Friday, December 30, 2005

Oy Chanuka

As we head into Shabbos Chanuka, I thought you might like some provocative thoughts to share at your dinner table. [Note: DovBear takes no responsibility for horrified grandmothers or furious father-in-laws. Use these factoids at your own risk.]

(1) Chanuka and Freedom
Politicians, conservative columnists, and reform Rabbis often call Chanuka "The Festival of Religous Freedom." They are 180 degrees from the truth. As soon as the Greeks were gone, the Macabees set up a monarchy, which is harldy conducive to freedom as the word is understood today. The Mighty Macs were fighting not for religious freedom, but for the right to practice their own understanding of their own religion. They had no intention of providing freedoms of any kind to other faiths, or even to co-religionists who might have wanted to practice a different sort of Judaism. Hasidim or Reformers, for example, would have been most unwlecome in MacabeeLand.

(2) The Dreidal
The old story about the Jews who concealed their Torah-learning during the Greek persecutions by playing driedal is 100 percent true. Only our ancestors used an 9-sided top, not a four-sided top, and instead of having one letter each for the phrase "[A] Great Miracle Happened There," the letters on the ancient Judean dreidal were an acronym for : [A] Great Miracle [is] Going [to] Happen Here Pretty Soon, We Think."

Actually, the game began in Europe with letters corresponding to the German words like Nichts(nothing) Halv (Half) Gans (all) , etc.) Later the Jews made this game their own, and added the nes godol part.

(3) The Bes Yosef's Question
If the Macabees had sufficient oil for one day, why is Chanuka 8 days long, and not 7? Well, according to the book of Maccabees, we keep Chanuka for 8 days, because the Hashmoneans were celebrating a late Sukot. During the Greek occuupation, Jews couldn't get to the Temple to perform the sacrifices and rituals. After driving the enemy from Jerusalem, the Maccabees invited everyone to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday they'd most recently missed: Sukkot. In fact, the book of Maccabees doesn't even call the festival Chanuka. Instead, it refers to the holiday as Sukkot B'kislev -December Sukkot. And Sukkot (as it was celebrated in Temple Times, together with Shmini Atzeres) is an 8-day celebration.

Fun fact: There were lulavim at the first Chanuka: And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. 7: Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place.

(4) The Miracle of the Oil
The only miracle discussed in Macabees is the military victory, the same miracle we talk about in the Al HaNissim. The small jug of oil first appears in the Talmud, codified about 600 years after the events of Chanuka. In the interim, a variety of rabbinic stories were told to answer the questions: (1) Why do we light candles on Hanukah? (2) Why is Hanukah 8 days? As you'll see, these stories show how the relationship between the Rabbis and the Hashmoneans changed over time:

"[At Hanukah] we commemorate the dedication of the Temple by the Hasmoneans who fought and defeated the Hellenists, and we kindle lights -- just as when [we] finished the Tabernacle in the Wilderness . . . ." (Pesikta Rabbati, ch. 6)

"Why do we kindle lights on Hanukah? Because when the sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priest, defeated the Hellenists, they entered the Temple and found there eight iron spears. They stuck candles on them and lit them." (Pesikta Rabbati ch. 2)

"Why did the rabbis make Hanukah eight days? Because . . . the Hasmoneans entered the Temple and erected the altar and whitewashed it and repaired all of the ritual utensils. They were kept busy for eight days. And why do we light candles? Because . . . when the Hasmoneans entered the Temple there were eight iron spears in their hands. They covered them with wood and lit candles on them. They did this each of the 8 days." (Megilat Ta'anit ch. 9)

"What is Hanukah? When the Hellenists entered the Temple, they desecrated all of the oil. And when the Hasmonean dynasty grew and defeated them, they searched but found only one cruse of oil sealed with the stamp of the High Priest, and there was only enough in it to burn for one day. A miracle happened and it burned for eight days. The next year they made these days a fixed annual commemoration . . ." (TB Shabbat 21b; also Schol. Megilat Taanith 25 Kislev)

Why did the story change from a glorification of the military victory, to an oil miracle?

One easy answer (and beware of easy answers) is that the Rabbis wanted to demphasize the majesty of the Hasmoneans after they (the Hashmoneans) either (1) joined forces with the Sadducees and/or (2) presided over a civil war (ca. 67-61 BC) during which perhaps more than 100,000 Jews were killed. Support for this answer appears on the same page of Talmud where the oil miracle is first mentioned. On Shabbat 21b the Rabbis tell you that "in times of danger" Chanuka candles can be lit on a table: in other words, don't be a martyr like Judah and his brothers. Risking your life for the sake of Chanuka is not needed.

A second easy answer (same caveat) is that the Rabbis were wary of capricious rulers, and thought it wise to stay silent about that time we rose up and overthrew the ruling powers.

A third answer might seem more familiar to American Jews. The Mishnah has some brief references to the rules for Chanuka , indicating that by the end of the second century C.E. there was already a custom of kindling lights at the darkest period of the year. This was a custom that may have been imported from the northern latitudes during Roman rule -- perhaps in imitation of the Roman Saturnalia observances. Sometime between then and the completion of Gemara, the celebration of lights assumed greater significance and, just as today we elevate the observance of Chanuka in order to offset the influence of Christmas, the rabbis of the Talmud may have built up the idea of a miracle connected with lights, to show Jews that we had our own basis for a solstice observance.

Which is the right answer? No clue. Its one of the mysteries.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Chanukah on Union Square

What happens when Thomas Hawk covers the Menorah lighting on Union Square in San Francisco? You get georgeous shots like this one.

The Esav Enigma

Yaakov Menken:

Dai. Enough. What Mrs. Katz said [about Esav being the archtype for evil] was a simple matter that we all know to be part of Jewish tradition, and hardly one to continue harping upon.

Nice try, Yaakov, but the midrash isn't a monolith. The great majority of agadic wisdom is contested by other parts of the agada. A great example from last week's parsha: The 12 sons of Jacob married their sisters, right? Well, no, not according to Rav Nechamia, who says they married Canaanite women, the same sort of Canaanite women who gave their grandfather Abraham night terrors and cold sweats.

The teaching about Esav's absolute evil is also contested, as follows:

Statements about Esav that are not completely negative

Gen. Rabbah 65:16 (No one honored his father better than Esav)

Gen Rabbah 67:4 (Jacob was wrong to make Esav cry by taking his blessing, and he was later punished for this via the loud cry issued by his decendant Mordechai)

Avot de-Rabbi Nathan: 47, 130 (Esav shed three tears when Jacob took his blessing, the first two caused the destruction of each temple, and the third temple won't be restored until the third tear dries.)

There may be plenty more, but this is all I came across in six seconds of searching.


Ok, now, let's get serious: Why do we, in 2005 think that Esav's link with Rome and anti-semitism is an undisputed fact of Jewish life? Answer: Rabininc polemics.

Before Esav could be linked with anti-Semitism, he needed to be linked with Christians. And before he could be linked with Christians he needed to be linked with Rome. That first occured in the second century.

Esav appears as a stand-in for Rome only after the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.). Until then Esav was generally just a symbol of godlessness and bad stuff, inspired, most likely, by that verse at the beginning of Malachi. Before the Bar Kokhba Revolt, there's no specific equation of Esav with Rome. (Incidentally, early Christianity also depicts Esav as godless, rejected, and bad: a significant point because the earliest Christians were virtually indistinguishable from Jews.)

As to why he became equated with Rome at that point, the answer's clear: Beitar marked the end of a century-long Roman war against the Jews, the most grevious violence against the Jewish people until the Final Solution. (That's the social and political context often missing when we study aggada) The ratio of Jewish dead in turn-of-the-century Palestine may well approximate one in three. Notably, the first sources to equate Esav with Rome are following the BK Revolt, when the Jews began to write about their defeat at the hands of Rome and to interpret it. Like all violated and defeated people, they also demonized their vanquishers, in the language of their "street," which as you might imagine, was spiritual. (If you listen carefully, you can even hear echos of this in the way that conquered Palestenians speak of Jews)

Two of the first agadic links of Esav and Rome
Lamentations Rabba 2:4:
R. Yochanan said: The voice is the voice of Jacob (Gen. XXVII, 22)--the voice [of distress caused by] the Emperor Hadrian, who slew eighty thousand myriads of human beings at Beitar. (If the voice was Jacob, it follows that Esav was the hands.)

Tanhuma Terumah 3,
In an imagined exchange between R. Akiva and Tinneius Rufus, the Roman tyrant specifically links himself with Esav and the proof-text from Malachi: "Why does the Holy One so hate us that He wrote, ‘But I hate Esau’?" The fact that R. Akiba was there tells us it couldn't have been long after the revolt. It should be remembered however, that Rufus was no Christian.

