Thursday, January 31, 2008

Meet Kittler

A poster from the Green Party in Germany. I think it says something like "You can't always tell a Nazi at first glance." Funny ad or trivialization of the Holocaust?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


[OK, I know everyone must be sick of the Kugel posts...]

I was thinking about how an Orthodox Jew can become a modern Biblical scholar. I mean, essentially, Biblical scholarship takes as a given that the Bible was not written by God but instead composed by multiple authors over the period of hundreds of years. This seems totally contrary to Orthodox belief.

I can see someone entertaining this idea for the sake of argument. I can see an Orthodox Jew read books and articles about it, but to make it your profession, and especially to become a prominent scholar of the discipline? How does that work? How do you figure out what you really think?

Have there ever been Orthodox Jews that became religious scholars of other religions? Meaning they are frum Jews, but they are PhDs in Christian theology, etc? I guess this would be an equivalent case...

Sometimes you just need to talk to God...

Passenger Sean Finucane told of his shock as he witnessed the co-pilot being carried out of the cockpit in restraints.

He said today: "He was very, very distraught. He was yelling loudly at times. When they tried to put his shoes on later he swore and he threatened people. His voice was clear so he didn't sound drunk or anything. He was swearing and was very distressed."

Mr Finucane, from Lancashire, told how the pilot kept shouting: "I need to talk to you God."

A little politics...

With all these primaries and "super tuesdays", I feel pressure to put up something political on this blog. I hate politics, but here goes...

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

It's not easy being green...

England and America are two countries separated by a common language
George Bernard Shaw

And we are two worlds separated by a common religion...

I can't find the words...

And yet more Kugel...

Just a few more observations about the book...

I had previously written about the apparent cognitive dissonance of such a book written by an Orthodox Jew. This was prior to me reading the book. Having read most of it now, I am struck by the fact that throughout the book Kugel refers to the "traditional interpretors" versus the modern scholars. I was struck by how weird it is for him to take that "impartial narrator" tone, given the fact that he is squarely and prominently part of the latter group.

The other thought that really is stuck in my head is how many "non-traditional" Jewish sources are brought forth in that book. It is interesting because, when I usually come across quotations from sources it is Tanach, Talmud, Midrash. Yet Kugel quotes extensively from Apocryphal and Pseudoepigraphical writings. I wonder why we don't see as much of this in traditional Jewish sources. I understand that these writings did not possess the same amount of kedusha as the Talmud and Midrash, but were they considered unreliable?

Bag of Nothing

This is truly an amazing blog. Perhaps you never noticed how the crew from Gilligan's Island matches the 7 deadly sins. Or you need the recipe for a perfect bacon martini. Or need help taking care of babies. Or want to see how a man can build Stonehenge in Flint, MI.

Stop by and take a look!

Monday, January 28, 2008

I've seen some weird shit on the Internet...

but this is right up there...

Japanese bug fighting videos...

Music Monday - Big Time

Having quoted Peter Gabriel in the last post, perhaps y'all will enjoy one of his big hits

And I will pray to a Big God
As I kneel in the Big Church

Nusach Kugel

To keeping silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut

Turning water into wine

Open doors would soon be shut

So I went from day to day

Though my life was in a rut

Till I thought of what Id say

Which connection I should cut

During the leining, I looked to my left and did a double take. There was a copy of Kugel's How to Read the Bible a couple of chairs away from me. I have to admit, that I was uncomfortable even with the thought of someone seeing me getting the book from the library, yet here it was right next to me. It was like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story - The Telltale Book!

I didn't know the guy who was sitting there, but he was busily going back and forth between Kugel and the Stone Chumash and whispering in an excited and agitated way to the young man next to him who is a member of our shul.

At Kiddush I walked up to the young guy.

"Is that your dad?".
"No, my father-in-law."
"I noticed he was davening Nusach Kugel."
"Why, have you read this book? My father-in-law is completely obsessed with it and Biblical scholarship. Here, let me introduce him to you..."

