Thursday, June 30, 2005

Gaza, New Hampshire


Who said it? contest!

"But if the approach which seems to us peshuto shel mikra contradicts and opposes the received derashah which is transmitted to us by Chazal, such that it is impossible that both can be correct, for the contradictory is precluded, then it is incumbent upon us to go in the way of derash, and to translate the text according to it, because we only have the traditions of our Sages z"l, and in their light we can see light."
Hint: the above is a translation.
Update: these words are from Moses Mendelssohn's introduction to the Biur. Thanks for guessing, guys. :)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Pollyannish or smarter than everyone?

The blorange ribbon. Are they onto something?

Paleo Judaica; don't overlook it

Dr. Jim Davila's Paleo-Judaica, with over a thousand site hits a day scarcely needs my endorsement.

But I'm endorsing it anyway, for those of you who have even the slightest interest in ancient Jewish history or anything tangentially related to it and somehow overlooked this wonderful blog. Read a little and get a taste of the breadth of his knowledge and
genuine warmth and enthusiasm. No, he's not Jewish. Don't forget to check out his links.

Scientists have created zombie dogs

Scientists have created zombie dogs is unspeakably fun to type.

California is a large country and there is no substitute for firsthand experience

California is "a large country of the West Indies. It is uncertain whether it be a peninsula or an island." So reads the entry on California in the first edition of the august Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1768.

You've got to experience things to really make authoritative prounouncements about them, and even then, with limitations. I've noticed that almost without exception when I know a lot about a subject (there are a few things I know a great deal about ;) ) and I read something about it that is not written by a real expert it will contain errors, sometimes minor and sometimes embarassingly obvious. I have to assume that's true for the many things that I do not know a great deal about. An expert mohel told me that he's spotted mistakes in every New York Times treatment of circumcision in the science section over more than 50 years. In other words, most things you will read that is written by jack-of-all-trades types, newspaper treatments, popular books and even the Encyclopaedia Britannica (I think they've corrected the California entry) will make mistakes, whether mistaken assumptions or facts. It may be that a really good article or book gets 99% right, which is really impressive, but the erroneous 1% won't come with a footnote identifying itself as an error.

I was thinking about this because of something I read in Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls by Stephanie Wellen Levine. Levine spent a year in Crown Heights living and interacting with Lubavitch teenage girls. It's a good book, find it and read it. When she told her PhD advisor at Harvard (this is from memory -- when I get home I will check and make sure that's who it was) her intention to study the girls he basically expressed doubt if girls in such a male-dominated and restrictive society would even have individual personalities. Levine is happy to report that they do; they're happy, they have hopes, dreams, crestivity etc. When I read that I knew that even though I was not a Lubavitcher I am an Orthodox insider and really consider the preconception that these girls would be automatons absurd. Because I know better. I know that Orthodox Jews, even haredim, love and laugh and think. But you wouldn't know it if you didn't, well, know it. That's a limitation that some books about things have.

What's the solution to this problem? Nothing really, apart from trying to get your information about a subject from multiple sources, but also to have some healthy skepticism.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Target: Judaism

Some people may look at this as just more of the same-old same-old, but it would be remiss not to make note of the fact that Rasha's state prosecutor is "investigating" the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh for "racist incitement and "anti-Russian" material.

True, Rasha's foreign minister had earlier condemned the original letter which called attention to the Kitzur and signed by thousands of well known Rashaim as "racist". Well that and two bucks will get you a Metrocard.

Krum as a bagel informs us that the probe is, apparently, not going to happen. The good Rashaim decided not to investigate if the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh defames Rasha, but it will come at a price. Like a Gambino shakedown

the Russian Foreign Ministry has until now ignored requests for an explanation of the interrogation. Political officials in Israel said Monday they think "the Kremlin expects gestures from Israel in exchange for the elimination of the affair."

Now that's a good idea. Create antisemitic crises so that you can pour water on it if the Jews will pay a price.

How controversial can a dictionary be? Jastrow revisited.

'Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature'

They really don't make thirteen-word titles like that anymore.

R. Berel Wein, who I definitely was not lampooning here writes that
There is no English-speaking yeshiva that does not have a Jastrow dictionary as a research tool in its bookshelves --- and a well-used one at that. The necessity for having a work that would make the Talmud more accessible to the English-speaking student has empowered the success of the Jastrow dictionary. Even those purists of Talmud studies who frown upon the use of the excellently translated volumes of the Talmud into English itself, raise no objection to the presence of Jastrow's dictionary within the walls of the study hall.
This is interesting, expecially because in the yeshiva world great lengths are gone to make sure everyone knows that Marcus Jastrow was an apikores and yet when you wanna know what lulei demistafina means, you gotta open a Jastrow. This phenomenon is an interesting effect of the haskalah's lasting (yet denied) influence on the contemporary yeshiva world.

