Sunday, February 27, 2005

One Text, Two Meanings

Its remarkable how the same text can sometimes be read in two entirely different, even opposite ways. Here are two examples.

In last week’s parshah, the following pasuk appears:

כט) ויאמר משה מלאו ידכם היום ליקוק כי איש בבנו ובאחיו ולתת עליכם היום ברכה

29 And Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves to the Lord this day—for each of you has been against son and brother—that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.”

The simple meaning of the verse is that the tribe of Levi, because of their dedication to G-d, displayed by their willingness to kill even a son or a brother, were rewarded by being given a special role, that of the priesthood.

However an alternative explanation gives quite the opposite meaning. That due to the bloodthirstiness of the tribe of Levi, that they were eager to even kill son or brother without even signs of remorse, G-d felt it necessary to remove them from the activity of war, and have them only active in the priesthood. Hence the tribe of Levi was exempt from the conquest of the land. According to this explanation, being given the priesthood was actually a punishment, a sign that they were not capable of living an ordinary life, but needed to be separated from the community and involved only in spiritual activity. This would echo Yaakov’s negative comments to the tribe of Levi in Veyechi, because of their bloodthirstiness with Shechem.

ה) שמעון ולוי אחים כלי חמס מכרתיהם
ו) בסדם אל תבא נפשי בקהלם אל תחד כבדי כי באפם הרגו איש וברצנם עקרו שור
ז) ארור אפם כי עז ועברתם כי קשתה אחלקם ביעקב ואפיצם בישראל

5 Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
6 Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen.
7 Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.

Another interesting example is the song I quoted in the previous post. A fundamentalist reading, looking just at the verses as they are, might come to certain conclusions. However a different reading, and especially one which identifies the original source texts of the verses, might come to an entirely different conclusion as to the intended meaning.

The TRUTH behind the Koton's demise

Here are the real reasons behind the Koton's demise:
  • I thought the Koton was quite funny, and so did a lot of other people. It was just a joke after all. However some people were shocked and appalled, since the butt of many of his jokes were people who should not be made fun of. Some of the people who were shocked are people I respect.
  • The point was also made that it is more effective to argue from a rational perspective, rather than just ridicule someone, which is rather a low form of communication. This is a good point. Though ridiculing someone or something can be extremely effective, I guess its not playing fair. We should have genuine discussion, rather than descend into name calling.
  • Also, it was pointed out that people were using the Koton as ammunition. For example, one Rabbi in Jerusalem read out a section of the chas vesholom letter in his shiur to prove his point. A few other rabbis wrote me to say they thought it was funny. However I did not want to be responsible for causing any trouble.
  • Finally, some guilt (OK I lied), I don't really want to be famous for making fun of people. I started the Koton blog as a 'safe' way to vent some feelings that I would not dare to say in public. Ironically, the vents reached far more people than I would ever have in person.
This whole episode taught me a few things:
  • I have lost my emunas chachomim. And this did not come from reading banned books, but rather from observing the actions of those 'chachomim', ironically in the banning of books they feared would cause people to lose their emunas chachomim. They appear to be misinformed and misguided. I guess I do not have the level of emunah required to be impervious to the facts that I observe.
  • There are some nasty goings on in the far right wing. They need to clean up their act. In particular certain Rabbanim with less than clean records should be ousted. I don't see any effort to do this at all. However I was encouraged that certain Rabbis stood up and made themselves heard.
  • The far right wing seem to be winning the fight for the heart and soul of ultra-orthodoxy. Witness Rav Aharon Feldman's somewhat failed attempt to get some kind of retraction from R Eliashiv. This is a shame for the more moderate elements in the UO sector. Either they will just give in, or maybe they might combine with the RW MO's and form a new center (unlikely in the near future).
  • MO society tends to ignore the RW UO's, except at friction points, or where there is some other type of connection. Most people at the MO shul I frequent could not care less about RW UO (and probably vice versa). If the actions of the RW UO's bother you, just become MO. In a few weeks it won't even cross your mind.
  • I was previously undecided as to which group to throw my lot in with. The LW UO's or the RW MO's. Considering that the LW UO's seem to be losing out to the RW UO's big time, I think I will more firmly join the RW MO camp.
  • Seeing how easily the RW UO's dismissed various parts of our mesorah, or how patently false some of their arguments were, makes me wonder about what else is fake. Are we authentic or have we gone down the wrong path ? I will have to study a lot more before I can answer that question.
  • One thing the RW UO's are 100% correct about: Critical thinking is dangerous to their ideology, since so much of their ideology does not hold up to scrutiny. In the interests of self-preservation it makes perfect sense for them to ban critical thinking of any type, which is exactly what they do. Can' t really blame them for that I suppose, but the truth always wins out in the end.

