Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Dar es Salaam

I've created a monster.

In a jtsfuture thread that was discussing (inter alia) Ismar Schorsch's davening habits, someone said "Obviously something, and perhaps I have not even identified it yet, draws some people to RO Friday night who get up the next morning and daven at JTS, or Hadar or Ansche Chesed or wherever Conservative." So I had to jump in and defend Hadar, making it clear that Hadar is not Conservative. This has led to a massive conversation, both in the same thread and in a new thread that it spawned, about Hadar and its significance to the current debates in the Conservative movement. At various points I have spoken up (to clarify facts about the dar and its participants; to explain in what ways Hadar isn't Conservative; to explain why people like me would be involved with Hadar and not with the C movement) or sat back as a disinterested observer (when they ask questions like "What can be done in the future to ensure that future experiments take place within the movement?"). Since I have zero investment in the existence of the Conservative movement, it doesn't really matter to me whether the movement revitalizes itself or not, but it's interesting to watch the conversation.

However, the C movement (in contrast to the Reform movement, from which I am an expatriate) does get credit for two things: 1) having this discussion at all. I haven't seen any Reform equivalent of JTS Future (or the many Orthodox blogs), where the future and nature of the movement are being discussed and debated in public. 2) recognizing the fact that educated young Jews are leaving the liberal movements, either for Orthodoxy or for independent communities. I haven't seen any public acknowledgement of this from the Reform movement. Maybe it's just more noticeable at JTS, because the JTS students themselves are davening at Hadar (or Kol Zimrah or Orthodox shuls), whereas the HUC students are spending Shabbat at their student pulpits.

Did the quadratic formula explode?

After several years of working full-time around Information-Age high school students, this summer I've finally picked up an addictive Homestar Runner habit. And I must confess that it's brilliant. Homestar Runner surpasses other Flash cartoons like Strindberg and Helium (when will they add a new episode?): while the Internet is merely a distribution mechanism for other cartoons, H*R fully embraces the possibilities of the Internet medium. Thus, there are numerous opportunities to interact with the cartoons by clicking on things. When a cartoon includes a song, there is often a link to download the mp3 immediately. One of the characters has his own website, and another has a LiveJournal-esque blog. (The Simpsons has used similar gimmicks recently, with , , and .) You can email the characters, and one of the most popular features involves Strong Bad checking his email.

The email that most exemplifies this surreal embrace of the Internet (among those that I've seen so far) is "virus". Continuing in the tradition of "Duck Amuck", the characters are forced to interact with the medium that created them. When Strong Bad's computer gets a virus, the entire Homestar universe is thrown into pandemonium as pop-up windows start popping up and characters' faces turn into broken JPEGs. The characters valiantly rage against the dying of the light, in a sequence reminiscent of the climactic sequence of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

(Warning: if you haven't watched a few H*R cartoons already, this one probably won't make any sense. This wiki is a good place to start.)


For most Americans, this is not an election year, or the upcoming elections involve only the county coroner and other local offices that no one pays much attention to. But not in New York City, whose population is larger than 40 states', and where a City Council district is larger than a State Assembly district. The odd years are where the action is (second only to the even years)!

The NYC primary is less than a fortnight away, and in a one-party city like New York, the primary is the only election that matters (except in the mayoral race).

This afternoon, I'll be back at the subway handing out flyers for Melissa Mark Viverito. Melissa is running for the open City Council seat in the 8th District, which includes East Harlem above 96th St, a chunk of the South Bronx, and the West Side from 96th to 110th (plus Central Park and Randall's & Ward's Island"s", but those don't have many voters). She has been endorsed by the New York Times and El Diario, and has picked up many other endorsements including former Gov. Cuomo, Rep. Rangel, Rep. Nadler, the United Federation of Teachers, SEIU, and the Working Families Party. I don't live in the district, so I can't vote for her, but perhaps you can!

My City Councilperson is unopposed in the primary, so nothing interesting is happening there. However, I remain open to being swayed in the Democratic primaries for mayor, public advocate, Manhattan borough president, and Manhattan district attorney. (But I'm definitely not voting for Bernie Goetz for public advocate.) Feel free to post comments about why I should vote for a particular candidate.

In the general mayoral election I'm voting for whoever wins the Democratic primary, because I haven't forgiven Bloomberg for the Republican Convention, and because I believe that Blue America should elect leaders who reflect our blue values (if we're not going to be as successful at the national level for now). That said, I don't have the same singleminded focus on this as I did in the 2004 presidential election ("Anyone but Bush") or any congressional election ("A vote for [moderate Republican senator] is a vote for Bill Frist"). Bloomberg's reelection wouldn't be the end of the world the way Bush's election and the Republican control of Congress are shaping up to be. Therefore, I feel freed up to vote in the primary based on who I think would be the best mayor, rather than who has the best chance of beating Bloomberg in the general election. This primary isn't going to turn into the clusterfuck that was the 2004 presidential primary, with everyone swallowing multiple levels of meta to vote for the candidate deemed to be the most "electable".

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

You are likely to be eaten by a grue

Last week's roll through Masechet Megillah (daf 2b-3a) reminded me of Nelson Goodman's grue-bleen paradox. An object is defined to be grue if it is green before the year 2010 and blue during or after the year 2010. An object is bleen if it is blue before the year 2010 and green during or after the year 2010.

The concepts of grue and bleen depend on our color concepts. However, we could consider grue and bleen to be fundamental, and define our color concepts based on them! An object is defined to be green if it is grue before the year 2010 and bleen during or after the year 2010. An object is blue if it is bleen before the year 2010 and grue during or after the year 2010.

Neither of these sets of definitions can be shown to be formally more correct than the other, but only one of them accords with our common-sense understanding of the real world.

