Monday, March 31, 2008

Update: "The unbroken chain of Mesorah"

I finally made some headway into the Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature. One of the first articles deals, interestingly enough with the understanding of the concept of the Oral Torah, which was discussed some time ago on this blog.

Seems like the machlokes that happened in the comments to my post actually goes back to antiquity. According to Elizabeth Shanks Alexander in her essay The Orality of Rabbinic Writing, there were two major understandings of Oral Torah. The first is the idea of the "unbroken chain of transmission" which focused on the "verbatim" transmission of tradition from teacher to student. This is exemplified in the first Mishna of Pirkei Avot, as well as the story in B. Eruvin 54b which described an ingenious method that Moshe used to ensure accurate transmission whereby first he repeated the Oral Torah to Aaron, then to his sons, then to the Elders, and then to the nation. Then Aaron taught the Oral Torah to his sons, while Moshe listened, then to the Elders, then to the nation, then the sons taught the Torah in front of Moshe and Aaron, and so on.

A different view of Oral Torah can be seen in other sources. This view sees the Oral Torah as an "actualization of interpretive possibilities already embedded within the text of the Written Torah". This is demonstrated by the story of Moshe, Rabbi Akiva and the crownlets on the Torah in B. Menahot 29b. "The second set of source represents the orality of the Oral Torah in a manner quite different from the first set. Here, Oral and Written Torah differ not only in the medium of their revelation but also in their degrees of relative fixity and fluidity. Whereas the words of the Written Torah are fixed for eternity, the words of the Oral Torah are unfolded in an ongoing manner through the vigorous engagement of student and teacher with the foundational text of the Written Torah."

Music Monday - Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me?

Riddle me this, riddle me that!

Monday, March 24, 2008


Frum Heretic has a few interesting posts on the ahistorical nature of the Megillah. I think this has probably been beaten to death in several places in the jbl*g*sphere, but I actually think that he and these other guys are barking up the wrong tree when they quibble about things like the number of provinces and how many talents Haman paid to the king. I mean, let's say that 500 years from now you found the story of the Kennedy assassination, but instead of Dallas, he was killed in Cuba, and instead of his wife being named Jackie, she was named Ishtar. Every other major point was accurate. Would you write off the story and say it didn't happen, because you had found other documents which lead you to believe that people were not named Ishtar in the 1960's and Americans were at war with Cuba so Kennedy could not have been there?

On the other hand, the one thing that bothers me about the Megillah story is the little emphasized fact that in it the Jews seem to be spread out all over the Persian empire. If the dating of the story puts it not too long after the Babylonian exile, in the time of Xerxes, doesn't it seem strange that the Jews would be spread out all over the Persian empire. If I recall correctly, the majority of the Jews during the early part of the exile lived right around Babylon. Certainly you wouldn't expect them to be in Shushan and all these other far flung places? It is much later that this dispersion of the original Jewish exiles took place. So could it be that this is a true story which happened at a much later time, when the Jews did spread out all over the provinces in the Persian empire?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Music Monday - Professor Longhair

Me got fire me can't put it out,
heap firewater gonna make me shout,
I going down and get my squaw,
Me might buy a great big car
I'm gonna do everything I could
Me big Chief, I'm feeling good,
Me Big Chief, I got 'em tribe
Got my squaw right by my side
My spyboy, he just went by,
My flagboy, he full of fire,
Me whole tribe just having fun
We gonna dance til morning come.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Negotiations and Frei Songs

dedicated to the Koton Hador and all the tortured Frum Skeptics out there. Have a Freilichen Purim!

The problem is all inside your head he said to me.
The answer is easy if you take it logically.
I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free.
There must be fifty ways to leave your rabbis.

He said it’s really not my habit to intrude.
Furthermore, I hope my meaning won’t be lost or misconstrued.
But I’ll repeat myself at the risk of being crude.
There must be fifty ways to leave your rabbis.
Fifty ways to leave your rabbis.

