Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Is Supporting the Yated A Mitzvah?

As Rabbi Student pointed out, the European Yated (which includes the online version) is no longer publishing on a weekly basis. It seems fairly obvious from the notice currently on the website (see below) that the problem is financial.

Apparently, according to the folks at the Yated, supporting the Yated is a mitzvah, and one can use Ma'aser money to support them. As it says on their website (bolding mine):

Notice to Our Readers

Boruch Hashem we have managed to make arrangements with all the relevant parties and to receive permission from the relevant authorities to continue. Financing is on a "can afford" basis. We have arrangements in place for the news for a few weeks and we seek donors for other sections. Although it is not tzedokoh in the strict sense, for those who undertook ma'aser kesofim to include general mitzvah expenses, according to the rabbonim they may donate from their ma'aser kesofim.

I'd like to know who the rabbonim are who said that supporting a newspaper can be done with Ma'aser money. I'd also like to know on what grounds supporting the Yated is a mitzvah, especially when there are other right-wing Chareidi publications available.

So, what's the story? Am I being too cynical and there are real grounds to allow Ma'aser money to be used in supporting the Yated? Or is this just a way to get people to part with their Ma'aser money to support a private business venture?

The Wolf

UPDATE: Upon doing a search, I see that Dag posted about this first. My apologies, Dag.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Helping Singles

I saw a sign in shul on Shabbos, indicating how we could all help solve the "shidduch crisis." The sign indicated that one can help all the desparate Jewish singles in the world to find their mates by... learning the laws of Shmiras HaLashon! They even started a Yahoo! group SegulahForSingles for this. As it states on the group's homepage:

The power of shmiras halashon is awesome. By learning just two lessons a day of shmiras halashon via e-mail, we can b'ezras Hashem do our part in helping singles throughout klal yisroel.

Now, I'm certainly in favor of people learning Hilchos Shmiras HaLashon. Learning Torah is always a good thing. But somehow, if we, as a community, want to do something to help solve the "shidduch crisis," there are other steps that we can take that would prove far more productive than learning Hilchos Shmiras HaLashon:

  • We could reduce some of the societal barriers that prevent young men and young women from meeting each other. As it is, in many parts of our community, young men and women have only option to meet through "official" channels -- the shadchan. By increasing the chances that young men and women have to meet each other, you are almost certain to increase the marriage rate.

  • We could go back to judging prospective grooms and brides on their strength and content of their character, instead ofwho their parents, grandparents and uncles are, how long one parent will support the young couple and instead of what political gains the marriage will gain for the family of the bride or groom.

  • We could educate young men and women about the things that are important in the search for a spouse. We could educate them that things such as what type of shoes he wears, what tablecloth her mother uses on the Shabbos table and so on are not important at all. We could teach them to focus on the things that *are* important -- Is he a good kind person? Does she share the same outlook on life that I do? Will he make me happy? Am I physically attracted to her? (Yes, it's important.) Does he make me feel special? Does she have any important character defects? Does he want the same things in life that I do? -- Those are the important things in the search for a spouse. Most of the rest is nonsense.

  • We could teach our young women that learning full-time isn't for everyone and that working for a living is not a b'dieved. We could teach young men that marriage isn't only about finding a father-in-law who will support your learning for ten years. There are certainly those who can, and should be encouraged to learn full-time after marriage - but we, as a community, have to realize that it isn't for everyone and should not include everyone.

Driving these points home to our young men and women will do far more to end the shidduch crisis than learning Hilchos Shmiras HaLashon.

The Wolf

Sunday, December 17, 2006

More Theme Challos

As she did last year, Eeees made theme challos for Channukah again. This year, she made four dreidel challos, one each for Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin. With her permission, here are pics of the challos. Needless to say, they were delicious.
The Wolf

Friday, December 08, 2006

Funny What Sets People Off

Unless you've been living under a J-blog rock, you've certainly heard about the story of the woman who was beaten up on a bus for refusing to sit in the back of the bus.

I don't know whether the story is true or not, nor do I have any way to verify it. However, it should be noted that the issue involved is only one of a chumra, a stringency, and certainly not one that is universally held. There was certainly no Rabbinic or Biblical commandment being disobeyed here.

And yet, could you see this story happening because she was eating treif on the bus? Could you see it happening because she was eating chometz on Pesach? Could you see it happening because she was returning from having been on the Temple Mount? Could you even see this happening because she had a tattoo?

Personally, I cannot. If someone were to tell me that she were beaten up for violating a mitzvah d'oreissa, I'd have a hard time believing it - but for this, it sadly sounds plausable.

Funny which "violations" will cause people to react violently.

The Wolf

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Separate Sidewalks?

Much has been written about the recent Tznius asifa in Israel. I plan to comment on it too in the future, but I need to get some materials together. In short, I think that raising people's conciousness about tznius is a good thing (even if the asifa went about it in a completely wrong fashion - but that's for another post).

However, there are times when it gets carried too far - and I think that the residents of Beit Shemesh (where I have relatives living) have reached that point. In parts of the town, there are now separate sidewalks for men and for women. Signs are posted on the street advising women that they have to cross over to the other side of the street. Women are not allowed on the side of the street where the shul is located.

Now, lest I sound like someone who is in favor of licentiousness and free love, let me reiterate that standards of tznius are a good thing. Lord knows I don't need to see any more bare midriffs in New York in the summer. But the idea that the sexes have to be so completely separated that they can't even walk on the same street is ludicrous.

Has there ever been a Jewish community where it was noted that this standard was observed? Did our ancestors in the midbar walk on different sides of the paths between tents? When Dovid danced in the streets, did he do it on the men's side? In any of the shtetls in Europe, was there ever a reqirement that the men and women occupy different streets?

Rabbi Maryles has noted in his blog recently the ever-increasing trend toward the separation of the sexes, starting with separate seating by weddings, to the ever-increasing fact that the kallah does not come over to the men's side during the dancing, to separate seating by Sheva Berachos - even of the chosson and kallah!

I recently read a science fiction series by Robert J. Sawyer called the Parallax Trilogy. The series centers on a world where the Neanderthals, not humans, survived and became the dominant species of the planet. On the Neanderthal world, the sexes live separate lives for most of the month. For 25 out of every thirty days, the men live in one community and the women (and small children) live in another. It is only during the remaining five days (when "Two Become One" that the men and womenfolk get together.

One has to wonder if that isn't the goal for some of the ultra-zealots - to, in short, have separate communities where men will sit and learn all day and not be distracted by the womenfolk and the women will work and support the men without being distracted by their presence. Of course, I realize that I'm greatly exaggerating the situation - after all, we're only talking about separate sidewalks, not separate houses and communities. But sometimes, I feel like that is the direction that we are headed in.

What ever happened to taking a moderate approach?

The Wolf

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bloggers and Torah Authority

DovBear reflects on the upcoming Agudah convention and the anticipated address regarding bloggers. Based on the advertising (as reported by Orthomom), it seems that the speech is being framed as a bloggers vs. Torah Authority showdown.

As DB points out in his post, there are many, many more pressing issues that could be dealt with at the convention than bloggers. I don't think I need to repeat what those issues are (and I think he left off a few good issues as well); we all know what the strengths and weaknesses of our Orthodox communites are. What I would like to focus on is the issue of blogging and the question that is asked by the advertisement "Have bloggers declared open season on Torah Authority? "

Of course, to state that the "bloggers" have any opinion is like saying that "New Yorkers" are in favor of a particular opinion... the bloggers are a diverse crowd with diverse opinions. Are there some bloggers that have "declared open season" on Torah authority? Probably. The fact of the matter is that the J-Blogosphere is a very diverse crowd, covering the range of opinions from extreme chareidism to atheism - and just about every stripe in-between. There are bloggers that are very supportive of today's gedolim, some that are mildly supportive and some that are outright antagonistic. Stating that "bloggers" are bad because some of them are anti-Torah is like stating that books are bad because there are books written by athiests. The answer, of course, isn't to ban the medium - it's to educate people to be able to discern what information is worth listening to and internalizing and which information should be ignored and left to wither and die in the marketplace of ideas.

The blogs really first came to prominence, of course, with the ban on Rabbi Slifkin's books. Sure, there were some blogs around before then, but the ban was the first event where the J-Blogosphere played a major role in the public perception of Rabbinic authority. Since blogging is all about the disemination of information and not about restricting it (if I didn't want to diseminate information, I just wouldn't blog), naturally the bloggers tended to side with the people who were against the ban. Of course, there were some bloggers that were pro-ban; again, the J-Blogosphere is not a monolithic entity with group-think. Since the ban represented the supression of information, most of the J-blogosphere was against it. That was the start of the "blogs are against Torah authority" meme.

Most of the bloggers I know, however, do have respect for Torah authority. Heck, the fact is that many of the J-bloggers are Orthodox - they keep Torah U'Mitzvos, they learn daily and they believe in the Creator. When I have a halachic question, I go to a rav, as do most of the J-bloggers. By doing so, we show an a priori commitment to Torah authority. If we didn't, we wouldn't daven, keep kosher, etc.

