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July 29, 2016 / 23 Tammuz, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘God’

What Makes God Laugh

Thursday, July 21st, 2016

There is an old saying that what makes God laugh is seeing our plans for the future. However, if Tanach is our guide, what makes God laugh is human delusions of grandeur. From the vantage point of heaven, the ultimate absurdity is when humans start thinking of themselves as godlike.

There are several pointed examples in the Torah. One whose full import has only recently become clear occurs in the story of the Tower of Babel. Men gather together in the plain of Shinar and decide to build a city and a tower “that will reach to heaven.” As it happens, we have archeological confirmation of this fact. Several Mesopotamian ziggurats, including the temple of Marduk in Babylon, have been found with inscriptions saying that they reach heaven.

The idea was that tall buildings – man-made mountains – allowed humans to climb to the dwelling place of the gods and thus communicate with them. The Mesopotamian city states were among the first places of civilization, itself one of the turning points in the history of human life on earth. Before the birth of agriculture, the ancients lived in fear of nature: of predators, of other tribes and bands, and of the vicissitudes of heat and cold, drought and flood. Their fate depended on matters beyond their control.

Only with the spread of domesticated animals and agriculture did people gather in towns, then cities, then empires. A tipping point occurred in the balance of power between nature and culture. For the first time humans were not confined to adapting to their environment. They could adapt their environment to suit them. At this point they – especially the rulers – began to see themselves as gods, demigods, or people with the power to influence the gods.

The most conspicuous symbol of this was buildings on a monumental scale: the ziggurats of Babylon and other Mesopotamian cities, and the pyramids of Egypt. Built on the flat land of the Tigris-Euphrates valley and the Nile delta, they towered over their surroundings. The great pyramid of Giza, built even before the birth of Abraham, was so monumental that it remained the tallest man-made structure on earth for four thousand years.

The fact that these were artificial mountains built by human hands suggested to their builders that humans had acquired godlike powers. They had constructed a stairway to heaven. Hence the significance of the phrase in the Torah’s account of the tower, “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.” This is God laughing. On earth, humans thought they had reached the sky, but to God the building was so infinitesimal, so microscopic that he had to come down even to see it. Only with the invention of flight do we now know how small the tallest building looks when you are looking down from a mere 30,000 feet.

To end their hubris God simply “confused their language.” They no longer understood one another. The entire project was turned into French farce. We can visualize the scene. A foreman calls for a brick and is handed a hammer. He tells a worker to go right and he turns left. The project foundered in a welter of incomprehension. Men thought they could climb to heaven but in the end they could not even understand what the person next to them was saying. The unfinished tower became a symbol of the inevitable failure of vaunting ambition. The builders achieved what they sought but not in the way they intended. They wanted to “make a name for themselves” and they succeeded, but instead of becoming a byword for man’s ability to reach the sky, Babel became babble, an emblem of confusion. Hubris became nemesis.

Similarly, we can explain the otherwise curious episode of Bilam’s talking donkey. This is not a fanciful tale, nor simply a miracle. It arose because of the way the people of Moab and Midian thought of Bilam – and perhaps, by extension, the way he thought of himself. Balak the Moabite king, together with the leaders of the Midianites, sent a delegation to Bilam asking him to curse the Israelites: “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me … for I know that whom you bless is blessed, and whom you curse is cursed.”

This is a pagan understanding of the holy man: the shaman, the magus, the wonder-worker, the person with access to supernatural powers. The Torah’s view is precisely the opposite. It is God who blesses and curses, not human beings. “I will bless those who bless you and those who curse you I will curse,” God said to Abraham. “They shall place my name on the children of Israel and I will bless them,” he said about the priests. The idea that you can hire a holy man to curse someone essentially presupposes that God can be bribed.

The narrative is admittedly obscure. God tells Bilam not to go. Balak sends a second delegation with a more tempting offer. This time God tells Bilam to go with them but say only what he instructs him to say. The next morning Bilam sets out to go with the Moabites, but the text now states that God was “angry” with him for going. That is when the episode of the donkey takes place.

The donkey sees an angel barring the way. It turns aside into a field but Bilam hits it and forces it back to the path. The angel is still barring the way and the donkey veers into a wall, crushing Bilam’s foot. Bilam hits it again, but finally it lies down and refuses to move. That is when the donkey begins to speak. Bilam then looks up and sees the angel, who had been hitherto invisible to him.

Why did God first tell Bilam not to go, then that he should go, and then was angry when he went? Evidently God could read his mind and knew that Bilam did really want to curse the Israelites. We know this because later, after the attempt to curse the Israelites failed, Bilam succeeded in causing them harm, advising the Midianites to get their women to seduce the Israelite men, thus provoking the anger of God (Num. 31:16). Bilam was no friend of the Israelites.

But the story of the talking donkey is another instance of Divine laughter. Here was a man reputed to be a maestro of supernatural forces. People thought he had the power to bless or curse whomever he chose. God, the Torah tells us, is not like that at all. He had two messages, one for the Moabites and Midianites, another for Bilam himself.

