Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Number nine, number nine, number nine....

As of today, the 9 train has been discontinued! The 1 will make all stops at all times.

Visitors to New York will be happier that the subway system has gotten much simpler, now that they only have to deal with the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, J, L, M, N, Q, R, S (42nd St Shuttle), S (Franklin Ave Shuttle), S (Rockaway Park Shuttle), V, W, and Z. (The T is set to open sometime in the 25th century.)

Coincidence that this happened on the same day that Deep Throat was revealed? Ask the FBI.

We go together, like <psi| and |psi>

OMG!!!1! Physicist Max Born (who first interpreted the quantum-mechanical wavefunction as a probability density) was Olivia Newton-John's grandfather!!!

Monday, May 30, 2005

Joining the GOP

A former speechwriter for Mario Cuomo has become a Republican.

Memorial Day

1653 American soldiers have died in Iraq, and an estimated 100,000 Iraqis. Even though victory has been declared at least five times, no end is in sight.

My name is Penny Evans and my age is twenty-one
I'm a widow of the war that was fought in Vietnam
I have two baby daughters and I do the best I can
They say the war is over but I think it's just begun

I remember I was seventeen when first I met my Bill
At his father's grand piano we played old 'Heart and Soul'
I only knew the left hand part, he knew the right so well
He's the only boy I slept with, and the only one I will

First we had a baby girl, we had two good years
And next the warning notice came, we parted without tears
Then it's nine months from our last goodbye our second child appears
And it's ten months and a telegram confirming all our fears

So once a month I get a check from some army bureaucrat
And once a month I tear it up and mail the damn thing back
Do they think that makes it all right? Do they think I'll fall for that?
They can keep their bloody money, it won't bring my Billy back

I never cared for politics, speeches I don't understand
Likewise I'll take no charity from any living man
But tonight there's fifty thousand gone in that unhappy land
And fifty thousand 'Heart and Souls' being played with just one hand

My name is Penny Evans and my age is twenty-one
I'm a widow of the war that was fought in Vietnam
I have two baby daughters - thank God I have no son
They say the war is over but I think it's just begun

--Steve Goodman

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Foo and the Big Bang

More on Judaism, Physics, and God:

Though Nelson's approach to the whole physics-and-Judaism thing is different from mine, they have more in common with each other than either does with the other books I've read that explore this intersection. Here are a few words about the others. (I read these books a long time ago, so my memory isn't fresh. And anything that puts religion and science in opposition to each other is so far gone that it doesn't even get mentioned here.)

Genesis and the Big Bang by Gerald Schroeder is a fun read, but shouldn't be taken too seriously. He matches up each line of the creation story in Genesis 1, as well as some commentators, with a piece of current scientific understanding of the origins of the universe and life. For example, the RaMBaN (if I recall correctly; I read this book a long time ago) says that the universe started out smaller than a mustard seed, a claim obviously shared by the Big Bang model. The "ruach elohim" ("wind from God" or "spirit of God") in Genesis 1:2 is identified with the period of cosmic inflation, a fudge factor stuck into the Big Bang model to prevent the universe from collapsing under its own gravity within the first fraction of a second. This is an amusing parlor game, just like showing that Adam Sandler's "The Goat Song" presents a pessimistic view of Jewish history. But Schroeder's agenda becomes clear later in the book when he starts talking about Bible codes and equidistant letter sequences, trying to prove that the Torah is the literal word of God. Schroeder is a physicist with a Ph.D. from MIT, but these days he gives lectures for Aish, designed to proselytize to the scientifically minded with a literalist understanding of Torah. Finding these connections between Genesis and the Big Bang is interesting (along with pointing out that the 26 dimensions in one version of string theory corresponds to the numerical value of the tetragrammaton), but ultimately unnecessary. Science and religion can complement each other, but do not need to prove each other's validity.

Nelson and I are both less ambitious than Schroeder in what we are setting out to achieve, and we are therefore more successful. We are not making any strong claims about what is; we are just juxtaposing ideas to find new ways of looking at things.

Another book with a similar title but very different content is God and the Big Bang by Daniel Matt. Despite its title, most of the book actually isn't about physics. If you're looking for a book primarily about physics, this isn't it, but it's great as an introduction to the ideas of kabbalah. Real kabbalah, not the trendy thing that Madonna/Esther is doing. (It has been said that the Kabbalah Centre is to the study of Jewish mysticism as Barney the purple dinosaur is to paleontology.) Matt is a scholar who is working on the definitive translation of the Zohar. He draws a parallel between the broken symmetry in the first second of the universe (as the universe cooled and the single unified force separated into four forces) and the shattered vessels of Lurianic kabbalah.

Judaism, Physics, and God

I recently read Judaism, Physics, and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World (the Harvard comma in the title is my defiant insertion) by Rabbi David W. Nelson (not to be confused with this David Nelson).

The subject matter was right up my alley -- I taught a four-day course on "Playing Dice with the Universe: Rabbinic Literature, Quantum Mechanics, and Indeterminacy" at last year's NHC Summer Institute, and I'm teaching a one-hour excerpt on the Shavuot Retreat this year. So my first reaction to seeing the book was "Cool! Someone else is putting my shtick in print!". (Not at all "That bastard stole my idea", because I'm too lazy to write a book anyway, so I was glad someone else was taking care of it.) Then I started reading and got annoyed because Nelson wasn't dealing with quantum mechanics the way I do. Then I read further and realized that we were approaching the interface between Judaism and physics from very different perspectives (a physics teacher with an extracurricular interest in Jewish texts vs. a rabbi with an extracurricular interest in physics) and had very different objectives in putting Judaism and physics together, so it didn't make sense to criticize the book for failing to achieve my objectives, because he had his own objectives and the book should be viewed in that light. Then I was at peace.

My course starts with an introduction to quantum mechanics, focusing on the Einstein/Bohr debate over the interpretation of the wavefunction, then the bulk of the course is a close reading of rabbinic texts dealing with indeterminacy (generally in some physical quantity, and things like "Shabbat" and "tamei" are physical properties in the Talmud's physics, but also indeterminacy in truth toward the end), reading the texts through the lens of quantum mechanics and inserting the rabbis into the Einstein/Bohr debate. The purposes include 1) an intellectual meditation on how different "approaches to knowledge" address the questions on indeterminacy ("If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"), 2) shedding light on the strand of indeterminacy running through Jewish tradition, contrary to the idea that religious traditions (or science, for that matter) represent certainty, 3) puzzling through the rabbis' logic puzzles for their own sake. Many people enjoyed the course, but some criticized it for not really having a point. And it's true -- the fuzzy ethical message at the end was a bit tacked-on. I was really focusing more on process and exploration.

At first Nelson's book seems superficially similar. Each chapter addresses a different topic in modern physics (cosmology, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, special relativity, general relativity, and string theory) and begins with an overview of the physics topic and then connects it to Jewish texts and concepts. However, Nelson's approach and goal are completely different from mine. His goal is to find new metaphors for God using concepts in contemporary physics. Nelson makes no claims that the new physics actually describes God (who can know this anyway?), but suggests that these metaphors may represent new meaningful ways for us to relate to God. He writes "So it seems that metaphors for God are not properly metaphors for God at all, but rather metaphors for our beliefs about God. The difference is a crucial one. For although I do not think we can have direct experience of God, we do have direct experience of our beliefs."(p. 234) Some of the metaphors work for me and others don't, and that's ok, these other metaphors may work for someone else. There is no end to the metaphors we can devise in our ultimately futile attempts to describe God. ("Asaperah chevodecha v'lo re'iticha, adamecha achanecha v'lo yeda'ticha." "I will tell of your glory though I have not seen you; I will analogize and describe you though I have not known you.")

