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They do not speak in my name, nor I in theirs

As the Midrash says, there are seventy faces of Torah. I have chosen to follow a certain path within Orthodox Judaism, but I’m willing to admit that other paths are also valid. In particular, if other Jewish men and women find spiritual benefit from practicing a higher level of gender segregation than I favor, they should live and be well. To paraphrase a certain Chinese sage, I tolerate those who are tolerant; I also tolerate those who are intolerant.

Up to a point.

Vandalizing an elementary school and harrassing eight-year-old girls is not, by any reasonable construction, a face of Torah, or for that matter, a face of ordinary human decency. I am glad to see that the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union (the mainstream American Orthodox rabbinic and lay organization, respectively) have condemned the violence and called on the Israeli police to suppress it.

Some people in the wider Jewish and secular worlds, seeing that both I and the kanna‘im [zealots] identify ourselves as “Orthodox”, might think that they are acting on behalf of my own principles. Not only do I want to disassociate myself from them, but I feel that they, along with the regular charedi1 leadership, want to disassociate from me. Look at how Agudath Israel of America, the most prominent American institution representing charedim, comments on the events. Condemning the violence is their warm-up act, but the main event is condemning something else:

Lost in all the animus and ill will, unfortunately, is the concept ostensibly at the core of the controversy: the exalted nature of tzenius, or Jewish modesty. Judaism considers human desires to constitute a sublime and important force, but one whose potential for harm is commensurate with its potential for holiness.

In a society like our own, where the mantra of many is, in effect, “anything goes,” many charedi Jews, men and women alike, see a need to take special steps – in their own lives and without seeking to coerce others – to counterbalance the pervasive atmosphere of licentiousness, so as to avoid the degradation of humanity to which it leads.

Reading that statement, you’d never know that the girls in question—primary-school students being called “shiksa” and “perutza [slut]” by grown men—are, themselves, Orthodox. The kanna’im would be just as despicable, of course, if they directed their insults at secular Jews or, for that matter, Gentiles. But the Agudah’s press agent compounds the insult by treating this as an affair with only three parties: the regular charedi community, who are good guys; the kanna’im, who are bad guys; and the smutty secular folk, who are also bad guys, but for a different reason. So which team, in this formulation, do the victims belong to? Hint: not the regular charedi community.

1 The term “ultra-Orthodox” is often used to describe these folks. Many of them consider the phrase pejorative, and I myself am not fond of the implication that a community is “more Orthodox” than my own just because its members are outwardly more distinct from the mainstream.

Some scrolls regarding proper treatment of scrolls

Mishnah Bava Metzia 2:8 (this is in the chapter discussing the laws of returning lost objects to their rightful owner; cf. Deuteronomy 22:1–3):

Someone who finds [lost] scrolls should read from them once every thirty days. And if he does not know how to read, he should roll them. But he should not learn from them at first, and another person should not read with him….


Once every thirty days, because they will grow moldy if left unopened, and all their scrolls were made like one sheet. Roll them, from beginning to end, to let the air in. At first, something that he never learned before, because he will have to leave them before him….

Ikkar Tosefot Yom Tov:

These words apply to books of Scripture, because for someone who has already learned them, it is enough to just read them, but someone who is learning them for the first time needs to make a great effort, and this effort damages the scrolls. But now that we write the Oral Law, and someone who learns a chapter of it a hundred times needs to study it in great depth like in the beginning. On the contrary, anyone who is a great expert needs to study in great depth the laws he needs to learn, and he is like one who is learning for the first time. [Thus says] Netzach Yisrael in the name of Nachmanides.

tl;dr The proper way to care for a book, even a book that belongs to someone else, is to read it. How very Jewish.

Charity for crooks

Like many people in the Orthodox community, I receive occasional brochures from Kupat Ha’ir, an organization that provides financial support to poor people in Israel. Kupat Ha’ir has such a history over-the-top marketing—touting the miracles that God has performed on behalf of its donors—that last year, one prominent Lakewood rabbi described its techniques as “gezel gamur” [complete theft].

This year, in their pre-Pesach magazine, they have outdone themselves. After the cover story quoting Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky to justify their marketing practices, they have a sequence of miracle stories. The first is about a rabbi who hired a man to flagrantly violate Israeli traffic-safety laws (towing an overwide trailer without hiring a police escort); said driver almost got arrested by the strictest traffic cop in Israel, but thanks to the rabbi’s donation to Kupat Ha’ir, the cop couldn’t find his measuring tape. The second is about a rabbi who told an Arab taxi driver to wait for him and let the meter run for ten or fifteen minutes, but returned over an hour later to find the cab gone; in the merit of a donation to Kupat Ha’ir, this rabbi recovered the tefillin he had left in the cab, in a way that did not give him the opportunity to pay what he owed the cabbie.

