Friday, June 29, 2007

Godless Epicurus - (apikores?)

As promised, I will try to flesh out the comment by Technician. As a side experiment, it will be interesting to see how interpretation works. Technician knows what he was thinking when he wrote, I only think I know what he was thinking based on what he wrote. I also have my own ideas and thoughts so that when I read Technician words, my interpretation is an amalgam of what I read and know. It will be interesting to see how close I come to technician’s thoughts. So Technician, please comment and correct anything I misread.

Technician wrote: [My comments in brackets]

Premise 1 – People fear God.

[We observe that people need a crutch to explain why some suffer others do not, why certain phenomena happen that they cannot explain and generally the vicissitudes of life compel them to find some outside force that explains all the unknown.]

Premise 2 - Lucretius and the Epicureans- say that all is random and chance based on the movement of atoms.

[You can read about Lucretius et al. here ]

Conclusion – there is no need to fear any gods acting in the natural order.

[Basically, there is no logic to how things happen. Man is alone in the world and does the best he can with what he has. Rambam addresses Epicurus in his discussion on Providence. Here is how puts it in MN3:17 -

There is no Providence at all for anything in the Universe; all parts of the Universe, the heavens and what they contain, owe their origin to accident and chance; there exists no being that rules and governs them or provides for them. This is the theory of Epicurus, who assumes also that the Universe consists of atoms, that these have combined by chance, and have received their various forms by mere accident. There have been atheists among the Israelites who have expressed the same view; it is reported of them: "They have denied the Lord, and said he is not" (Jer. v. 12).”]

As an aside, although Rambam clearly was cognizant of Epicurus, when he comments on the word Apikores in the Mishna Sanhedrin he says as follows:

פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת סנהדרין פרק י משנה א

ומלת אפיקורוס, היא מלת ארמית ענינה ההקלה והזלזול בתורה או בחכמי התורה, ולפיכך מניחים שם זה בסתם על מי שאינו מאמין ביסודות התורה או מבזה את החכמים או איזה תלמיד חכמים שיהיה או רבו

Paraphrase/Translation as usual:

The Word Apikores is Aramaic, meaning lack of respect and disregard for the Torah or the scholars of Torah. That is why it is used to describe all that do not accept the foundations of the Torah or shames the Scholars or any Talmid Chacham or his Rebbi.

It seems that based on the usage of the word Rambam felt it could not be traced back to Epicurus and his philosophy. I am not sure why not.

Any ideas?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Maimonidean Perspective contrasted with general belief systems.

A very knowledgeable commenter who calls himself Technician left the following comment on my post about Design. I am posting it as is. For those accustomed to Maimonidean discourse it will be clear. I will however address this comment over a series of posts, agree with many, disagree or reinterpret some and hopefully at the end of the day some more clarity will come out of it. [My edits are in brackets.]

I think you need to spell it out slowly.

Premise 1 – People fear God

Premise 2 - Lucretius and the Epicureans- say that all is random and chance based on the movement of atoms.

Conclusion – there is no need to fear any gods acting in the natural order

P1 - Al-Razi – Aristotle’s fixed world is wrong, the Epicureans are true, and one [cannot] gain anything ethical from the natural order

P2 – Saadyah- Olam Haba will be the place where things will show their order

P3 – Modern Science- we agree with Al-Razi

P4 – Modern atheists say religion is unethical

P5 – We are still scared and need guidance- the random world is scary

P6 - Religious folk say there is no natural ethics, hence one needs a non-rational source of ethics

Conclusion – we need to create an absurd religion outside of the natural order. Torah is now a non-natural lifestyle keeping you ethical. Hashem punishes us the way Zeus punished.


P1 – there is a fixed Aristotelian natural order. God at the minimum is Aristotle’s first cause.

P2 – this natural order is the best of all possible worlds

P3 – we see that the natural order is ethical

P4 – this ethic is labeled “God’s attributes of Action”

P5 – acting ethically imitates God – meaning the attributes of action in the natural order.

P6 – Our goal is to create a virtuous society based on reason.

P7 According to Ibn Tibbon, Radak, Shem Tov, Herman Cohen, and even Isadore Twersky – this is for creating a virtuous society through ethics not ritual. Ritual mizvot are for the betterment of society – tikkun haguf – tikkun hamedinah- not to imitate God.

P8– Meiri, Soloveitchik, Fox, Hartman and other halakhic thinkers connect the mizvot to intimating [imitating] God.

Conclusion1 - therefore the epicureans are wrong about the world as random science, Saadyah is wrong because mizvot have a this worldly reward, religious ethics that are not natural are wrong.

Conclusion2: Mizvot are the means to create a virtuous society

Conclusion3: Providence is part of the natural order

Meshekh Hokhmah

P1 most religion is emotional, fearful, and imagination – including Hasidim and Jewish folk ways

P2 Judaism through Maimonides is rational

Conclusion1: We should choose a rational Torah

Conclusion 2 Even gentiles should choose the rational – and any place they are rational is ipso facto a following of the 7 laws of Noah (no specific Torah connection needed)

I did not include every premise and many of them are subject to multiple interpretations, but this may be a start. The modern world is Epicurean and we look for meaning by returning to ancient fears. Maimonides has a fixed world and mizvot let us follow the natural pattern.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

How much is it worth knowing the Law without correct Theology?

The Mishna states:

משנה מסכת סנהדרין פרק י משנה ב

שלשה מלכים וארבעה הדיוטות אין להם חלק לעולם הבא שלשה מלכים ירבעם אחאב ומנשה

Three kings and four commoners have no part in the world to come. The three kings are Yerovam, Ahab and Menashe.

פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת סנהדרין פרק י משנה ב

[ב] הזכיר את אלו מחמת גודל מעלתם בחכמה, והיה חושב מי שיחשוב שברוב חכמתם וזכות התורה שהיו יודעים אותה ידיעה גדולה יש להם חלק, לפיכך השמיענו שיסודות האמונה נתקלקלו אצל אלו והיו להם ספקות במקצתם ולפיכך נדחו מחיי העולם הבא.

Rambam explains:
These three are singled out because of their great wisdom. Someone might think that because of their great wisdom and the merit of the Torah they knew they would have a part in Olam Haba. The Mishna tells us that the foundations of our belief were corrupted by these men and they had doubts about some of those foundations and were therefore excluded from the life of Olam Haba.

Professor Chaim Kreisel recently published the second volume of Livyat Chen, an encyclopedic compendium of Jewish Philosophy written by Rabbi Levi Ben Avraham in early 14th century Provence. RLBA was singled out and persecuted by Rashba in his war against philosophy. He was however revered by other great scholars of his time such as Meiri and R. Yitzchak de Latif.

