Friday, July 31, 2015

What does our God do for a living?

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Biblical writers such as Ezekiel and the Psalmist conceived of God as a shepherd. Its not hard to work out why. In those days, shepherding was a common profession, and from the perspective of the sheep a shepherd is something of a God. He guides and directs the flock, and is responsible for leading it to food and water, and for protecting it from wild animals. Working as a shepherd gave men a template for imagining how God works with men. They were shepherds themselves so they came to think of God as one, too.

We aren't shepherds anymore, and the template has changed. Now most of us work at office jobs, and the God most of us worship would fit right in.

In the current popular imagination, God is no longer a shepherd guiding and protecting His flock, from a comfortable e distance.  Now we think of Him as a micro-manager who gets His hands dirty. Instead of guarding and guiding us like a shepherd, this God causes and, more importantly, cares about every small thing that happens. Instead of protecting us, He spends a lot of time worrying about our job performance. How many mitzvos did you do today? Are you doing more or less than last week? And like the worst boss you ever had, this God is capricious and petty, demanding flattery and praise in exchange for favors. Instead of God as a shepherd, we have God as a small businessman

There is more to this shift in thinking then the fact that our jobs have changed. I've noticed that the people most committed to the idea of God as micro-manager tend not to be lawyers or employees of large corporations. Aside from the rabbis and teachers, the men who use this template are almost all salesmen or petty business owners. I surmise that the men who do this sort of work are more likely to think of God this way because the men who do this sort of work are more susceptible to magical thinking, which is just an unkind way of saying that they need God more.

Think about it this way: A guy who work for ACME International gets a regular paycheck. It comes every two weeks, whether he earns it or not. If that's your set-up, you start taking the money for granted. You stop worrying about how the Big Guy in the sky might be persuaded to keep the checks coming. Even if you watch porn and eat treif the checks won't be interrupted. Not at first anyway.

A guy who sells or runs his own business, on the other hand, is always cognizant of how fragile his finances are. Unlike Mr. Corporate, the salesman or small businessman only eats when he has customers, and who can say why customers come calling on one day, and not on another? Those of you who have worked in sales know how this can go. One day you hit the bushes and nothing happens. The next day you take it easy, and the phone rings off the hook. On Monday, the client yawns at your presentation. On Wednesday the exact same presentation scores a big contract. What's going on? Why are you making money one day, and nothing the next day? It becomes easy to chalk up your successes and failures to luck. Or to God.

So what happens next? Because God can control the clients, Mr Small Businessman starts to look for ways to control God. He dabbles in superstition. He looks for segulot. He becomes a prisoner to ritual. And, significant to the change described up in paragraph three, our Jewish small businessman also becomes deeply invested in the idea that God controls every little thing, and its corollary, viz, that God can be controlled through the performance of mitzvoth. This has to be true. It absolutely must be true. Otherwise, what chance does our guy, the small salesman or businessman, have at making a buck in the world? If God is indifferent there's nothing a magical thinker can actually do to make his business grow.

Our sheep-tending ancestors didn't have such worries and didn't think such thoughts. As a result they didn't conceive of God the same way that we do. Their God was a God who merely watched over a flock. He has been supplanted by a modern God, the God who "runs" things.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Rabbi doubts evolution, “but not because of religion”


Jerry Coyne, author of "Why Evolution is True" (which I believe I learned of through a recommendation by DovBear) has written a response to Rabbi Avi Shafran's Tablet article "Skeptical About Evolution—And Not Because of Religion".

Coyne: "The title of the article at issue is a masterpiece of dissimulation, because if you read the piece you’ll find that its author, a rabbi, is skeptical completely because of religion."

Links to both articles:

Shafran: here

Coyne: here 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Notes on Tisha B'av 5775

I've been doing this for years... its both bracing and scary to see how much time has gone by and how little things have changed.

How the Fast Went:
A breeze. I hardly felt it, and was in no rush to eat when the time came.

I wish I could share one, but it was a thoughtless year. I said the kinot, slept some, went to mincha and read some stuff on my phone. If you're looking for heroic discoveries from previous years try this. [While this remains the ultimate all time best Tisha B'av post ever written ]

The smallest one was a little noisy, but he's old enough to entertain himself; the others were fasting. My days of having to deal with kids while fasting are over.  Sigh. Sunrise, sunset. Related 1 and 2

How long was shachris:
Forever and a day. Long time readers know how much I love Yom Kippur prayers, but I can't stand Tisha B'av morning. Its far and away the worst service of the year. The dirges make no sense, and drone on forever, and please don't recommend some hippy, do-gooder, minyan where the Rabbi's bright-eyed assistant delivers a boring introduction to selected Kinot. Such introductions are never insightful, and make a terrible service even less palatable.

Kinah for Gush Katif?
Still no.

Kinah for holocaust?
Nope. Not this year. As I said to the Rabbi after we finished, those who end the liturgical tour of Jewish tragedy at Chelminiki, yet also hold that Yom Hashoa is wrong because "we have tisha b'av" have, in Ricky's immortal words, some 'splainin' to do.

None, for a change. I caught a few minutes of Sophie's Choice but it didn't hold my attention.

I finished up something by Dov Katz on the musser movement then went looking for Kotso shel Yud, the epic Haskalah poem written by Yehuda Gordon. I found it here and recommend it heartily.

