Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Parashat VaYera: Cities and Human Progress

Cities and Human Progress
A Message for Parashat VaYera 2016
Click here to view as PDF.

The city that does not look beyond itself to the truly transcendent realm cannot be a home for what is best in the human soul. (Leon Kass)[1]

Amidst the various stories of inspiration found in Parashat Vayera, Lot’s escape from the destruction of the cities Sedom and Amorah stands out as unique. Foiling the unwavering trust of his uncle Avraham, Lot needed to be forcibly led out of Sedom prior to its demolition. He then made a puzzling request of his angel rescuers:

And as they [the angels] were bringing them [Lot and his family] out, he said, “Flee for your life. Don’t look behind you, and don’t stop anywhere on the plain. Flee to the high country lest you be wiped out.” And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lord. Look, pray, your servant has found favor in your eyes, and you have shown such great kindness in what you have done for me in saving my life, but I cannot flee to the high country, lest evil overtake me and I die. Here, pray, this city is nearby to escape there and it is a small place. Let me flee there, for it is but a small place, and my life will be saved.” (Bereshit 19:17-20)

Requesting that an “undeserving” city be saved for his sake, Lot stressed that it was small in size and therefore entailed only a minor concession. But what was Lot’s intention? What danger did he foresee in taking refuge in the mountains, requesting instead an escape to a nearby city?

Let’s begin with a recounting of the history of cities in Sefer Bereshit

* * * *

It all began with Kayin’s murder of his brother Hevel and his subsequent banishment from Gan Eden:

And Kayin went out from God’s presence and dwelled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. And Kayin knew his wife and she conceived and bore Enokh. Then he became the builder of a city and called the name of the city, like his son’s name, Enokh. (4:16-17)

The Torah’s pesukim are equivocal regarding the exact nature of this advancement. They note, however, that his founding ushered in an era of human progress and creativity. Several generations later, Yuval became the first musician (4:21) and Tuval-Kayin forged tools of copper and iron (4:22). Considered narrowly, the text suggests that the identity of the founder of the original city as the first historical murderer was mere coincidence. This phenomenon, then, seemingly reveals little or nothing about the Torah’s general conception of human urbanization. Or does it?

The next significant mention of a city in the Torah comes at the Tower of Bavel episode:

And all the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served them as mortar. And they said, “Come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heaven, that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” (11:1-4)

God’s famous descent to foil the plan of these “builders” by confusing their languages is subsequently detailed in the text. Absent from the pesukim, however, is the actual intent of this building project and its theological significance. 

Corroborated by archaeological evidence, many scholars have noticed the narrative’s stress of construction by means of brick, and suggested that it refers to the ancient Mesopotamian towers, or ziggurat. These cities and towers represented one of the wonders of ancient technology, as did the creative transition in construction materials, from stone to brick.[2]

Though many commentators have suggested that this project was driven with the intent of idolatry worship,[3] the simple reading of the text never stated so, but instead quoted their mission statement as: “That we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” It consisted of two objectives: 1) To make a “name” for themselves and gain prominence through the city and structure, and 2) To prevent dispersion, and produce a centralized location for dwelling. Each of these objectives were conspicuously revisited and negated in God’s initial statement to Avraham: 

And God said to Avram, “Go forth from your land…to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great…” (12:1-2)

Avraham was destined the life of nomad, with no city that he could ever call “home,” while that anticipated “great name” was now promised to him.

The negative portrayal of “city life” and its construction begins to take form, giving reason to suspect that the “murderer-founder” was no coincidence at all. But The City Story of Bereshit continues…

Sometime after their sojourn in Egypt, a quarrel arose between the shepherds of Avraham and Lot. Avraham suggested that they separate, urging his nephew to “choose his new home.” The pesukim describe Lot’s decision and internal workings:

And Lot raised his eyes and saw the whole plain of the Jordan, and saw that all of it was well-watered, before God’s destruction of Sedom and Emorah, like the garden of God, like the land of Egypt, till you come to Zoar. And Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward, and they parted from one another. Avram dwelled in the land of Canaan and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and he set up his tent near Sedom. (13:10-12)

Lot chose the “cities of the plain,” near Sedom and Emorah, seeking the benefits of the fertile land. We may conjecture that these cities, much as the classic powerful cities of old (such as Egypt, which Lot referenced), utilized their adjacent river to produce an advanced irrigation system that would increase the expanse of fertile land.

