Thursday, October 31, 2013

Timeless Torah values

Some speak of timeless Torah values, but the reality is that a competent preacher can make the Torah seem to support any cause he desires. Are you pro slavery? We have a verse for that! Are you anti slavery? Take a look at the prophets. How do you feel about black people? Depending on your view you may wish to embrace the universalistic first chapter of Genesis, or the not so universalistic interpretations of the Ham story. But go ahead and turn it and turn it again because, honestly, its all in there.

So what do we learn from this?  How about this take away:  That fact that this is so malleable makes it impossible to determine what is correct without falling back on your own judgement and your own morality which, in reality, is what all of us always do anyway.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sloppy Jews are not necessarily friendly Jews

I've often said that there is a sector within Orthodox Judaism made up of people who believe disorder, sloppiness and indifference to detail are synonyms for warmth. In his new article (aptly criticized here our old friend and nemesis, Avi Shafran confirms that I am correct. 

Speaking of the diversity within Orthodox Judaism he says: 

" [of OJ] are defined by the warmth and tumult of their shul services, parts have services that are formal and sedate."

On behalf of those of us who prefer dignity in our shul services, let me  insist that a formal and sedate shul can also be a warm and friendly shul and that unkempt tables littered with last week's leftovers offer no guarantees that the shul that tolerates them is a friendly one.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Shafranian evolution

A guest post by Y. Bloch   

Where have you been, Rabbi Avi Shafran? I guess life gets boring at Cross-Currents, where comments are verboten, so he moved on to blasting YCT on Times of Israel, going from talking about its "True and Tragic Colors: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is simply not what it claims" to asking the question: "Open 'Orthodoxy'?" Now, it seems, he's arrived at a decision, at, no less: "Be honest: Open Orthodoxy is not Orthodoxy." I particularly enjoyed this paragraph:

But all those parts, for all their differences in orientation and practice, are unified by a belief system that embraces the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides (based on the broader three of Rav Yosef Albo, derived from the Talmud and other links in the chain of the Oral Tradition – our mesorah). An adherent of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, a Satmar hasid, a “Litvish” yeshiva graduate and a student of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary are all are unified by the essence of what the world has called Orthodoxy for generations. But “Open Orthodoxy,” despite its name, has adulterated that essence, and sought to change both Jewish belief and Jewish praxis (as in ordaining women or suggesting that problematic Jewish marriages can simply be retroactively annulled). 
 See what you've done, YCT? You've made R. Shafran legitimize RIETS! But it's certainly a relief to know that Maimonides and Albo were really saying the same thing, which is just a distillation of "the Talmud and other links in the chain," and Lubavitch, Satmar, Yeshivish and Yeshiva Universityish "are all are [sic] unified by the essence of what the world has called Orthodoxy for generations." Thank you so much, The World, for telling us what Orthodoxy is. Otherwise we might have to study this stuff, but R. Shafran assures me that it's all boilerplate. Just read Ani Maamin, it'll suffice.

What this does answer for us is whether R. Shafran believes in evolution. Just over the course of October, he's evolved from challenger to defamer to excommunicator. That may be Lamarckian, but it's still evolution. I can't wait for November's screed, which I'm guessing will be on the NYT op-ed page. Anyone know how to get past the pay-wall?

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Thursday, October 24, 2013


A guest post by Y. Bloch

No, I don't mean necrophilia (well, maybe just a little, metaphorically). Nor do I mean necromancy, although we'll get to that. Necrolatry, you see, is the worship of the dead. It's something we don't think about much in modern Western society, except for one day a year. Well, a week. OK, a month. Fine, starting with Labor Day!

That, of course, is when the stores in the US, Canada and the UK start hauling out the merchandise for Halloween, All Hallows' Eve. If it has a witch, skeleton or ghost on it, it goes on the shelves. Of course, as so much of the stress has now moved to adult party attire (females, you can choose anything from sexy abacus to sexy zucchini!) and refreshments (what color vomit would look best on you?), Halloween has lost some of its spookiness. Still, there's no question that this is a holiday with some seriously macabre origins.

Just take a gander towards the equator. In Mexico (and increasingly throughout Latin America), it's the next day (or two) which are Día de Muertos. South of the border, they are not shy about their sexy skeletons.
I don't know, catrinas, those necklines are a little low-cut...
What's remarkable is that although both holidays have pagan origins (and were later Christianized), those origins are not the same, unless there was some land-bridge connecting the Celts to the Aztecs. The desire to have contact with the dead, especially one's own relatives, is apparently universal.

