and most important) is the chevrashas, who learn a page of Talmud every day.

I have no idea how accurate this is, but I remember hearing that Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky was very bothered by the snobbery inherent in the hierarchy of learning. Apparently on Chol HaMoed Sukkot a different group would visit the Rav each day, and it was clear which was the most important, and how much they looked down on those below them.

Rav Meir Shapiro did not invent learning a page of Talmud every day. But what he did was suggest that everyone could learn that page, regardless of background, knowledge, or rightousness. He tried to democratise Judaism and make Talmud accessible to all. In that sense Artscroll (and the new Koren) Talmud (perhaps unlike the Soncino, which is quite exclusive) are continuing in his footsteps - making Talmud accessible to everyone.

Is this a good thing? I don't know. It is very impressive. And the interest generated by the siyum will encourage thousands of others to begin learning daf yomi. I'm not convinced it is right for most people, but it is a wonderful educational device, which has certainly changed the Jewish world.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Chief Rabbi Hertz on Antisemitism

While looking for reading material for Tisha B'Av I came across this sermon (or short booklet, depending on how you view things) from Chief Rabbi Hertz.

It is dated "First Day of Sukkot" (though he calls it 'Tabernacles') "1922" and addresses the current increase in antisemitism. Any discussion of antisemitism today is in the context of the holocaust. It is very intersting to see what antisemitism looked like to Jews in England before the holocaust.

CR Hertz's starting point is the verse of kiddush Hashem. Jews represent G-d and religion wherever they go and whatever they do.

" Ye shall not profane My holy Name, but I will be hallowed among the Children of Israel."

He explains the importance of going beyond the letter of the law in dealings with non-Jews, citing the example of Shimon ben Shetach returning the gem which his students took from an Arab (sic.).

Thus, every Israelite holds the honour of his faith and of his entire people in his hands; and a single Jew's offence can bring slander on the whole House of Israel.

I think this message is still relevant today. As is what it can lead to:

I will not, on a festive day, dwell on the fiendish slaughter of 150,000
Jewish men, women and children in the Ukraine during the years 1919 and 1920; on the torture and murder inflicted on so many of our brethren in Hungary: on the tidal wave of hysterical intolerance that swept during these years over Western democracies even, and resulted in exhibitions of anti-Semitism that would have been absolutely unbelievable ten years ago.

Wow! If only he had known how bad things were going to get! And they were absolutely unbelievable in 1922.

We looked to the common sense and the enlightenment of the age to laugh such insane vapourings out of court. We certainly did not expect that this grotesque
myth, founded on malice and hysteria, built up of garbled history and synthetized by impudent forgery, would be taken seriously by anyone. We soon learned that in the words of the Prophetical Lesson of this Festival — our day was a day without daylight, when the heavenly luminaries contracted themselves. We found that the leaders of opinion in various lands resigned their sacred task of moral guidance. With very few exceptions, they either remained silent in the presence of all this malicious indictment of a whole race, or they shamelessly swelled the howling of the mob.

The entire pamphlet is here. It is only about 10 pages of text. It certainly put me in a depressed mood for 9 Av.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Out of the mouths of babes

I was walking through Meah Shearim the other day with my almost 8 year old daughter. Everyone was selling pictures of Rav Elyashiv (if the Chareidim would wear T-Shirts there could be a huge money making opportunity there - T-Shirts of Gedolim!). So we were speaking about Rav Elyashiv.
Tamar said to me, "He was the biggest tzaddik - right Abba?"
"I suppose so" I replied.
"He was even greater than Moshe Rabbeinu, because Rav Elyashiv just learnt Torah all day long, but Moshe Rabbeinu sinned when he hit the rock!"

She does not go to a Beis Yaakov school, and I am sure that nobody told her such an idea. But if you put two ideas together sometimes you get a different answer than intended.

Be careful what you teach your children - they just might be listening!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Three weeks

This shiur is for a refuah shleima of Ayala Pamela bat Leah. May she get well very soon!

This is basically a repeat of a shiur I gave a few years ago (on a Shabbat, so it wasnt't recorded) so you can read more about it here.

I claim that one of the important (often overlooked) causes of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash was the lack of rebuke. The righteous people let the wicked people do their own thing and never protested. Rabbis sat idly by while Bar Kamtza was thrown out of the feast - that was the harshest blow and the ultimate reason that Bar Kamtza went to the Romans.

