Thursday, January 23, 2014

'amida (Berakha 2) God's powers and Evolution theory

The second berakha (=blessing) of the 'amida is called geburot, "God's powers". 

This blessing asserts, in the first place, that God is Omnipotent (Atta gibbor le'olam) , infinitely powerful. Then it tells us that God uses His powers to restore life, to save, to make rain descend, to nurture, to support those who fell, to cure the sick, to deliver captives, etc.
Unlike mythological gods whose powers are shown in their ability to overcome other gods or destroy, HaShem's might is all about Him blessing His creatures,  teaching us, incidentally,  that like HaShem we too should use our powers, resources and abilities to save, cure, help, etc.
The highest expression of God's power, mentioned four times in this berakha,  is tehiat hametim, 'the resurrection of the dead'. Resurrection (do not confuse with reincarnation) is a core belief in Judaism. Resurrection affirms that in messianic times, God will restore life to the dead.

Tehiat hametim, life restoration, is similar to Creation. It obviously defies all physical and biological laws known to us. Even today, 2014, when science has decoded the DNA and developed nanotechnology, no scientist can generate life from atoms. Even if a scientist would intelligently design a lab, duplicating the same original conditions in which, according to his theory, life appeared "randomly" on earth, he will not be able to create even one single living cell.  The generation of life remains God's exclusive domain. By the way, this is the weakest point of Evolution theory. Until today evolutionist fail to explain how life appeared in our planet to begin with.
Something similar happens with Tehiat hametim. Give to a modern microbiologist a simple mosquito, which died one minute ago of natural causes. Could a scientist restore the life of this mosquito, even for a few more minutes?  We are not talking here about creating life out of inorganic matter in a laboratory. The scientist is given a mosquito, with every part of its body still in place. Is it possible for a man to restore even one moment of autonomous life?

We humans have the power to help, to harm, to kill or to heal. 
But tehiat hametim, restoration of life, same as creation of life, is HaShem's exclusive domain.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Rabbi David Messer Leon (1470-1526)

Rabbi David ben Yehuda Messer-Leon (דוד מיסיר-ליאון) was born in Venice, Italy, 1470.  He was educated at Naples in the school of his father Yehuda "Messer" Leon.  The name "Messer"  is short from "mio serro" (My Sir, i.e., Lord) . This honorary title was given to Rabbi Yehuda Leon by the German Emperor Frederik III during the Emperor's  visit to Italy.

In his father's school Rabbi David learned Tora and secular studies. Rabbi David received his Rabbinical ordination at the age of eighteen. He then studied in the university of Padua philosophy and medicine, and practiced as a physician.   During this time, Rabbi David wrote to Rabbi Ya'akob Provenzali, a leader rabbinical figure in Italy, asking his opinion on the pursuing of secular studies. Rabbi Provenzali responded ( This reply was published in  Dibre Hakhamim of R. Eliezer Ashkenazi, 1849, 63-74 ) that each of the seven liberal arts--arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, grammar, logic and rhetoric--was praised and appreciated by the Talmudic Rabbis. He encouraged Rabbi David to continue his secular education provided he remains mindful of the precedence and superiority of Tora study over all other intellectual pursuits.

In 1496 he moved to Salonica, Greece. In Salonica he wrote his most famous book (which was never published) 'en-haqore, "The eyes of the reader", a commentary on Maimonides' "Guide of Perplexed", defending this book against its critics who accused the book of being too influenced by Greek philosophy. Rabbi David contended that Maimonides actually upheld Judaism against Aristotelian philosophy, and showed that human reason without revelation is not sufficient to achieve the entire truth.

The reputation of Rabbi Messer's book spread. In 1498 he was called to serve as the rabbi of Avilona (today Velora, Albania) which was part of the Ottoman Empire. This community consisted at that time of three congregations each with its own Synagogue: Jews from Castilla, Jews from Catalonia and  Jews who left Portugal in 1496. Dissensions between the three communities were not uncommon. Rabbi Leon officiated successively in the three synagogues on every third Saturday.  He died in 1526.

His books
Rabbi David Messer Leon was a prolific writer, and produced works in various Jewish subjects as well as in many branches of secular science. Unfortunately only two of his books were published. We know about his other works from quotations from other authors.

