Another Academic Burned by Plagiarism

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a historian kvetching about his ideas being plagiarised by a Dutch journalist, only to be told that the ideas were not really his. He had compared the depression of 1897 with the present global economic crisis.

I contacted the Dutch paper. The editor in chief acknowledged that his journalist had read the article and should have credited the parts that he had used. "I cannot however but disagree with your grave accusation of plagiarism," he said. "You may have been the first to have pointed out publicly the similarities between both crises. But Mr. De Boer rightly claims that this is not a unique achievement."

Appropriate attribution is an important Talmudic concept. Sometimes you will have excessive attention paid to ensuring that the appropriate teacher is acknowledged for his statement, and when there is doubt about who said it, both names will be given as possibilities. A well known statement that one hears often quoted is:

"Anyone who attributes something correctly brings redemption to the world, as it is written: And Esther reported it to the king in Mordecai’s name. (Esther 2: 22)"

The Rabbis of the Talmud through close reading attribute the redemption of the Jews in The Book of Esther to the fact that when Mordecai uncovered a plot to kill the king, he reported it to Esther. Esther in turn reported it to the King, but when it was written down she made sure to attribute it to Mordecai.

One night when the king couldn't sleep, he asked for the chronicles to be read to him where he discovered that his life had been saved by Mordecai the Jew. It was at that point that the tables turned against Haman, and the Jews were saved. If Esther had not given Mordecai the Jew, the credit then a Jew would not have been credited for saving the king.

The Maharal of Prague explains what is so redemptive about appropriate attribution.

There is a redemptive quality to the one who gives proper attribution when he quotes people. For what is that person doing? He actually does an act of redemption. For he returns the words to their rightful owner, and he takes that persons words which are now in his control and he returns them to his rightful owner by granting appropriate attribution.

The Maharal sees words and wisdom as owned by those who utter them. They are a unique property that can be used without the "owner's" permission, but the least one can do is acknowledge the one who said it.

If you want to see how wantonly unrepentant most undergraduates are about plagiarism, click here. If you want to read the Maharal in its entirety--not long, but quite beautiful, click here.

Visual vs. Auditory Learners? Humbug!

It turns out that the neuro science doesn't corroborate the notion that there are different types of learners. In fact, a new book Why don't Students Like School by Daniel T. Willingham argues that students need a knowledge base before they can think critically because this is not something that the brain naturally does. In Christopher Chabris review in The Wall Street Journal, he rejects the theory of different learning styles.

It turns out that while education gurus were promoting the uplifting vision of all students being equal in ability but unique in "style," researchers were testing the theory behind it. In one experiment, they presented vocabulary words to students classified as "auditory learners" and "visual learners." Half the words came in sound form, half in print. According to the learning-styles theory, the auditory learners should remember the words presented in sound better than the words presented in print, and vice-versa for the visual learners.

But this is not what happened: Each type of learner did just as well with each type of presentation. Why? Because what is being taught in most of the curriculum -- at all levels of schooling -- is information about meaning, and meaning is independent of form. "Specious," for instance, means "seemingly logical, but actually fallacious" whether you hear it, see it or feel it out in Braille. Mr. Willingham makes a convincing case that the distinction between visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners (who supposedly learn best when body movement is involved) is a specious one. At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.

We want to believe that students will be challenged more by being given skills, but in order for them to organize information and analyze it, they have to know what it means first. My teacher, Rabbi Chaim Brovender once said, "There are only two questions. One is: How can he say that? And the other is: What does it mean? The first question is irrelevant until the second question has been addressed fully. "

More importantly, just because something seems to make sense, does not make it true.

It may be that appealing to different student temperaments is confused with how they learn. The reseach may indicate that teachers are responding to regulating classroom behavior, and assuming that because students are more manageable, they are actually learning more. Indirectly, that may be true, but it has nothing to do with ones "style" of learning.

I think I need to read this book.


Lawful Sleazebags

Nachmanides understands the limitations of law, and legal reasoning. In one of his more popular comments, he gives the following insight:

Being holy means how one approaches that which is permitted to him. The Torah permitted one to eat meat and drink wine as well as to have sexual relations with a husband or wife, but one could fulfill this requirement and still behave in an unseemly way with one's spouse -- which would technically be permitted--or one could be a glutton with kosher meat and kosher wine. He would boast that everything he does, the Torah allows, thus being a "sleazebag" with the Torah's permission.

Because intent can't be legislated, all permissible acts have the potential to be distorted. The Parsha begins: Kedoshim Tihiyu You shall be Holy. Nachmanides says this statement is necessary because one's intent is critical to one's behavior, just because you're allowed, doesn't make it right. Ultimately, the Torah makes good people better, but has the potential to make bad people worse.

The Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Parshischa taught the following lesson:

When a student is learning and hears that his teacher has been preparing the same lesson, this brings the student joy because he knows his teacher will add to the lesson. The verse in this Parsha enjoins us to be Holy, so that God can add His Holiness to ours thereby making us ascend in Kedusha.

We prepare ourselves to be as good as we can and the Holy One will make us better. Ill intentioned behavior also gets reinforced, even if it is covered with a halachic fig leaf. The lesson from this portion is the most important of all, and also the most challenging.


Swine Flu In the Talmud...or a pig flu by any other name is not a Mexican flu.

Timing is too strange for comfort. While innocently perusing a page of Gemara, I just happened upon the following quotation:

Once Rav Yehudah was informed that pestilence was raging among the swine and he ordained a fast. Can it then be concluded from this that Rav Yehudah is of the opinion that a plague scourging one species of animals is likely to attack also other species?

No, the case of the swine is exceptional, because their intestines are like those of human beings.
(Ta'anit 21b)

Unlike their Israeli counterparts, the sages had no problem calling a pig pestilence, a pig pestilence. No Mexican flu for them! The only question for them was "When does this flu become a fast flu"?


If I am Not For Myself...

Hillel's famous statement "If I am not for Myself who will be for me, and when I am for myself what am I" instead of "When I am for myself alone what am I" is the translation of choice for all medieval commentators as well as late medieval commentators.

I did find a Sefat Emet which said that advocating for yourself meant getting yourself integrated, and once that was achieved one should use it to connect with knesset yisrael (the community of Israel) which is close to the way we understand it today.

Nearly everyone else sees it as talking about an individual's spiritual purpose which is to serve God. With the modern era, and probably with the growth of Prophetic Judaism, a Judaism that emphasized social justice, this became the interpretation of choice.

So far I have checked about fifteen sources and except for the Sefat Emet a late 19th early 20th century Hasidic master, I haven't come up with any other who favors the popular translation. The reason for this is simple. The words don't seem to mean this, many of us just wanted them to. Even the Sefat Emet understands Hillel as saying the purpose of integrating ones self is to connect with something greater. For him, something greater is the community of Israel.

I think both meanings have much to offer. The question of what it means to advocate for ones self is a profound one, but it remains an open question. The problem with the popular reading is the final sentence: If not now, when? It makes much more sense to read this as enjoining one to get his act together now, so that he can rise to his greater and ultimate purpose. In the popular reading it's just hanging out there like a non sequitor that begs a creative connection. The simpler reading is usually the more correct one, even if it isn't the most compelling for most people.


This was too funny, so I just had to share. I understand the situation was resolved, but here is one individual who stood up and spoke out.

Hatikva in a faux Talmud Page

Hatikva is an anthem of yearning that like the Haggada is more concerned with the journey than the destination. Israel is a young country. This faux Talmud page tries to capture the old new land that inspires so much affection and provokes so much anger. Choni HaMa'agel, the rainmaker looks over to Yehuda Amichai as he drives through the Arava desert and notes:

Ein Yahav
A night drive to Ein
Yahav in the Arava
a drive in the rain. Yes, in
the rain
There I met people who
grow date palms,
there I saw tamarisk
trees and risk trees,
there I saw hope barbed
as barbed wire.
And I said to myself:
That’s true, hope needs
to be like barbed wire to
keep out despair,
hope must be a mine

For the whole Talmud Page click here

A.D. Gordon and Rav Kook Muse on the Importance of a Place

And the place is Eretz Yisrael. Two mystics, one religious and one avowedly secular have more in common than one might think:

A. D. Gordon:
We are told that it is national sentiment that prevents the Jews from assimilating. But what is this national sentiment? What strange kind of nationality is ours, which is not alive but yet will not die? Wherein lies its strength? We have no country of our own, we have no living national language, but instead a number of vernaculars borrowed from others... What, then, is that elusive, unique, and persistent force that will not die and will not let us die?

It seems that every one of us can answer this question if he is really himself free of all foreign influences and if he is not ashamed to face the matter squarely and be honest with himself. That answer is that there is a primal force within every one of us, which is fighting for its own life, which seeks its own realization. This is our ethnic self, the cosmic element, which combined with the historic element, forms one of the basic ingredients of the personality of each and every one of us. The ethnic self may be described as a peculiar national pattern of mental and physical forces, which affects the personality of every individual member of the ethnic group. It is like the musical scale, which every composer uses in his own way.

Rav Kook:
DEEP IN THE HEART of every Jew, in its purest and holiest recesses, there blazes the fire of Israel. There can be no mistaking its demands for an organic and indivisible bond between life and all of God's commandments; for the pouring of the spirit of the Lord, the spirit of Israel which completely permeates the soul of the Jew, into all the vessels which were created for this particular purpose; and for expressing the word of Israel fully and precisely in the realms of action and ideas.

Both in their own words and contexts express the unified notion that collective creativity is most vital when rooted in the Land of Israel. For a fuller exposition of these two thinkers, click here.

The Most Mistranslated of Mishnahs!

I have added a file on the famous statement of Hillel, that gives a plausible explanation for how the Mishnah has come to be the clarion call for Jewish communal institutions throughout the country. It is interesting that phrases like Tikkun Olam, and Hillel's famous statement of balancing self interest with the needs of others are not necessarily reflective of what these phrases actually meant. Stay tuned for another "light unto the nations" (NOT exactly)



If there is any doubt regarding the Halacha's attitude toward the permissibility of the odious practice of torture and its dubious utility, read this. Dov Zackheim, an Orthodox rabbi, and the former comptroller of the Dept. of Defense under the Bush administration might disabuse you of the feeble excuses that the Bush administration has been using, up until now that is. The abstract reads:

The international outcry and the rulings of both the United States Supreme Court and Britain’s Law Lords regarding prisoner abuse have serious implications for Jews in the military, whether that of Israel, America, or elsewhere. The uncertainties relating to the actual information that might be gleaned from prisoners subjected to torture, and the likelihood that such abuses would generate both hillul ha-shem and eivah, the latter resulting in danger to Jews everywhere, militate against the use of torture in all but the most extreme circumstances. Only when it is absolutely clear that a prisoner possesses information that could result in the near-term loss of life, the so-called case of the “ticking bomb,” is it arguable (my emphasis) that prisoner abuse might be tolerated.

By the way, it is by no means clear that even in the case of a "ticking bomb" would torture yield the results necessary, so, therefore there are opinions on both sides of this issue. The article is long and worthwhile and written by a member of Bush's defense establishment in 2006.

Bronfman's musings on Yom HaShoah

Edgar M. Bronfman and Taylor Krauss wrote an op ed for Jewcy describing the Jewish generation gap regarding Jewish self-interest in contrast to Jewish responsibility to others:

Jews of an older generation guard the language of the Holocaust against use by others stems from fear for Jewish survival. The older generation of Jews, those who lived through the atrocities of the Holocaust, saw the world stand aside as Jews perished in concentration camps. They responded with the resolve to fight anti-Semitism worldwide and to ensure Jewish cultural continuity. But a tragedy of our Holocaust is that humanity has not absorbed the lesson its horrors should have taught. Asserting "Never Again" for all does not mean denying the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust. It means keeping its memory alive in the service of others.

Young American Jews have been active in the fight against genocide-recording survivor testimony in Rwanda, caring for survivors in Cambodia, raising awareness for Darfur. This generation seems unwilling to be aligned with an attitude that privileges Jewish suffering. Having grown up in a country where anti-Semitism is no longer a part of daily life, they are less concerned with the struggle for Jewish survival than with a search for joy and meaning in Judaism. They resist the call for self-protection, and instead focus on the Jewish value of justice and the pursuit of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. This confidence and openness should inspire hope for a newly vibrant Jewish life. But the embrace of the second "Never Again" has also come at the cost of the first. The younger generation tends to gloss over the real dangers that Jews face today, which include the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the threat to Israel from a nuclear Iran.

Edgar M. Bronfman used to quote his mentor Nachum Goldman, "Anti-semitism good for Judaism, bad for Jews. No anti-semitism, good for Jews and bad for Judaism." As the first director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, my expressed goal for this diverse community was to make those who were very insular a little more open, and to make those who were open a little more insular. These same sentiments are expressed beautifully by Edgar the elder and Taylor, a young film maker in his twenties. The fact that they are writing together is a wonderful testimony to what is possible.

A side note. In their article, the famous statement of Hillel is quoted: If I'm not for myself... They understand it to mean that Jews have to be concerned both with their own community and the world. This may be a mistranslation. A more accurate translation might be:

If I'm not for myself who will be for me, and when I am for myself what am I? (Not, if I'm for myself alone which was a much more recent gloss on this 1st Century document).

The question being, what does it mean to be for yourself? One might answer that it means one should not only consider himself in order to be "truly for ones self". The fact that Edgar and Taylor know the popular translation "if I'm for myself alone..." as "the" translation shows how we would like to understand Hillel and understand ourselves through this interpretation. For those who have Hebrew enabled browsers, here is Hillel in Hebrew:
אם אין אני לי מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני
On the other hand, the people have spoken, and this is how they've chosen to understand Hillel. This has a veracity independent of the pretentious nitpicking of translators such as myself.

Gerson did not Convert to Christianity, he had a Jewish Grandfather

Presumably a paternal grandfather, my original source had it wrong. I guess I can go back to quoting him again with fewer misgivings.


Pirates, Ransoms & The Talmudic Sages

Jews throughout their history have had to contend with kidnappings and ransoms. It was so prevalent that legislation had already appeared in the Talmud.

The Sages ascertained that being held captive was a fate literally worse than death:

Rava said to Rabba Bar Mari, "Where does this notion that redeeming the captive is considered so special that the sages called it an exceptionally great mitzvah appear? As it is written: "And when they will say to you, "Where shall we go?" You will say to them, "So says the LORD, those to die will die, those to go by the sword, will go by the sword, those by famine will be by famine and those who will be taken captive will be taken captive." (Jeremiah 15:2, 42:11) And Rabbi Yochanan said, "[In this verse] the afflictions become increasingly more severe. [For example] The sword is considered more severe than death." [and therefore being held captive is worse than famine] (B. Talmud Baba Batra 8b)

Nevertheless, the Sages cautioned that one should not "over pay" for redeeming captives because of Tikun Ha'Olam i.e. one would encourage the practice of kidnapping which would be detrimental to the entire community. The Mishnah states:

One never redeems captives for more than they are worth, because of our concern for Tikkun HaOlam. One also does not help captives escape because of our concern for Tikkun HaOlam. (B. Talmud Gitin 45a)

Using this principle, the primary goal of a policy should be to deter piracy while the goal of redeeming the individual captive is secondary. It is clear that paying ransom encourages piracy, but keeps captives alive, while killing pirates may have a detrimental impact on the survival of captives. Both caving in or military action have downsides. A third option was offered in an op. ed piece in The New York Times:

In 1995, for example, the water supply for Mogadishu, the capital, was shut off by the United Nations humanitarian agencies until a hostage who worked for another aid organization was released. On the first day of the shutoff, the women who collected water from public distribution points yelled at the kidnappers; on the second day they stoned them; on the third day they shot at them; on the fourth day, the hostage was released.

Here in option three, collective punishment makes the captors so unpopular they are forced to release their captives. This reminds me of the O. Henry short story, "The Ransom of Red Chief" where the captive was so obnoxious the kidnappers decided the enterprise wasn't worth it.

One question, what do you think would have happened if Israel had turned off the water of Gaza after Gilad Shavit was captured? The Sages may have approved, but what would the response of the hypocritical U.N. have been? Not a hard call. For a more comprehensive look at these sources, click on the "Scribd" badge in the margin and look for the file entitled: Tikkun Ha'Olam: The Massive Malapropism, and feel free to check out some of the other files. Too lazy to peruse? Click here.


