Legible Mezuzot

This is a Dvar Torah that I wrote for my weekly Parsha page. It's for a feature which is connected to the previous week's Daf Yomi:

The Gemara in Megillah 18b records a difference of opinion whether a mezuzah requires sirtut – whether horizontal lines must be scratched into the parchment’s surface for the words to be written upon. There is no doubt that Torah scrolls, megillot, and even divorce documents are require sirtut, and that tefillin do not. What is the source of doubt with regard to mezuzot?

There are several opinions amongst the Rishonim (medieval commentators) as to the purpose of a mezuzah. According to Rambam and the Sefer Ha-Chinuch (and a Midrash in Parshat Korach), the purpose of the mezuzah is to remind us of God’s Presence as we enter our homes. On the other hand, the Zohar and the Talmud Yerushalmi indicate that the mezuzah serves as a type of protection for the home.

This dispute about the purpose of the mezuzah helps explain the difference of opinion regarding sirtut. Writing on lines, as we all know from grade school, makes the writing legible. Legible writing is desirable if it to be read. Tefillin, which are never read, need no sirtut. Torah scrolls, megillot, and gittin must be legible because they are read.

With regard to mezuzot, if they serve as protective amulets, then there is no need for them to be written legibly. If, however, they help define what makes this house Godly, what one can expect as they cross the threshold into a Jewish home, then ideally the text should be readable to all who pass.

One can tell a lot about a place by the messages one encounters upon entering and exiting. There are neighborhoods where, upon entering, one is instructed how to dress appropriately. There are cities which proclaim themselves the ‘City of the Future’. Brooklyn proclaims itself to be “Like No Other Place in the World” or tells you "How Sweet It Is" (and when leaving, tells you to ‘Fuhgeddaboudit’). So, too, the Jewish home, tacks its mission statement to its entranceway, telling people how its inhabitants live their lives and raise their children.


No Justice, No Peace

That’s right, folks. I’m on strike! As an employee (though I haven’t been paid yet; paperwork pending) of the Israeli Ministry of Education, and a teacher in one of its high schools, I am on strike. I’m not quite sure why, but I’m home today instead of in the classroom. I showed up at school anyway (there was no picket line to cross) but classes were all cancelled, and the students were all gone. This is in addition to the numerous classes that were cancelled last week for the onset of Adar and its festivities (I confiscated a bottle of vodka from a high-school student’s locker after he was stupid enough to open it in my proximity), and in addition to the two days that will be cancelled for Purim next week. Great timing, no?

It’s a good thing that I have five other jobs to keep me busy. I’ve been meaning to list them, and now is as good a time as any:

  • Teaching math and English in a local Yeshiva High School, 7 periods/week (see above)
  • Teaching Halakha in a post-high school seminary, 5 hours (= 6 teaching hours) a week.
  • As I mentioned before, I’m translating a weekly Parsha sheet for Tzohar that’s geared toward businessman and managers. It’s about 2 hours per week.
  • I write news briefs for Arutz 7’s English news site. I do one shift per week, 6.5 hours (recently cut back from 2 shifts = 10 hours).
  • I’m currently translating an article on mistakes in the standard Vilna edition of the Mishneh Torah, for an organization that is printing an accurate version.
  • Starting next week, I will be grading standardized tests on-line. It will probably be 2 shifts/week, or about 7 hours.
  • I should hear very soon about a larger writing/translating project that will last a few months.
  • My ‘main job’ right now is working on an new adult education/ Community Beit Midrash initiative for English speakers in the Modiin area. Currently, my main two tasks are putting out a weekly Parsha sheet which includes Divrei Torah, zmanim, and shiur schedules, but also includes advertising. Between designing, editing, printing, and distributing it, not to mention soliciting ads and making sure they are paid up, takes a lot of time. I also send it out on email, which also takes time and effort. I’m also working on an English-language speaker series for Sunday nights, and will start giving a regular shiur next week. The program is a new division of Lamdeni.

