Wednesday, March 31, 2010

oved avi

The Passover haggada contains the memorable phrase “Arami oved avi”, which is from the passage in Ki Tavo regarding the ceremony of bikkurim, the bringing of first fruits to Jerusalem.
Most but not all of this passage is cited in the haggada to explain how the Children of Israel (NB: not the Jewish people) arrived in Egypt and were rescued from there.

ה וְעָנִיתָ
וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ,
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה,
וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם,
לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
5 And thou shalt speak
and say before the LORD thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.

This phrase is itself hard to understand and each word can be questioned

In the context of the verse, the plain meaning of arami oved avi seems to be “A wandering Aramean was my father” however many haggadot, notably ArtScroll, follow the rabbinic understanding of this and translate it as “An Aramean
attempted to destroy my father”.

This translation has been challenged by more grammatically minded commentators, such as Rashbam, who say that the verb oved is intransitive so the verse cannot have this meaning and in any case this is not a verb at all.

The suggestion that oved can mean “wandering” or “gone astray” can be seen from other verses in the Hebrew Bible, a striking example being from Psalms 119:176

קעו תָּעִיתִי--
כְּשֶׂה אֹבֵד, בַּקֵּשׁ עַבְדֶּךָ:

כִּי מִצְוֹתֶיךָ, לֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי.
176 I have gone astray
like a lost sheep; seek Thy servant; {N}

for I have not forgotten Thy commandments. {P}

So, having established that oved
means wandering, this raises question - who was “Avi” the alleged

The “usual suspects” here are the three forefathers, so it makes sense to look briefly at each candidate.

Abraham’s original name was Avram which is understood in rabbinic tradition as meaning Av le-Aram (father to Aram) so he fits as an Aramean. He also wandered the land and of course went to Egypt.

Isaac did not do that much wandering as he never left the land of Israel, this is according to the rabbis because he counted after the akeda as “sanctified” and so could leave the “sanctified” land of Israel.

Jacob, of course, fits the sense of the Haggada and to be fair this does fit the sense of the rest of the verse “and sojourned there, few in number”.

If you can’t make up your mind there is a compromise suggestion that avi means all of three of the forefathers!

However, the question remains why the rabbis changed the plan meaning in the haggada, which is also found in the halakhic midrash (Sifre) on this passage in Devarim?

In addition, the Septuagint, which was composed by Jews under Egyptian rule, also changes the meaning of the words 'arami 'obed 'abi. Its texts render the phrase as though it read 'aram y'obed (or
ye'abed) 'abi
, which is forced into the sense of "My father
forsook Aram."

It is possible that the authors of the Septuagint, like the Midrash, hesitated to identify the ancestor of Israel, specifically Jacob, as an Aramaean. The idea here is perhaps that Jacob had “transcended” his Aramean roots to create
a distinct national identity – or simply that at the time there were bad political relations with the Arameans! In addition, the Arameans appear to have been a nomadic people, whereas the Children of Israel are intended to have fixed portions in the Land of Israel (and Transjordan)
so it may have been felt that this comparison was inappropriate.

Looking at this within the context of rabbinic derash, as noted above, the context of arami oved avi is the Bikkurim (first fruits) ceremony which they associated with being rescued from our enemies – the Mishna in Bikkurim says
when they are brought the Levites would sing the Psalm Mizmor
Shir Hanukat HaBayit LeDavid

ב אֲרוֹמִמְךָ
יְהוָה, כִּי דִלִּיתָנִי; וְלֹא-שִׂמַּחְתָּ
אֹיְבַי לִי.
2 I will extol thee,
O LORD, for Thou hast raised me up, and hast not suffered mine enemies
to rejoice over me.

Aside from Esau, who was after all his brother, Laban is the most obvious enemy of Jacob. Further we can see that the rabbis identified Laban with the word oved in the sense of “enemy” rather than wandering from Bereishit Rabba on Genesis 24:60 (And they blessed Rebekah, and said unto her: 'Our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of ten thousands, and let thy seed possess the gate of those that hate them.'):

    ...R. Berekiah and R. Levi in the name of R. Hama b. Haninah said: Why was Rebekah not remembered [with children] until Isaac prayed for her? So that the non-Jews might not say: ‘Our prayer bore fruit’; but, “And Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife” (Gen. XXV, 21). R. Berekiah said in R. Levi's name: It is written, “The blessing of the destroyer (oved) came upon me” (Job XXIX, 13). ’ The blessing of the destroyer (oved)’ alludes to Laban the Syrian, as it says “An Aramean sought to destroy my father” (Deut. XXVI, 5).

In the view of the rabbis, did Laban want to physically destroy the Jewish people or to spiritually destroy them?

