Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jewish Arguments for the Existence of God

This topic came up recently in a conversation with a friend, in which I laid out my thoughts on the role of these arguments vis-à-vis  David Hume's arguments against miracles. Then I came across this question in another website, so I put together this quick summary.

To my knowledge, the only "argument" for the existence of God given in the Torah itself is that He directly revealed Himself to us at Sinai:
Deut. 4:35 "Unto thee it was shown, that thou mightest know that the LORD, He is God; there is none else beside Him."
Deut. 5:4, "The LORD spoke with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of the fire."
In other words, direct experience does not require philosophical proof.

Rabbi Jacob Emden expanded this argument into our own time, saying that, "When I consider these wonders [of the survival of the Jews in exile], they appear greater to me than all the miracles and wonders that God did for our ancestors in Egypt, and in the wilderness, and in the land of Israel." (See the full text in this previous post.)

All philosophical arguments for the existence of God made in traditional sources are only intended to reinforce this basic experiential knowledge that is the heritage of the Jewish people. While these arguments can serve to shore up our beliefs against challenges, many sources appear to see these arguments as serving mainly to help us acheive a more personal, immediate connection to God.

The most common such arguments found in Jewish works are:
  • The Argument from Design - Many aspects of the natural world appear to have been been designed with intelligence and intent.
  • The Cosmological or "First Cause" Argument - What set the world moving? Where did it come from?
  • The famous Kuzari argument, that the Sinai revelation was a historical event witnessed by the entire nation. (This argument is basically just an extension of the Biblical "argument" that is intended to enable us to rely with confidence on our historical tradition.)
In my personal opinion, the various philosophical arguments for the existence of God are mainly useful for countering Hume's arguments against miracles. Briefly stated, he argues that no testimony of a miracle should be believed unless the falsehood of the testimony would be more improbable than the miracle itself. It follows, therefore, that one's ability to accept the testimony of the Jewish people's historical experience of miracles has an inverse relationship with the degree to which you think miracles are improbable.

All of the classical arguments for the existence of God are, fundamentally, arguments that we can perceive an element of the supernatural in the natural world itself. Thus, each such argument makes the possibility of miracles more plausible. At some point, it becomes more plausible that the Sinai Revelation really occurred than that it was made up (which, per the Kuzari argument, is very unlikely). Once you reach that point, then you have the Sinai Revelation to rely on for everything else.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Hatzalah – Rescuing European Jews from the Holocaust

The following material is from curriculum materials I put together as part of a Holocaust course in a Jewish day school (the class was for middle-school students). The sheets were intended to be "notes" for the class, to help the students remember the topics covered, so the material is very abridged. Feel free to contact me if you want more information. 

Indifference of the Nations
Editorial Cartoon from 1939
The Allies and neutral nations were slow, at best, in helping Jewish refugees escape from Europe. In general, they refused to loosen immigration laws to allow Jews to escape from the Nazis. It has been estimated that the United States issued over one million less visas than were actually permitted by U.S. immigration law during the period from 1933 to 1941. Great Britain not only refused entry to numerous refugees to its own shores, but even refused to allow Jews to escape to the land of Israel, which was then under the British Mandate.

Noteworthy Items:
  • The Voyage of the Saint Louis
  • The Sinking of the Struma
  • Allied refusal to bomb Auschwitz or its rail lines.

Jewish Rescue Efforts
A number of secular Jewish organizations worked diligently to rescue Jews from the Holocaust, most notably the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the “JDC” or “Joint” for short). However, even though these organizations had broad support in the American Jewish community, strong political influence, and substantial financial resources, several factors reduced their effectiveness:
  • Refusal to utilize illegal or semi-legal methods in order to save Jewish lives.
  • Fear of arousing anti-Semitism and antagonizing the U.S. government.
  • Excessive (and, ultimately, unjustified) faith in President Roosevelt.
  • Over-emphasis of other goals (such as the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine).
The Revisionist Zionists led by “Peter Bergson” were a notable exception to this pattern; they were aggressive advocates of rescue of all the Jews in Europe. The Revisionist Zionist activists were thus frequently allied with Orthodox rescue efforts.

Noteworthy Items:
  • Irving Bunim and the Jewish Agency (or “The Rock and the Window”)
  • Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise’s 1943 congressional testimony against establishing a rescue commission.
  • The March of 400 Rabbis (Oct. 6, 1943), the only rally in Washington on behalf of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, was a joint effort of “Peter Bergson” and the Orthodox Vaad Hatzalah.

The Vaad Hatzalah
The Agudath HaRabanim (Union of Orthodox Rabbis), led by Rabbi Eliezer Silver, founded an organization devoted to rescue called the Vaad Hatzalah (“Rescue Committee”). The Vaad was supported by all of Orthodox Jewry (Agudath Israel, Young Israel, Mizrachi, etc.). It was initially devoted mainly to the rescue of the members of the great European yeshivos who were not being served effectively by the existing organizations. As time passed the Vaad Hatzalah expanded its efforts to include all Jews. The leaders of the Vaad were willing to do anything to save their fellow Jews.

Noteworthy Items:
  • Chillul Shabbat ("Desecrating the Sabbath”) for rescue purposes – Driving and filling out forms. (Irving Bunim and Mike Tress)
  • Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz’s “fainting” spells.
  • The single-mindedness of Rav Aharon Kotler.
  • “Illegal” food packages for Jews starving in Polish ghettoes.

The War Refugee Board
A variety of factors, including the publicity caused by the Rabbis’ March, pressure from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, and the growing scandal of a State Department cover-up, forced President Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board in 1944. The first, and only, such American effort; the WRB received very limited funding and minimal support from the other branches of the government. The WRB actually had to collect money from private Jewish organizations, such as the JDC. Nevertheless, it succeeded in saving the lives of more than 200,000 Jews in Europe. The WRB funded the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg to help save Hungarian Jews.
Henry Morgenthau Raoul Wallenberg
“The Working Group”
In 1942, the Nazis began deporting the Jews of Slovakia. Rav Michael Dov Weissmandel, a leading rosh yeshiva, and his relative, Gisi Fleischmann, a Zionist leader, formed an underground organization called "the Working Group". They successfully bribed the local chief Nazi to stop the deportations. (The deportations restarted two years later.)
Rabbi WeissmandelGisi Fleischmann
Rav Weissmandel then conceived of the “Europa Plan,” a bold attempt to save all of the surviving European Jews through ransom. This idea was opposed by some Jewish organizations (based in Allied or neutral countries, of course) as illegal and "degrading". Ultimately, the necessary funds were never raised and the negotiations with the Nazis failed.
In 1944, the Working Group received information about the Auschwitz death camp. Rav Weissmandel sent messages, complete with maps and detailed information, to the Allies begging them to bomb the rail lines leading to Auschwitz or the death camp itself. The War Refugee Board and others joined in the call but the pleas fell on deaf ears. Various excuses were given for the refusal. In Jan. 2008, during a visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, President George W. Bush discussed this issue and commented, "We should have bombed it."

Chasidei Umot Ha’Olam (Righteous Gentiles)
There were many non-Jews who exerted great efforts, often at the risk of their lives, to rescue European Jews from the Nazis. There is no way for us to cover every example. The following is a list of some noteworthy cases of rescue:
  • The rescue of Danish Jewry by an organized effort of the Danish government, underground, and ordinary citizens.
  • The French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon provided refuge for 5,000 people.
  • German industrialist Oskar Schindler protected over a thousand Jewish workers from deportation to Auschwitz.
  • Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, and Italian citizen Giorgio Perlasca (posing as a Spanish diplomat), provided tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews in 1944 with certification that they were under the "protection" of neutral powers.
  • In Kovno, Lithuania, Jan Zwartendijkthe (the Dutch acting consul) and Chiune Sugihara (Japanese acting consul) issued thousands of "visas" enabling Jews to leave Lithuania for Japan. Many of these Jews remained in Shanghai for the duration of the war.
  • Irena Sendler was a Polish social worker and member of the Polish Underground. She saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. She was caught by the Nazis but refused to reveal the location of the children, even under torture.
Oskar Schindler Chiune Sugihara Irena Sendler

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bo - We Become What We Do

Parshas Bo tells us of the end of the Jewish captivity in Egypt. As the last of the ten plagues is brought upon the Egyptians, the Jewish people gather in their homes to celebrate the first Passover and to eat of the Paschal offering.

The Torah describes the numerous requirements of this offering that continued to apply for future generations. Among other requirements, the offering had to be eaten roasted, no bones could be broken, and the meat could not be removed from the location of the meal. The classic 13th century work of mitzvos, Sefer HaChinuch, explains all of these requirements as serving to help us remember our miraculous exodus from Egypt.

