Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Redefining Heresy

I was always puzzled by the Gemara which speaks of Yochanan the High Priest becoming a heretic after 80 years in the job:

Believe not in thyself until the day of thy death? For lo, Johanan the High Priest officiated as High Priest for eighty years and in the end he became a Min?

He must have been at least 100 when he gave up being a frum Jew and became a Christian instead! Most people don't make such a switch at that time of life.

Rabbi Haber once explained the Gemara to me in a slightly different way (I don't remember if he was quoting someone else or if it was his own chidush). He said that Cohanim were always conservative traditionalists. When the "Jewish Spring" came about, towards the end of the Second Beit HaMikdash period, they were the last ones to embrace "modern Judaism". It was not that Yochanan himself gave up his beliefs. Rather, the definition of what is "kosher" and what is "heresy" changed during Yochanan's lifetime, so that by the end of his life he was a relic from a bygone era, and the modern Jews considered him a heretic.

We have seen many examples of this throughout history, and many more recently. People who were once considered acceptable sources of Jewish hashkafa (Rambam, Abarbanel, Hirsch and many others) have become "heretical" (or at least some of what they wrote is heretical) according to some modern Rabbis. Rabbi Slifkin's books and ideas, which were used by the entire spectrum of English speaking, kiruv Judaism, from Aish HaTorah to Artscroll, became heretical retroactivel. There are many other examples of the "Jochanan" syndrome.

One case, which is unfolding this week is regarding the book Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith by Rabbi Norman Solomon. Rabbi Solomon is an Orthodox Rabbi who served as a communal Rabbi in several cities in England. He was under the auspices of the United Syngagogues and the Chief Rabbi. It is true that not every United Syngagogues Rabbi has identical hashkafa to talmidim in Lakewood or Gateshead or Bnei Brak, but they are all Orthodox Jews with Orthodox smicha from a recognised Orthodox Rabbi/institution (in Rabbi Solomon's case I believe his smicha is from Jews College - but I may be wrong on that).

His book grapples with the apparent contradiction between the axiom of Jewish faith that all of Torah came from Sinai, and the historical/archeological/textual evidence that seems to refute that axiom. I have not (yet) read the entire book, but he deals with the issues in a mature and intelligent fashion. His conclusion will be difficult for some to accept (and I'm not sure that I agree with him, or with his choice of terminology), and is probably on the fringe of Orthodoxy, but it is not incompatible with any of Rambam's 13 principles, and I suspect that many Rishonim would not reject his approach (I may also be wrong - it makes no difference for the purposes of this blog post).

Professor Martin Lockshin reviewed the book. He quoted exerpts from it, such as this:

Rabbi Solomon’s thesis is straightforward: “The classical doctrine of ‘Torah from heaven’… with its erroneous historical claims and occasionally questionable moral consequences, cannot be upheld by the serious historian, scientist or philosopher.” And yet the claims that “Torah is from heaven” and that Moses wrote the Torah are, in a certain sense “true,” as they are Judaism’s “foundational myth.”

Rabbi Solomon rushes to explain that he uses the word “myth” not in the sense of something untrue. “Myths are among the most important symbols of our life; they say what cannot be reduced to nameable facts.” Furthermore, “a story can be at one and the same time both myth and history, and it is certainly more persuasive if it is both; but even without the support of history it can function effectively as myth.”

Professor Lockshin admits that this will be difficult for some Orthodox Jews to accept, and that it will be rejected by many.

Of course, the usual suspects wasted no time rejecting the book without reading it, based on the review.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, a Rabbi of a Shul in Toronto (all of the players in this story - apart from Rabbi Solomon himself - are Canadian for some reason) not only rejected the entire thesis of the book and of the review (it is difficult to know whether he has read the book, and whether he dislikes the book more, or the review), but goes further and claims that Rabbi Solomon is now a Reform Jew and non longer Orthodox.