To sum up:
The idea that Esav (formerly just a generic bad guy with some redeeming qualities) was Rome appears to have entered the popular imagination after Beitar. Later, when Rome became Christian, the Christians appear to have inherited the negative distinction. This was done by people who needed to explain their defeat in spiritual terms. It was a way of saying, "Ok. We got our heads handed to us in this world, but upstairs, where it counts, God likes us more."

Answering Ezzie

Ezzie says:

Beware of secular liberals. Many would like to see all expressions of religion abolished.

I strongly disagree.

No liberal wants to take God away from you. That's a conservative shibboleth. The secular liberal agenda is not atheisim, cynicm, and mandatory French education in the public schools. The secular liberal agenda is freedom, ie: the right to choose any religion and any lifestyle you like. The liberal doesn't favor a godless vacuum. He favors choice. Worship God as you see fit. Live your life as you like. So long as you aren't hurting anyone, it isn't the state's business.

The RW Christians are the ones with the opposite intent. They are the ones busy trying to shove something down our throats, ie: their religion. And though some of their agenda might be compatible with Judaism, overwhelmingly it isn't.

To begin with, Christianity is false. The idea that God took human form is a lie. Though occasionally the other teachings of Christianity overlap with Judaism, at bottom it is idol worship, and much of it is incongruous with Torah Judaism - including its teachings on abortion and homosexuality. The sages have, for 2000 years, warned against lowering our guard around Christians. We're forbidden to eat their bread, or drink their wine, or enter their churches. The Jew (Prager) who urges us to admire their decorations, or the Jew (Krauthammer) who suggests that Christmas "enlarges" us is only a small half-step behind the Jew (Prelutsky) who hungers for faster and easier assimilation:
Although it seems a long time ago, it really wasn't, that people who came here from other places made every attempt to fit in. Assimilation wasn't a threat to anyone – it was what the Statue of Liberty represented.
Folks like Ezzie in the media and the ministry often argue that "no religion" is the alternative to "robust Christianity. This is a false choice. We aren't being asked to choose between religiona nd atheism. We're being asked to choose between Christianity and Freedom.

And smart Jews choose freedom every time.

A DovBear Proposal

The chief complaint against me, as a blogger, is that I am insufficiently differential to the president. For example, many of you think it is perfectly ok for the president of the United States to operate outside of the law. "After all," says the typical Republican reader of DovBear, "He was anointed by God and is incapable of error."

Now, I admit this might not be the very best justification for the president's illegal activities. For all I know, there might be better ways to defend the president's right to do whatever the hell he wants to anybody who might be acquainted with somebody associated with terror. I just have not heard those arguments.

So in the interest of fair play, I present a DovBear proposal: If you think I've been unfair to the president, you are invited to ride to his rescue. Compose a guest post explaining why laws don't apply to presidents who aren't named Bill, and I will publish it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

And I though my readers were smart.

Something's wrong when a parody post gets angry comments from people who obviously didn't get the joke. So let me spell it out: My post about being annoyed at gentiles was a satire of O'Reilly and the Fox News Network.

The second paragraph of my post should have been a dead giveway.

Ah well.

The Feldman Waiver

Emmanuel Feldman appears a bit hypocritical this afternoon. The good Rabbi from Atlanta has spent his life chattering professionally from the pulpit about morality, decency and respect for the law, but now says he is perfectly cool with illegal spying:

"So the government has been intruding into our private lives by listening in to our telephones and our emails. The howls of protest are inevitable, but we need to remember that this transcends the legal issue of constitutional rights of privacy. We are at war-and with an enemy that will destroy us if we do not defend ourselves by every possible means. I, for one, am willing to give up some of my liberties temporarily so that all of my liberties in this blessed land are not destroyed permanently."
So much for rule of law.

Anyway, Manny's made two mistakes here:

First, why is he so certain that the abolishment of civil liberties is "temporary?" Does he have a guarantee from the president that he'll go back to respecting the constitution once the war on"terra" is over? Is it notarized? Can we see it?

Second, the N.S.A (the agency behind the spying) always had the privilege of spying on Americans suspected of having terrorist connections - but first the spooks had to get a warrant from the Foreign intelligence Surveillance Court. Since its inception in 1978 the court has granted almost 19,000 warrants and turned down just 5. So why did Bush direct the N.S.A to go around the court? Why did Bush illegally and unilaterally decide that warrants were no longer needed? Why is he unnecessarily expanding executive power?

Does this make you nervous? It terrifies me, but if you are more confident, I have a proposal for you (borrowed from here.)

If you (Chaim, Ezzie, Bloghd, Naphtuli, TobyKatz, YaakovMenken, CWY, Heshy, Lkwdguy, Dude, etc.) are so gosh-darn certain that W and his cronies are kind, benignant, and immune to all forms of error and corruption, I propose you sign and return the Feldman Waiver:

I, ___________________, hereby waive any rights of privacy in my person, property, association, thought and/or expression that I have, had or claim to have under the federal and state constitutions, statutory law or regulation of the United States or any political subdivision thereof, decisional law, common law and/or any other source of authority, real or imagined, to the extent the waiver of such rights is, in the sole judgment of any military, law enforcement or national security employee of the United States, deemed necessary to prosecute the war on terror.

This waiver applies both retroactively and prospectively.



Cut-and-paste the above waiver and e-mail it to, or or write the words "I am a gullible, mindless sheep who deserves neither liberty nor security" in the comment section.

Note to Well Meaning Gentiles

When you greet me with phrases such as "Hope you had a wonderful Hannukah" you demonstrate a deplorable ignorance of my culture and my calandar.

Though your own tinsel-filled holiday might be done, I still have a few more days of latkes left. And if I had a short temper, an Irish last name, and no self-respect you can bet I'd be making a loud and obnoxious issue out of your mistake on my spin-free cable-television show.

PS - Why are the same dolts who spent November telling me, "Hey, you get 8 nights of presents, right?" the same dolts who seem to think Hannukah ended when Christmas did?

Monday, December 26, 2005

Mis-nagid's Take on Turing

Whenever Yaakov Menken attempts to write about science hilarity follows. Though the chuckles most often come from his impassioned defense of Inteligent Design, he fares no better when he attempts to explain Artificial Intelligance.

The Turing Test and the Limits of Science by Yaakov Menken

For more on the story, we go to DovBear's science correspondent: Mis-nagid:

Menken can't even get the title right. Failure to pass a Turing test has little to do with the limits of science. (Menken has now shown twice that he has no idea what science is.) The failure says more about the overoptimism early AI pioneers had before they realized how hard the task was than about anything else. For example, Marvin Minsky, a founding father of AI, once gave his star pupil Gerry Sussman the task of writing a program that can describe the contents of a photograph -- as his summer project, in 1966. The lessons from the seeming intractability of full-blown AI are all about engineering hubris, not the limits of science. Not that there hasn't been advances in AI; just ask Gary Kasparov. Or buy a Budweiser, QA-ed at high speed by computer vision.

Nor does Menken really understand Alan Turing's work. Turing's original paper in which his test appears makes it clear that the test wasn't about the development of consciousness or the ability to think. In fact, the test was only mentioned in passing as an interesting thought experiment about how to detect intelligent behavior. This is made clear by the fact that in the original paper (where it was called the imitation game) the example is not to detect a computer, but to detect which of the two people you are teletyping to is the man and which is the woman! The paper then continues:

"We now ask the question, 'What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?' Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, 'Can machines think?'"

Turing's test was replacing the question of computers thinking, not asking it. Ironically, Menken's
own link mentions that in its very first sentence: "[...]Alan Turing, in an attempt to develop a working definition of intelligence free of the difficulties and philosophical pitfalls of defining exactly what constitutes the mental process of intelligent reasoning, devised a test, instead, of intelligent behavior." So why's Menken complaining that "not one [program] is an actual attempt to get a computer to think for itself?" Because he doesn't understand the Turing test.

Menken digs his hole deeper by comparing a computer scientist's thought experiment with a rabbinical legend. Yeah, a Turing test is exactly like a mythical creature, except where they're totally different. It's even funnier because he seems to believe the magical story as history. In that one sentence he shows his ignorance of both biology (golems?) and computer science, with the guts to finish it off with the flourish that he is "less sanguine" about the prospects of those exact topics. Menken should worry less about artificial intelligence developments and work on developing some of the natural kind.


P.S. Turing was a gay man who saved Britain in WWII with his work in cryptanalysis. His work was so secret that he never told anyone that he was a war hero even as his own country was persecuting him in its courts for being gay. They forced him to get injections of hormones to "cure" him, and he ended up commiting suicide. Throughout it all he never told anyone what he had done, not even to save himself from the country he had served so honorably.

I wonder what Menken thinks of that.

Sometimes, I wonder if Menken thinks at all. Thank you Mis-nagid, for that report. More in a moment.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

"I am the best Jew who ever lived" by Dennis Prager

We've been remiss in not addressing Dannis Prager's immodest response to that great article about the Uncle Jakes.

As you recall, M.J Rosenberg said Dennis was a big fat Uncle Jake just because Dennis carried a lot of water for Mel Gibson's famous Jew hating flick Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome. As Rosenberg tells it, Prager and the rest of the Jakes will accept any outrage and agree to any immolation of real Jewish values, so long as Christian religious groups continue taking church-group tours of Israel where they comicaly dunk themselves in the knee-deep Jordan "river."

Anyway, Rosenberg's complaint made Prager (and possibly the baby Jesus) weep:
Jews who support the Christian right are "Uncle Jakes."

So says a pro-Israeli Jewish official in his recent column for the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-Israel organization. "Uncle Jake" is M. J. Rosenberg's term for Jewish equivalent of "Uncle Tom." Just as the left sees conservative blacks as traitors to African-Americans, so it sees conservative Jews as traitors to the Jewish people.

I am the "Uncle Jake" most criticized in the Rosenberg column.
Cue the violins
Speaking personally, I have been called many things in my life, but "Jewish traitor" is a first. For the record, and offered with obvious embarrassment at having to list these things about myself, here is a brief review of my Jewish activities
Since Dennis is so embarrassed, we'll skip to the end of his list
And I have brought tens of thousands of Jews back to Judaism and Jewish identity -- Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.
Tens of thousands? Wow! You're a walking NCSY chapter. Tell me this, though: When all those Jews come rushing back to Judaism, do they eat chicken with milk and vote Republican? Because if they don't, I'm not too sure you'll count them as Jews.

Folks, Prager's dispute with Rosenberg (and vice verse) boils down to this:

Rosenberg: Jews like Prager are willing to sell out everything that is unique and special and good and humanistic and sweet and pretty about the religion of our ancestors in exchange for a few fighter planes for Israel and a good spot in the church parking lot.

Prager: Yeah? So what?

The difference between Toby and me

Toby Katz:
a) Per the midrash Esav/Edom/Gentiles are the eternal enemy of the Jewish people!
b) American Christians are our best buddies, so cuddle up everybody!


a) The Midrash speaks of individuals, not nations. Though the Rabbis of the Talmud (and their successors) used the midrash polemically, there no agadic source that Esav/Edom/Gentiles will hate us forever.
b) Beware of Christians. They are fairweather friends.

Which position is intellectually coherent?

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Shabbos was great, thanks. The cholent and the kugel (or something) took me to the upper heights of holiness, and glimmers of new wisdom were revealed to me.

First, Esav soneh l’Yaakov is an excuse and a dodge. Too many Jews use this slogan to buttress arguments against Oslo or other attempts at peace with Israel’s neighbors. “Esav soneh l’Yaakov,” they say, “Therefore peace with the Arabs is impossible. So let’s keep killing them.”

More scrupulous Jewish thinkers will remember that the Arabs are not Eisav, but lets pretend that Esav Soneh l’Yaakov is a blanket statement, which includes all non-Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Still, it holds no water as a political argument against Oslo, or any other Arab-Israeli peace venture.

Egypt, for example, is Esav, and hasn’t Israel enjoyed a cold but firm peace with Egypt? Turkey is Esav, and isn't Israel's relationships with Turkey warm and almost friendly? And what about the United States of America? Esav, in point of fact, are the Christians, and is there a country in the world today more Christian than the USA? Yet the United States is Israel’s best friend, to the tune of several billion dollars per year.

It appears Esav soneh l’Yaakov is a sliding scale. Esav can view us with murderous intents, like the Palestenian Arabs, or Eisav can support us and send Israel tankerships brimming with money, like the United States.

If both possibilities exist, shouldn't Israel use diplomacy to move the Palestenians from the dangerous category to the beneficial category?

Friday, December 23, 2005

Yaakov Mencken Publish My Comment! (Day 1)

Yaakov Menken is quite skilled at a dishonest game. He publishes bad arguments on his site and then waits until his readers have moved on to new posts before publishing the rebuttals.

A good example is our current disagreement about the meaning of the words Esav soneh l'Yaakov. I submitted my rebuttal to his rediculous contention ("Toby Katz didn’t mangle anything at all, she merely knows how to read Rashi and Medrash.") at 11:21 this morning. Immediately afterwards I rewrote my comment as a blog post, and sent it to Yaakov by email. He has responded to the email (though not to the argument it contained) but he still has not published the comment.

This delay allows his readers to imagine that I had no answer for his argument which, I must presume, is his intention. And if he publishes my comment after Shabbos, as I suppose he will, it will be too late. His readers will have moved on to other posts believing that his interpretation of the Rashi is correct, and that I had no reply.

This is intolerable, and I'd like you to help me make sure Yaakov gets the message. If you have his email address, please write to him and let him know that you don't approve of his tactics. Tell him you want to see my comment published, not deep beneath the original post where it wont be read, but as part of a new post where the argument can be seen and discussed.

I intend (fingers crossed) to run this post every day until I hear from Yaakov.

Update (Yaakov has published the comment, but he still won't address the point)

YAAKOV MENKEN: DovBear claims I am “mistranslating.” Since he portrays himself as familiar with Jewish texts, I find it hard to imagine that he is seriously arguing that the word “halacha” literally means tradition, rather than law. Any Israeli schoolchild can correct him on that one.As such, any time one sees “halacha” it is not merely a story passed down, but a rule. Maasei Avos Siman L’Banim applies. The Shulchan Aruch doesn’t discuss it since it is not something we can control or change. But the Gemara, on the other hand, certainly does.

Comment by Yaakov Menken — December 23, 2005 @ 4:20 pm

DOVBEAR: I refer you to the Saperstein edition of Rashi published by ArtScroll where this Rashi is translated as follows: "Though is a known fact that Esav hated Ya´akov, his mercy was aroused at that moment, and he kissed him with all of his heart.” In the notes, the editor makes it clear that the subject of R’ Shimon’s observation is Ya’akov’s brother, not the nation (Edom) descended from him. Moreover, if this was meant to be a lesson about nations and not an observation about people, the text would speak of Yisroel and Edom, not Esav and Yaakov.

(I went from memory earlier when I said Saperstein had halach translated as “tradition.” They have it as “fact” Not law, Yaakov, but fact. And as I said, the editors make it clear that Rav Shimon’s intention is to say that though it’s a known fact that Esav the person hated Yaakov the person, “his mercy was aroused at that moment, and he kissed him with all of his heart.”)
So much for Yaakov and his Israeli schoolchildren.

Comment by dovbear — December 24, 2005 @ 6:36 pm Your comment is awaiting moderation. (note the time, please.)

Mis-Nagid Solves Your Problems

Mis-Nagid writes:

Fedex won't let you airmail your used panties to Amukah? Those anti-semites. Thwart their package-shipping bigotry via the Internet! (Offer not valid in Lakewood or Saudi Arabia.) Buy your Amukah-powered segulah off of eBay, and your bashert is sure to not run away this time!

Teaching Toby Torah

I'd like to point out, yet again, that Toby Katz is a moron, and that Yaakov Menken facilitates her stupidity. [DB: The preceeding was written in haste, and was unnecessarily harsh. Toby Katz, you have my apologies]

Today's example:

TOBY: It was a Rashi in last week’s parsha: Esav sonei le’Yakov

Though longtime readers of Cross Currents may wish to know how Toby squares her reliance on this Rashi with her well documented love of Catholics, Christians and other decendants of Edom, we'll leave that for another time. The point today is she's misunderstood and misused the quote, in the way that Jews have been misunderstanding and misapplying that quote for generations.

DOVBEAR: It’s not a “Rashi”. It’s a quote from Shimon Bar Yochai that Rashi cites, and you’ve managed to mangle it. The quote doesn’t say that Esav the nation hates Jacob the nation. It says Esav the individual hated Jacob the individual which is obvious from the context.

Rashi is attempting to explain the dots which appear over the word "and he kissed him." One opinion says the kiss was not a real kiss, but a bite; therefore the word was dotted. Rav Shimon Bar Yochai goes the other way saying: "halacha byaduah [that] Esav has hate for (soneh l') Ya´akov, but his mercy was aroused at that moment, and he kissed him with all of his heart." Halacha often means law, but it's hard to understand what kind of law this might be. It isn't discussed in the Shulchan Aruch, for example.

Yaakov Mencken however is never hesitant to obviate an uncertainty.

YAAKOV MENKEN: What sort of “known law” would it be, if it only meant that one long-dead individual hated another? Toby Katz didn’t mangle anything at all, she merely knows how to read Rashi and Medrash.

Simple, the word halacha, here, does not mean law. It means "tradition," as in we know from our tradition that Esav (the individual) hated Yaakov (the individual) and were it not for the dots, we'd presume the kiss was fake. The dots are there to tell us that what we know about Esav should be set aside, because here he acted out of pure love.

The idea that Shimon Bar Yochai means for this to be a lesson about Jews and Gentiles doesn’t fit the context. The subject of R’ Shimon’s observation is Ya’akov’s brother, not the nation (Edom) descended from him. Moreover, if this was meant to be a lesson about nations and not an observation about people, the text would speak of Yisroel and Edom, not Esav and Yaakov.

Plan for the Day

Following the fine example of Rebetzin Ann Coulter, I intend to spend today saying "Good Shabbos!" to everyone I meet - mailmen, cabdrivers, shoppers, you name it.

And if anyone displays the slightest bit of discomfort or unhappiness - or god forbid responds with a generic "Have a Good Weekend" - I'll take it as proof that Jews are oppresed and persecuted.

Not one inch will I yield in what can only be called The War on Shabbos!!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

And they say Jews complain too much?

Some Christians gripe over generic "Happy Holidays" greeting

Christians in Westchester NY say they feel persecuted and rejected by society because other Christians have been saying - within earshot of children and priests - the words "Happy Holidays"

Altogether now: boo hoo hoo.

Or as my hero and idol John Stewart, a great American, puts it: ...for some people, there is also a celebration of the New Year. So Christmas and the New Year are actually two holidays, so there is a plural, which in the English language necessitates the use of the letter "S." Now, I suppose you could say "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" but you probably have (expletive) to do.

More from the whiners of Westchester:

"This is not just a religious celebration, but a cultural one, too. In past years, even in the stores in our area, everything has become so generic -and it is offensive," said the Rev. Brian McSweeney of Our Lady of Loretto Church in Cold Spring, who... after hearing wishes of "Happy Holidays" from storeclerks and local residents who saw him on the street... said he had to take action.

Action? Sounds ominous. Let's hope the good reverand isn't planning to behave like conservative role model Ann Coulter, and run around aggressively saying "Merry Christmas" to everyone -- "You know, cab drivers, passing people on the street, whatever" -- because it's "like saying 'F--k you!'")

Update: No worries! All Rev. McSweeny is doing is encouraging people stupid enough to believe there really is a War against Christmas to wear decidedly unhip lapel buttons with the words "You can wish me a Merry Christmas!" on them. Phew.

A moment of silence

Loyal Americans, patriots, and ghetto-Jews are invited to join me as we honor the memory of the brave, conservative, Christian martyrs, who were slain this holiday Christmas season by Godless pitchfork-clutching secularists.

(The rest of you, meet me out back so we can busy planning the War on Easter.)

Ye Gods User Test: The Orthodoxy  Test.

And I swear I answered the questions honestly (the ones I included anyway)

One quibble: Some of the questions aren't opinion questions, but questions of fact.

Example 1

Midrashim should be taken to be pshat

1 always
2 almost always
3 when it's reasonable to do so
4 occasionally, but not usually
5 almost never
6 Leave this question out of my results

Anyone who answers this with: (1) always or (2) almost always is not (a) cheredi, or (b) yeshivish, but (c) too stupid to live. (and yes, I have met such people.)

Example 2:

1 work, and are very important
2 might work, so why not try them probably dont work, but whats the harm
3 definitely dont work
4 are mostly avoda zara
5 Leave this question out of my results

Sorry, but if you think segulahs work you aren't RW or LW but PFS (pretty ***ing stupid)

Tip of the plain black srugy: OrthoMom, the lefty [It would be interesting to see why she is more left than I. OM - want to compare answers?]

Update: OM is not to my left. She is left-wing yeshivish, and I am right-wing MO. Also she is a woman with four kids, and I am a blogger with cruel yet handsome eyes.

Still, I'd like to compare answers.

This just in

"New Yorkers Support the Transit Strike"

Naturally, none of this is reflected in media coverage of the strike. The talking heads and their ink-stained cousins prefer to present the union leader as just another angry black man, and the deification of gazzilionaire Michael Bloomberg has already begun.

Like you, I am shocked to hear that the corporate media is providing a biased view of a labor dispute. Shocked!

And about the whole illegal thingie... I understand the idea behind the Taylor law, but not the principle: Why should people be forced to work, if they don't want to? 14th Ammendment anyone?

Strike Day 3: A DovBear Editorial

It's telling that many of you who deplore the difficulties and inconviniences created by the transit strike taking place in NY, have failed to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the strike.

According to the newspapers, the MTA has subjected New York City to a transit strike in the name of trying to get current workers to agree to have new workers put 6 percent of their pay toward pensions.

This demand, though not unreasonable on the face, is actually an attack on the pensions of all public workers. If accepted, the proposal will create divisive contract with different benefits for new workers versus existing workers. Seen in this light, the MTA's proposal is a pretext for weakening unions.

That's intolerable, and the transit workers are right to fight it.

Unions are the only ones doing anything to stem the declining standard of living for working people. A few generations ago, during the nostalgic 50s, a blue-collar worker could expect to own his own house and retire in comfort. Those days are gone, and they are gone, in part, because unions have been weakened. Workers' rights, pay and pensions have eroded as unions have eroded.

Many of you express a great deal of anxiety over the transit workers willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern, and I share it. But I also share the concern of working people -ordinary, honest, uneducated people - who worry about their job security, benefits, pension and health care, and I understand that without strong unions these people are put in serious jeapordy.

Revenge is a dish best served cold

That shiv sticking out of president's rib cage this morning belongs to one Judge Michael Luttig.

[I am going to assume you know the facts of the Padilla case, and that you know the substance of Luttig's ruling, yesterday, on that case. If not, your questions will be answered with marvelous clarity right here]

Anyway, now that I have your attention, I'd like to publicly appologize to Mr. Luttig.

Back when he was on the short-list for the Supreme Court, I presumed that he was just another Bush-sycophant. As you may recall, I was especialy disgusted with a ruling he published at around the time Renquist died, a ruling that gave the president the power to declare you or me or any other American citizen an "enemy combatant" and lock us up indefinately. "What great timing," I remember thinking, "but don't you think a nice bottle of wine would have been sufficient?"

But yesterday, the worm turned.

In what, the cliché-kings are calling a "strongly worded decision" Luttig told the president that he had destroyed his "credibility before the courts" which is judge-speak for "I'm tired of your meshagas, Mr. President."

And though I'm tempted to say that Luttig betrayed the president because he was upset about being skipped over for the Supreme Court not once but three times, I'll let the Judge speak for himself (this is the part that is "strongly worded":
They have left the impression that the government may even have come to the belief that the principle in reliance upon which it has detained Padilla for this time, that the President possesses the authority to detain enemy combatants who enter into this country for the purpose of attacking America and its citizens from within, can, in the end, yield to expediency with little or no cost to its conduct of the war against terror — an impression we would have thought the government likewise could ill afford to leave extant.

And these impressions have been left, we fear, at what may ultimately prove to be substantial cost to the government’s credibility before the courts, to whom it will one day need to argue again in support of a principle of assertedly like importance and necessity to the one that it seems to abandon today. While there could be an objective that could command such a price as all of this, it is difficult to imagine what that objective would be.
In other words, what really seems to be bothering Luttig is not that he was passed over for the big promotion, but that the president has been using the war on terror war as an excuse to expand his power, and at the expence of the liberties and procedures which protect us all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Comment of the day

1. That $55k figure most likely represents the salary made by a bus driver with a great deal of seniority. Do we know what entry level pay is?

2. Those salaries represent the wages paid to many highly skilled workers, not just bus drivers: signal operators, mechanics, engineers etc., The bus and subway drivers are simply the public face of the TWU.

3. Driving a bus is hard work and qualification to do so requires much, much training.

4. Driving a bus is also a crappy, crappy job. In order to even get highly skilled people to do it, one needs to pay a reasonable wage. Would you put up with all the crap (the working conditions, the crabby people etc.,) for $9/hour? Thought not.

5. The mid-50 thousands puts a working family in New York at the upper end of "working class" rather than the "firmly in the middle class." As a single person making $50,000 a year, I know that after I subtract rent, health insurance and pension contributions, basic utilities and expenses such as food, the cost of commuting to work, and other obligations, I have about $400 a month left over. Not a lot and not allowing me a luxury lifestyle.

6. A college degree is not a guarentee of a high salary. I have a Ph.D. Enough said.

With all that said, some of the worker's demands are unreasonable. No one is getting 8 percent raises. The vast majority of people realize that the free rise of health care plus pension is increasingly rare. And who retires at 55??

Still, there are two other points:

1. The elitism of those who say bus drivers are't worse thus and such is appaling.
2. The increadible financial mismanagement at the MTA contributed directly to the climate that made this horrible strike possible.

Oh, and one more, I HATED walking for 2 hours to get to work this morning.

88 percent say impeach Bush

Ok, it's just a dumb MSM poll, but wow: 88 percent

He's doin' a heckuva job...

Boo Ya!

Someone go set the president's pants on fire.

Cheney to Poor and Elderly: Merry Christmas Losers!

Earlier today, the Senate approved a package of $39.7 billion in spending cuts to programs that benefit the elderly and poor, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the tie-breaking vote. Money quote :
"This bill targets Americans with the greatest needs and the fewest resources," said Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who is the Senate minority leader.
Sure, the legislation trims just three-tenths of 1 percent from federal spending over the next five years and yes, yes, it will be completely negated by the next round of Republican-backed tax cuts for the wealthy ($70 billion in additional tax are on the agenda for January 2006), But never mind. Poor people got screwed, so I guess the deficit-cutters in the GOP (God's Official Party) can say dayenu.

Update: Fun Fact #1 - The bill delivers $2.6 billion in new tax breaks for oil companies. Oil companies!!

Fun fact # 2 - Contraception and other family planning services are provided as a matter of course under Medicaid. The bill cuts Medicaid, meaning less contraception and, therefore, more abrotion. Well done God-fearing Republican senators!

Fun fact #3 - The bill cuts over $12.7 billion from student loan programs, resulting in higher payments for 472,000 New Yorkers today. Bad news junior lawyers! Looks like you got screwed, too!

ID is neither valid, nor scientific, nor explanatory, nor data-driven. Discuss.

Yaakov Menken, no stranger to stupidity, posted today about the Dover Court's anti-ID decision. For your amusement I solicited a response to Menken's post from Mis-Nagid. It follows:

"If our Constitution, however, is to be understood as forbidding any mention in public schools of even the possibility that the universe was brought into being by the Creator, that should deeply trouble all Americans. [quoted from Rabbi Zwiebel]"

That is not what was said. What was disallowed was not the teaching of religion, but the teaching of religion as science, in a public school science class. They're welcome to "mention [...] the possibility that the universe was brought into being by the Creator" -- in a religion class.

"The proponents were wrong for so doing; the judge was wrong to base his legal decision upon the ulterior motives of the proponents."

Did he read Judge Jones's ruling? It's a marvel of clarity. There's no doubt that the judge's ruling was not on the basis of the motives of the proponents. It was a legal decision on the merits of the claims, as a complete reading of the ruling easily confirms. Cherry-picking one (legitimate) complaint and claiming it as the basis for the ruling is itself a dishonest maneuver.

"Intelligent Design [...] would be completely uncontroversial were not its conclusion so full of ramifications."

It's not controversial. There's no controversy about it that's not the artificial creation of well-funded religious groups. ID is non-science; it's a religious claim, period. It's like Fox specials on alien autopsies breathlessly promoting the "controversy" by quoting "both sides" of the issue. Say it loudly enough and put in on repeat and suddenly there's a "controversy."

"It is merely an alternative (and somewhat obvious) conclusion derived from the same data."

Obvious? To whom? Apparently not to the people who study biology professionally, since they're nearly unanimous in rejecting it. And if ID were truly "derived from the data" it could be demonstrated as such with more than mere hand-waving and rhetoric. If it's the alternative to evolution, where are the papers and experiments that support this "alternative," as are readily and copiously available for evolution? Surely the "derivation from data" is not just a renaming of the divine fallacy?

"If we employ the same standards of probability [...] both the formation of life and the development of many structures most probably did not happen by chance."

That's right, they didn't happen by chance. They happened by evolution, the non-random selection of mutations.

"Every scientist acknowledges that there are gaps they have not figured out, things which seem fantastically unlikely -- they simply believe that they will."

There are no gaps raised by ID in the theory of evolution. There are gaps in the known data, which is both not a problem for a theory, and totally expected for processes that occurred millions of years ago. If there was actual data that contradicted evolution, for example a modern horse skeleton from the pre-Cambrian era, that would be a problem for evolution. If the hereditary mechanism of life had been found to be incompatible between all forms of life, that would be a problem for evolution. But there are no out-of-place skeletons, and DNA is the basis of nearly all life. The only gap is the one ID is an attempt to create for the purpose of cramming their (very tiny by now) God of the Gaps into.

"Time magazine's "Darwin Victorious" is an unabashed attempt to trash Intelligent Design, yet it makes a stunning admission"

Time magazine is not a science journal. They're reporting the (incorrect) claim that certain structures could not have come about through evolution -- and that the scientists rebut this claim. Furthermore, there are real science journals that contain papers about the evolution of the eye and bacterial flagella, a point Menken and ID-ists leave out.

"'To which the vast majority of biologists say nonsense. We don't have remotely enough information to make such a statement.'

In other words, the ID proponents are not necessarily wrong -- they are just not sure yet.

Crediting claims that have no evidence but haven't been disproved yet is not how science works. Scientists would give the same response to the claim that aliens manufactured life on Earth. In fact, they did say that when it was seriously suggested. Saying "they're not sure yet" is no more a credit to ID than it is to alien manufacture, since there's no end to the number of unsupported claims that haven't been disproven. If you want ID to be accepted as science, you have to provide the evidence, not just be "not necessarily wrong."

"And since they don't have enough information, the proponents of evolution simply assume that somehow the numbers will work out, and dismiss ID as "unscientific.""

The numbers do work out, as shown in tens of thousands of papers over more than a hundred years; it's only ID lies that they don't. The dismissal of ID as unscientific is precisely the correct response. They're not saying it isn't true, just that it isn't scientific -- and that's the truth.

"Bereft of the assumption made by science that it can explain everything naturally"

That is not a claim made by science. That's scientism, a separate subject. Science does require that only natural explanations are classifed as scientific, but it does not say that this methodology can explain everything.

In his short article, Menken confuses what science is (not scientism), what evolution is (not random), what ID is (not scientific), what the ruling's basis was (not motives), what a theory must explain (not non-existent evidence), and more. That's pretty impressive for such a small post.

"ID is actually a more valid scientific explanation of the current data."

Menken's final line reminds me of the Saturday Night Live skit where Mike Myers as Coffee Talk's Linda Richman says "The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Discuss." ID is neither valid, nor scientific, nor explanatory, nor data-driven. Discuss.

Carter and Clinton did it too? Nope.

Loyal readers of the blog were very excited to recycle Matt Drudge's big discovery. At least four of you sent me copies of the executive orders he uncovered signed by Clinton and Carter (the old "but, but, but, Clinton!" defense) executive orderswhich appear to authorize secret spying.

Nice try, boys. But it's back to reading comprehension school
What Drudge says:

Clinton, February 9, 1995: “The Attorney General is authorized to approve physical searches, without a court order

What Clinton actually signed:

Section 1. Pursuant to section 302(a)(1) [50 U.S.C. 1822(a)] of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] Act, the Attorney General is authorized to approve physical searches, without a court order, to acquire foreign intelligence information for periods of up to one year, if the Attorney General makes the certifications required by that section.

That section requires the Attorney General to certify is the search will not involve “the premises, information, material, or property of a United States person.” That means U.S. citizens or anyone inside of the United States.

The entire controversy about Bush’s program is that, for the first time ever, allows warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens and other people inside of the United States. Clinton’s 1995 executive order did not authorize that.

Drudge pulls the same trick with Carter.

What Drudge says:

Jimmy Carter Signed Executive Order on May 23, 1979: “Attorney General is authorized to approve electronic surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence information without a court order.”

What Carter’s executive order actually says:

1-101. Pursuant to Section 102(a)(1) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (50 U.S.C. 1802(a)), the Attorney General is authorized to approve electronic surveillance to acquire foreign intelligence information without a court order, but only if the Attorney General makes the certifications required by that Section.

What the Attorney General has to certify under that section is that the surveillance will not contain “the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party.” So again, no U.S. persons are involved.
Another difference, as Atrios puts it, is that the tBushies have argued that what they did was explicitly and deliberately outside statutory authorit - or at least that's what they said after their criminality was discovered. It's one thing to claim "law x gives me the right to do y," make that public, and give court and congress the opportunity to slap you down. It's another thing entirely to proceed in secret with no oversight.

The really bad news is the it was (of course) the jr lawyers who thought Drudge's discovery was such a slam dunk. That's dissapointing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

So Much Heat, So Little Light

Yaakov of the very Cross blog is gnashing his teeth and stomping his feet about NY's transit strike. Though I'm not ready to support the strike - not yet anyway - I will address some of the misinformation Yaakov is throwing around:
There’s simply no justifying a $55,000 salary, much less a $69,000 salary-as it will be three years from now, were the city to cave in—in order to drive a bus. If you want a $69,000 salary, you go to college or start a business. You don’t sit behind the wheel of a bus and then extort the citizens of New York to get an unreasonable wage for the work performed.
Yaakov, do you know what it costs to eat and live in NYC, where living costs are among the highest in the world? In NY there are skilled secretatries who earn $90,000. Though $55,000 may seem like a lot of money in flyover country, in NYC its just enough to put you squarely in the middle class - exactly where a hardworking, honest bus driver belongs.


The strike itself appears to be illegal, but the union's greivances are real: Their old deal did not keep up with inflation and the new offer would have set them further behind. Meanwhile, the transit authority sits on a billion-dollar surplus that provides discounts to riders but cannot accommodate a decent wage increase or a fair pension.

[Related: The NY Times does not support the strike, either.]

Hilchot Breakaway Minyan

Teaching Jewish law to the blogosphere is Gil Student's job (I prefer parshanut and politics) but the previous post generated so much debate I thought I'd do some homework

In Iggerot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 1:38, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein writes about a shul that was badly fractured. One faction complained that the Rabbi had changed the liturgy (nusach), cursed, and made intimidating and denigrating speeches. They claimed their Rosh Yeshiva had been insulted and that remaining in the shul was impossible. They wanted to leave and start their own shul.

Rabbi Feinstein responded that this was not allowed because it interfered with the Rabbi's livlihood (hasagas gvul) -the very same Rabbi who had made the shul so insufferable. He adds that separatists had violated the principles of darkai sholom (harmony) and lifnei ever (causing others to sin) and even required them to pay damages to the Rabbi.

Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt, (a talmid muvhak of Rav Moshe) asserts that this ruling applys both when the Rabbi owns the shul, and when it is controlled by the membership, because the defection of the disgruntled members will deprive the shuls of dues and make it more difficult to pay salaries and other bills. He adds that leaving the shul implies a deficiancy in the Rabbi or the congregation and that only contentious people(baalei machlokes) would do that.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter feilded a similar question with a similar reply ruling that it is forbiden to establish a new shul unless it is a matter of profound importance - with a Reform synagouge given as an example. He also cites the Magan Avraham who says it is preferable to pray in a large shul than with a small minyan.

Orthomom: Not In My BackYard?

My friend Orthomom has a post going about breakaway minyanim. On the thread she says:

I have heard the argument against breakaway shuls many times over. But just because there might be an exisiting shul in the neighborhood that is dying, does not mean that the group who is unhappy with their present choices have to waive their freedom to worship exactly as they please. This is America. And short of the case where a new shul's membership completely empties out an existing shul (which is not the case here), I don't see any problem with it at all.

Well I do.

Sure, in America you're free to do as you please - no one would deny a dissatisfied person his right to open a new shul - but that doesn't mean that doing as you please is necessarily wise or in good taste. I have the right to belch in the president's face, for example, but should I? (be quiet TTC :) )

As for myself, I hate breakaway minyanim. They are started by spoiled brats who want more respect and more control, who are too lazy to walk an extra block, and consider themselves too holy to mix and mingle with the lesser Jews in the original shul.

They rarely emerge from good intentions.

Breakway minyanim are a wasteful duplication and also ossur, as discussed in a famous article I can't find online. The issues -among many- are that they deprive the Rabbi of a salary, and run afoul of brov am haadras melech. Also, when a neighborhood has more than one shul, kids grow up thinking there's something off about the members of the place his parents don't frequent.

One community, one shul. That's my view. It's nicer, it is stronger and it teaches Jews to respect one another.

Stop what you are doing...

....and read this. It's a marvelous essay by a man named Rosenberg about how kowtowing, spineless Jews are so greatful for Christian support for Israel, that they are willing to blindly accept any outrage and any insult. (We saw an example of that today on a thread below, when commenter CYA responded to the anti-Semitism of Tom Delay with a rousing, "Please Sir! May I have another!")

Rosenberg even has a name for these cowards. He calls them "Uncle Jakes." Which I suppose makes Toby Katz an "Aunt Jake."

[And as --- would say: BOO YA!]

[Related: Sultan Knish is well-known to readers of DovBear for his unapologetically stupid attempts to explain Katrina. Earlier this week, however, he said something smart and spot on about a particular Uncle Jake we've discussed before so in the interest of fair play click here]

God damn them everyone.

Hitchens piles on:

...what I have always hated about the month of December: the atmosphere of a one-party state. On all media and in all newspapers, endless invocations of the same repetitive theme. In all public places, from train stations to department stores, an insistent din of identical propaganda and identical music. The collectivization of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy. Time wasted on foolishness at one's children's schools. Vapid ecumenical messages from the president, who has more pressing things to do and who is constitutionally required to avoid any religious endorsements.

And yet none of this party-line unanimity is enough for the party's true hard-liners. The slogans must be exactly right. No "Happy Holidays" or even "Cool Yule" or a cheery Dickensian "Compliments of the season." No, all banners and chants must be specifically designated in honor of the birth of the Dear Leader and the authority of the Great Leader.


Our Christian enthusiasts are evidently too stupid, as well as too insecure, to appreciate this. A revealing mark of their insecurity is their rage when public places are not annually given over to religious symbolism, and now, their fresh rage when palaces of private consumption do not follow suit. The Fox News campaign against Wal-Mart and other outlets—whose observance of the official feast-day is otherwise fanatical and punctilious to a degree, but a degree that falls short of unswerving orthodoxy—is one of the most sinister as well as one of the most laughable campaigns on record. If these dolts knew anything about the real Protestant tradition, they would know that it was exactly this paganism and corruption that led Oliver Cromwell—my own favorite Protestant fundamentalist—to ban the celebration of Christmas altogether.

No believer in the First Amendment could go that far. But there are millions of well-appointed buildings all across the United States, most of them tax-exempt and some of them receiving state subventions, where anyone can go at any time and celebrate miraculous births and pregnant virgins all day and all night if they so desire. These places are known as "churches," and they can also force passersby to look at the displays and billboards they erect and to give ear to the bells that they ring. In addition, they can count on numberless radio and TV stations to beam their stuff all through the ether. If this is not sufficient, then god damn them. God damn them everyone.

A Challenge for Bill O'Reilly

Kristoff slaps the Vicar of Fox News across the face:

Fox News Channel's crusade against infidels who prefer generic expressions like "Happy Holidays" included 58 separate segments in just a five-day period.

After I suggested in last Sunday's column that a better way to honor the season might be to stand up to genocide in Darfur (a calamity that Mr. O'Reilly has ignored), Mr. O'Reilly denounced me on his show as a "left-wing ideologue."


Look, I put up a "Christmas tree," rather than a "holiday tree," and I'm sure Mr. O'Reilly is right that political correctness leads to absurd contortions this time of year. But when you've seen what real war does, you don't lightly use the word to describe disagreements about Christmas greetings. And does it really make sense to offer 58 segments on political correctness and zero on genocide?

Perhaps I'm particularly sensitive to religious hypocrites because I've spent a chunk of time abroad watching Muslim versions of Mr. O'Reilly - demagogic table-thumpers who exploit public religiosity as a cynical ploy to gain attention and money. And I always tell moderate Muslims that they need to stand up to blustery blowhards - so today, I'm taking my own advice.

Like the fundamentalist Islamic preachers, Mr. O'Reilly is a talented showman, and my sense is that his ranting is a calculated performance. The couple of times I've been on his show, he was mild mannered and amiable until the camera light went on - and then he burst into aggrieved indignation, because he knew it made good theater.

If Mr. O'Reilly wants to find a Christmas cause, he should invite guests from Catholic Relief Services, World Vision or the National Association of Evangelicals - among the many faith-based organizations that are doing heroic work battling everything from river blindness to sex trafficking. Indeed, the real victims of Mr. O'Reilly are the authentic religious conservatives, because some viewers falsely assume that ill-informed bombast characterizes the entire religious right.


So I have a challenge for Mr. O'Reilly: If you really want to defend traditional values, then come with me on a trip to Darfur. I'll introduce you to mothers who have had their babies clubbed to death in front of them, to teenage girls who have been gang-raped and then mutilated - and to the government-armed thugs who do these things.

You'll have to leave your studio, Bill. You'll encounter pure evil. If you're like me, you'll be scared. If you try to bully some of the goons in Darfur, they'll just hack your head off. But you'll also meet some genuine conservative Christians - aid workers who live the Gospel instead of sputtering about it - and you'll finally be using your talents for an important cause.

So, Bill, what'll it be? Will you dare travel to a real war against Christmas values, in which the victims aren't offended shoppers but terrified children thrown on bonfires? I'm waiting to hear.

Nick Lampson for Congress

Tom Delay is a corrupt money-launderer who's been admonished by the House Ethics Committee. He's also no friend of the Jews:

April 12, 2002: Ladies and gentlemen, Christianity offers the only viable, reasonable, definitive answer to the questions of 'Where did I come from?' 'Why am I here?' 'Where am I going?' 'Does life have any meaningful purpose? "Only Christianity offers a way to understand that physical and moral border. Only Christianity offers a comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, every aspect of creation. Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world -- only Christianity." In other words, Jews are lost, immoral, irrational and possibly stupid.

October 15, 2002: "This is the week you put people in office who stand for everything we believe in and stand unashamedly with Jesus Christ." In other words, Jews are unfit for public office.

Nick Lampson is running against DeLay in next year's election. For the good of America support him if you can.

Hmmm... maybe his fingers were crossed?

Bush's Big Lie:
Secondly, there are such things as roving wiretaps. Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so. It's important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in place when it comes to doing what is necessary to protect our homeland, because we value the Constitution.
...or maybe Cheny just hadn't told him yet about the secret illegal wiretaps.

The NY Times is liberal? HA!

"The New York Times first debated publishing a story about secret eavesdropping on Americans as early as last fall, before the 2004 presidential election. But the newspaper held the story for more than a year and only revealed the secret wiretaps last Friday, when it became apparent a book by one of its reporters was about to break the news, according to journalists familiar with the paper's internal discussions."
That's right, boys and girls: The liberal-agenda-driven NYT withheld a crucial story during an election campaign, and they did it to appease a law-breaking, power-hungry president.

It's just unreal what's happening in this country: The press is in the pocket of the politicians, the President is ignoring the constitution and more people are dying in the "war on terror" than would have been killed by the terrorists themselves...

If you're not outraged, you aren't paying attention.

Jameel vs Rashby

Our Arab friend Jameel has found a fascinating bit of parshanut from bible scholar Mark Twain:
Jacob took advantage of Esau's consuming hunger to rob him of his birthright and the great honor and consideration that belonged to the position; by treachery and falsehood he robbed him of his father's blessing; he made of him a stranger in his home, and a wanderer. Yet after twenty years had passed away and Jacob met Esau and fell at his feet quaking with fear and begging piteously to be spared the punishment he knew he deserved, what did that magnificent savage do? He fell upon his neck and embraced him!
Jameel doesn't much like what Twain had to say, but his complaint is comical: "How can it be that Mark Twain falls into the hypnotic trap of Esav, when its totally clear to Chazal of Esav's hypocrisy and evil?"

Well, for starters Twain didn't have the benefit of midrashim. All Twain had was the text itself. It's a little stupid to fault Twain for being unaware of the midrashim, and its even stupider to act like the midrash's view of Eisav is self-evident from the text. It's not.

More importantly, if you sift through the many midrashim about Eisav you'll find that not all of them have a uniformly negative view of Jacob's brother. Sure, some thought Esav was irredeemably evil, but the midrash isn't a monolith, and Jameel is wrong to think of it this way. There are midrashim with more generous opinions of Esav. No less an authority than Shimon Bar Yochai, in fact, sees the reunion between Esav and Jacob exactly as Twain did: “It was well-known that Esav (the individual) hated Yaakov, but here Esav’s mercies were aroused, and he kissed him with all his heart.”

Jameel, did Shimon Bar Yochai also fall "into the hypnotic trap of Esav?"

Monday, December 19, 2005


what is comes down to is this: history demonstrates that governments abuse whatever powers those governments have. the governments always overreach. always. given that background, our forefathers (undoubtedly under the heavy influence of our foremothers as well) weighed in on the side of individual rights and protections. George Bush asked for a lot in the Patriot Act, and has now overreached. If you believe in liberty, and freedom for all, you cannot write this overreaching into law. residents and citizens must be able to go to court and say, "the executive branch cannot do this." do not believe for one minute that the law will stop our governemnt from torture or whatever else they believe is necessary. it would not surprise me if they decided all male suspects should undergo the tribal circumcision ceremony just like the old days. i read about this recently in a scroll.
Honorable Mentions: Don't miss a special treat from Mis-Nagid, a visit from David Trepenwitz, or this thread. And Reb Yudel rocks here.

Unholy undies adorn rabbi's tomb

Mississippi Fred MacDowell has the strange story of upstanding Jewish women behaving like smitten rock fans:
Hundreds of young Israeli women looking for husbands have been placing their underwear on the tomb of a venerated rabbi in the hopes that their marriage prayers will be answered.
And later, after they are married, they will be showing their questionably stained underwear to other Rabbis, in the hopes that their prayers to put off having sex for a few days will be answered.

Cross Currents: No shame no brains 1

Oh what a day there are having at Cross Currents. First, YM confuses pluralism with relativism - a common mistake, but unforgivable all the same. Then Toby spins a Jewish history fantasy.

First Menken: "Pluralism, as Rabbi Epstein pointed out, requires the acceptance of all views—even those which are themselves non-pluralistic."

Well, no, not exactly. As Isaiah Berlin, (who may be no Rabbi Espetian but is still the most famous pluralist of all time) put it "I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps”—each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated."

Properly understood, pluralism embraces not every idea under the sun as Menken foolishly believes, but the reality that there are in the world a plurality of legitimate values that men can and do seek. These values don't all align, and sometimes they conflict, but what they have in common is that you can pursue them and still retain a semblance of what it means to be human. Nazism, for example, would be beyond the pale.

Incidently, when Menken himself talks approvingly about Popes and Christians he, himself, is acting as a pluralist. Popes don't subscribe to Menken's absolute truth, according to the rules of absolutist thinking, Mencken should give them no quarter. Yet he does, because, like most of us he, beneath the bluster, recognizes the pluralism is the real state of the world, though we may quibble about the details.

Cross Currents: No shame no brains II

Not to be outdone, Toby Katz provides a few laughs with a post so bad it takes the breath away.
With Chanuka coming in a few days we can be sure that along with the Chanuka tree and the Chanuka wreath, we will have the annual round of phony newspaper stories about Chanuka being the holiday of religious freedom.
Phony newspaper stories? Sorry, but this mischarecterization of Chanukah is most often repeated by Aish Hatorah Chabad Lubovitch, and other groups who wish to mislead unafilliated Jews. It's also been heard from time to time at the White House.

Back to Toby:
Of course this story is total nonsense. What was really going on was that the Greeks persecuted the Jews because they couldn’t stand the Jews’ uppityness in declaring that they had the only true religion and the only real G-d. The Greeks believed in lots of gods and would have happily welcomed Buddhists, Wiccans, Gaians and whoever else wanted to join—as long as they didn’t claim to have the One Exclusive Truth. That claim to truth really stuck in their craw.
The sweet irony here is that though the Greeks might not have welcomed Toby, neither would the Macabees. Do you think Judah and his brothers would have had much use for someone like Toby who practices a version of Judaism they would certainly consider strange and foreign? Under the Macabees you could be their kind of Jew, and nothing else. Not one of the modern variations of Judaism we recognize would have been accepted. The Macabees, to use Mis-Nagid's great formulation, were not "Charedim with swords."

More Toby:
Strangely, the biggest enemies of the Maccabees (who were the Torah-true Jews of the day) were not Greeks but Hellenist Jews. It was these Greek-loving Jews who tried to use the power of the courts, sorry scratch that, the power of the Greek rulers to overthrow strict monotheism and bring in polytheism (multiculturalism) instead.
Leave it to Toby to conflate polytheism with multicultrualism, and leave it to Toby to confuse a court with a king. Anyway, let's not forget how the chanuka story ends: Within a generation the Macabees were Hellenized -complete with Greek names: John Hyrkanus was one, Alexander Yannai was another. They were corrupt, vicious, enemies of the Rabbis. Greek in every way. Very, quickly, they became exactly the sort of people the family founders had fought against. And it didn't take long.

What Toby doesn't seem to understand is that theocracies always end up as slimy and corrupt dictatorships. And the fact that this has happened twice in Jewish history (both Temple eras) ought to slow down her enthusiasm for another go around.

What was that about "knowing the facts?"

Oh, never mind

Tough on Terror

Dave at IC wants us to know he is tough on terror:
"However, I am not afraid to judge those who do the wrong thing. Those who murder in the name of religion. Those who seek to wipe us from the map. They are cartoon villains. They are mindless droids programmed to destroy. At least they forfeit the right to be considered anything else the minute they try to kill innocent people."
Let me make it clear: I also loath those who have murdered innocent civilians in cold blood. I also wish to defeat those who would replace freedom with religious tyranny. Dave isn't tougher on terrorists than me.

In fact, on this subject we differ from Dave on one small point: I believe that monsters remain human beings. In fact, to reduce them to a subhuman level is a way of exonerating them -- animals, after all, are not deemed morally responsible for killing. Insisting on the humanity of terrorists is, in fact, critical to maintaining their profound responsibility for the evil they commit.

Israellycool and the Cartoon Villains

My good friend Dave of Israely Cool didn't like what I had to say about Speilberg's latest:
While Dov suggests that us Zionists have a proclivity towards stereotyping Arabs as cartoon villains, it is Dov who is guilty of stereotyping Zionists as people who think Israel can do no wrong, and Arabs can do no right. And this is simply not true.
Unfortunately, in many cases it is true. And though I am pleased to acknowledge that Dave of IC, himself, might be different, there are others who have great difficulty making the distinction between ordinary Arabs and the terrorists who live among them. For an example, take the very self-aware David Trepenwitz: "When I moved here a couple of years ago I couldn't help but see each of these villages as malevolent snake pits and potential ambush sites. And while I only had one relatively minor incident, I still saw the morning crowds not as individuals, but simply as an enemy mob. "

Over time, Trep's perspective has changed (the change is recounted magnificently on this post) but the fact remains that he once (understandably, perhaps) had trouble seeing Arabs as individuals. And Dave IC's protestations aside, there are many more Jews who have the same, lamentable, blindspot.


The famous "Bais Yosef's Question" goes like this: If, as the story is told, the Macs had sufficient oil for one day of light, the miracle of the oil is a seven-day-miracle. Yet, we celebrate for 8 days. How come?

Over the years, roughly 8 million answers have been proposed for this chestnut. [link to many: here.] Some are fine, some are not. The very best one, though, comes from Mis-Nagid, OBM, who gave us his answer last year. It is republished here for the purpose of making cartoon-like question marks appear over your heads:
The very first Chanukah was a delayed Sukkot. Sukkot traditionally required going to the Temple, but on the correct date for Sukkot, the Temple was still under Seleucid control, so it was not celebrated properly. The Maccabees cleverly scheduled the Temple's grand reopening on the anniversary of its sacking, and celebrated Sukkot like it's supposed to be... That is... [t]he reason Chanukah is eight days (instead of seven) is because it was a delayed Sukkot, which has eight days.


[This is an abridged version of an argument written by Andrew Sullivan and published by TNR. It appears here.]

The pro-torture crowd loves the ticking-time-bomb hypo. It goes something like this:

If you hold a prisoner, and the prisoner knows the location of a hidden ticking time bomb that will soon explode and kill many people, is it ethically justified to torture the prisoner in order to get the information necessary to prevent the bomb from exploding?

In practice, of course, the likelihood of such a scenario is extraordinarily remote. Uncovering a terrorist plot is hard enough; capturing a conspirator involved in that plot is even harder; and realizing in advance that the person knows the whereabouts of the bomb is nearly impossible. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that all conditions apply. Do we have a right to torture our hypothetical detainee?

According to the pro-torture people, of course we do. But they are making several mistakes.

First, they fail to realize is this isn't an either/or situation. Torture isn't the only way to determine the bomb's location. The Army Field Manual lists 17 other appraoches for gaining intelligence from detainees : Isolation, psychological disorientation, intense questioning, and any number of other creative techniques are possible. There's no reason to rely on torture.

Their second mistake is presuming that a general rule can be established based on a rare case. Even if we were to concede that torture may be justified in rare and extraordinary instances, it does not follow that torture is justified in other cases. Pro-torture people don't seem to understand that its possible set aside one rare and unlikely exception when torture would be used, without also legalizing it across the boards.

And even those who use torture in the very rare care when it might be needed to protect us from catastrophe should be subjected to the consequence of an illigal act. They must be punished --or pardoned ex-post-facto. If the torture is revealed to be useless, if the tortured man is shown to have been innocent or ignorant of the information he was tortured to reveal, then those responsible must face the full brunt of the law. This is the clear, bright line between a free country and an unfree one.


The simple translation of Gen 32:22 is "And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two maidservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford of the Jabbok." That's how the King James edition has it. Darby and the NIV, too.

The Midrash, however, takes the word yeladav not as sons, but as children. This creates a question. By now, Jacob had 12 children (eleven sons, and one daughter) If only 11 crossed the Jabbok, someone is missing. Who, and why?

"Dina," answers the Midrash, "Yaakov locked her in a box to prevent Esav from setting his eyes upon his daughter and seeking her hand in marriage."

A reasonable decision,the ordinary twenty-first-century parent might say. The family was entering a dangerous situation. Eisav, no kitten in his own right, was with 400 soldiers. A young virgin like Dina was especially vulnerable. In the box she was safe. Orthodox Jewish parents, too, are likely to agree with Jacob's decision. Eisav was not only a dangerous man, but an evil man, capable of corrupting the purest soul. In the box Dina was safe from his influence. Entire Jewish communities -from Lakewood to Betar - are built on similar principles.

The Midrash, however, does not approve of Jacob's caution, and chastises him severely. According to the Midrash, Dina's later rape and abduction was Jacob's punishment for not realizing that Dina might have had a positive sway on his brother. For denying his brother even a possible avenue to repentance, Jacob was punished, as the Midrash records: "You did not want her to be taken by a circumcised man; she will be taken by an uncircumcised man. You did not want her to be taken in a permissible manner; she will be taken in a forbidden manner."

Remember that the next time you fret about letting your children play with kids from less observant families. Or the next time, you think that your current shul might not be holy enough for the likes of you and yours.


Friday, December 16, 2005


I'm really not happy with original version of this post. It's far from my best work; also it doesn't really explain why the government's policy of spying on its own citizens is a danger to American ideals.

So let's take two.

Original post shrunken:
The National Security Agency has eavesdropped, without warrants, on as many 500 people inside the United States at any given time since 2002, The New York Times reported today. This should outrage Conservatives, shouldn't it? Shouldn't it? Or are they (and by they I mean Ezzie) going to treat us to another round of bogus and deeply unsatisfying arguments, such as 1 - "9/11 Changed Everything" - including presumably the first and fourth ammendment?; or

2 - "Why would the gov't spy on people who weren't guilty?" -Ouch! The pincer grip of logic!; or
3 - "I have my rights, so screw you"; or
4 - "Yes, but Democrats raise taxes"; or
5 - "I'd rather sit safe in my bugged and camera-laden apartment than be free in the streets where their might be Arabs around."; or...
Aw hell, freedom is over-rated anyway.

Second attempt: Here's what you need to know. The government announced on Friday that for past few years it has allowed the NSA (National Security Agency) to spy on Americans without warrants.

The best argument against this hateful and tyrannical practice is the famous and searing poem of regret attributed (wrongly, most presume) to Martin Niemöller:

In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me — and by that time no one was left to speak up.

In America, they are coming first for terrorists and suspected terrorists. Worry the civil libertarians: Where will it lead? They are right to say that the government is eroding the protections of the law for the purpose of prosecuting people who - in many cases - turn out to be guilty of nothing.

The second best argument is that extrajudicial spying contravenes the fourth amendment, and is, therefore, an offense to the idea of liberty. In fact, this spying is the polar opposite of freedom. The very concept of Western liberty -as the Founders of this country understood it - sprung in part from an understanding that, if the state has the power to violate a person's privacy, and to violate his papers and personal effects then the state has extinguished some of the oxygen necessary for freedom to survive.

These intrusions are an assault on the very idea of freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

We're engaged in a war to spread freedom, the administration says, and truly this is the only thing the justifies the tremendous expense of fighting the war in Iraq and the tremendous lost of life We should mark the words of Ian Fishback, one of the heroes of this war: "Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is 'America.'"

These abstract and philosophical objections aren't likely to sway hard-line Republicans. Hard-line Republicans have sold their souls.

Legitimate "conservatives", however, people who pray at the church of Goldwater and Reagen and believe in small government, and freedom ought to be appalled by this sort of governmental overreaching. They ought to understand where it might lead, and they ought to understand the damage it does to the American experiment.

Best Post

I'd really like to get nominated for Best Post over at Dave's contest; the trouble is, I have loads to choose from. Your thoughts?

Some suggestions:

On Baseball in General, and Pesach in Particular

In Praise of Men

Spineless, obsequious, sniveling, and servile

Bookies open betting on next Pope

If Yaackov and Paul were teenage girls

This is not a complaint about my wife

I thought this type of wedding was only legal in Massachusetts....

Sorry, I don't understand CafePress

Pesach moments to remember

Thinning the herd

We need a new scandal

Clobbering Cross Currents

Bored with Berayshis?

Which Doesn't Belong and Why

Post Shabbos Wisdom

Nude Swimming: Not just for Hasidim.

More later