Menachem Butler writes about the indispensible scholarly achievement that is the Jastrow Dictionary.

When the sun set on the West.

ADDeRabbi posts about one of the darkest days in history, January 20, 1961. Anyone who has received a standard yeshivish education will recognize this as the day that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated the 35th president of the United States. JFK wasn't wearing a hat and with his bare head went Western Civilization. Although in truth its a machlokes; a mashgiach in a certain yeshiva placed the date at February 16, 1964, when the Beatles played 'I Want To Hold Your Hand' on the Ed Sullivan Show.

All kidding aside, the truth is that the yeshivish appropriation of the fedora as a costume and symbol could not have been complete without JFK's hedonistic display of hubris toward the January chill, which felled at least one other president*. As for the Beatles, there's nothing yeshivish about boots, especially if they're pointy enough to shecht a behema gassa.

*Okay, it was March, but still.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The 14th Ikkarei Emunah

You know what the 14th ikkar is? Not to explore a rationalist explanation for the Beis Yosef's encounters with an angelic maggid.
Evidently, I lack "kavod for people greater than [myself]", [an appreciation for] da'as torah, yiras shomayaim and yiras chayt.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Jargon or shprach

At Mystical Politics a person comments in a thread about Toby-Gate that "I think the passion one feels for her Judaism should, lulei demistafina, be steered toward a more positive relationship with God and Jews".
To which, replied one Gary Farber, that
"Results 1 - 10 of about 102 English pages for "lulei demistafina."This is also not something that, it appears, might speak to many people who only speak English.
My own, highly limited, experience with this sort of thing -- in general! -- is that jargon is often used to signal to others that they belong to the same group, but to the yet other others that they don't belong. That makes sense in various situations. I'm unclear if that's actually useful, though, if a desired goal is communication beyond the small group. It's certainly not clear to me that such usage invites Jews to participate who don't know the code. To be sure, though, and I mean this in the kindest fashion, I've already turned down some fine invites, so welcoming invites aren't all that would help. I do hope I'm not saying this too badly, but I won't be surprised if I am, as usual. Hebrew, is to also be sure, not a bad thing, to say the least. It's just that as a test for being a proper Jew, it does seem to put some of us here and some of us there, for better or for worse, and that's all I'm saying.
Interesting point. Still, although "lulei demistafina" is definitely that sort of jargon, he also explained that "hagbah" was just as mysterious to him. I'm reasonably sure (okay, 100% sure) that in these hagbah discussions no one was being exclusionary and wouldn't have occurred to anyone that they were, although if one thinks about it there are probably a lot of things that I write that are unintelligible to readers and not just because I can't communicate my thoughts properly.

Owning a Slave, Theoretically.

One of the effects of long-term exile is that many aspects of halakha became theoretical in the sense that they are impracticable. We can learn dinei nefashos for hundreds of hours and write a hundred sefarim on it, but as long as a Sanhedrin is not convened in the Lishhas Ha-gaziz all of it is theoretical.

So it is with the, shall we say, difficult things in the Torah. Some people feel a great sense of moral superiority by not having their sensibilities offended even a tiny bit when things like yefas to'ar are considered. Supposedly their morality is shaped by Torah and nothing else. Therefore if the Torah seemingly condones such practices it would be anti-Torah to even feel a twinge of unease and to desire some resolution. Regarding the topic of Amalek, R. Aharon Lichtenstein writes
At one point, during my late teens, I was troubled by certain ethical questions concerning [the destruction of ] Amalek etc. I then recalled having recently read that Rabbi Chaim Brisker would awaken nightly to see if someone hadn't place a foundling at his doorstep. I knew that I slept quite soundly, and I concluded that if such a paragon of kindness coped with these laws, evidently the source of my anxiety did not lie in my greater sensitivity but in my weaker faith. And I set myself to enhancing it.

I don't think R. Lichtenstein is suggesting that someone who is troubled by these things is anti-Torah, but he does say that it is a weakness of faith that requires strengthening.

That seems fair enough. I'm not sure if by enhancing faith he also means to include developing an approach that smoothes these matters out in your mind, as opposed to simply concluding that if it didn't bother R. Chaim (who says?) then it won't bother me. (Actually, R. Lichtenstein says that R. Chaim "coped", he didn't say it couldn't have bothered him.)

Which leads me to this thread on about a mamzer's limited marriage options. An anecdote was offered about a mamzer who supposedly bought an African woman and had children with her, who then had the status of avadim (a mamzer can have children with a shifchah caaanit). Whether or not this happened or if "bought" was a slave purchasing transaction or the woman was not acquired against her will I don't know. Naturally the old chestnut about black Africans being natural slaves because of the curse of Noah is trotted out in this thread.

