12/30/2009

Rahav and Oron

It's official.
This evening, I attended a ceremony to give Hebrew names to the planets Uranus and Neptune. I was invited because I was one of 15 people to suggest the name "Rahav" for Neptune (I explained it here). Well over 4000 votes were cast for each planet, and the two winners, Rahav and Oron, both won in landslides (c. 2900 votes for Rahav over c. 1200 votes for Tarshish; Oron defeated Shahak by c. 2800 to c. 1500).
I would have liked it if the organizers had recognized those who proposed the winning names, even if only by some kind of certificate of recognition. Instead, the organizers and academic heads talked, barely mentioning that the 'laypeople' in the audience were the ones who actually did the grunt work in this case, and then everyone got magnets with the names. Disappointing, but either way, this is definitely going into my translation resume.
Shout out to BZ for his efforts, especially since he basically introduced this contest to the English-speaking world (which I believe I was the only representative of at the ceremony), even though his proposal of "Shahak" for Uranus settled for runner-up.
I wonder if anyone else has ever named a child and a planet in the same week.
The Hebrew news item is here. This is, as far as I know, the first public announcement in English.

12/28/2009

Love Truth and Peace - Naming our Kids, Part V

Parts I, II, III, and IV.

When we learned that Pesha is pregnant with our fourth child, a girl, we began discussing potential themes and names, although we knew that we would not finally decide on anything until after the birth.

We operate within certain constraints, though. All of our children have double names that make sense together, that can actually be read together as a single thought - Ruchama Bat-Zion means "The daughter of Zion has been shown compassion"; Rephael Amichai means "God heal my living nation"; and Zechariah Yehuda means "God remember Judah". All of our children have biblical names, even if they are methaphorical names. All are somehow linked to the land and people of Israel, sometimes even relating to particular events in our lives and in the situation of the Jewish people as a whole at the time of the birth. Finally, though this was originally unintended, all of our kids' names come from Trei Asar on some level. Although we value naming for deceased relatives, we have found that our primary concern is for the elements listed above, and if we can additionally commemorate the memory of a relative, that is icing on the cake (Rephael and Yehuda, in addition to their general meaning, were part of the names of Pesha's and my grandfathers, respectively).

Among the themes that we had been discussing for the new baby were light (we knew she would be born around the darkest time of year), peace (which seems so elusive), and love, as well as two relatives in particular who were considering naming after. When our daughter arrived yeasterday, on the 10th of Tevet, we felt that we should consider the fact that it is a significant day on the Jewish calendar in selecting a name.

At that point, it was easy:

 כֹּה-אָמַר ה' צְבָקוֹת, צוֹם הָרְבִיעִי וְצוֹם הַחֲמִישִׁי וְצוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וְצוֹם הָעֲשִׂירִי יִהְיֶה לְבֵית-יְהוּדָה לְשָׂשׂוֹן וּלְשִׂמְחָה, וּלְמֹעֲדִים, טוֹבִים; וְהָאֱמֶת וְהַשָּׁלוֹם, אֱהָבוּ.
So says the Lord, God of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month and the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month and the fast of the tenth month shall become for the house of Yehuda [times of] joy and gladness and holidays; so love peace and truth.
Zechariah 8:19

This verse speaks of the transformation of days that were observed as fast days during the Babylonian exile into holidays. The fast of the tenth month, which we observed yesterday, shall be transformed into a holiday for all Israel (as it has already been transformed into a day of joy for my family). There is a condition, though - love truth and peace. The love of truth and peace will be the means by which these days of sorrow are transformed into days of celebration.

So this morning I named my newborn daughter שלומית אהובה, Shlomit Ahuva, "Beloved Peace", in the hopes that she will live to see the day that her birthday, the 10th of Tevet, is celebrated by all Jews as a holiday of gladness and joy.

UPDATE: The rav of our shul, Rav Sobol, just pointed out that Shlomit was the name of the daughter of Zerubavel, from the generation of the prophet Zechariah that returned from Babylonian exile (Divrei Hayamim I 3:19).

12/23/2009

Postcolonial Chanukah

The past couple of years, I discussed the different "Chanukah"s - the different narratives that various segments of the Jewish people read into the holiday of Chanukah. Most are familiar, or at least would sound familiar if you heard it.

This year, two new Chanukah's seem to have been making the rounds.
The first is the David Brooks/ Tony Judt/ Christopher Hitchens/ post-Zionist Chanukah - Chanukah as a celebration of a bloody guerilla war in which a bunch of backward peasants took on their more civilized coreligionists and ultimately an empire before turning into a regime that was no better than the one it replaced. Or something like that.

The second is the Postcolonial Chanukah, in which the struggle of the Hasmoneans against the Seleucids was the struggle of a native culture against a totalizing and colonizing empire. In this version of Chanukah, the Palestinians are today's Maccabees. Edward Said would be proud. Here are a couple of examples:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-michael-lerner/responding-to-hitchens-on_b_392018.html
http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/22806/judahs-avatar/
[I wish I could find the article that actually says that the Palestinians are more like Maccabees and the Jews are more like the Greeks in today's conflict. I'll post the link when I find it].

In a variation of this theme, Shai sent over an article by Prof. Moshe Benovitz that argues for a revival of Chanukah in 3rd Century E. Israel after it had not been celebrated for 200 years there. The setting is the brief Palmyrene rule over Palestine and Egypt. It's a wonderful article. I would have said that this reading has anti-imperialist overtones as well (especially the part of lighting the candles specifically to show defiance against the Palmyrene/ Tadmorian/ Tarmodai soldiers), except that the Jews were in fact agitating for a return to Roman rule.

12/17/2009

EJF answers question: Why did the Rambam include the laws of giyur within the laws of forbidden relations?

A few readers have asked if I would address the issue of Leib Tropper's (I think we can dispense with the honorifics, no?) resignation from the EJF amid serious scandal. In truth, I don't have anything to add. I'm not one of the scandal blogs, and there is not much to analyze here. Dude's apparently a lowlife. Nuff said.
There are a few related points:
1) As a critic of EJF since pretty much its inception, and as one of the first to note the danger that the EJF posed to the Modern Orthodox rabbinate in America, I think this is a happy day. I'm not happy about the scandal itself since, as Gil writes, one should not rejoice at his enemy's downfall (and one may speculate that he is referring to this issue). I am happy that an organization that has been a thorn in the side of many has been crippled, if not killed. I have no doubt that people like R. Nachum Eisenstein will go on screaming about the evil Modern Orthodox rabbis, but he will slide right back to the margin that he occupied before the EJF gave him a bully pulpit.
2) There is very little doubt in my mind that Guma Aguilar is behind the scandal breaking. He and Tropper have been feuding openly (and suing each other) for the past year plus, and Aguiar is big on recording conversations; this is not the first conversation pertaining to Laib Tropper that he has recorded.
3) As a friend pointed out, and to answer the question posed in the title of this post, it is now clear that the Rambam's placement of the laws of giyur was done be-ru'ach ha-kodesh.

12/10/2009

A line I'd add to Adam Sandler's Chanukah Song

Scarlet Johanssen is one great Jewish catch; Utah - we'll trade you Roseanne Barr for Orrin Hatch

12/08/2009

What Minister Neeman Did and Did Not Say

Background: Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman is being roundly criticized for suggesting that Jewish law form the basis of law in Israel. [Links: Ynet, Ynet English, Jpost, Forward, and, for contrast, YWN and DB - who misses the point]

My first thought was that the reactions were generally coming from opposition MKs and Labor rebels, and it's their job to oppose the sitting government, which includes Ne'eman. Statements from folks lke Amnon Rubenstein are also to be expected, as anything that can be construed to threaten the authority of the judicial establishment would naturally get his britches in a twist.

However, the more I read that Ne'eman is calling for "talibanization" of Israel and undermining democracy and the principles of Zionism, the more I realized that there's a real danger here. Part of it is simply that I do not wish to see Neeman construed as something that he most clearly is not. Ya'akov Ne'eman is an ehrliche yid and a ben Torah. When he quoted from the daf yomi in his speech, it is because he learned it (several years ago, he regularly attended my brother-in-law's daf yomi shiur at Chovevei Tzion in Jerusalem). He's a regular attendee of Rav Usher Weiss's Thursday night shiur in Ramot. He's also a founding partner of Israel's largest and by many counts leading law firm, Herzog, Fox & Neeman. He was appointed justice minister because of his impeccable credentials and character. He does not affiliate with any political party. (To spell it out more clearly, I consider Ya'akov Neeman to be a great man, a role model, and a symbol of everything that is right with religious Zionism).