Believe it or not, I actually enjoy the diversity. It’s great for ADD. Never bored, and jumping from job to job. The other great thing about it is that almost all of them are from home. The two teaching jobs and part of the adult ed is outside the house, but the high school is down the block, the Beit Midrash we use is inside the high school, and the whole thing is in the Modiin area. So even though I’m working upwards of 50 hours per week, there’s very little commute time, and I’m pretty much home.

All in all, I’m busy, I feel productive, I see my kids a lot, and I’m scraping together a living (the Rebbetzin’s three jobs help a lot, too!). Most of the jobs involve learning on some level. It’s been six months since Aliyah now, and only the past month have things begun to click; we will make it here.

Another milestone: This is my 500th post. Kein Yirbu!


Baruch Dayan Emet: R' Mordechai Breuer (1921-2007)

R' Mordechai Breuer passed away over Shabbat (6 Adar 5767), at the age of 85.
R' Breuer, a recipient
of the Israel Prize for his contribution to the world of Biblical commentary and restoration of the Masoretic text, was a trailblazer within the Orthodox community for his head-on encounter with higher Biblical criticism.
His legacy is c
oncentrated in two main areas:
  • He did extensive work to restore the Masoretic text, through use of manuscripts and especially the Aleppo Codex, an early medieval Biblical manuscript whose authenticity was attested to by Maimonides himself, and which was largely destroyed in 1947 when the Arabs of Aleppo rioted in the city's Jewish Quarter in the wake of the UN Partition vote. His edition of the TaNach was published as the 'Keter Yerushalayim' series by the Hebrew University and is the standard version published by Mossad HaRav Kook. Israeli Presidents are sworn in on this edition.
  • He developed a theory of Biblical commentary called 'Shittat Ha-Bechinot', which assumes that the Torah presents laws and stories from multiple perspectives. He developed this approach to account for the doublets noted by Biblical scholars who used them as evidence of multiple authorship of the Torah. He published his studies in two sets, each two volumes, one pertaining to the Torah's various accounts of calendar cycles, and the other on the doublets in the Bereishit narratives.
It is in the latter area that his mark is greatest. He single-handedly invented an entire new school of Biblical commentary, which has evolved well beyond his apologetic tone and no longer takes its cues from the consensus of Documentary Hypothesis theorists. The notion that the Torah is multivocal and presents different viewpoints in different contexts has been adopted by an entire generation of new pashtanim.

He was a great-grands
on of R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, architect of German Neo-orthodoxy in the 19th Century. His religious worldview and living habits were clearly influenced by his family heritage, though he was not afraid to challenge that intellectual heritage, once remarking about R' Hirsch's Torah commentary, "There is no commentary more beautiful, and no commentary less accurate".

The funeral will take place in Jerusalem t
oday, the 7th of Adar, the anniversary of the burial of the first great teacher of the Torah, at 2pm on Har Ha-Menuhot.

Yehi Zikhr
o Barukh.


Hilchot ‘24’

The alternative title to this post would be “Does Rabbi J.D. Bleich Watch ‘24’, Too?”

He has an article in the most recent Tradition entitled “Survey of Recent Halachic Literature: Torture and the Ticking Bomb”. Rarely does a ‘ticking bomb’ situation occur in real life, which leads me to conclude that it has become an issue because of the acclaimed TV show which often features torture to find as much as possible about a ticking bomb.

There’s also an article that appeared recently in the New Yorker about the politics of ‘24’. Good read. (Hat Tip: CyberDov)


Free Pollard - But Please no Mi-Sheberach

This past Shabbat, during the mi-sheberach for ne'edrei Tzaha"l (missing and captive Israeli soldiers), I heard a new name on the list - Jonathan Pollard.

Now don't get me wrong. I'd love to see the guy released as much as the next guy. He has definitely paying a steep price for his actions, and a good case can be made that he has been treated incredibly unfairly. We civilians don't really have all of the facts, but historical comparisons, procedural anomalies, and the involvement of people like Caspar Weinberger suggest that there's something fishy going on.

