Thursday, March 18, 2010

Uncle Why Explains Taboos, er, I mean Tattoos

Note - This post is a continuation of my earlier post, Uncle Why leaves the Jews "Open to Interpretation". I recommend that you read that post before reading this one.

Well, boys and girls it really is time to answer one of your Jews questions. This one comes from Charel somewhere in Queensland down under.
--Hi Charel ---
Charel writes:

Dear Uncle Why,

I am recently converted and I read somewhere where a person claims that the prohibition against tattoos is "open to interpretation". So, if someone believes completely in the 13 Principles of Faith, but would still like to get a tatoo - where do they fall?

Thanks, Charel. In this case, I must tell you Charel, that they fall just about a low as they can go. And let me explain Why.

With relation to the "family of Man" as a whole, the Jews have been singled out. And we have been singled out for one purpose: to be a ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש - to be a "kingdom of priests and a sacred nation". This means that we must be role models of dignity and decency and a bit more disciplined than the average James. And it means more than anything else that we must distance ourselves from a whole list of practices that the Torah considers to be morally decadent.

For this purpose, the Torah designated a special parsha in sefer Vayikra to spell out for us what the kedusha of being Jewish is all about and exactly what are the decadent practices that we must eschew. The pasha is named "Parshat Kedoshim" and it begins by commanding us that we must be a Holy people (even though we heard this already).

And why?

Because HKBH is Holy. And our job is to show the world to what degree a Human being can become like Him (B"H).

As a result, Kedoshim Tihiyu becomes the definition of what being a גוי קדוש is and, by extention, the definition of what being Jewish is. Conversely, one who transgresses on Kedoshim Tihiyu is not acting "like a Jew".

So now let us discuss one mitzvah that is listed in Kedoshim Tihiyu (Vayikra 19:28): the prohibition against "embedded writing in the flesh" a.k.a. tattoos.

As I indicated, the mere positioning of this prohibition is Parshat Kedoshim tells us much about it. The Torah considers it a decadent practice. The Rambam - yes, the one quoted in the chapter, places the laws of this prohibition in Hilchos Avoda Zara (12:11). And he tells us as such: 

וזה היה מנהג העכו"ם שרושמין עצמן לעבודת כוכבים כלומר שהוא עבד מכור לה ומורשם לעבודתה

And this was the practice of the idol worshippers that would mark themselves for idolatry to proclaim that this person has sold himself to it and is marked for its service.

Though this may be what "triggered" the prohibition, the Torah does not limit the prohibition as applicable exclusively when done in the service of idolatry. All tattoos are forbidden. So, although engraving a tattoo may not be actual worship (and thus does not incur the death penalty), it is cast as an idolotrous practice. Incidentally, if it is done as an actual idolotrous ritual, it does indeed incur the death penalty as that is the law by all rituals that are recognized as components of a specific form of foreign worship.

Beyond the direct association to idolatry, there it has a more "secular" standing as "chukos hagoyim" or "darkei emori". Thus, the Shulchan Aruch lists this transgression in the following sequence:
Laws of idol worship > laws of usury (Ribbis) > laws of Chukos Hagoyim > laws of witchcraft and sorcery > laws of incisions and tattoos.

In addition to this, one the the disciplines of Kedusha is to acknowledge that we cannot just decorate our bodies any way we like.

Many people who engrave tattoos, especially highly visible ones, will say that they are "making a statement". No doubt. From our perspective this is the statement that he (or she) is making:

  • I have no regard for the laws of G-d's Torah

  • I believe that my body is mine to do with it what I please

  • I have not detached myself from Chukos Hagoyim

And he/she is making this loud statement 24/7/365/120.

Because, unlike other Dark-ei Emori that last until the sun comes up, a tattoo doesn't heal or wear away. It sticks around!

Now, most Jews from traditional Jewish families don't even think much about all of this. This is because in Jewish culture, we are basically raised looking upon tattoos as something repulsive and un-Jewish. For the vast majority, it does not even strike us as a temptation. And if a born Jew willingly engraves a tattoo on his body, it is seen as a blatant rebellion.

Now it seems that for those from non-Jewish cultures who seek to join us, there is something very alluring about a tattoo. And this can be quite dangerous. Because when somebody endeavors to join the Jewish people one of the most essential aspects is to demonstrate that he has left his attachment to Chukos Hagoyim at the door. To not do so serves to undermine one's total commitment.

So my advice to you, Charel, is that even if you admire tattoos you must make sure to admire them from a distance. As far away as you can get. And it is not a good idea to give credence to any soul so lost that they can consider a practice that is so clearly rooted in paganism and so starkly repulsed in our tradition to be "open to interpretation". Because as long as the clearly stated and codified laws of the Torah can be considered "open to interpretation", the status of one who sees the Torah this way can also be considered "open to interpretation".

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Who Arranges the Seats?

Today is Yaakov's secular birthday. Yaakov was born 21 tears ago (author note - I obviously meant to write "years ago" and I hit the next key to the left, but I decided not to fix it and call it a "Freudian slip") in a hospital called Saint Francis. Maayanei Hayeshua wasn't built yet.

St. Francis is very different than Maayanei Hayeshua. For one thing, we couldn't depend on the hashgacha. Aside from that, they have much less births per month and most of the babies are not Jewish. Yaakov was the only baby born that day who wasn't named Patrick.

Night before last I attended a very interesting wedding. On the Kallah's side was Rav Gavriel Sherman. He is a brother to Rav Avraham Sherman who has been widely acclaimed (and disclaimed) for his recent bold rulings concerning geirus. He was in attendance. On the chosson's side was Rav Yitzchak Bar Chaim. He is one of the founders and administrators of Nahal Haredi.

What a match!

You can only imagine who else may have been hanging around that hall!

My invitation to the wedding came from Rav Bar Chaim. For one thing, we both regularly attend a shiur given by the Admor of Tolna on Thursday nights. But it wasn't the shiur that brought us to know each other. It was Patrick --er, um-- I mean Yaakov.

Yaakov is signing up for Nachal Charedi!

And as I danced at the wedding, I was thinking about how, even though my primary guidance for my boys is toward long term careers in the Beis Midrash, I am so very proud of my oldest boy, Yaakov (who incidentally finished Shisha Sidrei Mishna 3 times as well as number of masechtos), and the path he has taken thus far.

And the next thing that I was thinking about is an exchange that I had with Rabbi (Emes V'Emunah) Harry Maryles last August about our hashkafic differences that went as follows (he is in dark red, I am in navy blue):

>>What makes you think I don't support learning in Kolel?

I am sure you support learning in Kollel, but it is learning in Kollel by your standards and stipulations. What we call here: b’eravon mugbal.

>>Because I don't think it is ethical to abuse a gov't program?! ...even if it is technically legal?

No. It is because you think that the remedy for it needs to be undertaken by the Kollelniks in the form of advanced secular education that compromises the learning as opposed to campaigning for more Torah support (that people like you and me would have to undertake) to ensure that a young Kollel guy can subsist on a Kollel wage and not need government assistance. It’s what I wrote in my post but you haven’t addressed anything besides that it’s beneath contempt.

>>My son nort onlhy learns all day buirt riuns a night kollel with my full support!

I am sure you are very proud of him. I am also sure that this is not what you directed him to do when he was growing up.

Our kids don't always do what we tell them to. But, oft-times, that's the way it should be.

There was something very ironic here which brought to mind a story that I heard on a taped lecture from Rabbi Berel Wein. Rabbi Wein begins his talk with this anecdote (this is all from memory; I apologize for inaccuracies):

An airplane story.

I needed to travel and arrived at the airport with ample time to check in for my flight. Unfortunately, there was a strike going on and the desk was staffed with fill-ins who were working much slower than usual. I had no choice but to wait my turn in line and the wait seemed interminable. After a long while I finally reached the check-in counter with only minutes to go to flight time. I presented my ticket and expected to be issued a seat and a boarding pass.

To my surprise I was told that I no longer had a confirmed reservation for the flight.

"Why not?"

"Well, you see sir. If you do not check in by 15 minutes prior to flight time, the computers automatically cancel your reservation."

"Well, that's not my fault. I was here with plenty of time. I cannot be faulted that your staff took so long to receive me. In any case, why don't you just reissue the reservation and give me a seat?"

