Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Clusty the Clustering Engine

I've found a great new search engine, called Clusty.

Two neat things:

One, besides searching the web and images as other search engines do, it also searches wikipedia, blogs and more.

Secondly, as its name indicates, it "clusters" the search results. So if you're looking for "Jaguar", it will seperate the results into the animal and the car.

It seems to have quite a few more interesting functions -- I've only begun to check it out.


Clusty the Clustering Engine

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

searching "here"?

One of the interesting things about having a blog is the ability to see what search terms brought strangers in to my territory. Sometimes it makes sense – like when they look for terms like “religious Zionism” or “computer cent sign”. I’ve written about those issues, so I understand why they came.

Others are more unusual. For example, I apparently misspelled the word tchotchke as
chochkey. (It is also spelled tsatske). I’ve received a number of searches for chochkey. Well, as a service to those who might end up here for similar reasons in the future, here are a couple of links about the real meaning and origin of the word:

But the most common searches are for names of songs. I assume people are looking for the lyrics, but maybe they just want to find people discussing songs. A little while ago, I wrote about the song “Never Been To Me”. Now that’s probably the most common search term for the site.

But today I was reminded of the significance of a particular search that I see now and then on the site.

Back in June,
I posted about an end of the year party for my daughter’s second grade class. They were singing classic Israeli songs, most of whom had been written by people who had died in the past year (Naomi Shemer, Uzi Chitman, Ehud Manor, etc.) At the time, I was thinking about the significance in light of a terrorist attack the day before, and the dread of the unknown about the disengagement plan, which would only come to pass nearly two months later.

Today was the last day of the disengagement. Emotions are still high in the country, particularly where I live. There are signs of despair, of anger, and of doubt. But I did see signs of hope. Every summer, the Jerusalem municipality hosts a huge arts and crafts fair called Chutzot HaYotzer. It’s actually more than just arts and crafts – there are activities for kids, lots of different foods, musical performances and more. This year it was held in the Sultan’s Pool, just outside the Old City walls. The place was packed, and conspicuous in the crowd were the anti-disengagement folks. You could identify them by the orange ribbons still on the backpacks, or the slightly anachronistic t-shirts. But despite the crisis they have faced, they still came to celebrate with the rest of the city. It’s sort of the way that Tu B’Av follows Tisha B’Av. The pragmatism of the Jewish people continues to shine, even in dark hours.

As we were walking out, my wife pointed out who was singing on one of the stages. It was Moshe and Orna Datz, a married couple and fairly popular pop duo. The last song they sang was Kan (“Here”). In my previous post I mistakenly entitled it, Kan Noladti, which is the term that keeps popping up in searches. That was the song that Israel submitted to the Eurovision song contest in 1991, written by Uzi Chitman, and performed by the Datz duo.

I remember that song, because 1990-1991 was my first year in Israel, just out of high school. It was a wonderful year, and changed my life in so many ways I can’t count. It was the year of the first Gulf War, and I think all the participants on my program were infused with a special kind of patriotism that stays with us until this day. And that song, Kan, which was probably the last Zionistic entry to the contest (and one of the last that was only in Hebrew) really struck a chord with us (pardon the pun.)

You can see the lyrics and their translation here.

Back in 1991, we could identify with the lyrics “Here is my home, here is where I was born” despite the fact that we were a bunch of 18 year olds coming from the US and Canada. Why? Because we believed the line “I have no other place in the world.”

Perhaps this song can also be a consolation for those who now have trouble saying “here is my home, here is where I was born.” Because in the end, in this land, we all should be able to say “after two thousand years, an end to my wandering.”

Sunday, August 21, 2005

it's been a week

Ok, it’s been a week, and I guess I should put some of my thoughts down. I don’t know if any of them are original (and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing) and there’s no particular order.

  1. First of all, I think the way the Gush Katif residents acted was a real kiddush hashem. We often think about kiddush hashem as being the way we live our lives, by showing people – the whole world at times – that following God’s will is the right thing to do. We do it by succeeding. But there is also a kiddush hashem in knowing how to lose. That’s what martyrdom is all about. But kiddush hashem in loss doesn’t only refer to giving up one’s life. In this case it meant the exact opposite – realizing that the battle was over, putting up a real struggle, but with dignity.
  2. There are a lot of ways to look at what the residents of Gush Katif went through. Some I identify with, and some I don’t. Some feel more “real” to me than others. I think about these issues often when I think what would happen if the government tells us we need to leave Efrat. But to me, the most authentic source of pain about leaving is thinking about all those people who were killed simply because they were living there. And then how those who chose to stay despite, or because, of those attacks. That sorrow is very real, and after losing neighbors in Efrat, I can identify with it.

  3. The soldiers also acted impeccably well. It’s important to remember these are very young men and women, and there was tremendous psychological pressure for them not to fulfill their task. I hope that great strength will show itself in other missions the army has, as well as areas of civilian life.

  4. Even the media deserves credit here. Despite their general left wing approach, there was no gloating, and the evacuees got rather sympathetic coverage.

  5. I don’t believe Sharon came up with the plan to get out of trouble from his criminal investigations. And if he did - he would have been foolish, since it wouldn’t have made a difference. I believe he did it to save Judea and Samaria. Both by raising the price of another withdrawal, and shelving the various plans that were far worse (Beilin, Ayalon, etc.) Time will tell - probably sooner than later - whether this will work.

  6. This of course is why the evacuation of the settlements of the Northern Shomron is so problematic. It’s too bad they received such little attention in the anti-disengagement campaign. Maybe they could have been saved…

  7. I find it interesting that some of the most pro-Israel, conservative (neo-con?) columnists are actually in favor of the disengagement plan. Charles Krauthammer, William Safire, the National Review.

