Friday, December 30, 2011

VaYigash - One Simple Fact...

From the moment when the brothers first encountered Joseph as the ruler of Egypt, nothing that had happened made any sense. This powerful foreign official appeared to be totally – and illogically – obsessed with them! Why was he interested in them? Why was he continually accusing them of crimes? Why was he interested in their family? What was his interest in their youngest brother, Benjamin?

The man was a cipher; his motivations were an enigma; his actions a riddle. They couldn’t understand what was happening, or why it was happening.

And then, with two simple words, everything became clear. Joseph tells them, “אני יוסף” – “I am Joseph” – and the mystery is solved. Suddenly, with this one simple fact, all their questions were answered. Everything Joseph had done now made sense and they understood, moreover, how everything he had done had been necessary for the benefit of all of them.

Often in our lives, just one new piece of knowledge can fundamentally change how we perceive and interpret the events around us. Often, until that new datum is revealed, we are not even aware that we are missing it. Yet, the fact that much that happens in our own lives and in the world in general appears pointless and illogical should be an indication that we are missing some key information.
The Chofetz Chaim

The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (d. 1933), develops this idea further. He points out that just as it was only after Joseph revealed himself that Joseph’s brothers were finally able to understand the events that they had experienced, so too, only when God will reveal His “identity” to mankind, will the mysteries of history and human events become clear. We will finally understand how every aspect of human existence and every event in world history, even those that seem utterly incomprehensible, was directed by God for our benefit.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Poster of the Mesorah of the Oral Torah

If you are about my age, this diagram may be familiar to you. It used to be found in many Chabad publications, and I assume that it was originally produced and published by Merkos L'inyonei Chinuch, the Chabad educational organization, as a classroom poster.

It's a great educational tool, laying out the basic mesorah (tradition) of the Torah. Beginning with Sinai and the Written Torah, it works through the Mishna, Talmud, and major poskim (authorities in Jewish law). I remember, as a young boy, that this poster was my first introduction to the existence of such important works as the Rif and Tur. In my experience, as a teacher, most middle-school students, even in good yeshivos, are often not familiar with this basic information.

For some reason, the poster is now very difficult to find. If anyone has any info about it, please let me know.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Talmudic Indexes

Just came across this. The hyperbole in the article - and also from the publisher - is overblown. This two-volume set is not the major "groundbreaking achievement" it is being made out to be.

Don't get me wrong. The book, HaMafteach by Daniel Retter, is a great idea, and I can easily see myself purchasing it at some point in the future. I hope it sells well. However, the reality is that there already are a number of popular and widely accessible works available that function as Talmudic indexes (and most cover other major sifrei Chazal as well).

For Biblical verses there is the Torah Temimah from R' Baruch Epstein (d. 1941), which cites all the major Talmudic discussions on any verse in the Pentateuch as well as many from other sifrei chazal. (And, of course, there is always the Toldos Aharon, printed in any Mikraos Gedolos. And the comprehensive Torah Shelema from Rav Kasher.)

For biographical and historical information, there is the classic Seder HaDoros by Rav Yechiel Heilprin (d. 1746), which has a detailed chronology of Jewish history from Creation through the 17th century as well as a comprehensive encyclopedia, in alphabetical order, of the Sages of the Mishna and Talmud. It is available in clear, modern prints and should be in every serious Torah library.

For halachic topics, the Rambam's Mishneh Torah (with the Kesef Mishnah) will quickly point you to the relevant talmudic sources (and, with the Shabsai Frankel editions, beyond). Similarly, the Sefer HaChinuch, especially the newer editions of the Minchas Chinuch, will quickly enable you to find the Talmudic references for any mitzva.

For aggada (non-legal material), the best index is the three volume Otzar Ha'agada published by Mossad HaRav Kook. This is a topical index of all aggados, including midrashim and Zohar.

These references are all far more comprehensive than HaMafteach can be; after all, it's just two volumes and the sample page shows that it is not tiny print. However these works are also more specialized than HaMafteach, and, generally speaking, less accessible to a novice student. Perhaps most importantly, few of these works are available in English.

In any event, the above is far from a complete list of the works that "broke the ground" long before the publishing of HaMafteachHaMafteach is simply a new work, in a more modern and accesible style, in a long line of such works.

How Did the Jewish Revolt Against the Greeks Begin?

In a previous post, I mentioned that there are only two sources for the story of Chanuka that have any real "canonical" authority in Judaism: the Talmud and the Siddur (Jewish prayer book). Unfortunately, these sources give only a very brief and general description of the events. Many additional details are found scattered in other authoritative sources (including elsewhere in the Talmud, Megillas Taanis, and the major midrashim), but none are given in the context of a complete and detailed narrative.

There are, of course, many additional sources for the history of the period, the most important being the books I and II Maccabees, but these sources have no authoritative position in Jewish tradition. There are also a number of minor midrashim (including the famous Megillas Antiochus) that attempt to present a more complete narrative, but these sources are often contradictory, even on major issues, and frequently do not conform to what we know of the period.

Nevertheless, these minor midrashim appear to preserve a number of important traditions about the period that are probably basically true, even when they contradict the version told in the books of the Maccabees.

One example of this is the story of how the Jewish revolt began. The version that most of us are familiar with comes from I Maccabees, chapter 2 (and is repeated, with minor variations, by Josephus and Yossipon):
And they that were sent from Antiochus, answering, said to Mathathias: Thou art a ruler, and an honourable, and great man in this city, and adorned with sons, and brethren. Therefore, come thou first, and obey the king's commandment, as all nations have done, and the men of Juda, and they that remain in Jerusalem: and thou, and thy sons shall be in the number of the king's friends, and enriched with gold, and silver, and many presents.

Then Mathathias answered, and said with a loud voice: Although all nations obey king Antiochus, so as to depart every man from the service of the law of his fathers, and consent to his commandments: I and my sons, and my brethren will obey the law of our fathers. God be merciful unto us: it is not profitable for us to forsake the law, and the justices of God: We will not hearken to the words of king Antiochus, neither will we sacrifice and transgress the commandments of our law, to go another way.

Now as he left off speaking these words, there came a certain Jew in the sight of all to sacrifice to the idols upon the altar in the city of Modin, according to the king's commandment.

And Mathathias saw, and was grieved, and his reins trembled, and his wrath was kindled according to the judgment of the law, and running upon him he slew him upon the altar:

Moreover the man whom king Antiochus had sent, who compelled them to sacrifice, he slew at the same time, and pulled down the altar, And shewed zeal for the law, as Phinees did by Zamri, the son of Salomi.

And Mathathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying: Every one that hath zeal for the law, and maintaineth the testament, let him follow me. So he and his sons fled into the mountains, and left all that they had in the city.
This is the version of the story that most of us were told as children by our teachers. It is a nice, inspiring story, with no moral ambiguity, perfectly suited for young ears. By contrast, however, the accounts of the beginning of the revolt found in the minor midrashim (collected in works such as Otzar Midrashim by Rabbi J. D. Eisenstein) are of a more adult nature, and focus on the Greek desecration of Jewish women (a topic that is completely ignored in the books of the Maccabees).

