Category Archives: Random Acts of Scholarship

In hopes of being a once and future academic.

A Response To The Conservative Teshuva On Homosexuality

Update: Readers of this post may also be interested in my master’s thesis
When I made my preliminary comments on the Conservative movement’s recent decisions regarding homosexuality, the best source available at the time were press releases and either superficial or inaccurate coverage in the mainstream media. Fortunately, Steven I. Weiss has graciously posted the text of the actual teshuva. At 55 pages including footnotes, it is not exactly a light read but it is an important read nonetheless, given the serious nature of the topic discussed, and when others comment without having read the actual text. If you are new to this site, you may find my post “Lonely Men of Faith” a helpful context. This post will focus specifically on the Conservative teshuva itself.

Advisory: Normally YUTOPIA is a family blog, but given the topic of the post, some readers may feel uncomfortable with this discussion.

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Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava. Tagged with , , .

Existential Teshuva And The Incredible Hulk

In this season of teshuva leading up to the yamim nora’im religious discussions primarily focus on personal change. We look to change our practices, ideally becoming more committed to Torah. We seek to change our religious perspectives, hopefully reconnecting with the Divine. For Rambam, this process of change is not simply behavioral, but existential. As we acknowledge and renounce our transgressions we also take measures demonstrating that we have changed to the point where we “are no longer the same person who committed these actions” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4).

But what does it mean that we are no longer the same person? How does the process of teshuva effect a change so substantive that it alters our fundamental identity? In order to fully understand this transition we must tackle the philosophical question of what is the true essence of our personal identity – to find the essential determinant which makes us “us” such that changing this element constitutes a meaningful change in our identity. While this challenge may seem daunting to lesser minds, it is no match for the discerning duo of The Incredible Hulk…and an Oxford PhD.
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Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , .

Why Hannukah Endures

The following is an exposition of an idea quoted in the Daily News (December 25, 2005)
I’ve always found it interesting how Hannukah, a relatively late Rabbinic enactment, has become of the most widely recognized and observed Jewish holidays. To be sure, its proximity to Christmas has helped; Hannukah falls around the most celebrated holiday worldwide and comparisons or connections between the two are understandable. Thanks to an increasingly politically correct climate, Menorahs are often displayed in more ecumenical seasonal displays, further increasing Hannukah’s exposure.
But I would also suggest that it is Hannukah’s intrinsic messages and meanings which inspire countless generations. Compared to other Jewish holidays, the primary themes of Hannukah are not exclusively relevant to religious Jews, but are universally fundamental and basic to the larger population as well.

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Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah.

Does Matan Torah Really Matter?

So the return to Washington Heights for Shavuot was really nice. From what I can tell, the drasha went pretty well, although I think the delivery went better the second time when I was at the bridge shul. Anyway, here’s the quickie write-up of the shiur.

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Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , , , .

Thought Of The Day

Rabbi Josh Joseph recently brought me on board the Orthodox Caucus’ new project called Torah Currents. Periodically I’ll be sending in anecdotes or short ideas mostly in the section called Thought of the Day and may or may not duplicate them on the blog. The first piece is up and titled Not Much to Ask.
Enjoy

Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah.

YUTOPIA In Print…Sort Of

A little while ago, Rabbi Josh Joseph of the Orthodox Caucus contacted me about a publication they were putting out about dating. Someone tipped him off to this website,1 and they decided to publish the post called Mixed Blessings about the phrase “Im Yirtzeh Hashem By You.” I had no idea it was going to be distributed in this past week’s edition of the Jewish Week.
I haven’t had time to look at all of the articles just yet, but some of them seem worth checking out. In addition to the website, you can download the PDF version.
It’s an interesting development considering I never expected this blog to have any such effect and I’m curious to see how this might develop. Of course, I suppose I’ll have to get more consistent about posting….

1. Apparently, I’ve written a few times about my take on dating.

Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Dating.

