Friday, December 30, 2011

Joseph's Wagons: How does Rashi know what he knows?

The verse says:
וַיַּרְא אֶת-הָעֲגָלוֹת, אֲשֶׁר-שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ; וַתְּחִי,רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם
And [Jacob] saw the wagons Yosef had sent to carry him and the spirit of Jacob their father revived.
What was it about the wagons that improved Jacob's mood, and convinced him that his son was alive?

Fox defames Jews on FaceBook. Apologizes.

Who are Fox's friends? Not us, apparently.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Fox Latin America has apologized for a poll on whether Jews killed Jesus Christ that one of its staffers put on a Facebook page promoting the National Geographic Channel's Christmas special.

The poll asked readers who they think is responsible for the death of Christ: Pontius Pilate, The Jewish People or the High Priests.

The Simon Weisenthal Center in Buenos Aires calls it a defamatory reference to Vatican propaganda that "resulted in the persecution and murder of Jews for two millennia."
The Jewish group says it's outraged that Fox would perpetuate an idea that the Vatican annulled back in 1965.

Fox Spokeswoman Guadalupe Lucero apologized on behalf of National Geographic, saying the poll was removed immediately and measures have been taken to prevent such incidents in the future.
Thanks Guadalupe! I shall rest easy now, secure in the knowledge that Fox will never again behave offensively.

PS As per Kinky Friedman, "We Jews believe it was Santa Claus who killed Jesus Christ."

Thursday, December 29, 2011

What the Agudah Press Release about Bet Shemesh Really Means

Here, in blue, is Agudah on the violence in Bet Shemesh, with my remarks and interpretations in red.

Violence of any sort, whether physical or verbal, by self-appointed “guardians” of modesty is reprehensible. Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral - Jewish! - behavior. We condemn these acts unconditionally. 

 This is where the statement should have ended. Nothing more needed to be said. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the writer does not believe that the perpetrators of violence are the real villains here.

 Those who have taken pains to note that the small group of misguided individuals who have engaged in this conduct are not representative of the larger charedi community are to be commended. 

 No! True! Scotsman! What Agudah is doing here is seeking to affirm that the Charedi commuinty is perfect by insisting any non perfect people are "are not representative of the larger charedi community". This is the NTS fallacy in spades. Also, when black people riot does Al Sharpton claim that the rioters aren't real black people? Of course not. So why does Agudah think it can get away with an analogous claim? 

It is disturbing, though, that some Israeli politicians and secularists have been less responsible, portraying the actions of a very few as indicative of the feelings of the many. Quite the contrary, the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews.

 And here we have arrived at the real reason for the press release. Agudah isn't speaking out because its upset that people who dress, think, and act like Agudah members are misbehaving. Agudah is speaking out because the "politicians and secularists" have told the story. From the perspective of Agudah, the villains aren't the men who have been mistreating small girls, but the "politicians and secularists" who are decrying the violence without issuing huge disclaimers stating that the perpetrators "are not representative of the larger charedi community."

Lost in all the animus and ill will, unfortunately, is the concept ostensibly at the core of the controversy: the exalted nature of tzenius, or Jewish modesty. Judaism considers human desires to constitute a sublime and important force, but one whose potential for harm is commensurate with its potential for holiness. 

 In a society like our own, where the mantra of many is, in effect, “anything goes,” many charedi Jews, men and women alike, see a need to take special steps - in their own lives and without seeking to coerce others - to counterbalance the pervasive atmosphere of licentiousness, so as to avoid the degradation of humanity to which it leads. It would be tragic were the acts of violence to lead Jews to, G-d forbid, reject the culture of tzenius that has always been the hallmark of the Jewish nation, to regard Jewish modesty as something connected to violence and anger, rather than to refinement and holiness.

In other words, we, the Chosen and Perfect People of Agudah agree with the perpetrators of violence. We think they are right to impose absurd restrictions on women. We agree that women are required to organize their lives to prevent men from having erections. We agree that small girls must not do anything that could arouse a full grown man. And, sure, we also condemn violence, but we totally support the underlying reasons for the violence. Oh, and when we said we condemn the violence, what we really meant was we condemn how the violence is causing newspaper stories to be written that, in turn, are making people disdain our crazy ideas about women. 

See, if the "politicians and secularists" and newspaper would shut the H up, Agudah would too.
When black people riot, do Al Sharpton et al, say, "Hey those aren't real black people?"  No. To the best of my recollection act like the leaders they imagine themselves to be and call on people to calm the hell down.

