Monday, August 30, 2004

The very notion of new minhagim is oxymoronic. In particular, encouraging women to ape minhagim previously performed only by men is a debasement both of yiddishkeit and of women. But still... when people of modern sensibility (and today that includes just about everybody) try to play-act at being fartzahtishter yidden (old-fashioned Jews), it looks just plain dumb. There really once were men who, quite unself-consciously, thought women ought to be kept borvis and shvangerdik (barefoot and pregnant). But anyone who tries to play that card these days is being disingenuous.

I mention this because My First Daughter (MFD) has just turned twelve. It never crossed my mind to a) ignore the occasion, b) make a goofy party for her friends or c) make a bar-mitzvah as if she were a boy. The event that evolved in a natural way (at least, natural for me, since my eishes chaver (MEC) worked it all out) turned out no less festive or significant than the boys' bar-mitzvahs, but was different in ways that set a distinct tone. We invited extended family to our home rather than friends. MFD learned sefer hachinukh with MEC rather than learning a masechta with me. We made a milchig brunch rather than a fleishig supper (MFD is vegetarian in a very not in-your-face way). MFD gave a brief speech relating to sefer hachinukh in her own thoughtful and intelligent voice rather than a pilpul. MEC and the grandmothers (none of whom I'd ever heard speak publicly before) spoke rather than the grandfathers and me. Their speeches were briefer, lighter, warmer and more personal than the usual male fare. It was wonderful.

The whole thing somehow flowed very naturally. I think MFD understood that this event marked her becoming neither a male impersonator nor an infantilized adolescent but rather a responsible young woman. She done us proud.

Monday, August 23, 2004

This week we read: ve-shaftu et ha'am mishpat tzedek.

I've blogged numerous times on the evils of Israel's method of appointing judges. The system is designed to enshrine the self-conscious-about-being-too-Jewish bias of the current court. One might wonder, though, whether this alleged bias ever is manifest in decision-making. These judges are professionals, aren't they?

Conveniently, court rulings can often be paired so that elements of the pairs are highly similar except for the political-religious orientation of the plaintiffs/defendants. Consider the following five pairs of cases:

1. Binyamin Zev Kahane of (then still-legal) Kach was convicted of sedition for calling on the Israeli Air Force to bomb Um el Fahm. Muhammad Jabarin, an Arab Journalist, was convicted for sedition for publishing a laudatory article about a terrorist attack. Both appealed to the supreme court. On the same day in November 2000, the court accepted the appeal of Jabarin and rejected that of Kahane.

2. In 1999, Minister of Communication, Yitzhak Levy of Mafdal, appointed members to the Second Authority Council (Moetzet haReshut haSheniah) in charge of making policy for public TV stations (other than Channel 1 which is under the IBA). Although, it was within his authority to do so and procedures were followed, the court disqualified his appointments arguing that "he failed to properly consult the appropriate experts". The following year, when then-Minister Dalia Itzik of Labor appointed members to the same council following the same procedure, the appointments were upheld by the court.

3. In 1988, a Jew named Avitan sued to be allowed to buy land in an area reserved for Beduin settlement. His suit was rejected on the grounds that "the State has an interest in encouraging Beduin settlement". In 2001, an Arab named Kaadan sued to be allowed to buy land in an area reserved for Jewish settlement. His suit was accepted.

4. In 1999, one week before elections, then-Prime Minister Netanyahu of Likud ordered the closing of the Orient House, which effectively served as the home of Palestinian government in Jerusalem. Supreme Court Justice, Dalia Dorner, issued an injunction against the closing, arguing, somewhat mysteriously, that the decision was "political". Later that year an appeal to the court to require the Labor government of Ehud Barak to prevent the massive destruction of Jewish artifacts on Har haBayit was rejected on grounds that "the court does not interfere in State decisions".

5. In 2000, then-Prime Minister Barak of Labor appointed Yossi Ginosar as an advisor. The court rejected appeals to disqualify Ginosar on grounds of his involvement in the Bus 3oo scandal. (BTW, there were about a thousand reasons to reject the appointment.) In 2001, Prime Minister Sharon of Likud appointed Ehud Yatom as an advisor. The court disqualified Yatom on grounds of his involvement in the Bus 3oo scandal.

Certainly, there is no shortage of explanations for each decision. But save your breath because I have two words for you: Ockham's Razor.

