Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lucky number seven

A guest post by Y. Bloch
Poor 7oP. The Seventh Day of Passover seems to get no respect, despite its being a bona fide biblical holiday. It has no special custom, command or ceremony all its own. Compare this to the end of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret; the Talmud (Sukka 48a) already enumerates six special traits of the day in Temple times, to which another half-dozen have been added in the two millennia since. Meanwhile, 7oP remains forlorn, a sort of Anticlimaxodus.

True, tradition tells us (specifically, R. Hanina bar Papa in Talmud Sota 12b) that the 21st of Nisan was the day of the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the subsequent Song of the Sea. But this sequel to the Ten Plagues feels a bit underwhelming: once again, the Israelites face hardened-heart Pharaoh; once again, Moses raises his staff; once again, God performs a miracle; once again, the Israelites are spared and the Egyptians are smitten (but not in a good way). However, since we celebrate at the Seder as freemen, it's hard to muster up much emotion about Pharaoh 2.0. Instead, he seems to fit into the familiar pattern of "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat."

But I would like to argue that the events of the Seventh Day are in fact vital and integral to our Passover experience. A week ago, Eylon Aslan-Levy posted "The Ten Plagues and the Ethics of Modern Warfare," in which he argues that "For Moses, the Death of the Firstborn was the nuclear option." I have a number of issues with the piece, but first and foremost, I am dismayed by the portrayal of the Slaying of the Firstborn as some sort of weapon of mass destruction, introducing lethal force into the equation for the first time.

The fact is that in their first appearance before Pharaoh (Ex. 5:3), Moses and Aaron already use threatening language: "And they said, 'The God of the Hebrews has met with us: let us go, we pray you, three days' journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.'" As the Plagues strike Egypt, it's very hard to imagine that there were no casualties from the week-long lack of drinking water, the invasion by wild animals, the death by pestilence of all domesticated animals and a raging plague of boils (a disease which causes limbs to fall off; see Talmud Ketubot 20b).

Still, let's assume that the first six were nonlethal. That still brings us to unlucky number seven, flaming hail. The Torah is explicit about this one (Ex. 9:19-25):
For upon every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die. He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses. And he that regarded not the word of the Lord left his servants and his cattle in the field... And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.
So Egyptians were dying; more importantly, their animals and slaves were dying for their masters' disbelief. That is equally true of the Slaying of the Firstborn:
And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. (11:5)
And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. (12:29)
Pharaoh, the cause of all this, does not die; all other firstborn of Egypt, including slaves and animals, do.
It may be convenient for us to think of the Slaying of the Firstborn as a powerfully destructive and indiscriminate weapon, but this plague is very personal, as we read in the Haggada: God Himself does the killing. It is not modern ethical warfare; it is ancient tribal warfare, in which Egypt is bad and Israel is good, and no other distinction is relevant. To contend that "Moses took every reasonable step to shield civilians from their leadership’s callousness and indifference to their plight" is laughable.
That is why we need the Seventh Day of Passover. The final chapter of the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, shows us an evolving ethic. This time, it is not Egyptian slaves or civilians who suffer, but Pharaoh's war machine (Ex. 14:28): "And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them." As the Psalmist puts it (136:15), "And He hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds, for His kindness is everlasting."

In fact, in the Talmud (Megilla 10b), we find:
For the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked. And R. Johanan further said, What is the meaning of the verse, "And one came not near the other all the night" (Ex. 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, "The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?"
Once we can distinguish between the good Egyptians and the bad Egyptians, we can distinguish between the good and the bad within each Egyptian. Once we can identify the villains, we can have compassion for the enemy. That is the most provocative idea of Passover, and we can only embrace it once we are safely on the other side, on the Seventh Day.

Hag sameah.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Seder Wrap up

What follows continues my longstanding tradition of documenting all that was odd, interesting or otherwise noteworthy about my seders. As always, you are invited to use the comments to tell us what made your seders memorable.


