Thoughts on Judaism

Monday, January 26, 2009

Pharoah's magicians

So were Paroah's magicians real magicians or mere conjurers? Rashi says they were magicians, the Rambam implies they were just conjurers, performers who pretend to do magic. The first plague they were able to duplicate, so that Paroah was unimpressed. The second they were able to duplicate but unable to remove. The third they could not manage at all. By the time of Shchin, they could not even help themselves.

The nature of belief in magic is that the observer cannot ascertain whether the performance is real, because even a conjurer looks real to a layman. The Ramban professed to believe in Arab bird readers, called tiarin, having been thoroughly impressed by their performances. Thousands believe that preachers at revivals do miracles. Millions may have believed that people could bend metal with their minds in the 70s, based on the tricks performed by Uri Geller, a former Israeli stage magician. Many thousands more believe today in TV personalities who claim to see the future and talk to their dead relatives.

However, just watch this old Criss Angel favorite, walking on water:

or creating life itself:

It seems Paroah's skepticism might have been well founded.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Is the Talmud fundamentalist?

This exchange with badrabbi below emphasizes a very essential point which badrabbi poses perfectly succinctly. Blogger The way that yeshivas teach Germora today, as if it were writ, undermines the entire basis on which we should study it. Bad notes the progress of this approach ad absurdum.

badrabbi: The trouble, RebelJew, is that the Talmud, the source of the Chanukah holiday miracle, is sold to us as the "oral Torah". We are told that contents of the Talmud are just as holy as the written Torah. Now, both you and I agree that the Chanukah miracle is concocted. Set aside whether the rabbis meant well or not when they invented this fairy tale, the issue is that this "holy document" has in effect been defiled by this obvious falsehood.

If you find a chunk of ham in a pot of soup, a rabbi would advise discarding the soup. What do we do with the Talmud now that we have found obvious falsehoods in it?

RJ: Bad analogy. The reason we would chuck out the soup is that we cannot fully remove the ham and all of its offshoots. The soup becomes a single entity through cooking.

If we had dozens of objects, apparently cookies, and I find one that is not edible in any way, that does not mean that none of the others are edible.

The Talmud is more the plate of cookies than the soup. The fact that many rabbis and yeshivas sell it as soup is a problem, but even the Talmud itself does not claim to be so. It is admittedly pastiche over centuries, the forensic efforts of later rabbis to ascertain the actual "oral law", not the oral law itself. Hence, it does not claim fundamental infallibility. That later ignoramuses(ignorami?) claim that for the Talmud indicates that they either do not understand how to learn Gemora or that they are trying to condescend to, (or worse, deceive) their followers, to keep them from thinking critically.

The lack of critical thinking in a philosophy based almost entirely on critical thinking is one of the most interesting and ironic things about Judaism.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Rashi invents Incest

Of all the weird or incomprehensible Rashis, this week's Parsha had a doozy. One of the sons of Shimon was Shaul ben HaCanaanit. All of the other sons of the tribes are mentioned only by name, but this particular one is singled out as "ben HaCanaanit". Rashi says "This is Dina who had relations with Shechem (a Cannani). She did not want to leave his house until Shimon promised to marry her." Presumably, he complied, resulting in Shaul. Besides the obvious fact that Shechem was dead, why should she not want to leave his house? So let's say that this discussion took place before Shimon killed Shechem, aside the fact that according to mefarshim, Shimon was 13 at that time. First, why is SHE a Canaanit? She was forced, according to the Chumash? She was the daughter of Yaakov and Leah. Second, if she wanted to stay, making her a Cannaanit, why does the Torah say that she was forced? Third, Canaanit could be explained any number of ways. Why does Rashi (ultimately the Breishit Rabba) choose this way of resolving the extra phrase? Rashi, recall, is explaining away questions that would occur on topical logic, the kind that a small child would be capable of. What is forcing him into this? Fourth, why isn't the sifsei chachamim, the Malbim etc. outraged? they are silent. (If you know a Mizrachi or Chizkuni on this, please add them, I do not have them available at the moment.)

Possible answers are easily refuted:

1) They could marry sisters, as Avraham said.
This is not an answer, since the question is asked by many on Yaakov marrying two sisters, an issur more easily excused to a ben Noach. It says that the avos kept the mitzvos. But even a ben Noach can only marry a half sister from the father, according to the halacha from Avraham. Shimon and Dina were fully brother and sister.

2) Pikuach nefesh
He killed Shechem and everyone in the city, so there was no pikuach nefesh. The rashi says that she didn't want to leave, not that she needed to be saved. Not to mention that incest is yaharog v'al ya'avor.

On top of this, later Rashi will explain one opinion that each of the brothers married twin sisters that were born at the same time. They all died before entering Egypt.

I am just lost on these Rashis.