Maran zt"l

If the present torrent of articles and retrospectives about Maran Ovadia Yosef continues for another year, we will still not have anything close to a full picture of the man. They will still be writing about him in a thousand years.

Some of the articles have been excellent. Some less so. Most at least granted that his enduring greatness was in the realm of Torah and halakha, and while they did not ignore his notorious outbursts, they saw it as part of a much greater whole. My own attempt to capture what I can in 800 words will appear in this week's Jewish Week. As an organizing device, I look at three distinct meanings of the term "ga'on" and apply each of them to Maran.

The crush of people at the levaya was suffocating, the eulogizers were barely audible from where I was, cell service in Ge'ulah was not quite ready for half a million people, many of whom were taking pictures, etc. Yet I am glad I could go and I'm glad my son Rafi (9) was able to come with me. It was a lesson in kevod ha-Torah that we may never see the likes of again. That is why I wanted my son to be there with me.

Last I spoke to Rav Benny Lau, we were trying to convince a publisher to commit to a translation of R. Benny's biblio-biography of Rav Ovadia, Mi-Maran ad Maran. The publisher's concern is that there will not be much of an audience in English. I'm considering launching a kickstarter campaign to raise the money for the project. Would you buy the book? Would you contribute to the campaign?


Ironic Orthodoxy and Other Notes on the Pew Study

Several years ago, I posited the existence of an emerging group that I called "Ironic Orthodox." I characterized this group as being quite comfortable within Orthodoxy, but largely non-ideological, even skeptical of systematic ideologies. Later, I posited that this group tends to welcome non-observant Jews into their communities without judging and without a hidden kiruv agenda. I noted that this could be discerned a little bit among members of my generation (I was born in 1976) but to a greater degree among those who came of age after the turn of the millennium. That is, my wife and I noticed that this type of attitude was more typical of our students than our peers.

I think the data contained in the new Pew study bears this out. This has to be qualified by a caveat. Whereas the overall snapshot of American Judaism is large enough to be statistically meaningful, once we start looking at cross sections like Modern Orthodox Jews between the ages of 30 and 49, the sample sizes become much, much smaller and their predictive value wanes significantly. Only 154 Modern Orthodox Jews (the segment I'm most interested in, for obvious reasons) TOTAL were surveyed, further divided into 4 age cohorts. Unsurprisingly, the largest margins of error pertain to the Orthodox (p. 119 of the study). Some of the results simply scream "small sample size." So I'm taking a lot of these observations with a grain of salt, especially when broken down by age cohort.

If you haven't yet seen Alan Brill's observations on the study, that's the place to start. A good part of his discussion centers on the graph about Orthodox retention rates:
A lot of hay is being made from the increase in retention rates (though some are simply looking at Orthodoxy's 48% retention rate as a static figure). From 22% retention among the Jews of the Silent Generation to 83% among GenY/Z. As the survey (and BZ) notes, it's possible that this doesn't reflect a generational shift but a steady attrition rate from Orthodoxy throughout life. And yet, I find it difficult to believe that 19% of dropouts from Orthodoxy leave after they turn 65.

The more significant data comes from what lies below the top line (and hopefully Pew will give us the tools to drill down even more specifically). Forget about the % of dropouts and look at where they went. Specifically, look at whether they joined another denomination, or became "non" (non-denominational, non-religious, or non-Jewish). Among those age 65+, a solid majority (58%) joined another denomination. 19% went "non." In subsequent generations, you have something of an ebb and flow with regard to becoming "non" - 32% of Boomers, 26% of GenXers, and 16% of Millennials. I can't really explain the spike in conversion out of Judaism amongst ex-Orthodox Boomers or the spike in non-denominational affiliation among ex-Orthodox GenXers (when nobody left Judaism completely, apparently). It's strange and non-linear, and I suspect that it is statistical noise.

When it comes to joining other denominations, though, the decline is linear and consistent. And astounding. From 58% among the Silents to 28% of Boomers to 17% of GenXers to 1% of Millennials. You want to know why the ranks of Conservative Judaism are shrinking, it's because they are no longer picking up Orthodox dropouts in any significant numbers. This passes the eye-test as well. I was a college campus rabbi at the school that gets more day school grads than any other outside of New York. I know plenty of Orthodox dropouts, and very few of them joined other denominations.

Orthodox retention does not necessarily imply greater observance among young Orthodox Jews. Rather, as I speculated in the aforementioned posts, Orthodox Jews who leave observance are remaining, by and large, within the Orthodox orbit. They are the analogue of the Israeli datlashim who, as the saying goes, "want their kids to be ex-Orthodox like them."