I wouldn't say that I'm shocked, but I'm appalled how people can be so indifferent to the institution of slavery. Why does it continually need to be pointed out that the Torah doesn't command us to own slaves? To me, this is an example of something theoretical: no one who professes not to be bothered in the slightest by slavery will ever own a slave. They will never have sexual relations with a minor (one hopes). They will never kill non-combatant women and babies. In short, their indifference to these things are also theoretical. These concepts are just words on paper. I can't believe they connect those words to actual people with hopes and dreams and lives.

It reminded me of a post on the old Protocols blog about the Rabin assassination.
The idea that lomdus and the study of Halakha are completely abstract are products of golus, and can really only exist in the circumstances of golus. When you have a situation in which Jews are in power, though, you can no longer view Halakha as existing in vacuum, as not corresponding to the outside world....Rav Kook, understood that as Jews begin to resettle the land, and reassert their autonomy, it is no longer possible to think of Halakha as divorced from external, political reality. He insisted that Talmud must be studied “aliba de’hilchata”, to arrive at a practical conclusion. I think that he realized that a situation in which Jews are no longer merely studying texts, but have the ability to implement their teachings, challenges us to recognize that Torah has a political dimension and is not merely an intellectual exercise.

Rav Kook’s point was clearly illustrated by the Rabin assassination. When you call someone a rodeph, you are saying that they should be killed. You can’t hide behind the excuse of lomdus, or the eternity of Torah to justify your teachings.
Indeed. When halakha is real to you you cannot be indiffirent to human suffering.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

How to read like an Israelite

Ketav Ivrit

A blast from the past; how our distant Biblical ancestors (who could write) wrote. Do you think there is any value from a Jewish perspective in knowing the Proto-Semitic script today? Do/ should talmidei chachamim have at least a rudimentary proficiency in this script? Or should that be left to nebech-an-apikoires academic types?

Update: Parsha Blog points out the following:

There is a discussion of how in the Ten Commandments, engraved through and through
on two tablets, the samach and mem sofit were miraculous, in that the middle portion had to have floated (
Shabbat 104a and Megilla 2b-3a). How to understand the Yerushalmi that has instead "ayin and tes?" You need to know Ktav Ivri (in which these two letters are circular - the ayin looks like a samach, and the tes looks like an X inside an O, in what seems a modification of the letter tav) - to really understand this - and it is clear that Chazal knew Ktav Ivri.

On the Main Line, now with tags:
, Alphabet" rel="tag">Alphabet

The Bais Yosef and the Maggid.

Fervent Christians often give the following challenge about their founder. They will tell you that you must pick one of the following: Either he was a liar, a lunatic or the Son of God. This is a very common argument. It was developed, I believe, by a Josh McDowell in his book Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Perhaps, but I'm not sure, it was adapted from C.S. Lewis. But the "Liar, Lunatic or the Son of God" is really common and also really absurd. There are other options.

The subject of maggidim or mystical encounters with angelic teachers is interesting and to tell the truth a bit troubling. We don't have to go through all the esteemed rabbis who've claimed to have had a maggidic encounter (did I make up a word?). Take R. Yosef Karo. There is no debating his signifigance and pre-eminence as a halakhist. He, presumably, doesn't have the debatable baggage that the Ramchal, say, does. R. Yosef Karo not only had maggidic encounters he wrote a book about it, Maggid Meisharim, including concrete teachings he was taught by his maggid. For some people the fact that R. Yosef Karo is the Beis Yosef, the Mechaber, the author of the Code of Jewish Law tells them the following: either he was a liar, or he was hallucinating or he really had encounters with angelic teachers of Torah, really as in something that happened outside of his own mind.

I think that is exactly the same argument as the one about Jesus. There are other options. For one thing, mystical encounters and spirit possession and automatic writing and all kinds of paranormal phenomena are not unique to classic rabbis. These things just happen in environments that are conducive to them. We expect people in Haiti to be possessed by the devil with greater frequency than people in Georgetown. The fact that these things occur in environments that are conducive to them does not mean that the people in these enviornments are all lying or nuts. R. Yosef Karo was a mystic operating in a small circle of like minded people in 16th century Sefad. He lived, breathed and ate mysticism as much as he did halakha. The fact that his maggidic encounters have psychological explanations should in no way diminish him as, God forbid, a lunatic. To quote a rebbe of mine on the Golem of Prague (story inspired by Shelley's Frankenstein): "It isn't one the ikkarim to believe it". The trouble is that some people are convinced that unless you believe that R. Yosef had angelic encounters independent of his own body and mind you must think he was a fraud and if so, you must believe in these this and dybbuks and the like.

I couldn't disagree more. It's no less a false dichotomy (trichotomy?) than Josh McDowell's Jesus challenge

Yeshivas That Fail Their Students

Da'as Hedyot has a series of posts about how the yeshiva system didn't work for him; how the point is constantly hammered in that a good Jew is a Jew who learns (Gemara) and how yeshivas are highly unsuccessful in teaching the necessary skills to many people who must fake their way through school with only a dim idea and appreciation for what's going on.

