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Archive for the ‘Jewish Thought’ Category

Rafi G wrote a post yesterday about the latest haredim vs. everyone else fight in Beit Shemesh. The proposal has been made to create a shomrei shabbat section in the Beit Shemesh cemetery. This is something that exists in other places as a way for the Orthodox community to define the the line between “us” and “them” in burial and not allow “them” to be buried amongst “us”.

Here the action is opposite. They are the newcomers and they want to make sure that “they” won’t be subjected to being buried amongst “us”.

This has of course caused a small uproar in the local press, though I get the feeling that like most of these issues, it is going way over the heads of the majority of citizens. A columnist – David Louk – wrote an article attacking the proposal on the grounds of its divisiveness and that it is halakhically unnecessary (none of the distinguished rabanim of Beit Shemesh have ever seen the need for it till now). Last week the haredi extremist camp hit back with an equalkly long article explaining that unity is not the be-all and end-all and that the halakha does require it and that they will fight for truth and their rights, etc.

The whole issue is based on a gemara in Sanhedrin 46 that discusses where and how to bury people who have been executed (harugei beit din). They are not buried in their family plots and  the gemara raises the issue of not burying resha’im together with tzaddikim. Not only that but different levels of executed resha’im need to be buried separately. From here we get to the halakha in the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh De-ah kuf-tzadi-tet) that:

אין קוברים רשע אצל צדיק, שנאמר אל תאסוף עם חטאים נפשי. ואפילו רשע חמור אצל רשע קל, אין קוברים. וכן אין קוברין צדיק ובל שכן בינוני וכשר אצל חסיד מופלג.

Incidentally, if this leaves you feeling uncomfortable the Arukh HaShulhan (Yoreh De’ah shin-samekh-bet) says:

ואין קוברין רשע אצל צדיק, אפילו רשע חמור אצל רשע קל. וכן אין קוברין צדיק, וכל שכן בינוני, אצל חסיד מופלג. אבל קוברים בעל תשובה אצל צדיק גמור.

Seeing as someone may have had hirhurei teshuva before he died and would therefore be considered a baal teshuva (Gemara Kidushin 49b) that solves that one (assuming you want to solve it).

And what of “ameich kulam tzaddikim“? and what of koneh olamo be-shaah achat, and what will be of the tzaddikim nistarim?

The problem is not one of unity but of hillul hashem. It is one of people coming with a message of uncompromising division, judgment and hatred in the name of God and his Torah.

When newcomers come along and start telling people what to do they resent it. When they come in the name of halakha and claim that the local respected rabonim don’t know the right thing to do, they resent it even more. When they come in the name of halakha (she-kol derakheiha darkei no’am) and claim that even their beinonim are too big tzadikim to be buried next to the locals, they get incensed.

And so do I.

Don’t they understand that lo ba-esh hashem? How long will it take for these sikrikim to understand that their way leads to more hurban?

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I am currently reading a book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – “To Heal a Fractured World, The Ethics of Responsibility“. I enjoy very much Rabbi Sacks’ writing as he is a big rationalist a thoughtful philosopher and a great writer.

I read a passage yesterday in chapter 8 which is about darkei shalom (ways of peace) which is Judaism’s framework for doing good to people who are outside the covenantal community. He is discussing why we do not recite a berakha (blessing) before doing mitzvot bein adam le-haveiro (commands relating to interpersonal behavior). He discusses first the option that it is because the mitzva require two to do it (the giver and the receiver) and therefor no single person can recite a blessing. He reject this and goes on to discuss a more fundamental difference between mitzvot bein adam la-makom and bein adam le-haveiro. He writes the following:

There is an obvious difference between the two types of command. In the case of commands between us and God, what matters is is the act and the intention with which it was performed… Intention gives the act the characteristic essential to a religious deed in Judaism, namely that it is a response to a command of God. For an act to be holy, it must be designated and dedicated as holy… In that minimalistic sense, intent is necessary.

An act between us and another human being however has a different character. What matters is not the act but the result… The point of the command is its effect on th world, on the other person, not the transaction in the soul between the agent and God….An intention defines the nature of an act, but here what matters is not the act but its outcome.Kantian or Kierkergaardian purity of will is irrelevant. We are not commanded to give to the poor primarily for the salvation of our souls, but for the sake of the poor.

His conclusion is that mitzvot bein adam le-haveiro are not blind decrees but universal rules of conduct, who “cause blessing” rather than needing a blessing and whose purpose is primarily in their effect.

