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.