Monday, April 30, 2007

Completely Off Topic, but Funny: The LifeCycle Of A Towel

Over at AskShifra.

The Wolf

Yeridas HaDoros -- Some Questions

There is a well-established tradition in Orthodox Judaism called Yeridas HaDoros (the descent of the generations). The idea, simply stated, is that later generations are greater in Torah and spirituality than later generations. No person today, the theory goes, could hope to achieve the heights of Torah that the Vilna Gaon achieved. Certainly no one today can ever hope to approach the Torah knowledge of someone such as Rashi or the Rambam.

This idea has, in fact, been incorporated into Jewish learning for a long time. Tana'im were greater than Amoraim, and no Amora could argue against a Tanna. Likewise, no Rishon could argue on an Amora (yes, I know I skipped a step or two) and so on. Since Rashi and Rambam were Rishonim and we are Achronim (or maybe even no longer that), we couldn't possibly hope to fathom the minds of these great men.

And yet, there is more Torah being learned today than there has ever been throughout history. Literally millions of Jews learn Torah every day, with many of them learning full time. Today, in most communities with an Orthodox Jewish population, there is a program of formal Jewish education at least through high school, if not beyond. In the past, of course, this was not always so - very often some people would go to school only to the extent that they learned the basics and the "serious" learning was left to the elite few. The rest went on to learn a trade.

In addition, we now have tools that allow for the dissemination of Torah throughout the world. The telephone and the Internet, modern translations of classical works into various languages, and organized programs such as Daf Yomi and the like have created an atmosphere of Torah learning that could not have existed at any time other than possibly during the forty year sojourn in the Wilderness.

That all being said, what are we producing? Are we producing more of a lesser quality? Is the Torah being "produced" today inferior than the Torah which, say, Rashi's generation produced?

Or let's look at it this way -- is there any individual today that can hold a candle to Rashi? Just about everyone in the yeshivish community would say no. But can the average Orthodox Jew today stand up to the average Jew in Rashi's day? I think that the answer, without a doubt, is yes -- we can. We're better educated because we have more formal schooling, and we have more tools with which to learn than they did in Rashi's day. For example, today, just about everyone has access to a Gemara whenever they want one -- they either own one or can walk into the nearest shul, bais midrash, library or seforim/Judaica store and get one. Heck, you could even look at all of Shas online. In Rashi's day, when all Gemaras were handwritten, I would be surprised to find that any town had more than a few copies of the complete Talmud. I'm sure many communities in Europe didn't even have one complete copy. The opportunities for learning just weren't there as they are now.

It seems that we have a disconnect here. The average person today was better than the average person in Rashi’s day, but yet no gadol today can ever hope to compete with Rashi. Why is there no YhD for average people (if you think I’m wrong, please feel free to tell me why you think so), but for the elite, YhD is “ingrained” into our beliefs?

This also leads to another question – how is a generation evaluated? Are they evaluated on the basis of their leaders, or on the basis of the average people? If you will maintain that no one today could ever be a Rashi (a concept that I’m not so certain should exist, but I’ll let it be for the moment) but that the average person today is far more learned in Torah than the average person in Rashi’s day, does that mean that, on the whole, we are better than Rashi’s generation? Or do the gedolim of the generation carry so much weight that they overbalance anything the rest of the generation might accomplish and therefore Rashi’s generation continues to stand head-and-shoulders above us by dint of Rashi himself (and his colleagues)?

Last, but not least, we have to ask this question – if our yeshivos today are capable of creating an average Jew who is superior to an average Jew of Rashi’s time, why does that same yeshiva fail to produce a leader as great as Rashi? After all, today’s gedolim went to the same yeshivos that the average people went to, and Rashi (or his colleagues) presumably went to the same school that other people in their times went to. But whereas our schools did a far superior job of producing average Jews (probably because of a more formalized learning program extending well into adulthood), how is it that we fail miserably at producing gedolim to equal the stature of previous generations?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Misplaced Charity Priorities

Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum writes in this week's Jewish Press that two rabbis from Israel have come to the United States to solicit money for the mehadrin bus lines in Israel. He writes:

Recently, Rabbi Menachem Kenig and Rabbi Binyamin Mark came to the United States to solicit financial support to continue and increase the current bus service for the observant communities. More than 100,000 observant Jews use mehadrin transportation daily. However, there are estimates that there are more than 200,000 other observant Jews who still use the regular overcrowded mixed buses. Rabbi Kenig and Rabbi Mark seek to expand the mehadrin service so that every observant Jew has the opportunity to have his or her daily commute free of intermingling with passengers of the opposite gender.