But when one asks the question "Have bloggers declared open season on Torah Authority? " one has to define a few terms. Just like the term "bloggers" is not as straightforward as it seems, so too must one define the terms "declared open season" and "Torah Authority."

What is "Torah Authority?" Does it mean that I have to follow what's written in the Shulchan Aruch? Does it mean that I have to follow the pronouncements of any rav? Does it mean that I have to believe counter-factual information because a rabbinic authority of the past or present declared it to be true? Does it mean following rabbinic advise in halachic matters? Or do I need to consult them on which investments to put in my 401(k) plan? What is "Torah" and what consitutes "Authority?" Is Torah all-inclusive of every aspect of my life? Does it go as far as what hechsharim I have to follow (or reject)? What about which lulav and esrog I buy for Succos? Whether a woman uses oil or candles for Shabbos lights? Whether or not I should smoke or drink? Which model car I should buy (does V'Nishmartem M'od L'nafshosichem dictate that I *must* buy the largest, safest car?). What magazines can I subscribe to? Which radio stations can I listen to? At what point is something no longer within the realm of "Torah" that that particular activity isn't under the "Authority?" Or are *all* activities within one's life, from the moment one gets up in the morning until one goes to sleep at night, considered "Torah?"

What is "authority?" Does that mean that I have to blindly follow the dictates of rabbinic leadership in anything that is deemed to be "Torah?" Am I allowed to even question, whether publicly or privately (i.e. to myself) the reason for the decision and the factors that went into it? Do I have to submit totally and unequivocably, or is it merely a recommendation (in areas that aren't strictly halachic). If I ask a rav for advice on how to handle a family matter, but in the end I go against his advice for whatever reason, is that going against "Torah Authority?"

And lastly, what is "declared open season?" The term, of course, originates from hunting, where certain animals could only be hunted within a specific time of year (their season). When the time of year came for a specific animal, the season was declared open and hunting could begin.

Of course, no one at the Agudah thinks that the bloggers are literally hunting people in "Torah Authority" positions with guns as a hunter hunts a large animal. But the question does imply a destruction - hunting is a destructive activity - even if done for utilitarian or ecological purposes. Are we bloggers being destructive to "Torah Authority" (however it is defined)? I don't think so. To say that we are declaring open season on Torah Authority is like saying that we want to put Rabbis and gedolim out of business. However, for most of us, that's simply not the case. What we want is leadership - true leadership that is responsible to the Torah as well as to the people. What we want is not just rabbinic decisions, but the ability to understand them as well. When a ban is published on the works of Rabbi Slifkin because he states the world is older than 5,767 years, it's not enough to simply say "it contradicts the Torah, therefore it's bad and banned." You have to be able to address people's questions and concerns. Don't just tell me it's wrong - tell me why it's wrong and how you plan to explain away scientific evidence to the contrary. It's akin to a rabbinic pronouncement of "there's no elephant here" while standing under the big top at the Ringling Brothers circus.

The bottom line, of course, is that the J-blogosphere, like the telephone, is here to stay. People will continue to express their opinions, as they always have, whether it be in a telephone call to a friend, a letter to the editor of a newspaper, or a speech in a public forum. The J-blogosphere is simply a new forum that is available for people to express their ideas. If they don't want to enter this forum directly, then the best bet to maintain Torah Authority would be to educate people; giving them critical thinking skills to be able to determine what information is worth keeping and what information should be discarded. Simply hiding from the J-blogosphere only makes matters worse for them - they are, in effect, abdicating the platform to those who truly do wish them harm.

The Wolf

Monday, November 13, 2006

High School Yet Again... One More Fear Of Mine

As you no doubt know from my previous posts, Eeees and I have been looking for a high school for our eighth grader. We've seen several that we have been impressed with and we will be applying to them.

However, I personally have one big fear about the whole processes... and I don't know if it's because I, personally, had a very bad experience or if this happens more often. Perhaps others who have gone through this process can give me some help or insight.

Our son goes to a fairly RW Chareidi, black-hat, white-shirt/dark-pants only school. The high schools that we have looked at are not like that at all - they all encourage their students to go to college, they allow clothing with colors, many of the kids wear kippot s'rugot, many of them have televisions (well, so do many in the current school, even though it's officially highly discouraged), and most of the schools are Zionistic.

Part of the application process for just about every school that we are interested in involves having the principal fill out an evaluation on the student. Now, to be perfectly fair, my son is not the greatest student - when he's not sufficiently interested or challenged. I've found that when he has an interest in the gemara that they are learning, he is usually pretty capable of understanding it. However, if it's not so interesting, then his grades will start to plummet.

The menahel has spoken with us about this several times. Usually we can crack the whip on him for a while and get him to pay attention, but then he sometimes slides back as his other interests take over his attention. The result was that in seventh grade, his grades in Limudei Kodesh were less than stellar.

The menahel thinks our son has a problem. He thinks that because our son has an interest in animals and other things aside from full-time learning, there must be a problem with him. He's advised us to seek professional counseling for him. To be honest, Eeees and I don't see that as his problem - he's pretty well adjusted, has friends and acts like a typical adolescent (meaning that he alternates between being very good and making our lives miserable). He enjoys reading anything he can - Judaic and secular. He does learn on his own sometimes (although not gemara). However, he's not going to be a Rosh Yeshiva (at least based on his current temperment - in the future, who knows?) and learning doesn't occupy his every waking moment. As with me in high school, the harder he is pushed in one direction that he doesn't want to go in, the more he will recoil in the opposite direction. The menahel thinks that is a sign that the kid needs therapy. We think it's the sign of a teenager.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I have a real fear (possibly unfounded) that when the menahel sees the application forms and the schools to which we are applying, with their radically different hashkafos than the present yeshiva, he may try to sabotage the process.

Why do I say this? Because it happened to me. Allow me to present my story.

As many of the readers of this blog know, I was pretty miserable in high school. I had little in common hashkafically with the administration or my classmates. I did not have the skills or the interest to learn at the level of the class - and no one thought to actually try and help me out. That's not to say I was not at fault - I certainly could have tried harder - but I didn't. With few exceptions, my learning in high school was pretty non-existant. The only reason I can learn today is because of the yeshiva I went to after high school. And therein lies the tale.

When I was in twelfth grade, my mother was ill. She spent most of the school year in the hospital with various related health issues. Since I hated school, I took unfair advantage of the situtaion and played hookey - quite often. One time, I missed an entire week, hiding out in the house. That was no one's fault but my own. Sure, if the yeshiva had made more of an effort to reach out to me and include me in the learning it might not have happened, but I was more than capable of knowning that my actions in skipping school were wrong.

About February, the Rosh Yeshiva called me into his office. "Wolf," he told me, "I want you to know that we can legally hold you back. You've missed enough days of school this year that you can be held back another year."

I gulped. Being stuck in this school another year was the last thing I wanted. I had had it up to here being the square peg that they were trying to pound into the round hashkafic hole. I wanted out - as should have been evidenced by the fact that I was missing school to begin with.

In the end, he offered a deal. I had to move into the dorm, be in school *every day*, be present at every davening and learning seder. If I could do that, I'd graduate in June. If not... I had no choice; I took the deal. I moved into the dorm (oh, how I hated that dorm) and was there every day since then. I missed one day in May due to a family member having an operation - but I got permission from the Rosh Yeshiva in advance to be out that day. I kept my end of the bargain to the letter.

In June, the Rosh Yeshiva called upon me again and asked me what I had planned for next year. I informed him that I planned to go to a small local yeshiva (I didn't mention that I planned to go to college at night - I wasn't *that* dumb) that was recommended to me by someone who knew my family, and I mentioned the name of the Yeshiva and it's head. His response: "Why don't you go to a normal yeshiva next year?" I had no idea what he was talking about. True it was a small yeshiva - it wasn't a Chaim Berlin or Mirrer, but still it was pretty RW hashkafically. However, the school wasn't to his liking. He threatened me that if I didn't make plans to go to a "normal yeshiva" (with him defining the word "normal") that I would not graduate.

I was heart-broken - I nearly left the office in tears. I had kept my end of the bargain faithfully. I did everything that was asked of me - and yet I was going to be stuck in that school again for another year. It just wasn't fair! It would be one thing if he just held me back because of my absences - that would have been his right since I did play hookey. But he offered me a deal - and I kept my end of it! It wasn't right of him to use threaten the graduation I had earned.

My mother, upon hearing the news, called the RY and asked him to reconsider. How could he do this, she asked? What was she going to tell her son about frumkeit when he sees that a rabbi's word means nothing. How would she keep her son on the derech if he sees that honesty means nothing? His response to my mother was "I don't tell you how to cook rice, you don't tell me how to run a yeshiva."

As it turns out, my mother knows the wives of some influential rabbanim in the community and she called them and literally poured out her heart in sorrow to them and their husbands. All this, of course, happened behind my back, but wheels were set in motion; phone calls were made.

About two days later, the RY called me over and said "Wolf, who started this rumor that you're not graduating? Of course you are. In fact, I'd like you to speak by the graduation." I was stunned and speechless.

In the end, I graduated, and I spoke by the graduation. But the whole process left me scarred and contributed a great deal to the some of the skepticism and cynicism that I have today about the frum community.

