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September 16, 2014 / 21 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Maggid Books’

The Objective Basis For Morality

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Is there such a thing as an objective basis of morality? For some time, in secular circles, the idea has seemed absurd. Morality is what we choose it to be. We are free to do what we like so long as we don’t harm others. Moral judgments are not truths but choices. There is no way of getting from “is” to “ought,” from description to prescription, from facts to values, from science to ethics. This was the received wisdom in philosophy for a century after Nietzsche had argued for the abandonment of morality – which he saw as the product of Judaism – in favor of the “will to power.”

Recently, however, an entirely new scientific basis has been given to morality from two surprising directions: neo-Darwinism and the branch of mathematics known as Games theory. As we will see, the discovery is intimately related to the story of Noah and the covenant made between G-d and humanity after the Flood.

Games theory was invented by one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, John von Neumann (1903-1957). He realized that the mathematical models used in economics were unrealistic and did not mirror the way decisions are made in the real world. Rational choice is not simply a matter of weighing alternatives and deciding between them. The reason is that the outcome of our decision often depends on how other people react to it, and usually we cannot know this in advance. Games theory, von Neumann’s invention in 1944, was an attempt to produce a mathematical representation of choice under conditions of uncertainty. Six years later, it yielded its most famous paradox, known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Imagine two people arrested by the police under suspicion of committing a crime. There is insufficient evidence to convict them on a serious charge; there is only enough to convict them of a lesser offense. The police decide to encourage each to inform against the other. They separate them and make each the following proposal: if you testify against the other suspect, you will go free, and he will be imprisoned for ten years. If he testifies against you, and you stay silent, you will be sentenced to ten years in prison, and he will go free. If you both testify against the other, you will each receive a five-year sentence. If both of you stay silent, you will each be convicted of the lesser charge and face a one-year sentence.

It doesn’t take long to work out that the optimal strategy for each is to inform against the other. The result is that each will be imprisoned for five years. The paradox is that the best outcome would be for both to remain silent. They would then only face one year in prison. The reason that neither will opt for this strategy is that it depends on collaboration. However, since each is unable to know what the other is doing – there is no communication between them – they cannot take the risk of staying silent. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is remarkable because it shows that two people, both acting rationally, will produce a result that is bad for both of them.

Eventually, a solution was discovered. The reason for the paradox is that the two prisoners find themselves in this situation only once. If it happened repeatedly, they would eventually discover that the best thing to do is to trust one another and cooperate.

In the meantime, biologists were wrestling with a phenomenon that puzzled Darwin. The theory of natural selection – popularly known as the survival of the fittest – suggests that the most ruthless individuals in any population will survive and hand their genes on to the next generation. Yet almost every society ever observed values individuals who are altruistic: who sacrifice their own advantage to help others. There seems to be a direct contradiction between these two facts.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma suggested an answer. Individual self-interest often produces bad results. Any group which learns to cooperate, instead of compete, will be at an advantage relative to others. But, as the Prisoner’ Dilemma showed, this needs repeated encounters – the so-called Iterated (= repeated) Prisoner’s dilemma. In the late 1970s, a competition was announced to find the computer program that did best at playing the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma against itself and other opponents.

How Shall We Live?

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

It is the most famous, majestic and influential opening of any book in literature: “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.” What is surpassingly strange is the way Rashi – most beloved of all Jewish commentators – begins his commentary:

Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah should have begun with the verse (Exodus 12:1): “This month shall be to you the first of the months,” which was the first commandment given to Israel.

Can we really take this at face value? Did Rabbi Isaac, or for that matter Rashi, seriously suggest that the Book of books might have begun in the middle – a third of the way into Exodus? That it might have passed by in silence the creation of the universe – which is, after all, one of the fundamentals of Jewish faith?

Could we understand the history of Israel without its prehistory, the stories of Abraham and Sarah and their children? Could we have understood those narratives without knowing what preceded them: G-d’s repeated disappointment with Adam and Eve, Cain, the generation of the Flood and the builders of the Tower of Babel?

The fifty chapters of Genesis, together with the opening of Exodus, are the source book of biblical faith. They are as near as we get to an exposition of the philosophy of Judaism. What then did Rabbi Isaac mean?

He meant something profound, which we often forget. To understand a book, we need to know to what genre it belongs. Is it history or legend, chronicle or myth? To what question is it an answer? A history book answers the question: what happened? A book of cosmology – be it science or myth – answers the question: how did it happen?

What Rabbi Isaac is telling us is that if we seek to understand the Torah, we must read it as Torah, which is to say: law, instruction, teaching, guidance. Torah is an answer to the question: how shall we live? That is why he raises the question as to why it does not begin with the first command given to Israel.

Torah is not a book of history, even though it includes history. It is not a book of science, even though the first chapter of Genesis – as the 19th-century sociologist Max Weber pointed out – is the necessary prelude to science, because it represents the first time people saw the universe as the product of a single creative will, and therefore as intelligible rather than capricious and mysterious. It is, first and last, a book about how to live. Everything it contains – not only commandments but also narratives, including the narrative of creation itself – is there solely for the sake of ethical and spiritual instruction.

It moves from the minutest details to the most majestic visions of the universe and our place within it. But it never deviates from its intense focus on the questions: What shall I do? How shall I live? What kind of person should I strive to become? It begins, in Genesis 1, with the most fundamental question of all. As the Psalm (8:4) puts it: “What is man that You are mindful of him?”

Pico della Mirandola’s 15th century Oration on Man was one of the turning points of Western civilization, the “manifesto” of the Italian Renaissance. In it he attributed the following declaration to G-d, addressing the first man:

“We have given you, O Adam, no visage proper to yourself, nor endowment properly your own, in order that whatever place, whatever form, whatever gifts you may, with premeditation, select, these same you may have and possess through your own judgment and decision. The nature of all other creatures is defined and restricted within laws which We have laid down; you, by contrast, impeded by no such restrictions, may, by your own free will, to whose custody We have assigned you, trace for yourself the lineaments of your own nature.

“I have placed you at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains. We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.”

Yom Kippur Thoughts

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, is the supreme moment of Jewish time, a day of fasting and prayer, introspection and self-judgment. At no other time are we so sharply conscious of standing before God, of being known by Him. But it begins in the strangest of ways.

Kol Nidre, the prayer that heralds the evening service and the beginning of the sanctity of the day, is the key that unlocks the Jewish heart. Its melody is haunting. As the cantor sings, we hear in that ancient tune the deepest music of the Jewish soul, elegiac yet striving, pained but resolute, the song of those who knew that to believe is to suffer and still to hope, the music of our ancestors that stretches out to us from the past and enfolds us in its cadences, making us and them one. The music is sublime. Tolstoy called it a melody that “echoes the story of the great martyrdom of a grief-stricken nation.” Beethoven came close to it in the most otherworldly and austere of his compositions, the sixth movement of the C Sharp Minor Quartet, opus 131. The music is pure poetry but the words are prosaic prose.

Kol Nidre means “all vows.” The passage itself is not a prayer at all, but a dry legal formula annulling in advance all vows, oaths and promises between us and God in the coming year. Nothing could be more incongruous, less apparently in keeping with the solemnity of the day. Indeed, for more than a thousand years there have been attempts to remove it from the liturgy. Why annul vows? Better, as the Hebrew Bible and the rabbis argued, not to make them in the first place if they could not be kept. Besides, though Jewish law admits the possibility of annulment, it does so only after patient examination of individual cases. To do so globally for the whole community was difficult to justify.

From the eighth century onwards we read of gaonim, rabbinic leaders, who condemned the prayer and sought to have it abolished. Five centuries later a new note of concern was added. In the Christian-Jewish disputation in Paris in 1240, the Christian protagonist Nicholas Donin attacked Kol Nidre as evidence that Jews did not feel themselves bound by their word, a claim later repeated by anti-Semitic writers. In vain, Jews explained that the prayer had nothing to do with promises between man and man. It referred only to private commitments between man and God. All in all, it was and is a strange way to begin the holiest of days.

Yet the prayer survived all attempts to have it dislodged. One theory, advanced by Joseph Bloch in I917 and adopted by Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz, is that it had its origins in the forced conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity under the Visigoths in the seventh century. These Jews, the first Marranos, publicly abandoned their faith rather than face torture and death, but they remained Jews in secret. On the Day of Atonement they made their way back to the synagogue and prayed to have their vow of conversion annulled. Certainly some such reason lies behind the declaration immediately prior to Kol Nidre in which the leaders of prayer solemnly grant permission “by the authority of the heavenly and earthly court” for “transgressors” to join the congregation in prayer. This was a lifting of the ban of excommunication against Jews who, during the year, had been declared to have placed themselves outside the community. That, surely, is the significance of Kol Nidre in the Jewish imagination. It is the moment when the doors of belonging are opened, and when those who have been estranged return.

