Inferior Ministry

I'm in the middle of a translation of several official documents relating to the Population Registry. I came across the following stamp:
At least it wasn't the Foreign Ministry. That would be downright embarrassing.
Incidentally, as far as the translation goes, I do not need to translate redundancies (i.e., when the same phrase appears in more than one language in sequence, as in this example).


Pinchas’ Spear

NOTE: This Dvar Torah contains strong sexual imagery, may not be what you are used to from a Dvar Torah, and will certainly not be appropriate for the Shabbos table. I also apologize for the length.

As I was reading a dvar Torah on Pinchas, the following thought occurred to me, which I promptly pushed out of my mind: The spear of Pinchas is a phallic symbol.

However, I kept coming back to this idea, not necessarily because the text bears it out, but because Chazal seem to pick up on this theme, especially in the Midrash Rabbah.

The Pinchas narrative is retold in nearly every collection of Midrashim. They all recount how Pinchas, hid his spear in order to gain access to the tent where Zimri and Cozbi were in flagrante delicto, on the pretense that he, too, wanted to “do his needs”. He hid the spear by detaching the blade from the shaft. He used the shaft as a walking stick and placed the blade “in his lap” (be-cheiko – some versions say “under his robes”). If the image is not yet strong enough, note that the same word “cheik” has a sexual connotation throughout TaNaCh (“eishet cheiko” and the like).

The Midrash then enumerates twelve miracles (other versions have only six miracles) that took place when Pinchas killed the pair. Among the miracles:

a. The spear stabbed through Zimri’s genitals and on through Cozbi’s. So miraculous was Pinchas’ aim, that the shaft of the spear was completely enclosed by Zimri’s genitalia, so that all could see exactly what Zimri and Cozbi were doing when Pinchas speared them. In other words, according to the Midrash, the spear penetrated Cozbi.

b. The spear elongated (so that it could continue on through Cozbi).

c. The spear hardened (so that it would not break when Pinchas lifted them up on it for all to see)

Several other linguistic phenomena point in this direction:

1. The fact that kin’a can be seen as either zeal or jealousy. One Midrash (Sifrei) says that upon seeing the act, he immediately “became jealous/ zealous” and ran to grab a spear. There’s a certain ambiguity there which derives from the very ambivalence of the Hebrew term.

2. The Midrashim and Gemara on this episode frequently use the generic word for “weapon” in addition to the word for spear. The word for weapon, as is obvious to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of Modern Hebrew, has clearly phallic connotations.

None of this should be terribly shocking, since this episode is possibly the most sexually explicit in the entire Chumash – certainly in its narrative sections. The Midrash spares no details in the color that it adds to this narrative (though the Gemara tones it down a bit).

The question, then, is why. What does this symbolism contribute to our understanding of the story ,and what were Chazal driving at?

It would be easy – almost too easy – to relate to Pinchas’ deed as a reaction formation of repressed sexuality. Indeed, there is a fine line between being jealous and being zealous (the line between them is blurry or non-existent in Hebrew). Pinchas would then come close to his fellow priest, Claude Frollo of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in his sick inversion of jealous lust into hatred.

Perhaps this is the explanation of Pinchas’ behavior that the Midrash attributes to the Simeonites, who called attention to Pinchas’ less-than-stellar background. Perhaps they were insinuating that Pinchas was “no better than anyone else”, a crusader against exogamy who was himself its product, a lustful man who transformed his lust into a violent form of zealous piety.

The fact that the Torah defends Pinchas’ actions would recommend against such a reading. However, what, then are we left with? He was not a Claude Frollo, but then we’re back to square one regarding our understanding of the Midrash.

The issue with Parshat Pinchas is identity. Exogamy carries the risk of dilution of a core group identity, and the murder of Zimri and Cozbi was Pinchas’ way of using a shock tactic to shore up the boundaries of the Jewish nation.

Ken Wilbur, at the beginning of A Brief History of Everything, relates how the male hormone testosterone induces men to divide the world in to two basic categories: Things that are objects of sex, and things that are objects of violence. Testosterone drives both male violence and male sexuality (the Hebrew word for “weapon” expresses that nicely).

