Thursday, January 25, 2007
I'm sure that many of us have heard of Godwin's Law. Technically , Godwin's Law is really a statement of probability -- that the longer an online discussion goes on, the more likely it is that someone is going to compare someone or something to Hitler or the Nazis.
In practice, however, Godwin's Law has been applied as that the first person to make such an analogy has automatically lost the debate.
Increasingly, on blogs, bulletin boards and other interactive Internet media, many people have taken to comparing the extreme right-wing of Orthodox Judaism (especially in Israel) "the Taliban." While there may be, in fact, certain commonalities between the Taliban and Israel, I think we can all agree that the most ardent Chareidi is not planning to hijack planes and plow them into buildings, nor engage in the absolute worst of the Taliban's tactics.
Therefore, I'm proposing Wolf's Law: Criticism of the Chareidi community in Israel is fair game - but the person who compares them to the Taliban automatically loses the debate.
Monday, January 22, 2007
Hi! My name is Wolf, and I'm a pseudoskeptic. ("Hi Wolf!")
I'd have to say that I've been a pseudoskeptic for about as long as I've been frum. Of course, the amount of it has wavered back and forth over the years - sometimes leaning more toward the "believer" side and sometimes more toward the "skeptic" side; but I've always been somewhere in the middle.
A true skeptic trusts nothing without facts - or at least a good preponderance of the evidence. A true skeptic would never take subjects such as the existence of a Divine Being, the creation of the world, Torah MiSinai or any of the myriad other things that many Orthodox Jews take for granted without some direct or indirect evidence to their factuality.
A true believer, on the other hand, has little use for proof. Who needs proof that the world was created by God? We have His word for it. Who needs proof that there is an unbroken mesorah from God, to Moshe at Sinai down to today? We simply know it's true.
Alas, I don't fall into either camp. There are certain things that I take on faith alone. I believe in the existence of God, despite a complete lack of evidence. I believe that Moshe received the Torah at Mount Sinai. I believe that He wants us to and commanded us to keep the mitzvos. And, yet, there are some things that I reject outright without some form of evidence to back it up. I reject the science of Chazal where it has been proven wrong. I reject many of the fantastic miracles and events described in some secondary Jewish texts when there is no evidence for them in the physical world or even in the primary Jewish texts. In many respects, I've become a miracle minimalist.
(Pause for some to yell "Kofer!" and for others to yell "Use your brain, you idiot!")
For example, take this week's Torah portion. It includes the last three of the Ten Plagues, the first Passover sacrifice, the Exodus and laws relating to various topics (Pidyon Haben, Tefillin, etc.) The second of the plagues mentioned in the parsha is that of darkness. The Torah very clearly states what happened - that for three days there was darkness and that the Egyptians were unable to move from their places. Fine and well.
Of course, we're all familiar with the famous Midrash that there were Jews that were deemed unworthy to leave Egypt and died during the plague of darkness so that the Egyptians could not see the Jews suffering. Still, fine and well by me. There's nothing in the above statement that sounds like it's outside the realm of possibility or reason. However, it's at this point where the Mechilta departs from anything resembling believability. The Mechilta goes on to state that only one in five Jews departed Egypt - the rest having been killed and buried during the plague. Assuming the Torah's count of 600,000 (excluding women and children) to be true, it follows that the Jews would have been required to bury at least 2.4 million bodies (and possibly a hundred times more if R. Nehorai's version is to be believed) within the span of a few days (and, of course, that the Egyptians wouldn't notice that the vast majority of the Jews suddenly disappeared during that time). It's difficult to believe that the Egyptians would not notice all those Jews disappearing or all the mass graves that suddenly appeared. And, if the more exaggerated versions of the Mechilta are to be believed, it's difficult to believe that the Jews could have disposed of all the bodies or that that many people even existed in Egypt in the first place.
There are plenty of other examples of this that abound. The height of Og is a prime example. Was he large? Certainly - the Torah explicitly states that he was quite large. Was he 30 amos at the ankle? Sorry, I can't swallow that one. Just too fantastic. The fact that there is absolutely no external source for such a creature (who would certainly have been a world-famous legend and would have made Bashan a superpower in the region) raises the red flags in my head. The fact that there are other Judaic sources which indicate that the whole thing is simply exaggerated or homelitical further strengthens my convictions that the "mile-high" Og is much more myth than fact.
So, where does this leave me? Where do I draw the line between something that I'm willing to take on belief alone and that which I will require some evidence for? Well, to be honest, I don't have any hard-and-fast rules; but I do have some guidelines.
The Source - what is the source of the miracle or other supernatural fact? Some sources are simply more credible than others. For example, I'll give a statement in the Gemara more weight than I will a Midrash. I'll give a statement in Shemos more weight than I'll give a Gemara. Not all sources in Torah SheB'Al Peh are equal -- and each should be judged accordingly. If you take the position that it's all MiSinai and equally valid, then you have a hopeless jumble of contradictory information. In addition, you have to take into account that there are sources that state that some things can be taken allegorically or reinterpreted as a homelitic lesson rather than taken literally as fact.
The MindBoggling Factor - Is it reasonable to assume that some Jews didn't merit redemption from Egypt? Certainly. Is it reasonable to assume that only 20% of them did? That strains the credulity of the story (especially when one considers that such "paragons" as Dathan, Aviram, Korach, etc. were among those who did merit redemption). Is it reasonable that 80% of the Jews suddenly "vanished" and that the Egyptians didn't notice (and, if you say they did, then that defeats the whole purpose of it happening during the plague of darkness)? What if you say that the surviving percentage wasn't 20%, but 2% (1 in 50)? It is reasonable that there were really *that* many Jews in Egypt at one time? It is reasonable that they were able to bury all those bodies in such a short span?
Another example of this is the combination of the Midrashim that the Pharaoh of Moshe's time was the same Pharaoh of Abraham's time; and that the Pharaoh of Moshe's time was the same person as the King of Nineveh in Yonah's time (during the time of the first Beis Hamikdash). Each Midrash alone is a stretch to believe (especially considering that not once, but *twice* the Chumash tells us that Pharoah died), but to put them together (as some do) and give him a lifespan of over a thousand years is just beyond the realm of believability -- especially in light of the other factors.
