26 October 2009

Criticism and Acceptance of the Shulhan Arukh

On Thursday, while waiting at the doctor's office, I came across the following quotation from Asher Siev's 1943 PhD dissertation "The Period, Life and Work of Rabbi Moses Isserles" (Yeshiva University) on page 73 concerning criticism of the Shulhan Arukh:
R. Moses Yafeh, a pupil of R. Isserles, felt that the Shulchan Aruch, both of R. Caro and R. Isserles, is inadequate because it fails to give the sources of each law. This caused him to compose his Levushim in which he elaborates, gives the origin and reason of the law, and often disregards Rabbis Caro and Isserles together. R. Meir of Lublin (MaHaram of Lublin) opposed the Shulchan Aruch and also the Levushim on the ground that many stumble and misinterpret the law as a result of consulting such abbreviated works.
There were others who objected to the Shulchan Aruch. These objections resulted from a belief that the simplification and codification of the Law will do more harm than good, for it will discourage intensive study and also will serve as a tool in the hands of ignorant people who, with the aid of such a digest, will pose as Rabbis and scholars.
However, Siev continues on pp. 73-74 concerning the acceptance of said work:
Nevertheless, the Shulchan Aruch was accepted by the greatest majority of the Rabbis of the day. The Sefaradim accepted the authority of the Bet Yoseph, while the Ashkenazim reserved the right to follow R. Isserles whenever the two disagreed. The pupils of R. Isserles helped in spreading his works as well as influence amonth the Rabbis of all lands. The more prominent of these are R. Joshua Falk (סמ"ע) and R. Benjamin Ashkenazi (בעל שו"ת משאת בנימין). The former, being the first to place a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, endeavored to side with its authors and to explain every difficulty and objection that was raised against them. He took special pains to justify R. Isserles and was even accused of inserting in the writings of his teacher interpretations of which the latter never dreamt. R. Salnik wrote: “In all the lands of the Ashkenazim, the opinions of R. Isserles were accepted and we follow him in everything.” Also, “since this decision came from my teacher, R. Moses Isserles of blessed memory, far be it from me to be lenient and lift my head against him.”
After these eminent authorities, there followed a host of others who strengthened the influence and authority of the Shulchan Aruch. Of them, we may mention R. Isaiah Segal Hurwitz (השלה), who testified that, already in his day, the decisions of R. Isserles spread in all lands, R. Joel Sirkish (ב"ח), R. YomTov Heller (תוס' יו"ט), R. Jacob Joshua b. R. Zvi (בעל שו"ת פני יהושע), R. Samuel Zeinvil, R. Menachem Mendil of Nikelshpurg (צמח צדק) and his son-in-law, R. Gershon Ashkenazi (עבודת הגרשוני) etc.
The authority of the Shulchan Aruch was even more strengthened after the two valuable emendations of R. David Segal (ט"ז) and R. Shabtai Katz (ש"ך). These eminent scholars added invaluable lucidity to the texts and put the seal of final approval to the great work of the Bet Yoseph and R. Isserles.

25 October 2009

On Our Cultural Epistemic

I found the following quote to be tremendously interesting (from here):
we denizens of the third millennium CE make constant recourse to specialists whose art has no basis in empirical discovery or other Enlightenment values. We shape our moral and aesthetic imaginations through reading Lord of the Rings or watching The Matrix series. We sate our appetites for stylized violence by watching Pulp Fiction and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. We depend on an acupuncturist for healing and we practice yoga. We are pulled in by Yom Kippur or the Old Rugged Cross.