Discussing the prohibition to anthropomorphize God, he condemns those who do so out of ignorance or erroneous conclusion. He argues that it is no different from idol worship which is a form of anthropomorphism. Man has brains and freedom of choice and is therefore obligated to learn the truth. Ignorance is no excuse. One should not respect the opinion of past generations for many things are known better by later generations. He goes on to quote a plethora of verses in Tanach that support this attitude. Here is a paraphrase of the interesting part I have been leading up to;

It is my opinion that Menashe and Yerovam were wise only in the laws and rituals of the Torah and accepted things literally. That is why the rabbis praised them in their knowledge of Kulot and Chumrot. [IOW they knew how to legislate – pasken - DG]. That is why the Gemara in Sanhedrin 106b says that there is no great advantage in asking many questions [about rituals]. God wants us the serve Him with our heart. [DG – Focusing too much on the details of the ritual is not a virtue]. They also say that Do’eg and Achitophel [two of the four commoners mentioned in the Mishna] did not arrive at proper conclusions in their Halachik learning. This shows that they did not understand the reasons for the Mitzvot and did not understand true philosophic discourse. That is why the Rabbis said that Do’eg forgot his learning by the time he died. Philosophic insight is unforgettable. [See MN 1:62 - In works on Metaphysics it has been shown that such knowledge, the perception of the active intellect, can never be forgotten: and this is meant by the phrase "his learning remains with him."] They were also not seeking to attain the truth with their learning, they did not delve into the depths of the ideas, they did not abstract; all their thoughts were expressed in just words without conceptualizing. They therefore did not understand the secrets and truths but let themselves be misled into what they could sense. That led them to anthropomorphism and Avodah Zara; they followed the nonsense of the nations and mistook the image as the maker, the plant as the planter. They divided up the earth by saying that different forces emanating from the stars and spheres had sway on the different parts of the world and worshiped them.

This is a fascinating piece where he clearly had the Pirush Hamishna in front of his eyes and explained it at length. It is incongruous how he equates the non-philosophical legalist with the ignorant idolater. Both have no Olam Haba!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Some thoughts on the "Argument From Design".

Proving the existence of God using the "From Design Argument” is dangerous. We know that there is a non-contingent Entity out there but we have no way of knowing neither what that entity is nor how that entity functions. For that entity to be non-contingent, it has to be by definition a singularity. When we say that God created the world, God knows, God wills and so on, all we are saying is that we see that things exist and therefore, in our own context, for such an effect to result we would have to do certain things, act in certain ways. We therefore attribute a similar action to God but in reality, it is just that – words without real meaning. We have no idea how He does anything. Saying therefore that there must be a designer is meaningless. The fact that our existence is so complex does not necessarily mean that there is a Designer or even a design. That is how it would have been had we been responsible for it, but God is another matter. He “is”, the word “is” is itself equivocal, a singularity and none of the rules we know apply to Him. All we know is that there is an entity. That is why Rambam says in the first Halacha in MT:

יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון
The foundation of all foundations is to know that there is out there (שם) a First Existent.

The word שם is used by Rambam throughout his MT when he talks about God. It is, to me, meant to convey this idea of singularity, to remind us to keep it in mind as we talk about God and His actions.

In MN 3:19 in a discussion about what it means God “knows” we read:

We see here necessarily design in nature, as has been shown by all physicians and philosophers. However as nature is not an intellectual being, and is not capable of governing [the universe], as has been accepted by all philosophers, the government [of the universe], which shows signs of design, originates, according to the philosophers, in an intellectual cause. According to our view it is the result of the action of an intellectual being that endows everything with its natural properties.”

Based on our experience there must be a design. The fact that there is a design does not necessarily mean that it comes from a Designer. Logically it could be just so – laws of physics and nothing else – an intellectual cause. It is however “our view”, in other words an ontological explanation that we accept, that an Entity is responsible for the design.

It is important to keep these distinctions in mind otherwise one risks falling into the anthropomorphism trap.

Why and How Does One Emulate God?

One commenter on my last post took exception about my statement that the purpose of keeping the Mitzvot is to enable us to emulate God properly. Others have questioned this several times in the past when I made similar statements and I believe I owe it to readers of the blog to address it a little more thoroughly.

Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot Asseh 8 writes as follows:

The Torah instructs us to emulate God as much as we can. The Torah says Devarim 28:9

ט יְקִימְךָ יְהוָה לוֹ לְעַם קָדוֹשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע-לָךְ: כִּי תִשְׁמֹר, אֶת-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהָלַכְתָּ, בִּדְרָכָיו.
9 The LORD will establish thee for a holy people unto Himself, as He hath sworn unto thee; if thou shall keep the commandments of the LORD thy God, and walk in His ways.

And in Devarim 10:12

יב וְעַתָּה, יִשְׂרָאֵל--מָה יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ: כִּי אִם-לְיִרְאָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל-דְּרָכָיו, וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ, וְלַעֲבֹד אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.
12 And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul;

And further in Devarim 11:22

כב כִּי אִם-שָׁמֹר תִּשְׁמְרוּן אֶת-כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם--לַעֲשֹׂתָהּ: לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל-דְּרָכָיו--וּלְדָבְקָה-בוֹ.
22 For if ye shall diligently keep all this commandment which I command you, to do it, to love the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave unto Him.

We received the correct interpretation of “walking in God’s ways” from Sinai, that it means to emulate Him. Just as God is seen as compassionate so should you be, just as God is seen as gracious so should you be, just as God is seen as just so should you be, just as God is seen as faithful so should you be. This same rule was repeated in different words in Devarim 13:5

ה אַחֲרֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ, וְאֹתוֹ תִירָאוּ; וְאֶת-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּבְקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ, וְאֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹדוּ וּבוֹ תִדְבָּקוּן.
5 After the LORD your God shall ye walk, and Him shall ye fear, and His commandments shall ye keep, and unto His voice shall ye hearken, and Him shall ye serve, and unto Him shall ye cleave.

And we received from Sinai that it means to emulate the good deeds and the important attributes that describe God who is far above all.

The above is as usual a paraphrase/translation of the sefer Hamitzvot.

In every one of the above verses, there are clearly distinct components. Walking in God’s ways is separate from keeping His Mitzvot, loving Him or attaching oneself to Him. Each of the admonishments needs to be defined separately. On the obligation to walk in His ways, we received a Sinaitic interpretation that it means emulating God. "Receiving an interpretation from Sinai" according to Rambam means that no one can disagree with it. It has the same authority as the written Law and is the original Torah Sheba'al Peh, the Oral Law received parallel with the written one. (See his introduction to Pirush Hamishna at length and Hilchot Mamrim 1:3 and hopefully the subject of a future post).

In Hilchot De’ot 1:5, after explaining his understanding of the famous Golden Mean, the finely balanced and finely tuned person one should strive to be, he tells us:

יא ומצווין אנו ללכת בדרכים אלו הבינוניים, והם הדרכים הטובים והישרים, שנאמר "והלכת, בדרכיו" (דברים כח,ט). [ו] כך לימדו בפירוש מצוה זו: מה הוא נקרא חנון, אף אתה היה חנון; מה הוא נקרא רחום, אף אתה היה רחום; מה הוא נקרא קדוש, אף אתה היה קדוש. ועל דרך זו קראו הנביאים לאל בכל אותן הכינויין, ארך אפיים ורב חסד צדיק וישר תמים גיבור וחזק וכיוצא בהן--להודיע שאלו דרכים טובים וישרים הם, וחייב אדם להנהיג עצמו בהן ולהידמות כפי כוחו.