Rather then ruin your experience by revealing the ending, I'll just say that Gordon is the sort of writer who leaves you flabbergasted. His poem brilliantly weaves together pointed biblical and rabbinic allusions in a highly readable style to tell the unfortunate story of a woman called Bat Shua. Poor Bat Shua has been left an aguna by the sort of hapless fellow who still gets churned out of factories like Lakewood. While the villainous Rabbi Vofsi is a caricature and the enlightened Jewish gentlemen who comes to Bat Shua's rescue is too perfect to be real,  Gordon's account still stands as valid criticism of the mechanical Judaism that both musserniks and haskalaniks opposed. 

Break fast:
The usual: Potato soup, lecho, home-made pastries.

How'd things go for you? (Or to put it in the argot of the blogosphere, I'm "tagging" all of you.")

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

The reason for the Temples destruction

Mendel Hirsch, the oldest son of Samson Rephael Hirsch wrote: "The Jew does not mourn that thousands of years ago the Temple was destroyed, but that it had to be destroyed. Not over the destruction, but over the causes of the destruction."

And what were the causes of the destruction?

To paraphrase Hirsch again: The Temple was destroyed because of boundless selfishness, greed for profits, misuse of power in service of their own interests on the part of those in authority and greed for lucre in all classes of the people, and the oppression of defenseless widows and orphans. And all of this bad behavior was justified by hollow trips to the Temple Mount with fatted cows and pretty prayers.

In the language of the Prophet, the people of Jerusalem did not "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, [or] plead the case of the widow." They didn't protect the vulnerable or defend the rights of the innocent. Instead they just kept showing up on the Temple Mount, day after day, with their rams and incense. That's right: While vulnerable people went exploited and unprotected, the leaders of Jerusalem gathered on their mountaintop to pay lip service to God.

The Temple was destroyed because God grew tired of the charade. The Temple was destroyed to force the people to realize that all prayers and offerings are in vain if the law of the Torah is not kept, that the sweetest odors from sacrifices would not save the altar, the Temple, and the State, if they were permitted to take the place of the rest of God's statutes. Praising God is worthless if the law is forgotten, and the law boiled down to its essence is this: "That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow... the rest is commentary."

With this in mind, I close with another quote from Hirsch: "...every recurring ninth of Ab, is to pose the question to every generation: Is our present deeply imbued with the Jewish spirit, so filled with the Jewish way of thinking that it could form a worthy environment for a Temple of God to be erected in its midst?"

The date of the Temple's destruction

When was the First Temple destroyed? Our books do not disagree with each other. In the unfortunately long post that follows I examine the sources and discuss the difficulties

The Biblical Verses

2 Kings 25:8-11 says "Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon" arrived on the seventh of Av, and "he burnt the house of the LORD, and the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man's house burnt he with fire."

Meanwhile Jeremiah (who likely authored Kings) days this in his own book.

Jeremiah 52:12-15 says "Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, which served the king of Babylon" arrived in Jerusalem on the tenth of Av and "burned the house of the LORD, and the king's house; and all the houses of Jerusalem, and all the houses of the great men, burned he with fire"

Other than the date, these verse are virtually direct copies of each other (and both are believed to be the work of Jeremiah, or his scribe Baruch.)

See the Hebrew.

2 Kings 25:8-11
וּבַחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי בְּשִׁבְעָה לַחֹדֶשׁ הִיא שְׁנַת תְּשַׁע־עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה לַמֶּלֶךְ נְבֻכַדְנֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ־בָּבֶל בָּא נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן רַב־טַבָּחִים עֶבֶד מֶלֶךְ־בָּבֶל יְרוּשָׁלִָם׃ 9 וַיִּשְׂרֹף אֶת־בֵּית־יְהוָה וְאֶת־בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאֵת כָּל־בָּתֵּי יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְאֶת־כָּל־בֵּית גָּדֹול שָׂרַף בָּאֵשׁ׃

Jeremiah 52:12-15
 וּבַחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁי בֶּעָשֹׂור לַחֹדֶשׁ הִיא שְׁנַת תְּשַׁע־עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה לַמֶּלֶךְ נְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר מֶלֶךְ־בָּבֶל בָּא נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן רַב־טַבָּחִים עָמַד לִפְנֵימֶלֶךְ־בָּבֶל בִּירוּשָׁלִָם׃ 13 וַיִּשְׂרֹף אֶת־בֵּית־יְהוָה וְאֶת־בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאֵת כָּל־בָּתֵּי יְרוּשָׁלִַם וְאֶת־כָּל־בֵּית הַגָּדֹול שָׂרַף בָּאֵשׁ

The Talmud 

The Talmud, of course, catches this difficulty and attempts a reconciliation:

Talmud - Mas. Ta'anith 29a
[ON THE NINTH OF AB] THE TEMPLE WAS DESTROYED THE FIRST TIME. For it is written, Now in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, a servant of the
King of Babylon, unto Jerusalem. And he burnt the house of the Lord etc. And it is further written,Now in the fifth month, in the tenth day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, who stood before the king of Babylon into Jerusalem etc.With reference to this it has been taught: We cannot say that this happened on the seventh, for it has already been stated that it was ‘in the tenth’; and we cannot say that this happened on the tenth, for it has already been stated that it was ‘on the seventh’. How then are these dates to be reconciled? On the seventh the heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth [of Ab] and towards dusk of the ninth they set fire to it and it continued to burn the whole of that day, as it is said, Woe unto us! for the daydeclineth, for the shadows of the evening are stretched out.