It wasn't until next year that I found out what the problem with the new yeshiva was -- the RY of the new yeshiva (unbeknowst to me) used to be a rebbe at this high school and when he left, it wasn't on the best of terms.

So, that's my story. Someone in a position of authority tried to interfere with my choice of yeshiva after high school and used his considerable power to force me to attend a yeshiva of his choosing.

And, I fear, the same thing may happen here with my son. To be honest, it could be (and I'm hoping) that my fears are unfounded. Maybe this doesn't go on all the time and I just had someone who, for whatever reasons, felt that playing with my life was good. Maybe I just had one rotten apple and other Roshei Yeshiva and Menahels are not like that. I really have no idea whether the Menahael will torpedo our son's chances of going to a different school because he thinks it'll be better for him in a school of his choosing and of like hashkafah. It's something that I really am afaid of.

Or, it could be that based on my experience, I'm just being paranoid.

The Wolf

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

... And Then There Are Days...

... when we wish we seriously reconsider sending him away to high school. Ah, the "joys" of adolescence. :)

The Wolf

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Go Out And Vote!

I stay away from politics on this blog, but I do follow the goings-on in the halls of Congress and in state and local government.

It's very important for you to go out and vote. Vote Demolican, Vote Republicrat, Vote Independent, but go out and vote. It's important that those who are elected know that the Jewish community is an important part of the overall community and that we need and demand representation.

So, go out and pull the lever.

The Wolf

Monday, November 06, 2006

High School Regrets

Eeees and I have spent the last two weeks looking at various high schools. Our oldest is now in eighth grade and will be attending high school next year. We've already ruled out the yeshiva he's attending now for high school, so we've been looking at alternatives.

We're purposely steering away from the "black hat" type yeshiva that he currently attends. He's not terribly happy there and it's fairly clear that he's not cut out for learning ten hours a day. In addition to that, we want a place that will teach him to be able to learn on his own, and prepare him for both college and post-high-school yeshiva. I think that if he remains where he is now, he may be marginally prepared for the first two, but not for the third; I think he'll be "burnt out" on learning in that type of atmosphere. I have other reasons as well for steering him away from there... I'll get to those a little later.

And so we're looking elsewhere. We've seen three high schools in the New York area (sorry, PT, we're really not keen on sending him to Wisconsin) and have been favorably impressed with all three. They all stress learning, have different levels of shiurim to accomodate students that are stronger or weaker in learning, offer real secular studies classes, AP courses, electives and generous extracurricular activities. He's really liked what he's seen by two of the schools (we didn't bring him to the third, although we now regret that decision - we know him well enough to know that he'd love what he saw by the third school as well) and we'll probably be applying to all three.

In short, I'm hoping for him to have a vastly different high school experience than I had. My high school experience was... well... let's just say that it works for certain communities, but not for me. The high school I went to was very small - about 40-50 boys at any one time. Since it was so small, there was only one class per grade - there was no room to try to accomodate those who were weaker in learning - of whom I was one. I was usually left behind by the third daf in any given year. It was rare that anyone tried to help me out. Eventually, I just stopped trying.

The day was as follows:

7:30 Shacharis
8:15 Halacha seder
8:30 Breakfast
9:00 Morning Seder (15 minute break in-between)
1:15 Mincha
1:30 Lunch
2:30 Second Seder
3:45 English
6:20 Dinner
7:00 Night Seder
9:15 Ma'ariv

English consisted of four subjects in ninth and tenth grades - Math, Science, Social Studies and English. In 11th grade, Science dropped out, extending the Second Seder to about 4:20. In 12th grade, there was no Math, and so Second Seder went to about 5:00.

Every other Sunday there was no English. Second Seder ended at 4:00 and if you had no Night Seder that night, you were done for the day.

If you had no Night Seder at night, your day was done at 6:20. 9th grade had Night Seder two nights a week, 10th grade had three nights, 11th grade had four and 12th grade had five nights - Sunday to Thursday.

There were no extracurricular activities, except one. On Lag B'Omer, we'd take a field trip to the park for a softball game or some such activity. The only other break in the routine was that once a month the Rosh Yeshiva would give a one-hour lecture on the sugya the Yeshiva was learning. Of course, the lecture was given in Yiddish - and I didn't understand a word of it. One time, the Rosh Yeshiva said to me after the lecture "Wolf, if you can tell me what I said in the lecture, I'll give you twenty dollars." I wanted to punch him in the nose.

But that was it - that was my high school experience for four long years. Long days, long learning hours, barely-there secular studies classes (it's a minor miracle that I made it into college), no help at all from the rabbeim who looked at me as largly a consumer of space and oxygen, and disdain from the administration. Any mention of anything that was out of their definition of the "torah world" was verbotten. The day after the Challenger shuttle exploded, I got in trouble for discussing the fact that I had seen news replays of it on television. My attempts to (secretly, of course) play Strat-O-Matic baseball were secretly taped by school spies, as I related in a previous post). I dared not bring in any book that I might have been reading at home.

Of course, one is entitled to ask why I spent four years at that school if it was so miserable. Well, there is an answer to that too. Without going into too many details, suffice it to say that my mother (who is disabled) was unable to work. My father (who isn't frum) didn't contribute anything toward my yeshiva education. The one thing that I give the administration of the yeshiva credit for was that they allowed me to remain there for six years (including two years of elementary school) pretty much for free. For that act of chesed, I can thank them, but not for much else.

In short, for four years, I barely learned anything and was miserable. In looking at the yeshivos over the last two weeks with my son, I could not help but feel extreme regret for my "misspent" youth. I can only imagine what I would have accomplished when I was younger if I was in an enviornment such as what these schools presented.

Don't get me wrong - an intense learning schedule such as the one above may be right for certain individuals - but it was wrong for me. The extremely long schedule*, the monotony, the attitudes of the teachers and the administration, the spying, the conniving and manipulation that went on nearly caused me to go off the derech altogether. That's something that I desparately want to avoid for my sons. I just wish I could have avoided it myself.

The Wolf

(N.B. - Just to be fair, I don't want anything to think that I was a completely not at fault in high school. I was certainly no angel - but I do place the fault of my experience largely on the yeshiva I went to).

* One time, the Rosh Yeshiva called everyone into the Bais HaMidrash and lectured us that there was too much battalah (time wasting, non-learning) going on in the Bais HaMedrash during learning time. "I don't understand it," he said. "You have a half hour for breakfast, an hour for lunch, forty minutes for dinner and fifteen minutes recess in the morning. Get all your battalah done then." After the lecture, a friend of mine turned to me and said "I'm surprised he didn't mention the ten hours between Ma'ariv and Shacharis"

Friday, November 03, 2006

Guest Post Over At Orthonomics

I have a guest post over at Orthonomics about how losing my credit card has been beneficial to me. Check it out!

Thank you, SephardiLady, for putting it up.

The Wolf

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Exactly Whom Is Doing The Arguing?

DovBear had a guest post from a blogger named "Ed" dealing with age of the earth issues. In the comments for that post, a person named Yosef asked the following question...

Why does everyone get so worked up unnecessarily? There are plenty of sources that make it perfectly clear that Hashem created a mature world, just like Adam was created fully grown. We wouldn't expect the world to look literally 5,767 years old anyway. How much hevel havalim over nothing!!!

Well, to be honest, it's not the people who are willing to accept scientific evidence who are the ones getting worked up - it's those who stick to a straight Young Earth Creationist (YEC) model.

If Yosef is correct that it's all an argument over nothing at all, the following conversation would take place:

Scientist: The earth is about 4 billion years old
YEC: You're right, the world does appear that old. However, we believe that God created the world to look mature.
Scientist: But you can't prove that! It's not scientific.
YEC: You're right, it's not. But it's what we believe.

However, that's not what happens. What happens is this:

Scientist: The earth is about 4 billion years old.
YEC: No it's not. Your carbon-14 dating is all wrong, you don't have a complete fossil record, half-life decay rates could have changed, galaxies aren't receding, yadda yadda yadda...

In other words, the YEC could simply say, "yes, you're right, based on the physical evidence, it appears that the world is very old. Had we not had a tradition that God created the world 5767 years ago, we'd agree with you." But that's not what happens - instead YECs try to show the scientist that his science is wrong and that he doesn't know anything about science anyway.

It's not the scientists who are getting "all worked up" and doing all the arguing. It's the YEC who are making the most noise.

The Wolf

Monday, October 30, 2006

My Previous Post

Several commentators have expressed concern about my previous post. After thinking the matter through, I realize that it was probably wrong of me to post it, knowing only one side of the story.

I've removed the post until I know more about the matter. My apologies to all.

The Wolf

Monday, October 23, 2006

A Nice End to the Bar Mitzvah Se'udah

Last night was the Bar Mitzvah Se'udah of my oldest son. It was (if I may say so) a nice affair - the music was good, the number of people was small (by New York standards, anyway) and the food, as I was told, was delicious. Since no one likes to listen to speakers, we kept it at a minimum - I spoke for about four minutes and the Bar Mitzvah boy spoke for about five - and that was it. I spent some time at all the tables on the men's side and managed to spend "quality time" with just about all the guests.