Currently, black hat and coat wearing people are behaving very badly in Bet Shemesh, and Agudah has issued a response via press release, as follows:
Reports of recent events in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh are deeply disturbing.

Violence of any sort, whether physical or verbal, by self-appointed “guardians” of modesty is reprehensible. Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral - Jewish! - behavior. We condemn these acts unconditionally.

Those who have taken pains to note that the small group of misguided individuals who have engaged in this conduct are not representative of the larger charedi community are to be commended. It is disturbing, though, that some Israeli politicians and secularists have been less responsible, portraying the actions of a very few as indicative of the feelings of the many. Quite the contrary, the extremist element is odious to, and rejected by, the vast majority of charedi Jews.

Lost in all the animus and ill will, unfortunately, is the concept ostensibly at the core of the controversy: the exalted nature of tzenius, or Jewish modesty.

Judaism considers human desires to constitute a sublime and important force, but one whose potential for harm is commensurate with its potential for holiness.

In a society like our own, where the mantra of many is, in effect, “anything goes,” many charedi Jews, men and women alike, see a need to take special steps - in their own lives and without seeking to coerce others - to counterbalance the pervasive atmosphere of licentiousness, so as to avoid the degradation of humanity to which it leads.

It would be tragic were the acts of violence to lead Jews to, G-d forbid, reject the culture of tzenius that has always been the hallmark of the Jewish nation, to regard Jewish modesty as something connected to violence and anger, rather than to refinement and holiness.
As you can see, rather than accepting the mantle of leadership, Agudah is denying all responsibility and, in doing so, confessing the impotence and insignificance of their supposedly all powerful supposedly universally revered gedolim. Worse, while condmening the violence, Agudah is agreeing with the opinions and perspectives that make the violence inevitable.

As the end of the press release confirms, the world IS a sucky, dangerous, soul destroying, place. What the zealots want IS right and IS worth fighting for. Women should NOT walk or sit anywhere they please. They MUST organize their lives to keep us from having erections and dirty thoughts. Only <<shrug/shrug>> what can you do? We may be able to marshal our forces and denounce Avi Weiss in one mighty roar, but when women are being physically injured, me crazy crazy people with whom we agree completely but for whom we take no responsibility maybe shouldn't have behaved violently. And if the media hadn't identified them with us, really, we wouldn't care. But because were being lumped together with people who think and act like we do 99.99 percent of the time, we would really like to point out, that as usual secularists and newspapers are the real villians here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Jonathan Rosenblum's take on Gender Segregation in Israel

A guest post (mostly by Menachem Lipkin,) posted by Philo

Jonathan Rosenblum's latest article is titled "First, Let’s Calm Down", and it basically accuses everybody of making a bigger deal of the gender segregation than is necessary. The tagline of article reads "How a rejection of any separation between the sexes has become a fetish."

Is he kidding me? THAT'S the fetish??!! The obsessive misogynistic separation is the fetish here, not the fight against it!

Rosenblum brings up a bunch of straw men and claims that the cases he brings up are what people are up in arms about and that they have a feminist agenda. People who complain about the separate sidewalks in Meah Shearim during Sukkot are perhaps not aware that "the extremely narrow main street is virtually impassable without having to jostle members of the opposite sex – something that both the men and women are eager to avoid" and educates us about separate seating on buses: "What haredim do wish to avoid is being squished together with strangers of the opposite sex on crowded routes."

His article doesn't have a single word about the little girls getting yelled at and spit on in Beit Shemesh.

A Facebook friend suggested that someone needs to write a scathing rebuttal. I was going to do that, but then noticed that Menachem Lipkin wrote a pretty good one already in the comments to the article on another website where it was reprinted. (A site which DovBear doesn't like to link to, so as this is his blog, I'll respect that policy.) Here is Menachem Lipkin's comment in its entirety:


I respect Jonathan and understand that he tries both to be a voice of moderation to the “outside” world and to prod the “olem” to improve. However, in this case I think he’s off the mark.

To those of us living in the trenches with these issues for years now, it’s a welcome blessing that the broader Israeli society has finally woken up to this problem and we are thrilled to finally have the media and politicians paying attention. Because of this, finally, the police are beginning to act against the extremists living among us. Jonathan, by cherry picking a couple of isolated examples and then comparing to them to what goes on in “normal” places, has obfuscated the larger, more pernicious issue. No, it’s not a strictly feminist issue, but if that’s the “hook” that was needed to wake people up then we’ll take it. The issue is one of a cancerous spread of religious fanaticism. These pages and other blogs have overflowed with examples, so there’s no need to list all of them. But the seemingly innocuous examples Jonathan brought are just the tip of the iceberg.

