Tag Archives: Pharisees

Why the Modern Orthodox Should Suffer the Most

I’m currently in the middle of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ superb book ‘Future Tense’1, where he sets out a “vision for Jews and Judaism in the global Culture”. Of course, though he sets out to solve a practical problem, the Chief can’t do so without discussing Jewish theology and philosophy, which is nothing short of a joy to read.

Anyway, in a section entitled “Lowering the Bar” (page 65) he says the following, after noting that Jewish identity is a matter of a shared faith for all Jews:

“…surely to guarantee continuity, Judaism must be made as easy and undemanding as possible”, since then the most people will keep Judaism, as opposed to quitting because it is too difficult. However, Rabbi Lord Dr. Chief Best-Guy-Ever Rabbi Sacks has a very different conclusion. In fact, the more difficult the better, in his opinion, and the idea that the easier the better is “untrue and misconceived”.

In his experiences, Pesach and Yom Kippur, the two most difficult Jewish holidays are the ones most adhered to. Indeed, studies come out almost every year that confirm this.

Why is this? Rabbi Sacks quotes Leon Festinger, whose theory of cognitive dissonance explains that “we value the most what costs us the most.” More sacrifice means more commitment, and though it is true that historically Jews sacrificed for Judaism because they valued it, it is also true that they valued it because they sacrificed for it.

This actually reminds me of something that Yeshayahu Leibovitz was fond of saying: The people of Israel, who felt the hand of God when He took them from Egypt, and heard the voice of God when He spoke at Sinai, soon worshiped the golden calf. So too, the Judeans who heard the words of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel continued to sin. In contrast, however, the Jews who were tortured throughout history readily sacrificed their lives rather than convert to another religion, which would have made their lives incomparably easier.

Why is this? Obviously a strong commitment to Judaism is greater even than hearing the voice of God.

So what does this mean for us?

Rabbi Sacks points out that the groups in different religions who have the most difficult form of religion are the ones who remain the most committed. Is Modern Orthodoxy this version?

Now, all of this is not to say that we should make our lives as difficult as possible so that we can feel more committed to Judaism. Therefore, we might say, let’s stop using electricity to power our lights at night, and instead have evening prayers by candle light. So let’s be clear, we are Modern Orthodox because we think it is right, and this will not depend on the answer to our question. It is not a mitzvah to suffer by any means, and we want to avoid confusion about this.

But, having asked the question, I still think we might say that Modern Orthodoxy is the most difficult version of Judaism, if it is understood in a certain sense.

For many, modern Orthodoxy is the Orthodox way of life for those who do not really wish to commit to traditional Orthodoxy. Perhaps because they do not want to give up on movies, or dunkin donuts, or working for a big pay check, they water down our religion -but not too much- so they may ensure that the next generation does not abandon Judaism.

In this sense, modern Orthodoxy is nothing other than a way to make our lives more convenient.

However, the founders of great Modern Orthodox institutions had nothing like this in mind, and there are many among us who still view Modern Orthodoxy as an ideal to be adhered to and striven for. And this is the most difficult form of Judaism in my opinion.

As opposed to saying we will water down Halakha, we affirm our commitment to it 100%. As opposed to denouncing the secular world completely we say we will take a nuanced approach to questions of faith, and philosophy, and art, and emotion. Living a life that questions and affirms while truly living according to our faith is to my mind much more difficult than simply practicing when it is convenient, or avoiding the modern world entirely.

A person who works with non-Jews either in science or fashion or education has to grapple with what someone different has to offer, and has to ask how this changes our view of ourselves and Judaism, of our relationship with God. To pray with the same fervor after asking if God truly answers prayer is more difficult than doing so without acknowledging that the question is valid.

Modern Orthodoxy is the ideal of searching and questioning while affirming 100%. I cannot imagine something that would require more of us than this.

1Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 2009



Filed under Miscellaneous

Will Keeping the Mitzvot Really Build the 3rd Temple?

Twice in the past few weeks, I have come across the same message from “Chabad In the Cardo”, which goes as follows:

“Help Build the 3rd Bais Hamikdash…By Doing Acts of Goodness & Kindness”

What exactly is the meaning of this statement?