When we see someone behaving in a way that is unacceptable (whether religiously, or even in general human descency - like in the case of Bar Kamtza) we have a duty to stand up and say something. Obviously it must be said in a way which will be heard, and in a way that will distance the person (not like Yehoshua ben Perachiya who pushed away Jesus with two hands).

Rebuke - tochecha - is one of the most difficult mitzvot to do, but perhaps one of the most important mitzvot in the Torah. When people stand by and allow terrible things to happen they become as guilty as the perpetrators.

Here is the audio:
Rebuke - Three Weeks
(Right click and then 'download as')

And here are the pdf source sheets for download:
Rebuke Source Sheets

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Less Purple

Jon Lord - far left.

The world is a little bit less 'Purple' today, with the passing of Jon Lord last night. He was the keyboard player for Deep Purple, and was a childhood hero of mine (probably still is one of my heroes if I'm honest). He was comfortable in the worlds of both classical and rock music, avoided drugs and was (as described in the video) 'a gentleman'.

It is the three weeks, so I can't even listen to any of his music now, but I'm sharing with you the video of an honorary degree he received last year, which shows him as a down to earth, Leicester boy.

He was not Jewish, but had a profound spiritual impact on me.

Baruch Dayan HaEmet

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Another reason to love Israel

There are many reasons why I love living in Israel (and if I'm honest probably a couple of things that I would change if I had the choice). One of them is being able to daven mincha when I shop at the supermarket.

There are several supermarkets that have Shuls in them, many of them owned by Rami Levi.

And to make it even better - last week when I went to Rami Levi to go shopping I davened mincha. After mincha they added in Avinu Malkeinu - based on the p'sak of Rav Ovadia Yosef that everyone should say Avinu Malkeinu now to try to nullify the decree of forced conscription for yeshiva boys.

Even though I am actually in favour of doing away with automatic exemptions for the army (though I doubt that the government will succeed in doing what they want to do, and the army will not be equipped to cope if they do succeed, and there are better ways of doing it). However, I think it is wonderful that the workers at Rami Levi, along with some shoppers (none of whom looked as though they had avoided serving in the army) were praying on behalf of the yeshiva students who are keeping them safe. I only hope that in the yeshivot they also pray for the welfare of the workers (at Rami Levi and other places) who supply them with groceries and all their other needs. Rami Levi is the inverse of Ben Zoma's statement (Berachot 58a):

Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on one of the steps of the Temple Mount. He said, Blessed is He that discerneth secrets, and blessed is He who has created all these to serve me. [For] he used to say: What labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound [the sheaves], he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground [them], and sifted [the flour], he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me. And how many labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash [the wool], comb it, spin it and weave it, and then at last he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and I rise in the morning and find all these before me.

On the subject of the army draft/exemptions - I was reminded of the fact that we lack Torah true leadership when I read Rashi on this past week's parsha (Pinchas - Bamidbar 27:17):

Who will go forth before them: Not like the kings of the [gentile] nations, who sit at home and send their armies to war, but as I [Moshe] did, for I fought against Sihon and Og, as it says, “Do not fear him” (21:34), and as Joshua did, as it says, “Joshua went to him and said to him, Are you for us [or for our enemies]?” (Josh. 5:13). Similarly, concerning David it says, “For he went forth and came in before them” (I Sam. 18:16)-he went out [to battle] at their head and came in before them. — [Sifrei Pinchas 23]

Just saying is all.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Ralbag (Gersonides)

Rabbi Levi ben Gershom is not only the most studied Rishon in academia (after Rambam) but is also one of the most unique and interesting Rishonim (in a world when many were very interesting and unique). His views on science and Torah are both relevant (and speak to me) and dated (and only of historical interest).

It is itneresting that Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote a haskama to a reprinting of Ralbag's commentary on Chumash. Does that mean that Rav Moshe approves of people learning Ralbag (who has many shitot that would not be considered mainstream (or even acceptable) today.

When the Navi tells us that Yehoshua stopped the sun - what does that really mean?
What is the purpose of Torah? Does Torah help us to discover truths of science? Would G-d lie to us?

These are all issues that I discuss in the shiur. And (I'm still debating in my head whether this should be part of the shiur or not) I end with Ralbag's views on women - which are not very nice (and certainly not PC - even compared to other medieval Jewish writers who were not necessarily feminists).

