Monthly Archives: August 2016

Levels of Jewish law

There are several levels of law in halakha.

A1. The מצוות דאורייתא, mitzvot d’oraita, 613 Mitzvot (commandments) – These are all found directly in the Torah.

A2. Laws given to Moses at Sinai, Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, הלכה למשה מסיני.

These are laws not stated in the Torah, nor derived from it by logical principles (hermeneutics.)

These laws have been known to us from antiquity: they were accepted by the sages of the Mishnah as being as ancient and authoritative as the laws in the written Torah. They were transmitted, some perhaps from the time of Moses, through Judaism’s oral tradition, until written down in the Mishnah. In a way, they constitute additional mitzvot, which one can add to the 613.  But not because we are changing the Torah or adding to it. Rather, according to our history, these rules were always part and parcel of Torah, even if they were not written within the admittedly small text of the Torah.

As in all cultures, not all beliefs and practices are written down at once. Maimonides lists 31 of these mitzvot in his Mishnah commentary introduction:  31 Halachos L’Moshe MiSinai according to the Rambam

Usuallt, extensions of Torah laws are not Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai. If a primary rule is given in the Torah (abstain from labor on Shabbat) the elaboration doesn’t count as a Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai. In the Mishnah and Talmud, the rabbis elaborate 39 categories of labors prohibited on Shabbat; these are merely elaborations of the Torah mitzvah and not additional mitzvot.  See the piece by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, 31 Halachos L’Moshe MiSinai according to the Rambam.

However, in some cases, details for how to observe a mitzvah are included in this category.  There seems to be no firm rule for which statements count in this category, but over time the list made by Maimonides has been seen as authoritative. Some examples are

1. That the loaves of a thanksgiving offering need a half-log of oil;
2. That the offering upon completion of a nazir period requires a quarter-log of oil;
7. Minimum sizes, such as of food for blessings;
10. The parchment to be used for tefillin;
11. The parchment to be used for mezuzos;
20. The ink to use for writing a sefer Torah;
25. That a field with ten or more saplings may be plowed right up until Shemittah;

It is often taught that we must believe that the Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai literally came from Moses. But even a cursory reading of the Talmud and Midrash show that the rabbis didn’t believe this. Jewish tradition actually teaches that the term means a rule accepted as if it was given to Moses. Rabbi Shalom Berger (Orthodox) writes

“In the brief chapter on “Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai” in Menachem Elon’s HaMishpat HaIvri, Elon points to the well-known Midrash (TB Menahot 29b) – that describes Moshe Rebbenu sitting in Rabbi Akiva’s Talmud class and not understanding the discussion – and ends with Rabbi Akiva quoting the source for his teaching as “Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai” – as a proof that the term can be used to mean that a given teaching is known and accepted *as if* it had been given to Moshe on Mount Sinai.”

B. The seven rabbinic mitzvot – שבע מצוות דרבנן, Mitzvot d’rabanan.  The Talmud notes occasions when rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud actually created new mitzvot (commandments.)  They are:

1. Saying blessings over pleasurable things (מצוות הנאה, e.g. fruits), over the fulfillment of a mitzvah (e.g. brit milah), and over various natural phenomenon (e.g. seeing the Great Ocean, i.e. Mediterranean Sea, or lightning) or significant (e.g. meeting a king) events. These additional brachot are together counted as one, for the purposes of the mitzvot d’rabanan.

2. Washing one’s hands before eating bread.

3. Eruvim: 3 kinds of “mixings” to allow: (a) carrying on Shabbat in a courtyard, which can be extended (eruv xatzeirot, the usual referent of ‘eruv’), (b) walking more than a mile on Shabbat outside a city (eruv t’xumim), (c) preparation of food on a Yom Tov (holiday) for consumption on the Shabbat that immediately follows it (eruv tavshilim)

4. Recitation of Hallel (Psalms 114-118) on most holidays and on Rosh Chodesh

5. Lighting of Shabbat candles

6. Public reading Megillat Esther on Purim, both evening and day.

7. Lighting candles on the 8 nights of Chanukah.

The 7 are not grouped as such in the Talmud: the list is first compiled by R. David Vital in his book כתר תורה ((1536, listing the mitzvoth, according to the choices of the Rambam. The numeric equivalent of the Hebrew title, ‘Keter’ adds up to 620 [613 + 7] in gematria (numerical mysticism.)

