Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Noah, ishhood, and responsibility

Genesis 6:9 reads (in part) “Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted” (Jewish Publication Society 1917 translation). At least two interesting things are going on here.

First, why specify “in his generations”? Who else’s generations would he be righteous in, right? Noah lived in a time of great wickedness. Rashi notes that among the rabbis of the Talmud, there are some who take “in his generations” as praise. He was fully righteous even in his corrupt environment; if he had lived in an age of righteous people, he would have been even greater. Others take “in his generations” as a reproach. He was righteous only by the standards of his corrupt time; had he lived in the time of Abraham, he would have been considered a mere nothingness righteousnesswise.

Second, the phrase translated here as “man righteous” is ish tzaddik. The basic meaning of ish is “man”; in various contexts, it can mean a person or a leader of either sex. The word tzaddik can be either the adjective “righteous” (an adjective comes after its noun in Hebrew) or the noun “righteous person.” Ish tzaddik does indeed mean “righteous man,” but tzaddik by itself can also mean that. So ish seems superfluous in this verse. Why is it there? I have no clue, but I won’t let that stop me from preaching about it.

Pirkei Avot 2.6 quotes Hillel as saying “in an ish-less place, strive to be an ish.” In this context, an ish is a person who takes responsibility. Hillel is addressing the non-ish among us. A job needs to be done, and there’s nobody around to do it. So you, who aren’t yet an ish, you need to step up and take care of things.

This is Noah under the derogatory understanding of his character. A job needed to be done, and Noah, who let’s face it wasn’t such a big tzaddik, took care of biz. The non-ish became an ish. For those of us (such as my good self) who aren’t as righteous as Abraham, mediocre Noah is more inspiring than magnificent Noah. This Noah guy, he wasn’t such a big deal, and he saved all life on earth. I’m even more superlatively mediocre than he was, so what’s my excuse for not doing the same?

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Avinu Malkenu (ver. 2.0)

Let me clarify. This is not version 2.0 of Avinu Malkenu, but version 2.0 of this sermon.

We recite Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, our King) during the Ten Days of Teshuvah as well as on fast days throughout the year. It ends with a well-known song that contains the phrase "ein banu ma'asim"--we have no deeds or acts or the like. More literally, it means we have no deeds within us--the usual way of saying "we don't have" is ein lanu, not ein banu.

This raises two questions. First, we're saying we have no deeds on the same days that we're alphabetically listing our bad deeds in the Viduy (Confession). English translators of siddurim recognize the problem and fix it incorrectly--they English it as "we have no good deeds" or words to that effect. The problem with this translation is that it makes no sense. We know that we have good deeds. Furthermore, we're supposed to act as though both our scale and that of the world, of which we're part, is evenly balanced between good and bad deeds. If we think in these terms, we realize that every deed, whether good or bad, tips the balance on both scales. To proclaim that we have bad deeds and no good deeds is counterproductive. The second question is why we say "ein banu ma'asim (we have no deeds within us) instead of just "ein lanu ma'asim" (we have no deeds).

To figure out what "ein banu ma'asim" means in this context, let's divide Avinu Malkenu into seven sections. In fact, we only need the first five sections for our purposes; sections 6 and 7 are bonus sections.

Section 1

Section 1 consists of the first three lines. It's just an introduction--it's us, we've sinned, for the sake of your name forgive us.

Section 2

Section 2 is a wish list of things we want from God--a good year, the ripping of the unhappy decree, good health, and so on. We're asking for results that are out of our control. We can influence the process and improve our chances--don't eat unhealthy stuff, don't start fights, be a good person--but we're asking here for results that we can't guarantee for ourselves. Section 2 takes up most of Avinu Malkenu.

Section 3

In section 3, we're no longer asking for things--now we're referring back to the list and telling God why he should do these things for us. In the first through third of the four lines that make up section 3, we ask God to do these things for the sake of our martyrs: "Do it--act--for the sake of those who were murdered for your holiness. Do it for the sake of those who were slaughtered for proclaiming your unity. Do it for the sake of those who went into flame and water sanctifying your name." Each of these three begins with "'aseh"--do it. Fulfill our requests for these reasons. In the fourth line of section 3, we ask God to avenge before our eyes the spilled blood of his servants. It's sort of part of section 3, because it's about our martyrs, but it's also sort of part of section 2, because we're asking for a result that we can't guarantee.

Section 4

In the first line of section 4, we realize that maybe we were being a little hutzpedik in section 3: "Act--'aseh--for your sake if not for our sake." The remaining three lines all also begin with "'aseh". "Act--'aseh--for your sake and save us. Act--'aseh--for the sake of your great mercy. Act--'aseh--for the sake of your great, mighty, and awe-inspiring name, which we call upon."