Let me know what you think. I am enjoying discovering these new sources. I hope you are too.

Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).
Ralbag - Scientist, philosopher and Rabbi
(Right click and then 'download as')
Ralbag Source Sheets

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rav Dushinsky Saves Jerusalem?

I was looking at a book entitled "HaTekufah ve-Bayoteha" - "The Era and its Troubles" by Rav Yosef Avraham Wolff. He became a chasid of the Chazon Ish, and was responsible for creating the Beis Yaakov educational philosophy which allowed for the the current Kollel system.

One of the important messages to teach the students is Emunat Chachamim. He explains that this means firstly that all the words of Chazal, in both halacha and aggada, are Torah mi-Sinai. Then he says that they must have faith in the current Rabbis, who are experts in every area of life. He claims that the political and financial system would be much better if only the politicians would take advice from the leading Rabbis of the day.

Wolff illustrates his point with the one time that they asked Rav Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky for advice, and he saved Jerusalem from the Arabs in 1948.

My problem is that I cannot find any reference anywhere to such a story. Has anyone heard this story before? What does it refer to? Who asked him? And what was his advice?

Here is the relevant Hebrew text (in case I misunderstood it):

ידיעת התורה שלהם מקנה להם את כל הערכים. מה מעולה היה מצבנו הכלכלי והפטליטי, לו בעלי ההגה היו מתיעצים עם חכמי ישראל! הלא ר' יוסף צבי דושינסקי זצוק"ל הציל את ירושלים מידי הערבים בשנת תש"ט, כאשר פעם אחת שאלו בעצת חכמים.

Any ideas? Anyone?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Moshe Taku

This shiur was supposed to be about Rav Moshe Taku, but is really about the Maimonidean Controversy, and the relationship between philosophy and religion. I show that there were really three different approaches to the issues (and conflicts) of philosophy and religion. Rambam tries to make Judaism fit with Aristotle (or his version of it which also incorporated some Plato/Plotinus). He reinterprets pesukim and Chazal to fit with philosophy. The French who put him in cherem (instigated by Shlomo Montpellier, who it seems turned out to be a bad egg) rejected any use of philosophy, and stuck to the Divine text of Torah and Talmud. And some of the Spanish and Provencal Rabbis had an 'in between' view, where philospohy was utilised if it fit with the mesorah and was compelling. But it was rejected if it contradicted fundamentals of Torah.

In this shiur I spend quite a bit of time looking at the exchange of letters between Rav David Kimche (Radak) and Rav Yehuda Alfakhar. Which I found very interesting.

Here is the shiur:
Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).
Moshe Taku and Maimonidean Controversy
(Right click and then 'download as')
Moshe Taku Source Sheets

Monday, June 25, 2012

Shem Tov ibn Falaquera

This shiur is about Shem Tov ibn Falaquera (though there are many different ways of spelling his last name).

Here is what Jewish Virtual Library says about ibn Falaquera:

Shem Tov b. Joseph ibn Falaquera (c. 1225–c. 1295), translator and author of many works devoted largely to ethics and psychology, also wrote Moreh ha-Moreh, a commentary on Maimonides' Guide. In this commentary he corrects Ibn Tibbon's translation of the Guide on the basis of the Arabic original, and he cites parallel passages from the works of Islamic philosophers, particularly from Averroes. In his Iggeret ha-Vikku'aḥ, a dialogue between a philosopher and an opponent of philosophy, he justifies the study of philosophy. In his Sefer ha-Nefesh he follows Avicenna, but in his encyclopedic work De'ot ha-Pilosofim he follows Averroes. He translated and condensed Ibn Gabirol's Mekor Ḥayyim from Arabic into Hebrew.

If you want to hear what I have to say about him, click on the links.

Here is the shiur:
Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).
Shem Tov ibn Falaquera
(Right click and then 'download as')
Shem Tov ibn Falaquera Source Sheets

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What Would Rambam Do?

What would Rambam do if Aristotle was proven to be correct regarding the eternity of the universe?

Rambam writes that Aristotle's belief in the eternity of the universe contradicts many fundamental principles of Torah. Yet Rambam rejects Aristotle for two reasons: (1) Eternity has never been demonstrated conclusively and (2) Eternity contradicts the Torah.

Here is Rambam's Guide for the Perplexed 2:25 (From Friedlander's translation)

WE do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God. We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal. For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe. First, the Incorporeality of God has been demonstrated by proof: those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise. But the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument.