Bitter? Yes, but he speaketh the truth. Jewish Observer articles and chinuch conventions and symposiums abound, but what about this widespread problem is being alleviated? I previously touched on a related issue in
Help, I'm Illiterate.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Confronting Holocaust Revisionists

Between April and July 1994 937,000 people were killed in Rwanda, many by machete. The world yawned, of course.
As far as I know the near-million figure is not disputed (okay, I'm sure it is to an extent, but still). So it looks like a million people were killed by hand in 12 weeks.
Don't Holocaust revisionists scoff at the notion that 6,000,000 could be systematically killed in 5 years from a pure logistics perspective? I know that we're not expecting brain surgeons (or even a little logic) when we speak of Holocaust revisionists, but how do they confront this and other historical examples of mass murder on an enormous scale? If the Rwanda genocide was logistically possible why not the Holocaust? I mean, are they ever asked this question? What do they say?

Slits are slutty

Avrohom Bronstein posts about his sister's high school graduation from TAG (Torah Academy for Girls in Far Rockaway). Apparently the school's dean, R. Moshe Weitman gave the girls some sound parting advice: not to live in a community where women wear skirts with slits in them. It's good he remembered the important things.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Everyone likes a good ger story, Christians too.

Sultan Knish writes about Jewish rapper 50 Shekel's conversion to Christianity
Christian sites are crowing about50 Shekel converting to Christianity....

This seems roughly the equivalent of Jews rejoicing if Richard Simmons converted to Judaism.
No milah jokes, please.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

R. Moshe Feinstein 1895-1986

R. Moshe zt"l is gone less than twenty years and left a big body of halakhic work. And people wonder how machlokes could have entered into the mix if Moshe kibel Torah mi-Sinai.

They don't tell "stories" like that about you and me II

On Shavuos someone mentioned to me a story I heard long ago about a certain pre-War gadol of note (I haven't decided if I should name him, since the story seems dubious to me and rather negative).

It is said -- with admiration -- that he skipped his own son's bris on the instruction of his rebbe so that he wouldn't miss his seder.

Obviously learning Torah is one of Judaism's highest values and that is what recounting this story is meant to convey. But if he really ditched his son's bris, isn't that pretty, uhm, misaligned? And if it didn't happen, as one hopes, the fact that it's said approvingly as if it did says something, I'm sure. I haven't figured out just what yet.

Are there rishonim who are out of the masora loop?

Someone writes
"to have a valid opinion on these issues [ikkarei emunah ed.], one must be familiar with the corpus of masorah in the Torah she be al Peh before one's opinion can be accepted as masoras Yisroel. The Rambam, Raavad and Ramban clearly qualify; the Ibn Ezra and Ralbag do not. (I know some are going to be set off by this, but no matter the value of their contribution to Biblical scholarship and parshanut, they are not baalei masorah.) When one eliminates these views, the number of those who are truly cholek on the Rambam dwindles even more."
The way I read that is "those Rishonim suck because they can't be successfuly reread as 21st century Chareidim".

Or is there any justification for the idea that Ibn Ezra and Ralbag are not "accepted as masoras Yisroel"?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Rabbinic hyperbole and responsibility.

In the movie My Cousin Vinny two kids from Brooklyn head off to college, taking the 'scenic route' through the deep South. They stop off in a convenience store to buy some things and one of them leaves with a candy bar in his back pocket that he forgot to pay for. As they pull out of the parking lot the store is held up at gun point and the clerk is shot. Witnesses point to their car as being at the scene of the crime and they are quickly hauled in by the police. Naturally by now they've discovered the accidental shoplifting and assume that is why they've been arrested. They admit guilt but act rather nonchalant about it. The cop, who thinks they shot the clerk, is appalled at their no-biggie-we're-sorry attitude. Finally he can't stand it anymore and asks him what they did after they shot the clerk. The boys stop in their tracks. "I shot the clerk?" one of them sputters. "I shot the clerk?!?!" At their trial the cop reads the interrogation transcript: "And then he said, "I shot the clerk. I shot the clerk".

Its very easy to misinterpret words for reasons that are obvious. It's not as well known as it should be, but it is known that there is such a thing as rabbinic hyperbole. When reading any sefer shu"t one is struck by how every questioner is a "friend" of the posek and especially a "gaon". Well obviously that is a convention and when one comes across a "harav ha-gaon" in a sefer or a letter one has to understand that this is not a piece of evidence that the person is a gaon. The rabbinic style is the more flowery the better. That goes for ill as well as for good. It is especially true because of translation issues and the use of Talmudic and aggadic references, If you are looking for measure in rabbinic writing you are probably not going to find it. Not that this is a value judgment of that -- it is what it is, and it behooves outsiders (and insiders) to understand this.