There are two basic narratives found in these midrashim. The simplest one describes how a Greek violently raped the betrothed daughter of Mattisyahu (or, in the version of this story found in She'iltos d'Rav Achai Gaon, Yochanan Kohen Gadol) upon an open Torah scroll in the presence of her husband-to-be. This horrendous act motivated her family to rise up in revolt against the Greeks.

The other narrative states that, among the various Greek decrees against the Jews, was a "bitter and filthy decree" that every virgin Jewish bride, on the night of her wedding, would be forced to have relations with the local Greek governor (the hegemon) before she could go home to her husband. This decree had been in effect for three years and eight months - during which time the Jews had refrained from marriage - when the daughter of Mattisyahu (or Yochanan Kohen Gadol) got married (despite the decree!). The wedding feast was attended by all the great men of Israel, at which, as one account tells us, the following transpired:
And when they sat for the feast, Hanna, the daughter of Mattisyahu, arose from her bridal palanquin, clapped her hands together, tore off her robe, and stood exposed before all of Israel, and before her father, mother, and father-in-law. When her brothers saw this, they were ashamed, they turned their faces to the ground, tore their clothes, and they got up to kill her
She said to them, "Hear me, my brothers and uncles! You are moved to zealotry against me because I stand naked before righteous men without any sinful act, yet handing me over to that uncircumcised one to make sport with me does not arouse your zealotry?!"
"Shouldn't you learn from Simeon and Levi, the brothers of Dinah, who were only two men, yet they were zealous for their sister and killed the entire city of Shechem? They risked their lives for God and He helped them, and they were not shamed. So you, five brothers - Yehuda, Yochanan, Yonasan, Shimon, and Elazar - and over two hundred young men from the youth of the priesthood - place your trust in God and He will help you, as it says (Samuel I 14:6), 'for there is no restraint to God to save by many or by few.'"
She then began to cry, and said, "Master of the World! If You will not have mercy upon us, have mercy upon the sanctity of Your Name which is called upon us! Avenge for us today our vengeance!"
The brothers recognized the truth in their sister's speech and immediately began a plot to assassinate the  governor that night under the guise of delivering their sister to him, thus setting off the rebellion.

This story deserves a great deal of discussion, but it is largely unknown, despite the fact that abbreviated versions of the story are mentioned in numerous halachic works. (The well-known story of Judith is, almost certainly, derived from this incident.) There are a number of possible reasons why this is so, not the least being that the Hasmonean kings probably didn't want the story repeated. The fact that the story isn't really appropriate for young children is also a major factor.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Miracles - and Lessons - of Chanuka

While there are a number of historical sources for the events surrounding the Jewish rebellion against the Syrian Greek empire, there are only two sources that can be said to have any kind of canonical authority in Judaism. These sources are the Talmud and the Siddur (Jewish prayer book). The Talmud (Shabbos 21b) states:
מאי חנוכה? דתנו רבנן: בכ"ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון, דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון. שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל, וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום, בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול, ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד, נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים. לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה
What is [the miracle of] Chanukah? The Rabbis taught (in a braisa from Megilas Taanis): On the 25th of Kislev, there are eight days of Chanukah, in which we do not eulogize nor fast. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they rendered all the oils in the Temple tamei, and when the kingdom of the house of Chasmonai (the Hasmoneans) became strong and was victorious over them, they searched and they found only one vessel of oil that had been placed with the seal of the kohein gadol and it only contained enough to light for one day. A miracle happened with it and they lit from it for eight days. The following year they established and made these days into festivals with Hallel and thanksgiving.
The Talmud seems to indicate that the holiday of Chanukah was established in memory of the miracle of the oil. And, as we all know, on Chanukah we light the menorah in memory of this miracle. However, if we look at our second source, the Al HaNisim prayer that is inserted into our prayers on Chanukah, we find something strange. The prayer reads:
[We thank You, God,] for the miracles, the redemptions, the mighty deeds, the salvations, the wondrous deeds, the consolations, and the wars which You performed for our fathers in those days, at this time.
In the days of Mattisyahu, son of Yochanan Kohein Gadol, the Chashmonai, and his sons, when the evil Greek kingdom rose against Your nation Israel to make them forget Your Torah and to remove them from the laws of Your will. You, in Your abundant mercy, stood for them in their time of oppression, You fought their fight, You judged their case, and You avenged their revenge. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the numerous into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the evil into the hands of the righteous, and the wicked into the hands of the students of Your Torah. You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and You did a great salvation and redemption for Your nation, Israel, as [clear as] this very day. After this Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your House, and they cleaned Your Temple, purified Your Holy Place, and lit candles in the courtyards of our holiness. And they established these eight days to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.
In the entire prayer, the miracle of the oil is not mentioned. If the miracle of the oil was the primary miracle of Chanukah, which the Talmud seems to indicate, then why don't we mention it in our prayers?

To answer this question we need to first deal with another question, and that is, why was the miracle of the oil necessary at all? One of the famous questions asked about Chanukah is that if the reason we celebrate Chanukah for eight days is because the miracle of the oil lasted eight days, then really we should only celebrate seven days, as the first day was not a miracle since there was already enough oil for one day. There are many answers to this question. One of the answers that some authorities, such as the Meiri, suggest is that the very fact that they were able to find one container of pure oil in the first place was a miracle. The concept of ritual purity was deeply offensive to the Hellenistic mind, especially to those Jews who had abandoned Judaism in favor of Hellenism. It had been no accident that the Greeks had “rendered all the oils impure” (as stated in the poem, Maoz Tzur) but a deliberate act. The Greeks had searched the temple very carefully to render impure all the oil, and finding even one container was itself a miracle.

This, then, raises a question; why did God need to violate the laws of nature to make the oil burn for eight days, when He could have made a "simpler" miracle that the Jews would find eight containers? We know that, in truth, there is no distinction between "nature" and the miraculous; that both are entirely the expression of God's Will. However, in general, God desires that the world follow the natural laws that He established; that, of course, is why He established them. Whenever we find a miracle that violates the laws of nature, this indicates that God wishes to send us a special message that required the violation of His natural laws. What was God's message to us through the miracle of the oil?

All of our sources about the period, historical and traditional, tell us that the Jews of this period had been deeply affected by Greek thought. (The Jews were not unique in this regard.) The influence of Hellenism was not limited only to the outright Hellenizers, who had betrayed their people and had taken a major role in the oppression of their fellow Jews, but was pervasive throughout the culture in various degrees. One of the principles of Greek philosophy, as espoused by Aristotle, is that God does not take an active part in the affairs of the world. This idea had crept into the thoughts of many otherwise loyal Jews. Thus, even after the miraculous war that had just been fought, there were Jews who were unsure if the victories were really the result of Divine intervention, or simply the result of the brilliant strategies and tactics used by the Jewish leaders. The doubts of these Jews were put to rest by the miracle of the oil. Here was an undeniable miracle; one that broke the laws of nature! Obviously, God does intervene in this world, and clearly His hand was behind the entire Jewish victory.

