12/16/14

The Talmud Explains Hanukkah

The Talmud (Bavli Shabbat 21b) explains what is Hanukkah:

What is Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev commence the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden.

For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit the lamp therewith for eight days. 

The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recital of Hallel and thanksgiving.

What else is there to say?

12/14/14

NYTimes: Gil Marks, Historian of Jewish Food and Culture, Dies at 62

My friend has passed away. 

I am grateful to have known Gil for so many years and to have considered him to be a friend. He was a great person, sincere and sensitive and positive in every way. He was meticulous in his cooking, in his writing and in his relationships, always seeking the right ingredients and ever particular about all of the recipes of his life.

He accomplished a great deal, and still I feel he was taken before his time and that we will sorely miss his voice in our communities.

From The New York Times
Gil Marks, Historian of Jewish Food and Culture, Dies at 62

Mr. Marks wrote five books that chronicled kosher menus through the centuries and examined the role of food in the establishment and growth of cultural traditions.

By BRUCE WEBER

Gil Marks, a culinary historian who wrote widely on the relationship between Jewish food and Jewish culture in a manner that was both scholarly and friendly, died on Friday in Jerusalem. He was 62.

The cause was lung cancer, his niece Efrat Altshul Schorr said, adding that Mr. Marks was not a smoker.

Mr. Marks studied for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University in New York, but he burrowed into the history and culture of the Jews more through the recipe book than the Talmud. Still, some would argue that his work was, in its way, Talmudic — full of information and interpretive wisdom on the foods of Jewish tradition and the governing principles of cooking and eating them.

He was the author of five books, an oeuvre that not only provided a recipe-by-recipe chronicle of kosher menus through the centuries but also examined the role of food in the establishment and growth of cultural traditions.

12/10/14

The Avatars of Hanukkah

Hanukkah has its avatars. I wrote about this in my 2011 book, "God's Favorite Prayers."

...The concept of avatar has several meanings. First an avatar can be an embodiment or a personification of a substantial idea, for instance, "the embodiment of hope"; "the incarnation of evil"; "the very avatar of cunning." In some respects I describe in this book how the prayers serve as avatars of several diverse personalities. In this sense I can say that the Amidah is an avatar of the priest.

An avatar in the context of religions can have another meaning. In specific it is a manifestation of a Hindu deity, particularly Vishnu, in a human, superhuman or animal form. As an example of how the term is used is, “The Buddha is regarded as an avatar of the god Vishnu.” In this sense of the term, I created my archetypal avatars, such as my “priest,” as representatives of the core values that inhere in the prayers...

... The most recent technological application of the word avatar denotes a computer user's self-representation or alter ego, in the form of a three-dimensional model within a computer game, or as a two-dimensional icon picture on a screen, or as a single-dimensional username within an Internet community.

... On two special occasions, Hanukkah and Purim, we add paragraphs to the Amidah to describe the victories of heroic Jews of the past. I see these hero figures as avatars of the priest.

12/7/14

NY Times Advice - Frustrated on Sundays with the Jets and the Giants? Visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Grave Instead!

In a semi-serious article the times suggests that you spend your Sundays doing more rewarding things than watching the Jets and Giants football teams lose their games.

And one of those bright ideas is:

Make a Pilgrimage

Visit a grave-turned-shrine of a dead rabbi in Queens. The Ohel is the final resting place of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was the leader of the Lubavitch sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Schneerson, known as the Rebbe, died in 1994, and in the past two decades his burial site has turned into a place of pilgrimage for Jews, who trek here from around the world to write prayers on scraps of paper and toss them on the Rebbe’s grave — 24 hours a day. The site, little known outside the Jewish community, is in fact a nondenominational place of prayer, where any visitor is allowed to walk right in and toss a paper prayer into the mix. Perhaps there you can pray for our two lousy teams.

Jews trek from around the world to the Queens grave site of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a leader of the Lubavitch sect.   The Ohel is the final resting place of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was the leader of the Lubavitcher sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. SARAH MASLIN NIR, staff reporter, Metro




12/5/14

My Dear Rabbi Column for December 2014: Outrageous Political Rabbi

Dear Rabbi,

I don’t understand why my local rabbi has been saying outrageous public things — preaching and publishing political rants. I want to know what makes a rabbi do this, and I need to know what to do about it.

Ranted at in Bergen County

Dear Ranted,

You ask why a person engages in the kind of public rants that bring humiliation to himself and his family and his extended community.

O.K. That person first may be driven by hereditary factors. He may have a variety of the thrill-seeker gene that makes him crave attention and controversy. At the same time, his innate circuit breaker, the psychological mechanism or filter that normally protects a person against putting himself in danger, or engaging in self-destructive, antisocial behavior, appears to be defective. Such a person would benefit from therapy to help him understand his risky drives and deficiencies and to help him become more vigilant in monitoring his problematic behavior.

The issue of your rabbi’s contentious behavior does prompt me to discuss more general related aspects beyond this rabbi’s problem.

When any rabbi veers off into politics, I think that is a bad thing. He’s not doing his job. A rabbi is by definition a teacher of Torah. Rabbis are not trained in politics, nor are they employed to engage in politics. They become rabbis by passing exams in Torah texts, including the oral Torah, the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmud.

Teaching Torah (or any subject) is a respected profession that someone enters through preparation, expertise, and apprenticeship. Politics is a different profession, and it is entered by another route of training and experience.

Through the ages, rabbis on many occasions have ventured into politics — as politicians, not as rabbis. A few have succeeded. Some have failed dramatically. One of the greatest Torah scholars of our history, Rabbi Akiva (whom I referred to above), led his students into a disastrous revolt against Rome in the second century CE. He unsuccessfully supported the rebellion of Bar Kochba, and as a tragic result he was tortured to death by the Romans and thousands of his followers were massacred.

Much more recently — in 2012, as you may recall — one of our neighbors in Bergen County, a celebrity rabbi and author, ran for Congress. He was trounced in the election. Though he emerged from that experience personally unscathed, the example confirms the pattern. Rabbis throughout the ages have made poor politicians.

I prefer to think that there’s nothing specific to the teachings of the Torah that make someone a bad politician. But it’s worth speculating further on this matter. Perhaps the idea that God is behind you and that makes your ideas right and worthy is a weakness, not strength, to those who enter the arena of public political discourse and activity. In that venue ideas rise and fall on their merits and their appeal, not on their claims to divine sponsorship.

Also, politics is a set of activities where success involves a good deal of negotiation and power brokering. Rabbis cling to their notion that the divine rights and imperatives of their principles prevent or at least discourage the idea of negotiation. Thinking that “my way is the high and mighty way,” leads a person to act and to declare the non-negotiable stance that “my opponents must take my way or go away on the highway.”

To be sure, rabbis are not easily adept at being political. Yet in spite of that you would think that they ought to respect the accepted modes of public political discourse. The rabbinic literature that they know is rigorous in its formulaic requirements and its rhetorical and logical forms. Free-style ranting is not one of its genres. And going back further to the classical biblical prophets, we find the same. The exhortations of those Israelite preachers use controlled manners and speech with sharp and clear moral and theological messages.

The dangers of mixing politics and religion are even more pronounced and complex when you consider that many varieties of religious terrorists incite their followers to commit atrocities and crimes against humanity based to a frightening extent on religious grounds and on claims of their gods’ approvals.

A few years ago, at a course on religion and terrorism I taught at FDU, I analyzed many instances of terrorism committed by members of religious communities. I took cases drawn from Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Aum Shinrikyo (a Japanese cult), Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions. The dangerous recent historical record that I examined in that course of the mix of religion and terror is extensive, impressive, and terrifying.

My advice to you as you confront your immediate situation is best expressed in one word: beware. A rabbi or any religious leader who goes off like a loose cannon in unpredictable rants advocating racism, violence, or terrorism ought to make you cringe.

Stay far away from him. Nothing that you can do or say will deter him. He is a danger to your community, to stable society, and to civilization. He does not represent any aspect of what is worthwhile in either the clerical professions or in the political realms. And he does not represent in any way what we good ordinary citizens want in a just and righteous world.

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.

Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays — all available as Kindle Edition books at Amazon.com.

My Dear Rabbi Column for December 2014: Facebook Political Blamer

Dear Rabbi,

After the recent attack in Jerusalem, where terrorists killed four men in a synagogue, I saw posts on my Facebook newsfeed blaming the policies of President Obama for the terrible incident. That disturbs me because I don’t see how someone can connect him to violence in another country.

Baffled by the Blamers

Dear Baffled,

Hmm. I stubbed my toe the other night while I was walking in a dark room and I exclaimed, “Oh Jesus” even though I’m a good Jew and Jesus had nothing to do with my mishap.

Seriously, let’s be clear. First of all Obama is the president of the United States, not the prime minister of Israel. His job is to take care of Americans, not protect Israelis from terrorists. And second, he is in no way responsible for causing attacks anywhere in the world. Those who heap blame on Obama for the ills of our globe do that because they don’t like him to begin with. They think they can besmirch him by arbitrarily piling fault upon him. It is bad rhetoric and nothing more.

Benjamin Netanyahu is the prime minister of Israel and is much more the right person to charge for bad policies that lead to terrorist attacks in his country. But in reality, terrorism is not at all a result of flawed strategies of our leaders or of our governments. It is evil activity planned and carried out by those of our enemies who want to harm us and disrupt our lives. So if you must, blame our enemies, not our leaders.

But if you insist on blaming our own leaders, then you might argue that the ultimate questions about the death of those four innocent people in synagogue remains primarily a theological issue that you ought to direct to the leader of leaders — God. For those of us who believe that God cares about our everyday lives, it is fair to ask how a just God allows terrorists to kill saintly Jews who devoted their lives to Torah and, on top of it, while they were engaged in prayer in the synagogue.

Hence I agree with you that it makes no sense for people on Facebook or anywhere else to blame Obama for terrorist murders in Jerusalem. My advice for you is as follows. On Facebook, if you don’t want to see nonsensical posts, you can unfriend the people who send them, or suppress their posts from your news feed.

In real life, however, I’m sorry to say I have no bright advice for you. We have no way to pull down a menu and turn off or suppress from confronting every day the age-old baffling questions of theodicy, of why God lets such bad things happen to such good people.

There is a story in the Talmud (Menahot 29b) that depicts Moses asking God why he allowed the Romans to torture the great Torah scholar Rabbi Akiva. In that narrative Moses demanded to know from God, “This is the Torah and this is its reward!?” And in that text God gave Moses no effective answer or explanation.

I can advise you not to tolerate those who blame Obama for terrorist evil. But, sorry if this disappoints you, I can’t offer in this column any better response than the Talmud does about the accountability of God.

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.


Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays — all available as Kindle Edition books at Amazon.com.

11/30/14

My review of Koren Yevamot - published in the Jewish Press


Review of Koren Talmud Bavli Noé, Vol.14: Yevamot Part 1, Hebrew/English, by Adin Steinsaltz

Some who learn Talmud prefer swimming across the surface of that great sea of learning. Others prefer diving deeply into the oceans to explore the depths of the Talmudic waters.

The Talmud tractate of Yevamot can be learned in many ways. It has one hundred and twenty folio pages deriving out of a mere three verses in the Torah: "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not be married abroad unto one not of his kin; her husband's brother shall go in to her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of a husband's brother unto her" (Deut. 25:5).

The subsequent verses instruct, "And if the man like not to take his brother's wife, then his brother's wife shall go up to the gate unto the elders, and say: 'My husband's brother refuses to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband's brother unto me'. Then the elders of the city shall call him, and speak to him; and if he stand, and say: 'I like not to take her'; then will his brother's wife draw near to him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face; and she shall answer and say: 'So shall it be done unto the man that doth not build up his brother's house'" (ibid. 7-9).

From this skimpy few verses of scripture the Talmud builds and elaborate structures of laws and cases regarding two societal practices, the levirate marriage and ritual of Halizah.

11/26/14

Thanksgiving Sermon of Rabbi Zev Zahavy 1943

Here is my dad's sermon from 1943 for the holiday of Thanksgiving.

Click here for Rabbi Zev Zahavy's 1943 Thanksgiving Sermon, published by the RCA, Rabbinical Council of America.





A big hat tip to Zechariah for finding this and sending it to us.

In a new book, read my essay, Varieties of Religious Visualization

A Legacy of Learning: Essays in Honor of ... (Brill Reference Library of Judaism.) has been shipped and will soon be available to the public. 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.