Sunday, July 31, 2005

Live free or die

Tomorrow morning I'm off to New Hampshire for the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute. I won't be blogging for the next week, but I'll return with full reports on my class on the calendar, my workshop on framing, and other updates on the state of independent participatory progressive Judaism.

See the city, see the zoo

On Wednesday I biked to City Island in 97-degree weather, continuing the project of biking to every island in NYC (and now I think I've finished every bikable island except the ones on the way to the Rockaways) and continuing the unfortunate trend of planning long bike rides on the hottest days imaginable. Any other day since Wednesday would have been far more pleasant, but for some reason I chose the hot and humid first half of the week for extensive outdoor entertainment, including the Bryant Park Film Festival (showing a Pepe Le Pew short followed by Hitchcock's Suspicion) and the Staten Island Yankees vs. the Vermont Expos (a farm team of the Washington Nationals that has bravely kept its name despite the major-league affiliate's move from Montreal -- "why should I change? he's the one who sucks").

I do recommend this bike ride, especially when the weather isn't so extreme. The majority of the ride from anywhere in Manhattan to City Island is on designated bike paths, so you don't have to ride much in traffic. Some of us started downtown, and some of us joined the group further uptown, and we took the West Side Greenway as far as it goes, then went up the very steep uphill paths near the George Washington Bridge. We continued on the bike path next to the Henry Hudson Parkway, then took city streets across Inwood to the University Heights Bridge into the Bronx. The "university" in University Heights was the main campus of NYU from 1894 to 1973, and is now Bronx Community College. We went east on Fordham Road; this was the main part where we were actually in traffic. We continued on the road between the Bronx Zoo and the Botanical Garden, and ended up on Pelham Parkway. There is a dedicated bike path along the whole length of Pelham Parkway (with just a few traffic lights, and entrance/exit ramps to cross), so we could have taken it all the way to the end, but a minor disaster struck and necessitated a detour. My rear tire went flat, so I had to walk a mile or so out of the way to the nearest bike shop (which was easy to find, thanks to the free bike map), in Westchester Square. With a brand new tire, we continued on the last leg of the journey, through Pelham Bay Park, NYC's largest park. The City Island Bridge took us into the "Seaport of the Bronx".

City Island is a strange place. Yacht clubs, seafood restaurants, houses overlooking the ocean (including new houses under construction), all like what I imagine Cape Cod to be like (I've only been there in December, and in an isolated enclave), except it's part of New York City! We filled ourselves with food and air conditioning.

If it had been a smidge colder than 97 degrees, we could have biked back too, but instead we just watched garbage barges pass under the drawbridge in Pelham Bay Park, and biked as far as the 5 train and rode the rest of the way home on an air-conditioned subway.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Count the frames

I'm putting together the materials for the workshop I'm teaching next Friday morning at the NHC Summer Institute. Here's the blurb.

We're going to start out looking at Lakoff and the idea of cognitive frames. One of Lakoff's key points is that the Republicans have been successfully framing the debate, so that the Democrats are still talking within the Republican frames, leading to defeat. Then we're going to look at some examples of framing in contemporary Jewish life. The basic frame (encompassing terms like "observant", "religious", "traditional", "shomer shabbat", and "kosher" as they are commonly used today) is that Orthodox Judaism (as practiced today) is authentic Judaism as it has always been, and that other forms of Judaism are by nature "less observant", and Orthodoxy is the standard by which these other forms are measured. (Examples: "He became more observant - he started putting on tefillin." "She became more observant - she stopped putting on tefillin.") The key is that this frame has been accepted across the board (we'll look at ways in which liberal Jews have accepted it), which is self-defeating for liberal Judaism. This framing also occurs within the Orthodox world, with Modern Orthodox seen as "less religious" than haredim, and with the process of Artscrollization.

I'll post more about all of this after the Institute. But in the meantime, I want to post an article that we'll be using for "text study". When I came across this Associated Press article (which appeared in many newspapers), I realized that this was the best example of this type of framing that I had ever seen -- you just can't make this stuff up. So next week in the workshop, we're going to play a game, and see who can count the most instances of framing in the article. I invite all of you in the blogosphere to do the same. (Ignore the headline - that's just Brandeis's spin.) I count 8, but I'm sure you can do better.

Sunday, July 24, 2005


You'd think it would know better, that if I begin a paragrah "R. Yochanan bar Hanina said:" and hit Enter at the end of the paragraph, I don't actually want it to indent the whole paragraph and begin the next line with "S."

17 Tammuz

Today's headlines:
Ki v'tzarah gedolah anachnu.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Oh, the Ram Parts! Why a Ram's Horn?

My chavruta MAK has written up this summary of what he taught at last week's siyyum on Masechet Rosh Hashanah:

Masekhet Rosh Hashana, in an uncharacteristic turn toward the actual holiday of Rosh Hashana, discusses the laws pertaining to the sounding of the shofar. It is clear from the text that in antiquity, horns of several different types of animals were used as musical instruments, and even as shofarot. Three examples are depicted in the photographs at the top: a ram’s horn, a bovine horn (of a bull, cow, or ox), and a “straight” horn (belonging to a ya‘el, usually translated as wild goat or antelope).

Despite the fact that all of these horns were used, Jewish law and tradition clearly give preference to the ram’s horn (just ask any Jewish elementary school student to translate the word shofar, and “ram’s horn” will most likely be the answer). Why is such significance attributed to the horn of the ram, rather than to that of any other animal?

The classical Jewish conception of history (including history that has yet to be experienced) consists of three primary events, three moments that define the relationship between God and humanity: creation, revelation, and redemption. A survey of some aggadah (and even a little bit of halakhah) will show the degree to which the ram’s horn is intimately connected in the rabbinic mind with each of these events. In fact, the use of a bovine or “straight” horn as a shofar could even be construed as a rejection of one or more of these elements of our sacred history. We shall see how.

Text 1, from our masekhet, relates the ram’s horn to the story of the Binding of Isaac. On Rosh Hashana, God regards us as both so vulnerable and so meritorious that it is as though we were willing to offer ourselves up as a sacrifice before God, just as Abraham’s ram did. The relationship between this episode and Rosh Hashana is well known, and Jews have adopted the tradition of reading Genesis 22 from the Torah on the holiday each year.

The rabbis emphasize that the ram in this biblical story was not simply any ovine, however. This particular animal has been intimately related within Jewish tradition to creation, revelation, and redemption.

Text 2, along with several other rabbinic texts, identifies this ram (at least according to some opinions) as one of the supernatural creations that were brought into existence during the twilight period that preceded the first Shabbat nearly 5766 years ago. Text 3 expands upon this point, indicating that Abraham’s ram provides a link not only to the creation of the universe, but also to the revelation at Sinai and to the future redemption: its physical body, present at all three events, can essentially serve as a summary of all of world history. As such, it is most appropriate to sound a ram’s horn, and thus to call to mind this animal, on Rosh Hashana—the holiday when we think very carefully about God’s creation of the world (considered by some opinions in our masekhet to have occurred on Rosh Hashana), revelation at Sinai (the moment of God’s most intense interaction with humanity), and redemption. Text 4 provides further evidence of the link between Abraham’s ram and the ultimate redemption.