  8. I disagree with Krauthammer, however, that the threat from the Palestinians is missiles. I agree that rockets and missiles can become a real threat, but I think that the Palestinians will learn from the Hezbollah in Lebanon. They’ll start with small attacks, maybe gunfire, perhaps not evening hitting anyone. Maybe they’ll use “anti-aircraft” fire that happens to fall in Israel. But they’ll keep raising the stakes just high enough to terrorize, but without validating a large scale response.

  9. Elections might be coming. I’m not sure. But don’t rule out Sharon. Unlike every other prime minister who’s faced elections in the last 15 years, he’s not seen as a “loser”. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s succeeded in what he set out to do (even though he ran the last election against it.) And with his potential opponents not looking very appealing themselves, he might just pull off another surprise.

  10. I think a lot of the right would have supported the pullout had it come together with an annexation of some areas of the West Bank, like Maaleh Adumim or Gush Etzion. That would have really been viewed as Israel deciding its own borders. (I wonder how that would have played some settlers against each other, so maybe it would have caused internal problems.) Now that it wasn’t done, I certainly hope that Sharon takes the opportunity to do some real building in those same areas.

  11. I do not believe that the soldiers or the government were carrying out illegal, immoral or anti-halachic actions. There are very clear precedents for Jewish civilian populations being forced to leave settled areas – the Old City in 1948, for example. Now you can say that in 1948 it was war, but there will be those who will claim that today we are also in a state of war. Certainly the Palestinians see it that way. And that’s why, overall, I think the disengagement plan is bad. Precisely because it confirms the fact that we feel we are leaving because of that war. Illegal, immoral: no; stupid: yes.

  12. As much empathy I have for the settlers (and I am one!) I did not, and do not want to see the IDF lose. I never want to see the IDF lose.

  13. There are two common slogans heard now in “our camp.” There are those that say that we need to concentrate less on the land, and be more involved in the general country. There are others that say that we need to isolate ourselves more from the country, and focus only on the Torah. While general social involvement and increased Torah study and practice are both positive things, I think both approaches are misguided. What we need to do is build more. Much more. Had Gush Katif been home to 20,000 settlers, it’s unlikely it would have been uprooted. Had it been home to 50,000 – almost no chance. And the only way you can build, and settle, is to be involved in the political, and military realm. To give up now will only mean more “disengagements” in the future.

  14. And for those people who are reluctant now to say the prayer for the State- I can’t think of anything more foolish. It’s like not saying the prayer for rain during a drought. And to a certain extent, it’s almost like saying that the people praying are the ones who determine the outcome of the prayer – instead of God.

  15. And enough with the hate, and the disunity. We just had Tisha B’Av, and the demons of “sinat chinam (baseless hatred)” aren’t just some kind of superstitious slogan. We’re strongest as a people when we are unified, and as soon as we take each other apart, that’s when the wolves of the world begin to attack.

  16. That means recognizing the good in people, not only criticizing the bad. It’s a simple part of humility, as well as a critical trait even to recognize God. Even Sharon, who’s being most vilified of all, has far more credits than any of us. And I’m not only talking about his role in building up the settlements. And playing crucial parts in Israel’s wars. I’m talking about ending this intifada! Who did it? Sharon!
  17. Whatever you think of the validity of the disengagement, we must not allow the residents of Gush Katif to become refugees in our own country. Having our own State means no more refugees! This is addressed both to the government who needs to spare no effort to find appropriate housing, jobs, etc for the families, and to the settler groups to not prevent the absorption of the families for political gain. We've always complained that the Arabs were immoral by leaving the Palestinians in refugee camps. We must do better!

  18. The last issue is perhaps the most difficult one. And maybe it’s too early to fully discuss it, but it needs to be addressed. Should the right, the settlers, the rabbis, everyone opposed – should they have seen this coming? Isn’t that the sign of wisdom – to anticipate (not predict) the future? If the left has been talking about partition for 70 years – why shouldn’t we believe them? Why should it be assumed that the IDF would fail? Why would the still secular majority succumb to overwhelmingly religious arguments against withdrawal? And if all this is true, and the plan was likely to succeed from the beginning, then was it really fair to make human suffering the main focus of the protest? Who really will suffer in the end from that tactic - that unsuccessful tactic? I think mostly the children. They became active participants, since who is more deserving of compassion than children? I can’t say I know how to have effectively held a protest while conceding the “human suffering” issue and leaving the children out of the game. Maybe it would have been basically admitting defeat. But in the end, isn’t that what happened anyway?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Blogger for Word

Here's a neat new tool from Blogger that allows you to post to your blog directly from Word.

Blogger for Word

strange things on the news

I’m a news junkie. I read news sites, often catch the news on TV, and at least on the weekend read a paper or two.

But one of my most constant sources of news is the radio. Actually, the cell phone. Often when I have down time, I call one of the numbers that lets me hear the latest news bulletins - from Reshet Bet, Galei Tzahal or Channel 2. I know it’s not the best use of money, but I need my fix.

Anyway, after many hours of listening to the radio news, they have a few phrases that I think need elucidation.

  1. Often when reporting on criminal activity, they will refer to a person as “known to the police.” I don’t know, but the way they say it makes it like they’re old friends, maybe went to high school together. But if for some reason they’re talking about the fact that they know that the fellow is involved in criminal activity, perhaps they could have arrested him earlier?

  2. This has been a hot summer. But on the weather report, they only mention that today there will be a “slight rise in temperature.” That doesn’t sound so bad, until you realize that yesterday it felt like a furnace outside - so today will be even worse!

  3. This is actually a serious question. In the morning (I think mostly at 6 AM on Reshet Bet, and no, I’m not on my cell phone then, but it’s actually my alarm clock) they often mention that for certain army units in certain regions there will be “difficult weather conditions” between let’s say 9 AM and 5 PM. Other regions will have different times. Does anyone know exactly what they’re referring to?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

another "classic" pre-blog post

I found another old email, this one also from 1997. I think it works too:

With all of the attention being given to Chevron in recent days, the following problem keeps coming to mind: Why are all of our "holiest" sites associated with either death or galut? Look at what we have: Ma'arat HaMachpela, Kever Rachel, Kever Yosef. All places of burial, of death.

And the Kotel? While it does represent the victory of the Six Day War, I think that with a deeper look, the victory of the Six Day War was sweeter because of the Kotel, not really the other way around. So what does the Kotel really represent? What it has for the last two thousand years: the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. One wall, of a building we no longer have.

None of these sites have changed their significance since the returning of the exiles or the founding of the state. We don't view them any differently now than we did 300 years ago, other than the fact that we thank God for having more access to them.

But is this really what we view as holy? Rav Soloveitchik wrote in "Halachic Man": "Judaism has a negative attitude toward death: a corpse defiles; a grave defiles... the priests of God are forbidden to defile themselves with the dead." As a kohen, I used to feel badly about not being able to visit all of the different graves in Israel; I was sort of missing out on major "tourist attractions." But I don't really see it that way any more. Last night on the Israeli news, they showed the thousands of Jews who came to Chevron to pray at the Ma'arat HaMachpela. And they even showed dozens of kohanim praying outside. Is that really what the Torah is telling us? That the holy priests of Judaism can't really achieve self fulfillment, because they can't pray at a tomb? But they can at *least* stand outside?

Rav Soloveitchik continues: "Many religions view the phenomenon of death as a positive spectacle, inasmuch as it highlights and sensitizes the religious consciousness and 'sensibility.' They, therefore, sanctify death and the grave because it is here that we find ourselves at the threshold of transcendence, at the portal of the world to come. Death is seen as a window filled with light, open to an exalted, supernal realm. Judaism, however, proclaims that coming into contact with the dead precipitates defilement. Judaism abhors death, organic decay, and dissolution. It bids one to choose life and sanctify it. Authentic Judaism as reflected in halachic thought sees in death a terrifying contradiction to the whole of religious life." The Rav continues this line of thought at length (chapter 7), and even mentions that the Vilna Gaon, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, did not visit cemeteries.

The Kotel, to me at least, always presents a major problem. How can a place that is so holy, that caused us so much joy after its redemption, be so stuck in galut? Even the way of prayer there exudes galut. Every one in their own little minyan, all to themselves. It seems so opposite from the majestic avoda performed in the days of the mikdash, just behind that wall.

Why are we stuck here? Perhaps, as Eliezer Berkovits wrote, halacha never really became freed of the galut it was stuck in for 2000 years. He wrote in "Not in Heaven": "After almost two millenia of Galut, Halacha has been given back its authentic partner, the daily reality of the life of a Jewish people living in its own land...Once again, Torah may move from the private congregational domain to which the galut had limited it into the public domain of a nation...(Unfortunately) for the time being, Halacha is in exile in the land of Israel as it was before in the lands of Jewish dispersion. It is still the Halacha of the Shtetl, not that of the State." Rabbi Berkovits shows a great example of this in terms of how we deal with shmitta today: either with a "heter mechira", where we sell the land to non-Jews, or to simply not buy produce grown in Eretz Yisrael during shmitta years. Both solutions are "depressing manifestations of typical Galut Halacha in the State of Israel." Are either really what God intended in giving us the mitzva of shmitta and the opportunity to live in our own land?

We need to begin freeing ourselves from the shackles of the galut mentality, particularly as it relates to us living in our own land. Otherwise, we'll only get as much as we ask for. We want our holy sites to be graves and ruins? Then they will be.

Having lived on Kibbutz Yavne for the last few months, I believe I am getting a better understanding of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's request "Give me Yavne and its sages". He knew the Beit HaMikdash was going to be destroyed, and didn't want Judaism to be stuck in the ruins of the Mikdash. He preferred to build a new, vibrant, halachic life out of Yavne.

I'm not trying to make a political statement here. I believe that the presence of the IDF and Jews in Chevron, Shchem, Bet Lechem and Har HaBayit is a much more complicated issue, with factors more important than what I presented here. But I think it does present us with an opportunity to decide which way we want to go.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Shabbat B'Shabbato - Devarim: Review

I enjoy reading parsha sheets. When I was on shlichut for Bnei Akiva 10 years ago, my wife and I would write them. Now I read them (yes, probably at not the ideal times halachically) and what's even more interesting than the articles themselves, is what's between the lines.

In some parsha sheets, like the OU's Torah Tidbits, I like reading about the annoucements of events (even if I never go to them) and the meta-commentary about the sheet itself. I used to like reading Netivot Shalom's Shabbat Shalom, becasue even though I didn't always agree with it, it created controversy, and that made it interesting.

The flagship of parsha sheets in Israel is certainly Shabbat B'Shabbato. (I remember years ago when it was the only one out there. Now there are so many that I imagine we're reaching a level of saturation that at some point will cause the numbers of publications to drop.) SBS features a wide variety of writers with different outlooks (political and religious), different fields of expertise (I particularly enjoy the linguistics, history and geography coluns.) and different intended audiences (children, adults of various backgrounds, etc.)

This weeks SBS had a few items I'd like to comment on:

a) Rav Rozen's "Nekudat Mabat." Rav Rozen states that had Sharon at least managed a handshake on the White House lawn or a Nobel Prize, it would have been better. Is that really true? Somehow I imagine a negotiated deal with Abu Mazen (and certainly with Arafat) to give up Gaza being even more aggresively opposed than the current disengagement plan. Here at least the Palestinians aren't an active side, so their calls for issues like Jerusalem, refugees, etc, aren't being discussed as well. (Not to say perhaps they won't in the future.)

