Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Fisking "Teshuva Through Change"

{Note: you may have to double click on the title bar of Internet Explorer to get the whole post - otherwise IE will only let you scroll partially down the article.}

The Jewish Week last week carried an opinion piece by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, the "spiritual leader of SAJ, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism." The article argues, among other things, for the changing of halacha in terms of its attitude towards other religions - namely, that we no longer consider them idolatry. In this regard, it is similar in attitude to the one put forth a while back by Eliyahu Stern, also in the Jewish Week.

I feel that this article is wrong and wrongheaded, and I think a fisking ("a point-by-point refutation of a blog entry or a news story") is in order.
Teshuvah Through Change
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld
We live in an increasingly dangerous world because of people who are out to attack Jews and Western civilization in the name of their God. A variety of fundamentalists believe that they are the sole carriers of God’s truth and are thus committed to creating their vision of God’s kingdom here on earth, no matter what the cost to others. For a fundamentalist who believes he holds all the truth, there is no room for compromise. Can the competing vision of a pluralistic society that allows for many versions of God’s truth as well as for secular visions for the world prevail? Each of us plays some small role in this struggle on behalf of our Western values.
In this first paragraph he brings up the point of Islamic terrorism and blames it on the fact that they think they are right, everyone else is wrong, and that they are "acting in the name of their God." This is true enough.

However, he proceeds to charge that all fundamentalism is dangerous, as a result. Pluralism is much nicer and safer and as Westerners we must struggle for pluralism, even within our own society.

1) Firstly, the argument that because X (Islamic terrorism) is founded on belief Y (belief that you are right and everyone else is wrong), then belief Y is all forms is dangerous (and wrong) is fallacious. Consider: Nazism was founded on nationalism, and therefore all nationalism is evil. Socialism was founded on the notion of equality, so therefore the notion of equality is dangerous. Thieves steal because the want to amass wealth so capitalism is evil. A jealous husband killed his wife because she cheated on him, so insistence on marital fidelity as a value is wrong.

Obviously, this is nonsense. Similarly, the idea that the belief that you are correct and the sole carrier of God's truth on earth is just that - a belief. In certain instances, it has led to fanaticism and violence. But this does not mean that all forms of this belief is therefore dangerous and must be eradicated. It is possible that there is an innocuous manifestation of this belief, and it is unfair to impugn Orthodox Judaism because of the actions of Islamic extermists.

2) Within this article, Rabbi Strassfeld puts forth a belief that everyone who is non-pluralistic is a dangerous fundamentalist, and that such a fundamentalist belief is wrong. Thus, we are left with the idea that only pluralism is the right way, and the true way of carrying God's truth. Is he thus not guilty of the very thing of which he charges others?

Part of the pluralism he propounds is accepting other cultures, and a central aspect of Jewish belief is that the Torah is the true expression of God's will. If Rabbi Strassfeld cannot tolerate this, I think perhaps he does not understand pluralism.

3) This, I think, is the most important point. Even if the belief that only you are right is dangerous, as he charges, that does not make it incorrect. If the belief is correct, then one should not abandon it just because it is potentially dangerous, or because it is not politically correct, or because it makes us look bad in the eyes of practitioners of other religions.

If I were to sum up the Jewish faith, I would put it so: A belief in God; a belief that God gave the Torah to us, and that we are obligated to follow it; a belief in Chazal as the interpreters of Torah. The Torah dictates to us the proper way to serve God and to interact with our fellow man. Abandoning these principles, as Rabbi Strassfeld suggests in this article, is not advancing Judaism, but abandoning its most basic principles.
It is critical that Jews give voice to our commitment to a modernity that has freed the Jewish people from centuries of oppression and discrimination.
Uh oh. He is trying to guilt the reader into accepting pluralism (which for him equals modernity) because it has done something for us - freed us from centuries of oppression and discrimination.

Unfortunately, we have a prior committment. Throughout Torah, we are told to fulfill various commandments as an act of gratitude towards Hashem who, to quote Rabbi Strassfeld, has "freed the Jewish people from centuries of oppression and discrimination" in Egypt, where we were slaves.

By his logic, we Jews should assimilate entirely to the modernity which freed us. Why should we specifically this tenet of Jewish faith?