So, in brief:

1.It started on the 7th day 
2.It reached its peak on the 9th (Hence Tisha B’Av) 
3.It ended on the tenth (Hence we resume eating meat, wine etc.)

Do you find this satisfying? I don't.  Here are some of the problems:

(1) 2 Kings 25:8-11 and Jeremiah 52:12-15 are obviously the SAME verse. They are not two different accounts of two different events as the Talmud suggests; rather they are duplicate accounts of the same event. 

(2) The Jeremiah verse says Nebuzaradan arrived on the tenth of the month. It does not say he arrived on the seventh but was feasting and cavorting for three days. Why would it say he arrived on the tenth, if as the Talmud suggests, he actually arrived on the seventh?

(3) The Jeremiah verse says the burning took place on the tenth. It does not say it started on the ninth, and continued on through the night, as the Talmud suggests. 

Given all of this, doesn't it seem obvious that what the Talmud is attempting here is the preservation of two cherished, pre-existing assumptions namely (a) Assumption 1: the Torah has no internal contradictions; (b) Assumption 2: The First Temple was destroyed on 9 Av. (The Talmud seems to take that dating as an article of faith, no matter what the books say.) 

My solution

My solution isn't very frum, I'm afraid, but I think it has the merit of being true. Here it is:

(1) The original text of Jeremiah said that the destruction occurred on the tenth (bah... yerushalayim, badly translated as "arrived in Jerusalem" is a figure of speech, not to be taken literally. Nebuzaradan didn't literally show up on that day; he merely went to work.)

(2) Over time the yud [=tenth] became confused with the zayim. There's ample evidence of this happening, elsewhere. This uncertainty regarding the date was preserved much later when the texts of Kings and Jeremiah were written and/or finalized.

(3) Neither Jeremiah nor Kings were finalized in the days, months or years immediately  following the exile. The people were at loose ends, remember? Foreign land. Hostile government. The fight for life. Establishing the correct and final the text would not have been at the top of anyone's agenda, as the people struggled for survival. All of that library work had to have come much later.

(4) Several centuries later the Second Temple was destroyed on 9 Av. For various theological and polemical reasons, the idea took hold that the First Temple was destroyed on the same date. This idea became popular among people who did not have direct access to Kings and Jeremiah (i.e. nearly everyone) After the idea became popular and accepted the Rabbis were forced to reconcile it with the what the books actually said, the results of which was preserved on Taanith 29b.

Any feedback?

Friday, July 24, 2015

What Rambam haters always get wrong

Rambam haters often criticize the Rambam's approach as being overly influence by Scholasticism. What they forget is that every Jewish approach was influenced by something.

Our first Temple-builders were influenced by the tripartite Temples they saw all over the Ancient Near East. Our first lawmakers looked to Hammurabi and the Suzerain system for ideas. In places where rationalism reigned we produced rational sages like Ramban and Ran. In places where people were inordinately superstitious we find Balei Shem and kabalistic magicians.

This isn't a coincidence. Judaism doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's forever responding to outside events and ideas. For instance
  • The development of the feminine aspect of God in the 13th century was a response to the cult of the Virgin Mary in medieval Europe
  • The custom of donning masks and costumes on Purim, like many of our wedding and burial rituals, was borrowed from the surrounding, non-Jewish culture
Do these facts cheapen Judaism? Some people seem to think so. Here's one comment from yesterday's thread:

It's incredible that your loyalty to scholastic philosophy should be so strong that you are willing to trash out, squeeze every bit of chiyus and imagination out of Judaism

This is a doubly offensive point.

(1) From the perspective of people like me, the hyper spiritualist neo-hasidim are the ones who are taking the life and the meaning and the significance out of Judaism and replacing it with emotional gobbledygook. Why are their religious preferences superior to ours?

(2) While it may be true that the Rambam and his fans are coming to the question from the perspective of scholasticism, let's not forget that the hasidim, or the Kabalists or whoever you like best also come to Judaism with a perspective in hand, one that reflects their own time and place just as surely as the Rambam's approach reflects the scholasticism of his era.

The argument is not as Rambam-haters are attempting to frame it. This isn't a battle between real Judaism and the Rambam's futile attempt to justify Judaism to Aristotle.

It's a battle between competing attempts to justify Judaism to competing philosophies.
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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Should we change the "Nachem" prayer?

How can we continue to say "השוממה מאין יושב"‎ when it is factually inaccurate?

Chaim Navon, who teaches in Israel at some fancy places, argues the time has come to update the Tisha B'Av Prayers, specifically the Nachem prayer we add to the Amidah. As he says:

כשהכותל המערבי שוקק המוני מתפללים האם אפשר לומר על ירושלים שהיא "אבלה מבלי בניה" ו"שוממה מאין יושב

Translation: When the Western Wall is bustling with crowds of worshipers, is it possible for us to say that Jerusalem is "mourning without sons" or 'alone without inhabitants'?

A good point, right?  It no longer makes sense to speak in the present tense of a Jerusalem that is abandoned, alone, and empty of worshipers. Our Jerusalem is full of life, people, and new construction. How can we stand before God during Amidah and lament a desolate and lonely city that no longer exists?

Imagine you served a human king who had, only recently, solved one of your most pressing problems. Say, you wanted a home and he gave it to you or you needed protection from the local marauder and he provided it. What would happen if, soon after your wish had been granted, you returned to the king to complain about how unhappy you were that you still had no roof over your head, or that tough guy Tony was still raiding your fields?