23 October 2009

On the Rabbinic Concept of Exegesis: A Quote from Faur

A somewhat interesting rabbinic statement that is not easy of which to make heads or tails is found on page 5a in the Babylonian Talmud in the tractate of Berakhot:
א"ר לוי בר חמא אמר ר' שמעון בן לקיש מאי דכתיב (שמות כד) ואתנה לך את לוחות האבן והתורה והמצוה אשר כתבתי להורותם לוחות אלו עשרת הדברות תורה זה מקרא והמצוה זו משנה אשר כתבתי אלו נביאים וכתובים להורותם זה <גמרא> {תלמוד} מלמד שכולם נתנו למשה מסיני
Rabbi Levi, son of Hama said Rabbi Simeon, son of Lakish: "What is it that is written And I will give you the tablets of stone and the direction and the commandment which I have written to guide them? 'tablets' - these are the ten statements; 'direction' - this is Scripture; 'and the commandment' - this is Mishnah; 'which I have written' - these are the Prophetic writings and Hagiographa; 'to guide them' - this is Talmudic learning; to teach that all of these were given to Moses from Sinai."
As mentioned earlier this week, I have discovered the treasure trove of articles written by José Faur online and one such article that I read was his "Law and Hermeneutics in Rabbinic Jurisprudence: A Maimonidean Perspective," Cardozo Law Review 14 (1993): 1657-1679, which included the following explanation of the above rabbinic quotation (p1658):
The idea of writing as creation reflects the rabbinic concept of exegesis. It generates rather than discovers, meaning. Commenting on the verse, "and I shall give you the tablets of stone, and the law and the commandment which I wrote to instruct them," the rabbis taught as follows: "'the tablets of stone' - this is the Miqra [(Scripture)]; 'the law' - this is the Mishnah." If the text is like stone, then exegesis is the "a blow of a hammer," giving forth various sparks. Like the stone, the text itself remains inviolable and absolute, whereas the explanations and commentaries flee like sparks. In explaining the polysemic character of the Scripture, the rabbis stated, "Just as each blow of a hammer strikes forth many sparks, a single verse unfolds into many senses." Exegesis serves to reinforce and supplement the oral tradition; it can never be the explanation of a text. In contemporary terms, this means that the rabbis viewed the text as a semiological composition whose unit, the word, is a sign which is not subject to definition; it is either recognized or not. As Émile Benveniste shows, "[i]n semiology there is no need to define what a sign signifies. For a sign to exist, it is necessary and sufficient that it should be received and that it should be related somehow to other signs." At the semiological level, whether or not a sign signifies is a matter of recognition, not interpretation. "Does the entity in question signify?" The answer must be an unequivocal yes or no. "If it is yes, everything was said, and it is registered; if it is no, it is rejected, and also everything was said." Exegesis pertains to the semantic aspect of the word, where meaning is generated by establishing new connections.
This is in contrast to the general way of seeing it (pp1657-1658):
Rabbinic texts are ordinarily examined through hierarchical distinctions and categories peculiar to Western classical studies. The basic assumption underlying this methodology is that the rabbinic truth is essentially platonic. As such the purpose of rabbinic exegesis is to "uncover" the text and reveal its "true meaning." This method reflects the scholastic view that the "literal sense" of the Scripture is what the author intended. Once the "intention" of the author has been determined, the text itself becomes insignificant - a "metaphor" marginal to its "true meaning." The object of interpretation thus becomes displacement of the text. This view is intrinsic to Western tradition, in general, and Christianity, in particular, where writing is displaced on behalf of logocentrism. The classic example of this type of hermeneutics is the Christian Scripture interpreting, and thereby displacing, the Hebrew Scripture. It is worth noting that John's logos (word) is "unwritable," and therefore anti-book and anti-text. By way of contrast, the logos of Philo and the memra (word) of the rabbis do not exclude writing; writing is creation itself.
I find the above to pretty interesting when considering rabbinic statements and their generation.
-- -- -- -- --
דבי ר' ישמעאל תנא (ירמיהו כג) וכפטיש יפוצץ סלע מה פטיש זה מתחלק לכמה ניצוצות אף מקרא אחד יוצא לכמה טעמים

21 October 2009

Moving to California: Heading to the Other Coast For an Exciting Job

After living in New York City for over five years, my wife, my daughter, and I are moving out to Long Beach, California! And even though we just moved into a new apartment less than two months ago, we are packing right back up again.
On 9 November, we will be heading out to Long Beach, California to begin our new jobs. Rachel will be the new Executive Director at the Long Beach Hillel and I will be providing rabbinic support to colleges and high schools in the Long Beach area and in Orange County (my predecessor called the position the Alevy Family Campus Rabbi as part of Alevy Jewish Student Services).
Oh, and here's where you can get jealous: the average temperature year-round is in the 70s ;)

20 October 2009

A Medieval Changing of Judaism

This past shabbas, I read an interesting article, José Faur, "One-Dimensional Jew, Zero-Dimensional Judaism," Annual of Rabbinic Judaism 2 (1999): 31-50 after finding a bunch of articles of his and have started liking them a lot. In the aforementioned article, the following excerpt (pp. 43-45) was wildly fascinating:
Underneath the noise produced by the anti-Maimonideans rested a single issue: is Judaism a one-dimensional or a multi-dimensional system. If Judaism is one-dimensional, then any differing view ought to be repressed at all cost. The anti-Maimonideans embraced Christian ideology. They also adopted the ways of the Church. First and foremost, Judaism was to be conceived as a "religion" - a term for which classical Hebrew has no terminology-in the precise one-dimensional sense designated by the Catholic Church.49 Their triumph led to the erosion of the multi-dimensional values of Israel, converting Judaism into a religious system mirroring Christianity. Systematically, the building blocks of Judaism were vacated from their original semantic connotations and imbued with a sense originating in Christendom. A good example is Kabbalah, originally standing for "the authoritative tradition" stemming from the Talmudic Court of Justice, the geonic academies, and the Rabbinic masters of Old Sepharad. The anti-Maimonideans transformed this term to indicate the mystical and the folklore, "even in the hands of the old men and women of our people" - to the exclusion of the legal traditions of the Talmudic Court of Justice, the geonim, and the Rabbinic masters of Old Sepharad.50 Another such term is semikha. As noted by Abarbanel, it came to denote Christian "ordination" with no connection to the institution bearing this name in Rabbinic tradition.51 Similarly, "Talmud learning" - the rallying cry of the anti-Maimonideans - was nothing more than a blunt adaptation of the scholastic methodology of auctoritas (authority). In compliance with scholastic intellectual tradition, certain auctores (authors) were invested with authority; in turn, these auctores were divided into majores (= rishonim) and minores (= aharonim). Consequently, the Talmud was not to be approached directly but through a prism of interpretations and opinions expressed by a hierarchy of auctores. "Proof' consisted in citing one or more of these auctores, without having to have recourse to the subject matter itself.52 The purpose of the de-authorization of the Mishneh Torah was to convert halakhah into "canon law," in the precise Christian sense, whereby jurisprudence could be conditioned (from a legal perspective: "manipulated") to "theological" considerations.53 The ultimate roots for the model of the "ideal" Jewish ghetto are to be found Augustin's Civita Dei, not in the Talmud. Political leadership and the cultivation of mundane sciences were to be regarded as pernicious and obtrusive to spiritual life and faith.54 Faith meant, simply and plainly, obedience to the "superior." The most fundamental duty of the Jew became faith in the infallibility of the clergy (emunas hakhomim), especially in their transmission of lore professed to have been received through esoteric means. As in Christendom, it is the act of subordination that renders the individual a fidelis (faithful), "because the subject has faith in the superior's institutions."55 The source of this doctrine, continuing to shape the very soul of Judaism, was first formulated by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century, who declared that, "the verdict of the superior-no matter whether just or unjust-had to be obeyed by the inferior subject."56 Accordingly, "rationalism," i.e., the application of critical knowledge by the fidelis, is an act of insubordination. Church policy developed along these lines. As noted by a prominent historian, "What was demanded was not criticism but credulity."57 Contrary to biblical and Rabbinic law postulating that even the Supreme Court of Israel at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem is subject to error,58 the anti-Maimonideans regarded their own rabbis as inerrant, like the head of the Catholic Church. In recent times, they were endowed with the power to penetrate the "mind of the Torah" (daas torah) and issue decisions based not on the classical texts of halakhah but on a special insight to which only they have right of entry. This doctrine was first formulated by Paul as the "Spirit of the Law," with the express purpose of abrogating the Law.59
Lots of very interesting changes happened, apparently....
Notes from the excerpt above:
49 The present Hebrew dat denoting "religion" is a neologism. In the Scripture and Rabbinic literature, dat means "law."
51 See "Texte et Société," n. 130, pp. 698-699.
52 See José Faur, "Sanchez's Critique of Authoritas, in Peter Ochs, ed., The Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity (Mahwah, 1993), pp. 259-260; "Texte et Société," pp. 98-99.
53 Cf., "Monolingualism and Judaism," pp. 1719-1724.
54 See In the Shadow of History, pp. 204-207.
55 Quoted ibid., p. 33.
56 Quoted ibid., p. 36. For a survey of the subject, see ibid., pp. 28-29, 32-34.
58 See "Law and Hermeneutics," 1666-1669.
59 See "Monolingualism and Judaism," pp. 1719, 1721-1724, 1732-1736. For an in depth analysis of the psychological background, see "De-authorization of the Law: Paul and the Oedipal Model," pp. 222-243. The power to penetrate the mind of God was first claimed by Balaam the pagan prophet bent on cursing Israel, see Num. 24:16.