The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzva 16) then raises an important question. Why are all these details necessary? If the goal is simply to help us remember the past, then wouldn't a simple commemoration be sufficient? What is gained by all of these extra rituals and details?

The Sefer HaChinuch answers this question with a psychological principle which is one of the most basic concepts in the study and practice of mussar (character improvement). Stated simply, this principle is that our actions profoundly influence our character. As the Sefer HaChinuch puts it, "האדם נפעל כפי פעולותיו" - "Man is affected by his actions." Our hearts and minds are drawn after our physical actions, both for the good and for the bad. If we engage in good actions, even without the proper motives, the actions will gradually draw us towards becoming good people. And if, God forbid, we engage in bad actions, the actions will draw us towards becoming bad people.

For this reason, the Sefer HaChinuch continues, God gave the Jewish people numerous commandments, so that we would have numerous positive actions that make us into better people. It is therefore not surprising that God gave us numerous special commandments in connection to the Passover offering, as the exodus from Egypt is a "great pillar of our Torah" and needs to be firmly implanted in our hearts and minds.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Incredible Adventures of Mr. Bowman

I made this several years ago for my students when we were studying Mesechta Megilla, 22b. It started off as a simple set of stick figure illustrations for the sugya about different forms of bowing and the related laws. (The ability to draw decent stick figures is incredibly useful for a rebbi.) 

But then I got a little carried away.

Maybe a good sequel would be when Mr. Bowman meets his nemesis, the evil sorceror, Kuma Zakufa!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Va’eira - The Names of God

In the beginning of Parshas Va’eira, God tells Moses (Exodus 6:3), “And I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as E-l Sha-dai, and by My name Hashem[1] I did not become known to them.” As the commentaries point out, this verse is difficult to understand, as we find several times in Genesis where the name Hashem was used by the Patriarchs, and that God Himself gave this as His name. For example, in Genesis 15:7, God speaks to Abraham saying, “I am Hashem, Who took you out of Ur Kasdim, to give you this land to inherit it.” Clearly, then, this verse cannot mean that this name had been hidden from the Patriarchs.

The commentaries therefore explain that the verse does not say that God did not make the Name of Hashem known to them, but that He did not make Himself known to them through this Name. Every name of God refers to one of God’s modes of interaction with His creation. This verse teaches us that God was now entering into a fundamentally new, more direct and open, mode of interaction with mankind; that the Jewish people would come to experience God’s presence in the world in a manner that the Patriarchs had not. Although the Patriarchs certainly knew of this mode of interaction, and God had even revealed it to them in prophecy, they had never experienced it themselves.

This verse helps us understand the role that the “Names of God” plays in Jewish thought. Whether it is in our understanding of Scripture or in our prayers, a proper understanding of this concept is essential. (This concept is particularly important for a proper understanding of the teachings of kabbala.)

The most basic principle to understand is that, in Himself, God is innominate; i.e. He has no name, and, indeed, He cannot be named. The Tikkunei Zohar (17b) states, “You [God] have no knowable name.” Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin expands on this concept (Nefesh HaChaim 2:2), explaining that the actual essence of God is completely hidden from us and cannot be referred to by any name whatsoever, even Hashem. All the Divine names that we find in Scripture, or that we use in prayer, are to be understood as referring only to aspects of God’s relationship with creation.

There is a very basic dichotomy in our relationship with God. On the one hand, we strive for an intimate connection (deveikus) with God. He is our Father and our Beloved. We speak to Him in prayer, we recognize His hand in our lives, and we strive to understand and obey His will as expressed in His Torah.

On the other hand, we also recognize that God is fundamentally unknowable, that we can never even begin to understand His true nature because He is infinitely beyond all of creation. Even the highest angels have no conception of God’s true nature.

This dichotomy is fundamental to Judaism and finds expression in many aspects of Jewish practice. For example, in every blessing that we recite, we find a startling grammatical anomaly. Every blessing begins in the second person, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe…”, yet it ends in the third person, “Who sanctified us with His commandments…” or “that all came to be through His word.”

This grammatical shift is done to express our recognition that, while we have a personal relationship with God in which we can speak to Him directly, yet we cannot know Him as He truly is. He reveals Himself to us through His actions, yet He is hidden from us in His essence. (ראה רבינו בחיי, כד הקמח, ברכה)

At first glance, it might seem that this recognition makes it more difficult for us to have a proper relationship with God. Even if this were true, it would not diminish the importance of this recognition, as a relationship with God that is based upon a false conception of His nature is fundamentally flawed, and if the misconception is bad enough, it may not be a relationship at all.

The truth is, however, that it is only through our recognition that God is fundamentally above and beyond any human conception that it is possible for a person to have a personal relationship with God in the first place. If God’s true nature existed within the limited and finite realm of human comprehension, then it would be simply impossible to believe that He has a personal, intense, loving relationship with every single human being.

The “Names of God” are given to us, by God, as a means for us to connect to Him. He wishes us to develop an emotional, human, relationship with Him, as our Father, our King, our Beloved. In that mode, we are expected to use these names in a human manner, as if they refer to God Himself. Yet, at the very same time, we must always remember that, in His essence, He is above and beyond any possible human understanding, and we can only know Him indirectly, through what he reveals to us in His Torah and His creation. It is in this sense that Jewish tradition speaks of the entire Torah, and indeed, all of Creation, as being made up of "the names of God."

[1] The term Hashem literally means, "the name", and is used in Jewish literature to refer to the four-lettered "personal" name of God (the Tetragrammaton).

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cultural Jews in Our Midst - The Pseudo-Chareidim

Most people are aware of the current controversies surrounding the behavior of certain ostensible members of the chareidi community in Israel. I am not a political columnist, nor an expert on Jewish life in Israel, so I am not going to attempt to discuss most aspects of this topic, which have been ably handled by far more competent figures than I. I do, however, want to discuss one aspect of this issue.

What is an Orthodox Jew? What is a "chareidi" Jew? What do these terms really mean?

If the term "Orthodox Jew" means anything, it means a Jew who commits to conforming to the laws and values of the Torah, as transmitted through our mesorah (i.e. the Rabbinic tradition), even when, if it were left up to his own opinion, he would choose to do otherwise. A Jew who follows Jewish tradition, when and if he agrees with it, even if that agreement happens to be almost 100%, is not really an Orthodox Jew. Similarly, any Jew who considers a non-Torah source of values to have equal authority to the Torah, so that, at times, this alternate source of values overrides Torah laws and teachings, is not a genuinely Orthodox Jew.

The same is true for the term "chareidi". The origin of this term is from a verse in Isaiah (66:5), "Hear the word of Hashem, you that tremble (החרדים - the chareidim) at His word..." The term has come to refer to those Jewish communities that take the laws and teachings of the Torah to be their sole source of values. While chareidi communities are usually superficially recognizable by their modes of dress (ranging from the "Litvishe" black hat and jacket to the various forms of garb worn by chassidim), it is not clothing that makes one a chareidi. A Jew with a long beard and payos (sidelocks), wearing a long black coat, who derives his values from sources other than the Torah, is not a true chareidi.

In the Orthodox Jewish world, we are familiar with critiques of various left-wing groups, including groups that are nominally Orthodox, that attempt to modify Judaism to bring it into conformance with the values and mores of (the liberal elites of) modern Western society. Thus, attempts to change the traditional prayer services to conform to the dictates of feminism, or to create "kashrus" supervising agencies that focus on the importance of labor unions and environmentalism, among other such attempts, are seen as attempts to give religious value to foreign concepts.

(This actually points to the main difference between chareidim and non-chareidi Orthodox Jews. In admittedly over-simplified terms, while a chareidi will usually see the importation of a foreign value into Judaism as unacceptable in of itself, a non-chareidi will usually not see it as a problem unless he believes the foreign value to be in conflict with Torah values.)

My father, ע"ה, would often speak disparagingly of what he called "cultural Jews", referring to Jews who drew their values not from the Torah but from Jewish "culture". He would stress that Jews of this sort are to be found not just in the non-Orthodox world (where they are the dominant form) but also in the Orthodox world - including the most chareidi of communities.

These "Orthodox" cultural Jews are Jews whose value system is not derived from the Torah, but from the superficial norms of their particular community. When a person, or community, treats its own cultural idiosyncrasies (e.g. modes of dress, styles of food, etc.) as if they have inherent religious significance, then they are bringing foreign values into Judaism. (This is true even when those norms may well be legitimate, in of themselves, as attempts to maintain a certain mode of life that, in the judgement of that community, is more conducive to Torah values. While this may be acceptable, it is not acceptable to then treat these norms as if they are binding on all Jews like actual Torah law.)

