Love! The Golden Rule – new review of “Giving”

July 17, 2020

Aryeh Siegel ● The Times of Israel blog

“…and love your fellow as yourself…” [Lev. 19:18]
Rabbi Akiva says: “This is a great general principle of the Torah.”
[Midrash Raba, Genesis Ch. 24]

“…God asks of us to love. This may sound simple, but it turns out that it doesn’t come naturally; and it takes time and effort to learn to do it. To love others, we must uncover hidden forms of our self-interested concerns. Only then can we direct our thoughts, feelings, and actions toward giving to others. In addition, we need to recognize the aspect of divinity in each human being we encounter. When we see the greatness of others, this awakens within us our love for them. In particular, the greatness in their aspect of divinity connects our love of them to a love of God.”*

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Was Yosef on the Spectrum – new review

July 14, 2020

David Greenberg ● Israel Journal of Psychiatry

Ever since the Bible was written there have been attempts to understand the characters and events of its narrative. Indeed, in The Ancient Commentary on the Bible (1993) Hananel Mack suggested that as long as there has been Bible, there has been commentary, whether Deuteronomy commenting on the preceding books of the Torah, or Psalms and Chronicles on earlier sections of the Bible. The Apocryphal books continued the tradition, as did Philo’s Bible commentary (first century Alexandria), Josephus, then the many forms of Midrash, and since Saadiah Gaon (10th century Babylon), a steady flow of authors, the most known among Jewish readers being Rashi (11th century France), Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) and Ramban (13th century Spain), and most recently Nehama Leibowitz, who have all published commentaries on the Bible text. While each commentator may ask some unique questions, many clearly duplicate each other. How is it that each commentator emerges with different answers, and that often they are distinctive to that author? The answer must lie not only in each new questioner emerging from a particular cultural background but also having different responses that are suitable for their readership: Rashi writing at the time of the Crusades and the destruction of Jewish communities, Ibn Ezra having travelled the world and seen many cultures, etc.

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Wash Your Hands! The Corona Commandment

July 13, 2020

Aryeh Siegel ● The Times of Israel blog

“The priests must not become spiritually unclean by contact with a dead person” [Leviticus 21:1]

Wash your hands! That is the commandment of the Corona era.

In the Middle Ages a person could go half his or her life without ever washing hands. But Jews washed their hands each day after awakening and whenever they ate bread. The most fatal pandemic in recorded history was the Black Death in the 14th century. At that time, fewer Jews died than their Christian neighbors. This has been partly attributed to Jewish ritual hand-washing. (See https://www.jewishhistory.org/the-black-death.)

Of course, Jews in the Middle Ages washed their hands not because of sanitary reasons. They did so out of a commitment to halachic tradition. Was it “good luck” that this saved them from disease? Or is there some providential or mystical connection? I don’t know. But the Kabbalah does reveal a hidden meaning of ritual hand-washing. And our worldwide Corona condition could well benefit from the spiritual healing invoked by its esoteric intention.

The blessing for hand-washing is peculiar. We bless God for instructing us “on the lifting up of hands.” Why “lifting up”? The instruction is to wash our hands. What does it mean to “lift up hands”?

When do we lift up our hands? When we surrender. When we give a blessing. Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb* explains that in the Kabbalah the hand is considered to be the archetypal vessel. Hands are used for taking and receiving. When we surrender, we promise not to take. When we place our hands on another’s head in blessing, we ask that he or she be the receiver.

So when we wash our hands, we “lift up” our desire to receive. We raise it spiritually. According to Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (Baal Hasulam)*, this is the essential teaching of Judaism. All of the Torah and the mitzvot – every word and every detail – come to teach us to dedicate ourselves to giving. Our intention in receiving is only to pass it on somehow. With this intention, a Jew is instructed to start each day. And before we receive strength from eating bread, we bring to mind our intention to use that strength to give and not to take.

But wait. Doesn’t the ritual washing have something to do with tumah – spiritual uncleanliness? Yes, precisely. The Kabbalah views tumah as an expression of selfish desire to receive. This is the cause of all our pain. This is the spiritual state we want to avoid – both individually and societally.

Our pure soul is like a priest within us that wants only to serve God. It calls to us to imitate the divine character of giving selflessly. But this soul can be “dirtied” when we succumb to our selfish desire to receive. We must preserve its purity by refusing to make contact with selfishness. For selfishness is spiritual death. This is the inner meaning of the above verse from this week’s Torah portion: The priests must not become spiritually unclean by contact with a dead person.