Rabbi Mark earned endorsements for his efforts from the beth din of the Edah HaCharedis of Yerushalayim and also from Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, author of Shevet Levi; Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, Rosh Kollel Chazon Ish; Rabbi Yisroel Mordechai Twersky, zt”l, Rachmestrivka Rebbe in Yerushalayim; and Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shechter, Breslover Rav in Yerushalayim.

Personally, I don't have a problem with the mehadrin bus lines. If people want to ride the bus and not sit with members of the opposite gender, that's up to them. If they can show Egged that there is a demand for the service (which it seems they have) and convince them to run the lines, then they certainly should have the opportunity to do so.

However, let's recognize this for what it is - riding on a bus with a member of the opposite gender is a chumra at best. There is certainly no halacha against it - people travel on the New York subways all the time and I've yet to hear a single person state that doing so is forbidden -- even though there will sometimes be accidental contact.

That being said, IMHO, the idea of giving charity to support separate-gender busing ranks fairly low in our list of priorities. Giving to people who have physical needs (food, clothing, shelter) certainly rank higher. Giving to institutions that support the community (Tomche Shabbos, Hatzalah, etc.) absolutely rank higher. Giving to institutions of Torah (shuls, yeshivos, etc.) also rank higher. Even providing for Kollel families who could work for a living but choose to learn full time comes higher.

In other words, if one wants to strive for separate-seating busing, fine. But do so out of your own pocket. Every dollar you take in charity to support this takes a dollar away from other causes that are certainly more deserving and more vitally needed by the community and it's members.

(It could be that the rabbis are going to look not for charity, but for investors. But if I had to lay odds, I'd bet that they're looking for the former and not the latter.)

The Wolf

(Hat tip: DAG)

Monday, April 23, 2007

JIB Awards

I have had the great honor to be nominated for two JIB awards -- Best Small Blog and Best Anti-Establishment Blog.

If you be so kind as to go vote, I would greatly appreciate it.

Vote for Best Small Blog
Vote for Best Anti-Establishment Blog.

The Wolf

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Can Someone Please Explain This To Me...

... without resorting to "they're misogynistic?"

From Hashkafah.com:

I am aware that I am not the only (ex)chasideste on H and I was wondering what you all feel about women driving. Here in London a child who's mother drives will not be accepted into a chasidishe chieder or school. It is preferred that women use (arab) taxi drivers - regardless of the length of their trip, and no one blinks if a family has an account with a specific firm who will send them the same driver whenever he is available, which effectively means that women will be taking trips as long as an hour in both direction (from stamford hill to the west end [shopping district] or other malls even further away) with the same man, fairly often.

I am at a loss to understand (i.e. what's the halachic (or "minhagic") for the prohibition (or disapproval) of female driving among some Chasidic groups. It can't be an issue of tznius, since a woman is no more exposed when getting out of the front seat of a car than when getting out of the back seat.

In fact, I would think, based on the author of the quote above, that having women take a car service repeatedly with the same non-Jewish man over and over again can present possible violations that are certainly worse than could be possible if a woman were driving alone in her car.

Obviously, for the Chasidic community in London, this is a big deal. The fact that they're willing to keep kids out of school because of this (a stupid idea, IMHO, but that's for another day) clearly says that they consider this issue to be very important. But, assuming that they're not all misogynistic idiots (I refuse to believe that all Chasidim are that way) then what is the basis for the restriction?

The Wolf

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Shimshon, Terrorism and History

Elliot Resnick of the Jewish Press blog posted today on Terrorism and Shimshon (Samson). In it, he makes note of the fact that the Victoria Philharmonic Choir portrays Samson as a terrorist and a suicide "bomber."

His end conclusion is that yes, Shimshon was a terrorist and that terrorism is not evil - merely a tactic of war. As he states in his post:

But terrorism per se is not evil. It is a tactic of war, just as shooting guns is a tactic of war.

Of course, he fails to make the distinction that in war, one is usually shooting guns at other people who are shooting at you too. Terrorism deliberately targets those who *aren't* shooting at you.

Personally, I find his conclusion that terrorism isn't evil very troubling. How anyone today can not see the targeting of innocents as evil is simply beyond me. Stating that terrorism is simply a legitimate tactic of war only serves to turn real terrorists into legitimate freedom fighters.

So, then, how does one reconcile Samson's actions with the idea that terrorism is evil? Is the Victoria Philharmonic correct?

Personally, I think that the VP is making the mistake of judging historical characters by today's standards. People do not exist in a vacuum - they are a product of their environments. The ideas and norms of Shimshon's day helped shape the person he was. Were he living today, he would no doubt have been a very different person.

A similar idea can be expressed about Abraham Lincoln, one of the most celebrated presidents in the history of the United States. Aside from George Washington, I don't think any other president has a more hallowed place in American history. And yet, although he was a radical in his day, most of his attitudes and ideas are definitely racist by today's standards. If you somehow plucked Lincoln from 1864 with a time machine and plopped him down in the United States in 2007, he could never be elected president. His ideas and attitudes regarding race are so out of touch with today's attitudes that he'd be branded a blatant racist.

However, that's not how we judge Lincoln. We don't judge him on the basis of today's attitudes, but on the basis of the attitudes that were prevalent in his day. Likewise with Shimshon -- he can only be judged based on what someone from his day would have been expected to do. He cannot be judged on the basis of what is good or evil today. To judge him (or any historical personage) in that light is simply unfair and wrong.

So, does that mean that terrorism was OK in his day and unacceptable now? The answer is an unqualified yes. Standards of behavior in everyday interactions and war change as time progresses. Back in his day, a general who conquers a city would usually enslave the young inhabitants, rape the women and kill all the men. That was considered normal back then and was expected of almost any general. A military leader who does this today would (rightly) be placed on trial for war crimes. So, too, with Shimshon's actions. What was acceptable in warfare then is not acceptable now - and there is no need to "defend" Shimshon's actions by stating that terrorism is not evil.

The Wolf

UPDATE: (6:25PM) -- it looks like they took down the post, but you can find it here.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I've Changed Quite A Bit

This was me about twenty years ago.

The Wolf

Artscroll's Shir HaShirim Translation

Yeah, I know that it's over a week late... :)

It's been well over twenty years since Artscroll made their editorial decision to replace a literal translation of Shir HaShirim with an allegorical one following the interpretation of Rashi, so anything I have to say on the subject certainly won't be new. Nonetheless, I do have a thought or two that I'd like to share on the subject.

Personally, I think the decision to replace the literal translation with an allegorical one is wrong. I certainly don't object to including an allegorical translation - I believe that Shir HaShirim certainly *is* an allegory and has a much deeper meaning than simply love poetry - but it should not replace the actual, literal translation.

An allegory has value on more than one level; it not only serves as a veil on the subject matter being alluded to, but also has value when read strictly at face value. A good example of this (from the secular point of view) is George Orwell's tale Animal Farm. Animal Farm can be read as a simple fairy tale. On the other hand, it also serves as a vehicle and (very) thinly disguised criticism of a socio-political system. The value of the story isn't only in the way it allegorizes (and criticizes) communism; it also lies in the choice of setting and characters in the story. Orwell's choice of pigs to represent the leaders of the Communist revolution is of value in and of itself. The same could be said for Herman Melville's choice of a great white whale for Moby Dick and Art Speigel's Maus. Or, to put it in more yeshivish terms, the value of the mashal isn't only in the nimshal, but in the choice of mashal as well.

Now, it can be said that in some cases, the choice of characters and settings in an allegory is purely arbitrary and serve only to illustrate. But I find it hard to believe that someone as wise as Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon, to whom Shir HaShirim is ascribed) didn't choose the allegory with precise care and purpose. I think that the fact that Shlomo chose to write his allegory in the form of love poetry has value in and of itself. The exact text, as written, has value, and does not merely serve as a vehicle to explain deeper concepts. As such, leaving out the literal translation, IMHO, is simply wrong.

The Wolf

Schlissel Challah


There is a custom to bake "Schlissel (key) Challah" after Pesach. I don't know the origins of this custom.

While we don't put an actual key in the challah, Eeees puts a dough key on top. As usual, the results were delicious.

The Wolf

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What Was The Very First Thing You Did Under The Chuppah...

... after the glass was broken? If you are a man, did you purposely stomp on your wife's foot? If not, then watch out!

According to OnionSoupMix, the rabbi in her shul recommended that the best way to start off a marriage is to stomp on your wife's foot right after the glass is broken. Why? To send the message that you are the boss and mashpia and that she is to be submissive. This, according to her rabbi, is an important halacha (and possibly should done even if the bride is a niddah -- but hey, it surely isn't touching derech chibah [in an affectionate manner]).

Personally, my first thought on reading her post is that the rabbi must surely have been joking -- no sane person could possibly think that the best way to start a marriage is by stomping on your bride's foot in public right under the chuppah to tell her that he's the boss, but OnionSoupMix seems to believe that the rabbi was serious.

Anyone else ever heard of this stupidity? I've love to believe that this is just some lone nut (if he's even serious at all) or is he actually pulling this from some authentic source?

The Wolf