22 February 2009

Revisiting Exercise & Judaism

Now that I am taking a two-week hiatus to let some of my joints which are sore to recover, which began last week and is continuing this week (although it may continue longer, depending upon how my body feels), I figured this would be a good opportunity to revisit the topic of exercise and Jews. I most recently dealt with this topic three-quarters of a year ago here, where I wrote that "I have thought that the verse of guarding yourself well was, indeed, an imperative to protect your body and to keep it in good shape. However, that is neither how it was meant in Deuteronomy, nor in the Talmud." As far as to previously, I had written in my first posting on this topic over three years ago, on exercise and Jews, that this "line is speaking about keeping the Torah and the commandments, etc., though one can take it out of its context (as the rabbis have done many times over with various scriptural quotes) and see it as saying to guard one's body, to keep it up."
In response to my last posting on this topic, someone wrote to check out a couple of sources. The first of these is what Maimonides wrote (משנה תורה, הלכות רוצח ושמירת הנפש יא:ד):
וכן כל מכשול שיש בו סכנת נפשות מצות עשה להסירו ולהשמר ממנו ולהזהר בדבר יפה יפה שנ' השמר לך ושמור נפשך, ואם לא הסיר, והניח המכשולות המביאין לידי סכנה, ביטל מצות עשה ועבר על לא תשים דמים
And, similarly, there is a prescriptive commandment to remove every stumbling-block in which there is danger and to be careful with it really well, as it is said, "Guard yourself and protect your body." And if you do not remove it, you will be placing stumbling-blocks which cause danger, you are losing out on this prescriptive commandment and transgressing on the proscriptive commandment of not placing blood.
The second is a direct quote from the aforementioned by Rabbi Yosef Karo (שו"ע, חו"מ תכ"ז:ח):
וכן כל מכשול שיש בו סכנת נפשות, מצות עשה להסירו ולהשמר ממנו ולהזהר בדבר יפה, שנאמר: השמר לך ושמור נפשך. ואם לא הסיר והניח המכשולות המביאים לידי סכנה ביטל מצות עשה ועבר בלא תשים דמים
However, while these texts do quote the verse about guarding one's body, this is in regards to removing harmful things to one's body. It can be easily said that this can serve as a reason to engage in regular cardiovascular exercise, however, it may be more difficult to serve as a reason to engage in weight-lifting/strength training. However, strength-training also serves to aid one's health. I think this topic needs more looking in to, however, I don't think one can say that there is any imperative to engage in weight-lifting.
While I'm on the topic, it is interesting to note Rabbi Moshe Rivkash's note to Rabbi Karo's inclusion of this line (באר הגולה, חו"מ תכ"ז:כ), wherein he says that Maimonides derives this obligation from the pious man story I discussed in a previous posting, However, that's a bit odd as I wrote there that "this verse is used in the context of guarding oneself - one's body, even - nevertheless, it is used by a gentile general in somewhat of a polemical context." Indeed, Rabbi Eidels said that "these verses are not dealing at all with guarding one’s body itself from danger", but rather, with learning. Anyways, it is clear that Rabbi Karo directly quoted from Maimonides, but it is not clear how Maimonides derived this.

09 February 2009

The Preferring of URL Chopping in Academic Articles

The Internet age has afforded researchers greater access to online material (or, at least, more easily finding offline references), so it is no surprise that a variety of published articles include URLs in them.
After this morning reading the first half of an article that I mentioned yesterday, I realized that articles that refer to web-accessible articles should chop those URLs (more here) (granted, to be fair, that article was published prior to such a thing). For instance, a reader who is interested in looking into a referenced online article, may have to type out dozens of characters for one link, versus a dozen and a half for a chopped URL. Now, this would mean such a reference would not only include this new URL, but also the original URL.