When a group of Jews not only brings non-Torah values into their "Judaism", but grants these values status equal to or greater than actual Torah values, then that group is not only not truly chareidi, but not even truly Orthodox. They are, fundamentally, a break-off sect (or, more politely, "denomination"), who only share a cultural bond with Judaism. This is true whether the foreign values are rooted in obsession over modes of dress and gender segregation, political ideology, or messianism.

It is popular, in certain Orthodox circles, to bemoan the supposed shift in traditional Judaism from a "mimetic tradition", in which religious practice and standards are learned from the previous generation by observation and participation, to a "textual tradition", in which religious practices and norms are learned by studying the Torah literature. In reality, of course, both traditions must exist side-by-side and are deeply dependent upon each other. The bulk of our religious training, in the Orthodox world, has always been mimetic. There is simply no other way to effectively give over the vast array of information needed to function competently as an Orthodox Jew. However, the mimetic tradition, by itself, cannot effectively distinguish between Torah and culture, law and custom, community norm and religious obligation, especially in the face of changing circumstances. The textual tradition serves as an essential "checksum" for the mimetic tradition, a way to check that tradition for its inevitable errors of transmission.

He sure looks Orthodox!
What we are seeing with these pseudo-chareidi radicals is a triumph of the mimetic tradition over textual authority. Not only is their behavior in violation of Torah law, but even many of the ideals that they claim to be fighting for are nothing more than their own communal norms, which they have elevated to the status of the Torah. By doing so, these groups have stepped outside the pale of Orthodoxy itself and are no more Orthodox (let alone "ultra-Orthodox" or chareidi) than Woody Allen in a rabbi costume.

Twenty-Four Challenges & Twenty-Four Answers

Recently, while learning with my chavrusa (t/y Torah Mates), we looked up the famous story of the Talmudic sages Rav Yochanan and Reish Lakish (בבא מציעא פ"ד ע"א). The story is one of the most tragic and difficult stories found in the Talmud, and needs careful study to properly understand. In the course of reviewing the story, I was struck by a new insight. 

At one point, the story tells how, after the death of his close disciple, friend, and brother-in-law, Reish Lakish, Rav Yochanan suffered terribly. In an attempt to comfort Rav Yochanan, the sage, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedas, came to sit as a disciple before Rav Yochanan as a replacement for Reish Lakish. For every statement of Rav Yochanan, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedas would bring support from earlier sources. Rav Yochanan then said to him, "Are you like ben Lakish? On every thing I said, he would challenge me with twenty-four difficulties, and I would answer with twenty-four answers, and in this manner the teaching would be expanded. And you bring me proof? Do I not know that I am correct?"

What struck me for the first time in my recent review of this story was Rav Yochanan's statement that for Reish Lakish's twenty-four questions, he had to give twenty-four answers. Usually, when, in studying a Talmudic sugya (topic), we find ourselves with several difficulties, the likelihood is that most, if not all, of the difficulties are based upon one or two basic errors that we made in our study. While they may go unnoticed initially, as the sugya progresses, the difficulties caused by these errors begin to snowball, and at the end we find ourselves with a whole series of problems. A more experienced scholar will often be able resolve most of our difficulties by simply pointing out the basic error we made early on in the sugya

Moreover, while he may not be able to resolve the difficulty on his own, a highly competent student will usually be able to work his questions back to their underlying premises and recognize where the core difficulty lies. Such a student will ask fewer questions, but his questions will be much more focused and productive.

If R' Yochanan had only said that Reish Lakish would ask twenty-four questions, this could have meant nothing more than that Reish Lakish had difficulty following R' Yochanan's teachings and was therefore always left with numerous questions. However, when R' Yochanan says that each of the twenty-four questions required a separate answer, this indicates that every single question was fundamentally distinct. Reish Lakish had thoroughly analyzed the teaching, and had located twenty-four separate problem areas, each of which had to be dealt with on its own.

The more I think about this, the more it amazes me.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What about the Kavod of a Ben Yisroel?

I just read the article, The Kavod of a Bas Yisroel, by Rabbi Yair Hoffman in which, in my opinion, he fundamentally misses the point. Granted, the attitude expressed by the young man mentioned in the article is terrible. But the real problem is that every single girl (and/or her parents) is chasing after guys like that and ignoring large numbers of fine frum boys who don't fit their notions of perfection.

Hoffman writes that "statistical reality affords guys five to ten dates per month, yet affords our young women perhaps one date per month." While a statistical disparity may well exist, it is not even close to large enough to explain that kind of disparity. (If it were, then the only possible solution would be to reinstate polygamy.)

However, when only a small group within the larger group of available men is considered to be truly "eligible", then this result is to be expected. And, in such a situation, the fact that many of these "eligible" men begin to feel overwhelmed, and also a bit arrogant, is also to be expected.

There are many aspects to this problem. However, Rabbi Hoffman's article is an excellent example of one of the biggest problems. Rabbi Hoffman describes the women he is discussing:
"These young women daven so very beautifully. Their davening is an inspiration to see. They work long, hard hours in school with the goal of supporting a Torah scholar. They attend shiurim; they learn and read Rav Pincus, Rav Dessler, Nesivos Shalom; they are fluent in halachah. They ask halachic questions whenever they need clarity."
Over the years, I have known innumerable young men who fit this description perfectly, but are not considered good shidduch material. In some cases, they have left yeshiva and are working. Or any other of the thousands of things that render a bochur "inferior".

Rabbi Hoffman's description points to a reality that has long been recognized by yeshiva bochurim: It is much easier to be a "good" girl, than a "good" bochur! A good girl needs only to be frum, value Torah, and have a pleasant personality (what passes for "good middos" nowadays). Such a girl is so "good" that she, and her family, will not even consider a bochur who has exactly the same virtues. If you have two young people, a young man and a young woman, working in the same business, sharing the same values, attending shiurim, reading Torah works, volunteering for chesed organizations, etc., the young woman will be seen as the ideal catch for an up-and-coming rosh yeshiva from a prominent family (even ordinary yeshiva boys are not good enough for her), while the young man will be seen as a good match only for someone with no other options.

Rabbi Hoffman's article is also a good example of our tendency to over-romanticize the virtues of Jewish girls, "her lofty and precious value and significance", as if every Jewish girl is the eishes chayil of Mishlei. This would be fine if we looked at our young men with the same rosy glasses, but - on the contrary - when it comes to our young men we tend to see every flaw, even the most commonplace, as a disqualifying "red line" for shidduchim. (An example of this tendency is this article by Yonasan Rosenblum. You can read my comments on the specific issue raised by that article there.)

Rabbi Hoffman complains that, "We do not educate our young men as to the value of a bas Yisrael anymore. Our girls are taught the value of a ben Torah, but somehow the flip-side lesson has been neglected."

I must disagree. Most of our bochurim do understand the value of a bas yisroel, but many of these bochurim are not even considered worthy of notice by these princesses. For we have taught our young women that they are too good for the ordinary frum boy, that only the "elite" is good enough for them. Yes, we have taught our girls the value of a "ben Torah", but in the process we have so narrowed the definition of a ben Torah that many true bnei Torah no longer qualify.

(Thanks to Daas Torah for bringing the article to my attention.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Shemos - Israel: The Firstborn Son of God

When instructing Moses of his mission to bring the Jewish people out of Egypt, God tells Moses that the first thing he must say to Pharaoh is, "My son, my first-born, is Israel." (Exodus 4:22) This famous verse is the first place in the Torah that speaks of the idea that the Jewish people are, in some unique sense, the son of God.

How is this to be understood? Like all human beings, the Jewish people, are descendants of Adam and Eve. We all come from the same ancestors, so in what sense can we be said to be the children of God, as distinct from the rest of humanity?

The key to understanding this is a concept that may be best summarized in a classic teaching of the Baal Shem Tov (18th century), "A person is located where he places his thoughts" (ספר הבעש"ט נח:נו). This means that our thoughts create our spiritual reality. Our relationship with God is dependent, almost entirely, on our achieving a proper mental perception of that relationship. Thus, for example, when a person thinks himself to be in the presence of God, then this becomes his spiritual reality; at that moment, he is standing before the Divine Presence.

This is a central concept in Jewish thought and is particularly important in understanding the Jewish approach to prayer. It helps explain, for example, why, in prayer, we engage in practices that mimic standing before a human king. Such practices help solidify our mental perception that we are standing before God, the true King, thereby bringing about the actual reality of God's presence.

This concept also explains why the Torah places so much importance on avoiding incorrect conceptions of God, as in idolatry and heresy. To the degree that our conception of God is incorrect, our relationship with God is weakened.