So let’s wash our hands of hoarding and hate. Let’s wash our hands of divisiveness and cut-throat competition. The Corona commandment is to give a little more and take a lot less.

*Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (Baal Hasulam) is the greatest modern explicator of the Kabbalah. Some of his essays are translated to English in: “Giving – The Essential Teaching of the Kabbalah”. This book also contains a new commentary by Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Gottlieb, who is a disciple of the son of Baal Hasulam. His classes in Hebrew can be watched on the youtube channel ברכת שלום.


Was Yosef on the Spectrum

March 24, 2020

Professor Majia Nadesan ● Canadian Journal of Disability Studies

What is autism? Although autism is ultimately a diagnostic category, people who exhibit symptoms we now label as autistic are not restricted to the modern era (see e.g. Houston & Frith, 2000). Detailed historical analyses of the concept of autism have described a constellation of symptoms that were formally delineated and medicalized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but pre-existed contemporary nosologies (e.g. Hacking, 2009; Nadesan, 2005; Waltz, 2013).

People experienced as “different” in their communication and social pragmatics have troubled normative expectations across recorded history. Samuel Levine’s Was Yosef on the Spectrum: Understanding Joseph Through Tora, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources argues that Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel from the Book of Genesis, was possibly autistic. Diagnosing people retrospectively as autistic raises complex “hermeneutic” or interpretive questions, including the possibility that our selective readings and attributions of recorded histories reveal more about our current concerns than past realities. Yet, while acknowledging this post-modern possibility of non-retrievable origins, the hermeneutic tradition offers a dialogic framework for understanding the mingling of the past and the present using the idea of a textual fusions of horizons (Gadamer, 2011). Roughly, the hermeneutic tradition holds that each reading of a historical text links the past and present, with the potential for a better understanding of the (“intersubjective” or social) self and its project forward. It is in the spirit of this hermeneutics that Levine’s text finds contemporary relevance.

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Food for Thought

March 18, 2020

Haim A. Gottschalk, Olney, MD ● AJL News and Reviews

From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah is a collection of short essays on each individual Bible parashah (passage of scripture). Biblical scholar Diana Lipton assembled a diverse group of Jewish scholars, divided evenly between men and women. Each scholar wrote a short essay, one scholar per parashah (with one exception) about food, and Lipton follows up with a verse by verse commentary on issues that the essays did not cover. Lipton also explains in the introduction that the book does not address what the ancient Israelites ate, sacrifices being discussed, nor kashrut.

The work is not a cookbook. What the work does and does well is give a derash (interpretation) through the prism of food for each parashah (excluding double parashiyot and holidays). The scholars certainly give you plenty of food for thought.

This book is a welcome addition to any library, especially a synagogue library and recommended to those who are looking for something different to grace their Shabbat table.


Was Yosef on the Spectrum – new review

March 10, 2020

Professor Ian Hale, PhD, FCIS ● Author of Asperger’s, Autism & You and The Insider’s Guide to Autism and Asperger’s

Samuel Levine is a prominent New York Law Professor and foremost Judaic scholar. He has written a unique and important book. It conjoins both factual Biblical history with modern neuroscience and psychology to tell us part of the yet unacknowledged story of the history of Autism. This book is special, it must be read.

Titled Was Yosef on the Spectrum?, published by Urim Publications, he combines his extensive knowledge of Rabbinical commentary up to the present day; with the Torah, the Talmud, and Autism producing a unique insight linking our past with the future. The Yosef referred to is the one from the book of Genesis.

Yosef was youngest son of Jacob, also known as Israel. He is best known as the wearer of The Coat of Many Colours, given to him by his father as a mark of his special status of wisdom from his youngest years and as the interpreter of dreams, much to the envy of his older brothers who plotted against him and sold him into slavery. After enduring many hardships Yosef rose to find favor with Pharaoh to become his chief adviser and wisest counselor. He was the visionary who saw the significance of his dream of seven lean cows consuming seven fat ones. He told Pharaoh it prophesized seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine throughout the lands of Egypt. Taking his advice, Pharaoh was careful to store the seven years of good harvests which saved his Kingdom from the famine Yosef had foretold.

During his life Yosef showed many of the now-recognized characteristics of an Autistic person. His determination, his special ability to identify and focus on important things, while being poor at the mundane and social aspects of life, which caused him many problems-but he never gave up, eschewing love of power, thinking always of the common good above himself. His strong sense of compassion (he forgave his brothers and made sure his family was looked after), his love of nature and care for people and animals, his fearlessness, his strong sense of justice and total unfailing loyalty to friends, even in adversity, and perhaps most tellingly, his “different brain” which allowed him to see what others couldn’t. It is precisely those characteristics which, today are so sought after by major corporations like Microsoft, IBM and SAP. Autistic people are special with their special, “mystic” skills and non-standard hyper-connection to creation and intelligences.

In recognizing this, we all owe a special debt to Prof Levine. This not just an account of the past, but a proven understanding of the present and a prophesy of Prof Levine himself to us all-here and now of a potentially glorious future. It is also a warning against ignoring what God has given to us with his gift of Autism to those He has chosen.

It is with real joy that I recommend this book without reservation to every reader who seeks true knowledge on all of the many subjects covered. It is a story of triumph against seemingly impossible odds (something all too many Autistic people and their families face today) and a message of hope. Truly one of the most outstanding reads of this, new century. It deserves seven stars.


Was Yosef on the Spectrum

January 27, 2020

Steven M. Eidelman

“Professor Samuel Levine’s book, Was Yosef on the Spectrum?, is fascinating and compelling.  For readers not knowledgeable about people with disabilities, Levine perfectly summarizes the work we do,  explaining that “[i]t is not uncommon for individuals with disabilities, once they receive the appropriate services, structure, and supports, to be able to exercise the talents they posses and achieve the goals that would otherwise continue to elude them.”  In addition, through his close study of Joseph, Levine shows how characteristics of individuals with autism can often be both limiting and sources of strengths.  In short, Levine’s thesis is quite credible, and I recommend his book.”

Steven M. Eidelman is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor of Human Services Policy and Leadership; and Faculty Director of The National Leadership Consortium on Developmental Disabilities


COULD JOSEPH BE ON THE AUTISM SPECTRUM? – new review of Was Yosef on the Spectrum?

January 6, 2020

Different Brains

THE STORY OF JOSEPH

The story of Joseph (the title of my book uses the Hebrew “Yosef”) presents a fascinating and memorable narrative, which has been both the focus of careful study for countless generations of readers and scholars of the Bible, as well as the subject of a wide range of art and literature, from the visual arts to novels to Broadway.  Much of this interest, among both religious adherents and broader culture, likely stems in large part from the challenging questions that arise in the course of the story.

Joseph’s behaviors, interpersonal relationships, personal journey, and development are often difficult to understand. At times, they even seem to defy explanation as he faces concomitant and interconnected challenges, opportunities, and experiences, often at once, both surprising success and unexpected failure. Over the years, I have read the biblical story of Joseph numerous times, and I have studied the text through the prism of the works of classical Jewish commentators, spanning thousands of years and geographical locations across the world.

COULD JOSEPH BE ON THE AUTISM SPECTRUM?

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The Autism Question and Beyond: Rereading the Joseph Saga

January 5, 2020

Yitzchak Blau ● Lehrhaus

Most readers of Samuel J. Levine’s Was Yosef on the Spectrum? Understanding Joseph Through Torah, Midrash, and Classical Jewish Sources will likely focus their energies on the question in the book’s title. Is it appropriate to attribute autism to one of our biblical heroes? Are the author’s arguments for such a thesis persuasive? Yet it would be a shame if that issue exhausted discussion about a volume which deals with many significant interpretative questions regarding the Joseph narrative. Levine, a professor of Law and Director of the Jewish Law Institute at the Touro Law Center, has done an impressive amount of research, combing the traditional commentaries and midrashim for relevant material, and reading the verses quite carefully. Following up on his footnotes provides ample reward, particularly since Levine addresses the later chapters in Genesis which many Humash students do not get to. After evaluating the central thesis, this review will then explore some important ideas in Levine’s work.

To read the entire review, click here.


Was Yosef on the Spectrum – New Review

December 12, 2019

Michele Justic ● Five Towns Jewish Times

The story of Yosef can be a puzzling one. The cast is set of one of our Avos, Yaakov, and his 12 sons — all presumed to be tzadikim, before shifting to Mitzrayim where the greatest leaders in Egypt get mixed into the sibling rivalry madness. According to the literal interpretation, these tzadikim certainly seem like bad boys, in effect trying to kill their brother and deceive their father.

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