The context of the speech was a congress honoring Rav Dr. Ratzon Arussi. Rav Arussi, in addition to being the torch-bearer of Rav Yosef Qafih's halakhic approach, has set up an alternative to the court system where disputes can be adjudicated in accordance with Jewish law. From the perspective of the courts, this is no different than any of the other forms of arbitration available (numerous well known lawyers and retired judges serve as arbitrators in civil suits, even very high profile ones). To a large degree, the overburdened court system welcomes the relief that these forms of arbitration provide. From a halakhic perspective, as Rav Ovadya pointed out at the congress, it is preferable to adjudicate before a beit din than before a secular court.

One dimension of what Neeman was saying is that he wants to see this phenomenon increase. He likes the idea of this form of arbitration. It should be noted that this form of arbitration is for civil cases and only applies when both litigants agree to this form of arbitration. It is not "theocratic" or anti-democratic because nobody is coercing anyone else to do anything, and, in the case of arbitration, there need not be any Jewish laws on the books in order for such arbitration to work. Furthermore, civil law is not the same as ritual law. We're dealing with cases or torts - property damages, negligence, personal injury, inheritance, contracts, and the like. This law is no more "religious" than British, Ottoman, or Roman law in terms of its superficial content; like any other legal system, however, the laws reflect the values of the culture that produced it.

Even if one were to consider that Neeman was talking about actual legislation of Jewish law, and I do not think he was, this is still a far cry from calling for a halakhic state. The role of Jewish law in Israel has been debated since before the founding of the state, and, ironically, until Menachem Elon (whose 5-volume work on Jewish law was not perceived as being contradictory in any way to his serving as a justice on and ultimately president of the Israeli Supreme Court), generally promoted by secular jurists who wished to "deritualize" halakha. There is an entire department at Hebrew U dedicated to this study, which is a bona fide part of Israeli law. Neeman emphasized that Jewish law has much to contribute to contemporary legal discourse and that it is capable of serving as a basis for a complete civil law.

The "bit by bit" part of Neeman's speech was saying either that:
a) slowly, more people would begin to use batei din like R. Arussi's for arbitration.
b) slowly, new Israeli legislation would incorporate elements of Jewish law as part of the democratic process of legislation by elected officials.
The fact that he insisted that it happen slowly makes it clear that he is not interested in revolution or overthrow of the existing law,only that Israeli society/ law keep itself open to Jewish law and move in that direction through established processes.

Bottom line, though, he was talking about CIVIL LAW. Not about banning pork from Israeli supermarkets or enforcing Shabbat blue laws. He was talking about Choshen Mishpat, not Orach Chayim or Yoreh De'ah, or even Even ha-Ezer.

12/02/2009

My article on Jack Tytell

This article was born in the following way:

After reading numerous articles and opinion pieces (for a particularly egregious example, see Gershom Gorenberg's piece here) that seek to blame the settler/ national-religious/ American Orthodox olim community for creating a monster, and after having heard several anecdotes about Tytell's early years that seemed to run counter to that presumption, I pitched an investigative piece to several well-known media outlets. The Jewish Week expressed interest (others also expressed interest, but either didn't have a mechanism for dealing with freelancers or simply wanted me to give them my sources), and we were on our way.
Clearly, as an American Orthodox oleh, I have an interest in deflecting blame away from my community, even as I readily acknowledge that this community tends to have more loose cannons than others. Nevertheless, the article is the product of dozens of hours of research, interviews, and cross-checking that gives the article a degree of veracity that goes well beyond anything you will see in any other article out there to date (starting with the fact that I spell his name correctly).

Readers are invited to leave comment here, since the JW does not yet have such a forum.

11/29/2009

A Quote that Makes me Want to Learn More about this Guy

Universal justice is the essence of Judaism and all of the various types of liberalism, which are rooted in love and sensitivity, their blessed source is in classical Judaism, making it easy for us to be true to the fundamentals of Judaism while being the most extreme liberals...
R. Shmuel Alexandrov, Mikhtavei Mechkar U-bikoret, 1907, p. 23, letter to Rav Kook (which the latter responds to in Letters I:45).

R. Alexandrov seems like a fascinating character. He published several short works that I'm dying to find the time to delve into.

11/27/2009

Berlin and Jerusalem

Berlin and Jerusalem have an interesting relationship. Ever since the 19th Century, when there was widespread sentiment that "Berlin is the New Jerusalem", the cities been, in a sense, antipodal. We all know about the prescient words of the Meshekh Chokhma, and we know about the fortunes of the two cities since then.
I was reminded of their antipodality this week. Both Jerusalem and Berlin were divided cities for parts of the 20th century. Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967 and Berlin between 1961 and 1989 (in truth, it was divided for a longer period than that, but without a wall).
Yes, as the world celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, it clamors for Jerusalem to be redivided. In fact, this partition of Jerusalem is championed by the same folks who wrote all those articles comparing the Separation Fence to the Berlin Wall.
Do an experiment: gauge the reaction of people to the statement "Berlin will never again be divided" with the statement "Jerusalem will never again be divided".
Some might argue that Jerusalem is already divided de facto. That may be true, and I am certainly not arguing that the idea of partitioning Jerusalem should not be carefully considered. I AM, however, saying that there's not a snowball's chance in hell that Gilo will end up on the Palestinian side of the partition (look at a map of Jerusalem today and a map of Jerusalem in 1967; there's no way that we're going back there). And I AM saying that a partition of Jerusalem, in any form, would be tragic.

11/26/2009

Parsha Playlist

Listening to my youtube playlist (which shows pretty clearly that I came of age in the early 1990s), I was reminded of a reading of a well-known Gemara that I posted, and which somewhat relates to this week's parsha as well as to my post on last week's parhsa.
Enjoy.

11/19/2009

The First FFB

This is an oldie but a goodie (the rabbi formerly known as Yehupitz recalled it to me). it never actually appeared on this blog, but on the short lived "Maven Yavin" blog. It also brings me back to a less cynical point in my life (I wrote this 4 years ago but developed the kernel 13 years ago already). Here it is:

Although much has been written on the Ba'al Teshuvah experience, the experience of FFBs (Frum From Birth) presents its own set of challenges. For a number of years, I have seen Yitzchak Avinu, the world’s first FFB, as a paradigm for those challenges, especially as his experience unfolds in this week’s parsha, Toldot. Please bear in mind that this in no way exhausts the potential to read Yitzchak in this light.

This parsha tells Yitzchak’s story. Abraham’s death is recorded at the end of last week’s parsha even though he lived to see the events at the beginning of this week’s. Once he ‘passed the torch’ to Yitzchak after his marriage to Rivkah, and his story is no longer relevant to the continuity of God’s covenant with man.

Yitzchak’s story is summed up it the first verse of the Parsha: This is the story of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham; Avraham begat Yitzchak.

That’s who Yitzhcak was: Avraham’s kid. Rashi directs us to a Midrash here that states that Avraham and Yitzchak were virtually indistinguishable, so there would be no room for cynics to suggest that Yitzchak was the son of anyone else. The Midrash communicates the latent message of this verse – that Yitzchak’s entire life, entire experience, goals, attitudes, and even the way he presented himself, were strongly shaped by his upbringing in the house of Avraham.

It’s not easy to be ‘The Rabbi’s Kid’. Dad’s the guy who hears the Voice of God, but the kid’s the one who ends up getting sacrificed. From a very young age, the pressure to speak and act in a particular way are enormous, as everyone has different expectations from ‘The Rabbi’s Kid’. I’ve seen with my own two eyes how two students may be carrying on in the exact same manner, but the Rabbi’s Kid is singled out because he ‘ought to know better’. The kid would wish nothing more that to simply be like everyone else, with little or no expectations.

In a sense, every FFB is a ‘Rabbi’s Kid’, to the extent that they live in a culture where they are keenly aware that they have different expectations from those in the surrounding culture. The child is tethered to the values and behaviors of the parents, with little or no opportunity to discover for themselves what would make a person desire or choose this awkward lifestyle.

In the second verse of the Parsha, Yitzchak’s experience is contrasted by the experience of Rivkah, the ultimate NCSY story. Again Rashi points us in this direction; she was born to a wicked man, in a wicked place, and had a wicked brother. She’s the ultimate Ba’alat Teshuva, having had no expectations given her upbringing.