And that's how it seems on Megillah 2b, where R. Yehoshua ben Korchah (in a baraita) uses green and blue, and the anonymous tanna of the Mishnah uses grue and bleen.

It is well-known that walled cities (such as Jerusalem) observe Purim on 15 Adar, one day later than unwalled towns. You might have thought that this was because Shushan took an extra day to kill all the bad guys and observed the very first Purim one day late on 15 Adar (Esther 9:18), and Shushan was a walled city, so it became the paradigm for other walled cities in perpetuity. This explanation makes a lot of sense. And R. Yehoshua ben Korchah would agree with you. He says that Purim is observed on 15 Adar in cities that were walled at the time of Achashverosh, by analogy with Shushan.

But the Mishnah (or its stammaitic avatar) would tell you that you haven't read Esther closely enough! Dig:

[Esther 9:17]That was on the 13th day of the month of Adar; and they rested on the 14th day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking. [18] But the Jews in Shushan mustered on both the 13th and 14th days, and so rested on the 15th, and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking. [19] That is why village Jews, who live in unwalled towns, observe the 14th day of the month of Adar and make it a day of merrymaking and feasting, and as a holiday and an occasion for sending gifts to one another.

Full stop. In summary: The first Purim was on the 14th outside Shushan and on the 15th in Shushan; Purim today is on the 14th in unwalled towns. But nothing is said about what is done today in walled cities! (We were joking about Purim Mitzrayim vs. Purim dorot, as in Pesachim 9:5.) Now you or I or R. Yehoshua ben Korchah or any IQ test for children would make the obvious logical leap and say that Purim is observed on the 15th in walled cities. But the mainstream voice of the Gemara (representing the Mishnah's position) has to make it more complicated.

I guess someone has to stand up for the "wacko school of Akiva". So, as discussed last time, the rabbis derive the laws of a "rabbinic" holiday from scripture, viz. a part of scripture that no one claims is the word of God, by using all of the standard textual techniques for deriving "d'oraita" laws from the Torah: gezeirot shavot; finding deep significance in individual letters; the principle that a bijection exists between the set of usable elements (verses, phrases, whatever) in scripture and the set of laws that can be derived from them. It makes you wonder what they thought they were doing. Did they really think they could derive halacha this way from the book of Esther? (It's not out of the question -- Purim is traced to the time of the late prophets, so it has a firmer foundation than laws enacted by the tannaim or amoraim themselves.) Or is this asmachta b'al'ma, finding support in the text for laws whose origin is elsewhere? (I mean, of course it is, but let's play the game.) Or, given the subject matter, is this the first example of Purim Torah (like the Simpsons Talmud)?

So according to the stam representing the Mishnah, there is a gezeirah shavah of p'razi p'razi (unwalled towns) between Esther 9:19 and Deuteronomy 3:5. The latter is talking about the conquest of walled and unwalled cities in Og's kingdom of Bashan, at the time of the original conquest of Eretz Yisrael. From this gezeirah shavah, we see that the definition of p'razi is "cities that were unwalled at the time of Joshua [and bleen after the year 2010]". Esther 9:19 says that p'razim observe Purim on 14 Adar, so we get the Mishnah's rule that cities unwalled at the time of Joshua observe Purim on 14 Adar. By creative parsing of bizmaneihem (Esther 9:31) we know that there exists a distinct set of locales that observe Purim on 15 Adar. Thus, taking the complement of p'razim, we find that Purim is observed on the 15th in cities that were walled at the time of Joshua. Voila!

There's just one problem. Shushan itself was unwalled at the time of Joshua!!! And we know that Shushan observed Purim on the 15th! Well, uh, (according to Rava, or maybe Kedi) Shushan is different, because that's where the miracle happened. So Shushan observes Purim on the 15th, unlike all of its fellow p'razim.

Thus Shushan, which we thought was the whole basis for this unwalled/walled distinction, becomes irrelevant to the general rule, and just an inconvenient special exception. Rosh pinah hay'tah l'even ma'asu habonim.

The superscript letter indicates that the Mishnah's rule, crazy as it is, gets codified. However, the Rambam (Hilchot Megillah 1:5) gives a completely different reason: the walled/unwalled distinction is based on the time of Joshua in order to honor the land of Israel, which was in ruins at the time of Achashverosh but had walled cities at the time of Joshua. Thus, these cities in Israel get to claim their honored status as walled cities, which they wouldn't be able to do under R. Yehoshua ben Korchah's rule. This reason apparently comes from the Yerushalmi, which unsurprisingly wants to honor the land of Israel, while the Bavli has to discover a gezeirah shavah to explain the Mishnah.

On with the Gemara. Neither the Mishnah nor RYbZ needs "ve'ir va'ir"(Esther 9:28) to make his/its point, so by the principle of bijection, it's a sitting duck for interpretation. So this is where we'll staple the statement of R. Yehoshua ben Levi: the walled city and everything connected to it and everything seen as part of it are considered part of the walled city. This is the basis for the contemporary practice of observing Purim on "Shushan Purim" in the modern city of Jerusalem, most of which is outside the walls (and outside any part of the city that was ever walled). R. Yirmiya (or was it R. Chiya bar Aba?) specifies the distance: 1 mil (~1 km), defined as the distance from Chamtan to Tiberias. But what's up with that? Parts of modern Jerusalem are certainly more than 1 mil from the Old City and still observe Purim on the 15th. What is the definition in use these days? Is it the municipal city limits of Jerusalem as determined by the government? Are there neighborhoods that are legally part of Jerusalem that observe the 14th, or (less likely, since the borders of today's Jerusalem sprawl so far) places outside the city limits that observe the 15th?

The Gemara then opens up the FBI file on R. Yirmiya (or was it R. Chiya bar Aba?), listing a bunch of things that he (or was it he?) said. But it's not just mnemotechnical randomness -- all of these meimras (meimraya?) deal with meta issues regarding the text of Tanakh, in the original or in translation. This is an appropriate topic for Masechet Megillah, even if the Mishnah doesn't get there for a few chapters.