Yet, this is exactly what the text of Nachem asks us to do, a mere 40-odd years after the reunification and resettlement of Jerusalem. The city sings with life, and we're supposed to go to God whining about how empty and broken down it is? Can we expect God to complete the Redemption if, in our prayers, we stubbornly refuse to take notice of the progress that has already been made?

In his article Navon cites three bold names - Rabbi GoIren, Rabbi Lichtenstein, and Rabbi Halevy - who he says have already changed the words of the prayer. Which makes sense. Those three are known for their realism, and their refusal to treat Judaism like a relic. To them Judaism still breaths, and because it still breaths it must change and develop as the world around us changes and develops.

I respect their perspective, and understand it fully. I agree that only things that are dead cease to change. Still, I would not consent to alter the words of Nachum.

Though Judaism isn't a fragile relic, and shouldn't be treated like something delicate, the various prayers we recite belong to a different category. We don't say Nachem because the words themselves matter to God, or because their recitation works like a spell that in some way or another compels God to act.

We say the words only because saying the words matters to us, because reciting them connects us to our childhood, our parents, our past. And that connection is easily damaged.

Two types of Conservatives argue that the prayer should be left alone. One type argue that some rule or precedent prevents us from changing the words. They are either ignorant or dishonest, Copious examples of changes to the liturgy can be easily presented. Other types of conservative who wish to keep the old Nachem are concerned that changes make things seem less real. If we correct Nachum, they protest, the prayer will feel wrong.

I'm sensitive to that objection, too, and because God, unlike a human king who might feel slighted were we to ignore his acts of kindness, does not care one way or the other, why not let people say Nachum the old way if they find it personally meaningful?

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Early Tisha beAv

A guest re-post by Y. Bloch
Tisha beAv is unique among post-Mosaic fasts in that it lasts a full twenty-four (and-a-half) hours, from sunset until nightfall. But one aspect of it starts earlier: not studying Torah. Let's consider the prohibitions of  9 Av, as recorded in the Talmud (Taanit 30a):
One must not eat, drink, anoint himself, wear shoes, or have sexual intercourse. The Torah, Prophets and Writings must not be read. The Mishna, Talmud and Midrash must not be studied, neither law nor lore...  one may read Job, Lamentations and the bad prophecies of Jeremiah, but the schoolchildren must be idle on that day, for it says, "God's directives are upright; they make the heart rejoice" (Ps. 19).
However, this refers to 9 Av itself. What about the 8th? Let's turn to the Rema, R. Moses Isserles, the Ashkenazi half of the Shulchan Arukh, specifically OC 553:2:
It is permitted to wash, anoint and to wear shoes until twilight... However, the custom has been not to study on the day preceding 9 Av from midday onwards, unless it is something permitted on 9 Av. Therefore if it falls on the Sabbath, one does not recite Ethics of the Fathers. Similarly, one should not loiter on the day preceding 9 Av.
So, even though one may eat until sunset, one must put down the Talmud at halakhic noon (which is usually closer to 1PM, what with DST and all). Indeed, I remember well in camp how the books would slam shut at midday: no more hermeneutics of torts, ports and warts--it was time for sports! Surely, what better preparation for a full-day summertime fast could there be than running around chasing balls?

Indeed, this custom is so powerful that it trumps the Sabbath itself: though many have the custom to learn a chapter from the Mishnaic tractate Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 9 Av's imminence trumps the eminence of Shabbat.

This is particularly astounding when we consider what the previous page of Talmud (Taanit 29a) tells us about the encounter between 9 Av and Shabbat. Of course, the fast is pushed off if they fall on the same day, but what of the Sabbath afternoon which immediately precedes the Fast of 9 Av (Observed)? The Rema tells us not to study Avot, but what of the traditional third meal?
If 9 Av falls on a Sabbath, or even if the eighth falls on a Sabbath, one may eat and drink whatever he chooses, and may place on his table even such viands as were eaten by Solomon while he was yet king.
So, you may eat your Beluga caviar, foie gras and venison, with a tankard of ale to your left and and a Burgundy glass of Pinot Noir to your right, but if you dare to talk about the weekly Torah portion, you are a sinner!

The problem, of course, is that people do not read that last line of the Rema's ruling: "Similarly, one should not loiter on the day preceding 9 Av." The term in Hebrew is tiyul, which has come in modern Hebrew to refer to hikes and school outings. However, that is not its original meaning, as we find it listed in OC 639:1 as one of the activities to be performed in one's sukka. Certainly, an ad hoc dwelling in a booth/ hut/ tabernacle is no place for wide-ranging travels. Rather, the term refers to relaxing, hanging out, enjoying leisure time. You know, the sort of things that people do instead of studying Torah.

Why are people so eager to apply the first half of the Rema's ruling? Perhaps there is a psychological element, the gotcha syndrome. There is something deliciously ironic about the Torah crying, in Carrollesque fashion, "Don't read me!" on Tisha beAv. It reminds me of the monomaniacal obsession that grips some people when Passover begins on a Saturday night. We stop eating leaven by the late morning, and touching matza before the Seder is akin to deflowering one's bride before leaving for the wedding hall, so with neither challa nor matza, how can we eat the third meal on Shabbat afternoon? Never mind that people are fine making do with a piece of cake, fruit, water or air on many a wintry Sabbath afternoon--now that Halakha says that we simultaneously must and mustn't eat bread, the game is afoot.
So maybe we just don't accept this ruling of the Rema. It wouldn't be the first time. However, I like to turn to the words of the Chafetz Chayim (BH 553), who writes:
I am inclined to allow, even on a weekday, to study until near twilight, and were I not apprehensive of my colleagues, I would say that even on the day of 9 Av itself, we should be lenient; for in our great sins, the generations have become corrupted, and on the day of 9 Av they loiter in the streets and engage in idle chatter, and even those who are literate and some of the scholarly are lenient about this.
If this sage had lived another century and witnessed Instagram, Twitter and Facebook loitering, I think he would have overcome his apprehension.
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The challenging, questionable morality of Matos (part 2)

A few days ago I promised you a post on the immoral parts of Matos and how they can be made to fit our pre-existing idea of Judaism as a kind and just way of living and interacting with the world. Here it is.

Matos is alleged to be divine revelation, yet its full of dirty bits. Moses, the great man of God, commands us to murder innocents and to take sex slaves. God puts the V in Vengeful, demanding an act of jihadist genocide in retaliation for some Midianite frolicking and fornicating. And on a smaller scale we're told that women lack the moral authority to make vows. Their husbands and fathers are authorized to cancel any commitments they might make.

How do we square all of this with our ideas of morality? How do we make this fit with everything we think we know about justice and equality?

Easy.Just recognize this fundamental truth: Morality is - and always has been -  whatever the strongest or loudest or most persuasive people say it is.

Don't believe me? Open a history book. Slavery was once widely practiced and widely accepted.. Then better people made better arguments and morality shifted. At other moments loud, persuasive, brutal people made other arguments and morality shifted for the worse. (Tormenting Jews was never right and it was never just or fair or pragmatic but at particular times and places it was  perfectly acceptable.) And back in Matos when God ordered the eradication of all Midianites, and when Moses, acting on his own, tacked on the bit about sex slaves all that was acceptable, too.

Now it isn't. Now you can't wipe people out for the crime of being sexy, and you can't grab virgins for your own personal use. How did this shift occur?

I'll get there. But, first let me take you on a short detour through the Euthyphro dilemma, where the Matos problem is presented as a sort of chicken and the egg question:

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Pruzansky foot finds its way into his mouth again

Pruzansky's newest entry in the world's stupidest blogpost sweepstakes richly deserves a total take-down; unfortunately I have neither the time nor the energy at the moment.

However, I can't let this pass
His supporters, though, especially Jewish liberals but others as well, have intentionally blinded themselves to those goals and satisfied themselves with empty rhetoric, toothy smiles, and invitations to lame Chanuka parties and Pesach seders (some even held not on Chanuka or Pesach).
1. Obama is the very first president to host a Seder, and they are always held in the family dining room, for fewer than 30 people. The only Jewish liberals who get invited are the ones who work for him. The president's Seder has always been a private affair.

2. As the Christian Science Monitor explains "The seder tradition began in 2008 when candidate Obama unexpectedly joined a seder arranged by three young Jewish aides in the basement of a Sheraton hotel in Harrisburg, Pa., during some of the darkest days of his campaign. The organizers included Eric Lesser, who worked on trip logistics; campaign videographer Arun Chaudhary; and Herbie Ziskend, who did campaign advance work. After the pledge that ends the traditional seder, “next year in Jerusalem,” candidate Obama raised his glass and declared, “Next year in the White House,”recounts the Jewish Daily Forward. At the time, he was still engaged in a ferocious primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton." So the president doesn't host the Seder for the sake of sucking up to the Jews, but because he made a promise after connecting with Jewish staffers, and likely identifying with the story of escaping slavery.

The full charming story, with first person reflections, can be found here.

3. Because its a real Seder, not a show, and designed to honor his Jewish employees, the  president's Seder has always been held on Pesach.

4. Now, I can't say for certain if the President's Chanuka party has always been on Chanuka, but two things:

(a) Lots of Jews, including me, have hosted Chanuka parties on dates that don't coincide with Chanuka. It's not actually a big deal.

(b) Pruzansky's hero, the great George Bush famously hosted a Chanuka party nearly a full month early. Unwilling to re-arrange his precious vacation, the panderer in chief staged a mock Chanuka celebration at the White House and forced some poor unwitting Jew to light the candles (8 of them for some reason) for the president's amusement and say the blessings. If Bush cared about Chanuka, and not the photo-op, he'd have had some Jews over to his vacation mansion on the actual holiday. But that's not what he did. (The great George Bush also once sent out Chanukah cards to his favorite Jews – with a pretty Christmas tree illustration.)

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Chazon: Vision through frosted glass, into the mist


It is commonly taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. Less talked about is the First Temple, which is surprising. Surprising, because the precursor to it’s destruction is well documented; because the First Temple was still the era of prophecy. Prophecies in which God speaks in His own words about the problems of the day that had ruined society.

We are told that each generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt has participated in it’s destruction. This is harsh, but logical. It means that were such a generation to have a Temple, its deeds would eventually lead to its destruction. We are part of the problem if we cannot develop and maintain a society that is morally and ethically upright.

The Shabbos before Tisha b’Av is Parshas Dvarim, known as Shabbos Chazon – named for the opening words of the Haftora, Chazon Yishaya, extracted here:

שִׁמְעוּ דְבַר-ה קְצִינֵי סְדֹם הַאֲזִינוּ תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ עַם עֲמֹרָה. לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי. כִּי תָבֹאוּ לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי. לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא לִי חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה. חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח נִלְאֵיתִי נְשֹׂא. וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יְדֵיכֶם דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ. רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה

“Listen to Hashem, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to the law of our God, people of Gomorrah!”

