Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Barak Convention

Writing this post in the half hour before I have to run to class. So don't except editing or proofreading or any of that fancy-shmany stuff. I just got back from a panel on religion and law that's part of a three day convention celebrating Chief Justice Aharon Barak's retirement (an unfortunate choice of phrasing, I know, but theirs, not mine).

And I have to say- and I preface this with the usual disclaimer that I am in no way an expert on Israeli law, judicial practice, or anything else really- but I have to say that the judicial mindset in this country drives me flipping crazy.

First, a story, or rather a fragment of a memory. I must have been ten or eleven, and my father was telling me about some famous Supreme Court decision or other. He asked me something about how you could derive that Congress has the power to make such and such a law, and I remember answering, "I don't see how you can get that. I want it to be able to and all, but I just don't see how you can get it into the law."

This approach, to my personal disappointment, is becoming less and less popular in America, but in Israel it seems to already be entirely dead. One of the panelists this morning ended her analysis of Israeli family law by saying, "The system needs to be changed. And if the legislature fails to do so, then the court must do it themselves."

What the heck? I mean, what? But that seems more or less to be the Israeli approach. Certainly the approach of Barak himself. Our classes, and certainly our analysis of Barak's decisions, spend a heck of a lot more time on public policy and balance of interests and so on and so forth than the actual law.

And you know what? It's totally fine with me if law professors want to think that way. After all, it's part of their job to approach law ex ante as well as post facto, to analyze what law should be and why it is or isn't and how it got there and where they wish it should go.

But that's not the job for a judge. A judge, in my rather old-fashioned opinion, ought to interpret the law. His first and foremost concern should be what the law actually says. I know this sounds like basic strict-interpretationalist ranting, but it's a concept that so frequently seems to get swept under the carpet amid the philosophy and cost-benefit analyses and whatnot.

And it's not that the judges actually ignore the law. It's just that... it seems almost like an afterthought, the tool through which you can force your personal theory of life onto the populace. The technicality through which your ginormous vision of a brave new world can come into being.

There seems to be to be an infuriatingly elitist/paternalistic attitude on the part of the court. And I can see how there would be. I mean, here you are, a bunch of the smartest people in the country- and you know it- with the best knowledge of how law ought to work and why. In a position to do basically whatever pops into your head, with full knowledge that you're appointed for life by a bunch of other judges that think just like you. Is it really reasonable to expect you to choose to bind yourself with the flimsy threads of the laws that the legislature- a bunch of feuding, illogical politicians- decided to create for you? Is it really reasonable to ask you to refrain from doing what you know would be wiser, more just, all around a better idea, just because the bickering children in the Knesset weren't able to come to the right conclusion? Is it reasonable to expect you to be subservient?

Well, of course, my answer would be yes. That is, after all, your job. As a judge and all. But it's a hard thing to ask, and harder still from people who come from academia and are used to thinking about law as it should be. And even harder when, technically speaking, you haven't got any official sort of document or system that defines what they should or should not do. And, of course, even harder to expect, when you happen to believe that it's your duty to shape the country as it ought to be, law or no law.

And the saddest thing is that you barely see the legislature fighting back. Yes, every here and there they mumble something or clear something up, but in general, they have a frankly annoying tendancy to write laws that just throw up their hands and ask the court to ride in on their white charger and save the day by making up anything that chances to come into their heads.

Now, I don't know what the Knesset meant by the basic law of "The Dignity of Man and his Freedom", but they had to have noticed that the court was taking it and running with it, turning it not only into a constitution, but into a constitution that says practically nothing specific, leaving huge gaping holes in terms of just about everything, that, conveniently enough, get to be filled by none other than the court itself. Now, if I were a legislature who saw that sort of thing happening- and considering the fact that it's just an ordinary law that needs ordinary majority to amend- I would have run back and stuck in a paragraph telling the court to chill.

But the Knesset didn't. I don't know why. Maybe they like having the court solve all their problems, and maybe they have accepted the vision of the court as arbitor of justice and so forth. Maybe they're just tired of a losing battle against the court, and maybe they just have better things to do with their time. I really couldn't say.

But what's created is the very worst, most arbitrary, most well-meaning, and most annoying sort of plurocracy out there. With judges- unelected, unconnected with the popular will, and frankly, not omniscient- holding almost absolute power to shape the society. To turn things like "reasonable man" and "good faith" into towering monsters that level carefully worded laws and guidelines and build in their place beautiful castles in the air where everyone is sweet and lovely and run around singing happy songs of getting-alongness.

And there's a reason why we don't like the idea of absolute power in the hands of an unelected, elite few. And it's not that we might not 100% believe that they are brilliant and well-meaning. But they aren't perfect and they aren't the popular will and they aren't the right way for a country to shape its legal system. And even if they choose, at times, to restrain themselves, and even if the country and legislature choose, at times, to ignore them, it's not the way a democratic society ought to work and it's not the way a system should be. And it really, really annoys me sometimes.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Just Wondering

I've actually been wondering this ever since I read Descartes (I adore how pretentious that sounds). So for the whole intellectualism/skepticism/agnosticism whatnot, one must eliminate all a priori assumptions, no? But how does one get by with eliminating the assumption that the human intellect is in any way useful at discovering the truth? I mean, why should we possibly assume that that which seems logical to us has any correlation with reality? And if the answer is that it has seemed in the past to do so, then we just get circular because 1)why should we assume that 'past performance gaurantees future results' and 2) how do we know that the reality that was previously conceived actually meant anything?

Meaning that: how is it possible to eliminate one enormous a priori assumption when making any attempt to understand anything?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Legal Codes

I haven't posted in a bit for a very good reason, and the very good reason was not that I was overwhelmingly busy with work, because I wasn't really, but because I did not feel like doing so. Didn't have much anything to say. I'm starting to think that I'm over this whole blog fad thing, but I hope that is not true, firstly because it's so cool to be able to say that you have a blog and secondly, because it's so darn useful when you find that you have something to say. As is the case now.

There are certain complaints about Judaism that are nothing short of classic. This post, for example, raises the always popular 'how can G-d fall for loopholes' question, not to mention the 'why does G-d care about details' one and the 'why should we listen to law made up by people thousands of years ago with no sense of modern values and whatnot' (which can be applied to Torah, Talmud, or later Poskim depending on the questioner).

All lovely questioners and fodder for as many mussar/kiruv shmoozes as they are for disenchanted ex-yeshiva rants. But I think that the questions stem from a view of Judaism that is simply skewed.

Judaism- by which I mean the halachic system- is a legal code. Not a set of morals or a philosophy book or a self-help book. Legal. And as such, it is going to have certain traits that are inherent in any legal code.

Conservativism, for example. Any legal code is inherently conservative, based on precedent and resisting any changes. That's what makes it a binding general social set of norms and not just 'what I woke up and felt like doing this morning'. So, yeah, it's going to be based on things that may not be strictly relevant today. Deal with it. And, if the system of law is any good, you have plenty of ways of dealing with it perfectly well. In such cases that legislation is out of the picture, interpretation, application, and enforcement give the legal system plenty of leeway to avoid gross injustices. Except in such cases as the law specifically demands the gross injustice and then you're already dealing with a different problem- that you think that the legal code is messed up and immoral, not that its contemporary application is unfit.

Loopholes, for another example. Almost all systems of law are deontological and not simply teleological. They care about the means and not the ends. An example from this book, which may well be responsible for my going into law. Let us assume that we feel that, when given a choice between hitting and killing 5 pedestrians and hitting and killing one, it is preferable to kill the one. Does it then follow that you are entitled to kill somebody and divvy out his organs in order to save 5 other lives? Most people would say no. And that's because we care about how you get to an endpoint, not just where you end up. Thus, loopholes. A loophole doesn't negate the intelligence or legitimacy of a system of law, because if it did, there wouldn't be any systems of law at all. And loopholes don't just mean that the lawmaker didn't happen to think of the case and therefore was too foolish to plug it up. If the lawmaker wanted to prevent the consequence, he is perfectly capable of making a law to demand the consequence he wants. Any system of law that chooses to base itself of forbidding certain specific behaviors is going to be riddled with loopholes. Get used to it.

And guess what? Legal codes aren't necessary moral. As one of my professors pointed out, the Talmud doesn't talk about right and wrong. It never stops and ponders 'How does G-d feel about the issue', nor does it phrase its arguments in terms of 'What does G-d want us to do?' On the rare occasions that G-d does express an opinion in the Talmud, He is shouted down (Tanur Achnai). The Talmud starts with the necessary initial assumption that 1) obedience to the law is moral and/or desirable and 2) that interpretation of the law is included within the law itself. And from that point forward, it's all about the law. As a living, breathing, evolving, convoluted, contradictory, frustrating, manipulatable entity all of its own.

And that's the way it has to be for the halacha to be the unbelievably awesome thing that it is. Because when you keep referring back to feelings and morality, you aren't inside a legal process any more. And when you aren't inside the legal process, you have cheated yourself of the opportunity to be a part of the creation of G-d's will. To create truth and morality within the structure mandated for humans to be able to participate in the whole thing. That's the crazy cool thing about halacha- it is simultaneously a supremely human legal system, with humans working away about applying and interpreting and inventing and whatnot, and at the same time, the legitimate expression of G-d's will.

