Thoughts on Judaism

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Ayin Hara

No, this is not a variation of Jewish cultures most famous dance. It is the "evil eye", one of mankind's oldest superstitions. Most often, across cultures, it seems to be attributed to jealousy, the crooked look that one gives when they disapprove of your good fortune.

In Jewish sources, it is first mentioned in the Talmud, and mefarshim ascribe certain verses in the Bible to its effects, such as the prohibition of counting people directly. Later sages attribute its power to G-d opening a book and reassessing whether the person actually deserves the good fortune. Since He might then retract the good fortune, the ayin hara might cause someone to suffer ill fortune to compensate. In mystical terms, the ayin hara is some independent malevalent force. Defenses include spitting, wearing garlic, saying "no ayin hara" (bli ayin hara, kein ayin hara), or minimizing the cause of jealousy, as can be heard daily on any Jewish street in the world. Here is an example of such an exchange:

Yid A: You have such a beautiful mink coat, kein ayin hara.
Yid B: I got it on sale at a flea market. Someone bought it for me as a gift, $15.99, ptui!
Yid A: Oh my G-d, did you just spit on my shoe?!
Yid B: Small price to pay to defend myself from an ayin hara, chas v'shalom
Yid A: Yes, I agree.

Many sages understand the ayin hara in a rational way. It simply means that a person is not generous. In other words, he looks at others with a bad eye, not deserving of his largesse. The concept is akin to the halacha of ayin tov and ayin hara, in Trumah for example. A baal ayin tov gives 1/40, a benoni 1/50, a baal ayin hara 1/60.

In the case of Rashi al haTorah, he brings several instances of the ayin hara, in the independent force interpretation. Whether Rashi meant this literally or not, or whether he was just using this to resolve the pasukim at the child level is another pilpul. But, this whammy seems to be a universal part of frum culture from a very ancient base.

So, what can we gain or lose from it? Can we threaten people with an ayin hara if we do not like them? Can a Beis Din administer an ayin hara, in lieu of other punishment? (Mi sh'para, which the Beis Din can adminsiter for unscrupulous, but technically exempt actions can be understood as simple embarrassment, so it cannot be an example here.) Are there special mekubalim that can remove the ayin hara? Is there any way to discern whether a person is affected by an ayin hara or whether he is just a plain unencumbered shlemazel? Can I charge money to perform the service of removing ayin hara? Can I charge to train people to give an ayin hara? Does it work on goyim (as they believe it does)? If it does, and we had this awesome power, why did we let them run all over us for all those centuries?

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Mysticism or Science

Generally, we see two sources of knowledge in Judaism, tradition (mesora, kabala), and science (mada, observation).

The Ramban, in his pirush on the Torah proposes some very interesting truths. Where the Torah discusses magic, superstition and the various forms of fortunetelling, the Ramban concludes that fortunetelling is not to'aiva (abomination) like other magic because it is natural to want to know what the future holds. It is just that we are told to listen only to our prophets. He then gives an endorsement of Arab fortunetellers, called tiarin, and concludes that we cannot deny what our eyes see. Obviously, he had seen a very impressive demonstration from such performers. Though, modern magicians can obviously emulate the demonstrations that the Ramban likely saw, it was probably impressive in a prescientific world. The Ramban holds at the beginning of parshas Tazria that reproductive female seed is coagulated blood in the womb which becomes the red or dark parts of the body (including the pupil of the eye), while the male seed contributes the white parts (mirroring the Mishna). According to some, the male seed contributes only the potential of formation, which the Greeks called hyuli. In Parshas Acharei Mos, he proposes that a menstruating woman has powers like a snake to kill with her stare, to see apparitions of blood in a mirror and other common superstitions of the day.

Obviously, these things have since been shown to be false, and there can be little debate about that. So, in the misty eyed world of mystical approach, these Rambans are designated some deep mystical mysterious meaning. In other words, the mysticals designate these sayings as part of mesora. However, nothing can be more obvious than the Ramban spoke these things from "science." Words like "we cannot deny what we see with eyes" indicate two things. One, the Ramban learned truths and ascribed reality to what he saw with his eyes, even if it challenged common interpretations of Torah. Two, these sayings are not from kabala or any secret Jewish wisdom, but are mere observations, albeit likely, leading to mistaken conclusions. In the case of Acharei Mos (19:18 for those following at home), the Ramban even suggests that we test the precept by having a menstruating woman stare into a mirror to see the apparition, in other words, observation to establish truth. (Remember, their mirrors were very poor quality, and this was likely the source of the apparition, if they did indeed see it.)

Rather than admit that the Ramban was wrong on science and builing a rationale based on continued discovery, the "mystical approach" weaves some deep, unsourced, unknown interpretation into his words, making a proven falsity into an eternal part of Torah MiSinai, and the principle of infallibility has played falsely with our Ikarim. The "mystical approach" would have us denounce our own observations as inferior to those of the saintly sage, and we would then be required to declare that the Ramban is right on some spiritual level, but that we are just too limited to understand.

However, I think the Ramban, given the information that we have, would say that he was impressed by fakers and contemporary science but that he understands now that his observations were mistaken. Why do I think so? Because the Rambam and his son, R. Avraham said just that about their own work. The Rambam warns in Moreh that the astronomy that he discusses is not traditional, but only the science of the times. R. Avraham reiterates this in his own book at a more general level. So in their hashkafa, there were two sources of knowledge. There was science, a changing body of observations that bolstered their understanding of tradition, and the tradition itself, which was handed down from Mt. Sinai, halacha and kabala, which was eternal

Thus, the current popular stream has taken medieval science, that has since been shown false in many respects by direct observation, and has made it the 14th Ikar. Since we have made science into Torah, we must now generate the lopsided apologetics to defend the beast that we have created.

What would happen if someone proposed this in "frum" circles? Most probably, he would be called heretic, he would be demonized, any books he had written would be burned, and he would be suspected, at first opportunity, of having jumped ship to a different religion. Of course, I do not know if this would happen today. Perhaps we have learned since the Rambam was so treated. Perhaps not.

PS Rabbi Slifkin, has anyone accused you of converting away from Judaism yet?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Godol HaDor is Gone

The Godol of the Dor is Gone and the world grows cold and gray!
The Godol Hador, Melech Hamoshiach, has decided to close his blog, and the rational Jewish world is much poorer for it. May he reappear speedily in our days. The originator of kiruv clowns, warrior against the Slifkin ban, and all around voice who was not afraid to question the most deeply ingrained nonsense that has passed for fundamental Judaism, the Godol generated mounds of blog, comments on blog and responsa on comments with his provocative, yet obvious twists on Jewish tradition. He was so bold as to suggest that we close the period of Acharonim and that our era might become known as the era of Gedolim, or the era of kiruv clowns, or the era of fundamentalist revival.

At any rate, this eulogy of his blog will hopefully remind me to be more tenacious and feisty than I already am. And the loss of all of the characters, noteably the Katan HaDor, that will disappear without the Godol will leave the blog world less enjoyable.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Indian wigs, no AZ please carried this article:

Rabbis: Hindu Hair Derivatives Used To Make Medicines May Make Medicines Forbidden – Buffalo Milk Can Be Dried, Added To Food – Would Make Food Treife – The Dark Ages Have Begun

Major kashrut "authorities" are convening in Jerusalem to tackle new kashrut 'issues':

L-cysteine, derived from, among other things, human hair, is used as a dough conditioner. It is also used to produce a variety of chicken and beef flavors that may be kosher and parve.

The pharmaceuticals industry uses it to make the mucus-thinning substance acetylcysteine which can be found in Siran, Mical or Myculite, drugs that are sold in Israel.

[Rabbi] Sharshevsky refrained from a definitive prohibition of the substance, saying the matter was still being checked. He said that if hair from the Tirupati temple was used to make L-cysteine, no benefit could be derived from anything containing the L-cysteine.

Of course, Rabbi Sharshevsky did not mention that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein saw nothing wrong with using Indian hair for wigs and L-cysteine. He also fails to mention that Rabbi Elyashiv's ruling on Indian hair has been widely disregarded and that Rabbi Elyashiv has been inundated with complaints from scholars and from ba'alei teshuva who had been practicing Hindus. They claim – based on overwhelming evidence – that Rabbi Elyashiv and his 'investigator' Rabbi Dunner misrepresented Hindu theology and practice. They believe the hair should be permitted just as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled.

Rabbis Elyashiv and Dunner's methodology and motivation are highly suspect.

Of course, if Hindu hair derivatives might be present in food and medicine, and if Indian hair is in fact forbidden, this would create quite a financial windfall for the very rabbis and kashrut agencies involved.

Then we have this unsubstantiated piece of wisdom:

Rabbi Dov Landau, head of the Hatam Sofer kashrut supervision in Bnei Brak, revealed that it is possible for camel and buffalo milk to be made into a powdered form.

This finding is surprising since it contradicts the working assumptions held for decades by halachic authorities. Rabbis assumed that only cow milk could be dried, thus eliminating the concern that milk from a non-kosher animal had been mixed in.

Many observant Jews relied on this assumption to differentiate between regular unsupervised milk (Halav Nochri) and powdered milk.

Buffalo milk is kosher. Camel milk is not. As long as your powdered milk originates from a country that requires truth in labeling and has no camels, there is nothing to worry about. Further, powdered camel's milk would spoil most products that have milk as an ingredient.

However, we remain convinced that, as in the past, Rabbi Elyashiv and company will not be deterred by the facts.

My comments on the matter:

Indian hair is a huge issue, of course. Yoga, acupuncture, feng shui, Ayurveda, Reiki and any other magic with a Asian sounding name you can get on the main strip of any Jewish community in the world, b'heter gamur. (Note articles in B'Or HaTorah from a "doctor" of Ayurveda in issue 14E.)

This story is a good example of why one was required to know world religions and practices in order to sit as a judge.

Nuf said.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Miracles required for the Mabul

Godol Hador Melech HaMoshiach Shlita has a discussion on the Noah flood story. Truly, it is the most problematic of the entire Chumash. I am compiling a list of the miracles required to sustain the story. Grant that these are miracles. We are not exploring whether to believe or not believe. Please feel free to add any that I do not mention or dispute mine.

1) Fitting the number of animals in the space available.
2) Relying on two specimens to sustain the species and yet housing predators and prey on the same crowded ship (Mefarshim deal with this)
3) The mechanics of feeding the animals and caring for them for a year. How did they move around, clean the excretions (presumably by seeping them through holes in the second level) etc.
4) How did the ark sustain the weight of all of those animals, their provisions and their excrement for a year (Rashi says the 3rd level was for excrement. Why didn't they just sweep it overboard?)
5) The ark design is not seaworthy. It would have capsized or broken apart. It had no rudder, no keel, etc. It was just a box (Hebrew: Taivah).
6) How did the uniquely Australian animals get to and from the ark?
7) Where did they store all of the provisions for the people and the animals? It would have to be secure from the animals.
8) Every single one of the animals had to survive, since they would be the only specimens of their kind left. Even though they were abruptly removed from their normal habitat and living in terribly crowded zoo conditions, they all survived, even the most delicate species.)
9) Every current species and variation must have been represented (unless we believe in evolution, Heaven forfend). We can dispense with insects, mice and vermin though, as the Torah worldview allows for spontaneous generation.
10) A flood covering Ararat would have been over 3 miles high. There isn't enough water in the Earth system to do this globally, without resorting to some radical tide theories.
11) There are higher mountains than Ararat where people might have survived. According to pshat, the flood only went 15 amos above the peak of Ararat. (Granted, it would have been difficult to survive at that air pressure and temperature for any period of time in those days.)
12) How did the animals survive afterward with no exercise for a year? Their muscles would go into atrophy.
13) The water pressure of 3 miles of water left no geological evidence.
14) Radical temperature and climate changes for a full year did not wipe out the sea mammals, sharks and other near surface sea creatures, assuming that they did not need the ark. (Heartier than the dinosaurs?)
15) How did they provide the amphibeans access to their habitat on the ark? (Crocodiles, alligators etc. would need both water and land to survive.)
16) Getting elephants, rhinos, and less agile large creatures off of the mountain must have presented a challenge.
17) Presumably, they stayed with the ark since they could not move all of the provisions frequently as the water receded. Yet, once the water receded enough for them to populate the Earth, they were on a mountain 3 miles high. The climate would have gone extremely cold and the air extremely thin in a short time. Again, all animals had to have survived.
18) All animals had to be sound reproductively, yet they seem to have come on a random basis, not verified for their reproductive ability. There were no barren animals. They also must have successfully reproduced after the flood, each and every.
19) The air inside the ark must have been extremely stale and thin as it was used far faster than it could be replaced. There was a single window. Otherwise, it was closed and fully watertight, according to the pasukim, even above the water level. To make matters worse, they were transporting all of the excrement as well as the animals. Logic would dictate that they would have suffocated.
20) The second level, where the animals were housed, was not high enough to accomodate some animals. (The chumash does not require this, but it is commonly accepted pshat.)
21) After the calamity, the Earth was immediately productive for growing again. It must have replaced provisions in a timely manner as animals repopulated the Earth and traveled around.
22) The predators must not have returned to eating prey as long as the animals were repopulating the Earth. Then, the Earth must have provisioned them with vegetation, despite the calamity.
23) The digestive systems of many animals had to have been altered to accomodate digesting and processing only vegetation, while maintaining substantive nutrition. Then, they had to change back at some point well after the flood, to give the prey a chance to repopulate and survive.
24) Lots of germs (endemic to various animals), no illness.
25) There was no method of steering the ark over thousands of miles, but they arrived at the highest point of Ararat (Northeast corner of the known world) just as the water receded to reveal it.
26) A bird flew for seven straight days. Is this possible? Anyone study this?
27) The building of the ark is very detailed, and it had one single ingress/egress point (implied by Noah checking as they entered). Yet there was no passage between the levels. How did the people feed the animals?

This should be enough to begin. I call the bed on the opposite end from the skunk couple though.

I also pose the question: What difference does it make to living Torah Judaism if this story is literal or allegorical? Why is it so important to say that it is literal? This is not meant rhetorically. It is a doctrine (hashkafa) question.

The Godol adds the discussion on

There are a few here that are not there and visa versa.