The Torah’s association between cities and human progress thus continued, and its immediate critique comes as no surprise: “Now the people of Sedom were very evil offenders against God” (13:13). Avraham, on the other hand, is commanded to continue his journey as a nomad, and so he does: “And Abram took up his tent and came to dwell by Elonei Mamre, which are in Hevron” (13:18). 

The significance of Lot’s dialogue with the angels is now understood. The angels urged Lot to leave behind more than just the city of Sedom; they pushed him to abandon all life “in the cities.” And taken in its broader context, Lot’s subsequent characterization of life in the mountains as potentially “evil” is nothing short of ironic.

* * * *

Sefer Bereshit thus presents us with a glaring contrast. On the one side stand the “city builders and dwellers,” time and again associated with man’s creative advances in technology, and associated with Kayin, the rebellious builders in Bavel, Lot and “evil offenders against God.” On the other side stands Avraham, whose destiny is the “great name” of the city-builders, but whose life is that of a nomad, dwelling in tents and never fully settling in a particular city.[4]

What is so “evil” about urbanization and human development? Does the Torah in fact view the growth of civilization and human progress as negative?

The well-known Spanish philosopher and Torah commentator, R. Yitzhak Abarbanel, suggested that the Torah indeed looks down at human progress. He posited that Adam and Hava were purposefully placed in Gan Eden, where all of their essential needs were naturally supplied, and that their sin lay in “being drawn after luxuries that require work,” and independently “walking into the darkness” of their own self progress.[5] Enlightenment thinker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, similarly regarded “natural man” as superior to “civilized man,” writing:

If I consider him, in a word, such as he must have issued from the hands of nature; I see an animal less strong than some and less active than others, but, upon the whole, the most advantageously organized of any; I see him satisfying the calls of hunger under the first oak, and the thirst at the first rivulet; I see him laying himself down to sleep at the foot of the same tree that afforded him his meal; and behold, this done, all his wants are completely supplied.[6]

Abarbanel accordingly explained the sin of the builders of the Tower of Bavel as representative of their inability to suffice with their naturally provided resources – and a life in the field, and a mission to establish a polity and develop cooperation and society – and a life in the city.[7]

Broadening our attention from Sefer Bereshit to the remaining books of the Torah and Tanakh and Jewish history in its totality, an entirely different image of “the city,” human progress and civilization, comes to light. Consider, for example, Bezalel’s creative and elaborate construction of the Mishkan and its utensils, the nation’s detailed contributions to the project, and the sanctity and prominence of the city of Jerusalem and the Bet Hamikdash. Indeed, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik praised modern man for his betterment of society through the advancement and utilization of technology in all realms, thus stating:

In doing all this, Adam the first is trying to carry out the mandate entrusted to him by his Maker, who at the dawn of the sixth mysterious day of creation, addressed Himself to man and summoned him to “fill the earth and subdue it.”[8]

Whereas Rabbi Soloveitchik detected a positive mandate for man to create and construct, and our history seemingly corroborates this position, Sefer Bereshit sends a consistently negative portrayal of these matters. Why?

* * * *

Leo Strauss once suggested that advancement in the realms of the polis, the arts and knowledge should be likened to the institution of human kingship in Israel. Fundamentally, these issues are “bad,” as they tend to divert man’s attention from God’s “great name” to man’s own “great name.” Considered from a practical standpoint, however, they are permitted – and perhaps necessary – for optimal worship of God.[9]

Strauss’s student and noted intellectual Leon Kass similarly observed:

The city affirms man’s effort to provide for his own safety and needs, strictly on his own. Standing up against the given world, it affirms man’s ability to control and master the given world, at least to some extent…Born in need, the human city, by meeting, and more than meeting the needs of its builders, proudly celebrates the power of human reason.[10]

Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony furthermore highlighted the Torah’s introduction to states and rulers, regarding Nimrod:

He was the first mighty man on earth. He was a mighty hunter before God … The start of his kingdom was Bavel and Erekh and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land Ashur emerged, and he built Nineveh and Rehobot-Ir and Calah, and Resen, between Nineveh and Calah, which is the great city. (10:8-12)