Lonely Men Of Faith

Homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism

A few months ago, Avraham pointed me to this Forward review of Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s new book Wrestling with God and Men. I wrote some preliminary thoughts based on the review, but the YUCS server crashed as I submitted it for posting. This technical glitch proved to be fortuitous in that Rabbi Greenberg visited UC later that week and I was able to talk to him personally and purchase a copy of the book. Although he still did not convince me of his arguments, he conveyed the emotional turmoil with which people live. In halakhic matters, people often ignore the human dimension involved of an issue and develop their opinions in a social vacuum. However, halakha is ultimately followed by people many of whom face difficult conflicts for a myriad of personal reasons. While personal issues alone are not sufficient to change Jewish law, we cannot ignore the tension and struggles that people face in their quest to be observant Jews.

Below is my review of Rabbi Greenberg’s book, as submitted to a writing seminar.

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Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava. Tagged with , , .

Critique of Pure Boredom

From The Globe And Mail:

    This year, Germans celebrated the 200th anniversary of the death of Immanuel Kant, reports Philosophy Now magazine. “Kant has traditionally been portrayed as a dutiful ascetic moralist — in other words, as rather a bore — but according to the three new biographies, the great metaphysician was not such a square after all. He enjoyed drinking wine, playing billiards and wearing fine, colourful clothes. On occasion, Kant drank so much red wine that he was unable to find his way home, the books claim.”

What amazes me is not that Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable, but I still can’t believe that a magazine called “Philosophy Now” actually exists.
Maybe it’s because I’ve never seen a copy of it.

Posted in Academia, Random Acts of Scholarship.

Talmudic Theodicy

Recently, I submitted a paper for a class titled “Theology and Mythology of Evil.” The class read texts from several cultures and religions, each attempting to resolve how Evil could exist, especially in a world of an omniscient and beneficent God (or Gods as the case may be).

I noticed in the class a tendency for people to assume that there exists a particular “Jewish” attitude regarding Evil. Although this is true to some extent, the overall perception mirrors the attitude of the yeshiva – that one or two opinions believed by Jews makes the opinion “Jewish” – to the possible exclusion of everything else.

This attitude is precisely what prompted me to start the Mahshevet Hazal shiurim. With this in mind, I collected several sources from the Talmud which illustrate the plurality of opinions regarding the problem of theodicy. While retaining the multiple and often mutually exclusive positions in the Talmud, I offered my suggestions for a unified Rabbinic approach to Evil.

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Posted in Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship.

Structuralism and Brisk

Although the MAPPS program offers unparalleled academic freedom, the directors of my program require one particular survey class, “Perspectives in Social Science Analysis.” Over the 10 week quarter, Dr. John MacAloon and various other professors present 9 different perspectives with Dr. MacAloon presenting an overview and another scholar discussing contemporary applications of that perspective.

In week 8, we covered “Structuralism,”1 and I was surprised to see the similarities between this perspective and ” lomdus” – specifically the Brisker Derekh. There are several decent summaries of Structuralism on the web and some more on one of its main advocates Claude Levi-Strauss.2

For those too lazy to click the links or God forbid do your own research, I’ll give you the short attention span summary.4 Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist, utilized aspects of linguistic theory to interpret social phenomenon beyond language.3 Linguists, like Saussure, distinguished between the words used in language and the effect, the symbol and the meaning, the langue and the parol’. How did they do this? After analyzing how speech works throughout all cultures, they realized that some phenomenon repeated themselves and they explained the different phenomenon through polar binary opposites.

Levi-Strauss applied this methodology to social phenomenon like myths. In his work The Structural Study of Myth, Levi-Strauss demonstrates that the Oedipus myth contains elements found in myths from other cultures. He identifies the patterns by breaking down the myth into atomic elements, and “re-structures” these elements into classifications. Once Levi-Strauss classifies these elements into categories, he then uses his categorization to compare the Oedipus myth with similar myths. Although the categories are arbitrary, Structuralists like to formulate categories in binary opposites. E.g. symbol and meaning, personal and communal, etc.

