Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Gerson did not Convert to Christianity, he had a Jewish Grandfather

In Uncategorized on April 22, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Presumably a paternal grandfather, my original source had it wrong. I guess I can go back to quoting him again with fewer misgivings.

Pirates, Ransoms & The Talmudic Sages

In Collective punishment, Gilad Shavit, Israel, Piracy, Tikkun HaOlam on April 20, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Jews throughout their history have had to contend with kidnappings and ransoms. It was so prevalent that legislation had already appeared in the Talmud.

The Sages ascertained that being held captive was a fate literally worse than death:

Rava said to Rabba Bar Mari, “Where does this notion that redeeming the captive is considered so special that the sages called it an exceptionally great mitzvah appear? As it is written: “And when they will say to you, “Where shall we go?” You will say to them, “So says the LORD, those to die will die, those to go by the sword, will go by the sword, those by famine will be by famine and those who will be taken captive will be taken captive.” (Jeremiah 15:2, 42:11) And Rabbi Yochanan said, “[In this verse] the afflictions become increasingly more severe. [For example] The sword is considered more severe than death.” [and therefore being held captive is worse than famine] (B. Talmud Baba Batra 8b)

Nevertheless, the Sages cautioned that one should not “over pay” for redeeming captives because of Tikun Ha’Olam i.e. one would encourage the practice of kidnapping which would be detrimental to the entire community. The Mishnah states:

One never redeems captives for more than they are worth, because of our concern for Tikkun HaOlam. One also does not help captives escape because of our concern for Tikkun HaOlam. (B. Talmud Gitin 45a)

Using this principle, the primary goal of a policy should be to deter piracy while the goal of redeeming the individual captive is secondary. It is clear that paying ransom encourages piracy, but keeps captives alive, while killing pirates may have a detrimental impact on the survival of captives. Both caving in or military action have downsides. A third option was offered in an op. ed piece in The New York Times:

In 1995, for example, the water supply for Mogadishu, the capital, was shut off by the United Nations humanitarian agencies until a hostage who worked for another aid organization was released. On the first day of the shutoff, the women who collected water from public distribution points yelled at the kidnappers; on the second day they stoned them; on the third day they shot at them; on the fourth day, the hostage was released.

Here in option three, collective punishment makes the captors so unpopular they are forced to release their captives. This reminds me of the O. Henry short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief” where the captive was so obnoxious the kidnappers decided the enterprise wasn’t worth it.

One question, what do you think would have happened if Israel had turned off the water of Gaza after Gilad Shavit was captured? The Sages may have approved, but what would the response of the hypocritical U.N. have been? Not a hard call. For a more comprehensive look at these sources, click on the “Scribd” badge in the margin and look for the file entitled: Tikkun Ha’Olam: The Massive Malapropism, and feel free to check out some of the other files. Too lazy to peruse? Click here.


Neurotheology and the Jewish Brain

In Uncategorized on April 19, 2009 at 11:09 pm

Dr. Andrew Newburg seems to be the unassailed pioneer of this new field of Neurotheology. He has been taking pictures of brains of meditators and has proven what one might expect–that the part of the brain that is engaged in concentration and mindful focus are very active during these meditative states, so that paradoxically, while one is “inactive”, he is actually working very hard, but in a way that energizes instead of enervates. He also finds that a belief in God amplifies these feelings of empathy, peace and unity.

Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for W and as I found out from one who would know, converted from Judaism to Christianity. He writes thoughtful op-ed pieces for the Washington Post about religion and its value. I confess that I liked him better when I thought he was just a thoughtful Christian, but now, I feel funny even quoting him. After all, he betrayed his people for a calling that I cannot accept. Nevertheless, he wrote an op-ed piece on Newburg and his latest findings. He also reports that Newburg’s findings indicate:

Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain — particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate — where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is “filled with aggression and fear.” It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.

This op ed piece appeared soon after my post on why we say a partial Hallel prayer on the intermediate and last days of Pesach. The verse in Proverbs warns us: Do not be joyful from the fall of your enemies, and the Midrash immediately explains that this is why only a partial Hallel is part of the intermediate and last days of the Pesach liturgy. I recently gave a more detailed version of these sources in a class that I gave as part of the morning service. I ended it with a similar ending that I had written here in the previous post:

Blessed is the people who wish to believe in God’s empathy, and in so doing, believe in their own.

Immediately afterward, one of the congregation came up to object and say that it was this very quietism of Ashkenazic Jewry that prevented the Jews from having a state much sooner. It would have helped us if we could have actively fought and hated our enemies with more gusto.

Newburg might say that this fellow chose to envision a different God, and as a result, is very much stuck in a survivalist mode that does not allow for these feelings of compassion, peace and unity. I imagine the fellow would counter that this type of love and compassion is a luxury that Jews cannot afford.

But we couldn’t afford it in the 13th century either, yet this is the path we chose and this is the way we chose to see God and certainly ourselves.

A study guide that takes us through the sources will be forthcoming.

Short-changing the last day of Pesach with only a partial Hallel

In Uncategorized on April 14, 2009 at 2:48 pm

There are two reasons given why we only say a partial Hallel on the last day of Pesach. The most prosaic of which is the fact that the sacrifices were the same during the intermediate and last days of Pesach, so no complete Hallel is required since they are all subsumed under the same rubric (B.Talmud Erchin 10b)

The more evocative reason is that when Israel made it across the Red Sea, the angels wished to sing praises, when God chastises them by saying, “The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing?” This is the reason that people know, primarily because it is the only reason quoted in the later codes. Never mind that we sang and danced when we crossed the sea.

The first time this reason appears is in the 13th century work Shiblei HaLeket of Rabbi Tzidkiyahu Ben Avraham HaRofeh when he quotes from the lost Midrash Harneinu:

Shmuel Bar Abba said: “At the fall of your enemies, do not be joyful.” Because the Egyptians were drowned [we do not say a complete Hallel]. In later Halachic works the Talmud in Sanhedrin is quoted to illustrate this point, “The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing?” Even more interesting is that the more prosaic reason is not mentioned at all having been eclipsed and embellished by God’s empathy for the Egyptian enemy. In the collective Jewish memory, this is the reason most people seem to know, the source of which is a lost Midrash, which is buried in a section of the Shiblei Haleket, the subject of which is Rosh Chodesh (The New Moon). Dredged from the innards of a 13th Century halachic anthology, comes a truism in Jewish consciousness.

Blessed is the people who wish to believe in God’s empathy, and in so doing, believe in their own.
Chag Sameyach!

The Barbarity of Multi-Culturalism

In Uncategorized on April 14, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Kenan Malik argues in his book From Fatwa to Jihad, The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy that Islamo-fascism is far from medieval, but a modern invention–a product of multi-culturalism. By creating “communities” in the U.K., Tony Blair invigorated tribes in their stead. Celebrating difference had eclipsed the fight against racism making communities into tribes. In his review, Bryan Appleyard laments:

Racism is a cause that unites all creeds and colours. It is a universal enemy that can be attacked with the universalist Enlightenment belief that there are values that can be rationally and justly applied to all human societies. Splitting the world into “communities”, celebrating difference at all costs, is a counterEnlightenment strategy.

Malik was the product of a mixed Hindu-Muslim marriage who grew up without either religious tradition. He may argue that certain “tribes” received a boost from multi-culturist policies, but we, in America, know all too well the cost of a “great melting pot” strategy that left many races and ethnicities out in the cold.

Goldblog and Roger Cohen are at it…again. Two Jews in a "passing water" contest.

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2009 at 7:25 pm

Roger Cohen once again draws attention to Bibi’s objection to the Iranian regime. Jeffrey Goldberg revels in his honorable mention by Cohen as Bibi’s “stenographer” read, apologist, when all Goldberg did was score an interview. Goldberg is happy to be trashed by an NYT columnist, claiming that he has gotten under Cohen’s skin.

It reminds me of R. Yossi Ben Kisma and R. Hanina Ben Tradyon. R. Hanina was the defiant scholar who studied Torah publicly knowing that if he were caught, he would be executed. Yossi collaborated with the authorities under the assumption that the Roman victory indicated that God’s favor was with them and not with the Jews.

R. Yossi became ill and, lo and behold, Rabbi Hanina went to visit him even though it seems there was very little upon which they agreed. That level of concern for each other in spite of their differences, always struck me as particularly powerful given that there was so much at stake. R. Yossi Ben. Kisma was a collaborator after all, and R. Hanina was anything but that.

R. Yossi dies from his illness, and the Romans eulogize him with great fanfare and then on their way back from the funeral, they “catch” Rabbi Hanina teaching to the multitudes with a Sefer Torah in his lap. It is here he utters the most famous four words in Jewish martyrdom, “Gvilim nisrafin, v’otiyotav porchot” (The Parchments are burning, but the letters are flying free.)

I ascribe the most noble of motives to Cohen and Goldberg, but if Cohen turns out to be wrong about Iran, he loses very little in that he has cast his lot as a citizen of the world who is willing to mortgage Israel’s future on his enlightened perceptions. Goldberg, on the other hand, would lose much more for his attachment to Jews, Judaism and Israel is well documented. He would have certainly been on Hanina’s side in this argument, while there is no doubt where Cohen would be.

The question is would one visit the other if he was ill?

For the Talmudic rendering of Rabbi Hanina’s trial with R. Eliezer Ben Parta and the subsequent tale of his visit to Rabbi Yossi Ben Kisma, click here.

Peace In Our Time for all Wonton Progressives

In Chinese Food, Jews, Muslims on April 7, 2009 at 9:03 pm

Finally, a common language!!!
Chinese Food–We can get together on
Xmas after the movie!
Pass the Pu Pu Platter cousin!
But please wait until after Pesach.

David Brooks writes an interesting NYT column, but doesn’t know diddly about the Talmud or its purpose.

In Uncategorized on April 7, 2009 at 7:37 pm

Brooks writes an article declaring that moral reasoning has little to do with morality since most moral decisions are intuitive and made in a visceral instant. In it, he claims that this:

…challenges the Talmudic tradition with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts

Clearly, an indication of someone who has no idea of what the Talmud is, and its purpose. One of the criteria for entering the Sanhedrin, the sacred portal of those who created the Talmud, was to be able to prove in many ways how a lizard is kosher. (The point being that even a child knows that Jews aren’t allowed to eat lizards.) This was not only a way to demonstrate intellectual acumen, but to understand the limitations of reason when it comes to morality, or even legality.

Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine spoke of the Musar HaTeva the “organic morality” that existed in all men. The Talmudic sages called this the Yetzer Hatov, the organic inclination to do good. Enhancing the understanding of why even de facto the good is the better path reinforces the good and gives it substance beyond biological impulse. Just as the raionalization for evil is the friend of the perpetrator, the pondering of the ramifications of the good is an ally to the visceral impulse to do so.

The purpose of the Talmud was to sharpen those visceral judgements, to harmonize the positive emotional response with intellectual rigor, so that not only what you are doing will be of good intent, but will also have as good of a result as possible.

I love reading David Brooks, he is smart, sensitive and often unpredictable. He is also a committed Jew, but he might even be smarter if he studied a little Torah and understood the intellectual tradition that has much to do with who he is today.

I’m about to shut down for awhile, Chag Sameyach!

Travellin’ Man

In Uncategorized on April 6, 2009 at 1:39 pm

The key to happiness is good health and a bad memory.–Ingrid Bergman

In transit today and won’t be scorchin’ until late this evening. Happy cleaning everyone!

The Sefat Emet A Modern Chasidic Master Teaches Us How to Get Real with our Passover Seder

In Uncategorized on April 5, 2009 at 2:49 pm

For many who take Passover Seders seriously it is either an opportunity to have children to take over and display their knowledge, or an opportunity for lively discussions relating to the ritual at hand. Both of these approaches choose pedagogy and discourse over piety. The Sefat Emet Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Altar(1847-1905) challenges us to believe that there is more to Pesach than a ritualized reenactment, it is a connection that is meant to transcend time. The power of believing that can make a seder magical. Quoting the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew (1525-1609) he says:

…as a group everyone was actually present at the Exodus, but it as individuals everyone has to see himself “as if he went out”. (Maharal, Gevurot HaShem Chapter 61). It would also seem that the way one enters the group is through believing that he went out from Egypt. For certainly, the Exodus from Egypt was the original Israelite point from which life is drawn to every person in Israel, and this is something that we are obliged to believe.

We are to believe that our very lives as Jews not only depend on the Exodus in the past, but that through this reenactment we remain connected as if it is happening now, and in fact, there is always an Egypt that we are trying to leave, it is only the characters that change. For the Sefat Emet in translation and a scorchin commentary, click here.