Time finished
Around 1 pm both night. Most years seder is like a symphony, with all the different parts - food, conversation, ritual, music - coming together to form a harmonious whole. This year, the metaphorical music was choppy and somewhat out of tune. Nothing seemed to meld. For a change, seder wasn't entirely enjoyable and the warm, happy feeling I remember from previous years did not arrive as the meal melted into the concluding songs. If I can figure out what caused this failure, I'll let you know.


Long time readers know that potato is the DovBear family's one-true karpas instrument, but did you know the word itself appears at the begining of the Exodus story? Sort of. It's in Rashi's comment on Genesis 37:3:

פסים: לשון כלי מלת, כמו (אסתר א ו) כרפס ותכלת, וכמו (שמואל ב' יג יח) כתונת הפסים, דתמר ואמנון. ומדרש אגדה על שם צרותיו שנמכר לפוטיפר ולסוחרים ולישמעאלים ולמדינים:

At our seder, we made much of the fact that the Exodus story also starts and finishes with a dip. First, that trouble-making coat made from what Rashi compares to כרפס ותכלת takes a quick swim in some goat blood; years later, as the story comes to its climax, a hyssop branch is dipped in the blood of some other goats and splashed on the door posts. The brothers erased Yosef with a dip; their descendants brought themselves back into existence the same way.

Main Courses
We're not going to dwell on this, but the food put in front of me on the second night of the holiday may have been the worst holiday meal to ever disgrace a table. The lady of the house tried, but everything failed spectacularly. If the dish wasn't too cold, it was too bland. If it hadn't been freezer burned it was soaking wet from having been defrosted incorrectly. The soup was tepid, fatty and flavorless. The main courses wore disconcerting notes of honey and came in textures I never imagined existed in nature.There were no vegetables. I feel bad telling you all this because the woman certainly gave it the old college try. Recipes were consulted. Quality cuts of meat were procured.  There were attempts at artistry in the presentations. But just as some men can't sing, I suppose some women can't cook. Call it tongue deafness.

Books I Read
I re-read the Yiddish Policeman's Union. Six years later, I see Chabon's criticism of settler tendencies all the more clearly. Chabon puts a great line on every other page, but the cake is taken by this one, as the main character objects to Jews and Christians who have allowed their eagerness for the end of days to permit murder :

“I don't care what is written," Meyer Landsman says. "I don't care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son's throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea. I don't care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It's in my ex-wife's tote bag.”

I also finished a few magazine articles, and several chapters of Lincoln at Gettysburg by the great anti-Papist Gary Wills. It is Wills thesis, that Lincoln's address changed the way we understand the constitution by successfully attributing his own - let's call them modern - values to the founding fathers. V'hamayvin yaavin. 

Best Observation
Paro's daughter didn't die during the Death of the First Born Sons. You may say that this was because she was not, in fact, a first born son, but that's too simple. Regarding the woman of valor, Proverbs 31 says "She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night." Without doing very much violence to the text, the Hebrew can be construed as "She who saw [that Moshe was] ki tov will not be extinguished at night." To clever by half? Yes. Yes.

Winning moment
At the end of a long digression about the power, flexibility and fundamental subjectivity of interpretations, one of the young men at my seder challenged me to compose a homily on the spot. He pointed to one of the props on my niece's plate and said, "Tell me what that frog says about the spirit of Pesach." I took a breath, and something like the following drasha came out:

That frog isn't any frog. That frog is Kermit, king of the frogs. And what is Kermit's anthem? A song called: "Its not easy being green" Have truer words about Pesach ever spoken? What is our seasonal struggle if not the fight to make the events of  Exodus seem new? Every year we struggle to toss off the dust and the spiders. We struggle to make it all seem new again. To let the songs touch us again. To see the rituals with innocent eyes again. But its hard. Its hard because "It's not easy being green." As spring turns to summer we ripen and rot. We fall to the ground and the bugs and bacteria do their dirty work on us. By the time spring returns we're all but a husk. Its not easy being green. Its not easy to begin again. But that's the challenge of Pesach.

Yes, of course this blows, and blows hard. But it proves the point: With enough creativity, just about anything can be put into the service of anything else.

