Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why was there never a massoretic project for the Gemara?

Dilbert asks Why does it have to be so hard to learn gemara?
The Torah(five books of Moses) is written on parchment without any vowels or punctuation. However, we usually learn Torah from a chumash, which has punctuation, vowel markings, and cantillation notes (which help with phrasing as well as accenting the proper syllable). The gemara, on the other hand, usually comes without any vowel markings, punctuation marks (except for the occasional colon), or any other help.

No wonder that the author of a text on aramaic grammer(R. Frank I think) in his introduction tells the reader to read the gemara the way his ancestors did, but to understand what the proper pronounciation should be (because the tradition of the ancestors is not the way it should be pronounced if the proper rules are followed.)

The gemara is hard enough as it is. Why do we continue to perpetuate increased difficulty? why cant we all use Steinsalz editions, if only for the grammer and punctuation? Why do the usual editions of Mikraot Gedolot have the commentors written in microscopic rashi script with every other word an abbreviation? Why should I feel guilty when I reach for my mossad HaRav Kook edition which has everything in legible vowelized Hebrew? Isn't the goal to understand? Can anyone please tell me why this situation has persisted? Is it lack of funds so everyone can have a readable text? Is there a benefit to having 5th graders struggling just to read the words of the gemara(besides having absolutely no idea what the words mean)? Is it all just tradition? or am I missing something? Who canonized the Vilna Shas?
A lot of questions, but I think the key which answers all of them is the last one.

It's precisely the point: the text of the Talmud hasn't really been stabilized (although in, let's say, the past 40 years its come close as the Vilna Shas has become almost synonymous with Talmud). A lot of older people (sorry folks) will remember that decades ago, although widespread, the Vilna edition was most definitely not the only Shas being used. When my father was married, my grandfather bought him a beautiful shas which was not the Vilna edition. When I was a child, my shul had a beautiful set of Shas from the 1860s, which obviously wasn't the Vilna edition.

This slightly parallels the situation when printed texts first became widespread and the ubiquity of printed matter began to obscure the fact that manuscripts do not read the same way, which is not to say that informed Talmud studiers aren't aware that there are textual questions. Every student of Talmud is exposed to "hacha garsinon" and the emendations of the Bach on nearly every page. But the point is that first and foremost, if there ever was a stabilization of the text for Talmud, it's only been happening recently.

Secondly, Dilbert references the Chumash, which is marked with all kinds of diactrics. But this didn't happen by itself. It was the fruit of a centuries long project to develop these notations for the Torah. This never happened for Talmud. There were no schools of Talmud massoretes. The closest we got were commentators like Rashi, who often tell us how to read the text (and likely as not others argue with their readings).

Which brings us to the next point. Although it is true that in the Torah there actually can be many ways to read the text, in the main only one way was canonized. There are exceptions, but by and large we all end our verses at the same spot. With exceptions, we all have our asmachta/ commas in the same spot and we all vocalize the text the same way. Again, the massoretes figured out what it was and how to put it into writing. This never happened with the Talmud. There is scarcely a line which cannot be read more than one way.

In Gemara, one woman's pause in the text is another's cue to keep on reading.

A fourth point is that, in fact, it is only in recent decades that anyone even had the idea that the Talmud ought to be a popular work, rather than a scholarly one. Given the situation we face today, where everyone learns Talmud, or should, or is expected to it indeed makes a lot of sense for some type of Talmud massoretic project to take place. But how? There really isn't anything resembling one tradition for how to read the Talmud and how to vocalize the text. Although actually, the Steinsaltz and Artscroll Talmuds which do point the words and insert commas and question marks is a sort of massoretic Talmud project--one that many Talmudists lament for reasons that are not entirely elitist. There may well be a day when the readings in these editions will become fairly normative simply because of the sheer numbers of people who learn Talmud will be learning from those editions, disguising the fact that there is no one way to read the Talmud.

Can you call yourself 'fierce and funny'?

How (not) to critique Rupture and Reconstruction

At Cross Currents R. Yitzchok Adlerstein posts regarding whether the widespread practice of writing בס"ד on letters, notes etc. constitutes yohora, religious showiness. (BS"D for be-siyatta de-shmayya, Aramaic for 'with Heaven's assistance')

After concluding that it does not (I agree) he writes:
Not everything that we do needs to march lockstep with the actions of those who preceded us. Klal Yisrael knows how to adjust to new times, how to react to new influences and trends. (Unfortunately, some of them also know how to overdo it, but we’ll save that for another occasion.) There is nothing wrong with a practice that does something for people, even if the Chasam Sofer didn’t need it in his day. (This is why I disagree so vociferously with Dr Haim Soloveitchk’s “Rupture and Reconstruction” article.) (emphasis mine)
Dr. Soloveitchik was documenting and analyzing something he has observed--the shift from mimeticism to textualism in Orthodoxy--not lamenting it (although it's a fair guess that he isn't privately thrilled with it).

Now, I'd like to see a critique of Rupture and Reconstruction rather than "this random statement of mine is why I "disagree so vociferously" with 70 pages of scholarly work by a sober Orthodox historian."

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Once you've eaten the apple of modernity, can you go back?

A comment from someone called Chicago on R.Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer's blog:
The problem is for those of us (most Jews in fact) who straddle both worlds. Not only is there an onslaught of "evidence" against the literal mesora, but there is an even greater social onslaught (i.e. anti-fundamentalism) in the intellectual/academic/"enlightened"world. Most of us are weak in this regard and can't easily withstand the intellectual/social pressure exerted against our belief system.

For many (actually the vast majority) people, alternative pshatim, allegories, and cognitive dissonance are the only mechanisms available to enable functioning as a "believer" in the mesora. These issues have been around for centuries, and the rationalization approach has survived side by side with the fundamentalist approach all this time. R' Slifkin (and his many supporters) is clearly just the latest version of this "rationalist" approach to the mesora.

My concern for nearly everyone that I know is that if the gedolim label R' Slifkin and the rest of the rationalists as koferim (and we all lose our chelek in Olam Haba) then what is the point of continuing as observant Jews? How can kiruv continue amongst those with a secular education?

Furthermore, the apparent lack of derech eretz with all the book banning (at least in the eye of the rationalists) makes Torah-true Judaism extremely unpalatable to outsiders and baalei t'shuvah.

Whereas the bans may be reasonable inside an "RW chareidi" yeshiva, it seems to me that, even if the guardians of the mesora think the rationalist approach is factually incorrect (or completely wrong), that it is extremely unwise to approach the problem with bans and labels of kefira. There are better ways to address the problem, as it has been repeatedly addressed over the centuries. Can't there be a few words of pleasantness, or some polite discourse? Don't the banners care that, by banning rationalist ideas, they are not only declaring about 95% of Jews as treif, but also writing them off forever?
I don't necessarily think that kiruv rechokim is as much an issue as distancing people who are already karov.

The bottom line is whether space can be carved within Orthodox Judaism for "95% of Jews" or not.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Debate with Fkm on a whole mumbo-jumbo of issues regarding tradition... Pt. I

Fkm posts a response to my earlier post regarding the documentary hypthesis. Basically, the thrust of my argument (or position if you want to call it that) is that the documentary hypothesis (or some version of it) isn't an unreasonable, violent reading of the text. It is rather a logical conclusion from a combination of a variety of tools of modern literary analysis. Further, I asked, why Hashem wants or requires us to believe otherwise (or indeed if He does require this) given that using the tools of the trade, so to speak, the conclusion is that the Torah seems to be compiled from sources, and at a later date than the period in the wilderness. In other words, its much the same question many people ask about the age of the universe, old v. young.

His responses, thirteen as I count 'em, are as follows, his is black and my paraphrase in blue, since I want him to see that I've understood him correcty. He can see how I understood his points and correct anything that I've misunderstood. I've also added some of my thoughts that I think do justice to his words but are not explicit in them--it is for this reason that you should read his post. First, a note: why am I doing this? It is not because I am a "frum skeptic" or because I want to debunk or destroy or that I want him to be wrong. I want him to be right (at least in essence if not in particulars). But I want to be convinced of it and so far this is just not terribly convincing:
1) Asking "why God would write something in a way that seems like there are multiple documents" is futile. How can anyone assume to know how it should be written if God actually dictated it?
DH starts with the a priori assumption that the Torah has human authorship (you mean we should take seriously the notion that God TALKS to PEOPLE? tsk, tsk, how naive.) and takes it apart from there. This elementary point is totally missed.
You can't argue that God could not have written it because "its not the style that we've come to expect from someone like God". All the evidence in favor of DH rests on analyzing the way HUMAN literature is usually written. Who says this analysis is appropriate for Divine literature?