Why would somebody choose to go off and mull about truth when he's being offered the chance to create it? Why would you choose to mumble about the dead rigidity of the law when there's a perfectly good structure that lives it? Why would you prefer to cling to your private morality when you have the ability to make it G-d's as well?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

An Actual Rant

Often, I allege that a post is going to be a rant and then it ends up being a semi-coherent philosophical argument. This is not one of those cases. This is an actual real, true rant, motivated by nothing beyond rage, frustration, and the joy of having an internet connection. This story of that internet, in fact, is the motivation for this rant.

Once upon a time, there were two roommates who decided to get internet for their dorm room. So they went to the Bezek booth at the Bar Ilan orientation fair, for it was Bezek who could provide them with a phone line that was enabled for internetness. And the Bezek people sold them internet and a phone line and a router and some other confusing things, and much money was spent and there was much rejoicing.

Then a week passed and all of the girls' friends had gotten the Bezek man to come and connect their internet, but the Bezek man did not come to these girls. And so one of the girls began to call Bezek, often several times daily, and this is the litany of the calls, as best as they can be remembered at the moment:

Call 1: Bezek tells the girl that it has never heard of her. Her ID number does not match anything on their computers and that it is impossible to look her up by name.

Call 2 (2 hours later): Bezek tells the girl that it has still never heard of her, neither by her correct ID number, nor by the one that she finds mistakenly written on one of the forms. Is she sure she does not have the order number? Considering that she was never given an order number, she is.

Call 3 (10 minutes later): Bezek tells the girl that they have still not heard of her, but now agrees to look her up by name. Upon doing so, they discover that she really does exist, but there is no order for internet. When questioned, they explain that it takes several days to process the order for a phone line, after which they can begin to process the order for internet. They do not know when the order for the phone line will be processed. Try again in a couple of days.

Call 4 (the next day): Bezek still has not gotten the order for the phone line processed, but they assure the girl that once it is, the internet can be processed quickly. There will be no need to have the Bezek man come around to the room. Are they sure that everyone will be done automatically? You bet they are.

Call 5 (a couple of days later): The girl wonders when she will receive internet. Bezek informs her that her order has just been processed and that in around a week and a half, the Bezek man will come around and adjust the line. Bezek man? asks the girl. Week and a half? asks the girl. Bezek says yes, that is when his schedule is free, and really it has nothing to do with the processes back at their end of customer service. Have a nice day!

Call 6 (a few minutes later): Bezek repeats its statement that the Bezek man will come in a week and a half, except that it decides that there is a vacancy some 5 or 6 days earlier. The only catch is that apparently the Bezek man prefers not to cramp his style by narrowing down his time of coming to less than three hours, all during a time when both the girl and her roommate have class. Not looking a gift horse in the mouth, the girl asks for the earlier time slot. Class will be dealt with when it comes.

Call 7-9 (Over a few days) Girl confirms the coming of the Bezek man because there has been created in her a deep and abiding distrust of anything that Bezek tells her.

Call 10 (From the technician) Since the girl and roommate have gone to a great deal of effort to figure out how, when, and which of them will miss classes at every particular moment, they are somewhat surprised, but gratified when the technician calls offering them their choice of time slot.

Call 11 (To the internet service provider, a whole different company. Later the same day) Internet service is ordered. After a 4 hour wait, the girl may call up their technical support and access the internet.

Call 12 (Four hours later): Tech support encounters a problem with the modem, purchased from Bezek, which means that the girl should turn to Bezek tech support.

Call 13 (A few minutes later): Bezek tech support would love to help, but it seems that there is no record of internet being ordered for this number. Is the girl certain it wasn't ordered for a different number? Tech support is terribly sorry, but this is a problem that must be dealt with by customer service, who are no longer working but will be glad to help the girl tomorrow.

Call 14 (The next day): Bezek customer service does have the girl down as having internet. They would be glad to connect her to technical support, who will be able to help her connect.

Call 15 (30 minutes later, but actually just spent on hold): Bezek technical support does see that there is an order for internet, but that they don't see any modem ordered for this line. Is the girl entirely sure that she bought the modem from Bezek? Other than the word Bezek written repeatedly on the box and the fact that she purchased it from a Bezek fair, the girl has no reason to assume so. Well, technical support can't deal with the issue, so it sends her back to customer service.

Call 16 (After 20 minutes on hold): No, there is no modem on this line. Perhaps it was for another line? Did the girl inform the person from whom she bought the line that she has purchased a modem? Is the girl sure that it's a Bezek modem? After these and similar inane questions, Bezek asks the girl to come into some Bezek store somewhere and prove that the modem came from Bezek. The girl declines and launches into a very minor hissy fit. Bezek fiddles on their computers and sends the girl back to technical support, with promises that the modem thing will not interfere.

Call 17 (Tech support, 20 minutes later): Internet is successfully installed.

And the twist end of the story is that a mere 6 hours later, when the girl was in the midst of her rejoicing at the existingness of her internet, she goes to class to discover that her law faculty has managed to lose her first, four-page long, much labored-over paper. Perhaps the girl forgot to hand it in? She could call the secretary's office, or possibly the TA...

And so another saga begins...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Evolution Debate

I had an interesting argument about evolution with a friend of mine a couple of days ago. Principally interesting because I think that she was shocked by the relatively left-wingedness of my position. I think that because I wear skirts and, until recently, socks, she is under the impression that I am far more Beis Yaakov than I am. But I have always been more of an intellectual rebel than a behavioral one.

Anyhoo, not the point of this post. The point is that in the middle of the discussion, I got set off on one of my favorite rants, so set off, in fact, that I am still fuming enough to be motivated to actually post several days later. It goes like this:

I do not care if you do not believe in evolution. I do not care if you hold that it's a crime to believe in it. I do not even, intellectually speaking, care if you think that I am evil for believing in it. But please, please do not come to me with three hand-picked, heavily ellipsed scientists, your layman's understanding of advanced scientific theories and some moth-ridden arguments that you heard at a kiruv shabbaton and try to tell me that your opposition to evolution is scientifically based.

I mean, honestly. If I hear the phrase 'evolution is only a theory' one more time, I think I am going to break something. Something expensive. And to save myself time in the comments, yes, I know that evolution is only a theory. Not unlike gravity. And yet I don't go throwing myself off of buildings because I don't buy into the gravity myth. True, evolution has never been proven. It is almost impossible to prove it absolutely, especially when one of the opposite arguments is that an Omnipotent and Omniscient Being has purposely planted misleading evidence that would lead us to believe in evolution. But it has repeatedly failed to be mislead and produced more and more evidence that supports the conclusion that it is true.

Look, I'm not claiming to be an expert scientist and I can hardly argue against more knowledgable people who do not believe that evolution is scientifically supported. But nor is it possible to deny, with intellectual honesty, the fact that an overwhelming of expert scientists do believe that it is accurate. And even if you can find one or two who do doubt the theory- for whatever ideological or scientific reasons of their own- please do not attempt to deny the fact that they are the majority.

Which is not to say that you have to believe in evolution. If you believe that the Bible account is literally true, then by all means, you have every right to go with far less likely or provable, but nonetheless logical explanations, which ever ones you find. If, on the other hand, you believe that evolution is inherently illogical and unscientific, maybe, just maybe, you should ask yourself what factors are motivating that opinion and why, exactly, a whole bunch of perfectly intelligent scientists haven't seemed to catch on?

By the same token, I think that it would be intellectually dishonest for me to pretend that my evolution-influenced reading of B'reishit is the most obvious p'shat that would leap to the eye, or that my willingness to read the Torah as metaphorical or inexact is necessarily most in keeping with the most conservative (small c) religious opinions. I, personally, am fond of the whole Big Bang/Evolution picture of creation not only for scientific reasons, but also because it seems to me to paint a more cogent and more awesome God than pure ex nihilo understandings. But that's my personal opinion, and I attempt, in the spirit of intellectual honesty, to be aware of all of the factors that motivate that decision and not to pretend that the decisions I make are a synthesis of all possible factors rather than a mediation between them.

Of course, true intellectual honesty means that I am also aware of the fact that I am probably not really completely intellectually honest even with myself, but at that point, we start to get into eddying circles of self-knowledge, and then I get a head-ache. So we shall stop here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Legal Question

Interesting theoretical question given in our law orientation class today. Actually, it was handed out as some professor's study on law and psychology. The question:

You own a cereal factory on a small lake. You have the opportunity to produce a new kind of cereal. The only problem is that this requires dumping a chemical into the lake. The only damages from this chemical will be that it will raise the production costs for another cereal factory, that is on the small lake. There are no health or environmental issues. You know that if you do dump this chemicals, the other factory will sue you and win. However, your profits will exceed the amount that the court will award the other side. Is the decision to produce the new cereal a) moral, b) legal, c) good business practice, d) good for you personally?

Within our small orientation group, people intuitively had radically different answers. So I'd love to get a poll of the audience. And once I get...five responses, I'll post my thoughts. Okay? Awesome! It'll be like a contest! Whoever actually responds gets a... special present. Or something. Or, quite possibly, nothing.

UPDATE: Yay! Responses! Okay, everybody wins my undying gratitude. It's not much, but it's easily transferable over internation boundaries, and also it's cheap.

My intuitive position, although I may be starting to rethink it, was this:

Legal: Well, obviously not, considering that you would lose your lawsuit.

Worth doing: Depends on how much you think that the bad PR would damage you.