One more great interpretation
Who Knows One, the seder's last song but one, is a confession of how the Seder has changed us. Before sitting through the story of the Exodus, I might have unreflectivly given secular replies to the song's questions. Who Knows Two? Two is the number on Jeter's back!  Who Know's Three? Three are the goals in a hat trick! But after hearing the great story, and participating in the great rituals, I'm a new man. All I think are holy thoughts. Everything I see in the Rorshak ink blot is divine.

This is certainly a retro-reason, by which I mean something a clever person produced to tell us how he imagines something else got started. But you listened anyway.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Best Pesach Video Ever

I continue to love how this video manages to reclaim Passover on behalf of all Jews. The performers in this video are unabashedly Jewish. They believe in God and recognize the acts of the Exodus as being essential to their religious and cultural identity. But they are celebrating it on their own terms, with no apologies or deference to Charedi-ism.  This video contains not even a feint to RW sensibilities, yet only the worst kind of narrow minded RW Jew would say that these people aren't his people.

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

No Private Passover Parties

A guest post by Y. Bloch

Where will you be in 21 years? That's the next time we'll do what we did yesterday, reading the portion of Aharei Mot (Lev. 16-18) on Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath preceding Passover. It gives us a chance to examine one of the most unusual mitzvot in the Torah: the prohibition of external slaughter (shehutei hutz).
If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or slaughters it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to present it as an offering to the Lord before the Tabernacle of the Lord, he shall be held guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood, and he shall be cut off from the people. (Lev. 17:3-4)
Jews of the Exodus generation were not getting their fresh beef from Postville, Iowa; every domesticated animal had to be slaughtered before God.

This restriction is loosened once the Jews cross the Jordan, as described in Deut., ch. 12 and Talmud Zevahim, ch. 14; in the Promised Land, sheep, goats and cattle may be slaughtered just for a barbecue. Moreover, if one does want to make it into an offering, that can be done on private altar, a bama. Only when the sacrificial service is centralized does it become forbidden to bring offerings in one's own backyard.

However, there is one exception: the paschal lamb/ kid.
You are not allowed to sacrifice the passover in any of your towns which the Lord your God is giving you; but at the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name, you shall sacrifice the passover in the evening at sunset, at the time that you came out of Egypt. (Deut. 16:5-6)
This leads to one of the most unusual disputes among the ban-counters. Maimonides famously lists all 613 commandments in his Sefer HaMitzvot, and the Sefer HaHinukh expands on them. There is only one mitzva which Maimonides omits but the Hinukh counts (#487): the prohibition to slaughter the passover privately. Maimonides does include the law in Mishneh Torah (Laws of the Passover 1:3), but he apparently views it as a historical footnote, not an everlasting command, as the bama has been categorically forbidden since the Temple was built in Jerusalem. The Hinukh disagrees, and he is not alone; 500 years before Maimonides, the Gaonic list of commandments, Halakhot Gedolot, includes this prohibition as one of the 613 as well. Why?

In fact, it is quite bizarre that the passover, of all offerings, must not be sacrificed in one's backyard. After all, the original passover in Egypt (which Shabbat HaGadol commemorates) is commanded in the following way in Exodus 12: "They shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house" (v. 3) and "Draw out, and take you a lamb, according to your families, and slaughter the passover" (21). If there's any offering that would belong on a private, family bama, it seems like it would be the passover!

Let's return to Aharei Mot. While in the desert, the Israelites are compelled to bring their animals to the Sanctuary. Whatever one's tribal or familial or socioeconomic status, everyone has to come to this central location. This creates a certain social cohesiveness in the nation of former slaves, a cohesiveness which they had lost in Egypt. True, Goshen had a higher population of Israelites than the other regions of Egypt (a remnant of Joseph's era), but the Hebrew slaves for the most part lived among their Egyptian masters. (That, after all, is why God needs to "pass over" the Jewish houses when He smites the Egyptian homes.)  Thus, this carnivorous centralization serves an important purpose.

But how is it possible to do so after crossing the Jordan? Trekking from Dan or Beersheba to Jerusalem for shawarma is impracticable. Nevertheless, there is one occasion upon which all Israel can come together: the annual observance of Passover. Everyone must come to God's chosen place to offer the passover, and this gives them the opportunity to feel the Exodus experience.

This is fundamentally different from the paschal service in Egypt; at that time, it was more important to establish the concept of independence and autonomy in the nuclear family, an idea which their masters had tried to eradicate. But for every subsequent Passover, the issue is commemoration. We need to feel the experience of forging a nation, to symbolically gather around one fire and become one people. That is why the story we tell at the Seder does not conclude with our departure from Egypt, but includes the Splitting of the Sea, the Giving of the Torah, and crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. In fact, the famous poem Dayenu ends with the building of God's chosen house--the one place which is irrevocably and unfailingly the focus of our service. No matter our geographical or historical distance from the Temple, every Jewish soul turns to it.

Let's remember this Passover to keep our doors and our hearts open to all those who are in need. After all, we're all in this together.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pesach/Seder Though Experiment

The Seder, as we know it, is based on a ritual originally created to accompany the eating of the Passover lamb. Over time, elements were added, many of them borrowed from the surrounding culture because they signified culture or wealth or freedom. These include dipping, four cups, four questions and reclining. Other added elements included introductory readings and closing hymns.

Let's say we were starting from scratch. Let's say we had no Seder but we did have a religious feast, based on a very important event, and we wanted to invent a ritual to go with it. If we wanted to signify culture or wealth or freedom using the symbolic language of our own era, what would we borrow?

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Why do Jewish women work so hard?

Interesting excerpt from imamother coming up after my snooty introductory comment.

As you'll see this woman complains, quite compellingly, that it sucks to be an orthodox Jewish woman. You're responsible for cooking and child raising while your husband gets to recharge spiritually at shul and shiurim. The typical excuse/explanation for this state of affairs is that woman do their spiritual recharging via all that cooking and child raising, but I think all but the worst-suffering Stockholm syndrome victims understand that this excuse was invented by men for the purpose of making women feel satisfied with their "tafkid" (See how much holier child raising and cooking sounds when you call it a tafkid?)

I expect many women will denounce the author of the excerpt for being a gender traitor while men denounce me for cluing women in to the scam.

Anyway, here it is.
"I'm a BT. And I became frum leading that life. Davening in shul (twice!) a day sometimes, the freedom to go tho shiurim, beautiful meals from amazing families that didn't inform me what kind of intense work went in to it all....I worked hard all week and really enjoyed the change of pace on shabbos. Now I watch my kids all week...and watch them some more on shabbos. And all those seudahs I enjoyed when I was becoming frum are now prepared by me. The lifestyle that roped me in is not what I have now. And my husband is never around during the week to help with any preparations and he just wants his time in shul on shabbos. But I guess it all just makes me a bit angry....the life that he had when he first because frum is still his life. Nothing's really changed in how he gets to enjoy yomtov and shabbos. But for me, it's very very different. And it's been like that since the beginning of parenthood. The first year we got invited out here and there and we had no kids, I was working it was different.
If anything, shabbos and yuntif is li[k]e an intensified version of what I do during the week without all the crazy school droppoff/pickup times. More "childcare", more cooking, etc but without the spiritual stuff that I enjoyed years ago. 
I don't feel connected to Yiddeshkeit through my kids and my house. I just don't no matter how hard I try to see it life that. This is nothing new. I just don't understand how women are supposed to enjoy all this if we have such demands in the home. 
I know when my kids are grown I'll miss all this but it's been a long time away from shul - over a decade. And it's really negatively impacted me religiously."
There are many issues happening here - her own personal marital interactions/communication or lack thereof, the expectation that Jewish women should find holiness in household/childrearing chores, the bait and switch of the kiruv movement that leads women to believe they will be entering a life of intellectual and spiritual growth through shul/shiurim/community involvement/as an invited guest to meals - when the reality is that women are often the behind the scenes staff making sure these events happen for men and single women to enjoy and participate in.