Secondly, our belief in the Incorporeality of God is not contrary to any of the fundamental principles of our religion: it is not contrary to the words of any prophet. Only ignorant people believe that it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture: but we have shown that this is not the case: on the contrary, Scripture teaches the Incorporeality of God. If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively.

For several years I have been trying to understand this Rambam. At first I understood it as Natan Aviezer did (in his article in Tradition, Fall 2009 cited on Seforim Blog)

Did God create the universe? Seemingly a simple question, with the answer given in the very first verse of the Torah. Not so, writes Rambam (Guide 2:25), asserting that Torah hashkafa does not require one to believe that God created the universe. But what about the first chapter of Bereshit, which clearly states that God did create the universe? Rambam writes that one may interpret this chapter metaphorically, as an allegory that never happened, because “the paths of interpretation are not closed to us.”

However, Marc Shapiro there understands Rambam differently. He claims that Rambam holds it is IMPOSSIBLE to prove the eternity of the universe, and therefore there is no challenge to our tradition.

After years of preferring the first (Aviezer) option, but being (almost) convinced of the second (Shapiro) approach I found it very reassuring to see that one of the main critics of Rambam, Yehuda Alfakhar also understood the Rambam the first way. In a strong attack on Rambam he writes:

ועוד שיש בו לענין הקדמות שאלו נמצא עליה מופת ברור לארסטו בחוק ההגיון ומשפטו, היה יכול להוציא מקרא מעשה בראשית מידי פשוטו ופורט על פי הקדמות פרטי כאשר עשה לענין צלם ודמות מפני שמורה פשוטי הגשמות ־ וכן כל מקרא שיבוא המופת על הפכו
אין שומעין לו כדרכו

Furthermore there is the concept of eternity. If clear proofs would be found for Aristotle, using laws of logic and sense, he would be able to remove Scripture’s references to creation from its literal meaning and explain based on eternity, as he did to the concepts of ‘image and form of God’ because they imply physicality. Similarly any words of Scripture that would be contradicted by proofs would be removed from its simple meaning.

(Interestingly, Hebrew Books has three versions of this kovetz teshuvot harambam, but only one of them has the final section which is called Iggeret Kina'ot and which chronicles the Maimonidean controversy).

If his harshest critic understood Rambam like that, I feel justified in also understanding him like that (or at least I am in good company).

This issue is not simply of historical interest. The Big Bang (which is often trumpeted by those who don't know any better as a 'proof' that the Torah is true) would be, for Rambam, in the same category as Aristotle's eternity. Does this quote not apply to modern physics just as much as to Aristotle?

If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs

Therefore, how are we to respond to Wilson and Penzias' clear evidence of Cosmic Background Radiation which basically proves the Big Bang?

What would Rambam do if Aristotle were proven correct?

Invention of the Printing Press

With all the current discussion about the internet and how it should (or should not) be used for enhancing Jewish life, I thought it would be interesting to look at another invention which had perhaps an even bigger influence on Judaism, and how it was received. I refer to the printing press, which allowed exiled communities to have access to Torah even if they did not have access to a learned Rabbi. It began the proces which led to the democratisation of knowledge, and which enabled every person (who could afford a book) to become knowledgeable on a topic. It was also decried by many for spreading all sorts of ideas, images and concepts that were not appropriate.

Here is David Gans writing in Tzemach David in 1592:

1440 דפוס הספרים נמצא בעיר מענץ ע״י איש נוצרי שמו יוהניש גוטנבערג
משטראסבורג והיה זה בשנה ראשונה לקיסר החסיל קיסר פרידריך בשנת ה״א ומאתים אלף ות״מ לנוצרים ברוך החונן לאדם לעת ומלמל לאנוש בינה ברוך אשר דבר עלינו בחסדו בתחבולה רבה כזו לתועלת כל יושבי תבל אין עוד מלבדה ולא נמצא ערך לה בכל החכמית והתחבולות למן היום אשר ברא ה׳ אדם על הארץ לא לבד לחכמות תלמודיות האלהיות ולשאר שבע חכמות הלא גם לשאר חכמות זמניות אומנים פועלי יד צורפים בנאים חרשי עץ חרשי אבן וזולתם נתגלו ונתפרסמו על ידי הדפוס בכל יום ובכל עת תועלת ותחבולות רבות אשר נדפסו לכל פועלי אומנות ספרים הרבה אין קץ .