If my son were on his way to study in Israel, I would make a point of looking up the “gedolei hador” who associate themselves with this charity, and advising him not to learn at any of their schools.

Breaking in my sleep

Mishnah Bava Kamma 2:6: “A human being is always mu‘ad [strictly liable; see Exodus 21:36], whether he behaves accidentally, deliberately, awake, or asleep….”

Bartenura: “If someone is sleeping and another comes and sleeps beside him, and the second one damages the first, he is liable. And if the first damages the second, he is exempt. And if they fall asleep together, whoever damages his fellow is liable, because they are both mu‘ad with respect to each other.”

Personally, I think this another excellent reason to go to bed early.

Translation from PR-speak to English of the Anti-Defamation League’s “Statement On Islamic Community Center Near Ground Zero”

We regard freedom of religion as a cornerstone of the American democracy, and that freedom must include the right of all Americans – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faiths – to build community centers and houses of worship.

If we tried to use any legal maneuver to prevent this community center from being built, we would be laughed out of court.

We categorically reject appeals to bigotry on the basis of religion, and condemn those whose opposition to this proposed Islamic Center is a manifestation of such bigotry.

Bigotry is bad, mmkay?

However, there are understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site. We are ever mindful of the tragedy which befell our nation there, the pain we all still feel – and especially the anguish of the families and friends of those who were killed on September 11, 2001.

If the events of 9/11 have made someone feel squicked by Islam, that feeling should not be classified as bigotry.

The controversy which has emerged regarding the building of an Islamic Center at this location is counterproductive to the healing process.

We are as high as a kite.

Therefore, under these unique circumstances,

Our opinion regarding 9/11, like the Supreme Court’s opinion regarding the 2000 Presidential election, should never be used as a precedent for anything else.

we believe the City of New York would be better served if an alternative location could be found.

Not that we’re offering to draw you a map or anything.

In recommending that a different location be found for the Islamic Center, we are mindful that some legitimate questions have been raised about who is providing the funding to build it, and what connections, if any, its leaders might have with groups whose ideologies stand in contradiction to our shared values. These questions deserve a response, and we hope those backing the project will be transparent and forthcoming.

We have no evidence that the Islamic Center is run by terrorists, but we’re not above insinuating that such evidence might exist. We call ourselves the “Anti-Defamation League” but we’re not above defaming the Islamic Center’s leaders and donors.

But regardless of how they respond, the issue at stake is a broader one.

We actually don’t care whether or not the Islamic Center is run by terrorists. We just wanted to blow some smoke about that.

Proponents of the Islamic Center may have every right to build at this site,

Then again, they may not.

and may even have chosen the site to send a positive message about Islam.

If so, we will strive to prevent anyone from receiving that message.

The bigotry some have expressed in attacking them is unfair, and wrong.

Did we mention that bigotry is bad?

But ultimately this is not a question of rights, but a question of what is right. In our judgment, building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain – unnecessarily – and that is not right.

We must perform a delicate balancing act between the feelings of people who, since 9/11, have become squicked by Islam (in a totally non-bigoted way), and the feelings of those “Islamic moderates” whom we used to call upon to denounce Muslim extremists. For an Islamic Center three blocks away from Ground Zero, that balance favors the non-bigots. Maybe this Center could be built four blocks away. Or maybe fourteen blocks away. Or maybe in Brooklyn. Then again, maybe not in Brooklyn.

The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, is the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry.

God help us.

original statement

Brooklyn link via agrumer

“Translation” genre canonized by John Gruber

I am not hip enough to come up with a proper headline to this post

Shaul Magid,1 reviewing a sociological study of ArtScroll, remarks:

Indeed, the new Conservative Etz Hayyim is arguably a response to the Stone Chumash the way the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”(1966) was a response to the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” (1965).

1 I recall meeting Rabbi Magid at Michael Carasik’s Shabbat table, and now that I know he writes all this stuff on the intarwebs, I will have to look for more of it. Hey, look: “Shaul Magid’s controversial thesis that American Judaism is dominated by three dogmas: pro-Israelism, the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and the war against intermarriage.” That’s controversial?

Sorry, Bibi

The Nine Days are an appropriate time for Jews to repent, and it is appropriate for me to repent for being too cynical about the Israeli political process. I had assumed that the Israeli government is so independent of the Diaspora1 that complaints from liberal American Jews could not possibly block MK Rotem’s proposed conversion bill. I was wrong. חטאתי.