I believe Chabad in the Cardo is implying that by being nice to people (an important Mitzvah, ask Hillel or Rabbi Akiva), we may literally cause the 3rd Temple to be built. Lest you be fooled into thinking that being nice to others is merely conducive to the kind of constructioni that occurs in a natural manner (Bob the Builder style), the sign comes with a picture, akin to Ikea instructions. In fact, this picture tells us, if we are goodii and keep the mitzvot the Temple will come down ready-made from heaven!


But is such a thing really possible?

This belief, which is extraordinarily popular in our community, may be found in many important classical sourcesiii. Despite this, Rambamiv rejects this belief completely, because there’s no way Mitzvot could have anything to do with the spiritually enchanted appearance of a building-even the Temple- from the sky. In fact, not only is this view untrue in his opinion, but it may be a damaging one, as we will show later on.

There are two reasons Rambam rejects the idea that mitzvot could have magical powers, both of which are explained in Menachem Kellner’s fantastic book ‘Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism’ v.

1) It is logically simpler to explain that mitzvot are not mystically endowed with powers, or do not have special inherent qualities, than to say that they do. Rambam prefers the simplest solution available when answering a question.

We may see his philosophical preference for simplicity when he says that “species and the other universals are…mental notions and that every existent outside the mind is an individual or group of individuals.vi

Why consider species and universals nothing more than categories man has thought of? Because Maimonides, Kellner explains, holds that we shouldn’t suggest a complex answer when a simpler one is available. In our case, this translates into rejecting the belief that mitzvot have qualities that are inherent, essential, or existential to them.

2) Rambam believes that God is “…One to whose unity there is no comparison…in the universe…His power is infinite….and the knowledge of this Monotheism is a mandatory commandment”vii. Because God is completely unique and alone in the heavens, there must not be any magic to affect or control Him. Furthermore, since it’s impossible for mitzvot to share a quality with God, it’s impossible that they are inherently holy or powerful in the way that God is.

For these two reasons, we may see that Rambam constantly demystifies the mitzvotviii, explaining them in historical and philosophical contexts that disagree with the idea that mitzvot have any inherent qualities, let alone the ability to build the Temple.

Rather than explain that they are spiritually mystical rituals that affect the universe or our souls, Rambam explains that every mitzvah “exists either with a view to communicating a correct opinion, or to putting an end to an unhealthy opinion, or to communicating a rule of justice, or to endowing men with a noble moral quality…”ix. They bring us to be “occupied with” Godx, and are “the path of wisdom” which we follow because “it is true”xi. But these are all completely natural elements of the world, and there’s nothing supernatural, mystical, or magical about any of the goals of the Mitzvot.

In contrast, the statement that by doing acts of kindness we will rebuild the Temple implies that the mitzvot have the spiritual magical ability to build something, or to force heaven to build it! Rambam completely rejects this notion, since it contradicts his principle of God’s unity and uniqueness, as well as his philosophical doctrine that the simplest solution should be preferred.

In his view, all buildings must be built in completely natural ways, including the Temple. The Messianic process will be a completely natural onexii, and indeed, we will be able to say that keeping the mitzvot allowed us to reach that point. This natural process of redemption and the building of the Temple is a good example of how the mitzvot work in his opinion. They are a challenge for us, and not a kind of spiritual mysticism with seemingly magical properties.

Even though we have great leaders who held an enchanted mystical view of the mitzvot, there are some dangers in seeing the world this way.

If we tell everyone that keeping the mitzvot will protect them, or spiritually cause physical changes in our world, they may stop keeping them if they come to the conclusion this does not work. Furthermore, the belief that mitzvot are to be kept because they have spiritual powers may also cause some of us to forget that though we may keep the mitzvot so that God should protect us, we should strive to keep them because we desire to serve Him.

Additionally, this “enchanted”xiii view of our religion encourages a rejection of science, objective cause and effectxiv, and the way that the world works generally, since it could cause people to they think they have an “in” of sorts with the rules of the universe, and may manipulate the physical world. And that will probably make Bill Nye very angry.

The Science Guy aside, Rambam holds that keeping the mitzvot cannot stave off cancer, build the Temple, or protect us from robbers. If we rely on supernatural means of protection we will each suffer the consequences.