So, for example, while it may not have been outrageous, in isolation, to have a temporary separation in Mea Shaarim during the height of Succot, there’s a permanent sign in front of a synagogue just a couple of blocks from my house that asks women to cross the street, and women who do not oblige have been spat upon. If people within a certain type of community want to voluntarily segregate themselves on buses that serve ONLY those types of people, then that’s their business, but it’s totally unacceptable to foist this on buses that travel intercity or among different types of neighborhoods within the same, diverse city. (And let’s be honest here, if these extremists truly “honor” women the way they claim, then they would reserve the front of the bus for them and not the rear, which is objectively less comfortable and more difficult to access.)

If one steps back and looks at the panorama of extremist issues, from separate buses, to extorting businesses to put up “tznius” signs, to removing women from all advertising, to running out of ceremony when women get up to sing, to not calling women up to a podiumm at a government event, to receive their medical award, and on and on, it’s not unreasonable for the broader public to perceive this in feminist terms. To compare any of these items to what’s done in the US or other countries, where there is no broad based effort to enact such restrictions in so many areas of daily life, is to truly miss the point of what’s going on here.

Regarding, what we in Bet Shemesh affectionately refer to as our Burqa Babes, I must admit to enjoying a level of glee at the sight of the “Frankenstein” Eidah squirming in the face of this “monster” they created. While Jonathan is right that there have been quiet murmurings among some rabbis against this for a while, it has reached a crescendo of late. There’s no question that some of these women are wackos, as exemplified by one of their leaders in Ramat Bet Shemesh who was arrested for basically running a brothel in her house. But to assume this of all of them is, again, to miss the point. I’ve seen a couple of videos recently of these women speaking about there beliefs. They sincerely believe that what they are doing is what’s right in the eyes of God. To my mind they are simply invoking a basic Kal V’chomer. If the “normative” Chareidi world is pushing women out of view in so many arenas, if even “progressive” magaizines like Mishpacha and AMI make it a sin of temptation to even view a 2-dimentional picture of a modestly dressed woman, how much more so should it be forbidden to gaze on any part of an actual, 3-dimensional, living woman? They are simply following the extremes of the recent tznius obsession to their logical conclusion.

We in Bet Shemesh have davka been making a concerted effort to bring national attention to these issues. So, no Jonathan, the very last thing we want is for people to “calm down”.

Search for more information about crazies terrorizing little girls in Beit Shemesh at
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Is it wrong to teach people?

Is it wrong to teach people? I run into this all the time, on chanuka especially.

See, I've done some elementary reading, mostly of blogs, so I know why we celebrate eight days of chanuka, or to put it politically correctly, I know the most plausible explanation. Is it wrong to share this information?

Every year I encounter some bright eyed kid eager to share one of the many bogus, sorry, less plausible explanations for Chanuka's length, and every year I tell them about what it says in the book of Macabees. Is that wrong? Would it be better to let people stay naive? The same thing happens whenever the conversation turns to chumash. The people I know, typically, know Rashi's interpretations, and that's all; worse, they've been raised to believe that Rashi is the one and only correct interpretation. So it's always a little mind blowing, for them, when I share a "not from our mesorah" rishon that disagrees strongly with Rashi. Would it be better if I didn't bother?

And now a blogger I rather admire has published a naive expression of faith in the Ramabam's 13 principles, as recorded by the ani maamin poet, meaning not precisely those principles of faith in which the rambam himself actually believed. I half wrote a post pointing this out, before I stopped myself.

Why bother, I said. She wants to believe what she wants to believe. It makes her happy. It connects her to her people, and to her community. Who am I to interfere?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

OU and Agudah Unite Against Contraceptives

A Guest Post By E. Fink

This nugget comes courtesy of R' Josh Yuter

From what I can gather (I'm no expert), the government requires employers to provide insurance to their employees that provides them with access to contraceptives. Some religious groups find this incredibly offensive.

Most people just assume that those who find this offensive are Catholics. They think: "Those stodgy old-school Catholics are the last people on earth who completely reject contraceptives." But no, a letter signed by a large number of Protestant, Evangelical and other denominations of Christians stands tall with Catholics.

The money quote:
We believe that the Federal government is obligated by the First Amendment to accommodate the religious convictions of faith-based organizations of all kinds, Catholic and non-Catholic. We respectfully ask that your administration, should it maintain the current contraceptives mandate, devise an exemption for religious employers that accurately defines such employers and exempts them from being required to offer to their employees (and students, if they are among America’s many religious colleges and universities) health services to which they have deep religious objections.
Along for the ride are the OU and Agudah.

Health Department takes notice of obscure Jewish ritual

From what I understand Shigella spreads more frequently among the OJ because we tend to wash with a cup, often before saying Asher Yatzer.  The bacteria goes from your hand to the cup, where it waits for the next person to use the cup for washing. 

In the letter that follows (contributed by Efrex) the NYC Health Department seems to acknowledge this problem, however delicately. In any event, its neat to see our rituals acknowledged.

Survey Results

Did you take this survey?

Results as of 12/23 after the jump

Korean film crew visits Ponevitch (Video)

So the Koreans are fascinated with Talmud study because they think our own fascination with the Talmud has something to do with the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes Jewish people have won. Well, jokes on them. The scholars of Ponevitch may be smart, but they aren't likely to win any Nobels. Math, science or literary talent are what pave the path to Stockholm, not pilpul.

More information from The American:
The nurture camp looks to the cultural environment in which Jewish children are raised—both the home and the community—as the source of their high average intelligence. In order for this hypothesis to hold, there must be an identifiable difference between the homes in which the leading Jewish scholars are raised and comparable gentile homes, and this unique feature must be sustained over multiple generations. This is a reasonable hypothesis—after all, a central component of Jewish faith is the rigorous study of sophisticated and complicated religious texts. Jews are highly literate and place a premium on education, so their children, though no more intelligent genetically than others, might be off to a much better start. This idea would be compelling if most Jews today grew up in traditional homes. However, the vast majority of Jewish households, both in the United States and in Israel, are secular and not especially different from those of their gentile neighbors in similar socio-economic conditions. Orthodox Jewish Nobel laureates like Robert Aumann, who tackled the Talmud in yeshiva studies in his youth, are the exceptions. Oftentimes, Jews grew up in homes that pushed them toward retail business and out of school at a young age. This was especially true of the children of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who grew up in early 20th-century America, a generation that still produced scholars of great renown.
So yes, we produce smart people, but no, the study of Talmud does not appear to be the reason.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Guess what fakeRabbi Levin considers the true message of Chanukka?

Of course fakeRabbi Levin thinks Chanuka is all about the gays

 Random thoughts:
  •  When religious figures claim to be offering nothing but the truth, it always ends up otherwise.
  •  How gay is this man? "Muscle bound Olympian-type Maccabees" If you don't believe the Greeks were heavy into gay sex, go look it up on the Internet? Sure, can you perhaps suggest some of your favorite Websites, fakeRabbi? Here's something you can bank on: The nastiest social scolds almost always end up to be struggling with the problem they spend the most time denouncing.
  • As reprehensible as fakeRabbi Levin is, today he is mostly correct: The Macs did fight a war against Jews who approved of Greek ways and teachings. Their war was not, however, a war against lewdness or "institutionalized homosexuality", but a war against forward thinking and philosophy. The original Hashmonaim were country mice who fought in defense of Old Time religion. As often happens, their city mice children and grandchildren rejected the ways of their fathers, took on Greek names, and became almost everything the founders of the House despised.
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In defense of the Chanukka Miracle

First published December 3, 2010  

There are some blogs that make a big deal each year about the fact that the Chanukah miracle is only mentioned in late rabbinic sources.

