Friday, October 28, 2011

The Perspicacity of Our Leaders - A Heart Wrenching Case Study.

I am not a historian and I don’t usually write about history but I cannot contain myself from writing about this very disturbing and terrible story. It is an indictment; I believe one of many indictments, of Da’at Torah (Da’as Taireh J) and demonstrate clearly how wrong and distorted the thinking of the leaders of the Agudah and the other parties further right of them is. This goes for the leaders of the Agudah back to its formation in the early 1900’s and for the current “Gedolim” and their sycophants. It also points to how wrong what I believe are the fantasy worlds our brethren live in who believe that the supernatural and its supposed powers are part of religion and denying it is considered Kefirah. The “hardening of hearts” of these leaders, similar to the one of Pharaoh and Sichon, as understood by Rambam in the 6th chapter of Hilchot Teshuvah , is unfortunately seen today every time one reads about one of the shenanigans of these leaders or reads one of their hate filled diatribes, distorting reality.

When I heard about the recent passing of Professor Mendel Piekarz I decided to buy several of his books. Over the years I had read articles he wrote and now I had the urge to read more. I just finished the first book – Ideological Trends of Hasidim in Poland during the Interwar Period and the Holocaust (Hebrew) - which was published in 1990 (shows how up to date I am with History) and I am extremely shaken. It is a fact- filled report and analysis based on the writings of the religious Jewish Polish leaders of the inter-war generation, how they ignored the signs of the impending catastrophe and how the majority refused to even acknowledge it when the sword was clearly unsheathed and upon their neck. It reminds me of the letter Rambam wrote to the sages of Montpellier (see page 480 in Rav Shailat’s letters) where he blames the destruction of the Temple on the Jews turning to the supernatural instead of diplomacy and defense. Much of this is generally known and much has been written about this (see Hakirah )   including the episode I focus on in this post, but it must be retold again and again to remind us that all we have is our sechel, our own intelligence, and the supposed supernatural powers and “De’ah” of our “Gedolim” is pure hogwash and probably falls under the rubric of idolatry.
The Belzer rebbe, Rav Aharon Rokeach, managed to escape from Poland to Hungary through the efforts of many of his worldwide followers who expended every possible effort to save him from the extermination camps.  This was at the beginning of 1944, a few months before the Nazis invaded Hungary.  His plan however was to go on to Palestine, using highly-rationed Jewish Agency certificates to enter Palestine, provided by the hated Zionists, those same people whom he blamed for the holocaust because of their lack of religiosity and their courage taking matters into their hand in Israel, thus upsetting the higher spheres from whence all power emanates. The Belzer Rebbe’s brother, Rav Mordechai Rokeach of Bilgoray (the father of the current Belzer rebbe), who was 22 years younger and his brother’s spokesman made a farewell speech in Budapest which was printed in the Haderech journal on February 7th 1944. I have attached below a copy of pertinent pages of a copy of the original publication which I want to discuss.

After a somewhat convoluted exposition of his view of what caused the destruction of Polish Jewry, basically a veiled indictment of the Zionist movement, R. Mordechai addresses his brother and his own planned escape from Europe. Here is the translation beginning 3 lines from the bottom of the first page.

“I have some more to say to you, to address your thoughts and illuminate your eyes, regarding that which I heard many of you say that you are afraid and shudder with fear, saying that our leaving is difficult for you. You are further worried wondering whether possibly my brother the Tzaddik who sees the future, knows of danger looming over this country and is therefore running away to go to Eretz Israel, the land God blessed by saying “I will bring peace to the land”.   He is going to a place of peace and rest and we, God forbid he leaves to our despair. What will become of us? Who will protect us? Who will save us? Who will pray and advocate for us? I therefore feel obligated to tell you the truth dear friends, the sages of Hungary, that as one who is close and near my great brother I know that he is not running away, leaving in a rush as if wanting to flee from here but rather is going because he has a strong wish to go to Eretz Israel, the land that is ten times holier than anywhere else. I personally know that this has been his greatest wish for some time, the great aspiration of his pure soul is to go to the city of God, so that he can awaken God’s pity and goodwill for the nation so that they no longer suffer saving the remainder [of the nation] and see to it that their enemies are destroyed. This is alluded to in the verse (Breishit 49:14) “He [Issachar] saw that the homestead was goodly, that the land was delightful, and he put his shoulder to the load, became a toiling serf.” Rashi explains that Issachar became a toiling serf to his brethren by legislating for them Torah laws. I wonder what Rashi meant with this? I believe that he is saying that the Tzaddik [Issachar] sees that this country and its inhabitants will have peace, for the homestead is goodly and only good will befall our brethren the inhabitants of this land. Seeing that, the Tzaddik now sees the land, the one he always thrived to move to because it is delightful, for it is where the ultimate [divine] delight is present, the land of milk and honey is sweet and delightful both physically and spiritually and it also is the place he spoke about going to in earlier times when he was still home.”   

