Archive for the ‘Jewish’ Category

Jewish Views on Torah

May 19, 2011

Is the purpose of Torah to study all day? Should religious leaders have real jobs?

According to Masorti (Conservative Jews) – “Torah that is not accompanied by a worldly trade will in the end amount to nothing and will lead one into sin”
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Or, according  to Rabbi Richman, the purpose of Torah is to build another Temple in Jerusalem for all to peoples to worship.

In the second century, there were two outstanding figures that argued how the Bible was written and how it should be understood. Rabbi Akiva, whose idea were generally accepted by many rabbis, including Rashi and most Midrashim, insisted that the Bible was a document in which every word, even every letter, was composed by God. Now God is all-knowing and infallible; thus the document He composed, the Torah, must not have any superfluous words or letters; God said exactly what he meant to say, no more and no less. If a biblical verse seems to repeat itself, the seeming repetition must be saying something that is not in the first phrase.

Rabbi Ishmael had an opposite view. He argued that the Bible was composed for people and must have been written in ways that people could understand. Like people talk, the Torah contains metaphors and other figures of speech that should not be taken literally; it has hyperbole; it repeats ideas for various reasons, including emphasis, just as humans do. While great sages like Rashi follow Rabbi Akiva’s methodology, People like Saadiah Gaon, Rashbam, ibn Ezra and Maimonides accepted the second approach.

Once Rashi’s approach to Torah is known, it becomes understandable why Rashi wrote what he did. He saw words in the Torah that seemed to him to be superfluous or seemed like an exaggeration, and he felt obliged to explain the verse according to its plain meaning as he understood it using Rabbi Akiva methodology.

For example, In Deuteronomy 13:5, the Torah states that the Israelites should serve God and cleave to Him. Rabbi Ishmael would see these apparently two statements as expressing a single idea, to worship God. However, Sifrei and Rashi, following their methodology, saw the Bible speaking about two acts. The first means serve God in His sanctuary or Holy Temple, and the second the obligation to behave properly in daily life.

Ibn Ezra, to cite another example, following the methodology of Rabbi Ishmael, notes that Deuteronomy 13:6 mentions that the Israelites were both “freed” and redeemed,” and states that the Torah is speaking of a single act, but the Torah uses the two verbs to strengthen its argument. Sifrei and Rashi, following the way of Rabbi Akiva, understand the verse to say, even if God only “freed” you, it would have been sufficient reason to obey Him; now that He also “redeemed” you, how much more are you obligated to obey Him.

Thus, while it is interesting and entertaining to read Rashi’s comments, readers cannot really understand why Rashi is saying what he says unless they understand what prompted him to make the interesting remark. Also, most scholars would insist that Scripture itself does not even hint what Rashi felt he had to read into the verse, and what he is saying about supposedly historical events never occurred.

The fourth problem is whether one should reveal Rashi’s worldview, an understanding of life that is far different than that of the twenty first century.

As virtually all of his contemporaries, Jew and non-Jew, Rashi saw a world filled with angels that people could turn to for assistance and demons who hovered around them to entice them.

His world was ruled by astrological forces which threatened the ancient Israelites, such as in Exodus 10:10, when Pharaoh warns Moses that if he takes the Israelites from Egypt, he will face the consequences of ra, which simply means evil consequences, but which Rashi states means the adverse impact of a particular astrological formation.
Rashi was convinced that God rewards people for the good that they do; and if they have no immediate need for the reward, it can be stored, as if placed in a bank account, and used by future generations, even if the future people do not deserve it themselves – a concept he and many other rabbis called zechut avot, ancestral merit. These notions are not explicit in the Bible but are mentioned by some rabbis in the Talmuds and the Midrashim, and Rashi incorporates them into his Bible commentary. He introduces most of these notions into his elaboration of Genesis 22 where Abraham leads his son Isaac to be sacrificed.

The Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 105b, and Rashi’s commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 28a, write that Jews blow the ram’s horn, the shofar, on the New Year Holiday of Rosh Hashanah to scare demons and upset their plans.

Rashi, like many Jews of his age, was convinced that God is corporeal, that He has a body, including hands, feet and head. Commenting upon Exodus 7:4, “I will lay My hand upon Egypt,” he emphasizes that “hand” is not a metaphor for “power,” as Maimonides (1138-1204) would later say, but “an actual hand to smite them.” In Exodus 14:31, “Israel saw the great hand, what God did to Egypt,” he tells the reader that when the Torah speaks of God’s “hand,” it is yad mamash, an “actual hand.” He expresses the same view in his commentary to the Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 21a and Yevamot 49b, where he refers to God’s arm and face. Similarly, in his comment upon Genesis 1:26, where the Bible states that man was created in God’s image, and where Maimonides (Rambam) is quick to note that this means that God gave humans intelligence, Rashi writes, “image means God’s form.” So, too, in 1:27, “And God created man in His own image,” Rashi elaborates, “This means that the form that was established for him [man] is the form of the Creator.”

