Anti-anti Semitism

April 9, 2008

Thirty four years after leaving the land of Israel, escaping, thereby, the vengeful wrath of his brother, Eisov, Ya’acov begins his journey homeward.

On the way, Ya’acov, knowing that he must encounter Eisov, sends a contingent of messengers (angels) to Eisov in order to find out his intentions regarding him.

He tells his Eisov, through the messengers, that he has “been dwelling with Lavan”, and then goes on to tell him-again, through the messengers-about the possessions he has managed to amass while with Lavan.

Rashi, after pointing out that the Hebrew word for “been dwelling” is numerically equivalent to 613 (the number of Torah commandments), comments that with his “I have been dwelling (613) with
Lavan”, Ya’acov wished to convey to Eisov that despite his residence with the “wicked” Lavan, he had not been affected by Lavan’s lifestyle and had managed to keep all 613 torah commandments.

Only then did Ya’acov tell Eisov about his wealth and worldly accomplishments.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, drawing upon the famous dictate, “the behavior of the Patriarchs is an example to their children”, informs us that we can learn from this episode an important lesson regarding Jewish public relations:

When a Jew finds himself needing to curry favor with non-Jews, he must not ever assume a posture of self-abasement and weakness. Rather, he must approach the non-Jew with “Geon Ya’acov” (the pride of Jacob), declaring proudly his dedication to the Torah and its commandments.

And when a Jew behaves in this manner, not only will the non-Jew concede to the Jew what he needs–Eisov says to Ya’acov “keep what is yours” (Genesis 33:9); ”here Eisov concedes the blessings to Ya’acov”, comments Rashi — but also he will come eventually to a state of admiration and love for the Jew –”And he embraced and kissed him” (33:4)


The First Jew

April 9, 2008

(See here for context)

G-d said to Avram: ‘Leave your country, your birthplace, and your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you.” Avraham was Seventy five years of age when G-d appeared to him, giving him this command.

Interestingly, other than mentioning his birth, along with the birth of many otherwise unnoteworthy members of Avraham’s father’s family, this is the first we hear of Avraham in the Bible. We are told nothing at all about this man to whom G-d sees fit to give personal commands, nothing about how he came to recognize G-d, nothing about how he devoted himself to, and succeeded in, spreading the knowledge of G-d in the world and nothing about how he was thrown in a fiery furnace because of it (he escaped miraculously!) The written Torah gives no account of the accomplishments for which (presumably), G-d sees fit to establish this relationship with Avraham, not even a brief one line intro similar to the one with which the Bible introduces Noach.


The answer in short: Avraham becomes the first Jew and the founder of the Jewish nation at this very commandment. And the (written) Torah is interested only in recounting Avraham as founder of the Jewish nation.

The explanation: all of Avrahams prior accomplishments — his recognition of G-d, his self sacrificing dedication to making him known and his character refinements — were all of his own initiative and of his own doing. And therefore, no matter how high he reached, relative to his fellow man, his accomplishments could never break out of the human qualitative limitations to which he himself was subject. The pinnacle of mankind though he was, he was not yet a foundation for the Jewish nation.

With the commandment, this all changed. G-d, after seeing what Avraham had managed, basically said, “O.K. great. Now leave everything behind and go to the land which I shall show you.”

At that point, and precisely at that point, Avraham’s divine service, now initiated and directed by G-d himself, was freed of the human limitations to which it had hitherto been subject. Avraham was uplifted beyond himself and the rest of mankind to act as founder to the Jewish people.


April 9, 2008

Now is a special time; “The ten days of repentance” — a span of the Jewish calender beginning with Rosh Hashannah and concluding with Yom Kippur — is the period of time the Torah says is singularly auspicious for repenting.

But what is repentance?

Answering the question, the Tanya writes:

The commandment to repent requires only that one abandon sin…..namely, that he commit wholeheartedly to never again rebel against the King, committing never again to transgress any royal commandment (G-d forbid), whether it be a commandment to do something or a commandment to refrain from doing something.

The Torah makes various prescriptions regarding a penitent: We find, for instance, a requirement to regret the sin, to confess the sin before G-d, to appease anyone unjustly harmed, and to make monetary restitution where warranted. It’s somewhat puzzling, therefore, that the Tanya makes the bold assertion that all said prescriptions are essentially peripheral to repentance itself, and that one can achieve penitence simply by committing to sin no more.