For instance, it does not appear in:
  • Macabees 1 (written in Hebrew, at the end of the second century BC) Click here to see how Mac 1 tells the story. In this book, the holiday is called Dedication. 
  • Macabbees II (written in Koine Greek probably in Alexandria, Egypt, c 124 BC)  This book provides a slightly less detailed account of the Chanukka story, but includes what are claimed to be two letters sent by Jews in Jerusalem to Jews of the Diaspora in Egypt about the new holiday. In one of them, Chanukka is described as a delayed Sukkos and given the name Sukkot B'kislev, i.e., December Sukkot [="Scenopegia in the month of Casleu"]. Click here to see this letter. Though he wrote in Greek, the author's theology mostly adheres with Rabbinic Judaism. 
  • Antiquities of the Jews: (written in Koine Greek around 94AD) This history of the Jewish people, written by Josephus, tells the story of the war, and calls the holiday "Lights" [phôta]. Rather significantly Josephus does not link the name of the holiday with the oil miracle. Instead he writes:  I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us [or "came to light" =phanênai] and that thence was the name given to that festival. Josephus is regarded as a Pharisee, that is, as a rabbinic Jew.  ***
  • The Book of John (written in Koine Greek at the end of the first century) The last, most overtly antisemitic Gospel is also the only one to mention Chanukka. Though he lived at around the same time as Josephus, the name he used for the holiday is "Dedication", or the same name that appears in Migillat Tannit and later Rabbinic works. *** Click here to read more about why John and Josephus employ different names for the holiday. 
  • Megillat Taanit *  An Aramaic chronicle of  35 eventful days on which the Jewish nation either performed glorious deeds or witnessed joyful events (probably written in the first century CE) 
  • The Mishna (Redacted around 220 CE)
The first, indeed the only, mention of the oil miracle is found in BT Shabbat 21b**
What is Chanukah? The Rabbis have expounded: Beginning with the 25th of Kislev, eight days of Chanukah are observed, during which no eulogies are delivered, nor is fasting permitted. For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the holy oils used for the Menorah in the temple, and when the Hasmonean house prevailed and vanquished them, they searched and found only one remaining jar of oil with the Kohen Gadol's seal. Although it contained only enough oil to burn for one day, a miracle occurred, and the oil burned for eight days. A year later they  designated these days as a holiday on which praise and thanksgiving were to be said."
***Additionally, as far as miracles go, the one alleged to have occurred on Channuka is really quite shabby. A lamp lasting for a few extra days -- let's be honest - is not that impressive. It's easy to deny, easy to fake, and the spiritual significance of such a miracle is hard to interpret. If God wanted to let people know he was still around, why not reveal Himself to more than a small group of believers? Why not scrawl His signature across the sky? Letting a few insiders witness a lamp burn a bit more slowly seems categorically similar to crying statues and other modem day Catholic miracles in that they persuade no on who isn't already a believer, while inviting scorn from outsiders. We reject such cheap miracles when they are claimed by other faiths. What are the grounds for accepting them when our own faith announces them?

I explain why none of this should matter after the jump:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How deeply invested are you in the gift-giving aspect of Chanuka?

My! The hatred of the United States for Israel seems to be at an all time high!

Now what was it that laughingstock of a columnist said about the United States' relationship with Israel? Oh right. That we're no longer allies. So how does she explain this?

Apparently the joint drill is "unprecedented in size" and will include the deployment "of several thousands American soldiers in Israel." Such a message to the Islamic world. Naturally, they will conclude from this that mean-old-Obama means the Jewish state nothing but harm. 

Irrational Obama haters, you are invited to attempt to spin this at your leisure. 


A Store Where Toys Must Be Kosher

Is it still news to anyone that Orthodox Jews who live in Brooklyn are not like other people? Apparently the New York Times thinks so. As evidence I present their December 15 article on the glatt kosher toy store:
Non-shocking revelations include the news that the place is cramped and that frum Jews prefer not to look at immodestly dressed women. Yawners.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Excellent Article in Azure

A Guest Post By E. Fink

On Cross-Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein linked to an amazing article by Dr. Moshe Koppel. I read the article and was blown away. I believe many of the wise readers of this blog will find it equally compelling.

The article has many take-away points and many of those points echo some of the ideas DovBear has been publicizing for years. In some ways, the article explains everything happening in orthodox Judaism today. I cannot over-emphasize how much I enjoyed the article.

Stuff you should do next

A bunch of gadgets I think you should buy

Last week we recommended books. Today I provide instructions and directions about grown-up toys.

The Tablet I think you should buy:

IPad 2 
The IPad is amazing. True, you can't use it to compose a manifesto, but there really is nothing else it can't do. There's a reason why the thing flies off the shelves. I may not be able to convince you to buy a tablet (perhaps you think they're time sink holes) but if you're already in the market for one, don't waste another second considering clunkier, heavier, more expensive, less functional competitors. Apple's IPad is the gold standard.

The Point and Shoot Camera I think you should buy:

Canon PowerShot S100
I know nothing about photography, and can't begin to explain ISO, exposure or shutter speed. I just want to point the thing at something and end up with pictures I can put on my wall. My S100 fits the bill. Simple, easy, no nonsense. And it never misses.

David Pogue, the brilliant tech critic, agrees writing:
This camera costs more than double the usual pocket camera price, but its picture quality blows other cameras off the map... holy cow — what a photographic instrument! What color, clarity, tonal range! There are days when the S100 seems incapable of muffing a shot.
The downside is battery life, but big deal. Carry two of them. (and I get about 200 shots per charge, so it isn't that terrible)

The Mini Camcorder I think you buy: 
Kodak PlayFull
Small, waterproof, and excellent video quality for the price and size, with very good editing and sharing software. Fits in your pocket, and does everything you could want. I've used mine in every situation and it does not disappoint.

The TV I think you should buy:

Samsung LN40D630 40-Inch
This LCD is not expensive, and the people at CNET love, love, love it. Here's a taste:
With image quality every bit as good as many expensive LED models, the Samsung LND630 is a great choice for a no-frills LCD TV.
Part of the reason why this set is so inexpensive (<$700) is that its a dumb TV, meaning it includes no extra features like internet connectivity, on-board applications or 3D. That's what CNET means by "no frills". But, so what? A set with "frills" can cost an extra 200 bucks or more. Why spend extra money, when you can get the exact same functionality for less than a $100? Which brings me to:

The Streaming Players I think you should buy:

Roku 2 HD Streaming Player:
Hook this baby up to your "dumb" TV and access NetFlix, Hulu, HBO GO, Amazon Instant and about 350 other content providers directly over the Internet.  If you have no interest in the NFL or reality shows, this device and a few not very expensive subscriptions can absolutely replace your cable box.

Apple TV MC572LL/A
This toy costs a bit more than the Roku, but ties in seamlessly with ITunes. If you're already an Apple family, its worth the extra few dollars to get this instead. To explain it simply, this gadget lets you consume the movies, photos and music that are sitting on a hard drive via your TV, while also allowing your TV to access content from Hulu, NetFlix, etc.  

Stuff you should do next

Friday, December 16, 2011

What are duda'im?

Duda'im are mentioned in the bible when Leah trades them to Rachel in exchange for a night with Yaakov.

Rachel, we're led to believe from the context, wanted the  duda'im because she thought they would help her conceive. This is the view of Rashi  and Sfrorno. Both thought duda'im were fertility-charms, similar to garlic, an herb the Sforno additionally notes, "...our Sages suggested be eaten Friday nights by men."

[Off-color aside: How many of you men in the audience think going to bed with a mouthful of garlic is good for conception?]

And what are duda'im? Various suggestions include mandrakes (Ibn Ezra,the Vulgate); jasmine (Rashi); orberries and cypress grass (Midrash). In any event this seems to be yet another case of an object's supposed properties - magical or otherwise - being connected to some pun on the item's name. Duda'im, as many have noted, is awfully close to dodim (lovemaking)

Gosh Berliner has another suggestion, writing:

'Mad honey" is made from the nectar of the toxic rhodendron flower, which grows in the Middle East. It can be lethal, but also increases blood-flow to extremities, in exactly the same manner as Viagra. For this reason, it is used in love potions and marital aids in the Near East. Can't help but thinking of the Duda'im story from Bereishit. Even though duda'im are usually translated as "mandrake," not rhodendron. 

From gizmodo 
 "Mad honey is still used as a traditional marital aide in the Middle East. A couple just recently was admitted to a local Turkish hospital complaining of chest pain. Upon examination, doctors found they also had symptoms of confusion, low blood pressure, a slowed pulse, and had both suffered mild heart attacks. The couple later admitted that they had regularly been consuming the mad honey over the course of a week—up to a tablespoon at a time—in order to add an extra bit of zing to their lovemaking"

RIP Chris Hitchens

I wish to honor Chris Hitchens on the day of his death because he was a brilliant writer, who made smart arguments, Here's a description of Hitch, by Jacob Weisberg, with which I especially agree, and even identify:
He loved to argue and debate, not because he was a bully but because he thought it pointed in the direction of truth
Some will say Hitch's strong and famous opposition to religion disqualifies him from receiving the praise of believers such as me. Perhaps Hitch will even be subjected to the antithesis of a sweet send-off from those Jewish blogs where antisemitic racists (Jerry Fallwell|) and lovers of lies (Pope JP2) were mourned dolefully.

I understand the impulse. Hitch said some pretty strong things about religion in general, and Judaism in particular. He was no friend of faith. However, what he said about faith and Judaism was often true -- unpleasent and angry, to be sure, but also true. Here for example is Hitch about organized religion::
"[It is] violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children
Is one word of this false? Think of the religions you know, Judaism included, and tell me where he is wrong. Are the Jews of Brooklyn, to give one example, especially tolerant or opposed to racism? Do they celebrate free inquiry? Do they believe women should be permitted to shape their own lives in the way they see fit?

However, I must agree that Hitch does make a mistake, and it is over this mistake that he and I part company. Hitch blames the religion for these flaws, rather than its adherents. Unlike Hitch, I don't think Judaism is inherently "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." I think Judaism is whatever the Jews say it is.  And though I can't really picture a polite Christianity or a pro-person Islam, I can, unlike Hitch, imagine a Judaism - a legitimate and authentic Judaism - that has cleansed itself of the pathologies Hitch describes. I've seen it, in small flashes and I think such a Judaism is worth the effort it would take to create on a larger scale.

Unlike those who would condemn Hitchens merely for describing what he sees, I take his words as a challenge. It is a great reminder of what we religious Jews must commit ourselves to defeating.

What did Hitch like? What did he hate? 

From his memoir:
“In the hate column: dictatorship, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.”
A good list, no?

Stuff you should do next

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Who sold Joseph?

In the past I've called the Sale of Joseph story "maddeningly unclear" writing: "Who took Joseph out of the pit? Who brought him down to Egypt? Midianites or Ishmalites? In the post that follows, I identify some of the problems.

A bunch of books I think you should buy

Ho, ho, ho. It's holiday time again. And though I insist that our holiday season ended two months ago, I find that I like giving people unsolicited advice. So here is your official DovBear holiday list of:

Books I think you should buy 

The Sages, by Binyamin Lau 

Why did the Sages say what they said? The appealing thesis of this book is that some of the great teachings of the Sages as recorded in Ethics of our Fathers were a response to current events. The Sages weren't merely giving generic good advice. They were also telling Jews how to think about the world they lived in, and providing theological answers to world affairs. (Rabbi) (Dr.) Lau also does a very good job of explaining how famous rivals such as Hillel and Shamai disagreed while also telling us why their disputes occurred. His history, at times, is spotty, though Lau warns us at the outset that he is not a historian, but a Rabbi attempting to understand the teachings of the Sages on their own terms. If Chazal believed thought something had occurred Lau plays along and explains things from thier point of view, without engaging in tiresome debunkings. The writing (a translation of Lau's original Hebrew) is, by the way, superb.

Papal Sin, by Gary Wills 

I suppose some DovBear readers may be to young to remember this, but back in Ye Olde Days of Jewish blogging (2005) I caused quite a stir among the 20-30 people who read Jewish blogs by refusing to join the general Jewish mourning for Pope John Paul II. Most of the other JBlogs rushed out ahead of the Church in declaring him a saint, but I demurred, pointing out that the guy was not so hot. Some of the important evidence came from this book, which I additionally recommend on the grounds that Gary Wills is a majestic writer.

The Popes Against the Jews, by David I. Kitzer
Could the Holocaust have occured without the Church? Of course not. It was the Church that taught Europe to hate the Jews, first because they had rejected Jesus, and then on the additional grounds that Jewish blood was tainted. What is not widely known is just how the Church fanned the flames of anti-Semitic hatred in the late 19th and early 20th century. In this book Kirtzer, a top shelf historian, provided countless cites from Vatican newspapers and Vatican documents to show us exactly how the Church contributed to the development and rise of modern antisemitism.

Atonement, by Ian McEwan 

If that mediocre movie convinced you  that Atonement is a cheap romance, with a trite ending, please believe me when I say you couldn't be more wrong. Sure, the book is something of a love story, but its also a story about the truth, and how the truth can mean different things to different people while remaining entirely true. James Wood, the great critic,  tells you everything you need to know in this review. Its is, quite simply, the finest work of fiction I have ever read.

Stuff you should do next

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An open letter to the Anonymous Stern Girl

The Duke Power Point remains champion of the genre, but now Yeshiva University has its own semi-literate-college-student-who-publicly-regrets-her-sex-exploits. Writing in the Beacon, a student run paper with loose ties to the University, a writer known now as The Anonymous Stern Girl, gave us a rambling  essay that might be summarized this way: "Hey everyone: I had some sex and now I'm second guessing myself."