While Maimonides and many rationalists dismiss the idea that angels exist, believing that the word should be understood figuratively as the natural forces of nature, or asserting that if they do exist they do so in an incorporeal form, Rashi insists that a pious person can summon a corporeal angel to serve his mundane needs, act as his messenger, deliver a message and return with a report of what he sees. Thus in Genesis 32:4, Jacob, according to Rashi, sends malachim mamash, “actual angels,” as messengers to his brother Esau in an attempt to appease him.
In Genesis 19:22, Rashi advances his belief in “fallen angels.” God punished these angels because, in a paroxysm of hauteur, they took personal credit for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:13.

Rashi’s interpretation of Genesis 19:22 is based on the view that God, like an insecure human, can become angry and offended when someone seeks recognition and praise for what He did.

In Genesis 6:4, Rashi informs his readers that angels are able to have sexual intercourse with human females, and did so.

Not only God and angels, but also even demons, according to Rashi, exist and are corporeal. They can, drown. Noah saved them from extinction in the flood in his commentary on Genesis 6:19, which was designed to eradicate evil. In the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a, Rashi describes the demon: “the feet of a demon are like a rooster’s.”
Rashi felt that animals can commit moral wrongs. Commenting on Genesis 6:20, Rashi states that Noah’s ark performed a miraculous moral selection process: it did not allow animals that had corrupted themselves with sexual perversions to enter the ark.

The Babylonian Talmud, Pessachim 112a, warns people from drinking “water from rivers during the night.” The Talmud explains that the danger is sabriri. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, reasonably explains that sabriri means that polluted water can cause medical problems. However, his grandfather states that sabriri is the name of a demon that has the power to inflict blindness, who may lash out in revenge for being disturbed and blind people drinking his water.

Yet, although Rashi follows the methodology of Rabbi Akiva and has a different worldview that he occasionally expresses, does not detract from the greatness of the man or the beauty of his commentary. Also, this information is probably of little interest to the general population of people and may even confuse them, and Eli Wiesel was wise to exclude them.

Rashi is particularistic: the Torah is for Jews. Maimonides is universalistic: the Torah has messages for all people.

Rabbi Akiba’s Messiah – The Origins of Rabbinic Authority

by Daniel Gruber

It is not easy to overestimate the significance of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Because of its long-term consequences, it may well be considered the greatest tragedy in Jewish history. The disaster was further compounded by the fact that Rabbi Akiba, the father of rabbinic Judaism, proclaimed Bar Kokhba, the leader of the rebellion, to be God’s Anointed, the Messiah. For almost nineteen hundred years, people have asked, as Franz Rosenzweig expressed it, “Why did even the wisest teacher of his age fall for the false messiah, Bar Kochba, in the time of Hadrian?” This book answers that question. Akiba’s proclamation appears to be a well-reasoned decision that was completely consistent with the whole thrust of his life – the establishment of rabbinic authority over all Israel.

JEWISH PRAYER

The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. It is derived from the root Pe-Lamed-Lamed and the word l’hitpalel, meaning to judge oneself. This surprising word origin provides insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer (LEARN and judge self  WELL). The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise of G-d, or of confession, is the introspection it provides, the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in the universe and our relationship to G-d.

The Yiddish word meaning “pray” is “daven,” which ultimately comes from the same Latin root as the English word “divine” and emphasizes the One to whom prayer is directed.

Philosophy of prayer

In Jewish philosophy and in Rabbinic literature, it is noted that the Hebrew verb for prayer—hitpallel התפלל—is in fact the reflexive form of palal פלל, to judge. Thus, “to pray” conveys the notion of “judging oneself”:[13] ultimately, the purpose of prayer—tefilah תפלה—is to transform ourselves [1] [2].

This etymology is consistent with the Jewish conception of Divine simplicity. It is not God that changes through our prayer—Man does not influence God as a defendant influences a human judge who has emotions and is subject to change—rather it is man himself who is changed [3]. It is further consistent with Maimonides‘ view on Divine Providence. Here, Tefillah is the medium which God gave to man by means of which he can change himself, and thereby establish a new relationship with God—and thus a new destiny for himself in life [4] [5]; see also under Psalms.

TORAH OF JESUS

A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament

By Rabbi Samuel Sandmel

Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005, 336 pages

Reviewed by Israel Drazin

This classic study should be read by everyone, Jew and non-Jew. It is a respectful scholarly analysis of the New Testament, first published in 1956 and republished twice, written in simple English for non-scholars. Although Rabbi Sandmel has great respect for Christians, Christianity, and the New Testament, he, like most Christian scholars, takes an historical approach to the New Testament, one that avoids theology. He focuses on what the authors of each of the twenty-seven documents believed and wanted others to believe, on how Christianity developed, and how these changes are reflected in the different approaches of each of the New Testament documents.

The letters by Paul, for example, written some three decades after the death of Jesus, are the earliest books of the New Testament. Sandmel writes that Paul had views about life and sin that are remarkably different than the views of most Jews of his time and today, such as the idea that people are born in a state of sin and need someone other than them to remove this sin and any that they subsequently commit.

Paul lived when Jews and non-Jews had many irreconcilable ideas about life and death. He rejected the theology of the Sadducees of his time. The Sadducees were a group of Jews who focused their attention on the Temple service and on the literal wording of the Bible. They believed that there is no life after death because the Bible does not mention it. In contrast, many Pharisees of his age, from whom today’s Rabbinic Judaism developed, who stressed that the “Oral Torah” must be read with the literal biblical text, asserted that the soul remains alive after the death of bodies, and bodies would later be resurrected. He rejected these views and those of some Greek philosophers, notably the Stoics, and the Jewish sage Philo, who lived during the time of Paul, that the immaterial part of a person loses its identity and is simply reabsorbed into the immaterial source out of which the person’s “soul,” or more precisely intellect, came prior to union with the body. Instead, Paul felt that a person’s spiritual entity retained the personality of the person after the person’s death. He apparently believed that the body ceased to exist and would not be resurrected. Sandmel writes that the New Testament book Acts has a totally different version of Paul’s life and teachings than Paul’s own writings.

The Gospel of Mark followed the letters of Paul and is the first attempt to offer a description of Jesus’ life. He and the writers of the other three Gospels, written long after Jesus’ life – Mark was composed around year 75 – did not quote “what Jesus himself actually said, but rather what the later church earnestly wished that he had said or piously and sincerely believed that he had.”

Sandmel states that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which follow Mark, “are implied criticisms of Mark.” They change what Mark wrote. Sandmel points out that virtually all scholars recognize that the author of Matthew took a new approach. He was trying to show that Jesus mission was foreseen by the ancient Jewish biblical prophets and that his life fulfilled these prophecies. But he apparently misunderstood the prophet Zechariah’s prediction in 9:9 that the king is coming “mounted on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass.” He understood that the future king would ride an ass and a colt, rather than these names describing a single animal. Thus, Matthew states that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass and a colt simultaneously.

Each of the four Gospels, Sandmel writes, has many differences from the other three and some internal inconsistencies. For example, Mark has two different dates for Jesus’ crucifixion, the fourteenth of the month Nisan and the fifteenth. Matthew and Luke have the fifteenth, and John the fourteenth. Luke describes Jesus having a short one-year career and dying at age thirty. John writes that he died when he was almost fifty years old. In the three synoptic Gospels, Jesus raises three people from the dead. In John, he raises only one, Lazarus, who is not mentioned in the other Gospels among the resurrected. Also “Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth is totally different from Luke’s and beyond reconciliation with it.”

Interestingly, Mathew has Jesus state that his message – read religion – should be taught without the teacher being paid for teaching. This is a sound rule that has unfortunately been violated by both Christianity and Judaism. The Christian televangelists’ accumulation of money is well-known. The Jewish rabbis, teachers, firms that oversee kosher foods, and most disturbing, the Jewish day schools, insist on large payments in violation of Jesus’ teaching, as well as the teachings of the Jewish first century sage Hillel and the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204).

Did Jesus actually exist? On the one hand, Sandmel writes, since no document during the lifetime of Jesus or shortly thereafter, Jewish and Roman, mentions him, it would seem that he never existed. On the other hand, he continues, it would seem absurd for Christianity to invent a Jew rather than a gentile as its originator, unless this is true. Also, the assertion by Jesus that a new world would appear in his disciples’ lifetime is so clearly incorrect that it must have been said by an historical figure, for if Jesus was an invention, the inventor would not have placed such an error in his mouth. Sandmel is persuaded that Jesus existed. However, he adds that since every New Testament document says something different about him, scholars – in contrast to theologians and clergy – are unable to say anything certain about him.

