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Maybe you run the show. You’re a small Jewish college community that would like to provide more from their students, but just don’t have the resources.

I’m here for you. I am the College Rabbi and I can provide the Jewish resources you need. I’m here to answer questions, provide resources, and just to talk to if you need.

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The Difference Between Peshat and Midrash

I want to thank an old-time blogger by the name of DovBear for inspiring this post.  We had gotten into a Twitter discussion about whether or not the Rabbis had hijacked the literal meaning of the text (peshat) in favor of non-literal exegesis (midrash) and were using the latter to replace the former.  I realized that many people confuse these terms, and therefore some clarification is needed.

The first thing to understand is that the Rabbis have designated for types of understanding of the text, by the acronym PaRDeS.  To a certain extent there are times that the lines between each category become fuzzy, so I will do my best to describe the categories as succinctly and accurately as possible:

  • Peshat: the literal or simple meaning of the text, which we will soon see can be neither simple or directly literal
  • Remez: literally hint, a subtle layer of meaning added to the text often created by abstract linking of texts or concepts, such as linking the numerical values of words (gematria)
  • Derash: translated as exegesis, this often deviates from the literal meaning to convey some coded moral lesson or overarching principle.  Derash is arrived at using hermeneutical principles of which there are many.
  • Sod: otherwise known as Kabbalah, this is a completely abstract understanding of the texts using a knowledge base and exegetical rules that for the most part is only utilized by very advanced scholars.  It is used to convey very deep ideas very succinctly, often in a way that laymen should not be able to understand.

For the purposes of this piece I will focus on peshat and derash and really I would like to focus on peshat.  Peshat, the “simple meaning” is actually composed of four different components: general, literary, historical, and exegetical.  General context means that the verse or passage is part of a longer narrative.  Literary context is the specific wording of the passage.  Historical context is the context that a particular work was written at a particular time period and that affects how the text should be understood.  Exegetical context would be the underlying philosophy or assumptions made by the author, or that the reader superimposes on the author’s intent.

As much as I have tried to give a definition, it is really best to illustrate with examples.  Now when we think of peshat, we think of something simple like when the Torah says don’t eat pig, then it means no luaus.  But lets take a more complex passage like Isaiah 53.  Isaiah 53 will illustrate my point very well.  The original text can be found here, but a summary of the verses is that there are a group of people who are watching how a lowly, unlikeable person demonstrated their greatness before the world.  Now, anyone reading this passage knows very well this is not just some random guy.  The general context is that the passage comes from the book of Isaiah, which is a prophetic work, and it is a parable for something else.  The literary context is that it is part of a much longer prophecy that starts in Isaiah 40 and basically continues to the end of the book.  The historical context is that it is being written in the days of King Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah).  The exegetical context is the source of a raging debate between Jews and Christians, but after a full workup it is clear that the real peshat, literal reading of the text, is it is speaking about the Jews.  An in-depth treatment can be found here.

Unlike peshat, midrash is not beholden to the literal meaning of the verse in the same way.  The example that comes to mind is this the following mahloket:

“And the frog came up, and it covered the land of Egypt” …Rabbi Akiva said, there was one frog, which then multiplied all over the land of Egypt. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said, Akiva, Why do you involve yourself with aggadata? Finish with your words and go to study nega’im and ohelos. There was one frog, it called to the others, and they came. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b; Midrash Shemos Rabbah 10:5; Yalkut Shimoni Shemos 8:183) (sic)

Here it is apparent that the literal meaning doesn’t matter.  Ribi Elazar ben Azarya doesn’t criticize Ribi Akiva for being wrong, but rather criticizes is derash skills.  They both point to a specific odd word, and come up with fanciful ideas that communicate a deeper message, such as the stubbornness of the Egyptians as the continued to hit the frog even as that spawned more frogs.

Here’s another example: the Gemara in Berachot 54b says that Moshe, who was fifteen feet* tall and had a fifteen-foot staff, jumped fifteen feet high to hit King Og of Bashan in the shins to get him to drop a mountain on his head.  While this seems to be taken literally since the Shulhan Arukh says to make a blessing for a miracle when passing the spot that this happened, there seems to be something else going on here.  If Moshe had to jump 45 feet in the air to hit Og’s ankle, that would easily make Og over 300 feet tall!  Another Midrash (Pirke Ribi Eliezer Ch. 13) says that Og hung onto the outside of Noah’s Ark was about 500 feet, which clearly would have capsized the boat.   Something else is going on here, and since both are accepted as being equally true it is pretty clear either one or both are not meant to be read literally.

Now, let’s take a different example, the one we were discussing.  According to the book of Bereshit (Genesis), after Sarah dies Avraham takes a new wife by the name of Keturah.  Rashi, the classic medieval Rabbinic commentator, identifies Keturah as being Hagar, Avraham’s concubine that Sarah had given him to have children with and was thrown out of the house with her son Yishmael because of Yishmael deviant behavior.   DovBear wanted to say this was a case of the Rabbis throwing out peshat.  Not so fast.  Let’s look at what might be causing Rashi to say this:

1.  We don’t know who Keturah is or why Avraham would marry her.  We know why he married his first two wives, so this comes as a surprise.

2. Avraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Yitzhak in Syria, back where his family originated from.  He forbid Eliezer from taking one of the local Canaanite women for his son.  Something doesn’t seem right if a Canaanite woman was not good enough for his son but was okay for him.  So then where did this woman come from?

