Monday, October 30, 2006

Mesorah, Mesorah

In our community, there are a handful of Jews of German (Yekke) extraction whose minhag it is to wash before making Kiddush, which nobody else does around here, which makes them feel like misfits.

Our study group decided to look into the origins of this minhag. It is a long involved story which I wont get into here, but the thing that bothered me is the following.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, in Beis Yosef follows the ruling of the Tur, who along with the Rambam and other Sephardic rabbis ruled that Kiddush should be said prior to washing for bread. In his commentary he mentions that he is amazed to find that many Sephardic Jews do not follow this minhag (meaning they wash prior to Kiddush).

Likewise, the Rema in his emendations on the Shulchan Aruch says to the effect of "I am amazed that there are any people that don't wash before Kiddush. In my entire life I have never seen anyone do anything different (than wash before Kiddush). He further states that this should be a custom that should go on unchanged forever. However, the TaZ, who lived just after the Rema, already stated that though the Rema's opinion was valid, if a person chooses to wash after Kiddush, it should not be looked upon as doing something wrong or inferior.

So my point is - here is a minhag that flip flopped generation to generation, even though key Rabbinic figures ruled on it. What makes us think that any of our mesorahs are rigidly preserved going back to Sinai?

Blogroll update

Once again, somewhat belatedly...

Check out Evanston Jew. For one thing, he's probably my neighbor. For another, he is a relly good and thoughtful writer. And thirdly, he was recommended by R' Gil Student, and then kinda unrecommended, so there's a bit of controversy surrounding the blog, which is always good for publicity.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Taking the train this dreary autumn morning, and approaching the city, my eyes were drawn to a strange object in the sky. It was a large cluster of twenty or so multi-colored balloons being blown by the wind. I thought this kind of stuff only happened in cartoons.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The gedolim face the Karaite threat

From the Jewish Encyclopedia:

During the first centuries of the existence of the sect, Karaism was widely extended among the Jews, and could boast of making many converts among the followers of the parent religion, gathering them in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Babylonia, and Persia. Several circumstances contributed to its success. Firstly, sectarianism was then rife in the East in consequence of the great changes brought about by Islam, and numbers of the adherents of different confessions throughout the califate eagerly accepted any new departures. In the second place, Anan's proclamation of the unrestricted study of the Bible as the only source of religion was most attractive, not only to the members of earlier anti-rabbinic sects, which had by no means been uprooted, but also to the more liberal elements within traditional Judaism that were dissatisfied with the stagnation shown in the methods of the Babylonian academies. In the third place, the directors of the academies (the Geonim), who were at that time out of touch with science and all secular matters, were too short-sighted to recognize the dangers threatening traditional Judaism on the part of the new sect, and believed that by simply ignoring it they could destroy it. They were, moreover, incapable of engaging in religious polemics with their adversaries, as they were familiar only with weapons which the latter refused to recognize, namely, arguments taken exclusively from the traditional writings, and did not distinguish critically between halakic and haggadic and mystical elements in rabbinical literature. Hence none of the attacks on traditional Judaism, not even those that were unfounded, were properly refuted, nor was the true state of affairs explained.

Monday, October 23, 2006


Quite a bit of discussions going on in a certain corner of the jblog-o-sphere about souls. Here's an interesting thought I just read (I think in this week's US News). Both Judaism and Christianity focused on the resurrection of the body as a key dogmatic belief, not the immortality of the soul. The soul business is really an injection of Platonism, and not an original belief.

Smells like Right Guard

Yes. Right now everything smells like Right Guard, because I am an idiot. For some reason I decided that the best way to find out what this particular deodorant aerosol smells like is to spray it into my face.

Words of advice. Do not try this at home.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Mokita: The Religion of Paine

mokita (Kiriwina, New Guinea): the truth that everyone knows but no one wants ot talk about openly. This unspoken truth is usually something unpleasant or unwelcome that will disrupt the social peace or bring perceived family embarrassment if brought out into the open.

More on Thomas Paine from the New Yorker article:
"Paine's religious opinions were those of three-fourths of the men of letters of the last age," Joel Barlow observed, probably overstating the case only slightly. Paine's views were hardly original; what was new was his audience. While other Enlightenment writers wrote for one another, Paine wrote, as always, for everyone. His contemporaries believed that radical philosophical speculation-especially critiques of religion-was to be shared only with men of education (and, it was assumed, judgement). The poor could not be trusted with such notions; freed of church-based morality, they would run amok. Paine disagreed, profoundly. To say that he was villified for doing this is to miss the point. He was destroyed.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ad hominem - 18th century style!

From the article on Thomas Paine in the October 16th issue of the New Yorker magazine:
The first part of the "Rights of Man" sold fifty thousand copies in just three months. The second part was outsold only by the Bible. But British conservatives didn't want to follow France, especially as the news from Paris became more gruesome. Paine was charged with seditious libel, and everywhere his ideas were suppressed and his followers persecuted. "I am for equality. Why, no kings!" one Londoner shouted in a coffeehouse, and was promptly sent to prison for a year and a half. Meanwhile, William Pitt's government hired hack writers to conduct a smear campaign in which it was asserted, among other things, that Paine had committed fraud, defrauded his creditors, caused his first wife's death by beating her while she was pregnant, and abused his second wife almost as badly, except that she wasn't really his wife, because he never consummated that marriage, preferring to have sex with cats. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, eat your hearts out.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


So about a year ago when I heard rumors that there are frum swingers in Peterson Park, I assumed that this is kind of like the inverse of the "Chassidim do it through a hole in a sheet" urban legend.

But I keep getting more and more rumors to this effect. Is this something that everyone in Chicagoland knows about?

How weird is this? Why the heck would people allow this to happen? I mean, I am not passing judgement on the lifestyle - whatever floats their boat. But pretending to be frum and swapping spouses - isn't this the height of hypocrisy, a tovel v'sheretz b'yado?

Monday, October 16, 2006

In principio

Need Simchas Torah songs lyrics/melodies

UPDATE: Found this website:

Project Z'mirot

It sucks when you are not born religious and it's Simchas Torah time. I don't know a lot of the songs. Some I can figure out the lyrics to, but it is really hard to do in that atmosphere. Does anyone know a resource for learning them? If not, can people post a few of the popular ones?

Ones I already know:

Hoshiah es amecho
Dovid melech yisroel
Aneinu b'yom kareinu
Torah tzivah lanu Moshe

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Seven Sins of the World

"wealth without work,
pleasure without conscience,
knowledge without character,
commerce without morality,
science without humanity,
worship without sacrifice,
and politics without principle."

-Mohandas Gandhi

Monday, October 09, 2006

Byzantine Emperor Appologizes to Muslims for Quote

Milan Kundera on Spoonicus19

Once upon a time there was a college girl in Israel who wrote a post which included this:

The more I explore the blogosphere, or at least that area of the blogosphere which is comprised of the musings of various young Jewish philosophers -disenfranchised, disenchanted, frustrated and struggling, intellectual, searching, and running around in semantic circles like chickens with their tongues cut off- the more agitated and frustrated I become. When will you realize you are all falling into exactly the same patterns as every Jewish thinker (read: Jewish person who has thought)that ever came before you? you are still defining your areas of thought by the same rules, restrictions, codes and guidelines as everyone you're trying to break away from (read: everyone who has ever thought seriously about Judaism.)I can feel you guys trying to break into new territory, an undiscovered concept, an original perception, and almost getting there, then at the last minute falling back into the same inevitable loop you have been falling into since the entire thought process began.

Once upon a time there was a famous Czech writer who wrote an article for New Yorker magazine which included this:

Like a woman who has applied makeup before running to her first tryst, the world, when it rushes toward us at the moment of our birth, is already made-up, masked, reinterpreted. And the conformists won't be the only ones fooled; the rebel types, eager to stand up against everything and everyone, will not realize how obedient they themselves are; they will rebel only against what is interpreted (pre-interpreted) as worthy of rebellion.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Chag Sameach

And now to wish my handful of faithful readers a chag sameach.

And perhaps today will be the day Moshiach arrives to make this world a better place for us all. Because it is definitely the time for it to happen.


From "The History of Love":

...the insoluble contradiction of being animals cursed with self-reflection, and moral beings cursed with animal instincts...

On the verge of it...

I feel like I am really close to writing a coherent post on why the meaning of life doesn't need to be driven by religion. This will answer many of the questions posed by people like xGH and some of his commenters.

Here are some teasers. In general the argument will be organic, leaning on sociological and anthropological studies of higher order mammals and behavior of "primitive cultures" in South America etc, untainted by millenia of civilization. Some sources: Mother Nature, The Language Instinct,...

It will attempt to show why the focus of much of the inquiries so far has been misguided, having always started with a top-down approach of coming up with a theory based on reasoning and then attempting to fit the world into it, vs a more bottom up approach of looking at the data and trying to find the best fitting explanation. This statement is fairly general, and will require quite a bit of qualification.

The soft scientists, like the philosphers and the sociologists, haven't yet learned from the hard scientists that their theories need to be more stochastic, looking at probabilities and statistics, quantum mechanical in a way. The relationship between random and deterministics, along the lines of what I found in this blog post by Brooklin Wolf.

The goal of this is not to forge some kind of magical weapon for religious sceptics to slay religion, yet perhaps this will play into the "G-d of the Gaps" argument. However, if this is how it must be, then it is how it must be.

What sucks about this is that I really don't have the philosophical cred to really prove that this theory has any merit, but at least writing it down will be the first step in a journey of a thousand miles.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The History of Love

I am in the midst of reading a truly remarkably well written book, The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss.

It was my wife who pointed out to me with annoyance that one of the chapters has the Tetragrammaton printed inside on several pages. What this means is that this book will have to be handled carefully in the house, not taken into the bathroom, not be thrown away, etc...

While this is a minor annoyance, it would have been less irksome had the writer not made it a point to explain in the book that though not religious herself, she understood the implications of writing the Tetragrammaton on objects.

The road less travelled

In the last month, I've twice driven past the North Shore Country Day School, the alma mater of a former Chicagoland blogger who used to comment on this blog. It has been a long time since I had any occasion to drive up Green Bay Road in that direction.

Crunch all you want...

So, about six weeks ago, while in Orlando, I found out that Publix sells kosher nacho chips that actually are a reasonable facsimile of the leading non-kosher brands. Publix! Generic brand! And there can't be more than one minyan of kosher keepers in all of Orlando. I was seriously planning a Seinfeld like scheme of sending boxes of these up to Chicago. However...

I just found out yesterday, through direct experience, that Trader Joe's sells pareve tortilla chips that taste just like Doritos!!!!

Oh, blessed Divinity! What joy! What joy!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Goodman e-Kvetcher

From the Artscroll Yom Kippur Machzor, the beginning of the Kapporos ceremony:

Children of Man, who sat in darkness and the shadow of death, shackled in affliction and iron. He removed them from darkness and the shadow of death, and broke open their shackles. The fools - because of their sinful path and their iniquities they were afflicted. Their soul abhorred all food and they reached the portals of death...

BOTH mentioned Protestantism in a comment to my previous post. Doesn't the above sound just like a Puritan hymn?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Double Edged Sword

Don't know if this is my flawed interpretation or is this how it is truly meant:

OJ theology in a nutshell:

A. Anything good that happens in your life happens in spite of your best efforts, but solely by the (inscrutable) will of G-d.

B. Anything bad that happens in your life is not accidental, but caused by your sins and misdeeds that G-d is punishing you for.

How can this lead to a healthy psyche? Yet there are many observant people in the world that don't seem to be bothered by this. How can this be explained?


Just as mussaf was wrapping up, the heavens opened up and a hard rain fell on Skokie. After about twenty minutes, the heavenly waters seem to let up and the Jews who were stranded in the shul cautiously began to make their way home. A few minutes after the lull, there was another downpour, and for once I was glad that it takes my family forever to mobilize itself. We waited out the weather for another ten minutes and then proceded home, managing to keep dry except for a few drops from the trees on the streets. What fortuitous timing.

On the way back to mincha several hours later, I was lost in thought. Mostly I was thinking about a line from the first episode of "Six Feet Under", the only one I've seen, where a man berates his family - "We've forgotten how to grieve". It is considered inappropriate in our culture to show too much emotion. Few people break the decorum of a funeral to throw themselves on the grave, to weep uncontrollably, to really lose it. As I looked around me in shul that morning, I felt that we'd lost this ability in prayer as well.

If I'd really gotten into the spirit of atonement, if I'd beaten my chest with force, instead of a symbolic thump, if I'd truly wept in contrition, I'd be ostracized as a nutcase. Which I think is too bad...

So I was trying hard to get into the mood on my solitary walk back to shul. I started humming some made up melodies, plaintive, lachrymose, to get the feeling right. And just as I turned onto Crawford Avenue, a car swept past me and drenched me in cold rainwater. Woke me up right away! And snapped me out of my contemplative mood.

Don't know what to make of it, I guess. Ironic that though I avoided the rain in the morning, by evening I was wet. Karma.