R' Meir Simcha of Dvinsk
With this concept we can understand the commentary of the Meshech Chochma (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk d. 1926) on this verse. The Meshech Chochma explains that the special status of a first-born son comes from the fact that he "made" his father into a father. In a similar sense, by recognizing God as the Creator and Master of the Universe, the Jewish people "made" God into their Father. We are the children of God because we recognize God as our father.

In a similar comment, Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (d.1966) expands on this idea, pointing out that the time will come when all mankind will properly acknowledge their Father, and at that time all mankind will have the status of "children of God." However, even then, the Jewish people will continue to have the unique status of God's first-born son.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Irrelevance of Academic Biblical Scholarship

Just commented on a blog post by Alan Brill about the current state of academic Bible scholarship.  The following is an expanded version of what I wrote there:

Academic Biblical scholarship is often seen as a major challenge to traditional Jewish belief, mainly because it is presented as scientifically disproving the Divine origin of the Torah.

Of course, academic Biblical criticism has always had serious problems, and many of the basic assumptions of its founders in the 19th century have been long disproven through archaeology or simply rejected as baseless. There was a great deal of antisemitism motivating the founders of the field, as well as various intellectual fads (such as Hegelianism). These problematic ideas continue to play a role in many of the underlying assumptions of the field, but the academics are stuck with them because if they got rid of everything that derives from these ideas the entire field would basically evaporate.

There have been many attempts to respond to the conclusions made by academic Bible scholars on their own terms. (The Hertz Pentateuch is probably the best known example in the Orthodox Jewish world.) However, these attempts all suffer from two problems. The first problem is that they are attacking a moving target. The field of Biblical scholarship changes so rapidly that almost nothing written about it today will be true even a few years from now. This means that attempts to refute the specific conclusions of Biblical criticism tend to have a very short shelf life.

However, the bigger problem is that these attempts tend to obscure the more basic issue, and that is that Bible criticism is not, and - for the most part - never has been, a serious attempt to disprove the traditional Jewish position on the origin of the Torah.

This statement is probably surprising to most people, as Biblical criticism is almost always presented precisely as disproving the traditional position. But this is simply not true. Academic Biblical scholarship has never been a serious attempt to disprove the traditional Jewish history of the Bible for the simple reason that it has never attempted to deal with that position on its own terms.

The traditional Jewish position on the origin of the Torah is that it was written by God - not Moses - and given to the Jewish people through Moses, beginning with the Sinai revelation, and that the events it described all happened in the real world. The traditional Jewish position takes for granted that many of the teachings of the Torah were, at some point, the common heritage of all mankind (through Adam, Noah, and others).

Academic Biblical scholarship starts by rejecting that position from the outset. Academic Biblical scholarship has never seriously attempted to prove that God could not have written the Torah, or that God could not have revealed future events to His prophets, or that God could not have performed the miracles described in the Torah, or that the similarities between the Torah and various ancient texts (e.g. Epic of Gilgamesh and the Code of Hammurabi) cannot be the result of a common history and spiritual heritage shared by all mankind.

Rather academic Biblical scholarship simply assumes that these things are not possible and starts from there.  Academic Biblical scholarship is simply a secularist approach to the Bible, which studies the Bible from the assumed position of secular naturalism. It is nothing more than a secular alternative to the traditional history, it does nothing to actually disprove that traditional history. Moreover, given the extraordinarily protean nature of modern Biblical scholarship, it is difficult to say that there even is an alternative history so much as a loose collection of vague ideas about where the Bible came from and how it developed.

A Jew who believes that the national experience and traditions of the Jewish people testifies to the truth of God and His Torah has no reason to be concerned about the assertions of academic Biblical scholarship.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Vayechi - The Blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh

Before the Shabbos night meal, many families have the custom to bless their children. Using the traditional formula, we bless our daughters that they should be like the Mothers of the Jewish people, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. When we bless our sons, however, we do not bless them that they should be like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead we bless them that they should be like the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh.

The source for this practice is a verse in this weeks Torah portion. When Joseph brought his sons before his father, Jacob, Jacob blessed them. As part of the blessing, Jacob said, "By you shall Israel bless, saying, May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh." (Genesis 48:20) Rashi explains, "One who comes to bless his sons will bless them with their blessing; a man will say to his son, 'May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.'"

What special virtue did the sons of Joseph possess that was so great that Jacob said that all Jews should bless their children to be like Ephraim and Manasseh?

R' Zalman Sorotzkin
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (d. 1966) explains that Jacob knew through prophecy that the Jewish people would eventually have to go into exile, and the greatest spiritual challenges of the exile would be the periods of Jewish prosperity and acceptance amongst the non-Jews, when the temptations of assimilation and intermarriage would arise.

Joseph’s sons grew up as the sons of one of the most powerful men in the world, in the most advanced, wealthy, and immoral country in the world. They were surrounded by wealth and comfort and by powerful non-Jewish influences. They were, if you will, the "most eligible bachelors" of Egyptian high society. Yet, despite this, they were completely loyal to the teachings of their father and grandfather. Manasseh and Ephraim thus demonstrated that they possessed the abilities to stand firm before the challenges and temptations of the exile.

This is the special virtue which we bless our children that they should possess. The ability to live and function successfully in the non-Jewish world without compromising their commitment to Torah and mitzvot.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Asara b'Teves - Mourning the Loss of the Temple

Asara b'Teves (the 10th of Teves) is one of a series of four fast days through the Jewish year that commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple. The other three fast days in this series are Shiva Asar B'Tamuz, Tisha B'Av, and Tzom Gedalia.

Asara b'Teves is the anniversary of the day Nebuchadnezzar began the siege on Jerusalem which ultimately led to the destruction of the first Temple. Asara B'Teves also commemorates two other unfortunate events that occurred around the same time of year. On the 8th of Teves, the Torah was translated into Greek by the decree of Ptolemy, king of Egypt. And on the 9th, Ezra and Nechemia died.

Like most fast days (except Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av), the fast begins at the break of dawn and ends at nightfall. During this time we neither eat nor drink any food whatsoever, not even water.

It is important to recognize that the primary idea behind a fast is to meditate on the fact that these sufferings came upon us because of the sins of our ancestors, sins which we continue to commit, and that we must repent. Someone who fasts but spends the day in frivolous activity has completely missed the point.

No matter how religious we are, all of us occasionally struggle with doubts about Hashem and His control over the world. We've never witnessed an outright miracle, where the laws of nature were clearly set aside before the Will of the Creator. So, even though we believe in Hashem, our belief often lacks confidence. We have to constantly work on ourselves to believe.

A Jew living in the days of the Holy Temple didn't have this problem. In the Temple there were regular open miracles, some happened every day! For example, the pillar of smoke rose from the main altar, which could be seen from miles away, always rose straight up to the sky - like a literal pillar - no matter how windy the day was. This means that any Jew, living anywhere within eye-shot of the Temple Mount, could turn at any time and see an open, supernatural miracle.

Tragically, like Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden, our sins caused us to lose that close relationship with God. While this was certainly a punishment, it was also, perhaps more importantly, for our benefit. One who sins in the immediate presence of God, as it was when the Temple stood, is far more guilty than one who sins in a world, like ours today, where God is hidden from our perception. God took the Temple from us, not only to punish us, and not only because we failed to appreciate it and utilize it properly, but also to reduce our guilt.

When we pray, as we do several times a day, for the rebuilding of the Temple, what we are really asking for is a return to that close relationship with God. As such, we have to recognize that, for our own good, we cannot return to that relationship unless we abandon our sinful behavior. This is why the focus on these days of mourning is on teshuva - repenting for our sins. Our teshuva should particularly focus on those sins that, we are taught, were the root causes of the destruction. These include:
  • Unjustified hatred of our fellow Jews (sinas chinam). We should all work to feel love towards our fellow Jews, and also for all human beings.
  • Murder. We should work on ourselves to respect our fellow man and see in him the image of God that exists in every person. Even publicly shaming another person is likened to murder.
  • Idolatry. We should recognize that only God is the cause of good and bad. No person or thing can hurt you or help you unless it is HaShem’s wish. Nothing else has any real power in the world. We should also focus on developing our relationship with HaShem and to realize that He cares about each and every one of us and hears our prayers.
  • Immorality. Not only must we avoid outright acts of immorality, but we must train ourselves to avoid circumstances and situations that can lead us in that direction.
  • Torah study. We must recognize that the Torah is HaShem’s direct revelation to us. As such, it is fundamentally different from all other forms of knowledge. All the other sciences are the product of human knowledge and thought and can only express partial truth. New knowledge is constantly being found, and old knowledge is proven incorrect. However, the Torah is from HaShem. HaShem is perfect and knows all. Therefore the Torah is also perfect. From the Torah we learn what our purpose is in this world and how to achieve that purpose. Our attitude towards the Torah must express this recognition. We must not treat the Torah like just any other form of study.
Ultimately, the time will come when  God decides that we are ready to renew our relationship with on an even closer basis than ever before and He will send us moshiach to rebuild the Temple. At that time, the prophet tells us that these fast days will be transformed into joyous festivals.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Targum Shiviim - The Origin of the Septuagint

