kosher-patentsWhen the name of your blog is Patently Jewish and someone sends you a book titled Kosher Patents, it doesn’t get much more on topic than that.  The book starts with a very good description of the patent process and how one goes about obtaining a patent.  It’s written by Adam Diament, a patent attorney in California.  (I’m a patent attorney in New Jersey.)   It’s a very jewish field in general, including a good number of Torah observant patent attorneys.  Another runs the ‘12:01am Tuesday‘ blog.  Another was the former head of AT&T’s patent department who also happened to train me.  Finally, yet another that I worked with a few years ago on litigation introduced himself to me in synagogue two weeks ago … it turned out we’ve been going to the same place on Friday nights for quite some time.  Patent attorneys aren’t the most social bunch.

Anyway, that’s enough digression for now.  Mr. Diament’s book then proceeds with a disclaimer about bad patents and the examples are really mostly the sort of thing for a coffee table.  I got through the entire book in one sitting.  It’s not very technical … just a picture each invention, what is the Jewish issue it’s trying to solve, and what the patent is for.  Some are serious … like Maneshevitz’s matzah baking machine dating from the 1910s, but most are on the silly side of things.  For example, a wand that you hold next to an LED light on a menorah to turn it on simulating lighting with a candle.  Most are more on the silly side of things somewhat akin to another book, “Patently Silly.”

A great many of the inventions simply aren’t kosher at all.  (The author usually points out the problems with the patents according to Jewish law, although I believe he is mistaken about a lack of source for fish not being eaten with meat.)  There are various inventions to be able to turn on and off lights on the Sabbath, but most of them are totally invalid according to Jewish law, except in emergency situations when you’re probably better off just flipping the switch.  Though I did like one – it was a cover to hold down the switch in your refrigerator so the light stays off when you open the door (we just don’t keep a bulb in our refrigerator).  Many a ba’al teshuvah (loosely used today to describe someone who returns to Judaism from a more secular background) has a story about the first time they had to do that while staying at a relative’s house.  Good times Dad, good times.

So in summary, it’s a good book to open discussion.  Personally, I keep two pictures in my office – one is a stick figure cat drawn by Mark Cuban, and the other is a picture of my family and kids.  Both do wonders to calm down nervous / paranoid inventors and paradoxically help us get down to business.

healing_from_the_breakHealing from the Break by Abigail Rosenberg (not her real name) is recommended reading for anyone who goes through a divorce, Jewish or not.  Though many of the references are “Jewish”, the themes are universal.  The book is large on feelings the emotions and pain of men, women, and children who tell their stories.  Arranged in chronological order of a typical person’s progression, the book opens with stories of raw emotional pain at the separation followed by divorce proceedings to learning to live on your own again, dealing with children, dating again, remarrying, and fitting together blended families.

The stories have to be read with a bit of skepticism as they are told from the point of view of the story teller (who almost always views him or herself as ‘in the right’ while their spouse was almost always the crazy one).  In fact, I recognized one of the stories, and it was clearly embellished either to make for a better story or to make the storyteller feel better, but nevertheless, the emotions are real.

The topic is not one often talked about or written about in a meaningful way . . . or maybe I’ve just never looked, but I now recommend this book to anyone going through, or about to go through, a divorce.  Thankfully, that hasn’t been too many people but to understand the pain of going through it and the hardship of rebuilding your life anew should help people realize what they have.  Trying to rebuild an put behind past trauma, especially with children involved, creates all sorts of problems.  Or, to the contrary, it should help people realize they’re not alone and certain things aren’t normal or acceptable.

The book takes first hand accounts from a variety of people, especially including both men (whose voices are often absent when discussing such topics) and women, during all different stages of the “process” and finding, in most cases, a meaningful or, at least, better conclusion than the start.  Unfortunately, the topic of divorce is so prevalent today that a good book like this is needed and can save one from going it alone or going to, I don’t know, a support group where one can’t turn the page.

unchosenMaybe one day I will get to reading books as they come out – while I was about 60 years too late commenting on Lawrence of Arabia I’m only about ten years behind for the Jews in the Dominican Republic and this one.   However, this is not a new topic for me and in many ways, one needs to find an older book to find something more scholarly on the subject of Hasidic Jews who leave the path.  Today, what I largely find on the topic are sensationalist “self-accounts” and Facebook rants by angry people that I’ve found by accident  . . . but I stuck around for some great intellectual discussions with them.

Hella Winston on Hasidim

Anyway, on to Hella Winston’s book.  She’s a Jew raised with no religious background who describes her own great ignorance about Judaism.  She, in one extreme, set out to understand the other extreme and ended up writing about those who leave or want to leave their Hasidic groups which proved more interesting to her.  Almost all of the stories focus around Satmar, one of the largest Hasidic groups and the one known to be most strict and insular.  While the author goes to great lengths to simply provide the information without bias, she’s less successful at this at the book goes on but no person can truly write without bias and overall, she does a wonderful job.

One of those biases is the repeated rebuke of the premise that Hasidim who leave will get into drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity.  The book mainly tells the tale of “Yossi”, a former Satmar Chasid who gets into drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity.  At one point, she quotes him as saying, “I eat anything. I shtup anything.”  (The word used wasn’t in yiddish.)  Then there’s an interesting insight about how Chasidim often do believe that being a liberal and being on the outside involves just that … doing anything without bounds.  Meanwhile, the few Lubovitch stories (a group which has a goal of being connected to the outside world and bringing them in) are far, far less dramatic though still heart-wrenching.

What Do I Think

For my own biases, which you can find all throughout this blog, one of the best biographies I have ever read was on the Satmar Rav – you can read that review over here.  He was a man of amazing intellect, principal, and the drive to replace a community that was destroyed in a way which was more exacting and more extreme than the one he left and with great success where his predecessors largely failed.  He wanted to make it better and in his community, there were no compromises and no exceptions.  Meanwhile, no matter who you are, you can’t go through a situation like he did, barely escaping with his life while your world is destroyed, and come out unscathed.

While I certainly admire the man, what I haven’t written about is that after I read the biography, I went and found a book purity based on the writings of the Satmar Rav … I couldn’t get very far.  Let’s leave it at that.

The striking part for me is what I’ve heard about, but Winston brings a whole lot more understanding to – it’s all or nothing.  The problem is this, and this is straight out of Mesilias Yesharim, the chapter on purity: the higher levels of purity are meant for some, not all.  By requiring it of those who are not up to the task, you are suffocating them.  What then happens is they become requirements in a community, and worse, many of the requirements have nothing or little to do with Jewish law – e.g. there is no requirement (that I know of) in Jewish law to have long peyos though I can and do appreciate those that say “I want to do more than the minimum” and leaving the corners of your face unshaven, as we leave the corners of our fields for the poor.  There is no requirement (that I know of) to have a long beard – it’s a kabbalistic thing of sorts (though I have one because it beats shaving every day).  There is no requirement to wear a long black coat.  However, these are things that people can see and since there is no leeway for doing anything but the highest levels of “purity”, people end up doing them not out of purity but out of “what will the neighbors say?”  It’s kind of like “what will my friends say if I drive a Volvo while they have Benz’s?” only with a Volvo, your kids can still be accepted into the local schools.

