Friday, February 24, 2006


I was just listening to the Newsies soundtrack. Boy, do I love that movie. And the funniest thing about it is that I am a frothing-at-the-mouth capitalist. Not that forming a union isn't a perfectly legitimate capitalistic undertaking, but still.

The thing that really got me, listening to the songs, was the feeling of unity. (See here for examples.) Here we are, we have a cause, and we are united behind it. It made me...this sounds silly, but jealous. I don't think that I've ever been part of a cause to that degree, that I can shout its slogans in one voice with one hundred others, that I feel that I am selflessly working towards the greater cause, hand in hand with those who share my dreams. I felt a strange longing for a chance to make great sacrifices for a great cause, to fight with a wave of fellows for a greater something.

I remember, quite clearly actually, the last time that I still had this wistfulness. A friend was describing what it was like at the massive disengagement rallies- the ones where families would camp out, waiting to get into Gush Katif. She talked about the announcements over the loudspeakers, the shiurim here and there, but more than anything else, the feeling of fighting together, of strangers bursting into song together, and as I listened, I suddenly thought, "That must be what it felt like to protest Vietnam" and then I wondered "Will I ever have the chance to be part of a cause?" And in that moment, I wished that I agreed with their cause, just so that I would have the chance to join it.

And this is a wonderous and terrifying thing. This desire- this strange mixture of the drives towards conformity, nobility, aggression, heroism- has feuled, I think, just about every cause and ism in the world. Every ism. Not just the ones that we know are evil and dangerous, but also ones like patriotism and liberalism and probably even humanism. The spirit that feuled revolutions and civil rights protests, that motivated terrorists and soldiers, Resistance fighters and union workers.

I tend to distrust this impulse. When my seminary pushed going to disengagement rallies, I remember saying to a friend that I couldn't go because it would make me feel like a Nazi Youth. (Oh, dear, I think I just Godwin-ed. Sorry) Not that I think that the cause is evil or that it was supported only by those swept by its tides, but because I knew that I did not know if I believed in the cause, and could not risk ceding my conscience to the masses. It's even possible that I was not against disengagement precisely because it was popular. I wouldn't put it past me.

It is for this reason that I don't think that I shall ever be part of a cause, in the sweeping,
anthem-singing sense of the word. Even when I back a cause, I have a natual impulse to question it, to stand outside of myself and watch me, to devil's advocate and to wonder.

And in some ways, this makes me sad. It's all well and good to stand against the tide, and I think that it is my moral duty. But there is still something that feels very basic in my emotions that makes me wish that I could, just once, sing in properly choreographed, joyously unanimous, endlessly defiant Newsies fashion.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Authors and Suicide

In English, we are currently reading a book called No Longer Human (I can never remember these literary conventions- ought I to underline that instead? Whatever.) that protaganist of which is a severely messed-up, depressed, guilt-ridden young man. Nor does he snap out of it at any point. The book ends with his being committed to a mental institution and then let out, to mope some more about his miserableness. Fine.
Our prof informed us that the book was largely autobiographical and that the author himself had attempted suicide three times, and then finally succeeded in hanging himself from a bridge with his lover. He spoke about the reverence that the Japanese still have for the author, going to visit the river over which he hung himself on the aniversary of his death and having all sorts of tributes.
I discovered that upon hearing all this, my respect for the author and for the book plummeted abruptly. At first I felt rather guilty, like I ought to be judging the book solely on its merits irrelevant of the author's personal junk.
But on further reflection, I think that this attitude is entirely valid. Here's why. A book is not simply a story, it is also a trip into the author's mind, values, and way of viewing the world. By reading a book, I am trying to learn about new and hopefully better ways to see adn think about certain things.
In my view, a suicide is a defeat. Not that every person who commits suicide is a rotten person or a failure, but that suicide itself means that you have failed the greatest challenge out there, the challenge of coping with the world. If this suicide was a result of your particular philosophy, I would label the philosophy a failure as well, because it did not pass the ultimate test of being able to arbitrate between the world and the philosopher.
So why shouldn't I have less respect for a book when the ideas behind it just plain didn't work? When the author looked at reality in a certain way and his way wasn't good enough for him to be able to deal with the world. Reading a book of a mindset that leads to a suicide is like learning the tactics that lost the battle- useful only to learn another way that does not do the job.

And sometimes there is simply nothing to say...

I came upon this story from a flyer on campus and checked out the website during lunch. Since that time, I have been trying to formulate a rant, but find myself oddly at a loss. To say that I am disgusted, appalled, unsurprised, horrified, frustrated, and seething with anger is to resort to easy and insufficient cliches.
But....I eagerly await the day that someone, anyone out there will learn that "Nazi" is not a synonym for "anything I don't like." Using it as such is an insult to six million murdered Jews, a shameless commandeering of emotionally loaded terms, and a perversion and ignorance of the basic concepts of good and evil.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Today, I came across the blog of somebody I know. It was the most odd experience of my life, especially since it contained things that I know she would never say to me. It felt like spying or reading her diary, but it was something that she had chosen to post for the entire world to read.

