Category Archives: Random Acts of Scholarship

In hopes of being a once and future academic.

Theorizing Judaism

I’ve made some veiled references to “Theorizing Judaism.” I’ve recently completed Dr. Martin Risebrodt’s class, Theorizing Religion. Unlike typical survey classes, Dr. Riesebrodt used this class as feedback for his currently unpublished book on religion. Dr. Riesebrodt would present his ideas and one class a week would be a discussion. After he presented the main points of his thesis, the students presented examples from specific religions which may or may not have supported his thesis. In addition, we were to submit two written essays discussing the merits and flaws of his thesis. The following post will explain his thesis, and my applications of the thesis to Judaism.

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

The Alphabet Of Ben Sira

A Not So Divine Comedy

Probably the most annoying part of attempting an ethnography of the CRC is the 2 hour commute (each way) via public transportation. On the other hand, I get to catch up on light reading. Today’s entertainment comes from Rabbinic Fantasies a collection of midrashim ranging from the Rabbinic Period through R. Nachman. Specifically, I was reading about the “Alphabet of Ben Sira” which is best known for giving us the midrash of Lilith. (And not to be confused with the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Ben Sira).
It’s a real shame this isn’t taught in Yeshivot – this stuff is off the charts on the unintentional comedy scale. According to the book, Ben Sira was the son of Yirmayahu and his daughter, though not through incestuous means. (I’d elaborate, but this is a family blog). At any rate, Ben Sira was born with a full set of teeth, the intelligence of an adult, and the personality of Stewie from Family Guy.
I quote from pages 171-172:

    “My son,” said his mother to Ben Sira, “don’t speak for the evil eye may fix its power on you.”
    “The evil eye has no authority over me. Besides, do not try to talk me out of doing what my father did. To me applies the proverb, ‘The ewe takes after the ewe, and the son follows the deeds of his father.'”
    “Why do you interrupt me my son?” his mother asked.
    “Because you know that I’m hungry, and you give me nothing to eat.”
    “Here, take my breasts. Eat and drink.”
    “I have no desire for your breasts. Go sift flour in a vessel, knead it into fine bread, and get fatty meat and aged wine – and you can eat with me.”

Awfully precocious for an infant, no? Just wait until he gets to school:

    Said the teacher, “You cannot be taught, for you are still too young. Our sages of blessed memory stated, ‘at the age of five years a child begins to study Bible.’ (Mishna Avot 5:24)”
    “But have you not learned,” Ben Sira asked, “The day is short, but the work is great’ (Mishna Avot 2:20)? And you tell me to sit and not to study because I am too young! In the cemetery I can see children younger than I who are dead. Who knows what will be, whether I shall live or die?”
    The teacher retorted, “How dare you instruct me! Our sages of blessed memory declared, ‘Whoever teaches the law in the presence of his teacher is deserving of death’ (B. Berakhot 31b).”
    Ben Sira replied, “You are not yet my teacher, for so far I have learned nothing from you.”

So, you might be wondering, what would a child like this be when he grows up? Well, later in his life he had an audience with Nebuchadnezzar (how he got there is an amusing story in its own right) and explained to him the answers of such philosophical questions as:

  • Why were farts created? (Ben Sira also cured Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter who had a thousand every hour. And you thought I had a hard time dating)
  • Why does the ox not have hair under its nose?
  • Why does the cat eat the mouse and not other rodents?
  • Why are the cat and dog enemies? (Thus explaining the history of cartoons in the process)

Remember that the guy asking these questions went on to command the army which destroyed the temple. For some reason, I would think he had more important things on his mind…or not.
Anyway, if you ever have two hours on the subway, The Alphabet of Ben Sira and Rabbinic Fantasies are highly recommended.

Posted in Random Acts of Scholarship.

Theorizing Asceticism In Rabbinic Literature

Thanks to everyone for their comments, e-mails, and IM’s about the “nice guy” post. Please feel free to continue sending in feedback. I’ll do a follow up sometime in the next week and a half or so.

Also, many thanks to Potter for telling me about ieSpell – a free spell checker for IE text boxes. Highly recommended – especially for bloggers.
Tomorrow I should be giving my presentation in the Theorizing Religion class on asceticism in rabbinic literature. The professor is writing a book and is using the class for feedback. I have an assignment to critique his thesis in general, and I’ll post that when it’s ready. In the meantime, I will focus on the current topic of discussion of Virtuosi Practices: Asceticism.