The same goes for secular education – Winston aptly brings up the point that the Hasidim of old were involved in trades and secular education, but today it’s largely fallen by the wayside especially as funds have dried up with huge growth and low incomes to support it.  If you ever want to see how government assistance can ruin the work ethic of a community, no need to look at the inner city black population (at least not that black population).  The funds could be better directed to providing better educational opportunities, but alas, in the United States and more so in New York, again we’re faced with an “all or nothing” situation … funds are provided for public schools devoid of specific religious instruction or you go to a religious institution which struggles to provide secular education (or gives up in others).

Where We Go

I am a Torah observant Jew and I can say I experience some of these issues, while not seeing the others.  A world where people’s interiors sometimes are far different than what they keep up on the exterior?  Not in my circles.  A world devoid of secular education?  Not in my circles.  A world where we struggle to find the balance between religious and secular?  Yes!  That’s in my circles.

What is needed is the place where one can find the middle path and where children can grow to find theirs.  I have the utmost respect and the utmost support for a Jew who is Chassidish and is totally into it just as I do the Modern Orthodox Jew, so long as they are true to themselves and true to the Torah, and ultimately, what G_d wants.  G_d gave us the Torah and mitzvos as a vehicle for joy, meaning, and purpose in life.  At the same time, we have to live within the world and we are the only major belief system that says we have to do both.

As someone who went “the other way”, going from secular to religious, I also say that we must be sensitive to where our children are.  While we guide them and of course want every Jew to be Torah observant, even Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov were completely different in their approaches to serving G_d but all completely observant of the mitzvos.

I’ll leave it at that.

My interest in Jews of the Dominican Republic piqued (or peaked, or maybe peeked) after my visit to the country.  The Rabbi on my Dominican Republic kosher vacation casually mentioned how hundreds of Jews were saved from the holocaust not too far from the resort with kosher restaurants where I was staying.  Why hadn’t I heard about this before?  Two books later, I’m here to report what I know.  One book is “Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua, 1940-1945”  by Kaplan.  The other is “Tropical Zion” by Wells.  Both books are similar – they’re written by academics in largely high handed and detached academic style with a whole lot more about the geopolitics involved in what was an agriculture project to resettle displaced Jews from Europe to the Dominican Republic.  Very little is told about the personal stories and struggles of the individuals whose lived it.  In many respects, they’re similar to books like “Six from Leipzig” which is about my partner’s former partner at my law firm – big on politics, short on personal story.

Short Answer

Here’s the short answer why there aren’t 100,000 Jews in the Dominican Republic today: economics, the United States, and Israel.  The long answer follows.

Rafael Trujillo and the Jews

Peurto Plata airport departure area - Jewish settlement pictures in Sosua.

Peurto Plata airport departure area – Jewish settlement pictures in Sosua.

Rafael Trujillo took over the Dominican Republic by military force in 1930 and lost power in 1952 after his assassination.  He feared takeover by Haiti – the French, black, and poor country that shares the island.  He also feared and needed the United States, the economic giant in the hemisphere.  He was a ruthless dictator but an ally of the United States in whatever it wanted.  In return, the United States largely looked the other way after his army slaughtered 20,000 Haitians.  While being part black himself (he lightened his skin with powder in official photographs) he desired a whiter population.  Lest there be any doubt about his racism, he stated his opinions clearly upon the inauguration of the Jewish settlement of Sousa.  His desire was to make his island lighter skinned and differentiate it from Haiti while keeping the blacks at bay by raising his white population to compete with the Haitians who had many more children per woman.  History hasn’t changed much – look at the news in 2015.

Meanwhile in Europe, Germany was systematically stripping Jews of their rights, taking over neighboring countries where they then stripped those Jews of their rights, and creating a human catastrophe.  It all seemed horrendous until we consider what came next.  Each year the exchange rate given to a Jew was decreased until he could get maybe 10% of the actual value of his money out of the country if he could still find a way to leave and had any money left after a depression and his business was destroyed.  The rest of the world, still feeling the Great Depression, had no desire to take in poor refugees except one country – the Dominican Republic.  The Dominican Republic stood up at two refugee conferences organized by the United States and declared the intention to take in 100,000 Jews.  Various reasons are given but race seems to be the most convincing argument to me.  As racist as Hitler was towards Jews, Trujillo was favorable because European Jews are white.  Countless times in history, one country expelled Jews while another absorbed them.

The Dominican Republic, it is said in the books, probably managed to save a few thousand Jews by issuing visas.  Even if a Jew couldn’t or didn’t want to make it to the Dominican Republic, a Jew in Lisbon, Portugal (a transit point out of Europe) could remain there until finding another refuge.

Why So Few Jews Made it

So why were only 1% of the spots filled?  First and foremost, the Dominican Republic was poor.  It was in receivership to the United States and under a corrupt dictator who controlled most business.  Even once the settlement got started, sugar was out of the question as this was part of a state monopoly.  Most other businesses failed as the cost to import and export was prohibitive.  Meanwhile, most people lived in dirt floor huts.  Why would you want to live there?  Those who came usually wanted to leave for the United States as soon as they could.  In fact, around this same time period, 20,000 refugees from the war in Spain came to the Dominican Republic . . . and left.

Next, Trujillo and those selecting Jews for the settlement wanted the young and strong who could work the fields and do hard manual labor day after day.  Jews in Europe were mainly city dwellers and mainly attached to families.  Those who did come were largely single and male with a huge dearth of young women.  The women weren’t desired, nor did they desire to leave their parents on their own.  This meant the settlement couldn’t populate future generations and those who were there had every incentive to leave to find a wife, without a family or homestead to tie him down.  (Trujillo hoped for intermarriage which was exceedingly rare.)  There were plenty of children from those who came over married and wanted to replace what was lost.   Other Jews, who weren’t up for the labor, lived in handouts from Jewish philanthropists in the U.S. but were teh subject of complaints by Trujillo and the settlement administration causing “evictions” of Jews from the settlement to the capital city.  It wasn’t until after WWII that Sosua really functioned as a place work as opposed to a place of refuge largely by those not fit for the task circumscribed for them.

The next problem: the United States.  Why the Dominican Republic or the Jewish financiers of the operation did not send ships to Lisbon, Amsterdam, or Italy and just take over boatloads of Jews while bypassing the United States, I do not understand.   Many Jews, especially those who made it to Italy, held out for transit to Israel which was almost non-existent in the 1940s.  However, I say this with the power of hindsight.  Most didn’t expect extermination and the “slow growth” of the settlement was considered necessary as well as keeping on good terms with the United States.  The State Department in the U.S. had to approve every application.  This bigoted department (then and now, actually) usually served to make it next to impossible.  For years, it was completely impossible to get a transmit visa from Europe through New York.  When they did, a Jew in Ellis Island was a closely guarded prisoner for fear he’d escape to the United States.  More often, the papers weren’t all in check for a valid or bogus reason and with the winds of war coming, the United States claimed to fear spies or those with relatives stuck in concentration camps who could be bribed to hand over intelligence information.  Nasty rumors spread about spies already who came as refugees.  After the first arrivals from Germany in 1940, Germany soon too closed it’s borders.  In other words – those who needed refuge the most and would have most readily come could not.