It is thus evident why the ram has an intimate connection with the holiday of Rosh Hashana, as it is clearly associated with three moments in time that weigh very heavily on our minds as we stand before God to be judged for life or death for the coming year. But what about other types of horns? Might they not also be associated with creation, revelation, and redemption? In fact, neither cow horns nor “straight” horns possess this connection, and their use can even be construed as a rejection of these concepts.

Text 5, from our masekhet, presents a slightly cryptic explanation for rejecting the use of cows’ horns, and Rashi’s commentary in text 6 illuminates the statement a bit. Much like golden garments would, the use of a cow’s horn on a holy day would invoke the memory of one of the lowest points in Israelite history: the episode of the Golden Calf. This event, coming as it did so shortly after the revelation at Sinai, can be understood as an explicit rejection of both the form and content of this revelation—in a sense, the exact antithesis of the symbolism of the ram’s horn. In addition, reminding God of a moment of idolatry in our past may not be the best strategy for a holiday that emphasizes repentance and renewed commitment to observance of mitzvot.

So what about “straight” horns? These too can be seen as a rejection—in this case, of redemption. Text 7, from our masekhet, indicates that some of the rabbis of the Talmud associated the bent ram’s horn with humility before God and the “straight” horn with uprightness and straightforward honesty. (Text 8, incidentally, demonstrates that the halakhah agrees with Rabbi Levi in text 7—that the ram’s horn must be used as the shofar both for Rosh Hashana and for Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year, thus providing the basis for our entire discussion.) If the straight horn invokes the theme of uprightness and honesty, why not use it? These are certainly admirable values, except insofar as they are contrasted with the humility of the bent horn. Personal humility is seen as the dominant ethic necessary for Rosh Hashana, and thus preference is granted to the ram’s horn.

Beyond this, foregoing the ram’s horn, and its association with humility, in favor of the straight horn can be construed as a rejection of the Jewish concept of redemption. Texts 9 and 10 explain that in determining which individuals are worthy of participation in the ultimate redemption, humility and eschewal of haughtiness are the primary criteria. Humility—the notion symbolized, according to our gemara, by the ram’s horn—is what ultimately enables a person to overcome death by earning the right to participate in the personal and universal redemptions. And there certainly is no holiday on which we think more about overcoming death than Rosh Hashana, when the Book of Life sits open before God. Thus, to embrace the ram’s horn rather than the straight one is to embrace the idea of redemption, just as to select it over the cow’s horn is to embrace revelation.

When we hear the sound of the ram’s horn shofar this Rosh Hashana, we can be mindful of the power that it symbolizes: the power to connect us with creation, to bring us closer to God through revelation, and to help us earn the merit one day to participate in the ultimate redemption.

Text #1

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 16a. Translation from Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, trans. William G. Braude, New York; Schocken, 1992, p. 497.

R. Abbahu said: Why do we sound a ram’s horn? Because the Holy One said: Sound before me a ram’s horn so that I may remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac son of Abraham, and deem it for you as if you had bound yourselves on the altar before me.

אמר רבי אבהו למה תוקעין בשופר של איל אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא תקעו לפני בשופר של איל כדי שאזכור לכם עקידת יצחק בן אברהם ומעלה אני עליכם כאילו עקדתם עצמכם לפני

Text # 2

Mishnah, Tractate Avot 5:6. Translation from Jules Harlow, ed., Siddur Sim Shalom, Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1989, p. 643.

Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath (of Creation), at twilight:

the mouth of the earth the rod

the mouth of the well the shamir

the speech of the ass the script

the rainbow the writing instrument

the manna the tablets

Others add: the demons, the burial place of Moses, the ram for our father Abraham.

Some add: the tongs made with tongs.

עֲשָֹרָה דְּבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְּעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: פִּי הָאָרֶץ, וּפִי הַבְּאֵר, וּפִי הָאָתוֹן, וְהַקֶּשֶׁת, וְהַמָּן, וְהַמַּטֶּה, וְהַשָּׁמִיר, וְהַכְּתָב, וְהַמִּכְתָּב, וְהַלּוּחוֹת וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים: אַף הַמַּזִּיקִין, וּקְבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל מ שֶׁה, וְאֵילוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים: אַף צְבַת בִּצְבַת עֲשׁוּיָה.

Text # 3

Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 30. Translation from Bialik and Ravnitzky, p. 391.

R. Hanina ben Dosa said: The ram that was created at twilight on the sixth day of creation—not a part of it was without purpose. The ram’s ash was the foundation for the altar within the Temple Hall; its sinews provided the ten strings for the harp David played on; its hide became the leather girdle on the loins of Elijah, ever remembered on good occasions; its two horns were made into shofars—the left horn is the one the Holy One blew on Mount Sinai; and the right horn, larger than the left one, the Holy One will blow in the time-to-come, as is said, “And it shall come to pass on that day, that a large horn shall be blown” (Isa. 27:13).

Text # 4

Pesikta Rabbati 40:6. Translation from Bialik and Ravnitzky, p. 42. [Hebrew text of excerpt from Zachariah 9:14 only.]

Throughout that day, Abraham saw the ram become entangled in a tree, break loose, and go free; become entangled in a bush, break loose, and go free; then again become entangled in a thicket, break loose, and go free. The Holy One said, “Abraham, even so will your children be entangled in many kinds of sin and trapped within successive kingdoms—from Babylon to Media, from Media to Greece, from Greece to Edom.” Abraham asked, “Master of the universe, will it be forever thus?” God replied, “In the end they will be redeemed at [the sound of] the horns of this ram, as is said, ‘The Lord shall blow the horn [shofar] when He goes forth in he whirlwinds at Teman [Edom]’” (Zech. 9:14).

וַאדֹנָי יֱהוִֹה בַּשּׁוֹפָר יִתְקָע וְהָלַךְ בְּסַעֲרוֹת תֵּימָן:

Text #5

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 26a.

Mishnah: All shofarot are kosher except for those of a cow, for it is called keren. . . .

Gemara: . . . Ulla said: The reason of the Rabbanan is in accordance with Rav Hisda. For Rav Hisda said: Why does the High Priest not dress in garments of gold when he enters [the Holy of Holies] to perform the service? Because an accuser cannot become a defender.

מתני' כל השופרות כשרים חוץ משל פרה מפני שהוא קרן . . .

. . .עולא אמר היינו טעמא דרבנן כדרב חסדא דאמר רב חסדא מפני מה אין כהן גדול נכנס בבגדי זהב לפני ולפנים לעבוד עבודה לפי שאין קטיגור נעשה סניגור

Text #6

Rashi, commenting on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 26a.

An accuser cannot. The gold of the calf. And a shofar of a cow is also an accuser, for it is the calf.

אין קטיגור. זהב העגל ושופר של פרה נמי קטיגור דעגל הוא:

Text #7

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 26b.

Mishnah: The shofar of Rosh Hashana is made from the straight horn of a wild goat . . . on fast days, from male [rams whose horns are] bent . . . Rabbi Yehudah says: on Rosh Hashana, they blow the shofar of male [rams], and on [Yom Kippur of] the Jubilee years, of wild goats.

Gemara: Rabbi Levi said: The mitzvah on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur [of the Jubilee year is to use] bent [shofarot], and the rest of the year [i.e. on fast days], straight [shofarot]. . . What is the basis of the dispute [outlined in the Mishnah]? One [Rabbi Yehudah] holds that on Rosh Hashana, one should bend [i.e. humble] oneself before God, and on Yom Kippur, one should practice straightness [i.e. straightforward prayer and honesty]. The other [Tana Kama] holds that on Rosh Hashana, one should practice straightness, and on fast days, one should bend [i.e. humble] oneself before God.

מתני' שופר של ראש השנה של יעל פשוט ופיו מצופה זהב ושתי חצוצרות מן הצדדין שופר מאריך וחצוצרות מקצרות שמצות היום בשופר ובתעניות בשל זכרים כפופין ופיהן מצופה כסף ושתי חצוצרות באמצע שופר מקצר וחצוצרות מאריכות שמצות היום בחצוצרות שוה היובל לר"ה לתקיעה ולברכות רבי יהודה אומר בר"ה תוקעין בשל זכרים וביובלות בשל יעלים:

גמ' א"ר לוי מצוה של ר"ה ושל יוה"כ בכפופין ושל כל השנה בפשוטין והתנן שופר של ר"ה של יעל פשוט הוא דאמר כי האי תנא דתניא רבי יהודה אומר בר"ה היו תוקעין בשל זכרים כפופין וביובלות בשל יעלים ולימא הלכתא כרבי יהודה אי אמרת הלכתא כר' יהודה הוה אמינא אפילו של יובל נמי כר' יהודה סבירא ליה קא משמע לן במאי קמיפלגי מר סבר בר"ה כמה דכייף איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי וביום הכפורים כמה דפשיט איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי ומר סבר בראש השנה כמה דפשיט איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי ובתעניות כמה דכייף איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי:

Text #8

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar, Sukkah, and Lulav 1:1.

It is a positive commandment from the Torah to hear the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, as it is said, “You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded” [Num. 29:1]. And the shofar that they blow on both Rosh Hashana and the Jubilee year is a bent sheep’s horn. And all shofarot aside from the horn of a sheep is invalid.

מצות עשה של תורה לשמוע תרועת השופר בראש השנה שנאמר יום תרועה יהיה לכם ושופר שתוקעין בו בין בראש השנה בין ביובל הוא קרן הכבשים הכפוף וכל השופרות פסולין חוץ מקרן הכבש

Text #9

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 5a. Translation from Bialik and Ravnitzky, p. 711.

R Eleazar said: He in whom there is haughtiness of spirit will not have his dust stirred [at the resurrection], for it is said, “Awake and sing, ye that dwell with the dust” (Isa. 26:19). It is not said, “Ye that dwell in the dust,” but, “Ye that dwell with the dust”—each of whom during his life had made himself dwell [in humility] as a neighbor to dust.

וא"ר אלעזר כל אדם שיש בו גסות הרוח אין עפרו ננער שנא' הקיצו ורננו שכני עפר שכבי בעפר לא נאמר אלא שכני עפר מי שנעשה שכן לעפר בחייו

Text #10

Rashi, commenting on Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 5a

Dwell as a neighbor to dust. Lowers himself to the level of dust.

שכן לעפר. משפיל עצמו לעפר:

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

How is this year different from all other years?

Read Ari Brodsky's essay to find out all the other ways that 5765 is special.

God was not in the fire

I sent the following to the people taking my class at the NHC Summer Institute:



"A furious wind split mountains and shattered rocks in the presence of God, but God was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice." --I Kings 19:11-12

This haftarah, which will be read this Shabbat, is one of the most famous and beautiful haftarot of the year. However, it is rarely read in public. It is only read in 21% of years (in Israel and other communities that observe 1 day of yom tov), or in 11% of years (in communities that observe 2 days of yom tov)!

Why is this haftarah so rare, and what is special about this year?

The Torah is divided into 54 weekly portions, one for each Shabbat of the year. However, there are almost always fewer than 54 Shabbatot in a year, so in most years, one or more Shabbatot include a double portion, so that we can complete the whole Torah in a year.

This year is the rare exception! It is a leap year, meaning that there are 13 lunar months (for a total of 383, 384, or 385 days, which comes out to 54 weeks and change). But even in many leap years, there aren't 54 Shabbatot on which the regular Torah reading cycle is read, because if a holiday falls on Shabbat, then the holiday portion is read instead. But this year has the minimal number of holidays falling on Shabbat: e.g., Rosh Hashanah will be on Tuesday, and Yom Kippur will be on Thursday.

So we lose a Shabbat during Pesach and a Shabbat during Sukkot, but that's unavoidable since those holidays are a week long (so there is always at least one Shabbat), and no other holidays fall on Shabbat this year. That bumps the number of weeks down to 52-and-change. BUT, we get to round up, because Simchat Torah (when the Torah reading cycle ends and begins) was on Thursday (and/or Friday) this past fall, and will be on Tuesday (and/or Wednesday) this coming fall, so we "squeeze in" an extra Shabbat, bringing us to 53, and the 54th portion is read on Simchat Torah itself. Therefore, this year contains NO double Torah portions!

But what does that have to do with this week's haftarah?

We're getting there.

In years where some of the Torah portions are combined (i.e. most years, but not this one), the portions of Matot and Mas'ei are almost always combined. (They'll be read on July 30 and August 6 this year.)

During the Three Weeks leading up to Tisha B'Av (Sunday, August 15 this year), there are three special haftarot of warning that are read on Shabbat, instead of haftarot related to the Torah portion. In most years, those three Shabbatot are the weeks of Pinechas, Matot-Mas'ei, and Devarim. However, this year, they'll be the weeks of Matot, Mas'ei, and Devarim (since Matot and Mas'ei aren't combined).

Therefore, Pinechas (the portion for this Shabbat, July 23) falls outside of the Three Weeks this year. Usually it gets taken over by the special haftarah of warning, but this year (as in 21% or 11% of years) we get to read the "regular" haftarah for Pinechas, the one about the "still, small voice"!!!!

At the Institute, we'll look at other calendrical reasons why this year is unique.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Font of knowledge

Thank you, Wikipedia:
The audio doesn't match up exactly with the visuals. This becomes plainly discernible after 30 minutes of continuous playing. At this point, the audio is at the twelfth "badger" in the first line while the visuals show the mushroom. Over the next few hours, the visuals continue to play faster than the audio, achieving maximum separation at 4 hours 12 minutes. Thereafter the gap begins to close, and becomes synchronized again at about 8 hours 30 minutes. This process continues cyclically.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism

Upon request from EMM. This is a work in progress, so suggestions are welcome.

Just as there are different stages of moral development or cognitive development, there are also stages of development in Jewish pluralism. These stages characterize organizations and communities (I'm not mentioning any specific organizations, so classifying them is left as an exercise to the reader), but can also characterize individuals. Just as a 1st-grade teacher would become frustrated if s/he taught on the assumption that his/her students were at the formal-operational stage, it is difficult to bring people into Stage 3 pluralism if Stage 1 is still a stretch for them.

I don't think that all Jewish organizations/communities should be fully pluralistic (in the sense of accommodating everyone); there is also a need for organizations/communities that advocate a particular ideology. In fact, true pluralism is impossible if the participants do not have the opportunity to refine their own ideologies and identities. Therefore, this taxonomy should not be seen as an attack on non-pluralistic Jewish communities. However, it should perhaps be seen as a prod for communities that seek to be pluralistic but are underdeveloped in that regard.