I'd seen the midrash he quotes about the four dukes a number of years ago, and always found it fascinating. He admits he doesn't entirely understand the significance of the story, and neither do I. Does anyone have a comprehensive explanation of this midrash?

b) Rav Gordin's "Bein Kodesh L'Chol". I've begun to really enjoy his columns. They're a breath of fresh air in the often dull chorus of other writers. This week he writes about how you can't make practical decisions based on a similar historical situation. I was at an interesting debate between Hanan Porat and Avram Stein around 15 years ago, and Avram brought up the same point. With the disengagement taking place in the Tisha B'Av period, people are constantly comparing it to Masada or Yavne. Well, it's not really either. And Rav Gordin explains also how it's not the meraglim or the ma'aplim.

One thing that appeared this week that I'm sure wasn't intended to provide a political message, was this unfortunately timed ad by Kupat Cholim Meuchedet:

Sunday, August 14, 2005

the singularity of tisha b'av

A coworker of my wife brought up an interesting point about Tisha B'Av:

No other country in the world has a national day of destruction like we do. (We're not talking about memorial days for fallen soldiers, but a day commemorating the destruction of the entire country.)

And why?

Because none of the other nations who've been destroyed are still around to have a day like this...

Friday, August 12, 2005

i don't shave before tisha b'av...

...even with Occam's Razor.

Although I was called (pejoratively) a philosopher by my madrichim in Bnei Akiva, I never actually really studied philosophy. But every now and then, a philosophical concept crosses my path, and I try to work it out in terms of my own world view.

Recently, I've been thinking about Occam's Razor. This philosophical tenet states that the simpler of two competing theories is more likely to be true. In other words, if I can't find my book, it is more likely true that I can't remember where I put it than that a group of pirates broke into my house and stole the book because it has a secret treasure map hidden inside. Occam's razor basically states that because the second option has more assumptions (that pirates would be in Israel, and that they would come to my house, and that I wouldn't notice them, etc.) it is less likely to be true.

I'm a follower of this belief in general. I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories, for example.

But recently I noticed what seemed to be an opposing concept in my general approach to life. When it comes to judging major issues, I actually prefer the more complex view. For example, I don't agree with those that say the disengagment plan is simply "bad" or simply "good". I think there are aspects of the plan that are good, aspects that are bad, and that the whole situation is very complex.

Does this contradict Occam's razor?

I needed to think about it a bit more, so I framed it in terms of an episode of Law and Order. When the cops need to decide which suspect to arrest, they must use Occam's razor - pick the suspect who has the simplest association to the crime. But when the lawyers (and later the judge and jury) need to determine what punishment the suspect should receive, they need to take many considerations into account - motive, background, circumstances. They are looking for the most complex view as possible.

I then called an old friend, who was also viewed as a philosopher back in the Bnei Akiva days. We discussed the concept a bit, and in the background, I heard his young son crying. That helped me understand the concept even more. Why was he crying? Was it because he was tired or because he was upset that Bibi resigned? Occam's razor obviously determines the first. But is it enough to say that he was tired? If you want to determine responsibility for his state, you need to know why he is tired. Maybe it's because he stayed up too late. Maybe it's the weather, maybe it's his pillow. It's very likely to be a combination of factors.

So identification requires simplicity, but judgment requires complexity, i.e. breaking the issue into as many sub-components as possible. I guess that would be my addendum to Occam's razor (although I'm sure others have established this before me.)

An entirely different issue, which I won't discuss now in depth, is how Occam's razor fits in with the Jewish ethic, particularly the concept of "dan adam l'kaf zchut" - judge every man favorably. This is best seen in the stories of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, such as this one:

The story is told of people witnessing a wagon owner changing the wheels on his cart while wearing his tefillin. The onlookers were appalled. How could he be down in the mud, changing a tire, and wearing his tefillin? Rav Levi Yitzchak had a different perspective. "Almighty", he said. "Look how holy your people are. Even when they change their wagon wheels, they wear their tefillin!"

But this is probably good material for a post of its own.

Now if I could only find my book...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

a pre-blog Tisha B'Av post

I found this email that I wrote 8 years ago today, in preparation for Tisha B'Av.

I think it's still pretty relevant.

Subject: a few thoughts before tisha b'av
Date: Monday, August 11, 1997 12:04 AM

This Tisha B'Av is interesting for us, as it is the first one since our aliya.

While we were on shlichut in the States, Tisha B'Av gave me the opportunity to feel a certain degree of justifiable anger -- I could reprove the Jewish community for staying in the galut despite the existence of the State of Israel, and to berate their "b'chia shel chinam" that seemed so obvious on Tisha B'Av. As my grandmother always says: "It's better to be mad than sad" and that anger helped me get by the depressing fact of being in America on Tisha B'Av.

But now I am in Israel. This is not my first Tisha B'Av here, but my first after shlichut. And I'm not sure what to feel. Today there was an article in the Hebrew press about how one of the rabbis of the Israeli Reform movement said we should not fast a complete fast day on Tisha B'Av.

He said, "Even the Orthodox open their windows and see Yerushalayim is being built..."

Naturally, due to the heavy tension between the Orthodox and Reform in Israel now, his position was strongly attacked. But is there a kernel of truth to it? Just as the exiles to Bavel could not "sing a song of Tzion on a foreign land", can we cry our cries of galut in an era of obvious redemption? Perhaps we too are crying "b'chia shel chinam"?

There is certainly a line of thought that emphasizes truth in prayer, particularly in relation to redemption and Eretz Yisrael. The Kuzari says that the prayers that "our eyes see the return to Tzion" of one who stays in chutz l'aretz, are like the "chirping of birds" and no more.

And Rav Yaakov Emden says that the direction we pray has no meaning if we have the ability to make aliya and choose not to go.