Hazony suggested that the Torah’s description of Nimrod’s strength – his “might before God” – purposefully led into its account of the beginning of widespread construction of residential structures. City-building represented the acute danger of man’s mistaken self-empowerment in place of God.[11] 

Kayin’s construction of a city continued the mistaken self-empowerment that he had initially displayed with the murder of Hevel. Indeed, English philosopher Simon Critchley pointed to the Holocaust and other genocides of past generations as proof of the danger inherent in man’s advancement in scientific knowledge. He cautioned us to liken our pursuits in the field of science to those of art, and to realize that both fields are limited by our human capacity and fallibility. “When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods,” Critchley wrote, “then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself.”[12]

* * * *

As Am Yisrael prepared to enter the Land of Israel at the end of their forty-year journey in the wilderness, they were charged with the mission of conquering the land and settling it. Moshe then warned them:

And it shall come about when Hashem your God brings you to the land that He swore to your fathers … great and goodly cities that you did not build and houses filled with all goods that you did not fill … Watch yourself, lest you forget God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt… (Devarim 6:10-12)

Lest you eat and be sated and build goodly houses and dwell in them … And your heart become haughty and you forget Hashem your God who brings you out of the land of Egypt… (10:12-14)

Settling Eress Yisrael marked the inevitable transition stage in the history of Am Yisrael from a nomadic lifestyle to one of city-dwelling. Am Yisrael was at this point prepared to overcome the challenges of this endeavor, but Moshe made sure to adequately remind them of the inherent dangers: “And your heart become haughty and you forget God…”

* * * *

Sefer Bereshit – the “Book of Beginnings” – sets the groundwork for man. It warns of the potential dangers that are present in human progress and reminds us of mankind’s past mistakes in the construction of cities. In so doing, it contrasts all such activities to Avraham’s life as a wanderer. Ultimately, however, the Torah urges us to cautiously step forward from our “beginnings,” and to use our God-given talents to build and create in our worship of Him.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari


[1] The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, IL, 2006), pg. 233. 

[2] See, e.g., Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966), pg. 70-2. Perhaps worthy of further consideration in this context is the recurrent “stone” theme of Yaakov’s travels in Parashat VaYesse.; see 28:11, 18, 22; 29:2-3, 10; 31:45-6. 

[3] See, e.g., Rashi and Seforno, ad loc

[4] This schism between the urban and nomadic civilizations of that time has been similarly stressed by archaeologists, who have noted the repeated clashes between the two. See Martin Buber’s Moses (New York, NY, 1998), pg. 20-32, and R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s The Emergence of Ethical Man (Jersey City, NJ, 2005), pg. 151-3. 

[5] Abarbanel, Commentary to Bereshit 3. 

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Inequality Among Mankind, pt. 1. 

[7] Abarbanel, Commentary to Bereshit 11:1. 

[8] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York, 2006), pg. 19. 

[10] Kass, pg. 227. 

[11] Yoram Hazony, “The Jewish Origins of the Western Disobedience Tradition,” Azure 3 (Summer 1998), pg. 30. See, as well, Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (New York, 2012), pg. 109-10. 

[12] Simon Critchley, “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson from Auschwitz,” The New York Times, Feb. 2, 2014. Reprinted in eds. Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments (New York, NY, 2016), pg. 112-117.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Parashat VaYera: Yishmael's "Rebirth"

Listen to tonight's class, "Yishmael's Rebirth," here. Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

What About Needs Closer to Home?

I spoke last night at Beth Torah, as part of a week-long symposium on Jewish responsibility. 

Watch it here:

I relied heavily upon an important article by Rabbi Dr. J.J. Schachter, "Tikkun Olam: Defining the Jewish Obligation," in Rav Chesed: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein.

Women and Torah Study

1) Listen to this morning's class, on the topic of HaRambam's approach to women's Torah study, here. Follow along with the source sheet here.

2) There is a lot of written material on this topic - I suggest the brief and well-presented article of Warren Zev Harvey, "The Obligation of Talmud on Women According to Maimonides." Read it here.

See, as well, Lawrence Kaplan's brief analysis in his short monograph of Hilkhot Talmud Torah here.

