Call for education reform in Haredi world

(h/t failed Messiah)

Knesset Member Rabbi Haim Amsalem is at it again.  He wrote an opinion piece arguing for a need in the Haredi community to study the sciences.  His primary argument is the age-old idea that if it was good for Maimonides and others, it is good for the Haredi world as well.  His argument comes on the heels of the naming of the Nobel Prize winners, of which a few were Israeli.  Two things strike me. 

1.  He is the same Rabbi who came out vehemently against the conversion backlash and annulment of conversions by the Haredi courts a couple of years back.  He has tremendous concerns about the outlook of the Haredi community in its relationship with the rest of Israeli society if it continues on the path it has followed since the establishment of the state.

2.  His primary argument about other great figures in the past is one often used to justify the needs of a well-rounded education.  To me, the argument is lacking as those like Maimonides lived in a world much different than ours and to say that because they studied science, so should we, is distorted.  How do we know what a Maimonides would do today.  Maimonides cannot be a model because in those days, science and religion were one and the same.  The idea of non-religious, non-sacred studies was not a category.  In our times, we have a “divide” between secular and holy studies. 

Professor Dan Shechtman’s Nobel Prize win is wonderful news for the New Year. However, a recent article by Professor Ron Aharoni argued that the picture produced by from the recent Nobel wins, as if Israel is a scientific paradise, is distorted.

Aharoni claimed that the State of Israel chose to invest its resources in the study of the Torah, which he says is no more than an “ancient book of laws.” He created a complete distinction while presenting two options: Either religion or science. Yet I believe that presenting these options as “black or white” also creates great distortion. Dividing the world into two is unnecessary and wrong.

Generations upon generations proved that we can have it both ways. The greatest rabbis in history mastered the sciences as well and made a great impression on the world. There is no shortage of examples: Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon (Gersonides), in addition to being a great scholar who wrote a commentary on the entire Bible, was also a scientist, doctor, mathematician and philosopher.

Another noteworthy figure was Rabbi Abraham Zchut, who was a historian and astronomer and studied at the Salamanca University. He was known for upgrading the astrolabe, an instrument used to make astronomical measurements. Just like Gersonides, he was honored by having one of the moon’s craters named after him.

We can of course make note of other giants such as Maimonides, Nahmanides and many others, who combined Torah and high-level science.
Restore the tradition

The Torah, our ancient book of laws, is the Jewish people’s constitutive document. Thanks to it we survived for thousands of years while other ancient peoples around us disappeared. Just like we must not neglect scientific studies at this time, we must also not neglect Torah studies, heaven forbid.

Yet just like not everyone is fit to be a math or physics professor, researcher or lecturer, not everyone can be a great scholar or rabbi. For most of the ultra-Orthodox public, a path that combines Torah studies with a dignified job is proper and suitable. Only a select haredi group should dedicate all its time and energy to Torah studies.

In recent generations, a false perception was entrenched as if one must study nothing but Torah. This resulted in a holy war being declared against core studies and of course against academic studies. However, there are broad questions in the Talmud and Halacha that cannot be studies without a deep, broad sciences education.

Shunning non-religious studies led to the haredi public’s inability to secure dignified jobs and, for lack of any other choices, kept thousands of unfit students at yeshivot and advanced Judaic studies programs.

This perception must be changed by providing relevant information and education. Meanwhile, the impossible economic realities of the ultra-Orthodox public are also having their effect.

The time has come to restore the tradition of our forefathers. We are no wiser or more righteous than Maimonides or Gersonides. Maybe in a generation or two we shall have a Shechtman with a black kippah and a beard.

Nefesh HaHayyim Section 1 Chapter 2

After presenting us with a general definition for tzelem, R. Hayyim specifies what the Torah means when it states “btzelem elokim.” His contextual question is, what characteristic trait does humanity share with the elokim aspect of G-d. For this definition, he quotes from the Arbaah Turim of R. Yaakov ben Rabbeinu Asher, that elokim refers to G-d as the master of all koah (power) (chapter 5). By having power, human beings have the ability to create and improve the world. However, the similarity falls short, which is R. Hayyim’s primary point in the second chapter.

For R. Hayyim, the distinction between humanity and G-d in relationship to creation is that humanity can only build from a preexisting object and once the item is built, it can remain in existence without the builder’s involvement. G-d, on the other hand, can create out of nothingness (at least at first) and cannot allow existence to remain without continuous involvement. As such, there is a continuous creative process, for G-d’s koah, as infinite and necessary, never ceases to operate.

In other words, the continuous nature of creation is not that G-d continuously creates but rather the supernal power, which is limitless, never ceases to stop acting. R. Hayyim further proves his argument by highlighting that we say in birchat yozer ohr the phrase l’oseh orim gedolim (from Tehillim 136:7), meaning that creation, in the context of our world,[1] is in the present and timeless.

Having established the criteria of G-d being able to create yesh me’ayin and that G-d is continuously creating, R. Hayyim concludes the second chapter by reiterating that all koah in all worlds is continuously emanating from G-d.  In his notes to the end of the chapter, R. Yitzchak of Volozhin comments[2]on how we know that the name elokim relates to power and strength.  However, he emphasizes that while we use the term elokim for other leaders, such as judges and angels, to signify their power, we must recognize that all power is ultimately from G-d.  As such, we refer to other powers as elokim aharim, meaning that their power comes from the elokim, the baal koach.  Therefore, when we say hashem elokaichem emet, what we are saying is that G-d is the true source of all power, the true elokim.  

[1] This is based on the kabbalistic schematic of the existence of four levels of created worlds: atzilut, beriah, yetzirah and asiyah.  In this Kabbalistic schematic, creation ex nihilo occurs from atzilut and beriah.  The worlds of yetzirah and asiyah are the worlds in which G-d fashions and acts upon the already existing primordial matter (Ramban Bereishit 1:1).  Additionally, as R. Hayyim’s son notes in this chapter, the action of oseh is the continuous manipulation of the divine name YHVH which can be mixed into 1080 different possible combinations based on the letters and the various vowelizations of the letters.  Based on the Zohar, the constant manipulation of the four letters is equivalent to the constant balancing of the four elements, earth, wind, water and fire. 

[2] R. Yitchak’s proof texts are reminiscent of Maimonides in his Moreh Nevuchim, sec.1 chapter.2: Some years ago a learned man asked me a question of great importance; the problem and the solution which we gave in our reply deserve the closest attention. Before, however, entering upon this problem and its solution I must premise that every Hebrew knows that the term Elohim is a homonym, and denotes God, angels, judges, and the rulers of countries, and that Onkelos the proselyte explained it in the true and correct manner by taking Elohim in the sentence, “and ye shall be like Elohim” (Gen. iii. 5) in the last-mentioned meaning, and rendering the sentence “and ye shall be like princes.” Having pointed out the homonymity of the term “Elohim” we return to the question under consideration ( .

Nefesh HaHayyim Section 1 Chapter 1

I have decided to relearn one my most favorite works, the all time classic, Nefesh HaHayyim.  Nefesh HaHayyim was written by R. Chaim of Volozhin, the primary student of the Vilna Gaon.

My goal is to jot down some of my thoughts on this work on the blog.  We will look at his words and ideas, both on their own as well as in relationship to other thinking.  I plan on turning to the material he presents to gain a better, more comprehensive perspective on this work.

R. Hayyim of Volozhin begins his work with a discussion of man as being created in “G-d’s Image.” While recognizing the challenging language of tzelem, image, R. Hayyim does not provide a deep esoteric definition.[1] Instead, he defines tzelem, in line with Rambam in the first chapter of the Moreh Nevuchim.[2]

Rambam’s idea is that tzelem and demut refer to similarities in character traits, not physical likeness. However, R. Hayyim’s use of Rambam is not to advance an argument against G-d’s corporeality. Rather, his purpose is to present the thesis that human beings are an extension of G-d. As we will encounter going forward, R. Hayyim develops an argument for how every action we do has divine implications because of humanity being in G-d’s image.

[1] In R. Yitzchak’s notes to the text as we have it, he presents the deep definition his father alludes to in this first chapter.  I will review that note in a subsequent post.


