Roots and Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History

Roots and Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History (Kodesh Press, 2018), by Mitchell First

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

I must say that once again, First comes in first place. This book is not simply comprised of three separate sections, rather every chapter is chock-full of insights into history, liturgy, and the Hebrew language. I must also say that I admire Mr. First's daring use of alliteration (the literary device which joins alimony with allegory) in his book's title. Of course, only two-thirds of that title mirrors that of my first book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew.

Mr. First's book appeals to and is readable by the scholar and layman alike, to the Talmid Chacham and Am HaAretz, to the serious scholar and the cynical boor. As an avid reader of Mr. First's weekly articles in the Jewish Link of New Jersey, I appreciate the humor in his ever-changing byline, and was glad to see that those bylines appeared at the end of each article in his new books, as well.

The section on liturgy delves into things which we take for granted and explains their origins. For example, Mr. First tells us about the origins of the Haftarah, saying Shema in the Kedushah of Mussaf, Mizmor Shir Chanukas HaBayis (for those of us who come to Shul on time) in the beginning of Shachris, and when we started saying Aleinu at the end of davening. Of course, he draws from a broad spectrum of sources, running the gamut from the Complete ArtScroll Siddur to the scholarly works of Dr. Yisroel Ta-Shema, from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan to the maskil Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai (Torczyner).

He asks questions like why in Grace After Meals do we refer to G-d's "full, open, holy, and abundant" hand; what is the word "holy" doing there?

When talking about the blessing of the gender-specific blessings of Birkas HaShachar, he compares those blessing to similar statements made by ancient Greek philosophers. Mr. First's judicious use of manuscripts makes his research all the more meaningful, especially when he brings to light overlooked variations that actually make big differences.

Indeed, these examples are just a sampling of Mr. First's way of presenting the fruits of his arduous research into the interplay of Jewish Tradition with archeology and established history. Mr. First is not not scared of offering creative, original explanations and rejecting what scholars before him understood to be fact. Although, as a word of caution, I must say that Mr. First sometimes pushes the envelop concerning what is considered acceptable in Orthodoxy (for some people that's considered a good thing).

Segueing to his linguistic prowess, I am in awe of the way Mr. First seamlessly parses words in the Hebrew language by using both traditional and non-traditional sources. Such an approach is almost unparalleled in contemporary works. His language musings show the conceptual links between apparent homonyms in the Hebrew language, and sharpen the differences between apparent synonyms. Mr. First's Modern Orthodox affiliation broadens his Overton Window into allowing academic sources into the foray, alongside traditional ones. His etymological discussions refer to the research of Hayyim Tawil (who wrote a lexicon of Ancient Akkadian), Ernest Klein (who wrote an etymological dictionary of the various strands of Hebrew), and Matisyahu Clark (who also wrote an etymological dictionary of Hebrew, but this one is largely based on the ideas of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch).

In his section about the holidays, Mr. First again tackles some of the phrases and ideas that we take for granted and sheds new light on their meaning (for Rosh HaShanah he offers a new understanding of the phrase Yom Teruah; for Chanukah, the background to the term Maccabi, and for Pesach the deeper meaning of Haggadah). He also gives some important insights to the Jewish Calendar, and, of course he addresses one of his personal pet-peeves, the identity of the characters in the Book of Esther (see his previous book for more about that).

From time to time, Mr. First also gives us short biographical details of the people he cites--filling the book with interesting historical tidbits.

Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, I must mention Mr. First's good sense of humor (if you can call puns "humor"). In fact, as we see throughout his awesome work, Mr. First has his way with words. One might even call him "a way-word Jew".

Same God, Other God: Judaism, Hinduism, and the Problem of Idolatry

Same God, Other God: Judaism,Hinduism, and the Problem of Idolatry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) by Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Dr. Alan Brill recently posted an interview with Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein on his blog. I read that interview with great interest, as I am currently conducting research for a follow-up to my book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018). While my published book focuses on the history of the struggle between Jewish monotheism and idolatry as depicted in the Bible, my current research focuses on the theological/philosophical struggle between Jewish monotheism and what is termed Avodah Zarah. In short, the question of how to look at Hinduism is quite germane to my line of research.
In fact, one of the issues I hope to address in my research is the Halachic status of Hinduism. To that end, Dr. Sperber graciously sent me an advance copy of his hitherto-unpublished book about the Jewish take on Hinduism, and that has done much to introduce me to the topic. After that, I read Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein’s book Same God, Other God: Judaism, Hinduism, and the Problem of Idolatry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) which, in many significant ways, overlaps with Dr. Sperber’s work. However, while Dr. Sperber argues that Hinduism is not considered avodah zarah, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein seeks to revisit the label of avodah zarah altogether and almost erase it.
Both Drs. Sperber and Goshen-Gottstein have done a great service to us by opening up the discussion and giving us a framework by which we can consider how to approach Hinduism from a Jewish perspective, but in my opinion their foregone conclusions are not acceptable.
I have jotted down my reactions to this discussion and organized them into four sections: First, I will discuss in which realm this discussion ought to belong (the Halachic vs. the social/political), afterwards I will engage in the specific sources that Dr. Goshen-Gottstein cited. Then, I will consider Dr. Goshen-Gottstein’s concept of “religious imagination”, and, finally, I will suggest a way of reformulating the question with which Dr. Goshen-Gottstein grapples in a way that I would find it more acceptable and meaningful. Afterwards, I will briefly summarize my position and conclude this essay.

The Issue of Perspective

As both Drs. Sperber and Goshen-Gottstein mention, the question of Hinduism’s status is a very practical one. This is because the ramifications of that question reverberate throughout the Orthodox world in the so-called sheitel (wig) controversy. It has been determined that almost all wigs worn by Orthodox Jewish ladies use human hair which is taken from ritual tonsuring at Hindu temples in India. If Hinduism is considered idolatrous, then those hairs would be considered idolatrous contraband by Halacha. Such contraband is not only forbidden from consumption, but is forbidden from all types of benefit. If Hinduism can be proven to be non-idolatrous, then the hairs from Hindu temples do not pose a Halachic problem. The controversy surrounding this question continues to rage on in the Hareidi world in Israel and abroad. Another practical ramification of this question is whether or not a Hindu touching wine renders it truly yayn nesech.
That said, I would like to raise some questions about Dr. Brill’s introduction to his interview with Dr. Goshen-Gottstein and about Dr. Goshen-Gottstein’s answers. Dr. Brill claims that Dr. Goshen-Gottstein’s work “encourages the reader to bracket out the technical halakhic questions of foreign worship in order to see a common religious goal”, yet, it is precisely those Halachic questions which fuel the question. If Halachic considerations were jettisoned, then we would have no need for this entire discussion—one can do or believe whatever one wants, there is nothing holding one back. In fact, I fail to understand how the term avodah zarah has any meaning when divorced from the Halachic/theological context. Dr. Brill seemingly advocates taking the concept of avodah zarah out of the realm of the Halachic and into the realm of interpersonal relationships. This, of course, is not at all the original intent of the idea.
In his book, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein writes that refraining from wearing wigs with Indian hair is “but one expression of a broader tendency to avoid all contact with avoda zara, and consequently with its practitioners and eventually with all forms of otherness” (pg. 33). He claims that such “exclusion” is “an important component of Jewish identity politics” (there). In this, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein ignores the Halachic basis for restrictions against deriving benefit from idolatrous sacrifices. Instead, he implicitly accuses the rabbis of fabricating Biblical prohibitions for the sake of social engineering.
Dr. Goshen-Gottstein bolsters his position by repeating Dr. Yechezkel Kaufmann’s trope about the Bible not understanding the true nature of idolatry (pp. 35–36). He uses this trope to justify his claim that avodah zarah should no longer be something derided and mocked. In Goshen-Gottstein’s view, it seems, avodah zarah is really about building a wall and taking the Benedict Option to socially insulate the Jewish People from their surroundings. Because he fails to see the value in that, Goshen-Gottstein suggests rethinking our approach avodah zarah in general in order to conform with the in-vogue concept of global coexistence.
However, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein fails to even consider an alternative approach. He does not mention that Dr. Jose Faur extensively wrote to debunk Kaufmann’s claims decades ago, as did his protégé Dr. Alan Yuter. In their assessment, it seems that the Bible and the rabbis were well-aware of the pagan idea that the god-spirit is not quite identical to the idol, but rather dwells within the idol. (In Faur’s estimation, this nuance was only understood by the elite, while the masses indeed mistook the idol for the god itself.) Despite this, the Bible still repudiates the idea of idolatry. This is not done for social reasons, but because such worship is objectively immoral/wrong (granted, there is still room to explore whether this only applies to the wanton idolater and not the inadvertent or innocent idolater). Dr. Goshen-Gottstein, on the other hand, assumes bad faith on the part of the Bible and the rabbis, and, to some extent, reduces the prohibitions of avodah zarah to the realm of the social.
As Dr. Goshen-Gottstein himself admits (pg. 35), the Hindu conception of the idol is quite similar to the Mesopotamian idolatry which the prophets of the Bible rallied against. This, of course, suggests that the Bible would equally oppose Hinduism—a suggestion which Goshen-Gottstein would rather not consider.

Discussion of Specific Sources

In Part III of his book, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein follows Halbertal’s model of developing from traditional Jewish sources multiple definitions of what is considered avodah zarah. I have long felt that the drawback of Halbertal’s presentation is that he propagates the notion of multiple parallel definitions of avodah zarah which are mutually exclusive and incompatible with one another. I am not sure that this approach is the most helpful. As I will explain below, I prefer to think that, in practice, for something to be cleared of the accusation of avodah zarah it has to escape all definitions of avodah zarah; it is not enough to not be considered avodah zarah according to one authority.
Maimonides: Either way, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein opens the discussion with Maimonides. According to Maimonides, since God is incorporeal and does not have a body, He cannot be depicted by an idol or icon or image. However, Maimonides stops short of calling one who worships God as a corporeal being an “idolater”. He applies the term min to such a person. Given this paradigm, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein argues that there may be room to view Hinduism as non-idolatrous, if we can prove that the images they worship are actually meant to be depictions of the same God that we Jews worship. Even though Maimonides would say that such depictions are wrong/inaccurate because He has no body, those who worship such images would not necessarily be considered idolaters, but only minim.
This is indeed quite an interesting supposition and should be considered more thoroughly. I would however stress that this only works if one could positively prove that the images venerated by Hindus actually depict the same God that we worship. The problem with this approach (and indeed this is the tension which Goshen-Gottstein attempts to alleviate in Part IV of his book) is that we would be hard-pressed to conclusively prove that we worship the same God. In my own book (God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry, pp. 37; 129–132), I cited a bevy of traditional sources who contend that even if one worships a god who is called the name of the Tetragrammaton, one is still considered worshipping avodah zarah if that worship entails venerating an image. Many of the sources which proffer this view explicitly do so in accordance with Maimonides.
Nachmanides: Dr. Goshen-Gottstein then turns to Nachmanides to help try and justify his stance. In his interview, he claims that Nachmanides “develops a theory of permissibility of worship of other beings for non-Jews, provided they remain aware of the existence of the Supreme Being.” The problem with this assertion is that Nachmanides writes no such thing. While Nachmanides does set forth “a theory of distribution of divine providence to nations through their governing angels”, he never writes as Dr. Goshen-Gottstein does “Non-Jews are allowed to worship the celestial beings who provide for them. Why should it forbidden to them? The only thing is that they need to remember that beyond these angels is the one God who put it all in place.” In truth, Nachmanides simply writes that while God may use other forces as His tools to influence the various nations of the world, He influences the Jewish Nation directly. This does not mean that Nachmanides maintains that non-Jews are actually allowed to worship those other forces.
In his book, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein (pg. 68) admits that Nachmanides does not explicitly allow gentiles to worship their governing angels, but instead adduces this view from a responsa penned by Nachmanides’ student Rashba. The truth is that Rashba too is equivocal in his stance. The most relevant sentence that Rashba writes is “whoever worships the astral force that rules over that place is not like one who worships avodah zarah—as long as he knows and recognizes that that astral force only has dominion because God made it the ruler of that land”. Even this sentence does not explicitly say that it is permitted for gentiles to worship their governing angels only that somehow it “is not like one who worships avodah zarah”.
[I will also point out that there is no evidence that this responsum was actually penned by Rashba. In both the Mossad HaRav Kook and Machon Yerushalayim editions of Rashba’s responsa, this particular responsum appears with a note that it was originally published before WWII by Joseph Perles from a manuscript which has since “disappeared”.]
Dr. Goshen-Gottstein takes this view of Nachmanides/Rashba a step further, and argues that when God apportioned the gentiles to various other forces, part of the apportioning includes the imaginative realm in which the various nations can represent their own forces in philosophical/metaphysical terms. We will discuss this later.
Returning to Nachmanides, Dr. Moshe Halbertal notes that Nachmanides’ model is quite similar to that presented by the last Pagan emperor of Rome, Julian the Apostate (331–336 CE): “Our writers say that the creator is the common father and king of all things, but that the other functions have been assigned by him to national gods of the peoples and gods that protect the cities, every one of whom administers his own department in accordance with his own nature.” If pagan philosophers agreed to almost the same cosmic order as Nachmanides, then why is Greco-Roman paganism uniformly considered avodah zarah?
The answer is that while both Nachmanides and Julian the Apostate offered a descriptive worldview of how God operates, they differ on the prescriptive implications of that worldview. Nachmanides understood that even with this worldview in place, one is only allowed to worship God, while Julian the Apostate obviously allowed for the worship of a multitude of gods. Nachmanides only described what people did, not what they ought to do. It seems that Rashba too only meant that worshipping one’s governing angels is not as bad as full-fledged avodah zarah, but not that it is permitted.
We cannot differentiate between modern Hindus and ancient Greeks/Romans by saying that the latter have no concept of God, while the former have some semblance of God, because it is clear that even the Greeks/Romans had some concept of a single God. Oxford University Press even published a book with essays by many scholars entitled, Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Clarendon Press, 2009). [Dr. Goshe-Gottstein (pg. 213) actually mentions this book.] Similarly, it is hard to take seriously the claims of Hindu philosophers who attempt to justify their cultic practices with philosophical ideas, just like the Rabbis of yore never took seriously the Greco-Roman philosophers who offered apologetic justifications for their rituals.
Tosafos: My next point concerns the concept of shittuf, first introduced by the Tosafists. This idea is presented as though Halacha allows a non-Jew to worship any other god or gods, as long as they do so in tandem with worshipping God. There are certainly some Halachic authorities who adopt this position, such as R. Shabbati HaKohen Rappaport (Sifsei Kohen, Yoreh Deah §151:7), R. Aryeh Leib Teomim in Yaalas Chen, R. Elijah Kramer of Vilna (Biur ha-Gra to Orach Chaim §156:6), R. Binyamin Wolf Boskowitz in Seder Mishnah, and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg (in ha-Ksav ve-ha-Kabbalah).
However, other authorities including R. Shmuel b. Yosef of Krakow, R. Yonah Landsofer of Prague, R. Efrayim Katz of Vilna, R. Refael Hamburger, R. Yitzchok Minkowski, R. Efrayim Zalman Margules, R. Shmuel ben Nosson Kellin, and Rabbi Shmuel Landau all understand that the idea of shittuf only allows a Jew to cause a non-Jew to swear in the name of other deities, but does not give the non-Jew permission to worship other deities. More recent authorities such as R. Aryeh Kaplan and R. Moshe Shapiro argue that shittuf only allows a non-Jew to believe in other gods, but not to worship them.
In light of this, even if we were to determine that Hinduism has the Halachic status of shittuf, this does not completely close the debate, because the rule of shittuf itself is not unanimously accepted, and certainly not in a broad enough sense as to allow a non-Jew to worship multiple gods.
Moreover, going back to the Indian hair, even if Hinduism can be determined to be shittuf and even if shittuf allows worshipping multiple gods, the hairs yielded from ritual tonsuring will still have the Halachic status of idolatrous sacrifices, and would still be forbidden. This is because, as R. Alexander Sender Schor writes in Tevuos Shor (Yoreh Deah §4:1), when a gentile “partners” other deities with God, the resultant sacrifices are still considered idolatrous sacrifices from which Jews are forbidden from deriving benefit. Just because the non-Jew may have been Halachicly permitted to worship those other gods, it does not follow that the sacrifices they offered may be Halachicly permitted to Jews.
In fact, the same Tosafists who suggest that shittuf is not a problem also discuss whether Christian ritual paraphernalia are considered idolatrous sacrifices (see Tosafos to Avodah Zarah 50b)—showing that whatever the heter of shittuf entails does not apply to the realm of ritual sacrifices. The same can be said of Rashba (to Avodah Zarah 51a) who forbids Christian ritual wafers, candles, and the like—even though in Dr. Goshen-Gottstein’s assessment Rashba allows non-Jews to worship other forces as long as they recognize God.
Another problem with appealing to shittuf is that it is an argument that proves too much. If shittuf is okay, then what was wrong with the Canaanites? From Ugaritic literature, we know that the Canaanites believed in a Supreme God named El who delegated or gave over different powers or domains to other junior gods (including Baal). Is that not shittuf, or at least something which closely follows Nachmanides’ model? Similar understandings are evident in other ancient cults as well. If shittuf is not a problem for non-Jews, then those gentiles did nothing wrong. Jewish Tradition definitely criticizes the Canaanites for worshiping avodah zarah, and given what we know about the nature of their worship of avodah zarah, it certainly seems to fit the criteria for shittuf
I felt the same thing about a certain rabbi in Yeshivat Ohr Somayach who wrote that believing in a "Great Spirit" like many Native Americans cults do, is considered sufficiently monotheistic to be acceptable. Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz have also written similar things.
As is well-known, Dr. Kaufmann wrote that all ancient polytheistic cults believed in some sort of "primordial realm" which controlled and regulated all aspects of the various gods. Perhaps this is what the Greeks called "fate". Dr. Faur criticized Kaufmann's position by essentially arguing that if this was true, then there is no difference between paganism and monotheism, because paganism can be compatible with monotheism by saying that all the pagan gods are subservient to one God/Realm/Idea/Spirit, whatever you want to call. With all that said, I really think there is a solid case to be made that shitttuf is forbidden for non-Jews. I can see both sides of the arguments.
I was glad to see that ultimately Dr. Goshen-Gottstein himself shies away from invoking the concept of shittuf to justify his most amicable stance towards Hinduism.
Meiri: Dr. Goshen-Gottstein then attempts to build a new definition of idolatry based on a difficult passage in the writings of R. Menachem Meiri. It should be noted that the writings of Meiri are not usually considered “canonical” amongst Halachic authorities. For the most part, Meiri’s commentaries are used for their clear elucidation, but are not generally cited as Halachic precedent. [See Rabbi Moshe Meiselman’s Torah, Chazal, & Science (), p. 656.]
One contributing factor to this is the mere fact that Meiri was only published recently. Another contributing factor is that many passages within Meiri’s work were clearly doctored in order to placate Christian censors. Moreover, the manuscripts’ place in non-Jewish hands for so many centuries has caused some Halachic authorities to question their provenance and accuracy. All these factors together should be considered when using a difficult passage in the Meiri to totally redefine our conception of avodah zarah.
As Dr. Goshen-Gottstein wrote: “For Meiri a legitimate religion is one that has some knowledge of God, that by virtue of such knowledge assures a morally-ordered society and that aids humans in their overall moral improvement and evolution.” If this is true, then Greco-Roman paganism should no longer be considered avodah zarah. Were the Greeks and Romans not “a morally ordered society… that aids humans in their overall moral improvement and evolution”? To put it in Straussian terms, is Athens not an integral part of the Western ethos? Why then does the entirety of rabbinic literature—including the Mishnah, Talmudic, and Midrash—consider Greco-Roman paganism to be the paragon of avodah zarah in their time?
In summing up Meiri’s position, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein wrote: “…Meiri’s criterion of the moral life is so crucial. By your fruits you shall know them, not by their theological declarations.” Does this mean that the ends justify the means? Does Meiri believe that worshipping multiple gods instead of God is okay, as long as ultimately your society ends up “good”? Is there no absolute moral value in Jewish monotheism other than the perceived benefits it brings to society?
Moreover, Meiri leaves much undefined in terms of what can be considered a morally-ordered society. By many reports, Hindus in the outlying villages in India continue to practice such grotesque and violent rites as ritual laceration and burning widows with the bodies of their dead husbands. While the British stamped down on many of these abhorrent practices in Colonial times, they still remain “on the books” in Hinduism and are reportedly still practiced in many places. Can such a religion be considered a progenitor of a “morally-ordered society”?
I might have just taken it too far by repeating unsubstantiated claims about Hindus, but if one apply Meiri’s model to contemporary Western civilization, can modern-day society claim to be “moral”? Are allowing two men to get married, or killing babies upon their exit from the womb, or stealing money from one sector to provide social services for another considered “moral”? This depends on where one stands regarding such policies. From a conservative perspective, Western civilization might fail to meet the criteria for a “moral” society, while from a more liberal perspective, Western civilization has redefined morality so that it is considered “moral”. Is there even such a thing as objective morality?
Is a society that does not ban people from eating limbs off of live animals considered a “good” society? Or a society that considers it entertainment for a man on television to utter such blasphemous statements like “g-d d-mn”? How does Meiri define “morality”?
I would have assumed that “morality” would be defined by what the Torah reveals to us as God’s expectation of the Jewish People and of the Noahides. Given that avodah zarah is one of the universal prohibitions which apply to both Jews and Noahides, it should play a role in defining what is a “moral” society and what is not.
But here we get stuck. If avodah zarah is one of the criterion for “morality” and moral people are, by definition, not committing avodah zarah, then we have now entered the realm of circular logic: The definition of avodah zarah depends on the definition of “morality”, and the definition of “morality” depends on the definition of avodah zarah.
Once we have reached this point, I can no longer accept using Meiri as a legitimate source for helping us define what is within the scope of avodah zarah and what is not. Everything Dr. Goshen-Gottstein writes in Part IV and Part V is, at least nominally, built on Meiri’s approach, which he takes to the nth degree.

Religious Imagination

In his various books and essays which develop the concept of the Mosaic Distinction, eminent Egyptologist Jan Assmann explains that the Bible’s view of idolatry is a zero-sum, true-or-false paradigm. The Bible understands that there is only one God without any qualifications, and everything else is simply false. This indeed seems to be in consonance with the traditional Jewish approach found in rabbinic literature, and certainly with the Maimonidean approach. The fact that Mal. 1:11 says that other nations recognize God’s existence does not contradict the notion that what those nations do worship is simply illegal at best, and false/non-existent at worst. As the Talmud says, they call God the “God of gods” but continue to worship other perceived entities.
This does not mean that the Bible looks at God as translatable to the gods worshipped by Israel’s neighbors. Nowhere is this stated in the Bible. The closest thing to this idea is found in Hellenistic Jewish sources who conflated the Greco-Roman gods with God. Those sources, of course, should be out of bounds for this discussion, because those syncretic Jews do not represent traditional or rabbinic Judaism. Remember, the holiday of Chanukah celebrates traditional/rabbinic Judaism’s triumph over the efforts of the Seleucid Greeks and the Hellenized Jews who sought to remold Judaism into a type of paganism. It seems that once multiple gods are in play, there is no longer any room for the concept of One God. Monotheism differs in kind from polytheism and even from henotheism.
R. Elijah Benamozegh claims that the deities worshipped by other nations were actually just descriptions of Hashem that were given their own independence. In other words, he writes that El and Baal were understood to be different names that refer to the same entity (i.e. the One God). He argues that originally, both El and Baal were acceptable ways of referring to Hashem, but in later times people forgot the true meanings behind these titles/names, and understood them to be separate entities. Yet, ultimately, the prophets of the Bible rallied against the worship of Baal. I don’t see how this might be different from the Hindu gods.
From a Halachic perspective, it is hard to justify the leeway that Dr. Goshen-Gottstein grants to religious imagination. Indeed, as Dr. Yechezkel Kaufmann points out Judaism is different in kind from all other ancient religions in that Judaism’s God does not appear as an active player in mythological stories about the gods. In Judaism’s perception of God, there is no room for such myths that are the basis of all other ancient religions. If one believes in the myth of a god who sells his hair to pay for a wedding like Hindus believe, then this is totally different conception of God (even if the myth is only a veneer for deeper philosophical/theological ideas). It is very difficult to claim that this is the “same God” that the Jews worship.
The same could be said of any pictorial means of depicting God. If you can show Him in an idol or icon or image, then it is very difficult to say that we are talking about the “same God.” Remember, in Maimonides’ worldview, even a linguistic depiction of God is hard to justify.
To support his view on the concept of religious imagination, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein mentions the Chazon Ish (pg. 179). I will freely admit that after having spent many hours poring over this passage and discussing it with my colleagues at the Mir Yeshiva, I cannot make heads or tails of what the Chazon Ish means. Dr. Goshen-Gottstein’s reading of the Chazon Ish is indeed quite intriguing. I’m sure that Dr. Goshen-Gottstein would be happy to know that his reading of the Chazon Ish is also assumed by R. Dov Landau (Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka in Bene Baraq). He is considered one of the foremost living students of the Chazon Ish and, he used his master’s position, inter alia, to permit the sheitels by arguing that Hinduism may not be avodah zarah.

Recalibrating the Discussion

Dr. Goshen-Gottstein (pg. 108) attempts to discard all prior definitions of avodah zarah by noting that all these methodological definitions were formulated relatively late (i.e., in Medieval times, after the redaction of the Talmud). This is a very non-traditional, un-orthodox argument. Jewish tradition understands that all of these definitions are really part of an Oral Torah that was only put down in writing later. The definitions must have always been around, because otherwise the rabbinic term avodah zarah used for centuries before would have been meaningless. From a Halachic perspective, it would seem that in order for something to be cleared from an accusation of avodah zarah, it would have to be excluded from all definitions of avodah zarah proffered by Halachic authorities throughout the ages.
That said, idolatry is a very severe prohibition, and as such cannot be taken lightly. One cannot rule permissively by dint of one or two minoritarian authorities and some flimsy arguments that Hinduism is not considered avodah zarah. The best one can say is that according to Maimonides and Meiri it might not be considered avodah zarah. But when it comes to something serious like avodah zarah, might is not strong enough.
I would instead propose that if something looks like idolatry, sounds like idolatry, and smells like idolatry, then it’s probably idolatry. If one can prove otherwise, then by all means do so. A time-tested Halachic principle says that the burden of proof is always on the one who wants to change the status quo. In this case, it is quite daring to build an entire new theology of Judaism on the lone authority of a single source. The fact that a proposal is daring does not lend it credence; it might actually detract from it. For such serious matters, one needs a consensus of authorities. This is especially true if there is no pressing need to justify taking a more permissive stance like there was historically.
[When discussing the more recent rabbinic trend toward adopting Maimonides’ position that Christianity is considered avodah zarah, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein (pg. 56 and 225) refers to that trend as “a sad turn”. However, from a Halachic perspective, the more authorities one can rack up on his side, the more legitimate that position is. Relying on minoritarian opinions is only justified in the direst circumstances. In this case, while historical circumstances once dictated the necessity to adopt a more lenient approach, nowadays those factors are almost totally irrelevant, and it makes sense that the prevailing Halacha would tend towards stringency.]
Dr. Goshen-Gottstein raises another important question: “The question at hand is thus not simply whether or not the specific case of Hinduism is or is not covered either by the narrative presentation of Avoda Zara…or by its core legal definition… The question is really to what extent we can import criteria from one religious system to another system that thinks in entirely different ways.” Indeed, this is a question that has to be taken into consideration, but that does not mean that if the data is inconclusive the default must be that it is not considered avoda zarah. On the contrary, given the severity of the issue, the default should be that something that appears to be avodah zarah ought to be considered avoda zarah unless proven otherwise.
From what I understand, Hinduism as a religion is not monolithic and is actually comprised of many different sects, each with their own slightly different worldview. One would have to explore all the different possible sects before concluding whether or not Hindus believe in one God or many gods, and whether they believe in the “same God” as us or not.
In addition, philosophers or theologians of Hinduism or Westernized/Academic Hindus sitting in their ivory towers do not and cannot dictate to the masses what their beliefs are. Indeed, this is the crux of Dr. Martha Doherty’s critique of Dr. Sperber’s unpublished book. Any proper assessment of Hinduism must take those folk into account. Dr. Goshen-Gottstein (pg. 88) cites R. Adin Steinsaltz and R. Menashe Klein as preferring the authoritative explanation of Hinduism over the popular understanding; however, other Halachic authorities, notably R. Yoel Ashkenazi (cited by Sperber), argue that one must take the whole picture into account. I think the latter is more intellectually honest, and my friend Moshe Efrayim Indik made this case in his missive Pe’at Keidmah. [And yes, I am aware of the embarrassing consequences that can be yielded by applying this standard to assessing Judaism internally, especially when it comes to Meron or Uman.]
Moreover, even if just one group of Hindus would be considered idolatrous, then all hairs coming from temples in which members of that group might be tonsured become forbidden. This is because according to Halacha, the ban on deriving benefit from idolatrous sacrifices is so severe, that the rule of majority cannot be applied to allow benefit from a mixture of hairs.
Dr. Goshen-Gottstein noted multiple times in his book that the early rabbinic authorities never spoke about Hinduism explicitly. I am not so sure about that: Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:29) explicitly writes that the Hindus are the last remnants of the ancient idolatrous Sabians. That is quite explicit. Moreover, Radak (to Isa. 2:18) writes that even though idolatry has already disappeared from most nations of the world, idol worshippers continue to exist in the East. Therefore, he concludes, those prophecies that foretell the destruction of idols in the Messiah’s time refers to the idols in the Far East (see my God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry, pg. 272). To me, these seem like pretty clear references to Hinduism, but for some reason Drs. Sperber and Goshen-Gottstein were unaware of these sources.


The truth is that Dr. Goshen-Gottstein mentions and even addresses most, if not close to all, of the concerns I have outlined in the previous paragraphs. In most cases, he simply rejects them without seriously entertaining or developing them. In fact, while maintaining a semblance of neutrality and open-mindedness about the topic, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein adopts the more lenient/permissive position at every possible juncture (not to mention his obvious disdain from the rabbinic establishment). I think that a more honest discussion of the issues at hand might look very similar to Dr. Goshen-Gottstein’s book, but would ultimately come to the opposite conclusion. In my assessment, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein’s conclusion requires too many “leaps of faith.” To his credit, Dr. Goshen-Gottstein is not too forceful with his conclusion, still leaving open the possibility that the matter can be reconciled differently.
At the end of the day, my answer to the question of whether Hinduism is avodah zarah remains a bold question mark. With Dr. Goshen-Gottstein’s book and Dr. Sperber’s upcoming book, we can now discuss the matter more intelligently, but it is certainly not as open-and-shut as some would have us believe.

Harry Fischel: Pioneer of Jewish Philanthropy

HarryFischel: Pioneer of Jewish Philanthropy (KTAV Publishers, 2012), edited by Rabbi Aaron I. Reichel, Esq.
Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Many of Jerusalem’s hallowed streets bear the names of 20th century Jewry’s most remarkable figures: Rechov Chafetz Chaim, Rechov HaRav Kook, Rechov Chaim Ozer, Rechov Polanski, Rechov Brandeis, Rechov Straus, and Rechov Magnes. One man's biography involves all of these esteemed personalities. It recalls the life and times of an individual — Harry Fischel (1865–1948) — who laid the foundations for Orthodox Judaism in America and in Israel. It is no wonder that Mr. Fischel too was honored with a street bearing his name in the City of Gold.

I first came across the name Harry Fischel when studying the work Tosafos HaShaleim, which was published by Machon Harry Fischel. Little did I realize that Harry Fischel is not just the name of a publisher, but the name of a visionary who accomplished so much for the Jewish people.

Mr. Fischel came to America as a penniless immigrant from Eastern Europe. He overcame many trials and tribulations which sought to shake his devotion to Orthodox Judaism, yet he always remained steadfast. This was quite a rarity in his time and place. He used his skills as an engineer and builder to grow into one of the most influential American Jews in his time, but his legacy goes well beyond that. The goal that he set as a young man, together with his wife, was that as soon as he “made it” financially he would dedicate a substantial percentage of his income to philanthropy. Not only did he adhere to this youthful vow, but he actually prioritized his philanthropy over his business interests, turning his attention to business only in order to generate more income for his philanthropic endeavors! At some points he left his business almost entirely in the hands of capable managers, while he devoted himself full-time to volunteer work such as managing schools.

Whenever he felt that a situation needed rectification, Mr. Fischel took the initiative and offered his services. He was an active board member of more institutions than one might think humanly possible; and was honored with speaking at more engagements than most people attend in their lifetime. He was a shrewd businessman who turned his calculating mind to identifying Jewry’s most pressing needs and raising the funds to address them. Those who in any way benefit from Jewish non-profit organizations are indebted to Mr. Fischel for having introduced new fundraising techniques to encourage others to give—alongside his own generous gifts. For example, he was probably the first to introduce matching campaigns. He, of course, was the one doing the matching.

Harry Fischel helped establish and maintain multiple schools, hospitals, interest-free loan societies, relief societies for immigrants and refugees, orphanages, and much more across three continents. In his many philanthropic endeavors, Mr. Fischel laid much of the groundwork and infrastructure for what would later become the post-Holocaust bastions of Jewry in America and Israel. Additionally, in his key role in the Joint, he was instrumental in procuring and distributing funds to aid the Jewish communities in Europe which had been devastated by the First World War.

His efforts focused not only on saving bodies, but on saving souls. He impressed the necessity to care for the needs of religious Jews in every organization with which he was involved, even peripherally. He convinced one “interdenominational” Jewish organization to make its annual luncheon kosher. How did he do it? Some guilt (along the lines of “you call yourself Jewish, and you’re serving such treif food?!”), plus an appeal for inclusiveness (in the spirit of: “let’s have a luncheon which does not exclude the Orthodox”). This granted him permission to oversee the next year’s luncheon. Mr. Fischel ensured that it was a strictly kosher and highly gourmet experience. That won them over. If kosher food could be so good — why not?

Unlike some others, Mr. Fischel recognized the crucial role Jewish education plays in the destiny of the Jewish People. As a result, he was intimately involved in many educational institutions, procuring property for them, raising money for them, and sometimes even helping set policies. To that effect, Mr. Fischel was instrumental in facilitating the merger between Talmud Torah Etz Chaim and Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (RIETS), which eventually became Yeshiva College and then grew into Yeshiva University. Most famously, Mr. Fischel undertook a daring campaign to raise five million dollars to build Yeshiva College's Amsterdam Avenue campus.

Harry Fischel was a man of the means and connections to make big changes from the top. But in all of his larger-than-life efforts to save the Jewish world, he didn’t forget the little guys and their needs. In fact, he maintained office hours for the express purpose of making himself accessible to his downtrodden brethren. Anybody down-and-out, or in need of some money to tide him through Passover, could simply walk in and ask for help. Furthermore, when Mr. Fischel moved into an upper-class neighborhood and realized that his regular working-class petitioners could not conveniently come to him, he came to them and set up an office in their locale!

Another item on the long list of Mr. Fischel’s accomplishments was ensuring that there was kosher food available at Ellis Island. At first blush this seems nice but not crucial, until it is understood that Jewish immigrants arrived after a long and grueling journey by boat in very poor conditions. Those who adhered to the rules of kosher made due with highly inadequate fare over the course of this journey. The United States only admitted the healthy and able-bodied. Is it any wonder that many a religious Jew, who washed up on America’s shores seasick and malnourished, were refused entry and sent right back from whence they came? Mr. Fischel gained permission from no less than the President himself to set up a kosher kitchen and allow the hapless refugees a recovery period with wholesome kosher food before being evaluated for admittance.

The Land of Israel held a special place in Mr. Fischel's heart, and he exerted much effort to visit that enchanted place multiple times throughout his life. This was at a time when airplanes were for the military, and kosher cruises were but a pipedream. He wanted to see the local conditions with his own eyes, so as to best judge how to help its people. And indeed, Mr. Fischel did much to advance the Jewish settlement of the Holy Land both physically and spiritually.

The early Jewish colonists in what was then Palestine grappled with many of the same issues that contemporary Israelis do when dealing with Arabs. Instead of simply ignoring the Arabs and allow their festering anger to bubble up at a later time, Mr. Fischel's efforts in the Holy Land included them. When Mr. Fischel arranged for Jewish colonists to receive free loans to help them finance buying their homes, this offer was extended to the Holy Land's Arab residents as well. This showed both pragmatism and sensitivity to others that has few counterparts.

As is well-known, Mr. Fischel was personally responsible for financing the building of a special home befitting the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, HaRav Kook. Rav Kook was later placed at the head of Mr. Fischel’s kollel, or Talmudic research institute, known as Machon Harry Fischel—a school with which the leading scholars of the time (including Rav Herzog, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, and R. Dr. Shaul Lieberman) were affiliated.

Mr. Fischel allowed himself to receive broad media coverage in order to publicize his various public efforts and encourage others to join him. Yet, all of his fame and fortune did not “go to his head.” He remained a humble do-gooder who never turned down an opportunity to help those less fortunate.
Many of the facts mentioned in this book can be corroborated by conferring with the work Otzar Zichronotai (New York, 1929), an autobiography written by Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein (1854–1956). For example, Rabbi Eisenstein mentions that the first Jewish theatre—the "Grand Theatre" on Grand Street—was built by Harry Fischel in 1912 (page 124), Harry Fischel presided over the laying of the cornerstone ceremony of Yeshiva College in 1927 (page 185), and more factoids about Mr. Fischel's life and work (page 195).

Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle was written by Mr. Fischel's esteemed son-in-law Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein (1890–1970) and was originally published in 1928. The latest edition of this work was supplemented and edited by Rabbi Aaron I. Reichel (a great-grandson of Mr. Fischel) under the title Harry Fischel: Pioneer of Jewish Philanthropy. This edition includes additional chapters written by Mr. Fischel himself appended to the earlier work, plus supplementary information written by those affiliated with the various causes funded by the Harry and Jane Fischel Foundation. For a book that was first published almost a century ago to continue to generate interest is quite remarkable. And indeed, its subject was quite a remarkable person.