Thursday, October 29, 2015

What we can do about the OTD?

In yesterday's installment, I discussed the first of the two pressing questions Agudah will address at their upcoming convention (Why Do People Go OTD?) and told you what you will - and will not - hear from the panel. Today, we look at the second question:

What can we do about it?

The *real answer*: Stop thinking of the OTD as people who have lost an essential aspect of their humanity. Just as the bike club wouldn't radically change its view of a member who decided to try Judo, we shouldn't start making assumptions about the character, personality and mental health of people who are tired of shabbos rules and dietary restrictions. A guy who has left the bike club has only left the bike club. He hasn't metamorphosized into the sort of person you need to warn your kids about. He isn't suddenly damaged gods.

Instead let's follow the fine example of Isaiah Berlin (an OTD Jew himself), who said: "I believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite -- let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. And the difference it makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding." (In the first comment I explain why this is not moral relativism)

The *expected* Agudah answers: Show them how lovely Judaism is, open your house for shabbos, familiarize yourself with cheap kiruv tricks and find situations to employ them,etc. Aside for the last item on the list, this is all good stuff so long as it's not done in a condescending fashion. The fact that you keep kosher or shabbos doesn't, in of itself, make you a better person. It makes you someone who is pursuing a particular set of legitimate human values, and there is no reason to look down on someone who, for reasons of his own, decides another set of legitimate human values are a better match for his temperament. To see ourselves and the OTD in this light may require some reorientation, but is we're serious about achdus, understanding and continuity its an effort worth making.

Search for more information about ###

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why People Go OTD"

Agudah is promising to reveal "Why People Go OTD" at their big convention this December, but attending will cost you several hundred dollars, plus time that might be better spent watching football. DovBear to the rescue! Let me spare you the trouble of going by telling you what you will - and will not - hear.

Why Do People Go OTD?

The *real* answer: People leave Orthodox Judaism for one over-riding reason: They go because the various rituals and observances have lost their significance. No one spends a lot of money, doing things that look and feel foolish, unless there is some payout. That payout can take many forms, and it can be psychological, social, or emotional. But if the payout is not there, you go OTD. What kills the payout? Any number of different combinations of different things. Too many to count, in fact.

The *expected* Agudah answers: Mental illness, a desire to rebel, a desire for sex and drugs, bad friends, bad relatives, a taste of pork during childhood, an immodest mother, a father who bad-mouthed rabonim, that time Cousin Gary took you to a movie, and so on.

Now *some* of the things Agudah is expected to finger are payout murderers. For example, if you grew up in a house where shabbos was denigrated and Rabbis were insulted you probably won't become the sort of adult who gets the warm-fuzzies from observing and obeying. But those payout murderers are contributing factors, not the final straw. Moreover, its impossible to say that what I am calling "payout murderers" will inevitably lead you to go OTD. We all know of siblings who grew up in the same house, with the same upbringings, yet ended up in very different Jewish places.

Search for more information about ###

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Meaningfulness of Jewish Identity

Is being Jewish meaningful without a belief in Judaism? A conversation I had with a friend over Shabbos got me thinking about this. He said that he's unsure of the validity of many of Judaism's claims,  up to and including the existence of God, but that it's important to him that his kids have strong Jewish feelings and  an attachment to Judaism and being Jewish.

I've often seen frum people claim that without the religious component, being Jewish is meaningless. I can see where they're coming from. What it means to be Jewish has, for most of the history of the Jewish people, been shaped by Judaism. Religious rules shaped our culture, influenced our values,  is a large part of what kept us distinct from the larger non-Jewish populations in which we lived, and even defined who was and wasn't Jewish. But being Jewish is about more than that. It is an identity that is separate from and transcends the religious rules that shaped it.

I'm an American, and I have deep feelings for my country. There's something stirring about seeing Old Glory snapping in the wind, something moving about quintessentially American songs like God Bless America, My Country 'Tis of Thee, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, or even those that have become children's songs, like Yankee Doodle and When Johnny Comes Marching Home. I believe in the Enlightenment principles on which this country was founded and am proud that we were the first nation to form a government on those principles, however poorly we have adhered to them at times.

Despite my being radically different from many Americans in some ways, in others we have much in common. We share many aspects of American culture and many of the same assumptions about the way things should be. Even the most bitter of disagreements about values and policies are framed by those shared assumptions. We share, among other things, a degree of attachment to and pride in our country matched by few other nations around the world.

I'm also a skeptic and a history buff, and I'm well aware that America's founding myths are just that. Myths, often exaggerated and ahistorical stories about our origins that tell of larger-than-life figures doing great deeds. The Pilgrims did not land at Plymouth rock and came here not so much in the pursuit of religious freedom as in the pursuit of the freedom to persecute those who disagreed with their religion. George Washington was a great leader of men who turned down a crown in accordance with his beliefs in the principles of democracy, but he was also ambitious, self-promoting, and a lousy tactician. The colonies went to war with Britain over taxes, but it was triggered as much by the British reducing tariffs, thereby causing the bottom to drop out of the lucrative smuggling business  of some prominent and influential American shipping magnates as it was about the Crown taxing colonists who had no voice in Parliament.

Yet despite my recognition that America's founding myths are not true, despite even recognizing that the United States has many, many flaws, my identity as an American is of great value to me. It informs who I am and connects me to a group of people, past, present, and future, with whom I share values, ideals, and a group identity. It allows me to feel pride in the accomplishments of my countrymen, and motivates me to address my country's flaws. My identity as an American is separate from and transcends the mythos that shaped the American consciousness.

So too my identity as a member of the Jewish people. There's something moving about the Jewish traditions that bind us together as a people. Despite being different from many Jews is some ways, there are cultural constants that we can all relate to. The Jewish people have had a pride in their Jewish identity and a tenacity matched by few others. My identity as a Jew informs who I am, allows me to feel pride in the accomplishments of my fellow Jews, motivates me to address our flaws, connects me to the sorrow of our national tragedies, and  makes me a part of our long, long history.

This all despite my rejection of the truth of the mythology that shaped much of that history.

Being Jewish is meaningful, with or without a belief in Judaism. It is meaningful as an identity. It is meaningful as a shared heritage, as a connection to the past which brought us to where we are today. It is as meaningful as a connection to all the other people who have identified as members of the Jewish people, past, present, and future. Without religion, being Jewish is not meaningful in a metaphysical sense, but so what? Meaning is what we make it, and to me, identifying with other people who share my unique heritage, and with the three-thousand-plus years of Jewish history,  is even more meaningful than being one of God's Chosen People.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Greatest Gematriah Ever

Here's the best gematriah ever. In Lech Lecha, Abraham famously takes 318 men to go fight the four kings who have kidnapped his nephew. Our Rabbis were troubled by this for reasons I'll discuss in a different post, and some famously suggested that the 318 men were actually Eliezer alone.
What's less well known is the Church fathers also found the verse disturbing and their solution is no less astounding. They argued:
Tau (the Greek T) = 300 and looks like a cross
Etta and Iota = 18 and are the first two letters in Jesus.
Thus when it says Father Abraham went to war with 318 men it *really* means he took Jesus and the cross!
I say all this only to point out how malleable and flexible (and therefore useless) gematriah is, and also to remind you that it's originally a Greek system that we usurped.
If any of you wish to share this at your Shabbos table when your kid inevitably brings up Eliezer please say it in the name of the person who said it first: Barnabas
For [the Scripture] saith, "And Abraham circumcised ten, and eight, and three hundred men of his household." What, then, was the knowledge given to him in this? Learn the eighteen first, and then the three hundred. The ten and the eight are thus denoted - Ten by I, and Eight by H. You have [the initials of the, name of] Jesus. And because the cross was to express the grace [of our redemption] by the letter T, he says also, "Three Hundred." He signifies, therefore, Jesus by two letters, and the cross by one. (Epistle of Barnabas 9.8

Search for more information about ###

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

If women ran the world

Here is one of those excellent things you see online sometimes....

