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May 25, 2016 / 17 Iyar, 5776

Posts Tagged ‘World’

Britain: ‘A World Capital for Islamic Finance’

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Originally published at Gatestone Institute.

The London Stock Exchange will be launching a new Islamic bond index in an effort to establish the City of London as one of the world’s leading centers of Islamic finance.

Britain also plans to become the first non-Muslim country to issue sovereign Islamic bonds, known as sukuk, beginning as early as 2014.

The plans are all part of the British government’s strategy to acquire as big a slice as possible of the fast-growing global market of Islamic finance, which operates according to Islamic Sharia law and is growing 50% faster than the conventional banking sector.

Although it is still a fraction of the global investment market — Sharia-compliant assets are estimated to make up only around 1% of the world’s financial assets — Islamic finance is expected to be worth £1.3 trillion (€1.5 trillion; $2 trillion) by 2014, a 150% increase from its value in 2006, according to the World Islamic Banking Competitiveness Report 2012-2013, published in May 2013 by the consultancy Ernst & Young.

But critics say that Britain’s ambitions to attract investments from Muslim countries, companies and individuals are spurring the gradual establishment of a parallel global financial system based on Islamic Sharia law.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the plans during a keynote speech at the ninth World Islamic Economic Forum, which was held in London from October 29-31, the first time the event has ever been held outside the Muslim world.

“Already London is the biggest center for Islamic finance outside the Islamic world,” Cameron told the audience of more than 1,800 international political and business leaders from over 115 countries.

“And today our ambition is to go further still. Because I don’t just want London to be a great capital of Islamic finance in the Western world, I want London to stand alongside Dubai and Kuala Lumpur as one of the great capitals of Islamic finance anywhere in the world.”

Cameron said the new Islamic bond index on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) would help stimulate fixed-income investments from Muslim investors — especially investors from oil-rich Persian Gulf countries — by helping them identify which listed companies adhere to Islamic principles.

Investors who practice Islamic finance — which is said to be structured to conform to a strict code of ethics based on the Koran and Sharia law — refuse to invest in companies that are linked to alcohol, gambling, pornography, tobacco, weapons or pork. Islamic finance also forbids collecting or paying interest and requires that deals be based on tangible assets.

Unlike conventional bonds, sukuk are described as investments rather than loans, with the initial payment made from an Islamic investor in the form of a tangible asset such as land. The lender of a sukuk earns money as profit from rent, as in real estate, rather than traditional interest.

Cameron says the British Treasury will issue £200 million (€235 million; $320 million) worth of sukuk as early as 2014. The objective is to enable the government to borrow from Muslim investors. The Treasury plans to issue fixed returns based on the profit made by a given asset, thereby allowing Muslims to invest without breaking Islamic laws forbidding interest-bearing bonds.

The Treasury also said some sukuk bond issues may require the British government to restrict its dealings with Israeli-owned companies in order to attract Muslim money.

Although Britain has already established itself as the leading secondary market for sukuk — the LSE has listed 49 sukuk bonds worth $34 billion during the past five years — such bonds have rarely been issued from local firms and never from the government.

“For years people have been talking about creating an Islamic bond, or sukuk, outside the Islamic world. But it’s never quite happened,” Cameron said. “Changing that is a question of pragmatism and political will. And here in Britain we’ve got both.”

According to Cameron, this “pragmatism and political will” is being influenced by the fact that Islamic finance is “already fundamental” to the success of the British economy. Indeed, it is.

Britain is already the leading Western center for Islamic financial and related professional services. It is a leading provider of Sharia-compliant finance, with reported assets of $19 billion, according to Islamic Finance 2013, a new report published by The City UK, a financial sector lobby group.

Soeren Kern

Who’s a Pew

Friday, October 18th, 2013

The views in this article are not at all those of the Jewish Press, but we decided to publish the article as an opportunity to expand the public debate. So comment away…

There have been three reports released in the past few days regarding Jewish Population. Two, the Pew Research Study, and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute Study, are concerned with Jewish population numbers. The third, by the University of Huddersfield in England concerns itself with the genetic history of Askenazi Jews. But in fact, all three studies are really about Jewish identity.