Dr. Riesebrodt views ascetic practices as the accepting of crisis upon oneself for the purposes of alleviating the crises of the laity. Meaning, when the virtuosi accepts the crisis on himself, the masses will reevaluate and devalue their own personal crises. This acceptance of crisis – or what would normally be considered crisis by the laity – may lead to an empowerment of some kind to perform some miraculous acts and to gain eternal life.1

I did not find sources in Rabbinic Literature which corresponded completely with the thesis. Most ascetic practices would either have a different purpose, and those actions which served the purpose are not typically “ascetic.” Fasting, would be a classic example of an ascetic practice. However, the virtuosi do these acts not for the masses to look upon their suffering and feel better about themselves but for repentance. R. Zadok fasted over 40 years so that the Temple would not be destroyed (B. Gittin 56a). Certain “individuals” fast during a period of drought, but if the drought continues this obligation extends to the community.(M. Taanit 1:4-5)2

There are instances of Rabbis going to extreme lengths to do mitzvot – especially facing financial hardship. When Hillel couldn’t afford the admission to the study hall, he climbed to the roof and was buried by snow.(B. Yoma 35b) This is certainly not a typical ascetic practice, but it does put the individuals’ daily struggles in perspective. Considering what Hillel did, it’s not so unreasonable for the masses to fit in some learning during the day.

These however are exceptional cases; normative Rabbinic law eschews personal asceticism.3 Shmuel calls someone who fasts (presumably optionally) a “sinner” and Reish Lakish says that a Sage is not allowed to fast because it will interfere with his “real” obligations.(B. Taanit 11a, 11b). Another formalized ascetic practice would be the Nazir who may not drink wine or get a haircut. The Talmud explains that even R. Elazer, who stresses that the Nazir is “sacred,” would only do so when there is no personal suffering.(ibid)4 Even in the event of drought, one should not necessarily resort to virtuosi practices. R. Shimon Ben Shetach nearly excommunicated Honi for his famed prayer in the circle.(M. Taanit 3:8)5

Dr. Riesebrodt’s thesis, as presented here, partially works for Rabbinic Judaism or at least from the sources I have seen.6 The definition of “crisis prevention” should be expanded to include vicarious suffering or repentance on behalf of the masses. Other Rabbis held themselves to a higher standard of observance, but I would not classify those actions as “ascetic.” I don’t know of any explicit sources which describe individuals accepting ascetic practices for the purpose of alleviating the crisis of the masses. If anyone knows of something I might have missed, please let me know. (Just try to understand I’m trying to keep this short and I can’t cite every possible source).

For further reading on asceticism in Rabbinic Literature, see Sara Epstein Weinstein’s Piety and Fanaticism. For general stringencies, see the “Humra” mekorot (parts 1 and 2) and the section on Rabbinic and Communal Leadership from my mahshevet hazal shiurim.

1. Condensed version of the thesis. I will elaborate more in the overall review.
2. And even the “individuals” may be more inclusive. See B. Taanit 10b
3. M. Avot 6:4 does prescribe to live a life of privation. However, the 6th chapter of Avot is not Tannaitic. This statement does appear in later midrashic sources, but not anywhere in either the Jerusalem or Babylonian Talmud. There is no indication that wealthy rabbis like R. Chisda gave away all their money to follow this “mishna.”
4. R. Elazer HaKappar in the name of Rabbi emphasizes that the Nazir is a “sinner.” This dispute is commonly assumed to be between Rambam and Ramban with Rambam taking the position of Elazar HaKappar. Ramban only partially follows R. Elazer. See Ramban on B’Midbar 6:14.
5. He didn’t because he couldn’t argue with the results. The result is that it should by no means be considered to be a normative or accepted practice.
6. Technically, it works a little better than as presented here, but I don’t have time to explain the intricacies of the thesis.