Each of these stages represents not a particular solution to the pluralism question, but a way of framing the debate. Within each stage, many different solutions can arise, but the discourse rests on a particular set of assumptions.

Stage 1: "Frummest common denominator". In this stage, Orthodox practice is the standard for the whole community, and is believed to be the most inclusive. E.g. if some people can only have a man leading birkat hamazon, and other people can have a man or a woman, then the answer is to have a man lead birkat hamazon.

The problem with this approach is not only that Orthodox practice is accepted as the communal standard, but that Orthodox cognitive frames (forbidden/permitted/required) are accepted as the communal meta-standard. Those who can claim that egalitarianism is a halachic imperative for them have some success arguing against these policies, but those liberal Jews who hold a different understanding of Judaism (and therefore don't hold the trump cards of saying that something is forbidden/required for them) are simply silenced. Some might be "uncomfortable", which leads us into Stage 2.

Stage 2: "Let's make everyone comfortable." I wrote the following to an email list a few months ago (and the discussion on that list was specifically about prayer, but this can be applied to other areas):

Where I think the emphasis on "comfort" comes from:
Many of us have strongly-held beliefs that translate into forms of communal davening, whether we believe in the equality of people without regard to gender, or in a form of halacha that draws sharp distinctions based on gender. But the pluralism conversation rarely focuses on the merits of these beliefs (and probably shouldn't), for two reasons:

1) Saying "I think your deeply-held beliefs are wrong" isn't a productive way to open a conversation. By having the conversation in the first place, we've implicitly agreed to disagree on some of these things.
2) Everyone realizes that they're not going to be struck by lightning if they daven once in a manner that wouldn't have been their first choice, and thus can't convincingly say that they can't daven that way -- especially those who are egalitarian (who can thus have no problem in principle with a man leading, since in their ideal world, men would be leading 50% of the time anyway, not that anyone would be counting) and those who recently became Orthodox ("Dude, what do you mean you can't daven egal? You davened egal last month!").

So instead, we use the language of "comfort": "I'm not comfortable with X, but would be more comfortable with Y." "How can we find a solution that makes everyone comfortable?" I think this is bad for several reasons:
  • "Comfort" is a vague term that elides the distinction between comfort mamash (like sitting in a recliner) and deep convictions. "I'm uncomfortable in this itchy sweater" vs. "I'm uncomfortable with our government sitting back while the AIDS epidemic decimates Africa's population."
  • This elevates comfort mamash, and encourages people to stay in boxes, and boxes to stay firm. Innovation and creativity are sacrificed on the altar of comfort. "This is how i'm comfortable davening" = "This is what I'm most familiar with" = "This is how I must daven every time".
  • Conversely, this denigrates deep convictions, because if deep convictions are nothing more than "comfort", then they are open to the criticism of "everyone should leave their comfort zone and try something new", with no qualitative distinction made between singing unfamiliar melodies and doing something which one believes to be a violation of halacha, human dignity, etc.

Stage 3: The dialogue focuses not on forbidden/permitted/required, and not on comfort, but on identity. I can visit someone else's community and participate in something that I wouldn't have chosen for myself, and it's not the end of the world for me, but at the same time I'm quite conscious that it is not my community. Therefore, the questions for the pluralistic community are: How can we (as a community) respect the identities of everyone in our community? How can we (as individuals) respect the identities of everyone in our community? How can we form a community that all of us identify with as our community? How can we (as individuals) make sure that our communities reflect our identities?

In order to make this kind of pluralism possible, it is necessary for the various Jewish identities to be robust and confident. The insecurity and ignorance in some parts of the Jewish world would make those parts be swallowed alive under this model, which is one reason that this stage is not so widespread yet. We don't yet know what pluralistic communities will look like when more of them enter Stage 3; this is a story that we still have to write.

Repairing Friday night

On Friday night I led kabbalat shabbat at Tikkun Leil Shabbat, co-sponsored this week by the DC Reform Chavurah, at the Religious Action Center. There were over 100 people there! This included people on the TLS email list, the regular DCRC crew, and the summer interns at Machon Kaplan.

This new Friday night initiative ("a summer series of songful, soulful Sabbath services featuring a teaching about a social justice issue and followed by a potluck vegetarian dinner") has only met three times so far, and has been a smashing success from the beginning, overflowing every venue. Though there is a moratorium on talking about the future of TLS (at the moment it is officially of finite duration, like the Mob Project), it seems unquestionable that TLS will continue in some form beyond the summer, and that lots of enthusiastic people will step up to make it happen.

TLS was started by some people (full disclosure: close friends of mine) who have been around the DC Jewish scene for a while and decided that, instead of complaining about the things they didn't like in an attempt to change elements of the existing scene that are resistant to change, their energy would be put to better use creating something new and positive. Over 100 people agree! Many people have already found TLS to be their new Jewish home, including others who have been similarly frustrated with the existing options, plus those who never got into the existing options to begin with, plus those who have just moved to DC (always a large group when a city has that much turnover).

I'm also happy that DC Reform Chavurah exists. As I have discussed at length, people in the 20s/30s demographic who came up through NFTY and the whole system (and who don't become rabbis) tend to disappear from Jewish communal life and/or abandon their Reform roots. (To be more precise, their Reform roots abandon them.) Until a group like this comes along and smokes them out of their holes! After dinner, we were singing songs from the old country that I hadn't heard in 10 years. And I may have a love/hate relationship with the Reform movement, but the RAC (where the Civil Rights Act was drafted in 1964) represents the side of it that is the most unequivocally positive (with the exception of their silence about the war in Iraq). [Kol Zimrah (in NYC) has also attracted this "Reform expatriate" crowd out of the woodwork.]

Some of us were discussing the portability of various models of independent minyanim (since we all want to start them wherever we go when we finally move out of NYC/DC/etc.). Presumably in smaller Jewish communities it will take more effort (more than just viral marketing) to assemble the people. I wondered if maybe the TLS model is more robust than the KZ model, since KZ requires a critical mass of people who can lead services in a very specialized style (hard enough to find even in NYC), whereas TLS has a different style of services every time (the first two were more Carlebach-egal; this time was a hybrid of KZ-style and DCRC-style; a future one is co-sponsored by Zoo Minyan), so it only requires people who can lead services in some style (since each person can lead in his/her style when it is his/her turn). Someone else suggested that the opposite is true: it is rarer to find a set of people who are flexible enough about their davening that they'd be ok with having a different style of services each time, and easier to get people who prefer a specific style. Thoughts?

The last colony

I was in the last colony on this Bastille Day weekend. Though I have never lived in DC, I seem to my a frequent visitor; unless I'm forgetting a few visits, this was my 17th time in the nation's capital (starting in December 1987).