You just slip out the back, Zach.
Make a new plan, Ben.
You don’t need to be coy, Oy!
Just get yourself free.
Hop on the bus, Baal Habos.
You don’t need to discuss much.
Just drop off the key, Tzvi,
And get yourself free.

Now lets hear the Muppets sing it!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mad Cows

Abscond - (intr. v) to depart in a sudden and secret manner, esp. to avoid capture and legal prosecution

When the trailer tipped over, three other cows and a bull were suddenly freed and fled onto the highway, causing chaos and forcing police to shut down the busy roadway for about an hour while they tried to get the animals off to the side.

The animals then absconded into a nearby residential neighborhood, where they grazed for awhile on people's lawns.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The beginnings of modern Egyptology


In the tombs, not only have the faces of many wall images been altered or destroyed, but the crimes against African mummies are almost beyond description. There is a tradition dating back to at least 1000 A.D. in which Arabs and later Europeans engaged in the practice of "eating mummy." This practice was widespread in Egypt and Western Europe and it consisted of countless ancient African mummies being burned, ground up and made into a kind of powder in order to be eaten. This incredible act of cannibalism was considered an effective medical practice and folk remedy. The belief became widely prevalent that cures could be obtained by eating ground-up preserved bodies. "Eating mummy" was considered effective in treating contusions, coughs, epilepsy, migraines, ulcers, cases of poison, and as a general panacea.

Mummies or fragments of mummies were taken from their tombs and sent to Cairo and Alexandria, where merchants sent the ground-up parts all over Western Europe. In the European Middle Ages and Renaissance mummy trafficking was widespread. Egyptian mummies were so sought after that the chaplain to Queen Catherine Medici of France made a special trip to Egypt in 1549 and, together with some physicians from Italy, broke into a number of tombs around Sakkara in a quest for mummies to use in various medicines. Catherine's father-in-law, King Francis I of France, also carried ground-up mummy in a pouch around his waist at all times in case of an emergency.

The mummy madness was such that if a genuine ancient Egyptian mummy were not available, local Arabs would use the corpses of executed criminals or those who had died from disease. They used these modern substitutes to meet the high demand for mummy powder, despite the protest against this barbaric practice by some physicians, among them the French surgeon Ambroise Pare', who stated, "It causes great pain in their stomachs, gives them evil smelling breath and brings about serious vomiting."

"Eating mummy" had a long and respectable tradition as a medicinal remedy. This uncivilized European and Arab tradition of eating mummified human flesh was part of a flourishing trade and thus did not die out until last century. It is impossible to calculate the many thousands of African mummies that ended up in the stomachs of Europeans and Arabs.


"Wow! This is so cool. This is so cool. How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?"

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had an opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As it happened -- as she felt her brain functions slip away one by one, speech, movement, understanding -- she studied and remembered every moment. This is a powerful story of recovery and awareness -- of how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another.


PS XGH, are you listening?


One of the most powerful images in Bialik's "City of Slaughter" is that of the cohanim running to the rabbis in the wake of the terrible pogrom, asking whether their wives are still permitted to them.

This is what I was talking about in my last post about Lashon Harah. It wasn't specifically that I was bothered by this particular law. What triggered my rant was the general mindset of people that govern their life by a set of stringencies that in an effort to protect us from ourselves are taking away our humanity, or ability to LIVE. Why don't we just shutter ourselves away from this world so we can be sure we don't transgress any commandment. Let's not live at all. I don't find joy in the fact that this particular halacha,as Tobie mentioned, "has no level of legal enforcability(sic) and is, practically speaking, ignored except when it actually makes sense". This culture, with its narrowing spiral of ever constricting and constraining halachot is what created this Golus Yid mentality. I am not proposing abandoning halacha, and frankly I don't know how far back this started, but I know that this mindset was not always present. And in some ways, this is what the chalutzim and maskilim(like Bialik) were rebelling against. They were looking for normalcy, a chance to make their own decisions, an escape from this protection for their own good.

