Friday, December 24, 2010

Parsha Shemot: How Do We Explain Evil Commited by Man?

Theodicy, or the defense of G-d’s goodness and omnipotence in the face of evil, is unquestionably one of the biggest challenges to religion. If G-d is all-loving and all-powerful, how can He permit man to commit evil acts? Although that question is disturbing for anyone who has been raised in Western society, this question is all the more perturbing for a Jew, especially when one considers the existence of anti-Semitism. A vast majority of Jews believe in a personal G-d. In addition to a personal G-d, many Jews believe that they are “G-d’s chosen people” and were given the Torah as a gift. If the people Israel were to be considered G-d’s first born son (Exodus 4:22), why would G-d not protect the Jewish people from the persecution and violence caused by Jew hatred?

During the first incidence of anti-Semitism, which was the Egyptian enslavement of the Hebrew slaves, Moses asked the very same question (Exodus 5:22):

 וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, וַיֹּאמַר:  אֲדֹנָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה--לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי.

Moses is not only establishing the Jewish imperative to struggle with G-d, and thus question G-d. As Rabbenu Hananel ben Hushiel points out in his commentary of Exodus 5:22, Moses was also asking why the innocent (i.e., the Israelites) were suffering while the wicked (i.e., the Egyptians) were prospering. A more modern-day example of this question would undeniably have to be the Holocaust. Mothers thrown into ovens, babies used for target practice, and human beings treated worse than cattle.  It shocks the human psyche as to how man can be so depraved and cruel.

It doesn’t matter whether we analyze the suffering of a Jew or non-Jew. Since we are all created in His Image, we are all sentient beings, and thus all capable of suffering. However, I do choose Jewish examples for two reasons. The first is that we are analyzing Torah, and the second is that anti-Semitism is the deepest, longest-lasting, most universal hatred out there. If any group of people knows about suffering evil at the hands of man, it would be the Jews.

How do we deal with this internal angst? The Book of Job best illustrates this issue, and thus gives us the framework for dealing with theodicy:

A) G-d is all-loving

B) G-d is all-knowing and all-powerful

C) Job, or whomever is in question, is blameless

Since man causes others to suffer, these assumptions have to be questioned. Here are some possibilities as to explain the incongruity:

1) “The L-rd works in mysterious ways.” This is the conclusion that is reached at the end of the Book of Job, as well as Pirke Avot 4:19. I have two main issues with this line of thinking. The first is that it is a cop-out. When this answer is typically given by theists, you can see how uncomfortable the question makes them, and how they don’t want to question G-d. My second issue, and the much more disturbing one, is that the Torah is supposed be a blueprint as to how one should live their life. It teaches about love, righteousness, justice, and proper behavior. Abraham held G-d to this standard when questioning why G-d was going to destroy Sodom.  Moses questions G-d in this week’s Torah portion, as well as many other places.  If G-d is using a different standard, then G-d is not properly teaching us truth when presenting lessons in the Torah.  If G-d is not truly teaching us about love and righteousness, there would be no point to religion or proper behavior.  We would not have the ability to assert anything about religion, which would make religion a pointless theoretical exercise.

2) G-d is evil. That certainly is a theoretical possibility. It certainly is inconsistent with Jewish thought. But what is evil? Evil is depriving an individual of something. Whether it is taking money, self-esteem, or a life, one commits evil because of a personal deficiency. Since G-d’s infinite nature makes him One [and complete], thereby being perfect, G-d has no reason to take anything from anybody. Therefore, G-d is not evil.

3) G-d is not all-knowing or all-powerful. Again, we have to address the nature of G-d. G-d is infinite. Since G-d is infinite, He created space and time. Since G-d does not exist in either realm, He is also omnipresent. Omnipresence means cognizance of what’s going on, which leads to omniscience. As for omnipotence, I have a slightly different view on that which has no bearing on this conversation. However, if one is to claim that G-d is powerless to help, then why bother asking the question in the first place?  It G-d is not all knowing or all-powerful, then there would be no expectations [of G-d], and the question would thus be superfluous.  Evil wouldn’t exist—only the relativistic view of “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.”

