9/28/22

Can a Jew Pray Directly to the Divine Attribute of Compassion?

Can a Jew pray directly to the Divine Attribute of Compassion? Yes, in just one prayer each year.


On Yom Kippur in Neilah, in the final series of the prayers of compassion that we call the selihot, we utter the catalogue of God’s thirteen mainly emotional attributes over and over again, the familiar:

“Lord, Lord, God, Compassionate, with loving kindness, patient, with kindness and truth; keeper of mercy for thousands, forgiver of iniquity, transgression and sin; clearing us. Forgive our iniquity and sin and accept us.” (cf. Exodus 34:6-7)


Within this sequence of repeated meditations, the tenth century Italian payetan Rabbi Amitai ben Shepatiah presents in his prayer a direct appeal to the divine attribute of compassion to intercede for us:
Attribute of compassion, pour upon us
In the presence of your creator, cast our supplications
For the sake of your people, request compassion
For every heart has pain and every mind is ill
(Goldschmidt, YK, p. 778)

9/23/22

Just published and now on sale: Elegant new 750 page edition of "The Zohar in English"


The Zohar is called the greatest work of Jewish Mysticism. From the Middle Ages to today people of all faiths have studied and pored over the Zohar to explore the mysteries of God and the universe and to seek knowledge of when the redemption of the world will arrive.

The Zohar is a mystical novel whose hero is Rabbi Simeon son of Yohai, a rabbi and disciple of Rabbi Akiva from second century Israel. The original Aramaic work describes how Rabbi Simeon and his companions wander through the hills of Galilee, discovering and sharing mystical secrets of the Torah.

This large format 750 page edition presents the entire work in one volume in eloquent English as translated by several great scholars of the 20th century.


  • ON SALE NOW

9/17/22

Does the Talmud say that Gay Sex Causes Earthquakes?


I'm quoted  in the Pacific Standard as an authority on the cause of earthquakes, "Gay Sex Caused the Earthquakes in Nepal."

On 8/23/2011 I wrote this post:

Does the Talmud say that Gay Sex Causes Earthquakes? In 2010 I covered this nonsensical topic after the Haiti earthquakes. (At that time Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic cited me on this subject.)

Here it is again.

Yes, the Talmud does say that gay sex causes earthquakes.

I mused, That must be some awesome gay sex.

But seriously, if one can get serious over this bizarre idea, some cockamamie rabbis were going around preaching that gay sex caused Haiti's earthquakes.

See here and here for the reports about Rabbi Yehuda Levin and the Rabbinical Alliance of America. (These materials are gone now.)

Now not only is this a strange teaching. I must chastise these rabbis for not doing their Talmud homework and for not paying closer attention to the text in Yerushalmi Berakhot (9:2), which several years back I translated and published through the University of Chicago Press.

According to the Talmud text, earthquakes are caused by any one of a number of acts: yes one of them is gay sex, but others are by disputes, and also by not taking heave offering and tithes from your produce, and also because God is just upset that the Temple is in ruins and there are theaters and circuses in Israel.

Rabbis ought to know better than to cherry pick among the Talmudic reasons for earthquakes.

9/11/22

Will the War Against Religious Terrorism Ever End?

Will the War Against Religious Terrorism Ever End? (Repost for 9-11-2022)

I always feel deep sadness as I recall - as if it was this morning - that awful day 21 years ago when I saw the planes fly into the towers from my vantage on a hill in across the river in Jersey City. 

Mark Juergensmeyer, in Terror in the Mind of God, lays out five ways that the reign of religious terror can come to an end. Let's consider each. First consider the end will come with the forceful eradication of the terrorists, what appears to have been the US response to the 9/11 attacks, continued with the more recent killing of OBL.

Juergensmeyer outlines,
The first scenario is one of a solution forged by force. It encompasses instances in which terrorists have literally been killed off or have been forcibly controlled. If Osama bin Laden had been in residence in his camp in Afghanistan on August 10, 1998, along with a large number of leaders of other militant groups when the United States launched one hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles into his quarters, for instance, this air strike might have removed some of the persons involved in planning future terrorist acts in various parts of the world.

8/31/22

On Sale: Jewish Memes by Tzvee Zahavy at Amazon

And so another one of my new books is on SALE! Jewish Memes – January, 2022 - a collection of my analytical essays - I frame it like this:

The term meme was introduced in 1976 by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He conceived of memes as the cultural parallel to biological genes and considered them as being in control of their own reproduction.
The genes in your body carries chemical instructions that make up the characteristics of who you are. Those instructions are in the DNA that makes your personality distinctive. And you transmit the DNA data down to your descendants. That is how the continuity of biological life works.
What Dawkins proposed was that there is a chemical unit of culture that contains the instructions for the characteristics of who you are as a member of a cultural family. That is what he called a “meme”. It is spread and transmitted across space and time to propagate and perpetuate a distinctive cultural group.
But this is not a tight scientific notion with rigorous rules. The DNA of the double helix is comprised of units of amino acids that pair up in ACTG units to define precise elements of the genetic code.
The cultural parallel that Dawkins and his successors identified – the meme – is a whole lot less rigorous and has a non-scientific chemistry that controls its composition and its transmission.
As an analogy or metaphor I find the idea of the meme attractive and I will use it in this book in many ways to make some points about what makes a particular cultural group distinctive and how the traits of that group have been passed on from parents to children.
There is a chemistry and a DNA to the basic ideas and concepts that make someone Jewish. They are distinctive to defining an identity of a person as Jewish and transmissible to the next generation.
There is also of course the fact that Jews claim affiliation to a biological heritage. We proudly say we are Members of the Tribe.
I spent my life formulating and transmitting Jewish memes in a long a rich career of teaching and writing.
This volume is a recapitulation of some of those most important things that I learned about some central Jewish memes.

8/8/22

My Jewish Standard - Dear Rabbi Zahavy - Talmudic Advice Column for June 2018 - The Milk and Meat Kosher Taboo Explained

Why Not Milk and Meat? 
Because we must Segregate Men from Women to be a Sacred People
My Dear Rabbi Zahavy Talmudic Advice Column for June 2018

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

Though I was raised observant of the commandments in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, I woke up one day recently and realized that I don’t understand the ban on cooking or eating dishes that combine dairy and meat ingredients. The logic of those laws suddenly puzzles me. If the milk and meat foods are kosher separately, why are they forbidden when they are mixed together?

Flustered in Fair Lawn

Dear Flustered,

You do understand that most of the time, each religion is based on its own brand of logic. You don’t apply the general laws of deduction and inference to a religion. You accept how the system works internally, and you build on it. That buy-in and acceptance of the reasoning of your own religion is a big part of what we call faith.

Apparently, you do accept that God decreed that his chosen people avoid mixing milk and meat. Unique beliefs and practices like this one can be found in Judaism — and in all the major world religions.

You would like to apprehend the deeper meanings in this set of Jewish rules.

Jews have been questioning the relevance of these laws for some time. In 1885, classical Reform Judaism officially scuttled the laws of kashrut, calling them “foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.”

But in 1979, backtracking speedily (that is, speedily for religious leaders), the Reform rabbinical association proclaimed that “It is reasonable to ask the Reform Jew to study and consider kashrut so as to develop a valid personal position.” In 2011, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis published “The Sacred Table,” which encourages an “ethical, health-based, spiritual approach to culinary culture in the Progressive Jewish community.”

8/3/22

My July Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column: Raging over Rabbis in Randolph

Dear Rabbi Zahavy: Your Talmudic Advice Column (July 2014)

Dear Rabbi,

I read about rabbis in Israel who offer cures, amulets, talismans and the like to their followers. They attend family events of their followers and give advice to businessmen. The rabbis receive fees for these services, sometimes lavish donations. Some of these rabbis have become quite rich, even multi-millionaires. Forbes has published a list of the richest Israeli rabbis! I personally think these guys are despicable con men who use religion to prey on vulnerable people in need of help. Shouldn’t we do something to stop these people?

Raging over Rabbis in Randolph

Dear Raging,

Whoa! It is hard to ask a rabbi to condemn a rabbi. On the one hand, we rabbis need to stick together. If you attack one of our colleagues, common sense dictates that we ought to step up to defend him. However, on the other hand, you are right in your inquiry. If we find that a professional colleague is a fraud, it makes good sense for us to step up to discipline him, lest our whole profession be tarnished.

We rabbis derive our authority primarily from our study and special knowledge of rabbinic literature including Talmud, Codes, Responsa and yes, also from Kabbalah. Secondarily, many Jews believe that some or all rabbis have special charisma, which is power that derives from their closeness to the sacred and from their more direct link to God. This latter belief is more common in the Hasidic and Sephardic communities.

And you no doubt realize that, on the one hand, if you are affiliated with any form of organized religion, that you already are paying significant amounts to rabbis for their services. Nearly all rabbis serving in a professional capacity in America are paid – some quite handsomely. You may derive personal benefits from their services. Some provide solace and counseling in a professional manner based on academic training. I assume that you have no problem with that means of livelihood and you do not consider such practitioners to be con men.

But on the other hand, you may be rightfully indignant if a rabbi exploits his station to demand from his reverential flock exorbitant fees for whatever it is that he offers: presence at events, blessings, advice and the like.

In this case, since you don’t seem to know directly the rabbis that you question, you need to step back and ask if you are incensed specifically about these charismatic holy men making too much money. And you need to consider what provokes you to conclude that they are fakers and charlatans who exploit the weak and helpless. There are many testimonies from their followers praising and thanking these holy men. Celebrity charismatic rabbis, who earn the big bucks for providing the cures and remedies that you dislike, also can and do alleviate much suffering among their followers.

If a rabbi breaks the law by committing fraud or engages in an outright scam, you are justified to call him a con man. But if he engages in legal activities that are within the professional parameters of what rabbis do, you have little basis to label him a fake.

Nevertheless, you may choose to disapprove of extremes of rabbinical activity. For a religious believer, like yourself, if you believe a rabbi's activities are outrageous, you are entitled to your subjective opinion to declare a flashy healer a fake, while you continue to deem the other more modest counselors legitimate.

I do hope that you find helpful this brief Talmudic analysis and (rabbinic) advice for the day-to-day reality of our contradictory world, where one person's holy man may be another person's con man.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com

7/18/22

Shall we fast and mourn on Tisha B'Av? No!

No. I believe we should abolish the practice of fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on the ninth day of the month of Av, known as Tisha B'Av.

Now before you convene a synod to excommunicate me, know that I am in good company. In the third century CE the greatest Tanna, Rabbi Judah the Prince, tried to abolish Tisha B'Av.

My son Yitz called my attention to this passage below which records the rabbi's action [Soncino Babylonian Talmud (2012-04-25). Megillah and Shekalim (Kindle Locations 739-743). Kindle Edition.] and to Tosafot's glosses (at Megillah 5b) which reject the premise that someone could entertain the notion of abolishing Tisha B'Av.
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: Rabbi planted a shoot on Purim, and bathed in the [bathhouse of the] marketplace of Sepphoris on the seventeenth of Tammuz and sought to abolish the fast of the ninth of Ab, but his colleagues would not consent. R. Abba b. Zabda ventured to remark: Rabbi, this was not the case. What happened was that the fast of Ab [on that year] fell on Sabbath, and they postponed it till after Sabbath, and he said to them, Since it has been postponed, let it be postponed altogether, but the Sages would not agree.
Of course, if Rabbi Judah the Prince (compiler of the Mishnah) once tried to abolish Tisha B'Av but the sages would not agree to it, I do not expect that the sages of our times will agree with me to abolish Tisha B'Av.

Yet here is why they should.

I concur that as a culture we need to remember the calamities of the past so that we can be vigilant and prevent the calamities of the future. But we need effective ritual memories that are clear and unequivocal. Tisha B'Av commemorates that the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in it were destroyed.

Because the city has been rebuilt in modern Israel, this befogs the symbolism of the past destruction and renders it less effective.

I have been mulling over this issue for thirty years or more. In 2012 I mused as follows (with a few edits added).

Is Tisha B'Av relevant? No I do not think that the fast of Tisha B'Av is relevant anymore. I need a holiday from Tisha B'Av.

That day was for a long time a commemoration through fasting and prayer over the destroyed city of Jerusalem and the Temple. I visited Jerusalem in May of 2011 (ed.: and again in 2013, and many more times since then) and can attest that the city is not desolate. It is without reservations, glorious.

Who then wants the bleak story to be told? Archetypally the militant "celebrity" archetype wants to keep recalling defeat, destruction and desolation, to spur team Jews on to fight the foes and to triumph at the end of time. That scheme may work for that archetype as long as the facts of reality do not fly smack in the face of the narrative. And when they do, what then? The narrative loses its force. It becomes absurd.

I cannot imagine Jerusalem in ruins. Period. And indeed, why should I perpetuate an incendiary story of gloom and doom into a diametrically opposite positive world of building and creativity? The era of desolation has ended.

For over twenty-five years, I've been lamenting the irony of lamenting over a city that is rebuilt. It's more rebuilt now -- way more -- than it was twenty five plus years ago. What do I do then about Tisha B'Av, the Jewish fast day of lament and mourning? Here is what I said those many years ago.

7/15/22

The Mishnah in a new and affordable English Edition

A new English translation of Mishnah edited by Robert Goldenberg (OBM), Shaye Cohen, and Hayim Lapin has been published for $645. In the Introduction two of the editors heap high praise on Rev. Herbert Danby's classic translation, which I edited and released and is now available in a beautiful new edition for $29. Here is what the other editors say about Danby.
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The Rev. Herbert Danby
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[From page 8] "In 1933, the Clarendon Press of Oxford University published The Mishnah Translated from the Hebrew with Introduction and Brief Explanatory Notes, by Herbert Danby, a volume of some 900 pages. It is a mark of the quality of Danby's work that it remains in print almost ninety years later. Our translation is completely independent of his, but we are aware that we are walking in his footsteps. For the Hebrew-less reader, unaccustomed to Mishnaic rhetoric and technical terminology, Danby's translation, [is] excellent in itself...
"Danby was a master translator, but the modern reader demands more from a translation than Danby provides. The goal of our Mishnah translation is to equal Danby's in quality and to surpass it in utility. In tribute to Herbert Danby, a philo-Semitic Christian Hebraist, we have retained almost unchanged his index of biblical passages and his table of weights, measures, and currency. We would have liked to retain his subject index, but we reluctantly came to the conclusion that it is too closely keyed to Danby's own translation and notes for it to be usable in a new setting.
"For biographical information about the Rev. Danby and an appreciation of his work, see the excellent article by Shalom Goldman in the journal Modern Judaism ("The Rev. Herbert Danby (1889-1953): Hebrew Scholar, Zionist, Christian Missionary," Modern Judaism-A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience, 27:2 (May 2007), pp. 219-245)."

From Goldman's article - we garner these insights:

"Danby’s most useful and widely-used contribution to the study of Jewish texts was his Mishnah translation. This translation quickly became a standard text in the English-speaking world and it remains in print seventy years after its publication. When, in 1988, Yale University Press published a new translation of the Mishnah, its editor, Jacob Neusner, made it clear that ‘‘publishing this fresh translation of the Mishnah constitutes no criticism of the great and pioneering translation by Herbert Danby. His translation has one fundamental flaw . . .He does not make the effort to translate the Hebrew into English words following the syntax of Mishnaic Hebrew . . . that is what the present translation, into American English, provides.’’ While Neusner’s translation takes us closer to the syntactical structure of the Hebrew of the Mishnah, Danby’s translation renders that text more immediately accessible and for that reason it remains the translation of record."

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My reaction is that it's good to see nice words about a classic Mishnah English Translation by Danby. But mystifying and a bit disappointing that the editors of the $645 edition have nothing to say in their introduction about numerous other recent and brilliant translations of Mishnah into English by for instance - Rabbi Steinsalz, or the edition by Artscroll (Schottenstein Edition of the Mishnah Elucidated - Complete 23 Volume Set), or the academic work edited by Jacob Neusner (which I contributed to), or the set by Pinhas Kehati, or editions rendering Mishnah into English by dozens of other scholars and rabbis.
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