Kebod Hakhamim His Response to a debate between the Sephardim, those who came from Castilla and Portugal, who questioned the authority of the Italian Rabbinical ordination. The Sephardim claimed that the official Rabbinical ordination was only applicable in Israel, therefore, outside Israel, it is not mandatory for a Jew to follow the authority of the local rabbis, particularly against their ancient practices.  The Jews of Castilla were, in general, more lenient than the local Jews in many Halakhic issues and very often this caused divisions of the various congregations of Avilona.  In his book, Rabbi David opposes the position of Castillian Jews and defended the authority of the local Rabbis.  See this book HERE

Tehilla le-David Published by the author's grandson Aaron in Constantinople, 1577. It consist of three parts: (1) The excellence of the Divine Law and Moshe rabbenu; (2) The nature of faith in God’s revelation, which is superior to speculative reasoning; (3) The principles of Jewish theology: the Divine attributes, Divine providence, free will, etc.;

He also wrote:

Magen David,  on Greek philosophy, particularly on the ideas of Plato. Rabbi David considered Plato the greatest classic philosopher. Plato lived at the time of the prophet  Jeremiah. Following an old Jewish tradition Rabbi David claimed that Jeremiah was Plato’s teacher.

Abir Ya'aqob, a treatise on medicine and other sciences

Shebah haNashim , an explanation of Chapter 31 of Mishle, in praise of women.

We know the names of other works by Rabbi David Messer Leon: Menorat ha-Zahab, Bet David, Kise David, Nefesh David and Nahal 'adanim.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Amida (Berakha 1). God, our protector

The 'amida consists of nineteen blessings, or short prayers which end with a blessing. The first blessing of the Amida is called "Abot", which literally means "fathers", in allusion to our ancestors or founding fathers,  Abraham, Yitshaq and Ya'aqob.  This blessing belongs to the first section of the 'amida: "Praise". Our first prayer to God, before we ask anything from him,  consists in praising Him for protecting us, the Jewish people.  

We affirm that HaShem watched over Abraham, Ytshaq and Ya'aqob. We also describe with three words what we can grasp of God's protective powers. We say that God is Great, Powerful, and Awe-Inspiring (=Gadol, Gibbor, Nora), there is no power beyond His control (el-'elion). HaShem uses these powers with kindness (gomel hasadim tobim) to guard us, and ensure our continuity.

We state that because of the merit of our ancestors (zokher hasde abot), God grants us His present protection and our future redemption (umebi go-el).

We also affirm that God promised (lema'an shemo) our ancestors that He will never allow the Jewish people to disappear. He will never abandon us because He loves us (beahaba). See Deut 7:7.

God protected us even before we became a nation. When we were just the family of Abraham or an incipient tribe. Then, we were extremely vulnerable.  In this berakha we are not asking God for protection. We are also not declaring that God will protect every Jew just by virtue of being a Jew. God's protection of the individual is not the subject of this blessing. We claim that God guaranteed our survival as the People of Israel, and we praise Him for delivering that, for keeping us alive as a nation, against all odds. 

Finally we state that God is our King (melekh). HaShem is a special King. He is not a king who demands His subjects to serve him for his own sake, but a King who cares about His subjects: us. A King ready to help (ozer) when we request His assistance. A King who rescues when we are in trouble (moshia'). A King who shields us (magen) from perils, dangers and hazards, which we are not even aware of.

We finalize this prayer by blessing (=acknowledging) God for enabling the survival of the Jewish people, since the times of Abraham Abinu (magen Abraham).

Monday, January 20, 2014

AMIDA: God, open my lips….

ה' שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהִלתך

Before we begin the 'amida, we recite a very special verse from the book of Psalms, (51:15) "God, open my lips, so my mouth would proclaim Your praise".  To understand why the Rabbis chose this verse to introduce the 'amida, it is critical to see this verse within its original context.  Psalm 51 is a Psalm of Teshuba (=repentance, contrition). David regretted the sin he committed with Bat-Sheba. When composing this Psalm, David was in a state of deep anguish, consumed by guilt and shame. As he was imploring to God with a broken heart, at one point he felt speechless and powerless. The reader can see that suddenly, the flowing of this Psalm stops. As if David, aware of God's Presence,  became short of words to beseech God's mercy.  He paused. Then, he said, God, as I wish to continue praying to You, I realize that I need Your help to address You, please, give me the strength and courage to address You, "God, Open my lips, so my mouth would proclaim Your praise".  With this extraordinary request David haMelekh conveyed the depth of his contrition and his unique humbleness.  But above all, he taught us that even the most gifted and eloquent biblical poet, when realizing that he is talking directly to God, he requires God's assistance. 

The 'amida is not a regular prayer. While in all other prayers we talk about God, in the Amida we are talking to God.  Talking about God, praising Him, recounting His blessings as we do, for example, when we read the Psalms in the first sections of our prayers, is somehow within our abilities. Talking directly to God, however, when seriously taken, might/should be an overwhelming experience. When we recite the 'amida we are not repeating the words of David haMelekh. When saying the 'amida, in a sense,  we are David haMelekh. Upon realizing what we are about to do, we are overcome by reverential-fear and a sense of inadequacy and powerlessness to experience His Presence; let alone to address Him with words.  

This verse was chosen by our Rabbis for the introduction of the 'amida. To inspire us to feeling the humbling and overwhelming experience of addressing directly God Almighty.