Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Music for the holiday


Take a poll, and I bet you'll find most people agree that the music is the best part of the YN davening. When we speak of a meaningful or spiritual Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, what we usually mean is that the chazan did a good job with the song selection and that the crowd participated in a manner we found enjoyable. Conversely, when we complain that the service felt flat, we usually mean that the chazan chose lousy tunes or that the congregation took the day off.

Previously, I thought this was all well and good. Now I think its something of an indictment of our generation. Now all our singing seems like a defense mechanism, because when we're humming along with the chazan we're not reading the prayer-poems or letting their words touch our hearts and minds. Those who sit studying while the rest of us pray are hiding from the piyutim in the same way. And, yes, I know the piyutim were originally written to be sung, or chanted, but not antiphonally in the style of the modern shteeble. An 11th century Jew would not have oi-boy-boyed a melody while the reader sang; he'd have sung along. (‪#‎irony‬ singing along is now called "modern")

On the other hand, my theory is that the piyutim were originally written to make the services more enjoyable, that is they originally served a secular purpose. In ye days of old members of all faiths and creeds seemed to have honestly enjoyed reading and reciting long, elaborate poems. Both Catholic and Muslim piyutim exist, and they share important characteristics with our poems. So allowing the piyutim to continue to entertain us may not be such a terrible idea. Just know that once upon a time, the ideas contained in the poem, as well as the skill and talent that went into its composition, seem to have been as much a part of the entertainment package as the melody.


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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How do songs sweep the globe? (Not why - HOW?)


How did the Modzitz Ein Kitzva sweep the globe and become the de facto tune used by everyone in the world for the conclusion of Unetana Tokef? OK, if I am being honest I've not spent the YN in more than seven places. Hardly the whole world. Yet the Modzitz is used in all seven places.

When I was a kid, our parents used other tunes. I don't remember any of them. But I remember when the old men who ran our place hired a guest YN chazen who came with the Modvitz tune. It was hugely popular. A big hit right from the beginning. Even after the guest YN chazan got cashiered we forced his replacement to use it. On new guy's first day, he tried to start another tune, and the gabbai actually went over and straightened him out, humming the Modvitz and bouncing his hand up and down in time with the melody.

When I got married, the tune was alredy waiting for me in my father-in-law's shteeble and in the agudah he switched to a few years later. Later, when I moved to my own neighborhood, the Modzitz tune preceded me, and it beat me to my next destination as well. How does a tune take over the world? The why part is easy -- its catchy and fun, but how does it spread from one congregation to another, when people generally daven in the same shul, with the same chazan year after year. Ask the same question about the Kol Nidrei or Neilah nusach, too, I guess. What are the mechanics of their conquests?





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Thursday, September 18, 2014

What makes right?

Individuals may get caught up in their own ideas of right and wrong. But society, as a whole, will always change the idea of "right" when it needs to be changed to keep society functioning.

Look at Catholic divorce. Lots of Catholics continue to think its "wrong" or immoral or whatever but everyone knows society functions better when women and men aren't trapped in bad marriages. So society's idea of "right" in the case of divorce changed to accommodate that.

Or consider racial segregation. You would probably oppose the legalization of racial segregation, as would I, and we'd call you a hero. We'd laud your opposition. But if society really functioned better with legal racial segregation society would eventually make it "right" despite your objections.

Look at Thomas More. Heroic, noble, sainted Thomas More who gave himself up for execution because he thought what King Henry wanted to do was immoral, wrong, and sinful. We remember him as a hero, though today no one has any serious problem with what Henry wanted to do. (I mean the divorces and the rejection of Rome's authority, not the wife executions which old Thomas More also thought were OK) In the story, More is the hero, but in reality we acknowledge that Henry's idea was better.

Back to racial segregation. If it turns out that racial segregation is objectively good, with facts and outcomes which bare that out, one of two things will happen: You will die fighting it, or you will switch sides. Because if racial segregation turns out to be objectively good for society, society will find a way to make it "right."