1. No one can assume how God would write a Torah or what a divine document should look like. Saying that a Torah ought not have these anomalies is saying that we know what the Torah should look like. How can we know that? Furthermore, how do we know that the kind of analysis one uses in analyzing human-authored literature is appropriate to analyzing divine-authored literature?
The truth is that my position has nothing to do with claiming to know what a divine text should look like. The issue is really more about if it was written by one person and at the time tradition assigns to its authorship (roughly 3300 years ago). Of course, in theory, a divine text could look like anything. If we assume that the kinds of analysis we use in analyzing literature in general doesn't apply to the Torah then we are positing that tradition only utilizes a unique type of analysis not found in any other connection. But that's untrue. There is precedent in a whole host of traditional sources for all type of modern analyses used, whether comparative philology or principles like en miqra yotzi mi-dei peshuto or even comparative religion. At least some of the exegetic middot (principles) of R. Yishmael are not unique tools of analysis. Not only that, many modern scholars freely acknowledge their debt to the Jewish commentators of all ages and have about as much respect for them and their scholarship and their insights that we do.
2) The claim of Divine Authorship for the Torah doesn't come from HOW the Torah is written. No one is claiming that the Torah has a uniquely "divine style" which is what DH is purported to be refuting.
The claim of Divine authorship comes from the assertion that millions of witnesses claimed to have experienced God communicating information to Moses. That's it.
Debating this historical assertion has nothing to with DH.

2. The claim of divine authorship for the Torah has nothing to do with the style of writing, unlike, say the Islamic claims about the Qur'an as exquisite an unmatched literary masterpiece that humans can't produce. The claim of divine authorship rests on a form of the Kuzari principle (how can 600,000 people be convinced they saw something they didn't?).
Granted, but if so, then can we agree that we can no longer talk about extraneous things like the "best-seller" status of the Torah or its enormous influence on culture and attitudes in the world? Just kidding. I like those things, but Fkm seems to preclude them from any discussion about the Torah. If all we're left with is the How Can 600,000 People Be Wrong and Would Our Parents Lie To Us argument, need I explain how unconvincing that particular argument actually is? The argument only convinces people who were already convinced, which should tell you something about how sound it is. Before anyone points out to me that R. Micha Berger has a unique interpretation of the so-called Kuzari principle, he rejects the principle-as-proof argument.

3)A related issue to DH is the appearance of anachronisms in the Torah. This gives people the impression that it must have been written/edited at a later time than the events recorded in the Torah. But this is a mistake. You cannot read ANY text in a vacuum. Only the producers of the text can have a definitive opinion on how the text should be understood. And the custodians of this text (Rabbinic Jews) have plausible explanations for the anachronisms from the perspective of divine authorship. These explanations cannot be dismissed simply because a secular scholar would never have arrived at them independently.
Take Shakespeare for an analogy. I think it is simply mistaken to judge Julius Caesar on its purely historical merits if it was not in fact written strictly as history. The exact same thing is true with the anachronisms in the Torah. The Torah intended to convey the actual historical events, while relating to the geographic CONTEXT of the Jews living at Sinai when this text was actually written.
The Torah wasn't written for historians to glean names of cities or inhabitants of the places in the "real time" of the events being recorded.
It was written to give the recipients of the Torah a grasp of the location of the events (or greatness of people like Moshe which also troubles secular scholars) being described.
Of course I'm not saying the events weren't historically true! They certainly were. I'm only saying the frames of reference were geared to the immediate recipients of the text. This understanding actually supports the "hypothesis" that the text of the Torah was fixed at the Sinai period and NOT earlier or later.

Also, there is nothing misleading about God wanting the Jewish people in the desert to be aware of Moshe's greatness. It's only misleading if you assume Moshe was authoring the Torah himself and ignore the Torah's own claim of Divine Authorship.
That's creating an artificial problem.
The skeptic is misleading himself with his assumptions.

3. All anachronisms in the Torah have plausible explanations from within the Jewish tradition. These cannot be dismissed simply because modern scholarship wouldn't arrive at these solutions independently. Fkm then goes on to remind us that the Torah isn't a history book (tell that to your rebbe :) ) and as such is not useful to scholars.
Plausible is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it? Is every explanation convincing? We'd all like to think that every peshat given by every traditional source speaks to us, but that just isn't so. We can be coy and say 'lulei de-mistafina...' but the facts are that not every anachronism is explained convincingly for everyone. There is also a methodological difference at play. Modern scholarship can't accept what it perceives as ad-hoc hypotheses without internal or external evidence (and it cannot be stressed enough that modern scholars who do this themselves are just as, if not more, unconvincing). If one were to draw maps of ancient Canaan and demonstrate that the Philistines of Gerar in the Patriarchal period were different than the Philistines in the period of the Monarchy, that would be one thing. But not every traditional answer explains anachronisms away in this fashion. Furthermore, there are difficulties noted by modern scholarship that were not noted by traditional sources, because in order to note them one would have had to be aware of modern scholarship. An obvious example is the problem of the Philistines I just mentioned (with its possible or even probable solution). It's true that Tanakh correctly records that they originated in the Aegean islands, but the question of how Philistines had settled Philistia during the Patriarchal period was only noted when it became clear that they hadn't arrived until centuries later.

4)The question is then asked: But why should anyone approach the Torah as a divine text in the first place?

It is reasonable to accept the explanations of those who are universally regarded as the custodians of the text from day one. (whenever that may be) It really does come down to the existence of an unbroken chain of transmission-- informing us of the intentions of the Author of this text. No other group of people have been as vigilant in preserving the text of the Torah and it meanings as Rabbinic Jews. This much is uncontested. That gives Rabbinic Jews a certain degree of general authority regarding how the Torah should be understood in general terms.
Let's use the Shakespeare analogy again:
Imagine William told all his family and friends the following statement before he died: "My works that are set in historical contexts were not written as strictly history but as literature."
And let us say that all of those family and friends faithfully perpetuated this statement from generation to generation without any gap.
Then comes along the academic community and because a lack of controversial topics to write theses on, start to analyze Shakespeare as strictly history. The professors claim that the stories SEEM to be describing actual historical events! They do contain real historical figures don't they? That's evidence enough for them that Shakespeare wrote it as real history! They then proceed to make a living by creating departments in universities and publishing books dedicated to punching large holes in the historical descriptions. All this while the descendants of Shakespeare are crying "foul" at the top of their lungs.
What should the objective observer of this situation choose?
The Academics' theories or Shakespeare's descendants?
I don't see a meaningful difference between this and our situation with DH.

4. In response to my query about why one should approach the text as divine in the first place, particularly if they aren't Jewish (we do not, after all, accord this courtesy to the holy texts of other religions when we first examine them): the unbroken chain of mesorah. It was regarded as a divine text from day one, and by the original audience who experienced actual Revelation. These are our ancestors. Fkm then uses a reverse analogy, by way of Shakespeare. Since Shakespeare's plays aren't historical documents, if some current in literary analysis decided that they were--and even convinced most people--that wouldn't make them actually historical. And what if there were descendents of Shakespeare who knew exactly what they were who were crying foul? They wouldn't be wrong even if they remained a minority. In fact, the academic establishment would be wrong, however convincing they managed to be.
The reasoning here is circular. It's tradition that says there is an unbroken mesorah. If you already believe there is an unbroken mesorah then naturally you will approach the text as divine. Fkm is certain that the text was perceived the way we do "from day one." How does he know this? The unbroken mesorah. How does he know how old the mesorah is that its unbroken? The unbroken mesorah.
5) Next objection: How do we know that the Rabbinic Jews didn't make up these explanations as they went along? Maybe there is no unbroken tradition as they claim? How can we know for sure? There is really no way of knowing if David Ha-melekh had his soldiers write gittin, is there? We can prove that Jews have believed it for many, many centuries, but how can we bridge the gap of more than a thousand years between him and our earliest written source for that?

Answer: There is one solid piece of evidence that is often overlooked. The Jewish People are very VERY good at preserving traditions. This is fact. Granted, some of it gets lost, and some gets added. But if I living in the 21st century can so easily recognize and identify with the Judaism of the Pharisees of 2,000 ago, what REASON do I have to doubt that the Pharisees couldn't have GENUINELY preserved and identified just as strongly with the Judaism of the biblical Israelites?

Let's give them the credit to not outright falsify and invent an unbroken tradition. The Talmud has detailed records of the Takkanos and Gezeiros of biblical figures such as Moshe, Yehoshuah Bin Nun, Dovid and Shlomo HaMelech. Barring outright deception, this clearly shows that they did indeed identify with them.
Bottom Line: If we can show that we've managed to faithfully preserve Pharisee Judaism, it logically follows that they can be trusted to have been preserving Israelite Judaism.
Why do we always need outside historical verification in order to accept a truth about Jewish history already coming from a reliable source?
Why does it have to be academically respectable enough for "them" to accept before we can accept it ourselves?
It is simple cultural and religious insecurity. (This happens to be the entire theme of my critique against Slifkin as well.)