19 October 2009

Please Don't Call This Month "Tober" Nor "Heshvan"

Yesterday and today are the first days of the month of מרחשון (Marheshvan) on the Jewish calendar. As to what it means, Rabbi Ari Zivotofsky wrote that
is probably derived from its location in the calendar. In Akkadian (Babylonian/Assyrian), “w” (ו) and “m” (מ) sounds can interchange. As a result, Marcheshvan which is from the two words מרח and שון, would have been ורח and שמן, in Akkadian, corresponding to the Hebrew ירח שמיני, thus “eighth month.” In the Yemenite tradition, the name of the month is pronounced Marachsha’wan, not Mar-cheshvan as in the Ashkenazic tradition, and this would seem to preserve a greater fidelity to the original.
However, it is very common that people call it cheshvan instead of marcheshvan, which is unfortunate, because that's not reflective of what it means. It would be akin to calling the Gregorian calendar month of October, in which we are now, as 'Tober. My plea is that people get their facts right :)

18 October 2009

The Two Washington Heights Eruvin Connect!

This past shabbas was our first shabbas in Washington Heights in a month and was the first time we got to take advantage of the connecting of the two eruvim in Washington Heights. What made this connecting possible was that the Yeshiva University eruv had recently expanded (which I had videod) (its previous expansion had been several years ago) and the Hudson Heights eruv (the opposition to which I had blogged about a few years ago) has now come up to meet it on Wadsworth Avenue and, the Mt. Sinai website even says so "This eruv borders the YU eruv, and thus you can carry between the two eruvin. Please visit www.yueruv.org for the details and status of that eruv."
This is certainly going to be a huge boon to the community and we're certainly glad that we can now go down to Bennett Avenue for shabbas meals and for us to bring our daughter down to Mt. Sinai for shul.

15 October 2009

Considering Basic Human Rights in Competition with Associational Rights: An Evening Conversation with Professor Moshe Halbertal

The other night I went down to the Upper West Side where the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) was holding its first ever Rabbinical Student Delegation (RSD) alumni gathering. After having a trip of rabbinical students go on winter trips to locations in the developing world for each of the past six years as well as this past summer (I went on the second such RSD trip), there is a growing cohort of alumni from this program.
For the evening in question, about two dozen RSD alumni had gathered to have
Professor Moshe Halbertal speak to us, followed by some further discussion on the topic of universalistic versus particularistic conceptions of rights (which was, to some degree, the topic of his article on Rabbi Menachem Meiri (to which I will return later)).
Halbertal started off with the assertion that there are two types of rights: (1) a basic type (law of humanity) and (2) a "whole set of association of rights", that is to say, "associational" rights, like citizens or members.
He framed the discussion as a matter of three questions:
(1) What is the breadth and depth of human rights? (How many rights do we grant people qua humans?)
(2) What is the morally relevant way in which we carve membership?
(3) What do you do when there is a clash between associational rights and human rights?