Moral: Here comes the interesting bit. Really, who are you harming? The other cereal company is getting compensated for all the damage that you do it, plus, most likely, all of their legal fees and a decent amount of punitary fees (I hope that's the right word. I have fort he first time encountered the phenomena that I can describe something in Hebrew better than English. Whee!). The only reason, in fact, that they wouldn't simply agree to take the money in the first place and walk away satisfies is that they're also a cereal compnay and thus have a vested interest in your lack of success. But that's always going to be a 'damage' to them, even if you wouldn't have had to dump anything. So the question is really is it moral to break the law in order to get what you really would be able to get legally, if it wasn't for extenuating circumstances?

And I think that my automatic answer is sure. The other cereal company comes out no farther behind on the deal than the rest of your competition, and probably somewhat ahead. You have not hurt anybody in any way, and have benefited yourself. Why should there be a moral problem? The only potential answer that I can see is that there is a benefit towards keeping the law even when it is neither beneficial nor ensures morality, just so that people won't go around breaking it.

But is the purpose of the law really to ensure blind obedience when it benefits nobody (at kleast, nobody with a legal right to benefit. The fact that it makes your competition happy isn't really their legal right. It's just a happy side benefit of their having chosen the same lake as you.) ? Or maybe it's simply to give a sufficient disincentive towards doing behavior it would prefer that you didn't?And once it's done it's best to disincent and it's still worthwhile for you, maybe it's perfectly okay to go ahead with it. I feel like, in some twisted way, this is the same logicas a conscientious objector- the job of the law is to provide as much disincentive as it thinks the action deserves, leaving the individual to weigh his own personal costs and beneifts. So basically, I think that the action is perfectly moral, and, should the bad publicity not outweigh the profit, there's no reason taht you shouldn't go ahead with it.

Friday, October 13, 2006


Hey. First, my apologies. I know that I have totally neglected my blog for several weeks now. There were, of course, mitigating factors- my family was in the Holy Land, I was in my sister's apartment, and also, I didn't really feel like it. And, unfortunately, the blog is not going to be terribly busy in the next couple of weeks, because Law School Orientation starts Sunday. That's right-this Sunday. As in "the day that would be Simchat Torah for me if I was still a chutznik." Yeah. And Heavens only know whether or not I have a dorm room... So anyway, I'm going to be a bit busy, so we'll have to see what happens.

And now on to the post. This post, as perhaps you would be able to tell even without the lengthy introduction/disclaimer (but where would be the fun in that?) is spawned more from desperation to get back to posting than actual inspiration, so I'm sorry if it degenerates into yet another dull, angsty rant about my high school experience. Here goes:

We learnt Kohelet in twelfth grade. The first thing that my teacher announced as an introduction to the subject was that Kohelet was not a depressing book. The life that it degrades as pointless is a life dedicated to pursuing physical pleasures, while a life devoted to spirituality is not pointless, but beautiful. This interpretation was supported by translating hevel as 'ephemeral' and reading a lot of passages as not really questioning the afterlife or the soul or things like that.

Fine. It's a legitimate track, and certainly there is a thread in Kohelet attacking hedonism. But I think that this interpretation misses the thing that makes Kohelet so cool. The Talmud says that the chachamim wanted to ban (or hide, or bury) Kohelet because a) it contradicted itself and b) it contained things that leaned towards minut (heresy). The Talmud never goes back and says "but really, it didn't and that was all a misinterpretation." Never says "and then other chachamim came along and said it didn't." It says that they included it a) because the beginning and end are words of Torah and b) because every heretic statement was later contradicted by an acceptable one.

In other words- Kohelet should not- cannot- be read as a single, unified book. It is an ongoing internal debate, the kind that just about every thinking person is going to have. All those angsty, going-off-the-derech questions- they're all in there. Kohelet, as a book, is devoted to that angst, that questioning, that depression, that struggle.

And the fact that it's in Tanach means that the struggle is acceptably in Judaism. And not just if you figure everything out and end up happy and calm, with all your questions answered. Because even with the last couple of p'sukim, Kohelet doesn't have any answers. Never comes to the conclusion that there is an afterlife, or that life is just, or that anything has any point at all. The only vague conclusion that I saw was that that you shouldn't spend all of your life trying to figure out the big questions- if you always watch the clouds, you never plant; more books is more trouble and so forth. Which is hardly a conclusion, but more of angsty frustration at your own angsty frustration.

Anyway, the point is this: teaching Kohelet as just another happy, reasoned book that teaches you to devote yourself to holiness is robbing it of its most basic lesson: It's okay to struggle. Maybe even mandatory to struggle. It's okay to question, to contradict, even to despair. And even someone who loves G-d enough to write Shir Hashirim, who is wise enough for Mishlei, even he can wrestle with the biggest questions. And lose. And keep on fighting.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Just a link

I know, I know, I owe a real post. Accept instead this link to Mike's interesting post on anti-Bible rhetoric and rape.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wave of Rock

I know, I know, two posts in a day, this is crazy talk. But it looks like I have a bit of time 'til the roommates are ready to leave the computer lab so here goes.

I watched School of Rock yesterday. A cute movie, all in all, and really there is no good reason that it should have gotten me all deep and philosophizing.

But. The one thought that kept popping into my head throughout the film was how uncannily well this movie went with The Wave. No, really. A charismatic teacher sweeps into class with a whole new movement, overturning the way that the school has been run and the values that the kids have been taught, and sweeping everyone along with his ambitious ideals and plans for the future. The movement not only unites the class, but it gives social standing and confidence to students who were the losers beforehand.

A stretch? Perhaps. But it would be startlingly easy to write "The Wave of Rock", in either of two equally valid forms.

1) Dewey Finn comes to the elementary school, bringing with him the gospel of rock. All the children quickly embrace his idea and devote themselves to the project of creating an awesome band. Except for Mary, a quiet girl who enjoys learning actual information and looks askance at the anarchy inherent in Dewey's rock-centric rhetoric. As time goes by, she notices more and more hostility on the part of her classmates towards those they see as representing or supporting 'the Man'. When she tries to pull out the band, she becomes a class pariah, rejected by her peers, singled out in class, and pressured to rejoin the project. The movie ends with either Dewey unveiling the fact that it was all a test, or a camera shot over the crowds of children, dressed alike in School of Rock t-shirts, chanting Dewey's name in unison, with ominous music in the background.

2) Burt Ross has a crazy new idea for his class- a new order of discipline that will unite the students and maybe even change the world into a better place. At first, the kids are dubious, but quickly they get into the idea. Ross forms them into a cadre, giving them each special jobs and encouraging self-confidence in every member of the group. The movie ends with a triumphant rally. The camera zooms over the jubilant crowds, singling out the faces of kids who especially benefited from the movement- friends who met or became closer through their involvement, the loser who is now a valued member of the class, and so forth.

Weird, I know. But I guess it just proves the power that the storyteller has. And the general tendency to ignore the fact that nonconformity can and does often contain its own homogeneous brainwashing.

Visit from an Authoress

Today, an authoress came to visit our Ulpan and tell us all about what it's like to be an authoress. The speech, frankly, was insanely dull. The women subscribes to a more mushy-gushy style of thought than I could ever tolerate, the speech was an hour and a half long, and to top it off, she was deliberately lowering her level of speech so as to adapt to our limited vocabularies.

She did, however, say one thing that caught my attention- that she likes to write because she can create a world in which she is like G-d, where she can decide who lives and who dies, who is happy and who miserable. That she likes it because the real world seems cruel, chaotic, and arbitrary, and writing lets her create a world that is governed by rhyme and reason and so forth.

My G-d, what a ghastly thought. I know how I govern the world of my stories. I kill characters because it seems the thing to do, because I want to see how they react, because it makes for a more interesting plot. Once I killed a fairly major character because I liked the effect of his blood on the snow.

And it's not like I don't like my characters. I can create a character with whom I identify strongly, bring him up from a child with endearing little character traits, put him through school, give him a family and a mode of thinking and children and aspirations and who knows what and kill him simply because I have thought of an interesting way to phrase the scene. Or bump off one of his children just because I think he would cope with it entertainingly. Or inflict and remove a wound as my whim takes me, depending on whether at that moment I think he'd be better with a scar. And even as I do it, I feel bad for the poor thing, really I do. I mean, he has one lousy life.

Miri says that it's just me. She says that she never kills or tortures a character just for the fun of it. But then, she adds that she will give them troubles just because it seems the thing to do, or because the story needs it, or because it's the thing to do.

I don't know. I think I would prefer for the world to run entirely by chance than for it to be run like a story, with G-d dropping tragedies down on us just because we suffer so darn interestingly.

Or maybe it is simply that- that we have to suffer because otherwise there is no story. Because you can't have a book or a life without conflict. And maybe better authors planning more ordered books have better motives than my arbitrary, capricious ones. But even so- of all the images of G-d that I have ever attempted to conceive, the one of Him sitting at a writing desk, notebook open before Him, is probably the one that appeals to me the least.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

My Rules of Intellectualism

or: The Five Principles that I wish I had Known in High School when I was Busy Picking Silly Debates that Got Nowhere and Accomplished Nothing and Acheived Absolutely No Clarity and were Really Just There to Keep Me from Going Out of My Mind from Boredom.

1) Shut up. No, really. Just close the mouth. That's better. No, you can't talk yet. Just hush...that's better.

You don't always have to be fighting, to be picking your next argument, to be analyzing and counteranalyzing for weaknesses and talking points. Just listen. What are they saying? No, really, explain it to me. Can you formulate their argument? Can you flowchart it? Can you chop it and dice it and toss in a couple of its implications and a handful of its premises?