The downside of that was that I really did not get a chance to eat too much. I ate part of one course with some friends, part of the barekas with family members, part of the main course with an old rebbe of mine from elementary school who I've kept in touch with (he was the Bar Mitzvah boy's sandek thireen years ago), and desert with my sister's father-in-law and his son-in-law (my brother-in-law's brother-in-law [or, as I like to say, my brother-in-law once removed]). But, in reality, I didn't eat much of anything.

By the time we got home, we were exhausted. Kaput - and it was only about 9:30 (we started earlier because we wanted to have kids at the se'udah and have people stay as long as possible). Not too much longer after we got home, I got into my sleeping attire (pajama bottoms and a T-shirt - don't ask) and was ready to settle in for the night. However, before I was going to do that, I was going to get something to eat - we brought home food and I was hungry!

Before we actually started eating, I asked my wife if Rabbi & Mrs. Neighbor were there, since I didn't see them. We were expecting them to come (Mrs. Neighbor had even done Eeees's makeup for the affair), but, in the end, neither one of us had seen them. As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. Before she even got up to answer the door, Eeees smiled and said "it's them." Sure enough, there they were at the door, dressed up, wishing us Mazel Tov. (I quickly threw on a pair of pants over my pajama bottoms!) They had another simcha to go to (a family vort,[engagement party] suddenly called) and apologized for not being there. We invited them in, offered them a chance to sit down. At that point, I said "Listen, I was about to eat something from the Bar Mitzvah since I really didn't get a chance to eat. Why don't you sit have something too?" So, we brought out the challah rolls, the barekas, the potatos and the chicken and served another meal. The Bar Mitzvah boy joined us as well. As we washed and started to eat, I remembered that the musician had given us a CD he recorded at the end of the affair; so I pulled it out and put it on the stereo. The Bar Mitzvah boy said his speech again and he and Rabbi Neighbor even danced for a while (I was all danced out by that point)!

Afterwards, we had dessert and bentched (how many Bar Mitzvah boys can say that they led in bentching twice on the night of their Bar Mitzvah se'udah?) and they went on home.

In truth, however, although I was ready to plotz before they came, that portion of the evening became one of the highlights of the day. It was nice to have a chance after all the hustle and bustle and greeting and shaking hands and music and photographers and everything else that went into it, to have a chance to sit down with friends and just have a simple pleasant meal. It definitely beat sitting in my pajamas in front of the TV with the chicken. We got to immediately reminisce some of the highlights of the evening and share and laugh about the good (if exhausting) time we had.

It was truly a nice end to the Bar Mitzvah day.

The Wolf

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Ethics And Morality Of Rooting Against The Mets

Well, the Mets lost and the Cardinals are going off to face the Tigers in the World Series.

As a lifelong Yankees fan, I've always had a good, healthy hatred for the cross-town rivals. Generally speaking, unless the opposing team is the Dodgers, I'm with whomever the Mets are playing on any given day. That said, yesterday's 3-1 victory by the Cardinals was the outcome I was looking for.

However, I began to wonder about the propriety of rooting against the home team. I figured that I don't owe any real allegience to the Mets players - they're making a hefty chunk of change just playing (minimum salary: $327,000, average salary: about $1.5 million), and they're going to make extra money for being in the playoffs. True, the playoff money would be larger if they got to the World Series, but so what? The money would go to either them or the Cardinals anyway - one of them had to win and one had to lose - so what difference does it make?

But then I began thinking about the other people involved - the owners of businesses around the stadiums. Since the Mets didn't make it to the World Series, there goes at least tow (and maybe three) days of extra cash in their pockets. In a highly seasonal business where there are only 81 home games in a year, an extra two to three days of business can be a big difference. Then, of course, there are the people who work inside the stadium: ushers, ticket takers, beer and snack vendors, T-shirt and paraphenalia salespeople; all these people work only when there are games. By losing last night, the Mets players cost these people two or three days of wages - about 1/90th of their annual salary (when playoff games are taken into account). That's not chump change to some of these people - that's their livelihood! Parking lot attendants won't be working because people won't be driving to games that aren't being played at Shea. And lastly, let's not forget that playoff games bring in a lot of revenue to the local tax collectors. I remember reading somewhere that if the Yankees or the Mets don't make the playoffs, it costs the city over $10 million in tax revenue.

To be honest, of course, the money isn't really being lost - it just shifted from New York to St. Louis. Instead of Shea Stadium ushers being employed, Busch Stadium ushers will be earning paychecks escorting people to their box seats. Instead of New York's tax coffers filling up, St. Louis' will. So, in the end, while it may be a local loss, it's not like it's a total loss - one team had to win and one had to lose. A Mets win would have come at the expense of the people of St. Louis, and vice versa. So, is rooting for either team ethical when one side will lose and people unrelated to the game will have their personal finances made or broken by the events on the field? Can I ethically root for the Mets if it means that some poor parking lot attendant in St. Louis will be out of work? Can I root for the Cardinals (putting aside the fact that I'm rooting against the Mets out of hate) when a Cardinal win will cost some poor pretzel vendor a fair chunk of change? Is rooting for either team ethical?

I suppose that there are two ways to look at it. The first way is that rooting for a team (any team) is ethical because, if not for the people rooting for a team, the whole enterprise would fail. Without the fans, no one would watch the games, the television networks couldn't sell the advertising spots to advertisers, the players couldn't get paid and the ticket takers, parking lot attendants, etc. would all be out of a job anyway. So, the fact that I have an interest in the success of one team means that I am helping, in an indirect way, to employ those people. In that sense, rooting for a team (any team) is ethical and productive.

That may be fine for the regular season, where each team will play 81 home games (barring rainouts) regardless of the success of the team on the field. But what about the playoffs, where only one team (and the people associated with it) will see revenue? When it comes down to a hot-dog vendor in New York or a hot-dog vendor in St. Louis, does one have a better claim to my fandom? Does it make a difference (ethically or morally) which team I root for?

I suppose that, when thought of in those terms, that rooting for the Mets would be the proper course. After all, when it comes to tzedaka (charity), we are taught that all other things being equal, the poor of your home city come before the poor of other cities. That being the case, when it comes to some poor pretzel-vendor here or some poor pretzel vendor in St. Louis, I should be looking to support our own pretzel guy - after all, he's a New Yorker!

Soemthing to give thought to next time I root against the Mets...

The Wolf

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mah Rabu...

Take a look at the picture at right. This is an image known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF) is a composite image of a small patch of sky in the constellation Fornax. The area covered is about 3 arcminutes square - or smaller than the amount of sky covered by holding a grain of sand at arm's length.

Aside from a few exceptions, all of the objects in this picture are not stars, but galaxies. A galaxy, very simply, is a large collection of stars, usually numbering anywhere from ten million to a trillion. Just about every little point of light in that picture contains millions, or billions, or trillions of stars -- and the whole picture is a miniscule portion of the sky.

A star, let us not forget, is not a trifiling thing. We have one pretty close to us - a mere 93 million miles or so. But as far as stars go, our sun is a pitzy little thing - not nearly as large as some stars, certainly not large enough to ever go nova (thank goodness!). The nearest star to us (aside from the sun, of course), is about 4 light years away - that's about 24,689,625,089,476 miles. If you took the space shuttle there, you'd reach there in about 150,000 years. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains about 80,000 - 100,000 light years across and contains about 200 - 400 billion stars.

In that little patch of sky, there are thousands of visible galaxies, each with it's billions of stars and each thousands of light-years across. Multiply this number by the number that would be visible if you observed the rest of the sky, and you see the wonderousness of Creation.

Of course, none of these observations would have been possible without science. Without science, mankind would never have bothered to explore the heavens beyond what is visible with the naked eye. Without science, we would have never discovered the extent of creation that we have: from quantum particles to galactic superclusters - and, I have no doubt, there is more out there to discover.

Personally, when I behold Creation - whether it be the image of a distant galaxy, a bird gathering sticks for a nest, a shooting star, a picture of an ameoba or the look in my children's eyes, I can only exclaim "Mah Rabu Ma'asecha Hashem."

Scientific observation does not have to lead us away from HaShem. Indeed, it should lead us to Him.

The Wolf

Note: You can download a high-res image of the HUDF here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

On Torah Learning and Olam Habah - Part II

Last year, I posted about a song often sung during Hakafos. The song's first two lines are:

Olam Habah is a gutta zach
Learning Torah is a besser zach...

(Translation: The World to Come is a good thing, learning Torah is a better thing...)

As I explained last year, I didn't understand the rationale behind the song.

As it turns out, before the fifth Hakafah on Simchas Torah, the rav of my shul stopped and explained the song's origin.

The song, he explained, was written by R. Chaim Volozhin. His rebbe, the Vilna Goan, passed away on Chol HaMoel Sukkos in 1797. He was afraid that the students in his yeshiva would not be able to properly celebrate Simchas Torah having just lost such an esteemed rebbi. He therefore composed this song to show that while Olam Habah (which the GRA certainly attained) was a good thing, celebrating the Torah was also a cause for joy.

I'm still not sure that I agree with the implications of the song, but at least now I have a better understanding and appreciation of it.

