A few comments on two books I read recently

Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex is entertaining, but, for the non-Yiddish speaker, gets boring pretty fast. The author does a good job of finding and characterizing Yiddish expression, but unless the terms and moods are at least somewhat familiar, reading those phrases is of relatively academic interest. To the degree that the Yiddish phrases were familiar to me – hackn a chainik, for example – demonstrating their origin, meaning, and usage was entertaining. The chapter on cursing, however, was foreign and, therefore, dull. It held my interest for a few pages, but spent too much time describing the psychological effects of the Yiddish curse and gave to many examples of curses that I didn’t find either terribly humorous or terribly cruel.

The author contends that Yiddish expression is rooted in the Talmud. I didn’t see it. I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of Talmudic expression, at least enough to know it when I see it. I understand how someone without much exposure to Talmud can be convinced that Yiddish expression is rooted in the Talmudic. They share phrases, a similar penchant for very concrete metaphor, and a dialogic orientation. All that means, though, is that they’re both Jewish.

I ended up not finishing the book. Rather, I gave it to my father, a ‘native’ Yiddish speaker, who I think will enjoy it much more than me.

I also recently read God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read in a while. It’s as funny as it is serious, and it’s very funny. It’s a story about philanthropy, what passes for it and what it is for real, and what chesed is all about. It addresses the problem of ‘useless people’, those rendered completely unproductive by the advent of industry, and the need to assert a humanity that goes beyond all utility. One of the more clever subtexts calls the sanity of those who care too much into question.

A word of caution, don’t read this book if you dislike descriptions of body hair.


Introducing Rabbi Yehuda Brandes

R’ Yehuda Brandes, whose work in Talmud is unknown to the English-speaking world, has published a book of Talmudic readings. You can read excerpts or purchase it here. I didn’t study from him all that much, but he had quite an impact on my approach to Talmud at a time when my own direction in Talmud study was really beginning to coalesce. He’s a master, and funny as heck, too.
A crucial element of his approach is that he recognizes that the division of the Talmud into Halakha and Aggadah is an artificial one. He also, in general, takes a literary approach, which resonates with me loud and clear, even in ‘Halakhic’ sugyot. For a very long time, I subscribed to the popular notion that people who excel in math will excel in Talmud study. R’ Brandes helped me understand that love of literature can more easily translate into love of Talmud. It’s Aggadah which transforms the Talmud from law to literature, where God peers from the cracks of even the most arcane legalistic details.
One of the first pieces of R’ Brandes’ work that I’ve read was this article on the Aggadot which describe how King David dug the foundations of the Temple (Sukkah 52a-b). If your Hebrew isn’t that good, well, that’s your loss. This is one of the freshest and most exciting pieces of contemporary Jewish thought that I’ve ever read. It made my heart race. And it offered a perspective on the tension between innovation and tradition that really can only be captures in mythic narrative form.
Perhaps I’ll translate it, though it’ll be a lot of work. Maybe Beit Morasha wants to offer me a job as their director of English language publication and marketing (Note: I’m making Aliyah this summer and am looking for a job in Israel). Maybe they’ll let me publish my own book of Talmudic readings (which I hope will one day be as masterful as R’ Brandes’).
My slow posting pace of late has been due to a very hectic schedule and a lack of focus-time with a computer. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my mind continues to wander and explore, and there are plenty of potential posts sitting in my guts, but, alas, there are only so many hours in the day. I have resolved, however, to refrain from what I’ll call ‘reactionary blogging’, i.e., responses to current events or things that other bloggers are writing about, and try to keep to things that I personally have been thinking, learning or reading about.


Moshiach in Hindsight?

Any student of history is aware that the transition from one era to the next is rarely immediate, and never immediately self-conscious. Looking at certain dates or events as watersheds can be helpful in hindsight for characterization, but let’s face it, nobody woke up on July 15, 1789 thinking, “Oh my Gosh, it’s the Modern Era” (well, maybe a few French intellectuals). As time progresses, though, people will at some point recognize that the world they occupy is vastly different from past eras, and will then try to name the bygone era, and perhaps even their own era.

So what about the Messianic Era? Will it follow the same rule? I think it might. Meaning, we won’t all wake up one morning to the news that Moshiach has arrived (for those who think that this violates the Rambam’s principle, see what I wrote here). Rather, I think that at some point in the future, we’ll look back and be like, “Hey, all the conditions of the Messianic Era have been fulfilled”. Then there will be, like with all historical eras, a (civil, and somewhat academic) discussion about when exactly that era started, and who exactly started it. Or maybe it’ll be obvious who the central figure is. I’ve thought this way for a while, but until recently, never really thought about the implication that, by the time the Messiah is acknowledged as such, he could be long dead.