Section 5

In section 5, we finally get to the well-known song, up to the words we've been trying to figure out, "ein banu ma'asim": we have no deeds, or we have no deeds in us.

In the most general context-free sense, what does one do? One does deeds. Or what is a deed? It's something someone does. Ma'asim (deeds) and 'aseh (the imperative verb meaning "act" or "do it") have the same root, and are even more tangled up in one another than do and deed. This is ma'aseh, the singular of ma'asim:


This is 'aseh:


In Avinu Malkenu, we ask God to do ('aseh) deeds (ma'asim) for us. These are the ma'asim that "ein banu ma'asim" refers to. And these are deeds that we can't do for ourselves; we don't have it within us to do them. Thus "ein banu ma'asim."

Section 6

Well, now we've figured out what "ein banu ma'asim" means. Section 6 is the first of the two bonus sections. The song continues with "'aseh 'imanu tzedakah vahesed"--treat us with charity and lovingkindness. I propose an alternative reading, based on ignoring idiom and translating it verbatim. 'Imanu literally means "together with us." Translating this word by word, we get, "Do, together with us, charity and lovingkindness." This is remarkable. We often say that someone who does charity and lovingkindness is doing God's work. Under this reading, we are taking the initiative. We're claiming charity and lovingkindness as our work and asking God to sign up to help out as a volunteer.

Section 7

Avinu Malkenu concludes with "vehoshi'enu"--"and save us." Saving us is still in God's allegorical hands, like all the items in section 2. And, not presuming to read God's allegorical mind, it's possible that charity and lovingkindness might influence the outcome in a positive way.


So what's my conclusion? Avinu Malkenu is somewhat about human helplessness, sort of. But it is absolutely not a call for human passivity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

proposed addition to our vocabulary

In an "I forgive" statement that appears in many prayer books before the bedtime Shema, we say "I forgive all who have angered or annoyed me, or who have sinned against me, whether regarding my body or my possessions or my honor [bein bikhvodi], whether under compulsion or willingly, whether mistakenly or intentionally..." (emphasis added). The statement forgives those who have dissed us, which may be the hardest one to forgive. (I discuss the statement a little more here).

Jews, at least those who use Ortho-speak, have a number of conversational tags. "Lo aleinu" (it shouldn't happen to us), "Yasher koach" (or "Shkoich") (good job!), and so on. I propose that we add "bikhvodi" from the "I forgive" statement to this list as something to be said silently. It means "in my honor" (or, given what a pain prepositions are when going from one language to another, "having to do in some prepositional sort of way with my honor"). When we get bent out of shape because someone has slighted, superciliated, or otherwise dissed us, we can use this to bend ourselves back into shape.

Warning to those who don't know Hebrew: It would be reasonable to surmise that bein (rhymes with "pain"), means "or," but it generally doesn't. In this case, "bein this bein that bein the other" means "whether this, that, or the other."

Monday, July 04, 2016

gematriatical approximation of π

Those who have been following the interesting discussion of Maimonides, the rabbis, and π at R' Natan Slifkin's Rationalist Judaism blog may or may not find this interesting, as may (or may not) those who haven't. Let's take a look at M. D. Stern's "A Remarkable Approximation to π," Mathematical Gazette, 69, no. 218 (1985): 218-19.

Stern notes that 1 Kings 7:23 seems to say that π = 3, which we know to be incorrect. But in that verse, the word qav has two forms: a ketiv (the one that appears in Torah scrolls) and a qere (the one that should be pronounced when chanting from a Torah scroll). Both forms appear in all (or at least most) printed Hebrew Bibles. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value; the numerical value of a word--its gematria--is the sum of the value of its letters. (There's no subtraction like there is in Roman numerals.) Stern points out that the gematria of the ketiv is 111, while that of the qere is 106. If we multiply 3 x 111/106 and round to seven figures, we get 3.141509, which "differs from the true value of π by less than 10-4 which is remarkable. In view of this, it might be suggested that this peculiar spelling is of more significance than a cursory reading might have suggested."

As a matter of principle, I agree with all statements that include "it might be suggested."

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The first (as far as I know) Jew to anglicize his name

I don't remember why, but yesterday a person I knew in high school a zillion years ago whose middle name was Athelstan was floating around in my mind. I knew the original Athelstan was an early English king, but I didn't know the details. So of course I Wikipedia'ed him. What I found there gave me an insight that was so astonishing, and yet so obvious, that it completely smacked my gob. It's obvious in the way that the convenience of having zero in our arithmetic is obvious now that it's been pointed out.

Æðelstān (the correct spelling) was the first Anglo-Saxon king of all of England. But here's the thing. We all know that Old English is derived from Yiddish. And Æðelstān, according to Wikipedia, means "noble stone." OK. I mean. Æðel! Noble! Edel! Right? Right? And check this out. Stān! Stone! Stein!

