Monday, January 04, 2021

Are we the new Saduccess?

A black preacher opened the new congressional term with a prayer that included a pun, and because the pun suggested some support for "woke" values like  tolerance, inclusion and equality, a horde of GOP Jews, led by Ben Shapiro, are now acting like they don't understand how language works.

Here is how the preacher concluded his prayer:
“We ask it in the name of the monotheistic God, [unintelligible], and God known by many names and by many different faiths, amen, and awoman,”
And here is how Ben Shapiro, noted Talmudic scholar, demonstrated his inability to recognize or appreciate puns.
"Amen" is a Biblical Hebrew word: אמן. It is a word simply meaning "may it be so." It has nothing to do with the word "man" or "woman" because it is FROM HEBREW. This is some of the dumbest s*** I have ever seen in my life.
And here is why I think all of this suggests the Ben Shapiros of the world are a bunch of Nuevo Sadducees.

The Talmud, you see, is full of puns. Many of these puns are used to support what men of the ancient world would have considered woke, or progressive values. The most famous example of them all might be the passage on Shabbat 104:
The Sages said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: Young students came today to the study hall and said things the likes of which were not said even in the days of Yehoshua bin Nun. T

Alef bet means learn [elaf] the wisdom [bina] of the Torah. Gimmel dalet means give to the poor [gemol dalim].
If there was a sneering Ben Shapiro in the wings, shouting "Those are letters. They have nothing to do with poverty or wisdom. This is some of the dumbest s*** I have ever seen in my life," the Talmud doesn't mention him. This is because much of what the Talmud records is radical, not reactionary. Using a play on language to support and advance messages of love, peace and understanding is radical. Its the 
sort of thing you do when you're the underdog, shut out of the national institutions and rejected by the establishment. Its the sort of thing you need to do when you're a black preacher, and its the sort of thing you mock when you're a comfortable member of the establishment, secure in your privilege, seeing no need for any changes. 

Of course, there were no Sadducees in 250 CE when Yehoshua ben Levi was active , but objecting to novel or "woke" ways of reading scripture is something Sadducees were known to do.  Today, we say they were "denying the Oral law" but what they were actually doing was denying new (or new seeming) interpretations of the written law that threatened their status. Its easy to frame Shapiro's dispute with the preacher in the same terms. The preacher wants people to think about inclusiveness, so he offers a pun on the word "Amen." Sadducee Shapiro feels threatened by ideas of inclusiveness so he acts oblivious to the pun, and instead pretends that the preacher is ignorant of the truths of biblical vocabulary. 


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Kotzo shel Yud by Yehuda Leib Gordon

Hebrew woman, who knows your life?
You were born in obscurity and in obscurity will you depart,
Your woes and your joys, your hopes and desires
Are born within you, and inside you they die.
The earth and its fullness, all pleasure and comfort
Are vouchsafed to daughters of other nations.
But the life of a Jewess is perpetual servitude,
Never leaving her store to go one place or another;
You conceive, give birth, you nurse, you wean,
You bake and you cook, and prematurely — you wither.

This is the opening stanza of Kotzo shel Yud by Yehuda Leib Gordon (d 1892)

The full version of the poem can be found here, with a nice translation by Stanley Nash. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020


Pet Peeve.
When rich people contribute a dollar amount and expect everyone else to contribute the same dollar amount without seeming to realize how math works.
For example, let's say a rich guy's nut is 10k per month, and thanks to his success and acumen he has an extra 10K per month lying around. That $500 donation is 5% of his disposable income for the month.
Now let's look at the normal guy. Say his nut is 7k per month, and he has 1k left over at the end of the month. The rich guy says "fair is fair, let's all give $500" but for the normal guy that's 50% of his disposable income.
Any thoughts on how to teach rich people computations?

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Why did God agree to banish Hagar?

On the first day of Rosh Hashana, we read about the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. In the received text Sarah urges Abraham to do something unthinkable, and God co-signs the suggestion. 

As per always, the sages were alert to this problem. Let's examine the brilliant solution. 

In the Midrash (Pirkei de-R. Eliezer 29), Judah b. Tema states: "Sarah said to Abraham, 'Write a bill of divorce (get gerushin) for the handmaid, and send away this handmaid." In the Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan), "He sent her away" is rendered "He dismissed her with a bill (gitta)."