The miracle of the oil had no great historical impact, in of itself. It won no battles, saved no lives, and only those who were directly involved in the temple service would have even been aware that it was happening. Nevertheless, the miracle of the oil was absolutely vital as a justification for the establishment of Chanukah as a Jewish holiday. If there had been only the miracle of the victory of the Jews over the Greeks, there was a risk that Chanukah would have been viewed as nothing more than a patriotic holiday—a sort of Jewish Fourth of July. It might deteriorate to nothing more than a celebration of Jewish military might and patriotism. However, with the miracle of the oil it became clear that Chanukah was not a celebration of military strength but of Divine salvation.

When we light the menorah to fulfill the requirement of pirsumei nisah—to spread knowledge of the miracle, we perform an act commemorating the miracle of the oil, a miracle which cannot be explained away as simply brilliant military leadership, or lucky coincidence.

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch
However, in our prayers we focus exclusively on the miracle of the victory of good over evil. We thank God for saving us from spiritual destruction, that the Torah and its commandments were not forgotten. That God guided the leaders of His people to victory over those who would forbid us from serving Him as we should. In our prayers we do not focus on the miracle of the oil, for in our prayers we express our recognition that there is no real distinction between the open miracle and the hidden miracle, that both are essentially the same. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:
The very steadiness, the regularity, of the phenomena of nature is a much clearer, more wonderful manifestation of Divine wisdom and omnipotence than the suspension of these natural laws when God’s miracles were executed. In fact, the purpose of these special acts of God, which interrupted the regular order of nature, was to point to Him as the Lawgiver of these natural laws, lest the thought of Him as Regulator, Master and Lord of the world order be lost through the steady regularity of the natural phenomena. (Hirsch Siddur p. 23)

There are many lessons we learn from Chanukah. We learn that we must be willing to risk our lives for the observance of the God's commandments, we learn of the primary importance of Torah study, and we learn not to judge right and wrong from the standards of numbers and strength. However, perhaps the most basic lesson of Chanukah is to recognize that God's guiding hand is behind all events, even when His presence is not evident; that every aspect of life and history is a miracle.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Why Jews Love their Money

A fellow from Jerusalem just came to my door raising money for his family. He was a very friendly, talkative fellow. After I gave him my - unfortunately, rather small - donation and he was drinking his coffee provided by my gracious wife, he told me a dvar Torah which he said was his own original insight.

The Talmud (Shabbos 156b) states, "צדקה תציל ממוות" - "Charity saves from death." Why should tzedaka (charity) be specifically associated with saving one from death? My guest explained that we earn money by spending time working for it. So money is time, and time is life! When a person gives his money/time/life to another as tzedaka, he is rewarded - "מדה כנגד מדה" - "measure for measure" - by being granted more life. Thus, tzedaka saves from death.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Mikeitz - Speak Openly of God

In Parshas Mikeitz, Joseph is brought out of prison and presented before Pharaoh as an interpreter of dreams. This is Joseph's opportunity to make a good impression and, hopefully, get out of prison. In this light, it is noteworthy that throughout his conversation with Pharaoh, Joseph repeatedly speaks of God as the source of his knowledge and, more importantly, as the One who controls the fate of Pharaoh and his nation. Even as a powerless prisoner before the most powerful monarch of the age, in an idolatrous land where the king himself was worshiped as a god, Joseph did not hesitate to openly declare the truth of the one Lord of the Universe.

The Shelah Hakadosh (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, d.1626) writes that we learn a great lesson from Joseph that a person should always openly acknowledge his dependence and gratitude to God for all that he has. This is the root of the common Jewish practice to add the phrase, "Im yirtzeh Hashem" - "If God wishes" - to all plans for the future, and, when speaking of past success, to acknowledge that the success came about "b'ezras Hashem" - "with the help of God."

If Joseph, even in the most difficult of circumstances, was willing to openly declare his belief, then we, in our ordinary lives, should certainly not hesitate to do so. And we may well be surprised by the impact that our words will have, just as we find by Joseph of whom Pharaoh declared to his servants, "Can we find another like this? A man with the spirit of God in him?"

(ראה של"ה הקדוש, פרשת מקץ - דרך חיים תוכחת מוסר וגם בשער האותיות אות א' אמת ואמונה)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"There were no Maccabees!"

One Chanuka, some years ago, I got a phone call from a student's mother who was a bit upset with me. She told me that the previous night her family had hosted a little Chanukah get-together and some of the guests knew very little about Chanuka. So she and her husband decided to display their son's Jewish education and asked him to give an impromptu speech about what he had recently learned about Chanuka. The young man, one of my students at the time (he was in 7th or 8th grade), being put suddenly on the spot, blurted out the one "fact" about Chanuka that he had apparently retained from the last couple weeks worth of lessons on the topic. "There were no Maccabees!" he declared. Of course, this rather shocked his parents, but, not being able to make heads or tails of this statement, the mother tried to shift to a safer topic, dreidel! Where did dreidel come from? "From the Germans!" declared my young student. 

Unsurprisingly, the parents were mortified, as was I, when I heard the story. As I explained to the mother, her son had partially picked up on (and remembered) some of the topics we had discusses in class - those that, in his mind, had "shock value" - without understanding them. I had told the class, at one point, that when we study the period of the Maccabees, we have to realize that the term "Maccabees" is an anachronism and that the people we call "the Maccabees" would not have recognized the term. There was only one man known as "the Maccabee" and that was the famous Judah the Maccabee. The use of the term "Maccabees" to refer to the entire Jewish rebel force that fought the Greeks developed later and primarily in non-Jewish circles.

As for dreidel, well what their son had said was actually correct, sort of. The dreidel game is simply a variant form of a gambling game popular in Europe, especially the German version of the game, and the letters on the side of the dreidel refer to the German/Yiddish terms for what happens when that letter comes up in the game. All of the famous commentaries about the dreidel - including the acronym נס גדול היה שם, "A great miracle happened there" - developed afterwards.

Why the dreidel game became customarily associated with Chanuka remains a mystery. Gambling games in general have become associated with Chanuka, even though there is no basis for this and rabbinic authorities have strongly condemned such activities. However, the dreidel doesn't seem to fall under condemnation even in these sources.

In any case, the incident brought out a point for me that I have yet to fully resolve in my own mind. On the one hand, a teacher has an obligation to teach the truth. This is obvious, of course, but there are times when the truth is complicated and students, especially the less attentive or less mature, may miss crucial pieces and end up even more confused than before. As in this case, the people we call the Maccabees certainly did exist, even though they weren't known by that name at that time. By attempting to give my students a more sophisticated understanding of the past, I had caused one of my students to think that the whole story was a myth. (I'm actually not sure what he thought, that never became clear.)