The "Necessary to the Story" Factor - Is the miracle necessary for the story to happen? Take the plague of frogs for example. We all know the famous Midrash based on the fact that the verse says "VaTa'al HaTzefardea" ("the frog rose up," in the singular) to indicate that a single frog rose up from the Nile and exploded into many frogs each time the Egyptians hit it. OK, it's a nice Midrash and certainly has value in teaching us life lessons. But does that mean it has to be believed as literal? Ask yourself this question: if the Midrash never existed and the plague proceeded as a simple reading of the verses would have you believe (that many frogs rose up from the river [the fact that the verse uses the singular is not necessarily an obstacle -- many times the Torah uses a singular term for plurals]) does the story make sense? Of course. On the other hand, if you remove the frogs altogether, then the story no longer makes sense. So, the more necessary the miracle is to the point that the Torah narrative is trying to make, the more credit I'm willing to give it. (This doesn't mean that I don't believe this particular Midrash was literal -- it's just an example of *one* of the factors that go into the decision).
The long-lived Pharaoh as King-of-Nineveh Midrash is another example that doesn't stand up well here. Does the story in Yonah sound perfectly logical even without the Midrash? Certainly - there's more than one example of non-Jews throughout history who recognized God as the Prime Mover throughout history and as a Being capable of destroying entire cities due to wickedness. The story makes just as much sense without the Midrash. Again, that alone doesn't mean that the Midrash is not literally true - but rather it is a factor to take into consideration.
The "Would Normal People Think Like This" Factor - The Rivka-as-toddler-bride story fails this test. Go back to the Chumash and read the story again - would a three year old (even one as undoubtedly advanced as Rivka) be capable of watering camels? Would she really be capable of consenting to a marriage? It is certainly true that there were child marriages at various times throughout history, even with children as young as three, but the other facts of the story, when read by someone who didn't have a preconceived notion of Rivka's age, would seem to be contrary to the Midrash. If someone were reading the Torah narrative without having heard of the three-year-old Rivka story even have the slightest inkling that she was three years old? No, because normal people don't think that a three year old would be capable of watering camels to satiety or be capable of deciding on her on whether or not she should marry a total stranger. And if you apply the very logical idea that Avraham was simply hearing of Rivka's existence for the first time after the Akeida (rather than positing that she was actually born then), then the need for the mental gymnastics involved with a toddler bride go away and a teenager or later bride becomes much more logical.
So, those are some of the factors that I take into account when evaluating a statement in a Midrash or a Ma'amar Chazal. And yes, there are certain things that I take simply as a given. As I stated above, God's existence is taken as a given. So, I'm not a full skeptic -- sorry to disappoint some of you out there. Yeah, I know it's probably not 100% intellectually honest, but that's the way it is. That's why I'm a pseudoskeptic.
Saturday, January 20, 2007
Odd Davening Question
My question, very simply, is this: Why do we only ask for chaparas pesha during leap years. Do we not need it during all other years?
Anyone know of any reasons?
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Can You Possibly Get Stupider Than This??? (Rambam and Science)
The planets aren't attached to spheres, for starters. Even the most ardent geocentrist would have to admit that the Rambam was wrong on that.
In addition, even if you're a geocentrist, the orbits of the planets are ellipses, not spheres, as the Rambam describes.
The Rambam states that the Earth is 40 times larger than the moon - in reality, the Earth is eighty times as massive as the moon. He also states that the Sun is about 170 times the size of the Earth -- that, too, is wrong, by quite a margin -- the Sun is about 333,000 times more massive than the Earth.
The Rambam states that there are no stars larger than the Sun. That's true to the observable eye, but is clearly false -- there are many stars that are much larger than the Sun.
He also states that there is no "star" smaller than Mercury. Well, that's true on the face of it -- a body that small cannot start nuclear fission. However, if you're going to posit that the Rambam used the term "kochav" to mean any celestial body (as you would have to, unless you are positing that Mercury and the other planets are stars too), then that statement is false, as there are plenty of celestial bodies smaller than Mercury.
All these statements of the Rambam can be found in Hil. Yesodei HaTorah chap. 3.
One poster decided to answer my challenge regarding the weight of the moon with what has to be the single most mind-numbingly stupid thing that I've heard in all the science/Torah debates (bolding mine):
The moon isn't made of gas, as far as modern scientists know (the bunch of crackpots that they are).
Of course, we have to realize that 1) nature changes (so maybe in times of Rambam the moon was takeh made of gas), 2) modern science does not rely on certainties but only on probabilities, so it is only 99.999% probable that moon isn't made of gas; on the other hand, everything that Rambam wrote was guided by h"p, so he can't be wrong, even if he himself said (for kiruv purposes surely) that sages of Torah may be wrong in the matters of science. Which makes it 100% true that moon is made of gas.
The moon is made of gas?? Forget the fact that we've sent out probes to the moon. Forget the fact that twelve people have actually walked on the surface of the moon. Forget the fact that moon rocks have been bought back to earth. What the poster doesn't seem to realize is that you can simply go out at night and look at the darn thing in the sky and see that it's made of rock. Gas doesn't cause the craters that you can see on the moon on any clear night.
Lest you think that the stupidity ends there, I followed up by asking the following question:
So, how do you then explain away all the data indicating that the moon isn't made of gas???
The response I got from another poster (warning: brain-numbing response ahead!):
well, that's your problem. The Torah is absolute(ly) true.
I'm just completely flabbergasted. Seriously, what we need in our yeshivos is a good re-education as to what exactly is Torah and what is science and where the two intersect. The Rambam's statements regarding astronomy (despite the fact that he placed them in Hilchos Yisodei HaTorah) are not actually fundamentals of Torah. There is no Torah source before him that states these facts - they simply represent the science of the day as he knew it. It's not like he looked up in a Gemara where it says that there is no celestial body smaller than Mercury - it was something that he either observed on his own or learned from other astronomers. The simple facts that he presents can easily be disproved, and yet, people are so blinded by the mistaken notion that everything the Rambam ever put in writing is Torah (and therefore irrefutable - even by the evidence of our own eyes) that these people are forced to come to the mindboggiling conclusion that the moon is either (a) made of gas or (b) somehow changed from gas to rock sometime since the Rambam.
