Thursday, June 20, 2013

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: One God vs. Moral relativism

The second Mitzva of the Ten Commandments says: 

"You shalt not have any other gods besides Me."

All other nations and civilizations in antiquity, conceived the existence and coexistence of several gods. They saw in nature (and in human society) forces that opposed to each other. Life and death, light and darkness, good and evil, etc. Their reasoning was that multiple gods must be responsible for the diversity and opposite powers of these forces.

We Jews believe that there are no powers independent from, or beyond God's control. Abraham Abinu's idea of One (and invisible) God, revolutionized humanity in many ways. Not just as an arithmetic reduction of gods, but mainly because of the political and moral implications of it.

Let me explain: Conceiving the existence of more than one God, represents an open invitation for moral relativism. One day this god is worshiped by waging war. The next day we worship the god of peace. Next week the god of love. This week the god of murder. One god is worshipped by being completely drunk. The other by not touching alcohol. Nothing is morally right or wrong in itself and forever. The morality of one's actions depends on the god one would worship that day. Which will be different from the god we will worship the following day. And who establishes which god we should worship each day? Well, that is the prerogative of the King and his entourage of priests and ministers.  The effects of idol-worshipping were well beyond the theological aspect of it. As Maimonides explained, ido-worshipping served the political power and it established a society of relative morality.  

The belief in one God to the exclusion of all sort of powers means, among other things, moral clarity. The existence of one absolute and unchangeable set of moral values. Coming from one God.

Jewish monotheism leaves no room for moral blurriness.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

SEPHARDIC RABBIS: Israel Moshe Hazan (1808-1863)

Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan was born in Smyrne, Turkey. His parents emigrated to Jerusalem when he was three years old.  There, he studied in the Yeshiba of his grandfather the famous  Rabbi Yosef Hazan, author of hiqre leb.  

In 1842 Rabbi Hazan was appointed a member of the bet din in Jerusalem. In 1844 he traveled to London and Amsterdam. He published then a small book called qinat zion (1846) against the recently established Reform movement.  In those years the Reform movement had convened in Frankfort and Brunswick deciding among other things to abolish ritual dietary Laws (kashrut), circumcision, the observance of Shabbat (S. Holdheim conducted Shabbat services on Sunday)and declaring that they do not recognize anymore the Talmud and rabbinical tradition as authoritative.   In his short book Rabbi Hazan  explained the basics of normative Judaism and defended the principles of rabbinical tradition and their authority. 
Rabbi Hazan went later to Rome where he was appointed as the rabbi of that Italian community. He tried to intercede on behalf of the Jews of Italy in the court of Pope Pius IX, in the times of the infamous Mortara case (a Jewish child kidnapped by the Church who was adopted and raised by the Pope himself.  See this.) 
Rabbi Hazan also wrote an important book on the Halakhic laws of inheritance, which include several diagrams. The book is called Nahala leIsrael and it is based on the examination of a 
complex case of inheritance involving an Italian Jewish family.   

He also authored the book qedushat yom tob , against the attempt in Italy to abolish the second day of the festivals. And Iyyei haYam, an important commentary on the responsa of the Geonim.

His most famous book is perhaps kerakh shel romi, a collection of his responsa dealing with the application of Jewish Law on various subjects, particularly the new challenges of modern life.  

In 1862 Rabbi Hazzan settled in Haifa, but died in Beirut, Lebanon.  His remains were taken for burial to Sidon since this city is regarded as being within the Halakhic borders of Eretz Israel. 

 Click here to download and read Rabbi Israel Moshe Hazan's  qin-at Zion

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

TEHILIM and the pursuit of happiness (Psalm 1)

Understanding Tehilim is the Jewish secret to build one's character.  Tehilim teaches us many important life lessons. Let us see , for example, the first mizmor (Psalm).

1:1 Happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or stands around with sinners, or joins in with mockers.

God created us with the purpose of being happy. Happiness, according to King David the author of Tehilim, depends on the combination of at least two elements: what we should pursue in life and what we should avoid.  This Psalm begins from the later.  First, King David cautions us to stay away from three type of people. 

a. Wicked. The wicked are those who are ideologically driven. They might be giving us advice or try to influence us against our well-being, for the sake of their own agendas. Illustration (a real case): a college professor with a strong anti-Israel agenda who identifies a young uninformed Jewish student and influences her to participate in an anti-Israel demonstration (what could be more desirable for his interests than a Jew rallying against Israel!). 

b. Sinners:  These are those who live a meaningless life and whose main efforts are oriented to satisfy their instincts and basic desires. Keep away from this lifestyle. They confuse happiness with temporary physical pleasures.   

3. Mockers (in modern Hebrew "clowns"). Are those who not maliciously, but foolishly, act as if their main purpose in life will be "entertainment". They devote all their free time to frivolity and shallowness. They are time-killers. And live distracted from the real meaning of life.  

King David says that our pursuit of happiness could be compromised by associating ourselves with the wrong type of  people.  Those who we befriend and/or learn from. If we follow their lead, true happiness will elude us. 

1:2. His delight is in the Tora of HaShem, and he meditates on it day and night.

David haMelekh now begins to explain what we should pursue. Happiness for us, the Jewish people, consists in following the lead of our Creator. Our formula for happiness starts by studying Tora. Acquiring thus the most important wisdom: God's wisdom. 

(to be continued)

 Click here to listen  Tehilim Psalm 1, Sephardic melody.     

Click  here, Tehilim Psalm 1, Yemenite version. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Maimonides on 'aboda zara: Unintentional idolatry

Last week we explained that according to Maimonides the origins of idol worshipping were related to a mistake in the identification of "God's agents" (what God created to physically run our planet, i.e., the sun, the moon, stars, etc. ) with God Himself. In antiquity people innocently believed that by adoring these God-created natural powers they were actually worshipping God himself (see this).

Before we continue reviewing the following halakhot of 'aboda zara I would like to reflect on the fact that 'aboda zara (which literally means "a way of worshipping God other than the way prescribed by the Tora") is still considered a great sin despite our naive intentions (or our ignorance). Many times we definitely don't mean to offend God, but we are. 

One example: a few years go I received a chain email, asking to be forwarded to other 18 people.  Like everyone else I'm used to see all kind of massive emails, some very important and some really silly. What caught my attention was that this particular email was sent to and came from people who I know, are really truly observant Jews.   

The email had attached the (photoshopped!) picture of the Helix nebula and encouraged the readers to pray for the fulfillment of their wishes while looking at the image of the Helix nebula, which looks like a "big eye"... 

This is the original email.

Subject: "May your wishes come true"    

 "You are one of my 18(chai). This e-mail came from  Israel. This photo was taken with the aid of NASA telescope, and it only happens every 3000 years. It is called the Eye of God. A lot of miracles happened to those that have gazed upon this, so make 7 wishes, even if you do not believe in it, and see what happens, what changes in your life. Send this to 18 (Chai) people on whom you would like to bestow well wishes. Do not keep it to yourself."

This was my response to the sender: 

Dear X:

"This picture is amazing and it inspires us to admire HaShem's Almighty power, and all the beautiful things He created. However, with all due respect, "to make a wish or seven wishes" to a star, or even if the intention of this email is to say that we should ask HaShem to fulfill our wishes while looking at a star or a constellation is considered 'aboda Sara: idol worshiping. The worst offense in the Tora.  Which by the way in Hebrew is called 'abodat kokhabim umazalot (worshipping of stars and constellations, the most ancient form of idol worshipping!). Despite your innocent or good intentions you should completely disregard these misleading suggestions. We, descendants of Abraham Abinu, pray directly to HaShem, never to a star, or other idols and obviously, without looking at any images.  Please send this basic information to all those who might have been mislead into committing a serious sin by that email"

As you can see, good intentions aside, we might be mistakenly mislead into 'aboda zara, even in our modern days!    

(From Sao Pablo, BRAZIL)
        √    The picture sent in the email     

 √  Read more about this 
astronomical hoax here