Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Welcome to the Future

First there was the Internet,
already predicted (among many other facets of 21st-century life!) in its contemporary form by David Brin in his novel Earth.

And then we partied like it's 1999!
(that's Will Smith's brilliant takeoff on Prince's "1999")

Then we had our first hand transplant.
Amusingly enough, not long after the newsworthy procedure took place, a certain science-fiction TV show that shall go unnamed had an episode in which a character was unrecoverably injured in their hand. Or lost their hand in an accident. Or something along those lines. Anyway, part of the plot was trying to deal with the loss of the hand, and the flaky attempts to use crappy mechanical replacements. So I'm watching this episode, and thinking, why the heck don't they just give the guy a hand transplant?

So now I hear about this face transplant in France?
Barukh hu’ haborei’ — avinu, bore’einu, yotzereinu, hatzayar ha‘elyon — asher hhalaq mikohhotav lebanav!

However, I am proud to say that the clearest sign that we are now living in the Future is part of a homework assignment written by one of my students. As an 'everyday example' of how a historical gap can complicate attempts to understand and interpret a text or other form of communication, one of them wrote:
"If I was talking to someone from the 20th century it would be hard for me to understand how the world was back then.
[However,] if I was talking to Sam who is from my century we would understand each other."

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

המחזיר נשמות

Yall may remember my post אלוהיי נשמה from almost three weeks ago about an article in the Autumn 5766/2005 issue of Azure. In Soul of Fire: A Theory of Biblical Man, Ethan Dor-Shav describes a theory of the soul based on a close reading of the different uses of terms for 'soul' in the Tanakh.

Anyway, as an aid to help me remember the theory (since it's so cool), I made up a convenient table, charting out the different souls, elements, and associations laid out in Dor-Shav's article.

And guess what?

Only a few days later, I get an email from the Shalem Center — the people who publish Azure — saying that the article's author appreciated the chart I made! They also encouraged me to write a letter to the editor, but the one question I had about the content of the article was quickly answered by pointing me to the footnotes. They also offered to send me a free copy of the issue with the article in it!

My Azure arrived yesterday.

Thanks, Shalem Center people!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


16 kisleiv 5765

i am proud to be an american
i am ashamed to be an american

blood on red coats
and on "red" skins

skin beating down the black

as the sky over new york city
slivers between the skyscrapers
when it's not too cloudy to see

from the rising-place of the sun
unto the place it sets
from sea to shining sea
i am america
born in sin
raised on the streets
drunk on destiny
clouded by hubris

trying to do the right thing
in a wrong wrong world

i am older now
i see things through many eyes
things as they might have been
and i slouch towards a distant future
hoping to be reborn

Monday, November 21, 2005

This Won't Ruin Our Rep, Will It?

As we all know, New York City has a reputation for being a tough place. Full of graffiti and crime, bad drivers and pushy people, it's so bad that when my New York-raised father was living out in the Southwest during his 20's, parents wouldn't let him date their daughters because they assumed that anyone from Brooklyn must be a thug!

As expressed in the musical Rent:
New York City —
center of the universe!
Times are sh—y,
but I'm pretty sure they can't get worse.
It's a comfort to know,
when you're singing the hit-the-road blues,
that anywhere else you could possibly go
after New York would be
a pleasure cruise...

Or as the rap artist Lil Kim sings
about my home borough of Brooklyn:
...know who you f— with
Brooklyn don't run, we run s—
roll up and just bum rush it
we don't play that
out in BK not at all
four pound leave your face on a wall
RIP in memory of
never show thy enemies love
we get it on where we live
better have a pass when you cross that bridge
welcome to Brooklyn...

But how are we supposed to keep up our tough guy reputation when our own local news station reports something like this?!
November 21, 2005

New York has boasted being one of the country's safest cities for years, and now it has more proof.

According to a new survey, New York is among the top five safest large cities in the nation. The study was done by a Kansas-based group which ranks cities in six categories, including the number of murders, rapes and other violent crimes.

The survey shows that among cities with more than 500,000 people, New York comes in fourth behind San Jose, California; El Paso, Texas; and Honolulu. Austin, Texas, rounded out the top five.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most dangerous large city, according to the survey, is Detroit, followed by Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Camden, New Jersey, was listed as the most dangerous city overall for the second year in a row.

Oh well. Welcome to wimpyville. Aloha, Honolulu.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

No This Is Not Tobypalooza
(Defending Uncle Ishmael)

Bereishit/Genesis 21:9

ותרא שרה את בן הגר המצרית
אשר ילדה לאברהם מצחק

Sara saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian,
who she [=Hagar] had born to Avraham, playing.

Tosefta Sota pr.6:

Ribbí Shim‘on bar Yohhai taught:

Ribbí ‘Aqiva explained, 'playing' — 'playing' signifies nothing but idolatry, as it says, "and they got up to play". This teaches that Sara saw Yishma‘eil building a platform and hunting grasshoppers and sacrificing [them] to idolatry.

Ribbí El‘azar son of Ribbí Yosey Hagelili says, 'playing' signifies nothing but forbidden sexual relationships, as it says "the Hebrew slave came to me... to play with me". This teaches that Sara saw Yishma‘eil making conquests of the girls and abusing the women.

Ribbí Yishma‘eil says, 'playing' signifies nothing but murder, as it says, "...'Let the young men get up and play before us.' And then Yo’av said, 'let them get up!' And they got up and passed in numbers... and each grabbed the head of the other... and they fell together". This teaches that Sara saw Yishma‘eil taking arrows and throwing, and attempting to kill Yitzhhaq, as it says "as a madman who shoots firebrands, arrows and death".

But I say [says Ribbí Shim‘on bar Yohhai], the term 'playing' here signifies nothing but inheritance — when Yitzhhaq was born, [people] were saying, "a son has been born to Avraham who will take two portions [as firstborn inheritor]!" But Yishma‘eil would play/joke/mock, and say, "I am the firstborn, I will inherit two portions!" I learn this from the response, as it says, "[Sara] said to Avraham, 'kick out that servant and her son, for the servant's son will not inherit with my son, Yitzhhaq'."

I saw this midrash on Shabbos. I was blown away, and repeated it as a devar tora at lunch. Everyone likes quoting the beginning of it, about Uncle Yishma‘eil doing all these horrible transgressions. But no one ever quotes the end, where Ribbí Shim‘on bar Yohhai says straight out that all the other rabbis are wrong. Yishma‘eil wasn't a demonic figure. He was just unchosen.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The ‘Aqeida: I Still Don't Get It

Warning from my Brother:
"your phraseology is very strong
too strong for the faint of heart perhaps"

תתן אמת ליעקב, חסד לאברהם
אשר נשבעת לאבותינו מימי קדם

You give truth to Ya‘aqov, kindness to Avraham;
as you swore to our ancestors in ancient days.

Trey-‘Asar, Mikha 7:20

Avraham Avinu failed the test.

I came to that conclusion in high school.
I haven't been able to shake myself out of it since.

Avraham is supposed to be the epitome of hhesed — of 'lovingkindess' as fancy old translations have it. He is given that title in the Qabbala, as a representative of the Sphere of Hhesed, placed in opposition to Gevura. Kindness before Strength. Mercy before Justice. And it's not like they made this up out of nothing but the fumes of coffee! After all, this is Avraham's legacy to us, that we are (in theory, at least) a people of mercy and kindness.
And we've seen Avraham Avinu act in that role already in the Torah — he opens his home to strangers, exerting himself in the hottest part of the day even though he is ninety-nine years old (and according to tradition had just been circumcised three days earlier); he agonizes over having to kick out Hagar and Yishma‘eil; and he argues God all the way down to the bargain sum of ten righteous people for whom Sedom and its sibling-cities of evil would be saved from righteous and just punishment. He just won't shut up. He just won't take 'no' for an answer, and keeps on going, lowering the number over and over again, needling and nagging the Omnipotent in order to save an entire society built around oppression for the sake of a few possibly good people among them.

Shall the Judge of all the Earth not do true Justice?
Shall the epitome of Kindness
not bring Kindness into the world?

But he doesn't!
That's what I just don't understand...

Avraham fought with the Supreme Judge, accused God of perpetuating the oppression of Sedom by bringing a miscarriage of justice against those of its inhabitants who were undeserving of punishment.

He defended murderers and rapists
from righteous payback for their crimes,
but did nothing to save his
own innocent son from death???

He just does what God told him. He doesn't argue. He doesn't look for loopholes (after all, technically all God told him to do was to "raise him up", not slaughter him). He just goes with it, early in the morning. Zerizin maqdimin lemitzvot. And he would have gone through with it! He tied him up, put him on the altar, had the wood and the fire ready. Avraham lifted up the knife to kill his own son, the only heir to the berit, who he loves, Yitzhhaq — and God stopped him at the last moment.

He's supposed to be the symbol of lovingkindness. But he was ready to slaughter his own son in cold blood. What love is that? What kindness is that? He loves the evildoers of Sedom and the horny king of Gerar, but he doesn't love the son and heir he waited all those long years to have?

The prophet Mikha says:
You give truth to Ya‘aqov, kindness to Avraham;
as you swore to our ancestors in ancient days.

Why would God give someone something that they already embody?

No matter what people say, Ya‘aqov Avinu was not the epitome of Truth. He lied to his old blind father. He used reproductive subterfuge to impoverish his [admittedly bigger of a liar] uncle. He lied to his brother. He was a trickster, not a man of truth. But as any old trickster will tell you, you can't live off charm and wits forever. Eventually the truth must assert itself. And so in his descendents, God fills in the truth that Ya‘aqov was missing.

