Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Lies about other religions

In an article published in the Jerusalem Post,
Ira Liebler attacks the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for forbidding Jewish participation in a recent women's conference. Mr. Liebler claims that the reason for this ban, the fear of Christian missionary activity, is unfounded. Mr Liebler says that Evangelicals such as those who sponsor the conference are nothing to worry about:

"In contrast to other Protestant denominations, Evangelicals vigorously reject replacement theology and regard Judaism as the foundation for Christianity rather than being replaced by it. "

The trouble is, Mr. Liebler is wrong on both counts. Here are some examples from the internet site of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Evangelical denomination in the United States:

"There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord....It is the duty and privilege of every follower of Christ and of every church of the Lord Jesus Christ to endeavor to make disciples of all nations."


And they mean it, too: They have targeted exactly 7,822,942 Jews for conversion to Christianity, as shown on this spreadsheet.

Compare this to this statement from the United Church of Christ, a "mainline Protestant" denomination:

"We...affirm that Judaism has not been superseded by Christianity; that Christianity is not to be understood as the successor religion to Judaism; God's covenant with the Jewish people has not been abrogated."


Or this statement from the United Methodist Church, a different "mainline Protestant" denomination:

"God is steadfastly faithful to the biblical covenant with the Jewish people. The covenant God established with the Jewish people through Abraham, Moses, and others continues because it is an eternal covenant. "


It is true that not all evangelicals follow the Southern Baptist Convention in their rejection of the validity of Judaism and the need to target Jews for conversion, a point I have previously made.

However, Mr. Liebler is guilty of spreading false information about non-Evangelical Protestants and at best promotes a misleading generalization about Evangelicals. Is this not putting a stumbling block before the blind -- the huge majority of Jews who don't have a clue about the differences between Christian sects?

We wonder why mainline Protestants don't support Israel more; why should they when our leaders spread lies about them? Is there any example before the 20th century in which rabbis intervened in intra-Christian theological disputes? Here, we are publically favoring the group that seems to have a less favorable view of Judaism! Is this really in our interests?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A lesson from sefer Ruth and tractate Yevamot

We are all familiar with the story of Ruth, born a citizen of Moab, she converts to Judaism, marries Boaz, and becomes the great-grandmother of King David:

Rut 21b-22: …and Boaz begot Obed. And Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David.

Most of us also know the story about how it was not clear to all at the time that the prohibition of Moabites becoming full-fledged Jews applied only to Moabite men, as Rashi shows in his commentary to Rut 6:

Rut 6: And the near kinsman said, "I cannot redeem [it] for myself, lest I mar my heritage. You redeem my redemption for yourself for I cannot redeem [it]." Rashi: lest I mar my heritage my offspring, like (Ps. 127:3): “Behold the heritage of the Lord is sons,” to give my offspring a stigma, as it is said (Deut. 23: 4): “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter the congregation of the Lord,” but he erred by [not interpreting it as] “an Ammonite but not an Ammonitess.”

Four generations later, there was still controversy over this issue, as shown in 1 Shmuel 17:54-56.

54. And David took the head of the Philistine, and brought it to Jerusalem, and his weapons, he put in his tent.
55. And when Saul saw David going out toward the Philistine, he said to Abner, the general of his army, "Whose son is this youth, Abner?" And Abner said, "By your life, O King, I know not."

Rashi: Whose son is this youth, Our Rabbis said: Did he not recognize him? Is it not stated: “And he became his weapon bearer” (supra 16:21)? But, (rather this is the explanation): he saw him behaving in a kingly manner. (Vid. supra v. 38) Said Saul, “If he comes from the family of Perez, he will be a king, for the king may break fences (פורץ, related to פרץ) to make a way for himself, and no one may stop him. If, however, he comes from the family of Zerah, he will merely become an esteemed person. Said Doeg to him, ” Before you ask whether or not he is descended from a family which qualifies him for the throne, ask whether or not he is qualified to enter the congregation, (i.e., whether or not he may marry among Jews) since he is descended from Ruth the Moabitess.“ Said Abner to him, ” We have learned: An Ammonite (is forbidden, Deut. 23:3) but not an Ammonitess. (Similarly, a Moabite is forbidden, but not a Moabitess.) “ Said Doeg to him, ” If so (let us say), a ‘mamzer’ (the male issue of a union forbidden under penalty of extinction is forbidden,) and not a ‘mamzereth’ (the female issue of such a union).“ He replied, ” It is stated here: Because they did not meet you with bread and water (v. 5 ibid.), and it is not customary for a woman to do so.“ He said to him,” Men should have met men, and women should have met women." Abner became silent. Saul said to him:

56. And the king said, "You ask whose son this youth is."
R: You ask whose son this youth is Above (v. 55) it is written: הנער, and here it is written העלם. He said to him, “This law has escaped your memory (נתעלמה). Go out and ask in the academy.” This is as it is stated in Yev. 77a.

Assuming that we accept the idea that Jewishness has been defined through matrilineal descent since matan torah, this at first seems a difficult argument to comprehend. Suppose that Ruth’s conversion was not kosher. Then Boaz would have married a non-Jew, and their son Obed would not have been Jewish. But presumably Obed would have married a Jewish woman – I am aware of no source that implies otherwise – and their son Jesse would have been Jewish according to all opinions. Similarly, Jesse would have married a Jewish woman, and their children, including David, would have been Jewish according to all opinions. What grounds would Doeg have had to complain?

A possible answer is found in Yevamot 16-17. The gemara considers the possibility that the child of a Jewish woman and a gentile man is a mamzer. This is discussed explicitly, and resolved in the negative, in Yevamot 44-45. If the halachah were otherwise, then then Jesse would have been a mamzer and so would his son David. This David would have indeed been ineligible to be King, or to marry a child of a non-mamzer Jew! But it is clear from sefer Shmuel that David married the Michal bat Shaul, the daughter of the first king, and was accepted as king himself after the death of Shaul. Thus the halachah was clearly established and universally accepted more a thousand years before the gemara referenced above.

So why is the gemara even discussing the issue? Should not the unquestioned kingship of David HaMelech dealt with this once and for all?

I think this teaches a lesson in proper understanding of our tradition. Opinions that are clearly not accepted as halachah are still given prominence in the talmud. One reason is clearly to give respect to those who honestly felt that they were correct. But another, more important reason is to elucidate other points that are essential for our Jewish learning, which is the situation in Yevamot.

And in the particular case mentioned in Yevamot 16-17, the talmud is showing the relationship between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel as a model for how to relate with whom we disagree. The definition of a mamzer was a central element in their disputes and effected whether the two schools could intermarry. The gemara is not trying to open up an issue that would bring into question whether David HaMelech was suitable to be king, it is trying to teach us proper behavior! This shows that it is improper to grab little talmudic bullets out of context, and absolutely asur for us to simply say that we are going to follow some convenient talmudic opinion that has been rejected just because we would prefer that the halachah is some way other than the way it is. Such is not the true Jewish way. Yose HaGalili may have eaten chicken parmagiana with real cheese, but we don't.


The real sin of the spies

In this week's parsha we have the sin of the spies: Ten of the twelve spies sent to survey the land of Israel come back with an evil report and the entire generation is condemned to die in the desert.

How could this have happened? "All of them were men of distinction; they were the heads of the children of Israel.." (Bamidbar 13:3). "At that time, they were virtuous." (Rashi to the same verse quoting midrash Tanchuma.) These were the gedolim of the day!

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Adler gives us the answer:


Key section:

The Talmud (Sotah 14a) records: Why did Moshe desire to enter the Landof Israel? Was it the fruit of the Land? Not at all, respond our Sages. A simple calculation of Mitzvot indicated that many many Mitzvot are obligatory only in the Eretz Yisrael. Moshe longed for the opportunity for maximum fulfillment of the Mitzvot.

The dor hamidbar formed the largest kollel in history. There was nothing else to do except to study Torah. But the Torah is not just to be studied, it is to be lived! Angels can study Torah, but the famous disputation recorded in Shabat 68b over whether the Torah belongs in heaven or on the earth ends with HaShem ruling for Moshe and the Torah was given to the Jewish people. The Torah elevates our mundane activites like eating, working, and even having sex to holy levels through the commandments. By accepting the evil reports of the ten spies, dor hamidbar implicitly rejected all the commandments associated with Eretz Yisrael, along with the many commandments related to working and preparing sustenance that are in effect everywhere.

While some died shortly after the decree was given, it took almost 40 years for the dor hamidbar to live out their natural lives. This shows that the condemnation to death wasn't so much as a penalty as it was HaShem's realization that the members of the dor hamidbar -- and in particular, ten or the twelve gedolim of that generation -- were not up to the task of establishing the society that the Torah commanded.