Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Kabbalah of the Bean

“It’s a drink the ultra-Orthodox lack,” said Kfir Cohen, the Israeli businessman behind the brew, which consists of 58 different extracts and was developed over 18 months at a cost of $500,000 (£250,000).

“There are three things going on here. They make a lot of babies, they study the Torah and they dance. They need a lot of energy, and something to strengthen them.”

This news story about a kosher energy drink reminded me of an article I read a while back. I am not sure who wrote it originally, but I found an unattributed copy on the Web.

The Influence of Coffee on Kabbalistic
All-Night and Midnight Vigils

One of the innovations of Lurianic Kabbalah was the creation of a variety of rituals which took place late at night. Joseph Karo is credited with the creation of the all-night study session on the eve of Shavuot, called Tikkun Leil Shavuot. The Ari himself emphasized the importance of prayer and meditation late at night (called Tikkun Chatzot or Tikkun Rachel) and early in the morning (called Tikkun Leah). These times connected the individual with the daily creations of light and darkness. It also was an ideal time (according to the Zohar) to mourn the banishment of the Shechinah from Jerusalem. It also connected the individual with King David, who was said to have created the Psalms at midnight. The powerful image that the gates of Heaven are most available for prayer late at night was thus concretized in Tzfat in the late 16th century. Ironically, it didn’t catch on in Jerusalem at the same time even though Jerusalem mystics were certainly aware of the Zohar’s emphasis on midnight and all-night vigils. Jerusalem’s mystics focused on pre-dawn rituals instead.

Elliott Horowitz provides us with a fascinating thesis about the creation and development of late-night and all-night rituals as opposed to early morning rituals in 17th-18th century Jewish mystical circles. He notes that coffee arrived in Tzfat in 1528, and the first coffee house appeared in Tzfat in 1580. None came to Jerusalem. The use of coffee as a stimulant might have encouraged the mystics of Tzfat to focus more on all-night and late-night rituals because they couldn’t sleep anyway. Karo’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot appeared two or three years after the introduction of coffee to Tzfat. Horowitz quotes the following description of Tzfat in 1587: (Abraham haLevi Beruchim) would rise at midnight and walk through all the streets, raising his voice and shouting bitterly, “Arise in honor of the Lord…for the Shechinah is in exile and our Temple has been burnt.” And he would call each scholar by his name, not departing until he saw that he had left his bed. Within an hour the city was full of the sounds of study: Mishnah and Zohar and midrashim of the rabbis and Psalms and Prophets, as well as hymns, dirges, and supplicatory prayers.”

By 1673, Tikkun Chatzot had become the known ritual for the vast majority of Palestinian Jewry, and Italian Jewry knew that most Palestinian Jews drank coffee before prayers. Coffee had not yet arrived in Italy. In the late 1570’s, Italian mystics created their own pre-dawn rituals. They called themselves Shomrim LaBoker, the Guardians of the Morning. These rituals were apparently initiated by kabbalists who were familiar with the midnight and all-night devotions of the Jews of Tzfat. They acknowledged that midnight was the best time for prayer “when God amused Himself with the righteous in the Garden of Eden,” but they were not willing to maintain the midnight tradition. Instead, they slept through the night and woke before dawn for their early prayers. At least seven editions of predawn liturgies were published indicating their popularity.

Coffee arrived in Venice in 1615. The first coffee house (making coffee available to the masses) opened in 1640. In 1655, a liturgy for Tikkun Chatzot was published in Italy and a Chatzot group was formed. In that same year (for the first time), Italian Jews accepted Joseph Karo’s ritual of Tikkun Leil Shavuot. However, coffee was not as popular in Venice as it was in Tzfat. By 1683, there was still only one coffee house in Venice, and there were few Jews drinking the exotic drink. By 1759, coffee-drinking had soared in Italy. There were more than 200 coffee houses in Venice, including two in the ghetto. Jews in Mantua were making a fortune in the coffee industry. A scandal resulted in a ruling that “women could not enter coffee houses whether by day or night.” The popularity of Tikkun Chatzot also rose impressively. By 1755, most pre-dawn prayer groups in Verona had become midnight and all-night prayer groups. The same thing happened in Mantua. The same thing happened in Modena and Venice.

Coffee arrived in Worms, Germany in 1728. By 1763 mystic circles were regularly celebrating midnight and all-night vigils for the first time.

In short, although the Zohar and kabbalistic works had always emphasized the special significance of midnight, ongoing prayers and all-night vigils did not become an important part of Kabbalistic life until the introduction of coffee into each Kabbalistic community. Today, midnight and all-night prayers remain an important part of Kabbalistic ritual, and many Jews continue to stay up all night on Shavuot and meet for supplication prayers at midnight on Selichot. Our level of caffeine stimulation makes our participation in such all-night rituals much easier.

Shevirat ha-Keilim

Here is how one Kabbalah site describes it:
However, the vessels could not contain these emanations, and in a cosmic catastrophe known as the Breaking of the Vessels, the vessels were displaced and shattered. The letters, which had been initially assembled into meaningful groups became a Babel of nonsense. This rupture in the universe created a separation of the opposites, in particular, a split between the masculine and the feminine aspects of both God and the Primordial Man.

The broken vessels tumbled down through the metaphysical void, trapping within themselves sparks of the emanated divine light.

And here is another:

Images of broken light which
dance before me like a million eyes
That call me on and on across the universe.
Thoughts meander like a
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe.

The Travelling Rabbis

XGH writes about an impending visit from R' Orlofsky. Oddly enough, said rabbi will be visiting our shul sometime in the next few months so I will get a chance to evaluate his performance personally.

This past weekend we had another rabbi speaker visit our shul as a scholar in residence. I attended two of his speaking engagements and came away with mixed feelings.

This particular rabbi is a Kabbalist and apparently a psychotherapist or something similar in that field. He really did not talk about philosophy or Science vs Torah. He did have a whole bunch of his books for sale. And while he did have some insightful things to say, and was somewhat entertaining, overall I felt like his message was very disjointed. For example, here is a summary of one of his talks:

Let's sing a niggun.