Read in this way, Pinchas’ actions was not about his individual reaction or repression, but about the manner in which the Israelites of that generation had to relate to “others”. Some, Zimri included, were willing to include others into the “objects of sex” category. Pinchas, for the sake of the integrity of the Israelite nation, boldly demonstrated that no blurring of the lines or fusion between the two categories could be tolerated.

The phallic symbolism employed by the Midrashic expansion on the Pinchas narrative refers not to repressed sexuality, but to the violence that represents sexuality’s flip-side. Zimri and Pinchas may have been fueled by the same primal drive (as perhaps their respective grandfathers, Shimon and Levi, were in their struggle against exogamy), but Pinchas had sublimated and assimilated it into a broader concern for group identity.


Rabbi Bigman: Women can sing 'in innocence'

Rabbi Bigman: Women can sing 'in innocence' - Israel Jewish Scene, Ynetnews

Interesting article. The actual responsum is here. Hat tip: Menachem Mendel

I admire
Rav Bigman. I agree with his principles - that if the cultural underpinnings of a particular halakha no longer apply, then minority positions can be sought out and exploited. I admire the fact that he is unafraid of slippery slopes. I've sent particular students to his yeshiva (you know who you are): those who I feel would take advantage of and benefit from its particular approach.

The Ynet article is another matter entirely. I keep an eye on these things now that I'm self-employed as a translator. It introduces Rav Bigman as a "council head". That's a really bad rendering of "Rosh Yeshiva" - the term "yeshiva" in Modern Hebrew, in addition to meaning an institute of advanced Talmudic study, can also mean "meeting" or "council". Where are the editors? Where is minimal research? Do they pay that poorly that their translators simply neglect to do their homework?
o, Rav Bigman list 5 criteria by which one can determine whether a female voice is "ervah". The translator renders this as: "Propriety of atmosphere, lyrics, musical style, the woman's vestige, and her body language". I think he meant "vestments", not "vestiges" (Rav Bigman himself refers, in Hebrew, to "levush", which I would translate here as "garb" or "costume", and not the archaic or ritualized "vestments", and certainly not "vestiges").

And n
ow you know why we need professional translators.



I like interesting juxtapositions in real life. One will often, if on the lookout, come across things whose proximity paints an interesting picture or narrative. Last week, driving from Honesdale, PA to Monticello, NY, I saw a veterinary clinic right across the street from a taxidermist. I guess they’re much easier to stuff and pose before rigor mortis sets in.

People think I’m pluralistic. Maybe I once was. I’m not so sure anymore. It’s easy to confuse indifference with pluralism. I think that’s worthwhile remembering in general.

On the same note, I think my heart is going deaf. Kudos to whomever correctly understands that reference.

This Jpost article talks about how Ehud and Tzipi are afraid that Russian Jewry will disappear because only about 10% of the 880,000 Jews in the FSU are Jewishly engaged. The same article says that only about 10% of Jews currently making aliyah from the FSU are halachically Jewish. Tzipi thinks that more lenient conversion standards will encourage more to come. The whole thought process seems so backward, I just don’t know where to begin.

Finally, can anyone identify the subject of my new profile picture? At least one reader should get it right away.


On Talking and Hitting

The best-known episode of this week’s parsha introduces a lesson that Jewish leaders still have not been able to internalize: Some occasions call for talking, and some occasions call for hitting. Hitting when the situation calls for talking, and talking when the situation calls for hitting, are both very, very dangerous.

The other lesson (which I just found out was noted by Reb Nachman of Breslov in Likkutei Moharan 141:20 well before Teddy Roosevelt) that I really like in the parsha is that when you go to talk, people will listen better if you’re carrying a stick. The corollary is that just because you have a stick doesn’t mean you need to use it.

