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Saturday, December 12, 2015

The RCA on Metitza Be-Peh (MBP)

Metitza be-Peh (oral suction following circumcision, or MBP) is a practice followed by some Haredi Jews.  Here is a detailed history.

Below are three policy statements on MBP by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), from their website. Note the "evolution" of their position and draw your own conclusions.

Mar 1, 2005 -- The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest group of Orthodox rabbis in the world, has today issued a statement regarding Brit Milah (circumcision) and Metzitza (Oral Suction).

The statement reads as follows:
Bris Milah and Metzitza be'Peh
(Ritual Circumcision and Oral Suction)
A Policy Statement by the
Rabbinical Council of America

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Bris Milah (ritual circumcision of Jewish males, performed on the 8th day after birth unless there are health contraindications) is a fundamental cornerstone of Jewish life and Biblical law. An important element of every Bris Milah is Metzitzah be'Peh, the extracting of blood from the wound and/or surrounding tissue using the mouth as the source of suction. This practice has been prevalent in all Jewish communities worldwide for thousands of years.

There has been a longstanding debate in the halachic responsa literature of the past several hundred years regarding the optimal way to fulfill the precept of suctioning. There are halachic authorities who mandate that only suction created via direct contact of the mouth to the wound adequately satisfies this requirement. Other halachic authorities, however, fully permit performing oral suctioning through a tube even as an ideal method of implementation of this precept.

A well-trained mohel, adhering to the scientific principles of sterile technique and antisepsis, essentially reduces the infectious risk of circumcision to the point where it is close to zero. Performing oral suction via a sterile tube does not pose any increased risk.

For those authorities who follow the view that suction via a sterile tube is completely permitted as a matter of Jewish law, this is clearly the optimal method to fulfill the requirement of Metzitzah be'Peh. In this manner, one absolutely fulfills the precept whilst placing the infant and mohel at no additional risk.

Based upon a careful study of the available halachic and scientific literature, as well as a review of sanctioned practice by numerous reliable Torah authorities past and present, it is the position of the RCA that the requirement of Metzitzah is fulfilled completely and unambiguously by the use of oral suctioning through a tube, as practiced by many mohelim in our communities. Therefore, according to this viewpoint, the use of such a tube is not only permissible, but is preferred (instead of direct oral contact) to eliminate any unintentional communication of infectious diseases. This protects both the mohel and the newly circumcised child.

An additional reason to encourage the use of a tube to fulfill the requirements of Metzitzah is that we not discourage less committed Jewish men and women from observing ritual circumcision (and possibly other Jewish rituals). Indeed, even some authorities who otherwise require Metzitzah be’Peh via direct oral contact, sanction a tube if that is the only way that the parents of a child would observe the mitzvah of Bris Milah.

In light of the above, the RCA urges its member rabbis, their congregants, synagogues and institutions, as well as the larger Jewish community, to encourage and where possible necessitate, that Metzitzah be’Peh be fulfilled via a tube.


Metzitza Be'Peh - Halachic Clarification
Regarding Metzitza Be'Peh, RCA Clarifies Halachic Background to Statement of March 1, 2005

(New York, NY) Jun 7, 2005 -- It is well known that there is a dispute among poskim regarding the obligation to engage in metzitza be’peh. Four major viewpoints exist, and we provide some sources for each below. More complete reviews are summarized in many sources, including Nishmat Avaraham, Vol. 2., Yoreh De'ah263:8 (p. 176) and 264:5 (pp. 182-183), and elsewhere.

The first view is that of Tiferet Yisrael (Commentary to Mishnah Shabbat 19:2), who regards metzitza as strictly a medical matter. The Talmud requires metzitza to avoid medical danger. Even though Tiferet Yisrael affirms that doctors in his day stated that this danger no longer exists (in keeping with the principle of nishtaneh ha’teva) and that, to the contrary, the act of metzitza itself might pose potential danger to the child, Tiferet Yisrael nonetheless advocated metzitza be’peh because he believed that doctors of his day agreed that it also provided a medical benefit to the child.

The second view is that metzitza is required and may be performed with any device – mouth or even sponge – that draws blood from the wound. (Chatam Sofer cited in Rav Pirutinsky's Sefer Habrit, pp. 216-217).

The third view is that metzitza be’peh is required, but the requirement of be’peh may be fulfilled through suction generated by the mouth through a tube. (Proclamations by Rabbi A. Hildesheimer and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch to their respective communities, and the latter's Responsa Shemesh Marpeh 55; Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, Responsa Har Tzvi214; Rabbi A. Y. Hakohen Kook, Responsa Da'at Kohen 142; others cited in addendum to p. 222 at back of Sefer Habrit).

The final view is that metzitza be’peh actually requires suction from the mouth directly onto the site of the circumcision. (Responsa Binyan Tziyon 1:23-24; Responsa Maharam Schick Orach Chaim 152; Responsa Avnei Neizer 1:338).

The poskim consulted by the RCA (Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, Av Beit Din of the Beth Din of America and of the Chicago Rabbinical Council; Rabbi Hershel Schachter of RIETS/YU and the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America; and Rabbi Mordechai Willig of RIETS/YU and Segan Av Beit Din of the Beth Din of America) agree that the normative halacha undoubtedly permits the third view, and that it is proper for mohalim to conduct themselves in this way given the health issues involved in the fourth view. Rabbi Schachter even reports that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik reports that his father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, would not permit a mohel to perform metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact, and that his grandfather, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, instructed mohelim in Brisk not to do metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact. However, although Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik also generally prohibited metzitza be’peh with direct oral contact, he did not ban it by those who insisted upon it, and neither does the RCA advocate any such ban. Those who wish to follow their customs in accordance with the above-noted authorities are certainly entitled to do so, but the RCA is firmly of the opinion that in light of current realities and medical knowledge it is proper, and preferable, to use a tube.


The RCA, Calling for Safe Circumcision Practices, Disapproves of Unilateral Government Regulation

Sep 10, 2012 -- The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest group of Orthodox rabbis in the world, in light of the pending directive of the New York City's Health Department for parents to sign statements of informed consent prior to the performance of "metzitzah be-peh" (direct oral suction of the wound) as part of the traditional Bris Milah (circumcision), states:

Many Jewish legal authorities have ruled that direct oral suction is not an integral part of the circumcision ritual, and therefore advocate the use of a sterile tube to preclude any risk of infection. The RCA has gone on record as accepting the position of those authorities. Nevertheless, the RCA respects the convictions and sensitivities of those in the Orthodox Jewish community who disagree with this ruling and joins in their deep concern about government regulation of religious practices. The RCA urges these groups to voluntarily develop procedures to effectively prevent the unintended spread of infection.

The RCA supports the recent call of the Agudath Israel of America to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Health Department that, instead of unilaterally imposing regulations, they collaborate with Orthodox Jewish leadership to develop protocols to address health concerns.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the RCA President, summarized his organization's position. "The act of circumcision is a precious and cherished ritual for the Jewish community, one which initiates our sons into the religious covenant. The RCA maintains that parents should use methods, in strict conformity with Jewish law, which enable them to hand down our religious legacy to a new generation safely and appropriately."

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Abraham looks down at the stars: The biblical sources of a midrash on Genesis 15:5

"ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים וגו׳" (בראשית טו:ה)

רש"י מפרש: "לפי פשוטו הוציאו מאהלו לחוץ לראות הכוכבים, ולפי מדרשו אמר לו צא מאצטגנינות שלך, שראית במזלות שאינך עתיד להעמיד בן, אברם אין לו בן, אבל אברהם יש לו בן. וכן שרי לא תלד, אבל שרה תלד, אני קורא לכם שם אחר וישתנה המזל. דבר אחר הוציאו מחללו של עולם והגביהו למעלה מן הכוכבים, וזהו לשון הבטה מלמעלה למטה.

מקור הדרשה האחרונה בב״ר (תיאודור-אלבק פרשה מד עמ׳ 432): "ר' יודה בר' סימון בשם ר' יוחנן אמר העלהו למעלה מכיפת הרקיע. הוא דאמר ליה 'הבט נא השמימה' - אין הבט אלא מלמעלה למטה."

ובניסוח מקביל בתנחומא (שופטים סימן יא) נמצא דיוק נוסף חשוב: "הבט נא השמימה - 'שא נא עיניך השמימה' אין כתיב כאן אלא 'הבט' - כאדם שהוא מביט מלמעלה למטה, וכן הוא אומר (תהלים יג) 'הביטה ענני ה' א-להי.'"