We are commanded to walk in these middle ways, the good and upright ways, as it is written, "And walk in His ways, et cetera". This is how they taught us to interpret this injunction, just as God is seen as gracious so also should we be gracious, just as God is compassionate so also should we be compassionate, and just as God is holy so also should we be holy. It was with this in mind that the Prophets referred to the Almighty using all those attributes; long-suffering, magnanimous, righteous, upright, faultless, mighty, and strong and other similar ones. [They did so] in order to make it known that these are good and upright ways and that one is obligated to accustom oneself to them, and to make one's ways as similar to them as possible.
(Courtesy of with my changes as I saw fit).

The middle ways we are talking about are not the Mitzvot themselves but what following the Mitzvot is supposed to make us become – people who are in complete control of our urges, emotions and most importantly our narcissism. It is only as such that we can properly emulate God and partake with Him in what He does by definition – existence.

In MN 1:54 Rambam explains in more detail what it means to learn to emulate God. A person explores the world he lives in, trying to understand how it functions.

“We see for example how well He provides for the life of the embryo of living beings. We also note how He endows with certain faculties both the embryo itself and those who have to rear it after its birth, in order that it may be protected from death and destruction, guarded against all harm, and assisted in the performance of all that is required [for its development]. Similar acts, when performed by us, are due to a certain emotion and tenderness called compassion. Therefore God is said to be compassionate.”

Having understood that God acts in this way does not automatically translate in emulating Him. We know many scientists who were not necessarily nice people although they understood God’s ways. That is where Mitzvot come in – to train and teach us discipline. They force us to look at ourselves, to set limits to our urges and to do things other than just to satisfy our selfish needs.

“What I have here pointed out to you is the object of all our religious acts. For by [carrying out] all the details of the prescribed practices, and repeating them continually, some few pious men may attain human perfection. They will be filled with respect and reverence towards God; and bearing in mind who is with them, they will perform their duty”. (MN 3:52)

Having become this better and perfected human being and at the same time tried to find God and understand His ways, we now can accomplish our obligation to emulate Him.

“He [Yirmyahu] says however, that man can only glory in the knowledge of God and in the knowledge of His ways and attributes, which are His actions, as we have shown (Part 1. liv.) in expounding the passage, "Show me now thy ways" (Exod. xxxviii. 13). We are thus told in this passage that the Divine acts which ought to be known, and ought to serve as a guide for our actions, are, Chesed, "loving-kindness," Mishpat, "judgment," and Tzedakah, "righteousness." (MN 3:54).

This is just a short summary of this most important Mitzvah. As time goes on and the “spirit” leads me, I will write more about it. It is a key component of Providence, rather Divine Providence, and a basic building block of Jewish Theology.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Why are the theological ideas of the Medieval Rabbis relevant? Getting things off my chest!

I have chosen not to get too involved in the discussions on various Blogs about proofs for the existence of a First Cause. I have been watching from the sideline and my reluctance to enter the fray has proven prescient – people are talking at and not to each other. Terms are bandied around, Cause, Effect, Contingent, Space/time, creation etc… and each person has a different definition for these words. It is as cacophony of individual languages who do not understand each other, a veritable Tower of Babel. (Maybe that was what the story was referring to as a metaphor.)

I am however deeply pained by what I originally perceived, as irreverent comments thrown out in the heat of the argument, which I subsequently realized were heartfelt. I refer to the irreverence shown by most of our skeptic brethrens to the great thinkers in our heritage – the Rishonim and great Acharonim up to our times. It shows a level of ignorance coupled with arrogance that is beyond my comprehension. The most common argument is that they were wrong as they based their thinking on flawed science that has since been shown to be erroneous. I cannot sit and let this pass without putting in my protest. Let me explain.

The Torah, which is our reason for existence as a people without which Judaism has no meaning, has two components to it – the Legal and the theological. The Legal part which includes societal and ritual laws, the Mitzvot, is meant to help us in our daily existence and bring discipline into our lives. Living an orderly and satisfying life allows one to dedicate himself to the existential quest which is the second component of Torah. Without that component the Torah and keeping the Mitzvot lacks meaning. The theological component has one goal; understanding our existence through finding God and emulating Him. It is a personal quest undertaken within the broader auspices of a community and a people.

It is clear that the Torah was given at the dawn of the Bronze Age. Its divinity is evident because of its relevance then and through the ages up to our times. The way it works is that its followers in each era are obligated to understand its theology in context of the knowledge extant at each period. It is exactly this effort at interpretation and adaptation that focuses us on the important quest for meaning in our existence. Our Rabbis over the generations have shown us the way. We learn from them by understanding how they did it with the knowledge of their time. We therefore can take advantage of their experience and apply tried and true methods for our own needs.

Dismissing the Rabbis, claiming Rambam, Ramban, Rashba, Ralbag, Meiri et al are irrelevant because the science they based their conclusions on no longer is accepted, is the height of arrogance and stupidity. It shows a lack of brains. On the contrary, they took a document given during the times of idolatry and shamanism and showed us that it has exactly the same relevance in dealing with Aristotelian and Platonic cosmology. It is our task to emulate them and do the same in the scientific era of Darwin and Einstein. It will be the task of our descendants to apply the same thinking in a future world where the current science may turn out to be obsolete.

Exploring how they went about it, how they struggled and successfully addressed the issue during their times will give us the tools to succeed in our time. Great thinkers like R. Meir Simcha Hacohen and the Rogatchover, both of Dvinsk, Rav Kook and RYBS A’H are the closest contemporary greats who have begun the process. It is our task to continue this work and develop an understanding of the Torah in context of our times.

As to the specifics of the First Cause debate, a short comment. The argument I hear the most is that the Entity (God) that FC proposes is just that an unintelligible entity. Even if we were to accept the existence of such an entity, it would be meaningless. That is exactly so. All FC gives us is the deductive conclusion that a non-contingent Being exists. It is our task throughout our lives to figure out what He is not. If we apply ourselves, we believe we will find each to his level of accomplishment, this elusive but all-important Being. This is already a matter of choice and we as Jews have obligated ourselves to pursue in this quest.

כט וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמָצָאתָ: כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.
29 But from thence, ye will seek the LORD thy God; and thou shall find Him, if thou search after Him with all thy heart and with all thy soul. (Devarim 4:29)

יט הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ.
19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; (Devarim 30:19)

Of course, it is a matter of choice. Talking about it and arguing over whether every belief is empirically provable has no meaning. All we have empirically is that there is an Entity out there that is singularly non - contingent; no other Entity can be similar or even conceivable within this Entity’s category. The rest we accept as the ontological explanation of our existence based on this information. We trust that if we work at it we will acquire an understanding of this Entity to a certain extent. Our ancestors have told us that those among them who chose to go on this quest were successful each to his particular level.

So lets move on with the task at hand - understand our Theology in the context of our times.

Middle East - A rational perspective.