I'd say that the parents of these people should ask for their money back from the yeshivos they went to, but, sadly, they probably got exactly what they wanted.
Monday, January 15, 2007
Buying a son-in-law on the open market! Madness!!
Now, let me be clear about something up front - I have no objection to parents helping their married children out. Just to be fair and offer full disclosure, Eeees and I received help in the purchase of our house and still receive help from my in-laws. However, I never expected it from them, nor asked (or, heaven forbid, demanded) it of them. It was done strictly out of their love for their daughter and me (yes, I always got along very well with my in-laws).
That being said, the fact is that in some segments of our community in Israel, grooms are being bought (literally!!) by the fathers of marriageable age girls. In order to get a top groom, the bride's family has to pay for the entire wedding, an apartment for the young couple and furnishings.
As the article notes:
An apartment in an ultra-Orthodox complex in Betar Ilit or Modi’in Ilit costs about USD 90,000. If you add the wedding expenditures and the purchase of furniture and electrical appliances, the expenses come to USD 110,000. If we assume that a family pays for only half a package, every ultra-Orthodox family has to part with some USD 200,000 within a few years just to marry off its daughters.
The problem is that the more impressive the groom, the higher the demands. Very high-quality grooms demand an apartment in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak that is as close as possible to the head of their yeshiva. In Jerusalem and Bnei Brak apartment prices are about USD 150,000- USD 250,000. Grooms who are outstanding students with a lot of chutzpah demand that the wife’s parents also pay a small stipend to allow them to live decently.
If a family has several girls to marry off within the span of a few years (as many Chareidi families do), the family could end up with expenses totaling from a half a million to over a million dollars in that very short time span - and then pay for support for the young couple afterwards.
Lest you think that it is only the very top grooms - the elite of the elite - who are making such demands, the article continues:
Before the wedding the terms of the match are negotiated. The ultra-Orthodox Bakehillah newspaper, which writes a lot on this issue, has published the price list for a groom. For a prodigy in a prestigious yeshiva such as Kol Torah or Hevron in Jerusalem, Or Yisrael in Petach Tikvah or Bet Matityahu in Bnei Brak, you have to pay for the whole package.
In yeshivas such as Grodna, Be’er Ya’akov, and Haknesset Hagedolah, which are a bit less prestigious than Hevron, they demand two thirds of an apartment for a prodigy and half an apartment for an average guy. In the average yeshivas they demand half an apartment.
So, in order to get an "average guy" in a yeshiva, you have to shell out somewhere in excess of $50,000 (on top of the actual wedding costs).
“In the Lithuanian yeshivas there’s a situation in which the more guys in the yeshiva get an apartment, the more prestigious the yeshiva becomes,” says Rabbi Silman. “The yeshiva heads encourage this to some extent, and in order to preserve the yeshiva’s reputation, they demand of their students that they make a match conditional on getting an apartment.”
Many times the grooms don’t want complete apartments because they know how their parents suffer, but the yeshiva heads push them to take the apartments with no apologies. After all, the whole package is evidence of the yeshiva’s prestige, and a guy who compromises harms the yeshiva’s good name.
In addition, a guy who compromises has to go to work in order to pay for the apartment, and then he can’t sit and study in yeshiva, which also harms the yeshiva’s good name.
Lest all the news sound bad, there are some voices calling for sanity. There are some voices in the Israeli chareidi world calling for an end to the madness (apologies to Chananya Weismann):
The grandson of Rabbi Haim Kanievsky, one of the most important rabbis in Bnei Brak, was recently quoted in the ultra-Orthodox prss as saying, “My grandfather is unequivocal in his opposition to the demand for the whole package.”
“My grandfather’s opinion is that all expenses, including the purchase of an apartment, must be divided equally between the groom’s side and the bride’s side. As for the apartment, my grandfather says that it’s better for the bride’s side to pay a bit more in order to show respect for the Torah, even a thousand dollars more.”
Personally, I find the whole situation bewildering (to use kind terms). The only reason that brides' fathers pay such exorbitant amounts is because they feel (or perhaps their daughters feel) that without such payments they won't get married, or they'll have to marry someone from the Dalit.
But what is it that fuels this madness? What is that makes a father of a bride pay such a high price for a groom who is considered less than "top notch?" I suppose that there are several mindsets at play here:
The grooms are not being taught the true meaning of marriage. The point of a marriage is not to see how much money you can get out of your future in-laws. The point of a marriage is not to score political "points." The point of a marriage is find a spouse who will make you happy, whom you are physically attracted to, whom you share the same hashkafos with, someone with whom you can raise a family that will transmit the Torah and it's teachings from one generation to the next.
The brides are being brainwashed into believing that only men who learn all day are worth marrying. Seriously, if that wasn't the case, why the demand for an enormous payout for a boy who doesn't even go to a "top yeshiva?" Why would a boy who is simply average at best (or possibly even below it?) command so much more than a working boy (who, presumably doesn't command such prices)? The only reason is simply because the girls are taught that the only type of boy to consider is a learning boy. They too are forgetting that they're not marrying the boy's rebbi or the yeshiva he learned in - they are marrying the boy himself - and, like their future husbands, are forgetting the things about their future spouses that should matter the most - and which yeshiva he learns in should not be a top priority.
The brides' fathers are being extorted by their daughters and their sons-in-law. These poor guys (who are still workers in this generation -- I'd hate to see what's going to happen in the next generation when the fathers-in-law are learners) are being given unreasonable demands by their future sons-in-laws and emotional pressure by their daughters to pay out huge sums of money that in many cases, they cannot afford. If all the fathers banded together and agreed, as a community not to give in to demands, the whole system would collapse.
In the end, everyone loses. The groom simply becomes a piece of meat to be auctioned off to the girl whose father presents the most attractive package. The bride and groom both lose what is important in a marriage. The brides' parents lose any money that they may have managed to save over the years (perhaps looking toward retirement). And, of course, while the groom's family may not lose out this time around, almost certainly they have several daughters who are of marriageable age - and then the shoe will be on the other foot. In short, everyone loses.
This situation simply has to stop, and it will.
It will begin to come to a stop when the first yeshiva bochur tells his Rosh Yeshiva that his future sholom bayis and the sholom bayis of his in-laws is more important than the reputation of the yeshiva.
It will begin to come to a stop when the first father sits his daughter down and explains to her that an extortionist is not a good person to marry, and with the first daughter who understands what her father is telling her.
It will begin to come to a stop when fourth and fifth daughters find they cannot marry because their parents have been financially tapped out.
It will begin to come to a stop when boys and girls begin to learn what is truly important as the basis for a marriage - that who the chosson or kallah is as a person is far more important than what yeshiva they learn in.
It will begin to come to a stop when fathers begin to get sick (and they will) of paying huge amounts of money just so their daughter can marry someone who is an average bochur.
It will begin to come to a stop when people begin to realize that people who work are not unmarriageable and that one can have a very fine, distinguished and successful son-in-law who will make their daughters happy even if he is only kovea itim.
At the latest, it will have to come to a stop when the current generation of bochurim have their own daughters of marriageable age, limited job skills and a limited income and simply cannot pay what the next generation of bochurim demand.
It will end, either on good terms - with reason and sensibility, or on bad terms - with bankruptcies and good girls who simply cannot get married. But it will end.
Nonetheless, suppose Pharaoh had said "You know, you're right. I bet if they have a break, they could come back and work much better later. Go ahead, take them out, see you back here in a few days."
What then? Would the Jews have come back?
(For all those who have been complaining that my posts have been too long -- how's that? :) )
Friday, January 12, 2007
Return of the Ipod Meme
Over a year ago, Just Passing Through tagged me with the Ipod meme. Unfortuantely, at that time, my MP3 player broke, and so I posted this response.
Well, I recently bought myself a new MP3 player. So, though it's over a year late, I hereby submit my list.
When I hit shuffle play, the first 15 tracks are:
1. Ride of the Valkyries (Wagner)
2. I Want to Hold Your Hand (Beatles)
3. Colors of the Wind (Judy Kuhn - Disney/Pocahantas)
4. Didoh Beh (Lev Tahor)
5. If Not For You (Bob Dylan)
6. Can You Feel the Love Tonight (Elton John)
7. Fantine's Death (Ruthie Henshall & Colm Wilkinson/Les Miserables)
8. Hard Day's Night (Beatles)
9. Everything's Coming Up Roses (Instrumental)
10. Bookends Theme (Simon & Garfunkel)
11. Stay Awake (Julie Andrews - Disney/Mary Poppins)
12. I Get A Kick Out of You (Frank Sinatra)
13. Brain Damage (Bill Cosby)
14. Uptown Girl (Billy Joel)
15. L-Y (Tom Lehrer - from the Electric Company)
... and since I'm so late, I'll add on an extra 15 tracks as a penalty.
16. Song of the Titanic (Mandy Patinkin)
17. Runnin' Wild (Glenn Miller & His Orchestra)
18. America (Simon & Garfunkel)
19. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John)
20. Bicycle Race (Queen)
21. Lechah Dodi (Yisroel Williger- Carlebach Friday Night)
22. As Long As You're Mine (Idina Menzel/Norbert Leo Buntz - Wicked)
23. The Ballad of Davy Crockett (The Wellingtons - Disney)
24. Tsadik Katamar (Yisroel Williger- Carlebach Friday Night)
25. Golden Helmet of Mombino (Brian Stokes Mitchell - Man of La Mancha)
26. Introducing Tobacco to Civilization (Bob Newhart)
27. I Won't Back Down (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers)
28. Venus, the Bringer of Peace (Holst)
29. Neptune, the Mystic (Holst)
30. Bob at the Unemployment Office (Bob Newhart)
-- Yes, I know Wagner was a horrible antisemite - but I love that piece of music. I consider it appropriate revenge that I enjoy his music.
-- The only reason I have Queen is because I like Bohemian Rhapsody. I actually never listened to the whole album before and when Bicycle Race came up, I thought to myself: "What the....? What were they smoking?"
-- The Mandy Patinkin song is from MamaLoshen, is in Yiddish, and I don't understand any of it without the booklet that came with the album.
While we're at it, I'll tag some bloggers who were probably missed the first time this came around: So, I'm tagging Neandershort, The Observant Astronomer, Dag and JacobDaJew.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Sinai -- What Happened?
This post originated from a thread on Hashkafah.com.
I'd like to make two things clear at the outset here. The first is that this post is based on the assumption that the general historicity of Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) and Mattan Torah (the Revelation at Sinai). Please don't respond with "well the whole thing's a myth anyway..."
The second point that I'd like to make at the start is that I'm not hostile to any alternative answer. If you can convince me that I'm wrong, I'm always open to changing my mind on the matter. That being said, let's go.
The thread started with someone asking a very simple question:
I'm not well 'learned' in our religion, but I was thinking of this today, and perhaps someone can give me a simple explanation. The Talmud is a discorse of rabbanim of the time discussing and arguing issues pertaining to judaism. I think, that it is accepted that this was revealed at har sinai, but how is it so, if the rabbanim were clearly from a later time discussing matters pertaining to Jews of that time. So how was it revealed at har sinai?
I answered that, very simply, the Talmud as we know it today was not given at Mt. Sinai.
The answer I gave to the original questioner was this:
At Sinai, we received the written Torah (define it as you will). In addition, we also received an oral corpus of law, detailing the mitzvos contained in the written text.
Over the course of time, many of those details became lost and/or forgotten. Indeed, some of them became lost in the month following Moshe's death. As time progressed, the oral tradition came to include not only what remained of the original oral law, but applications of the law to new situations that didn't exist in Moshe's day, as well as homelitic teachings, common folklore and medicine, the science of the day and teachings about post-Mosaic biblical characters.
In time, all of these components of the oral tradition were eventually discussed in the Batei Midrash of Israel and Bavel and codified into the Talmud we have today.
The idea that the Talmud as we have it today was handed down to Moshe is laughable.
That sparked a discussion on the matter. In short, it should be fairly obvious that the Talmud as it is written today could not have been given on Mt. Sinai.* Heck, it should be fairly obvious that the Pentatuch as written today could not have been given on Mt. Sinai. Would Korach have rebelled if he knew his fate in advance? Would the spies have brought back evil reports about the Land of Israel if they knew in advance the terrible consequences it would bring? Would Moshe himself have hit the rock knowing in advance that it would cost him his chance of entering Eretz Yisroel?
You can't even say that Torah (as we have it today) was given up to the chapter of Mattan Torah. Imagine if the Genesis and Exodus (up to chapter 20) was given to the Jews at Sinai. The following conversation might have taken place:
Person: Um, Moshe, I've been looking at this book you brought down from the mountain.
Moshe: Yes, what about it?
Person: Well, I was hoping you could explain something to me. I was looking at this part toward the end, and I see it says that we ate the Manna for 40 years until we reached the Promised Land.
Moshe: Yes, so?
Person: Well, I thought we were going to be going into the land in a few days. What's this line about us being out here in the wilderness for forty years?
Moshe: Um... come back and ask me again after Tisha B'Av.
Another idea is that the mitzvos (commandments) were given at Sinai while the historical sections were written as they happened or in Arvos Moav at the end of the forty years. Yet, even that can't be said to be entirely true either; as there are at least three instances that I can think of off the top of my head where the law was either unknown at the time of Sinai or changed afterwards: the punishment for the Sabbath desecrator, Pesach Sheini and the law that allows daughters to inhereit in the absence of a son. Clearly the mitzvos themselves didn't acheive their "final forms" until shortly before Moshe's death.
If we can discount the fact that the Chumash itself, in it's present form was not given at Sinai, it's fairly easy to say that the Talmud in it's present form wasn't given at Sinai either. That's not to say that the teachings and lessons of the Talmud weren't at Sinai -- I believe that they were -- albeit in a very different form.
As many others have pointed out, the text of the Chumash leaves out many details of the mitzvos. This is often cited as one of the proofs for the existence of an oral tradition from Sinai. I'm willing to accept that at face value. If you are going to posit that the Torah is God-given, then it naturally follows that if God wants us to follow it that He would provide more details than were simply in the text. (As to why He didn't then just put the details in the Torah to begin with is a separate question.) But to suggest that the oral tradition given to Moshe (and please read my footnote below again) included all the aggadata (non-halachic) sections and that all of that was handed down word-for-word through the generations to the present day is simply ludicrous.
Again, you'd have the problem of foreknowledge. Would Saul have spared the Amalekite king if he had learned that it would one day cost him his kingship? Would he have gotten mad at his son for supporting David? Why? He already knew that his son would support David! This is just one example out of dozens that could be asked about.
You'd also have the problem of the people mentioned in the Talmud and the halachic positions they held. Can you imagine young Shammai learning in Beis Midrash that he's going to hold this-and-this opinion?
Lastly, you have the very nature of an oral transmission to deal with. Consider the following: The Chumash is a written text. If you ever have a question about the correct reading of a verse, you can always go back to an existing Torah and check it out. Despite that, over the course of the 3300 years since Sinai, there are several variant texts of the Torah out there today (although, granted, they are minor differences, they are, nonetheless, not exactly the same). It stands to reason that if the physical, written Torah, which exists outside of people's memories and can be referred to, and that can survive persecution attempts and long periods of neglect (i.e. you can not study the Torah for years and yet come back and pick it up and get an authentic reading of the text from it), then surely an oral tradition, which relies on faulty human memories and personal biases, which cannot survive periods of neglect (or else it starts to be forgotten) and which can vary from person to person (no two people tell the same story the same way), surely cannot be reliably transmitted word-for-word intact over a period of 2000 years.
Indeed, the Gemara itself tells us that it did not survive completely intact. In the month following Moshe's death, over 300 halachos were forgotten. True, they were restored using the rules laid down at Sinai for deriving new laws, but there is no real guarantee that the laws were identical to the ones that Moshe handed down. So, how can we follow such laws now? We simply have to say "lo bashamayim hi" (the Torah is no longer in heaven) and it is up to us to interpret how it is applied to new generations and new situations (again, utilizing the rules laid down).
Of course, it must be noted that the Gemara itself says in Berachos that it (along with the Navi, Midrash, Mishna, etc.) were revealed at Sinai. That being the case, how can I say that the Gemara wasn't given at Sinai? I'll answer that with the answer that my Rav game to me regarding another question that I had.
There is a tradition that the 92nd Psalm (Mizmor Shir L'Yom HaShabbos) was written by Adam on the first Shabbos after Creation. I asked my Rav how such a thing could be - after all it references concepts that could not possibly have existed at that time (musicians, which the Torah attests didn't come about until later; the concept of a foolish man - if the only people who ever existed were you and your wife, there would not be a concept of a "foolish man," etc.) . He answered me that Adam did not, in fact, compose the Psalm as we have it today - rather he expressed and originated certain ideas and themes that later became a part of the composed Psalm. I rather liked the answer since I had another example of "plagiarism" by Dovid that fit the same model (Dovid's composition of Psalm 113 was clearly influenced by Channah's prayer of a generation earlier at I Samuel 2 (especially verse 8, which Dovid nearly lifted word-for-word).
So, too, the same can apply with the Talmud. The halachos themselves, the details of the laws as given at Sinai were part of the original composition. In addition, it was understood that the means by which to apply the laws to situaitons which did not yet exist at the time of Mattan Torah were given as well. In addition certain concepts that were later contained in the Navi and later writing may well have been part of the original transmission, but left unformulated until the Navi put it into his own words. But that the book of Isaiah was handed word-for-word to Moshe (and then passed down - again - word-for-word until written down by Isaiah) is simply ridiculous.
And yet, I occasionally run across people who actually believe this - that the Talmud and other texts that we have were handed down word-for-word until they were written down. I just don't understand how anyone could actually believe that. If you have a convincing argument that it was, I'd love to hear it.
* By given on Mt. Sinai, I mean given and transmitted down the generations. It certainly could have been revealed to Moshe who kept it to himself - but then what's the point of saying it was revealed on Sinai. That's kind of like saying that God gave Moshe the plans for the telephone, but he didn't pass it down so Alexander Graham Bell didn't really invent it.
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
Pillars of Creation - Destroyed!
Check out the picture in this post.
The image you are seeing is a portion of the Eagle Nebula, a stellar nursery in the Serpens constellation, located about 7000 light-years from Earth. This portion of the nebula has been called "The Pillars of Creation," and is one of the most famous image in astronomy. What the images shows are massive columns of gas within the nebula that will one day likely become part of a star.
Sadly, however, it was reported that the columns were destroyed by a supernova explosion about 6,000 years ago. However, since the nebula is located 7,000 light years away, the nebula will continue to appear to us as it once existed and will continue to do so for another thousand years.
Or, perhaps, as young-earth Creationists would have you believe, the pillars never existed at all and were created in an already destroyed state and the image we are seeing never really existed in the first place.
Take your pick (I know which makes more logical sense to me). But be quick... the pillars will only be visible for another millenium.
Our Wicked, Wicked Shabbos
We were due to have this friend over for Shabbos, so eeees, in her incredibly thoughtful style, decided to truly have a "Wicked" Shabbos and have our house resemble the Emerald City. She went out and bought a green tablecloth (overlaid with white so that our children will still be able to get a good shidduch :) ). Green plasticware and napkins were bought for the occassion. I was able to find green roses and have them shipped to the house. The water under the oil in the lachter (candleabra) was colored green, as were the guests' shabbos candles. The desert (shown on the table) was green Jello (the kosher Jello substitute, actually). Green liqueur was obtained for the occassion. Lastly, the guest stayed in my daughter's room where she was supplied with green sheets and a green blanket. My wife and daughter both wore their green robes, while I lamented the fact that I don't own a green tie.
One of the nicest parts of the meal, I thought, wasn't inspired by Wicked, but by another Broadway musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The first number of the play is called "Any Dream Will Do." (sample here) It's a song that really makes no sense whatsoever (IMHO) and adds nothing to the play but merely acts as a filler piece. One thing it does have, however, is a nice tune and interplay between the singer (Joseph) and the chorus of children. What we discovered is that D'ror Yikra goes very well with this tune, especially with the kids doing the chorus parts. Our Wicked friend told us that she thought it was quite nice. Of course, we've also shamelessly ripped off MBD in his ripping of Close Every Door and applied the words of M'nucha V'Simcha to it. In the end, we may very well have a complete Broadway review of Z'miros!
Of course, there are those who will view this as sacriligious. Truth be told, however, there is probably very little that is truly and uniquely Jewish in what passes for Jewish music today. Music is one of those things that tends to bleed through cultures and tunes that were uniquely identified with one group tend to be adopted by other groups and adapted to their own needs and made their own. I would be highly surprised if most of today's Jewish music didn't have it's origins and roots in non-Jewish music of various times and places.
Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Al Tistakel B'Mah She'yesh Bo... (Do Not Look At What Is Inside...)
The preceeding, of course, is exactly the opposite of the familiar saying of Chazal (our Sages). And yet, sometimes people (myself included) get so hung up on exteriors that they fail to see that even if the exterior may be unacceptable to your standards, the interior may yet still be beautiful.
This was recently illustrated to me by this picture (credit: AP/Kevin Frayer) which was taken in Jerusalem on Jan 1. I saw a similar photo in a local paper last week, but it wasn't until I saw the Hasidic Rebelle's comments on it that I decided to post about it. Here's what HR had to say:
Is Hashem giving us a preview of what Moshiach, and hopefully us, will encounter when he comes?
My heart and soul is torn to pieces at the obvious contrast. What caused this neshomo to go such a distance? What is he thinking? What will his future be? What are his parents and family going through?
How much are we all praying for All the Jewish souls wandering out there?
Is he really free? Is this freedom?
This picture was taken in Jerusalem yh"b. This is what our holy city Jerusalem has, darkness and light together.
Hashem should light our hearts and souls to be truly free.
While HR does have some valid points in his posting, I feel that he is truly doing a disservice to the gentleman on the left. Certainly he doesn't dress like the man on the right. Neither do I. Do I, too, represent darkness?
Secondly, he's reading more into the person's soul than can be discerned from the picture. How does he know what the gentleman's feelings on the subject of freedom are. Does he consider himself free? I don't know, and neither does HR.
Thirdly, while I'll grant that the gentleman on the left is probably not a shomer Torah U'Mitzvos (read: Orthodox) is it really fair to put him down in a way that seems to imply that there is nothing good about him? How does he know that the gentleman on the left doesn't engage in acts of g'milus chasadim (kind acts)? Maybe he cares for his elderly parents? Maybe he volunteers at a nursing home? Maybe he mentors troubled kids? How does HR know that he doesn't pray in his own fashion? How does he know that the gentleman on the left doesn't perform some mitzvos better than he does -- let's not forget that the midrashim continually point out that Esav was far more scrupulous in the mitzvah of honoring one's parents than his brother.
Of course, the last question to be asked is, even though the picture was taken in Yerushalayim, how does he know the person on the left is even Jewish at all? Perhaps he's not Jewish and is therefore free to dress anyway he likes in accordance with halacha?
The lesson here is this: People cannot be summed up based on their appearance alone, even if you find that appearance to be outrageous. Feel free to make comments about his fashion sense. Laugh at his purple mohawk if you want. But don't put his soul down unless you truly know what is contained therein. And, from such a picture, you simply cannot ascertain that.
Yes, I've Officially Sold Out...
Feel free to tell me your feelings on the matter. Ultimately, if my readers don't like it, I'll probably remove it.
Monday, January 08, 2007
Tradeoffs (Part II)
The idea of opportunity cost doesn't only apply to things that have a monetary value: If I spend time reading a book, then I can't use that same time to learn Torah, watch a TV program, blog or fix my bicycle. By spending the time reading, I am incurring the opportunity cost of the other things that I could be doing in that time, since I cannot read *and* fix my bicycle at the same time. (Even if I *could* do both at the same time, the same rule applies -- unless I can do an infinite number of things at the same time, I can only do n things at any one time. By reading, I'm using one of those "channels" and now I can only do n-1 things, and so on.)
The idea of opportuntiy costs applies to just about any finite resource that a person or community may have - time, land, money, etc. We all, individually and communally, make opportunity cost decisions every day, whether we know it or not: where, when and how to build public facilities (is it a better use of land to build an airport or a school?), which public policies should be persued (should we make infant seats mandatory on flights?), where resources should be allocated (do we need more teachers or more policemen this year?), what we eat (ice cream may taste better, but will it give me the nutrition I need and keep me healthy?), what we wear (I'll look a lot more professional if I wear a suit to work every day -- but can I afford to have it dry cleaned constantly?) and how we spend our time (should I excercise, or write this blog post -- well, we know the answer to that one.)
Communal decisions regarding opportunity cost have to be made on a basis that will further the community's goals. Those options that bring the community closer to what it wants to achieve are the options that should be persued. A community that desperately needs a hospital must make decisions that bring it closer to a hospital being built. If the hospital was the only goal of the community, they'd confiscate the land and building materials, conscript the residents into forced labor and have the hospital built in no time. Since communities have *other* goals as well (including the preservation of the rights of private property and freedom from slavery), the community has to decide how to achieve both goals of having the hospital built and respecting people's rights to the greatest degree possible. The result would probably be some combination of taxes, eminent domain purchases and hired labor. In other words, the community has to make a tradeoff between the need for a hospital and its desire to preserve the rights of its citizens. Of course, if the community had an infinte supply of land, building material, money or labor, then the tradeoffs would not need to occur. However, we generally don't have an infinte supply of any single resource, let alone everything.
Much has been written about the recent decision in Israel of the rabbinic authorities to disband educational opportunities for women. Some have hailed it as a blow for Torah-true values, others have lamented that it is a mistaken over-reaction to a minor problem and yet others have made the accusation that this decision is a misogynistic attempt to keep women uneducated and dependent upon men. I'm not going to discuss that aspect of the decision - I don't think that there is anything new that I can contribute to the discussion on that count. What I would like to discuss, however, are the costs involved in making such a decision.
As with any communal decision, the first thing that has to be determined are the community's goals. A facility dedicated to the treatment of polio may be a great idea in a community in India, but would be a terrible misuse of resources in New York. In other words, the priorities of one community are not the same as the priorities of a different community.
So, what are the priorities of the chareidi communities in Israel? Well, to be honest, not being a chareidi and not living in Israel, I have to guess based upon my knowledge of chareidim and Israel. However, I'm fairly certain that we can all agree that the main (but not sole) priority of the chareidi community in Israel is to live a life in accordance with the Torah (as they understand it) - which is fine and well - if that's the decision that they want to make, it's their right to make it. However, any decisions that are made in accordence with those priorities have to take into account opportunity costs. It's opporutinty costs that prevent us from setting up communities where everyone (and I mean *everyone*) learns Torah every day and does nothing else. After all, if *everyone* learned, we'd be forgoing the other necessities of life - buying food, securing shelter, etc.). So, any decision that increases the amount of Torah being learnt must be balanced against the resources that are being taken away from other necessities. If everyone learns, then there are no bakers to make the bread. If everyone learns, there are no plumbers to fix the toilets, etc.
Of course, here in the modern world, our communities are not isolated. We can always open up the yellow pages and call a plumber from the non-learning (or non-Jewish) community. We can hire construction workers from outside the community to build our houses, and so on - and that's the way the modern world works. I don't have to spend time studying plumbing manuals when my toilet backs up - I pay someone to study the manuals and fix the problem for me. I don't have to study how to bake bread (although eeees does a wonderful job of making challah) because I can hire someone else to learn how to bake my bread for me.
All of this hiring, however, takes money. Unless a community is completely self-sufficient, it will need to spend resources (including time) procuring needs that it cannot generate for itself. Many of the needs of the chareidi community are the same as those of other communities in the world - food, clothing, shelter, child care, skilled labor, etc. Since the chareidi community is not self-sufficient, money (or barter - which requires a surplus of some tradeable resource) is required to bring in the needs that are necessary. Since the community has decided that it is a priority that as many men as possible learn Torah full-time, it generally falls on the women to earn the income that is necessary to bring in the goods and services that the community needs to survive.
We all know that more education generally equals a higher income. For example, at one time, I was working as a customer service representative earning about $23,000 per year. I decided to invest about $5,000 and some time and effort into learning new skills, which provided me with the opportunity to greatly increase my earning potential. Of course, I recognize that it's not all kochi v'otzem yadi (by my own efforts) - God certainly had (and continues to have) a hand in helping me maximize my earning potential. But the fact remains that there is a direct link between education and income potential. This has been proven over and over again.
Another thing that we all know is that poverty is a Bad Thing. Poverty has many deleterious effects on communities from health to marital harmony. Tevye may have reminded us that it's no shame to be poor, but it can be harmful. People in the throes of poverty have worse health care and nutrition. *
It would behoove the chareidi community, to try to maximize the earning potential of earners in the society. Why? Well, there are several reasons - the first of which is to try to escape poverty. Every family that is below the poverty line is a family that is more open to a host of problems than a family that is above the poverty line. Another reason is that having some families higher above the poverty line will allow them to help other families that are below the poverty line. A third reason is that having disposable income will allow them to set up a communal infrastructure with whatever they might want and/or need - tzedaka organizations, gemachs, Hatzoloh units, educational facilities, etc. In short, having families exist at (or even just above) the poverty line with little chance to move above it retards the growth and health of the community.
Of course, one has to balance that with the other side of the equation. As Rav Elyashiv is quoted as saying "all manner of heresy can creep into those programs." Well, I suppose it depends on the type of program - I can't see much heresy creeping into a C++ course; but nonetheless, if one of the priorities of the community is keeping out heresy (however it is defined by the community), then that must be taken into consideration.
To take an absolutist position, that heresy is bad and cannot be countenanced under any and all circumstances is clearly not the position that the community takes - after all, there are chareidim that do become doctors - and to become a doctor you have to attend a university where you are likely to encounter a lot more "heresy" than you would find in a women's teaching program, and these chareidi doctors aren't ostracized and shunned - on the contrary, they are usually honored members of the community. So, it is fairly obvious that "heresy" is tolerated to some degree - a tradeoff in exchange for having doctors and other professionals in the community.
However, the number of chareidi doctors is generally small. Since there is much societal pressure to remain in the beis medrash all day, many who would otherwise be skilled doctors, dentists, etc., do not become so (another tradeoff the community makes). Chareidi doctors are the exception, not the rule.
The question that must be asked is this: is it worth dragging more of the community into poverty to enforce a "no heresy" rule? By eliminating job-skill developing programs, the community is limiting the earning potential of the main breadwinners in the community. How much poverty is acceptable in order to keep heretical teachings from being taught? Or, to put it another way, how much exposure to possible heresy should be allowed to give families the opportunity to economically better themselves? Obviously, then answer isn't an absolute zero - otherwise they'd forbid anyone to come into contact with anyone outside the community where possible heretical ideas could be communicated. On the other hand, as evidenced by this latest ruling and the community's ideas regarding higher education, the answer isn't absolutely in the other direction.
So, where does the boundary lie? Where do you make that tradeoff? Where can you say "ad kahn" (until here)? And at what point does the price of keeping out possible heresy become so high that the vibrancy of the community and the physical, material and emotional health of its individual members are threatened? Is the price of the new ruling too high? In my opinion it is -- but then again, I'm not a member of the community.
Ultimately, we'll see in the coming years what the community thinks. It will either sink, adapt or flout rabbinic authority. Either the community will become economically insolvent and unable to sustain itself, it will change it's model (i.e. rabbinic rulings will change), or else women will contunie to go to educational programs even if they don't have the rabbinical seal of approval.
*Yes, of course rich people have medical problems and educated people are poor. But as a rule, the rich are better off health wise and the educated do have higher earning capabilities.
Thursday, January 04, 2007
A Note On The Clothing Store Activists in B'nei Brak
I was reading an article in this week's Yated about the activists who have started insisting that stores in B'nei Brak must sell only clothing that appeals to certain standards or not be placed on a "white list" of stores where chareidim there may not shop.
The activists (known as the Vaadas Hapikuach Lechanuyos) brought a list of stores who have complied to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. According to the article (bolding mine):
HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman read through the list with obvious satisfaction and wondered aloud how there could be chareidi store owners who have not yet joined the program. HaRav Wosner said he was pleased be'ezras Hashem there are now clothing stores where Jewish women can shop without concern, and expressed confidence additional store owners would join the program. HaRav Nissim Karelitz, who has guided the organization since its founding, encouraged the delegates and suggested a course for further activity.
I find it interesting that the path of action to take was to pressure the stores, rather than to pressure the individual buyers. If one were to successfully pressure the individual buyers, then the buyers would not buy the items and the stores would not sell them. The most obvious example would be a store that sells ham (among other items) in an exclusively Jewish neighborhood. Since no one is going to buy the ham, eventually the store owner would see the futility of carrying it and stop doing so.
It would seem to me that the need to pressure the stores stems from a failure of the activists to pressure the people individually. Since they can't (or won't) tell their women not to buy certain articles of clothing (or the women won't listen to such instructions), they feel that they must remove the opportunity to buy them.
Of course, however, that, too, is a failing proposition. While it may make it more difficult for women to shop for clothing that they want, it certainly won't prevent them from doing so entirely. One can always drive or hop on a bus and go to the next town to find clothing, purchase it through mail-order or the internet, or some other way.
In short, if you want any sort of ban to succeed, you have to first win over the will of the people. If you can convince the people that the ban is necessary, then you won't have to resort to pressuring shopkeepers - economics will take care of the problem for you. If you can't convince the people of the necessity for the ban, then, in today's global market, pressuring the shopkeepers will harm no one but the shopkeepers.
Tradeoffs (Part I)
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.
One of my commenters (whom I know in real life and is a very fine person) commented as follows:
I agree with you in theory, but in practice we know what intermingling will lead to. Is there any way to have general socialization amongst the unmarried sexes in a way that will not lead to other, serious, problems? I don't know.
I responded to him that life involves certain tradeoffs and the effects of any policy have to weighed against the unintended consequences of that policy. For example, I mentioned the proposal that all infants riding on airplanes have to be secured in infant seats. In theory, this is a good idea - it will potentially save infants lives in the case of an accident, which, we can all agree on, is a good thing. As some like to put it "if even a single infant's life is saved, then it's a good idea."
Such thinking, however, doesn't take into account the unintended consequences of such a decision. The unintended consequences are that such a policy would end up costing more lives than it saves. Imagine a young couple with an infant who are planning a trip. They have a choice - they could fly or they can drive on their trip. If they fly, they will have to pay for two tickets (or maybe two and a little extra for the kid - but they won't have to buy a third seat). Because they have a reduced cost to fly, they may decide to go for the airplane trip. However, if they are forced to buy another ticket (because the infant seat must be secured in a regular seat), then they may then opt to drive, rather than fly. Driving is a *much* more dangerous activity than flying. The chances of being killed on the road are far greater than the dangers of dying in a plane crash. Of course, with one couple, the odds are likely that they'll be safe either way. But multiply this over thousands of extra families on the roads and the years that the policy will be in effect, and the likelihood is that more infants (and adults) will die than would be saved by mandating safety seats for infants in airplanes.
It's these types of tradeoffs that we make in life and with regard to public policy. Will there be more "fooling around" if we reduce of the societal barriers? Almost certainly. But you have to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to saying "OK, then let's build the barriers higher," because you have to take into account what the cost of that extra "safety" is. The cost is that many young couples who could have met on their own and been happy are prevented from doing so. What is our goal? Our goal is to produce couples - happy, Torah-observant couples who will raise the next generation of Orthodox Jews. In order to acheive that goal, we have to facilitate meetings, not prevent them. Saying that if it "only prevents one couple from engaging in pre-marital sex then it's a good thing" is wrong - simply because the tradeoff cost is too high.
Lest the idea of making tradeoffs in public policy sound heretical, let's not forget that this is something that we do on a daily basis in our lives. One example is that we trade off the chance that our children will run into undesirable classmates for the convience and educational benefits of sending them to a school with other children. If you *really* want to make sure that your child doesn't come into contact with children from "undesireable" homes or heretical ideas, keep your kid home all day and teach him/her yourself and don't send them to summer camp.
When it comes to older singles, there is one more tradeoff to be considered. One must weigh the benefits of preventing singles from meeting casually when younger against the potential that they will meet casually when they are older, more experienced and more independent and more open to the idea of pre-marital sex than they would be if they were younger. In other words, how much pre-marital sex is the strict segregation policy preventing and how much pre-marital sex is it generating ten to fifteen years down the road?