The Hebrew word teshuvah, usually translated as “penitence,” in fact means something else: returning, retracing our steps, coming home. It belongs to the biblical vision in which sin means dislocation, and punishment is exile: Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden, Israel’s exile from its land. A sin is an act that does not belong, one that transgresses the moral boundaries of the world. One who acts in ways that do not belong eventually finds that he does not belong. Increasingly he places himself outside the relationships – of family, community and of being at one with history – that make him who he is. The most characteristic sense of sin is less one of guilt than of being lost. Teshuvah means finding your way back home again.

The Last Command

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

By now Moses had given 612 commands to the Israelites. But there was one further instruction he still had to give, the last of his life, the final mitzvah in the Torah:

“Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be My witness against the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31: 19).

The oral tradition understood this to be a command that each Israelite should take part in the writing of a Sefer Torah. Here is how Maimonides states the law:

“Every male Israelite is commanded to write a Torah scroll for himself, as it says, ‘Now therefore write this song,’ meaning, ‘Write for yourselves [a complete copy of] the Torah that contains this song,’ since we do not write isolated passages of the Torah [but only a complete scroll]. Even if one has inherited a Torah scroll from his parents, nonetheless it is a mitzvah to write one for oneself, and one who does so is as if he had received [the Torah] from Mount Sinai. One who does not know how to write a scroll may engage [a scribe] to do it for him, and whoever corrects even one letter is as if he has written a whole scroll” (Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah 7:1).

There is something poetic in the fact that Moses left this law until the last. For it was as if he were saying to the next generation, and all future generations: “Do not think it is enough to be able to say, ‘My ancestors received the Torah from Moses.’ You must take it and make it new in every generation.” And so Jews did.

The Koran calls Jews “the people of the Book.” That is a great understatement. The whole of Judaism is an extended love story between a people and a book – between Jews and the Torah. Never has a people loved and honored a book more. They read it, studied it, argued with it, lived it. In its presence they stood as if it were a king. On Simchat Torah, they danced with it as if it were a bride. If, God forbid, it fell, they fasted. If one was no longer fit for use it was buried, as if it were a relative that had died.

For a thousand years they wrote commentaries to it in the form of the rest of Tanach (there were a thousand years between Moses and Malachi, the last of the prophets, and in the very last chapter of the prophetic books Malachi says, “Remember the Torah of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel”).

Then for another thousand years, between the last of the prophets and the closure of the Babylonian Talmud, they wrote commentaries to the commentaries in the form of the documents – Midrash, Mishnah and Gemara – of the Oral Law. Then for a further thousand years, from the Gaonim to the Rishonim to the Acharonim, they wrote commentaries to the commentaries to the commentaries in the form of biblical exegesis, law codes and works of philosophy. Until the modern age virtually every Jewish text was directly or indirectly a commentary to the Torah.

For a hundred generations it was more than a book. It was God’s love letter to the Jewish people, the gift of His word, the pledge of their betrothal, the marriage contract between heaven and the Jewish people, the bond that God would never break or rescind. It was the story of the people and their written constitution as a nation under God. When they were exiled from their land it became the documentary evidence of past promise and future hope. In a brilliant phrase the poet Heinrich Heine called the Torah “the portable homeland of the Jew.” In George Steiner’s gloss, “The text is home; each commentary a return.”

Dispersed, scattered, landless, powerless: so long as a Jew had the Torah he or she was at home – if not physically then spiritually. There were times when it was all they had. Hence the lacerating line in one of the liturgical poems in Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur: “Ein lanu shiur, rak haTorah hazot – We have nothing left except this Torah.”

Carrying Both Pain And Faith

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a kind of clarion call, a summons to the Ten Days of Penitence that culminate in the Day of Atonement. The Torah calls it “the day when the horn is sounded,” and its central event is the sounding of the shofar.

More than any other, the sound of the shofar has been the signal of momentousness in Jewish history, italicizing time for special emphasis. It was the ram’s horn that sounded at Mount Sinai when the Israelites heard the voice of God and accepted the covenant that was to frame our religious destiny. It was the ram’s horn that accompanied them into battle in the days of Joshua. And it would be the ram’s horn that would one day signal Israel’s return from exile, gathered once again in the Promised Land.

