9/6 through Rosh Hashanah reads

I apologize for the backlog in dates but as Rosh Hashanah approached quickly, I was unable to devote as much time to reading non-Rosh Hashanah pieces for the past couple of days. 

The Road Not Taken: Avi Weiss, Michael Broyde And Women’s Roles

This article tries to make the claim that because Michael Broyde doesn’t object to Avi Weiss on halachic grounds, he must truly be OK with Avi’s decision but would rather not see it just yet.  While I didn’t write anything on the subject of women leading Qabbalat Shabbat, I have been struggling with how to incorporate it into my thinking.  In truth, I don’t disagree with the sentiments of the article’s author. but I wouldn’t have been so quick to conclude as he did about Michael Broyde’s approach. 

Mystery and Evidence

Simply put, religion is about mystery and doesn’t want to see evidence.  Science is about evidence and tries to distance itself from mystery.  Interesting piece, but somewhat simplistic. 

Rabbi Yosef comes out against wig-wearing

Again!?!  This is nothing new.  I guess the new aspect is that Chacham Ovadiah made a crack against the Gerrer Hasidim.

The Pacific Campaign, Dam Division

This article was a very nice piece about a forgotten part of the Second World War, the post war partnership between Japan and America in the Pacific.  Japan has been an ally in one way or another for almost as long as there has been peace. 

America’s History of Fear

Kristof discusses the history of American fear of others.  His claim is that the fringe continuously finds new fear mongering.  For most, the issue of the Ground Zero mosque is not about fear of Islam.  Yet what happens is that the fringe are able to change the whole perspective on the main bone of contention to get accross their own agenda.

Paranoid About Paranoia

This op-ed is what I would call, more people believe absurd conspiracy theories then you might expect.  As such, it isn’t too dangerous until someone does something like what happened at the Discovery channel last week. 

Into the Jewish People: The rabbi who co-officiated at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding on his journey to accepting intermarriage

This is a very interesting piece about post denominational Judaism in the guise of his personal journey.  He is a Reform rabbi with traditional practices in most aspects of life and yet is ok with intermarriage. I don’t agree with his conclusions about intermarriage. 

Building on Faith

The ground Zero Mosque’s Imam argues that the building of this mosque will be a good thing for interfaith dialogue.  Interestingly enough, it seems interfaith dialogue should grow on the spot that commemorates the what happens with extreme intolerance.


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.

Do you believe in G-d? Issues of belief in Judaism

Over Shabbat Chazon (July 16-17), I was reminded of a story that happened to me approximately 12 years ago.  While studying in Israel, the post-high school yeshiva I attended arranged for the students to attend a two day version of Aish HaTorah’s Discovery seminar, which is a week-long “Introduction to Judaism” kiruv program.  The seminar offers various arguments for the validity of Judaism, from Bible Codes to the compatibility of creation and evolution.  Its goal is to convince the unaffiliated or non-Orthodox that Torah Judaism is the only legitimate way to live. 

Being the skeptic that I am, during the two day seminar, I asked many questions of the presenters.  While some of the questions were simply out of frustration for the simplicity and superficiality of some of the “proofs,” all in all I thought that I was doing what was appropriate, namely getting my fellow students to think.  What ended up happening was a bit more fascinating from a sociological perspective.  When we returned to Yeshiva, I think about half a dozen of my friends had to make sure I was really a believer, so I kept being asked, “Do you believe in G-d?”  I recall that my answer was something to the effect that I believe in G-d not due to some philosophical proof, but rather because life did not seem coincidental.  Strange events have occurred that I believe just have to be guided by something higher.  In the years since, I have come to realize that the notion of proofs, something I was exposed to both in high school (see Mesora.org to get an idea of these “proofs” which I encountered during my teenage years) and subsequent, is for the most part silliness.  It is silliness because the argumentation becomes circular and the proof texts used are the ones that are being proven to be true. 

There is a quote by Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger that has summed up my approach to the notion of philosophic analysis when it comes to G-d and religion:

To present history as objective evidence for the existence of G-d to a non-believer is an exercise in futility. Like most theological arguments, they are unnecessary for the believer, and useless for the non-believer. But, as we have already observed with respect to various other “proofs” of the existence of G-d, they are of great help to the believer in the quest to relate the insights of faith to the unfolding of the historic process (Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger. G-d is Proof Enough (Devora: NY, 2000 66)).

