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.