[Part I - Kabbalah]
I was a rebellious youth who, though religious, wasn't in touch with my religion. I came to Jerusalem and while at the Kotel was approached by a man who offered to teach me Kabbalah. I thought that it was forbidden to learn Kabbalah at such a young age and to be rebellious I took him up on it. Once I began to study Kabbalah, the fact that it tied seemingly disjoint concepts and fragments of Judaism into one coherent system really clicked for me.

Let's talk about the view of Creation from a Kabbalistic perspective. In the beginning God, who is Endless Light, which in itself is a meaningless concept, constricted himself to make room for the world in the center of the Endless Light, which is also a meaningless concept - what does it mean to be in the center of Endless Light? God concentrated himself into a ray of Endless Light, which is also a meaningless concept. God then poured this light into a set of vessels. The vessels should have let the light pass through but they misunderstood God's intent and tried to hold on to the light and could not handle it and so they broke.

[Part II - Pop psychology and cliches but positive messages]
If you try to hold on to things then you block the flow and you will actually not have good things keep coming to you. On the other hand if you pass on the good things that come to you, more good things will keep coming. The love you take is equal to the love you make[Oh, wait! Someone else said that, not this rabbi]. Also, we don't spend enough time with our loved ones because this society is too ADD and too focused on substituting money for time. Also, we all have a God shaped hole in our soul and only God can fill it.

[Part III - Learning Torah is goodness]
You should all learn Torah. My kids learn Torah and they are very good kids. Torah makes everyone a good person.

Thank you very much. Questions?

The thing is the Kabbalah talk turned me off. Why? Because he admits himself that the things he says are meaningless concepts. And when people tell me meaningless concepts, it turns me off. Now I am sure what he meant is that there are some deep hidden secrets that lie behind these "seemingly meaningless" concepts, but then why even get into it? Just say that there is some really deep shit that would take you forever to understand in Kabbalah, so I won't even get into it right now. Instead lets talk about spending more time with your kids.

But maybe that's just me. The rest of the crowd was lapping it up. Although, some of these people looked like they spent some time at Berkeley in the 60's...

One final thought... I was always confused how Kabbalah students all seem to start learning Kabbalah before the age of 40, despite the rabbinic ban. It seems that the ban was lifted by Abraham Azulai, a Kabbalist!, who wrote the following:
I have found it written that all that has been decreed Above forbidding open involvement in the Wisdom of Truth [Kabbalah] was [only meant for] the limited time period until the year 5,250 (1490 C.E). From then on after is called the "Last Generation", and what was forbidden is [now] allowed. And permission is granted to occupy ourselves in the [study of] Zohar. And from the year 5,300 (1540 C.E.) it is most desirable that the masses both those great and small [in Torah], should occupy themselves [in the study of Kabbalah], as it says in the Raya M'hemna [a section of the Zohar]. And because in this merit King Mashiach will come in the future – and not in any other merit – it is not proper to be discouraged [from the study of Kabbalah]

That clears it all up very nicely.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

numa numa uman uman

Those of you who have looked closely at my picture will understand why I have such a kesher to this video. Lipa doing a "cover" of the Numa Numa song (if you don't know what that is, please take the shame train to loser town right now). Apparently, this version is sweeping Israel.

The All-nighter

Monday, October 29, 2007

BlueMinistry Monday

Here's an oldie for those who need to wake up this morning - I know I needed it (even you repressed frum types :) [UPDATE: I just looked at the video in more detail - the repressed frum types may want to stay away!]). So, turn up the speakers and give a warm welcome to Alain Jourgensen and Ministry!

...soon I discovered that this rock thing was true
jerry lee lewis was the devil
jesus was an architect previous to his career as a prophet
all of a sudden, I found myself in love with the world
so there was only one thing that I could do
was ding a ding dang my dang a long ling long

Friday, October 26, 2007


I was baptized and brought up in the Orthodox Christian faith. I was taught it in childhood and throughout my boyhood and youth. But when I abandoned the second course of the university at the age of eighteen I no longer believed any of the things I had been taught.

Judging by certain memories, I never seriously believed them, but had merely relied on what I was taught and on what was professed by the grown-up people around me, and that reliance was very unstable.

I remember that before I was eleven a grammar school pupil, Vladimir Milyutin (long since dead), visited us one Sunday and announced as the latest novelty a discovery made at his school. This discovery was that there is no God and that all we are taught about Him is a mere invention (this was in 1838). I remember how interested my elder brothers were in this information. They called me to their council and we all, I remember, became very animated, and accepted it as something very interesting and quite possible.

I remember also that when my elder brother, Dmitriy, who was then at the university, suddenly, in the passionate way natural to him, devoted himself to religion and began to attend all the Church services, to fast and to lead a pure and moral life, we all — even our elders — unceasingly held him up to ridicule and for some unknown reason called him “Noah”. I remember that Musin-Pushkin, the then Curator of Kazan University, when inviting us to dance at his home, ironically persuaded my brother (who was declining the invitation) by the argument that even David danced before the Ark. I sympathized with these jokes made by my elders, and drew from them the conclusion that though it is necessary to learn the catechism and go to church, one must not take such things too seriously. I remember also that I read Voltaire when I was very young, and that his raillery, far from shocking me, amused me very much.

My lapse from faith occurred as is usual among people on our level of education. In most cases, I think, it happens thus: a man lives like everybody else, on the basis of principles not merely having nothing in common with religious doctrine, but generally opposed to it; religious doctrine does not play a part in life, in intercourse with others it is never encountered, and in a man’s own life he never has to reckon with it. Religious doctrine is professed far away from life and independently of it. If it is encountered, it is only as an external phenomenon disconnected from life.

Then as now, it was and is quite impossible to judge by a man’s life and conduct whether he is a believer or not. If there be a difference between a man who publicly professes orthodoxy and one who denies it, the difference is not in favor of the former. Then as now, the public profession and confession of orthodoxy was chiefly met with among people who were dull and cruel and who considered themselves very important. Ability, honesty, reliability, good-nature and moral conduct, were often met with among unbelievers.