08 February 2009

More on "Confrontation"

Following up on my posting last week on my thoughts on Rabbi Soloveitchik's article, "Confrontation," although I have just now come across Marshall Breger's "Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's 'Confrontation': A Reassessment" and am aware of (but have not yet read) the papers from the "Forty Years Later" conference that took place five and a half years ago, I recently was reminded that, in the wake of the Bishops and Cardinals visit and resulting online (and elsewhere) discussion, Rabbi Helfgot had written some of his thoughts on interfaith dialogue:
The Rav had very specific things in mind that he felt should be restricted such as formal debate and dialogue about topics such as the Seder and the Eucharist and Jesus as the Jewish Messiah as he wrote explicitly a number of times (see Community, Covenant and Commitment, pgs. 260-261). He did not believe that any and all contact of any religious character was automatically out of bounds.
Moreover, if the writer wanted to truly discuss the application of the Rav’s guidelines written almost fifty years ago to the contemporary scene, a more serious analysis is needed. This analysis should include an honest discussion as to whether in the aftermath of the radical changes that have occurred in the last decade in the Catholic Church such as the recognition of the State of Israel, the beginning of a process of owning up to historical Christian anti-semitism and their share of responsibility for the Shoah, the change in attitudes towards Jews and Judaism that has seeped into Catholic practice and education and the rise of the radical Islam and its threat would (all things that have come on the scene after the Rav’s death in 1993), the Rav’s own assessment of the public policy issue of interfaith dialogue might have undergone a shift.
Finally, it is a fact that there are currently are (and in truth always were) substantial voices within the Orthodox community and leadership that differ with the wholesale application of the Rav’s guidelines in our current reality. Indeed since the recognition of Israel by the Vatican, many of the Chief Rabbis of Israel, including some who are recognized poskim, as well a great rabbanim such as Rav Shear Yashuv ha-Kohen and Rav Menachem Fruman have engaged in full fledged religious dialogue in many countries and in many venues. Even in the United States there have been dissenters from the Rav’s guidelines in the last three decades who remained in good standing in the Orthodox community including such well-known figures as Prof. Michael Wyschograd, who continues to teach at Yeshiva University and is a member of the editorial board of Tradition magazine. Thus, on a practical level, I do not believe that YCT should automatically restrain students or rabbis who desire to engage in that type of dialogue. It is should at least be obvious that those who do choose to engage in that dialogue do not somehow become “non-orthodox” by virtue of taking that track.
After reading some of the pieces mentioned at the top of this piece, I may have more....

05 February 2009

The Limits of Imitatio Dei

1700 years ago (as recorded on Sotah 14a), Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Hanina, said
מאי דכתיב אחרי ה' אלהיכם תלכו וכי אפשר לו לאדם להלך אחר שכינה והלא כבר נאמר כי ה' אלהיך אש אוכלה הוא אלא להלך אחר מדותיו של הקב"ה.
מה הוא מלביש ערומים דכתיב ויעש ה' אלהים לאדם ולאשתו כתנות עור וילבישם אף אתה הלבש ערומים
הקב"ה ביקר חולים דכתיב וירא אליו ה' באלוני ממרא אף אתה בקר חולים
הקב"ה ניחם אבלים דכתיב ויהי אחרי מות אברהם ויברך אלהים את יצחק בנו אף אתה נחם אבלים
הקב"ה קבר מתים דכתיב ויקבר אותו בגיא אף אתה קבור מתים
What is meant by what is written: "After the Lord your God you shall follow"? Is it possible for a person to walk after Shekhinah? Behold! It has already been said, "For the Lord your God is a consuming fire." Rather, one should follow after the Holy One, Blessed be He's characteristics:
- Just as He clothed the naked, as it is written, "And Lord, God, made garments of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them," so shall you clothe the naked.
- The Holy One Blessed be He checked in with the ill, as it is written, "And the Lord appeared to him at the terebinths of Mamre," so shall you check in with the ill.
- The Holy One Blessed be He comforted mourners, as it is written, "And it was after the death of Avraham, God blessed Yizhak, his son," so shall you comfort mourners.
- The Holy One Blessed be He buried corpses, as it is written, "And He buried him in the valley," so shall you bury corpses.
Although the primary task set before Rabbi Hama here is to synthesize these texts, his resultant synthesizing produces a way to follow not after God, per se, but rather His characteristics. The issue that then faces us is to then figure out in which other ways we are supposed to do so (unless Rabbi Hama was not merely providing examples, but saying that just these specific actions are to be followed).
But if so, how expansive is the range of actions of God are we supposed to follow? Although I certainly don't have an answer, there seems that there is probably a limit.

