Sunday, November 27, 2016

Trump vs. Castro - Who upsets you more?

I first want to be up front where I'm coming from. I wasn't a Trump supporter. I lean liberal where it comes to social policy. And I understand people's concerns about a Trump Administration.

But after seeing some of the reactions to the death of Fidel Castro, from Obama's tepid equivocation, to Jimmy Carter's sentimental reminiscing, to Jill Stein's salute of honor, to Justin Trudeau's quasi-adulation, I thought it might be instructive for people to reflect on these neutral-to-warm statements about Castro, specifically in the light of their worries about Trump.

Consider for a moment some of the fears people have expressed about a Trump presidency: authoritarianism, silencing of dissent, curtailing free press, Hitler comparisons of rounding people up in camps, tearing apart families, use of torture, persecution of homosexuals and targeted religious groups, being anti-Semitic, a threat to democracy, etc. And now compare that with Fidel Castro - not anxiety about what he "might" do, but what he actually DID, what he perpetrated during his five decades of rule:

Forced labor concentration "UMAP" camps

  • 35,000 people, notably homosexuals, religious people, political dissidents, intellectuals
  • Slave labor, dawn to dusk, 7 days a week
  • Unsanitary conditions, spoiled food were common
  • Some suffered solitary confinement, rape, torture
  • Many committed suicide and died of hunger and disease
  • Electrified barbed wire fences, guards with machine guns and police dogs,2619793

Political executions

  • 3,615 documented deaths by firing squads since 1959
  • 1,253 extrajudicial killings
  • Total estimates vary from 15-17,000, possibly up to 30,000

Oppression of religious groups

  • Mass arrests of Christian clergy
  • Catholics and Evangelicals sent to forced labor camps
  • Workplace discrimination against religious people
  • Confiscation of private religious seminaries

Persecution of homosexuals

  • Forced into concentration labor camps
  • Fired, imprisoned, sent for "re-education"
  • Gay artists and writers shut down and publicly disgraced

Anti-Zionist/Anti-Semitic policies

  • Published anti-Israel propaganda, voted that "Zionism equals racism"
  • Books by Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel banned
  • 94% of Jews fled after the 1959 revolution
  • 400 secretly immigrated to Israel in the 1990s
  • Direct hosting/support of Palestinian military training camps

Nazi collaboration

  • Nazi death squad officers invited to train the Cuban army
  • Offered sanctuary and salaries in Havana

Silencing of dissidents

  • 20,000 dissidents held and tortured in 1959 revolution
  • Moderate professors and teachers purged
  • Prison penalties for anyone who "insults or offends" the government
  • No freedom to assemble and protest

Anti-democratic policies

  • Communist Party the only accepted party (despite lifting the ban on other parties in 1992)
  • No election of president or prime minister
  • Rule by nepotism - Fidel hands off to his brother Raul
  • The only regime in the Americas classified as "authoritarian" (2010 Democracy index)

Imprisonment and kangaroo courts

  • Human rights activists tried and imprisoned for decades
  • Thousands of arbitrary detentions per year (e.g. 7,188 in Jan-Aug 2014 alone)
  • People held for years without trial
  • Unsanitary conditions, prisoners deprived of food, light
  • Second largest prison state in the world for journalists as of 2008 (next to China)
  • Sham court proceedings and summary judgments against political activists

Use of torture

  • Prisoners stripped and beaten
  • Held in rodent-filled "drawers" with cement beds and no light
  • Electro-shock for political prisoners in psychiatric clinics
  • Threats of killing and maiming by prison authorities

Split families and refugee crisis

  • Repression causing a refugee crisis, people desperate to escape
  • Cuban exiles forced to leave family behind
  • Thousands of boats and rafts, with refugees dying along the way
  • Citizens under lock-down, travel heavily restricted until 2013

Press censorship

  • Nearly all media under control of the state and Communist Party
  • Must inform government in order to produce, distribute, store publications
  • Internet limited for the vast majority of Cubans
  • Foreign journalists must be selected by the government.
  • Pro-democracy bloggers under permanent surveillance

Even if only half the above charges/sources are accurate (and I don't pretend to be a Cuba expert), that is pretty damning. And I think that merits a moment of reflection.

Here we are post-election, many people frightened about what they see as an authoritarian President Trump, poised to commit civil and human-rights abuses. Yet here we have an example of someone who really did these things - executed, tortured, imprisoned, took away rights, persecuted people - for decades. And when he dies, you have some of the same people who've been out there vociferously warning against Trump now lavishing praise on Castro, or failing to speak out against him. What gives?

To be absolutely clear, I'm not saying that we shouldn't be vigilant to guard against authoritarianism, from Trump or anyone else. But if you really are worried and upset about the "possibility" of a regime that's anti-democracy and ready to strip people of their civil rights, then shouldn't you be completely outraged when you encounter an actual authoritarian regime, a true dictator who really did commit many of the atrocities and injustices you find so frightening, so horrific?

Is it a question of giving Castro a pass because he's on the "left" and has some progressive social policies? For those things, you're happy to turn a blind eye to the rest? Or does it have to do with defending countries who stand up to the U.S.? Are you so consumed with Western self-criticism that you can't critique real authoritarianism when you see it? Is it being enamored with the story of ragtag revolutionaries prevailing over corrupt, decadent strongmen? But are you really going to celebrate replacing one corrupt, blood-stained dictatorship with another? Or is it simply that a major international figurehead died, so let's be diplomatic? I'm all for diplomacy, but what about standing up for what you believe in? Or for all the Cubans who suffered terribly under Castro's rule?