And Kibbutz HaDati, along with others, has changed the text of "Nachem" to fit the reality that we live in now. (An issue of Amudim, the Kibbutz HaDati journal, discussed the rabbinical approval for such a change, and the noted scholar Ephraim Urbach wrote a new version). I can strongly agree with a change in the prayer. It is not fitting to continue to ask God for something
which he has already granted us -- that was the repeating sin of the Dor HaMidbar.

And as far as the other fasts, I can see room to compromise, or even to make drastic changes. This is based on the gemara of Rosh HaShana 18b, where in regard to the fasts it is written
that in times of "shalom" we don't fast; in times of "gezerat malchut" we do fast; and when there is not "shalom" and not "gezerat malchut", those who choose fast, and those who choose not to, don't. Rashi explains "shalom" as "when idol worshipers do not have sovereignty over Israel". According to that view, there would be reason not to fast today -- or at least to leave it up to individual choice. But the gemara goes on to make a distinction between the "minor" fasts and Tisha B'Av - for on Tisha B'Av our "troubles were multiplied."

I think a distinction can be made between Tisha B'Av and the other fasts on the basis of when they first came to be. While the main object of the fasts on the 17th of Tammuz, 10th of Tevet and Tzom Gedaliah are the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jewish sovereignty, the roots of Tisha B'Av are much deeper. The Gemara in Sota explains how when Bnei Yisrael reacted negatively to the report of the spies, with "b'chia shel chinam", that date was set for crying forever. And the Rambam in the beginning of Hilchot Taanit explains that we continue to fast as long as the original sin has not been rectified.

And indeed the sin of "b'chiya shel chinam" still exists, most evidently by the refusal of Western Orthodoxy to come to Israel. And we see the results -- our current redemption, while miraculous, is not complete. And although the miracles continue on a daily basis, in the realms of kibbutz galuyot, an independent Jewish state, opportunity to practice Judaism freely and expansion of Torah study and shmirat mitzvot, we can have a feeling that this might not be a permanent redemption, and it could slip from our hands. And perhaps this is because of the Jews who won't come to Israel, as Resh Lakish says in Yoma 9b, that the Second Temple would not have been destroyed if the Jews had come up in the time of Ezra.

But why am I fasting? I'm here -- I've done my part. Yerushalayim is being built at a fantastic pace. It is under Jewish sovereignty. Even Har HaBayit is in the end, under the rule of the State of Israel, even if we choose not to exercise our rights there. Perhaps the Reform rabbi was right -- the Jews of Israel need not mourn as they once did.

But here is the point many of us are missing. We can not abandon a portion of Am Yisrael. And this is not the standard plea for "achdut ha'am". This is particularly relevant in times of churban and geula. I don't think we all have to agree. And I agree with what R' Amital said after the Rabin assassination -- that the idea of "ahavat chinam" is not appropriate, for every Jew deserves our love, even the non-religious for the deeds they do, and it is not "baseless". But when it comes to churban and galut, we are all on one boat. And even a little hole can sink it. Therefore, as long as part of the nation is continuing to remain in the sins of the past that led to our exile, our redemption is not guaranteed. And we must continue to mourn.

Now one could say --- who cares! Let the Jews of Galut wither in their own exile, and fall prey to the vulture of assimilation. As Koresh said: "Any one of you of all His people, the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up". And one could say the same thing to other groups in Judaism we have differences with -- let them be the Reform movement in America and lately in Israel, the charedim who don't recognize the State God has given us, and let alone the various views on the left to right political spectrum in Israel. We can say like Avraham said to Lot: "Please separate from me: if you go north, I will go south, and if you go south, I will go

This is the view of separation, in essence the view of despair. How can we live together? Our views will never match -- you will continue to sin in my eyes (and I in yours). But as we know, despair is the best friend of the yetzer hara. Moshe Rabbeinu did not fall in the trap of despair. When God offered him the opportunity to start a new nation from him, he declined. He even said that his name should be erased from the Torah, before a new nation be started from him. And one can assume that Moshe was frustrated with the people, and could have enjoyed a nation of like-minded people. But our lot is wrapped up together. How many camps within Am Yisrael today would make the same refusal that Moshe made? Wouldn't we all prefer to have a nation of people with the same ideology, the same mindset?

But only if we make the same commitment as Moshe did can we truly lead the nation. Moshe was a shepherd, and knew not to abandon even one of his flock. With that kind of leadership, and with that kind of commitment, can we truly arrive at a day when we will not need to fast on Tisha B'Av. Until then, our fate is tied up together.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

it looks like there's a new comic strip on my list

Everybody give a warm welcome to Brewster Rockit.

Monday, August 08, 2005

no divine jukebox, part 2

I got two emails today from the Efrat email list.

One had the subject "Cakes for Gush Katif".
The other had the subject "Hafrashat Chala for Gush Katif."

I have no problem with the former. Cakes to uplift the spirits of the settlers sounds like a wonderful idea. I also wouldn't have any problem with "Protest for Gush Katif" or "Lobbying for Gush Katif."

However, "Hafrashat Chala for Gush Katif" does not sit well with me. The only thing that works for me would be "Hafrashat Chala for kohanim" or "Hafrashat Chala for remembering the mitzva of chala." I also don't like the flyers I've seen around here recently for "Marathon of Torah for Gush Katif." We suddenly need a new reason to study Torah?

My problem with these is twofold. One is that it cheapens the mitzva. It makes it seem like God is playing a big version of "What would you do for a Klondike bar?". But worse than that, it indicates that the person organizing it somehow really knows which mitzva will cause God to take a certain action. It's a very short path from there to those who say that anyone who assists with the withdrawal will die of a car crash or terminal disease. The bottom line is that we don't, and can't understand the way God acts. We do the mitzvot either because we're told to (Leibowitz and Soloveitchik) or because we've entered into a covenant with God (Hartman.) Not to get a door prize.