It is unpopular to believe in something without empirical evidence.  This is perhaps part of the problem that OTD’s (Off the Derech people) face today.  They are correct that most answers provided to their philosophical and historical questions fall short.  Furthermore, the other side, the “heretical” side (or the “dark side” if you’re inclined in that direction) seems more intellectually appealing because if we discuss evidence, then that side has a stronger set of arguments.  Additionally, most rabbis, including the kiruv rabbis, don’t really know the latest findings or conversations in the academic world.  I grant that academia is biased as well, but for many, it is extremely compelling.  Instead, they give simple, silly answers that often backfire (for recent discussions of the issues of faith and the challenges of being Modern Orthodox see Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking, by Dr. Daniel Jackson, and Reflections on Torah Education and Mis-Education, by Rabbi Marc Angel).

I think it is important, having said all the above, to also lay out how I view belief and dogma as it relates specifically to Judaism.  In short, I do believe there are basic tenets of Judaism, regardless of the various arguments on both sides.  These premises are not as comprehensive as Rambam.  They boil down to the following, as laid out by Tanach and Hazal (for Hazal do provide certain basic tenets):

1.  Exodus 20:2 – I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt… – This verse is the acceptance of a higher power in relation to our collective history.  Since G-d is the moving force of history, issues of what G-d is or isn’t become irrelevant.  In other words, questions like, Can G-d create a rock he can’t lift, become merely mind games.  These questions should have no effect on our day to day worship.   

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). 

3.  Sanhedrin 11:1 – All Israel have a place in the world to come…those who don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead have no place in the world to come – There will be some form of utopian society, we hope and pray, and perhaps a means of regenerating life from after death (though whether that life form will be the exact us is part of the question – Genetic engineering could recreate the physical presence but not necessarily the non-physical which constitutes the rest of self).  This tenet is most difficult to fathom from a scientific perspective, but it is needed as part of the system. Having a picture of life after death and potential reward provides incentive for further growth and motivation.  Franz Rosensweig stated in the beginning of The Star of Redemption “From death, from the fear of death arises all knowledge of the All.”  I look at death and dying as a motivator to take advantage of doing valuable things for the world and for humanity, not as an opening for hedonism. 

These basic tenets provide a framework for which I practice Judaism, following halacha and the Jewish traditions.  Coming back to the beginning of my story, if I am committed to Jewish life and recognize a relationship between humanity and the divine, how important are the philosophical specifics or the exact number of dogmatic statements with which I agree or disagree?  Can anyone know what another truly believes, especially by assuming that questions asked must mean knowledge already accepted?  Belief tends to contain various ambiguities and little exactitude.  As such, to assume you can garner what is in a person’s heart because of questions asked is arrogance.  We are taught to question and investigate.  One doesn’t die from a question.  And yet, when we ask questions, we are either looked at as heretics or given some rehearsed or outdated response.  Walking away from the Discovery seminar after the second day, I was quite angry, feeling that I was misunderstood because I thought the goal was to challenge, not accept with blind faith.  I now feel sorrow.  I am sad that Judaism as I have come to engage it thinks it needs exact answers and if it can’t find the answers will attempt to deflect the questioners away instead of admitting “I don’t know.”

Finding G-d

The following piece by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, attached to his weekly Torah email, was very powerful.  He talks about how he is able to find G-d.

I found G-d first as a mystery when I was very young.
What fascinated me was the Torah scroll.
Credo – The Times – June 2010
I am sometimes asked, Where did I find G-d? The answer is surely different for each of us, and this is mine.
I found G-d, first, as a mystery when I was very young. For the first three years of my life we lived with my mother’s parents as part of a large extended family in Finsbury Park, north London. My grandfather did not serve as a rabbi but he had his own small synagogue (Jews call this a shteibel), and the services there are among my earliest memories.

What fascinated me was the Torah scroll. Clearly there was something special about it. When the ark (the cupboard in which the scrolls were kept) was opened, everyone stood. As the scroll was carried through the congregation, everyone touched it reverently with the fringes of their prayer shawls. When it had been read from, and it was bound and made ready for its return to the ark, I as the rabbi’s youngest grandson was given the privilege of putting the silver bells back onto the handles of the scroll.
Had I known the word, I would have said that the Torah scroll was holy. That fascinated me and still does. The Koran calls Jews the people of the book. That is an understatement. Jews are a people only because of the book, the record of their covenant with G-d thirty-three centuries ago at Mount Sinai. Not until much later did I understand quite how radical this is. Jews find G-d in words, a text, a document. Language is holy, because only words can connect us in our finitude with G-d in his infinity. Those early memories of the Torah scroll were my first signals of transcendence.
Another, much later, came after I completed my undergraduate degree. It was a landscape: the view from Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. In one direction you could look down on the Mount where the Temple once stood. I was standing where, almost two thousand years ago, Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues stood looking at the ruins left by the Romans when they destroyed the Second Temple. It remains, for Jews, the holiest place in the world, though all that remains is the Western Wall.
In the other direction lay the Judean hills. The sun was setting and the hills had turned a burnished gold as if they were lit by a strange, unearthly inner fire. Jews tend not to speak about “religious experiences” in the way my Christian friends did, but this was unmistakably a religious experience. I thought of King David lifting his eyes to the hills, “from whence cometh my help”. I thought of the lover in the Song of Songs: “The sound of my beloved: Look! Here he comes, leaping across the mountains, bounding over the hills.” Elsewhere you read the Bible. In Jerusalem you see, feel, touch the Bible. I felt brushed by the wings of eternity.
But mostly I found G-d in people. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges has a story called The Approach to Al-Mutasim, in which he imagines someone coming across a stranger who has something about him – an unlikely tenderness, an exaltation ­– that doesn’t belong, that seems to be a reflection of someone else. “Somewhere in the world there is a man from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates.” He searches for this mysterious presence entirely by following his reflection in others. That is how I have searched for G-d.
And that is where I have found him, in holy people and ordinary people, in lives lifted beyond themselves, in serene grace and holy argument, in acts of quiet courage and improbable reconciliation, in gentle wisdom and soaring imagination, in forgiving eyes and gestures of love. There is something in these people that cannot be explained in terms of evolution and the struggle to survive, rational behaviour and the pursuit of self interest. They have been touched by the divine presence. They have breathed the breath of G-d. When you see it, you know it.
G-d lives in people, and they are rarely the most successful or even the most overtly religious. Religion, when it leads to self-righteousness, can become a barrier separating us from G-d. Like Borges’ searcher I have spent my life looking for the G-d from whom this clarity, this brightness, emanates. And that is where I have found him: in the faces of those who bring light to the lives of others.

How generations evolve

The following piece Involuntary Transit Through Evolving Consciousness by Jonathan Schorsch spoke to me about the ideas of parenting in relationship to each person’s place in the world.  Here are some thoughts as I posted at The Book of Doctrines and Opinions: notes on Jewish theology and spirituality

I found much truth in Schorsch’s self portrait. We all look for our own voice in this world, breaking the previous generations voice. Yet we forget that we are mere mortals who cannot know all. Eventually, the next generation begins to see that we are not the be all and end all of all discussion, thus they also explore. The challenge is the obvious need to let go.

In terms of the image of Terach and Abraham, I think the real fear, not mentioned, is that eventually the Abraham goes out on his own, and all that is left of the Terach is VaYamat Terach B’Haran, that Terach dies without fulfilling his ultimate goal. In a sense, the final element of the metaphor might be the seeming irrelevance of the previous generation. Yet, we know that the ideal is to look to the previous generation for wisdom in old age. Perhaps, this is part of why the one idol was not destroyed. We can destroy the idols of the previous generation, but something must remain as a connection.

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.

Paul Griffiths on the dual nature of death and dying

As a Hospice chaplain, I often consider the challenging question of when enough is enough.  Yet I am also left wondering about the continuous want of living.  In a recent post, Paul Griffiths presents a Catholic take on death.  Below are my comments just posted on The Book of Doctrines and Opinions.

I think people are ready to hear these thoughts of Paul Griffiths and in the current cultural climate of debating health care spending, perhaps his words are crucial.  We need to always remember that it is a tricky balance between embracing life and embracing death. We all want to live as long as possible, but wish and hope that our current physical lives are qualitatively good as well. 

In terms of a Jewish art of dying, I think we are challenged to reexplore the texts you make mention of in your post.  Most Jewish people are unfamiliar with works like Maavar Yaaboq and of those who are familiar, there is still the challenge of incorporating a 16th century mystical death journey into our 21st century consciousness. 

Having said that, working in the field of chaplaincy, it is the works of our mystics that often get lost and when it comes time to people dying, there is little that can be said about the journey of the soul for most were never even brought up to believe in an afterlife.  I think we need people to bring to the forefront these issues in the Jewish community for it gives people a hope for something more than life itself.  Sure, much of the descriptions of a Jewish afterlife include punishment and suffering along the way, but I think even that people would be willing to hear.  I cannot begin to count the number of times I have heard from Jewish people who are dying “do we believe in an afterlife?”  My favorite of those was the words of one surviving family member who said, “I envy Catholics for they have an afterlife.”  It is very disheartening.