After the war, the United States actually didn’t change it’s laws one bit… they just changed policy in the State Department and all of the sudden all the unused spots from years past were made available to refugees.  This caused an exodus of Jews from Sosua to the United States as well as an exodus of remaining Jews in Europe to the same location.  Some, especially who stayed the war in Shanghai, did join the settlement in Sosua.  Most others chose Israel.  Over time, the settlers who remained grew old and their children did not remain except to visit.  Had the Jews been welcomed as merchants, doctors, and lawyers (as is more of our calling, it seems) as entire families maybe there’d be a larger Jewish population there today and the DR might also have a much stronger economy.  As it is, the largest milk and cheese factory in the country was founded by the Jews of Sosua.  Instead, the children of the settlers went to seek their education and technical jobs largely out of the country with many resettling to nearby Florida.  The synagogue remains, but hotels and tourism have taken over what is now a “working class” travel destination in Sosua, a town filled with street names like “Dr. Rosen” and “David Stern.”

Final Thoughts

Not long ago I wrote to a law firm in the Dominican Republic which handles trademark applications throughout Latin America.  A client of mine wanted a price quote to file same in a smattering of countries.  I added to my letter that I stayed close to Sosua (in what is a very nice resort with the kosher food and synagogue, the only one of it’s kind in the Caribbean) and would be happy to send my money through a country that would have saved my life.  At the airport today, an Israeli flag is listed on every customs sign showing that is one of the few countries where the passport holder need not pay an entrance fee.  Dominicans are so much the opposite of anti-semitic that they want to marry Jews and look at it as almost a status symbol to say they are descended from a Jew.  The attorney’s answer fell along these lines: “There is a huge Jewish community and its descendants have integrated completely in the Dominican Republic making many cultural and trade contributions. For your information my wife last name is Hazim and Majluta” which are Sefardi names, reprensentative of the large number of such Jews who settled the island throughout the 1800s.  With mixed emotion, it’s nice to know there are places in the world that have been and probably will be friendly to the Jews for a long time but not so nice to know that the Jews there that forget what they’re supposed to do in the world.


How I came to This Book

lawrence-of-arabiaSometimes I find books by putzing around on Amazon . . . my latest comes from putzing around a library.  I roamed the shelves and picked up a copy of What If? by Randall Munroe and a 1963 biography of Lawrence of Arabia.  Dare you to find another website that mentions the two of those together.

I enjoy reading history books for some reason and even more so, those from previous times because you can also learn about the biases of the the time when the pick was written as opposed to those of your own time which are already well known.  Older books are closer in time to the event they describe and apt to be more accurate (I’m willing to be proven wrong).  By looking in the past, you can also become aware of current biases you didn’t even realize were so.  Science magazines are just as fun this way.

Summary of Where the Jews Fit in to Arthur Nuting’s Lawrence of Arabia

In this case, the book is Arthur Nuting’s Lawrence of Arabia published in England in 1963.  I hadn’t much of a clue who the man was.  Turns out he was an unsettled and restless soldier for the British who fought for the freedom of the Arabs from the Ottoman Empire.  He knew of the Picot-Sykes agreement whereby the U.K., France, and Russia planned to partition the countries into what is now Syria, Iraq, jordan, and Israel but kept it secret until the Russians went though a revolution in 1917 and divulged it the world.  In his day, as the author writes, heroes were uncomplicated and perfect and an American who went on a lecture tour popularized Lawrence as an unyielding, seemingly superhuman man who fought to the point of exhaustion in a “quest for good.”

Here’s were the relevance to the blog comes in – the Jewish part.   Okay, soon.  Lawrence, who liked to dress in Arab clothing even at meetings with his commanders, fought alongside Feisel I of Iraq.  After the Ottoman Turks were ousted at the end of WWI (1918), Lawrence’s plan was to install Feisel as king over the lands stretching from Syria to Iraq.  After the war, however, the Arabs looked askance at Feisel who cooperated with the British colonial powers and Feisel, for his part, would have little further to do with Lawrence who returned to England distraught over a battle fought for independence only to place the area under different colonists.

Feisel and Lawrence welcome Jews to Israel (“we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home”) though as part of an undivided pan-Arab nation extending through the Middle East.  Meanwhile, the French take over the area which is now known as Syria and defend it vigorously.  The British partition their land into Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq.  Mosul, with oil fields, goes to the British after much lobbying and jockeying with the French.  The locals in Iraq cause enough trouble that it costs the British taxpayers more to maintain it than it did the prior war so it goes to Feisel as consultation for being kicked out of Damascus.  British policy is in disarray with different branches promising different things, and a march from Iraq to out the French stops in Transjordan, a mostly nothing desert in comparison since the times of the Second Temple when Jews bypassed it for modern day Iraq (“Bavel”).  The British governor, not knowing what to do, welcomes the Hashemites and they decide to take over that area instead of fight the French in Syria.  Until ISIS, the imposed borders remain, albeit with local rules.  Democracy?  Unheard of.

What I Draw From This Book re: Jews and Arabs Today

The interesting part of all this is what it teaches us about the Arab-Israeli conflict today.  Such as:

a) There are Arabs, then as now, who are just fine with a large Jewish presence in Israel, albeit, they are very adverse to a long history and feeling of being ‘colonized’ or made to feel second class.

b) Arabs stink at forming armies (paraphrasing pages and pages of Lawrence’s biographer).  They excel only at what we call today “terrorist” tactics and only when they see victory in the first instance.  At the first counter attack, they generally scatter in fear.  This was true when fighting the Turks and most of the Israeli-Arab wars.

c) Arab arms come from foreign suppliers who, in turn, seek influence.  Homegrown ingenuity doesn’t seem to be their strength.

d) There are no easy solutions.  The past should have and could have been played out differently.  While I agree that is is moral and that we most stop atrocities wherever they are, in a “regular war” or conflict, in my opinion, the world should leave well enough alone and let regions tend to their own affairs.  Just as sending free shoes to poor countries actually inhibits growth according to many, fighting the battles of others keeps them weak.

More on that … what was the point of the British ousting the Turks?  The Turks allied with Germany, the enemy of Britian.  For that matter, what was the point of WWI?  It was, as Nuting writes, an era where things were black and white and heroes and villains were uncomplicated.  Today, while moral relativism eats us apart from the inside, yesterday it ate us apart from the outside.  Imagine a world were Europe said “this is stupid” in 1914 and went about their business.  Let the Arabs defeat the Turks on their own time, let the Jews return on their own time, let the world progress without war into a world where maybe there wouldn’t be a nation state called “Israel” but there also wouldn’t be a “Saudi Arabia”, an “Iraq”, or a “Jordan” …

imagine Jews returning to the land in the same or even larger numbers.  This, actually echoes the Satmar Rebbe‘s arguments that nation seeking resulted in more Jewish deaths by turning the world against us.  There are a lot of moving and complex parts to all of this IMHO to draw such a conclusion.  Yet for today, while ceding power in Israel would be a terrible idea for everyone (it’s the pillar stability as well as both technological and spiritual advance in the world), we can try and let the Arab world work through it’s own battles so it can calm down after hundreds of years of anger at outsiders.

Garden of Emuna

Garden of Emuna

This book is interesting.  79% of readers on Amazon give it 5 stars out of 5.  “Goodreads” gives it a 4.6 out of 5.  All that stuff on this blog about philosophical reasoning to come to Judaism and Torah … Rabbi Arush would say stay away because it detracts from emuna.  “Emuna” roughly translates as “faith”.  This book categorically explains what it means to live with perfect emuna with a high level picture, then discussing free will, then discussing individual situations from those who are not religious to those who are not Jewish to those who are in jail or have gambling addictions.

What’s taught is really nothing new that isn’t already in a plethora of other Jewish sources and books, but what makes this book different is that, first, it’s directed directly at modern man in modern environments.  Second, it’s sharp and too the point taking emuna to it’s logical conclusion.  Third, the author clearly isn’t swayed by arguments to contrary because . . . he has emuna.  If you’re looking for clear perspective on what it means to live a life where you believe everything is run by a Creator who cares about us, you need only read chapter 1 of this book.  The rest is applications of the principle applied to different situations.

For example, R’Arush speaks about a man who do not keep Torah and mitzvos but heard one of R’Arush’s lectures on tape and decided to apply it to his daily life.  The constant trust in the Creator throughout his day to day struggles and events made him quite happy and he saw only good.  His religious friend asked how it could be that he, the religious person did not have this level of joy in his life, but his not religious friend does!  Answer: Torah and mitzvos are a vehicle to have emuna and that is the purpose of life.  One can have emunah without Torah and do mitzvos without really having emunah … the taste of wine without the cup, or the cup without the wine.  As R’Arush puts it, you can have access to the company car but not use it.  Having the company car, one can still drive in the wrong direction and Torah can even be a block to emuna (as I understand R’Arush’s words)!  The man who was not religious but had emunah would eventually get tired of taking his own path and use the company car.

Living a life of emunah means you have no doubts who is in control.  When something happens to you, you don’t worry or stress for what’s in the past.  That was meant to happen.  However, in the future, you make changes and do what you should.  This is the free will dichotomy of a Creator who knows what will happen, but we still have the choice.  This is how someone with trust in a Creator views the world.

I am honestly not on this level of belief.  As much as I say, “I believe, I believe” I have doubts.  However, this is still the goal and still something to be worked on constantly.  With emuna, there is no anger.  With emuna, there is no pain.  There is growth and connection back to the source.  Those who think otherwise are constantly in a state of fear and anxiety because a disease or mishap can happen at any time beyond their control.  With emunah, it’s all for a purpose and there is no need to have wakeup calls when you daily make those wakeup calls for yourself and attach yourself to your mission in life to reach back to the source.

Throughout, R’Arush discusses asking the Creator for things.  When you ask for emunah and ask for things on a spiritual level he says that such things are almost always granted.  When you ask for material things, such things are not so often granted because you are given what you need for your growth even if you don’t know it.  Sometimes it’s better for you not to have it.  (Take a look at lives of lottery winners – winning often shatters their relationships and they find themselves in debt often with unpaid tax bills.)

I’m hardly on the level where I can emotionally say that I believe everything in this book, but at the same time it’s own I’d recommend for anyone interested whether religious or not, Jewish or not.  While the book is based very much on Jewish sources, the concepts are universal as they must be.

Relationships are Meaning

One summer day in my childhood I returned from swimming with my grandfather to his house where I was staying.  Waiting at the front door were two smiling missionaries.  It didn’t take long for my grandfather to start arguing, “You expect me to believe in G_d? In a being who sits alone with no company? An unsexed being?”  The missionaries smiled and moved on, while my grandfather and I went in to unload the dishwasher while my grandfather apologized for being an atheist while encouraging me to have my bar mitzvah. Later in life, it would irk my grandfather quite a bit when I became Torah observant.

Yet his argument is, I think, somewhat correct.  The Rosh Hashana machzor [prayer book] speaks of the “King who sits in solitude” and this is one of many philosophical questions that that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks answers.  In fact, he explains the whole opening of the Torah itself is about relationships.  One would expect a G_d-given rule book to start with the rules … open with the 10 commandments maybe.  Nope.  After a very short, terse, and in Rabbi Sack’s view, non-literal exposition of the creation of the world, we find thousands of words on relationships.

Relationships taught in the Torah include man’s relationship with the Creator; meaning, that the Creator does not sit along with no company – we are like the bride, the children, and the partner with the Creator in the creation.  This includes relationships between fathers and sons (e.g. Abraham and Isaac), brothers (Yaakov and Eisav), sisters (Rachel and Leah), neighbors, bad inlaws (Laban), bad rulers (Nimrod), and so on.  This is such a large part of creation and Torah and understanding G_d that, as Rabbi Sacks posits, this is why the Torah is written this way.

Meaning is Outside the System

From there, Rabbi Sacks covers a wide range of philosophical topics that I wish I read when I became Torah observant because, much of what I wrote in my first posts where I describe my process of choosing a Torah way of life, Rabbi Sacks describes with quotes reference to some of the great philosophers.  In fact, I’d guess that, excepting for the posts about kosher travel, half the posts on this blog are encapsulated in Rabbi Sacks’s book.

For example, Rabbi Sacks talks about man’s search for meaning.  He states that meaning is always outside the system.  A rat running through a maze does not see the meaning behind why he running through the maze.  Yesterday, I witnessed a college student with her iPad having children play a “game”.  She didn’t disclose that she was running some sort of psychology experiment on the kids, and while I watched it and saw all the questions, only she who is running the experiment posing as a game really knows the meaning behind it.  This, as Rabbi Sacks quotes, is the essence of Iyov [Job].  There are a whole lot of questions, but not a whole lot of answers.

So when philosophers search for meaning, they do so in two ways; in a world with an ultimate meaning and purpose and in a world without.  Camus cannot accept that there is a G_d and his in depth search for meaning results in, what Rabbi Sacks describes as, “Sisyphus comes to enjoy pushing the stone up the hill to have it fall back down and do it again.”  That is, there is no meaning, just the system.  Camus says find ways to like being the rat in the maze.  On the other hand, Tolstoy says there is a G_d and finds meaning outside the system.  Rabbi Sacks says that meaning is always outside the system.  I agree.

Finally, Rabbi Sacks comes to King Solomon and Kohelles [Ecclesiastes].  It’s an entire book that Jews read every Succos, on a holiday where we are supposed to be joyous for eight days … yet it opens with the famous line, “futility of futility.”  Discussing every pleasure known to man from a “been there, done that” perspective and trying to find meaning, the book closes with what is really meaningful … none of what you do in life matters expect for serving the Creator and following the guide book, the meaning being outside the system.

[On a side note, after reading this book I began listening to the English version of Tolstoy’s “What I Believe” available on YouTube.  it’s eight hours.  In short, he guts Christianity and re-translates / re-interprets it to be an extreme form of pacifism that is not practiced by the governments who enforced it through killing through his day.  In the one reference to Judaism I came across, he states that Jews believe in the Torah from Moses and that’s a whole and complete belief that he can’t find reason to argue with, though he is very clearly a Christian believer.]

Opposition by Atheists and Religious People

At other times Rabbi Sacks implies, sometimes more recognizably so than others, that it doesn’t matter so much if there is a G_d, but that society is changed based on whether it is one that is G_d fearing or not.  (A midrash says similarly, stating something like, “if they would forget Me but remember my Torah…”)  R’Sacks uses overly safe language to describe this, stating that a society without G_d won’t remain “exactly the same.”  Of course it won’t remain exactly the same, but his examples go further than that, including the oppression of a Catholic adoption center in the United States because they will not consent to homosexual partners adopting.  This is the opposite of liberty and allowing those to have choice in their beliefs, for which he compares to being “French.”  After all, he is British and the British have a long history of mocking the French.  The French, he says, had an abrupt revolution and changed things dramatically … and failed in doing so.  The British way, he tells us, is to move slowly.

When religious faith goes, five things happen, gradually and imperceptibly. First there is a loss of belief in human dignity and the sanctity of life. This is not immediately obvious, because the new order announces itself as an enhancement of human dignity. It values autonomy, choice and individual rights.”

So what of religious oppressors?  He has no love for that either.  He describes that his debates with atheists (of which his PhD mentor was one); he agrees with almost everything they say.  Further, those who have done things in the name of G_d things that are amoral are just as bad to him as to an atheist.

The cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.

He rails against the Christian form of stoic G_d who has hell fire ready for us upon our death and dualistic right vs. wrong, us vs. them sorts of philosophies which come in both religious and atheistic forms.  An example: he states that the first suicide bombers were secular Tamil tigers in Sri Lanka, the Muslims only copying them.  On the other hand, he praises the Muslims for their faith, which, save for the unfortunately large and growing extreme dualistic elements is far better than the results of society with no moral basis whatsoever.  He fears for the direction Europe is going, finding that will be much worse and points to, of course, the holocaust.

Rabbi Sacks on Science and Old of Date Theology

Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind. – Albert Einstein

The book, after all, is called “The Great Partnership” between science and religion.  Rabbi Sacks quotes Einstein (above), and shrugs off contradictions between science and religion with a great, “meh.”  His answer is something like, “So the Bible isn’t literal after all.  Let’s move on.”  His training is in philosophy, not in hard sciences, but more on this in part II.

rav-yakov-yosefI picked up my latest book in a very different manner than normal.  Rabbi Yonah Landau walked up to me in shul, as the gabbi [leader guy] and asked if he could make an announcement.  Usually, these announcements are requests for money to people in need.  in this case, it was a request to sell his book.  It looked interesting, so I bought one and finished it quick.  It’s 545 pages of simple reading translated from Yiddush.  The author apologized ahead of time for problems with the translation and editing.  Some of the placement of pictures and chapter breaks are quite jarring. I wouldn’t have picked it out of a shelf or known what it’s about without the author selling it himself, but you won’t find it on many shelves.  I did find it on Amazon and a bit cheaper over here if you want to buy it.  What it is lacking in polish, it more than makes up for in feeling and paining a picture of Torah Judaism in the United States throughout the 1800s and very early 1900s.  Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, the first and only Chief Rabbi of New York does not enter the book until about page 225.

It seems that Rabbi Landau, a Satmar Chassid, is something of a New York Jewish history aficionado.  He tells of the previous quasi-head Rabbi, Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Asch, zt’l (1813–1887) whose burial place was forgotten, whose name no one has ever heard, and who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet.  It turns out Rabbi Asch is buried in the same cemetery as one set of my great-great grandparents.  (Their burial place was unknown by any of the numerous descendants I contacted, so I can relate.  I embarked on a similar quest to find their place of burial.)  If you search for either Rabbi Asch or Rabbi Yaakov Yosef on the internet, you’ll find mostly links somehow related to Rabbi Landau.  He brings people to the grave site and generates interest in the subject in Jewish newspapers.

The State of Judaism in the United States in the 1800s

This covers roughly the first 225 pages of the book.  To put it mildly, Torah Jews did not adapt to the United States in such a manner as to pass on the traditions from Sinai to the next generation.  The book details numerous efforts to start proper yeshivas where Torah could be learned, but the funds usually were simply not there or dried up.  Those who came here tended to be escaping something, whether it be persecution or religion itself, while the scholars remained in Europe.  It seemed to be a phenomenon where husbands or wives would leave each other for the United States in order to escape divorce proceedings or each other and since the level of scholarship was so low, numerous improper marriages and divorces were conducted by those earning a quick dollar.  For “the real thing” you had to pay more, but with no knowledge of what was “real”, few would pay that.  The Torah world had not yet figured out how to adapt to democracy, then encompassing 2% of the world’s population.

As early as 1816, when the Jewish community tried to shutdown a butcher selling meat marked as kosher without the approval of the community, the butcher won.  Anyone is allowed to claim anything in the United States.  In Europe, there was a community structure with head Rav in each town.  How do you adapt this to “the land of the free” where everyone is his own boss?

Parenthetically, this problem is not unique to Judaism.  One of my friends, a former Baptist minister who converted to Judaism once said to me in reference to a European trained preacher (Rav Asher Wade), “Yeah, but he was trained in Europe so it means that he actually knows a lot about Christianity.”  A Muslim friend once complained similarly that Islam in the United States is hefker [ownerless; okay, he didn’t use the word “hefker”].  Everyone does their own thing and for true scholarship, you need to travel to another country and learn.  Back in the 1800s United States there were all sorts of religious movements praying on the uneducated.  This is just a much larger problem for Judaism, and still is, because an ever greater amount of learning and knowledge is needed to be a Jew.  With the Jewish community structure broken down, the masses of immigrants also happened to be dirt poor and largely uneducated in Torah.  Most were only secondarily even interested.  There was a plethora of non-kosher food marked as kosher and those with the money and power were largely assimilated German Jews who caused problems for the Torah observant.

The Perceived Need for a Chief Rabbi

It was thought that by bringing in a major Torah scholar, the disparate Jews of the United States could unite and there could be some standards again.  First, the Malbim was asked but ended up declining in old age.  I actually have an entire outline of one his works on Iyov [Job].  This is someone who knows what he’s talking about, but it’s kind of like when the Israeli government suggested that Albert Einstein be the first Prime Minister of Israel.  Being a politician, heading numerous people is quote a different task than just scholarship.

The European gedolim who were asked to find someone to lead New York’s Jewish community would often write back and ask questions like, “Will the U.S. Government approve?”  This is so jarring to me, writing in the U.S. in 2014.  What business is it of the government to approve?  It gets even more interesting: the leaders of the European Jewish community eventually coalesced around a candidate.  The Americans would have nothing of it.  How dare the Europeans tells the American’s what to do!  The Americans asked for suggestions, not the choice being made for them!  It sounds just like James Madison talking about the role of the British in the life of the newly formed U.S. Government, and is the exact attitude which didn’t allow there to be a “Chief Rabbi” in the United States in the first place.  Yet, this came from the heads of the Torah Jewish community.

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef’s Tenure in a Nutshell

Finally, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef was voted upon and accepted.  As a student of Rav Yisroel Salanter, zt”l and the Netziv, both very well known Torah giants, he was well respected in Vilna.  While numerous other great Rabbis refused to move to the United States for fear that they’d lose their children to assimilation, it seems that Rabbi Yaakov Yosef decided to do so as he was deep in debt and felt up to the task.  He borrowed huge amounts of money from the rich to give to those in need, but couldn’t pay it back.  At each new Rabbinic post, he required the new community to pay back his old debts without telling them why he needed so much money.  He could have stayed in Europe and remained highly respected.

In fact, when he came to New York, he was greeted by huge crowds.   Once he started, you know, actually trying to do stuff to institute more Torah practice, he was ridiculed. Within a short time the funds to pay him dried up, the kosher food producers had revolted, the Jewish magazines tore him apart, and it is said that he had a stroke soon after seeing kashrus symbol hung in a butcher shop next to pork … all done to embarrass him.  After the stroke, he was forgotten, his furniture was repossessed, and though a huge crowd came to his funeral, his descendants no longer keep the Torah and it’s mitzvos.

Some of the fights of this era are still known today, most notably, his attempts to raise the standards of kosher food.  In doing so, a 1 penny tax, which R’Yaakov Yosef was against (he was outvoted by the board) was placed per chicken to help cover the costs.  In japan, I once remarked how Buddhist trinkets were selling with high prices because they claimed to be blessed.  The non-Jewish friend with me replied, “Isn’t that the same thing with kosher?  Don’t you pay a tax on that to the Rabbis to bless it?”  In reality, the blessing doesn’t make anything kosher and the tax didn’t cover the costs, and when the butchers revolted and formed their own conglomeration for kashrus … the costs were paid by the butcher shops anyway.  In another one of these holdovers from this era, I once tried to tell a vegan member of PETA that instead of reading the label, she could just see if it had a kosher symbol indicating that it was paerve.  Her response: “Huh? Kosher just means they turn the animal upside down before they kill it.”  Suffice to say, I didn’t get anywhere with her, but this was another thing that Rav Yaakov Yosef fought against as it’s not kosher to do that!

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef was a Success

Certainly Rabbi Yaakov Yosef didn’t appreciate what he had done in his lifetime, but then, neither did most others.  However, he paved the way for many more Torah-true Jews to enter the United States and try and start placing footholds in the shifting tundra.  Numerous starving yet quite learned Jews followed, now less afraid that they would be lost in America.  Most turned out to be wrong, and did lose most or all of their children, but they also laid the foundation of many new yeshivas which finally raised a new generation of learned Jews in the United States.  Among them was Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l and Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg who were fully American and fully able to bring Torah to Americans in a way we would receive it.

Many new and knowledgeable shochtim [meat slaughterers] also immigrated.  While the attempt to fix kashrus in the United States was met with such a backlash, it bred competition and started a capitalist sort of arms race which, in the end, greatly increased kashrus in the United States.

The Eitz Chaim yeshiva was founded and sustained.  Today, it is part of Yeshiva University, and while the author bitterly complains about the direction the yeshiva went, he does not argue that in earlier times it certainly was the only place for a true Torah education beyond simply learning how to read Hebrew and know a few prayers (which, on another side note, covers about 90% of what I learned in the 1980s in a reform Jewish education).  Torah learning used to continue until 4pm, and only then would secular learning begin.  While there are plenty of flaws to pick out on this institution, it has certainly raised generations of large numbers of Torah observant Jews who passed on Torah to their children.

Adapting and Competing in a Democracy

As recited above, even the leaders of the Torah Jewish community in the United States at the time wanted suggestions for their Rabbi.  They didn’t want the choice being made for them.  So goes democracy.  My own American Jewish community today has so many shuls and one potential candidate to unite everyone as a “Chief Rabbi.”  This Rav refuses, remaining in his yeshiva teaching Torah with only occasional talks at shuls … when invited.  If I’m not happy with a certain shul, I go to another.  There are few communities which are the exception.  Elizabeth, NJ and Monroe, NY come to mind as decent sized Jewish communities organized with one structure.  Even there, if you so chose, you could open your own synagogue or advertise your own kosher butcher and aside from social pressure, no one can legally stop you.  You can legally, as people say, “be a member of the community” as you choose.  Such Torah Jewish communities are growing all over today.

The book has many references to Jewish newspapers run by those against Torah Judaism which had an effect on the masses.  It’s hard for me to understand today, but it seems that reform Jewish media, which wanted nothing more than for Jews to abandon the Torah and assimilate, had a huge effect on people.  Further, assimilated Jews pushed for other Jews to work on Shabbos and dress like Americans whereas the general population is more accepting.  This was before the Satmar Rav came and separated entirely from other Jewish communities, and before even Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l said not to interact on a religious level with reform and conservative institutions.   In Germany, in took until the 1880s for Rav Samson Hirsch zt”l to split from the reform community, his congregation being a tiny minority.  In the United States during the time of Rav Yaakov Yosef, it seems no one was truly ready to split and these “members of the community” brought the whole thing down.

These attitudes continue today amongst the majority of Jews in the United States, but have largely been stemmed in the Torah world.  Torah and mitzvos are the primary thing for me, but I also work with a yarmulke on, take off every Jewish holiday, and I’m very unapologetic about it.  It’s still a struggle to balance, but with so many around doing the same, there’s plenty of support both legally and socially.  This world has largely insulated itself from the ideals of the assimilationists, and Rav Yaakov Yosef tenure was a stepping stone.

Today, the assimilationists are losing their voice having huge apathy in their communities in general and those who care being almost entirely separate from them for religious functions.  The assimilationist heterodox movements having been largely successful in making themselves disappear.  Their voices in their own media are not even heard by Torah observant Jews today, and are often just plain sad or laughable at this stage in history.  If it’s written in “the Jewish Forward”, one of the only remaining socialist Jewish newspapers, it stays there.  Even this paper has since moved “to the right” from where it was.

Yet the non-assimilationist Jews have also adapted to the outside world by using democracy as a tool to further Torah.  One of the largest yeshivas in the world, the Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ where thousands learn full time daily, gives teaching positions to those who have other students sign up to learn from them.  Each receives the same small stipend, except for a few administrators.  Democracy is now used to further the study of Torah and make it stronger.  Those who choose to join the system now find a lot of depth and a competitive environment in not only learning and meaning of life, but to a lesser extent food, vacations, camps, and schools.

Like a planted seed which at first decays, the tree that comes out grows much stronger with firmer roots.  Perhaps this is G_d’s plan.

I realize I have a diverse reading audience – this article is really intended for a Jewish audience … if you’re a believing Christian, you probably won’t be interested.  It describes the experience of the Christian convert to Judaism whose book I am reviewing, as well as questions it has raised for me.  At the same time, I discuss similar experiences of other converts that I know.  


Mountain Family Book Synopsis

The Mountain Family is the story of Tzirel Rus Berger, a fundamentalist Christian from the deep South (of the United States) who converts to Judaism.  Here, the Massey family (the author’s prior name) had already long stopped celebrating holidays which they deem of pagan origin.  When other kids went out trick or treating, they simply didn’t participate.  At the same time, they’re keeping some semblance of kosher eating and keep some semblance of the Jewish Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  Meanwhile, Berger’s own grandparents had moved to Israel and lived as Christians, but kept Jewish holidays.  Meanwhile, their utter faith and trust in G_d is something that, coming from where I do, I look up to even when embodied in non-Jews.

The book is mainly about Berger’s personal story of growing up and coming to Judaism.  For me, what was most fascinating were the descriptions of how she lived – dirt poor in the mountains of Georgia and Alabama.  Sometimes, they were so poor that she and a family of 10 kids slept in the woods under tarps or drove 17 miles to the nearest store with $30 to buy food for the entire family.  Turns out she fits in quite well with the “settler” mentality in Israel, when later in life she moves to a settlement and continues to live on very little.  Many of her children attended Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, Israel where I also attended.  I know many of the people she refers to in her book, but there, I always had trouble grappling with issues such as “just learn Torah full time and don’t worry about money” and students having money raised to pay for their weddings.  Then what?  Her kids had no such issues and fit right in!  (Now, the yeshiva is one of my best sources of income.)

Common Issues of Christian Converts to Judaism

I strongly disagree with the advertising for this book about the ‘remarkable’ story.  it’s not remarkable because it happens too frequently to retain that adjective.  I’ve had the occasion to know many of them.  They are typically very strong believers with a very above average knowledge of the actual text.  My chavrusa [study partner] at Ohr Somayach was one of them.  He was a former Southern Baptist preacher from Tennessee.  Fun guy.  His father once finally came to terms with his conversation to Judaism, but told him, “Whatever you do, just don’t marry a black girl.”  He really tried to obey his father’s wishes but, as Berger points out, marriage prospects for such a convert can be difficult when you come from such a different background.  I was learning with my friend throughout his dating and it just wasn’t working for him.  He kept getting suggested this one black girl … you can guess the rest.

I’ve also heard many of Berger’s issues echoed by converts in my own community.  I used to attend the shul of the father of Tuvia Singer.  He focuses on anti-missionary work, but as his own lectures state, he didn’t realize how he’d be unwittingly attracting non-Jews.  At this shul you can hear some southern accents here and there, or meet people with not-so-Jewish-sounding last names.  Echoing some of Berger’s comments, they have questions like “Could it be that G_d isn’t powerful enough that I have to go through an intermediary for Him to hear me?”, “Why does Deuteronomy say not to believe a prophet who does a miracle?  Shouldn’t I believe him?”, “Why do we do some things from Judaism but not others?”, “How could people who not even a claim to prophecy add to the written word of G_d?” and “How am I supposed to emulate the ways of a deity that died at 33 when i am 43?  What about 63?”  Then one day, they decide to read the book from the beginning to end instead of the other way around, and according to different accounts, find there’s no source for the ‘trinity’ in the text, or certain things have been mistranslated or even misquoted in the ‘new’ version, and so forth.  Berger describes how no one could answer her questions of interpretation until she started speaking to Rabbis.

Jewish Practices Among Christian Believers

I’ve also encountered some interesting Christian beliefs.  A former babysitter showed us how her church marked Yom Kippur and encouraged fasting.  One, now convert in my community, at first associated himself with an organization for missionaizing Jews.  It seems these organizations can also be stepping stones for Christians to go ‘the other’ direction.  Oops.  They still maintain their Christian beliefs but add more of a Jewish feel to them … something like Fiddler on the Roof meets Christmas without a Christmas tree.  Such beliefs always fascinated me.  In high school, I used to argue with missionaries online to try and understand just how is it a person could believe what, to me, was so obviously not the truth.  I wasn’t sure of G_d’s existence, but surely if there was a G_d, it was an infinite one who wasn’t one who was in three parts or needed to come down in man-form.  (Side note – I noticed this same parallel in In Things Fall Apart, a novel told from the perspective of a native Nigerian who describes how missionaries systematically dismantled their indigenous beliefs with arguments for one G_d.  Then, the leaders who did so were rotated out and new ones came in, incredulous that the hadn’t taught about the trinity, devil, and other independent actors … just like the beliefs they had given up.  By that time, the indigenous social structure who so out of whack, that it was too late for them to return.  There’s a small Jewish group in Uganda who did actually come to Judaism along similar lines.)

One of the more interesting stories is that of one of my best childhood friends.  His Catholic Priest father and nun mother (yup, that’s correct; read more about them here) still consider themselves Catholic.  However, my friend’s own description is that their beliefs are so far from Catholic teaching that it’s hard to say that.  I once borrowed some books and tapes of my friend’s father to understand the perspective.  The tape was an interview arguing that since the mishnah [Jewish oral law] says one should be married, surely the guy the Christians calls the messiah must have been!  In one of the books, it outlined the atrocities of the church throughout history that could only be written by an insider, and argued for going back to the Jewish routes … the book mark was a version of the famous painting of the “Last Supper” except the participants were all wearing yarmulke’s and tallis’s [Jewish prayer shauls]. Meanwhile, my friend who had gone from Catholic to atheist back to Catholic, when I last spoke to him, was working in a bookstore at a Catholic retreat where he reads “anything about G_d” all day.  I asked him if he could get a “promotion” and actually teach some classes there.  He said they’d never let him do that because he didn’t believe in the virgin birth!

Pondering a Question – Who Converts and Who Doesn’t?

Still, I have wondered why some very seriously believing Christians who have such fundamental issues with Christian theology convert to Judaism and other’s don’t.  One acquaintance of mine was amongst his 7 siblings converting to Judaism, but related that his father could not be converted as he believed “the messiah had been here once already”.  Otherwise, his father lived in the Old City of Jerusalem and acted completely like a Torah observant Jew.  There are all kinds I suppose.

A corollary question in mind has also been … what’s the allure?  How can you believe in a version of G_d which posits that G_d is not infinite enough for you that he needs to come down in man form that you pray to?  Some of it is emotional connection to the past – in fact, my friend’s Priest-father (father-Priest?), in writing about almost two thousand years of mistakes by his church, wrote so lovingly about his aunt, a nun who was so pious and kind.  It was not something he could, would, or does emotionally leave behind.

I think the answer can also be summed up in what’s actually a Jewish story from a chassish Rebbe.  In jewish law, we pray the morning prayers by a certain time.  After the fact, you can do so the entire morning.  Chassidim are often known to pray in the less desirable time.  A Chassid was once mocked by a Litvish [good with time] Jew who asked him why he couldn’t pray on time.  The Chassid said something like, “In truth, I wish I could be like you and just come to synagogue and start praying right away.  The problem is that I stop and think about the awesomeness of creation and all there is to it and the amazingness of our infinite Creator and I just tremble and can’t move past it.  It takes me hours each day to actually summon up the ability to compose myself talk directly to the Creator.  I don’t know how you do it right away, but you are so fortunate.”  It’s a difficult avodah [service] to connect properly all the time.  It’s a way of life and a discipline.  So man, in fact, Paul created a system to make it easy.  They’ve created a “blue pill” but for those who want the “red pill” it’s out there.

The Summary

torah-chazal-science“Torah from Sinai is not only truth, but tells us the whole of truth.  Modern science is, at best, an approximation and a curiosity.  At worst, it’s a changing set of incorrect theories taught as religion.”

The above is my own summary of Rav Moshe Meiselman‘s 600+ page book which discusses how Judaism and science interrelate.  With some skipping here and there, I’ve actually gone through the entire book to arrive at the summary.  Rav Meiselman has some impressive credentials.  He holds a doctorate from MIT, was a close student of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, and is Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Jerusalem.  I personally hold his only other published English work, Jewish Women in Jewish Law, in very high esteem.

The Writing Style

Rav Meiselman has no problem taking others head on with whom he disagrees – this includes very direct references to the works of Rav Aryeh Kaplan, Rabbi Jonathan Saks (former chief Rabbi of the British Empire), Shlomo Sternberg (Bar Ilan professor), fundamentalist Christianity, and others.  This work also includes some obvious but never-named references to Nosson Slifkin who has gone on a very public warpath, especially through his blog, against anyone who he perceives is against his own books.  More on that later.

I’m pretty sure that it’s people such as myself who are the intended audience of this book – I come from a scientific-minded background, and very much ‘needed’ theories such as that of Gerald Schroeder (an MIT Physicist) to become Torah observant.  Once, I even picked him up at an airport, had him over for dinner with a few friends, and then drove him to his public talk so that I could directly ask him all my questions.  Now Rav Meiselman, as best I can tell doesn’t mention Schroeder or Andrew Goldfinger (Thinking about Creation – my review over here), or those of this sort who “make it fit”, but he does have a general criticism for anyone who wants to “make it fit”.  The message goes something like this: “That’s curious.”  At other times (it’s a long book), the message is more like this: “Knock it off.”

The book is best described a hybrid of encyclopedic and Solevechian.  it covers all sorts of topics to prove the point, and goes into all the details to do so with lengthy discussions of mostly the Rambam and Rashba.  It appears to me that the author’s intention is that a person might like this section or that, depending on their interest, so there is a lot of overlap or downright repetition of concepts in different sections.  Or, just if you start at point A, it will lead you to bring in point B.  So too, if you start at point C, it might bring you to point B as well, so you see point B covered twice.  This is not unlike learning Torah in general, as one thing will lead you to another, especially when learning in depth in the Solevechain method of learning.  (The Satmar Rebbe’s biography contains an indirect criticism of this approach as one doesn’t get to the point this way.)

The Approach of Rav Meiselman

Rav Meiselman’s logic is fairly straight forward.  He takes as truth our tradition that Torah was handed to us from Sinai.  This is a basic belief of Judaism.  There are a few zeniths of knowledge – when Adam was given a human soul, at Mt. Sinai, at the time of King Shlomo (First Temple Period), and again when the moschiach [messiah] arrives.  At Mt. Sinai it was greater than at the time of King Shlomo because there was direct access to the source.  King Shlomo, on the other hand, was able to logically learn out just about everything from the principles of how to restore lost information.  This included cures for diseases and the exact parameters of mitzvahs in the Torah.  The point is: the information was there, complete, and correct.

As we move further away in time from the informational zenith (but closer to another one), then not only is information lost, but even the knowledge to understand the writings of previous generations may be lost.  There *might* be errors, but we believe that the Creator is actively involved in the world, and as such, is preventing any major deviations.  More likely, we are misunderstanding.

So what happens if science and Torah don’t fit?  He divides this into two categories – 1. “extrapolative” or “historical” science and 2. confirmed tests of present reality.  The first category he does not consider science at all.  We might, say, have a working model to help us categorize such as is called “evolution” but, quoting his rebbe before him, science is overstepping it’s bounds when it posits any such thing as truth.  At best, science reveals approximations and where these approximations don’t comport with Torah from Sinai, it is the science that is wrong.  The Torah need not be “made to fit” and should not be made to fit.  For this, in Rav Meiselman’s eyes is degrading to the truth by putting it in the “one down” position and is downright dangerous.

Example – The Flood

Again, the book is large, but I’ll take a tough one because it appears scattered through the book, in order to make various points.  First, Rav Meiselman uses it to show that there is vast scientific knowledge – the very dimensions of the Tevah [Ark] have amazing buoyant properties, copied in smaller form by shipbuilders in the 1800s.  It fell out of practice because, well, steering doesn’t work so well (not a concern of Noach), but it seems to be a very maximal way of loading down a boat while it remains quite above water.

(In this section, I was also quite fascinated by mathematics discussions – such as the size of a window compared to it’s circular opening, as listed in the Talmud with what looks to be clearly erroneous numbers.  The book shows how if you stop reading it with the assumptions of modern math notation, and read it with a second set of circles around each corner, it works out quite well … and that people who could calculate the position of the moon surely weren’t so ignorant in other areas.  So too with using “3” as the calculation for Pi, as whatever number we use for Pi is always an approximation.  Using a greater approximation does not sure lack of knowledge … unless you have a pre-determined agenda.)

Then the book later comes at the ark from a different angle – that of attacks on it since a) it’s impossible to feed that many animals and b) they won’t all fit, even with the massive size of the ark.  The retort is something like this: “It’s a miracle, silly.”  It doesn’t go by natural mechanisms and the laws of physics may, or probably were, very different before, during, and after the flood.  These are different epochs of history with a world torn apart and put back together.  More than once the book references the concluding sections of Iyov [Job] and a quote from the Talmud that Iyov would be on the same level as Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov if only he didn’t think he had that right to argue with the Creator.

So then what about the sediment layers in Greenland and Antarctica that show constant deposits due to the flow of water with no evidence of a flood?  Well, the answer is above – we have no idea how the world was torn apart and put back together and what aspects were and weren’t changed.  The retort from critiques is that “G_d would then be trying to trick us.”  This book’s retort: “No, you’re tricking yourself with your own logic.”  Rav Meiselman further argues against the Greenland sediment thing by saying that there are similar deposits on Mars with no evidence of water.  So perhaps what we think we’re looking at in Greenland is quite different than scientists are theorizing.

Further, Rav Meiselman has this to say on Jewish (and to a lesser extent, Christian) apologists who want to “make it fit” by saying things like “the flood was only localized.”  The retort – then how do you explain flood stories all around the world?  See for a very extensive list. [Addendum – see comments below where more detail is provided in response to a question.]

Attack on Historical Science

On this topic, the book’s bottom line is that there’s lots of knowledge even in the amount of Torah we have today,  We have no reason to change based on what is nothing more than a new religion that is deciding otherwise based on their theories which are stacked one on top of the other.

Rav Meiselman’s sourcing on the history of science, and what knowledge came from here is impressive even if you disagree with every one of his conclusions.  Through this, the book shows quite well how theory after theory has been overturned from geo-centricity (which relativity has sort of revived) to the eternal universe to Lamarckism (the theory that the environment effects traits inherited in future generations).  When I took medical level biochemistry, I had realized on my own that every prior biology class I took lied to me about current scientific knowledge on that last point.

In very many places, Rav Meiselman makes the point that what was taught as “truth” in the scientific world (which sometimes was put into dogma of other religions formed during such times), has been overturned again and again.   If science agrees today with something in Torah, great.  If not, well – neither did plenty of other scientific theories and today’s are no different and no more believable.  A geo-centered universe needed irrational “epicycles” to explain the motion of planets.  Today’s theories require one to have faith in dark matter which is just as strange, according to the book.  Many scientists who find this troubling are referenced and it’s quite possible that these theories will also be overturned.

Another problem with modern science is that it states that all life is generated from previous life.  This worked out alright when science also taught the universe has been around for an eternal period of time, but today, a beginning is taught with spontaneous generation of life.  Yet, despite the blaring contradiction (do we have spontaneous generation or don’t we?) the theories are still taught as absolute truth.

True, Rav Meiselman states, we have some questions on things like the flood, but we have no reason to re-evaluate or re-adjust in view of another religion (which some call ‘science’) which has far greater contradictions and leaps of faith.

The Controversy

Even a summary of a 600+ book is long.  I think the above will give a reader the gist of the Rav Meiselman’s approach, but it is not without controversy.  This extends to the approach of Jewish outreach organizations, the curriculum of Jewish schools, and a debate which has been going on in the Orthodox Jewish world for quite some time.  That shall be the subject of the next article on the topic.