He showed the Moabites and Midianites that Israel is not cursed but blessed. The more you attempt to curse them the more they will be blessed and you yourself will be cursed. That is as true today as it was then. There are movements throughout the world to curse the state and people of Israel. The greater the malice of Israel’s enemies, the stronger Israel becomes, and the more disasters its enemies bring upon their own people.

God had a different message for Bilam himself, and it was very blunt. If you think you can control God, then, says God, I will show you that I can turn a donkey into a prophet and a prophet into a donkey. Your animal will see angels to which you yourself are blind.

Hubris always eventually becomes nemesis. In a world in which rulers engaged in endless projects of self-aggrandisement, Israel alone produced a literature in which they attributed their successes to God and their failures to themselves. Far from making them weak, this made them extraordinarily strong.

So it is with us as individuals. I have mentioned before a beloved friend, no longer alive, about whom it was said that “he took God so seriously that he didn’t need to take himself seriously at all.” Pagan prophets like Bilam had not yet learned the lesson we must all one day learn: that what matters is not that God does what we want, but that we do what He wants. God laughs at those who think they have godlike powers. The opposite is true. The smaller we see ourselves, the greater we become.

Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem, in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The Parsha Experiment – Chukat: A Turning Point In Israel’s Relationship With God

Friday, July 15th, 2016

This week, we get even more complaining from Israel – this time, about the lack of water. How can they continue to complain after everything God had done for them? Join us as we explore the baffling story of Israel’s complaints.

 

Video:

This video is from Rabbi David Block and Immanuel Shalev.

Immanuel Shalev

The Special Relationship Of Children To God

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

The Talmud in several areas stresses the effects of studying a subject when one is young. At one point it quotes an incident of a sage who forgot a Jewish law and attributed his lapse in memory to the fact that he didn’t study it when he was very young.

Pirkei Avot compares the acquisition of knowledge of a child to writing on a blank piece of paper that has never been erased, while that of an adult to a paper that is full of erasures. The muddled and ambiguity of the adult mind pales to the lucidity and the innocence of the mind of a child. Wordsworth in his famous poem “Intimations of Immortality” alludes to the uniqueness of a child and the unique relationship that they have to their creator. Indeed Jewish tradition speaks of the singular connection that children have with almighty God. Their prayers are accepted more readily because of their innocence and because of their uncanny ability to understand the unlimited powers of the creator. For children time is endless, with no beginning or end. So too our creator has neither beginning nor end; for Almighty God, time is boundless. Children identify uniquely with their creator by the sheer fact that they are closer to their birth time. The further we move from our birth, the more we fill our minds with doubt and question regarding our creator.

At the same time that they are so close to God, a child’s mind is so impressionable. What we teach our children-the impressions that we place upon their minds-become indelible in shaping their future existence and destiny. Often, remarks that are made to children when they are young never leave them and are their source of strength or weakness in the years to come.

I remember vividly as a young third grader sitting in class and being actively involved in the Chumash lesson of my teacher. At one point the text was confusing to me and I raised my hand to ask a question. For me the question that I was about to ask had value and I was always taught by my parents that one must ask questions to gain knowledge. I believed that the answer was essential for me to understand the lesson. However when I asked the question the teacher innocently and without malice or forethought laughed and said that my question was stupid and the answer was obvious. He called it a klutz kasha, an idiot question.

That remark, as innocent as it was, remained with me even until today. When I sit at a shiur I hesitate to ask a question because of that remark that was made to me decades ago. Though there is no logical reasoning behind my fears, that feeling of inadequacy that I received as a young lad remains with me even today.

We all know that sibling relationships reenact themselves when in the presence of parents. Even when we are older and married, we slip back to the times that we were children. The same child, who was looked upon as the smartest, again takes on the same role that he had when he was growing up, regardless of how successful he has become or whether his siblings have surpassed him in their intellectual abilities.

The Talmud in Taanit states that if you see a student who is not successful in his studies it is because his/her teacher did not smile at him/her. Once again stressing the delicate and impressionable minds of our children and the enormous responsibility that educators have in assuring that these imprints are wholesome and positive.

Rabbi Mordechai Weiss

Shelach: How Can I Trust God When I Don’t See Him?

Friday, July 1st, 2016

This week, we read about the tragic sin of the spies. It’s a very frustrating story. Every time we read it, just as the spies are about to give their report, we want to scream out, “NO – DON’T DO IT!” How could they have doubted God? How could they have sinned so egregiously?

 

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Rabbi David Fohrman

Gateway to Temple of the ‘God’ Pan May Have Been Excavated at Golan National Park

Monday, June 27th, 2016

Has the gate to the compound of the god Pan been discovered at Sussita (Hippos) National Park in the Golan? A monumental Roman gate discovered in the excavations by the University of Haifa at Hippos may cast light on the bronze mask of Pan – the only object of its kind found anywhere in the world – that was discovered in the same site during last year’s excavation season. “Now that the whole gate has been exposed, we not only have better information for dating the mask, but also a clue to its function. Are we looking at a gate that led to the sanctuary of the god Pan or one of the rustic gods?” wonders Dr. Michael Eisenberg, the head of the expedition.

Last year, researchers from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa made one of the most unique and unusual findings of recent years. They unearthed a bronze mask representing Pan, the god of shepherds. Half man and half goat, Pan also represents fields, music, and merriment. The discovery was huge on a global scale. It also seriously complicated efforts to date the item or explain its possible function.

Dr. Eisenberg notes that for the time being it has only been possible to suggest hypotheses regarding the mask’s original functioning and to use artistic and stylistic criteria to propose a possible date for its casting.

Hippos saddle side – an accurate photogrammetric model of the gates' structure, the two towers and the gate between them. The mask of Pan is placed where it was found. (Photo Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg, Photogrammetry: Eli Gershtein)

Hippos saddle side – an accurate photogrammetric model of the gates’ structure, the two towers and the gate between them. The mask of Pan is placed where it was found. (Photo Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg, Photogrammetry: Eli Gershtein)

The mask was discovered in the remains of a large basalt ashlar building, and the researchers assumed that uncovering the building would provide additional information about the unique object. As happens almost every year, Sussita did not fail to yield some surprises. The researchers were working on the hypothesis that the building formed part of the fortifications of the city, but as they dug deeper they found two square basalt towers with dimensions of approximately 6.30 meters x 6.30 meters and a portal of 3.7 meters wide in-between. The researchers concluded that the original gateway was over six meters high, while the building (propylaeum) itself was even taller. The propylaeum can probably be dated to the period of the Emperor Hadrian, who reigned from 117 to 138 CE, or slightly earlier. The mask was presumably fixed to a wall or altar at the compound, as its rear side included remnants of lead used for stabilization purposes. Now, however, the researchers can offer a fuller analysis regarding not only the mask’s dating, but also its function.

The team that exposed the portal at the end of the day, next to the structure of the gate (Photo Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg)

The team that exposed the portal at the end of the day, next to the structure of the gate (Photo Credit: Dr. Michael Eisenberg)

“When we found the mask on its own, we assumed that it had filled a ritual function. Since we found it outside the city, one of the hypotheses was that we were looking at evidence of a mysterious ritual center that existed outside the city. However, as we all know, monumental gate structures lead to large compounds. Accordingly, it is not impossible that this gate led to a large building complex – perhaps a sanctuary in honor of the god Pan or one of the other rustic gods – situated just before the entrance to the city of Hippos,” Dr. Eisenberg suggests.

“The mask, and now the gate in which it was embedded, are continuing to fire our imaginations. The worship of Pan sometimes included ceremonies involving drinking, sacrifices, and ecstatic rituals including nudity and sex. This worship usually took place outside the city walls, in caves and other natural settings. We are very familiar with the city of Paneas to the north of Hippos, which was the site of one of the best-known sanctuaries for the worship of Pan. But here we find a monumental gate and evidence of an extensive compound, so that the mystery only gets stranger. What kind of worship of Pan or his fellow Dionysus, the god of wine, took place here in Hippos? To answer that question, we will have to keep on digging,” concludes Dr. Eisenberg.

Since 2000, the ancient city of Hippos has gradually being unearthed by an international expedition under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa. Hippos lies within Sussita National Park, which is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The next excavation season will be held in July 2016, with the participation of dozens of researchers and volunteers from Israel and around the world.

JNi.Media

BEHA’ALOTECHA: Can I Be Vulnerable with G-d?

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

We’ve finally started traveling in the desert. . . and the people immediately complain? Did they suddenly forget that they had just been so close with God?? And how can we understand, and relate, to this seemingly ungrateful, chutzpadik nation?

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Rabbi David Fohrman

Orthodox Rabbi Teaching Halakha Beyond the Shulkhan Arukh, Judaism Beyond the Commandments

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

“The Beauty of the Jewish tradition is that it is not always precise and consistent,” says Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo. “And that is a very wise thing. You have to have flexibility, because life is not clear-cut or coherent. Moving here, moving there, you work out the different opinions somehow, and you let it be. As such, Jewish Law and beliefs stay fresh and thriving. A musical symphony. But the moment we codify or dogmatize it all, we are basically destroying it.” One of the areas where Dutch-Israeli Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, and Jewish scholar Nathan Lopes Cardozo differs from the Orthodox mainstream is the Torah’s commandments to annihilate whole peoples, such as the nations of Canaan and the mythical nation of Amalek, God’s proverbial enemy.

Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo: I believe that in the case where moral issues come up, there, even where the Torah says that we have to do away with these people, whether it is Amalek or the nations of Canaan, my feeling is that these were challenges given to Moses and the people to see how they would react, in the same way as Abraham reacts in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. God says, I’m going to wipe them out, and Abraham responds: Will the Judge of the world do such a thing? And God responds by saying, You have a point, let’s see what we can work out.

