Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Timely Post

It was not until I had begun typing that I realized how timely this post was, so I went back and change the title and decided to run with it.

As part of my ongoing attempt to bring myself up to the proper level of culture and general knowledge that I would be getting from a normal college, I have begun to read the New Testament. The following are my general thoughts on the subject, in no particular order. While none of them are particularly original, they all interested me at the time:
  1. There is no possible way that I can read this without a bias. Even ignoring any prior conditioning I have, I'm simply not reading this as an article of my faith that it is morally useful to appreciate. Quite the opposite. So any comparisons to Tanach are simply not going to be fair.
  2. That said, I'm not overwhelmingly impressed. It's nice. It's certainly nice and sweet and preachy, and just jam-packed with all sorts of quotable quotes. And that's it. I can see sweet, moral people being all inspired by its sweet, moral lessons, but it doesn't feel like it has any meat to it. For me, it's rather like my high school Navi class (and I'm sure they'd both love the analogy): full of pretty lines and "how can we apply this to our lives?" without firm guidelines or anything real. I'm sure there are people who like that sort of thing; I'm just not one of them.
  3. The story of John the Baptist's head is exactly- I mean uncannily- like the story of R' Yishmael the Kohen Gadol. I mean, isn't John even the son of the Kohen Gadol or something? And the girl and the face... There's got to be some copying or joint source there. I bet there's a doctorate somewhere out there on that very subject.
  4. Wow, there's a lot of stuff about faith and the world to come. A lot. I actually like worldviews that have less of an emphasis on both. Which seems to be more common in Tanach than in modern Orthodox society.
  5. It's quite repetitive, isn't it? I mean, aside from the Gospels being the same things in slightly different wording, each gospel has multiples of each story. Twice with the loaves and fishes, at least three predictions of the Crucifixion, countless lepers and demon-possessed. I wonder if there's Bible criticism on this stuff.
  6. They, like the gemara, are really, really big on Eliyahu. There doesn't seem to be any such emphasis in the later bits of Tanach, except for that one quote at the end of Zechariah.
  7. I keep getting annoyed at Jesus for being egotistical and self-centered and overconfident. And I know that when you're G-d, you're allowed to wander about and think that you're so special and that it's better for people to bathe your feet than help the poor and that loving their families more than you is evil and whatever, but it's still really annoying when it's coming from the mouth of a character who is technically human. (Maybe it's my sidekick sympathy kicking in) You just want to tell him to get over himself. And I guess one could have the same objections to G-d, but to me it's quite different when you're incorporeal and infinite and so forth.

Monday, December 24, 2007


Many movies annoy me. Quite a few bore me. Some offend me. But Enchanted may well be the first movie that left me not only irate, but also genuinely puzzled how anybody who saw it could be otherwise.

You see, the charm of fairy-tales and chick flicks is that they don't ask certain questions. Boy meets girl, boy and girl overcome wicked stepmothers or their modern substitutes, boy and girl ride off happily into the sunset and everyone applauds. And if somebody cynical chooses to sneer and ask questions like "But what do they know about each other?" "What sort of basis do they have for a relationship?" "Can they even have a normal conversation with each other?" "What's going to be in thirty years when they're both ugly?", well, that's between me and whichever unfortunate person I'm ranting to.

But Enchanted decided to ask those questions. And I was really pleased. Here, I thought, reading the brief plot blurbs in ads, here would be a fun, crazy, charming movie where Disney gets a chance to laugh at itself and its skewed vision of romance, where fairy tale people learn about the real world and real world love.

Spoilers ahead, I suppose. But only for those who were naive enough to believe the above.

After the opening Disney-fairy-tale part of the movie, I was excited. The musical number was pure classic Disney, overdone enough to be read as a brilliantly subtle self-parody. The gritty little chipmunk worried me- grittiness was enough of a pseudo-twist that it almost made you think that they meant the whole thing. But still, my bubble remained unburst.

The real-world. The divorce attorney who's getting engaged. A very promising speech about love being about knowing the other person, understanding their strengths and weaknesses. Yay, I thought, they really are going to talk about how silly- and ephemeral- fairy tale love is.

As the attorney chatted with his daughter about women accomplishing things in the world and why that's nice, I turned to my friend and said, "What they had better not do- and actually I have enough respect for them to have faith that they won't do this- is have this man become involved with the princess."

Yeah. Really, I don't know why I bother with my tireless optimism.

But I kept hoping, even as the chance grew smaller and smaller. Right on through the silly scenes. Despite even the catching and the bath towel, I truly hoped. I think it was Nancy who shattered that hope- Nancy, without enough personality to make the viewer sad when Robert would break off a five year relationship (five years!) for the girl he met the day before.

It was then that I realize that this movie was not a self parody. It was not correcting the foolishness that every Disney movie innocently propagates; it was going to deliberately and in cold blood, with malice aforethought, support, justify, and embrace every single one of them.

And so there was no hope left to be shattered by the rest of the movie, nor was I thrown off by the clues that almost suggested the lesson that I had once hoped for: the support for dating and actually getting to know your partner; the brief re-emergence of Nancy as a kind of sweet person; Robert having the courage and decency to break off the kiss.

No, it was clear that if the movie was going to preach against giving your life to somebody you had known for a day, it was definitely going to come down clearly in favor of giving your life to somebody you had known for two days. In favor of believing that love can conquer all, no matter the marital difficulties that have thrown you into bitter divorce proceedings. In favor of happily ever after and true love's kiss.

And what made it all more painful is that the movie had so much. It was a clever premise, and it was executed cleverly. The musical number in Central Park, the vermin cleaning song, the prince were all terribly fun. And if they never actually crossed over into self-parody, they could have done so easily. Even at the end, there were places when I could daydream of the movie being saved from itself. I even saw one brilliant ending where nobody kissed the princess and she died and then paramedics burst in, gave her CPR, pumped her stomach, and she ran to Robert and he told her that a day of song and dance doesn't trump five years of commitment and understanding....

But despite what Enchanted may have to say on the subject, many dreams don't come true. And the dream of Disney presenting a mature, balanced, moral, clever, self-deprecating love story is apparently one of them.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Complex Problem in Game Theory

Alright, ever wise blog audience, solve the following story problem:

1) Due to the semi-strike currently existing in the university, there is one particular class (Class X) regarding whose convening there is a constant state of uncertainty.

2) The professor has stated that he will come every week, but will only give class if enough people show up.

3) Enough seems to be defined as 9+ students. Perhaps 10.
a) Normally, there are 10-12 students present.

4) Most members of the class would prefer that class not take place at all, since then they will not have to come to campus, often in the pouring rain.

5) Once members of the class have arrived, there is some disagreement about whether they would prefer that there be class or not.
a) The class is incredibly boring and most people are anyway only taking to fulfill some requirement.
b) Some members of the class seem to genuinely enjoy it.

6) Nobody wants to miss a class that does take place, since the material will be on the test and they are scarily obsessed with their grades.

7) If enough classes fail to take place, the class may be canceled, which would waste any effort already invested into class attendance.

8) There is a possibility that if the course will be canceled even if all classes take place, either because not enough students have had any attendance or because the semester as a whole will be canceled.

9) The professor, in planning the test, says that he will make every effort to accommodate students that have not been present, but that he has no idea how he will do this.

10) Neither the students among themselves, the professor, nor the university has any power to coordinate things. The only forum in which information is shared and tactics can be discussed is in the classroom itself, the discussion thus limited to people who have chosen to attend.

