Friday, December 26, 2008


In honor of the theme of Hanukkah, I am making yet another attempt to make blogging a part of my repertoire of regularly scheduled activities...Bear with me!!! I have already begun posting answers to some questions on my Ask The Rabbi Blog, and I am currently in the process of formulating new additions to Vesom Sechel and Resheet Daat. As you may guess I already have lots of material awaiting publication that I would love to share but needs to be committed to writing in a presentable manner. I hope there is still someone reading who will benefit from my efforts...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Solution to the Problems with Kappara

My apologies....this post is severely truncated and not well written, I will try to expand on these ideas after the holiday but I am currently out of time....I just wanted to present at least a basic formulation for the benefit of those who may want something to contemplate over Yom Kippur.

In my previous post, I raised several issues with the conventional understanding of 'judgment' and 'atonement' that seem to me very serious. This post is a continuation and hopefully a resolution of the difficulties identified in that post.

I believe that the key to unlocking the mystery of what "really happens" on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur can be found in the words of the Rambam in his Laws of Repentance:

"Even though repentance and prayer are always appropriate, during the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur they are especially fitting and immediately accepted, as it is written, 'seek Hashem when He can be found'. This is true with respect to an individual. With regard to the community, however, any time they repent and cry out sincerely they are answered, as it is written, '[what great nation has God close to them] like Hashem our God whenever we call upon Him.' Yom Kippur is a time of repentance for all, individuals and communities, and it is the end of pardon and forgiveness for the Jewish people. Therefore, everyone must repent and confess on Yom Kippur...."

What we see from these laws is that the judgments rendered on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are not unique or arbitrary metaphysical occurrences; on the contrary, they are specific examples of a general principle that anytime the community repents and cries out sincerely, they receive a Divine response. In other words, what makes Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur special is the fact that on these days the entire congregation of Israel is involved in repentance and prayer and their fate is thus subject to Hashem's review and redirection.

Hypothetically, such a national process of introspection and rededication to God could happen on any day of the year, as it did in the story of Purim, and such a religious renaissance could fundamentally transform the relationship between the Jews and Hashem. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur stand out because they are times that the Jewish people are legally mandated to engage in such a process regardless of the circumstances, and thus bring about the effect of reconciliation with their Creator anually.

So Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are not metaphysical deadlines for God. They are holidays during which the Jewish people are expected to involve themselves in communal repentance and prayer, and it is this activity on their part that brings about reconciliation, atonement and a renewal of their status vis a vis God's providence.

We understand now why, from a national standpoint, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are so fundamental. They are observed by Jews world over and, as such, serve to reestablish our communal covenant with Hashem year after year. But why do individual Jews have to feel that their destiny is determined on Yom Kippur? Don't they have the latitude to negotiate their personal fates with Hashem at their own convenience?

This question touches upon a key principle of Judaism that is one of the essential themes of the High Holiday liturgy. As individuals, the level of providence most of us enjoy is a function of our participation in the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Unlike Avraham or Moshe, we are not necessarily worthy of specific providence on our own merits.

Our fate is bound up with that of the nation of Israel as a whole, so it is only in that context that we have the potential to change our spiritual destiny as Jews. An individual who is fortunate enough to receive special, personalized treatment from God - a prophet described in our Tanach, for example - would not be bound by this principle, and might have the ability to alter his providential course mid-year. But this would be the exception, not the rule, with 99% of us requiring the national covenant to link us to God's overarching plan.

So Yom Kippur is an awesome day on which we, as citizens of the Nation of Israel, rededicate ourselves to our holy mission individually and collectively, hoping that in the merit of our return to Hashem we will experience greater intellectual and material success in the coming year.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Problems with The Concept of Kappara

Understanding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as Divinely mandated "Days of Judgment" poses some serious theological difficulties. First and foremost, why can't the Creator determine an individual's fate moment-by-moment, based upon that person's merits or level of perfection at a given time? Why should He be required to submit a judgment by a particular deadline?

Moreover, it seems as if the system of "Days of Judgment" yields fundamentally unjust results. A person who deserves one kind of treatment on Yom Kippur may either advance spiritually or regress afterwards, rendering his official judgment for the year inappropriate. Providence that adapts to the ebb and flow of an individual's spiritual growth would appear to be far more reasonable.

Furthermore, the idea that Hashem engages in a process of judging at one time and not another is metaphysically problematic, inasmuch as His nature does not admit of any change. Adding to this conundrum is the fact that the purported metaphysical "judgment" would have to take place according to a man-made deadline, i.e., the Jewish calendar as determined by the Sages of Israel! Are we really to believe that the Rabbis are scheduling the Creator's activities?

Finally, stories in Tanach that depict Divine interventions or responses to prayer belie the notion that one's destiny is "fixed" on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and cannot tolerate subsequent adjustments. There is no indication whatsoever that God cannot answer tefillot offered between one Yom Kippur and the following New Year, or that repentance that takes place during that time period is ignored or dismissed by Providence.

Yet the Rambam, greatest among Jewish philosophers, clearly subscribes to the view that Hashem does judge every individual during the Ten Days of Repentance, and that the deadline for obtaining forgiveness and pardon is fixed at Yom Kippur:

Just as a person's defects and merits are weighed upon his death, so too annually are each and every person's defects and merits weighed on the holiday of Rosh Hashana. One who is found to be righteous is sealed for life. One who is found to be wicked is sealed for death. And those who are in the middle are given until Yom Kippur - if they repent they are sealed for life, and if not they are sealed for death.

How can we decipher this mysterious phenomenon?

To be continued....

Friday, September 26, 2008

Eulogy for Hazzan Rebibo Z"L

This week, the highly esteemed and beloved Hazzan Emeritus of Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Mr. David Rebibo, passed away at the age of 95. His funeral was held on Wednesday at noon. I cannot claim that the eulogy I delivered was a sufficient tribute to his illustrious memory. However, I present it here to offer at least a glimpse of the character of this great man to the readership.

As you know, I never write out my speeches, not even my High Holiday sermons. But I feel genuinely inadequate and humbled by the prospect of delivering a eulogy for Hazzan David Rebibo , someone whom I regarded as a grandfather, a teacher and a personal mentor. It seems at best futile and at worst an injustice on my part to attempt to capture the greatness of such a remarkable man in a single address. Not to mention that the loss of Hazzan Rebibo is a powerful blow to me personally and a tragedy that impacts our entire community, leaving us at a loss for words. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to recognize and discuss the sublime qualities of Hazzan Rebibo so as to pay tribute to him and to remind ourselves of the massive responsibility that his legacy places on our shoulders.

The Bible describes the illustrious King David as the “sweet singer of Israel ”. Our David, Hazzan David Rebibo , certainly lived up to the example of his namesake in this regard. His leadership of the prayers in our congregation was and always will be legendary. Hazzan Rebibo was the consummately skillful Hazzan – he had the uncanny ability to look at any passage in the siddur, mahazor or book of Kinnot at any time of the year and to begin chanting it instantly, without even a moment's hesitation. He established the liturgical traditions of Magen David Sephardic Congregation including introducing the melodies we utilize for Shabbat, Festivals, Tisha B’av Kinnot and the High Holidays. He taught us how to pray with solemnity and with soulfulness. He was capable of maintaining and insisting upon proper decorum during services, while simultaneously bringing heartfelt emotion and palpable intensity to our experience of tefillah.