5. How can it be shown that the mesorah is in fact totally original and ancient? My example was to question whether David ha-melekh actually had his soldiers write gittin before they went into battle. Fkm responds that "The Jewish People are very VERY good at preserving traditions. This is fact." Fkm does acknowledge that there are glitches, but if he can identify with the Pharisees of 21 centuries ago so readily, what reason does he have to doubt that the selfsame Pharisees didn't preserve the traditions of 1300 years earlier? Not only that, it is pure cultural insecurity to think that we've made mistakes just because historical scholarship says that we have made some of them!
Some of these things are going to overlap in other bits. Suffice it to say that Fkm's position is impressionistic. Who says the Jewish people are VERY good at preserving traditions? Tradition. If we're not going to admit any findings from outside of tradition (such as historical scholarship) then of course from a traditional viewpoint what is, is as was. If he can so readily identify with the Perushim I'd ask how he know how readily the Perushim could identify with him? Besides, how is he prepared to identify with a bare-headed Tanna, for example. We strongly identify with our 1st century ancestors as filtered through our own colored eyeglasses. And I'm not at all arguing that we've made an unnatural progression from then to now. Getting back to the example of David ha-melekh, how do we know that this isn't of the same time of midrash aggadah which has Avraham Avinu making an eruv tavshilin? In other words, it isn't literal. Surely Fkm agrees that not all midrashim are literal? And if we don't know for certain which are and which aren't, doesn't that illustrate the very point that there is no remembered continuity from the battle practice of David to the present day? And even if we decide arbitrarily that the memory was preserved for more than a thousand years for Chazal, what about the time since? Have we remembered this information or have we seen it written in a book? Fkm tends to conflate what we find written with what we remember. How many elements of the mesorah are there from ancient times that were NOT written? Do we have a single example of a halakha delievered from 3000 years ago in an oral chain that was never comitted to writing?
6)Another related point: I don't buy the argument that the upheavals of Temple destructions and exiles must have forced a sea change from biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. Rav Hirsch in Collected Writings Vol 5 laid that canard to rest long ago.
I can't imagine any upheaval greater than the social and political upheavals of the past 2 centuries. And nevertheless, here we are- stubborn Rabbinic Jews- and we're not exactly on the decline anymore either.

6. According to R. Samson Raphael Hirsch the 'canard' that the upheaval of exile caused a sea change from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. In fact, the past two centuries of Jewish history with its unprecedented upheaval hasn't caused an end to Rabbinic Judaism.
This argument can be found in traditional sources as well and as such is no canard. For example, R. Zadok Ha-kohen draws a sharp contrast between the period of the Nebhi'im and the period after and considers the loss of nebhua to have enormous implications for Torah she-be'al peh, namely that the end of the former was required for the flourishing of the latter. Further, we've got 3000 years of Jewish religion and culture to guide us through our own upheavals. They did not have the same resource on the same scale when suddenly they were launched weeping by the rivers of Babylon? Yes, this is a dwarves on the shoulders of giants argument. We cannot underestimate the theological and cultural upheaval the exile caused (twice, in fact). The fact that there is a persistent denial of this means only that great changes can occur under our noses without us really appreciating the enormity of it, which undermines his point. Consider that the Europe that was is basically not really remembered except by those who are still with us who lived it. This is at the heart of the hagiography/ Artscrollization debate currently flickering, if not flaming, these days. And this particular debate only began, really, in the 1980s after decades of silence.

To be continued (points 8-13)....

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Are you a bibliophile?

I am at heart. But that and a buckfitty will get me a ride on the subway. At least in theory.

While poring through the archives I came across a small article from The Jewish Week Jul 5, 1975
Professor Saul Lieberman's library of 10,000 books and periodicals relating to religion and scholarship, many of them unique and collected by him over his lifetime, will be presented to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.


The gift library is comprehensive. It includes all Talmudic commentaries, most of them in first edition which is an important consideration in dealing with manuscripts or early printed volumes because they contain fewer printers emendations, and a complete collection of Halachic responsa, from the earliest to the beginning of the sixteenth century. These are interpretations of religious law by rabbis from the post-Talmudic period on. Responsa cover every aspect of Jewish belief and observance.

All medieval codes of law and all medieval Hebrew commentaries on the Bible are also included. There are volumes in English, German, old Slavic and Italian as well as Hebrew and Yiddish, and there is an extensive collection of classical, Hellenistic, Latin and other cognate works relating to the Talmudic period. Books in this latter field, which has been the focus of Dr. Lieberman's original research, comprise an especially rich selection. There are also complete sets of all 19th and 20th century periodicals pertaining to Jewish scholarship.


Who forged it? The guys at JTS?

Hirhurim commentter Shmuel writes about the increasingly prevalent practice by some of assuming that midrashic or rishonic statements that flatly contradict present hashkafos are forgeries:
And anything written by a Rishon that challenges their small thinking is automatically deemed a forgery. A FORGERY! Who forged it? The guys at JTS? HUC?
Prof. Barry Levy writes, in an Edah Journal piece called Text and Context: Torah and Historical Truth:
"...most Orthodox Jews today, if given the opportunity to examine anonymous selections from writings by rabbis whom they would unhesitatingly acknowledge as believers, would quickly label those writings as heresy or criticism. A highly learned reader may be more successful, but even relative sophisticates—day school graduates and others who have lived in the Orthodox community for decades and whose lives reflect its teachings and values—would be surprised by the critical or heretical- sounding statements of recognized authorities."
Some positions of R. Shach on Yated Ne'eman's web site.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Draping 'Amukah' with panties

Hundreds of young Israeli women looking for husbands have been placing their underwear on the tomb of a venerated rabbi in the hopes that their marriage prayers will be answered.

Authorities have collected around 400 pairs of knickers and bras from the grilles of the tomb's window and on nearby trees, the Maariv daily has reported.

According to Jewish tradition, anyone who is unmarried will meet their soul mate and marry within a year if they visit the final resting place of Rabbi Yenothan Ben Uziel in northern Israel.

But Rabbi Israel Deri, who is in charge of protecting holy sites in the north, has told the newspaper the women's prayers will go unanswered.

"Having consulted with the chief rabbis, I can say with certainty that not only are these women guilty of a profanity but they will also never gain benediction," he said.


edit: photo

Maran, shlit"a, and management

Before shabbos I received a fund raising brochure from Kupat Ha'ir. If you've gotten them yourself then you are familiar with the tack this particular charity takes: lots of stories of personal salvation achieved by donors (healthy babies, shidduchim etc) and lots of pictures of Israeli Gedolim davening for names submitted by donors. You can even check off a list of things that Gedolim should pray for that you will send with your donation.

The brochure tells of several 'historic' visits that the Gedolim made to the Kupat Ha'ir office in Benei Brak. The visits were described as a sort of due diligence on their part, to make sure the charitable institution they are supporting is fully on the up-and-up. The following is from the description of R. Aryeh Leib Steinman's visit:
Harav Steinman, shlit"a, stands at the helm of numerous instiutions in Eretz Yisrael and abroad, so management is nothing new to him. The rabbanim and gabbaim therefore waited anxiously to hear what was the question that was bothering the gadol hador. Like the other distinguished guests before him, Harav Steinman first entered the main room of the office. He was amazed at the site of many stations waiting to be manned.

Why are so many stations necessary?" he asked. The telephones at the stations of the steady operators were ringing non-stop...."But how is it that a person contributes over the phone? How does the money come in?" he asked. The gabbai briefly explained how a credit card works.

"But the contributor doesn't even sign anything... he's contributing over the phone!" Harav Steinman asked again. "But what if he changes his mind?" he went on....It was astounding to see to what extent maran, shlit"a, who is immersed in Torah study day and night, is cut off from the financial nature of our daily lives in the modern world. At the same time, it was fascinating to see how quickly he caught on when the matter was outlined in the briefest detail.


The Birobidzhan 'Jewish Autonomous Region' still "exists?" Who knew.

As you can see, they host such cultural events as a photo exhibit called "The land where I'm happy".

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Why Karaism moved closer to Rabbanism

I recently posted two pieces on the origin of the Karaite sect (I, II).

I came across an interesting review from 1938 by Karaite expert Leon Nemoy of a book on Karaism by Zvi Cahn.