4) G-d’s justice is in full gear. This view is best summarized in “They got what they deserved.” Rav Huna (Talmud, Berachot 5a) certainly thought that if an individual were suffering, they would need to examine their conduct to explain their suffering. With the infanticide that happened during the Book of Exodus and the Holocaust, that is certainly a difficult view to maintain with a straight face.

5) "No pain, no gain." This is comes from the theocentric viewpoint that if G-d gave us life, which is supposed to have meaning, then pain and suffering should also have meaning.  As David Baum points out in the previously hyperlinked article, G-d provides you with everything you need, and there is no suffering that you cannot handle.  This means that G-d is the direct cause of that which happens in your life, something that one would classify as "tough love."  This argument has its flaws, and it would naturally depend on to what extent you think G-d involves Himself.  If you think that G-d is the direct cause of everything, He then becomes the direct cause of evil.  If you think that G-d involves Himself sometimes, an observer would have to conclude that He is capricious since the execution of justice and love are inconsistently applied.  Why would He help you with your math quiz, but not help the terminally ill cancer patient who has been an overall force of good in this world? 

6) The free will argument.  Considering the predominant viewpoint of a personal G-d in Judaism, this argument is only brought up by Jewish arch-rationalists such as Maimonides, Spinoza, and Abraham ben Izra.  In Jewish thought, free will has always been at odds with a personal G-d.  If I had to choose between a personal G-d and G-d giving us the ever-important gift of free will, I would take free will any day.  Here's why free will is so important to Judaism.  If we have no free will (i.e., everything is pre-determined by G-d or we acted merely out of instinct and compulsion), it would be, as Rabbi Telushkin puts it, as non-sensible for G-d to give us the Torah and tell us how to behave as it would be to have a law commanding people to run a four-minute mile, which would be unfair for [just about] everybody.  Unlike Christianity, Judaism puts so much emphasis on man's actions, and believes that we can overcome our tendencies to commit evil (Genesis 4:7).  Without free will, there would be no point to Torah.  There would be no reason to repent.  In short, there would be no reason to Judaism.

In terms of explaining why man can commit so much evil, the free will argument is the best argument out there.  In order for free will to exist in its true form, that means allowing man to do whatever he wants.  That means if we have the right to choose the ultimate good, then we also have the right to choose the ultimate evil.  Without evil, we cannot know what good is.  Freedom is a double-edged sword.  In order for the ultimate good to exist, the ultimate evil would need the ability to exist, as well.

Let's take the Cain and Abel story, an example of where an individual's free will wiped out a fourth of humanity.  Cain ultimately killed Abel.  If G-d were to intervene [and had indeed intervened], He would a lot of explaining to do since He had explained to Cain earlier that he had free will to overcome his desire to kill Abel (ibid).

If G-d does indeed value giving mankind with free will, which R. Sforno explains is what it means to be "created in His image," more so than He does by sheltering humans from pain, then we have to accept the real possibility that G-d is indeed impersonal.  This doesn't necessarily mean that G-d is indifferent to our pain.  Like a parent, G-d is disappointed when His children make the wrong choice.  But like a good parent, G-d would rather have the child learn "the hard way" so that the child can ultimately stand on their two feet.  For a parent, watching a child grow up to be a self-sufficient, morally sound individual is what the parent wants.  Coddling the child for his entire life won't help the child grow.

Free will and the ability to grow and progress.  These are the ultimate gifts that G-d endowed human beings with at humanity's inception.  The potential that the gift has can go either way.  May we use the gift of free will to actualize the ultimate good!

שבת שלום!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Do I Like Christmas? Nope!

One of the reasons why I love this country so much is because of its religious plurality. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists can work side by side and, for the most part, get along quite well, even in spite of their differences. A lot of that amicability is due to the high levels of religious freedom that this nation offers. I can practice my religion without government interference, and my non-Jewish neighbors can do the same.

Just becuase I have great respect for the religious freedoms afforded by the First Amendment doesn't mean that I think that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” I actually find it to be one of the most fastidious times of the year. Some would probably think that it’s because I’m a miserly Scrooge who doesn’t want to “get into the holiday cheer.”