My blog is rather like that as well. Not half as searingly personal, perhaps, but... in person, I don't talk about many of these things. I don't show anyone my writing, I don't talk about my feelings, I don't rant about how sad I am feeling today. Mostly because I consider it pretty pathetic. Partially because it's not my persona. (These very sentences I wouldn't tell to people in person) But I post them on my blog, even though I know for a fact that this blog is read by people I know.

I think it's the impersonal touch. How can you be embarrassed of just typing your thoughts into a screen? It's like a diary, and nobody is so pathetic as to lie to their diary.
And there's also a confessional aspect going. Type your fears, your hopes, your worries, and some anonymous strangers may come along and validate them. It's like a universal bartender- a place to pour out all your troubles, and get a sympathetic ear. Not much judging, maybe not even much caring. But when you're done, there are all your thoughts, out there on the internet. It makes them real, concrete. It's like catharasis.

Not that I use the blog for this much. My current biggest life dilemma has not made it onto my blog and is not going to make it probably until I've gotten it figured out. (If you know what I'm talking about, you're right. If you don't, don't guess. You're not going to be able to.) I rarely succumb to venting my real thoughts- does that make this blog less honest or simply less personal? And who cares? Is there some duty out there to tell your blog everything, as if it matters?

Perhaps I would be more honest with the blog if I knew for a fact that nobody reading it could know who I am. This is not currently the case, and perhaps it is better this way. If I wanted to keep a diary, I am perfectly capable of doing so. I don't and so I don't. A blog is not a diary, I think, but I am still not entirely certain what it is. I am probably over-analyzing the whole thing.

Colonialistic Guilt

One of the most puzzling aspects of the whole Danish cartoon scandal is the degree to which liberal Western papers and thinkers have always judged and continue to judge radical Moslems by a different standard than everyone else. To be blunt, a large number of crimes, atrocities, and statements made by Moslems are simply given a pass- excused or ignored, where the same action would earn a Westerner contempt and outrage.

I blame this cultural sensitivity gone mad. Since the Moslems have a different culture, the West has almost a pathological fear of imposing our cultural standards upon them. It's like they're constantly doing penance for colonialism by treating any other culture with kid gloves. Example- if Israel would dare to pass a law restricting, say, the rights of women, every liberal, free-thinking paper would be tearing them to bits in twenty minutes. Why? Because Israel is regarded as a Western-style country, and therefore can be help up to whatever you choose to think are Western-style ideals. But dare to suggest that certain Moslem countries are being hard on women, and all of a sudden you're forcing Judeo-Christian standards on people of another culture.

Me, this paradox isn't my problem. I have no problem with saying that there are absolute standards of morality that people have to meet, no matter whether their cultural acknowledges these or not. But it's a fascinating thing to watch broad-minded humanists tap-dance around their liberal ideals on one hand and their horror of Colonialistic behavior on the other.

(Obligatory disclaimer- this is being written in a rush, between bouts of attacking a major paper due in less than a week. So if it's disjointed, incoherent, or stupid, blame it on the sleep deprivation. It made sense in my head, at least.)

Be All Our Sins Remembered

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the David Irving story. On one hand, I can't say I'm crazy about the idea of Holocaust denial being a crime. A sin, yes, absolutely, but making it illegal seems to me to be iffy free-speechwise, and also given to a lot of slipperiness. If the US did it, I am certain that I would be outraged.
But, on another level, I like the idea of Austria making it a crime. I like the idea that they refuse to let anyone mitigate their guilt, that they demand to stand forever, self-accused and self-confessed. There is a Talmudic quote, somewhere or other, that says that one who remembers his sins constantly has his sins forgotten by heaven. For a Jew to say Never Again is a defiance, a promise, a prayer. For Austria to say the same is a confession, a supremely moral act of repentance.
And so, free speech notwithstanding, I must salute the strength that it takes for Austria to say, "No. We have sinned. We shall not let it be hidden or denied. We shall not let it be forgotten."

Sunday, February 19, 2006

My Zionism

While wandering the internet today, I came across this picture of the Israeli cabinet. I was suddenly overcome by a wave of nostalgia and longing- not for the cabinet, which looks like any other executive meeting ever, but because of the little water blue water bottles with red caps at every seat. Probably, I will admit, the silliest wave of nostalgia with which I have ever been hit, but there you go. And then I wondered- when did this happen?
My first trip to Israel was in 11th grade, but I was Zionistic long before that. My Zionism, however, fell into two main categories: 1) A theological and intellectual conclusion that living in Israel was the halachically best practice; a decision, in other words, that I ought to be a Zionist, based on my philosophy and 2) to be perfectly honest, probably some rebellion since my high sc
hool was vehemently anti-Zionistic (to be fair, they would probably describe it as 'non-Zionistic')
So, in any case, I had high hopes for my first trip to Israel. On some not entirely subconscious level, I was planning to make myself love it, so that my theology and feelings would match. Nothing really came of it. The trip was nice and I enjoyed it, but there was no visceral feeling there.
High school progressed. I decided to go to seminary for a year, although I had originally planned not to, and on the seminary applications, I wrote that one of my goals was to move to Israel. Meanwhile, my older sister transferred from Stern College to a college in Israel and made aliya. I admired her, but could not bring myself to the same commitment.
But...over the course of that year, I came to love Israel. To love it senselessly and instinctively. I can't say that this was entirely natural- to the extent that one can decide to have feelings, I decided that I would love it. And Israel helped me- stunned me with its beauty, charmed me with its Jewishness, awed me with its holiness. And my seminary helped me- not with its clumsy "Make Aliya" shabbatonim (yes, they had those. I do not exaggerate) and its classes on the commandment of living in Israel (of which I was already convinced), but with the excitement of the other girls and with the trips across the country.
And then I went home, worrying that the feelings had been only a fluke, that I would soon lapse into happiness in my settings. And to a large degree, I did. One of my besetting faults is that I find myself happy in any context, given enough time to adjust to it, which makes me prone to inertia. But...there was still a closeness that I had not had before, a bit of the instinctive love.
And then I went back to Israel for winter break. I was not on any structured program, and I spent the days wandering the streets of Israel or sitting in the Beit Medrash of my seminary, learning Gemara. I toured little, went to few of 'the sites', had no Zionism preached at me. It was probably the most wonderful two weeks of my life and it left me with a profound longing, so that the sight of red bottle caps makes me wistful, and the wistfulness gives me hope- hope that I will make it back home someday.


A friend told me on Shabbat that one philosopher- I think it was Wittgenstein shattered the category theory of language by pointing to the word game. There is no trait, he argued, that all things defined by that word share; instead, they form a general family of meanings, with certain traits running through some of them, which in turn share traits with others, etc.

I think that an equally good example of this is poetry. What is poetry, exactly? Can you come up with a definition that includes both limericks and free-verse, Shel Silverstein and e.e. cummings, Shakespeare and Mother Goose? One definition that I have heard of poetry is that it contains layers of meaning beneath the literal. Bah. How, exactly, does the parsha poem that my high school passed around every Friday
("In this parsha, we have the flood/ Where Hashem turned all the land to mud"- not an actual quote, if only because it has a meter) contain more layers of deepness than Dosteovsky?

The inspiration for this musing is a certain...piece of my own. In the beginning, I called it a poem- it had a very strong meter, no rhymes, and was written in stanzas. Somehow, during the editing and re-writing process, it metamorphized into a story with a lot of cadence, written in paragraphs. In neither form does it rely solely on full sentences, and in neither form is the cadence perfect. (This was intentional- the mood of the...whatever-it-is was a bit too confused and unhappy for it to be perfect iambic.) It hasn't really got much in terms of metaphors or symbolism, I suppose, but it certainly is meant to create a mood through its use of images. So...which is it, really? Poem or prose?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Being a Good Sport.

I have a bad voice. Between having a tiny vocal range and being rather tone deaf, I cannot carry a tune, as they say, in a bucket. I will be the first to admit this. In fact, I am the first to admit it, and I frequently make jokes about it.
This Friday night, I was singing some song to myself. A friend turned to me and said, "Wow, that is totally off-key. You know, you make me off-key sometimes, have you noticed?"
I smiled a little sheepishly and shrugged and we kept walking. I stopped singing.
This friend is a kind, sweet person, and I do not think that she would turn to anyone and tell them that they are fat, or ugly. I do not think she would turn to people in general and tell them that they are off-key. But I have it a habit- no, I have made a constant effort- to be a good sport. To joke about my flaws. To laugh when other people joke about them. To pretend that I don't actually care that my voice is bad.'s a newsflash, world. I do care. I love singing and I wish that my voice was not painful to my ears and to others. I wish that I could lose myself in beautiful music. I wish, because I am not a saint, that other people would like my voice and compliment me on it. I wish that I was perfect. I wish that I could sing as loudly as I want, and not have to keep my voice down so it won't ruin the music for everyone else.
And when I joke about my voice, that doesn't mean that I don't care about it. It means that I am being honest with myself, that I am telling myself that it's not the most important thing in the world, that I am working on my modesty, that I am indicating thatI don't take myself overly seriously, that I'm demonstratng that I am aware of my flaws, that I'm telling the world that I am someone who can laugh at myself, that I'm being funny, that I'm hoping, a little subconsciously, to have someone say, 'No, your voice is fine'....In other words, doing a whole bunch of things, of which not caring is not one. (Sorry 'bout the double negatives...)
And so if you make a joke about my voice, I will probably grin with you. But that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt. Not that I am offended- I made a committment several years ago not to be insulted, and I am keeping it middlingly well. hurts.
And I know it may not be fair to expect my friends to realize this. If I am intent on hiding this from them, and from myself, how should they be expected to guess it?
But...just a word of wisdom, people. No one likes casual comments about their flaws. No one. No matter how much they may joke about, or pretend they don't care. No matter how much of a good sport they try to be.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Orientation Week Poem

So....I decided to try and post something I've written and see how I like it. Just a disclaimer- I am not lonesome or depressed. The poem was written by the beginning of the year, when I was feeling just a bit overwhelmed. And, incidentally, I was trying out a new style, which I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about.

Day fades into day
Like rain on a windowpane.
And sound slips in
to die upon the floor.

And someday this all will be my normal,
And time will have passed
like a movie flipping months.

And this will all be once and remember when.

