Monday, October 26, 2009

"He suspended the mountain over them like a barrel"
R. Daniel Gordis from here;

"In the famed sugya in which God suspends Mount Sinai over the heads of the Jews assembled around it, the Gemara asserts that the original circumstances of the covenant at Sinai may well have been coercive, thus rendering the "contract" null and void. If that is the case, what authority does the Torah — and by implication, the entire halakhic system — have over us? Rava's celebrated response is crucial, not only for what it says, but for what it does not say and also for what it implies.

When R. Aha bar Ya'akov asserts that God's suspending the mountain over the Jews offers a legitimate reason to reject the halakhic contract (which could then have been accepted under duress), Rava responds that Sinai is not the enduring reason for the contract's validity [and therefore I don't not think the Kuzari's argument for Torah from Sinai must be treated as enduring - within it is a very sound, textual argument for the account of the experience at Sinai, details of the revelation aside for later, derivative arguments]. Rather, he asserts, the halakhic contract is still in force because in the days of Esther the Jews accepted the arrangement once again (kiyymu v-kibbelu). On the surface, Rava's response simply asserts that although the circumstances of Sinai may have been coercive, Jews subsequently invested the tradition with authority when they accepted it "anew" at the time of Ahaseurus [and again, in a sense, in the time of Ezra, when it was again received - and subsequent in more recent history; see below]. On that level alone, it is an interesting claim for the rabbinic tradition to make.

But Rava's prooftext is significant in additional ways which are easily over-looked, for what is most important is what he does not say. Within his response is the subtle claim that theological arguments for the authority of halakhah do not matter. What matters, he suggests, is the [preternatural?..] power of the tradition to make Jews Jewish — the unique power possessed only by halakhah to infuse the lives of Jews with Jewish resonance and passion. Although Rava does not use such language, the sugya contains a variety of subtle suggestions that this is the point he wishes to make.

The fact that the verse cited is from the book of Esther has profound implications. Not only does Rava himself not inject the issue of God into his discussion of the authority of the tradition, he selects a prooftext from a biblical book well-known for its glaring omission of God's name. Could the implication be that God's [open, miraculously apparent] authority in the creation of the covenant is secondary to the spiritual needs and desires of the people? [with this language, he's kind of losing me, but it picks up later on].

If we are willing to hazard an affirmative answer to that question, other issues arise immediately. Just what are those needs and desires? Would it be pushing this sugya too far to remind ourselves that one of the central themes of the book of Esther is assimilation? The names of the two primary Jewish characters, the fact that they hide their Jewishness, and the fact that Esther "marries" a pagan king all attest to the centrality of this issue.

Could it therefore be that Rava was suggesting in part that the reason for our communal acceptance of the covenant must be not a theological argument, but the deep-seated sense that without a unique pattern of Jewish behavior we will ultimately blend into the larger culture that surrounds us? Could he similarly be arguing that Jewish life without a sense of partnership with God as expressed through command cannot arouse the mesirut nefesh - which we will here call devotion — necessary for sustaining proud, committed Jewish life? Is it possible that Rava chooses a book whose central theme is assimilation because he wants to argue that without halakhah at the core of its communal ethos, Judaism simply cannot survive?

We will never know how far Rava would have been willing to "push" the significance of his choice for a prooftext. But even if that argument is not Rava's, it virtually beckons to the leadership of Conservative Judaism today. For it suggests that what effectively justifies the tradition and motivates our attachment to it is not "authority" in the sense that we have traditionally used the term, but "power" in the sense of the mystery, joy, and belonging that halakhic living adds to our lives. Ultimately, when we set aside nizhuni banai for kafa aleichem et ha-bar ke-gigit, we move our arguments for halakhic commitment from claims of legitimacy to claims of relevance. It is ashift, in other words, from historico-theological arguments to personal, spiritual claims about the religious power of a traditional Jewish way of life and the unique ability of that way of life to perpetuate Judaism as we know it.

I find this interpretation envigorating in the same manner I find a useful insight from Alan Yuter's review of T. Ross's "Expanding the Palace of Torah";

TR is the first Orthodox theologian to apply critical method in her search for truth and to write an apologia for its use. Her boldest effort lies in her adoption of Process Theology, a literal Protestant modernist theology that views God as a process in the mind of humans and not necessarily as an external Being. The first Jewish writer to adopt this position is the Conservative/Reconstructionist Rabbi Harold Schulweis, whose theology is incompatible with Orthodoxy in any of its current manifestations [that last bit reveals more of R. Yuter than I think he means to, but he's well known for shooting - and writing - from the hip].
Nevertheless, TR's efforts ought not to be dismissed with haste. Pope Benedict's recent Jesus of Nazareth, the work of an intensely devoted believer who concedes the merits of academic criticism, argues that revelation is an unfolding of truth in divinely inspired narratives revealed in historical and social contexts. Therefore, if TR makes the Schulweis/Reconstructionist claim that God is only and limited to the interior sense of divine presence, she would have placed herself outside the pale of the classical Jewish Tradition. But if she contends that this interior sense is how God is approached by finite humans but does not exhaust the infinitude of divinity, she would be well within the Tradition. Given her work on Rabbi Kook, a fair reader is constrained to make the more generous reading.

R. Yuter suggests that, despite Ross' controversial and seemingly unjustifiable claim for a Jewish Process Theology (though it can obviously apply to other suppositions in engaging critical scholarship), if she FIRST assumes God's Omnipotence and then suggest that He Chooses to reveal Himself to man by that means, she may not be deviating terminally, or even significantly - from a Covenant tradition that is filled with such willed choosing on the part of the Divine; He chooses to work with and through a particular universe and it's laws, one from among others He'd Created, He covenanted with the nefesh'ed creations therein, and individual humans He'd met over time and ultimately with a people He freed therein though laws He'd selected, etc.

With "kafah aleihem", it would seem that, as with "not being in the fire", but in the still small voice; or after setting fire to His altar in the face of the Ba'al worshippers, but then telling His prophet not to affix significance to the miraculous - He shows Himself to be beyond the necessity of showing "power" - by not choosing the most blatant, obvious and compelling means of revelation - even discounting the miraculous within the miracle-filled narratives themselves!

And so with theological arguments; He will not grant certainty to the the human justifications of history or authority deriving from human perceptions of the Divinely-initiated event of revelation - no matter how true and valid the Event behind them may be as empirical, historical occurrence. He almost seems to chose evidence be presented in a way that requires a covenantal community, one that fractals new contexts made up of "covenant-stuff", (as with the rise of science in the Biblical west, of egalitarianism and democracy in the United states under Biblical/Jewish influence in Joshua Berman's new book). It almost looks that He wants that the perennial 'proofs' or evidences people derive and make for His existence and relevance be, in the language of Joshua Golding - "rationally defensible" rather than "rationally compelling" - so as to not limit our freewill, and engagement with the Truth-bound Tradition that is the doorway, among many Tradition-bound truths - as profound as they may be.

One could argue with the secularists that making any significant decision based on anything less than 'reasonable' certainty is crazy - He might agree. Limiting, but not eliminating, the force of the religious proofs would militate that we really think and ask our way through to whatever basis for ethical actions and set aside (but not discard..), the theological foundations. We can then point to the considerable, but not compelling, case for the validity of the Jewish way of life, Made "independent" from Sinai (according to R. Gordis' presentation), a Divinely-received Torah from bequithed generation to generation, in that the Divine in and among us as a people, Receives Torah each generation. He Spoke unspeakable power to choosing, to covenanting, grants meaning to the divinely-human capacity for choosing, and growing cumulatively from the community setting over millenia after millenia - though Giving and Receiving may not occur in their fullness at the same time.

As with the times of Esther and Ezra (both under Persian rule?..), it would seem those communities who *choose* Judaism in every era are those ones who give rise to the next era - and currently it indeed seems to be those communities who go by the communal moniker "Orthodox" - since so few observant Conservative Jewish kehillot can collectively maintain the necessary scale and "breeding population" to make a future for 'themselves'. I personally do not think they are going their struggle alone - metaphysically speaking. They really are something of a righteous remnant to my mind and heart.

I think this goes far in answering the challenge posed to a life of believing observance that is made by religious coercion, the compelled observance which caused such an exodus after Emancipation, depicted in Albert Baumgarten's, "Two paradoxes: reflections on history and belief", Judaism, Summer-Fall, 2004

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why we have Bereshit; "There is no personal solution"
If we want a sustainable world, we have to be willing to examine the power relations behind the foundational myth of our culture. Anything less and we will fail.
Questioning at that level is difficult for most people. In this case, the emotional struggle inherent in resisting any hegemony is compounded by our dependence on civilization, and on our individual helplessness to stop it. Most of us would have no chance of survival if the industrial infrastructure collapsed tomorrow. And our consciousness is equally impeded by our powerlessness. There is no Ten Simple Things list in the last chapter because, frankly, there aren’t ten simple things that will save the earth. There is no personal solution. There is an interlocking web of hierarchical arrangements, vast systems of power that have to be confronted and dismantled. Lierre Keith

I can almost hear the Canfei Nisharim people now; "But Avraham Avinu was just one 'person', and every little bit counts and everyone can do their part and it will all just mount into this wonderful fulfillment of every diverging and...uh...conflicting agenda, dream and illusion we have!". And just one little drop of cynicism forestalls the arrival of Moshiach!" It's just this sort of "Golly Gee Willikers" Judaism that drives me from identifying with the LWMO settings - where a significant percentage of "prominent", idealized "devoted" members of the communities doubt that Avraham Avinu even existed...who doubt the kashrut of Torah as the yardstick by which their lives, livelyhoods and pasttimes are to be measured.

Even they fall prey to the typically-Charedi "anything for chinnuch, anything for kiruv", where all manner of delusions and wishful thinking and half-baked revisionism can be put forth to bolster unrelenting, unimpeded, un-reflective optimism to keep true believers and gain new ones in the face of complexity (at times verging on a Jewish YCYOR, of sorts). Do Jews honestly so believe that virtually every facet, every power structure, every social and industrial system can be kashered or rendered muter (Where there's a rabbinic will, there's a halachic way"...)? That industrialized Western Civilization - over all others, in actually or potentiality - has some haskamah from On High, that this state of affairs is fate itself, and that the only way is more and faster management of the world?

Read with deep, fundamental questioning in mind, I think Avraham Avinu would have been more in agreement with the mode of thought of this quote than in the outcry against it. A little chinnuch and counseling here-and-there was not how he related to the excesses of civilization of his day. "Civilized" isn't an inherently kosher notion. He left a deeply complex, deeply imbedded, corrupt and destructive 'high society', considered the height of the ancient world (ditto for Israel in Mitzraim....)! Does that even have to be mentioned?! What did he do next; move to a new city where it would be safe to raise kids and find nice, eidle work? He became a sheepherder. Who founded cities anyways, as far as Torah is concerned?...Caine. Throughout Tanach is, I believe, the refrain that "stages" of cultural evolution are human projections, that the kashrut of a society is determined by how well it optimizes actual Jewish modes of life (which is not be definition, always convenient), and that certain ranges and depths of human civilization can be koshered - and certain are to be avoided at all costs. And the differences between them are not always obvious.

Throughout Tanach we have people who were "frum" in various societies - The Avot and their struggles are not there as a reminder of "humble origins" in a "rags to riches" climb to the top of industry, progress, leisure and empire - Bereshit is there to remind us of timeless mandates of fundamental ethics - do good, be good and ethically sound, etc, etc, etc in the way of The Avot...we're counseled to follow the ethics (the central lifeways), of the city-leaving, nomadic, sheep-herding Forefathers...All of which is to some degree possible in virtually any situation we find ourselves, from rural Saskatchwan to H"V a deathcamp to nebach, Deal, NJ. But obviously some are more preferable to others. Where Jews revere Shlomo haMelekh in much popular Jewish literature for the vastness of his empire, his connections, etc, etc...the very same Jew's Tanach criticizes these very achievements (accumulating horses, i.e. chariots, a standing army of conscripts, marrying for political allegiances to expand the empire, etc). I think the current setting of the post-industrial West is reaching the "get the hell out of Dodge" stage, by the sweat of our own brow.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Paleodiet and Animal Consumption II
From a post on the UTJ listserv earlier this year;

"The Rav said: The precepts were given only in order that man might be refined by them. For what does the Holy One, blessed be He, care whether a man kills an animal by the throat or by the nape of the neck?"
--from Genesis Rabbah 44:1 as found on page 39 of "Jews and Judaism in the Middle Ages" by Theodore L. Steinberg.

