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