Imamother is a community of frum Jewish women, where you can come to relax, socialize, debate, receive support, ask questions and much more.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

A 21st century kid's choir singing 17th century Passover songs

So, two guys I like a lot - Paul Shaviv and Fred MacDowell -  appear to have collaborated in 2012 on something amazing, and I am just discovering it now.

In brief: Fred found an old hagadah that included the musical notation for two Passover night hymns according to the tune used by Western European Jews in the 17th century. Paul, who runs a school, asked the music director to arrange the music so the school choir could perform it.

And here it is! A 21st century kid's choir singing 17th century Passover songs. Thank God for the Internet!

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I think it's wonderful how using his real name has helped this guy to be so polite and civil in his dealings with ideological opponents

This is an all time Cross Currents classic.

The writer begins by patting himself on the back for being a future-seeing genius and ends by calling other Jews "Amalek". When challenged in the comments, he protests, "Hey, they're the ones acting like Amalek."

Apparently disagreeing with this particular author (who I won't name because names are irrelevant) on a matter of public policy is identical to mass murder and causes Gods throne to be forever incomplete. 
Good to know.

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Sunday, April 06, 2014

What did Tom Friedman do wrong this time?

I'm doing my best to understand why some people I admire are mad about Tom Friedman's new article about Sheldon Adelson. It's not the greatest piece of analysis ever written, and I agree parts of it are lazy and bad. But why the uproar? In a nutshell this is what Tom says:
  1. Adelson loves Israel.
  2. Iran hates Israel
  3. Iran is doing nothing to help the Palestinians because Iran wants them angry, restless, unsettled and a constant thorn in Israel's side. 
  4. Adelson, out of his aggressive, jingoistic love for Israel is using his money to encourage politicians to employ rhetoric and embrace policies that, in Friedmans view, also will ensure that the Palestinians remain a restless, angry, thorn in Israel's side forever.
  5. This, likely, please the Ayatollahs. 
Agree or disagree with the reasoning the argument contains no violations of the official Zionist rules on things you're allowed to say and think about Israel. So why are so many Zionist watchdogs up in arms?