On Rosh Hashanah the shofar becomes a herald announcing the arrival of the King, for at this time of the year God is seen not as a father or creator or redeemer, but as the Sovereign of life enthroned in the seat of judgment. The imagery of the prayers is royal and judicial. The world has become a vast court, and its creatures pass before the King of Kings awaiting his verdict.

“With trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn Raise a shout before the Lord, the King… For He comes to judge the earth” (Psalms 98:6, 9).

Before Him are the books of life and oblivion, and we pray to be written in the book of life.

At times the imagery of the day can seem remote, because monarchy has become for us less judicial, majestic and grand. Kings and queens no longer enter palaces to the sound of trumpets and preside over issues of life and death. Nonetheless, Rosh Hashanah still conveys a sense of expectancy and moment. Its two days are Days of Awe whereby we are conscious of standing before God – our past exposed to scrutiny, our future unknown and in the balance.

The New Year and the Day of Atonement are vivid enactments of Judaism’s greatest leap of faith: the belief that justice rules the world. No idea has been more revolutionary, and none more perplexing. There are questions that challenge faith, and there are questions that come from faith. Those who asked about the apparent injustices of the world were not figures of doubt; they were Judaism’s supreme prophets. Moses asked, “O Lord, why have You brought trouble upon this people?” Jeremiah said, “Right would You be, O Lord, if I were to contend with You, yet I will speak with You about Your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?”

They did not ask because they did not believe. They asked because they did believe. If there were no Judge, there would be no justice and no question. There is a Judge. Where then is justice? Above all else Jewish thought through the centuries has been a sustained meditation on this question, never finding answers, realizing that here was a sacred mystery no human mind could penetrate. All other requests Moses made on behalf of the Jewish people, says the Talmud, were granted except this: to understand why the righteous suffer.

As tenaciously as they asked, so they held firm to the faith without which there was no question: that there is a moral rule governing the universe and that what happens to us is in some way related to what we do. Good is rewarded and evil has no ultimate dominion. No Jewish belief is more central than this. It forms the core of the Hebrew Bible, the writings of the rabbis and the speculations of the Jewish mystics. Reward and punishment might be individual or collective, immediate or deferred, in this world or the next, apparent or veiled behind a screen of mystery. But they are there. For without them life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The faith of the Bible is neither optimistic nor naive. It contains no theodicies, no systematic answers, no easy consolations. At times, in the books of Job, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, it comes close to the abyss of pain and despair. “I saw,” says Ecclesiastes, “the tears of the oppressed – and they have no ‘comforter.’ ” “The Lord,” says Lamentations, “has become like an enemy.” But the people of the Book refused to stop wrestling with the question. To believe was painful, but to disbelieve was too easy, too superficial, too untrue.

Greatness Is Humility

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

There is a fascinating detail in the passage about the king in this week’s parshah. The text says that, “When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll before the levitical priests” (Deuteronomy 17:18). He must “read it all the days of his life” so that he will be God-fearing and never break Torah law. But there is also another reason: so that he will “not begin to feel superior to his brethren” (Kaplan translation), “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers” (Robert Alter). The king had to have humility. The highest in the land should not feel that he is the highest in the land.

This is hugely significant in terms of the Jewish understanding of political leadership. There are other commands directed to the king. He must not accumulate horses so as not to establish trading links with Egypt. He should not have too many wives for “they will lead his heart astray.” He should not accumulate wealth. These were all standing temptations to a king. As we know and as the sages pointed out, it was these three prohibitions that Solomon, wisest of men, broke, marking the beginning of the long slow slide into corruption that marked much of the history of the monarchy in ancient Israel. It led, after his death, to the division of the kingdom.

But these were symptoms, not the cause. The cause was the feeling on the part of the king that, since he is above the people, he is above the law. As the rabbis said (Sanhedrin 21b), Solomon justified his breach of these prohibitions by saying that the only reason that a king may not accumulate wives is that they will lead his heart astray, so I will marry many wives and not let my heart be led astray. And since the only reason not to have many horses is not to establish links with Egypt, I will have many horses but not do business with Egypt. In both cases he fell into the trap that the Torah had warned about. Solomon’s wives did lead his heart astray (1 Kings 11:3), and his horses were imported from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28-29). The arrogance of power is its downfall. Hubris leads to nemesis.