For her trouble, TASG was parodied, criticized, and put on the front page of a terrible website. After YU (or, in another version of events, the Student Council) complained to the Beacon, the paper decided to cut ties with the school. It is now an independent publication.

No matter what your opinion of TASG's behavior or the University's overreaction, you have to admit it was a terrible article. Short on detail and long on cliches, the writer never seems to realize that she is not unique: College girls regret having sex all the time. Her problem is not specific to her religion, to her upbringing, or even to her gender. I know men who went too far, and hated themselves for it, too. This is an age-specific problem, aggravated perhaps by the religious upbringing, but not caused by it. In short, 20-somethings of every race, color and creed worry about their identities. In a few years TASG will know if she is, or is not, the sort of girl who sleeps with men outside of marriage. For now, I suppose we can thank her for sharing her crisis and inviting us to discuss it, but I find myself wishing the story had been told with more skill and self knowledge.

TASG's critics also seem to be without self-knowledge. From the uproar in the comments beneath her article, you would think no one in the Orthodox world has ever had premarital sex. You would also think that premarital sex between consenting adults is an Unforgivable Sin. Neither assumptions are true, and we don't help young people like TASG work things out if we're coy or, even worse dishonest, about the facts.

I suggest we, as a blogging community, restrict our objections to TASG's remarkably bad prose, while offering the person herself some support and understanding.

Here's my best effort:
Dear TASG:

So you had some sex, and it wasn't very good. That's often how it goes at first. As with everything, practice helps. Apart from the disappointment you are feeling about the act itself, I understand that you're upset with yourself. That's also normal.

In fact, it might make you feel better to hear that everything about you, and your experience, are completely normal. Stern girls - even the "good" ones - have premarital sex. Some of them are curious and choose to experiment with a friend or some other suitable candidate; others are in long-term relationships with men they expect to marry and prefer not to postpone the inevitable. Afterwards, even the best-adjusted people doubt themselves. Some fear they may have offered to much, too quickly; others worry about God; still others do as you seem to have done, and wonder Is this the kind of person I am?

TASG, I am here to tell you, its all good. You're not a bad person. You're not a bad Jew. And you're not (necessarily) a slut. You're just a typical twenty-something, doing what typical twenty-somethings do, and feeling what typical twenty-something feel. While its certainly painful and stress-inducing,your doubts are as normal and as unremarkable as a 40-something's midlife crises. Take it slow. Breath deeply. Let things play out. Your future and your identity are still yours to create.

One semi-drunken act in a hotel room doesn't define you. 
I think I'd tell my own daughter the same things...

Search for more information about TASG  at

.. a hosting effort of astonishing generosity and thoughtfulness.

....watching the distinctly non-Jewish White House kitchen turn itself upside down, wrap itself up, and scour, boil and disinfect itself for a one-time event was to witness a hosting effort of astonishing generosity and thoughtfulness. The point, of course, was so an unknown number of its 550 Hanukkah guests who keep kosher would believe they could eat according to their religious observance.

That's Jan Hoffman writing about the kashering of the White House kitchen for the Diner's Journal Blog at the Times. As she (he?) points out, this was a triumph of cooperation. The White House kitchen staff, exhausted having just completed a non-kosher reception for 600 - was entirely supportive. Writes Hoffman:

I never heard a complaint nor saw a rolling of the eyes (and trust me, I was on the lookout; I am the type for whom grumbling is a tonic). The staff was gracious and good-humored; some, including the military personnel who were on loan to the White House during party season, had never seen a kashering, and so were curious and polite about the unknown.
And the four Rabbis who directed the work were also on their best behavior:
...the rabbis, in turn, were exultant, respectful and deeply grateful.... They handled historic White House silver platters with care. They would be inspecting the preparation of the food the next day, but while they were certainly mindful that Jewish law must be observed, they were also deferential to the dignity of the White House protocol for food presentation and general elegance.
Hoffman followed up the post with a full article with more information in it, found here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Newt and his imaginary friend

Oh dear. 

What does this mean for Newt? Not much. Evangelical Christians don't care that he has been divorced twice; nor do they mind that he left his cancer stricken wife for his very young mistress.  Anti-government types are ignoring Newt's post-Speaker career as a highly paid lobbyist. Why should RW Jews mind that their new hero courted Yasser Arafat?

Matisyahu Speaks

For all of those who are being awesome,you are awesome.For all those who are confused:today I went to the Mikva and Shul just like yesterday