Rav Soloveitchik is reported to have suggested that the haggada asks this question and says it was not physical destruction rather when Laban caught up with Yaakov on Har Gilead, at the end of Vayetze he says:

מג וַיַּעַן
לָבָן וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, הַבָּנוֹת
בְּנֹתַי וְהַבָּנִים בָּנַי וְהַצֹּאן
צֹאנִי, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה רֹאֶה, לִי-הוּא;
וְלִבְנֹתַי מָה-אֶעֱשֶׂה לָאֵלֶּה, הַיּוֹם,
אוֹ לִבְנֵיהֶן, אֲשֶׁר יָלָדוּ.
43 And Laban answered and said
unto Jacob: 'The daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that thou seest is mine; and what can I do this day for these my daughters, or for their children whom they have borne?

Specifically, look
at the contrast that the Haggadah provides. Pharaoh only wanted to destroy the males, and we have verses to that effect, saying
הַיִּלּוֹד, הַיְאֹרָה תַּשְׁלִיכֻהוּ, וְכָל-הַבַּת, תְּחַיּוּן
Rav Soloveitchik understood the verses above as Laban claiming both sons and daughters - both the daughters and the sons of Jacob are claimed for his own.

On this basis, the threat that Laban posed to Yaakov and all of Israel was not a physical one, but a spiritual one, namely one concerning the very character of the Israelites.

To make this case, the Rav's claim is that even in the derasha in Haggadah, the Arami is Jacob, so he combines the peshat
and the derash, to read this as “As an Aramean, my father 'perished'."
(This corresponds to the parsing provided by the leyning). As a result of this threat, Jacob had to leave to prevent the assimilation, and so eventually descended to Egypt – which is why we now have to celebrate Passover!

This does relate to something which has puzzled me whenever I have read the haggada.
After all leaving the daughters alive would allow for the Jewish people, as we understand our identity today, to continue – the children of the surviving women would still be Jews (subject to litigation anyway).

However, at time of Pharaoh the rabbinic idea of the Jewish people did not exist in this form and there was instead a tribal concept of the Children of Israel, based around patriarchal descent. We can see this as, for example,
one follows the tribe of one’s father (as is still the case, e.g. for Cohanim, Levites and “Israelites”).

Pharaoh therefore felt that if he killed the boys the girls would marry Egyptians and become part of that culture. He wasn’t in a position to anticipate that when the haggada emerged, there would be a concept of matriarchal
descent which led to the analysis in the haggada!

In practice, it seems quite likely that Pharaoh did indeed intend to wipe out the Children of Israel and this would have been the sort of aim that one would expect in those days. Indeed, the first mention of the Children of Israel
in a non-biblical source is the Merneptah Stele which claims “Israel is wasted, bare of seed.”

As for Laban, whether or not it is about assimilation, the verse above seems to be effectively saying that Laban claims some sort of ownership over his extended family.

In summary, however one understands all the above, it seems that the Jewish people are indeed still around and continuing their traditions. Within this, there is a rich tradition of study, scholarship and ongoing interpretation
for our days inside the Jewish world and also in academia – so go and learn, and don’t take anything at face value – even (especially) this essay!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Seeing God?

One of the best known phrases in the Torah is from the sedrah of Mishpatim when the Children of Israel accept the Torah by saying “na-aseh venishma” (“All that HaShem hath spoken will we do, and obey”). Nishma is from the word “to hear” and this has given rise, among some Jewish thinkers, to the idea that Judaism values hearing above all other senses.

Yet just after this verse from Exodus 24 we read the following remarkable passage:

9 Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel;
10 and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.
11 And upon the nobles (atzilei) of the children of Israel He laid not His hand; and they beheld God, and did eat and drink.

This section stresses the visual, specifically seeing God both through “sight” (verse 9) and also “vision” (verse 11).

These three verses raise many questions and the Rabbis of the Talmudic period understood this passage in varying ways.

For example, with regard to “eating and drinking” Rab says “In the future world there is no eating nor drinking nor propagation nor business nor jealousy nor hatred nor competition, but the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads feasting on the brightness of the Divine Presence, as it says, And they beheld God, and did eat and drink” (Bavli Berakhot 17a).

Yet in Bamidbar Rabba we read “R. Johanan, however, said [that the pleasure derived from gazing at the Divine splendour was] real nourishment; as it is written: In the light of the king's countenance is life2 (Prov. XVI, 15)”

The Aramaic translation by Onkelos has “as if they were eating and drinking” so follows the idea expressed by Rab.

The text itself in verse 11 implies that “seeing God” is dangerous (NB: the word atzilei in this verse is obscure and is understood to mean “nobles”). Bamidbar Rabba develops this idea as follows:

“R. Tanhuma said: It teaches that [Nadab and Abihu] waxed haughty and stood upon their feet and fixed gloating eyes upon the Divine Presence. R. Joshua of Siknin, in the name of R. Levi, said: Moses had not gazed gloatingly upon the Divine Presence, yet he enjoyed its splendour.”