Before I could say anything, I found myself in a discussion with this guy. He evidently just found religion. He was way into Kugel and Friedman and Finkelstein. He railed against the rabbis whom he spoke to about all the evidence and who refused to even have a conversation about it, and "intellectual honesty" and the "evidence".

I was somewhat uncomfortable. Shul just seemed like the wrong place to talk about this. So I said to him, "where do you think all this would lead? All these Orthodox rabbis that you confronted, what did you expect them to say to you?" He didn't have a good answer.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Nuremberg Defense

I received a brochure in the mail from a local frum lawyer. Here is what it said (b'kitzur):


The Torah states the laws of inheritance as (Bamidbar 27:8-11):
  • Sons inherit and daughters and wives don't inherit.
  • If there are no sons, daughters inherit.
  • A husband fully inherits his wife.

Many Rishonim and Acharonim rule emphatically that this Torah law supercedes any issue of Dinah D'Malchusah Dinah.

Solution (direct quote):

"Fortunately, there are halachically valid approaches to enable one to conform his/her estate plan to Halacha."
I cannot tell you how much I am troubled by this. It is funny because there is a lot of rhetoric from the "defenders of the faith" about skeptics being pleasure seeking atheists, scoffers, ignorant of the "true meaning of the Torah(s)". And many are.

But I tell you, I can believe in God. I can believe that many of the things described in the Tanach happened, even if not literally as described, even if the Torah was not composed by Moshe straight from God's lips. I can accept the idea of an Oral tradition, regardless of whether it was received directly from God at Sinai, and regardless of whether it was transmitted perfectly through the ages, but when I see things like this pamphlet, I really have to wonder - did we drop the ball?

What we are saying is that against the explicit words of the Torah, against the explicit rulings of the great Rabbis, who we are supposed to accept as Divinely sanctioned to interpret the Torah, we will find a way to do what we want to do anyway and then somehow justify it as consistent with the will of God.

This is just one example. Yet nobody in the frum community loses sleep over this. It is indeed a dsiplay of great emunah. I guess when it is time to stand before the Aibishter we can all use the Nuremberg defense.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

And Speaking of R' Yishmael...

Continuing my musings on this Tanna - isn't it strange that despite the fact that midrashim portray Yishmael as an idolator and engaging in sexual improprieties, one of our greatest Tannaim is named after him. Especially since, unless I am mistaken, Rabbi Yishmael was one of the main contributors to midrashic collections. What gives?

Neither God nor man's got nothin on me now. Come on in boys - the water is fine.

Love that ole time gospel...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Arun Gandhi - Asshole Anti-Semite

The Jewish identity in the future appears bleak. Any nation that remains anchored to the past is unable to move ahead and, especially a nation that believes its survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs. In Tel Aviv in 2004 I had the opportunity to speak to some Members of Parliament and Peace activists all of whom argued that the wall and the military build-up was necessary to protect the nation and the people. In other words, I asked, you believe that you can create a snake pit -- with many deadly snakes in it -- and expect to live in the pit secure and alive? What do you mean? they countered. Well, with your superior weapons and armaments and your attitude towards your neighbors would it not be right to say that you are creating a snake pit? How can anyone live peacefully in such an atmosphere? Would it not be better to befriend those who hate you? Can you not reach out and share your technological advancement with your neighbors and build a relationship?

Apparently, in the modern world, so determined to live by the bomb, this is an alien concept. You don't befriend anyone, you dominate them. We have created a culture of violence (Israel and the Jews are the biggest players) and that Culture of Violence is eventually going to destroy humanity.
Arun Gandhi, "On Faith" blog

Actually, having read some of his other posts, I think this guy is just a pompous, moralizing idiot!

If you can speak three languages you're trilingual...

If you can speak three languages you're trilingual. If you can speak two languages you're bilingual. If you can speak only one language you're an American.

Your Score: Language Scholar

You scored a 310 out of 400 on language knowledge.

Outstanding! You've scored higher than even most Anthropology students would. You are probably a Linguistics or Anthropology Professor yourself (or at least a Grad student). You may even speak several languages and are possibly working on a new one. If not, then you just have an endless drive to learn about the different cultures of our world. Regardless, you are one of the gems of any society, always promoting a deeper understanding amongst all people. Unless you cheated of course.

Link: The World Languages Test written by jeremie096

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Quod in vetere latet in novo patet

For early Christians this brief incident [Moses and Joshua battling Amalek] became particularly significant, since it was a striking demonstration that, as the Latin saying had it, quod in vetere latet in novo patet (what is hidden in the Old [Testament] is made explicit in the New). As they saw it, Moses' hands in the form of the cross were only part of the hidden message. Surely it was not without significance that Moses himself stood to the side while his heretofore unmentioned assistant, Joshua, actually led the battle. The name Joshua in its Greek form is Jesus. Any early Christian who read the Bible in Greek simple knew that there were two biblical figures named Jesus, one in the Old Testament and one in the New. To the typologically minded, there could thus scarcely be any doubt that the Old Testament Jesus, taking Moses' place in the lead, was a foreshadowing of the one in the New whose religion would replace that of Moses - quod in vetere latet in novo patet. What is more, Amalek scarcely seemed like an ordinary human enemy. If he were, why should God, here and later on, single him out as Israel's archenemy [...] Amalek, Christians concluded, must symbolize the devil. This the fact that this Old Testament Jesus made his first appearance here, fighting the devil, while Moses stood to the side and made the sign of the cross, virtually clinched the case...
James Kugel, How to Read the Bible

Noah Feldman, step aside?

The Forward reports:

Alumni of a prominent Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn were prohibited from bringing same-sex partners to a class reunion last month, causing an uproar among some former students.

The high-school division of Yeshivah of Flatbush, one of the most prestigious Modern Orthodox schools in New York City, held a reunion in late December for members of the class of 1997. While most alumni were invited to bring guests, a few were explicitly forbidden to do so. According to sources, graduates thought by yeshiva personnel to have same-sex significant others were sent an e-mail that barred them from bringing their partners.

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam...

This post began with some musings of how neighborhoods, cities, and even nations change composition. For example, how do neighborhoods turn over? You start out with a German neighborhood, and then some Poles move in. And at some point, the Germans are no longer predominant, and the character of the neighborhood definitely becomes Polish, and the Germans are the minority...

I started thinking about this as it could apply to Lubavitch, because I think they are a fairly unique group. Seems to me that the majority of growth in Lubavitch, since the Rebbe announced kiruv as a major goal, was accomplished by BTs to that movement, as opposed to some population explosion of core Lubavitch. The thing about these BTs is that for the most part they seem extremely well educated and intellectual. What is fascinating to me is that most of the children of these BTs wind up going to Lubavitch schools where, at least in my understanding, there is not a very strong emphasis on intellectualism.

So the first question is - how do the BT parents of these children feel about this? Are they upset over this; do they believe that in an ideal world their children should get the same type of education they did, or do they believe that the education they received is a bad thing and their children should be kept away from it?

Or is there a third possibility where for whatever reason, the parents had to make an either/or decision, because the Lubavitch community did not allow them to have both. Either you consider secular education and intellectualism to be valuable, in which case you will never truly become a part of the Lubavitch community, or publicly renounce this and become one of us. Could this be what is happening? And if that is the case, most BT parents would choose the latter?

So getting back to this idea of neighborhoods turning over - what if there were a rebellion in Lubavitch where enough of the BT families were able to essentially overthrow the old regime and allow a synthesis of secular education and chassidic Judaism. After all, Lubavitch always was considered the most theoretical and "bookish" of the chassidic movements? Would it be possible to create this "Modern Chassidic" branch of Judaism. Could you get some type of "ice nine" phenomenon to happen?