Like I say, it's a moment to reflect. If you have an answer, I'd like to hear it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Discriminatory Mikvas, Deceptive Headlines

The Times of Israel reported on a recent Knesset decision regarding Israeli mikvas (ritual baths). I'd like to point out two things that bother me here.

The law itself

The law that was passed gives local rabbinates the power to choose which organizations can make use of public (state-run/funded) mikvas, which effectively means they have the power to deny non-Orthodox groups the ability to use their mikvas to perform conversions. I'll offer a few brief thoughts on this issue:

1) I prefer to live in a country where religion is a private matter, and the state stays out of it, and yes, that includes the Jewish State. So for instance, do there really need to be "public" mikvas run by the state? I don't know. Yes, I recognize that there is value in having a "Jewish character" to the State of Israel, and that part of that might reasonably involve investing government resources to help enable Jewish religious practice. But investing resources in mikvas is different than "presiding over" them.

2) If the state has to have a say in religious practice, as in administering public mikvas, it should do its best not to discriminate. "Do its best," meaning let's say a church wanted to perform a baptism in a public mikva. I personally don't have a problem with it, in all honesty, but I can see where others would - notably including many of those who oppose the law in question! Point being, I think there's a place for reasonable compromise here, where we can accommodate religious sensitivities while also not allowing discrimination to prevail.

3) One such compromise might be to designate a certain number of public mikvas for anyone to use. I say "designate" to refer to mikvas already built and in use. There is talk about the Jewish Agency building mikvas for non-Orthodox use, but people are expressing doubts as to when (if ever) those will be funded or built.

4) Regarding the argument, "But the Reform and Conservative movements are relatively small in Israel," I'll say this: How a country treats its minorities says a lot about how just and ethical the society is. A law like this exemplifies the use of power to discriminate against a religious minority. Some may justify this on the grounds that they abhor this particular minority, that they want to live in a Torah society. I would rather live in a society that gives people the freedom to choose things I myself do not choose. That to me is a far more moral, more just, more desirable place to live.

Okay, on to part two.

The headline

The Times of Israel headline and subhead read:
"Knesset approves law to bar non-Orthodox from ritual baths. Legislation approved 41-35 after lengthy debate; Jewish Agency slams move that ‘circumvents’ High Court"
If you don't have time to read the article, what's the obvious takeaway? That anyone other than Orthodox Jews are now banned from using any mikvas in Israel. But that's not the case!

Granted, headlines are necessarily concise, but if you give the wrong impression, that is irresponsible journalism. I should add that I don't know if the misleading wording was deliberate in this case or not, but there is an editorial bias toward creating more "sensational(ist)" headlines, simply because it draws more readers.

What we have here is the use of language that is "technically correct" but which lacks crucial facts and thus spreads misinformation. There's a reason people are sworn to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Because a half-truth can be as much of a deception as an outright lie.

Yes, the law is arguably highly problematic. Yes, there may well be cases where individuals are discriminated against at mikvas. Yes, such a law could be used to creep toward a ban on non-Orthodox mikva usage. But that doesn't make the headline "correct."

So what if it's not true?

This is a real issue - apathy toward truth. What I've noticed lately ("lately," meaning now that I'm looking out for it more) are cases where not only are lies being passed around (shared, liked, etc.), but when you point out the lie, the reaction is often... silence. People just don't seem to care.

Alternatively, you get people reacting by going on the attack, assuming that because you've voiced any words of critique that you're supporting the "other side" of the debate. By merely pointing out an untruth within the side you otherwise agree with, you have made yourself a traitor, a pariah, or at least a "stooge" for the enemy.

In other words, so many people will either a) ignore the lie or b) actively rationalize it.

The latter group will say that in this particular case, it's "deserved." They've deemed the ones they're fighting against public enemy #1, evil incarnate, and so therefore it's gloves off, ethics tossed aside. Anything goes as long as the "right side" wins. The end justifies the means. Which, it should be noted, is the modus operandi of terrorists. Or, from a more idealistic perspective, people frame it as an eit la'asot, a "time to act." (Eit la'asot is a Jewish term referring to a special case scenario where, in order to deal with an emergency situation, the normal rules are temporarily abrogated.)

But what people like to think of as an eit la'asot is in reality nothing more than a mitzva haba'a be'aveira, committing a transgression in the attempt to fulfill a mitzva, an act that Jewish tradition regards as unequivocally misguided. It's a self-deception, a rationalization of wrongheaded, cruel, criminal or even violent behavior.

I'll add one more example, pertaining to the upcoming U.S. elections. Author and skeptic Sam Harris was speaking in an interview about the criticism of Donald Trump:
"[Trump] is someone who you almost cannot malign enough. He's so worthy of being buried in scorn. The immune system of civilization has to fully encase him and just export him from our political process and forget about him. But when I see some of the stuff that's done to him, it's completely without an ethical core."
In other words, yes it is possible to be both intensely critical of someone and also be critical of the criticism against them, when it's unfair, untrue or unethical. There are so many examples, so much to say on this topic, but I'll sum it up as follows:

Just as important as it is to give criticism where it's due, it is important to protest against criticism where it's not due. 

By selectively not caring about the truth where it concerns an ideological foe, we

1) diminish the credibility of our own argument,
2) are guilty of slander,
3) show disdain for the value of truth, and
4) contribute to an environment where a lie is a legitimate weapon, and ultimately where things like blood libels are able to thrive.