One of the most meaningful (for me) connections between physics and God in this book (though not a metaphor per se) is in the chapter on string theory. Nelson discusses the incompatibility between quantum mechanics and general relativity and the search for a unified theory. He writes:
Most of the physicists whose works I have read appear to need to find a unity among the forces of nature and the different theories that describe and explain them. This word need ought not be taken lightly. This deep need is rooted in a fervent belief -- likewise a word to be taken seriously -- that the whole universe operates with a single set of principles, rather than with multiple sets. [...]
It seems to be based not in any empirical observation that everything in nature functions according to a single set of rules, for in fact, casual observation suggests just the opposite. Rather, it is based in a fundamental conviction that there must be a single set of rules, perhaps even a single rule, at the root of everything. [...] (p. 183-84)

[After discussing the Standard Model and its zoo of particles:] Why should the universe, on its "simplest" level, be composed of so many different kinds of things? As I ponder the discomfort and dissatisfactions that physicists express when asking this critical question, I imagine they must mirror the feelings of the early monotheists many centuries ago. All around them were people whose best analysis of the world was that it was controlled, on its most basic level, by a panoply of gods. One controlled the sea, another the sun, another the mountains, and so on and on.
Each had its own characteristics, its own abode, and its own strengths and weaknesses. Each interested with the others in complex ways. But among the societies in which such views prevailed, there must have been some who intuitively felt that the world must be simpler. Eventually this intuition developed into a belief that there was just one god controlling the entire system. (p. 189)
The history of physics is filled with discoveries inspired by leaps of monotheistic faith like this. Newton showed that the force that makes apples fall to the ground is the same force that causes planetary orbits. If NAF is reading this, he can write in about the role of faith in fundamental symmetry and harmony in the development of the nebular hypothesis about the origin of the solar system. Electricity and magnetism were shown to be two manifestations of the electromagnetic interaction, first through the 19th-century work culminating in Maxwell's equations, then in Einstein's special relativity, which showed that the exact same force could be an "electric" force in one frame of reference and a "magnetic" force in another. And the discovery that all the elements on the periodic table (each thought to be a different fundamental particle) are just different permutations of the same three particles. Then Bohr's philosophy of complementarity: the wave nature of light and the particle nature of light are two manifestations of the same system. And then (as I told my students this week, freaking them out) De Broglie suggested (before any experimental confirmation of this absurd hypothesis) that the same is true for matter. And quarks, showing that the huge mess of particles found in accelerators was composed of a smaller mess of particles. (The road to the Standard Model was explicitly religious -- the Eightfold Way!) And then the electroweak unification theory, showing that the electromagnetic and weak force are unified at high energies, and the 1979 Nobel Prize press release also takes this historical view. And since then, everyone has been looking for a Grand Unified Theory (GUT), combining the electroweak and strong forces, and/or a Theory Of Everything (TOE), combining these with gravity. String theory is only one recent and well-publicized attempt; Einstein was looking unsuccessfully for a unified field theory for much of his later life. With each unification, we strive to move closer to the One that is the cause of everything in the universe.

Other highlights: "Listen, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai, the Singularity!"(p. 19) A singularity is a point of infinite density like the center of a black hole, or the universe at the beginning of time according to the Big Bang model. The matter and energy present in this singularity at the beginning now comprise the entire universe; Nelson says that this is a way to read "m'lo chol ha'aretz k'vodo" ("the whole world is full of [God's] glory", Isaiah 6:3). Later, the singularity metaphor is also applied to black holes, saying that God is hidden, as by an event horizon.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in physics and Judaism. Beyond the actual content, the books provides new ways of thinking about physics and God.

Some of the flaws:
Rabbi Nelson states at the very beginning, "I am not a scientist. I have not taken a course in hard science or math since high school." (p. xxxvi) Therefore, all of the physics in the book is based on his extensive reading of "nontechnical, nonmathematical, purely descriptive books." As far as I can tell, the physics is correct for the most part -- there are minor errors, like mixing up "accuracy" and "precision", or "Grand Unified Theory" and "Theory Of Everything", but nothing major. The things that I find annoying would probably go unnoticed by someone encountering the physics content for the first time. However, the book still would have benefited from better editing by a physicist.

Nelson's sources include some of the same bestselling pop-physics books that I have read (Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time; Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe). But I read A Brief History of Time when I was much younger and learning about this stuff for the first time. I read The Elegant Universe when I was already a full-time physics teacher, and the details of string theory were certainly new to me, but even the topics that I already knew (intro to relativity and quantum mechanics) were worthwhile to read about because Greene presented them in innovative ways (now I finally have a way to explain Planck's solution to the ultraviolet catastrophe to high school students who don't know from stat mech without saying "Uh, but if the energy is quantized, the numbers magically work out! You'll learn why in college."). I don't think Nelson brought much added value to the physics parts (until the point in each chapter where he brought in the Jewish stuff); he is mostly restating what all the other pop-physics books already say. Which is completely fine if Judaism, Physics, and God is the first book you are reading about relativity or whatever, but I would still recommend Hawking and Greene as better physics-for-nonscientists books (though without the Judaism, of course). (While I'm recommending pop-physics books, throw in The God Particle by Leon Lederman.)

The problem with using pop physics books as primary sources is not that the physics is wrong (it isn't), but that there is a lack of perspective on what is common knowledge in the physics world and what is a particular author's idiosyncracy. For example, Nelson writes on p. 134, "As the object's speed approaches closer to light speed, its mass increases without limit, and thus, according to physicist Brian Greene,
it would require a push with an infinite amount of energy to reach or to cross the light barrier. This, of course, is impossible and hence absolutely nothing can travel faster than the speed of light."

This doesn't require a block quote, or even a citation! This is a core part of Einstein's special theory of relativity, and can be found in any introductory physics textbook. There is nothing extraordinary about Brian Greene's formulation of this idea. Likewise, Rabbi David Nelson wouldn't get a block quote and footnote if I wanted to say that
In Deuteronomy, as a part of the long series of speeches that Moses makes to the Israelites before his death, we find the following: "Hear O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!" (Deut 6:4) This line, known as the Shema (from its first Hebrew word, shema, meaning "hear" or "listen"), is perhaps the best-known statement of Jewish faith. (Rabbi David W. Nelson, Judaism, Physics, and God, p.18)

since I think that idea has entered the public domain. Likewise, Greene gets credit for the light-clock thought experiment. ("Of all the explanations of this strange relationship between time and motion that I have read, that of Columbia University physicist Brian Greene has appealed to me most. He starts with a functional definition of time as that which is measured by the regular ticking of clocks...", p. 148) I think the light clock is a great thought experiment (I use it to derive time dilation when I teach relativity), but Greene didn't come up with it! Einstein himself was the one with the clock obsession. Meanwhile, other explanations attributed to Greene actually areare Greene originals, but it's hard to tell the difference here.

I think the quantum mechanics chapter misses a lot of opportunities. I would be biased and self-aggrandizing if I were to criticize it for failing to contrast the Copenhagen interpretation with hidden-variable theories, or failing to discuss the role of indeterminacy in rabbinic ontology, so I won't. But more objectively, I think the book misrepresents the Copenhagen interpretation. The main idea that he takes from it is that the observer's consciousness determines reality, and this is used as a jumping-off point to discuss the importance of consciousness and kavanah. He fails to note that the idea that human consciousness causes wavefunction collapse is very much a fringe version of the Copenhagen interpretation, and there are other explanations (e.g. decoherence) that don't depend on giving the human mind a special status and thus do better by Occam's Razor. The other interpretation of quantum mechanics discussed is the Many Worlds interpretation, which is a jumping-off point to talk about midrash ("what if?") and to reject ethnocentrism. These connections feel forced to me, and don't represent the most significant philosophical consequences of quantum mechanics.

The final chapter asks "Can a physicist pray?" (p. 259) More specifically, Nelson is asking whether it is possible to interact with an infinite God who spans the entire universe. His answer is "yes", but in a way that I don't find very satisfying. He refers to Hasidic meditative practices and proposes:
If we are willing to consider the Hasidic ploy of declaring the "plain meaning of the words" to be completely irrelevant, then we can even bring our sense of God in the universe, crafted as it is with metaphors from the world of physics, into the synagogue. There we can meditate on the unity of all matter, all space, all time, and all energy, while chanting the traditional prayer as a sort of mantra designed not to remind us of a particular message but to allow us to rise above all particular messages to focus on the one universal message: There is unity, structure, beauty, and meaning in the world. (p. 266)
So if prayer is a meditation on the whole universe, then why should we keep doing in the Jewish milieu? Nelson's answer is community and tradition (p. 267-68). I am not content with the idea of maintaining Jewish traditions because our parents did it and our friends are doing it, while holding our modern ideas about physics and the universe, and not forcing them to interact (and I am confused that Nelson appears to come to this conclusion after suggesting otherwise for the rest of the book). Our evolving interpretive tradition can and must be in dialogue with our scientific knowledge. Our classic texts cannot be merely mantras that we chant to maintain continuity with the past; we can read our newer understanding of the universe into the texts themselves.