We would thus expect that younger Orthodox-raised Jews, though more likely to remain Orthodox, are less religiously observant than their parents. Unfortunately, there were very few specific questions about religious practice, and what we have is not segmented by age and denomination (hopefully they'll publish tools to rectify that), so it is impossible to prove my hypothesis. The closest we get is 17% of Modern Orthodox saying they do not keep a kosher home (that is well beyond "eat fish out" Orthodoxy) and 19% handling money. [While it's a neat theory, I do not accept BZ's contention that this jarring statistic about money on Shabbat is the result of misunderstanding the question, which contained a double negative. 19% of Modern Orthodox answered the question thus, and Modern Orthodoxy is the best-educated segment of the Jewish population according to the survey.]

This increase in Orthodox non-observance is not an anomaly. Outside of the US, Canada, and perhaps Argentina, Orthodoxy is the default expression of Judaism, and a wide spectrum of observance is tolerated and expected. It was the norm in the US as well until the post-WWII migration to suburbia. I believe we are witnessing the beginning of a shift back to an American Orthodoxy that tolerates non-observance. It does not bode well for other denominations.

Some other notes on the study:
  • Modern Orthodoxy has emerged as an elitist movement. It accounts for 3% of American Judaism, but it is the best-educated and has the highest percentage of high-income earners. Its adherents are most likely to understand that Judaism is BOTH ethnicity AND religion (a more sophisticated and correct understanding of the reality). No group puts more of a premium on ethical life, intellectual curiosity, Israel, or community. In the aggregate, Modern Orthodox espouses more "essentials" of Jewish identity than any other segment, and it is not even that close. It is clear that a multiplicity of emphases and core values is characteristic of Modern Orthodoxy (p. 57). As we know, it is hard to balance so many essential values. So you might expect this segment to be small but high-achieving. This, of course, is a double-edged sword.
  • There were a few cases where the question and the analysis are incompatible. For example, there was a series of questions to the effect of, "Are you still Jewish if you X?" In the analysis, it was posited as "is being Jewish compatible with X?" These questions only make sense if you presume Judaism to be a religion, not an ethnic/national/cultural identity. Obviously belief in Jesus is incompatible with being Jewish in the religious sense, but one who believes in Jesus can still be a Jew. These questions are thus simply restatements of the question about whether Judaism is a religion or a culture.
  • Thus, Ultra-Orthodoxy, the segment most likely to view Judaism solely as a religion, deviates from everyone else when it comes to "work on Shabbat" being incompatible with being Jewish. Ultra-Orthodox seem to be most willing to consider someone non-Jewish for a particular belief or practice. Interestingly, Ultra-Orthodoxy has highest % of those who say being critical of Israel is incompatible with being Jewish. (Ultra-Orthodoxy and Reform have a similar % on that question, as do Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative). That said, the two segments of Orthodox Jews are most likely to think that believing Jesus is the Messiah is compatible with being Jewish. So even within Ultra-Orthodoxy you have a significant number who believe that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew (Yisrael af al pi she-chata).
  • Another confusion exists where a question asks about denominational identification, but the results and analysis speak of affiliation. Identification and affiliation are very different things. As BZ points out, there are lots of people who identify as Reform Jews who do not affiliate with Reform institutions. I would contend that there are also significant numbers of people who affiliate with Orthodox institutions who do not consider themselves Orthodox Jews. In fact, the term Orthodox is an exonym, as internally we talk about "frum" and "Shomer Shabbos." That is, orthodoxy does not view itself as a denomination (and I suspect that some of the non-denominational "just Jews" in the survey are frum). There's a lot more to say about identity vs. affiliation (particularly, I can affiliate without pigeonholing my "identity"). Perhaps another time, when I can convince someone to pay me for writing about it.
  • Jews of no religion are consistently called secular and cultural Jews. These categories exist, but I think that most of these folk are ethnic Jews. Ethnicity implies both culture and lineage, and is a good descriptor of what many American Jews are.
  • Time for a fast break of interesting tidbits gleaned from the study:
    • Only MO truly believes that the Israeli government is making sincere peace overtures.
    • There are an estimated 5.7 million halakhic Jews in the US, of whom 4.4 million identify as Jewish.
    • On a related note, there are twice as many out-converts as in-converts. Such is the life of a minority culture. 
    • Among Jews age 50 and under, Orthodox and Conservative are virtually neck and neck in terms of numbers. Among Jews over 50, there are three times as many Conservative Jews as there are Orthodox Jews. 
    • The growth of Orthodoxy is attributable almost entirely to the growth of Ultra-Orthodoxy.
    • Only 1% of Jews in their 20s are Modern Orthodoxy.That doesn't make sense. Small sample size, I suppose.
    • More Christians than Conservative Jews believe that God gave Israel to the Jewish people. It's close, though. Reform is not close.
    • College attendance doesn't significantly correlate with attitudes toward Israel. So much for that myth. 
    • For Modern Orthodox, the most widely accepted essentials of Jewish identity are, in descending order: Ethical life, Israel, Jewish law, Holocaust, community, justice/equality, intellectual curiosity, food, sense of humor.
      For Ultra-Orthodox: Jewish law, ethical life, community, Holocaust, food, justice/equality, Israel, humor, intellectual curiosity. The biggest difference is that Ultra Orthodoxy bumps Israel down and bumps food up.
    • 2/3 of Ultra Orthodox say they can converse in Hebrew. Not buying it.
    • Orthodoxy outpaces others in terms of donations, memberships, Hebrew literacy, education, etc. No surprises there.
    • In favor of accepting homosexuality: Ultra Orthodox: 20%, Modern Orthodox:  50%, Conservative: 80%. Those numbers work out pretty neatly.
    • 81% of Modern Orthodox Jews attend religious services at least monthly, as opposed to 71% of Ultra Orthodox Jews. That's because, as every frum Jew knows, Ultra Orthodox women tend not to go to shul.
    • Roughly the same percentage of Modern Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, and Reform Jews attended non-Jewish religious services last year. But when it comes to Christmas trees, 4% of Orthodox have them, (really?) and 30% of Reform.
    • More Jews by religion (43%) thnk humor is important than Jews of no religion. Is it possible they were joking?