1 Note that for all the fulminations over the “Jewish lobby”, the Israeli government probably gets more political benefit in the US from evangelical Christians than it does from the Jews who live here.

Maybe he thought it was a commentary on Leviticus

At shul today, I noticed a guy reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality during the Torah reading.

Thinking outside the beis medrash

I’ve seen a lot of angst in the Jewish blogosphere over the ever-rising cost of day school tuition; this article, linked by someone on my LJ-friends list, is the latest example of the genre. The problem has a tragic dimension, because of a little-known wrinkle in economics called the Baumol effect.

James Surowiecki explains:

When Mozart composed his String Quintet in G Minor (K. 516), in 1787, you needed five people to perform it—two violinists, two violists, and a cellist. Today, you still need five people, and, unless they play really fast, they take about as long to perform it as musicians did two centuries ago. So much for progress.

An economist would say that the productivity of classical musicians has not improved over time, and in this regard the musicians aren’t alone. In a number of industries, workers produce about as much per hour as they did a decade or two ago….

The rest of the American economy functions differently. In most businesses, workers are continually getting more productive and can produce a lot more per hour than they could ten or twenty years ago. In 1979, workers at G.M. needed forty-one hours to assemble a car. Today, they need just twenty-four…. Because companies are producing more for less, they can hold down costs, and when times are good they can raise wages without hiking prices. So, in the late nineties, as productivity rose, wages did, too, though inflation lay dormant.

Generally, productivity growth is a boon, but it creates problems for non-productive enterprises like classical music, education, and car repair: to keep luring talent, they have to increase wages, or else people eventually migrate to businesses that pay better. Instead of becoming nurses or mechanics, they become telecom engineers or machinists. That’s why teachers are getting paid a lot more than they were twenty years ago. (The average salary for an associate college professor has risen almost seventy per cent since the early eighties, and that’s if you adjust for inflation.) To pay those wages, schools and hospitals have to raise prices. The result is that in industries where productivity is flat costs and prices keep going up.

So if we want to keep Jewish education accessible, instead of letting it consume an ever-increasing proportion of each family’s income, we have to think about ways to make it more productive. How could our community achieve at least some of the goals of Jewish day school without hiring one full-time teacher for every fifteen to twenty-five children?

I’ll offer one idea: A team that knows something about Judaism and programming could set up a Jewish-themed online role-playing environment, where Jewish kids from all across the country, whether or not in day school, could meet like-minded folks, socialize, and take lessons in Jewish religion and culture in the form of quests for honor and treasure. We could call it “World of Frumkeit”.

Dances With Monotheism

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen some controversy in political and SF blogs regarding a certain Hollywood movie, in which a white American human takes on the form of a blue-skinned alien. I was reminded of this when I read last week’s parsha (Exodus 1:1–6:1), because one could argue that the young Moses is an Egyptian prince who has the form of an Israelite. Pharoah’s daughter describes him as “from the Hebrew children” in 2:7, and Jethro’s daughters describe him as “an Egyptian man” in 2:19. This dual identity gives us a new way to understand one of the most cryptic passages in the Torah, Exodus 4:24–26, which the new JPS version tentatively renders as follows:

At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying: “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

Moses is on his way back to Egypt, to deliver his first “let my people go” message to Pharoah. And now God wants to kill him? What’s going on here? Rashi cites a midrash that Moses was condemned for not circumcising his son, but this explanation raises problems of its own. Given that Moses could have argued that circumcising an infant before taking him on an arduous journey is dangerous, and given that failure to circumcise promptly is not a capital offense in halakha, why did God suddenly judge Moses so harshly? Better scholars than myself have put forth a variety of answers to this question, but I’d like to put forward my own.

Let’s back up to 4:18, when Moses tells his father-in-law, “Please let me go and return to my brothers in Egypt, and see if they are still alive.” The phrase “my brothers in Egypt” is ambiguous; maybe even strategically ambiguous. Does he mean his Hebrew blood relatives, who are being worked to death as slaves? Or does he mean his adoptive Egyptian family, which might have suffered a purge when the new pharoah (2:23) took power?

After Moses takes up wife, children, donkey, and staff, God reviews his mission, but adds a detail (4:22–23) that He had not previously mentioned:

Say to Pharoah: “This is what the Eternal says: Israel is My first-born son. I am saying to you, ‘send my son so he can serve Me’, and if you refuse to send him, behold, I will execute your first-born son.”

I submit that this message is a veiled threat against Moses himself. God is asking: do you consider yourself a member of the nation that is My first-born son, or are you the first-born son of Pharoah’s daughter? Whose side are you on?


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