However, if we keep the mitzvot for the reasons Rambam lists, we may be able to return the focus of the mitzvot to the service of God, striving for perfection, and helping each other reach these goals, without the damages of assuming the universe or our mitzvot will do it for us. If we do that, then indeed, perhaps we will soon hire a good contractor to build the Temple, or one will even volunteer.

iRashi on dor haflaga

iiFor example, say, by not shouting or crying, as one had better not.

iiiMidrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, sec. 11, Rashi Tractate Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Rosh Hashanah 30a ‘lo’, Tosafot BT Sukka 41a ‘Ee nami,’ BT Shevuot 15b ‘ein’,Ritva BT Sukka 41a. Hai Gaon lists lists this as a possibility but appears to find it more likely the resurrected dead will be the ones to rebuild the Temple. (cited in ‘Theology in the Responsa’ p.23, Louis Jacobs, Littman Library,2005)

ivHe relies on other sources in this particular matter (ie:how the temple will be built), such as JT Megillah 1:11, Pesahim 9:1, Leviticus Rabbah 9:6, and Bamidbar Rabbah, 13:2. This is also likely the opinion of his followers and later rationalists, but we’ll leave that unanswered for now. However, we can say with confidence that it is certainly not the opinion of any of the Aristotelian Rishonim (Ralbag being perhaps the most prominent among them), for the reasons we will provide, which should make sense according to any Aristotelian.

vLittman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006 (Oxford), pp.11-15,33-42,59-65. Suffice it to say that this post was made possible by Kellner’s writings, which I am a big fan of.

viGuide for the Perplexed, 3:18

viiMishnah Torah, Yesodei Hatorah, 1:7

viiiAs well as pretty much else anything he can get his hands on. For example, see Shapiro, Marc B., ‘Maimonideian Halakha and Superstition’, pp.95-150, in his ‘Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters (University of Scranton Press,2008)

ixGuide 3:31

xGuide 3:51

xiMT Teshuva, 10:2

xii MT Hilchot Melachim 11:1, Hilchot Beit Habechirah 1:12

xiii This is how Kellner refers to the world of Maimonides’ opponents throughout his writings.

xiv Not exactly what Hume was aiming for.


Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus, Rationalism

Is It Possible to Keep the Mitzvot Without Believing?

With all the talk about “Orthopraxy” lately, I thought I’d just add something interesting I found. For those of you who don’t know, ‘orthodoxy’ refers to believing as everyone else does, in our case the Orthodox Jewish beliefs, and ‘orthopraxy’ refers to acting as everyone else does, which in our case refers to keeping the mitzvot. Orthoprax people have their own reasons for keeping the mitzvot, but oftentimes they do not actually believe in what they are doing.

I found a letter in “I Wanted to Ask You Prof. Leibowitz: Letters to and from Yeshayahu Leibowitz” where he addresses this exact issue, so I thought I would post a translated version of the exchange. The translation will be my own, and I apologize for any errorsi. I also want to note that Leibowitz is not considered a mainstream Orthodox Jewish thinker, which may become obvious from this letter. None the less, I think the exchange is very interesting and worth looking at.


To the honorable Prof’ R’ Yeshayahu Leibowitz,

The revered and distinguished!                                                                                     9 Shvat 5750

For quite some time a question has raged in me in regards to matters of faith that I don’t have an answer to, and although I know that his honor is extraordinarily busy from many things that he deals with, and at his ageii, and that he’s also endlessly busy with people like me who turn to him for some guidance, I haven’t found anyone else who can answer me except for him and I ask forgiveness for the niusance.

My question- it’s a personal one. And I would be very happyiii to receive a personal answer. The environment I grew up and lived in my entire life, the Jezreel Valley, I see where its educational style has led to: the second and third generations of us are already completely cut off from anything that minimally has to do with Judaism- anyone who isn’t in this environment will have a hard time believing how much, it is my feeling, that only the ways of our grandfathers and their forebears will preserve the future of the Jewish peopleiv and not necessarily the Jewish state, etc. But it’s hard for me to believe in Reward and Punishment and (I don’t believe at all)v in the World to Come. For example, I’m convinced that a Mezuza must be on every door in a Jewish home, but I can’t believe in the charms that it brings with it, or God forbid, that terrible things happen in the case where there is not one.

I accept upon myself the obligation to keep the Mitzvot and the prohibitions for the sake of preserving Judaism…in the same way that I have to pay income tax, for example, but how can I convince others, some of whom claim “why all the seclusion and the troubles when there’s no reward for it in this world or the next?” and some of them don’t even know what’s been lost and where the future generations will end up?! And there are some who hold onto the smaller beliefs while they belittle Shabbat and Yom Kippur and every other holy thing, and they think what kind of way is this for a man to choose in our time and place (ie:to keep the mitzvot)? I’ll be boundlessly grateful if his honor would set aside some time for me, the small one, from his time and give me an answer or some guidance for my doubts or direct me to an answer written somewhere that I haven’t found yet.

With wishes for long days and years for his honor and with thanks,




To S’ Shalom U’Brakha

16 Shvat 5750, 11.2.1990

I really valued your letter, which completely reflected the honesty with which you’re thinking about the matter of faith, and the way to faith and observing the commandments. I’m including for you a paper I wrote that deals with this great issue, and possibly you’ll find something of value in it.

I want to note a few things on the main points of your letter. The Torah- in which faith and mitzvot are fastened one to the other- is not a means for the preserving of (the nation of) Israel. For the faithful- one who accepts the yoke of the mitzvot- it is the goal itself and not an aid to something, and the goal the service of God: The acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. From the perspective of religious faith, we should not see religion as a helpful-means to human interests, nor to the national interests of the nation of Israel. Religion as fulfillment of needs and interests has no value at all.

The Mezuza is a commandment from the mitzvot of the Torah, and the Mezuza on the door of a house testifies that the people who live in it recognize the meaning of performing the mitzvot. One who sees the Mezuza as a means for defense of a house and on its inhabitents belittles religion and has been ensnared in idolatry, which is completely rejected from the perspective of faith in God and His Torah. Faith in God is not dependent on the belief in reward and punishment, and a truly faithful person recognizes that faith itself is the reward.

As to the World to Come- I refer you to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, which give expression to the highest form of religious consciousness, the consciousness that is highest on Musaf of Rosh HaShana and the Neila prayer on Yom Kippur- And Behold, there is no mention or hint of the World to Come! Yom Kippur does not deal with matters that pertain to after death, but instead proposes a question: Are you, the man who lives in Olam HaZe (this world), aware of your position before God in your life, and why this status obligates you in your life?

The acceptance of the yoke of heaven and the yoke of the Torah and Mitzvot is the great moral decision for man, and it cannot be rationalized by outside rationales. And know, that this is the rule for any decision in regards to values. If a man will ask: Why should I be fair and upstanding, when I can be despicable and benefit from it?- There is no answer for this other than the proposition that fairness is a value in it of itself. If a man will ask: Why should I cling to my people and its land, if by leaving Israel I can improve my situation?- There too, there is no other answer other than to propose that clinging to the nation and the land is a value, for which a price must be paid. And so there are those who see the yoke of heaven and the yoke of the Torah and the Mitzvot as the highest value, even if it is a yoke and not a promise of wellbeing.

With Sincere Wishes,

Yeshayahu Leibowitz


iThe letter to Dr. Leibowitz is very fluidly written in Hebrew, so translating it was very difficult. I added some punctuation to make it readable in English, and as you can see, I skipped a couple of points that I thought might prove distracting due to the particular style of the writer. I hope that doesn’t take anything away from it. The original can be found on page 119 of the book, which is published by Keter Publishing House Ltd., 1999

ii“Begilo”.I think this is the correct translation, but it doesn’t sit right with me.

iii“esmach”. I think the connotation is “very happy” but that is not literal.

ivAdat Yisrael

v“velo”. It was hard to translate this. Leibowitz undertands the writer to be saying what I presented, so that’ how I wrote it, but it could be interpreted that the author has trouble believing in reward and punishment but then not believing in the world to come.


Filed under Miscellaneous, Rationalism

‘He is Charedi’: A Short Response to Rabbi Rosenblatt

I am charedi. I was born in Brooklyn, went to mainstream charedi elementary and high schools, spent two years in Mir Yerushalayim and attended Kollel at Beth Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. I wear a black hat on Shabbos and dark pants and a white shirt much of the week. My yarmulke is large, black and velvet and being a frum and inspired Jew is my most basic self-definition, on par with being human and being male.

Read more: http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2012/08/06/i-am-charedi/#ixzz23K8p5Bvh
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

This morning I glanced at Cross-Currents  (while avoiding my studying) and saw an interesting and enjoyable post from Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt, who is the CEO of a meat company, a rabbi at NCSY- Dallas, and a self-identifying Charedi. This last point is a large part of how he sees himself, and he seeks through some short examples to carve out a niche for himself in between those to his right and left on the Orthodox spectrum, which I think he does successfully.

However, there were two things his post left me wondering about.

1)Rabbi Rosenblatt writes that he believes in the “utter supremacy of Torah wisdom to secular knowledge”. What intrigues me about this statement is that it assumes something that is true could be inferior to something else that is true.

 Presumably, Rabbi Rosenblatt assumes our ability to learn and discover information outside of the Torah is God-given, so it is odd that this information should be any better or worse than other information that comes from God.

Perhaps the author could argue that not all of that information brings a person to the service of God, and therefore the Torah, which does, is superior. However, he himself admits that analysis of the physical world may bring one to a “richer appreciation” of God. That sounds like “Torah wisdom” to me. So what causes the “utter superiority of Torah wisdom” to “secular knowledge?

As Maimondies wrote in his “8 Chapters”, (from the Twersky “A Maimonides Reader”) “one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds”. He similarly states in Laws of the New Moon, chapter 17 that “we need not be concerned with the identity of…authors, whether they were Hebrew prophets, or Gentile sages….we rely on the author who has discovered them only because of his demonstrated proofs and verified reasoning.”

It seems to me that Rambam holds all truth is the same, as long as it leads to ‘avodat HaShem’ (serving God).

2)Rabbi Rosenblatt says that part of being Charedi is the belief that “Torah study is a most worthy pursuit”, as is value to “lionize” great scholars. To me this implies that the Modern Orthodox do not believe these things.

I can only strongly disagree. At least from my own experience, the great majority of the Modern Orthodox would profess that Torah study is a most worthy pursuit, even while refusing to write a cheque for a local Kollel and hoping that their kids end up working as lawyers or doctors. These values and desires do not necessarily contradict each other, as Rabbi Rosenblatt seems to be aware of, since he says he is no longer certain that “Kollel-for-the-masses” is a good idea.

Similarly, many people simply want their children to prosper, and do not believe that Kollel is the proper way to live in a non-utopian society.

At any rate, I did like his post, and it’s always nice to see normal people trying to influence others in that direction. Best of luck Rabbi!

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Filed under Miscellaneous

Pharisee Sects and Edgar Allen Poe

By: Yitzchok Tendler

It comes as no surprise that America’s writers and poets of the 19th century touched heavily on Biblical themes. They were, after all, overwhelmingly Christian. Far more surprising, and scarce, are instances of their references to Rabbinic Literature.

In this regard, a relatively obscure short story by Edgar Allen Poe, A Tale of Jerusalem, stands entirely in a league of its own. The breadth of familiarity with Rabbinic Literature and Temple protocol, the extent to which this narrative is so replete with abstruse Talmudic references, is, frankly, astounding. Poe goes far beyond mere Talmudic reference; he actually adopts its idiom and syntax, employing free use of Hebrew and Aramaic to color his characters.

Much has been written about this story, which was first published in  1832 in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier  and later in 1845 in the Broadway Journal.

The narrative, which I urge you to read in full, is one that is familiar to many students of the Talmud. It appears, with slight variations, three times in the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 49b. Bava Kama  82b, and Menachos 64b) and  once in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anis 23a). In summary, it recounts how, during a siege of Jerusalem, there was a shortage of animals for offering as a daily sacrifice in the Temple. To allow Temple sacrifice to continue, an agreement was reached between the two sides. Those inside Jerusalem would lower a basket with gold coins down the city walls, and those outside the city would take the money and replace it with an animal for the Temple sacrifice, which would then be hauled up to the temple. Eventually, the forces outside of Jerusalem reneged on the agreement and, instead of sending up an animal fit for sacrifice, they sent up a pig. In the words of the Talmud, “when the pig reached the halfway mark of Jerusalem’s walls, it embedded its [hooves] into the wall and the entire Land of Israel shook 400 by 400 Parsoth”. This incident heralded a deterioration of Jewish  national and spiritual integrity which culminated years later in the destruction of the Temple.

Poe’s version of the story follows 3 young Kohanim, priests, as they rush to the city walls to ensure that this transaction is completed in time for the daily morning offering in the Temple. Poe, echoing the Talmudic version of the story, describes how they eagerly send down the money, and pull up the now-heavy basket in anticipation of finding “a fattened calf from the pastures of Bashan”. To their horror and dismay, what they pull up instead was a pig, “a hog of no ordinary size”!

This post is not here to discuss the many issues that come up in scholarly discussion about this story, such as the date it occurred, who the warring forces were, and its relationship to the Batla HaTamid of the 17th of Tamuz. That question has been addressed by commentators on the Mishna and Talmud, along with contemporary historians. We hope to contribute a post on this topic as we approach 17 Tamuz.

The question which we would like to address is this: how did Edgar Allen Poe, an American gentile of the early 19th century, know about this Talmudic passage and all of the other Talmudic references contained in his story?

The overwhelming and irrefutable scholarly consensus is that Poe was masterfully parodying a four-volume behemoth of 18th century British literature, a historical fiction set in the second Temple Era called Zillah: A Tale of the Holy City. The novel, authored by English  writer Horace Smith in 1779, follows a young girl, Zillah, the daughter of the deputy Kohein Gadol, high priest, on a whirlwind of colorful adventure. In it, Smith displays an encyclopedic familiarity with Rabbinic Literature. It is awash with narratives and factoids from throughout the Mishna, Talmud, and other assorted ancient Rabbinic works. Any student of Jewish texts will greatly appreciate and enjoy the work, which is freely available online.

Poe’s narrative does, in fact, appear as a passing reference in Zillah (Vol. 1 pg. 219), and there is little doubt that Poe had simply reworked it for his purposes. Poe was merely echoing or parodying a work written several decades earlier, and the subject of the question of mysterious gentile Talmudic scholarship would be Horace Smith, not Edgar Allen Poe.

However, in 2006 and 2008 posts in the Seforim Blog, Dan Rabinowitz concedes this point only partially, and asserts that “Poe was still more familiar with this story than [merely from reading] Zillah”. He primarily bases this claim on the following passage in Poe’s A Tale of Jerusalem:

Some background: one of the 3 Kohanim who serve as the tale’s main characters is named Simon the Pharisee (the other two are Abel Phittim and Buzi-Ben-Levi). In this passage, Simon takes indignant offense at Roman suggestions that the Jews would use this arrangement to feed themselves, instead of supplying the Temple altar. The passage refers to the sect he belongs to as “the Dashers”.

Rabinowitz sees in this detail a proof of Poe’s singular, and independent, familiarity with Rabbinic literature. “This”, posits Rabinowitz – twice – in the Seforim Blog. “Is a play on the talmudic description of the priests – that they are quick – kohanim zerizim heim”.

There are two major problems with this inference made by Rabinowitz from Poe’s reference to “the Dashers”:

1) Kohanim zerizim heim is an encomium which is applied to all Kohanim; there is no evidence to suggest that it belonged to a particular “sect” within the priestly class. Since all three of the story’s characters are kohanim, it would be strange for Poe to apply it to only one of them. He specifically calls the Dashers a “little knot of saints”, hardly a broad term for all Kohanim. Assuming, as Rabinowitz suggests, that Poe was himself Talmudically knowledgeable,  it seems unlikely that he would employ the use of a sect of “the Dashers” as a reference to “Kohanim zerizim heim”.

2) More significantly, I would like to posit that Rabinowitz misconstrued Poe’s use of the term “Dashers”.  There are two possible definitions for the verb “Dash”. True, to “Dash” can mean to be zerizim,  swift to “move with violence; rush, as in the horses dashed out of the burning stable”. However, it can equally be referring to a different definition: “To strike with violence, as in the waves dashed against the cliffs” (per Dictionary.com). Which one seems more logical from the text? Here it is again:

When you juxtapose “dashing” and “lacerating”, the latter definition seems to be Poe’s intent.

In that case, you ask, who, in fact, is this “knotty sect” of “Dashers” that Poe speaks of?

To answer that one merely has to look at the name of this character, Simon the Pharisee. Who were the Pharisees? The short answer is that they were the sector of the Jewish population of the time which adhered to Rabbinic teachings and followed a life dictated by Rabbinic law. They tended to be very scrupulous about fulfilling minutiae of Halacha and rejected the Sadducee negation of the oral law in place of the written law. Although they were the preferred movement of the Jewish masses, Pharisees were underrepresented in the Saducee-heavy class of Kohanim, priests. It is for this reason that Poe specifies that this Kohen, Simon, was known as a Pharisee.