Let them finish. Your question on the first sentence shouldn't be an excuse to stop listening to the rest of it. Especially when it's not really a question, but a snarky attack at some flaw in their reasoning.

2) Be clear. Focus, as Michael Medved would say, like a laser beam. You don't need to go into the whole windup, with rant and example and clever turn of phrase. If there's nothing that you disagree about enough to be able to simply swoop in on a discrepancy, then do you really disagree or are you just arguing out of principle?

Stop talking past each other, orating at each other, tripping each other into little vicious circular tangents of semantics or nitpicking. Find the core difference- the b'mai ka mafligei- and fight about that. That ought to be quite enough.

3) Boil down. Alright, you've got the actual point of disagreement. Is that based on something else? A premise you don't share? An assumption that you're not willing to make, or that you think is obvious? Almost every argument falls back to one or more other arguments. Get as far back on the Hydra's neck as you can.

Bickering about the rule about knee socks? Isn't it really a debate about the importance of mandating religious standards versus personal independence? Or maybe it's a fight about religious tolerance versus believing in only one legitimate path? Or maybe, just maybe, it's really just you not wanting to have to go buy new socks? Boil it down, redefine.

4) Pick and choose. You can't fight everything that you and your co-debater disagree about in one setting. Stick to your topic and its immediate premises. The person who supports knee-socks may also be against your learning Talmud, but you don't have to start duking out everything about every belief. If it's directly relevant, than there you are. But don't bring it in just because it's always irked you and you really want a chance to get into it. There will be other chances. There are always more chances.

5) Know when to stop. Sometimes, there's nothing left to fight about. You've boiled things down to a premise so basic, an logical jump so obvious or (for the other person) so ridiculous, a difference of opinions that are so firmly held that you're never going to get anywhere. Ever. Maybe, possibly, if the other person isn't quite as smart as you, you can trap them, puzzle them, or race beyond them, but you will never convince them.

Or maybe you've boiled your differences down to something that really isn't that big a deal at all. You would do X 49% of the time, I'd do it 50%. You are slightly less in favor of Y. I value Z a bit more than W, but they very rarely come into conflict.

It's okay to stop. I mean, yes, it means you might just have to find something else to do with the last five minute of your recess, but that's okay too. And another twelve hours of point and counterpoint, jab and foil, nitpicking and example aren't really going to do anything. You don't have to 'agree to disagree', but it's okay just to agree to stop arguing and talk about the weather.

The only other point that I would have is more a rule of morality than of debate, but I would still like to mention it, because it's important. Obvious, but important. Don't debate people that you dislike, and don't dislike the people you debate. Arguing should be a way of connection, not an excuse to vent all your dislike of an idea/principle/system/theory onto the head of the perfectly lovely person that happens to be supporting it. And if you don't like the person you're fighting, you're going to be associating their flaws to their position and vice versa, making it difficult to have a really intelligent debate and virtually impossible to ever accomplish anything in your argument

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Awesome Rant

Okay- I don't have time to post my reactions to this, but go read it, yell at it, agree with it, all that good stuff.

More Female Stuff

So, I was really hoping to be able to move off of the whole female subject. Today, however, a random friend started reading my blog. While reading this post, he came upon the line where I cunningly avoid getting into the whole mess about my thoughts about female rabbis and decided that I couldn't just leave it like that. So here goes.

Firstly, I understand why women were originally not intended to be halachic decisors. Back when being a Rabbi was really being a Rabbi, when you had to know just about everything to be able to make halachic decisions and being a Rabbi meant being the leader of the community, it really makes some sort of sense. I mean, look. In a normal society 99.9% of people aren't going to be the intellectual elites. The .1% that are, will have to be 1)the absolute best at the whole learning thing, 2) able to free themselves from other time committments and 3)willingly supported by the community. A woman might well be able to pull off 1), is practically speaking very unlikely to get 2) and would rarely get 3). There were always a few crazies (yes, Bruria, I know), but it wasn't easy.

Nor should it necessarily be so. I am willing to accept innate differences in the natures and missions of men and women. Not very PC, but there you go. And I am certainly willing to go with the notion that any reasonably ordered society needs some sort of division of labor and different roles for the different people, as befits their particular needs and characters. Can I say for certain that women would be less suited to roles of academia and/or leadership? No. But I do not think that it is a coincidence that almost all human societies have evolved into this form, nor do I think that it is a coincidence that G-d set up our system this way. I happen to have my own theories as to why this is the case, which have to do with the fact that women have less of an innate predilection towards jerkiness, but I am not in love with these theories, certainly not enough to fight for them. The point is, for whatever reason, it makes sense for a society to not have everybody running around being all metaphysical and so forth and it makes sense that the very small percentage of people who are going to be that way should be male, if only because they are naturally more seperable from certain vital activities. (translation: women biologically have the babies, something that is not very conducive for them running off and learning for years without the burden of their family).

Now, that all applies to the time when S'micha was real, something that is no longer the case. Now s'micha simply means that you knew enough to pass some sort of an exam, has no halachic significance in terms of actual "s'micha" and simply functions as permission for you to make halachic decisions, something that many people with 'Rabbi' in front of their names prefer not to do anyway. So, from a halachic perspective, I don't really see any problem with creating a title/role for women with the equivolent function of saying 'We officially acknowledge that you know a lot of Torah'.

Do I want to become one of those? No, not really. And this is for two reasons. Firstly, because I don't really see the point. I mean, if I know a ton, so wonderful, I'll be clever. Do I need some title testifying to that? Shmuel the tanna never got S'micha. Nor, for that matter, did D'vorah Han'via or Chulda or Esther or in fact, anyone that the Torah chooses to tell us about. A title might be convenient for determining, say, qualifications for being a female Gemara teacher, but I don't know if it's worth the whole communal rift and so forth. And secondly, because I am conservative. I prefer not to be on the fore-front of movements, even ones that I would have no problem with joining when they are older. Is it cowardice? Yes, probably. But it is also a general distrust of movements like this that are usually inspired by motives that I don't like- ego, resentment and so forth. Of course, that's often what it takes to get a movement started, but that doesn't mean that I want to be a part of that. The world may need its angry people who start things like that, but they still make me nervous and I would prefer to jump onto the bandwagon once I am confident that it's not evil or anything like that. Again, it may simply be cowardice and a distaste for conflicts, but there you go.

Monday, September 04, 2006


I have started to notice a vague correlation between my posting and the number of hits that I get. Which is enough to inspire me to post even my musings are not really sufficiently fleshed out for this forum.

And on the subject of inspiration...I have come to the conclusion that I don't really believe in spirituality. What does that mean? Not that I don't believe in holiness or closeness to G-d. Not that I don't believe in moments that make you feel all warm and inspired. Not even that such moments don't have their religious uses.

But here's the deal- I don't believe in this whole spiritualization of Judaism. I went to a speech on kabbala where the speaker was listing things that can be spiritual- singing, dancing, meditation- and mitzvot. Which treats spirituality as the goal and mitzvot as a helpful means of getting there. I don't believe that. Spirituality- by which I mean a feeling of closeness to G-d - is all very well and good, but that's not the point.

The point of human existance, according to Judaism, is to serve G-d, emulate, and become close to G-d by obeying His commandments. Zeh hu. Warm mushy-gushy feeling does not appear on the list. (I am not referring to kavana, which is part of the mitzva and involves the intellect- intention and awareness- rather than the emotions.)

Of course, a feeling of inspiration is often quite useful, given that humans aren't all that good at the self-discipline thing and often need emotions to inspire them towards the correct actions.
But the emotion there works as a means to an end. And of course, somebody who is genuinely close to G-d may have a feeling of being so and thus feel spiritual. However, the spiritual feeling is simply a symptom, side-benefit, or result of the genuine closeness.

What's the nafka mina? If Person A goes and climbs a mountain and communes with the stars and recites poetry and gets the biggest spiritual high in the world and Person B spends six hours making food packages for needy families or checking a mountain of lettuce for bugs or building a sukkah and feels nothing, Person B has acquired more holiness. Now, if Person A's communion then inspires them to do useful things, then he can get as much or more holiness as Person B. And of course, it would be nice if Person B felt close to G-d, because 1) it will make it more likely that she will do these good things in the future, because humans crave that sense of closeness and 2) because her actions really are meritorious and a proper understanding of the world would involve being aware of that fact and it's good to understand the world properly.

BUT the spiritual high itself means nothing. It's not holiness, it's not sacredness, it sure as heck isn't righteousness. It's an emotional massage. It's a feel-good pill of warm fuzzies, whether it comes from your lovely mountaintop, or a Kabbalat Shabbat with songs and dances, or a group meditation. Sure, it feels nice. Sure, it makes you feel holy. But that's not the point. Your feelings- they may be totally off-base, they may be an accurate representation of reality, they may be a useful tool for gauging growth- but they're not the point.

Monday, August 28, 2006


Yippee! After weeks of struggling with beaurocracy, red tape, time difference, and so forth, I finally have a schedule for my classes for the coming year. I am taking classes in contract law, criminal law, and tort law (as best I can translate them), and one on different systems of justice. I also have a class on sects of Judaism in the Second Temple Era, picked more or less at random from among the Jewish class requirements.

