Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category

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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Birkat HaHama, NY 1897

Quite an amazing story as told in the New York Times of 8th April 1897.

Birkat HaHama is coming up again in a couple of weeks on the 8th April again. Last one was 28 years ago in 1981, though I don’t remember that at all.

The whole story of Birkat Hahama is pretty weird. If you want to know what it’s all about you can take a look at the article in Wikipedia. As it points out there, solar leap years do not strictly occur every 4 years so the whole thing is suspect anyway. That’s assuming you reckon the world was created in Nissan/April 5769 years ago and not in Tishrei/October of that year or like a few billion years earlier.

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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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As I wrote a couple of days back, I downloaded the PDFs of both the Auerbach and Albeck Eshkols and perused them.

After writing my original posting on the subject of the Nahal Eshkol, I emailed Prof. Marc B. Shapiro (who is the person who seems to have written the most about this subject online) with several outstanding questions I had on the subject. His reply was that the answers to my questions about the source of Albeck’s manuscript could be found by reading the introduction to Albeck’s volume. I was also interested to see what Auerbach had to say about his volume, so full of expectation I set about reading both volumes.

The first thing that I noticed is that they are entirely different books. I am no scholar, but without having read them from cover to cover, I would hazard a guess  that they have no common sections in them at all. 

I then went on to read the editors’ introductions. Auerbach’s introduction is written in long and ornate language and starts off with the story of how he duscovered the manuscript beautifully written “in well formed Sefardic hand” and amazingly erudite etc. and how he came to the conclusion that he had the Eshkol in his hands when he found sections that had been quoted by other books as being from the Eshkol. He then continues that the manuscript was in a very bad condition and that he needed to do a lot of work to interpret it and bring it to print. He claims that the manuscript was rotten and infested and in addition that there were sections written in another hand that he claims were fake.

Of this story, Shapiro writes in his first blog post on the subject:

It came as quite a shock when in 1909, many years after Auerbach had died, the great scholar R. Shalom Albeck accused him of having invented the story of the Spanish manuscript in order to enable him to forge the work.

and later

Needless to say, the supposed Spanish manuscript has never been found.

I then moved on to Albeck’s introduction. Here Hanoch Albeck opens with describing how his father Shalom Albeck started the work which he completed and with notes about how he edit ed and completed his father’s work. He then continues with his father’s introduction including a section on which manuscript he used and how he edited it. Here he writes the following (page 21):


Which translated says:

3) Manuscripts of the Sefer HaEshkol

In the following chapter I will enumerate the names of the authors who attributaed the Sefer HaEshkol to “Rabenu Ha-Abad” (R. Yitzhak of Navorna) and the writers who used the work. Here my purpose is to show the quality of the two manuscripts of this book from which I copied the book that present before you.

1) This I will call the “Carmoly manuscript”, for it comes from the library of the honored Eliakim Carmoly of Frankfurt Am Main. This is the manuscript that was used by Rabbi Auerbach in the Eshkol that he printed and it is now in the possession of the inheritors of his estate in Halberstadt. It is written on strong paper of quarter size in old, wide and well formed Sefardic script. The manuscript starts on page 2, and by counting it can be seen that not only page 1 is missing, and before it is a smooth sheet like a title page on which has been written in large lettering [by Carmoli?] “Sefer HaEshkol of Rabenu Avraham son of Rabbi Yitzhak of Navorna.

He then goes on to describe a second manuscript “the Paris manuscript” that he used to supplement the Carmoly one where it was missing pages or was difficult to read.

You will probably have noticed an amazing revelation here. Albeck worked from a manuscript that he got from the Auerbach family in Halberstadt!

So was this presumably the manuscript that Auerbach used? If so, then how did Albeck claim that the whole Spanish manuscript story was a fake and how does Shapiro say that Auerbach’s manuscript was never found? It certainly appears that Auerbach had a manuscript, even if he faked the text rather than laboring over the original.

Albeck’s description (on the page subsequent to the quote above) of the manuscript is that it was in a much better state than Auerbach claimed although he mentioned smudged and faint sections and parts written in a different hand. However, having Paris manuscript for comparison he succeeded in overcoming these problems. Maybe Auerbach claimed all this in order to justify his forgery – like he was writing what the Eshkol should have been, rather than what it was? Maybe Albeck was claiming that although there was a manuscript, it didn’t match and the discrepancies were unexplained?

It looks like I am going to have to purchase a copy of the “Kofer HaEshkol” in order to understand what is going on. I saw reprints on sale online for USD18, so this looks like my next move.

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I just found (it wasn’t that difficult if I had thought to look) both Auerbach’s and Albeck’s Eshkols online. I am downloading them. What particularly interests me are the forwards. I’ll let you know what I found out.

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In my previous post on the subject of R. Benjamin Hirsch Auerbach (BTW, also refered to in other sources as R. Zvi Binyamin Auerbach) I mentioned in passing the controversies in which he was involved and in particular the controversy over his publishing of an edition of the Sefer HaEshkol by R. Abraham ben Isaac of Narbonne (c. 1110 – 1179).

I have since done some research into the material that has been published on R. Auerbach and the Sefer HaEshkol and I felt that it would certainly make a worthy subject for a post.


R. Benjamin Hirsch Auerbach was born in Neuweid on 21 June 1808 to a prominent rabbinic family. He studied under his father and then in the yeshivot of Krefeld and Worms. He then went on the University of Marburg where he studied Semitic languages and history (1831-1834). In 1835 he took the position in Darmstadt of Landesrabinner (chief rabbi) of the German state of Hesse. Here he seems to have spent much of his time and energies battling the Reform movement both on the ideological level as well as battling to retain his position against them. The Jews of Darmstadt were apparently of the Reform persuasion and gave him a hard time, whereas those in the smaller surrounding communities were Orthodox. He kept the position for 23 years and also published here a book of an educational sylabus for Jewish schools (“Lehrbuch der Israelitischen Religion,” 1839). He was involved in the publishing of the anti-reform polemic work “Torat HaKnaot” in 1844, together with other prominent Orthodox rabbis. Apart from that he established himself as a leading rabbi in Germany, among the first to preach and write in German.

