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April 21, 2015 / 2 Iyar, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Maimonides’

The Challenge Of Morality In The Face Of War

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

“All is fair in love and war,” according to an old aphorism. Not so in Judaism.

In fact, the test of moral standards is not how one acts when things are peaceful, clear and smooth. Such instances do not by and large require moral strength. Rather, the test of moral integrity truly presents itself when one faces difficult situations.

One example of such an instance is during war. It’s precisely then when soldiers can take advantage of the weak and the captured using the excuse that “all is fair in war.” It is precisely then that the Torah demands that we conduct ourselves with the greatest moral fortitude.

Note the law of a woman captured during war (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). The Torah tells us that such a woman is to shave her hair, let her nails grow, and weep for her father and mother a full month. Only after that process, the Torah says, “she shall be a wife to you.”

A classic difference emerges between Nachmanides and Maimonides. Nachmanides believes that after the thirty-day period, the captured woman can be forced to convert and marry her captor. Still, for Nachmanides, during the thirty days the soldier must observe firsthand how the captured woman is in deep mourning. Clearly Nachmanides sees this law as the Torah doing all it can in order to evoke feelings of sympathy toward the captured woman in the hope that ultimately her plight would be heard and she would be freed.

Maimonides takes it much further. The thirty days of mourning were introduced as a time period during which the soldier tries to convince the captured woman to convert and marry. After the thirty days, however, the woman has the right to leave her captor. Under no circumstances can she be forced to convert or marry.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld argues that Maimonides’s position is not only morally correct but it fits into the context of our portion. Note that the portion concludes with the mandate to destroy the nation of Amalek (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Amalek’s sin was attacking the weakest. Here, one sees the great contrast. Amalek set out to abuse the most vulnerable. Maimonides tells us that Jewish law prohibits taking advantage of the weak. Indeed, the test of morality is how one treats the most vulnerable.

War is horrific. Given its horror, our portion reminds us of our responsibility even in those circumstances to conduct ourselves morally. This is a mandate the IDF is superbly fulfilling today.

‘Be Not Afraid Of Greatness’

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Embedded in this week’s parshah are two of the most fundamental commands of Judaism – commands that touch on the very nature of Jewish identity: “Do not desecrate My holy name. I must be sanctified among the Israelites. I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 22:32).

The two commands are respectively the prohibition against desecrating God’s name (Chillul Hashem) and the positive corollary (Kiddush Hashem) that we are commanded to sanctify God’s name. What are these commands and what do they mean?

First we must understand the concept of “name” as it applies to God. A name is how we are known to others. God’s “name” is therefore His standing in the world. Do people acknowledge Him, respect Him, honor Him?

The commands of Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem locate that responsibility in the conduct and fate of the Jewish people. This is what Isaiah meant when he said: “You are my witnesses, says God, that I am God” (Isaiah 43:10).

The God of Israel is the God of all humanity. He created the universe and life itself. He made all of us – Jew and non-Jew alike – in His image. He cares for all of us. “His tender mercies are on all His works” (Psalms 145:9).

Yet the God of Israel is radically unlike the gods in which the ancients believed, and the reality in which today’s scientific atheists believe. He is not identical with nature. He created nature. He is not identical with the physical universe. He transcends the universe. He is not capable of being mapped by science: observed, measured, quantified. He is not that kind of thing at all. How then is He known?

The radical claim of Torah is that He is known, not exclusively but primarily, through Jewish history and through the ways Jews live. As Moses says at the end of his life:

Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Deuteronomy 4:32-34)

Thirty-three centuries ago, Moses already knew that Jewish history was and would continue to be unique. No other nation has survived such trials. The revelation of God to Israel was unique. No other religion is built on a direct revelation of God to an entire people as happened at Mount Sinai. Therefore God – the God of revelation and redemption – is known to the world through Israel. In ourselves we are testimony to something beyond ourselves. We are God’s ambassadors to the world.

Therefore, when we behave in such a way as to evoke admiration for Judaism as a faith and a way of life, that is a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name. When we do the opposite – when we betray that faith and way of life, causing people to have contempt for the God of Israel – that is a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

Behold: Bibi the Messiah, No Resurrection Necessary

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

A friend who’s learning Perek Chelek (the 11th chapter in tractate Sanhedrin, added by the Rabbis largely as a response to Christian challenges), called me this morning, excited over a famous statement made by the Amora Shmuel (165-257 CE): “The only difference between this world and the time of Meshiach is our bondage to the gentile kingdoms.”