The independent Jewish scene goes in the next post. In this post, some of the American people's newest acquisitions:

The National Museum of the American Indian, on the Mall near the Capitol, opened in September 2004. It's big; I didn't see anywhere close to the whole thing. I mostly saw the Our Lives exhibit, about Native American communities in the present time. I don't know enough to assess the political and cultural issues that sparked controversy in the museum's design, and how those issues turned out. But it made me think about the way that Native American culture (or a caricature of it) is so integrated into today's "mainstream" American culture (the names of over half of the states and many cities/rivers/etc.; exploitations such as the Cleveland Indians, Washington Redskins, etc.) with little awareness of the existence of actual Native Americans in the present. The issues of cultural survival (or "survivance") bear some resemblance to issues that come up in the Jewish community, but perhaps have more in common with the Workmen's Circle than with the Religious-Culturist form of Judaism that most American Jews follow today. I learned about a group of ironworkers who live near Montreal and built the World Trade Center as well as many other skyscrapers and bridges. Also, I learned that certain Native groups have a special red card that lets them cross the US-Canada border freely, under the Jay Treaty of 1794. There was a quote saying something like "We were here long before the border was."

The National World War II Memorial, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, opened in April 2004. I understand why they couldn't include all the names (as at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) -- there are a lot of names (around 400,000). But listing the 50 states just isn't the same. It's also strange that it took almost 60 years from the end of the war to build this memorial. And maybe that's why the classical architecture is designed to look like something that has been there forever. But the FDR Memorial is better.

Physical challenge!

Rabbi Eric Yoffie has posted the "Biennial Challenge" on the URJ website.

Guess how this sentence ends: "The most serious challenge facing North American Jewry today is ___________." You have three guesses.

Now click here for the answer. Not what you expected, is it? I might have listed about 58 other things that are more serious challenges than that.

I have posted my CAJE article to the Biennial Challenge web forum. No responses yet.

(In unrelated news, I have gotten myself into a flamewar over at JTS Future, where I have been accused of both "trying to deflect the reality of MO's sexism" and "imposing [my] values and framework on others and then denigrating them if it isn't a perfect match".)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Amen amen amen selah va'ed!

Tonight MAK and I made our siyyum on Masechet Rosh Hashanah! (This blog is now the third Google hit for "hadran alach"!)

We started with an overview of the masechet: The first mishnah deals with the four new years, and the first 15 pages of the Gemara are for the first mishnah alone! Then, we have another mishnah and its discussion in the Gemara, dealing with God judging the world, as well as judging individuals, on Rosh Hashanah. By then we're up to daf 18 (half of the masechet, which ends on 35!) before we get into the main themes of the mishnah (i.e. everything after the first two mishnayot). The three major topics are: 1) the calendar and the procedure of determining the new month, 2) the laws of shofar, 3) the liturgy of the holiday that we now call Rosh Hashanah. However, these topics are not exactly taught sequentially; we keep hopping back and forth between them. And the reason is the gravitational field of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who is a powerful presence in the second half of Masechet Rosh Hashanah, where we learn about his various decrees to adjust Judaism to post-Temple existence, and these decrees touch on all the major themes above.

I taught two stories from chapter 2, showing that our calendar has a colorful history, filled with intrigue and espionage.

Chapter 2 begins:
If the beit din (rabbinical court) doesn't know the witnesses, they send along another witness to testify as to their character. (Law student RLK noted that this is done today if a lawyer is appearing in court in a jurisdiction where s/he is not a member of the bar.) Originally they would accept testimony for the new moon from anyone, but when the Baitusim (Boethusians) messed things up, they decreed that they would only accept testimony from people they knew (who were members of the bar).

A baraita in the Gemara (22b) specifies exactly how the Boethusians messed things up.

Rashi adds depth to the story by explaining their motivations. The Boethusians interpreted "the day after Shabbat" (Leviticus 23:15) literally to mean Sunday, like any reasonable person would. The rabbis, as we do today, interpreted "shabbat" to refer to the first day of Pesach, so that Shavuot is observed 7 weeks after the 2nd day of Pesach. In the year when this story happened, 30 Adar was on Shabbat. The Boethusians really wanted the new month to be declared on that day, so that 1 Nisan would be Shabbat, 15 Nisan (the first day of Pesach) would be Shabbat, and Shavuot would be observed on Sunday. But the moon hadn't actually been observed, so the Boethusians had to take matters into their own hands.

The Gemara picks up the story here. The Boethusians hired two people (at 200 zuz each -- enough to stay above the poverty line (this is the amount specified in the ketubah) or to buy 100 goats, so we're talking thousands of dollars) to testify that they had seen the moon. These two were "one of theirs" and "one of ours". Clearly, the rabbis were writing the story. And the "one of ours" was a double agent. So their guy goes in and testifies, and then our guy goes in next. The beit din asks him "What did the moon look like?" He says "I was going up to Ma'aleh Adumim and I saw it crouched between two rocks. Its head was like a calf, its ears were like a goat, its horns were like a gazelle, and its tail was resting between its legs. I looked at it and I fainted and fell backwards. And if you don't believe me, I have 200 zuz here in my cloak." They asked "Who put you up to this?" He said "I had heard that the Boethusians were trying to mess up the rabbis, so I said 'I'll go myself and let them know; otherwise other people will go who aren't so honest, and they'll lead the rabbis astray.'" They said "Keep the 200 zuz as a gift, and the one who hired you is going to be beaten." At that point they decreed that they would only accept testimony from people they knew and trusted. (I wonder if any state bar associations have stories like that!)

The next mishnah: Originally they would light beacons to signal that the new month had been declared. They would light a torch on top of a hill, and wave it back and forth until the person on the next hill had seen it and lit his torch and started waving it, and then the person on the third hill would light his torch and wave it, and so on all the way from Jerusalem to Bavel (Iraq). The process is very reminiscent of a famous scene in The Return of the King (the movie).

This was a very efficient method of transmitting the message, because it traveled at the speed of light, except for some latency due to the time it took on each hilltop to react and light the torch, but still very fast. Very little bandwidth was necessary, because it was a 1-bit binary message: either the new moon had been declared on the 30th day (meaning that the previous month had 29 days) or it hadn't (meaning that the previous month had 30 days). 0 or 1 (signal fires or no signal fires).

This was all well and good until the Kutim (Cutheans/Samaritans), the very first hackers, came into the picture. The problem with this system was that there was no encryption or verification, so anyone could spoof the message, like those emails that purport to be from PayPal or your bank that say "Please enter your account information", except that everyone knows that your bank doesn't actually send emails like that, whereas there's little room for nuance in a 1-bit message. So sure enough, the Kutim went up to the mountains and lit fires of their own when the new month hadn't actually been declared, and it threw everyone off.

Because of this fundamental security flaw, the whole system of beacons was abandoned, and instead they just sent out messengers. This system was more verifiable and harder to hack, but also much slower. Messengers who left Jerusalem on the 1 Nisan wouldn't necessarily reach the Diaspora by 15 Nisan, so the Diaspora Jews didn't know the correct date on which to observe Pesach, and the rest is history. Those of you who still observe two days of yom tov can thank the Kutim.

Time was running short, so I didn't do the story (on 25a) that is the locus classicus for "David melech Yisrael chai v'kayam" (David, king of Israel, is alive and well.). It's a song that we all learned in Hebrew school when we were 6, but the phrase was originally a secret code meaning "Success! I have sanctified the new moon", along the lines of "The eagle has landed".

MAK then taught in depth about why the shofar must be a ram's horn (rather than another animal) and how this relates to creation, revelation, and redemption (complete with pictures of ram's horns, bovine horns, and straight horns belonging to a ya'el (whatever animal that is)), and taught the very end of the masechet. He will share his teaching in an upcoming post.

