Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ramban on autonomy and authority

My support for autonomy in Judaism isn't based only on abstract philosophical arguments, but owes much to two empirical facts:

1) In emancipated Western society, religious autonomy is a fact, since no human authority has the power to enforce mandatory religious norms. Anyone has the power to opt in or opt out of any religious community. Being Jewish at all, or being any particular flavor of Jewish, is a choice.
2) There isn't any living human to whom I'd be willing to defer as my religious authority.

So autonomy happens by default, in the absence of any authority.

So I identified with something I came across this week from Ramban.

The background: Masechet Ta'anit deals with fasts of all kinds, in various circumstances. These include ta'aniyot tzibbur (communal fasts), which come into existence when they are declared by a beit din, and ta'aniyot yachid (individual fasts), which come into existence when the individual takes them on.

There is a somewhat cryptic statement on Ta'anit 11b and 12b:

אין תענית צבור בבבל אלא תשעה באב בלבד

There are no communal fasts in Bavel except for Tisha B'Av.

The plain meaning of this statement is straightforward, but is contradicted by reality -- we know that they did observe other communal fasts in Bavel! So the commentators go nuts trying to figure out what it really means. Is it referring to fasts in general, or only to fasts for rain (the primary topic of the first half of the masechet)? But if the latter, then why say "except for Tisha B'Av", which has nothing to do with rain? Or is it talking about the details of how the fast is observed (rather than whether it is observed by individuals or the community), equating "communal fasts" with more serious fasts? Does it mean that Tisha B'Av is the only sundown-to-sundown fast in Bavel (note: Yom Kippur is in a whole different league and isn't part of this discussion) and all others are sunrise-to-sundown? Does it mean that some or all of the restrictions beyond eating and drinking aren't observed in Bavel other than on Tisha B'Av? If so, which ones? And anyway, why? If it's just about fasts for rain, then clearly it has to do with Bavel's climate, but if it's about fasts in general, then how is Bavel different?

Here's one answer from the Ramban (as quoted in the Ran):

אין שם תענית ציבור בבבל אלא כל התעניות שמתענין בבבל אינן אלא כתענית יחיד. לפיכך אינו אסור בחומר תענות צבור. והטעם מפני שהדיינין שלהם הדיוטות הם ולא סמוכין ולא היה להם נשיא שתהא גזרתו קיימת על כל ישראל. לפיכך כשהצבור מקבלין תענית צריכין לקבל כולן על עצמן כיחידים שכל אחד מקבל על עצמו, ומשום הכי אינו חייב לנהוג בו אלא כתענית יחיד. אבל בארץ ישראל שהיה להם נשיא, לא היו צריכין לקבל על עצמן לפי שגזירתו קיימת על כולן וכולהו בתריה גרירי.

There are no communal fasts in Bavel; rather, all the fasts that they observe in Bavel are merely individual fasts. Therefore, they are not bound by the stringent prohibitions of a communal fast. And the reason is because their judges are laypeople and do not have semichah (rabbinical ordination)* and they did not have a nasi (president) whose decree would be valid for all Israel. Therefore, when the community accepts a fast, they all have to accept it upon themselves as indivduals, everyone accepting it upon him/herself, and because of this, they only have to behave as on an individual fast. But in the land of Israel where they had a nasi, they would not have to accept it upon themselves, because his decree is valid for all of them and they all follow him.

* He's not talking about what they give out at rabbinical schools nowadays. He's talking about the old kind of semichah, which claims an unbroken chain of succession from Sinai. No one claims this today.

I'm not trying to draw any facile conclusions like "Ramban was really a Reform Jew" or "If Ramban were alive today, he would agree with me about autonomy." These denominational labels mean nothing in a 13th-century context, and our cultural context is different enough that it's hard to draw any conclusions about what he'd say. That's not my point.

My point is that when I read Ramban's description of Bavel, it resonates with me because I think of the world I live in. No one has the power to make a decree that is truly binding on all Israel, and therefore everyone accepts religious practices upon themselves, rather than receiving them automatically as a result of someone else's action. In contrast, some people would like to see our world as more similar to Ramban's description of Eretz Yisrael, where there is indeed a nasi (an individual or an institution) with plenary authority.

I'm not trying to draw any significance from the fact that, in this case, the people of Bavel (who are observing an individual fast) are observing a less stringent practice. One could certainly imagine other cases in which autonomy leads to greater stringency. I'm not arguing here for leniency.

