Thursday, January 26, 2017

Jared and Ivanka's Shabbos Inauguration Psak


It won't be a surprise to you to learn that I do not like Donald Trump, but you may be surprised to hear that I am tried of reading the petty and uninformed criticism of Jared and Ivanka's rabbinicaly sanctioned decision to use a car on the night of the Inauguration.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner Get Rabbinic Pass To Ride in Car on Inauguration Shabbat
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have been given a free rabbinical pass to travel by car following Donald Trump’s inauguration Friday.
FORWARD.COM

I don't know if they got an actual psak or not, but they said they did. That's where the whole matter should end. If they spoke to a rabbi, and are relying on his ruling, their choice is no longer open to criticism.

Now, I fully admit to not being able to fully understand the rationale behind such a psak, as the parties they attended on Friday evening were optional, but at the same time, I know that being driven in a car is not the very worst thing a Jew can do on shabbos.

For example, I know from experience that a child under a certain age (6 or 9) can be driven home from the emergency room or hospital on shabbos, and an adult guardian can go along. I know, also from experience, that a doctor can be driven to the hospital on shabbos to perform ordinary, non-life saving services. And from experience again I know that if you're stuck on the road after the zman on Friday night, with kids and luggage a non-Jewish driver can pick you up and bring you to your destination.

So its not true to say, as many have, that the dispensation the Kushners received is available only for serious life-saving situations.

I am not especially well trained in psak halacha and as a result I can't tell you how the Trump case matches up with these examples of mine. Perhaps they do, perhaps they don't. The point though is that my own experiences satisfy me that their psak passes the smell test





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Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Flood of Myths

Guest post

It's a story we're all familiar with. A man is divinely warned of a coming flood and is commanded to build a boat. He takes his family and all the animals on board and rides out the storm, which wipes out the rest of humanity. When the storm stops, his boat grounds itself on a mountain, and he sends out birds to see if the land is dry. He exits the boat and brings sacrifices to the deity.

Who is that man? Noach, of course! Or is it? Maybe it's Ziusudra, or Atrahasis, or Utnapishtim, or Xisuthrus. All of them are the protagonists of Ancient Near Eastern myths that suspiciously similar to Noach's story.

Isn't that amazing? Here we have proof that the mabul really happened! Independent corroboration from sources outside the Torah that Noach really built the teivah!

Except… what if their stories aren't a corroboration of Noach's? What if Noach's story and the others are corroborating Utnapishtim's story? Is there a reason to privilege Noach's story as the "real" one? It's the one we're all most familiar with, the one that appears in the Torah, and that gives it primacy in our minds. But all of these stories were part of the religious literature of their cultures, as familiar to the people who told them as Noach is to us. If we point to the other stories as proof that Hashem told Noach to build the teivah and brought the mabul to wipe out the sinful generation, doesn't that mean that the Assyrians could point to Noach and the other stories as proof that the god Ea told Utnapishtim to build a boat and the gods brought a flood to cleanse an overpopulated world?

That doesn't seem right.

While the flood myths of the ANE, including the story of Noach, differ in the names of their protagonists and in some details, they also share many similarities and even whole passages with each other, indicating that these are all retellings of the same story. They share a global flood; a god warning the protagonist, instructing him to build a boat, and to take animals aboard; the destruction of the rest of humanity; landing on a mountain; sending out birds; and the protagonist sacrificing to the god(s) after the flood.

There are other flood myths from all over the world, probably because settlements are often built next to water, and rivers, lakes, and oceans tend to flood. It is only the stories from the Ancient Near East, though, that are so similar. The differences between the ANE myths and flood myths from other parts of the world indicate that the flood myths from around the world are not a shared memory of a world-wide flood. That there are flood myths in so many different cultures indicates that this was a typical type of story for cultures to develop, and the ANE myth is no more likely to be grounded in literal history than any other. And the similarities between the ANE myths indicate that the story of Noach in the Torah is one among many versions of a popular ANE myth, no more likely to be the original than any of the other versions.

Let's look at a few of the ANE myths and at a sampling of other flood myths from around the world. I chose the world myths more or less at random from a list of dozens of myths at talkorigins.org. I picked one from each continent / region, and chose samples that were long enough to have enough details to compare to other myths, but short enough to be quickly summarized. First I'll summarize each myth, then compare them to each other in a chart.

ANE Myths
The Bible:
God warned Noach that He would bring a flood to wipe out the sinful people of the Earth and commanded him to bring aboard all of the animals, which he did. Noach, his three sons, their wives, and the animals were the only survivors of the forty day flood. After the rain stopped, Noach sent out a raven, which returned, then sent out a dove, which returned, then sent it our again, and it retuned with an olive branch, showing the water had receded. Noach left the ark and sacrificed to God. God showed Noach a rainbow as a promise that he wouldn't flood the world again.[1]

Sumerian
The god Enlil warns Ziusudra about the comng flood and tells him to build a boat and take animals and birds on board. The flood covered the Earth for a week, after which Ziusudra opened a window, allowing the sunlight in.[2] He leaves the boat and sacrifices a sheep and an ox to the gods, who grant him eternal life for preserving all of the animals.[3]

