The Halakhot of Davening on an Airplane

Gil has a great post about prayer in the friendly skies. As is usual with Rabbi Student, his post is a serious social and religious critique against the mindset of certain individuals and groups of individuals, but formulated as a “dry” halakha shiur. That’s what makes his blog so much more effective than simply ranting about the nincompoops blocking access to the bathrooms and waking everybody up (which is probably what I would do).

The topic reminded me of a question that I had regarding zmanei tefillah on airplanes. Clearly (according to the overwhelming majority of poskim), objective events such as sunrise and sunset are calculated based on when the sun actually rises and actually sets where you are. What about calculating the hours (sha’ot zmani’ot)? Do you base it on the calculation of hours on the ground below you, or on the projected time of sunset?

To give a concrete example of the ramifications of this question, consider the following:

I am flying east from NY to Israel on a flight that left JFK at around 3pm and will land in Israel at around 9am. Sunset in Israel is at 7pm. The sun rose on the plane about an hour before landing. By the time I would get a chance to daven, it will be 10:30 – after sof zman tefilla in Israel. So perhaps I should daven on the plane.

However, I can make the following calculation. Since I was flying east, I lost some daylight hours. I will have a total of 11 hours of daylight which began at 8am Israel time. Using those figures, sof zman tefilla comes out to be just before noon, and I will have time to daven after collecting my belongings.

The same type of calculation can come into play in a number of ways, with real halakhic ramifications. The question is a fundamental one, though: are zmanim calculated based on geographical realities or human realities? Is it about the place or the person?

Anyone address this?


Transgender Halacha

My 2 cents on the issue at YU:

1. Personal choices of faculty members are no business of the school. People have been suggesting that YU would have fired this teacher had it not been for the legal issues. I hope that's not true. I hope that they would have been concerned with the moral issue as well (assuming said teacher did nothing to actively defame or disgrace the school).

2. YU is not the first Yeshiva, nor the most left-wing yeshiva, to have an unconventionally gendered teacher. Several prominent yeshivas had such teachers on their limmudei kodesh faculty. Some still do.

3. I find it shocking that Richard Joel said that he is proud of all of his faculty. I think pride is the wrong term. I would not be proud of this professor, per se. I would also certainly not be proud of Rabbi Dr. M. D. Tendler for his response to the issue.

4. Halakhic article on the issue here.

5. I remember when a former student of mine informed me that he would be starting the process of becoming a woman. No, he was not asking a shayla. What do you say to that? I quoted some psukim to him from the end of Yeshayahu 56, that the sarisim who keep Shabbat and choose that which God desires are assured a legacy. I do not know if this person still keeps Shabbos. I really couldn't think of much else at the time. Ah, the life of a college campus rabbi. Seems so far away now that I've settled into the Orthodoxy of the bourgeoisie.

6. I blogged about the transgender issue a few years ago (link, link, link). In one of those posts, I suggested that, mimah nafshach, a male-turned-female could marry a female-turned-male halakhically. The question is who gives the ring/ketubah to whom. At such a simcha, we would certainly say, with our tongues in our cheeks, "matza min et mino".


“The World is Filled with Law”

I’m not the first to notice a trend toward total pervasiveness of life by halakha. In addition to hyper-definition of pre-existing categories, there has been a more recent trend toward creating new halakhic categories out of whole cloth, and then applying the same type of hair-splitting definitions to them as well. The recent rulings on types of permitted music are a good example, but certainly not the only one.
I was reminded of this phenomenon this past Shabbat, when the chardal Rav of my mostly-American shul spoke about the justicability of “hashkafah”, and whether a Sanhedrin would theoretically have the right to legislate what is permissible to think, and what not. His conclusion was that it indeed would. Granted, it may limit itself to approving a range of beliefs on a particular issue and not a single dogma, but the issue of belief and philosophy is, in his opinion, justicable by the Sanhedrin.
His thesis, as well as this general trend I described, finds articulate expression in the following quote (which I modified slightly):
In my eyes, the world is filled with halakha. Every human behavior is subject to a halakhic norm. Even when a certain type of activity-such as friendship or subjective thoughts-is ruled by the autonomy of the individual will, this autonomy exists because it is recognized by the halakha.... Wherever there are living human beings, halakha is there. There are no areas in life which are outside of halakha.
As Ben Chorin and a few others may have noticed, this quote is from former Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, Aharon Barak (the only change I made is substituting ‘halakha’ for ‘law’. The irony here is that a large part, if not the majority, of the observant Jewish world – which harbors not a bit of animosity toward the noted jurist – agrees with Barak fundamentally about the role of the judge. Their disagreement is about who is authorized to make the jusdgements. Both conceptions of the law rely heavily on the legal intuition of the jurist” one calls it “wide-ranging judicial review”, the other calls it “daas Torah”. Both are constructed out of a phenomenal hubris that identifies one’s own opinion with absolute rectitude (according to most Rishonim, and more humble jurists, a judge’s rectitude derives from his authority, and not vice versa). Until this Shabbat, I never associated the two phenomena; now that I have, it seems obvious.


Rav Gustman, zt”l

This past Saturday night, I had occasion to attend a simcha at Netzach Yisrael, the yeshiva in Rechavia, Jerusalem, which Rav Yisrael Zev Gustman, zt”l, founded and led until his death in the early 1990s. I was with my father, who had studied in Rav Gustman’s yeshiva before it migrated, with its head, from Brooklyn to Jerusalem in the early 1970s. I met Rav Gustman, the only pre-war Gadol that I ever met, in that building on Tisha B’av, 1987. This led to an impromptu discussion of this largely unheralded great man and his legacy.