In 1857 he was forced to resign his position and moved to Frankfurt Am Main where he devoted himself to writing while his wife supported the family. Apparently his financial position was not good and in 1863 he was convinced to take up the position of rabbi in Halberstadt (which did not have a reform movement).

In Halberstadt he developed close ties with the wealthy industrialist family Hirsch who owned a metal working business. Two of his children married Hirschs one of which was my great great grandmother Julia Auerbach who married Benjamin Hirsch.

Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Hirsch Auerbach died in Halberstadt on 30th September 1872.

The Eshkol Controversy

It was also in Halberstadt that he published in 1869 (with financing from the Hirsch family) a purported manuscript of the Sefer HaEshkol, an important halakhic work written in the early 12th century by R. Abraham ben Isaac of Narbonne. The importance of this book is that it is the first work of codification of the halakha in southern France, which served as a model for all subsequent compilations. The work was accompanied by a commentary called the Nahal Eshkol written by R. Auerbach.

R. Auerbach published three volumes of the work in his lifetime and claimed to be in possession of a fourth volume that he did not complete before his death in 1878.

In 1909 the scholar R. Shalom Albeck raised doubts as to the authenticty of Auerbach’s manuscript and declared Auerbach’s work a fogery, basing himself on apparent unattributed quotation of sources in the text that post date the supposed date of authorship. Already in 1869 and 1880, such doubts had been raised, but the stature of R. Auerbach prevented these from having been taken seriously.

Following Albeck’s challenge, four prominent German rabbis (David Zvi Hoffmann, Abraham Berliner, Jacob Schor and Hanokh Ehrentreau) wrote a booklet published in Berlin in 1910 containing a defense of Auerbach named Tzidkat HaTzaddik – “the righteousness of the saint”. Albeck did leave this response unanswered and published a further booklet named Kofer HaEshkol – “denial/rebuttal of the Eshkol” (Warsaw, 1911), in which he explained his reasons for declaring the work a forgery.

Although a further defense of Auerbach was written as late as 1974 by Issachar Dov (Bernard) Bergman in an essay in the Joshua Finkel Festschrift (New York, 1974), it can be fairly said that Albeck’s arguments became accepted and the dubious nature of Auerbach’s Eshkol is now considered an established fact in academic circles as well as many rabbinic ones. Prof. Marc Shapira (see references below) brings examples of poskim who have obliviously used Auerbach’s Eshkol, including notably R. Ovadia Yosef. He also brings a couple of examples including notably the Teimani posek R. Yitzhak Ratsaby who rejects the Eshkol as a forgery and quotes and annecdotal evidence that this was also known to R. Moshe Feinstein (though he goes into detail of other sources mistakenly held to be forgeries by R. Feinstein on the basis of them containing dodgy views – an interseting subject in itself) as well as other leading rabbinic scholars.

Neither R. Auerbach or his heirs ever produced the original manuscript from which he worked to transcribe his Eshkol and no reasonable explanations have ever been given for the discrepancies in the work. Whether he worked from an original manuscript, but embellished it or whether he invented it entirely remains unknown to this day.

What is interesting are the places where no mention is made of the Eshkol controversy. The first and foremost of these is the Auerbach family tree (see below) which does not mention even in passing the existence of any such controversy. Seeing as the volume was published in 2002 and among its editors are academic scholars, this omission begs question. The second source where I found no mention was Wikipedia. This surprised me at first until I saw that its text is in fact copied (and credited) verbatim from the Jewish Encyclopedia which was published between 1901-1906(!) and thus pre-dated Albeck’s original aspersions. I am taking it on myself to update the Wikipedia article.

Later Publications of The Eshkol

In 1938 Hanoch Albeck (the son of R. Shalom Albeck) published what is accepted as being the authentic Eshkol. I have not found any material online that would suggest how he came into possession of the manuscript or the background to the publication. If any readers can fill me in on this, I would be indebted.

Unrelated, a purported fourth volume of Auerbach’s Eshkol was published in 1986 by Bergman (who wrote the defense of Auerbach in 1974), presumably from Auerbach’s original manuscript. Exactly where he claims to have got this manuscript from is totally unclear (and of course he doesn’t present it either) and it doesn’t appear that this volume is taken that seriously.

Post Script

When Rabbis Hoffmann, Berliner, Schor and Ehrentreau published their Tzidkat HaTzaddik in 1910 they argued that a person of the stature of R. Benjamin Hirsch Auerbach could not possibly be held to have forged the work. They brought the Rambam to their defense who states in his commentary on Avot 1:6 that a tzaddik, even if he does something dubious, should be given benefit of doubt and it must be assumed that there is a reasonable explanation, even if it is very far-fetched.

Whether you want to take Rambam here to his word or not, the question remains of why R. Auerbach would have created a forgery. It does not appear that the forgery was to forward some agenda. Neither does it appear that he needed to establish status or authority, because it would seem he already had that. My only guess could be that in his years in Frankfurt he came upon this plan to achieve fortune, even if he was not in need of fame.

It may be that a manuscript did exist and he had also convinced himself that his embelishments were what the Eshkol would have said and were somehow defensible. In any case, my knowledge of this interesting chapter in our family past is far from complete and my insight is very limited.


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