I told him that was elementary stuff, and cited Maimonides, who includes Shmuel’s idea in his opus dealing with the body of laws regarding Jewish kings. He said: Why don’t you write about it? I said, It’s been written about, a lot. So he said, Do it again, it wouldn’t hurt.

According to Maimonides (Hayad Hachazaka, Laws of Kings and their wars, translation by Chabad.org), there are three mitzvot the Jews must fulfill upon entering Eretz Israel, and I believe he means whether as the original invaders of Canaan, or as a nation returning from millennia of exile. The first among those mitzvot is to choose a king.

Ideally, the king must be a descendant of King David, appointed by the Sanhedrin of 70 sages and anointed with sacred oil. But even though the kingship was primarily given to David and one of his descendents will eventually be serving as king, other options exist.

If a prophet appoints a king from another tribe of Israel, and if that king follows the path of Torah and mitzvot and fights the wars of God, he is considered a legitimate king, and all the commandments associated with the monarchy apply to him.

Here is how Maimonides defines the role of a King of Israel:

“In all matters, his deeds shall be for the sake of heaven. His purpose and intent shall be to elevate the true faith and fill the world with justice, destroying the power of the wicked and waging the wars of God. For the entire purpose of appointing a king is to execute justice and wage wars as I Samuel 8:20 states: ‘Our king shall judge us, go out before us, and wage our wars.'”

In the last chapter of his laws of kings, dealing with King Messiah, Maimonides cites the Amora Shmuel’s original idea:

“Our Sages taught: ‘There will be no difference between the current age and the Messianic era except the emancipation from our subjugation to the gentile kingdoms.'”

I’m skipping a few paragraphs where Maimonides elaborates over the process of introducing the Mashiach, straight to his definition of Mashiach’s role:

“The Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the Messianic era in order to have dominion over the entire world, to rule over the gentiles, to be exalted by the nations, or to eat, drink, and celebrate. Rather, they desired to be free to involve themselves in Torah and wisdom without any pressures or disturbances, so that they would merit the world to come, as explained in Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance).

“In that era, there will be neither famine or war, envy or competition for good will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available as dust. The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God.

“Therefore, the Jews will be great sages and know the hidden matters, grasping the knowledge of their Creator according to the full extent of human potential, as Isaiah 11:9 states: ‘The world will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the ocean bed.'”

What emerges from the above analysis, which is by no means original, is the absence of anything mystical in our halachic understanding of messianic redemption. Essentially, we need to choose a king and he needs to declare his loyalty to the Torah and be prepared to defend Torah values both within and without the Land of Israel.

How to Give

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Listen to these stories. Behind them lies an extraordinary insight into the nature of Jewish ethics:

Story 1. Rabbi Abba used to bind money in his scarf, sling it on his back, and place it at the disposal of the poor (Ketubot 67b).

Story 2. Mar Ukba had a poor man in his neighborhood into whose door socket he used to throw four coins every day. Once the poor man thought, “I will go and see who does me this kindness.” That day Mar Ukba stayed late at the house of study and his wife was coming home with him. As soon as the poor man saw them moving the door (to leave the coins) he ran out after them, but they fled from him and hid. Why did they do this? Because it was taught: One should throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than publicly put his neighbor to shame (Ketubot 67b).

Story 3. When Rabbi Jonah saw a man of good family who had lost his money and was ashamed to accept charity, he would go and say to him, “I have heard that an inheritance has come your way in a city across the sea. So here is an article of some value. Sell it and use the proceeds. When you are more affluent, you will repay me.” As soon as the man took it, Rabbi Jonah would say, “It’s yours is a gift” (Vayikra Rabbah 34:1).

These stories all have to do with the mitzvah of tzedakah whose source is in this week’s parshah:

“If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need…Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10-11).

What we have here is a unique and still remarkable program for the elimination of poverty.

The first extraordinary fact about the laws of tzedakah as articulated in the Oral Tradition is the concept itself. Tzedakah does not mean “charity.” We see this immediately in the form of a law inconceivable in any other moral system: “Someone who does not wish to give tzedakah or to give less than is appropriate may be compelled to do so by a Jewish court of law” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 7:10). Charity is always voluntary. Tzedakah is compulsory. Therefore tzedakah does not mean charity. The nearest English equivalent is social justice.

The second is the principle evident in the three stories above. Poverty in Judaism is conceived not merely in material terms: the poor lack the means of sustenance. It is also conceived in psychological terms. Poverty humiliates. It robs people of dignity. It makes them dependent on others – thus depriving them of independence which the Torah sees as essential to self-respect.

This deep psychological insight is eloquently expressed in the third paragraph of the Grace after Meals: “Please, O Lord our God, do not make us dependent on the gifts or loans of other people, but only on Your full, open, holy and generous hand so that we may suffer neither shame nor humiliation for ever and all time.”

As a result, Jewish law focuses not only on how much we must give but also on the manner in which we do so. Ideally the donor should not know to whom he or she is giving (story 1), nor the recipient know from whom he or she is receiving (story 2). The third story exemplifies another principle: “If a poor person does not want to accept tzedakah, we should practice a form of [benign] deception and give it to him under the guise of a loan” (Maimonides, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:9).

Maimonides sums up the general principle thus: “Whoever gives charity to the poor with bad grace and averted eyes has lost all the merit of his action even though he gives him a thousand gold pieces. He should give with good grace and with joy and should sympathize with him in his plight, as it is said, ‘Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor?’ [Job 30:25]” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:4).

This is the logic behind two laws that are otherwise inexplicable. The first is “Even a poor person who is dependent on tzedakah is obliged to give tzedakah” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:5). The law seems absurd. Why should we give money to the poor so that they may give to the poor? It makes sense only on this assumption – that giving is essential to human dignity and tzedakah is the obligation to ensure that everyone has that dignity.

The second is the famous ruling of Maimonides that “the highest degree of charity, exceeded by none, is when a person assists a poor Jew by providing him with a gift or a loan or by accepting him into a business partnership or by helping him find employment – in a word, by putting him in a situation where he can dispense with other people’s aid” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7).

Giving someone a job or making him your partner would not normally be considered charity at all. It costs you nothing. But this further serves to show that tzedakah does not mean charity. It means giving people the means to live a dignified life, and any form of employment is more dignified, within the Jewish value system, than dependence.

We have in this ruling of Maimonides in the 12th century the principle that Muhammad Yunus rediscovered in our time, and for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize: the idea of micro-loans enabling poor people to start small businesses. It is a very powerful idea.

In contradistinction to many other religious systems, Judaism refused to romanticize poverty or anaesthetize its pain. Faith is not what Karl Marx called “the opium of the people.” The rabbis refused to see poverty as a blessed state, an affliction to be born with acceptance and grace. Instead, the rabbis called it “a kind of death” and “worse than 50 plagues.” They said, “Nothing is harder to bear than poverty, because he who is crushed by poverty is like one to whom all the troubles of the world cling and upon whom all the curses of Deuteronomy have descended. If all other troubles were placed on one side and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.”

Maimonides went to the heart of the matter when he said (The Guide for the Perplexed 3:27), “The well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured.” Poverty is not a noble state. You cannot reach spiritual heights if you have no food to eat or a roof for your head, if you lack access to medical attention or are beset by financial worries.

I know of no saner approach to poverty, welfare, and social justice than that of Judaism. Unsurpassed in its time, it remains the benchmark of a decent society to this day.

Maimonides Says Change Your Habits, Not Just Your Diet

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

With a few weeks until summer, numerous new diets are popping up to offer a quick fix. But there’s a reason most diets fail – it’s just too easy to fall back into old habits. Even if you want to lose weight because of a health scare or for an upcoming family celebration, that inspiration often fades as your grandiose dieting plans lose steam. You can only rely on your own motivation for so long.  Even if you do lose weight, maintaining that success is unlikely.  Today’s nutritionists and psychologists teach us that we need to change our habits, not just our diet, but this strategy is actually rooted in traditional Jewish wisdom.

Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish sage and medical doctor, wrote extensively on nutrition and wellness, and his writings are now being incorporated into contemporary medical studies on healthy living habits. After years of studying his writings, I see that Maimonides believed that long-term weight loss success is dependent on more than just motivation; working your mind along with your body is essential. Weight loss and optimum health are more than simply issues of food and diet; changing our habits – our learned behaviors – is possible and effective when they are done at the right pace.

Motivation simply relies on inspiration and will power. Even if you are highly motivated, you still have to contend with old, stubborn habits. In order to achieve long-term success, changing those habits is essential. Habitual change causes a subconscious inner change. The outer action may be exactly the same every time you repeat it, but the subconscious accumulation of every minor experience and feeling associated with that act gains momentum each time it is repeated. Eventually, your new habits will replace your negative habits.

