Sunday, 29 March 2009

Parshah: Leviticus, Sacrifices, and Dialectic

Perhaps one of the more controversial aspects of the Torah is the qarbanot - the sacrificial cult. The Rambam champions a rationalistic approach very in vogue with most moderns. OTOH The Ramban has a multi-level approach that includes a massive dose of spiritual symbolism very popular with Mystics. RSR Hirsch embraced this symbolic approach in his own commentary and modernized it to the sensibilities of the 19th Century. The Ritva defends Rambam from attacks by Ramban. This is most fascinating because Ritva was the key student of Ramban's most famous student. He goes on to show that Ramam was not as "anti-sacrifice" as he appears to be at first glance.

Thus the dialectic is thus:
  • Thesis: Torah/Ramban pro-sacrifice
  • Antithesis: Prophets/Rambam questioning the sacrificial cult
  • Synthesis: Ritva answering Rambam's attacks.
This fascinating overview is culled from the opening article by the late great Nechama Leibowitz OBM On Vayikra/Leviticus. I highly recommend this give and take as she cites original sources. Note: This Ritva is in the further study section.

Zissen Pesach

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Bernie Madoff's Jewishness

I just watched the Wall Street Journal's internet videos on Bernie Madoff. The whole issue is absolutely bewildering. How could he have pulled this off? How much pain did he cause? While watching, though, something else began to bother me. Actually, I was bothered about this before but the issue seemed to crystallize as I was watching these videos. What does this whole episode say about Jewishness is our time?

Let me explain what I mean. If I told you that I hated fishing but all my friends fished, in fact that's all they ever talked about, you would wonder what happened when I was with my friends. Who we associate with tells us about ourselves. So here is Bernie Madoff, heavily involved in the Jewish community -- how did that work? Was his Jewishness also feigned, something he use to secure easy "clients" for his scheme? Of course, people wonder how he could have done this to friends, to people he knew. But my question is about not only his Jewishness but Jewishness generally in our time. How could a conman feel comfortable within a Jewish community? Was that simply part of the con? Or is it actually possible for a conman to be a "proud Jew", wishing to interact with and within the Jewish community? What does that say about our present Jewish community? Shouldn't a conman not feel comfortable with fellow Jews who stand for values that are the opposite of a conman? I have a feeling that while a thief may like to steal from the Chafetz Chaim -- after all this great tzaddik would be full of rachamim and perhaps, sadly, an easy mark for a con -- this thief would find it very difficult to actually spend time with the Chafetz Chaim for the righteousness that would surround the Chafetz Chaim would drive a thief crazy; he simply couldn't take the ethical atmosphere. So did Bernie Madoff hang out with Jews because they were easy marks, he had an in with them, even though he couldn't stand all the honesty and goodness? Or did he not get this type of feeling when associating with Jews so there was nothing to bother him? And what does this say about the Jewish community? Or is there another perspective that we must attempt to understand in order to explain why someone wishes to hang out with a community that challenges his very intent? Maybe a human being is full of complexity? After all, that butcher who sold non-kosher meat as kosher had a family that was frum -- how could he maintain such a personal facade?

Rabbi Ben Hecht

12. The Phylactery of the Head

Wake up. Wash your hands. Get dressed. Put on your teffilin.

Slip on your shoes and your coat. Get the car keys. Drive to shul.

After prayers, leave your teffilin on.

Sit and learn until you have to leave. Then get back in your car and drive to work. When you get there, make yourself a coffee and toast a bagel. You’ve never eaten anything while wearing teffilin. Call your rabbi, make sure it’s okay.

Wash for the bagel. You decide not to bother your rabbi with this one: you undo your hand teffilin and do it back up once you’ve dried your hands.

When you go to the bathroom, leave your teffilin outside. When you put them back on afterwards, do you say a bracha? Probably not, you think. Call your rabbi to be sure.

Sit at your desk. You’re having a hard time concentrating. Your head teffilin are starting to give you a headache. You’ve been wearing them for almost three hours. Not to mention, your hand teffilin make it very difficult to type.

A temp spills orange juice on your new suit. You almost swear under your breath, but you bump your hand teffilin against your desk as you turn around. You figure you’re not supposed to swear with teffilin on.

You feel the need to sneeze but can’t remember if you’re allowed to sneeze while phylacteried (phylacterized?). You call your rabbi.

