Sunday, October 29, 2006

On the face of it, Yisrael Beiteinu settled for way to low a price in exchange for propping up a weak coalition. They got one minister (as opposed to the four that Shas has) and their demands on civil marriage and further withdrawals were not met. What gives?

The answer is that Olmert's preferred coalition all along has been with Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Yahadut Hatorah and the Pensioners. The reason is simple. All those parties are one-man shows and hence very easy to deal with as opposed to the rudderless Labor Party. He needed Labor for the "Hitkansut" but now that that's off the table, he's going back to the original plan. He's got three out of four parties in and he's been amazingly obsequious towards Yahadut Hatorah lately. Once he gets them in, he'll happily let Labor leave the coalition. Obviously, the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu is that they get little now, but if they wait patiently for Labor to leave, they get all the goodies ahead of Likud.

I just want to briefly discuss some of the flaws in the government restructuring bill proposed by Kadimah and endorsed last week by the government. This bill made a lot less noise than Lieberman's proposal but is more likely to ultimately get passed.

--The bill proposes that the head of the largest party should be the default candidate for Prime Minister. This is not a good idea. The largest party could very well not be all that large and other smaller parties that are collectively larger might be more coherent. In fact, this method is usually proposed by those who wish to harm the small parties by scaring voters into voting for a party with a chance to be largest. Apart from forcing the voter to vote against his conscience, this strategy is based on the false premise that small parties are bad for governance. This is actually not true since a multiplicity of parties creates more potential coalitions.

--The bill proposes that the threshold for bringing down the Knesset and the threshold for bringing down the government should both be raised from 61 MKs to 70 MKs. But the threshold for bringing down the government and for bringing down the Knesset are two very different animals. It makes perfect sense to raise the threshold for bringing down the Knesset. The voters voted them in and are entitled to have their choice for a full term. On the other hand, the idea that 61 MKs support a specific alternative government but can't change governments (until they have 70) is both conceptually flawed and, ironically, damaging to the very stability the proposal wishes to achieve. As the elected representatives of the people, any majority in the Knesset is the sovereign. If such a majority is barred from replacing the government, it means that there exists an alternative government with greater support than the existing one. This is an untenable situation, theoretically and practically. In fact, the easier you make it to form a new majority government, the easier it will be to avoid hopeless deadlocks.

--The bill proposes that Knesset elections go over to the open-list proportional method in which each voter for a party gets to choose his preferred candidates from that party's list. This is a great way to slightly tweak the system to increase accountability. However, in some ways this particular version of the method gives the voters too much and in some ways it gives them too little. It gives too much because if the head of the list is a potential Prime Minister (see above), he should be identified in advance so that voters can make an informed choice. In short, the person in the top position should be meshuryan.

To understand why it gives the voters too little, we need to take note of the fact that the proposal offers voters the possibility of simply checking a box that says "I agree to the party's default ordering of candidates". Experience in Belgium and other countries where this has been tried shows that when this option is offered, most voters are lazy and use it. In addition, a candidate's final ranking is the average of his ranking among the voters and his ranking in the party's default list. As a result, it is very unlikely that we'll ever get anything that varies much from the default list. (Also this averaging will lead to ties and no tie-breaker is included in the law.) An alternative method would be to order all candidates who exceeeded a predetermined threshold in order of votes received and then fill out the list in the default order. There are many other more complicated methods, but this post is way too technical already. (Why am I not getting an argument about that from anyone?)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Knesset is back in session and there was much activity this week. I spoke on religion and state but I'll write about that another time. Now I want to briefly discuss the two bills for restructuring the political system that were supported by the government this week. First, I should point out that neither of these is going to pass any time soon. Nevertheless, they've generated much discussion and from the distorted reports on them in the media it's apparent that few people have actually read the texts of these proposals.

In this post I'll summarize the content of the laws and in the next one I'll analyze their advantages and flaws.

Avigdor Lieberman's proposed law strengthens the Prime Minister. It's main points are:

1. The Prime Minister is directly elected.

2. The winning candidate must get 50% of the votes. If no candidate manages that, there is a runoff between the top two candidates.

3. Elections for the Prime Minister are tied to Knesset elections. Whenever there are Knesset elections there are elections for Prime Minister. In rare circumstances, 80 MKs can force new elections for PM without Knesset elections.

4. Either 61 MKs or the PM himself can force new Knesset elections and hence new elections for PM.

5. The PM can choose his own ministers without obtaining Knesset approval. However, 70 MKs can depose a minister.

6. An MK cannot simultaneously serve as a minister. (Around here this is called the "Norwegian Law".)

7. The PM has expanded war powers and emergency powers.

8. The minimum threshold for a party to be represented in the Knesset is 10%.

The first four were tried already in the past. The other four haven't been tried yet in Israel.

So much for Lieberman's proposal. As part of the deal for the government to lend its support to this proposal, the government also agreed to support a proposal by (Kadima MK) Menahem Ben-Sasson that contradicts Lieberman's proposal and is much less dramatic in terms of the changes to the system. Here are its main points:

1. As is the case now (and unlike Lieberman's proposal), there is no separate ballot for Prime Minister. The head of the largest party automatically gets first shot to form a government.

2. The Knesset can bring itself down or, alternatively, can bring the government down with the support of 70 MKs. (Now 61 are enough for each of these.)

3. When a voter chooses a party, he can also specify a preference for particular candidates on that party's list. A candidate's final ranking on his party's list is determined as the average of his ranking by the voters and his initial ranking in the party's list.

4. Norwegian Law.

Both of these plainly contradictory proposals purport to increase the power of the voter and to stabilize the government. The second one isn't as bad as the first but both would wreak havoc. I'll explain why in my next post.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The constitution I co-wrote is written up today in Haaretz. (I can link this one because my name doesn't appear in the article.) I'm relieved to see that we're too right-wing for their taste.

Apropos that, here's a snippet from vaadat chukah today:
RG: Some groups (meaning Haredim and Arabs) are acting like trempistim (hitch-hikers) with regard to the process of drafting a constitution.
(Balad MK) Bishara: It looks like me and (Yahadut Hatorah MK) Gafni are stuck in the same car. I wonder where it's headed.
RG: I'm glad you two didn't attack me for the metaphor.
Gafni (jokingly): Don't worry. When we (Haredim and Arabs) become the majority, we'll remember what you said.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A serious posek in the U.S. just called to discuss the milk problem. I mentioned the lenient ruling of the Minchas Usher but he did not sound convinced. He is of the opinion that once the milk is mixed, we should follow the numbers: if it is highly likely that more than 1/60 of this milk is not kosher, then the mixture is not kosher.

Sounds like trouble coming down the pike for milk drinkers.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

[Thursday night] I don’t generally stay up all night for tikkun leil hoshanah rabba. So I feel awfully guilty about staying up tonight for a certain non-learning event that begins at 2:19 AM Israel Standard Time. I offer the following divrei torah by way of penance.

[Next morning] My intention was to type up the torah while I watched the game but I couldn’t tear myself away from the game screen (I don’t have cable so I watch on So I ended up scribbling notes on paper and am typing it up now. (I should mention that vasikin was scheduled for 5:00 and at 4:54, Guillermo Mota went to a 3-0 count to the potential tying run with Albert Pujols on deck. The tragic unfolding of events, including my screwing up my last chance at redemption by blowing vasikin, seemed utterly inevitable. But, B”H, Mota found the plate, got out of the inning and I headed off to shul. Hamtakas hadin mamesh.)

Anyhow, the torah I want to discuss involves a practical question that an old friend tells me has been troubling a prominent talmid chakham in the U.S. It seems that there is a well-established statistical rule that some non-negligible fixed percentage (let’s say 10%) of milking cows turn out to be treifos, though at the milking stage we have no way of knowing whether a given cow is one of the treifos or not. In any given randomly selected large herd of cows it is very likely that the percentage of treifos is close to 10%. The combined milk of the herd therefore includes a high proportion of non-kosher milk, certainly well in excess of 1/60. Should industrial milk therefore be ruled non-kosher?

The question is interesting not only because of its practical consequences but also because it forces us to think about some very fundamental questions involving the use of uncertain reasoning in halacha. The first thing that should be pointed out is that no legal system actually employs probabilistic reasoning in the ideal sense that a math geek might think appropriate. A math geek might reason as follows: conclusion C holds if and only some specified combination of premises hold. So let’s estimate the probabilities of each of the premises and glom them together to compute some estimated probability for C. In real life, this never works. First of all, except for certain very artificial cases, we don’t have plausible numerical estimates of probabilities for the premises. Second, we can only easily glom the probabilities together by assuming that the various premises are independent of each other, which they almost never are. These kinds of calculations are invariably messy, if not downright intractable, and the results (“there’s a 78% chance that he is the killer, is of sound mind and did not act in self-defense”) don’t often sound especially convincing.

What we actually do in real life is to look at each premise in isolation and decide if the probability that it is true is reasonably close to 1 or not. Once we do that the rest is simple. This is pretty much how it works with halacha as well. Let’s consider some increasingly difficult examples of how halacha deals with uncertainty and mixtures, until we can reach some conclusion about the milk. (I admit that I could just jump right to the end but I want to make some important intermediate points anyway.)

Let’s start with a herd of cows about which we know for certain that exactly 10% of the cows are treifos, though we don’t know which. We milk a single cow. Is this milk kosher? In any case of a mixed (e.g., kosher and non-kosher) set of objects, in which we can’t distinguish the kosher objects from the non-kosher ones, the first question is whether we can simply determine that the minority is batel. If so, our problem is solved. All the objects have the majority status. Let’s start numbering our conclusions:

1. When bitul applies, each object has the status of the majority.

Let’s think about how seriously, we are willing to take this conclusion. Surely, if we choose a single object from a set consisting of mostly kosher objects, there is a chance greater than half that it is kosher. But what if we start eating our way through the set? The odds that at least one of the ones we eat is non-kosher are very high and getting higher with each bite. Nevertheless, there is no dispute that as long as we are not necessarily eating a non-kosher object, we can keep eating. More precisely:

2. If bitul applies to a set with k non-kosher objects (and more than k kosher objects), we can certainly eat all but k objects from the set.

Can we eat more than that? To take it to an extreme, can we eat all the objects in the set? The argument against is obvious: even if we don’t know which of the objects is non-kosher, it is impossible that we would not be eating some non-kosher object. (Let’s call this argument the “impossibility argument”.) The argument in favor is that once bitul is invoked the entire set is regarded as a kosher set. This point is disputed by the rishonim with the Tosfos Rid taking the stringent view and the Rosh taking the lenient view.

3. If bitul applies to a set with k non-kosher objects constituting the minority, there are varying opinions regarding whether we can eat more than all but k objects from the set.

In any event, in the particular case of the cows that we consider here, bitul does not apply because bitul does not apply to sets of animals.

What do we do when bitul does not apply? Here we need to distinguish between two cases. If we select a cow from an “integral herd”, then the principle of kavua is invoked. Selecting a cow from an integral herd means that the herd has not broken up and the cow selected had not broken off from the herd prior to its selection. According to this principle, the set itself is irreducibly mixed (it contains both kosher and non-kosher objects) and the object selected inherits that mixed (mechtza al mechtza) status. In most cases, including our cow scenario, this would mean that we rule stringently.

4. If we select a cow from an integral mixed herd, the cow inherits the “mixed” status of the herd and, in practice, its milk would be forbidden.

Suppose now that three quarters of the herd has remained whole and we select one cow from this depleted herd. Do we still invoke kavua? If we are willing to ignore certain complicating factors, we can answer unequivocally that kavua does not apply here because the depleted herd lacks the crucial property of ischazek issura. That is, we can’t say that the herd is a mixed herd since it may be that all the cows in the depleted herd are kosher. (Recall that we know that exactly 10% of the cows in the original herd are non-kosher and that 25% of the cows in the original herd have left the herd.)

5. If we select a cow from a herd that does not necessarily include any non-kosher cows, the principle of kavua is not invoked.

So let’s consider now what happens in those cases where kavua is not invoked. If we do not select a particular cow from an integral set, that is, if the herd has broken up prior to our selecting a cow or if the cow in question had wandered off prior to our selecting it (parish), then the selected cow is simply deemed to be from the majority (mi-ruba parish).

6. If we select a cow that originated in the herd but is not, at the time of selection, part of the mixed integral herd, then the cow is deemed to be from the majority.

Now let’s consider the analogs of cases 3 and 4 above. Can parish be applied multiple times to cows from the same set? It is clear (see, for example, Zevachim 74b) that in fact it can. I don’t know of any source, however, that deals with the application of parish to eating the entire set, but it is reasonable to assume that, at least in this regard, the application of parish would be analogous to the application of bitul.

7. Principle 2 and 3 above apply to parish as well.

Until now we have discussed the cows as discrete entities. Let’s now complicate matters yet further by considering what happens when the milk from the cows is mixed. Imagine that we have milked all the cows in the herd and mixed the milk together. First, suppose that the herd remained an integral herd, so that the principle of kavua applies to the herd. The milk would certainly be forbidden.

8. If the principle of kavua applies to the herd and the combined milk includes more than 1/60 non-kosher milk, the milk is not kosher.

Suppose, though, that less than 1/60 of the milk is from non-kosher cows. If we simply apply the rules of bitul relevant to homogeneous (e.g., liquid) mixtures, the milk would be permitted. However, the milk was obtained from a set to which kavua applies so that each animal in the set actually has the status mechtza al mechtza. That is, we don’t actually have more than 59/60 of the herd that are kosher but rather an entire herd of cows with a status of “mixed”. In such a case, I conjecture (somebody please prove either that I’m right or that I’m wrong) that the rule of bitul in homogeneous mixtures does not apply.

9. If the principle of kavua applies to the herd, the combined milk is not kosher even if less than 1/60 is from non-kosher cows.

Now suppose that we have mixed the milk of the entire herd but that kavua does not apply, but rather either bitul or parish applies. Does the dispute mention in principle 3 (and implicitly in principle 7) above apply here as well?

Let’s begin with the easy case in which it is known that less than 1/60 of the milk is not kosher. The Rosh, who would permit eating the whole herd, would certainly permit the milk. And, in fact, even Tosfos Rid, who ruled that one couldn’t eat the whole herd, would simply invoke the rule of bitul in homogeneous mixtures to permit the milk.

10. If kavua does not apply to the herd and less than 1/60 of the combined milk comes from non-kosher animals, the milk is kosher.

But now let’s consider the harder case where more than 1/60 of the mixture is from non-kosher animals. Tosfos Rid, who ruled that one couldn’t eat the entire herd, would certainly have no grounds to permit drinking the milk. But the Rosh, who permits eating the whole herd on the grounds that every cow in the herd is treated as kosher once bitul/parish has been invoked, could argue that the milk of the whole set is kosher by extension. This would be analogous with the conjectured principle 9 in that once the status of the set has been established, the rule of bitul in homogeneous mixtures does not apply.

11. If kavua does not apply to the herd and more than 1/60 of the combined milk comes from non-kosher animals, the dispute of principle 3 applies.

Let’s complicate matters a bit. Suppose now that we have not taken milk from the entire herd but rather from some fraction of the herd. Assume that the fraction of milked cows is small enough that there are not necessarily any non-kosher cows among those that are milked. Then two conclusions follow. First, kavua cannot be invoked with regard to the milked set since we do not have ischazek issura (see principle 5). Second, Tosfos Rid could not invoke the impossibility argument. Thus, according to both Tosfos Rid and the Rosh, once the cows in the milked set are deemed kosher, the milk would be kosher by extension and the rule of bitul (or non-bitul) in homogeneous mixtures would not be applied here.

12. If a majority of the herd is kosher and a given sub-herd does not necessarily include any non-kosher cows, then the combined milk of that sub-herd is kosher.

Until now, we have considered cases where we know the proportion of non-kosher cows in the herd. Suppose now that we only know that generally about 10% of cows are non-kosher but we know nothing about this particular herd. Which of the above principles carry over?

Let’s start with a simple question. Can we drink milk from a random cow given that we know nothing about the kashrus of this cow other than the general statistical rule that 90% of cows are kosher? Indeed we can since this statistical rule is a recognized ruba de-leisa kaman [=RDLK]. (In those cases where there is a presumption that contravenes the RDLK and the RDLK is not an overwhelming one, R. Meir would not invoke the RDLK (chaishinan le-miuta). But there is no contravening presumption in our case and, in any event, we don’t hold like R. Meir.)

13. If most cows are kosher and we know nothing special about a given cow (or about any closed set of which it is a member), we can presume that the cow is kosher.

Suppose that we have some very large herd of cows about which we know nothing special beyond the general statistical rule that 90% of cows are kosher. For convenience, let’s call this herd H. Is the mixture of milk obtained from H permitted? This is the very practical question from which we began. It is true that it is highly likely that the mixture contains about 10% non-kosher milk. But does this matter?

In fact, this case is almost identical to the case of principle 12. Think of the herd in principle 12 about which we know the proportions of kosher and non-kosher cows as being the set of all (real or hypothetical) cows. Think of H as being the sub-herd in principle 12 from which we have taken our milk. Regardless of how large H is, it is theoretically possible that H includes no non-kosher cows. Thus, there is no ischazek issura, no kavua, and no impossibility argument. Consequently, just as in principle 12, the entire set H is regarded as a kosher set. We simply apply the RDLK to each cow in H. As in principle 2 (for bitul) and it’s analog in principle 7 (for parish), there is no limit to the number of times that we can invoke RDLK so long as it does not run up against an impossibility argument.

14. If most cows are kosher, then the combined milk of a herd of cows is kosher.

This resolves the practical question that motivated this discussion. I should add that, since I am utterly unqualified to pasken anything, I would never be so audacious if not for the fact that Rav Usher Weiss has paskened leniently on this exact matter. See Minchas Usher on Sefer Shemot, Siman 43.

Also, I have no negiah here. I am lactose intolerant and have not eaten dairy products in 18 years.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Rather than following the customary practice of reviewing the quality of the chazzanus on Yom Kippur (“Shaya outdid himself”, “Moishe should give up the breitel already”), I want to say a few words about the davening itself.

If you break Yom Kippur davening down to its components, you’ll find that each is somewhat problematic.

God is great. Well, yeah, but when it comes to absolutes, less is more. As Rabbi Chanina points out (Berakhot 33b), all praise of God is inadequate so the very endeavor is an insult.

We are bad. Also true (speaking for myself) but formulaic viduy actually diminishes the desired sense of personal responsibility. And whose idea was alphabetization, which has got to be the worst conceivable organizing principle for sins? I actually dutifully mumble my way through that stuff and then offer a free form recounting of this year’s failures and transgressions. (The list is depressingly familiar so that my little wait-till-next-year chat with the Ribboino Shel Oilam is fairly lame; it’s not even crude or naive enough to feature in a Baal Shem Tov story).

Our lives are vulnerable and fleeting. About five meters from me in shul sits a person younger than me who is in the advanced stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. (His daughter reads the viduy for him despite the fact that if there is a person on earth who has done no sins this year, it is he.) Under the circumstances, the message of human frailty comes through with considerably more power when I look up from my machzor than when I look into it. (One can also learn from this remarkable man the meaning of forbearance and grace but that is for another discussion.)

Beis Hamikdash rituals. These are better learned at home than davened in shul.

So what is left? I’ll tell you. What is left is the knowledge that these very words and some of the tunes we use for them were read by our forefathers in grand synagogues and dank caves, in times of prosperity and times of persecution, in hundreds of countries most of which have long since disappeared from the face of the earth. They were read by chassidim and misnagdim, sefardim and ashkenazim, assimilated Jews and contrite apostates. They were read in ghettoes and concentration camps and labor camps and refugee camps.

By reading these words and singing these songs, we connect with our ancestors and with the values in the name of which they lived and died in ways far more profound than can be articulated in words. By reading these words and singing these songs together, we connect viscerally with each other and with all Jews and, in this way, we connect to the Bashefer.

So, for me at least, ninety percent of Yom Kippur davening is just showing up. Nine percent more is having my lame chat with the RSO and the last percent is my fervent prayer that the baal tefillah won’t try to outdo himself by doing Unesaneh Toikef to the theme song of some sitcom.