So....do I go to class?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Rebbe

Like all young children, Yitzi fashioned G-d in the image of his father. Thus, Hashem was bearded, solemn, and sacred. Hashem loved everybody, just like Tatty did, but Hashem loved Yitzi the best because he was special and he would become the rebbe when Tatty went up to Hashem and left all of the chasidim for Yitzi to take care off.

At seven, he was securely expectant. By ten, he began to doubt. He was not holy when he prayed and he did not remember all his Torah and he went to sleep long before the light went off in Tatty's study. He had known that he would not be as great as the rebbeim of the stories. Now he wondered if he would be great at all.

He buried the hot-stomach doubt and continued learning. Eager teachers found signs of genius in his willing intelligence and signs of piety in his tired, wary eyes. They told each other that he was G-d-fearing and when he heard them, he wanted to tell them that he never thought about G-d. But he didn't, because he was a liar.

One afternoon when he was eleven, he came into Tatty's office. Tatty talked to him about the Tosafos's reading of Rashi and he thought about the boys playing outside and how only he had to be great and wasn't. And then he looked suddenly into Tatty's sacred eyes and it came to him that Tatty did not know. Tatty did not know that he was not great or that he wished that he could play outside instead of standing in the office learning with the Rebbe. It was too big of a thought for him to think at all once and so he broke it down into little pieces and thought it for the next few months.

These were the pieces of the thought: Tatty does not know that I am not great. Tatty is very great. Hashem gives him help to know how to lead the chasidim. But Tatty doesn't know that I am not great.

He wavered for a moment on the brink of doubt. But Tatty was great.

So there must be greatness that he could see in Yitzchak, like everybody said there was. And yet at the same time, Yitzchak was not great.

He pushed himself harder, stayed up later, clenched himself tighter when he prayed. But he never felt the still, small flame that he could see in Tatty's eyes. It seemed to him that trying was not enough, and yet he knew that fear of G-d was in his hands and the failure must be his.

Meanwhile, boys treated him with ginger respect. Meanwhile, his teachers' eyes blazed with devotion. Meanwhile, Tatty got sick and weak as though his soul was eating up his body. Meanwhile, Yitzchak's prayers and nights got longer and longer and nobody knew what a liar he was.

Tatty died when Yitzchak was twenty. His voice trembled at the funeral when he spoke of his father's greatness and his own inability to be a tenth of what Tatty had been. Weeping chasidim comforted each other with the new rebbe's humility.

Almost before
shiva was over, they came to him, asking him about their businesses and their wives, begging him to pray for their sick and dying, bringing him their chickens and their consciences for his examination. They expected him to know everything the way that Tatty had.

But there was no certainty in him. The chasidim piled faith on him like a boulder and questions like volleys of stones, and wanted to tell them that he didn't know, that he couldn't do this, that he wasn't great. But the chasidim deserved greatness, deserved certainty delivered in Tatty's calm voice.

Sometimes he tried to tell himself that Tatty must have felt the same way, that certainty was a myth and Hashem did not speak to anyone clearly. But he had seen the light in Tatty's eyes and he had heard his voice and he knew that there was something there that he had not achieved.

He was twenty three the first time that a tale of piety sparked no hunger, but only a distant wonder. Examining the feeling, he realized that he already knew that he would never become great. That he could not be great. There was an odd certainty to the thought. But it could not be true. Greatness was a choice that belonged to him and Hashem expected him to choose it.

He pushed harder. Late at night, he would lean his head against his books and beg Hashem for the one gift that he knew that he must earn. And his students, tiptoeing past, heard him sobbing and gazed at the door in humbled awe.

He tried harder, so much harder that he could feel the straining, but he was still not great. He felt it breaking him and there was a curious desperation in his eyes that even the chasidim whose questions he answered did not know how to read.

One Friday night, he looked over the rim of his cup at the rows of devout faces staring up at him. Words boiled up in his mouth like vomit and he closed his mouth so they would not spill out. In the brief stretch of silence, he almost heard himself shout that he was not a rebbe, that he had no certainty, that he had failed them and never become great. And he could feel the relief, the burden lifted. But where would it go? Who should bear it if not the rebbe?

He could not speak. He closed his eyes on the crowd of faces, felt the tears well up beneath his eyelids and knew that the next day, the chasidim would be whispering about this latest proof of his holiness.

Then he finished kiddush, gagging on despair and his declaration that the L-rd had chosen him from among all nations and desired him from among all peoples. The chasidim passed the cup around, each awed to drink when the rebbe had put his lips.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Five Things

I've been memed by Miri. (Is that pronounced mehme or meem? I never know.) The meme is to list five semi-interesting things about you that aren't in your frumster profile, even if you don't have and would never, ever have a frumster profile. I'm not entirely sure what that means, but I'm never loathe to talk about me, so...

1) My nose is distinctly crooked. You don't notice it so much just looking at me- until I point it out to you- but if you were to look up my nose- and why would you not- you would see that all the cartilage in the middle is on one side. Which makes it slightly harder to part my hair down the middle because I can only trace up the nose starting from between the eyes.

2) I have never gotten drunk. Maybe a little giggly on Pesach, although really, that's always been more nauseous and gagging on matza, but never actually drunk. I'm secretly really curious about what kind of drunk I will be.

3) I can compose bad doggerel pretty much extemporaneously. Like so:
With no need to haw or to hem,
I am fulfilling a meme.
It's harder than it might seem,
Because I think that it might be said 'meem'.
Lousy, but fast. Of course, for all you know, I spent a half hour and rhyme dictionary over that baby.

4) I don't eat salad. Or almost any vegetable. Ever. I have recently been forcing myself to occasionally eat lettuce, but it's an uphill battle.

5) I deliberately pick up verbal quirks and use them until I get bored of them or else they become permanently incorporated into my vocabulary. The word of the week is taka, but it's starting to annoy, especially since always proceed it with a click of the tongue, like so: "*click*. This taka thing is taka a problem." Quirks that have made it include calling people dear, saying "not unlike...a ninja" with little to no correlation to the conversation at hand, and 'your nose'-ing everything. It's annoying. Your nose is annoying! Not unlike...an ninja. Who happens to be annoying.
....stopping now.

I tag anybody who actually reads this who has not heretofore been tagged.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Legal "Dvar Torah"

A piece of Torah given over by one of my Mishpat Ivri professors:

There seems to be a question in parshat Chaya Sara. Avraham says clearly that he intends to purchase only the cave of Machpela itself, but when the property is transferred, the pasuk clearly states that he received the cave, and the surrounding field, and everything on the property. Why is this? So Nechama Leibowitz says how can we explain the change?
(insert thumb scooping ai-ai-ai-aiaiaiai here) If you look at the archaeological records of Hittite law texts that have been found, we see that the law ordered that when a piece of land was only partially transferred into new ownership, with the original owner maintaining some of the rights to the property, the original owner was liable in the full burden of royal taxes on the land and was absolved of such only when the land was entirely sold. So Ephron, once he realized that he was selling the most valuable part of the property, realized it made more sense to give Avraham the whole thing and make him worry about taxes.

Making this parsha, perhaps, the earliest written record of what lawyers like to call "tax planning" and cynics like to call "tax evasion".

Oh, and what I like best about this 'vort' is imagining the dozens of inspirational/brilliant chap (the talmud kind, not the British kind) explanations that have been given on the same pasuk.

Note: Ignore the craziness that the computer is doing with sizes. We just can't seem to agree these days.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

To My Internet Connection

Dear 725597:

I don't think I ever really understood you. Sure, I was delighted when things started working out between us and we had some good times, back in the days when you connected easily and smoothly. But I never really understood what caused your random moodiness, your capricious silences, your sudden disconnect. Sometimes I blamed the computer; maybe sometimes it really was his fault.