May a Woman get an Aliyah on Simchat Torah?

Here is a responsum I wrote on the topic (in Hebrew). I will try to translate it before Simchat Torah.

תשובה בענין עליות לנשים ביום שמחת תורה by Elli Fischer


R. Amital and the Yom Kippur War

The OU has posted an excerpt of By Faith Alone pertaining to the Yom Kippur War. For some reason, most of the discussion about this war on the occasion of its 40th anniversary will follow the Gregorian date. Perhaps this is for the best, as it will not distract us from the holidays. There is no reason, however, not to contemplate the responses of men like Rav Amital.


On Reforming the Rabbinate

The pre-Rosh Hashana issue of the New York Jewish Week had an article I wrote on the state of Israel's rabbinate and potential directions for structural change. Many readers know that I was not convinced that any of the candidates for chief rabbi would have been able to effect the necessary changes. The article, entitled "God's Gatekeepers," refers to the confrontation between Chana and Eli that we read about on Rosh Hashana. More on that confrontation in the near future.

It occurs to me that I never posted about an article I wrote earlier this summer, also for NYJW, on Israel's middle class.


And Another Review

I had forgotten about another review I wrote for Segula a while ago. This is on Matti Friedman's The Aleppo Codex. Here you go. Enjoy.

Aleppo Codex Review by Elli Fischer

On Baruch and Judy Sterman's "The Rarest Blue"

My review of Baruch and Judy Sterman's The Rarest Blue appears in the latest issue of Segula Magazine. I have obtained permission to post it so here it is:

Rarest Blue Review by Elli Fischer


The Origins of a Common Myth about Religious Jews

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to give a crash course in Judaism to a group of new (and veteran) personnel at the Philippine Embassy in Tel Aviv. Officially called a "Jewish cultural sensitivity seminar" by the Philippine Foreign Ministry, the idea was to go through the Jewish life cycle and calendar, give an introduction to the diversity of religious observance and belief, and address basic concepts, mores, and ideas they are likely to encounter. There were open questions throughout, and the entire event was quite talmudic in progressing associatively and following tangents.

The most interesting part was definitely the discussion about areas of Jewish law that a gentile in Israel is likely to encounter: bishul akum, Shabbes goy/ amira le-akum, sale of chametz before Pesach, and stam yeynam. The point was not to be thorough, but to give some context and perhaps avoid what might become an awkward situation (they appreciated my dramatization of a bunch of religious Jews inviting a gentile into the room so they can all say "Don't you think it's hot in here?").

The most interesting question was a version of the old hole-in-the-sheet myth, but one that confirmed what I have suspected for a long time. The questioner brought up the subject and then described the sheet, saying that a Filipina domestic saw such a thing in someone's laundry. It was clear that the object described was a tallit katan - good old-fashioned tzitzis. A rectangular white garment with a hole in the middle. I had long suspected that this myth originated when someone saw tzitzis on a clothesline. Now it's pretty much confirmed.

