Tuesday, September 28, 2004

On Erev Rosh Hashanah and Erev Yom Kippur, I do my ritual ablutions at a fresh spring on the outskirts of a neo-chassidish baal teshuvah village near My Little Town. The difference between Jewish soul music and Shiny Shoe music is very roughly analogous to the difference between a natural spring in the forest and a grimy subterranean mikveh. It can't be a coincidence that this village is a center of neo-Carlebach soul music and that a new spring seems to appear in its vicinity every other month.

I love these guys. They harken back to something authentic in early chassidus that got lost in transition and at the same time are profoundly funky in a way that FFBs are simply incapable of achieving. This can be a risky combination for child-rearing, but I'm envious nevertheless.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Nothing gets me in the spirit of Yom Kippur more than listening to vintage Carlebach. In that spirit, I ask forgiveness from anyone I may have offended, intentionally or unintentionally. In the grand scheme of things, the differences among us are so insignificant. We're not Joe, we're Yossele from Cracow. May we all be inscribed for Munkaczer passports.

Gmar chasimah tovah.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

A number of comments on my previous post argued that Israel is "losing its humanity" and such as a result of the "occupation". Such cliches are often used by enemies of Israel who wish to weaken Israel by holding it to a higher standard of "humanity" than they hold the rest of the world. Such people are best ignored. However, some of those who responded to my post struck me not as enemies but rather as sincerely concerned Jews. I owe them a response.

I believe that the coarseness that you attribute to Israelis (the existence of which I don't deny) is a consequence not of Israel's policies but rather of its situation. The very idea of Jewish sovereignty requires that Jews engage in activities which in Galus they could leave to the goyim. Fighting wars, tilling the soil, and competing for pretty much everything with Jews just as clever as you, leads to the development of a distinct skill set from that required in Galus.

I find it as grating as you do that Israeli men from about the age of two speak in lower octaves and high decibels than the ear was designed to process. And I detest the secular Zionist ideology that sought to uproot many of the noblest Jewish traits developed in Galus. But it is a fact of life that building a desolate area in a bad neighborhood into a secure and modern State both requires and produces a somewhat tougher Jew than you (and, to some extent, I) regard as ideal.

It is worth bearing in mind that this slight contempt for Jews not quite like us cuts both ways. I've now lived exactly half my life in Israel and every now and then I am surprised by the sudden realization of how much I've changed without noticing. When I visit places like the Upper West Side, where I grew up, I find many of the men to be a mirror image of the macho Israeli: whining, self-indulgent sissies. It may not look that way to you because you hold up what you're used to as the norm from which all others are measured. But don't confuse what seems normal to you with the Universal Ideal Jew. (An amusingly extreme version of this phenomenon is Danny Boyarin's Unheroic Conduct which argues that, by rabbinic Judaism's own standards, "sissies" are the ideal Jews. In his parallel universe, being an Arafat-hugging homosexual goes beyond "not that there's anything wrong with that"; it's actually the epitome of frumkeit. Whatever.)

Now, perhaps your objection is to certain Israeli policies. Let's get specific. Should Israeli soldiers not check baby carriages, ambulances, wheel chairs for explosives? Should the Shabak not barge into houses to arrest terrorists preparing attacks? I don't know of any unpleasant measures used by Israel which do not directly or indirectly save innocent lives. If you do, please enlighten me.

Perhaps you believe that simply turning tail and abandoning the areas captured in 1967 will somehow render these tactics unnecessary. There is no basis for that whatsoever. Whether or not withdrawal is worthwhile for other reasons, the Arabs will continue to use terror and other tactics to try to liquidate us and we will need to use all the same tactics to defend ourselves.

One of you argued from ve-asisa hayashar vehatov that we have not done right by the Arabs. I must be candid with you. Only an am ha-aretz argues from psukim and only a moral shvitzer demands that others be kind to those who wish to murder them. I don't believe this is the proper forum for a halachic discussion of the proper attitude towards non-Jews with whom one is at war. The main sources are all capably analyzed in Responsa Bnei Banim, Part 3, Chapters 40-42.

