Vol. I, No. 4

You can also read previous studies on this site.

Let's Learn! is an exploration of Judaism, Zionism, the Jewish People, and God's world, guided by Yaakov Fogelman, who lectures on Torah and Religious Zionism; sets and disks of these studies, which include all the Torah readings and holidays, as well as his audio and video tapes, are available at TOP. See In the Service of God, by Shalom Freedman (Jason Aronson, $30 from TOP), for his views, together with those of 20 other teachers of Torah, on Judaism, Zionism and the Jewish People today.

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I. Beyond the Torah.
II. Fathers Know Best.
III. Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?
IV Torah Today.

This study is sponsored by Robert and Evelyn Sunray, in memory of her father, Fred Adler, z"l, 8 Elul.



Abarbanel explores the composition of the Tanach in his introduction to Yehoshua, after his short autobiography (recommended by Dr. Moshe Greenberg). As usual, he's rational, systematic, and full of common sense. In many ways, I find him much closer to modern language and outlook than later great rabbis, e.g. Vilna Gaon and Baal Hatanya; they, in turn, appear much more worldly than great, but insular, east European rabbis of only 100 years ago.

Abarbanel first focuses on the names of the three divisions of the Tanach; he assumes that the three (rabbinic?) names, Torah, Prophets and Writings, reflect either their different authors, their leitmotif or contents, or the form of their delivery to Israel, oral or written. The name TORAH, teaching, denotes the CONTENTS of the Pentateuch, the 5 Books of Moshe, God's factory authorized instruction manual, teaching man how to live by God's rules. PROPHETS refers to the AUTHORS of those works, not to their contents-- prophecies; WRITINGS refers to the form in which these books were given, thru the WRITINGS of inspired men. Why aren't The Prophets and The Writings named for their contents, like The Torah, e.g. Prophecies or Words 0f Holiness? Or why weren't all 3 parts named after their authors, e.g. The Giver of the Torah or The Master Prophet or The Torah of Moshe, The Prophets, and The Speakers With The Holy Spirit? If the form of delivery is the criteria, why not simply call all three, and subsequent writings, Writings or Holy Writ, as opposed to oral torah? Why not include Torah in Prophets-- Moshe is indeed the master prophet? Further, since The Torah also includes much historic, narrative and prophetic material, why call it only Torah, which refers only to its commandments?-- the general term Prophecies or Revelations might be more suitable.

Abarbanel, who lived about 1000 years after the closing of the Talmud, found only one predecessor who dealt with this problem-- a grammerian, who equates the 3 divisions of The Tanach-- Torah, Prophets and Writings-- with those of the tabernacle (Mikdash): 1) the holy of holies, containing the ark, with its cherubic cover, the tablets and the Torah; 2) the Mikdash proper (heichal), containing the altar of incense, the table, and the menora; 3) the outer courtyard, with the laver, its base, and the altar of animal sacrifice; he also equates both Tanach and the Tabernacle and their divisions with those of the universe itself-- 1) the Higher Intelligence of God Himself and the angels, source of the Torah; 2) the heavenly world of galgalim (galaxies?) and pure rains, source of the Prophets, also from God, but via the Active Intellect, influenced by heavenly forces; 3) our lower world of temporal experience and loss, where the Holy Spirit, ruach hakodesh, generates life wisdom, via The Writings. The order of this division is to be strictly preserved (YF: What indeed would happen if we confused Prophets and Writings?). While Abarbanel appreciates his predecessor's efforts, they do not address his questions as to the origin and inner consistancy of the names of the 3 divisions of the Tanach.

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Abarbanel's own conclusion is that The Torah is called such to stress its unique contents, God's laws of life, which are not derived from the Prophets or Writings, tho it too contains prophecy. Prophets are so called to distinguish them from The Writings, which, tho divinely inspired by Ruach Hakodesh, a holy spirit, are not prophecy, tho written by prophets. The title Writings distinguishes its content from other aspects of the authors' lives, which didn't even reflect ruach hakodesh, just high level natural, tho holy, human development; he also cites the division of the O.T. according to Christian scholars (he'd be a good scholar in residence at the Hartman Institute or Tantour), but rejects their division, which implies that David was a prophet too-- he wasn't.