If frum men were advised like women
By Rebbetzen Sandi Mann

Please dress appropriately and modestly at all times. Modesty is the mark of a man – your beauty is within. You are like a Prince, a jewel , a diamond, and just like a precious gem, we want to protect you and keep you safe.

Trouser length; some men are not aware that when they sit down their trouser leg might rise up revealing a glimpse of ankle. There are special devices you can use when you try clothes on ensure that this does not happen.

We suggest you shop with a friend who can ensure that your shirt is not too revealing or see through from the back.

Please take special care with your shirt collar; there is a fashion to undo the top button and this could inadvertently reveal a glimpse of chest hair.

Although it is halachically permitted for men to light Shabbat candles, it is not really in keeping with the dignity of the community for men to do so. We suspect too that many men who try to do this are doing it for the wrong reasons.

Similarly with baking challah. This is simply a provocative act aimed at stretching boundaries. If we let men bake challah, where will it lead? Before we know it, they will be wanting to make the cholent too.

Photos of boys (including toddlers) should not be published in newspapers or adverts. This should be the case even when they are dressed modestly as it is not deemed appropriate for women to see photos of small boys.

We urge all men to increase their adherence to modesty/tsnuit laws. The current rise in terrorism in Israel and indeed, anti-Semitism around the world is entirely due to the fact that some men are wearing revealing clothes, trousers that are too tight or have shirt sleeves rolled up too high.

Some modern men seem to be objecting to the morning bracha and complaining that they are not ‘made according to G-d’s will’ like women are. Dear gentlemen, we would like to reassure you that even though you might not be made according to G-d’s will you are just as important as women. Just because you have different roles does not mean that you are not as important. The bracha is not intended to suggest you are less equal than women just because you are not made according to His will.

Please dress appropriately when collecting your children from school. If you must drive (and we believe it is immodest for men to drive) then take care getting out of the car lest your trousers rise up and reveal an ankle. Please make sure that arms are covered to the wrist even in summer – we are seeing more and more hairy wrists on show and this is not acceptable (and probably causes terrorism). Any father not adhering to the modesty rules risks their child being removed.

In terms of family purity, please note that if you suspect that you might have wasted seed during the night, you should take your underwear to your Rebbetzen and she will ascertain its status and whether you need to visit the mikveh (this can be done anonymously or via your wife).

 Search for more information about ###

Get Vaccinated You Morons

Whooping cough is surging in Orthodox Jewish  Brooklyn, entirely due to the fact that a bunch of morons are stupidly refusing to vaccinate their kids.


On second thought lets also point some blame at the rabbis who use all of their air time to inveigh against immodest clothing and other invisible threats. Instead of moaning about things that can't be documented to actually cause harm shouldn't they spend a few seconds urging their flocks to vaccinate? I promise you vaccines have saved more lives than long skirts. Compared to the pertussis virus, an uncovered knee is far less of a threat to your health and well being.

This is a genuine pikuach nefesh issue and its being casually ignored by leaders who demand respect on the basis of their alleged wisdom and alleged concern for other people. Well, unless they push their people to vaccinate I call BS on both.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Great moments in not checking your source

One of the first Rashis in Noah says "Our Rabbis" thought Noah would have been regarded as perfectly righteous in any generation "while others" say he would have been a nobody in any generation aside for his own.

Yesterday the Rabbi invited us to note Rashis subtly in pointing out the latter view, the one that seems to disparage Noah*, is attributed to ordinary people while it was the Rabbis who embraced the more positive take. He went on to sermonize about how seeing the good in people is a top ten trait.

Only OOPS the view he considers disparaging to Noah is attributed by the Midrash to R. Yehuda and only a quirk in Rashi's style made it seem like one view belonged to rabbis and the other didn't. Also OOPS both views disparage Noah! The second says he wasn't anything special but the first says he could have been special but failed to reach his potential.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What does the midrash about the shrinking moon mean?