At the post-Purim farbrengen with Dovid and Shloime, they were asking me a bunch of questions about what I think about Moshiach. I don’t remember the flow of the whole conversation, but I remember at some point saying “I’m going to continue planting, if you don’t mind” and thinking that they didn’t catch the reference, I never said ‘Yechi’, nor do I remember either of them asking me to. I did suggest my ‘hindsight Moshiach’ theory, at which they grinned broadly and nodded agreement.

I think that this was the first time that I gained any type of sympathy for post-Rebbe Chabad messianism. If the ‘army’ (BTW – the military vocabulary that is so common in Chabad discourse draws directly from Rambam’s description of the Messianic Era, and of the Messiah ‘fighting wars for God’. The Rebbe’s ‘mobilization’ of this ‘army’ was a pacifist, and more attainable for the Rebbe, interpretation of the Rambam’s words) continues to fight, and ultimately wins, then the ‘Commander-in-Chief’ is the victor, even after death.

I don’t think that history will bear out that the Rebbe was Moshiach. I also don’t have sympathy for those who make an aisle for the Rebbe to enter shul. But I really don’t have a theological problem with someone who believes that history will bear the Rebbe out to be the Messiah, and it won’t require that he return from the grave.  

I wonder, even, if once the Messianic Era begins, and there’s disagreement about who the Messiah was, if the Rebbe, or Jesus, for that matter, won’t be amongst the names included in the discussion.

One other moment from the farbrengen – perhaps the funniest. Dovid insisted on calling Jesus ‘Yoshke’ (why we were discussing Jesus is for a different post). Shloime said that his name was Jesus, and if he were around today, they would be trying to get him to put on tefillin. I was thinking, he probably wore tefillin. Dovid said, “I don’t need him to put on tefillin; I’d get him to say ‘Yechi’!”. ROTFLMAO!


Sublimating the Inner Heretic

כי תשא את ראש בני ישראל לפקדיהם ונתנו איש כפר נפשו לה ‘בפקד אתם ולא יהיה בהם נגף בפקד אתם

Though the following idea is certainly not pshat, I think the ideas are true, and touch on themes that I’ve discussed previously on this blog (like here or here). It’s in the spirit of a chassidishe toyreh:

When you elevate the head of Bnei Yisra’el, i.e., when the intellect achieves primacy within Israel, then each person must place the heretic within his soul, his inner heretic, into the service of God, as is it’s true function. Thus, the inner heretic will cause no harm, inasmuch as it carrying out its divine mission.

Rosh Yeshiva Asks: Why-U need to make Aliyah?

Me-ander writes about the recent YU Alumni Shabbaton in Israel, inaugurating an entire week of high-profile YU events in Israel. I think YU has great potential in Israel. They potentially bring something to the table which doesn't otherwise exist in the Israeli landscape. Kudos to them, and keep it up.

But this shaleshudis thing should have been avoided. First of all, of all people to address a crowd of American olim, why a yoreid? Their respective life trajectories seem opposed.
Moreover, this particular Rosh Yeshiva (and anyone who knows YU, knows that it can only be one person) was brought into YU because he has a particular appeal. YU is able to produce its own Roshei Yeshiva, the mark of a successful and serious yeshiva; nevertheless, the presence of an Israeli RY, and this RY in particular, certainly contributes to the overall landscape of YU Torah. The novelty of having an Israeli RY, however, is pretty much lost on people who actually LIVE in Israel. They get to see Israeli Rabbis all the time. To my mind, it would've made a heck of a lot more sense for an American YU RY to speak. R' Blau, who doubles as President of the American Mizrahi movement, would've been a good choice. I've heard RHS speak, in Israel (about 5 years ago), on the importance of 'normal' YU-type religious Americans making Aliyah and contributing to Israeli society. He doesn'e have a reputation for being an inspiring speaker, and I don't generally get inspired by speeches, but I was inspired when I heard him speak about that.
Regarding the content of the D'var Torah, well, Me-ander's got it covered.


Rabbis’ Initiative: Don’t Vote for Party that Won’t Compromise

“Rabbis’ Initiative: Don’t Vote for Party that Won’t Compromise”

I saw that headline yesterday in a bulletin of Israel news that’s syndicated to a number of shuls worldwide. I thought it was great – finally there’s an initiative, a rabbinic one, no less, that recognizes that compromise is the bread and butter of politics, and that unforgiving idealism will have little or no impact in a fragmented society such as Israel’s. That the failed marriage of religion and politics is due to exactly that tension – we expect that religion remain pristine and clear, but it gets dragged down by politics which are necessarily dirty. So here are Rabbis acknowledging that religion and politics need to separate, so that each can focus on what it does best. What a welcome change!

When I started reading the article, however, I realized that it’s not about that at all. Silly me. I had read ‘Compromise’ where it simply said ‘Promise’. I guess my own little bit of idealism just suffered a reality check, eh? Well, at least this’ll give me something to do after making Aliyah.