אולם במקרא מצינו שהפועל "הבט" אינו חד־משמעי או חד־כווני. ובצדק העיר הרא"ם על פירוש רש"י:

"ואינו רוצה לומר שכל הבטה היא מלמעלה למטה, שהרי מצינו (שמות לג, ח) 'והביטו אחרי משה', 'אל תבט אחריך' (יט, יז), 'הבט ימין וראה' (תהלים קמב, ה), אלא הכי פירושא: אין 'הבט' האמור פה אלא מלמעלה למטה, דומיא ד'אין עמידה אלא תפלה, ואין פגיעה אלא תפלה' (ברכות כו ב). וכן מה שכתב רש"י: 'וזהו לשון הבטה מלמעלה למטה' פירושו וזהו לשון הבטה האמורה פה מלמעלה למטה." (וע״ע ב"שפתי חכמים" שדחק בזה דוחק גדול).

אבל נראה לי שגם הרא"ם לא ירד לסוף דברי חז״ל המובאים ברש"י. והמהלך הנכון להבנתם נרמז בדברי התנחומא המובאים למעלה – "'שא נא עיניך השמימה' אין כתיב כאן אלא 'הבט' - כאדם שהוא מביט מלמעלה למטה."

כנראה שפסוקים ספציפיים מספר ישעיהו עמדו לנגד עיניהם של חז״ל כשדרשו "אין הבט אלא מלמעלה למטה":

1. "ועבר בה נקשה ורעב והיה כי ירעב והתקצף וקלל במלכו ובא-להיו ופנה למעלה: ואל ארץ יביט והנה צרה וחשכה מעוף צוקה ואפלה מנדח:" (ח:כא-כב)

2. "שאו לשמים עיניכם והביטו אל הארץ מתחת כי שמים כעשן נמלחו והארץ כבגד תבלה וישביה כמו כן ימותון וישועתי לעולם תהיה וצדקתי לא תחת:" (נא:ו) 

בפסוקים אלו נמצא ניגוד ברור בין ״פניה״ או ״נשיאת עינים״ לשמים ובין ״הבטה״ לארץ. ולכן פירשו חז״ל - על יסוד המלים "ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה" - שאברהם ״הביט״ אל כוכבי השמים מלמעלה למטה כשהוא מוטל מחוץ ומעל כיפת הרקיע (celestial sphere), לפי דגם העולם של האסטרונומיה העתיקה. והרעיון מאחורי הדרשה הוא שאברהם וזרעו אינם כפופים להשפעות אסטרולוגיות - בלשון המדרש ורש״י על אתר, "צא מאצטגנינות שלך!" 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Kosher Water

While thinking about the medieval Ashkenazic prohibition against drinking water during the solstices and equinoxes, I became curious about the kosher supervision of some bottled waters.

I asked the Orthodox Union to explain why products such as Poland Spring water required supervision (Poland Spring and other brands of bottled water have an "OU" certification).  See the exchange below.

But I am not convinced that Poland Spring "requested" -- or would request -- kosher supervision for marketing purposes. And, even if they did, wouldn't the OU have a moral obligation to decline the request as unnecessary?

The response is fairly good spin by the OU.  And it makes a very strong case that they are in the kashrut business for profit.  A dot-com, rather than a dot-org.

Webbe Rebbe (The Orthodox Union Help Desk)
Aug 28, 10:19
Thank you for contacting the OU.
If a company requests OU certification, the OU will certify the product even if it does not technically require supervision. From the company’s point of view, the OU is a beneficial marketing tool which extends far beyond the Jewish kosher consumer, as many people prefer to purchase products that are inspected and certified. If the OU would refuse to certify innocuous products, this would create ill-will or tension between the OU and manufacturers, and would no doubt diminish corporate interest in kosher production.
For the kosher consumer, there is an advantage as well to purchasing a certified product. In theory, it is possible for any item to be prepared in a manner that would render it non-kosher. For example, the OU once discovered that a particular brand of bottled water was pasteurized on equipment used for non-kosher production. While this is a rare occurrence, the presence of the OU symbol insures with absolute certainty that the product is kosher. Even if the possibility of a product being produced in a non-kosher manner is highly remote, the OU visits the production sites of all products bearing an OU to guarantee the kosher status.
It is also true that kosher consumers do not always know what products do not require supervision, and the OU kosher symbol prevails as a mark of trust for the Jewish community.
Please do not hesitate to contact us again should you have any further questions.
The Web(be) Rebbe
Orthodox Union Kashruth Division

Davids Zinberg
Aug 25, 20:13
Please explain why bottled water (e.g., Poland Spring, Dannon) requires kosher supervision by the Orthodox Union.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Rabbi Soloveitchik on Torah study for women, as recalled by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

The following is an excerpt from R. Chaim Sabbato's Mevakshei Panekha - Conversations with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (Tel Aviv, 2011), pp. 167ff. (my translation; for clarity, I have made some additions, in parentheses):

. . . the Rav ZL did indeed try to advance the issue of Torah study for women, but primarily within his "four amot" (four cubits, i.e., his private domain). First, within his literal four amot, i.e., at home.  The Rav had a son and two daughters.  He studied with all of them together and he also studied (separately) with his son.

A different four amot -- which, to some extent, was also his own -- was the founding of the Maimonides School in Boston.  His activities there drew attention and also generated some excitement, especially among those who sought to advance the issue.  They would point to him: "Look at Rabbi Soloveitchik, his policy (is co-education)" -- but that statement is both correct and incorrect.

When the Rav opened the school in Boston, it was originally a boys' school.  After a few years, (the community realized that) there weren't enough students (to support the school).  The Boston of that time was unlike the Boston of today.  It was spiritually and educationally desolate; they were simply unable to hold classes.  (Co-education) began from necessity.  Some will say, "Perhaps it was indeed so (that co-education began from necessity).  But unlike other places where co-education was permitted only in extenuating circumstances, and as soon the school expanded, the classes were split -- this was never done in Boston."

I never discussed the matter with the Rav.  I do not know whether or not he would have negated this view.

He would have completely negated the approach that girls should not study Gemara at all.  Of this, there is no doubt.  But as an "a priori of an a priori," would he also have been comfortable with the idea of a co-ed school?  I do not know.  There are many individuals today in the U.S., each of whom pretends to know exactly what he had in mind.  I truly do not know.  And I believe my wife also does not know . . .

I repeat, the Rav did not approach the issue (of Torah study for women) from a desire to be at the vanguard of a movement, nor did he view this as a cause around which to rally.  He did not approach it in the same manner as he approached Torah study, or in the same manner as he waged his struggle against Reform and Conservative Judaism in the 1950s.  He believed it was proper for women to study Torah.

At one point, the Rav wanted to advance the matter somewhat.  It was at Stern College, which is Yeshiva University's college for women.  I taught there early in my career, and they too were at the start of their journey.  The students would joke that while teaching English Literature, I inserted a good deal of Torah learning. In that way I actually had a certain measure of influence.  But the subject of Talmud study for women was not a pressing one for them.  I would not say that had (the administration) pushed for it from the top, that it would not have had an impact.  It is possible that it would have but, in practice, it was not a burning issue.  And there was no one willing to push for it. The feminist movement caught on in the U.S. (only) in the 1960s.

In 1976, the college launched a Talmud program.  The Rav was invited, and he agreed to come; he said that he would come to deliver the opening shiur (lecture).  He came; a photogropher arrived, and the event was publicized.  As a consequence of this shiur, the Rav received harsh criticism from certain circles.  In this particular case, he did indeed (intend to) make a statement.  They sent a group of Ramim (advanced Talmud teachers) there for a time.  Whoever organized this group -- it was a fairly small one -- (selected) from the most outstanding and experienced Ramim.  Rabbi Mordechai Willig spent several years there.  An institute was formed around this group (the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmud Studies, or GPATS), which today runs a Torah study program providing substantial stipends -- a "kollel" of sorts.

On the few occasions I was there in recent years, I sensed, as much as a guest is able to, that the environment was not one of a yeshiva.  In this respect, the situation remains different from that of the Michlalah Jerusalem College, or from our own Migdal Oz, or from Midreshet Nishmat.  In these places there is more of an atmosphere of Torah-study fellowship.

I would like to return to the Rav's thinking on this subject.  He related to women respectfully.  Maimonides' statement (Ishut 15:20) that a husband should be viewed by his wife as a prince or a king -- that he did not emphasize.  He also did not behave that way.  Closer to the forefront of his mind was Maimonides' statement in the same chapter (15:19), that a man should speak calmly in his home, as stated in the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat (34a).

Here were combined, from the Rav's perspective, two things: First, respect for women; an assumption that they were capable of study, and that there was no reason to hesitate in this regard.  All of the pressure surrounding this matter that arose primarily from outside circles was, at that time, not so intense.  Second, the Rav greatly emphasized the reason to encourage Torah study for women.  The Rav valued Torah study out of truth and integrity -- not as a slogan.  He truly believed, "I created the evil inclination; I also created the Torah as a remedy" (Kiddushin 30b).  He believed that the evil inclination was active within women no less than in men.  So, if you do not send them to university, you remove them from the intellectual and cultural sphere.  But if you do send them, they will not be prepared with the remedy of Torah to protect them.

Since he was in favor of women acquiring a broad education and that they be part of the culture, he truly believed that it was important -- very important -- that they study Torah.  Despite all the cultural dangers and risks, he encouraged them to study.

I recall a meeting of Ramim that took place at our yeshiva, about twenty years ago; I don't recall if it was prior to our opening the women's study program at Migdal Oz, or perhaps after that.  Rabbi Yaakov Medan struck the table with his hand and said: "It is inconceivable that a young woman should be prohibited from studying Torah, but permitted to read some women's magazine!"  The Rav would have endorsed such a statement in a heartbeat.

From this standpoint, the Rav's position was rooted in ideology, but did not in itself become his ideology.  He encouraged Torah study for women, but it was not a cause for which he fought.

As I recall, there were some people who came from Israel to the U.S. for a visit, among them Shlomo Marzel ZL, who was for many years principal of the Chorev girls' school.  At that time they did not teach Talmud; (girls) hardly even studied Mishnah.  We have six children, all of whom studied at Chorev for elementary school.  I recall that the boys began to study Mishnah in second grade, and the girls in sixth; such was the environment . . .

This Shlomo Marzel once came to the U.S. and went to see the Rav in Boston.  He asked the Rav about Talmud study for girls.

The Rav told him that when they wanted to open "Bais Yaakov," this too was a revolution.  Sarah Schneirer went to the Chaftez Chaim to solicit his opinion.  The Chaftez Chaim replied: Maimonides writes that when a convert decides to accept the mitzvot, they teach him some easy and some difficult mitzvot, as is written in the Gemara.  Maimonides, with his emphasis on ideology, adds that they also teach (the convert) the fundamental principles of Judaism.

Is it possible, the Chafetz Chaim said, that a woman who seeks to convert would study the fundamentals of Judaism, but a woman who was born to a Jewish mother in a Jewish home, would not?  Why should her portion fall short?

The Rav encouraged Shlomo Marzel and provided full support for his desire to teach Talmud to girls. To what extent did (the Chorev school) implement this?  I do not know.  My girls graduated from there quite a while ago.  In any event, the Rav's position on such questions was very clear.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Two pieces on Akdamut Millin

Please see my essay below on Akdamut Millin (also appeared in The Jewish Standard).

Please also see my Seforim Blog essay on "be-esek atevata," a misunderstood phrase in the poem.

After posting the latter essay, I discovered that my conclusion was predated by R. Shneur Zalman Moshe Friedman in his commentary Shnei Ha-Meorot, in Seder Piyyut Akdamut (Vilna, 1902), though I arrived at it independently.  A comment pointed me to Rabbi A.Y. Salamon's edition of Akdamut (published by ArtScroll), which cites Shnei Ha-Meorot.

“Akdamut Millin”: A Masterpiece of Piyyut for Shavuot

One thousand years ago, poet-cantors from the Jewish communities of the Rhine Valley composed soaring piyyut (liturgical poetry) for the Sabbath and holiday services. A handful of those piyyutim became staples of Ashkenazic liturgy.

Rabbi Meir ben Yitzhak Sheliach Tzibbur (“emissary of the congregation") was a giant among those poets. Recognized by contemporaries for his scholarship, artistry, and piety, Rabbi Meir was active in Worms in the latter half of the eleventh century, on the eve of the First Crusade. Akdamut Millin (Introductory Words) is his masterwork.

The poem does not lend itself to casual recitation. It can be difficult to approach due to the Aramaic in which it was composed, its compressed style, the lack of stanzas, and the complex of biblical, midrashic, and liturgical allusions in every line and half-line. Akdamut becomes fully accessible, even to those who know it, only after close study.

Like the prayers themselves, virtually all piyyutim were composed in Hebrew; the Aramaic of Akdamut is related to its original function. In the taxonomy of piyyutim, Akdamut is a reshut, a preface to a prayer or Torah reading in which the leader asks for the congregation's consent. This reshut was written for the reader of the Aramaic translation of the Torah (the "Targum"); hence it too is in Aramaic. While the ancient synagogue practice of alternating the Hebrew verses of the Torah portion with the Targum fell into general disuse, it continued in medieval Germany for special readings such as the Ten Commandments on Shavuot. And even after the Shavuot Targum was itself discontinued, Akdamut persisted on its own and is still recited by Ashkenazim on the first day, just before the Torah reading.

Akdamut is an artistically sophisticated and emotionally affecting work.

It is an intensely sensory piyyut. Its ninety lines overflow with vivid, almost cinematic, imagery. Like a crowded allegorical painting by a Renaissance master, a library of images and symbols fill the poet’s canvas -- Creation, ministering angels, mythical creatures, and the delights awaiting the righteous.

Unlike typical piyyutim, Akdamut is structured as a narrative that sweeps through time and space, both natural and metaphysical. Rabbi Meir’s story begins before creation and concludes with a grand eschatological vision. On the way, he makes multiple scene changes: From God’s throne and His heavenly court (a composite of three theophanies: Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel), to Israel, the nations and, finally, the End of Days.

The narrative axis around which the poem turns is a symbolic confrontation between the gentile nations and Israel. Here the poet alludes, obliquely but unmistakably, to the social and theological pressures facing the Jews of Germany in the eleventh century.

Borrowing imagery from the Song of Songs and its related allegorical midrashim, the poet imagines Israel as a beautiful woman longing for her distant beloved (God, in the allegory) while being harassed by the daughters of Jerusalem (the nations). The nations suggest that Israel's tireless but painful devotion to God is unrequited and they attempt to seduce her with social acceptance and political power:

From where and who is your Beloved, most beautiful
For whose sake you perish in the lions’ den?
How dear and lovely you are! If you join our hegemony
We will grant whatever you desire, everywhere.

This unexpected narrative turn follows a meditation on God’s preference of Israel’s prayers over those of the angels. The poet abruptly changes scenes to a coalition of nations gathering, “like waves,” to accost the Jewish community. The sudden shift is jarring -- it may be a deliberate attempt to evoke the instability of Jewish-Christian relations as known to Rabbi Meir and his community. The scene also likely alludes to public disputations at which Jewish scholars were required to defend their faith.

Jews were welcomed into some German towns, but their security was often short-lived. Persecution and tolerance were alternating features of Jewish life. While writing Akdamut, Rabbi Meir would surely have been mindful of the expulsion from nearby Mainz in 1012. But he may also have known of the charter written in 1084 by Bishop Rudiger of Speyer for a group of Jews who took refuge in his town; according to a contemporary Jewish source, Rudiger “pitied us as a man pities his own son.” The charter was reaffirmed in 1090 by Emperor Henry IV, only six years before the First Crusade massacres devastated the Rhine communities (Rabbi Meir's son may have been a victim).

How then, in the narrative of Akdamut, does Israel respond to the Gentiles’ challenge? Rabbi Meir provides the Jewish people with a clear and strident retort:

Of what value is your greatness compared to that glory
The greatness He will grant me when salvation arrives?

This is followed by a detailed and colorful portrayal of the messianic era -- including an apocalyptic battle between Leviathan and Behemoth -- in which the righteous are finally rewarded for their loyalty. The poem’s last line provides a segue to the Torah reading, and also summarizes the poem’s argument:

He desired and wanted us, and so gave us the Torah.

This, essentially, is Israel’s answer: If God favors his people over the angels, he has certainly not forgotten them. God gave us, and only us, the Torah; our relationship is immutable. There is no match for the Jewish people, either in Heaven or on Earth, despite claims that God abandoned the Jews and made Christians the “New Israel.” Empire and Church may threaten us, but we will prevail.

