Monday, August 27, 2007

Faith and Conflict

Rabbi JJ Weinberg wrote that the truly orthodox person is a person who is conflicted, and struggles with questions and doubts constantly. He never lets things stagnate, and is always challanging the limits of his doctrine. He is the most dynamic thinker alive.

How do you see this in your own life (whether or not you consider yourself truly orthodox by this description)?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Daniel's Dragon

In Sh'vuot (29b) and Nedarim (25a), the Talmud records an interesting tale of a gigantic snake. The snake fed on human beings, and the people had no way to kill it. It was simply too vicious for anyone to slay. A savior came and prepared 13 piles of grain, with animals tied up inside, as well as smoldering coals. When the snake devoured the piles of straw, the coals burned it from the inside, and split the serpent open, dead.

Rabbi Epstein (in the Soncino translation of the masechta) mentions that this tale bears similarities to the dragon of Daniel. The book of Daniel has three apocryphal chapters that are outside the Hebrew canon. However, they are found in the Septuagint, and here are the relevant verses (from here):

23 And in that same place there was a great dragon, which they of Babylon worshipped. 24 And the king said unto Daniel, Wilt thou also say that this is of brass? lo, he liveth, he eateth and drinketh; thou canst not say that he is no living god: therefore worship him. 25 Then said Daniel unto the king, I will worship the Lord my God: for he is the living God. 26 But give me leave, O king, and I shall slay this dragon without sword or staff. The king said, I give thee leave. 27 Then Daniel took pitch, and fat, and hair, and did seethe them together, and made lumps thereof: this he put in the dragon's mouth, and so the dragon burst in sunder : and Daniel said, Lo, these are the gods ye worship.

Especially since left out of the biblical canon, it is interesting to see apocryphal stories seemingly remembered in the pages of the Talmud. These books were banned (according to some) as 'outside books' by the mishnah in Sanhedrin (10:1), ostensibly to protect faithful Jews from joining early Christains or other splinter groups, who used the apocrypha as proof of continued prophecy, or simply as holy books (See Rabbi Dr. S Leiman's thesis). However, the Rabbis did not mean to deny that any good can be learned from the apocrypha. Indeed, in Sanhedrin (100b), Rabbi Yossi states about the book of Ben Sira that, "The good in it we expound".

Interestingly, Rabbi Slifkin reminds us that the mishnah uses the term 'drakon' when referencing a specific image of idolatry that is designated for destruction. Perhaps the story of Daniel's dragon is an allegory that it is not enough to destroy the idols from outside, but we must go inside ourselves to root out any dangerous concepts of idolatry from within our own hearts. We must turn the spotlight on ourselves with as much scrutiny, if not more, than we use when examining others for faults.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Stray Thought on Ethics

An interesting thought popped into my head this morning. In the past, we have discussed the tension that may exist between the natural ethic and the divine imperative that commands our obedience. We have also dealt with character attributes and how they need to be utilized.

Perhaps the natural ethic is really simply a character attribute. In other words, each individual has, to some varying degree, been imbued by God with some amount of sensitivity to that natural morality that is the pulse of the universe. However, as philosophers will be quick to point out, since each human is allocated a different level of sensitivity, the morality that makes up this world seems varied and unclear. Some people feel that eating meat is immoral, while others are not fazed by their conscience when participating in the mass murder of humanity. Since this internal moral compass is so varied, the ethics of revelation are brought to light, guiding our use of our moral and ethical attributes: compassion, hatred, vengeance and forgiveness.

Only an objective ethic can claim authority over the vastly different consciences that exist in each of us. If it tells us to suspend our need for vengeance, or our feeling of duty to have compassion, we do so.

When discussing middoth, Rabbi Kook explains that the 'good' character traits, such as love, compassion, patience and kindness, must become part of our very being. True, there are certain times we need to supress them. However, the suppression of these midoth should be against our natural tendencies. We should feel uncomfortable the whole time we suppress them. In contrast, the 'bad' midoth should never become part of our natural state of being. Rather, they should remain in our toolbox of traits, to be dusted off and used only when absolutely necessary. All the while we utilize them, we should feel a foreign attribute in our actions.

The same should hold true for our ethical traits.