C1. Gezeira d’rabanan. A rabbinic fence law, aimed at deterring one from doing something that is prohibited.

For example, one may not place food directly on a fire before Shabbat in order to keep it heated during Shabbat. This is a fence around the law against cooking on Shabbat. To prevent the gezeira from being violated, a metal cover, called a blech in Yiddish, is placed on the stove top before Shabbat with the flame (turned to a low setting) under one section and the pot with food placed on the blech. This blech serves as a fence, allowing heating of the food without any danger of violating the law. Note that a “gezeira dirabanan” becomes binding only if it is accepted by the community. From the Soc.Culture.Jewish.Faq

C2. A Takanah is rabbinic legislation. The term often refers to directives aimed at imposing a duty to perform a particular, act. Some are rulings not to engage in particular acts e.g. the 2 famous takkanot of Rabbeinu Gershom (c. 1000 CE – not marrying more than one woman, not opening another’s mail).

D. Minhag, Custom.

Minhag is any act that the masses, on their own, accept. A minhag against actual halachah is called a minhag ta’ut (mistaken minhag.) Any based on a misunderstanding is a minhag shtut, a foolish custom. These two should not be followed. Any nearly universal minhag is called a Minhag Yisroel, and has most of the stringencies of law. (Yarmulka, and Ma’ariv services are two examples of a Minhag Yisroel.)

E. P’sak. A rabbinic ruling. Any individua can ask their rabbi a question, and since a rabbi is trained in Jewish law, the rabbi’s answer is generally considered authoritative. This does bring up the question of “who is a rabbi”, because the rabbinical semichah (ordination) that Jews have today is not the classical semichah that existed in the Mishnaic and Talmudic era. Rather today’s rabbinic ordination is היתר הוראה – a permission to pasken (decide halachic questions).

Not every question asked to a rabbi results in a p’sak halakhah: The rabbi’s answer is sometimes only considered a p’sak when it involved an original analysis.  If the rabbi finds it sufficient to reply by citing already existing laws and customs, then the response is just a regular answer. (e.g. “May we count seven men as a minyan? ” “No, it needs to be 10 men”.)


A rabbi traditionally may not offer a p’sak when within the presence of his/her own teacher! The exception is that one may override one’s own teacher, if one becomes recognized as a Posek (expert in a particular area of Jewish law.) What is a posek? Posek (article on Wikipedia)

Rabbi Yitzchok A. Breitowitz adds an important constraint in making a p’sak.

“Halachic decision-making is not a matter of a Rabbi secluding himself in a room and getting a direct answer from G-d which he then communicates with ex cathedra authority. Indeed, based on the verse, “It [the Torah] is not in Heaven”, the Talmud declares that prophecy and Divine inspiration cannot be taken into account in the resolution of halachic questions. All halachic resolution depends on a solid empirical grounding in the facts coupled with a reasoned application from the primary texts that Jewish law considers to be definitive, e.g. Talmud, Codes. Ad hoc decision-making that is not rooted in these texts is generally illegitimate.”

Is Posek shopping permissible? (Asking multiple rabbis the same question, in order to get the answer that you want.) Here is a response from the website of the Union of Orthodox Congregations (Modern Orthodox, USA)


Maimonides on divine providence

Divine providence (השגחה פרטית /Hashgachah Pratit)

“Traditional theism holds that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and that all that occurs in the universe takes place under Divine Providence — that is, under God’s sovereign guidance and control. According to believers, God governs creation as a loving father, working all things for good.”

– Divine Providence (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

How do Jews view divine providence? The existence of it is assumed in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and in all rabbinic literature, yet classical philosophy seems to allow little if any room for God to miraculously intervene in the world.  Divine providence thus became a topic of great discussion among the Jewish philosophers, including Saadya Gaon, Gersonides and Maimonides.