Some have been of opinion that by the Hebrew ẓelem, the shape and figure of a thing is to be understood, and this explanation led men to believe in the corporeality [of the Divine Being]: for they thought that the words “Let us make man in our ẓelem” (Gen. i. 26), implied that God had the form of a human being, i.e., that He had figure and shape, and that, consequently, He was corporeal. They adhered faithfully to this view, and thought that if they were to relinquish it they would eo ipso reject the truth of the Bible: and further, if they did not conceive God as having a body possessed of face and limbs, similar to their own in appearance, they would have to deny even the existence of God. The sole difference which they admitted, was that He excelled in greatness and splendour, and that His substance was not flesh and blood. Thus far went their conception of the greatness and glory of God. The incorporeality of the Divine Being, and His unity, in the true sense of the word–for there is no real unity without incorporeality–will be fully proved in the course of the present treatise. (Part II., ch. i.) In this chapter it is our sole intention to explain the meaning of the words ẓelem and demut. I hold that the Hebrew equivalent of “form” in the ordinary acceptation of the word, viz., the figure and shape of a thing, is toär. Thus we find “[And Joseph was] beautiful in toär (‘form’), and beautiful in appearance” (Gen. xxxix. 6): “What form (toär) is he of?” (1 Sam. xxviii. 14): “As the form (toär) of the children of a king” (Judges viii. 18). It is also applied to form produced by human labour, as “He marketh its form (toär) with a line,” “and he marketh its form (toär) with the compass” (Isa. xliv. 13). This term is not at all applicable to God. The term ẓelem, on the other hand, signifies the specific form, viz., that which constitutes the essence of a thing, whereby the thing is what it is; the reality of a thing in so far as it is that particular being. In man the “form” is that constituent which gives him human perception: and on account of this intellectual perception the term ẓelem is employed in the sentences “In the ẓelem of God he created him” (Gen. i. 27). It is therefore rightly said, “Thou despisest their ẓelem” (Ps. lxiii. 20); the “contempt” can only concern the soul–the specific form of man, not the properties and shape of his body. I am also of opinion that the reason why this term is used for “idols” may be found in the circumstance that they are worshipped on account of some idea represented by them, not on account of their figure and shape. For the same reason the term is used in the expression, “the forms (ẓalme) of your emerods” (1 Sam. vi. 5), for the chief object was the removal of the injury caused by the emerods, not a change of their shape. As, however, it must be admitted that the term ẓelem is employed in these two cases, viz. “the images of the emerods” and “the idols” on account of the external shape, the term ẓelem is either a homonym or a hybrid term, and would denote both the specific form and the outward shape, and similar properties relating to the dimensions and the shape of material bodies; and in the phrase “Let us make man in our ẓelem” (Gen. i. 26), the term signifies “the specific form” of man, viz., his intellectual perception, and does not refer to his “figure” or “shape.” Thus we have shown the difference between ẓelem and toär, and explained the meaning of ẓelem.

Demut is derived from the verb damah, “he is like.” This term likewise denotes agreement with regard to some abstract relation: comp. “I am like a pelican of the wilderness” (Ps. cii. 7); the author does not compare himself to the pelican in point of wings and feathers, but in point of sadness.” Nor any tree in the garden of God was like unto him in beauty” (Ezek. 8); the comparison refers to the idea of beauty. “Their poison is like the poison of a serpent” (Ps. lviii. 5); “He is like unto a lion” (Ps. xvii. 12); the resemblance indicated in these passages does not refer to the figure and shape, but to some abstract idea. In the same manner is used “the likeness of the throne” (Ezek. i. 26); the comparison is made with regard to greatness and glory, not, as many believe, with regard to its square form, its breadth, or the length of its legs: this explanation applies also to the phrase “the likeness of the ḥayyot (“living creatures,” Ezek. i. 13). As man’s distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, viz., intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses, nor move his hand or his foot, this perception has been compared–though only apparently, not in truth–to the Divine perception, which requires no corporeal organ. On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form.


9/15 – Yom Kippur reads

The Meaning of the Koran

Another attempt at showing how the holy books of the world can be biased to whatever side you believe to be correct.  I am not sure what this adds to the discussion other than the opening couple of paragraphs.  Basically, don’t burn the Quran because it does contain verses that speak well of Jews and Christians. 

Kosher by Design

He brings to the community a general review of the one of the more unappreciated Jewish thinkers of the late 20th century, Michael Wyschogrod.  One of the more fascinating elements of Wyschogrod’s thinking which was highlighted was his belief that we should engage in interfaith theological dialogue.  This is as opposed to his teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who explained in his work Confrontation that the only interfaith dialogue that could work relates to societal commonalities. 

Lost in Translation

This piece is very fascinating.  It is about an Arab who is interested in Judaic studies as a means of better enlightening his people to understand what Judaism is all about.  Obviously, he is having trouble getting Arabic translations of Jewish works published.  Yet, I empathize with his goals and wishes.  I think if peace is to ever be found in the Middle East, education will be the most important element.  And what better way to educate the next generations than to provide material so they can see what Judaism is really all about. 

How Do You Say Shofar in Ukrainian?

This is nice little piece describing Rosh Hashanah in Uman.  Uman of course is the burial town of Rebbe Nachman, the Breslover Rebbe (the one and only).  Makes me think about going some year down the road, though while I would love to see it, I’m not sure I would enjoy being with 35,000 people for Rosh Hashanah.  Might be a bit overwhelming for me.