"There are no coach seats left. That is your ticket class."

"Well, I have a ticket with a confirmed reservation and I was here in plenty of time. Please find me a seat on the plane."

"I am very sorry sir but the plane is full. All coach seats have been issued. There were some people in the line who were moved from other flights and they were given the seats of those who didn't check in within 15 minutes. I am sorry but I have no seats for you."

"I refuse to be penalized due to your difficulties and especially if I was held back in line because of others who were not booked on this flight. Do you mean to say that there are absolutely no seats at all on this flight?"

"Well there is one seat left in first class."

"I'm willing to sacrifice."

So seeing that she had no grounds to refuse, she reluctantly issued me a boarding pass for a first class seat.

As I boarded the plane, I understood why this was the last empty seat. The flight attendant informed me that the gentleman in the adjacent seat is one of the vice presidents of the airline. In fact he was sitting with his papers and personal effects taking up the empty seat. When he saw that a passenger was going to be placed in what he thought would be a free seat, he grudgingly collected his items and resigned himself to this inconvenience.

All through the flight we barely spoke. We only had a short conversation of pleasantries where I told him that I am a Rabbi on my way to some official business. And, no, I don't usually fly first class but my reservation was cancelled by the computer and this was the only seat available for me. As a way of concluding our brief conversation he remarked to me:

"Rabbi, you and I don't seem to have much in common."

To which I responded, "Well, I think there is one thing we both very much have in common."

"And what may that be?"

"Neither you nor I paid for this first class seat!"

So his son runs a night Kollel and the father is proud and supportive even though it does not truly meet his personal principles (it goes against them, actually). And my son is joining the army and I am proud and supportive even though it does not truly meet my personal principles (but it is definitely not against them).

So, like Rabbi Wein teaches us - you never know who is going to sit where. And you never know whose weddings you will dance at. There is Somebody Else who arranges the seating. And we can both be proud even if neither one of us actually "paid" for their seat.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Uncle Why Leaves the Jews "Open to Interpretation"

Hi, boys and girls.

It seems like a lot of people have been confusing me with my "cousin" in Cincinatti, Uncle Jay. But I can assure you that we only look alike.

Looks like we've been having our fill of natural disasters, boys and girls. More earthquakes in Chile, Alaska, Turkey, and Avigdor Lieberman's office. And snowstorms on the east coast are knocking down all the eruvs! Vice President Biden was visiting and he refused to daven in my shul for Shabbos (and I don't live in Ramat Shlomo). But it looks like we may have avoided one natural(ization) disaster... the Knesset voted down the latest conversion bill.

And that brings me to Uncle Why's Jews word for this week:


Halacha literally means "way to go" and it is just that. It basically refers to all the rules we have to follow in order to be proper Jews.

Now, the term as we use it goes all the way back to Talmudic times where the word הלכה appears about 14 times in the Mishna and its Aramaic counterpart הלכתא appears about 825 times in the Babylonian Talmud. As such, it has come to mean "the way to go in accordance to the tenets of the Talmud".

This does not mean that the term originated then. It is safe to assume that the term was taken from the Torah itself. Not only do we find this terminology openly expressed by the prototype convert Yisro in Shmos 18:20: 
כ וְהִזְהַרְתָּה אֶתְהֶם אֶת-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת-הַתּוֹרת וְהוֹדַעְתָּ לָהֶם אֶת-הַדֶּרֶךְ יֵלְכוּ בָהּ וְאֶת-הַמַּעֲשֶׂה אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּן:

And by Moshe Rabbenu in Devarim 28:9 and, of course, by HKBH Himself in my all time favorite pasuk (Vayikra 26:3): אִם-בְּחֻקּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת-מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אתָם :

But it is craftily encoded in this pasuk (Devarim 6:24):

וַיְצַוֵּנוּ ה' לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה' אלקנו לְטוֹב לָנוּ כָּל-הַיָּמִים לְחַיּתֵנוּ כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה

Notice how all three of the pasukim that I displayed are discussing the חקים - the laws.

Now, I don't think that I really need to explain to you what HALACHA is, boys and girls, because since you are all on the Internet (which many people hold is against HALACHA) you are all probably familiar with a nifty little site call Wikipedia which has a reasonably accurate entry all about it.

Only it likes to spell it: HALAKHA.
Now, this entry tells us that today there are two different approaches to HALACHA: Orthodox and Non-Orthodox (the article calls it "Conservative" but what's the difference?)
Here is how it explains the Orthodox approach:
Orthodox Jews believe that halakha is a religious system, whose core represents the revealed will of God. Although Orthodox Judaism acknowledges that rabbis made many additions and interpretations of Jewish Law, they did so only in accordance with regulations they believe were given to them by Moses on Mount Sinai (see Deuteronomy 5:8-13). These regulations were transmitted orally until shortly after the destruction of the second temple. They were then recorded in the Mishnah, and explained in the Talmud and commentaries throughout history, including today.

Orthodox Judaism believes that subsequent interpretations have been derived with the utmost accuracy and care. The most widely accepted code of Jewish law is known as the
Shulchan Aruch. As such, no rabbi has the right to change Jewish law unless they clearly understand how it coincides with the precepts of the Shulchan Aruch. Later commentaries were accepted by many rabbis as final rule, however, other rabbis may disagree.

What these paragraphs allude to is Uncle Why's second Jews word for this week:


This refers to a hierarchical chain of Halachic process that was introduced to us in the first Mishna of Pirkei Avot. What it says is that we have a chain of tradition of Halachic process that can be categorized into Halachic eras. Those being as follows:
The Torah itself (G-d or "Sinai") > Moshe > Joshua > Elders > Prophets > Anshei Knesset HaGedola > Zugot > Tanaim > Amoraim > Savoraim > Geonim > Rishonim > Achronim > Uncle Why.

Our MESORA is that once something was interpreted or established in any given era, it becomes inviolable. The only thing that is left "open to interpretation" are the "loose ends" or fine details that may not yet have been interpreted.

For example, the Torah clearly tells us that we must "recite these words" (i.e., the Shema) at the time of our rising. There is nothing left open to interpretation about the fact that we must recite these words. That is the Halacha from the Torah itself. From the "Sinai Era". Nevertheless, we do not yet know how to define the "time of rising". So this "detail" does remain open for interpretation for the time being. This detail in fact had to wait until the era of the Tanaim. There, we had two valid opinions: Rabi Eliezer who said that it ends at sunrise and Rabi Yehoshua who said that it ends at "the third hour". Perhaps before that era there were other sages with other opinions, but from that point on, there were no other opinions expressed. Thus, we consider it audacious for someone from a later era to say, "Hey, since these Tanaim argued about it, we see that it is open to interpretation, so lets find new ways to interpret it."

Not only are these now the only two valid opinions, but we apply our rules of psak (in this case that we generally do not rule like Rabi Eliezer due to his status as a "shamuti") to determine that the Halacha is like Rabi Yehoshua. So now we know that (1) we must recite Shema and (2) the we must do it before the third hour. Finito. Nothing left to talk about.


We still do not know how exactly we count an Halachic hour to know when the third hour actually arrives. This was indeed "open to interpretation" until the era of the early Achronim when the matter was clarified into two valid opinions - sunrise to sunset (Gra) or alos hashachar to dusk (Magen Avrohom). Though in this case there is no primacy so both opinions are valid, the matter is no longer considered "open to interpretation" to allow for a new opinion (Belz?).

So now we can even look at a calendar and know that (1) we must recite Shema (Sinai) (2) we must complete it before the third hour (Mishna/Tanaim) and (3) today this means either 8:13 or 8:49 (Achronim).
Now, let's have a quick look at the Non-Orthodox approach:

The view held by Conservative Judaism is that while God is real, the Torah is not the word of God in a literal sense.

Get that? G-d is real but the Torah is not literally His word.

I wonder - who wrote this? I must admit that this is even beyond the capabilities of Uncle Why to explain! If G-d literally gave us the Torah (Rambam Principle #8), then it must be literally the word of G-d. And if it is not literally the word of G-d, it can only mean that they believe that G-d did not dictate the Torah. In short, they believe the Torah is man-made.

Let's go on.

However, in this view the Torah is still held as mankind's record of its understanding of God's revelation, and thus still has divine authority.