You have a meeting with a female coworker. You find her attractive. You call your rabbi to see if your teffilin prohibit you from attending the meeting but you get his voicemail. You decide to go through with the meeting, taking special care to stay focused.

On your lunch break, you take your regular walk around the park. You sit down on a bench and watch the clouds. You feel yourself falling asleep. You force yourself awake. Can you sleep with teffilin on?

You return to your office. Someone is eating fish and the smell bothers you. Do you have to go somewhere else? You vaguely remember reading something once about bothersome scents and teffilin (you call it the ‘Olfactory-Phylactery Connection’).

You call your rabbi. And you call him several more times throughout the rest of the day:

It’s raining when you leave work—can you get the teffilin wet?

In the car, you put the radio on—can you listen to music? Are kol isha laws more stringent with teffilin on?

Later, you wonder if television poses additional problems. “Rabbi, can I watch television with my teffilin on?” “I never said you could watch television without your teffilin on.” (You regret this phone call.)

You get to shul in time for mincha. After mincha, you go home. You hang the car keys on the hook, slip off your coat and your shoes, and take off your teffilin. The marks on your arm are more pronounced than usual. Your head is relieved.

You think about the fact that this is how it would be regularly if we still maintained the practice of wearing teffilin all day. Questions start filling your head:

What did they do on Rosh Chodesh? Today, we wear teffilin only until mussaf. Could this be what they did in ancient times? Does that make sense if you generally wear teffilin all day?

What about those who have the custom of wearing two different types of teffilin, to satisfy multiple opinions? Today, they take one pair off and put the second pair on. If the obligation were to wear teffilin all day, how could this be accomplished?

We get our teffilin checked now and then to make sure they’re still kosher. Did people have a second pair of teffilin to wear during the examination period?

And many other questions are imaginable.

But is there a place for such questions? We don’t wear our teffilin all day anymore. Should theoretical discussions be entertained? What good does it do for us to understand our world in a light that may never be cast?

The Gemara is filled with speculative tales and hypothetical considerations. The reality we live within is essential. Our bodies are bound by this reality. But God is not. Nor, to a lesser degree, are our minds. It is certainly simpler to put all of our attention on the world that is before us. But perceptions can be flawed, no matter how sincere the intentions. We have never believed that the ideal is found by blocking out from our consciousness the unrealized or undiscovered.

Those who put their teffilin on each morning must be aware that they will be taking their teffilin off far sooner than should be the case. To fully understand this, the mind is allowed to venture where the body cannot. It is in this way that we grow. To have dreams without reality is to escape. To have reality without dreams is to surrender. Judaism cannot survive—was not designed to exist—without reverie. One day, perhaps in our lifetime, we will be part of a reality in which we are wearing teffilin again as we used to. Like all good realities, though, if it is to exist at all, it must first exist intangibly.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Civil Marriages in Israel

The problem also exists outside of Israel. How to respond to two Jews wishing to marry not according to Halacha or, more correctly, live their lives not according to Halacha even as the Halacha imposes upon them. This is how I really see the issue in Israel. The question is not whether we should let a kohain marry a gerusha, a divorced woman. Perhaps it is better to state that this type of question is not the only question. The further question is whether I should participate in a bond of marriage according to Halacha when the individuals involved do not take Halacha and the marriage bond created according to Halacha seriously. thereby leading to greater challenges and problems.

This is a problem I continue to face as a rabbi. I may receive a call to perform a marriage between two non-observant individuals. What should I do? What standards should I set in agreeing to perform this marriage? Should I insist on the bride going to mikvah before the wedding, knowing full well that she most likely will not fulfill any of the requirements necessary to remove a woman from the state of being a niddah? Should I create this halachic bond between these two individuals recognizing that there may be a possibility that these same individuals will not treat this bond in a halachically serious manner? If the woman commits adultery in the future, the halachic status of the relationship will only make the repercussions more severe. If the marriage ends in divorce, should I be concerned that they may not search out a proper get thus rendering any subsequent relationship halachically adulterous and subsequent children mamzerim. Should my concern solely be to marry them according to Halacha, thereby at least removing some level of prohibition?