The schools teach the catechism and send the pupils to church, and government officials must produce certificates of having received communion. But a man of our circle who has finished his education and is not in the government service may even now (and formerly it was still easier for him to do so) live for ten or twenty years without once remembering that he is living among Christians and is himself reckoned a member of the orthodox Christian Church.

So that, now as formerly, religious doctrine, accepted on trust and supported by external pressure, thaws away gradually under the influence of knowledge and experience of life which conflict with it, and a man very often lives on, imagining that he still holds intact the religious doctrine imparted to him in childhood whereas in fact not a trace of it remains.

S., a clever and truthful man, once told me the story of how he ceased to believe. On a hunting expedition, when he was already twenty-six, he once, at the place where they put up for the night, knelt down in the evening to pray — a habit retained from childhood. His elder brother, who was at the hunt with him, was lying on some hay and watching him. When S. had finished and was settling down for the night, his brother said to him: “So you still do that?”

They said nothing more to one another. But from that day S. ceased to say his prayers or go to church. And now he has not prayed, received communion, or gone to church, for thirty years. And this not because he knows his brother’s convictions and has joined him in them, nor because he has decided anything in his own soul, but simply because the word spoken by his brother was like the push of a finger on a wall that was ready to fall by its own weight. The word only showed that where he thought there was faith, in reality there had long been an empty space, and that therefore the utterance of words and the making of signs of the cross and genuflections while praying were quite senseless actions. Becoming conscious of their senselessness he could not continue them.

So it has been and is, I think, with the great majority of people. I am speaking of people of our educational level who are sincere with themselves, and not of those who make the profession of faith a means of attaining worldly aims. (Such people are the most fundamental infidels, for if faith is for them a means of attaining any worldly aims, then certainly it is not faith.) these people of our education are so placed that the light of knowledge and life has caused an artificial erection to melt away, and they have either already noticed this and swept its place clear, or they have notyet noticed it.

The religious doctrine taught me from childhood disappeared in me as in others, but with this difference, that as from the age of fifteen I began to read philosophical works, my rejection of the doctrine became a conscious one at a very early age. From the time I was sixteen I ceased to say my prayers and ceased to go to church or to fast of my own volition. I did not believe what had been taught me in childhood but I believed in something. What it was I believed in I could not at all have said. I believed in a God, or rather I did not deny God — but I could not have said what sort of God. Neither did I deny Christ and his teaching, but what his teaching consisted in I again could not have said.

Looking back on that time, I now see clearly that my faith — my only real faith — that which apart from my animal instincts gave impulse to my life — was a belief in perfecting myself. But in what this perfecting consisted and what its object was, I could not have said. I tried to perfect myself mentally — I studied everything I could, anything life threw in my way; I tried to perfect my will, I drew up rules I tried to follow; I perfected myself physically, cultivating my strength and agility by all sorts of exercises, and accustoming myself to endurance and patience by all kinds of privations. And all this I considered to be the pursuit of perfection. the beginning of it all was of course moral perfection, but that was soon replaced by perfection in general: by the desire to be better not in my own eyes or those of God but in the eyes of other people. And very soon this effort again changed into a desire to be stronger than others: to be more famous, more important and richer than others.

Leo Tolstoy - Confession(Chapter I)

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Lately, I have made a conscious decision to become happier. And I've discovered that material things truly make me happy. So I bought a sheitel...

No, not really. I am going to buy this DVD: Masada - The Complete Epic Mini-Series . Does anyone remember this miniseries? I remember watching it on TV, I was about 11, and I really thought it was cool. So a few weeks ago, I was sitting in shul on Shabbos, and the guest sha'tz launches into this Adon Olam melody which sounds strangely familiar. And then it hits me that this is the theme from the Masada TV movie from 1981. Now, I don't know which came first, the melody or the movie, but I couldn't get the thought out of my head that I wanted to see it again. And guess what, the magic of Amazon is once again coming through for me!

But Masada by itself will not make me happy. I need more stuff. Now, in the Chicagoland area we have a really fantastic Botanic Garden, and I try to go there as much as I can. If there is one thing that can just take away stress immediately - this is the place. One of my favorite spots in the Garden is the English Walled Garden. Take a look. So I got it in my head to build one of these suckers in my backyard. At this point, those of you familiar with the size of a standard lot in Skokie, are probably laughing. So, the odds of me building this in my backyard are slim to none, and slim just left the building. But in the meanwhile, I did learn a few things about English Gardens and brickwork.

OK. So having struck out in the English Garden department, I moved on to the next thing. I am a pretty average guitar player. Self-taught, can play some chords. But lately I've been thinking that what I really want to do is become a bass player. First of all, it's like playing guitar, but easier since there are really no chords. Second of all, it fits my personality style. I don't like to ham it up in front of people - I can be just as happy supporting the axe-man. And finally, everyone knows that bass players are cool. They just are. Take a look at Flea in this video. About half way through, his fingers are moving so fast, it looks like there is a strobe light in the room. How awesome is that? It's totally off the hook! (This is how really cool base players talks)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bald Believers - Part I - Sinead O'Connor

You've had a very interesting faith journey. How do you define your spiritual life now?

Well, I would consider myself Catholic, by birth and by culture and by blood. But I'm extremely inspired by a number of other religious traditions and also extremely inspired by the Rastafari movement.

What do you identify so closely with Rasta?

What I admire and love the idea of is that they see themselves almost as soldiers for God. They have this concept of the idea of rescuing God—from all kinds of situations--and they have a tremendous excitement about God. They use music as a priesthood, and that's very appealing to me. I was interested in them because they were the first people I learned from that God and religion are two different things. I admire them and the idea of God needing to be rescued, from religion, for example.

Are you more of a God person or a religion person?