Many Hazzanim are “divas” who behave in an elitist manner and think quite highly of themselves. Not so Hazzan Rebibo. His sterling character was untarnished by the slightest trace of egotistical interest. His first priority was to ensure that peace, tranquility and unity reigned in our Bet Kenesset. With his musical gifts he uplifted and unified us in prayer, and with his insight into human beings he helped foster harmony and cooperation in our community. He was keenly socially aware till his final day on Earth and consistently avoided confrontation, preferring instead to engage in his own quiet brand of synagogue diplomacy.

I will never forget last Sunday when I spent approximately an hour and a half sitting with Hazzan Rebibo and his family in the Rebibo’s living room. Inevitably, the hot issue of the current presidential election came up in our conversation. When asked whom he planned to vote for, Hazzan Rebibo tactfully responded “both of them”. He realized that mixed company was present and he couldn’t bear to make anyone who might disagree with his political views feel uncomfortable, so he took the high road, as usual.

Hazzan Rebibo was a living example of the classic words of Tehillim, “Hashem, who can dwell in your tent, who can reside on Your holy mountain? One who walks perfectly and acts justly and speaks truth in his heart. Who has no slander on his tongue, nor has he done harm to a fellow, nor casts disgrace on a neighbor. In whose eyes a contemptible person is repulsive, but who honors those who fear the Lord…One who does these things shall never falter.”

We tend to idealize our loved ones who have passed on, and there are many people to whom these words have been applied after their deaths, as a sort of exaggeration or embellishment of their piety. I can tell you honestly that even while he still dwelt among us, and even while he was still enjoying relatively good health and this day seemed like it was far off in the distant future, whenever I read this passage of Tehillim the image of Hazzan Rebibo appeared before me. I am confident that it will continue to do so for the rest of my life. There is no better concrete example of the lessons contained in that paragraph than the one offered to us by Hazzan Rebibo.

Never did he speak a negative word about another human being, even if it might seem justified. Never did he engage in idle talk around the table – it was beneath his dignity and a violation of his principles. He gave everyone the benefit of the doubt and treated everyone with the same humanity and respect that he expected from them. Hazzan Rebibo’s eyes sparkled with warmth, insight and wit, and he had an outstanding sense of humor, but he never enjoyed a laugh at someone else’s expense. And when I say never I mean never – I am not exaggerating. Being in his presence and observing such righteous conduct on a daily basis was a truly humbling and inspiring experience for all of us.

Hazzan Rebibo was one of those individuals of tremendous stature who we begin to think have outsmarted the Malach Hamavet, the Angel of Death. He survived so many threats to his health and underwent so many medical interventions, yet he would invariably bounce back, resume daily synagogue attendance, observe the major and minor fasts and even lead the prayers on occasion. It seemed as if he had found the secret to eternity in this world and that he would be here with us forever.

Indeed, we all hoped and prayed that this would be the case. After all, how can there be Selihot without Hazzan R ebibo, Adon Haselihot – the Master of Selihot himself who taught us how to chant them? How can there be Sukkot or Pesah without Hazzan Rebibo there to remind us when and with what solemn melody to recite the prayers for rain and dew? How will we survive another Tisha B’av kinnot service without Hazzan Rebibo to whisper the tune for each section in our ears so that we know how to start it properly? How will we enter into Yom Kippur this year without Hazzan R ebibo’s unforgettable and haunting rendition of the Kal Nidre prayer?

The circumstances in which we find ourselves are reflected beautifully in a moving passage in the Talmud in Masechet Berachot. When the great Sage Rav passed away his students escorted him to burial. Upon their return from the funeral, they sat down to have a meal together by the River Danak. A t the conclusion of their repast they prepared to recite the Birkat Hamazon, or Grace after Meals. A question emerged regarding its proper recitation and they were unable to resolve it satisfactorily. One of the most illustrious students, Rav Adda bar Ahava, stood up and tore his garment a second time (after already having torn it once at the funeral). “Our teacher has died,” he exclaimed, “and we have not even learned how to recite the Grace after Meals properly!”

We too have lost a spiritual giant, a paragon of righteousness, a beloved teacher – but we have not yet internalized the lessons he struggled to teach us. We do not yet know what it means to lead the prayers with a deep and abiding sense of standing in the presence of the Almighty. We are not yet sure how to strike that perfect balance between humility and elegance, between dignity and good humor that he exhibited so effortlessly. Our teacher is gone but we had not yet completed the course. What we would give for another few moments with him, to review some of the prayers and their melodies, or to request his sagacious advice or guidance.

Each day in Selihot we read, “ Anshe Emunah Avadu Baim B’choach Maasehem”, men of faith, of principle, men who strengthened and protected us with their meritorious deeds have disappeared. We are a generation of lost souls that needs people like Hazzan Rebibo more than ever before, and now he too has left us to find eternal rest in a better place. The more time passes, the less opportunities we have to observe and to interact with human beings of the caliber of Hazzan Rebibo. What a blessing, how fortunate we were to know him, and alas, what a tragedy, what a heart-wrenching misfortune it is to be compelled to bid him farewell for the last time.

Our Rabbis teach us that the death of pious individuals is a source of atonement for the Jewish people. When we find ourselves bereft of those who inspired us, we are moved to find sources of inspiration from within. When we realize that the pillars of the community are no longer present, we are beckoned to assume responsibility for the continuity of our heritage and traditions. When the leaders upon whom we relied to study, practice and teach Torah and Sephardic customs are called to the Heavenly Academy , we feel a sense of obligation to take up the mantle of Torah study and observance, to continue the legacy of our ancestors and teachers and to ensure that the flame of Jewish life is never extinguished. This reawakening of connection to Judaism and to community is a source of atonement for us all if we use it to draw ourselves closer to our synagogue and to our God.

As we approach the High Holidays and the New Year, we pray that the merit of Hazzan Rebibo should inspire us all to increase our involvement in what he cherished more than anything else in this world – the Torah, the mitsvot, and Magen David Sephardic Congregation. Striving to live up to his awesome example as best we can is the ultimate tribute we can render to him.

May the soul of Hazzan David ben HaRav Yosef veHanna Rebibo find its eternal rest in the presence of the Almighty, and may his memory be a source of blessing for us always. Amen.

Invocation for Senator McCain

As reported in the current edition of the Washington Jewish Week, I was invited to deliver an invocation in support of Senator John McCain at a Jewish fundraiser for his presidential campaign last Sunday.

The full text of the invocation I composed and delivered can be found here. Obviously, it represents my personal views and you are free to disagree with my conclusions.

It was subsequently brought to my attention that my actions were criticized here.

I responded here and here, and wound up involved in a bit of a theological discussion about the nature of prayer and "Divine callings" here and here.

Although the initial reactions of other contributors to the site were mixed, I was honored to receive positive feedback on my comments from several of the participants as the exchange progressed.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Politics and Propaganda

I recently received an article by Cathryn Michon entitled "Beyond the Palin" as an email forward. Apparently, the piece has been circulated widely on the Internet, and held up as a very persuasive critique of the McCain-Palin ticket.