Maimonides distinguishes between ‘habit’ and ‘motivation’. He writes:

“Positive behavior characteristics are not acquired by doing great (positive) acts but rather by repeating positive acts. For example, giving $1,000 to one charity will not accustom a person to being generous, whereas giving $1 to 1000 different charities rehearses the trait of generosity in that individual. That repeated action of giving regulates that person to continue giving.  By repeating an act many times, an established behavior or emotional pattern is formed. In contrast, one great act does do some level of good, but the motivation may disappear shortly thereafter.” (See Commentary to Avos 3:18)

Specifically with regards to health and wellness, Maimonides writes, “One’s usual custom and habit is a fundamental principle in the maintenance of health and the cure of illnesses. One should not change ones habits all at once.” (Regimen of Health 4, 15)

Here, Maimonides teaches us about human nature: to change a bad habit, the key is to take simple steps.

The success that many people had losing weight based on my book, “The Life Transforming Diet” was the result of adhering to the wisdom of Maimonides and his principles of behavior modification. As I continued my research, honing in more specifically on habits, I designed a five-week plan that comes just in time to prepare for the summer.

This plan for establishing habits for healthy living will set you in motion, as Maimonides discusses, to change those old, stubborn eating habits:

  • Habit 1 – Week 1: Swap out one meal each day with a Light Meal that’s 250 calories or less, like fruit, salad, eggs and toast or cereal with milk.
  • Habit 2 – Week 2: Make one meal each day a Concentrated Food or “CF Meal” of protein + veggies only. A glass of red wine is also allowed!
  • Habit 3 – Week 3: Make one meal each day a “V-Plus” Meal – the V is for veggies! Eat as you normally would (including healthy grains), but for seconds, it’s veggies only.
  • Habit 4 – Week 4: Add in Exercise with just 10 minutes of cardio, 3 days/week to start
  • Habit 5 – Week 5: Between meals, start Snack Substitution: try water, veggies, low-fat dairy, or fruit instead.

It’s crucial not to jump stages in this program. The goal is to introduce one positive habit each week. In the first week, you will make only one change. In the second week, you will continue with your first change, and then add one more – and so on. It is important to make only the one change every week, and keep the rest of your routine exactly the same. These are the steps to changing your habits forever. You can read more about the 5 habits and 5-week program, including diet diaries, motivation, sample meal plans and daily schedules at www.5skinnyhabits.com.

2 Museums Buy Steinhardts’ Rambam Manuscript for Record Price

Monday, April 29th, 2013

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York jointly paid a record price for a copy of a medieval religious text by Rabbi Moshe Maimonides (Rambam).

The 15th-century Mishneh Torah was purchased from businessman and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, Sotheby’s said Monday. The auction house did not divulge the exact purchasing price, but said it exceeded $2.9 million.

”The acquisition of this remarkable manuscript by the Israel Museum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art is poetic given [my wife] Judy’s and my longstanding involvement with both institutions,” Steinhardt said in a statement, adding that it is “particularly meaningful that this event marks the first significant collaboration between the two museums.”

According to Sotheby’s this copy of The Mishneh Torah is one of the finest illuminated Hebrew manuscripts ever created. The text is a synthesis of Jewish law and arguably the most important halachic work in Jewish history since the completion of the Babylonian Talmud..

The sold manuscript, with its superbly-penned text and magnificent illustrations, was originally conceived in two volumes. The first part, now in the Vatican (MS. Ross.498), comprises books I-V, and this volume consists of books VII-XIV. It features six splendid nearly full-page illuminated illustrations as well as forty-one initial word panels, images and marginal illuminations and is by far the most profusely illustrated manuscript of the Mishneh Torah ever made.

The copy of the Mishneh Torah was completed in northern Italy in 1457. The rest of Steinhardt’s prized Judaica collection has gone on sale on Monday.

According to Sotheby’s, “the exceptional and rare objects comprising the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection illustrate the grand sweep of Jewish history, from antiquity through the 20th century, across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. These manuscripts, silver and decorative objects, textiles and fine art touch every aspect of Jewish life, and represent the dual worlds of observance and cultural heritage at home and in the synagogue.”

JTA content was used in this report.

Next Israel Shekel Bills to Feature Sephardi Jew

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

The Netanyahu government is going “politically correct” and will make sure the next serious of Israel shekel bills will feature a Sephardi Jew following last year’s four new banknotes that featured only Ashkenazi Jews.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he personally prefers that the “Sephardi shekel bill” feature poet Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy, calling his poetry “genius.”

Knesset Member Aryeh Deri of the Shas Sephardi religious party sharply criticized the monopoly of Ashkenazi Jews on the most recent series.

“Money adorned with an image of a Mizrahi figure is not worth less,” he said.

The Rambam, Moses Maimonides, was featured on a banknote in 1980 but is only widely-known Sephardic to be seen on Israel money.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/next-israel-shekel-bills-to-feature-sephardi-jew/2013/04/28/

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