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Friday, April 04, 2014

And a leper shall lead them

A guest post by Y. Bloch
The Torah is known as the Five Books of Moses, and with good reason. The most common verse is "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying," which appears seventy times in the Torah (specifically, in three of the five), introducing mitzvot. But Moses is not the only one to be tagged, as we read a few weeks ago, "And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying" (Lev. 10:8).
In that passage, God explains that Aaron and his sons have a special job in assisting Moses--not just Temple service, but le-horot, to guide, teach, instruct and issue rulings for the Israelites, "in order to distinguish between the holy and the mundane, and between the impure and the pure." Le-horot is the infinitive of Torah, and the text goes on to list a half-dozen torot, rules of purity and impurity as they relate to all stages of life and all living creatures. In each case, the passage is introduced with "And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying"--with two exceptions.
As my friend Hillel Deutsch asked last week on Facebook, "The yoledet, however, is introduced via command to Moshe only. (Vayikra 12:1) Why?" The laws of the yoledet, the child-bearer, are indeed addressed only to Moses, which is strange. After all, the new mother is supposed to bring an offering and present it to the priest; Aaron and his sons are part of her purification process.
Even more bizarre is the beginning (Lev. 14:1) of this week's portion, Metzora, which details the purification process of the leper, in which nearly every action is taken by the priest. This too is addressed to Moses only, even though Aaron is cc'ed on the process for declaring a person to be a metzora in the first place. Why should he be excluded here?
Also on Facebook, Yosef Weiner suggested: "Some kind of reference/reprimand to him after the whole not-giving-his-son-a-brit story?" In other words, perhaps Moses is excluded in the first instance because the passage of the child-bearer includes the positive command of circumcision, "And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised." This is a brief restatement of the Abrahamic covenant of Gen. 17, which Moses famously ignores on his way down to Egypt (Ex. 4:24-26).
At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched his feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. So the Lord let him alone. At that time she said “bridegroom of blood,” referring to circumcision.
Thus, there is a reason for Moses to receive the passage of the yoledet alone; he has unique experience with the consequences of ignoring the covenant, and this is no time to hide behind his brother.
But what about metzora? What personal experience does Moses have with that? Actually, it's in the same chapter (vv. 5-7):
Said the Lord, “So that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.” Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous as snow. "Now put it back into your cloak,” He said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sota 2:1) famously expounds that the torah of the metzora (Lev. 14:2)  is the torah of the motzi shem ra, the slanderer. In fact, Moses' leprous episode is very similar to that of his older sister Miriam in Num. 12. Both express doubt about the trustworthiness of God's chosen, both incur God's wrath, both become "leprous as snow," and in both cases Aaron's advocacy saves them. But not before a seven-day quarantine session, as required for the metzora: Miriam's quarantine is explicit in the verse, but Moses' is explicit only in the Midrash, which states that he spends an entire week at Horeb, by the Burning Bush (Lev. Rabba, Shemini 11). In any case, it is clear why Moses receives the passage of purifying the metzora alone; he is the one familiar with this punishment for evil speech.
Is there any lesson in all this for us? I would like to suggest that the message is actually quite profound. If there's anyone who could claim diplomatic immunity, it's Moses, who is literally on a mission from God. Liberating the Israelite slaves from Egypt is sort of a big deal, as I understand. Yet God takes the time to take Moses to task for two personal mistakes and puts the Exodus on hold. Why? Because if Moses can't put his own house in order before assuming the leadership of Israel, there is really no point to his mission.
It's quite a contrast to the news of the week: one former mayor of Jerusalem, the Holy City, has been convicted of bribery, along with his predecessor, who ascended to the office of Prime Minister of Israel. These are two very different men, but they clearly shared a belief that they were above the law. One can't help but think of Isaiah's words (1:23): "Your rulers are faithless, the companions of thieves. All of them love bribes and demand payoffs, but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans or fight for the rights of widows." That's not the Mosaic model. God doesn't give a free pass to the leaders; He demands that they follow the laws they're handing down to everyone else.
There is some comfort, though. (We don't call them isaiads, after all.) Isaiah, himself of royal blood (Megilla 15a) goes on to promise in the name of God: "Then I will give you good judges again and wise counselors like you used to have. Then Jerusalem will again be called the Home of Justice and the Faithful City." It can't come soon enough.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

I have read the whole of R' Meyer Twersky's argument against women wearing Tefillin. The Rav writes with passion, vigor and sustained excellence but far too much of what he says rests entirely on a particular premise that he never gets around to proving. 
This is a shame because I suspect that most of his readers, myself included, would be ecstatic to have such a proof.

Here's an example of what I mean
"Acceptance of Hakadosh Baruch Hu's Torah does not simply entail practical compliance. Acceptance also reflects firm belief and evinces a reverential attitude. We accept Torah with a sense of awe, joy, privilege and pride because we perceive it for what it is - Hashem's chochmo, perfect, upright, gladdening, enlightening, true, etc. Accordingly, we accept Torah with humility and submissiveness."
The premise here is that "Hashem's chochmo [which is] perfect, upright, gladdening, enlightening, true" and the contingent, earth-bound interpretations and applications of verses made by 21st century scholars are one and the same.  The Rav, one fears, is not asking us to blindly accept the Torah but to blindly accept the perspetives of his own particular cohort. 
Now the men who make up his cohort may be all scholars, all men of intelelctual attainment, all masters of the Torah, but they are not prophets. They are not incapable of error. They are not inseperable from the Torah itself. To deny this is not to disparage 21st century scholars, but to recognize their humanity, ad the shortcomings and limtations that come with it. The eyes of our generation are not infalliable. And we are not being disrespectful to them or to the Torah when we insist that their shortcomings and limitations must be counteracted with protective measures such as debate, discussion, democracy, and experimentation.