The stories told about Rav Gustman are the stuff of legend. Having learned through some of his lengthy but intricate and brilliant shiurim, I can attest that it is not for lack of substance that stories about him tend to focus on his great sensitivity , sense of perspective, and unconditional love (except for the stories about his joining the beit din of R. Hayyim Ozer as a teenager). Many of these stories are recorded on-line. I heard most of them well before the internet became the vehicle it is today:

  1. Perhaps most famous of all is the story of when he went to be menachem aveil as Prof. Yisrael Aumann sat shiva for his slain son during the First Lebanon War.

  1. Rav Gustman would water the plants at his yeshiva out of a sense of gratitude to the bushes that hid him when he hid (the above linked article says that he hid in the bushes from the Nazis; I heard that he hid in the bushes as a younger man to avoid conscription).

  1. He used to take joy in seeing children rejoice in Israel, saying that anyone who saw children die in the Holocaust had an obligation to watch them play in Jerusalem.

  1. I’m pretty sure I heard this from David: Rav Gustman and ylcht”a Rav Aharon Lichtenstein made aliyah at around the same time in the early 1970s. During the Yom Kippur war, RAL was assigned by Home Front Command to deliver milk in Jerusalem. As Rav Gustman was on his delivery route, RAL took the opportunity to “talk in learning” for a while when delivering the milk. Rav Gustman, legend goes, exclaimed after the encounter: “What an amazing country! Even the milk-men are talmidei chachomim!”

  1. Rav Gustman opened the doors to his yeshiva in Brooklyn at the height of Vietnam conscription to allow more kids to take advantage of the draft exemption that clerical studies offered. No, I’m not 100% comfortable with that. But hey, I live in a very different country at a very different time fighting very different wars; I have no doubt that Rav Gustman sacrificed the level of learning at his yeshiva, something many others would not have been prepared to do, to take these kids in; and the United States has elected two presidents who just as legally but just as dubiously avoided conscription to Vietnam.

  1. He used to shovel the snow in front of the yeshiva – and when students and baalebatim began complaining that he was embarrassing them by doing so, he started doing it while it was still dark outside.

As these stories passed around the table, there was one fellow who offered the following:

Rav Gustman once killed an Amaleki.

Noticing my incredulous look, he continued:

He met an Amaleki, knew what the simanim are, and killed him.

I said that I didn’t believe him. He elaborated further:

Yeah. He was in the forests in Lithuania during WWII, and he met a German with the simanim.

Now it made sense. I suggested, partly in jest, that the “siman” in question was a swastika. The fellow didn’t get my drift, saying that the signs of Amalekhood go back much further than the swastika.

More than anything else, I was appalled that, for this fellow, the ability to identify and then murder an Amalekite (with no other context readily apparent) is the stuff of heroism. I don’t take the story as any type of reflection on Rav Gustman himself. That's not the Rav Gustman that I grew up hearing about.


Breakfast with Bibi

I was at a bris this morning where Opposition Leader Bibi Netanyahu (as well as Sara Netanyahu, Gideon Saar, Limor Livnat, Natan Scharansky, and other members of the Likud brass) was present as well, and it gave me the opportunity to ask him about his educational plan.

[No, I was not one of the bloggers invited to the press conference earlier in the week. My friend and neighbor, father of said baby, told me about a week and a half ago (just before said baby was born) that he wanted to assemble a team of “Bibi’s bloggers”, starting with a press conference that would be taking place that Sunday. This friend is a close aide to Bibi who is also a big believer in the political power of blogs. I suggested that he get in touch with Stephen from WebAds, whose finger is definitely on the pulse of English blogs in Israel with a political bent. Apparently, my friend did just that.]

Bibi was actually very willing to give me the time of day. I asked why he wasn’t emphasizing the same principles of privatization and increased competition in educations as he has with industry. Wouldn’t it be great if schools had to compete for good teachers and for students?

He answered that he is interested in promoting measures that would increase competition between schools. He mentioned “outsourcing teachers” and having “vouchers” (that’s right, he mentioned vouchers before I did, which was music to my ears!). I asked if he saw privatization eventually replacing the entire public school system, and he answered that it’s unrealistic to think about it that way, but that “even if we can only accomplish 60% of the revolution, it would be good” (I believe that’s the direct quote). To me, this suggested that he’s really in favor of full privatization with a voucher/ charter system, but that he’s looking at things realistically. Fair enough.

He may have just locked up my vote.


I Was Wrong

I had originally posted some snarky things about the J-Bloggers convention that took place a few weeks ago. They were uncalled for. It was sour grapes. I was disappointed that I would not be able to attend, or even to log in and participate virtually (I was actually flying to Israel while it was taking place).

For what it's worth, on the issue of "Is there a J-blogger community?" that has drawn a lot of attention since the conference, I believe that, in a nutshell, the answer is that there are J-Blogger communities (plural). Is that like Jacob Neusner talking about Judaisms?

Melting Pot, Salad Bowl, or Something Else?

America was long known as a ‘melting pot’ for its integration of various minority cultures into an integrated whole. There has historically been a similar pressure in Israel to generate a generic “Israeliness’ that would blur the manifold differences between Jewish ethnicities in Israel. Both attempts, in general, have given way, over the years, to a celebration of multiculturalism that many have begun referring to as a “salad bowl” – a place where different items are mixed together and tossed around (and sometimes are even dressed alike!), and in which differences are preserved to contribute to the overall taste.

There’s a third metaphor, neither melting pot nor salad bowl, which represents an ideal that lies between the other two. I’m talking about that tastiest of Jewish ethnic dishes, cholent. In the cholent pot, identities are preserved but everybody rubs off on everybody else. The onions remain onions, and the barley remains barley, but each absorbs flavor from the other. You have to keep things on a low simmer – too low and there’s no flavor; too hot and it’ll get burnt. And, of course, it doesn’t look like much, but its taste will surprise you.