Saturday, June 18, 2005

Those who know little else about the Hazon Ish know that he held that the length of an ammah (forearm to the tips of your fingers) is 58 centimeters (about 23 inches). Now unless you're Shaquille O'Neal, your forearm is probably a lot closer to 46 centimeters (about 18 inches) long, which is Rav Chaim Naeh's approximation of the ammah. So what's the deal with the Hazon Ish? Way back when I promised to deal with this. Today's the day.

Most people haven't actually read the Hazon Ish's comments on the topic (found in his chiddushim on Orach Chaim, siman 39, commonly called kunteres hashiurim) and therefore assume that the Hazon Ish believes the following two propositions:

1. When the halacha invokes an ammah, the reference is to the ancient ammah, the length of which (in terms of some "objective" measure such as centimeters) we are under obligation to reconstruct.

2. Ancient forearms (and eggs, etc.) were considerably larger than today's.

Admit it. Both of these propositions seem absolutely pig-headed. A forearm ought to be a forearm and an egg ought to be an egg -- we shouldn't be in the archeology business. Moreover, as long as we are being forced into the archeology business, there isn't a shred of evidence that people or eggs were once larger than they are today. In fact, all evidence indicates that they were a bit smaller.

It turns out, though, that the Hazon Ish is getting a bum rap here because, in fact, he does not believe either of the above propositions.

Before I get to what he actually believes, a brief digression concerning a popular misconception about the Hazon Ish, generally. Those who don't know better imagine him to have been a frightening and forbidding character. First of all he wore those scary black glasses frames and in the few well-known images of him, he does seem to be affecting that Litvak scowl. More to the point, though, his many followers in Bnei Brak have a well-deserved reputation as being to the frum world what mathematicians are to the academic word: convinced of their intellectual superiority, in the grip of a world-view that permits only black and white and possessing social skills that suggest a mild case of Asperger's syndrome.

Nevertheless, the Hazon Ish was, by all accounts, nothing like that. Unlike most of today's roshei yeshiva, the Hazon Ish did not feel the need to dress the part (in the name of "kavod hatoirah"). He dressed like a simple Jew and legends abound of people who hadn't met him before assuming that he was just that. Saul Lieberman, who was his first cousin and with whom he often hung out in Minsk, tells a hilarious story about the time the Hazon Ish was learning in a small beis midrash in Minsk and the shammes pulled his gemara out from under him and said "the daf yomi learners need this gemara and, anyway, a simple Jew like you should be saying Tehillim". When the shammes realized what he had done and tried to apologize, the Hazon Ish was apparently bewildered about what necessitated an apology. Last week, Rav Usher told of a rav who was seated next to the Hazon Ish at some event and, not recognizing him, asked him if he learns gemara. The Hazon Ish answered, "ven ich hob zeit, lern ich".

Anyway, back to our story about eggs and forearms. As I was saying, the Hazon Ish actually rejects both of the silly propositions mentioned above. First of all, he cites the opinion of R. Yosi in Mishnah Keilim 17:6 that a "medium" egg is determined "according to the opinion of the observer". This, says the Hazon Ish, proves that rabbinic measures are subjective. But precisely because room was left for human judgment in such matters, poskim in each generation have the privilege of replacing earlier standards of measurement with ones they find more appropriate. And once they have done so, the earlier measurements are entirely irrelevant. This must be so, he adds, because it would be absurd for us to have to recover ancient measures.

So much for the first proposition. Now where did that long ammah come from? Well both the forearm and the egg are correlated already in the gemara with the width (or thickness) of the thumb. The ammah is defined as equivalent to 24 thumbs and the volume of the egg to 10.8 cubic thumbs. The Noda Beyehuda chose to use the thumb as the most fundamental of these measures and, on the basis of his measurements of thumbs, concluded that the ammah must be equivalent to 13 Russian vershoks (1 vershok = 4.445 centimeters). Thus, concludes the Hazon Ish, once the Noda Beyehuda made that determination, the new standard is not thumbs, forearms or eggs, but rather vershoks.

Of course, the mappings from eggs to cubic thumbs and from thumbs to vershoks leaves one with a virtual egg that is equivalent to a lot more cubic vershoks than any actual egg anybody ever saw. Interestingly, the Hazon Ish hints that he is aware that no such large egg ever existed. He writes, "Truth and error are irrelevant since the matter was handed over to the opinion of the observer and the opinion of the observer here means the consensus of leaders of the generation who have so determined. And whatever they decided is true [by definition] and that is the standard."

Monday, June 13, 2005

I'm now performing one of the unheralded minhagim of Shavuos, namely, not sleeping the night after Shavuos. I'll use the time to go back to the Azza withdrawal business, a topic which I admit has been vastly over-discussed.

To review, I'm opposed to the plan but I think mass insubordination in the military is reckless. What I've found amusing lately is the huge discrepancy between how each side views itself and how it is viewed by the other side.

Some opponents of the withdrawal with whom I've spoken tell me that they are not ideologically opposed to any withdrawal under any circumstances. As pragmatic people, they are opposed to this particular withdrawal as having only downside (I agree). The problem, they say, is that the other side is dominated by goy-appeasing, dati-hating, acculturated lefties who are prepared to make idiotic withdrawals on other people's backs out of pure spite.

Some supporters of the withdrawal say that they are aware of the dangers of the plan and are genuinely pained by the sacrifices that some people are being asked to make but that the withdrawal is justified since it is likely to lead to a lessening of the defense burden and possibly to a break in the diplomatic deadlock (I disagree). The problem, they say, is that the other side is dominated by nut cases who will never agree even to obviously-beneficial retreats because they are in the grip of a messianic ideology that includes the certainty that they have the map of the geulah in their shirt pockets and all the streets on it are one-way.