A major event occurred during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus.[1] This was the translation of the Torah into Greek. This translation eventually evolved into the Greek translation of the Torah known as the Septuagint.[2] There are several ancient sources that discuss this event, but, unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), these sources frequently disagree on important details. The main traditional Jewish sources that describe the incident are the Talmud (Megillah 9a), Mesechta Sofrim 1:8-9, and Megillas Taanis. The story is also discussed in other, non-traditionally authoritative, sources such as Josephus (Antiquities XII:2), Philo (Life of Moses V-VII), and the Letter of Aristeas.[3] The Letter of Aristeas is, or purports to be, a letter written by a non-Jewish advisor of Ptolemy Philadelphus named Aristeas recounting the story of the translation of the Torah.[4] The Letter of Aristeas is the primary source for the story as told by Josephus, and appears to have been a source for Philo, but there are some differences between all these sources.[5]

The Talmud (Megillah 9a) gives the following account:
דתניא, מעשה בתלמי המלך שכינס שבעים ושנים זקנים והכניסן בשבעים ושנים בתים ולא גילה להם על מה כינסן ונכנס אצל כל אחד ואחד ואמר להם, "כתבו לי תורת משה רבכם." נתן הקב"ה בלב כל אחד ואחד עצה והסכימו כולן לדעת אחת וכתבו לו, "אלקים ברא בראשית" וכו' ע"ש
It is taught, an incident occurred with Ptolemy the king that he gathered seventy-two elders and put them into seventy-two houses and he did not reveal to them why he had gathered them. He went in to each one of them and told him, "Write for me the Torah of Moses your teacher." The Holy One, blessed be He, gave counsel to the heart of every one of them and they all came to the same opinion and they wrote for him, "God created in the beginning" etc.
The basic story is that Ptolemy gathered together seventy-two sages and made each Sage write a translation of the Torah into Greek. A miracle occurred and the Sages, all working independently, wrote exactly the same translation, including several changes from the literal meaning of the Torah that were necessary to prevent the Torah from being misinterpreted or misused by the Greeks.[6]

In Mesechta Sofrim (1:7-8) we are told that there were actually two distinct incidents where the Torah had been translated at the command of one of the Ptolemies:

מעשה בה' זקנים שכתבו לתלמי המלך את התורה יונית והיה היום קשה לישראל כיום שנעשה העגל שלא היתה התורה יכולה להתרגם כל צרכה.
שוב מעשה בתלמי המלך שכנס ע"ב זקנים והושיבם בשבעים ושנים בתים ולא גלה להם על מה כנסם. נכנס לכל אחד ואחד מהם אמר להם, "כתבו לי תורת משה רבכם." נתן המקום עצה בלב כל אחד ואחד והסכימה דעתן לדעת אחת וכתבו לו [כל אחד ואחד] תורה בפני עצמו. וי"ג דבר שינו בה, ואלו הן: "אלקים ברא בראשית" וכו' ע"ש
An incident occurred with five elders who wrote the Torah in Greek for Ptolemy the king, and the day was as difficult for [the people of] Israel as the day that the [golden] calf was made[7], for the Torah could not be translated sufficiently.[8]
A further incident occurred with Ptolemy the king when he gathered seventy-two elders and placed them in seventy-two houses and did not reveal to them why he had gathered them. He went in to each one of them and said to them, “Write for me the Torah of Moshe your teacher.” God placed counsel into the heart of each one and their opinions all came to the same opinion and each one wrote for him his own Torah. They made thirteen changes in it, and these are: “God created in the beginning” etc.
The second incident appears to be the same incident as the one described in the Talmud. Rabbi Yakov Emden (1698-1776), in his notes on Mesechta Sofrim, comments on the first incident, "נ"ל שזהו בן לאגע" – “It appears to me that this is [Ptolemy] son of Lagos”, referring to Ptolemy Soter, the first of the Greek kings of Egypt, and on the second incident he writes, "זהו פילאדילפו" – “This is Philadelphus”, the son and successor of Ptolemy Soter.

However, in his notes on Megillah 9a, Rabbi Emden appears to directly contradict this. He comments:
אין זה בטלמיוס פילאדילפו שידוע שהיה אוהב ישראל ובקש ההעתקה הידועה מהכ"ג שבירושלם בהכנעה ובהתרפס לו ברצי כסף ודורונות גדולות שעשה לבהמ"ק ולכ"ג ולזקנים מעתיקי התורה שתנתן לו בקשתו זאת כמפורסם בספר אריסטיאה שחובר על זאת באותו פרק המעשה ע"י המשולח של המלך לירושלם, אלא תלמי אחר הוא זה.
This is not Ptolemy Philadelphus, for it is known that he was a lover of Israel and that he sought the famous translation from the High Priest in Jerusalem with humility, humbling himself before him with appeasements of silver and great gifts made for the Holy Temple, the High Priest, as well as the elders who translated the Torah, so that they should grant this request of his. This has been made well-known in the book of Aristeas that was written on this topic by the emissary of the king to Jerusalem.[9] Rather, this is a different Ptolemy.[10]
In this comment, Rabbi Yakov Emden relies upon the Letter of Aristeas. The Letter of Aristeas tells us a story of how Ptolemy Philadelphus, in his desire to complete his great library in Alexandria, sent a letter to Elazar the High Priest [11] requesting his aid in collecting six elders from each of the twelve tribes (thus, seventy-two elders) to translate the Torah. To demonstrate his sincerity, Philadelphus first ransomed over one hundred thousand Jewish captives who had been enslaved during the reign of his father, Ptolemy Lagos. He also sent rich gifts of precious metals and works of art to the High Priest and the Holy Temple. According to the Letter of Aristeas, the elders knew why they were traveling to Egypt and they worked together as a committee in the translation. The Letter states:
Three days later Demetrius[12] took the men and, passing along the sea-wall, seven stadia long, to the island, crossed the bridge and made for the northern districts of Pharos. There he assembled them in a house, which had been built upon the sea-shore, of great beauty and in a secluded situation, and invited them to carry out the work of translation, since everything that they needed for the purpose was placed at their disposal. So they set to work comparing their several results and making them agree, and whatever they agreed upon was suitably copied out under the direction of Demetrius. ...They met together daily in the place which was delightful for its quiet and its brightness and applied themselves to their task. And it so chanced that the work of translation was completed in seventy-two days, just as if this had been arranged of set purpose.
The miraculous agreement of the different translations is entirely missing from the Letter of Aristeas. Interestingly, Philo, who appears to base his story primarily on the Letter of Aristeas and perhaps local Alexandrian tradition, does include the miracle. He writes (Life of Moses II, VII):

Therefore, being settled in a secret place ... they, like men inspired, prophesied, not one saying one thing and another another, but every one of them employed the self-same nouns and verbs, as if some unseen prompter had suggested all their language to them. And yet who is there who does not know that every language, and the Greek language above all others, is rich in a variety of words, and that it is possible to vary a sentence and to paraphrase the same idea, so as to set it forth in a great variety of manners, adapting many different forms of expression to it at different times. But this, they say, did not happen at all in the case of this translation of the law, but that, in every case, exactly corresponding Greek words were employed to translate literally the appropriate Chaldaic[13] words, being adapted with exceeding propriety to the matters which were to be explained; for just as I suppose the things which are proved in geometry and logic do not admit any variety of explanation, but the proposition which was set forth from the beginning remains unaltered, in like manner I conceive did these men find words precisely and literally corresponding to the things, which words were alone, or in the greatest possible degree, destined to explain with clearness and force the matters which it was desired to reveal.[14]...
On which account, even to this very day, there is every year a solemn assembly held and a festival celebrated in the island of Pharos, to which not only the Jews but a great number of persons of other nations sail across, reverencing the place in which the first light of interpretation shone forth, and thanking God for that ancient piece of beneficence which was always young and fresh. And after the prayers and the giving of thanks some of them pitched their tents on the shore, and some of them lay down without any tents in the open air on the sand of the shore, and feasted with their relations and friends, thinking the shore at that time a more beautiful abode than the furniture of the king's palace.
The story told by the Letter of Aristeas is quite different from the story told in the Talmudic sources, but Rav Yakov Emden nevertheless believes the Letter of Aristeas to be basically reliable. He therefore concludes that the translation story told in the Talmud and the story told by the Letter are two separate incidents. This is a difficult conclusion to accept, as it forces us to assume that there were two separate incidents in which a king named Ptolemy had a group of seventy-two sages translate the Torah.[15] Most sources appear to disagree with this conclusion and maintain that the story in the Talmud took place with Ptolemy Philadelphus, and the Letter of Aristeas is simply inaccurate.[16]

