Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Zombie Rav

The New York Times's blog thinks this is interesting.

It reminds me of a discussion I had once with Lakewood Yid about the late last Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Zombie Apocalypse on a Synagogue Wall

I think it's redundant to say that no, a zombie apocalypse is not what we pray for in the second berakha of the ‘Amida when we proclaim God to be מחייה המתים, the One who Returns the dead to Life.

Feel free to hypothesize about the halakhic status of reanimated corpses (encephalophagy optional) in the comments...

Monday, August 27, 2007

Reb School Answer #1

אֲנִי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר שִׁנֵּס אֲזוֹרוֹ
וְלֹא יֶרֶף עֲדֵי יָקוּם אֱסָרוֹ...

I am the man who has tightened his belt
and will not let go until his vow is fulfilled...

Ani Ha’ish by R' Shelomo ben Yehuda Ibn-Gabirol

First day of rabbinical school.

What can I say? Sometimes these orientation speeches and introductions and inspirational shmoozes are boring. Mostly they weren't. This is a really great place. I thought I would go in nervous and anxious, maybe feeling like a faker because of my ambivalencies towards the rabbinate and its place in education.

But it was really good. Not much else to say. Unfortunately, my blogging frequency may go down again; being a student all day is a lot more time-intensive than being a teacher with a few preps, a few classes, and loads of free periods mixed in. Especially when you're trying to understand, absorb, memorize and integrate unending torrents of Halakhic rulings, realia and references. It's a lot of work. A heck of a lot of work. But I'm not scared anymore.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Canadian Cana‘anite Bacon

Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:10-12
And it will be, when God, your God, brings you to the land which he swore to your ancestors — to Avraham, Yitzhhaq, and Ya‘aqov — to give to you; great and good cities, which you did not build. And houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not hew, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant — and you will eat, and be satisfied. But be careful, lest you forget God, who took you out of Mitzrayim, from the place of slavery.

Talmud Bavli, masekhet Hhulin 17a —
And R' Yirmeya bar Aba said, Rav said (on this passage):
[The 'all good things' referred to is] strips of pig-meat.

On this statement, Rashi comments —
Dried pigs, which are called bacons.

For some reason, it seems that in the process of conquering The Land, the Israelites were permitted to just pick up and eat whatever non-kosher food was lying around the abandoned homes of the previous Cana‘anite inhabitants. And not just the produce of vines and olive trees, or even kosher species of animals — mamash treif they were allowed to eat! Bacon!

No wonder the passage continues, warning them lest they "forget God" — our food taboos are one of the strongest and most pervasive catalysts for mindfulness. As Jews, we need to be constantly aware of what's cooking on our stoves, sitting on our plates, and going into our mouths. Giving the people such a shocking appeasement to their selfish inclinations — so much wider than the eishet yefat to’ar of today's parsha — would certainly open up the danger that they might not want the period of permissibility to end.

But the idea of our Ancestors coming out of the Wilderness, conquering The Land and sitting down at their 'new' Cana‘anite tables for a meal of... ready-to-eat bacon? So weird.

käppchen-tip: my hhevrusa

Monday, August 20, 2007

Mourning on the Inside

So I've been doing this mourning thing for a number of months now, pestering my rav with unending inquiries about the laws, customs, and philosophies of aveilut.

And tonight, me and my learning-partner come across a discussion of mourning practices in our study of masekhet Sanhedrin. So we pull out the Rambam's Mishneh Tora, the Shulhhan ‘Arukh, and other halakha books, looking for later expressions of the discussion in the Talmud, and as I'm skimming through the laws and customs of mourning, it hits me — I've never actually seen them "inside".

I was hit in almost every paragraph with a flash of "oh, so that's why he told me that" or "so that's where that comes from" — my life and my father's death, in black ink on white paper.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Jarghb Well Done

This past Sunday I worked as a mashgiahh at a wedding. I had never had such a gig before, and it was a very interesting experience.

As many of the people reading this assumedly know, I am an aveil. My father passed away this past February, and I am still in the 3rd stage of mourning, the 12 months. One of the strongest practices of mourning is not going to weddings. Weddings serve as the protoype of a joyous celebratory occasion, and mourners are not supposed to attend weddings or their associated celebrations, such as sheva‘ berakhot meals.

However, Shabbat cancels aveilut restrictions, and so, while weddings themselves are problematic, wedding-associated celebrations such as an aufruf, shabbat kalla, shabbat hhatan, or a Shabbos sheva‘ berakhot, are perfectly fine. [CYLHA: consult your local halakhic authority].

So, when I received an invitation for the wedding of friends of mine, I RSVP'd not coming, and then added a note that I would love to attend the aufruf, if possible. The wedding was scheduled for Sunday, with the aufruf the Shabbos immediately preceding, and I was planning on participating in the aufruf celebration, and then spending Sunday while the wedding was going on just bumming around the city where the wedding was, meeting up with friends from Israel who now live there. That way I would be able to get some of the people who were actually attending the wedding to drive with me back to NYC, instead of trying to drive the whole way by myself.

And then, about a week and a half before the wedding, I got a call from the bride, saying that there were some kind of complications with getting a mashgiahh for the wedding, and asking if I would take the job, since I had already planned on being around with nothing much else to do. I said I would do it, and ended up meeting my friends from Israel on Shabbos, so we didn't miss out on any catch-up time.

I had a lot of fun over Shabbos, and then woke up early Sunday morning to go to minyan and then head to work. I inspected the packages of food that the caterer had brought, making sure that everything was on the list that had been approved by the officiating rav and his local kashrut organization, and checked a representative amount of the vegetables for insects.

Everything was going fine until the wedding actually started, and guests began arriving. I spent most of the time in the kitchen, learning Rashi on the parsha, reading Narn i Chîn Húrin, and keeping an eye on the ovens, stoves, and catering workers to make sure that nothing went wrong that might render the food they were making no-longer-kosher. I also set up and made sure to keep filled a washing station, since a number of people assumed that the mashgiahh would be the one to ask about such things. A few accidents happened in the kitchen, and I had to make sure that the problematic food was disposed of. But that was relatively easy.

The hard part was when I wandered out into the wedding to wish the hhatan-and-kala "mazal tov" and say hi to other friends of mine who were there. While the bride and groom had asked me if I would do the job because they needed someone and I was available, and I was trying to be as professional about it as possible with my limited experience, all of our friends assumed that we were playing some kind of aveilut loophole game — the kind where you get around a mourner's inability to attend a wedding by giving them some quick symbolic job that would take them out of the 'guest' category and into the 'assisting participant' category. People do that all the time, and I don't object to it on principle, but the idea makes me personally feel highly uncomfortable. I had sent my RSVP card back saying "not coming", and logically enough had no place card with my name on it. At no point did I participate in the dancing, sit down at a table to hang out or eat with the guests, or stand around simply mingling. I was hired to do a job. Doing my job well and making sure that nothing catastrophic occured to the food, so that the wedding ran according to plan, was my way of "being mesameiahh the hhatan and the kala". No subterfuge or fuzzy categories involved. And yet everyone I saw insisted on exclaiming about "how great it is that [I'm] able to attend the wedding after all." They simply didn't realize that I wasn't there. Steg-the-guest had no name card; he had sent his RSVP in saying 'unfortunately no'; Steg-the-mashgiahh was at work.

Speaking of work, let's move on from the angsty aveilut part of the post to the job experience part.

Being a mashgiahh was a lot of fun. It's the best excuse ever for being nosy — even better than circulating through a classroom as a teacher while students answer classwork sheets or learn in hhevruta. Being nosy was my job — the kashrut of the food depended on it! So I got to stick my face in everywhere, ask catering workers to show me stuff, read the multilingual labels on the spices, and get offered sneak previews of hors d'oeuvres. I could move around, have an interreligious discussion with the security guys, do some reading/learning, make sure the pitchers at the washing station were full, and still be present and observant in the kitchen the majority of the time, catching mistakes and preventing others from occurring.

There were a number of issues that came up where I wasn't sure what to do, and the officiating rabbi wasn't available, so I just erred on the side of stringency. It's good that I'll be learning all about the details and intricacies of kashrut this year, though, so I'll be more prepared for any other mashgiahh gigs I take in the future.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wolf's College Electives Meme

The Wolf seems to have invented a meme on the topic of college electives, and tagged me.

Here goes.

In college, I majored in Judaic Studies and Linguistics. Most of the classes I took fell into one or the other, or both, of those major requirements. Aside from the JUST and the LING classes, I also took:
Ice Skating
Religions of the World
The Dynamic Earth (an introductory geology class)
Epics: Gilgamesh to StarWars
Buried Cities & Lost Tribes (an introductory archeology class)
Elementary Logic (to fulfill the math requirement)
Introduction to Poetry
Prose Poems / Flash Fiction (creative writing)
History of the Future (a history course on trends and predictions)
Tai Chi
Musics of the World
Global Change: A Geological Perspective
Ancient Near Eatern Religions
Within my majors, I took a wide variety of classes including "Teaching English as a Second Language", "Blacks and Jews in American Cultural History", "Love, Wine, and Death" (medieval Hebrew secular poetry), "Synagogue and State", and a few courses in Sociolinguistics and Linguistic Anthropology. The Linguistics major had a requirement of a certain number of language courses, which I fulfilled by taking Hebrew, Spanish, Yiddish, Arabic, Japanese, and Irish [Gaelic].

If I were going back to college now, I would definitely take more Anthropology and Archeology. I also realized on the day of my graduation that I should have majored or minored in Geology, instead of just taking two courses; there's one GEOL professor at my university who integrated exciting field trips into all his courses, from measuring the gorges of the Finger Lakes and knocking Devonian fossils out of exposed rock by Interstate 81 to going spelunking in caves near Albany. I would also take even more Phys Ed courses. Those were fun.

Unfortunately, when I was at Hebrew University for graduate school they were fairly strict about what courses we could take. Because I was in a Jewish Education program, my 'advisor' insisted, there was no way I could take a Geology of Israel course. Todah la’Eil I was able to justify and/or sneak into my schedule a course on Biblical Research Using Computer Analysis and one on Comparative Semitic Linguistics.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Defence Against the Dark Arts

The Talmud
of Babylon
seider Neziqin
masekhet Sanhedrin
daf 17
‘amud A

Ribbí Yohhanan said:

No one is accepted to the Sanhedrin other than men of stature, men of wisdom, of appearance and age, masters of
kishuf (=forbidden harmful supernatural powers) and speakers of 70 languages...

On this statement, RaSh"Y comments:
[In order to be able] to execute mekhashefim who rely on their kishuf-powers to escape from the Court; and to expose mekhashefim who use their kishuf-powers to entice [others] and push [them away from God]...
According to this comment, it seems that the need to be 'masters of kishuf' is for the purpose of counteracting kishuf, as well as identifying it.

However, the ‘Oz Vehadar edition's "Collected RaSh"Y" feature adds another comment of RaSh"Y's on the same topic from somewheres else in the Talmud; one which my hhevruta and myself found a whole lot more intriguing:
So that if the one judged [and sentenced to execution] is a mekhasheif, and he enchants the [executioner's] sword or fire so that they will not affect him — they [=the judges of the Sanhedrin] will also use kishuf-powers to slay him by any means necessary.

(now off to read Harry Potter #7, hopefully finishing it in time for a special Harry Potter themed shalashuddess this coming Shabbos)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Indigenous Rav Soloveitchik

The Emergence of Ethical Man, R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik: pages 52-59
At this point, we may examine the unique relationship that prevails between man and earth.

First, the earth claims man; he was taken out of Mother Earth, and to her he must return.
...until you return to the ground; for out of it you were taken: for dust you are, and to dust shall you return (Gen.3:19).
mitzvah of burial indicates the validity of the demand the earth makes on man. She insists upon the return of a part of her own self. As soon as the ruah E-lokim departs man, his inanimate body must be delivered to its rightful owner.

Let us penetrate more deeply into this mysterious man-earth relationship. God put primordial man in paradise for the specific purpose of tilling and keeping it:
And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to till it and to keep it (Gen. 2:15).
Obviously the prime task of man was to cultivate the ground:
And no plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet grown: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the earth (Gen. 2:5).
The close, intimate association between man and earth is already formulated in unequivocal words. The earth serves man; as long as there was no man, vegetative life did not emerge. On the other hand, man serves the earth ... the expressions
la-avod et ha-adamah and le-ovdah u-le-shomrah both mean "to serve the earth." Paradoxically, man both serves Mother Earth and subdues her (Gen.1:28). Apparently there prevails harmony between Mother Earth and her children. They both need each other. ... Because man was created out of the earth; there was a common ontic basis of man's existence and nature-reality...

Yet this state of peace and harmony did not last long. Paradisical man enjoyed the friendship and good will of his Mother-Earth. The first sin disturbed this beautiful harmony. Man sinned in the paradise and betrayed nature...

The earth was burdened with a curse
ba-avurekha, "because of your deed." You defiled the soil, you contaminated her... "Work" no longer describes a cooperative effort on the part of man and nature; it is now a struggle with nature, a mutual dislike. Man eats the fruits of Mother Earth in sorrow and by the sweat of his brow... Nature does not trust man any more; she hates to feed him or comply with his desires. Now man begins to fight nature, to conquer her by stealing her secrets, by spying on her, by compelling her into submission... man confronts nature in a hostile, fighting mood...

Earth, nature and man flow into each other. There is complete identity of man and earth. Let us not forget that by the word "earth", we understand not just the land but nature as a whole, the entire complex of physical conditions that make man's existence possible...

...Coexistence results in co-responsibility... Man's sins as well as his good deeds are also nature's. Man can either corrupt and defile nature or sanctify her...

...Man is not a universal abstract being who roams along the infinite lanes of the cosmos without finding attachment to any part of it. He is confined to a determinate finite world; he must, like the plant, be rooted in an enclosed part of the soil and live together with nature. For man, therefore, the greatest curse is to wander from place to place, unable to take root anywhere.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Few Short Bursts about Community

I present a Biblical-Talmudic haiku, dedicated to my hhevrusa as well as to the king of judeoblogsopheric haiku, Rabbi Neil Fleischmann.

On page/side 13b of masekhet Sanhedrin in the Babylonian Talmud, there is a discussion of how many judges are necessary for the laying-on-hands ritual of the sin-offering of the par he‘eleim davar — a bull sacrificed to atone for an unintentional violation by the community as a whole due to an incorrect decision by the Sanhedrin.

In discussing the signals within the Torah's description of the semikha (yes this is also called סמיכה) that would indicate how many members of the Sanhedrin have to perform it on behalf of the entire court, it is suggested that the verb וסמכו and then they will perform-the-hand-laying is extra, and unnecessary for the verse to express its meaning. Dropping this verb, it is explained, the Torah could have easily been written זקני העדה ידיהם על ראש הפר — the elders of the community, their hands on the bull's head.

At some point during our learning it hit me that what the Gemara just did was turn this verse into the beginning of a haiku, to which we can easily add the next phrase in the verse, filling out the 5»7»5 haiku structure:
זִקְנֵי הָעֵדָֿה
יְדֵֿיהֶם עַל רֹאשׁ הַפָּר
לִפְֿנֵי יֲיֹיָי

For this to work, though, you need to count the initial shəva’ na‘ in the word ידיהם as a full vowel, as well as the hhataf in God's name.

I was thinking about the concept of ‘Ayin Hara‘ recently. Getting ready to become officially linked to an institution that has a stigma of delegitimization and demonization attached to it in certain parts of the Jewish world worries me. As things stood before last week, people would usually need to get to know me before hating me. You would need to read what I write, or talk to me, to find out that I hold such heretical beliefs as human beings being created in the image of God, and that caring about people and being a mensch are not asur mide’Oraita but are actually a basic goal of Torah.

Now, though, there are thousands and thousands of people out there who hate me. Personally. Without ever having met me. There are people calling for my death and lehavdil people writing slanderous newspaper articles. These are, in many cases, people who are supposedly part of my own community, who it would have been assumed share goals, ideals, and lenses on life with me.

This hatred hurts. It literally hurts. It always hurts to be betrayed. And so I was thinking... maybe this is what the "Evil Eye" is all about. You can hurt people with your eyes and with your mouth. When you hurt someone with your hands, when you beat them bloody and broken, you break them on the outside. When you use words, when you use body language, when you use that distancing double-take — "you're going there?" — you break them on the inside. You hurt them. You hurt their soul. You make them cynical, paranoid, and self-doubting.

Which I guess is no big deal if you believe that compassion and empathy are forbidden by the Torah.

whatever happened to the values of humanity?
whatever happened to the fairness in equality?
instead of spreading love we're spreading animosity;
lack of understanding, leading lives away from unity!
that's the reason why sometimes I'm feelin' under,
that's the reason why sometimes I'm feelin' down —
there's no wonder why sometimes I'm feelin' under,
gotta keep my faith alive till love is found...

('where is the love' by black eyed peas)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

שמע בני מוסר אביך

Oh, come on! Gimme a break.

Why does Hhakham ‘Ovadya Yoseif keep on saying things that make him seem not so hhakham? This goes far beyond some other famous rabbis' lack of tact in explaining halakhic concepts...

From the Jerusalem Post:
Yosef made the statement in the context of a major Halachic campaign he is currently engaged in as to when women should recite the blessing over the Shabbat candles.

Many prominent Ashkenazi rabbis, along with a few Sephardic sources, have ruled that women should say the blessing after lighting the candles. However, according to Yosef, the blessings should be said before the candles have been kindled, similar to other blessings.

Yosef blasted the opposing view, saying it was based on the opinion of "a few stupid women. A woman's knowledge is only in sewing," he ridiculed. "Women should find other jobs and make hamin (cholent) but not deal with matters of Torah."

In addition, he admonished women for following in the steps of their mothers in the order of the recitation of the blessing instead of adhering to his opinion.

"It has to be announced that women should not listen to the voice of their mothers or grandmothers not to continue with this mistake," he warned.

What ever happened to ואל תטוש תורת אמך?

Mishley 1:8 / Mishley 6:20