Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Mr. Leonard Grunstein

Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC Bergen Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications. This is his first post as a new blogger to The Times of Israel.

Hug G-d? How is that even possible? Yet, in this week’s Torah reading[i], we are advised to cleave to G-d. The Talmud[ii] takes up this question. It notes that the Bible[iii] describes G-d as a consuming fire. How then to cleave to G-d? The answer is that it is not physically possible to do so. Rather, the Talmud advises the commandment is deemed performed by forming a bond with a Torah Sage, by way of:

1. Marriage;

2. Investing the Sage’s money so that he can derive an income therefrom[iv]; or

3. Lending the Sage merchandise to sell and make a profit[v].

Maimonides[vi] amplifies this concept and concludes that the essence of this commandment is to cleave to Torah Sages[vii]. He adds that this can also be accomplished by:

1. Dining with Torah Sages; and

2. Befriending Torah Sages.

Why only Sages, why not others? What quality makes them so admirable that G-d commands us, in effect, to establish attachments with them? The Talmud[viii] defines a Torah Sage as an accomplished scholar whose inside is like his outside. Academic proficiency and excellence are important. As the Talmud[ix] also points out, it is difficult to be a true saint, without having knowledge of Torah and what is appropriate conduct and not. But, Torah knowledge alone does not satisfy the test nor does dressing the part. Appearances can be deceiving. At the same time, some individuals may be born with very fine character traits and their natural inclination may inspire them to do good deeds. However, as Maimonides[x] explains, there is more to saintly behavior than just that.

As Maimonides observes[xi] being overly pious is not a virtue. There are also other character traits that may intervene to cause more harm than good. This includes anger, impatience and an unforgiving nature that does not pardon human frailty in others. Knowing how to act is a lifetime study. We are challenged to perfect ourselves and that is not easily accomplished. However, the burden might be eased by involvement with role models, who actually practice what they preach. We then might be able directly to observe how it’s done, properly and, hence, the Talmud’s advice to form attachments with Torah Sages, with this kind of refinement. But how is this kind of perfection achieved?

Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed[xii], describes four kinds of perfection. His categorization and observations are most intriguing, because they are so real and relevant to our contemporary experience. Taken as a whole, they encompass the challenges of modern life. Generally, we seek some level of accomplishment in all four categories, although we may have a greater focus on some versus others.

Maimonides begins his analysis with our quest to attain perfection with regard to acquiring possessions, such as money, clothing, furniture, real estate and the like. It is all about who has the best and most toys. He views this pursuit as the most defective of the various types of perfection. The pleasure taken by a person in relation to his possessions is purely imaginary. While, a person may say it’s his house or it’s his money, those things can never be an actual part of the person himself. They will always be extraneous.

In recent times, we have witnessed how extreme weather conditions, like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, unfortunately, can separate people from their possessions. Fortunately, though, we have also witnessed the nobility of people, who despite being bereft of their possessions helped others in need.

The second type of perfection involves our desire to perfect bodies’ physical appearance and function. It’s one thing to exercise to keep in good shape and health. However, as Maimonides quips, no amount of weight training will make a person as strong as a lion or an elephant. Beyond the requirements for vigorous exercise to maintain and improve our basic health, having the strongest and best-proportioned body does not do much for the soul.

The third type of perfection is directed at improving our moral virtues. Performance of the commandments of the Torah is directed towards achieving this end. It is a means by which we train ourselves through habitual good behavior. However, it is not an end in and to itself. It is a predicate to the next step of achieving genuine perfection.

The fourth type of perfection is the enlightenment, which leads to true human perfection. We are challenged to achieve a correct knowledge and understanding of G-d, his creations and man’s place in creation. This is not a purely academic exercise and the quest for perfection can’t stop there. It is about knowing all this in order to emulate G-d’s ways of loving kindness, justice and equity[xiii]. Just as G-d is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger and abundantly kind[xiv], so must we be, as well. Empathizing with others, sharing their burdens and knowing how to do so with grace is a skill that must be perfected.

I remember well the ritual of the family coming together every year just before Rosh Hashanah. My parents and aunts and uncles were all Holocaust survivors. They could quarrel with each other all year about important and unimportant matters. However, whatever views each may have had on politics, business, philosophy or social justice, once a year everyone had to make peace, hug and wish each other a good year. After the holidays, well, it was often back to the same old issues again. But, the lesson I learned was that even people with conflicting views could come together and hug it out, at least once a year.

It was the enlightened way of those who had lived a lifetime of experience in a few short years of intense suffering. They were the few who survived. They understood how important it was to empathize with each other and share each other’s burdens. There were other times when everyone came together this way. It was when there were family celebrations like weddings. It was also at times of tragedy or when anyone was suffering or in need. It was people at their best. Who cares what a person may think, this was about doing what was needed and genuinely caring for each other.