Well, I would say much more of a God person, but I love religion. I've been studying all kinds of religions since I was a child, literally all my life. I adore religion and love it. Obviously, like anything, it has all sorts of negatives sometimes, as we all do. But, I'm much more of a God person.

Are there any other religions or religious traditions that you embrace?

I wouldn't necessarily say I embrace, but I'm inspired by Hinduism, and Judaism.

What do you like about those traditions?

Well, in the Hindu tradition I love a couple of things. They have a completely different way of thinking than we do on this side of the world. They turn your head upside down when you get into their way of thinking. They have the tradition of yogis— these guys who, through meditation, can transport. That's kind of incredible. Another thing I love about them is that they often portray God as a female energy, and that's obviously interesting to any woman—the idea of the symbols for God's being allowed to be female. Also, the Vedas, their main scriptures, are just so colorful and so dramatic. They're kind of like the Old Testament, but it's all love and peace.

And I love the Sufis for the same reason, because I think they're pretty much the esoteric side of Islam. And the whirling dervishes. They are Sufis, and they have this thing that they call "God the Beloved," and this tradition of the most incredible kind of religious poetry, this kind of ecstatic poetry. My favorite is Hafiz. He writes this poetry about how he's so excited about God that he keeps chucking himself out the window and breaking his nose. They're crazy, ecstatic kinds of guys who are just completely in love with God.

You mentioned that there are positives and negatives with every religion. What do you think are the biggest problems with Catholicism?

The Rastas, interestingly, call Catholicism "Catholischism," which I think is funny, in a way, but it kind of paints a pictureof what's going on. There are roles within [the Catholic Church] which create separation, segregations, which I don't think are helpful for the church and I don't necessarily think are helpful for God. [But] there's a fine line because there's a lot that’s brilliant about the Catholic church. It's a beautiful religion— there's no getting away from that. But I think the boundaries are unclear sometimes, and that sometimes religion doesn't understand that God and religion are two different things.

Sometimes God can be almost a hostage—not just to Catholicism but to other religions—and kept behind these walls of prejudice, which keep God in and keep people out. Sometimes the hierarchies can be, perhaps inadvertently, in a situation where they are dictating to God. And that's contrary to even a three-year-old's knowledge of God. God loves everybody equally. In lots of religions, including Catholicism, there are people who are deemed less entitled to God's love than others. It's bad for business, and I wouldn't like to see the baby getting thrown out with the bath water, which is what I think is happening. Catholicism is really on the decline, certainly in my own country [Ireland].


The Merit of our Forefathers

Will someone explain to me what this means? I am not being cynical here, I truly don't understand!

We often pray to God to consider the "merit of our forefathers". So, let's grant that our forefathers were really in good graces with God, how does that help us? I don't think it is some kind of genetic consideration. And everyone knows that wonderful people can have terrible kids and terrible people can have wonderful kids, so why would the behavior of people that lived millenia before us have any influence on how God should judge us?

To me it smacks of the nepotistic, cosa nostra like Middle Eastern mentality. You do me a favor because we are family. Yo, Luigi.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

V'ger - an allegory

A mysterious cloud approaches the Solar System. When the USS Enterprise attempts to intercept it, it becomes clear that the cloud is a sentient being with the power to destroy anything in its path. It posesses one of the crew members and announces that it's name is V'ger and it is on a mission to reunite with its Creator.

As the movie reaches its climax, it is revealed that V'ger is the old Voyager 6 probe, programmed to gather data about the Universe and send the data back to Earth. The battered space probe was found by artificially intelligent life forms. After looking at the original programming on the probe, the machines interpreted its mission in the broadest sense possible - learn all that is learnable and transmit the knowledge back to the Creator. The machines constructed an enormous spaceship to enable V'ger to fulfill its mission. As a side effect, the enormous amount of knowledge in its data banks leads V'ger to develop consciousness.

As its journey nears its end, V'ger has a crisis of faith, wanting to see the Creator and learn if there is nothing more to its existence than seeking information and bringing it back to the Creator. In this respect, it is an allegory of the search for God by humankind. However, when it first comes into contact with the Enterprise, V'ger refuses to accept humans as "true life forms", to which First Officer Willard Decker replies: "We all create God in our own image."

Spock recognizes that despite its age and experience, V'ger is immature, like a child. He recommends to Kirk that it be treated as such, despite its awesome power. After V'ger states it will "remove the infestation on the Creator's planet"—in other words, humankind—by destroying its surface, Kirk plays on its instinctive want and need for its Creator with this gambit: he tells it he knows why the Creator does not respond to V'ger's repeated calls. He tells the assimilated Lt. Ilia, however, that he will only disclose this information to V'ger directly.

Kirk, Spock, McCoy, the Ilia probe, and Decker are permitted to enter V'ger's central core, where they find the ancient Voyager 6 probe and realize they can trigger its radio transmitter, thereby proving that humankind is V'ger's 'Creator'. V'ger, however, wants to join with its Creator in order to experience levels of understanding and being beyond its cold, logical mind. Decker volunteers, and the two fuse into one as V'ger enters into a higher plane of existence.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Blue Monday part 2 - Ludwig! Dumkopf!

Johnny B. rippin' on the master!

And here's Ray doin' his thing!

I don't know why I find this amusing...

Browsing the Russian language livejournals, found this post by some kiruv worker in Frankfurt, Germany.

Dear rabbosai!
On Wednesday/Thursday, 31st of October/1st of Novement, mohel reb Glick from the States will be passing through Frankfurt.
He will be circumcising grownup lads and children. For free. At the conclusion - a glatt kosher seudah accompanied by vodka. Everything will happen in Westend. Until shkiah, i.e. around 18:00 it is possible to make a bris.
After Mincha, seudah, and concluding with Maariv.
Whoever wants to get circumcised by an experienced Mohel, or knows someone or wants to take part in the minyan - you are welcome.

Comments will be screened.

['Comments will be screened' is part of the translated post. I am not screening comments!]

Heard in Passing

Saturday night at the shul, while being led out to howl at the moondo Kiddush Levanah, overheard two teenagers:

Boy 1: Are there any atheists in your class?

Boy 2: Yeah, I guess. Some.

Boy 1: Do you, like, make fun of them?

Blue Monday - Bo Diddley

Bo illustrating what became known as the "Bo Diddley beat". Check out the white girls swooning.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Noach and the Werewolf

No, this is not about some obscure midrash...

One of the arguments for the Biblical flood is the preponderance of flood myths across the world. However, there are many other notions going back to our murky past that are also almost universal. For example, vampires and werewolves. So, applying this logic, perhaps we need to start believing in them as well?

Many European countries and cultures influnced by them have stories of werewolves, including Albania (oik), France (loup-garou), Greece (lycanthropos), Spain, Mexico (hombre lobo), Bulgaria (valkolak), Turkey (kurtadam), Czech Republic/Slovakia (vlkodlak), Serbia/Montenegro/Bosnia (vukodlak, вукодлак), Russia (vourdalak, оборотень), Ukraine (vovkulak(a), vurdalak(a), vovkun, перевертень), Croatia (vukodlak), Poland (wilkołak), Romania (vârcolac, priculici), Macedonia (vrkolak), Scotland (werewolf, wulver), England (werewolf), Ireland (faoladh or conriocht), Germany (Werwolf), the Netherlands (weerwolf), Denmark/Sweden/Norway (Varulv), Norway/Iceland (kveld-ulf, varúlfur), Galicia (lobisón), Portugal/Brazil (lobisomem), Lithuania (vilkolakis and vilkatlakis), Latvia (vilkatis and vilkacis), Andorra (home llop), Hungary (Vérfarkas and Farkasember), Estonia (libahunt), Finland (ihmissusi and vironsusi), and Italy (lupo mannaro).

(from here)

The Year of Living Biblically

As with most biblical journeys, my year has taken me on detours I could never have predicted. I didn't expect to herd sheep in Israel. Or fondle a pigeon egg. Or find solace in prayer. Or hear Amish jokes from the Amish. I didn't expect to confront just how absurdly flawed I am. I didn't expect to discover such strangeness in the Bible. And I didn't expect to, as the Psalmist says, take refuge in the Bible and rejoice in it.
To follow the Bible literally — at face value, at its word, according to its plain meaning — isn't just a daunting proposition. It's a dangerous one.

Consider: In the third century, the scholar Origen is said to have interpreted literally Matthew 19:12 — “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” — and castrated himself. Origen later became a preeminent theologian of his age — and an advocate of figurative interpretation.

Read an excerpt here. He sold me. I am gonna buy this book!

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Evanstonjew

In a world where there are no nouns — or where nouns are composites of other parts of speech, created and discarded according to a whim — and no things, most of Western philosophy becomes impossible. Without nouns about which to state propositions, there can be no a priori deductive reasoning from first principles. Without history, there can be no teleology. If there can be no such thing as observing the same object at different times there is no possibility of a posteriori inductive reasoning. Ontology — the philosophy of what it means to be — is an alien concept.

In "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, an encyclopedia article about a mysterious country called Uqbar is the first indication of Orbis Tertius, a massive conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world: Tlön. In the course of the story, the narrator encounters increasingly substantive artifacts of Orbis Tertius and of Tlön; by the end of the story, Earth is becoming Tlön.

In the story, Uqbar initially appears to be an obscure region of Iraq or of Asia Minor. In casual conversation with Borges, Bioy Casares recalls that a heresiarch in Uqbar had declared that "mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of men." Borges, impressed with the "memorable" sentence, asks for its source. Bioy Casares refers him to an encyclopedia article on Uqbar in the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, described as "a literal if inadequate reprint of the Encyclopædia Britannica of 1902." It emerges that Uqbar is mentioned only in the closing pages of a single volume of the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, and that the pages describing Uqbar appear in some copies of the work, but not in others.

Borges, the narrator, is led through a bibliographical maze attempting to verify the reality or unreality of Uqbar. He is particularly drawn to a statement in the encyclopedia article that "…the literature of Uqbar… never referred to reality, but to the two imaginary regions of Mlejnas and Tlön."

A brief and naturalistic aside about Borges's father's friend Herbert Ashe leads to the story of Borges inheriting a much more substantial related artifact (one of several increasingly substantial and surprising artifacts that are to appear in the course of the story): the apparent eleventh volume of an encyclopedia devoted to Tlön. The volume has, in two places, "a blue oval stamp with the inscription: Orbis Tertius."

At this point, the story of Tlön, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius expands beyond the circle of Borges and his immediate friends and acquaintances, as scholars such as Néstor Ibarra discuss whether this volume could have been written in isolation or whether it necessarily implies the existence of a complete encyclopedia about Tlön. The proposal emerges to attempt to reconstruct the entire history, culture, and even languages of that world.

This leads to an extended discussion of the languages, the philosophy and, in particular, the epistemology of Tlön, which forms the central focus of the story. Appropriately, the people of the multiply imaginary Tlön — a fictional construct within a fictional story — hold an extreme form of Berkeleian idealism, denying the reality of the world. Their world is understood "not as a concurrence of objects in space, but as a heterogeneous series of independent acts." One of the imagined languages of Tlön lacks nouns. Its central units are "impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic suffixes or prefixes which have the force of adverbs." Borges offers us, for what would be our own "The moon rose above the water" a Tlönic equivalent: hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, meaning literally "Upward behind the onstreaming it mooned." In another language of Tlön, "the basic unit is not the verb, but the monosyllabic adjective," which, in combinations of two or more, are noun-forming: "moon" becomes "round airy-light on dark" or "pale-orange-of-the-sky."

In a world where there are no nouns — or where nouns are composites of other parts of speech, created and discarded according to a whim — and no things, most of Western philosophy becomes impossible. Without nouns about which to state propositions, there can be no a priori deductive reasoning from first principles. Without history, there can be no teleology. If there can be no such thing as observing the same object at different times there is no possibility of a posteriori inductive reasoning. Ontology — the philosophy of what it means to be — is an alien concept. Tlön is a world of Berkeleian idealism with one critical omission: it lacks the omnipresent, perceiving deity on whom Berkeley relied as a point of view demanding an internally consistent world. This infinitely mutable world is tempting to a playful intellect, and its "transparent tigers and ... towers of blood" appeal to baser minds, but a Tlönic world view requires denying most of what would normally be considered common sense reality.