The special "final" forms of some of the Hebrew letters come from the prophets! But wait, the final mem must have existed at Sinai, because we have this tradition that the letters on the tablets were carved all the way through, and the inner parts of the final mem and the samech were floating there magically (this is why those Hebrew stencils had a connector piece for those letters -- as we'll see in a few pages, la b'chol sha'ta v'sha'ta mitracheish nisa, a miracle doesn't happen all the time), so we know that the final mem (like the samech) included a closed curve. Hmm. Ok, the final forms existed already, but then they were forgotten, and the prophets brought them back.

Putting aside the problem of the tablets being written in k'tav ashuri rather than k'tav 'ivri, does anyone know whether this bears any resemblance to the actual history of the Hebrew alphabet? Without the prophet part, I mean. I have a vague memory of hearing that the final forms of those 5 letters were actually the original forms, and the non-final forms came later.

Onkelos translated the Torah into Aramaic from the tradition of R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua, and Yonatan ben Uzziel translated the Prophets from the tradition of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (prophets themselves).

We already know that Yonatan ben Uzziel had superpowers. On Sukkah 28a we learned that Hillel the Elder had 80 students, and the least of them was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, and the greatest of them was Yonatan ben Uzziel. How great was he? When he was sitting engaged in Torah and a bird flew overhead, it immediately burst into flames.

Here on Megillah 3a we see another instance of his superpowers. When he translated the Prophets, the land of Israel shook 400 parsa by 400 parsa (~1000 miles x 1000 miles; I didn't realize Israel was that big!), and a bat kol came out and said "WHO HAS REVEALED MY SECRETS TO HUMANS?". Yonatan stood on his feet and said "You know that I didn't do it for my own glory but for yours, so that disputes would not multiply in Israel." (That worked out well.) He asked the bat kol "While you're here, could you reveal the translation of Ketuvim?" The bat kol said "You've had enough!" And to this day, there is no official targum of Ketuvim. Why not? Because it reveals the time of the messiah.

The Gemara asks a good question: why didn't the land of Israel shake when the translation of the Torah was revealed too? The answer: the Oral Torah had already been revealed with the Written Torah, so Onkelos's translation contained no new content. In contrast, there was no "Oral Neviim" along with the "Written Neviim", so Yonatan's translation was the first time the "Oral Neviim" was revealed. This revelation was what made Israel tremble.

We noted that there was thunder and lightning and all that when the Oral Torah was revealed -- not when Onkelos translated it, but at Sinai! And we can expect similar cataclysms when the Oral Ketuvim is finally revealed -- when the messianic age arrives!

(Though if there's no Oral Ketuvim, then what the heck were we doing on the previous amud? See the first half of this post.)

Finally, let's look at Daniel 10:7. "I, Daniel, alone saw the vision; the men who were with me did not see the vision, yet they were seized with a great terror and fled into hiding." Who were these men? Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. They were greater than Daniel in that they were prophets, but he was greater than they in that he saw this vision. (Then in what way were they prophets that he wasn't? Rashi says it's that they were sent by God to prophesy to Israel and Daniel wasn't.) The big question: If they didn't see the vision, then what were they afraid of? Answer: Their mazal (constellation, or as Rashi says, their guardian angel) saw it.

Ravina generalizes this: Any time you are terrified without seeing something terrifying, it's because your mazal (some emanation of you outside your body) saw it. But the lawyers will point out that if there is a fright then there must be a remedy. The remedy: say Shema! If you're in an unclean place, get out. And if that doesn't work, say "The goat in the butcher's house is fatter than I am." As the Jastrow jackpot helpfully explains: "(a charm)"

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Same broad time, same broad channel

Mission accomplished! One of my goals for the summer was to bike to every island in NYC that is accessible by bike, and I think I'm done, unless there are other islands I don't know about. After checking off Manhattan, Long Island, Staten Island, Roosevelt Island, Randall's and Ward's Islands, Coney Island (not really an island), and City Island, I finished it off yesterday with Broad Channel, located in Jamaica Bay.

The first stage of the journey was by subway, and I met up with JA at the end of the R train, in the shadow of the Verrazano Bridge. The sky was overcast with occasional drizzle, so it was perfect biking weather, unlike the last two attempts. We biked around the Brooklyn coast, past Ceasar's Bay [sic] Shopping Center, through Coney Island (hopping despite the weather), Brighton Beach, and the oddly-named Manhattan Beach (which is even farther from Manhattan than Manhattan College is), past Mario & Luigi's restaurant, past the almost-abandoned Floyd Bennett Field (where we saw the Fujifilm Blimp), and over the Marine Parkway Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge to the Rockaway Peninsula.

We locked up our bikes and we were in the ocean! This is a birthday tradition for JA. It was probably high tide; the waves were huge. From looking at the map, I couldn't figure out why the waves were so much higher here than at Coney Island; contrary to our hypothesis at the time, the Coney Island beach isn't actually sheltered as part of New York Harbor. Any ideas?

The ocean is all well and good, but some of us had a mission, so we continued along the peninsula and took the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge onto the island of Broad Channel. The southern part of the island is a residential neighborhood, and the northern part is part of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. (While most of the island belongs to Queens, apparently a chunk of the Wildlife Refuge part is in Brooklyn!) We crossed the Congressman Joseph P. Addabbo Bridge (which is covered in fish guts), and we were back on the "mainland" of Queens, near JFK.

And the rest is history. No more islands.

Hadran alach.

Monday, August 15, 2005

I will tell you how our people were once joyous

From the prologue to Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav's Seven Beggars:

I will tell you how our people were once joyous.