(27 Kislev, 5769: Revisiting this issue, my chevrusa and I discussed the ethical in light of the Torah. Our discussion concluded that perhaps an individual halacha, such as Amalek could not be used in isolation to teach the ethics of the Torah, for it is a product not of a purely ethical form or category, but a result of various competing ethics and considerations. For example, the act of torture may be morally reprehensible. However, when used to urge a terrorist to reveal the location of a ticking time bomb, the overall ethical thing to do is to use torture. Some actions should define us (being kind, being peaceful), and are inherently ethical, while other actions, though sometimes employed, do not define our ethic, and only receive the nod of approval because of surrounding considerations. Thus, while an individual halacha may not define morality, the totality of halachot and hashkafa do, and provide a framework and set of rules to, with all the complexities of life, choose the best possible course of action when none may always be perfect. אשת יפת תואר and עמלק are thus not necessarily so different. They are both the best course of action for imperfect situations.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Vote Feiglin

He is yet another chance Am Yisrael has to get it right.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Marriage and Creativity

In Sotah(17a), Rabbi Akiva teaches that if a man and woman are virtuous, the divine presence will abide with them. If not, fire will consume their relationship. Rashi explains that the man (איש) and woman (אשה), each bring part of God's name into the marriage. If they cultivate that Godliness, the י and ה permeate their union. If not, the only thing that remains is אש (fire).

What is so special about the relationship between a man and woman that warrants such strong extremes?

In Yadayim (3:5), Rabbi Akiva defends the canonization of Shir HaShirim. He states that, all the other books are holy, but the Song of Solomon is קדש קדשים, the holiest of holies. Rabbi Kook, among others, explains why. It is quite easy to see the holiness in books like Iyov or Yirmiyahu. Books that openly teach us to focus on the spiritual and find Godly meaning in our lives are obviously holy. However, the true task that humans are charged with in this world is not to eschew the profane. We are not to neglect the world in which we live. Rather, we are to utilize it in our worship of God. Even the source of the most lowly impurity can be used for service of the divine.

Shir HaShirim is written in allegory. On the surface, it is a representation of the activity and thoughts which, while important in this world, do not lend themselves to spiritual pursuit. It is only when this book is studied with an eye towards depth and creative allegory that it becomes a parable to the relationship between God and Man. Indeed, the book itself is an example of the highest form of serving God, by transforming the mundane through holiness. Thus, beauty, poetry, and love are tools for encountering the divine.

God placed us in a physical world with concrete realities. We are not to rebel against them, and try to shake them off. On the contrary, קדש קדשים is reached by using these forces for holiness, and uplifting them. This is the special place of Shir HaShirim. In an Aristotelian moment pointed out in Marc Shapiro’s Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy, both Rav Kook and Rabbi Weinberg (author of the S’ridei Eish) view the relationship between secular and holy as one of form and matter. The form is the abstract concept, while the matter is that which is acted upon and molded to reflect the form in concrete reality. For example, a plaster cast of a tooth cannot replace the tooth. It does, however, reflect the form of the tooth perfectly. Therefore, when one takes enamel (the matter) and fills the cast with it, the enamel realizes the form, and a reflection of the abstract is now realized. Thus it is with Torah and our world. The Torah is the abstract concept. Every object, being, thought and emotion is part of the matter that makes up our world. We use the Torah’s form to mold the diverse mundanities of our world into a holy reflection of the ideals of Torah. This is how we sanctify the profane.

This was, according to Rabbi Hirsch, the symbolism of the burning bush that introduced Moshe to Hashem. The סנה is the lowliest bush, a representation of physicality with no redeeming spiritual characteristics. However, when used to further God's plans in this world, it became united with the fire of God in order to deliver a message to Moshe. It was not consumed, to teach that even the lowest creature can earn immortality by heeding the call to advance God's purpose in creation.

Humanity is special amongst creations in that we are fashioned in God's image. Rabbi Soloveitchik describes this as the ability to create, change and mold the world we live in. When a man and woman marry, they take part in this creative activity. The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) states that a man and a woman actually partner with God when they bear a child. However, if they do not utilize the world as a receptacle for spirituality, they are left only with fire. This is the consuming fire of God's anger, as it were, אש אכלה. It destroys that which is not used for its true calling.

But when a couple infuses their relationship and life with Godliness, they take part in the creation process with God. They permeate their world and the world around them with holiness, elevating the mundane to holy. In this capacity, they are proper bearers of the shechina. They bring the letters of God's name together, create completeness, and acquire immortality, like the סנה.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Re'eh: Working Ideals into Reality

(For a discussion of free will, the subject of the first verse in this week's portion, see here.)

When learning the laws of the seven year cycle in Jewish agricultural law, we may be surprised to find that the seventh year also had implications for lenders. In the seventh year, any outstanding debts between Jews were cancelled by the Torah (D'varim 15:2). As one can imagine, this would have had an effect on the willingness of the wealthy to lend out their money. And so, five verses later, the Torah warns would-be lenders not to stop lending just because the seventh year nears.

However, generations later, the rabbis were met with precisely this problem. People would not lend their money, for fear of losing it once the sh'mitta year comes along. By this time (see Gitin 36a,b) the concept of sh'mitta was in force only rabbinically (see there for a discussion of the issue), and the rabbinic law of sh'mittat k'safim was causing people abstain from lending money to others, which is a biblical offense. And so, Hillel instituted prosbol, a loophole through which the courts take possession of loan documents, and authorize lenders to collect on them. Since the courts were not subject to the laws of debt cancellation, the repayment of loans was not automatically forgiven by the seventh year.

This concept raises a number of philosophical points. What is the rationale of the cancellation of debts? Of course, not knowing ratio dei will not stop us from fulfilling the law. However, it is still of great value to understand, to the extent that we can, why God rquires this of us. Also, if God requires it, what right did a rabbi have to find a loophole in it? I would like to comment on the second question now, and leave the first for further study and contemplation.

The rabbis are entrusted with the interpretation and implementation of the divine commands, as we will read next week (D'varim 17:11). It is their job to take the written and oral aspects of the Torah that were received on Sinai, and realize them in day to day practice. Thus, the rabbinic commands and protective enactments gain a certain divine authority (Rambam Hil. Mamrim 1:1).

The divine Law, however, was not written for the actual moral and ethical level of the Jewish nation at the time it was given. It was written as an abstract ideal. The nation is to look to that ideal and work to bring their actual position closer to that ideal each day. It is a moral staff for Jews (and indeed Gentiles) to cling to as they climb to the heights of moral and spiritual piety. Torah does not reflect reality; rather, the task of good people everywhere is to make reality reflect the ideals of Torah.

(This is the true concept of tikun olam, the awesome work of perfecting the world, little by little. I believe it was the Maharal who wrote that the world was created purposely flawed, so that humans would have a hand in its perfection. Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks of this when he says that one of the charges of Man is to be creative, and take part in the perfection of the world around him, and thus, partner with God in creation (מעשה בראשית).)

This is hinted at in many commands of the Torah. For example, in the ten commandments, the order not to murder is לא תרצח. The word לא is used, as opposed to אל. The first is a simple negation, while the second is an exhortation to not do something. At first glance, we might expect the Torah to use אל, which would essentially command us 'Do not murder!' However, it uses לא, which really translates to 'You will not murder.' This is simply a statement of fact. It is this idealized fact that we in our mundane world must strive to make a reality. (I thank אבי מורי for pointing this out to me.)

In fact, this is one of the lines of reasoning that Rabbi Hirsch uses to show the divine origins of the Torah. No group of men, he reasons, would write into laws ideas that would not be feasible for those governed in their present moral and spiritual state. Only God would write laws that the Jewish nation would have to work to grow into.

And so, Hillel had to find a loophole* to hold the nation together until the time that they become spiritually and ethically ready to realize the abstract ideals of D'varim 15:9. As Rabbi Natan stated (Brachot 9:5), when the laws of God are in danger of being trampled, desperate measures must be taken to uphold them, even the seeming abrogation of those laws. Prosbol is not an ideal, but a practical demonstration that the Nation of Israel still has much room to grow, and much work to do in order to bring the kingdom of Heaven down to earth.

May we, in these wondrous beginnings of redemption, look to the Torah and realize our destiny, in the minute laws of the individual, and also in the overall thrust of our national re-awakening.

*It should be noted, of course, that Hillel used a loophole, and did not legislate away the law in question. This must be contrasted to other uses of purported rabbinic takanot, such as the legalization of the breaking of the biblical laws of the Sabbath by the conservative, in order to keep Jews coming to synagogue (which, at best, is a rabbinic concept).