(BTW, this is purely a hypothetical, stream of consciousness idea. I have no stake in Lubavitch whatsoever)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Rabbi Yishmael = Acher ?

The Wikipedia article on Rabbi Yishmael has a curious paragraph in it:
In the book, " 'The Written' as the Vocation of Conceiving Jewishly," [McGinley, 2006] there is an interesting, albeit controversial, hypothesis offered concerning the historical identity of Rabbi Ishmael. The suggestion offered there is that "Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha" is a Rabbinic cognomen for the famous and officially discredited tannaitic apostate, Elisha ben Abbuyah. The contention is that through this ruse the Rabbis were able to give expression to the vast halakhic and hermeneutic rulings and achievements of the otherwise discredited "Akher." The argument entails the reading of the famous aggadah (Gittin, 58a) by which Rabbi Joshua liberated the young "Rabbi Ishmael" from Roman imprisonment as a "mashal" by which this device of a cover name for the discredited Akher could function as a manner of referring to the vast body of teachings of this Elisha ben Abuyah while at the same time not directly honoring the discredited Akher. The vignette has Rabbi Joshua asking the "imprisoned" young man the question of Isaiah 42:24 and receiving from the "imprisoned" Ishmael the repentant answer which constitutes the rest of that verse. Further the dual character of the 42:24 text which Joshua is presented as choosing is intriguing. The wrong of the one, here called "Israel" there called "Jacob," of the prophet's words (with consequences for being unfaithful to Hashem) seems to point to the redactor's implication that Joshua and "Ishmael" carry shared paradigmatic responsibility for the multi-faceted wrong, and its respective consequences, brought about "on that day" which so cruelly injured the Rabbinic Movement.

A pretty wild assertion. So I went to check out this book, and boy, it is IN-SANE. It's written like beat poetry or something... Who is this John McGinley?

Check it out here...

Music Monday - Jamiroquai

Inspired by being stuck on the Edens expressway for an hour today, despite what should have been a light traffic, MLK day rush hour, I bring you - Traveling Without Moving, by Jamiroquai.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Giving Tree

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hardware Disease

As a software engineer, I am often asked how to prevent hardware disease. I don't know what the answer is for humans, but here is how it's done for cows:

A cow magnet is a preventive veterinary medical device for cattle, consisting of a plastic cylinder about one centimeter in diameter, which encloses a strong alnico magnet. A rancher or dairy farmer feeds a magnet to each cow; it settles in the rumen or reticulum and remains there for the life of the animal.

When the cow grazes, it often consumes and swallows what is called tramp iron: baling and barbed wire, staples, nails, and other metallic objects. These objects are indigestible, and would lodge in the reticulum and cause inflammation, resulting in lower milk production (for dairy cattle) or lower weight gain (for feeder stock). This condition is called hardware disease.

The cow magnet attracts such objects and prevents them from becoming lodged in the animal's tissue. While the resultant mass of iron remains in the cow's rumen as a sort of bezoar, it does not cause the severe problems of hardware disease. Cow Magnets cannot be passed through a cow's 4th bonivial meta-colon.

Cow magnets are widely available from veterinary, feed supply, and scientific supply sources.


Weird Free Associations

Some frum high schooler's blog mentioned some of the subjects in the school, like Navi, Mussar, and Halacha. Not ever having gone to a religious Jewish high school, these subjects struck as as so odd. I am not sure why, but I guess in my mind I always associated high school with Algebra, History, Gym. Hearing things like Mussar and Halacha as names of classes is like something out of Harry Potter. "I have my Defense against the Dark Art class in the morning, followed by Potions and Magical Creatures after lunch".

A little while back, Chana, the Curious Jew, wrote something about Stern College staging the musical "Little Shop of Horrors". Stern, being an all women school, cast young women for all roles, including the males. I don't know why this struck me as odd, but it did. For some reason I associated this with Elizabethan England, and boys playing the parts of women on stage, due to the impropriety of women acting.

Amor Vincit Omnia?

The notion of romantic love seems to be missing from the culture of Judaism, and I am trying to figure out whether it is something that was there and was expunged from our cultural record or something that was never really there...

Of course I am not talking love itself. Obviously, like all people, Jews fell in love, rejoiced, suffered, pined. And I am not talking about sex, since in many ways, until the liberalization of sexual mores in the last century or so, Jewish sexual values were not much different from the prevailing cultures. What I am talking about is, that it seems to me that aside from some folktales and some medieval sephardic poetry, the concept of romantic love as an ideal is missing from Judaism. The notion of two people who love one another so much that they will overcome any obstacles to be together, that they would suffer and die for their love seems to be absent. There is no Helen of Troy, no Romeo and Juliet. No Byron, no Pushkin. At least not that I can think of.

Is this intentional or accidental? And in either of these cases, how did it come to pass and what does it signify?

(this thought triggered by Tobie's post)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I found the answer! God is God

Well, maybe it's not the answer but this maybe the trippiest video I've seen in decades.

Check out Juno Reactor's "God is God"... the video is Sergei Parajanov's "The Color of Pomegranates"

Shomer Negiah in the City

Here's a well written article by Matthue Roth, via Tobie, via Izgad.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Just stumbled across a frum crossdresser's blog. Apparently, based on the posts and comments, this is not a rare thing!

Blue October Monday

Use of Divine Names in Psalms

I noticed this weekend that Psalms sometimes use different names for God within the same psalm. Since divine names were one of the key clues to the Documentary Hypothesis, I wonder if there is any significance from that perspective when looking at the Book of Psalms?

Bronfman Big Idea Series

Shai, whose comments I've enjoyed on several blogs that I read, has notified me that he submitted a proposal to the Charles Bronfman Brandeis Contest for the next big idea in Jewish communal innovation. Check it out!


God is omniscient!

Late in the Evening

The first thing I remember - I was lying in my bed. I couldn't have been no more than one or two. And I remember there's a radio coming from the room next door. My mother laughed the way some ladies do. Well, it's late in the evening, and the music's seeping through.

The next thing I remember - I am walking down a street. I'm feeling alright, I'm with my boys, I'm with my troops. Yeah! Down along the avenue some guys were shootin' pool and I heard the sound of acapella groups singin' late in the evening, and all the girls out on the stoops.

Then I learned to play some lead guitar. I was underage in this funky bar and I stepped outside to smoke myself a J. When I'd come back to the room, everybody just seemed to move and I turned my amp up loud and I began to play. It was late in the evening, and I blew that room away.

First thing I remember when you came into my life, I said "I wanna get that girl, no matter what I do!" Well I guess I've been in love before and once or twice have been on the floor but I've never loved no one the way that I love you. And it was late in the evening, and all the music's seeping through.

(What the hell was that all about, e-kvetcher?)

Well, I've been thinking about the fact that sometimes a song can get away with some pretty stupid lyrics and still sound good, because there are obviously many other aspects to a good song, but sometimes, the lyrics can really carry a song. And for some reason I thought of Paul Simon's "Late in the Evening". And I thought - what if I took the lyrics and instead of writing them out as verse, just write them as prose. Would people who don't know the song realize right away that these are meant to be song lyrics?

Bubkes Monday

I have been posting music videos of either some classic oldies or some new music that I find interesting every monday, but frankly I am not sure that I should keep going. I get the sense most visitors don't listen to them, and it just tends to slow down the page load time.

Quick survey - Should it stay it should it go? I'll stop unless I hear people saying they want me to keep posting them.

Friday, January 11, 2008

XGH, Your Bulgarian friends are looking for you!

Accordions and Painted Birds

BaalHabos was surprised to see accordions in a music video. Here is a clip of Daniel Kahn, a klezmer punk musician and accordion player. Daniel heads up a band called "Painted Bird", which also happens to be the name of Jerzy Kosinki pseudo autobiographical novel which stirred up quite a bit of controversy.