Hosting a Farbrengen

Writing about encounters with fellow bloggers is usually Steg’s territory (hey – another gratuitous linq), but the other night I had the opportunity to farbreng with Dovid of ‘A New York State of Mind’.
My Purim ended rather tamely. We had a few other families w/ kids for the se’udah, and I was the only male not driving. I had about 2/3 of a bottle of light, sweet wine, and was ready to retire, Rambam-style. Before going to sleep, I checked a few of my regular blogs for Purim-Torah, and saw that Dovid was going to be in my general neighborhood. So I called the local Chabad Rabbi and asked if he was hosting a bachur named Dovid, and can I speak to him. I told him I read his blog, but that I’m too tired to head over to Chabad to meet him, so he and his roommate, Shloime, came over (don’t worry, they didn’t drive). And this is where things begin to get fuzzy.

Over the course of the next 2.5 hours, the two of them went through 5 or 6 Corona longnecks, as Dovid continually refilled my cup with Cherry Heering (I know, it’s a shtikl vaybish, but I love the stuff). And we engaged in some very intense conversation, really farbrenged (Farbrung? Farbrought?). I’m struggling to reconstruct snippets of the conversation, which was intense but wide-ranging. Fortunately, I told the ADDeRebbetzin what happened before passing out. She's going to help me reconstruct. It'll be in my next post.

Apparently, Dovid also posted about our meeting- here, and has added me to his blogroll. As a result, I've garnered over 60 first-time visitors, mostly from his site. So a hearty welcome to my new Lubavitcher readers. I've mentioned Chabad in a few previous posts, like here, here, and here. That last post is actually one of the things that Dovid, Shloime, and I discussed the other night. And a bit of a warning, I'm not addressing Chabad as an insider would.

Megillah Meme

UPDATED: There's now a 13 and 14
UPDATED AGAIN: There's a 15, and a slightly modified 12

Romach has tagged me with the Megillah meme. Since I lain the megillah, and did so this year a total of 4 times, my thought were more preoccudied with certain technicalities of the layning itself, though at the end there are some more general thoughts. Here goes:

1) This 11-line megillah, while beautiful, is really a nuisance to unfold.
2) I wonder if I'll beat my record of a 19-minute reading.
3) Is this word pronounced 'va-yisapeik' or 'va-yisapak'. Better say both, not sure anyone's paying close enough attention.
4) Ve-ha'achashtarpenim is the longest word in all of Tanach.
5) Should I go falsetto when saying 'seris ha-melech'? Should I neigh on 've-hasus'?
6) Damn. Forgot the trope. Whatever, I'll just make it up.
7) When it says that Esther only took what Heigai suggested, is that saying that she's being modest and doesn't want to be selected, or just that she astutely took the advice of an expert?
8) Why the heck is Mordechai hanging out at the king's gate when round 2 of the virgin-gathering commenced? Is he some kinda sick-o?
9) Gee, Achashverosh would have very little incentive to convert to Islam.
10) Gee, did Achashverosh do anything but drink and have sex?
11) Achashverosh is totally Xerxes. No doubt about it.
12) 've-rabim me-amei ha-aretz misyahadim' is a direct reference to [supply name of American post-HS Yeshiva in which amei ha-aretz become more 'Jewish'].
13) Can you people please shut up?
14) "Hey, the Megilla has a chiastic structure" might be the single most obvious literary observation ever. It's like, DUH, that's the POINT!
15) 'and he called for his loved ones and his wife' - it's hilarious that Zeresh isn't one of Haman's 'loved ones'. Maybe, like his relationship with everyone else, his relationship w/ Zeresh was based upon fear. Would shed new light on the Haman=Memuchan theory.

I tag:
Dan, Menachem Mendel, Dovid, and Alan


Nach Yomi Initiative

I'd like to call attention to a new blog - just started today - that will be both valuable educationally, and of great importance to one man and his family.

Please visit Nach-Yomi, spread the word, and pray for the speedy and full recovery of Avraham Dov ben Golda.


Purim Miscellany

Why do we wear Purim costumes?

  1. The popular answer: blah blah blah hester panim blah blah blah

  2. The funky answer: the struggle between Mordechai and Haman is rooted in the struggle between Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov is the first biblical character to dress in a disguise, and he dresses like Esav. The lines must somehow be blurred – ad delo yada – and it’s similar to the process of bechirat yisrael that is re-enacted with the goat every Yom Kippur. The choice must be ‘blind’, like Isaac/justice. I heard an approach along these lines recently from a friend, and now recall that I heard that R’ Shagar wrote a short monograph taking a similar approach.