The problem is that there will always be some students who have difficulty with a level of complexity that the bulk of their peers are capable of handling. So, as a rebbi (a rabbi who teaches Judaic studies), I am forced to choose between leaving the bulk of my students with a simplistic understanding of Judaism that they have really outgrown, or with leaving some of my students with, at best, a confused understanding.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why Did the Jews Suffer Under the Greeks?

As Jews, we know that God runs the world, and any suffering which befalls the Jewish people is the result of a failing on our part. Any genuine Torah effort to study history requires that we attempt to get an understanding of the error that led to suffering for the Jewish people. In the case of the Greek shmad, the primary Torah source to explain the suffering is the commentary of the Bach[1] on Tur, Orech Chaim 670:
... בחנוכה עיקר הגזירה היתה על שהתרשלו בעבודה וע"כ היתה הגזירה לבטל מהם העבודה כדתניא בברייתא שגזר עליהן לבטל התמיד ועוד א"ל מצוה אחת יש בידן אם אתם מבטלין אותן מידם כבר הם אבודין ואיזה זה הדלקת מנורה שכתב בה להעלות נר תמיד כל זמן שמדליקין אותן תמיד הם עומדין כו' עמדו וטמאו כל השמנים וכשחזרו בתשובה למסור נפשם על העבודה הושיעם ה' על ידי כהנים עובדי העבודה בבית ה' ע"כ נעשה הנס גם כן בנרות תחת אשר הערו נפשם למות על קיום העבודה...
By Chanukah the decree was primarily because they became lax in serving [HaShem]. Therefore the decree was to take away from them the [Temple] service as it is taught in a beraisa that it was decreed on them to end the korban tamid and further, “He [a heretical Jew] said to them [the Greeks], ‘There is one mitzvah they [the Jews] possess that if you stop them from fulfilling they will immediately be lost, and this is the lighting of the menorah, regarding which it says [in the Torah] ‘to light the lamp continually.’ As long as they light it continually they will persist.’ They rose up and defiled all the oils.” When they repented and were willing to give up their lives for the avodah, then HaShem saved them through the kohanim who perform the avodah of God’s Temple. Therefore a miracle also happened with the candles, because they risked their lives to uphold the avodah.
The Bach teaches us that the reason for the Greek shmad was primarily due to their negligent attitude towards the avodah. The period of time under Greek rule was one in which many Jews were influenced by Greek attitudes of science and materialism. This caused many Jews to devalue the importance of Torah and mitzvos, especially avodah – serving HaShem. The decrees of the Greeks took away from the Jews those things that they themselves had already begun to neglect. When the Jews repented and were moser nefesh – self-sacrificing – for the sake of the avodah, then God gave it back to them. It is important to recognize that the military struggle was only window dressing on the basic spiritual struggle, which is the true story of Chanukah.

[1] Bayis Chadash. Rav Yoel Sirkes (1561-1640)

Sources for Dreidel

A friend recently asked me if I had any sources for the custom of playing with a dreidel on Chanuka and what it means. I responded:
See here, from R' Gavriel Zinner:

The Bnei Yissaschar has some famous pieces on dreidel, one is that the dreidel is spinned from the top while a gragger is spun from below, symbolizing that on Chanukah the yeshua came through hisarusa d'l'eilah and Purim was a hisarusa d'l'sata. Also he connects the letters to the word "גשנה" in Breishis 46:28. I think he also points out that the letters are, b'gematria, "moshiach".

While the custom to play with a dreidel on Chanukah appears to have been well established beforehand, I don't know of any written sources earlier than the 19th century.

The Bnei Yissaschar doesn't mention the story of children playing dreidel to hide that they were learning Torah. This story is also not mentioned in Taamei Minhagim or Sefer Hatodaah (both of whom would almost certainly have mentioned it if they had heard of it and thought it was true). The earliest source I have found for this story is a sefer published in 1918 by a Rev. Hirshovitz in Pittsburg called אוצר כל מנהגי ישרון. (R' Zinner quotes it in his first footnote.) You can see it here:
He says it in the name of some other sources but I have not been able to identify them reliably.

As far as I can tell, this story began sometime in the second half of the 1800s. It is probably not a coincidence that at that same general time a number of writers (especially from the Mizrachi movement) were engaged in efforts to "romanticize" Jewish history, to give it more appeal to young people and reinforce nationalist sentiment. I suspect that this story grew out of that general tendency.
If anyone has any additional sources, please let me know.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The History of Chanuka

At the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Jews were not an independent nation. Initially, they were under the rule of the Persians. Later, when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire, the land of Israel became a province of Alexander's empire. When Alexander died, his empire broke up into several sections. At first, the Jews were ruled by the Greeks of Egypt, the Ptolemies. However, the different Greek kingdoms were constantly struggling with each other, and eventually the land of Israel came under the rule of the Seleucid Empire, the Syrian-Greeks.

In the beginning, the Seleucid rule was fairly benevolent. Antiochus III, the king who brought Israel under Seleucid rule, permitted the Jews to “live according to their ancestral laws.” This meant that the Jews were permitted to continue their internal governance according to Torah law. However, during this period, certain Jews, primarily among the wealthy and politically powerful, began to adopt Greek modes of thought. These Jews came to be known as the Hellenisers, or Misyavnim. These Jews sought to gain increased power through political maneuvers involving the Greek kings. These activities came to a crisis during the reign of Antiochus IV, also known as Antiochus Epiphanes. The Jews know him as Antiochus HaRasha - Antiochus the Wicked. The rise to power of Antiochus IV is described in I Maccabees (ch. 1):
From [the Greeks] came forth a sinful root, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of Antiochus the king; he had been a hostage in Rome.[1] He began to reign in the one hundred and thirty-seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks. In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, "Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us." This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium[2] in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.
Historians point out that the campaign against Judaism - called a shmad in Hebrew - was out of character for the Greeks. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch[3] explains that the shmad was a major change in policy for the Greeks, and took place only because of those disloyal Jews who encouraged it:
Not only Alexander but all the generals who succeeded him and who divided the conquered land among themselves—the Ptolomites in Egypt, and especially the Seleucides in Syria, and the immediate predecessors of Antiochus Epiphanes—all without exception rendered respect to the Divine Law of the Jews who they had subjugated. Their decrees assuring freedom, protection and support to those who demonstrated faith in the Law and their Temple, and the right to fulfill all their obligations under the law, have been preserved for our times.
Antiochus would never have been mad enough to initiate a war of destruction against the Jewish Law if the Jews themselves and priests of the Law had not show their contempt for the Law, thus suggesting the possibility of its obliteration.
One of the minor midrashim[4] identifies a specific heretical Jew, תתני בן פחת, as advising the Greeks on which specific decrees they should make against the Jews.