In one of his postings last week, Professor Shapiro points out a lecture from 2006 at the University of Scranton, which includes, as a respondent, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, whom Shapiro references as "one of the most enlightened and thoughtful spokesmen for Modern Orthodoxy." Towards the end, Rabbi Klapper makes a point about the limits of imitatio Dei:
It’s a good question – it’s a question that I think is tied up with the notion of what it means to imitate God. There’s a very interesting Talmudic statement that says that just as God is merciful, we should be merciful, just as God is kind, we should be kind, just as God buries the dead, so, too, we should bury the dead, all sorts of things like that. The problem is that God doesn’t just bury the dead, God kills the dead. And God isn’t just merciful, God is cruel.
So I think that, at least the Jewish tradition has made a conscious effort to say that the goal of a human being is not to be God. And there are things that God does that we say that God has a right to do and we can perhaps do when God tells us specifically to do them. We can carry out certain punishments when God authorizes us to do them, but I don’t think that means …
God brings famine; I don’t think that justifies Stalin – in starting the collectivist farmers for a greater good. I think that using Divine actions as our model except when our tradition tells us specifically that these Divine actions are supposed to modeled in specific ways is – I would describe it as acts of spiritual arrogance overall and, for myself, it would be scary to conceive of myself as capable of doing everything God can do and having it come out right.
I may have more on this later, but Rabbi Klapper makes some interesting points here.

Trip to This Year's YU Seforim Sale

It is a tremendously fortunate thing that North America's largest Jewish booksale, the YU Seforim Sale, takes place in my neighborhood every February. And who was I not to take advantage of it? I've gone each of these past five years since I've lived in Washington Heights.Books I got this year at the YU Seforim Sale So this year I went again to the Seforim Sale and spent my budget as allotted by my wife. Pictured to the left is my picture of the books I got. Notable amongst them were three books by Marc Shapiro (aside from having one book from him that I got for free when I attended a conference two and a half years ago).
Right before I got to the check-out, I looked at the journals they had, especially the Journal for Halacha and Contemporary Society, when the young lady who was stationed there said they had a CD with articles which is searchable for that journal. How could I not get that? Indeed I did.
Okay, now I have to see if I can get an additional adjustment to my allotment from my wife....

04 February 2009

Rav Lichtenstein on Why Learn Talmud

I recently read Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein's chapter on "Why Learn Gemara?" in his Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Learning, vol. 1. I like learning Talmud (I am surprised I still haven't yet posted on how I started liking learning it, but one of these days I hope to), so I was interested in reading Rabbi Lichtenstein's take on why he likes it. He identifies "four distinct and yet confluent factors."
The first of these, he states is "its status as a primary - in a sense, in the world of Torah she-ba'al-peh, as the primary - text." He then continues to beautifully describe the experience:
On every daf, one feels the freshness of virgin birth, the angular edge of rough terrain plowed and yet unplowed, the beck of meandering paths charted and yet uncharted. There is nothing distilled, nothing lacquered. The sense of challenge and concomitant invigoration is pervasive.
The second is a relation "in a personal vein, with regard to Hazal." He writes that
To open a gemara is toenter into their overawing presence, to feel the force of their collective personality - and not as in a historico-critical mode, in order to pass judgment upon them, but as so to be irradiated and ennobled by them. It is to be exposed, with a sense of intimacy, not only to their discourse, exegesis, aphorisms, or anecdotes, but to themselves - at once engaging and magisterial, thoroughly human and yet overwhelming.
Unlike Rabbi Lichtenstein, I don't have the same experience in my Talmudic studies with the rabbis in the Talmud - although I do try to appreciate them for who they were. I really don't know why he tosses that line in about "not as in a historico-critical mode, in order to pass judgment upon them" - I don't know how that particularly helps his case. For me, if anything, the historico-critical mode could perhaps draw me in, but once he dropped that line, I was kind of put off to his second point (not that it had engaged me, per se, anyways).
His third factor is "the substantive nature of gemara." He explains:
Learning becomes, in great measure, a quest for a captivating but frequently elusive truth that must be sought, and at times molded; and the student of gemara - alongside amoraim, Rishonim, and Aharonim - is privy to the process and part of the process. Gemara is quintessential hayyei olam; that is the crux of the difficulty and the glory of its study.
I actually happen, to some extent, find that the stammaim are also a fascinating part of the intellectual processing.
His last point, he wrote, is that Judaism has traditionally "stressed that talmud Torah is not to be perceived as a purely intellectual pursuit. It constitutes, rather, a dialogic encounter with Ribbono shel Olam." He doesn't actually articulate how it is a dialogic encounter with God, but rather writes that "to the extent that one is more deeply and intensely involved, insofar as one's being is more fully charged, he is more powerfully engrossed by the encounter, and presumably worthier of divine grace."
Anyways, I thought it was interesting and stimulating for me in my project to articulate a view on the significance and importance of Torah study.