The Letter of Aristeas indicates that the Jewish community of Alexandria welcomed the translation as a great benefit, and this opinion is confirmed and repeated by Philo. The opinion of the Sages, however, appears to have been quite different. The events of the translation are not described as positive events. On the contrary, as we already saw, in Mesechta Sofrim, that an earlier translation was described as being "as difficult for [the people of] Israel as the day that the [golden] calf was made."[17] Similarly, in Megillas Taanis (Maamar Acharon) it states:
בח' בטבת נכתבה התורה יונית בימי תלמי המלך והחשך בא לעולם שלשת ימים
On the eighth of Teves the Torah was written in Greek in the days of Ptolemy the king[18] and darkness came to the world for three days.[19]
In the long-term, the effects of the translation were clearly very harmful to the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt. Historian Michael Grant writes:[20]
The Septuagint had the obvious effect of bringing Jewish and pagan thought much closer together, but this proved a curiously one-way traffic. The translation was supposedly devised to persuade the Greeks of the correctness of Judaism, but its influence in this direction was negligible or non-existent…. But for the Alexandrian Jews it fulfilled an enormous role. It became, in fact, their Bible, in place of the Hebrew Bible which most of them could not understand.[21]
This event is therefore one of the tragedies which we mourn on the fast of Asara B’Teves, and it is mentioned in the Selichos of that day.

[1] Ptolemy II Philadelphus was the Greek king of Egypt from 283 BCE to 246 BCE. He was the successor of his father, Ptolemy Soter, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, who had been one of Alexander the Great’s generals. During this period, the land of Israel was under the rule of the Egyptian Greeks. The Syrian Greek Seleucid empire took control of the land of Israel later.
[2] Literally, “seventy”, the Septuagint is sometimes referred to as the LXX, the Roman numerals for seventy. It should be noted that, despite the name, the Septuagint that we know of today is not the original translation made by the Sages. It is likely that the translation of the Sages was the earliest version of the Septuagint, which, over the centuries was repeatedly edited, modified, and expanded (from just the Pentateuch to the entire Jewish Scriptures and even some Apocryphal works).
[3] The significance of these works is that they were all written before the compilation of the Talmud. These sources are, therefore, not simply repeating the account told in the Talmudic sources. I would stress that this does not mean that the accounts in these works are therefore more reliable than the Talmudic sources.

[4] While ancient sources appear to have taken the Letter of Aristeas at face value, most modern scholars believe that the Letter of Aristeas was written at a somewhat later period by a Jew, probably from Alexandria. A middle position is taken by Victor Tcherikover, who, in his Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (p. 274) writes “the document is basically genuine, but has probably been worked over here and there and by a Jewish forger.”
[5] One important source that discusses this topic in detail is Me’or Enayim by Rabbi Azariah Min Ha’Adumim (dei Rossi) (1514-1578). Unfortunately, I am not yet familiar with his discussion of this topic.
[6] For example, when translating the first verse of the Torah, the translators put the name of God at the very beginning of the sentence, “God created in the beginning.” The concern was that a more literal translation, “In the beginning, created God,” could be misunderstood to mean that God had been created by a prior being called “In the Beginning.”
[7] Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, in his Sefer HaTodaah (Book of Our Heritage), Teves, has an interesting explanation of this analogy. He explains that just as the golden calf was thought, by its worshippers, to be a genuine intermediary with God, but was actually meaningless, so too, the non-Jewish readers of the Greek translation of the Torah thought that it was a genuine representation of the Torah, but it was actually entirely empty of the essence of the Torah.
[8] The existence of earlier, flawed, translations of the Torah is also mentioned towards the end of the Letter of Aristeas, where it describes the king’s reaction after having the completed translation read to him:
The whole book was read over to him and he was greatly astonished at the spirit of the lawgiver. And he said to Demetrius, 'How is it that none of the historians or the poets have ever thought it worth their while to allude to such a wonderful achievement?' And he replied, 'Because the law is sacred and of divine origin. And some of those who formed the intention of dealing with it have been smitten by God and therefore desisted from their purpose.' He said that he had heard from Theopompus that he had been driven out of his mind for more than thirty days because he intended to insert in his history some of the incidents from the earlier and somewhat unreliable translations of the law. When he had recovered a little, he besought God to make it clear to him why the misfortune had befallen him. And it was revealed to him in a dream, that from idle curiosity he was wishing to communicate sacred truths to common men, and that if he desisted he would recover his health. I have heard, too, from the lips of Theodektes, one of the tragic poets, that when he was about to adapt some of the incidents recorded in the book for one of his plays, he was affected with cataract in both his eyes. And when he perceived the reason why the misfortune had befallen him, he prayed to God for many days and was afterwards restored.
[9] According to the Letter of Aristeas, Aristeas was one of the emissaries that Ptolemy sent to Jerusalem.
[10] Rabbi Emden repeats this conclusion in his commentary on Megillas Taanis, Maamar Acharon. In his comments there, Rabbi Emden adds that, while Philadelphus wanted a proper translation, the coercive Ptolemy in the Talmudic version demanded a literal word-for-word, translation. This is why a miraculous correspondence between the seventy isolated translators was necessary.
[11] Josephus (Antiquities XII:2:5) says that this was the brother of Shimon HaTzadik.
[12] Philadelphus’ librarian.
[13] Philo refers to the Hebrew language as Chaldaic (also called Aramaic) possibly related to the use of the term Ksav Ashuris­. (See the introduction of A. Kahana’s Hebrew edition of the Letter of Aristeas.)
[14] A similar insight is made by Rav Yerucham Levovitz in Daas Torah, Naso (7:12). He says that, although this was certainly a miracle, the incident also demonstrated the power of שכל ישר – straight (i.e. clear and undistorted) intelligence. Thus, all 72 sages understood the circumstances correctly and came to exactly the same conclusions.
[15] As noted previously, even Rabbi Yakov Emden’s own comments on Mesechta Sofrim disagree with this conclusion. It is possible that Rabbi Emden changed his mind on this matter at some point.
[16] Probably out of a desire to give a kinder portrayal of Ptolemy Philadelphus.
[17] However, an argument might be made that this statement was applied only to that early translation because of its imperfections, “for the Torah could not be translated sufficiently”, and does not apply to all translations.
[18] With the exception of Rabbi Yakov Emden, it seems that the dominant opinion is that this is referring to the translation under Ptolemy Philadelphus.
[19] The meaning of these three days of darkness is not clear. Shalsheles HaKabala (cited in the Tosfos Chadashim on Megilas Taanis) says that the Jewish people fasted for three days out of fear, as in the days of Haman, and “their faces blackened.” See the Chasam Sofer (Toras Moshe AH”T, Shemos) for a deeper explanation.
[20] The History of Ancient Israel (p. 203)
[21] Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gordon (19th century) makes the same point in his Iyun Tefila commentary on the Selichos of Asara B’Teves (printed in Siddur Otzar Tefillos).

Monday, January 2, 2012

Why Study Jewish History? Part 4 – “Zechor Yemos Olam” – History as Torah

Perhaps the most powerful explanation of the importance of studying Jewish history is based on the following verses from Deuteronomy (32:7-9):
זכר ימות עולם בינו שנות דור ודור, שאל אביך ויגדך זקניך ויאמרו לך. בהנחל עליון גוים בהפרידו בני אדם, יצב גבולות עמים למספר בני ישראל. כי חלק ה' עמו, יעקב חבל נחלתו.
Remember the days of the world, understand the years from generation to generation; ask your father and he will recount to you, your elders and they will tell you. When the One Above divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel. For His people is His portion, Jacob is the portion of His inheritance.