But in the third verse, again, taking Rashi’s approach, we see that this introduction was almost a set-up for what ensues. When they pray for a kid, Yitzchak is answered, not Rivkah. Someone who overcame so much and someone who was given everything on a silver platter, and the latter’s prayers are more powerful. Rashi even tells us that prayer of a 'tzaddik ben rasha’ – the righteous the son of the wicked – is qualitatively inferior to prayer of a ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’ – the righteous the son of the righteous. Why?

I’ve heard in the name of R’ Simcha Zissl of Kelm that the key term is ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’ and not just ‘ben tzaddik’. The process by which ‘the son of the righteous’ who, by default, by habit, would be acting in a manner that would be consistent with ‘righteousness’ at conventionally understood. It’s no small matter for a person to become a ‘tzaddik ben tzaddik’.

Religious growth can be conceptualized into two categories – change which manifests externally and change which does not manifest externally. Rivkah always had an external benchmark, a starting point against which to gauge her growth. Yitzchak had no such luxury. If he was to grow and mature as a religious person, any change would be completely invisible to the world. It is a process which requires a great degree of self-awareness, to distinguish between elements of one’s personality which are habit, and those which have been freely affirmed. There is a certain comfort in ‘externalizing’ one’s religious growth, which can be seen regularly in the contemporary Orthodox community. This implicitly recognizes that interior growth with no external manifestation is very, very, difficult to affect and engenders constant insecurity with one’s own religious state.

The verb ‘to pray’, in Hebrew, is reflexive. Jewish tradition has understood prayer as a process of self-discovery and self-judgment. The prayer of a tzaddik ben tzaddik is indeed a potent prayer.

Yitzchak’s personality, in the Jewish mystical tradition, is connected to the process of ‘judgment’, again reflecting the process of ‘pure judgment’ by which he must scrutinize himself.

He is seen as the originator of the mincha prayer – said at a time where both the sudden clarity of morning and the confusion and darkness of night are absent. There’s light, but it’s old light.

Yitchak follows in his fathers footsteps, struggling against adversity to dredge the wells that his father had originally dug. Is that not the ultimate FFB experience? Redigging our fathers’ wells? Trying to rediscover the freshness and life within them?

Haloscan comments

11/03/2009

The Responsibility of Leadership and the Teitel Arrest

Egla arufa, recorded in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is one of the Torah’s more obscure mitzvot. If a corpse is found in the vicinity of a town, that entire town, represented by its elders, must expiate itself of the murder by performing an atoning ritual (breaking the neck of a calf at a dry riverbed) and declaring that they did not perpetrate the murder. The Talmudic Rabbis nevertheless attribute some guilt to the town and its elders: perhaps they could have provided the unfortunate victim with an escort, or perhaps they neglected to offer hospitality to the victim or the perpetrator (see Sifrei and Malbim to Deut. 21:7), thereby indirectly causing the crime. Similarly, the Rabbis assigned some indirect responsibility for accidental homicides to the High Priest (see Num. 35:25 and Rashi ad. loc.).

Opinion pieces and editorials covering the arrest of Jack Teitel (colorfully and creatively now known as “the Jewish terrorist”) have largely either assigned blame to the national religious/ far right/ West Bank/ American religious immigrant community for creating a context for this type of crime to flourish, or sought to deflect or deny the responsibility of those communities (while, of course, condemning the acts).

Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, a board member of the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization, published an op-ed in which he calls on the rabbis to publicly condemn (but not apologize for) the act, because otherwise silence will be construed as acquiescence. R. Feuerstein comes very close to hitting the nail on the head: He acknowledges that the role of the rabbi – as well as the teacher, leader, or any other public figure – is to keep an open eye on those marginal individuals from whom despicable acts may emerge, specifically, to prevent those elements from hearing messages that would enable them to draw frightening conclusions.

Alas, this is where R. Feuerstein misses the mark in a fashion that is typical of Israeli rabbis. Israeli rabbis – even those on the moderate to left end of the Religious-Zionist spectrum such as R. Feuerstein and other Tzohar rabbis – cast themselves first and foremost as ideologues and thinkers (I have not yet seen the Coen’s Brothers’ new film “A Serious Man”, but I did see the trailer snippet about how one of the rabbis that the main character seeks out has no time for an audience because he is “busy thinking”; though a caricature, there is some truth to it, especially with regard to the Israeli rabbinate). As such, R. Feuerstein sees as his primary goal to make sure that the ideological pronouncements made by himself and his colleagues are articulated in a manner that does not allow them to be construed by those on the margins as agreement or encouragement of criminal behavior. He even goes further – the rabbis should make an ideological pronouncement clarifying that the values they espouse conflict with the actions of this “lone wolf”, lest silence at this time be construed as acquiescence.

Had R. Feuerstein adopted a different image of the role of the rabbi – one that I believe has a stronger historical tradition and is more in line with the needs of the present Jewish community – his message might have been somewhat different. The rabbi indeed has a duty toward the margins of society: not an indirect duty to make sure that such elements do not become monsters, but a direct duty to engage and address the needs of that constituency as any other member of the rabbi’s flock. A rabbi is a pastor, not a policeman and not a public intellectual.

In that sense, R. Feuerstein should have called for the rabbis to accept some blame in the manner of the town elders during the egla arufa ceremony: denial of any active wrongdoing, but acknowledgment that perhaps they could and should have been more attuned to the needs and thoughts of their constituents – even the most marginal of them. I am not so naïve to think that the rabbis are responsible for gauging the mental state of every affiliated Jew everywhere in the world. Yet, like the town elders of the egla arufa or the High Priest of the accidental killer, they do bear some guilt for failing to notice and address someone who needed help. In fact, closer attention to the individual, even at the expense of demagoguery, may have helped prevent the crimes in question.

10/21/2009

PLanet Names Update

[No, I'm not 'back']
About 10 months ago, I mentioned a contest to give Uranus and Neptune Hebrew names. I suggested Rahav for Neptune and Elyon for Uranus, but later mentioned that I prefer Shahak for Uranus, as suggested by BZ.
Well, four names have made the final voting round - two for each planet. Both Rahav and Shahak are on the list, and both BZ and I are listed amongst those who proposed the names!
Woo-hoo!
Vote for Rahav and Shahak!

8/18/2009

My New Hobby

Blogging was my primary hobby for about 4 years. It was a good hobby. It helped me hone my writing skills to the point where I now write (and edit and translate) for a living. However, once writing became my primary occupation, it lost some of its luster as an outlet.

So I’ve found a new hobby: Teaching. While teaching and rabbinating, writing was an outlet. Now that I have been out of teaching for over a year, and now that I no longer have to engage in it professionally, with all that entails, I can return to it as an amateur, and be quite happy doing so. I just completed teaching Ezra and Nechemiah to a small group at Camp Moshava’s Beit Midrash Program, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It certainly helped that I felt no pressure to perform or to do anything other than what I simply wanted to do. It did not have to be ‘like an angel’. And – I thoroughly enjoyed the experience (this shiur was the dry-run for my OU podcasts on E-N, but with much more banter and tangents). Thanks, talmidim and talmidot, for restoring my love of teaching. It’s been a lot of fun.

I know now that I will never go back to teaching professionally, but that I will continue to make it a real part of my life.

8/17/2009

Podcasting

A while ago, I started blogging about the book of Ezra, then stopped. I am, however, doing the OU's Nach Yomi podcasts for Ezra/ Nechemiah, and the first 2 shiurim are up. They will average about 20 mins in length, though Ezra chap. 2 is a bit longer. Enjoy!

8/01/2009

The Roseanne Barr Hitler Cookies Heeb Issue

The uproar reminds me of some of the comment I got when I told the student newspaper at UMD that Jewish men are circumcised because Jewish women need to have 10% off of everything. Some people (like the entire Muslim world, and also a few Jews, generally a generation older than me) do not understand this particular brand of humor (which I discussed here).

Another example of this type of Holocaust-related humor: One of the funniest bits of comedy I've ever seen, the "Survivor" scene in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Another example, also from Heeb magazine: A fake Palm Pilot ad with a protrait of Elie Wiesel admonishing one to "Remember. Never Forget."

Here's another classic example:
Q. How many Jews can fit in a Volkswagen?
A. 10,005. 2 in the front, 3 in the back, and 10,000 in the ashtray.

Here's the thing: I don't think that Barr's antics are particularly funny, but that's just because they aren't funny. Maybe if it were more of a audio-visual sketch it would be funnier, like if whe were goose-stepping around the kitchen, discussing the cookies with a faux-German accent. "Und remembah: zeez cookies vill make vun fleishig."
But that's neither here nor there.