Then we concluded with the hadran, the recitation of the sons of Rav Papa (except really they were all sons of different Papas -- it's not like saying "Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Tito Jackson, ..." but more like "Michael Jackson, Andrew Jackson, Jesse Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, ..."), the prayer for studying Torah, and finally the extended version of the kaddish d'rabbanan. And then food.

The menu:
  • Ok, starting with hamelech (NOOOO WAIT!!!): KING-size Reese's peanut butter cups
  • For the four new years: apples & honey (Tishrei), dates (Shevat), matzah (Nisan), Animal Cookies (Elul)
  • For the shofar: Bugles
  • For the phases of the moon: black-and-white (aka half moon) cookies, a Luna bar
  • For Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: Ben & Jerry's ice cream (whose Israeli factory is in Yavneh). They no longer seem to make Jerry's Jubilee (for the yovel) or Bovinity Divinity (for the golden calf, the reason we don't use cows' horns for the shofar), but we had Cherry Garcia (and cherries have pits; there is discussion of blowing a shofar inside a pit).
We don't know yet what we're learning next, but we'll take suggestions in the comments box. Whatever it is, rest assured that it will be blogged.

How manifold are your blogs

Check out this guy's blogroll (in Hebrew/Yiddish/Aramaic).

Monday, July 11, 2005

Goodbye my Coney Island baby

Today I biked to Coney Island with Hazon, and about halfway back (before giving up and taking the subway -- it had just been too much time in the sun on this 91-degree day). I'm counting this toward my goal of biking to all the islands in NYC, even if it's not really an island.

I saw:
  • The NYC Triathlon, at the moment when the first swimmers were just starting to get out of the water
  • A cruise ship loading up with passengers
  • The Trapeze School in operation
  • A movie being filmed at Chambers & Church -- an empty street (blocked off from cars) was portraying a busy street scene (with extras crossing the street back and forth, under the director's direction)
  • A Borough Park chevra kadisha with a special entrance for kohanim
  • The Brooklyn 9/11 memorial, on a pier with a panoramic view of the harbor, including the place where the Towers aren't
  • Ceasar's [sic] Bay Shopping Center
  • Mermaid Medical Group (on Mermaid Ave, Coney Island)
  • The Cyclone! Not just saw it, rode it. In high school physics (where some of us live 10 months out of the year) we do a lot of talking about roller coasters, but I can't remember the last time I rode one. So how about that conservation of energy? If I were 15 feet tall, this ride totally would have taken my head off. The Cyclone is also the namesake of my newly adopted New York baseball team, because I decided that after living here 3 years, I had to have a local team to root for, and it couldn't ever be the Mets or the Yankees. Of course, since making this decision, I haven't actually done anything proactive like go to a game or find out who any of the players are or how they're doing this year. Ok, I just looked it up. They're 12-7, second to the Staten Island Yankees, who are 13-5. We can come back and overtake those damn Yankees! Also, I am older than every one of the players.
  • Quentin Road, between Avenue P and Avenue R. Someone was very consciously avoiding an Avenue Q, but why?
  • A group of teenagers in Prospect Park, wearing black kippot, long black coats (on the aforementioned 91-degree day), external tallitot, and roller skates

Guns, germs, and steel-string guitars

This weekend featured both Kol Zimrah and Hadar meeting in summer locations that are different from the usual year-round locations, and in both cases, the vibe was different in very concrete ways.

Thinking about this in my capacity of armchair ethnographer/practitioner of Jewish communal prayer, I'm coming up with a hypothesis parallel to the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis that the structure of a language determines how its speakers think, or Jared Diamond's hypothesis that the shapes of the continents and their variety of flora and fauna determined how civilizations evolved.


The acoustics of the prayer space significantly affect the overall communal prayer experience, as well as other communal activities (e.g. meals, singing at meals).

Sunday, July 10, 2005

I know what I know

I didn't have time to finish that last post before Shabbat, because my sister just got engaged!!! MAZAL TOV!!!!!!!

So anyway, Feynman, yadda yadda, isn't it cool that they knew precisely what it was that they didn't know, and then found it?

Next comes the question, precisely how does the order of the ... units determine the arrangement of the amino acids in the protein? This is the central unsolved problem in biology today.

Not anymore!

Then we get to geology. Whoa.

The phenomenon of volcanoes is really not understood. What makes an earthquake is, ultimately, not understood. It is understood that if something is pushing something else, it snaps and will slide--that is all right. But what pushes, and why? The theory is that there are currents inside the earth--circulating currents, due to the difference in temperature inside and outside--which, in their motion, push the surface slightly. Thus if there are two opposite circulations next to each other, the matter will collect in the region where they meet and make belts of mountains which are in unhappy stressed conditions, and so produce volcanoes and earthquakes.

It's that beautiful moment just before a paradigm shift. I had no idea that plate tectonics was so recent! If I recall correctly, we were learning it as gospel truth when I was in elementary school in the '80s. Yes, I know that this static view of science is just the way that elementary school science is generally taught (since most elementary school teachers are as uncomfortable with science as most Americans, and thus teach it the same way as social studies, reading the book and answering questions at the end of the chapter), but I figured it took longer for new discoveries to percolate down to the 5th grade curriculum. Ka mashma lan.

Feynman distinguishes between physics and astronomy/geology/biology, because the latter are dealing with historical questions (evolution, star formation, formation of the earth), whereas physics is not. Until cosmology and the Big Bang came along!

And that's it for the overview. Chapter 4 is on conservation of energy, and from here on out, the content stops being dated, except for quaint units like pounds and feet, and other things that I'm going to point out because it's fun. Starting the study of physics with the conservation of energy, and deriving the formula for gravitational potential energy before defining mass, force, work, etc., are very cool. He stops just short of using the word "torque", but it appears that the concept of torque can be derived from conservation of energy! I'm using that in my class in the fall.

What's the deal with the word "heat"? It refers to the transfer of thermal energy, and using "heat" to refer to a type of energy is deprecated. Wikipedia calls it a "common misconception". But Feynman does it! Is this a shift in the word's usage between 1963 and the present (making the common misconception quite understandable), or did Feynman goof?

In 1963, a second is still defined as 1/86400 of an average day, and a meter is the distance between two scratches on a bar of platinum-iridium alloy. So cute!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Doing the things a particle can

Now that summer is here, I've started reading the Feynman Lectures on Physics. I'm sure that when we actually get to classical mechanics/electromagnetism/etc., the content will become more timeless. The first few lectures are fascinating, but in a very different way than the later ones promise to be. He's giving an overview of what we do and don't know in physics, as well as the other sciences, and it's just amazing to see how much they didn't know in 1963. Well, there's probably even more that we (consciously) don't know today, but I mean how much they didn't know (and were conscious of not knowing) that we now know. I'm not saying this to be snotty, or to gloat about having been born on the shoulders of giants, but just to point out that this historical document provides a snapshot in the history of science, and proves that venerated breakthroughs don't happen overnight.

For example, the state of fundamental particles was a mess in 1963. They had discovered all sorts of crazy new particles in accelerators, and just a few years before the quark model took hold, we read:

It turns out that today we have approximately thirty particles, and it is very difficult to understand the relationships of all these particles, and what nature wants them for, or what the connections are from one to another. We do not today understand these various particles as different aspects of the same thing, and the fact that we have so many unconnected particles is a representation of the fact that we have so much unconnected information without a good theory. After the great successes of quantum electrodynamics, there is a certain amount of knowledge of nuclear physics which is rough knowledge, sort of half experience and half theory, assuming a type of force between protons and neutrons and seeing what will happen, but not really understanding where the force comes from. Aside from that, we have made very little progress. We have collected an enormous number of chemical elements. In the chemical case, there suddenly appeared a relationship among these elements which was unexpected, and which is embodied in the periodic table of Mendeleev. For example, sodium and potassium are about the same in their chemical properties and are found in the same column in the Mendeleev chart. We have been seeking a Mendeleev-type chart for the new particles.

Wow. So now we have that Mendeleev-type chart (it's called the Standard Model), and we're left with a different question: WHY? Why do these particles have the masses, charges, etc. that they do? So to keep the chemistry analogy going, we're at the point of having the periodic table, but before they discovered electrons and atomic orbitals and all that. Maybe string theory is the answer, maybe it isn't.

Moving into the biology section, I don't know nearly as much about biology, but some things jumped out. I'm guessing that GDP and GTP (guanadine-di-phosphate and guanadine-tri-phosphate) are what I learned as ADP and ATP (adenosine diphosphate and adenosine triphosphate), and that "microsomes" are what we now call ribosomes.

So in 1963, it appears that they understood the structure of DNA, and knew that the nucleotides coded for the amino acids, but had no idea how -- the genetic code was still on its way.

More to say later, but it's time to go.

Rosh Chodesh Tammuz

Yesterday and today are Rosh Chodesh Tammuz! The molad (the mean lunar conjunction, in the time zone of some unidentified place on Earth that maybe used to be Jerusalem but it's all very vague and just a tool to calculate the day on which Rosh Hashanah should fall) was at 5 days 2 hours 657 parts, aka Wednesday night, 8:36:30 pm.

Kol Zimrah is doing mincha and hallel this afternoon, prior to the usual kabbalat shabbat and maariv. This will be KZ's first mincha ever, first hallel ever, and first kedusha ever!

I have secured an advance copy of the half-page handout for tonight's KZ, and it says:

Frequently Asked Question: Isn’t hallel traditionally said in the morning, not the afternoon?
Answer: Yes. However, the Mishnah (Megillah 2:5) states that hallel may be said at any time during the day. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 32b) interprets Proverbs 14:28 (“B’rov am hadrat melech” / “In the multitude of people is the ruler’s glory”) to mean that it is more fitting to glorify the Ruler when more people are present. Therefore, Kol Zimrah is saying hallel at the time when our community is gathered together.

Given that most of our community did not have the opportunity to pray with a minyan this morning (or yesterday morning), this will be a great opportunity.

Trying to live a life that's completely free

Seasonal employment is the greatest! With no timebound responsibilities, I've been free to pursue all of the free entertainment opportunities available in New York City thanks to a combination of our tax dollars and the largesse of corporate sponsors. In the last week alone:

  • The Museum of Modern Art is free every Friday from 4-8 PM (it's normally $20), and the sun sets late enough these days that those who are concerned about sundown can actually go! This was my first time in the new building, and I'll have to go back on another free Friday, because I certainly didn't see everything, nor do I have the attention span to stay there long enough to see everything in one fell swoop. While I can't say I understand art, especially "modern" art, a lot of the stuff there is stunning, and I can appreciate it without "understanding" it.
  • Biking is always free! Once you've absorbed the sunk cost of a bike and a helmet and a lock and a Camelbak. Also, toeclips rock my world. Continuing my project of biking to every bikable island in NYC this summer, I biked across the pedestrian bridge at 102nd St to Randall's and Ward's "Islands" (once upon a time they were separate islands, but the landfill linking them has left the original separation indiscernable). The monstrous Triborough Bridge is inescapable anywhere you go on the island, and next to it is Robert Moses's palace from when he ruled as emperor (now the headquarters for MTA Bridges and Tunnels). Beyond that it's clear that the city just owned the rest of the island and filled it up with a smorgasbord of public facilities: extensive parks, a stadium, the NYC Fire Academy, a psychiatric hospital, a water treatment plant, and something with a nondescript name like "Operation Help" except that wasn't it.
  • I was in Central Park on both Saturday and Sunday, and I have never seen the park so empty on a weekend with such immaculate weather. Everyone must have gone off somewhere for the 4th of July weekend. On Monday I biked up to Fort Tryon Park (I had never been there before), and upper Riverside Park (or whatever it's called in the 140s or so) was the opposite of empty. I'll let the reader draw his/her own sociological conclusions. An unsolved mystery is all the people who were barbecuing -- do people really keep these huge barbecues in their apartments year-round and schlep them down to the river for the 4th of July (etc.)? Or do those barbecues live in the park? These were not the small camping stove type things. Fort Tryon Park itself is very high up. Robert Moses's successors (if I'm correctly guessing the chronology) did a good job covering up his messes -- even though the strip right along the river belongs to cars, the scenic terraces above are set up so that you can't see the highway.
  • On Saturday, there was a free Nick Drake concert at Central Park SummerStage. Yes, Nick Drake himself is still dead, but this was other artists performing his material (including one album in its entirety). I wasn't all that familiar with his work before, though a group of my students used some of his songs in a movie about brown dwarfs that may qualify as the most creative project I've seen in my class. MF pointed out that brown dwarfs are an appropriate metaphor for Nick Drake's career, since he never achieved enough mass (in his time) to start fusion.
  • Every Monday night in the summer is the free Bryant Park Film Festival, featuring films from before I was born. This week was the James Cagney classic White Heat (1949). Like Central Park, Bryant Park was emptier than I have ever seen it during an outdoor movie. I mean, there were still at least 1000 people there, but normally you have to get there at 5 PM when the lawn opens and grab a spot; this time I showed up at 8:45 (just before the movie started) and there was plenty of space all around. It has been suggested that the Bugs Bunny short before the movie is always thematically connected to the movie: this time it was "Bugsy and Mugsy", which established the gangster theme.
  • The Bronx Zoo is free every Wednesday (with a suggested donation; normal admission $11). Those gorillas are the best.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


New York is not hosting the Olympics in 2012! This means we don't have to spend the next 7 years tearing up the city to build athletic facilities. Now let's get to work building affordable housing on the site where the West Side Stadium isn't going to be.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The revolution will not be televised

Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History, has written an oped in today's Times. She argues that same-sex marriage is not the revolution that its opponents claim it is:

But in this case, Dr. Dobson's warnings come 30 years too late. Traditional marriage, with its 5,000-year history, has already been upended. Gays and lesbians, however, didn't spearhead that revolution: heterosexuals did.

The real revolution was turning marriage into a relationship between two equal partners rather than between a powerful husband and an obedient wife. Once that was done, disregarding the genders of the partners is a very simple change; in Massachusetts, they just replaced "Bride" and "Groom" on the marriage license application with "Party A" and "Party B".

I've been arguing this for a while in regard to Jewish marriage. In the liberal Jewish world, the paradigm shift in how we think about marriage is a fait accompli. Even if our wedding ceremonies echo the traditional kiddushin and nisu'in on the surface, we now conceptualize the transaction as a merger rather than an acquisition. Combine this with the fact that we now have an egalitarian approach to gender: other than areas that are limited biologically (pregnancy, circumcision), no one is excluded from a role on the basis of his/her gender. Women can be rabbis, and men can be primary-caregiver parents. Putting these two together, marriage without regard to gender follows naturally.

Therefore, if one wants to take issue with same-sex marriage, one should take issue not with the unrevolutionary development of same-sex marriage itself, but with the revolution that preceded it. And that's precisely what the opponents of same-sex marriage seem to be doing under the surface, both in the political realm and the Jewish realm. Even though they have already lost the main battle about the equality of men and women, they have found a new front on which to continue this battle. Even if the Massachusetts ruling (etc.) is just a cosmetic change codifying into law what is already well-established in society, they are fighting against that last step.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Jingle bells, Batman smells

Thoughts on Batman Begins:

1) In 2002, The Onion reported on the Cannes Film Festival, and one of the award-winning films was Turkish Batman. Yet Batman Begins had nothing to do with the river, city, or province of Batman, all found in Turkey. A batman is also a unit of mass equivalent to either 2.97 kilograms or 16.4 metric tons. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

2) Prequel madness! And Batman Begins bears some similarities to the second Star Wars trilogy. Both Bruce Wayne and Anakin Skywalker are dealing with lots of anger from the murder of their parent(s), and are trained by a shadowy fellowship, but end up turning to the other side and opposing their former teachers, and take on a new identity that involves wearing all black and speaking with a deeper voice. The difference is that Anakin turns from good to evil, and Batman is trained by the dark side but turns to good.

3) Unlike Superman, Spider-Man, and the rest, Batman doesn't have any superpowers, just really cool gadgets. Therefore, Batman is more "realistic" than other superhero stories; you don't have to accept x-ray vision or a "spider sense", but only a focused microwave beam that can vaporize the whole water supply. Even so, it was beyond any suspension of disbelief that a proper British butler like Alfred would misuse the phrase "beg the question". That error was unforgivable.

4) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay addresses the role of superheroes in our culture. When the problems of our world are too great to bear, we construct an escapist fantasy in which the superhero (from the Golem of Prague to Radioactive Man) solves them for us. In this light, the reference in Batman Begins to Jungian archetypes had to have been self-referential.

5) Was that the same elevated train line they used in Spider-Man 2?

6) I'm looking forward to Batman Continues and Batman Ends.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Move along, nothing to see here

Kol Zimrah has been mentioned in the Jewish Week again! I missed the article when it came out a month ago, but I wasn't quoted out of context (or at all) this time, so I didn't have to write a letter to the editor anyway.

It's not clear what this article is actually about. I can't find a more coherent point than "There is a diversity of Jewish life on the Upper West Side", the sort of story that would make front-page headlines in the Blueprint. But here's the key paragraph:

Ansche Chesed was at the vanguard of the lay-led prayer group movement that sparked an explosion of independent minyans in West Side synagogues, churches and private apartments from Kehilat Orach Eliezer (serious davening and sensitivity to women’s issues) to Kehilat Hadar (egalitarian, Conservative vibe) to Darkhei Noam (mechitza, but women read Torah) to Kol Zimrah (singing, musical instruments), and more.

First of all, I don't know why people keep spreading this calumny about Hadar. Anyone who thinks that Hadar has a "Conservative vibe" has either never been to Hadar or never been to a Conservative shul. (Or only been to Hadar on a bad day, I suppose.) Well, I sort of know why. For people who grew up Orthodox, "Conservative" is a synonym for "non-Orthodox", and for people who grew up Reform, "Conservative" is a synonym for "non-Reform" (where I grew up, it really was -- we didn't have any Orthodox Jews), and for people who grew up Conservative, it's wishful thinking. Also, if you group all prayer into "Hebrew and English without a mechitza", "Hebrew without a mechitza", and "Hebrew with a mechitza", then Hadar is unquestionably Hebrew without a mechitza. But that hardly qualifies as a "vibe", let alone a movement (and at least this article didn't place any of the independent minyanim into movements).

But everything about Kol Zimrah is accurate! Yay! But the veracity of the information in parentheses isn't the important part. (Though it's funny that KOE is described by "sensitivity to women's issues", which the reporter clearly got from their website, though it is the least egalitarian of the four minyanim listed. And that Kol Zimrah is the only one that, in the Jewish Week's conventional wisdom, transcends gender issues.) The important part is that this article is a milestone for Kol Zimrah and its independent minyan brethren. It's one thing (and a wonderful thing) to have a whole feature article about us as a new and cool phenomenon. It's yet another thing to be a completely run-of-the-mill reference in an article about something else; it means we're a full part of the Jewish landscape (even in the eyes of the Jewish Week).

Friday, July 01, 2005

The true north, strong and free

Meanwhile, today is Canada Day!

While the US and a number of states are hard at work writing hatred into the Constitution, and a haredi protester has stabbed three marchers in the Jerusalem Pride Parade, this week Canada (as well as Spain) has gone the opposite direction and approved same-sex marriage nationwide! And this isn't even a court order, this is legislative, baby! So at least the whole continent hasn't lost its mind.

O Canada, we stand on guard for thee!

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed

The battle begins. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has announced her retirement today.

This is a much bigger deal than Rehnquist's retirement would have been. There isn't much room for Rehnquist's replacement to have been that much worse than Rehnquist (though I get myself into trouble every time I make statements like that -- in 2000, could we have predicted any of the mess that Bush has gotten the US and the world into?), so it would have maintained the status quo on the Court (albeit with a younger justice who could stay around forever) while we pray for the health of John Paul Stevens and elect a Democratic president in 2008.

O'Connor is another story. Yes, she cast the key swing vote to elect Bush in 2000. But she has also been part of narrow majorities to uphold Roe v. Wade, Lawrence v. Texas, affirmative action, and more. It is inconceivable that even the best of Bush nominees will keep the balance the same on these issues, let alone improve it on others.

The conventional wisdom is that O'Connor and the other right-wing justices felt a twinge of remorse after their coup d'etat in Bush v. Gore, and therefore didn't retire during Bush's first term, lest it be said that their decision in Bush v. Gore was motivated to ensure right-wing successors for themselves.

But the justices can't take credit for Bush's election in 2004. As our Commander-in-Chief has said, "There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

[Update: This paragraph re-edited for clarity.] If you voted for Bush in 2004, because you thought it couldn't get any worse, or you thought he was "good for Israel", or you wanted to take revenge on Saddam Hussein for 9/11, or you're in the upper echelon of income and wanted the tax cut, or you wanted to phase out Social Security and replace it with "let them eat cake", then you have full responsibility for the extremist wingnut whom Bush will appoint in the next few days, and for the havoc that s/he will wreak on the Constitution and the country. (Will he be so brazen as to make a recess appointment over the 4th of July recess? No one would do such a thing, which means that Bush just might!) If you were paying the full costs for your actions, you would be tortured in Guantanamo and die from a botched coat-hanger abortion.

But don't worry, justice never works out that way; the price will be paid by the poor and the brown. God bless America.