That, presumably, is why the Torah feels the need to express such antipathy towards these practices. The Torah forbids and condemns acting as a "necromancer (ov) or spiritist (yidoni)" or consulting such mediums. The elimination of such practices establishes the bona fides of the first and last independent kings of the Jewish state (Saul and Josiah), while embracing them is the final line of the indictment against its wickedest monarch, Manasseh. More than a dozen times, Scripture criticizes these acts. As Isaiah states (8:19):
When someone tells you to consult necromancers and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?
According to Deut. 18, being "an inquirer of necromancers and spiritists or a seeker of the dead" is antithetical to the command "Be perfect with Lord your God," the first command given to Abraham and Sarah: "Walk before me and be perfect" (Gen. 17:1).
So don't light your Sabbath candles inside this.
So don't light your Sabbath candles inside this.
This is a particularly relevant as we prepare to read Ḥayei Sara, which literally means "the life of Sarah." Twice in the introductory verse (Gen. 23:1), the Torah speaks of Sarah's life, even though the portion that follows deals with the aftermath of her death. Thus, even though it is about to speak of the demise of the first matriarch, the Torah opens by referring to her life.

The same is true of the final portion of Genesis, Vayḥi, which is about Jacob's parting from his sons. Still, the introductory verse (47:28) states: "And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years, and Jacob's days, the years of his life..." In fact, the verse describing Jacob's expiration does not even use the standard phrase "and he died," leading to Rabbi Yoḥanan's famous statement, "Our patriarch Jacob did not die... just as his progeny lives, he lives" (Talmud, Taanit 5a).

Nor is this limited to our forebears in Genesis. Elsewhere (Berakhot 18a), R. Ḥiyya expounds: "'For the living know that they shall die' (Eccl. 9:5) -- these are the righteous, who in their death are called living." The Talmud seems to differ from the Bard's view: the good that men do lives after them and is not interred with their bones.

Judaism is not, and never should be, a death cult, seeking the approbation or advice of those who have passed on. This is the hallmark of a dying or dead faith. Torah, the tree of life (Prov. 3:18), is for the living. Halloween is no Jewish holiday for good reason.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Everything I need to know in life, I learned from Parshas Vayerah


(1) Under-promise and overdeliver (Abraham offered a little bread, but provided a whole feast)

(2) The absolute worst things you can do is mistreat the powerless and to behave selfishly #GOP (According to the Neviim and the Midrashim the sin of Sodom was to mistreat the powerless and to behave selfishly.)

(3) A real tzadik is not someone who hides in the bes medrah or lives in fear of being tainted, but someone who goes out into the world and sets an example (SRH on "btoch ha'ir)

(4) Speak truth to power (Abraham argues with God)

(5) The conventional wisdom as per Rashi is often (always?) challenged by other Rishonim (I discovered this for the first time on the question of Rivka's age, which is set at three due to chronology based on the concluding verses of Vayera)

(6) If something amazing happens to you, don't turn into a snob about it (after Abraham is visited by an angel on Moriah, he returns to the lads he left behind and travels home with them "yachdav" as if nothing has changed)

(7) Don't spin out a whole lot of drama about what someone might do, or would do, or wants to do. Just look at what actually is (Midrash on "ba'asher who sham")

Friday, October 18, 2013

Sarah and the First Get

 A guest post by Y. Bloch

Was our founding matriarch the world's first divorce attorney? Maybe not, but the biblical record is intriguing.

The Talmud (Megilla 14a) identifies Sarah as the first of seven biblical prophetesses, proving this from a verse in this week's Torah portion: "She perceived with the Holy Spirit, as it says (Gen. 21:12), 'In all that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.'" But what command of Sarah is it that receives this divine imprimatur?
Therefore she said to Abraham, “Drive out this handmaid, along with her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” (v. 10)
So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave to Hagar, putting on her shoulder; and along with the boy, he sent her away. And she departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. (v. 14)
No word on the cat.
The two terms used here are, respectively, garash (drive out) and shalach (send away). Though the subject of this passage is supposedly Hagar's son (probably Ishmael, though he is not named; Midrashic sources deduce his age to be 17 or 27), these verbs refer directly to her, while the boy is thrown in with the preposition et. In biblical Hebrew, garash and shalach are the terms used for divorce (cf. Lev. 21:7, Deut. 24:1), and this is exactly what seems to be happening between Abraham and Hagar--at Sarah's behest!

But don't take my wordiness for it. In the Midrash (Pirkei de-R. Eliezer 29), Judah b. Tema states: "Sarah said to Abraham, 'Write a bill of divorce (get gerushin) for the handmaid, and send away this handmaid." In the Targum (Pseudo-Jonathan), "He sent her away" is rendered "He dismissed her with a bill (gitta)." 