3) The issue of women's study of Torah has been the focus of several recent articles at Lehrhaus. Read them here.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Parashat Lekh Lekha: Shabbat

A Message for Parashat Lekh Lekha 2017*
Click here to view as PDF.

Several years ago, the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks penned his memoir, On the Move: A Life. The cover photo of a young Sacks mounted atop a motorcycle appropriately depicted the life described therein. Sacks wrote that his life was driven by boundless passion and energy, and lived in a constant flux between physical and intellectual activity.[1]

Though raised as an Orthodox Jew, Sacks veered from the path of belief and religion during his teenage years. He moved away from his native England at a relatively young age, and rarely again participated in even the cultural dimensions of Judaism. 

In mid-August 2015, two weeks before his death, Sacks published a moving article for The New York Times. He contrasted his final thoughts and experiences to those of the rest of his life. He reflected upon one particular Shabbat meal that he experienced in the past with a cousin. He described his feelings at that time: “The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything.” Shifting his focus to his present situation, Sacks wrote, “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer…I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”[2] Winding down a life of constant movement, Oliver Sacks’s spent his final thoughts in appreciation of the importance of rest. 

* * * *

I often imagine that the title of Avraham Avenu’s memoir might have similarly been On the Move. It began with his family’s move to Canaan (Bereshit 11:31), God’s subsequent command that he “go forth (lekh lekha)” from his homeland (12:1) and his later descent to Egypt due to famine (12:10). He then proceeded to the beat of movement, enduring the life of a nomad who was commanded to “Rise, walk about the land” (13:17), “Walk in My presence and be blameless” (17:1) and to again “Go forth (lekh lekha) to the land of Moriah” (22:2). 

In the midst of Avraham’s life of constant movement, there is one particular experience of inactivity that stands out: 

And as the sun was about to set, a deep slumber fell upon Avram and now a great dark dread came falling upon him… (15:12)

Avraham spent much of his legendary covenant with God, the berit bein ha-betarim, in a state of complete inactivity. At the very moment that God described the future of Am Yisrael, He unexplainably placed Avraham into an uncharacteristic state of immobility. 

* * * *

Avraham was the forbearer of a nation. His life planted the seeds from which the future flowers of Am Yisrael would blossom. He thrived on motion, seeking to establish, create, and form a future movement. As God informed Avraham about the future of his descendants, however, all of that activity came to halt. Avraham understood that this was not a time for movement, nor an opportunity for implementation. It was, instead, a period of solemn contemplation and reflection. It was a taste of the future fruits of his labors.

The whole story from Abraham to Moses is nothing but God’s creation of a nation to be the bearer of the Sabbath. (R. Samson Raphael Hirsch)[3]

The “absolute stop” of Shabbat was inappropriate during the generations leading up to the establishment of Am Yisrael. The Avot shared a mission of creation, which called for a commitment to action. The eventual birth of the nation, however, brought forth the necessary opportunity to rest. It presented us with a renewed covenant with God – Shabbat. It introduced the once-a-week challenge of pausing all activity in order to contemplate the issues that matter most. 

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

* In honor of The Shabbos Project, taking place this weekend. For more information, see: www.theshabbosproject.org.

[1] Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life (New York, NY, 2015).

[2] Oliver Sacks, “Sabbath,” The New York Times, Aug. 14, 2015.

[3] The Hirsch Chumash: Shemos (Nanuet, NY, 2005), pg. 346.

Pat Yisrael

1) Listen to this morning's class, on the topic of Pat Yisrael, here. Follow along with the source sheet here.

2) Read the brief summary of this issue in Living the Halachic Process, vol. 2, here, and R. Pinchas Cohen's brief summary in A Practical Guide to the Laws of Kashrut here.

Kiddushin 52a-53a

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Kiddushin from this past week!

Listen to:   52a (2), 52b (1), 52b (2), 53a

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Marranos, Responsa and "Jewishness"

1) Listen to our class from several months ago, "Marranos, Responsa and 'Jewishness'" here. Follow along with the sources here.