Taking my pulse too often,
And caring too much.
Multiplying every moment by forever
And trying not to wonder when it all will change


To be a proper intellectual, one has to be into all those deep sort of questions- 'what is truth?' 'how do we know that we really exist?', etc ad infinitum.
I find that I simply do not have the patience for this sort of thing. I was talking to a friend a couple of days ago about Des Cartes and we got into the whole 'How do we know that we exist question?' Or at least started to. But my general feeling was, "Okay, whatever I've got sure feels like existance to me. Let's say, theoretically, it isn't. So what?" And that's where I run into trouble- with that persistant, annoying little so what. Let's say that all of our perceptions of everything are different- that what I see as blue, you see as red. So what? If I say 'pass me that blue book', you'll know which one I'm talking about, right? And I'll end up with the book that I wanted, right? So what's the problem? And if I describe something as blue, it'll have all the same sky/water/bluebirds connections in your head as it does in mine. So who cares?
I think that this is why I'm a geek and not an intellectual.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


I've long been conflicted about whether to post my writing on my blog. Not my light writing- something like the Lorax I can show to anyone, anytime. This is because I'm not particularly attached to it. It's something fun to write, it's nothing. But there are also things that are a little more... literary.
I'm tempted to post this stuff because it might make for a more interesting blog, because it'd be interesting to see how it's reacted to, and because...because my blog ought to be everything that pops into my head, and my writing is part of that.
The reason I'm reluctant to post is that I have an almost morbid reticence about showing my writing to anyone. Not because it's so deep and searing and reveals parts of myself that I am reluctant to show. But...but I'm not sure why. I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that when I was younger and stupider (around 10) I thought that I could write poetry. Heck, I thought that I could write just about anything and the results were always clever and brilliant and so forth. Just the memory is like chalk on the blackboard of my soul. I recall one poem with the timeless line, "Sunrise, sunset, caught in time's endless net." There was another talking about the seasons as if they were people and thinking it was clever to be doing so.
Someday, I'm almost certainly going to look back on anything that I write now with as much chagrin as I look at these fourth-grade efforts. I hope that I do, because it will mean that I have improved. But to expose them in the meantime to other people's eyes...people with real taste...people who will know all of the pretentions that I inflict upon my's a frightening thought.

Jewish Bonding

Do you know what I love about Jews? The instinct that they have whenever they see another Jew in a non-Jewish setting, to make sure that the other Jew knows they're there. You know what I mean. Seeing someone with a kippa in the college library and pointedly take out a siddur or something. Talking loudly in yeshivish when you're standing near other Jews at an amusement park. The story I read in Tales Out of Shul (I believe) where a little girl shouts to her mother "what time is candling lighting?" on a Wednesday, just because she's seen another Jew enter the super-market.
And apparently the instinct is not unique to the religious. A girl in my Civ class always likes to bring in Old Testament quotes, and then shoot me a look beneath her eyelids as if to say, "You and me, kid. We know." The girl does not appear to be religious, has never once come to Hillel, and has no connection to me outside of class.
I had a wonderful example of this yesterday. I was sitting in the college guidance hallway, waiting for my instructor to show up for the mandatory meeting. Being around a week behind on my daf (wow, that's embarrassing to admit), I took out my pocket sized gemara and started to catch up. After a couple of minutes, I looked up to see a white-haired professorial type (no kippa) standing over me. "You know," he said, "you ought to get one of those magnifying glasses if you're going to be studying Talmud. It's not good for your eyes." "Yeah," I said, grinning imbecilically, "It's just that these are so convenient." "But still, you have to take care of your eyes. Especially if you're going to be reading Rashi." "Yes, I do Rashi," I said, repeating it as if it were a code word- 'The Mackeral hunts at midnight' 'Very good. You are one of Us.'
Did he feel the need to tell me about magnifying glasses? Did I care about his comments about them? No. Of course not. It was just the old Jewish bonding instinct recognizing its own in the college hallways.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What is it with Cigarettes?

My favorite line from anything that a certain friend has written is her ending for a story that consists almost entirely of a dialogue between two soldiers. At the end of the story, they discover that another friend, who they thought was sleeping in the trench, is actually dead. The line: "And then it was morning and they could see and so it was not so bad, and Werner asked Fredrich if he had any cigarettes."
Whatever. You may or may not like the line, and anyway, I think that I am quoting it worse than it was. The point that I am trying to make is that the line would not have worked with anything other than cigarettes. Try it. Try reading any other word there and it just flops. Cigarettes has the cadence, the aura, the context, the je ne sais qua. It just works.
And this isn't the only place. I find that when I'm writing stories, cigarettes always work themselves into it. For no particular reason. Example, the context of which is way too confusing to give: "The train stops for twenty minutes at a station, and he goes off and buys some cigarettes." or " lean against a red-brick wall and try to read his future in the swirling clouds of cigarette smoke." (Not from the same story.) Or take Simon and Garfunkel's "Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat. We smoked the last one an hour ago."
Don't get me wrong. I think that cigarettes are foul-smelling cancer-sticks. I would never think to smoke one and I think that anyone who does is dangerously unwise. I don't even think they look particularly cool. But something about the word...especially when you're trying to write about anything from the twenties through the just works. Don't know why, don't know how.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Fun with Aggadata

