Friday, February 20, 2015

Carl Czerny - A Great Composer and Teacher!

Born 224 years ago today, Austrian Carl Czerny was an outstanding composer, pianist and teacher. He wrote a vast amount of works for piano which are still widely used today by piano teachers to teach piano technique. My Israeli piano teacher, Ruth Hillman, included him in her piano curriculum, and I would venture that every piano student has come across his name. 

Czerny had the privilege of being Beethoven's student, but was modest - maybe too modest - about his abilities. Unlike most composers of his time, he felt the life of a concert pianist was not for him, and instead dedicated himself to teaching. And his lessons were not cheap! In fact, he amassed quite a fortune by teaching up to twelve lessons a day at the homes of the Viennese nobility. Among Czerny's famous students was the great Franz Lizst. 

Today I heard a wonderful piece by Czerny that shows he's not just a great technician but full of imagination and creativity. Click below to hear pianist Stephanie Smith play 
Fantaisie Brillante on Themes from the Opera The Magic of Figaro: 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Eye for an Eye: An Extraordinary Misunderstanding

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim,  we find a verse that is familiar to most people in the Western World. It is lex talionis, the law of retaliation:
"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Exodus 21:24).

This passage is one of the most misunderstood in the entire Bible. The Sages in the Talmud explain that “an eye for an eye” does not mean that one loses an eye for injuring another’s eye. Rather, it means monetary compensation only. In other words, a person who inflicts bodily injury on another shall be liable to pay to the injured person the value of the injured body part. The tortfeasor  shall never be physically harmed.

Though Biblical, lex talionis isn't a Biblical creation at all. It was already present in the famous Code of Hammurabi, from the 18th century BCE: “If an upper-class man should blind the eye of another upper-class man, they shall blind his eye,” and so on through breaking bones, knocking out teeth, etc.
Yale University professor Joel S. Baden shows that earlier Mesopotamian law codes, two generations before Hammurabi, take what we would consider a more civilized approach to the matter:
If a man bites the nose of another man and thus cuts it off, he shall weigh and deliver sixty shekels of silver; an eye, sixty shekels; a tooth, thirty shekels . . . 
It turns out that the oldest codes in the Near Eastern legal tradition, Sumerian laws from the 21st century BCE, also have payment in place of retaliation.
Nevertheless, this verse was used by Christians from time immemorial to bash the Jewish religion and malign the Old Testament.  As philosopher Simon May puts it in his book, Love: A History:

The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and ‘an eye for an eye,’ while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history.
One justification for interpreting this verse as requiring monetary compensation is that one person’s eye may be more valuable in his work than another’s eye. Therefore, if the court maims the aggressor, it may actually inflict more harm than the harm he committed.
 Linguistic Support

I believe there is linguistic support to bolster the Sages’ interpretation. Let us focus on the Hebrew words:
עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן

Our analysis will focus on the preposition 'tachat' which is translated as “for” (“eye for eye”).  The Torah could have used other prepositions
, such as כְּנֶגֶד, opposite (compare: אֶעֱשֶׂה לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (Genesis 2:18)), or the basic prepositional prefix לְ (the letter “lamed” which usually means “for”), or the prepositional prefix "bet" 
בּ (indeed, this preposition is used in the Deuteronomy version, see Deuteronomy 19:21). 

But the Torah chose for our verse  “tachat” –what can we learn from the use of this particular preposition?

Let’s look at 3 examples in Genesis where this word is used.

Example 1 - A ram instead of Isaac

 In the story of the binding of Isaac, the dramatic climax is where Abraham offered the ram as a sacrifice in place of his son. The Hebrew reads:
וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ לְעֹלָה תַּחַת בְּנוֹ
“He [Abraham] offered him as a burnt offering in place of his son” (Genesis 22:13). The Torah uses the word “tachat” to mean  "in place of" in a case where the substitute is clearly not the same as the original.

Example 2 - Judah instead of Benjamin

Later in Genesis 44:33, Judah pleads with the ruler Joseph –whom he does not recognize –to let Judah remain in Egypt in place of Benjamin:
יֵשֶׁב נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר עֶבֶד לַאדֹנִי
"Please let your servant  remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy.”

Example 3 - Seth instead of Abel

A third  example is the proclamation made by Eve after the death of Abel and the birth of Seth :
 וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ שֵׁתכִּי שָׁת לִי אֱלֹהִים זֶרַע אַחֵר--תַּחַת הֶבֶל
" She called him Seth: G-d has appointed me another seed instead of Abel” (Genesis 4:25).

All these cases involve the use of the word 'tachat' to mean "in place of" or “instead of” where the substitute is clearly and significantly different than the original. 

Likewise, in the “eye for an eye” verse, the use of the word ‘tachat’ supports the notion that the first eye is something other than the actual eye. Hence, it must mean monetary compensation.

Revenge is neither sanctioned nor tolerated as a mode of conducting matters in a society based upon law and justice.  In Leviticus 19:18, we find a clear prohibition:
"You shall not take vengeance!”
This warning removes any possible notion that "an eye for an eye" would mean vengeful injuring or maiming. And what is the conclusion of that verse? “But you should love your neighbor as yourself" – a most fitting moral prescription to end with!

(Written together with Charles Shenitz.) 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King Day and the World's Oldest Trombone Player

What is the connection between Dr. Martin Luther King Day and the world's oldest trombone player, Seymour Greene? 

My son, Niv, answered this question and gave the following Dvar Torah in synagogue this past week:  

As we read about the ten plagues in this week’s parsha, Va’era, we come across a startling verse.
Prior to the plague of hail, God warned Pharaoh to gather his flock and his slaves in from the field to the houses, so that they should not be killed by the hail.
And lo and behold, some of Pharaoh’s servants listened to this warning, and they are described as God-fearing people:  

 "Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the word of the Lord brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety." (Exodus 9:20)

From this we learn that there were God-fearing Egyptians! Apparently, even at the highest levels of government, some of the Egyptian courtiers did not support the diabolical plans of the tyrant Pharaoh, and realized they should be listening to the God of the Hebrews.

And last week we read about the 2 midwives – who, according to Josephus, Abravanel, and Shmuel David Luzzato (Shadal), were Egyptian midwives.  And if so, by refusing to kill the Jewish baby boys, they defied the order of their own government, practicing civil disobedience!  

Why did they do this? The Torah tells us:

The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (Exodus 1:17)

Again we see the concept of Egyptians “fearing God” – which is another way to say that they disobeyed a law because it was against their conscience.

Today we also celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King weekend, and we have in our shul someone who did the right thing – at a time when everyone else was doing the wrong thing!

Our own Seymour Greene!

I’m going to talk about you, Seymour, but don’t worry, it’s because you did some good things!!!

Seymour was the trombone player in Irving Berlin’s famous band called “This is the Army” which played for tens of thousands of American soldiers during World War II, in the European, Pacific and Middle Eastern theaters.

Seymour's band was the first racially integrated unit in the U.S. Army. Seymour says everyone in the show felt so strongly about it, that if they arrived at a camp, station or city that was segregated, and the African-American cast members were told they would have to sleep and eat separately, the whole cast and crew would join the African-American soldiers in the "colored" barracks.

This action of standing up for justice and equality, in  the face of evil discrimination, makes us proud to have Seymour among us. It is only because of the brave actions of people like Seymour that “we shall overcome.”  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Jacob Curses His Sons to Send Us A Message

(Published today in the Washington Jewish Week)

In this week’s sedra, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26), Jacob sends an unequivocal message to his sons – and to all of us – against the use of collective punishment.
On his deathbed, Jacob gathers his sons around him to hear his farewell words, and addresses each son individually. Jacob bestows prophetic blessings to most of his sons, but curses Simon and Levi:
“Simon and Levi are a pair. Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let my person not be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:5-7).
Why this terrible condemnation of his own two sons? Jacob never forgot the brutal killings carried out by Simon and Levi in response to the rape of their sister, Dinah. Simon and Levi had tricked the male inhabitants of Shechem into circumcising themselves, and, taking advantage of their weakness while they recovered, killed all the males of the city, capturing all the women and children and forcing them into captivity (Genesis 34:25-29).
In interpreting these events, we come upon two narratives: That of Jacob, who was appalled by the massacre, and that of Simon and Levi who responded: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis 34:31).
Jacob actually had two responses to the massacre. Immediately after it happened, he raised the pragmatic argument: The act is indefensible because it puts Jacob’s entire family at risk from the neighboring nations (Genesis 35:30).
Yet, when Jacob’s initial fears turned out to be groundless thanks to Hashem’s protection, the moral taint remained. At the momentous occasion of blessing his sons, Jacob does not hide his loathing for their act of revenge, and, instead of blessings, issues a curse, the likes of which we do not find in the entire Bible.
What was Simon and Levi’s justification? At first glance, it seems their motive was to avenge the “violation of family honor,” a concept apparently common at that time in the land of Canaan. But Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv, 1817-1893) finds an additional motive:
“Each of the two brothers had a separate motive for setting this fire: one came with the human emotion of avenging the family honor – such a fire is to be considered a foreign fire (esh zara). The other came with zealousness for God and without any personal considerations, and this fire is the fire of the Lord. Nevertheless, even with such a fire, one must take extreme care to direct its placement and timing, otherwise it can do incalculable damage” (Ha’amek Davar on Genesis 45:7).
In other words, only one brother was an avenger for Dinah’s honor, but the other was motivated by religious conviction and zealousness. Regarding that brother who acted “bearing God’s name in his mouth,” we must ask: How can a person purporting to have fear of heaven commit such violent acts?
Nahmanides (1194-1270) also rejects the use of religious justification for this act. He opposes Maimonides’ view that all the inhabitants of the city of Shechem were subject to the death penalty because they did not put Shechem, the individual, on trial for his rape of Dinah. In that way, they violated one of the Seven Noahide Laws (to establish a court system and judge criminals). Both Netziv and Nahmanides agree that justifying murder of so many innocents on halachic grounds is a gross misrepresentation of the Jewish law.
In his commentary HaMikra Kiphshuto, Shabtai Ben Yomtov (1848-1919) explains in a similar vein:
“The Torah gives the reason why Simon and Levi spoke with guile (bemirma); it was because they gave themselves a halachic permission, namely because Shechem had committed an outrage.”
In other words, Simon and Levi justified the spilling of innocent blood through twistedhalachic reasoning. One should not explain the massacre with the simplistic notion that “Simon and Levi were barbarians.” Quite the contrary, they were religious, intelligent, and knowledgeable in the Torah. But even such people are liable to use religion to promote violence, and sink to a level where they wipe out an entire city without realizing that they committed a moral crime of the worst order.
Later in Jewish history, we find another example of pseudo-halachic justification for acts of violence. The Talmud relates that a priest committed murder in the Temple itself:
It once happened that two priests were both running up the ramp of the altar to offer sacrifices, when one of them came within four cubits of his kinsman and the one took a dagger and plunged it into the heart of the other … to teach you that the laws of defilement of garments was of more import to them than spilling blood (Yoma, 23b).
This unthinkable event symbolizes the moral downslide that took place in the time of the Second Temple, showing that even scholars and priests were subject to moral vacuity.
Simon and Levi are thus examples of those among our ancestors who used religious and other justifications for collective punishment. Jacob’s curse teaches us that we must unequivocally reject this form of behavior. Collective punishment is an act for which there is no excuse.
As 2015 begins, we should recommit to this basic principle of Judaism, and treat every human being as created in God’s image, deserving of respect, dignity and liberty.
Questions for discussion:
Do you think most people are capable of such rationalizations?
How do we guard against this danger of being able to rationalize violent behavior?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

What Is A Jew Doing in Synagogue on New Year's Day, January 1?

When one of the minor fasts in the Jewish calendar occurs, do you sometimes get the feeling of "why in the world are we supposed to fast on this day"? Indeed, I don't feel a strong emotional connection to Tzom Gedaliah, Ta’anit Esther or the 17th of Tammuz – minor fasts commemorating  tragic events that happened thousands of years ago. 

But there is one exception. The upcoming Asarah B'Tevet fast, which happens to fall this year on Thursday, January 1, 2015, is a minor fast day which should be meaningful to the modern-day Jew.

Asarah B’Tevet, literally the Tenth of Tevet, was originally established to mark the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem which led to the destruction of the First Temple in the year 588 BCE. The siege is described in Kings II, 25:1-2:

Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. And in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month [starting from Nissan, the tenth month is Tevet], Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.

Prophet Ezekiel explained the importance of this day as follows:

In the ninth year, on the tenth day of the tenth month, the word of the Lord came to me. O mortal, record this date, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.
(Ezekiel 24:1-2).

 Prophet Zechariah, whose prophetical career began during the reign of Darius, king of Persia (BCE  520), is the first to mention this day as a fast day:

Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and peace. (Zechariah 8:19)

Essentially, the Tenth of Tevet is one more fast day connected to the destruction of the First Temple, and as such, would not have been meaningful to me. But after the Holocaust, this day has acquired new significance.

I have always been troubled by the following question: Why don't we have a fast day commemorating the Holocaust? 

We're supposed to fast for a Gedaliah who lived thousands of years ago, and for the destruction of a stone-and-wood Temple that operated several millennia ago -- but we don't have a fast to commemorate the systematic murder of 6 million of our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters that happened 70 years ago?! How can the Jewish calendar lack a fast day to remember how Nazi Germany and their collaborators dedicated themselves to the elimination of European Jewry on a scale unparalleled in modern history?!

It was precisely this dissonance that caused the Israeli Rabbinate to add new meaning to the Tenth of Tevet by turning it into a religious memorial day for the Holocaust victims. 

On the Tenth of Tevet of 1949, Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman – Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv who was later appointed Chief Rabbi of Israel - declared that

the day on which the first hurban (destruction) commenced should become a memorial day also for the last hurban

Rabbi Unterman - who lived in Britain during World War II and had worked to relieve the suffering of refugees in England - was acutely aware of the enormous tragedy of the Holocaust, and was instrumental in dedicating the Tenth of Tevet as a fast day for the Holocaust.

In 1951, the Israeli Rabbinate officially designated this fast day as a memorial day for Holocaust victims, and recommended that we say kaddish for the Shoah victims whose date of death or place of death is unknown. Thus, Asarah B’Tevet has become known as Yom HaKaddish HaKlali, the General Kaddish Day, and at the end of morning and evening services, we recite a kaddish in memory of the Holocaust martyrs.  

It would be safe to say that the minor fast days are ignored by the majority of Jewish people. But Asarah B'Tevet should be different. Take advantage of the federal holiday, come to shul on this day, listen to the El Male Rachamim, recite the kaddish, and preserve the memory of all who perished in the Holocaust, thereby continuing their legacy and showing that they have not been forgotten.

*               *               *

For times of services at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim – click here.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

Solving the Hanukkah Spelling Dilemma

What's the correct spelling for the Jewish Festival of Lights?   

Hanukkah, or 

All these spellings (and more) are found in dictionaries, newspapers, and websites, and the perennial Hanukkah question is: Which one to use?

This Hanukkah dilemma stems from the difficulty of transliterating the Hebrew word חֲנוּכָּה

The first letter of Hanukkah - the letter "ח" (chet) - creates a sound that doesn't exist in the English language. So that explains the "ch" or "h" variations. Then, we have the question of how to transliterate the letter  (kaf): Although the sound exists -  that of the letter "k" - the dot ("dagesh") inside the letter causes many to transliterate it as "kh" or "kk." 

After the establishment of the State of Israel, the Academy of the Hebrew Language published a set of transliteration rules. But the Israeli public frowned upon some of their decisions, especially the one where "ק" (kuf) was supposed to always transliterate to "q" (yes, I remember road signs such as "Qibbutz" (?!) and "Qiryat Gat" (?!)). So they revised the rules several times, and in 2011 published the latest transliteration guide (Hebrew pdf document).  

According to the Hebrew Language Academy, the transliteration of "ח" is "h," and the transliteration of כּ in חֲנוּכָּה would be "kk" (since grammatically speaking, the dagesh inside the letter  is a "dagesh chazak" - strong emphasis). Finally, because the ה  at the end of the word is not pronounced, the last syllable- כָּה - should be transliterated as "kka." Thus - Hanukka. 

However, because there is no one "right" transliteration guide, you could safely argue that any transliteration which gets you as close as possible to the source language is an acceptable transliteration.  This Time Magazine article  claims the most common spelling is "Hanukkah," but following a certain spelling simply because it won a popularity contest hardly seems a compelling solution. 

I have an original solution. On one hand, an inflation of spellings wreaks havoc and confusion. Often, you will find an annoying inconsistency by the same respectable website, such as in Haaretz where I found Hannukah here and Hanukkah here. On the other hand, we shouldn't be rigid, and in line with this blog's philosophy, we must allow for diverse approaches. Accordingly, here's my Chanukah Spelling Rule:     

Since this holiday lasts 8 days, and on the last night we light 8 candles - any transliteration of 'Chanukah' is kosher only if it has 8 letters!

Based on this easy-to-follow rule, Chanukah, Chanukka, Hanukkah, Hanukhah, and even the weird Hannukah are all legit.  We can forgive Haaretz for their inconsistency; they followed the rule in both cases:) 

When wishing the classic Chanukah greeting, though, I prefer to use the 'h' spelling to preserve the alliteration

Happy Hanukkah!

Addendum:  Here's an entertaining song about this dilemma by The Leevees: