Friday, November 19, 2010

To all the PDA’s I’ve loved before

I’m writing from my new Droid 2 phone. It’s funny that we call these things phones. They’re basically pretty powerful pocket computers.
I bought my first pocket electronic organizer in the late 90’s. It was the original Palm Pilot. You really had to sync that sucker with your desktop on a regular basis. The memory only worked as long as there was charge left in the battery. As soon as the charge died, poof, the memory was gone.
I once got a cute girl’s number, put it in my Palm Pilot, and then promptly forgot to sync or charge it. The next day, her number was gone. The next time I saw her was 2 years later and I was already happily dating my now wife. She acted a bit chilly, but I didn’t bother to explain why I never called – it would have seemed lame.
Of course, I’m old enough to remember wanting to get this:
Not that I would really have done much with it at age 11 or so, but I thought it was really cool. It was just a glorified calculator in some ways.
Since my Palm Pilot, I had 3 more Palm OS devices, the last of which was also my first phone/pda combo. I then had a 2 year affair with Blackberry and now I am infatuated with Android.
For your entertainment value, here are all of my PDA’s in the last 12 years, in chronological order:

Monday, October 25, 2010

Can you be Orthodox and take off your clothes on TV?

The scandal of Petrackgate has been livening up the Jblogosphere for weeks. In brief:
Esther Petrack, an 18 year old Modern Orthdox girl from Boston applied and was accepted as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model. In her audition interview, shown on the show, she was (falsely, as it turned out) shown saying she would put aside Shabbat observance in order to compete. That caused a huge uproar. But even after the misleading editing which caused that impression was revealed, the Jblogosphere still chatters away about the whether she can be considered Orthodox or not, given her parading around in her underwear and other skimpy outfits.
Here’s my take: 
First, so you have some understanding of my perspective, I have no problem with mixed swimming or women wearing bikinis on the beach or at the pool. And men will look at and admire attractive, scantily-clad women. That’s just natural. We’re all human. But this is different.
I’ve never seen the show (except the clip of Esther shown on YouTube, linked to on many blogs). But a show that makes young girls, in their teens or barely out their teens, stand in skimpy clothing to be judged is demeaning and objectifies women. This is irrespective of Jewish communal or halachic expectations and irrespective of the religion or background of the participants. 
That being said, within the context of the show, I don’t feel that Esther is doing anything worse than the other girls. They’re all being misled into participating in a show that encourages voyeurism. She made a bad decision, but because it would be a bad decision for anyone, not just Jews. And also within that context, she is to be commended for at least holding onto her shmirat shabbat & kashrut.
But as to the show itself? It’s the gawking and voyeurism and objectification of ANY young girls on this show that I have a problem with, not just Esther.
I neither condemn or embrace Esther. I think shows like ANTM are idiotic and objectify women. And most reality shows are an utter waste of time, with their main appeal being voyeurism.  
That being said, I don’t judge her any more than any non-Jew who might be on the show. They’re all participating in nonsense. But that’s from my personal perspective, not from a Jewish perspective. I don’t think she did anything that particularly shames Orthodox Judaism.
A final thought; Which of these objectifies women more?  
1) A voyeuristic reality show that asks young girls barely out of their teens (if even that) to show off their bodies and flash their underwear to be “judged”  
2) A stream of thought in charedi Judaism that reduces 90% women’s religiosity to obsessing over what they wear, with schools inspecting the girls and judging them, and telling them that the men they are supposed to bear babies for and work to support in kollel see them all as sex objects.
Comments from old blog:
  1. Dov Kramer
    October 25, 2010 at 11:55 pm | #1
    Reply | Quote | Edit
    Putting aside the issue brought up by the title (the real question is not whether you can be OJ and model the way she is, but whether doing so is consistant with OJ values; she could be OJ without sticking 100% to OJ values), I’d like to comment on your “final thought.”
    1) You are comparing partaking in a venture that contributes to the objectification with making girls aware that this objectification takes place. If such objectification takes place, this is not contributing towards it, it is trying to minimize it.
    2) The message isn’t (or shouldn’t be; I’m not there when the message is delivered) that they are “seen as sex objects,” but that there is a danger that they could be. If objectification can take place when women dress modestly, how much more so if they didn’t; the goal is to help others see them for their real value and not be distracted if/when they notice a girl’s legs or neckline.
    3) Aside from “90%” being an obviously exaggerated number (I wouldn’t disagree if you complained that they are taught that their religious value depends upon the religious success of their husband and children rather than their own), It is not what they are taught that would make them “seen as sex objects.” The schools are merely communicating an issue that may or may not exist, not causing it.
    This “thought” seems more like a clever way to take a pot shot at the Chareidi community than raising an issue that could be addressed (and corrected).
  2. October 31, 2010 at 7:27 am | #2
    Reply | Quote | Edit
    back when i was a bt (as opposed to now in which i am totally and happily otd) i was told that an orthodox jew is defined by keeping kashrut, shabbat and holidays. and of course, for married women, keeping taharat hamishpacha. a woman dressing or not dressing according community standards (which differ greatly from one orthodox community to the next)has nothing to do with upholding the basic laws.
    you might want to mention also, that the forced humiliation suffered by many women (who are then denied the benefit of higher education and are spiritual and emotional slaves to the men leading these communities) at the mikvah is a whole lot worse than posing in a swimsuit.
  3. Dov Kramer
    October 31, 2010 at 9:24 pm | #3
    Reply | Quote | Edit
    I’m sorry to hear about the poor experience(s) you’ve had at a mikveh. My wife tells me that the mikveh in our town does a very good job, but that others are very uncomfortable. I myself, don’t go to the mikveh as much as I would otherwise go if the setup was more dignified, but the setup for men is, I understand, very different then for women.
    Can I ask what made the experience humiliating? I fully understand if you don’t want to share, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to understand what it was like, in case I can ever help make the experience better for others.
  4. Kaguya
    November 11, 2010 at 2:36 pm | #4
    Reply | Quote | Edit
    I think everything here is very eloquently stated. I really like this.
    The objectification of women on both ends is problematic. Not showing is not necessarily better. It is more about what value judgments are being upheld or addressed behind the messages (both verbal and not).
    On another note, I do remember that I was totally revolted by many billboards on major streets in LA. Without exaggeration, I felt like most of it was embarrassingly pornographic and I really didn’t like that. At the same time, I don’t appreciate being told that revealing any flesh at all (including my voice) is problematic because it “arouses” men. I find that the problem with this message is also that it tends to get metaphorically understood as well, causing women to keep quiet about their thoughts and to devalue themselves. No, I’m really not for that. I am not an auxiliary to my husband, and would never want to be. (I happened to know that he also would hate that. ;)
  5. robert
    November 18, 2010 at 8:54 pm | #5
    Reply | Quote | Edit
    “…a show that makes young girls, in their teens or barely out their teens, stand in skimpy clothing to be judged is demeaning and objectifies women.”
    I believe that your protestation of the show is a bit excessive. No one is forcing the girls to participate in the show, they are there voluntarily. Modelling is by its very nature a profession in which the model willfully turns themself into an object to display whatever it is they are modelling, be it clothes, undergarments, accessories or even their bodies. To force someone to do it would be demeaning; to willfully turn yourself into an object is a valid pursuit and career choice. Just ask any model, they will tell you there is nothing demeaning about it. Its like saying being a professional waiter is demeaning b/c you are forced to serve others.
    As a further point, I have never watched ANTM, but my understanding is that a major part of the show is dedicated to getting to know the contestants on a more personal level, thus obviating your charge of their being objectified.
  6. robert
    November 18, 2010 at 9:08 pm | #6
    Reply | Quote | Edit
    I agree with your critique of the obsession with tzniut in the more right wing circles. I believe that there are two foundations to the laws of tzniut:
    1. Men are pigs who are incapable of controlling themselves.
    2. women are sexual objects.
    I would prefer if there were no laws of tzniut, and adult women would be left to their own devices as to what constitutes proper dress. The notion that elbows and knees MUST be covered while the face can be uncovered, I find to be absurd.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Kohanim and the women they love

Over Yom Tov I was chatting with a kohen who’s an acquaintance of mine. He’s in his mid-50’s and single. He really wants to get married, but there are very few prospects for him. He’s not insistent on marrying a younger woman who can still have kids. He makes an OK living and is a nice guy, but wouldn’t be considered a top “catch” by most.
However, in his age bracket, so many of the women he’d normally be able to date are out of bounds to him because of his status as a kohen. So he can’t date anybody who’s divorced, which is a really tough thing, because he’d like a family and recognizes that he’s not likely to have any biological kids of his own. He’d love to be a stepdad to kids of any age, young or grown, and be able to have a real family sitting around the Shabbat or Yom Tov table. But because he can’t date divorced women, he sadly envisions a future of, at best, just him and a wife. Widows are in relatively short supply. And even among the never-married women, many of them are off-limits because they’ve had a physical relationship with someone non-Jewish in the past, usually before they became more religious.
And that brings up another issue, of course, that being the probing into the sexual history of any woman who might date a kohen. The discomfort of having to disclose things like that is huge. It also forever relegates women who are ba’alot tshuva to second tier status. The frum community makes assumptions about their sexual history and either doesn’t bother to set them up with kohanim or feels no qualms about asking them personal questions that they’d never dream of asking their “pure” FFB daughters. (Or of asking men, making the whole thing quite sexist.) But in this day and age, not all of those FFB girls are so “pure” either. Some have had sexual relationships with men who aren’t Jewish. It’s a silly thing to ask a 40 year old woman to be a virgin (that’s another whole post) and some of their sexual relationships may have been with gentiles.
A friend of mine dealt with this situation a few years ago. She grew up Jewishly unaffiliated and very naturally had a boyfriend in college with who she had a sexual relationship. She became Modern Orthodox in her early 20’s and got engaged at age 25 to a guy who was on the frummer end of Modern Orthdoxy and happened to be a kohen. She then had to undergo the humiliation of her case being discussed by a bunch of Baltimore rabbis who debated if she was permitted to her fiancée. They questioned her about the nature of her sexual relationship with her college boyfriend and whether they had always used a condom, which might have meant the sex wasn’t “real”, thus creating a heter for her to marry a kohen. In the end, even though one rabbi said it was OK, the other few said no, and he broke off the engagement and broke her heart.
The Torah is pretty clear:
אשה זנה וחללה לא יקחו ואשה גרושה מאישה לא יקחו כי-קדש הוא לאלהָיו.
“They shall not marry a woman who is a prostitute or who is desecrated, and they shall not marry a woman who is divorced from her husband for he [the kohen] is holy to his God.” (Judaica Press translation)
But in this day and age, when we’re not even sure that those who claim to be kohanim are kohanim, and when nobody’s bringing sacrifices in the Temple, isn’t there a legal workaround? I’m not a halachic expert on the issue. I do know that the Conservative Movement made a halachic ruling that a kohen may marry any Jewish woman based on this being a sh’at techak, an emergency situation, in which it’s preferable for kohanim to marry divorced women than to intermarry.
My personal advice to my acquaintance, above, was simply to date observant Conservative women who are divorced, and not to worry about the prohibition. Why should he be denied happiness? But I don’t think he’ll be taking the advice, as he takes the Torah’s prohibition very seriously.
But it seems to me that this archaic obsession with a woman’s purity is outdated and insulting.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Boycott the Israeli Rabbanut

Cross-posted on DovBear

The “who is a Jew” situation in Israel is getting preposterous. A granddaughter of holocaust survivors who wants to get married is being asked by the Rabbanut to provide 4 generations of ketubot on the maternal side to prove her Jewishness. And the Rotem bill, set to be taken up by the Knesset in the next few months, would solidify Rabbanut control over all conversions.

It's time to end the Rabbanut's power in Israel. We should call on all couples wishing to get married, even fully Orthodox ones with impeccable "Jewish" credentials, to get married in Cyprus in a civil ceremony, and then to have a private chuppah in Israel that has no Rabbanut sanction at all. All people should rise up and reject Rabbanut control over all their lifecycle events, not just when they fear being rejected by the Rabbanut.

Basically, we should call for a boycott of the Rabbanut. Do an end run around them to protest their abuse of power and increasingly extremist standards. By getting married within the rules of the Rabbanut, Modern Orthodox Israelis, for example, are helping perpetuate their regime.

Israel was founded as a haven for Jews and as a Jewish state. But why does that mean that the Israeli Rabbanut should have the right to dictate what Judaism is for everyone?

Let there be separation of shul and state in Israel. Israel can be a Jewish country in the sense that it provides a place for Jews and for Judaism to be safe. The Rabbanut can still exist, and be funded by the state, but only as an optional service for those who want it. And the heterodox movements should also have their own, optional streams within the Rabbanut.

Sadly, though, demographics in Israel make it likely the current official religious extremism will just get worse and worse.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Is a "competent posek" competent in all areas?

Cross-posted on DovBear

HSM recently posted on her blog about a problem between a lying mother and adult daughter. The subject matter is not relevant here, but suffice it to say that I agree with Hadassah and many of the commenters.

What I wanted to examine is the statement by several of the commenters that the daughter should bring her issue to a “competent posek”. This attitude is very common in the frum community, but I think it’s misplaced. Is it really the best thing to speak to a rav about the problem with her mother? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to ask a family counselor or psychologist? What makes a rav qualified to answer questions like this? He didn’t get training in dealing with such problems. He leaned gemara and shulchan aruch.

I would go to my rav for a question about whether a pot needs kashering. That’s his area of expertise. If I was having problems with a family member, I would ask advice from a therapist or family counselor. What’s behind the impulse to ask a rav about absolutely everything? I have a feeling that a lot of really bad decisions are being made because of this misplaced confidence in rabbanim.

Should we really be fasting?

I originally posted this on DovBear a week ago. Sorry it's a little late on my own blog

In an article in Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer claims that it’s wrong to still fast on Tisha B’Av:

“Tisha B'Av was never supposed to be an eternal day of mourning…

“For the first time in the history of the Jews, a majority of them are choosing not to live in an independent Jewish state in Zion - of their own free will…

“Mourning on the Ninth of Av in this day and age flies in the face of both secular Zionism and religious Zionism. It contradicts the right of Jews around the world to decide where they prefer to live. The exile is over, and the temple has not been rebuilt because we don't want to do it.”
He definitely has a point, (despite his wrongheaded implication in the article that we should remove the mosques from the Temple Mount.) It’s ironic to see people who live in fancy houses in Flatbush, travel to Israel on El Al several times a year, and have full religious freedoms in America begging Hashem to “end the terrible golus!”

But there’s another way of looking at it, and it’s the way I choose to look at many of our traditions. What we commemorate on Tisha B’Av isn’t just the loss of the Temple. It isn’t just a yearning for the Beit HaMikdash to be rebuilt and for sacrifices and a monarchy to be reinstituted. As DovBear pointed out a few days ago, how likely, practical, or even desirable does that really seem?

Instead, we fast because we’ve fasted for 2,000 years. We mourn for the very real people who died for being Jews throughout our long history. We fast because our parents, their parents, and their parents fasted. Looking at the tragedies of Judaism, we also gaze at our rich and varied history.

There’s a myopia sometimes, in the way that many frum people look at Judaism. It’s a focus on a history that ended 2,000 years ago, and a focus on a future that has not yet come. There’s a lack of internalizing the richness of our history and of how Judaism (and Jews) changed and evolved and grew for millennia. It’s as if all of that time was just a holding pattern and is only religiously significant in terms of what came before and the hope of what will come.

The exile created the Judaism we have today. It’s a far different religion, and we’re a far different people, than what we were in the year 70 AD. Part and parcel of that religion is fasting on Tisha B’Av. It’s not just about the destruction, it’s about who we are now, who we were 100, 500, and 1,000 years ago. The kinot we read aren’t just about the destruction. They’re also about the time they were written in, the beautiful poetry of Eliezer HaKalir in the early medieval period or the ones written in the wake of the tragedy of our times, the Shoah.

It’s also about hope. Anshel Pfeffer claims that since Eretz Yisrael is under Jewish control and we could rebuild the Temple should we choose, there’s no need to fast. But as I wrote above, yearning for the redemption isn’t just about the Temple and the monarchy. Instead, it’s about yearning and hoping for a world at peace, where war and hate are no more. It’s a vision that can transcend sectarian differences and is unencumbered by petty differences of theology. Instead it’s about hope.

And that’s why we fast.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reform Judaism's 200th birthday

Cross-posted on DovBear

Reform Judaism is something new under the sun. It isn’t “real” Judaism and will disappear as everyone in the movement assimilates, right?

Well, it’s worth noting that this Shabbat, the 17th of July, will mark the 200th anniversary of the first Reform Synagogue. It was established by Rabbi Israel Jacobson in Seesen, Germany. 200 years is hardly a flash in the pan, and shows that despite the hopes of many frum Jews, Reform Judaism is here to stay.

This may sound like I’m celebrating Reform Judaism, and in a sense I am. More on that below. But I certainly have a lot of issues with it as well, especially as it was practiced in the beginning. My biggest issue was the expunging of the any hint of yearning for Eretz Yisrael. Reform Judaism was meant to show loyalty to the country the Jews lied in. And the temple was decked out to look and feel like as much as possible like a church.

Over the years, American Reform Judaism softened their anti-Zionist stance, and today are usually strongly supportive of the state of Israel.

Interestingly, there was no gender egalitarianism in that first temple in Seesen. Men and women sat separately. Hmm – separate seating and anti-Zionism… was that first Reform temple charedi? (Yes, I’m aware that “Zionism” per se didn’t exist in 1810. I’m using term for convenience.)

One innovation that shocked and appalled more traditional Jews was the use of German to deliver the sermon, instead of the more traditional Yiddish so that the masses could understand. Today we think nothing of hearing a drasha in English in the most Charedi shuls.

And Reform certainly changed traditional Judaism in far larger ways as well. Opposition to Reform brought rapprochement between the Chassidim and Misnagdim and created a new movement called Orthodox Judaism. This wasn’t merely a gathering together under a new name, but a crystallizing of disparate practices and movements into one. Thus, in a sense, Reform Judaism preceeded (and created) Orthodox Judaism.

I still have problems with contemporary Reform Judaism. I think that a Judaism devoid of ritual is far poorer for it and loses much of its Jewish character. (Though ritual has been increasing in the movement in recent years.) But I still feel that there’s much to celebrate about the movement as well, as I mentioned above.

One common refrain among Orthodox Jews is that Reform Judaism has been a huge gateway to assimilation. That may be true, to a degree. But let’s pretend that Reform (or the other heterodox movements) didn’t exist. Do you really think that those 1.5 million American Jews that count themselves as Reform would have anything to do with Judaism at all today? It’s unlikely that they’d all be Orthodox. If anything, Reform has probably helped more Jews retain a Jewish identity than they’ve helped lose. That’s 1.5 million Jews who might have been lost to Judaism entirely. 1.5 million Jews who care about Israel. Yes, some of their Jewish identity may be superficial, but frankly, that could be said of some Jews in every movement.

So Happy 200th Birthday, Reform Judaism!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Failing the homeless

Here's something I wrote on a discussion board this morning and felt was worth reproducing here:


Homelessness is the biggest example in America today of how unfettered capitalism and the unregulated free market has failed the poor.

We have a huge surplus of housing in America today. And we have a huge group of people who need housing. Why can’t one problem solve the other? Because people raise the concept of the free market and private ownership to the level of a holy religion, and they resist any “tampering” of those market forces. Those market forces represent something intangible. It’s not like 1,000 years ago, when at least wealth could be counted in sheep or gold. Today it’s bank balances. And in most cases, the funds are electronic, or even anything you can hold in your hands. So because of some intangible concept of ownership and free markets, the conservatives (and most of the rest of us, frankly) are letting people starve and wander the streets.

Not to say that I think capitalism is wrong. It’s the best system we have. Unfettered socialism has proven to be an even bigger failure. But there’s nothing wrong with having a healthy mix of the two. Some compassion for the poor and some redistribution of wealth in this country wouldn’t impoverish the rich. But it could certainly help the have-nots become at least have-a-littles.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Rabbi Ginzberg;s article on Rabba Sarah Hurwitz

Harry Maryles and DovBear have both put up posts today about Rabbi Aryeh Ginzberg’s article in the Five Towns Jewish Times in which he expresses his outrage at Rabba Sarah Hurwitz’s being invited to be a scholar in residence at a shul in the 5 towns area. Here’s some thoughts I had when reading the article.

From Rabbi Ginzberg’s article:
"In this case, I know many will not be pleased, some will even possibly be angry at me for stirring the pot. But I have been asked by one of the senior gedolei ha’dor, as well as by several of my distinguished colleagues, to bring to the attention of the general community the great bizayon haTorah, the degradation of the gedolei Torah, that took place in our community this past Shabbos."
Who is this super secret godol hador? Why can’t he be quoted? This is what’s sickening about the whole “daas torah” system. People are expected to faint in respect when even an anonymous “godol hador” is referenced. It’s absolutely ridiculous. And who are the “distinguished colleagues”? Why can’t they be named? I guess it’s good enough to say that they’re distinguished.

"[This article has been reviewed and approved by several other community rabbanim as well, whose names will be available from the editor upon request.]"
OK, so it’s nice that the names are available upon request. Why can’t they just be mentioned in the article? What are they all afraid of? If I wasn’t at work, I’d call up the editor right now. Can someone reading this undertake that?

"one maverick individual, a rabbi from Riverdale"
Is this along the same lines? We all know he’s referring to Rabbi Avi Weiss. Is there some fear that by saying his name he’ll legitimize Rabbi Weiss? Maybe this way he doesn’t have to capitalize “rabbi”.

"This unified call for condemnation of the breach of tzniyus and mesorah was unprecedented in that similar calls were heard from the Rabbinical Council of America (albeit in different words) and from the roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Seminary, led by the gaon and posek Rav Herschel Schachter, shlita."
See! I, Rabbi Ginzberg, bring in Rabbi Schachter, and call him a gaon (shlita!) in a brazen attempt to sway what I naively think is the modern orthodox world.

"The unprecedented public outcry at this breach in mesoras Yisrael that was heard from every Orthodox organization, including the National Council of Young Israel"
Another organization that R Ginzberg seems to think is Modern Orthodox, so drags in to bolster his case.

"Those words sent a loud and clear message to all who heard them: the unified words of our gedolei Torah and distinguished rabbonim mean absolutely nothing. The concept of da’as Torah, emunas chachamim, and kavod for talmidei chachamim are all ancient ideas that are to be tossed to the side, along with our ancient mesorah, all for the sake of feminism and perceived equality."
Right, deference should be given to a group of old, out of touch men who have no clue what it going on in the real world and want to just protect some idealized cloistered false version of the shtetl. Meanwhile, any rabbi who does support the Maharat program is automatically disqualified from being one of the “distinguished rabbonim”. Kind of a catch-22, no?

"Several months ago, when this issue came to the forefront and the gedolim all spoke in a unified voice as to the dangers that this brings to our community, some took a different position and publicly attacked the position of the gedolei Yisrael."
Who decided that those people (still unnamed) are the “gedolei yisroel”?

"I want to emphasize a thousandfold and to be very clear that this has absolutely nothing to do with the intellectual capacity or even book knowledge of Ms. Hurwitz (whom I never met). She may be proficient in the entire Shach and Taz (which I have no way of knowing, yet I am highly doubtful)."
Notice that in the same paragraph in which he supposedly is trying to show his fairness to Rabba Hurwitz, he also insults her and all women by saying that he’s “highly doubtful” of her torah knowledge. On what basis?

"Unfortunately, with my Rebbe’s passing over two years ago, I don’t have him to consult with on these types of issues."
So I have to try to think for myself, a novel concept to me.

Friday, June 4, 2010

It all goes back to the disengagement

When Israel evacuated the Jewish communities in Gaza in 2005, withdrawing the army at the same time was big mistake. Sharon was right about the disengagement in theory. But the current mess, and the flotilla incident, would look very different had the army stayed and left in a piecemeal fashion, over time, contingent on peaceful conditions.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Not the first flotilla - some recent history

Some history to think about when considering the current flotilla incident:

Ehud Olmert was faced with an extremely similar situation:

Israel had told the activists to keep their boats away but ultimately decided to allow them to land, apparently to prevent a potentially more damaging public relations drama.

Arye Mekel, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the decision was made “to avoid the provocation they had planned at high sea,” and because the Israeli authorities knew exactly who was on board and what cargo they were carrying.

Bibi wasn't nearly as diplomatic in 2009. But to be fair, he probably expected this interception to go as well as the last one, with no loss of life:

Nineteen foreign activists of the pro-Palestinian Free Gaza Movement were being held in Israel awaiting deportation on Thursday, two days after the Israeli Navy seized control of their boat off Gaza.

A former United States Representative, Cynthia McKinney, and an Irish peace activist and Nobel laureate, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, were among those being held. Two additional Israeli activists were released without being charged on Wednesday, according to the group.

The Free Gaza Movement and other campaigners have sailed several boats to Gaza in the last year, saying they wanted to bring humanitarian aid and challenging the Israeli blockade. Israel has let some boats reach the coastal strip and forced others to turn back at sea.

Adam Shapiro's lies about the flotilla

I just heard Adam Shapiro ( on the radio, saying that his wife, Huwaida Arraf, was on board the flotilla. According to Shapiro, the Israeli troops surrounded the ships. They boarded the first ship by descending from a helicopter, and unprovoked, started shooting at and killing the civilians below. The civilians only acted in self-defense.

Obviously, this is untrue, even were it not coming from a notorious Palestinian mouthpiece like Shapiro.

Netanyahu's version, which I'm obviously much more inclined to believe, is that they dealt with 5 ships peacefully, and as they were boarding the last ship, they were attacked.

The only point of agreement is that the Israeli soldiers were boarding a ship by helicopter, and there was some kind of violence between the parties.

I really hope that the Israeli version of events will be fully borne out. Obviously, it's definitely much closer to the truth than the Palestinian version, and will probably turn out to be the complete truth.

But Shapiro and his ilk are already spreading their lies, and I fear that as usual, those lies will take hold as the accepted version of events.


Monday, May 31, 2010

The luxury of atheism

This is the first era that has the luxury of atheism. Life was too short, with widespread cruelty, and early death too pervasive in earlier times. Life would have been unbearable without a belief in the divine and in some overarching purpose.

(No, I'm not an atheist. But I have a secret admiration for principled [a.k.a. thinking and non contemptuous] atheists.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

LOST finale review

I’m a huge fan of Lost. This is my reaction to the series finale, which I watched on Monday night. I couldn’t watch it on Sunday, so I maintained a news blackout on myself the whole day Monday so the ending wouldn’t be spoiled.

First of all, I have to say that the ending was deeply emotionally satisfying for me. I didn’t feel disappointed or cheated out of anything. After further reflection, I wish some more things would have been answered, but I never expected all the mysteries to be explained.

Here’s what I wrote to some friends right after watching the finale. Forgive the shorthand:


first impressions

the couldn't explain everything, too many details, etc, so went for deeply emotional ending instead. It worked. Very emotionally satisfying if very poignant,

miles can hear the dead's last thoughts

hurley chats up the dead

but it turns out that Desmond's really the one who can connect with the dead, since the whole sideways universe was a waiting room for the dead

in any case, what does reality really mean? What's real? The whole thing was just a TV show, so in some ways, sideways universe just as real.

I liked that it gives us space to imagine what the rest of their lives would have been like in real life (for those who lived):

Jack dies on the Island

Hurley & Ben spend years protecting the island then eventually die

They hopefully send Desmond home to Penny

Kate brings Claire home to Aaron & she raises him

Maybe Kate & Sawyer have a life together, since they both lost their main loves.

Kate says "I missed you so much" to Jack. Maybe means she died an old woman and now remembers it all & missed him her whole life.

Maybe it's not some standard afterlife, but is instead the light on the island. They're all inside the light somehow.

Leaves us a lot of space to create our own stories for the characters.


Upon reflection, yes, there were a lot of dead ends that weren’t cleared up. There were storylines, like the temple, which were a pointless diversion. But that still doesn’t spoil the amazing feeling I had after watching the end. Jack dying on the island, happy to have fulfilled his purpose.

I’ve been reading a lot of reviews and comments about the finale online, and it amazes me how many people don’t get it. So many people seem to think that the ending meant that they all died in the crash initially and the whole story, of all 6 seasons, was some sort of purgatory.

It seems obvious to me that what happened on the island, happened. As Jack says, “What happened, happened.” The only part where they’re all dead is in the sideways universe, only introduced in season 6. If they had all died in the plane crash, why would Christian (Jack’s dad) say (paraphrased – I don’t have a transcript) “some died before you, some long after you”, and, explaining why they created the sideways universe together “the time you spent with each other was the most significant of your lives”. If they all died in the crash, they’d have been strangers. What was significant about sitting in cramped seats and eating crappy food together for a few hours? It obviously means the time on the island.

So all you Lost fans out there – what did you think?


Update May 26, 3:25 pm:

I may keep adding to this post as ideas occur to me, especially ideas about explaining some of the mysteries. Here's the first:

Where did the numbers come from? (4 8 15 16 23 42)

They came from themselves, by way of Hurley. He won the lottery with them. He eventually becomes the new Jacob. Jacob had unexplained powers related to time & space. Hurley subsequently had the same powers. He wove those numbers into the fabric of the past of the island and the people related to it. So the numbers originated with themselves, sort of a mobius strip.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why can't stores give accurate erev shabbat hours?

In the past 2 weeks, I've encountered 2 kosher restaurants, one a sushi place, and one a pizza parlor, that closed early on Friday.
In both cases, the website (and in the case of the pizza parlor, a sign on the door as well,) clearly stated that they closed on Friday 2 hours before Shabbat. So why were they already closed a good 4 or 5 hours before candelighting?
Not a big deal in the scheme of things, but annoying nonetheless. How hard is it to write on the website: "please call before coming on Fridays to verify hours"??

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day - we've come a long way, but there's still a long way to go

There’s a lot to celebrate since the birth of the modern environmental movement some 45 years ago.

40 years ago, raw sewage and industrial waste was being pumped directly into rivers. Acid rain was falling. Smog blanketed most big cites. Forests were being cut down at an accelerating rate. Toxins were everywhere.

It was much easier for people to get involved. They saw the problems at their doorsteps.

40 years later, the rivers of the US are mostly clear, with abundant fish and wildlife in and around them. Acid rain? That’s a term many who were born past the 70’s know only from history class. Cities have much cleaner air. In LA there's still smog, but you can actually see the valley. Forests are still being cut down too fast, but at least in the US, clear cutting has slowed dramatically, and sustainable logging is growing, with new trees being planted whenever one is cut down.

The most often cited environmental problem today is that of climate change. But that’s something most people don’t see on a daily basis. It’s doesn’t prompt a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) response. And the skepticism of climate change is greater than ever, bolstered by overblown and inaccurately reported stories like “climate gate”.

How do we get back to that environmentalist enthusiasm and sense of urgency, the kind that prompted Republicans like Richard Nixon to sign major pieces of legislation like the Clean Water Act and extension of the Clean Air Act?

I’m not sure, but in the meantime, it’s important to remember what has been accomplished. But we have a long way to go.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Yom Hazikaron LaShoah VeLaGvura

Over on DovBear, there's a discussion going on about whether having Yom HaShoah in Nissan is appropriate and possible reasons Charedim do not commemorate it. Rafi G relates the reason his Rav opposes commemorating it. According to his Rav, it's inappropriate that Yom HaShoah was established on the date of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, because that's only remembering those who died fighting back instead of those who submitted to the will of Hashem and became Kedoshim.

Here's what I wrote in response:


Think of the reality of when Yom HaShoah was established. Less than a decade before, over 1/3 of our people had been murdered and almost the entirety of European Jewish life had been destroyed.

The fact that Jews were able to get up and stand proud, the fact that they established a Jewish state in their ancient homeland, and the fact that they didn't want to just remember their friends, relatives, and communities as martyrs but also as fighters is something to be celebrated.

Could you imagine telling those hundreds of thousands of survivors, in Israel, in the US, and elsewhere that their loved ones were only martyrs? They needed something to believe in, to hold on to. Incorporating the Warsaw ghetto uprising into Yom HaShoah gave them that.

In memory of the dead, and in respect for those who went through hell and survived, I think it is utterly approriate to commemorate Yom HaShoah as it was established, as Yom Hazikaron LaShoah VeLaGvura.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My approach to Kitniyot

Cross-posted on DovBear

When I was younger, especially after I became a vegetarian at the age of 21, I railed against the utter nonsense of the Ashkenazi prohibition of eating kitniyot on Pesach. It seemed like unnecessary torture, especially today when the danger of grains ending up mixed if far less likely. Why couldn’t I have my tofu? Would wheat really end up in my rice, when cereals today are grown as monoculture crops (not near other grains) and sold in packages? It seemed to me to be ridiculous and a burden. The only reason I stuck with it was habit and family.

Over the last decade or so, my approach to Judaism has undergone somewhat of a sea change, and that has impacted how I view the issue of kitniyot. I now view Judaism not as a fixed revelation in time that established the form of Judaism we must follow forever, but as an evolving process, where halachot changed and developed over the past three millenia. The reasons for this have to do with study of history, archaeology, biblical criticism, and a critical analysis of Rabbinical literature. The specific issues are another post, and in any case have been discussed in detail on many, many blogs. This post is just to examine how this approach has changed my attitude to minhagim like kitniyot.

With this approach to Judaism, I don’t keep Torah and mitzvot just because I might feel it was part of a divine revelation in ancient times. I keep it because of the significance of my ancestors, of many different generations and eras, having developed these laws in their attempt to become closer to Hashem. Because the very history of these developments is significant and meaningful to my Judaism. So while the laws of Shabbat are meaningful to me, so are the Rabbinical decrees of the Talmud. And so is cherem Rebbeinu Gershom. And so is the prohibition of kitnoyot, which has been with Ashkenazi Jews for the greater part of a millennium. Its relevance to me is not because of the minute permutations of the law. It’s meaningful to me because my grandparents, and their grandparents, and their grandparents, kept these halachot.

So with that approach, keeping the prohibition of kitniyot is honoring the evolving nature of halacha within Judaism. It’s acknowledging that, unlike the fundamentalist school’s belief, halacha has changed over time and that’s part of the Judaism I love.

However, for the same reason, recent additions to the list of kitniyot, and added stringencies, have no place in keeping the halacha. It’s honoring my ancestors and my conception of Judaism to avoid eating what they avoided 500, 300, or 100 years ago. It’s not honoring them, and it’s not in the spirit of this view of halacha, to suddenly declare that some new seed or vegetable that my grandparents would have eaten is suddenly prohibited on Pesach. If they could use peanut oil (or even peanuts), why will no hechsher organization give Pesach certification to it today? And certainly, there should be no problem with Quinoa. There is nothing religiously pious about adding chumrot that no one kept 100 years ago.

“Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l (Igros Moshe, O.D. III:63) is of the opinion that peanuts are not Kitniyos. He reasons that Kitniyos is not a Halacha (official law) but a minhag (custom). While Minhagim often have the force of Halacha, Rav Moshe argues that the Minhag cannot be extended beyond what was actually included in the custom.”
(From - Kitniyos in the Modern World by Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech)

It’s interesting to note that my rationalist and critical approach to Judaism (though fundamentalists will call it a skeptical approach) has caused me to be more favorably disposed to minhagim, not less, and to find more meaning in keeping them.

So the bottom line is, I now can enjoy and feel I’m doing something meaningful by avoiding kitniyot on Pesach. Yes, it’s frustrating, but I’ll eat protein-rich vegetables like asparagus (yes, the tips too) and feel good about connecting with a tradition that goes back many, many generations. As long as they don’t try to take away my quinoa!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Can prayers time travel?

Cross-posted on DovBear

This is a rather esoteric question that doesn’t have a “real” answer, (and the basis of the question itself is a bit unrealistic) but is still something interesting to think about.

The other day, I was cleaning off my desk at home in advance of Pesach. (Yes, I’ve eaten at my desk.) While going through papers, I came across a scribbled note in my handwriting that read “Zalman ben Sara Chana” obviously written to remind myself to say tehillim for the person for a refuah shelema.

I have no idea when I wrote the note, but judging by the pile of mail it was in, it was sometime in past few months. I also have no idea who the person is. Someone must have asked me to say tehillim for this Zalman, or perhaps I saw it in an email. Either way, I obviously intended to say tehillim for him. But did I ever do so? It was lost on my desk, so there’s a fair chance I never did get to daven for his recovery.

For all I know, he may have passed away in the meantime, or, hopefully, had a full recovery. So the tefillot may no longer be needed. But just in case, I decided to say a perek of tehillim anyhow in his name.

Here’s the esoteric part. Since I don’t know what happened to Zalman, and Hashem isn’t bound by time, can my tefillot somehow zoom back in time to when it was needed and help Zalman then? Would my prayers be added to all the others who davened for him several months ago and have an effect in the past? In effect, can tefilla time travel?

Think of it like quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics, a particle’s state isn’t fixed until we observe it. In Erwin Schrödinger’s famous experiment, a cat in a box is neither alive nor dead (based on the poison released in the box depending on a quantum particle’s possible state). According to the weird rules of quantum physics, the cat is only fixed into its state of being alive or dead when we open the box and see it. So in a sense, the past only becomes fixed when we know what happened. Until then, either possibility is real.

So in Zalman’s case, the fact that I don’t know what happened to him can, in effect, make the possibility of his full recovery several months ago a real possibility. His past, at least from my own perspective, is not fixed. And as long as his state of health isn’t fixed, my prayers can still have an effect.

As I wrote above, there’s no real answer, but it’s an interesting way to think about it, and it feels good to daven for someone feeling that my prayers can still make a difference even after the fact.

So what do you think – can tefilla time travel?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Great line from The Righteous Rasha

Awesome quote from Tova's interview over at Daas Hedyot:
"I can't relate much to the men of TaNaCh, though, as most of them were polygamists on power trips"
Not that I necessarily fully agree with the sentiment, but it's a great & brilliantly succinct observation nonetheless!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Backtracking on "Don't Ask Don't Tell" repeal

Cross-posted on DovBear

This is such bull****. According to this Associated Press article, despite the public progress made on the issue in recent weeks, a repeal of DADT is probably years away.

This is an utterly discriminatory policy, with no moral or practical basis whatsoever. It's about blatant homophobia, plain & simple. It's not like we're discussing gay marriage here. It's about witch hunting soldiers simply because of the sexual attractions they have. Maybe the military should also question soldiers about what sexual positions they prefer? Or how about what fetishes they have? Maybe any soldier that doesn't engage in plain vanilla missionary position sex isn't fit to be a soldier! What the hell does a soldier's sexual orientation have to do with his or her ability to serve?
"The protracted time line is about more than giving military leaders time to assess the impact on troops and put new rules in place. The multiyear process also is a strategic way of getting troops used to the idea before they have to accept change. Politically, the time line puts off congressional debate over lifting the ban until after elections this fall."
 The only line in that paragraph that has the ring of truth is the final one. It's about politicians never having the courage to fight for what's right, always worrying about what's going to get them reelected.

I'm including President Obama in that assessment. He made a promise to repeal DADT. And he reiterated it in the State of the Union address last month. As the Commander in Chief, Obama could easily sign a stop-loss measure that effectively ends the policy till it's repealed legislatively. But he doesn't seem to have the political courage to do so. Shame on you, Mr President!

And as for assessing the policy and the effect that it will have on troops, what are we dealing with here, kindergarten? Where we have to be very careful how hearts & minds will be affected? These are soldiers, who follow orders! They're sent into wars they may not agree with, but they go anyway. Do we conduct a "multiyear process" before issuing those orders, to see how the soldiers will feel about it?

This is about bigotry, pure & simple.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cross-posted on DovBear

According to an article in the New York Times:

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a major access highway to Jerusalem running through the occupied West Bank could no longer be closed to most Palestinian traffic.
As usual, when it comes to these issues, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I’m concerned for the safety of settlers, including members of my immediate family, who regularly travel the roads over the green line. On the other hand, as always, I feel tremendous pride that the Israeli Supreme Court stands up for civil rights.

But I’m not surprised by this predictable reaction:
Israeli settler leaders expressed alarm at the court’s decision, saying it would endanger Jewish travelers. They charged that the justices “never missed an opportunity to blame Jews for racism and provide Arabs with convenient conditions for the next terror attack.”
Is the ideal of democracy not one that Israeli citizens, of any stripe, hold dear? The refusal of the right wing in Israel to even acknowledge civil rights of Palestinians is something that is unsurprising, given what they’ve endured, but unfortunate nonetheless. But imagine how refreshing it would be if we’d seen this instead:

Israeli settler leaders expressed concern at the court’s decision, saying it might endanger Jewish travelers. They said that the justices “while making a valid point about civil rights of all residents of Yesha, may not be fully taking into account the safety of Jewish travelers. If the decision does stand, we hope to work together with the army and the Palestinian Authority to ensure safety and fairness for all who will use the road.”

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