2) Read the full text of Maharit Sahalon here. Read the full text of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's analysis in From Spanish Court to Italian Ghetto here

3) Several years ago, Yerushalmi's student David N. Myers wrote a wonderful piece for Tablet on Yerushalmi's life accomplishments in the field of Jewish history, entitled "Freud and the Marranos: How Yosef H. Yerushalmi Gave Voice to Jews Caught Between Worlds." Read it here.

4) Prof. Israel Ta-Shma pieced together a summary of the various relevant issues that were treated in teshuvot with regards to Marranos, entitled Ma'amad HaAnusim LeOr HaHalakhah. Read it here.

Parashat Lekh Lekha: Recognizing Your Place

1) Listen to this evening's class on Parashat Lekh Lekha, "Recognizing Your Place," here.

Follow along with the sources here.

2) Listen to last year's class on the parashah, "Separate From Family! But How?" here.

Follow along with the sources here.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Hilkhot Talmud Torah - Perek Aleph

Listen to this morning's class, on the first perek of HaRambam's Hilkhot Talmud Torah, here.

Follow along with the text of the perek and source sheet.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Parashat Noah: Dialogue

A Message for Parashat Noah 2017
Click here to view as PDF.

Forty years ago, renowned American psychologist Carl Rogers joined a few colleagues on a trip to Brazil, where they conducted several “large-group” workshops. The therapists took the risk of putting their trust in the wisdom and self-guided direction of the enormous gathering of diverse individuals. They were fascinated by what ensued.

Over the course of four sessions, nearly eight hundred people assembled together, without any formally structured agenda. The therapists and participants sat in a huge circle, as microphones were passed around for anyone who wished to speak. An air of tension filled the room. The widespread expressions of uncertainty and confusion were noticeable. Many who took the microphone demanded that Rogers lecture to them. Others asked him specific questions. He responded to all with silence. 

A woman spoke up: “I came to listen to Rogers, not to listen to questions without answers. Let’s all leave.” A short while later, another woman responded: “Listen. I came here to give, not just to receive. I want to give something here.” And from the midst of those few hours of “controlled chaos,” an important lesson began to emerge. A man far back in the audience finally remarked: “It’s always like this. Everybody is expecting someone to come and tell us what to do. We are always eager to receive packaged knowledge. I think we should go back to ourselves and look within ourselves for the answers as to what we want to do.” As a similar sentiment was voiced by others, Rogers took hold of the microphone and remarked: “I’m not certain what is happening, but I do know that groups, when they realize they are free and autonomous, have enormous strength and force.”

Rogers later observed that the people initially hoped to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of confusion and chaos by demanding leadership. They desired “packaged knowledge,” structure, and imposed order. Most of all, they wanted to do something, anything, rather than continue with the anxiety created by “the unknown.” Sitting through the session, however, taught the group about the importance of hearing the “small voices” – the different and hesitant opinions of each member of the group. In the absence of a defined consequence, they discovered that outcome played a minimal role in their success, and became driven instead by the process. One of the staff members summarized the experience: “There is an order here. Not the order of rules and rigidity, but an order more like the dynamic organization in a living system…People are listening to each other, responding and taking time to be silent together.”[1]

Carl Rogers’s description of the lessons of “large-group workshops helped inform my understanding of a particularly cryptic episode in Parashat Noah:

And all the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” … And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” (Bereshit 11:1-4)

The backdrop of the episode of Migdal Bavel is painted by a general feeling of instability. The people feared being “scattered over all the earth,” and therefore began the “stabilizing” project of building a city and tower. Rather than “speaking with one another,” their plan was “said to each other.” The unsettling feeling of uncertainty had seized the people. It silenced all dialogue and unified their sights on a concrete “mission.” 

Parallel to the defined lecture and instructions of Carl Rogers that was desired by the group during their early hours together, the people in this episode formed a mission to build a city and tower.

And God came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And God said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” And God scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. (11:5-8)

Since foreign languages are only understood through sensitive listening, God forced the people to carefully listen to one another by baffling their languages. He caused the people to abandon their focus on the external outcome of a city and tower, and to instead search for order from within. Carl Rogers found this to be a fundamental lesson that was learned by the large-group sessions. He wrote, “The basis for values will be recognized within, rather than out in the material world,” and he stressed its importance for our current generation.[2]

The story of Migdal Bavel cautions us from superficiality. It teaches us to embrace the chaos born out of diversity of thought and opinion. And it tells the tale human life, which is ordered by the process and not the outcome. 

In our continued search for meaning in life, we are often lured beyond the proper areas of inspection. We seek the “lecture by Carl Rogers,” or the “city and tower” of Parashat Noah. The episode of Migdal Bavel reminds us that our success is best realized when we instead search within. Turn to your family members and neighbors. Listen to their concerns, beliefs and opinions. Share your own thoughts with them. Allow the shared dialogue and understanding to build our own cities and towers.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Carl R. Rogers, A Way of Being (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 316-27.

[2] Ibid., pg. 332.

Halav Yisrael

1) Listen to this morning's class, on the topic of Halav Yisrael, here. Follow along with the source sheet here.

2) See R. Alfred Cohen's article on this topic for the RJJ Journal here. See, as well, R. Eliyahu Bakshi Doron's analysis here. (His teshuvah is printed as well in his Binyan Av 5.47, here).

3) See R. Pinchas Cohen's brief summary in A Practical Guide to the Laws of Kashrut here.

4) Read the short passage related to halav Yisrael in Yehaveh Daat here.

5) Read a teshuvah by R. Yisshak Yosef, in which he permits uncertified milk for Jews who currently live in Iran, here.

And read the several related anecdotes that R. Yisshak Yosef related here. Or watch below:

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Kiddushin 50b-52a

Listen to our shiurim on Masekhet Kiddushin from this past week!

Listen to:   50b,   51a,   51b,   52a

Follow along with the text of the dapim here.


In anticipation of tomorrow's inaugural "Topical Halakhah" class, I am sharing a past class, on the topic of tekhelet:

Listen to the class here. Follow along with the source sheets here.

(For the record: Though we cited R. Meir Mazouz - as cited in Mekor Ne'eman - as stating in that we are now 80% sure of the proper identification of tekhelet, Moshe Hazbany pointed out to me that a more recent source recorded his statement that we are now 90% sure).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Contested Legacies

1) Yesterday we mentioned Levi Cooper's article from The Paths of Daniel. Among the other interesting articles in this large book is one by Dr. Marc Shapiro, entitled, "Samson Raphael Hirsch and Orthodoxy: A Contested Legacy." Read it here. Shapiro, who is the author most recently of Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites its History, keeps true to his academic form, as he highlighted many of the censored writings of Rabbi Hirsch in this article. Though much of the content in this article is already found in Shapiro's other books and writings, the article is nonetheless a fun read.

2) The goal of the article is to portray the "contested legacy" of Rav Hirsch (Wikipedia bio here), showing how different factions of Orthodoxy have "manipulated" his legacy to ensure that it does not contradict their own. Shapiro's concluding paragraph states it best:

Jewish history is replete with great rabbis who were enormously influential in their times. Usually, a generation or two after their deaths, not only has their influence waned, but in many cases they have faded into obscurity. It is the rare individual who is not only remembered generations later but also continues to influence Jewish life and thought. Hirsch is one such figure and together with his continuing influence come the almost inevitable disputes about how to interpret his teachings, as well as the polemics against his views...

3) We have on several occasions discussed the fact that this has been the reality regarding many of the greatest leaders. It is often due to a combination of their complex thinking and dominant influence.

a) We have, for example, discussed the contested legacy of HaRambam. Herbert Davidson wrote in his Maimonides: The Man and His Works

...While there is no evidence that Maimonides lived the philosophic ideal, he plainly lived the rabbinic ideal to the fullest. Did the two incompatible personas then jostle in his breast, one a devotee of rabbinic law and the rabbinic ideal, and the other a devotee of philosophy? Or was he perhaps a full-fledged philosopher who lavished decades and boundless effort on his rabbinic writings, who observed the ritual regulations to the letter and beyond, merely in order to create a smokescreen for concealing his revolutionary philosophic ideology and a surreptitious vehicle for advancing it? Or was he, on the contrary a halakhist, whose philosophic interests remained firmly under the thumb of his dominant rabbinic persona? Readers in recent years have endorsed each of the three positions...

Read it in its original context here, and take a look at a related devar Torah from several years ago here.

b) R. David Singer similarly wrote about this phenomenon regarding Rav Kook, in his "Rav Kook's Contested Legacy." He concluded the article with this sentence: 

Rav Kook's teachings will remain hostage to the clash of contending forces in Orthodox life today

Read the article here.

c) We have also visited this reality regarding Rav Soloveitchik.

Larence Kaplan, the editor of Maimonides - Between Philosophy and Halakhah: Rabbi Joeseph B. Soloveitchik's Lectures on the Guide of the Perplexed, penned a classic article on this topic nearly two decades ago - "Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy." 

In the opening paragraph he underscored the importance of this debate, explaining that it touches on more than just the legacy of a single person:

The Rav, one of the towering rabbinic scholars and thinkers of our era, was, as is well known, the teacher, guide, and above all, the supreme halakhic authority of the modern Orthodox community for over fifty years. The struggle, then, is not just scholarly, but ideological as well. Indeed, in the deepest sense, it is a struggle over the direction and future course of the modern Orthodox community, a struggle over its very soul.

Read the article here, and see Kaplan's "revisit" of the issue in "Revisionism and the Rav Revisited" here.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

2 Approaches to Pesak Halakhah (2)

1) Listen to this morning's class, "2 Approaches to Pesak Halakhah (2)," here. Follow along with the source sheets here.

2) Listen to our first class on this topic here. Follow along with its source sheets here, and see the related devar Torah for last year's Parashat Kedoshim here.

3) As we mentioned, the core concept of the class was drawn from Haym Soloveitchik's classic essay, "Rupture and Reconstruction." Read it here

4) Many of the specific sources of this class were drawn from Levi Cooper's "המנהג בערוך השלחן והמנהג במשנה ברורה," in The Paths of Daniela recently-published festschrift for R. Dr. Daniel Sperber . Read the relevant pages here.

5) Read the relevant chapter from R. Eitam Henkin hy"d's posthumous book תערוך לפני שלחן, which compares Arukh HaShulhan and Mishnah Berurah, here.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Hilkheta KeBatra'ei - Is the Law Like the Later Authorities?

1) Listen to our class on the topic of "Hilkheta KeBatra'ei" here. Follow along with the source sheets here.

2) Though there has been a lot written on this topic, the "classic" article was written by Prof. Israel Ta-Shma. Read it in its original Hebrew here, and in its English translation here. (The English translation is scanned from the excellent book of essays by Ta-Shma, Creativity and Tradition).

3) See the short paper that I wrote a number of years ago. It summarizes several of the core issues discussed in this class.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Are "Canvas Sukkot" Kosher?

1) Listen to tonight's class, on the halakhic status of canvas sukkot, here.

2) Follow along with the source sheet here.

3) Read R. David Brofsky's summary of many of the core opinions on this matter, in his Hilkhot Mo'adim: Understanding the Laws of the Festivals, here.

"Shover Oyvim UMakhnia...?" - The History of a Single Word

Listen to this morning's class here. Follow along with the source sheets here.

For further reference, see: 

a) The full text of Hakham Ovadia's teshuvah in Yehaveh Da'at,

b) The page from R. Yisshak Shehebar's Yisshak Yeranen

c) Hakham Yeshaya Dayan's article (and R. Rahamim Shayo's footnote) in Ginzei Eress

d) R. Shelomo Toledano's analysis in Divrei Shalom VeEmet,

e) R. Yisshak Yosef's defense of his father in Kol Torah and subsequent writing in Ein Yisshak.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Parashat Bereshit: Growth From Sin

Listen to last night's class, "Growth From Sin," here.

Can Women Make Berakhot on Positive Time-Bound Missvot?

Listen to yesterdays's class, "Can Women Make Berakhot on Positive Time-Bound Missvot," here.

Follow along with the source sheet here.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Saying "leshem yihud," Sabbateanism, and Hasidut

Unless hyperlinked in the text, the sources cited below can be found here.

1) Yesterday I purchased the "hot off the presses" Yabia Omer - volume 11, by R. Ovadia Yosef. Though published after his death, all of its teshuvot were written by Hakham Ovadia at various points during his lifetime. 