I have the uneasy feeling that some of you don't actually know any soldiers who are waging the war we are now in and you form your impressions of them by what you read in the newspapers. And perhaps -- here I'm being harsh -- you are not so much offering carefully thought-out moral judgements as giving expression to the angst you feel when being judged by your non-Jewish or assimilated Jewish colleagues who get their information from the newspapers. I can only say this: betoch ami ani yoshev. I have been retired from the army but the soldiers whom you judge from afar are my friends and neighbors and their children. Each of them wrestles -- with wisdom and sensitivity -- with the difficult moral dilemmas presented by the intermingling of non-combatants with combatants. Each and every one of them makes me proud.

If anybody shows signs of moral insensitivity, it is those who sit at a comfortable distance from the battlefield and presume to pass judgement.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

So what about that withdrawal business? The first thing we need to do is remove some of the ideological clutter that has sabotaged any hope of reasonable discussion of this topic.

There are those who argue that any withdrawal is immoral, anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish, etc. This rests on one of two claims:
1. In the battle against evil, maximal borders are optimal borders and retrenchment is defeat.
2. The redemption locomotive has left the station, it travels in one direction and you're either on the train or a dog barking at it.

The first claim is simply wrong; it appeals mainly to those who lack the patience or the wit for subtlety.
The second claim is coherent only to those who simultaneously a) subscribe to hyper-Zionist ideology and b) are frum enough to actually take it seriously. In short, kooks.

Conversely, there are those who argue that not withdrawing is immoral, anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish, etc. This also rests on one of two claims:
1. If the above-mentioned ideological arguments against withdrawal are fallacious, then their polar opposite must be true.
2. We have a moral debt to the Arabs.

The first is simply bad reasoning. Nevertheless, it's useful for moral grandstanding (an egregious example of which is Leon Wieseltier's (characteristically) well-written but (characteristically) self-righteous and pompous recent screed).
As for the second: kiss my ass.

So now that that muck is out of the way, what are the real arguments? Serious proponents of the withdrawal make the following arguments:
1. By shortening defense lines and reducing interaction with local Arabs, the defense burden on Israel's security forces is substantially diminished.
2. By disengaging from a large and growing hostile Arab population, we delay the demographic threat to Israel's Jewish character.
3. By making essentially minor concessions, we derail international pressure for far greater concessions.
4. By adopting a centrist position, we reduce internal political tensions which threaten to undermine Israel's social cohesiveness.

Quite an imposing list! Unfortunately, these arguments are mostly specious.

1. Despite what the Israeli Left would have you believe, Gush Katif is geographically disjoint from the major Arab population centers in Azza. (This is not true of Netzarim, Kfar Darom and Morag.) Thus, the major defense burden in Azza is not the defense of the Jewish civilian population there but rather preventive action against terror originating in Azza and directed at Jews both in and out of Azza. In particular, the IDF is engaged in the prevention of smuggling of weapons via Egypt and via the Mediterranean, gathering of intelligence on terrorist operations and destruction of explosives factories. Withdrawal will not diminish the need to carry out these missions. It will, however, make them almost impossible to achieve.

2. To the extent that Arabs in Azza constitute a demographic threat to Israel, that threat will remain after a withdrawal of Jews from Azza. The Arabs aren't going anywhere. Israel is not currently responsible for Arab civilian matters in Azza and Arabs in Azza are not enfranchised in Israel. The demographic threat lies , then, simply in the proximity to Israel of a large hostile population. If we close our eyes, will they disappear?

3. Throwing the EU a bone will not keep them busy for long. It will only whet their appetite for more. As for the U.S., let us not delude ourselves that they are on board with settlement blocs, if they go ballistic at the mention of a few new apartments in Maaleh Adumim. All the concessions made at Oslo and all the terror it engendered have bought us no long-lasting goodwill; they have only invited greater pressure for more far-reaching concessions.