Yet what is striking in these comments is a lack of focus or concern by the midrash over the basic idea of “seeing God” itself. In fact there are other passages understood by the Rabbis in this way – e.g. on “This is my God and I will glorify him” from the Song at the Reed Sea the midrash says that all of the children of Israel actually saw God at the Red Sea – because it says straight after “The Lord is a man of war”.

A modern scholar, Daniel Boyarin, argues that concern over the idea of “seeing God” actually has its source in Hellenic rather than Hebraic sources because of the problem of anthropomorphism – sight implies that God is (as it were) corporeal. This was not an issue for the Hebraic tradition.

This concern emerges clearly in Maimonides, who is well known for disdaining anthropomorphism for reasons based on Greek philosophy. Our passage is discussed in several places in his Guide to the Perplexed where typically he says of verse 10 “this refers to intellectual apprehension and in no way to the eye’s seeing”.

Yet there are strong contradictory traditions. In Maimonides Laws of Repentance III:7 he declares that anyone who says there is one God but that he has a body or physical form is a heretic (alongside an idolater amongst other categories). The Rabad challenges this passage robustly – he claims that “greater and better men than [Maimonides] have accepted this doctrine” because of the way in which they have read scripture and midrash (i.e. as in the passages above).

There is a little discussed work, which may date back to the late Talmudic period, called the Shiur Qomah which actually provides measurements for the limbs of the “Divine body”. It would appear that in the passage from the Laws of Repentance, Maimonides is attacking this tradition and those who accepted it – i.e. people such as Saadiah Gaon, Judah HaLevi and Abraham ibn Ezra.

In addition, in the roughly contemporaneous writings of the Hasidei Ashkenaz (German Jewish pietists) there are many grossly anthropomorphic passages. They saw the Torah as a collection of names and, in some cases, that these names give clues to the dimensions of the Divine limbs as in the Shiur Qomah. It should be noted that the passage from Shemot above mentions one such limb, i.e. God’s “feet” an imagery appears in several places in the Tanakh and which may be euphemistic in its own right.

What is striking is that Maimonides critique of such views has become universally accepted thereby arguably introducing a Hellenistic philosophical conception of God into the heart of our understanding of Judaism.

Given that ideas of God’s corporeality were clearly accepted by pious Jews of Maimonides period, it is also conceivable that these ideas existed in the Talmudic period and of course before that in the Biblical period.

Returning to the theme of whether “seeing” is more important than “hearing”, at the giving of the Ten Commandments the Torah says “All of the people saw the voices” (Exodus 20:14). The midrash on this says:

Rabbi Ishmael says “They saw what could be seen and heard what could be heard” but Rabbi Akiva says “They saw what could be heard”

Boyarin argues that this passage, amongst others, indicates that Rabbi Akiva strongly privileged seeing above hearing and there was a strong desire amongst the rabbinic sages who followed this idea to “see” God in some sense, albeit that this is dangerous if done incorrectly as seen, for example, in regard to Nadab and Abihu above.

In conclusion, we should not take for granted the idea that “hearing” is predominant in our tradition. Further, the passage from Mishpatim above is remarkable and worthy of much greater study.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ariane Sherine - Parents have to make choices for the children

I very much enjoyed the first atheist bus campaign, especially the Advertising Standards Authority’s ruling that the word “probably” had to be added and the Christian bus driver who refused to drive a bus with this advert. There is something wonderfully British about all this.

However the latest campaign “Let me grow up and choose for myself” goes too far and just hasn’t been thought through. It appears to be working on a number of assumptions about parenting and religion which are questionable, at best. In addition, its advice is simply impractical and makes one wonder what the psychological impact would be on the children whose parents try this approach.

Parents are not a blank slate, any more than their children are. Whether based on “evolutionary psychology” or on tradition, they have values which are cultural as well as religious and it is natural and necessary for them to wish to pass these on to their children. Children are naturally inquisitive and when they ask questions about the world, they expect answers, or they keep on asking. Parents cannot say they will get back to them on these complex issues when they are old enough to understand; instead they have to try to explain things in a way which is appropriate to their children’s age and abilities, which precludes nuanced explanations. For example, when my own children at a young age wanted to understand the difference between the Conservative and Labour parties I explained that Tories won’t share their toys and Labour people would (in my defence, this was before New Labour!)

Religion is not just a small aspect of society and one wonders whether this campaign takes into account just how culturally Christian this country is. Would this campaign advocate banning Christmas to avoid explaining to children who Jesus was until they are able to appreciate the historical issues? Whole swathes of literature and music would become inaccessible without this cultural background – even Harry Potter celebrates Christmas.

The atheist campaign is concerned that a religious upbringing is a form of “child abuse” which damages a child’s rational faculties for life. The alleged Jesuit quote “give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man” seems to inform such thinking. Nevertheless, text based religions, such as Judaism, ideally require immersion in these texts from a young age and such education is helped by faith schools which have good and bad points, like all schools.
The Talmud says that a child should start learning these texts from the age of six and the Ethics of the Fathers has the rather poignant saying “one who studies Torah as a child, to what is he compared? To ink written on fresh paper. And one who studies Torah as an old man, to what is he compared? To ink written on blotted paper.” Of course, this is not to ignore the fact that Jewish male children are circumcised when they are eight days old, a choice which Jewish parents very much have to make for the children.

There are practical issues here as well. If parents attend religious services they are hardly likely to leave their children behind, which will lead to them having to explain things which the new campaign would preclude (as well as denying children the sense of being part of a community). Alternately, leaving them behind would simply pique their curiosity, also not a desirable outcome from the campaign’s view.

The logical consequence of this campaign is that children of religious parents are best taken into care and kept away from anyone who may influence them “inappropriately”. Whilst I have had discussions with atheists on CiF who claim that when they say a religious upbringing is “child abuse” they don’t mean this literally, one can but wonder what this does actually mean other than as rhetoric?

The reality is that parents make choices for the children, whether they are religious or not, and this is the essence of being a responsible parent. This campaign is damaging, misguided and impractical.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fundamentalism in the United Synagogue (UK)

               Fundamentalism in the United Synagogue – reality or myth?


Today in modern orthodox Judaism, at a time of greater than ever educational opportunities, we are seeing a return to simple faith and a turning away from more analytic approaches to Judaism.   

This article explores this issue and was inspired by a recent book by Sol Schimmel, called “The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs, Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth”, as well as a conversation I had recently with a friend about the impact of biblical criticism (BC) on Orthodox Judaism (OJ):

“....I’ll let you into a secret, but one which you may have guessed. I am a modern, Western, educated individual. In all areas of my life I accept the scholarly consensus as the most likely explanation for the time being. I understand that they may (indeed some certainly will) be shown to be wrong, but they are my working assumptions. The same should apply to BC, but because I want to be an orthodox Jew, and because I think OJ is irreconcilable with BC, I reject BC.”

Fundamentalism is a difficult subject . There is no fixed set of belief in classical rabbinical sources, and  the idea that Judaism has any clear set of beliefs has even been challenged by recent works such as Menachem Kellner’s Must a Jew Believe Anything.

Classic rabbinic works explicitly value diversity through its preservation of minority opinions, as explained in Mishnah Eduyot 1:4-6.  There are cases where the Talmud rules according to minority opinions (see bAvoda Zara 59a Tosafot s.v. amar Rav Papa) so there is a tradition of diversity rather than fundamentalism within Orthodox Judaism.

Maimonides set out the classic non-fundamentalist approach to Judaism in his Guide to the Perplexed which represents the rationalist’s approach to Judaism.  The issue with the Guide is that it is itself very perplexing.  This is due to it being explicitly set out as “secret” (esoteric) work.  Maimonides appears to have taken the view that the educated elite could benefit from his work whereas a more simple faith (the Thirteen Principles) was appropriate for most people.   This would lead to an ordered society which would allow intellectuals time to study while others did the mundane work.

Today, information about Judaism is just a click away and this esoteric approach is not an option. Most Jews are sufficiently educated to learn about critical approaches to their religious traditions, whether from books, the media, or other sources. 

We now less rather than more open in our approach, as I argue below.  A number of factors have led to this.  These include the impact on the Jewish world of:

a)      the enlightenment and the opportunities for social integration

b)      competing non-traditional Jewish movements such as the reform, Bundists and the zionists

c)       last but not least the Holocaust

These factors helped create and then destroy the more "moderate" orthodox responses to the enlightenment which were based in Germany specifically the Torah in Derekh Eretz (TIDE) movement started by R Shimshon Raphael Hirsch ztz'l whose approach is typified by this quote:

"The more, indeed, Judaism comprises the whole of man and extends its declared mission to the salvation of the whole of mankind, the less it is possible to confine its outlook to the synagogue. [Thus] the more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will be his views and aspirations [and] the less aloof will he be from ... art or science, culture or education ... [and] the more joyfully will he applaud whenever he sees truth and justice and peace and the ennoblement of man." (ibid)

When the most "enlightened" nation in the world descended to barbarism this undermined the enlightened approach typified by TIDE and many of those who survived turned away from this to less compromising beliefs, or became silent about these ideas for entirely understandable reasons.

Of course, TIDE did not completely disappear and we nowadays talk of “Modern Orthodoxy” as opposed to haredi (“ultra-orthodox”) however this is deeply problematic – as is evident from the fact that there is no coherent definition as to what “modern orthodoxy” actually is.

In the UK, modern orthodoxy is a vague term roughly interchangeable with “centrist orthodoxy”.  It also creates a false dichotomy with haredi groups, e.g. some modern orthodox groups can espouse very old-fashioned values and vice-versa. 

According to its web site, the United Synagogue believes in a “modern and inclusive brand of Judaism” – which sounds laudable until one asks what one means by modernity and what sort of inclusivity?

The United Synagogue has embraced haredi works such as Art Scroll over the past few years – whilst these can provide a good introduction to classic texts they can be historically inaccurate and present a world view which jars with modern sensibilities, especially enlightenment values.  The US has some rabbis who are most certainly not “modern orthodox” in their views and it has outsourced its education to kiruv (evangelical) groups which again do not espouse the enlightenment as a positive thing. 

Works such as the Soncino commentaries of the Bible which exemplified an open approach in citing non-Jewish and non-orthodox commentaries are now being updated because “the publishers [nowadays in effect the Judaica press] now feel that there is a need to acquaint the reader with the pure Jewish view of these holy books” (emphasis added).  The publisher is on record as saying that Orthodox Jews nowadays are not interested in what non-orthodox commentators have to say.   How this relates to the Maimonidean principle in Shemoneh Perakim to “accept the truth wherever it comes from” is far from clear.  The original Soncino works which did follow this principle are now only available from 2nd hand book stores and will disappear.

Religion can be good for society except when it is fundamentalist, dogmatic, and intolerant.  I would suggest enlightenment values are the touch point here – we can and need to develop views of Judaism which are based around these values and recognise when co-religionists explicitly or implicitly reject them.

We need to consider whether the new publishers of Soncino are correct in their assessment that orthodox Jews are not interested in any other source of truth or wisdom outside their tradition, or whether we still wish to follow the Maimonidean principle of accepting the truth, wherever it may come from and incorporating that within our rich and broad tradition.



Sunday, September 23, 2007

Dawkins The God Delusion

Dawkins and me

Richard Dawkins and I have crossed swords in the past. At the time of the tsunami in 2004 Martin Kettle wrote an article in the Guardian called “How can religious people explain something like this?” which posed the difficult challenge to all religious people of how to explain such an “act of God”, given that it is hard enough to “explain” people’s inhumanity to each other.

I wrote a response, which the Guardian published much to my surprise, along the lines of the fact that we have to accept that such tragedies are essentially incomprehensible from any perspective. This provoked a response from Richard Dawkins who wrote:

Dan Rickman says "science provides an explanation of the mechanism of the tsunami but it cannot say why this occurred any more than religion can". There, in one sentence, we have the religious mind displayed before us in all its absurdity. In what sense of the word "why", does plate tectonics not provide the answer?

Anyone who knows me will acknowledge that I rarely summarise anything, so I took this as a great compliment! Note, by the way, how Dawkins shifted the ground in his response (is his “why” the same as my “why”?).

In any case, I decided that I should carry on my rather one sided debate with Dawkins by reading “The God Delusion” – this being justified of course on a “da mah lehashiv” (know how to answer an unbeliever – see Avot 2:19).

In one sentence, Dawkins has written a pretty poor and damaging book. The rest of the article will explain some of the reasons why I say this.

His central theme is based on “logical positivism” i.e. the idea that the only meaningful statements are those which can be “proved” scientifically. This leads to a rejection as “meaningless” not just of religion but all metaphysics – i.e. anything which addresses the ultimate nature of the “human condition” and the world. Karl Popper (a well known philosopher of science) has argued, against this, that such statements may be meaningful; however they are not testable or provable statements.

A metaphysical statement represents an idea about the world or about the universe, yet there exists no evidence or argument so compelling that it could rationally force a change in that idea, in the sense of definitely proving it false. This is not a defense of the irrational – for example, mystical systems which are based on the falsifiable (and falsified) Ptolemaic model of the solar system can’t be defended against this sort of critique.

Herein lies a central issue in this debate. Dawkins takes a hard line view that all human knowledge is subject to rational analysis and falisifiabiilty. Ironically he uses some arguments in his book that I have seen in kiruv articles, of course trying to prove the opposite case. For example, he uses an argument based on probability that atheism is more likely than theism. This is as nonsensical as the counter-argument. Probability theory is based on repeatable events such as tossing a coin and to apply it to the existence, or otherwise, of God is simply incoherent.

Like some theists, Dawkins is sure that his case is irrefutable. Such certainty leads him to his central charge that all religious people are either bad or mad.

With regard to the “mad” – presumably the majority - he says he is well aware of the psychiatric connotations of the word “delusion” and this is why he uses this provocative description. The psychiatric definition of delusion is as follows:

A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture (e.g., it is not an article of religious faith).

This hardly supports Dawkins case.

The “bad” are those who gain power and authority from religion, e.g. those who teach children religion at an impressionable age, which Dawkins sees as “child abuse”. Whilst there is no doubt that people use religion for power – L R Hubbard who founded Scientology is quoted as saying that “If you want to get rich, you start a religion” - such an extreme critique is hardly constructive.

Dawkins is doing something very harmful here, namely trying to make dialogue impossible between religious and non-religious people. Interestingly, there is a further parallel with some in the religious camp who see dialogue with non-believers as dangerous. At a time when all the major religions have (yet) again entered the political process, this is of great concern. To prevent extremists on all sides from creating ever greater divisions between people, we need greater understanding not less.

Dawkins undermines those who would build bridges in his section on “How 'Moderation' in Faith Leads to Fanaticism”. The quotes he places around the word 'moderation' speak for themselves. Dawkins’ position implies cannot acknowledge that moderation exists with regard to a religious viewpoint.

The empirical facts which contradict this appear to be of no concern to Dawkins. He reveals his intolerance of any religious teaching through his emotive language e.g. p348 "Suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools, that duty to God exceeds all other priorities ... taught that lesson not necessarily by extremist fanatics but by decent, gentle, mainstream religious instructors... who lined them up in their madrassas ... [teaching them] every word of the holy book [so they become like] demented parrots [as they nod their agreement]" (my emphasis).

In addition to this, for Dawkins religion clearly means Anglicanism and he reflects some of the attitudes of his upbringing with his frequent references to the vengeful God of the “Old Testament”. His critique of Judaism cites the work of an academic called John Hartung who has written some (at best) deeply unsympathetic and poorly researched articles on Judaism which argue that Judaism is racist towards non-Jews who are an “out group” it considers not to be human beings. I am not aware of any rabbinic response to this particular aspect of Dawkins’ book and it is of concern that such a widely read book spreads half-truths and misinformation of this nature about Judaism.

In general, how does on respond to Dawkins’ critique of religion? It seems to me that the answer, in part, involves trying to develop a more reasoned approach to our history, culture and faith.

Over the past few years we have seen popular take up of unhistorical, fundamentalist books on Judaism which cannot readily be defended rationally, as much as they have their uses in terms of providing an introduction to primary texts and Jewish practice. At the same time we have also seen an explosion of academic books on Judaism which are part of the western intellectual, enlightenment based, tradition and which in many cases provide fascinating insights into the historical development of our culture and religion. Much more research could and should be done and is held back by lack of funding.

As a “centrist” synagogue we should focus our attention to this area and provide educational opportunities for our members which give access to some of this fascinating and intellectually well founded research. In this way perhaps we can restore the vision of Deuteronomy 4:6

...for this [the statutes and ordinances] is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that, when they hear all these statutes, shall say: 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'

Dan Rickman

August 2008

Monday, September 11, 2006

Israel Shahak

I came across this article, much more could be said! Interested in views of anyone out there...

The veteran anti-Zionist Israel Shahak claimed that Judaism systematically discriminates against non-Jews. But the accusation fails to do justice to rabbinic tradition, argues ...

Even before the latest events in the Middle East [refers to 2002], Zionism had been coming under renewed attack in international forums, the media and on campus. Israel has been branded as a racist and apartheid state, not simply by foes of its policies in the occupied territories but by those who denounce its insistence on defining itself as a state for Jews.
Indeed, the accusations go even deeper, drawing on the idea that the Jewish religion itself discriminates against non-Jews — an idea prominently advanced by, among others, a left-wing Israeli academic, the late Israel Shahak.

Shahak, who died in 2001, was a chemistry professor at the Hebrew University, a Holocaust survivor and a trenchant critic of both Judaism and Zionism from a "human rights" perspective.

Shahak's campaign began with an alleged incident in the 1960s, when he claimed that he had "personally witnessed a strictly religious Jew refuse to allow his phone to be used on the Sabbath in order to call an ambulance for a non-Jew who happened to collapse in his Jerusalem neighbourhood." This caused a stir worldwide, prompting Immanuel Jako- bovits, then working as a rabbi in New York, to denounce it as a modern "blood libel." Rabbi Jakobovits rebutted Shahak's claims, reaffirming the dignity of Jewish law by citing the explicit ruling of Israel's then Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi that the Sabbath be broken to save a human life.

As a result of the controversy, Shahak, an atheist, applied his knowledge of the Talmud, rabbinical rulings and Jewish history with ever greater vigour to challenge the Zionist concept of a "Jewish state" — concluding that any state based on the domination of one religious group would lead to the oppression of other groups. He went on to write several books, including "Jewish Religion, Jewish History," which lists as many examples of negative comments regarding non-Jews in the Talmud and medieval rabbinic literature as he could find.
Despite the polemical nature of Shahak's work, the challenge it poses requires an answer, but so far as I am aware, there has been almost no Orthodox response.

The questions we should face are how to achieve a balanced view of often conflicting opinions in rabbinic literature: and how Jewish law applies to a modern world based, in principle at least, on enlightenment values of equality and tolerance. There is a tension between the ideas of the chosenness of the Jewish people and of the equality of people of different religions and races.

That tension is summarised in the following debate in rabbinic literature. Regarding the verse in Leviticus, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself," the Talmud quotes Rabbi Akiva's view that this is a "great principle in the Torah." But Ben-Azai says "an even greater principle is, 'This is the book of the generations of Adam [on the day that God created man, he made him in his image, Genesis 5:1].'"

Despite its universal overtones, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" is often taken in rabbinic literature to refer to a fellow Jew. However, Ben-Azai's greater principle is clearly universal: all human beings are created in the image of God and this forms the basis of chesed, our empathy with our fellow human beings. This principle of empathy underlies the saying, "Do not do to others what you would not wish done to you," which is ascribed to two of the major rabbinic figures, Hillel and Akiva.

Nevertheless, the Talmud contains views of non-Jews that are far from empathic, the most widespread examples being found in tractate Avoda Zara, which deals with the laws of idolatry. Many of these Talmudic rulings were later codified by Maimonides, who writes, for example: "It is prohibited to rescue non-Jews with whom we are not at war and [Jewish, but presumably dishonest] herders of small cattle if they are in danger of death; for example, if one sees one of them who fell into the sea, we don't try to rescue him, as it says 'You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbour' and these are not your neighbours."

Such rulings are troubling and hard to understand. We can't always be sure to whom they were intended to apply, because the texts were subject to heavy censorship both in Christian and Muslim countries owing to accusations of bias against non-Jews. But there are cases where we are explicitly directed not to have empathy with those who do not have it with us — some non-Jews, such as the seven Canaanite nations specified in Deuteronomy; others, Jews, such as those considered to be irredeemable thieves, like the "herders of small cattle," or heretics.

Accusations of discrimination against non-Jews are discussed in the Talmud itself, which relates that two Roman jurists visited the academy of Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh around the end of the first century to investigate "the nature of Israel's Torah." They declared: "All the Torah is pleasing and praiseworthy, except for one thing, that you say: 'What has been stolen from a gentile is permitted, while what has been stolen from a Jew is forbidden.'" The Palestinian Talmud goes on to say, "At that time, Rabban Gamliel ordained that the robbed property of a gentile is forbidden, so as to prevent profanation of the Divine Name [chilul Hashem]."

But the issue continued to be debated in later rabbinic responsa. In order to gain a better understanding, we need to recall that Jewish law recognises a number of overriding principles, such as chilul Hashem, mipnei darchei shalom ("the ways of the Torah are the ways of peace") and, within this, mishum eivah (to avoid hatred).

During the Hasmonean war, Jews did not even break the Sabbath to save their own lives (I Maccabees 2:29-43). This was clearly untenable, and a solution was found within halachah to allow this in the interests of self-defence. The idea was later extended to include the saving of non-Jewish lives, on the principle of mishum eivah.

We can, of course, argue the motivation about such halachic devices. Is mishum eivah, the avoidance of hatred, an entirely self-serving reason, which discounts the intrinsic value of non-Jewish lives but cares only about the consequences for us? Or does it reflect the broader view of this being part of "the ways of peace," as all human beings are "in the image of God?"
Either view, the more tolerant or the more parochial, is possible. It is worth noting that there are commentators, both old and new, who do interpret "to love your neighbour as yourself" as universal, not-withstanding the way it is used in halachah. And then there is the powerful declaration in the Mid-rash: "I call heaven and earth to witness that whether one be gentile or Jew, man or woman, male slave or female slave, in accordance with the merit of his deeds does the Holy Spirit rest on him."

In medieval times, the Provençal rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249-1316) ruled that whenever the Talmud seems to discriminate against non-Jews — such as in the laws cited by Maimonides — it is discussing the ancient nations, not the "modern" ones of his day. For him, the key issue was whether people accepted the seven Noachide laws, especially the law against idolatry. The Meiri, as he is known, comments: "Every non-Jew who strives to observe the seven Noachide laws is considered one of the righteous of the nations. He or she is reckoned among the faithful and possesses a portion in the world to come." But however cheering to the liberal-minded, this view is not universally accepted among contemporary poskim, or halachic decision-makers.

Another strand of Jewish thought, Kabbalah, which has become increasingly influential in the past 200 years, along with the impact of the Holocaust, has perhaps led some modern poskim away from the more tolerant attitude of the Meiri.

Kabbalah teaches an "essentialist" view, that Jewish souls are superior to non-Jewish souls, something which many nowadays would find abhorrent and dangerous. This idea is opposed by those who argue Jews are "chosen" only by virtue of having accepted the Torah.
Judaism is a rich tradition, which balances the competing claims of particularism and universalism. This can be seen as one of its strengths since, human nature being what it is, it may be beyond us to love all humanity: but we should all endeavour to empathise with "others," as human beings in God's image.