I will reiterate two statements that should be agreed upon by all religious Jews, and which cancel each other out to some degree: 1) the ultimate authority is God, and 2) no living human has the ability to communicate directly with God. This should put to rest any red-herring arguments that this is somehow about human authority vs. divine authority. Of course divine authority would win in such a matchup, but no living human wields divine authority. Therefore, it's really about autonomous human authority vs. heteronomous human authority. And in a world that looks like Ramban's description of Bavel, heteronomous human authority isn't strong enough, and therefore we exercise our autonomous human authority.

Price differential

Prices for Hans Wehr, Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, which appear to defy the laws of economics:

paperback at the Hebrew University bookstore: 396 NIS ($109)
paperback on Amazon: $42.50
hardcover in East Jerusalem: 90 NIS ($25)
having a book whose preface welcomes "orientalists throughout the world" without a trace of irony: priceless

(No, this post isn't about the Ramban. That one is coming soon. But I'd be willing to wager that he's the only one of the three with any knowledge of Arabic.)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Four more years

On Thursday, in anticipation of my performance of the Humpty Dance, I set my Facebook status to "[BZ] is about to ruin the image and the style that you're used to". Little did I know that this simple gesture would spark much controversy. Back in New York, some people didn't catch the Digital Underground reference and took the message at face value. And so it was that my image-and-style-ruining plans became a topic of intense Shabbat lunch conversation halfway around the world.

They even came up with a list of "The Top Ten Ways [BZ] would Ruin the Image and Style that We Are Used To", which they emailed me afterwards.

Number four was "Have Mah Rabu endorse John McCain for president." So, what the heck. In the spirit of venahafoch hu, I'm going to do it.


Do you feel that George W. Bush has done a splendid job for the last 7 years? Do you wish you could elect him to another term, and get downcast when you realize that the 22nd Amendment has no chance of being repealed in time? (Not that real men like Bush are ever constrained by petty things like the Constitution, but in this case it might look bad.) Well, if a third Bush term isn't in the cards, then the next best thing is electing John McCain, who will continue all of Bush's great work, perhaps into the next century.

Concerned that a Democratic president would bring our troops home and leave Saddam Hussein's Al Qaeda cronies free to plot the next 9/11, this time using Saddam's stockpile of weapons of mass destruction? John McCain has said that he would be fine with keeping our troops in Iraq for 100 years! Every bomb that goes off in Baghdad is a bomb that isn't going off in our homes. John McCain will stay the course, but won't stop there; he'll support our troops even more by sending them to invade any other country where they can be bogged down for 100 years: Iran, Syria, North Korea, China, Russia, the possibilities are limited only by the American spirit!

In order to pay for all these wars, John McCain will continue Bush's heroic efforts of cutting taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Americans.

I know there are legitimate concerns about McCain's Senate record -- the campaign finance law with his name on it could pose a threat to the important role of corporate lobbyists in our government. But don't worry: John McCain has shown no indication that he intends to follow this law. You can rest easy knowing that John McCain is just as open as anyone else to being purchased by lobbyists.

And some have expressed concern that McCain's Vietnam experience has turned him into too much of a pansy to support torture. Worry not. John McCain has made it clear that torture should be unrestricted, when American values are at stake.

McCain has vowed to appoint more Supreme Court justices in the mold of Roberts and Alito. so when the liberal justices finally retire (the youngest is 68), the government can finally take full control of your reproductive system and your telephone calls, and stay out of areas where it doesn't belong, like labor regulations and anti-discrimination laws.

Four more years!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Chasing Humpty

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

In this happiest month of Adar, we look back in history at all the joyous events that have taken place in Adars past. Can you believe that it has been 18 years (and 24 Adars) since Digital Underground released their album Sex Packets, on 29 Adar 5750?

On Thursday night at a “Def Adar Jam” in southern Jerusalem, I performed a folk version of “The Humpty Dance” on acoustic guitar in honor of this milestone. Yes, there are other versions floating around the Internet, but if I may say so, my rendition is better. (And no, my version isn’t on YouTube and never will be. By day, I teach high school, and I don’t need my students googling me and hearing me sing about how I’m still getting in the girls’ pants.)

Here’s the thing though. It’s not really my version. I first heard it at Hillel Leaders Assembly in 1999.

In Megillat Esther, an Adar classic, after Mordechai uncovers the plot to assassinate the king, Esther passes this information on to Achashverosh in Mordechai’s name (Esther 2:22). The rabbis of the Talmud derive from this that anyone who says a thing in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world (Megillah 15a). Wait, no. Rabbi Eliezer taught it in the name of Rabbi Hanina. That’s better.

So I’d like to give proper credit to the person from whom I learned this acoustic folk version of the Humpty Dance, and thereby bring redemption to the world. There’s only one problem. I never got his name. I’ve been chasing Humpty ever since.

Then I realized that there’s really no good reason that this mystery hasn’t been solved yet. The Jewish world just isn’t that big, especially the subset of it who were Hillel student leaders in 1999 and play guitar. This person shouldn’t be more than a couple degrees of separation away from me. But he (yes, I’m pretty sure about the gender) has remained at large for 8.5 years. So I’m bringing in the big guns and asking the blogosphere. If you played the acoustic Humpty Dance at Hillel Leaders Assembly in 1999, please identify yourself so that the world can be redeemed. And if it wasn’t you, but you have a hunch of who it might be, please forward this post to them, so that together we may usher in an era of peace and humptiness forever.

Thanks in advance!

The bullpen

The next three blog posts (unless other posts cut ahead in line) are about Humpty, John McCain, and Ramban. Can you think of three people who would get along less?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

All you create and all you destroy

Tonight is Shushan Purim Katan (15 Adar I), and as one might expect on the 15th day of the lunar month, that means it's the full moon. But this isn't just any full moon; once again there will be a total lunar eclipse! (But then not again for several years.) Don't miss it!

The eclipse will be seen at the same time everywhere on Earth (well, just in the half of Earth where it is nighttime, so that the moon is visible in the sky), but the time on the clock depends on your time zone.

The partial eclipse begins at 1:43 am Universal Time and ends at 5:09 am UT, and the total eclipse is from 3:01-3:51 am UT. In Eastern Standard Time, the partial eclipse is 8:43 pm - 12:09 am, and the total eclipse is 10:01-10:51 pm. And you can figure it out for your time zone.

Here in Israel, the partial eclipse will begin at 3:43 am, and the total eclipse is from 5:01-5:51 am, so we'll be able to catch the eclipse just before the moon sets at 6:19 am, 3 minutes after the sun rises. (You can see why, right? A lunar eclipse, by definition, means that the earth is directly in between the sun and the moon, which means that from our terrestrial point of view, the moon is directly opposite the sun, so we would see the moon set in the west at the same time we see the sun rising in the east. The only reason it's not exactly at the same time is because of the atmosphere's refraction of light, which makes the sun appear to rise just a little bit earlier.) So you can look for the setting moon in the western sky (even when it's totally eclipsed, it's not invisible), and watch the moon start to be reilluminated as it comes out of the total eclipse, and then as a bonus for waking up so early, you can turn around and watch the sunrise.

(The EIE kids totally lucked out -- I hear from a reliable source that tomorrow at sunrise is exactly when they're scheduled to climb Masada, so they'll be up anyway. They're in for a celestial surprise.)

Two Jews, Three Opinions

(Crossposted to Jewschool)

Pluralism is one of the most significant trends in 21st-century Jewish life. Hillel is creating pluralistic Jewish communities on college campuses during many Jews’ formative years, and producing a generation of leaders committed to Jewish pluralism. The Limmud franchise is spreading to new cities every year. The National Havurah Committee is experiencing a boom led by a new generation. New communities are sprouting up outside of the institutional movements, and many of them are committed in one way or another to pluralism. Even decidedly non-pluralistic organizations like Chabad and Aish are using pluralistic rhetoric as a marketing tool.

But what is Jewish pluralism really about? Mah Rabu’s Hilchot Pluralism series examines the theory and practice of creating pluralistic Jewish communities, but focuses entirely on the “how”, not on the “why”. Hilchot Pluralism takes it for granted that the reader is interested in creating a pluralistic community (why else would s/he be reading it?), and doesn’t address the question of why pluralism would be desirable (other than bringing up some situations in which pluralism isn’t desirable or isn’t possible).

A new article in the Columbia Current starts to ask these other questions. Dov Friedman looks at different philosophical approaches to Jewish pluralism.

For those who believe that law is fundamentally correct and that other conceptions of Judaism are incorrect, their theology precludes them from creating and joining in communal practices that deviate from their understanding of Jewish law.

Alternatively, those who believe that Judaism houses an infinite number of truths are always at risk of losing a coherent foundation upon which to build their community; they may build a pluralist community, but what would tie such a community together? It would have nothing to rally around except pluralism itself—making pluralism the end instead of a means to a more harmonious community.

For those who believe in the value of pluralism, it is an ominous reality to be faced either with traditionalism that may stamp out pluralism, or with pluralism that may stamp out tradition. In order to understand what a fully “pluralist” perspective entails, we must examine the ways in which the term is used.

Friedman looks at visions of pluralism from a number of different sources, including Rabbi Saul Berman (Orthodox), Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Renewal), Rabbi Neil Gillman (Conservative), Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (Reform), Jewschool’s own Dan “Mobius” Sieradski, and Jews in the Woods. He distinguishes among “legalistic pluralism”, “pure pluralism”, “theoretical pluralism”, “practical communal pluralism”, “financial pluralism”, and more. Do we recognize the possibility of truth in positions other than our own, or do we agree to disagree but look for ways to interact anyway? Do we seek to create a unified religious experience, or maintain our separate practices but make sure we all have a place in the wider community? There are many answers to these questions. Add your own!

I think the full picture is even more complex than what is presented here. For instance, Friedman writes that Jews with a legal approach to Judaism see Jewish law as “the single authentic way to practice Judaism” and therefore “a conception of pluralism that strives toward unity in religious practice is impossible with the Orthodox”. However, there are a multiplicity of views that consider themselves “halachic”, and even consider each other “halachic”, even within Orthodoxy, so there are still opportunities for pluralism within this world. For example, I have participated in a daily minyan that was unquestionably Orthodox where the prayer leader used either Ashkenazi or Sephardi liturgy depending on who was leading that day, and I have been to a Pesach meal at a Sephardi Orthodox home where the Ashkenazim (such as myself) simply didn’t eat the rice but ate everything else.

And the line between “legalistic pluralism” (”I am happy to collaborate with other Jews as long as my Jewish obligations are not compromised”) and other proposed forms of pluralism (”we can allow our personal practices to shift when we are not within our own communities”) is fuzzier than it seems. Certainly no one, even a “pure” pluralist, would expect kashrut observers to eat shrimp, or vegetarians to eat meat, for the sake of pluralism (though it might be reasonable, albeit a big pluralistic step, for them to be in a space where other people are eating those things). But it gets murkier when we leave the realm of personal prohibitions and obligations. Does the “legalistic” view mean only that the individual is not violating his/her understanding of halacha, or that the community as a whole is following that individual’s understanding of communal halacha? For example, would a trichitza be ok for someone with that view (since s/he could elect to stay in a single-gender section), or would a bichitza be necessary (so that the community as a whole is conforming to his/her understanding of halacha)? Based on individual obligations, there shouldn’t be any legal problem with an Orthodox Jew attending a (non-shofar) service led by a woman, since the halachic question at stake is whether a woman can fulfill the community’s obligation. This doesn’t mean that attending such a service would be unproblematic for such a person, but it means that “law” doesn’t fully describe the set of objections (even though it’s often tempting to claim that one’s objections are purely “halachic”) — the disconnect between such an individual and such a community goes beyond making sure that his/her individual obligations are fulfilled and his/her individual prohibitions are not violated. The flip side is that, while such an individual could thus never be a full member of such a community (even beyond “legalistic” reasons), there may be room, as Friedman suggests, for such an individual to be a “chameleon” when visiting such a community.

I fully endorse the conclusion that education is a prerequisite for true pluralism:

Education, it seems, is the common currency—the common language—that enables individuals not only to make informed religious decisions, but also to know what it is that they are not choosing. This is because education in Jewish texts, laws, and history is an effective tool to help shape one’s personal outlook on Jewish expression. Only with a solid educational foundation can Jews effectively move between Jewish communities and adapt to their respective standards seamlessly. Education, then, is emancipation—with sufficient knowledge of Jewish text and law, individuals not only have the power to choose their own ritual standards, but also have the freedom to adapt these standards in the interest of Jewish unity.

Read more, and join in the conversation.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Texas and Ohio and the California shore, tell me who could ask for more?

Be honest. With all the talk about the March 4 primary, where everything is Texas and Ohio this, Texas and Ohio that, does anyone else have "The Power and the Glory" by Phil Ochs stuck in their head, or am I just an aging hippie?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Transjordan 3: Moshe Rabbeinu, in memoriam

Today is 7 Adar, the anniversary of Moses's death. This week (and every year during the week of 7 Adar) we read Parshat Tetzaveh, the only portion in the last four books of the Torah in which Moses is not mentioned. So it was a highly appropriate week to visit Mt. Nebo, Moses's place of death (but not his place of burial -- no one knows that!).

This willow tree made us ponder whether arvot Moav has a second meaning.

This mountain is where Moses looked out and saw the whole land of Israel.

The Mt. Nebo site is currently run by the Franciscans. There is a church at the top of the mountain, which was closed when we were there, but that was so not our priority.

This sculpture represents the copper serpent that Moses made in the desert (Numbers 21 strikes again!).