Which, by the way, is exactly what's behind the change in attitude in the case of gay marriage Society has realized that society functions better when people, irrespective of gender, have more freedom and are able to form long term, monogamous, intimate relationships and the remaining opponents of homosexual marriage are going to die fighting it or they will recant their objections and switch sides.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Facts, not morality


I think God revealed a legal code to us on Mount Sinai, but others disagree. So let's leave aside that question for the moment and discuss what happened next. Irrespective of the origins of the legal code, men have been using their limited, fallible, and subjective intellects to interpret it for well over 2000 years. At one point, they read the law in a way that permitted slavery and plural marriages; later they imposed new imperatives on the law and decided that neither practice could continue. At one point, they read the law in a way that outlawed interest and required us to forgive debts every 7 years; later they imposed other imperatives on the law and now we charge interest and debts are not remitted during shmitta.

What happened? The convenient explanation is that morality changed so the law had to change with it. Unfortunately, the word "moral" isn't a very good one. When we say that "slavery is morally wrong" do we mean that God disapproves of it or that we, the citizens of this time and place, are against it. Do we mean that slavery is always wrong, or that its only wrong when people say that its wrong?

My proposed solution is to abandon the use of the word "moral" and instead speak in terms of facts.

Its a fact that society works better - people are happier, healthier and wealthier - after slavery is outlawed. At first, human beings did not understand this, just as they didn't understand that drinking sewage water was a health hazard. But in the fullness of time, men came to realize that society could reasonably expect to enjoy better outcomes if slavery was outlawed.

We can say the same about the economic changes our Sages made. In the fullness of time, after enough data had been collected, they came to realize that society would function more successfully if debts could be collected after shmitta and if Jews could charge each other interest. So the changes had to be made. Not because "morality shifted" but because we acquired new facts and a new understanding about what makes a society more successful.

Doesn't God knows what makes a society most successful? Yes, he does. But we have to figure it out on our own. We have to stumble and lurch towards the truth. And during that process of discovery, we tend to read things in light of our existing prejudices. Once, it seemed crystal-clear that the book of Genesis described a recent creation, and a geocentric universe. Now, we know that neither of those proposals are true and we read and interpret the creation story in light of those new, correct facts. Our morality didn't change; the correct facts merely became known to us making the old readings untenable.

We can approach the slavery and economic passages the same way. Once it seemed crystal clear that the Torah wanted society to be organized around kings, slavery and debt remittance every seven years. But now that the facts tell us that people are much better off when those policies are not followed, we have found new ways to interpret those passages. The original error was not God's, but ours. We are the ones who misread the book. We are the ones who interpreted the laws in light of our own incomplete knowledge. Now that we know more, and our facts are better, the passages must be re-examined in light, not of new morality but new facts.

Whether our modern sages choose to lead - as in the case of pruzbal or heter ishka - or follow -as in the case of the Internet which was verboten until we all realized that internet usage was essential to living in the 21st century - this process of reinterpretation in light of new facts continues.



ILLUSTRATION - The Pruzbul update

1 - Pruzbul is not in the torah
2 - I t was established at the end of the bayis sheni era
3- It was established because the sages could see that the original system was flawed. People were not making loans immidiately before the shmita year, which was detrimental to the health and well being of the poor and to general economic growth
4 - So, in light of those new facts, the system was changed. Gods original idea - or more correctly our old understanding of God's original idea - was overruled in light of the new facts.


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Jews at the Palace


Today's New York Times has nice article on a British Palace Guard who might get fined for breaking decorum as he marched back and forth in front of Buckingham Palace. 

I examined the video depiction of his crime on YouTube and immediately afterwards this ultimate, awesome peek-a-Jew video was suggested by the robots who control You Tube. Check it out!. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Responding to the 8200 unit


As you may have heard 200 former soldiers and officers from the 8200 unit published a letter saying they were “ashamed” of their fellow servicemen who recently published a letter of their own, in which they criticized Israel and repudiated their service.