Doesn't seem like so much, does it? I mean, I have only 22 hours of class a week. I feel as if I either have forgotten to sign up for some kind of class, or else they're really going easy on us in the first semester. Already, my second semester is much busier. But all of the free time is tempting me to maybe apply for a minor.... maybe in Talmud or something?....I shall have to think on this...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Well. It's a fascinating discussion, although I must confess that I started spacing out before reading all of it. But the general debate is one in which I have participated bajillions of times. First, to establish my own credentials- I am a female who learns Gemara. Not on-and-off, not in a class, not if it comes up in some properly tanach/mussar setting, but on my own, for fun, doing Daf Yomi, searching for chavrutot. Because I absolutely adore it. And feel that it makes me love G-d and Torah and holiness and sharpens my mind and so on and so forth.

So, what does that mean? Well, for one thing, it means that I don't feel that it's forbidden for women to learn Talmud. Which is at odds with the philosophy of my high school, it should live and be well. (I had one teacher who preferred to bring in sheets with a passage from the Talmud written out, rather than bring in a photocopy of the page, because she preferred that we not get familiar with the format of a daf of gemara. Yeah.) Of course, I have never heard any really good halachic reasons or sources for it to be forbidden, or even frowned upon, but then, if you started giving girls solid halachic reasons, that would sort of destroy the whole point, wouldn't it?

Darn. I am sounding bitter, aren't I? I'm trying not to be bitter here. Because really, from what I know of girls, 95% of them are not suited for learning Gemara. Whether this is natural or acquired through environment would make an interesting discussion, but it lacks, I believe, a nafka mina (useful difference) for this particular case. I am actually pretty much in agreement with the statement that females, as a whole, do not think as logically, factually, or analytically as men. I am willing to believe that they (well, 'we', I suppose. Distancing myself is cheating, isn't it?) are collectively worse at math and science, quite probably at Talmud as well.

Well. And where does that leave me? Shrug. As an anamoly, I guess. One that some people find disturbing and others love to rally around as if I were representative of some far larger trend. Really. When I tell friends that I am doing the daf, there are only three possible reactions, depending on their hashkafic leanings and gender: 1) The sideways glance at another Bais Yaakov friend, with the little amused shrug, translated into "Oh, that Tobie. She's a know, but it's not nice to start fights about people's beliefs" 2) The MO "right on, girl! you're fighting for all of us! Carry the banner proudly!" that makes me want to roll my eyes and/or run shrieking, 3) the (usually male) patronizing smile that says "A girl who thinks that she learns gemara. Adorable!". Well, actually, there are a few people who just kind of accept it, and those are cool and good people, but they are few and far between.

The point is...there was a point, back there somewhere. Ah, yes. The point is, I think that the gemara argument often presents a false choice: Women can't learn gemara vs. women should all learn gemara. I happen to fall in the middle- the desire and/or ability to learn gemara is rare among females. Those that can, should. Those that can't, they should live and be well.

And just because I learn gemara doesn't mean I want to be a rabbi. Possibly, if I were male, I would become a rabbi. But I'm not and I prefer to think that this was not just an oversight on the part of G-d. And the fact that I won't be a rabbi doesn't really bother me, since I happen to believe that women shouldn't be rabbis, both because the majority may not be able to handle the torah-knowledge requirements and for a variety of other reasons that are really too complicated to get into now.

But the point is, insofar as there is a point, that just because I'm a gemara-learning female doesn't describe my entire hashkafa or personality or anything. It's just something that I do, because I can and I think that I should.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Live Blogging

And speaking of group psychology, fascinating dynamic going on in the computer lab as I type this. One group of Frenchies are not only loudly talking to one another in the otherwise silent lab, but one dude is playing this really annoying, percussiony music out loud (quite loud) instead of using his headphones. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one annoyed by this- people keep clenching their headphones tighter, sighing, or casting the group glances, but nobody has the guts to say anything. I keep planning to, and even planning out the sentences in Hebrew in my head, but it just never seems to happen. I wish that somebody else would say something, which is probably just what everyone else is wishing. But honestly, how jerky can you get? They even left the music blaring when they went outside to do something.

UPDATE: Urg. I may have accidentally done something. As I left the lab, thinking I was done and all, I gave the music player a somewhat severe look. Or rather, I just kind of looked at him hard, thinking that he wouldn't be looking at me and then I could feel smug and admonishing without having to have any moral courage at all. Only he looked back, and then I couldn't look away without feeling stupid, so I ended up giving him a rather long severe look before I left the room. And then I realized I hadn't checked my e-mail so I came back in to check it and I'm not sure what that might have been construed to mean, but anyways, he's stopped playing the music and has at least once given me a possibly severe, possibly guilty look (I can't really tell). What the lesson of this story might be, I wish I knew.

Where to live?

I spent shabbat in Nof Ayalon, a small yishuv affiliated with/attatched to the hesder yeshiva Sha'alvim. In many ways, it's quite the idyllic small town, straight out of a 50's sitcom, with its special Orthodox twist- children wandering the streets in gangs, making up their own fun as they go along; the streets flooding in a single sudden gush when the shul lets out; neighbors whose homes you will wander in and out of; stands where you can hitch a ride without having to worry.

I can't decide whether I could possibly live in a place like that. On one hand, I feel as if it's the sort of childhood that I ought to give my future kids, in terms of innocence and camraderie and nurturing environment and so forth. And certainly, it would place me firmly in a religious setting of my own, where there would be plenty of opportunities and inspiration for shiurim, chesed, and the other sorts of activities that work best in a communal setting.

But even for the single shabbat, I found that it stifled me. Like living there would crush my illusions of individuality. How can you feel like a person when everyone you know goes to the same shul and has the same interests and everyone's kids go to the same school and the same s'nif and have the same beliefs. You come out of shul with everyone else and walk home to your identical shabbat table with the same divrei torah sent home by the same teachers and your children rush off to the same pe'ulot as you clear your identical table and go to take your identical nap.

And it's not just a matter of not feeling unique. It's the very fact of all the homogeneity. What would it be like to spend your entire life among people whose ideology completely coincides with your own? Can what you do even be called thinking after a while, or is it just the communal brain swinging into the obvious, universal conclusion? Never to have your ideas challenged, never to have to accomodate another point of view- couldn't it make your personal conscience shrivel up and die entirely? And even if you were fine, what would it do to your children to never have to struggle with anything they ever thought, to have every idea implanted and reinforced by the fact that everyone they know thinks the same?

I guess the reason that I'm so worried about this is because of last year's anti-disengagement activism, which was so unanimous in certain groups that it seemed nothing short of indoctrination. I mean, does anybody know of a B'nei Akiva kid who supported disengagement? Is such a thing possible? What, I wonder, would have happened to a kid who happened to think that disengagement was a good idea? Would they have been ostracized, pressured, ignored? Or are their minds so thoroughly homogeneous that it would have been impossible for any of them to have thought such a thing? I know that it sounds patronizing to assume that they didn't all just happen to reach the same conclusion, but I don't think that the argument was so one-sided that no reasonable person could have reached a decision opposed to the concensus. And so I get kind of scared when I go to places like this yishuv, where everybody agrees and is friendly and nice and small town and religious (but not the wrong kind of religious) and holds the right views and so forth. Maybe people need constant friction in order to really think, let alone grow.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Matzav

It wasn't until my second day in Israel that I heard anyone talking about 'the matzav'. (By the way, bit of digression, but there's so emblematically Israeli about that term. Not the war, or the terror, or the problems, but just 'the situation'. As in 'this is the situation that we have to deal with.') And even then it was just Ulpan announcements about the security arrangements, to allay all of us nervous Americans. On Shabbat, there was some talk about the war, the ceasefire, and so forth, but it was mixed in with talk of the craziness of American politics and so forth.

There is no fear. The 'situation' comes up when we are discussing my sister's plans for a summer camp for evacuated families from the north, or discussing why my roommate had to relocate from University of Haifa. There is concern for those that are in danger and sadness over those who are killed, and worry about the whole situation and what is going to be for the country, but I have felt none of the sudden panic that gripped me back in America. As I knew it would be. First of all, because things are insanely safe here in Jerusalem, but also because here is the right place. I am doing what I want to be doing, and I am where I should be.

And that is enough.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


This is not a post, this is an explanation of why you ahve had no posts and why you probably will not in the near future. I got into Israel yesterday and registered for my Ulpan. Talk about a nightmare- four or five straight hours of beaurocracy on absolutely no sleep. And the worst of it is that everyone tells me something different and wants something different and sends me somewhere else for something else that I need but that I can't get without waiting for seven billion bajillion hours and then of course you're not actually in the right room for it and why didn't you mention that you are an Olah and so on and so forth until you really want never ever, ever, ever to see another form in your life, but of course you will since you haven't even begun to do everything that you need to do for your real university or for half the things that the government wants and you're starting to feel a little stressed. I managed to go from starry-eyed crying as we landed in Israel to bored, harrassed, overwhelmed trucalence, full of "okay, b'seder, let's get this done already, mah pitom you are yelling at me, maybe a bit of savlanut, stop yelling at me please" in less than an hour, which I must regard as some sort of a record.

Today, however, was much better. Only two hours of beaurocracy and we actually began the ulpan classes, which are quite awesome, and also I finally made contact with the people I know in this country, which mitigated the feeling of wandering around being lost and confused and so forth. But my computer access is probably going to be limited to the lab, so expect blog posts even less frequently than when I had to wrest it from Mike.

Kol Tuv from the Holy Land.