Then (though I may have got the timeline backwards - this may have happened before the Korobkin review*) the Toronto Beit Din issued a cherem on the ideas presented in the book. They ruled that:

Halacha rules, unequivocally, that the denial of the G-dly origin of "even a single word" in the Torah, or its interpretation as transmitted by tradition (in "Torah shebaal peh), contravenes this principle and constitutes "kefirah baTorah". The practical Halachic implications of this ruling are far reaching.

(All the quotation marks are theirs - I don't know "why" they feel the "need" to use them "so much").

They don't mention him by name, but they refer to "a recently published article", so they are threatening Martin Lockshin with "far reaching implications" for what he wrote.

I don't really have an opinion on the correctness or validity of the book (I need to spend more time reading it), nor am I surprised that Professor Lockshin is trying to push the envelope in Orthodox Judaism. Furthermore, I'm not sure that Solomon does deny the G-dly origin of a single word of the Torah (again, I need to spend more time with the book). I think he was only questioning the literal historicity of Mount Sinai as described by the Torah/Gemara and Rishonim (all of whom seem to have different opinions about what happened). In the same way that the halacha is Divine (even though "it is not in Heaven") I imagine that Rabbi Solomon could consider every single word of the Torah to be of G-dly orogin (He may not - I don't yet know).

BUT the Rabbis of the Vaad have (probably) not read his book, and possibly not the article. Instead of dealing with the issues raised, they make a new halacha that someone who denies the G-dly origin of even a "single word in the Torah" (apparently a single letter would not make one a kofer) is a denier of Torah and should watch out for the consequences.

This is a completely untennable position, which nobody who has ever learnt Shas or Rishonim could agree with. There are times when Chazal clearly felt that the Torah we have today is not the same one that Moshe received. There is the famous Tosefot on Shabbat 55b (and Rabbi Akiva Eiger there) who say that our Torahs do not agree with the mesorah - the list is endless.

But now, all of that has become heretical. So just like Yochanan the High Priest, after 2000 years, some of the Tannaim and Amoraim have become heretics. Along with most of the Rishonim.

Apparently "they could say it, we can not".

(Note - I am not in any way comparing Rabbi Solomon and his opinions (or Martin Lockshin and his) with Chazal/Rishonim and their opinions. But both would be considered heretical by the new halacha of the Toronto Beit Din).

This whole story was even covered by the Huffington Post

* I have been informed by reliable sources that Rabbi Korobkin is in no way associated with the ban of the Vaad. My apologies to him for connecting his review to their ban.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Who Would Rabbeinu Tam Vote For

In the recent election campaign, one of the parties (who were not elected to Knesset) ran a campaign asking who Rambam would vote for. The implications of the ad were:
1. Rambam is in favour of learning Torah AND working (and by extension serving the country/army/being a productive member of society)
2. (Not stated but implied) Other Rishonim disagree with Rambam, and he is therefore perhaps a minority opinion.

Rambam writes:

כל המשים על ליבו שיעסוק בתורה ולא יעשה מלאכה, ויתפרנס מן הצדקה--הרי זה חילל את השם, וביזה את התורה, וכיבה מאור הדת, וגרם רעה לעצמו, ונטל חייו מן העולם הבא: לפי שאסור ליהנות בדברי תורה, בעולם הזה.

אמרו חכמים, כל הנהנה מדברי תורה, נטל חייו מן העולם. ועוד ציוו ואמרו, לא תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם, ולא קורדום לחפור בהם. ועוד ציוו ואמרו, אהוב את המלאכה, ושנוא את הרבנות. וכל תורה שאין עימה מלאכה, סופה בטילה; וסוף אדם זה, שיהא מלסטס את הברייות.
מעלה גדולה היא למי שהוא מתפרנס ממעשה ידיו, ומידת חסידים הראשונים היא; ובזה זוכה לכל כבוד וטובה שבעולם הזה, ולעולם הבא: שנאמר "יגיע כפיך, כי תאכל; אשריך, וטוב לך" (תהילים קכח,ב)--"אשריך" בעולם הזה, "וטוב לך" לעולם הבא שכולו טוב.