One of the Talmudic proofs for this approach is the well known law that “if anyone (even someone wicked) marries a woman on the expressed condition that he is completely righteous, we treat the woman in many ways as married, the reason being that we cannot be certain as to whether or not he had thoughts of repentance at the time of the marriage.”

Looking closely at the law previously mentioned, we see that, according to the Talmud, even a Jew who is known to be wicked can by the force of a momentary penitent thought alone be transformed into a “completely righteous” person.

When we examine the Tanya’s wording, however, it becomes clear that its approach is at least as stringent as it is lenient: true enough, repentance consists exclusively in a mere commitment, and, yes, it is also true that even someone wicked will be transformed thereby into a completely righteous person, but the Tanya requires that this “mere” commitment pertain not only to the particular sin he has commited but also to sinning in general. He must commit “never again to transgress any royal commandment….”

Why need one commit never to sin again in order to repent for any sin at all? And why, indeed, does a mere commitment suffice to render him completely righteous when he has yet to rectify the evil that he has wrought through sinning; after all, he may have yet to confess before G-d, to appease he whom he has unjustly harmed or to repay what he has stolen?

The issue will become more clear after a few prefatory remarks regarding the somewhat dual nature of sin.

On the one hand, not all sins are alike. They differ greatly in the harm they do the world; and they also differ in the impact they have on the sinner. Some sins effect other people; while others effect only one’s self. The Torah punishments, themselves, attest to the differing relative gravities of individual sins: there are capital crimes, crimes that require flogging and crimes that command no punishment at all.

On the other hand, however, all sins, whether they be grave or trivial, have one thing in common: they are all acts of defying the royal command of G-d. They are all, without exception, acts of rebellion against the King of all kings.

Accordingly, when one wishes to make amends for his past conduct he must set about about doing two related but different things:

1. He must of course fix what he broke; and this may indeed require regret, confession and restitution. It may even require that he be punished — the Torah sees punishment not only as a deterrent but also, and mainly, as a rectification of damage done to the soul. Truly, until he has so done he has not cleaned up his mess.

2. But more important than all, perhaps, the ‘sinner’ must accept upon himself G-d’s sovereignty; only through this can he be considered righteous. And to this end, a commitment to avoid this or that particular sin will not suffice. Because as long as he will not commit “never again to transgress any royal commandment (G-d forbid), whether it be a commandment to do something or a commandment to refrain from doing something,” he is basically saying that he is his own sovereign, that he alone will decide what commandment he wishes to obey or to disobey. In the end this person stands in open revolt against the sovereignty of G-d.

Therefore, when a Jew makes the complete commitment, thereby tendering himself as loyal subject to the King of all kings, he is indeed “completely righteous.” That he still may have a whole lot of cleaning up to do, notwithstanding.

(Adapted from the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson.)


January 30, 2008

(What follows is a letter penned by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I typed it out from Rabbi Chaim Miller’s peerless English language work on Rambam’s Thirteen principles of Judaism. In addition to the principles themselves, the book contains “an anthology of commentaries from the Talmud, Midrash, Rishonim and Acharonim, and elucidation from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”)

In view of the various religions and creeds in the world, each claiming to be the truth and superior to all others, how is a Jew to be certain that his religion is the true one?

This and related questions have already been dealt with at length in the famous 12th century classic, the Book of Kuzari by the great Jewish philosopher Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi. It is well documented and based on proofs that would stand up to the scrutiny of scientific method and common sense.

One basic scientific principle is that the first thing is to ascertain the facts, regardless whether they seem logical or not, and then to try to find the right explanation. Science does not come with forgone conclusions and beliefs with the idea of reconciling and adjusting facts to these beliefs. Rather the opposite, it deals with facts then formulates opinions and conclusions. This has been expressed in the dictum that knowledge is derived from reality, not vice versa. If according to one’s reasoning the reality should be different, the fault is with one’s reasoning, not with the reality.

A further basic principle of scientific method is that the veracity of testimony is compelling when it is based on the widest possible range of witnesses and observations, substantiated, moreover, by experience under the widest possible conditions, etc. Where there is such evidence it is accepted as a fact which is undeniable, even if it does not agree with a scientific theory. This is the accepted practice in science even where there are are several reliable witnesses, and certainly scores of them, hundreds and thousands.

By way of illustration: If you are asked, how do you know there existed such a person as Maimonides, author of Yad haChazakah [Mishneh Torah], Sefer ha-Mitvos, etc., you will surely reply that you are certain about his existence from the books he has written, and although Rambam (Maimonides) lived some 800 years ago, his works now in print have been reprinted from earlier editions, and those from earlier ones, still uninterruptedly, going back to the very manuscript which the Rambam wrote in his own hand. This is considered sufficient proof even in the face of discrepencies or contradictions from one book of Rambam to another. Such contradictions do not demolish the above proof, but efforts are made to reconcile them, in the certainty that both have been written by the same author.

The same kind of proof substantiates any kind of historic past, which we ourselves have not witnessed, and all normal people accept them without question, except those who for some reason are interested in falsification.

Accordingly, as pointed out in the Kuzari, and in other sources through the ages, we Jews are certain that “Moshe is true and his Torah is true”, on the basis of the historic events of the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, which were witnessed and experienced by 600,000 male adult Jews (apart from women and children). Among these original witnesses there were many who were initiated in the sciences of those days (i.e. Egypt), many achievements of which are still baffling nowadays; among them were philosophers and thinkers, as well as ignorant and uneducated persons, woman and children of all ages. Yet all of them reported the event and phenomenon connected with it without contradiction to each other.

What our ancestors witnessed and experienced they transmitted to their children and children’s children, from generation to generation to this day, for there has never been a break or any interruption in our history and tradition from the time of our first Patriarch Abraham. Even during the times of the greatest persecutions, and even after the destruction of the Beis ha-Mikdash, there always survived large numbers of Jews who preserved the text of the Torah and the traditions, so that the chain has never been broken. At no time, even during the worst pogroms and massacres of Jews, were there less than millions of Jews faithfully maintaining this tradition.

Thus, the identical tradition has been transmitted to us by millions of Jews from all walks of life, and verified by the actual way of life and commitment to the same mitzvos of the same Torah (the same Shabbos, the same Tefilin, Mezuzah, etc.) from generation to generation, in different lands and under different conditions. While other factors which are usually associated with the preservation of other nations and their ethnic cultures–such as territory, political independence, language, dress, etc.–have changed in Jewish life from time to time and from place to place, the Torah and mitzvos did not change in the life of all Jews. This fact that runs like a golden thread throughout our Jewish history not only confirms without the slightest doubt the authenticity of our Torah and mitzvos, but also clearly demonstrates which is the truly vital constant factor that has preserved us Jews under all possible circumstances and crises, namely, the Torah and mitzvos, “our life and the length of our days”.

No other religion, without exception, even those whose followers by far outnumber our Jewish people, can claim such proof of authenticity. In all other religions, especially those which are more prevelant in the U.S.A., namely, Christianity and Islam, the religion itself bases its tradition and origin on a single individual, (Mohammed), or several individuals, (the Cristian Apostles, and here, too, eventually on one person, Paul, the founder). The same is true of Buddhism, which was founded by an ancient Hindu sage, the Buddha, (“Enlightened One”), whose followers adopted his teachings and doctrines and called themselves Buddhists, after him. These religions themselves, and their followers, openly declare that they were so founded.

Consequently, despite the multitude of followers the skeptic may question the veracity of the revelation claimed by the original founder, whether it was a genuine prophetic revelation as claimed or perhaps an hallucination, and, in the case of a small group of founders, whether there was a genuine shared experience, or perhaps a collusion, and the like.

On the other hand, the Jewish religion goes back to the revelation at Mount Sinai, (in which, incidentally, the Christians and Moslems also believe), which took place in the presence of 600,000 adult men, not including woman, children and the elderly, all of whom, taken together, would total several million souls. This distinction is a very fundamental one, for where it is claimed that the religion originates with a single individual or group of individuals, one can argue that there may have been human error involved, or even conspiracy. No such argument can be made in regard to the Divine Revelation at Mount Sinai, which took place in the presence of the entire Jewish people–living witnesses–and was transmitted from parents to children, in an unbroken chain of tradition, to the present day.