Read the whole thing here:

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We told you so

Report: "A Senate intelligence committee investigation found that the Central Intelligence Agency employed brutal interrogation methods that turned out to be largely useless and then lied about their effectiveness, according to The Washington Post."
Not sure how many of you were present back in the waning days of the failed Bush Adminsitration, when we would condemn him for his immoral torture policy on a nearly daily basis. I said that torture was useless. Many of you said it wasn't.

Now a senate report confirms you were wrong. #DBOUT

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Pollard and more RW dishonesty

Will those right wing Jews who have always been deeply unfair and knowingly dishonest in their evaluations of president Obama continue to hate him after he frees Jonathan Pollard?

UPDATE: Surprise!! All the RW Zionists on Facebook think freeing Pollard is a horrible idea. What a shock! If Obama invented cold fusion they'd denounce that, too.

Additional points: 

(1) I don't think the president is considering this deal out of any special sense of benevolence for Jews or Israel. In fact, I hope benevolence has nothing to do with it. The president's job is to act in the best interests of the United States.Not to be benevolent. If Obama, like all of his predecessors,  believes keeping Pollard in prison is good for America, he's obligated to take this deal off the table. By the same token, if he thinks freeing Pollard advances American interests, he should close the deal as son as possible. 

(2) For years, we've heard that Pollard must be freed at all costs, but now that Obama is the one dangling a deal many on the right are suddenly backing away. They seem to think this is all part of Obama's latest plot to damage Israel becaus the deal requires Israel to free some Palestinian prisoners. (It also requires major concessions from the Palestinians.)

Now, it may be true that releasing those prisoners hurts Israel, but that's not Obama's problem. His job is to advance American interests. Often those interests coincide with Israeli interests, but when they don't: tough titty. The sovereign state of Israel has its very own democratically elected prime minister who can - and should - reject the deal if he agrees that it will hurt Israel. If he's too weak to do that tossing him out is the proper remedy, not defaming his more accomplished negotiating partner.
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Monday, March 31, 2014

Pat Robertson: Jews polish diamonds, don't fix their own cars

Ye freaking gods, I am not sure who deserves the swifter kick in the crotch here: Pat Robertson, for trotting out anti Semitic stereotypes, or fake-rabbi Lapin for encouraging him.
Best part: preacher Robertson saying that Jews are too busy polishing diamonds to fix their own cars, while fake-rabbi Lapin heartily agrees.