The Wolf

Friday, October 13, 2006

Disingenousness in Kiruv

The sign at right hangs in a RW Yeshivish shul Flatbush. It is a sign that encourages Jews to reach out to their non-frum brethren and encourage them to explore Orthodox Judaism.

Interestingly enough, it encourages people to point non-frum Jews to (Orthodox) Jewish websites for information on Judaism.

On the whole, I found this to be a rather refreshing approach. It's not often that you find the Yeshivish crowd actually *encouraging* people to use the internet for Torah learning. They even advise having the prospective frum person come back and discuss what they found on the website. Could it be that the internet might gain some acceptence, even if only for Torah purposes?

Alas not.

Toward the bottom of the poster, it says (emhasis in original):

(This is not at all to suggest that the Frum community should see any websites. Also, it is not at all necessary to see any websites before telling others about them; if asked "Have you seen these websites yourself?" and you haven't, you can say that we have live mentors and study sessions and don't need websites.)

To be honest, I'm of two minds about this:

On the positive, it's a step in encouraging Jews to become frum, and all legitimate methods should be utilized toward that goal, including the internet. The internet houses a bonanza of information about Orthodox Judaism and should be utilized to encourage people to observe the mitzvos.

On the negative, however, the disingenuousness of the sign turns me off terribly. The sign is disingenuous in that it encourages lying to the prospective frum Jew. The truth of the matter isn't that the reason that they avoid the internet is because they learn from live mentors - the reason is because they maintain that the internet is a place that frum Jews shouldn't visit. If you want to maintain that opinion, fine - I may disagree with it, but you're free to express your opinion. But don't then lie to the prospective "convert." You're asking them to make a major lifestyle change and a lifelong commitment. The least you can do is be honest with them.

So, where does that leave us?

There have been those who have been of the opinion that it's OK to "lie" to prospective "converts" to encourage them to keep the mitzvos. Whether it be telling them about "rock-solid proofs" to the Torah (Kuzari, Four animals, etc.), the sociological aspects of shmiras hamitzvos,("Jewish men don't beat their wives") or anything else, I've always felt that lying does far more harm than good. Eventually, your lie will be found out, and when it does get found out, you'll have taken a person that had a neutral (and positive-leaning) attitude toward Shmiras haMitzvos and turned it into a negative - in the end causing more harm than good - a classic case of "yatza scharo b'hefseido."

There is nothing wrong with stating that you don't have the answer to every question, and there is nothing wrong with admitting that frum Jews aren't perfect and have our own share of societal ills. And if you believe that the internet is simply a bad place to be, then don't go there. But don't encourage others to go while you maintain it's not good and then lie to them about your reasons for abstaining. Above all else, be honest - your lies will be found out eventually anyway.

The Wolf

Note: Photo courtesy of Torn of Hashkafah.com

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sesame Place and Chareidim

On the first day of Chol HaMoed, I went with my family (and some extended family) to Sesame Place out in Pennsylvania. The place was rented out by an organization called the Yeshiva Fund (I have no idea who they are) and accomodations were made for Orthodox Jewish guests (kosher food, sukkos, no mixed swimming [although I actually managed to snap photos of boys and (fully dressed) girls in the same pool at the same time anyway]). The crowd was, in my estimation, overwhelmingly Chareidi. While some Jewish music did blare from the speakers on occassion, the majority of time the music played consisted of Sesame Street songs.

While there, I mentioned to a cousin of mine that I was sort of surprised that this event was so well attended by Chareidim, considering that the whole theme of the place was centered on a television show. His response was that the majority of the people didn't know that it was based on a television show. I countered that I was reasonably sure that just about everyone there knew what Sesame Street was.

My cousin pointed out that, as far as television shows go, Sesame Street is certainly one of the most harmless shows out there. And, he's correct on that point. However, that doesn't seem to be the way the Chareidi world looks at things. They prefer to take a "ban it all" approach. I remember when the Menahel of my son's school would speak to the parents, invariably he would bring up the subject of television (and he always based it on the same ma'amar Chazal). He would often add "and don't tell me that it's OK because it's an educational show, or it's a nature show, or whatever. It's all tamei." The same applies, of course, to communities that have chosen to ban internet usage.

I think that we can all agree that there are television shows, movies and internet sites that children should not see. And, I think that we can all agree that it is the responsibility of the parents to monitor what their young children see and watch. Granted, there are those parents who, out of laziness, ineptitude or simple lack of concern will abdicate that responsibility; but that's no reason to treat the rest of us who do take that responsibility seriously as if we're incapable of doing so. The approach of "it's all tamei" regardless of its content is akin to saying that we should ban knives from homes because some parents are careless about letting their children play with them.

Ultimately, no one knows my children better than I do (except for Eeees). No one knows better than we do what is appropriate for him to watch, what he can handle, and what his interests are. The Menahel, if he had his way, would have banned nature videos - but that's precisely the type of thing that my oldest son loves. He has a fascination about the animal kingdom that most children do not have. He reads and educates himself about the animal kingdom all the time. For his sixth birthday, we bought him a five-tape set called "Secrets of the Ocean Realm" which is an adult-level program about marine life -- and he loved it. I think that he's a richer, better rounded person for it. What should we have done? Told him that he can't have an interest in animals because he can't watch videos or read secular books on the subject? Tell him that the subject that he likes the most is verboten? Of course not -- chanoch l'na'ar al pi darko -- and allow him to use his appreciation of the animal kingdom to better appreciate HaShem's wonderous world. But that's an approach that works for him -- and a "ban it all" approach would rob him of that. In short, all such an approach does is make everyone into cookie-cutter versions of the same mold, with absolutely no diversity of thought or opinion. I know that may be the goal in some programs -- but it's utterly wrong.

The Wolf

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I Confess -- Wishing For Rain

I know that on Succos we are not supposed to hope for rain. Heck, we put off saying Tefillas Geshem (the prayer for rain) until Sh'mini Atzeres so that we can fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in the Succah.

And yet, here I am, working in what is probably the only part of Manhattan that doesn't have a kosher resturaunt or a succah. I could travel to another part of the boro by train, but in order to do that and have enough time to get back, I'd have to literally eat like a madman and finish my meal in about five minutes. I wouldn't be surprised if doing so would cause a Chillul HaShem.

Eeees offered to buy me a pop-up succah before Yom Tov, but, in reality, I have no place to use it even if I owned it.

So, what to do? Well, there are snacks in the snack machine, which is what I subsisted on yesterday. But that's not really enough to last on for the whole day. Add the fact that I often work late and by the time I get home (as I did last night at about 8:45PM), I am H-U-N-G-R-Y!

And so, sadly, painfully, I hope for rain during the workday (while hoping for clear nights).

Has anyone else actually hoped for rain on Succos so that they can eat a meal inside?

The Wolf

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


A member of our shul made a simcha this past weekend - his son became a Bar Mitzvah on Succos. It was a nice affair - the boy lained, said the haftorah, did a pretty good (although not perfect) job and the host had a crowded kiddush in his sukkah after davening.

It could have been a bit more crowded. As it turns out, the host invited guests from Baltimore to stay with him over Yom Tov. However, Friday was progressing and the guests still weren't there. Everyone began to get worried. Finally, five minutes before candle lighting, the host gets a call from the guests that they aren't going to make it. They hit lots of traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike and were still only in Staten Island. However, by a stroke of fortune, they had family who lived in Staten Island and were able to crash by them for Yom Tov. They didn't make it to the Bar Mitzvah, but at least they weren't stranded out on the road for two days with two little kids.

Of course, this little affair got me thinking what I would do if I were stranded on the road at the start of Shabbos. It could happen because of traffic, a medical emergency, a car breakdown or any one of a dozen other reasons. What would I do?

I attended a shiur on this subject a few years ago. Sad to say, I don't remember all the details, but I do remember the jist of it. Up until sunset itself, you can continue driving. Beyond that, for the next forty-five mintues of so (during bain ha-shmashos - the time period between sunset and when it gets dark), you cannot drive, but you can have a non-Jew drive for you. Beyond that, you're out of luck. Even having a non-Jew drive for you won't help because you will end up travelling out of the techum Shabbos (the 2000 cubit limit in any direction in which you are allowed to travel on Shabbos).

So, what do you do?

Well, the first rule of thumb, of course, is that if there is a danger to life, then you continue driving. At that shiur that I attended, the story was told of a nor'easter that hit the New York area on a Friday afternoon in December of 1992, which resulted in a blizzard in parts of New York. People returning from work that afternoon were having all sorts of problems: dangerous road conditions, traffic, whiteouts and traffic accidents. It soon became clear to quite a few motorists that they weren't going to make it home by Shabbos. In a panic, they called their Ravs asking what to do. Apparently many of these Ravs, in turn, called one particular posek for advice. His response: if it's a blizzard, drive on. Sakanas N'fashos (danger to life) overrides Shabbos. Since they could easily freeze to death in their cars if they pulled over, they would have to continue driving on. "However," he said, "you should tell all these drivers that this is a p'shia (case of negligence). Knowing that a blizzard was coming, they should have left work earlier, or perhaps even taken the day off if possbile. Now that they're on the road, they must continue - but the chillul Shabbos (Sabbath desecration) is at least partly their responsibility."