Neurotheology and the Jewish Brain

Dr. Andrew Newburg seems to be the unassailed pioneer of this new field of Neurotheology. He has been taking pictures of brains of meditators and has proven what one might expect--that the part of the brain that is engaged in concentration and mindful focus are very active during these meditative states, so that paradoxically, while one is "inactive", he is actually working very hard, but in a way that energizes instead of enervates. He also finds that a belief in God amplifies these feelings of empathy, peace and unity.

Michael Gerson was a speechwriter for W and as I found out from one who would know, converted from Judaism to Christianity. He writes thoughtful op-ed pieces for the Washington Post about religion and its value. I confess that I liked him better when I thought he was just a thoughtful Christian, but now, I feel funny even quoting him. After all, he betrayed his people for a calling that I cannot accept. Nevertheless, he wrote an op-ed piece on Newburg and his latest findings. He also reports that Newburg's findings indicate:

Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain -- particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate -- where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system, which is "filled with aggression and fear." It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.

This op ed piece appeared soon after my post on why we say a partial Hallel prayer on the intermediate and last days of Pesach. The verse in Proverbs warns us: Do not be joyful from the fall of your enemies, and the Midrash immediately explains that this is why only a partial Hallel is part of the intermediate and last days of the Pesach liturgy. I recently gave a more detailed version of these sources in a class that I gave as part of the morning service. I ended it with a similar ending that I had written here in the previous post:

Blessed is the people who wish to believe in God's empathy, and in so doing, believe in their own.

Immediately afterward, one of the congregation came up to object and say that it was this very quietism of Ashkenazic Jewry that prevented the Jews from having a state much sooner. It would have helped us if we could have actively fought and hated our enemies with more gusto.

Newburg might say that this fellow chose to envision a different God, and as a result, is very much stuck in a survivalist mode that does not allow for these feelings of compassion, peace and unity. I imagine the fellow would counter that this type of love and compassion is a luxury that Jews cannot afford.

But we couldn't afford it in the 13th century either, yet this is the path we chose and this is the way we chose to see God and certainly ourselves.

A study guide that takes us through the sources will be forthcoming.


Short-changing the last day of Pesach with only a partial Hallel

There are two reasons given why we only say a partial Hallel on the last day of Pesach. The most prosaic of which is the fact that the sacrifices were the same during the intermediate and last days of Pesach, so no complete Hallel is required since they are all subsumed under the same rubric (B.Talmud Erchin 10b)

The more evocative reason is that when Israel made it across the Red Sea, the angels wished to sing praises, when God chastises them by saying, "The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing?" This is the reason that people know, primarily because it is the only reason quoted in the later codes. Never mind that we sang and danced when we crossed the sea.

The first time this reason appears is in the 13th century work Shiblei HaLeket of Rabbi Tzidkiyahu Ben Avraham HaRofeh when he quotes from the lost Midrash Harneinu:

Shmuel Bar Abba said: "At the fall of your enemies, do not be joyful." Because the Egyptians were drowned [we do not say a complete Hallel]. In later Halachic works the Talmud in Sanhedrin is quoted to illustrate this point, "The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing?" Even more interesting is that the more prosaic reason is not mentioned at all having been eclipsed and embellished by God's empathy for the Egyptian enemy. In the collective Jewish memory, this is the reason most people seem to know, the source of which is a lost Midrash, which is buried in a section of the Shiblei Haleket, the subject of which is Rosh Chodesh (The New Moon). Dredged from the innards of a 13th Century halachic anthology, comes a truism in Jewish consciousness.

Blessed is the people who wish to believe in God's empathy, and in so doing, believe in their own.
Chag Sameyach!

The Barbarity of Multi-Culturalism

Kenan Malik argues in his book From Fatwa to Jihad, The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy that Islamo-fascism is far from medieval, but a modern invention--a product of multi-culturalism. By creating "communities" in the U.K., Tony Blair invigorated tribes in their stead. Celebrating difference had eclipsed the fight against racism making communities into tribes. In his review, Bryan Appleyard laments:

Racism is a cause that unites all creeds and colours. It is a universal enemy that can be attacked with the universalist Enlightenment belief that there are values that can be rationally and justly applied to all human societies. Splitting the world into “communities”, celebrating difference at all costs, is a counterEnlightenment strategy.

Malik was the product of a mixed Hindu-Muslim marriage who grew up without either religious tradition. He may argue that certain "tribes" received a boost from multi-culturist policies, but we, in America, know all too well the cost of a "great melting pot" strategy that left many races and ethnicities out in the cold.


Goldblog and Roger Cohen are at it...again. Two Jews in a "passing water" contest.

Roger Cohen once again draws attention to Bibi's objection to the Iranian regime. Jeffrey Goldberg revels in his honorable mention by Cohen as Bibi's "stenographer" read, apologist, when all Goldberg did was score an interview. Goldberg is happy to be trashed by an NYT columnist, claiming that he has gotten under Cohen's skin.

It reminds me of R. Yossi Ben Kisma and R. Hanina Ben Tradyon. R. Hanina was the defiant scholar who studied Torah publicly knowing that if he were caught, he would be executed. Yossi collaborated with the authorities under the assumption that the Roman victory indicated that God's favor was with them and not with the Jews.

R. Yossi became ill and, lo and behold, Rabbi Hanina went to visit him even though it seems there was very little upon which they agreed. That level of concern for each other in spite of their differences, always struck me as particularly powerful given that there was so much at stake. R. Yossi Ben. Kisma was a collaborator after all, and R. Hanina was anything but that.

R. Yossi dies from his illness, and the Romans eulogize him with great fanfare and then on their way back from the funeral, they "catch" Rabbi Hanina teaching to the multitudes with a Sefer Torah in his lap. It is here he utters the most famous four words in Jewish martyrdom, "Gvilim nisrafin, v'otiyotav porchot" (The Parchments are burning, but the letters are flying free.)

I ascribe the most noble of motives to Cohen and Goldberg, but if Cohen turns out to be wrong about Iran, he loses very little in that he has cast his lot as a citizen of the world who is willing to mortgage Israel's future on his enlightened perceptions. Goldberg, on the other hand, would lose much more for his attachment to Jews, Judaism and Israel is well documented. He would have certainly been on Hanina's side in this argument, while there is no doubt where Cohen would be.

The question is would one visit the other if he was ill?

For the Talmudic rendering of Rabbi Hanina's trial with R. Eliezer Ben Parta and the subsequent tale of his visit to Rabbi Yossi Ben Kisma, click here.


Peace In Our Time for all Wonton Progressives

Finally, a common language!!!
Chinese Food--We can get together on
Xmas after the movie!
Pass the Pu Pu Platter cousin!
But please wait until after Pesach.

David Brooks writes an interesting NYT column, but doesn't know diddly about the Talmud or its purpose.

Brooks writes an article declaring that moral reasoning has little to do with morality since most moral decisions are intuitive and made in a visceral instant. In it, he claims that this:

...challenges the Talmudic tradition with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts

Clearly, an indication of someone who has no idea of what the Talmud is, and its purpose. One of the criteria for entering the Sanhedrin, the sacred portal of those who created the Talmud, was to be able to prove in many ways how a lizard is kosher. (The point being that even a child knows that Jews aren't allowed to eat lizards.) This was not only a way to demonstrate intellectual acumen, but to understand the limitations of reason when it comes to morality, or even legality.

Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine spoke of the Musar HaTeva the "organic morality" that existed in all men. The Talmudic sages called this the Yetzer Hatov, the organic inclination to do good. Enhancing the understanding of why even de facto the good is the better path reinforces the good and gives it substance beyond biological impulse. Just as the raionalization for evil is the friend of the perpetrator, the pondering of the ramifications of the good is an ally to the visceral impulse to do so.

The purpose of the Talmud was to sharpen those visceral judgements, to harmonize the positive emotional response with intellectual rigor, so that not only what you are doing will be of good intent, but will also have as good of a result as possible.

I love reading David Brooks, he is smart, sensitive and often unpredictable. He is also a committed Jew, but he might even be smarter if he studied a little Torah and understood the intellectual tradition that has much to do with who he is today.

