Friday, November 30, 2007

Adventures in Jewish Bigotry II

Why am I posting to my blog this late at night?

Because I had a fairly disturbing experience tonight when learning with my hhevruta in a beit midrash with a number of somewhat Yeshivish high school students around.

One of the students called another one the N word, and my hhevrusa objected. So we got into a long annoying conversation trying to explain to these kids why using racial slurs is inappropriate. Luckily, some of them understood what we were saying and may have even gotten the message. Others, though, were completely racist, and justified their use of the slur by claiming that it's fine to say accurately-negative things about people who "deserve" it. A few tried to pull that Hham was cursed nonsense out, but I smacked them down by quoting the actual verse and revealing to them the fact that Cana‘an, who was cursed, actually looked just like us and not like Sub-Saharan Africans or African-Americans.

For some strange reason, the crazier ones of them seemed to think that sticking up for the humanity of human beings is something that only "leftist treehuggers" do, but I corrected them when they asked my hhevruta if he is such a person — he's actually a Republican, while I'm the Leftist Treehugger. Which brought up other political issues which I wasn't interested in discussing, such as the War in ‘Irāq, Gay Marriage, and Gun Control.

I'm hoping that we changed a few minds, at least a little bit, and impressed upon some of them the need for sensitivity and recognition of humanity. Even if you insist that the ethnic slur you're using is only being used to refer to the "bums" of that group, that doesn't excuse it — because that's not what people think when they hear it. Slurs are nivul peh (linguistic self-degradation), and using them even to refer to a supposedly "appropriate" subset of a group is mar’it ‘ayin (causing other people to suspect you of doing something wrong even if what you're doing may technically be okay).

But what shocked me the most was one kid's insistence that there's no value, need or obligation to be a nice person. It's like the idea of being a mensch wasn't even on his radar. I blurted out "Are you [even] Jewish?!" when he said that, which probably wasn't the right thing to say (because it may imply that other people don't also need to act human), but there's a reason why we in particular call it "being a mensch" — acting like a caring, mutually-respectful member of a human civilization is one of the primary goals of Yahadut! It always shocks me when people don't understand that what God wants from us is to care about and respect each other.

So I'm just going to go with the hope that the fact that they call me "Mr. [LastName]" is a sign that they consider me a respectable adult (as opposed to it being because they don't know my firstname, or my simply being older and balding or something), and somehow that might give my and my hhevruta's words more weight than if it were just him, who they grew up with and probably consider just one of the guys. Even if I am an UnYeshivish Leftist Treehugger. And when I (iy"H) get semikha and become a rabbi, I can claim Da‘as Torah, and they'll have to listen to me!...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Me And My Cosmic Secrets


I remember when I was in high school wondering why the Hebrew word for "astrology" was itztagninut and not something expected like asterologya. I discovered a possible reason why a week or few ago, when my hhevruta (study partner) and I encountered the word איצטגניני "astrologers" in our study of masekhet Sanhedrin, and I pulled out the Steinsaltz to see if he has one of his very interesting and illuminating (at least if you're a linguist like me) comments on etymology.

R' ‘Adin Even-Yisra’eil Steinsaltz explains that the origin of the word itztaginut (or istagninut) in its various forms is unclear, but some see it as a borrowing of a Greek word meaning "hidden" or "concealed", which I happen to know comes from a root meaning basically "cover" or "roof" (and which is distantly cognate to the English word thatch) —

σ τ ε γ ά ν ο ς
s t e g á n o s


I'm a poor student... how asur do you think it actually would be to make some extra cash working for Miss Cleo? ;-)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"This" Little Midrash Went To Market

Even when God brings tragedy to earth — whether as a well-deserved punishment or an unexplained piece in the great puzzle — God is there to comfort us, as is written,

עמו אנכי בצרה
I am with him in his distress,

and as is written at the birth of Noahh:

זה ינחמנו ממעשנו
ומעצבון ידינו
מן האדמה אשר אררה יייי

This will comfort us from our labor,
and from the pain of our hands' efforts —
from the ground which God cursed.

ואין „זה“ אלא ה'!

And "This" is none other than God, as we know from the Song at the Sea, when the Israelites pointed with their fingers, identifying their Rescuer, and sang,

זה א-לי ואנוהו
This is my God, whom I will glorify...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Turkey For God — 'Cause It's Good!

הודו לה' כי טוב
(כי לעולם חסדו)
[credit must go to habib of kiwijewpundit]
(note: תרנגול־הֹדּוּ doesn't actually have anything to do with the verb הוֹדֿוּ)

For the second year in a row I davened Shahharit this morning at the Spanish-Portuguese Shul of New Amsterdam York. No Tahhanun. Prayers for the governments. Semi-pseudo-Hallel at the end. Cupcakes and hot chocolate...

...The wonderful display of his [=God's] divine providence, “in the course and conclusion of the late war;” the happy consequences derived therefrom, by an establishment of public liberty; the recent mercies conferred on these states, by the general approbation and adoption of the new constitution, are (ALL) blessings that demand our most grateful acknowledgments to the Supreme Ruler of the universe; more especially, as we are made equal partakers of every benefit that results from this good government; for which, we cannot sufficiently adore the God of our fathers, who hath manifested his care over us in this particular instance; neither can we demonstrate our sense of his benign goodness, for his favourable interposition in behalf of the inhabitants of this land, and for every other kind dispensation bestowed both on them and us...

...From that period
[=the destruction of the Second Commonwealth] even till now, our predecessors have been, and we are still at this time in captivity among the different nations of the earth; and though we are, through divine goodness, made equal partakers of the benefits of government by the constitution of these states, with the rest of the inhabitants, still we cannot but view ourselves as captives in comparison to what we were formerly, and what we expect to be hereafter, when the outcasts of Israel shall be gathered together...

...From the foregoing, you will naturally observe the duties we owe our Creator: it now remains to point out the duties which we owe to ourselves, the community to which we belong.

In the first place, it is necessary that we, each of us in our respective stations, behave in such a manner as to give strength and stability to the laws entered into by our representatives; to consider the burden imposed on those who are appointed to act in the executive department; to contribute, as much as lays in our power, to support that government which is founded upon the strictest principles of equal liberty and justice. If to seek the peace and prosperity of the city wherein we dwell be a duty, even under bad governments, what must it be when we are situated under the best of constitutions?...
from the Thanksgiving Day Sermon
of Hazzan Gershom Mendes Seixas
of Congregation Shearith Israel, New York
November 26, 1789
(as printed in the New York Daily Gazette)

The only downside was after davening, and getting a tour of a friend of mine who's a teacher at Beit Rabban next door's classroom, I headed outside on the synagogue's porch to watch The Parade... and then immediately realized oh wait, it's a parade... with marching bands and stuff... not so aveilut-appropriate... Ohwell. Maybe next year (if the weather's as nice as it is today).

יהא שלמא רבא מן שמיא
חיים ושבע וישועה ונחמה
ושיזבא ורפואה וגאולה וסליחה וכפרה
וריוח והצלה
לנו ולכל ישראל

ולכל יושבי המדינות המאוחדות האלו

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Overheard in the Beit Midrash

“Just because you
 can't taste
ta‘am after shishim,
 that doesn't mean God can't!”

ta‘am טעם = 'taste', a recognition attesting to the presence of a substance
shishim שישים = 'sixty', the 1-to-60 ratio at which ta‘am legally disappears

There is a dispute in the Gemara as to whether identical substances can be בטל bateil 'nullified' in each other, the way that one substance can be nullified in a different substance by a ratio so overwhelming that the taste can no longer be discerned.

The source of the opinion that מין במינו אינו בטל, 'a substance in its own type is not nullified', comes from Vayiqra’/Leviticus 16:18, where after mixing together the blood of a goat sacrifice with the blood of a much larger bull sacrifice, the Torah describes the Kohein Gadol utilizing "the blood of the bull and the blood of the goat" — as if they are still distinct! — instead of just "the [blended] blood".