But what if it's not a case of pikuach nefesh? What if I'm travelling along the road with my kids on a Friday and we break down - or hit traffic. I suppose if there is a town with Jews nearby, we could just drop in and hope to crash with someone (as much as I *hate* imposing on people - even family, let alone strangers - for anything). But what if it's literally in the middle of nowhere? Of course, there are numerous factors to take into account - the local weather, whether or not I have food with me or not, the ages and medical conditions of my passengers, etc. It would certainly seem strange to spend Shabbos camped out on the side of the highway (would the cops even let us stay there? What if they forced us to move?) eating whatever meager provisions we were carrying for our Shabbos "meals." Simple things that we take for granted, such as sleeping arrangements, using the bathroom (can't rip off leaves to use for toilet paper on Shabbos -- assuming that there are any leaves where you are), davening, etc. all become challanges. You can choose to stay in the car, where you'll likely be more comfortable at the outset - but then you won't be able to leave as opening or closing the door will result in the car lights going on or off. (Even if you disconnect the interior dome light, in most cars, a light will probably go off on the dashboard as well.) Or, you could choose to stay outside the car all Shabbos, but then you've got to hope that the weather doesn't turn unpleasant on you. Nothing like being stuck in a strong rain to dampen your Shabbos mood.

So, what would I do if I were stuck in the middle of the road with my kids at sunset on a Friday in a non-Sakanas N'fashos situation? Well, my kids are older (they range in age from 10 to 13), so they can understand the concept of why we'd be stuck. Once it became clear that we're going to be nowhere for Shabbos, I'd use whatever little time we had to the best advantage: I'd try to find the best spot/shelter that we can for Shabbos. Gather all the provisions. Prepare any form of "toilet paper" that we can. See if we can get a fire started quickly so that at least for the first few hours we might have some warmth and hot food if possible (assuming we had food that could be heated up). Ration out what provisions we had. Impose strict rules on wandering away from our site. Be prepared for lots of kvetching over the weekend. Try to judge upcoming weather conditions (or even just listen to the radio). But, in the end, no matter how unpleasant it got, I'd have to say that barring pikuch nefesh or even serious illness, I'd be prepared to stick it out. (And, please don't ask me what I would do if it were two days as it was this past weekend. It would seriously depend on our food supply - I know that I don't think I can fast for two days straight. I certainly wouldn't make my kids do it.)

Do any of my readers have "stuck for Shabbos" stories?

The Wolf

UPDATE: Wow! It seems it was quite a weekend for people going to and from Baltimore to have trouble making it in time for Yom Tov. See here and here.

The Wolf

To The Relative I Was Speaking To Over Yom Tov...

... the blog that we spoke about (that I recommended) is here.

The Wolf

Monday, September 25, 2006

Proof of Streimel Wearing Descendants of the Ten Tribes!

Those of you who have young school-age children will know what I mean...

Did you ever see those school-handouts that children receive depicting biblical scenes? Invariably, these handouts will show Moshe, Yosef, Avraham, etc. all wearing typical European garb, rather than what they actually wore in those days. I remember Eeees and I having quite a few laughs at the idea of Yosef wearing a streimel in Egypt.

I'm currently reading Jared Diamond's Collapse, a fascenating book on why some societies succeed and others fail. One of the failed societies that he discusses is the one that evolved on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). This was a society that, at one time, was flourishing. It was a society that had evolved to the point where they could afford to spend precious food resources to construct the impressive moai statues seen in the picture above. Some of the statues (as the four leftmost maoi in this pictures), have a pukau (the large circular stones weighing up to twelve tons) on top of them. But take a good look at the moai with pakau! Do they remind you of anything?

I think, ladies and gentlemen, the proof is irrefutable. It's obvious that (a) the inhabitants of Rapa Nui are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes and (b) they wore streimels and long peyos!

The Wolf

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Oh, Those Wacky Folks at the Yated!

Oy, they're at it again. Take a gander at the new editorial - Why Study Half-True Science When You Can Learn True Torah?

The basic premise of the editorial is that science is wrong and constantly changing it's position, so why bother studying it? Better to study something that is eternally true, like Torah.

Well, I'm not going to state that learning Torah is bad - heck, I do it daily and encourage my children to learn as much as possible. However, launching a general anti-science screed is outright irresponsible.

The author (who does not have a byline) starts out by stating that most of science changes and therefore cannot be trusted. One way this can be shown is by the recent decision by the IAU that Pluto is no longer a planet. As the author puts it:

Perhaps the biggest news is that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Whoever learned that there are nine planets in the Solar System should unlearn it. Now there are eight. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) made it official about a month ago. Suddenly, no one has to explain or excuse why Chazal never spoke about it, or show some obscure passage that might possibly be interpreted to show that Chazal really did know about Pluto. Poof! A democratic vote of the current membership of the IAU and there is nothing to explain or excuse.

Of course, the author fails to realize one very important fact - nothing in reality has changed. Pluto is still out there, still orbiting the sun every 248 years and still has its three moons. The only thing that changed was how we define a planet. Nothing in the phyisical reality (the metzius, if you will), however, has changed. And, while we're at it, I find it amusing how Chazal are "off the hook" because they didn't mention Pluto, but he conveniently forgets that they didn't mention Uranus or Neptune either.

He also brings two examples where things that were thought not to exist do, in fact, exist. (Sidenote: I'm taking the authors word, for the sake of argument, that these facts are correct.) He states that prior to January 1, 1995, waves over 50 feet tall were not thought to exist. In addition, he also states that it was recently discovered that there were many more poisionous fish than previously thought to exist. Well, of course, that answers everything! Since contemporary scientists were wrong about fish and waves, they must be wrong about everything else!

Of course, he fails to see the opposite side as well. Geocentrism, spontaneous generation and half-flesh/half-dirt creatures are also facts that are recorded by Chazal and are wrong. The windows that the sun goes through twice daily are also wrong facts. Would he say that because Chazal were wrong about that they were therefore wrong about everything else and that we should therefore throw out everything they say about Hilchos Gittin, for example? No, of course not - and I don't advocate that position either.

The author of the piece asks a fundamental question:

However if we are just private people for whom Torah is our trade, and our desire is to learn truth and only truth, why should we spend our time studying "facts" half of which will, in ten years, be shown to have been wrong? Must we resolve scientific challenges to Torah when science may discard the underlying material some time in the future?

The answer, of course, is, it depends. There are some scientific "facts" that are going to change. The number of poisionous fish in the world may change as we explore new parts of the ocean. The nature and maximum height of waves may change as we understand more about waves. Certain aspects of our history may become better understood through archaeological diggings. But certain aspects of science are NOT going to change. The age of the universe (in the sense that it is more than 6000 years old by scientific observation [discounting Gosse]) is NOT going to change. Evolution and common descent are NOT going to change. We're not going to someday discover a window that the sun goes through twice a day. We're not going to discover that the stars are attached to some "outer shell" that rotates around the earth. And on and on. So, yes, in certain aspects, you can say that the Torah shouldn't be re-interpreted to fit certain facts. On the other hand, there are some facts that are just plain undeniable and the statements of Chazal to the contrary must be either (a) re-interpreted to some non-literal meaning or (b) shown to be in error. To say otherwise is simply false.

Lastly, as an example of something that is eternally true, the author tells us:

This we know (for example): It is a permanent truth that there are four categories of damagers — arba ovos nezikin (Bava Kama 2a). This is true now, it has been true at least since Torah was created, and it will remain true. Let us stick to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Of course, like the definition of a planet, there is nothing in reality that changes here. If someone falls into a pit that I open in the middle of the street, I may have to pay him for damages; but there is no change in reality - he's just as injured. What the author should do is compare apples to apples and defend a *scientific* statement of the Talmud. By comparing this to a "scientific fact," the author is simply showing how empty and hollow his arguments are.

The Wolf

Public School Education, Tuition and Taxes

Dag makes the valid point that complaints by yeshiva parents that they are being "double taxed" is erroneous. I, however, would like to expand on his comments.

The expense of running public schools is a "burden" that the entire community pays for - not just those with children. Those who have children, those who never had children and all those whose children have long since grown up pay "tuition" to the public school system.

There is a valid reason for this - it is in the public's best interest to have the populace educated. It's not just a benefit to the parent - it's a benefit to society at large, since an educated populace is able to produce a better society than an ignorant one.

To state that people are "double taxed" because they are paying tution to private school is akin to someone saying that they don't want to pay "police taxes" because they have a private security guard.

Lastly, for all those parents who want to allow for opting out of payment for public services because they aren't using them, I would like to ask this question: Would you allow for someone to opt-out of paying for services for fire and ambulance because they were fortunate enough to not need them during the past year? Because doing so would lead to a situation where you would have to pay on a case-by-case basis for payment of these services. Would you want firemen to show up to your burning house and present you with a bill? Or would you like for the public ambulance service to ask you for your credit card number while they're taking a loved one to the hospital?