So I explained to my audience that it's a myth and how it most probably originated. I also noted the size of the hole in a tallit katan and thanked the questioner for the implied compliment.


Yu Jewish?

Of all the players in Major League Baseball, one might think that Japanese-born players are the least likely to have any connection to Judaism. There was never any significant Jewish presence on the islands of Japan (in contrast to territories occupied by Japan at various stages, especially during WWII). One could be forgiven for not anticipating a Danny Valencia situation - Cuban father, Jewish mother (go O's). So what are the chances that a player - especially Osaka-born Cy Young favorite like Yu Darvish - might have Jewish roots?

Well it turns out that there might be a chance. Yu Darvish's father is Iranian (which is not surprising if you think about it; dervishes - and that's what the name means - are from the Muslim world). He left Iran in 1977, just before the Revolution. And Alan Brill just posted the portrait of two Teherani Jewish Sufis named Darvish (here's an undated photo of Jewish Darvish family in Teheran).

Before we get carried away, Darvish is a common name among Sufis, Jewish or not. The American analogue might be something like Davis: not uncommon as a Jewish name, but also a pretty common name among gentiles. So Ike is Jewish, but, alas, Crush is not. Besides, if he does not identify as Jewish, then even the patrilinealists would concede that any Jewish roots would be a mere curiosity.

Still might be fun to look into, though.


The New Chief Rabbi: One Week, Two Controversies

Last week the newly minted Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Lau was embroiled in a controversy for using a racial slur when moralizing to a bunch of yeshiva students about cutting class to watch basketball games (he referred to the basketball players as "kushim" a slur that does not have the historical baggage of the n-word, and has only been a slur for a few decades, but, with all due respect to Yaacov Lozowick, is clearly and blatantly a slur of which there is no way he was unaware; maybe I'll have another post on that word). When confronted, he said he was joking, but did not apologize.

Now it is being reported that Rabbi Lau was caught cheating (this hasn't even been reported in English yet) on a written semikha exam 20 years ago. It should be noted that there are a lot of unanswered questions about this report, but it is backed up by R. Dov Lior, a rabbi of significant stature who has very little to gain and an awful lot to lose by lying about this.

Here in Israel, we don't even need steroids scandals.


A Proposal for Modiin's Future

Now that Modiin has no Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, we have an opportunity. Instead of searching for a new Ashkenazic rabbi (in addition to the two Sephardic rabbis we still have, and because such searches are always political in nature and do not always take into consideration the needs of the city’s residents), I propose that the money for the Ashkenazic rabbi’s salary (c. 40,000 NIS per month!) be used to subsidize and encourage the hiring of community rabbis in Modiin.

It would work like this:  synagogue communities that have rabbis under employ will be eligible for a subsidy under the following conditions:
a.       These rabbis will be accessible to members of the broader community, particularly in their neighborhoods;
b.       No subsidy will exceed half of the salary that the rabbi already gets from his community;
c.        No community will be subsidized for more than 5,000 NIS per month.
d.       The rabbis of all synagogue communities – Chabad, Conservative, Masorti, Orthodox, Reform – will be eligible to apply for the subsidy.

As Anglos, we appreciate the value of cohesive communities with strong religious leadership. We know that the best way to build a rabbinate is not through political appointments from the top down, but by building supportive communities from the grassroots up. We know that eliminating the positions at the top and promoting communities as the basic building blocks of our civic society is the way to build a strong city, and ultimately a strong nation.

Municipal elections are coming up. Let’s put this issue on the agenda. Let’s make Modiin the site of a pilot program that every city in the country will want to emulate.


Where Every Day is Black Friday

A recent post at TOI on how doing business with Haredim has multiple benefits for all involved:
Perhaps most importantly, these transactions take place between equals. The shekels that flow from my wallet into Kiryat Sefer are not charity and are not taken by force. They generate neither feelings of superiority nor feelings of resentment. Each party enters the relationship without sacrificing freedom or dignity, without threatening or feeling threatened by the other.

Read it all here.


The Battle for Bourekas

The Israeli Rabbinate is going to start enforcing guidelines on the shapes of bourekas. Meat, dairy, and pareve pastries will come in different shapes.

This is ridiculous! This is a mockery of Jewish law! This is worse than a theocracy - it's a nanny theocracy!

Wait, it's an explicit ruling in Shulchan Arukh? Oh. Never mind. [Read the whole post here]


Double Vindication in the Fight against Modiin Bigotry

Many readers might remember that this past October, the city of Modiin closed the spacious and beautiful Anabe Park to out-of-town guests during Hol Ha-mo'ed Sukkot. The background was a minor incident the previous Pesach and an ongoing pissing contest between the respective mayors of Modi'in and its Haredi neighbor, Modi'in Illit.