This changes the tenor of the line, Sarah's final words and last appearance (alive) in Scripture. What could have been vindictive and vicious is instead virtuous: Sarah, a woman who has been abducted twice by foreign rulers and hid her marriage for years to safeguard her family, wants Hagar to be free and clear. This fits in with the Midrashic view of Sarah (Gen. Rabba 39:14, 84:4) as a "maker of souls" who ministers to the women drawn in by Abraham's preaching. She must have heard some pretty horrific stories over the years, and it makes sense that she did not want to make a sad situation worse.
Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael, George Segal, 1987
Abraham's Farewell to Ishmael, George Segal, 1987
As God confirms, it is time for Ishmael to leave his father's house, and his mother needs to go with him (as we see a few verses later, when she finds him a wife from her homeland, Egypt). But Sarah orders Abraham to do it with a get, unambiguously. Hagar will not be an aguna, a woman chained to a man who refuses to release her from the bonds of marriage.

The sad fact is that in the Ancient Near East, there were many options for men who wanted to dispose of inconvenient wives. In Esther 2:14, we see that Ahasuerus maintains a harem for his "used" girls, should he ever want to invite them back. That's quite a few centuries after Abraham, but his own brother had both a wife and a concubine, as we see in the next chapter of Genesis. Concubines, of course, could be taken and dismissed practically at will, without documents of marriage or divorce. A darker possibility would be to sell Hagar back into slavery, an option so real that the Torah expressly forbids doing so with a Hebrew handmaiden (Ex. 21:8) or a war bride (Deut. 21:14). So, while divorcing Hagar may seem cruel, it does appear to be the least bad option.

One cannot help but think of this in light of the recent case of get extortion in New York. I have no sympathy for a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give his wife a get; it is spousal abuse, plain and simple. However, that does not justify kidnapping, racketeering and torture. The idea that a good aim and rabbinical approval somehow justifies outrageous felonies makes me wonder: what does this mean for all those good men embezzling funds for their yeshivot? Are they too entitled to hazard pay, in the tens of thousands, for their aggressively illegal "righteousness"?

However, I understand the psychological need to justify the criminality: it keeps one's mind off the real plight of agunot, which is not only a social problem, but a theological one. If our Torah truly cares for the oppressed, how can it be rendered powerless in the face of this exquisite cruelty?

Are there halakhic solutions out there? I believe that there are, but more importantly, I believe that there must be. Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber outlines many of them in his excellent piece, "No Agunah Left Behind." We can quibble over which halakhic mechanisms to employ, but not the pressing need for action--not violence, not crime, but true advocacy, initiative and bravery.

Finally, let us consider this. According to the Midrash (Tanhuma, Hayei Sara 4), the final verses of Proverbs are Abraham's eulogy of Sarah. In that context, we find (31:26), "She has opened her mouth in wisdom and the law of compassion (torat hesed) is upon her tongue." Torat hesed--what a revolutionary concept!

Isn't it time we started listening to Mother Sarah's voice?

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Holy Rachel pray for us sinners

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From the Olam haFacebook we give you this via Fred McDowell

When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Rachel comes to me....

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Akeidat Yitzchak as the story of Isaac's resurrection

Christians, almost from the beginning, understood the story of the Akeidat Yitzchak as the story of Isaac's resurrection which they understood as a prefiguring of the crucifiction. 

St. Ephraem: c300s
In the ram, which was hanging from the tree and was sacrificed in place of Abraham's son was prefigured the time of Jesus, who was hung from a tree llike the ram and tasted death for the sake of the whole wor

Epistle to the Hebrews
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

Now for the interesting questions:

Was this idea of Isaac's resurrection an original Christian idea, or was it borrowed from older Jewish sources? Did we also once think Isaac has been killed at the Akeida, and then restored to life?

Evidence in favor of the resurrection of Isaac as a Jewish idea that Christian's co-opted, and we later forgot includes:

1) Pirqe de Rabbi Elazer 

Rabbi Jehudah said : When the blade touched his neck, the soul of Isaac fled and departed, (but) when he heard His voice from between the two Cherubim, saying (to Abraham)," Lay not thine hand upon the lad " (Gen. xxii. 12), his soul returned to liis body, and (Abraham) set him free, and Isaac stood upon his feet. And Isaac knew « that in this manner the dead in the future will be quickened. He opened (his mouth), and said : Blessed art thou, O Lord, who quickeneth the dead

2) The Haftarah reading assigned to Parshas Vayerah is 2 Kings 4:1-36 which tells of Elisha's resurrection of the Shunamite's son (however, other Vayerah parallels are there, too, such as Elisha's promise that the woman would bear a son) 

3) Zevchim 52a  
[When the generations that returned from the Babylonian exile began to build the second temple,] “How did they know what to do with the altar? Said R. Eleazar: They beheld the altar all built and Michael, the Great Prince, stood by it sacrificing on it. But R. Isaac Napha said: They beheld Isaac’s ashes, that these lay on that spot.