As a registered independent with a record of voting for both Democratic and Republican candidates in the past, I am always open to considering the arguments and policy positions of both parties objectively before reaching any particular decision. My political views are not neatly aligned with the platform of either party. I do my best to evaluate the issues at hand and the qualifications of the candidates running for office, without focusing on party affiliations per se.

This being said, I found the Michon article to be filled with hyperbolic rhetoric, logical errors and gross misrepresentations of fact.

As someone who reads both sides of the political story and explores the ideas and opinions of the 'left' and the 'right', I know that this kind of hyped up, factually inaccurate partisan propaganda is generated by both Democrats and Republicans.

You can find plenty of such material directed against McCain, Obama and Biden in cyberspace as well, all of it presented in the same sweeping, self-assured tone and incorporating the same sort of "data" to substantiate its claims. This literature serves the purpose of "firing up" party members in anticipation of a major election. But interpreting "Beyond the Palin" - or any other kind of propaganda - as a weighty piece of journalistic research, rather than a biased (albeit entertaining) diatribe, would be a serious mistake on our part.

I have no intention of endorsing or rejecting any particular political candidate here. I respect every American's right to choose the leader he or she deems most fit for the office of the presidency, and there are reasonable and compelling arguments to be offered on behalf of the policy positions of both contenders.

However, precisely because it is being touted as such a persuasive piece of writing, I would like to take the time to hold "Beyond the Palin" up to the light of critical scrutiny by evaluating its claims and arguments honestly. This, I believe, will demonstrate conclusively that, regardless of your party affiliation or political views, the arguments presented by Michon should not exert any influence on your vote in the 2008 Election.

First, let's look at what Michon says about McCain himself:

"This is a presidential election, the GOP has a disastrous administration and a horrible candidate whose big idea is more of the same. This woman threatens to suck all the oxygen out of the room. She's [Palin's] distracting everyone from the fact that McCain is a terrible candidate and will make a horrible president."

Is it really a "fact" that McCain is a terrible candidate and will make a horrible president? It is certainly the opinion shared by most Democrats, but it is a far cry from a fact. Indeed, according to the most recent polls, more than 50 percent of Americans believe quite the opposite - that McCain is the superior candidate and that the election of Obama would be disastrous. While the fact that the majority appear to favor McCain does not necessarily mean that he is the better man for the job, it certainly should give us pause before we declare that it is a "fact" that he would be a horrible president.

And is it really true that a McCain administration would be "more of the same"? The reality is that McCain has long been known as an independent thinker and a strong-willed leader who never felt the need to mindlessly toe the party line. This is one of the reasons he has never received the presidential nomination in the past, despite a distinguished career in the military and the Senate - he was too controversial, not enough of a "company man" to win over die-hard conservatives.

Remember that 2004 Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry was urged by several of his aides to select John McCain as his running mate. Kerry's willingness to even consider McCain is truly astonishing. What better endorsement could there be of McCain's bipartisan attitudes and commitment to serving his country rather than the dictates of his party?

McCain is truly the Lieberman of the Republican Party, someone who has a record of putting conscience and principle before political expediency. The Democrats realized that in 2004, which is why they considered him as a possible VP. The Republicans realized it too, which is why they rejected him as their nominee.

Michon also writes:

"John McCain would make a terrible president. This is a presidential election, not a vice presidential election. The job only becomes relevant if the President dies, and if you've seen John McCain's 2,000 year old mom, I think you'll agree he'll last 8 years."

This is more of the same. Dogmatic pronouncements as to McCain's unfitness for office, plus a gratuitous, irrelevant and frankly offensive reference to his mother.

Let us now examine what Michon claims about Obama, the candidate whom she endorses:

"We should ignore her [Palin]. We should focus on the positives of Barack Obama, his concrete detailed plans for change...his amazing ability to manage people, time and resources. We should focus on his ability to inspire, command respect, and build actual working coalition bridges between entrenched parties. We should focus on his determination to run a respectful, diplomatic campaign about the issues, focused on the difficult task of turning our country around and regaining our reputation abroad....If you believe Obama should be the leader, then follow his lead. Ignore her. Be uninterested in her. Stop letting her turn the election into a combination of Desperate Housewives and American Idol."

I am not sure what the basis is for the claims here concerning Obama's ability to manage people, time and resources. When has he forged any "actual working coalition bridges between entrenched parties"? As a first-term Senator he has had very little experience in Washington, and has very few, if any, accomplishments to his credit. Polls have shown, time and time again, that the average Obama supporter cannot adduce any concrete evidence of his qualification for the position of Commander-In-Chief.

Aside from his very inspiring and uplifting rhetoric - which is a pleasure to listen to - he has not really demonstrated any executive skills in government, he has not effectuated any change or achieved any specific goals. I have heard people say that Obama is wonderful because he voted against the war in Iraq, but this is obviously untrue because he was not even a Senator when the war started! He may have opposed the war; however, despite the fact that his party has a majority in both Houses of Congress, his much-beloved eloquence has not had any impact on US foreign policy whatsoever. In fact, Obama has spent most of his term in the Senate running for President.
If you are interested in a more sobering look at Obama's record, this article is a must read.

Has Obama really run a "respectful" campaign? Has he really practiced anything other than the very "politics as usual" that he lambastes in his speeches? When it comes to attacks on McCain, Obama's campaign has taken to belittling his opponent's age and his inability to use email, which is actually the result of the injuries he sustained while serving our country in Vietnam. Obama's campaign managers refer to their candidates image of "transcending" politics as "the brand", an illusion that they maintain by having Obama make friendly and conciliatory comments to the press about his opponent, while sending other campaign representatives forward to do his dirty work.

Finally, is it true that Obama simply ignored the drama surrounding Sarah Palin's selection as the Republican VP candidate? According to this article from the Associated Press, Obama has responded to Palin's growing popularity and the bounce she has lent to the Republican ticket by criticizing her directly and harshly on several occasions. And he has done this over the objections of his own advisers, who are worried that the Obama Brand of "new politics" might be compromised by these attacks.

Now, let us consider what the author of "Beyond the Palin" has to say about Sarah Palin herself:

"If you think running Alaska 's budget is like running America 's budget, think again. Alaska is the Saudi Arabia of America. They're awash in the oil profits that are killing the rest of us. If you think Sarah Palin is not in the pockets of big oil, ask yourself why British Petroleum sponsored her inauguration party. Don't be fooled by the big brag, know that it's a con and move on to the real topic."

The irony of this comment is that while VP Candidate Sarah Palin has not been involved in managing the national budget and has only dealt with the Alaskan one, the Presidential Candidate on the Democratic ticket has not managed any budget since he is completely bereft of executive experience!

The bottom line is that it is good for a VP to possess some real executive experience, which Sarah Palin has. It is silly to downplay the difficulties involved in overseeing an entire city or state's budget. While Alaskan oil may help to prop up its economy, challenges and obstacles of one sort or another are ever-present in business and politics. Gas prices in Alaska, for example, are just as ridiculously inflated in Alaska as they are in the lower 48 states, if not more so. This is undoubtedly a source of economic strain that, among other things, weighs heavily upon the citizens and government of Alaska. Every state of the Union has its benefits, limitations, and hot-button issues, and no place on Earth is a utopia wherein providing governmental leadership and establishing fiscal policy is a piece of cake.