It's there because of John 3:14-15 :
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Which (leaving aside the cross element) is the same basic idea as Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:6 :

"God said to Moses: Make yourself a serpent..." And does the serpent kill and revive? Rather, any time that Israel looked upwards and dedicated their hearts to their father in heaven, they would be healed, and otherwise, they would be crushed.

Transjordan 2: Burninating the countryside

Israel isn't the only biblical country. Jordan includes the territory of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, as well as other nations such as Edom, Moab, and Ammon (now generally spelled Amman).

We visited Madaba, known from the inscrutable Numbers 21 as one of the cities of Sihon Melech Ha-Emori.

Madaba is best known for the Church of St. George.

Yes, the church contains a mosaic map, but let's not forget the legend of St. George himself!

But yes, it's all about the map. This map of the Holy Land dates back to the 6th century CE, and sadly much of it is missing (including most of Israel north of Jerusalem; we know from one intact fragment that the map once went all the way up to Lebanon). The map may have been a guide for visiting pilgrims.

Here is Jerusalem:

The map is oriented with east at the top, so you're looking at the Old City from the west. Jaffa Gate is at the bottom, Damascus Gate is at the left, and the horizontal thoroughfare is the Cardo, which was rediscovered with the aid of this map.

The Dead Sea:


Bethlehem: (The Church of the Nativity is there, but Bethlehem otherwise gets relatively short shrift given its importance in Christianity. Does this mean the mosaicist was Jewish??? Unfortunately we have no idea how the mosaic dealt with other Christian sites such as Nazareth.)

Judah: (Don't miss the terebinths of Mamre to the right)

Gaza: (Insert your own political joke about what happened to the other half of it.)

Madaba is also home to some secular mosaics. Here are personifications of Rome, Gregoria, and Madaba, with sea monsters:

Scenes from the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus. I use a word that don't mean nothing, like looptid.

Transjordan 1: The many faces of King Abdullah

(Or: זקנה ביום דין ובחרות ביום קרב)

On the way back from Qatar, we hung out in Jordan. It didn't take long to notice that King Abdullah's picture was everywhere. But then we started to realize that he had a different appearance for each occasion. Collect the whole set!

Suit and tie:

Be all that you can be (or, "Central American dictator"):

King Abdullah and family wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year:

I started taking these pictures late in the game, so I didn't get one of King Abdullah in a kaffiyeh, or in military officer uniform (the kind with all the medals, not to be confused with the camouflage one above). And oddly enough, this picture was nowhere to be seen.

Also, King Hussein was fairly ubiquitous as well, even though he has been dead for 9 years, which seems to depart from standard monarchical practice of ignoring all but the current monarch ("The king is dead! Long live the king!"). But since Hussein and Abdullah appear together, this makes sense from a PR perspective, like Augustus linking himself publicly to Julius Caesar, or every Republican presidential candidate claiming the mantle of Reagan.

Comparison of currencies in the three Middle Eastern countries we've visited this year:

Turkey: Same dude on every denomination. Not only that, but the same exact picture of him.

Jordan: Different king on each denomination, covering all the kings in the Hashemite Kingdom's short history.

Qatar: No human images on the money, perhaps reflecting Wahhabi stringencies.

Get your mind out of the Qatar, 7: Miscellaneous

For some reason these products never caught on in the US:

In the window of an antique store:

Perhaps this is why Qatar has such (relatively) strong relations with Israel:

In the Doha airport. All airports should have a "quiet room"! It's a darkened room with soft reclining chairs.

Get your mind out of the Qatar, 6: Altneushuk

Ok, the uber-American brand-new malls and skyline aren't the entire picture. We saw some much older commercial streets that look like they were built in the '80s! We hear this is where the foreign laborers shop.

And then there are some actual old things, such as this Ottoman-era fort.

Unfortunately, we couldn't go in, because it was (unsurprisingly) closed for construction, as was the Qatar National Museum.

The Souq Waqif, in its present incarnation, is new, but is on the site of the old souq, and means that all of the American-style architecture is being offset by something "Middle Eastern"-looking.

Get your mind out of the Qatar, 5: Al Wakrah

Al Wakrah is a smaller city to the south of Doha that is rapidly being swallowed up by the Doha metropolis as Doha expands.

We took a dip in the Persian Gulf, or as they call it there, the Arabian Gulf (not to be confused with the Arabian Sea). Apparently this is quite sensitive. We saw one map that tried to finesse it by calling it simply "The Gulf", and another that split the difference by drawing a line down the middle and calling one side the Persian Gulf and the other side the Arabian Gulf.

Ok, not really a dip. We walked in pretty far, and the water never went above our ankles.

Was this SUV shooting a commercial?