This are issues I face here in Toronto but they also represent the issues that are faced in Israel albeit with some differences. Since divorce is, for Jews, only al pi Halacha there is less of a chance that people will skip the necessity of a get. Yet how many Israelis going through a process of divorce live with others before their get? Should that be our concern? How are we to understand the imposition of Halacha on individuals who do not take it seriously or, even worse, are strongly opposed to this imposition? Kol Yisrael aravin zeh l'zeh and so I do have some obligation to impose halachic standards on fellow Jews yet, should I also not be concerned with long term implications of this imposing behaviour and potential backlash?

To many, it often seems that there is a nice, simple straightforward Torah answer to such problems -- and so keeping gittin and kiddushin in Israel al pi Halacha is most important. Sometimes, while recognizing the value of this, I wonder if it is?

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Monday, 16 March 2009

Mishnah At Shiva Possible Minhag Ta'us and an Elegent Solution

Here is the URL on our new Nishma-Minhag Yahoo Group:

Kol Tuv
Rabbi Richard Wolpoe [RRW]

Announcing new Nishma-Minhag discussion group

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Here are the details on Nishma-Minhag:
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Group email address:

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Get the ball rolling by posting the very first group message. Then add photos,
create an event, or whatever. In short, make yourself at home in your new

Simply drop by the Nishma-Minhag homepage now. To keep the online conversation
moving, be sure to invite friends, family, and others who share your passion.

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Yahoo! Groups

Friday, 13 March 2009

11. Studying the Torah

It was a phenomenon that I wasn’t really aware of until I went to university: to many, the study of X does not necessarily require the study of X. For example, Shakespeare classes were replete with A-students who had, in actuality, read very little of Shakespeare’s work. What they had read was a large number of essays, articles and books devoted to the analysis and criticism of Shakespeare’s work. They had, so to speak, studied Shakespeare without studying Shakespeare.
To understand the distinction better, imagine a mysterious box. Your task is to examine and comprehend the nature and contents of this box. You have two possible routes: you could open the box and investigate its contents directly; or you could stand away from the box and study it as a whole. Let’s call the first approach Subjective Study (because you are inside the box) and the second approach Objective Study (because you are removed from the box). Perhaps there is merit in both approaches. But you can’t do both at the same time and you have to start with one—either inside or outside. Your choice.
Similar to the theory that former soldiers make better presidents or former players make better coaches, I believe that Subjective Study should take precedence over Objective Study. Once you’ve been in the box you are ready to step back from the box and judge it. But if you’ve never been in the box, you can’t possibly understand it from the outside.
The focus on secondary sources (Objective Study) is too safe (unless you’ve studied primary sources first). Those who have studied secondary sources are not called philosophers—they’re called “students of philosophy.” There’s a reason for that. The study of something—anything—should be dangerous. Like learning how to drive. The most intelligent people I know are afraid to drive (though it’s been reported that they’ve conquered their fears now and then). Learning how to drive is scary because if you make a mistake your life could be changed forever. That exact sensation should be felt no matter the subject you’re studying. If there’s a reason you’re learning what you’re learning then you have something invested in it; if you have something invested, you have something to lose. But Objective Study—studying the stars without looking at the stars—is indicative of sterile study. It brings to mind white gloves and thick glass panes. It is detached.
Study is not the process of storing and cataloging information. We have libraries and computers for such tasks. Study involves output, not just input. Knowledge should be absorbed with purpose. Time is short and it is far more likely that you will err than that you will succeed. This means that you have to get involved. It has to matter to you. If you’re frightened or confused or humbled by what you’re studying, there’s a good chance you’re doing something right. It means that if you really want to understand Hamlet, you have to read ‘Hamlet.’
TB Kiddushin 40b poses the question: given the choice, is it better to study Torah or to do mitzvoth? The final answer is that it is better to study Torah because “study leads to action.” But what happens when study no longer leads to action? Can you still call it study?
We can study the Torah without studying the Torah. We can continue to take steps away from the Torah and look at it noninvasively. But what will that accomplish? Does Objective Study even fulfill the mitzvah of Studying the Torah?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Separate Religion

In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, there was a call for Conservative and Reform Jews to band together to declare themselves a separate religion and thereby form their own Chief Rabbinate. See This, the author argues, would then solve all the problems with the Orthodox in Israel. As a separate religion, adherents of this religion could make their own decisions regarding status and life cycle matters.