And then you get this incredible dialogue, this near business deal between Abraham and God on how many righteous people you need so you’ll keep them alive. I think that should be the point of departure whenever we discuss moral issues related to our fellow-man. There my feeling is that even when the Torah sometimes comes with requirements which are problematic from a moral point of view, that we have the option or even obligation, like Abraham, to say to God, Sorry, this won’t go with us. And my reading, which I understand is controversial, is that God is challenging these people: Let Me see how they’ll respond. Did you, people, understand My larger picture of righteousness? Are you understanding what I’m trying to say over here? And as I did in the case of Abraham, when I challenged him by telling him I’m going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham correctly said, No, or at least he was willing to fight it, so I hope you do as well whenever the Torah speaks about killing people. We see this reflected in the sages’ opinion that these nations no longer exist and by doing so they declared these laws inoperative.

JewishPress.com: And yet shortly thereafter, God tells Abraham to execute his son Isaac, and gives him kudos for the fact that he tried to comply.

NLC: I am of the opinion that Abraham, by being prepared to do so, to execute his son, failed the test. I think that the reading of the binding of Isaac should be different from the conventional approach as some Hasidic texts indeed seem to suggest .

JP: God no longer speaks directly to Abraham after the binding of Isaac. Does he lose his prophecy?

NLC: It seems he lost his prophecy. There are all sorts of psychological issues which take place after the incident with the binding of Isaac, which seem to mean that God was not so pleased with the outcome, even though He says, Now I know that you have fear of Me, but that may have a different meaning. It may even mean something like, now that you went for it, you showed you had the correct intentions, but you got My message wrong.

But let us be careful, I only suggest such a reading when speaking about moral problems. But when you speak about Shabbat and holidays, where there are no issues between the individual and his fellow-man, there we do not have the right to say, we’re changing the laws of Shabbat because they’re not convenient.

 


 

Nathan Lopes Cardozo was born 70 years ago in Amsterdam, and was named after his father’s youngest brother who was murdered in the Holocaust. His father was a secular Jew who was nevertheless proud of his Portuguese-Jewish origin. His mother, who was not born Jewish, was raised by the Cardozo family and was an integral part of the community. Later on, she saved her husband and his family from the Nazis by hiding them in her Amsterdam apartment. Nathan Cardozo converted to Judaism when he was sixteen, through the Amsterdam Rabbinate, and his mother did many years later as well.

Cardozo spent the next 12 years studying at various Haredi Yeshivas such as Gateshead, whose dean, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gurwitz, ordained him as a rabbi. At 21 he married Freyda Gnesin, a young Dutch woman from eastern European parents he met at the Haarlem synagogue. That’s the Dutch Haarlem synagogue.

CAN JEWS PERPETRATE A HOLOCAUST?

We return to the question of whether God commanded the Jews to annihilate certain nations with the expectation that the Jews would defy Him.

JP: In the story of the prophet Shmuel and King Shaul, where Shaul has spared the life of Agag, king of Amalek, and Shmuel takes a sword and finishes the job — did Shmuel fail?

NLC: What was it that Shaul did wrong, and why did God object to it? It seems that Shaul was more concerned with the animals he had acquired and kept alive than about the people he had killed. There is where the moral failure lies.

JP: But Shmuel is not sanctioned for his action.

NLC: It seems that Shmuel was of the opinion that Agag deserved the death penalty. This is very complicated story. I don’t think that Jewish tradition is always consistent, very often it is not. And I think there’s a reason for that, because it shows different sides of a very complex situation. The Russian British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who was not religious but remained very close to his Judaism, has an essay about morality where he says that morality is much more complex than most people think it is. There’s no black and white — this is moral and this is immoral. It depends on your perspective, on how you walk into the problem. So there are cases where the complexity is so big that whatever you do, from one point of view it is morally correct and from another point of view it is morally absolutely unacceptable. So Berlin speaks about a tradeoff, which every judge and every legal system has to make, to find a compromise: how much justice, how much mercy? A way in-between, by which you remove excessive damage on both sides and you’re left with a compromise which is far from ideal, but that’s the part of the human condition.

There is no such thing as black and white responses to these sort of issues, and I think that plays a role in Jewish law as well. We have to deal with clashing Jewish moral forces.

There are reasons to wipe out Amalek and there are reasons why not to do so, especially when it comes to their children. But because there’s this tension of how you look into the story, which is purely subjective, therefore in the end you will have to find a way in-between. Shmuel is right and wrong at the same time. God says to him, Shmuel, I understand your point of view, I will let you get away with it. But don’t think that this is the ideal outcome. Under human circumstances we have to wipe out these people of Amalek, they are very dangerous even for the future generations and at the same time we have to keep them alive because who will say that all of them will be evil? Jewish Law even discusses the question of what to do in case an Amalekite wants to become Jewish and several authorities believe that we have an obligation to convert him as long as he has no blood on his hands!!

THERE’S MORE TO JUDAISM THAN THE MITZVOT

JP: Are you suggesting that there is a Jewish morality outside the realm of the commandments?

NLC: Yes, I think there is, in the sense that there are certain intuitive moral feelings that human beings have, Jews and non-Jews, which are of great importance, and which do play a role in the halakhic decision making process. They are also God-given, just like the commandments. I think that’s not only in these extreme cases, but nearly in all cases, because if you look into the works of the great poskim (halakhic authorities), you see differences of opinions between them. It is because of their intuitive moral approach to certain issues. Sometimes a posek will say, I have to find a heter (permission) for this problem. He may even have made up his mind before he started. And then he looks around all the arguments to justify his position and puts it in an halakhic framework. After which he says, so I was right in what I said at the beginning. He knows quite well that they were all colored by his need to come to a lenient conclusion. This is completely legitimate.

You see it with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, you see it with some very Haredi literature as well. It all has to do with a philosophical and ideological attitude which is deeply influenced by the moral intuition of these particular people, and that’s also why there are tremendous differences between the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi poskim. There’s a world of difference there. The Ashkenazi outlook to life is much more pessimistic , than the Sephardi one. This has its root in their different experiences in the countries from where they hail and consequently we find different halakhic responses.

There’s an ideology to halakha. And there are different opinions as to what that ideology is. The halakha tells us what to do and what not to do. But it has obviously a much larger Weltanschauung, an outlook on life, which lies behind these halakhic requirements. They are never clearly stated anywhere in the Torah, unless they are stated in very general terms, such as you must be holy, but that still requires a moral explanation. So ideologies play a role as well. The ideological differences between the Haredi and the national-religious rabbis concerning the State of Israel’s religious meaning is a good example.

JP: Are we practicing halakha the way we should?

NLC: Let me tell you an interesting story. Reb Haim Zimmerman was one of the greatest Talmudic geniuses in our generation. In his later years he lived here in Jerusalem. I was told that he was the study partner of the famous Reb Shimon Shkop back in Lithuania. I met him once or twice. He had all of the Talmud at his fingertips. He wasn’t so well known, because he belonged to the Zionist camp and not to the Aguda camp. He once gave a class and he quoted Maimonides and he said, Maimonides agrees with me. So his students said, You mean to say that you agree with Maimonides. So he said, No, Maimonides agrees with me. I am today the living authority, Maimonides is no longer alive. So he has no power any more to decide on halakhic matters — I do. And if Maimonides wishes to disagree, please, let’s hear his point of view, but I have the same say in this matter as Maimonides himself had in his days and therefore I could overrule him.

I think that is a most important statement, which the yeshiva world has totally forgotten. And that has a lot to do with the codification problem. I’ve written at length about this problem. The Shulkhan Arukh (“Set Table,” the most widely consulted Jewish legal code, published in 1563) was meant at the time as the abbreviated halakhic guide for the layman. It was the product of an historical development. Since we were living in the diaspora, we had to make sure that Jews would somehow live within the same framework where they were doing more or less the same things, to keep this little nation alive. It required erecting big walls around us to keep the non-Jews out. So the Shulkhan Arukh, a basic Jewish code, is a typical sociological outcome of a diaspora condition. The Shulkhan Arukh at the time correctly said, we need to make sure that we all operate within the same framework and that requires conformity. This is the only way we can create the powerhouse required to keep us alive in a largely anti-Semitic world.

Both the Shulkhan Arukh and earlier Maimonides’ famous codification of Jewish Law, the Mishneh Torah (“Repetition of the Torah,” a code of Jewish religious law compiled between 1170 and 1180) are tremendous scholarly achievements. But what Maimonides did was extremely dangerous. By writing down the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides finalized the halakha. He basically said, this is the halakha and nothing else. He even wrote in the forward to this masterpiece, that there is no longer any need to study the Talmud because he had put it all in front of us. Here it is for once and for all. He provides no minority opinions, he acts precisely as what he probably was, as the greatest talmudic genius of his time and possibly of all time, and we—after a period of resistance when his books were burned in some communities—have turned him into an halakhic idol: If Maimonides says so then there’s nothing left to discuss. We canonized him.

We never had, as the Catholic Church did, a particular body such as a conclave which decided these matters. With us it was always fluid. A matter of moving forward and going back and so on. You actually see it if you look in the Shulkhan Arukh, and you look into Maimonides, the commentators around the texts often take issue with them. But they can’t stand up against Maimonides, he is too overpowering. The same is true with his famous thirteen principles of faith: he dogmatizes Jewish belief and by doing so creates a crisis in Judaism for which we still pay a heavy price. Since when are there finalized Jewish beliefs? There are none.