Notes on 'Flipping Out'

I haven’t written a review of “Flipping Out” because I haven’t read the book, though I know two of its authors personally. Perhaps I haven’t read it because I’ve already formulated my own opinions about the “Israel Year” and don’t want them disturbed by the research. From what I’ve heard, though, the book doesn’t run counter and to a large degree doesn’t address what I think are the most salient points of any discussion of the “Israel year”:

1) That the heyday of the Israel year is over. It is not as transformative as it once was. I attribute this to the advent of the mobile phone. Before its advent, the Yeshiva/Seminary was a cocoon of sorts. Old friendships and relationships atrophied and new ones formed with peers and teachers. The immersion of the experience was much more complete.

2) The Israel programs have evolved within constraints that largely mitigated the experience of “Flipping Out”. It seems that some places are so concerned about their pupils NOT flipping out that the intensity of the yeshiva experience suffers (this can be, but is not necessarily, a bad thing; it just is). Whereas in the heyday, anti-secular college and even anti-YU sentiment ran rampant, it seems much more toned down today, especially in the places where the MO community sends its kids.

3) You could usually tell at the beginning of the year who was going to flip out.

4) By the time people reach adulthood, they end up pretty close to where their parents were. I believe that an anchored boat is an apt metaphor. The boat can drift in any direction, but it remains anchored to one spot. Granted, sometimes the chains are too short or weak, and the boat can then drift off in any direction. Sometimes the chain is too long, and the boat can drift pretty far before the anchor stops it. You get the picture. The studies done for Flipping Out were not sufficiently longitudinal to bear this out.

5) There was a range of formative experiences undergone by students in Israel programs. Some were things like “Growing Up”, “Getting Serious”, “Learning How to Learn”, and “Getting Shtark”, and there was also “Flipping Out”. This latter term generally referred to someone who had some type of “Conversion Experience”. To the untrained eye, it might all look the same.


Magid’s Review of ‘Flipping Out’

I’m not sure what Shaul Magid is trying to do in his new review of Flipping Out, but it does not seem like he’s trying to actually review the book. He rather wants to locate it within a broader social context of American Orthodoxy, as part of an attempt by what he (and probably Samuel Heilman and a bunch of YCT donors) believes to be the evidence that some sort of idealized version of American Modern Orthodoxy (the Rabbi Joseph Lookstein version, not the RYBS version) is “fighting back”.

I think his paradigm is off kilter. American Orthodoxy, including the Modern version of it, has evolved throughout its short history based on the battles that it had to fight in each generation. A century ago, Modern Orthodox Jews in America struggled with the decision of whether to work on Shabbat. By the 1950s, that was not the battle any longer. The community was constituted by those who did not work on Shabbat. The struggles were about things like sending kids to Jewish days schools, or especially high schools. And that’s no longer a battle, either.

In other words, 100 years ago, sending a kid to a “Modern Orthodox Day School” wasn’t even an option. 50 years ago, very few Modern Orthodox American Jews struggled with the now ubiquitous issues of being “shomer negiah”, women’s hair covering, or “eating milchigs out”. These are obviously just examples of a whole host of issues that arise in each generation, depending on so many factors. Who knows what the issues will be in 50 years?

The point is, part of the Modern Orthodox experience in America has been the ongoing effort to integrate the fullness of the Jewish experience with the fullness of the American experience. Each generation tried to edge a bit closer than the last one, and, yes, that means admitting that the American Modern Orthodox experience of the 1950s era did not have the potential to be as rich as the contemporary one. At the same time, Orthodox Judaism was never as integrated into the fabric of American life as it is today. Thus, both of American Modern Orthodoxy’s chief aims are slowly being realized. Freezing “American Modern Orthodoxy” in some kind of imagined heyday runs against the grain of the entire American Orthodox endeavor.

My readers know that I do not minimize the chareidization of the rabbinate and its hegemony of the “Who is a Jew” question. I just find it silly that ostensibly serious scholars cannot distinguish between an essentially internal process (the Israel gap yeat experience and its ramifications) and a wholly external one (increasing Haredi hegemony).

A final, and in my opinion hilarious, aspect of the review is that it refers to the Rabbis Kotler of Lakewood, in footnote 7, as the ideological heirs of “Rabbi Eleanor Wasserman”. Yeah, that’s a good one.