I used to always skip the aggada bits of the Talmud. Or at least read it through very, very quickly. After all, it wasn't halacha. But that is just silliness. For sheer meaning-packed, ambiguous, literary, intellectual, confusing, inconclusive joy, you cannot beat a good Talmudic story. Take, for example, the following text from Avoda Zara, 18a:
(Text from here . English from here. Italics are my comments.)
תנו רבנן כשחלה רבי יוסי בן קיסמא הלך רבי חנינא בן תרדיון לבקרו
The rabbis taught: When R. Jose b. Kisma became sick, R. Hanina b. Tradian called on him; Visiting sick beds is a surprisingly common setting for Talmudic stories. Perhaps because it is a forum where Sages can meet in a context that is not officially halachic?
אמר לו חנינא אחי <אחי> אי אתה יודע שאומה זו מן השמים המליכוה שהחריבה את ביתו ושרפה את היכלו והרגה את חסידיו ואבדה את טוביו ועדיין היא קיימת ואני שמעתי עליך שאתה יושב ועוסק בתורה [ומקהיל קהלות ברבים] וספר מונח לך בחיקך
the former said to him: Hanina, my brother, are you not aware that this nation is reigning by heavenly decree, and notwithstanding that she has destroyed the Temple, burned the palaces, killed the pious and put out of the way all the best of Israel, she is still in force. About you, however, I heard that notwithstanding the decree of the government, you occupy yourself with the Torah publicly, and you bear with you the Holy Scrolls at all time.
אמר לו מן השמים ירחמו אמר לו אני אומר לך דברים של טעם ואתה אומר לי מן השמים ירחמו תמה אני אם לא ישרפו אותך
ואת ספר תורה באש
Hanina then answered: The heavens shall have mercy with us. Exclaimed Jose: I am relating to you reasons, and you say, the heavens shall have mercy. I wonder whether the government will not burn you with the Holy Scrolls on fire? (I'd prefer a translation that conveys a bit more of the indignation- "I'm talking logic and you say 'the heavens will have mercy'?! I wouldn't be surprised if they burn you and the torah with you!" )
Thus far, the Talmud has presented us with the basic debate of Moderates and Zealots. Interestingly, it presents it quite like a debate between pragmatists and idealists- R' Yossi says that one ought to look at reality and evaluate risks sensibly. R' Chanina's reply can either be interpreted as brushing him off, or as a firm idealistic conviction that G-d is on his side, and so nothing can happen to him. Also interesting the way that they trade Divine Providence views- R' Yossi judging it from history, R' Chanina projecting his philosophy into the future.
And which view does the Talmud take? Well, there it's beautifully vague. On one hand, the argument is pretty similar to one that R' Akiva had with Pappus. In that case, R' Akiva is distinctly allowed the last word, and the Moderate's argument is put in the mouth of a disbeliever. Here, on the other hand, it's being said by one of the great Tannaim, whose dire predictions, in this case, turn out to be prescient. On the other other hand, when that time comes, R' Chanina doesn't seem particularly non-plussed.

אמר לו רבי מה אני לחיי העולם הבא אמר לו כלום מעשה בא לידך אמר לו מעות של פורים נתחלפו לי במעות של צדקה וחלקתים לעניים אמר לו אם כן מחלקך יהי חלקי ומגורלך יהי גורלי
Hanina then said: Rabbi, what will become of me in the world to come? And Jose asked him: Did not some of the meritorious acts come to your hand? And he answered: The money which I prepared to celebrate Purim, I erred, thinking that it was of the charity treasury; I have distributed it to the poor, and thereafter I have not collected from the charity. If so, answered Jose, I wish that my share should be like yours, and my fate similar.
Besides being a whole halachic mess of its own, this passage seems like a total tangent. Does the fact that R' Chanina fears for his world to come and relies on his miztvot rather than his learning give us any answers as to whether he is right in risking his life. And what does this particular mitzva have to do with anything? An example of self-sacrifice? I feel as if there might be something there with Purim specifically, as relating to foreign oppressors, etc, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Also, ironic structuring with the one not on his death bed worrying about his world to come- as compared to the many stories out there with the dying man asking for reassurance that he will merit it. Foreshadowing that R' Chanina is also going to die pretty soon? Or perhaps he's agreeing with R' Yossi's predictions and accepting upon himself the status of someone about to die? And what about this last line? Is R' Yossi's statement admiration for the good deed, or ceding some other point in the argument?