Or in English

Anybody who undertakes to learn Torah all the time, not work, and support himself from charity is desecrating God's Name, disgracing the Torah, extinguishes his Jewish spark, causes bad to befall him and destroys his life in the World To Come, for it is forbidden to benefit from Torah matters in this world. The Sages said that anyone who does benefit from Torah matters is destroying his life, and they further commanded one not to make a garland with which to glorify oneself, nor an axe with which to dig. Furthermore, one should like one's work and dislike being a rabbi. Any Torah which one studies without working at is worthless, and causes punishment. A man who acts like this will become a bandit.

It is certainly true that the Kesef Mishna disagrees strongly with Rambam (See Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10)

However, Rambam's view is not only the view of the Talmud, but also of many other Rishonim.

Perhaps the Rishon who is the furthest from Rambam in terms of science/philosophy is Rabbeinu Tam (probably all of the baalei Tosefot, but Rabbeinu Tam is the architect of that school). So, who would he vote for?

23. Tosefot Yeshanim Yoma 85b s.v. Teshuva (bottom of the page of Gemara, second line)
מה שרגיל רבינו יעקב לומר דתלמוד תורה טפל לגבי דרך ארץ מדקתני יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ (אבות ב:ב) אלמא דרך ארץ עיקר.
What Rabbeinu Yaakov used to always say, that Torah study is secondary to derech eretz, since it says "Torah study is nice with derech eretz (Avot 2:2) which implies that derech eretz is primary.

"Rabbeinu Yaakov" mentioned here is none other than Rabbeinu Tam himself (if you don't believe me, look at Hagahot Maimoniot on Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10)

And what does Derech Eretz mean? Certainly it means making a constructive contribution to society, and probably means working (Rabbeinu Tam himself made his living from lending money to non-Jews with interest and dealing in wine)
So, who would Rabbeinu Tam vote for?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Of Onions and Wine Barrels

Over at MentalFloss there is an overview of historical methods of testing for pregnancy. It seems that the ancient Egyptians were not wrong in their test, and a lot of rabbits had to die in the early part of the 20th century (whether they were pregnant or not). But it is clear that there is only one pregnancy test which fits with Chazal, and therefore I call upon all frum people (and their wives) to use only this one, to show that Chazal never erred in their scientific knowledge. And that is "The Onion Test"


While the Ancient Egyptians were on to something with the wheat and barley test, they and the Ancient Greeks seem to have had a fuzzy understanding of anatomy. Both Egyptian medical papyri and Hippocrates, lauded as the father of medicine, suggested that a woman who suspected she might be pregnant insert an onion or other strong-smelling bulbous vegetable into her vag*** overnight. If her breath smelled of onions the next morning, she wasn’t pregnant; this was based on the idea that her womb was open, and wafting the oniony scent up to her mouth like a wind tunnel. If she were pregnant, then the womb would be closed, so no wind tunnel.

This seems identical (or very similar) to our Sages understanding of women's biology, as the Talmud in Ketuvot 10b says as follows:

Someone came before Rabban Gamaliel the son of Rabbi [and] said to him, 'My master, I have had intercourse [with my newly-wedded wife] and I have not found any blood.' She [the wife] said to him, 'My master, I am still a virgin.' He [then] said to them: Bring me two handmaids, one [who is] a virgin and one who had intercourse with a man. They brought to him [two such handmaids], and he placed them upon a cask of wine. [In the case of] the one who was no more a virgin its smell went through, [in the case of] the virgin the smell did not go through. He [then] placed this one [the young wife] also [on a cask of wine]. and its smell did not go through. He11 [then] said to him: Go, be happy with thy bargain. — But he should have examined her from the very beginning! — He had heard a tradition, but he had not seen it done in practice. and he thought. The matter might not be certain and it would not be proper18 to deal lightly with daughters of Israel.

Therefore, it would be a denial of the scientific knowledge of Chazal to use any other method of detecting pregnancy. Bring Back the Onions! (and save the rabbits)