Obviously, we cannot reasonably expect that anyone who comes to assume the office of the Presidency or VP will have run this country (or some other country) in the past. But we should all agree that it is preferable for a person to have at least a solid background in management of a city or state before stepping into the White House. That is the best kind of executive experience we can hope for in a candidate given the circumstances.

Furthermore, a bit of honesty across the board is in order here. All campaigns are financed by big-money sponsors, whether they be corporations or individual donors. This is (regrettably) how our political system works, and all candidates (unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably) wind up feeling beholden to the power brokers who enabled them to reach their offices. There is no way around this reality at the present time - the main incentive for campaign contributors is the potential they are buying to exert influence on the political process should their candidate be elected.

But who is more likely to refuse to cave under political pressure from lobbyists and campaign contributors, and to adopt policy positions that are immoral, unethical or against the national interest? An elder statesman who has demonstrated independent-minded leadership in Washington for decades, weathered storms of partisan power plays, and maintained his integrity and sense of responsibility to his country even in the face of unthinkable pain and suffering in a POW camp? Or a relatively young and unseasoned candidate whose idealism and charisma can only carry him so far, and who, even in the course of a brief campaign, has already shifted his positions dramatically to appease the centrists in his party?

I am playing devil's advocate here, but I hope you see that the case is not all as clear as "Beyond the Palin" would have us believe.

The truth is that Michon's argument contains a fallacious element that it is easy to overlook. She mounts an attack against Palin on the basis of her lack of qualification for the position of VP. Then she moves on to dismiss the importance of a VP candidate altogether, stating that it would only be relevant in the unlikely event of McCain's death. So, should we be alarmed by the prospect of Palin being a heartbeat away from the presidency, or not?

If the possibility of her assuming executive leadership is real, then we should carefully evaluate her political record and competence. On the other hand, if the role of the VP is negligible - something that no one, including Obama, seems to truly believe - then why launch all of these sarcastic and mean-spirited attacks on Palin to begin with? Don't they simply add fuel to the fire that this author is supposedly trying to put out?

I will not move to address the remainder of the missive, which is full of nasty insults, personal attacks and belittling comments directed at Palin. The partisan motives underlying these statements are obvious and in no need of further examination.

As I stated from the outset, I am an independent and I do not intend to endorse any candidate with this message. However, I was deeply offended by the biased and aggressive tone of "Beyond the Palin", not to mention its presentation of false rumors and propaganda as fact. If anything, the methods of persuasion employed by Michon would serve to alienate me from the Obama campaign rather than convincing me to support it. I would have been equally put-off by any column penned by a right-wing loony who distorted the truth about Obama or Biden, and I would have been equally disappointed in those who tried to pass it along as a contribution to the political arena worthy of serious attention.

"Beyond the Palin" certainly does not represent the "New Politics" that Obama himself would advocate. One would think that an Obama supporter who was truly committed to his vision would avoid composing such biased and divisive articles and would instead focus on transcending the evils of self-interested partisanship and fostering unity and cooperation in government and society.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Tisha B'Av Letter

The following is a letter I wrote to my congregation in anticipation of Tisha B'av this coming Sunday. I thought I would share it with the readership of this blog as well:

Dear Friends,
As you all know, Tisha B’av will be observed this year beginning Saturday evening at sunset and concluding Sunday night. Of all the dates marked on the Jewish calendar, Tisha B’av is certainly the most bitter and painful, as it commemorates all of the tragedies that have befallen our people over the past 3000 years. We mourn and fast on Tisha B’av each year to recall the horrific persecution and unspeakable suffering that we have endured since we were first exiled from the Land of Israel in Biblical times.

To be as direct and to the point as possible, I am asking you to fast on Tisha B’av this year.

If you cannot fast for health reasons, please make an effort to take the day seriously. Join us for the prayers in the evening, morning and afternoon. R ead Tisha B’av related materials in whatever language you understand.

Tisha B’av is one of the most important days on the Jewish calendar. The Rabbis compare the stringency of the Ninth of A v to the stringency of Yom Kippur. We are taught that anyone who keeps Tisha B’av properly will merit to see the ultimate redemption, and that, in fact, the observance of Tisha B’av is itself the first step toward that redemption.

I have always felt that, more than any other holiday, Tisha B’av observance expresses genuine commitment to Jewish tradition and nationhood. It is not difficult to entice people to participate in festivities and celebrations. It is not even too hard to convince people to fast on Yom Kippur with the promise that their sins will be atoned for thereby.

But it is quite challenging to try and persuade modern Jews to weep for the destruction of the Temple , to abstain from eating, drinking and enjoying themselves for twenty-five hours and take time to reflect upon the darkest chapters of Jewish history. To do this, you must feel a profound connection to your Jewish past, present and future. You must be willing to be a Jew through thick and thin, during good times and bad times, on days of joy and on days of mourning.

The story is told that Napoleon Bonaparte was walking through the streets of Paris one Tisha B' A v night.

As his entourage passed a synagogue he heard wailing and crying coming from within; he sent an aide to inquire as to what had happened.

The aide returned and told Napoleon that the Jews were in mourning over the loss of their Temple .

Napoleon was indignant! "How come I wasn't informed? When did this happen? Which Temple ?"

The aide responded, "They lost their Temple in Jerusalem on this date 1,700 years ago."

Napoleon stood in silence and then said, "Certainly a people which has mourned the loss of their Temple for so long will survive to see it rebuilt!"

Napoleon’s insight resonates powerfully with a generation that has witnessed the rebirth of Israel and its transformation from an arid and abandoned desert into a vivaciously blossoming Jewish homeland. Granted, much spiritual work is left to be done, but there is no question that the ancient memories kept alive by Tisha B’av fueled the flames of passion that inspired the pioneers who established the Modern state of Israel.

Had the Jewish people lacked a keen sense of their tragic and painful history, had they not heard the piercing cries of desperation, humiliation and loss ringing eternally in their ears, had they not smelled the ashes of charred human remains wafting up from the destruction of the Jewish communities of Europe in the aftermath of World War II, had they not felt the weight of centuries of constant exile, expulsion and persecution upon their hearts, then we would not be where we are today as a nation. Their awareness of the past paved the way to a brighter future for us all.

Unfortunately, quite the opposite attitude seems to be prevalent in our times. Most of us don’t want to think about the terrible events of the recent past – the expulsion of Jews from Arab Lands, the Holocaust, or the Soviet persecutions – let alone those of the distant past.

We don’t want to hear about Hamas and Hizbollah threatening us anymore.

We don’t want to read about suicide bombers spilling the blood of innocent children in pizza shops anymore.

We don’t want to picture vicious terrorists ambushing the vehicles of young parents whose only crime was trying to take Jewish kids to school.

We don’t want to imagine ruthless killers murdering pregnant mothers whose only crime was trying to bring Jewish children into the world.

Indeed, we would prefer to downplay the significance of the dangerous and inflammatory anti-Semitic rhetoric that is rearing its ugly head and spreading quickly throughout Europe and the Middle East as we speak. In this sense we are no different than our ancestors in Biblical and Modern Times who chose to ignore the lessons of history and were thus doomed to repeat it.