Yes, it's true. This King Æðelstān guy? He was in fact an Edelstein who anglicized his name. I surmise that his first name was Mel, short for melech, the Hebrew word for king. Mel Edelstein, the nice (so I assume) Jewish boy who became the first English king of England. The king of England, and yet he kept his origins hidden. Until now.

What is the significance of this discovery? Most importantly, did he pronounce his Jewish name "Edelsteen," or "Edelstyne"? Further research, beyond the scope of this post, is needed.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Wheaton College, Muslims, and Jews

I have nothing but admiration and respect for Dr. Larycia Hawkins, the Wheaton College professor who is wearing a hijab in solidarity with American Muslims. I think the college was wrong to suspend her. The college claims that it put her on paid administrative leave not because she wears a hijab, but because of her statement on social media:
"I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book," she posted Dec. 10 on Facebook. "And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."
I find this problematic, although not for the reason the college does. Let’s imagine that some group who are not people of the book and do not worship the God of Abraham were being discriminated against or oppressed in the US, and that some or all of the women in that group wore some distinctive garb that isn’t in itself offensive to Christianity. Would Dr. Hawkins solidarize with them by wearing that garb? It’s possible, but she certainly wouldn’t be able to use the rationale that’s in her Facebook post. This is always a problem when you solidarize with an oppressed people not because they’re oppressed, but because they’re oppressed and they have a lot in common with you. Is there a Christian faith-based rationale for supporting the oppressed even when they aren’t sort of your coreligionists? Wheaton College seems to think there is. In a statement about Dr. Hawkins, the college writes
Wheaton College rejects religious prejudice and unequivocally condemns acts of aggression and intimidation against anyone. Our Community Covenant upholds our obligations as Christ-followers to treat and speak about our neighbors with love and respect, as Jesus commanded us to do.
The college's objection to Dr. Hawkins's Facebook has to do with the claim that "we [Christians and Muslims] worship the same God." In a December 16 press release, the college says,
As a Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College embodies a distinctive Protestant evangelical identity, represented in our Statement of Faith, which guides the leadership, faculty and students of Wheaton at the core of our institution's identity. Upon entering into a contractual employment agreement, each of our faculty and staff members voluntarily commits to accept and model the Statement of Faith with integrity, compassion and theological clarity.

Contrary to some media reports, social media activity and subsequent public perception, Dr. Hawkins' administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College's doctrinal convictions, and is in no way related to her race, gender or commitment to wear a hijab during Advent.
The first half of the first item in the Statement of Faith reads,
WE BELIEVE in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons: the everlasting Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life
Muslims and Jews believe in God as a Holy Unity, not as a Holy Trinity. Yes, we all believe in the God of Abraham, and yes, people can describe the same thing differently and still be talking about the same thing. But the question of Unity or Trinity is so essential to each religion's notion of God that we may in effect be talking about different Gods.

So I don't know whether we small-u unitarians and the trinitarians worship the same God. But I know this with all the certainty I have: no professor at Wheaton College, no writer for the National Review has ever been disciplined for saying that Christians and Jews worship the same God. I am certain of this because if the college or the review had done so, I would have heard about it at some synagogue; we Jews don't take that stuff lightly. I don't know whether any such professor or writer has said such a thing, but it seems reasonably likely; it's the type of thing that many Christians and Jews and righties and lefties often say. If a Wheaton College person or a National Review person has said that Jews and Christians worship the same God and haven't been rebuked for it, it's possible that those institutions may be operating with an anti-Muslim double standard.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

How to save a world, and the Tif'eret Yisrael on diversity

Leviticus 19:9-10 commands the makers to open their fields and vineyards to the takers.
When you reap your land’s harvest, do not completely harvest the ends of your fields. [Also] do not pick up individual stalks [that have fallen]. [Furthermore,] do not pick the incompletely formed grape clusters in your vineyards. [Also] do not pick up individual [fallen grapes] in your vineyards. [All the above] must be left for the poor and the stranger. I am God your Lord. (The Living Torah translation; square brackets in the published translation)
If we want to be truly pious about this, and if we object to my use of "makers and takers," we can say that all this bounty comes from God. "Makers and takers" becomes inappropriate, and we can use another phrase from campaign 2012: "You didn't build that."

We don’t give these gifts only to the Jewish poor. Mishnah Gittin 5.8 teaches that we give them to the non-Jewish poor as well for the sake of the ways of peace (darkhei shalom, דרכי שלום). The point is that if your tzedakah goes only to the Jewish poor, you need to diversify.

* * *
As you may have seen on various bumper stickers, Hallmark cards, and those needlepointed things that people hang in their kitchens, the Talmud teaches that one who saves a single life is like one who has saved a whole world. Sometimes you will hear from some Jews that one who saves a single Jewish life is like one who has saved a whole world. Which version is correct? Good question.

