Saturday, January 28, 2006

Rumor has it that now that Abu Mazen has been repudiated by the voters, he'll do the natural thing and join Kadimah. (Hat Tip: HT).

But seriously, folks, the terrorists now representing the Palestinians to the world are the ones without suits and ties. Assuming that this means that the good-cop-bad-cop game is over (and this is not a foregone conclusion), Israel has been presented with a window of opportunity to make a few crucial moves to improve both its demographic situation and its security situation. The fence that is being built to the west of Palestinian population centers must be moved far eastward to genuinely defensible borders. Another fence must be constructed in order to retain the Jordan Valley. All future terrorist acts must now be treated as state-sponsored terrorism and the Palestinians on our side of the fence should be evicted in response to any such terrorist acts.

Unfortunately, our current government, which is locked into a settlers-as-root-of-all-evil narrative, was caught completely flat-footed by the latest developments. It is unlikely to recover. But will the voters notice in time?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The recent events in Neve Daniel and Hevron are very painful ones for a number of reasons.

Last week, a small organic farm and stable ("Sde Boaz"), on which a small house had been built, was razed by the Israeli army and police. The house was indeed built without permits and one could technically make a legal case for taking it down. However, the action raises a number of important questions. First, one of Sharon's central arguments for disengagement had been that it would help secure settlement blocs in Yehudah and Shomron. The settlement bloc around which there is greatest consensus is Gush Etzion. Sde Boaz is at the epicenter of Gush Etzion, surrounded by Jewish towns and at its highest and perhaps most strategic spot. If any location in any settlement bloc at all were to remain in Israeli hands, it would be Sde Boaz. Furthermore, it happens that the area around Sde Boaz has recently begun to be cultivated illegally by Arabs for the sole purpose of making subsequent unfounded claims on the land. The police claim they are "powerless" to stop it. Finally, in removing a bunch of protesting kids from the area in order to destroy it, police used pepper spray and tear gas in cramped closed quarters and beat up some kids in a vicious and gratuitous way. (An aside: the soldiers sent out there are generally kid-next-door types who got stuck with a lousy job and the cops are just low-class losers. But the "Yasamnikim" are largely anti-semitic Russian goyim; the kids relate to them as you would to any goons for hire.)

As for the standoff in Hevron, it's important to know the facts. Twelve Jewish families are being evicted from homes they have salvaged and refurbished in what was once known as the "shuk ha-sitonai" and is now called Mitzpe Shalhevet. The land in question was last owned by Kollel Sefaradim Magen Avot and fell into Arab hands after the Arabs massacred the Jews of Hevron in 1929. It was then taken over by the Jordanian custodian of abandoned property. There is some dispute about whether it then reverted to the original owners, who have asked the Jewish community of Hevron to see to it that it is rented to Jews, or if it is to be administered by the Israeli custodian of abandoned property. A judicial committee ruled for the latter and recommended that the custodian rent the property to Jews. The Defense Ministry, as recently as a few weeks ago, agreed with this recommendation. AG Mazuz has decided not to accept the recommendation and to throw the current residents out "in order that they not be rewarded for having moved in without permission". The Jewish community had agreed that, to abide by the AG's decision, the current residents would move out and other Jews would move in instead in an orderly fashion. The AG refused and all hell has broken out.

One cannot help but note the mean-spiritedness of both these actions by the government and wonder to whose political advantage all this is. But there is something much sadder about this and many related events. There are hundreds of teenagers who have been turned into anarchists. I mean this quite literally. Kids from nice middle-class frum homes (many of them kids of Olim from the U.S.) have dropped out of high school, grown wild peyos ("not that there's anything wrong with that"), and now bop around aimlessly with guitars in between looking for fights with the army. This is not healthy. These kids have been shattered by the betrayal of every organization in this country that is meant to represent law and order. Individually, they are lost souls crying out for help. Collectively, they are dangerous. Unfortunately, the government is doing everything possible to further alienate them.

We are headed for a big bad explosion.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Vayechi always gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. Let me tell you why. From second grade through fifth grade, we learned chumash word for word with Yiddish "taitch". Each week we'd do the sedra as far as we got. (To this day, the parts after shishi and all of the summer sedras don't have the same familiarity to me as the parts we actually covered back then in girsa deyankusa.) The process never deviated from its regular pattern -- chumash word, Yiddish taitch, chumash word, Yiddish taitch, ad infinitum. You can imagine -- or if you had the same education, you recall -- that it could get a bit tedious.

There was one major exception. When we'd get to the verse va'ani bevo'i mi'Padan, we'd break away from the text into a special chant in Yiddish paraphrasing the midrash cited there in Rashi. Rashi describes Yakov apologizing to Yosef for burying Rachel outside Beis Lechem, rather than in the Maaras haMachpela, and explaining that Rachel will pray for her descendants as they pass her tomb on the way into exile and God will console her with the words ve'shavu banim ligvulom.

Is there another midrash as deeply moving as this one? (I recall reading that one Rav refused to give a haskamah to Mendelson's biur solely because he did not cite this midrash in his explanation of the verse.) The combination of the profoundness of the midrash and the nostalgia for the innocence of childhood evoked by recollections of that chant, brings me to tears every time we read vayechi. (And this completely apart from the fact that I have lived to pass Rachel's tomb on the way back from exile in realization of God's promise to her. Yesh sachar lifeulatech.)

Do you know what I mean?

Friday, January 13, 2006

For all those following internal Likud politics (and I hope that's not too many of you), the results are now in. I mentioned in an earlier post that 8 of the 26 current and recent MKs would get knocked out and speculated which they might be. Five of the ones I mentioned as likely losers (Hazan, Gorlovsky, Gavriely, David Levy, Gila Gamliel) were indeed knocked out, but three others (Ness, Haim Katz, Ben-Lulu) got in. Instead the three other losers were three very worthy candidates, Michi Ratzon, Ehud Yatom and Ayoub Kara. It was sad to see Ratzon walk off with his head hanging down, alone and forlorn, while others celebrated. The four good candidates whom I was worried about (Sharansky, Edelstein, Eitan and Shteinitz) all got in.

Michael Fuah, the candidate of Manhigut Yehudit, was slaughtered by Danny Danon, who lead all candidates on the sector lists. Manhigut not only lost badly, it looked foolish doing so. Manhigut gave little support to Uzi Landau and Yuli Edelstein, probably the two most worthy candidates, because of perceived slights to Michael Fuah. Both won anyway, but Moshe Feiglin will now have to explain to his constituents, who have great respect for Landau and Edelstein and don't really give a damn about petty little deals, why Manhigut preferred Haim Katz and Yisrael Katz, two sleazy operators, over those two. In at least one case, Manhigut may actually have caused the best candidate (Shimon Gapso, running in the North) to lose to an inferior candidate (Zion Pinian) as a result of a deal. Altogether, a pretty good day for the Likud, a carastrophe for Manhigut Yehudit.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I'm getting asked about Intelligent Design (ID) an awful lot lately. Here's the deal:

There are three parts to the ID argument.

The first part is purely mathematical. It consists mainly of drawing a distinction between two types of complexity. Roughly speaking, we can say that the complexity of an object -- which, for convenience, we might represent as a string of 0s and 1s -- is the length of the shortest formal description of the object (or, more formally, the length of the shortest program that generates the string). But this complexity measure conflates two different types of complexity: meaningful complexity (something is hard to describe because it embodies profound patterns) and randomness (something is hard to describe because it embodies no pattern at all).

The second part is biological. It consists of the argument that nature presents us with phenomena with very high levels of meaningful complexity and that the mechanisms described by current theories of evolution are inadequate for generating such phenomena.

The third part is theological. It is prefaced by the observation that if all phenomena submitted to mechanistic explanations, the "God hypothesis" would be of no value (a point not lost on some of the most tendentious proponents of evolution). The main point is the faith claim that not all phenomena submit to mechanistic explanations.

Note that the second part argues against the adequacy of a given mechanism for particular phenomena, while the third argues against the adequacy of any mechanism(s) for all phenomena. Neither part implies the other.

The math is interesting and ought not generate much controversy. The questions raised in the biology part are worth exploring, but I have no idea if the central biological claim of ID will turn out to be right. I am, however, certain of one thing: As religious Jews, we have no dog in that fight. It is the height of stupidity to predicate one's religious commitments on the outcome of a particular scientific debate.

