Monday, December 24, 2007

Season's geeqings

It's Christmas Eve, and I'm rereading Marc Shapiro, "Torah Study on Christmas Eve," Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 8 (1999): 319-53. It's an interesting read; if you're a member of a library that subscribes to EBSCOhost Academic, or if you're a student or employee of a university whose library subscribes to it, you can probably download a PDF of it. (I'm not attaching a PDF to this post, since that would probably violate my library's terms of use.)

Before I get into the promised geeqery, let me point out two things. First, I intend to learn Torah tonight. Shapiro doesn't find any rabbinic support for the custom of not learning Torah on Christmas Eve, and he questions the antiquity of the custom. Second, the point of all this is going to be that even if you believe in gematria, you should examine the statements that are claimed to be gematriatically equivalent, even if they add up.

Anyhow, on p. 326 Shapiro cites R' Moses Grunwald, Arugat ha-Bosem, vol. 2 (Brooklyn, 1959), p 146a, as claiming that

עת לעשות לה׳ הפרו תורתיך


זו שעה שתקופת טבת נופלת בו

are gematriatically equivalent. I won't explain the phrases, because the explanations will require explanations, and you'd be better off reading Shapiro's paper. And my topic here is the gematriatical equivalency, not the content. The first of the phrases contains an abbreviation for "Hashem." If we use the gematria for the Tetragrammaton (as I always call it) instead of that of the abbreviation, both phrases do indeed have a gematriatical value of 2,659. If I got the gematriot wrong, please comment.

My Hebrew is minimal, but I'm pretty sure both phrases are incorrect in ways that render the claim of equivalency incorrect.

The final word of the first phrase is either an unusual but correct way of spelling the word for "your Torahs [plural]" or an incorrect way of spelling "your Torah [singular]." To me, the incorrectly spelled singular seems more likely. If it is the incorrect spelling, it's understandable--at the end of a phrase, "toratekha" is pronounced "toratekha" (with the underlining indicating the accented vowel). This -ekha ending is used in the plural and takes a yod, but the yod isn't used in the singular. If this were meant to be the plural "torotekha," it would usually take a vav after the resh, although it isn't strictly required. But it's unusual without it. And what would "your Torahs" mean anyway? It might make sense--the written and the oral Torahs--but it just rings oddly to me. On the other hand, I'm new in this neighborhood.

If I'm correct and the singular was intended, we can fix the phrase by deleting the yod, which would reduce the gematriatical value to 2,649.

In the second phrase "sha'ah" ("hour") is a feminine noun. Two of the other words referring to it, "zo" and "nofelet," are also feminine. But "bo" is masculine.

If "bo" is incorrect, we can fix it by changing it to "bah." The change causes a net loss of 1, making the corrected gematria 2,658.

In short, if I'm right that either phrase is incorrect, the gematriatical equivalency is incorrect. Put another way, the equivalency depends on incorrectness--it fails if the phrases are corrected. If I'm right about all this stuff, that is. Even if you believe in gematria, you may have reason to reject this particular equivalency.

More generally, even if you believe that something works, you should still read instances of it carefully. This is the real topic of my sermon.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Boro Park Pyro (ak"a "Steg" and "King o' the Goblins") recently had a post describing a discussion that he and his hevruta had with some racist yeshiva bahurim. The Pyro and his hevruta challenged the bahurim, and kol hakavod, yasher koah, and kudos to them for that.

More interesting to me was Kylopod's comment on the post. Interesting because his reaction to Orthodox racism, when he's a witness to it, is very much the same as mine:

When this kind of thing happens to me, I don't feel outrage anymore. I'm beyond that. I've developed a sort of weary cynicism about the whole matter.

I'm still outraged by it. But what I actually do about it is what Kylopod does.

I can't stand that so many Orthodox Jews are bigots, but for me it's a personal thing. Every time I hear a racist remark from a frum person, and how natural they make it sound, as though it were so obvious that everyone present should agree...

Indeed. I used to go to shalosh se'udot at my shul. I stopped after a while for the reason Kylopod describes: "Nobody here but us Orthodox Jews, and we can speak freely, and obviously we're all in on the hilarious jokes we're about to share."

...I think to myself, "Why am I hanging out with these people?" Nowadays I rarely challenge it directly unless it comes from a friend, but I make sure never to make it seem like I'm agreeing with them.

That's what I do too. "'Why am I hanging out with these people?'" Good question. Another question is whether this passive non-agreement is a satisfactory substitute for active disagreement. I don't know Kylopod's answer; to me, it's completely unsatisfactory. If we heard that some other group had a bunch of members who were openly bigoted--the bigotry might even be anti-Semitic--and the nonbigots just sort of kept quiet and didn't actively agree with the bigots, how would we feel about it? Would we let the quiet nonbigots off the hook, or would we do some pious tut-tutting about how the nonbigots have an obligation to disapprove? And if these quiet non-Jewish nonbigots have an obligation to object to bigotry, don't we as well?