At this time of year, we must also rise above the discourse that sometimes separates us. We, as human beings, are all in this together. Hug a friend and wish them well. Don’t shrink from doing so with someone who disagrees with your worldview. So, what? It’s time to rise above the pettiness. Hug it out. My family did it and so can you.

May we all be blessed with a happy and healthy new year.

[i] Deuteronomy 30:20.

[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kesubot, at page 111b.

[iii] Deuteronomy 4: 24.

[iv] As per Rashi on the cited Kesubot text.

[v] As per Rashi on the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 53b.

[vi] Hilchot Deot 6:2.

[vii] See also Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot No. 5.

[viii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma, at page 72b.

[ix] Avot 2:5.

[x] In his commentary on the cited Mishna in Avot.

[xi] In his Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deot.

[xii] Part III, Chapter 54.

[xiii] See Jeremiah 9:23, cited by Maimonides to this effect.

[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, at page 17b, which discusses the verse in Exodus 34:6 concerning G-d’s attributes and invoking them, as a part of our prayers for forgiveness.

 
Dr. Pinchuk

Dr. Pinchuk

In his recent, well-attended lecture, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Pinchuk of Netanya Academic College showed how the Talmud Yerushalmi Online Database (http://yerushalmidb.compuall.co.il/) – for which he is responsible – can be used to meet one of the unique challenges of studying the Talmud Yerushalmi. One of the reasons that the Talmud Yerushalmi is notoriously difficult to understand is that only one almost complete manuscript exists.  Even within that manuscript, textual difficulties abound. While comparing multiple manuscripts can often help uncover the correct girsa (text) of the Talmud Bavli, the same technique is simply unavailable for the Talmud Yerushalmi.

Instead, Dr. Pinchuk explained, the thousands of quotations of the Talmud Yerushalmi in the works of the Rishonim must be used as “tiny snapshots…of manuscript(s) of Yerushalmi.” The later Rishonim themselves were the first to use this method. For example, in order to clarify a difficult line in the Yerushalmi, the Mordechai (Mordecai ben Hillel, the 13th century German Rabbi) quotes a different girsa he found in the Rif (R. Isaac Alfasi, Muslim Spain, eleventh century). At the turn of the twentieth century, Dov Ber Ratner used this method in his volume Ahavat Zion veYerushalayim, which is essentially a directory of qoutations from the Yerushalmi in the Rishonim. Today, the Talmud Yerushalmi Online Database allows one to search for these same quotes online.

Dr. Pinchuk illustrated different ways in which the database can deepen one’s understanding of the Yerushalmi beyond establishing a correct girsa. By comparing different quotations from the Yerushalmi, one can identify trends of its interpretation within the Rishonim. One can also draw conclusions from what is not in the database. For example, there are no references to Yerushalmi tractates of Kodshim or Taharot. If these tractates ever existed, they were lost before the time of the Rishonim.  The database can also help to uncover new lines of Yerushalmi that we did not have in manuscript.

 

As Member of Orthodox Rabbinic Delegation, Berger Presents Document on Jewish-Christian Relations

Last week, Dr. David Berger, professor of Jewish history and dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University, participated in a historic encounter with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Dean Berger and Pope

Dean Berger and Pope Francis

Berger was a member of a delegation of Orthodox rabbis representing the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the Conference of European Rabbis, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel who presented the Pope with a document on Jewish attitudes toward Christianity endorsed by the three organizations, entitled “Between Jerusalem and Rome: Reflections on Fifty Years of Nostra Aetate.” This is the first formal statement on Christianity and Christian-Jewish relations issued by the organized Orthodox rabbinate, and by arranging an audience with the Pope, the Church signaled its recognition of the significance of this moment.

“In following guidelines established by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Orthodox participants in Jewish-Christian dialogue have always faced a daunting challenge: we need to avoid primarily theological exchanges while engaging the moral values and pragmatic challenges facing society at large and religion in particular,” said Berger. “This document expresses an uncompromising stand in matters of faith while recognizing Christianity’s affirmation of the God of the Hebrew Bible and expressing appreciation for the significant strides made by the Church in formulating a dramatically more positive stance on Jews and Judaism. It emphasizes the common values that we share and looks to a future where we can work together to further those values.”

He added, “It is no small achievement that three Orthodox rabbinic organizations could agree on a statement that addresses so complex and controversial a topic. The meeting at which the document was presented to the Pope is a milestone in Jewish-Christian relations.”

Berger traveled to Rome with Rabbi Mark Dratch, the executive director of the RCA, who, like Berger, was ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). All three signatories on behalf of the RCA were alumni of the school, including Berger, who serves as senior advisor on interfaith affairs at the RCA, and Rabbi Elazar Muskin, current president of the organization and a recipient of rabbinic ordination from RIETS who also holds a master’s degree from Revel. Rabbi Shalom Baum, also ordained by RIETS, was president of the RCA when the document was prepared and served on the committee that composed it.