Some random smattering of various tidbits (it's late and I'm tired):
- "It's not a zero sum game."
- "not necessarily a shared metaphysical sense, but a shared normativity."
- Meiri - whoever adheres to a normative system is considered עמיתך - "to do that in the thirteenth century is a very bold move."
- Meiri did not imagine a world in which there are law-abiding atheists (not even Spinoza could imagine it).
- בית הבחירה (The Choice House) is the largest Talmudic commentary - unfortunately why it was not copied so much
- although the humash starts out with אדם and talking in a universalistic language, it then goes into a "heavy, strong associational language" later on in the Humash
- אומות גדורות בדת - says in Talmud abiding by by normative system between Jews and uncivilized
- he said you can play a "war of verses" to justify any atrocity.
- Meiri wanted to include them in normative community - all those who are under a normative structure

In our discussion at the end, a big topic was in regards to helping others and how helpful or not it is to use different elements of discourse in relating to it. An interesting comment in the discussion part was that of Rachel Kahn-Troster, who said that "Using associative language versus universal language is more powerful" for helping out others. It seems that universal language can sound more abstract in motivating people to help others out while associative language in helping others can prove to be more helpful.

09 October 2009

"In the Name of"?: A Brief Clarification of Citation in the Babylonian Talmud

I am going to start off by dropping some knowledge: when the term משום pops up before a tanna's name after another rabbi's (usually a tanna, but sometime early amoraim), that is "in the name of", as opposed to a direct citation of him. The difference is that direct citations are when one rabbi heard another say it versus indirect citations when the rabbi did not hear it directly from the other one, but rather in his name.
A similar phenomenon is found with the term משמיה ד׳ which means the same thing and has the same connotation: an indirect quote of a rabbi who is usually two generations later than the one with whom the quote was to have originated. This is in apposition to a rabbi directly quoting one of his teachers (e.g. Rav Yehudah quoting Rav).*
My little rant is that people who translate Talmudic passages are not usually attuned to such differences and I get frustrated when direct citations are turned into indirect citations. Not everything is "in the name of" a rabbi, sometimes that rabbi heard it, himself, from the first rabbi.
-end rant-

* I had a conversation with Professor Yaakov Elman on 14 June 2007, where he confirmed my suspicion regarding the matter and pointed me to look to Yevamos 18b for a stammaitic conversation regarding this issue.

07 October 2009

A Musing About Sukkah: Taking Sukkot Seriously

This week is the annual Jewish festival of Sukkot ("booths"). God commanded the Jews that "בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים" ("in booths you shall sit for seven days") (Lev.23.42). Our rabbinic sages have explained this to mean "תשבו כעין תדורו" ("you shall reside in a manner similar to which you dwell") (Sukkah 28b). Basically, most activities one does in their homes, they should do in these huts (with certain exceptions, such as urinating and washing dishes). (On a related note, a brief, yet good recent post on which things require the blessing in the sukkah).
My musing on this is that, ever since I was a child, dining was generally done while watching tv and, unless you have your own sukkah (we are using our apartment building's sukkah), it's hard to bring one's television to the sukkah. Also, if one had their own sukkah near their home, it wouldn't be difficult to do their web browsing in their sukkah, however, in communal sukkot, there may not be wifi available. In both of these instances, the Sages' prescription of settling in a similar manner in which one dwells may be not completely tenable. Of course, on the other hand, if one has wifi which extends unto one's sukkah, there should be no good reason not to do one's web browsing in one's sukkah. As to television, that might take some skill in figuring how to get cable tv in their sukkah (or just watch it in one's home, as most people do).
Just putting this stuff out there so sukkah-dwelling can be taken more seriously, along the lines of what our Sages laid out for us.
{Related: last year's vlog post where I discuss "Sukkah in the City" (warning: I didn't realize how long-winded I was)}