So, this year on Tisha B’av, let us abstain from eating and drinking in memory of our fellow Jews – men, women and little children – who were starved to death at the hands of wicked persecutors. It is well known that the Nazis, who deprived their victims in the concentration camps of even the most minimal luxuries, would offer them a sumptuous meal on Tisha B’av every year, just to mock them. In recognition of their heroism in not partaking of those meals, please avoid food and drink on Tisha B’av.

This Tisha B’av, let us refrain from washing our bodies or applying creams and oils to our skin. Who can forget how our persecutors were so careful about their own hygiene and cleanliness while they forced us to live in filth and squalor, transporting us in cattle cars filled with excrement and denying us the most basic human dignity? How can we pamper ourselves when we think of how our innocent brethren were treated?

This Tisha B’av, let us avoid wearing leather shoes to remind ourselves of the long marches that our barely clothed, emaciated, barefoot and shivering brothers and sisters were forced to make through snow and ice in the dead of winter. Feeling the ground under our feet helps us recall just how many comforts we take for granted today.

Observing the restrictions of Tisha B’av brings the deprivation and suffering endured by our brethren into clear relief for us. Over the centuries, our ancestors went through hell on Earth in Israel , Spain , Greece, Portugal , England , France , Morocco, Iraq , Iran , Egypt , Germany , and countless other places. For them, there was no telling when the suffering would end. There was no telling when it might intensify. There was no choice whether or not to be subjected to it.

We, on the other hand, are a generation accustomed to privilege, luxury and comfort. We “choose” whether or not to observe Tisha B’av properly. But don’t we have a moral duty to recognize and mourn the losses our predecessors suffered?

Is it asking too much for us to set aside one day to fast and reflect upon the sacrifices they made and the pain they experienced for the sake of their Judaism?

Does the burden we bear for one day even come close to the ones they were forced to carry for their entire lifetimes?

Most importantly, we must recognize that it is through our acknowledgment of the horrors of our past that we gain a clearer perspective on our future. Mourning the destruction of our Temple and the constant persecutions directed against our communities should remind us of our ultimate priorities in life. It should pull us away from our obsession with imitating or winning the favor of our Gentile neighbors. It should move us to return to God and rededicate ourselves to His service. It should make us pray ever more fervently and work ever more intensively to perfect ourselves and our world.

This year, allow the message of Tisha B’av to make its way into your heart. Open your mind to the possibility of more Torah study and mitzvah performance. Don’t allow the sacrifices made by generations of Jews – men and women, mothers and fathers, adults and children, rabbis and laypersons – to be forgotten. Don’t allow their tears to have been in vain.

It is up to all of us to make sure that the memories of our dark history are perpetuated and that we internalize the lessons these memories are supposed to teach us.

Please join me in mourning for our glorious Temple , for our beautiful Torah, for the trampled dignity of our rabbis and elders and for the precious breath that was stolen from the lungs of our little babies. Don’t let them be overlooked or disregarded. Don’t allow them to be called irrelevant or obsolete.

I hope to see you on Saturday Night at 9:30PM for the Tisha B’av service, and then again on Sunday at 8:30 A M for Shaharit. I strongly encourage you to attend the Holocaust Museum Tour with us at 11:30 A M on Sunday after morning services.

I will also be delivering a class entitled “Is it Possible to Make Sense out of All of our Suffering?”, Sunday afternoon at 6:45PM at Magen David Sephardic Congregation, followed by Minha at 7:30PM.

May this Tisha B’av be a source of genuine intellectual and spiritual growth for us all, so that we can see the words of the prophet Zechariah fulfilled, “The fast of the Fourth Month (Tammuz) and the Fast of the Fifth ( A v) and the Fast of the Seventh (Tishrei) and the Fast of the Tenth(Tevet) shall be for the house of Judah for joy, gladness and cheerful feasts.” A men.

Sincerely Yours,
Rabbi Joshua Maroof

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Nehamat Yaaqov 5768

I am proud to once again present "Nehamat Yaaqov", a compendium of the essential laws of the Three Weeks and Tisha B'av. Many thanks to those who provided feedback that was helpful in revising and otherwise improving the work. You can download a PDF version of Nehamat Yaaqov by clicking here. I will also attempt to post the full text on my other blog.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Fasting and Mourning

From the perspective of halakha and also of experience, fasting and mourning share a great deal in common. On a basic level, both involve a somber attitude, a withdrawal from creature comforts, and a tendency to introspection. In terms of observance, there is a significant amount of overlap between the two domains. On major fasts (i.e., Tisha B'av and Yom Kippur) we observe prohibitions on sexual relations, the donning of leather footwear, washing and anointing, and all of these restrictions also apply (although in the case of washing, somewhat less stringently) to an individual who is sitting Shiva for a close relative.

That being said, the halakhic differences between mourning and fasting are equally noteworthy. One is not expected to fast during the period of Shiva - on the contrary, meals are regularly provided to the mourners. On the other hand, additional restrictions on mourners, such as the prohibitions to study Torah or to greet friends, for example, have no parallel whatsoever on Yom Kippur, the most intense fast day of the Jewish calendar. It goes without saying that no tragic occurrence is necessary to precipitate a fast - Yom Kippur is observed even during the best of times and has nothing to do with misfortune.

The fast of Tisha B'av illustrates the mourning-fasting dichotomy nicely, inasmuch as it is a hybrid of the two. On Tisha B'av - and, to a lesser extent, on all of the Rabbinical fasts - we are engaged in mourning the destruction of the Temple. From what we know of the laws of mourning, it would have been at least theoretically possible for the Prophets to institute a day of mourning for the Destruction without incorporating the element of fasting as well. However, for some reason they saw fit to merge fasting and mourning together in the observance of Tisha B'av. The halakhot of the Fast, some of which are derived from Yom Kippur and others from the laws of Shiva, bear witness to the dual nature of Tisha B'av.

So what is it exactly that creates the affinity between mourning and fasting? Why do they share common aspects while differing from one another in several key respects?

Mourning is a natural response to tragedy. When calamity strikes an individual, a family or a community, it tends to place the everyday pleasures we relish in a totally new perspective. We all remember how jarred we were in the aftermath of September 11th, how people (briefly) exhibited a diminished interest in the pursuit of physical and egoistic gratification. Indeed, we would have looked upon anyone preoccupied with his own agenda at that time as callous and arrogant - how could someone be so utterly insensitive to the import of what had befallen us, and simply go about life or business as usual?

This is the sense in which the laws of mourning mandate a withdrawal from physical pleasure. Proper deference to the significance of a loss, whether it be personal or national, is expressed in diminished pleasure-seeking. One who appreciates the seriousness of such a tragedy cannot possibly pursue enjoyments with the same zeal that he did previously. The trivial gratifications that used to draw him seem petty and meaningless when he is faced with the reality of his own mortality and vulnerability. The "finer things in life" do not possess the same allure to a broken soul, now bereft of a precious loved one.

A person who persists in his selfishness despite the endurance of calamity is viewed as morally reprehensible because he is deaf to the lessons that we expect such events to teach him. His enslavement to dreams of power and pleasure makes him utterly insensitive to the precariousness of his own existence and blinds him to the value of the existence of others. Just think of those who, in the wake of 9-11, immediately saw it as an opportunity to scam people in distress and to profit from their misfortune rather than an opportunity to reconsider what is truly important in life.