3. Rashi may or may not have had a tradition that the descendants of Keturah such as Midian considered themselves full brothers with the Yishmaelites instead of half-brothers.  This is purely speculative and of course there are not Midianites to ask since they have all been long killed out.  Nonetheless, when trying to figure out what the text is saying, it is these types of things that need to be taken into consideration.

It could be that Rashi’s explanation is not meant to be literal, or it is an honest attempt to figure out who a random person is in Tanakh.  Either way, this is the difference.


*1 1/2 feet is a very loose approximation of the unit amah, literally on arm’s length

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Slamming the RCA: Never Let a Scandal Go To Waste!

I was shocked and appalled when I first read about the recent scandal concerning one of my colleagues in the RCA in the Forward.  I even feel a little stupid because I had met him on one occasion and while I found him to be a bit gruff, I really thought he was a straight shooter and an upright guy.  I don’t appreciate getting taken, which would in fact be the case should he be found guilty of the disgusting crimes he is charged with.  So, I’ve tried to stay away from writing anything about it, at least until someone crossed a line where it couldn’t be avoided anymore.

R’ Josh Yuter, a fellow RCA member, has crossed such a line.  The accusation that the actions of one person, who to the credit of the RCA was dealt with swiftly and decidedly, undermines the entire organization and the credibility of GPS, the RCA’s conversion division, is absurd on one hand and dangerously misleading on another.  He uses the fuzzy math that two scandals in the past year among the many fine rabbis involved with GPS represents an 18% corruption rate because they happen to be from different circuits, and assumes there’s even more going on, borders on libel.  The accusation that the RCA and other rabbis are acting based on their gut without consideration of halacha or citation of facts on the ground outright jumps the fence.

The halachic reality that GPS and the Chief Rabbi’s strict position regarding conversion policies is not without precedent, and certainly not without warrant.  The Gemara in Avodah Zarah 3b says that converts were not accepted AT ALL during the times of Kings David and Solomon because the Jews were at their prime and converts were assumed to be insincere.  We live in very unusual times and the kashrut of gerim, or the Jewish status of anyone for that matter, is becoming all the more difficult to ascertain.  Who would have thought that a billionaire’s daughter or the daughter of a president would even consider conversion?  There are members of the Hebrew Roots movement who wear Hassidic dress and eat pig in non-kosher restaurants with a cross around their neck.  Forget about what the Reform and Conservative movements have done to undermine Jewish status.

But what about Orthodox rabbis?  Can they all be trusted?  Well, let’s take for example the author of the article himself.  He makes the claim that GPS goes way beyond halacha and is in fact detached from what Jewish authorities have previously said about conversion.  According to his article on conversion, the only requirement for people doing the conversion is that they be kesherim, fitting people, which he defines as “observant Jews in good standing.  He quotes the Rambam Issurei Biah 13:17, Shulhan Aruch Y.D. 268:3, and Aruch Hashulchan.  I don’t have an Aruch Hashulchan in front of me, but I do have a Rambam and a Sh”A.  The Rambam does not say kesherim but rather hediot, which is a massive discussion in Masechet Sanhedrin what constitutes a hediot (regular judge).  However, Maran makes it very clear that only someone kosher TO JUDGE!  There are only three explanations for this egregious mistake: R’ Yuter can’t read the halacha for himself and had to find out from someone else, can but just didn’t bother and relied on hearsay, or actually read the halacha but willfully misrepresented it to advance an agenda.  How am I or any casual observer supposed to feel comfortable with any random group of rabbis who start a conversion factory?

But there’s much more to the issue, because not only is it about criticizing the RCA’s conversion policy, it’s attempting to turn an unfortunate series of events into a left-right power struggle in the Orthodox world.  Since he went there, I guess I will have to address that too.  What is the difference between someone who violates the code of ethics (and neither R’ Freundel nor R’ Broyde were hardly right-wingers despite R’ Yuter’s suggestion to that effect) and what is going on with the radical elements in Modern Orthodoxy. R’ Freudel and R’ Broyde’s indiscretions were lapses in judgement and giving in to the worst aspects of human nature.  However, neither they nor the RCA is making any excuse for their behavior because it is universally acknowledged as unacceptable behavior.  There’s really nothing more to be said but to remove them from their posts of power and let the external powers (police etc…) do what they need to do.  End of story.  The violations of the extremist camp are not indiscretions but rather deliberate efforts to alter Jewish law and belief in ways that are completely inconsistent with the mesorah (Jewish tradition).  Indeed, it is safe to say that a number of these individuals are Orthodox no more.  Furthermore, when they don’t get their way working within the system, they will often run to non-religious and non-Jewish outlets to exert external pressure on the mainstream Orthodox community, a much more massive chillul Hashem than any one scandal, no matter how bad, could ever be.

I understand the frustration of converts with being not being accepted by the community, with being burdened with what may seem like insurmountable obstacles.  I understand the frustration of individual rabbis who feel like their power and influence is being stripped away by bureaucratic bodies.  What I don’t understand is taking a terrible scandal, in which many people were hurt, and using it to manipulate the system in order to advance an agenda.  To work to remove menuvalim from positions of power is a noble task.  To undermine halacha and control of Jewish personal status is just messed up.

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Savage, Learn About Your Religion!

A major problem that I’ve noticed with people with advanced degrees is they will speak about just about any topic with authority despite having very limited knowledge of the subject. Yesterday afternoon, Michael Savage really stepped in it.  I understand that many secular people want to equate all religions as being backwards and having skewed moral values and often see the ancient religious texts as sucking people back into the past.  However, his attempt to equate Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the Quran was completely inaccurate and demonstrated his utter lack of knowledge of Tanakh and Jewish tradition in general.  I’m not looking to turn this article into a Quran hate fest but only to vindicate my own tradition, and I will leave Muslim apologists to defend their own faith.

The major diatribe that prodded me to write this piece is Michael Savage’s statement that a verse in Isaiah is the source of Jewish polygyny and that Tanakh advocates for it.  Wrong and wrong.  Avraham (Abraham), Yaakov (Jacob) in the book of Genesis, Gidon (Gideon) in the book of Judges, Elkanah and David in the book of Samuel, and Shlomo (Solomon) in the book of Kings all had multiple wives.  Polygyny is also discussed in Deuteronomy 21:10-21.  None of these incidents make polygyny look glorious or desirable.  Indeed the verse he quotes, Is. 4:1, which is part of a much larger prophecy and only looks positive because it is found at the beginning of a chapter, an artificial creation of Christian publishers that has no source in Jewish tradition.  It happens to be part of a curse started in chapter 3.  Polygyny is a social construct that existed to protect women inside the institution of marriage and to assist with procreation.  The attitude of the Tanakh is fairly clear: it was a sometimes necessarily evil but certainly not a glorious institution.  See this article by Dr. Marc Goldfeder for further study.

The issue of sexual morality is misunderstood and obviously the most quickly demonized.  Of course, Dr. Savage should have taken a little time to look into the issue before denouncing it on air.  Yes, there are a variety of Biblical offenses beside murder that entail the death penalty.  Such was, and in some places is, normal in other societies, something he is quick to point out and thus equate.  What he doesn’t mention is the standard of proof to execute someone.  Receiving the death penalty in Biblical law requires the testimony of two witnesses that warned the perpetrator during the offending act.  The Mishnah in Makkot says a court that sentences a person to death once in seven years is a bloody court, and Ribi Elazar ben Azaria once in seventy years.  Judaism’s general attitude, which is the Biblical attitude, is that sins committed in private are between the person and G-d.*   Nonetheless, the Bible does state that sexual behavior can be regulated, as do many societies including the U.S.   The Bible’s regulations do not make it more backward.  Rather, it is an issue open for debate which behaviors should or should not be permitted in a civil society, if both sides wish to be intellectually honest.

Finally, there is the issue of violence, or specifically warfare.  The fact is that the Bible, and therefore Judaism, has no concept of conversion by the sword.  Yes, the Bible discusses wars that the Jews entered into.  The wars in the Bible have to do with two things: existential survival or territorial rights/competition for limited resources.  Unless you are willing to say that no war should ever be conducted, even in these cases, then the Jews should not be condemned for the wars we engaged in during the Biblical period.  The issue is obviously more complicated, as are any of the moral issues involving war.  The point is simply that one should not simplify the issues just because the Bible is a religious text.

I sincerely hope Dr. Savage takes some time to become acquainted with his tradition, and not to just write the Bible off just because it was written before Einstein and Sartre.  I’m very sorry, but even radio hosts need to be familiar with the relevant issues before they go off on something in public.


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Coming Full Circle With Gene

If you had told me last year I’d be standing in line at a book signing, for anyone, I’d tell you that you were out of your mind.  Here I am, KISSing it up.  I was never a KISS fan but over the past few months I’ve become a fan of Gene.  His music is growing on me, but that’s not the reason.  His behavior?  No comment.  The thing about Gene I like, and I relate to, is he says exactly what’s on his mind and pulls no punches.  And he what is says is clearly what he believes and not just for shock value.

There clearly is more to it though, and it’s not just the circumstances that ended up pulling me into KISS world.  Some people may be surprised, some not, but it is the Jew thing.  He’s a very proud Jew and seemed genuinely happy to see someone with a lid at the book signing.  I’m about 25-30% that he knew who I was before I introduced myself, and he was STILL happy to see me.  He, not I, started with the Hebrew and he davka wanted to my Hebrew name.  Hebrew though is a small part of it.  He also proudly told me that he had gone to Yeshivat Torah vDa’at and knew the Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Avraham Yaakov Pam zt”l.  He even said he would read my pieces, but we’ll see.

I have to wonder as a rabbi what would been had Gene been in the yeshiva system now, with real teachers with real education backgrounds teaching him instead of old Holocaust survivors who were the only teachers yeshivot could find after the war since no one in America knew how to learn (study the Talmud and commentaries) at the time.  Do I think he would have been a rabbi?  No.  But businessmen can also inherit the World to Come.  What I do think is he would have been a much more active member of the Jewish community, and there are many of his insights that the Jewish community could sorely use.  I also think he may have engaged his ruchniut (spiritual side) more and possibly his gashmiut (physical side) less.  Who knows.   What I know, what I saw, is Chaim Witz, the person buried most of the time under Gene Simmons, but buried with a thin layer of soil.

Gene, it was a pleasure.  I do hope we get to meet up again and have deep intellectual conversations.  In the meantime I’m backlogged on one book review before I get to yours, but I will get there.  As you astutely pointed out in your book as I glanced through, religion is a business too, and I have what to learn from you.

!?!?אבל דבר אחד: מכנסי עור? באמת  #smdh

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Defending a Critique: The Continuing Saga of Social Media Class

I’d like to thank Dr. Vickery for continuing the conversation and addressing the critique of a particular piece of content (not attack which would personal as opposed to academic).  While she makes many points worthy of addressing unfortunately I will not able to address them all.

Before I begin I would like to address how our interactions came to be.  After a pleasant conversation about the Rambam, we followed each other.  At some point she unfollowed me, perhaps due to an error of following me in the first place, but nonetheless at some point there was reciprocity in this Twitter encounter and there was enough interesting information coming across the feed that I continued to follow even when I realized I was no longer being followed back.  Now there seems to be a misunderstanding about exactly how events transpired, which we can either clarify by scrolling through every one of my 11K+ tweets or paying for a Twitter database service, which would be fine.  Or we could just let it go and Dr. Vickery can accept my apologies if there was any wrongdoing on my part, though I insist there was none.

Now a lot of weight seems to be given to the title of my post, which for whatever reason I could think of no other, despite admittedly it doesn’t have the nicest tone to it.  Just blanked.  But I invite anyone to scan it over and find at any point where I ever criticized Dr. Vickery personally or her class, and please feel free to point it out.  It was a respectful, if not harshly worded, criticism of what I feel is a major deviation from how I believe students should be taught at the collegiate level.  It’s an issue I’ve very passionate about.

Now, I know Dr. Vickery will disagree with the next sentiment, but it’s my justification for writing the last piece as well as this one.  I have a vested interest in what goes on in the many classrooms in public colleges and universities all over our fine country.

  • As a citizen and taxpayer: Teachers and students are not the only stakeholders in the classroom.  Parents and administrators obviously stakeholders since it is their children and employees in the classroom.  However, because of the fact that society as a whole invests in the schools and are the recipients of their products i.e. graduates, what goes on classrooms very much concerns us.  One day my children will go to college and I will be involved with hiring graduates.  I have great interest in both the product offered and the product being produced.
  • As an educator:  Education is a very big part of who I am.  Besides being a rabbi, I also taught Social Studies 7-12 (public and parochial) for seven years and hold advanced degrees in Education and Education Administration.  In fact, I was working toward my dissertation until circumstances led to a career change (for another article).  I didn’t mention this before since I feel credential dropping takes away from the substance of the message.  Besides, people with big credentials have sometimes held some rather ‘controversial’ opinions.  I tried to get around doing it by using language that would demonstrate that I was a fellow academic but that was taken as having “an often condescending and elitist tone.”  So basically I felt the assignment needed to be addressed and it was just right to let Dr. Vickery know I was doing it.

First misunderstanding to clear up:

Rather than just considering the pedagogical value of a video, he directs the entire post at me, my course, and my students. “

What I am being accused of here is what is called an ad hominem attack, an attack on a person rather than an idea.  Please point out to me where I ever did such a thing, especially the students, for whom I have the highest regard.  Quite the opposite.  My entire point is that a 10-minute clip from a TV pundit they might watch anyway just to chill is BENEATH their capabilities and therefore more difficult work would be appropriate.  I’m pretty sure what I said is that if students are given the choice they will pick the easier assignment.  Obviously.  I would too as would most people.  It enables you to get other things done.  That’s not a criticism by any stretch of the imagination.

While he makes some valid points, he also makes a lot of assumptions about the course (without having ever discussed it with me) and overlooks the realities of teaching in a diverse classroom of learners (some of whom are struggling just to master the English language, much less digest jargony academic writing).”

I don’t believe I made any assumptions about the course.  I made comments about the materials being used.  I can do that because looked at the syllabus (was having problems with the link to the syllabus this time though).  I didn’t see peer reviewed academic literature being used, but I did see a video, and the use of that video was enough to comment on.

I understand very well the difficulties in teaching English Language Learners.  I did it all the time as a public school teacher.  I’ve done differentiated instruction and used multiple assessments.  And it is important for students to have education catered to their needs.  However, there is a major difference between high school and college.  Freshman year of college is not 13th grade and it shouldn’t be the default place to go if you just have nothing better to do after high school graduation.  Being a freshman in college means there’s a certain expectation of the work you can handle.  And quite frankly, the requirements in other countries vis a vis English aren’t different.  English is still the lingua franca of the world and many universities around the world have tough English requirements at the college level even if English is not the official language.  Also see here  and here .

“I feel compelled to respond to his assertions and assumptions and to defend my pedagogy, my course, and my students (who are accused of “flushing money down the toilet”).”

“I have to completely disagree with the first part of this statement, the goal of higher education is so much more than merely preparing students for a job. That’s what trade schools are for, and that’s a great option for a lot of people (in fact, I wish the U.S. education system provided more viable pathways in high school and post-graduation for non-college routes). However, college is about the higher part of higher education.”

I apologize for my bluntness but I wanted to make a forceful point.  Also, I never said they were flushing money down the toilet, only that IF they are not being challenged enough they are.  Since Dr. Vickery insists her class is rigorous enough, she shouldn’t have taken offense to the comment.  Here’s my point though: I can get information on the web for free in just about any discipline: science, philosophy, religion etc..  and I can also find forums to discuss the information.  Information is very democratic now.

We both agree college is about the higher part of higher education, but disagree about what that is.  I agree with her that there is an aspect of self-actualization but that’s not enough to justify the four years in school given the costs involved.  For example, if someone were to make $30,000/year without a college degree and $60,000 with one, and college cost $30,000/year, it would take that person 8 years just to break even! That’s four years of tuition plus the four years of opportunity cost of not working for that time.  Therefore, for a real return on investment, college must offer something that can’t be obtained anywhere else, besides the credentials.  It would seem to me that the main thing the school can offer is skills building, which means assigning work that builds advanced skills.

“…I’m not training workers, I’m helping guide global citizens whose lives and intellect and experiences matter infinitely more outside of the workforce.”

I also think it’s important to build global citizens, but I think the way the rest of the world is doing it is better.  Rather than focusing on what makes us different, education systems from around the world are taking a ‘best of breed’ approach to education, using what works best regardless of its cultural origin.  Whatever the traditional sciences were of a particular locale, and no matter how sophisticated they got, now every university teaches Western science a la Newton, Einstein, and Susskind.    Every business school teaches TQM and all of the other great advances in Organizational Management that have come out of Japan.  Koreans are now incorporating Talmud into their curriculum.

Research demonstrates that students are tired of their self-driven modes of learning being invalidated in the classroom.”

As I previously mentioned, I’m well equated with educational research, and I’ve seen very few studies conducted on college-age students.  Most of the studies are conducted on students K-12, and as I said previously I’m sure part of the reason is higher education is fundamentally different.  Also, students should be aware that research should undergo individual scrutiny before it’s quoted.

Well, yea things have changed in 400 years, or even 100 years. Let’s just start with the fact that more than half of my students weren’t even allowed to attend the same universities as their white peers 100 years ago. Close to half my students were highly unlikely to pursue a college degree because society structured their life options around marriage and babies. So yea, things have changed a lot in the university in the past 100 (or 400!) years, and I would say many of these changes are welcomed responses to centuries of structural injustices.”

When I read this I just thought it came completely out of left field.  What could this possibly have to do with what should be taught in the curriculum?  I’m well aware of the biases that existed in the universities.   I graduated from Brandeis University, a college founded 66 years ago for Jewish students because Harvard wouldn’t accept Jews.  To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a substantive difference in the requirements of the two schools.  The reason Latin, Greek, and Hebrew are no longer requirements of graduation have nothing to do with responses to structural injustices, just that even schools like Harvard and Princeton that were founded as theological seminaries now have completely different focuses.  Very few students attend their theological seminaries now.  The updates in the curriculum are purely a function to meeting the requirements of a changing world and a changing workplace, mostly to address the fact that most people go to college now for job prospects as opposed to becoming theologians and academics.  While Latin specifically may not be a marketable skill, no one would argue fluency in another language is a waste of time, and Latin can easily be swapped for Russian, Chinese, or Arabic.  It was a practical shift not an idealistic one, and I’ve heard a number of academics argue that it’s not for the better.

“And I take issue with the assumption that students need to learn academic jargon. Unless they are pursuing a career in academia (which, I cannot with good conscience recommend to the majority of my students, given the current financial crises in academia and the wavering job market), they do not need to know academic speak. What they need is the critical thinking skills to formulate arguments and construct critical analyses, which they learn alongside and outside of academic writings. “

I beg to differ, and I believe most employers would as well.  Employers are quite upset about the lack of skills recent graduates have, and one of those skills is being able to access research and bring it to the real world.  It’s increasingly becoming part of the job, especially with management, and the employers are complaining the students can’t do it.  This is one of the few things universities are in a unique place to offer students help in.  Part of building the critical thinking skills is getting the academic reading, which is incredibly important in teaching students the context of language and how it communicates ideas.  Operationalizing definitions is a crucial skill that students should learn earlier before their dissertation head, or their boss, whacks them in the head because they’re not clear about what they mean by certain terms.

My goals are to not only prepare students for the workforce (something I know my class does and  I will address in a bit), but rather to also prepare my students to be responsible and contributing members of society, in all aspects of their lives, not just as potential members of a capitalistic workforce.”

This is the last thing I’m going to mention, because even though there’s still a bunch of things I’d like to address in the article, I can no longer justify taking the time.  I’ve spent longer on this piece than about 90% of what’s up on my site.  I’ve never understood academia’s fascination with Socialism.  There was no reason to add the word capitalistic next to the word workforce but it’s clearly not an accident, and it has a subtly negative connotation.  I just had a discussion with a colleague about Socialism, and while it’s written specifically to a Jewish audience many of the ideas expressed in it are universal.  However, just to add to it, academia’s distain for Capitalism makes little sense given the fact that it is such a major beneficiary of it.  Just look at the names on all the buildings around campus.  The Renaissance would have never happened if not for the generous funding of the House of Medici.   Timbuktu grew to be the great learning center of Africa due in large part to the salt trade, a business that is not incomparable to today’s gas and oil trade.  Being part of the business world is a great thing and a major contribution to society, even if some people abuse their roles in it.

It’s been a great time talking to the students.  Every student I spoke to has been very respectful and communicated their ideas well, and even caught me on one or two things.  That’s what happens when you take an extreme position and bang out work quickly.  I knew it would happen and it’s no blow to the ego.  I write what I do to start conversation, not usually to end it.  I imagine that if my first piece made some ripples, this definitely will.  I’ve been at this three hours.  I’m tired and I’m not proofreading, which should make this even more fun.

I apologize for the delay but before Yom Kippur just wasn’t happening and there wasn’t enough time before Sukkot.  Hey, I finished before Simhat Torah right? :/  Okay, time to go off the grid for another three days and then no more holidays for awhile.


If there was any doubt to the driving ideology of the class, this tweet certainly clarified it:

I had no clue what my college professors’ political persuasions were until graduate school, and even then it was only one or two very outspoken professors.  And even when they spoke about it, it was just an offhanded comment.  There certainly was never a continued political narrative in a shared account, or whatever the equivalent was back in the Stone Ages when I went to college.

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Question: Is Socialism Jewish?

When people talk about Jews having invented Socialism, they usually don’t mean it in a nice way. Many of us are more than happy to let people know that Karl Marx was not raised Jewish (his father converted to Protestantism) and that we shouldn’t be blamed for it.

However, there are many in the broad Jewish umbrella that view Socialism positively, and even have tried to say that the Torah itself, and by extension Jewish tradition, is Socialist, or at the very least holds Capitalism in an unfavorable light:

What we have here is a debate between R’ Menachem Creditor, a reknown Conservative rabbi from the West Coast, and HaRav Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, one of the greatest Torah scholars of the 20th century who is known by the name of his magnum opus the Chazon Ish. The Chazon Ish would be the person R’ Creditor calls ‘the one’. Now the Chazon Ish is not here to defend his position that the Torah is Capitalist in orientation so I will do my best.

R’ Creditor opens up (and finishes) with citing Lv. 25. There are two possible things he could be referring to: Sabbatical produce or the return of property to its ancestral owners. I could see where he might say that making farmers declare their produce ownerless once every seven years could be considered a redistribution of wealth. However, only the fruits are ownerless and the farmer ultimately retains ownership of the lands and profits from them over the remaining six years. The return of ancestral lands certainly does not. The return of ancestral lands preserves an inherited wealth structure that would make Marx turn over in his grave.

So in absence of any other arguments from R’ Creditor, I would like to present the Torah’s view of wealth:

  • Ownership of private property: Private property rights are guaranteed in the Torah.  Twice in the Ten Commandments, the Torah tells us not to steal, and not even to covet other people’s property.  A curse is issued against anyone who moves the boundary of another person’s property (Dt. 27:17), demonstrating the value of a person’s real property.  The first chapter of Talmud Jewish boys are first introduced to is the first mishnah of Bava Metzia, which deals with how to divide a cloak found in the street, reinforcing the idea that even private property rights over found objects is respected by Torah law.  Kind David says it best that the Heavens are for G-d and Man was given the land (Ps. 115:16).
  • Accumulation of wealth:  The Torah is loaded with examples of people acquiring private property and the context is favorable.  In the Bible, two of our forefathers Avraham (Abraham) and Yitzhak (Isaac) are described as having amassed great wealth, and Avraham is promised that the Jews will receive great wealth as a reward for their suffering in Egypt (Gn. 15:14), an event that will repeat itself with the coming of the Messianic Age (Is. 53:12).  King Shlomo (Solomon) is described at the beginning of his reign, at the beginning of the book of Kings I, as having stellar amounts of wealth but losing it as he drifted away from the will of G-d.  One of the requirements to be Kohen Gadol (high priest) is that he be wealthy, and if he is not the other kohanim (priests) must kick in to make him wealthy (Yalkut 631, par. “Vehakohen”).
  • Wealth as a vehicle to serving G-d:  Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is quoted as saying that in the End of Days all Jews will be wealthy, because it will be so expensive to keep the commandments.  The fact is that while Jewish observance is expensive and many commandment to require the outlaying of money: tallit, tefillin, lulav and etrog (let’s make it seasonal), pricier kosher food etc…. And let’s not even discuss the costs of providing a Jewish child with a proper Jewish education.
  • Government seizure of wealth: The Torah sees the government’s seizure of wealth in a negative way, a negative evil at best.  When the Jews demand a king from Shmuel HaNavi (Samuel the Prophet), he scolds them and tells them how horrible it will be and how much wealth he will confiscate (S1 8:10-18).  Excessive confiscation of wealth is the immediate cause blamed for the splitting of the Kingdom of Israel into Israel and Judah during the rule of Rechovaum son of Shlomo (K1 12:1-16).  In short, the Mishnah in Avot enjoins us to be suspicious of the government (Avot 1:10), which makes sense given the repeated abuses we accustomed to hearing about the sordid tales of elected officials: taking bribes, extortion, committing adultery, going on costly vacations on the taxpayer dime…  These are certainly not the people G-d would entrust with our personal property.
  • Redistribution:  To come back to the point that I think R’ Creditor was trying to make was that mitzvot such as Shemita (Sabbatical Year) and ma’aser (tithes) are redistributive.  I don’t believe that’s the case since even after all of the tithing people are permitted to keep, as theirs, about 80% of their crop and after the Shemita the land returns to the ownership of the original owner.  The sentiment of the Torah is rather that wealth creates obligation for its owner. Terumah (for Cohanim) and ma’aser (for Leviim) are not redistributions of property but rather payment for services rendered in the Temple and teaching the populace.  Money is to be used as a vehicle for attaining eternal reward rather than be blown on this one (poor people have different vehicles for accomplishing the same task).  The fact is that the Mishnah in Avot (5:10) is very clear about what it thinks about redistribution: he who says what’s mine is yours and yours is mine is an unlearned person.
  • General welfare: G-d says in Lv. 18:5 that we should do the mitzvot and live by them.  The Sages tell us live by them and not die by them.  Socialism simply does not deliver on the goods and services we need and give us the freedom that Capitalism does.  Massive oppression under Communist regimes, rationing, and even death panels have all been the product of Socialist institutions.  Indeed the panacea Socialism promised has never really worked out. *

I do agree with R’ Creditor’s sign off, for the most part.

However, our definitions of how to get there are very different because our understandings of the Torah are very different.  In Orthodox Judaism it is the Mesorah (tradition) that is axiomatic and where we derive our way of approaching the world.  In Conservative Judaism, it is the weltanschauung of the day that often informs its adherents understanding of Torah. However, any time a foreign ideology is superimposed on Torah, there is often a breakdown.  I believe this issue would be one of those points.

*The opinions expressed in this video are admittedly extreme and not endorsed but deal with some of the claims about Socialism in a succinct and well presented fashion.

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Q&A: Slasher Films and Feminism

Before I started writing this I had to ask myself: what do slasher films and Feminism possibly have to do with Judaism.  First off, I told a student I would discuss it with her, and if it’s important to a student it’s important to me.  Second, there’s quite a bit more than you think.  Our Sages, the early Rabbis, certainly had what to say about the kirkus (gladiator matches), which IMHO are the precursors to slasher flicks, and Feminism is a hot item in certain sectors of the Jewish community.  The topic itself peaked my interest because I saw no connection whatsoever, but Wikipedia says there is so it must be true.

To understand my position, we first have to examine how the Rabbis viewed the kirkus.  In the Rabbinic mind the kirkus was everything that was wrong with Roman culture.  It appealed to the basest instincts of Man and glorified violence.  It also happens to be the place that many Jews were martyred, including our great sage Ribi Akiva.  To the best of my knowledge this brutality thrived in the misogynistic Roman in complete absence of any feminist movement, and yet was enjoyed by Roman male audiences.  Such violent forms of entertainment (cock fights, bull fighting, boxing, MMA etc…) all seem to be part of the same time of entertainment as the kirkus, and I believe them all to come from the same place.  I see slasher films as being no different.

I should also make a small note about Judaism and Feminism as well, that will make my understanding clearer as well.  Judaism is not just a religion but a way of life.  It has theology, law, ethics all rolled into one, and is its own free standing system from Western thought.  In as such, Judaism considers any use of a non-Jewish intellectual system to change this thought process is considered an effrontery, or maybe better described by the more familiar term heresy.  We can use the questions these “isms” ask to refine our understanding of what our own positions are, but not a basis to change them.  This would cast a generally negative view of all “isms”, Feminism being just one of them.

There are three ways to view slasher flicks: misogynist, unrelated, and anti-misogynist (for lack of a better term).

I can see where the idea that slasher flicks might be considered misogynist.  It is, usually, a male murderer and female victims.  However, I don’t believe that the reason is to put women down, especially in light of that article about Roman gladiators that they were put in the spotlight to fancy the emperors.  Rather, I believe that the films are simply reflecting male fantasy, and not fantasies of domination.  If you look at real serial killers for example, there are heavy sexual overtones to it.  Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, and Richard Ramirez all went after women, which they were clearly interested in, whereas Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy went after men and children, reflecting their own sexual preferences.  Let us not forget that Ed Gain’s life was partly the basis for THREE slasher flicks: Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs.  I simply believe this is art reflecting life and not more to be read into.

I personally happen to be partial to the idea that they are unrelated.  I feel that slasher flicks and Feminism simply arose at the same time when traditional values were getting thrown out the window (the 1960′s and onward).  I had originally understood the student’s question to mean that slasher films were a negative kickback against Feminism.   I don’t believe so.  The case could be made that Feminism was partly responsible for the loosening of sexual mores, which then all mores would follow.  The rise of slasher flicks would simply be part of the general loosening of traditional morals, only tangentially related to Feminism.

The other way that it can be looked at is that Feminism got women put into the films as part of its advancements.  This is a stretch but here me out.  As I mentioned, female gladiators were rare and women in general were left out of the public violence world.  Obviously domestic violence is a different story.  First, women were incorporated as pure victims, such as in Psycho.  Later, such as in Nightmare on Elm Street, if I remember correctly, women were involved in at least one of the movies with vanquishing Freddy.  Finally, women finally made it (as if this was something to shoot for) by becoming the murderers such as in Saw II.

So that’s my analysis.  If it’s unclear how my set up led me to these conclusions, I’ll explain.

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The College Rabbi Audits A Social Media Strategies Class

I am apologizing in advance to Dr. Jacqueline Vickery for doing this specifically to her class.  Since I “met” her some time ago on Twitter, ever since I had to explain to her that the Rambam was Maimonides (like I should ever expect someone outside the Yeshiva bubble to know that), we’ve had a number of pleasant conversations.  We disagree quite a bit, but like she points out in her class Social Media is a unique way to gather information and share ideas in a way never before possible.  The catch of course is that inevitably if you put yourself out there enough, an unsolicited and unwelcome opinion will cross your feed.  One can only hope that it’s respectful, which I hope mine is.

My current disagreement with Dr. Vickery is over a basic question of pedagogy: whether a video can constitute appropriate learning material for a college classroom.


Basically, there are two concurrent issues under consideration.  The first is the concept of a multi-sensory approach to education, that is developing the classroom in such a way that different learners can benefit from and not just auditory learners (reading is actually an auditory activity, not a visual activity).  The second is the great debate among educators whether the teacher is the “sage on the stage” or the “guide on the side”.  Actually there’s a third that knocks both of these out of the box, but I’ll get there.

Educational researchers have long advocated for a multi-sensory approach to education.  Not only should reading by part of the curriculum, but so should videos and hands-on activities be part of it as well.  Recently, major pushes towards this have been made and it is heavily pushed in education programs.  In principle, this should be a great idea.  However, at least at the primary and secondary levels, it puts a lot more work on teachers and the benefits are not uniform.  As one of my education professors once said, “If no child is left behind, then no child gets ahead.”  A strong argument could be made for this based on current literacy rates and modifications to the SAT.

Another major piece of educational wisdom, which is actually a big part of Jewish learning, is student-driven learning.  The study partner (hevruta) system in yeshivot, student led classes, and class presentations are all examples of this.  I am a major supporter on this side.  However, the disagreement isn’t just methodology but of who gets to determine curriculum.  Again, in the educational world this is debated to, and she has what to rely on.  Maybe.

The third consideration, which is the driving force behind curriculum, is the intended goal.  For primary and secondary school, there are a number of considerations: skill building, knowledge accumulation, encouraging a love of learning, and building self esteem.  In college, there’s only one real goal: prep students for work or higher education.  This is what parents, and students who pay their own way, are paying for.  Therefore, doing anything but pushing students with challenging assignments is the only way to do it.  Students must be forced to read academic writings as much as possible because they need to both learn the vocabulary and endure the rigor.  I was speaking with a lawyer about why only the top 5% of law school classes are highly desired by employers.  It’s not because it means they know more per se as much as that they are able to reproduce their knowledge quickly under high stress.  Getting through a doctorate is serious business as well, which requires heavy reading, strict demands from a dissertation comity, and ultimately deadlines.  This is something Dr. Vickery knows very well since she is a PhD and knows very well what it takes to get one.

That’s why allowing students to assign themselves a video is a joke, particularly a video of something they’d likely watch on their free time anyway.  It doesn’t challenge them, expose them to anything new, or expand their minds.  I’ve been reading Coppleston’s A History of Philosophy (veeery slowly) and you would not believe what hoops people had to go through to get their baccalaureate 400 years ago.  Besides for knowing the classical languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin) they had to increase the body of knowledge by producing original works.  Thems days is long gone, and definitely to our detriment.  We aren’t producing the kind of student we were even 100 years ago, and we totally could if professors took the position that education must increase your knowledge base, take you outside of your comfort zone, and make you sweat a little too.

I’m telling you that in yeshiva they pushed us like this.  And you know what?  We learned hard and we loved doing it, and I’m a much better student for it.  More than that, I learned to embrace my inner nerd, and have pursued knowledge outside of the Torah world with the same zeal.  College students are missing out, and flushing money down the toilet, if they aren’t given this.

And I didn’t even hit up on the content of the class, but that’s enough for one day.  Besides, I’m not looking to disparage, just to challenge.

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Shanah Tova Rabbi Style

Rosh HaShanah is a serious time.  It is the Day of Judgement for the world, and I wouldn’t say the world is holding in such a great place either.  Nonetheless there is a happy aspect to it, since we are at the closest we can be with Aveinu Malkeinu, our Father our King.  I think happy is good, so here is my Rosh HaShanah greeting.  Enjoy!


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Deadmau5 Has a Potty Mouth…And a Point

Deadmau5 is IMHO a rare breed.  Not only is he a talented musician but he’s developed a cult of personality as well.  Quite frankly he’s one of just a handful of musicians that have debuted post-2000 that I have really gotten into and since it’s all instrumental I don’t run into certain religious issues that I do with some of my other favorite bands.  I wish I could say the same about his tweets, which I continue to follow despite the obscenity for a variety of reasons.  I actually follow a lot of people I don’t see 100% eye-to-eye with, but I digress.

He also pushes some limits, and it has gotten him it trouble.  His Purrari earned him a cease-and-desist from Ferrari and his mouse head bares at least some resemblance to Mickey Mouse, though I do wonder the limits of how much.  I’m in no place to assess trademark violations.  And in some sense it makes him no better than Disney, at least assuming Disney did in fact use “Ghosts ‘n Stuff” without permission.  I’m really not looking to accuse or demonize the happiest company on Earth.

There were two issue Deadmau5 did bring out that I think are worth addressing.  Number one, he wants credit for his work.  A major argument I’ve had since the days MP3′s first came on the scene is that theft of intellectual property is theft.  When you buy a CD (when we did such things), you’re not doing it for the booklet and case.  It’s for the music.  As much as Metallica earned the wrath of their fan base for targeting serial downloaders, they were right that these people had no right to their music without paying for it.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a cash-strapped consumer or a massive corporation whose use of your song might be considered flattering.

The other issue worth noting is a complaint leveled against many major corporations, that they use their money to leverage the courts.  The Torah warns us to actively pursue justice (Dt. 16:20) and the Rabbis tell us that this is not just a warning to judges but to all individuals.  Money is not supposed to be used to buy influence in the legal system.  Assuming Deadmau5 is correct, it would be inappropriate for Disney to utilize their cash reserves just to shut some guy down in court.  If he has violated copyright law that’s one thing.  It’s entirely another to bog someone down in legal costs so they are forced to give in because they lack the cash to keep fighting.  The courts are supposed to be about resolving differences in a civil manner not a mention of getting your opponent to bend to your will through attrition.  Again, I’m not a judge to say that Disney did do that.  All I’m saying is the principle is correct.

So Deadmau5 gets a nod from an unlikely place.  I wish you well Mr. Zimmerman and I wouldn’t take offense if you told me to have a magical bleeping day.

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