From this I take it that the killing of an animal is meaningless. What is important is how the character of a man is shaped when he does it. That was my impression. I am willing to be corrected.

My initial response to the brief exchange;

I've been following this discussion, I'm not responding to anyone on particular. I grew up in Appalachia, hunting was quite common. Using the phrase "hunting for sport" would have earned you a "Mah zeh?" facial expression and a "You mean going on Safari, in Africa?...".

Hunting is a big investment of time, money and energy, and just getting some antlers or a head is simply not worth all that effort. I asked a chassidic rabbi about hunting once, and he was clear that from his perspective there was no issur in it inherently (let alone what sort of 'middot' in fosters), as long as benefit was derived from the taking of the animals life - and this would be especially so for a gentile, who is permitted to consume the meat (even possibly halachically, as pe Ever Min haHai). He seemed to have a clear consciousness of life relying on death, plain and simple (or maybe it's the fur shtreimels and spodeks they wear..). The kinds of weapons (razor-sharp arrowheads and high caliber, mushrooming bullets), are literally designed to cause as much swift bloodloss as possible, all to the end of shortening the 'dying' of the animal. I eavesdropped once on a hunting class where the teacher was specifically talking about these attributes, emphasising the point of shortening the suffering. And they've lived a natural, predator/prey existence until the point they're taken...been in a slaughterhouse laterly?

I think the attitude that hunting AS SUCH fosters 'bad middot' (or reading R. Landau's "hunting for sport" as simply "hunting") is, I'm sorry, complete narishkeit compared to the dehumanization fostered by the mechanical, agribusiness mass carnage approach we get most of our 'kosher' meat from, let alone so much dehumanizing that comes with 'modern' existence [at the time I hadn't read R. Landau's tshuva, where he clearly is against hunting as such; my language would definitely have been different had I been clear on this - though I definitely the hunting endeavor has definitely changed since the place and time of which he wrote]. And I believe rabbis of 200 years ago would probably agree, if they could see the degree to which we've manipulated and industrialized the living, breathing world around us. These animals have literally be bred and chemically modified to be muscle-bound, docile and slow-witted, or with dairy cows, chronically pregnant for better milk-bearing - herded through some of the most profoundly disgusting and smell factory settings you can imagine. At the other end of the process, there's scarcely an indication that a living animal was even involved; nicely package in plastic wrap or cartons, etc, etc.

We're so removed from the fact that life requires death one way or another - and we call such ignorance "being civilized".

I have not known people, personally, who hunted regularly who were not very serious, conscious and respectful about what they do. they know full well that they are using deadly weapons and that they are taking a life - unlike many of the people who spend money for OTHERS to KNOW THE HALACHOT, to do the shechting, plucking, salting, etc...virtually ALL of which Alter-Alter-Zeyde probably did out of simple workaday life.

A response from a rabbinic list member (my emph);

My yore deiah rebbe was a schochet himself. He was both a legalist and a spiritualist. He said that the long ritual o schechita was partially to sensitise the slaughterer to the issues of life and death. Each kill should be done consciously and judiciously [the exacting terminology of "clean kill" and "fair chase" hunting].

30 years ago he decried the assembly line slaughter of meat and chickens as not complying with the spirit of the law; and the ensuing numbness of the hands during the course of each shift violated the letter of the law too since a very sensitive feel is a prerequsite for a schochet to be aware that he has complied with the law.

Bottom line, he would concur with pierre (imho) that today's agribusiness is a complete abuse of the kosher slaughtering law. As ramban would put it, disgusting within the confines of Torah.

We have gotten away from nature and we are paying a high price.

I'll bet the rabbis of old and the native amerindians would find a lot of common ground concerning nature and respect for life and the ecology of producing meat for consumption. iow do slaughter and do eat meat but do it judiciously.

I responded;

I had a fantastic story in an email about R. Shlomo Aviner who was consulted about whether or not a certain product was kosher based on the heksher. He said in the letter than all supervision should be assumed to be kosher. Obviously, not because all supervision is adequate for one's give hashgafa - but because it is very inappropriate to say that the supervisors under that hashgacha are falsifiers, etc. I will try to find the email.

My main point in mentioning hunting as I did is, I think it's fair to say that many people do find themselves divorced from the processes of halacha, the processes of the natural world, etc (and not just modern condition or existential angst), such that people can really live radically divided lives; going to ivy-league law schools and denying non-Torah laws as merely baseless and arbitrary; going to medical school and denying fundamental principles of biology, etc, etc. And the affluence that comes with certain segments of the charedi community entering these professions is it's own mess. How people can spend years in yeshiva and have no working knowledge of Hebrew is something that's come up in the educational sphere that was terrifying to me. But it's one of many realities about the Jewish world that are terrifying. James Howard Kunstler recently wrote "The long Emergency; Surviving the converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century". The Jewish world is experiencing some of it's own converging catastrophes, and as with the general world experiencing climate change [or not], economic crisis [or not], peak oil [or not], islamofacism [or not], we experience shidduchim crises [or not], abuse crises [or not], educational crises [or not]...naysayers all along the way from left, right and not on the 'spectrum'. I think, jewishly, the idea of a spectrum is the problem, and generally, mass civilisation the problem. Not that there's ever been any way to turn back...only turning.

A later followup when the rabbi respondant asked permission to post my hunting-related comments to his blog;

That people who even eat meat have such deep reaction against the "taking life" part of hunting was just one example of losing grasp of responsiblity, the limiting of engagement with the realities of life (i.e., at times death is necessary for our life), losing touch with or letting go of the awesome, defining awareness of protecting life, of making and crafting life individually and collectively, and at times taking life into your hands. I think of the manner in which HKBH stipulates exactingly about shechita, korbanot, statecraft, business, war - details! - not merely the *efficient* pat division of "ben adam l'Makom/l'Chavero", that has moderns acting and thinking merely in terms of 'ritually' and 'ethically', 'deed and creed', etc. I've blogged a bit recently about the diffusion of obligations and rights that are part of the Torah derech, and that consequences when people wave certain duties and privileges due to perceived or engineered notions of 'changing times' or "the evolution of human society".

In tanach as recently noted by R. Joshua Berman in "Created Equal" (a great book I can't push enough), there is enlightening comparison to be made between ancient suzerainty treaties and covenant in Torah. But in Torah there is a diffusion of duty and privilege between EACH individual Jew and HKBH - not between one king and a King. There are obligations made over all israel that in other texts are made only between certain individuals or certain groups; in Torah, the entire nation are to be priests, the entire nation are obligated in military service - and in the ancient-through-early modern world...these have been specific classes within hierarchical societies.

The pervasive mindset these Torah obligations COULD have created over millenia is very different from what evolved to be the 'modern' mindset of Professionals, of Experts, of specialization (the restraint on horses made on Shlomo HaMelekh being about a limit on the extent and nature of the military, which was to be largely a militia of the people for defending the land, not necessarily for charioting out to expand an empire) - where certain duties and knowledge that would seem to be incumbent on all reasonable human beings (self-preservation, responsibility for ones health and livelyhood, etc), are privileged information or privileged access to "experts". The fact that the following quote from sci fi author Robert Heinlein seems rather extravagant should give us pause for thought;

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations,
analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal,
fight efficiently, die gallantly."

I think it's not the content of his contention so much as the opening we have problems with; many of us have a real hard time cognating "A human being should" - and many people think we're more 'civilized' for not having that breadth and detail of perspective and experience that makes for real Common Knowledge. Many people think a "civilized" Jew should not know how to change his/her oil, or more seriously, use a firearm to defend oneself and family against immediate danger, as was a not infrequent reality in the recent past and present. This general 'point' could be made at the yeshiva world and the MO world. For all their learning, secular and religious, neither - or either - could be the nation mandated by Torah. Where the contemporary non-Jewish world grew enormously from Jewish ideas and often from the presence of Jews, Jewish national society doesn't seem to have actually evolved productively. I say this not because I think I can propose some "new Israelite" model, like R. Yuter might do. I say this because I'm scared, and I think in the relatively near future we're going to suffer the consequences of the smallness of mind and heart and hand, as 'civilized' humans and as Jews.

How far is a "nation of doctors/nation of lawyers/nation of programmers/nation of CPAs" - none of which are mandated in Torah - all of which are represented in the yeshivish/MO worlds...going to take us into the future? I might have mentioned before the piece "living in the shadow" from Nishma's Introspection. I think it's totally deadon and it should be a "must read" in this social/economic climate. Maybe R. Hecht could be confinced to post it as a special piece on Nishma's page. I think it's that important.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Yisachar and Zevulun; Another Model, b'Zman haZeh?...
From Hirhurim;
The Yalkut Shimoni (par. 960) writes: Click here for more

שמח זבולון בצאתך מלמד שהיה זבולון סרסור לאחיו והיה לוקח מאחיו ומוכר לכנענים ומן הכנענים ומוכר לאחיו.

Rejoice, Zevulun, in your going out -- This teaches that Zevulun was a broker for his brother and would buy from his brother and sell to the Canaanites (or merchants) and buy from the Canaanites and sell to his brother.

In other words, Yisachar was a local merchant, which allowed him to stay at home rather than travel. Zevulun was a traveling salesman who enabled Yisachar to stay home, which presumably allowed him more time to study.
According to this version of the midrash, both Yisachar and Zevulun were businessmen. Neither learned Torah full-time. One, however, was able to choose a profession that allowed more time for religious study and the other chose a more challenging profession to enable the other to have more time.

This is an important lesson for those at the time of their lives when they are choosing their professions. There are different kinds of jobs and you need to choose one which fulfills your goals in terms of time consumption. You can choose a profession that allows you more time to study Torah or you can be an enabler of Torah.

A recent issue of Jewish Action Reader (v. 70 #1), had a piece featuring several people, mostly in business, who managed to be just such Zevulun’s. R. Gil concludes with the obvious, but something that, regrettably, must be stated;

Of course, you can be something else entirely. There are more tribes than just Yisachar and Zevulun.

Also "of course"; they are other tribes - which is to say, whatever ones derech, it must have something of a communal component very close to the core. But how does one manage such a range of choices, in life and profession? Suggestions from R. Cherlow/Sherlo (here), and R. Yosef Blau (here).

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Paleodiet and Animal Consumption

In the first third of the above video, professional hunter and lay preacher Phil "The Duck Commander" Robertson makes use of a pasuk from Torah regarding the animals being given over to human beings for consumption, post-Mabul. I had late last year asked a Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi and intellectual about the permissibility of hunting, which is generally assumed by those who ask such questions, to be forbidden to Jews (based on a tshuvah by the Noda b'Yehudah). Not only did he say it was not forbidden, when I repeatedly asked for clarification from him, he literally cited as plainly as the Duck Commander this very verse. Several years ago, I'd actually asked a Chassidic rabbi the same question, and he clarified that so long as Tzaar baalei Haim was not violated (i.e., that the taking of the animals life must not be a wasteful act), there is no issur. Both rabbis were in the position to offer the famed responsa of the Noda b'Yehudah - neither of them did.

Though consumption of game that is "hunted" is forbidden Jews (netting is definitely a means of hunting and might be possible, though difficult - let alone unnecessary even in a survival scenario), and there's plenty of discussion of the merits of vegetarian diets over omnivorous diets and books 'hinting' at the spiritually-preferable nature of abstention from meat consumption, I'd like to do a few openly-apologetic posts on the nutrition (particularly the Paleodiet), and ethics of meat consumption in the modern world, as well as the relationship of animals and man, the law "against" Jews being involved with hunting and the place of loss of sensitivity to death in our lives and related meanderings. Next post should be some annotated links on different aspects of all of the above.

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