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.