But please, please don't put him in the same category as the ne'edarim. At the end of the day, we know exactly where Pollard is, we know that he's being taken care of, gets medical care, and can speak to his wife. He can even get divorced and remarried. He had a trial by jury. He even plead guilty. Nobody disputes that he broke the law and was imprisoned for it. He is not 'missing' and is not a 'captive'. He's a felon.

As you may remember, the ne'edarim are something I think about a lot. I spoke about them at my youngest's brit milah. Each, at the time of his capture, was a young man. Ron Arad's wife remains an agunah. The Katzes, Baumols, and Feldmans have been searching for their sons, trying to find out if they are alive or dead, trying to find any leverage that might secure their release, for almost 25 years.

I get the sense that Pollard is back in the news simply because the U.S. has another lame-duck President who will be lobbied hard to pardon various lawbreakers as the end of his term nears. It happened 8 years ago, and it's happening now. But lobbying is one thing, liturgy is another. Let's keep them separate.

With this as precedent, I can see some Barry Chamish fan insisting that we add Yigal Amir to the list. I shudder to think about him in the same sentence as Yehuda Katz (though both, like me, were KBY students, and Yehuda Katz technically still is; his closet, like Babe Ruth's locker, has never been cleaned out).
May the Holy One, Blessed be He, show them mercy, increase their strength, remove their pain and send them a recovery of body and recovery of spirit, may He return them to the bosom of their families swiftly and soon. Now let us respond: Amen.


Yes, I'm Fine

It's been over 2 weeks since I last posted. Yes, everything is fine. There are good reasons I haven't been blogging. It's not that there's nothing to blog about. There's plenty. But here are a few reasons that I simply haven't.
  1. I now have 6 different part-time jobs. I'm busy like crazy. There's no time to blog.
  2. Several of the new jobs involve a lot of time typing on the computer. These are translating and writing jobs primarily, plus I'm putting out a weekly Parsha sheet in the Modiin area. So I spend a lot of time working from home on my laptop, typing away. Blogging is first and foremost a hobby. If it doesn't provide much of a change of pace, then I'm not as motivated to do it.
  3. This is the worst reason of all, but there's some truth to it. I've gotten into '24', the TV show. It's become a relaxation activity, which takes time from other ones. At the same time, I've given up Literati. It seems as though I always have a need to balance a 'veg out' hobby with an intellectually stimulating one. Either way, '24' takes time.
I'm sure I'll get back to regularly scheduled blogging at some point. B"H, though, it's been busy. The idea of 6 different and somewhat varied jobs is actually very appealing to me - and very ADD. Hey, whatever works, right?


Super Shayla

Someone asked a shayla about waking up early to watch a sporting event, one can only assume that it was the Super Bowl. The question and response are on
Moreshet. What I find most amazing, though, is the absurd assumptions that the responding Rabbi makes about the questioner and his culture. It completely blows me away. If I had the time, I'd translate the whole thing. Even issues like the length of the game - assuming that no sporting event takes more than an hour and a half, which leads him to the conclusion (in some twisted way) that the questioner regularly misses zmanei tefillah. Just ludicrous.

Hat Tip: Beisrunner

Micaptioned Pictures

I saw two mis-captioned pictures over the past few days. The first was in the weekend's Jerusalem Post, in an article on Rav Aharon Bina's support for Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh. Naveh was commander of the Home Front during the disengagement, and is also a religious Jew. Thus, he has become the victim of all sorts of threats, curses, and piskei halakha from within the Religious-Zionist camp. Rav Bina is one of the few gutsy enough to say something about it, taking out large ads in various newspapers defending Naveh's character and motivations. The ads stay away from politics, as they should.

The funny thing is, there was a picture captioned "Rabbi Aharon Bina", but it was a picture of someone who looks nothing like Rav Bina. In fact, it was of R' David Abuhaseira. What presumably happened was that the writer or editor went looking for pix on the Netiv Aryeh webite, and found a photo gallery of R' Abuhaseira's recent visit to Netiv. There are a few pix of R' Bina with R' Abuhaseira (like this one). As you can see, they look nothing alike (Rav Bina is on the right), but the writer may have had no way of knowing who's who. I'm sure Rav Bina got a good laugh from this.