Some may find this response inadequate, even naive, in light of subsequent events -- the tragedy that befell German Jewry soon after Rabbi Meir’s death and, especially, the unfathomable horrors of the last century. But Akdamut somehow endures, resonating with worshippers a millennium later, as an incomparably beautiful hymn to God and his faithful people.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

An Inconvenient Text

Imagine discovering that someone you trust -- a colleague, mentor, close friend or relative -- has been less than honest with you. Even if it was a minor deception, you would feel hurt and angry. Imagine further that you gather up the courage to confront the person. But when pressed to explain, he offers a patronizing and somewhat sanctimonious defense: “My actions were completely justified. I had my reasons. Yes, I could have been more transparent, but why wouldn't you trust me? If you must have an explanation, here it is . . .”

The explanation is lawyerly and contrived. Still, you hold out hope that this was a lapse in judgment by someone generally trustworthy. But as you examine this individual's past behavior, a pattern emerges of deliberate omissions and half-truths.

This scenario may sound familiar to followers of an unfolding chapter in the world of Jewish books.

ArtScroll Publications is releasing an updated version of “Mikraot Gedolot” (the Pentateuch with commentaries). The new edition features vowelized and punctuated versions of the most important medieval commentaries, such as Rashi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides, making them more accessible to general readers.

In at least one instance, however, ArtScroll’s editorial reach extended beyond formatting. As Marc B. Shapiro recently revealed on the Seforim Blog, the publisher deleted comments by Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) -- without alerting its readers -- and later defended the move.

Rashbam was a grandson of Rashi. Like Rashi, Rashbam belonged to the eleventh and twelfth-century school of exegesis centered in Northern France, which was inclined toward “peshat” or simple reading of Scripture, and de-emphasized the deeper but less contextual midrashic style (“derash”). But while Rashi tends to present peshat alongside derash, Rashbam was dedicated exclusively and almost fanatically to peshat, often criticizing his grandfather for veering too far from the plain sense of the verse.

The lines missing from the ArtScroll edition are from Rashbam’s commentary to Genesis 1:4-5, on the phrase “and there was an evening, and there was a morning, one day.” The Talmud cites these words to support the halakhic view that the day begins at sundown. But Rashbam reads the peshat as follows: “There was an evening (at the conclusion of daytime) and a morning (at the end of night), one day”; that is, the day begins in the morning and lasts until the next daybreak.

It goes without saying that Rashbam did not intend to undermine Jewish practice (he was a leading Talmudist and known for his extreme piety). Still, Ibn Ezra -- a contemporary of Rashbam -- wrote a scathing critique of this exegesis, motivated largely by sectarians who actually began the Sabbath in the morning.

In a written reply to inquiries about the apparent censorship (see Seforim Blog), ArtScroll claims that what they removed was inauthentic. They offer some unconvincing technical reasons for this conclusion, but the thrust of the argument is ideological: If Ibn Ezra considered the interpretation heresy, how could Rashbam have authored it?

As Shapiro shows, no serious scholar questions the authenticity of the deleted passages. In fact, several great Jewish thinkers -- the Lubavitcher Rebbe among them -- grappled with this Rashbam without dismissing it as a forgery.

(On the subject of heresy, note that Ibn Ezra himself was roundly condemned for his non-Talmudic interpretations and accused of providing fodder for heretics; he was Spinoza’s favorite exegete.)

ArtScroll’s erasure of Rashbam’s words can only be described as ideologically motivated censorship.

For all its great accomplishments, it turns out that ArtScroll has a history of blatant censorship and subtle misrepresentation.

Several years ago, Artscroll published a translation of Ha-Moadim Ba-Halakhah, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin’s popular work on the festivals. At one point in the book, the author made an offhand remark expressing gratitude for the State of Israel. ArtScroll excised this line from the translation and, when challenged, publicized a bizarre statement claiming that Rabbi Zevin ultimately changed his opinion about the state (the evidence shows otherwise).

In its translation and commentary on Song of Songs, ArtScroll misrepresents Rashi. Rashi reads the Song allegorically, in traditional fashion. But in the introduction to his commentary, Rashi explicitly promotes a two-tiered approach to the book which first addresses the plain-sense, contextual peshat – an approach he implements in his commentary. Drawing support for their unusual translation – said to be "allegorical, based on Rashi's commentary" -- ArtScroll quotes nearly all of Rashi’s introduction, but omits the most critical section, about the peshat underlying the Song’s allegory. Reading ArtScroll’s rendition of the Song, you would never know about the peshat layer in Rashi’s commentary.

By taking such editorial liberties, ArtScroll undermines its own credibility and underestimates its readership. I am confident that most of its readers prefer to judge primary texts for themselves before they end up on the cutting room floor.

There is much more at stake here than the integrity of Rashbam's commentary. Weighing the truth against its own perception of piety, ArtScroll chose the latter. It now asks its readers to do the same. But no religious person should ever be put in that position. The dichotomy between religion and reality is a false one, and the idea that one must choose between truth and piety violates both.

None of this minimizes ArtScroll’s major contributions to the Jewish community. But it can do better. ArtScroll’s readers deserve better. We can handle the truth.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

History or Heresy

Talmud students may encounter some strange and troubling passages, especially within its aggadic sections. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Skepticism regarding Talmudic realia -- scientific, historical, and other non-legal observations recorded in the Talmud -- far predates the modern period. The reliability of Talmudic medicine, for example, was questioned by the Geonim of Babylonia as early as the tenth century.

Much of this material can only be understood in historical context. When the sages commented on nature they drew on popular beliefs or utilized the limited observational techniques of their age. The rabbis acknowledged their own scientific shortcomings; they conceded, for example, that Gentile astronomers had bested them in a debate about the sun's path at night.

Superstition in the Talmud can be especially unsettling. Again, our response must be to invoke history. It should go without saying that references to demons, witchcraft, evil spirits, the evil eye, incantations, amulets, magic, and astrology that are scattered throughout the Talmud and Midrashim derive from ancient Near Eastern or Hellenistic culture and that these phenomena have no basis in physical reality.

Ironically, the premium placed on reality by the sages is on display when they struggle to reconcile once-popular ideas -- realities of their day now considered superstitious or pseudoscientific -- with traditional Jewish values.

Tractate Shabbat records a debate on the question of astrological influence over the Jewish people. Despite the pervasiveness of astrology in the ancient world, the rabbis were uncomfortable with the moral implications of astrological determinism. But they could not dismiss astrology as nonsense; it appeared as real to pre-modern people as any other force of nature. After examining both sides of the issue, the Talmud concludes that although the nations are subject to the stars, "Israel is free of astrological influence.” This limited the impact of astrology and preserved Israel’s moral freedom.

Demons appear frequently in the Talmud. Near the end of Pesahim we find a lengthy digression on demons and witches, once thought to inhabit the margins of society (one demon was familiar enough to be known as Joseph). But the Talmud’s bottom line on the subject is explicitly subversive: Demons are out there, but they harass only those who pay them too much attention. The rabbis regarded demonology to be largely at odds with Judaism. Short of denying their existence, which would have been impossible in the Talmudic era, they made demons essentially irrelevant.

Rather than cause for embarrassment, I find such Talmudic discussions inspiring. They grapple honestly with contemporary cultural issues and demonstrate a refusal to disengage from reality.

The sages transmitted a timeless tradition, but they did not live outside of time. They did not float above history. They lived and breathed the realities of their environment -- a sign of spiritual and moral courage rather than weakness.

Despite a persistent anti-rationalist tradition, the greatest Jewish thinkers and halakhists from Maimonides to Samson Raphael Hirsch insisted that Talmudic science was a product of its time, rather than a binding part of the Oral Law.

This bears emphasis and repetition because it is currently under attack as heresy.

An increasingly vocal school of thought claims that all unqualified scientific statements of the sages were divinely inspired and must be accepted as truth. A corollary to this position is that modern science is transitory and unreliable compared to the divine wisdom of the sages. Its proponents maintain that those who say otherwise are disloyal to Jewish tradition.

This new Talmudic fundamentalism is a major departure from mainstream traditional Jewish thought. Whatever its motivation, it is an ideology that is tragically out of touch with reality. It also smacks of intellectual desperation, as if to say that observant Judaism had better hang on for dear life to the divinity of the entire Talmud -- including its realia -- or it will slide down a slippery slope to assimilation.

History is the attempt to uncover the realities of the past. Fearing that history will not only explain tradition but explain it away, tradition once viewed history as its natural enemy. But denying history is no longer an option, especially after so many scholars have successfully married history and tradition.

Despite those determined to drive a wedge between tradition and reality, there is cause for optimism. We can be certain that "truth shall spring up from the earth," even when it occasionally finds itself underfoot.