Rav Elchonon Wasserman
In an essay entitled, Maamar Zechor Yemos Olam,[1] Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (1875-1941) explains:
"זכור ימות עולם בינו שנות דור ודור" (דברים לב:ז) ... נראה דפשוטו של מקרא קאי על כל הדורות ועל כל המעשים הנעשים בעולם. דמאחר ד"בכל הארץ משפטיו" (תהלים קה:ז) ומשפטי ה' הם לפי דיני התורה, וא"כ כמו שצריך להבין דברי התורה ולהעמיק בה, כן ג"כ צריך להתבונן בכל המאורעות הבאות לעולם ולמצוא יסודם עפ"י משפטי התורה. אבל אל יסמוך האדם על בינתו, כי דעתו קצרה מלהבין דעת עליון, אלא צריך לשמוע להמקובל אצלנו בתורה שבע"פ. וזהו שהוסיף הכתוב "שאל אביך ויגדך, זקניך ויאמרו לך." וכגון הסיפורים שנכתבו בכתבי הקדש א"א להבינם מהכתובים לבד כי אם על פי פירושי רז"ל.
"Remember the days of the world, understand the years from generation to generation" … The simple meaning of the verse applies to all generations and all the events that happen in the world. For, "His judgments are throughout the world" (Psalms 105:7), and the judgments of God are in accordance with the laws of the Torah. Therefore, just as we must understand the words of the Torah and delve into it, so too we must contemplate all the events that take place in the world and find their basis according to the judgments of the Torah. However, a person must not rely upon his own understanding, for his intellect is insufficient to understand the knowledge of the One Above; rather, it is necessary to listen to he who is recognized in the Oral Torah [2]. This is the intent when the verse adds, "ask your father and he will recount to you, your elders and they will tell you." This is akin to the fact that it is impossible to understand the stories of the holy Scriptures from the texts alone, except with the commentaries of the Sages.
וכדי להבין דברי ימי עולם (וועלט געשיכטע) מסרה לנו התורה מפתח גדול, לידע את הציר אשר עליו תסוב ההנהגה העליונה בעולם, והוא בכתוב מיד, "בהנחל עליון גוים בהפרידו בני אדם יצב גבולות עמים למספר בני ישראל כי חלק ה' עמו יעקב חבל נחלתו," ופירושו כי מאחר שמובן מאליו כי כל היצורים נבראו לעשות רצון קונם, ומכל סוגי הנמצאים העיקר הוא המין האנושי, ומהמין הזה העיקר הוא עם ישראל שהם חלק ה' ועבדיו... ונמצא שתכלית כל הבריאה היא רק בשביל ישראל, וכמו שפירש"י (בראשית א:א) "בראשית — בשביל ישראל שנקראו ראשית." וא"כ גם המעשים הנעשים בעולם תכליתם רק בשביל ישראל. וזה מפורש בכתוב (צפניה ג:ו-ז) "הכרתי גוים נשמו פנותם החרבתי חוצותם... אמרתי אך תיראי אותי תקחי מוסר." ומזה למדנו שאין פורענות באה לעולם אלא בשביל ישראל (יבמות סג.). ולדוגמה, גבולות העמים והמדינות בשנים האחרונות שנקבעו אחרי המלחמה, צריך להבין ולזכור כי טרם שנכתבו בוורסייל כבר נכתבו ונחתמו בבי"ד של מעלה. ושמה עיקר השקפתם היא רק בשביל ישראל, לטובתם או לפורענותם להוכיחם, כמו שכתוב "הוי אשור שבט אפי" (ישעי' י:ה).
In order to understand world events, the Torah gave us an important key by which to know the axis upon which the Heavenly conduct of the world turns, and this is in the verses immediately following, “When the One Above divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel. For His people is His portion, Jacob is the portion of His inheritance.” The explanation of this verse is as follows. It is self-evident that all creatures were created to serve the will of their Owner. From all the categories of existence, the primary is the human race, and from this race, the primary is the people of Israel, for they are the “portion” of God and they are His servants. … The purpose of creation is only for the sake of Israel, as Rashi [3] comments [on Genesis 1:1], "B’reshis – for the sake of Israel which is called reshis (first)." Therefore, everything that happens in the world is only for the sake of Israel. This is explicit in Scripture (Zephaniah 3:6-7), "I have cut off the nations, their towers are desolate, I have destroyed their streets… I said, 'Just fear me, accept admonishment.'" From this [verse] we learn that no suffering comes to the world except for the sake of Israel (Talmud, Yevamos 63a). For example, by the setting of the boundaries between nations and countries that was done after the war,[4] it is necessary to understand and remember that before they were set in Versailles, they had already been written and sealed in the Heavenly Court. And there the primary outlook is only for the sake of Israel, either for their benefit or to afflict them for the purpose of admonition, as it is written, “Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger” (Isaiah 10:5).
וזהו שכתוב "יצב גבולות עמים"—תמיד בכל דור—"למספר בני ישראל" (דברים לב:ח), והטעם "כי חלק ה' עמו," כי ישראל לבדו הוא חלק ה' ולא שאר האומות, וע"כ כל ההנהגה העליונה מתאימה לצורכי עם ישראל. ואף כי דעתנו קצרה מלהבין איזה יחס יש בין צורכי ישראל לגבולות איים רחוקים בקצוי ארץ, אבל קורא הדורות מראש יודע שיש בזה איזה צורך לישראל בהוה או בעתיד, כמ"ש הרמב"ם (פיהמ"ש, הקדמה) שלפעמים נבנה ארמון גדול ומפואר, וכל תכלית מציאותו הוא כי לאחר מאה שנה יעבור איש חסיד בעת זרם מטר ויכנס תחת גג השער מהארמון הזה לחסות ממטר או משלג
This is what is meant by the verse, "He set the boundaries of the peoples" — continually, in every generation — "according to the number of the children of Israel." The reason for this is, "For His people is His portion." Israel alone is the portion of God, and not the other nations, and therefore, all of the Heavenly direction of the world is directed for the needs of the nation of Israel. Even though our understanding is insufficient to grasp what connection there is between the needs of Israel and the boundaries of distant isles at the ends of the earth, but "He Who knows the generations from the beginning" [5] knows that there is some necessity for the Jewish people, in the present or future. As Maimonides writes, sometimes a great and glorious palace will be built, and the entire purpose of its existence is because a century later a pious man will pass by during a rainstorm and he will go under the roof of the palace gate to shelter himself from the rain or snow.

Reb Elchonon Wasserman teaches us that the study of history is akin to studying Torah, if one engages in that study with the proper perspective and guidance. The primary key to a proper understanding of history is the recognition that God conducts all the events of the world for the benefit of the Jewish people. Through the proper study of history, we can come to know the will of God in a manner akin to the study of the Torah itself.

[1] Printed in Kovetz Maamarim and in Dugmaos L’Biur Agados al Derech HaPeshat in the back of Kovetz Haaros.
[2] R’ Elchonon’s specific mention of the Oral Torah, rather than simply “the Torah,” may be to specifically limit the category to those who are true Torah scholars with a genuine mesorah (tradition) from their own rebbeim (teachers).
[3] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105) – author of the most important and influential commentary on the Jewish Scriptures.
[4] Rabbi Wasserman is speaking here of the peace negotiations that took place after World War I, in which the map of Europe (and much of the Middle-East) was dramatically redrawn.
[5] From Isaiah 41:4

Why Study Jewish History? Part 3 - Strengthening Our Emunah

The study of Jewish history has an important role in strengthening our emunah – our belief in God and His Torah. The lesson we are supposed to learn from history is that God is running the world. Indeed, one of the primary tasks of the Jewish people is to demonstrate to the world through its history that God controls the events of history. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:[1]

While mankind was to be taught by experience, and from its fate it was to gain knowledge about God and itself, the attainment of this aim was to be assured and furthered by a special arrangement. …There would be introduced into the ranks of nations one people which would demonstrate by its history and way of life that the sole foundation of life is God alone; that life’s only purpose is the fulfillment of His Will; and that the formal expression of this Will, specifically addressed to this people, serves as the exclusive bond of its unity. This objective required a nation that was poor in everything upon which the rest of mankind builds its greatness and the entire structure of its life. To all appearances being at the mercy of nations armed with self-reliant might, it was to be directly sustained by God Himself, so that, in manifestly overcoming all opposing forces, God would stand revealed as the sole Creator, Judge and Master of history and nature.
Thus, the existence and unity of the Jewish people, after thousands of years of oppression and dispersion, proves beyond any doubt that HaShem controls the events of history. Rabbi Yakov Emden (1698-1776) writes:[2]
ואיך לא יבוש הכופר בהשגחה ויעמוד נכלם מי שיעיין ביחוד עניננו ומעמדנו בעולם, אנחנו האומה הגולה שה פזורה. אחר כל מה שעבר עלינו מהצרות והתמורות אלפים מהשנים ואין אומה בעולם נרדפת כמונו, מה רבים היו צרינו, מה עצמו נשאו ראש הקמים עלינו מנעורינו להשמידנו לעקרנו לשרשנו מפני השנאה שסבתה הקנאה רבת צררונו גם לא יכלו לנו לאבדנו ולכלותנו, כל האומות הקדומות העצומות אבד זכרם, בטל סברם, סר צלם, ואנו הדבקים בה' כולנו חיים היום לא נפקד ממנו בכל תוקף אריכות גלותינו אפילו אות וניקוד אחד מתורה שבכתב וכל דברי חכמים קיימים לא יטה לארץ מנלם, לא שלט בהם יד הזמן ולא כלם, מה יענה בזה פילוסוף חריף, היד מקרה עשתה כל אלה? חי נפשי, כי בהתבונני בנפלאות אלה, גדלו אצלי יותר מכל נסים ונפלאות שעשה השי"ת לאבותנו במצרים ובמדבר ובארץ ישראל, וכל מה שארך הגלות יותר נתאמת הנס יותר ונודע מעשה תקפו וגבורתו, בשגם כל הנביאים כבר ראו עומקו והתאוננו והתלוננו על אריכותו הנפלא בטרם היותו, והנה לא נפל מכל דבריהם ארצה, איה פי המכחיש וכו'