My problem with this is a contradiction with the answer to the basic qusetion of why the world is imperfect. This he relates to in chapter 6 where he discusses tikkun olam (mending the world). The world is imperfect in order to give us a purpose of trying to mend it and get to the perfection by ourselves. If the world was perfect (like if we had no free will) then it would have no purpose because God doesn’t need robots. If the purpose of mitzvot bein adam le-haveiro was just their effect then God would have done it himself.

I would hold that while what he says is true, it is only one side. We are given mitzvot bein adam le-haveiro in order that we will do then and in perfecting the world also perfect ourselves. If I do a good deed and it is undermined in some way so that it’s effect isn’t full, it still has value in that it has changed me. Under this explanation the reason we don’t make a berakha is slightly more subtle. If I am doing an act that is supposed to refine me, then the last thing I want to do is to stand back a second and concentrate on my kavannot (intentions) and proudly proclaim “blessed is God who commanded me to do x”. Firstly, I may have second thoughts if I think about it too much, but more importantly it will promote a smug self-conscious satisfaction that destroys all the personal effect that the act will have on me.

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By coincidence Climate Progress had a post yesterday about environmental action by faith communuities in the US. I looked at one of the links – lo-Watt Shabbat. Not amazingly exciting. I’m looking for an halakhically acceptable solution for wasting less electricity keeping an urn of hot water and a hot-plate heated over Shabbat.

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Why are religious people so often so totally ungreen? A post appeared recently on the “Beit Shemesh List” decrying the total lack of awareness in Ramat Beit Shemesh for civic cleanliness. The post was worded in a haredi rhetoric style but embedded in the post are a point that I have thought about for a while:

We call ourselves religious people, and we allow our neighbors to desecrate Hashem’s Holy Land? We write graffitti that calls for people to dress “tzniusly” but don’t mind the fact that it is written on the walls of our neighbor’s homes?

Shouldn’t preserving the environment be way up top of any religious person’s values and their to-do list? If you really and fervently believe that the world is God’s creation then where is the care for looking after his handiwork? The answer to the conundrum comes I think is that environmentalism isn’t on the map not only because its new and hadash assur min hatorah (sic), but also because this is just another case of mixed up priorities and lost direction.

They’re spend all their energies looking for imaginary bugs in strawberries, fussing over supposed sexual improprietary on mixed seated buses and in even in the mixed sex government that is causing the world economic recession, bothering over what shirt other people wear to play ball on Shabbat afternoon and generally getting worked up over unimportant things. They have no time left for looking after the land that is “palatin shel melech” that “aynay hashem bah me-reshit ha-shana ad akharit shana”. Hashem yishmor or just let the hiloinim worry about all that goyim naches.

Traditionally Israel has been more excited about development than conservation and environmentalists are still this day considered reactionary wimps standing in the way of progress. Real halutzim have no time for wimps. It is interesting though that conservatives and patriots the world over seem to have this same problem. I would have thought that near on if not number one on the list for any patriot should be preserving the environment of his beloved country.

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Joshua Berman just published a new essay on his site in which he more or less summarizes his book “Created Equal” and then proposes a “watchmaker argument” for the existence of God that firstly the intellectual quantum leap to come up with Jewish theology in the ancient world was just too big, secondly the theology serves no interest group, so who would have promoted it and thirdly that whoever wrote the Torah didn’t sign on it or leave any evidence of his existence which is unlike what people tend to do.

Personally I don’t like this kind of argument. What is obvious to one person is not obvious to another and presenting the case for the existence of God or a god as a probability exercise, I think rather misses the point.

God’s existence cannot be proven or disproven. In fact should he exist, then his existence would not be what we call an existence. A transcendental omnipotent everlasting will/intellect/conscience that is everywhere yet nowhere both within and without of the dimensions of space and time – and even there I haven’t even touched on what he really is. Any concept you have of him is pitifully partial and a metaphor. Proving God’s existence is unhelpful religiously, pointless scientifically and in my opinion unnecessary to the man of faith who integrates God’s messages to his life. If I was waiting for divine retribution or reward I would have given up doing mitzvot long ago.

Reading Berman’s book I came to a different conclusion. To me it seemed all of a sudden more understandable where the Torah was coming from and why it is the way it is. It is the state political manifesto of a nomadic people who believe in independence and dignity and reject hierarchical tyranny. An antithesis of all political thought before it.

