Chumash Mesoras HaRav

I’ve recently (as a birthday gift, and with thanks to Mrs. Secular Jew) come into possession the first volume of a new Torah commentary, Chumash Mesoras Ha-Rav, which is Hebrew Torah/English Translation + Targum Onkelos + Rashi + (and this is the selling point) a kind of cumulative and redacted commentary from the works and speeches of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Rabbi Soloveitchik was rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, among other things, and as much as modern Orthodox Judaism of the latter half of the 20th Century has had a central philosophical voice, that voice was his. (He’s known as “The Rav” in many Orthodox circles–hence Chumash Mesoras HaRav, or “The Chumash of the Rav’s Tradition.”)

The volume is nicely printed. The Hebrew and Aramaic texts are crisp and clear, including the Rashi script for Rashi’s commentary (clear Rashi script anywhere is greatly appreciated). It’s easier to use for a parshah-by-parshah study aid than as a continuous commentary, given how things are divided up; it’s easy to miss chapter divisions within the chapters of an individual parshah.

But on to the “good stuff.”

If you’ve been reading here for a bit, you know I’m not about to agree with everything Rabbi Soloveitchik had to say. Setting aside the differences I would obviously have with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thought, I think the Chumash project here is interesting and worthwhile, but somewhat uneven. I think this is a function of the nature of the commentary, pieced together, as it is, from many, many different sources. An example suffices, I think, to get across my concerns.

Looking to Gen. 4 (most of the Hebrew in the volume is Ashkenazic yeshiva-style, so the book shows this as Bereishis), I started reading the story of Cain and Abel. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s commentary is…interesting. In one piece of commentary, we are told that “Abel’s very name implies vanity or foolishness,” as a non-firstborn that Abel’s role was to help Cain, and that Abel’s decision to become a shepherd was a violation of the social order. In another, we learn that Abel was weak because of his lifestyle–that is, he was unrooted and nomadic, and thus had no reciprocal relationship with the world upon which he could build and seek protection–and thus Cain was easily able to kill him. (Chumash Mesoras HaRav pp. 35-36.)

And this is where I think some of the unevenness lives. Naturally, the commentary goes on to acknowledge that Cain’s murder of Abel was a crime warranting punishment, and, as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out, that punishment–having the entire world, but no home–was apt for Cain, because it uprooted him from the strength he abused. (Chumash Mesoras HaRav pp. 36-37.) But, one has to ask: would Rabbi Soloveitchik, if personally pressed, have agreed that the commentary should be arranged so one very plausible interpretation of the comments together with the plain sense of the text was that Abel…well, sort of invited Cain’s treatment?

I’m not so sure of that. And I think the problem is that the first bit of commentary–about Abel’s voluntary disenfranchisement–is from a different source (presumably a bit of derasha given in Boston), at a different time (in 1972), than the second bit of commentary (from an article in a Yeshiva University journal in 1966).

I recognize, of course, that midrashic collections routinely mix and muddle approaches and intepretations. Taken in too unified a fashion, reading a classical work of commentary would likely result in some very wild results. But calling the commentary Mesoras HaRav – the tradition of the Rav–pushes this boundary a bit far. Perhaps it’s just a bit of bad billing; perhaps it should have been Mesoros HaRav–the traditions of the Rav? I’m not sure. As a lengthy meditation on sin, it’s certainly an interesting proposition–but it’s not a unifying one.

That said, would I recommend this? And will I continue to use it? Well, we’re fast approaching the end of the traditional reading cycle on Genesis, so if you’re looking to buy now, this is more a future than a present investment. As an entry into the sheer scope and variety of Soloveitchik’s work, it’s a good choice. But I’m not sure it would present a helpful, unified view of many of his philosophic works: the commentary grabs bits from not only articles and individual sermons, but also from book-length works of philosophical religious thought like Halakhic Man and The Lonely Man of Faith.

Put another way, I wouldn’t use this to teach a seminar on Soloveitchik’s thought. But for those already part of the “in” group–who have already read and are familiar with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s works, or who are accustomed to reading the variety of Torah commentaries as they are for what they are, it’s a useful source of insight in a form that can be routinely revisited over the years and with a more modern, worldly tone than many traditional commentaries. If only for that reason, it will likely find a spot in my messenger bag from time to time.

Your daily dose of bubbe-meise

(Mrs. Secular Jew has already heard this, so she can tune out)

For the current rabbinical school seminar at IISHJ, we read sections from the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (“KSA”), a mid-to-late 1800s halakhic collection compiled by R. Shlomo Ganzfried. It’s a code in the sense that it follows the general scheme of R. Joseph Karo‘s Shulchan Arukh, but KSA is not generally intended to be used in reaching halakhic decisions as much as it is intended to serve as a guide for the average person in observing halakhah.

In any case, KSA at 128:13 has a description of what one should do on Erev Rosh Hashanah when visiting the graves of tzadikim to seek additional merit for one’s repentance during the Days of Awe. Setting aside the complications involved with this sort of intercessory prayer (one isn’t supposed to pray to the tzadikim so much as to God seeking the benefit of their merit, or, if you’re a Chabadnik, to ask the tzadikim to pray on your behalf), there’s an interesting bit of minhag in there: “When placing one’s hand on the grave (i.e., the gravestone), one must put only his left hand (on it), and not his right.”

Neither printing of KSA that I own (the Metsudah version with English translation on facing pages and an all-Hebrew edition from 1987 or thereabout) has any annotation or commentary about this. Some online searches on this didn’t turn up a rationale either. Those searches actually turn up only KSA as the source for this practice. (See here and here.) And the cross-indexing in the back of the Hebrew edition of KSA, which points to the relevant sources in the Shulchan Arukh and Mishnah Berurah, didn’t lead to any enlightenment–those sources don’t give any hint.

Which means that this is likely entirely minhag. Not just that, but it’s kind of bubbe meise.

Ask yourself: why the left hand?

An article that bears reading

Some recommended reading for you today: this article from The Forward about Chicago-area Rabbi Brant Rosen.

Why? Rabbi Rosen is a noted critic of Israel–he heads the rabbinical counsel of an organization, Jewish Voices for Peace, was named by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the top-ten anti-Israel groups. (Rabbi Rosen states in the article that he finds this ironic since his wife worked for the ADL for fifteen years.)

I’m not going to advance any arguments about Israel, the ADL’s list, JVP’s positions, or the like. But I am interested in the role of the rabbi in a congregation, and in the role of Israel in American Jewish life, and this article brings up both of these issues at some length with a specific case–that of Rabbi Rosen.

Whatever your perspective, this is an interesting–and to people on various sides of all of these issues, no doubt infuriating–article.  Tze u’lmad–go and study.


Nothing profound for the moment. Just this link to an article on Tablet about Thanksgivukkah food. Specifically, turkey-stuffed donuts and taquitos, one with deep-fried turkey, brussels sprouts, cranberry, and gravy, and another with latkes, apple sauce, and sour cream.

There is no part of me that is saying “Yum” to any of this right now. I am, however, wondering when–or if–this newly-found acid reflux will die down.

Now, if Mrs. Secular Jew could persuade a donut place to use her cranberry relish as a filling…

When we push too far, or, a nice reminder

In the traditional Torah reading cycle, we’re coming up on Parshat Vayeishev, which begins the story of Joseph. Over at Torah Musings, Gil Student has a post addressing the documentary hypothesis (the idea that the Torah has multiple, identifiable sources from which a redactor drew in assembling the final text; rundown here in Wikipedia) and one of the areas where there has been substantial scholarly debate over its application: the text of Genesis 37, which relates the story of Joseph’s dreams about his brothers and their decision to…well, it’s complicated.

Student, drawing on several scholarly sources, notes that the “traditional” scholarly view is that the contents of Genesis 37 come from two sources–J (the Yahwist–J makes a “Y” sound in German) and E (the Elohist). Each of these sources is generally considered to use certain ways of naming God (hence the J vs. E distinction), use certain characteristic vocabulary, hold specific subject matter concerns, etc., that help modern critics identify the provenance of particular passages in the Torah. Often, this approach makes sense: it makes sense of two creation narratives, replications and discrepancies in various narratives (the binding of Isaac, for example, and the substantial parallels in the stories of Abraham and Isaac), etc. Identifying source texts in this way often produces smoother narratives.

As Student points out, that’s not really the case in Genesis 37, and modern scholars have noticed this, with some critics arguing that the narrative as a whole reads much better than in its component pieces as assigned under the traditional version of the documentary hypothesis. Student argues, following Gordon Wenham, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and R.N. Whybray, that we ought to cast something of a jaundiced eye at the documentary hypothesis generally because of its breakdowns in areas like this.

There are parts of the story that might be well served by documentary hypothesis analysis; what the heck is going on, exactly, when Joseph is taken out of the well and sold in Gen. 37:25-29? He’s…taken by Midianites, who sell him to Ishmaelites? But the brothers see the Ishmaelites first and want to sell him. And where is Reuben in all this? Reuben only a few verses before discourages his brothers from killing Joseph, which is how Joseph ends up in the pit from which the Midianites take him, but then Reuben is apparently out of the picture.

That said, Student is right to remind us that such hypotheses, pushed too far, can break down. (I’ve long been somewhat skeptical of the use of the documentary hypothesis in all situations–for me, the Noah story made plain the problems with the approach.) This is the reason that newer approaches have come into use: various forms of literary criticism, more politically-minded forms of criticism (feminist, ethnic, economic), etc., have become more common over the last couple of decades, and many of them focus on the text as a whole.

But Student has an ax to grind here–specifically, he’s tagging Open Orthodoxy with this criticism (check out footnote 5 at the bottom of his post), and it’s the “mainstream” Orthodox “heresy” du jour. (Here’s Student’s recent op ed on The Forward’s website defending the RCA’s decision to publicly denounce the Open Orthodox folks.) And that is where his critique breaks down, because he is tagging modern scholarship (or really, one stream of modern scholarship) with circular logic while implicitly proposing another bit of circular logic: namely, that there is no human source (or no significant human source) for the Torah, which we arguably would know because it all fits neatly together and says so by its own terms. Or something.

In this, I think Student could be pulling a fast one on the reader–he conflates evidence with proof, and hypothesis with fact. Modern criticism accepts or rejects the documentary hypothesis because it does–or doesn’t–provide the best explanation for why a text or texts end up in a certain state, and various versions of the documentary hypothesis are critiqued on that basis. The texts are, ultimately, only ever evidence and never proof; all such scholarship is inherently argument.

And arguments pushed too far break down. For those of us who intentionally are not Orthodox, it likely goes without saying that Student’s perspective on the status of Torah as revelation is not, as a complete argument, as convincing as the modern scholarly arguments we have heard.

Just…a reminder for those who criticize arguments.

We reap what we sow

Rabbi Patrick Aleph over at PunkTorah has a post titled “You Aren’t Jewish Enough,” in which he discusses responses to questions about someone’s legitimacy as a good-enough Jew. He concludes that “we are so obsessed with legitimacy and looking like we know what we are doing that is keeps us from doing amazing things in Jewish life.”

He’s right. But I wonder whether this problem isn’t somewhat inherent to any form of Judaism that ascribes some level of super-human (as in, above and outside of humanity, not Superman-like superhuman) divine inspiration to the dictates of the Torah (oral and/or written).

One problem we face is that these divine-command aligned readings of Jewish sources make each commandment a divine dictate. When your actions are divinely required, you can’t really measure up, since the divine is inevitably described as perfect and beyond comprehension. So you are always left knowing that whatever you’ve done–however much you’ve done and in whatever manner–you haven’t really done it right.

Rabbinic Judaism–and thus much of Judaism as we know it today as inheritor of the rabbinic legacy–is intended as a scaffold to provide some guidance and ease the concerns one might have to the question of whether the commandment was done right. But we’ve seen that, over time, the interpretations of the commandments tend to become more strict and more burdensome; the interpretations cease to be a scaffold that can comfort individuals who inevitably will fall short, and instead become just a greater part of the burden.

By continuing to propagate a divine-command centered mentality–and by focusing on the public facets of observance, an inevitable change in Jewish life after the move to America–we reap the seeds of individuals feeling illegitimately Jewish, and sow them in the next generation.

How to get past this? Patrick Aleph attempted to reach out to people and invite them to do something in their bailiwick. This can help–though it’s hard to tell from the article whether he knew what people were interested in and tried to get them to engage, or simply solicited a “whatever” kind of contribution; the latter would be less likely to get someone to agree to help than the former, but I don’t know what happened in this case. (I also wonder whether the difficulty in getting someone to volunteer might not come from the remote nature of how the OneShul community works–since it’s online, you don’t get the personal-level ask that, let’s face it, makes it hard to say no when it’s easier to say that in an email.)

If we want more people engaged–if we want to sow something better than what we have–we’ll need to start by changing the culture as it is now so that people do begin to feel legitimate, and so that those who follow will not be made to feel illegitimate. There will not be an immediate path to this–so Rabbi Aleph, keep trying, in a focused way–because there’s enough alienation that getting this done will be a long process.

Ultimately, it may take rewriting Judaism; it’s always hard to know how those processes will work. But perhaps we can cease with the insistence on matrilineal descent for full membership in the community, so that individuals aren’t simply frozen out. Perhaps, too, we can change the rhetoric of what it means to be actively Jewish, so that the feeling one carries with them is more important than in the past.

And perhaps we can construct a Judaism that features less scolding, so that those who are already coming in the doors aren’t chased out for feeling inadequate. I know of a version of Jewish life that can do this…

Words have meaning

Jason Torpy, a board member of the American Humanist Association, in response to media coverage of the atheist church in the UK writes here about the use of “religious” or “spiritual” language. He argues that humanists are a bit too sensitive or “allergic,” as he puts it at one point, to innocuous or apparently inoffensive uses of religious language.

I appreciate his misgivings; I share some of them. But I don’t share all of them, and, more importantly, Torpy’s writing gives no real guidance on what might be acceptable or not.

For example, he points to a Franciscan blessing, “May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we really can make a difference in this world, so that we are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done,” and says that you could make the line more humanist–but why bother, because the God stuff doesn’t really make a difference.

Except that it does. That language matters because it attributes to someone else responsibility for the subject’s success or failure to do “what others claim cannot be done.” Indeed, on the language of the blessing, it is only because of God’s grace that “what others claim cannot be done” can be done.

Why, then, is that Franciscan blessing any more acceptable to Torpy than the “In God We Trust” slogan or the “under God” language from the Pledge of Allegiance? These are both invocations of God to which Torpy objects.

(For what it’s worth, Torpy’s distinction appears to be a willingness to accept some religious language unassociated with the “culture wars.” But his reading of the Franciscan blessing makes even this principle troublesome because his approval of the line is essentially that it’s not really religious.)

Humanists and atheists (these are not identical categories) are often far too quick to reject the value of many religious and spiritual forms and uses of language. But whether rejecting or accepting, the rationale for doing so should be clear and not based merely on what one finds personally inoffensive or not troublesome.

Why Be Jewish? A response to Jay Michaelson

Over at the Forward, Jay Michaelson has a piece titled “Answer This Question: Why Be Jewish?” In it, he notes that whatever each of us finds in Judaism, the next generation of Jews is unlikely to be swayed into holding to liberal Judaism (really, any form of Judaism) unless we can provide a persuasive, resonant answer to that question. Michaelson puts forth the tautology, that people are interested in what they are interested in, and notes that the book I am Jewish, which was published in the wake of Daniel Pearl’s murder, provided many answers to that question from various prominent Jews.

Michaelson’s challenge somewhat misses the point, I think. He’s basically correct that a single answer–because halakhah is divine, or you like deli food and Yiddish lilt–will not be persuasive.

But we don’t have to provide a single answer to that question.

Let’s be clear about what the Pew Survey tells us: Jews are largely intermarrying, but remain proud of their Jewish identities, and many of the children of intermarried families are also identifying as Jewish and are proud of their Jewish identities. If we see value in our own Jewish identities, and in the rewards that can come for others in understanding and embracing their own Jewish identities, then we should be enabling and encouraging efforts that open the doors as broadly as possible, provide as many challenging resources as possible, and seek genuinely to welcome, involve, and engage as many as possible–not for their dues or their pocketbooks, but for themselves.

There is an oft-quoted passage about the Torah from Pirke Avot 5:22, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” Just as apt is the statement Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15 (one of the collections of midrash on the biblical book of Numbers) that the Torah has seventy faces.

With somewhere around 3,000 years of history (depending on how you draw historical lines, this number could go up or down), Judaism has vast resources–material, cultural, literary, religious, philosophical, musical, moral–that can speak to vast numbers of Jews and to their own senses of their place in the world and in Jewish history. Opening the door to those resources is a crucial job for future Jewish leaders.

It is exactly that premise–that there are vast resources in Judaism that can appeal to modern ethical sensibilities, and nearly infinite ways to build a Jewish identity–that motivates the identification of many Jews with the humanistic Jewish movement. As humanistic Jews, we see universal values reflected in the full course of Jewish history and the full breadth of Jewish culture, while at the same time recognizing that not all sources are compatible with modern life and morality. All those sources are Jewish sources, but we recognize that their human origin gives us the ability and authority to determine our own Jewish paths.

It is not, then, the inherent value of Judaism and Jewish life that needs to be sold to Jews; it is instead the need to frame answers that are meaningful to the questions–explicit and implicit–posed by each person who asks, “Why be Jewish?” We have the resources to answer the questions; we need the skills to listen, understand, and frame the answers that best persuade the questioner.

Those answers may not come in words; they may come as an invitation to a Shabbat dinner, a Torah study, or a social event. The answers have to come in all modalities.

If we want others to engage in a vibrant Jewish life, we need to make our own Jewish lives vibrant, as well, while treating questioners like who they are: intelligent, engaged persons who are actively seeking spiritual homes and engagement. Humanistic Judaism provides the broadest resources for constructing that kind of life.

Answer: Yes.

That subject in response to the question that makes up the title of this film review:

“Yes,” of course, is an oversimplification. Inertia means that the structures and approaches we have now will not disappear, nor do so quickly. But creative and unorthodox approaches are likely going to form a significant part of how we grow Jewish life in the coming decades, because the traditional synagogue models aren’t working and aren’t engaging people.

What might the future look like? Outlier communities like those profiled in the film, but also cooperative communities like Kavana in Seattle, Ikar in LA, and The Kitchen in San Francisco. These are not only independent minyanim–which themselves are valuable–but are more full communities of Jews, with programming for all ages and ranges and with relational techniques and servant leadership applied to create engagement and self-investment by individuals in the communities.

They’re about doing Jewish, not just passively being Jewish. They make the revolutionary assumption that Jews–all Jews–actually are looking for something spiritual (whatever you take that to mean) in their lives.

They are outliers–outliers in their expectations of what Jews are interested in doing, in their views of what Jewish life can look like, and in what they are willing to provide to foster Jewish life for broad varieties of Jews.

Humanistic Judaism, too, can be part of this group of outliers; it’s not as though we aren’t already accustomed to that status. These new areas of growth appear, on the surface, to be about doctrine and belief, but they are not; they are about structure and approach, strategy and planning, and understanding how organizations can work for specific purposes.

These outliers are, I hope, the future.

People, go get some shades.