Rabbi Prof. Marc Shapiro on the need for Kashrut Organizations

Important both halakhically and sociologically.

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

This piece from ten years ago by Rabbi Prof. Marc Shapiro, which was written for the Rabbi Abadie website, was circulating on my Facebook page this morning. I never saw it before, enjoyed it, and thought others would find it interesting. I asked Marc if I could post it: He said sure.

Q & A Board – View Post
Author: Marc
E-mail: not available
Date: 11/11/2003 8:02:00 AM
Subject: Clarification

Message: I have noticed that many people don’t understand the basic shitah of this website. With your permission, let me clarify something.
Rav Henkin, who together with R. Moshe Feinstein was the leading halakhic authority in the U.S. in the 1950’s and 1960’s, is quoted as saying that the entire basis for the existence of the kashrut organizations is the view of the rashba. What did he mean by this?
There is a machloket rishonim and the rashba holds that…

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Shoftim 5775 – Two Symbolic Interpretations of a Mitsvah.

Shoftim 5775 – Two Symbolic Interpretations of a Mitsvah.

“Do not erect a sacred stone, for these the LORD your God hates.” ~Devarim 16:22

The prohibition of creating a monument stone, a “matsevah“, is side-by-side with a discussion of the altar, “mizbeah“, that the Israelites are allowed to create (16:21).

Contrasting the two structures enables a few suggestions as to why one might be encouraged and the other forbidden.

  1. A matsevah is a single stone while the mizbeah is built of many stones. Unity is less about being contiguous, about being of a single cloth, then about the unity of disparate elements towards a single purpose, the service of God and the fulfillment of God’s Law.
  1. Being a single stone, the matsevah is essentially a natural object, produced by God. The mizbeah is artificial, coming about only through the strength of human hands (Devarim 8:17-18). Holiness and the service of God have less to do with the innate nature of things and more to do with the importance of human action. God has given us a world and asked us, through his law, to sanctify and to distinguish, to elevate it and make it holy (Vayikra 10:10).

Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah

Politics and Prophecy: Binyamin Lau’s Jeremiah

Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Laus Jeremiah is not about the biblical book of Jeremiah so much as it is about the prophet Jeremiah himself. While in some sense a commentary on the book of Jeremiah, Jeremiah is structured according to the chronology of Jeremiahs life. Thus, while the book goes through and explains each chapter, the order of the chapters has been drastically rearranged, due to erratic chronology of the book of Jeremiah. As each chapter is explained, Lau draws the readers attention to what the prophet must have been feeling and struggling with at each point in time. In this, Jeremiah emphasizes one of the unique facets of the biblical book of Jeremiah. More than any other biblical text, the book of Jeremiah details the inner life of its hero, describing his pain and frustration with the people, and with God, in great detail. Jeremiah is commanded to rebuke a nation that, from the very beginning, he knows will be unrepentant.

However, Jeremiahs focus on the prophet often comes at the detriment of understanding the book of Jeremiah. Lau readily chops up the book of Jeremiah in order to arrange it chronologically, but he in no place provides even a guess as to why the book might have been in its original, non-chronological, order to begin with. The closest to be found is an off-hand comment in the introduction.

The Book of Jeremiah is hard to follow. Some chapters seem coherent and complete, while others appear to be disjointed, as if the pages of the original manuscript had been scattered and haphazardly rearranged. Perhaps its time they should be. (pg. xxi)

The lack of any attention given to why the original Jeremiah is in a non-chronological order means that reading Jeremiah will make little difference in the ability of a reader to read and comprehend the biblical book. A discussion of the thematic breakdowns of the biblical Jeremiah and the way that affects the division and placement of the chapters would be much more helpful in enabling independent access to the biblical text.

Lau’s Jeremiah

One theme that Jeremiah does focus on heavily is Politics. Each section of the book starts with a discussion of the historical and political background of that time period. Lau discusses the rise and fall of the international empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia and the way these empires affected the small kingdom of Judah, often subsumed under one of the empires as a vassal state. To this end, Lau marshals historical records from all over, from Assyrian and Babylonian records to the writings of Josephus. This also allows for ample discussion on the foreign policies of the various kings of Judah and the political events behind them. Jeremiah also draws the reader’s attention to the domestic politics at play in Jeremiahs time — the tensions between the upper castes of society, both the religious and political leadership, and the lower classes.

While the common people of Judea were generally intractable, they did occasionally begin to listen to Jeremiahs rebukes. The leadership, however, was a very different story. It is the role of the prophet to challenge the status quo and the power structures behind it, and this launched Jeremiah into direct conflict with the Kingship and the Priesthood. Lau details how Jeremiahs relationship to the Kingship changed with each king. His relationship with Josiah was entirely positive, while his relationship with Jehoiakim was entirely negative, and his relationship with Zedekiah was more complex, changing as the king vacillated back and forth between following Gods word and fearfully following his advisors.

The discussion of the priesthood highlights Jeremiahs anti-establishment position. As Lau points out, though Jeremiah was himself from a priestly family, it had long fallen out of political favor and no longer performed the services in the Temple. Because of his lineage, Jeremiah represented a threat to the existing priestly power-structure, even before he began prophesying. After becoming a prophet, however, he was enough of a threat that he saw pushback, not just from the priests but from another, more sinister, group — the false prophets. Lau’s Jeremiah shows how the false prophets, like Jeremiah and the real prophets, represented a group that stood outside the establishment. Unlike the real prophets, however, the false prophets preached complacency in the face of the word of God, and maintaining the status quo no matter what its iniquities.

This emphasis on the political is more than just part of Laus method in understanding the book of Jeremiah. The whole goal of Jeremiah is to affect the political arena. The book is an attempt to build a bridge within Israeli society in particular, and the Jewish community in general, between modern cultureour world todayand the multilayered Jewish tradition over the generations(pg. xi). It was written to show how great and relevantthe Bible can be (pg. xiii). Lau hopes that his book will affect Israeli society (pg. xiii), bringing the words of the prophets into the heart of our political, social, and cultural discourse(pg. xiv). His aim is that Jeremiah will be part of the effort to rectify the ills of the Jewish stateto reduce socioeconomic disparity, to break down the walls that divide us, to bridge language gaps, to include rather than rejectto rebuild a Jewish identity, a Jewish culture that will shed light and goodness upon all that it touches(pg. 225).

This political orientation is not alien to Jeremiah. As Lau points out,

The prophet might be regarded as something of a public intellectual, a man of letters. An eternal critic, an outsider to the system, a gadfly who mustpersuade his audience of the truth of his wordsand of the mortal danger of ignoring them. (pg. xiv)

Prophecy is inherently political. Its purpose is to engender change in society. Prophets of God arise when the status quo is corrupt and needs to be shaken up. Jeremiah carries forward this prophetic role, by trying to show the messages Jeremiah was tasked to deliver to his society and to ours. The biblical book of Jeremiah served as a witness to the people of antiquity, regarding the very political life and lessons of the prophet. Lau’s Jeremiah does the same for a modern audience. 

On Proving the Divinity of the Torah

On Proving the Divinity of the Torah

When it comes to the divinity of the Torah, the first question we must ask is not whether or not the Torah is divine, but how we could know that the Torah is divine. Assuming it is true, how would such information come to us. Ironically, the most direct source of this knowledge is seemingly indirect; the divinity of the Torah is due to the divinity of its author, and thus to prove that the Torah is divine what we really have to prove is that it was revealed by the divine. Once that were proven, we could know from there that the Torah is divine.

At this point, it’s necessary to talk about the different types of truths that exist, and how we can know them. There are three different types of truths, and each can be known in different ways. Rational truths, such as math and logic, are known through the intellect. Let a person sit and think in a vacuum and he will uncover these truths. Empirical truths, such as physics and astronomy, are known through examining the world around us. Let a person study the fields ands the forests and he will uncover these truths. Historical truths regard the occurrence and qualities of historical phenomena (ex: The torah was or was not given, and it’s giver was or was not divine, etc.). Historical truths must be known through witness, either by witnessing it first hand or by hearing it from those who did. Otherwise, you would have no way of knowing that it occurred. However, as you get farther away from the phenomenon, either spatially or temporally, you begin to need a chain of witnesses, meaning a tradition. Thus there are certain phenomena which certain people could only know through tradition.

The divine giving of the Torah is like that for people today. The only way we could know it is through tradition. Anyone who believes that the Torah is divine came to that knowledge through hearing of it from a trustworthy source, who themselves presumably heard it from a trustworthy source. This does not mean that we have a tradition through which we could know definitively that the Torah was divinely revealed, or that there could be such a tradition, but it does mean we shouldn’t expect to prove it some other way.

The above division of types of truths and the way they can be known, which we have made use of up to this point, is slightly misleading. While it is true in the strictest sense, it ignores the way we corroborate different pieces of information with information derived from other methods. The most common proofs for the divinity of the Torah all fall under this category. The proofs can’t directly arrive at the knowledge that the Torah is divine, but they can strengthen the tradition-based claim.

There is, however, a distinct problem with this type of proof in this case. Such a proof requires knowing the characteristics of a divine text, such that if a text possessed those characteristics it is divine, and if it did not possess those characteristics than it is not divine. You could thus examine any text to see whether or not it has those characteristics and thereby determine if it is divine. Seeing as we do not possess a text which is incontestably divine, we have no way of determining what those characteristics might be, and we therefore have no way of proving that the Torah is divine. However, the flipside is that there is no way to prove that the Torah is not divine.

To illustrate this, it’s worth looking at a few examples. First, the approaches from history. People have suggested that the Torah is divine because it (whether superficially or through “codes”) successfully predicts historical events. People have also suggested that the Torah is not divine because it inaccurately describes historical events. The first approach is based on the the assumption that a divine text ought to correctly predict future events. The second is based on the assumption that a divine text ought to accurately and scientifically describe historical events. Neither of these assumptions is really based on anything, however, and so whether or not the proofs function is dependent entirely upon a personal choice regarding those assumptions.

Similarly, the divinity of the Torah is often disproved by showing that the Torah resembles documents with human authors. However, this is based upon the assumption that a divine text will not resemble a human text. Not only is this a baseless assumption, it is rejected by the midrashic hermeneutic concept that “the Torah speaks in the human language.” As this statement is adapted and developed by Maimonides, it becomes clear that the above assumption is particularly problematic, as a text that in no way resembles its audience will be incomprehensible to them, and thus a divine text intended for a human audience will be a very human text indeed.

This approach can be extended to pretty much every assumption people make about the Torah. The unfortunate side effect is that it empties the phrase “divine text” of all content. It makes no prescriptive claims about what a divine text would look like. “Divine text” becomes a label we simply apply to certain texts. This often feels less inspiring, but I do think it is more correct.[1]

In summary, the idea that the Torah is divine is not something that could be learned from logic, or from examining the world, or from reading the text itself. That knowledge must come to us through tradition. We can then strengthen the certainty of that knowledge through other proofs, but those will all be based on our own rather baseless assumptions about what a divine text should look like. However, this becomes less helpful when we begin to doubt tradition. Whereas medieval Jewish thinkers, such as Saadiah Gaon and Rav Yehuda HaLevi, took it for granted that knowledge derived from a tradition is trustworthy, this assumption fails to be compelling in the modern world. We don’t assume that information derived from a tradition is automatically false, but we don’t assume that it is necessarily true either.

The flip-side of all of this, however, is that it is equally impossible to prove that the Torah is not divine. The divinity of the torah exists in conceptual space beyond the reach of proofs or disproofs. Belief in the divinity of the Torah is thus an act of assent that involves a variety of factors, such as personal experience, identity, existential commitment, and a person’s understanding of tradition. It is something we ought to struggle with not just once over the course of our lives, as it is not something that can be settled definitively. But it is something that should have a radical and formative impact on our lives.

[1] Some important caveats to the idea that there is no content to the term “divine text”:
An exception to this might be morality. Seeing as we generally define God as perfectly moral, we would expect anything that issued from God, such as a divine text, to be perfectly moral, or at the very least not to prescribe things we think of as immoral. As opposed to other similar possibilities, Morality tends to override any relativist position.
The answer given to this is generally that the Torah was written in a certain historical context, and that this imposed certain limitations on the text. The text couldn’t be perfectly moral because the people of the time could not have accepted it. Whether or not this answer is compelling is a different question, but it works from a logical standpoint.
This flows directly from the idea mentioned above that “the Torah speaks in human language.” The Torah is now being said to be a divine text with very human limitations. Thus any analysis of it that reveals human characteristics, including undeveloped morality, is to some degree unsurprising.

Another caveat is that traditionally we assume a divine text will have a single author though this isn’t technically necessary. Thus a text that could somehow be shown to be composed of multiple parts, that should clearly be attributed to disparate times and places, this would prove that there were multiple authors and that the traditional divine authorship is incorrect. I am not at all confident that such attribution could be proved, but if it could then it would successfully challenge divine authorship. However, it’s also possible to suggest, less traditionally, that a divine author would make use of previously existing texts, combining them and perhaps adding to them to create the text we call divine, and this would solve this challenge to divine authorship.