As for the theological part, I like it. It determines a point of view which is religious in the good sense and unfalsifiable in the scientific sense. But you don't need ID for it.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Let me try to sort out my conflicting feelings about Sharon's plight. First of all, now that he reminds me less of Il Duce and more of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, my heart truly goes out to him. I pray for his recovery -- as a human being, as a Jew, and as one who in the past was a great leader. In fact, as much as I disagree with what he has done for the past three years and, especially, with the way he has done it, I know that there is no steadier hand on the trigger when something needs to get done. After him, we face the danger of small fry committed to some fiction called "Moreshet Sharon" but without any of the qualities of leadership necessary to put on the brakes when necessary. Been there, done that, got burned.

But let me not sound pious. I do not wish to see Sharon return to politics. (DELETED) The man has been a serious menace. There is nothing more dangerous than the kind of autocrat, accustomed to being surrounded by flunkies and yes-men, whose wife has died. For such people, wives are the last reality check and when they go, all restraint goes with it. (Think of Rav Shach zt"l or, yibadel lechaim arukim, Rav Ovadiah Yosef.)

I am especially not sorry (under the circumstances, the phrase "positively gleeful" seems inappropriate) about the plight of all of Sharon's flunkies. In retrospect, the creation of Kadimah was akin to luring all the slimiest Israeli politicians onto the Titanic. Without Sharon, it will sink slowly but surely, with Israel's two most despised politicians, Olmert and Peres, squabbling over control of the lifeboats. With any luck, Tzippi Livni -- whose utter lack of charm, grace and charisma is occasionally mistaken for intelligence -- will go down with them. Uri Dan, who no longer serves any useful purpose, will be out of a job by the end of the week. Omri Sharon, who just lost his get-out-of-jail-free card, will not pass Go and will not collect $200.

Oh, the humanity.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Ben Chorin's official call for a Lunatic Truce:

1. I, Lefty Loony, do hereby swear not to blame the right for causing Sharon's stroke by impugning his integrity.

2. I, Righty Loony, do hereby swear not to attribute Sharon's stroke to divine punishment for specific crimes against Judaism.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

There are eight days left until the Likud primaries. I'll try to briefly explain what's going on.

The head of the party, who is by definition number 1 on the Knesset list is chosen by all paid members of the party, of which there are about 130,000. This vote took place a couple of weeks ago and Bibi won with 44% of the vote. Had he received less tha 40%, he'd have faced a runoff with Sylvain Shalom, who came in second. Moshe Feiglin took 12.4% of the vote. For what it's worth, in My Little Town, the vote was Feiglin-169, Bibi-102, Shalom-4.

The rest of the party list is chosen by the Central Committee members, of which there about 3000. Each CC member chooses 15 names off a list of somewhere over 100 candidates. The candidates are ranked from 2 to 18 in order of the number of votes each received. The slots from 19 down to where-it-don't-matter are reserved for the highest vote getter in a variety of sectors. For example, the highest "Tel Aviv" vote getter gets the 19 slot, the highest "Moshavim" candidate gets the 23 slot, and so forth. Current and former MKs are not eligible for the sector seats so that only 18 of these have a shot at getting in. There are 25 current Likud MKs (plus Natan Sharansky who is not currently an MK but was one) who have not defected to Kadima so 8 of them are cooked. Who will they be?

There are several of them who snuck in on the sector seats last time and are obvious losers with little real support. These are Ben-Lulu, Gavrieli, Gorlovsky and Hazan. (Note that this list is unrelated to pro/con disengagement: Hazan and Gorlovsky were anti-disengagement, Ben-Lulu waivered and Gavrieli supported it but is too big an idiot to even squeeze into Kadima.) David Levy is totally washed out and a likely loser. Leah Ness, Gila Gamliel and Haim Katz are very iffy. Ness snuck in last time on one of the women's slots but had little impact; Gamliel actually did well last time and is high profile but, despite generally opposing disengagement, she rather inelegantly supported Sharon on some critical votes in exchange for a short-lived stint as a deputy minister; Haim Katz controls a block of Israel Aircraft union people which he is attempting to parlay into a slot but is otherwise uninteresting.

If the above 8 names are indeed the losers, the world will not be a worse place when we wake up next Friday. On the other hand, the four smartest returning candidates -- Sharansky, Yuli Edelstein, Miki Eitan and Yuval Shteinitz -- do face some risk. The first two because many CC members will vote for one ex-Prisoner of Zion but not two, and the latter two because they supported disengagement. This is a pity because Eitan and Shteinitz were actually the two most effective MKs in minimizing the damage of the disengagement. Shteinitz single-handedly defeated Sharon's insane idea of bringing thousands of heavily armed Egyptian troops into Sinai and Eitan has led the battles for the civil and economic rights of those expelled from Azza. They aslo are excellent parliamentarians who will bring more credit to the party than some of the bozos on the list.

One name I didn't mention among candidates for the top 18 seats is Moshe Feiglin and herein lies a tale. There are 120 CC members affiliated with Feiglin and about 400 who support him. Now the rules of the game are simple. Let's be conservative and say that Feiglin can deliver 100 votes to any candidate he decides he likes. Assuming that each of the 100 will use one of their 15 names for Feiglin and one for his partner, Michael Fuah (who is running for the Moshavim slot at 23), this leaves room for 13 different candidates to whom Feiglin can promise 100 votes each in exchange for them promising Feiglin and Fuah the support of their people. (Admittedly, there are some constraints here: most candidates don't have such big armies to promise and the number of credible candidates is small in any case.) This ought to have been enough to drive Feiglin and Fuah right up to the top of the list. But that's not how it has played out. In fact, Feiglin dropped out of the race for lack of any realistic chance of getting one of the top 18 slots and Fuah is trailing for the Moshavim slot against a non-entity named Danny Danon.

How did this happen? To make a long story short, Feiglin refused to drop out of the race for head of the party, when doing so would have guaranteed Bibi's victory over Sylvain Shalom. (Of course, in hindsight it didn't matter but this was not clear at the time.) His reasoning was that
1. He cared more about establishing himself as a potential head of the party than getting into the Knesset.
2. If he'd have forced a runoff between Bibi and Sylvain, he'd have been able to extract big promises from Bibi in exchange for his support in the runoff.

But, as everybody with a brain asked, what if as a result of Feiglin's candidacy, Sylvain had actually won? (Not to belabor the point, Sylvain is a complete gornisht whose only "asset" is a wife who's rich enough to be vulgar and shameless and who would have destroyed the Likud and the country.) To this Feiglin and Fuah made quite clear that they really didn't give a damn. There is no hierarchy of virtue: all those who are not one-of-us are the selbe dreck. This is the kind of lunacy that I hear from my friends and neighbors every day, except that none of them is actually presuming to run the country. Suffice it to say, it did not go over well in the Likud, which has always been of a more -- let me use a generous word -- "pragmatic" mindset. Now nobody of any consequence is prepared to cut a deal with Feiglin and Fuah. As Yogi might say, they have truly snatched defeat from the clutches of victory.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Last year's Purim torah for Chanukah, for those who missed it.

My Eishes Chaver and I took the progeny up North for the end of Chanukah. On Thursday we went skiing in the Hermon and then we spent Shabbos shtiebel-hopping in Tzfat. I like to hedge my bets.

Breslov on Friday night was fine -- the davening was (unsurprisingly) not very different from that of Breslov in Katamon but about twenty times the size. Shabbos morning we went to Kossov, which several people had recommended, but it seems to have fallen on hard times. The baal shachris was appropriately attired and coiffed but had nisht ka shtimmer, nisht ka nisach, nisht ka ivra (no voice, no style, no Hebrew). I've got nothing but admiration for people who trade Burger King for Melech HaMashiach or the New School for New Square, but I sometimes wish they'd hold off on the frock and payos until they've mastered the patach genuvah. After Hallel, we escaped to the happy (Carlebach) minyan in the Beirav Shul, which was crowded with American fellas learning in the Mir. The chosson bochurim wore scarves.

Just to prove that I'm unteachable, we went back to Kossov for mincha. The guy with the key to the aron koidesh was late so they lained after chazaras hashatz. They also do hagbah before laining and not after so that if only they'd have saved Ashrei for the end, we'd have had a perfectly backwards davening.

On Sunday we davened shachris in Sanz. Here's a tip: never go to the last shachris in a minyan factory. These people have absolutely nothing to do next and davening in such a minyan is like riding the slow train to nowhere.

On the way home, we stopped off at at Kever Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. It's a full-service stop: Rashbi presides over picnic tables, souvenir stands (I couldn't find a model of the site in a glass bubble with snow) and Hare Kr, um, Na Nach Nachman guys jumping and chanting. My People.