Friday, August 04, 2006


Argh! I should not be posting, I should be packing, considering as how I am leaving the blinking country in less than three days and have thus far...placed some shirts in one of my suitcases. Not a very good pace, I'm afraid. But I had a blog post sparked in my head yesterday and this is the first time that I've been able to get the computer since then, so here goes:

I listened to an interesting shiur yesterday about the mitzah of
keriah and how it has evolved over time. One of the most striking aspects was watching how what we do today is not only different from the original mandated way to perform the mitzah, but even diametrically opposed to the whole point. Example: In the gemara, it says that keriah that is not done in the moment of anguish is not valid. Today, however, we tear keriah not by the death bed nor when we first hear of the loss, but only after the burial, a good day or so later. Example 2: Keriah for parents is supposed to be done with one's own hands. Today, we have somebody else start the tear and then continue it. And this is not even bringing into account the strict halachot of how far to tear and from what direction and so forth (not that I, thank G-d, am in a position to be familiar with those details).

The pretty clear trend in these changes is from spontaneity, an organic expression of grief, to ritualization. Looking even in tanach, we see tearing clothes as an expression of grief, along with putting ashes on the head and so forth. It's a very human, believable gesture- in the throes of grief, you tear at your clothes, seeking... to what? To vent your rage, to express your feelings that everything is nothing, is useless, perhaps even to induce grief if you are in shock. (All of these are, by the way, the explanations for the mitzva of keriah given by the rishonim).

On the other hand, what is keriah nowadays? A carefully planned ritual. At a certain time, somebody comes over with a scissors and makes a small cut, then explains to you exactly how far and where and how to tear. The sentiment- in fact, the purpose- quietly fades away in the flurry of details.

Which is not to say that I oppose details. The halachic system largely consists of taking a general idea and transforming it into a set of specific, sometimes ridiculously detailed instructions. And it is good that it should do so. Nice ideas without details have a habit of evaporating or being transformed into vague mushy-gushiness without any anchorage in reality. Mitzvot without details become pretty hippy rituals- rather like a Tu B'Shvat Seder- full of sweetness and feeling, signifying nothing.

On the other hand, it is a pity when the original organicism of the mitzvah is lost entirely. And, to the degree than it can be avoided, I think it ought. Which brings me to the other thing that was nagging at my mind all through the lecture: I shouldn't be here.

I shouldn't be sitting on a kindergarten chair listening to an interesting halachic dissection of the laws of mourning, or a mussar shmooze about being nice to people. Nor should I be working my way through a book of kinnot, trying to say all of them with some modicum of understanding.

Tisha B'Av is a day to weep. Not to learn, not to pray, not even to become nicer people. Just to weep. If kinnot help you do that, wonderful, but I would suggest that it's more useful to find a couple that really rend your heart and say them slowly, and stop in the middle and cry.

There seems a curious inability to sit and cry on Tisha B'Av. Instead, the day gets filled with this and that, with shiurim and inspirational movies and endless mumbled kinnot. Maybe you pull out a Mo'ed Kattan or hear yet another way of slicing and dicing the Bar Kamtza story. Very nice. But it isn't Tisha B'Av.

And, I mean, I understand why this trend develops. First of all, sitting and crying is hard, not to mention depressing, especially for people who are less given to emotion. But I think that there's a more deep-seated objection. Maybe this is just in my head, but I think that people would see that as a waste of time. 'What's the point of crying? It doesn't make anything better. Go, go to a shiur or a shmooze, become a better person.'

Perhaps a good point, in general, but it's not Tisha B'Av. The whole point of Tisha B'Av is to act simply as a day of mourning, simply as a chance to weep. Not to move on. Nobody tells an that they should move on, that they shouldn't just sit around and cry all day. We don't feel like onenim on Tisha B'Av. But the point of the day is that we should.

And you can see this clearly in the halachot of the day. No torah study, except the sad bits. And personally, I think that the sad bits should be a bit sadder than a fascinating halachic chap on some muddled sugya in Mo'ed Kattan. No tehillim, even skipping bits of davening. No chiyuv, I might add, to say all those kinnot.

But the point of the mitzvah-its actual, emotional soul- has been eaten up by a focus on the details and the rituals, on avoiding what's forbidden and still ignoring the point. I'm not saying that I'm not guilty of it as well. But I do think that it's a pity.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Chicago Tehillim Gathering

A very nice Tehillim gathering this evening to pray for Israel. I am horrible at estimating crowds, but there must have been upwards of 600 people present. Things that I especially liked: having a mincha and a maariv surrounding the tehillim; the wide array of the community that attended-black hats to baseball caps; the misheberach for the IDF; saying Aveinu Malkeinu (I had thought you needed an official fast or something to do that? Apparently not).

The one thing that left me a bit cold- and this is typical of all of these sorts of gatherings- is the mode of saying the tehillim themselves. You know what I mean- one person leading it pasuk by pasuk in that very special cadence stretched and cut to fit the words. I mean, maybe it's just me, but I tend to totally lose my concentration (the split infinitive is hereby acknowledged and ignored) in those breaks when I'm listening to the person leading it. Tehillim is so eloquent and so personal that it feels off to stop and space out between sentences, and trying to pay attention and recapture the same sentiment for the same words twice running is like trying to recite Shakespeare with a horrible stutter. I never quite understood the whole idea of that system, as opposed to saying it all together. Is there any halacha/minhag basis?

But the most powerful feature of the gathering was an announcement that they made at the end. They cited the pretty well known statement that in the war with Midyan, each soldier had a corresponding person back home who prayed and learned for him. What was incredible was the application, which they attributed to Rav Kanievsky. They handed around slips of paper with the names of soldiers who were currently fighting or wounded, and each person took one name. Somehow, this personalization feels a lot more powerful than praying/learning/acting good for the general mass of IDF; now I have one name, of one person, one real flesh-and-blood person for whom I am 'responsible'. Telling myself "Learn for the soldiers" is, for me at least, less effective than saying "Learn for Gideon ben Yehudit." I wonder if there's some way that this could be mass-produced somehow on the J-blogosphere? I'm really not quite sure how it would be, but I think that it would an incredible idea for someone more internet-saavy to try to work out.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


Nothing, they say, is a coincidence. It's a platitude so often that it has the ring of a truism, in the beginning of speeches, in casual conversations, implicit in the inspirationalness of a good 70% of inspirational stories. You happen to meet a stranger who ends up knowing your second cousin? Katrina strikes soon after disengagement? Parsha Mattos always falls during the three weeks*? All of them represent some sort of message from Hashem, whether as a specific instruction, a source of potential inspiration, or just a general statement registering His participation in the world.

I hear this quoted so often, in fact, leading into the main gist of some speech or other, than I tend to take it as a given. On further examination, however, this doesn't really tally entirely with my vision on the world. I mean, I believe that G-d is parsimonious in His direct intervention in the world. Indirect intervention is far trickier, but I am personally inclined towards Rambam's vision of Hashgacha. The Rambam maintains that G-d largely leaves the world to its own rules and devices. Hurricanes will, for the most part, hit because of meteorological conditions. Depending on a person's greatness, G-d will intervene in his life more or less, but in general, He stays out of the picture. In other words, coincidences often happen due solely to natural explanations or random fluctuations of chance.

On the other hand, I do not really reject the idea of Divine Intervention. I believe that G-d does have some interaction and direction over the randomness, to whatever degree or however directly. Many coincidences, then, may have some important message.

The problem with this otherwise balanced theory is that I have no way of determining which coincidences are which. It would be nice if one could compose a neat algorithm, based, perhaps, on the odds against this particular confluence of events. But that's mathematically silly and theologically ridiculous. So the most logical way to decide the issue seems to be to evaluate the cost of a miss and that of a false positive and determine the best course accordingly.

Which gives rise to a very interesting insight: This is little to no cost to a false positive, and there may even be some benefit. Because attributing Hashgacha rarely causes anyone to do anything that they wouldn't otherwise. When faced with a coincidence, people tend to interpret events based on their prior convictions. Which is natural, and perfectly logical. So nobody who thought that disengagement was a good idea would possibly say that Katrina must have been a punishment for it. No matter how likely or unlikely they consider the similarities between the events**, it would never occur to them to draw the link. Similarly, those who find a link between the Parsha and the week's events always use them to reinforce and/or inspire towards an ideal they had already had. So "wrongly" assuming coincidence tend to inspire people towards pretty noble goals- better interpersonal relationships, improving their midot, serving Hashem better and so forth.

A miss, on the other hand, has small to large negative. At best, you fail to be inspired towards the noble goals that you would otherwise attain. At worst, G-d has to continue to send more and more harsh messages to shape up until you get the hint.

Based on this analysis, I think I would come to the more complicated conclusion, "Many things may very well be a coincidence, but it may not be morally useful to believe so." It seems, I will admit, somewhat disingenuous, but I have very little problem lying to myself, as long as I know that I'm doing it. Or, to sound moderately less split-personality, I am willing to assume everything is Hashgacha in order to get myself to become better, as long as I do not let it murk up my theology.

This may not, in fact, be the best system. Perhaps it would be better for me to totally lose the theology that alerts me to the possibility of coincidence, so that I will be more likely to fall for my own attributions and thus be more inspired. Or perhaps it is disingenuous to suck false inspiration from anything and I should just be inspired by good old fortitude. Be that as it may. I find myself unable to fool myself any more than I do and unwilling to fool myelf any less.

