Sunday, April 29, 2012

Yom HaAtzmaut – A Historical Perspective Part 1

In a recent post, Rabbi Slifkin claims that the main reason Charedim do not celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut (YH) is because it is at odds with the isolationism and traditionalism of charedi society. Before we address Rabbi Slifkin’s claim, it should be noted that isolationism and traditionalism are sociological factors that are indispensible to the Jewish nation. Indeed, they are the defining elements of Jewish culture. Charedi society is merely a reflection of the typical form of society that characterized the Jewish nation from the start. Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism are all deviations from the norm.  

Notes on Isolationism

From its very inception the Jewish nation was isolationist. An outside observer made the following prophetic remark about the Jews in the Wilderness: “Behold it is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned amongst the nations” (Bamidbar 33:10). This situation obtained for hundreds of years in Eretz Yisrael, from the times of Yehoshua when the Jewish Commonwealth was first established, down to the destruction of the first temple 900 years later. Goyim were not allowed to live in Eretz Yisrael during this period. So strict were our sages regarding this rule that they even instituted a halacha that a goy is mi’tameh b’maga!

The attitude of isolationism was maintained by the Jews throughout their history. Long after the destruction of the second Temple, the Jews continued to live in seclusion. In Europe the Jews lived either in ghettos or in thick Jewish districts, isolated from their gentile neighbors. Unfortunately, the 16th and 17th century ideas of the Renaissance, Humanism, Equality and Enlightenment finally penetrated the Jewish nation and in 18th century Western Europe Moses Mendelssohn's misguided ideas eventually caused the walls of the ghettos to come tumbling down. Eastern European Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) and Western European Reformism thrived which in turn led to the greatest incidence of assimilation in out nation’s history! In pre-World War II Germany the Jewish population was over a half million strong yet by 1938 almost all of them were entirely assimilated R”L! If the charedi society is isolationist, it’s for good reason. Isolationism is the only thing that kept our nation alive for the past 3300 years. In Egypt the only tribe that remained independent was Levi. Why? Because their progenitor (Levi) insisted that they remain isolationists. The rest ended up suffering terribly and eventually most of them perished in Egypt. Only 20% merited the redemption. The Torah insists on isolationism. Hashem says, “Va’avdil eschem min ha’amim”. Separatism is the Divinely mandated status of the Jewish Nation whether they like it or not.              

Notes on Traditionalism

From its very inception the Jewish nation was traditionalist. In fact, the vast body of our Torah was handed down by tradition for over fifteen hundred years! This did not change much with the mishna, or even with the gemara. Until the advent of the printing press the majority of students did not own a copy of shas. They learned Torah shebi’al peh orally, from their teachers. Our nation is a nation of mesora (tradition). Without it we would be no different than the surrounding umos ha’olam. But traditionalism is not only relevant to halacha. It is one of the defining qualities of our nation. The later generations look back at the earlier generations with reverence. Customs, worldviews and societal norms are adopted based on the traditions of the earlier generations. This is standard fare for the Jewish nation. Charedim didn’t invent this; they are merely perpetuating a pre-existing value system. The following statement will no doubt irritate some readers, but Charedi Judaism is the most authentic form of Judaism today in the sense that it most closely resembles the traditional character of the Jews of Pre-World War I Europe (by “Charedi” I mean Orthodox Jews of all denominations wherever they may live).

Rabbi Slifkin claims that charedim do not celebrate YH because they are traditional and because they value isolationism. But he says this with disdain. “They'd be uncomfortable with it even if the Ribbono Shel Olam Himself were to say that it's kosher.” Unfortunately Rabbi Slifkin could learn a thing or two from his erstwhile charedi landsmen. If he valued traditionalism a bit more perhaps he wouldn’t indulge in such frequent and strident attacks on Chazal and traditional Judaism.

Is Rabbi Slifkin right? Do charedim avoid YH because of tradition or isolationism? In Part 2 of this series this question will be addressed at length bi’ezras Hashem.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Yom HaAtzmaut

In the previous post we noted Rabbi Slifkin’s opinion re Yom HaAtzmaut (YH). He suggests that one of the reasons people choose not to celebrate YH is because they maintain the “non-rationalist” view that Chazal and the people depicted in Tanach were incomprehensibly greater than us in spirituality. They feel that only individuals of a spiritual caliber such as Chazal may confer spiritual significance on a given event. People such as us fall woefully short of the task. On the other hand, rationalists “don't look at people from the Biblical and Talmudic era as being that different from people today. Accordingly, it is perfectly possible for people of today to be involved in events of monumental religious significance.