The Pew and Steinhart studies have come up with vastly different numbers concerning the size of the Jewish population in the US. This disparity is due to their diverse definition of who is a Jew.

This is not a new problem. Jewish identity has been an issue in the Jewish community at least since the beginning of the Common Era, and perhaps even before. At the start of the Common Era Jews in Rome were proselytizing so successfully that the rabbis felt that they had to erect barriers to conversion for fear that the Jewish community would become too diluted. In essence, they revised the standards for Jewish identification and as Judaism became more rabbinical, whole segments of the Jewish population who were not considered religious enough by the rabbis became disenfranchised and were left out in the cold.

In great part, due to this exclusionary policy, the world Jewish population declined sharply over the next thousand years. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the world Jewish population dropped from about five million at the start of the Common Era, to about one million by the end of the first millennium CE. It remained at about one million until the middle of the eighteenth century when it suddenly skyrocketed to seven million in less than a hundred years.

Both the precipitous population decline and the even more remarkable population increase resulted from the different policies of defining Jewish identity. In the early years of the Common Era, before the rise of rabbinic Judaism, Jews were defined through self description; for example, you could describe yourself as a Roman Jew or as a Greek Jew. There was no other requirement than that. You didn’t have to belong to a synagogue or observe holidays, or keep kosher, or any of the other criteria that are currently applied in population surveys. After the rabbis gained power the nature of Judaism and Jewish identification changed. A Jew could no longer self select. He had to be listed as a Jew by the rabbi. Thus, if a Jew was not affiliated with a rabbinic religious community, he was not counted as a Jew.

This situation continued for the next thousand years until Napoleon granted the Jews citizenship, and pioneers and visionaries like the Bal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the founder of the Reform Movement, declared that it was not necessary for a person to be affiliated with a synagogue or even know how to pray in order for him to consider himself Jewish. (It should be remembered that the Bal Shem Tov was excommunicated by the Vilna Gaon because of this heretical idea.)

These great visionaries said that if you consider yourself Jewish, then you’re Jewish! As a result of this earth shattering declaration the world Jewish population soared so that by 1935, through the measure of self identification, there were fifteen million Jews in the world. (Hitler did not ask “how Jewish” his victims were)

Today, we are facing a similar problem that confronted the Jews in the first centuries of the Common Era. We have once again set up barriers to Jewish identification and we now have standards to determine if you are a “True Jew:” Was your mother Jewish? Did you have a bar mitzvah? How often do you attend services? Do you belong to a JCC? Contribute to Jewish charities? Been to Israel? Speak and/or read Hebrew? Light Shabbat candles? Have a Christmas Tree? And on and on.

These questions only serve to narrow the field in a time when we should be widening our tent. We can no longer afford to be an exclusive and exclusionary club. We need to find new ways to welcome not only the disenchanted and disenfranchised Jews but also the intermarried, and their non-Jewish partners.

In the same way that Jews of the twenty first century are different from their first century ancestors, so too must the definition of who is a True Jew be different. Until we can settle on a new definition we will be unable to accurately measure the Jewish population.

Bernard Beck is the author of True Jew…Challenging the Stereotype, published by Algora Publishing, 186 pages, $22.95

Bernard Beck

R’ Eliezer Knew More Science than R’ Yehoshua

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

This is an interesting interpretation by the Torah Temimah where he uses scientific knowledge to explain a dispute in the Talmud.

The verse in Parshas Breishis states “There went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.” The Torah Temimah quotes the Babylonian Talmud in Mesechta Taanis 9B that records a dispute between R’ Eliezer and R’ Yehoshua regarding the source of rain.

[Copied from Soncino] “R. Eliezer said: The whole world draws its water supply from the waters of the ocean, as it is said, but there went up a mist from the earth and watered the whole of the ground. Thereupon R. Joshua said to him: But are not the waters of the ocean salty? He replied: They are sweetened by the clouds. R. Joshua said: The whole world drinks from the upper waters, as it is said, And drinketh water as the rain of heaven cometh down. If so, what is the force of the verse, ‘But there went up a mist from the earth’? This teaches that the clouds grow in strength as they rise towards the firmament and then open their mouth as a flask and catch the rain water, as it is said, Which distill rain from His vapor, they are perforated like a sieve and they slowly distill waters on the ground.”

The Torah Temimah explains what R’ Eliezer means using (then) modern science. R’ Yehoshua is correct. The waters of the oceans are salty and unfit for drinking. Therefore R’ Yeshoshua concludes that rain water cannot come from the oceans. R’ Eliezer understood that the reason the waters of the ocean must rise to the clouds and then return to the earth is to desalinize the ocean water. Only the water evaporates while the impurities like salt are left behind.

This can be demonstrated by boiling dirty water says the Torah Temimah. The droplets that form on the lip of the boiling pot are pure water no matter what the water in the pot looks like. Similarly, the salt and minerals in water on earth are removed when the water evaporates and are returned to earth via the clouds in the sky. That’s why R’ Eliezer says the whole world draws water from the oceans. R’ Yehoshua is confused because the ocean waters are salty. To which R’ Eliezer replies that the waters are sweetened during the evaporation and cloud process just like the droplets on the lid of the pot boiling dirty water.

I read this and thought this was a pretty good explanation of R’ Eliezer’s position. Unfortunately it leaves R’ Yehoshua in a very vulnerable position. What are we to think happened after R’ Eliezer explained evaporation to R’ Yehoshua? Perhaps when presented with the scientific explanation he acquiesced to R’ Eliezer. The Talmud assumes he did not because the subsequent discussion deals with R’ Yehoshua’s position as equally viable to R’ Eliezer’s.

More importantly, could R’ Eliezer have known this scientific information? According to my brief Internet research, it seems that the basic principles of natural desalination were known to the Greeks. It’s possible that R’ Eliezer adopted something he heard from them. Although I am unsure if they understood that evaporated seawater turned into clouds in the manner the Torah Temimah understands it. Of course, it is possible that R’ Eliezer received this scientific information from God or some Divine Tradition. Personally, I do not subscribe to this view, but many others do.

Perhaps this is the correct explanation R’ Eliezer’s position. It is elegant in its explanation and pretty clever but it leaves us with other unanswered questions. Either way, kudos to the Torah Temimah for using his secular knowledge in his commentary on the Torah.

Read the Torah Temimah here: PDF

Visit Fink or Swim.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

Why Did Kayin Kill Hevel? (Rabbi Goldin Gets It Wrong)

Monday, September 30th, 2013

My encounter with Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s “Unlocking the Torah Text” this weekend nearly gave me a stroke. And all I covered was his section on parsha Bereshis.

There were two terrible passages. We’ll deal with one now, and get to the other later.

In brief, I hold there are two incorrect theories of midrash. I call them the “moron approach” and the “skeptical approach.” The moron approach, beloved by idiots who think their stupidity proves their piousness, hold that our sages were merely receiving vessels who did nothing but repeat whatever they heard from their own rebbes. They say the midrashim, in their entirety, go back to Sinai, in one long game of telephone, with not one of the Sages ever making use of his own intelligence or creative powers to add or subtract from the original teaching.

This, thankfully, is not Goldin’s approach.

Instead, Goldin embraces the skeptical approach telling us that midrashim are not really interpretations of verses. Instead, they are something the Sages used to encode and transmit Deep Ideas. Here’s how he puts it:

Midrashim are vehicles through which the Rabbis.. transmit significant messages and lessons. As such, they are not necessarily meant… to explain the factual meaning of a Torah passage.

The Goldin passage I quote above is actually a (unattributed) paraphrase of something that the Ramchal says in Maamar al Haagadot. And let me make this clear: The Ramchal’s approach is a sound way of dealing with problematic midrashim. Trouble is, too many people use this approach to deal with midrashim that are not problematic at all. And this is precisely what Goldin does.