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

Rapture and Reconstructionism

Shavua Tov everyone.
A few things on my mind before I get back to the take home midterm. The first is a response to a critique I found on Heimishtown. In my earlier rant on hareidi community I used the phrase “ever so humble self-proclaimed ‘Gedolei Torah.'” Heimishtown rightly points out that in that article the term “Gedolei Yisroel” was used not by the Rabbis themselves, but by the Yated Ne’eman Staff. My understanding is that the term “Gedolei Yisroel” is not just used by the masses to refer to their rabbis. The specific reference was to the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. If the rabbis are not part of the same organization, then I apologize for the incorrect attribution.
On a slighly different note, we had an interesting speaker come to the Hillel this week: Rabbi Dan Aronson, the Dean of Admissions at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). I must compliment him on two things. First, he carried himself like a professional. He was always polite and civil despite some rather obnoxious comments by a particular audience member (not me). Second, I always have a degree of respect for someone who admits when he doesn’t have an answer and he has to think about it some more. While this is an ethic commended in Avot 5:7 (or 5:6 in the Rambam’s version), many Rabbis I’ve met would instead fall in the alternative category of the Golem.
At any rate, there were two major critiques I had of Reconstructionism as he described it. The first is really more of a critique of Mordechai Kaplan, the movement’s founder. Admittedly, I have not read much of Kaplan myself, so for now I will rely on what I heard from R. Aronson. As stated on the RRC website, Reconstructionists “define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” R. Aronson then defined what he meant by “evolving,” “religious,” and “civilization.” However, I noticed he did not define what was meant by “Jewish.” It seems to me that this is a circular definition in that the term “Jewish” is used to define “Judaism.” Kaplan would certainly hold that some people are not considered “Jews,” but I do not know what that precise definition would be. Even resorting to ideas like a “symbol set” or relevant ethics, he would probably not say that a Christian who held these ideas would in fact be Jewish.
The other critique is more fundamental to the purpose of Reconstructionism. As presented to us, Kaplan was trying to stem rampant assimilation. Judaism needed to undergo consious changes in order to survive – the “traditional” model would not be sufficient to maintain the Jewish people. Judaism As a Civilization was published in 1934 (if memory serves). Not being alive then, I cannot possibly know what was the reality of Jewish life in America. However, despite the numerous problems througout the “traditional” world, I would think that it’s still in relatively good shape in that it’s not going anywhere. Yes, assimilation still happens, but I would say that I don’t think that the “traditional” models are going to disappear any time in the near or distant future.
Finally, there was one particularly poignant observation from one of the audience members. Kaplan writes about the need for Judaism to evolve in order for it to survive. However, he does not explan why Judaism ought to survive. What would make the “Jewish” set of understandings significant enough to warrent perpetuating? If it is just to preserve the history, then we could easily set up a museum for it and cease any form of observing it at all. Kaplan’s stated goal of combating assimilation only makes sense if there is something in Judaism that’s worth not only keeping, but keeing vibrant and alive. If there is indeed something inherently significant to Judaism – it cannot be divine by its nature since Reconstructionists do not belive in divine revelation of the Torah – then what would it be?
R. Aronson recommended Exploring Judaism as a good text to understand more about Reconstructionist Judaism. If there are any experts in Reconstructionism out there, feel free to post your comments.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship.

Egalitarian Liturgy: An Ethical Imperative?

When I first mentioned that I would be a panelist discussing Egalitarian Liturgy, the immediate reaction I got was cynical to say the least. "Why would I want to get into that," and "you’re being railroaded" were just two of the comments reflecting the broad sentiment. Initially, I too was skeptical for probably the same reasons.

First, the word "Egalitarian" recalls the classic conservative vs. orthodox debates, and is often employed by those with specific agendas. 1 However, knowing the nature of the Hillel, and after speaking to the Rabbi, it seemed obvious to me that the panel would be cordial and informative.
Some questions still remain: why take the chance or why bother with this at all?

It’s a good question; one which requires its own post.


The Ideological Conflict

I do not want to discuss the details of the other panelists’ positions, mainly because I do not want to misrepresent them. However, I can present my own take on egalitarian liturgy and how I presented it in the discussion.
I did not like the title of the panel. The term "ethical" presupposes the discussion is a moral one – that there is some inherent value towards egalitarianism to which all people are subsumed. While there is a value to egalitarianism, I do not see it as an "ethical" imperative, but rather as a "religious" imperative. For the sake of this essay, I will define "religious imperatives" as requirements necessarily for the sufficient observance of one’s faith.

As one of the other panelists correctly noted, the word "liturgy" is not limited to prayer, but it includes all manners of public worship. When discussing inequalities in Jewish liturgy, the most blatant example is the role of the woman. 2 Women are relegated to sitting behind a mehitza restricting them from active participation. Furthermore, several prayers themselves are not amiable to many women. How can one properly worship when s/he3 is excluded from the primary religious mechanisms? This is a religious imperative.

However, there is a conflicting religious imperative: to maintain "The Tradition." The current actions of the community – following the practices of the previous generations – are as canonical as the Torah itself. It is arrogant at best – heretical at worst – to alter the practices of the previous generations.
Advocates of Egalitarianism could rightly point to the fact that liturgy has changed over time. Piyutim were added throughout the middle ages, many in response to actual events.4 For the proponents of tradition, the changes that happened in the past are valid, but we today have no right – or minimal right to make any further emendations. Furthermore, the nature of some of the changes currently suggested affect essential parts of the prayer service.