Once there was a king who had an only son. The king wanted to transfer the royal power to his son during his own lifetime. So he gave a grand ball. Now whenever the king gave a ball, it was surely a very joyous affair. But when he transferred the royal power to his son during his own lifetime, there was surely a great celebration. And at the ball were all the ministers, all the dukes, and all the nobles. And they were all very joyous at the ball. And the people, too, were greatly pleased that the king handed his royal power over to his son during his lifetime, because this was a great honor for the king, and indeed there was a great celebration. There were all sorts of things for the celebration -- musical bands and comedies and the like -- all things used for a celebration were present at the ball.

This is a barely-veiled allegory for the Lurianic concept of tzimtzum, contraction. God withdraws God's self, in order to make possible the creation of the world. Withdrawing, limiting one's reach, is thus a divine attribute, and by the principle of v'halachta bidrachav (imitatio dei), it is an attribute that we should emulate.

Y'hi ratzon mil'fanecha sheta'aleinu b'simchah l'artzeinu V'TITA'EINU BIGVULEINU. And indeed there was a great celebration.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Tisha B'Av

This is not going to be yet another post about "Why I don't observe foo". I did observe Tisha B'Av today, engaging in forms of 'inui nefesh (self-affliction) from fasting to proofreading the physics lab manual.

Opposition to Tisha B'Av in the present time tends to fall into two major camps: the anti-Zionist and the Zionist (though some people oppose it for both reasons). The first is exemplified by the Pittsburgh Platform (1885):
We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel's great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.

In other words, since we don't want to go back to Israel or rebuild the Temple, why mourn the Diaspora or the destruction of the Temple?

The second (Zionist) approach is that now that the State of Israel has been established and millions of Jews have returned to Eretz Yisrael, the reasons for mourning no longer apply and therefore the fast of Tisha B'Av should be eliminated or at least diminished.

Both of these approaches have in common the idea that modern developments have brought us qualitatively closer to the messianic era. I do not share their optimism. Looking around in 2005, it is clear that neither the "universal culture of heart and intellect" nor the State of Israel has succeeded in bringing redemption. And this recognition of how far we still are from "the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all [humans]" is the reason that I still observe Tisha B'Av.

Do I want to see the literal reinstatement of the Temple service like these folks? Nah. (Though I wouldn't mind the "house of prayer for all nations" that we read about this afternoon.) But so what? Our yearnings for the rebuilding of the Temple don't have to be literal; they can be all about the aforementioned kingdom of truth, justice, and peace. It surprises me that communities that are willing to understand our national stories about the past in metaphorical and homiletical ways (e.g. creation; the exodus from Egypt; heck, most of Tanakh) are reluctant to do so with our stories about the future. This is why I say "na'aseh v'nakriv" (future tense) in musaf, and not "asu v'hikrivu" (past tense): if it's viewed historically as a stage in our development, then it becomes actually all about the dead lambs, whereas if it is in the future tense, then it is clear to me that it's all figurative.

But that's the thing: once the yearning for a rebuilt Jerusalem becomes figurative, the rebuilding of the physical Jerusalem no longer has any influence on that yearning, except insofar as it brings us closer to "truth, justice, and peace". (And I do think the existence of the State of Israel is a good thing, but it's insufficient.) Thus in mincha today, I said "ha'ir ha'aveilah v'hachareivah" ("the city in mourning and in ruins"), and not one of the updated versions in Siddur Sim Shalom and elsewhere that say "the city that was once in ruins". (Gates of Prayer maintains the traditional text in Hebrew, but renders the English in the past tense. I don't do it that way either.) There is so much desolation in Jerusalem and the rest of the world that the mere physical reconstruction of Jerusalem cannot bring it out of its state of mourning.

So I observe Tisha B'Av because modernist/Zionist triumphalism has given way to postmodernist pessimism, or something like that.

The rabbis were wise in folding all of our tragedies into a few fast days, because if we were to mourn each historical tragedy separately, we would never stop mourning.

I don't even think so much on the fast days about historical suffering (other than the archetypal kind), because there are more than enough examples of suffering in the present to keep me occupied.

Someone suggested that if the fasts are going to be about present-day suffering (rather than about Gedaliah ben Ahikam himself, etc.), then there should be a specific theme for each one. I agree, and I propose (for American Jews) devoting the three minor fasts associated with Tisha B'Av to the US, Israel, and the rest of the world. Matching up each fast (17 Tammuz, 3 Tishrei, and 10 Tevet) with one of those themes is left as an exercise to the reader (please post your ideas in the comments, with an explanation). Bonus points for a tie-in with the Fast of Esther.

According to Zechariah, these four fasts will be observed as days of joy in the future. May the next Tisha B'Av be one when celebration is justified, bimheirah v'yameinu amen.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Shed a tear for Greenwich

In just three days, several thousand people will have the opportunity to live the Zionist dream, leaving their homes in chutz la'aretz and traveling a few miles by air-conditioned bus to their new homes in Eretz Yisra'el. Right now it is popular (not just among the orange crowd but among the more-nuanced-than-thou orange-and-blue crowd) to bewail their fate.

While we're doing that, we should also mourn the residents of these four towns. I wasn't in Massachusetts in the 1930s, so I don't know whether they tied orange ribbons to their Model T's or sent their children to block the roads. But if they didn't, it makes me wonder if what's happening right now isn't actually a general opposition to eminent domain, to the idea that the government has the power to seize private property (with just compensation to the owners) when this is necessary to serve a legitimate public purpose. There must be something else going on, since the handwringing over the residents of Gush Katif losing their homes seems to far exceed the handwringing for the people of Prescott, Massachusetts (or, closer to home, for the working-class Jerusalemites who lived in what is now the gentrified ghost town of Kfar David). If you disagree with the reasons for the disengagement, then say so, but fixating on the plight of the settlers is disingenuous. A long-term solution for the region will inevitably require some people to move around.