There is no easy summary of attitudes to non-Jews within the large and complex rabbinic tradition. Some passages may be inspiring, others shocking to a modern reader. In a literature spanning thousands of years, it would be astonishing not to come across views that jar with modern sensibilities, because they reflect either a radically altered social awareness or the bitterness created by widespread anti-Semitism.

Our challenge is to know how to read and evaluate this material properly, which Shahak failed to do with his polemical approach.

We should also make clear to today's poskim that a balance is required between staying true to the tradition and building on the tolerance of authorities such as the Meiri and his successors.

This will lead to an outlook acceptable to the vast majority of Jews, who believe in the "humane instincts" of Judaism and the Jewish people.

Comment is free

I have recently been contributing to the UK Guardian's "Comment is Free" (CiF) blog and this has been a mixed experience

There is a plethora of hatred and vitriole against Jews and Israel on this blog which the Guardian provides a platform for on the basis of a misplaced liberalism

We have already seen ample evidence over the years of the dangers of spreading hatred and lies. Reading 9/11 reactions today people were saying that the attacks have divided them - this is what the terrorists want

Here is a typical example of one of my posts - I feel very let down by the Guardian in its approach:

Regarding the anti-semitism (which no-one denies exists btw) you are doubtless a reasonable person who will see through this sort of nonsense. This is not the case in general and there is ample evidence that these sorts of comments are harmful and dangerous
Some is provided for example by this article which highlights a significant rise of anti-semitic attacks
Surely every one should be concerned about this, whether it affects them directly or not?
I don't buy the Guardian to pay for anti-semitic diatribes to be published on CiF day in day out. OK as an identified and generally identifiable Jew this affects me personally. However I am now on the verge of stopping buying the Guardian after 30 years of reading it not because of its alleged anti-semitism but because of its misplaced liberalism in allowing this
What happened to no platform for racists etc?
Shortly after your comment we get a fine example of pure hatred and stupidity from Maxxed [suggested dropping a nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv]. Some people may rise above the hatred and stupidity which permeates these forums, Maxxed is not one of them
Most people won't act but the sickening persistent day in day out attacks and vilifications of Jews, charectirsations of Jews/Israelis/Zionists as Nazis and worse, etc etc is a national disgrace, a betrayal of any identifiable values which I thought the Guardian represented
Just for the avoidance of doubt, I am concerned by all attacks of this nature. I am deeply worried by Daily Mail attacks on immigrants, tabloid attacks on foreigners, attacks all over on Islam which deserves our respect as one of the great world religious and cultural traditions.
Perhaps one sees what one is most sensitive too but what I see mostly in any discussion which even vaguely relates to Israel/Palestine is constant hatred of Jews
As I said above anti-zionism is not anti-semitism however it certainly can be.

Monday, February 13, 2006

cartoons and the holocaust

Here is a letter which I wrote in response to the Guardian article linked below - I liked the arcticle generally but disliked the acceptance of this bizarre "outrage equivalence" between the religious offense and the Holocaust.

I also thought it is strange to suggest that religion has no role in denying freedom of speech!

One point I wanted to make but thought was too subtle (and arguable anyway) is that there is considerable irony in Iran's holocaust denial. If I wanted to critique western liberal democracies the fact that they can descend into barbarism as happened during the Nazi period is surely the basis for a devastating critique should one wish to make it. Denying these events underscores the irrationality of this whole sad affair

Anyway letter follows:

We certainly need the "mutual respect" which Anas Altikriti calls for at the end of his article (,,1706813,00.html). However, he does nothing to help this when he writes, for example, "Is it so difficult to digest that Islam considers insulting the prophets of God a profound violation of what is sacred, just as Europe rightly regards denial of the Nazi Holocaust?"

Yes, this is indeed difficult to digest as this is mixing chalk and cheese - "insulting the prophets of God" is a religious concept, whereas there is nothing "religious" about Holocaust denial, which rejects documented history for ideological, almost invariably anti-semitic, reasons.

Futher, Mr Altikriti claim that "Religion no more restricts freedom of speech than secularism promotes it" which ignores the fact that freedom of speech was not lightly achieved in western liberal democracies - this is not the same as freedom to spread hatred of "the other"

The issues around the cartoons are confused and complex enough without such nonsensical comparisons and claims which represent profound misunderstandings. Mutual respect must be predicated on understanding and there is a desperate need for dialogue at all levels of society to promote this against the efforts of the extremists who wish to divide us.

What is this blog about

Dear reader

The world seems to be an ever more confused and irrational place.

I am a person who considers himself a rationalist but one who accepts that there are limits to human reason, i.e. some metaphysical aspects to the human condition

As such, I am a religious person - born as a Jew I am now broadly "modern orthodox" however I am also a bleeding heart liberal as well.

Combining orthodox Judaism with any form of liberal conscience can be an uphill struggle and I'd like to discuss this with any one who is interested

I'll post more soon...