This, I think, has created tremendous problems, because what we’re doing is taking the halakha which developed in diaspora for the last 2000 years, and we bring it to the State of Israel, and apply it as if we are still living in diaspora—when we are not. And therefore you constantly have problems in Israel about halakha, because the traditional halakha speaks as if nothing has happened in Jewish history since 1948. But the whole situation has radically changed. So the Shulkhan Arukh is in many ways outdated. And I’m sure that if Maimonides, or Rabbi Yosef Karo (author of the Shulkhan Arukh) lived today, they would say: We never wrote our codifications for a time when the State of Israel would be established, why do you still apply our rulings which were meant for the time we lived in the diaspora?

JP: But the Mishneh Torah talks about the laws of the temple and other areas of Jewish life on the land.

NLC: Yes. But Maimonides never wrote about a secular Jewish state. That whole concept didn’t exist. [The late chief rabbi of Israel] Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog writes in one of his letters that the halakha is not ready to take on the State of Israel. Because we never developed the halakha in the diaspora to deal with the State of Israel where we’re running our own (secular) country. We were always under the administration of the non-Jewish world.

The Shulkhan Arukh starts by saying, In the morning we have to get up, and we must imagine God before us always. But let’s ask an important question: what are the prerequisite conditions to enable you to get up in the morning and to say these words and go to synagogue to pray? It requires that the Turkish government, under which the Shulkhan Arukh was written, will have created a legal system that enables you as a Jew to get out of bed in the morning and walk to synagogue without getting attacked. So you have already taken on all sorts of guarantees from a secular administration, to make your adhering to your religious obligations possible. But that was the Turkish government, that’s not the situation in Israel today. So what you really need to do is rewrite all this, and then you’ll have a big problem because the law has to be able to develop and to constantly re-think itself. But how many poskim have made sure we do that? Instead, they will go back to the Shulkhan Arukh and say, no, Rav Yosef Karo says like this and that’s the end of the discussion.

THE ROLE OF THE POSEK

JP: Should a modern posek (halakhic scholar) relate to halakha as precedence law that must be consulted before ruling, or can they approach the halakhic inquiry directly from their knowledge of the Talmud? How much of the millennia of Sh”ut (halakhik Q&A) should a modern posek take into consideration?

NLC: There’s no straight answer to this. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein would sometimes make rulings directly from the Talmud. The Rogatchover (Rabbi Joseph Rosen) would rule from the Talmud. Rav Ovadia Yosef, although he tried very hard to get the Shulkhan Arukh to become the absolute voice within the Sephardi world, constantly contradicted himself in the sense that on one side he wanted to go by the Shulkhan Arukh and at the same time he constantly put it aside and went directly to the source.

My feeling is that some poskim today are overwhelmed by their knowledge and they get drowned in it. And therefore they cannot think creatively any more. If you have too much knowledge then you can’t think on your own anymore because your mind is taken up by this encyclopedic amount of knowledge and you can’t step out of the box. This is not only true with halakha, this is true in many other departments of human knowledge as well. We know so much and therefore we get completely overwhelmed by it and we don’t have space left any more in our brain to come up with something new. This has been happening with poskim for quite a while now.

Therefore the biggest religious Jewish scholars are not the right poskim any more since they can’t think outside the box. But if you go one step below, and in Israel you have quite a few of them, you will find people who know halakha very well but they are not stagnated by this staggering knowledge, so they are probably much better equipped for responding to the needs of the day. Rav Yuval Cherlow, Rav Yoel Bin Nun, Rav Ariel Holland, Rabbi David Bigman. And there are many more around, especially in Israel — I don’t think you have so many abroad. But in Israel, at the moment, you have people who think on their own, have a lot of knowledge, and they can examine issues with a critical eye and make amazing rulings.

Rav Cherlow came up with some unbelievable rulings which got him in trouble with his colleagues. He has responsa about women wanting to get a child without being married. Israeli poskim have also dealt with sex change operations. These are daring undertakings, Sure, one can also go overboard. It all needs careful consideration.

Rabbi Cardozo related a personal example of thinking outside the halakhic box.

I had a case two years ago: M, the son of a friend of mine, a Cohen, from a Portuguese-Spanish family of Amsterdam, practicing Jews, wanted to get married to a convert who was also a divorcée. And since he is a cohen, he went to the Rabbinate of the Spanish synagogue in Amsterdam and asked if there was any possibility he could marry this woman since he knew that a cohen can’t get married with a convert or a divorced woman. Both are very problematic laws in today’s society. Both he and his bride to be were not so young any more, they were in their forties and had little chance to find other partners and have children. But the Rabbinate said no. After all: a divorcée who is also a convert — and a cohen: impossible. So they came to me. I don’t consider myself to be a posek at all, but I know a little about it. They asked, can’t you help us, so I sat down with them and I said to the woman, why are you a divorcée? Did you get a get (bill of divorce)? Yes, she answered, I received a get via the rabbinical Court of Tel Aviv. I was married to an Israeli man, and after a few weeks the marriage fell apart. I asked if she would mind telling me why, and the answer was that the husband had a physical problem and couldn’t have relations with his wife. He was severely impotent. So I said to her, did the rabbinic court ask you why you wanted to get divorced? No, she said, they just told me I should get a get and that’s what I did. So I told to her that it was my opinion that she was not a divorcée, and that she didn’t need a get because there was no consummation of the marriage and therefore she was never married according to Jewish Law. The Rabbinate in Amsterdam had failed to ask these questions. Not a small matter.

Then I said to the cohen, how do you know that you’re a really a cohen? You come from the same background that I come from, Portuguese-Spanish, from under the shadow of the Inquisition. Can you tell me that your family were really cohanim? The man was actually called Cohen, which would indicate that he really was one. But I knew that the name Cohen was in the Portuguese-Spanish culture the same as “Lord” in England, and nothing to do with having been a descendant of Jewish priests. They used to use this kind of name as an honorary name which did not mean that they were cohanim halakhically. So after a lot of discussion with Israeli poskim, including Rav Bigman, and Rav Hollander, I said to the couple, this is my opinion: the young man is either not at all a cohen, or he might be a Hallal, a desecrated cohen. This is because during the time of the Inquisition, cohanim were incapable of holding on to their cohen lineage by marrying only women that were permitted to them such as virgins and widows. And if they married Jewish women who were not permitted to them, then their offspring are no longer bound by the laws of the cohen and are allowed to marry every Jewish woman including a convert or divorcée. And so I officiated at this couple’s Chupah.

In my opinion there are very few real cohanim in the world today. The Ashkenazi community has also had to go through the most terrible conditions and few there are real cohanim. The only ones who are probably cohanim are the Syrians and Tunisians, who have kept reliable records of their Cohanim.

ELECTRICITY AND SHABBAT

JP: When Edison invented the electric bulb, discussion began among US Jews whether or not electricity is fire. It determined the appearance and behavior of Shabbat for the next century. Today, when we have moved away from the light-bulbs with heated coils, and with solid state devices, even issues of the labor of construction on Shabbat are no longer present, and with major poskim already saying that devices like the telephone are not a problem — is it time to do away with our fear of the Shabbat slippery slope?

NLC: If you would ask me, am I in favor of allowing turning on lights on Shabbat? I would say No, but not for solely halakhic reasons. My reason is this: the fact that I’m not allowed to use electricity creates a certain spirit, a certain atmosphere, which I need and I think my fellow Jews need to observe Shabbat in the right spirit. Not because it is halakhically forbidden — there are enough reasons to rule that using electricity does not contradict the prohibitions of Shabbat. But not all halakhic matters are pure halakha. They have to do with ideology. How are we creating the spirit of Shabbat? What is required there? Therefore, we may say, listen, let’s not use electricity on Shabbat. This is what Shabbat has stood for, for thousands of years. In the olden days there were candles which were prohibited to be lit, over the years this was applied to electricity as well, so that unless there are very specific circumstances where there is really no solution but to use electricity, I would say, don’t light electric lights. Nobody is paying a big price for this. There’s no moral issue here, let’s keep the system as it is.

But take for example the case of the “Shabbat goy,” a non-Jew doing work for us on Shabbat. I think that the use of a Shabbat goy in Israel is highly unnatural and unhealthy. After all, it still means that we are depending on the non Jews, even when we are living in an independent Jewish state. In other words: we still need to have Arabs sitting in the electric company to make sure that we have light on Shabbat. I put a very big question mark behind this. I don’t see it as a healthy situation. Perhaps we should find the technological means for Jews to do this work without transgressing Shabbat. There must be ways by which we can do it ourselves and we don’t need non-Jews to do that for us.

I have altogether a moral problem with using non-Jews on Shabbat, because what we’re doing here is making an impression that the non-Jew is seen as a second class citizen; what we can’t do — he has to do. In other words, we are the so called chosen people, and we need to be served by the non-Jews. This discrimination against non-Jews is wide-spread in the orthodox community and very problematic and highly un-Jewish.

JP: You also have thousands of religious kids who are texting on Shabbat. Judging by the articles I’ve read on this issue I get the impression that it’s the norm rather than the exception in certain religious youth circles.

NLC: It’s a great tragedy, because it’s a sign that these young people are bored on Shabbat, that they don’t have something which replaces their smartphone, and we are remiss in offering educational ways by which to keep young people engaged so they wouldn’t even touch those devices on Shabbat. When you take something away from somebody you have to replace it with something even better. And if you don’t do that then you get these situations, which, in the Modern Orthodox world, has become a problem. There’s a lot of spirituality and inspiration missing, especially in the Lithuanian Jewish world. The excitement about being a Jew, about wanting to observe the commandments, over which Hasidism has a much better handle, is of the outmost importance. In the non-Hasidic world we’ve become extremely mechanical, we have to keep all the laws and we’re no longer asking what is the music behind it, what kind of music are we playing out here? The original Hasidic thinkers of two hundred years ago, like Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen or the Mey Hashiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica) — were able to give the Jewish Tradition a new spirit and knew exactly what they were writing about, even being prepared to take risks and being highly controversial. They stated what they believed, and because of that the Hasidic world has been given a spirituality which the Lithuanian world is not offering us till this very day.