The talmudic item in question is Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.5. This is the version that appears in standard Mishnah collections and in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a):

[Witnesses in a capital case need to know] that capital cases aren’t like property cases. In a property case, one makes restitution and atones. In a capital case, the blood of the accused and that of their descendants hang in the balance until the end of the world, as we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, as it is written, “Your brother’s bloods cry out” (Genesis 4:10). It doesn’t say “your brother’s blood” [דם אחיך], but “your brother’s bloods” [דמי אחיך]: his blood and the blood of his descendants. (Another explanation: your brother’s blood that was spilled on the trees and on the stones.) Therefore, a single person was created in order to teach that Scripture considers one who destroys a single Jewish life as one who has destroyed an entire world, and that Scripture considers one who saves a single Jewish life as one who has saved an entire world.
Two things are worth noting here. First, the logic of the proof text doesn’t limit this to Jews. This isn’t about the children of Abraham, but about all the children of Adam. Second, the statement about one who saves a single life being like one who saves a whole world follows from the verse about Cain and Abel. It doesn’t follow from our descent from a single person. But this is the Mishnah, so who am I to argue?, and I’ll be using the fact that this follows from our common origin later in this sermon. To continue:
It [viz., our having come from a single person] was also for the sake of peace, so that one person wouldn’t say to another, “My father was greater than your father”...
Or as a rabbi in Pittsburgh whose name I don’t remember put it, the first syllable of yichus [inherited prestige; a pedigree] is yich. In the Ortho community, we’re not very serious about this. “He’s Rav Alef’s brother-in-law and a scion of the Beit rabbinic family--sorry, I meant rabbinic dynasty.” Or “I’m an nth-generation direct descendant of the Important Gadol of Kfar Yehupitz, which means I’m cooler than my parent. I have n­ - 1 ancestors who were direct descendants of the Gadol, and my parent has only n - 2.” It gets pretty annoying after a while.
...and so that sectarians wouldn’t say that there is more than one power in Heaven. Finally, it shows the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. A person stamps many coins from a single die, and each looks like the other; the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, stamps each person from the single die of the first person, and none of them looks like another.
This mishnah also appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4.9 [23a]):
...one who saves a single life is considered as one who has saved an entire world.
Here, it isn't limited to Israelite lives. Maimonides paraphrases the Jerusalem text in Hilkhot Sanhedrin 12.3:
...one who saves a single life in the world is considered as one who has saved an entire world. (emphasis added)
The Tif’eret Yisra’el commentary by Rabbi Israel Lifschütz (1782-1860), the head of the rabbinical court in Danzig, applies the metaphor of unique coins from a single die not only to individuals but to whole peoples (Yakhin note 39 on Sanhedrin 4.5):
There are those who are black as coal such as the Ethiopian (כושי), the Negro (נעגער), and the Hottentot (האטטענטאט), and those who are white as snow such as the Samoyed (זאמעידען) and the Albanian (אלבאנוס), those who are the reddest (אדומים ביותר) such as the American Indian (תושבי אמעריקע), and many other various colors.
Rabbi Lifschütz is commenting here on the biblical verse on which the statement about saving a single life is based. So I surmise that he would have taken that statement to apply universally and not just to Jews. I don’t know whether my reasoning here is rabbinically acceptable, but that’s OK, since I’m not learned in Torah, and this isn’t about Jewish law anyway, so who cares?
* * *
Rabbi Lifschütz assigns colors to the peoples differently than we do. He doesn’t use the people of Danzig--the Jews and their Polish and German neighbors--as an example of a white people. I wildly guess that he had no actual contact with Samoyeds or Albanians and believed that they were literally white: the Samoyeds because of their association with the snowy north, up near the White Sea, and the Albanians because their name might have seemed related to albino and the Hebrew word for white, lavan. (The speculative translation of זאמעידען as Samoyeds was proposed by Felix Blank of the Jewish Theological Seminary library. I asked for suggestions from both Slavic and Jewish reference librarians, and his idea made the most sense. זאמעידען is a strange word; the עי is probably pronounced /ei/ as in rein, but that sound is usually spelled יי in a context like this.) Does this mean that he thought of the people we usually call white not as white, but as just normal--flesh colored, as it used to say on the crayons? Maybe. Why does he call American Indians "reddest" instead of just plain "red"? Maybe because he considered the flesh-colored people the basis for comparison. I leave it to people who are smarter than I am (which is a lot of people) to decide whether we should call him a racist.

When I was talking to some people about this a while back, a few of them objected to my using the word Negro. The word may be out of fashion now, but translating נעגער in any other way would have been anachronistic and incorrect. Negro was an honorable word until fairly recently. I was eleven when Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, which is full of references to "the Negro."

תושבי אמעריקע translates almost literally into Native Americans, but I think that would have been anachronistic.