Maggid Books has Published "Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah" by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Maggid books published "Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah" by my teacher of blessed memory, the Rav.

It is a thoughtful book and one that is as timely today as it was in the 1950s when the Rav first propounded his insights in a series of public lectures and courses on the subject of morality, ethics and Jewish law.

The Rav's newly published collection of essays, presents for example a major distinction, making the point that halakhah applies to the collective people of Israel. But ethics and morality derive from within each individual person. In my view every communal "policy of discrimination" that is justified by people on halachic grounds can engender profound quandaries for an individual on ethical and moral grounds.

The Rav in the title chapter, pp. 181ff., makes it clear that (1) there is no psak halakhah in matters of morality and (2) the mesorah for morality is a personal one transmitted by a sort of cultural osmosis, not via public proclamations, rulings or edicts.

Here is the problem in a nutshell when applying such principles to our lives. There is a moral imperative to fight gender discrimination and eliminate it. And there is a halakhic imperative to perpetuate the ritual and social practices of the past. Resolving this clash is the monumental challenge of our generation. This book will help bring clarity to such discussions, though the Rav does not address them in his presentation of themes and theories of philosophy.

The publisher notes that in this volume’s opening essay, Rabbi Soloveitchik writes:

"Nowadays a basic investigation of morality and ethos would be of great importance. There is a crying need for clarification of many practical problems, both in the individual-private and in the social-ethical realms. There are too many uncertainties in which we live today, uncertainties about what we ought to do. We should try to infer from our ethical tradition certain standards that should govern our conduct. In particular, I notice confusion among rabbis as regards basic problems whose solution cannot be found in the Shulhan Arukh and must rather be inferred by way of deduction from ancient principles and axioms."

Was Beruryah aspiring to become a rabbi?

Beruryah was a great independent, moral, outspoken woman who lived in the time of the Talmud.

She was married to a rabbi. But I wonder now, was she also aspiring to become a rabbi?

We are told that she met with a tragic end, according to a medieval story.

The story briefly reports that Beruryah was "seduced" in a plot by rabbis and rabbinical students in a scheme to discredit her. When her act of immorality became public she could not bear the humiliation and killed herself. More on this in a moment.

But first, an example of Beruryah's legendary morality: the Talmud attributes in one source a moral superiority to Beruryah (aka Beruriah),  the wife of Rabbi Meir, as I summed it up in an short article:
... the rabbinic traditions do portray Beruryah as a sensitive yet assertive figure. The Talmud recounts anecdotes illustrating Beruryah's piety, compassion and wit. In one source she admonishes her husband Meir not to be angry at his enemies and not to pray for their death. She suggests that instead he pray that their sins cease and that they repent (b. Berakhot 10a).
The great rabbi was dressed down by his wife for letting his emotions obscure his ethics.

I wonder if that is why Rashi, the medieval commentator went ahead to discredit Beruryah with this other story that has no antecedent in rabbinic literature that says she was unfaithful to her husband by having sex with his student, and then in shame she committed suicide.
Rashi's commentary to b. 'Avodah Zarah 18b, on the phrase, "And some say because of the Beruryah incident."

One time she [Beruryah] mocked what the sages said [cf. b. Qiddushin 80b], "Women are flighty." He [Meir] said to her, "By your life! You will eventually concede [the correctness of] their words."
He instructed one of his disciples to tempt her to infidelity. He [the disciple] urged her for many days, until she consented.

When the matter became known to her, she strangled herself, while Rabbi Meir fled because of the disgrace.
But wait, wait. I have a bunch of questions about this juicy story. Did she "consent" or did the student finally just force her to submit? Was this a seduction or was it a rape? We have only the testimony of the men, not of the woman who was the target and the victim. What would Beruryah have said to the local police about this incident? We hear no voice at all from her in that brief story.

Indeed it's legitimate to ask if Rashi made up this story out of whole cloth, since it appears nowhere else in rabbinic literature. But even if Rashi had found this anecdote somewhere in an authoritative Midrash collection, I wonder, why did he choose to reproduce it? And why didn't he tell us where he found it? Rashi could have exercised a don't tell policy and left Beruryah's reputation intact. Why didn't he do that?

Rashi is known as one of the leading rabbis ever. He was primarily a commentator, and an anthologizer. But he is considered by many to have been the greatest exegete of all times.

My view is that in no way should we accept that this event was "historical" or "biographical" given the strange nature of the tradition's first appearance in the eleventh century.

The Beruryah incident text describes a cunning premeditated seduction scheme hatched by a jealous and short-tempered husband and executed through his misuse of his authority over his students. All of the blame for this perverse plot of seduction rests on Meir.

And yet, the more I think about this short tale, the more I conclude that no, this pious woman did not consent to sex, and that yes, it is likely that Beruryah was raped by her husband's student who failed after all his attempts to seduce her.

But lucky for Meir, the story is a complete fiction inserted as a bawdy tale by a French rabbi into his Talmudic commentary, perhaps to entertain, or perhaps to teach us a lesson.

If the latter, then it's quite a bizarre and negative lesson in my humble opinion. Rashi's little narrative teaches us that a great rabbinic master hatched a plot to send a student to seduce his wife because she was saying things that mocked a rabbinic teaching about the "flighty" nature and character of all women.

Yes, the storied outcome of Meir's plot was tragic for Beruryah and for him. Was Rashi trying to warn his fellow eleventh century French rabbis not to send their students to seduce their uppity wives because the results could be tragic?

So far that's the best I can come up with to justify even slightly the transmission of such an awful fable. And it begs the question: what was Rashi thinking?

Postscript for 2017:

If Beruryah were alive today, would she go to rabbinic school and seek ordination? Would the right wing rabbinic organizations condemn her for doing that?

Or perhaps if she opted to pursue such a radical path, would her husband engage a prominent New Jersey real estate magnate to hire a male prostitute to seduce her with the intent of blackmailing her.

You do know that those sorts of corrupt immoral schemes can backfire and lead to jail time, in fiction and in reality.


You can review the whole corpus of the Talmud's traditions of the great woman, Beruryah, reproduced below in my short encyclopedia article.


Talmudic Chaos v. Halakhic Linearity in the Logic of Judaism

In 2011 I published an article, "In Search Of The Logic Of Judaism: From Talmudic Chaos To Halakhic Linearity," which you can download and read from the link here.   

I used mathematical ideas to differentiate the linear organization of the halakhah from non-linear thinking of the Talmud. Our abstract says: 

In this paper I examine some common views of scholars concerning the idea of the halakhah in Judaism. I then explain why their methods failed to account for the main philological and historical evidence regarding the term from the Talmudic texts. Then I suggest as a heuristic explanation that the logic of the Talmud defies linearity and can be discussed productively using chaos theory.

The authors in this volume cover varied topics with sophistication and erudition. The publisher's page provides details about the book, as copied below. 

Is Lady Gaga Jewish?

No, pop star, Lady Gaga is not a Jew. Her birth name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta and she is Catholic.

Wikipedia explains that, "Stefani was born March 28, 1986, the eldest child of Joseph Germanotta, an Italian American internet entrepreneur, and Cynthia Bissett... At the age of 11, Germanotta attended Convent of the Sacred Heart, a private Roman Catholic school on Manhattan's Upper East Side."

Gaga's performance in Madison Square Garden in February 2011 was made into an HBO special.

Her music video, Alejandro, in 2010 stirred up religious controversy and condemnation that it is a sacrilege because the scenes in which the singer displays a cross and wears a red nun's habit alternate with scenes in which she engages in simulated sexual acts and suggestive poses and motions.

Is Caroline Kennedy's Husband Edwin Schlossberg Jewish?

Yes, Edwin Arthur Schlossberg is a Jew.

All four of Schlossberg's grandparents were Russian (Ukrainian) Jews born near Poltava and arrived in the United States at Ellis Island.

In 1986 Schlossberg married Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at Hyannis Port when Caroline was 28 and Ed was 41.

Their afternoon wedding ceremony was held at the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Centerville, Massachusetts and did not include a mass.

How Jewish is Schlossberg? Nate Bloom refers to "American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy" by C. David Heymann as follows:
Heymann writes that Schlossberg was raised in a "devout Orthodox Jewish family" that belonged to a modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan. He attended Hebrew School and had a bar mitzvah ceremony.


Jews in Book Reviews - NY Times Book Review - 5 major reviews of books about Jews

I can't recall a Sunday NY Times book review with 5 of its major reviews about books concerning Jews. Daphne Merkin, Aharon Applefeld, and three more.



Diving Into Hell: A Powerful Memoir of Depression

In “This Close to Happy,” Daphne Merkin explains her struggles with depression with insight, grace and excruciating clarity.


The Rise of Brooklyn, What’s Wrong and What’s Right

Kay Hymowitz’s “The New Brooklyn” looks at the transformation of Brooklyn over the last several decades and complicates our understanding of gentrification.
How David Became Goliath: The Secret of Israel’s Military Success

4 3 2 1 By Paul Auster 866 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $32.50. When Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” was published in 2013, it felt like something new, a wildly inventive
January 31, 2017 - By TOM PERROTTA - Books - Print Headline: "Parallel Lives"


Shabbat Limo Riders and Shul Avoiders: My Dear Rabbi Zahavy Column in the Jewish Standard for February 2017

My Dear Rabbi Zahavy Column for February 2017: 
Shabbat Limo Riders and Day School Paying Shul Avoiders

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I was brought up Orthodox and continue to represent myself as such. I married a woman who converted to Orthodox Judaism to marry me. Recently, my influential father-in-law invited me to an important high-profile gala dinner on a Friday night. I did go to the dinner with my wife, and we returned home in a limousine after sunset.

Before doing this, I asked my rabbi, and he said that because of the circumstances I was permitted to attend and to ride home. Still, a lot of Orthodox people have criticized me for going to the event and for taking the ride.

I want to know — did I act properly?

Shabbat Limo Rider in Livingston

Dear Limo Rider,

Yes, you acted properly. You respected your father-in-law. You respected the importance of your situation. You respectfully asked your rabbi. By having someone drive, you did not violate the direct Sabbath restrictions against performing forbidden labors.


Download of the Complete Babylonian Talmud in English - Free

I am proud to provide for you as a gift, a download of the complete Babylonian Talmud English translation..

The Talmud in English is online and free at Halakhah.com, http://www.halakhah.com/ - serving up 60,000+ downloads each month, 700,000+ each year.


Contains the Sedarim (orders, or major divisions) and tractates (books) of the Babylonian Talmud, as translated and organized for publication by the Soncino Press in 1935 - 1948.

My site has the entire Talmud edition in PDF format and  about 8050 pages in HTML format, comprising 1460 files — of the Talmud.

I recommend that on your web site or blog you add a link to this site http://www.halakhah.com.

Highlights include: A formatted 2-column PDF version of the Talmud at Halakhah.com.


My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Column for January 2017: Am I a fundamentalist rube? Can we reconcile science and religion?

Am I a fundamentalist rube? Can we reconcile science and religion?
My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Column for January 2017

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I recently realized that a religious publication that I thought was factual has at times presented fictional material as fact. I would rather not reveal the source, because that will expose me in two ways. First, it will let people know how gullible I have been. And second, it may expose me to social criticism for doubting authoritative religious writings.

Am I a naïve rube for not picking up earlier that people make stuff up, call it fact, or even sacred fact, and will not tell us that it is fiction?

Awoken in Weehawken

Dear Awoken,

It’s hard to answer an elliptical question that leaves out details. I don’t know exactly what you previously thought was factual and what you believe you now know is fictional.

We all tend to accept what we read at face value much of the time. It would be exhausting for us to question and doubt every written “factual” item that we encounter. So you took published material as fact, when perhaps some of it was fabricated in order to make a point or teach a lesson.

In religious writings the use of parables or stories is common, and helps to put a face on human strivings, conflicts, doubts, and other challenges. The midrash and the aggadah, for instance, are literary genres that use narratives, allegories and legends to teach moral lessons based on biblical and rabbinic personalities and events.


In a book honoring Jacob Neusner, read my essay, Varieties of Religious Visualizations

A Legacy of Learning: Essays in Honor of Jacob Neusner (Brill Reference Library of Judaism.) was published in 2014. My essay is in the book.

My contribution is Varieties of Religious Visualizations by Tzvee Zahavy:

In this paper, I describe several distinct visualizations that I recognize in Jewish prayers. By the term prayers, I mean the texts recited by Jews in religious ritual contexts. By the term visualizations, I mean the formation of mental visual images of a place and time, of a narrative activity or scene, or of an inner disposition. The goals of the visualizations can include: (1) professed communication with God, articulation of common religious values for (2) personal satisfaction or for (3) the sake of social solidarity, or (4) attainment of altered inner emotional states or moods.

You may download the paper at Academia or at Halakhah.com.

Or you can buy the book. It's pricy - I just sold my copy for a handsome ransom.