Heavenly Torah – Issues of Belief # 3

In Conversations Winter 2010, the journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, an article was written by Daniel Jackson called Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking.  In this piece, he surveys and reviews the recent challenges to the divine authorship of the Bible.  To start, Jackson makes the case that Torah min HaShamayim (TMS) is the current hot button challenge for a believing Jew.  Evolution and science, while challenging, are predominantly accepted in one way or another in the MO and Centrist Orthodox communities (the Haredi community [in most of its forms] is still struggling with this, usually by denying science over Torah.  As an example, see the Slifkin affair of this past decade.  DH doesn’t even show up on their radar for the most part).  TMS has many challenges, including feminist theory, biblical archeology, modern science, textual/literary criticism, modern morality. 

I have struggled for many years with this topic.  The typical Orthodox responses, such as the ideas of mass revelation, or bible codes, as offered most coherently by Lawrence Kelemen in Permission to Receive, are full of holes.  For example, even if you accept TMS, it is extremely difficult to argue that there aren’t minor variants in different traditions Masoretic texts, as presented in various halachic arguments about kosher vs. pasul sifrei Torah.   While most authorities are not concerned with the minor variants in the text when it comes to the general principle of TMS, the other issues are greater and potentially more concrete challenges. 

In my first post on belief, I stated the following about belief in TMS:

2.  Pirqei Avot 1:1 – Moses received the Torah at Sinai – The Sinaitic experience was some sort of climactic moment in which the Judeo-legal and ethical system was revealed to the Earth.  The how and what of revelation become secondary to the concept of a revelatory experience.  This eliminates the questions about the historical event as well as removes the challenge of Documentary Hypothesis or Ancient Near Eastern influences.  It is not Hazal that dictate a pristine Torah from Sinai without a single mistake.  The exactness of the text might be assumed but then again, the way texts were read in the Talmudic and pre-Talmudic times, it is hard to fully engage such a notion.  Today, with the conclusiveness of the Torah containing linguistic layers, etc. it becomes challenging to concretely claim absolute single authorship at a single moment.  I remain non-committal on the exactitude of TMS (Torah M’Sinai).

In reflecting more on my words, I was struck by the following post I saw on another blog, QED (Avi Woolf).  He presents reader’s with an assignment to read a piece by Rav Yoel Bin Nun, one of the foremost Tanach teachers of today, on modern Orthodox approaches to Tanach study.  Rav Bin Nun argues that both he and R. Mordechai Breuer are doing Orthodox Bible study and not academic study, so when it appears they are talking about DH or historical lacunae, it is all in the guise of legitimate Torah study.  While I don’t agree with Rav Bin Nun’s assessment of the Breuer methodology, theirs are one of the few approaches out there for religious, believing Jews who are also educated in modern biblical criticism.  Jackson, meanwhile, presents Kugel and Brettler as his other two examples of Orthodox men who are also involved in areas of academic Bible.  Again, the challenge presented by those two thinkers is that their Bible study is set in academia and for most would cause tremendous difficulty. 

More to come on this topic when I can better formulate the specifics of those mentioned above.

Book Review – Maimonides, Spinoza and Us by Rabbi Marc Angel PhD.

Disclaimer:  book bought by reviewer

In modern Judaism, we often struggle with the confluence of religion and “Enlightenment.”  As one who attended an institution that attempted to subsume the two under a single roof, I find this to be a continuous struggle.  For Rabbi Angel, the answer is to look back to Maimonides, the great medieval Rabbi/Dr. who confronted the conflicts between religion and philosophy/science in his Moreh Nevuchim, the Guide for the Perplexed.  Rabbi Angel felt that to best understand Maimonides, he had to set up a foil, in this case Baruch Spinoza, the first of the Modern Philosophers and the most well known Jewish heretic.  In each chapter, except for the last 2, he sets up the contrast between Maimonides and Spinoza, leaning heavily towards Maimonides.

After completing Rabbi Angel’s book, I have two observations.  The first is that this book felt as if I was reading Rabbi Angel’s philosophical autobiography.  Now I grant that most philosophical works of this nature are autobiographical, but it is still something to be noted.  The second observation is that the book felt like it was written just for the last two chapters, which discussed the hot button issues of conversion and modern social issues, such as feminism. 

Overall, the work was a very interesting comparative study between the two philosophical schools of thought.  For Rabbi Angel, Spinoza is the example of the philosopher who trusts his own philosophy more than having faith in something greater, something outside himself.  I am left wondering if setting up this contrast was Rabbi Angel’s way of saying that the modern Haredi rabbinate is arrogant to think that they can interpret the system so stringently.  In a way, this reminds me of the words of Rebbi in Bava Metzia, that the Second Temple was destroyed because we judged people according to the law without showing favorable judgment.