As I re-read this post, I think the connection between the opening paragraph and the main topic maybe somewhat unclear. I am not decrying the fact that there is a halachic question about the suitability of the spouses of the cohanim. My point is that in the face of such a horrible tragedy, the men aren't able to react to it on a human level, to deal with their wives and what they just lived through. Their reaction instead is to ask a shaila of their rabbis.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Seven years a-ringin a bell...

Well, you can't be a chicagoan and not post on St Patrick's day...

I love Irish music - here is one of my favorite songs, probably written in the 1600's it is one of the Child ballads, with undertones of incest, infanticide, punishment and forgiveness. This clip happens to be from the film "The Magdalene Sisters", a tremendously powerful story. The funny drum is called a bodhrán...

On the lighter side, there's:

What's Normal?

I few weeks ago I read something on a blog comment which really bugged me. Basically, a young woman named Chana wrote a rather effusive paean to a friend of hers in honor of his birthday. A reader commented that he hoped no lashon harah results from this post, and further explained:
Just to clarify, when I said that I hope no lashon hara results from this wonderful post, I meant the following: In his laws of Avak Lashon Hara, The Chafetz Chaim states that not only is praising someone in front of people who dislike him prohibited, but it's possible that doing so in front of normal and neutral listeners can be forbidden as well. He says that one must not praise anyone excessively, as this will inevitably lead to lashon hara by causing one of the listeners (in this case readers) to mention some of his shortcomings.

To me, this whole idea sounds insane - you cannot say something nice about a person, without mentioning some of his shortcomings? Because someone may get jealous and start speaking lashon harah about him? Yet, this guy that says it is really just an innocent pawn in the game - he is quoting the Chofeitz Chaim, the "foremost authority" on Lashon Harah. And I am sure the venerable rabbi is himself basing his ideas on the "foremost authorities" that came before him.

And really this is my whole issue with rabbinic judaism, at least what it has evolved into - it is this idea of a fence around a fence around a fence. That instead of letting people make decisions and deal with consequences, we must protect them from every infinitesimal chance of doing something which may result in an infraction.

We all know what happens when you have overprotective parents - they smother the child, they take away his potential to spread his wings. It is not healthy. This is why God gave us free will, so we can make mistakes and learn from them, and correct them and do teshuvah. And if it is true in families, and it is true for God, why can the rabbis not see? I have an answer.

Egyptian Reggae Monday

This morning, please enjoy this hit from Jonathan Richman and Modern Lovers. Extra credit to those who can figure out why it is called "Egyptian Reggae"! And the video is cute too.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

I wish I were as creative

A while back I wrote about a priest that came up with this after being busted:
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.
Now, there is a story about the arrest of Tehran's chief of police, caught in a brothel with six naked women (yasher koach!). This "Iranian Eliot Spitzer" was arrested, but the whole matter so far has been very hush hush. Money quote:
According to the reports on Farsi websites, during preliminary interrogations of the six women, when asked why they were naked, their response was “General Zarhei asked us to do a group prayer. In the nude.

What does "unbroken chain of mesorah" mean to you?

OK, this started as a bit of a rant, but now I am curious. The way it was explained to me, the notion of an "unbroken chain of mesorah" had to do with the transmission of Oral Laws from Sinai to latter generations of Rabbis. To give an example from a previous thread:
I am told that Moshe was told how to slaughter a cow on mt Sinai and that knowledge was handed down through the ages and we slaughter our cows the same way now, and if you slaughter it some different way then you are doing it wrong.

A collection of similar traditions is what I call the Mesorah and this is what constitutes the basis for orthodox Judaism
However, Miri just commented that to her it means this:
Unbroken mesora= people passed their thoughts and opinions down from one generation to the next. Unbroken Mesorah does NOT = everyone thought the same exact thing since Moshe Rabbeinu.

So, there is quite a difference there in terms of implications. I am talking about concrete Laws - kashrut, korbanot, etc. Miri is talking about thoughts and opinions. Which is right? Can they both be right?

And "this just in..." - Tobie argues that nobody believes in this "unbroken chain of tradition" in my sense of it after the time of the Gemorah anyway. So does this mean that I am a poor listener, or is the kiruv movement trying to be disengenuous?

Of course I always am wary of this kind of discussion because there are many folks out there, especially in the jblog world that will take the position of "if you only understood the true meaning of X, you would see how mistaken you are". Unfortunately, their "true meaning" is always some minority stretch that most of the mainstream does not hold by. So even though they are in the fold, this "mad scientist" stance is not exactly a convincing argument.

One small step for Jews...

This comment on DovBear's blog intrigues me:

it is a fact that even the best-hearted Palestinians can't/won't stop the terrorists in their midst

Sort of like the best-hearted Sputnik Chasidim who did nothing to stop the massive tax fraud being committed in their midst.
tyrone | 03.13.08 - 11:46 am | #

What are Sputnik Chasidim and what do they wear on their heads?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

We are not alone!

So last night I wound up talking with a buddy. He said to me:
You know, e-k, I used to teach catechism to the kids in our church and one day the priest was talking to me and said, "You know a lot of this stuff probably didn't happen; the whole resurrection thing and the virgin birth was adapted from Egyptian myths about the cult of Isis to make Christianity more palatable." So I said, "Boy, this is amazing! We should tell the kids!" and the priest said "Shh! Are you crazy? You can't tell this to the kids!"

Dot Dot Dot

Perhaps some of you have noticed that I tend to overuse ellipses in my posts. It is a vice I admit to freely and I hope that my readers will indulge me in this bad habit.

I think that in some ways the ellipses symbolize my blog. I don't chew everything up and put it in your mouth to swallow. I hope to draw out the readers into a conversation, to let them pick up things that are hinted at rather than shouted at them. To follow the links...

It's time to let go...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Süßkind von Trimberg

A wolf spoke full of pain:
Now where should I remain?
Since I live off man
I must remain in ban
But I was born this way, the fault is not mine
many a man is in pleasant circumstances
whom one sees deal falsely
and evidently acquire wealth
with sinful aspirations
He does much worse than if I take a goose
I have not enough gold
to pay for my food
therefore I must steal it out of hunger
In his way, the false man acts much worse than I
and yet wishes to appear innocent (source)

The Subprime Primer (my frigid Norwegian ass!)

The kids at google have done it again!

Take this, dead horse - bamm, pow!

This has been simmering inside me since Hirhurim put up a post about the Rabbeinu Tam and Rashi tefillin. It's an old beef and really there is not much to discuss, but here it is for my own selfish, cathartic purposes...

We all know that the unbreakable chain of mesorah is one of the cornerstones of rabbinic Judaism. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how this argument can hold despite major evidence against it. Is it me, or is there serious denial going on?

Exhibit A: Rabbeinu Tam disagrees with his grandfather Rashi on how tefillin should be put together. Say that to yourself once again one more time in the context of unbreakable chain of tradition. Rashi, not some am ha-aretz. Rashi, in whose yeshiva his father, brother, uncles all studied. And furthermore, RT doesn't say that he received this "mesorah" from some alternative source, some stranger from a distant land who shared some secret knowledge with him. No, like most of his ideas, he arrived at it by analysis of the texts and his own thinking.