Before I post the relevent excerpt, it should be mentioned that as Jewish, religious insiders, heirs of Rabbinic Judaism we do not realize this, but if put to the Martian test*, many scholars do not think that Karaite and Rabbinite halakhah are actually that far apart.
That the first premise of Dr. Cahn's reasoning, the essential parallelism of Karaite and Rabbanite jusispudence, is correct, no one would attempt to deny. But the important point is that this parallelism is not intentional, but the result of lack of choice, for Anan and his immediate fore- and after-runners seized every possible pretext to differ from Rabbinism,and al-Qirqisani furnishes ample evidence of the ludicrous extremes to which this frenzy for being different had led. As time went on and these wild absurdities were eliminated, Karaism came nearer and nearer to Rabbinism, not because the early schismatics wished it so, but because the later Karaites could not do otherwise without violating clear ordinances in the Holy Writ or simple postulates of common sense.

Review by Leon Nemoy of 'The Rise of the Karaite Sect. A New Light on the Halakah and Origin of the Karaites' by Zvi Cahn, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, Apr., 1938
The postulate that Rabbinic Judaism, that Torah she-be'al peh violates too much the of plain sense and intent of the Torah is unfounded. When push comes to shove, to make Judaism work Rabbinic Judaism or something like it has to enter the picture. Not a bad defense of the historical validity of the rabbinic tradtion, if you ask me.

*How would a Martian view it? In other words, what does it look like?
Why blog? at Maven Yavin.

Marc B. Shapiro's new book

Menachem with the scoop about Marc B. Shapiro's forthcoming book about Saul Lieberman, called, 'Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox.' Should be interesting, if not, on the face of it ban-worthy. Sorry, Marc. ;)

Of course there is a chance that some 'Making of a Godol' type material may be found in this book about the Netziv's grandson-in-law. I'll read it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

On Artscroll's Stone Chumash introduction

Back over on the DH/ TC post at Cross-Currents commenter Charles B. Hall posted:
It is clear that arguing over vav’s and yud’s misses the point—that there is enormous agreement on the text of the Torah. Given the examples given here, why does Artscroll say, “Rambam sets forth at much greater length the unanimously held view that every letter and word of the Torah was given to Moses by God; that it has not been and cannot be changed; and that nothing was ever or can ever be added to it.” We’ve seen that we have the few discordant spellings between Ashkenazim, Sefardim, and Yemenites, we have the normative opinion that the end of sefer Devarim was actually written by Yehoshua bin Nun (which is mentioned in an Artscroll footnote at the appropriate verse!), etc., etc. Why would Artscroll make this obviously inaccurate statement?

Charles B. Hall
Its impossible to divine unstated motives with certainty, but it seems like Artssroll (not an amorphous entity, I know) was making a polemical argument, not a scholarly (or talmideichochm-y) one. Artscroll's MO for dealing with complex subjects that touch upon dogmas in Orthodox Judaism (the list is far more expansive than the Rambam's ikkarim) often seems to be assume that if the reader needs an Artscroll translation or an overview by R. Nosson Sherman then he or she is not entitled to a nuanced picture of the subject. Such might be the case here. It is clear that R. Sherman, who wrote the quote in question, knows a great deal more about the subject than he indicates.

In other words, either you're of the masses or you're not. If you're reading Artscroll, for all practical purposes you're assumed to be of the masses and are given simplistic generalizations like the one Charles quoted.

It also should be mentioned that another possible motive may have to do with avoiding controversy or censure from the right.

One thing seems more clear: it can't be a space-saving issue since the quote needn't exist at all. This isn't the authorized "'al regel achas' version of the transmission of the text of the Torah.

Monday, December 12, 2005

On the Main Line

Someone asked me about this image at the top of my blog. Obviously it spells "On the Main Line" in a paleo-Hebrew type font. He asked about my transcription.

It is, as follows (from right to left): 'ayin, nun, thav, het, heh, mem, 'aleph, yod, nun, lamed, yod, nun, heh (ענתחהמאינלינה).

As you can see, it's a strange way to transliterate the words, particularly noticeable in the three letters I chose to represent 'the', 'תחה'.

What I did was transcribe each Latin (English) letter into its exact antedecent in Hebrew (or, really, Phoenician from which derived the Greek alphabet and its own daughter alphabet, Latin, which our own alphabet is derived. In this case, the letter ת - thav is equivalent to our 'T' (which can be seen, with some imagination from its form, sometimes written like an X and sometimes like a a + in the ancient scripts). 'H' is from 'ח', plain and simple. And our E comes from the 'ה', which can be seen by looking at the paleo-Hebrew form of the letter, and reversing it from left-to-right. It looks kind of like an E, except facing the other way.

All in all, there are other ways I could have represented 'On the Main Line' but this is what I liked and it is, at least, consistent.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Shapira Strips

(You have no idea how difficult it was to find a photo of this!)

An interesting ma'aseh sh-haya. Once upon a time there was an antiquities dealer named Moses Wilhelm Shapira (1830-84). He lived in Jerusalem and one day popped up with 15 leather strips with ancient writing on them. What was unique about the writing is that they were passages from the Bible. Or, more accurately, they resembled passages from the Bible. Click the link to read two panels of the strips. This is an alternate version of the Ten Commandments.

His finding creating quite the stir. He tried to sell them to the British Museum for a million pounds. While they considered, he let them exhibit two of the strips. Thousands of people saw them. Bible scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau saw them and quickly concluded they were forgeries. For one thing, one of the edges of the streps were smooth, as if they'd been recently cut. For another, the orthography resembled Phoenician rather than proto-Hebrew inscriptions. Next, an even more distinguished scholar Christian David Ginsburg proved they were forgeries. It was he who showed that the parchment had been cut from a larger Yemenite Torah scroll that Shapira had sold earlier to the British Museum. Shapira was disgraced and shot himself a few months later. The strips themselves changed hands a few times and eventually disappeared.

What is interesting about this forgery is the tantalizing thought that they weren't forgeries. Now, I'm not saying that they aren't. Some scholars believe that he actually had made a discovery of the type previously unimagined, but less than 70 years later were to prove a reality, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. It proved that in fact given sufficient conditions scrolls could survive intact for more than 2000 years. When they were discovered some tried to resurrect the issue of the Shapira strips with little success, particularly as they didn't exist anymore.

In any case, its interesting to see a pretty good early forgery of what someone who almost got away with it imagined a secret ancient Bible text to look like. Read it.

Krum and Just Passing Through memed me. This means that I had to hit shuffle on my mp3 player and post the 15 songs that popped up in order.

1) R.L. Burnside - R.L.'s Story
2) LA Guns - Tie Your Mother Down
3) MC5 - Mister X
4) Grand Funk Railroad - Stop Lookin' Back
5) Rolling Stones - Let It Bleed
6) Edwin Starr - Runnin'
7) Black Keys - I'll Be Your Man
8) Scott Morgan - Dangerous
9) Iggy Pop - Curiosity
10) Thin Lizzy - Massacre
11) J.J. Barnes - Chains of Love
12) My Bloody Valentine - Only Shallow
13) Gary Lucas - Tradition
14) Sonic's Rendezvous Band - Electrophonic Tonic
15) The Byrds - Eight Miles High

Is there anyone that needs meme-ing? I'll be happy to meme you. Oh, I meme GH.

Textual criticism of the Torah: a response to R. Yaakov Menken Pt I.

A post on Cross-Currents by R. Yaakov Menken seeks to demonstrate the Documentary Hypothesis to be null due to the textual accuracy of the Tanakh. (It must be pointed out that the DH is concerned not only with the Torah, but the entire Tanakh's origins. In this case, R. Menken seems only concerned with the Torah itself. Although to remove the other books from consideration in a discussion about the DH or textual accuracy of Tanakh is a methodological flaw, I will take his point about Chamisha Chumshei Torah as a point of departure and mostly deal with it alone.)

The logic is that our Torah has so few variant readings that, I suppose, it can be considered as if the few just don't count, in contrast with Christian Bibles having thousands of variant readings and Qur'ans having (no number is given) variant readings. However, we who have been scattered across the globe, have basically no variant readings.
There are only about 10 differences between Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite texts. Most of these are differences of spacing only, meaning one text has a compound word where the other divides the two words (leapyear vs. leap year). Others are “vavs and yuds,” optional letters which ensure proper pronunciation of the underlying root word. The only letter difference between Ashkenazim and Sephardim is whether a particular word ends with a silent aleph or silent heh.

So there are no thousands or hundreds or tens of variant texts. There are no changed paragraphs, switched passages or omitted sentences. There isn’t even a single word pronounced differently in any valid Torah scroll, anywhere in the world. Any text with a broken letter is considered unfit for use, much less one with an extraneous or omitted letter, much less one with an extraneous or omitted word.

What does this have to do with the Documentary Hypothesis? Simply put, someone had to do an incredible sales job on the Jewish nation. At one point—according to the Hypothesis—there were different texts created by different groups, which means that the descendents of each group revered its own version. Then along comes a redactor who puts them all together, and then manages to convince all of the groups that not only is this the correct text to follow, but it has always been the right text, and therefore must be copied with an exactitude known nowhere else in human history. That someone managed to do that seems a miracle in and of itself, which is of course the very thing the DH was designed to avoid.
In summary, there are two issues: the remarkable textual consistency of the Torah from ancient times and the idea that this fact means that the Torah text could never have been consciously tampered with, certainly not by combining and editing four different texts.