I'd like to post their entire letter, just as I posted the original letter, but can't seem to find a copy of it online.


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Monday, September 15, 2014

The intelligence veterans' letter


Here, read the letter written by 34 elite Israeli soldiers in which they confirm that Israel commits the injustices so many of you have dismissed and disavowed.

.

Read the letter from 34 reserve soldiers who have served in Unit 8200 explaining why they refuse to serve in Palestinian territories
THEGUARDIAN.COM








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Adrienne Peterson

This morning, a caller on one of the morning show attempted to defend Adrienne Peterson using language and arguments I found eerily familiar. He argued that Peterson beat his kid without malice, and that such beatings were culturally acceptable in the African American community. "My own great grandmother beat me the same way," he said, "and I loved her dearly. It taught me discipline and respect." 

I have friends who were slapped around by their grade-school teachers and many of them describe the abuse they endured in the same way. In fact I have in my possession a private letter in which the writer, a well known figure in the Orthodox community, describes his own abuser as follows "When I was a young boy, in XXXXX, my beloved rebbe would occasionally XXXXX for infractions. I never considered it abuse, and frankly even now don't consider it to have been abuse, and have no ill feelings, only wonderful ones, toward the rebbe" [Redactons made to protect the writer's identity]


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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The great Ohr Hachaim on Ki Tavo's opening verses


Credit to the great Ohr Hachaim for his clever reading of the first several verses in Ki Tavo. Ingeniously he reads it as an allegory for death and our entrance into heaven. This seems like a prime example of how new interpretations can refresh and revitalize verses making them meaningful after circumstances have rendered their plain sense irrelevant

See the full discussion after the jump.

Now, I agree this all belongs to the category of "sod" But what is sod? Do we say that sod came from Sinai, and was passed on in secret for thousands of years before being revealed? Or do you agree with me when I say the sod was created at a particular moment in time to solve a particular problem or to advance a particular (religious or whatever) objective? Consider what the OC does here, and see what you think.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A few small points about the Ray Rice fiasco.

1) The Ravens and Nike are business entities that are only interested in protecting their own bottom lines. They didn't sever ties with Ray Rice because they wanted to punish him. They cut ties with Ray Rice because their marketing staff believes that keeping Rice around tarnishes their brand and threatens their profits.

2)That said, DovBear recognizes the right of Nike and the Ravens to pursue their own interests and to exercise any clauses in their contracts that might apply here. But don't fool yourself into think that Nike or the Ravens care about women or domestic violence. They'd both run "Beat Your Wife" promotions if the marketing data suggested it was profitable.

3) DovBear agrees that Ray Rice deserves public shame and financial loss and jail time.

4) DovBear believes that Ray Rice's wife/victim is entitled to stay with her husband and support him if she wishes. All we know is he hit her once. While that appears to be one excellent reason for her to throw him out, she might also have 10 million excellent reasons to stay with him. That's her call. We don't have enough evidence to disagree with it.

5) However, DovBear does not support the NFL's decision to hit Ray Rice with an indefinite suspension. The man is a football player. Its all he knows how to do. While knocking out your fiancee is a terrible crime, taking away the man's livelihood is a disproportionate response. Also, if we wish to protect his wife and rehabilitate her attacker is increasing Rice's resentment and frustration really the best course of action?

6) Its also cruel to leave him floating in the wind wondering if the suspension will ever be lifted.

7) B''deved, I'd support a lifetime ban from professional football. If Goodall thinks his league of gangsters and white color criminals is too upscale for a wife beater, he should say so now, and allow Rice to get on with his life.

8) L'chatchila, I think Goodall should give Rice a definite suspension - say 6 games, or even a full season - and then allow the NFL teams to decide for themselves if they wish to pay for Rice's services. My bet is that many teams (such as the always classy NY Giants) will stay away. But if, following the suspension, some desperate, degenerate team such as the Eagles of Philadelphia or the never-classy NY Jets think adding Rice to their roster makes business sense, they should be free to do so.