Anyway, I'm sure all these issues will be worked out in the second edition. Go read the book, and then we can discuss it more.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

I am a bass, I sing three notes

I don't know how I was able to lead kabbalat shabbat last night at Park Slope Minyan with my voice stricken by an ongoing cold, but I think hitting the amud a lot (for percussion) helped. I drugged myself with generic Duane Reade-brand NyQuil and fell into a tranquil and motionless sleep, but then this morning my voice was even more gone. I have to say, the dar just isn't the same experience when one doesn't have a voice. I alternated between growling out bass harmony in the limited range I could reach and just listening (relying on shomeia' k'oneh). It did sound good though.

I got there around 9:37 when the room was far from full. (Probably due to Memorial Day weekend, it never even reached standing-room-only!) The room sounded particularly resonant, with the acoustically reflective walls and not very many people, and this brought to mind an interesting optimization problem: The amount of sound produced in the room increases linearly with the number of people (or logarithmically if we're using the decibel scale, which approximates human perception of sound), but the reverberation time decreases as the number of people increases, because the total acoustic absorption increases as the people's bodies suck up sound. (For simplicity, ignore differences in frequency.) Yes, reverberation time is a property of a room that doesn't depend on the amount of sound - it is defined as the time for the sound to decay 60 dB (regardless of whether it is going from 100 to 40 or from 30 to -30). But let's define another time T' as the time for the sound to decay from its original intensity to 0 dB. What is the number of people in the basement of the Second Presbyterian Church that will maximize T'?

This was the penultimate dar of the year in this basement with good acoustics where one can wear a short-sleeved shirt and sandals; in two fortnights we'll move into the other basement with sound-killing carpet and overzealous air conditioning, so I'll have to bring a winter coat and gloves on 90-degree days.

The plan is not to talk for the rest of the 3-day weekend.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Why I don't observe Lag Ba'omer

Sefirat ha'omer is about counting 49 days (7 weeks) from Pesach to Shavuot. In fact, this count defines Shavuot (which has no calendar date in the Torah). This is the primary purpose of the omer. Any other meanings or observances should enhance this purpose, or at least not detract from it.

The biblical Shavuot is an agricultural festival at the time of the wheat harvest. We count 7 weeks from the offering of the omer, the unleavened sheaf of barley, on the 2nd day of Pesach, to the sh'tei halechem, the two loaves of leavened bread on Shavuot (Leviticus 23:17). Even though eating matzah is unusual for us today (most of us eat it only one week a year), almost all grain-offerings in the Temple were matzah (unleavened), and chametz was the exception to the rule. The sh'tei halechem on Shavuot were the only communal offering of the year that was chametz. (The only other chametz offering was part of the todah, the individual thanksgiving offering. Thus the sh'tei halechem might be seen as a communal todah.) The journey from Pesach to Shavuot is a journey from matzah to chametz, from clearing all the chametz out of ourselves and eating only the austere bread of affliction to letting chametz back into our lives and eating the rich bread of thanksgiving. (L'mah hadavar domeh? Chametz, leaven, is literally microorganisms. When one takes antibiotics, it kills off both the harmful bacteria that cause disease and the helpful ones in the digestive tract. Therefore, after all the bacteria are killed off, patients are advised to eat yogurt, to reintroduce the good kind of bacteria into the digestive system.)

The rabbinic Shavuot is, of course, z'man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah. Thus, the 7-week journey is about the transition from freedom to responsibility, so that we can fulfill the second half of "Shalach et ami v'ya'avduni", "Let My people go so that they may serve me". Shavuot is the completion of Pesach, the atzeret at the end of it (parallel to Shemini Atzeret at the end of Sukkot), the ultimate purpose for which we are freed from slavery.

We count each day between Pesach and Shavuot so that we can be continually conscious of this journey from matzah to chametz, from freedom to responsibility. The omer is thus a serious time, but not in a mournful way (just as Yom Kippur is serious, but the happiest day of the year).

I'm a fan of the custom of studying a chapter of Pirkei Avot on each of the six Shabbat afternoons between the end of Pesach and Shavuot. The omer is a time for reflection on ethical behavior and on what it truly means to receive Torah. Thus the journey from "Moses received Torah from Sinai" to "What is the correct path that a person should choose?" to "Look at three things and you will not fall into sin" to "Who is wise? One who learns from all people" to "The world was created with ten utterances" to "All who engage in Torah" helps to guide these personal reflections and focus us as we head toward Shavuot.

With this whole framework in place, the idea of observing sefirat ha'omer as a period of mourning for Rabbi Akiva's students seems to come totally out of left field. Why are they entitled to 7 weeks of our time (or 33 days, depending on how you count) every year? Yes, I've heard that it's really about the Crusades, but the Crusaders or the Romans don't get to take over our sacred calendar, just as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising doesn't get to take over Pesach. There is nothing about the omer period (as discussed above) that should make it a time of mourning.

I can understand the idea of not scheduling weddings during the omer, and that isn't dependent on it being a period of mourning -- we also don't schedule weddings during Chol Hamo'ed Sukkot or Pesach, which are clearly festive times. But most people get married a maximum of once in a given year, so all this means is scheduling the wedding for one time instead of another time. Refraining from listening to music for 7 weeks (or 33 days), on the other hand, is disproportionate to the importance that mourning Rabbi Akiva's students should have (if any!), and is inappropriate to marking the journey from Pesach to Shavuot.

Therefore, I don't observe Lag Ba'omer, because this cessation of mourning customs only makes sense within the paradigm of observing the omer as a time of mourning in the first place (which I don't do either). Lag Ba'omer also creates a false climax to sefirat ha'omer (I've heard people say things like "sefirah's over now"); the one and only climax of sefirat ha'omer should be Shavuot.

And let's not even get started on the idolatry surrounding R. Shimon bar Yochai. And no, I'm not shaving or cutting my hair tonight (though I will shave, as usual, for Shave-uot).

I guess the kabbalistic understanding of the omer (tiferet sheb'netzach and all that) is harmless and whatever floats your boat, but I think this is also a distraction. Case in point: I saw an omer calendar that had a suggested activity for each day related to that day's sefirot. The activity for the 6th day of the omer was "Create something constructive" or "Construct something creative" or something like that. What's the problem? The 6th day of the omer, this year and every year, is the 7th day of Pesach, when creative labor is forbidden! Oops! That's what happens when you try to overlay something onto the omer without regard to Pesach and Shavuot.

Today was the 32nd day of the omer; soon it will be time to count!

Next in the series: Why I don't observe the 2nd day of Shavuot.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

We will return to you, the court saw it!

Yesterday: Rosh Hashanah 29a-30a.

The previous Mishnah ended by saying that one who is passing behind the synagogue and happens to hear the shofar can thereby fulfill one's obligation iff one has the kavanah (intention). This Mishnah riffs on that theme (the way the Gemara breaks up the mishnayot doesn't make so much sense) and in the process puts a respectable spin on two seemingly idolatrous passages in the Torah. (I mean, idolatry is already a positive commandment, as it is written, va'avadtem elohim acheirim v'hishtachavitem lahem, but stamping it out is still worth the effort.) When Israel is battling Amalek (Exodus 17), any time Moses raises his arms Israel prevails, and any time Moses puts his arms down Amalek prevails. Likewise, in Numbers 21 Moses makes a copper serpent, and everyone who is bitten by an actual serpent can look at the copper serpent and be healed. Very troubling: Can Moses's arms make or break the war? Can copper serpents mean the difference between life and death? Rather, the rabbis explain this away: Moses's arms and the copper serpents are there to inspire the people to look upwards and direct their hearts to "their father in heaven", and that is what causes victory or healing. MAK points out that the supernatural miraculous aspects of the stories are still there (even with the rabbinic spin this is still not a rationalist understanding!), but the magical aspects are comfortably eliminated. Thinking about it again, maybe even the miraculous part isn't necessary -- maybe the additional motivation ("Win one for the Gipper") helped Israel in the battle, and likewise there are studies somewhere about the importance of the mind-body connection in healing (perhaps not to cure snakebites, but for other illness).

The Gemara has zero to say about this part of the Mishnah.

The Mishnah continues: deaf-mutes, insane people, and children (all categories of people who were thought not to have full mental faculties, who are thus not obligated in the commandments) may not motzi (fulfill the obligation of) others. This is the general rule: anyone who is not obligated in something may not motzi others in that obligation.

This, of course, comes up all the time in communal discussions about pluralism and egalitarianism and all that. Because of this principle in the Mishnah, the starting point for the halachic discussions about egalitarian prayer involves proving that women are obligated in prayer (so that they can motzi others). (For me, egalitarianism is an axiom, but if other people are proving it from other principles, that's great too.) I am using MR's copy of the Gemara while he is in Israel, and the pencil markings are like a clipping service for sources related to gender egalitarianism; often there will be an underlined passage, deep into some endless Tosafot, that mentions something offhand about how women are or aren't obligated in this or that. So we were shocked to see that nothing was underlined on this page, but maybe it's just taken for granted.

A baraita in the Gemara: Everyone is obligated in shofar - country and western! Kohanim, Levites, Israelites, converts, freed slaves, but they're implicitly only talking about men. But two liminal gender categories are obligated, just to be on the safe side: the tumtum (who is of indeterminable sex) and the androgynos (who has both male and female genitals). The tumtum can't motzi anyone (even another tumtum), but the androgynos can motzi another androgynos. To apply the framework of quantum mechanics to these rules (based on Rashi's reading): As far as we can tell, the Talmud recognizes no "Copenhagen gender", i.e. someone whose sex is fundamentally indeterminate. Everyone has a definite sex, but sometimes (viz. for the tumtum and androgynos) it is a hidden variable, as in Einstein's understanding of quantum mechanics (before being smacked down by Bell's inequality). The difference between the tumtum and the androgynos: the tumtum's sex is a hidden variable that potentially has a different value for each individual tumtum, whereas the androgynos's sex has a single (hidden) value for the entire androgynos gender. Thus tumtum A can't motzi tumtum B, on the off-chance that A is male and B is female, but androgynos A can motzi androgynos B, because either they're both male (in which case all is well) or both female (in which case they're not obligated anyway. Mitzvot are hard, let's go shopping!). We also have a cameo appearance from the person who is half a slave and half free. This happens when a slave has two owners, and one of the owners frees him. At that point the other owner is also required to free him, but until that happens, he is in this weird linear combination of eigenstates like Schrodinger's cat. The Talmud found him at the same casting agency where they found the five brothers married to five sisters.

If you've already said a blessing for yourself, you can still say it for others, except the blessings for bread (hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz) and for wine (borei p'ri hagafen). However, if we can trust that Rav Papi was doing the right thing, this doesn't apply to the borei p'ri hagafen blessing kiddush, since in that case it's an obligation.

The final baraita: Don't pass out food and say hamotzi for your guests unless you're eating with them! But it's ok to do it for your children, for the educational value. As for hallel and megillah, even though you've already done it for yourself, you can still do it for others, so it's ok for that midnight megillah reading to be done by someone who was at the regular one.

Hadran alach "ra'uhu beit din"! (Or as my Vilna printing says, Har'ran alach!)


They also didn't do the greatest job breaking up the chapters. Just as chapter 3 began with stuff about witnessing and sanctifying the new moon (a continuation of chapter 2) before moving on to the shofar, chapter 4 now begins with more material about the shofar.

What happens when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat?

When the Temple was still standing, they would blow the shofar on Shabbat, but only in the Temple. After it was destroyed, we had to get past that. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is the one Jew whom everyone can agree on as a hero. For some, he represents the possibility (yea, requirement) for Judaism to evolve in order to adapt to changing times; for others, he represents the establishment of Normative Rabbinic Judaism. He decreed that the shofar would be blown (on Shabbat, but the "on Shabbat" part is taken for granted for the rest of the sugya, or so we think) in any place where there is a beit din (rabbinical court). (Whoa, maybe there's method to the madness? Chapters 3 and 4 both begin in nonintuitive places, and both begin with a beit din. Is there a deeper meaning here?) Well, we're arguing over what he actually said. Rabbi Elazar thinks the decree applied only to Yavneh. And the stam sees a dispute between two anonymous voices in the Mishnah over whether this applied to any beit din (including an ad hoc one) or only a fixed beit din.

Jerusalem is still superior to Yavneh, because any place close to Jerusalem that could see and hear and reach it could blow the shofar, whereas for Yavneh this can only happen in a beit din. The Gemara (Rava, Rav Huna, and friends) goes nuts about what "in a beit din" means. In the physical presence of the beit din? Just at the time that the beit din meets? (And what if the beit din sits longer than its appointed time? Is it while the beit din is physically seated, or during the fixed time when they're supposed to be seated? Teiku!!! Stalemate!) Is there a difference between individuals blowing shofar for themselves vs. a communal shofar blowing? Is there a difference between shofar on Rosh Hashanah and shofar for the yovel? We explore every possible permutation, for much of an amud (30a).

But before that, we ask the obvious question: why is blowing shofar on Shabbat a problem in the first place? After all, it's not melacha (forbidden labor). R. Levi b. Lachma says in the name of R. Chama bar Chanina that the exemption on Shabbat comes from the Torah -- "shabbaton zichron teru'ah" refers to Rosh Hashanah on Shabbat, while "yom teru'ah" refers to Rosh Hashanah on a weekday. While this distinction between teru'ah and zichron teru'ah may have been preserved in the liturgy, the Gemara actually knocks it down! If no-shofar-on-Shabbat is really a Torah commandment, then why did they do it in the Temple?! Rather, it's just a rabbinic fence: everyone has to hear the shofar and not everyone knows how to blow it, so someone might carry a shofar through the public domain to bring it to a skilled shofar blower, thus violating Shabbat, so the rabbis somehow overturned a Torah requirement. And the same rationale applies to lulav and megillah. Lame. (Especially lame for lulav! I can see how shofar and megillah require skilled labor, but lulav???)

To conclude with a story about our hero R. Yochanan ben Zakkai: One time Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, and RYbZ said "Let's blow the shofar." They said "Wait a second, let's talk about it first." He said "Let's blow the shofar first, and then we can talk about it." They blew the shofar and they said "Now let's talk about it." RYbZ said "There's nothing to talk about! The shofar has been blown and what's done is done."

While this story may seem heroic in the context of letting Judaism evolve (rather than discussing everything to death before being willing to take any action), RYbZ's actions can be seen as either heroic or despicable depending on your view of the issue at hand. As an exercise, ask yourself whether RYbZ's method of creating "facts on the ground" is justified for each of the following scenarios: evolving Jewish ritual practice, building settlements in the West Bank, same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, same-sex marriage in San Francisco, invading Iraq, getting rid of the Senate filibuster, bulldozing the runway at Meigs Field.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Nuclear diplomacy

Never mind, nothing to see here.

A bipartisan group of 14 senators has reached a deal, stipulating that they will vote for cloture on three of the controversial appellate court nominees (Owen, Brown, Pryor) and oppose "any amendment to or interpretation of the Rules of the Senate that would force a vote on a judicial nomination by means other than unanimous consent or Rule XXII."

Yes, these nominees suck, but it was never really about them, it was about the impending opening(s) on the Supreme Court. So now we have preserved the right to filibuster the living daylights out of whomever Bush nominates to replace Rehnquist (I think we should focus our energy on whichever new justice is nominated to the Court; if Scalia or Thomas is nominated for CJOTUS, this gives them almost no additional power), and we can pray for the health of Stevens and Ginsburg.

In case we're worried that this compromise is capitulation to the Dark Side, we can note that the Sith Lords are hopping mad.

Are the Citizen Filibusters still on? MoveOn PAC hasn't updated its website.

Nuclear disarmament

The Senate continues to debate whether to break its own rules in order to remove the last vestige of checks and balances and allow extreme right-wing judges to be confirmed without opposition, and a vote could happen tomorrow.

Starting at noon tomorrow, MoveOn is organizing 24-hour Citizen Filibusters in front of courts and government buildings across the country. Find one in your area. I'll be outside City Hall in NYC tomorrow afternoon.

In the meantime, if you live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maine, Nebraska, Virginia, or another state with a Republican senator who might decide to do the right thing, call your senator!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

In life there are no second chances

Tomorrow (Monday, 14 Iyar) is Pesach Sheni, the "second Passover", one month after the first one.

Were you ritually impure last month and thus unable to offer the paschal lamb? Or maybe you were on the road? According to Numbers 9, you're in luck! If you missed the first Pesach, just do Pesach Sheni tomorrow and all is well. Pesachim 9:1 says you can do Pesach Sheni even if you just forgot the first time around. Pesachim 9:3 says that Pesach Sheni is like regular Pesach in every way (viz., the lamb is eaten roasted with matzah and maror (the original Hillel sandwich was shwarma!), slaughtering and cooking the lamb overrides Shabbat prohibitions, and hallel is sung when the lamb is prepared) with two exceptions: you don't have to get rid of chametz for Pesach Sheni, and hallel is not sung when the pesach is eaten. So your Pesach Sheni seder might be shorter, and you can serve bread along with the matzah.

However (Pesachim 7:6), if the majority of the community is ritually impure (as is certainly the case this year), then Pesach happens on 14 Nisan (the regular date) anyway, since the importance of Pesach overrides any problems with ritual impurity. So I guess no one is observing Pesach Sheni this year except by blogging about it.

Hello operator? I'd like to report a really weird island.

The weather today couldn't have been better, so I kicked off my project of biking to every bikable island in NYC. The Five Boro Bike Tour has already knocked off Manhattan Island, Long Island, and Staten Island, so today's destination was Roosevelt Island.

Since the 59th Street (Queensboro) Bridge goes over Roosevelt Island, and since the bridge (which I've biked across several times) has a sign directing vehicles to the island, I thought foolishly that there was some exit ramp from the bridge to the island. False. I biked over the 59th St Bridge, which is a terrifying experience, because the bike/pedestrian part is all the way over to the edge, and the fence just isn't very high; sitting on the bike raised me up high enough that I felt like if I were somehow to run into the fence, I would go tumbling down into the river. So I stayed as close as I could to the inside railing, all the while looking for the imaginary exit to Roosevelt Island. I landed in Long Island City without seeing it. I turned around (staying at ground level) and biked over to the park by the river. There was a big party with dancing and music in a language I didn't understand and couldn't identify, with a sign saying "WEL-COME". Does anyone know what language it was? I stared at Roosevelt Island for a while, trying to figure out how people got there; that exit ramp from the 59th St Bridge just didn't materialized. Then eureka! There was another bridge, further north, from Queens to RI. It turns out there is no direct land connection between Manhattan and RI, just the subway and the tramway.

I took the other bridge onto RI, and there was this strange building, where I expected to see an airlock or passport control. It contained a parking garage -- apparently people who live on RI keep their cars there and use them to get off the island (I didn't see many cars on the island itself). The bridge arrived a few levels above the ground, and I had to take an elevator to ground level.

The island isn't large by any means. It's even narrower than Israel; you can see water on both sides! I'm pretty sure that I saw the whole island (some of it more than once) just by biking around. The architecture along the main street (called Main Street) is classic '60s-style riotproof Peabody Terrace style. All the storefronts have a consistent font and color scheme for the names of the stores (sans serif yellow letters on blue background), and it's not just stores - "Family Pizzeria", "Post Office", "Catholic Church", etc. The schools (just called "Elementary School", "Middle School", and "High School") have their own font and layout, but the buildings look exactly the same as everything else. The exceptions are the Episcopal church (which looks like a church) and an 18th-century house that has been restored. Overall, it was interesting to see this self-contained enclave within New York City.

I didn't want to go back to Queens and then back to the 59th St Bridge (especially since I would have to be on the outer lane of the bridge this time) so I took the F train back to midtown and biked home from there. Roosevelt Island is frum about identifying as part of Manhattan: the subway sign that I expected to say "Manhattan and Brooklyn" said "Downtown and Brooklyn", and a new luxury condo development was advertised as "Manhattan's newest village".

Next stops: Randall's Island, City Island, Coney Island (like Monster Island, really a peninsula).

Friday, May 20, 2005

No more, no less

This week in Rosh Hashanah: middle of 27b to before the Mishnah on 29a.

Adding anything else to the shofar: No way. Well maybe, if it's adding more shofar material to it; R. Natan disagrees with the tana kama. Plating it with gold on the inside: as if! We might as well play a synthesizer! The key is to be blowing the shofar itself, nothing else. Plating it with gold on the outside: if it doesn't change the sound, then fine. A shofar cracked lengthwise: are you kidding me? Cracked widthwise: as long as the shofar is long enough from the mouthpiece to the crack, we can ignore the part after the crack (since obviously it had to be broken once already to separate it from the ram). How long is long enough? Long enough to hold it in your hand with stuff sticking out on both sides.

Then there was stuff we didn't understand about the bone holding the horn onto the animal's head. We're not so great at zoology, botany, or agriculture, but we rocked at the astronomy part.

And then back to the case of blowing a shofar into a pit -- do you hear the shofar or do you hear the echo? And if you heard part of the shofar blast in the pit and part of it outside the pit, you're ok (since you heard part of a valid shofar blast), but if you heard part of it before dawn and part of it after dawn, then it didn't count, because the shofar blast itself wasn't valid -- the whole thing has to be in the appropriate time, viz. daytime (yom teruah). The imagery of someone blowing a shofar for him/herself while climbing out of a pit was amusing.

Can you use a shofar from an animal that was set aside as a sacrifice? Obviously not! But if you did, is it kosher? And does it matter whether the sacrifice was an olah or a shelamim? At first the discussion focuses on whether the animal maintains the status of hekdesh (such that benefiting from it is forbidden), until Rava reverses his stance and says mitzvot lav leihanot nit'nu. The commandments were not given to benefit from them (and thus using something to fulfill a commandment doesn't count as benefiting from that thing).

We considered the question of whether this category of b'diavad (where you did something illegal but the action may have validly fulfilled some purpose even though it was illegal) exists at all in American or other secular law, and couldn't think of any examples. If you can think of one, comment on this post. (One non-example: in the US, if evidence was obtained via an illegal search, then it is not valid evidence and cannot be used in court.)

Likewise, a shofar from an animal used for idolatry: illegal but valid (yatza b'diavad). A shofar from an ir nidachat (idolatrous city that was destroyed) is invalid, because everything in the city (including this shofar) was supposed to be destroyed, and therefore this shofar has the status of having been destroyed. The fact that the shofar is still intact is a mere physical fact and doesn't change anything. This strikes me as something out of Douglas Adams.

People who took vows not to benefit from X can still use X to fulfill a commandment, as long as they're not benefiting from it in some other way.

The huge discussion: do mitzvot require kavanah (intention)? Leading off are two examples that seem to suggest "no": Someone who was forcefed matzah has still fulfilled the obligation of eating matzah. Someone who blew the shofar just to play music (or someone who heard a shofar blast for the purpose of music?) has still fulfilled the obligation of shofar.

But it's not so simple! Matzah, fine, since the commandment is to eat matzah. But for shofar, the commandment is zichron teruah, suggesting that consciousness is required. So if you can still fulfill the obligation without intent, does that mean that mitzvot in general don't require kavanah? And is it really true that you fulfill the obligation without intent? Doesn't the Mishnah say otherwise (that if you passed by a synagogue and heard the shofar, you fulfill the obligation iff you direct your heart)? Or is it just that you have to be aware that you're hearing a shofar (and not a donkey), but you don't have to have any intentions about the obligation? Does the shofar blower have to have intent, or the listener, or both, or neither? Does the shofar blower have to intend to fulfill specific individuals' obligations, or just the community in general? Does it make a difference whether the shofar blower is a representative of the community at large vs. a freelancer? All these questions are debated at length.

In the meantime we have a big satellite discussion about bal tosif -- the commandment not to add onto the commandments (the textbook example, cited by Rashi, is having 5 tzitzit instead of the proper 4). Has bal tosif been violated if the person wasn't doing the additional action with the intent of making it part of the mitzvah? For example, if someone sleeps in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret (after the 7 days that one is supposed to sleep in the sukkah), is this a punishable offense? Well, wait a minute, there's another issue there -- maybe bal tosif doesn't apply if the additional action was outside the proper time for the mitzvah. Other examples up for scrutiny: A priest may not add extra blessings of his own volition to the threefold priestly blessing in the Torah. And the debate from Mishnah Zevachim 8:10 - if blood requiring one pouring on the altar (no more, no less!) is mixed with blood requiring four (no more, no less!), then how many times should the combination be poured on the altar? If you do it four times, then some of the mixture is subject to bal tosif, and if you do it one time, then some of it is subject to bal tigra (don't subtract)! Rabbi Eliezer says it's better to err on the side of too many, whereas Rabbi Yehoshua prefers sins of omission to sins of commission. The resolution to the parameters of when bal tosif applies, according to Rava or his stammaitic avatar: if it happens during the time for the mitzvah, then it's totally bal tosif (with or without kavanah); if it's outside the time, then it's bal tosif iff there is kavanah. (And he maintains his claim that fulfilling the mitzvah never requires kavanah.) I guess I can still make fun of 2-day yom tov people by saying it's bal tosif (I was worried for a second when it seemed like it was only bal tosif during the appropriate time.)

As always, the questions are more exciting than the answers.

As much as the idea of carrying out ritual mitzvot without intention seems empty and meaningless, I think the result-oriented approach that Rava's opinion suggests for ethical mitzvot might make up for this.

We're totally finishing Chapter 3 next time and starting Chapter 4. Finishing the whole masechet by Shavuot looks unlikely, but it's a moot point, since MAK and I won't be in the same place for Shavuot, so a 4 AM siyyum isn't happening anyway.

So this is how liberty dies. To thunderous applause.

After seeing Episode III, I don't know how anyone can say that it's not all about Bush. I mean really. "He controls the Senate and the courts."

With or without the political overtones, it's a great movie. Go see it. I won't give away any plot points that weren't already known, but we already knew most of the major events that have to happen before Episode IV:
* Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader.
* The Republic becomes the Empire, and Chancellor Palpatine becomes Emperor.
* Padme Amidala gives birth to twins, Luke and Leia.
* Anakin and Palpatine become physically disfigured.
* Obi-Wan and Yoda go into hiding.
* The following characters appear in the original trilogy (and therefore don't die in Episode III, so we know how the major lightsaber battles turn out): Obi-Wan, Yoda, Anakin/Vader, Palpatine, C3PO, R2D2.
* The following characters do not appear in the original trilogy (hmmm): Padme, Count Dooku, Mace Windu, all of the other Jedi.

So it would seem that there is no room for suspense in Episode III. But they pull it off anyway! The ending (really the middle) is particularly effective.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Republicans at Stuy?

Now Sen. Schumer is speaking. He said that 95% of Bush's federal judge nominees have been approved. "If my daughter came home with a 95 on her report card, I would say 'Good job.' [But the Republicans would say] 'Break the rules and get 100!'"

Ha! Now he's using his time to read the names of all the Bush-nominated judges who have been approved.

Nucular war

Right now on the Senate floor, the frothy mixture is frothing about "majority rule", and how the Republicans won the election so they should get to do whatever they want. Hamilton and Madison are spinning in their graves.

Now he's talking about "religious tenants [sic]".

Now Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) has speculated that the Iraqi constitution, when completed, will indeed allow for a filibuster "over issues", but not a filibuster "to obstruct justice".

Filibusters were used against civil rights, and Janice Rogers Brown is African-American, ergo the Democrats must be racist!

"If I were in the minority party, I would take exactly the same position." In 2006, we'll hold them to that.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Monday, May 16, 2005

Just talkin' 'bout my generation

As promised, I'm finally writing about the Spring 2005 issue of CAJE's journal Jewish Education News, on "Gen X and the Millennials", now that Chorus of Apes has beaten me to the punch anyway. I'm not going to write about my own article ("Profile of an 'Unaffiliated' Jew", p. 25); I'll let others do that, and then I'm happy to argue.

I agree with much of what CoA says, though I have the whole print version in my hands, and I think (confirming CoA's hopes) that the small number of articles that have been posted online don't represent all of the best stuff in the issue. Also, while I agree substantively with CoA's critiques, I would give a bit (but only a bit) more benefit of the doubt to the discourse and language used in the articles, recognizing that these articles were not intended "to engage 20-somethings", but to explain us to the membership of CAJE in terms that they will understand. When I was writing my article, I kept asking myself "Would this part make sense to the Hebrew school principal in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?". Einstein called his first special relativity paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" (just talking about electric and magnetic fields, nothing to see here) because he knew that no one would take it seriously if it were called "On Time Dilation". So if an author uses lame "Jewish continuity" rhetoric, it's possible that s/he is saying something subversive to the status quo and disguising it so as not to scare off the readers, or it's also possible that s/he really believes in the "Jewish continuity" rhetoric. In this issue I think there is a lot of both.

I second the "A" for effort. I think it's very important that CAJE has chosen to devote an issue to our generation (the age bracket missing from the organized Jewish community), and I hope it will be read carefully by those in the establishment who want to understand us. When I was asked to write my article, I realized that this was the first time that the organized Jewish community had ever asked me what I think.

The magazine doesn't present one answer; to its credit, it includes articles that directly contradict each other. It feels like a dialogue, because the authors seem to be responding directly to each other even though none of us saw each others' pieces in advance; we've just had so many conversations on this topic that we know to include the preemptive rebuttals.

The title ("Gen X and the Millennials") gets a big yawn. Dividing us into two generations based on year of birth is useless; I particularly feel this way because the arbitrary dividing line is 1980 and I was born in late 1979, so there is no significance to which side of the line I fall on. Year of birth is not the most relevant factor for this sort of discussion; a single urban 23-year-old has much more in common with a single urban 30-year-old than with a married 23-year-old with a child and a house. There is a bit of propagation of stereotypes -- Generation X is the stoned slackers from Reality Bites, while Generation Y or the Millennium Generation "represents a new confidence about the future and a new trust in parents and authorities." Yawn.

I also don't appreciate the condescending attitude in some of the articles -- we are discussed as if we are teenagers with 2-minute attention spans, only interested in what is "cool" and hip. As Chorus of Apes points out, we are adults. Sometimes we have substantive critiques of the values of the organized Jewish community, and they should be saying "Nachp'sah d'racheinu v'nachkorah" ("Let us search and examine our ways", Lamentations 3:40), not "How can we dress up the same old message to trick these crazy kids into thinking that it is consonant with their postmodern commie pinko values?". And sometimes when we are turned off to the organized Jewish community, it is the community's fault, not ours.

However, a number of articles stand out as deserving positive recognition. Elie Kaunfer's article "Attracting Young People to Jewish Life: Lessons Learned from Kehilat Hadar" is a valuable nuts-and-bolts resource not only for institutions trying to attract young people, but for people of our generation starting independent minyanim and other communities seeking to replicate Hadar's incredible success. Early on, the article includes a pointed jab at the usual explanations for why our generation is not seen at synagogues: "The backbone of Hadar is our prayer service, which has always attracted the most attendees. Although it is tempting to claim that prayer services don't appeal to young people, it is more accurate to say that existing prayer services don't appeal to young people." He also smacks down singles events:
Although many people at Hadar are single, we don't hold singles events. Most people shun singles events because the only thing in common for attendees is that they are single. Our programming is geared toward prayer, learning, and social action. If single people meet each other in this context (and they sometimes do -- I met my wife at Hadar's 2002 Shavuot retreat), it is through a common shared interest, not as singles. In addition, our programming caters to couples as well, which can take the edge off a sometimes detrimental "singles vibe."

Thumbs up to Jan Katzew and Wendy Rapport's article "A Tradition of Overthrowing Idols". It addresses the element of participation that Chorus of Apes says is missing from the articles online. They write:
One generation for serving this age cohort involves, in fact, not serving them, but enabling them to meet their own needs and provide for their peers. Jewish institutions can provide the supports for this population of adults to take responsibility for their Jewish learning and living. The Jewish educational system needs to find the leaders and nourish their leadership, responding to their initiative. There will never be substitutes for excellence and passion; we need to attract more gifted and compelling new leaders to the Jewish community. Additionally, Judaism has not survived and thrived without a critical mass of God-fearing, Torah-loving people, so we also need to give people the opportunity to experiment and search, while teaching them how Jewish adults find their way on the path of lifelong learning and Jewish involvement. We can do this by providing role models and examples of different paths, by offering the support of our expertise, by actually sharing the physical space of our institutions, and by being open to innovation and change.
Congregations can and should open their doors to the minyanim that are being established across North America. [...]

I think this is right on target. And as an expatriate of the Reform movement, I'm happy to see that people inside the URJ are saying this. They are recognizing the importance of educated laypeople, and suggesting that synagogues should support independent minyanim rather than push them away. (ER has proposed something similar.) They go on to use DC as an example of how institutions can open their doors to new minyanim, citing the Sixth & I Synagogue and the DCJCC.

Tobin Belzer's article "Jewish Community and Generation X" is fascinating. And not because it said things I already agreed with (like the Kaunfer and Katzew/Rapport articles); on the contrary, it brought up ideas I hadn't thought about before. The author did a study on "young Jews who choose to make their Jewish identities a primary aspect of their lives by pursuing careers with Jewish focus." Initially, I groused at this selection, until I read further and saw that there was a kal vachomer going on: "I learned that even [emphasis added] Jewish Gen X-ers who are directly involved with Jewish organizations feel like outsiders" [and everyone else al achat kamah v'chamah].

The article goes on to talk about "the Jewish community" as a bogeyman that exists in our heads:
Unvaryingly, participants acknowledged that no singular Jewish community exists, yet, as they collectively described an archetype of "the Jewish community," these young Jews contributed to the creation of such community. Despite their unmistakable organizational affiliations, participants constructed a conceptual Jewish community that precluded their membership. Conflicts in insider-outsider status were revealed in their narratives.

It's a fair cop. Belzer then talks about the underground social networks that have replaced organizational affiliation for us:
Most participants' sense of belonging through informal connections was ultimately rooted in previous, formal affiliations with Jewish institutions. Their social and professional networks were built upon connections made during Hebrew school, camp, youth groups, Israel trip, and Hillel involvement. They take great pride in the social capital that they have acquired through their past affiliations. A woman in Los Angeles said, "Knowing people from all over the place" is how she feels "connected to the Jewish community." A woman in Boston explained, "I think about the fact Jerusalem, Boston, and Berkeley, and New York, and Mt. Airy are contiguous ... (they) are essentially one contiguous city with some different locations with the same funky, young Jewish population making their way between all five of those cities at different points." Inclusion in informal networks, rather than organizational membership, emerged as a significant expression of Jewish identity for Gen X-ers.

This resonates strongly with me. When I moved to New York, my Jewish community was constructed by connections to people I knew from Hillel, camp, etc. And now that I've been here almost 3 years, I define my Jewish community not as a particular organization, but as "the scene", composed of interpersonal connections that hops around to minyanim and rooftops.

This move from top-down institutions to interconnected networks is by no means exclusive to the Jewish community. The Internet itself is structured this way, with no central authority or central router or directory. Look at the proliferation of social network websites (Friendster, Orkut, Thefacebook, Sconex). Look at the Dean campaign and MoveOn. These are all part of the same phenomenon.

The other articles are hit and miss. Some of them say "Generation X wants foo", where foo isn't something that I want, but we're not the Borg, so maybe foo indeed works for some people. Like Chorus of Apes, I was also shocked that people are still talking about intermarriage; I thought intermarriage-bashing had gone out of style with communist-bashing, but I guess I've just been hanging out in rarefied circles where people think about Jewish content. Even if we step (for the rest of this paragraph) into a world where the goal is just "Jewish continuity" without any substance, focusing on who marries whom seems to be the least effective way to achieve that goal. Either someone has Judaism as a strong component of their life (in which case they'll probably marry someone Jewish whether or not you tell them to, since they'll have more deep things in common with that person, and even if they don't, they'll still pass on Judaism) or they don't (in which case they probably resent you telling them whom to marry). Yes, I know children of two Jewish parents are more likely to blah blah blah. And children with new bicycles are healthier than children without new bicycles; ergo, every child should get a new bicycle. Correlation, meet causation.

Anyway, I think the "Gen X and the Millennials" issue is worth reading, whether you're a member of said group, or part of the Jewish institutional world, or both or neither. You can order it for $5 from CAJE, or borrow my copy.

I've been corresponding with a number of people since my article started flying around the Internet. Mitch Chefitz pointed me to Temple Israel of Greater Miami, which says on its website:

Most of all, we are a temple of grown-ups. Yes, there are plenty of kids. But we do not practice "pediatric Judaism." Jewish learning at Temple Israel does not stop at the age of thirteen; it’s for everyone, and indeed adults and children often study together. As our rabbi has stated, "We are building a Judaism for adults, deep in its learning, honest in its wrestling with the Divine, with sincere compassion for the world about us. If we have such a Judaism in our lives, we need not worry whether the next generation will be Jewish or not. The children in our Temple family will grow up to be like us."

Thumbs up to this model. Also, Sherry Israel sent an article that she wrote in 2001 on "American Jewish Public Activity: Identity, Demography, and the Institutional Challenge". I highly recommend this article. Highlight:
The Jewish community's attempts to respond to the decreases in affiliation and Federation philanthropy (and, of course, to the rise in intermarriage) have been almost entirely under the rubric of what is called "Jewish continuity." The emphasis has been on "strengthening Jewish identity." Yet, if our analysis is correct, this response is at best partial and, at worst, misses the boat. It is partial in its lack of full understanding of the new ways in which Jewish identity is being expressed, and it is off the mark in overlooking the interaction of demographic factors with organizational structural realities.

The "continuity response" is characterized by what social psychologists call the "fundamental attribution error." In brief, this explanatory rubric notes the common tendency to attribute others' behavior mainly to their internal states, to the kinds of people they are, even if we would have a different and more charitable view of our own behavior in similar circumstances. For example, if you are late to a meeting with me, it must be because you are inconsiderate, or our meeting does not really matter to you, or some similar explanation whose locus is internal to you. If I am late, however, it is not because there is something wrong with me. It is because the phone rang, or traffic was bad, or something else external to me came along to make me tardy.

In the same way, the organized American Jewish community has been approaching the increasing non-affiliation of the newer cohorts of Jews as if the issue is only internal: if today's Jews are not attaching themselves to Jewish community and Jewish organizations, it is because they are not "Jewish enough."

Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision

Last night I went to the Knitting Factory to see the Ambitious Orchestra (with bassist Rusty Chandler).

Opening the show was Corn Mo, whom I saw 2 years ago opening for They Might Be Giants and never expected to see again. What a delightful surprise! You can never have too much accordion rock. The chord progressions reminded me of the music from a movie that I've seen a million times, and I can't remember the movie and it's going to bug me forever, but it might have been Big (not "Heart and Soul", the other music), and also might have been Avenue Q (which isn't a movie, and which I've only seen once). One song was introduced as being [paraphrased] about the turn of the century, when "Tesla was being cool" (direct quote) and everything was mechanical and robots were made of metal and wood and glue instead of silicon inside (I wish I had written this down).

The Ambitious Orchestra is a 20-piece guitarless rock ensemble, with full classical instrumentation, including harp (not harmonica, harp). I've heard other attempts at this genre, but the difference is that this actually worked. I have a CD of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing the music of R.E.M., which is mostly valuable as a collector's item. Some of the more "rock"-type songs, like "The One I Love", aren't so bad, but they butcher "Nightswimming", which is already doing just fine with the string section in the original album and doesn't need the added percussion. Likewise, the Pink Floyd one just makes me say "I like this song. You know who does a really good version of it? Pink Floyd." But the Ambitious Orchestra was much better; they opened and closed with covers, but otherwise performed their own originals. Their first album is on the way; this gig was a fundraiser for it. Corn Mo joined them for one song; since I have played with Rusty Chandler at KZ, this puts me three degrees of musical separation from TMBG. Likewise, I am three degrees away from Phish, since I jammed with Howard Levy many years ago in the old country, and he used to be in Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and Bela Fleck played with Phish on the album version of "Lifeboy".

Aleph-null elef alfei alafim

Some thoughts during pesukei d'zimrah yesterday morning:

This is undoubtedly influenced by being in the midst of reading Judaism, Physics, and God (Rabbi David Nelson), which is really growing on me. (I'll post a review when I finish it.)

In Nishmat Kol Chai it says "Ilu finu malei shirah kayam, ulshoneinu rinah kahamon galav, v'siftoteinu shevach k'merchavei rakia', v'eineinu m'irot kashemesh v'chayareiach, v'yadeinu f'rushot k'nishrei shamayim, v'ragleinu kalot ka'ayalot, ein anachnu maspikim l'hodot l'cha, Adonai Eloheinu vEilohei avoteinu, ulvareich et sh'mecha al achat mei'alef elef alfei alafim v'ribei riv'vot p'amim hatovot she'asita im avoteinu v'imanu." Translation from Siddur Eit Ratzon: "If our mouths overflowed with song as the sea, if our tongues surged with joy as the waves, if our lips could praise as endlessly as the sky, if our eyes could match the sun's radiance, if our arms had the reach of eagles' wings, if our legs could carry us as far as the deer, even then, our God and God of our ancestors, our thanks wouldn't even come close to matching all the gifts You have given to our fathers, to our mothers, and to us." (The last part literally says "for one of the thousand thousand thousands of thousands and tens-of-thousands of tens-of-thousands of times".)

So it occurs to me that this is basically the same as the formal definition of a limit approaching infinity that I learned back in high school: lim (x->∞) f(x) =∞ iff for every R > 0 there exists S>0 such that for all real numbers x>S, we have f(x)>R. No matter how powerful our hypothetical mouths and eyes and legs might be, there exists S>0 such that f(x)>R for all x>S.

Therefore this is all just a poetic way of saying that God is infinite in a formal way.

Also, earlier we read the verses from Nehemiah 9:6-7 : "Atah asita et hashamayim, sh'mei hashamayim v'chol tz'va'am, ha'aretz v'chol asher aleha, hayamim v'chol asher bahem ... Atah hu Adonai haElohim asher bacharta b'Avram v'hotzeito meiUr Kasdim v'samta sh'mo Avraham..." "You made the heaven ... the earth and everything on it, the seas and everything in them ... You are God who chose Abram and brought him out from Ur of the Kasdim and changed his name to Abraham..."

Maybe this was obvious to everyone else, but I realized that this isn't just a litany of praise, rattling off a list of God's accomplishments; it is a powerful statement of monotheism. You, the God who is responsible for everything physical in the universe, are the same God whom we encounter during our life transitions and at all times.

Monotheism is recognizing that different phenomena can all be explained by a single force. Nelson writes that the search for a unified field theory / TOE, and the faith in the existence of such a theory, is an act of monotheistic faith. I'll write more about this when I write about the book, and I would extend this to include Newton's theory of gravity (the apple falls from the tree due to the same force that causes planetary orbits), Maxwell's electromagnetism, and all other yichud (unification) in the history of physics.

I raised the wall, and I will be the one to knock it down

On Saturday afternoon I biked up to Washington Heights to see the landslide before it was all cleaned up. I was biking up Riverside Drive until I reached traffic cones where the road was blocked off. In hindsight (after seeing what was ahead) I probably could have kept going past the cones on a bike without worrying about getting a ton of dirt dumped on me, since there was a distinction between "Road Closed Use Detour" and "POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS". But I didn't know that, so I followed the cars to the detour and found myself on the onramp for the George Washington Bridge and the Cross-Bronx Expressway (see map). It was just like all the antics on the BQE, Verrazano, etc., during the Five Boro Bike Tour, except there were cars there! They didn't really expect to see a bike. I took the exit for 178th St, and weaved around the local streets, taking advantage of my amphibious nature as a vehicle and a pedestrian until I found a vantage point to view the disaster scene. There were emergency vehicles of every kind imaginable (except ambulances, because miraculously no one was hurt), and a parked Fire Department "Mobile Command Unit" with a big TV screen on the side that was looking at whatever the front of the truck was looking at. So yeah, the actual collapse looked just like the pictures in the media, but it was still worth seeing in person. There was a small crowd gathered to watch the backhoes moving dirt. It was a diverse composition of people with black hats and people without black hats and others.

On the way back I looked around and thought about how many levels of built infrastructure this city has. This is especially apparent around there, where the George Washington Bridge is roughly at street level, and then it's a long way down to the parkway, and then a long way down from there to the river. And everything is held up by concrete pillars and retaining walls. Nekavim nekavim chalulim chalulim .... she'im yipateich echad meihem o yisateim echad meihem .... (If any one of them should open, or if any one of them should close....) I wonder how high the street level (anywhere) is above the original ground level. The thing that made the largest impression on me at Ground Zero (back when it was still fresh), other than thinking about the tragedy and all that, was looking down into the pit and seeing how deep the human-made structures go down into the ground, like Isengard in the Lord of the Rings movies, except not computer graphics. And every day I go to work eight floors above an entire neighborhood made of landfill.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Shabbat in the independent minyan scene

First Shabbat back in the city after more than a month.

Kol Zimrah
was standing room only on Friday night. The service was led solidly by NAF, with a combination of KZ favorites (Friedman, Carlebach, etc.), NAF originals, and R.E.M. tunes. Our many out-of-town visitors included the a cappella group from the Charles E Smith Jewish Day School in the DC area. The overall level of spirit was high, with two concentric circles dancing for an unmeasured amount of time at the end of Lecha Dodi. The KZ community has really stepped up to take ownership of KZ, more than ever before. The service had a wide age range, with some younger children, the high school students from DC, college students home already for the summer, KZ regulars in their 20s and 30s, and the SAJ crowd. Dinner was one of the best "potlucks" ever, thanks to a massive contribution of food by the DC contingent. Dinner included an impromptu performance by the a cappella group, singing of zemirot and niggunim, and a shir chadash led (if the word "led" even applies) by SYFF. The latter was reminiscent of the free-form vocal jams that Phish would do at the end of "You Enjoy Myself". (My favorite was the one in Greensboro that led into an a cappella version of "Proud Mary".) KZ continues on June 17 at the SAJ, and then goes outside on July 8, August 12, and August 26.

The dar on Saturday morning was also standing room only (with some of the same visitors), and also had a high level of spirit, facilitating substantive insights that will go in another post. Kudos to the dar for recognizing that significant life events don't relate exclusively to marriage and reproduction; kiddush was sponsored in honor of three graduations and an engagement, and each of these received an enthusiastic response (not just the engagement). (Kudos also to CAJE and to its Operations Coordinator, James W. Lapin. The "Kol hakavod" column in the latest Jewish Education News (review still to come) recognizes him for recently donating a kidney to a stranger. I can't even imagine.) The coolest thing ever happened right before kiddush. They announced that there would be a class in the back room about Modim, and then I said "Modim modim", and then everyone said "SHHHHH!!!"

And then the first lunch of the year in Central Park! But not the last.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Israel at 57: the political side vs the religious side

Yom Ha'atzma'ut was observed this year on Thursday 3 Iyar rather than Saturday 5 Iyar because the Knesset said so. Perfectly reasonable for a national legislature to set the date of a national holiday! But I'm not so hot on the idea of a legislature setting the date of a religious holiday; I would not approve if the US Congress decided to move Shavuot. I don't know whether I observe Yom Ha'atzma'ut as a religious holiday, which de facto means that I don't, but I am mystified by those who observe ritual practices (e.g. hallel) on this day and are willing to move them by order of the Knesset, a secular body, most of whose members are secular Jews or non-Jews. But I guess a lot of these people have ideas about church and state that differ from mine.

I understand not wanting to do fireworks on Shabbat, just as megillah reading, matanot la'evyonim, etc., are moved to Friday or Sunday when Shushan Purim (15 Adar) falls on Shabbat (like this year). But even in that case, the liturgical aspects of Purim (al hanisim, vayavo Amaleik) still happen on 15 Adar, even though it is Shabbat.

Also, among those who observe mourning practices during sefirat ha'omer (which I don't, so this is a moot point for me), many of them suspend these practices on Yom Ha'atzma'ut. Therefore, actions that would otherwise have been forbidden to them (i.e. anything they don't do during sefirah) were considered to be permitted on Thursday 3 Iyar, because the Knesset decided that this was the date of Yom Ha'atzma'ut. What is the possible logic behind letting the secular Knesset rule on matters of issur v'hetter?

Once again the ends of the spectrum meet!