Profile of an Extraordinary Scholar

A brief biography of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein by Elli Fischer in MOSAIC

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Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, this year’s recipients of the Israel Prize,

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Consider the Cat

Image“Among my people it is believed – and rightly so – that it is only mindless superstitions and pointless rituals that separate us from the animals.” – Latka Gravas

Rabbi Yochanan said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [aversion to] theft from the ant, chastity from the dove, and [conjugal] manners from fowl. (Bavli Eruvin, 100b)

First of all, I want to thank everyone who came to our amazing class last Wednesday.  You peppered me relentlessly from start to finish and didn’t let up.  It was one of the most stimulating mornings I’ve had. 

Now, just to clarify things, I was not presenting the Sefer Hahinukh as the definitive answer to why we observe what we observe  the way we observe. I was presenting him as an author in search of a reason to continue to observe to give the people in his generation (and of generations after) hope in a time when they may be tempted to abandon their faith for a more ‘successful’ one.  Throughout history, we have seen works like this, especially when Jews were feeling oppression.  Most recently, when other beliefs and philosophies and ‘movements’ seemed to dominate the horizon, – such as meditation, psychology, vegetarianism, new-age-ism, Zionism – Jewish authors were quick with their apologetics or fusion-literature to show how these ‘non-Jewish’ ideas fit neatly into mainstream Jewish belief.   The author of the Sefer Hahinukh (which  means the book of education), is just one in a long line of authors starting with Philo & Josephus and leading up to our time.  He is, in many ways, a good example of how Torah shebe’al peh evolved.

Of course, we may end up at the point made famous by Latka Gravis, a character from a foreign (unidentified) country, created by Andy Kaufman for the TV show Taxi.  When questioned about his country’s really bizarre wedding rituals which seemed to be filled with meaningless,  superstitious practices he said: “Among my people it is believed – and rightly so – that it is only mindless superstitions and pointless rituals that separate us from the animals.”  Sometimes it seems as if Judaism is such a religion.  I’d like to believe that the system is more rational, but It really is hard to justify certain practices and beliefs (eg, yayin nesech, shatnes, grafting, kashrut).  But maybe if we step back from the minutiae of ritual we can discover something else – a meta-message underlying it all. 

In some way, it’s similar to Talmud study, where the conclusion is not as important as the process of getting there. 

As I was driving home after our class on Wednesday, I realized that we were all saying the same thing about Rabbi Yohanan’s observation in the Talmud (see above).  Nature is amoral.  What we see in nature is more a reflection of ourselves than what it really is.  Romans saw the eagle as a symbol of power and dominance.  We praise the eagle for its protectiveness.   God is a ‘man of war’ when Moses and the people sing of Him at the Red Sea, but He is also ‘kind and merciful’ when Moses prays to Him after the golden calf.  

Mitzvot are the same.  The reason for observance is not inherent in the mitzvah.  Observance, itself, is the rationale for observance.  (Think how many of us eat better in general because kashrut demands careful inspection of a product’s ingredients).

There is such a thing a ‘naval b’reshut haTorah’, that is, behaving in a disgusting manner within the limits of the Torah.   But such practice is frowned upon as being out of step with what the Torah demands of us.  Ultimately, the values we imprint upon our religious beliefs and how they come through in our practice and observance define the meaning of what we do and how we express our ourselves as Jewish.  

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“Elu v’elu’ are the words of the living God

(I had intended to write an entirely different essay on my interpretation of the sugyah in Sanhedrin dealing with the stubborn and rebellious son. But as I was scrambling to finish this article before Shavuot, I suddenly came up with what follows.  I will reserve the first idea for next post.)

tikun

For those of you who don’t read Hebrew, the headline reads: Shavuot Night Learning The captions are (right to left, top to bottom):
1. What my wife thinks I do
2. What my son thinks I do
3. What a traditional Jew thinks I do
4. What a secular Jew thinks I do
5. What I think I do
6. What I really do

Shavuot is a few hours away, and this year I am taking the holiday off, which means rather than teaching all night I am free to wander the city and enjoy what other people are teaching.  I last did this 2 years ago, which gave me the opportunity to attend a lecture by the late Professor David Hartman. I don’t remember the title, but I do remember him discussing ‘אלו ואלו’ (‘elu v’elu’) from tractate Eduyot – the bat kol  or divine voice declaring ‘These and these are the words of the living God’ – that is, the opinions of both the schools of Hillel & Shammai are right, even though they disagree with each other.

Ever since I began teaching, I’ve been entertained by the idea that two opposite opinions can not only co-exist, but that each is inherently true. I even ran across a commentary quoting Rav Ovadiah Yosef that Moshe received the commandments from Sinai with 49 reasons to do it one way and 49 reasons to do it the opposite way. It’s up to subsequent generations to choose which is right.   (49, of course, is the number of days between Passover & Shavuot, but that’s a discussion for another time)

This helps me understand the significance of what the bat kol meant.  It wasn’t only talking about Hillel and Shammai. It’s telling us that ‘elu v’elu’, themselves, are the actual words of the living God.  It’s not merely that all approaches lead to living Torah, but Torah can only be kept alive through confronting and ultimately embracing the opposite opinion.  This is the heart of Torah shebe’al peh, the process through which it lives, catalyzed at the very point of contention.