The mourning we observe on Tisha B'av, and the supreme importance attributed to it in our tradition, is consistent with these ideas. Being sensitive to the distance between the Jewish Nation and God, and focusing our minds on the horrific events that have befallen us in our Exile, must reduce the bounce in our step at least somewhat. Certainly the process should inspire us to withdraw a bit from the comforts and gratifications that usually beckon to us - whether they be physical or intellectual (as in the case of Torah study) - and to give serious thought to the Divine message that is embodied in our history and its implications for us.

One who views the solemn prayers and devotions of Tisha B'av as an unnecessary interference with his lifestyle that cannot be countenanced is surely insensitive to the tragedies that have scarred the Jewish nation over many centuries of exile. He is more interested in the potential for enjoyment in the here-and-now than in reflecting upon the vulnerability and persecution of the Jewish people witnessed to us by history. Why weaken his zest for life by reminding him of these harsh, depressing and possibly even frightening realities?

At the same time, however, Tisha B'av is not only a day of mourning - it is also a Taanit, a day of affliction and fasting. Whereas in mourning we withdraw from the pleasures of this world because their appeal naturally seems to fade in the face of tragedy, in fasting we deliberately detach ourselves from the pursuit of pleasure in order to harness our energies for more transcendent objectives.

A fast need not be connected to any depressing event. It can be a self-imposed regimen for the purpose of individual spiritual development or a nationally observed holiday like Yom Kippur. The purpose of a fast is to enable us to rise above the overwhelming pull of our instincts and to subject them, and our personalities as a whole, to serious analysis and correction. In this way our minds reassert themselves as the governing agents of our action, and our bodily desires are put firmly in check as we evaluate our lives without the comforting distraction of food and drink.

It is now clear why both mourning and fasting involve diminished physical gratification. In the case of mourning, this is a healthy reaction to tragedy and loss. Mourning would not typically lead us to neglect basic necessities like eating and drinking, since even an emotionally bruised psyche requires nourishment.

On the other hand, in the case of fasting, we are engaged in a conscious "affliction" of ourselves. We are actively attempting to remove distractions that might interfere with our process of repentance by sapping our psychological energy or dulling the clarity of our thought. Unlike the in the case of mourning where the change in our relationship with pleasures is a byproduct of our preoccupation with something more important, on a fast day the state of physical deprivation is part of our goal - it is a preparation and a springboard for meaningful introspection and personal transformation. Hence, even eating, drinking and other relatively harmless forms of pleasure are strictly prohibited on major fasts.

In light of this analysis, we have a clearer grasp of the structure and themes of Tisha B'av. The objective of reflection upon the tragic chapters of our history engenders sincere mourning. This, however, is insufficient. Preoccupation with tragedy, however intense, is always short-lived. People devastated by loss can, with the passage of time, get over it and return to life with the same zest for enjoyment they previously possessed. Once the proverbial storm has passed and its effects begin to wear off, such individuals can and do emerge from the experience of loss fundamentally unchanged.

For this reason, Tisha B'av requires not only mourning, but also Taanit - affliction and fasting. This ensures that our meditation on the tragic elements of Jewish history has an impact on our lives and is not in vain.

By linking the mourning of Tisha B'av with fasting, our Sages taught us that the destruction of the Temple and our turbulent existence in Exile are not just depressing realities we are compelled to live with, discuss endlessly and cry about helplessly each year. On the contrary, our acknowledgment of the significance of these episodes in our past should move us to reconsider the direction of our lives and to commit ourselves more sincerely and earnestly to fulfilling our covenant with Hashem. In this way our observance of Tisha B'av will serve to bring us one step closer to the ultimate redemption for which we pray.

Friday, May 30, 2008

I Haven't Forgotten

I know that several members of the readership are anxious for me to embark upon the project I detailed in my previous post.

While I am fully prepared to begin writing on the themes I promised to address, my schedule and the exigencies of life over the past two weeks have interfered with my plans.

I wanted to post this brief message to reassure you that the new posts will start appearing, G-d willing, next week at the latest.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Coming Up

Blogging has been a bit slow lately due to time constraints, so for the benefit of those members of the readership anxious to know what the future holds, I thought it might be a good idea to create a brief post detailing the topics I intend to touch upon over the next several weeks.

1. Prophecy and Torah Misinai.

This is an interesting subject in its own right, and one I plan to explore during Tikkun Leil Shavuot in my synagogue this year, but it is even more poignant in light of recent discussions on the comment threads here. In the process of approaching this topic, I will also complete my analysis of Spinoza vs. Maimonides on the prophecy question, a series I started but neglected to finish last year.

2. Understanding the Written Torah

I will be publishing my usual posts, dedicated to specific problems/questions/ideas that confront us in our study of Tanach, although not necessarily always Parashat Hashavua. I will be making a concerted effort to take up thorny and difficult texts, especially those that have been widely misunderstood or misrepresented.

3. The Oral Torah and Its Relationship to the Written

This is a subject that requires a tremendous amount of attention because it is frequently misconstrued, even by religious and knowledgeable Jews. I will attempt to bring examples that best highlight the need for and function of the Oral Torah in elucidating and clarifying Scripture. For instance, I will work on debunking the myth that the Oral tradition either "adds to", "diminishes" or "fixes" the Sacred Texts, and I will hopefully demonstrate that it in fact serves to bring out their deeper meaning. The methodology and spirit of halakha will also be discussed, so that questions about its ethical character may be put to rest.

4. Jewish Philosophy

A vigorous effort to present and substantiate what I believe to be an authentic, compelling and rational vision of Judaism. Skeptical objections will be dealt with and important distinctions and arguments clarified. Questions like whether the Torah is unique, whether science and Torah conflict, whether God's existence can be proven, and whether there is a difference between belief in the magical and belief in the miraculous will be explored.

5. General Potpourri

I plan to include some isolated posts devoted to other intellectual interests of mine (you may be surprised by some of these) that I think are germane to, and perhaps shed light on, the Torah and its philosophical underpinnings.

I look forward to embarking upon this project over the next several days and weeks.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, May 12, 2008

In The Beginning

Much of the recent discussion in the comment threads has revolved around the nature of the Genesis narratives and their purpose. In this admittedly off-the-cuff post, I would like to clarify my own take on this crucial issue.

The instructional objective of the Torah is essentially twofold. First and foremost, the Torah provides us with a worldview, an outlook on the Universe, the human condition, and the values that should guide our lives. In his commentary on the Humash, the famous Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno refers to this aspect of the Torah's teaching as "heleq haiyuni", the intellectual component.

Second, the Torah offers a program of mitsvot, the observance of which is based upon that worldview and the goal of which is to implement the values that derive from that worldview. The Seforno calls this the "heleq hamaasi", or practical component.

When it comes to the intellectual component of the Torah's instruction, the vehicle of choice is the story. Stories are inherently engaging and are accessible to human beings at pretty much any level of cognitive and moral development. We often revisit literature later in life and discover dimensions of depth and nuance we never noticed when we studied it in our youth. Moreover, not infrequently, aspects of the plot, drama or message of a story that appeared most significant to us previously may, upon a fresh reading, fade in comparison to other elements that capture our more mature attention.

The Torah opens with a series of stories that present us with four processes of tremendous importance to its purpose: The Creation of the Universe, the Creation/Emergence of Man, the Creation of Society and the Creation of Israel.

The creation of the Universe is described in order to establish that the Universe is a lawful, harmonious product of the will of a transcendent God who put it into motion.

The creation of Man is explored in order to enlighten us as to the peculiarities of the human condition - being a part of the natural world yet capable of transcending our natural drives, possessing biological instincts as well as an intellect, struggling both with our environments and within ourselves. Unlike the elegance and harmony reflected in the cosmos, the human realm is messily complicated, and the challenges that face Man, with his unique combination of heavenly and earthly characteristics, are daunting.

Individual human beings living in isolation from one another, each man fending for himself, is a chaotic state of existence. Indeed, this circumstance eventually spirals out of control and leads to the Mabul, or Flood, which yields a new kind of "Adam" in the person of Noah. Without entering into the details of Noah's life, what follows from him is a new phenomenon altogether - society - replete with kings, cultures, languages, etc. Society and its lawfulness are necessary to keep the pre-Flood anarchy from rearing its ugly head once again.

Hence, the "new order" - human beings living not as individuals but as members of a state or community - preserves the essential civilization of humanity and prevents it from sinking so low as to lose all sense of conscience or morality. Seventy nations, each with its own identity, coalesce and become established.

Nevertheless, the compromise inherent in societal structure has its downsides as well. Being part of a community means sacrificing a measure of intellectual freedom and independence, and makes one vulnerable to "groupthink". The story of the Tower of Bavel teaches us that a united humanity is a dangerous thing for this very reason.

Having a multiplicity of languages and cultures is a benefit because it does not allow any one human vision of life to dominate all others and achieve "absolute" status. The mere fact that we know our culture is Western culture, for example, as opposed to Eastern, means that we recognize that many of our judgments, opinions, attitudes and mores are conditioned by our participation in a specific human community and are not universal or inviolable. This keeps our minds open to new ideas and fresh possibilities at all times.

This very flexibility is what leads to the next "development" in Genesis - the emergence of Avraham. Avraham comes on the scene in a world very different from the one observed by Adam or even Noah - a cosmopolitan, multi-cultural human world with a proliferation of customs, languages and gods.

Ironically, society, which serves an important global function of maintaining lawfulness and keeping civilization afloat, is an impediment to Avraham's development as an individual. In order to actualize his potential, Avraham must break away from the very structure of human community that Noah initiated for the good of mankind and that took so many years to become fully established.

The difference in the case of Avraham, however, is his purpose. He separates in order to unify, he tears away in order to build. An Adam-like figure in many respects, Avraham is fiercely independent intellectually, and single-handedly rose above the influences of his parents and peers to discover Monotheism in all of its glory.

On the other hand, Avraham is the successor of Noah - he is a builder who intends not to live apart from society but to establish a new and unique kind of society. Unlike the society of Noah, however, which was founded on the expediency of cooperative living, Avraham's community would be a covenantal community, a nation founded on its relationship with and responsibility to the Creator.

Just as Noah's labor led to his descendants' creation of seventy nations, so too Avraham's vision and self-sacrifice were the unifying force that made a nation out of his seventy descendants. Just as the seventy nations of Noah provided a model of unity in diversity - their common human needs bound them together even as cultural differences distinguished between them - so too did the seventy descendants of Avraham, each with his own unique character and personality, bind themselves to one another through their common understanding of God and sense of purpose.

In short, the emergence of the Jewish nation is Hashem's "third try" at bringing humanity into line with His plan. First Adam, the individual qua individual, failed because of his susceptibility to egoistic and hedonistic temptations.

Secondly Noah, the community man par excellence, failed because the seventy communities he spawned became instruments of human power rather than vessels dedicated to the service of God.

Finally, Avraham the individual community-builder, begat seventy individuals dedicated to God, each of whom played a part in the formation of a remarkable nation that was chosen to be a source of wisdom and guidance to all other nations on Earth.

As we can see, then, the narrative structure of the beginning of Genesis - sketched very briefly here - is the platform upon which the entire Torah rests. Obviously, each component here could be the subject of dozens of posts fleshing out its details and the richness of its nuance, but I felt it was important to lay out the basic framework for us to consider moving forward.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Introduction to Rambam - Continued!

I am proud to announce that I have finally posted the fourth installment of the "Introduction to Rambam's Mishneh Torah" series that began last summer. I thank all members of the readership who encouraged me to continue.

You are all welcome to check out the latest post here.

If you are unfamiliar with the first three posts that form the basis of the current post, you can read or review them here.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Premarital Interpretations

Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to the first half of a debate on God's existence between the Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe and outspoken author Sam Harris. I will not discuss the specifics of their arguments in this post, although I reserve the right to do so in the future. For the time being, I would like to address the interpretation of a passage that Sam Harris cited during his attack on Biblical morality. I found it mildly but not altogether surprising that Wolpe failed to challenge Harris' take on these verses, inasmuch as Harris' description of their content did not accord with the traditional understanding at all. (I suppose, as a Conservative Rabbi, it could be that Wolpe himself does not accept the rabbinic interpretation of these verses.)

DISCLAIMER: In this post, I do not plan on dealing with moral issues related to the death penalty in general, nor do I plan on addressing the propriety of punishing adulterers with execution. This are interesting subjects for future posts.

In an attempt to criticize the moral principles of the Bible, Harris referred to the following passage in Deuteronomy:

When a man takes a wife, lives with her and comes to hate her; and he makes false accusations against her, ruining her reputation, and he says, "I married this woman and came close to her, and did not find her to be a virgin"...And if the matter is true - the young woman was not a virgin - then they shall take the young woman out to the door of her father's house. The people of her ciity shall stone her with stones till she dies, for she committed a despicable act in Israel, to behave immorally in the house of her father; and you shall eliminate the evil from your midst.

Harris did not quote these verses; instead, he cited Deuteronomy as teaching that premarital sex should be punished by death.

First of all, we should note that this is NOT the traditional interpretation or application of this passage. Let us clarify the Rabbinic conception of this law before proceeding to analyze the text more carefully.

I. The Traditional View

In Biblical - and subsequently, Talmudic - times, marriage was conducted in two stages, known as erusin or qiddushin and nissuin, respectively. Erusin, sometimes loosely translated as "betrothal", was a state of full marriage in every sense, except that the partners did not yet live together in one household. The transition to cohabitation as a married couple was marked with nissuin, the truly festive celebration now associated with standing under the huppah, the recitation of the seven marital blessings and the eventual consummation of the relationship.

According to the Rabbis, the Book of Deuteronomy quoted above is speaking of a case in which a woman is suspected of having committed adultery during the "erusin" period, while she was legally married but still dwelling in the house of her father. Premarital sexual relations, on the other hand, are not viewed by Jewish law as a capital crime.

Furthermore, the Oral Tradition teaches that the penalty mentioned at the conclusion of the passage in Deuteronomy would only be applied if two bona fide witnesses testified to the fact that a married woman indeed had relations with a man other than her husband. Circumstantial evidence related to her lack of the biological signs of virginity would never be a valid basis for punishment, because such evidence is never admissible in Jewish courts.