*If you want to call this a coincidence instead of presuming some prior planning by the calender makers or some supernatural aura/power corresponding to certain times of the year
**This example, by the way, is based off of an e-mail that went around just after Katrina explaining it as punishment for America for pushing disengagement, as proven by the fact that it struck Condaleeza Rice's home state and other uncanny similarities

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

This Time, Last Year

Israel sure finds a way to keep us busy during the Three Weeks, doesn't she? This time last year, I was listening to speeches analyzing the halachic status of the disengagement, explaining my refusal to wear any sort of wristband, and praying that Israel wouldn't have her first civil war. This year, we are all kept busy tracking Israel through the first real war in over a decade and trying to decide whether or not we would prefer it to erupt into a region-wide conflict.

Bit of a microcosm of there, the two extremes of a nation's troubles- civil war on one hand, violent conflict on the other- and at the same time, the two faces of Israel's foreign policy- concessions to win peace and war to fend off those who ignore concessions.

I suppose that could be a lovely transition into a post attacking disengagement, but I was never really into antidisengagementarianism. What strikes me about the two periods is the contrast in attitude.

Last year, I can remember only a deep sick sort of fear in my stomach. I was actually and truly terrified that this was a defining moment in Jewish history, a literal second chance at the whole sinat chinam/feuding factions thing, and I thought that we just might fail it. Hearing the news made me nauseous, to say nothing of the nastier sort of rumors and vitriol (Sharon starting the disengagement to avoid being indicted and so forth). And to make matters worse, I didn't know how I stood on the whole matter. I saw a lot with which I sympathized on both sides, and a lot that really appalled me.

Compared to that, this year is a psychological cakewalk. Good old-fashioned war, with all its clarity. No guilt, no indecision, no moral qualms. It's very odd. Last year's crisis did not end up involving any deaths, but it somehow terrified me much more than a barrage of missiles. I mean, maybe it's just because I don't actually live there, don't have to face the consequences of real war, while the moral conflict reached its fingers into my friends and community. But I think it's more than that. I have a strong, perhaps irrational, faith in Israel's ability to handle any war. Give us a target, give us something tangible to shoot at, and I'm not worried about Israel's future. Internal strife is more frightening, more elusive, something we have to fight with the less sturdy tools of propoganda, philosophy, and maturity. A war is just a war, an almost welcome chance to sort things out, while a huge protest movement is, well, a mess. It seems silly to be grateful for a war, but this year's crisis is something that I know that our nations, strong in its unity, having survived her most terrible danger, is well equipped to face.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Top Ten Reasons I am Making Aliyah

I am sick of my own unbelievable mushiness when it comes to aliya. So...these are the real reasons for the decision, aided and abetted by Mike, who is not making aliya, really.

10)Funny colored money- it feels so fake that it's fun to over-spend.
9) I heard that there are people who are going to give free drives to the Mediterranean? And I love going to the beach!
8) America is being run by a cabal of Jewish conspirators.
7) Everybody speaks English.
6) Being overdrawn isn't an embarressment, it's a national pasttime.
5) Jordanian TV
4) Well, Israel certainly needs another lawyer.
3) So much closer to the culture, excitement, and beauty of the Paris of the Middle East.
2) No extradition treaties and no death penalty (heh, heh)
1) Well, I've heard that once all the Jews get there, they can all be wiped out and Messiah can come. And who doesn't want Messiah to come? Again.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

What's our Edge?

Throughout my Western Civ class the past year- which is really a "History of Christianity" class in essence- and throughout the current ongoing war with crazy Islamists, I have been struck by the following question: "How was Judaism able to escape all this mess?" Judaism, for all of its flaws, has never really been guilty of anything approaching Jihad or Crusades, never, for all of its fundamentalism, lapsed into the hard-core evilness that seems to haunt most religions. I have actually pondered the question for a couple of days now and have attempted to compile a list of every possible answer of which I can think, in no particular order.

1) The Blessing of Weakness- Judaism has never been a dominant power, never had a chance to enforce their rule with steel. There are few things more conducive to favoring the weak than being the weak, and few things more likely to discourage oppression than inability to oppress. In fact, this could in some way be the point of Galut- keeping us from the corruption of power until we have figured out basically how to be civilized, with the advantage of being able to learn from everyone else's struggles.

2) Been there, done that- My question excludes the earliest part of Jewish history, which is pretty rife with wars and killing, because I tend to think that everyone in that time was just as bad and one could hardly expect one tribe to suddenly jump to some sort of 21st century Western morality. It would have been as impossible as it would be suicidal. But it's possible that our religion got such an early start that we got over that stage before anyone knew better. I don't particularly like this answer, but I can't articulate an exact objection.

3) Stupid Question- The question itself is based on a false premise, ignoring evils that Judaism has committed or looking at only a small slice of all of history. Of course, I don't think that this is true, but then, the objection is based on my own ignorance and is thus going to be circular and so forth.

3a)Define Evil- Or else Judaism has the advantage of defining what is "evil". Perhaps Judaism has never lapsed into evil because they get to pick what evil is. I don't buy this one either. Firstly, Judaism doesn't define evil in the Western world. Christianity does, and Christianity has done plenty of things that they and others will freely label as evil. Secondly, I think that the definitions of evil that I am using- wanton murder of innocents, for example- are pretty well acknowledged among the general population. But of course, I would be fooled by my own indoctrination, so I can't evaluate this one either.

4)Inherent Advantage- It may not be PC, but there's a definite possibility that our religion turns out less evil results because it's better. I don't think that's a complete explanation, because no religion can be so wonderful as to preclude misinterpretation, because that would eliminate free will. And, objectively, I can see tons and tons of things in the Torah and later sources that would have been excellent fuel for Jihadists, from Amalek to some of the more interesting civil wars. Thank G-d, we have never really been swept up by people pushing these interpretations, but that doesn't mean that the fuel isn't there.

5) The Jews- My brother's- Jews are "a stiff-necked nation." It would be physically impossible to get them to unite around any one goal, except for self-defense. The Jewish nation, as a united whole, lasted for 80 years (with three rebellions)- hardly enough time to start any sort of crusade.

6) Flexible Interpretation- My pet theory. A talk radio host was bullying a Muslem caller into admitting that if he was convinced that his religion really did call for killing people, he would do it. I wondered out-loud whether I wouldn't have to say the same, and then came to the conclusion that "If Jews were ever really convinced that the Torah really did call for doing something that immoral, we would find another way to interpret it." Intellectually dishonest on the surface, but it may just be the soul of Judaism. The halachic system, as it was formed or as it evolved, makes us partners in creating our moral code, which gives us the liberty to use conscience as an interpretative tool. Again, it may be cheating, but then again, I look at it this way: My moral sense and legal code are both Divine. If there seems to be a contradiction, then one or the other has to be tweaked so that they can match, just as I'd try to resolve an apparent contradiction between two p'sukim. And the law is usually a lot easier to tweak.

The reason I love the last theory so much is that I think that the halachic process and its human-centricness is the most awesomely cool thing about Judaism and I would very much like it to be our saving grace as well. But I am open for other explanations, or better arguments for any of the above.

Third Time's the Charm?

My brother has risen once more from the dead, just as we were all starting to ask ourselves whether those dry bones could ever live again. I must say, this one is definitely my favorite so far, with one excellent post already and absolutely no mention of baseball. And I feel obliged to offer it all of my best wishes since I was an instrumental part in killing his last one, by agreeing to guest post while he was in Israel and then failing to do so.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Short, Uncharitable Rant

First of all, let me apologize for the previous post. The sappiness of it overwhelmed almost before I had finished posting it, but I can't afford to delete anything that I spent precious computer time writing.

And on to the rant of the evening. I just got back from a shiur for alumnae of my high school. It was a wonderful shiur, it really was. Not boring at all, and very full of lovely, surprising pro-Israel sentiment. Trotting out all of the traditional lines- "He who lives outside of Israel, it is as if he serves idols", "Ramban says it's a mitzvah d'orayta to live in Israel", roundly criticizing Reuven and Gad for choosing wealth over living in Israel, and so on and so forth. Really, it was wonderful.

But it still rubbed me just a bit the wrong way. I'm afraid that I am sick and tired of hearing my American teachers and rabbis lecture about the holiness and necessity of living in Israel. "Yes, inspiring, wonderful, great idea. Why don't you go for it?"

Or all the people who go up to me and congratulate me on my aliya. "You're so lucky," they say. "Take me with you," they say. "I wish I could join you," they say. Well, you know what? There's no immigration quota. You want, you can spend a couple of weeks filling out paperwork and you can go too.

And yes, I know that I am being smug and unfair and self-righteous. I know that making aliya is not simple or fun, and for many it may well be unwise or impossible. I know that I spent seminary being annoyed at the people who thought that every Zionist in American was a hypocrite for not moving there. I know that there are plenty of good reasons for staying here. I know that I am only making it due to a tremendously large amount of good fortune and help from above.

But still. I mean, still. One of the main reasons that I decided to go for it was that I didn't want to spend the rest of my life being one of those people. That I would have always felt like a bit of a failure if I never made it to fulfilling something that I believe is so important. That I would not be able to stand becoming one of those people who lecture others about the paramount importance of something that you can't do. Or forever being jealous of others for being able to do something that I just could never manage.