Please also note - in each of the examples cited above, the person delivering the joke is Jewish. Otherwise, it's not actually funny. It's one of those "black people can call each other nigger" things that's, well, best evidenced by the name of the magazine in question, Heeb. If the magazine would be published by, say, the UN, it would be terrible. Roseanne Barr dressing up as Hitler is not the same as Prince Whatever dressing as a Nazi. Humor is a form of rebellion (the editor of Heeb refers to the fact that, in the Warsaw Ghetto, they referred to Hitler as 'Horowitz'). Similarly, and to demonstrate that this type of humor is not unique to Jews (though we seem to have a knack for it), it is reported that as he was being grilled alive, the Catholic St. Lawrence said to his captors: "This side is done; turn me over." Had the same line been stated by one of his captors, it would have added insult to injury. Coming from the mouth of the victim, it is both funny and defiant.

7/27/2009

Book Announcement/ Review: The Single Volume Rambam


[Full disclosure: I was involved in the publication of this volume, as I translated the Hebrew introduction into English and have helped them with their website and English language communications. That said, I gain nothing from increased sales.]

Debate has long raged between the community of philosophers and the community of Torah scholars regarding the intellectual legacy of the Rambam, with each side claiming him as his own. The Rambam of the beit midrash and the Maimonides of the university can seem so different that it is hard to reconcile them into one person. In fact, many have gone to great lengths to minimize or discount those aspects of the Rambam that seem at odds with the beliefs of the particular scholar.

There is, however, a third Rambam, who is often ignored. He is not the contemplative, philosophical Rambam of the academy, nor the great halakhic authority whose every word teaches mountains of halakhot. He is everyman’s Rambam, the Rambam that was preserved best by those Yemenite communities who saw the Rambam and his Mishne Torah as a practical guidebook for every aspect of Jewish life. Of course, some could delve deeper and some remained closer to the surface, but the image of the Rambam was one of inherent and supreme simplicity. They viewed the Yad as its author intended it – as a comprehensive but intelligible guide to Jewish life.

The vision of the editors of this volume is to restore this forgotten image of the Rambam. They did so by doing primarily two things, though they have done a host of other things as well: they have published the entire Mishne Torah in a single volume with no commentary, and they have meticulously restored the version of the text based primarily on the best Yemenite manuscripts, omitting the thousands of errors that have crept into the various printed editions. In addition, there are several helpful indices to help the reader navigate the text.

I recall hearing Rav Lichtenstein opining that learning Rambam Yomi is far more useful than learning Daf Yomi. With the Rambam, one truly gets a systematic overview of the entire Torah she-Be’al Peh in a coherent, organized fashion.If the goal is ‘beki’ut’, mastery and familiarity with a broad corpus of information, the Yad is a far better vehicle to that end than Daf Yomi. Furthermore, the Yad presents a much more holistic vision of all of Torah that is best appreciated through the overall structure of the Rambam’s magnum opus. It remains, to this day, the single best restatement of Torah she-Be’al Peh, and perhaps the single greatest monograph, ever produced by the People of the Book. The present volume refocuses the learner on that aspect of the Rambam which is the aspect that the Rambam himself chose to highlight in his introduction, and which guided the name that he chose for his masterwork.

Of course, the present volume certainly has value as a desk reference and in schools where multi-volume editions can be cumbersome or where specific passages of the Rambam are studied on their own. The volume is quite beautiful as well. Nevertheless, its greatest contribution is in the restoration of that aspect of the Rambam that has been omitted from the yeshiva as well as the academy – the man who created a digest that would allow the average Jew to understand and live the fullness of his heritage.

The volume is (or will be) available at local Jewish bookstores. It is being distributed in the US by R. Yankel Levitz (718-377-0047), and available worldwide through the project’s website: http://www.mishnetorah.com/en/

7/17/2009

Mesachek be-Kubia and Wall Street

According to this article, should Wall Street investors be disqualified from bearing testimony in Jewish courts? Read on...

Sanhedrin
might be my favorite masechet. I've learned the whole thing through 4 times, and have had several other sedarim to learn various parts be-iyun, and am currently learning the first parts of Choshen Mishpat, which is heavily based in Sanhedrin. I've always found it to be a great mix of material. But I digress.

The third chapter of Sanhedrin deals with those who are disqualified to bear testimony, including relatives and those whose professions are 'shady'. Outright criminals are presumed by the Mishnah to be disqualified (for at least certain types of case, ayen sham), but there's another class who are considered to be rabinically disqualified.
One of those is the 'mesachek be-kubia' - the dice-player, the gambler. The Gemara records a dispute regarding the rationale for this disqualification - is it because they take money that the original owner really had no intent to part with (asmakhta lo kanya), or because they do not positively contribute to society (eino oseik be-yishuvo thel olam)? In other words, who is disqualified - the hustler or the gambler?

The practical difference between the rationales would be an occasional gambler - he participates in society with his day job, but then makes people part with their money on weekends. He's disqualified by the first rationale, but not by the second. Similarly, a particularly poor gambler, who only loses money, would be disqualified according to the latter, but not the former.
Practically speaking, the Rambam, and the Shulchan Arukh in his wake, ruled in accordance with the latter position, that oseik be-yishuvo shel olam determines the status of the potential witness.

A number of years ago, I asked the following question: what about someone who 'gambles' in a different way - a speculator, for instance. One could argue that investment - especially speculative investment - is what allows economies, and everything else in their wake, to develop. Investments were a bona fide contribution to society. Furthermore, investors often made money for others - perhaps if I gamble (and win) with other people's money, I'm oseik be-yishuvo shel olam because I'm not just in it for myself?
OK, then, so what about a day trader. His investments are very short-term - not helping to develop anything - are designed to be small enough not to create or upset trends, and is often done with one's own money. Perhaps such a person is truly not oseik be-yishuvo shel olam.

My thinking was largely theoretical, but I was reminded of it when reading this article. The description (caricature?) of the Wall Street investor in the article is very close to the mesachek be-kubya described by the Gemara the one who plays games of chance as a profession, and who engineers it so that he always comes out on top. It even fits with both rationales (asmakhta lo kanya has been taken to an entirely new dimension in the last year). So the question remains - if that NYT article describes what you do for a living, would you be fit to bear witness in a Jeiwhs court? If I was one of the judges, I'd have some serious doubts.

[Someone recently asked me for an example of something that I'm machmir on. There you go.]

7/13/2009

On Tzohar Rabbis Accepting Pay for Services

There was a news report today that Tzohar rabbis will now be allowed to accept payment for providing religious services such as officiating at weddings. This is ostensibly a response to the financial reality, but it's probably more complicated than that. I have no doubt that Tzohar is suffering financially; their original sugar daddy, Avi Chai, is slowly cutting off funding (they fund organizations for a fixed amount of time and then gradually phase out their funding, expecting the organization to stand on its own two feet), and donations are not coming in like they used to. Tzohar has a hard time fundraising in general, since they are not perceived to be addressing an urgent concern in the same way that, say, MADA and ZAKA are, they don't have big buildings or programs that one would be likely to contribute to in memoriam, and, frankly, the people they serve are not usually what you would call 'needy'. We're talking about average Israelis - perhaps even above average when you consider that Israel's poorest sectors - the Arab and Haredi sectors - have little or no use for Tzohar.

That being the case, why did Tzohar make themselves 'free' in the first place? The answer is, basically, to distance themselves from the status quo. If the official rabbis were taking money under the table, then Tzohar made it a policy to take no money for services. The other elements of their commitment - to be on time and to meet with the bride and groom beforehand - have the same objective.

In truth however, it is the official rabbis who should not be charging to officiate and the Tzohar rabbis who should; the official rabbis make a very nice living and their job description is to provide religious services to those in their jurisdiction. Demanding money under the table is nothing short of corruption. For the average Tzohar rabbi, however, the situation is reversed (and I know this first hand, from friends and acquaintances who perform weddings for Tzohar). He usually is not terribly well paid doing whatever it is he does (part time rabbinic position + teaching + hustling around and doing whatever); furthermore, given the commitments that the Tzohar rabbi must make when officiating, there is often a significant time commitment (let's say, including travel, up to half a day). He is permitted to be reimbursed for travel expenses, but that's it. As the old saying goes, altruism is nice, but you can't eat it for dinner. It makes perfect sense for a Tzohar rabbi to be able to charge for his services as long as it is not part of his regular job (for example, if he is the rabbi of a synagogue and a constituent is getting married).