(Hat Tip Mike Wise)

Issue 134 , May 2007
The middle of nowhere
by Edward Luttwak

Western analysts are forever bleating about the strategic importance of the middle east. But despite its oil, this backward region is less relevant than ever, and it would be better for everyone if the rest of the world learned to ignore it

Edward Luttwak is senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC

Why are middle east experts so unfailingly wrong? The lesson of history is that men never learn from history, but middle east experts, like the rest of us, should at least learn from their past mistakes. Instead, they just keep repeating them.The first mistake is "five minutes to midnight" catastrophism. The late King Hussein of Jordan was the undisputed master of this genre. Wearing his gravest aspect, he would warn us that with patience finally exhausted the Arab-Israeli conflict was about to explode, that all past conflicts would be dwarfed by what was about to happen unless, unless… And then came the remedy—usually something rather tame when compared with the immense catastrophe predicted, such as resuming this or that stalled negotiation, or getting an American envoy to the scene to make the usual promises to the Palestinians and apply the usual pressures on Israel. We read versions of the standard King Hussein speech in countless newspaper columns, hear identical invocations in the grindingly repetitive radio and television appearances of the usual middle east experts, and are now faced with Hussein's son Abdullah periodically repeating his father's speech almost verbatim.What actually happens at each of these "moments of truth"—and we may be approaching another one—is nothing much; only the same old cyclical conflict which always restarts when peace is about to break out, and always dampens down when the violence becomes intense enough. The ease of filming and reporting out of safe and comfortable Israeli hotels inflates the media coverage of every minor affray. But humanitarians should note that the dead from Jewish-Palestinian fighting since 1921 amount to fewer than 100,000—about as many as are killed in a season of conflict in Darfur.Strategically, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been almost irrelevant since the end of the cold war. And as for the impact of the conflict on oil prices, it was powerful in 1973 when the Saudis declared embargoes and cut production, but that was the first and last time that the "oil weapon" was wielded. For decades now, the largest Arab oil producers have publicly foresworn any linkage between politics and pricing, and an embargo would be a disaster for their oil-revenue dependent economies. In any case, the relationship between turmoil in the middle east and oil prices is far from straightforward. As Philip Auerswald recently noted in the American Interest, between 1981 and 1999—a period when a fundamentalist regime consolidated power in Iran, Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war within view of oil and gas installations, the Gulf war came and went and the first Palestinian intifada raged—oil prices, adjusted for inflation, actually fell. And global dependence on middle eastern oil is declining: today the region produces under 30 per cent of the world's crude oil, compared to almost 40 per cent in 1974-75. In 2005 17 per cent of American oil imports came from the Gulf, compared to 28 per cent in 1975, and President Bush used his 2006 state of the union address to announce his intention of cutting US oil imports from the middle east by three quarters by 2025. Yes, it would be nice if Israelis and Palestinians could settle their differences, but it would do little or nothing to calm the other conflicts in the middle east from Algeria to Iraq, or to stop Muslim-Hindu violence in Kashmir, Muslim-Christian violence in Indonesia and the Philippines, Muslim-Buddhist violence in Thailand, Muslim-animist violence in Sudan, Muslim-Igbo violence in Nigeria, Muslim-Muscovite violence in Chechnya, or the different varieties of inter-Muslim violence between traditionalists and Islamists, and between Sunnis and Shia, nor would it assuage the perfectly understandable hostility of convinced Islamists towards the transgressive west that relentlessly invades their minds, and sometimes their countries.Arab-Israeli catastrophism is wrong twice over, first because the conflict is contained within rather narrow boundaries, and second because the Levant is just not that important any more.The second repeated mistake is the Mussolini syndrome. Contemporary documents prove beyond any doubt what is now hard to credit: serious people, including British and French military chiefs, accepted Mussolini's claims to great power status because they believed that he had serious armed forces at his command. His army divisions, battleships and air squadrons were dutifully counted to assess Italian military power, making some allowance for their lack of the most modern weapons but not for their more fundamental refusal to fight in earnest. Having conceded Ethiopia to win over Mussolini, only to lose him to Hitler as soon as the fighting started, the British discovered that the Italian forces quickly crumbled in combat. It could not be otherwise, because most Italian soldiers were unwilling conscripts from the one-mule peasantry of the south or the almost equally miserable sharecropping villages of the north.Exactly the same mistake keeps being made by the fraternity of middle east experts. They persistently attribute real military strength to backward societies whose populations can sustain excellent insurgencies but not modern military forces.In the 1960s, it was Nasser's Egypt that was mistaken for a real military power just because it had received many aircraft, tanks and guns from the Soviet Union, and had many army divisions and air squadrons. In May 1967, on the eve of war, many agreed with the prediction of Field Marshal Montgomery, then revisiting the El Alamein battlefield, that the Egyptians would defeat the Israelis forthwith; even the more cautious never anticipated that the former would be utterly defeated by the latter in just a few days. In 1973, with much more drama, it still took only three weeks to reach the same outcome.In 1990 it was the turn of Iraq to be hugely overestimated as a military power. Saddam Hussein had more equipment than Nasser ever accumulated, and could boast of having defeated much more populous Iran after eight years of war. In the months before the Gulf war, there was much anxious speculation about the size of the Iraqi army—again, the divisions and regiments were dutifully counted as if they were German divisions on the eve of D-day, with a separate count of the "elite" Republican Guards, not to mention the "super-elite" Special Republican Guards—and it was feared that Iraq's bombproof aircraft shelters and deep bunkers would survive any air attack.That much of this was believed at some level we know from the magnitude of the coalition armies that were laboriously assembled, including 575,000 US troops, 43,000 British, 14,663 French and 4,500 Canadian, and which incidentally constituted the sacrilegious infidel presence on Arabian soil that set off Osama bin Laden on his quest for revenge. In the event, two weeks of precision bombing were enough to paralyse Saddam's entire war machine, which scarcely tried to resist the ponderous ground offensive when it came. At no point did the Iraqi air force try to fight, and all those tanks that were painstakingly counted served mostly for target practice. A real army would have continued to resist for weeks or months in the dug-in positions in Kuwait, even without air cover, but Saddam's army was the usual middle eastern façade without fighting substance.Now the Mussolini syndrome is at work over Iran. All the symptoms are present, including tabulated lists of Iran's warships, despite the fact that most are over 30 years old; of combat aircraft, many of which (F-4s, Mirages, F-5s, F-14s) have not flown in years for lack of spare parts; and of divisions and brigades that are so only in name. There are awed descriptions of the Pasdaran revolutionary guards, inevitably described as "elite," who do indeed strut around as if they have won many a war, but who have actually fought only one—against Iraq, which they lost. As for Iran's claim to have defeated Israel by Hizbullah proxy in last year's affray, the publicity was excellent but the substance went the other way, with roughly 25 per cent of the best-trained men dead, which explains the tomb-like silence and immobility of the once rumbustious Hizbullah ever since the ceasefire.Then there is the new light cavalry of Iranian terrorism that is invoked to frighten us if all else fails. The usual middle east experts now explain that if we annoy the ayatollahs, they will unleash terrorists who will devastate our lives, even though 30 years of "death to America" invocations and vast sums spent on maintaining a special international terrorism department have produced only one major bombing in Saudi Arabia, in 1996, and two in the most permissive environment of Buenos Aires, in 1992 and 1994, along with some assassinations of exiles in Europe. It is true enough that if Iran's nuclear installations are bombed in some overnight raid, there is likely to be some retaliation, but we live in fortunate times in which we have only the irritant of terrorism instead of world wars to worry about—and Iran's added contribution is not likely to leave much of an impression. There may be good reasons for not attacking Iran's nuclear sites—including the very slow and uncertain progress of its uranium enrichment effort—but its ability to strike back is not one of them. Even the seemingly fragile tanker traffic down the Gulf and through the straits of Hormuz is not as vulnerable as it seems—Iran and Iraq have both tried to attack it many times without much success, and this time the US navy stands ready to destroy any airstrip or jetty from which attacks are launched.As for the claim that the "Iranians" are united in patriotic support for the nuclear programme, no such nationality even exists. Out of Iran's population of 70m or so, 51 per cent are ethnically Persian, 24 per cent are Turks ("Azeris" is the regime's term), with other minorities comprising the remaining quarter. Many of Iran's 16-17m Turks are in revolt against Persian cultural imperialism; its 5-6m Kurds have started a serious insurgency; the Arab minority detonates bombs in Ahvaz; and Baluch tribesmen attack gendarmes and revolutionary guards. If some 40 per cent of the British population were engaged in separatist struggles of varying intensity, nobody would claim that it was firmly united around the London government. On top of this, many of the Persian majority oppose the theocratic regime, either because they have become post-Islamic in reaction to its many prohibitions, or because they are Sufis, whom the regime now persecutes almost as much as the small Baha'i minority. So let us have no more reports from Tehran stressing the country's national unity. Persian nationalism is a minority position in a country where half the population is not even Persian. In our times, multinational states either decentralise or break up more or less violently; Iran is not decentralising, so its future seems highly predictable, while in the present not much cohesion under attack is to be expected.The third and greatest error repeated by middle east experts of all persuasions, by Arabophiles and Arabophobes alike, by Turcologists and by Iranists, is also the simplest to define. It is the very odd belief that these ancient nations are highly malleable. Hardliners keep suggesting that with a bit of well-aimed violence ("the Arabs only understand force") compliance will be obtained. But what happens every time is an increase in hostility; defeat is followed not by collaboration, but by sullen non-cooperation and active resistance too. It is not hard to defeat Arab countries, but it is mostly useless. Violence can work to destroy dangerous weapons but not to induce desired changes in behaviour. Softliners make exactly the same mistake in reverse. They keep arguing that if only this or that concession were made, if only their policies were followed through to the end and respect shown, or simulated, hostility would cease and a warm Mediterranean amity would emerge. Yet even the most thinly qualified of middle east experts must know that Islam, as with any other civilisation, comprehends the sum total of human life, and that unlike some others it promises superiority in all things for its believers, so that the scientific and technological and cultural backwardness of the lands of Islam generates a constantly renewed sense of humiliation and of civilisational defeat. That fully explains the ubiquity of Muslim violence, and reveals the futility of the palliatives urged by the softliners.The operational mistake that middle east experts keep making is the failure to recognise that backward societies must be left alone, as the French now wisely leave Corsica to its own devices, as the Italians quietly learned to do in Sicily, once they recognised that maxi-trials merely handed over control to a newer and smarter mafia of doctors and lawyers. With neither invasions nor friendly engagements, the peoples of the middle east should finally be allowed to have their own history—the one thing that middle east experts of all stripes seem determined to deny them.That brings us to the mistake that the rest of us make. We devote far too much attention to the middle east, a mostly stagnant region where almost nothing is created in science or the arts—excluding Israel, per capita patent production of countries in the middle east is one fifth that of sub-Saharan Africa. The people of the middle east (only about five per cent of the world's population) are remarkably unproductive, with a high proportion not in the labour force at all. Not many of us would care to work if we were citizens of Abu Dhabi, with lots of oil money for very few citizens. But Saudi Arabia's 27m inhabitants also live largely off the oil revenues that trickle down to them, leaving most of the work to foreign technicians and labourers: even with high oil prices, Saudi Arabia's annual per capita income, at $14,000, is only about half that of oil-free Israel.Saudi Arabia has a good excuse, for it was a land of oasis hand-farmers and Bedouin pastoralists who cannot be expected to become captains of industry in a mere 50 years. Much more striking is the oil parasitism of once much more accomplished Iran. It exports only 2.5m barrels a day as compared to Saudi Arabia's 8m, yet oil still accounts for 80 per cent of Iran's exports because its agriculture and industry have become so unproductive. The middle east was once the world's most advanced region, but these days its biggest industries are extravagant consumption and the venting of resentment. According to the UN's 2004 Arab human development report, the region boasts the second lowest adult literacy rate in the world (after sub-Saharan Africa) at just 63 per cent. Its dependence on oil means that manufactured goods account for just 17 per cent of exports, compared to a global average of 78 per cent. Moreover, despite its oil wealth, the entire middle east generated under 4 per cent of global GDP in 2006—less than Germany. Unless compelled by immediate danger, we should therefore focus on the old and new lands of creation in Europe and America, in India and east Asia—places where hard-working populations are looking ahead instead of dreaming of the past.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Are we losing our minds?

