Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Obiter Dicta (Three to Be Exact)

1) The Saban Center for Middle East Policy has published a report urging dialogue with Iran, while pressuring Israel to strip itself naked in order to avoid nuclear attack.

Two observations:
Saban, the Israeli expatriate who funds the center, apparently thinks that his Power Rangers are real and will clean up the nuclear waste of Iran's Jihad.

The leading thinker (sic!) behind this nightmare scenario is Martin 'Ive Gone Native' Indyk. Indyk, as we all know, is 'Turkey' in Yiddish. 'Nuff Said.

2) Among the side issues raised by the tragedy in Mumbai, is the question of Orthodox participation in Inter-faith Memorial Gatherings for the victims of Islamist Slaughter. More to the point, while Muslim and Christian clergy pose limited problems, Hindu priests are another matter. The Hindu religion is, by all criteria of which I am aware, Avoda Zara. Thus, such participation is (at best) aiding and abetting Avoda Zara on the part of a Noachide and constitutes a breach of 'Placing a Stumbling Block before the blind' (לפני עיוור לא תתן מכשול). On the other hand, one could hardly not include a Hindu priest in such gatherings, because Hindus were the key target and the majority of victims were Hindus (as they were for centuries of Moghul Muslim rule in India).

So, what to do?

I posted a longer version of this answer on a rabbinic forum:

I think we need to distinguish several different strands from this discussion. I would first like to address the specifically halalakhic issues, and then move on to the questions of public policy.

A) Personally, I am convinced of the validity of Rabbi Dr. David Berger's distinction between polytheism and Avoda zara, as far as Christianity is concerned. Indeed, I really like his formulation: Non-Pagan Avoda Zara in a monotheistic mode. Identifying Avoda Zara exclusively with ancient polytheism is far too blithe and simplistic. Christian believe themselves to be pure monotheists, though by halakhic criteria they are not such. Nevertheless, as implied directly by Tosafos to Bekhoros 2b, since they think that they are praying to the One God, if they do not mention his putative son, I see no reason why there should be any compunction in the participation of Christian clergy.

For better or worse, Hinduism (and not a few forms of Buddhism, Jain and Shinto) are in a much worse position. After years of teaching a course on Judaism and other religions, it is clear to me that Hinduism IS pagan (whether pantheist or pluralist in the identity of its deities). Certainly the reverance that Hindus pay their plethora of gods is closer to Greco-roman, Egyptian or Canaanite religion than is Christianity. In addition, there was not a small degree of sophistication inherent in all of these. Indeed, I believe that it is specifically the positive elements in Avoda zara that led the Torah and Hazal to be so adament about not being seduced thereby. Since when are we tempted by the ugly, the stupid and the festishistic?

B) One might aver that one can rely, in this connection, on the more liberal opinion of R.
Menachem Ha-Meiri. Now, it may well be true that Moshe Halbertal is correct, and that Christianity (and by reasonable extension, Hinduism) does not qualify (in his opinion) to be classified as Avoda Zara of any kind. However, relying upon that ruling is highly questionable from an halakhic stand point.

First, a reasonable case can be made that Halbertal is wrong and that Ha-Meiri did not maintain so far-reaching a position. Moreover, and I speak as an Historian of Halakhah, since when do the tentative results of academic scholarship play a role in normative halakhic discourse? More important, the legal consebsus (sugya de-alma) is overwhelmingly against accepting the Meiri as normative. Rabbenu Tam was also a brilliant scholar and I don't know of anyone who accepts his very convincing ruling that חמץ בטל בששים, מין במינו.

C) On the other hand, it is totally unrealistic, churlish and ( at baste)in very bad taste to exclude a Hindu priest from this type of event. Boycotting it is worse. I can only imagine the Hillul HaShem to which it will lead. I recommend, that it be suggested to all the clergy that are slated to speak at such memorials that in the interest of amity, religion specific prayers (not to mention ritual actions) be totally eschewed. Reference should be made to God, Allah, the Supreme Power or some such formulation, along with the type of humanitarian emphasis that unites us all. Let each person interpret them in his or her own heart. This, it seems to me, fits the criteria laid out by Tosafos in Bekhoros.

3) I delivered the first of two, 'After Srugim' lectures at Bar Ilan today (despite walking pneumonia). I did record the lecture, but have yet to decide if I want to release it unedited. The central text was רמב"ם, הלכות מעילה פרק ח הלכה ח and the presentation included important ideas advanced by Rabbis David Berger, Lawrence Kaplan and Shalom Carmy, here and here.

[UPDATE: This posting has generated a surprising degree of response. I've responded in the comments.]


Anonymous said...

very interesting stuff.

mnuez said...

This is pretty silly stuff. I mean, unless one gets one's self into an intellectual lather over the thing, there's really no reason to currently view Hindu Ovadah Zarah as anything too pernicious. Again, you can surely use your good yiddishe kop to come up with a thousand plausible explanations for why Hindu Ovadah Zarah is so potentially dangerous but they'd be more sheker-based than emes-oriented.

So we're more or less left with the theory of the inviolability of the law, regardless of its relevance to any particular situation.

And why not? It certainly makes no less sense in this sphere of interfaith mourning than it does in having separate milichig and fleishig stainless steel pots - lest the remnant of yesterday's porridge be noten tam in today's chulent and there be no kfailah around to test the dish and tell us for sure.

Listen, we maskilim are viewed as evil enemies intent upon the destruction of our people, but in fact, to my experience, many of us are proud, committed and knowledgeable Jews who simply have decided that Occam's emes is brighter than Maran's sheker. We still feel warm love for Maran, effuse over him, read him and about him while we know and care nothing more about Occam than his one pitgam - but, though Yidden we remain, we embrace our God-given logic as well and hold R'Avraham Ben HaRambam our Rebbe of choice.

Halevai you and gantz klal yisroel should join us and we can hold tish together, bimheira viyameinu amen!


jett said...

When a people fight to save your lives and protect those of your religion - which the Hindu people of India did - and suffer dead as well, you don't insult them by asking them their religion, judging their practices, or putting limitations on honoring their dead or letting them honor yours. I can think of few greater insults to humanity or sins before G*d. You show up to the ceremony pay homage where homage is due and count your blessings for having had the help of those who assisted in such an hour of need. Actually, I feel insulted that this conversation is even taking place.

Ben Bayit said...

"Since when are we tempted by the ugly, the stupid and the festishistic?"

Um, uh....try the end of parshat Balak and the end of Sefer Shoftim.

that being said, I agree that this whole discussion is pretty silly stuff. 1) Even after studying the relevanty material in Nezikin, I seriously doubt that the district court of 23 got so nuanced before ordering in the executioner.
2) I find it astounding that you do not call upon Hazal's saying that God slew the evil-inclination for Avoda Zara and that Jews are no longer affected by this. This should have some bearing on doing the sensible thing in this type of situation.
Frankly, liberal Jews wearing kafiyyehs as a fashion item and writing in Haaretz are much more dangerous to the physical - and spiritual - survival of the Jewish people than a Rabbi sitting at the dais watching a Hindu priest chanting while throwing flower petals at the base of a piece of ceramic. Frankly, there are 1 billion of these idol worshippers in the world and I'd prefer to have them on my side against the Islamofascists.

Jeffrey said...

I'm fascinated by your comments. While I do agree that the Hindus are natural allies against Islamism (Islamofascism is a cop out. Islam is Islam. Period.), and that we must be maximally appreciative and compassionate of the sacrifices and tragedies endured by others, that does not mean that you can blithely toss important laws out the window because they do not 'speak' to contemporary sentiments. (I fail to see what William of Ockhem has to do with this.)

Your comments bear out my sense that Post-Modernism and long term lack of exposure to true Avoda Zara have taken a toll on Jewish Belief. We are not an Ortho-praxis. We are a faith community baed upon certain key beliefs (which, albeit, do accomadate a spectrum of definitions).

I don't believe that I am deviating here from any of the guidelines laid down by RJBS in 'Confrontation.'

Ben Bayit said...

This is probably not the forum to discuss this but - Are we really a faith based community? Did the Rambam really win? Were ALL of the chachmei Hazal Orthodox and none were Orthodprax? Was King David Orthodox and not Orthoprax? Was Moses Orthodox and not Orthodprax?

I can assure you that I am not post-modern - not in the least. However, I will not deny the fact that it was my exposure to Modern Orthdoxy that enables me to make these comments. I mean if seder kiddushin can be so undermined because some if it does not speak to contemporary sentiments - something advocated - even on occassion strongly - by many Modern Orthodox leaders - then why is seder nezikin exempt?

Again, Islamism (I agree with you there...) is - today - the biggest physical danger to the Jewish people. The identification of certain elements of the Jewish people (including many in positions of power in the State of Israel and in the USA) with advocates of Islamism and Islamic revolution is the single greatest spiritual - and physical - danger to the Jewish people. The refusal of many rabbinic leaders to recognize this fact, coupled with the intellectual tilting at windmills in certain circles (i.e. thinking that Chabad Jews are somehow a greater danger to Jewry than kaffiyeh wearing Jewish journalists and professors) only helps this along and is really no less a form of willful blindness and/or obtuseness than any of the Minchas Elazar's silly polemics against America and Zionists were in mid-1930's Carpathia.

Jeffrey said...

Even if one does not accept the normative nature of Maimonidean dogmatics, that does not mean that Orthodox Judaism does not have certain postulate without which it ceases to exist. Those postulates may be subject to interpretation, but they do have outer limits. Thus, I can assert that none of the people you mentioned were orthopraxists. The only true Orthopraxist was Moses Mendelssohn, and he was not really a big success story in terms of Jewish Continuity.

All this, though, is somewhat beside the point. The praxis bans AZ. As with many other mitzvot and dinim, this makes for very awkward circumstances when we interact with non-Jews. Much of ancient anti-Judaism was baed upon the stubborn refusal of Jews to play by the rules and adopt an 'I'm OK, You're OK' attitude to pagan religion. Hazal were well aware of how much hot water the Torah put us in, with its unbending opposition to AZ. Furthermore, thet were also well aware of the finer, more sophisticated aspects of Hellenistic religion. Indeed, it was specifically that awareness that led them to adopt ever more stringent measures against Jewish involvement in activities that are now secular (theatre, sports etc.). I reiterate that I welcome the Hindus as allies against Islamism. Based on our common humanity, we must assist each other in every way possible. When such cooperation crosses over into the area of religion, however, the Torah's dictates take precedence. That is why I suggested a universalist type service(if that is called for), instead of including religion-specific elements.

Finally, my friend, never forget that our absolute title to EY is unconditional, but our residence here is contingent solely upon the Torah.

Y. Ben-David said...

I recall that the HAZAL did not consider the Romans to be officially "idol worshipers" although they did carry out rites involved with their traditional deities. As I recall, they considered the Romans to be civilized people (with all due consideration to their hypocrisy with things like gladiatorial games) and I would assume this affected how the Hachamim viewed them and their religious rites. Can anyone confirm this? If I am correct, then I think this would have bearing on the question at hand.

Nachum said...

Y. Ben-David, it reminds me of the Rambam's view: Muslims were not ovdei avoda zara but were insane; Christians were ovdei avoda zara but at least were normal. (This is also affected by the two religions' views of Tanach.)

Does it count, at all, that, strictly speaking, Hinduism is *not* polytheistic? The masses may be, but hey, the masses of Chabad are tilting that way too. Ask a Hindu priest, he'll tell you about pantheism and different avatars of one true god (or god-force). Does this matter, if a trinity is also not as bad (leaving the Rambam aside) as polytheism?

Also, if I may: "Islamism" is a bit of a cop-out, too.

moshe said...


Care to let us know how the Hindu priest's explanation of "different avatars of one true god" is any different than the way kabbalists understood the sefirot?

I agree with the gist of your post, however, what is missing is a definition of AZ. Are the sefirot AZ? Most Jews nowadays would answer in the negative. Even if one feels otherwise, claiming that the sefirot are AZ is definitely not the standard accepted view. Are Lubavitchers idolators? Again - depends on the definition of AZ. Maybe you want to write a comprehensive post on the subject - that way, whenever it come up you can simply say "See this post < hyperlink here > on the subject".

Nachum said...

Moshe, as a hyper-rationalist, I don't disagree with you. I believe in one God, no sefirot, no Rebbe, nothing.

But if you're willing to associate with people who *do* believe in such things, drink their wine, etc., you have to ask yourself these things about Hindus, sure. I guess, of course, it makes a difference that some people are born Jewish and others aren't.