As a man of means in the ANE Abraham could have done basically anything he wanted. He could have kept Hagar around as a concubine. He could have added her to a harem. He could have sold her into slavery. But in this midrash, at least, Sarah is having none of that. She says, "Do this right, and by the book. Make sure she is free and clear. Don't make this sad situation worse. Release her fully, completely."

And God's response to this urging from Sarah? "Listen to your wife"

Trump downplayed Covid repeatedly

Here is a Tweet published by the President one month after he told Woodward he knew Covid was worse than the flu and very deadly. Right before Purim

Imagine he had told the truth, instead of putting his own interests first. Imagine this Tweet said "I've known for a month Covid is very deadly and more dangerous than the flu. Please wear masks and limit your social interactions"

Imagine he had behaved responsibly and presidentialy and unselfishly. 

Imagine the saved lives among his OJ admirers, of whom far too many contracted the disease a few days later and died during the first weeks of April.

Why aren't you shaking with anger?

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

A few thoughts about the radical, remarkable, audacious Seder Ha'Avoda, by Ishay Ribo.

I have a few things to say about Seder Ha'Avoda, an amazing reworking and reimagining of the Yom Kippur liturgy by Ishay Ribo. 

First a brief review for the uninitiated. Every Yom Kippur afternoon we recite a liturgy that recreates the High Priest's service. We recite the sacrifices he brought, the confessions he made, and the response of the crowd. It is the centerpiece of the service.

When the High Priest sacrifices, he splashes blood on the altar and counts:

One and one
One and two
One and three, etc

He's counting blood splashes, the splashes of blood that, for various reasons are believed and imagined to effectuate Atonement.

In Ribo's song, the Avoda is told over, but there is no sacrifice. The High Priest makes his confession with the same words that appear in the liturgy:

And thus he would say: “O Lord! Grant atonement for the sins, transgressions, and iniquities which I sinned before you – I and my household.

But when the time comes to count, there is no blood and no splashing. In a beautiful rhyme and rhythm that could only work in Hebrew, Ribo tells us what the crowd, or perhaps the priest himself, is counting:

And if one could recall the flaws, the deficiencies, all the sins and transgressions surely he would count thus: One, one and one, one and two, one and three, one and four, one and five…” and right away he would be ashamed, unable to bear the bitter taste of sin, the shame, the missed opportunity, the loss.

Instead of blood, the priest (or the people) are counting their failures, their sins, their shortcomings, their missed opportunities.

And the crowd responds with the words exactly as they appear in the liturgy:

Then the priests and the people standing in the courtyard, when they heard the name, the explicit Name come out from the mouth of the High Priest, would bow and prostrate themselves, falling on their face ‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!

Next, comes the second confession and the second count. And while the confession is again verbatim, the count is different yet again:

And if one could recall all the loving-kindness, the goodness, the compassion, and the salvations surely he would count thus: “One, one and one, one and two, one of a thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of wonderous miracles you have done for us day and night.

And again the people answer in the exact words of the liturgy:

Then the priests and the people standing in the courtyard, when they heard the name, the explicit Name come out from the mouth of the High Priest, would bow and prostrate themselves, falling on their face: ‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!

The idea here is that Atonement comes from within. We must recognize for ourselves what we have done wrong and recognize for ourselves all that has gone right and engage with both the good and the bad honestly, without vanity or depression, and through this exercise of introspection, a form of Atonement can begin.

This is a new idea, and not what the authors of the liturgy had in mind. They wanted us to remember the pageantry of the Avoda because for them it was witnessing the pageantry itself - the sacrifice and the confessions - that initiated Atonement.

But for Ribo, the idea is modern. We aren't made better by looking outward. We're made better by looking inward.

In the song, both counts are overwhelming. The count of failures is crushing, but the crowd comes to the rescue screaming ‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever! The next count is equally shattering, but this count of blessings is a celebration and again the crowd provides the momentum screaming the same words ‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!'

For better or for worse. For good or for bad.

‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!'

Either way

‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!'

In sickness or in health, for richer or for poorer

‘Blessed be the name of the glory of his kingdom forever and ever!'

And that unconditional response is the beginning of love which is the beginning of Atonement. Loving yourself. Your sins. Your blessings.

To tie this radical idea to something so old, and so revered is nothing short of audacious. And in Ribo's audacity, we have a great gift, because by changing the idea of the Avoda he has given someone who is modern in his thinking a way to connect and find meaning in something old and foreign to contemporary sensibilities. And the miracle is this: his change feels more like a discovery, an uncovering of the essence of the service, rather than an audacious update. (when I think about what is good abut Hasidut, I think about how the great Hasidic masters worked the same trick of making radical changes and updates seem like the uncovering of the original idea.) 