9) In short, Goodel should inflict a reasonable, fair, defined punishment - Rice did embarrass the league and that carries a penalty - and then allow the market to decide for itself if Ray Rice belongs in professional football.


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Friday, September 05, 2014

Rashi and the Persian loan word in Dueteronomy

Maculation alert! Here's Rashi in this week's parsha:
"You shall not keep her as a servant: Heb. לֹא-תִתְעַמֵּר בָּהּ. [This means:]“You must not use her [as a slave]” (Sifrei 21:16). In the Persian language, the term for slavery and servitude is עִימְרָאָה [the term used here]. I learned this from the Yesod of Rabbi Moses the Darshan."
Is Rashi saying here that the Torah contains a Persian loan word? And if this is indeed what he's saying, how does he suppose it got there?

Here's my take: Rashi didn't recognize the word, so via his source he uses what he imagines to be a cognate from a related language to help us see what it means. What Rashi doesn't seem to realize is that Persian is an Indo European language, while Hebrew is a Semitic language. Languages from two different families don't have cognates with each other; therefore what Rashi observes is either a "false friend" (a coincidence) or evidence of a loan word. 

Now it may be true that the loan went from Hebrew to Persian rather than the other way which is is why we need to hear from a linguist

Things to do:
1) Check the word and see if the professional linguists agree that it entered Hebrew via Persian


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Thursday, September 04, 2014

Its Elull! And Pinny Lipschutz Hates Everyone!

See Pinny Lipshutz rant and rage about evil bloggers and people who are mean to Rabbis - without providing any examples - after the jump

Bonus Joy: After raging about people who mock Rabbis, Pinny tells a long story about a Cossak and uses it to insult a Rabbi. Not kidding!

HT: Chaim Shapiro

The founding Rabbis


Ysoscher Katz writes:

>> Likewise, I don't accept the Divinity of the Torah because of Maimonides' eighth principle. As a matter of fact, I sometimes have trouble with Maimonides' arguments, I don't always find them compelling or convincing. Instead, I believe that the Torah is Divine because I chose to believe that; because believing in the Divinity of the Torah adds a spiritual dimension to my moral and religious pursuits, something it otherwise would not have 

I disagree here: You can believe in the Divinity of the Torah without also accepting Maimonides 8th principle. Its not a choice between one or the other. You can, for example, discover a spiritual dimension in your religious and spiritual pursuits if you believe, as I do, that - irrespective of what Moshe received - the Rabbis had the authority to create halacha and that they succeeded in creating something majestic and eternal.

By way of analogy, consider how a certain type of patriot views the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. Everyone knows that Constitution is a historic document created by fallible, limited men. No one thinks the enlightenment values upon which the Founders based the Constitution came down from a mountain.

Nonetheless, a certain type of patriot assigns a spiritual dimension to their success. He's reluctant to modify their teachings, forever attempting to uncover their original intent, and hostile to suggestions that what they created might be flawed. He believes that the world would be made better if all people accepted the truths of their teachings. He'd go to war to defend their values, and  he might even be willing to support a George W. Bush sponsored crusade to deliver the Good News to infidels.

 I am not that type of patriot but I am something like that type of Jew.

NOTE

This is an analogy, meaning its not going to match up on every point. I am only trying to make it match on the following point: People can know something is man made and still get romantic, and passionate and spiritual about it. Therefore, pace Ysoscher Katz, you don't need to recognize the Divinity of the Torah in order to get romantic and spiritual and passionate about the halachic system.
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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Let's collect some maculations

According to the theory of the "maculated Torah" the Torah was once revealed to Israel at Sinai, but over time fallible human beings introduced errors, additions and other corruptions (=maculated).

Today, I want to collect your favorite examples of these maculations. At the same time, I'd also like those of you who are familiar with the Rabbinic writings to suggest solutions and explanations. And let's see where it goes, OK? 


