Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Yom Kippur 2023

I'm pleased to report that I had an excellent Yom Kippur. Here are the details:

Start: 8:00 AM
Finish: 3:00 PM
Break: 90 minutes
Neillah: Ended late
Break Fast: Cake, then soup, followed by pasta

Quality of the music: better than ever.
Quality of the introspection was not bad but MYOB
Quality of the Koren: Amazing. Burn your Artscrolls, and don't look back!

Big discovery: There was a hot shot German philosopher named Franz Rosenzweig who decided at the age of 27 to convert to Christianity. This wasn't a big deal, because he had never been much of a Jew. But he wanted to be a Jew before converting. He didn't want to convert as a pagan, but as a Jew. So he went to Yom Kippur 1913 and came out a changed man, dropping the idea of converting.

I went down the rabbit hole last night trying to find out what exactly happened, but no one seems to know. The smarter sources say he never told anyone, while the dumber ones say it was a "mystical experience." Either way, he went on to commit himself to Judaism (not sure exactly how far he went observance-wise) before dying at the age of 42 of ALS.

So... make of that what you will.

But along the way, he wrote "Star of Redemption," which some smart people online call a masterpiece. I have started to investigate it, and I'm not deep into it yet, but it seems fascinating so far.

Your turn?

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Jack: Why do bad things happen to good people? People who learn and do chesed should be healthy, wealthy, with wonderful things. Why do some suffer?

Jill: Your premise is wrong. Where does it say anywhere that people who do chesed will be rich? And who says being rich is a reward?  Being rich can frequently lead you to sin, or cause you to suffer. 

Moreover, no one every promised that good people would be rich. According to our sages, the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah, not money. 

Another thing: Most human suffering is caused by natural forces. Natural forces don't single out evil people. I mean does it say anywhere that gravity stops working for people who do chesed? If a righteous person and a sinner jump out of a 10th story window they get the same result. Natural forces are impartial and treat righteous and evil people identically These forces - including things that make you sick, like chemical reactions and biological processes - do not differentiate between the righteous and evil people.

Jack: It's a common human desire for evil to be punished. While free will plays a role, people yearn for Hashem to dispense justice in this world. It's a somewhat human desire, even if it isn't explicitly supported by religious texts.

Jill: People are morons. It's never ever worked like that. People are always saying, "I don't get it. Why isn't that nice person rich?" Maybe people should finally catch on and realize their whole premise is faulty. They mistakenly believe that performing mitzvos should yield material rewards and valuable prizes. However, that notion is fundamentally flawed. Mitzvos shape your character and enable you to perceive the adversities of the world in one of three ways A) impartial, i.e., something caused by natural forces that aren't singling you out, B) caused by men exercising their free will, or C) something you caused yourself via your own bad choices.

Friday, September 01, 2023

The Moral Lens of Interpretation: Understanding Chazal's Approach to Interpretation

Observation: The Torah stipulates capital punishment for a child displaying gluttony and disobedience to parents. However, Chazal, in their interpretation, adopted an exceptionally hyper-literal reading of the text – a method they applied in few other situations – in order to render the directive nearly impossible to execute.

Question: What prompted them to do this?

Answer: According to their own sense of morality it was unacceptable to kill children for trivial crimes. So they re-read the verse.

However, I do not think they viewed their reinterpretation of the Torah as a case of their moral judgment superseding God's divine wisdom.

I assume they held a fundamental belief in God's inherent goodness. When they encountered passages in the Torah that appeared morally questionable, they didn't question God's morality; rather, they assumed they must be misunderstanding the text.

In their view, their reinterpretations and glosses on the Torah weren't an act of correcting God, but rather an attempt to uncover what they believed was the true, moral essence of the text.

They saw their role as interpreters, striving to align the Torah with their own moral standards.

So, it wasn't a matter of saying, "This law is immoral, let's change it," but rather, "At first glance, this law may seem immoral, but how could the Torah be immoral? Let's uncover its deeper, morally sound meaning through interpretation."

Halivai Rabbis of today did this, too.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Fortunate and Hopeful: Rabbi Akiva's Response to the Loss of the Temple

Rabbi Akiva said, "Israel, how fortunate you are! Whose presence sanctifies you? It is your Heavenly Father, as it is written, 'I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be holy.' And further, 'The Lord is the hope (mikva) of Israel.' Just as the mikva purifies the impure, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, sanctify Israel."
This teaching by Rabbi Akiva evokes curiosity and invites numerous questions. Why did Rabbi Akiva choose to convey his message through a pun? What inspired him to impart this particular wisdom? And ultimately, what is the fundamental lesson he wished to impart?
The answer, I think, like so many things, has to do with the Christians. During that time, one of the central teachings among early Jesus followers was that Jesus had replaced the Temple. "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up," he said, according to the Gospel of John. "... but he spoke of the Temple of his own body."
The Gospel of John, considered the last Gospel written, is a polemic text reflecting the thoughts and teachings of its era. John isn't trying to tell us what happened. It is trying to make an argument, to persuade Jews to join the Jesus movement. If John says that Jesus claimed to replace the Temple, it follows that the idea the the Temple had been replaced had currency at the moment, and we can speculate that it was an appealing message.
Without the Temple, Jews were religiously handicapped. Although the physical Temple was no more, the longing among Jews to offer sacrifices, witness the High Priest's avodah, and partake in other Temple rituals remained. Some Jews likely worried that without the Temple, they could no longer worship God properly, achieve ritual purity, or obtain atonement. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai famously provided a response that resonated with some Jews. However, the Gospel of John reveals an alternative view was circulating: whatever was once accomplished through the Temple could now be accomplished through Jesus.
Rabbi Akiva lived during the time when the Gospel of John was circulating, and I propose that his homily is his response to the notion of Jesus as the new Temple. Rabbi Akiva is saying, "While we may have lost the physical Temple, we have not lost our connection with God. It was never the building that sanctified you. Your fortune lies in the fact that you are His chosen people, and He is your loving Father. Nothing more is required for your holiness." The use of pun not only reinforces the central idea but also provides an additional assurance: despite losing the Temple and enduring exile, we are not without hope.

Monday, February 06, 2023

Shirat Hayam is certainly poetry

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is a talented Rabbi and a fine person, however he tends to rely too much on the contrasting stereotype of litvaks as cold and hasidim as warm, which can sometimes result in questionable biblical interpretations. An example of this can be seen in the dvar torah he wrote on Bshalach. You can see his post here, and my response below:
I have several disagreements with his approach:

First, the text clearly states that Moshe did not write in prose. It says, "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD."

Second, Miriam *sang* with the women. The text says: "Miriam sang to them: "Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea." Thus, to propose that they had different responses appears unsupported. Miriam may have incorporated dance, but their initial reaction was the same, which was to sing.

Third, the Song of the Sea is not prose. It's not a literal recounting of the events at the sea. We're told the Pharaoh and his captains sank in the depths of the sea (Verses 4 and 5) but that's about as close as it comes to describing the events of Exodus 14. There's nothing in the song about a splitting sea, or the Israelites walking across on dry land, or indeed about any miracle at all. Moreover, it **differs** from the narrative in the preceding chapter in several ways. As James Kugel mentions, citing research by Frank Cross and David Freedman, the song could be about an event that took place far offshore or, as verse 8 states, "at the heart of the sea" where God's blast of wind from His nose caused a wave to capsize the boats or barges, resulting in the Egyptians sinking "like a stone" and "like lead in the mighty waters". Kugel also points out that "if the Egyptians were pursuing the Israelites on a dry path in the midst of the waters, then there was no place for them to go down or sink, as they were already on the bottom of the sea bed."

Fourth, the conclusion of major sections of the Torah are often marked by lengthy poems. The patriarch tales end with Jacob's Blessings, the Wilderness tales end with Haazinu, and significant periods of David's life also end with poems. The same is true for the Exodus tales, with the Song of the Sea serving as the poem.

Fifth: The Song of the Sea exhibits several traits of poetry, such as the use of metaphor, phonetically overlapping verbs, and a distinct rhythm, which conforms to the conventions of Biblical poetry. It also contains several striking puns, such as the one in the second verse עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה; זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ, אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהוּ. The sense of the word "zimrah" is likely "power" but it puns on the more common meaning of the word "song" With this pun, the poet is saying God is the source of the speaker's power and also the source of the song.

Sixth: In the Torah, the Song of the Sea is structured in a brick pattern, a layout that is used in only one other place in the first five books of the Torah: The Song of Haazinu.