I don't address this mainly to the people with families and untransferable jobs or anything, I mean my peers who are just starting to plan out their lives and just say that "someday they hope to make it to Israel." Someday often never happens. And I know that this is hypocritical, because until six months ago, I was saying the exact same thing- "someday", "after college", "definitely in my plans". But- if you really mean it, if you want it to happen, then you have to do it. Just go for it. Not someday, not 'I wish'. And certainly not 'It is morally mandatory. For all of you."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I was sitting on the train yesterday, feeling rather smug. And for good reason. There are few things more conducive to smugness than going from a pro-Israel rally to the Israeli consulate to submit your application for an Oleh's visa- a feeling that you alone, of all the people around you, are really supportive of Israel- you alone are really brave and idealistic and all that sort of junk. And most of all, the feeling that you alone doing something for the country- giving her the rest of your life, and so forth.

Anyway, just about the time that the wry internal editor was starting to get sardonic on the whole smugness thing, the woman behind me, who had been holding a deafening cell phone conversation behind me, shouted "It's not me that owes you! It's you that owes me!"

Thank you, Hashem. Sometimes it does not pay to be subtle, eh?

Well, but nonetheless, it's true. How dare I feel smug for moving to Israel? Do I honestly think that Israel is breathing a sigh of relief and saying, "Well, now all of our troubles are over. Tobie is on her way." Or even if we will allow that my presence may make some small positive difference to Israel, how can I imagine that this comes close to the good that Israel is doing for me?

I am not doing Israel any favors. Quite the contrary. I am giving Israel what? Some tax money, a couple of more figures for her demographics? And she is giving me...everything.

But the point of this post is not merely to act as a forum for my uninteresting personal revelations. I think that, in some sense, many of us may secretly be feeling the same smugness- attending our rallies, saying our prayers, calling our congressman. "Israel, don't worry, here we are." And our actions are, of course, commendable, and I suppose we have the right to feel good about doing them. But let's not forget for a second that Israel gives us more than we could ever give her.

As Americans, she is a friend in a truly messed-up region, one of our only real allies, and a useful canary in the mineshaft. As Jews, she is our heart, our hopes, our inspiration. She doesn't owe us anything; it's we who owe her.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Chicago Rally

Blogging real events? Instead of random sentiments? What, Tobie? But yet I feel a certain obligation to record the events of the pro-Israel rally that took place today in Chicago.

First of all, the day was swelteringly hot. Heat index of over one hundred. The organizers (Jewish Federation, I think) were surprisingly well-prepared, handing out water bottles throughout the event, although I don't know if any got to the people in the back of the crowd. My family, because we came a few minutes late, ended up getting incredibly good spots, off to the side of the podium, but right in the front, so that we could see and hear the entire event.

The rally began with the singing of HaTikva and the Star-Spangled Banner. There were a series of politicians who spoke- Congressman Mark Kirk and Judy Baar Topinka, as well as a couple of State Senators. The entire event was very frum friendly- opening with a prayer (Misheberach for Chayalim), reciting Tehillim, and with all the songs led by a male singer, no accompaniment. They also had a couple of teenagers read the names of the killed- very powerful.

The most funny thing about the whole event was the counter-rally across the street- 75 people to our 5000. (Actually, I heard that they had scheduled first and this whole event was just thrown together to counter them. But in any case, we blew them out of the water. Hands down.) They were quite a dedicated lot, but then, they were doing the more fun kind of rally- inane chants and so forth. They kept trying to counter what the speakers were saying or to drown them out. It was actually hilarious to listen to them trying to draw the speakers into some sort of debate, and just getting totally ignored. But it wouldn't really have been much of a debate, since they were given to ridiculous slogans- if a speaker mentioned the Holocaust, they shouted back "Israel is the one causing the Holocaust!" Other gems included "Get out of Lebanon!" (what?) "Racist, go home!", "Stop killing children!", and of course "What do we want? Israel out! When do we want it? Now!"

It was actually fascinating to see the contrasts between the two events. As usual, the organizers handed out Israeli and American flags as a pair; I did not see a single American flag on their side of the street. Our rally was an organized bill of speakers, cheered intermitantly; theirs was a stream of slogans. Our side cheered or shifted silently when the war in Iraq was mentioned; theirs flaunted signs "Get out of Iraq" and had a sizable delegation of Not In My Name-ers. Our side had a large cross-section of population, including a lot of children; theirs was the traditional twenty something protesters.

One other special thing about this rally was the feeling among the crowd. I've been to plenty of Israel rallies, but there was a sense of camraderie today that I don't think I've sensed before. We did not only cheer speakers, but shouted "Yeah!" and comments; we passed water around and looked out for another. The man behind us mentioned that he was going to visit Israel in two weeks, and everyone around him murmured approvingly; later, somebody next to us complimented me on my whoop (I must say, I have a marvelous whoop/scream. And I get to use it so rarely that I really do enjoy trotting it out on occasions like this.) There was a palpable sense that today we were all one, standing with Israel, making our voices heard.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

My Reaction

I normally don't post about world events because I don't have anything particularly useful, intelligent, or original to say about them. The blogsphere contains dozens of people expressing their opinions on crucial world events, and most of them are more informed and articulate than I am. With regards to the recent events in Israel, however, I think I might have something of a unique perspective.

I have the perspective of someone who is (G-d willing) making aliya in a month.

And I have a confession to make, as well. I was scared for the first time yesterday. That is, not just scared for Israel- the impartial fear that any American can and does feel- nor scared for loved ones in danger. I was scared for myself, moving to a country that seems to be on the brink of war.

My relatives have always thought that my family was insane for visiting Israel, much less sending their children to live there. One aunt or great-aunt told my mother that she was a horrible mother for putting us into that kind of danger. I'm used to floating around family gatherings, blithely spouting platitudes about how safe Israel really is (more likely to die in a car accident, etc), about how normal life really was, or, when I was feeling more self-righteous, about how I would be willing to die doing something I really believed in, about how you couldn't let fear stop you from doing what you knew was right.

Which is very easy to say when deep down, where you hide gut feelings, you aren't scared at all, because you know that very few people are killed and, furthermore, know for a fact that it won't be you. won't be. Because it's something that happens to people whom you later hear about in news reports.

And I felt the same way the whole year I spent there. I was aided by the fact that it was a pretty safe year. Terrorist attacks were infrequent and most of our political-thought time was spent on opposing the disengagement or worrying about civil war.

But sitting here now, listening to radio shows and news reports and all the thousands of blogs hashing and rehashing, debating and analyzing, worrying and reassuring, calling to action and critiquing, and going on and on and on...

I wish that I were there. I wish that I were already there, where I could walk outside and see how normal my life was, where I could take buses and watch the people milling about their daily lives. Where my fear would be the fear of every single one of my neighbors, and I could join them in facing it, shrugging it off, and moving on. Where I could bury my face against a building and remember that it was all worth it.

But this... it's like sitting outside an operating room. You don't know what's going on or how things are going, but every few minutes a couple of doctors come out and give hair-raising, conflicting, and vague descriptions of a loved one's surgery. And then twenty or thirty strangers sitting around you begin to analyze what that means and what will happen, and to critique the doctors' techniques, worrying that they might cause further harm. And you sit there, suddenly scared, and want to just push open the doors and come inside and sit beside the operating table, so that you'd be able to watch and be there as it happens. And maybe even help.

When I decided to make aliya, I had a very definite picture of the country I was choosing. And, to be honest, my decision wasn't particularly heroic. I knew what I was getting, and it wasn't a very scary place. But now it is. Not that I think that I am likely to be killed or anything like that, but living in a war zone is a tense, unpleasant sort of experience and it wasn't quite what I had thought I was bargaining for.

But in a way, I'm sort of glad that the fear finally managed to get through. Because it gives me a chance to test all those platitudes that I have so often mouthed. And it turns out that they seem to be true. Because I still can't wait to get there.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

My Fourth

(Mike suggested that I not post this until after the Fourth of July was over, and then enforced his suggestion by refusing to let me use the computer all day.)

There is nothing quite like celebrating the Fourth of July as a soon-to-be emigrant. It makes you feel like a bit of a fake. Explaining the meaning of the holiday to my nephews, waving a flag at the people who march by in the parade, even ranting about the little girl who for some incomprehensible reason is wearing a shirt with a blinking Union Jack on it- the zest for all of them feels a bit ashy in the mouth when you realize that in a month, you'll be leaving the country for another.

Of course, it wouldn't be so bad if the only thing going were a religious question. But I'm not just going to Israel because I happen to think that it's obligatory. I'm like one of those stupid, ridiculous heroines who is being courted by a sturdy, reliable, responsible, wealthy, and all-around suitable gentleman, but nonetheless gives her heart to the handsome, though impecunious, poet, leaving the more worthy suitor with only a warm, sororital feeling

I love Israel. I love it intestinally and automatically, with a native's wry fondness for its foibles. I love it irrationally and irrevocably, so that even after a year, I would stop sometimes in the streets and feel its liquid air purr into my lungs.

And as for America? I'm proud of it. I think that it is quite possibly the greatest nation on earth. It is certainly the best governed and has championed some of the most noble causes. I am grateful to G-d for giving it to us and to America for existing. But when I see the flag, I feel none of the sudden tightness in my stomach or foolish fondness; I curtsey to it politely and tell it that I am most grateful, sir, for your attentions, then disengage my hand and slip away. I would never think to kiss its dirt, or cry when I spot it through an airplane window. Even were it to retain my citizenship, my taxes, my support and participation, I don't think that I would ever fall in love. And now, on a completely different note, but far too good to pass up the opportunity to quote one of my favorite comedy sketches, a clip from Bits of Fry and Laurie, a British comedy team: