Monday, August 31, 2009

Rav Elchanan Wasserman On Learning "Outside Knowledge" Part I (The Job)

In Koveitz Shiurim siman 47, Rav Elchanan relates a question that was asked to him from a "Known Country." This was most likely Germany since it was mainly German Jews that went to college and dealt with "Outside Knowledge." He says,

Question: "Is it permitted to learn (or delve into) Outside Knowledge, and in which way can this heter (permission) be used?

Answer: This question is divided into many parts.

1) If this delving or learning leads one to read books that are kefira (minus) then this learning is forbidden. This is because someone who learns from books that are kefira (denial of Jewish beliefs) transgresses the sin of "Do not turn your heart after others and do not turn to other gods." This is brought down in the Rambam in perek 2 in hilchos avoda zara referring to books of idol worship. (Rav Wasserman thinks) that there is a kal vichomer for books of kefira that we have to be even stricter on them than idol worship because by idol worship there is a bais din (court of law) decision, one needs warning, and if someone runs after idol worship to serve it we are not allowed to save him through his soul (kill him to prevent him from worshipping idols). However, by kefira, bais din (court of law) is not needed for action. (Therefore, Rav Wasserman concludes that books of kefira are worse than books of idol worship.)

2) If one does not need to read books of kefira, but needs to learn in University with non-Jews and a man sees that this causes his children to become close with non-Jews and follow their ways, this is a transgression of the negative commandment of "Guard yourself so that you should not follow after them." The Torah commands us to remain separate in all types of ways. The Rambam says in perek 11 in hilchos avoda zara that the reason our forefathers were able to leave Egypt was because they did not change their names, language or clothing.

3)So now, if this learning does not lead one to learn kefira or to become close to non-Jews and the reason this person is learning this "Outside knowledge" is to get a job and support his family through this then there is no Issur (it is not forbidden) at all!!! In fact, to learn a trade to support one's family is a Mitzva (commandment)!!!

Hopefully I will discuss Rav Wasserman's feelings on learning secular knowledge for the sake of secular knowledge, but right now I just want to focus on his ideas about learning secular knowledge in order to get a job.

Rav Wasserman says that there are two foreseeable problems with going to University, learning kefira (like bible studies) and assimilation. It is funny that this is true just as much today as it was in the 20's and 30's. Just like there was rampant assimilation occurring in Germany between WWI and WWII so too nowadays there is a high rate of assimilation. This is why it is so important that Jewish schools exist throughout a person's education. We need day schools, high schools and even colleges where not only are secular subjects taught for us to be able to get jobs and live in society, but also a Judaica curriculum as well.

In an Era of assimilation Jews have to be exposed as much as possible to Jewish life and lifestyle. This is why I think places like Touro and YU are so important, because they offer secular subjects, that help prepare for getting a job, as well as Judaica subjects. Now, that is not to say that these places are perfect, but at least they are a step in the right direction. (Personally I think some places are better than others. YU might teach some classes in an inappropriate way, but the general idea of being in a college where there are many Roshei Yeshiva and religious Jews is amazing.) It boggles my mind that some people would send their Yeshiva bochers to secular college, whether it be state or otherwise, when we have these great institutions available.

I would call Rav Wasserman one of the top Charaidis that lived in the modern world and even he says it is a MITZVA to learn a trade and get a job! What does that tell you? It tells me that anyone that lives in a community where working for a living makes your son not get into a Yeshiva, or ruins shidduchim should think twice about what type of Judaism they practice.(Sorry that was just a little rant)

So, just to sum up Rav Wasserman's main points: 1) Learning kefira is never acceptable (except for something that will be mentioned in another post) and 2) Assimilation is a big concern for Jews. Therefore, a person should be very careful about where they send their kids to college and think, "What type of situation am I putting my son or daughter into?" If you can not be sure about their spiritual safety then you probably should not send your kid to that school.