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”, says Hashem. “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me!

“Your celebrations of Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos and your fast days, are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings! I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you raise your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you might offer many prayers, I will not listen, because your hands are covered with the blood of innocents!

“Wash yourselves and become clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways; learn to do good. Seek justice! Help the oppressed and vulnerable! Defend the cause of orphans! Fight for the rights of widows!” – (1:10-17)

There were many prophets whose stories did not make the canon of Tanach; the ones that were included were selected because of their resonance beyond their time.

The prophet goes on to mention corrupt leadership and bribery. It is impossible to rid society of evil completely; even in the most ideal world, there would still be a justice system. This is a recognition of human choice and error. But this is when a society is challenged; when evil rears it’s ugly head, how do we respond? It ought to be forcefully and definitively dealt with.

This is why perversion of justice may be the ultimate crime. If a society is too corrupt and broken to protect it’s citizens, people are trodden on without ramification. That society, in a subtle, but substantial way, endorses and protects criminals and predators. If only lone individuals care, the society as a whole is morally bankrupt. Where is the compassion?

How many of our vulnerable people are unprotected? Every year there is another scandal, another cover up, another aguna, another molester, another abuser. When our institutions and leaders fail to remove criminals or call them out for what they are, it is a betrayal, at your expense. We are not a community if we do not protect and ease the burdens of our brothers and sisters. There is grave injustice when individuals proven dangerous beyond reasonable doubt are allowed to retain influence. That this could be a veiled reference to any one of numerous incidents says a lot about where we are.

A generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt has participated in it’s destruction. The prophet’s words echo, and it is chilling.

Don’t misunderstand this. This is not a polemic against our leaders. This is a call to action directly to you. Don’t rely on other people for a job you could and should be taking on. We need you.

We have much to be proud of today, but make no mistake; we cannot launder or buy off mediocrity in one area with excellence in another. The people of that time were diligent and meticulous in their prayer and sacrifice, yet so awful at other things. The amount and scale of Torah study and charity in the world today is phenomenal, and unprecedented in history. But how much is it really worth if we do not act like God’s ambassadors on this world? In the words of Chazon:

לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי – “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats!” (1:11)

The lessons we ought to learn from history knock on our door, repeatedly, louder and louder. In Moshe’s parting address to the people he spent his life trying to save, he says to them:

אֲדַבֵּר אֲלֵיכֶם וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם – “I spoke; yet you would not listen!” (1:43)

We see problems around us, and we do not fix enough of them. Praying more, with greater intensity, is not the solution that these problems require. We just need to fix them! If we had a Temple today, we would lose it; otherwise it would be here. How can we fast, weep, and pray when there are so many poor, hungry, abused, and other vulnerable people around us? Is it something to be proud of that we are in dire need of so many excellent charities and outstanding individuals? Such individuals and organisations lead the way for the rest of – but they do not remove our own obligations.

It is so easy to make that difference; resolve to be better, in a real, substantial, accountable way.

Volunteer more. Give more charity. Give food and clothes away. Make sure no child is left without a school. Participate in your community. Use any influence you have, talk to influential people, and make that difference. Even if it’s just you alone. Take responsibility for the people around you, who don’t yet know that you are someone they can rely on to help them.

Our enemies label us as cruel; but they could not call us cruel, unless on some level, we are also cruel to our own. In 2014, several rogue Jews killed an innocent teen; something unheard of. While there was a unanimous and loud global outcry from our communities, something about the way we educate and raise young people generated that grotesque tragedy. They killed a person, another human being, who was so “other” in their minds that it did not matter that he was innocent. And we all think that way to some extent.

So read Chazon. Because it reads like it was written especially for us. If it’s too hard to motivate yourself to cry for what happened long ago, then cry for now; for how far we are from where we are meant to be, for the agony in our communities. Cry for the all the injustice around you that you can’t seem to do anything about; tears that burn. I know I will.

צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה – “Zion will be redeemed through justice; it’s restoration will be through righteousness.” (1:27)

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Monday, July 20, 2015

A handful of not very good stuff...

From the awful yarmulke-wearing chillul hashem file...

Yep, Jews can be monstrous and intolerant. Surprise! Unfortunate fun begins at around 3:50:

From the with friends like these file...

Hooray! Watch a bunch of Jesus-loving RW Conservative Republicans attack the Israeli flag at a Pro Confederate flag demonstration:

What's that objection I hear? 99 percent of the actual* Jesus-loving RW Conservative Republicans would shun and condemn a bunch of KKK anti-Israel whackjobs? Very good. Now maybe you're beginning to understand how pro Israel Democrats (ie the overwhelming majority) feel! Haha!


From the Peek-A-Jew* pile...

Spot the Menorah @1:07 Apparently, the psycho author with  the anti-social tendencies is also a Jew. Damn you Hollywood! (HT: Avi - last name if he says its OK)

*I invented Peek-A-Jew. Don't use it without attribution. Thanks.

From the Lord, what is it about the color black that makes people sentimental and stupid file?

Read this

Money quote:
“But it goes deeper than that,” Mr. Kirkegaard said. “New Yorkers don’t get all nostalgic about yellow cabs. In London, the black cab is seen as something that makes London what it is. People like it that way. Americans tend to act in a more rational and less emotional way about the goods and services they consume, because it’s not tied up with their national and regional identities.”
The comparison to Judaism is immediately obvious, right?