Hence the Torah’s insistence on humility, not as a mere nicety, a good thing to have, but as essential to the role. The king was to be treated with the highest honor. In Jewish law, only a king may not renounce the honor due to his role. A parent may do so, so may a rav, so may even a nasi, but not a king (Kiddushin 32a-b). Yet there is to be a complete contrast between the external trappings of the king and his inward emotions.

Maimonides is eloquent on the subject: “Just as the Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to revere him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart, for as it says: ‘My heart is empty within me’ [Psalms 109:22]. Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness, for it says, ‘so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers’ [Deuteronomy 17:20].

“He should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently, for as it says, ‘Listen my brothers and my people….’ [1 Chronicles 28:2], and similarly, ‘If today you will be a servant to these people…’ [1 Kings 12:7].

“He should always conduct himself with great humility. There was none greater than Moses, our teacher. Yet he said: ‘What are we? Your complaints are not against us’ [Exodus 16:8]. He should bear the nation’s difficulties, burdens, complaints and anger as a nurse carries an infant” (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 2:6).

The model is Moses, described in the Torah as “very humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12: 3). “Humble” here does not mean diffident, meek, self-abasing, timid, bashful, demure, or lacking in self-confidence. Moses was none of these. It means honoring others and regarding them as important, no less important than you are. It does not mean holding yourself low; it means holding other people high. It means roughly what Ben Zoma meant when he said (Avot 4:1), “Who is honored? One who honors others.” This led to one of the great rabbinic teachings, contained in the siddur and said on Motzaei Shabbat:

The Politics Of Freedom

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Having set out the broad principles of the covenant, Moses now turns to the details, which extend over many chapters and several parshiyot. The long review of the laws that will govern Israel in its land begin and end with Moses posing a momentous choice. Here is how he frames it in this week’s parshah:

“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse – the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28).

And here is how he puts it at the end:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil … I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your offspring may live” (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19).

Maimonides takes these two passages as proof of our belief in freewill (Hilchot Teshuvah 5:3), which indeed they are. But they are more than that. They are also a political statement. The connection between individual freedom (which Maimonides is talking about) and collective choice (which Moses is talking about) is this: If humans are free, then they need a free society within which to exercise that freedom. The book of Devarim represents the first attempt in history to create a free society.

Moses’s vision is deeply political but in a unique way. It is not politics as the pursuit of power or the defense of interests or the preservation of class and caste. It is not politics as an expression of national glory and renown. There is no desire in Moses’s words for fame, honor, expansion, or empire. There is not a word of nationalism in the conventional sense. Moses does not tell the people that they are great. He tells them that they have been rebellious, they have sinned, and that their failure of faith during the episode of the spies cost them forty extra years of delay before entering the land. Moses would not have won an election. He was not that kind of leader.

Instead he summons the people to humility and responsibility. We are the nation, he says in effect, that has been chosen by God for a great experiment. Can we create a society that is not Egypt, not empire, not divided into rulers and ruled? Can we stay faithful to the more-than-human hand that has guided our destinies since I first stood before Pharaoh and asked for our freedom? For if we truly believe in God – not God as a philosophical abstraction but God in whose handwriting our history has been written, God to whom we pledged allegiance at Mount Sinai, God who is our only sovereign – then we can do great things.

Not great in conventional terms, but great in moral terms. For if all power, all wealth, all might belongs to God, then none of these things can rightfully set us apart one from another. We are all equally precious in His sight. We have been charged by Him to feed the poor and bring the orphan and widow, the landless Levite and non-Israelite stranger, into our midst, sharing our celebrations and days of rest. We have been commanded to create a just society that honors human dignity and freedom.

Moses insists on three things: First that we are free. The choice is ours. Blessing or curse? Good or evil? Faithfulness or faithlessness? You decide, says Moses. Never has freedom been so starkly defined, not just for an individual but also for a nation as a whole. We do not find it hard to understand that as individuals we are confronted by moral choices. Adam and Eve were. So was Cain. Choice is written into the human condition.

But to be told this as a nation – this is something new. There is no defense, says Moses, in protestations of powerlessness – saying that we could not help it. We were outnumbered. We were defeated. It was the fault of our leaders or our enemies. No, says Moses, your fate is in your hands. The sovereignty of God does not take away human responsibility. To the contrary, it places it center stage. If you are faithful to God, says Moses, you will prevail over empires. If you are not, nothing else – not military strength nor political alliances – will help you.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/the-politics-of-freedom/2012/08/15/

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