This article is extremely disheartening.

It is bad enough that a large segment of the male Yeshivish community in EY is voluntarily unemployed, they now want to restrict them further and create a real crisis.

A few years back I met up with one of my old Roshei Yeshiva who when I was a student had a whole philosophy about full time learning. He was a Chazon Ishnick and one of the more right wing theologians in Yeshiva. He told me that he has belatedly realized that it was a great mistake. Yungeleit who start out full of ambitions, reach their middle age, burdened with children and now potential children in law, without any hope of taking care of them or himself. He told me you have no idea the despair and depression many of these families go through. The happy face they show to the public, is just that, a front. He then said to me that we chose to ignore a Mishna in Avot - Kol Torah she'ein imah melacha sofa beteila vegoreret avon. He repeated heatedly "Vegoreret Avon". [ Paraphrase/ Translation :Torah without work eventually is abolished and causes one to sin].

In a conversation with R. Simcha Wasserman A'H on another subject he explained that sometimes leaders put in place things to address a specific problem they see and want to address. It is comparable to one who has a cancer and has to take strong drugs to stop it. Those drugs have major side effects but there is no choice. Once the cancer is arrested and goes into remission, the side effects have to be taken care of otherwise the patient will die from them.

Here too, the surviving leaders after the holocaust, R. Aron Kotler here and the Chazon Ish in EY developed the "learning religion". They saw a need of mass learning to rapidly develop a generation that could know and teach the Torah. The side effect was the large number of mediocre talmidei chachamim who remained in Kolel without any hope of excelling. One can imagine what that does to self esteem and coupled with economic hardship you have a very painful mix. Once the problem was solved, and it was, because we now have a generation who know Torah, the side effect should have been addressed and antidotes administered. Our leaders forgot to do that. instead they increase the Chemotherapy dosage! Hashem Yerachem!

I believe that is the source of the Chumrot craze, and worse the witch hunts and machlokot that we witness in EY. It also has created a generation that has no ethics in business. Desperation opens the door to breaking small rules which blossom into a total breakdown of ethics and morals.

Let us hope that sometime soon they will see the light.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Rebellion and Leprosy - The role of Moshe's hand.

In my last post, I thought I had an explanation for the punishment by fire from God that questioners of Moshe’s special status as a prophet suffered. However, the germinating idea has not materialized so I am left without really understanding it. Maybe another time.

There is however another interesting verse in the same story that caught my attention and a very interesting interpretation of that verse by Rambam (if I understand him correctly).

ד וַיִּקַּח אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן, אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַנְּחֹשֶׁת, אֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיבוּ, הַשְּׂרֻפִים; וַיְרַקְּעוּם, צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ.

4 And Elazar the priest took the brazen fire-pans, which they that were burnt had offered; and they beat them out for a covering of the altar,

ה זִכָּרוֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִקְרַב אִישׁ זָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא מִזֶּרַע אַהֲרֹן הוּא, לְהַקְטִיר קְטֹרֶת, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה לוֹ. {פ}

5 to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, to the end that no common man, that is not of the seed of Aaron, draw near to burn incense before the LORD; that he fare not as Korach, and as his company; as the LORD spoke unto him by the hand of Moses. {P}

(Bamidbar 17:4-5)

JPS translates כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְהוָה בְּיַד-מֹשֶׁה לו as the LORD spoke unto him by the hand of Moses. The problem is where did He speak to Moshe about this? Rashi suggests two possibilities, one of them a Midrash Tanhuma that Rashi reports as follows:

רש"י במדבר פרק יז פסוק ה

ומדרשו על קרח. ומהו ביד משה ולא כתב אל משה, רמז לחולקים על הכהונה שלוקין בצרעת, כמו שלקה משה בידו שנאמר (שמות ד, ו) ויוציאה והנה ידו מצורעת כשלג, ועל כן לקה עוזיה בצרעת:

The word “LO” refers to Korach.[Make this memorial so that there will no longer be rebels against the Priesthood because they will remember what God spoke to Moshe about Korach and his subsequent punishment - DG]. As to the words used in the verse "[spoke] by the hand of Moshe" instead of "[spoke] to Moshe" [El Moshe being the correct wording], it teaches us that someone who argues on the priesthood is punished with leprosy. It points to Moshe’s hand that became leprous, white as snow. [When Moshe was transmitting laws, the Torah says that they were given by the hand of Moshe. Here it is a little cumbersome. Rashi understands that the Midrash addresses this here separately- DG]

Rambam is sefer Hamitzvot addresses this twice, in Shoresh 8 below and in Lo Ta’asseh 45. In both places, he uses very similar language.

ספר המצוות לרמב"ם שורש ח

וכן אמרו (קרח יז) ולא יהיה כקרח וכעדתו הוא שלילה. ובארו החכמים שהוא שלילה ופירשו ענינו ואמרו שהוא יתעלה ספר לנו שכל מי שיחלוק על הכהונה ויעורר בה לא יחול בו מה שהגיע בקרח ובעדתו מן הבליעה והשריפה אבל אמנם יהיה ענשו כאשר דבר י"י ביד משה, ר"ל הצרעת והוא אמרו ית' אליו (שמות ד) הבא נא ידך בחיקך, והביאו ראיה במה שקרה בעוזיה מלך יהודה (דה"ב כו).

Rambam is discussing the issue of negative language which could be interpreted as negative commandments while in reality they are just statements of facts or predictions. Our verse is one of those (as correctly translated by JPS) “that he fare not as Korach”. “The Rabbis explained that it is negating, namely that God told us that those who argue against the priesthood will not be punished like Korach and his cohorts who were swallowed up and burned. Their punishment will be as God did to Moshe’s hand, namely made it leprous. As we find that God told him, please put your hand in your bosom (Shemot 4). They also bring proof from Uzyahu the king of Yehudah. (See story in Divrei Hayamim 26).

Rambam does not agree with Rashi’s interpretation of the Midrash. Unlike Rashi who translates ביד משה – by the hand of Moshe – that God spoke to Korach via Moshe - and the consequent difficulty, Rambam translates it as what God did to Moshe’s hand. ביד משה thus is understood literally as the object of the sentence. The word דבר is a metaphor for deed. (See MN 1:65)[1]. Rambam understands “LO” – to him – to refer to a future rebel. A future rebel will suffer leprosy just as God made Moshe’s hand leprous. That is what happened to Uzyahu. Rambam does not see it as Midrash but the literal translation of the verse!

Note: The version of the Tanhuma on the Bar Ilan CD (Warsaw) reads closer to Rashi. The Buber edition reads like Rambam.

מדרש תנחומא )ורשא( פרשת צו סימן יג

ולא יהיה כקרח וכעדתו שערער על הכהונה לא יהיה כקרח בבליעה וכעדתו בשרפה, אלא כאשר דבר ה' ביד משה לו ביד משה בסנה שנאמר )שמות ד( הבא נא ידך בחיקך ויוציאה והנה ידו מצרעת כשלג, כלומר שנצטרע המעורר

Buber’s edition reads:

כשם שעש'ת' ל'דך ... כך אנ' עושה לו

[1] The two terms, [amar and dibber] when applied to God, can only have one of the two last-mentioned significations, viz., he wills and he desires, or he thinks.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Questioning Moshe's Special Status - Ordeal by Fire -

I was looking this morning at the Parsha (Korach) where we read as follows:

לה וְאֵשׁ יָצְאָה, מֵאֵת יְהוָה; וַתֹּאכַל, אֵת הַחֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם אִישׁ, מַקְרִיבֵי, הַקְּטֹרֶת. {ס}
35 And fire came forth from the LORD, and devoured the two hundred and fifty men that offered the incense. {S}

The punishment of death by “fire” from heaven is mentioned several times in the Torah. The first is with Nadav and Avihu when they offered incense on their own, without being ordered. The other is at the case of the mitonanim in Parshat Beha’alotcha Bamidbar 11:1

א וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים, רַע בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוָה; וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה, וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ, וַתִּבְעַר-בָּם אֵשׁ יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה.
1 And the people were as complainers, speaking evil in the ears of the LORD; and when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and devoured in the uttermost part of the camp.

The Rabbis tie these two cases, Nadav and Avihu and the Complainers, together. During Matan Torah at Sinai, the nobles of the Jews and Nadav and Avihu meditated about God. They however did not reach correct conclusion and ascribed some corporeality to Him. The idea of First Cause is difficult to grasp in its totality (see the ongoing debate between RJM et al. and XGH et al). The most difficult is the idea of incorporeality and transcendence. Not knowing is not a problem but thinking that one understands and having an incorrect understanding is quite problematic. It affects the basic tenets of Judaism including Torah Min Hashamayim.