The bottom line is that we all benefit from these services even if we don't actively use them. For example: you may not need to call the police this year, but because the police were there when someone else called, a mugger who may have mugged you is now in prison. Likewise, you may not actively send your kids to public school (heck, you may not even have kids), but you use products and services created by public-school educated people. Your boss, co-workers or employees will probably be public-school educated people. Without the public school system, our economy and society would be markedly different from the way it is now - for the worse. As a result, we all benefit from the public schools and cannot shirk our civic responsibility to pay for these services even if we don't actually send our kids there.

The Wolf

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Off Topic: My Culturally Illiterate Son: A Comedy For Three Players

Billy Crystal has a joke about growing older. He says that he knew he was getting old when his daughter came to him and asked him "Is it true that Paul McCartney was in another group before Wings?" My son, who in many respects is culturally ignorant, provided just such a moment for me. He is the first player in this comedy.

The second player is the cartoon series Animaniacs. For those not in the know, Animaniacs was a cartoon series created by Warner Brothers that premiered about thirteen years ago. Animaniacs was one of those rare cartoons that appealed to adults and children. It relied on the rich history and tradition of the Warner Brothers cartoons, was smart and had jokes that crossed generational lines. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it back in 1993. Naturally, when the first 25 episodes became available on DVD this year, I bought the set.

One aspect of the show is that it is heavy on music and parody. One of the parodies that is done is of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance." The famous song "I Am The Model Of A Modern Major-General" is redone by Yakko Warner as "I Am The Very Model Of A Cartoon Individual."

The third player in our comedy of errors is Mr. Tom Lehrer. Tom Lehrer was a comedian-musician/mathematics professor (you don't see that combination very often!) who put out several comedy albums in the 1950s and 1960s. He's best known for his satire and wicked sense of humor. His most famous number is probably "Poisioning Pigeons In The Park." Another well-known number of his is "The Elements" where he sings the names of the chemical elements. He introduces the piece by saying that the song is sung to a "possibly recognizable tune." The tune that he uses is that of the Major-General song.

So, on Friday, I was listening to Tom Lehrer while cleaning up the house for Shabbos and my son hears him say that the next piece is set to a "possibly recognizable tune." After the song is finished my son turns to me and asks:

"Is the reason he said it's 'possibly recognizable' because he copied it from Animaniacs?"

Eeees and I couldn't stop laughing for at least ten minutes.

The Wolf

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Ago Today

Five years ago today, I worked in lower Manhattan, about a block and a half from the Twin Towers.

It started out as a perfectly normal day. The weather was extraordinarily nice for a September morning - clear, warm and bright. It was also a primary election day.

I had moved from one house to another in Brooklyn about a year earlier. For whatever reason, I never bothered to change my voter registration from my old address to the new one. However, I wanted to vote in the primary and so I went to my old polling place and cast my vote. From there, I went off to the subway, getting on the F train and switching for the A at Jay Street.

My train pulled into the Fulton Street Station at about 9:04, right after the second tower was hit. Since the A train travels through a tunnel under the river, no one on the train had any idea that anything was wrong. I certainly had no idea as I got off the train at Fulton Street. At that station, there are three levels - a subway level, a mezzanine level and then the token booth level. I had just finished climbing the stairs from the subway level to the mezzanine when I saw a crowd of people running toward me. Not wanting to get trampled, I ran with the crowd for a bit until it passed by. My first thought was that there must have been a shooting near the token booth and that everyone was running from the scene. Once the crowd passed me, I turned back and headed toward the token booth level. Along the way, I met people who were crying and some with light injuries. I tried to ask several people what happened, but no one seemed interested in answering my question - everyone was too distraught, it seemed, to even process my question, let alone give me a straight answer.

I looked around the token booth area for the shooting victim (or stabbing victim, or whatever) but could not find one. Figuring that I was wrong about the shooting, I figured that I might as well go and get to work.

I climbed up the stairs to the street level and exited the station at Fulton Street right to the east of Broadway. The place looked like a war zone. There was broken glass everywhere. Papers were all around. People were crying, some bleeding. Everyone was distraught. I still hadn't looked toward the towers.

I started walking up Broadway toward my job. As I walked up Broadway, I saw a bunch of people standing at the south end of City Hall Park looking up at the towers. That's when I looked up and realized that the world had changed forever.

Both towers were on fire. From my vantage point, I could only really see the north tower clearly... most of the south tower was eclipsed by it's brother. I asked someone what had happened and was told that the buildings were struck by planes. It seemed as if my mind had refused to accept what my ears had heard and asked for a clarification. Again, I was told that the buildings had been struck by planes.

I used to be an EMT at one time, and actually considered going to the towers and offering my help. In the end, however, I didn't - for one, my certification had expired. For another, I didn't have my ID on me. And I didn't think that they were going to let me, without any proof to having been an EMT, into the area. To be honest, however, there probably was a measure of cowardice involved as well. I can sometimes be heedless of danger, but the area around the towers seemed like just too much for me.

I went to the building where I worked on Park Row. Once there, some co-worker and I simply waited and watched the news and listened dumbfounded at the things we were hearing (some of which turned out to be unfounded): two planes hit the World Trade Center, other explosions in lower Manhattan, a plane hitting the Pentagon, a bomb going off at the State Deptartment, reports of up to eight hijacked aircraft, and on and on.

I worked on the seventh floor of a building on Park Row that faced the towers at the time. From the window I couldn't see the top of the towers, nor could I see the bottom. I could, however, see most of the affected floors. I could see the facade burning and the people in the windows using towels and sheets to try to get the attention of rescue workers on the ground. I could actually see the facade getting worse and the steel (or whatever the outer surface was) beginning to buckle from the heat. And yet, stupidly, it still didn't occur to me that the building could actually fall.

A few co-workers from the eighth floor came downstairs to join us. One friend, in particular, was grief stricken. He told me, in a broken voice, that he had seen people jump or fall out of the towers. There was little I could do for him - I simply gave him a hug. What else could I do?

I remember at several times frantically trying to get a call out to my wife to let her know that I was OK, but phone service was very spotty. I kept trying to call someone, anyone to let them know that I was OK. I sent email to my father's wife (not even knowing if the email would go through). I phoned other relatives several times. Finally, I got through to my sister and let her know that I was fine. She begged for me to leave the area, but I knew better than to go down to the streets during the chaos that was going on out there.

Eventually, I heard and, more importantly, felt, a large, low rumble. The entire building shook as if there was a small earthquake. I quickly got up and went over to the window to see what was going on. While I couldn't see the south tower (which had just collapsed) from my window, I could see a cloud of dust and debris coming down the street toward us. With my brain finally working for once that morning, I quickly went to all the windows on that side of the building to make sure that they were shut. I'm still not sure how I managed to get to all the windows in time before the debris cloud got to us (except for one window at the end of the hall, but we did manage to shut the door to that room), but we did. As the cloud overtook the building, it got as black as night outside. We were seven stories up, and it seemed like someone had just blacked out the sun.

At that point, I was with my boss, a gentleman named Hugh, and two other co-workers, named Jim and Isaac. We were the only ones left on the seventh floor when the towers came down. We huddled in an inner room on the floor, watching the coverage on Channel 2 on a TV in the office (Channel 2 was the only one still broadcasting... they had a backup antenna on the Empire State building. All the other broadcast channels were out that day... and for quite a few days afterwards). We continued huddling there while the second tower came down as well and another loud, rumbling earthquake ensued. Despite all the dust in the air, we managed to stay fairly calm. We remained there until about noon when the police came and evactuated/evicted us from the building.

I was fortunate to have a Walkman on me that day, and I spent quite a bit of time listening to it as we left the building and headed toward the Brooklyn Bridge. As we were walking across the bridge, I had one earphone in one ear listening to the news and the other listening to some of the people in the crowd. Some were covered by soot and debris from head to toe. Some had some light injuries. One person was still unaware that the attacks involved hijacked planes until I informed him. As we walked across the bridge, we continued scanning the skies for planes, looking for futher incoming hijacked flights. Of course, if one had hit the bridge, there would have been little any of us could do about it -- it was just too croweded to consider running anywhere.

As we walked down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, there were people on both sides of the sidewalk offering water, juice and other refreshments to those who were fleeing Manhattan. There were quite a few frum Jews among those doing the offering. If there was one bright spot that I saw on that day (since I didn't see the firemen and police rushing into the building), it was how people came together to help one another on that day - regardless of what race you were or what religion you practiced or what school of thought you belonged to.

The last encounter I had that day was in Prospect Park, which I cut through on my way home (there was no subway service anymore and the buses were just too jam-packed to even think of getting on them). As I was walking through the park, I saw a black man wandering around crying. He had a relative who worked in the towers and he didn't know what had happened to him. I tried to console him, but had no real information to give him. I simply told him that, it seemed to me, most of the people got out of the towers on time. What else could I tell him? He was near hysterical - hope, even if false hope, was the best that I could offer him at that moment.

I finally made it home at about 3:30pm, exhausted.

Later on that day, I realized that my life might well have been saved by the fact that I never changed my voter registration. If I had changed it, I would have voted in my neighborhood, not my old one. I would have then gotten on the D train (instead of the F) and switched to the N or R train (instead of the A). I would have gotten off the train at the Cortlandt Street Station, which is directly across the street from the towers. In addition, the combination of the D to the N/R ran faster than the F to the A by about two to three minutes. In other words, had I voted where I should have, I would have been exiting the subway across the street from the towers just about when the second plane hit. I could have had plane parts and jet fuel raining down on my head.

Do you want to hear something sick and funny? When I was younger, I owned a Commodore 64 computer (in fact, I still have it). One game in particular that I had was Flight Simulator. It was a cool game which gave you control of an aircraft and you could pilot it from any point in the U.S. to any other point. For some major cities, there were landmarks represted on the map. For New York, one of the landmarks in the game were the Twin Towers. And, God help me, every now and then I would purposely fly my plane into the towers - I guess as sort of a sick teenage joke with the game. I certainly didn't envision "killing" anyone in the towers... they just provided an interesting target. Funny how years later it no longer seems so funny.

For weeks after the events, I would be spooked whenever there was a loud noise... especially a loud rumbling noise. A truck going down the street to loudly would cause me to do a double take. During Succos that year, as we sat out in the Sukkah, very often trucks going down the street would cause me to jerk my head and assume a "ready to run" stance. Eventually those instincts subsided, but the emotional scars of the day still remain.

The Wolf

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Halachic Autopsies?

This week's US News & World Report has an interesting article about how autopsy methods are changing. New "virtual autopsies" (similar to a CT scan) are being performed increasingly and are sometimes able to better identify the cause of death than traditional autopsies.

The article describes some of the practical benefits of virtual autopsies:

Virtual autopsy exploits the ability of a modern CT scanner to create images of a body, intact or battered, without physically invading it. (Sometimes other forms of scanning, such as magnetic resonance imaging, are combined with CT.) In as little as 10 minutes, data representing thin X-ray slices of the body are reconstructed by a powerful computer into crisp, detailed images of bone and tissue. Pathologists and radiologists can zero in on a fractured skull like the one above, deciphering the pattern to determine how the blow arrived and exactly how death occurred. Images can be sized up and down and turned at various angles, providing instant flexibility not afforded by conventional autopsy. Nor can a physical autopsy show the path of a bullet at a glance, as virtual autopsy can.

Furthermore, as this technology gains wider acceptence, traditional autopsies may be dispensed with altogether, as noted in the article:

In a decade or two, hands-on autopsies will be gone-replaced by the virtual version, says CFIV Director Michael Thali. At least in Europe, it is beginning to be integrated into the teaching curriculum. Sweden's CMIV has a 15-meter, high-resolution screen for that purpose. "We have stopped using ordinary autopsy as a training tool," says Persson, because the clear, precise images on the huge screen are far more instructive.

Of course, as we all know, halacha frowns (or perhaps outright forbids) autopsies - especially where not required by the civil authorities. However, I'm wondering if non-invasive autopsies, if handled quickly would be permitted? I suppose it might depend on how you define the term Kavod HaMes. One could take the interpretation that since the body is no longer being cut up, dissected and having its organs removed, the halachic obstacles have been bypassed.

Of course, if the procedure will cause a delay in burial, then we will once again run afoul of halachic constraints - that of requiring a quick burial. Since it is considered dishonorable for the corpse to remain unburied, having a non-invasive procedure that takes days of waiting in a morgue for a scanner is probably just as bad as an immediate invasive autopsy. But if the procedure could be performed immediately or shortly after death...?

Of course, I am not a Rav - this is all just off "the top of my head." I'm sure that there may be other halachic and medical issues involved as well. But it certainly is possible that these new advances could change the way that Judaism views autopsies... much the way that medical advances have changed the way that Judaism viewed heart transplants in the last forty years.

The Wolf

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Friday, September 01, 2006

Ad Me'ah V'Esrim (...until 120 years)

It is a common custom among Orthodox Jews to express hope that someone lives to 120 years. Personally, I've always found this to be a bit odd. Why only 120? Of course, a person living to 120 nowadays is exceedingly rare (only two examples, [one disputed] in the last hundred years) and anyone living to that age certainly has God's blessings. Personally, I plan on being around around beyond 120, but if I only make it to 120, I certainly won't complain.

In any event, I've always wondered why we only wish for a person to live to 120. Of course, the first thing that pops into mind is the fact that Moses lived to 120 years and it may seem presumptuous of us to want to live longer than Moses. Personally, I find that argument a bit week. After all, Shmuel HaNavi only lived into his 50s. Do we think that we are greater than Shmuel HaNavi? Of course not -- but just about everybody wants to live past their 50s! Personally, I just about never use the phrase Ad Me'ah V'Esrim. If I want to express a hope that someone will live a long life, I usually say so... they should have Arichas Yomim, be in good health, etc.

I remember having a discussion with someone about longevity when I brought up the case of Jeanne Calment, who died in France in 1997 at the age of 122 years. When I mentioned it, he flat out refused to believe that it was possible for her to have lived that long. He stated that it was impossible for a person to live beyond 120, as that was the age that Moses died at and, apparently, there is [according to him] some tradition that states that one cannot live longer than that. When I pressed him for the source of this "tradition," he couldn't come up with anything.

I then went over to the Tanach and advised him to check out the second-to-last verse of Iyov (Job) where it states that Iyov lived 140 years *after* all the event that occured in the book. His response to me was that (a) Iyov never happened (a legitimate position to take) and (b) Iyov is traditionally ascribed to Moses, hence, if factual, the events occured before Moses when people did live beyond 120 years.

I then took out a copy of Divrei HaYamim (Chronicles) and opened it up to Part II, 24:15 where it states that Yehoyada the Kohen lived to the age of 130. He similarly wasn't impressed by that (I think he muttered something about exceptional circumstances and whatnot).

In short, I'm certain that the idea that a person can't live beyond 120 years is hogwash. Jeanne Calment's life is pretty well documented, plus there are at least two biblical sources for someone living beyond 120 (there are opinions that Iyov happened after Moses, if it happened at all).

Besides, would you say Ad Me'ah V'Esrim to someone who is already 119 1/2?

The Wolf

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

On The Allogorization of Scripture

I was at R. Natan Slifkin's lecture by YU last night. Overall, he gave a very good presentation on Intelligent Design and why he feels it is counter to traditional Jewish teachings.

One of the things that was presented is a subject that has been brought up in the past in his lectures, and indeed, must be brought up when having discussions concerning the origin of the world as it relates to the Torah. That subject is the allegorization of certain episodes in the Torah - in this case, specifically, the first few chapters of B'raishis (Genesis). For those of us who accept the validity of scientific study, then the account of Creation in B'raishis cannot be read 100% literally and must have been, at least to some degree allogorized.

However, I wonder how far we can carry this ability to allogorize Scripture. For example, there is evidence to suggest that a global flood, as described in Parshas Noach did not occur. So, one could also allogorize the story of Noach.

But at what point to do we stop allogorizing Scripture? Or, to put it another way, whether the unvierse was created in seven days or billions of years has no appreciable effect on the way I live my life. I still keep the same mitzvos and traditions regardless of how long it took to create the universe. Likewise, whether or not the story of Noach is literally true might make a small difference on whether or not I would say a Bracha on a rainbow. Beyond that, there is little in Noach that relates to my everyday life. So, I don't have a great difficulty in allogirzing Noach either.

But what happpens when we progress beyond that? If we were to uncover evidence that the Avos did not exist (and yes, I appreciate the fact that lack of evidence is not evidence of lack) then can we "toss them away" as well? It's one thing to say that the people who were the primary audience for the Torah, the people at Sinai, did not have an adequate background in cosmology and physics to understand a 100% literal account of creation (I'm not certain that we do today), but can we say the same thing about the lives of the Avos?

Furthermore, what about the Exodus itself? It's one thing to say that the people who left Egypt couldn't understand a modern cosmological account of Creation, but can you say that they wouldn't understand the concept of the Exodus? Of course not, because they lived through it. But yet, there may be evidence that the Exodus could not have happened literally as described. So what do we do? Allogorize the Exodus? But for what purpose would you allogorize the Exodus to the people who went through it? And, of course, if you come to the conclusion that the Exodus didn't happen and that the whole thing is allogorical, why celebrate Pesach? Why go through the whole ritual (not to mention the trouble of destroying all of one's chometz) if the Exodus didn't happen? Without the symbolism of the events behind them, the matzah, marror and korban pesach lose all meaning.

The question that I suppose I am asking is, what is the limit to which we will allogorize Tanach? Do we stop at Creation? Noah? The Tower of Babel? At what point can we point to a Chumash and say "from here on in, it's pretty much factual?" Or can we allogorize the whole thing away?
Now, before anyone starts thinking that I've gone completely off the derech, let me state that I'm not stating that we should just chalk the Chumash up as a myth (or even as a myth with valid lessons). I do beleive that the Exodus occured and I do believe that the Avos existed and lived their lives more or less as told (although I'm not so certain about the Go-Go dancers in Joseph's prison scene :) ). But nonetheless, the question does need to be asked. From which point onward (if there is such a thing) can we say "before was prehistory and myth and from here onward is history?"

The Wolf