The document itself began its journey in 2015 in connection with the 50th anniversary of the landmark statement on the Jews issued by the Second Vatican council. Rabbi Arie Folger, the author of the initial draft and the driving force behind the entire process, is also the recipient of rabbinic ordination from RIETS. Representing the Conference of European Rabbis, he is now the chief rabbi of Vienna. He invited Berger to serve on the committee to hone the document. This led to an intense involvement that left a significant mark on the final formulation.

“Between Jerusalem and Rome” addresses the troubled history of the Jewish experience under Christendom and proceeds to an account of the steps taken by the Church to reverse its stance in the half-century since the Second Vatican Council.   It stresses essential doctrinal differences that “cannot be debated or negotiated,” but goes on to emphasize that “some of Judaism’s highest authorities have asserted that Christians maintain a special status because they worship the Creator of Heaven and Earth Who liberated the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage and Who exercises providence over all creation.” Moreover, it points to shared values and calls for a partnership “to assure the future of religious freedom, to foster the moral principles of our faiths, particularly the sanctity of life and the significance of the traditional family, and to cultivate the moral and religious conscience of society.” This call includes joint efforts to combat anti-Semitism and religious extremism.

According to Berger, the warm reception of this initiative by the Church is an important step in the right direction. “It provides grounds for optimism that such a partnership can be nurtured successfully and achieve at least partial success in meeting these ambitious goals,” he said.

 

           Faculty and alumni from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies presented at the 17th World      Congress of Jewish Studies held from August 6 to 10 at the Mount Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

         Revel faculty who presented were Dr. Mordechai Z. Cohen, associate dean and divisional coordinator of academic Jewish studies (“New Perspectives on Rashi’s Peshat Agenda in Light of St. Bruno the Carthusian”); Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel, E. Billi Ivry University Professor of Jewish History, Literature and Law and chair, Rebecca Ivry Department of Jewish Studies (“The Development of the Daily Recitation of Psalms in Medieval Ashkenaz” and “Medieval Ashkenaz VIII: Liturgy and Customs”); Dr. Sid Z. Leiman, visiting professor of Jewish history from the University of Pennsylvania (“Jacob Joshua Falk’s Final Salvo in the Emden-Eibeschütz Controversy”); Dr. Richard Hidary, associate professor of Jewish history (“Talmudic Dialogical Forms as Greco-Roman Rhetorical Exercises”); and Dr. David Berger, dean and Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History at Revel (participant in a discussion based on Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Same God, Other God).

         Revel alumni who presented were Yitzhak Berger (“Samson, Delilah, and Balaam: Allusion and Meaning in the Book of Judges”); Michelle J. Levine (“The Literary and Thematic Unity of Balaam’s Prophecies in Ramban’s Biblical Commentary”); Moshe J. Bernstein (“‘Finish, Complete, and Destroy’: Biblical Hebrew Killah in Targum Onqelos to the Pentateuch”); Jeffrey Woolf (“The Preacher as Poseq: R. Azariah Figo as Halakhist”); Shana Strauch Schick (“‘X Haynu Tanna Kamma’: From Dialogue to Stock Formulation”); Shai Secunda (Beyond the Rabbinic Academy: Late Antique Scholastic Cultures”); Gabriel Wasserman (“Midrashic and Payyetanic Sources for the Story of Moses’s Death in the Karaite Work Levush Malkhuth”); and Hillel Novetsky (“Contributions of the Digital Revolution to Creating a New Mikraot Gedolot”).

         The World Congress of Jewish Studies convenes in Jerusalem every four years and brings together thousands of participants who attend hundreds of lectures in various fields and on many diverse topics in Jewish studies.

 
Dr. Ronnie Perelis

Dr. Ronnie Perelis

Dr. Ronnie Perelis, Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena (Rachel) Alcalay and assistant professor of Sephardic studies, is featured in a short video with Dr. Steven Zucker, co-founder and executive editor for Smarthistory and faculty emeritus at Khan Academy, about a 14th-century book on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled Sefer Musre Hafilosofim (Book of Morals of Philosophers), an anthology of philosophy in Hebrew that is a copy of a book written in Arabic that was itself a translation of works that come from ancient Greece.

While at a recent conference in Mexico, Perelis gave an interview on Foro TV, a popular cable news channel, about his 2016 book, Narratives from the Sephardic Atlantic: Blood and Faith (from Indiana University Press) and the case of the Carvajal manuscript, written in the 16th century by Luis de Carvajal the Younger documenting the arrival of Jews in the New World. (Perelis has two chapters in his book about the Carvajal family.) The manuscript was stolen in 1932 from Mexico’s National Archives and resurfaced in 2016 at an auction in London. It was eventually returned to Mexico.