אמרו לא היו ימים מועטים עד שנפטר רבי יוסי בן קיסמא והלכו כל גדולי רומי לקברו והספידוהו הספד גדול ובחזרתן מצאוהו לרבי חנינא בן תרדיון שהיה יושב ועוסק בתורה ומקהיל קהלות ברבים וס"ת מונח לו בחיקו הביאוהו וכרכוהו בס"ת והקיפוהו בחבילי זמורות והציתו בהן את האור והביאו ספוגין של צמר ושראום במים והניחום על לבו כדי שלא תצא נשמתו מהרה
It was said that a few days later R. Jose ben Kisma departed, and all the great men of Rome were going after his coffin, lamenting him greatly. On their return, they found Hanina b. Tradian studying the Torah publicly with the Holy Scrolls in his bosom; he was enwrapped in the Holy Scrolls and surrounded with branches of trees, which were kindled. And two woollen towels, soaked in water, were placed on his heart that his soul might not depart so quickly,
Definitely something intentional going on by juxtaposing the two deaths, but not really giving anything conclusive towards taking sides. Yes, we have R' Yossi's prediction fulfilled completely, but he also ends up dead. With all the Romans attending his funeral- is this meant to be a good thing or a bad thing? Note that R' Chanina didn't attend the funeral, although he seems to have respected R' Yossi. Maybe the funeral got entirely co-opted by the Romans, which could be seen as an ironic result of R' Yossi's being so loyal to them- he becomes 'theirs' and no longer the Jews'.
אמרה לו בתו אבא אראך בכך אמר לה אילמלי אני נשרפתי לבדי היה הדבר קשה לי עכשיו שאני נשרף וס"ת עמי מי שמבקש עלבונה של ס"ת הוא יבקש עלבוני אמרו לו תלמידיו רבי מה אתה רואה אמר להן גליון נשרפין ואותיות פורחות
And when his daughter said to him: Father, is it just, what I see done with you? He answered: If I were burned alone, it would be hard for me, but now that I am burned in conjunction with the Holy Scrolls, I am sure that He who will take revenge for the Holy Scrolls will take revenge for me also. His disciples questioned him: What do you see now? And he answered: I see the letters are flying away from the parchment while they burned.
Why is one of the questions from the daughter and one from the students? The daughter reacting more emotionally and the students trying to get the last bits of inspiration. What kind of a question is "what do you see?" anyway? Actually, both questions can be seen as the shattered idealists looking to have this cruel reality explained to them- how can this be? The daughter's question- does this disprove the ideals? The answer can be read- How can you say that this disproves anything if it's happening to the Torah itself as well? Obviously, being destroyed doesn't prove that you're in the wrong. And the students' question "What about the future? Is this the end of the hope? And the answer is that the parchment may burn, but the letters fly away and escape.
אף אתה פתח פיך ותכנס [בך] האש אמר להן מוטב שיטלנה מי שנתנה ואל יחבל הוא בעצמו אמר לו קלצטונירי רבי אם אני מרבה בשלהבת ונוטל ספוגין של צמר מעל לבך אתה מביאני לחיי העולם הבא אמר לו הן השבע לי נשבע לו מיד הרבה בשלהבת ונטל ספוגין של צמר מעל לבו יצאה נשמתו במהרה אף הוא קפץ ונפל לתוך האור יצאה בת קול ואמרה רבי חנינא בן תרדיון וקלצטונירי מזומנין הן לחיי העולם הבא בכה רבי ואמר יש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת ויש קונה עולמו בכמה שנים
They said to him: Rabbi, open your mouth, so that the fire should catch you, (better translation "you too, open your mouth that the fire may enter you") and he answered: It is better that my soul be taken by Him who gave it and not I myself shall cause it an earlier death. The executioner then said to him: Rabbi, if I will increase this fire and will take off the woollen towels from your heart, would you bring me to life in the world to come? To which he answered, Yea. He then asked him to swear, which he did. Immediately he increased the fire, took off the towels, and his soul departed. The executioner himself then jumped into the fire. A heavenly voice was then heard: Hanina and the executioner are prepared for life in the world to come. Rabbi then wept, saying: There is one again who bought his world in one moment, etc.
What's the you too? Continuing from the previous answer about the parchment- if the parchment burning doesn't matter, than why don't you die as well? The answer- because it's not for me to decide.
And then we get into lovely ambiguities about suicide. Three main statements- 1)R' Chanina won't hasten his own death. 2) He encourages the executioner to speed things up and promises him heaven for assisting in his 'suicide' and 3) The executioner kills himself and earns his world to come. Distinction between active suicide and removing obstacles for death? And what exactly is the deal with non-Jews and suicide?
Also- if the executioner has switched sides, why doesn't he try to save R' Chanina's life? Can we presume that all of the other Roman officials are there watching the whole thing? In which case, the executioner is probably about to be killed rather nastily in a moment or so. And just to confound the whole issue, the text writes the suicide literally as "he jumped and fell into the fire", very deliberately clouding the issue of whether it was suicide. Not about to give us any answers there.
Another point- notice theme of acheiving world to come- R' Chanina asks how he can get it, and decides that it lies in one small charitable act. The executioner gets it in one massive self sacrifice, making Rebbi weep and reflect that for some it takes a moment and for some a life-time. Definite theme going there.
And here's another fascinating thing about the whole story. When R' Chanina was killed, his wife was killed as well and one daughter was forcibly put into a brothel. This could have been the daughter who asked the question- looking for something to fortify her- but that also could have been...Bruria. Yeah, Bruria. Adds a whole new perspective to the whole thing? And note the suicide tie-in. And what if she was the one to ask the question? Does that change anything about her story? Does this help us understand why she was unable to cope with moral failure? I have no idea...

Which just illustrates once again the joy that can be gotten out of really reading something- with as much literary analysis as you can throw at it.

Tu B'Shvat

Happy Tu B'Shvat, I suppose.
There was a Tu B'Shvat seder on campus yesterday, but I decided not to go because it is rude to giggle hysterically throughout events that someone has painstakingly planned. Which, as it so happens, was just what happened at my seminary's Tu B'Shvat Seder last year and my shul's Seder two years ago. I just can't help it.
Tu B'Shvat is, fundamentally, a holiday with no significance whatsoever. It is mentioned, if I am not mistaken, exactly once in the Talmud, has no commandments associated with it, and is basically the equivolent of the halachic first day of spring. The only distinction that it can possibly claim is that you don't say tachanun (on a Monday! Yay!), but that applies equally to days like Purim Kattan and The Day that Some Rebbe Got Out of Jail. And it apparently doesn't rate high enough to avoid Lamnatzeiach before Uva L'Tzion. But I digress.
What then, is the source of its perplexing popularity? I mean, a seder? Some might point to the kabbalistic background, but I know few kabbalists and many, many Tu B'Shvat celebrators.
I blame it on environmentalists. Tu B'Shvat is a chance, as someone at the Hillel said, "To be Jewish and hippie." And who wouldn't welcome a religiously mandated occasion to hug a tree? And to simultaneously demonstrate to the world just how hip and ecologically aware Judaism can be.
But it's not the mushy-gushy tree-hugging liberalism that annoys me. Tree-hugging is all very well, for those that enjoy it. They should live and be well. But did they need to co-opt an innocent holiday and invent for it an odd, ritualistic, pseudo-religious ecological ceremony? I think that my memory will be forever scarred by the image of the people at my shul- normal, sane, rational people- carefully pouring for themselves cups of half white and half red wine, to symbolize the infusion of spring. Or solemnly singing a song about apple trees.
Some might say the same of any Jewish ritual. Which is exactly my point. In my view of Judaism, rituals matter. Rituals have divine significance beyond the surface understanding, are commanded by G-d, and bring us closer to Him by performing His will. How dare a bunch of environmentalists think that they can make up a seder? How dare they try to make their verses about nuts and trees the equivolent of ceremonies written by the Sages? Saying that we can write a Tu B'Shvat seder says that all of our other practices have no meanings but the ones that we can readily replicate with our humanist little interpretations. I happen to believe that commandments are far more than that, that reducing mitzvot to the level of poems about nature is an insult to them and to ourselves.
So go out and hug your trees, if you like. But kindly do not devalue my religion by making your ceremonies part of it.

Friday, February 10, 2006


Talking to a friend about Amona. The whole thing makes me sick and terrified at heart. Not only that Israeli police would brutalize citizens, which is in itself appalling, but this as the latest blow to religious Zionism as a movement. How long can it go on, when it finds itself so alienated from the government that it pledges itself to support? And even more so, how long can it last as a...(to be biased)- a sane movement? A lot of my fears, I expressed in my post during the heat of the disengagement. Thank G-d, the nathion and the movement managed to survive that, and I had begun to hope that they had recovered, come back. And then Amona.
It scares me, it really does. As E-Kvetcher discusses in his Fox/Hedgehogs posts, raw idealism is one of the most frightening forces in the world. It is also one of the most beautiful. It is at the same time heart-breakingly innocent and entirely merciless. You can't argue with people who think that they know G-d's will, and you can't ask them to be moderate. You can try to show them that they are mistaken, and you can try to convince them that their means aren't the most efficient. But why should they believe you? I don't want to make this analogy- it makes me sick to make this analogy- but they have the same hard, cold-eyed, fiery, irrevocable certainty as the Moslem extremists. Thank G-d, the beliefs that they hold so certainly are not a tenth as despicable, but they are as firmly held. And to make things worse, I hold many of the same ideals, feel much of the same passion, long for much of the same things.
And then-and this is the really sneaky thing- even this terror of certainty hoists us on our own pitard. If we are to be open-minded, must we not ask ourselves, like Chamberlain in Killer Angels (20 points if you get the reference)- it forces you to ask, "What if I am wrong?" What if my own faith in uncertainty is false, and these idealists have caught the truth? What if theirs is G-d's cause, and I, in my stupid open-minded doubtfulness, am missing it? What if I am not wiser, but more cowardly?
I don't believe this. I cannot believe it. But I must entertain the doubt.
I don't have answers for this. I can only hold to what I think is right, and pray, and worry about the future of the idealists.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Avoision and the Shabbos Goy

While reading Ill Gotten Gains, a book by Leo Katz about financial legal conundrums (almost as much fun as the one he wrote on criminal law), I was intrigued by his discussion of the Shabbos Goy. He brought it up as part of the more general question of what is legal avoidance and what is illegal evasion, citing the Shabbos Goy as one example of people making this distinction in areas beyond the pall of financial law. His analysis of the whole problem was fascinating and I am not doing it enough justice by this two second summary, but he basically said that there are two schools of thought with regard to avoision (the term used for border-line cases). One group, the consequentialists, think that only the result matters- if it is right to steer the trolley to run over one person instead of hitting five, then it is equally right to kill one person and divide his organs among five others (to use his example). Therefore, avoision is always wrong because it reaches unsanctioned results. The other group, deontologists, believe that the path taken is as important as the end- if it is moral to kill one for five in one case, in another it may well be immoral. Avoision, therefore, simply consists of playing within the rules regarding means, and is perfectly alright, even if the means are against some imagined "spirit of the law".

What his argument does not fully explain is the reluctance that people have to engage in avoision. Many people will not, for example, take advantage of a tax loophole, even if available, because it simply feels wrong. I would say that everyone has a hint of the consequentialist as well as the deontologist, not being willing to abuse the system to reach results that are too massively wrong.

Which brings us to halacha. People often have a hard time with the idea of loopholes in Judaism. The example that Katz used of the Shabbos Goy is only one of many examples of this sort of thing- others include the eiruv, selling chametz, 'partnerships' to allow charging interest, and purposely not re-conquering parts of Israel during the Second Temple to allow work in shemitta. The rationale that the gemara usually uses for these things -"the mouth that permits is the mouth that forbade"- works only for Rabbinic commandments. The other major rationale- that G-d knew ahead of time that this loophole would exist and chose to leave it in- gets into tricky debates about pre-destination, not to mention the fact that it doesn't really address the problem that we are getting around a theoretical spirit of the law.

I think that Katz's argument is the best that I have ever heard to explain loopholes. Halacha, is manifestly deontologist- ends are never said to justify means. But what Katz adds is that means can be used to justify the ends. Halacha is all about the morality of actions, rather than about utilitarian calculus of results. If this works to prohibit actions with lofty intentions, then it equally well permits actions with sneaky consequences.

At the same time, the natural inhibitions that we have about loopholes- the feeling of sneaking around G-d- also has basis in halacha, most specifically in the concept of ha'arama (trickery). There are times that a halachic discussion will simply say "Push comes to shove, what is being done is wrong, no matter how you slice it." The example that comes to mind off-hand, and I may be mis-recalling it, is a case where a boatload of wheat became chametz. The gemara asks whether it is permissible to sell this grain to non-Jews, who may sell it to unwitting Jews. After a complex discussion of lifnei iver, lifnei d'lifnei, safek, etc, one Amora says "What you're actually doing is tricking Jews into eating chametz. Whether that is technically whatever is unimportant."

The section in Katz's book interested me so much for two basic reasons-firstly, that it cast a light on a basic question in morality as well as halacha, and secondly, because much of the reasoning and questioning that it had done had already been considered in halachic sources. I bring this all down as one humble example of the usefulness of incorporating secular wisdom into halacha, and particularly viewing halacha as wrestling with many of the same problems as any other legal code.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Liberal Arts- A Bitter Stream of Consciousness

Do you know what annoys me? Well, lots of things, actually, but the subject of this particular rant is liberal arts intellectual snobbery. Sometimes it amazes me how a field with no absolute standards of right and wrong can manage to simultaneously maintain a constant self-righteous, more-PC-than-thou smugness. It's rather impressive if you think about it. Nothing, of course, is, absolutely speaking "right" or "wrong", since everything is all based on societal standards anyway, but by gosh, if your societal standards cause you to insult minorities, well, then, your books should be eschewed, mocked, counter-analyzed, etc.
Take, for example, Heart of Darkness. Now, I can't claim to be in love with the book. The writing, although beautifully fluid at times, can also be slow, tedious, and overly overt. But that is not, of course, the reason that I ought to be hating it. I ought to hate it because it is racist. Oh, terribly so. Awful colonialist propoganda from beginning to end. The clearest evidence of this is that it's written only about the Europeans; Africa and the Africans are used only as a foil, as if they weren't even people of something.
This, of course, is rot. Absolute blithering rot. Conrad was writing about Europeans and how Africa affected them. If he had written about the Africans, it would have been a different book, not to mention a remarkably stupid one since he would have been writing about things he knew nothing about. I wonder whether a book about, say, an African-American coming to terms with racism would be criticized for not focusing enough on the white culture.
But that is not even the point of this rant. The point that I am trying to make is that it really disgusts me to read literature from this angle, us wise, enlightened, all tolerant, all wonderful liberal arts modern heroes, analyzing why past generations were evil. (Evil? Did I use the term evil? Sorry, let's call it insufficiently enlightened.) Not that I believe that racism is right, G-d forbid. But nor do I think that we have unraveled the secrets of history. And nor do I think that the best way to get the most out of a book is to superciliously analyze how it reflects the primitive twaddle of its times. Take it on its terms, for heavens' sakes. Just read the blinking book.
This all reminded me of a discussion that we had in European Civilization. We were reading a bunch of articles written after the World's Fair in England. All about progress and civilization and equality and technology and how this generation can only be consoled for missing the bright future by the knowledge that they are securing these wonderful things for their children. One girl remarked that they were disgustingly optimistic, and yes, they rather were. But...there was something beautifully sweet about it. The idea that the world is wonderful and getting better every day. That we are at the high point of history so far and on the right track, at that. We don't have that anymore. Today we know better. Know better than everything. Everything that has been hoped, we have seen fail. Or rather, we have seen hope fail so often that we cannot trust it.
This liberal arts self-righteousness- at first it looks as if it is the same bright optimism. A shining hope that today, we have got it all figured out. But somehow, it doesn't have the same warm bright feeling. Maybe it's because it involves sneering down your nose at everyone before you. Maybe it's because it doesn't believe in hope either- it has the same self-conscious fear of getting too excited, because in the end, you'll just be disappointed. And so it thinks that it understands everything, but the poor stupid world does not. It lacks the excitement and replaces it with world-weary angst. The only thing it can bring itself to believe in is its own superiority. Because it knows better than to believe in anything else