  3. The real answer: because the goyim (particularly of the Christian variety) wear costumes on Mardi Gras/ Carnival.

In my community, on the night of Purim itself, a left-wing Zionist group running a program together with Peace Now, and talking about the evil settlers, or something. To give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this is how they fulfill not knowing the difference between arur Haman and baruch Mordechai. But then, for these folks, Purim is all year round.

After reading this post by Mississippi Fred on MY, I hear new meaning in the Talmudic statement (BT Sanhedrin 104b):
The descendents of Haman taught Torah in B’nei Brak.

Collective Bargaining Agreements with God

Just posted over at MY (for a change) on how the current football negotiations can parallel the relationship between God and Israel.


Rivevot Alfei Yisrael

Our Rabbis taught: “And when it rested they said ‘Return, O God, the multitudes of thousands of Israel’ (Bamidbar 10)” – this teaches that The Divine Presence doesn’t dwell amongst less than 22,000 Israelites.
BT Yevamot 63b-64a

Within the next few hours, I will surpass 22,000 unique visitors to this blog. Welcome, Shekhinah.

Creativity and Impulsivity

I have a student who is an aspiring Reform Rabbi. In a d’var Torah that she wrote in the past few weeks, she quoted a conversation that we had. We were talking about some ideas of Shabbat observance, and made reference to the following conversation from ‘Matrix Reloaded’:
Councillor Hamann: I suppose we do, but down here sometimes I think about all those people still plugged into the Matrix and when I look at these machines, I.. I can't help thinking that in a way, we are plugged into them.
Neo: But we control these machines, they don't control us.
Councillor Hamann: Of course not, how could they? The idea's pure nonsense, but... it does make one wonder just... what is control?
Neo: If we wanted, we could shut these machines down.
Similar to the ideas expressed in the first ma’amar in Pachad Yitzchak on Shabbos, the idea here is that the things that I accomplish are meaningful to the degree that I’ve chosen them. If I’m motivated by compulsion, then I’m not freely creating. Paradoxically, I am truly creative only when I demonstrate full control over it by ceasing.

This student applied this idea to the role of technology in our lives. The ability to disengage from it – be it the cellphone, AIM, iPod, or whatever, demonstrates that we are not controlled by it. She went on the compare this type of relationship w/ inanimate objects to idolatry.

In any event, it got me thinking about blogging. It’s been a great creative outlet for me, and gives me the opportunity to sort out, articulate, and discuss my thoughts and feelings with others. But can I stop if I wanted? It’s after 1am, and I’m blogging away. Is this creativity or impulsivity? I believe that the two are mutually exclusive.

Maybe, in a few weeks, I’ll try to see if I can step away from it for a full week, not because I want to stop blogging, but because I need to know that I control it, and it doesn’t control me.


What I'm Currently Reading and Learning

Every once in a while, I’ll give an update on what I’m reading and learning.

[I’ll leave out the standard fare of Gemara, Mishna, and Halakha]

R’ Kook’s intro to ‘Olat Re’Iyah’.
How I wish I could pray the way R’ Kook describes…

Ibn Ezra’s ‘Yesod Morah’
Interesting stuff. Can’t beat the price. Just came across a passage where he seems to advocate vegetarianism. Good intro to his approach to Torah and Mitzvot.

Motza’ei Mayim, R’ Chaim Hirschenson

Still in the intro. Fascinating. He’s trying to reconstruct genres of Talmudic material, then base his exegesis on those generic rules. Also, can’t beat the price.

God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut
Funny as hell. Brilliant satire.

Seinfeld and Philosophy, by William Irwin
Pretentious and silly book.

One People?, by R’ Jonathan Sacks

Haven’t read enough of it yet, but I suspect it could’ve been a lot shorter.

Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex
Fun, very informative, and interesting. If you like S.’s blog, then you'll like this book.


The Middle Ground of Transliteration

Every year around this time, I am reminded of the importance of transliteration conventions. Personally, I’ve found the Torah U-Madda Journal style sheet easiest to use, with the minor modifications of the VBM, like ch for chet and tz for tzadi. The conventions for use of hyphens and apostrophes are very clean and useful.
For the purposes of communication, one need not employ rules like Mar Gavriel, Steg, and the rest of the Mis-dakdekim.  

Why this time of year? Well, it’s the Jewish season of giving, when I receive solicitations from all types of tzedakah organizations. Yesterday, I received a solicitation from Kupat Hair, the self-proclaimed ‘Tzedakah of the Gedolim’ who live in B’nei Brak. I thought it might be something like Locks of Love or some type of tonsure-tzedakah. Alas, it’s just a poor, but amusing, transliteration.

Then there’s my favorite poorly transliterated charitable organization: Kupat R’ Meir Baal Hanes. I find the idea that a Tanna would be remembered by the make of his underwear to be hilarious.