Further, I agree certain aspects of modernity freed us. But, was it really "pluralism" that freed us? When Napolean emancipated the Jews in 1808 was is because of pluralism? We can be committed to modernity without necessarily conceding that we may not be correct in the most basic aspect of our faith.
But we are not free from fundamentalists within our community. We also need to examine our own texts and teachings to see whether there are places that we align ourselves with the forces of those who crusade against others (and us) in God’s name.
Having set up that fundamentalism is wrong, he is going to give examples of this wrongheaded attitude. As I will try to show, he is just plain wrong in his examples.

(And just to note again, just because they (Islamic terrorists) are wrong in that they follow the wrong religious doctrine does not mean that the absolutist thoughts within our own texts are wrong as well.)
Just recently, we’ve read of disturbing positions taken by religious authorities in our community. A prominent rosh yeshiva said that Jews are spiritually superior to other people because Jews and non-Jews “have different genes, DNA, and instincts.”
He has read? I assume he means read in the Jewish Week, where in the attack piece on Rav Schachter about monkeys and ketubot (based on an ignorant misunderstanding of halachic terminology, I might add), Gary Rosenblatt wrote: "This comes several months after the rabbi, an influential posek (decisor of religious law), described Jews as spiritually superior to other people, noting that Jews and non-Jews “have different genes, DNA and instincts.”"

I do not know if it is to Rabbi Strassfeld's credit or discredit that he is unwilling to take Rav Schachter on directly. To his credit, if it is some part within him that realizes that what he is doing is wrong and smacks of chutzpa, and to his discredit if this is a way trying to smear (or "fundamentalists" in general) and getting away with it.

Again, he has read? This strongly suggests to me that he did not hear the original shiur, which was available on the web, and which I did listen to. That is absolutely not what Rav Schachter said.

A quick summary of what Rav Schachter did say: There is a theme is Jewish tradition that the Jews are the עם הנבחר, the Chosen People. What does this mean? Rav Schachter turned to a statement in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers, where there is a statement that Man is Beloved because he was created in the image of God, and the nation of Israel has an extra quality that they are called בנים למקום, Children of God.

Rav Schachter takes this metaphorically, that there is an extra spiritual relationship between man and God. To this end he used the metaphor of DNA and genes. That is, all humanity is created in God's image. However, the Jewish nation has a spiritual quote unquote DNA that connects them to God, such that they are more directly related to God - they are metaphorically "children" to God.

Is this a racist idea? Not at all! Converts can join the Jewish people and become part of the Jewish people, and then have the same connection and relation to God,

How does this extra connection manifest? One thing Rav Schachter noted was that Chazal say that Israel are merciful, possess the trait of shame, and do deeds of loving-kindness.

Even though there is this belief in an extra connection of the Jews to God, this does not mean that non-Jews are, God forbid, sub-human. Rav Schachter explicitly made this point when he said that the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says that all humanity is created in the image of God, but there is an extra connection that we are called "Children to God."

(Note: SIW made this mistake is his original take on Rav Schachter's speech. You can see the comment section off protocols here.)

Yet, Rabbi Strassfeld does not mention any of this, but just cites what he read in the Jewish Week, leading the reader to believe (as I think he himself believes) that these are racist comments, talking about actual DNA and genetics!

Further proof that he did not actually hear Rav Schachter speak is evident in two other quotes in the article. He writes:
and statements that proclaim the superiority of Jews over non-Jews will be denounced as contrary to the Torah’s statement in Genesis that all human beings are created in the image of God.
This is a fairly dumb statement, considering that Rav Schachter started with the statement that all humans are created in the image of God, and was just talking about the extra "Children of God" level. It shows he did not listen at all to Rav Schachter's actual speech, but is willing to malign him on the basis of hearsay. I think that since he is thinking about Teshuva, he should think about the sin of motzi shem ra, slander, and should consider asking Rav Schachter mechila, forgiveness.

He ends the article:
it is critical that elements in the Orthodox community call upon the important organizations and legal decisors of that community to clearly proclaim that one can be true to the Torah and still proclaim the equality of all of us descended from Adam and Eve.
This again gains momentum from his earlier, ignorant and false charge.