I think, then, that the voices within Tzohar that were advocating allowing rabbis to accept payment have been growing, and the 'financial crisis' rationale is convenient excuse but not the whole truth. Consider that Tzohar does not pay its rabbis; how is Tzohar saving money by allowing the rabbis to accept payments?

Alternatively, it is possible that Tzohar will begin charging membership dues, and this is one of the benefits that would accrue to members. If they do that, I would hope that they publish - far and wide - a standard rate for officiating at a wedding, so that this will not turn sour like the system it strives to replace.

7/06/2009

Follow-up n the Issue of Ordaining Women

In addition to the post I linked to below, I made another point about this issue here.
I see four sources of pressure that push toward the ordination (call it what you want) of Orthodox women:
  1. Feminism within Orthodoxy - the desire of Orthodox women to gain titular recognition of their achievements and positions. This is part of the general trend toward egalitarianism and feminism (two separate movements, of which I';m more comfortable with the latter than with the former, ve-acamo"l) within the Orthodox world. This pressure, on its own, is generally counterproductive in that it generally provokes disproportionate reaction. It's necessary, though, in order to drive the movement once other pressures are created. Note, for example, that the institutions of to'enet din and yo'etzet halakha were both born of necessity (the former from the misogynist structure of Israeli divorce courts, the latter from the recognition that women are far better purveyors of hilkhot niddah than men are).
  2. Other Jewish movements - this is not to say that other denominations put pressure on Orthodoxy to do anything. That would, again, only provoke reaction. However, the fact that there ARE non-Orthodox women serving as rabbis in non- or quasi-rabbinic positions (Hillel directors, federations, funds/ endowments, think tanks, community learning programs, NPOs, etc.) puts pressure on the Orthodox community. Many Orthodox women who are equally or better qualified than non-Orthodox applicants to the same position are at a disadvantage due to their lack of recognized credentials. This flaw is not fatal, but it is definitely an obstacle.
  3. The changing role of the "Rabbi" - the historical role of the 'rabbi' is the subject of many books and dissertations. There is no doubt however, that it has changed yet again in the US in recent generations. Any religious functionary is now a 'rabbi' - from the first-grade rebbi to the kashrus supervisor to the 'kiruv professional'. Some would argue that the title has been rendered meaningless. I would not go that far; rather, it has a connotation of being a provider to Jewish religious services. Semikhah itself has followed suit. One may get semikhah online with shemayisrael.org. Ner Israel offers a semikhah for mastering 5 volumes of the Mishnah Berurah; I've even heard of a semikhah in Israel (for 'kiruv professionals') which involves a test on 50 blatt Gemara of your choice as well as mastery of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh. It's hard to know why exactly this change took place, but here are some possibilities: a) the desire to generate more respect for these otherwise minor functionaries (it would be interesting to look at Torah U-mesorah archives to see if they ever made a decision to have the rebbeim addressed as 'rabbis'); b) the general compartmentalization of Jewish proficiencies due to advances in technology and communications: a rabbi used to have to know all about paskenin maros as well as treyfos. With the advent of refrigeration and overnight mail, he needs to know neither in order to be effective. Thus, instead of a single, general role, you have numerous smaller ones, all of which are called 'rabbi'. It could be that smaller roles existed in earlier times, but were not called rabbi> Rather, it was melamed, magid, shochet, mohel, etc. Those divisions may still exist, but all are still titularly 'rabbis' (Rabbi Ploni Almoni, Certified Mohel) - kind of like 'doctors'. Thus, the term has become a marker that says 'this person is an authority/ service provider in the following area'. As this perception grows, there would be an increasing need to do the same for female 'service providers'. In several senses, this has already happened - both with new titles like 'yo'etzet' and 'to'enet' (which, I believe, will ultimately be subsumed under 'rabbi' like 'mohel' and 'shochet' were), and older ones like 'rebbetzin' and 'rabbanit'. Nevertheless, none of these terms offer the blanket coverage that 'rabbi' does. Only the wort ostriches still believe that women do not fill roles that are currently being filled by 'rabbis', or that they lack the requisite knowledge that it takes to be a rabbi. It's about title, nothing more.
  4. Money - there's money to be made and money to be saved by women who have some type of clerical title. Perhaps the financial pressure is not yet so great, but it's there, and it will grow. As we all know, economics are a much greater stimulus of halakhic innovation than ideology or anything else.
There is not yet pressure to find a title for the husband of such a female Orthodox clergyperson. That's why I like Maharetzin.

7/05/2009

I Am the Maharetzin

[Note: My wife is not a Mahara"t, though she has, for many years, filled roles that may easily be described as rabbinic]
As part of my husbandly duties as Maharetzin, I would like to announce that my wife will be speaking 3 times in the next two weeks in the Baltimore/ Washington area: For the next two Tuesday nights (7/7 and 7/14), 8-9:30pm at the National Synagogue (free of charge), on the topic "Asking for What you Want: Chana and the B'not Tzelophchad"; Wednesday, July 15 at WIT Baltimore, 10-11pm. The topic has to do with the biblical DIna, and there is a charge for the class, but I don't have any more details right now. All shiurim are for women only.

This gives me the opportunity to write about a topic I've been avoiding for a while - the Maharat. The record shows that I wrote, in February 2006, that "that there's a real problem that there's no way to recognize a learned Orthodox woman" and that "there's actually a pressing need for some way to recognize the achievements of Orthodox women so that they can get the benefits that they would accrue if they were a different gender or denomination". Will the title "Maharat" allow its bearers to claim parsonage on their income taxes, or land those non-rabbinic jobs that are reserved for those with ordination (e.g., Judaic studies principals, Hillel directors), only time will tell. Time will tell if this is attempt to address the issue will succeed; there's no question, though, that it is addressing a very real need.

In truth, there are many "Maharat"s out there already - perhaps not 'officially', but in terms of all but name (and pay scale) they fill those quasi-rabbinic roles (since I'm no longer practicing as a rabbi, but my wife still serves in a quasi-rabbinic capacity to many of her students, I guess that makes me a Maharetzin).
By the way, the Maharetzin often fills a major role (I propose that there be a session at the next JOFA conference entitled: 'The Role of the Maharetzin'). In my case, I help prepare the shiurim - often providing an idea and a few sources, which the Rebbetzin/Maharat then runs with and teaches better than I ever could.

7/01/2009

Notes from the First Day in the Alter Heim

we're back in the US for a good chunk of the summer. We'll be in the DC area for the next few weeks (let us know if you're in the area and want to get together) before heading up to camp. The rebbetzin has a few teaching engagements lined up in Baltimore and DC.

Although I normally like having the opportunity of listening to regular MLB night games. Last night, the combination of jetlag and disappointment had me turning it off in the 4th inning, with the Sox up 6-1 and threatening to run up the score. What a mistake!

The rental car comes equipped with Sirius satellite radio. I found some stations with music from the 80s and 90s - amongst the first few song I heard were People are People (Depeche Mode), Welcome to the Jungle (GNR), and Mysterious Ways (U2). Needless to say, they're now pre-set and I'm trying to figure out how to get this set up in Israel.

The woman behind the service desk at the airport (I will not provide any more detail, though it should be fairly obvious that this took place at BWI) had a name tag that said LEWQUANDIS. And she wasn't even that talkative.

6/19/2009

My Daughter's Kushya

My second grade daughter, currently learning Parshat Vayechi, came up with the following question:
Q. Why did Dina not get a bracha?
My wife and I think it's a great question.
She also came up with an answer:
A. It probably would have been something really girly, like "get married and have lots of kids".

6/18/2009

A Very Bitter Rabbi

I originally called this blog "Self-hating Rabbi". I was bitter. I still have some of those sentiments, but, since I'm not a practicing rabbi anymore, I tend not to get all worked up about things anymore. Sometimes I miss it, but usually not. For example, the whole conversion thing is rearing its ugly head again; apparently, R. Metzger backed R. Sherman at a recent EJF convention - and I don't really give a darn (to be sure, if my son came home with a girl who is a ba'alat teshuvah, whose non-religious mother had converted through R. Druckman, I would insist that she do a tevilah le-chumrah before marrying my kid). I took it much more seriously when I was performing conversions and experienced personal outrage when conversions were being threatened. No more.

Anyhow, I'm currently learning a book called Yamin u-Smol by R. Yehuda Leib Graubart. This is the second work of his that I'm learning with someone who is interested in learning the works of this Rav specifically. The rav had a wonderful sense of humor, but was clearly a very bitter person. The current book is a series of essays on his hashkafa, but with a very then-contemporary bent - he talks about the balance between kodesh and chol, personal hygiene, business vs. agriculture (this was a huge issue then), communism, socialism (he believes that the Torah is fundamentally socialist; funny enough, Rav Lichtenstein has expressed similar ideas), Reform (boy, does he go after them) and a host of other issues. It's a lot of fun.