I shall continue to blog, hopefully not all my readers were here just for the funny stuff. Maybe I can figure out a way to be funny without it being at anyone's expense, though I have the suspicion that by definition all humor is always at someone or something's expense.

I never listen to the radio in the car, only CD's. As I was driving the other night, I turned it on, and this song came up. It seems appropo.

Take my photo off the wall
If it just won't sing for you
Cause all that's left has gone away
And there's nothing there for you to prove
Oh, look what you've done
You've made a fool of everyone
Oh well, it seems likes such fun
Until you lose what you had won
Give me back my point of view
Cause I just can't think for you
I can hardly hear you say
What should I do, well you choose
Oh, look what you've done
You've made a fool of everyone
Oh well, it seems likes such fun
Until you lose what you had won

Oh, look what you've done
You've made a fool of everyone
A fool of everyone
A fool of everyone

Friday, February 25, 2005

Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated

The Koton Hador has passed, its true. He will be sadly missed and fondly remembered. But the Godol is still alive and kicking. AddeRabbi has a eulogy for me, and Rashi's Daughter now has a link to the Godol Hador z"l. I am alive ! Don't write me off just yet.

I installed the page hit counter last Friday, and today it is showing close to 5,000. Next week I shall be hosting a special "Koton Hador Study Week", lzecher haKoton oloveshalom. I shall take the counter score at the end of the week, and then we will have a statistically reliable measure of how many people prefer letzonus to Torah.

I would hate for letzonus to win out, so please: visit often and invite your friends too (with a seperate browser).

Please do not disappoint !
Good Shabbos.

The Myth-Moshol Theory

In contrast to the Nes-Nisayon Theory (NNT), stands the Myth-Moshol Theory (MMT). Whereas NNT assumes that all Torah must be read as literal truth, MMT posits that often the Torah contains allegorical passages. The supporters of NNT tend to believe that the Torah must not be allegorized, whereas the supporters of MMT tend to believe in the scientific evidence, and are uncomfortable with the ideas of nes and the fake 'old' earth that NNT requires. MMT is widely held in more broad minded orthodox institutions, but quite likely would be regarded as heresy in more fundamentalist environs. Orthodox Jews of limited exposure tend to be quite ignorant of MMT, and its widespread acceptance in the more broad minded areas of Orthodoxy.

For example, MMT would say that the stories in the beginning of Breishis are clearly mythological, desgined to counteract the prevailing Babylonian / Summerian mythologies of their day. The theory is explained by Nahum Sarna in his book 'Understanding Genesis', and Umberto Cassutto in his books 'From Adam to Noah' and 'From Noah to Abraham'. Cassutto brings a particularly detailed explanation, showing pasuk by pasuk how prevailing Summerian notions were dismised by the Torah, and replaced with monotheistic ones. It is probable that Sarna got this theory from Cassutto, though its also clearly written in the popular Soncino Hertz Chumash, in the notes section at the end of the book of Genesis, which dates back to the 1930's. (Its likely that Rabbi Hertz got this from elsewhere too, maybe Christian bible scholars. More research is required here).

There is also a parallel to this in the Rambam, with the Rambams well known views on the Korbanos. The Rambam holds that the korbanos were only created to wean away the Israelites from their own idolatrous practices, and was but a temporary phenomenon. Similarly, the stories in Breishis could have the same purpose.

Although both Sarna and Cassutto seem to imply human authorship of the Torah, from a religious perspective, their theories need not be dismissed out of hand. It is possible to say that ancient Israelite scrolls were passed down to Sinai, at which point, with a few edits and changes, they were incorporated into the Torah under G-ds direct command. A more liberal reading of the Rambam ikkarim would still fit. There is even some midrashic support for this latter view, see this article by Rabbi Gil Student. However, in order to reconcile Science completely, it clearly would not be feasible to say that Noah or Adam actually wrote these scrolls, since according to NNT it is highly unlikely that these characters actually existed (at least in the form that we imagine). More likely they written by others, perhaps with some level of divine inspiration.

A more orthodox twist to this theory is one that I call 'moshology' as opposed to 'mythology'. According to this version, the stories in Breishis were not designed just to give the Israelites their own monotheistic mythology in contrast to the polytheistic mythologies of the day, but in fact (or also) contained deep eternal truths about G-d and the universe, and G-ds relation to man. In this view, these stories were absolutely 'written' directly by G-d, but still need not be literally true. This would be similar to the Zohar's view, which says that the Torah is just a shell, and only fools do not delve behind the external form. Its probable though that the Zohar did not mean to imply that the basic simple peshat of the pasuk was wrong, just that there were additional deeper peshatim. However according to MMT, the simple peshat would be quite wrong. Either way, it seems that many of these deep secrets have been lost, or at least are not accessible to the average man.