I'm about to shut down for awhile, Chag Sameyach!


Travellin' Man

The key to happiness is good health and a bad memory.--Ingrid Bergman

In transit today and won't be scorchin' until late this evening. Happy cleaning everyone!


The Sefat Emet A Modern Chasidic Master Teaches Us How to Get Real with our Passover Seder

For many who take Passover Seders seriously it is either an opportunity to have children to take over and display their knowledge, or an opportunity for lively discussions relating to the ritual at hand. Both of these approaches choose pedagogy and discourse over piety. The Sefat Emet Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Altar(1847-1905) challenges us to believe that there is more to Pesach than a ritualized reenactment, it is a connection that is meant to transcend time. The power of believing that can make a seder magical. Quoting the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew (1525-1609) he says:

...as a group everyone was actually present at the Exodus, but it as individuals everyone has to see himself “as if he went out”. (Maharal, Gevurot HaShem Chapter 61). It would also seem that the way one enters the group is through believing that he went out from Egypt. For certainly, the Exodus from Egypt was the original Israelite point from which life is drawn to every person in Israel, and this is something that we are obliged to believe.

We are to believe that our very lives as Jews not only depend on the Exodus in the past, but that through this reenactment we remain connected as if it is happening now, and in fact, there is always an Egypt that we are trying to leave, it is only the characters that change. For the Sefat Emet in translation and a scorchin commentary, click here.


The NYT Doesn't Let Facts Get In the Way

Blinded by the "necessity" of equal airtime, the NYT has to give free space to a George Bisharat whose "heart is in the 'right' place, even though his mind is somewhere else. Noah Pollack has the goods on his post entitled "He forgot the poison wells".

Bisharat continues by charging that Israel is violating Article 33 of the Geneva Conventions by imposing “collective punishment” on Gaza. This claim depends on every resident of Gaza being considered a “protected person” under the Geneva Conventions, which they are not, because Israel is not occupying Gaza. The blockade may be a bad policy, an ineffective policy, or an immoral policy — but it is not a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Side question: Why do people like Bisharat never condemn Egypt for its involvement in the blockade?

As more information comes out regarding the Gaza incursion--see my post a few weeks ago, Israel bashers under the guise of Professorial "authority" don't let the facts get in the way. I also rushed to believe the worst stories being peddled by a recalcitrant anti-Gaza activist, because in any war, such instances are entirely plausible. But that's the point, Israel is never worse than others who are engaged in mortal combat, and is probably marginally better.

The fact is once again Hamas is not responsible for targeting exclusively civilian populations across the green line because "why exactly" Mr. Bisharat?

Hat tip to Jonathan Cohen.


More Studies Confirming What Any Bozo Should Already Know!

JTA newsflash "Study finds that ethnic identification on the wane and 'spirituality' is on the rise!" This has tremendous ramifications for Jewish institutions in the future. Pllllleasssse...Now, I haven't read the study, so let's confine this critique to the way it was reported, but if it has been reported accurately, well, let the chips fall...

Ask Joe/sephine college student if given the choice between a debauched evening with friends or a "spiritually meaningful experience", most would opt for the former option. Hands down, however, it would be option B that has the potential to be memorable, and significant while option A will be forgotten with tomorrow's inevitable hangover.

The truth is, people don't often know what they really want which renders $60,000 surveys less than useful. We need to be suspicious of studies that call for new directions that are based on ill-defined terms like "spirituality". Take this oxymoronic statement from the JTA article:

"The notion of spirituality is an elusive one, the researchers concede, though they generally understand it to mean the quest for meaning, purpose and connectedness. Rather than identifying Jewishly through ethnic food or language, or through affiliation with communal institutions..."

Aren't synagogues supposed to be spiritual institutions? Aren't they the primary communal institution? Aren't they ostensibly the vehicle for meaning, purpose and connectedness? Aren't synagogue memberships plummeting longer and faster than the stock market?

True Jewish spirituality, like all authentic disciplines, require commitment, literacy and community. For years, synagogues have pandered to the consumer by diluting Jewish uniqueness in favor of blander, fare. As long as anti-semitism was alive and well, it didn't much matter what our institutions did because there was a visceral need to be connected to our brothers and sisters. Institutions do better when formed out of need, they do less well, when institutions need people, more than the people need the institutions.

