Maimonides on Teshuvah

 

Dedicated to the memory of my father: A new translation and commentary of Moses Maimonides’ classic work on repentance. Softcover, 253 pages, illustrations. $18. Click here to order.

Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Few books demonstrate the enduring value of halachah as Dr. Avraham Steinberg’s monumental Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics. We live in an age when the most elemental aspects of the human condition are subject to unprecedented manipulation, with everything from the moment of conception to the last embers of consciousness open to revision and consideration. The headlong pace of scientific discovery threatens to overwhelm our basic humanity, radically redefining concepts like “alive,” “male and female,” and “parenthood.” Dr. Steinberg’s magnum opus, the first of its kind, restores a center of gravity to our medical universe and affords health practitioners firm ground for the innumerable moral calculations occasioned by modern medicine.

The six-volume Hebrew-language original was completed in 1989 with approbation from leading halachic authorities. Dr. Steinberg, a physician with extensive rabbinic training and military experience, surveyed the vast scope of medical challenges considered by Jewish law since ancient times and rendered them in alphabetical format, facilitating rapid consultation for doctors seeking immediate guidance on life-and-death issues. The Encyclopedia earned immediate acclaim for its erudition, comprehensive approach, and scholarly objectivity. The volumes were ably translated into a fluid English by Dr. Fred Rosner, a well-known and prolific author in the field, making Jewish thought accessible to a wider audience of non-Jewish bioethicists. This is especially significant, as Dr. Steinberg points out: “Judaism is unique among modern ethical systems in that it constitutes a continuum of recorded deliberations and decisions dating back several millennia. It combines deontological principals with casuistic analysis of an enormous variety of cases.” The Encyclopedia earned the author the prestigious Israel Prize for its contributions to scholarly literature.

The book is written for intelligent non-specialists. Each entry begins with relevant definitions, followed by a historical introduction to debate on the issue (often taking an impressively broad cross-cultural approach), and the scientific background. This is followed by a survey of the relevant Jewish texts, and a detailed analysis of specific applications, heavily reliant on modern responsa literature. Some entries include a discussion of the implications of secular law. The first entry of the Encyclopedia is “Abortion and Miscarriage,” for example, and over the course of 29 double-column pages Dr. Steinberg impressively relates the halachic material cataloging and documenting the approach of rabbis since the first appearance of the issue in the book of Exodus, the implications of the various abortifacient methods and situational variables, and also placing Jewish thought within the non-Jewish works, including modern American law. The reader is left with a concise, comprehensive yet comprehensible understanding of the major approaches of the Jewish legal tradition to this complex issue.

Understandably, a book of this nature is doomed to at least partial obsolescence almost as soon as it appears in print because medical technology evolves so rapidly. The book contains remarkably little discussion of pre-implantation genetic screening, for example, and elective gender reassignment deserves greater attention. Nevertheless, it remains a remarkable feat of scholarship, and may be considered cover-to-cover reading by anyone interested in Jewish medical ethics.

Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought, serving as dean at the Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached at henry.abramson@touro.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times, February 4, 2016.

Josephus Against Apion (Jewish History @ Avenue J)

Lecture on Against Apion, an important literary response to antisemitism in the Roman Empire written by the 1st century historian Flavius Josephus.

And here’s the Prezi: http://prezi.com/yzmhlmrhf2ac/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy.

Who Was the Rashba? Jewish Biography as History by Dr. Henry Abramson

Rabbi Shlomo ben Adret, known to his student by the acronym of his name Rashba, was one of the most brilliant Talmudists of medieval Spain. Student of Nachmanides (Ramban) and teacher to the Ritva, his writings are studied to the present day.

Here’s Dr. Abramson in print (because there are times and places where one just can’t enjoy a video).  Check out the eBook versions as well.  

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Rambam Cover

The Sea of Talmud

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Who Was Bar Kochba? Jewish Biography as History Lecture by Dr. Henry Abramson

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“Akiva, grass will grow from your cheeks,” said the talmudic Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta, “and still the messiah will not have come.” A stinging rebuke for the most prominent supporter of Bar Kochba’s would-be messianic leadership of the Jewish people in his 2nd-century rebellion against the Roman oppressors. Who was Bar Kochba, and what did his rebellion signify for Jewish history?

Dr. Abramson in print:

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The Chofetz Chaim (This Week in Jewish History)

Israel Meir Kagan (photo courtesy Baruch Chafetz via Wikimedia Commons)
Israel Meir Kagan (photo courtesy Baruch Chafetz via Wikimedia Commons)

Brief video highlighting the life and work of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan (1838-1936), one of the most influential Rabbis of the 20th century.  Better known as the Chofetz Chaim (*one who desires life,” taken from Psalm 34).

 

 

The Kabbalah of Forgiveness: Conclusion

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Conclusion

“The Insulted King,” Illustration of Level 1 by Rebecca Odessa, Courtesy The Wisdom Daily

Rabbi Cordovero’s Conclusion

עַד כַּאן הִגִּיעַ שְׁלֹשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה מִדּוֹת שֶׁבָּהֶן יִהְיֶה הָאָדָם דּוֹמֶה אֶל קוֹנוֹ שֶׁהֵן מִדּוֹת שֶׁל רַחֲמִים עֶלְיוֹנוֹת וּסְגֻלָּתָן כי כְּמוֹ שֶׁיִּהְיֶה הָאָדָם מִתְנַהֵג לְמַטָּה כָּךְ יִּזְכֶּה לִפְתֹּחַ לוֹ מִדָּה עֶלְיוֹנָה מִלְמַעְלָה מַמָּשׁ כְּפִי מַה שֶּׁיִּתְנַהֵג כָּךְ מַשְׁפִּיעַ מִלְמַעְלָה וְגוֹרֵם שֶׁאוֹתָהּ הַמִּדָּה תָּאִיר בָּעוֹלָם. וּלְכָךְ אַל יָלֻזוּ מֵעֵינֵי הַשֵּׂכֶל שְׁלֹשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה מִדּוֹת אֵלּוּ וְהַפָּסוּק לֹא יָסוּף מִפִּיו כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּהְיֶה לוֹ לְמַזְכֶּרֶת כַּאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂה שֶׁיִּצְטָרֵךְ לְהִשְׁתַּמֵּשׁ בְּמִדָּה אַחַת מֵהֶן יִזְכֹּר וְיֹאמַר הֲרֵי דָּבָר זֶה תָּלוּי בְּמִדָּה פְּלוֹנִית אֵינִי רוֹצֶה לָזוּז מִמֶּנָּה שֶׁלֹּא תִתְעַלֵּם וְתִסְתַּלֵּק הַמִּדָּה הַהִיא מִן הָעוֹלָם:

 Translation

 This concludes the Thirteen Levels, by which a human may imitate the Creator, which are the Higher Levels of Mercy. Their precious value: if one behaves according to them in this world, this will open up the corresponding level on high. Precisely as one behaves, one will cause the flow from above, and cause that level to illuminate the world.

Therefore one should not lose consciousness of these Thirteen Levels, and the verse should not leave one’s mouth, so that it will serve as a reminder. When one encounters a situation when one needs to employ one of the levels, let one remember and say “behold, this matter requires the use of this level, and I do not wish to move away from it, such that this level not be hidden or removed from the Universe.”

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The Kabbalah of Forgiveness Level Thirteen: The Moment of Innocence

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The Thirteenth Level: The Moment of Innocence

“The Moment of Innocence,” illustration of Level 13 by Rebecca Odessa, Courtesy The Wisdom Daily

The Thirteenth Level: The Moment of Innocence

Translator’s Introduction

The Thirteenth and final Level of mercy carries an absolute guarantee: one who masters this level can forgive anyone. The Thirteenth Level renders all the earlier levels unnecessary, but there’s a big catch: the Thirteenth Level is spiritually exhausting, and can only be sustained for brief periods of time. It requires phenomenal concentration and a massive investment of personal energy, and as such it should only be invoked when all other levels prove insufficient.

 The theory is simple, the technique complex. The basic idea of the Thirteenth Level is that no matter how despicable a person has become, there was certainly a time when that person was completely innocent.  No matter how damaged the relationship, there was a time when it was new and healthy. Contemplating that moment of innocence is the essence of the Thirteenth Level, which Rabbi Cordovero calls “the level that contains all previous levels.”

הַשלוש עשרה – מִימֵי קֶדֶם

 הֲרֵי מִדָּה שֶׁיֵּשׁ לְהב”ה עִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּשֶׁתַּמָּה זְכוּת וְכַיּוֹצֵא מַה יַעֲשֶׂה וַהֲרֵי הֵם מִצַּד עַצְמָם אֵינָם הֲגוּנִים, כְּת’ זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ.

מַמָּשׁ זוֹכֵר הב”ה ימים קַדְמוֹנִים, אַהֲבָה שֶׁהָיָה מִקֹּדֶם וּמְרַחֵם עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וּבָזֶה יַזְכִּיר לָהֶם כָּל הַמִּצְוֹת שֶׁעָשׂוּ מִיּוֹם שֶׁנּוֹלְדוּ וְכָל הטובות וכל המִדּוֹת טוֹבוֹת שֶׁהב”ה מַנְהִיג בָּהֶם עוֹלָמוֹ וּמִכֻּלָּם עוֹשֶׂה סְגֻלָּה לְרַחֵם בִּשְׁבִילָם, וַהֲרֵי זוֹ הַמִּדָּה כּוֹלֶלֶת כָּל הַמִּדּוֹת כֻּלָּם כִּדְפֵרְשׁוּ בָּאִדְרָא. כָּךְ הָאָדָם יְתַקֵּן הַנְהָגָתוֹ עִם בְּנֵי אָדָם שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ שֶׁלֹּא יִמְצָא טַעֲנָה מֵאֵלּוּ הַנִּזְכָּרוֹת יֹאמַר כְּבָר הָיוּ שָׁעָה קֹדֶם שֶׁלֹּא חָטְאוּ וַהֲרֵי אֹתָהּ השעה אוֹ בְּיָמִים קַדְמוֹנִים הָיוּ כְּשֵׁרִים וְיִזְכֹּר לָהֶם הַטּוֹבָה שֶׁעָשׂוּ בְּקַטְנוּתָם וְיִזְכֹּר לָהֶם אַהֲבַת גְּמוּלֵי מֵחָלָב עַתִּיקֵי מִשָּׁדָיִם וּבָזֶה לֹא יִמָּצֵא אָדָם שֶׁאֵינוֹ רָאוּי לְהֵטִיבוֹ וּלְהִתְפַּלֵּל עַל שְׁלוֹמוֹ וּלְרַחֵם עָלָיו.


 Translation

 The Thirteenth Level

 From Days of Old

             Behold, this is a trait of God for the Jewish people: when they have exhausted the merit of their ancestors and the like, what does God do? Behold, based on merit alone, they are unworthy.  It is written: I remembered you, the kindness of your youth, the love when you were a bride.

God literally remembers the early days, the love that once was, and shows mercy to the Jewish people.  In this manner God recalls for their benefit all the commandments they performed from the day they were born, and all the positive attributes through which God causes the universe to function for them. Out of all this, God creates a special method to show them mercy, a level that includes all of the previous levels, as is explained in the Idra. So too should a person perfect one’s dealings with other people. Even if one cannot find any reason from all of the preceding, one should say, “there was once a time when this person did not sin. At that moment, or in those early days, this person was good.” One should think of the good things the other person did as a child, and recall the love that one has for a child who is yet nursing. With this method, one will not be able to find a person who is undeserving of benefit, unworthy of prayer and mercy.