Exhibit B: The Lost Kiddush Cup. Read this article! In it is a story of Dov Genachowski, whose family was very close to the Chazon Ish, the preeminent Chareidi authority in EY. Dov's great grandfather was a talmid of R' Salanter and was a chavrusah of the Chazon Ish's father back in Lithuania. Dov himself would often go to the Chazon Ish's house.
In the 1950's a new halakhic concept began to sweep the Chareidi world - the shiur of the Chazon Ish. it was well known for centuries that the Talmudic halakhic measurements did not seem to map to reality and so the rabbis theorized that "Nature had changed" - eggs and olives, etc, were much bigger in Talmudic days. The Chazon Ish also upheld this view. However, unlike previous rabbis who basically kept the discussion at a theoretical level, the Chazon Ish ruled that these new measurements were part of practical halacha.
When Dov heard about this, he came over to the Chazon Ish's house with kiddush cups from the Or Sameach and his grandfather, which according to the new ruling did not hold a revi'is of liquid and were not kosher. The Chazon Ish did not comment.
Other anecdotes recall the daughter of the Chafeitz Chaim complaining that her children would not use their grandfather's kiddush cup because it was not kosher according to the Chazon Ish!

After reading these stories, how can anyone have faith in a perfect mesorah is beyond my comprehension!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Tough Questions

The E-kvetcher Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum!

So I am working on a project after work.

I work for an American who lives in on the shore of Lake Superior, who is working with a group of Hungarians and Croatians who work for an Australian company which is working for a Swedish corporation which is working for a London company.

I never thought I would be on a project with two guys named Zoltan. This is starting to feel like a Cold War spy movie.

Blue Miracles Monday

Oldie from Smokey and the Miracles...

No need to kill them

If Hamas prompts 250,000 Israelis to take cover in their bomb shelters, it feels it won. And if we fire at Hamas and children and civilians are killed, Hamas wins again. Finally, the commission of inquiry that will be established will be our third loss. Hizbullah understood this three-way approach, and now Hamas utilizes it.

So how can we overcome it? Through completely different kind of thinking that is supposed to address the three problems described above.

Who won past wars? Those who came up with new inventions and used them on the battlefield. The invention of the gunpowder, the tank, and the nuclear bomb, for example. In other words, the winner is the one that changes the existing situation and rearranges the cards; the side that introduces a new and unknown element into the war.

The IDF is capable of destroying the entire Gaza Strip, but it cannot do so because we simply cannot kill the civilian population. Hamas is of course taking advantage of this, and with cruel cynicism turned Gaza’s population into its shield. The elderly, women, and children constitute the strategic depth of the terror leadership; without the Palestinian masses, terror could not continue to exist.

So here is an idea, which can be utilized alongside the current IDF operations: Every time a rocket is launched, Israel will respond against the civilian population – but using non-lethal means.
[full article]

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Lower Zambuta

Since everyone is talking about politics...

Monday, March 03, 2008

Israeli minister threates Gaza with 'Shoah'

An Israeli minister today warned of increasingly bitter conflict in the Gaza Strip, saying the Palestinians could bring on themselves what he called a "holocaust".

"The more Qassam [rocket] fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves," Matan Vilnai, Israel's deputy defence minister, told army radio.

Shoah is the Hebrew word normally reserved to refer to the Jewish Holocaust. It is rarely used in Israel outside discussions of the Nazi extermination of Jews during the second world war, and many Israelis are loath to countenance its use to describe other events.

The minister's statement came after two days of tit-for-tat missile raids between Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli army. At least 32 Palestinians and one Israeli have been killed since the surge in violence on Wednesday.

[full article]

Proving one's Jewishness - the sequel

Some time ago I had a short post about the difficulty of proving one's Jewishness. It looks like I was somewhat prophetic...

Mozart Music Monday

Symphony 25 in G minor

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Shelter of the World

“If you were an atheist, Birbal,” the Emperor challenged his first minister, “what would you say to the true believers of all the great religions of the world?” Birbal was a devout Brahmin from Trivikrampur, but he answered unhesitatingly, “I would say to them that in my opinion they were all atheists as well; I merely believe in one god less than each of them.” “How so?” the Emperor asked. “All true believers have good reasons for disbelieving in every god except their own,” said Birbal. “And so it is they who, between them, give me all the reasons for believing in none.”
Salman Rushdie, The Shelter of the World