After examining the New Testament in a scholarly manner, Sandmel ends his book by pointing out that readers need to take a firm long step beyond the understanding of scholars about the New Testament. This is only “the beginning of understanding. A further step is to learn what one’s Christian neighbors or friends see in it.” For Christians are our fellow citizens and friends. They, like Jews, are the creations of God, people who deserve respect.

http://booksnthoughts.com/a-jewish-understanding-of-the-new-testament/

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SOUL SEARCHING

“These are the journeys of the children of Israel”
(Numbers 33:1)
Tammuz 27, 5771/July 29, 2011

Cheshbon nefesh, literally, “accounting of the soul,” or as we say in English, stocktaking or soul searching, is an essential component of the spiritual and ethical life that Torah sets out before us. In fact, it is of such a high priority that it isG-dHimself who instructs Moses to record Israel’s desert peregrinations: “Moses recorded their starting points for their journeys according to the word of HaShem, and these were their journeys with their starting points.” (ibid 33:2) It would seem from the words of our sages, thatG-dwanted Israel to possess in its hand a condensed, shorthand log of the forty-two separate journeys that made up her forty year sojourn out of Egypt and into the land of Israel.
The Torah verses recalling the forty-two journeys are read in synagogue without pausing between verses, in order to emphasize the organic unity of Israel’s wilderness experience. Implied by this unity is the understanding that every journey of spiritual growth and transformation, great or small, is in fact, an uninterrupted series of smaller journeys which together make up the whole. The deliberate listing of all forty-two journeys along the way testifies to the fact that spiritual progression in life is not necessarily, (or perhaps, necessarily not), a sequence of forward and ever rising steps along the way. On the contrary, Moses’ list of Israel’s journeys mentions even those locations along the way where Israel sorely testedG-d’spatience, as well as the encampments in which Israel’s praise and closeness toG-dwas unassailable. Stocktaking, in order to be an effective tool for spiritual growth, has to reflect also upon such painful and even shameful stations along the way.
No doubt, each of the individual forty-two spiritual journeys of Israel could themselves be perceived as comprising forty-two internal steps of their own. Just like atoms can be divided and sub-divided into smaller and smaller components, each essential to the fully realized end result, we should also understand that our own spiritual growth is an ever evolving succession of movement, sometimes forward, sometimes, backward, sometimes baby steps and sometimes great leaps and bounds. Yet each step along the way is essential. Just as one of the eleven essential components of the ketoret incense of the Holy Temple is the foul smelling Galbanum, so too, our own personal foibles are ultimately intended to serve as necessary components of our entire spiritual makeup.
On the other hand, excessive introspection itself can be a hindrance not only to our spiritual growth throughout life, but also to our day-to-day engagement in life. After all and above all, Torah teaches us to take up the challenge of each day as it comes, and to be fully engaged in a life of of action – a life of fulfilling commandments. This may be one reason whyG-dinstructed Moses to condense Israel’s entire desert experience into forty-nine succinct verses. This shortened version of our emergence from enslavement to a life exalted by the presence ofG-d, and all the personal and national responsibility required therein, can be easily referenced throughout our busy days. Perhaps it is something that should be written down and kept in our breast pocket, or on the wall near the entrance to our home. The verses certainly could be recited as a prayer or meditation, the effect of which would be not merely to reflect upon what was, but to encourage constant spiritual growth.
In this week’s Torah reading of Masei, we conclude simultaneously, the book of Numbers and Israel’s stay in the desert. The fifth and final book of Torah, Deuteronomy, will continue with Masei’s theme of refection and stocktaking, as well as encouragement and preparation for the next stage in Israel’s journey – entering the land of Israel. It is important to note that every verse of our travelogue employs an identical phrasing: “They journeyed from… and the camped in.” Each movement worthy of the name journey begins with a starting point and concludes with an end point. We often say that it’s the journey itself that counts, and there is truth in this, but only partially. Going from nowhere to nowhere, however distant or close that may be, does not, a journey make. At least not in the eyes of Torah and certainly not for the purpose of soul searching. We’re not just posting digital photographs on our travel blog to share with our friends back home. Only when we can positively identify both our starting points and our end points can we understand and appreciate the spiritual progress we have made.
Today, after many, (seemingly endless), sojourns in exile, Israel, after 2000 years has returned to her land and to her capital Jerusalem. This monumental leap from exile to redemption was preceded by and followed by many incremental steps along the way, each as important and essential as the next. Today, especially today, in the midst of the three weeks of introspection and stocktaking which mark the anniversary of the destruction of both the first and second Holy Temple, we need to absorb the lesson of Israel’s forty-two desert journeys. Rather than passively await the trumpet blasts that will awaken us to our next great journey, that of rebuilding the Holy Temple and renewing the Divine service, we need to understand that to get from here to there we need to always be moving forward. Many small journeys, baby steps, if you will, are what will complete the journey. The wilderness separating servitude from freedom, exile from redemption wasn’t crossed in a single stride. To borrow a phrase from our ancient nemesis, the Holy Temple will not be built in a day. But today we must begin, so that tomorrow we can complete the journey.
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