To make a long story short, I went to the park on Sukkot and invited a Haredi family that I met at the entrance into the park as my personal guests (guests of Modi'in residents were allowed in). A Haaretz reporter happened to be there, and so I was in the Israeli press. The municipal spokesman even called me a "provocateur."

All of this information appears in news that appeared around that time, and I wrote two blog posts on the subject.

The story did not end there, nor did my (indirect) involvement in it. In the first place, the stupid exclusionary policy was lifted before Pesach. I'd like to think that my actions, the involvement of several Israeli civil rights groups, and the opposition of a majority of the city council contributed to the mayor seeing the error of his ways. Alas, according to local blogger Yaki Beja, it seems that the real reason for the change was the fact that the park's concessionaires were losing considerable business (ironically, it turns out that the park's upkeep was funded through the concessionaire dues, which means that a Haredi who came and bought a popsicle was in fact helping to fund the park). Whatever the reason, I'm glad that the policy was reversed, and I'm happy to have been on the right side of this one.

It gets better, though.

A week after the Haaretz article, a local paper ran a column by one Koby Or, which smeared a local attorney named Eli Fisher. Or assumed that the "Eli Fischer" in the article was this somewhat well-known local personage, and then he drew all sorts of wild conclusions about what Adv. Fisher was trying to accomplish by conspiring with a Haaretz reporter to manufacture a headline (it should be noted that Mr. Or, by his own admission, was in Eilat for Sukkot, far away from the action).

Although Mr. Or apologized in print the next week and made some modifications to the online article, Adv. Fisher, being a lawyer, sued Mr. Or and the publication that ran his article without editing it, checking facts, or asking for a statement from Adv. Fisher (or me, for that matter). The verdict was handed down a few weeks ago: Adv. Fischer won 36,000 NIS in damages from Mr. Or and the paper. Additionally, Mr. Or - who seems to be an old-school secularist type who is grumpy about anyone not like him coming along to do things differently - stopped writing for this or any other local paper. It is explained in the court protocols that Mr. Or quit the paper after it became clear that he would now be subjected to annoying little things like editing and fact-checking. To be honest, he's not that much different from today's armchair journalists who fact-check on Wikipedia, but whatever.

This has been summarized from a long blog post by Yaki Beja on the issue. He's got all of the courtroom drama. I'm just happy that a small battle in the fight against bigotry has been won. In any event, I'm going out for coffee later this week with my new friend, Eli Fisher.

He's paying.


Haredim for World Peace

A quote from a responsum:
It is obligatory for every haredi to work toward world peace, so that innocent blood is not shed in the world, and war ceases.
 Who wrote this and when? Check out my latest blog post at FindNeedles.


Hillel Praises; Shammai Appraises

Hillel and Shammai are perhaps the most famous pair of rabbinic rivals in the Talmud. Their rivalry, and their differences in personality, are a theme that runs through all parts of rabbinic literature - halakha and aggada, Mishna and Tosefta, Bavli and Yerushalmi. Any discussion of Jewish attitudes toward pluralism and its limits begins with Hillel and Shammai.

This rivalry has been treated extensively, so I doubt that I would have much to contribute on this front. Nevertheless, I had an insight into their names several years ago (thanks, David G, for reminding me about that blog post), and I believe it to be a true chiddush.

The name Hillel is related to hallel - praise. The name Shammai is related to shuma - evaluation. In fact, the Modern Hebrew word for an appraiser is a "shammai". The personalities of Hillel and Shammai are thematized along these lines. While Shammai and his disciples are concerned with the true, present, objective value of something, Hillel and his academy have a more generous outlook; they are able to see how something might have greater subjective value or potential value.

In the audio shiur I posted yesterday (and in a latent form in this post), this difference is used to understand the divergent approaches of Hillel and Shammai when confronting the prospective gerim. Shammai kicks them out using a yardstick - a tool of precise quantification, symbolizing the standards that potential gerim must meet, but that these do not. Hillel, in my reading, perceives some nobility in their motives and is willing to act based on their potential.

A similar dispute appears in Avot De-Rabbi Natan 2:9. Shammai's academy had very strict acceptance standards, whereas anyone could study at Hillel's. According to that passage, Hillel's lack of standards was not predicated on the belief in universal Torah education, but on the notion that it is impossible to know what sort of background will produce the next rabbinic leaders. Both Hillel and Shammai want to produce greatness, but whereas Shammai insists that greatness requires certain raw materials, Hillel contends that one's present state is not a good predictor of potential. So he refuses to evaluate, and lets everyone in.

Perhaps the most poignant example of this difference between Hillel and Shammai appears in Sanhedrin 16b-17a. The disciples of Hillel and Shammai disagree about "how one dances before the bride." Beit Hillel maintains that one should always tell the groom that "the bride is beautiful and charming," whereas Beit Shammai states that one should tell it like it is. The dispute, according to the ensuing discussion, is about whether there is value in reinforcing the groom's subjective perception. For the Hillelites, the true "worth" of the bride is irrelevant; this is what the groom has settled upon, and it is proper and generous to reinforce his beliefs, even if they are erroneous on some objective plane. Beit Shammai is unwilling to violate its objective evaluation - that is, lie - to make another person feel good (an outstanding and hilarious dramatization of Shammai's dilemma can be viewed here).

A final example further illustrate this theme and may even locate the differences within the general demeanor of the two sages. In Beitza 16a, it is recorded that Hillel and Shammai took different approaches to Shabbat, and really to life. Shammai would constantly be on the lookout for delicacies that he could serve on Shabbat. Even if he already bought a fine beast, he would look for a better one and compare it to the first. The impression here is that Shammai's life was an unending series of appraisals and evaluations. He simply could not turn off his faculty of judgment; Halakhic Man on steroids or, if you wish, a life-long appointment with an optometrist ("Is this better, or is this? Which is better, this or this?"). Hillel, on the other hand, felt that as long as one was living life for the sake of heaven, there was no need for the constant evaluation; one could live life as it happened.

In this passage, Hillel's position is not articulated in the form of a dissenting opinion. His position is introduced by the phrase "Hillel had a different demeanor" ("mida acheret hayta bo"). Similarly, in his response (and later in the passage, his disciples' response), he does not directly dispute Shammai's incessant appraisal, but simply quotes Psalms 68:20 "Blessed be the Lord, day by day." "Barukh Hashem yom yom."

This "dispute" straddles the line between halakha and aggada. Shammai acted a certain way, and his disciples transformed their stories about him into a halakhic position. Hillel does not get drawn into Shammai's impulse for constant evaluation, and his disciples resist the temptation to transform stories about their master into actual halakhic positions. The poetics of this short passage indicate that the Bavli has indeed thematized the divergent tendencies attributed to Hillel and Shammai, and subsequently to their respective circles of disciples.

One might ask, so what? What difference does it make if the Bavli conceptualized Hillel and Shammai in this way? What is the aggada le-ma'aseh? As I noted in yesterday's post (and here I am indebted to insights of Barry Wimpfheimer as well as Moshe Simon and Chaim Saiman), I think this insight is significant because it externalizes a certain tension that every rabbi feels to a certain degree. On one hand, there is the impulse toward rule-making, and on the other hand is an impulse to accept every moment and every individual with a spirit of generosity, without trying to impose an existing set of rules and standards on it. The rabbis of the Bavli felt this tension, too. Thus, although they engaged in formulating and standardizing law, they also expressed reservations and resistance to that attitude. My contention here is that the Sages externalized these opposing tendencies through the figures of Hillel and Shammai, and that by showing Hillel to be their clear favorite, they, in some way, legitimated the resistance that has accompanied the impulse toward codification, standardization, and rule-making every step of the way.


A New Venture and a Pre-Shavu’ot Podcast

It has been an eventful few weeks. After three and a half years, I am no longer working for Jewish Ideas Daily. The parting was amicable and we did not discount the possibility of doing some work for JID or its affiliated projects.

The work that I’ve done for them, specifically building a model to take in the entire sweep of Jewish and Israeli news, opinion, and analysis on a daily basis, has prepared me for the next step. Together with Dr. Judah Levine, who worked with me for JID, I have launched a new venture called FindNeedles. We serve clients by going through vast amounts of content to find the items that are specifically relevant to them. Our process combines the power of machine aggregation with the human intelligence of curation. You can learn more by visiting our site, www.findneedles.com . And here’s a sample of something we recently provided for a client.

Please get in touch if you think we can be of value to your business or organization.