4. There was no consensus for withdrawal from Azza before Sharon set out to create one. (I'm not convinced that there is any such consensus even today.) In fact, Labor was trounced in the last election in no small part because unilateral withdrawal from Azza was a centerpiece of its platform. Creating an artificial consensus for withdrawal and then arguing for withdrawal on grounds of consensus is more than a little disingenuous. And if Sharon's intention is to split the difference between his own former self and the Beilins of the world, he can give up now. There is no red line they won't cross to stay far to his left. Finally, if Sharon thinks that it is only the Left's loyalty to the State that need concern us because the Right is incorruptibly patriotic, he may be underestimating the trauma that this withdrawal will cause. Remember that many children have lived their whole lives in Azza -- and then been buried in its soil.

So what argument do withdrawal supporters have left? Somehow it always comes down to what is essentially an act of intellectual desperation that goes roughly like this: Israel has strategic interests which far outweigh that of remaining in Azza and what must have happened is that the United States promised/threatened to do so-and-so if Israel does/does not carry out the withdrawal. It's all very hush hush, so just take Sharon's word for it and hop aboard.

I personally am not about to abandon reason in order to place my faith in a man whose only two confidantes are Dov Weissglas and Omri Sharon.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Take a random group of over-fed, over-slept and over-davened Israelis with no access to news for three days and mass psychosis sets in. By Friday night, A had bumped into B who had heard from C that D had left his fax machine on and received word that Arik Sharon had suffered a stroke. By the time we'd finished fueling up on single-malt and arbes at a sholem zocher, Sharon's life was hanging by a thread and we were preparing eitzos for Bibi, who was no doubt being solemnly sworn in on Air Force One. Eventually, The Voice Of Manila, HTs maid who is one of the few non-Jews in My Little Town, reported that CNN was not yet onto the story and we moved on to other speculation.

The episode did serve to sensitize me to the extent to which Israel's current course is totally dependent on Arik Sharon. Sharon has prosecuted the war on terror very skillfully (on which see this essay by Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael Oren). He is also taking us down a path of disengagement the motivation for which I understand, but which I believe is ultimately misguided. This deserves a detailed explanation, which I hope to get to tomorrow.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

I promised to write about sfek sfeka and probability. I'm a bit hesitant, though, because Moshe Koppel has already written on this and I have little to add to what he has already written. Nevertheless, here goes.

Let's begin with an example, a bit tacky but in some ways canonical. A man finds that his bride is not a virgin. If she has willingly betrayed him subsequent to their betrothal, she would be forbidden to him. Barring any evidence to the contrary, we can assume, however, that it is not the case that she has willingly betrayed him subsequent to betrothal. We can put it this way: she may or may not have willingly betrayed him (she might have been raped) and even if she did, it may or may not have been subsequent to their betrothal. This is a sfek sfeka.

More generally, imagine that some ruling would follow from conditions A and B both holding. We say that A may or may not hold, and even if it does, B may or may not hold. Hence the ruling is not invoked on grounds of sfek sfeka.

Broadly speaking, the mechanism by which this works can be understood in two different ways. The first is related to principles of safek. Safek d'oraissa l'chumra; safek d'rabanan l'kula. The Ra'ah in Bedek haBayis argues that, even in a Torah matter, the question regarding A is resolved l'chumrah only mi-d'rabanan and hence the (logically) subsequent question regarding B is resolved l'kula. Reb Shimon Shkop in Shaarei Yosher (Shaar 1, Ch. 19) argues strongly for this interpretation. The Rov arguing along similar lines put it more abstractly: when the stringent side of a safek is itself only a safek, there is in fact no leidas hasafek. This is not the format of a safek to which the principle of safek d'oraissa l'chumra can be applied. This understanding has a number of advantages, one of which is that a number of lenient rulings by early poskim can best be explained on the basis of the assumption that sfek sfeka really does entail no leidas hasafek. (Moshe Taragin discusses some such rulings in the sites listed here.)

The second way of understanding sfek sfeka is more closely related to some simple probabilistic notions. To make things interesting, let's first consider a vastly overstated version. We can think of each of the questions "does A hold?" and "does B hold?" as being akin to a fair coin toss. That is, if A has probability 1/2 and B has probability 1/2 and A and B are independent of each other, then the probability that A and B both hold is 1/4. The principle of sfek sfeka simply entails choosing the more probable conclusion that it is not the case that 'A and B' holds. This has the virtue of elegance and obvious generalizability. It is also true that Tosfos actually posits that 1) if either A or B have probability greater than 1/2 then sfek sfeka fails (Kesubos 9b, s.v. eeba'is) and 2) A and B must be independent of each other (sfek sfeka mis'hapeches, see the outer margin on Kesubos 9b).

But, as I mentioned, this formulation is way too optimistic and collapses under Rivash's devastating attack (Resp. 372). Rivash asks why it is necessary for both A and B to hold with probability 1/2. It should be enough that A have probability 1/2 and B hold with any probability less than 1. In any such case, the probability of 'A and B' holding is less than 1/2. In fact, there is just such a case in Hullin 77b. We may assume that a fetus of indeterminate nature is not a viable male since we can formulate the question as follows: is the fetus male? (A) and, if so, is it viable? (B). A holds with probability 1/2 and B holds with probability below 1. Why isn't sfek sfeka defined in a sufficiently general fashion to include this case?

Rivash answers that for sfek sfeka to hold it is not required that A and B hold with probability 1/2 but rather (pay careful attention here because this is the part where the modern mind has to unlearn some habits) that they are not assigned any known probability at all. When either A or B holds with some known probability, sfek sfeka might not be applicable. There are two ways this can happen. First, if A holds with known probability of 1/2 (as in the case of male/female), then it is sufficient that B hold with probability less than 1 in order to rule that 'A and B' does not hold. However, this ruling has nothing to do with sfek sfeka but rather with a different principle involving following the greater propensity (ruba d'leisa kaman). Second, if A does not have known probability (so far so good), but B holds with probability greater than 1/2, then sfek sfeka fails.

Let's apply the Rivash's idea to a more modest formulation of sfek sfeka. As long as we know nothing about the probabilities of A and B, we can assume that 'A and B' does not hold simply because there are four possibilities: A and B, A and not-B, not-A and B, not-A and not-B. We rule in favor of the three cases against the one. Note that there is no assumption that the four cases are equiprobable but rather only that nothing specific is known about their probabilities. This more modest formulation also involves a more modest understanding of the requirement that A and B be independent of each other (sfek sfeka mis'hapeches). We simply require that A does not entail B (or vice versa) because then there would not be four cases as enumerated above but rather only three, since 'A and not-B' would not be possible. In such cases the 3/4 majority that lies at the root of sfek sfeka would be reduced to 2/3, which -- at least according to Tosfos -- is inadequate for invoking sfek sfeka.

Abandoning the idea that every event has some probability assigned to it is crucial for getting this. But, admittedly, it invites a kind of fuzziness. Sfek sfeka may or may not be applicable in a given case depending on how it is formulated. Returning to our hapless bride, imagine that the only question is whether she willingly betrayed her betrothed (the other question having been resolved or rendered irrelevant). We might formulate it this way: "did she consent?" (A) and, if so, "did she do so subsequent to the age of consent?" (B). Formulated this way, we have a sfek sfeka. Alternatively, we might simply ask: "was she raped?" (making no distinction between assault and statutory rape), in which case there is no sfek sfeka. Tosfos raises this question and chooses the second option but it's clear that there is ample room for ambiguity in such cases.

Rav Chaim Ozer raises a brilliant objection against this whole approach but this post is already way too long, so I'll save that for another time.

P.S. I made my annual visit to The Rebbe tonight (I'm as irritated as you are when Lubavitchers refer to their Rebbe as The Rebbe; I'm just being coy). One good thing is that as a result of the weird anti-merit system at work there, our modern dress actually got us in faster; the katchalappers had to stew for a while. As is well known, this Rebbe has hadras panim, but certainly not the gift of gab (unlike his father and two uncles who preceded him). We spent a very meaningful ten seconds in there.

This is my final post until after Rosh Hashanah. A kesivah vechasimah tovah to all.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

So as I was saying, in the very first siman in Even haEzer, the mechaber writes:

It is a mitzvah for every man to marry a woman by the age of 18... and under no circumstance should he pass the age of 20 without a wife. And one who passes 20 and doesn't wish to marry, the court coerces him to marry in order to perform the mitzvah of procreation.

To this the Rema comments:
These days it is not customary to coerce regarding this matter.

And a good thing for me since at 20 I didn't know which end of a girl was up. But that's not what I'm driving at here. I'm trying to reconstruct in my mind how this radical shift occurred.

Presumably, as norms regarding marriage age shifted upwards for various economic and demographic reasons, more and more young people (and their parents) simply began pushing the envelope without giving the matter much thought. Everybody did what seemed obvious and natural and very gradually the average marriage age continued to increase. The halakhah was neither forgotten, nor struck from the books, but rather honored in the breach. Rabbanim occasionally said nu nu nu and everyone moved on. Eventually the new reality was codified.

But it might have been different. Let's imagine the following. The year is 1641 and some anal 20-year-old bachelor is determined to spend another year or two finding himself but can't abide that it says in the books that what he's doing is wrong. He is always right. So he does the only reasonable thing. He forages through the literature in search of stray opinions supporting late marriage. He marshals proofs that early marriage is a tool used by the oligarchy to oppress the masses. He commissions studies to document the deleterious effects of early marriage on men, women, Jews and the cosmos. The word is spread, societies are formed, books are written. Some rabbanim can't abide the bastardization of yiddishkeit and strike back with biting critiques of the new fashion and demand that early marriage be enforced with particular meticulousness. Some hipper rabbanim, worried that young people might be turned off, support more lenient positions as a stopgap. Breakaway institutions catering to determined bachelors and bachelorettes are duly incorporated. All hell breaks loose.

Does that sound suitably ridiculous? Has our hypothetical (and somewhat anachronistic) young friend nudged halakhah gently along or stopped it dead in its tracks? People with a modicum of foresight, wisdom, self-control and goodwill know the virtue of occasionally keeping their mouths shut. This is fast becoming a lost art.


Tuesday, September 07, 2004

As I've mentioned before, I sit on the committee at The August Institution That Employs Me that metes out justice (?) to alleged cheaters. The default punishment is expulsion for one year but it is rarely used since there seem to always be extenuating circumstances. Instead there's a whole package of punishments, the least element of which is having to take an extra course beyond the usual requirements. I expressed the view that this is a pointless add-on that only succeeds in further identifying learning with punishment. Others responded that if we force the perpetrator to take a course in ethics, he/she would learn the folly of his/her ways. I noted that university ethics courses are not designed to instill values. The Hangman (our hostility toward each other is now quite out in the open) lost it: "What department are you in that you know what is taught in courses on ethics?"

Hello? Are courses on aesthetics taught by cosmeticians these days?

Academics don't teach right from wrong, they deconstruct the very idea of right and wrong so that the only wrong is actually believing that there is a right and a wrong. (Yes, under the jargon it is precisely as ironic as that.) And herein lies a tale about the difference between talmidei chakhamim and ideologues with an agenda. Another day.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

I really don't like when people cite pesukim to prove the correctness of their political views. This is a nasty religious-Zionist Israeli trait common to starry-eyed Kookniks and namby-pamby Meimadniks. Derush is something else, though. The whole point of derush is to illustrate a point -- moral, legal, political, etc. -- not to prove it. In the context of derush, selective citation and interpretation of pesukim is tendentious but not dishonest.

Having apologized in advance, I can't resist pointing out the insightful commentary of the Netziv to the tochekhah. The Netziv's approach is naturalistic; he sees the whole tochekhah as a realistic chronicle of progressive stages of economic, psychological and social dissolution. I cite one example; do with it what you will.

Yakkha Hashem be-shigaon u-be-ivaron u-ve-timhon levav
God will afflict you with madness, blindness and dullness

Netziv's commentary:
Madness -- the mental defect of not contemplating self-defense against the nations
Blindness -- the few who are not mentally deficient will be oblivious to the impending evil
Dullness -- the fraction who see and understand the [impending] evil will be apathetic like stone unable to act