It’s not that I’m miserly or that I’m a fictional character. It’s because I truly don’t want to get into the holiday cheer. I am a practicing Jew! I cannot emphasize that point enough. I grew up as a Catholic and had the holiday cheer. Since my conversion to Judaism, those days have long since past.

If you take Judaism or being Jewish seriously, there is no way you can celebrate Christmas. As my Christian friends remind me, there is a reason why they call it Christmas, and why we need to “put the ‘Christ’ back in Christmas.” Although the holiday has become secularized in this country, a point upon which I will elaborate momentarily, the primary reason for Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The notion of rejoicing in the alleged Immaculate Conception is highly problematic for a practicing Jew such as myself because the very notion of G-d being born is pagan in nature. The Jesus story is based on a combination of other myths from surrounding pagan cultures.  For instance, Attis was a Roman g-d born of the virgin Cybele on December 25thBoth Osiris and Dionysus were born from mortal virgins and both were claimed to be the son of G-d.  Even Krishna, the Hindu deity, was part of a trinity, was adopted by a human carpenter, and was considered to be a g-d-man. There are too many pre-Chrisian mythologies that have elements of the story of Jesus.  The amount of "coincidences" here just add up to the point where one can hardly consider it a coincidence.  Why is this problematic?  One of the cornerstones of Judaism is a belief in pure monotheism. To accept the Jesus story is 100% idolatry, which is a grave offense in Jewish law.

In spite of the holiday’s pagan origins, many Americans view the holiday as a secular celebration, as this poll from Lifeway, a Christian organization, suggests. Even if one could separate the religious aspects from it, which would be a difficult task unto itself, that doesn’t make Christmas any less annoying. The most popular secular part of Christmas is gift-giving. It also happens to be something I find exceptionally nauseating because it epitomizes the rampant materialism that is so prevalent in this country. Material wealth doesn’t buy happiness. More material goods do not translate into happiness. That is why short of those exceptionally poor people who cannot provide themselves with the most basic needs, there is no noticeable difference in happiness between the rich, middle-class, and the poor. And because of that, the euphoria of the one-day gift-giving frenzy peters off very quickly, most Americans return to their Prozac-popping, rat-racing, pedantic, mundane lives. If the “greatest joy of the year” is predicated on accruing material goods, then it’s no wonder that so many Americans are spiritually stymied and are incapable of understanding religion.

Also, can someone explain the concept of Secret Santa to me? It’s nothing more than a pathetic attempt at acquiring a feeling of altruism. If the gifts in Secret Santa are approximately the same amount for each person, then it’s really no different than buying the gift yourself. After all, the same amount of money came from your wallet. Secret Santa is merely a loophole in the appropriation of goods that makes somebody feel like they have a giving nature. If you truly have a giving nature, that would show in your actions year-round.

And who can forget the Christmas meal? All it illustrates is that Christmas is just another day for Americans to eat a ton of unhealthy food, watch a lot of TV (e.g., It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street), and to continue with the sedentary lifestyle that perpetuates the ever-rising costs in our healthcare system.

Christmas does, however, have one nice element. Many celebrate Christmas as time with family. Going back to the previously mentioned poll, that is what 81% of celebrators emphasize: family. And if your family lives on the other side of the country, that’s great. It gives a family a reason to meet up at least once a year. But it becomes very sad when that’s not the case. Many families either live within the same household or within driving distance. When this is the only time of year a family spends together, which does happen more often than a “head-in-the-clouds optimist” would ever like to admit, Christmas points out the decay of one of society’s most important institutions.

My final reason for why I cannot stand this time of year is when people think that Chanukah is the “Jewish Christmas.” It is nothing like Christmas. The fact that the 25th of Kislev, which is the first night of Chanukah, falls in proximity of December 25th does not make them identical. It is a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. It’s one of the few holidays during which a Jew can work. And the gift-giving aspect really kicked into gear so that secular Jews didn’t feel so left out during the holiday season.