I have no doubt that few newspapers will survive the next fifty years in their current format, but some will because there will be a group of people who need them, for whom holding a newspaper over morning coffee feels like having a good friend over every morning. There will always be those for whom the ritual of reading the Sunday Times will be a meaningful event in their lives that is worth paying for.

All over America there are emerging organic Jewish spiritual communal institutions that are developing through common need and interest. These institutions are joined by the most educated and Jewishly erudite of the next generation, but they developed because like minded people joined together to create something meaningful for themselves. They are committed people who need institutional structures to fulfill their commitments in the best way possible. These commitments require them to volunteer, create, and connect to their community.

Nearly two years ago I consulted with the Bronfman Youth Fellowships on their alumni program and how to make it more responsive to its alumni. The first order of business was to ascertain whether there was an actual need to be fulfilled and whether this was the vehicle to fulfill it. In other words, if we disappeared tomorrow, would it truly matter to those we ostensibly serve? To honestly acknowledge the possibility that it may be time to split the scene can be an invigorating starting point for truly serving the people. At that moment, one can honestly say, what do they need us for, and for that how do we serve them?

I believe re-invention begins with the possibility that it may be time to disappear. In many large synagogues, the most committed have their own minyan in either the chapel or the library. These breakaway groups are an accommodation to the most literate and often the most committed, but sooner or later those who crave intimacy might ask why do I have to help finance this sanctuary building fund, when I only need and care about a small modest room? Why do I need this newspaper when I can get more up to date information on line, and it's for free? Why indeed? I'm convinced that the model of huge buildings financed primarily by those who attend them three days a year has been a failed model for longer than anyone cares to remember. Finally, people are choosing not to pay for it.
Well, Boker Tov!

A committed Jew needs a shule, because s/he needs to daven, not because the shule needs members. As long as the Jew is committed, the need for certain institutions exist. Spiritual institutions serve commitment. Whether it be religious services, kosher food, study groups, classes, Jewish meditation societies, or pot luck dinners, structures serve defined commitments.

As soon as the primary commitment is to serve the institution, and not to serve God, or whatever transcendent/spiritual purpose that brings folks together--it's over, and we shouldn't need to spend 60k on a study to figure that out.


Checking for Chametz, and the Haggada's slow start

For those who are furiously scrubbing into the immaculate night fantastic of this, the most sanitary of festivals, I offer a guide to make the excision of leavening a bit more meaningful. Click here for a spiritual guide to the ritual of nullifying leavening, and some scorchin tips on how to understand the first sections of the Haggada.


Yogi interviews Booboo...

I mean Goldblog interviews Bibi...yeheyheyhey,

To get a glimpse of what lies in store...

“Iran is a composite leadership, but in that composite leadership there are elements of wide-eyed fanaticism that do not exist right now in any other would-be nuclear power in the world. That’s what makes them so dangerous.”

Realist or Paranoid--you choose.
Choose wrong, you lose.

What would the Rambam say of Collatoral Damage?

There has been a small buzz on the internet regarding the conduct of Israeli combatants during the Gaza incursion. It is undisputed that it has been a longstanding practice for Palestinian combatants to elect to fight in heavily populated civilian areas in order to not only deter the Israeli forces, but to use civilian casualties to their political advantage.

This type of war was not considered in our sources, but the Rambam does speak eloquently about the mission of the soldier:

...he should put his life in his hands, and not be afraid. He should not think of his wife and family, but he should wipe out the memory of them from his heart, and focus everything on the battle before him. For anyone, who has second thoughts during battle and feels fear, transgresses a negative commandment, as it is written: Do not soften your hearts and do not be afraid… Not only this, but all of Israel is weighing on his neck. And if they do not win, and he has not fought with all his heart, it is as if he has spilled the blood of everyone… (Rambam Hilchot Melachim 7:15)

For a more complete rendering and a scorchin commentary, click here.

Well, so far the Palestinians seem to have stayed home.

Tens of thousands of anti-capitalists, and somehow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been front and center at the G-20. I guess they're saving it up for "Durban II".