Prophecy is a function of meditation about God (according to Rambam as opposed to Kuzari). The greater the prophet understands transcendence, the more powerful his prophecy is. The difficulty with grasping the concept of immaterial “existence” is our experience with physicality. We understand what we sense and our senses operate in a physical environment. A prophet has to break with his material self and let his mind function in a non-physical environment, the world of concepts and abstract ideas. The impossibility of a human to grasp pure concepts is the basis for the allegorical descriptions we find in the Neviim. With all the heroic efforts, the prophet still “sees” physical images which he translates into abstract concepts. The only Prophet that was able to break completely from his physical self was Moshe. His prophecy was therefore very different and did not require interpretation. He was able to “see” ideas and concepts and it is with this kind of prophecy that he gave us the Torah. Panim el Panim – face-to-face communication - is that kind of prophecy where no interpretation is needed. The Torah tells us that Moshe was a unique person, a singularity, that was able to attain this level of prophecy and no other before or after will ever attain that. That is the meaning of TMS and what makes the Torah immutable.

When a person thinks that he has attained the highest level of understanding transcendence, when he does not realize that what he thinks is purely immaterial is really not, the uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy is lost. That was the error of the Nobles at Sinai. Consequently, they minimized the difference between themselves and Moshe, placing his unique authority and therefore the Torah’s immutability into question. Nadav and Avihu did not accept that incense could only be brought by the Cohen Gadol inside the Kodesh Kadashim. The rest of the Nobles could not accept Moshe’s authority and became the Complainers. Nadav and Avihu and the complainers were punished with a fire from God.

But "the nobles of the Children of Israel" were impetuous, and allowed their thoughts to go unrestrained: what they perceived was but imperfect. Therefore it is said of them, "And they saw the God of Israel, and there was under his feet," etc. (Exod. xxiv. 10); and not merely, "and they saw the God of Israel"; the purpose of the whole passage is to criticize their act of seeing and not to describe it. They are blamed for the nature of their perception, which was to a certain extent corporeal--a result which necessarily followed, from the fact that they ventured too far before being perfectly prepared. They deserved to perish, but at the intercession of Moses, this fate was averted by God for the time. They were afterwards burnt at Taberah, except Nadav and Avihu, who were burnt in the Tabernacle of the congregation, according to what is stated by authentic tradition. (Midr. Rabba ad locum.)” (MN 1:5).

Korach and the 250 men questioned Moshe’s uniqueness. They made the same mistake not understanding that their idea of transcendence and “otherness” of God was not correct. They thought that they all were equals to Moshe. The 250 were punished with the fire from God.

The common thread in all these cases is the questioning of Moshe’s special status and the subsequent ordeal by fire. I have some ideas about the relationship and meaning of this ordeal. I will discuss it in my next post tonight.

For an in depth discussion of Moshe's Prophecy and Prophecy in general see my article . (link in Sidebar).

(More to come)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The image of God and Divine Providence.

In an earlier post, , I discussed Form and Matter and explained that Form is the concept that is behind an object and is what makes it what it is. It defines it when compared to other objects. What differentiates man from any other animal is his mind which allows him to think. Although all animals have instincts and urges even some kind of decision process such as which prey will become its next meal, the human mind is much more complex and able to conceptualize at much higher level including abstract thought. The human mind at its basic level, a mind that has not been developed, is no more than a quality that helps man survive in his environment. The human body and how it functions has evolved with many deficiencies in its ability to survive compared to other animals. For example the types of food man requires for nourishment is much more limited. They are not as readily available in nature as those required by other animals are. The human mind’s primary and basic function is to compensate for that.

An animal does not require for its sustenance any plan, thought or scheme; each animal moves and acts by its nature, eats as much as it can find of suitable things, it makes its resting-place wherever it happens to be, cohabits with any mate it meets while in heat in the periods of its sexual excitement. In this manner does each individual conserve itself for a certain time, and perpetuates the existence of its species without requiring for its maintenance the assistance or support of any of its fellow creatures: for all the things to which it has to attend it performs by itself. With man it is different; if an individual had a solitary existence, and were, like an animal, left without guidance, he would soon perish, he would not endure even one day, unless it were by mere chance, unless he happened to find something upon which he might feed. For the food, which man requires for his subsistence demands much work and preparation, which can only be accomplished by reflection and by plan. (MN1:72)

Although we refer to this ability as the Form of man, as it defines his species, it is totally at the service of Matter. The same mind that performs this basic function also has the ability to be developed by man using his Freedom of Choice. Self-observation, abstract thought, self-control are all functions that a developed mind can perform. It is the Tzelem Elohim, the image of God, which God referred to at Creation.

All men have free choice to follow either the good ways and be righteous, or to follow the bad ways and be wicked. That is written in the Torah, "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil", i.e. there is in the world a unique species, man, and there is no other with respect to this matter. [Only man] autonomously, in his mind and thoughts, knows the good and bad and acts as he chooses. There is nothing that stops him from doing good or bad. That being the case, "What if he stretches out his hand".[1] (Hilchot Teshuvah 5:1)

The undeveloped mind is therefore in a sense like Matter to its developed state as it deals mostly with the material survival. There is no Divine Providence involved with such a person. He operates within the bounds of nature. His actions are predictable and complex mathematical models could probably foresee all his decisions just like it could with the behavior of animals and plants. It is only the developed mind that can conceptualize and make decisions acting in ways that are beyond just immediate survival, that include ethical, moral even sometimes metaphysical and theological considerations, that is removed from the control of nature. A person with such abilities that acts according to his understanding of reality takes control of his life. That is a person that is under the auspices of Divine Providence to the extent that he acts following the dictates of his mind and conscience. Divine Providence is not something that happens to a man. It is something man must seek out!

This post is just a teaser and a small step in the larger discussion of Divine Providence or Hashgacha.

[1] Rambam reads this as a positive. God is wishing, so to say, that man to choose the ‘tree of Knowledge” and thus live “forever”. Re the difficulty with “pen” being a negative, see Torah Shleima on Breishit 3: 22. Translation courtesy of with my edits as I saw fit.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Why do we learn Torah?

I was learning yesterday a fascinating Bach (Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (1561-1640) was a prominent Polish Posek and Halachist – courtesy on Tur Orach Chaim # 47. The Tur, explaining the importance of Birchot Hatorah quotes the Gemara in Nedarim 81a that says that the reason for the destruction of the first temple was because the people of the time did not make a Bracha before learning Torah. Bach finds this quite fascinating. How can a seemingly small ritual be the cause for such a calamitous event?

He explains that HKBH wants us to learn Torah so that we should find and attach ourselves to God who is the source of the Torah. HKBH gave us the Torah so that every part of our body should partake in this endeavor[1]. We learn Torah so that we keep the Mitzvot and through them continually remember to question the reason for doing them and thus continually reminding ourselves to think about God and the search for Him. It is this state that puts man under the auspices of Divine Providence because he acts in harmony with God and how He runs things. He is no longer totally subject to the laws of nature which operate on chance.