Babylonian
 The gods are concerned about human overpopulation. The god Enki warns Atrahasis that a flood was coming that would wipe everything out, and he should build a boat.  Atrahasis built the boat and brought his family, animals, and birds on board.[4] After the flood, Atrahasis makes an offering to the gods. Enki created barrenness in women and stillbirth to avoid the problem in the future.[5]

Assyrian,  The Epic of Gilgamesh (from the Royal Library at Nineveh) (Originally Sumerian)
The god Ea warns Utnapishtim of the coming flood. Utnapishtim builds a boat and brings on board his family, the craftsmen who helped him build the boat, and "all seed of life." The flood killed all the people. After the rain stopped, the boat landed on the top of Mt. Nisur, the only spot not covered by water. Utnapishtim released a dove, which returned, then a sparrow, and then finally a raven, which did not return. Everyone left the boat, and Utnapishtim sacrificed to the gods. The gods gave Utnapishtim  and his wife immortality.[6][7]

Chaldean
The god Cronos appeared to the king Xisuthrus and warned him that a flood was coming whish would destroy humanity. Cronos commanded Xisuthrus to write a history of the world, and to build a boat anf take aboard his family, friends, and all the animals and birds. When the flood stopped, Xisuthrus sent out birds, which returned. The second time, the birds returned with mud on their feet. The third time, they didn't come back. After exiting the boat, Xisuthrus found he was on the side of a mountain. He brought sacrifices to the gods.[8]

World Myths
Greek (Europe)
The god Prometheus warns his son, Deucalion, that Zeus is going to send a flood to wipe out all people, and instructs him to build a chest. Zeus floods most of Greece, and everyone is killed, except for Deucalion and his wife and a few people who fled to the mountains.[9]  After the flood Deucalion brings sacrifices to Zeus.[10]

Cameroon (Africa)
A girl was grinding flour, and allowed a goat to eat from it. In return, the goat warned her a flood was coming. She and her brother ran away. After the flood they saw their village underwater. They lived alone, until the goat returned an told them they may marry each other.[11]
(A brother and sister / mother and son / father daughter being the only survivors of their village and marrying each other is a recurring theme in these myths, and brings to mind the story of Lot and his daughters after the destruction of Sodom.)

Vogul (Asia)
The Great Woman warned the Great Man that rains were coming. The Great Man told the rest of the giants to make boats and anchor them to trees. When the rains came, all who had not made boats were killed, along with all plants, animals, and even fish. Starving, the survivors prayed to the god Numi-târom, who recreated living things.[12]

Bhil (India)
A fish warned Dhobi that a flood was coming. Dhobi prepared a box in which he rode out the flood with his sister and a rooster. After the flood the god Rama discovered Dhobi when the rooster crowed. Rama told Dhobi to marry his sister to repopulate the earth.[13]

Fiji (Oceana)
The grandsons of the god Ndengei killed his favorite bird and fled to the mountains. There with the help of some carpenters they built a fortress and withstood Ndengei's armies for three months. Ndengei flooded the earth, and the rebels prayed for help. Rokoro, the god of carpenters, brought them canoes, and they picked up survivors of the flood.[14]

Cree (North America)
While Wissaketchak was in his canoe a sea monster tried to kill him, and used its tail to create huge waves which flooded the land. Wissaketchak built a raft and gathered pairs of all animals and birds. He sent a duck to find the bottom, but it couldn't. Next he sent a muskrat, which returned with its throat full of slime.( An alterative version has Wissaketchak sending out a raven and a woodpigeon.) Wissaketchak made the slime into a disc, and this floated on the water and grew, and this is the land that everyone lives on today.[15]

Ipurina  (South America)
The birds collecting things and threw them into a kettle of boiling water. Mayuruberu, the cretor of birds, threw a stone into the kettle, which caused the hot water to splash over the side and flood the world, burning everything. All plants except the cassia tree were destroyed. The sloth crawled up into the tree and threw down kernels, which brought back the sun. The sloth asked Mayuruberu for crops, Mayuruberu brought new plants, and the Ipurina went to work in their fields.[16]


Comparison
Myth
Divine warning of flood
Builds a boat
Takes animals on board
flood wipes out all life not on boat
boat stops on mountain
sends out birds three times
sacrifices to the deity
given eternal life
ANE myths








Bible
X
X
X
X
X
X
X

Sumerian
X
X
X
X


X
X
Babylonian
X
X
X
X


X

Assyrian (Gilgamesh)
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
X
Chaldean
X
X
X
X
X
X
X

World myths








Greek
X





X

Cameroon








Vogul

X

X




Bhil



X




Fiji








Cree

X
X


\


Ipurina 










Looking at the chart, it is easy to see that the ANE flood myths are very similar to one another and are different from flood myths from other parts of the world. The ANE myths all share at least five points in common with one another, while the world myths share at most two.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the only myth with all eight points, and is one of the oldest extant pieces of writing and the oldest extant story of any kind. It seems likely that the other ANE myths, including Noach's story, are retellings of the flood myth that was recorded in Gilgamesh.

I think a reasonable conclusion to draw from the above discussion is that the story of the mabul is not a record of an historical event, but is instead an instance of common mythic motif, the flood story, and of the ANE flood myth in particular.




[1] Genesis 7:1-8:22
[2] The Sumerian Flood Story. Retrieved from http://history-world.org/sumerian_floor_story.htm
[3] Heidel, A. (1949). The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. University of Chicago Press; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[4] The Epic of Atrahasis Retrieved from http://www.livius.org/as-at/atrahasis/atrahasis.html#Atrahasis_Dream_Explained
[5] Dalley, S. (1989). Myths From Mesopotamia. Oxford University Press, Oxford; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[6] Epic of Gilgamish. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/gilgdelu.htm
[7] Sandars, N. K. (1972). The Epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin Books, Ltd., Harmondsworth, England; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[8] Cory, I.P. (1832). Ancient Fragments. London, England: William Pickering.
[9] Apollod. 1.7.2 Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Apollod.+1.7.2&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0022
[10] Apollodorus (1921).The Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[11] Kahler-Meyer, E. (1971). Myth Motifs in Flood Stories from the Grasslands of Cameroon. p. 251-252; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[12] Gaster, T.H. (1969). Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament. Harper & Row, New York. p. 93-94; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[13] Gaster, T.H. (1969). Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament. Harper & Row, New York. pp. 95-96; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[14] Kelsen, H. (1943). The Principle of Retribution in the Flood and Catastrophe Myths. p. 131; Gaster, T.H. (1969). Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament. Harper & Row, New York. p. 106; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[15] Frazer, J.G. (1919). Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, vol. 1. Macmillan & Co., London. pp. 309-310; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html
[16] Frazer, J.G. (1919). Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, vol. 1. Macmillan & Co., London. pp. 259-260; Kelsen, H. (1943). The Principle of Retribution in the Flood and Catastrophe Myths. p. 139; via: Isaak, M. (2002, September 2). Flood Stories from Around the World. Retrieved from http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/flood-myths.html

Monday, December 12, 2016

Harav Ben Franklin?

In Benjamin Franklin's autobiography is an account of a system for self-improvement he had devised as a young man. The system drew on Enlightenment ideas and consisted of thirteen character traits that were to be worked on, one at a time, for a week each. Upon completing the list, one started again at the beginning, in this way working on each character trait for four weeks a year. He had intended to write a book about the system, but had never gotten around to it. Despite this, he had mentioned it in other works he had written, and the system gained some popularity. About twenty years after Franklin's death, Menachem Mendel Levin, an Eastern-European rabbi and early maskil, wrote a book based on Franklin's method called Cheshbon HaNefesh. He had gone to university in Germany and had lived in Berlin, and while there had read Franklin's writings.

R' Levin wrote in his sefer that while previous generations of rabbanim had extorted us to improve our characters, they had not provided a specific method of doing so. Thankfully, though, a new technique had been discovered. R' Levin modified Franklin's program, making it more flexible by allowing the person seeking self-improvement to choose any thirteen traits to work on rather than Franklin's prescribed list, and by allowing for the traits which one had mastered to be replaced by new traits that one felt he needed to work on. Still, Levin's and Franklin's lists of character traits largely overlap, and the method is the same.

Despite his open admission of its novelty, Levin's system became popular and was enthusiastically adopted by the mussar movement. R' Yisroel Salanter, the father of the mussar movement,  praised Cheshbon HaNefesh "as a truly practical book for ethical guidance" and had it reprinted.[1]

Cheshbon HaNefesh is still available for sale from frum publishers such as Feldheim. On their website, Feldheim describes the book as, "Far from pop-culture self-help books, this is a work developed over two hundred years ago by R' Menachem Mendel Levin, a prolific writer and Torah scholar whose breadth of knowledge is astonishing. Drawing from classic sources to form a step-by-step program for self-improvement and character refinement… this book is so important that R' Yisrael Salanter, recognizing its true worth, encouraged a group of students to republish it in 1845."[2]

High praise for a book that was the self-help equivalent of its day, whose author drew from the ideas of the enlightenment more heavily than he did from "classic sources" and whose method was invented by Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, not a Jewish sage from Babylonia. And high praise for a man who has been described as the "father of the Galician Haskalah."[3]

Today Franklin's chart can be found in frum classrooms and homes, regarded as an authentic Jewish method of self-improvement thanks to an eighteenth-century maskil and the frum world's delusion that everything it does in torah miSinai, uninfluenced by the wider world.



[1] Afsai, S. (2011). "The Prince, the Sage and the Rabbi." Philalethes: The Journal of Masonic Research & Letters 64: 101-109, 128.; Afsai, S. Benjamin Franklin's influence on Judaism. Retrieved from http://www.varsitytutors.com/earlyamerica/early-america-review/volume-16/benjamin-franklins-influence-on-judaism
[2] Feldheim, Description, Cheshbon ha-Nefesh. Retrieved from http://www.feldheim.com/cheshbon-ha-nefesh.html
[3] Rubinstein, A. (2007). "Levin (Lefin), Menahem Mendel." Encyclopaedia Judaica. 2nd ed. Vol. 12. p. 710-711.