The second mistake completely baffles me. Here's a link to it. How does an Israeli news outlet let that happen? Whatever. Maybe he got confused between incumbent Prime Ministers who won't be in office much longer.


The First Word: Jeremiah's wish | Jerusalem Post

Normally, I like the works of Richard Elliott Friedman. I thought his "Who Wrote the Bible" was an excellent and very readable summary of a common version of the Documentary Hypothesis. I enjoyed his "The Disappearance of God" very much, and I've heard good things about his Commentary on the Bible". Then he went a wrote this article in this weekend's Jerusalem Post. I thought it was terrible, and very unbecoming of someone who would like to be considered a serious scholar (he currently heads the Jewish Studies department at the University of Georgia).

Friedman starts with a binary assertion: people form opinions on matters like abortion, capital punishment, and homosexuality based on "cultural and visceral" responses, and sometimes based on the Bible. His main thesis is that regarding abortion, the Bible is inconclusive at best, and likely permissive of abortion. The passage in Shemot 21 is dismissed as being ambiguous.

There are several problems with his thesis. Firstly, he does not not stake out any middle ground between 'murder' and 'permissible'. He uses a passage in Yirmiyahu to 'prove' that abortion is not murder. Thay doesn't make it permissible. In fact, that's exactly what Shemot 21, accvrding to traditional interpretation, means: killing the fetus of another is punishable by monetary remuneration, not by death, which is the penalty for murder. However ambiguous the passage is, it's very clear that killing a fetus is not murder. That the Bible itself likely presents a middle position on abortion - forbidden but not murder - should at the very least caution one against ignoring exegetical possibilities in other passages.

Secondly, he marshals the cases of Jeremiah and Job, who wished they had been aborted, alongside Kohelet's statement that the stillborn are better off than the living, to show that abortion, as opposed to actual murder, is an acceptable way to cope with life's meaninglessness or difficulty. The equation strains credulity. As he notes, just because Kohelet praises the stillborn, doesn't mean he advocates causing them. Job and Jeremiah lament their own births. Wishing they had been terminated before birth must be read in a poetic context. Job spends an entire chapter cursing the day he was born. To take Job's reaction to his misfortune as any kind of normative indicator is simply irresponsible. Jeremiah's wish that he had been aborted doesn't necessarily mean that it would have been permissible, even assuming that the passage can be read normatively. REF is aware of these deficiencies in his argument, which make it all the more striking that he advances it anyway. Had he presented this argument in a peer-reviewed journal, not to mention any beit midrash, he would have been laughed out of the room. In a publication like J-Post, however, he is speaking to a largely uncritical audience, some of whom may take his words seriously.

The final criticism that I have of this article is probably the most serious. By setting up a binary decision - cultural/visceral vs. Biblical, he ignores an entire corpus of post-Biblical material which is normative for many of us, and ostensibly for REF himself. The halakha has enshrined a particular interpretation of Shemot 21, which regards abortion as injury but not murder. Acquiescence of the pregnant woman does not make abortion permissible just as self-mutilation is not permissible. Granted, the status of a fetus - whether it is part of the mother or a separate entity - is a matter of dispute which has major ramifications for contexts in which abortion would be permissible or even mandated. The Bible itself is open to interpretation; as a legal document, however, certain interpretations - irrespective of whether they are the correct or original interpretations - have been enshrined by that nexus of laws and interpretations that we call Rabbinic Judaism. We Rabbinites genrally don't take our cues directly from the Bible, as I'm sure REF knows. I therefore find is terribly disingenuous that he ignores halakha and discusses only his detection of a permissive pattern in the Biblical text, as if normative Biblical interpretation is influencing today's decision-makers. He beats up on a straw man, and hopes his audience won't notice the elephant in the living room. This member of the audience noticed.