Beyond all that, there is the concept of teshuva, self-reflection, self-correction. Even when we deeply believe in the cause we're championing, we need to be concerned for areas where we've overstepped, been amiss, done or said things wrongly. When faced with criticism, rather than automatically deflect, we might reflect.

And when we offer criticism, or even report facts, take pains to be fair and truthful. It's really that simple.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Boundless Life - A Study in Kaddish

Dedicated with love to the memory of my dear friend, Rafi Guber, z"l

Though often recited in somber tones, with feelings of heaviness and loss, the Mourner's Kaddish (Kaddish Yatom, lit. "Orphan's Kaddish") does not in fact refer to loss or death, but rather to God - or more specifically, to sanctifying and glorifying God's name in public. Some may look at this declaration as a way to accrue heavenly merit for a deceased loved one. Others may derive comfort from the humbling thought that the ultimate reason behind our immense pain and suffering, the plan which it is all somehow supposed to fit into, is well beyond us, outside the domain of human comprehension. For most of course, there is comfort in simply being acknowledged as a mourner - in being noticed, not being alone.

I'd like introduce a new layer of meaning, an alternative line of interpretation - and translation - of Kaddish. We will focus here on one particular line, arguably the central statement of Kaddish: "Yehei shemei raba mevarakh le'alam ul-almei almaya," typically translated, "May [God's] great name be blessed forever and for all eternity."

"Yehei" - The wish

The word yehei is the Aramaic version of the Hebrew yehi, "may it be" or "let there be" (as in yehi or, "let there be light"). It is a term that conveys the wish to put something into effect, make it manifest, actualized, a reality in the world. (In Hebrew grammar, this conjugation is called the "jussive" mood). As strange as it may sound, there are no praises of God in Kaddish. The words yitgadal, yitgadash, yitbarach, and so on, are all "may it be so" words. The question is, what are we wishing for? What do we want to see happen?

"Shemei raba" - The great legacy

The word shem, "name," means more than just a moniker. A name is also a legacy. In the Torah's narrative of the Tower of Babel, the people say, "Let us make a name (shem) for ourselves." (Gen. 11:4)  They weren't looking for something to call themselves - they wanted to establish a legacy. Indeed, English carries this dual-meaning of the word "name." Regarding the commandment of yibum (levirate marriage), the Torah states, "The firstborn whom she bears will stand in the name (shem) of his brother who is dead, so that his name (shem) will not be erased from Israel." (Deut. 25:6) As some of the classical commentators note, "shem" here does not necessarily mean the person's actual name but more his legacy - progeny, inheritance, etc. (See Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra) On the above verse, the Talmud adds, "[The phrase] 'that his name not be erased' excludes a eunuch, whose name is erased." (B. T. Yevamot 24a) The eunuch has no progeny, no genetic legacy - hence, no "shem" in one sense of the word.

In the case of Kaddish, when we say "[God's] great name," this is a reference to a specific name, "the" great name - i.e., YHVH. If we say a shem is a legacy, what is the "great legacy" we are referring to with the name YHVH?

The Sages understand the name E-lohim to convey justice (din) and the name YHVH to convey compassion (rachamim). The Midrash (Sifrei Deuteronomy, Parshat Va’etchanan 26) provides a Scriptural basis for this. E-lohim is used to refer to "judges" (Ex. 22:8 - human, or possibly divine). YHVH is described (formulaically in the 13 Attributes) as "compassionate and gracious" (Ex. 34:6).

E-lohim carries the package of meanings: justice, judgment, differentiation, morality, good and bad. YHVH carries the meaning package: compassion, grace, kindness, unity, and life (chaim). E-lohim is the generic "God," the Creator. YHVH is the God of Israel, giver of the Torah. This Torah is called the torat chaim (Torah of life) and etz chaim (Tree of Life). YHVH is the chei ha'olamim (life of the worlds). The "great name," YHVH, can thus be understood as bearing the legacy of Life.

"Mevarakh" - Dissemination

The word "mevarakh" is typically translated "blessed." But as much as we think of blessing as a generic wish for success, the root b-r-kh connotes something more specific: increase and propagation. The very first blessing in the Torah (along with many other instances of blessing in the book of Genesis alone) is "bear fruit and multiply." (Gen. 1:22) Thematically, blessing is linked to increase: "He will bless you and increase you" (Deut. 7:13); "He will bless the house of Israel... YHVH will add upon you." (Ps. 115:12–15) Rashi and others refer to berakha (blessing) as a term of ribui, "multiplicity." (Rashi, Sota 10a; Rashba, Teshuvot 5:5; Ramban on Bereshit 27:28; Rabbeinu Bachye on Bamidbar 6:24, et. al.)

Add this understanding of mevarakh, and the meaning of Kaddish begins to coalesce. We are speaking about the great legacy of life being propagated, increased.

"Le'alam" - Time and space

The phrase le'alam ul-almei almaya connotes "forever." The word olam however is understood to convey not only time but also space (as in "melekh ha'olam"). By integrating both the temporal and spatial connotations of le'alam, we get a sense of something which is all-pervasive, which leaves no corner of the world bereft, and no generation lacking.

Toward a new translation - Boundless life

With our new set of meanings, we arrive at the following translation:
shemei rabathe great legacy of Life
mevarakhbe propagated
le-alam ul-almei almayain all places, for all time

That is to say, it is a call for life to utterly triumph in the world.

In this understanding, Kaddish becomes a universal message - that the will for life, the desire for the well-being and happiness of every human being, is an ideal that must spread throughout the world and make paramount in our minds. It must become our legacy. And it's a matter of rather pressing urgency, since when one looks at the current state of affairs on the planet, all the death and suffering at the hands of fellow humans, it is painfully apparent how very far we are from that ideal.