How can the denier of Divine Providence not be embarrassed and ashamed when he thinks about our unique status and circumstance in the world? We, the exiled nation, the lost sheep, [even] after all the oppressions and changes which have happened to us over thousands of years—there is no nation that is pursued as we are, how numerous are our oppressors, how aggressively do they turn against us, since the time of our youth, to destroy, overturn, and uproot us, with a hatred motivated by jealousy—yet, despite our numerous oppressors, they were unable to destroy us and wipe us out. All of the mighty ancient nations, their memory has been lost, their countenance has been nullified, their image has been removed, but we, who cleave to God, are all alive today. Through all the powerful, long exile, we have not lost even one letter or dot from our Written Torah, and all the words of the Sages remain standing, not one of them has fallen. The hand of time has had no dominion over them, and they have not been destroyed. What response can you make to this, brilliant philosopher? Has all of this been achieved by accident? By the life of my soul! When I consider these wonders, they appear greater to me than all the miracles and wonders that God did for our ancestors in Egypt, and in the wilderness, and in the land of Israel.[3] And the longer the exile lasts, the more verified the miracle becomes, and His might and power are made known. Especially because all of the prophets had already seen the depth [of the exile] and they mourned and bemoaned its great duration before it happened, and not one of their words has failed to be fulfilled. Where is the mouth that can deny? …
Many non-Jews have indeed noticed this unique characteristic of the Jews. In a very famous and widely quoted passage, Mark Twain writes:[4]

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent. of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.   Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendour, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
Similarly, the great French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), wrote:[5]

This family, or people, is the most ancient within human knowledge, a fact which seems to me to inspire a peculiar veneration for it, especially in view of our present inquiry; since if God had from all time revealed Himself to men, it is to these we must turn for knowledge of the tradition.
This people is not eminent solely by their antiquity, but is also singular by their duration, which has always continued from their origin till now. For whereas the nations of Greece and of Italy, of Lacedæmon, of Athens and of Rome, and others who came long after, have long since perished, these ever remain, and in spite of the endeavours of many powerful kings who have a hundred times tried to destroy them, as their historians testify, and as it is easy to conjecture from the natural order of things during so long a space of years, they have nevertheless been preserved (and this preservation has been foretold); and extending from the earliest times to the latest, their history comprehends in its duration all our histories [which it preceded by a long time].
Yet, while many writers have recognized the unique survival of the Jews, most of these writers, unlike Pascal, fail to take the next logical step of acknowledging the Source of that survival.[6] Some, like Mark Twain, simply leave the topic as a mystery. Other’s attempt to explain it away or to deny its true uniqueness. Arnold Toynbee, the famous historian, is an example of the latter. In his book, A Study of History, he discusses the case of the Jews:[7]

Normally the establishment of a universal state, even for no longer than a single spell, has resulted in a permanent obliteration of the identities of the local states and people that have been incorporated in it. … Yet, without the political framework of a state or the territorial basis of a home, the Jews have managed to preserve their separate identity, as a people, from 586 BC – the year that saw the obliteration of the Kingdom of Judah – down to the present day. They have preserved it as a scattered minority (diaspora) living among non-Jewish majorities in countries outside the former frontiers of the extinct Kingdom of Judah and hundreds or thousands of miles away from its historic capital, Jerusalem.
This feat is remarkable and exceptional, but it is not unique. The Jews are not the only uprooted people who have achieved it. …
Thus, after detailing the amazing – "remarkable and exceptional" – survival of the Jewish people, Toynbee attempts to diminish its significance by claiming that other groups have achieved the same thing. However, if we look at the actual examples he gives, none of them are even closely comparable to the Jews. Among the groups he mentions are the Parsees,[8] the Monophysite and Nestorian Christians,[9] the Molokane, Skoptsy, and Dukhobors,[10] the Quakers,[11] and the Huguenots.[12]
None of these groups is comparable to the Jews for several obvious reasons. Firstly, every one of these groups is of relatively recent origin, the oldest being the Parsees, which is less than 1,500 years old. By contrast, the Jewish diaspora is at least 2,000 years old, and about 2,500 years if we begin counting from the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah, as Toynbee does. Secondly, none of these other groups are of great prominence in the world, they are simply small religious groups of little interest to the world at large. The Jews, however, are extremely prominent, often to their great dismay, and are the focus of grossly disproportionate amount of attention on the world scene. And, finally, none of these groups were oppressed with the same aggressiveness and persistence with which the Jews have been oppressed. Toynbee himself actually acknowledges all of these factors later, when he states:
Of all the diasporas in our list [the Jewish diaspora] is the most famous, the most influential, and also perhaps the most unhappy, at least so far, in its relations with the gentile majorities among whom it has been living. It has also been in existence longer than any of the others, and has been more completely divorced from the cultivation of the land in its original home.
The story is told that King Frederick the Great once asked his pastor to provide him with a very brief proof of the truth of religion. The pastor answered simply, "The Jews, your majesty."[13] For the Jewish people, the existence of God is not simply a matter for philosophical discussion; His hand has been present throughout our history. Our Sages tell us that the Roman emperor Hadrian once said to Rabbi Yehoshua, “Great is the lamb [the Jewish people] who survives amongst seventy wolves [the seventy nations]!” Rabbi Yehoshua responded, “Great is the Shepherd, who rescues and protects her, and breaks them [the nations] before her!”[14]

We repeat this theme on Pesach at the Seder when we recite “V’He Sh’Amdah”:
This is what has stood up for our fathers and for us,
For not only one has stood up against us to destroy us,
But in every generation they rise up to destroy us,
And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, saves us from their hands.

A historically conscious Jew cannot help but be amazed by the open miracle of Jewish survival. In a world that often appears to be totally mundane, the mere existence of a Jew is a miracle. I have often told my students, "If you want to see an open miracle, look in a mirror!" Yet, it is a miracle that one can easily overlook, if you are lacking the historical knowledge to put it in context. Studying Jewish history is, therefore, a vital and powerful means of strengthening our Jewish belief.

This understanding, that the study of Jewish history can strengthen our emunah, brings us to a related issue. Because Jewish history provides such a powerful testimony to the existence and power of God, those who wish to deny Him or to deny the authority of the Torah will frequently attempt to revise history. The secular study of history is dominated by people with a strong ideological bias against emunah, who will rewrite history to fit with their prior misconceptions or to provide support for their false teachings. The Sages (Avos 2:14) teach us, דע מה שתשיב לאפיקורס – “Know what to answer to an heretic.” It is important for us to know how to respond to such claims.

[1] The Nineteen Letters, Letter Seven

[2] In Sulam Beis El, printed at the beginning of his Siddur, in the first section of חווק ב'.

[3] Emphasis added.

[4] Closing paragraph of his essay,"Concerning the Jews".

[5] Pensées 619

[6] And even Pascal, and other Christian thinkers, failed to recognize the full implications.

[8] A Zoroastrian group that fled from Islamic persecution in Iran (Persia) in the 7th Century and settled in India. Today, there are about 100,000 Parsees worldwide, most in India and Iran, and the population is steadily declining.

[9] Two Middle-Eastern Christian sects that separated from “mainstream” Christianity in the Fifth Century.

[10] Three Russian Christian sects that separated from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th Century.

[11] A Christian sect that began in England in 1647.

[12] French Protestants who were persecuted in the struggles between the Catholics and Protestants.

[13] This story exists in a wide range of versions, but most are between Frederick the Great and an anonymous pastor. Some versions identify the speaker as the Marquis d'Argens (1704-1771), a French philosopher who was a friend of Moses Mendelssohn. Of course, in these stories, the supernatural survival of the Jews is cited as a proof for the truth of Christianity, which just goes to show that even open miracles can be misinterpreted.

[14] Tanchuma, Toldos 5