02 February 2009

Thoughts on "Confrontation"

Having read Professor Marc Shapiro's recent first posting on his thoughts on Rabbi Soloveitchik's 1964 article "Confrontation" (yes, I know he has a second one up - I started reading it this morning at the gym), I figured I should go back and re-read it, and did. I actually thought to read "Confrontation" a few years back when the bishops and cardinal visit occurred at our school and the ensuing discussions that followed.
Anyways, my primary reaction to Rabbi Soloveitchik's words in my college years are similar now to what they were then. The article itself is interesting and a nice read, but the severity and the interesting part is in the addendum, a statement formulated by Rabbi Soloveitchik on interfaith relationships.* He writes that
In the areas of universal concern, we welcome an exchange of ideas and impressions. Communication among the various communities will greatly contribute towards mutual understanding and will enhance and deepen our knowledge of those universal aspects of man which are relevant to all of us. (78)
So far so good. However, in the next paragraph, he writes
In the area of faith, religious law, doctrine, and ritual, Jews have throughout the ages been a community guided exclusively by distinctive concerns, ideals, and commitments. Our love of and dedication to God are personal and bespeak an intimate relationship which must not be debated with others whose relationship to God has been moulded by different historical events and in different terms. Discussion will in no way enhance or hallow these emotions. (78).
What seemed peculiar to me was why we would be debating our love of and dedication to God - perhaps we would discuss these things, but not debate them. He then continues on by saying that
We are, therefore, opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith vis á vis "similar" aspects of another faith community. We believe in and are committed to our Maker in a specific manner and we will not question, defend, offer apologies, analyze or rationalize our faith in dialogues centered about these "private" topics which express our personal relationship to the God of Israel. We assume that members of other faith communities will feel similarly about their individual religious commitment. (79)
Although this is interesting, I want to return to the above below.
Here's what is really interesting:
Jewish rabbis and Christian clergymen cannot discuss socio-cultural and moral problems as sociologists, historians or cultural ethicists in agnostic or secularist categories. As men of God, our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and terminology bear the imprint of a religious world outlook. We define ideas in religious categories and we express our feelings in a peculiar language which quite often is incomprehensible to the secularist. In discussions we apply the religious yardstick and the religious idiom. (79-80)
Although I understand what he means, I think that rabbis and Christian clergymen can discuss these things in these ways, but I think that they refrain and it is easier to speak about them using the religious yardstick and idiom.
He concludes by saying that "we are ready to discuss universal religious problems. We will resist any attempt to debate our private individual commitment" (80). For his conclusion, it is apparent that he is saying we need to resist opening up discussion as the Catholics were doing around the time he wrote this piece. Yes, we can discuss our public individual commitment, but not opening up a public debate to those who are not rabbis to help us decide how we should see our "
doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith" (from above). It certainly seemed that the Rav felt kind of bad about what was going on with the Catholics and did not want that sort of process occurring with the Jews.

* In A Treasury of "Tradition", ed. Norman Lamm and Walter S. Wurzburger (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1967), 78 - 80.