In the novel, a boy travels through Europe, in a surrealistic world of monstrous peasants. Many people assumed that this was a story of Kosinski's survival during the Holocaust, and he always subtly encouraged this assumption.

It turns out that in reality this story was nothing like what he experienced, and furthermore is seems like it may have been plagiarized from Polish sources that many in the US would not be familiar with.

So this guy is no Elie Wiesel. And I started thinking about how when I read this account of his life I felt like many people, myself included, have a natural tendency to hold people like him, Holocaust survivors to a higher ethical standard, when in reality it doesn't seem reasonable or fair. They were just human beings, good, bad, whatever, like any of us.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Bit of Corporate World Advice

If you happen to be on a conference call with a whole bunch of important people, and you are in your car because you woke up late, and the traffic is a disaster, try to remember not to swear out loud at the stupid drivers if you didn't mute your phone.


I came across this picture on a blog of an ex-Bavarian and it brought back memories.

Back in freshman year of college, I found myself in a symbiotic relationship with a bunch of former Air Force guys who were going back to school on the GI Bill. Since the Air Force guys were all graduates of the Defense Language Institute, the most logical major for them was Russian, and with a relative dearth of native speakers, I was a hot commodity. In return, they plied me with beer and stories of their escapades in Crete, Okinawa, and Germany.

When forced by economic circumstances, the guys would order Augsburger, grumbling that the Germans who brewed it in Wisconsin were exiled there as a consequence of their poor beer-brewing skills. But more often than not, they would order 500ml bottles of Tucher.

Ah, Tucher. Hefeweizen - wheat yeast, with a cloudy sediment that swirls in the glass as you pour it. A wedge of lemon to accentuate the slight sourness of the beer. Elixir of the gods.

Must get some tonight!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Something to Ponder

Barack Obama, still fresh from his victory in Iowa last week and confident of another in New Hampshire tonight, has as his signature campaign theme the promise to "end the division" in America. Notice the irony: The scale of his Iowa victory, in a state that's 94% white, is perhaps the clearest indication so far that the division Mr. Obama promises to end has largely been put to rest.

Meanwhile, in Kenya last week a mob surrounded a church in which, according to an Associated Press report, "hundreds of terrified people had taken refuge." The church was put to flame, while the mob used machetes, Hutu-style, to hack to death whoever tried to escape. The killers in this case were of the Luo tribe, their victims were of the Kikuyu, and the issue over which they are bleeding is their own presidential election.

When foreigners assail Americans for being naive, it is often on account of contrasts like these. A nation in which the poor are defined by an income level that in most countries would make them prosperous is a nation that has all but forgotten the true meaning of poverty. A nation in which obesity is largely a problem of the poor (and anorexia of the upper-middle class) does not understand the word "hunger." A nation in which the most celebrated recent cases of racism, at Duke University or in Jena, La., are wholly or mostly contrived is not a racist nation. A nation in which our "division" is defined by the vitriol of Ann Coulter or James Carville is not a truly divided one--at least while Mr. Carville is married to Republican operative Mary Matalin and Ms. Coulter is romantically linked with New York City Democrat Andrew Stein.

(more here)

A Good Redactor is Hard to Find

Need to take a break from DH reading.

A few weeks back I read an article about Raymond Carver in the New Yorker, and it is still on my mind. Basically the gist of the article is that Carver's works were heavily edited by Gordon Lish, and it was Lish who transformed Carver into the somewhat acclaimed writer that he became. Which Carver came to resent (who wouldn't?). And which Carver came to regret, because Lish was ultimately right.

But you don't really get a sense of how transformative the editing was. The ability to add to the story by taking away tons and tons of words, pages, is truly a miraculous talent, like a sculptor seeing a statue in a block of marble...

Here is the story, original and the edits.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

LSU - In Hoc Signo Vinces

"I have to give great credit to some divine intervention and grace that allowed us to be in this position," LSU Coach Les Miles said.