Hence, just because you can't taste the difference, it doesn't mean that God can't.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


mass rabbinic arrest
mass rabbinic a.c.d.
mass rabbinic impact
mass rabbinic closure

Well, it's over.

Seven months ago, 22 people — mostly rabbis, with a few rabbinical students and a non-rabbinic community leader or two — were arrested in an act of civil disobedience obstructing pedestrian traffic outside the UN in order to protest the government of Iran.


Six months ago, those same protesters appeared in court and were granted Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal — an automatic retroactive dismissal of charges contingent on staying out of trouble for six months.

Today was their ACD day.

However, I think it's safe to assume that the story doesn't quite end here. The government of Iran's terrorist proxy machinations and nuclear aspirations continue. How will Jewish leaders take a stand next time? Stay tuned...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Friend's Midrash On Jacob's Awakening

Bereishit/Genesis 28:16-17

וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹבֿ מִשְּׁנָתֿוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר
אָכֵֿן יֵשׁ –ֲ –ֹ –ָ – בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה
וְאָנֹכִֿי לֹא יָדָֿעְתִּי:
וַיִּירָא וַיֹּאמַר
מַה נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה
אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּיתֿ אֱ–ֹ –ִ ים
וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם:

“And then Jacob awoke from his sleep, and said,
'Truly, God is in this place,
and I did not know.'
And then he became awestruck, and said,
'How awe-inspiring is this place!
This is nothing other than a house of God,
and this is the gate of the heavens!'”

אל תקרא „משנתו“ אלא „ממשנתו“!

Do not read “from his sleep” —
instead, read “from his learning”!

Many times in learning we can get lulled into an intellectual relay-race, and lose sight of the divinity, meaning and values that are buried in and grow out of the texts of our tradition. There is a midrashic claim that Ya‘aqov spent many years in the "Yeshiva of Sheim and ‘Eiver" on his way from home to Hharan... but it took the kind of kick-in-the-pants that you can only get in a dream of ladders and angels, where God stands over you, to make him finally wake up and realize that truly, God is in this place.

For more contemporary midrashic action,
check out the team at Sefer Ha-Bloggadah.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What Are You Eating?

וכן היה רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר:

קרביים לאו בשר, ואוכליהם לאו בר אינש!

And so Rabban Shim‘on ben Gamli’eil would say:

Guts are not meat,
and those who eat them are not human!

(Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 54b)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

What Happened Here?

Was it Prof. Plum in the Study with a Wrench??

Secrets to be revealed after enough guesses are made...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

"The Golden Compass": An Anti-Narnia?

There's a movie coming out in about a month called The Golden Compass, based on the novel Northern Lights (a.k.a. The Golden Compass in the USA... what's with these useless 'translations' of British books? First Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Sorceror's Stone, and now this too?)

It seems that some people are worried that the series it comes from, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, has an antireligious bias, and have begun refering to it as some kind of "Anti-Narnia". Of course, as we know, one person's pro-religious allegory is another person's anti-religious allegory, so I was interested in looking around to see what I could find about this children's series by an author who has been described as an outspoken Atheist, using his novels to draw children away from God.

So I looked it all up on Wikipedia.

First impression:
Haphazard conglomeration of references.

A Roma (Gypsy)-like culture, called 'Gyptians'? Sentient warrior polar bears? Seemingly random terminology and names that look Norse, Italian, or English, all mixed together? Metatron? Enoch? How eclectic do you want to get?

Second impression:
The series isn't anti-religious per se. It's Gnostic.

The big bad guy at the end of the story is an evil creator-being that makes believe it's a God, violating the true cosmic order that lies behind it? The identification of that 'demiurge' creator with Hashem? I don't see what all the Christians are so worked up about. It seems to be more readable as anti-us. But hey, that's nothing new.