But let me not be petty. This week we also read: kol tzofayich nasu kol yachdav yeranenu, ki ayin be-ayin yiru beshuv hashem tzion. Those eyes are our eyes. Can a Jew ask for more than that?

Thursday, August 19, 2004

I'm back from the family vacation. All the requirements were satisfied. We ambled through Majrassa, hiked through Gilabun, tubed down the Hatzabani, got chairlifted up the Hermon, picked berries at El Rom and apples at Ein Zivan, cooked out, ate out and went to Tzfat for the Klezmer thing. Wholesome family fun which I thoroughly enjoyed. For all the Jewish music afficianados, I'll just say that the Klezmer thing reminded me of the San Gennaro festival I would occasionally stumble into in Little Italy in the olden days. Big crowds eating greasy and/or sugary food with the occasional musical performance. The only good news was that the Little One made it to the bathroom in the nick of time and I talked all the progeny out of cotton candy. And I did get to hear a fiddler on a roof play a medley from... Let's just forget the whole thing.

I advertised a discussion of sfek sfeka and probability and I intend to make good on that promise. But the details can be a bit tedious, so I hope to focus on some larger questions that the problem raises. For example, there is no indication of anybody having anything approaching a modern theory of probability earlier than around 400 years ago. This includes chazal. (Before anybody gets hot under the collar: certain ideas -- yes, a theory -- no.) So is there any point in interpreting the rabbinic notion of sfek sfeka in light of ideas which only arose much later? There certainly is since, to the extent we are able to embed the rabbinic ideas in a richer theory, we are able to generalize those ideas. It is not important that those authorities whose ideas we are interpreting were not in conscious possession of the richer theory in which we embed their ideas. What matters is the quality of the generalization.

For precisely that reason, it is important that we be embedding their ideas and not distorting them as is often the case when we fail to step out of our modern shoes in reading chazal. This is beginning to get a bit high-falutin' so let's change gears and consider a brain-teaser. Imagine that we discover that the whole universe (that is, every single item in the universe) has doubled in size (in such a way that proportions are preserved) since the time of the gemara. What would be the halachic consequences in terms of quantities such as ke-zayit and ke-beitzah? (Contemplate this for a moment.)

Okay. Possible answer #1 is that we ought to use "old" olives which are half the size of actually existing ones, since chazal dealt with old olives. Possible answer #2 is that we ought to use current olives either because 1) the intended quantity was simply whatever olives are extant at the time of measurement however large they may be or because 2) current olives scale to the current universe the same way that old olives scaled to the old universe. (These are distinct arguments since the first argument holds even in the case in which only olives changed size but the rest of the universe did not. BTW, it is commonly believed that the Chazon Ish rejected the first argument but, as I will argue on another occasion, this belief is false.) Possible answer #3 is to duck the question by noting (correctly) that we could not actually know that such a universal expansion took place since the world would in all respects look the same to us. Ultimately, though, all these answers are silly (albeit in diminishing degree). In fact, the idea of every item in the universe expanding is simply incoherent. The question one ought to ask is: expands compared to what? The whole idea assumes some absolute notion of distance independent of any actual concrete objects. (An inch is an inch, you say? But, remember, in our story all the rulers expanded, too.)

A curious fact about people's perception of notions such as absolute distance, time etc. is the convergence of "primitive" and "post-modern" ways of thinking. Once upon a time, time and distance were measured in terms of concrete processes and objects. Sunrise, sunset, eggs, olives, arms, thumbs. These were not proxies for what moderns think of as "real" units of time and distance such as seconds and centimeters (or whatever). As periodic processes, such as pendular motion, and ubiquitous rulers became increasingly exploited for measurement of time and distance, people began to think of such measures as absolute. That is, people began to think of time and distance as just being out there, independently of any concrete processes or things which could be used to establish scale. Although physicists have never really been tempted by this illusion, for most people the notion that time and space can only be measured relative to real stuff is a typically post-modern idea in both substance and recentness. So, at least in this case, the post-modern way of thinking hearkens back to pre-modern ideas.

I've rambled on here because time and distance are perfect examples of how a failure to understand chazal on their own terms have lead to possible distortions. As Sacha Stern notes in his brilliant book, Time and Process in Ancient Judaism, the very notion of time as an entity in itself was foreign to rabbinic though at least until the Rishonim. My argument here doesn't require that radical a claim. I simply wish to note that when we blithely assume that shqiah is simply a proxy for some given clock state or that ke-beitzah is simply a proxy for a certain number of cubic centimeters, we do so at our peril. Yes, such translations allow us to generalize shqiah to situations in which we have no actual experience of sundown and to deal with the fact that eggs are neither ubiquitous nor perfectly constant in size. But they also may change the experience of performing a mitzvah from one which is inherently fuzzy and subjective in some aspects to one which is precise but alienated. It isn't at all clear to me that this development is a happy one for halachah (though I can't deny that that is how halachah has evolved and that's what counts).

So, think of all this as an apologia in advance of some anachronistic talk about sfek sfeka and probability. To be continued.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Tomorrow we make the obligatory trip to the Great North. Kayaking or tubing down the Snir (Hatzabani) River (which is a river in the same sense that the Kineret is a sea) is a family ritual observed with the same devotion as eating matza on Pesach. We also hope to catch some of the Tzfat Klezmer shebang. MOChassid will be happy to hear that absolutely no Shiny Shoe music is scheduled but I expect to see lots of clarinetists wearing faux kasketlich, which I find only slightly less grating. I'm hoping to catch various neo-Breslav Carlebach wannabes, some of whom are quite good.

When I get back, I hope to deal with the Barak court in some detail as well as some thoughts on the mathematics of sfek sfeka. (I knew that we keep you in suspense.)

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Looks can be deceiving. I have a neighbor who is absolutely the image of a scheine yid, which in all the respects that matter he is. He has a tall regal bearing, a long flowing beard with more than a tinge of gray, a broad kapelush and a classy bekishe. He and his wife of many years recently married kedas moshe ve-yisrael after their aliyah from Chile and subsequent conversion in the Spanish-speaking machon giyur in My Little Town. I have another neighbor, who now calls himself Arik, who arrived a couple of years ago with his wife from Bolivia. He and his wife look like Indians from South America and speak Spanish but little English or Hebrew. We had them over for shalashidis a while back, hoping to see how we could help the poor tribesmen get on their feet. A frequent Shabbos guest of ours, a ger from Venezuela (yes, we hold the continent -- next turn we get two extra armies), served as translator. After some probing, we ascertained what tribe our Bolivian Indian is from and what his tribal name was. It turns out that Arik is a proud son of the Gerrer Indians and his tribal name is Arik. His father was a chassidishe bochur who left Poland before The War to seek his fortune. He found his way to Bolivia and married a local Indian girl with whom he had two children. Our indigent Injun's cousins are learning in Lakewood and he is a licensed dentist (as is his sister with whom he ran a succesful clinic in Bolivia). Next week he's taking his exams to get a license to practice dentistry in Israel. We wish him hatzlachah.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

My previous post was intended to downplay a distinction I feel uncomfortable with but apparently all I succeeded in doing was in resurrecting it. Besides as some of the cogent comments point out, I didn't do the topic justice. Maybe it was premature. So today, I'd like to try something lighter. Ordinarily, that would mean baseball but not this time. First of all, as a Met fan I'm devastated by their hopelessness for the foreseeable future. Second, even though I can keep up with the stats from My Little Town in Israel, eino domeh shmiah le-re'iah. For example, I'm not quite sure from here quite how bad a shortstop Kaz Matsui really is. And reading Blissful Knowledge's sage analysis just makes me feel inadequate as a fan. (His blog is so good, I'm almost willing to forgive him being a Yankee fan. Almost.)

So to the point. I'm getting old, in a bizarre way. Last week I bought herring. If you must know, it was Matjes herring. You see, I didn't simply spear a piece with a toothpick on a whim at kiddush. I pulled it off the shelf, put it in the cart and payed for it, bemachshavah techillah. I actually had a yetzer hara for it. Lately I've begun to think that a nice shtik ayer kichel (must be shaped like a bowtie) would hit the spot. (I'm uncertain about the transliteration of ayer but this seems like a perfectly ironic way to pay homage to the great logical positivist philosopher, A. J. Ayer.) I'm also now farsighted and have taken to holding bottles of bromfen at arms length (my vision problem is rapidly becoming an orthopedic problem).

Do you see where I'm going with this? What's next? Will I soon be eating lokshen mit yokh, taking my chicken boiled and sucking the bones? Will I be slurping my tea and exhaling volubly after each sip? (And if I do, how will I keep that piece of sugar nestled between my upper and lower teeth?) Zug nor, you got a nice piece flanken maybe? Some schvartzen rettich to go with that? Promise me this: if you ever see me even contemplating the galleh/feese/ptcha or whatever they call it where you come from, just shoot me right on the spot and put me out of my misery.

(A nod to Cookie at MOChassid's comments area for putting me in a galleh state of mind.)

Friday, August 06, 2004

Those tests are finally behind me (average grade 69.2, failure rate 33% after a curve, or what is known here as a 'factor'). So, as advertised, let's ramble a bit about more and less meaningful social distinctions. It is told over in the name of the (--Choose One--) Maggid that once there was a rich man who had two sons-in-law, one of whom ate only milchig and the other of whom ate only fleishig. He'd alternately eat in the milchig dining room with one and in the fleishig dining room with other. When he ultimately went bankrupt (as every heimishe gvir must, unless he dies before his time), he'd continue hopping from dining room to dining room even though both sons-in-law were now eating nothing but potatoes. The story originally referred to chassidim and misnagdim but the point is a general one: various institutionalized rifts endure long after the essential divisive issues have become irrelevant. Perhaps this is now the case with the supposed divide between "Modern Orthodox" and "Haredi" (two labels I really don't like at all).

Labels are useful to the extent that they identify a class of objects or people that share a whole cluster of correlated properties. Thus mammals, metals, or Jews are interesting categories but stuff that starts with the letter 'T' isn't. It is precisely in this sense that I think the notions of MO and Haredi are becoming less and less useful.

For a relatively short period of time (say, from the 1950's onward, but not before), one could point to two distinct Orthodox groups that divided up roughly as follows:

There were happy boppers who believed in Progress, the keys to which could be found in the civilizing impact of a college education or in the liberating effect of political Zionism, and in the name of which certain halachic marginalia could be finessed.

There were angry cynics who believed in Frumkeit, the key threats to which could be found in the civilizing impact of a college education or in the liberating effect of political Zionism, and in the name of which certain halachic marginalia could be glorified.

(I love these kind of symmetric formulations, even if I have to kick a few bulges to make them work.) Anyway, once the mass-production plants of Jewish education swung into high gear, if you knew where someone studied or davened, you had a fair idea of what they ate, what they wore, what they thought about the Big Issues, etc etc. Labeling them as such was a convenient short-hand.

This is increasingly not the case for two reasons. First, maturation has driven extreme positions to the center. Both Israel and college are now viewed as having instrumental value -- no more than that and no less. Haredim come on aliyah in as high proportions as MO's and only a fringe of Religious Zionists still believe in what the Kookniks call
mam lach' tiut. Observers on both sides of the tracks are prepared to acknowledge both the necessity of higher education for functioning in society as well as the moral decadence of the increasingly nihilistic atmosphere on college campuses. (William Kolbrener's article on this is well worth reading.)

Second, there is no longer much correlation between issues. There's surely a higher percentage of anal, shva-na/shva-nach, halachah technonerds in YU than there are in Satmar. (I'm warming to my own rhetoric here; bear with me.) The Lakewooders are up on Madonna and more than a few are Americanized happy boppers. A kid with ten siblings and payos could as easily be wearing a kipah srugah in Yitzhar as a kapelush in Bnei Brak. The across-the-board stereotypes sketched above have become anachronisms. So... now that I've had the last word on this topic, let's have no more discussion of it again. Ever.

Besides, like some other bloggers, I personally don't like being pigeon-holed.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

A small scoop for those few who care about such matters:
Chief Justice Aharon Barak recently came to the Knesset's Law Committee and advocated enshrining even greater court powers in the proposed constitution. His opening argument was that he has no personal stake in this since he is 68 and mandatory retirement age is 70. The scoop is that he has sent a few trusted friends to discretely speak to a few major makhers to try to get the mandatory retirement age raised. The only good thing one can say about this is that, as things now stand, his replacement will probably be Dorit Beinish, so perhaps we should be wishing him arichus yamim veshanim in the job. (Unbeknownst to most people, Beinish's succession to the throne is not actually mandated by law, only by tradition. YK is working mightily on this front.)

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Marking what feels like an infinite number of test papers is wearying not so much because it is boring (it is) but because it constitutes a sequence of arbitrary and capricious decisions. A student who memorized a proof gets full credit; one who invented an interesting but flawed proof on the spot does not. Mistake A costs four points and mistake B costs five, or was it the other way around. One thoughtless flick of my pen and some poor student is doomed to the misery of preparing for another test (moed bet) or, worse, to suffer through the whole course again (very possibly with a lecturer who is actually happy to flunk him the next time around).

I sit on the couch, buried under a thousand notebooks, dispensing injustice and suddenly almost any other topic seems endlessly fascinating. Today I'm taken with the idea that this whole Haredi/MO distinction that fuels so many blogwars is a crock. If I finish marking all the tests today, I will write a long post on this. For now, just a brief thought on a distinction that I think does resonate: Polish chassidus is about removing the facade of respectability to reveal the true nature of man while Hungarian chassidus is about creating a facade of respectability to hide the true nature of man. I believe you can see this attitudinal difference even among people two or three generations removed from a spodek or a shtraimel.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Is it permitted to eat manufactured foods that include non-kosher ingredients in quantities insignificant enough that they are batel? Hirhurim "pulled some stuff together after dinner":

Regarding whether something that one cannot taste is permissible to eat, there is a three-way disagreement among rishonim about whether something is forbidden if one cannot taste it but it is more than 1/60th of a mixture. The Rema rules strictly like Rashi, the Ramban, the Rashba and the Ran. On this, see Arukh Ha-Shulhan, Yoreh De'ah 98:21-22, 25.

R. Akiva Eiger (Glosses to Yoreh De'ah 99:5) quotes a responsum of the Rivash to the effect that someone manufacturing a foodstuff who dilutes a forbidden ingredient is diluting it on behalf of all of his customers and the mixture is therefore forbidden to anyone who buys it. This is, however, hotly disputed. The Darkhei Teshuvah (99:67, 108:20) quotes a host of posekim agreeing with R. Akiva Eiger and a host disagreeing with him. The rabbi who taught me Yoreh De'ah agreed with R. Akiva Eiger.

The upshot of these two positions is that if a manufacturer mixes a forbidden ingredient into food to the point that one cannot taste it, the mixture is forbidden to all.

I'm not sure this is quite right. R. Akiva Eiger is referring to Responsum 498 in the Rivash. The question the Rivash deals with there is (inter alia) as follows: A food item in which a forbidden ingredient has been deliberately made batel is forbidden both to the preparer (as a penalty for having been mevatel isur lechatchila) as well as to the person for whom he has prepared it. The Rivash holds that the penalty is applied to the end consumer also in a case where the preparer did not have a particular buyer in mind but simply intended to sell it on the market.

This point is relevant as far as it goes but does not deal with the question of what constitutes a deliberate act of bitul issur lechatchila. If we are going to accept the Rivash's chumrah, we might consider a closely related kulah of the Rivash. In Responsum 349, the Rivash deals with the question of wine barrels sealed with non-kosher fat. Since the fat does not mix, or even adhere, to the wine he holds there is no problem. He adds an additional point: there is no problem of ein mevatlin issur lechatchila in this case because the wine is put in the offending barrels as part of the manufacturing process and not for the purpose of being mevatel the offending fat. Thus, it may very well be that the same holds for manufactured products generally, where the manufacturer has no intent to be mevatel the issur.

(I acknowledge that in the Rivash's case, since the fat does not adhere to the wine, it could be argued that there in no mixture at all and therefore no bitul. Thus, unlike in the case of the manufactured products in question here, the issue of ein mevatlin issur lechatchila may never arise. But note that this is not what the Rivash chooses to argue.)

There are few things you can count on these days, so it's reassuring to find some reliable constants. One of them is the unrelenting stupidity of Mets management who will always trade potential greatness for guaranteed mediocrity. Friday they traded their whole farm system for two mediocre pitchers no better than any one of dozens of no-names. In fact Kris Benson is so easily replacable that, had the Mets not traded for him, he could've been replaced by himself at the end of the season (when he'll be a free agent) for nothing. And Victor Zambrano isn't even the best pitcher in the major leagues named Zambrano. They traded Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi, Amos Otis for Joey Foy and learned nothing from the experience.

And the point is this: if I can get aggravated by this sort of narishkeit, life in Israel must be terrific these days.