Thus, at the instigation of these power-hungry Hellenistic Jews—and with their active assistance—Antiochus embarked on an intensive campaign against the Torah. This involved the prohibition of Torah study, circumcision, the Sabbath, and many other commandments. The desecration of Jewish women was imposed by law, as was the imposition of the Greek pagan idol worship.

All of these policies were aimed at one basic goal, to wipe out the Jewish emunah (faith) that God had given the Jews a Torah that makes them distinct from all the other nations. The belief, expressed in the daily prayers, "that He has chosen us from all the nations and given us the Torah of truth."

Torah study was their primary target. As it states in the Al HaNisim prayer recited on Chanukah, "the evil Greek kingdom rose against Your nation Israel to make them forget Your Torah and to remove them from the laws of Your will." The first step was to eliminate the knowledge of Torah, and from this would follow the abandonment of all the commandments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains:
Their chief efforts were aimed at the exclusion of the teaching of the Torah from the training of the young and at the suppression of its study by the old, for they knew that once the Law would no longer be taught or studied in Yisrael, it would be an easy thing for them to induce them to transgress it. (Hirsch Siddur p. 152)
However, the oppressors did not stop with Torah study. They also forbade bris mila (circumcision), the symbol of the special relationship between God and the Jewish people. And they forbade the observance of the Sabbath, another sign that distinguishes the Jews from the nations of the world.

The desecration of Jewish women as well, was part of a deliberate campaign to destroy the holiness of the Jewish marriage. The modesty of Jewish women is one of the Jewish people’s unique distinguishing characteristics.

All of this culminated with their attempts to impose their idolatry upon the Jewish people, as in their desecration of the Holy Temple by using it as a temple of idolatry.

This was one of the most tragic periods in Jewish history. Many died sanctifying the name of God, like Chanah and her seven sons. Ultimately, one family lifted up the banner of Torah and led the Jewish people against their Greek oppressors.

This was the family of Mattityahu HaKohen, the family of the Chashmonayim (the Hasmoneans). Mattityahu and his sons led the Jews to war. In the beginning they were just a tiny band of men. Eventually, the Jewish army came to number in the thousands; however, it never came close to matching the size and power of the Seleucid armies, which was one of the mightiest military forces of the time. The Seleucid forces were well trained, well organized, and tried in battle. Their forces were made up of heavy and light infantry, heavy and light cavalry, chariots, elephant units, and artillery units operating ballistas. The Jewish forces lacked all military training and, in the beginning, were armed with just farm tools and homemade weapons (later they were able to use captured weapons).

At one major battle, the Battle of Emmaus, the Greeks had between 20 to 40 thousand infantry and about 7,000 cavalry. This was against a Jewish force of about 6,000 men, most of whom were new recruits. The Seleucids were so confident of their victory that they invited slave dealers to join their troops to purchase all the captive Jews they expected to have after the fighting. However, contrary to their expectations, the Greek army was destroyed. This was truly a case of God delivering “the strong into the hands of the weak and the numerous into the hands of the few!”

Eventually, the Greeks were driven out of Jerusalem. On the 25th of Kislev, the Jews entered the Holy Temple and cleansed it of the impurity and idols that the Greeks had placed within it. Then they made a new chanukat haBayit (inauguration of the Temple). It was at this time that the famous “miracle of the lights” took place. Pure oil was needed for the menorah. Due to the Greek desecration of the Temple no such oil could be found except for one container that contained only enough oil to last one day. Since it would take eight days to get the necessary new oil, this presented a serious problem. The Jews used this oil for the first day and it miraculously lasted for the full eight days until new oil was available.

Although the war was far from over, this victory had freed the Jewish people to once again serve God properly, and that was the primary goal of the war. The following year, the Sages established an eight-day holiday beginning on the 25th of Kislev, in memory of this victory and the miracle of the oil. This holiday is called Chanukah, which means ‘dedication ceremony’ or ‘inauguration’, in memory of the rededication of the Holy Temple.

[1] Antiochus had been given to the Romans by his father Antiochus III after he had been defeated by the Romans in battle.

[2] The gymnasium was the centerpiece of Greek culture. It was a center for social and religious life, and was associated with pagan cults. The main activity of the gymnasium was sports, which were performed naked. This led to the desire to “remove the marks of circumcision” which was despised by Greek culture.

[3] Collected Writings vol. II, Kislev III

[4] In Otzar Midrashim,  מדרש לחנוכה(p. 193). This midrash is also quoted in She’iltos D’Rav Achai Gaon 27.

Further Reading:

The Martyrdom of Chana and her Seven Sons

The story of the martyrdom of Chana and her seven sons is recorded in several sources. The primary sources are the Talmud (Gitin 57b), the Midrash Rabba (Eicha 1:50), the book of II Maccabees (chap. 7), and the medieval historical work, Yossipon (chap. 19). There are some significant variations in the different versions of the story. For example, only Yossipon identifies the mother as Chana; most of the sources do not give the mother a name but simply refer to her as a widow. (The Midrash Rabba gives her name as Miriam bas Nachtom or Tanchum.) It is possible that there were actually two (or more) similar stories that merged over time.
One difference in the versions that seems to get a disproportionate amount of attention is that in the Talmudic and Midrashic versions, the martyrs were killed for refusing to bow before an idol, whereas in the version found in II Maccabees and Yossipon they were killed for refusing to eat pig meat. However, in reality this is a very minor distinction, as the the latter sources are almost certainly referring to an idolatrous offering (as is explicit  in the story of the martyrdom of Eliezer that immediately precedes the story of the seven sons in both sources) and the critical issue, in both versions, is idolatry. (Although, given the circumstances, Jewish law would almost certainly demand martyrdom even if there was only a violation of the dietary laws.) 
In my opinion, the most dramatic distinction between the versions is that, in the versions of the Talmud and Midrash, each son justifies his refusal by simply quoting a Biblical verse (except the youngest son, who engages in a more extended dialogue with the king, especially in Midrash Rabba), whereas, in the versions of II Maccabees and Yossipon, each son gives a short but powerful speech, discussing many important principles of Judaism. While these speeches are quite edifying, in my opinion the Talmudic version is far more plausible. While it is not at all surprising that devout Jewish children of the period were proficient in the Bible (especially the famous verses that are quoted), the skilled rhetoric described in II Maccabees seems rather incongruous coming from the mouths of youngsters. It would seem that the author of II Maccabees (or his source material) modified the story for a Greek speaking audience.
The following recounting of the story is based primarily on the Talmudic version with some additional  details from the other sources, primarily the Midrash Rabba.

Chana and her seven sons were brought before the King. The eldest was brought forward and commanded to bow down to an idol. The son refused, stating, “It is written in the Torah 'I am HaShem your God' (Exodus 20:2).” They took him out and killed him.