Avraham was a great man of hhesed. He fought for justice and mercy. But when it really mattered, he just followed orders.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


This has been pointed out periodically by others "in the know", but let me just cross-post to Mis-Dakdek an educational kvetš about the word אלוה.

is pronounced
and not

The letter ה with a mapiq dot in the middle and a patahh underneath at the end of a word works exactly the same as a ח or ע at the end of a word with a patahh underneath.

So just like ״נֹחַ״ is pronounced NÓAHH
and ״שָׂמֵחַ״ is pronounced SAMÉIAHH,
״לִשְׁמוֹעַ״ is pronounced LISHMÓA‘

(not LISHMO‘Á)
and ״גָּבוֹהַּ״ is pronounced GAVÓAH
(and ״גְּבוֹהָה״ is GEVOHÁ in comparison)

Therefore, be aware:
when you say "ELOHÁ",
you are not saying ״אֱלוֹהַּ״ —
you are actually saying ״אֱלוֹהָה״!
(assuming you're using a dialect that doesn't distinguish patahh and qomatz)

Now, addressing the Creator of Worlds as "Goddess" instead of "God" may be fine if you're an iber-feminist or a Shekhina-worshipper, but I'm pretty sure that most people doing so don't actually know what they're doing. So be careful with pronunciation so that you don't accidentally make a theological statement you're not willing to stand behind.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Επίκουρος Inside Us All

A relevance-enriched devar tora In the name of the Chief Rabbi of New FFD"M, in the name of R' Dessler:

Ribbi El‘azar, in Pirqey Avos, says da‘ ma shetashiv l’epiquros — 'know what you will answer a heretic'. But what's the point of that? People generally don't convince each other of anything when it comes to belief. And they don't even really listen to each other, anyway, as we can see from all the arguments people have about belief in the Djudeoblogosphere. You've got the Defenders of the Faith versus the Kofrim, and the Skeptical Believers versus the Hhareidi Apologists, and the MO Rationalists versus the MO Chassids... and let's not forget the Orthodox versus the Heterodox and the Feminists versus the Cartmanists! (no links... yall don't need me to tell yall who's who)

So, according to this devar tora, the point of "know what to answer" isn't to answer someone else's apikorsiše qushiyot, but your own! Everyone has questions and problems with their own belief system. You can't ignore those things, because then they just go subconscious and gnaw away at you unhealthily from the inside. Instead, what you need to do is take them out in the open, analyze them, and work on finding solutions. In other words, what Godol Hador (blogó livrakha) used to do until recently.

Now to the parsha. Vayeira’.
Specificly, Bereishit/Genesis 18:15 —
And then Sara denied it, saying, "I did not laugh!"
— because she was afraid —
And he responded, "Oh yes you did laugh!"

When Sara Imeinu heard that she would be giving birth soon, she laughed incredulously. Avraham was too old [and so was she], and she, logically had doubts as to how this prediction would come true. She had doubts, just like we do today. The only problem was, though, that she tried to hide it. She tried to deny it, saying "I did not laugh." But that's not how you deal with questions. Questions need to be dealt with out in the open. They need to be answered — or at least the attempt needs to be made. And that process, that struggle, that dialectic, is nothing to be ashamed of.

Godol is a brave man, hacking his way through the pardes like that.
His doubts, questions, and answers are already missed.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

אלוהיי נשמה

Go read about an interesting new theory of the soul, and how our ancestors understood it at the time of the Tanakh, at Azure! It's a 'multiple soul' theory, and while I'm generally more partial to the 'single soul' theory of R' Moshe ben Maimon, this one sounds good to me too. Probably because it doesn't distinguish between the souls or soul-levels of Jews and Non-Jews, as some later cosmologies do. And it fits in well with the earthy/hippy "Indigenous" trend in contemporary Judaism that I'm a fan of.

Soul of Fire: A Theory of Biblical Man
(you may have to free-register)

In short, the author, Ethan Dor-Shav (nice Zionistic name!), distinguishes between the different words used for 'soul' in Biblical Hebrew, associating them each with a primal element as well as a realm of the universe:
Realm:[Verdant] EarthShe’ol/TehomAirHeaven
Found In:Plants and AnimalsAnimalsBreathing Animals
(not fish or insects)
Human Beings
Social RelationsSpeaking
Form of
Passed on
to Others
with God

PS: If there's a mistake in my chart, tell me in the comments!
PPS: Biur Chametz blogged about this first, and I was alerted to the original article by my brother

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Back-Time: Solar Haiku (太陽「=日」の俳句)

(inspired by Rabbi Fleischmann's artisticness)

The Unconquered Sun
Sets behind the Palisades
Scared of my City