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.