Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ne'ilah's Gates

Before Yom Kippur, a friend and colleague (the some one with the clever Rosh Hashana suggestion) had a good suggestion for thinking about ne'ilah. (This is the short closing service on Yom Kippur just as the day is ending. It literally means the closing of the gates, either of heaven, repentance, or prayer.) He noted that many people imagine themselves outside the gates as they are closing. (I did.) The problem is that this conveys a pretty unpleasant message: you didn't make it, or at least not yet. He suggested that I instead think about myself as being inside the gates as they are closing.

I tried it. About halfway through neilah, I imagined that I had made it through the gates and I thought of my tallis as the wings of the shechinah around me. But then I had two problematic thoughts: (1) I started worrying about the people who had not yet made it through the gates, and (2) now I didn't have to daven so hard since I was already through the gates. Blah.

So I started thinking a little more about the gates, and I had two contradictory but helpful thoughts.

The indisputable fact is that Yom Kippur is ending. And once the day is over, we will all be in the next day. So the gates of the day itself are closing, and they are closing for everyone. So everyone is on one side, the good side, the Yom Kippur side. And as the sun sets, we all move through the gates together, the gates close, and Yom Kippur is over. The holiday was whatever we made of it, and we are done.

I then had a second thought. The gates are the special gates of prayer or of repentance open only on Yom Kippur. We ourselves do not actually go through the gates; only our prayers or our repentance do. And they close for everyone when Yom Kippur ends (although other gates are certainly open then).

Here, as in many other parts of Judaism, there are multiple, overlapping, and even contradictory ways of thinking about the same idea.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Sukkot - Time to Start Building

Sukkot might be one of the few post-denominational holidays. Everyone can do what they love. Orthodox Jews can focus on lots of technical halachic details, like how much wall flapping is permitted. Reform Jews can think about social justice issues, like people who have no home at all, let alone a sukkah. Conservative Jews can agonize endlessly over which sukkot rules to change, if any, and who should make that determination, and how, and after considering what, and .... And if they are using their sukkah from last year, Reconstructionist Jews may literally be reconstructing.

But the one thing that should unite everyone is that Sukkot is a holiday of joy. Literally: z'man simchateinu. So after the apples and honey have been eaten, the lists of goals made, the forgiveness sought and received, the fasting both fasted and break-fasted, it is time for some pure happiness. I have previously written about why everyone should celebrate Sukkot and some practical issues in building your own sukkah. (Hint: use bolts not screws, so that it is easier to dissemble and reuse next year.) And if you have young kids, they love to help build and decorate a sukkah.

So go plan and build your sukkah. Remember, there is no weekend between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, so start planning and building now. Have a meaningful Yom Kippur, but then have a wonderful Sukkot.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Evolution or Non-Evolution of Jewish Practices and Law

Ben Z at Mah Rabu has a post on egalitarian issues in marriage entitled Marriage In Generalized Coordinates. He used some advanced math (including Lagrangian mechanics), but his basic point is that since we have not worked out all the kinks in how to do a more egalitarian wedding ceremony, individual people have to do a lot more thinking, compromising, and trial-and-error work than would otherwise be true.

Ben's post raises an interesting general point about the evolution of Jewish practices and their resulting or non-resulting equilibrium. Ben's background is in physics, but mine is in both law and economics. (My use of Lagrange multipliers was limited to solving n-dimensional optimization problems.) And so I approached this issue a little differently.

Here's the problem. Traditional Judaism advocates particular Jewish practices, rituals, and laws. Before the modern age, these were more or less universally accepted as what Judaism advocated, even if particular people might not follow them. (So there was a traditional standard of kashrut, or of shabbat observance, although some people did not keep kosher or shabbat.) But in the modern age, there has been pressure to change some some of these laws in light of modern ideals, especially in the Reform and Conservative world. The problem is that they have not evolved into a single new standard, but have resulted in many people and many communities each doing their own thing.

I am not arguing whether this is good or bad, only that it has happened.

To see the problem, it might be helpful to look at both law and economics. Both of these fields involve evolution. Legal rules change over time, and current American law is quite different from English common law from 700 years ago, even though it evolved from this. But we have a single law (at least in any single jurisdiction) not a bunch of people, each with their own law.

And of course institutions in the economy change and evolve. New companies are created and succeeds, some companies fail, some new product succeed, and others fail. We are constantly getting better mousetraps, but there is a lot of confusion as the "gale of creative destruction" works its toll.

Both the common law and the economy are able to evolve only because of a complex backdrop of institutions. The common law requires a complex set of courts, litigants, parties, legislatures, prior case law, and rules that require general deference but some flexibility when it comes to previous decisions. The economy requires a complex backdrop of property, contract, and tort law, as well as corporate law and bankruptcy law. It also requires risk takers and risk avoiders, financial capital, human capital, and plain old ingenuity. Without all of these institutions, it would be impossible to evolve --- that is, to move from one state to another while still maintaining some continuity with the past.

Jewish law and Jewish practices have a hard time evolving. And perhaps one reason is the lack of institutions that make this possible.

In the Orthodox world, the tendency is not to evolve. The decision rules of halacha are backwards looking. Once prior generations have decided an issue, it is difficult if not impossible to reverse that. There are some modifications in the interstices, but things tend to be pretty static. Of course, this leads to its own problems. In America, Orthodoxy is often out of sync with the broader society, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. This dissonance leads to problems that Orthodoxy must address, and how to deal with the modern world is one key area that separates Modern Orthodoxy from hareidi Orthodoxy.

In the non-Orthodox world, the goal is to evolve, at least where appropriate. As we reach new understandings of things like Bible criticism, science, feminism, and egalitarianism, we tend to modify or want to modify some rules and practices and beliefs. (Ben Z's marriage discussion is one example of this.) But we lack the institutions to allow this to evolve, as opposed to simply changing into radically decentralized individual decisionmaking.

I think this problem is most acute in the Reform world. With its emphasis on individualism and autonomy, Reform in effect encourages people to make their own decisions. As a result, longstanding practices not only get changed, but they get changed into numerous different things. And this problem will only grow worse over time. It is hard to maintain a community and community standards when everyone in theory is encouraged to do whatever he or she finds meaningful. And this in turn makes it hard for new dominant practices to emerge and to reach new equilibria. As Ben Z noted, there are a lot of people doing a lot of thinking and coming up with a lot of new wedding ceremonies.

The Conservative movement tries to address this problem with the Rabbinical Assembly and to a lesser extent with other central organizations. The problem here is more practical and sociological. Few Conservative Jews pay attention to this. When deciding whether to eat peanut butter during Passover, Conservative Jews weigh many different considerations, but reviewing the RA's teshuvah on this issue is probably not high on the list. Thus, despite some institutional structure leading to centralized decisionmaking, and thus possibly to new equilibria, these institutions might not have sufficient power, or even social pressure, to produce new practices.

The result of all of this is that over time, Orthodoxy may grow more out of sync with the rest of the world, while Reform and Conservative Judaism may grow out of sync with traditional Judaism with themselves.

Of course, it is not clear that this is a problem. It may be that the lack of a single equilibrium is on balance beneficial. Different communities can have different standards, and people will go where they are most comfortable. But it has costs too, as Ben's example illustrates. There is not a single (or even a small set) of egalitarian wedding ceremonies that have commanded universal acceptance. So Ben, his wife, and lots of other people spend a lot of time thinking about and inventing such ceremonies.

If this is a problem, the solution for Reform and Conservative Jews is to devise some institutional structures that can provide a counterbalance to the decentralizing and centrifugal forces already in operation. (See Ben - I can use physics terms too.) I am not sure what these institutions are, though. They do not have to be central organizations of rabbis (although that may be part of it), and they will need to have broader popular appeal.


Blog format update

L'shana tovah everyone.

I have made a short change to the blog format. I have created two general indexes, one for the TMH / DH project, and one for the blog in general. I then included links to these indexes in the margin on the right. Hopefully, that will increase the readability, decrease the clutter, and make navigation a little easier.

UPDATE: I probably should have put the links here.

General index

Torah Min Hashamayim / Documentary Hypothesis index


Monday, September 14, 2009

Preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - Part III

Following up on parts 1 and 2. Jeff Bernhardt published an interesting article in the Jewish Journal entitled "In Approaching the High Holy Days, It Pays to Take Time to Prepare." It is along the same lines as my earlier posts. Well worth a look.


Monday, September 7, 2009

In That Very Day - P

Friedman points out that the phrase "in that very day" (sometimes translated "in that selfsame day" or "in that same day") occurs 11 times on the Torah. Ten of these are in P, and the 11th is R, modeled after P. The Hebrew is "בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה" or "b'etzem ha-yom ha-zeh".

Here is the list:

Gen 7:13 - "In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah's wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark."

Gen 17:23 - "And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him."

Gen 17:26 - "In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son."

Exod. 12:17 - "And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt . . . ."

Exod 12:41 - "And it came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the host of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt."

Exod 12:51 - "And it came to pass the selfsame day that the LORD did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts."

Lev 23:14 - "And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor fresh ears, until this selfsame day, until ye have brought the offering of your God; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings."

Lev. 23:21 - [On Shavuot]: "And ye shall make proclamation on the selfsame day; there shall be a holy convocation unto you; ye shall do no manner of servile work . . . "

Lev 23:28 - [On Yom Kippur] "And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. "

Lev 23:28 - "For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people."

Deut 32:48 - "And the LORD spoke unto Moses that selfsame day, saying:" [continued in 32:49-50: 'Get thee up into this mountain of Abarim, unto mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, that is over against Jericho; and behold the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel for a possession; and die in the mount whither thou goest up, and be gathered unto thy people; as Aaron thy brother died in mount Hor, and was gathered unto his people.'] (Note: this is from R.)

This phrase arises in very different contexts, including narrative stories (Noah's flood, Abraham's circumcision, the exodus from Egypt, death of Moses) and the laws of holidays (Passover barley offering, Shavuot, Yom Kippur).


Sinai and Horeb - Criticism of the DH

Oswald T. Allis in "The Five Books of Moses" (3rd ed 1964) attacks the DH and defends the traditional view. In this book, he addresses the Sinai-Horeb issue. His general argument is that J and E get really fragmented if one tries to separate them, and he is right. Advocates of the documentary hypothesis note this as well. If the only sources were J and E, the theory would be considerably weaker. But we also have P and D and they break more cleanly.

Let's look at his argument in detail. In making a more general point (that there are sometimes variations in wording within a single source, even though one would expect uniformity) (p. 34), Allis includes an endnote (p. 310, n. 27), where he discusses Horeb and Sinai:

If Horeb is regarded as characteristic of E (Ex. iii.1, xcii.6, xxxiii.6), the mention of Sinai six times in Ex. xix constitutes a serious difficulty, since all critics apparently find a considerable E element in this chapter. According to Driver the verses which mention Sinai are either P (vss. 1, 2a) or J (vss. 11, 18, 20, 23), while vss 2b, 3a, 10-11a, 14-17, 19 are given to E. . . . But this analysis destroys the continuity of both E and J. E.g., E skips from Ex. ii.14 (or 10) to iii.1 and then to iii.4b.

Let's unpack this argument. Allis argues that if we separate E and J using the Horeb / Sinai distinction, we run into a problem with the story in Exodus 19 (were God revealed himself just before giving the Ten Commandments). More specifically, once we separate out the J and P elements from the story, we are left with an incomplete E narrative.

Allis uses Driver's breakdown of the sources. However, as I have noted, Friedman later revised this breakdown slightly and reverses some of the J and E sources. (See my Exodus comparison chart --- good thing I put that together.) Friedman's E story coveres 19:2a-9, 16b-17, and 19.) (This argument is easier to follow with an open Torah.)

How does this argument hold up? P is not a problem. The P source is simply the introductory sentence 19:1, and R has 19:2a.

E and J are a little messier, but not too bad. They are interwoven, but E stands in pretty good shape. God talks to Moses (19:3-6), and Moses tells the elders and the people (19:7-8), and then God speaks again to Moses and tells him he will appear in a cloud (19:9). And the God does so. (19:16b-17, 19.) Driver's version (see the chart) is a little shorter and choppier, but still hangs together as a coherent story.

J also holds up. In it, God tells Moses to tell the people to get ready (19:10-13) and he does so (19:14-15). On the third day, there is thunder and lightening, smoke, and God appears and speaks to Moses again. (19:16a, 18, 20-25.)

So Allis's more general point is one worth considering and I think it is one that is universally acknowledged. If separating the sources produces incoherent or incomplete stories, that weakens the claim for the DH. Conversely, if separating the stories produces complete and coherent stories, which are themselves inconsistent with other narratives, that strengthens the claim. But everyone acknowledges that separating the sources sometimes produces complete and consistent narratives that are themselves inconsistent with other narratives (like the two creation stories), sometimes produces messier fragments, and sometimes produces something in the middle. And I think everyone acknowledges that this is more of a problem with J and E, and less of a problem with P, E, and JE.

But here, once Friedman's revisions are taken into account, the E source is fragmentary but not incoherent.

So I will keep this argument in mind as we go through other sources.


Sinai and Horeb - Traditional Explanations

As noted earlier, the mountain where God appeared to the Children of Israel is called both Sinai and Horeb. As discussed earlier, the Documentary Hypothesis notes that P and J exclusively use Sinai and E and D exclusively used Horeb.

I have not yet been able to find a traditional explanation of the use of these two names. Rashi does not mention anything. The Talmud notes that these names refer to the same mountain, and then notes the derivations of the names:

What is [the meaning of] Mount Sinai? The mountain whereon there descended hostility [sin'ah] toward idolaters. And thus R. Jose son of R. Hanina said: It has five names: [...] Whilst what was its [real] name? Its name was Horeb. Now they disagree with R. Abbahu, For R. Abbahu said: its name was Mount Sinai, and why was it called Mount Horeb? Because desolation [hurbah] to idolaters descended thereon.

(Shab 89a-89b)

Without getting into the merits of this claim, it simply is addressing a different question. Regardless of how the names were derived and what they mean, why is it that one name is used in certain places and another name is used in other places?

If anyone has an explanation from traditional sources, please leave a comment.