By way of illustration: Suppose that 600,000 parents would today say to their children, “This morning you and we were all gathered in a certain place, and we all heard a Heavenly voice proclaim the Decalogue.” The children would not accept this for they would surely say: “If we were there with you, why did we not hear or see anything?” Now, making the single assumption that human reactions have not essentially changed in the course of centuries, one can assume that such would have been the reaction also in the previous century, and two centuries ago and so on, until we reach the generation whose parents witnessed the event of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

And let it be emphasized again that during this long chain of tradition, there has been no break, nor has the number of transmitters at any time been reduced to less than many hundreds of thousands, for at no time was there less than one million Jews in the world, Jews from all walks of life, who had no personal ax to grind, etc., yet in each generation of the uninterrupted and unbroken history of our people, this event was accepted as authentic history and the text of the Decalogue remained exactly the same. This is certainly undeniable evidence according to all the rules of scientific proof accepted today.

To deny such a fact is anything but scientific; it is the very opposite of science.

Ancient Origins of Complex Sentiments Toward the Jews

January 24, 2008

After miraculously passing through the sea, and after coming to understand that their pursuers did did not fare likewise, the Jewish people are led by Moshe in prophetic song.

Towards the end of the song, when the people sing of the reactions of various nations to the great event, the Jewish nation sings of how the “the chieftains of Edom were confounded” and of how “trembling seized the powerful men of Moab.”

Having nothing to fear on account of Israel–those nations were not Cana’anites–Edom and Moab simply burned up at the glory and grandeur of the Jewish people. (Rashi)

Commentaries–speaking to why Edom and Moab, specifically, took unique umbrage at what had happened to the Jewish people–explain that the nations of Edom and Moab, stemming as they did from the family of Avraham, believed that they too had a claim to special honor. (Edom is Eisov, Jacob’s brother; and Moab is the son born of Lot’s (Avrahams nephew) incestuous relations with his eldest daughter.)

However, this raises a question as to why, despite equally illustrious lineage, the nations of Yishmael and Amon were not similarly bothered? (Yishmael was Isaac’s brother; Amon was Moab’s.)

The Lubavitcher Rebbe resolves the question thusly:

As for Yishmael:

When Genesis tells how “Isaac and Yishmael […] buried [Avraham] in the Makpelah cave”,  the verse mentions the younger Isaac before the elder Yishmael. Commenting on scripture’s preferencing of Isaac, the Talmud explains that Torah wished to convey that although Yishmael had spent his whole life in contention with Isaac, by this point he had repented, and had himself preferenced Isaac in all of the procedures.

Thus, the nation of Yishmael, because of their patriarch,  accepted Israel’s superiority.

And as for Amon:

These are the circumstances surrounding the birth of Moab and Amon:

Having narrowly escaped the destruction of Sodom, Lot and his two (remaining) daughters take shelter in a cave. Not knowing the death toll on humanity, Lot’s daughters begin to fear that they will never find men with whom to propagate. So following the plan of the eldest daughter–the future mother of Moab, and less modest of the two sisters–the young girls get their father drunk and lie with him. Moab and Amon are the fruit of that act.

Interestingly, the elder daughter feels no shame in the event. And when the time comes to name her son, she (proudly?) chooses “Moab”, a compound word made up of the Hebrew
for ‘from’ (mo) and ‘father’ (ab). The younger daughter, on the other hand, is far more discreet– a fact already alluded to in the wording of the verses–and when the time comes for her to name her son, she chooses “Amon”, a name derived from only part of the Hebrew phrase translating into ‘a member of my nation’ in English.

So while Moab, because of their shameless matriarch, proudly carried the banner of membership in Avraham’s family, Amon,  because of their discreet matriarch, never made an explicit issue of that relationship, and therefore never internalized a claim to honor because of it.

Only Date Jewish: a Letter to My Younger Brother

January 3, 2008

Dear [younger brother],

There are several attitudes a person can have regarding getting married at any given time:

1. I am not ready, even if I find the right person.

2. I will be ready when I find the right person.

3. I am ready, so let me set about finding the right person.

Anyone holding to  position 2 should immediately take on, instead, position 3. The reason is simple: a person is more likely to do something right when he does it intentionally.

If you will first figure out which qualities are characteristic of a good wife, and then set out looking for a woman that meets those criteria, you will be far more likely to fall in love with and marry a good wife than you will be if you just hit the dating scene without purpose, forethought and planning.

Because when one dates without purpose, he looks for different things than he looks for when he dates to marry:

While, when looking to marry, a sensible man will pay little (serious) attention to the high heeled halter topped woman in the local coffee house or the wild drunk chick at the company party, a sensible man who is only dating might pay these woman significant attention.

Or–a less crass but more dangerous example–a sensible man only dating may be looking for more than a fleeting, meaningless relationship; he may be looking for companionship–a girlfriend. Now what makes a fun girl friend does not necessarily make a good wife, and, conversely, what makes a good wife does not necessarily make a fun girlfriend: a fun girlfriend need not want children; a good wife must; a fun girl friend can think maintaining a house is beneath her; a good wife must not. a fun girlfriend can love clubbing with her girlfriends; a good wife must not (trust me). A militant feminist might make a fun girl friend; she would make a horrible wife. A pot-head, dead-head might make a fun girl friend; she would make a miserable wife.

Here is the problem: often a person falls in love with his girlfriend, and he sometimes even marries her. It is unlikely–if not utterly impossible–that a man will be as demanding of quality in a woman after falling in love with her than he would have been before he fell in love with her. And when you consider that this girl, with whom he has now fallen in love and decided to marry, very likely would not even have come up on his radar screen as a potential wife had he been looking for one to begin with, you will see that this marriage may well be a disaster waiting to happen.

It seems, therefore, that a man who is ready to marry when he finds the right person should set out purposefully to make it happen. And he must not just let it happen, when it happens, in any which way it happens. Because when you don’t make things happen rightly, they often happen wrongly. And this is especially true regarding matters of the heart.

Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Laws of Torah Study. A Translated Excerpt

January 3, 2008

Even though a child is exempt from all the commandments, and his father’s obligation to train him in them is not Biblical, but rather Rabbinic in nature— Torah Study is different.

Torah places an obligation on the father to teach his male child Torah, even though the child himself is not obligated to study; “And you shall teach them to your sons in order that they speak mainly about them.” (Devarim 11:19)

At what point is the father obligated to teach his son?

When the boy begins to speak, his father teaches him “The Torah that Moshe has commanded us…. (ibid 33:4) and the first verse of the section of “Hear O Israel”. Afterwards, the father teaches the boy, slowly but surely, many verses by heart, until the boy reaches the age of five years; meaning until the beginning of his fifth year.

Then the father teaches him to read the Tanach, little by little and at home, until the boy reaches the age of six or seven years. Prior to that, in the forth year, the father had to have taught him the letters of the Torah, in order that the boy be prepared to read in the Torah the fifth year.

When the boy reaches the age of six or seven complete years–it depends on the health and strength of the boy–he [the father] brings the boy to a teacher to read in the Torah the entire day. The boy would do this until he was ten years old, by which point he would have read the entire Tanach many, many, times.

In those days, people spoke Hebrew, and, [of course,] when a child would begin to speak his father would talk with him in Hebrew. Therefore, there was no need to teach the children the meaning of the words. They had only to teach them how to read the letters with proper pronunciation and with the proper tune, and also how to read those verses that are to be read differently than how they are to be written.

In those days, the vowels and notes were not written; [the text of the whole Tanach looked] like our Torah scrolls; they, therefore, needed to work for five years learning the entire scriptures many times, in order to learn the pronunciations and musical notes by heart.

Afterwards–five years learning the Mishnah–a body of work comprising the laws without reasoning–by heart.

Afterwards–five years in Talmud–[related but not identical to the Talmud]–which is [learning] to concisely know the reasoning behind the laws, as well as their, [respective], sources; is it derived from the written Torah through one of the thirteen rules of Biblical exegesis [given to Moshe at Sinai] or through other methods; or is it a tradition going back to Moshe from Sinai; or is it from logic; or is it mandated from the Sages as a fence and a wall preventing us from transgressing the words of the Torah?

Then, a man spends his entire life–each man according to his intellect and ability–in talmudic dialectic, pointing out contradictions and coming to resolutions, descending deeper and deeper into the depths of the reasons and exegesis, understanding one thing from another and innovating new halachot and exegesis.

To the aforementioned [process] our Sages referred when they said, “at forty, a man reaches understanding” (Avos).

Likewise [included in this process] are all the words of our sages and their mysteries, known as “Hagadot”, that they leaned and expounded on the verses of the Tanach.