This brings me to another point, professional schools. Now that we have talked about grade school, high school and college, what about professional school? There is no way for a Jew to go to a professional school that is only Jewish or has a lot of Jewish influence is there? This is where I think a community within the school is important. It is important to go to a Medical School, Dental School, Optometry school and so on with a solid group of Frum yiddin. It is not as important as undergraduate school, but it is certainly helpful. If one can't do this then it should still be fine, but it does seem much harder.

The bottom line is that we as Jews need to keep our identities as Jews. Our culture and religion is important and something that we should try and conserve. This is what Rav Elchanan Wasserman is telling us, kefira books can influence a young and impressionable mind in the wrong way and so can peers that do not share the same values. Non-Jews are not bad or wicked, but they have completely different values than Jews. The culture is different. That is not to say that one should not be nice and friendly with them according to Rav Wasserman, but a Jew must keep his or her separate identity and not assimilate into the crowd.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ki Teitzei- Always Make the Right Decision

In this week's parsha the Midrash Tanchuma teaches us a very important lesson.

כי תצא למלחמה. שנו רבותינו, מצוה גוררת מצוה, ועבירה גוררת עבירה. וראית בשביה וגו', וגלחה את ראשה ועשתה את צפרניה, כדי שלא תמצא חן בעיניך. מה כתיב בתריה, כי תהיין לאיש שתי נשים וגו'. שתים בבית, מריבה בבית. ולא עוד, אחת אהובה ואחת שנואה, או שתיהן שנואות. מה כתיב אחריו, כי יהיה לאיש בן סורר ומורה. כל מאן דנסיב יפת תאר, נפיק מנייהו בן סורר ומורה. שכן כתב בדוד, על שחמד מעכה בת תלמי מלך גשור בצאתו למלחמה, יצא ממנו אבשלום שבקש להרגו, ושכב עם עשר פלגשיו לעיני כל ישראל ולעיני השמש, ועל ידו נהרגו מישראל כמה רבבות, ועשה מחלוקת בישראל, ונהרג שמעי בן גרא ושבע בן בכרי ואחיתופל, ולמפיבשת (ולאיש בשת) הרג, והשליט ציבא על כל בית שאול. ותניא, רבי יוסי אומר, וכי מפני שאכל בן סורר ומורה חצי ליטרא בשר ושתה חצי לוג יין חי אמרה תורה יצא לבית דין ויסקל. אלא הגיעה תורה לסוף דעתו של בן סורר ומורה, שסופו לגמר נכסי אביו עם הסריקין שאכל ושתה עמהן, ומבקש למודו ואינו מוצא, ויצא לפרשת דרכים והורג ומלסטם את הבריות, ואמרה תורה, ימות זכאי ואל ימות חייב, שמיתתן של רשעים, הנאה להם והנאה לעולם. בן סורר ומורה, כתיב אחריו, [ו] כי יהיה באיש חטא משפט מות והומת. אם ניצל מזו, לא ניצל מזו. למדנו, שעבירה גוררת עבירה. ומצוה גוררת מצוה, מנין. דכתיב, כי יקרא קן צפור לפניך, שלח תשלח וגו' למען ייטב לך והארכת ימים. אחריו מה כתיב, כי תבנה בית חדש, תזכה לבנות בית חדש ולעשות מעקה. מה כתיב אחריו, לא תזרע כרמך כלאים, תזכה לכרם ולזרוע שדה. מה כתיב אחריו, לא תחרוש בשור ובחמור, תזכה לשורים וחמורים. מה כתיב אחריו, לא תלבש שעטנז, תזכה לבגדים נאים מן צמר ולבגדים נאים מפשתים. מה כתיב אחריו, גדלים תעשה לך, תזכה למצות ציצית. מה כתיב אחריו, כי יקח איש אשה, תזכה לאשה ולבנים. הרי למדנו, שמצוה גוררת מצוה, ועבירה גוררת עבירה. לפיכך נסמכו פרשיות אלו זו לזו:

I am not going to translate the whole Midrash Tanchuma. However, I do want to draw some very important ideas from it.

The Midrash tells us that one who does a mitzva, performs the correct actions and makes the right decisions, will continue to make the right decisions and perform the correct actions. However, someone who sins or performs incorrect actions will be led further astray by making even more bad decisions. The illustrations that the Torah gives are that when one chooses to take a Yifas To'ar they will end up having two wives, one that the man loves and one he hates, or he will hate both. Then he will end up having a wicked son. The progression tells of the idea that bad decisions and choices lead to more problems. On the other hand the Torah points out that if you make the right choices like sending away the mother bird then many good things will happen to you.

I think this idea is very important to how we view life. Life is not a bunch of mini events that are unrelated, but rather an interconnected span. What we do today has consequences for the future. If we choose to lie today then tomorrow we will have to tell another lie. If we choose to sin today, then tomorrow we will commit even more sins. On the flip side, if we choose to tell the truth today, then we are free to tell the truth tomorrow and if we follow the commandments, then tomorrow we will continue to follow the commandments.

Another thing to point out here is that the Midrash Tanchuma is saying that taking a Yifas To'ar, a beautiful hostage, is not considered a good thing to do. The Midrash tells us that this will lead to a man having terrible experiences in his life. What does this teach us about this commandment?

I think that the Midrash is telling us the following. That even though G-D is commanding us in this regard, it is still not a good situation. G-D recognized the need for men, that have been at war for a while, to take a Yifas To'ar. However, it is clearly a very questionable act. This is why there are so many restrictions that are combined with the Yifas To'ar experience, to help prevent a man from ever entering into this union. This shows us that G-D's approach is that one should deal with a problem head on and not ignore it. G-D could have left Yifas To'ar out of the Torah and ignored a man's desire and need in this situation, but He was smart and confronted the problem head on and gained control of the situation. I think that the reason G-D did this in this situation was because He gave us the commandment of going to war. Therefore, G-D felt He should also deal with this need that would arise during war.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How Traditional Judaism Works

It has come to my attention that some people do not actually understand the definition of traditional Judaism. I was having a conversation with someone about what defines traditional Judaism. He was telling me about consensus, a historical consensus. However, when pressed to describe this historical consensus he would not or could not define it or describe anything about it. That means his definition of traditional Judaism being a historical consensus is a meaningless definition since it does not describe anything, at least not for him. This created a desire for me to define what traditional Judaism entails.

On a side note, this is why I think the whole Rabbi Slifkin ban was instituted and why people are so afraid to accept the possibility that Rashi was a corporealist, because there is a lack of understanding of what traditional Judaism entails. Obviously, Judaism in the time of Dovid Hamelech was practiced differently than it is now, but that is ok because times have changed along with halachic decisions. Anyone who says that traditional Judaism has always been the same clearly knows nothing about the subject.

However, there is a big difference in the halachic changes that have been made throughout the generations in traditional Judaism and the breakoffs from traditional Judaism. There are always some basic principles that are kept within traditional Judaism that separates it from other branches of Judaism. The main difference for earlier sectarian sects was the text of the written Torah. The Samaritans and others did not even accept the text of the written Torah. They changed it to follow their beliefs, in our (Judaism's) opinion.

The next breakoffs, the Tzadukim and Karaites, did not believe in an oral tradition. This is where the Pharisees differed from them. Traditional Judaism follows in the steps of the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed that along with the written Torah there was an Oral tradition that explained the words of the Torah. This is where the Mishna, Gemorah and Midrash come from.

This is what traditional Judaism has today, an oral tradition (The Gemara). However, what is this oral tradition manifested as today? Well, we do not seem to paskin directly from the Gemara anymore. This is because there have been many great generations between us and the Gemara as well as many cultural and technological advances. Rabbis still use the Gemara in some ways, but almost every Posek uses Rishonim to back up their decisions. The way to derive halacha in this day and age seems to be by learning the Rishonim, the Rabbis of the middle ages, that comment on the Gemara as well as Achronim, Rabbis that comment on the Gemara and the Rishonim. This is what Rav Moshe Feinstein does in his Iggroes Moshe and this is what most great Rabbis have done for the past several years. Still, this is not the only defining factor, sometimes the idea of tradition (minhagim) comes into play. This is why Ashkenzic Jews do not eat kitniyos (things that look like wheat) on Pesach, even though there is no real halachic basis for this from the Gemara or most Rishonim. There is even a dispute when this Takana (Rabbbinical mandate) was instituted. However, no one is allowed to disagree with the Gemara, not even the Rishonim.

This leads us to the fact that traditional Judaism is a combination of the thoughts of the Rishonim and the traditions (Minhagim) that we have received from our forefathers. This is why Sefardim have their Minhagim that are very different than Ashkenazim. Also, this is why German Jews wait 3 hours between eating meat and milk, people from the Netherlands wait 1 hour and most other Jews wait 5-6 hours. These differences do not alienate these Jews from one another, but allow them all to fit nicely into traditional Judaism.

So, it seems to be that traditional Judaism is a combination of traditions passed on from father to son and Rabbi to student combined with strict halacha that is learned from the Gemara and Rishonim. Yes, the Gemara contained strict halacha, but it also combined that halacha with traditional teachings of its time. So really, the Gemara itself was similar to the Rishonim and current Rabbis in the sense that it created a tradition for its time. This is also why, in the time of Dovid Hamelech, they did not keep halacha in the same way we do now, there were different traditions (minhagim) that existed and a different interpretation of certain laws. There was no such thing as waiting between milk and meat, this tradition was not yet established. However, every generation has to take into account the traditions of the previous generation and maybe add or detract in some ways based on the needs of the community.However, why must we use the previous generations rulings to guide us? Why can't we just look at the Gemara and make our own decisions?

It is possible that a Midrash Tanchuma (Chapter 44:2) can answer this question. The Midrash tells us that when G-D was offering the Torah to the Jewish people He asked them who would be their guarantor that they would keep the Torah. They said Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. G-D said that was not good, because they needed a guarantor themselves. This caused the Jewish people to respond that their children would be their guarantors. Immediately, G-D accepted this idea. From then on, the children of the Jewish people were forever indebted to keep the Torah of their forefathers or suffer the consequences.

This Midrash points out a very important idea, fathers can make commitments that are binding on their sons. This is why traditional Judaism is not just about strict halacha that is learned out from the Torah or even just the Gemara. Every generation can make binding agreements on the subsequent generations. All of the traditions (minhagim) are based on this idea. However, this is why every community has its own traditions and everyone follows their own Rabbi, because these traditions are no longer uniformed throughout the Jewish people, as they were in the times of the Sanhedrin. True, there are some traditions that were accepted by every community, but there are many differences that occurred, because of the diverse situations of every different Jew. The Sefardim created their own traditions while in Spain and that is why many of their halachas are different than the halchas made in Germany and Poland by the  Ashkenazim. Also, the Taymanim (Yemenites) completely follow Rambam, because that is who their tradition is from. It is untenable to claim that there is a uniformed tradition with one set of rules.

With this in mind I think we can explain a couple of things. One is the idea of corporealism and the second is why people who reject the diversity of Judaism and the traditions in Judaism are fools. Firstly, in the time of Rashi there were clearly several Rishonim that held of corporealism. What this actually entails, I will not go into, but the Raavad CLEARLY says (Mishna Torah Hilchos Teshuva 3:7),
 והאומר שיש שם רבון אחד אלא שהוא גוף ובעל תמונה. א"א ולמה קרא לזה מין וכמה גדולים וטובים ממנו הלכו בזו המחשבה לפי מה שראו במקראות ויותר ממה שראו בדברי האגדות המשבשות את הדעות:
(The Rambam states) that whoever says that there is One G-D, but he has a [physical] body and an image [is considered a heretic.] The Raavad says, why is this person called a heretic? There are many great and good people among us that go in this way of thinking because of what they saw in scripture and even more so from what they saw in the words of Aggadita (stories of the Rabbis) that confused the mind.
The Raavad seems to not believe in corporealism, but it is obvious that many of his knowledgeable contemporaries did and he considered them part of Orthodox (Traditional) Judaism. This leads us to believe that at this point in time, aka the Raavad's time, corporealism was an idea that was accepted in traditional Judaism. True, there were disagreements on this issue, but that is the same disagreement as Rav Moshe Feinstein saying a Jew can drink chalov stam (regular milk) and another great Rabbi disagreeing with him, according to the Raavad. According to the Rambam, however, these people were 'beyond the pale" of Orthodox Judaism. Nevertheless, just because there is a disagreement does not mean that one is representing the traditional view of Judaism and the other is not. The fact is that this was an idea that was not yet set in stone in traditional Judaism and either view was ACCEPTABLE. This leads me to believe that since Rashi is unclear on the subject, it is very possible that he believed in corporealism. It is also very possible that he did not. Either way, he would still be within the traditional Judaism of his time period.

The second point of the people who reject the fact that there were several opinions and that there are still several opinions within Judaism needs to be explained. There are people that believe there is only one way to follow traditional Judaism. This is a huge mistake because it denies the fact that there is no communal body that decides on what the tradition should be. The truth is that there are many ways to follow traditional Judaism. There are many different theological, philosophical and general ideas that are within the parameters of traditional Judaism. This does not mean that all or even most paths are correct, but there is definitely more than one. For one person to think their Rabbi is the only way, that is narrow minded and foolish. My last example using the great Rav Moshe Feinstein will be this. How could one person say that following Rav Moshe Feinstein is the only way to be part of traditional Judaism while Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach's halachic capabilities are just as great? Or how could one invalidate Rav Ovadia Yosef?

Hopefully, one day, all Jews will be able to accept each other and not feel threatened by another group's way of life. We are all traditional Jews that want to serve G-D, now we have to work on our man-man friendship skills, as childish as that sounds. Once that works out and we can stop the ridiculousness and Chilul Hashems (desecrations of G-D's name) hopefully the Moshiach will come.

As a final point, I would like to add that there are several things that push a group outside of Orthodox (Traditional) Judaism. A group that ignores all previous halachas, Minhagim (Customs) and logical arguments can not be said to be part of Traditional Judaism, rather they would be reformers in line with a non-Orthodox or "Reform" type of Judaism. This is exactly what Reform Judaism is, something that decided previous transmission of the Oral Law is worthless and antiquated. 

(Extra source for people who held of G-D's corporealism:
R' Moshe ben Hasdai Taku -- Ktav Tamim ed. Joseph Dan, pp. 7-27

R' Shlomo Simcha miTroyes -- Sefer Hamaskil

R' Joseph Ashkenazi -- "text published in Scholem, 'New Information'" (no I haven't read it)

Shadal -- Peninei Shadal, 316  )

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Rambam-How to Use Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Breishis- Perek 4 Halacha 12

The Rambam discusses what benefit can be derived from learning Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Breishis. He says,

בזמן שאדם מתבונן בדברים אלו, ומכיר כל הברואים ממלאך וגלגל ואדם וכיוצא בו, ויראה חכמתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא בכל היצורים וכל הברואים--מוסיף אהבה למקום, ותצמא נפשו ויכמה בשרו לאהוב המקום ברוך הוא; ויירא ויפחד משפלותו ודלותו וקלותו, כשיערוך עצמו לאחד מהגופות הקדושים הגדולים, וכל שכן לאחד מהצורות הטהורות הנפרדות מן הגלמים, שלא נתחברו בגולם כלל. וימצא עצמו, שהוא ככלי מלא בושה וכלימה, ריק וחסר.

"When a man contemplates these things (Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Breishis) and recognizes all of the creations, like the angels, spheres, man, etc, he sees the wisdom of G-D with all of His formations and creations. This creates a love that causes a man's soul to thirst and his flesh to yearn to love G-D. This man will then be afraid because of his lowliness, lacking and unimportance. When he compares himself to one of great holy bodies, and even more so the spiritual entities that have no physicality, he will see himself as a vessel that is full of embarrassment, shame, emptiness and lacking."

The Rambam is trying to give us a practical use for the knowledge of abstract ideas. One might ask, "Why should I learn cosmology?" The Rambam would respond by pointing out that through a knowledge of the abstract and complicated ideas that are found in cosmology one can learn to have a great level of Yiras Shemayim (Fear of heaven). In truth, the Rambam is telling us that all of science can help us have a better appreciation for G-D. When we see the greatness of all of His creations then we realize just how insignificant we are in this world.

This idea fits very well with the Rambam's theology. He holds that man was not the main reason for all of creation. True, man was an important part of creation, but to say that man was the pinnacle would be a mistake. Everything that was created had its place and is needed. This is why we should respect everything in the world. It is a mistake to think that anyone is better than anyone else, or even anything else. We are all G-D's creations and in light of this we will learn to have a better appreciation for G-D and we can learn to be humble.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Divine Providence

The Ralbag's philosophy can often lead people to suspect his commitment to Judaism. This is wrong and shows an immense lack of understanding of his beliefs. It is true that the Ralbag studied Averroes' philosophy and through that he came to appreciate the views of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. However, the Ralbag was often critical of these philosopher's ideas and disagreed with them. On the other hand, the Ralbag was also very critical of the philosophies of earlier Jewish thinkers. He was a free thinker who took all the knowledge that was available to him and used it in order to understand the world. It is unfortunate that his philisophical works have been ignored for so long because there is much to learn from them.

The most controversial aspect of the Ralbag's philosophy was probably his view of G-D. In classical Orthodox Judaism it is believed that G-D is personal and is involved in every single Jewish life. G-D has direct control over your life and gives a Jew reward and punishment based on their good and evil deeds. This is not the view of the Ralbag. However, the Ralbag did not make his view up. In the beginning of the Ralbag's book The Wars of The Lord he points out that there are three possible views of divine providence: 1)The theory of Aristotle asserts that divine providence does not reach individual members of the human race, but only in a general way affects people to make the human race perpetuate. This is similar to how G-D relates to other species; 2) The second theory is that which was mentioned above, the theory of most followers of the Torah that divine providence reaches each and every single individual. They believe that G-D bestows upon them reward and punishment according to what they deserve; 3) The theory of the outstanding Torah scholars (Rambam in the Guide section III:17 and 51, Abraham ibn Daud in Ha-'Emunah ha-Ramah pages 97-98, Abraham Ibn Ezra commentary on Exodus 23:25 and 33:21) who assert that divine providence reaches only some individuals, but not all men. Later, the Ralbag goes on to show why the first two theories are wrong and that the final idea is how G-D governs the world.

The Ralbag brings up several disproofs of the first and second views. I will not go in to them right now, but the overall concept should be presented. The disproof of Aristotle's view is simple, since there is such a thing as prophecy there has to be some level of individual providence. The disproof of the second view deals with the source of evil in the world. The Ralbag proves that it is impossible that evil emanates directly from G-D. Therefore, it is not G-D that causes evil to happen to everyone directly and thereby He does not show divine providence over every single person according to the second theory. However, since G-D does show some level of providence over some people, it must be that the third theory is the correct view.

After asserting that the third theory is the correct way to view G-D, the Ralbag reveals how G-D interacts with the world. G-D exercises divine providence over those unique individuals that have reached intellectual perfection (this is also the view of the Rambam). This providence manifests itself as a communication between G-D and this man by G-D informing the man of the good or evil that is to come upon him. For those that have reached the highest level of intellectual perfection this message is seen as prophecy. However, on lower levels, the Ralbag says, man is endowed with instincts that guide him to pursuits of things that are beneficial to him and avoid situations that are detrimental to him. An example of divine providence that the Ralbag gives is where a man is supposed to go on a caravan, but he gets a thorn in his foot and is forced to stay at home. Later, the man experiences great success because of his remaining at home. Another example is where a man is supposed to take a ship, but gets sick and is unable to travel. Later, he learns that the ship sunk and everyone was killed. These are what the Ralbag defines as Yisurim shel Ahava (Visitations of divine love).