In the Guide for the Perplexed III:17, Maimonides mentions five possibilities for what divine providence could be. The first four possibilities he describes, and politely disagrees with.


e) The fifth opinion is Maimonides’ preferred one: “Divine providence in my personal view is a consequence of divine emanation. The species which is touched by this overflowing of the intellectual and thereby becomes itself endowed with intellect, through which it is made aware of all that intellect can reveal – that species is the one which is attended by divine providence, and all of its actions are accountable. [Maimonides then goes on to explain why animals are not covered by providence, and why Scripture shows that people are.] “Try to grasp my position in its full implications: I do not believe that anything is hidden from God, nor do I ascribe to God any incapacity. Rather, what I believe is that providence is a necessary consequence of intellect. For providence can only flow from a mind of consummate perfection – and all who are touched by that outpouring sufficiently to be reached by mind are reached by providence as well. This is the position which in my view is in harmony not only with reason but also with the texts of revelation.”

Maimonides’ preferred commentator and translator, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, explains that Maimonides held that Providence is intellectual only: Providence is when a man no longer is bothered by any material affliction. No miracles occur. A person of perfected intellect simply no longer gives world problems any significance.

– Aviezer Ravitzky, “Samuel Ibn Tibbon and the Esoteric Character of the Guide of the Perplexed”, Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) Review, Vol.6, 1981, p.87-123

Marvin Fox, one of the 20th century’s leading experts on Maimonides, writes that “I am inclined to think that Maimonides’ point is not that God actively intervenes in the natural order so as to protect the deserving from every misfortune, but rather that when one has achieved this very high level of intellectual fellowship with God no earthly misfortune is of any consequence. From a mature perspective the troubles of a child are childish and have little true importance. Men of true knowledge have a similar view of what ordinary men consider to be great misfortunes, and are thus protected from them. It is not that nothing happens to them that is from an ordinary scheme painful or injurious, but that such events are of little consequence in their scheme of values.”

– Marvin Fox, “Interpreting Maimonides”, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990, p.316

Charles M. Raffel, at Yeshiva University, agrees with the philosophical views above. Here are excerpts from his paper “Providence as Consequent upon the Intellect: Maimonides’ Theory of Providence”

AJS Review, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 25-71 (Association for Jewish Studies)

Maimonides’ own opinion on providence emerges at the end of chapter 17 and is further elaborated in chapter 18 of the Guide, Part III. The theory is encapsulated in the phrase “providence according to the intellect.” Aristotle had been presented by Maimonides (after Alexander) as denying individual providence in the sublunar sphere, but admitting a secondary “kind of providence” to the species of man and other animals. While Maimonides castigates Aristotle’s denial of individual providence, the majority of scholars see in Maimonides’ own opinion, “providence according to the intellect,” an affinity to Aristotle which Maimonides is not willing to admit openly. The most radical claim, namely, that Maimonides’ view is Aristotle’s view (and is in agreement with the hidden view of the Torah), was offered by Joseph Ibn Caspi and was reaffirmed by a modern scholar, Norbert Samuelson. Samuelson writes on Ibn Caspi’s analysis:
“… Maimonides’ real view agrees with that of Aristotle, the view of both agrees with the hidden meaning of the Torah, and the explicit or overt meaning of the Torah, which is the belief of the Jewish masses, is never affirmed to be a dogma or root belief of rabbinic Judaism.6 ”
While Ibn Caspi expresses this view on the three major theories in the Guide, creation, prophecy, and providence, Samuelson agrees definitively only on the last issue: “I am certain that he is right about the issue of divine providence.”7 A similar view, that Maimonides’ opinion is fully consonant with Aristotle’s opinion and, most probably, based on it, had been suggested by Samuel Ibn Tibbon in a letter written in 1199 to Maimonides, and argued for, independently, by Shlomo Pines.8
6. Norbert Samuelson, Review of Studies in Joseph Ibn Caspi by Barry Mesch, Journal of the History of Philosophy 14 (1976): 108.
Joseph Ibn Caspi, ‘Amude Kesef, ed. S. Werbluner (Frankfurt, 1848). On creation, pp. 98-101. On prophecy, p. 113. On providence, pp. 126-128. The comment on providence is as follows: “Undoubtedly, Aristotle’s and even his teacher Plato’s opinion on this matter are equivalent to the Torah’s view, according to the Guide’s interpretation” (p. 128). See also Barry Mesch, Studies in Joseph Ibn Caspi (Leiden, 1975) p. 103.
For the alleged equivalence of Aristotle’s and Maimonides’ views, see also Shem Tov Ibn Shem Tov, Commentary on the Guide (in standard Hebrew translation of the Guide) on III/18 27b: “For Aristotle’s view on providence is the Master’s [Maimonides’], no more, no less.”
7. Samuelson, “Review,” p. 108.
8. Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s position is reviewed below. For Pines, see “Translator’s Introduction,” pp. lxv-lxvii.
The identification of Maimonides’ view with Aristotle’s view involves a sophisticated reading of the text in III/17, for Maimonides both explicitly and implicitly denies that connection. The sophisticated reading of the text is ultimately connected to the view that Maimonides at times says what he doesn’t mean and at other times means what he doesn’t say. The champion of this view, which sees an esoteric-exoteric dualism in Maimonides’ thought, has been Leo Strauss. On this particular issue Strauss, however, sees Plato rather than Aristotle behind Maimonides’ treatment of providence.
Strauss’s initial comment on Maimonides’ theory, in his article on Maimonides’ and al-Farabi’s political science,9 is that, both in structure and content, Maimonides’ account of providence parallels Plato’s account. Both state a public doctrine which affirms God’s justice in rewarding and punishing all human behavior, and a private doctrine which restricts divine providence to an intellectual elite. Since Plato is unnamed and apparently unmentioned in Maimonides’ historical review of speculation on providence in III/17, Strauss takes as his task the rehabilitation of Plato as the prime influence on Maimonides’ thinking. Plato’s statement in the Laws that God knows individuals and rewards and punishes justly was voiced for its political utility (according to Strauss). This Platonic move parallels, and perhaps determines, Maimonides’ understanding of the biblical doctrine that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.

….Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s letter represents the most sustained and comprehensive treatment which Maimonides’ theory of providence received at the hands of his medieval commentators. The heart of Samuel Ibn Tibbon’s question is the apparent contradiction between the theory of providence expressed in the early chapters of Part III of the Guide (chapters 17-18, 22-23) and the treatment of special providence for the perfect man in chapter 51 of Part III.
This special providence is described by Maimonides in the following passage from chapter 51:
“If a man’s thought is free from distraction, if he apprehends Him, may He be exalted, in the right way and rejoices in what he apprehends, that individual can never be afflicted with evil of any kind. For he is with God and God is with him.”‘5
Ibn Tibbon reviews his own understanding of the earlier chapters and concludes that Maimonides’ own theory of providence as a function of intellectual perfection is expanded and clarified in the chapters (22-23) which deal with the interpretation of Job. After experiencing intellectual knowledge of God, Job’s attitude toward the evil and suffering of this world is transformed. After acquiring wisdom, Job’s earthly misfortune, loss of wealth, health, and family, is insignificant in comparison to the fortune of ultimate felicity and immortality, and he may accept his earthly misfortune now as something beyond his understanding.
Ibn Tibbon argues that Maimonides seems to contradict himself. The special providence for the perfect in chapter 51 involves physical immunity from evil, “that individual can never be afflicted with evil of any kind,” while providence for the perfected Job involves only an intellectual immunity from evil or suffering. Ibn
Tibbon poses the contradiction:
“Because [Maimonides] did not say that only before Job acquired certain knowledge of God was he susceptible to misfortune, while after he knew God it was impossible for misfortune to strike him. …. But he did say in the Guide III/22 if he [Job] had been wise he would not have been affected by any of the [misfortunes] which overcame him.’ 16”
Ibn Tibbon devotes the next section of his letter to an attempt to prove that Maimonides’ own theory of providence, as developed in chapters 17 and 18, is more consonant with general philosophic opinion than Maimonides himself admitted. Ibn Tibbon writes that Job’s view of providence after acquiring wisdom may be seen as equivalent to Aristotle’s own theory. (Maimonides himself identifies Job’s initial, pre-enlightenment view with that of Aristotle: “The opinion attributed to Job is in keeping with the opinion of Aristotle.”) 17 This attempt by Ibn Tibbon to stretch Aristotle’s limited notion of providence from the translunar to the sublunar, however tenuous, is based on the assumption that a universal framework of individual contingencies may be conceived as built into the natural world order.
While Maimonides distinguishes, against Aristotle, between the contingent fact of a ship’s sinking and the providential act of the sailors’ fate, Ibn Tibbon tries to prove that Aristotle himself could maintain this distinction.
Furthermore, basing his argument on other passages in Maimonides’ works and the citation of al-Farabi in chapter 18, Ibn Tibbon envisions a broad consensus of philosophers who share the notion that an individual’s providence is mediated by the development of his intellect.
Maimonides cites the following from al-Farabi: “Those who have the capacity of making their soul pass from one moral qualilty to another are those of whom Plato has said that God’s providence watches over them to a higher degree.” (18) For Ibn Tibbon, the identification of Maimonides’ theory with that of the philosophers is complete, if not total: “Apparently, all the philosophers agree that God’s providence over individual men is consequent upon the intellect.” 19
16. Diesendruck, “Samuel and Moses Ibn Tibbon,” pp. 355-356.
17. Guide, 111/23, p. 494.
18. Guide, III/18, p. 476.
19. Diesendruck, “Samuel and Moses Ibn Tibbon,” p. 357