The Torah is truly a remarkable document way ahead of its time and revolutionary to this day. The interest group that it served were the non stratified nomad clans that comprised the Hebrew public and were determined not to create another Egypt. The fact that “authors” of the Torah remain anonymous is just witness to the greatness of the vision of a divinely ordained code of equality for a divinely freed nation servant to no other than their God and to which no human can sign his name.

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Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, Joshua A. Berman, Oxford University Press 2008

A couple of years ago I heard a fascinating lecture by (Rabbi Dr.) Josh Berman given at the annual Tikun Leil Shavuot held in our community. In his lecture he compared the structure of the ten commandments to that of suzerain treaties (treaties between dominant and subordinate kings) in the Near Eastern late bronze age. His thesis was that in order to understand the Biblical text correctly, we must look as much to the cultural context in which it was written (or given, if you will) as we do to the later commentaries written in the spirit of traditional interpretation of the texts. By doing this we can uncover a whole new layer of understanding of structures and nuances that would have been understood and taken for granted by the protagonists of Biblical times (and sometimes even to the writers of Midrash) but that are totally lost to us.

In his book Joshua Berman explores these avenues further in order to show how the Bible is a book of political and social reform as much as it is a book of religion. He elucidates the revolutionary egalitarian program proposed in it together with its attendant covenantal theology and compares and contrasts the structures of this new social order with those of its contemporary cultures and Western political theories beginning in Greece and to this day.

The Biblical political program stands in stark contrast to its contemporaries. These were deeply hierarchical, totalitarian and dehumanizing political systems, legitimized by a parallel theology that mirrored and justified the earthly self-serving hierarchy. What the Bible proposed was an anti-hierarchical society of freemen answerable to God alone, assets were envisioned as ultimately belong to God himself and the weilding of power political or economic over another illegitimate. Knowledge likewise, was to be universally distributed.

 The book is divided into five chapters that discuss in turn the new status of man before God, the new political hierarchy (or lack of it), the Bible’s economic program, its attitude towards the dissemination of knowledge and the revolutionary use of writing technology to this end. The final chapter examines the stories of the birth of Sargon of Akkad and Moses (Exod. 2:) in the light of the insights gained through the course of the book. The texts are examined word by word on a micro scale and then through artistic interpretations. This case study is stylistically very different from anything that went before and I am not sure what it really adds to the book. I was left with the feeling that it was an afterthought, maybe a reworked paper on that subject, that was appended to the book.

As well as being an academic scholar, Joshua Berman is an Orthodox rabbi. At the outset of the book he sets his ground rules whereby he will read the Pentateuch as a textual whole – maybe as an idealized text – without reference to theories of the historical authorship and editing of the text. This stance is undoubtably determined by his Orthodox standpoint, but he well justifies it in intellectual terms without resorting to dogma. Personally I agree with his approach of holistic reading and this is what makes his study valuable and interesting. This approach does not prevent him from writing a very interesting comparitive study that quotes disparate sources from the whole history of Western thought, modern academia, rabbinic writings and the Christian holy books. It is perhaps a badge of honor of Modern Jewish Orthodoxy that modern approaches from that of Breuer through to studies such as Berman’s are increasingly legitimized and taking a center stage in theological discussion, synthesising old and new in a textual revival.

Created Equal is a book I would recommend to all readers interested in reading and understanding the Tanakh as it was intended. Whether you come to the subject religiously or academically, this is a book that can change the way you think about the Biblical age and the Bible. Unfortunately many of the potential readers that I would recommend the book to will be frightened to read it and to be exposed to unfamiliar ideas… but that is another story.

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Rafi G blogged today about an article on RabbiHorowitz.com – “Charedi Classic“.

Rabbi Horowitz seems to be a school principle and educational advisor and writer. The article in question describes how the education and values passed to him by the previous Haredi generation seem to him to be much more balanced and successful than those that he as part of the current Haredi generation are passing on to their children.

The Haredi Classic set of values were simple. “…be a mentch [an upstanding and honest person]. Learn and master our Torah. Farbreng nisht der tzeit [sic] — make the best use of every minute of every day. Make a kiddush Hashem [sanctification of God’s name by your good behavior] wherever you go – don’t ever forget that you are wearing a yarmulke. Get an education, be self-sufficient, and give something back to the community”.

The new Haredism is bogged down in stringencies, mixing custom with law and in superstition. It is frightened of the world around it and fraught with facades within.

I don’t want to gloat, but I think his Haredi Classic is called Modern Orthodox today. Unfortunately we don’t always know what we have going good and there are strong forces trying to send us in the Haredi direction. Let’s stick with Judaism Classic.

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