But that said, when something is written the words stand and speak for themselves. Not everyone is adept at interpreting rabbinic writing. When R. E.M. Shach declared that writings of R. J.B. Soleveitchik to be "kefirah mamash" there is a pretty good bet that he was using hyperbole (however indefensible what he really meant is). His words stand by themselves even if we undertstand that they're intended to be blunter than they sound.

While you can't really demand that a culture change to suit the needs of outsiders, it seems that the tendency towards rabbinic hyperbole has caused more than one mess recently and in the past. It may be ludicrous for the cop to quote "I shot the clerk" as if it were confession, but those words were spoken. And if you're being interrogated you'd better not say something like that if you don't want it held against you later.

Friday, June 10, 2005

How the Rambam shul cures.

The very enjoyable Parsha Blog quotes a story from the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal about the "Rav Moshe" shul in Cairo's old Jewish quarter; "Rav Moshe" as in "ben Maimoun". It seems his shul was a pilgrimage site for miracle cures.

Maimonides, the great rabbi, philosopher and healer, died 800 years ago in Egypt, but for many of those years he kept on working. Over the centuries his presence was said to be felt in the little synagogue deep in the heart of Cairo's old Jewish Quarter where, legend had it, he taught his disciples in a basement room. For the Jews of the Levant, Maimonides the doctor was as important as Maimonides the theologian and codifier of Jewish law. So it was to his small shul, known as Rav Moshe, that Jews from across Egypt journeyed in hopes that the man who believed in both God and science could cure them.

As it happens, I once went to this Jewish Lourdes as a little girl. When I was six, there was a small sleeping area in Rav Moshe, with worn-out mattresses. Anyone who came to be healed was handed a threadbare blanket and a pillow, and perhaps some holy rubbing oil, and urged to go to sleep and wait for the Rambam, as Maimonides was called. As a child, I was terrified of the place: It was so dark and spooky. But legend had it that once you were asleep, Maimonides would visit you in a dream and heal you. I was suffering at the time from a puzzling swelling in my left leg that mystified all the specialists my parents consulted.

I have no idea if Maimonides made one of his "house calls" for me. But I do know that my symptoms abated. My crisp, rational American upbringing in the decades since hasn't entirely cured me of my faith in the unseen hand of Maimonides and his presence in the little temple in the ghetto.

Depending on your outlook it'll either make you smile or cringe to think about what Rav Moshe would think. It should make me cringe but for some reason it's making me smile.

Cross-Currents gets it rights.

Even a Midrash has mazal.

It says in the Zohar* הכל תלוי במזל אפילו ספר תורה שבהיכל, that even a sefer Torah has mazal. Practically speaking this means something like this: you know how in shul there are those three sifrei Torah that have grungy mantles and maybe missing a piece of one of their handles that only get pulled out on Simchas Torah? I don't mean the ones with the gartel on the outside; those are passul and haven't been fixed. Yes, those are the sifrei Torah that can't get no respect.

Anyway, this post really has nothing do with the question of mazal or ein mazal le-yisrael. Putting aside the metaphysical and the philosophical we all know there are the people that get soup spilled on them by waiters and people who don't. Let's call it mazal for fun.

In Reb Gil's very interesting post about the number of Jews that left Egypt a commenter brought up the issue of the 80% of the Jews that died due to their unworthiness for redemption in the plague of darkness. It is one midrashic opinion. Another midrash has it that one in 500,000 - not one in 5 - died. Rashi (btw, his 900th yahrtzeit is this Tammuz/ July) brings the midrash of one in five and that is an example of the lucky midrash. It is accepted as a factual, historical occurrence by many people. Why isn't 1/500,000 so accepted?

My point is not that midrash is often, perhaps nearly always, non-literal or allegorical in some fashion, but that they tend to have no point if taken at face value. To have to even say that is like pointing out that fire is hot. To have to bring sources from the geonim, rishonim and acharonim that make that point ought to be superfluous. Even if not one Torah scholar in 1500 years had said that this is the nature of midrash it should not be necessary to realize that is the case.

Its interesting to read Chumash and as you do try to remember the details not found in the text that you expect to be there. Those are the midrashim with mazal.

*Yes, I know.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Sexuality in the Orthodox community to be studied.

A new program called Tzelem will look at attitudes towards sexuality and halakha in the Orthodox community, as if such a thing existed. Just kidding.

YU, of course.

An adornment for life.

What bas melech wouldn't want to wear this crown? Posted by Hello

This now infamous book hardly needs an introduction. But briefly, it is a sefer that dresses itself as a guide for tznius for women, but more accurately offers halkha with one man's excruciatingly and condescendingly detailed opinions that he wishes would become social norms; without really clearly distinguishing between halakha and neurotica.