To further understand this debate, we will have to examine some of the specific examples of the offending elements of Jewish liturgy.

I discussed the specific issue of prayer – the colloquial use of the term”liturgy”.; I noticed two categories of non-egalitarian prayer. The fist involves language of explicit or implicit exclusion. For example, “bessed are you…that you did not make me a woman is obviously exclusive of women. Other prayers exclude wicked people; in the amida prayer "velamalshinim" excludes heretics. An implicit exclusion would be the yekum purkan prayer which blesses “the congregation and their women and children” – implying that the women are not part of the community.

The other examples of non-egalitarian prayer do not excluded the petitioner, but somehow make the prayers inaccessible to the petitioner. "God" is most often referred to in the masculine. Or the use of the avot, the fathers and not the imahot, the mothers.

For the proponents of egalitarian liturgy, these types of passages exclude either the prayers from the individuals, or the individuals from the prayers.


Can there be a harmonious solution between the two conflicting religious imperatives? Regarding the issue of God language, I suggest that the imperative could be not to modify the language at all. According to all parties involved, God is supposed to be a non-gender. The Hebrew language lacks a gender-neutral conjugation; the masculine gender is used by default. By making a point of including feminine God language, one removes the neutral aspects of the masculine and instead emphasizes the gender. I will also theorize that this might have more of an impact on those communities who pray in English. The constant use of "Him" or "His" will have a greater impact on those who pray in Hebrew and will not be as sensitive to the masculine usage.

For the other changes, one would have to consider the nature of the prayer being modified. Of the passages mentioned, emending the yekum purkan would be the most plausible since it would have the least effect on the tradition. Few people would notice the change – assuming they know the aramaic and say all the words – and even if a community would still reject this change for themselves, they would not reject other communities who would adopt this change.5

Regarding the Amida, I cannot anticipate any substantive changes in the current siddurim. However, halakhically, it might be possible – if not preferable – to personalize the silent amida.6 The petitioner will then have the religious meaning while remaining in the halakhic tradition, and assuming the petitioner uses some discretion, s/he will not offend the social tradition.


Throughout the Jewish history, Rishonim and Achronim have reinterpreted Jewish laws to reflect the religious needs of the community.7 However, due to the fragmented nature of the Jewish community, there are rarely new religious needs which are applicable to all. It is not surprising that different communities will have different needs. Therefore, I cannot claim that there is a universal religious imperative for egalitarian prayer. I can say that it exists for certain individuals throughout all communities, and for separate communities themselves. However, so is the religious imperative of "Tradition" equally applicable across the spectrum of Judaism. When faced with this conflict, it is up to the communities to reconcile them for themselves. Each has free will to decide which imperative will take precedence. However, in the areas of conflict, both sides must realize there will be consequences – most often the ostracization of one community by another. This too is a religious imperative – and perhaps the real ethical imperative.

1. See for example the sponsors of the program.
2. There are inequalities among men which are not addressed. E.g. the preferential treatment to the kohen.
3. Although this would mostly apply to women, there are some men who are particularly sensitive to the exclusion of women from the service. For them, egalitarianism is also a religious imperative.
4. For more examples of the evolution of prayer, see the articles and books by Dr. Joseph Tabory
5. Or at least not for this reason alone. This would be in contrast to practices like women reading from the torah, which have a more divisive effect in the Orthodox Jewish community.
6. Minimally in the blessing of shema koleinu.
7. See the collected works of Jacob Katz among many others.

Posted in Random Acts of Scholarship, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah.

Was Marx A Hassid?

We’re in the “Marxism” section of the required “Perspectives in Social Science Analysis” class. If you’ve never read Marx inside, let me warn you it’s some of the most boring dense reading out there. Anyway, in one of his rants on alienation, Marx claims “all objects become for him objectifications of himself.” (not in the linked page, but you get the idea) Basically, when man produces an object, he invests part of himself – his essense – into creating this object. Thus, part of his essense is now “alienated” from himself, which for Marx is one of the worst things imaginable.

As I recall, the Keddushat Levi has a similar approach in explaining mishloah manot but with a positive spin. (Surprise – I do learn hassidut on occasion). Like Marx, he views the mishloach manot as the fruits of one’s labor, and consequently giving someone mishloach manot implies giving someone else a part of yourself. However, whereas Marx emphasizes the alienation factor of man losing himself, Keddushat Levi stresses the community building process of receiving the other.

