Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tu Bishvat Halls of Fame and Shame

(NOTE: This post will continue to update through the end of Tree Year 5771.)

Last week was D-Day in the War on Tu Bishvat.  This week, as the New Year of the Trees gets closer, it's time to publicize who is in the right and who is still committed to being wrong.

Here is Mah Rabu's 5772 Tu Bishvat...

Hall of Fame

They "shall be like a tree planted by waters, sending forth its roots by a stream:  it does not sense the coming of heat, its leaves are ever fresh; it has no care in a year of drought, it does not cease to yield fruit." (Jeremiah 17:8)

But then there's also the...

Hall of Shame

They "shall be like a bush in the desert, which does not sense the coming of good:  it is set in the scorched places of the wilderness, in a barren land without inhabitant." (Jeremiah 17:6)
  • Hazon, as a (once-)prominent voice of Jewish environmentalism, truly has no excuse, especially since they used to be on the right side of this issue.
  • Isabella Freedman ("in partnership with ... the many branches of the Jewish Environmental Movement") is also guilty of greenwashing.
  • If the Shalom Center is a "prophetic voice", then the message got garbled.
  • Aish probably actually denies climate change (they certainly deny evolution).
  • The people in the rabbanut who banned Häagen-Dazs were right about one thing:  the Orthodox Union is not kosher.
  • As for Canfei Nesharim, eagles aren't kosher either.
  • The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is shrinking.
  • Chabad worships a false messiah.
  • The Jewish Agency goes downhill fast after the URL and page title.
  • Hey Hillel:  Go and learn it.
  • Ritualwell is down the drain.
  • The Big Jewish Tent is missing some stakes.
  • The Rabbinical Assembly classifies holidays under "Jewish law"; what about the laws of grammar?
  • Finally, Hebcal has earned its way into a special division of the hall of shame, for messing up not only the English but the Hebrew too.  (I suspect this was the result of an automatic algorithm of the sort that used to bring us "You have 1 new messages", and shouldn't be too hard to fix.  RET points out that Shevat is the only month that begins with a sheva.)

Those who have found themselves in the hall of shame should remember that it's not too late to change, and the gates of repentance are always open.  Except, perhaps, to this guy, who spells it "Tu B'Shvas".  There, he asks "did my parents get their money’s worth on my yeshiva day school tuition?"  This question is left to the reader as an exercise.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The War on Tu Bishvat

It's less than three weeks away, and you've started getting emails about Tu Bishvat events. You're probably also getting emails about Tu B'Shvat and Tu B'Shevat, whatever those are.  This blog has previously explained why "Tu Bishvat" is correct, while "Tu B'Shvat" and "Tu B'Shevat" are WRONG WRONG WRONG.  Yet many of those who are wrong continue to persist in their wrongness, even after being corrected.  Not only that, but they come up with a range of defenses (from the simple to the epicycle-like) to justify their stance.  This post responds to those defenses, to show that they are utterly without merit.

(Note:  It has been brought to my attention that the sheva under the shin is a sheva meracheif:  an intermediate form between a sheva na and a sheva nach.  If it were a true sheva nach, the second bet would take a dageish kal, so it would be "Tu Bishbat".  For this reason, this post will not take a stance on whether the last part of the word is "--shvat", "--sh'vat", or "--shevat", since all of these have some justification, however weak.  Instead, we'll focus on the truly important issue:  the vowel under the first bet is a chirik, not a sheva.  It's "Bi-", not "B'-".)

Here are, in no particular order, the top five rationalizations for "B'Shvat"/"B'Shevat", and why they're wrong.

1. It's just transliteration!  There are so many different ways to transliterate any Hebrew word.  Just last month we had Hanukkah... or was it Chanuka?  Which transliteration scheme you prefer is an aesthetic judgment, but none of them is wrong.

No, it's not just transliteration.

Yes, there are at least eight valid ways to spell (C)hanuk(k)a(h).  The letter ח can be represented by "h" or "ch", or even "j" (for the Spanish speakers) or "hh", and that's just in ASCII.  A dageish chazak can be represented in the transliteration by doubling the letter ("kk"), or not ("k").  A ה at the end of the word can be transliterated ("ah") or not ("a").  These are indeed aesthetic choices about different transliteration schemes.

But that's not at all what is going on with the New Year of the Trees.  The vowel under the first bet is a chirik.  Yes, there are several different ways of transliterating a chirik:  it could be "i" or "ee".  But no one would ever transliterate a chirik with an apostrophe.  The origin of "B'Shvat" is in not knowing that the vowel is a chirik.  This isn't about making a different aesthetic choice about how to transliterate that vowel; it's about putting in the wrong vowel.  It is no more correct than "Boshvat" or "Bushvat" or "Bqshvat".

2. "Tu B'Shevat" is in common usage.  It's been spelled that way in print in such-and-such authoritative source.

All this means is that lots of other people (including some people you trust) have been wrong.  Appeal to authority doesn't change the rules of Hebrew grammar.

And if you're going to try to make the descriptive lexicography argument (i.e. the fact that so many people have spelled it this way makes it a valid spelling), that's a rather tortured argument to make in this case, because it rests on the dubious proposition that English-transliterated Hebrew has a life of its own as a language evolving independently of actual Hebrew, a claim that few if any would make during the other 11 months of the year.  Most would instead say that transliterated Hebrew is merely a representation of Hebrew itself.  Therefore, the descriptive lexicography argument holds water only if there are documented cases in modern vocalized Hebrew sources in which בשבט is written with two shevas in a row.

3. "B'-" represents how people actually pronounce it.  I've never heard anyone say "Bee-".

So English speakers commonly mispronounce the word.  But should that mispronunciation be reflected in the written form?  We still write "would have" and "going to", even if people pronounce them "would of" and "gonna".  Ok, we might write "gonna" if we were trying to produce a faithful transcription of spoken language (rather than using proper language) or if we were being cutesy and casual, but that doesn't apply to otherwise serious and formal settings such as titles of books and articles (where you might expect to see "Tu B'Shevat").

And while the idea that transliteration should be a phonetic transcription of non-native speakers' mispronunciations might be an argument (however tenuous) for "Tu B'Shvat", it completely fails to justify "Tu B'Shevat", because no one has ever pronounced the "e" in "B'Shevat" (or any other vowel in that position).  Whatever you're doing when you write "B'Shevat", you're doing something other than spelling the word the way people pronounce it.

4. The actual prefix is "B'-", so "B'Shevat" illustrates the grammatical structure more clearly than "Bishvat".

If you want to indicate that the word is a prefix followed by the name of a month (a proper name), there are ways of doing this typographically without changing the vowels:  "BiShvat", "Bi-Shvat", or even "Bi'Shvat".

Yet some would claim that "B'Shevat" is superior to any of these, because it shows that the prefix "B'" is added to the word "Shevat".  This idea, that a transliteration should represent the raw morphemes that make up a word without any regard to transformations that those morphemes undergo when combined, is another one of those exotic ideas that no one would even think of (much less argue for) for 11 months of the year.  To use another holiday as an example, the word סוכות is formed by adding the suffix "-ot" to the word "sukkah".  Does anyone transliterate the name of this holiday as "Sukkahot" or "Sukkah-ot"?  Why not?

Once again, you didn't know it was a chirik, you got corrected, and rather than admitting the mistake and fixing it, you doubled down.

5. Seriously, are we really wasting our time arguing about this?  This is the modern Jewish environmental holiday, when we should be worrying about much bigger things such as the mass destruction that climate change is wreaking on the planet, not something as insignificant as a Hebrew vowel.

I certainly agree that preventing the destruction of the planet is paramount.  But this isn't an either/or:  both struggles are fundamentally the same.

In the United States, a major obstacle to taking meaningful action against climate change is that a politically influential faction denies that climate change is even happening.  To promote this view among the public and stymie needed environmental regulation, they are fighting a war on epistemology.  In this war, they are aided and abetted by the media, which seeks to appear neutral and therefore reports any issue as if it has two equally valid sides, regardless of whether one side is objectively true (since pointing that out would be "partisan").

Those who try to claim that "Tu Bishvat" and "Tu B'Shevat" are equally valid, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, are aligning themselves epistemologically with climate change "skeptics" and their media enablers.  Is this really the company you want to keep?  By reducing everything to a difference of opinion, you are contributing to this toxic intellectual atmosphere.

Safeguarding the Earth's future requires being prepared to accept inconvenient truths, whether that means the dangerous effects we are having on the climate, or whether that means that the first vowel in "Bishvat" isn't the vowel you thought it was.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Shall the rich pay more?

As noted previously on this blog, I always try to file my taxes by Rosh Chodesh Adar.  This year, that means sending in the return before the National Havurah Committee Chesapeake Retreat (February 17-19, 2012, Presidents' Day weekend), which will be exploring the vital issues of taxation, regulation, and other wise restraints that make us free, as well as having lots of fun and networking grassroots Jewish communities from across the region.

Here's this year's blurb:

Join the National Havurah Committee, havurahs and minyans from across the Mid-Atlantic Region for the NHC Chesapeake Retreat!

In parashat Mishpatim, Moses receives law concerning fines, lending, and restitution. On Shabbat Shekalim, the haftarah defines a system of census and taxation, including that “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less” than a half-shekel. In the midst of a presidential primary, with Wall Street recently occupied, and in the weeks before Passover, how do we perceive these laws? Does equal taxation promote or hinder equality? Do regulations and taxes represent an infringement on, or an enabler of, human freedom?

Take a weekend to examine these questions while experiencing the holiness of a community that learns, prays, and rests together. Individuals, families, and havurot of all ages will gather to sing, eat, study, dance, pray, debate, relax, and bond.

If you've thought about going to the NHC Summer Institute, but stayed home because it was too long, too far, or too expensive, the regional retreat is a great way to get a taste of the experience that is shorter, cheaper, and (if you're in the Mid-Atlantic region) closer.  There are activities for all ages, and courses on both the Mishpatim/Shekalim theme and other topics from Sephardi Passover songs to farming.  Registration is entirely online this year, and work-study and scholarship assistance is available.  Register by January 16 before the price goes up (speaking of taxes and regulations).  See you there!