Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Mah Rabu goes international!

We've been picked up by Blind Janitor, a music website in Hebrew. Scroll down to #45 (under 2006-01-27). For those who can't read the Hebrew: (my translation; please correct it if it's wrong)

[Thanks to Sagol 59], who writes: The excellent Jewish blog Mah Rabu has found the ultimate soundtrack to listen to on Friday, just before the beginning of Shabbat. We're talking about none other than the 1992 album considered by many to be R.E.M.'s best. But that's not all: The blog has found a parallel between the contents of Automatic for the People and the contents of kabbalat Shabbat itself, including the psalms and prayers said in it according to tradition. What comes out is the most gripping and surprising article you'll read this Shabbat. [English]

Monday, January 30, 2006

Trees are blowing in the wind, they're blowing

All you environmentalists, kabbalists, and Zionists might think that the new year for trees is next fortnight, but followers of Beit Shammai know that it's RIGHT NOW! Happy new year!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

From time to time

Exodus 13:10 says that Pesach shall be observed "mi-yamim yamimah", literally "from days to days". But this has been understood to mean "from year to year", and thus we have Pesach once a year.

The early interpreters of the U.S. Constitution must have been familiar with rabbinic exegesis. Article II says that the President "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." The text specifies nothing about the frequency of this presidential requirement, nor have there (to my knowledge) been any legislation or Supreme Court decisions refining this clause. However, the Constitution shebe-'al peh has always understood the State of the Union address (whether in person or in writing) to be an annual obligation, interpreting "from time to time" to mean "from year to year". This is halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai.

King George's sixth (and antepenultimate!) State of the Union Address will be this Tuesday night. Before it starts, be sure to take the State of the Union Predictions Quiz, and prognosticate everything from the color of his tie to the presence of purple fingers. During the address, play the State of the Union Drinking Game! I'll be playing a non-alcoholic version and getting trashed on Leo's. All are invited over here.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Throw the bums out

The results are worrisome. Both Hamas and the Conservative Party of Canada have achieved upset electoral victories this week. But what does it mean? Have Canadians abandoned their progressive traditions? Are the Palestinian voters set on prolonging the conflict? More likely, in both cases, the electorate has had enough of a party that it perceives to be corrupt and ineffectual, and wants an alternative, regardless of ideology.

This trend bodes well for the US congressional elections in November. If it keeps up, the Democrats will garner the support not only of the 50%+ of Americans who agree with the Democratic platform, but even of conservatives who are fed up with Republican corruption and incompetence and are ready for a change.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I can always sleep standing up

Catching up on the Limmud NY blogging, which is far from liveblogging at this point:

The Automatic for the People kabbalat shabbat made its New York State debut at Limmud NY, after a number of appearances in New England. It wasn't actually one of the kabbalat shabbat options; it was just a session on Friday afternoon. It happened to be scheduled at the same time as (and next door to) the panel on "Is Hip Enough?", so I suggested that this session constituted one answer to that question, but I wasn't sure whether it was yes or no. (Probably no, since R.E.M. hasn't been hip for about 20 years.)

The AFTP kabbalat shabbat is exactly what it sounds like: we sang all the words of kabbalat shabbat set to all the music of R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People. But before that, we discussed how this came about, and why Automatic for the People and kabbalat shabbat actually fit together; this wasn't simply a Purim-style contrafactum.

The story begins in the 16th century. The mystics of Tzfat would go out into the fields and greet Shabbat with the song Lecha Dodi, around which the whole kabbalat shabbat (welcoming Shabbat) service developed. Six psalms were added before it (Psalms 95-99 and 29), corresponding to the six days of creation, and sharing the common theme of God as sovereign over all creation. Two psalms were added after it (Psalms 92-93), corresponding to Shabbat itself; Psalm 92 is titled "Mizmor shir le-yom ha-shabbat" going all the way back.

Fast forward to 1992. The Georgia-based band R.E.M. released its ninth (and often considered best) album, Automatic for the People. (In response to the questions that came up, no, the members of R.E.M. aren't Jewish, and yes, I consider it Jewish music.) AFTP had a different tone from all previous and subsequent R.E.M. albums, trading the usual rock sounds for a string ensemble. Rather than being just a great collection of songs, AFTP is a coherent work from beginning to end: most of the songs are in the same key (D), and the album is a journey from the arpeggiated D minor chord that begins "Drive" to the arpeggiated D major chord that ends "Find the River".

Fast forward about four more years, when I had started to get into R.E.M. I was between high school and college, and driving about 40 minutes each way to work, just enough time to listen to about one CD per drive. I listened to a lot of music that year. One Friday afternoon I popped in Automatic for the People for the drive home, providing excellent driving music from "Maybe I ride and maybe you walk" to "The photograph on the dashboard" to "Leave the road". But it wasn't just driving music. I realized that the journey of AFTP was the transition from the work week into Shabbat, from the agitation of "Drive" to the serenity of "Find the River". It became my minhag to listen to Automatic for the People on the way home every Friday.

Fast forward to spring 1999. If AFTP is the consummate pre-Shabbat music, why not combine it with the words of kabbalat Shabbat? I figured there were 10 things in kabbalat shabbat (Lecha Dodi with 6 psalms before and 2 psalms after, and I also included Yedid Nefesh at the beginning as is done in some communities) and 12 tracks on the album, so I took out "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" (because even though it's a great song (which i've once heard described as two robots playing ping-pong) and has an important role on the album as a breather after "Everybody Hurts", it's an instrumental (as the title would suggest) and there's no way to fit words to it) and "Star Me Kitten" (because it sucks), and set those 10 elements of kabbalat shabbat, in order, to the remaining 10 songs on AFTP. I didn't include Ana Be-choach, and it's fortuitously in exactly the right place for "Star Me Kitten", so if you disagree with my (and like everyone's) assessment of the song, feel free to experiment. Don't blame me if Nechuniah ben Hakanah jumps out of his grave.

So we did a few Automatic for the People kabbalat shabbat events at Hillel, and I plastered the campus with posters containing lines from the album: "Listen here, my sister and my brother", "Now it's time to sing along", "Nonsense isn't new to me", "TV tells a million lies", etc. We did it before Shabbat, so that anyone could attend regardless of their stance about musical instruments, and so that it wouldn't compete with the regular minyanim. The participants in attendance had never before prayed in the same room. I learned an important lesson about Jewish pluralism: the way to get people to sit down together meaningfully is to do something entirely outside the box.

As we did this more and more, I started to notice more correspondences between AFTP and kabbalat shabbat beyond the overall trend from agitation to serenity. The words and themes of individual psalms fit with the words and music of their corresponding song.

I'm not claiming that R.E.M. had this sequence of psalms in mind when they wrote Automatic for the People, and I'm certainly not claiming that the psalmist foretold the works of R.E.M. But I'm asserting my postmodern right to not care. I'm an agnostic about whether the Dark Side of the Rainbow had an intelligent designer, but that doesn't change my appreciation of it one way or the other.

So here goes:

Drive / Yedid Nefesh: Yedid Nefesh was written in the 16th century by Eliezer Azikri, as a love poem to God: just as acrostic love poems spell out the name of the addressee, the first letter of each verse of Yedid Nefesh spells out the name of God. It begins, as does "Drive", with simmering tension and desire. Yarutz avdach kemo ayal - your servant runs like a ram. "Maybe I ride, maybe you walk." Nafshi cholat ahavatach - my soul is sick with your love. "Maybe you're crazy in the head." And then, in the third stanza, the song EXPLODES! ANA EILI, MACHMAD LIBI, CHUSHAH NA, VE-AL TIT'ALAM! The gas leak of the work week is set on fire, the gas is consumed, and we're ready for... Shabbat!

Try Not to Breathe / Psalm 95: Directly from D minor into D major ("happier" by western convention). We've had our first catharsis and expressed our as-yet unrequited desire, and now we go into Lechu neranenah lAdonai - let's go sing to God!

A theme in this psalm, particularly in the last few verses, is memory. We recount the past, including the bad parts, so that we're ready to move beyond it. "I want you to remember." "I have seen things that you will never see."

The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite / Psalm 96: Unrequited desires, check. Painful memories, check. Now that we've gotten both of those out of the way, we're ready for unfettered joy! Shiru lAdonai kol ha-aretz! Sing to God, the whole world!!! I don't claim to know what the lyrics of this song are about ("a candy bar, a falling star, or a reading from Dr. Seuss"), but I know that it's the most exuberant song on the album, and that Psalm 96 is the most exuberant prayer in many Carlebach-influenced kabbalat shabbat services (and that's no accident, looking at the words).

Everybody Hurts / Psalm 97: This song paradoxically provides a message of hope by universalizing despair. "When you feel like you're alone ... everybody hurts". This meaning can be read back into the words of the psalm (even if that wasn't the original plain sense). Anan va-'arefel sevivav - Cloud and mist surround [God]. Yes, this was originally about mystery and majesty. But in contemporary American culture, clouds are a symbol of gloom and confusion. Even God is surrounded by clouds -- it doesn't get more universal than that! And yet! Eish lefanav teilech, fire goes before God. Hei'iru verakav teiveil, God's lightning lights up the world. Even when surrounded by these clouds, there is light. Ve-ra'u chol ha-'amim kevodo - all the nations see this. Everyone experiences this. And the triumphant conclusion: or zarua' la-tzadik. Light is sown for the righteous. Everyone experiences these clouds, and yet has the opportunity to have the darkness lit up.

Sweetness Follows / Psalm 98: Both Psalm 98 and Sweetness Follows encapsulate the central themes of kabbalat shabbat. "It's these little things, they can pull you under / Live your life filled with joy and wonder"-- or the second time through -- "Live your life filled with joy and thunder / Yeah, yeah we were altogether lost in our own little lives." Joy and thunder are the two central themes. During the week, we are "lost in our own little lives", but Shabbat is an escape from "these little things", as we instead focus on joy and thunder, recognizing the big picture.

Shiru lAdonai shir chadash ki nifla'ot 'asah - there's the thunder.
Zameru lAdonai be-chinor - and there's the joy.
Lifnei Adonai ki va lishpot ha-aretz - and we're back to the thunder.

Monty Got a Raw Deal / Psalm 99: Fear and trembling! Revelation! Bow down! The music shifts back into minor here (both on AFTP, and in some versions of nusach!) in recognition of these solemn themes. Perhaps this song has subtly influenced Kol Zimrah's frequent use of this Yah Ribon tune for Psalm 99.

Ignoreland / Psalm 29: Stand up! Building to the climax! The last day of creation before Shabbat, the last non-mellow song on AFTP, all of creation must recognize its creator! Kol Adonai chotzeiv lahavot eish! I feel better having screamed, don't you?

Man on the Moon / Lecha Dodi: The climax. The focal point of kabbalat shabbat, one of the most well-known songs on the album. Written as an elegy for Andy Kaufman which spawned a biopic of the same name (which I saw under unfortunate circumstances because I'm a clod, or at least I was at age 20), and that's not so relevant to Lecha Dodi. But it is relevant that the song has a bittersweet tone, recognizing the happy within the sad and vice versa. Rav lach shevet be-'eimek ha-bacha, too long have you dwelled in the valley of tears. And it's just a fun way to sing Lecha Dodi.

Nightswimming / Psalm 92: Mizmor shir le-yom ha-shabbat, a song for the Shabbat day. But what does that even mean? The content has nothing directly pertaining to Shabbat. Why is this, of all psalms, the "psalm for Shabbat"? The rabbis had an answer in Mishnah Tamid: they interpreted the title of this psalm (in a phrase popularized in birkat hamazon) as Mizmor shir le-'atid lavo, le-yom she-kulo shabbat u-mnuchah le-chayei ha-'olamim. A song for the future, for a day that is entirely Shabbat and rest, unto eternal life. Thus, this psalm can be understood as talking about an ideal time in the future, when God really really is in fact sovereign over everything (v'atah marom le-'olam Adonai), and when the righteous really flourish like palm trees (tzadik ka-tamar yifrach) and all the evildoers are scattered. Like the shadows in Plato's cave, Shabbat serves as a reflection of that ideal time in the future. Though we're not in that time yet, we can experience a taste of it through Shabbat.

"Nightswimming" is about exactly the same thing, except the ideal time it talks about is in the past, not the future. "The photograph on the dashboard taken years ago... / Every streetlight reveals a picture in reverse." "The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder." We're not experiencing that ideal time, or even an image of that time, but just a reflection of an image of that time. "It's not like years ago." We're very much not in that ideal time now. "These things they go away, replaced by every day." Here we return to the same theme as in "Sweetness Follows" ("It's these little things, they can pull you under..."). Because these things go away, it is ever more important to embrace Shabbat, which represents the ideals to which we strive, whether we project those ideals into the past or into the future.

Find the River / Psalm 93: Not only do AFTP and kabbalat shabbat end the same way, they even use the exact same metaphor: the river. The river represents eternity, as it did for Kohelet. As we enter Shabbat, we enter eternity. Eternity utters a day. "Pick up here and chase the ride / The river empties to the tide / All of this is coming your way." Adonai le-orech yamim.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Welcome, JIB Award voters!

[This post will remain at the top until JIB voting is over. Scroll down for new posts.]

Mah Rabu has been nominated for the Jerusalem Post's 2005 Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards in three categories: Best Jewish Religion Blog, Best New Blog 2005, and Best Post (for "Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism").

Voting is in progress!!! Vote early and often -- you're allowed to vote once every three days! Voting continues through January 19.

For those who are here for the first time, I haven't had time to post a lot recently, but here is a selection of relevant posts from this year, arranged by topic.

Contemporary American Judaism:

Jewish holidays:


Judaism and physics:


Monday, January 16, 2006

Welcome, Limmudnyks!

I just got back from Limmud NY, one of the few real-life examples of Stage 3 pluralism. We've been blogging about it over at Jewschool, where it has its very own category.

If you also just got back from the Catskills and arrived at this blog via the link in the back of the Limmud NY program book, then it's likely that you're looking for one of the following:

  • Kol Zimrah has monthly services in the style of Friday night's musical service, and the next one is this coming Friday night, January 20! All are invited.
  • Kol Zimrah's MP3 collection contains various tunes for kabbalat shabbat.
  • Hadar's CD, Pri Eitz Hadar, contains tunes particularly for Shabbat morning and high holidays.
  • There will be much much more soon! I can't say anything more now, but it will be so worth the wait!
  • You can order your very own Friday night purple siddur, seen at the musical service and the learners' service.
  • The yellow siddur (not seen at Limmud NY) is a similar format for Shabbat morning.
  • The new Reform siddur (seen at the Saturday morning musical service) is coming out in the next few months, and you can pre-order a copy.
  • No, there's no book (that I know of) about quantum mechanics, Talmud, and indeterminacy; it's still Oral Torah.
  • I'm co-chairing the NHC Summer Institute (August 7-13), which is similar to Limmud, but a week long and with better weather and a more relaxed pace. Registration will open soon!

Other questions?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Monday, January 09, 2006

10 Tevet

Tomorrow is the fast of 10 Tevet, when Nebuchadnezzar's armies laid siege to Jerusalem. Today we are besieged in our own homes, wherever we are.

In September I posted:
As a followup to a previous post about fasts, I'm now declaring by fiat that (for American Jews) Tzom Gedaliah is dedicated to the rest of the world (outside the US and Israel), 10 Tevet to the US, 17 Tammuz to Israel, and 9 Av as the uber-fast that encompasses all of them.
Therefore, on this fast day, we mourn everything that is happening here at home, and seek to repent. Think of the 50 million Americans without health care, the 37 million living in poverty, the Gulf Coast residents who are still displaced from their homes four months after Katrina, and the society that allows this to happen.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Faster than a speeding bullet

I'm a few chapters into The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios. Go read it. It's good for the non-physicist who wants to learn some physics while exploring superpowers, the physicist who enjoys wacky back-of-the envelope calculations, and the physics teacher who wants ideas for exciting examples to use in class. After a historical introduction to comic books and superheroes, the chapters are arranged like a physics textbook, with sections for mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity & magnetism, and "modern physics", with the relevant superheroes introduced at each point.

Kakalios begins with an astute observation about physics education:

The real world is a complicated place. In order to provide illustrations in a physics lesson that emphasize only a single concept, such as Newton's Second Law of Motion or the principle of Conservation of Energy, over the decades physics teachers have developed an arsenal of overly stylized scenarios involving projectile motion, weights on pulleys, or oscillating masses on springs. These situations seem so artificial that students inevitably lament, "When am I ever going to use this stuff in my real life?"

One trick I've hit upon in teaching physics involves using examples culled from superhero comic books that correctly illustrate various applications of physics principles. Interestingly enough, whenever I cite examples from superhero comic books in a lecture, my students never wonder when they will use this information in "real life." Apparently they all have plans, post-graduation, that involve Spandex and protecting the City from all threats.

So true. The irrelevant details in the example problems make such a difference for student engagement. So instead of the standard weight on a pulley, when I'm teaching I'll often change it to a monkey on a pulley; it doesn't cost any extra. Lots of imaginary monkeys get harmed, but the students pay more attention, so it's all worth it. Some textbooks understand this and others don't. The Halliday/Resnick/Walker book that we use for AP Physics C is much better in this regard than the Walker book (not the same Walker) that for some reason we use for Regents physics. Where Walker has a box sliding down an incline, Halliday/Resnick/Walker has a box of cheese, because why the hell not? One memorable problem in H/R/W involves a box of dirty money and a box of laundered money. Walker tries to be hip by asking questions about movies... and the movies are The Rocketeer and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, both of which came out the year my freshmen were born! I saw them in the theater when I was in junior high, but I'm not taking the class. And it's not like those were left in from some hoary previous edition; these movie-based questions are new to the 2003 edition. Now you see what I have to deal with every day.

Meanwhile, I am convinced that the Regents physics exam is a conspiracy to get students not to be interested in physics. A student wants to measure the speed of a 2.0-kilogram object, blah blah blah. Could the questions be any duller? So when I put together the January final, I based most of the questions on old Regents questions, but changed the student to Batman and changed the moving object to the Batmobile or a mutant frog or whatever. The "ph" in physics stands for phun!

Back to Kakalios and superheroes. I don't know much about comic books, except what I know from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Megillat Esther and the odd Batman or Spider-Man movie here and there. So I've learned lots of comic book history so far, e.g. the original Superman couldn't fly! And the differences between the Golden Age (1940s) and Silver Age (late '50s and '60s); the latter had much more science, thanks to the Sputnik effect and fighting against the idea that comics are a corrupting influence on the youth. As for the physics, I already know all the basic physics discussed (as one would certainly hope from someone who does this for a living), but it was inspiring to see the back-of-the-envelope calculation for the acceleration due to gravity on the planet Krypton, and the density thereof. I hope this book is successful in bringing physics principles to a general audience. I feel it apologizes too much for using math, playing into the popular conception that math is scary and that it is socially acceptable to be innumerate. (If you have TimesSelect, see Kristof's column from December 6, 2005: "In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity -- making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 -- but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.") But it goes on and uses the math anyway, so maybe a few apologies here and there are what it takes.

Now is the time on Sprockets when we nitpick. That's right, I don't only nitpick pop-physics books by rabbis; pop-physics books by physicists should be held to an even higher standard.

First of all, it's confusing the way he switches back and forth between different units -- between the miles and pounds that the lay American audience is more familiar with, and the SI units that make it easier to do the physics calculations. And then there's "the density of neutron star material is one hundred thousand billion grams per cubic centimeter", apparently because people are afraid of scientific notation, but I find it much simpler than "hundred thousand billion". But that's just a question of taste.

More objectively, the explanation of Newton's Third Law made me sad. As far as I can tell, it was eventually used correctly to explain how (Golden Age, pre-flying) Superman jumps. But before that, we have:

You can only support yourself by leaning on the wall if the wall resists you -- that is, pushes back with an equal and opposite force. If the force were not exactly equal and in the opposite direction, then there would be a net nonzero force, which would lead to an acceleration and you crashing into the wall.

No no no no no!!!!! Yes, it's true that the wall exerts a force on you, preventing you from crashing through the wall. But this has nothing to do with Newton's Third Law. The "action" and "reaction" forces never cancel each other out, because they're acting on different objects. A exerts a force on B, and B exerts an equal and opposite force on A. When you draw a free-body diagram for an object, you only consider the forces acting on that object. The sum of the forces acting on an object equals the mass of that object times the acceleration of that object. (Yes, if you're considering all the forces acting on a system of objects, then the action and reaction forces cancel each other out, from which we can derive conservation of momentum for a closed isolated system. But that tells you nothing about whether any individual object in the system is in equilibrium.) I've started to explicitly teach "Newton's Zeroth Law", to help avert this misconception. The wall does exert a normal force on you... well, forget the wall for now, let's keep it simple and make it the floor. The floor exerts an upward normal force on you, and this cancels out the downward force that the earth's gravity exerts on you, so you're in equilibrium. These two forces are equal and opposite, but they are not a Third-Law action-reaction pair, because they're acting on the same object (you). [The two relevant Third-Law pairs here are: 1) the floor pushes you up, and you push the floor down; 2) the Earth pulls you down, and you pull the Earth up.] If anything, this is an example of Newton's First Law: the sum of the forces on an object is zero iff the object is not accelerating.

But anyway, I look forward to reading the rest of the book! For great justice!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

And never brought to mind

I received an invitation for a New Year's Eve gathering (which I couldn't attend, since I was in the enfranchised United States) that said:

This will be a gathering at which our own unselfconscious enjoyment of the impending New Year will play a central role. (If your own enjoyment of the impending New Year requires extended observation of others engaged in ostentatious enjoyment of the impending New Year, you may want to attend a different gathering at an apartment with a TV.)

So yeah, what is with the idea that we have to be watching the Times Square revelers in order to fulfill our obligation of ringing in the new year? It seems even more ridiculous now that I live in New York, and Times Square is no longer a shrine that I see on TV once a year, but an ordinary (albeit flashy) place that I traverse (underground) twice a day.

So I think there is a cultic ritual going on. Just as the High Priest performed the service of Yom Kippur in order to atone for the sins of all Israel (watching in the courtyard and falling on their faces), so too do the New Year's Eve broadcasts serve a similar vicarious function in America. The High Priest was separated seven days before Yom Kippur, and stayed up all night, in order to ensure that he would be ritually pure for the sacred avodah. Likewise, the TV anchors hand the mike to breathless tourists who are so excited that they've been standing there since 10 AM. When the time ball falls, the High Priest dons his own clothes and throws a feast, wishing everyone an acrostically happy new year.


Two Chanukahs ago, someone posted this to an email list that I'm on.

You might remember me complaining in previous years about the translation of "mi y'malel g'vurot yisra'el, otan mi yimneh" (which I'd translate loosely as, who can recall the might/heroics of Israel, who can number/count them?) unfortunately as (yes, you all know it) "who can retell the things that befell us, who can count them?" Yes, so it rhymes. But it also totally puts us in a victim role, and is a really awful translation as far as I can tell.

I responded:

This is interesting; i hadn't thought about this before.

The lyrics of Mi Y'maleil are controversial, with or without translation. The words and music were written by secular Zionists in the 20th century (does anyone know more details?). The first line is based on Psalm 106:2 ("Mi y'maleil g'vurot **ADONAI**, yashmia kol t'hilato?" = "Who can recall the heroics of **GOD**, and declare all of God's praise?", a line that we may know from the extra verse sometimes added to Shir Hama'alot in the birkat hamazon). But they change it to "Mi y'maleil g'vurot **YISRAEL**", a one-word emendation that shifts the agency from divine to human.

This seems to be exactly the reverse of the rabbinic transformation of Chanukah. The original story (in the books of Maccabees) was about a military victory, and the Hasmonean dynasty seizing power. The rabbis didn't like this one bit, so Chanukah is almost absent in the Mishnah, and when it shows up in the Gemara, the military story is replaced with the familiar Sunday-school story about the oil lasting 8 days. This shabbat, we'll read the haftarah with the line "Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit", which seems to be the essence of the rabbinic Chanukah. ("she'asah nisim la'avoteinu" -- God did miracles for our ancestors, not our ancestors for themselves. Similarly, the rabbis turned Exodus, the tragic drama of Moses's life, into the haggadah, where Moses is barely mentioned.)

In contrast, the modern Israeli spin on Chanukah brings back the might and power. These "g'vurot" (heroic deeds) are now attributed to Israel, not God. "Makabi moshia' ufodeh" - "Maccabee saves and frees", using words traditionally associated only with God, not humans (the Nishmat prayer says "umibal'adecha EIN LANU melech go'el umoshia', podeh etc." - "aside from you WE HAVE NO ruler who redeems, saves, frees, etc.")

Are the newer words empowering? Do they make us subjects of history rather than mere objects? Do we gain more responsibility for our actions? Do we gain hope in times when God's face is hidden? ("Emancipate yourself from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds." --Bob Marley)

Or do we come to worship might and power? Are we making the error of saying "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this for me"(Deut 8:17)? Are we actually abdicating moral responsibility, selectively seeing history as "g'vurot Yisrael" when we're happy with the outcome and just "things that befell us" when we're not? Do we lose our humility?

It's a tough call.

Light one candle

An interesting "kosher pig"-style halachic question:

On the Friday night during Chanukah, the Chanukah candles are traditionally lit before the Shabbat candles. This is because once the Shabbat candles are lit, it is Shabbat, so lighting fire is forbidden.

However, I recently spoke with a minyan that started their Friday night services well after sundown, and had an optional candle lighting right before services for those who wanted to take part. This is certainly widespread. So the question is, in what order should Shabbat and Chanukah candles be lit if they are lit after sundown?

One who is lighting candles after sundown is implicitly holding that lighting fire on Shabbat is permitted. Therefore, it seems to me that the reasoning above does not apply, and the principle of "tadir ve-she-eino tadir, tadir kodeim" should predominate. This principle states that a more common action should precede a less common action. (This is why shacharit precedes musaf, and why (according to Beit Hillel, whom we follow) borei peri hagafen precedes mekadeish ha-shabbat in the kiddush.) Therefore, since Shabbat is more common than Chanukah, it seems to me that in this circumstance, Shabbat candles should be lit first.

UPDATE: I received the following response from a correspondent who wishes to remain anonymous. Which approach is correct? You decide.

Just read your posting about Hanukkah/Shabbat candles - apparently I'm not up-to-date enough to actually comment on the blog itself, but here's my take: you're wrong in saying that people who light after sunset are implicitly holding that kindling fire on Shabbat is permitted. In fact, I would be very surprised to hear anyone who does light at such a minyan say that. I bet instead they would simply say that they light candles for Shabbat and Hanukkah, and hence light them before services - in other words, they're not Shabbat-observant. I think it's nice to try to judge them in the most favorable light possible - which I think you're doing in trying to force their actions into a halachic framework - but in doing so I don't think you're fairly representing them.

On a more practical note, I would suggest two things, from a halachic point of view, since there is really no way in halachah to support lighting fire on Shabbat:

1) It would be better to light using electric candles, since there is ample halachic support for the notion that using electricity is permitted on Shabbat, even if observant communities do not actually do so. It would be best to use battery-powered lights, so that the "fuel" is limited just as it is with regular candles.

2) You should still light Hanukkah candles before Shabbat candles, for a few reasons - first, "lo plug." Just because in this case you are lighting after sunset should not cause you to think that in general you should light Hanukkah candles after Shabbat candles; second, "lo titgodedu": it is better to light candles the same way Jews around the world are. We have our many and varied differences, but is it necessary for this to be one too? I think not.