What is Chanukah? Chanukah is primarily the celebration of a military victory a little over two millennia ago. One of the main lessons we derive from what led up to the militaristic upheaval is the fact that the traditionalist Jews beat out the Hellenistic Jews [that were trying to assimilate]. Because the Hellenistic Jews were hell-bent on making Judaism more like the surrounding culture, the Maccabees were set on making sure that Jewish tradition was not lost for good. The fact that Jews are taught to maintain their Jewish identity, rather than give into cultural assimilation, makes the analogy between the two holidays all the more based on ignorance.

Do I miss Christmas? Goodness, no! I don’t miss the heyday of having to go to packed stores to buy people presents. I don’t miss singing carols by the Christmas tree. I don’t even really miss getting presents.  And I definitely don't miss putting ornaments on the Christmas tree.  Do I need Christmas? Most certainly not! I have much more than Chanukah. I have Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Tu B’Shevat, Purim, Peasch, Shavuot, the list goes on. Not only do I have all of those holidays, I also get a holiday every week: Shabbat. For whatever joy I gave up for Christmas, which is nothing more than a blur of nostalgia at this stage in life, I have not only gained more holidays quantitatively, but the quality of the holidays is much more profound than anything I ever found celebrating Christmas.

Ethanol and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Using ethanol as an alternative, renewable fuel has been an intruiging part of the energy debate for quite a few years.  When looking at a lot of pieces of legislation, it is just one side that feels all happy and justified with their decision while agitating the other side.  Ethanol is peculiar because it is one of those rare instances that not only do we have bipartisan efforts, but both sides have that "feel good" attitude towards the legislation.  For the Left, they like ethanol because it's good for the environment.  For the Right, they can better sleep at night because they can tell themselves that ethanol usage will decrease our dependency on foreign oil and help with national security.  Both sides will use the protectionist argument that jobs will stay in America.

Enter the law of unintended consequences.  Like with just about anything else in life, things don't go as planned.  However, if you are to have an unintended consequence, you would rather have it be positive, much like Adam Smith's concept of the Invisible Hand.  Unintended consequences are bound to be a part of government programs, and they are rarely a positive factor.  The case of ethanol legislature is of appeal because it is not just one side that doesn't get the concept of unintended consequences--it is both sides. 

Let's start with the notion that ethanol is good for the environment.  You know something is wrong [with ethanol] when the Far Left environmentalists, such as the Friends of the Earth, agree with a free-market libertarian, albeit for different reasons. As they point out, biofuels, particularly ethanol, cause air pollution and biofuel spillages can do massive damage.  Friends of the Earth even goes as far to claim that "[B]iofuels can also do more to cause global warming than conventional gasoline."

What about energy independence?  At least if the Left wasn't correct, surely the Right would be correct about not supporting Arab oil anymore.  Wrong!  That's wrong.  In spite of increase in ethanol usage, oil imports have not decreased.  Why hasn't oil consumption increased?  Because we just love our oil too much.  I'm not opposed to finding alternative forms of energy.  It would cut back on using more resources, which would be a better allocation of limited resources.  I just don't want Big Government getting involved.  And until we either find alternative energy, or at least start drilling in ANWR, we will still be using foreign oil since most of oil is used for transportation, not to mention that about 40% of our energy comes from oil.  Even if we used all the corn in America to produce ethanol fuel, it would only displace 16% of the current fuel usage. 

I could go on, but at this time, it sufficeth to say that ethanol fuel is hardly the wave of the future.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why Obama's "Tax Cuts" Aren't Going to Be Effective

In what came off as a surprising move, Obama is attempting to help get legislation through Congress that would temproarily extend the Bush tax cuts.  Although you would think that I would be happy with Obama supporting tax cuts, the current situation is not quite what you would think.

The first issue is that he excluded Democrats in the drafting process as much as he did with the Republicans when passing Obamacare.  This has angered Democrats enough to the point where the bill might not even pass. 

Even if the bill does pass, there is an issue with the fact that the tax cuts are only going to be for two years.  One of the more basic economic concepts is that businesses respond to incentives.  Businesses don't intend to be in business for only a couple of years.  They look to be in business in the long-run.  Therefore, any incentive you give business must be long-term.  It will be true that some businesses will respond to the tax cut extension and expand employment a bit, but for the most part, if a business is uncertain whether the extension of the tax cuts will be permanent, the incentive has become minimalist at best.

It is disingenuous to call this a tax cut bill.  The tax cuts had already been in place during the Bush II era.  The decision is whether to extend these cuts.  Congress is merely maintaining the status quo.  Yes, it is true that passing these cuts will help America avoid a second recession.  But it is as equally as true that this extension will not help speed up the economic recovery.

Another issue is that we are not learning from the Bush 43.  Bush was correct in cutting back on taxes.  However, in order for tax cuts to be effective, government spending also has to be cut.  Bush never cut back on government, and neither will Obama.  Obama has already proved this by making an extension of unemployment benefits a contingency of extending the tax cuts.  The government needs to cut back on spending, whether it is with unemployment benefits or anything else.  If Congress is not taking a serious look at deleveraging, economic growth will be stagnant for quite some time.
Plus, the expiration date of the bill makes me suspicious of Obama.  The expiration date is slated for two years, which is exactly during election time.  I would not be surprised if Obama pointed at the ineffacicy of this "compromise" and used it during the 2012 election to rail against Reupblicans and genuine tax cuts in general.

This bill will be the epitome of bi-partisan compromise.  Why?  Because when you have such compromise, nobody gets what they want.  Republicans don't get further tax cuts, and Democrats don't get to raise taxes.  And when neither side gets what they want, the bill fails miserably.  In short, this bill will be yet another failure of Congress under the Obama Administration.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Am I Realistic or Downright Pessimistic About a Two-State Solution?

Whenever I hear people talk about the Middle East and utter the phrase "two-state solution," it's almost as if I get some sort of gag reflex. It's not that I don't want Israel to have a peaceful co-existence with its neighbors. After all, peace is one of the essential Jewish ideals. Religious Jews yearn for a day where the Messiah can usher in an era of world peace.

It's that the main obstacle for peace between the two parties is the Palestinians themselves. They have been taught hatred for Israel for so long that they cannot accept the existence of a Jewish state. This would normally be the point where the peaceniks either call me ethnocentric, racist, or excessively pessimistic. I prefer to call it realism. Although I have made comments here and there regarding the Palestinian obstacle, I read an article by Benny Morris called Bleak Home that hits the nail on the head.

Morris first points out the problem with the Palestinian mentality:

The first, the one that American and European officials never express and—if impolitely mentioned in their presence—turn away from in distaste, is that Palestinian political elites, of both the so-called “secular” and Islamist varieties, are dead set against partitioning the Land of Israel/Palestine with the Jews. They regard all of Palestine as their patrimony and believe that it will eventually be theirs. History, because of demography and the steady empowerment of the Arab and Islamic worlds and the West’s growing alienation from Israel, and because of Allah’s wishes, is, they believe, on their side. They do not want a permanent two-state solution, with a Palestinian Arab state co-existing alongside a (larger) Jewish state; they will not compromise on this core belief and do not believe, on moral or practical grounds, that they should.

This basic Palestinian rejectionism, amounting to a Weltanschauung, is routinely ignored or denied by most Western commentators and officials. To grant it means to admit that the Israeli-Arab conflict has no resolution apart from the complete victory of one side or the other (with the corollary of expulsion, or annihilation, by one side of the other)—which leaves leaders like President Barack Obama with nowhere realistic to go with regard to the conflict.

Yitzhak Rabin was incorrect was when he said that "you make peace with your enemies." It would be more accurate to say that you make peace with your former enemy. Peace cannot occur until the Jew-hatred dissipates. 

Morris then continues to point out that the Palestinians reject a two-state solution:

Another problem for Westerners is that the Palestinians, by design or no, speak to them in several voices. Hamas, which may represent the majority of the Palestinian people and certainly has the unflinching support of some 40 percent of them, speaks clearly. It openly repudiates a two-state solution. Hamas leaders, to bamboozle naïve (or wicked) Westerners like Henry Siegman, occasionally express a tactical readiness for a long-term truce under terms that they know are unacceptable to any Jewish Israelis (complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and acceptance of the refugees’ “Right of Return”), but their strategic message is clear, echoing the Roman statesman Cato the Elder: “Israel must be destroyed.”

Morris then concludes with the following:

What remains, in the absence of a basic change of Palestinian mindset, is a bleak picture. No viable peace agreement is remotely in prospect. Neither is the emergence of a full-fledged Palestinian state. A unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is so problematic as to be virtually unimplementable. Yet continued Israeli rule over the territory and its people, obnoxious to most Israelis and to the rest of the world, raises the prospect of a bi-national state or an apartheid state, both of which most Jews regard as anathema. That, unfortunately, is where we’re at.

Without the Palestinians wanting the annahilation of the Jewish state, the options look grim.  A stalemate won't last forever, especially if Abbas goes to the UN to try to unilateraly declare a Palestinian state. That would make relations more acerbic between the two nations. A bi-national state with the Israeli government ruling over the lands would agitate more than a fair share of people. The Israelis can take over the occupied territories and kick out all the Arabs.  Something would tell me that the international media would have a field day with this one.  If Hamas somehow managing to succeed in its goal of the anihilation of Israel, G-d forbid, the world would be a much worse place because of it.  Therefore, the future of any "peace process" working will be contingent upon the Palestinians changing. Since I fear that they are going to be stubborn in their ways, I'm afraid that this isn't going to end well for either side.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Pirke Avot 1:1- Dealing with "Building a Fence Around Torah" in the 21st Century

In many world religions, the monastic lifestyle so prevalent in the paradigm of aestheticism is perceived as optimal for acquiring a spiritual life. Judaism, on the other hand, finds itself somewhere between aestheticism and hedonism. Judaism believes in taking the mundanity of physical life and elevating it to holiness, thereby infusing the spiritual with the physical.

Since Judaism is in the middle of the two aforementioned extremes, one can correctly infer that Judaism has a degree of abstinence involved. G-d gave the Jewish people commandments to follow, and a majority of those commandments are negative. If a Jew is wanting to follow the "will of G-d," that Jew cannot treat their actions with a laissez-faire, "anything goes" mentality. There would have to be a degree of self-restraint.

To help further assure that the commandments, the Rabbis, in their wisdom, "built a fence around Torah (Pirke Avot 1:1)." These rabbinic enactments, called gezeirot, were considered to be of greater piety than simply follow the commandment itself because it shows that the individual wants to take the utmost care to avoid even the slightest potential danger of violating a mitzvah (Rabbeinu Yonah's commentary on ibid). I can certainly understand the benefits of such a maxim. It helps distinguish between what one wants and what one truly needs. The fences can help avoid the violations of commandments, which can help foster a closer relationship with G-d. The discipline in being able to self-restrain, and thus abstain, give people a better grasp exercising free will.

In short, these rabbinic fences can help make one a well-balanced individual who is a productive member of society. As the adage goes, "there's always too much of a good thing." In the Talmud (Baba Kama 79B), it states that a restriction should not be imposed on a given community unless the majority is able to abide by it. Considering that about ninety percent of the Jewish community is considered non-observant (i.e., not Orthodox), I cannot help but discern that "a fence around the Torah" has backfired somewhere along the way.

The Orthodox are obsessed with the concept of "stringency for stringency's sake." [I would also like to add that when I comment on the Orthodox community, I always feel I need to invoke the principle of "the further to the Right you go, the more it is true] I have met some Orthodox Jews that get some sort of masochistic pleasure of enjoying strictures. For such an individual, strictures "bring them closer to G-d," and anybody who does not share their euphoric state are deemed to be lax and lack any sense of G-dliness in their life.

I find this mentality to be troubling. What should have remained a fence has become a fence, a moat, a slew of Rottweilers, security towers armed with automatic weapons at various points, lasers, land mines, and a glass dome surrounding the area to make sure that no one can enter.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out in his book "Between G-d and Man" (p. 161):

"In their zeal to carry out the ancient injunction, "make a hedge about the Torah," many rabbis failed to heed the warning, 'Do not consider the hedge more important than the vineyard (Genesis Rabbah 19:3).' Excessive regard for the hedge may spell ruin for the vineyard [the Torah]. The vineyard is being trodden down. It is all but laid waste. Is this the time to insist upon the sanctity of the hedges?"