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Hillel: Before the Sandwich

A guest post by Y. Bloch
One of the great features of Jewish leap-years is that the advent of Passover allows us to ignore those two perplexing portions of the Torah, Tazria and Metzora, which deal mostly with tzaraat, leprosy. Of course, there are a few other topics we could discuss in those sections, like the defilement of childbirth, or menstruation, or gonorrhea-- Wait, where are you going? Let's talk about Hillel!
Hillel is the man who rescues Passover in the last decades before the Common Era. When the elders don't know how to prepare for a Saturday night Seder, it is Hillel who teaches them what to do (Tosefta, Pesahim 4:13). When others cannot figure out what to do with lamb meat, flat bread and salad, he invents the shawarma (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 115a).
Leaning on the left side, Thor? This is why we can't have pagan gods at our Seder.
Leaning on the right side, Thor? This is why we can't have pagan gods at our Seder. Just follow the redhead. I hear she's Jewish.
In fact, according to the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesahim 6:1), Hillel makes aliyah in order to explain Passover to all the sabras:
Hillel went up from Babylonia because of three matters. The verse says, "He is pure" (Lev. 13:37). Does this mean that if the symptoms disappear, he does not need the priest? No, for the verse continues, "The priest shall declare him pure." But what if a priest said "pure" to one who was really impure, does he thereby become pure? No, for the verse says, "He is pure; the priest shall declare him pure." For this Hillel went up from Babylonia.
One verse says (Deut. 16:2), "You shall slaughter the passover for the Lord, flock or herd," but another says (Ex. 12:5), "From the sheep or the goats you shall take them." How is this? The festival offering can come from either, but the passover can only come from the flock.
One verse says (Deut. 16:8), "You shall eat matzot for six days," and another says (Ex. 12:15), "Seven days shall you eat matzot." How is this? Six days of the new crop, seven days of the old crop.
Hillel expounded, and his conclusions were confirmed. He went up to Israel and it was accepted as law.
Hillel not only provides practical Passover direction for his contemporaries, he also resolves their textual difficulties: the passover lamb or goat is for dessert (i.e. afikoman), but the main course can be beef; matzot can be made throughout the week from the old flour, but the new flour cannot be used until day two, when the Omer is offered.
But one of these things is not like the others. The first matter Hillel comes to teach is about the purification... of tzaraat. This plague is catching like... like... Anyway, here we go again with the Hansen's disease.
Now you will never get this song out of your head.
Now you will never get this song out of your head.
Wait, what was so pressing about this verse concerning tzaraat? There is no contradiction per se, just a redundancy. Was this a widespread problem in Second Temple times? Moreover, if the exegetes were so exercised about the use of "He is pure" and "The priest shall declare him pure," what about the verse which appears earlier (11), "The priest shall declare him impure... he is impure." Isn't that just as superfluous?
It doesn't seem that Hillel's first exegesis is really about tzaraat; far more significantly, it demonstrates his halakhic approach. When approaching the inverse verse, "The priest shall declare him impure... he is impure," one might be tempted to say that impurity can be assigned on one of two bases: objective reality (he is impure) or subjective considerations (he has been declared impure). After all, forbidding a given act or item on halakhic grounds is temptingly easy for any decisor. Even if something is technically permissible, there are always a handful of ancillary reasons to prohibit.
However, Hillel's first lesson is the verse which disproves this approach: "He is pure; the priest shall declare him pure." When he is pure, the priest must declare him so; this is a sacred duty. Ultimately, Hillel and his followers gain a reputation of being generally lenient (unlike the generally stringent approach of his colleague Shammai), but the Mishna devotes an entire chapter (Eduyot 5) to listing the exceptions to this rule. Hillel is not lenient for the sake of being lenient; he is lenient because that is what the objective facts require. The solutions he finds for the observance of Passover reflect the fact that his first and foremost dictum is "He is pure; the priest shall declare him pure."
As we approach Passover, it's worth remembering what the Talmud says (Eruvin 6b):
The halakha is always in agreement with Beit Hillel, but he who wishes to act in agreement with the ruling of Beit Shammai may do so, and he who wishes to act according to the view of Beit Hillel may do so; he, however, who adopts the more lenient rulings of Beit Shammai and the more lenient rulings of Beit Hillel is a wicked man, while of the man who adopts the restrictions of Beit Shammai and the restrictions of Beit Hillel, Scripture says (Eccl. 2:14): "But the fool walks in darkness."

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Jews in the NYT again

Let's explode some Cross Current myths all at once, using one small pragraph from Tom Friedman's latest:
"Late at night, I was sipping coffee in the wardroom and a junior officer, Jeremy Ball, 27, came by and asked me if I could stay for Passover. He and two other Jewish sailors were organizing the Seder; the captain and several other non-Jewish shipmates said they’d be happy to join, but there was still room. Ball said he’d been storing “a brisket in the freezer” for the holiday and would pick up matzo when they surfaced in Canada."
Myths destroyed:
- American Jews are indifferent to religion [This naval officer is going to extraordinary effort to celebrate Pesach at sea.]
- The New York Times is indifferent to Jews [There was no real reason to mention the naval officer or his seder plans.] 
- The New York Times is indifferent to the military [The article provides a positive description of the navy's attempt to stay one step ahead of the Russians in the artic circle.]

On a nuclear submarine deep under the ice, the view was quite stunning.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

IDF Purim Gragger

Of course, I see why this unfortunate display of machismo might appeal to those of us who are entering middle-age and have become rather insecure about our manhood, but can we also agree that this behavior is a tad childish and unprofessional?

UPDATE: I was right. The army agrees this was childish and unprofessional. Those involved have been disciplined