Monday, March 2, 2009

A New Kuzari

A new version of R. Daniel Korobkin's Hebrew-English translation of the Kuzari was recently published by Feldheim (the previous version was published over a decade ago by Jason Aronson). I'd like to offer a few thoughts about this edition.

The Kuzari is an essential Jewish text that, with a good translation, is pretty easy to read most of the time, although it has a few difficult spots. I was first introduced to the book with a good Hebrew translation (from the Arabic original). R. Korobkin has produced an extremely accessible English translation that, I think, far surpasses anything that has been previously published. His English is easy and is more of an idiomatic translation than a precise, word-for-word rendition. The latter, I think, would make the read much more difficult than it needs to be.

Click here to read moreFrom the Acknowledgments section it is clear that R. Korobkin accessed leading academic scholars for assistance, but the book also has traditional rabbinic endorsements (from R. Yaakov Weinberg and R. Dovid Cohen). His footnotes show his familiarity with other important Medieval works of Jewish thought. In those notes, he frequently directs readers to what other Medieval thinkers have to say on the subject, and he sometimes compares those views.

Significantly, the book has a very helpful introduction that offers an overview of the Kuzari and indeces that are extremely useful.

However, let me offer some counterpoints. I found the Hebrew translation to be less than desirable. R. Korobkin used the old Ibn Tibbon translation, which he occasionally updated. In the Preface, he offers two reasons for using the Ibn Tibbon translation: 1) it was written close to the time of the original Arabic to the translator understood the original terminology, 2) it is a "classic" text. In this age of Modern Hebrew translations by R. Yosef Kafach (and Prof. Yehudah Even Shmuel), the Ibn Tibbon translations just seem archaic. I think this decision was unfortunate.

Additionally, I really wish that there was more commentary. R. Korobkin clearly has a lot to offer but many of the footnotes are very brief and there aren't enough of them. He occasionally paraphrases from classic commentaries but I wanted more.

I found a few of the English translations a little difficult. R. Korobkin consistently translates Ibn Tibbon's "mikreh" as incidental, but it seems to me that sometimes it should be translated as accidental. I can understand why you would want to translate a word consistently, but I think clarity should override that concern. He also translates the word "hakdamah" as fundamental (as in fundamental principle) while I think more accurate would be something less absolute like proposition. Then again, I have no idea what the original Arabic says so I could be mistaken.

I also found the book somewhat annoying in that it is so heavy. I would have preferred to have smaller and closer text, smaller margins and thinner paper. It's just too heavy to carry around. There are also 80 pages of appendices that I would gladly do without for a lighter book.

But all that notwithstanding, if you are only going to have one edition of the Kuzari in your home, I recommend this one. It has a decent Hebrew, a great English, helpful and philosophically informed footnotes and great indices (did I mention that he helpfully breaks the big paragraphs into sub-paragraphs?).

Enslavement That Leads To Freedom

From Dr. Shalom Rosenberg, In the Footsteps of the Kuzari, vol. 2 p. 177:
Consider the example of two people. One is lying on his couch, watching a soccer game on television and drinking can after can of beer. The second is exercising or playing basketball in order to improve his health. The first seems relaxed, while the second is perspiring profusely. But who is the free man? Our first reaction will be that the free man is the one lying on his couch. But he cannot even raise himself up. In contrast, all the work of exercising -- if not done for commercial reasons -- gives the person control over his body and maximal development of his talents and abilities. In other words, it affords freedom. The person who exercises in order to give his body the necessary freedom fulfills the injunction, "do not read harut but heirut." He shows that, paradoxially and strangely enough, we attain freedom through self-subjugation and self-discipline. The second way sometimes promises much, but actually enslaves one. It is freedom that leads to enslavement.
This is also the message of the classic book, The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room, where Papa Bear explains that being messy and disorganized actually prevents you from having fun and doing what you want to do. This is a lesson that applies to everything in life, including business and spiritual growth. It is the disciplined life that can come through keeping the mitzvos that allows for reaching great spiritual heights.

The Chesed and Emes of Burial

Below is an excerpt from the newly published Divine Footsteps: Chesed and the Jewish Soul by R. Daniel Z. Feldman. The book is "an exploration of the quality of chesed – kindness in all of its manifestations – from a halakhic, thematic and structural perspective." Like the author's previous works, it is a tour de force of lomdus and clarity, offering a view of rabbinic perspectives throughout the ages on interpersonal commandments.

Here is an excerpt relevant to this week's Torah portion (pp. 107-109):
I. Kindness and Truth

Fulfilling the needs of those who are no longer living is a unique category of chesed. The Torah relates that when Jacob neared the end of his life, he conveyed his desire to be buried in the Land of Israel to his son Joseph, and termed the request a “chesed ve-emet ” (Gen. 47:29), an act of “kindness and truth,” or perhaps a “true kindness.” Rashi, in his commentary, explains the terminology: when one acts on behalf of those who are no longer alive, the kindness is pure and genuine, as no repayment can be expected.

Click here to read moreBurial of the deceased is a two-faceted mitzvah. On one level, it is an independent obligation identified in the Torah as a commandment, with its own goals and requirements.[1] On another level, it is the final expression of dignity shown to a human being, and one that by definition necessitates the involvement of others.[2] As such, the burial, and all that it entails, is firmly rooted within the rubric of the broader command of chesed.[3] Once again, this is a chesed modeled by God Himself, who, the Torah tells us, personally buried Moses.[4]

Some delineate two aspects here: burial is an absolute obligation upon the family members. The community at large, which assists the family or which steps in when there is no family, is engaged in chesed.[5]

R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, known as the “Ketav Sofer,” locates in the duality of the requirement another layer of interpretation of the phrase “true kindness.” Indeed, burial of the dead is a fundamental societal need; to fail to attend to this would be a disgrace to the living and an impediment to civilized existence. However, that need may be fulfilled with a minimal, functional burial, one that removes the deceased from the presence of the living. To go beyond that, to strive to honor the departed in a fitting way, and to incorporate their wishes into the arrangements, that is purely chesed. Thus, the “true kindness” was not the act of burying Jacob, but rather acceding to his accompanying request, “do not bury me in Egypt.”[6]

[1] Deut. 21:23; Sanhedrin 46b.
[2] Some suggest that this is actually the intent of the term “emet;” in the other realms of chesed, the act may or may not actually be needed. In the case of burial, there is no disputing the necessity. See R. Yitzchak Kreiser, Ish Le-Re’eihu, Genesis, 469.

Conversely, just as the deceased requires the assistance of others, they need him as well, as the tremendous mitzvot associated with caring for the needs of the departed cannot be performed in any other context. The Koghaglover Rav, R. Aryeh Leib Fromer, suggested in a homiletic exposition (printed in Responsa Eretz Tzvi II, pp. 409–410) that this is the reason for the enormity of the chesed associated with these mitzvot; they provide a final merit to a soul anguished by the loss of further opportunity to accrue merit on this Earth.

Another interpretation of “emet ” in this context is suggested by R. Elyakim Shlesinger, Sichot Beit Av, pp. 66–67, who notes that acts of chesed are often motivated partially by the desire of the giver to avoid witnessing the pain and suffering of others, which diverts focus from the needs of the recipient to those of the giver. In the case of funeral preparations, however, the recipient is not visibly suffering, and thus the service is more purely altruistic.

For a more mystically oriented interpretation, see Ma’avar Yabbok, Sefat Emet, ch. 27.
[3] On differences between the two aspects, see R. Raphael Ha-Levi Schorr, Mishnat Ha-Levi, Bava Metzia 30b, #155. See also R. Meir Yosef Birenstweig, Otzerot Megadim, Genesis, 254–255.
[4] Deut. 34:6.
[5] See, on this point, R. Chanoch Chaim Weinstock, Birkat Hillel, Genesis, p. 95, who analyzes at length Jacob’s request of Joseph in this vein. See also R. Michael Klagsbald, Mi-Yemini Micha’el, Bava Metzia, #147:2.
[6] Responsa Ketav Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 180. Note also the analysis of R. Meir Dan Plotzki, Keli Chemdah, Parashat Ki Tetze 6:6.

Understanding Christian Zionists

There has been a longstanding debate in the Jewish community over how suspicious, if at all, we should be of Christian support for Israel (link). A new book has led me to rethink my position on this, and to ultimately confirm me in my view that we should be cautiously accepting of this support. Dr. Stephen Spector conducted extensive research for his book, Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism, to the point that the reviewer of the book in Christianity Today wrote: "I have looked carefully at his list of interviewees and I cannot think of a single individual of any importance in Christian Zionist ranks whom he has not spoken to" (link). Additionally, he checked the written record carefully, occasionally pointing out where interviewees were wrong about trends and imprecise about their own views.

Click here to read moreOne of Spector's main points is that the Evangelical world is not monolithic. This seemingly obvious fact was totally lost on me until I read the book. Spector divides the Evangelicals into three camps: traditionalists, centrists and modernists (pp. 41-43). While the traditionalists get a lot of press for politically incorrect statements, centrists and modernists together consist of the majority of Evangelical Christians in the US today. Additionally, even among the traditionalists, there is a spectrum of views on theology and politics.

The issue that most interested me was why Evangelicals support Israel, and this is a main theme throughout the book. The bottom line is that it varies, and that most people have multiple reasons. Included among them is a view of the "End of Days" scenario that involves Jews returning to Israel. This scares some Jews, although I'm not sure why because I don't really care what they believe. However, as Spector discusses at length, this is not a majority theological view. Other reasons include the biblical promise that whoever blesses the Jews will be blessed by God (Gen. 12:3). There is also the political aspect of supporting a democracy, a response to terrorism, a fondness for the Jewish beginnings of Christianity, and other reasons.

What really concerns me is whether these Christian Zionists want to convert Jews -- not whether they believe that Jews will eventually convert but whether they intend to bring it about. Some do but most sophisticated Christian Zionists realize how offputting this is to Jews and do not actively proselytize. Or at least they try not to. Spector seems to say that many Evangelicals simply can't help but proselytize because it is such a core aspect of their personalities and how they relate to other people. It just comes out. He tells the story of a church he visited, along with a representative of the Israeli government. The pastor told the congregation multiple times not to proselytize to the Jewish visitors but then blessed Spector in the name of Jesus and told him to get his messiah quickly (pp. 192-196). Again, a sophisticated and experienced Christian Zionist will know not to speak that way to a Jew. But most are neither sophisticated nor experienced, and end up acting offensively like that. Perhaps we should just grow thicker skin, but two thousand years of oppression in the name of Jesus are hard to simply wave away.

And then there are the Christian Zionists who are actively proselytizing among Jews. They are the ones who worry me and they do exist, even if they are a minority.

This book is essential reading for understanding the dynamics of Christian Zionism. However, it necessarily contains extensive discussion of Christian theology that is inappropriate for most Jews. Ask your rabbi before reading it.

A History of NCSY

Zev Eleff, a YU undergrad, recently published a history of NCSY titled Living from Convention to Convention: A History of the NCSY, 1954-1980 (press release). The book is remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, it is extremely well researched and organized. It is the work of a trained historian coming from a college senior. He clearly delved into archives and found excellent information that reveals the challenges and politics of NCSY in those early years.

Click here to read moreSecond, Eleff does not shy away from the difficult issues. He discusses both opposition to and cooperation with NCSY from the right wing, including an episode in which the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the journal Ha-Pardes publicly criticized NCSY. He addresses the various crises and YU-OU politics that NCSY had to overcome. He also deals with opposition from parents and local synagogues, particularly regarding mixed dancing and services without a mechitzah (NCSY does not allow either). He also broaches what is perhaps the most difficult of all subjects, the relationships between less-observant parents and their more-observant children, and where NCSY fit into all of that.

However, I feel obligated to say that while this book has all the benefits of an academic history, it also has the detriments. It is a dry read. There are few anecdotes and no truly inspiring stories or speeches. I would have thought that a book about NCSY should try to give the flavor of the inspiration that NCSY has imparted to so many people. It doesn't.

I'm not sure where you can buy the book online but it is available at the SOY Seforim Sale.

Nehama Leibowitz: Jerusalem Post Review

A review in the the Jerusalem Post of Yael Unterman's new biography of Nehama Leibowitz, Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (link):
After 10 years of labored love, the biography Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar finally came to print and proves to be well worth the wait. By the author's own admission, the biography of the first prominent woman Bible scholar was problematic from the outset: How can one write about someone who adamantly shunned the limelight?...
Read the full review here: link
Buy the book here: link

Judaism and Quantum Physics

I read with interest Dr. Aaron M. Schreiber's recent book, Quantum Physics, Jewish Law, & Kabbalah: Astonishing Parallels. I know the author personally and he is a very learned man -- a talmid chakham and a professor. I usually avoid books on Torah and Quantum Physics because I have learned through experience that the authors generally know little about either subject. However, I know that Dr. Schreiber knows a great deal about Torah.

Books like this often cherry-pick the relevant details that support their thesis and ignore passages to the contrary. I am unable to evaluate his presentations of Kabbalah and Quantum Physics, but I do not believe that the discussions of Jewish Law contain selective quoting. I found them honest and informed.

What I found most refreshing about the book is that it is low on definitive pronouncements and high on pointing out interesting similarities. In other words, the author does not arrogate to himself the ability to solve some of Judaism's most difficult problems through Quantum Physics. Generally, he raises the issue in Judaism, points out the resolution, and shows how a concept similar to that can be found in Quantum Physics. I suspect that some readers will find this approach too hesitant but I appreciated it.

The book is available at Eichler's in Flatbush (link). I'm not sure where else.