Tonight I will drop into a local pluralistic beit midrash to learn with them.  I then plan to attend a traditional shiur at the local Orthodox synagogue.   Around Jerusalem, and in other cities, people will be participating in tikunim in synagogues and yeshivot, on street corners and in museums, in private homes and open spaces.  Some will approach learning from a feminist perspective, some will see it from al male oriented point of view.   Some will be reading Amichai or looking for Jewish values in artwork and song.  It will be an all-night celebration of ‘elu v’elu’ where everyone participating will be keeping Torah alive through the dynamics of engagement and discussion, of exchanging ideas even if we don’t share the same opinions.

May we all be able to keep the ‘elu v’elu’ going long after the tikun is over.

Chag same’ach.

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In Tribute to Dr. C. Everett Koop (Oct.14, 1916 – Feb. 25, 2013)

Dr. C. Everett  Koop

Dr. C. Everett Koop

I remember this story from my days as a rabbi in Philadelphia when Dr. Koop was chief of surgery at Children’s Hospital.  This story introduced me to the man who was to later become the Surgeon General. He impressed me so much with his sensitivity and professionalism.  All the eulogies I have read today reinforce that feeling, and there is much more information on Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._Everett_Koop). 

What follows, however, is what I will remember.    

(Click on the headline below to read the story which originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer)


Siamese Twins
The Surgery: An Agonizing Choice – Parents, Doctors, Rabbis In Dilemma

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Halakhic Innovation

I know this is a bit off-topic, but this article from today’s Haaretz is relevant to the general theme of my series on the evolution of the oral law.

It raises a question we raised since our first class in September:  what is the next stage in the evolution of Oral law?

You can find the article here at http://tinyurl.com/d27s9nh (If you want to receive the file in the mail, write me at sslivko@gmail.com)

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Going…going…where? Goodbye to Prophecy

We know that between the last of the prophets and the beginning of the Mishnah, Judaism underwent a major change.  Avot describes this period in just a sentence or two.  The Rambam takes several paragraphs to explain it.  But nobody really understands what happened or how it happened or who, in fact was responsible for it happening.  All we know is, by the time of the Mishnah, we had a Judaism that was decidedly different than the Judaism of the prophets.

It was text-based Judaism, a religion of ritual and practice, distinguished by its reliance on interpretation of text and dependence on precedent.  This doesn’t mean that there were no innovations, but greater care was taken to attribute them to a text or individual who was prominent in the ‘chain of tradition.”.

This was a Judaism of Torah, and the early stages of the ‘Canonization of Process” of Torah She’be’al Peh.

Without getting into too much of the minutia, this transition seems to have been engineered (perhaps not deliberately, but certainly in fact) by the council of 120 leaders created to oversee the return to Judea & rebuilding of the Jewish community worldwide – The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah – The men of the Great Assembly.

A number of scholars have tried to pinpoint who these 120 people were and when they operated.  They could have been in power for  one session or a generation, or several.  From the Mishnah we learn  they existed between the era pf the prophets and the sages.  This, however, does not really explains what they did.  The sages of the Mishnah attributed a number of innovations to the group:  prayer structure, canonization of the Torah She’bikhtav (including fixing the definitive number of letters, verses, etc)  plus laws designed to establish a second commonwealth and create ties between Judea & the Diaspora.What’s most strange to me is not only the sages’ acceptance of the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah as undisputed fact (despite there being no objective evidence) but their silence on its fate — how it went from 120 to 1 – Shimon Hatzadik – in the age of Alexander the Great.Connected to this mystery is a question asked by a colleague of mine here.  What about the Kohanim (priests)?  Aren’t they supposed to be the heirs to Moshe’s Torah according to the passage in Devarim (Deuteronomy)?

ח “כי יפלא ממך דבר למשפט בין דם לדם בין דין לדין ובין נגע לנגע דברי ריבת בשעריך וקמת ועלית אל המקום אשר יבחר יהוה אלהיך בו טובאת אל הכהנים הלוים ואל השפט אשר יהיה בימים ההם ודרשת והגידו לך את דבר המשפט י ועשית על פי הדבר אשר יגידו לך מן המקום ההוא אשר יבחר ה’ ושמרת לעשות ככל אשר יורוך”

8” If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, even matters of controversy within thy gates; then shalt thou arise, and get thee up unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose.  9 And thou shall come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days; and thou shalt inquire; and they shall declare unto thee the sentence of judgment. 10 And thou shalt do according to the tenor of the sentence, which they shall declare unto thee from that place which the LORD shall choose; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they shall teach thee.”