Michael Fishbane, in Text and Texture-- Close Readings of Selected Biblical Texts, demonstrates how a sensitivity to the literary dynamics of the biblical text can lead to a new understanding of its religious dimensions:

"... the Bible is a religious teaching, recording moments of meeting between God and man, and, more particularly, the ongoing relationship between The Unconditioned One and the people of Israel. The creature before, in search of, and in response to his creator; the creator before, in search of, and in response to His creatures; these are the eternal subjects of the Bible. The dialectic of response and responsibility between the Divine Presence and the religious spirit of man covers all areas of life. Nothing is excluded or excludable.

II. A TASTE OF TALMUD-- FATHERS KNOW BEST (Mothers weren't involved much in Talmud, which may have limited its experience and insights)

One gains an overview of the talmud just by contemplating the chapter headings and a few sentences from Adin Steinsaltz's classic, The Essential Talmud ($22 from TOP). We continue our review of that essential work, Part 2, Structure and Content:

Ch. 22, Dietary Laws: "The Dietary Laws, specifying which foods are prohibited and which permitted, are associated with several extremely diverse areas... all these dietary bans have several common halachic characteristics, and the codification of dietary laws (kashrut) called for the integration of many subjects into one significant whole. The halacha on problems concerning dietary laws is discussed at great length in tractate Chulin, but the wider theoretical aspects, which touch on many areas of halacha, are to be found in almost every tractate and constitute an involved, but fascinating, subject of study. Ch. 23, Ritual Purity and Impurity: "The laws of ritual purity and impurity take up a whole order of the Mishna and, even more than sacrificial law, constitute a self-sufficient unit, that is perhaps the most reocndite section of the Talmud. The laws of purity are essentially a complex unified network of laws, interrelated within a special logical structure. Altho the Torah devoted considerable space to them, it offered no explanations."

Ch. 24, Ethics and Halacha: "Halacha is essentially law, but, by virtue of its structure, it contains elements of ethics, and of a certain general outlook on life (see Eugene Korn's recent article in Tradition). From the point of view of its general composition and its inflexibility, it resembles other codes, that cannot be adapted to every eventuality or circumstance that arises... these basic problems, which are sometimes defined as dealing with the relationship between `truth' and `peace', were never easily resolved. Should justice (which is truth) be preferred to compromise (which brings peace) , or is absolute truth always unobtainable?" Ch. 25, Derech Eretz (Deportment): "The term derech eretz has various meanings in talmudic literature. Above all it is `the way of the world', the way in which people behave, accepted deportment. It is not contained within a fixed code within the halacha, and altho rendered in detail in the Talmud, these halachot are not binding. Derech Eretz is regarded as the foundation for any kind of progress, rather than as law. Rules changed from time to time and place to place, but a man is generally expected to behave in accordance with prevailing custom."

Ch. 26, The World of Mysticism: "The Talmud usually mirrors the issues studied in the acadamies over the centuries, but it undoubtedly contained many halachot and legends that did not originate in public discussions there... Together with the public statements uttered before all the academy students, there were various subjects that were discussed in closed sessions... there was a whole world of mysticism and mystery that was concealed from the general public, and transmitted only to a chosen few... We find books dealing with mysticism that date from ancient times, several of them attributed to mishnaic and talmudic sages. It is, however, impossible to ascertain which, indeed, were written by these authors".

Part 3, Method:

Ch. 27, Midrash (Halachic Exegesis): "Midrash Halacha (from the root drash-- to enquire or investigate) is the body of literature that interprets Mosaic Law, seeking evidence and suggestions within the text to further comprehension... the basic problem of Midrash is the ? of whether examination of the biblical text and the various logical methods of interpretation are the true source of the legislation derived from it (or just an important mnemotechnical instrument-- see III infra). Ch. 28, The Talmudic Way of Thinking: "The Talmud is unique, not only in its subject matter, but also, and perhaps to an even greater extent, in the way it discusses its themes. The same issues are handled in other ways by later halachic and kabalistic works. But the ? is whether talmudic scholarship created a unique logical structure, or merely utilized unique methods of demonstration. Ch. 29, Strange and Bizarre Problems: "Acquaintance with the basic talmudic methods furthers our comprehension of an ostensibly odd phenomenon-- the bizarre and outlandish issues sometimes debated therein. The problems that are clarified with great thoroughness and seriousness are largely of practical and prosaic interest, and, in some cases, their solution has practical implications. But the Talmud also relates to ?? that are extremely unlikely to arise in everyday life, and to some that may not be totally unrealistic, but appear absurd, because details of infinitesimal importance are discussed with a gravity out of all proportion to their significance... Many of these bizarre and imaginative issues are relevant even in the sphere of practicqal halacha, because the principles and rulings derived from the discussion are applicable elsewhere".

Ch. 30, Methods of Study: "The Talmud, as a many-faceted and diverse work, and the main object of Jewish scholarship over the centuries, has been taught according to many different methods, and adapted to new locales and different eras. The contrast between the North African-Sephardi exegetic method-- with its tendency to contemplate issues as a whole-- and the Franco-Ashkenazi method-- which studied the talmud in infinitesimal detail-- is an expression of basic differences in ways and objectives of learning. The Sephardi system (championed by the Maharal), to a large extent, focused on the ? of halacha and halachic ruling. The Franco-Ashkenazi method (championed by Tosafot)... to a certain extent... should be regarded as the continuation of Talmudic ways of thinking, the aim being to create, as it were, a Talmud on the talmud. Ch. 31, The Talmud and the Halacha: "The Talmud, unlike the Mishna, is not largely a work of halacha, altho it is undoubtedly the most important and authoritative halachic source ever composed. In other words, the primary source for the body of Jewish law is not itself a legal work-- to be continued.

Sample chapters of Talmudic learning are featured in study guides published by the Jewish Agency ($12 from TOP). The fine El Am Talmud project, with comprehensive notes, edited by Dr. A. Ehrman, folded after publishing 6 slim volumes. Both Artscrolls and Steinsaltz now publish talmudic tractates with more extensive and expensive English commentary, but neither is yet complete.


Let's continue Dr. Meyer Waxman's review of Orthodox Talmudist historian Isaac HaLevy's magnum opus, Dorot Rishonim, in A History of Hebrew Literature (Vol. 4, Ch. 11): "The 3rd volume of HaLevy's first division is of exceptional importance, inasmuch as it contains the author's main theory on the origin, nature and content of the oral law, the manner of its tradition during the Second Commonwealth, up to the first generation of Tannaim, and its embodiment in the Mishna (see II. supra). The first section deals with the reign of Herod. A part of it deals with the political history of the time, in which several just observations on the character of the monarch are made, but its main purpose is to serve as prolegomena to the author's theory on the Oral Law and the Mishnah. Its substance is that the traditional (vs. Conservative or alleged Masorati Hauptmanian) view, which maintains that the Oral Law in its great bulk is of Sinaitic origin, and was handed down in its entirety thru the ages, is the right one, and that the additions, changes or modifications by the generations of Tannaim and the scholars preceding them, including the Soferim, relate only to minor matters.

