Rabbinic Attitudes toward Uncertainty Reveal the Underlying Humanity of Halakhah

Oct. 29 2020

When one hears about religious discussions of doubt, one thinks about those who are unsure in their beliefs. But in his book The Birth of Doubt, Moshe Halbertal examines something else entirely: how the rabbis of the 3rd and 4th centuries CE dealt with situations of halakhic uncertainty, such as a piece of meat that might have been purchased from a kosher butcher, but could possibly have originated from a non-kosher one. Zalman Rothschild writes in his review:

Halbertal makes sense of these disparate and seemingly arbitrary standards for determining permissible consumption [in such cases] by drawing attention to the early rabbis’ sensitivity to the chaotic nature of the public marketplace and human frailty. Early rabbinic authorities appreciated that a purchaser of meat in a busy market is more prone to forgetting from whom he made his purchases. The anxiety surrounding doubt as to the source of the meat and a . . . draconian rule requiring one to assume the worst when in doubt would disincentivize merchants from participating in public markets.

The earliest stratum of rabbinic law, with great foresight and sensitivity, established a [set of rules] according to which the Jewish merchant can enter the marketplace armed with confidence that an entire system of laws would be implicated in any situation of legal doubt, and that this system of laws does not stringently require him to discard something he purchased simply because he doesn’t have near-certainty that it is kosher.

The heaps of laws surrounding states of uncertainty—which Halbertal correctly describes as some of the most complex areas of Jewish law—were not designed, by virtue of their sheer volume and complexity, to increase anxiety but to quell it. Early rabbinic engagement with doubt was thus an expression of liberation, not legal bondage. Its intent was not to compound hair-splitting laws on top of likely never-to-be-experienced hypotheticals for the sake of burdening Jews with laws where none previously existed, thereby adding to their already extensive repertoire of rules. Rather, this complex system was intended to free up the Jewish practitioner.

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Read more at Marginalia

More about: Halakhah, Judaism, Moshe Halbertal, Talmud

Why the Leader of Hamas Went to Russia

Sept. 30 2022

Earlier this month, the Hamas chairman Ismail Haniyeh and several of his colleagues visited Moscow, where they met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russian officials. According to Arabic-language media, Haniyeh came seeking “new ideas” about how to wage war against the Jewish state. The terrorist group has had good relations with the Kremlin for several years, and even maintains an office in Moscow. John Hardie and Ivana Stradner comment on the timing of the visit:

For Moscow, the visit likely reflects a continuation of its efforts to leverage the Palestinians and other issues to pressure Israel over its stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia and Israel built friendly relations in the decades following the Soviet Union’s dissolution. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Jerusalem condemned the war, but made sure to tread carefully in order to preserve working ties with Moscow, lest Russian military forces in Syria disrupt Israel’s strategically important air operations there.

Nevertheless, bilateral tensions spiked in April after Yair Lapid, then serving as Israel’s foreign minister, joined the chorus of voices worldwide accusing Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine. Jerusalem later provided Kyiv with some non-lethal military aid and a field hospital. In response, Moscow hardened its rhetoric about Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories.

The Palestinian issue isn’t the only way that Russia has sought to pressure Israel. Moscow is also threatening, on seemingly spurious grounds, to shutter the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency.

Moscow likely has little appetite for outright conflict with Israel, particularly when the bulk of Russia’s military is floundering in Ukraine. But there are plenty of other ways that Russia, which maintains an active intelligence presence in the Jewish state, could damage Israel’s interests. As Moscow cozies up with Hamas, Iran, and other enemies of Israel, Jerusalem—and its American allies—would do well to keep a watchful eye.

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Read more at Algemeiner

More about: Hamas, Israeli Security, Russia