There could be a number of possibilities as to the fate of that council:

  • The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah was a one-time assembly convened in the time of Ezra and saying Shimon Hatzadik was a member of the last generation is only legend
  • The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah never existed
  • The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah did exist for the duration from Ezra to the time of Alexander the Great but their work was outside of the public eye since their focus was on religious law and takkanot
  • The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah did exist at some time between the age of  Ezra & the time of Alexander the Great
  • There were takkanot which the sages  attributed to the  Anshei Knesset Hagedolah  even though they did not exist
  • The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah was a council based on the temple mount
  • The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah actually were Kohanim, or included Kohanim.     Shimon Hatzadik may be the last scholar/kohen who personified the ideal of the council.

Most importantly, we have to remember that the Talmud is not a history book.  Generations are shortened or skipped altogether; names are not always listed or sometimes combined or confused.  Without concrete evidence, we can only rely on Talmudic-era anecdotes, what amounts to The Talmudic equivalent of an urban legend.   One thing we can accept as real – from about the time of the end of the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, a part of Judaism moved away from the prophetic and took a rabbinic/ Pharisaic turn, which became the main stream.

The sages of the Talmud latch onto the reputation of this Anshei Knesset Hagedolah and successive generations of rabbis to reinforce their connection to the early generations of prophets.  In the process, they elevated the importance of Torah scholarship as the foundation for their leadership and downplayed the value of their prophetic connection to God, which they claimed connected them to their spiritual ancestors.   Eventually, this minor ability was ‘replaced” by the ‘bat kol’ – a special pronouncement from God which certain sages could hear as a soft, dove-like voice thanks to their super-sensory perception.  Over time, reverence for prophecy & bat-kol would be considered irrelevant, even disregarded, replaced by regard for the Torah of man.

Next: The Canonization of Process

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Takkanot – The Torah adapts to new realities

The Mishnah marks the culmination of the transition from Prophetic Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism.  The period before that – from the time of Ezra to the establishment of the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (Men of the Great Assembly) – is the tipping point which takes us there.  The sages themselves believed that the age of prophecy had run its course with the end of the Babylonian exile, and that prophecy was not longer the means of Divine revelation or discourse.  More importantly, they saw in themselves the direct spiritual descendants of that chain of ‘kabbalah’ linking them to God’s revelation at Sinai.

Moshe Received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Yehoshua (Avot 1:1)

In the books of Nevi’im (Prophets) , we see how the navi (prophet) acted at times as a domestic adviser gifted with the power of divine knowledge (Shmuel helping Shaul – Saul – find his father’s donkeys) and at times as a religious leader (Shmuel, again, quoting the book of Devarim  – Deuteronomy –   on the rules governing a king) .  To the sages, these dual roles were suited to the navi as a personality spiritually attuned to God and a scholar, conversant with Torah – the laws – and capable of adapting it to his (or her) time through Takkanot – adjustments.

Moshe received the Law from Sinai” is much more to the point than the elaboration in Avot d’Rabbi Natan.  Simply stated:  Moshe was there to get the law.  He received it (from God) and proceeded to teach it to his students, beginning the chain of transmission from God to the generation of the Mishnah.

Once we accept this ‘evolution’ this as historic fact, we can then begin to understand what the Mishnah is and the tradition it reflects.  The tradition is the conclusion of generations of accumulated takkanot which appear in the Mishnah as binding laws from early on (Torah she’be’eal peh) but which had no mention in the Torah she’bikhtav.    Some were given to Moshe which he transmitted to Yehoshua.  Some were innovations Yehoshua himself added.  Others came from later prophets and leaders.  All were part of the oral tradition ‘halakhah le’Moshe mi’Sinai ‘– laws given to Moshe from Sinai – that is, inferred from the written law by rules passed down from Moshe to his disciples.   This is what the Rambam – Maimonides refers to when he writes the history of transmission of Torah from generation to generation.  (See attachment)

It’s the ‘hardware’ (the text) & the ‘programs’ (mitzvoth) and the ‘software’ (how to program the Torah to adapt it to successive generations)  that goes from Sinai in a direct line to the time of the Mishnah, and ultimately our time.

The sages said the first generation of takkanot came when the Jews invaded and settled Canaan.  Some takkanot they attribute to Yehoshua deal with civil and social law, adapting the Torah written in outline form for a Bedouin society to a  new ‘urban’ reality.   These are logical inferences.  Other “Yehoshu-ic” traditions of a religious nature, or religious traditions attributed to other figures in Nevi’im, are harder to prove, though some are explict, like Ezra’s takkanah to read Torah during the week.    Additional post-biblical adaptations are attributed to the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah, whose role was to create a post-prophetic Judaism which would unify Judaism for the Judean and Diaspora communities.

Legends and stories from the midrash and other sources back the sages’ interpretation of history.  They  also show that the sages had an almost scientific understanding of Torah she’be’eal peh’s evolution.   The Torah she’bikhtav is the starting point for us as a nation and it is also the starting point of other traditions and beliefs.    It was (and is!)  Torah she’be’eal peh which distinguished us from the others  because it preserves the spiritual essence of what was written and goes  beyond it, creating a common culture and way of life that brings us  together no matter how far apart we are.

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