Back to where I left off in the article:
The recent controversy over wigs made from the hair of Hindu woman in India is based on the concept that Hinduism is avodah zarah — idolatry — and therefore forbidden.
Yes, it is. Is this in the same category of what he made the above - bigotry? I would say no. Judaism believes in God, and forbids the worship (and benefits from the worship) of other Gods. It is so important that the first of the 10 Commandments is "I am Hashem Your God" and the second is "You shall have no other gods before me."

Clearly some other religions - probably all - at that time were considered idolatry. Stating that the Jewish belief that Hinduism is avoda zara is bigoted - well, one can state it, but that does not prove it.

The issue with Indian wigs was that of tonsure, in which worshippers grew their hair long and then had a barber cut it off. The hair, and the act of cutting, was dedicated to the deity Vishnu. Is Vishnu equal to Hashem? I doubt it. Do they consider him a god? Yes. (At least many do.) Is the act of cutting off the hair considered worship, and therefore forbidden? Perhaps yes, and perhaps no. But would bringing sacrifices to an idol representing a deity who is not Hashem be considered idolatry? Unless the word has changed all meaning, absolutely! So how can Rabbi Strassfeld protest that we consider it idolatry?

Note also that the wig issue does not really affect the Hindus. Monetarily, the possible ban of Indian sheitels has not put a dent in the wig industry. This is an internal matter - that is, does Judaism consider this belief and act idolatry, and if so, may we or may we not use these items. We are not oppressing Hindus. We are not destroying their idols. Sure, the Torah commands this, but is anyone actively doing it? Come on, Rabbi Strassfeld - live and let live, and let the Jews practice their own religion, just as the Jews let the Hindu's practice their own religion!

A true story: a friend of S.L. went to a Hindu restaurant with some co-workers. They ordered a bottle of wine. They noticed that there was a bit missing from the top of the wine bottle, so they called over the waiter and asked him what the story was. He explained that they had a little Budda idol in the back room, and before serving any bottle of wine, they opened it and poured a little off the top as a wine libation to him. This is yayin nesech, wine libations to an idol, in the present day. And you are going to tell me that it is absolutely not idolatry?!
These examples reflect longstanding texts and halacha — Jewish law — that portray non-Jews in inferior ways. For example, in the Mishnah Avodah Zara 2:1, Jews are advised not to lend their domestic animals to non-Jews because they are suspected of bestiality.
Another ignorant statement. Yes, Jews are "advised" - actually forbidden - from lending specific animals to non-Jews because they are suspected of bestiality. Is this bigotry, and considering non-Jews inferior, or rather an apt assessment of a significant minority of their contemporary neighbors. The Torah, when it forbids bestiality, notes that this abomination was practiced by the previous residents of Israel, whom God expelled in part because of it. That is, some non-Jewish people back then practiced bestiality. In various Ancient Near Eastern Laws, there are proscriptions against sleeping with various domestic animals - sheep, cattle, and camels. This is not the Torah, but secular laws. Why make such laws if people were not violating them? People practice bestiality today, in America, and across the world.

Therefore, a statement that there is enough prevalence of this practice in non-Jewish society, which does not have the Torah's proscriptions and penalties, is not a bigoted statement. It certainly does not mean that non-Jews are inferior. It is an assessment of society to determine how Jews must conduct themselves when interfacing with said society.

Next example:
The halachic decision to categorize non-Jews as idol worshippers has meant that wine poured by a non-Jew is unkosher, based on the notion that the wine may have been offered as a libation on some pagan altar.
Well, it is based in part on that. It is also based on the concept that galui, uncovered wine, water, and milk, may have been sipped by a snake, who might have injected its venom into it. mevushal, or cooked wine, is sweet, according to a yerushalmi I read, and sweet wine would not be sipped by a snake. But regular wine is not mevushal, and your average gentile would have no reason not to leave his wine uncovered and unmonitored as some point. So that would be another reason for prohibiting it, even not considering the aspect of idolatry.

{Update: Also, another reason stam yeinam, wine of a gentile, is prohibited, is to prevent intermarriage. This reason would also stand, even ignoring the possibility of idolatrous libations.}

But he considers the suspicion of pouring a libation as another instance of Jewish thought considering non-Jews inferior. It is not. It is merely Chazal's assessment of reality, and the possibility that wine may be poured as a libation.

And were Chazal so wrong?! If you would tell me people would pour wine libations in this day and age, I would not have believed you. Yet they do. Some Hindus do, in an act of idolatry.

He chose a really bad example, if you ask me.
Since non-Jews are considered idolaters, it is forbidden to enter churches because they are seen as places of idolatry. (Imagine for a moment how we would react if the Catholic Church announced it was forbidden for Catholics to enter synagogues or if the Evangelical churches proclaimed that kosher meat is forbidden to be eaten because it was slaughtered in a “Jewish” way.)
Not because non-Jews are considered idolators. This is not a comment on their own worth, or as Rabbi Strassfeld put it, inferiority. It is Judaism's attitude towards their belief and religion. Christianity is considered idolatry, and therefore non-Jews who practice this are considered idolators, and it is forbidden to enter churches. Rabbi Strassfeld has transposed cause and effect.

This is an attitude towards Christian doctrine, not towards the individuals.

As for imagining how I would react, I would say BIG DEAL! This is an internal Christian matter. I would not be insulted. I know Christians do not believe the same things I do, and various actions I take might make them regard places and things in a different light. Live and let live. I guess I am a pluralist. I guess Rabbi Strassfeld is not.

If "the Evangelical churches proclaimed that kosher meat is forbidden to be eaten because it was slaughtered in a “Jewish” way?" I guess it would depend. If they did it because they hate Jews, I might be offended. If it was because of religious beliefs and practices that cause the specific acts taken in Jewish slaughter to make the meat unacceptable, why should I take offense? Are Muslims offended that Jews won't eat meat because it was slaughtered in a halal way, rather than in accordance to Jewish practice.

Also, is Rabbi Strassfeld really suggesting here we adopt halal, since it would offend Muslims? Because that is the logical conclusion of his statement.
We in the Jewish community, and particularly those in the community who feel bound by halacha, need to proclaim that yes, we have texts from the past that are difficult for our modern sensibilities. We will not excise them from the Talmud. Instead we will acknowledge that our understanding has changed, just as in the case when we study selections in the Talmud about other difficult issues that we have in fact reinterpreted.
At least this is a step above Eliyahu Stern. He suggested, in a published letter to the editor of the Jewish Week a while back, that we should actually erase problematic texts - that is, for example, we should remove the text of the commandment to destroy Amalek from our Torah scrolls.

Here he says we should keep the texts but ignore them, reinterpret them, or say we have moved past them.

But has our understanding in fact changed? Rabbi Strassfeld would like it to have. But his examples - bestiality, and wine libations, still exist. And idolatry is still idolatry - the worship of a god other than Hashem.

Also, he talks here of interpreting towards an end. That is, we want a specific conclusion, and we will provide an interpretation that will lead us where we want. This is intellectually dishonest and does not lead us towards truth. On the other hand, if truth is arbitrary, who cares what the result is? A very pluralistic thought. But for those of us for whom Torah is truth, we will study Torah in a truthful way.

But let us see his example...
The basic statement we need to make is there are no idol worshippers today, certainly not those in mainstream religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, etc. This process of redefinition is a time-honored halachic principle used by Talmudic scholars like the Meiri and others to allow commerce with Christians in the Middle Ages, despite Talmudic statements to the contrary.
We need to make such a statement. Such a statement is a negation of Judaism, or at least one of its central tenets. We can talk about the second Yekum Purkan. :) (see footnote 1)

This process of redefinition we do find - for example, Tosafot on the first daf of Avoda Zara gives some reasons why we can conduct commerce with Christians. I did a post on this a while back. It is generally assumed that this is not intended as the best reading of the gemara, but rather as an attempt to justify existing practice. That is, I do not think Tosafot would suggest that this is the best thing in the world to do, but rather that since there is a prevalent practice to do this, and because otherwise people would starve (since forbidding doing business with them 3 days before and after their holy days would preclude all commerce, because Sunday is preceded and followed by 3 days). They were defending existing practice in a shaat hadechak.

In terms of the Meiri, perhaps he intended it the same way, or perhaps he actually believed what he said. I am not going to go into a detailed discussion of his position here. But it is not trivial to claim that they wanted to allow something that until then was forbidden, and so they came up with wrong or false halachic interpretations to achieve those ends. This forced example is not enough to claim precedent to erase something initially, in a non-forced situation, because it is not politically correct. It certainly is not enough precedent to erase one of the most basic tenets of Jewish faith.

I learned through masechet horayot - both in the Bavli and Yerushalmi. I also took two semesters of academic study of horayot with Dr. Steinfeld, in Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish studies. And I learned something very basic - that there are limits even to what Chazal can do.

The Sanhedrin can give a ruling, and if the ruling is erroneous, and the majority of people follow it, they are covered by the Sanhedrin's ruling. The people still sinned, but it was an accident, and the Snahedrin must bring a sacrifice to atone for the sin. That is, a ruling does not define halacha if it is incorrect.

Certain types of rulings, even when given by the Sanhedrin, are not considered rulings. Things which are explicit in the Torah, when denied by Sanhedrin, are not considered rulings, and one who violates the Torah law is considered not covered under the umbrella of their ruling, and each person must bring his own individual korban. Why? The gemara says, "go to cheder and learn." If it is an explicit verse, then their ruling is ignorance, and is not a ruling.

The ruling, to be a valid though erroneous ruling, must also exclude only part of the prohibition and not all of it. So, the Mishna says, if they rule that there is no prohibition against idolatry in the Torah, it is not a valid ruling. If they say their is a prohibition of idolatry, but someone who bows to an idol is patur - then is is a valid ruling, though an erroneous one.

Rabbi Strassfeld wants to rule that there is no idolatry in the Torah, or at least in the world today. That is either a farcical ruling, or an erroneous one. Just because people - rabbis - say things which are false, does not mean that I am permitted to follow them. And if rabbis intentionally introduce a false ruling, which they know to be not true, then they are causing the community to sin.

There are other examples of restrictions on the role of rabbis - Ain Koach BeYad Chachamim LaAkor Davar Min HaTorah - there is no power in the hands of the Sages to uproot a matter from the Torah, but I think I've touched on this enough.

The idea that rabbis can say, and falsely interpret, that various other religions are not idolatry, and this is binding, and frees us from the annoyance/discomfort that comes from considering them idolatry, is just wrong.

He continues:
If non-Jews are not idolaters then there should be no prohibition upon entering a church; kosher wine will only refer to the ingredients and manufacturing process that have been checked to make sure no non-kosher elements have been involved (the same as with kosher food); and statements that proclaim the superiority of Jews over non-Jews will be denounced as contrary to the Torah’s statement in Genesis that all human beings are created in the image of God.
This is an argument that we will get all these benefits from it, so why not abolish the halachic determination of non-Jews as idolators?

But are these ends really so great? I will examine them one by one.

1) If Jews can enter a church, we can be great friends with our non-Jewish neighbors and coworkers. We break down boundaries. We might become such great friends we will intermarry. Is intermarriage good? Ask Rabbi Strassfeld.

Now that Jews can enter a church, and the worship is not idolatry, can a Jew come to the church during services? Is this something we want to encourage? Might a weakly affiliated Jew decide to adopt this faith, which after all is now not idolatry according to his rabbi? Consider: a Jew enters a church during services, and the priest asks everyone to kneel, or to sing a prayer to Jesus. Would the Jew, who is in the church so as not to offend, comply so as not to offend?

2) If we need not worry about stam yeinam - uncooked wine touched by a non-Jew, because a non-Jew is not an idolator (we are not worrying about the halachic concern of uncovered wine in this hypothetical), then we will more freely associate with coworkers after work. We will go to hang out at the pub. Is this something to encourage?

We will become close to our drinking buddies. Which in turn leads to assimilation, and intermarriage. Great ends, which absolutely justify the means.