What exactly did G-d do at his revelation if He did not dictate the Torah? Why do they believe there (literally?) was a revelation if all the other parts of the revelation story are not literally true?

In any case, let us take a tally. This "viewpoint" seems to believe in Rambam's principles 1, 2, and 3 that G-d is real. Maybe they also believe in 4 and 5. But they do not believe in #8 that our Torah was given to Moshe from HKBH. And, if so, they cannot believe in #9 that He won't change it. Why not change it? He never gave it! Consequently they cannot go with #6 and #7 for if the Torah is not "true", then the words of the prophets can't be any truer. #10 may stand that HKBH knows all of our actions but reward and punishment (#11) must be out because if there are no G-d-given commandments, there cannot be G-dly repercussions. Finally #12 and 13 are discussed in the Talmud as directly derived from the Torah. But if the Torah is not the literal "word of G-d" there is nothing to derive.

Final score - maximum 6 principles in and at least 7 principles out.

In this view, traditional Jewish law is still seen as binding. Jews who hold by this view generally try to use modern methods of historical study to learn how Jewish law has changed over time, and are in some cases more willing to change Jewish law in the present.

You mean to change traditional Jewish law? I thought it was binding?

A key practical difference between Conservative and Orthodox approaches is that Conservative Judaism holds that its Rabbinical body's powers are not limited to reconsidering later precedents based on earlier sources, but the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) is empowered to override Biblical and Taanitic prohibitions by takkanah (decree) when perceived to be inconsistent with modern requirements and/or views of ethics.

In other words, if it doesn't work for you, change it. And if you can change some of it, you can change all of it. What does G-d care? He never gave us any of it anyway. He just "revealed' Himself.

And this must be why there are so very few Conservative Jews who recite the Shema every day upon rising (and when they lay down). It must be inconsistent with modern requirements and/or views of ethics.

Bottom line is that there is a view point in Halacha that says that G-d is real, He revealed Himself to us and inspired us to write a Torah on our own that will be adjustable to suit every modern whim.

How enlightened! I must tell you that I would find it easier to believe in a virgin birth.

מִי חָכָם וְיָבֵן אֵלֶּה נָבוֹן וְיֵדָעֵם כִּי-יְשָׁרִים דַּרְכֵי ה' וְצַדִּקִים יֵלְכוּ בָם וּפשְׁעִים יִכָּשְׁלוּ בָם:

And now it's time...

...for one of your Jews questions. Actually the one that inspired this post.

However, this post is much too long as it is and the question will have to wait for a future post. long for this week, boys and girls. Tune in whenever I am ready to answer more of your Jews questions and remember...

Great Halachic Men make great Jews!!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Strings Attached - An Eruv Story

I am considering to write a post on a very timely controversial subject. It is also quite a sensitive subject and I am not certain as to the best way to approach it.

As I was thinking about it, I was inspired to write about a much more passe' controversial subject which is not nearly so sensitive: the issues of community eruvs from the Chareidi perspective.

The truth is that I wrote a whole chapter about it for One Above and Seven Below. What is more interesting is that it is the very first chapter that I wrote when I first started writing One Above and Seven Below. This was before I decided to split the book into two volumes. Once I did that, it was clear that this chapter is from the material that would go into Volume 2, so it didn't make it into the book. If Volume 2 does come out (not any time soon, unfortunately), I do hope to include it.

The story is absolutely true even if all the names of people and places are not. And it happened back in 1997. The purpose of writing the story was to help my readers understand why something as benign and overtly beneficial as a community eruv would be a source of discord. And there is an important point in there which may help explain the Chareidi perspective on some much more timely, pertinent controversial issues.

Which will probably be passe' by the time I get to it.

I now present to you, the first chapter written for One Above and Seven Below:

Strings Attached - The Story of the Eruv in Hammerstone Hills

Strings Attached

Monday, March 1, 2010

Matanos L'Evyonim - American Style

Here in Eretz Yisrael we have been talking the past few days about the new guidelines for Matanos L'Evyonim in America:

כל הפושט רגל, נותנים לו

We give indiscriminately to anybody who is "poshet regel".

"Poshet regel" is the Hebrew term for going bankrupt!