In the anachronistic postscript, the narrator and the world have learned, through the emergence of a letter, that Uqbar and Tlön are invented places, the work of a "benevolent secret society" conceived in the early 17th century, and numbering Berkeley among its members. The narrator learns that as the society's work began, it became clear that a single generation wasn't sufficient to articulate the entire country of Uqbar. Each master therefore agreed to elect a disciple who would carry on his work and also perpetuate this hereditary arrangement. However, there was no further trace of this society until, two centuries later, one of its disciples was the fictional Ezra Buckley. Buckley was an eccentric Memphis, Tennessee millionaire who scoffed at the modest scale of the sect's undertaking. He proposed instead the invention of a planet, Tlön, with certain provisos: that the project be kept secret, that an encyclopedia of the imaginary planet of Tlön be written, and that the whole scheme "have no truck with that impostor Jesus Christ" (and therefore none with Berkeley's God). The date of Buckley's involvement is 1824. In the early 1940s — still in the future at the time Borges wrote the story — the Tlönic project has ceased to be a secret, and is beginning to disseminate its own universe. Beginning "about 1942", in what at first appears a magical turn, objects from Tlön begin to appear in the real world. While we are later led to see them as forgeries, they still must be the projects of a secret science and technology. Once the full, forty-volume First Encyclopaedia of Tlön is found in Memphis, the idea of Tlön begins unstoppably to take over and eradicate the existing cultures of the real world.

(As an aside, the eleventh volume of this full encyclopedia is not quite the same as the earlier, isolated eleventh volume: it lacks such "improbable features" as "the multiplying of the hrönir." "It is probable," writes Borges, "that these erasures were in keeping with the plan of projecting a world which would not be too incompatible with the real world." Material reality may be subject to reshaping by ideas, but apparently it is not entirely without resistance.)

While the fictional Borges and his academic colleagues pursue their interesting speculations about the epistemology, language, and literature of Tlön, the rest of the world gradually learns about the project and begins to adopt the Tlönic culture, an extreme case of ideas affecting reality. In the epilogue set in 1947, Earth is in the process of becoming Tlön. The fictional Borges is appalled by this turn of events, an element in the story that critics Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid argue is to be read as a metaphor for the totalitarianism already sweeping across Europe at the time of the story's writing. Their remark seems only a small extrapolation from a passage toward the end of the story:

"Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order — dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism — was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too is ordered."

As the story ends, Borges is focused on an obsession of his own: a translation of Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial into Spanish. Arguably it is no more important than Tlön, but it is at least of this world.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Another wide stance!

Newsweek reports:
The priest invited the young man to his office after work hours and, during the course of their conversation on homosexuality, started complimenting the youth on his appearance. The young man told the priest he was "about to commit something with me that is a sin in the eyes of God." Stenico, 60, replied: "No, I don't consider it a sin." When the youth questioned how the priest could ignore the church's teaching that homosexual acts are sinful, the priest cut short the meeting and showed him the door—but not before placing his hand on the back of his leg and saying, "You're so hot." The priest asked his guest not to talk with anyone on the way out.

Although the pictures and voices were heavily disguised by the program makers, who filmed it as part of an investigation into gay Catholic priests, Vatican officials recognised the office, confronted the priest, and promptly suspended him. Stenico has since denied he is gay and has claimed he was only pretending in order to gather information about people he believes are involved in a Satanic plot to discredit the church by seducing priests into homosexuality.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Would the RaMBaM be proud of early Roman religion?

Found this in Wikipedia:

Plutarch, in like manner, tells of the early religion of the Romans, that it was imageless and spiritual. He says Numa “forbade the Romans to represent the deity in the form either of man or of beast. Nor was there among them formerly any image or statue of the Divine Being; during the first one hundred and seventy years they built temples, indeed, and other sacred domes, but placed in them no figure of any kind; persuaded that it is impious to represent things Divine by what is perishable, and that we can have no conception of God but by the understanding.”
Wow, I've never heard this before. I always was taught that the Romans were pagans. It seems like this religion went from monotheism to paganism.

What do you get when you mix the son of a Louisiana butcher, a dome builder, a philosophy major, and an ex-Israeli solider?

NYU scientists who play rock n' roll, of course. Joseph LeDoux, Daniela Schiller, and Nina Galbraith Curley are neuroscientists who study emotion and memory functions of the brain, and Tyler Volk is an environmental scientist who has also written about mind and brain. Their original songs are all about mental life and mental disorders (A Trace, Memory Pill, An Emotional Brain, Inside of Me, Mind-Body Problem, and so on). The Amygdaloids call their music "Heavy Mental".

Check out their songs here...

It's about time!

"Here is a hand" - the argument against skepticism

Today, I came across an amazing idea by G.E. Moore regarding an argument against skepticism. The reason why I find this interesting is that in the religious world "skeptics" is typically a term used to describe those who reject the "miraculous" claims of religion, the 20 foot tall Moshe, or the talking donkey. Yet, in Moore's case, the skeptics are people that are basically questioning the "common sense" view of reality, such as asking "How do you know we are not all brains in a vat?" or "How do you know that the Universe is not 5 minutes old?".

From Wikipedia:
Moore famously put the point into dramatic relief with his 1939 essay Proof of an External World, in which he gave a common sense argument against skepticism by raising his right hand and saying "here is a hand," and then raising his left and saying "and here is another". Here, Moore is taking his knowledge claim (q) to be that he has two hands, and without rejecting the skeptic's premise, proves the we can know the skeptical possibility (sp) to be not true.
In his 1925 essay A Defence of Common Sense he argued against idealism and skepticism toward the external world on the grounds that they could not give reasons to accept their metaphysical premises that were more plausible than the reasons we have to accept the common sense claims about our knowledge of the world that skeptics and idealists must deny. In other words, he is more willing to believe that he has a hand than believe the premises of a strange argument in a university classroom. "I do not think it is rational to be as certain of any one of these ... propositions".

Not surprisingly, not everyone inclined to skeptical doubts found Moore's method of argument entirely convincing. Moore, however, defends his argument on the surprisingly simple grounds that skeptical arguments seem invariably to require an appeal to "philosophical intuitions" that we have considerably less reason to accept than we have for the common sense claims that they supposedly refute.

I am no baki in philosophy, but it seems to me that many of the philosophical concepts are irrelevant to the questions asked by the "religious skeptics". I am not saying that they are completely bogus, but I think that most of the time the various philosophers are brought up as a defense against common sense questions, it is an attempt to obfuscate questions that have answers as simple as the blade of Occam's razor - was Moshe 20 feet tall? Did a donkey speak with a human voice? Did the Red Sea split because God commanded it to do so and the Israelites walk across it on dry land?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blue Monday - Bukka White

I hope to make this a regular feature - if I remember to do this every Monday. Enjoy this old recording of Booker T (Bukka) White doing "Mamma don't allow":

FrumSpeak - a mild annoyance

It seems that a lot of speeches that I hear in frum circles start with an intro that goes something like this - "I would like to share with you an amazing idea that I heard from ...".

I don't know why this rubs me the wrong way, but it does. When someone says something like this, I expect them to tell me something truly amazing (like maybe they discovered how to break the speed of light or maybe they found Noach's Ark), and it never is the case. It is usually some mushy cliche or a rather ho-hum and uninspiring homily.

The shidduch crisis, shmirat negiah, and Nikah Mut'ah

Lately, some people have been recommending "ditching shomer negiah" as a possible way to alleviate the shidduch crisis. Chas v' sholom that we should lead our heiliger youth astray with such suggestions. Instead, I propose a solution which, much like many of our halachos (e.g the eiruv), relies on the concept of a rabbinical legal fiction.

In this case, I think we can borrow an idea from our cousins, the Shi'a Muslims, who have the notion of a Nikah Mut'ah(temporary marriage). Since, unlike Christianity, Judaism doesn't stigmatize divorce, this is really a wonderful solution.

This solution would alleviate so many problems, I cannot believe it has not been proposed before. It would relieve the tremendous strain of maintaining an asexual relationship, thereby avoiding a rush to get married and it would allow couples to test out their sexual compatibility in a completely halachic way.

So what are you all waiting for? Go out and get (temporarily) married today!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Gerald Schroeder no longer in favor?

Found this obscure line in Wikipedia:
He is closely affiliated with Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem-based organization promoting Orthodox Judaism. He was an honored speaker at “Torah and Science”, an honor which was later revoked due to criticism about his work.
What's this all about? Anyone have the details?

Adults at Risk

Interesting article from R' Horowitz:

The chiyuv that we all have to reach out to our unaffiliated brothers and sisters has been the topic of much literature. Aside from the Torah principle that “kol Yisrael arayvim ze le ze” and the outspoken calls to action from the time of the Chofetz Chaim, we are all aware of the recent public declarations of our Gedolim for every Torah Observant Jew to be participatein(sic) the mitzvah of kiruv rechokim. But what of our obligation of kiruv krovim?

If anything, all indications are that the obligation that we have to “stop the bleeding” within our own camp is at least as great an obligation. Apart from the devastating effect on families and communities, in the case of an F.F.B that becomes an Adult at Risk the “tinok shenishbah” card cannot be played. In addition, many readers may be familiar with one of the battle cries of the former Munkatcher Rebbe, that, before trying to “make a profit”, one should ensure that he is not losing what he already has.” While many Gedolim disagreed with the Munkatcher’s objections to kiruv rechokim[1], there is no question that they wholeheartedly agreed with the need to preserve and guard what we already have.

Ezekiel 16 - Gender Reversal and Cosmic Chaos

evanstonjew has been popping up on random blogs dropping his cryptic tangential comments. I thought I would indulge him...

He wants to talk about Ezekiel 16, so I will provide a forum here. I'll start with this link to Tamar Kamionkowski's book. I can't afford to pay the $90 for a used copy on Amazon, but if EJ wants to drop one off at my house, I promise to read it and have a discussion about it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


So, riddle me this, Sigmund - what does it mean that I suddenly have an urge to get on a plane and go to Tokyo? Utter isolation, don't speak the language, a gaijin in the ultimate culture of conformity. Surrounded by the salarymen reading their hentai manga on the trains, packed so tight, sardines, that when they die of their stress-induced heart attacks, they can't fall to the floor.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

tear down the wall

Kamtza and Bar Kamtza revisited : an indictment

Many people know the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza in the Talmud (Gittin 55b-56a). Traditionally, it is taught that it was sinat chinam, baseless hatred, as exhibited by these two individuals that lead to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. However, if you actually read the text, there is a debate between the Rabbis and R. Zechariah b. Abkulas:
The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said R. Zechariah b. Abkulas to them: People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar. They then proposed to kill Bar Kamza so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah b. Abkulas said to them, Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?
The last word is given to R. Yochanan who utters the following phrase:
אמר רבי יוחנן ענוותנותו של רבי זכריה בן אבקולס החריבה את ביתנו ושרפה את היכלנו והגליתנו מארצנו. Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.

chimp irrationalis non chimp est

Strangely enough, this article appeared on the Internet the day after my post on human irrationality.

Chimps choose more rationally than humans

Monday, October 08, 2007


Stuff in the jBlogosphere about Shalom Auslander's new book. Auslander means foreigner in Yiddish.

homo irrationalis non est homo

In ancient Greece, deformed babies were abandoned to die on mountaintops. Ironically, this is the culture that called non-Greeks "barbarians".

I thought of this while waiting to cross the railroad tracks on my way to work this morning. Next to me was one of those "special ed" mini school buses. The bus was empty except for one child in a wheelchair who clearly had something wrong with him.

I started to think of our society which spends so much resources on terminally ill children, or children who will never "contribute to society"... Yet, despite the "rational" course of action, despite the "good of the many" type article, we pride ourselves on this disregard for the cold, cost-benefit analysis.

Is this a "Western" cultural thing or a universal human idea?

When I think of the Greeks, I imagine them not being that different from me. So, how was their practice socially and ethically acceptable? Did our society evolve? Or have we become better at masking our atavistic origins by the facade of "civilization"?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

WTF? Spice Girls Reunion in London - SOLD OUT in 38 seconds!

But I like ZEBRAHEAD's punk cover better than the original

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"...if that doesn’t work, poison their borscht!"

Hilarious article from PresenTense on the Jewish Population Problem - "More Orgies, More Babies: A Modest Proposal".

The most popular Jewish pastime, arguably, is our obsession with numbers and the size of the Jewish population, which, according to most recent studies, is in danger. The questions reverberate across Jewish boardrooms and dinner tables: How many Jews are there? Why aren’t there more of us? If two Jews fall in the forest, how many opinions will they have, and can we arrange for them to fall on each other in a way that might help one impregnate the other?
full article here...

(hat-tip ymarkov)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Cursu menstruo sanguinis - cont'd...

I was able to get my hands on the full text of the article on Jewish Male Menstruation...

Fascinating stuff - I will paraphrase the main ideas in a later post. However, something for me to chase down next is this:
The Jewish sources record the use of their own blood-menstrual or otherwise-for special purposes. A cloth soaked in menstrual blood hung on the hearth by a long rod would guard the house against fire. Such a cloth would also protect against fever. In order to become invisible, one might soak watermelons in menstrual blood and then plant them. The new fruits which then grew would make the person who carried one invisible. Illness could be alleviated by smearing menstrual blood from a woman who had had her first child. On the other hand, if a midwife was visited by a menstruating woman, the child would contract leprosy on the head and face. Jews might use blood painted on doorposts to keep away witches and demons. Oriental Jews would use the blood of circumcision for writing the name of God on talismans, which would protect them from the plague.

Another nail in Israel's coffin?

I came across a certain website which really rattled me, and I am not sure why. Partially, I think I am rattled because my rational half agrees with many of the sentiments on this website. Yet, my emotional half feels like the Jews that came to Israel to escape their persecutors have found that like in a horror movie, the monster has followed them to their new home. I couldn't help but think of the latest Neo-Nazi scandal in Israel as I read this letter. There is something troubling to me in the tone of this letter as well, the use of the word "Brothers". This is hard to translate, but it invokes a very primitive kind of tribalism, which though not bad in itself is very scary in the context of this letter.

I took the liberty of translating their main page. Two things must be kept in mind when reading this document. In most of the world, Jews are an ethnicity as well as a religion, and therefore a Russian is not a Jew of Russian birth, but an ethnic Russian. Orthodox means Russian Orthodox and not Jewish. I have deliberately not told you the background of this organization which I believe will be clear after you read this letter.

We are an officially registered (23 February 2004) non-commercial community organization "Russian informational-cultural center in the nation of Israel". The Center acts as a legal facet of the ethnic Russian community and represents the interests of the Russian ethnic-religious minority in the Jewish nation of Israel.

The population of Israel has increased significantly in the short interval of time (1990-2000) on account of Jewish immigrants returning to their historical homeland from the republics of the former USSR.

Of course, it would have been impossible to expect the arrival of pure-blooded Jews, especially from the former USSR, not burdened by non-Jewish relatives and non-Jewish family members. Over 40% of all Russian speaking Israeli families are mixed families. We constitute these Russian "non-Jewish members of Jewish families". We live in Israel, work, serve in the Army, die in terrorist acts, try to make it like everyone else.

However, taking into account the specific nature of our new nation, assuming its Jewish ethnic character, other nationalities are not taken into account here. Arabs (1.2 M people) Druze and bedouin (100,000 each) are admitted to be ethnic minorities only with great strain.

Every fifth Russian speaking citizen of Israel identifies himself as ethnic Russian (around 200,000 people), but Russians are not noticed by the country; they are not counted in the statistical census, their cultural and religious needs are not taken into account and are not satisfied. There is not one ethnic Russian school in Israel!

All of this occurs in the environment of forced-voluntary assimilation - conversion to Judaism (giyur). Instead of cultural-integrational programs, Russian citizens, on a national level, are invited to change their religion, reject Orthodoxy in exchange for Judaism. Only then will the many obstacles that make life of non-Jews in Israel difficult, disappear. Only then your child (possibly!) will not face obstacles in his life because of his goyishe daddy or mom. The government defines the ethnicity of the citizens of Israel - it also conducts the government programs of assimilation - the conversion of non-Jews to Judaism.

It is difficult for Russians to adjust to life in Israel. Probably harder than for the Russians in the Baltics. At least there our co-nationalists have Russian schools. At least they are closer to Russia there. It is time to rename our Russian Center into the Center for survival of Russians in Israel.

The Israeli government doesn't give us one shekel for our community cultural, informational, educational, legal and social programs. The Russian minority doesn't exist for it, and consequently, neither does a budgetary line item. Russian speaking donors prefer not to contribute in those cases when they could be accused of excessive sympathy towards Russians, and consequently, towards Russia.

We are addressing all ethnically minded people who are not indifferent to the fate of the many-century long Russian presence in the Holy Land. Brothers, this land has always been holy for the Russian person. The words "Palestine", "Jerusalem" always have found a place in the warm Russian heart.

Without money you can't go anywhere in contemporary society. We can't do much because we don't have adequate sponsor support. Everything that we have done and do for our Russian compatriots in Israel all these years we finance from our own savings. Taking away from our own families, we attempt to help those who have gotten in trouble, Russians, not so Russians, and complete non Russians, since often we help natural born Israelis seeking justice and support from Russia, but thus far only finding support and involvement from the Russian community.