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Matos isn't very PC

I promise to build this out in greater detail later tonight or tomorrow, but for now I just want to drop the intellectual hand grenade and see what sort of damage it does.

In Matot - this week's parsha - we have two sets of passages that ought to offend any ethically sensitive person. I'm speaking first of the right given to husbands and fathers to annul any vows made by their wives and daughters and second of the commandment to exercise religious genocide upon the Midianites.

Both smack of Saudi Arabia.  Women are infants who can't take on any commitment absent some superior man's approval and the attack on Midian is nothing if not genocide. Square this with Judaism, if you can.

Like I said, I will say more later, but for now you're invited to react to the verses I've referenced.

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Friday, July 10, 2015

Journey Beyond


A video was released today of a sworn deposition from June 2015 in the case Ferguson v. JONAH. 

The gentleman being deposed, in great and extremely disturbing detail, explains a particular conversion therapy process which is called "Journey Beyond". 

Presumably, many people attended these events due to or with the support of major Rabbinical leaders. Below left is a letter in support of JONAH from R Shmuel Kaminetzky from 2000, and below right is a more recent response from Chaim Dovid Zweibel to an interview. 

(click the photos for a larger view) 

Both of these rabbis, and certainly many others clearly support and believe in, and would try to convince others to attend these events. 

Try to listen to the details of these Rabbinically approved therapy techniques without feeling sick:

Sophistry and dishonest about gay marriage: Comment of the week

"Kudos" writes a comment for the ages

The sophistry and dishonesty that goes on here when dealing with an issue like homosexuality in Judaism is unbelievable.

Agreed. And in a fine tradition it is, too.

Like when the Torah clearly says that a disobedient son should be hauled before the elders and stoned to death at the gates of the city.

And then the Rabbis came around later and, realizing how cruel and horrible that punishment was for the "crime," they decided to say that the Torah really meant that the son was only to be judged disobedient if the offense occurred in a three month window between bar mitzvah and physical maturity, that the voices of the parents had to be so much alike that the could be confused for one another, that the appearance and height of the parents had to be the same, that the parents couldn't be crippled or lame, both parents must assent to the stoning, and the disobedience had to have involved stealing money in order to buy a bunch of food on which the son gorged himself all at once - and not in his parents' house - and in so doing assured that no child would ever be killed by a Jewish court for doing what kids (even adult ones) sometimes do: disobey or rebel against their parents.

Judaism has a very long and respectable tradition of taking a harsh, barbaric, or unfair law, looking at the text and then pulling out of it some of the most tortured and ridiculous justifications for legally not enforcing said harsh, barbaric, or unfair law. And thank HaShem that they did so.

So, kudos to Rabbis like R.Yossi, and Orthodox Jews like DB, who are willing to try to do the same in the modern era and relieve some of the pain, alienation, and condemnation that our LGBT brothers and sisters currently endure.

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The Motives of a Critic

Gutnick's Lubovitch translation and interpretation of the Torah is a collection of many gems.  Along with great excerpts from R' M.M Shneerson's superb super-commentary on Rashi, Gutnik's Bible also includes seldom-seen selections from Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni and other examples of not-all-that-frum exegesis. Plus there's this wonderful accident (I assume?) from Parshas Vayerah.

And when we get to Parshas Pinchas, we find a mini-essay that appears under the title "The Motives of a Critic." Here are a few salient sentences from it:
The tribes appeared to have convincing proof that Pinchas' motives were not pure (see Rashi) but they were mistaken. This teaches us an important lesson whenever [sic] we are tempted to find fault with another person's good deeds and questions their motives: One can never know another's true intentions.
Let these words stand as a rebuttal to all of the gay-haters who thought we were up to no-good this week as we attempted to be melamed zechus both on gay Jews and the Sages who criticized them. Let them also stand as a an attack on our misogynistic friends who see evil intentions whenever a woman attempts to take on something new. 

In fact, can you read these words without wanting to shove them down the throat of every anti-WPG Rabbi you've ever met? When a woman wants to daven with other women, every Rabbi to the right of Avi Weiss screams feminism, or makes insulting guesses about her ulterior motives. This doesn't happen to men. Our motives aren't ever subjected to the same degree of scrutiny. When a man takes on a new ritual observance, no one questions his intentions. No one says, "Hey I bet he's only doing that to secure a better match for his daughter, or to make people forget about the target vomiting last year during Hakafot."

But let a women try to improve herself, and she goes right under the microscope. Why the double standard?

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

3 strikes, yer (coming) out

 A guest post by Y. Bloch

Sometimes being well-versed isn't enough.
I've noticed in the two weeks since Obergefell came down, the opponents of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling, at least those of the Jewish persuasion, have been changing up their tactics.
It's old hat to cite Lev. 18:22/ 20:13. After all, then one would have to admit that halakhically, all that prohibits is anal sex between males (as Hizkuni ad loc. notes, whetting one's sword would not be included). Also, one might have to admit that various commentators have read the verse differently, not just in modern times but a millennium (Rabbeinu Hananel ad loc.) or two (Bar Hamduri, Yevamot 83b) ago. Those readings may have more philosophical than legal implications, but they're still significant.
Instead, they rely on a trinity of exegetical passages, from the Talmud and Midrash. Let's see them:

#1: Midrash, Sifra, Aharei 9:8
I did not say this [prohibition] except for the statutes enacted by them, their fathers, and their father's fathers. And what would they do? A man would marry a man, a woman [would marry] a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would marry two men. Therefore it says, "and in their statutes do not follow" (Lev. 18:3).
In other words: Don't walk like an Egyptian. This is the source for forbidding lesbianism in Jewish law (Maimonides, Laws of Forbidden Relations 21:8). It is a lower-level prohibition than all the others in Chapter 18, the punishment only rabbinical. But what about for non-Jews? Maimonides does not mention it in his list of prohibitions for Noahides (Laws of Kings 9:7), but maybe it's implied by this source. After all, God seems to be criticizing Egypt for it. The only problem is that many of the relationships described in that chapter are perfectly fine for non-Jews. So perhaps the Sifra is highlighting the ones that are universally unacceptable, like polyandry and same-sex marriage? A fine thought, except in between them we have "a man would marry a woman and her daughter"--and a Noahide is allowed to marry his daughter-in-law. In fact, he's allowed to marry his own daughter. No, really, look it up. Traditional marriage, what can I say?

#2: Midrash, Genesis Rabba 5
"They took women of all they chose"--wives of [other] men; "of all they chose"--males and animals.
Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi said: The Generation of the Deluge was not wiped off the face of the Earth until they wrote gemumasiot for males and animals.
Said R. Simlai: Wherever you find promiscuity, collective punishment comes to the world and kills good and evil alike.
Gemumasiot are translated by some as ketubot, prenuptial documents (mainly based on source #3). Well, there you go. People start writing ketubot for gay weddings, and it's all over! But a ketuba is a marriage contract between two people--did people write one for a cow? And why use some bizarre foreign-sounding word instead of a famous Hebrew one for a Jewish concept?
Prof. Marcus Jastrow, in his authoritative Aramaic dictionary, points instead to Hymenaios, a rousing coupling song sung at weddings. Oh, and another volume of Midrash, Leviticus Rabba (23), has a slightly different version of this tradition.
Said R. Simlai: Wherever you find promiscuity, collective punishment comes to the world and kills good and evil alike.
Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rabbi Jose: The Generation of the Deluge was not wiped off the face of the Earth until they wrote gumasiot for males and females.
Not males and animals, but males and females. Suddenly, it's the bawdiness of the songs and the licentiousness it reflects which is at issue. Sir Mix-a-lot may yet kill us all.

#3: Talmud, Hullin 92a-b
"And I said to them: If ye think good, give me my hire; and if not, forbear. So they weighed out for my hire thirty pieces of silver" (Zech. 11:13). Said R. Judah: These are the thirty righteous men among the nations of the world by whose virtue the nations of the world continue to exist.
Ulla said: These are the thirty commandments which the sons of Noah took upon themselves but they observe three of them, namely (i) they do not draw up a prenuptial document for males, (ii) they do not weigh flesh of the dead in the market, and (iii) they respect the Torah.
Rabbi Ari Hart already wrote an excellent piece about this passage, and I heartily recommend it. I would just add that it is important to note how difficult it is to make lore into law. Ulla is trying to explain an obscure verse in Zechariah, and there are some striking differences between his conception of Noahide laws and the standard view, explored at length in the seventh chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin and codified by Maimonides.
  1. Ulla has 30, 27 of which are unidentified, rather than 7.
  2. Ulla says the nations "took upon themselves" these strictures, rather than being commanded by God.
  3. Ulla lists commandments which have no equivalent among the 613 commandments incumbent upon Jews.
  4. According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Avoda Zara 2:1), the thirty commandments are not what the Noahides accepted, but what they will accept in the future.
With all this in mind, it is very hard to try to formulate a comprehensive worldview based on Ulla's statement. But he sure doesn't like gay marriage, right?
Well, the first presumption is that Ulla is in fact talking about males who are marrying each other. It may be that he is simply talking about an arrangement in which wealthy females write prenups guaranteeing that they will support their poor husbands after death or divorce.
As Rashi reads it, it's a little bit more complicated. Gay prostitution is accepted in Ulla's locale, gay concubinage is accepted, but gay prenups go too far. Why would this be? A prenup seems to be quite technical. If the issue is making the relationship open, official and ordinary, why is concubinage fine? Concubines were publicly known, their children were recognized--that IS biblical marriage. Solomon's 300 concubines were not a secret.
However, if one studies Ketubot, it becomes clear why the ketuba is so important: it is the bedrock of societal gender roles. A female goes from her father's house straight to her husband's house, but what maintains her after the latter's death or divorce? That is why the Rabbis instituted ketuba, to obviate the need for women to step into a man's world. They went so far as to say that any marriage without it was unacceptable. And thus, extending that to males would totally change the social order.
Ulla, as explained by Rashi, accepts the reality of anal sex between men and of that relationship being formalized. He just objects to extending rights, creating a sinecure for a gay paramour. If people really accepted Ulla's statement as halakha--and there are many compelling reasons not to--then their cry would be: sex, yes; marriage, yes; rights, no. Instead they claim the opposite position, as exemplified by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett: “Rights, yes. Recognition, no.”
Ulla's exegesis is social commentary, which is why he points to socioeconomic mores, rather than the essential issues addressed by the Seven Noahide Laws. And when it comes to socioeconomic mores, I don't think we're in third-century Palestine anymore.
So would the sages of the Talmud and Midrash have celebrated this ruling? I highly doubt it. But if we want to figure out how we should react, we must do our due diligence and subject our sources to the strictest scrutiny.

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