But nowadays you ignore me more and more. You lie to me, saying that everything is all right, but when I test this claim, it's clear that you're not connecting to anything. And I try again and again, every means of communication possible, but there's nothing there. Sometimes you get along perfectly with all of my roommates and only sulk at me. Sometimes you strand the entire apartment.

Do you not realize how much I depend on you, how much I miss you when you aren't there, how long I sit desperately trying to force you to cooperate, pleading and cursing as you sit there, unheeding?

Someday, I am so going to find a new internet provider. And then you will be really sorry.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Random Post about a Random Thought

Her children included: Cerberus (the three headed hell dog) Orthrus (the less famous hell dog) Ladon (a snake who coiled under an apple tree. Hmmm), Chimera (the goat/lion/snake) Sphinx (Woman/lion who like riddles) Hydra ((the many-headed dragon), Ethon, Nemean Lion, and Teumessian fox (from DovBear)

Now I really want to write a story about Orthrus, the hell dog who never really made it big.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


One of the few interesting things said by my professor for Law and Literature (a class that I anyway had planned on dropping due to scheduling conflicts, which gave me a somewhat inexplicable smug sense of satisfaction) was a quote from some lawyer attacking circumstantial evidence. He claimed that we have learned to see life as a Chekhov play, where every detail must have some significance, while in fact life is chaotic and random and never ties together nicely at the end.

While his claim re: evidence was weak (he made some ridiculous statistical mistakes: "Sure, he beat his wife, but what percentage of husbands who beat their wives end up killing them?" when the proper question is "what percentage of dead wives whose husbands had beaten them were killed by those husbands?" But I digress), the idea itself intrigues. Do we distort our perception of reality to fit into literary conventions?

I know that I tend to describe and perceive reality in terms of short stories or scenes from TV shows. A lot. In the past few days, I have said that the word Focaccia would make a good name for a menacing, black-mustachioed villain, and invented lines for that villain ("Beware the wrath of Focaccia!"). I declared a shabbat guest's description of a rich kids' camp where the director drives around in a souped-up golf cart and throws dollar bills- and one hundred dollar bill- for the children to fight over, usually violently, so ludicrously exaggerated that it was exactly a bad short story that I would read and get annoyed over its clumsy plot devices. I said that I wanted to write a short story about an heir to a chasidic dynasty who is convinced that he is not holy enough to be a rebbe. I listened to my Bioethics prof get annoyed at people trying to find solutions to avoid the moral dilemmas he posed and thought that one could write a short story for each one, trying to eliminate every possible outside factor that would avoid the dilemma itself and that perhaps this was the secret of science fiction. I constantly say "if this were a sitcom, x would happen now," or "if I were writing this short story, it would turn out that y." Not even to mention the degree to which my 'natural' personality, speech, and writing style are consciously and literarily affected.

But I think that maybe- except for the affected thing- it's not entirely a bad thing. Literary works may be unnatural, but thinking in terms of them provides a structure by which we can notice themes, congruities, and incongruities, a sufficiently impersonal perspective that we can see ourselves as others see us, a way of analyzing our lives as we live them. Which, of course, is a very me thing and may not be suited to others.

But the question still remains- does doing this distort our perception of reality or merely channel it? Do we force the story into the events or read it out? Or maybe neither and whatever his face lawyer was simply wrong?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

House Meeting

For those of you too old, young, rich or anti-social to experience the glamorous life of the apartment-dwelling college student personally, I humbly submit the following minutes of the last house meeting to give you a taste of the experience. Enjoy.

Apartment Seven

Full Board Meeting One


Chair: EK (henceforth EK)

Presiding: EH (henceforth EH)

Secretary: Tobie (henceforth T)

Sitting around and looking pretty: Miri (henceforth M)

Honorary looking awkward: Gabe (henceforth 'the llama')

Sleeping on the couch: L (henceforth L)

  • The meeting was preceded by a dinner prepared by the Dinner Committee. Despite a delay in the rice preparation, which led to a member who will remain nameless eating another member who we shall for the purposes of this story call 'Bob' although her real name was Shprintza, the meal was received favorably. And then eaten.

  • During the dinner, the board raised and discussed a variety of pertinent issues, among them vegetable cravings, American cucumbers, and showing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to schizophrenics. The first was viewed favorably, the latter two not so much.

  • The first item on the agenda was raised by EK, calling for a vote on the American phone line issue. Upon the motion's unanimous approval, area codes for the telephone were discussed. In the end, Chicago was chosen for its plurality of board members and Maryland for its convenience for chatting with the president. EK, as punishment for her initiative, was made responsible for the procurement of above line.

  • Broccoli was shared.

  • M deplored the darkness of our condition and called for an immediate increase in the purchasing of lightbulbs. The motion was accepted, although no member concretely agreed to take responsibility for the issue, thus severely decreasing the chances that it will be resolved.

  • EH agreed to contact the Hot guy for wireless installation. Details of the hilarity that ensued regarding the epithet are omitted here, but the reader is invited to imagine it for his or her self.

  • In an effort to clear the bathroom counter, bathroom shelf space was allocated as follows: EK 1, T 1, M 2, EH 2

  • At this point, L was abducted by angry faeries, who agreed to return her only in return for being mentioned in the minutes with the cool archaic spelling. Attempts at bargaining were made impossible by the fact that they speak only Dutch.

  • Toranut was divided among the members, a system of permanent responsibilities being agreed upon as the most prudent course. It was further resolved that above toranut be finished by Shabbat, under penalty of severe being scowled at by other members. And possibly even verbally reprimanded. [EH: Bathrooms, EK: Floors, T: Kitchen, M: Living Room, Garbage, Assorted Misc]

  • Hosting for the upcoming Shabbaton was agreed upon by all parties, except for EH who is vacating the premises for the relevant time period in an effort to avoid all of this 'socialization' that she hears so much about.

  • T suggested that the Va'ad Bayit be contacted about the secret lounge behind the gas door. Possible uses included luggage storage and crowded but riotous parties. A delegation will be sent to the proper authorities on the sixth floor, preferably a delegation in fedoras and carrying ominous violin cases, for ease of negotiation.

  • N will be nagged regarding her property and her electric bill. N, be warned.

  • A full and only slightly fascist set of apartment rules were drawn up (see enclosed). Secretary will note that her efforts to ensure cohesion and order among them were largely mocked.

  • During aforesaid rule composition, the llama arrived and commenced looking awkward. And he did it very well.

  • M took exception to EK's doubt about whether any member would have a boyfriend in the coming year. In fact, she came across as remarkably defensive. Curious...

  • M's pointed suggestion of a strict no-skunk policy, as well as EK and EH's attempts to frame a no-puking-guest policy, were only moderately successful. (see rule 8: "Drunken revelries must be kept to a minimum")

  • EH promised the other members to explain some of the genders of some of the utensils at some point. The llama mocked the concept of utensil gender and had to be suppressed, Alice-in-Wonderland style.

  • M and T expressed concern about rumors of a secret conspiring coalition being formed between the red-headed members of the board. The rumors were denied. These denials, however, being made both in unison and in a secret code language and followed by an elaborate shared wink, did little to allay suspicion.

  • Arnona retroactive refund must be explored. T accepted the heavy task upon her slight shoulders, bowing under the weight like a dainty Atlas.

  • M raised the random underwear issue. Underwear Cinderella was suggested and rejected.

  • The board pondered the darker side of Sheri Lewis.

  • The meeting adjourned, EH and EK to their respective homework and M and T to face the dishes, exploding plates, brooms on the counter, encrusted green rice, and evolving vegetables. And much fun was had by all.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sidekick Sympathy

Once again, I post not out of inspiration but out of desperation and a vague sense of duty. Miri shrugs at me. 'Eh. It's a blog. Who cares?' And she very well may be right.

I have never been able to enjoy Sherlock Holmes properly. Not that he isn't all very clever, for a supercilious druggie, and not that the stories aren't well told, evoking a period aura as thick as the fog that the stories always take place within. But I just can't read sidekicks. Especially admiring, inferior, happily condescended to sidekicks like Dr. Watson, who round about being straight men and wagging their tails every time their master throws them a 'scintillating'. (Not unlike the way that they're trying to force me to write Zeresh, but that is a different rant.)

I was once going to write a short story in which Watson shoots Holmes to death, gibbering about 'Capital, am I? Good old Watson, am I? The one steady thing in a changing world, eh? Well, steady this!' and so forth. I never did because frankly the above is all the cleverness that could even theoretically be gotten out of it, but still.

For some reason, the idea that one person would devote their life to the joy/success/fame/service of another person is like a rake on sidewalk to me. But I mean, why not? If you can contribute X to the world on your own, but you can help another person to contribute X+Y more than he would have without you, then it's clearly the better part to do so. And if you end up being the cheerful, bumbling comic relief of life- the one whose big heart never saves the day, but often warms those around you- well what of it?

For some reason, I tend to mind the 'brains behind the throne/boys in the back-room' sort of sidekick less. Maybe because I generally think that they're laughing at the hero behind his back. Maybe because often enough, the hero is secretly their sidekick.

(When I was younger and my brother and I had to share video games- generally of the Masters of Orion/ Civilization genre, he would have me be the Emperor, while he would serve as General, Grand Vizier, Secretary of State, and Chief Adviser. This meant that I got to push the buttons and he got to tell me what to push.)

Maybe the difference is just ego and internalization. Because I think I could stand being a boy in the back-room in a way that I could never stand being a big hearted bumbler. See, boy in the back-room doesn't require you to admit that you are in anyway deficient- that the hero is actually in some way more honorable or worthwhile or special than yourself. He may get the charisma and the girls, but really you know that you're the one who gets the intense close-ups and real contributions, so it all evens out. While the other kind of sidekick is constantly being rescued, ridiculed, and generally dependent.

I guess it's the dependent that gets me. I hate being dependent. I have an almost phobic dislike of asking for help- an inconvenient thing in a country without parents- because dependence admits weakness. Even when it comes to lifting heavy closets up narrow flights of stairs, I am practically offended by the idea of summoning male friends to do heavy lifting. It is not a feminist thing- at least not a rational one if it is- it's simply that I'm loath to admit that there is anything that I'm not just as capable of doing. Said practice almost got me crushed to by said closet, but what can you do?

But I think the sidekick thing is something more than that. A sidekick automatically accepts his secondariness. Robin would never dream of trying on the Batman costume because he knows his place. He thinks of himself in terms of Batman- his definition is 'youthful ward', even in his own head. And I don't like that. I think that everyone should- must- be their own main character, even if their lot in life is to serve by standing and waiting, or waiting on others. Watson should have been able to write some fun autobiographic stuff as well, regardless of the preferences of the public. And every cheery bumbling sidekick should see their life as episodes into which the hero occasionally wanders, not vice versa.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Yeridat Hadorot

Others may praise ancient times, I am glad that I was born in these
Do not say 'Why were the old times better than these?' for you did not ask this out of wisdom.
....the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone/ all centuries but this and all countries but his own...
-Gilbert and Sullivan (I've Got a Little List)

This discussion happened ages and ages ago, in blogging terms, but I didn't bother posting my opinion, largely because of the above sentiment. But then I decided that it's better to have a poor post than no post at all. Although I'm starting to doubt that.

It is neither useful nor intellectually sound to wander around moaning about how lovely things used to be. First of all, you weren't there, so how would you know and second of all, well, suppose they were, what does that have to do with anything that we can do anything about? (I do not think that the belief in yeridat hadorot has absolutely anything to do with the legal principle of certain precedents being binding, which is the only nafka mina that I've heard anyone come up with.)

That said, I do have a sort of nostalgic longing of days of auld lang syne. Sure, they lived to be forty and had most of their children die before turning ten. Sure, they beat their wives and owned slaves. Sure, their food was bland, moldy, and scarce and their lives were uncomfortable and precarious. But the characters that you read about in Tanach and the Talmud and old history books do have one thing on us: they were so much realer.

When they were evil, they were no milk and water villains, watered down and diluted by troubled childhoods and post-modern relativism. When they believed, they did so without constant self-awareness, self-doubt, meta-questioning, and philosophical indeterminacy. When they acted, they really actually did so, without second-guessing or whining. They hadn't invented angst.

I'm not saying they were better. Quite often- and quite possibly as a whole- they were worse. But they were moreso. And in an age when you can't stop analyzing your own feelings long enough to have them and you can't identify your own opinions without pondering on the fundamental multiplicity of truth and you can't go ten feet without bumping into existential questions on the nature of life, death, being, and pain, it's hard not to be a little nostalgic for a premodern age.

If, of course, that's anything like the way and not simply an effect of the style of history, the sparsity of sources, the motives of the narrator and so forth.

See? We can't even nostalge without analyzing how valid that it is.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Play

I have been above-averagely remiss in posting in the recent past, but at least on this occasion I have a long and semi-entertaining narrative to offer as an excuse for why my writing energy has been diverted into other efforts. (Besides finals. Which are important, but kind of boring, excuse-wise.)

You see, around a month ago, I received an e-mail from a close high school friend. It seems that the principal of our alma mater- obeying the dictum that if you want something done, give it to somebody who has too much to do- contacted her and asked her to write the school play. Her mother- adhering apparently to the dictum that it's good for people to sleep occasionally- forbade her from taking on this additional assignment, so she decided to work on it in an illicit sort of way- late at night and so forth- but transferring much of it to other people. She contacted a best friend in Stern and the two of them realized that they had absolutely no idea how to write a play and contacted me, under the erroneous impression that I did. (Actually, it seems I do. You just stick things down on paper and keep ignoring how badly it's written and voila! A play. But I digress.)

Anyhoo, it sounded like fun, so I agreed to come on board, malevolently sweeping Miri along with me. It was then that the complications began to ensue. Chief among them was that this play, apparently, was not actually going to be written as a group effort among the four-ish of us. Apparently, the principal had commissioned a whole posse of other alumnae/mothers to chip in. First we thought that it was going to be a wide-spread effort. Then there was a meeting where it seemed like only our team (or rather, the state-side representatives thereof) had brought anything to the table and so we dibsed it. Then there was an e-mail that indicated that it would be a general effort, with everybody sending in scenes as their spirits moved them, with the various parts calibrated with one another by some directive power at the end. Then there was a suggestion that different authors take different characters, which would keep the voices nice and different, but also mean that people would go around writing one character's lines in a scene and leaving little breaks to be filled in for other characters. And then in the end it became clear that actually, our team (mostly, if I might say, I. And Miri, to some degree) was the only one doing any work and thus we got to write the play just as we liked. Which is nice, because it's problematic enough without being composed by committee.