A few weeks ago, I gave a shi’ur in honor of my grandparents, as I do every year. This year I explored the uneasy and blurry relationship between halakha and aggada, between law and lore. I used the well-known stories of the non-Jews who came to Hillel and Shammai with the intention of converting to Judaism. The central thesis (and chiddush) of the shiur is that the figures of Hillel and Shammai are typologies that externalize rabbinic ambivalence about standardizing and codifying practice. I further argue that this ambivalence persists even after these stories are domesticated by halakha – that is, that aggada resists domestication and occasionally succeeds in injecting something of life’s messiness into the halakhic codes themselves. In fact, I argue, the impulse toward standardization of conversion and the impulse to resist standardization, both of which are manifest in contemporary debates about conversion, are discernible within the Talmud’s discourse; looking only at halakha or aggada simplifies the picture considerably.

This reading of the stories in the Gemara and the subsequent codification is both indebted to and critical of a recent work by Barry Wimpfheimer  called Narrating the Law. I hope to have occasion to flesh this out further in a review essay.

Since the subject matter pertains directly to the upcoming holiday of Shavu’ot, I thought it might be of interest over the next few days. The audio of the shiur is available here, and the associated source sheet is here.

Chag Sameach.


Blowing out the Candles for Shalom Bayit

The Talmud says that the reason the Sages instructed us to light candles at the onset of Shabbat is shalom bayit, tranquility in the home. Of course, on the most basic level, this simply means that we should not sit in the dark on Friday night, since it is not conducive to the evening meal. Over time, especially when light became a permanent feature of homes, the act of lighting candles became ritual, something that one does even in a room flooded with light.

But what if lighting flames in the home harms shalom bayit?

This question describes what goes on in many families with autistic children, according to Frances Victory, who has interviewed such families for her dissertation. Here's her report, from the Jewish Week:

And during the interviews, some mothers of a child with autism said they could not light Shabbat candles because they were afraid their child would “play with it, blow it out, touch it, or throw things at it.” It never occurred to me that lighting Shabbat candles on a Friday evening might not be possible for every Jewish woman who wanted to.
I tend to agree with the mothers here. The underlying purpose of lighting candles is shalom bayit, and it would seem ludicrous to compromise shalom bayit - to introduce fear, anxiety, and danger - in order to light Shabbat candles. One may technically use electric bulbs - even fluorescent - to fulfill the rabbinic instruction.

One mother, however, figured out a way to preserve the customary candle-lighting while keeping her shalom bayit intact. Victory continues:
 One mother of a child with autism said this:
“We do light Shabbat candles and she (her daughter with autism) takes great pleasure in blowing them out. We do let her do that. She walks away when we light the candles but she comes back down when we sing Shalom Alechiem.”
It is worth reading the whole article. It is enlightening.


Karpas Platters and Do-It-Yourself Marror (w. pics!)

This is how we roll at our Seder.
  • For karpas, a vegetable appetizer in a dip, we use different kinds of vegetables and different kinds of dips. Each dip has some sort of educational of symbolic value. This year it's:
    • Strawberries and bananas dipped in chocolate. These are generally considered fruits, but in fact their berakha is "ha-adama. " Great teachable moment (I've heard that R. Teitz of Elizabeth, NJ used to do this, for that very reason).
    • Artichoke - same reason, and also because we're having Seder with my gourmet sister-in-law.
    • Potato latkes in applesause - that's just becuase it's fun and yummy.
    • Celery in peanut butter - celery is a traditional karpas food among Ashkenazim, and peanut butter is so that my kids have very clear memories that our family custom is to eat peanut products on Pesach and not treat them as kitniyot. (see Igrot Moshe OC 3:63).
    • Parsley in saltwater, because that's what my forebears did.
  • For marror:
    • I accept Ari Schaffer's contention that horseradish is a relative latecomer to the marror menu and is likely not a true species of marror. It is increasingly common for poskim to recommend making the berakha of al akhilat marror on something in the lettuce family (several Israeli poskim say this, and I've heard that R. Schachter and R. Willig at YU rule this way as well).
    • Nevertheless, I have horseradish with korekh. After all, the Seder is about preserving and continuing memories, and I do not want to forget - or want my kids to forget - the centuries of sojourning in those cold Ashkenazic lands. 
    • So what do we make the berakha on? Prickly lettuce (lactuca serriola) and bitter lettuce (l. variosa). It grows wild, as a weed, all over the place. I found enough in my (admittedly overgrown) backyard for the Seder. This is a really interesting plant that has a long history and some fascinating medicinal properties.

Strawberries and bananas dipped in chocolate, ready for use as karpas

 Lactuca Serriola growing, picked, and in my son's hands


Rav Eliezer Melamed on Kitniyot (and the elusive mung bean)

Over the past year or so, one of the project's I've been working on is the editing the translation of R. Eliezer Melamed's (thus far) 14 volume Peninei Halakha series, which is fast becoming the Religious-Zionist Shulchan Arukh. Our original plan was to release the volume on Pesach in time for the holiday, but we did not complete the work in nearly enough time. It will appear next year instead.