This is actually a most interesting suggestion but not really new. Rabbi J. David Bleich in one of his books states that years ago this offer was made to the Reform Rabbinate but they turned it down. It seems that they didn't want to be seen as a separate cult.

This is really the problem. Reform and Conservative Judaism don't just want to be recognized but they want to be seen as equal parts of the same religion with Orthodoxy. That is why this author's suggestion will be rejected by the very populace for whom he is trying to advocate. They are theologically already separate religions. The problem is that they don't want to see this.

In my article Adjective and Non-Adjective Jew (available at my further contention is that the only possible way of achieving greater Jewish unity is through recognizing this reality. We cannot solve the problems of Jewish friction by just trying to avoid the reality that we do have major theological disagreements. We do. The answer is not through ignoring this reality. The answer is to accept this reality and figure out a way of working within it. A separate Chief Rabbinate could create other problems but it would force people to confront the theological distinctions between the branches of Judaism and recognize that many of the beliefs which they take for granted is actually only supported by Orthodox Judaism. It would stop people from having their cake and eating it too. That is why this suggestion will be rejected. Reform and Conservative Judaism don't want to be seen as being theologically separate from Orthodoxy.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Could Maimondies and Rambam be Different People

Rabbi JB Soloveichik was reputed to say:
The Rambam of the Mishneh Torah is not the Rambam of the Moreh Nevuchim.

This led to a computer driven investigation of Rambam's various and sundry works... it tseems that that the Rambam was a physician, philosopher, rabbinical leader and halachic legalist. The idea that a single human being could span 4 careers in a single lifetime made healthy skeptics into sick cynics

Qabbalists have posited the following solution:
That four individuals over four lifetimes shared a single recycled soul. This not only accounts for the multiplicity of talent spread over time it suggests that a greener earth could be had if we only re-cycled like the rambam did

However the anti-mystical rational cynics have come up with documentation and a hypothesis. Thus we have the documentation hypothesis.

Rambam was actually a committee of four whose writings were usually in distinct volumes. And tn order to engage in a grandiose cover-up to hide this fact elements of each can be found in any single document making it difficult to ferret out the truth. The followers of the quadruple theory have delineated the 4 authors as follows:


P is for Philosopher. It could have been for Physican, too but that would have been too confusing. So

D was designated for Doctor and covers the medical writings. Now D could have stood for the "Deutoronomist" because the magnum opus after all is the dual Tprah aka Mishneh Torah. In order to avoid such confusion a new letter was sought

E stands for Encyclopaedist and stands for all of the Encyclopaedic writings including Mishneh Torah and Wiki-Torah

Finally the communal leader who wrote epistles both to Yemen and to Yenem as well was designated J.

J is for Jewish leader and is in the mold of Moses Ben Amram, Ben gurion, Ben zakkai and the Chinese Jewish leader Ben-Ching know for his effusive gratitude after consuming General Tso Chicken and Won-Ton Soup.


Avot DeRabbi Reuven - The Four Reactions

The hypothetical Mishnah in Avot DeRabbi Reuven states

There are four groups who reacted to the 19th Century emancipation from the ghetto:
  1. The First said revise thought and revise practice.
  2. The Second said maintain traditional thought but revise practice.
  3. The Third said maintain practice but revise traditional thought..
  4. The Fourth said stay fast and alter neither traditional practice nor thought.

To which position dost thou adhere?


Avot DeRabbi Reuven - The Three Rabbis

Dedicated to the Spirit [Neshamah] of Mishnah Avot

There are 3 kinds of rabbis who decide Halachah [Jewish Law]
  1. The Sources Expert
  2. The Romantic
  3. The Synthesiser

The first rabbi reads the sources well. Then he slavishly [and blindly] applies them. To what can this be compared? To a heartless computer that spits out cold facts. And Some say like a donkey that carries books

The second rabbi hears the question sees the person and ignores the sources. Rather he decides off the top of his head based upon his heart. This can be compared to an emotional lover who ignores reason and falls in love at first sight. Such a mercurial rabbi differs by mood and how he feels that day.

The third rabbi consults sources and colleagues. He delves into the topic then he applies his reason to read between the lines and to ferret underlying principles. Then he surveys the situation and decides by synthesising tradition and pragmatism To what is this third rabbi to be compared? To the wise King Solomon whose rapier wit saved the baby from the edge of the sword by evoking the truth using his God-given wisdom