The play, you see, is the story of Purim and we must walk the thin line of making it actually good without making it preachy or sappy, while at the same time conveying a definite midrashically-supported message. This is particularly difficult for Miri and myself, in our newly acquired/discovered Modern Orthodoxy, since I don't know that our messages are quite the same as the school's. But we soldier on, keeping it general and about faith in G-d and so forth. And I must note that both the principal and our friends from high school are being totally tolerant and sweet, not caring about the gaps in philosophies and life decisions and treating us just like people and not ideologies, which is just what the world needs more of, so yay them.

Still, there are occasional conflicts. We have been edited for making Mordechai too wishy-washy (gedolai hador have strong opinions! and no doubts! ever!) and Zeresh too 'it's really good, but I'm not sure if it's exactly what we want for this play' (i.e. sardonic). Achashveirosh is comic, speaking entirely in rhyming couplets (I objected only until I discovered how darn fun they are to write), although at times he has lapsed closer to Shakespearean. There are occasional debates about how much midrash to include and subtle shifting of the focus from "trust only in Hashem" to the nearly-but-not-really-indistinguishable "a nation in exile must not despair." Nobody else has seemed to notice, but every scene written by the team on this side of the Atlantic uses "G-d" and everything written on that side uses "Hashem", so that it would be quite easy for a Bible-critic style reader to see exactly what was added/edited and where. I suppose that's one of the things that the as-yet-nonexistent final compiler will handle.

I'm actually, quite enjoying the whole thing. Sure, much of it is dull or cheaply comic. But there are definite comforts: the bits of good writing that you can sneak in through the cracks; the witty banter that you can write between Mordechai and Haman (we're praying that it doesn't get gadol-hadored out); the subtle sardonicness that flies completely below the radar (there's a character called Reb Yid, acting as a foil for Mordechai. We really hope they put him in a bekeshe) ; sardonicness slightly more inside the radar (Miri's first act stage directions read 'Enter Esther, stage right. Probably carrying a bowl with food in it, or a broom. No, if she’s carrying food she can be wearing an apron. Ooh, puts the food down on the table and picks up a broom in the course of the conversation! And the apron stays! Sorry, stopping now') ; and, of course, the cultural references that nobody will ever get but nonetheless make me warm and happy all over. So far, I have managed to insert two Pinky and the Brain quotes, a reference to Princess Bride, a Firefly near-quote (by Mordechai, no less), a line from Shakespeare, and a nod to Mr. Ed (that one was faint, even for me). The Pinky and the Brain ones are the most obvious ('What are we doing tonight, Bigsan?' 'Same thing we do every night, Seresh- wait on the king.' and 'Are you pondering what I'm pondering, Seresh?' 'I think so, Bigsan, but won't uniforms made entirely out of cotton candy get kind of sticky in the summertime?') but so far, nobody has spotted them, so I think that they'll probably make it to the play. It's really the one thing that's keeping me going when I have to contemplate the idea of writing yet another scene without any particular inspiration or desire. Also, I got to use the word exeunt. Repeatedly.

The play is almost over by now. A couple of the ending scenes, really, is all that's left, and it would be lovely if one could rely on somebody else to write them, but of course I can't. But then it will be over and, assuming they don't discard the whole thing and choose an entirely differently play, as has actually happened in the past to other hard-working students, the play produced by my former high-school, to which most of the student body will devote three months of their lives, will have been almost entirely written by a pair of subversives, not to mention Zionists. Sort of makes the whole thing worth it, doesn't it?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Random Question of the Day

If somebody took a pill knowing that it was a placebo (or at least knowing of the high possibility), but believing strongly in the placebo effect, would there be one? Does it depend on whether they think the answer to this question is yes? And if so, why don't people sell more placebos?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Changing the Tal Law?

I'm not sure what I think of this new effort by Israel's Finance Ministry. While of course, everybody sympathizes with the effort to get charedim to work, or alternatively get them to work legitimately and report their earnings to the tax authorities. The current arrangement forces the charedi community to basically starve or cheat the government, which everyone can agree is a negative thing. On the other hand, is it the government's responsibility to change their demands to prevent a community from imploding just to thwart them? I mean, if they enforce the current law, then maybe it's just the charedim's problem is they choose to starve rather than give a year to National Service. Cruel, but true. Although they're currently a burden on welfare, so I suppose it's in the government's interest to get them to work. If, of course, it is the threatened army service and not their ideology that is keeping them in yeshiva.

But it seems like the main thing being incentivized here is having two children by the time you're 23. Granted, charedi men marry early, but that means that you would have to marry by 21 and really hurry. Given that wives pretty much have to be younger than the husbands, you're encouraging the community to marry people off before they're out of their teens, which they do anyway to some degree, but hardly as much as you're encouraging them to do.

At the same time, the movement basically acknowledging that charedim don't have to/won't
serve in the army, which defeats the ideological purpose of the Tal Law and is bound to make the secular outraged for pretty legitimate reasons.

And from a legal point of view (it's fun to actually know stuff!) I am extremely dubious that the Supreme Court is going to let the arrangement stand even should it be fortunate enough to get passed. The Tal Law barely survived the Barak Court (then, specifically Barak himself). I can't see this one doing much better.

Basically, when a law is challenged as unconstitutional (or contrary to the Basic Laws) and found to actually infringe upon rights or equality or some such, it's tested according to 3 criteria: 1)That it fits Israel's values as a democratic and Jewish state: it's anybody's guess what that one means. But judges usually let laws slide past this test as law as there's some legitimate-ish purpose going on- which is the third test
2)It has a worthy purpose: Probably met here, what with the incentivizing into the workforce. But quite possibly not-the court doesn't tend to think that religious sensibilities are legitimate concerns, so they could be annoyed with any exemption at all.
3)It's proportional- which is interpreted to mean that a)it is effective at attaining the purpose, b)that the benefits outweigh the costs and c) that it is the means of achieving the goal that involves the smallest possible infringement. Basically, any time that a judge can think of a law that he likes better than the current one, he can strike down the law. And for judges, money isn't an issue- several cases have stated that when it's a choice between rights and money, rights always win.

Of course, you could employ these rules and let the law stand. But the Tal Law itself only squeaked by Barak because he liked the fact that it was aimed at integrating charedim into the army and therefore decided that the infringement on equality (and slight injury to everyone else in the country who has to serve in reserves a bit longer each year) is justified. I'm not sure that the court is going to be as fond of this law. And the above rules are certainly wide, vague, and flexible enough for them to express their disapproval by declaring the arrangement unconstitutional, either because they don't like the purpose, or don't see it as proportional.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tisha B'Av

I like to think that there is Tisha B'Av in heaven.

That all the tears and screams
and questions that are too big for their answers
of every woman who slit her baby's throat
or felt it die of hunger as it tries to nurse
or ate its flesh
or caught its blood in her skirts
and every maiden who mourned a slaughtered groom
and every groom who held his bride as she collapsed
and every woman raped
and every husband and father forced to watch
and every priest burnt alive
and every elder whose corpse was spread like dung across the streets
and every blind man stumbling in blood
come before G-d.

And they say
You know what the worst part was?
Beyond the pain and shame and loneliness and sorrow?
It was You.
Behind every sword and gun and flame and knife
and hunger and rapist and disease and massacre.
It was always Your face,
looking down like an abusive father.

And G-d says Yes.

And the tears and anger and questions
look at Him and say And?

And G-d says nothing.

And all the angels look scandalized and shout
Answer them!
You have answers! You have a plan!
You have rationales and explanations and larger pictures
and greater goods!

And G-d says Not today.

And then He sits down among the victims
and cries in pain.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Reading over various classmates' notes in preparation for exams, I find that not only do they refer to the professor by his first name, but they also seem to be on a first name basis with the authors of every article mentioned. Does this say something significant about the Israeli mentality, or have they just never had composition teachers beating them over the heads and telling them that an author is referred to by both names at first mention and only last name thereafter?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Screwtape on Prayer

While reading these semi-recent posts (although I know that this wasn't Miri's focus), I kept thinking of a certain passage from The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis' semi-humorous theological work, down in the style of a senior devil writing advice on tempting to his nephew:
If this fails, you must fall back on a subtler misdirection of his intention. Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.

But of course the Enemy will not meantime be idle. Wherever there is prayer, there is danger of His own immediate action. He is cynically indifferent to the dignity of His position, and ours, as pure spirits, and to human animals on their knees He pours out self-knowledge in a quite shameless fashion. But even if He defeats your first attempt at misdirection, we have a subtler weapon. The humans do not start from that direct perception of Him which we, unhappily, cannot avoid. They have never known that ghastly luminosity, that stabbing and searing glare which makes the background of permanent pain to our lives. If you look into your patient's mind when he is praying, you will not find that. If you examine the object to which he is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation: there will be vaguer—perhaps quite savage and puerile—images associated with the other two Persons. There will even be some of his own reverence (and of bodily sensations accompanying it) objectified and attributed to the object revered. I have known cases where what the patient called his "God" was actually located—up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it—to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers "Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be", our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it—why, then it is that the incalculable may occur. In avoiding this situation—this real nakedness of the soul in prayer—you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!

Which is all very brilliant and theological, but you have no idea how unhelpful when you're trying to pray. Because if we don't navel gaze, check our feelings, indulge in human understandable imaginations- what's left? Just saying the words?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Final Bow

The final act is about to start,
and everyone knows their part by heart,
and you know what you'll do though you don't know how.
And you can't react and you can't turn back,
you've gone too far for you to change tracks,
and you gotta keep going right through to the final bow.

Well, David was a youth and then grew old,

covered in blankets and he shivers with cold,

but he keeps getting encores from the madding crowd.

And Elijah exits left off the world too tame,

returning to the fire from which he came.

He leaves his mantle and makes the storm his shroud.

And Agag can see that the die is cast,

shrugs and says that death's pain has passed,

stands there watching as the prophet strikes him down.

And Saul, finally done with making amends

tries to act surprised but he always knew how it ends,

and someone comes by to take the fallen crown.

And they prop Ahab up against the flood

and all the while runs the blood,

and he stands repeating I'm sorry, but I can't go now.

And Jezebel took what she could get,

says I may be damned, but I'm not dead yet,

And puts on her face to take that final bow.

And the curtain will fall on a silhouette

and the crowds will clap and then forget,

and you've gotta go on, though you don't know how

until the curtain falls on that final bow.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

My Life at Templars

Wow. Chana tells about how my high school treated her. Although I know none of the details of her personal story, it certainly does not sound like something wildly inconsistent with the personalities involved. The fact is, there are few things more merciless and terrifying than sweet, well-meaning, condescending people determined to save your soul.

I was talking to Miri over the fast, desperately trying to remember my own high school experience. I know, for example, that Templars neither quashed me nor attempted to do so. I remember being largely happy. And yet at the same time, without remembering the content, I am reasonably sure that I constantly asked questions. So really, the question becomes, why wasn't I quashed?
]There are two basic reasons. The first is: my massive ego. Really, I think that this was the principle cause. You see, I spent high school convinced that I was a heck of a lot more clever than any of my teachers (I am not saying that this is true- ego rarely allows for objectivity). I was similarly convinced that I was right, about really just about everything. Thus, arguments posed no threat to me- if I was unable to convince them, it's because they didn't understand me. If I failed to win an argument, it had no impact on my practice. Even if they had presented me with brilliant, powerful, and irrefutable arguments that my beliefs were wrong, I was strongly shielded with the walls of ego and would shrug and skip off my merry way.

So why did I argue? Because, quite simply, my largest problem in high school was not quashing, but sheer intolerable boredom. I wrote stories and poems in the margins of my notebooks; I took notes in script, fancy colors, or mirror writing; I memorized poems and speeches from Shakespeare; I wrote stories on my calculator; but mainly I asked questions. Good questions, argumentative questions, pointed questions, whatever. As long as my mind would be on, would be fencing or grasping or doing something.

Of course, I exaggerate somewhat. I was involved in the sides that I argued, often really trying to understand what the teacher was saying. (A snippet of memory where I earnestly insist that Ramban and Rashi can't both be right if they disagree) I had the Zionism argument, and the free will one about a billion times, and a couple of bad-things-good-peoples, and I really did care about what I was saying. But, I am ashamed to say, I cared very little about what my teachers had to say about the matter. This granted me a lovely combination of not objecting to stopping when the teacher demanded it and also not acting as if I were particularly vested in the case- as if it were all an intellectual game. Thus, people tended not to realize that I needed quashing, and when they tried it to some degree, I sort of didn't notice/care. Just like I didn't care enough about the argument to try it when not only their points, but their entire philosophies, perspectives, everything, annoyed me. Sometimes it just wasn't worth the trouble, because I just didn't care. That's not a boast, mind you- a more idealistic, honest, passionate, deep person (like Chana) would have cared, would have invested herself in them or their philosophy or even our arguments. But I was too practical, too egotistical, too bored, too sardonic. They could frustrate me, confuse me, enrage me, insult me, but they couldn't get close enough to quash me.

The second reason is my group of friends. I hung out with the good girls- the ones who went on to Michlala or BJJ. And to their everlasting credit, they had no problem hanging out with me, for all of my crazy arguingness. They even argued a bit themselves. And, more impressively, they hung out with the girls who wore pants and talked to boys, just so long as they were geeky enough to want to play word games or discuss books at the lunch table with the rest of us. So first of all, I had a lovely smoke screen- everyone assumed that I was with the good girls and would eventually shape up, settle down, and marry a kollel boy. And secondly, there were enough thinkers in the group- including those who went to BJJ and also people like Miri- that whenever I got a little quashed, they were there to tell me how darn right I was, and also give the old ego another pat by assuring me that I was clever and justified. We would argue amongst ourselves, quite a lot, but they tended to respect me, or at least tolerate that quirky Tobie. I was blessed to have them.

I don't know if I would have had the courage to actually fight them. I'm not a fighter by nature. I tend to smirk quietly on the sidelines and then go off and do my own thing. You can call it discretion, or cowardice, but there it is. But because I never really suffered, I do feel obligated, just briefly, to mention this point:

They were good people. Probably not every single one of them, but in general, they tended to be sweet and well-meaning. I feel as if I know them, because some of my friends or classmates are probably going to be them in a generation. Most would cook all night for you if you needed a meal. Most were living difficult, stressful lives for their ideals. Most really wanted you to straighten out because they just didn't know what would be with you, and it would be a tragedy, rachmana litzlan, if you turned out wrong, because you were such a smart girl, such potential, such a good heart. Most were willing to go above and beyond to help you, devoting their lunches and breaks to talking to you. They may not all be smart, or tactful, or sensitive. Few of them are open-minded or understanding. Fewer still treat you as an equal. But they are sweet and they mean so very, very well.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Ran on Secular Government

Want to hear an utterly brilliant Ran? Of course you do. And because I am such a good bloggress, you are even going to get a translation and not a paraphrase:
But in my eyes, the simple explanation of the verse is thus: It is obvious that the human species needs a judge to judge its members, because without it, each man would swallow his fellow alive, and the entirety will be destroyed. And every nation needs for this purpose a civilized state (bad translation- ישוב מדיני), until the wise man said "Even a band of thieves agreed on justice between them." And Israel needs it like all the other nations. Separate from that, they need this for another purpose, and that is to firmly establish the laws of the Torah and to punish those liable for lashes or death by the court who transgress the words of the laws of the Torah, although these transgressions may not harm the state's civilization at all.
There is no doubt that for both of these sides there will be two issues. One will obligate to punishment every man according to the true law. The other, when he is not liable to punishment according to the true just law, but will obligate him to be punished according to improve the national order and according to the needs of the time.
And G-d assigned each of these issues to a special body. And commanded that judges be appointed to judge the true, just law, as it says "And they shall judge the people a just law."...And since the national order will not be complete with this alone, G-d added its repair, in the commandment of the king....
It says in the Mishna in the chapter Hayu Bodkin [that they asked the witnesses] "Did you recognize him?....Did you warn him and did he accept that warning, freeing himself for death? Did he kill within seconds afterwards?" There is no doubt that all this is right from the perspective of justice. For how can a man be killed if he did not know that he was entering into something for which there is a capital penalty and still transgressed?...But if , the transgressors are punished only in this way, the national order will be completely lost, for murderers will be numerous and will not fear punishment. And therefore G-d commanded for the sake of settling the world that a king be appointed...
And the king may judge without a warning as he sees necessary for the national welfare. Thus, the appointment of a king is the same for Israel and for the other nations that need national order, and the appointment of judges is unique and more necessary for Israel...
Awesomeness, no? I'll tell you what I thought was so cool and fun for a modern reader.
1) He frankly acknowledges what everybody tries to apologetics away: The Torah's legal code is not all that effective in the real world.
2) He breaks things down perfectly into how legal theorists divide the purposes of law: the deontological and the utilitarian. All legislation is trying to strike a balance between the two, and he makes the Torah system be just the same way.
3) Under his system, the religious norms- the victimless crimes of the religion- are designed to be basically unenforceable (okay, he has a paragraph that raises the option that the court can be extra-legal for those things, but I choose to go with his other opinion), while those things needed for society are left flexible and in human hands, to sort out with the changing state of society.
4) I like the idea of there being a body who just represents justice. Even though everybody knows that the final result isn't going to be the same, it's good to have them around reminding what strict justice would say. Kind of like the role of a largely powerless religious force in a secular country.
5) According to my Mishpat Ivri teacher, there was a great debate on this Ran between R' Chaim Ozer Grodzensky and R' Herzog. R' Herzog, I think the first chief Rabbi of Israel, wanted the Israeli legal system to incorporate aspects of Jewish law. R' Chaim Ozer, charedi and anti-Zionist, suggested using this Ran to establish a completely independent, completely secular system of criminal and civil law in the state of Israel. R' Kook seems to have taken the Ran much the same way.
6) According to the Ran's perspective, the king is a very practical, earthly sort of role. There is nothing all that divine about his purpose and therefore no reason that it should actually be an anointed, hereditary king. In fact, both R' Grodzensky and R' Kook extend the Ran to any sort of head of state, including a democratically elected one. After all, it's just like what all the other countries are doing to cater to their civilization needs. Which means that Mashiach could, in theory, be a democratically elected leader operating a thoroughly secular legal system. Which is actually just a little freaky.

Friday, June 29, 2007


I built myself a castle out of blocks,
I made each column straight and corner tight,
And brightly colored letters on the sides
Spelled out words like normal, safe, and right.

I sat and read the writing on my walls,
And slept and dreamt that it was real,
That all my words had meaning
And that all my walls were steel.

Really, angsty existential poetry almost writes itself...all you need is a boring class, a malleable metaphor, and a complete shamelessness regarding cliches. Go on, try it.... it's fun....

Thursday, June 28, 2007

How to Vote

My Constitutional Law professor raised an interesting argument today in an otherwise not particularly interesting class, which meant that I had a good hour or so to mull it over. He said that citizens, when voting, should not pick the candidates best for themselves (that is, the voters) personally, but rather the candidates best for everyone as citizens. His reasoning was that if everybody picks the person who will help them the most, then things will necessarily not be good for everyone, because everyone's personal interests necessarily conflict. If everybody picks the person best for them as citizens, on the other hand, than nobody's interests need conflict and everyone can go home happy.

What? I mean, really, what? I didn't raise the question with him, due to constraints of English, time, and energy to try to argue around any point that he has already settled in his head, but I really can't decide whether I like his argument or his conclusion less.

First the argument: Okay, maybe I just don't understand what he was saying, but the whole basis seems flawed. Do people have entirely different sets of interests as individuals and as citizens? Does government have a goal other than increasing the personal joy of all of the citizens? So either everybody's best interests necessarily conflict, in which even a candidate who really just wants what's best for everyone is going to have to favor the welfare of the majority of citizens over that of the few. Or else they don't conflict and a set of representatives chosen selfishly, given adequate representative-ness (actually, even more applicable in Israel than America), will include sufficient people pushing for everyone's selfish interests that the minority will get as much as it is efficient in terms of general happiness for them to get, via wheeling and dealing and alliances and all that good political jazz.

But even assuming his argument is correct and that more total happiness is achieved via candidates chosen for the benefits to the voter "as a citizen", I don't think that it's a smart way to vote. For one thing, you have a giant prisoner's dilemma, with every single other voter in the country having a lot of incentive to vote selfishly. If you look out for the public good only, you're probably going to end up left out. Secondly, who the heck knows what is in the public good? Can the average voter take a survey of the entire country and see which policy benefits the majority of them the most? Or perhaps is the exact same result achieved if everybody just picks the guy best for them? (It's like a survey, only easier!) Thirdly, you assume that most of the things that benefit people personally are going to be in conflict, while I think in reality at least 90% of differences in voting are based not on different selfish interests, but on different values, opinions, and beliefs about reality. Everybody wants a secure country; nobody agrees about how to get it. And so no situation is going to make everyone happy no matter how you want to slice it, and you can't pretend that less selfish voters will solve anything. Fourthly, I think the question assumes that interests 'as a citizen' are more important than 'selfish' interests- that it's more morally proper to vote your political agenda than your pocketbook. I don't buy it- the whole genius of democracy is that you get a system best for everybody by having everybody look out for themselves. Pork isn't inherently morally wrong, it's wrong because it causes more harm to the whole than it earns to the individuals and sufficiently intelligent and selfish voters will stop it just as well as altruistic ones. Democracy, certainly from the perspective of the voters, isn't about weighing the good of society, it's about a perfect balance of selfishnesses.

Yes, I acknowledge that the above statements are a bit extreme, trending towards all sorts of icky utilitarian calculus and tyranny of the many, but the principle is sound. And anyway, the flaws would in no way be solved by voters who try to guess at the greater good instead of simply taking a vote and finding it out.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


So I finally got my draft notice in the mail. I thought that it had been a little long, considering that I've been a citizen for around ten months by now, but apparently another notice had been sent to an old address (my ulpan dorms), so that this one was officially entitled "Last Warning Before Imprisonment." Charming.

Tomorrow I'm going to the base to present my letter from the Rabbinate affirming that I am just too darn religious of a female to be able to serve in the army and earning my official exemption once and for all.

I feel horribly guilty.

I mean, be honest. My religiosity is not such that it would interfere with my army service. But beyond the whole lying on official documents thing, I really and firmly believe that all citizens of Israel ought to serve in the Army. I certainly don't approve of people who say that they're too religious to serve the country, or girls who claim to have a problem with the army but refuse to do National Service either. I would have a bit of a problem dating a guy who finked out of the army in the way that I am doing.

But what can I do? I'm in the middle of university, not really at a stage in my life where I have the time or will to put my life on hold for a year or so. I have plans, I have a schedule, I'm a real-live grown-up person and just can't see myself stopping, no matter what ideological ideas I throw at myself.

I know. It's a really lame excuse. I have better ones. I have the "oh, please, does the army really desperately need another bureaucrat?" one. I have the "I'm giving this country my entire life, not to mention living a couple continents away from my family and earning half the salary I could have" one. I have one about "I couldn't do it anyway, the language barrier blah blah blah." I have one that says that had I taken potential army service into account I would never have made aliyah. I have one that blames my parents.

I don't buy any of them. The fact is, I could serve in the army. And I'm not going to. For really no good reason whatsoever.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Circles and Lines

The guided tour of the Israeli Supreme Court loves to harp on the architecture of the court and the philosophy thereof. A favorite line- much mocked among my friends and family- is "Circles and lines, circles and lines," pointing out the use of circles to symbolize justice (מעגלי צדק) and lines to symbolize law (לפנים משורת הדין). (Mocked because really, what other shapes are there to make things out of, if not circles and lines?)

Anyway, sitting in a boring ConLaw class, I decided that the metaphor really works as yet another way for me to formulate my legal/halachic/rambling philosophy. As follows:

Justice is a circle. Now, there are two ways that you can try to draw a circle. The surer way is to construct a polygon made out of lines. The more lines you use, the closer you'll get to an actual circle. But as long as you're using lines, there are going to be gaps between your polygon and the circle of justice. You can keep adding lines, but you can only use as many lines as your 'program' can support. The original Nintendo graphic circles were octagons; now they're something like 96 sided figures, maybe more. But even then you have gaps, and programs like that take up a not of memory, and you have to be really careful to make sure you're adding in the lines right, so that your figure is still transcribed inside the circle and not bulging out all over outside of that.

The other option is to try to draw your circle free-hand. Which is very tempting when you have a octagon and are sitting there staring at the gaps. But actually, it's virtually impossible for a person to draw a real perfect circle. It's bound to bulge over the real circle here, and have a huge gap there, not to mention being different every time. It may well happen that your free-hand drawing- if you're good at it- is better than the octagon, but then again maybe not. It all depends on the person drawing.

I personally like the first model better. Not only is it sure, predictable, and easy to apply, but as your system's 'memory storage' or sophistication of thought, tools, or institutions improves, you can keep drawing in more lines, or very delicately breaking up the ones you have. As opposed to the free-hand style, which is simply chaos.

Which means that law not only is not always just, but it cannot be. Because a circle cannot be perfectly matched using straight lines, especially when the number is limited by the capacity of the system. No matter how clever (or Divine) the drawer of the lines happens to be.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Zaken Mamre

Deutoronomy 17:8-13
If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, being matters of controversy within your gates, then shalt you arise and go up into the place which the LORD your God shall choose. And you shall come unto the priests, the Levites, and unto the judge who shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall show you the sentence of judgment. And you shall do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the LORD shall choose shall show you; and you shall observe to do according to all that they inform you.According to the sentence of the law which they shall teach you and according to the judgment which they shall tell you, you shall do. You shall not stray from the sentence which they shall show you to the right hand nor to the left. And the man who will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest who standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die; and you shall put away the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously.

Mishna Sanhedrin 11:2
A judge rebelling against the Great Sanhedrin is commanded in the Scripture as in Deut. xvii. 8-13: If there arise a matter too hard for you in judgment...cases come before your court that are too difficult... And in case a judge in the country had a dispute about the law with his colleagues... all of them came to the Great Sanhedrin which was in the Temple treasury, from which the law proceeds to all Israel as it reads [ibid., ibid. 10]: "From that place which the Lord will choose, and thou shalt observe to do according to all that may instruct thee." Then if the judge returns to his own city and continues his lectures as before, he is not culpable. If, however, he gives his decision for practice, he is subject to capital punishment. As it reads [ibid., ibid. 12]: "And the man that will act presumptuously," etc., which means that he is not culpable unless he decides for practice.

I testify against him, modeling my composure after the blankness of his face. I tell them what he said when we warned him of his sin: I know, my sons, I know, but what should I do? Should I hang myself on this High Court, to follow the logic of the servants and transgress the words of the Master?

I do not know how to describe the tears in his voice when he asked the question, and anyway, it is not relevant.

The judges whisper sagely to each other as if they have something to say.

We feel like school-children making solemn games out of the day's lessons. He withdraws into an invisible glass box, watching the earnest young faces debate, balanced on the knife-edge between suicide and perversion of justice.

The sentence is given in a carefully level voice, as though the judge reads a text in an unfamiliar language. The teacher nods once, with grave restraint. The glass bowl is broken in some indefinable way, and it is only then that we realize how firmly he kept himself in check. The judges stand before him for a moment uncertainly. Then the hour of departure arrives and they go their separate ways, they to live and he to die.

Before the trial, he was compactly intense, treating his prison cell as though it were his study hall. He discussed the laws of prayer in prison, the ruling on a maternal aunt’s co-wife married to a brother, questions of how to purify ovens. He committed and recommitted the crime for which they would try him, citing logic, tradition, sources to back his opinion, his colleagues looking awkwardly away. We did not know if believing that his ruling was wrong would have made it easier or not.

But after the trial, he refuses to teach his students, saying that we should not study with one whom the court has convicted. Still we hang around the prison, not knowing where else to go.

They lead him to the execution through frozen crowds that shy away from the procession as though we are lepers or seraphim, but follow behind us, another set of unwilling actors. I want to wake up and go to the study hall and have somebody explain my dream favorably. A dream of a teacher's execution, they would say, is a portent for future greatness. And then we would fall silent and wait for the lecture to begin...

A little before the end, they instruct him to confess, the passages from Joshua intoned as they have been intoned to hardened criminals and sobbing convicts. He listens as though hearing them for the first time. He asks them to help him to bow and they gently lower him onto his face.
This is his confession in the cold damp wind:

Master of the Universe, I am before Thee like a vessel full of shame. For Thy Name is desecrated daily and Thy commandments are transgressed, because I did not succeed in having my words accepted by my fellows, in punishment for my many sins. Let my death atone for all my sins and let Thy Name be sanctified through me.

Someone prompts him to confess the sin for which he will die. Should I confess, he asks, and then wait until you ask me to rule again? He who says ‘I shall sin and repent, I shall sin and repent…’

But, Rabbi, says a judge, at least confess conditionally, for who can say whether you have ruled correctly?

And he replies: And you who follow the ruling of the High Court and act as they have permitted- do you confess conditionally?

Four cubits before the end, they remove his clothes. We cannot bear to watch or look away.

They sink him in the dung up to his elbows and we tear our clothes as we would if a Torah scroll were flung to the ground. I hold my hands to keep them still.

They wrap the scarf around his neck, hand the ends to the witnesses so that our hands will be first against him. He looks up at me and quotes softly: There are two paths before me- one to heaven and one to hell and I do not know which one they will lead me on. Should I not cry?

We bury him among the adulterers, murderers, and false prophets, and our tears burn like coals in our throats.

This stab at Tannaitic fiction was brought to you by this shiur (audio file), this post, and my Mishpat Ivri class. I am aware of the anachronisms in the quotes and allusions, but I'm okay with that.