4) Rashi on Leviticus 26:52
And why is the expression “remembering” not used with Isaac? [Because] Isaac’s ashes Bereishith Rabbah 56:9; Tanchuma Shelach 14) [always] appear before Me, gathered up and placed upon the altar“ [and therefore, God does not have to ”remember" Isaac, for Isaac is never forgotten].

5) Rabbinic commentary on Genesis 27:27, the verse that tells us the Issac caught the scent of Jacob's clothing prior to blessing him, and was reassured, saying: Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed!

The midrash Tanchuma says that Isaac is, in fact, referring to the scent of Gan Eden. Can a man recognize the odor of a place he's never visited?

6) The pyutim we say on the High Holydays: 
The Mogen Avraham blessing is associated with Abraham; as a result high holiday piyutim that celebrate Abraham are said before Mogen Avraham. The next set of piyutim are about Isaac and they are associated with Mechayeh Maysim

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Coffee Talk with Linda Richman


I'm a little verklemptTalk amongst yourselves, I'll give you a topic: Chasidish clothing is neither Jewish clothing nor clothing. 

As my HS Rosh Yeshiva once put it in a speech, "have you ever noticed how much clothing Chasidim wear? There are a lot of layers, undershirt, tzitzis, shirt, vest, bekesha, over coat, scarf, long socks, yet despite all this clothing they wear, they have no pants."

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Monday, October 14, 2013

The geek shall inherit the earth

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Is Spock's resurrection on the Genesis Planet an affront to God? Is Gandalf the kind of sorcerer condemned in the Book of Exodus? How can Star Wars happen "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away" if the universe is less than 6,000 years old? Since Data was created by humans, how can he have a soul?
Also, what kind of Supreme Being would allow this to happen?
Also, what kind of Supreme Being would allow this to happen?
These are the questions that occupy the mind of a young religious geek, leaving you with no choice but to compartmentalize. Then, of course, you grow up and realize that religion might be more complicated than whatever your third-grade teacher says. (Hey, Rabbi Adler!) Still, the best you can hope for is neutrality, right? Battlestar Galactica might not push you away from God, but certainly it can't bring you closer, right?
So while I never stopped being a fan of genre fiction, that seemed irrelevant to being a rabbi. At most, I might slip in a reference in a sermon (or, much more rarely, in writing), but that was the limit. Who could dare to mix the two?
Cue swelling theme music...
Cue swelling theme music...
And then I discovered Geek Fights. I have heard many podcasts over the past decade, and I have made a couple (hundred) myself, but I never spoke as a geek. But this podcast, which sadly posts its farewell episode today, welcomed people from all walks of life. Yes, hosts Damon Shaw and Mike Ortiz are in Detroit, but they Skype all over the world, regardless of sex, creed or nationality. What unites the panelists on any given episode is passion about the topic.
That's what defines geeks: the endless analysis of the supernatural, obsession with canon, vigorous arguments about how to appreciate source materials, fiery indignation about the misinterpretation of beloved texts and tales, the voracious desire to ponder utopian and dystopian realms, the preoccupation with questions of morality, mortality and meaning. Hm, sounds like another group I proudly claim membership in...
yonassan gershom
Not sure where to put this guy (Rabbi Yonassan Gershom).
Why do I bring this up now? A few months ago, Britain's outgoing Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote "Atheism has failed: only religion can fight the barbarians," in which he blithely condemns atheists as inherently immoral and fundamentalists as inherently barbaric. Civilization (well, civilisation) can only survive if we embrace his brand of Judeo-Christianity, which brings sanity to the world. Writers as diverse as the University of Chicago's Dr. Jerry Coyne and our gracious host DovBear have pointed out the fallacies with this argument (with somewhat harsher language than I might have chosen), but it did get me thinking: what ultimately "sells" religion in the marketplace of ideas? High medieval theologians were convinced that the proper philosophical argument could prove the existence of God; at the start of the Renaissance times, the Catholic Church believed that science would strengthen belief, although it soon saw scientists such as Galileo as an existential threat. Just as the philosophical and scientific approaches fell by the wayside in the past century or two, the moral and societal argument are now withering on the vine.