How is this like the Brisker Derekh? Unfortunately, there isn’t much directly written on the methodology of how to do “Brisk.”5 However, I picked up a few things from my numerous years in yeshiva, and I can say that the analytical methodology is similar – though perhaps not identical.

Like structuralists, Briskers tend to explain several sources and rulings though binary comparisons. Some popular ones are heftza (object) and gavra (person), shem (name) and halos (legal status), mitzvah hiyuvi (obligatory commandment) and mitzvah kiyyumi (fulfilling a commandment), or simply “qualitative” and “quantitative” differences. Although this might apply to other areas of “lomdus” I’ve noticed that Briskers tend toward the binary opposites more than others. Just about every shiur I can remember from Gush involved a two-way mahloket and tannaim, amoraim, rishonim, and achronim neatly fitting into one of two arbitrary abstract categories.

Some Briskers also apply this perspective to areas of Jewish Thought. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the most famous descendant of the “Brisker Rav” and his tradition. In “The Lonely Man of Faith, R. Soloveitchik contrasts the personalities and religious attitudres of “Adam One” and “Adam Two” from the creation narratives. Elsewhere, R. Soloveitchik’s rational “Halakhic Man” stands in opposition to the more emotional “Homo-Religiosus.” Again, his thought leads him to present theological and religious ideas through manufactured binary oppositions.

Methodologically, Briskers construct and categorize the concepts in ways similar to the structuralists. Specifically, they first remove the sugya from the original context of the gemara. The sugya becomes the unit of analysis as opposed to a chapter, or even a page of talmud. Consequently, Briskers will not concern themselves with literary analysis or even finding the correct version of the talmud,6 because the details are not as important as the structure or the concepts. Like structuralism, these concepts are arbitrary and subject to the whim of the scholar. Unlike structuralism, yeshivas have canonized the scholars i.e. the rabbis, and therefore artificial structures become sacred and part of the “tradition.”7

I am not surprised that the Brisker Derekh attracts so many followers, nor am I surprised at the criticisms. Structuralism can be useful, and often it may be the best method for explaining a particular data set. Critics, however, will note that as a standalone system – as an “ism” if you will – structuralism assumes and imposes too much on the data. Furthermore, in the social sciences critics will complain that structuralists remove the human participants from the analysis. Social interaction becomes a bloodless game of abstract categories with no attention to human emotions. Similarly, critics of the Brisker Derekh deride the lack of attention to detail of the sugya in its original context. Literary approaches and historical evidence may often contradict the structures imposed on the text of the talmud.

I am not going to speculate on who got what from whom. Levi-Strauss was born and raised Jewish, and it’s likely his background influenced his scholarship. I also don’t think I’m saying anything radical or new here, it’s just an interesting similarity I noticed in class. Take it as you will.


1. Unfortunately, the laptop was in limbo then, so I don’t have typed notes from the lectures.
2. Not to be confused with the guy who made jeans.
3. See Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology
4. I.e. don’t cite this description for anything useful.
5. When I was in Gush, a small book called “The Brisker Derekh” came out and it was pretty close to a “How To Brisk.” As I recall, most of the ramim and students dismissed the book as too simplistic, which was probably as good of an endorsement as it could get. At any rate, I can’t find a link to it on the web.
6. The standard “Vilna” edition is loaded with errors. See Dikdukei Soferim or the Lieberman Project for other versions of the Talmud Bavli – and manuscript work is ongoing. If this sounds too heretical for you, consider that a passage may appear in several places throughout rabbinic literature (Bavli, Yerushalmi, Tosefta, Mishna, Midrash Halakha…), but there will be significant changes in their presentation. See for example, Dr. Elman’s Authority and Tradition and many, many, other works.
7. For some ramifications in education, see Hakirah or Mehkar: The Religious Implications of an Historical Approach to Limmudei Kodesh by Rachel Furst and Mosheh Lichtenstein, “What Hath Brisk Wrought: The Brisker Derekh Revisited” Torah U-Madda Journal, volume 9, 1-18, 2000.

Posted in Academia, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship.