Saturday, November 30, 2013

Bullish on Hanukka

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Tonight, the two Tannaitic views of superlative Hanukka lights pass like ships in the night. On 28 Kislev, Beit Hillel says to light four and Beit Shammai says to light five; on 29 Kislev, it's the reverse. What is the reason for their dispute? The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) records:

Ulla said: In the West, two Amoraim, R. Jose b. Abin and R. Jose b. Zebida, differ therein: one maintains, The reason of Beit Shammai is that it shall correspond to the days still to come, and that of Beit Hillel is that it shall correspond to the days that are gone; but another maintains: Beit Shammai's reason is that it shall correspond to the bullocks of the Festival; whilst Beit Hillel's reason is that we increase in holiness but do not reduce.

Rabbah b. Bar Hana said: There were two elders of Sidon, one did as Beit Shammai and the other as Beit Hillel: the former gave the reason of his action that it should correspond to the bullocks of the Festival, while the latter stated his reason because we increase in holiness but do not reduce.
 Interestingly, the scholion of Megillat Taanit lists only this latter pair of reasons. Even in the (Babylonian) Talmud, we go out of our way to find this set, not only to the West (Israel), but Sidon as well. Counting days, up or down, is easy enough to grasp, but why should we care about "the bullocks of the Festival"?

II Maccabees, of course, tells us that Hanukka was made eight days to correspond to the Festival of Sukkot. Still, Sukkot has many aspects, so it's not clear why the bullocks are the focus. Furthermore, if we're using those eight days as the source and counting Shemini Atzeret, the bullocks actually go 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 1. Even Beit Shammai doesn't light that way.

Ah, but we're not worried about Beit Shammai because we follow Beit Hillel; "we increase in holiness but do not reduce." But we're applying this to quantity, while that is a rule of quality: the Showbread are placed on a marble table on the way in to the Sanctum, and on a gold table on the way out (Shekalim 6:4); an acting High Priest cannot go back to being a common priest (Yoma 12b). Are five lights holier than four? I seem to remember hearing somewhere that "All eight days of Hanukka, these lights are holy."

Perhaps we need to put this dispute of the Hillel and Shammai schools in the context of their founders. Though Shammai is forever known as Hillel's opposite number, he had a predecessor:

Hillel and Menahem did not argue; then Menahem went forth and Shammai entered.
                                                                        (Mishna, Hagiga 2:2)
Whither did he go forth? Abbayei said: He went forth into evil courses. Rava said: He went forth to the King's service. Thus it is also taught: Menahem went forth to the King's service, and there went forth with him eighty pairs of disciples dressed in silk.
                                                                         (Talmud, ibid. 16b)

In other words, Hillel and Shammai only came together because Menahem "went forth," taking 160 prominent students with him. This was at the lowest point of the monarchy in Judea during Second Temple times, as the Hasmonean dynasty gave way to the Herodian. It was a time to doubt, 200 years after the miracle, if Hanukka was still worth observing.

Both Shammai and Hillel believe in maintaining Hanukka, but the lights have now become symbolic. The bullocks of Sukkot, according to Sukka 55b, which add up to seventy, represent the seventy nations of the world. As Rashi explains (Num. 29), just as these bullocks decrease, the great empires will always decline and fall. It happened to the Greeks, and it would happen to Rome.

Hillel takes the positive view: the Temple may be at the lowest level, the Jewish state may be feeble, the monarchy may be far from its ideals, but "we increase in holiness." As long as the nation survives, there is hope to build and grow.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Burning Bulbs?

Here’s a question for the halachic experts out there. Why is electricity considered fire for hilchos shabbos but not for lighting menorah?

I know, there may be other reasons that electricity is assur on shabbos – or no reason at all. But, given that electricity = fire is an often-cited justification for why we can’t use it on Shabbos, why was I taught in yeshiva to laugh at the benighted folk who used electric menorahs? Either it is fire, and it should be kosher for menorah, or it’s not, and should be okay on Shabbos, at least as far as aish is concerned.

Am I just an ignoramus unaware of some halachic distinction between the two? Or is this a real failure of halacha to comply with the law of noncontradiction? 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Adventures in GOP re-branding

In "News from last January", we see from the Wonkette that the deeply sensitive and aware Alan Alda men of the GOP convened a blue-ribbon "Discussion on Successful Communications with Minorities & Women."

Surprisingly, the best thing about this get together is not the tacit admission that Minorities and Women are not exactly "of" the GOP. No, the best thing about the meeting it that it took place somewhere called "Burwell Plantation"

Nice work GOP communicators!

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Monday, November 25, 2013

1,2,3,4 Let's have a Twitter war.

You can #irony all over this, but here I am in the middle of a Twitter-war with the notoriously awful readers at HonestReporting.

According to the anti-DovBear media it began when I bombarded them with white phosphorus missiles of indignation, but typically the papers are failing to mention the unprovoked suicide bomb of stupidity that started it all.

But luckily, Twitter preserves all.

The fight began, as most things do, with a discussion of the Six-Day War. I introduced Michael Oren's book and his claim that Israel, throughout the sixties, had been looking for an opportunity to go to war with Syria, for the purpose of knocking them off the heights, once and for all
Here it comes:
Note the invocation of Ronald Reagen and the deliberate misinterpretation of a common expression. Double bonus RW Conservative arguing points!
More RW brilliance! I am the crybaby, when he's the one who threw the original hissyfit (and when his entire website is nothing but one long anti-media temper tantrum. Whah Whah. They put something above the fold. Boo hoo now its below the fold. Everybody hates us. Mommmyyyy!!!)
But, of course, if he stopped putting words in people's mouthes and making invalid assumptions his little media-criticism site would be much quieter.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Carbfather

 A guest post by Y. Bloch

Say what you will about Yoseif (Joseph), he certainly does not shun the carbs. Every dream he encounters comes with a match featuring wheat in all of its alluring forms: sheaf, scone, stalk. Perhaps this is not surprising for the firstborn of the lone matriarch to be buried on the road to Breadhouse (Bethlehem).
Not to be confused with Bais Challah, the girls' school in Mendy and the Golem (Issue 19, April 1985).
However, the phrase which most bedevils the commentators features not a dream loaf, but a real one--or is it metaphorical?
And he left all that he had in Joseph's hand, and he knew not ought he had, save the bread that he ate. And Joseph was of a beautiful form and of a beautiful countenance. (Gen. 39:6)
This leads to a beautiful quadrivial dispute among the Big Four commentators.
  • Rashi (from Gen. R.):  Y. wasn't allowed to touch the lady of the house.
  • Rashbam: Y. was even allowed to prepare his master's meals.
  • Ibn Ezra: Y. was forbidden to touch his master's food, because Hebrews are icky.
  • Ramban: Y. used his power only to satisfy his basic bread-'n-salt needs.
However, I am reminded of the last 3 1/2 verses of Jeremiah (also Kings):
Evil-Merodach king of Babylon, in the year that he began to reign, lifted up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah, and brought him forth out of prison. And he spoke kindly unto him, and set his seat above the seat of the kings that were with him in Babylon. And he changed his prison garments; and he ate bread before him continually all the days of his life. And his allowance was a continual allowance given him by the king of Babylon, every day a portion until the day of his death, all the days of his life. (Jer. 52:31-34)
Before Y. goes in to prison, the only symbol of his servile status is getting bread from his master. After Jehoiachin is released from prison, the only symbol of his servile status is getting bread from his master.

Now, once Y. is imprisoned, the same phrase appears, but with no qualifier (ibid. v. 23): "The keeper of the prison looked not at all to ought that was in his hand." Is that because there was no ceremonial master-bread? We do find that Samson spends his prison time in Philistia milling (Jud. 16:21), and the smiting of the firstborn goes from "unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill" (Ex. 11:5) in theory to "unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon" in practice (Ex. 13:29). According to the Midrash (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 7:8; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 186), this is what happens to Sarah (or should that be Serah?) when she descends to Egypt. Is this why grain is בר and prison is בור?
Of course, once Y. is released, he is the one to apportion bread to the entire country (or world). He is the one giving bread to his former and current masters, as well as the father and brothers who scoffed at the idea of his lording over them. It seems like the question of who gives bread to whom is an essential one for identifying master and slave, or at least vassal and lord.

Is this why Passover requires making our own bread? Is this why the Jews receive daily bread from heaven on their way out of Egypt?

It's certainly food for thought.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Boycott Google!

That new Google ad makes Muslims look like apolitical, normal human beings. Like all Zionists I am deeply horrified and offended.

Other than the music choice,  I have the following questions  about this ad:

1) Why does an old guy care so much about getting together with his childhood friend from eleventy-billion years ago? Maybe I'll understand when I'm ancient, but it seems more than a little oversentimental. (Especially, the maudlin "I miss Yosef so much" @2:14 which is there because the scriptwriter knows ordinary people don't mourn their childhood friends that way)

2) And why is the Muslim old guy sitting around a candy shop? I get that its his family business, but if they are well-off enough to afford the house shown later, and the two plane tickets to India, why is he spending his dottage taking up space behind the counter?

3) The Muslim grandkid looks young, healthy and secular -- another argument for the family's affluence, an affluence that would not compel him to sit around a store all day.

4) When he was a kid, he and his Hindu friend stole candy from that store. But, wait, don't they own the joint?

5) Imagine a Google ad that brings together a Jew and an Arab who were separated due to the Nakba. (The Palestinian exodus/expulsion is roughly equivalent to the population transfer that occurred after Partition) I can't imagine any Jew or Arab appreciating such an ad. We'd rightly ask, hey, what about the wars and terrorist attacks that happened afterwards? Relations between Pakistan and India following Partition were equally bad if not worse: Three wars, terrorist attacks on mosques and temples (that rarely make the front page of the times, btw) and so on. I have to wonder what the typical Pakistani and the typical Indian makes of this spot

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Why did the Times run a photo of a terrorist's mother?

Mohammed Ballas/Associated Press
Relatives of a Palestinian accused of stabbing an Israeli soldier visited his mother, Silwa Gawadreh, at her West Bank home

Why did the Times run a photo of a terrorist's mother?

[see it here:]

a) The Times hates Israel. Figuring out new ways to bash Israel or to generate sympathy for terrorists is one of their driving editorial objectives. In fact, reporters are rewarded on the basis of how often they can fit false accusations into their stories.

b) The Times is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and/or Al Queda. The general director of the United Terrorist Alliance personally chose the photograph

c) We're not sure how it happened, but because the Times is run by robots who never make mistakes or exercise bad judgement you can be certain they did this on purpose.

d) It was a bad (ok: terrible) choice, likely made by a stressed our editor working under deadline who, because of the failures of the photographers, may not have had a better shot at hand. But because bad choices have, in the past, been made in ways that favor Israel we can presume that there was no deliberate malice at work here.
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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Lost in Targum?

A guest post by Y. Bloch

I found myself in Modiin this Shabbat, and randomly picking a synagogue (from four on the street) this morning, I had the pleasure of praying with our brand-new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. He spoke before the Torah reading, asking the question, "Why was Levi so special before they killed all those worshipers of the Golden Calf at Sinai?" The answer he discovered, after many years of searching, was that of the "Godly sage Yonatan ben Uzziel," in his Targum on Gen. 32:25. See, Jacob promised to tithe everything, and Levi is the tenth son. If you subtract the firstborns of each mother. And count Benjamin, who wasn't even conceived yet. And start counting again when you run out of sons until you get to ten. Which is not how tithing works, even if we did tithe children.

Um, OK. The Talmud (Megilla 3a) does make clear that YbU only translated the Prophets, while Onkelos is the one who translated the Torah into Aramaic. Yes, alternative Targumim existed, a number of which were known as Targum Yerushalmi, abbreviated TY, which some printer took for Targum Yonatan, since YbU was known as a translator. That's why the academics call it Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, or Pasevdo Yonatan, as Hebrew-speakers pronounce it.

So am I alone in thinking Chief Rabbi Lau the Younger is not going to be big on reinterpreting traditional Jewish sources to meet contemporary problems?

Regardless, he seems like a really nice guy. He even apologized to the bar mitzva boy for making him sit through this speech before he read his portion. I guess that's what's really important.    

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Slut Shaming Dina

Personally, I don't think the sources slut-shame Dina. I think the people interpreting the sources are the slut-shamers. Or, worse, they are big time anti-slut shamers who give the sources unfounded negative interpretations for the sole purpose of demeaning them. Case in point: Rashi calls Dina a yatzanis "just like her mother". Lots of people I know in shul says this means Rashi is blaming Dina for the crime committed against her. But says who. Does yatzanis have to be a pejorative? Is Rashi really insulting one of the matriarchs? He does say Dina was a yatzanis just like her mother.  And let's note that Rashi doesn't say Dina was raped because she was a yatzanis. He says she "went out to see the daughters of the land" because she was a yatzanis. Not the same thing

Let's look at the sources:

Abarbanel thinks Dina didn't do anything wrong by "going out to see the girls of the land [Gen 34:1]". He writes that she only went out to see how girls dressed (she had no sisters and was curious) and certainly didn't go out alone. The LR understands Rashi as speaking positively about Dina. He says that just as Dina's mother Leah went out lshem shamayom [Gen 30:16] so did Dina. Leah wanted to have children and increase the number of tribes while her saintly daughter Dina wanted to be mekarav the "bnos haaretz"

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

I don't mind that RWers hate TV, but why can't they tell the truth about it?

Robert Averich's article in the new Jewish Action, a jeremiade against the television and movie industry, sounds, at first, like it was written by a man from another planet. Every TV show has a gay couple? Republicans are always depicted with "bad skin" while Democrats are always "glamorous, brilliant, tolerant and the saviors of mankind?" Is this supposed to be real or is it some kind of parody?

According to Robert, Hollywood slavishly obeys a set of rule, but even a casual and infrequent TV watcher like me can instantly spot the bogus claims, which I repeat below verbatim :

... you will see gay couples on almost every show. [DB: The police procedurals don't have gay couples, nor does Parks and Recreation. 30 Rock and the Office didn't follow this rule either. I don't watch a whole lot of TV, so maybe all the rest of the shows do. Readers?]

... Dad is a clueless loving buffoon, while elegant long-suffering Mom puts up [with it] [DB: I can't think of a single current show that follows this rule, other than Modern Family but Phil Dunfy is just one of the HOHs depicted on the show. The other is gruff, alpha male, Jay Prichet. He's no buffoon.]

No one goes to church or synagogue. [DB: Shirley on Community goes to church. So did Kenneth on 30 Rock and Peggy's mother on Mad Men. Grace, of Will and Grace was married in a shul, but I can't think of any regular daveners on TV.  Still, Jews make up one percent of the population so why would I expect to see them on mainstream TV?]

The greatest threat to our planet are over population or [global warming] [DB: Oh. Robert is a global warming skeptic? How adorable. It cheers my heart to see screenwriters pontificate on subjects about which they know nothing. Still, I can't think of a single TV show from among the four or five I watch that has ever made a comment about global warming or over population. Readers? What does he have in mind?]

Republicans are stupid nasty bigots... with very bad skin: [DB: Roger Sterling and Burt Cooper on Mad Men, Jack on 30 Rock, Ron F'ing Swanson on Parks... all Republicans, all favorably depicted heroes, not one  skin problem among them.]

Democrats are glamorous, brilliant, tolerant, saviors of man-kind: [DB: Fraizer Crane was depicted as brilliant, but he and his bother were also insufferable snobs. Liz Lemon, democrat to the core,  never saved anyone and was certainly not as glamorous as Republican Jack.]

A woman's place is in the workplace [DB: Well, yes, because TV can't work without situations and a stay-at-home mom isn't going to find herself in the middle of too many of them. A show about a woman who cleans and shops doesn't sound too promising. Still Clair Dunfy stayed at home. So did Jerry's wife on Parks and Betty on Mad Men. And, honestly,  if you want women to stay at home don't complain about TV.  Advocate for higher salaries so one-income families have a shot at staying above water. Women don't work out of the home because TV makes it look like so much fun. They do it to pay rent and buy food.]

There are no Torah Jews in Hollywood. [DB: There are less than 1 million Torah Jews in the country. Let's not get greedy.]

Zionism is invisible. [DB: So are communism, socialism, fascism, and most of the other isms. You don't even see much feminism on TV anymore. Again, its a little stupid to carp that TV suits can't create accessible entertainment using subjects most people don't know anything about. But of course for tin foil hat wearing Robert, TV's refusal to make a comedy about a couple of Young Israel attending Republicans and their deep love for Israel  can only be understood as an anti-Semitic conspiracy. Go on. Roll your eyes. I already have.]

I watch - at most -three hours of TV per week and even I can demolish Averich's claims without resorting to Google.Can't we expect Jewish Action to perform such elementary fact checking?

At the top of page 15 he complains about all the gay behavior he's forced, against his will,  to look at on Modern Family without seeming to realize that actual gays despise the way Mitchell and Cameron are depicted. For some they are too fussy and whiny. Other's wonder why they aren't ever shown being as affectionate with each other as the show's two heterosexual couples. But then, not two paragraphs later, Averich is mad that TV shows always put Mom in the workplace because "Motherhood is soooo Leave it to Beaver" Um, remember Modern Family? Clair, one of the two female leads, has no job and is a full time mother. All she does it look after her kids. Why does Averich first blast Modern Family for not being old fashioned enough, and then fail to cite it as an example of the very values he adores?

I think the problem might be, ironically, that Robert Averich loves Hollywood too much.  He seems to suffer  from a surfeit of emunas movies. He writes: "America wins wars only when Hollywood believes in them." But this is putting the cart ahead of the horse. Hollywood follows. It doesn't lead. Studios make the movies people wish to see. Otherwise they'd go broke. When the American zeitgeist is anti-war that's what you'll see reflected on the screen. Hollywood isn't interested in your hearts and minds. It just wants your dollar.

Epiphany! Perhaps this is why Robert is mad that gays and not Zionists appear on mainstream television. He doesn't realize that this is a business. He thinks the studios have some sort of moral duty to promote his own personal values. Can someone please tell Mr. Self Absorbed that the entertainment industry is simply giving people what the data says they want? It doesn't exist to spread Averich's own personal gospel.

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Dinah wasn't raped, Tamar was

A guest post by Y. Bloch
"The Rape of Dinah" is the dramatic heading given to Genesis 34 in many Christian and some Jewish sources. However, Torah scrolls don't come with chapter headings (or chapters, for that matter). On the contrary, a close reading of the text tells us that the Shakespearean text that should be coming to mind as we read the passage in this week's portion of Vayishlach is not The Rape of Lucrece but Romeo and Juliet.

Let's take the term used in modern Hebrew for rape, oness. As far back as the Mishna (Ketubot ch. 3-4), oness meant compulsion, including but not limited to sexual intercourse without consent. However, this is not a word extant in the Hebrew of the Torah or the Prophets.
So what does the text say? Genesis 34:1-3 reads:
 ותצא דינה בת לאה אשר ילדה ליעקב לראות בבנות הארץ
Dinah daughter of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob, went out to see among the daughters of the land.
 וירא אתה שכם בן חמור החוי נשיא הארץ ויקח אתה וישכב אתה ויענה
Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, slept with her and debased her.
ותדבק נפשו בדינה בת יעקב ויאהב את הנער וידבר על לב הנער
His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman, and he spoke tenderly to her.
Let's examine these verses. Dinah is active in the verse, passive in the second (and thereafter), but does that mean that she is a victim? She goes out "to see among the daughters (bivnot) of the land," and she is, in fact, seen. What happens next?

Some are chilled by "and he took her," but this is the standard terminology for taking a mate. Of Isaac we read (24:67), "And he took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her." Shechem may reverse the order, but he takes Dinah, loves her and wants to marry her in 34:4ff.

What about "slept with her"? Some point to the fact that the preposition used is "otah" rather than "imah," indicating that Dinah was an object in this encounter. However, the two terms are used interchangeably, most notably perhaps in the case of the sota, the woman suspected of adultery (Numbers 5:13, 19). She has to swear that no man has slept with her (otah) willingly. 

This brings us to the third term, "debased her." Many point to the passage of rape in Deuteronomy 22; verse 29 tells us that the rapist must pay the price "because he debased her (innah)." However, only five verses earlier, the Torah sets down the death penalty for willing adulterers: "the young woman because she did not cry out in the town, and the man because he debased another man’s wife." So, while innui may be applied to rape, it is not a positive indication of it. After all, the Torah uses the same term for what Sarah does to Hagar (Gen. 16:6), as well as what the former's descendants will undergo in the latter's homeland (ibid. 15:13). On Yom Kippur, innui is what we are supposed to do to ourselves (Lev. 23:27-32), and the ani is a base person, in the original sense of the word: a person of humble origin or station.

Now we may understand the reaction of Shechem, his father and the people of their town. They do not expect retaliation because this is not a case of abduction and rape; it is a tryst which has become something more. This is why we find Shechem offering mohar (dowry), a term which only appears in one other place in the Torah: concerning the seduction of a virgin (Ex. 22:15-16). Indeed, though Dinah's brothers view it as "an abomination (nevala) in Israel to sleep with Jacob's daughter" and Jacob himself (as well as the third-person narrator) view it as defilement (tuma), the term innui is never mentioned again in the passage. On the contrary, Simeon and Levi are concerned that their sister will be regarded as a whore!   

Rather, in order to find cases of biblical rape, we need to use keywords, those which serve the same role as oness in Mishnaic Hebrew. And we find them quite easily: the roots hazak (to grab) and tafas (to seize). We find them, invariably, in cases of forcible sexual encounters: the theoretical rapes of a virgin (Deut. 22:28), a betrothed girl (ibid. v. 25) or a married woman (Num. 5:13). We find it in actual cases: the concubine of Gibeah (Judges 19:25) and Tamar, daughter of King David (II Samuel 13:11, 14).
In fact, in the case of Tamar, we find exactly what we would expect: she pleads with her brother, Amnon, not to commit such an abominable act, but he overpowers her. Then, once he has committed his act of sexual violence, he casts her into the street.

So why does Dinah get the headlines? Partly, it's because her story is in the Torah, so we read it annually (in the pre-Hanukka doldrums). More than that, I think there is a deeper psychological reason. If we make Dinah the prototypical rape victim, it puts our minds at ease: the pure Jewish girl is kidnapped by the vicious heathen. It's the classic stranger-danger narrative. The case of Tamar is much more disturbing: she is raped by her own (step? half?) brother; in two-thirds of rapes, the attacker is an acquaintance or intimate. The greater peril is from within our communities, as crusading Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg revealed this week in a shocking article, "The Child-Rape Assembly Line."

Why is it that we are all too willing to speak out for Dinah, but not for Tamar?

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Scholastic's horrible anti-Israel sin

Today was a great day for the paranoid Zionists of the world. They got to add Scholastic, the huge publishing house, to the list of people, corporations and countries that hate Israel. Here's a taste of brilliance from YNW:

That the PA (Palestinian Authority) and Hamas have eradicated Israel is not a chiddush but when one sees the Scholastic has joined the anti-Israel community, this is somewhat shocking and alarming.

Scholastic's big crime? Publishing a kiddie book with a kiddie map in it that does not feature Israel. Here it is:

Syria is missing, too!
But has anyone seen the rest of the book? It is possible that context explains this? Perhaps the map belongs to a Hamas operative?  Or, perhaps someone misunderstood  the famous Zionist slogan about how Jordan is Palestine?

In any event, Scholastic has apologized, deeply and sincerely. They've also published plenty of actual maps, in actual atlases that include Israel.See? So maybe we should do as @efink suggested on Facebook and drop the pitchforks? Sorry guys, but Scholastic looks clean.

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Hasidic pedophilia

Here's the terrifying money quote from a  new article on hasidic pedophilia:

"Rabbi Rosenberg believes around half of young males in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community—the largest in the United States and one of the largest in the world—have been victims of sexual assault perpetrated by their elders."
Such a shame that the RCA and Avi Shafrin and the proudly non-anonymous blogs are so busy fretting about Open Orthodoxy and women who wish to wear tefillin.  They could be making noise about this instead.  But I guess that's why they have so much credibility. Because they refuse to waste it on anything that actually matters.


Men need a word to describe something women tend to do in conversations that we find annoying. Then we'll use that word to cover any and every single situation in which a woman says something we don't like as a shortcut way of discrediting whatever point the woman is attempting to make.
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The Sin of Reuben

Joe Shmo is insisting Rueben did not sin and, moreover, anyone who thinks he did sin is a horrible person who probably slept through yeshiva and hates God. I tell Joe that what's he's doing is channeling the opinion of one Sage, but - guess what! - on the same page of talmud where that first opinion is recorded we have three other Sages who are quoted saying that Rueben did sin! See how gvaldik gemarah is? You can learn it day and night and never know truth from false.

Can you guess what Reb Shmo did next? If you said "I bet he loudly accused you of mislearning the passage and refused to look at it himself" you win! Haredi power!

Let's caption this anecdote "A perfect example of something I find impossible to abide."

See the talmudic passage in question  after the jump

60 Minutes Apology

So confused. Does the media worship Mr. Prez or not?

Seems a little odd that the president's minions in the media would rush to air a report that made him look bad without first doing even elementary fact-checking. Unless,,  your conservative claims about how the media routinely carries the president's jock are, you know, false.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Did Jacob practice coitus interruptus with Rachel

Did Jacob practice coitus interruptus with Rachel? No, of course not, but at least one interpreter, Ralbag, thinks this, or some other form of birth control, may have been what was behind Rachel's complaint when she said "Give me children or I'll die."

Jacob's reply - am I instead of God - is understood by Ralbag  to be a denial of the accusation. I'm not the one preventing you from having kids. God is.

Now, certainly this is an astounding and crude interpretation, and one that puts Rachel in a bad light, as it suggests she's too innocent to know what her own husband is doing to her. . But is that alone reason enough to discount it out of hand? Must he shut our ears to interpretations that offend our sensibilities, merely on the grounds that our sensibilities have been offended?

My own view is this: I don't know what happened. I will never know what happened. In fact, I don't even know if the story of Rachel and her infertility is true. 

But I do get a kick out of seeing how the words can be interpreted. I like seeing what different Jews thought,  at different times, and I like trying to work out how those ideas originated. 

Our goal can't be to work out what actually happened. That's impossible. The only thing we can do is attempt to work out why a particular Rabbi thought what he happened to think..

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

BMG's Money Bin

My brother-in-law recently enrolled in the Lakewood yeshiva, and I was surprised to find out that:
1. Tuition for beis medrash is tens of thousands of dollars a year, and
2. The kollel doesn’t get paid.

So where does all the money go? As I understand it, the “faculty” give shiurim maybe once a week, and learning is mostly done in chaburas, led by one of the students (who, if he’s in beis medrash, is paying for the privilege of teaching for free). So the money isn’t spent on teachers. BMG gets grants from the state of New Jersey, there are often fundraisers for the yeshiva, and even the reduced tuition that my in-laws can afford covers room and board with enough left over to pay some utility bills. So the money isn’t going to pay for food or facilities.

Do they have less money then it would seem? Is maintaining the facilities much more expensive than I think? Is the cynical conclusion correct, and the Rosh Yeshiva has one of these?

Does anyone out there know where it all goes?

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Yaakov, BTL, MBA


From Where Jewish Life Thrives in America by Noah Feldman:  
"Only 5 percent of BMG alumni become congregational rabbis. And 25 percent become educators. The rest are engaged in study for its own sake. They will enter the workforce when they are done; armed with skills of logic, formal reasoning and a type of critical thinking, they largely succeed after training in a professional field or going directly into business."
And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him........Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother's father; and take thee a wife ...... the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep.

Rashi on this last verse explains that Yaakov slept there, but the text implies exclusion from the past 14 years when Yaakov did not sleep (so to speak) while in the Yeshiva of Shem V'Ever. 

(היה יעקב בבית עבר מוטמן ארבע עשרה שנה  (מסכת מגילה דף יז,א

Following his Yeshiva studies, Yaakov continues onto his family land and eventually asked Lavan for his daughters hand in marriage: 

And it came to pass, when Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister's son, that he ran to meet him,........Now Laban had two daughters........And Jacob loved Rachel; and he said: 'I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter.'

Yaakov, the first yeshiva boy in history failed miserably at his first post yeshiva business deal. The first rule of negotiations is to never negotiate with yourself. He should have told Lavan "you tell me what you want in exchange for Rachel". Lavan could have said a goat, a sheep, one month of service, etc... but Yaakov offered more than Lavan could have ever asked for. 

If only Yaakov would have gone to get an MBA post yeshiva he might have "succeeded" in this deal. Being armed with the skills of logic, formal reasoning and critical thinking apparently didn't help much. 

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Monday, November 04, 2013

Why do we say the angels cried into Isaac's eyes?

Every school kid knows that Isaac went blind because the angels wept into his eyes while he was tied up and awaiting slaughter. Or, that's one of the five reasons given by the midrash anyway. This post will attempt to explain how the idea of the crying angels developed.

The tears the angels shed at the Akeida are said to have done two things. (1) They landed in Isaac's eyes, later blinding him and (2) They melted Abraham's knife (GR 56 6) which is why, in Gen 22:12,  the interfering angel told Abraham not to cast his *hand* against the lad. The previously-mentioned knife was already gone, see?

But before the tears could be invoked to solve textual problems like the missing knife and the blindness of Isaac which Gen 27:1 says was caused "מֵרְאֹת", i.e,  from seeing something,  first the tears had to be established in their own right. Genesis Rabbah 56:5 tells us how this happened

According to GR 56:5 the existence of these tears is derived from Isaiah 33:7. Here's the verse

הֵן, אֶרְאֶלָּם, צָעֲקוּ, חֻצָה; מַלְאֲכֵי שָׁלוֹם, מַר יִבְכָּיוּן. ח נָשַׁמּוּ מְסִלּוֹת, שָׁבַת עֹבֵר אֹרַח; הֵפֵר בְּרִית מָאַס עָרִים, לֹא חָשַׁב אֱנוֹשׁ.

In the first part of the Midrash angels, specifically angels associated with Jerusalem, ie Moriah, are imagined to cry bitter tears after screaming "Chootzah" In the midrash, R' Azariah imagines Chootzah to mean "This is unnatural!" It is unnatural for a father to kill his son.

The next verse, Isaiah 33:8, is construed by the midrash as the angelic defense of Abraham. 

Here's my attempted translation of the whole passage:

The Arielim, that is the angels associated with Ariel, ie Jerusalem (Moriah) cried "Chootzah= Its unnatural"! (for a father to slay his son) and the angels of peace, or if you prefer, the angels of  Salam ie, Jerusalem (Moriah) cried bitter tears saying:

"The paths are waste [Without Abraham to show hospitality to strangers] the wayfaring man ceaseth [connection to Sarah: unclear] he hath broken the covenant [ie the covenant established with Isaac will be broken if he is slaughtered] he [ie Abraham] hath despised the cities [which is why he lives in the desert seeking guests] he regardeth no man [but He, i.e, God, should regard Abraham who has merit!]"

So to sum up, first a drasha on Is 33:7 gave us Akeida tears; later those tears are used to solve two different
textual problem

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War of the Worlds


War of the Worlds was an episode of a radio series directed and narrated by Orson Welles which aired on October 30, 1938. The first 2/3 of the 62-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. 

This event is something we've all heard about. Millions of people tuned into this show which caused a mass hysteria all over the country. A recent PBS documentary on the event claimed that “upwards of a million people, [were] convinced, if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders”. NPR's latest episode of its show Radiolab opened with the claim that “The United States experienced a kind of mass hysteria that we’ve never seen before." 

There should be nothing new or surprising to anyone about this claim, we all have heard it and likely accepted it as a fact of history. 

But as Michael Soclow has written for Slate this week, "There’s only one problem: The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast."

Following this article Radiolab added this correction to their show notes: "In this program, we referred twice to the fact that 12 million people heard the "The War of the Worlds" broadcast when it was first aired in 1938. However, no one knows for sure how many people were listening."

Soclow goes on to say that the legend grew exponentially in 1940 and gained acceptance when "an esteemed academic solidified the myth in the public mind. Relying heavily on a skewed report compiled six weeks after the broadcast by the American Institute of Public Opinion, The Invasion From Mars, by Princeton’s Hadley Cantril, estimated that about 1 million people were “frightened” by War of the Worlds."

Here is a case where most people have come to believe that millions of people heard, panicked, and were filled with terror throughout the country for a short time but this never actually happened. What does this say about the Sinai Proof if anything?

This was a show which very few people listened to and therefor no country wide panic occurred and yet only two years later someone wrote that 1,000,000 people heard it and panicked. How did this claim gain acceptance? Didn't the people of 1940 say this only happened two years ago and we didnt see this happen? And didn't the children of the 1940s and 50s say our parents never told us this happened to them so how can this be true? But that didn't happen, by 2013 NPR can claim that 12,000,0000 witnessed Welles' show and  panicked because of it. Anyone who heard the Radiolab episode before NPR made the correction likely believes now that 12 million people witnessed the radio show live on radio, despite the fact their grandparents were alive then and they never told their families about it. 

Is the main factor in the acceptance of this myth that people later than 1940 came across the claim in a book that 1,000,000 heard War of the Worlds live on radio and had no reason to doubt it? If they wanted some verification, there were certainly people who gave it, like at CBS who had a vested interest in this myth being propagated. (See Soclow's article about how media in general has benefited from perpetuating this false history). 

Could a book claiming mass revelation before 3,000,000 people have come to be accepted the same way. The book is written after the supposed event, the people did not witness it themselves so they ask the priests and scholars about this claim. "My grandfather never told me about this, but the story claims our ancestors were there, did this really happen?" And the priests (CBS) would have of course said yes. There are likely a myriad of other scenarios over different times spans and places that we can come up with to compare Sinai to War of the Worlds. 

The primary take away is that a mass revelation was claimed and despite the lack of familial tradition the myth was accepted. 

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Saturday, November 02, 2013

Open-ended Orthodoxy

 A guest post by Y. Bloch

I'm not sure how to feel about Open Orthodoxy. As of 6 months ago, I had never heard the term. Now, it's all the rage, with the pages of Times of Israel, Tablet Magazine and filled with attacks, defenses and rebuttals (the latest being "Orthodox and here to stay" by Rabbi Asher Lopatin).
I'm still not certain what Open Orthodoxy means. Is it the new term for what used to be called, way back in 5773, LWMO, left-wing Modern Orthodox? (Personally, I'm LMFAO and I know it.) Is it the new term for Modern Orthodoxy as a whole, now that "modern" has become a term not be used in polite company, like "colored," "scientific fact" and "liberal"? Is it exclusive to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, its faculty, students, graduates and supporters? It's hard to know. Being an English major, I naturally turn to the dictionary (Random House, in this case). "Open Orthodoxy" isn't in there, and "open" has 88 definitions. However, "open-ended" seems to be more promising:
1. not having fixed limits; unrestricted, broad: an open-ended discussion.
2. allowing for future changes, revisions or additions: open-ended agreements.
3. having no fixed answer: an open-ended question.
Hm, discussions, revisions, additions and questions--that seems like prime OO territory. Let's work our way backwards. I find "having no fixed answer" extremely appealing. There are, after all, many ways to conclude the sentence "The Holocaust is justified by..." and every single one of them makes the speaker a horrible person. So if OO means a Judaism that doesn't try to attribute bus crashes to faulty mezuzot and hurricanes to gayness, I'm all for that.

What about "allowing for future changes, revisions or additions"? I think that anyone who is honest and knowledgeable about Judaism would have to admit that the Torah has undergone this process in the past, and if it couldn't continue to do so, what would be the point of publishing new Jewish literature daily? True, we may not have the legislative or interpretive powers of the Talmudic sages, but Judaism continues to evolve along with the world. I know: it's hard to imagine a great nation guided by an ancient founding document that can no longer be amended in practice, forcing us to argue endlessly over the text and the intent of its writers. I refer, of course, to Gondor. (Really, only the heir of Isildur can call himself king?)

This brings us to definition numero uno: "not having fixed limits, unrestricted, broad." It's here that I arrive at my problem with Open Orthodoxy. What are its boundaries, if indeed it has any? This was brought into stark relief by "Experiencing Faith," a recent post by Rabbi David Almog (ordained by YCT and pursuing a doctorate at JTS) at To the question "...if revelation at Sinai is a myth, why should I be observant? In what can I still have faith?" he responds:
My own answer to these questions is that I esteem my intuitive religious experiences over doctrine.  Whether or not the specific event of Sinai happened does not undermine my own experiences of the sweetness and goodness of Torah, or my sense of their prophetic nature.  Moreover, just as I have a particular love for my own family and the community in which I live, I have an affinity for my Jewish family and its approach to serving God.
This brings us to the crux of the issue. The question that I always have for those who are not invested in the revelation at Sinai is the following: then why keep these 613 mitzvot? Experience, community, affinity--that's all fine, but what if you're not feeling motivated to separate meat and milk, to avoid threading heddles on the Sabbath or to abstain from physical contact with your spouse for two weeks every month?

More importantly, how can the OO criticize people like Rabbis Avi Shafran and Gil Student for experiencing Judaism by condemning them? Do the OO think that those rabbis are insincere? They really believe that they are defending God's word, for what it's worth, out of their love for their own community and faith. Why is that less legitimate than the OO experience?
I have yet to see what the compelling evidence is for the Open Orthodox who believe that (and there may be OO who do not believe this) the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai could not have happened. Are they holding back? Do you only start to learn this stuff after getting your Master's in Bible? Textual analysis only gets you so far.

Now, Open Orthodoxy espouses a belief that God exists and that He speaks through prophets. However, what He speaks is couched in... lies? Half-truths? Untruths? I'm not exactly sure. When God made up a new mitzva and told the prophet to pretend it had been revealed at Sinai centuries earlier, how did he convince the people? Did God perform miracles and wonders to verify this fabrication? And if prophets had the courage to speak truth to power on pain of imprisonment and death, why couldn't they tell the truth about Sinai, namely that nothing of significance happened there?

I would love to hear from some of my OO friends (who may cease to be my friends upon reading this) what the answer is to this basic question: why fulfill these mitzvot? Why fulfill any mitzvot? From not mixing wool and linen to recalling the Exodus to putting leather boxes on our heads and arms, why? To fulfill the will of a God Who has been fooling us all along?

If I didn't believe in the revelation at Sinai, I would have to go with the atheists. They're far more convincing. But for further discussion and questions, OO, I'm open.

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Friday, November 01, 2013

IN WHICH I EXPLAIN A MIDRASH (The blindness of Isaac)

As you know, I am not a big fan of explaining midrashim. Most of the time, I think the author of the midrash means what he says and intends no special figurative or metaphorical interpretation. Also, most of the interpretations people supply deserve nothing but disdain, as they add nothing to the narrative and are usually trite, self-evident 'lessons'. [eg "We learn from how Paro's daughter's arm stretched out that we should always try our hardest!!" Right + Yawn.] 

But this one here, that I am about to share, is different I think.

Five reasons are given for Isaac's blindness. Perhaps the best known one is cited by Rashi on Gen 27:1

"Another explanation: When Isaac was bound on the altar, and his father was about to slaughter him, the heavens opened, and the ministering angels saw and wept, and their tears fell upon Isaac’s eyes. As a result, his eyes became dim."

Questions on the Midrash: How does an angel cry? And why would their tears damage someone's eyes? And why would that damage be delayed until old age?

Questions on Rashi: Why choose this one (and two others) from among the five explanations given by the midrash? And if we assume (as we do!) that Rashi chooses midrashim that address textual anomalies or narrative difficulties, what is this midrash solving?

My answers: We don't mean literal tears, and we don't mean literal crying. We mean that the experience of being tied to an altar and threatened by a knife-wielding father scarred Isaac emotionally. He felt rejected and abandoned. He felt unloved. As a result he overcompensated with his own son Esav, and being unwilling to put Esav through the traumatic experience of feeling what he felt, Isaac blinded himself to Esav's shortcomings. This is what forced Rivka to resort to her scheme to secure the blessings for Jacob and why Rashi includes this interpretation in his commentary. The question he is addressing is: Why did Rivka mislead her husband; the answer the midrash gives is that the experience of the Akeida left Isaac unable to contemplate disowning his son.

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