However, Larry Alex Taunton's piece for The Atlantic, "Listening to Young Atheists," suggests an answer. When one actually talks to intelligent, educated people instead of at them, it becomes clear that overenthusiasm does not scare people away from religion; rather, it is the attempt to prune religion of all of its distinctive characteristics which turns the youth off. If you want to appeal to the next generation, you have to be serious about your faith. Don't be an aggressive proselytizer, but a passionate adherent. Not dour, not domineering, not dogmatic; instead, be enthusiastic, ecstatic, exultant. Your passion must match your commitment. Embrace fandom rather than fanaticism. In short, geek out about God.
So, thank you, Geek Fighters. In your "intelligent discussion of inane topics," you actually have some very profound things to say about the human experience. The overriding principle is this: never vote against your heart. Rava put it this way (Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b): "It is because the Holy One, blessed be He, requires the heart."

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Shutdown post

Have you noticed that I have had almost nothing to say about the government shutdown? This is because I don't care. I am aware that this makes me an Insensitive Git, in that some programs that benefit the poor and the disenfranchised have been suspended (together with some things that make the richies happy) but I can't help it: I just don't care.

And its not that big government doesn't bother me. You oldsters in the audience will remember how I used to rail against big government George W. Bush and his usurpations of power. The difference, I think, is the big government Obama envisions is one that helps people stay healthy and live longer, while George Bush, mainly, seemed interested Keeping Us Safe by criminalizing ordinary activities and rolling back longstanding protections from government abuse. (To date, Obama, has not undone any of that. I can't find the post, right now, but I did beat him up for this and I do officially hate him for letting us down in this regard.) I have the same questions any sane person has about ObamaCare, but I in the aggregate I think socialized medicine is good for America.

So why am I lukewarm about the shutdown? Because I also think arguing and fighting is good for America. The House has the power of the purse for a reason. They are supposed to dig in and refuse to pay for things they don't like. What the House has done is legal, and constitutional, and legitimately an example of checks and balance. However, at the same time its an example of insane brinkmanship that would not have been possible had the recalcitrant  Members of the House run the risk of facing any real electoral consequences back home.

See, thanks to gerrymandering, no one in the House of Representatives ever has to answer to anyone who might disagree with him. Nowadays, most  everyone in the House represents a district that was created specifically to keep him (or her) in office. As a result, these morons can go to Washington and say and do anything they like --no matter how crazy -- without suffering any electoral consequences.

Its great that the Representatives are keeping Obama on his toes, but a tragedy that no one back home is issuing the Representatives similar challenges. Their recalcitrance keeps Obama honest, but who keep them honest?

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

My Master, My Husband


Posted on Facebook by Rachmuna Litzlon:

This gem brought to you by Hamodia - The Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry.

Question: "May a woman call a husband by his first name?"

Friday, October 11, 2013

Righteous Sarah?

Testing an idea: Why did righteous Sarah mistreat Hagar? Seems out of character right? Could it be because (a) she wanted to have Abraham's son via Hagar; and (b) that only works if Hagar has the status of a slave; and as the verse tells us (c) Hagar, with Abraham's blessing and support, had ceased to behave as one.

Perhaps Sarah mistreated Hagar only for the purpose of re-asserting herself as Hagar's mistress which she considered crucial if the son Hagar was carrying was to truly be considered Sarah's son.

Of course, all of this rests on the premise that Sarah was, in fact, righteous. Perhaps she wasn't. Or, perhaps she was, mostly, but the mistreatment of  Hagar happened on an off-day. Awesome people have bad days, too, don't they? And if you want to get right down to it, don't ask how could righteous Sarah beat on her slave. Ask how could righteous Sarah assert ownership of another human being in the first place.

So, let me ask the question this way. Our midrashim depict Sarah as a prophet. The law codes say you can't become a prophet without having a sterling character. Perhaps for that time in place, raging at your slave out of jealousy was not incompatible with having a sterling character. But in our time the two are mutually exclusive. So (here comes the question) how do we reconcile (a) our understanding of what it means to be a good person with (b) the verse about Sarah going psycho and (c) the interpretations that say she was a prophet, and therefore righteous.

I know, I know. We're now into midrashim on midrashim but this is what passes for learning nowadays.

Zombie politics update

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Municipal elections in Israel are only eleven days away, and you know what that means: posters, signs, bumper stickers. But what happened to this Shas poster?

Look at the bottom right corner: half the slogan has been ripped off. And it's not accident or vandalism: all the posters on my street have been carefully altered in this way. Hm...

We love you, Maran. ________________________, faithful to tradition, voting Shas

It seems that someone has decided that posting a giant poster with a smiling (?) Rav Ovadia Yosef immediately under the shiva notice for the same personage is perfectly appropriate, but not referring to him in the text.

Well, all I can say is: get with the program. That's not the Shas way! 24 hours after his death, the party's Council of Torah Sages announced that Maran's dying wish had been to vote for Moshe Lion for Jerusalem mayor, as he is a "member of our ethnic group." He just kept it secret because--hey, what's that over there?

Speaking of secrets, did you know that Rav Ovadia's real passion was Kabbalistic writing? Now that he has passed to the World of Truth, his hidden Torah can be revealed to all, so don't go into his library.

Wait, I know what you're saying: sure, but allegedly that was allegedly when Rav Ovadia was allegedly alive. What can he do for me now that he's dead?

Don't worry, has you covered. They'll pray for you at his gravesite, but only until shiva is over, because after that it would just be silly. Your donations are welcome.

So, don't feel bad about Maran being on the posters. He has only become more politically, pietistically and prayerfully powerful since his petira.

I welcome your comments on how I am the one dishonoring Rav Ovadia's memory. Shabbat shalom!

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ari Fleischer solves the shutdown problem

And, if the president changed his skin color from "black" to "white", perhaps the T-Party candidates would treat him and his office with a  modicum of  respect 

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Moromon Miami Boys Choir?

Here's today's Creepy YouTube vid...

In which a bunch of white boys who can neither sing nor dance (accompanied, oddly enough, by an oldish black dude who can both sing and dance) preach to the ladies about how their virtue is way hotter than their knees.

I eagerly look forward to a response video from the girls.

PS: When a teen boy says "I need your modesty" what he means is "I need your modesty for now, but after you're in to me, I will use all of my guile and all of my cunning to persuade you to abandon your modesty.

HT Wonkette

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Tragic color blindness

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Have you wondered what Rabbi Avi Shafran has been up to? Don't worry, the Agudath Israel of America spokesman has not dismounted from his heresy hobby horse. Yesterday, while others might have been thinking about the passing of Rav Ovadya Yosef, he was back to hammering YCT with "True and tragic colors: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is simply not what it claims." Of course, you can also read it on Cross-Currents, but you can't comment there.

R. Shafran begins by lambasting Rabbi Ben Elton's piece on the Grossgemeinde controversy. Let it never be said that any Orthodox rabbi co-operated with Reform rabbis in 19th-century Germany: no, there was some sort of Hyde Amendment to make sure that frum money was not used to fund heterodox activities.

He returns to many of his favorite YCT quotes, which he may or may not carry around in his wallet in laminated form. They prove that the yeshiva and its affiliates are nothing but a font of heresy, according to R. Shafran. Sympathy with gays, engaging with biblical criticism, reassessing the centrality of dogma in Judaism--truly, these are "tragic colors" to show. Personally, I avoid the tragic color section at Home Depot, but what do I know? I do know that R. Shafran and Agudah condemned every innovation introduced by Rabbi Avi Weiss, long before any of these opinions were voiced. Many of those innovations have become normative in modern Orthodoxy.

But back to the heresy:

Such positions espoused by YCT leaders (and those are but a few of many such examples) are run-of-the-mill notions in the non-Orthodox rabbinic world. They wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in non-Orthodox circles. But how do they comport with “car[ing] very much about Torah and mesorah”? There can be only one answer: they don’t.

See, folks, it's that easy. Your care setting must be set to "Torah and mesorah." There's no way to allow any other sort of considerations. That might cause your true, tragic colors to run, and it would be the saddest laundry day ever. 

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Sunday, October 06, 2013

God's Difficult Six Days

This weekend it occurred to me that the authors of the midrashim depict God as making one mistake after another during the Six Days of Creation.

He makes light, but apparently miscalculates: the light its too bright and must be hidden away for the righteous. When He creates two giant lights for the heavens, He fails to consider that giant lights can be primodonnas: one light turns out to be something of a whiner. It needs to be cut down to size; afterwards - another adjustment - God compensates it with a retinue of stars. A Leviathan is created but God seems to have miscalculated again. The beast's tremendous bulk makes its continued existence impractical, so it is slaughtered and put on ice for the righteous. God orders the earth to produce trees with bark and leaves that taste like their fruit, but the earth disobeys and God just goes along with it and lets himself be overruled. What kind of bumbler is this Creator?

Though I am certain the clever speakers can tell us what all if this is "meant to teach us" and turn God's difficulties into inspirational messages. I prefer to wonder at the audacity of the midrashic writers. How do such depictions communicate awe and fear of the Almighty? In their depictions, our all-knowing and perfect God is made to seem as if he is just making things up as He goes along. Perhaps this is possible because the God they imagine is less perfect and less powerful then the God we imagine.

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Saturday, October 05, 2013


A guest post by Y. Bloch

Most Sabbath mornings, my choice of synagogue does not make much of a difference. Sure, there are minor differences in the liturgy, but aren't we all reading from the same Torah? Ashkenazim may wrap it in embroidered velvet and Sephardim may encase it in a hard shell, but it's still the same ink, parchment, sinew and wood, right?
The one on the right is showing a bit too much leg. I'd avoid certain neighborhoods.
51 out of 52 weeks, you'd be right in that assumption--but not for this weekend's portion, Parashat Noach. Genesis 9 concludes:
So all the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years, and he died.
That, at least, is the (an) English translation, but what is the original Hebrew text? In Yemenite scrolls, it's ויהיו; in others, it's ויהי. The former is plural, while the latter is singular; either one seems grammatically correct, based on the phrasing in Gen. 5. It's a minor difference, surely (one of twenty-one distinctive features of the Yemenite Torah), but still more than enough to invalidate a Torah scroll.
However, if one wrote the short form of a word that should be spelled using a long form, or the long form of one that should be spelled using a short form, it is invalid... It does not have the holiness of a Torah scroll and, instead, is considered as one of the bibles from which children are taught.
That's what Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Torah Scrolls 7:11), and the text he endorses is the Yemenite one (ibid. 8:4). Still, the ramifications would seem to be even greater in his Eight Principle of Faith:
I believe with complete faith that the entire Torah in our hands currently is the same one that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace upon him.
You may recognize this principle from the campaign to delegitimize the critical analysis of Torah text. But considering that this would indicate that any variation from "the entire Torah in our hands currently" is not only fallacious but heretical, does Maimonides consider anyone not using a Yemenite Torah scroll to be an infidel?
Of course, it's not only a matter of divergent Jewish communities of the past millennium. In the 3rd century, R. Joseph b. Hiya noted that his generation did not have the expertise in the spelling of the text to be able to count the letters (Kiddushin 30a), while Mar Zutra maintained (Sanhedrin 21b):
Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the Sacred Tongue; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Assyrian script and the Aramaic language. They selected for Israel the Assyrian script and the Sacred Tongue, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the commoners.
Are these Talmudic authorities also denying the authenticity of the Torah according to Maimonides? The problem is that the Thirteen Principles of Faith, starring in your local prayer-book, were actually written not by Maimonides, but by Maaminides.

Who's Maaminides? That's an excellent question, one we don't have the answer to. All we know is that he (she?) wrote the "Ani Maamin" prayer which I quoted earlier, but It first surfaced in the very late 16th century, close to 400 years after Maimonides' death, in European liturgy. The actual thirteen principles are much longer, found in Maimonides' Mishnaic commentary (Sanhedrin 10:1), and written in 12th-century Judeo-Arabic. Translations vary, partly because this was Maimonides' first composition, and he continued to revise it throughout his lifetime. But how does he define al-qaeda al-thamina?
The eighth foundation is that "the Torah is from the heaven," namely that we believe that the whole Torah now in our possession, which is the Torah given by Moses, comes in its entirety from the mouth of the Almighty.
This is only the beginning of Maimonides' explanation, but he does eventually get around to defining heresy, which he finds so important that he codifies it (in Hebrew) in Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance 3:8), a slight paraphrase of Sanhedrin 99a:
One who says the Torah, even one verse or one word, is not from God, if he says: "Moses made these statements independently," he is denying the Torah.
In other words, Maimonides' goal here is not to ensure that Moses does not receive too little credit, but that he does not receive too much; he does not speak of "the whole Torah now in our possession" because, while he does believe that he has the proper text, he does not view the others as heretical. Maaminides, on the other hand, eliminates God from this principle and puts the stress on "the entire Torah in our hands currently," equating it to that which Moses received on Sinai, brooking no dissent.
This is worth keeping in mind as people continue to invoke the Eighth Principle in order to stifle discussions of the text of the Torah. Considering how few of those who do so have good Yemenite names like Qafih and Tawil, they might be wary that their Maaminidean incarnation of Maimonides would rank them as heretics as well!

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Thursday, October 03, 2013

Objective Morality

There was something else in HRHG* Goldin's book, I wanted to complain about.

As part of the Beraishis discussion he went on for a page or two about subjective morality, and how the people who use it are horrible lowlifes who need to understand the objective morality is the best thing ever. He concluded with a few phrases about how any attempt to employ subjective morality destroys the world or something.

Of course my eyes nearly rolled out of my head.

Look, let's not argue about whether or not Objective Morality exists. In fact, here, I'll make this easy: I stipulate that Objective Morality exists. 


But, that doesn't make HRHG Goldin's claim any less absurd.

Human beings are not objective. We're highly subjective creatures who see everything through our own unique set of experiences. 

So even if Objective Morality exists, any human attempt to understand and apply it is going to be subjective. That's unavoidable. So Nazi Morality and Dali Lama Morality and Orthodox Jewish Morality are all equally subjective as they are all perceived, understood, and applied by subjective  people.

But - and this is important - the fact that all moralities are equally subjective does not mean they are all equally good. Western morality or Jewish morality are just as subjective as Nazi Morality, but at the same time Western Morality is far superior to Nazi Morality, and this fact can be demonstrated. 

* I was yelled at for being disrespectful earlier, so I am erroring on the side of caution

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Tuesday, October 01, 2013

New Square Redux


In 2004 2002 David Twersky, the Rabbi of 'Skver', and a few hundred of his serfs came to the 5 Towns area for a shabbos. I was interested in seeing him for familial reasons. An ancestor of mine (d. NYC, 1928) from the southern Ukraine published a book in NYC in 1926 which contained a lot of stories and homilies he heard from members of the primary Rabbinic family in the Ukraine, the Twersky family. This author was the rabbi of, what I imagine to have been, a town of thatched roof huts and met these people on their travels. For some reason this somewhat of a 'connection' caused me to be interested in meeting various member of this family, and so when Twersky showed up in my neighborhood one week I went to see him. 

square rabbi in lawrence 2002
On Saturday night following havdala some sort of parade was held with a local money-bag driving the rabbi in his Bentley behind a metal contraption topped with about six torches, all lit. Hundreds of people walked alongside and behind the car while loud music was blasted from a second car. While walking in this crowd I tripped and tens of people eager to see and keep up with the rabbi walked on top of me dragging me several feet. Clothing torn and bruised I went home. 

I was never so disgusted at a display of honor before or after. To be walked home wasn't enough, there had to be a Bentley. A Bentley wasn't enough, there had to be FIRE accompaniment  Fire wasn't enough, there had to be blasting music and a major local thoroughfare had to be closed down for an hour by police. 

That was when I gained repulsion for this guy, the incident a few years ago involving the attempted fire bomb attack on a New Square family certainly didn't help my feelings. Since that incident I've learned more and more about the Twilight Zone type of society Twersky runs in his village. 

This week a terrible tragedy occurred there when a woman who was sexually abused, separated from her children, and disowned and hated by her own family committed suicide. You can read more about this elsewhere. You may want to say that the hellish village of New Square and David Twersky are ultimately responsible for this.  

The Jewish Daily Forward has written an article about the funeral arrangements of this poor woman. Even in death there is no rest. The JDF reports that "members of the New Square community said that [her] family chose to bury her elsewhere with only immediate family present due to the shame she had brought upon the family and the community." The article continues, "“Who wants to be buried next to this lady?” New Square resident Menashe Lustig told the Forward in a phone interview. “It’s very difficult to know where to put her. I hear they called up the rabbonim in Israel and they told them the decision” that she should be buried elsewhere. Of Tambor’s life and death, he said, “The family is ashamed. They’re very ashamed.”

Lest you think she wasn't allowed to be buried in the local cemetery due to some halacha about suicide, a family member told the JDF, "that the decision not to bury Tambor in New Square’s cemetery was not because she was a suicide." 

So why was the serious halachic concept of a very quick buriel neglegted in this case? "Lustig said she was buried far away because she had strayed from religion. In public they say it’s because she wasn’t shomer Shabbos. But my friend told me it was because she has relations with strangers and everything. It’s like she was free.”

It's like she was free.

She was free. Free from this village, of this rabbi, of the community he made intolerable for her. Free of the people who demonized her for being a victim, free of the people who stole her children, free of the people who mark a persons value by how they look and how they affect public opinion of ones family.

She was free and so her body laid unburied while her terribly 'embarrassed and ashamed' surviving family, rabbi, and community decided where to hide her.

Wish I had said it

But it was him:

As I've written plenty of times, I remain somewhat optimistic that Obamacare will be a modest improvement over the current system, though I do think there are some worries about how it will evolve long term. On one hand I support decoupling insurance from employment, but on the other hand if the decoupling happens without genuinely affordable substitutes being available then we aren't improving things. This stuff should be easy, not complicated, but DC is allergic to doing anything to help people without adding a Rube Goldberg layer on top of it, and funneling money to the Rube Goldberg machine operators in the process.

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