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The Uman Pilgrimage is Just Wrong: Here are 20 reasons

1. It's wrong to go somewhere women aren't welcome.
2. It's wrong to split up your family during the holiday
3. It's wrong to force your sons to go to shul without you
4. It's wrong to leave your wife to handle the holiday alone
5. It's wrong to expect a ghost to intervene with God on your behalf
6. It's wrong to leave Israel for the holiday
7. It's wrong to lower your personal standard of behavior on Rosh Hashana
8. It's wrong to jeopardize your opportunity to say the long erev RH slichos because you were traveling
9. It's wrong to endanger your chances of praying with a minyan on erev Rosh Hashana because you were traveling
10. It's wrong to pray with a looser, less serious minyan that starts later and has a long kiddush davka on Rosh Hashana
11. It's wrong to pray to dead rabbis
12. It's wrong to ask a dead rabbi to act as your personal defense lawyer
13. It's wrong to have a mystical jamboree on someone's grave
14. It's wrong to spend Rosh Hashana drinking, weed-smoking and whoring
15. It's wrong to empower and enrich the crime bosses who control many of Uman's private plane and bus charters and the sale of marijuana.
16. It's wrong to go into debt to fund this trip to a carnival.
17. It's wrong to seek God through simple faith and joy.
18. It's wrong to imagine a trip to Uman will deliver a good living, answers to your questions, and a happy life.
19. It's wrong to replace the effort and the struggle that goes into character growth and repentance with a party trip to a grave
20. It's wrong to run to Uman to escape the hardships of life

Monday, September 07, 2020

Why do Breslov Hasidim Slander their Rebbe?

As depicted by his fiercest followers,  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov does not seem like an especially nice man. 

He is said to posses the wonderous power to appear on our behalf before the Supreme judge, and the ability to persuade that Judge to change his mind regarding our fate, yet this lawyerly service is available only to those who travel to Uman? What kind of petty saint is this? Is he a chasidic master or Uman's minister of tourism? Why shouldn't he be able to lawyer for every Jew, indeed for every person, in the world, no matter where they are found? Why wouldn't he want to? Why would he be so stingy with his gift?

It seems a slander for his followers to present him this way and I invite you join me in rejecting the notion that he is actually as ungenerous as this.

Now of course dead tzadikim don't intercede for anyone. The idea violates common sense and clear principle of our faith 

But if you're going to make up a story about a corpse having magic powers at least don't make him stingy and selfish about using them!!

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

I married a Jew.

What does a rational and reasonable anti-Semite sound like? Now there is a question worth asking in the age of Trump! In this article from 1939 (!), a Hitler-sympathizing German American calmly and politely explains why her Jewish American husband is wrong about almost everything.

Wonder how this happy couple ended up, once Hitler's intentions became impossible to wink at?

Here's a taste:
Of course we eventually come to Hitler, Ben and I. In the eyes of Ben, as in the eyes of all his people, Hitler stands for the Jewish equivalent of the Antichrist—a little, strutting monster whose sole purpose and pleasure in life is to flog, imprison, impoverish, humiliate, and plague Israel. Few history books trace the path of persecutions against the Jews as they have occurred throughout the ages. They have occurred in ancient Rome, Poland, Russia, Spain, England, and France, usually whenever Jewry becomes too numerous and too powerful, whenever it becomes, in the eyes of Gentiles, a threat, potential or actual, to Gentile supremacy. I try to tell Ben that Hitler is merely writing another page in a history that will continue so long as the status quo between Jews and Gentiles remains—a status that only the willing shoulders of both protagonists can remove. 
But it is hard for Ben to take the long view. He looks upon Hitler as something malignantly unique, and it is no use trying to tell him that a hundred years hence the world will no more call Hitler a swine for expelling the Jews than it does Edward I of England, who did the same thing in the thirteenth century—an expulsion that remained in strict effect until the time of Cromwell, because a hundred years hence another country will be having its Jewish problem

"'Mother,' I said quietly, 'remember the greatest Man who ever lived was a Jew – Jesus.' That held her for a minute. 'Yes,' she murmured, 'it is the great paradox.'"

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

New religion

I am willing to bet the Vilna Goan, the Bal Shem Tov and the Chofetz Chaim all sat next to women on train and stagecoach rides. How can we prove it? 

Because these idiots and their new fangled notions of piety aren't helping anyone.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Magic of Uman

This guy I know is bright. If a test showed he was smarter than me I'd believe it. No problem. He's also rich and mostly self-made (Let's ignore the childhood privilege, the advantages his parents bought him, and the lucky breaks) which gives him a bit of the wrong kind of confidence to go with his brains.

Anyway, he's convinced that there is something magical in the air in places like Sefad and Uman that cause him to feel a certain way (he calls this holiness.) When I suggest that he feels the way that he feels in Uman due to his upbringing and education he counters that there is no rational reason for him to enjoy being in a smelly stink hole like Uman. Therefore the cause must be the invisible magic things in the air that he is perceiving through an invisible antenna.

Naturally, I found this absurd until it occurred to me that I might be making the same mistake the rich guy is making. See, I like going to Uman or the graves of tzadikim for the exact same reason I like to go to museums or football games, ie something about how I'm wired makes the experience pleasurable. So I assumed that it's the same for everyone. But how do I know that? Perhaps he's experiencing something radically and quantifiable different in Uman? Perhaps if I had that same experience I would agree that it couldn't possibly be the product of outlook and education!

Here is what I would like to subject to a test...

a) I experience Safed and Uman the same way I experience museums and football games; I and I believe that is due to the forces that have shaped my personality, including education and upbringing, I find the experience pleasurable. 

b) My friends and others like him discount this and say that the experiences are not identical. As a result, they hypothesize magic. We can't test for magic; however...

C) My hypothesis is that people like them experience Uman and Safed in a way that is radically and quantifiably different from the way that I experience it. 

This is what I would like to test. How to do it?

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Were the rules of morality altered?

Following is a short list of some of the pleasures the Torah permits but were proscribed over the last few thousand years thanks to the accumulation of Jewish piety.

1 - Chicken pizza (At least according to Rav Yosi Haglili, a first-century sage, who allowed fowl and milk to be eaten together.)

2 - Kitniyos on Pesach

3 - Multiple wives

4 - Concubines.

5 - Premarital sex (Hard to prove, I know, but I think there's an early consensus that this is permitted, technically, so long as the woman has been to the mikva)

6 - Slaves

And how's this for bizarre - if I, today, were to take a concubine, or a second wife, or a slave, my morality would be denounced, and leading the pack of denouncers would be the sort of people who swear and insist that morality never changes!.

It's really a puzzle for us relativists. The evidence of history is that we've always been content to let morals shift and slide, even - sorry, no especially- within the major religions. 

So how do the people who say that morality is absolute and never changing explain this?  Why can't I take a slave? Were the rules of morality altered?

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Yair Hoffman is a joke

Pro-menuval propagandist Yair Hoffman thinks a questionable line in a speech is the same as gaslighting the entire world for four years - if not worse.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Uman Loves Trump

Is it just me or do you also see a double standard when it comes to how Jews who love both Trump and Uman organize reality? 

Trump Jews on Participation Trophies:
They are terrible! They give you a false sense of achievement and discourage you from putting in the time and work that is necessary to actually accomplish anything

Trump Jews on Uman:
Just Participate! Go to Uman and you're automatically forgiven, redeemed, rescued, saved and delivered.


Trump Jews on Government Freebies:
They breed dependence! People just prefer to remain on assistance and make no real effort to improve their lives!

Trump Jews on Uman:
Invisible, super-dead Rabbi Nachman will do all the work. All you have to do is go and enjoy!


Trump Jews on Israel:
It is the holiest, best most important place in the world!!!

Trump Jews on Uman:
... um, except on Rosh Hashana

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Sunday, July 05, 2020

Books our Rabbis would ban if they could

Here's my shortlist of terribly subversive books the people in charge of Orthodox Judaism would ban if they could.

Banned Books Week Public Service Announcements | News and Press Center

The Limits of Orthodox Theology by Mark Shapiro
Reason: It demonstrates that Judaism isn't a monolith by proving conclusively that many of the principles we take for granted as essential to Orthodoxy were emphatically denied by some of the great Rabbis.

The Faith of the Mithnagdim: Rabbinic Responses to Hasidic Rapture by Alan Nadler
Paints an unflattering picture of the early Hasidic leaders, while demonstrating how the movement developed historically. Also, it reminds us of a Litvish set of attitudes we'd prefer to forget existed.