Here is a translation that i have taken from Jewish Thought and the Scientific Revolution of the Sixteenth Century: David Gans (1541-1613) and His Times (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization)
by Andre Neher.

Printing was invented in Mainz by the Christian Johannes Gutenberg of Strasbourg in the first year of the reign of the Emperor Frederick the Pious (the Jewish year 5200). Blessed be He who endows man with intelligence and teaches him knowledge. Blessed be He who in His goodness has granted us such an invention, of universal benefit and unique of its kind. No other invention, no other discover can be compared to it since God created man upon the earth. I tis not only the metaphysical sciences and the seven secular sciences which have profited from this invention, but all the applied sciences – metalworking, architecture, wood-engraving and lithography – have also benefited. Each day reveals some new aspect and innumerable books are published with benefit all professions whatever they may be.

Quite the opposite of the Citi-Field Asifa!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ehad HaAm and Rambam

I recently discovered that Echad Ha'Am wrote a very interesting booklet in memory of Maimonides' 700th yahrzeit. In it he espouses the 'rational' and claims that Rambam's faith was always guided primarily by philosophy.

He shows a greater familiarity with a wider range of Rambam texts than most yeshiva students now - in keeping with his belief that Israel should be a Jewish state and not just a state for Jews.

I'm not sure that I agree with everything that he writes here, and take it with a grain of salt (or many grains if you prefer) but it is thought provoking and rather interesting (I thought).

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

New Zealand Jewish Humour

Somehow these old Jewish jokes almost sound funny when told with a New Zealand accent

You can read more about here on Jewish Humour Central

Deena Mishaan

My sister in law has just created a website to display her artwork. She is an amazing artist, focussing on spirals and motherhood.

This is what she writes about herself and her art:

I am a mother. I am an artist.
The use of color, texture and shape expresses my bond between mother and child;
that powerful, spiritual and emotional connection unlike any other.

I paint to capture these emotions. One of my first inspirations was the look in my daughters eyes as she looked up at me while nursing; that perfect moment of calm, love, giving and taking. A moment that mothers want to hold onto, but often lose in the everyday tasks of motherhood.
I accomplished this by breaking up that moment into fragments and putting it back together through spirals.
The spiral represents the strong bond of love that grows out, becoming stronger and never-ending; like the love of a parent for a child. It represents the cycle of life, womanhood, femininity and motherhood.
It represents me.

Have a look at and let her know what you think of her art.

Torah Moves to Spain

For the last two weeks I have spoken about Kairouan and the Torah that was taught there. At some point the Mu in Tunisia became too fundamental, and Torah moved to Spain. Rav Yitzchak Alfasi moved to Spain and while there one of his pupils was Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi.

In this shiur I go off on a tangent about the so-called 'Kuzari Principle' which I think is exactly the OPPOSITE of the real Kuzari, who argues against rational proofs of G-d and Torah. (If anything 'proofs' of Torah should be associated with Avraham ibn Daud). I give my views on Kuzari and reasons for belief (and there is quite a lot of discussion as people disagree with what I say). When I was looking for information about the Kuzari Principle I found that Micha Berger had beaten me to it (again!). He writes here in a much nicer and better way than me, so make sure you have a look at it.

I look briefly at Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol, and explain that he brought neo-Platonism to Christian Europe. But Avraham ibn Daud really does not rate him highly as a philosopher (though apparently he was good enough as a poet).

The person I really wanted to speak about was Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud, author of Sefer HaKaballah and Emunah Ramah (which was written as an attack on Kuzari). But I ran out of time. Suffice it to say that he was a hardcore Aristotelian who said things that Rambam did not say explicitly, and who builds his Judaism firmly on the bedrock of philosophy.

I have time for a short discussion on the idea of whether Jewish souls are intrinsically 'better' than non-Jewish souls. I think that Kuzari is the first source to say such a thing (Rashi and Tosefot do not agree to it - I don't think), but ibn Daud disagrees and claims that all human souls are on the same level.

Here is the shiur:

Here is the audio shiur (and the pdf sheets to download if you want).

ibn Gabirol, ibn Daud and Yehuda HaLevi

(Right click and then 'download as')

ibn Gabirol, ibn Daud and Yehuda HaLevi source sheet

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Kein Ayin Hora

Tim Minchin (the funniest and most intelligent atheist since Douglas Adams - with the possible exception of Terry Pratchett) spoke at the Hay Festival, and mocked superstition! He said that he hoped his daughter would die, but only to demonstrate that words have no effect on reality. He also said:
Superstition is something that one should divest oneself of. It’s not helpful, and often it’s harmful.
I always say to people when they get on a plane, ‘Don’t have a plane crash!’ There’s a sense that the odds might be higher, or if I do a joke about my baby dying the odds might be greater. But there’s no way that can be the case.
It’s incredibly empowering to get rid of superstition. It’s deep within us because we’re megalomaniacs – we think we can make a plane crash with our words.

I really hope that his daughter doesn't die, and that nobody ever dies ever again, but I think it is very dangerous for him to play with ayin hora like that. I have clear proof that words can kill. It is a very simple proof, and it goes like this:

Gregg Allman wrote and sang "Whipping Post" with the Allman Brothers Band. The chorus goes:
Sometimes I feel ... sometimes I FEEL
Like I been tied to the whipping post!
TIED to the whipping post!
TIED to the whipping post!
Good Lord, I feel like I'm dyin'...

The song was first written in 1969, and they must have performed it hundreds of times, including the classic performance at Fillmore East. And then, as a result, Gregg's older brother, Duane, died! Only 2 years later! In a motorcycle crash!
The story doesn't end there. Oh no. Almost exactly ONE year later, Berry Oakley, bass player for the Allman Brothers, died after crashing his motorcycle in almost exactly the same place as Duane had died!

And all because they sang a song about dying!

But the ayin hora didn't stop with the Allman Brothers Band. Frank Zappa recorded a version of it on 'Them or Us' (well he would do, wouldn't he - it is in 11/4 time). This was released in 1984 (and has Steve Vai on 'impossible guitar parts' in case you were wondering). And barely 9 years later Frank was dead too!

This clearly shows the power of words, and the importance of saying 'kein ayin hora' after every sentence. Tim Minchin - please be careful!

In case you are not completely convinced, at least listen to the song, for it is a fantastic song.

Monday, June 04, 2012

The End of Cherems?

Just a very quick post because I am busy with many things (BH). I have been saying for years (and so have many other people) that as soon as Rav Elyashiv's protective hand was removed the knives would be drawn and all the people who had been attacked or harmed by the 'establishment' (in this case Yated Neeman and those associated with it) would get their revenge.

For years (the Israeli version of) Yated has been the mouthpiece of the 'Gedolim' and 'Daas Torah' (by which I mean that they would write articles, editorials and bans and claim that they came from Rav Elyashiv without his knowledge). During this time they have been at the forefront of controversy and destroying the lives of those who disagree with them. They have made many powerful enemies.

Somehow I missed the news when it actually happened. I only found out today, and it happened overnight last week (like an inverse of Yosef being called to Pharaoh - in one moment the people of Yated went from the top of the heap to the bottom).

It seems that Shimon Glick bought up the body which owns the newspaper without anyone noticing. Then on Thursday morning he fired everyone associated with the paper! He did this with the backing and support of Rav Steinman (thus making him the new 'Godol HaDor' and knocking out a lot of others who were vying for the position).

You can read a Hebrew article on ynet news, and an English article on Yeshiva World News.

And the biggest irony? Apparently the former owners of Yated now want to take the new owners to court (yes, secular court - the one that is forbidden because religious Jews have to use Beit Din) to try to reverse the deal! Doesn't feel so good being stepped on by others does it?

Rav Shteinman is (ad 120) an old man (I think 98) and he won't be the Gadol HaDor forever. But some of his views have been quite controversial (in the old style Yated manner of condemning those who disagree) including his support for Nachal Hareidi (which led to protests against him and much verbal abuse). Perhaps his takeover of the paper will herald in a new era of tolerance for views of others, for discussion rather than banning, and will allow for the possibility of Hareidim going to the army and to the work force.

Rav Shach founded Yated Neeman to be the voice of Degel HaTorah. I think that Degel has run out of steam now, and its original message became lost in petty politics. Perhaps now it will become clear that Daas Torah only exists in the imagination of the media who are trying to maintain their standing.

Yehi Ratzon that Yated becomes Neeman and that Hareidim can once again become G-d fearing, instead of 'Godol-fearing'.

(And I hope that the people who were harmed financially, spiritually and physically as a result of Yated will be having a quiet celebration now).