The Midrash he attempts, in this example,  to reveal as a vehicle for transmitting secret lessons is found in Berashis Raba, Berashis 23:16 where various rabbis are quoted discussing competing reasons for Kayin’s attack on Hevel.

In summary:

(1) The brothers divided up the world, with one taking the land, and the other taking the animals. When Kayin saw Hevel standing on “his” land he objected.

(2) The brothers divided up the land and the animals even-steven but both wanted the land where the future Bes Hamikdash would stand. So they fought

(3) The brothers both wanted Chava Rishona, and fought over her. (Chava Rishona is how the Midrash solves the problem of Eve’s two creation stories. The first Chava (the one created alongside Adam in Genesis 1:27) was rejected, and replaced by the Chava created from Adam’s rib in 2:21 leading Adam to declare in 2:23 “Zos Hapaam / This time [I am happy with the Chava]!”)

(4) Hevel had two twin sisters while Kayin had only one. They fought over Hevel’s extra sister (the existence of the twins are indicated by the superfluous word “es” in 4:1 and 4:2 where Kayin’s birth announcement is accompanied with only one “es”, thus one twin, while Hevel’s birth announcement has two appearances of “es” which to the Rabbis suggested two twins.

According to Goldin, none of this should be construed at an attempt to interpret and explain the Kayin and Hevel story. Instead the Sages are “expressing global observations” regarding the real reasons why men go to war, namely territory, religion and women.

And then he makes it abundantly clear that he hasn’t even taken the elementary first step of consulting the midrash in question, writing:

Fundamentally, the Rabbis make the following statement in this Midrash: We were not present when Kayin killed Hevel. Nor can we glean any information directly from the biblical text concerning the source of their dispute.”

Only, even the briefest glance at the text of the Midrash shows this is not true! The Rabbis are not making a statement in unison about Global Facts, nor are they sharing Big Ideas. Rather they are arguing about nothing more than the plain meaning of the verse.

Each of the four suggested reasons for the fight are based on something specific and anomalous in the text, as the Midrash itself tells us, namely the seemingly extra detail about where the fight occurred.

The verse says: “While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.”

Why mention the field?

(1) Because Kayin and Hevel split the world, with one (the farmer) taking the land, and the other (the sheep herder) taking the animals. In the field, Kayin objected to his brother standing on land, which he owned, so they fought.

(2) The word “field” is often a keyword for the Bes Hamikdash  (eg Micha 3:12) The brothers successfully divided up the entire world, but when they got to the field, ie, the Bes Hamikdash they fought

(3 and 4) Field is also a keyword for women. Both are, um,  plowed (Not my pun! Its in chazal!) and also because of Deuteronomy 22:25 where it says: “If a man finds a girl in the field.” So when the brothers reached the field, ie the woman, they fought.

None of this, by the way,  is a DovBear interpretation. All of it is right there in the plain text of the midrash – which Goldin would have encountered had he checked the midrash before embarking on his unnecessary attempt to “decode” it.

Visit DovBear.

DovBear

Images of ‘the Other’