He has a few essays on the role and status of the rabbi, especially in America. He even discusses the relative merits of American rabbinical schools like RIETS and HTC (Skokie, before it was in Skokie). He laments the futility of being a rabbi in America often, but here's a real money quote:

My translation:
Who shall ascend the mountain of the Rabbinate? One who does not have clean hands and a putre heart (cf. Tehillim 24:4) - he will withstand and endure, be sated with bread, and it will be good with him - even though those charlatans did not choose the rabbinate out of wisdom, because had they employed their trickery and strategies in business, they probably would have become wealthy. The situation in the rabbinate is that with all their cunning, they will not amass much of a fortune. The rabbinate is not fertile ground for wealth.

Honest man - do not come here! Do not put your energies into the rabbinate. Run from it. Be a craftsman or peddler, and eat your bread, the fruit of your efforts, in peace, be it a lot or a little. Do not be take on the concerns of the many. Do not be a bundle of nerves. Be absorbed amongst the people - see, but do not be seen. You will fear God, and you will not hate people.

Sitz im Leben

I've been going through some of R. Elchanan Samet's shiurim on Tehilim (in Hebrew; the English ones are coming out a bit slower). I might have mentioned it before, but I find R. Samet to be one of the most exciting contemporary commentators on the TaNakh. I've read a lot of his stuff - on Chumash, on Melakhim, and now on Tehillim, and he's really very good.

In the shiur that I'm currently reading, he analyzes Psalm 44. He often takes the descriptions of events recorded in the psalms and tries to link them with specific historical events. With this one, he runs into trouble. He presumes that the canon was closed, or at least that no new psalms were added to the collection that forms the Masoretic Book of Psalms, from some point during the Second Temple. Thus, this psalm, which refers to exile, must refer to teh Babylonian exile. This, however, presents three problems:

a) The psalm makes no reference to the destruction of Jerusalem or the Temple, which would be expected of a complaint about the Babylonian exile.

b) The psalmist protests the innocence of the Israelites (or the Jews, at this point); this flies in the face of everything else that the prophets wrote - that the exile was a punishment!

c) The psalmist very stirringly relates to the fact that the Jews went to the slaughter for God's sake. This is not characteristic of the Babylonian exile - which seems to have been quite comfortable.

These are R. Samet's questions.
I believe that I can point to a set of biblical events that would answer the questions.
As is familiar to students of TaNakh, the Jewish King Yehoyakhin was exiled to Babylonia about a decade prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Along with the king, a group of several thousand of Judea's most promising youths were exiled as well.

So there's your answer. The psalm does not lament the destruction, because it had not yet occurred. It protests innocence, because these youths were, in fact, innocent. It relates to martyrdom because the first biblical account of martyrdom - that of Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah - is actually from that time period.

Interesting new blog

Check out The Talmud Blog.
I would probably be interested in it even had I not been related to the blogger...

6/11/2009

Check Out my Article in Jewish Action (and other ramblings)

I have an article in the Jewish Action that just came out. The topic of the article is the construction of eruvin on college campuses in the past decade.

I'll post a link when it's up.

A couple of random thoughts during the drive up to Akko this week:
1) Does Baka al-Jarbiyeh mean "the Valley of Socks"?
2) It would be extremely cool if there was ever a Megadeth concert at Megido.

While at Akko, Raphi thought that the gallows in the Akko citadel/ prison were really cool: "Just like in 'Pirates ofthe Caribbean'". I actually did some of the translation of the museum signs there, so that was nice to see (if you're there and you notice any spelling mistakes - those are not mine).

I'm currently working on several long-term Torah- and Jewish- related translating and editing projects, with more on the horizon. I can now count five different Hesder yeshivot as clients, plus a half-dozen other Jewish educational NPOs. It's like I'm back in kollel, just the pay is a bit better.

6/07/2009

Affiliate Marketing as an Institutional Fundraiser

As part of my shul’s building campaign, I came up with the idea of creating a “virtual mall” to help with the fundraising effort. Thus far, in its 2 months of operation, it has generated about $113 – not a tremendous amount, but we’re just getting started. In truth, once its set up, there is very easy to maintain and it’s “passive income”. The trick is to get the members of your community to do their online shopping through your portal. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I’ll explain from the beginning.

Most online vendors have affiliate marketing programs. The idea is that you create links to the vendor’s site, and then you get a certain percentage of any purchases generated by traffic that you drive (Amazon pays the best commissions). As a simple example, my shul has my own affiliate account with Amazon. This link to Amazon is a unique link that tells Amazon that the traffic was driven by me. There is no need for the buyer to enter any code or anything.

When it comes to institutions, it’s all about loyalty. If your constituents shop online, and you can educate and convince them to do their shopping through your affiliate links, then you can make money. The best thing about it is that it costs the buyer nothing. It’s essentially an advertising cost paid by the vendor. In fact, I’d say that if you shop online and DON’T go through some sort of affiliate link, then you’re leaving money on the floor.

Setting it up can be complicated. There are three main companies that manage affiliate programs for the most popular online vendors – Commission Junction, Linkshare, and Google Affiliates. The problem is, unless you have a lot of traffic, many affiliate programs will reject your application. Amazon, which has its own affiliate program, does not have an application process – they’re smart that way. You can, however, create links using other sites – such as visitourmall.com, onecause.com, and other “charity mall” sites. You can create your own site within those sites, or you can ‘harvest’ links and embed them in your own site. The problem with these “charity mall” sites is that they take a hefty chunk of your earnings. For example, if Vendor A pays 4% commissions, the charity mall site will take 50-60% of that, leaving you with 2% or even less. It’s better to set up your own accounts, but, like I mentioned, it’s not always so easy to get approved.

On my shul’s site, most of the links are through charity mall accounts; as we generate more traffic by getting friends and family to shop at our “mall”, we will hopefully get more and more of our own accounts approved, and our commissions will go up. Whoever sets it all up for the institution should spend some time learning the ins and outs of affiliate marketing.

There are no privacy concerns. The account manager can not see who buys what, and often not even what was bought.

In all, if your institution has a decent number of loyal constituents who do a decent amount of online shopping, it is worth exploring the possibility of creating a “virtual mall”. It could generate a decent amount of revenue. Until that time, however, feel free to shop at my shul’s mall. You’ll help a great young community in Israel.

6/04/2009

Things I DON'T Miss About America

In this week's parsha, the Israelites complained about the things that they missed about Egypt, like fish and watermelon. I sort of satirized this 2 years ago (here), and, fortunately, most people actually got the joke.

Then, about a year ago, I created the "Bounty of Spain" meme to discuss products that olim import from abroad.

Every once in a while, though, you come across something American in Israel that you wish had just stayed put. Tonight, I saw an ad for some concert featuring "Israel's Justin Timberlake". That's what I mean. We don't need our own Justin Timberlake. We don't even need yours. Can I come up with a list of 5 American imports that we can do without here? Let's try:

1) Annoying pop music. There's good music in America, but it somehow doesn't find its way onto the Israeli radio stations.
2) Survivor. I just don't understand what all the fuss is about, and Israelis are crazy into 'Hisardut'. I've never actually watched the show for more than 5 minutes and by accident, but I do think that the "Survivor" scene on Curb your Enthusiasm is one of the all-time greatest bits of comedy:

3) Curse words. Somehow, several American profanities have worked their way into the Israeli vocabulary, even appearing in advertisements. In general, I'm not a fan of the street English that Israelis seem to absorb so that they can act all 'American'.
4) RC cola.
5) Basketball. I happen to like basketball a lot. I just don't like the way Israelis play. It would have been better had it stayed an American sport

The Treaty of Tripoli

Gotta jump on the bandwagon of spinning the Obama speech. In delineating the long history of Muslim-American relations, he invoked the 1796-1797 Treaty of Tripoli. This is significant for two reasons, one obvious, and one less so.

The obvious significance is that the treaty established the non-Christian nature of the United States. In fact, Article 11 of the treaty, from which the President quoted, reads, in its entirety:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
The point that he was trying to make with this is that America has always been open and tolerant of Islam. Well and good. Point taken.