On the other hand learning Torah so that we know how to follow the rituals without any further deep thoughts is counter productive and we end up losing our land. The way Bach puts it, if we learn Torah for material reasons so that we know the laws of tort (dinei mamonot)so that we can take advantage of them when engaged in business, or we learn to show off and be respected by others, we have not done anything. We remain under the rules of nature and subject to their randomness and chance.

The Bracha brings this thought to the fore. It reminds us to think about the source of the torah which is its whole purpose.

Unlike contemporary popular understanding of Divine Providence, Bach understood it like the Rishonim that it is a function of man’s actions. Just like individuals, a people that try to understand their part in God’s universe and act accordingly, act within the parameters of Divine Providence. They remove themselves or at least significantly reduce their dependence on the natural flow of events. They do not act just for their own survival but with a greater and broader outlook. They take control of their lives by acting in harmony with God and His creation. That is Hashgacha.

Shabbat Shalom.

A note of caution: Bach writes in a flowery language using many allegories. I have interpreted his words and translated them into a simpler language. Read the original carefully and I believe you will agree with my reading.

I hope to write a synopsis of RYBS, the Rav, shiur on Birchot Hatorah shortly. He too equates Torah with Tefilah which has the same purpose - searching for God.

[1] He refers to the symbolism of the 613 Mitzvot equaling the 248 bones and 365 muscles in our body. Rambam in the beginning of sefer Hamitzvot based on the original Gemara Makot 23b replaces the 365 muscles with 365 days of the solar year. Much has been written about the accuracy of the 248 and 365 bones and muscles.

Monday, June 04, 2007

What makes answering Amen Yehei Shmei Rabah special?

Rambam in Hilchot Tefilah 11:16 says as follows:

ואם התחיל להתפלל קודם שליח ציבור, והגיע שליח ציבור לקדושה--לא יפסיק, ולא יענה קדושה עימהן; וכן לא יענה אמן יהא שמיה רבה מברך, והוא באמצע התפילה, ואין צריך לומר, בשאר ברכות.

Rambam is discussing the rule that one should say Shemona Esreh together with the Tzibur. If one is late, if there is time to finish before the Chazzan gets to Kedusha, one should start SE immediately. If not, wait for the chazzan to start and say along with him until after Kedusha. If one miscalculates, starts the SE and finds that he cannot finish before the Chazzan gets to Kedusha he should continue praying and not answer along with the tzibur. So too should that person not answer Amen Yehei Shmei Rabah while in the middle of the SE. It is out of the question to do so with other Berachot.

The words I highlighted both in the original and in my paraphrase are a little cryptic and seem to be unclear. Is he saying that if one hears other Berachot during SE one should of course not answer Amen? If so why is AYSR more important? Or does he mean that while saying another Bracha one should also not interrupt for AYSR? Why would another Bracha be more important than SE?

Beit Yosef based on Rabbeinu Manoach understands it to mean that the first part was talking about the middle Berachot that one should not interrupt for AYSR while in the middle 13 Berachot. There is therefore no question that one should not do so in the first and last three. They are more stringent then the rest and one has to make sure to concentrate on them. This explanation is forced. Rambam was not talking about where the person was up to in SE.

Beit Yosef offers another possibility that of course one may not interrupt while saying other Berachot like Birchot Hanehenin (Berachot one makes when eating, drinking or generally using the physical world) or Birchot Hamitzvot (Berachot one makes before we make a Mitzvah). Why is it so obvious? Furthermore Rambam was not talking about this at all and it is quite a strain to read it into his words.

The most obvious explanation, and the Lechem Mishne suggests it, is that Rambam is telling us that Amen Yehei Shmei Rabah is more important to answer than Amen on general Berachot. Although one answers Amen always when a Bracha is heard, one is not challenged to do so by the person that says it. Here the Chazzan says “Ve’imru Amen … and say Amen …” challenging the congregation to say it. Ignoring the challenge by not responding may be seen as a lack of respect. Rambam is therefore saying that if one hears a Bracha, any Bracha, during SE one should just not answer. If for AYSR one does not interrupt how much more one should not interrupt for a Bracha that does not contain the exhortation to answer!

In my post I offered another possibility suggested by Rav Kafih’s commentary. Rereading it here in context, it is very strained. Though I believe Rav Kafih’s understanding is correct in Hilchot Kryat Shema, Rambam is not referring to that here.

In a comment on my last post, Matt commented about the lack of observation of the minutae in how to perform a Halacha. ( Please see his subsequent comment and clarification).I responded that I believe that for the minutae to have a meaning one has to understand the underlying philosophy or logic. Otherwise it is just a question of compulsive behavior. Here is a case that one can discern a clear reason why Halacha suggests the rule.

I therefore strongly believe that as we all have to learn and develop, at first we should follow our parents or Rebbi's way of doing things. As we grow in learning we must investigate and try to understand why this particular detail is important. It is only then that it will have meaning and promote the original intent of the Mitzvah, which is to bring us to Yediat and Avodat Hashem.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Answering Amen as a Superstition!

I have been bothered by the signs posted in all Shuls lately about the Segulah of saying Amen Yehei Shmei Rabah at the top of ones voice while looking and concentrating on the letters and all the good things that come of it. We now have in every shul, in addition to those who read Parshyot from klaf as segulot, some who disturb everybody by yelling Amen at the top of their lungs. At least the first only harm themselves, but these selfish people bother everyone and make fools of themselves and the Mitzvot they purport to represent. I do not understand the need to make something beautiful and rational into a superstition thereby negating its purpose. Better not to do the mitzvah than do it for the sake of some physical benefit.

Rambam in Hilchot Tefilah 9:1 ואומר קדיש, וכל העם עונים אמן יהא שמיה רבה מברך בכל כוחן
The chazzan says Kaddish and the people answer Amen Yehei Shmei Rabah Mevorach with all their strength. That is based on the Gemara in Shabbat 119b brought down in Rif in the third Perek in Berachot which has an added comment that doing so “the Gezeirah of Seventy years is torn”. The plain understanding would be that the Gemara is referring to the life span of man which averages seventy years. (See Tehilim 90:10). Rambam ignores the promised reward and I will not venture to explain how he understood it. Suffice it to say that when he finds it appropriate, he does report promised rewards. A study of when he does and does not and the search for a pattern and a possible explanation of his reasoning are warranted. Be it as it may he ignores it here.

Rabbeinu Manoach comments on this Rambam – with all the strength of the soul – meaning with total concentration (kavanah). That is based on Rabbeinu Yonah on the Rif in Berachot who comments: with all his concentration. As some people are able to concentrate only when they say things aloud, the Gemara uses this term. However, one should not say it so loud that people will make jokes about him.

We are talking about Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona, the Chaver of Ramban (and cousin) one of the premier Kabbalist in Spain not necessarily a rationalist Maimonidean!

Let us hope people learn to do Mitzvot for their own sake, to develop our Midot and thus our knowledge of God rather than for the sake of destructive superstitions. They turn a Mitzvah into an Aveirah.