Now, of course our Torah is today very uniform and consistent. Its also been remarkably and essentially preserved in its original language. Our soferim pay meticulous attention to detailed laws that ensure integrity of the texts. Furthermore, when the Torah is read aloud the following safeguards are in place: the reader himself can catch mistakes. An astute oleh le-Torah can catch mistakes. And the congregation can catch a mistake if the reader reads something that is written incorrectly. And if a mistake is noticed the Torah is immediately removed from circulation until repaired.

But getting a little back into history we have to conider the work of the Masoretes, baalei masorah, who standardized spelling and pronunciation. Consider, the Gemara says that we are not experts in plene and defective spelling (maaleh and haser). This even has halakhic implications. If a Torah is found with a mistake of this type then it is not rendered unkosher, since, the fact is that maybe the error is really 'correct.' Only other types of errors render a Torah unfit. Halakhic authorities like the Chasam Sofer invoked the 'we are not experts' rule in explaining why there is no blessing for the writing of a Torah, a mitzvah de-oraysa. If that's the case than why is that our Torahs essentially do, in theory, have exact conformity in the plene and defective spellings? After all, the Gemara implies that we wouldn't. The answer is that we wouldn't, and in Talmudic times they didn't, but for several centuries after the Talmudic period the Masoretes worked to standardize even the plene and defective spellings. So now we do--except that we don't really and we especially didn't until about 500 years ago.

Consider also that our oldest copies of Tanakh are about a thousand years old. Our Tanakhs are based on these and are known as the Masoretic Text. The ancient evidences do not confirm the Masoretic Text exclusively. For one thing, there are Dead Sea Scroll versions of parts of Tanakh that differ from our own. Then there is the Septuagint, a translation of the Tanakh made by Jews centuries before the Common Era. While working backwards from translations is a risky business (especially when we do not really known what methods the translators were using) there are places where we are certain as to what they were translating and the Septuagint implies a variant Hebrew text. Sometimes the variance is relatively minor, sometimes major. Not unoften this difference is reflected in the Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew versions, which means that the Septuagint was translated from the same text-type or a similar text as the Dead Sea versions. There was also Masoretic text-types among the Dead Sea Scrolls (but not identical to the Masoretic Text, henceforth 'MT'). This means that, minimally, there were different texts of the Torah in Second Temple times.

Now this is not to say that the Septuagint is the superior text, or that the text it was based on was superior to our own text. In fact, it isn't. There are obvious errors in the Septuagint (e.g., translation based on the confusion of the letter daleth and resh, which look similar). This is only to say that such an alternate text existed, without a doubt, a thousand years before the earliest evidence for our own text.

And if that doesn't do it for you, what of the variant readings found in the Talmud and midrashim? These aren't issues to dismiss. They were known to the ge'onim, rishonim and aharonim and discussed by them.

Again, all of this does not mean that our Torah is lacking in integrity, although that depends how one defines integrity. If by integrity one means that they are letter-for-letter reproductions of Moshe's Torah then, sadly, they lack that integrity. In fact the Sha'agas Aryeh ponders if it is possible to fulfill the positive commandment to write a sefer Torah being as we are uncertain if our text's are identical with Moshe's. The point is that at a point in time the variants begun to be standardized by individuals, the Masoretes. Since our Torahs are Masoretic it is not surprising that ours are remarkably uniform. The question is, where they always remarkably uniform? Of course this gets into what "remarkably" means. But there is no question that there was a time when Torahs were less uniform. There are ancient versions which tell us this and there is the Gemara itself which tells us this. Not only that, if he head on to the Middle Ages we find two things. One, we are in possession of an enormous number of Torah manuscripts from the Middle Ages, from Spain to Ashkenaz to Italy to North Africa. Guess what? There are lots of variants. The second thing is that these variants were totally known by the chachamim of the day. They knew about it and were concerned about it and wrote about it and studied them and worked like bees to try to straighten out the situation.

In the comments section R. Menken posted that "A scroll written from anything other than another Kosher scroll is invalid and cannot be used" which isn't true. And even were it true, this means nothing if the scroll being copied from isn't an excellent, perfect scroll, as was often the case in the Middle Ages (and to a lesser extent today). With the advent of printing the appearance of variants in texts, so well known to any scholar of the era pre-printing, became obscured. If everyone in shul is following the kriah from the same Chumash, how will they know that there is an error in the Chumash? Most people, in the final analysis, are not experts in the text. At minimum one needs to regularly do shenayim miqra ve-ehad targum weekly for years, which itself is meaningless if they aren't exposed to a variety of texts. To this day there are variants in popular Chumashim.

And all that said, the post at Cross Currents pertains to lower textual criticism. This isn't identical to higher criticism at all.

The implication is that our ancestors would have been dupes if four sources were sewn together, as it were, to make a uniform Torah text. Since, we assume, they weren't dupes then there could not have been four sources.

But consider this: ask a random sampling of reasonably intelligent frum people how the Talmud came to be. Assuming you get any kind of answer at all, most will say "Rav Ashi and Ravina wrote it." Uh, did they? We don't know. In fact, we know they didn't write all of it, because persons named in the Talmud lived half a century after Ravina died. But that isn't the point. Let's say they did write it. Are people who say they wrote it dupes for thinking "Rav Ashi and Ravina wrote it" when it is obviously based on many earlier sources? Who knows what the earliest generation of Talmudists thought about its composition? We have no idea. Maybe the earliest generation of Torah-ists knew that the Torah was based on four texts and didn't care. They didn't care when the script was changed. After all, the leaders were, if not Nevi'im, then benei Nevi'im and soferim besides.

More to come in part II, including a more exhaustive examination of what lower textual criticism is and how or if it pertains to the documentary hypothesis. Which, by the way, I am not saying is sound, but only that the Cross Currents post has no shaychas to it or to the historical situation with the MT.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

On bans and changing realia

There is a very interesting speech (read it, really) by Rabbi Francis Nataf, Educational Director of the Cardozo Academy called "Religious Censorship in the Information Age: Libertarian Implications of Contemporary Realia." The speech seems to have been part of a lecture series given about a year ago called 'Crisis in Judaism.'

The speech was delivered pre-Slifkingate and does not, therefore, pertain specifically to it although its themes are relevent, highly relevent, to that topic and the larger issues it represents. It begins by noting recent bans or near bans of books by Rs. Jonathan Sacks and Nosson Kamenetzky. R. Nataf goes on to say that he wishes to convince the audience of two points:
Number 1 -- I would like people to realize that they don't believe that censorship is always a bad thing.

Number 2 -- I would like people to realize that they don't believe that halacha does not change.
He explains that most people would agree that certain kinds of military censorship is a good thing (troop movements, battle plans and the like). There are extremists who disagree, but most people will not. A parallel example in halakhah is that one may not inform a sick person of his relative's death as it could aggravate their condition (Y.D. 337). If that's so, most people wouldn't agree that they really think censorship is always bad.

As for the second point, that many people believe that halakhah really does not change, this is because "in a polemical effort to create clear lines between Orthodoxy and other movements, we have created an intellectual Frankenstein," the notion that halakhah doesn't change. While Judaism lacks the equivalent of a legislative branch, it still has an equivalent of a judicial branch. Change occurs in the interpretation of the law as well as in legislation.

He gives as an example the old rule of hand signaling when driving. That was required by law prior to the automotive industry's successful implementation of working light signals. Once it was clear that hand signaling was obsolete, the law no longer required it. Changes in the realia=changes in the law.

To illustrate this point, R. Nataf supplies examples, and notes that the word "ha'idna" "nowadays", which indicates a historical change in the halakhah, is not unfamiliar to students of Talmud and Halakhah.

As an example, the positive commandment to write a sefer Torah. Many people do not realize that they have already fulfilled this mitzva according to many opinons, including the Shulhan Arukh and later authorities. The theory is that the purpose of the mitzva of writing a sefer Torah is "in order to facilitate individual Torah study, to allow one to study from it. Acquisition of a Sefer Torah was just a means to an end and, thus only relevant as long as it accomplished that end. Once people started studying exclusively from other books such as chumashim, gemaras and the like, the means metamorphisized into writing or purchasing such books."

In other words, the realia had changed and the chachamim recognized it and adjusted the halakhah accordingly. Other examples are provided, including the famous R. Moshe teshuva recognizing chalav stam and the requirement of a chatan to recite kriat shema, when they were originally exempted, and R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach's hetter to walk behind a woman, because of a perceived change in facts on the ground, as it were.

Now, I know full well (that's me talking now, not R. Nataf) that more sophisticated individuals are already quite aware of these things. However, there does exist a group of people--most of them, actually--who are not quite aware of the many examples and do, in fact, think that halakhah is unchanging. I also know full well that some of the people who are more sophisticated and aware of these things are convinced that halakhah doesn't change, only situations change. According to them, in other words, built into the system there was always a caveat for the day that the FDA would regulate milk, to allow a posek to say "chalav stam is finally here!" But, in my opinion, this is just a case of tomato-tomahto. Saying "halakhah doesn't change, situations do" is no different than saying "halakhah changes", although I agree that attitude plays a role in how one sees the issue. But I digress.

Hoping to have made the case that people don't really believe that censorship is always a bad thing and that they don't really believe that halakhah doesn't change, R. Nataf the turns to a concept found in the Gemara, "halacha ve'ain morin ken" a halakhah which one should not teach. In this regard he quotes the most famous example as it pertains to the story of Pinhas, "Haboel aramit, kenaim pogim bo". Although the Gemara uses a different technical term, "ha'ba limlech, ain morin lo." R. Nataf then gets all cute telling his audience that he can't translate "Haboel aramit, kenaim pogim bo" since the Gemara says that its a secret halakhah. Noting audience members turning to each other, he quickly points out that the principles of "secret halakhot" is essentially meaningless today, when one can easily learn these laws.

In contrast, in earlier times there really was such a thing as a halakha "ve'ain morin ken." Three changes in realia have rendered the idea impracticible: 1) the writing down of Torah she-be-'al peh 2) recent educational trends in which Talmud and other advanced study is no longer the possession of an elite and 3) the internet. Simply put, you can't hide what used to be possible to hide. As it pertains to rabbinic biographies, the only way to truly whitewash information is to somehow destroy all factual information that exists about the subject. It can't be done. Maybe there was a time when it could be done, but the realia has changed, and ha'idna now it cannot.

R. Nataf then goes on to give an interesting example of halakhah ve'ain morin ken in a recent, practical application, that many of the astute among us might recognize. In the popular sefer Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchasa there are cases where the main text essentially says "assur" and a careful reading of the footnotes say "muttar."

In any case, if it is so that there are halakhos which can be misunderstood, which are dangerous, which are "ain morin ken" and if its so that it is impossible to suppress it so that eyes which ought not see it do not see it then it behooves us to do the following: learn them properly and teach them properly. It may be the bad luck of our present rabbinic leaders of living in the information age, presenting them with challenges that their forbears didn't face, but it cannot be banned away. If the issue is the literal truth of the Rambam's 13 Ikkarim or the question of the attitude of previous generations of chachamim to madda, there is no longer a "masses" who cannot find out the nuanced, more complicated truth. And they can do it on their own terms, on the terms of people who are opponents of Torah and halakhah or on the terms of our own rabbinic leaders, should they choose to recognize "ha'idna." (that was me, not R. Nataf)

This post is getting pretty long, so I strongly urge you, dear reader, to print and read his interesting speech. I more or less left off at the part labeled III, so you can skip the first two parts if you think its too long.

One more interesting quote:
I remember, when Rav Schach was at his most militant, he inevitably censored the people that we thought were doing the most for Judaism - Rabbi Steinsaltz, Nechama Leibowitz, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the list went on. It reached such Kafkaesque proportions, that being censored seemed to be the best indicator that you were an outstanding Jewish leader. As such, for many in the audience, like myself, such bans have little credibility. If anything, when something gets banned, we immediately run to buy it!
Finally, it ends with the recognition that his message simply will not be heard or dignified by those who it perhaps applies to most. That said, if those who are open to the message want to positively influence Orthodoxy they must put their theoretical affiliation where there mouth is. They must wholeheartedly and passionately live a Torah permeated life, with all their hearts, souls and might. They must show that "an open Orthodoxy can work." Religious authenticity will beget religious influence.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Why did NCSY publish a science tract on evolution if that topic has nothing to do with Jewish faith?

In last week's Jewish Press the following letter appeared
Theory, Not Fact

Reader Zev Stern`s assertion that "...the theory of evolution is no more incompatible with our faith than are the theories of chemistry or physics..." is a disingenuous distortion of the issue (Letters, Nov. 25).

Evolution`s problem doesn`t necessarily lie in the verse "In the beginning God created heaven and earth." It lies more with the notion that in the beginning (of the theory of evolution) Darwin knew nothing about genetics.

Modern science has shown that random genetic mutation (which can be caused by carcinogenic chemicals, radioactivity, and sunlight, for example) is a highly destructive process. It can result in diseases such as cancer, hemophilia, Down`s syndrome, cystic fibrosis, color-blindness, and muscular dystrophy, not to mention severe deformities in offspring.

Darwinian evolution does not even begin to address the issue of how organisms transformed from one species into another on the genetic level. For each accidental genetic improvement — if it truly was random — there should have been myriads of accidents which did not work out. Many of these "failures" would have resulted in diseased and deformed life forms, regardless of how long they lived or whether they lived at all. Thus, for every successful species — and there have been literally billions of them — there should have been many unsuccessful ones littering our planet. The fossil records show no such scenario.

Fossil records show, by and large, healthy life forms. The absence of a prolific number of deformed and diseased life forms actually supports the notion that a random evolutionary process — the one taught in school text books — never took place.

I have yet to hear a biologist, geneticist or biophysicist explain how evolution transformed one species into another on the genetic level.

The problem with Darwinian evolution is not that it`s incompatible with our faith. The problem is that it`s incompatible with science. And we`re not yet even talking about complexities and design. We`re talking about how random genetic changes could have produced a vast majority of healthy life forms with such a relatively negligible number of deformed ones (even if we agree for the sake of argument it is possible to produce complex healthy ones at all).

Ironically, the only way you can even entertain the notion that evolution was even possible is if you bring God into the equation. God certainly could have laid down a blueprint in the genetic code (not unlike that of a fetus, which "evolves" from one cell) that gives single-celled organisms the ability to evolve into various species. And this would explain why the fossil records show relatively few diseased and deformed life forms.

Now, I realize you can`t bring God into a science classroom; you can`t scientifically explain God. But shouldn`t you be able to scientifically explain evolution? And if after over one hundred years you still can`t, isn`t it time to reconsider? Simply because it’s accepted for a long period of time doesn`t turn a theory into a fact. In a science classroom they should teach science, not one person`s religion or another person`s cult.

Josh Greenberger
Brooklyn, NY

Editor`s Note: Mr. Greenberger is the author of “Human Intelligence Gone Ape” (NCSY), which argues against the theory of evolution. It’s available at no charge at

My question is only why did Mr. Greenberger have a book arguing against the theory of evolution on purely scientific grounds published by NCSY, a theory which he claims isn't incompatible with faith? Does NCSY normally publish scientific treatises or books which debunk junk science that has nothing to do with religion?

I'd like to think that letter isn't disingenuous, but I'm not sure.

Speaking of evolution, its interesting how little this comes up in the J-blogsophere. You'd think its at least as relevent to the Torah-science discussions as the age of the universe is.

Publishing someone elses incomplete ideas posthumously

R. Harry Maryles posts about a very interesting, and rarely mentioned problem: namely, the posthumous publication of manuscripts.
....Halachic manuscripts that are published posthumously, and are not subject to the scrutiny or subtle nuance of the original writer or Posek. No matter how noble the intention of the publishers, they cannot know if the author wanted to even have his writings published w/o further review and corrections. Mistakes cannot be corrected by the author. R. Aaron Soloveichik often said the Sefer (religious book) by his great grandfather, the Beis HaLevi was written by the Beis HaLevi's students and therefore there are many inaccuracies contained therein. It is also, possible that the publishers may have even misunderstood some of the non-manuscript/anecdotal Teshuvos.

Yet just such a posthumous Sefer, what is now the final volume of his magnum opus, “Igros Moshe” by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was published based on manuscripts containing a virtual retraction of his responsa on Chalav Stam (Chalav Akum or Chalav HaCompanies). I do not impugn the motivation or integrity of the publishers nor anyone involved with bringing it to publication. Nor do I doubt the accuracy of the manuscript it is based upon. I only question the need to publish Rabbi Feinstein’s unfinished work without the benefit of his final revisions or approval.
I'd never heard the bit about the Beis Halevi, but its very interesting.

Now, it should go without saying that, in general, the idea of posthumous publication is not intrinsically bad. Ask any music fan what they think when record companies hoard unreleased music in their vaults. But there is still the pitfall that R. Maryles describes.

Did R. Eliashiv and other gedolim rule that fun is assur?

As reported in the internet (!) Yated:

The gemora (Brochos 28b) teaches us: "Prevent your children from [engaging in] higoyon." Rashi explains this saying of Chazal to mean: "You should not accustom them to study Chumash too much since it appeals to them."

If Chazal instruct us to deter children from studying Hashem's Torah in an easy and appealing way since it prevents them from laboring over Torah study, surely they forbid children's playing various sorts of valueless games that cause them to detach their thoughts from Torah study. Playing such games cause a tremendous decline in the child's level of spirituality.

see original letter and signatures.
Yes, the specific context is to forbid computer games (not a fan myself). But once we are explaining that Berachot 28b means that a) children shouldn't study too much Chumash and if so 2) kal ve-chomer they shouldn't play "valueless games", at what point does this not mean "fun is forbidden"?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Cutting Wikipedia down to size

Very, very interesting piece by John Seigenthaler on being defamed in a Wikipedia entry that went uncorrected for four months. Read it.

Of course the info he provides is nothing new. Any responsible person who uses Wikipedia surely must know that this major flaw exists. But this story puts a personal touch on an issue that really does need a better fix than the existing system.

edit: More on Jewish Blogmeister

What about the Documentary Hypothesis?

The Graf-Wellhausen documentary hypothesis is a nasty 21-letter word (yes, I am kidding) for Orthodox Jews. In fact, once upon a time it was just as nasty for many non-Orthodox Jews. In a famously titled 1903 speech called "Higher-Criticism - Higher-Anti-Semitism" Solomon Schechter famously denounced higher Bible criticism for its goal of "denying all our claims for the past and leaving us without hope for the future." Today we might say that about the school of Bible minimalists who essentially deny the whole of the historicity of Tanakh. They say that Tanakh is a late Persian or Hellenistic invention that reflects virtually nothing of prior history in Canaan. That the concept of Jews or Israelites simply didn't exist prior to this time, that many of the 'returning exiles' were not in fact native to Canaan (or Palestine as they always call it), but were convinced by the Persians that they were. That earlier personalities in Tanakh are really meant to portray Hasmonean personalities like Yohannan Hyrcanus and so forth. But I digress, a post on minimalism will be forthcoming.

In any case, despite the undeniable fact that the most famous proponent of the documentary hypothesis, indeed it bears his name, Julius Wellhausen, was antisemitic and intensely disliked Judaism, despite this, a majority of scholars are convinced that the Bible really is composed of four sources combined into one. The thing is, one cannot just dismiss Wellhausen's DH for two reasons. One, the messenenger may be passul le-edut in a bet din, but that doesn't impact the obejctive reality of the message. It is true or false on its own merits. Secondly, because he didn't invent it. He essentially systemized observations made by Bible scholars for at least 200 years before him (or even nearly 2000 years, if one includes the recognition of many of the problems he recounted found in the rabbinic writings). He wasn't the first person to claim a J and an E document could be discerned. He put the whole thing together and tied it in a neat bow, along with some theories--now discredited--about the progression and development of Judaism.

But the DH has never been unseated. It's been challenged, its been modified, an entire new school of Bible scholarship willing to examine the Bible as a literary unit has arisen, but it simply hasn't been unseated. Bible scholars continue to insist that utilizing the scientific method which has had so many successes in other kinds of literature that four distinct documents can really, truly be detected in Tanakh. For them this isn't a controverial matter. Just as Rav Aharon Feldman allowed that the stars in the sky really are billions and millions of light years distant: "It is quite obvious that the world appears older than 6000 years. One needs only look up to the sky and see stars billions of light years away for evidence of this." Rav Feldman isn't a scientist, and indeed, he even maintains that the conclusion that our own eyes see is not the entire picture. But he willingly admits that there was no conspiracy of atheist scientists to determine the world to be ancient rather than young. Rather, they utilized the legitimate tools of their trade, tools which are successful in so many areas, and saw what their valid methods uncovered: "the world appears older than 6000 years." Similarly, textual, linguistic and other scientific methods of literary analysis determines that there are four strands or sources that were combined into one unit.

This is beyond dispute to the point that one Orthodox expert in Tanakh, indeed perhaps the world's greatest expert, Orthodox or otherwise, on the Masoretic text of Tanakh, R. Mordechai Breuer concludes just that. Going too far, in my opinion, R. Breuer once wrote that: "The power of these inferences [e.g., the scientific analyses], based on solid argument and internally consistent premises, will not be denied by intellectually honest persons. One cannot deny the evidence before one's eyes." The reason, by the way, that I think he goes too far is because, le-ma'aseh, intellectually honest persons have denied it. Can R. Breuer really be saying that every single Orthodox scholar--including his great-grandfather R. Samson Raphael Hirsch--simply lacks intellectual honesty? And if one needs such things, what about Solomon Schechter? He was not an intellectually dishonest scholar. So R. Breuer goes too far (and, by the way, he does not reject the Mosaic authorship, he just concludes that there are reasons, too complicated to get into al reggel ahat, why Hashem communicated a Torah that looks as it does to Moshe). But his point is not invalidated either. To word it differently, one cannot deny that intellectually honest persons believe the DH. They, too, are not reading Tanakh dishonestly any more than the scientists deliberately falsified evidence of an old universe. Besides, just because the general theme of the DH is what intellectually honest scientific analysis perceives does not mean that ipso facto every element offered by scholars can't be mistaken. This applies particularly to the issue of ordering and dating the four sources, rather than the general principle of four sources itself.

This brings up the issue of how Ha-qaddosh Barukh Hu can expect one to believe what is contra to the evidence. It is essentially the same question regarding the age of the universe or even evolution of the species, which many Orthodox Jews now regard as settled: they're ancient and Darwin was right. Another question is if HQBH even actually requires us to reject the DH. How do we know this?

So....what to do?

How did Rashi know it was lentils?

Cute little timely vignette about R. Chaim Brisker in R. Aharon Rakefett-Rothkoff's 'The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik' Vol. I pp. 231-233:
There was a melamed in Brisk who considered himself an expert on Humash. He developed a very funny and strange idea. He wanted to teach my grandfather Reb Chaim how to really understand Humash....He recognized that Reb Chaim was a gaon olam in Talmud, but the melamed felt that he knew Humash better than Reb Chaim. He constantly urged Reb Chaim to study Humash with him.

Reb Chaim was very tolerant and very careful about the dignity of man. He always tried not to insult of abuse anyone....and therefore the melamed continued to bother him.

Finally, Reb Chaim decided to disprove the melamed's position. It was Parshat Toldot [Gen. 25:19-28:9]....Reb Chaim told the melamed: "You are right. I do not know Humash. I studied the commentary of Rashi today and did not understand it. Can you explain it to me?"

The melamed got all excited and exclaimed: "Of course I will explain it to you. What is the difficulty?"

Reb Chaim quoted the sentence "Jacob simmered a stew, and Esau came in from the field and he was exhausted. Esau said to Jacob: 'Pour into me, now, some of that very red stuff, for I am exhausted'" [Gen. 25:29-30]. Rashi says that the soup was made of red lentils....

Reb Chaim asked the melamed how Rashi knew the soup consisted of lentils?...Where did Rashi find out that Jacob was cooking lentils?

The melamed responded that when you utilize the word "stew" [Gen. 25:29] it generally means lentils. Then the melamed pointed out that Esau requested "some of that very red stuff". "Very red stuff" must mean lentils.

Reb Chaim told the melamed: "I have a better proof that Rashi is right. Simpy go a few sentences further in the Humash. It states explicitly: 'And Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew'" [Gen. 25:34].

From then on the melamed stopped bothering Reb Chaim about Humash. He realized there was very little he could teach Reb Chaim about Humash.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Interesting page about the recent installation of a mechitza at a Baltimore shul, Beth Tfiloh. Via Cross-Curents.

JB (and I don't mean the scotch)

Ever hear a rabbinic story or saying that unintentionally conveyed something negative?

We have this comment on DovBear by Roni, about the old "JB" issue:

One person asked my Rosh Yeshiva--one of the gedolim on the Moetzes--if he can call RJBS "JB"--the Rosh Yeshiva answered, "Certainly not you. . . " He meant to say that no "bachur" is in the position to talk about him in a deragotory way. Don't discount this.

That's pretty magnanimous. Only a baal madregah may call Rav Yoseph Ber Soloveitchik "JB", but not a mere bochur. Great chinuch strikes again.

Obligatory qualification: this is obviously something that an anonymous online commenter claims his unnamed RY said. Take it for what it's worth.

edit: Happy With His Lot called Roni on it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Who Is a Hebrew?

In an interesting article called Ivri: Naming Ourselves in Judaism Winter/Spring2005, Vol. 54, Issue 1/2, Shammai Engelmayer analyzes the appelation Ivri (Hebrew) in Tanakh.

To begin with, "Ivri" seems related to the biblical Eber, grandson of Noah through Shem. After all, they are from the same root and all Ivrim are descendents of Eber. However, not all descendents of Eber are Ivrim. Furthermore, the Torah calls descendents of Eber something else: benei ever (see: Gen. 10:21). It would thus not seem that an adequate definition of 'Ivri' is "one who is descended from Eber".

Another suggestion is that Avraham was designated 'Ivri' because he was one who "crossed over the [Euphrates] River", "me-ever ha-nahar" (Avraham is so referred in Joshua 24:3). The question then arises as to why this term should apply to Jewsisraeliteswhatever such a very long time later, particularly since a) as we shall see, not all descendents of Avraham are called Ivrim and b) early appearances of 'Ivri' in Tanakh are from the perspective of Egyptians who, it would seem, wouldn't think of the Euphrates as "the river, over". For Egyptians "the river" meant nothing but the Nile.

At this point its worth mentioning the well-known and well-established point that in the Bible Jews, Israelites--whatever you wanna call 'em--are generally seen as Ivrim (Hebrews) from the perspective of outsiders. Engelmayer notes this (as well as the theory linking Ivrim with the Hapiru, something he [and I] consider tenuous).

But he goes further.
How, he asks, can Hebrew have been an ethnic designation if it only consisted of a few people at first? The answer is, presumably, that it wasn't an ethnic designation at first. If so, what was it?

Examining the texts, Engelmayer came to the conclusion that if there is an identifiable characteristic linking all who are called 'Ivri'--that is to say, something that Avraham, Yitzhaq and Ya'aqov were, but Yishmael and Esau were not--it is this: a Hebrew is 1) the progeny of family members, 2) who themselves were products of unions among family members who, in turn, 3) married family members. Got that? Again, an Ivri is someone from a specific family through both parents who were themselves from the same family by both parents, who marry other members of this same family. (a qualification will be added to this definition soon)

Yishmael's mother was Hagar, who was not part of this family, so he is disqualified. Furthermore, his wives were not from this family. Avraham, on the other hand, married Sarah who was from this, his own family. Yitzhaq was the son of Avraham and Sarah, both members of this family, and he too married into this, his own family. His sons were Hebrews too, or rather one of them: Ya'aqov married into this family as well. Esav didn't and consequently wasn't a Hebrew.

Let's look at the evidence. Just recently we read how concerned Avraham was that Yitzhaq marry into only his own family. Yishmael? The benei Keturah? That really wasn't his concern at all. As their mothers were not Hebrews, it wasn't crucial according to whatever value system there evidently was in this family of Hebrews, that they too marry Hebrews.

Esav, on the other hand, is a huge disappointment to his parents over his choice of marriage partners; he married Hittite women (Gen. 25:35).
Why? Because Esav could have and should have retained his Hebrew status by taking a Hebrew wife, one that could only be obtained at this point in time back in "the old country". Ya'aqov did that. Esav didn't-- in fact, at one point Esav realized that he screwed up and tried to rectify it by marrying a daughter of Yishmael. Apparently Esav realized that his parents placed a premium on not marrying local women and marrying in the family, so he did (Gen. 28:6). Trouble is that it wasn't merely a matter of marrying kin or countrymen (namely just anyone back in Paddan-Aram). It was a matter of marrying only another who was considered an Ivri.

And now we run into a problem. Ya'aqov had children by four women, only two of whom were Hebrews. The others, Bilhah and Zilpah, were mothers of four sons of Ya'aqov. Furthermore, at least three others of Ya'aqov's sons married women who were not Ivrim, Shim'on, Yehudah and Yoseph. That leaves five who may have (the Torah doesn't actually say who the others married).

Yet Yoseph is specifically regarded as a Hebrew by the Egyptians. This isn't troublesome, as before he married an Egyptian there was no reason, according to this definition, why Egyptians wouldn't have regarded him as an Ivri. Presumably this is how Yoseph self-identified, whether or not it is correct that an Ivri is as defined above. In Tanakh, Jewsisraeliteswhatever, are found identifiying as Hebrews among outsiders. This is similar to how some people call Jews "Yidden" among insiders but "Jews" for outside ears.

What about all the brothers, though, who are regarded as Hebrews by the Egyptians (Gen. 43:32)? That shouldn't be a problem either. From the vantage point of outsiders, brothers of Hebrews could well have been Hebrews regardless of technicalities. By the way, this peshat makes what might be considered the radical case that, at least in the early part of Jewish history, not all Jewsisraeliteswhatever, were considered Hebrews. In this case, only four of the brothers would have actually been Hebrews while six others were technically not Hebrews.

This begs yet more questions. If Hebrew meant something so narrow then how did the Egyptians come to know the term and use it in the first place? What about Yoseph's claim that he came from "the land of the Hebrews"? That certainly sounds like the term represented a geographical locale. Yet at this point the Hebrews in Canaan were but a handful, even allowing for the extended family that was with Ya'aqov and not specifically enumerated in the Torah. How would the Egyptians have even understoof what Yoseph meant? It would be like a Rhode Islander implying that his "land of Rhode Island" refers to North America in general. But the Egyptians knew what he meant.

The answer might be that from Yoseph's perspective the land was indeed the "Land of the Hebrews", insofar as Hashem gave the land to Hebrews Avraham, Yitzhaq and Ya'aqov. Why would the Egyptians have been aware of Hebrews? Well, there was once an incident in Egypt with Avraham.... The Egyptians may have remembered, oh, did they remember, that Avraham the Hebrew. From their perspective Yoseph would have simply meant "the land that Avraham lived in."

In fact, the memory of Avraham may even explain why Egyptians would not dine with Hebrews: "
Considering the grief that a single social contact with Abraham caused, it is not surprising that Egypt would want to prevent any further social contacts with "the Hebrew."

In any case, it is clear that the distinction between Hebrew and Jewisraelitewhatever--if there indeed originally was any--was lost on outsiders. For some reason outsiders in Tanakh regard Israelites as Hebrew.

What about the insistence of Avraham and Yitzhaq that their progeny--at least those that are Hebrew, disqualifying Yishmael--marry within, while Ya'aqov was unconcerned? Evidently this necessity of marrying within was, quite actually, a horaat shaah, a temporary measure, necessary to ensure stability in this family. Once conditions were such that it didn't matter anymore, Yehudah could marry a Canaanitess, Yoseph could marry an Egyptian etc.

As for the question of whether or not Besuel and Lavan were Hebrews--the Torah calls them Arameans--let Engelmayer take responsibility for this problem. Here are his words:

What would seem to work against this answer is Laban, who would have had to marry in for his daughters to be acceptable as wives for Jacob, yet he and his father are described as Aramaeans, not Hebrews. There is sufficient evidence, however, that both Laban and Bethuel were, in fact, believers in God, albeit not exclusively. Their daughters, however, may not have supported the apostasy.

While the text does not state this, it does offer up the possibility that this was the case. Thus, Bethuel would have been born into a home in which God was known and worshipped. Certainly, in this scenario and Laban's own statement, Bethuel's father Nahor was so raised.

Working against this is Joshua 24:2-3, which states, "Then Joshua said to all the people, 'Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: In olden times, your forefathers--Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor--lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and led him through the whole land of Canaan and multiplied his offspring.…'"

Terah, then, was an idol-worshipper, according to Joshua. This obviously conflicts with Laban's statement in Genesis 31:53 that Abraham's God was also "the God of Nahor [and] the God of their father," meaning Terah.

One way to reconcile the two is to suggest that Terah was a God-worshipper, but he had begun to slip, seeking out the support of "other gods" in addition to the God of his family. God then orders him to take his family and move to Canaan, presumably to eliminate the influence Aramaean paganism is having on them. Nahor stays behind, but Terah sets out for Canaan. The pagan influence, however, is too great on him and, before reaching his goal, Terah settles in Haran. God then transfers the call to Abraham.

To sum up, a Hebrew is the progeny of a full descendant of Eber who married another full descendant of Eber and whose house adheres to an exclusive belief in God.

As the family of Abraham grew into a nation, the need for "marrying in" lessened and, eventually, disappeared. Thus, unlike Abraham and Isaac before him, Jacob makes no effort to continue the line with his children. That was important only when the Hebrews were few and far between; Jacob's large brood meant that there were more God-fearers immediately at hand from among whom he could choose spouses for his grandchildren.

I left out portions which pertain to the definition of an eved Ivri, a Hebrew slave. According to Engelmayer at the date of the Torah's giving there were still distinctions between Ivrim and benei Yisrael, with Ivrim, perhaps, being a kind of creme de la creme of Israelite society. This explains the improved treatment that the Torah requires for an eved Ivri, who, according to this peshat wasn't merely an Israelite slave--he was an Israelite slave who was also Hebrew.


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