The other, hidden part of this is the darker underbelly of the true statement that "Islam has always been a part of America's story". The Treaty of Tripoli was a capitulation to privateering. American ships were being captured in the Mediterranean, so the nascent US concluded a "treaty" with the Barbary States in which they agreed to pay a certain amount per year for "protection". Article 10 of said treaty states:

The money and presents demanded by the Bey of Tripoli, as a full and satisfactory consideration on his part, and on the part of his subjects, for this treaty of perpetual peace and friendship, are acknowledged to have been received by him previous to his signing the same...
That's the obscure part. Of course, this was before the US even had a navy. Once they got one, they went and kicked some Tripolitan a** (that's the "... to the shores of Tripoli" part of the Marines' Hymn). So what was he trying to say? Was he trying to reinforce a 200-year-old US policy of capitulating to what was essentially state-sponsored piracy? Was he trying to say that the US can take a bit of thuggery here and there, but don't press your luck? Or am I being too intertextual about this and it was simply an observation that the US and a Muslim country concluded a treaty over 200 years ago, just don't look at it too closely?

In all, I admire BO's optimism. I'm also not sure if anyone has a better chance of bringing about this vision of world peace than he does. I just don't think it's really possible, that's all.

6/01/2009

Ushpizin on Shavu'ot

Since making aliyah, we have instituted a custom in our family regarding the night of Shavu'ot. Our meal is graced by the presence of two very important guests who truly enhance our simchat Yom Tov. Their names are Ben and Jerry.

The wife and I each gave a shiur over Yom Tov - the same shiur, more or less, in fact. It's an expansion of this. I generally don't stay up all night anymore. Maybe when the kids are older (more on that below). I made sure to give the shiur at a time that I could still get a decent night's sleep. I had the 12:40- 1:25 am slot. It went very well - there were a lot more people than I expected (I printed 20 source sheets, and there was not even enought for people to double up). The problem was, I got so jacked up on caffeine before the shiur that I could not fall asleep afterward.

My favorite Shavu'ot memory: I must have been 10 or 11. My father and I were learning mishnayot in the wee hours on Shavu'ot morning, in the basement of the shtiebl on Park Heights Avenue, AC on full blast, soda and chips in reach. We got up to the following mishna (Bekhorot 5:3):

One some children were playing in a field, and they tied the tails of two lambs together, and the tail of one of them was disconnected - and it was a firstborn. The incident came before the sages, and they permitted it. They went and tied the tails of other firstborns, and they forbade it...
I remember poring over the books, trying to figure out (er, make heads and tails?) out of the text, and then we get to this little anecdote, and we just lost it. We probably laughed for 10 minutes, imagining these kids tying the tails of sheep together. So what's your 'all time favorite mishna'?

5/22/2009

'Hear' vs. 'Listen'

The Chief Rabbi's translation (in the Singer Siddur and in the newly released Koren Siddur - linked at the right and reviewed by me here) of the word "shema" has been discussed a good deal. Rather than the more common "Hear O Israel", he translates it as "Listen, Israel".

In general, I think that "listen" makes a lot more sense. However, this seems to be precisely the debate between Rabbi and the Sages in Brachot 13a. Each of them derives a different law from the word "shema". Rabbi derives from there that one's recitation must be audible - it must be heard. The Sages derive from there that the Shema may be recited in any language, as long as the speaker understands what he is saying.

In general, the word "listen" captures bot the biological (hearing) and cognitive (understanding) elements of the process.

As someone with ADD, I have a listening problem, but not a hearing problem.
This is a fairly intuitive distoinction, immortalized in S & G's "Sounds of Silence" ("people hearing without listening") and le-havdil, in "White Men Can't Jump", albeit with a bit of a counterintuitive bent ("Look man, you can listen to Jimi but you can't hear him. There's a difference, man. Just because you're listening to him doesn't mean you're hearing him.")

Ki Matta le-Hatam: Community Rabbis in Israel and the United States – Part II

Whatever ideas I may have in this regard pale in comparison with the excellent article by Rabbi Dr. Seth Avi Kadish, available here:
http://www.jewishideas.org/articles/rabbanut-bli-taam-anti-democratic-structure-synagog

I'll just explain the title: In Europe, there was an institution known as "Rav MiTa'am", meaning "Rabbi appointed by", or "Official Rabbinate". The pun of the article takes the Israeli official rabbinate and turns it into a "superfluous rabbinate".

You may not want to read the article on Shabbat, because it may destroy your "oneg shabbat".

5/19/2009

Biblia PaupeRam

I attended part of conference on the new Tanakh Ram (see here and here for an overview of the debate; see here for an overview of the book) today. For those who have not been following, there has been a bit of controversy in Israel lately about the publication of a new translation of the Tanakh, or parts of it, into Modern Hebrew. Thankfully, the conference was about more than just debating the merits and problems with this new edition, and actually had some very interesting lectures on the history of bible translations and on issues with translating into a more modern form of the original text (not necessarily biblical).

There was one lecturer who pretty much stated the obvious – that the Tanakh is already translated into Modern Hebrew in classrooms, even Haredi ones. I think that misses the point of these criticisms, as I will explain.

I got a chance to look at the translation, and, honestly, was not impressed. I thought that the original and the translation are too equally weighted (they have slightly different fonts, but are the same size and stand side by side in columns; I would have much preferred to see the original in a much larger font). The translation itself was really not so good. The term “yerei Hashem” is consistently translated as “mi she-ma’amin ba-Shem”. Aside from being an inaccurate and even misleading translation, I don’t understand the need to translate the phrase into Modern Hebrew in general. The purpose of this translation should not be to create a Hebrew Biblia Pauperum, in a manner of speaking. It should facilitate the mastery or comfort with the original text. The current set-up is not conducive to that goal, though. I’d much rather see a Tanach with a brief commentary to elucidate difficult words on the bottom.

5/15/2009

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree

We're headed to the Oak Tree of Return for a bar mitzva this Shabbat. Should be nice to be back in the alter heim. More than anywhere else, many people there remember what we went through when Ruchama was born (also here). Many people get a lot of nachas from seeing her "all grown up". It is also home to, I believe, the largest per capita readership of this blog of any municipal entity in the world. Should be fun.

5/13/2009

Chief Rabbi Gets His Bling On


I hope it's not just a pontifical pissing contest to see who can sport the funkiest bling bling, the Chief or the Pope; either way, I like it. I'm going to get me one.
Of course, it's not nearly as fly as the Kohein Gadol's bling, but it's still better than anything some j-dub would ever bedeck himself in.
Hat tip: Jameel

5/12/2009

A Keen Observation on European Cultural Dominance

You know, sometimes I think that the worst thing that colonialism did was cloud our view of the past. Without the white man, we might be able to make better use of our history. We might look at some of our former practices and decide they are worth preserving. Others, we might grow out of. Unfortunately, the white man has made us very defensive. We end up clinging to all sorts of things that have outlived their usefulness

Dr. Rukia Odero, quoted in Dreams from My Father p. 434

5/09/2009

In the U.S. , it is normal for schools to begin in synagogues.
In Israel, it is normal for synagogues to begin in schools.

5/08/2009

Lag ba-Omer Shiur

I will be delivering a shiur in memory of my maternal grandparents, Ruth and Eric Levi z"l, this coming Sunday night at 8:30 at the Glenwood Shul in Hashmonaim. The yahrzeits of both grandparents fall during sefirat ha-omer.

The shiur is entitled: "The Spiritual Transformation of R. Shimon b. Yochai" (and yes, much of it will be based on my readings of the relevant gemara that appear on this blog).

Light refreshments will be served. The shiur is sponsored by my parents.

5/05/2009

Keshmo Kein Hu

The "Green Light" organization announced that Modiin Illit has the fewest road accidents per capita than any Israeli city (not terribly surprising given the small number of cars per capita - the three nearly exclusively Haredi cities in Israel, Modiin Illit, Elad, and Beitar Illit, ranked 1-3 in this survey; still it's a nice statistic).

That's why they're called Kiryat Safer.

4/29/2009

Toasted and Exhausted

My neck and face are sunburned.
It is early evening, but I'm exhausted.
After a festive davening, a hike around some local ruins, some time watching the kids bounce around on big inflatable toys in a cul de sac inhabited by friends, and a barbeque with friends all afternoon (1/2 hour drive away), I'm beat (the beer didn't help).
The highlight was the following:
On the drive home, Child A started complaining that Child B had leaned over and licked her lollipop. I pointed out that the lollipop remained intact, so she could continue eating it. She said she didn't want Child B's germs. I asked: "Would you like me to link his germs off?". She agreed. I took a lick of the lollipop and returned it to Child A, who happily continued to eat it.
All the while, Child C was giving himself zerberts on the soles of his bare feet.

I miss Sundays.

4/25/2009

Imagining a Conversation with my Former Self

I had Shabbat lunch with a KBY “shana alef” student (as well as several others) today. We ended up engaging in a prolonged and broad discussion about a number of issues, from Rambam’s view of women and R’ Yehuda Halevi’s essentialism to the Brisker Derech to the authorship and structure of classical rabbinic tests. In many ways, I felt like I was having a conversation with a former version of myself (that’s obviously a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point). That’s probably why I was much more patient and understanding of some of the positions this student espoused: I remember my own evolution, how my own worldview evolved during my years at Yavneh (and through the years in YU, Gush, and since; intellectual restlessness is, in my opinion, one of the greatest advantages and disadvantages of having ADD).

I remember latching on to certain ideas that became monoliths in my maturing mind, only to have them replaced at some later date with another. I remember the constant construction and demolition of these conceptual edifices; having a hammer and thinking that the whole world looks like a nail (more yeshivish version: having a chakira and then seeing it in every Tosafos in the mesechta); thinking that it’s really possible to find the unified theory of life/ Torah/ Judaism/ God, that all of halakha, history, and Torah can be somehow merged into a seamless and harmonious whole, and that finding that grand harmony is somehow within reach; stewing in my own juices as I bounced ideas off of Rabbeim and, more importantly, friends.

I know that this kid’s thinking will evolve. There were ideas that I hesitated to present to him because, frankly, I know how I would have reacted to them (i.e., negatively) had I been in his shoes. It will come, but in due time.

This actually got me thinking. What would I have thought of my current self had I met me 15 years ago? Or even 10 years ago? Had I met that later version of myself walking down the street, how long would it have taken for me to realize “Hey, that’s future me!”? Would I have liked what I saw? Would I have been disappointed that many of the grandiose dreams (that we all had in our late teens and early 20s) seemed to have died? Would I have been shocked that I became a baalebos – one who no doubt learns a good amount, often gets to work with Torah on a professional basis, and even maintains an entertaining and well-read religious-themes blog – but a baalebos nonetheless? Would I think that I’m an apikorus? Would I be shocked that I’m living in a bourgeoisie hell (I had the opportunity to make a ha-Tov ve-haMeitiv at lunch today, and before the bracha I made a ‘l’chaim’ to having good friends and neighbors to suffer with in our bourgeoisie hell, so the phrase is on my mind)? Would I be disappointed that I’ve given up the search for the unified theory of everything and become content that certain questions are unanswerable, that dissonance and difference lurk everywhere, that Jewish meaning is constructed in a manner that, to recycle an old saying about women, can be beautiful or faithful, but rarely both?

I’m not going to lose any sleep over these questions. This is a thought experiment – perhaps conditioned on the fact that I’ve recently read both The Time Traveler's Wife
and The Five People You Meet in Heaven
. I ultimately think that, for most of us, to meet an older, fatter, balder, and less passionate version of one’s self would be like a cold shower. I’d want to give myself food for thought, a way to expand horizons, and maybe some good books to read. I would definitely not want to be too dismissive, obnoxious, or condescending (which I totally would have been had it been nearly anyone else, especially a shana alef Gushie).

And I’d tell myself to enjoy the ride.

4/23/2009

National Teaching Award

Mazal Tov to my close friend and former chavruta (and sometimes commenter) Aytan Kadden on being selected one of five National Teachers. You make us proud.
Link

4/21/2009

Flour Ground After Pesach

This is the first year that I've heard of this chumra of not eating flour that was ground before Pesach and sold. Presumably, this chumra only applies in Israel, where the vast majority of flour stocked in stores and warehouses is owned by Jews. The ostensible reason for this chumra is a concern that a) the flour came into contact with water and became chametz, and b) the sale of chametz to a non-Jew is not a truly valid sale.

The reason that this is not a concern is:
1) Chametz that was owned by a Jew during Pesach (Chametz she-avar alav ha-Pesach) is forbidden by rabbinic injunction (mi-drabanan). Since there is no certainty that the flour ever came into contact with water and, indeed, it is likely that it never did, the issue becomes, at the very worst, a 'safek de-rabanan' (doubt in a case of rabbinic injunction), which the halakha treats leniently.
2) Since flour is generally sold along with the chametz, and was not owned by a Jew on Pesach, there is no reason to be machmir. Even those who do not personally sell their chametz because they find the sale to be dubious do not consider chametz that was sold to be "chametz she-avar alav ha-Pesach". This is because there is a long-standing tradition, upheld by major halakhic decisors, of selling chametz to a non-Jew. The rabbinic injunction against "chametz she-avar alav ha-pesach" would not apply in cases where the alleged "owner" of the chametz relied on an accepted mechanism for obviating that ownership. I.e., even though Person A might not accept this mechanism, he need not - and should not - consider Person B to have violated the laws governing chametz ownership on Pesach by availing himself or herself of that mechanism.
Please note that each of these 2 reasons operate independently and is sufficient to undermine the practice of insisting on flour that was ground after Pesach.
[Here's a question that may be relevant, and I simply do not know the answer: do we employ bittul be-shishim with regard to chametz she-avar alav ha-Pesach? If we do, then there's another reason not to be concerned].
My final reason is sociological: this chumra is almost impossible to apply consistently. There is no way that the chametz products that hit the shelves after Pesach were not sold. One would have to wait several weeks before consuming chametz products if one were to take this chumra to its logical conclusion. If would apply all year to chametz products - beer and liquor come to mind - that have a longer shelf-life. You may as well stop going to shalom zachars.

This chumra definitely goes into the "close to apikorsus" and "idiotic" file. See here.

4/19/2009

A Kohein and the Daughter of a Non-Jew

There’s an article in the most recent RJJ Journal (which Gil has done us the favor of posting here) that discusses the halakhic issue of a kohein marrying the daughter of a Jewish woman and a non-Jewish man. The article reminded me of one of my worst moments as a Jewish professional, a story which I will retell here (concealing all information that might point to the identity of the principals).

It was my first year out of kollel, and we were living in the States, in an out-of-town community. We were involved in several communal institutions. At some point during the year, a situation developed in the community where this halakha would come into play. I was familiar with this halakha, but it did not register until my wife pointed it out to me that this was such a case. At that point, the couple was dating seriously and on the verge of engagement.

The boy’s family was part of the MO community, and the girl was a ba’alat teshuva from a somewhat remote suburb. I was not the rabbi of the community – in fact, the community was between rabbis at that time. I discussed the issue with another rabbi/ educator in the community, and we agreed that the best course of action was to get in touch with the former rabbi of the community, who remained close with the boy’s family, and basically lay it at his doorstep. I had absolutely no interest in getting involved, in having my name linked to the issue, or anything. I felt that I should call it to the attention of someone who could handle it, but nothing more than that.

Unfortunately, said former rabbi made a blunder that I still cannot get my head around. He indeed called the boy’s family and told them of the halakha, and mentioned that I had called him and brought it to his attention. The former rabbi was no longer in town, so by dropping my name, he made me the lightning rod for everything that happened later.

The girl’s parents, obviously, was not very pleased with me. I think that “hatred” would actually not be too strong a term, here. The girl had a sibling in the school where I was teaching, so it became an issue there as well. The gentile principal really did not have much context to understand the issue in general, never having studied Yevamot. Someone did him the service of explaining the basic issue, translating the word ‘pagum’ as ‘tainted’, adding a dimension of eugenics into the mix. Said principal was of the opinion that since the issue concerned two people who did not attend the school, I had no business mixing in anyway.

I got on the phone and made a bunch of calls, looking for some kind of hetter. The couple was pretty much in aveilut. Ultimately, the former rabbi came up with the following solution: he found a Sephardic rabbi (ostensibly someone who follows the Rambam, who permits such a marriage, even though the Shulchan Arukh is more stringent; I did not understand the basis for this Sephardic rabbi’s ruling then, and, after reading the article, am even more baffled, but whatever) to officiate. Couple got married. Happily ever after.

I often ask myself if I would do it differently now. For one, I would have said something much earlier in the courtship. Had the situation already developed, I’m undecided. I do not think that the situation falls under the rubric outlined by Rav Ovadiah, but perhaps that logic can be extended to include other types of fallout, pertaining, say, to those around the couple if not to the couple themselves. That would almost certainly provide me with the grounds to simply keep my mouth shut. Then again, I would probably want to bring it to the attention of the LOR, which is ultimately what got me into trouble the fist time.