Nevertheless, we have decided to release one chapter as a preview/teaser. Embedded below is the chapter on kitniyot. In the introductory letter, I note that a lot went into making this translation as precise and accurate as possible, and nowhere is this more evident than in the list of kitniyot species at the beginning of section 4.

I spend about a day researching the identities of each species listed by Rav Melamed (all of which appear in earlier literature). The most difficult to pin down is a species called sapir in halakhic works. It appears in several lists of kitniyot, but without any translation into any other language. I eventually found that it appears in Rambam's laws of kilayim in Mishneh Torah. From there I contacted a friend who is a botanist and a talmid chakham. He did not know the identity of this species, but sent me on to mishna Kilayim 1:1 which mentions it among several other species of legume. R. Ovadia of Bertinoro translates it as cicer - chick peas. This species already appeared on R. Melamed's list. Rambam, however, translates it into Arabic as ma'ash.

From there I consulted with an Arabic-speaking friend, who was unfamiliar with the word but helped me navigate Arabic-language websites. We eventually found that it refers to a species known as mash beans, or she'u'it mash in Modern Hebrew. The English equivalent is "mung beans", and a look at cognates in other languages shows that both "mash" and "mung" descend from the term for this bean in central Asian languages like Urdu and Farsi. Mystery solved.

I bring this up as an illustration of the degree of precision used by Rav Melamed, and which we used in rendering his works into English.

Chag kasher ve-same'ach, and stay away from the mung beans.
Without further ado, Rav Melamed's chapter on kitniyot.


Ruth Calderon's Speech, Yair Lapid's Religion, the Temple Mount, and Tattoos

Events in Israel and around the Jewish world remain as interesting as ever, and I've tried to contribute a bit by writing when I have the opportunity (i.e., when I'm paid to write; can't afford the lucrative work-for-free opportunities).

Having been inspired by Ruth Calderon's inaugural Knesset speech, I contacted several Jewish media outlets about translating the speech, and the New York Jewish Week agreed that it would be important to get this remarkable speech in front of the English-speaking Jewish world. The translation, like the speech, was shared far and wide and was adapted as subtitles on the original speech. Here is a link to my translation:

Yesterday's events at the Kotel have drawn, as usual, a global audience, but as many of you know I have long advocated viewing the struggle for women at the Kotel and for Jews on the Temple Mount as fundamentally linked. So in addition to the standard articles, we have this from Matti Friedman, exploring the increasing relevance of Har Habayit. He quotes me at the end of the article and links back to a blog post I wrote on the subject last year. Here's hoping that attitudes continue to deepen, soften, and converge.

Elsewhere on the Israeli scene, I analyzed Yair Lapid's well-known Ono College speech from over a year ago, in which he "conceded defeat" to the Haredim. It was a remarkable speech, which articulated a vision for a new type of Israeli secularism. In his tone, Lapid has certainly distanced himself from his father. But is that change merely tactical? Check it out:

Finally, on a different note, I explore, in the New York Jewish Week, the ancient Jewish ban on tattoos. There is a talmudic argument about whether the ban is due to the perception of tattoos as a pagan practice or is simply not rational - whether as a taboo or divine fiat. I contend that this ancient argument continued through the medieval debate and continues to frame the contemporary debate as well. This was a fun article - it combines quotes from the Torah, Tanakh, Talmud, and Maimonides with references to Lenny Bruce, Amy Winehouse, Drew Barrymore, The Nanny, and Curb your Enthusiasm. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!


Work-Life Balance

I've been working from home as a freelance translator/editor/writer/researcher for over 5 years now. I've enjoyed much of it, but lately I have found that my work-life balance is completely skewed.

In simple terms, there are four competing demands for my time. There is work, by which I mean activity that generates or manages income in some immediate sense. There is family time. There is "down time". And there is writing the kinds of things that I really want to be studying and writing.

Ideally, I would love to get to a point where I could earn a living by writing the things I want to write. Realistically, very few people earn a living doing that. I would like to dedicate an hour a day to creative writing, but I find that the absence of any real division between work time and other time makes this virtually impossible.

So I'm on the lookout for a full-time position that would allow me to, for the most part, leave my work at work, and allow me to actually be at home when I'm at home.

I'm looking into various avenues, but the key will be to find something that can maximize my skill set - something that will take advantage of my skills as a translator and editor, my research skills, my varied interests, my critical and creative thought. I'm pursuing a few leads at the moment, but would be happy to hear other ideas.