A few words about the famous moon midrash in which God is said to have shrunk the moon down to size after it complained about having to share its domain with the sun.

In my opinion this midrash (found in its entirety on Chulin 60b) is meant to be taken as an explanation for Israels status in the world. Originally Esau and Jacob were twins. So why is Esau now dominant while Jacob is so diminished?

The answer is: Jacob complained. He went to his father with deception and demanded more.

Now it's important to pause for a second to recall how (some of) the Sages understood the drama in Isaac's bedroom. They believed that Isaac planned for the Jewish people to have two rulers: an Esau who looked after the material and a Jacob who managed the spiritual. Jacobs insight was that this would not work. The world can't have two rulers. The sky isn't big enough for two great lights.

In the eyes of those Sages, Jacobs attempt to deliver this message backfired, causing Esau to cry the bitter tears that destroyed two temples. But in the moon midrash they are recasting the error and framing it in more hopeful terms.

As the midrash on Chulin 60b continues, God repents, and compensates the moon for being diminished. The moon is given stars*, and much more. Key among the compensations  is a connection to Jacob. "Just as you are called small", God offers in consolation, "Jacob is called small"

The reference is to a passage in Amos that doesn't speak of Jacob the man, but of Jacob the nation; moreover the passage tells us God repented after being reminded by the prophet that "Jacob is small". This parallel with the moon midrash, in which God repents because the moons is small is, I believe, is the key that unlocks the midrash.

The Amos Passage
כֹּ֤ה הִרְאַ֙נִי֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֔ה וְהִנֵּה֙ יוֹצֵ֣ר גֹּבַ֔י בִּתְחִלַּ֖ת עֲל֣וֹת הַלָּ֑קֶשׁ וְהִ֨נֵּה־לֶ֔קֶשׁ אַחַ֖ר גִּזֵּ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃
2 וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־כִּלָּה֙ לֶֽאֱכוֹל֙ אֶת־עֵ֣שֶׂב הָאָ֔רֶץ וָאֹמַ֗ר אֲדֹנָ֤י יְהוִה֙ סְֽלַֽח־נָ֔א מִ֥י יָק֖וּם יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב כִּ֥י קָטֹ֖ן הֽוּא׃
3 נִחַ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה עַל־זֹ֑את לֹ֥א תִהְיֶ֖ה אָמַ֥ר יְהוָֽה׃
4 כֹּ֤ה הִרְאַ֙נִי֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֔ה וְהִנֵּ֥ה קֹרֵ֛א לָרִ֥ב בָּאֵ֖שׁ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֑ה וַתֹּ֙אכַל֙ אֶת־תְּה֣וֹם רַבָּ֔ה וְאָכְלָ֖ה אֶת־הַחֵֽלֶק׃
5 וָאֹמַ֗ר אֲדֹנָ֤י יְהוִה֙ חֲדַל־נָ֔א מִ֥י יָק֖וּם יַעֲקֹ֑ב כִּ֥י קָטֹ֖ן הֽוּא׃
6 נִחַ֥ם יְהוָ֖ה עַל־זֹ֑את גַּם־הִיא֙ לֹ֣א תִֽהְיֶ֔ה אָמַ֖ר אֲדֹנָ֥י יְהוִֽה׃ ס

* "...and his descendants shall be as numerous as the stars." - Avi Goldenberg on Facebook

Search for more information about ###

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Terror Math

1,658,000: Arab citizens of Israel
2,657,029: Palestinian population of the West Bank
4315029: Total
27: Number of terrorist attacks in Israel in 2015

If we assume that 20 people were personally involved in each of those 27 attacks, that means 540 people were involved in terrorist attacks in 2015.

That's .012 percent of the population.

Why am I telling you this? Because people screaming on Facebook about how all Arabs needs to be deported, or about how all the Arabs are gripped with "sick cold hatred and death worship" need to gain some perspective.

There are 5.4 million Jews in the US.
.012 percent of 5.4 million is 648.

How would you feel if the other 100 million Americans were making claims and accusations about the Jews and threatening to deport us all based on the behavior of 648 individuals?

Search for more information about ###

Monday, October 12, 2015

Adam's Language

R' Judah said in Rab's name: The first man spoke Aramaic for it is written, "How weighty are thy thoughts unto me, God". - BT Sanhedrin 38b

I think this short passage provides a great little lesson on how some Midrashim work. The citation, which comes from Psalm 139:17, contains Aramaic expressions and it discusses the creation of Adam. But is R' Judah saying that this linguistic anomaly compels us to believe that Adam spoke Aramaic? Not necessarily.

The suggestion has been made (Soncino ibid note 18) that R' Judah's midrash is actually trying to justify the abandonment by the Babylonian Jews of the Hebrew language in favor of Aramaic.

If this suggestion is correct, then this midrash is not attempting to make a historical claim, nor is it attempting to deliver the sort of silly message that people often attribute to midashim ("Try your best!" or "Everyone makes mistakes!")

Instead, its a straight justification for something the Sage has observed, that may also have been intended as a consolation. Unfortunately, 21st readers are blind to the context and the original intention. As Joyce Carol Oats said, Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.

Genesis, Berayshis,
Search for more information about ###

Ben Carson insults the Jews

Daniel Craig, as Tuvia Bielski, armed with a gun, that for
reasons Ben Carson doesn't quite understand,
failed to bring the Nazi's to their knees
The problem with Ben Carson's view on Jews, the Holocaust and gun control is more than his blind faith in the specious notion that gun ownership prevents tyranny. I am also annoyed at the insulting suggestion that the Jews were a bunch of mice, who passively marched to their death.

In reality, Jews fought back (with guns!) in the Warsaw Ghetto, among other ghettos, and there were also armed uprisings in the camps themselves. Jews joined the Polish resistance and Tuvia Bielski led a group of Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis and the Soviets (with guns!) in western Belarus.

Of course, all of these armed attempts to beat back the Nazis failed... which rather strongly suggests that Carson's central idea is wrong

Search for more information about ###

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Times didn't deny a Jewish connection to the Mount!

"World is being silent about the bombs in Turkey ! Or are we only supposed to say that about Israel bombs? Confused about the minhag..." -- me on Twitter, today.

There were terrorist attacks today in Turkey and Chad that killed over 100 people. Did the world say anything? Did the Jews? I confess I didn't notice.

What I have noticed, is that many of my friends and coreligionists are furious about an article the Times published yesterday. I didn't think much of the piece when I read it myself, but that Jewish outrage about it seems over-the-top.

For starts, following a necessary and needed correction, its a thousand percent clear that the article is about the scholarly doubt regarding the Temple's precise location on the Mount, and it is not (as everyone is claiming) denying that the Temple actually stood somewhere on the mount.

Second, the article presents paragraphs and paragraphs of corroborating evidence that Temple really did stand on the spot of Dome. Here's the introductory paragraph:
"Many archaeologists agree that the religious body of evidence, corroborated by other historical accounts and artifacts that have been recovered from the site or nearby, supports the narrative that the Dome of the Rock was built on or close to the place where the Jewish temples once stood."
Following this, the Times makes a strong argument that the Temple stood on Mount Moriah exactly where Jews say it did. We're told about the evidence from Josephus, and the discovery of Warning Stone, and the New Testament verses and more, before the article's concludes with this:
"Kent Bramlett, a professor of archaeology and history of antiquity at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., said historical records of the destruction committed by the Romans, just by themselves, are “pretty overwhelming” in supporting the existence of the second temple in the immediate vicinity of the Dome of the Rock."
So how can anyone honest or fair make the claim that the Times was trying to deny a Jewish connection to the Mount? At the end of the article it quotes an authority who says the evidence for this connection is "pretty overwhelming"! How can anyone fair or honest claim that the article says there is no proof of Jewish Temples on that Mount? It actually supplies scores of proof!