This got me thinking that for all Marx talks about alienation and what the worker loses, I haven’t seen him discuss where the worker gets anything back. If a worker produces something in which he invests himself, and someone else acquires said object then following the Marxian analogy that person has also acquired the essense of someone else. Thus it’s not simply man losing his essence, but he is necesarilly gaining others in his role as a consumer.

I guess now would be the time to write a warm fuzzy derasha on the individual and his larger role in the community for Marxian and Hassidic thought. I have too much reading to do tonight, so I leave this as an excersize for the reader.

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

More on 9 Av – Addendum

I’ve been getting swamped with e-mails and IM’s about the historical accuracy of 9 Av events. Even Protocols is getting in on the action.

This is going to take much longer to explain – including the possiblity of adjusting for Hebcal’s limitation of 1752. Basically, this is getting way out of hand for blogging right now.

I think this topic of historical accuracy and religious significance of 9 Av will make for a good topic for my 9 Av shiur at the Bridge Shul.

That should also allow me to think things through better and hopefully elliminate the need for several blogs updating or correcting one topic.

Posted in Jewish History, Random Acts of Scholarship.

More on 9 Av gives us a few other infamous events which took place on 9 Av, all of which “are verifiable in the history books”. We already demonstrated the WWI date to be wrong. The only other event which we can verify with Hebcal is the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. gives us July 10th 1942 as the day deportations began. This however corresponds to 25 Tammuz 5702.

From quick net research, I’m seeing the liquidation began on July 22nd 1942 (Also see the timelines of The Raoul Wallenberg Museum, Bronx School of Science. Yad Vashem only says the deportations started sometime in July with no specific date.)

However July 22nd 1942 returns 8 Av 5702 – unless they started after sunset.

The uprising began on April 19th 1943 (14 Nissan 5703) and ended on May 16th (11 Iyyar). The Warsaw Ghetto was ultimately destroyed on June 3rd 1943 or 29 Iyyar.

And as always, if anyone out there catches a mistake, please let me know.

You may be wondering why I’m making such a big deal of this. These are horribly tragic events in Jewish history. Does it really matter whether or not they actually happened on 9 Av exactly?

I think so.

Will explain in a later post.

Posted in Jewish History, Random Acts of Scholarship.

Events of 9 Av

Someone asked me tonight about what happened on 9 av. M. Taanit 4:6 lists 5 things:

  1. Decree that the dor midbar wouldn’t enter Eretz Yisrael
  2. Hurban I
  3. Hurban II
  4. Beitar destroyed
  5. Yerushalayim destroyed

But I was also asked about other later historical events, like the Spanish expulsion and WWI. Did these events occur (or start) on 9 Av? Let’s put it to the test with some help from our good freinds at Hebcal. (What can I say, I’m a skeptic).

The Spanish Expulsion
The edict expelling the Jews was signed on July 30th 1492. Hebcal returns 26 Tamuz, 5252 but with the following disclaimer:

“WARNING: Results for year 1752 C.E. and before may not be accurate. Hebcal does not take into account a correction of ten days that was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII known as the Gregorian Reformation. “

Hebcal also includes a nice link with all the Gregorian details. (Hey, it’s my blog and I haven’t had any really horrible puns yet).

So as far as the expulsion in concerned, Hebcal can’t help us. Any math majors out there who want to figure this out?

WWI Corrected
The start of WWI easily falls within Hebcal’s range. The question is which date should we use? Archduke Ferdinand was assasinated on June, 28th 1914. This translates to 4 Tammuz 5674.

The first formal declaration of war came on July 28th when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Hebcal returns 5 Av.

Russia mobilizes against Austria and on July 31 (8 Av), Germany gives Russia an ultimatum to either disarm or face war. Due to Russia’s refusal, Germany formally declared war on Russia on Aug 1st. This was in fact 9 Av. The fighting began on Aug 2nd when Germany invaded Luxembourg, and Britain joined in on Aug 4th (this blogger’s B-Day) when Germany invaded Belgium.

So the first declaration of war came on June 28th and fighting actually began on Aug 2nd. Neither one of which is 9 Av.

Many thanks to Maxim Smyrnyi for the correction!

End result: One inconclusive, and one close but no cigar.

BTW – I’d love to hear from math or history buffs out there who could provide any more info and/or correct any mistakes I made.

Posted in Jewish History, Random Acts of Scholarship.