(II Maccabees and Yossipon describe the manner of execution in detail. Yossipon writes that when the king heard the eldest son’s refusal, he became very angry. He commanded that an iron pan be brought and placed upon the fire. He then ordered that the son’s tongue should be cut out, his arms and legs should be cut off, and he should be scalped, and that all of these pieces should be placed in the hot frying pan. This was to be done in front of the family. He then ordered that the son, who was still alive, be placed in the pan himself. When the son was close to death, Antiochus ordered that the fire be removed so that the son would not die quickly. This was done to terrify the other members of the family.)
The second son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says, 'You shall not have any other gods before me' (Exodus 20:3).” He was then taken out and killed.
The third son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says, 'Do not bow down to another god' (Exodus 24:14).” He was then taken out and killed.
The fourth son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says, 'He who sacrifices to any god other than HaShem shall be destroyed' (Exodus 22:19).” He was then taken out and killed.
The fifth son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says 'Hear Israel, HaShem is our God, HaShem is one' (Deuteronomy 6:4).” He was then taken out and killed.
The sixth son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says 'Know today and take to heart, that HaShem is God, in the sky above and the below, there is no other.' (Deuteronomy 4:39).” He was then taken out and killed.
The seventh, youngest son was then brought before the king. He was ordered to bow down to the idol and he refused, stating, “The Torah says 'You have, today, declared HaShem to be your God…and HaShem has, today, declared you to be His special people' (Deuteronomy 26:17-18). We have already promised HaShem not to exchange Him for another god, and He has promised us not to exchange us for another nation.”  The king said to the boy, “I will throw my seal (or ring) on the floor, bend down and pick it up so that the people will say that you have accepted the authority of the king.” The boy responded, “Woe on you, King! Woe on you, King! If your own honor is so important, how much more so the honor of the Holy One, blessed be He!” They took him out to be killed.
His mother said to them, “Give him to me so I may kiss him a little.” She said to him, “My son, go tell Abraham your father, you bound one son to the altar, I bound seven, yours was only a test, mine were for real.”
A few days later the mother went mad and fell off a roof to her death. A heavenly voice said, “a happy mother of sons” (Psalms 113:9).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: "Echoes of Eden" by Rabbi Ari D. Kahn

In many ways, the book of Genesis is one of the most esoteric books of the Bible. On the surface, Genesis appears to be a simple narrative of the origins of the Jewish people, beginning with the creation of the world until the beginning of the Egyptian exile. However, a careful reader will quickly recognize that a great deal of explanation is needed to make sense of much of the narrative. This is true not only for the early chapters of Genesis, which deal with obviously difficult topics (such as the creation of the universe, the original sin, Noah and the flood, etc.) but also for the later narratives about the Patriarchs and their families. Stories that, at first glance, appear to be quite simple, such as the tales of sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau or Joseph and his elder brothers, quickly become far more complex, even incomprehensible, when read with a more careful eye.

In his recent book, Echoes of Eden, Rabbi Ari D. Kahn attempts to shed light on many of these difficult topics, through a series of essays working through the entire book of Genesis. Towards this purpose, Rabbi Kahn marshals a broad host of traditional commentaries and midrashic sources (including a number of important kabalistic works), many of which are not well known. Indeed, much of the value of Rabbi Kahn’s work is precisely in the sources that he quotes. Even experienced scholars will find a number of gems here that they were unaware of previously. In addition, Rabbi Kahn provides a number of valuable original insights. I was particularly impressed by an insight that Rabbi Kahn gives over from his teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in the essay, “The Universal and the Particular.” Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that, in Genesis 22:5, when Abraham and Isaac separate from the two young men accompanying them to complete their journey to the “binding of Isaac”, Abraham tells the young men that he and Isaac would “go yonder and worship and return to you.” Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that these last words indicate that the religious experience would not be complete until Abraham returned and shared his experience with others. As Rabbi Kahn goes on to explain, this is an important aspect of all Jewish spirituality, that while we may need to separate ourselves from others at times to achieve spiritual heights, we must ultimately bring these experiences back with us to those we “left behind”. On a cosmic scale, this is the role of the Jewish people relative to the world as a whole.

Unfortunately, however, despite these virtues, the book suffers from a number of major flaws that severely undermine its usefulness, especially for readers who are not equipped to study the original sources that Rabbi Kahn cites. First of all, it should be noted that many of the sources that he quotes in his footnotes are quoted in the original Hebrew without translation. This is a major loss for those readers who are not literate in Hebrew. However, a far more serious problem is that the book’s presentation of these sources is often inaccurate and misleading. Many of the translations are substantively erroneous, frequently in matters directly relevant to the discussion. Sources are often cited as stating or supporting ideas that are not to be found in the original material. In some cases this appears to have been the result of a misunderstanding of the material, itself a serious problem. However, in most cases, it seems as if the author is unjustifiably reading his own original ideas into the sources. While, in themselves, many of these insights may be legitimate, the attempt to give them a false pedigree is very problematic. Errors of this sort abound throughout the book, in some cases the errors are minor (but irritatingly elementary - as in his commentary on Genesis 27:1 that Isaac enjoyed the aroma of the meal that Jacob had brought to him, when the verse states that he smelled Jacob’s garments!), and in other cases the errors are very substantial, fundamentally undermining the validity of the entire essay.

Even when the author’s presentation of a source is correct in substance, the tone of his presentation may be very discordant with the intent of the original source. As an example, the author quotes, in Hebrew, a commentary of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (d. 1893) that states that because Abraham was so deeply immersed in theological and philosophical thought, his father was the one who initially led the family in their travels. In English, the author gives Rabbi Berlin’s commentary a rather different tone, saying that Abraham “was a luftmensch – his head was in the clouds”, which has a rather derogatory tone that is completely absent from the original commentary.

A related problem is the author’s tendency to unjustifiably jump to conclusions that are unsupported by the sources and, in many cases, to then present these conclusions as settled fact. For example, in his essay on the wife of Noah, “Na’amah”, he asserts early on that “Noah’s wife could only be Na’amah [the sister of Tubal-cain].” Yet the midrash explicitly states that this was a matter of debate and that the Rabbis believed the wife of Noah to have been a different woman with the same name. Later, when the author quotes this very midrash, it is erroneously translated to say that the rabbis agreed with the identification of the sister of Tubal-cain with the wife of Noah and the debate was only about her moral character.

In other cases, the author takes what would otherwise be a valid insight and carries it too far. Thus, the author asserts that, although Abraham erected numerous altars, “he never brought an offering upon them.” He bases this assertion on the fact that, in several locations, when Scripture tells us that Abraham erected an altar, it does not mention any offerings (with the exception of the binding of Isaac). While this is a valid textual insight (not restricted to Abraham), it does not support the author’s conclusion, which he presents as self-evident. On the contrary, the commentaries, quite reasonably, take it for granted that Abraham offered sacrifices upon these altars (that is what altars are for, after all). Later in the same essay, the author actually quotes a commentary by Nachmanides that explicitly contradicts this assertion, but the quote is not translated into English.

Finally, I felt that many of the essays were written in a confusing manner, without a clear presentation from the beginning to the conclusion. The essays often feel unfocused and meandering, as if the author got sidetracked from his initial point and went off on a tangent and never quite found his way back. Many of the essays suffer from poorly presented reasoning, as if important steps were omitted or insufficiently stressed, so that the reader is unsure how he got from one point to the next. Many of the essays seem rather pointless, where a great amount of effort is expended to bring us to an anticlimactic conclusion that is not particularly interesting or meaningful. For example, in the essay, “Clothes Make the Man”,  the author goes on for twelve pages, citing a number of interesting sources, but comes to no meaningful conclusion except that “clothing” symbolizes sin. And what, exactly, are we supposed to do with that?

I suspect that most of the problems with this book are due to the essays being based upon oral lectures that Rabbi Kahn delivered to different audiences over a few years. The dynamic nature of such, often partially extemporaneous, oral lectures generally cannot be simply transcribed into print. Such material needs to be very carefully worked over (and, often, completely rewritten), by the author himself with the help of competent proofreaders. The failure to do this can cause even a highly competent scholar to appear incompetent.

While Echoes of Eden has some valuable insights, I cannot recommend it to anyone who is not able and ready to work through the essays critically and to research all of the sources that are quoted. The reader cannot simply rely on the author’s presentation of the sources as reliable. It is my hope that future volumes of this work will be handled more carefully (as well as, hopefully, a revised edition of this first volume), as I believe that Rabbi Kahn has a great deal to offer.

Vayeishev - Reuben's "Immunity" from Jealousy

Throughout the generations, the commentaries have struggled to shed light on the difficult story of the sale of Joseph into slavery by his brothers. On the one hand, the Torah and the Sages clearly present the sale of Joseph as a grave sin. Yet, on the other hand, we know that the brothers were extraordinarily holy and righteous men. On the contrary, the midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 13:18) tells us that, while we would usually expect such a sin only on the part of wicked men, in fact the brothers were completely righteous and never sinned except in this one case. Indeed, even later, when they recognized that they had sinned in their treatment of Joseph, they initially thought that they had only sinned in their failure to be more compassionate towards their young brother, but they still believed that, in principle, they had acted correctly. The brothers had come to the conclusion that Joseph was a false prophet and an unscrupulous seeker of power who was a threat to the future of the Jewish people. Only God - Who sees into the depths of the human heart - knew, as He tells us in the Torah, that their judgement was influenced by jealousy and hatred.

There was, however, one exception. The Torah tells us that Reuben, the firstborn of the brothers, recognized that they were doing something wrong, and he did all he could to rescue Joseph. What was it about Reuben that enabled him to overcome the insidious effects of the jealousy that had corrupted the judgement of his brothers?

The Sages tell us that, at this time, Reuben was in a state of repentance for having dishonored his father. In his recognition of his sin, Reuben realized that, by strict justice, he was no longer worthy of being counted among the sons of Jacob.
R' Aaron Kotler
Thus, Reuben's reaction to the dreams of Joseph, in which all eleven brothers submitted to the authority of Joseph, was very different from his brothers. He saw these dreams as proof that he would continue to be a member of the family of Jacob despite his sin.

Rabbi Aaron Kotler (d. 1962) points out that it was the extraordinary humility engendered by his repentance that enabled Reuben to see Joseph in very different light than his brothers. In his recognition of his own failures, there was no place for jealousy to take hold and Reuben, alone of his brothers, was able to recognize the truth.

Book Review: "Maimonides:Reason Above All" by Israel Drazin

Maimonides was one of the greatest rabbinic figures in history. He made a profound and permanent impact upon the Jewish world, and his influence spread well beyond the borders of the Jewish community. He was universally recognized as a great scholar of the Bible and Talmud, and his works have become basic texts of the Jewish canon. At the same time, Maimonides was an original thinker who put forth a number of opinions that were controversial in his own time and some of these controversies resonate until today. The bulk of the controversy surrounds his efforts, mainly in his great philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed, to resolve conflicts between traditional Jewish teachings and Aristotelian philosophy.

Because of the importance of Maimonides and the debates surrounding some of his opinions, a good introductory work to the thought of Maimonides and his contemporaries, clearly explaining where and how he differed from other major figures, would be highly desirable. Unfortunately, that is not what the reader will encounter when reading Israel Drazin's new book, Maimonides: Reason Above All.

Despite the book's promising description and the author's apparent qualifications, the book not only fails to live up to expectations, but it even fails to attain the most minimal standards of academic competence and intellectual honesty. The book is replete, page after page, with misstatements, distortions, and dishonest citations and quotations. After a great deal of effort, I was forced to conclude that I could not find a single redeeming characteristic in the book.

Drazin fails to understand the opinions of any of the scholars he is discussing, whether it is Maimonides himself, other Jewish scholars, or even non-Jewish philosophers. He appears to have difficulty with even basic reading comprehension. For example, on page 26, Drazin begins a detailed analysis of a statement from "the poet Yehuda Halevi" in which Halevi negatively contrasted Maimonides with his father. This is an amazing statement, in that Yehuda Halevi, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and poets, died in 1141, when Maimonides was about two years old. (This should be immediately obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Jewish intellectual history.) The quote that Drazin is discussing - which he got from a secondary source (which does not ascribe the quote to Yehuda Halevi) - was actually written by L. M. Simmons, an English rabbi, in the Jewish Quarterly Review in 1890. Drazin's failure in this simple citation is unfortunately typical of his entire work. Over and over again, Drazin makes basic errors of fact and comprehension.

The quality of this work is so poor that it does not really deserve a detailed response. There is, quite literally, not a single issue that Drazin presents accurately. When attempting to present a dispute, Drazin usually gets both sides wrong, and misses the actual point of disagreement entirely. In other cases, Drazin creates disputes where none exist. Drazin's presentation of Maimonides is so heavily biased, that it quickly reaches the point of absurdity.

Drazin attempts to reconstruct Maimonides as a religious naturalist who rejected creation ex nihilo, miracles, providence, prophecy, the existence of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and any God-oriented purpose in religion. Drazin openly admits that it is only possible to do so by denying many - many!! - of Maimonides' own statements. Drazin believes that Maimonides' was simply lying when he said these things. This is a major theme of Drazin's work, that Maimonides engaged in a "holy lie" (a phrase coined by Nietzsche that Drazin uses repeatedly) and knowingly made completely false statements to deceive the masses (for their own good, of course). Drazin makes this claim not just of some of the more difficult passages in Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed (even this is debatable), but of vast swathes of his writings, including large amounts of material that was unique to Maimonides. For example, Maimonides was the first Jewish scholar to create a formalized dogma of Judaism, his 13 Foundations, which Maimonides argued must be fully accepted in order for one to be a legitimate member of the Jewish faith. This idea was original to Maimonides, and, indeed, many authorities disagreed with his formulation (although, by and large, they agreed with its content). Drazin, however, would have us believe that Maimonides himself did not believe many, possibly most, of these foundations.

Even when Drazin directly quotes Maimonides (and others), he does so dishonestly, carefully editing the quote (using ellipses to remove inconvenient material and inserting material in brackets) to support his point even when the full quote, in context, would not only fail to support Drazin's point, but actually contradict it. This betrayal of the reader's trust is exacerbated by the fact that many of Drazin's most radical assertions are supported by nothing more than anonymous "scholars" without any reference to who these scholars are, what they actually said, or where and when they said it. Given Drazin's repeated inability to comprehend the material he is writing about, and his dishonest citations of material that people can actually check for themselves, it is simply impossible to trust his assertion of the opinions of scholars whom he fails to even identify.

If Drazin's presentation of Maimonides is absurd, his presentation of other Jewish thinkers is grotesque. For example, Drazin apparently understands all anthropomorphic depictions of God, midrashic, kabalistic or liturgical, to have been intended in the full literal sense. Thus, his presentation of Lurianic kabbalah on page 241 is beyond laughable; it is a caricature of a caricature.

Even Drazin's discussion of non-Jewish philosophers is incompetent. For some reason, Drazin chose to include an entire chapter on Rene Descartes, apparently to argue that Descartes was not sufficiently "rational". In the course of this discussion, Drazin completely mangles Descartes, and demonstrates a complete failure to grasp even the most basic elements of his thought. Drazin's "refutation" of Descartes' "cogito" - again given in the name of anonymous scholars - is so shallow that it wouldn't past muster in a seventh grade classroom discussion.

If Drazin's work were of a better quality, it would be worthwhile to enter into a deeper discussion of some of the arguments he puts forth. For example, the relationship between the thought of Maimonides and the thought of his son, Abraham, is one that requires serious study. However, Drazin's presentation of the thought of both figures is so distorted that he contributes nothing to the discussion except confusion.
In short, Drazin's book is so... awful... that readers will not only learn nothing new, but, far worse, they will learn a large number of things that are not so. If a reader wishes to educate himself about the thought of Maimonides, there are many vastly superior works. My personal recommendation as a basic introduction would be A Maimonides Reader by Isadore Twersky.

Book Review: "Truths Desired by God" by Meir Tamari

While the last few decades have seen a wonderful outpouring of excellent English works on the Torah itself, there is very little available on the weekly Haftarah reading. Dr. Meir Tamari's new book, Truths Desired by God, does an excellent job filling this gap. On each Haftara reading, Dr. Tamari has prepared a stimulating essay summarizing the major themes of the reading, how it relates to the Torah reading of the week, and presenting a wide range of commentaries taken from the full range of Jewish tradition. He cites major medieval authorities, such as Maimonides and Abarbanel, as well as more recent works, including chassidic commentaries, R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, and R' Kook. Dr. Tamari does not just compile sources for us; he also introduces us to the geographic, political, and economic realities of the periods in which the prophets functioned and helps us understand the broader implications of their words.

My only complaints on the book are the lack of an index (an index of verses and sources cited would be especially useful) and the fact that the table of contents does not inform us of the Scriptural source of each haftara. This means that if you are looking for his discussion of a particular Scriptural passage, you will need to consult another reference to find out which haftara it is in.

However, these are very minor complaints. Overall, Truths Desired by God is an excellent work that will be read with interest by any serious student or teacher of Scripture. Even experienced scholars will find these essays to be useful.

"Olive Seedlings" - On the Name of this Blog

I have chosen to name this blog "Olive Seedlings" based upon the midrash in Bamidbar Raba 8:9 which interprets Psalms 128 as referring to gerei tzedek (converts to Judaism). On verse 3 the midrash states:
"בניך כשתילי זיתים" מה הזית הזה - זיתים לאכילה, זיתים ליבש, וזיתים לשמן, ושמנו דולק מכל השמנים, ואין עליו נושרין לא בימות החמה ולא בימות הגשמים, כך באים בני הגרים מהם בעלי מקרא, מהם בעלי משנה, מהם בעלי משא ומתן, מהן חכמים, מהם נבונים, ומהם יודעי דבר בעתו, ויש להם זרע קיים לעולם. (במדבר רבה ח:ט)
"Your sons shall be as olive seedlings" - Just as the olive tree produces olives for eating, olives for drying, olives for oil, its oil burns better than all other oils, and its leaves do not fall during the summer or the winter, similarly the from the children of converts will come masters of Scripture, masters of Mishna, masters of discourse (or financial transactions), men of wisdom, men of understanding, men who know what is needed at a given moment, and they shall have descendants that last for all time.
As the son of a ger tzedek, this medrash - of which the above is only a small piece - is particularly meaningful to me and it is my hope that the blessings spoken of in the medrash will be fulfilled in my family and my brothers' families.

May the Torah that is learned by those who read my postings here be a zechus for my father, ר' דוד אהרן בן אברהם ע"ה.

Vayishlach - Tell God Exactly What You Need

Parshas Vayishlach begins with the account of Jacob's preparation for his meeting with his estranged brother, Esau. Jacob was very concerned about this meeting, and the Torah states that he turned to God in prayer. The Zohar (1:169a) tells us that Jacob's prayer serves as a model for all mankind of how to approach God in prayer.

One of the lessons that the Zohar derives from the prayer of Jacob comes from the verse (32:12), "Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and strike me, mother and children." The Zohar says that this teaches us that, in prayer, a person should fully state his concerns. Although, in principle, Jacob could have simply said, "Rescue me, please!", Jacob went on to state, in detail, who he was afraid of - "my brother", "Esau" - and what he was afraid Esau would do to him. The Zohar says that this should be a model for our prayers as well.

The question that remains, of course, is why should this be so? God certainly knows what we need, and He certainly knows what our intent is. Why is it necessary to lay it all out in such detail? In fact, this raises the even more basic question, why do we need to pray - verbally - at all?

These questions clearly demonstrate that, in its essence, the function of prayer is not to inform God of our needs - which would be an absurdity - but to accomplish some important change in the person who is praying. As many commentaries point out, the Hebrew verb for prayer, l'hispallel, is in the reflexive form. The object of the verb is the one who is praying!

In his Guide for the Perplexed (3:36), Maimonides explains that the function of prayer is "to firmly establish the true knowledge" that God is concerned about us and is able to help us, and that nothing happens by chance. Prayer reinforces in our mind the knowledge that God is the source of all that we have and, through this, prayer enables us to reconnect to God and become worthy of receiving new blessings from Him.

This is why a short, vague, prayer is insufficient. By clearly stating our concerns, we remind ourselves that God is fully involved in our lives, not just in some general way, but in every detail. Our father, Jacob, by speaking to God in detail about his concerns about meeting his brother, was reinforcing in his own mind his knowledge of God's detailed providence over his life. We too, in our prayers, whether in our formal prayers from the Siddur, or in our informal personal prayers, should use these opportunities to come closer to God by internalizing the basic message of all prayer, that God cares about us and is only waiting for us to open ourselves up to His blessings.