…. After exploring three ultimately unsuccessful possibilities-miraculous intervention, physical immunity through divination, and intellectual immunity-Ibn Tibbon explores a fourth possibility. Perhaps Maimonides is contradicting himself on purpose, in order to hide an esoteric doctrine, and our text, therefore, contains a contradiction of the kind which Maimonides describes in his Introduction.
“The seventh cause. In speaking about very obscure matters it is necessary to conceal some parts and disclose others. Sometimes in the case of certain dicta this necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of a certain premise, whereas in another place necessity requires that the discussion proceed on the basis of another premise contradicting the first one. In such cases the vulgar must in no way be aware of the contradiction; the author accordingly uses some device to conceal it by all means.” (24)
… [Maimonides writes in The Guide] “The purpose of all these things is to show that our intellects do not reach the point of apprehending how these natural things that exist in the world of generation and corruption are produced in time and of conceiving how the existence of the natural force within them has originated them.” 79
The lesson to be learned, revealed to Job, is the disjunction in meaning between man’s providence and God’s providence, and between man’s governance and God’s governance.
[Maimonides continues] “But the notion of God’s providence is not the same as the notion of our providence; nor is God’s notion of the governance of the things created by Him the same as the notion of our governance of that which we govern. The two notions are not comprised in one definition, contrary to what is thought by all those who are confused, and there is nothing in common between the two except the name alone.” 80
79. Guide, III/23, p. 496.
80. Ibid.
81. Guide, III/23, p. 497.
…This is the knowledge which Job lacked, which he needed to end his suffering and which he received in prophetic revelation. This knowledge alleviates suffering, and rather than fostering man’s doubts of God’s knowledge or His providence, according to Maimonides’ terse statement, adds to man’s love of God. Job’s acquisition of knowledge involved knowledge of a specific kind, the “negative” understanding that God’s providence is not to be likened to man’s providence, that God’s ways are mysteriously incomprehensible. Job has become privileged to a kind of immunity from suffering, based on his understanding of the limits of human understanding….
… Considering the specific example of the fate of a passenger on a foundering ship, Maimonides argues that a man’s decision to board the ship is not due to chance, but is based on intellect. (96) I take this to mean that the man’s decision to board the ship or not is based on considerations and deliberations of the practical intellect, his appraisal of the ship’s construction, of dangerous wind currents, the competency of the ship’s crew, and given the “great dangers such as arise in sea voyages,” the validity of his need to take this voyage. In the general statement in which the intellectual overflow offers guidance over the actions of righteous men, (97) providential care would seem to be subsumed by one’s personal deployment of moral intelligence or practical wisdom. This interpretation understands providence to be a direct and natural result of the deliberations of one’s own practical intellect.
The Aristotelian notion of phronisis, translated variously as “practical reason,” “practical wisdom,” “practical intelligence,” and “prudence,” would seem to provide the springboard for Maimonides’ theory. Aristotle is the source of Maimonides’ distinction between the practical and theoretical components of man’s rationality. Phronesis is described by Aristotle in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics.
96. Guide, III/17, p. 472.
97. Guide, 111/18, p. 475: “For it is this overflow of the divine intellect that makes the prophet speak, guides the actions of righteous men, and perfects the knowledge of excellent men with regard to what they know.”
… In Maimonides’ base theory, providential man operates within the world of human concerns, of “contingent facts,” and strives to preserve himself, his family, and his community, and to maximize his own perfection. The nature of this sphere of activity ultimately determines the limitations of man’s possible success. While experience counts in negotiating well within the world of contingent events, error, either in understanding a general principle or in particular application, is not only possible but more than probable. While pain and suffering may be minimized, they may not be avoided, and death looms as inevitable
…The switch to theoretical wisdom, the knowledge of “everything concerning all the beings that it is within the capacity of man to know,”’06 as the source for ultimate happiness and, as a result, ultimate providence has a clear Aristotelian breeding. In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle attempts to outline and define a state of happiness for man that has permanence and completeness…
“The happy man will have the attribute of permanence which we are discussing, and he will remain happy throughout his life. For he will always or to the highest degree both do and contemplate what is in conformity with virtue; he will bear the vicissitudes of fortune most nobly and with perfect decorum under all circumstances, inasmuch as he is truly good and “four-square beyond reproach.”
…Aristotle continues to speculate to what degree misfortune and suffering can disturb supreme happiness. For the most part, a “noble and high-minded” man can bear “many great misfortunes with good grace.” The happy man may be dislodged from his happiness “only by great and numerous disasters such as will make it impossible for him to become happy again in a short time.” 108
The discussion is resumed and the ambiguities resolved in the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics, in which Aristotle expresses the superiority of happiness as a result of theoretical wisdom (sophia) over the happiness of moral action and virtue…
…These Aristotelian concerns help flesh-out the background of Maimonides’ approach, for Maimonides has adapted the notion of happiness as the basis for his concept of ultimate providence. True and permanent providence is reserved for Job only after he has experienced the ultimate realm of theoretical wisdom and perfection. Maimonides’ implicit argument in the Job chapters for preferring the life of theoretical wisdom, aside from the immediate therapeutic value for a person in Job’s predicament, duplicates the range of Aristotle’s justifications: Job achieves immunity from suffering and misfortune, he realizes the ultimate value of theoretical intellect and its divine nature, and he has achieved a higher, if not the highest, degree of self-sufficiency.
…Maimonides attempted, it would seem, to attack the problem of evil from all angles, to surround it, if not solve it. It is my contention that a different theodicy also emerges from the body of the multidimensional treatment of providence. Within the discussion of providence, Maimonides abandons the refuge of a God-centered universe momentarily, and tries to argue for justice in the ordering of human circumstances from an enlightened human perspective.
This implicit theodicy is multidimensional and corresponds to the three stages of the providence account. At the beginning of chapter 16 of Part III, the question of God’s justice in the ordering of human circumstances is raised, and Maimonides does not refer the reader to his completed theodicy (chapters 8-12). Rather, his discussion of God’s providence (and knowledge) is an attempt to re-solve the question of the apparent suffering of the righteous and the flourishing of the wicked. This solution is composed of the following three stages:
1. In the world of actions and choices, one succeeds or fails in accordance with the successful deployment or neglect of one’s practical intellect.
2. As a response to probable and predictable results (which one does not desire), the intensity of pain or suffering is not absolute, but relative to one’s attitude and ability to maximize or minimize or transcend the particular pain or suffering.
3. Within the theoretical realm which is intellect, one’s own intellect may acquire an immunity from pain and suffering and transcend any and all evils.

Hearing Men’s Voices

Outside of Orthodoxy, how do we explain the disappearance of men from the Jewish community? Why do so many men find their experience in the synagogue unfulfilling?

Hearing Men’s Voices is a program from the FJMC (Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs) It engages men in Jewish life by building male relationships and extending community – this program facilitates intimacy through dialogue.

The FJMC has prepared materials to facilitate such discussions

Volume 1 – Our Fathers, Ourselves
Volume 2 – Body and Spirit: Men Staying Healthy and Fit
Volume 3 – Listening to God’s Voice
Volume 4 – Work and Worth
Volume 5 – Jewish Men at the Crosswords

Jewish Movement Seeks to Reconnect Men to the Faith

Article from, July, 2000

— begin excerpt —

For the past seven years, a group of Jewish men in Philadelphia have been gathering together one evening a month for prayer and study. They also share their personal news with one another: A young husband whose wife is about to give birth to their first baby voices his fears and anticipation, while another man cries as he talks about the recent death of his elderly father…

It’s all part of a trend that some are calling a “Jewish men’s movement.” Jewish men, many of whom had fallen away from their religion, are beginning to reconnect–not only as Jews, but also specifically as men. They are going on men’s club retreats and joining all-male study groups, where they discuss such sensitive matters as infertility and faithfulness, or health issues like prostate cancer, or what it means to be a good father–all in the context of Judaism.