Flipping through the book, I was instantly drawn to סימן כג. Written in 1951, it is a response to "רב אחד," who had criticized Hakham Ovadia for what he perceived as Hakham Ovadia's "harsh condemnations" of R. Yosef Hayim - "Ben Ish Hai," in his first book, Hazon Ovadia.

(Regarding R. Nissim Kadouri's involvement in this critique, as mentioned at the beginning of the teshuvah - see R. Yisshak Yosef's related memories  here).

2) The first specific critique related to Hakham Ovadia's pesak regarding the recitation of "לשם יחוד" prior to prayers and performance of missvot. Whereas Ben Ish Hai advocated for the recitation of these kabbalistic introductory prayers and even composed several himself, Hakham Ovadia brought support for the well-known opinion of R. Yehezkel Landau (see his bio here), who argued in his Noda BeYehudah that the recitation is unnecessary for the proper fulfillment of prayers and missvot. In this particular teshuvah, Hakham Ovadia defended both his pesak and particular wording - proving that he had not intended any offense to the authority and stature of Ben Ish Hai.

3) The historical backdrop to the pesak of Noda BeYehudah is quite interesting. As R. Yisshak Yosef explained in a shiur last year, R. Landau served as the rabbi of Prague during the middle of the 18th Century, and therefore feared the threats of the prominent movements of Sabbateanism (followers of the false-messiah Shabbetai Sevi) and Hasidut - which were pronounced by a strong dedication to mysticism and kabbalah. 

In her The Kabbalistic Culture of Eighteenth-Century Prague: Ezekiel Landau and His Contemporaries, Prof. Sharon Flatto explained that although R. Landau was both accepting of kabbalistic thought and well-versed in its practice, the threat of Sabbateanism and Hasidut compelled his strong opposition to the recitation of לשם יחוד.

The most famous line in Noda BeYehudah's teshuvah is:

ועל הדור היתום הזה אני אומר: ישרים דרכי ה' וצדיקים ילכו בם וחסידים יכשלו בם

He likened his "orphaned generation" to the realization of a verse in Hoshea. Whereas the verse actually contrasts the proper ways of God and the righteous to those of the wicked ("פושעים"), R. Landau replaced the "פושעים - wicked" with "חסידים - righteous" - hinting at his aversion to the "new" forms and movements of "hasidut - righteousness" in his generation.

4) R. Landau's student, R. Eleazer Fleckeles (see his bio here) related in his Teshuvah MeAhavah that a man once borrowed R. Landau's beautiful etrog in order to make a blessing on it on Sukkot. R. Landau then noticed the man reciting a לשם יחוד prior to his blessing. He snatched the etrog away, and said that anyone who says such prayers is not fit to make a blessing on his etrog!

5) Hakham Ovadia's son, R. David Yosef, began publishing the series Orhot Maran a few years ago, wherein he details several of the unique halakhic practices of his father. He related that Hakham Ovadia would generally omit the לשם יחוד prior to performance of prayers and missvot. There were a few notable exceptions, however, when he would say the לשם יחוד for a specific reason: a) Prior to counting the Omer - in order to state in the לשם יחוד that seffirat ha-Omer today is only rabbinically binding (a matter of dispute among the classic halakhic authorities), b) Prior to sitting in the Sukkah - because there is a prominent opinion in posekim that one must have in mind the reason for sitting in the Sukkah (זכר לענני הכבוד) in order to fulfill the missvah, c) Prior to blowing the shofar.

Tying Down the Sekhakh with Plastic Ties

Listen to this morning's class, on the reasons that one can tie down his sekhakh with plastic ties, here

Follow along with the source sheets here.

Hag same'ah!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Involvement with and Exemptions from Missvot

Listen to this morning's class on "Involvement with and Exemptions from Missvot," here.

Follow along with the source sheet here, and read a lengthy (Hebrew) yeshiva-style essay that I wrote on this topic a while ago here.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Akedat Yisshak - A Dual Mission

Listen to tonight's class on "Akedat Yisshak - A Dual Mission" - here.

Follow along with the source sheet, here.

Read the devar Torah from Parashat Noah 2016 - "The Real and the Ideal" - which came up when discussing the core issue, here.

The Special Missvah on the First Night of Sukkot

Listen to this morning's class, "The Special Missvah on the First Night of Sukkot," here

Follow along with the source sheets, here.