Tu B'Shvat, Midwinter, and Groundhog's Day

I wrote about Tu B'Shvaut and its counterpart, Tu B'Av here.


Paradigms for Religious Success on Campus Part III: The Lonely Man of Faith

Continued from part I, IA, II

[I will preface this post with the same caveat that I included in the introduction to this series: The goal here is to identify paradigms. Different people use different aspects of different paradigms to fashion their own identities on campus. Nobody falls completely into a single category. Furthermore, I am not passing judgment on anybody’s manner of coping with the challenges of secular campus life. Anyone that achieves religious growth on campus has invested in the endeavor, and should be commended. Although I do have my own opinions about various manifestations of the various paradigms, I acknowledge the value of each and realize that different approaches work for different people. This series is not the place for value judgments on the different approaches. There’s also a bit more nuance within each paradigm; there are manifestations of each which I like to a greater or lesser degree.]

Of all the different paradigms, the Lonely Man of Faith (henceforth Lmof) is most withdrawn from the campus culture. As opposed to the countercultural Jews, Lmofs are more likely to keep quiet and just do their own thing. Their desire is to remain as aloof as possible from the various goings-on, even if there is a positive element in it. For example, even if there is a nice Shabbat environment on campus, he or she would rather go away for Shabbat to spend it in a better or even simply different environment. Rather than have a chavruta with a fellow student on campus, they prefer the environment of a Yeshiva or more established Beit Midrash, even if it means a significant commute. They would prefer living off-campus if feasible.

Socially, they would tend to be cordial with all but close friends with very few. They tend to eschew public positions, within the Jewish community or within the campus community. They tend to not be involved in Jewish groups on campus – even kiruv groups. They will participate in minyanim and eat in the kosher dining facility, and perhaps even pass time in Hillel or whatever happens to be the most Jewish environment on campus, just doing homework, reading, or learning.

Lomfs tend to earn the respect of their peers for the silent strength that they display. They hold themselves apart from the crowd, and the crowd accepts and respects that, in general. The case of the “Yale Five” was definitely a manifestation of Lomf-hood. The students did not want to (literally) turn their preferences into a federal case, but were willing to stand on principle so as not to live in an environment which compromised their beliefs.

It is nearly impossible to build a community out of Lomfs; they tend to avoid the exposure that becoming central to a community means. They also may not feel as invested or obligated in strengthening the campus community. It’s tough to do when you always have a foot out the door. However, in places where there is no community, Lomfs may be just as successful as if there were a strong one.


Choice of Schools

With our oldest entering first grade next year, the wife and I had to decide on a school for her. Options abound. Thing is, there’s a group trying to start a new school, and they were hoping that we would sent her there. We decided, however, to send her to a school called ‘Lemaan Achai’, which is, as far as I can tell, ‘Haredi Lite’ – no uniform, separate classes, celebration of Yom Haatzma’ut, all Haredi teachers. Basically, what I grew up with (except for the Yom Haatzma’ut part). There are many in the Dat Leumi world who are scared of Haredi education. I’m not. In fact, I think that for elementary school, it’s a good outlook (see here for more on that theme). Anyhow, the Rebbetzin and I are not the type to wait around to see what everyone else is doing, so we made our decision.

The dilemma is this: What if the new school, fighting for every kid, is counting on us? What if people look to see what we’re doing? What if we’re damaging the new school’s prospects?

Before we left Israel almost 5 years ago to begin our stint in the States, we sat with R’ Lichtenstein to talk about things. We asked about becoming so important to a community that it would be damaging if we left. He told us a story of a relative of his who was a shochet in Alabama, I believe. When the shochet’s kids came of age, he decided to move so they could be educated. One of the balabatim said to him that if he leaves, there won’t be Kosher meat in’Bama, and people would eat treif. He left anyway, and the people ate treif. Your own kids have to come first.

News Flash

Apparently, there has been a problem with water pollution in the Western Galilee. And Israeli water authorities have now located the source of the problem. It's from the sewage system of a town called Beit Jon.
o s@#t.