The Guide for the Perplexed by Moses Miamonides
Banned in its own time for all sorts of reasons, the book should be prohibited today because it denies the Torah True rule of NO COINCIDENCES

The Bible As It Was by James Kugel
Any of this author's books should be banned. I've highlighted this one because it helps us see how midrashim originated and developed (i.e. not via an unbroken tradition from Sinai)

The Minor Prophets The minor prophets are out because they wasted pages preaching about social justice with hardly a word of complaint about skirt lengths.

Why Evolution Is True by Jerry A. Coyne
Aside for the business about evolution, the book contains lots of two and three-syllable words and relies on non Torah True methods such as logic and empiricism

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews -- A History by James Carrol
Now that the Christians are reliable Zionists and our best friends ever, we would prefer you not recall how they butchered, and debased, and afflicted, and harrased, and humiliated, and tormented us for almost 2000 years. What matters now is that we all hate Muslims.
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Wednesday, June 03, 2020

What brings Moshiach

The most basic Jewish idea of Moshiach, that is the core belief found in most, if not all the interpretations, predictions and writings on the subject, is that when Moshiach arrives (whatever that means; more below) things are going to be GOOD. However...

-We don't know what laws or practices will be brought back, or discontinued.

-We don't know if life will change dramatically with a new supernatural order being introduced, or if things will carry on pretty much as they did before.

-We don't even know if the Temple service will be restored.

(Authorities argue about all three of these points; but, as you know, their predictions have no influence over how reality, over time, unfolds.)

In fact, if we're going to be honest and precise, we don't even know if "Messiah" is an authentic Jewish idea going back to Sinai. The whole thing might be the invention of disappointed, impatient and tired-of-being-persecuted Jews during the Persian or Greek periods.[*]

All we do know, and I mean really **know**, is this one thing: Whenever a Jewish thinker made a prediction, or shared a deduction about Moshiach he always, always, always predicted or deduced that things post-Moshiach would be GOOD.

So let's go with that. In fact... maybe Moshiach doesn't come on a donkey. Maybe "Moshiach" is a word to describe the goodness that results as mankind gets its act together. I don't know if we're there yet, but our Southern States are certainly closer to Moshiach then they were when Jim Crow was the rule of their land. We may have miles to go, but Russia is closer than it was 30 years ago, isn't it?

As mankind improves, and puts away its ancient prejudices and pettiness, aren't we getting closer to the GOOD? Might that be what's meant by Moshiach? People getting along, and treating one another with justice?

Moshiach may not appear in the Pentateuch or the Prophets, but this idea that Zion is only redeemed with justice, and that we're all going to suffer until the widow and the orphan are treated properly is everywhere in those books. Everywhere.

[*] I am aware the Talmud and virtually every Jewish thinker of note - from the Mishna on - thought Moshiach was an old, old Jewish idea. However, what can't be denied is that no mention of him appears until Daniel (though hints are discovered in other books) and that nothing overt is said about him, or what he will do anywhere in the Hebrew bible. If you're of a skeptical bent, this is strange and troubling, and perhaps strongly suggestive of something at least quasi heretical.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Who do we consider essential to a minyan?

It's time to get serious. In some areas, shuls are beginning to open up, but seats are limited. The rule is only 10 people per room. Who gets in and who doesn't?

As a DovBear service, here's a quick guide to the men who are not Minyan Essential.

You have this tremendous yetzer hara to pray less, which is fine, only you dishonestly support it with this show of fake respect for Rabbis no one has ever heard about.  You and your stupid pocket calendar of celebrity yartzeits can stay home.

Dude, we need 10 people here until the end. If you can't commit to stay until the end of the last Kaddish we don't need you.

This is the best, and possibly only song, ever written about a minyan. Give a Listen

First, you disturb the davening more than the talkers. Second, we haven't seen each other in months. If you can't tolerate a little catching up do your blood pressure a favor and stay home

Of course, your shul mask must be black

Nobody likes you.

We understand you are only able to relax when the room temperature is precisely between 70 and 72 degrees. We also feel you'll be more comfortable at home.

Stay home, and put out a yard sign that says "I am very holy and studious." Same effect

Look, we just want to daven together. If you send out your dumb and angry emails complaining that mincha should be 10 minutes after candles, not 11, you're going to murder the vibe.

There are only ten of us. For this minyan to work, we all need to pull our weight.

Who did I forget?

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