…The Jewish men’s movement had its beginnings in the early 1990’s, when Jewish leaders began to notice male participation in synagogue life was dropping drastically among all branches, except for the Orthodox. Leaders attributed this to various reasons: Men were working more hours, were too career-oriented and had too little time, not only for temple but for their families. They also noted that some had lacked Jewish male role models, or had been brought up with no religion at all. Of those who had, many knew no Hebrew.

…”The Jewish response to male issues is not sitting on rocks with tom-toms. It is not some nouveau-Jewvo Robert Bly,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, director of Conservative Judaism’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, referring to the poet and de facto leader of a New Age-style “men’s movement” in the late ’80s, when men retreated into the woods and bonded together wild-man style. “Rather it is through study, through which men become more connected Jewishly and with family,” Simon said. He said “really serious men” are getting involved with study; currently he is working on the fourth workbook for men’s clubs in an ongoing series titled “Hearing Men’s Voices.”

— end excerpt —

Also see: “And You Shall Teach Them To Your Sons: Biblical Tales for Fathers and Sons” Allan C. Tuffs. A Project of the North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods. “For generations, men have passed down Jewish tradition, culture, and values. With the growth of the Jewish feminist movement over the last three decades, the borders between traditional male and female roles have been altered. As women have broken ground in the traditionally masculine arenas – becoming rabbis, mohelets, and cantors and increasingly taking on congregational leadership – Jewish men need to redefine their own role in Jewish life, now and for the future.”


Midrash מדרש (pl. midrashim מדרשים) is the way that the classical Jewish sages interpreted the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), especially those in the Land of Israel in the first six centuries of the common era.

The word comes from the Hebrew root drsh (דרש) meaning “to search, examine.” The word midrash can refer to:

  • a process: the method by which one interprets the text

  • a teaching: the result of this method may be an interpretation of a verse, or a lesson drawn from it.

  • a book: a collection of midrash statements by an author(s), on a particular book of the Bible.

There are many different midrash collections (e.g. Genesis Rabbah, Sifre Numbers, Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, etc.) Each was written by a different authorship, for a different purpose.

Just as an artist creates an original pictures with different paints, the rabbis wrote midrash with different verses of Scripture.

Jacob Neusner writes:

…when our sages of blessed memory proposed to compose their statements… it was an appeal to serve a purpose defined not by Scripture, but by a faith under construction… Scripture formed a dictionary, providing a vast range of permissible usages of intelligible words. Scripture did not dictate the sentences that would be composed through the words found in that (limited) dictionary. Much as painters paint with a palette of colors, authorships wrote with Scripture. The paint is not the picture….”The Midrash” is a vast painting, begun in the age in which the Judaism of the dual Torah took shape, continued from then to now. But the painting is made up of a large collection of completed paintings, a collage of perfect compositions. [p. x, xi]

– Jacob Neusner “The Midrash: An Introduction”, Jason Aronson Inc, 1990

Midrash rabbah set

Why engage in midrash?

Once a canon (approved scriptural text) is closed, the problem facing the community is the problem of “searching out” the canon. Midrash is a method of reading the Bible as an Eternal text, and is the result of applying a set of hermeneutical principles evolved by the community… The ultimate goal of midrash is to “search out” the fullness of what was spoken by the Divine Voice.

In developing midrash, there are two schools of thought on how to handle the language of Torah:

One is that the language is the language of human discourse, and is subject to the same redundancies and occasional verbiage that we all encounter in desultory conversation.

The other view holds that since Scripture is the Word of God, no word is superfluous. Every repetition, every apparent mistake, every peculiar feature of arrangement or order has meaning.

Midrash minimizes the authority of the wording of the text… It places the focus on the reader… While it is always governed by the wording of the text, it allows for the reader to project his or her inner struggle into the text. This allows for some very powerful and moving interpretations which, to the ordinary user of language, seem to have very little connection with the text. The great weakness of this method is that it always threatens to replace the text with an outpouring of personal reflection. At its best it requires the presence of mystical insight not given to all readers.

–  from Charles T. Davis, Appalachian Statue University, Philosophy and Religion Department, NC

Are Midrash literally and historically true?

No, and they clear were written in such a way to make this clear. Rabbi Moshe Shamah writes:

Rab Hai Gaon also stated: “You should know that aggadic statements are not like those of shemu‘ah (“heard,” a passed-down statement). Rather, they are cases of each individual expounding what came to his mind, in the nature of ‘it can be said,’ not a decisive matter. Accordingly we do not rely on them” (Otzar ha-Ge’onim to b. Haggigah, Siman 67).

Rab Shemuel ben Hofni Gaon (960–c.1034, head of the Sura Academy), in his Introduction to the Talmud (published in the Vilna edition at the end of Massekhet Berakhot, erroneously attributed to Shemuel Hanagid, translated and abridged by Rab Shemuel ben Hananya in the 12th century), stated: “Aggadah constitutes all the explanations in the Talmud on any subject that does not refer to a mitzvah. You do not learn from them except what seems acceptable to the mind…. Concerning the expounding on scriptural verses, each [sage] expounded what chanced to him and what he saw in his mind, so what is acceptable to the mind we learn from and the rest we do not rely upon.”

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164) in his Bible commentary often alludes to the importance of recognizing the inapplicability of Midrash to understanding the intention of the Torah. For example, concerning the variant between the two Decalogue passages in the Torah, wherein one states “zakhor (remember) the Sabbath day to keep it holy” while the other has “shamor (observe) the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” he comments:

…The sages said that “zakhor and shamor were said in the same pronouncement” (b. Shebuot 20b)… Heaven forbid saying that they did not speak correctly for our minds are meager in comparison to their minds, but people of our generation think that their words were intended to be taken literally which is not the case…

The formulations of the sages teach all sorts of valuable lessons. Frequently, they use the Torah text as a springboard to elaborate an idea or as a mnemonic device to anchor an insight and assist in its being remembered. In doing so they are often engaging in moral education and inspirational edification that in their days would have been difficult to accomplish in a straightforward manner. As long as the reader or listener realizes that a proposed interpretation of a text is not necessarily its true meaning, the interpretation often having no genuine (peshat) connection to the actual intention of the relevant verses, and that the highly improbable, often fantastic and sometimes impossible realities portrayed are not literal, no harm is done and a benefit is derived from the lesson.

Moshe Shamah, Recalling the Covenant: A Contemporary Commentary on the Five Books of the Torah, Ktav, 2011. On Interpreting Midrash.


What was the mindset of the Midrash authors?

In chapter 3 of “The Midrash: An Introduction” Neusner proposes that we can discern the unstated assumptions of the midrash authors:

“What premises can validate my intervention, that is, my willingness to explain the meaning of a verse of Scripture? These seem to me propositions that must serve to justify the labor of intrinsic exegesis as we have seen its results here:

1. My independent judgement bears weight and produces meaning. I – that is, my mind – may therefore join in the process.

2. God’s revelation to Moses at Sinai requires my intervention. I have the role, and the right, to say what that revelation means.

3. What validates my entry into the process of revelation is the correspondence between the logic of my mind and the logic of the document.

Why do I think so? Only if I think in accord with the logic of the revealed Torah can my thought processes join issue in clarifying what is at hand: the unfolding of God’s will in the Torah. To state matters more accessibly: if the Torah does not make statements in accord with a syntax and a grammar that I know, I cannot understand the Torah enough to explain its meaning. But if I can join in the discourse of the Torah, it is because I speak the same language of thought, syntax and grammar at the deepest levels of intellect.

4. …Since a shared logic of syntax and grammar joins my mind to the mind of God as revealed in the Torah, I can say what a sentence of the Torah means. So I too can clarify, amplify, expand, revise, rework: that is to say, create a [midrash collection] document. [p.105/106]

Example of a midrash

Katz, Michael, and Gershon Schwartz. Searching for Meaning in Midrash: Lessons for Everyday Living. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002.

Searching for Meaning in Midrash

Go forth and learn

How Does Midrash Work? A library of articles from MyJewishLearning

Filling in the Gaps: Midrash allowed the rabbis to explain and expand on the Torah–and in doing so, they revealed much about themselves.  By Rabbi Iscah Waldman

Midrash article from the Encyclopaedia Judaica

Midrash reading list from the Soc.Culture.Jewish FAQ