What good are the hedges if most Jews are not appreciating the vineyard? These stringencies (hedges) have become so numerous and nuanced that many Jews are unaware that there is a vineyard, let alone appreciate the beauty of Torah.

As Rabbi Barry Gelman illustrates, there is a value to lenient rulings. "Lenient" does not translate to indifference, disdain, or laxness. If the current state of the Jewish people and Jewishness denotes anything, it is that the stringencies have caused such sentiment.

It is not too late to change the trend of non-observance. If there is any hope of bringing more Jews to observing Judaism, as opposed to the disheartening status quo, nothing short of a re-examination and re-vamping of Jewish law will be required. This is a daunting task since a large majority of Jewish practice has become "d'rabbanan." But on the positive side, we can change anything "d'rabbanan" without a Sanhedrin if the reasons for the fence have become moot. It will be difficult to achieve, in light of Orthodoxy's trend towards reactionary tendencies, but my hope is that such realization will come, and enough even-keeled people within Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy will do something about it before the Haredim take a monopolistic grasp at claiming itself to being the sole, valid way to practice Judaism, thereby eroding the diversity and adaptability in Judaism as we know it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Paradox of the Dreidel

Jewish tradition gives some insights as to why we play a dreidel on Chanukah.  The four letters on the dreidel, for instance, spell out "נס גדול היה שם," which means "A great miracle happened there."   The dreidel was a facade that Jews in that era would use to cover up the fact that they were studying Torah [since Torah study was illegal during this period].  The gematria, or Jewish numerology, adds the numeric values of the four letters, which comes out to 358.  358 also happens to be the numeric value of the word משיח‎‎ (Messiah), meaning that when the Messiah comes, we will not have to look at one facet, but will be able to look at all four at the same time.

As insightful as this all might be, the dreidel itself is a paradoxical symbol.  One of the important lessons of Chanukah is to not give into cultural assimilation.  Yet the tradition teaches us that the Jews of that time played it as to not arouse suspicion of studying Torah.  One has to keep in mind that Jewish practices as a whole were banned in this society.  If playing the dreidel game were a particularistically Jewish thing to do, they would have been arrested on sight.  The fact that they used the dreidel in a Greek-ruled society to cover up Torah study means that playing with a four-sided top was something that the Greeks did.  As Rabbi Golinkin points out, "in order to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidel game, which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation."

Rather than dismissing this as a hypocrisy in Jewish practice, we can derive an important lesson here.  Rather than teach us a conflicting message of dichotomy, we can take the lesson that the dreidel represents the importance of cultural integration.  Back in Biblical times, the Israelites were influenced by the sacrificial system, a system which existed prior to the Exodus out of Egypt.  It was a universal mode of worship, and the Israelites used it until there was no more Temple.  Maimonides was the greatest post-Biblical influence on Jewish thought.  Maimonides' most influential teacher was Aristotle, who was a Greek who happened to not be Jewish.  The notion of marriage was even influenced by their respective rulers.  Under Christian rule, the Ashkenazi Jews adopted marriage between "one man and one woman," whereas under Islamic rule, the Sephardic Jews permitted polygamy because that is what the surrounding culture did. The fact that there is a difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazic cuisine implies the influences of the surrounding cultures on Jewish gastronomy.  The melody for the most popular Chanukah song, Maoz Tzur, is based off a 14th-century German folksong.  Klezmer music was an adaptation of secular, Eastern European music, most notably that of the Romanians.  The Yiddish language is another example of how the Jews have taken from other cultures and adapted to it.  After all, Yiddish is a fusion of Hebrew, German, Aramaic, and a bit of some Slavic languages.

Although I can come up with more examples, it suffices to say that Judaism does not live in a bubble.  One of Judaism's redeeming qualities is its ability to adapt, and that includes on a cultural level.  Adaptability, and thus integration, have contributed to Jewish survival.  Not only has it kept the Jewish people alive, but the capaibility to take good ideas from other cultures is what has made Judaism stronger.

חג שמח!