Halevy often alludes to the fully developed oral law during the First Temple Period. His principal contention is that the fundamental layers of the Mishna were already arranged by the Great Assembly or the Soferim, and that the halacha was not derived by them thru the method of interpretation of the verses of the Bible known as Midrash, but that it was formulated by them entirely out of the tradition received from earlier times. All the differences of opinion on legal matters which we find among the scholars known as the Zugot (pairs) and later among the Tannaim from Hillel on, are only in regard to the explanations of portions of the early part of the Mishna, which, due to the turbulent conditions of the times, were forgotten. Likewise he asserts that many rabbinic ordinances (takanot) we find in later times were all known to the scholars of the Great Assembly, and that they existed even in prophetic times. They were merely re-enacted... He does not prove his theory in a systematic way, but makes an effort in the first section to afford a basis for such proof. The second section is devoted to detailed proof of his theory. In the 3rd section, he claims that the Sadducees were primarily a political party, the descendants of the Hellenists, who later became the ruling faction. They had no interest in tradition at all, but were forced to observe a part of the Law, because of the temper of the people (cf. Israeli politicians). There were no Sadducean scholars, and their relation to the law was an arbitrary one. He accuses other historians of distorting history and logic, and of ignorance of the texts.

"Judging the views as a whole, we can say that, while they undoubtedly cannot be accepted in their entirety, they contain elements of truth. There is no doubt that the oral Law is not entirely the result of the activity of the scholars of the 2nd Commonwealth, as some savants maintain, and that a large part of it goes back even to the period of the 1st Temple. It is also true that a larger part of the Mishna, than is usually allowed by historians, dates from earlier times, even to the period of the Great Assembly, and that HaLevy may be right in ascribing sections of it to those times. On the other hand, it is also true that the activity of the schools of the Tannaim, beginning with Hillel and Shamai, resulted in the addition of many new laws and ordinances, and that it did not consist mainly of explanations of the meaning of the early Mishna (YF: perhaps Torah, like science, is given by God with the understanding that man will gradually reveal its secrets and messages thruout the ages, as he continues to develop his Divine Image. Perhaps God expects someone like R. Gershom to eventually conclude that polygamy is not His true desire, unless, like Yaakov Emden, we label the ban on polygamy a non-Jewish reversion; Rav M. Gafni claims that kabbalists indeed sensed that Rashby did not write The Zohar, but tried to maintain its stature by describing De Leon's authorship in 1268 as the product of "automatic writing" or some other Divine Device).

Likewise, Midrash undoubtedly played an important part in the growth of the halacha, and numerous laws were deduced by that method. It is curious that Halevy... omitted to discuss the important subject of the 7 hermeneutical rules established by Hillel, which were later expanded by R. Yishmael into 13, and which form the basis of all motivated halacha from Hillel to the close of the Mishna.

If, as he says, all halachot are tradition, and interpretations were only used as "props", why did Hillel find it necessary to invent a whole system of rules, and why were these rules cultivated so intensely by generations of tannaim? Nor does he discuss the famous ordinance of Hillel, known as Prusbal, declaring debts and loans void during a sabbatical year. It was certainly an innovation, not a reenactment. His tendency is always to antedate activities, and to minimize those of the generations of the period he is dealing with... Halevy, in the long course of his discussion, corrected a large number of historical details in the works of earlier scholars. Besides, his extremism may serve as a check against views of scholars (YF: often relatively ignorant of Jewish tradition) who veer in the opposite direction, and endeavor to minimize the force of continued tradition in Jewish history, making the complex oral law a result of haphazard causes and imaginary conditions. No new history of the ramified subject of the Oral Law can be written w/o consulting Halevy.

Waxman is more enthused by the other pioneering Orthodox academic Jewish History, Zev Wolf Yavetz's Toledot Yisrael; Yavetz also tries to correct the traditional bias against traditional beliefs of the early modern Jewish historians. Its value lies not only in the fact that it has a wide scope, covering a large area of time and events, and that it is free of the grievous faults of Halevy, and is written in a lucid and highly literary style, but lies mainly in the spirit with which it is permeated and the method of its narrative, both of which impart to it a unique quality in historical literature. We'll explore it in our next issue, the Good Lord willing.

IV. TORAH TODAY This page is dedicated to contemporary issues, and to depictions of folks and facts from the last hundred years or so.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh spoke on "Coming Home: Making contact With Our Spiritual Roots", at Jerusalem's reform, spiritual, but non-halachic, Kol Haneshama Synagogue this summer; hundreds of people paid 40 shekel each, to be told that they must mantain contact with their Jewish ancestors, "benefit" them, and perpetuate their learning and civilization; thereby, they also benefit their descendants-- any Jerusalem haredi loyalist would have gladly given them this message gratis, along with "how-to-do-it" instructions. Yet many who came, mostly yuppie Israelis, but including prominent local hassidic teachers-- e.g. Mimi Feigelson, David Zeller and Menachem and Batya Kalish, experienced special integrity, truth and peace in this Vietnamese monk, Martin Luther King Jr.'s nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. In his books and tapes, he stresses constant focus upon the hundred million miracles constantly surrounding us, and in the functioning of each part of our body; should all men be so filled with religious awe, Thich contends, they'll cooperate, rather than contend, with each other. But his pacifist anti-Biblical and anti-Entebbe message, never to kill anyone, is immoral-- it would lead to Hitler's domination of the world.

It's somewhat amusing and sad to see secular and reform Israelis, so far from their own heritage, often preaching free love and expressing their personalities in their non-conformist colorful clothing, sitting in awe in front of a celibate Buddhist monk, dressed in severe uniform brown "haredi" garb, while being told to return to their own roots! Psychologist Yehuda Lave feels that some of the older California baalei tshuva crowd present were reliving their 60's and 70's youthful Woodstock Zen pursuits. I am uncomfortable with anything involving idolatry, the worship of statues, e.g. Buddha; so, on impulse, when I got to the lecture, I went downstairs instead, to an excellent talmud class, tho the Conservative teacher hadn't researched the traditional commentaries; about 8 attended; none wore kippot. Kol Hanashama charged me 20 Sh. for the one class, the price for the 3 sessions-- Reform Jews claim that they are kind and ethical. By the time the class was finished, the Zen lecture was over; I found that many folks whom I greatly respect were enthused by Hanh. So I borrowed his book, Touching Peace; tho Hanh is Buddhist, possibly idolatrous, and can not teach us Torah, all mankind possesses wisdom, from which we can benefit; every human being can also develop his/her innate divine-image soul.

I found the book profound, eloquent and informative; its insights resemble those of neo-Chassidic Rav Mordecai Gafni, who contends, nevertheless, that mainstream Buddhism is infused with basic concepts alien to Judaism (e.g. seeking Nirvena, rather than social action, the monastic ideal); thus it is not a good source for Jews who seek spirituality. Celibate Hanh, lacking marriage and chilldren, may have only limited insights into the human condition-- cf. Catholic priests and nuns. The Buddhist nuns appeared drab and colorless, but I didn't get to speak to them. Let's sample "Touching Peace":

"When we enter a relationship, we feel excitement, enthusiasm, and the willingness to explore. But we do not really understand ourselves or the other person very well yet. Living together twenty-four hours a day, we look, listen, and experience many things we have not seen or imagined before. When we fell in love, we constructed a beautiful image that we projected onto our partner, and now we are a little shocked, as our illusions disappear and we discover the reality. Unless we know how to practice mindfulness together, looking deeply into ourselves and our partner, we may find it difficult to sustain our love through this period...

"When you love someone, you want him to be happy. If he is not happy, there is no way you can be happy. Happiness is not an individual matter. True love requires deep understanding. If you do not understand, you cannot love properly. Without understanding, your love will only cause the other person to suffer.

"When you first fall in love and you feel attached to the other person, that is not yet real love. Real love means loving kindness and compassion, the kind of love that does not have any conditions. You form a community of two in order to practice love-- taking care of each other, helping you partner blossom, and making happiness something real in that small community. Through your love for each other, through learning the art of making one person happy, you learn to express your love for the whole of humanity..." See our B'haaloscha 97 study for a bit more on Hanh.

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