While this author disagrees with Rabbi Slifkin’s opinion regarding the motives of those who don’t celebrate YH, there is an important issue that needs to be dealt with before discussing YH. The following question must be asked:

Is the view that “Chazal and the people depicted in Tanach were incomprehensibly greater than us in spirituality” non-rationalist?

The answer is no. Our nation reached the summit of perfection at Mount Sinai. As the subsequent generations unfolded, their level of spirituality declined. This attitude is axiomatic to our religion and functions as one of its defining principles. It is ubiquitous in our writings, from the Tanach itself down to Chazal, Rishonim and Acharonim. It appears so many times that citations are entirely superfluous. It is impossible to be connected to traditional Judaism without understanding this idea. Consider the following.

  • Three times a day we beseech Hashem to accept our entreaties by dint of our connection to the Avos.
  • The entire dor midbar experienced prophecy of the highest order, never to be repeated again in subsequent generations.
  • The Torah states that never will a greater spiritual giant arise than Moshe.
  • Shmuel Hanavi cried all night because the nation was transitioning from the period of shoftim (relating to Hashem as King in a direct fashion) to the period of melachim (relating to Hashem as King via a human intermediary).
  • The nation was exiled by the Babylonians.
  • The Temple was reestablished 70 years later but the nation was exiled again and the Temple did not return. This prompted R’ Yochanan to comment that the fingernails (lifeless material) of the preceding generations are greater than the stomachs of the subsequent generations (Yoma 9b).
  • The era of the Tana’im ended with the Mishna.
  • The era of the Amoraim ended with the Talmud.
  • The era of the Rishonim ended around the time of the Spanish exile.

The list is endless! Any traditional Jew accepts the idea that, as a rule, the spiritual level of the Jewish nation decreases over time. This is a given. There are countless examples in the Talmud. The first time this idea was ever challenged was in the 18th century by the patrons of Jewish Enlightenment. Unfortunately Rabbi Slifkin’s attitude (which he refers to as “rationalist”) is reminiscent of the attitude of European Haskala. I broached this topic back in November of 2010 regarding the issue of Scientism but more needs to be said.

Several years ago Rav Shlomo Miller (Kollel Avreichim, Toronto, Canada) issued a letter of admonishment criticizing precisely this attitude. He writes as follows:
The truth is, he (Rabbi Slifkin) has followed the ways of those who scoff at the sages, like the maskilim who ridiculed the exegeses (drashos) of our sages while considering themselves all-knowing… So too in our time, Slifkin advances questions against our sages from current theories and in place of honoring the words of our sages, he denigrates their opinions. If he encounters a question for which he possesses no answer, it would behoove him to say “I have not merited to understand the words of the sages” just as all of our great scholars have done through the ages whenever they encountered a question on a subject in Talmud… If we approach the Torah and its sages with awe and humility, then we will traverse confidently and not stumble in the fundamentals of our religion as Slifkin has done…   
Rationalist Judaism is a blog which is dedicated to “an exploration into the rationalist approach to Judaism that was most famously presented by Maimonides”. Rationalist Judaism Blog, perk up your ears! Here’s what Maimonides has to say regarding our very sugya (hakdama to Pirush Mishnayos – my translation, my highlights)
And therefore, we must establish the truth of their (Chazal’s) words in our hearts. We must delve deeply into them and not hurry to dismiss a single saying of theirs. Rather, if something is found in their words which seems strange in our eyes, we must orient ourselves in the appropriate [corresponding] disciplines until we understand their meaning in this particular topic, assuming that we are even able to comprehend [their words] in the first place. For even our [latter] sages of blessed memory, despite the fact that they delved exceedingly into their studies, were clear of mind, were appropriately fit for the comprehension of wisdom, attached themselves to great people and entirely detached themselves from material pursuits, [and yet despite all this they] attributed a ‘lacking’ to themselves when comparing themselves to previous generations…so much more so ourselves…how can we not attribute a lacking to ourselves in comparison to them. And since they [the latter sages] knew that all of the words of the sages are well established from every angle, they were very protective of them and enjoined against slandering them and stated ‘whomsoever blandishes the words of the sages is judged in boiling feces’ and there is no worse ‘boiling feces’ than the foolishness that leads one to denigrate [the words of our sages]. And therefore, you will never find one rejecting their words but one who chases after lust, who favours materialism, who never enlightened his mind with any illumination whatsoever." (Kapach ed. pg. 20-21)
For some reason I don’t recall seeing this quotation from Maimonides on Rationalist Judaism. I wonder why…

In the following posts we intend to explore the halachic and hashkafic issues associated with adopting YH as a national holiday.

Yom HaAtzmaut and Irrationality – The Same Tired Canard

Rabbi Slifkin asks:
What is the connection between Yom Ha-Atzmaut and rationalism?
He then goes on to suggest that
the rationalist/ non-rationalist divide serves to explain one very minor aspect of the dispute between those who celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut and those who do not.
How so? Simple. Chareidim are backward, irrational people who believe in dwarfs, giants and superhuman “Chazal-men” who can incinerate evildoers with a single glance. In addition, Chareidim believe that Chazal were spiritual ubermenschen whose saintliness far surpassed our current ability to comprehend. Accordingly, only Chazal’s innovations are capable of possessing religious significance. The State of Israel was founded by plain people like you and I and sometimes even (gasp) irreligious people and therefore, by definition, is incapable of representing any true religious significance.

On the other hand, “rationalists” understand that there is not much difference between us and people during the times of, say, Chazal, or even people of biblical times. Accordingly, there is nothing special about Chazal that grants their actions or innovations anymore spiritual significance then even the irreligious of today. If they could do it, we could do it. Ergo, this partially accounts for the tendency of rationalists to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut and for the non-rationalists (read: irrationalists) to eschew any involvement in same.

Normally when I read such outlandish depictions I just roll my eyes and move on. But every once in a while it pays to stop and evaluate the extent to which the Rationalist Judaism Blog is willing to stoop to promote the tired old canard of “backward irrational Chareidism”. Ironically, some of what Rabbi Slifkin says is true. But isn’t this how demagoguery works? The position that needs to be defeated is portrayed in exaggerated terms in order to make it look irrational to the audience.

For the record, Chareidim don’t think that Chazal were physically superhuman. However, there is evidence that the further back you go the more physically robust mankind was. For instance, today the average lifespan (in developed countries) is probably between 70 and 80 years. But for thousands of years it was normal for people to live much longer than that. Rabbi Slifkin mentions the Avos. Well, all three lived a lot longer than anyone today. Rabbi Slifkin mentions biblical times. I wonder if he believes that anyone today is capable of confronting a lion or a bear. Actually, according to the meforshim Dovid was confronted by three lions, not one! In shiras Dovid King David describes himself as attacking a whole regiment of men while leaping, in full armor, over a wall!

In Shmuel II Dovid lists his mighty warriors. The first is Adino the Etzni who singlehandedly slew 800 men! A bit later Binayahu is described as slaying a lion in a pit (no room to maneuver) on a snowy day (unsure footing)! I’d like to see Arnold Schwarzenegger slay a lion. The strongest men today simply cannot compete with the strong men of antiquity.

Even during the times of Chazal the gemara describes a process called kida where the individual is perfectly horizontal with the ground yet only his fingers are touching the floor. That’s some feat! But apparently there were several chachamim(!) who regularly performed this ritual in front of the masses during simchas beis ha’shoeva. In fact, Josephus himself  mentions that the Roman emperor was having trouble with criminals in a certain district and no matter what the emperor did he was unable to enforce the rule of law. So he hired Jewish(!) mercenaries who are described by Josephus as being able to uproot cedar trees with their bare hands while riding on horseback! The mercenaries were tasked with addressing the problem of the criminal element and shortly thereafter the entire district quieted down.

Is it really irrational to believe that the men of antiquity were fitter than their distant descendants? Certainly not. But all this is irrelevant. The real issue here is the spiritual status of the earlier generations, not their physical prowess. The question that needs to be asked is: Is it irrational to believe that Chazal and people of biblical times towered above us in spiritual accomplishment? This question will be dealt with in the following post bi’ezras Hashem.

Why do most Chareidim choose not to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaus? This too will be addressed in the following posts.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rav Dessler and Nature

In a recent post, Rabbi Slifkin discusses Rav Eliyahu Dessler's view on Nature and questions its inclusion in future copies of his book Challenge. Although this author would certainly like to see any mention of Rav Dessler removed from the aforementioned book, it is not for the reason Rabbi Slifkin mentions in his post.

Rabbi Slifkin quotes a particularly distasteful citation about Rav Dessler from a recent book published in Israel by Rabbi Dr. Menachem Martin Gordon, a Jewish academic and well-known apologist for Centrist Modern-Orthodoxy. Rabbi Slifkin apparently accepts Gordon’s presentation of Rav Dessler’s view and goes on to question its “rationalism”. The purpose of this thread is to provide a partial analysis of Gordon’s presentation and see how well it stands up in light of Rav Dessler’s actual written works.

Gordon writes as follows:
Rav Dessler’s book, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, whose impact on the yeshiva world in recent years has been enormous, represents a radical departure from the Talmudic position (Hullin 105a, Niddah 70b), as well as the medieval philosophic tradition (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 3:17), in its denial of the reality of natural law and the cause—and—effect nexus of human initiative (Mikhtav, I, pp. 177-206).
In view of the fact that Rav Dessler quotes numerous ma’amarei Chazal in support of his thesis, Gordon’s claim is curious. If Rabbi Gordon disagrees with Rav Dessler’s interpretation of Chazal, so be it. But to assert that Rav Dessler’s view is a “radical departure” from Chazal is absurd. But let’s see what Gordon goes on to write.
For Rav Dessler, the study of the sciences - even medicine, for that matter - is pointless, since the exclusive determinate of human welfare is the providential hand of God responding to religious virtue.
This assertion is wrong on several levels. First and foremost is the fact that Rav Dessler was well-versed both in science itself and in the philosophy of science. He used his knowledge extensively when responding to issues that relate to the ostensible “Torah Science Loggerhead”. In addition he used his understanding of science as a means of perceiving the presence of Hashem in nature.

As far as the study of medicine, Rav Dessler certainly did not consider such an enterprise “pointless”. In Michtav III 170-173 Rav Dessler explains that for people on an exceedingly high spiritual level, such as the Dor Midbar, doctors are unnecessary because each and every individual enjoys direct hashgacha pratis (Divine Providence) and therefore sickness is merely a Divine response to an individual’s specific free-will action, as is the healing process. However on our level there is no question that one may avail himself of the services of a doctor. Indeed, one is obligated to heed the advice of medical professionals.  

In our original quote, Gordon claims that not only does Rav Dessler’s thesis depart from Chazal, it also departs from “the medieval philosophic tradition (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 3:17), in its denial of the reality of natural law and the cause—and—effect nexus of human initiative” This claim is more subtle. In order to refute it we would have to provide a lengthy and scholarly treatment of the subject matter at hand, something beyond the current scope and mandate of this blog. However I believe the following comment clearly demonstrates the tenuousness of Gordon's assertion.   

Rav Dessler’s approach to Nature is founded on a specific ontological principle that serves as the point of departure for his entire thesis. The principle is as follows:

Although nature seems to possess the quality of self-subsistence to the casual observer, in reality it is only the perpetual Will of the Creator which infuses the universe, its phenomena, and its laws with ongoing existence.

Rav Dessler’s thesis flows naturally from this principle. In fact, once this principle is assumed his approach seems almost inevitable. The question is, did Rambam subscribe to “the reality of natural law” as Gordon understands it, or was his view more closely aligned with Rav Dessler’s description of nature as explained above? Here’s a partial quote from Moreh Nevuchim 1:69 (Freidlander’s translation, my highlights)

You need not trouble yourself now with the question whether the universe has been created by God… You will find [in the pages of this treatise] full and instructive information on the subject. Here I wish to show that God is the" cause" of every event that takes place in the world, just as He is the Creator of the whole universe as it now exists… a certain production has its agens, this agens again has its agens, and so on and on until at last we arrive at a first agens, which is the true agens throughout all the intervening links. If the letter aleph be moved by bet, bet by gimel, gimel by dalet, and dalet by he - and as the series does not extend to infinity, ler us stop at he -- there is no doubt that the hi moves the letters aleph, bet, gimel, and dalet, and we say correctly that the aleph is moved by hi. In that sense everything occurring in the universe, although directly produced by certain nearer causes, is ascribed to the Creator… When we call God the ultimate form of the universe, we do not use this term in the sense of form connected with substance, namely, as the form of that substance, as though God were the form of a material being. It is not in this sense that we use it, but in the following : Everything existing and endowed with a form, is whatever it is through its form, and when that form is destroyed its whole existence terminates and is obliterated. The same is the case as regards the relation between God and all distant causes of existing beings: it is through the existence of God that all things exist, and it is He who maintains their existence by that process which is called emanation (in Hebrew shepha'), as will be explained in one of the chapters of the present work… God maintains the same relation to the world as the form has to a thing endowed with a form: through the form it is what it is, and on it the reality and essence of the thing depends. In this sense we may say that God is the ultimate form, that He is the form of all forms: that is to say, the existence and continuance of all forms in the last instance depend on Him, the forms are maintained by Him, in the same way as all things endowed with forms retain their existence through their forms. On that account God is called, in the sacred language, he ha-'olamim, "the life of the Universe," as will be explained (chap. lxxii.).
End Quote

I will leave it up to the reader to decide for himself whether Rav Dessler’s approach to nature represents a “radical departure” from that of the Rambam.