Modesty: An Adornment for Life by Pesach Eliyahu Falk includes paragraphs with headings like "Public libraries and their books: danger to children" (pg. 130) and "The wrath of Hashem at eye-catching hair creations" or "A sheitel refined on one woman might not be refined on another" (pg. 247) or "A slit should be sewn up, not just buttoned up" (pg. 324).

An interesting passage appears in brackets on page 56 (spellings in the original):

[ If a woman or girl were to adopt the principle that she will wear whatever can be proven from T'nach or Shas that our Imahos or other nashim tznuos wore, maintaining that such items must be fully tznius'dik, she would be making a serious blunder. Times have changed, and that which was fully acceptable in those times, would be strange and even extremely unrefined when worn in present-day society!

For example, Avraham Avinu sent jewelry with Eliezer his servant to be given to the girl who would be chosen to be the wife of Yitchak. Among the items sent was a nose-ring - see Breishis 24:47. Evidently, in those days a nose-ring was a refined and respectable piece of jewelry. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that, if a woman wore such an ornament within our society, she would be considered a prutza, as she would be adorning herself with something which is ostentatious and extremely unrefined according to present-day norms. This underscores the point stated: places and times differ very much from one another, and one must not assume that everything which is acceptable in one society is likewise acceptable in another.]

Hm. It is interesting that he freely acknowledges the role of social norms. Kol hakavod. I can't really formulate into words what I am thinking about his idea that to wear what the Matriarchs wore would make a woman a prutza. Ouch.

On a totally unrelated note, here are some selections from The Ayatollah's Book of Etiquette.

Censoring the life of the Ramchal on Wikipedia.

There is a very interesing discussion taking place behind the scenes of a Wikipedia article on the Mussar movement.

It seems a user keeps deleting three things about R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato, that he wrote plays in Hebrew and Italian, said he was the messiah and was considered a heretic by many rabbis in his day. Someone does not want this in his biography, others insist that it is ridiculous to leave them out. There is also a disagreement about whether or not his authoring plays in Hebrew and Italian is praiseworthy or embarassing.

Read it all here.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

"Hey Jack!", says the yeshiva bachur.

Chaim Grade, considered by some to be the finest Yiddish novelist of all, was a former yeshiva student in der Lita. His two-part book 'The Yeshiva' is a historical fiction that portrays persons such as the Chazon Ish and R. Aharon Kotler under different names. It is a very interesting book.
In 'Volume II: Masters and Disciples' he writes about American bochurim in the Mirrer Yeshiva
...a group of students had recently come from America. The Americans had money but not a crumb of decorum. In the beth medresh they hung their coats on other people's hangers and threw their galoshes about. There was a fine of at least ten groschen for breaking the ruls, but the Americans laughed and paid twenty. They went around with open jackets and unbuttoned collars. Polka-dotted ties dangled from their necks. They weren't ashamed to hitch up their trousers in public and jingle coins in their pockets. When it was hot they simply took off their jackets. They wore their caps pulled down low over their hard heads, their thick, disheveled shocks of hair hanging down to their eyes. They spoke with chewing gum in their mouths. The Americans found it right and proper to shout to one another, "Hey Jack! Hey, Joe!" and they boxed in middle of the street, jumping around like goats. It wasn't surprising that when an older Mir student saw this, he was so ashamed that he didn't know where to hide.
Of course this is a fictional portrayal, but there is obviously a grain of truth to this, at least a grain of truth in that this is roughly how these young American whippersnapper bachurim were viewed. Its kind of interesting to see that teenagers are teenagers, and even if some of these very same guys called Jack eventually grew up and became serious and wore a beard and kapote and maybe even became some of the latter-day gedolim, or are of those circles.

Two Cheers For ArtScroll

Dinesh D'Souza was a Ronald Reagan staffer and is an Indian immigrant. He is a bit of a starry eyed America enthusiast -- and why shouldn't he be? In his book What's So Great About America he has a chapter called 'Two Cheers For Colonialism', a provocative title. But he explains inside that Colonialism accomplished great good for the colonized societies. For example, in the country of his birth, India. The British built a railroad system and abolished wife burning. India was left stronger and more ready to confront the world than it had been before. But that said, it wasn't shangri la. Colonialism itself, the stealing of an entire land and the creativity and labor of its people, cannot be excused on the grounds of the greater good. D'Souza says that he fully understands that his grandfather, who experienced it, will always resent the British and never see the good. But that aside, some good obviously came of it and it wouldn't have happened otherwise. That is why D'Souza gives two cheers for colonialism. He cannot give it three, because it was bad. But he gives it two for the good it accomplished. Personally, I think one cheer is more appropriate than two, but I get his point. I guess 'One Cheer For Colonialism' would not have sounded right for his point.
Which leads me to ArtScroll, that publishing house that everyone loves or loves to hate. I give ArtScroll two cheers. It cannot get a third cheer for all the hagiography, the books that they'd never translate (Moreh Nevuchim anyone?), the spin they pull on their works etc. But neverthless there is no one who can say that a tremendous amount of effort does not go into their works. And the fact is that they are making a tremendous amount of Torah primary sources available for all. True, their translations and notes spin the texts in ways they'd like. But who else is doing the work? Is Jacob Neusner's Talmud as good as the Schottenstein Edition?
And to the extent that exasperation with ArtScroll has (or will, or should) drive competition to produce alternative, high quality works in English that is a good thing. In short, would all us ArtScroll detractors not see a void were ArtScroll and all its works to disappear? I think we would.
So two cheers for ArtScroll!

Rupture and Reconstruction, again.

Eleven years ago Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Soleveitchik (or Dr. Grach, as someone cleverly calls him) published an article in Tradition 28:4(1994):64-131 called Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy. Judging by the amount of buzz it generated at the time (or so it seems; I was still in high school and not really clued into things like that) and the constant appearance of this article in footnotes ever since, it seems that Rupture and Reconstruction can rightfully be called seminal.

The piece attempted to explain current trends in Orthodoxy in light of the Holocaust as the seminal "rupturing" event in the Jewish world, followed by its "reconstruction" to make the Jewish world of today. Soleveitchik's premise is that pre-Holocaust Orthodoxy was of
mimetic in character. Jews knew how to behave as Jews by learning in the home. No one, except for a scholarly elite, thought about tzitzis, for example. No one wondered what the correct size was. One wore tzitis, shoin. One thousand years of settlement in a place will do that to a society. Then the world was destroyed.

Following the Holocaust, Soleveitchik argues, there has been a (really radical) shift to an Orthodoxy that is not mimetic, but one that gets its norms from texts. Which is not to say that Jews didn't look into halakha seforim before 1945 or anything like that. But the specific issue that he raises to illustrate his point, that of shiurim is illuminating. Basically, before WWII the issue of what is the proper size of a kizayos (and how it pertains to, say, matzah) didn't exist. One knew exactly how much matzah to eat. Every year since you could remember you attended your family seder. Your father ate matzah. His father was their too, or his father-in-law. Everyone knew how much to eat.

In the 18th century it was discovered by certain rabbis that there is good reason to believe that the shiurim are in error, namely because halakhic tradition had it that a kizayos (olive) is half that of a kibeitza (egg). That is demonstrably not the case. Be that as it may, it seems that no one thought about it until the 18th century. Then you had certain rabbis who argued that it must be that "our" olives are smaller than olives in Talmudic times and they advocated a larger, precautionary shiur. The Gra may have eaten more and maybe his students did too, but by and large the issue was roundly ignored. Until the Chazon Ish wrote about it in about 1940. He advocated, basically, a shiur approximately twice that of what was then considered a kizayos. Following the war, as anyone who has any experience in the yeshiva world knows, the Chazon Ish's shiur has basically become the norm. It no longer matters that your fsther, say, doesn't eat that much matzah. Azoy shteit the Chazon Ish. Three thousand years of Jews eating too little matzah is no deterrent; we will eat more otherwise we are not yotze!

Rupture and Reconstruction is not a judgement piece (i.e. disapproving the phenomenon) as some people think it is. It may well be that the Chazon Ish is right in his conclusion, despite what our ancestors ate. It only describes what has occurred in Orthodoxy.

The Holocaust was of such scale and produced such upheaval that afterwards there was basically a possibility of total reinvention. And that is what happened. An example is when American roshei yeshiva from Slobodka were able to reinvent the European yeshiva here in America as they wanted it to be, rather than what it may have actually been.

Everyone should read the article. It seems to describe so much of post-war Orthodoxy and explain it.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Stone Chumash

Golda Leah has an interesting discussion about the Stone Chumash.

Jerusalem is Jerusalem.

In a DovBear comment I wrote that "I always thought it interesting when people would blame the German Jews for saying "Berlin is Jerusalem" when Vilna was called "the Jerusalem of the Lita".

Someone responded to that, saying
Who called Vilna "the Jerusalem of Lita" and why? Who called Berlin "our Jerusalem" and why?

My 12th grade students had to answer that question on the Jewish History midterm I gave them. But they had an advantage in answering that question: they had actually studied Jewish history.

Short answer: In Vilna they longed for Jerusalem. In Berlin they thought they were no longer in galus.

And, while we cannot know exactly why suffering strikes this or that individual, we can say for certain that it is no coincidence the Holocaust started in Berlin.
Now, unlike DovBear I have no interest in singling out this person for a Fisking or a specific entry bashing her, which she does not deserve.

However, I am well aware of the various differences in the state of Western and Eastern European Jewry in the early 20th century. My point was this: Berlin is not Jerusalem. Vilna is not Jerusalem. Jerusalem is Jerusalem.

I was not trying to get eschatological, I was not trying to engage in one of those awful blame-the-Holocaust-on-Jewish-faction-X games. But that is precisely what the blame Berlin argument does and I just pointed out its flipside.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Specious Torah argument game

DovBear has a new game, created by The Hedyot; to make the most specious, badly constructed argument using Torah as you possibly can. It's pure leitzonus and undoubtedly playing it (or finding the thread as funny as it is!) is a highway to hell, but it makes a good point. The arguments being made in pure jest are no less logically sound that plenty of serious claims and arguments made using Torah.


A Karaite Godol. Posted by Hello

After the chasimas ha-talmud all Jews accepted the Talmud, right? Wrong. Many Jews did not accept the Talmud as the natural progression or the authentic codification of Judaism up until that time. They rejected it, either at the behest of one Anan ben David or not, but they were called Karaites. They looked back in history towards the Saducees, the Tzedukim, and said "This Talmudic Judaism (or Rabbinic, as they called it) isn't the only valid, ancient expression of Judaism. Hundreds of years ago there were Tzedukim just like their were Perushim". And they rejected the authority of the Talmud and the idea of the Oral Torah and returned to the Torah itself, or so they thought, much like how early Protestants rejected what they felt were illegitimate accretions to Christianity in the form of Catholicism. They rejected that too and "returned to the Bible", to sola scriptura. The connection was not lost on the Protestants themselves or on the Catholic Church. The Church called the Protestants Karaites. For their part, Protestants felt proud to be viewed as a Christian sort of Karaites.
Be that as it may, Karaite Judaism is not our Judaism, that is to say what can rightfully be called normative Judaism. Even non-halakhic forms of Judaism are offsprings of Talmudic or Rabbinic Judaism. But Karaites exist in small numbers today, and in much larger numbers hundreds of years ago. In the early centuries of the Middle Ages, Karaism posed a viable threat to Rabbinic Judaism in several times and places.
The Karaites, at least originally, rejected a fluid, non-literal interpretation of Torah. No tefillin, no hot food on shabbos (at least until the 15th century), no sex on shabbos (figure that out) et cetera.
Without labeling any specific group of Jews, I contend that there are Jews today who reject a fluid, non-literal interpretation of Talmud. In my conversations and participation in various internet discussions I've encounted Jews who believe that tannaim could literally revive the dead (or the late Rimnitzer Rebbe for that matter!). That there were once a species of primate that was attached to the earth by an umbilical cord. That hepatitis can be cured by placing a pigeon on the bellybutton. That each and every ma'amar chazal has only one meaning: the literal, often shallow meaning of the words themselves, no matter if idiom was employed or the context makes clear that a different meaning or meanings is intended.
I think these Jews are fraknly neo-Karaites, Talmudic Karaites -- Talmudites. They have codified and canonized and tranformed Torah she-ba'al peh into another, competing Torah she-bichtav. Worse, they have ignored the many lush ways that the meforshim and poskim throughout the ages have interpreted and viewed the Talmud. Please note: I am not talking about the traditional, central role of the Talmud or the normal Jewish view of the Talmud. I am talking about people who seem to go over and beyond, who have virtually created for themselves a second Written Torah.
Now, I realize that there is a huge practical distinction between them and the actual Karaites. For one, the fact that they have turned the Talmud into Scripture does not really impact their halakhic observance, which is unimpeachable. So I don't think Talmudic Karaism is going to drift away anytime soon, into a sect of Jews on the outside. In fact, they may gain the strength of the upper hand, if they haven't already.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Help, I'm illiterate!

I got an email from a guy who had the following to say (posted with permission, details removed per instruction)

I am illiterate. Ok, not really. I'm talking about Hebrew. I can read it but I can barely understand it. Sure, I know tons of Hebrew words and I can pick through a piece in a sefer if I'm lucky. But how is it possible that after 14 years of yeshiva education I am not fluent in Hebrew? Forget about not being able to easily translate, I am dependent on English translations to learn! It is so easy to blame others so I will take some responsibilty myself. Of course I wasn't the best student or the best bachur. But I can't help blaming others too. How could no one have realized that I didn't know what was flying? They say that adults who are illiterate figure out all kinds of ways to fool others from shame. I managed that in yeshiva, I manage it now. Its not like I can't learn since there is so much in English. But my experience is awful. I feel like whatever learning I do is inauthentic and that there is a glass ceiling that I will never rise above. I can't imagein there aren't other people in this boat. Why did they expect us to figure out the code for anything of value in Jewish learning through osmosis? We aren't amoebas!
It goes without saying that after more than a dozen years in an educational environment no one should be illiterate. In fact, its a scandal if its even one but I suspect its just a bit more than one. I don't have a lot of advice to give this person other than to transform his frustration and desire into action, to work hard and learn. The advice I gave him was to get himself a good dictionary and a Hebrew translation of a book he is already familiar with and try to work them together and to keep persisting.



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