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The Kabbalah of Forgiveness Level Twelve: Remember Where They Came From

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The Twelfth Level: Remember Where They Came From

“Family Tree (Remember Where They Came From),” illustration of Level 12 by Rebecca Odessa, Courtesy The Wisdom Daily

The Twelfth Level: Remember Where They Came From

Translator’s Introduction

             The final element of the triad is Level Twelve.  In Level Ten we discussed how to forgive ordinary people and in Level Eleven we examined how to forgive especially good people.  Level Twelve deals with forgiving people who seem to be beneath our consideration, having failed habitually to live up to moral challenges. How can such people, who have a long history of wrongdoing, merit our forgiveness? Even after considering the previous eleven strategies, it may be difficult to find a path to forgiveness for these people.

The Twelfth Level suggests a shift of focus, from the offender to his or her family background. Rabbi Cordovero, writing for a Jewish audience, places this level in the context of Jewish peoplehood. Even when a Jew behaves inappropriately, and little excuse for the behavior may be found, nevertheless that Jew is still a child of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and deserves forgiveness purely out of respect for their ancestral merit. Rabbi Cordovero’s argument may be extended to the family of the entire human race.

השתים עשרה – אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ

יֵשׁ בְּנֵי אָדָם שֶׁאֵינָם הֲגוּנִים וְהב”ה מְרַחֵם עַל כֻּלָּם וּפֵרְשׁוּ בַּגְּמָרָא וחַנֹּתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן שאָמַר הב”ה אוֹצָר זֶה לְאוֹתָם שֶׁאֵינָם הֲגוּנִים יֵשׁ אוֹצַר תחנוּנִים שֶׁהב”ה חוֹנֵן וְנוֹתֵן לָהֶם מַתְּנַת חִנָּם לְפִי שֶׁאָמַר הב”ה הֲרֵי יֵשׁ לָהֶם זְכוּת אָבוֹת, אֲנִי נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לָאָבוֹת אִם כֵּן עִם הֱיוֹת שֶׁאֵינָם הֲגוּנִים יִזְכּוּ בִּשְׁבִיל שֶׁהֵם מִזֶּרַע הָאָבוֹת שֶׁנִּשְׁבַּעְתִּי לָהֶם לְפִיכָךְ אַנְהִילֵם וְאַנְהִיגֵם עַד שֶׁיְּתֻקְּנוּ. וְכָךְ יִהְיֶה הָאָדָם אַף אִם יִפְגַּע בָּרְשָׁעִים אַל יִתְאַכְזֵר כְּנֶגְדָּם אוֹ יְחָרְפֵם וְכַיּוֹצֵא, אֶלָּא יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם, וְיֹאמַר סוֹף סוֹף הֵם בְּנֵי אַבְרָהָם יִצְחָק וְיַעֲקֹב, אִם הֵם אֵינָם כְּשֵׁרִים, אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם כְּשֵׁרִים וַהֲגוּנִים, וְהַמְּבַזֶּה הַבָּנִים מְבַזֶּה הָאָבוֹת, אֵין רְצוֹנִי שֶׁיִּתְבַּזּוּ אֲבוֹתֵיהֶם עַל יָדִי, וּמְכַסֶּה עֶלְבּוֹנָם וּמְתַקְּנָם כְּפִי כֹחוֹ.

 Translation

 The Twelfth Level

 That You Swore to our Ancestors

             There are those people who do not behave correctly, yet God shows mercy to all.  The Talmud explains the verse, I will show kindness to who I will show kindness: God says, “I have a storehouse for those who are unworthy.”  There is a storehouse of kindness, from which God dispenses freely to those who are unworthy, because God says, “behold, they have the merit of their ancestors.  I swore to their ancestors! Even though they are unworthy, they receive merit because they are the descendants of their ancestors, ‘to who I swore,’ and I will lead and guide them until they address their imperfections.” So too should a human being act. If one encounters wicked people, one should not be cruel to them, insulting them and the like, rather one should show them mercy and say, “in the end, they are the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even if they are not proper, their ancestors were proper and good. One who derides the children derides the parents, and I do not wish to be the cause of derision of the ancestors.” One should protect their dignity and help them as much as possible.

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The Kabbalah of Forgiveness Level Eleven: Do More for Those Who Do More

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The Eleventh Level: Do More for Those Who Do More

“Serve and Protect (Do More for Those Who Do More),” illustration of Level 11 by Rebecca Odessa, Courtesy The Wisdom Daily

The Eleventh Level: Do More for Those Who Do More

Translator’s Introduction

 The second part of the triad of Levels Ten, Eleven and Twelve refers to how we must forgive people who have a long history of helping others.  In the Tenth Level, we examined how we must extend just a little bit more credit to people as a matter of course, regardless of their moral character.  In the Eleventh Level, we see how we must go still further to forgive people who habitually put others before themselves. They, like all of us, experience moral challenges and sometimes fail. Their prior demonstrated commitment to helping others, however, means that they deserve an additional measure of mercy. Like the patriarch Abraham, known for his generous hospitality and caring for others, people who behave selflessly earn an additional measure of forgiveness.

הַאחת עשרה – חֶסֶד לְאַבְרָהָם

 הֵם הַמִּתְנַהֲגִים בָּעוֹלָם לִפְנִים מִשּׁוּרַת הַדִּין כְּאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ גַּם הב”ה מִתְנַהֵג עִמָּהֶם לִפְנִים מִשּׁוּרַת הַדִּין, אֵינוֹ מַעֲמִיד עִמָּהֶם הַדִּין עַל תּוֹקְפוֹ אַף לֹא בדֶרֶךְ הַיֹּשֶׁר אֶלָּא נִכְנַס עִמָּהֶם לִפְנִים מִן הַיֹּשֶׁר כְּמוֹ שֶׁהֵם מִתְנַהֲגִים, וְהַיְּנוּ חֶסֶד לְאַבְרָהָם הב”ה מִתְנַהֵג בְּמִדַּת חֶסֶד עִם אֹתָם שֶׁהֵם כְּמוֹ אַבְרָהָם בְּהִתְנַהֲגוּתם.

גַּם הָאָדָם עִם הֱיוֹת שֶׁעִם כָּל אָדָם יִהְיֶה מִתְנַהֵג בְּצֶדֶק וּבְיֹשֶׁר וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, עִם הַטּוֹבִים וְהַחֲסִידִים תִּהְיֶה הַנְהָגָתוֹ לְפָנִים מִשּׁוּרַת הַדִּין. וְאִם לִשְׁאָר הָאָדָם הָיָה סַבְלָן קְצָת לְאֵלּוּ יוֹתֵר וְיוֹתֵר, וִירַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם לִכָּנֵס עִמָּהֶם לִפְנִים מִשּׁוּרַת הַדִּין שֶׁהוּא מִתְנַהֵג בָּהּ עִם שְׁאָר הָאָדָם וְצָרִיךְ שֶׁיִּהְיוּ אֵלּוּ חֲשׁוּבִים לְפָנָיו מְאֹד מְאֹד וַחֲבִיבִין לוֹ וְהֵם יִהְיוּ מֵאַנְשֵׁי חֶבְרָתוֹ:

Translation

The Eleventh Level

Kindness to Abraham

             There are those whose conduct in this world is beyond the letter of the law, like Abraham our father, and God treats them beyond the letter of the law. God does not insist that they suffer the full force of the law, and not even that which would be correct, rather God goes beyond the letter of the law just as these people conduct themselves. This is “kindness to Abraham.” God uses the Level of “kindness” with those who are like Abraham in their own behavior.

            So too should a person behave.  One should always treat others with righteousness, in an upright and just fashion.  Nevertheless with those good and pious people one should go beyond the letter of the law.  If one is a little patient with most people, one should be more patient with these people, showing them mercy beyond the letter of the law, more than one would with others.  One should consider such people exceptionally important and dear, and they should be among one’s associates.

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