In retrospect this speech is pathetic, so pathetic that this section was completely left out when the post-war hagiographers recounted the “miraculous” escape of the Belzer rebbe from Europe (see Bezalel Landau and Natan Orenter’s “The Holy Rabbi of Belz… pages 141 159). Did he really mean it when he said that the Hungarian Jews were safe? Was he that stupid? The Rebbe and his brother by this time had lost all their family having left them behind while they fled. How could he in good faith claim that his brother could see the future, that he had any perspicacity when he had stopped many of his followers from leaving Poland between the wars because of his anti-Zionist stance? 

Several months after this episode, the Stropkover Rebetzin reacted to this speech in a heart wrenching way. One of the Sonder Commandos  at Auschwitz took notes of his experiences and hid them around the ovens. They were discovered after the war and one of them related the following: (My translation from Hebrew which is a translation of the original Yiddish)

“At the end of May 1944 a transport of Jews from Kasho (Kosice) arrived. Amongst the various Jews was the old Rebetzin of Stropkov, an 85 year old Jewess. She declared: I see the end of the Hungarian Jews has arrived. The government had given the opportunity for the great part of the Jewish Community to escape. The people asked the advice of the Admorim (the Rebbes) and they always calmed the people. The Rebbe of Belz said that Hungary will be spared and only suffer fear. The bitter moment has arrived, when the Jews could no longer save themselves. True [the future] was hidden from them [the Rebbes] by divine decree, but they saved themselves running away at the last moment to Eretz Israel. They saved themselves while leaving their flock to be slaughtered.  Ribbono Shel Olam! At the last moments of my life I beg You, forgive them for the great Chilul Hashem [they caused].”   

Are we ever going to learn? 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Defining The Written and The Oral Law - A Short Overview.

Over Yomtov I was asked how I understand the argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akivah recorded in Yoma Perek 7 Mishnah 3 about the order of the Korbanot on Yom Kippur. After all both Tanaim were around during the Churban, especially Rabbi Eliezer who was a Talmid of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai and was already a noted scholar at the time of the Churban, so how did they not know how it was done? That question indeed applies to many other such arguments between Tanaim about daily practices. Was there no mimetic practice?

After Yeshiva I walked away with a very confused concept of what are Torah Shebiktav and Torah sheba’al peh, the written and the oral Torah. I don’t know how others see it, but I was convinced that Moshe wrote the torah at Sinai, adding pieces over time until Arvot Moav while he also transmitted oral law that he received from God including the 13 hermeneutical rules. The oral law was composed of these laws and their extension derived through the 13 midot and that was Torah sheba’al peh.  I was always a little confused about how to differentiate between what Moshe received and what was derived later and how all could be seen as Sinaitic and I lived with my confusion. Of course no one directed me to the Rambam’s Hakdamah to the Mishnah or even to Hilchot Mamrim which was outside the yeshiva learning curriculum.   It is only later, on my own and in learning with Chaveirim that I finally built a clearer picture about this whole issue.

Rambam in his introduction to the Mishnah describes in detail how Moshe received each Mitzvah orally together with its Pirush and Biur, explanation and clarification, and then transmitted them to Aharon individually repeating the same to Aharon’s sons in his presence, again to the Elders of the people in the presence of the former and the people in the presence of all the preceding ones. Then Aharon and the others repeated the procedure so that everyone heard each Mitzvah and its explanations and clarifications four times. Only then did each one write down the text of the Mitzvah privately and memorized the explanations and clarifications, repeating all this amongst them and analyzing all this material. Rambam refers to the Pirush and Biur jointly as “Kabbalah”.

“And the elders spread amongst the people to teach and review until that Mikra [dictated text] is known and they understand how to read it [comprehend it]. And they teach them the Biur [explanation] of that Mikra as it was given by God. That Biur is [comprised] of generalities [about the Law].  And they [the people] were writing down the Mikra and memorizing the Kabbalah orally, and it is thus that the Sages say “Torah Shebiktav and Torah Sheba’al Peh”.”  (Introduction to Pirush Hamishna)

The dictated text was to be memorized and then written down verbatim and the Rabbis refer to it as the written Law, Torah Shebiktav while the Kabbalah was to be memorized in an oral form. The Kabbalah being comprised of the Biur and the Pirush is referred to by the Rabbis as Torah Sheba’al Peh. It is only that portion of the oral law that is the original designation of Torah sheba’al Peh. This process of transmitting Mikra and Kabbalah went on for the 40 years of the Midbar without any official written document other than the Luchot – the Tablets. During this period, besides each person writing down for themselves the verbatim text and memorizing the kabbalah, questions about cases that were not covered by the Mikra and the Kabbalah were debated as to which Mitzvah they would pertain and what ruling should apply. Those debates were based on the 13 hermeneutical rules and when divergent opinions were proposed, decided by majority vote of the court – Beit Din. The Kabbalah part of the Law was maintained orally in its original form through the generations and Rambam claims that it was never forgotten nor was there any question about its exact content. All recorded arguments were always in the other parts of the Law, the derivative parts which are called Talmud (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:11-12).

Finally at the end of the forty years in the desert, as Moshe felt death approaching, he gathered up the people and offered to review with anyone that had forgotten a certain Kabbalah and answer any question that may have arisen. It is only then that Moshe began writing the 13 Sifrei Torah, twelve of which he gave one to each tribe and the 13th to the tribe of Levi to place in the Aron next to the tablets.

In Hilchot Mamrim 2:1 Rambam writes:
א  בית דין הגדול שדרשו באחת מן המידות כפי מה שנראה בעיניהם שהדין כך, ודנו דין, ועמד אחריהם בית דין אחר, ונראה לו טעם אחר לסתור אותו הדין--הרי זה סותר, ודן כפי מה שייראה בעיניו:  שנאמר "אל השופט, אשר יהיה בימים ההם" (דברים יז,ט)--אין אתה חייב ללכת, אלא אחר בית דין שבדורך.

A Great Court that arrived at a conclusion about a Law using one of the Midot (hermeneutical rules) and implemented that Law, was followed by a subsequent Court who found another argument to contradict that [earlier] ruling, that later court may do so. They may rule according to their own conclusion as it says “… to the judge that will be at that time”, you do not have to follow other than the court of your generation.

It is completely acceptable for a court to overturn a ruling of a predecessor if it is for a case that was derived using the hermeneutical rules. As long as the Mikra or the Kabbalah was not affected, rulings that result from derivative deductions using the traditional methods of analysis may result in divergent rulings from court to court. Of course, we are talking about the Supreme Court - בית דין הגדול of a particular period versus one of a different time. There was no divergent ruling during one period as the Supreme Court always had the final word. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akivah were merely reconstructing possible arguments of the different courts at different times. The order of the Korbanot on Yom Kippur may have been different at different periods of time. The practice in the Temple was not exactly the same from generation to generation.

Continuing with this presentation of the different components of the Torah received at Sinai, Rambam in his Introduction to the Pirush Hamishna addresses the category of Halacha Lemoshe Misinai (HLM). Where does it fit in, if we already have the Sinaitic Kabbalah? He explains that the Kabbalah many times can be shown in the text either through a direct textual analysis or through the hermeneutical process. The way to discern whether a ruling is based on Kabbalah or on hermeneutical rules is by checking if there is any argument or dissension on the Law. Those that have arguments amongst Rabbis cannot be based on Kabbalah and must be derivative while those that do not have any argument recorded, may potentially be Kabbalah.

“Although [these laws] were based on Kabbalah [Mekubalot] and there is no argument about them, these Pirushim may be derived through exacting textual analysis of the Mikra that we received using the hermeneutical method, Asmachta method, as well as the clues and indications found in the Mikra. When you see argumentation and dissension based on logical methods where proofs are adduced for one of the Pirushim and other such discussions, … [Rambam brings the discussion Sukkah 35a about the Etrog], that is not because they ever had a doubt and were looking for proof for what it (Pri Etz Hadar] is, for we saw since the times of Yehoshua until now that an Etrog was used together with a lulav every year without any dissension. They were only looking to see if they could find in the Mikra an indication that it was an Etrog. The same goes for their [textual] deduction regarding the Hadas, or their deduction that one who amputates any  limb of a fellow human being pays a fine …

The rabbis tried to find textual support for the Kabalot they received over the generations going back to Moshe. They assumed that as they came from the same author, there must be a self-evident clue or an underlying theme in the text that took into account that oral Kabbalah.  When they could not find any such clue, they would say that this Kabbalah is HLM. HLM is a designation of a Kabbalah that has no trace in the Mikra.

This brings us to a Rambam that at first glance is hard to understand. In Hilchot Chovel Umazik 1:5

ומניין שזה שנאמר באברים "עין תחת עין . . ." (שמות כא,כד; ויקרא כד,כ), תשלומין הוא--שנאמר "חבורה, תחת חבורה" (שמות כא,כה), ובפירוש נאמר "וכי יכה איש את ריעהו, באבן או באגרוף . . . רק שבתו ייתן, ורפוא ירפא" (ראה שמות כא,יח-יט).  הא למדת ש"תחת" שנאמר בחבורה תשלומין, והוא הדין ל"תחת" הנאמר בעין ובשאר אברים

How do we know that “eye for an eye” that it says in the case of [damage caused to] limbs is payment, because it says “a wound for a wound” and it is explicit [elsewhere] “should a man hit another with a stone or a fist… he should pay for his idleness and healing”. We thus see that [the term] “for a [Tachat]” that is used in the case of a wound means payment, so too does it mean in the case of the eye and other limbs payment.

In other words, there is textual support for the non-literal interpretation of “eye for an eye”. This kind of textual support may be subject to debate. It is not uncommon for arguments amongst Tanaim and Amoraim to develop on such type of analysis. Is this a ruling by a specific court and the ruling may be overturned by another just like any hermeneutically derived law?

ו  אף על פי שדברים אלו נראים מעניין תורה שבכתב, כולן מפורשין הן מפי משה מהר סיני, וכולן הלכה למעשה הן בידינו; וכזה ראו אבותינו דנין בבית דינו של יהושוע, ובבית דינו של שמואל הרמתי, ובכל בית דין ובית דין שעמדו מימות משה ועד עכשיו. 

Although these words appear to pertain amongst matters of the written law [i.e. are based on textual analysis – DG], all are as explained from the mouth of Moshe from Sinai, and all are practical Law as performed by us always.  Our forefathers saw this ruling in the court of Yehoshua, in Shmuel of Ramah’s court, and in every court that was ever in place from the time of Moshe to our time.

Although it would appear from the Talmudic discussions that this non-literal interpretation of the text is based on textual analysis, the fact that we have no records of any court ever dissenting leads us to accept this as a Pirush. It is a Kabbalah based interpretation which has been shown to agree with the related laws in the text. It is therefore also not a HLM as Rambam wrote in the previously quoted introduction to Pirush Hamishna. The Law in this case is so different than the plain text עין תחת עין and there is no dissension recorded, the Gemara taking it for granted and other than looking for a clue in the written text, there is no discussion of it being otherwise is an indication that it belongs to the category of kabbalah. Rambam sees it important to point this out and make it clear in this Halacha.

For a much more detailed discussion of this whole subject see Torat Neviim by Maharatz Chayot (Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Chayot) in volume 1 of Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chayot page 111 and on. Since much more has been written on the subject both in traditional learning circles and academia. The above is a simplified presentation that I have organized for myself. 

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Resag's verdict on the Belief in the Transmigration of Souls - Gilgul - Nonsense!

In the most recent issue of the Jewish Review of Books there is a rather acerbic exchange between professors Flatto and Nadler about whether the Noda Beyehuda was a crypto-Kabbalist or not.  That exchange then migrated to the web in the form of at times insulting comments and exchanges on a post on the Hirhurim blog here which led to the removal by the blog owner of all comments. I am really not interested in getting into the debate although I am more inclined to side with Nadler, especially since one of the NB’s greatest and most famous pupil, Rabbi Eliezer Fleckeles is noted for his public anti-Kabbalist stand in his Teshuvah Me’ahava, see also here . I however would like to translate a segment of Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag) on the subject in the sixth Ma’amar of his Hanivchar Be’emunot Vede’ot (page 214 in Rav Kafieh’s edition) which is illuminating about the worldview of one of our classical greats.

“I will further say[1] that there are some people amongst those that are referred to as Jews that I discovered that they believe in Gilgul referring to it as “transmigration”. The idea, to their mind, is that the soul of Reuven passes to Shimon, then to Levi and then to Yehuda. Most of them believe that it is possible for the soul of a human to be present in an animal and the soul of an animal in a person, and other such nonsense and confusions. It became clear to me what illusions has brought them to believe in this and I found that there are four mistakes that caused this, which I will mention and refute. The first mistake of theirs is their erroneous following of four of the theories about the soul which I have disproven, or possibly because they follow the theory of those who believe there can be more than one spiritual entity[2], all theories that I have already disproven[3]. Their second mistake is because they observed the personality of many people and noted that they resemble the nature of animals. Some people are meek like sheep while others are aggressive like feral beasts, while others are nasty and debased like dogs and others are fleet like birds and so on. They therefore deduced that the only possibility for this wide variety amongst humans is because of their animalistic souls. This demonstrates, God preserve you from such calamity, their great stupidity, for they think that the human body causes essential changes to the soul, so much so that it can transform it from an animal one to a human one. That [transformed] soul then changes the human being to the point that he takes on animal behavior while he looks human. It is not enough that they made the soul into an entity that continuously changes essence without establishing for it an individual essence, they also contradicted themselves by giving it the power to change the body by overturning its essence while at the same time the body changes it. This is totally irrational.”

Resag then addresses the two other arguments for transmigration. One argument is that without transmigration it would be unjust on the part of God to let young children die. It is only if we believe they lived in the past that their death can be seen as a punishment for deeds done in a past life and thus see it as justice. He dismisses the argument summarily by pointing to their misunderstanding God’s justice and the concept of reward and punishment. The other argument is from various texts and verses in Tanach.  He addresses every one separately showing how they misinterpret and at times read verses out of context. Finally he adds –

I would not have bothered to mention their theory, rightfully so, as it is quite ridiculous, if not for fear of causing fools to be misguided.”

It is interesting to see how Resag took it for obvious that the idea of Gilgul is irrational and even questions the Jewishness of those who believe in it. Of course other Rishonim felt otherwise and by the time Ramban wrote his Pirush on Chumash he saw it as an essential part of reality as the underlying rationale for certain Mitzvot such as Yibum.  By the time the Arizal arrived it became central Jewish dogma with some of the more mystically inclined considering it heresy to deny such evident “truth”.  I personally am happy and feel quite comfortable to agree with Resag relying on him to pull me out of Gehinom for my heresy in this matter.

[1] This is an idiomatic curiosity of many of the medieval writers.
[2] This segment is a little difficult to decipher (see Rav Kafieh’s note 3). Apparently Resag is saying that they base their understanding of Gilgul on a foreign, non-Jewish, concept of spirituality.
[3] This segment is at the end of a lengthy discussion about the soul and spirituality which I hope to address separately.