There are plenty of sources in the Rishonim for taking Breishis allegorically, not least of which is the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim in his famous passage on the creation story. The Rambam says that he would have explained Breishis as not meaning that the creation was at a point in time, but only refrained from doing so because he did not believe the eternal universe theory (prevalent in his time) was accurate. Fundamentalists would however reject this approach, and consider this line of reasoning to be foreign to our (current) mesorah.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Koton Hador RIP 2005-2005

I regret to inform the olam that The Koton Hador passed away this morning. His talmudic doctor, Doctor Babba Kamma, tried an emergency infusion of spontaneously generated lice, but even this could not save him. Doctor BK suspects an overdose of letzonus is to blame. Koton had become increasingly agitated in recent days, and was seen wandering about the neighborhood, desperately trying to get his point across the only way he knew how. He will be missed. His blog, and all his letzonus from this site have been buried together with him. Please pay your condolences here.

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Charedim, who they are and what they think

Here is a brief, semi satirical but still quite true take on the charedi viewpoint.

Here is how I define the orthodox world. Of course any categorization is always open to criticism, its a continuum with many shades of gray. However we need to have some terms to discuss.

Charedi / Ultra Orthodox

I would split into 3 camps

1. Left wing / more modern Charedim
Includes Ner Israel, maybe Chaim Berlin and possibly some small number of RW YU types, though I am not sure about them. Also includes people who identify with Charedim but are out there in the world e.g. Many doctors, lawyers etc.

2. Centrist Charedim
Main body of Lakewood, Philly, Telz etc. Identify with the Gedolim, though due to American upbringing are not completely closed minded.

3. Right Wing Charedim
Extreme RW members of lakewood, most of Gateshead, Boro Park, Stamford Hill, Ponovitz, Bnei Brak etc. Includes Chasidim, though maybe not Lubavitchers. Actually Lubobs have to be categorized under alternate religions anyway.

Likewise, I would categorize MO into 3 camps

1. Right Wing MO
Shtark YU types. Maybe Mercaz Haravniks too, though they can be a little unique. Charedi Dat Leumi - Chardalniks.

2. Centrist MO
Mainstream baal ha batish Teaneck.

3. Left Wing MO
Very liberal MO, the ones who are nominally orthodox but don't care all that much. Also the ones who really push the borders. Blu Greenberg etc. Actually these are very 2 different groups. One is disinterested. The other very intensely interested, Really not fair to lump them together at all. Sorry.

The Slifkin Ban

RW Charedi viewpoint

1. The Gedolim know best.
2. See 1.

Centrist charedi viewpoint

1. The Gedolim know best.
2. The Gedolim seem to be a bit wrong here.
3. I guess the Gedolim know best though.

LW Charedi viewpoint

1. The Gedolim know best.
2. The Gedolim are clearly wrong here
3. Aaaargh. Conflict ! System breakdown.

Right Wing MO viewpoint
1. I will prove Slifkin correct from all these rishonim and acahronim. Then the gedolim will change their mind when they see my superior lamdonus.

Centrist MO viewpoint
1. Those Gedolim are being ridiculous again.
2. More proof why MO is better.

LW MO Viewpoint
1. Who cares. These people are not Gedolim anyway.

Different Worlds

Its amazing to me how frum people these days inhabit entirely different worlds without even realizing it.

Here are two conversations I had recently, both with seemingly similar frum people. Both had beards, wives with sheitels, learn regularly, and would be fairly indistinguishable from each other in general. The main difference was that one had a YU type of background and one had a Yeshivish background. Both were reasonably intelligent. Lets call me A, the YU guy B and the chareidi guy C. I am paraphrasing both conversations extensively, but they actually did happen like this.

Conversation with YU guy
A: So you heard about the latest ban ?
B: (Surprised) No, what was banned ?
A: Books which said the world was millions of years old.
B: (In all seriousness) Whats wrong with that ? Of course it is.
A: Well the fundamentalists take Breishis literally you know.
B: (Astonished) But what about dinosaurs and things like that ?
A: Well thats all fake, you know that peshat. (proceeds to explain Gosse)
B: (Astonished and shocked) What ?! Are you nuts ?

Conversation with Charedi Guy
A: So you agree with the ban ?
C: (Surprised) Of course, all the Gedolim signed it
A: So you believe the world is really 6,000 years old
C: (Shocked) Of course I do. Doesn't everyone ?
A: Not really, the scientific evidence is overwhelming for many people.
C: (Very Shocked) Science ! But the Torah says its 6,000 years old !
A: Well, many people don't take that literally.
C: (Astonished and shocked) What ?! Are you nuts ?

Of course people have different opinions, there is nothing suprising about that.

However what struck me was the genuine astonishment and shock of B that anyone in their right mind could possibly hold that the world wasn't billions of years old, and the equal and genuine shock and astonishment of C that anyone frum could possibly hold that it was.