So let's shed a tear for Greenwich MA, and wish the residents of Gush Katif a mazal tov on their new homes.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The whole megillah

After making a siyyum on Masechet Rosh Hashanah, attending a siyyum on the letter G, and attending a workshop by JT Waldman (artist of the new Megillat Esther graphic novel), I was ready to start Masechet Megillah last night with MAK. There are 31 dapim, and 31 weeks until Purim, so if we average one daf a week, we can finish in time for Purim!

We started with the whole first chapter in the Mishnah and about 2/3 of the first daf in the Gemara. The chapter of Mishnah begins with a full discussion of a single issue (the date when the megillah should be read in every possible circumstance) and then spins off into a mnemotechnical series of mishnayot that are linked in structure but not content, spanning at least four of the six orders of the Mishnah in their scope.

The first sugya in the Gemara appears to be arguing about whether the megillah should be read earlier than 14 Adar in small towns, but is really debating questions of authority. Purim is weird because the whole holiday is "rabbinic" in the sense that it doesn't appear anywhere in the Torah, but is biblical in the sense that we have prooftexts for it, in which we can derive laws from individual letters just like in the Torah. The discussion operates under the premise that the laws in Esther chapter 9 were enacted by the Great Knesset in the time of Esther. The famous Mishnah Eduyot 1:5 is brought up, stating the Jewish version of stare decisis: a later court cannot overrule an earlier court unless they are greater in wisdom and number. They implicitly accept the idea of "farther from the source" (rather than "standing on the shoulders of giants"), so it is understood that no one can overrule the Great Knesset. So the debate is just about what the Great Knesset actually decreed, and how much can be parsed from the words in Esther, versus what was a later rabbinic ruling to complement this.

Residents of small villages are permitted to read the megillah earlier (on the 11th, 12th, or 13th of Adar), moving up to the nearest Monday or Thursday, the market days when they're in town anyway. The reason given is somewhat selfish on the part of the city people who are making the laws: the farmers have to be out in the fields growing our food. That might also be the motivation behind the statement we just saw on the last page of Rosh Hashanah, that the prayer leader in the city fulfills the obligation not only of those who can hear him/her, but also of those out in the fields. So perhaps the selfish motivation has an altruistic effect and the policy is sensitive to the rural residents as well, or perhaps the farmers are just being excluded as a permanent underclass. Unclear. In any case, the idea of reading Torah and megillah on Mondays and Thursdays (because those are the days when people are gathered together anyway) provides a historical precedent to those Reform congregations that read Torah on Friday night (when more people are there).

Count the frames: the answers!

I've already posted about the workshop I led last week, applying George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant to intra-Jewish religious discourse.

While I don't think we came up with a solution in the very limited amount of time that we had, the workshop got a conversation going, and I hope this is only the beginning.

Some have responded by saying "But if you say ______, that's a frame too!". Perhaps I haven't made myself clear: I'm not saying that we should eradicate frames. I'm saying precisely the opposite: frames are unavoidable. So if we have to use a frame, we might as well use one that represents our own values rather than someone else's values.

After an introduction to the frames that are out there ("observant", "religious", "traditional", "kosher", "shomer shabbat", "ba'al teshuva", "levels/degrees (of observance, etc.)", "left/right", the very idea of a linear spectrum, the process of Artscrollization in which this is the way that things have always been for all normative Jews everywhere), we did a chavruta study on this Associated Press article, and each group had to count the uses of framing in the article, both by the people quoted in the article and by the s'tam of the AP reporter. One group came up with 33!

Now let's look at some of the examples (and you're invited to come up with more).

Starting with the very first sentence:
The branch of American Judaism that occupies the middle ground between those who buck tradition and those who fully embrace it have been confronting the dwindling appeal of their movement in a meeting this week in Houston.
While it's possible that they meant that Orthodox Jews "buck tradition" and Reform Jews "fully embrace it", it doesn't seem very likely. So right off the bat, the movements are defined on a single axis based on allegiance to "tradition", tautologically defined as what Orthodox Jews do (since they're the ones who "fully embrace it"). Then someone pointed out that the framing starts even earlier in the sentence: "middle ground". Even if you assume that a one-dimensional spectrum exists, in order for something to be in the "middle" there must be well-defined endpoints and a metric to determine the distance between two points. (I am reminded of the joke: "Two camels are walking in the desert. One says 'Move over, I want to be in the middle.'") Then someone beat this one and found framing even earlier: "branch"! This tree metaphor implies that one form of Judaism is the "trunk" while others are "branches". (Someone else responded that this need not follow, since Orthodox Judaism could also be a "branch".) I don't think anyone took issue with "The", though they could have. I wrote the following letter to the editor in response to a Jewish Week op-ed that claimed that the Conservative movement was "in the middle" and thus more nuanced and thus more thoughtful (like all the annoying people who thought their position on the Iraq war was self-evidently superior because they disagreed with what they saw as the "left" and "right" positions):
It is arrogant to suggest that the Conservative movement has a monopoly on nuanced thinking and struggling with Judaism, while the Orthodox and Reform movements respond to traditions by “simply submitting to their authority or tossing them aside.” Anyone who holds a principled position considers his/her expression of Judaism to be the optimal balance of tradition and modernity. The same claim of uniqueness might have been made by an Orthodox Jew in Flatbush who feels that Yeshiva University has gone off the Torah path but the Jews of Borough Park refuse to engage with the modern world, or by a Reconstructionist Jew who believes that the three major movements are too resistant to innovation but Jewish Renewal has gone too far, and this claim would still have been wrong.

Ok, back to the AP article.

The Conservative movement teaches a traditional Judaism that is moderately flexible. For example, Conservatives allow members to drive on the Jewish Sabbath if necessary and let men and women sit together during services.

Ok. "Allow members to drive on the Jewish Sabbath if necessary and let men and women sit together during services." Clearly a parallel structure, using two verbs that are synonyms. The implied reading of this juxtaposition is that just as the Conservative movement's decision permitting driving on Shabbat was intended as a kula (leniency) to allow something that ideally shouldn't be allowed (and regardless of anyone's personal views, including my own, this is certainly how the CJLS framed the driving teshuva), egalitarianism is also just another kula. There is no suggestion that, for many Jews, egalitarianism is a core principle that necessitates equal roles for men and women; here it is just seen as an example of relaxing traditional requirements.

However, unlike clergy in the more liberal Reform stream, most Conservative rabbis will not officiate at interfaith weddings.

This one is just factually incorrect (unless "clergy" is unconvincingly parsed as "some clergy"); most Reform rabbis don't officiate at interfaith weddings either.

The Orthodox movement has the strictest adherence to Jewish law and tradition.

Funny how that works, when "Jewish law and tradition" is defined as "what Orthodox Jews observe". If you're going to come up with any objective historical criterion that doesn't depend on the Oral Torah being given on Sinai, then it's either a tie or the Karaites win. (Also, "the Orthodox movement"? Try again.)

Conservatives have resisted pressure to liberalize core teachings to prevent less observant Jews from leaving for Reform synagogues, which generally give a greater role to gays and to Gentile spouses of congregants.

I.e. people who want to leave for Reform synagogues must be "less observant", because they have the chutzpah to drive on Shabbat or be gay or whatever. Also "to gays and to Gentile spouses of congregants" implies that just as Gentile spouses are a priori marginal members of the Jewish community, so are gay people.

"If a person decides that they are really not interested in observance, then the Conservative movement is really not the place for them," said Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a Conservative leader from Israel who attended the Texas meeting.

"If a person decides that they hate America, then the Republican Party is really not the place for them," said President George W. Bush.

The entire article is based on the idea of a one-dimensional spectrum, with an equivalence between the "left" and apathetic Jews and Jews whose practice is least similar to Orthodox on the one end, and the "right" and committed Jews and Orthodox Jews on the other end. If any non-Orthodox movement's self-image places it on this spectrum, then of course it's going to lose members!

And I'm sure you can find more examples in the article. Post them in the comments!

The next text we looked at was from the CCAR's A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism (1999). It was the part that gets quoted the most, perhaps because the rest ("We affirm that every human being is created b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and that therefore every human life is sacred.") is stuff that no one can disagree with.

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.

And the commentary on it:

The whole array of mitzvot. This paragraph reflects the most significant break from the Pittsburgh Platform. By committing ourselves to study "the whole array of mitzvot," Reform Jews affirm that all the mitzvot of the Torah can call to us as they call to all Jews, though we may feel "addressed" by different ones at different times in our lives– – and by some perhaps not at all. When asked whether he put on tefillin Franz Rosenzweig is said to have responded, "Not yet," implying that there is a difference between hearing the call of a mitzvah and being ready to respond to it in the affirmative.

Others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention. Where there used to be a number of Reform synagogues which forbade their worshipers to cover their heads or wear tallitot, more and more synagogues feel addressed "as a community" by these mitzvot, setting out kipot (head coverings) and tallitot for those who feel addressed "as individuals" to wear these garments, without requiring anyone to wear them. In a time when more and more people are using diet to express their beliefs, "our peoples’ ongoing relationship with God" makes an increasing number of Reform Jews look seriously at aspects of kashrut. The Third Draft of the Principles specifically mentioned kashrut, tallit, tefillin, and mikveh (ritual immersion) to demonstrate the principle that there is no mitzvah barred to Reform Jews, even as the Reform movement does not compel the observance of any mitzvot.

So what's the problem? When this platform came out in 1999, I thought "Hey, that's swell! I'm a Reform Jew who keeps kosher and wears a tallit, and now the CCAR is acknowledging people like me." It wasn't until later that I realized how self-defeating this wording was.

"Ongoing study" -- hey, no quarrel there. But "the whole array of mitzvot" implies that there is a single set of mitzvot (with their interpretations) that is the same for all Jews and is unchanging over time, and our choices are limited to how we relate to this array, not what the array contains. And what determines the contents of this array? The Torah? No! It's the practices of the Jews whom we perceive as "more observant" than ourselves! What's the smoking gun? It's the juxtaposition of "mitzvot", "kipot" and "tallitot". The author is complicit in Artscrollization, by mixing together tallitot (explicitly commanded in the Torah) and kipot (a late custom that no one before 1999 claimed was a mitzvah) into an undifferentiated hodgepodge of "observant" Judaism. This is allowing someone else to own the mitzvot, rather than saying that they belong to us and they evolve over time, and each of us is empowered to study and come up with an interpretation.

The "Not yet" story seems philosophically indistinguishable from Chabad: you're ok the way you are, but this is the direction you should be moving in sooner or later. I am confused by the Reform movement's embracing of this idea, which may be a reasonable zeroth-order approximation for those who are starting from nil, but is also a contributor to the mass exodus of educated Reform Jews to Orthodoxy. I am reminded of this ancient joke.

So the next step is for liberal Jews of all types to come up with new frames that reflect their values. Go and learn it!

The diversified character of time

The students in the calendar class all brought calculators and/or laptops to assist with the number-crunching, but they didn't need them on the first day, which covered the period before Hillel II's mathematical calendar.

Before things got too technical, we began with the motivations for studying the calendar:
1) As do-it-yourself Jewish communities, if we're going to use the Hebrew calendar (and even the Jew in the NJPS who just goes to a seder every year implicitly uses it) we should know how to derive it ourselves, rather than depending on funeral homes to do it for us. (This was inspired in part by Kevin Hale's mezuzah-writing class two years ago: he began by talking about how liberal Jewish communities should have people who know how to write mezuzot rather than depending on Orthodox communities as we do now.)
2) This esoteric study is actually the very foundation of Judaism. We looked at the famous passage from Heschel's The Sabbath beginning with "Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time," as well as other sources, including the first commandment given to the whole nation of Israel ("This month shall be to you the beginning of months") and the part in Rosh Hashanah 8b where it says that the court above does not enter into judgment on Rosh Hashanah until the court below has sanctified the new month (in other words, God observes the holidays when we say God does!).

Then we had an outline of the old-school system of witnesses observing the crescent moon and being examined by the court, who then declared the new month. Wacky stories added color. We looked at the sources in the Mishnah, Gemara, Rashi, and Rambam (Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh) explaining the origins of two-day Rosh Chodesh, two-day Rosh Hashanah, and two-day festivals, each of which is for a different reason. Based on these explanations, people asked the question I was dreading: Why are the two days of Rosh Hashanah designated as the 1st and 2nd of Tishrei rather than the 30th of Elul and 1st of Tishrei? (This doesn't affect when Rosh Hashanah is observed, but determines whether Yom Kippur is observed 9 days or 10 days after the 1st day of Rosh Hashanah.) The lame answer I gave (which was the best answer I could find after reading all of Masechet Rosh Hashanah and the non-way-out-there parts of Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh) was the statement in the Talmud that since the days of Ezra, Elul had always been 29 days, so this tradition had been kept alive. To which they responded, if Elul was always 29 days during the old system, then when was there ever a need for a two-day Rosh Hashanah? Which is an excellent point. So if anyone out there has a better answer, we would all appreciate it.

The second day began with the last piece of the old system: intercalating the lunar years to get them to line up with the equinoxes/seasons. Then we said goodbye to the astronomical system and had an introduction to modular arithmetic. Everyone does it whether they know it or not: 27 minutes after 4:45 is 5:12 (not 4:72). We practiced adding and multiplying with the lunar month of 29 days 12 hours 793 parts. (A part, or chelek, is 3 1/3 seconds. There are 1080 parts in an hour; this number is divisible by 2,3,4,5,6,8,9,10, and more!)

We solved the leap year problem by introducing the 19-year cycle, but showed that there is an error of 2 hours in each cycle, or about 1 day every 200 years! This means that in 20,000 years we'll be observing Pesach in the summer! In 79,000 years, we'll cycle back around all the way, and (the most useless fact available) in around 300 million years, the number of the Gregorian year will be greater than the number of the Hebrew year.

We introduced the molad (mean lunar conjunction) and the general algorithm for calculating everything there is to know about a year:
  1. Leap or not? (Divide by 19 and find the remainder)
  2. Find the molad of Tishrei for this year and next.
  3. Find the date of Rosh Hashanah for this year and next.
  4. Subtract the dates in #3, and find the number of days in the year.
  5. Assign a number of days to each month based on #4.
The last two days of the class were devoted to fleshing out the details of #2 and #3. We looked at the source for molad tohu (the beginning of Tishrei in the year 1), explained in Tosafot to Rosh Hashanah 8a-b. I think this is a fabulous example of the rabbis shooting an arrow and then painting a bull's-eye around it. They knew roughly when the molad had to be, so they used the sources creatively to come up with a justification (of course Adam sanctified the new moon at the time when he was commanded not to eat from the tree!). And if the molad had to be two days earlier, they would have said that the molad happened on the 4th day (when the moon was created). Based on this, you can find the molad of any month, just by adding the number of months that have elapsed since then.

We looked at all four dechiyot (rules for postponing Rosh Hashanah later than the date of the molad). A whopping three of them come into play for this year (all of them except GaTaRaD, or as someone suggested, GaToRaDe), including the elusive BeTUTeKaPoT!!! BeTUTeKaPoT happens on average once every 190 years! The last time was in 1927, and the next won't be until 2252, so for most of us, this will be the only BeTUTeKaPoT of our lifetimes. This rule moves the upcoming Rosh Hashanah from Monday to Tuesday, in order to add an extra day to the year, so that it won't have the illegal length of 382 days. It's so rare because it only applies to the Rosh Hashanah following a leap year, and only when the molad of Tishrei falls into a specific 2.5-hour range out of the entire week.

Finally, we hit the controversy between Saadiah Gaon and Aharon ben Meir: due to political posturing between Israel and the Diaspora, some Jews observed all the holidays two days earlier than others for two years!

And then time was up.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Angels we have heard on high

Wednesday night's course sampler included an excerpt from the course on Midrashim on Creation. We were looking at a text from Bereshit Rabbah that asked on what day the angels were created. One participant, increasingly frustrated, asked "Does anyone here actually believe in angels?" (One person raised his hand! But only one.) JGN noted that someone should have been recording the next 2 minutes, which included a rapid-fire series of responses that represented all the different modern approaches to classical texts. One person responded "What's important is that the rabbis believed in angels, so we need to keep that in mind when we're reading this text"; another said "I find it interesting because of its historical value, that lets us see what people were thinking about in that period"; another said "I don't think the rabbis believed in angels either, but this is a metaphor for understanding the human-divine relationship"; and so forth. In any case, most people just wanted to get back to the text. The original question-asker might have thought that the negative response to the question would end the discussion, but it's amazing how Jews are able to bracket these questions (of course no one believes in angels!) and just consider the other questions (what is this text really saying?)

I had a similar experience when Benj taught his workshop about the eruv. Every year, NHC volunteers surround the Franklin Pierce College campus with an invisible wall to turn it into a private domain so that everyone can carry on Shabbat, so this workshop dealt with the theory and practice of eruvin. One person expressed the concern that this didn't match his understanding of Shabbat rest. About half of the class was in the population who themselves would not carry outside an eruv. Afterwards, the other half mobbed this person and said "We agree with you! Of course this is all nonsense! But we didn't say anything before because we were interested in the specifications for the invisible walls."

Why don't we get together and call ourselves an Institute?

SDB summed it up in an oft-quoted email four years ago:

The Havurah Institute was slightly closer to heaven on earth than other places I've been before. It was a week of learning, singing, dancing, talking, thinking and feeling. Requirements and inhibitions were discouraged. If you felt like singing, you sang. If you felt like dancing, you danced. If you felt like swimming and then taking a canoe out for a few minutes, you swam and then took a canoe out for a few minutes. If you felt like going to class, you went to class. You could make friends with anyone regardless of age or affilliation. It was a place full of individuals and families of all ages, shapes, colors, orientations and interests, united by a love of learning and teaching and a desire to make Judaism a positive force in their lives.
The National Havurah Committee began in the late '70s, growing out of the legendary gatherings that brought together people from the various independent grassroots Jewish communities. The last five years have seen a resurgence in the creation of independent Jewish communities, as another generation has come of age, been alienated from institutional Jewish life, and formed critical masses to produce viable alternatives. This generation (in their 20s and 30s) has been attracted to the NHC through the Everett Fellows Program, and (along with the children of the original '70s havurahniks who are the same age) has formed a symbiotic relationship with the havurah veterans as we all advance a vision of a progressive democratic participatory egalitarian Judaism.

As an expatriate of the Reform movement, I have found the NHC's Jewish practice to be what the Reform movement professes to be on paper but fails to be in reality (though it's probably not a good idea to mention that too much, since it would piss off many people in both the Reform movement and the NHC). In particular, the Reform movement advocates informed autonomy, but most members of Reform synagogues are not informed, and therefore are not autonomous (relying instead on clergy and on their memories of how things have always been). The NHC, in contrast, has many people who are very informed and very autonomous, and empowers people to educate themselves and make independent decisions and thus to be the mythical ideal Reform Jews (though rarely identifying as such).

This autonomy leads to a rich diversity in belief and practice, exemplified by 4-5 different egalitarian prayer options every morning (and not the same 4-5 each day), as well as a number of non-prayer options. The chaos that some fear would be the result of independent decision-making fails to materialize; instead, this diversity is a source of strength.

One of the most important roles that Hillel filled during college (in addition to a forum for cross-fertilization among different Jewish approaches) was as a catalyst for Jewish innovation, in the very literal sense of "catalyst": something that lowers the activation energy of a reaction. Back in the day, if you had a crazy idea and wanted to, say, set all of kabbalat shabbat to R.E.M.'s album Automatic for the People, then great! Here's a room to hold the event, here's a xerox machine to make copies, here's an email list of 1000 people to publicize the event, here's a dining hall where everyone can eat afterwards. But in the real world, everything takes so much more effort (finding a space, assembling the people, etc.), so a much smaller percentage of creative ideas becomes reality.

However, the NHC Summer Institute can act as such a catalyst for one week out of the year. Want to teach a workshop on any topic you're interested in, or lead a service in any style? Great, it's on the schedule! Want to assemble people to talk about the Sefat Emet or Midrash Rabbah? Put up a sign! This year, two first-time participants, fed up with not being able to talk about Harry Potter Book 6 around people who hadn't finished it yet, organized a free-form Harry Potter text study in the back of the dining hall one day at lunch. The ages ranged from single digits to senior citizens as we speculated about Horcruxes and Unbreakable Vows. A few explicit Jewish connections came up in the discussion (the Aramaic etymology of "Avada Kedavra", the parallels between the Boy Who Lived and the Moses story), but most importantly this epitomized the NHC's value of being a multigenerational learning community, with the 10-year-olds running circles around the adults with their knowledge and insight.

Though the word "egalitarian" within the Jewish community refers commonly to gender equality, gender is only one piece (albeit an important one) of egalitarianism as understood by the NHC. The operative principle is that every teacher is a student and every student is a teacher. Rabbis and other scholars are incognito, going by their first names and participating as civilians. Those who are invited as teachers include both those whose profession relates to the topic of their class and those who have unrelated day jobs and dabble in this on the side, and no distinction is made between these groups. Teachers are "on" for 90 minutes a day while they are teaching their classes, and are regular participants in the Institute for the other 22.5 hours every day. This year I took Carolivia Herron's class on "Jewish Africana Midrash" in the morning (and got an autographed copy of Nappy Hair), and then she took my class on "History and Mathematics of the Hebrew Calendar" in the afternoon.

ER and I are co-chairing next year's Institute, so we're starting to assemble the team of people who are going to make it happen. The whole community voted on next year's theme. We picked out six soundbites from Parshat Eikev (the Torah reading during the 2006 Institute), and then everyone ranked their preferences, and a winner was chosen with instant runoff voting. The winner is..... V'hayah im shamoa' tishm'u / If you really listen (Deuteronomy 11:13). This theme encompasses listening on a literal level (e.g. music), as well as listening to other people, to other communities, to ourselves, and to God.

Save the dates: August 7-13, 2006!

Monday, August 08, 2005

I was born in a small town

Back from New Hampshire, where I just spent a week with Desh, Purple Frog, Daf Am Haaretz, Ruby K, and lots of other people who don't have blogs (or at least blogs that I know about). Much to say about the week, but sleep must come first.

With no Phish odysseys immediately before or after the Institute, the transitions are much simpler this time. The first thing that I noticed today upon returning to the city was that the people walking down the street were people I had never seen before. After spending a week surrounded by the same 200-or-so faces and adjusting to this, the existence of unfamiliar faces was jarring, as I returned to my habit of not saying hi to everyone I pass. It has been suggested that this is the transition that someone experiences if s/he has spent his/her whole life in an insular small town and then goes out into the wider world.