(Interestingly, Alexander Rofe, in his book on Deuteronomy, discusses this problem at length, commenting on how the simple meaning of this passages stands in obvious contradiction to several principles of law and morality expressed elsewhere in the Bible. He notes that the distinction between "betrothed" and "married" invoked by the Torah was widely recognized in the Ancient Near East, and discusses the Rabbinical approach to the difficulty we are discussing in this post. His book also - unintentionally and unfortunately - is an excellent example of how superficial, arbitrary and capricious the arguments of academic biblical scholars can be. His rush to attribute consecutive passages in a single text to multiple authors based on the slightest real or imagined stylistic discrepancy between them is noteworthy. So is the nonchalant manner in which he 'emends' texts whenever they conflict with his theory. But he provides nice resources in any case.)

So there are two key differences between Harris' caricature of the Torah's teaching and the traditional interpretation:

1) According to Harris, the Torah speaks of a woman who had premarital sexual relations, whereas according to the Oral Law it is speaking of a woman who was legally married and committed adultery.

2) According to Harris' reading, we mete out the death penalty based solely on the woman's lack of a hymen. However, the Rabbis insist that such a punishment can only be implemented when the testimony of two witnesses indicts the accused. Mere discovery that a woman is not a virgin is of no significance to us whatsoever.

A survey of some non-traditional commentaries reveals that they are divided in their interpretations of the exact "offense" being punished in the text. (Please note I do not have the JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy at my disposal, so I was not able to consult with it for this post).

II. Alter and Harris' View

Robert Alter seems to agree with Harris' hyperliteral approach that premarital sex is being condemned here. However, there are two serious problems with this explanation.

The first is that, if simply not being a virgin is worthy of the death penalty, then the husband who falsely accuses his wife of this "crime" should receive the selfsame punishment. This would be consistent with the general Biblical principle, established in Deuteronomy itself, that one who testifies falsely against another should be made to suffer the same consequence he tried to inflict upon his victim. Yet we see that, in fact, the husband is merely lashed and forced to offer financial compensation to the disgraced family. This suggests that his accusation, had it been confirmed, would not have led to anything more than financial consequences for the girl - which is exactly what we would have expected based on the Torah's treatment of similar cases in Deuteronomy and elsewhere. (Rofe takes note of this point in his book.)

The second and more fundamental problem with this is that we have clear sources in the Torah that demonstrate that premarital relations are not punishable by death. The most obvious is found in the Book of Exodus, where we read as follows:

When a man seduces a virgin girl who is not 'betrothed' and has relations with her; he shall pay the bride-price* and make her his wife. If the father of the girl refuses, then [the seducer] shall pay him silver according to the bride-price of a virgin.

* It was customary in the Ancient Near East that a groom would pay the father of his bride a fixed sum of money as 'compensation' for the loss the father sustained when his daughter left the household. This is called "mohar", loosely translated as "bride price".

We see that the one-night stand between the paramours in the verse is treated as a financial issue more than any kind of moral transgression (not that it is encouraged, but it certainly isn't seriously condemned either.) So the view that premarital relations alone would make a woman liable for the death penalty is not tenable.

III. Plaut's View

Another explanation is put forth in Gunther Plaut's commentary to the Torah. He argues that it is not the woman's lack of virginity that makes her worthy of death, but her misrepresentation of herself as a virgin that is seen as a heinous crime.

Aside from the moral difficulty involved in the notion that telling a rather trivial lie should make one worthy of death, there is a technical problem with this interpretation - it contradicts the verse itself:

For she committed a despicable act in Israel, to behave immorally in the house of her father.

Hence, the implication is that we are punishing this young woman not for the false advertising, but for the behavior she engaged in while in the house of her father. Whatever penalty she receives is due to immoral conduct that took place before the wedding and not to what she claimed or didn't claim to be when she consented to marriage.

Upon closer inspection, this verse raises many questions. First of all, how do we know she engaged in illicit relations in the house of her father? Simply finding that she is not a virgin might give us pause but does not prove this conclusively. And, as a rule, the Torah demands solid evidence in capital cases.

Moreover, why is the girl's activity in her father's house offered as the basis for her punishment? The husband is concerned with her lack of virginity, and apparently wants to divorce her without financial consequences because he was duped into wedding a non-virgin. The notion that the woman was living immorally in her father's home isn't even alluded to in the husband's speech. It is not a part of his "case".

IV. Substantiating the Rabbinical View

For these reasons, I believe the traditional interpretation is most compelling, even on the level of peshat (simple reading).

The woman in question was already an "arusah", betrothed, in her father's house, and when the man married her he discovered she was not a virgin. This created grounds for suspicion, and perhaps an investigation ensued.

It was subsequently determined, through the testimony of two witnesses, that she had been intimate with another man during the period of time when she was already legally wedded to her husband but was still living at home - i.e., that she had committed a despicable act in Israel, to behave immorally in the house of her father. And it was this fact, and not the claim of the husband per se, that causes her to receive capital punishment.

In fact, the term "liznot bet aviha", which we have translated "to act immorally in the house of her father), is reminiscent of the description of Tamar's behavior when her pregnancy is discovered.

As you may recall, the Book of Genesis recounts that Yehuda's son Er married Tamar, but died without children. In keeping with ancient custom of levirate marriage, Er's brother Onan married Tamar after his brother's death; however, he too died without any children. Tamar was promised as a wife to the third brother, Shelah, who would naturally assume the obligation to marry his childless brother's widow just as Onan did. Yehuda, though, fearing for the life of his youngest son, delays the union as long as he possibly can.

After a while, Tamar, living in her father's house awaiting another levirate marriage, becomes impatient and decides to take matters into her own hands. Her father-in-law, Yehuda, is in town, just now recovering emotionally from the recent death of his wife. (Keep in mind that before the giving of the Torah, the custom of levirate marriage was not restricted to brothers of the deceased husband; the husband's father could also stand in.)

Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and waits by the roadside. Not recognizing her as his daughter-in-law, Yehuda propositions her and she accepts. Tamar, now pregnant from her secret encounter with Yehuda, returns to her father's home to bide her time. As her pregnancy progresses, it becomes noticeable to others and they inform Yehuda as follows:

"...Behold, your daughter-in-law Tamar acted immorally (zantah), and now she is pregnant as a result of her indiscretions (zenunim)."

(A more precise rendition of "zantah", "liznot", etc., would probably be "to stray", but it is quite often used in a sexual context so I am taking liberty with the translation to fit the context more smoothly.)

Because of the institution of levirate marriage, Tamar was already considered "betrothed" and was expected to remain faithful to her intended husband for as long as was necessary. She was accused of committing the legal equivalent of adultery in her father's house. And here too, the death penalty was recommended only until it was discovered that her affair was with Yehudah himself, making the union a fulfillment, rather than a violation, of her obligation.

Indeed, from this story it is obvious that premarital relations are not a death penalty offense in the Torah's eyes. If they were, then the fact that Tamar wound up with Yehuda should not have been a mitigating factor - after all, the bottom line is that they were not married at the time of their encounter, and they had relations and conceived children out of wedlock!

This proves, contra Sam Harris, that premarital intercourse is not, in and of itself, treated as a capital offense in the Bible. The presumed guilt of Tamar and her initial condemnation were based on her status as a "married woman in her father's house" who committed adultery, and had nothing to do with promiscuity per se. The same goes for the newly married woman in Deuteronomy.