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The Talmud and the Scholars of Qom Revisited

A few years ago I wrote about the knowledge of the Talmud among the scholars of the Shia intellectual center in Qom, Iran. The Forward has been publishing a series of articles by Larry Cohler-Esses based upon his recent visit to Iran. The most recent installment is titled Reading the Talmud in a Most Unlikely Place-Iran’s Holy City. Here is how the article begins:

The Shia holy city of Qom teems with mosques, mullahs and madrassas. So, it was a little surprising to hear Qom religious scholar Hossein Soleimani’s response when I asked him to name his favorite writers. “Adin Steinsaltz, for his translation of the Talmud,” he responded promptly. “And also Martin Buber.” Soleimani was one of several senior faculty members from Qom’s University of Religions and Denominations whom I met during my recent visit to Iran. Soleimani’s field is comparative religions, and he is affiliated with the school’s center devoted entirely to Judaic studies. Soleimani’s area of specialty is the study of sects in Jewish history — especially during the talmudic period, from about 70 B.C.E. to 500 C.E. Another area of interest, he said, is corporal punishment in the various religions. “I’m a criminologist,” he said, “so I’m studying crime and punishment in Judaism. Right now, I’m translating a book on criminal justice in Judaism — An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law. The book, with several authors and editors, is published by Boston University.

The classic work that describes the intellectual training of Shia scholars is Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet. Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future also addresses this subject.

The entire article from the Forward can be found here.

The Latest on Conversion in Israel

The last week has seen a major development in the area of conversion in Israel. As has been reported, a new and independent religious court made up of national-religious rabbis has begun to convert minors outside of the framework of the Chief Rabbinate. I am not going to rehash the issues, you can read the articles to which I have linked. In addition to those, I would also recommend Elli Fischer’s article There is No “Conversion Crisis” and Rabbi Yuval Sherlo’s defense (Hebrew) of the new rabbinic courts.

Below are a number of images from newspapers and magazines that illustrate how some are reacting to this recent development.

The first is a political cartoon from Haaretz.

Haaretz cartoon rabbis selling ice cream

The next is an example of the very hostile and harsh reaction to this initiative from some in the ultra-Orthodox sector, maybe surprising to some since to begin with the Haredi population doesn’t respect the Chief Rabbinate so much. It even got to the point when an ultra-Orthodox radio host told Rabbi David Stav that “you’re not a rabbi.”

The following is a cover from the ultra-Orthodox weekly “Bakehillah” (“In the Community”). The text claims to be a quote from Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef who said about Rabbi Stav:

He has no fear of heaven his friends told me. This man is dangerous to Judaism, dangerous to the Rabbinate, dangerous to the Torah. Suddenly everyone is shouting. They want Rabbi Stav. If he was a true scholar they should hate him. They are choosing a person who is not reasonable. They are establishing an idol in the Temple.”

Rav stav bakehillah

This is a letter of protest by leading Hardal rabbis (more conservative national religious rabbis) against the private conversion courts that was published in the papers.

Letter conversion Israel

While we are on the topic of newspaper ads, below is one from LGBT Jews who were educated in religious institutions calling for more tolerance.


HT for the above images goes to Yair Ettinger, Gidon Shaviv, Anshel Pfeffer, and Rav Tzair.

Update: In NRG/Makor Rishon there is an extensive interview (Hebrew) with Rabbi Eliezer Nachum Rabinowitch in which he addresses many questions about the batei din.

Seth Schwartz on Ancient Jewish History

Seth Schwartz, an important historian of Ancient Jews and Judaism, has done a number of short videos about the topic for Ancient Jew Review.

Conversion to Judaism in Israel May Have Forever Changed

Yair Ettinger reported on Twitter that a Beit Din (Religious Court) of prominent national-religious rabbis will begin to convert minors outside of the purview of the Chief Rabbinate.

Srugim has more details of the Beit Din. Rabbi Eliezer Nachum Rabinowitch will oversea the Beit Din. The members of the Beit Din will be Rabbi Yaakov Medan of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rabbi Ra’am Hacohen of Yeshivat Otniel, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, and Rabbi David Stav. Numerous other rabbis will also participate with the intiative.

Shabbat Pamphlets Make the Evening News

In almost every Israeli synagogue you can find alonei shabbat, pamphlets or handouts on the weekly Torah portion. In the past few years things have gone beyond pamphlets that just discuss the parashah, and there are now available what amount to small magazines that targeted towards the religious public. See here (Hebrew) for a comprehensive list of those that are currently being published. Many of them are available for download, so almost anyone can read them. Last night the Israeli news program Mabat had a segment (Hebrew) on alonei shabbat which can be viewed below. HT to Amichai Stein on Twitter who is the reporter for the segment.

Tisha B’Av in the Historical Israeli Press

Rafi Mann has posted (Hebrew) a nice selection of articles from Israel newspapers about Tisha B’av observances and commemorations going back to the 1940s. He also addresses the changes that occurred post-1967.

How Many Reform and Conservative Jews in israel

Tomer Persico brings (Hebrew) some interesting numbers from a recent poll by the Knesset TV Channel. People were asked “Do you feel attached to one of the denominations in Judaism? If so, which one?”

Knesset poll denominations

The answers may surprise some people: Reform 6%; Conservative 6%; Orthodox 35%; no denomination 45%. A previous poll from 2009 put the number who identified as Reform or Conservative Jews at 7.6%. Tomer attributes the rise in numbers of those who identify with the Reform and Conservative movements to an increasing distancing from and rejection of the Orthodox rabbinic establishment.

Communal Kosher Supervision in Israel

According to the Israeli Kosher Fraud Law-1983 [חוק איסור הונאה בכשרות] (here in Hebrew) all kosher supervision must be done through the Chief Rabbinate, the local religious councils, or one of their appointed agents. If it isn’t done through one of these bodies, then it is illegal to say that a place that serves or prepares food is kosher. Last year, Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, an Orthodox rabbi, established the organization השגחה פרטית-כשרות קהילתית (Private Supervision-Communal Kashrut). His organization is attempting to present an alternative kashrut supervision agency than the Rabbinate. Presently the organization takes advantage of an opening in the law that allows a restaurant to claim that the food is under supervision without saying that it is kosher. As a result of a decision by the Attorney General who refused to rule against non-Rabbinate supervision, Shas is currently pushing a law that will prohibit even saying that the food or establishment is under supervision unless it is through the Rabbinate. While today Shas was successful in canceling reforms relating to conversion and rabbinic courts that were approved in the last two years, the discussion on the law about kashrut has been delayed for a week because of disagreements about it within the coalition.

People are very familiar with the various Bada”tzim that provide kashrut supervision in Israel, and according to the Kosher Fraud Law, an establishment that only has a Bada”tz kashrut supervision is transgressing the law and in the past some establishment have been fined for only presenting a Bada”tz kashrut certificate.

Below is an interview (Hebrew) with Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz of Hashgahah Pratit about his organization. Many opponent of Hashgahah Pratit claim that it isn’t a serious organization, but I think that Rabbi Leibowitz does a good job of explaining that he and his organization take kashrut very seriously, they are just interested in presenting an alternative to the Chief Rabbinate. Rabbi Leibowitz stresses that there are many rabbis who are employed by the Chief Rabbinate who take kashrut seriously and that he is not casting dispersions on all Chief Rabbinate supervision, he just wants it to be legal to offer an alternative that is based upon the laws of kashrut, but also on trust and community. The kashrut standards of Hashgahah Pratit can be found here. (HT to Joel Katz)

Video of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in discussion with Tomer Persico

Recently Tomer Persico held a public discussion with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at Tel Aviv University. The questions are in Hebrew and the answers in English. Below is the video:

The Students of the Gra and Messianism

Vilna Gaon Winograd picture

For a number of years there has been an ongoing disagreement between Immanuel Etkes and Arie Morgenstern, with David Assaf later entering the fray, about the role of messianism in the aliyah of the students of the Gaon of Vilna (Gra) to the Land of Israel in the early nineteenth century. Etkes does not think that there was any messianic impulse behind the migration of the Gra’s students to the Land of Israel, while Assaf and Morgenstern disagree. Etkes has written about this topic both in his book on the Gra, The Gaon of Vilna: The Man and His Image, and in numerous articles. A summary of Morgenstern’s book on the topic, The Gaon of Vilna and His Messianic Vision, can be found here. Assaf has addressed the issue both here and here (Hebrew).

Because of a recent article by Etkes in which he repeats his claim that messianism played no role in their aliyah, Morgenstern has written a short post on the controversy and explained why he thinks that Etkes is wrong. The post is in Hebrew and was published on the website יקום תרבות. One of Morgenstern’s claims is that Etkes minimizes the role of messianism because of his discomfort with expressions of messianism that exist today in Judaism.




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