Monday, September 30th, 2013
Once again I find myself on a plane flying back from yet another wonderful Yom Tov experience in Israel. As I have said in the past, the community in Ramat Bet Shemesh where I spend time with my family is physically and spiritually beautiful… and so are all the people I encountered there.
But I was disappointed at the way the Charedim there see Chilonim (secular Israelis).  And by the same token I am aware of the fact that many Chilonim have an entirely negative attitude about Charedim. A young Charedi teenager I spoke to told me that whenever he passes though a secuar neighborhood, he gets stares and whispers. This young man would not hurt a fly. All he is interested in is studying Torah in his Yeshiva.
Why is this the case?
Images of ‘the other’ are heavily biased by what the media report about them. When the secular media report on the vile actions of extremist Charedim – that is how all Charedim are perceived.  They don’t know about the relatively peaceful nature of the vast majority of Charedim. They only see what the media reports. They see screaming, rabbinic leaders and politicians. They see rock throwers spitters.  The media does not report  about the peaceful lives and good deeds of this community because that isn’t news. Rock throwing and spitting is. Even if it is only done by the few, that is how the Charedim are seen as a whole.
I am reminded of a story I read in one of the Charedi magazines. I do not recall the details but a Charedi woman saw a void in how patients are treated and filled it with tons of Chesed. She does so without discrimination – giving of herself to anyone in need regardless of how religious or secular they are
One time when she was serving a Chiloni woman , she was thanked and then was asked a ‘favor’: “Would she mind telling her people to stop throwing rocks at her?”
The Charedi woman took umbrage at that since she had never thrown so much as a pebble at anyone in her life.  I can understand why she felt that way. But she should have asked herself, why do they hate us so much? And what can be done to change attitudes?
In my view, the problem is that the two communities do not interact with each other. They therefore have no clue what the other side is really like. Their perceptions are driven by a secular media whose job it is to present hard news and not fluff pieces…. And by the rhetoric of by which the Cheredi media characterizes the Chiloni world. Each side rejects thee other and will have nothing to do with each other.
Jonathan Rosenblum had an article in the Sukkos edition of Mishpacha Magazine wherein he tried to make this point. He quoted a Drasha that explains each of the Daled Minim (Lulav and Esrog etc.) as the four segments of Jewry, The Esrog represents those Jews who have both Torah and Mitzvos; The Lulav –those with Torah alone, The Hadassim – Mitzvos alone; and the Aravos – those with neither Torah nor Mitzvos. While this is certainly an oversimplification of reality – one might say that the Aravos apply to the Chiloni world. But God tells us to combine all four Minim for the Mitzvah to be properly fulfilled.
The point is that all segments of the Klal are needed to fulfill the Mitzvah of The Daled Minim.  And this should be the attitude of us all. We all need each other. We ought to interact with each other and get to what we all are really like. We can discuss the issue that divide us and hopefully come to a resolution that will be acceptable to all. But even if we don’t we will have accomplished a very big step toward Achdus.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

Harry Maryles

Egypt is Boiling

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

During the years of Mubarak’s rule, he had only three true supporters: his wife Suzanne and his sons Gamal and Alaa. All of the other figures that surrounded Mubarak were politicians and sycophants who took advantage of their proximity to the president to extract favors as long as he was able to grant them. The moment that they felt that he was weak, they abandoned him to the fate of dismissal and the defendant’s cage. In contrast, in Mursi’s case there were, and still are, tens of millions of supporters who are ready at a moment’s notice to fight to the end, in order to return him to power. This is the reason for the contrast between the ease with which Mubarak was taken down and the difficulties that the army has been experiencing in its attempts to stabilize the state since Mursi was thrown out of office about three months ago, at the beginning of July of this year (2013).

The most important and sensitive indicator of the current state of political stability is what is happening in the educational system: If the schools open on schedule, students go to school as usual and studies in all of the institutions are conducted normally, it is a sign of a stable state, and a functional government, based on legitimacy and wide public acceptance. When life is disrupted, the first thing to be harmed is the educational system because parents don’t send their children out into the streets in a situation that they consider to be dangerous.

The Egyptian school year was supposed to begin these days. But despite the fact that many of its leaders are behind bars, the Muslim Brotherhood came out with the rhyming slogan: “La Dirasa wala tadris hata yarga al-Rais” – “No school and no instruction until the president’s return”.

The universities are more than just institutions of higher learning, because they also serve as a meeting place, a place to express solidarity and a field of activity for the young guard, the energetic ones of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are quite aware that after they successfully finish their academic studies, there will be several years of searching for work in their field, and many frustrations and disappointments stemming from the widespread protectionism that exists within the Egyptian job market, and certainly within the governmental job market.

Today, when the average age of marriage has risen to over thirty years of age because of economic difficulties, the young men and women channel their energies, their frustrations and their aggression into the political arena, in the absence of any other legitimate channel in a conservative society such as Egypt’s.  Because of their age and family status, the pupils and students do not yet need to submit to the need for bribery and flattery that family heads have to, in order to maintain their livelihood, and this allows them to say, and even to shout, truth to power and its henchmen.