Unfortunately, this sort of thing - uproar over an article that blatantly misstates what the article actually does - is far too typical of Jewish media criticism.

Search for more information about ###

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Simchat Torah (from 2006) (still trueish)

Nu, what time did you finish?

We were eating lunch at 3:00, which was entirely unnecessary given how we stuffed ourselves in shul. Stuffed cabbage. Salami. Nine kinds of kugel. And candy everywhere.

Hey, did anything wild happen in your shul? Other than harrasing the Hasidic old-timers with the singing of the entire Young Israel collection of greatest hits, we were pretty tame. (Side question: Why do Hassidic old timers dislike those tunes so mightily? When you sing "ain kamocha" or "bay ana rochitz" they all behave as if live scorpions were running through the folds of their underwear.)

No one got drunk. The rabbi was a good sport about our singing Israeli folk songs during hallel. (My voice is still scratchy.) And we danced like midevil peasants. So, all in all, it was an excellent chag.
Search for more information about ###

Friday, October 02, 2015

Pope betrays the liberals, yawn

I don't say this often but, wow, those stupid liberals. 

Who told Slate and the New York Times that the Pope was a perfectly ethical human being? What made them think his positions were always and forever going to match up with theirs? And now that they don't match up - as seen via the audience he gave to that redneck idiot Kim Davis - listen to them whine. 

Catch up people. The Pope is a very old man with lots of very old ideas. He's not going to agree with a bunch of smart, young, big-city journalists on every particular. This should not surprise you.

However, I will say this in the defense of the broken-hearted liberals.When their Pope lets them down, they own it. Contrast that with how certain Jewish conservatives behaved after it was discovered that John Paul 2 and Benedict were not going to get listed among the top 100 philo-semites of all time. Instead of giving those Popes the beatings they deserved, our Jewish conservatives doubled down on the love. 

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Three For Sukkos

Why do those of Hasidic heritage say Hoshanas after hallel? My unscholarly bet is that this spot was chosen for its convenience then an after-the-fact kabalistic justification was created. Can you support or defeat this notion? (Let me help: if you can show that Spanish or Eastern Jews were saying Hoshanas after hallel first the convenience notion is defeated. Hasidim copied lots of presumably exotic seeming foreign customs as a way of rejecting European-style Judaism (in the same way that many American Jews all of a sudden adopted a Sefardi havara) This may have been one of those copied customs.)
If you want to understand the difference between Hasidic and Litvak shul styles look at how we do Nan'uim*.
Background first:
To its insiders, Hasidic shul style is considered warm, comfortable and homey, while outsiders tend to see it as sloppy and disorganized. Meanwhile, Hasidim say Litvak shul style is rigid and cool, while the actual Litvaks say that structure, order and attention to detail elevate the proceedings.
Now, how do we do Nan'uim?
Hasidim: At some invisible signal, everyone starts shaking their lulav. Everyone completes the ritual at different speeds. The words (Hodu...) are not heard.
Litvaks: The prayer leader goes first, with each word clearly articulated. When he's done, the people perform the ritual, all of them audibly chanting the words, and shaking the lulavs in unison. Everyone says Hodu and shakes the lulav forward at the same time, etc, etc.
* shaking lulav during hallel.

Why is "Om Ani Choma" the least loved Hoshana? We only say it when Sukkot starts on a Monday. When it starts on any of the three other possible days, we skip "Om". What is the reason?

Search for more information about ###

Ack! A woman!

In other news another Orthodox woman has been hired to serve an Orthodox shul as one of its Rabbis and haters are hating.

Will someone please explain to me why it's a violation of the mesorah for a shul to employ a woman who will teach and minister to those who wish to receive whatever she can offer.

Are we just being stupidly hung up on the word rabbi the way that others are stupidly hung up on the word marriage? Enough already. A shul rabbi doesn't have magic powers. A shul rabbi teaches, counsels and comforts. These are all things a woman can do. So let her. If you don't like it just do what Jews who disliked their rabbis have done from the beginning of time: choose a different shul.
Search for more information about ###