Miles then let out a wild "Wa-hooo!" in his postgame news conference.(source)

Les, that's YHWH not Wa-hooo. But seriously, this just illustrates to me the human capacity to ascribe outcomes to divine intervention. If Les Miles thinks that God loves LSU more than He does Ohio State, how can you blame the ancients for believing that God wanted the winners of a battle to win and the losers to be punished?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Death - who needs ceremony?

Public execution of WWII traitors in 1946.

Music Monday - Evolution

Perek Aleph

Kanye made this video

by sampling from Daft Punk

who sampled from Edwin Birdsong's "Cola Bottle Baby"

Two Stories

or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Rabbis.

Story 1 (from aishdas)

The Oral Law Written by Gil Student

The existence of an oral law that was given to Moses at Mt. Sinai is a fundamental concept in Judaism. However, the lack of a clear reference to an oral law in the biblical text has led some to deny its existence. In response to these deniers, a literature has developed to try to prove the existence of an oral law.

Theoretical Proofs

1. R. Yosef Albo [Sefer HaIkkarim, 3:23] offers the following philosophical proof for the existence of an oral law. R. Albo states that a perfect text must, by definition, be totally unambiguous and not require any additional information to be understood. Since the Torah is called perfect [Psalms 19:8], the Torah must not have any ambiguities. However, it does have ambiguities. For example, the verse [Deut. 6:4] "Hear O Israel! The L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one" is understood by Jews to imply absolute monotheism while it is understood by Christians to imply a trinity. How can a perfect Torah contain ambiguity? Only if the Torah includes an oral explanation that clarifies all ambiguities can it be called perfect [cf. Maimonides, Moreh Nevuchim, 1:71]. Therefore, R. Albo states, there must have been an oral tradition transmitted along with the written Torah.

Story 2 (from the wise men of Chelm)
There was once a Jew who was passing through Chelm and went to daven with their Chassidim. After davening, the Chassidim told the visitor that their saintly Rebbe speaks directly with none other than God Himself. When the man asked how they knew this, the Chassidim answered - "It is simple. Our master and teacher, the Rebbe himself tells us this." When the visitor asked how they knew that their Rebbe wasn't lying to them, they answered - "That's even simpler. The Holy One, Blessed be He would never speak with a liar!"

Friday, January 04, 2008

Jews and Slavery (con't) - Abraham ben Yiju

So the idea of Jews marrying female slaves and then converting them as described in the previous post seems to be supported by the Cairo Genizah. In the Genizah we find the history of a certain Abraham be Yiju, a wealthy Tunisian trader...

In the 1120s, as a young man, Abraham Ben Yiju took off for the Orient to make his fortune in Indian trade. His correspondence tells of his arduous trip, and his marriage to an Indian slave girl, Ashu. The documents reveal the saga of Abraham Ben Yiju's family and fortunes: his business acumen in the import-export business - sending iron and spices to his Jewish partners in Aden, and importing arsenic, paper and other commodities to India; the birth of his three children; and the early death of a son in India.

After almost 18 years in India and at the urging of his Aden-based partner, Ben Yiju left India for good in 1149, joining the Jewish community in Aden. He attempted to locate his brothers and sisters with whom he had lost contact when they fled Tunisia in the wake of the Norman Conquest.

Responsa uncovered in the Geniza, and penned in Ben Yiju's own hand, reveals the cold reception the Jewish merchant received at the hands of some members of the Jewish community who questioned the validity of his marriage. (source)
Apparently, the RAMBAM himself got involved in the issues surrounding the validity of the marriage and conversion of his Hindu wife. Interestingly enough, this story became the basis of a novel by Amitav Ghosh:
Ghosh, an Indian Hindu, first read about a medieval (12th century) Jew and his Indian slave while a student at Oxford. He became fascinated almost to the point of obsession. After studying Arabic, he enrolled at a university in Alexandria, Egypt to perform further research.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Jews and Slavery in Medieval Ashkenaz

I have always been curious about why European Jews don't look very Middle Eastern. Just read an article that quotes Raphael Patai as saying that the reason why has to do with the medieval slave trade in Europe. His conjecture is that while Jews were prohibited from owning Christian slaves, there was no prohibition against pagans. Jews, especially the Radhanites, were already heavily involved in slave trafficking of Russians and other Slavs, and so it was the case that many Ashkenazic Jews came to own Gentile slaves, whom they needed to help run their households. Unlike the Sephardic Jews who lived in much larger communities and hence could find household servants among Jews, the Ashkenazim had to resort to Gentiles, which in turn introduced multiple halachic problems, such as bishul akum, pas akum, and yayin nesach. In order to circumvent these problems, the Gentile slaves were converted, and eventually, they or their descendants became fully fledged Jews. Likewise, female slaves and their children, were converted and upon manumission became fully fledged Jews without any stigma of geirus or illegitimacy.

And I think it's gonna be a long, long time...

Rocketman was on the radio last night as I was driving home from work. For some reason I started to think about how huge the idea of conquering space was when I was growing up and how I think this idea has pretty much much fizzled out.

We dreamed about reaching out to the galaxy. First Mars, then colonizing the outer planets. Multi-generational ships where humanity would travel to the nearest stars, Alpha Centauri. Ion ic drive engines that would fly so much faster. Warp speed, crossing the speed of light barrier. There were all dreams that I shared with many of the other kids of my generation.

I don't think my kids know or care about any of that stuff. NASA is stagnating. Russia is falling apart. The dream of the final frontier is stillborn.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

On the Integrity of Oral Traditions

Scandinavian scholars, with their own saga heritage, have done much to show that books and for that matter the very art of writing itself has not always been thought of as an unmixed blessing in the advancement of human culture. In antiquity their value was questioned not so much by the illiterate, who were generally awed by the written word, but by men of letters who feared that an undue reliance on writing would lead to shoddy reasoning and cause the memory faculty to atrophy. A classic presentation of this view is to be found in Plato's Phaedrus. here, in the words of Socrates, we are given the dialogue between the god Thamus, king of all Egypt, and the god Theuth, who invented letters. In response to Theuth, who claimed that his invention will make the Egyptians wise and "improve their memories," Thamus responds:

This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented elixir not of memory but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant...

In calling written words an "elixir not of memory but of reminding," Plato is, in effect, saying that, at best, they serve only as mnemonics: after they are written, they are of no use except "to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written." They are, he goes on to say, both dumb and defenseless - bruited about by those understand them and by those who do not. They have no power to defend themselves. And so the wise will reject written words, employing them only as "reminders for himself when he comes to the forgetfulness of old age."
From Dov Zlotnick's fascinating article
(thanks, Mississippi Fred!)

Also, see my previous post on Oral vs Literate Societies.

Literature Appreciation

My wife commented the other day about the fact that most people read great works of literature during their high school and college years. In her opinion, there has to be a certain amount of life experience that one lives through that allows you to truly appreciate some of these books, which is seldom the case in the college age readers and almost never the case in high schoolers.

Yet, how many of us get a chance to read, or re-read these works of literature as adults?

Yossl Birstein

I'll tell you a story.

The main hero of my new book is a "workhorse", as I love to say, because he pulls the whole wagon of the plot. He is in Poland; arrives in a small town to read lectures. About the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. In this tiny shtetl in Poland - they just can't live without the philosophy of Kant. So the Yiddishists invited him to talk about Kant. This was in the attic, under a barn roof. There was a Zionist there and he said: "We also want a lecture about Kant". So he went over to the Zionists. Then to the Bundists. Finally, he wound up at a tailor's. The tailor said "I'd like you to meet my second wife. She is also my first wife. I got divorced and then re-married." Then, some time later, the tailor pointed out the same woman and said "This is my third wife. I got divorced and married her again." My hero asked: "How? Why?" "It's a small town, - answered the tailor. - There is not a lot to choose from."
(translated from here)