There is no halakhic authority writing in English who is more prolific than Rabbi J. David Bleich. Magid, an imprint of Koren Publishers, has just published his recent Contemporary Halakhic Problems: Volume VII. Koren was kind enough to send me a copy and this most recent volume doesn’t disappoint.
Many scholars have addressed the place of the Hasmoneans in Talmudic literature. The most well-known treatment in Israel is Gedaliah Alon’s “Did the Jewish People and Its Sages Cause the Hasmoneans to be Forgotten?” Another contribution to the academic discussion around this question has been written by Vered Noam and recently published in Zion, “Did the Rabbis Cause the Hasmoneans to be Forgotten? A Reconsideration.” From now until the end of Hanukah Zion has posted the article (Hebrew) online for viewing, it can’t be downloaded or printed. The article can be accessed here.
From the English summary:
This article offers a fresh perspective on a stormy scholarly debate that has been ongoing for almost two centuries surrounding the rabbinic attitude toward the Hasmonean dynasty. To date, the scholarship has not discriminated between geographically and historically distant sources, combining testimony from the Second Temple period with that from late rabbinic sources. This article takes a different approach, making a clear distinction between traditions that most likely belong to the Second Temple period and their secondary reworking in rabbinic citations. By separating ancient embedded fragments from their deliberate reworking, it is possible to characterize both the attitude toward the Hasmoneans in temple times and the shifts that took place among the redactors and transmitters of rabbinic literature. This reconsideration demonstrates that the rabbis indeed sought to erase the memory of the individual Maccabean brothers, but that they did not display a negative attitude toward the Hasmonean dynasty as an institution. Their outlook on the generations of the Hasmonean leaders – whether positive or negative – was the outcome of their attempt to present history from the ‘rabbinic’ perspective, in which the Torah and its scholars took center stage.
Every few years the Israeli Chief Rabbinate seems to think that Christmas trees are a threat to the Jewish character of Israel. The latest chapter in the Rabbinate Christmas Tree Saga began after a Christmas tree was placed in the student center of the Technion and the campus rabbi ruled that religious Jews should avoid entering that space or eating at restaurants that are found there. There was even a small demonstration of religious students against the Christmas tree.
Additionally, the Chief Rabbinate threatened to revoke the kashrut certificate of any hotel that had a Christmas tree in its lobby. One hotel owner was even quoted as saying that “Obama lights Hanukah candles, why shouldn’t we decorate a tree”?
From the JTA:
Rabbinic officials in Jerusalem and northern Israel recently issued separate statements saying that displays of Christmas trees are against Jewish law. Other Israelis rushed to the defense of the ornamented evergreens. The difference of opinion over Christmas highlighted disagreement about the role of religion in the Jewish state. In a letter that emerged Tuesday, the Jerusalem Rabbinate urged hotels in the city not to put up Christmas trees this year. “As the secular year ends, we want to remind you that erecting a Christmas tree in a hotel contravenes halacha and that therefore it is clear that no one should erect [a tree] in a hotel,” Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar wrote to hotel managers. The letter also said it was “appropriate to avoid hosting” New Year’s parties, reminding hotel managers that the New Year is properly observed at the beginning of the Jewish calendar. A day earlier, the rabbi of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a prestigious public science and engineering university in Haifa, forbade students from entering the student union on campus because of the presence of a Christmas tree in the building.
Someone posted to Twitter a picture of a Hanukiyah and a Christmas tree at Ben-Gurion Airport, so I wonder how that will affect traffic through the airport in the coming weeks.
The Technion has had a Christmas tree issue before, take for example this Maariv article from 1963.
At a party for international students and Israelis the organizers displayed both a Christmas tree and Hanukiyah. The article even describes some discussion that went on that included different students describing the meaning of their holiday to the other group.
Not surprisingly there were some within the religious community who were upset at this incident. The religious journal Kol Sinai asked “How much will secular education decline–what will be the reaction of the government which covers a large portion of the Technion’s budget”?
Two years later in 1965 there were a number of hotels who reported pressure from the Chief Rabbinate not to put up a Christmas tree in their hotels. The response from many of the hotel managers was that they had never done so in the past and weren’t intending on doing so this year.
In 1978 a reception was held during the Christmas season in the Knesset for European parlimentarians and a Christmas tree was put up. Not surprisingly, numerous religious MKs objected to the Christmas tree.
The response to these Mks was that it wasn’t a Christmas tree at all, but rather a small tree that was always in the Knesset and was moved just for the reception.
I was able to find a number of interesting halakhic discussions on Christmas trees. One rabbi from Bat Yam (Shu”t Asher Hanan, vols. 6-7, par. 31) was asked whether a Jew can sell Christmas trees to non-Jews. The short answer, it’s possible to permit it. Rabbi Shmuel Vozner, the author of Responsa Shevet ha-Levi was asked (vol. 10, par. 132) whether the owner of a building can put up a Christmas tree for the non-Jewish residents. He wrote that it was permitted for a number of reasons: 1. Today a Christmas tree really has no religious or idolatrous meaning; 2. They can buy a Christmas tree from someone else; 3. If he refused to put up a Christmas tree it might cause enmity (איבה). Just to be sure, Rabbi Vozner suggests that the Jew make it clear that he is just doing this for the non-Jewish manager and that if possible, he should try and get money for doing it.
Photo of Christmas tree at Technion from here.
Anyone who is interesting in trying to understanding the Shulhan Arukh in a global perspective and in the context of the Ottoman Empire should try and watch this lecture by Roni Weinstein, “Inter-Religious Encounters and the Law – R. Joseph Karo in a Global Perspective” (Hebrew).
This is a video of a conference from last summer at the National Library of Israel that addresses issues related to books in the digital age.
Physical Materials in a Digital Age
Sharon Liberman Mintz, The Jewish Theological Seminary
Michelle Chesner, Columbia University
In the Footprints of Giants: Taking the Digital Beyond Digitization
Ilana Tahan, The British Library
For King and Country: The Physicality of Historical Ephemera
Arthur Kiron, University of Pennsylvania Libraries
Judaica in the Age of Digital Reproduction
The Israel Broadcast Authority has produced a multi-part series on the history of the Land of Israel (Hebrew), והארץ היתה תוהו ובוהו: תולדות ארץ ישראל. From what I have seen it looks like a well-made TV program. Below is a link to the most recent episode (no. 6 of 15) which is about the Return to Zion after the destruction of the First Temple and the early Second Temple Period. The earlier episodes can be found on Youtube and keep an eye out on the IBA Youtube channel for future episodes.
Ancient Jew Review has posted Beth Berkowitz’s comments from a recent SBL session on Christine Hayes’s What’s Divine about Divine Law?: Early Perspectives.
But the story that Hayes is telling is really more about the rabbis, who take a very interesting approach to the problem. Whereas Philo makes Mosaic law look a whole lot like Greek divine law, and Jubilees makes Greek divine law look a whole lot like Mosaic law, and Paul invests in keeping them separate, the Rabbis argue with the assumptions on which the entire conversation is based. Who says that something being temporary, particular, changing and sometimes irrational makes it human? Maybe we need to rethink what it means for law to be divine in the first place. They go so far as to say that these attributes of particularity and irrationality, so constantly denigrated in the Hellenistic world, are actually virtues. It’s like when you say you love someone despite their faults, versus saying you love someone because of their faults; the rabbis are the “because-of” types. The rabbis see the flaws as endearing, as distinctive, as making the Torah far more interesting. But it’s not like they didn’t know how everyone else looked at it; they knew everyone else considered these attributes flaws, and as disqualifying the law from any sparks of divinity. They realized how ridiculous their position seemed.