I'm fairly sure that both sides' moderate self-perception is more accurate than the extreme image it projects onto the other side. But the failure of the government and the press to encourage reasoned public discussion of this topic (because they support the plan and thought they had inertia on their side) has resulted in the over-exposure of the most ideological representatives of each side.

But will it actually happen? While most politicians and commentators regard the withdrawal as utterly inevitable, the interaction of three processes might yet bring it down.

1. The Arabs' ability to screw themselves should never be underestimated. Some terrorist/military action of sufficient scale (chas veshalom) could cause a delay.

2. The police, army and resettlement makhers will wake up and realize that they are hopelessly unprepared to carry out the operation and will request a delay.

3. Such delays will provide craven Likud politicians with just the opportunity to realize that supporting the withdrawal is costing them their political careers and they will turn against it. Since 30 Likud MKs are sufficient to bring down this government, weird stuff might still happen. (The plan also has to get through the cabinet again but it seems unlikely that it can be stopped there since 8 of 21 ministers are from Labor and Sharon can count on his own vote as well as Olmert and Sheetreet, who are completely dead in the Likud in any case. But you never know.)

I'm tired of this topic myself. Next time I hope to discuss the often misunderstood views of the Hazon Ish on the length of the ammah and related arcana.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Today was Yom Yerushalayim, the ups and downs of which merit a separate post. In the meantime, check out the unbelievable recording of Motta Gur and co. as they captured Har Habayis in 1967. (Hit LISTEN in the upper left corner.) (Hat Tip: Treppenwitz)

I want to talk about something else today: kiruv. I have mixed feelings on the subject. On the one hand, what could be more natural than wanting to explain one's most deeply-held beliefs to someone who doesn't share them? All the more so if one can help another person find a connection to their own people's traditions and a life filled with meaning and goodness. On the other hand, well, it's a long story...

The gist of it is that when kiruv becomes a habit or a vocation, it can quickly slide into a variety of flavors of inauthenticity.

First, there is the inauthenticity of the relationship with the "victim". It is easy to be tempted to create the impression of great empathy or bonding in order to heighten one's influence on the other fellow, when in fact the relationship is entirely instrumental. This usually comes off as patronizing.

Second, there is the inauthenticity of the Yiddishkeit that is transmitted. Yiddishkeit is tailored to meet the expectations of the eager student. To those deeply enmeshed in the modern liberal American mindset, we present Yiddishkeit as the very source of democratic thought, a model of pluralism and progressive thinking, yada yada yada. To the airheads in search of the Meaning Of It All, we sell Yiddishkeit as the original Magical Mystery Tour itself, roit bendelech and all. For compulsives, we offer enough itty bitty rules to keep the anxious mind permanently off anything substantive enough to be worrisome. Who wants to disappoint?

Finally, there is the inauthenticity of how one's own relationship with Yiddishkeit is presented. Supposing some happy bopper foolishly came seeking my guidance in life and I said something like, "Yeah, Yiddishkeit is often profound and meaningful, but mainly it's what our ancestors lived and died for for generations and that's good enough for me. It's historical narrative is probably largely based in fact, but not entirely, and I don't really care because in any case I prefer my own people's myths to anybody else's. And officially we believe all kinds of theological stuff, some of which I deeply believe to be true, some of which is vague enough that it might tolerate some true interpretation and some of which is complete narishkeit. Just learn Torah and don't worry about that stuff." How well do you think that would go over? So instead we pretend to have convictions we don't really have. We project moral certainty, we manufacture bogus "proofs" of I'm-not-sure-what, we present our community as a tallis shekulo techeiles and altogether leave our cynicism back in the Beis Midrash.

All of which is why the best kiruv is done by people who aren't consciously trying to do it. They bond through genuine empathy, they present Torah precisely as they understand it, they teach by example, and they don't say more than ought to be said.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I'm finally back in Eretz Hakoidesh after a long sojourn in North America which, as far as finstere goolus goes, you could do worse. There was a lot of lecturing but I squeezed in some bikur cholim and nichum aveilim and sundry other stuff (a 50th birthday party, pursuit of a lawsuit, some business strategizing) the fruits of which I hope to eat mainly in This World.

I'm getting back into the constitution business. I missed Monday's meeting about Arab rights. RG was prepared to give them the sun and the moon just to get them to participate in the constitutional process. Conveniently, they rejected everything.

A topic that is coming down the pike imminently is the matter of batei din. (I'm talking about dinei mamanot; personal status [conversions, marriage, etc.] is another matter I've discussed earlier.) The secular (and not a few religious) are mainly concerned that they not be compelled to go to religious batei din. The religious are mainly concerned that batei din be allowed to function without intervention by the civil courts but still have their decisions enforced by the state.

It is likely that everybody will get more or less what they want here. But there are a number of tricky points. First, will the constitution mandate that the state maintain official religious court systems or simply that it recognize religious courts that satisfy certain requirements? If the former, will decisions of official religious courts be recognized (and enforced) in the same manner as those of secular courts or merely as arbitration? If the latter, will it be forbidden/permitted/obligatory to fund such courts?

It's important to understand that whatever path is taken will apply generally to religious courts (not just Jewish ones). So one has to think twice before giving such courts too much power. Our own batei din don't exactly have sterling reputations for work ethics or impartiality (a topic which deserves a discussion of its own), but Muslim sharia courts are supposedly a lot worse. A few days ago Quebec's legislature passed a resolution against recognizing decisions of sharia courts as a form of arbitration in family disputes. The reason for this is simple: while hearings in these courts are possible only when all concerned parties volunteer to appear before them, people in a position of weakness in communities that use these courts (women, for example) are easily coerced into appearing "voluntarily". Not a simple business.