The Pharisees were known to have certain sects of pseudo-ascetics, people who outwardly acted with all types of outlandish and extreme forms of piety, but who were, in fact, merely carrying on a charade. These people made use of Pharisee-influenced stringencies to justify and serve as a cover for their impiousness. In fact, the Mishna Sotah (3:4) records a teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua that “the plague of Pharisees brings destruction upon the world” (see here for a discussion re translating Parushim as Pharisees). Rabbi Yehoshua, a “Pharisee” himself, was referring to these people. As the Gemara explains (Sotah 22b), the “plague of Pharisees” refers to 7 sects who acted with ersatz piety to trick the masses into thinking that they were extremely devout. The Talmud lists each of the seven sects, but only one of them concerns us: the Nikfi sect. What was the fake piety of the Nikfi Pharisees? The Talmud teaches us that they “knocked their feet together”. Elaborates Rashi: “they would walk with [extreme] humility, with their ankles alongside their large toe (meaning with very small steps), resulting in their toes knocking against the stones”. From the context, it is clear that the Nikfi Pharisee was someone who walked with a certain style of extreme humility which resulted in his feet “knocking” – or Dashing – against the stones (resulting in lacerations, the desired physical manifestation of this extreme piety).

This, then, is Poe’s reference to the sect of “the Dashers”  to which Simon the Pharisee belonged. It refers not to kohanim zerizim heim, as suggested erroneously by Rabinowitz, but to the Nikfi Pharisee of Sotah 22b. When Poe called them dashers he did not mean, as Rabinowitz suggests, that they are swift and move with celerity, but that they knock and dash and lacerate and hit their feet against stones in a show of false piety.

That said, Rabinowitz also erred on another account. He claims that, despite the fact that Poe  largely based  A Tale of Jerusalem on Zillah, he also added in information which proves that he, Poe, was something of a Talmudic scholar in his own right.  His main proof, as stated above, was Poe’s reference to Simon’s sect of “Dashers”, which, as we’ve shown, he erroneously writes was referring to kohanim zerizim heim. While we have shown that he was referring to an entirely different reference in the Talmud, this doesn’t in any way detract from Rabinowitz’s claim that Poe’s Talmudic knowledge extended beyond Zillah.

However, now that we have identified Poe’s “Dashers” sect as the Nikfi Pharisees, we can also conclusively reject the premise of Rabinowitz’s question: “Did Poe study Talmud?” This is only a question if, in fact, Poe displays knowledge which doesn’t appear in Zillah. The following passage, from the fourth volume of Zillah (pg. 144) proves that Nikfi Pharisees do, in fact, appear quite clearly:

This passage is an unmistakable reference to the gemara in Sotah 22b, and, most significantly, it clearly and undeniably translated Nikfi as Dashing!

In conclusion, it is demonstrably clear that Poe’s “knotty sect” of “Dashers” refers to Nikfi, and not, as Dan Rabinowitz claims in the Seforim Blog, kohanim zerizim heim. Additionally, again contrary to Rabinowitz’s assertion, there is absolutely no shred of evidence to suggest that Edgar Allen Poe was independently knowledgeable of Rabbinic Literature. In fact, the very evidence Rabinowitz marshalls appears explicitly in Smith’s Zillah, a work that Poe clearly used in A Tale of Jerusalem. So, for those scouring archives for an answer to Rabinowitz’s question of “did Poe study Talmud?”, I would instead suggest directing creative energies toward a more serious question: how and why did Horace Smith study Talmud?

Beyond all of the above, there is no doubt that each of us see various “knotty sects” of modern-day pseudo-Pharisees (and, for that matter, Sadducees) plaguing our own communities. Further: each of us internally battles inauthentic influences within our own religious personalities. It is often very difficult to be objective about sincerity of purpose within religion. While I am not suggesting we shouldn’t each voice an opinion and put forth a strong vision for modern Jewry, it behooves us to do so while recalling the clarion call of that great Pharisee, Hillel Hazakein: “That which is hateful to yourself, do not do to a fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it”. (Shabbos 31a)


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