Kaddish then is a statement worth making often, in public, and with all of one's heart. And it is very much fitting for a mourner to say. One way that we can react to and recover from the death of a loved one is by attaching ourselves to life, firming our resolve as members of a community to reduce future death and suffering in any way we can. Kaddish is precisely that - a pronouncement of intent and vision for the future, a time when human beings cease to be instruments of death. It looks ahead to a period when the legacy of life, the desire to enrich and extend life, so totally suffuses human consciousness that we would not even think of harming one another, causing pain, whether physical or emotional. Instead, we choose to cling tenaciously to the legacy of life: "And you who cling to YHVH your God, you all have Life today." (Deut. 4:4)


This article is based on ideas in the book Ohr HaShachar: Torah, Kabbalah and Consciousness in the Daily Morning Blessings.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Shul - The Place for Interpersonal Mitzvot

People naturally think of shul as being primarily a bein adam lamakom domain ("between a person and God"). But in fact, the opportunities to exercise interpersonal sensitivity in shul are so numerous, so constant, that one could reasonably argue that it's predominantly a bein adam lechavero experience ("between a person and their fellow").

And of course, all our ritual religiosity is just pomp and circumstance (Chapter 1 of Yeshayahu/Isaiah actually calls it "abomination") when that religious behavior isn't built on a foundation of human decency and sensitivity.

With that in mind, here's just a partial list of bein adam lechavero opportunities in shul. (Note: I'm referring here to Orthodox davening, but similar principles apply across the board.)
  1. Not going to shul if you're sick or contagious, or if you must, keeping a distance from people.
  2. Covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough, washing hands after blowing your nose – even if you’re not sick.
  3. Brushing teeth and using deodorant so as not to make it unpleasant for fellow shul-goers.
  4. Helping at home before leaving for shul – getting the kids ready, cleaning up, etc.
  5. Coming with your own siddur or chumash if you know the shul is usually short.
  6. Getting to shul on time if you know someone needs to say kaddish and they might be short on people.
  7. Helping set up the shul for davening.
  8. Making sure the women’s section is set up properly, comfortably.
  9. Making sure the temperature is set correctly so people aren’t uncomfortable.
  10. Asking whether a seat is someone’s makom kevua (set seat).
  11. Not being angry at or embarrassing someone who sits in your makom kevua.
  12. Not taking up more seats or space than necessary with your things.
  13. Not saving seats if the people you’re saving them for aren’t going to arrive reasonably soon and the seats are needed by people already there.
  14. Making sure everyone has a seat, especially older people.
  15. Offering a seat by a table or a shtender to an older person, so they have somewhere to put down their siddur and other things.
  16. Making sure people who need have a siddur and chumash.
  17. Extending a greeting (or if you can’t talk, a non-verbal smile or handshake) to the person who sits down next to you, and in general greeting people warmly when they walk in.
  18. Introducing yourself to a new face, making them feel welcome, noticed.
  19. Helping someone not familiar with the davening find their place in the siddur, and finding them a siddur and chumash with a translation.
  20. Being careful not to whack people with your tallis, either when putting it on or while davening with particular fervor.
  21. Minimizing the clamor your chair makes when you stand up or sit down.
  22. Davening Shemona Esrei quietly, so people aren’t distracted by your whispering.
  23. In general, not singing or davening so loudly that you take over the room and draw people’s attention, or that people mistake your voice for the ba'al tefillah’s (the leader).
  24. Not getting angry when someone sings or davens too loudly.
  25. Being careful not to bother or brush by people davening Shemona Esrei.
  26. Standing toward the front of the room when davening a long Shemona Esrei, so people in front of you who daven faster aren’t made to wait before stepping back.
  27. Agreeing to be the ba'al tefillah if the gabbai needs someone.
  28. If you’re a ba'al tefillah, knowing the usual pace of davening and not being matriach (bothering, delaying) people with long davening or slow tunes.
  29. As a ba'al tefillah, finding out how much singing is desired/expected.
  30. Having patience for a ba'al tefillah who is too slow – or fast – for your taste, or who sings too much – or too little.
  31. Not yelling corrections at the ba'al tefillah, but approaching them in a subtle and friendly way when necessary.
  32. Not expressing impatience at a ba'al tefillah, e.g. by saying “Nu?” when you want them to start chazarat hashatz (the repetition), or shouting “Yitgadal!” if they pause a bit before kaddish.
  33. Not davening so long if it’s a small minyan and you think it may hold up chazarat hashatz.
  34. Not getting upset at people who unknowingly delay chazarat hashatz with their long davening.
  35. If you have a talent at it, offering in advance to be the ba'al koreh (Torah reader).
  36. Not correcting the ba'al koreh if it’s not your place to do so.
  37. Being careful not to embarrass the ba'al koreh by harshly correcting them – especially a bar mitzvah or a young or inexperienced reader.
  38. Not talking audibly during chazarat hashatz, kriyat hatorah or kaddish, so as not to distract, disrespect or show lack of caring to the person reciting.
  39. Not embarrassing someone who’s talking by loudly “shushing” them or otherwise showing anger.
  40. Answering “amen” and singing along audibly, so that people leading davening or saying kaddish feel good that people are listening and participating.
  41. Expressing genuine simcha for people celebrating significant life-events in shul, and likewise sympathy for mourners.
  42. Showing joy when your children come to sit with you, and making it a positive experience even if they distract your davening, talk, don’t daven, etc.
  43. Making sure your children aren’t disturbing others.
  44. Helping someone who gets a kibud (honor) in shul and doesn’t know what to do, but without embarrassing them.
  45. Acknowledging people who get kibudim with a handshake, smile, "yishar koach," etc.
  46. Not being put off when you don’t get kibudim – just the opposite, wanting others to have the honor, feeling reluctant to “take” when you can give.
  47. If you’re the gabbai, using kibudim to include people, make them feel welcome, not ignored.
  48. Not pushing anyone out of the way in order to touch or kiss the sefer Torah.
  49. Handing a siddur to the person who just did hagbah and is occupied with holding the sefer Torah.
  50. Asking women whether they have any names for the misheberach for cholim (ill).
  51. Standing for the misheberach for the Medina and Tzahal if that’s the shul’s minhag (custom).
  52. Not getting angry at people who don’t stand for whatever reason.
  53. Giving your attention to someone who gives a drasha (sermon) – i.e. not talking, reading a book, falling asleep or walking out, so as not to make them feel uncomfortable.
  54. Not being matriach people by giving a long drasha.
  55. Being sensitive to the audience, giving a drasha they can understand and relate to, being careful not to offend or alienate people, or give overly heavy mussar (reproach) if it’s not your place.
  56. Not being matriach people with long post-davening announcements.
  57. Not getting upset when people speak too long.
  58. Picking up trash, candy wrappers, etc.
  59. Helping put siddurim and chumashim away.
  60. If you used a shul tallis, put it back neatly.
  61. Buying a few siddurim or chumashim for the shul if you see they’re needed.
  62. Thanking the ba'al koreh, gabbaim, ba'alei tefillah and shul rabbi for their efforts.
  63. Offering to chip in for or sponsor kiddush or third meal on occasion.
  64. At kiddush, looking to let others take first, not wanting to contribute to a “feeding frenzy.”
  65. Offering to get a plate of food and drink for an older person.
  66. Making sure that your children aren’t running amok, taking too much food, or making a mess.
  67. Not standing right by the kiddush table and making people have to walk around you to get to the food.
  68. Extending yourself to people who are standing or sitting alone, or who you know are going through difficult times.
  69. Expressing warmth and congratulations to ba'alei simcha and their family members.
  70. Thanking the kiddush sponsors and people who do setup and cleanup.
  71. Helping to set up and clean up, or at the very least cleaning up after yourself and your family.
  72. In general, looking for ways to contribute, not just spectate.
  73. Inviting people for a meal on Shabbat/Yom Tov if you suspect they may not have a place to go.
  74. Not asking a person where they davened today, so as not to embarrass someone who didn’t go to shul.
Again, this is a partial list. I'm sure you have more to add - feel free to expand in the comments!

And if you're interested in some of the concepts behind the davening, I hope you don't mind if I quickly plug my book, Ohr HaShachar. It's a commentary on the daily morning blessings, which closely examines the meanings of the words. But more than that, it's a philosophical work that explores Torah concepts such as kedusha and bracha, tuma and tahara, Hashem vs. Elokim, the Book of Iyov and the question of suffering, and a good deal more. The book combines rationalism and kabbalah, futurism along with traditional commentary, has dozens of diagrams and hundreds of footnotes - plenty of material to keep you occupied and hopefully provide some fresh perspective on words that are so often said by rote.

Available from Urim Publications, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or if you live nearby me, I'm happy to get you a personally inscribed copy!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

How "Sar" Became "Sag" - Explaining Tehillim 14 & 53 Variants with Paleo Hebrew

One of my beloved amateur hobbies of late is an interest in ancient Hebrew scripts. So I was pretty psyched when I found something on the topic to post about.

From around 1000 BCE to the Babylonian exile, the script in primary use by Israelites/Jews is what we today call "Paleo Hebrew" (or "ktav ivri" as it's referred to in the Talmud). If you live in Israel, you're walking around with examples of it in your pocket right now. On the back of the 1-shekel coin are the letters Yud Hei Dalet, meaning "Yehud," which was the name of the Jewish province in Judah when it was reestablished after Cyrus the Great's decree. The 10-shekel coin also bears a Paleo Hebrew inscription.

I may write more about script development another time, but right now I want to use Paleo Hebrew to offer a possible explanation for a textual variation between two chapters of Tehillim (Psalms), numbers 14 and 53. The two chapters are nearly identical, aside from a few word changes. The below chart (which I found here) highlights the differences.

Some of the variations can be accounted for by editorial preferences, e.g. the choice of which name of God to use. Some are textual additions, like those in 53:6. (That assumes Psalm 53 came later; alternatively, we can say 14:5-6 is a later, condensed version.) Others are minor grammatical changes, like the word kulo instead of hakol, both of which mean "all." These kinds of variations are attested in other duplicate texts throughout Tanakh.

There is one variation however that caught my eye, which is sar (14:3) versus sag (53:4). Sar (סר) means "turn aside" or "depart." Sag (סג) means "turn away" or "move back." Two very similar words, implying departure, the first possibly connoting more of a sideways movement, a change in direction, and the second more of a backwards movement, a retreat of sorts.

The question is how or why does sar change to sag?

One possibility is that it's an intentional change. That could mean a deliberate editorial revision, using two different words to communicate subtly different meanings. It could also be more of an inexact "retelling" of the psalm. Meaning, the author or scribe didn't feel the need to repeat it word for word. It was simply written to impart roughly the same idea, and for that purpose sag works as well as sar.

A second possibility is that the intent was in fact to duplicate the verse, but the result was slightly off.

Inadvertent changes can result from auditory, memory-related or visual factors. If the scribe works by taking dictation, the person may call out "sar" but the scribe hears it as "sag." If the scribe transcribes by rote memory, it could be that they've memorized it (perhaps even heard it recited by others) as sag. The two words after all do sound similar and mean almost the same thing, so it's easy to see how such an inadvertent substitution could occur. Then there's the visual factor, which gets to what I wanted to offer in this post.

In modern Hebrew, sar and sag might look vaguely similar, by virtue of being two-letter words beginning with a samekh, but they're still fairly easy to tell apart. You wouldn't tend to mistake resh and gimel for one another. Likewise, in early modern Hebrew, the "Jewish script" of the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE, the two letters have significantly different forms, not easily misread one as the other. However, when you go back to Paleo Hebrew script, resh and gimel are almost identical apart from an additional connecting bar that distinguishes the resh. See the chart below.

Let's say that this particular scribe is working by reading directly from a source text. If the letter resh in the word sar has a less pronounced connecting bar (i.e. it's drawn close to the upper bar, which in fact occurs in some instances of the Paleo resh), or even if it doesn't but we're talking about a mere half-second glance at the source text, that resh could easily be mistaken for a gimel. The scribe then copies it that way, and sar henceforth becomes sag. It doesn't get subsequently corrected, since sag is a word in its own right, and even has a similar meaning.

If this is how the variant was created, it would indicate that the change from sar to sag (or the other way around, depending on which psalm is older) goes back to pre-exilic times, when writing was done in Paleo Hebrew.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that this is necessarily how sar became sag, or vice-versa. As I mentioned, there are a number of potential explanations for how the two versions came to be, including it being an intentional change. I only put this forward as a possibility to add to the mix, one which might normally escape our modern eyes due to our lack of familiarity with ancient Hebrew scripts. (And like I say, I do have a soft spot for Paleo Hebrew.)

This last point highlights a larger issue in terms of knowledge and methodology. If this particular Paleo Hebrew hypothesis doesn't hold up in the face of scholarly scrutiny, that's okay. The point is not to become so invested in our ideas that we feel we have to "advocate" for them. Rather, put the idea out there, see if the evidence supports it, and evaluate how it stacks up against other explanations in terms of plausibility. And know that at the end of the day, the best we may be able to say on a particular subject or question is: "We don't know; X, Y and Z are all possibilities." And that too is a great answer.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

On Women Rabbis: A Response

An article appeared earlier this week in The Forward, entitled, "On Women Rabbis, We All Talk Past Each Other. Here's Why," penned by Alan Krinsky. I wholeheartedly agree with the title; we certainly do talk past one another. And I agree with the author's contention that the reason relates to a lack of empathy for where the other side is coming from, in terms of values, norms and ideology.

The author cites some intriguing ideas from a book by Professor Jonathan Haidt at NYU, who maps out six dimensions of morality:
  1. Fairness/Cheating
  2. Care/Harm
  3. Liberty/Oppression
  4. Authority/Subversion
  5. Loyalty/Betrayal
  6. Sanctity/Degradation
According to the author, Professor Haidt contends that:
[P]olitical liberals tend to acknowledge only the first three of these as moral realms, while viewing the others as outside the moral universe. Only conservatives view the maintenance of authority, loyalty, and sanctity as moral goods and obligations, as well as subverting authority, betraying people and traditions, and degrading purity and sanctity in the world as moral crimes.
Conservatives, in a sense, inhabit a much richer moral world, encompassing all six dimensions. Liberals find it difficult to fathom such a world.
The author suggests that this model be used to understand liberal forces within Orthodoxy, who favor women's rabbinic ordination as a manifestation of "fairness," and conservative forces, who oppose it on the grounds that it "subverts authority" and "betrays" the tradition (and arguably because it degrades the sanctity of the Jewish people and Torah). Yet neither side appreciates the perspective of the other:
[A]s per Haidt’s framework, the more “liberal” forces within Orthodoxy continue to see women’s ordination as a matter of justice and fairness, and therefore fail to understand how their opponents can view this all as a major threat and moral disaster. The more “conservative” forces within Orthodoxy remain dumbfounded at how their opponents cannot see the glaringly obvious moral peril.
There is undoubtedly truth to this analysis, but I feel that Professor Haidt's framework falls considerably short in our case as a tool for understanding. Specifically:
[P]olitical liberals tend to acknowledge only the first three of these as moral realms
I would argue that this analysis does not apply the same way to liberal Orthodox Jews; they do very much acknowledge and care deeply about the moral dimensions of authority, loyalty and sanctity.


Even within more conservative (i.e. traditional, "right-wing") Orthodox circles, you can find a wide array of attitudes toward rabbinic authority. Some people scarcely make a move without consulting their rabbi, while others, while they respect the rabbis, live basically autonomous lives. And every such community of course has its own authorities, chosen not simply because of their breadth of Torah knowledge but because they understand and can effectively address the specific needs of that community.

Liberal Orthodox communities are no different. Yes, they generally adopt a more autonomous version of the rabbi-congregant relationship, but liberal Orthodox Jews certainly do rely on and take spiritual and Halakhic guidance from their leaders. To imply that they find it "difficult to fathom" authority is simply incorrect. As for subversion, liberal Orthodoxy would find it morally objectionable if its leaders were out to overthrow or supplant other communities and traditions. They simply wish to maintain a community alongside other Orthodox communities, one that is capable of addressing their unique needs. 


Modern Orthodox communities are called as such because their philosophy is one of integrating the wider, modern world into their religious lives. That involves not only pursuits such as obtaining advanced degrees in secular education and enrolling their kids in sports leagues, but also embracing many of the values of Western society. Among those is what today is considered the self-evidently just and moral idea of women's equality before the law. Under Jewish law, women are not equals to men. Cherished and valued in Jewish tradition, yes, but not equal under the law. Neither are kohen and non-kohen equal, convert and Jewish-born, sighted and non-sighted, et. al. That is simply part of Jewish legal tradition.

This introduces a tension, particularly for those to whom "justice" intuitively, necessarily, includes women's equality before the law. What does one do with that tension? One can suppress it or dismiss it as coming from a "non-Jewish" place, a position often advanced by Orthodox conservatives. For more liberal-minded Orthodox Jews however, the choices are a) to leave Orthodoxy entirely, b) to respectfully dismiss those parts of the legal tradition which don't conform to the modern, expanded definition of "justice" (i.e. to depart from Orthodoxy in part) or c) to work creatively within the Halakhic tradition to afford women maximum equality in the confines of the law. The third position is effectively what liberal Orthodoxy aspires to do. Such an approach takes great care and time. Far be it to imply that such work is undertaken as an act of "betrayal"; no, it is done precisely because loyalty to the tradition is recognized as an important value. 


Throughout Jewish tradition, we are reminded that ritual observance alone does not render individuals pure and holy. This is only achieved when such observance is combined with sensitivity and care toward our neighbors, fellow human beings. Ritual observance without justice and compassion is not simply an empty religious facade; it is a sham, a degradation of Judaism. Acting toward others with the dignity and respect they deserve is every bit as "sacred" a duty as fasting on Yom Kippur.

As said above, liberal Orthodoxy possesses an expanded sense of justice and fairness, which includes the sacred value of equality of women before the law. It is considered "sacred" in the sense of being deemed a precious moral commodity, and because it is something to be fiercely guarded, protected against "degradation," and wholeheartedly and vigorously acted upon. To suggest that liberal Orthodoxy lacks a sensitivity to the moral dimension of the pure and the sacred is to fundamentally misunderstand the deep religious motivations - purity of heart and elevating the sacred - which underlie their efforts toward greater women's equality in Judaism.

* * *

So liberal Orthodox Jews certainly acknowledge and indeed embrace the values of authority, loyalty and sanctity - i.e. "all six dimensions." What's more, if any side might be understood as not embracing all these moral dimensions, it is arguably conservative Orthodoxy.

While Orthodox conservatives would agree that fairness is an important value where it comes to business practices (e.g. guarding against using incorrect weights and measures or selling damaged goods) and legal proceedings (e.g. not favoring litigants or taking a bribe), they will be quick to tell you that the modern, Western notion of "fairness" is something else entirely. Equal rights for women may be enshrined as "fair and just" by secular standards, but a faithful Jew will follow the divine will, regardless of what the surrounding society deems to be "fair" or "unfair."

Even more tenuous is conservative Orthodoxy's relationship to liberty. Yes, freedom from slavery is valued, as is freedom from materialism and decadence, and the freedom of the soul through adherence to Torah and mitzvot. But "liberty" per se, the notion that a person should be able to live as he or she chooses? This is in fact anathema to the traditional, conservative Orthodox mindset. One must subordinate him/herself to the will of God and live accordingly.

So on both sides of the equation, liberal Orthodox and conservative Orthodox, it is not clear that Professor Haidt's model is entirely accurate.
A lesson we can learn from Haidt is that we can and need to do much more to understand the moral and theological universe of those with whom we disagree.
With this, I wholeheartedly concur. I just happen to believe that the model the author cites has limited utility insofar as gaining an accurate understanding of both religious sides of this debate.

A Suggestion

This merits its own post, but I will say it concisely now. The best way to encourage peace and amicable relations is to endeavor to follow the model of live and let live. If you wish to affiliate with an Orthodox community that supports female rabbinic ordination, then simply do so, and at the same time do not condemn others as backward, oppressive, or anti-women. Such terms do not accurately depict the motivations of the other side. And if you prefer a more "conservative" Orthodox community that ordains male rabbis only, by all means make that your home, and do not condemn liberal Orthodoxy as heretical, subversive or anti-Torah. That too does not accurately depict the motivations of the other side. Understand that every community has its own needs, and that its unique halakhic and normative approach is designed for one singularly positive reason only: to meet those unique needs. Your community's solutions would leave others wanting, just as those of a different community would leave you wanting.

Instead, be thrilled when everyone has precisely what they need.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Presenting "Adam Ha-rishon," according to Arutz 7

Mammal at the time of the early Cretaceous Period
A fossil that had been collecting dust in a museum in Germany was recently "rediscovered" by an American academic leading a field trip. The fossil shows an early snake-like creature, estimated to be 113 million years old, possessing small, vestigial legs. These are legs that, in an earlier epoch, had been larger and were used for walking, but which atrophied over the course of millions of years as the snake elongated and became a slithering creature. Some modern snakes are thought to still bear such vestiges. Boas and pythons have small buds protruding out where their hind legs would otherwise be, which they use to grip during mating.

This isn't the first time such a fossil has been found, so I'm not sure what all the hubbub is about. But that's immaterial to what I wanted to get at here, which is an article posted by the Israel news site Arutz 7, reacting to the recent find: "Proof of the Torah? Snake Fossil With 4 Legs Found." Here's the argument: The Serpent in the Garden of Eden narrative was cursed to crawl on its belly, implying that prior to that it could walk. The 4-legged snake fossil clearly shows that walking snakes (or proto-snakes) were once on Earth, thus "proving" the Torah's account that such a creature existed.

Now, I fully admit to feeling a twinge of excitement when biblical narratives or characters find support in extra-biblical finds, such as seals discovered last December dating to the 10th C. B.C.E., which attest to administrative complexity previously unknown from the time of Kings David and Solomon. I still get a kick out of the famous Deir 'Alla Inscription found in Jordan back in 1967, which explicitly references the "seer" Bala'am ben Be'or.

I love this kind of stuff, anything arcane having to do with Judaism and ancient Israel. But I love it in a fun, nerdy, "extracurricular" sense. It has no impact either way on my religious commitment. I'm not looking to "prove" the Torah. To me, the Torah proves itself, when we succeed in using it to create a "holier" society, one which values life, champions the oppressed, aspires to an ever higher mode of conduct. What does the theoretical existence of a walking, talking snake have to do with whether I deal honestly in my business transactions, or host guests for a Shabbat meal?

Nope, I'm not a literalist. I don't think the Torah was ever meant to be read literally. It's meant to convey teachings, ideals, and the framework for a way of life (i.e. the commandments). Besides, no religious Jews are pure literalists, after all. Otherwise they'd ascribe to God "literal" hands, feet and fingers, human emotions like regret, and so on.

So the idea of a 4-legged snake doesn't particularly excite me, religiously speaking. If not for the fact that there are religious folks out there - Jews and Christians alike - who actually take seriously the idea that this might be a "proof" for the Torah's veracity, I wouldn't bother spending any time discussing it.

But let's go with this idea for a second. The Arutz 7 article states:
According to experts, the fossil was apparently in a stage of adaption, indicating previous versions likely used their legs to walk.
So the author accepts the idea of evolution? Wait, not so fast:
Dr. Nick Longrich of the University of Bath, an author in a new study on the find ... made clear they weren't just "vestigial" evolutionary leftovers.

"They're actually very highly specialized - they have very long, skinny fingers and toes, with little claws on the end... they've stopped using them for walking and they're using them for grasping their prey"
Snake fossil with tiny legs; photo credit - Dr. Dave Martill
First off, who says that in order for a limb or organ to be considered "vestigial" it has to be completely useless? Snake legs were once used for walking, then at a later (smaller) stage to grasp prey, and now (nearly gone) for gripping during mating. This also goes for human vestiges. According to the Wikipedia entry on vestigiality: 
Other organic structures (such as the occipitofrontalis muscle) have lost their original functions (keep the head from falling) but are still useful for other purposes (facial expression). 
The Arutz 7 author then states (bold added): 
Longrich was expecting an in-between species which would suggest an evolution of the snake species, but he was "really blown away" to find a full-fledged snake - just with legs.
Look at the way this is written. By adding the bold phrase (which doesn't appear in the original BBC article he's drawing from), the author makes it sound as if Dr. Longrich was expecting to find evidence of snake evolution, but bang - there's a snake with legs. Therefore it must not have evolved!

But this is a dishonest representation of Dr. Longrich, who is a self-stated evolutionary biologist. In fact in his own bio, he mentions snake evolution specifically: 
I’m interested in the origins of new kinds of organisms, including the origins of birds from dinosaurs, and the evolution of snakes from lizards.
Okay, enough of my unsolicited rescue of the good professor in the face of a religious hijacking. I just want to make one more point relating to the title of this post.

If one wants to accept this 113-million-year-old 4-footed snake as "proof" for the literal reading of the Genesis narrative, aside from the fact that the Serpent also talks, which would require highly specialized anatomical structures not present in a snake (or a donkey for that matter), we also have the problem of timing.

If the biblical Serpent, as the Arutz 7 article suggests, is the "ancestor" of today's snake and dates back to the early Cretaceous, then of course Adam and Eve (who spoke to the snake) would also have to date to the early Cretaceous. Which besides throwing the whole Seder Olam out of whack, is pretty difficult to envision. Humans are included in the order Primates, the first of which didn't evolve until some 50 million years after the fossil in question. There were however mammalian ancestors of primates in the Cretaceous, scurrying under the legs of the T-rex and Triceratops. Who were they? Little furry guys like the one pictured above.

The Arutz 7 article indignantly begins:
"Scientists have long scoffed at the Torah account of how the serpent in the Garden of Eden walked upright..."
Yeah, scientists, stop scoffing at that! Instead (thanks to articles such as this), start scoffing at Adam - and correspondingly the very "image of God" - as being a tail-bearing, insect-eating prehistoric rodent!

Yes, yes, I hear the rejoinders. Who says this fossil is really from 113 million years ago, not just 5700 years ago? Who says the 4-footed snake ever really evolved into the zero-footed snake? Well for one, Arutz 7 does, explicitly referring to the "113-million-year-old oldest ancestor of snake," and describing the snake's legs as "a stage of adaption, indicating previous versions likely used their legs to walk."

Point being, you can't have your evolution and deny it too. It's also a perfect example of the way literalism and the resulting apologetics create far bigger problems than the ones they're attempting to solve. Want all the "scoffing" to end right now? Then speak about our tradition in ways that make sense. Don't belittle the work of scientists or distort their words. Make the choice to understand stories like the Garden of Eden narrative reasonably, i.e. non-literally. It's really that simple!