Friday, April 29, 2005

Erev Shevi'i shel Pesach

My flatmate pointed out to me that, according to the Magnes Press website, Menahem Kahana's new book has been published. It contains transcriptions of all the Genizah fragments of all the Tannaitic Midrashim, both extant and lost. The fragments of Sifra are so numerous, they will appear in a subsequent volume, equal in size. The introduction is available here.

It is worth noting that this volume is the first major product of the Friedberg Geniza Project to reach fruition, as far as I am aware.

I came across this message today. Apparently, if you write to them, they will allow you to eat kitniyot. Who "they" are is unclear. I looked at the website mentioned there, and I hope to find the time to say a few things about it in the near future. For now, let me just mention this aspect of the worldview being presented there. The idea that the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew is the only correct one, and the Ashkenazic tradition is simply a "very negative effect" of exile, is anachronistic. Studies by Shamma Friedman, Zelda Kahan Newman and others have shown the ancient sources of the Ashkenazic linguistic tradition. The most straightforward proof that neither the Yemenite nor the Sephardic pronunciation is the only legitimate one is that neither of them utilizes the full range of vowel points we use today. While Ashkenazim do.

This attitude, which sees Ashkenazic traditions as nothing more than an unfortunate by-product of exile in Europe, makes it very easy to dismiss Ashkenazic traditions such as kitniyot (which, admittedly, is not especially hoary). I think such an attitude is totally unjustified. Hopefully, more to come.

Got to go. All those following the custom first mentioned by R Abraham Galanti and observing the Tikkun Leil Shvi'i shel Pesach - enjoy. I don't have time to check it now, but I seem to remember that Meir Benayahu wrote an article about this custom.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Hol Hamoed Pesach

The 13th century Italian book, Shibbolei haLeket, describes a letter which R Simcha of Speyer received from R Tuvia of Burgundy, which was written during the intermediate days of a festival, when certain limitations on writing are imposed. R Tuvia's signature is reproduced there (chapter 225, p. 211) as a network of dotted lines. Like pixels. Hmm.

And a nice humra to balance that out.

I came across a Geonic responsum (Teshuvot Ge'oney Mizrach u'Ma'arav no. 39, Ma'aseh haGe'onim p. 31, Otzar haGeonim Pesahim p. 72; Simcha Assaf, Tekufat ha'Geonim veSifruta, Jerusalem 1915, p. 248) regarding Yom Tov Sheni shel Galuyot. For each day of full-fledged festival - there is one at the beginning and end of both Passover and Sukkot, and one on Shavuot - the Diaspora is required to keep two days.

This requirement has created a great deal of complication, bitterness and rebellion over the years. One of the questions it raises has to do with immigration and travel. Let's say a diaspora Jew marries an Israeli resident, and they live in Israel. Does the immigrant observe one day or two?

That is the question the responsum deals with, and what I found interesting is the criterion for answering it. The question was asked about men from North Africa (Ifriqya) who married and lived in Jerusalem. The (anonymous) respondent wrote that, if they have been there for a year, they follow the local custom of one day, even if they intend to return to Tunisia someday. If, however, they were from Iraq, they would have to continue to keep two days, as long as they mean to be repatriated eventually. Why? Because the Two Yeshivot reside in Baghdad, giving the entire region the status of an "important place".

I was wondering how to apply that kind of criterion today. Is there an objective scale of importance, rating every diaspora community? Or is it better to keep in mind that the responsum itself was probably written in one of those "two yeshivot"? And therefore, the respondent might have had a somewhat skewed perception of the importance of Baghdad.

In any case, I think it's interesting to think about travel in that way. Diaspora, wandering, fitting into a new place. Your degree of acclimatization is dictated by a wide range of factors. But one of them is - where are you coming from? What is there in your homeland that will continue to tug at your heartstrings, pulling you home? Is your spiritual center still somewhere far away? Then, though you may live here for years, you will always be a little out of step. And maybe that's the way it should be.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Have a joyous festival

Looks like the creative minds of the Jewish people have been hard at work lately - for better and for worse.

And if anyone is planning to bake their matzas on Saturday night, I know some people from 1000 years who would be happy to hear it.

ערב פסח שחל להיות בשבת, אסור לאפות מצה מבערב שבת. הראשונים אמרו משום הידור מצוה הוא. אבל מצינו איסורא דאורייתא, דהא הוקשו מצות לפסח...
When the eve of Passover is Shabbat, it is forbidden to bake matza on Friday. The early ones said this is to venerate the commandment. But we have found that it is a biblical prohibition, because matza is compared in the Talmud to the paschal lamb [which was slaughtered on Nissan 14, in the afternoon, even on Shabbat]
(Sefer haPardes, ed. Ehrenreich, p. 42; Mahzor Vitri, ed. Horowitz, p. 260)

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Blood of your Friend

Today I saw volume 15 of the Haredi publication Yeshurun. It opens with an important and well-illustrated article by Dr Ezra Chwat and R Nissim Sabbato, on the draft of Maimonides' commentary to the Mishna, fragments of which are found in the Geniza.

It also includes a special section, titled Dam Re'echa [The Blood of Your Friend]. This is a collection of responsa by contemporary rabbis, on the question of reporting abusers to the authorities. The impetus, as the introduction by Rabbi Zvi Gartner explains, is legislation in the US requiring teachers and others to report abuse immediately.

I haven't read it carefully yet. R Shalom Yosef Elyashiv contributed a couple of short responses. The first is about someone who knows for certain that someone else is abusing a child sexually or physically. Is one allowed to pass this information on to a government official without first applying to a rabbinical court?

Rav Elyashiv answers that, if the facts of the matter are clearcut, it is permitted to report the abuser. If, however, there is no basis at all (שאין אפילו רגלים לדבר), then this is forbidden since the accusation is probably false. [This leaves a tremendous gray area. But maybe that was the point.]

What I found interesting was his source. Only one (it's a very short letter). A responsum by the Rashba, R Shlomo ben Avraham ibn Aderet [vol. 3 no. 393]. It in turn is based on the Talmud BM 84b. Rav Elyashiv extracts from these sources his key concept in the discussion - Tikkun Olam. That rallying point of liberals. Interesting. Especially since it is not mentioned in the source (as my friend Dudi, who is writing his thesis on the Rashba, pointed out to me).

Then he was asked about abuse within the family. Here his answer is much more hedgy. If the child is liable to be taken out of a religiously observant environment and placed in a foster home with an irreligious or non-Jewish family, then that is like killing him. If he (or she) is not in clear and present danger to his life (pikuach nefesh), then reporting the case is not warranted. In any case, the definition of abuse should be examined carefully, since "their" concept of abuse is completely different from "ours".

If I understand that correctly, he means that the law might define corporal punishment as abuse, but "we" know that it is simply a form of educational discipline. But I may be wrong.

The next piece (and the last I copied) is by R Moshe Halberstam, who is described as a member of the Edah heHaredit court and Rosh Yeshiva of Divre Hayim Tchokova. His response is longer, but the essence is the same. He quotes a different responsum of the Rashba, one he knows only from the Beit Yosef [HM 388, 8]. It was found in a manuscript and published by David Kaufmann in the Old Series of JQR, and was included in a recent edition of Rashba's responsa (edited by Prof SZ Havlin, part 9 no. 282).

Towards the end, R Halberstam introduces another important concept, which for him sums up the situation. A child abuser is a rodef. It is a mitzva to stop him in any way. He adds that there are, of course, various issues to take into account, such as the need to try and provide him with a religiously observant doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc. And it should be done in a way that minimizes the damage to other people, such as his family members.

But he does not seem to have qualms about reporting such abuse to the police directly, without consultation with rabbis. But I may have missed something.

My comments:
1. It is good that the issue is being discussed. Admittedly, the editors of Yeshurun seem to be pretty open-minded. They even cite academics when making use of academic research in their articles.

2. No mention of the extensive halachic discussions regarding rumours about a public figure. They are focused almost exclusively on the victims and the need to stop the abuse. I think that's the point I made a few weeks ago. I'm glad it wasn't just my idea.

3. The story in BM which they both refer to is quite an equivocal one, as mentioned in Gertner's introduction to the section, and discussed extensively by Daniel Boyarin in Carnal Israel. Interesting that they would use that as their major source.

4. I summarized the responsum by Rashba I mentioned before, based on R Prof Havlin's notes:

This epistle was sent from Barcelona around the year 1280. A young man was accused of informing on many of the Jewish communities in Spain. The case reached the attention of King Pedro III, who eventually had him executed, with the encouragement of the communities. After his death, one of his relatives told royal officials that the communities did not have the authority to sentence people to death. This post-mortem development forced Rashba to canvass support for his pro-death position overseas.

The Jewish community in Spain, and especially Rashba, was adamant about its right to take steps, including capital punishment, against people perceived as being enemies of the community.

I think that emphasizes something under the surface of this whole section in Yeshurun. They perceive abusers as being enemies of the community. That is very important. But what happens when enemies of the community are leaders of that same community?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Notorious Neusner

Check out this article in the New York Times this morning (if you can't access it, there is an abstract here).

There have been other Jewish scholars who were hugely prolific. Personally, I find his books unreadable. There is a huge build-up to a revolutionary conclusion, one which every other contemporary scholar misunderstood - and then, skimming ahead to the climax, there doesn't seem to be one.

For a long time, the strong reactions Prof. Neusner evokes made me uncomfortable. Now I have a better understanding of where it is coming from. He revels in criticizing his peers - often repeatedly (Alberdina Houtman wrote an unassuming thesis on Mishna and Tosefta, and got a book and two articles of rebuttal for her trouble). And his criticism is often caustic. Yet, his own skin seems to be very thin. After reading in his introduction to The Peripatetic Saying about the terrible injustices he suffered at the hands of his critics, I looked up the reviews he was complaining about, and found them quite unremarkable.

I guess it's something like what happened to R Zerahia ha-Levi (Ba'al haMa'or) and R Abraham ben David of Posquieres (Ra'avad). These two 12th century Provencal scholars had a number of disagreements over theoretical issues. Though they lived in the same area, R Zerahiah was originally from Catalonia. This had certain ramifications. Ra'avad was willing to constantly update, revise and correct his position, and saw nothing dishonourable in changing his mind. R Zerahiah would not take a position until he was utterly convinced it was correct. Once declared, he would not budge from it.

The two of them began to correspond regarding their differences of opinion. Too quickly, the tone turned ugly. Things deteriorated, and R Zerahiah eventually cut off ties with Ra'avad. Before that final stage, though, Ra'avad made a revealing comment. "God knows, and Israel too, that if I spoke with rage and anger... it was only because I saw you follow the customs of the Spaniards, who love each other yet when they learn Torah they seem like enemies..." In other words, he was simply following what he understood to be Razah's custom, the conventional form of debate in his place of origin. Apparently, this explanation was not sufficient, and the biting words of the debate struck deep.

This description is based upon Israel Ta-Shema's book, Rabbi Zerahiah haLevi, Author of the Ma'or and his Contemporaries: A History of Rabbinic Literature in Provence, Jerusalem 1992, chapter 6 [Hebrew]. For the difference in cultural background, see also Simcha Emanuel, Lost Halakhic Books of the Tosafists, PhD thesis, Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1993, p. 13.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Purity and Paschal Sacrifice

The Temple and its attendant sacrificial rituals have been attracting some attention lately. I was reminded of a story that Hazal tell of a cohen named Yosef.

"And there was the case of Yosef the Cohen, whose wife died on Pesach eve, and he didn't want to defile himself [by burying her, because then he would be unable to participate in the Pesach, the Paschal sacrifice]. His brother priests ganged up on him and defiled him against his will" (Zebahim 100a).

This is one of several stories in which Hazal reveal their discomfort with placing disproportionate emphasis on purity and sacrifice. They are important, and two entire orders of the Mishna and Tosefta are devoted to such matters. But people have a tendency to put ritual before more basic concerns.

Steven Fraade, for one, has shown how Hazal translated the Biblical emphasis on priesthood and the Temple as the center of Jewish religious life, into a worldview focused on learning as the ideal and Sages as the national leaders. For instance, Deuteronomy 17, 9 makes it clear that the supreme court consists of Kohanim. The Sifre ad loc learns from here, slightly disingenuously, that it is preferable, though by no means crucial, that the court include Kohanim among the judges. For Hazal, the idea of the Kohen as God's intermediary with His people has been inherited by the Sages.

Today I came across a similar migration of concepts. Victor Aptowitzer (famous for publishing Sefer Ra'avya) pointed out that, in the writings of early French and German rabbis, terminology of purity and impurity is applied regularly to what's known as Issur ve'Heter. Certain foods are forbidden by Halacha under certain circumstances. But they do not cause impurity. These Rishonim blurred that distinction. Instead of saying that the wine of non-Jews is forbidden for drinking, they would say it was impure. [Avigdor Aptowitzer, Studies in the Literature of the Geonim, Jerusalem 1941, p. 62 (Hebrew)]

I guess this kind of ties in to my previous posting. We don't have a Temple, and purity is a concept that is not immediately relevant. One response to that would be to say that it is irrelevant, and good riddance.

Another would be to try and bring those concepts back as soon as possible.

But a third is to find other avenues along which to make these concepts relevant.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Rabbis of Rome

I came across the name of the rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Elio Toaff, twice in the past few minutes. First, as part of a thread on Mail Jewish about the accuracy of Orthodox popular histories, someone pointed out that R Berel Wein has confused R Toaff with the infamous R Israel Zolli, the rabbi of Rome during World War II. After the war, the Jewish community refused to take Zolli back as leader of the community. In response, he went and got himself baptized by the pope de'az, Pius. Definitely not a predecessor any rabbi would enjoy being conflated with.

Then I found the same Rabbi Toaff mentioned in the recently-deceased Pope's will. Which surely says a lot about the impression he has made on world leaders.

But all this reminded me of another controversial leader of Roman Jewry - Theudas. According to the Tosefta (Yom Tov 2, 15), Todus the physician instructed the community in Rome to eat roast lambs on Passover eve - a precise reenactment of the paschal lamb that was sacrificed and eaten when the Temple stood.

This was in stark contrast to rabbinic consensus, which permitted eating any kind of meat at the seder - except a spitted lamb. Which led the rabbis (according to the Talmud, BT Pesahim 53b and PT Pesahim VII 34a) to declare: "If you were not Todus, we would have thrown you out".

So, it seems that the rabbis of Rome tend to walk a precarious path

The underlying idea of the conflict between Todus and the rabbis is one that comes up in many places, and I think it is significant for traditional religious life today as well. The rabbis were saying that the Temple is gone. There's nothing we can do about that except mourn its absence and wait for its return. Until then, we will make do with what religious symbols we still have. Todus, on the other hand, was saying that we can try to simulate the presence of the Temple. We will reproduce its rituals as faithfully as we can, and thus keep its memory alive and vivid.

Elchanan Reiner wrote an article, first published in Hebrew in Cathedra and later in English, which develops these conflicting approaches. He seemed to be saying that the first approach, the one which scrupulously avoids reproducing Temple rituals, was typical of the Karaite Mourners of Zion. And the second approach, the one exemplified by Todus, was that of Rabbinic Judaism.

For example - the Karaites were scandalized by the idea of an aron kodesh. A physical presence in the synagogue at the focal point of the prayer ceremony. This is transparently based on the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Reproducing that pinnacle of sacred space in a profane, post-destruction edifice was sacrilege. [For a rabbinic affirmation of the idea that the synagogue is a reflection of the Temple, see Israel Ta-Shema, The Early Ashkenazic Prayer, Jerusalem 2003, chapter 15].

So, when do we say that reverence for the past requires keeping a distance, maintaining the uniqueness of things lost? To make sure that precious memories remain unsullied, that deep meanings are not corrupted?

And when is it better to try to gather up the broken pieces, and breathe new life into them? To take ceremonies that have collapsed under the load of history, dust them off and start again?