KASHRUT AND ANIMAL SUFFERING

JP: Should the suffering of meat animals influence their kashrut standard?

NLC: I have doubts about the kosher slaughtering of animals in America and here in Israel. The meat industry today has overwhelmed us. The number of cows and chickens which have to be slaughtered every day is so enormous that I can’t see how this will ever work halakhically. The method of shechita at the time was meant for a small town where once in a while they would eat a piece of meat. You can’t compare it with the reality of the meat industry today, where tens of thousands of cows are killed every day.

I believe that the prohibition on needless suffering by animals makes our whole system non-kosher. Because, if indeed there’s a lot of needless suffering of animals taking place, and I’ve seen this personally, the way they deal with those animals is beyond all description, then the Rabbinate should say: No way we are permitting this. Now this is a very complicated story, because since we are a meat eating society, we have to produce an amount of meat that the shechita laws can’t live up to. It has to go too fast. I don’t know how many shochtim there are in Israel, there must be lots of them, but how is it possible that the shechita will always go well? You can use statistical rules of thumb, you can cite a permission here and an allowance there but how far does that go especially when we are bound by laws on how to treat animals mercifully? I don’t believe that any piece of meat today is Kasher l’mehadrin (perfectly kosher).

We should start educating people to no longer eat meat. This is a process, an educational process. The trouble is that if we slowly start to diminish the amount of meat which we require, we’ll have an economic problem on our hands. What’s going to be with all the people who are making their living from this industry? And there are lots of them: shochtim, butchers, supervisors, whatever else there is. You’ll have to find a financial solution for these people, you can’t just say, We stop eating meat. We have to find a slow way by which we will get people off eating meat, finding solutions to the financial problems of the people who are left without their livelihood — this is going to take fifty, sixty years. The trouble is that I’ve never seen the rabbinate or the rabbinic courts really dealing with these issues.

DISMANTLE THE CHIEF RABBINATE

JP: Do we really need the Chief Rabbinate in Israel?

NLC: We need to end the Institution of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. I have the greatest respect for Chief Rabbis Yosef and Lau, they mean well but they are the victims of a system that isn’t working. The truth of the matter is that the Rabbinate in Israel is the Knesset and not the Chief Rabbis . It is a political institution. Some people in the Knesset are telling the Rabbinate what they should say and do. There is corruption taking place. The institution is no longer functioning. It was meant for the general, often secular Israeli population. But it has been taken over by the Haredim, the ultra orthodox. This was not the intent for the Chief Rabbinate, because the Haredim have their own Rabbinate.

The Chief Rabbinate lacks the halakhic poskim of great stature to deal with some very urgent issues: conversions, agunot, feminism, kosher slaughtering, running a modern state, which require these people to be great authorities in halakha and be creative thinkers, and the chief rabbis of today are not up to this. They are not on that level. They don’t seem to possess the prerequisite knowledge. Neither do I, but I am not the Chief Rabbi.

Today’s Chief Rabbis are not like the famous Rav Avraham Yitschak Kook, Rav Ben Zion Uziel or Rav Isaac Yitschak Herzog. I think that in the Ashkenazi Rabbinate the last person of greatness was Rav Shlomo Goren. He had the knowledge and he had the creativity. Afterwards this whole institution disintegrated.

JP: So you would replace it?

NLC: Sure. The last Knesset has already decided that every local rabbinate would have its own conversion system in their own cities, and no longer be subject to the control of the chief rabbinate. Orthodox rabbis who have the authority should decide in their own cities who are the people eligible to become converts. This should not be left up to the chief rabbinate, because the chief rabbinate doesn’t know these people. So how can they decide, without actually knowing the people, who is eligible for conversion?

I am of the opinion, as is the well-known Israeli Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, that we should try to convert the nearly four hundred thousand Russians of Jewish descent in Israel in a mass conversion, even though a priori it’s not the best manner of conversion according to halakha. The reason why I am in favor of this is this: if we do not convert these people they’ll marry our children and in no time we’ll have a million non-Jews here, to the point where it could undermine the security of the state of Israel. It can create enormous social problems. So here you have to consider not just the conversion issue but the security of the state, too.

This is no longer a diaspora reality where you decide on halakha for individuals who are Torah observant. We are dealing here with the state of Israel which requires that we make sure that we remain a unified political entity, that we can marry each other and secure the State of Israel.

But the rabbinate hasn’t for one moment even considered this point of view. That is a serious dereliction of duty.

David Israel

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/jewish-news/orthodox-rabbi-teaching-halakha-beyond-the-shulkhan-arukh-judaism-beyond-the-commandments/2016/05/25/

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