{In fact, the prevention of intermarriage is another reason given for the prohibition of stam yeinam, so even declaring the non-Jews not idolators would not be sufficient to remove the prohibition.}

And what about our Hindu friends who actually poured the wine to the Budda idol? We have stam yeinam in part lest we violate the Biblical prohibition of drinking wine libations. Is this truly not a concern today? Unfortunately it is. (Except of course Rabbi Strassfeld would say that worshipping Budda idol is not idolatry, so it is not wine libations to an idol, so it is no problem etc... C'mon!)
Some may argue that those of us in the non-Orthodox community are willing to change the halacha at the proverbially drop of a kipa, while the Orthodox community cannot change the rules even when they find them difficult.
That is where Mel Gibson and “The Passion of the Christ” come in. Obviously, the treatment of Jews in the movie is a reminder to us of how we should treat others as we wish to be treated. More deeply, it reminds us that what was troubling about Gibson was that he was breaking from the contemporary teachings of the Church. For centuries Christianity had taught that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. The tragic results are well known. Yet, despite the centuries of this being the doctrinal truth and despite the scriptural support that “their torah,” the New Testament, gave to this view, Vatican II came along and said no more. Jews are not to be blamed.
I was actually very uncomfortable with the idea of telling others how they should practice their religion. It is not really the Jews' business what Christian's believe. That does not mean that when my fellow Jews are at risk, I will not try to influence them. Personally, I believe the Christians are wrong, and I can have proofs, and I can try to convince them. But it is not my legitimate place to dictate what is correct Christian doctrine. I might fake it if I think it would save lives.

I am pleased, and grateful that Christians changed their views, such that I and my coreligionists are not so much at risk. That does not mean I must change my own religion. Maybe yekum purkan (again, see footnote 1).

He finishes his article, writing:
Can we do any less? As we prepare for the High Holy Days, it is a time for both personal and communal teshuvah, or change. Using the ample precedents of re-definition in the halachic tradition, it is critical that elements in the Orthodox community call upon the important organizations and legal decisors of that community to clearly proclaim that one can be true to the Torah and still proclaim the equality of all of us descended from Adam and Eve.
Yes, we can do less, and must do less, because Christian doctrine and procedures are not the same as Jewish ones.

Teshuva does not mean change. It means return, and specifically, a return to God. Allowing idolatry is not a return to God.

We do not have ample precedents for redefinition or the sort he suggests. Certainly halacha has developed, but most often not in a way that can be categorized as intellectually dishonest, for that would be invalid, even if it were done. The precedents we do have are limited, done to justify existing practice where we cannot prevent it from happening anyway. It was to allow people to do business with their neighbors, not to allow them to drink their wine which might have been poured as a libation, and not to allow them to enter their houses of worship. It was not a change or a negation to a basic element of Judaism.

And it was done out of necessity. It was not done out of a desire to validate the other religions. It was not done out of political correctness.

He ends with a statement that is at the same time expansive in terms of appreciating all of human existence, and at the same same getting in a final bash at Rav Schachter.

"elements in Orthodox community" means the laity. "Should call upon organizations, and halachic decisors" - that is, those who do not know as much should apply pressure to those who do to get these "reforms" passed. Maybe we should let the leaders lead?

"to clearly proclaim that one can be true to the Torah and still proclaim the equality of all of us descended from Adam and Eve." - this is the expansive comment and final ignorant jab at Rav Schachter, who I documented above, never denied the equality of all of us descended from Adam and Eve.

There is a difference between equality of people and equality of ideas. Rabbi Strassfeld conflates the two. I have this to say: Non-Jews are human, just as Jews are. Of course. But as a Jew, I believe the Torah comes from God, and Christianity does not, and Hinduism does not.

1) This is a reference to a famous joke. Representatives from the three major world religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, meet, to try to ease tensions between their groups and promote peace. They agree that, to move closer together, they will each offer compromise. The priest gives it much thought, and after deliberation, says: OK, we are willing to give up Immaculate Conception. The imam is next, and after much reflection, says: OK, we are willing to give up the idea the Muhammad is God's messenger. Finally, it is the rabbi's turn. He goes off into a room, and is there for quite a while. Finally, he comes out, and is all sweaty from perspiration, and says, "We are willing to give up the second yekum purkan."

Explanation: On Shabbat, we have two short prayers in Aramaic, which start with the words yekum purkan. For the Jew, giving this apparently minor thing up in a major deal.

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