(I haven't even discussed the serious problem of what happens when these "promises" don't work out. Can anyone honestly tell me that the Gedolim who died in the Holocaust didn't know or think to learn Torah or do hafrashat chala? And what does the generation who sees these promises fail think?)

There are however two religious observances that fall in between cakes and chala. The first is saying tehilim. This seems to be a fairly universally accepted way of requesting God's mercy. I just don't connect to it. In my yeshiva, they would prefer to learn mishnayot than say tehillim. I think tehillim are beautiful prayers, but the make a difference only when you really stop and think about what David HaMelech was saying. The recent emails where a rabbi insists that we say 10 particular chapters of tehillim seems far too jukeboxy for me.

The other more obvious mitzva is prayer itself. Here we have an obligation that is very hard to understand. Rabbi Shalom Carmy relates to this in a fascinating article called "Destiny, Freedom and the Logic of Petition" (Tradition, Winter 1989). He brings up a basic difficulty with the concept of prayer: "First of all, God knows the content of our petitions before we speak...Second...God not only knows what we want, He knows whether we ought to get what we want." If He has ordained that is best that we not get what we want, then it is wrong of us to attempt, as it were, to induce a change in His judgment. Besides, if God is immutable, it is not only wrong but foolish to think that anything we do can make Him change His mind."

In the end, Carmy says that "Judaism did not dissolve the paradox."He quotes Leibowitz as saying that tefillah has "absolutely no significance beyond fulfillment of a halachic imperative." But obviously, this "flies in the face of our experience. For the nature of petitionary prayer is not merely that of emitting prescribed sounds, but the request that God provide for our needs."

Carmy follows the path of Rav Soloveitchik, who says that "the purpose of prayer is to redeem man, through the tuition of his Creator, from ignorance of his true needs and legitimate goals." This makes a lot of sense, when referring to the set prayers that we pray daily. But as Hartman points out in A Living Covenant, the Rav said there is no place for spontaneous voluntary prayer in Judaism. He quotes the Rav: "An egotistic supplication which falls outside the form of prayer that was instituted by the men of the Great Assembly is forbidden." So in this sense, the Rav isn't so far from Leibowitz, in that they both believe that we pray because we were told to - and the Rav adds that the prayer that we say makes us much better people.

Hartman continues and explains why he feels tefilat nedava is critical. But the questions that Carmy bring up, and the Rav's strong statements against tefilat nedava still have a lot of weight. This is true in general, but even more so now. What category do the prayers for Gush Katif fall in?

Sunday, August 07, 2005

my thoughts on last week's murders

In Reap what you sow, Treppenwitz admonishes some of the Israeli bloggers for not discussing Natan Eden Zeda's murders of four Israeli Arabs on a bus in Shfaram last week.

I didn't do a poll of how many bloggers did relate to it, but I know I didn't, so I'll take the opportunity now to mention a few thoughts.

  • It goes without saying that the murders and the murderer should be condemned clearly. There's no justification, and although clearly the army could have done a better job handling him, in the end it was his own evil crime.
  • It is important that we take a clear stand against his act, and I'm glad to see that it has pretty much been that way. After Goldstein's attack in Hebron in 1994, there were all kinds of rumors that it was justified because the Arabs were planning an attack. While it shocked some people, no one really thought about it too much. I think that attitude is what let the Rabin assassination come to be. I remember after Rabin was killed, that someone mentioned the example of Shimon and Levi - when they weren't dealt with severely after killing Shchem & crew, it didn't take too long for them to go after Yosef.
  • I don't buy into any conspiracies here either. While they can be comforting for us to hear, you only need to read the news on a daily basis to know that we have plenty of bad people on our side.
  • On the other hand, it really bothers me when people say, well, we're no worse than them. We have a commandment from God not to be as bad as anyone else (like the Caananites and the Egyptians), so I don't understand how when we act that way, somehow it becomes justified.
  • A lot has been made of how it is important to call him a "Jewish terrorist." There was a time when Jews proudly called themselves by that name. My cousin, Amichai Paglin was the chief military officer of the Etzel, and Menachem Begin tells the following story about him in The Revolt. Giddy (Paglin's nickname) and his fellow Etzel members, dressed as British soldiers, snuck into a British army base to steal arms for the movement. Begin writes:
    The real British soldiers had saluted the tall captain (Giddy). He returned the
    Giddy put his hand on his revolver and said quietly:
    "Hands up, please."
    The British soldiers thought the captain was drunk.
    "What's that?"
    "Hands up!"
    "Hands up, quick. I'm not a bloody British officer, I'm a terrorist of the Irgun Zvai Leumi."
    All the hands went up, quickly. The soldiers had learned from experience that such Irgun requests had to be fulfilled.

    But despite Paglin calling himself a terrorist, he wasn't one like we see today. The Etzel made every effort to avoid civilian casualties. In Yosef Evron's book, Gidi, The Jewish Insurgency Against the British in Palestine, he tells the story of how in 1944, he was given the task of blowing up a British government office in Haifa (which on a Saturday night was empty of workers). He determined that with a 12 kilogram bomb on the ground level the building would collapse, but how could he distance the Arab guard of the building so he wouldn't be hurt? So Gidi asked a man and woman Etzel assistant to distract the guard somehow. They went to the side of the building, and "became absorbed in a passionate embrace...The curiosity of the guard got the better of him, and he left his position in order to see better." That's when Gidi went in to place the bomb.
    So I don't even think that Zada deserves to be called a "Jewish terrorist." Some worse title should be available for someone who goes into a bus and simply starts shooting at civilians.
  • I do however, have a problem with one part of Treppenwitz's post, where he states that "I hate to admit it but I too am glad he was killed...". I'm not saying that I don't understand David's emotions, but there were a number of politicians (I heard Arab ones mentioned, but I'm not sure they were the only ones) who claimed that it would be improper to investigate and punish any members of the mob who killed Zada. At the heart of this claim lies a basic racism that really bothers me. Not against Jews, but against Arabs. As long as Arabs (particularly Israeli citizens) aren't held to the same moral standards as Jewish Israelis then their humanity (the source of our demand for morality) is also put on a lower level. If I was an Arab, I wouldn't stand for it. This obviously applies when you see the way the world treats Arab suicide bombers (in Israel, and perhaps even more so in Iraq), but it applies here too. If a Jew were to kill a bound Arab terrorist, he would be prosecuted fully (see the Yoram Skolnik case.) We should demand no less from an Arab, if we expect them to live up to our own moral vision.

It can happen in St. Louis...

Residents along Highway 40 brace for expansion

(although of course Highway 40 isn't going to be trying to destroy the rest of Missouri)

Internet Archive: Wayback Machine

Ever wondered what a particular website looked like back in 1996, or anytime since?

Check out the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine for a blast to the past.

Friday, August 05, 2005

I've never been to GA

The popular Israeli radio station Galgalatz plays a both Israeli and foreign (mostly English language) tunes. Most of the songs are recent, but they do play older songs as well. A problem I have is that they never mention the name of the song, or the artist or the date or release, so it's often a big effort to track down the song.

A number of years ago they played this song that I really liked but could never make out the words in order to purchase it. At one point I heard it played in an in house system at the old KFC in Jerusalem, and begged them to let me see the CD, so I was able to find out it was Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn". When we went to the States a little while later, no one ever heard of the song. It turned out that it was released in Israel months before it made it to the US!

My ability to follow Hebrew songs is even worse. I'm notorious for not being able to follow lyrics, and it only gets worse in Hebrew. I'm constantly mishearing lyrics and not understanding the meaning of songs. And a big issue is the dates of songs - I'll hear a song and think it's new, but it turns out it came out 30 years ago. And don't get me started on how many times I've heard a song only to think that it was only a commercial jingle.

Anyway, Galgalatz also plays somewhat obscure English-language songs as well. They play this song called I've Never Been To Me by Charlene. I'd never heard the song in the States, and never heard of the artist until I looked it up on the internet today. It turns out the song is from 1977. It's kind of a sappy song, but the thing for me was I never understood the main line of the chorus. I heard the words "I've never been to me", but didn't actually understand them, so I kept trying to think of other places she could be talking about.

And now that I've finally seen the lyrics, I choose not to accept them. They don't actually make any sense. So I'm interpreting Charlene's lyrics as "I've never been to ME" - the postal abbreviation of the state of Maine. That is kind of sad, she's been to Georgia and California, and never been to Maine.

I feel for you Charlene. I really do.

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

no divine jukebox

Back on Lag B'Omer, I mentioned how I feel that God is not a jukebox "where if you put the right coin in, you'll get want you want." I'd like to develop this a bit more.

As I've discussed in the past, I'm a baal teshuva from around age 16. But as I've also revealed, I'm not the typical NCSY/Aish/Or Sameach baal teshuva type. Most people probably can't guess that I wasn't born religious (unless they ask me which parsha I'm willing to lein in shul.)

My path towards religion was in a strange place - San Francisco, with a non-typical organization - Bnei Akiva, at a difficult age -- 16. There simply wasn't a standard framework for the trek as I imagine many other older people in communities with larger Orthodox populations find. So a lot of the time I had to figure out things on my own. And in the process, I would make "deals" with God - help me with this, and I'll start doing this mitzva. The weird thing is, it worked. All kinds of small "miracles" helped me along the way. But they were rather private (even now I don't feel like discussing the actual details of the deals), and I didn't discuss them with others (although I certainly talked to people quite often about religion in general.)

I don't remember the exact texts I was reading at the time, but I'm sure many of them emphasized the concept of "hashgacha pratit" - (private) divine providence. And my own encounters with the divine probably seemed to confirm that aspect of Judaism for me.

I think the first time I ever started thinking a little differently about things was in Bnei Akiva's program for the summer after 11th grade - TVI (Torah V'Avodah Institute). We had a number of interesting guest speakers that summer, one of whom was Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. I haven't been a huge fan of him since, but I do remember him discussing an interesting topic to a small group of us one shabbat afternoon. He was talking about the history of the Jews interaction with God, from the giving of the Torah at Sinai, to the period of the prophets, until today. And in what seemed somewhat counterintuitive at the time, he proposed that the constantly decreasing level of prophecy over the ages was actually a sign of progress. As we (the Jewish people) became more mature, we needed direct signs of God's involvement in the world less, such as miracles and prophecy. We were able to do the mitzvot from a point of free will, to choose the path based on it being the right thing to do, not something we couldn't avoid from Heaven.

Later, this concept became even more clear to me after learning with my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav David Bigman. I remember early on in the first year of my yeshiva talking to him about something related to hashgacha pratit, and he said that while without a doubt it exists, you can't use it as proof to others. This theologically confirmed what I had felt in my dealing days. During my time in yeshiva I began to study the works of Rav Soloveitchik for the first time, and merited to learn them with some of his students, particularly Avram Stein. The Rav took a much more advanced approach to questions of good and evil in the world than I had ever seen before.

One pivotal moment for me was when Rav Bigman found me photocopying a section of Rav Eliyahu Dessler's Michtav M'Eliyahu. He picked up the book, looked at it, and told me, "I read that book, but he told me that by keeping the Torah I'd be happy, and I'm not always happy, so I stopped reading it." He was referring to the first chapter (which I had read in my early days of being religious and perhaps it had an effect on me then). Rav Dessler explains how everyone wants a happy life, but neither the rich nor the poor are guaranteed one. He then goes on to show that only the people observing Torah are happy. He writes

"The one who enjoys a rich spiritual life is happy. There is no other kind of happiness in existence...Happiness is when the goals are obtainable..The more energy, the more drive, we put into attaining these goals, the happier we shall be."

This is in stark contrast to Rav Soloveitchik, who writes in the famous footnote #4 of Halachic Man writes:

Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man's consciousness with all its crises, pangs and torments.

And in his essay Sacred and Profane he goes beyond the footnote, and declares:

The error of modern representatives of religion is that they promise their congregants the solution to all the problems of life -- an expectation that religion does not fulfill. Religion, on the contrary, deepens the problems but never intends to solve them.

He goes on to describe holiness as a paradox, not a paradise.

I can't imagine how I would have handled such ideas had I gone through the popular paths of baalei teshuva. Most likely, I would have simply chosen Rav Dessler over Rav Soloveitchik.

But I didn't. And by studying the Rav's Kol Dodi Dofek, I began to understand how this approach to religion translates into his understanding of history as well. If the Torah is guaranteed to make us happy, as Rav Dessler would claim, how do you explain the deaths of so many Torah observant Jews in the Holocaust? The only choice is to somehow explain or justify the Holocaust so it fits in a larger divine plan of reward and punishment. But if we understand that there are no promises, that we might end up not happy, then we don't need to explain the Holocaust, a tragedy so vast that it defies explanation. To do so would be to claim to understand the divine, something we simply can not do.

If Kol Dodi Dofek says we can't claim to understand the purpose of evil via the Holocaust, then Rav Lichtenstein's article L'Birura Shel Midat HaBitachon explores the flip side of that issue. He discusses how we can't claim to know God's plans for good, simply due to the fact that we have been worthy of receiving a State and all the accompanying miracles. Both essays reject the divine jukebox theory, since if we really can't understand God's plans, how can we know which coins to put in to get certain songs?

I'm obviously doing disservice to Rav Soloveitchik's essays, and Rav Lichtenstein's article, by quoting them so briefly. If you haven't read them, it's really important to do so. But if I'm already on a roll, I'll do it just a bit more with two other important thinkers. If we follow the Rav's ideas to an extreme, we'll end up very close to Prof. Leibowitz. For him, any attempt to understand the reason for any of the mitzvot is basically idolatry. While many of his ideas are fascinating, I'm not really pulled in by them. While he does a good job of disproving those who make all sorts of claims to the benefits of keeping mitzvot - both physical and spiritual - I think Judaism is too diverse a religion to claim that those views have no basis whatsoever.

On the other hand, in more recent years I've grown to admire strongly the works of Rabbi David Hartman. First of all, his books that I've read do a great job of describing many different approaches to Judaism. And what's even more interesting to me, that despite his being a student of Rav Soloveitchik, he does a very good job of (respectfully) challenging the Rav's approach. Hartman claims that for Rav Soloveitchik (as well as Leibowitz) the Akeda is the ultimate religious act. But Hartman claims that the covenental experience at Sinai was even more significant. For the Akeda was one way, but Sinai was both sides coming together to make a brit, a covenant. That, along with many other things he writes, ring very true to my ears. So again, I'm doing a disservice to Hartman as well. If this sounds at all interesting, please read A Living Covenant.

Where does all of this leave me? Often confused, but somehow relieved at my confusion. For if I wasn't confused when facing the divine, I'd either be a liar or a fool.

(This post is already much longer than I intended. In a future post I'll discuss how all this affects my views on popular religious jukebox activity, such as saying Tehillim for certain benefits, and particularly in regards to the current religious approach to the disengagement plan.)

Google Site Galleries

This is a nice tip on how to search for all the images on a particular site:

Google Site Galleries

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

working for peanuts

There's a weird phenomenon in Israel that things that aren't particularly American are called "American."

For example, kipot that have a lot of colors, with no solid "base", are called American. (Like these.) I never saw those in America, only here.

T-shirts with sleeves that are different color than the torso, and go slightly past the elbow, are called American T-shirts. Here's an example. I never wore one growing up in the US.

And for some very strange reason, multiple choice tests are called American as well. While I do admit to taking such tests back in the States, I can't imagine that somehow they are unique to America.

But there is one non-American "American" product that I wish they had around back in the old country.

American Peanuts.

American peanuts are a snack that I really enjoy.
Actually, they're a guilty pleasure.
Maybe I should call them the bane of my existence!

First of all, what are American Peanuts? I got the following great pictures here.

American peanuts are roasted peanuts coated in batter. (Certainly chametz on pesach!) They are both sweet and salty, and very addictive. There are a few kinds:

These are coated with a thick batter, and are known as kabukim (or kibukim):

There are also kabukim covered with sesame seeds:

But my favorite is the simply "botnim amerikaim", coated peanuts:

At my work, my office is right across the hall from the cafeteria. That is certainly tempting, but my hunger is often matched by my basic laziness to get in line and purchase something (not to speak of the relatively high cost of a small snack.)

But about a year ago, they put a coated peanut dispenser in the hall. For one shekel, I get a handful of the sweet salty goodness that is somehow American peanuts! For you Americans out there - that's less than a quarter! Plus, no lines, and it's open 24/7 (unlike the cafeteria).

So I have been known to nosh on these treats here and there (and there and here.) This has not made my watching weight any easier. So it's kind of a love/hate thing. When they weren't available after Pesach, I felt better about myself for not eating them. But of course when I actually eat them, I feel great too!

So how was I supposed to feel today, when I looked through the glass of the dispenser and saw these?

Plain old roasted peanuts! What am I - some kind of plain roasted peanut eating, not wanting coated peanuts animal? I should come to work for this?

Bottom line, I'll probably end up eating the boring peanuts. But I won't like it. Yet, hope springs eternal ...