Please add your examples in the comments, and please number them so that we can refer back to them easily.


Brief background:
The premise is either that (1) Israel sinned, that is they failed to adequately protect the text and transmit it accurately during the First Temple years of Baal worship[Halivni] ; or (2) they did not view the revelation in the same terms that we do, that is they saw nothing wrong with adding explanatory glosses or attaching history or other material to the revelation; or (3) Israel returned from exile without any good reliable copies of the Torahs (not inconceivable in those days before the printing presses) so the returnees did their best to recreate it; or (4) some combination of the above.

My own view is that God surely anticipated that His revelation would be corrupted. After all, He presented it to fallible, subjective men without demanding that we take any safeguards or precautions to protect the integrity of the document or its transmission. He had to have known that scribal errors were inevitable. Without a rule to the contrary, He had to have known that we'd gloss the unfamiliar words or attach what we considered "accepted history" to the material. He had to have known that competing interpretations and competing theologies would develop around the text and that some of this would be inserted into the document by well-meaning, piously-motivated transmitters. He created us. He knew what we would do. God, as we understand Him, must have anticipated the maculations; as such the inevitable emergence of such corruptions had to have been part of the system as He originally conceived it.

In fact, that Rabbis recognized that such adjustments were part of God's plan when they announced "lo bashamayim he" during the Oven of Akhnai episode. Once the revelation left Sinai, it belongs to us. And they let us know that God, in their view, approved when they told us He reacted to the conclusion of the episode with laughter. This is why I am able to authority of the Sages and Rabbis to make Jewish laws, while simultaneously confirming that the revelation developed historically and contingently once it was in our hands


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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Worst Hasbara ever





In response Bernie Madoff announced, "Hey guys, of all the money stolen in history I've stolen less than one percent of it! So how about some love?"

Meanwhile, Israel has unveiled a new hasbarah slogan: Israel: lots of countries kill more Muslims then we do 

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Another stab at a creed

My creed...

I believe in the God of history, the God of nature, the God who created us all with a word, and set the finished world in motion to develop contingently, with the promise that what He had made would always be "very good."

I reject seclusion, and draw strength from what Samson Rephael Hirsch wrote: "the righteous ones must be the ones who fear God not only in the safety and privacy of their homes, but in the midst of the city -- playing a prominent part in public life and exerting their influence against evil forces."

I condemn all superstition and wish to see Judaism made clean of irrational beliefs like amulets and other segulot. There are no powers outside of God.

I do not hold with those who say that truth is the only fundamental, because truth is fleeting and can be known to us only in part. Instead, basing myself on Hillel who said: "That which is despicable to you, do not do unto others: This is the whole Torah," I insist that love is the highest value, because it is only through tolerance, respect and the give and take of self -confident conversation, that the truth can be apprehended.

I affirm that all Jews, and the righteous of other nations, too, have a place in the world to come.

I believe, finally, that heaven and earth once intersected at Sinai where God made a revelation to Moses, a revelation that over time has developed historically and contingently with the fingerprints of Sages and laymen alike appearing on it to this day. I declare my acceptance of the authority of the Sages and Rabbis to make Jewish laws, while simultaneously confirming the view of our Rabbis who said that the science and history contained in the rabbinic writings are not part of the revelation and are subject to correction as new facts are discovered.
(This is a modification of something I wrote in 2006)

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Orthodoxy and Bible Critcism


Summary:  In what follows, I argue that the Rambam's 8th ikkar unnecessarily and unfortunately became a litmus test of Orthodox Judaism and that the time has come to abandon this idea and let the chips fall where they may. While I believe the Torah developed historically, I also believe in God and in an initial revelation on Har Sinai. Therefore, I don't think abandoning the 8th -- an idea that itself developed contingently and was not accepted by many great Rabbis - can harm anything legitimately and authentically necessary to our religion.