In high schools, colleges and universities throughout Egypt, and especially those in indigent and traditional areas, there are many demonstrations these days. Although these demonstrations are mostly peaceful in character, they express the emotions of the masses, who are enraged that the revolution has led to the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of the youths are armed, mainly with knives and handguns, and there is high potential for violence to break out.

In parallel with the teachers’ strike there have been attempts to organize commercial strikes, but these attempts have failed because many of the unemployed in Egypt are street vendors who are not unionized, so it is difficult to get them to cooperate, since their income will suffer.

As of this writing, the UN Economic Council in New York is currently conducting activities, where Egypt is represented by Nabil Fahmi, the army-appointed Foreign Minister in the current military government. This is another reason for ferment among the supporters of the deposed president, Mursi, and they have been organizing protest demonstrations in front of UN representatives in Egypt. These demonstrations, should they become habitual, might bring about a violent response from the army, similar to the violent evacuation of Rabia al-Adawiya Square last month (August, 2013), which cost the lives of dozens of people.

Dr. Mordechai Kedar

The Almighty’s Supreme Call to Man

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

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 50 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, and 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.

Jewish ethics is not confined to law. It includes virtues of character, general principles and role models. It is conveyed not only by commandments but also by narratives, telling us how particular individuals responded to specific situations.

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 these 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 the Dignity of 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 judgement 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.

 

Homo sapiens, that unique synthesis of “dust of the earth” and breath of G-d, is unique among created beings in having no fixed essence – in being free to be what he or she chooses. Mirandola’s Oration was a break with the two dominant traditions of the Middle Ages: the Christian doctrine that human beings are irretrievably corrupt, tainted by original sin, and the Platonic idea that humanity is bounded by fixed forms.

It is also a strikingly Jewish account – almost identical with the one given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in Halakhic Man: “The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself. It is this idea that Judaism introduced into the world.” It is therefore with a frisson of recognition that we discover that Mirandola had a Jewish teacher, Rabbi Elijah ben Moses Delmedigo (1460-1497).

Born in Crete, Delmedigo was a Talmudic prodigy, appointed at a young age to be head of the yeshiva in Padua. At the same time he studied philosophy, in particular the work of Aristotle, Maimonides and Averroes. At 23, he was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Padua. It was through this that he came to know Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who became both his student and his patron. Eventually, however, Delmedigo’s philosophical writings – especially his work Bechinat ha-Dat – became controversial. Other rabbis accused him of heresy. He had to leave Italy and return to Crete. He was much admired by Jews and Christians alike and, when he died young, many Christians as well as Jews attended his funeral.

This emphasis on choice, freedom and responsibility is one of the most distinctive features of Jewish thought. It is proclaimed in the first chapter of Genesis in the most subtle way. We are all familiar with its statement that G-d created man “in His image, after His likeness.” Seldom do we pause to reflect on the paradox. If there is one thing emphasized time and again in the Torah, it is that G-d has no image. “I will be what I will be,” He says to Moses when he asks Him His name.

Since G-d transcends nature – the fundamental point of Genesis 1 – then He is free, unbounded by nature’s laws. By creating human beings in His image, He gave us a similar freedom, thus creating the one being capable itself of being creative. The unprecedented account of G-d in the Torah’s opening chapter leads to an equally unprecedented view of the human person and our capacity for self-transformation.

The Renaissance, one of the high points of European civilization, eventually collapsed. A series of corrupt rulers and popes led to the Reformation, and to the quite different views of Luther and Calvin. It is fascinating to speculate what might have happened had it continued along the lines signalled by Mirandola. His late 15th century humanism was not secular but deeply religious.

As it is, the great truth of Genesis 1 remains. As the rabbis put it (Bereishit Rabbah 8:1; Sanhedrin 38a): “Why was man created last? In order to say, if he is worthy, all creation was made for you; but if he is unworthy, he is told, even a gnat preceded you.” The Torah remains G-d’s supreme call to humankind to freedom and creativity on the one hand and, on the other, to responsibility and restraint – becoming G-d’s partner in the work of creation.

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

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/the-almightys-supreme-call-to-man/2013/09/25/

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