And what are we to make of this anecdote?

Gerald Blidstein recalls the following conversation with R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik: "I remember that in Israel there was a real problem, do you save a gentile on the Sabbath? One evening during this time I was with the Rav [Joseph B. Soloveitchik] and he said 'I have been in Boston many years and I always rule that one saves the lives of gentiles, because if we don't permit this, they won't save our sick ones.' I asked him if this reason satisfied him from a moral standpoint, and he replied, 'No, from a moral standpoint it does not satisfy me.'" (Marc B. Shapiro, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg 1884-1966 [London: Littman, 1999], 182-83 n. 47, citing Gilyon [Heshvan 5754 (1993)]: 25) (bracketed material in Shapiro)

Should we be satisfied with the Rav on this point? Why didn't he give what he would have considered a morally satisfactory reason? I understand why some of us don't want to be socially ostracized or don't want to be confrontational. I understand why a young man on a rabbinic track doesn't want to jeopardize his career. I don't understand why a leader and innovator like the Rav was so timid (perhaps this is the wrong word--comment, please, if you disagree with it) about making what he himself would have considered a morally satisfactory statement. Dare we assume that it was OK because he was the Rav, and if he (being the Rav) did this it must have been OK? It's tragic that such a person hedges on this, and it makes me worry for Orthodox Judaism. I honor Blidstein for asking the Rav this question.

I would hate to see us Modern Orthos treat the Rav the way ArtScroll treats hareidi "gedolim." But that horse may have left the stable long ago. Which is another topic.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


First, some disclaimers. I don't know Judeo-Arabic, and I don't know Arabic that isn't Judeo, and my knowledge of Hebrew is very minimal.

Now on to the story. You may have heard that the god of the Jews is not the same as the god of the Muslims. Our god is God, and their god is Allah. You may also have heard someone reply that "Allah" is simply Arabic for "God" and is used by Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians.

Mr. Mississippi F. MacDowell's always excellent blog On the Main Line (at least it's always excellent when it isn't over my head) recently published a 9th- or 10th-c. passage in Judeo-Arabic with English translation. It's in Hebrew script. Take a look at the second word from the right in the second line. It appears to be "Allah," and it appears to mean "God." This "appears to" stuff isn't meant to be snide--I actually don't know, so I don't want to make a more definitive statement. But I'm reasonably confident about it.

As always, comments are invited, and comments from those of you who actually have a clue on this are especially welcome.

Thank you.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The boogeyman; or, Pessy's wager

Overheard (the quotation marks are gisties, not verbatims):

"I told my friend who got a Conservative conversion that maybe this conversion is OK, we'll find out when Mashiah comes, but do you really want to take the chance that you're wrong?"

Too true. We don't know how things will be when Mashiah comes. Maybe those who humbly try to do the best they can will get preference over those who go around saying "Mashiah's going to get you if you don't watch out."

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Staying on message

Recently an acquaintance of mine was at a dinner in honor of volunteers for a Jewish hesed organization; there are both Orthos and non-Orthos among the volunteers. Many of the organization's clients are non-Ortho.

(BT"W, I consider this acquaintance's report reliable, but what do I know?) (But it sounds credible.)

The coordinator of volunteers gave a moving talk about the very big effects that very small actions can have on the lives of others, for better or for worse. Next, a dedicated longtime volunteer was called front and center to make the public Hamotzi. You could tell he was non-Ortho because he was wearing one of those shiny yarmulkehs from the box at the registration table and, more importantly, because the volunteer coordinator was coaching him ("Now don't say anything until you've eaten a piece of the bread"). As he was walking back to his table, someone said loud enough to be heard by my acquaintance, and probably by the baal Hamotzi as well, "He didn't wash."

(We note for the halakhic record that there were washing stations for those who wished to use them, so nobody needed to rely on the public Hamotzi.)

The person who noted the nonwashing must have arrived late and missed the volunteer coordinator's speech. I hope he or she has better control over his or her yap when dealing with the organization's non-Ortho clients.

Sunday, July 29, 2007


But don't belligerence and anonymity make an attractive couple!

Michael Miner

I hadn't planned on preaching a sermon on this right now, but I saw this excellent statement (in a completely different context), I just couldn't resist. And before I continue, it's important to point out that there are some bloggers out there who give anonymity a good name. As it were.

I understand that some of the anonymous folks in Eretz ha-Cyberut (Fake Hebrew for "the CyberWorld") are hareidim who are afraid of destroying their families or making their children unmarriageable if they make their true opinions known under their own names. I feel very bad for these people.

Nevertheless, when I read praises of the freedom of speech that anonymity affords, I don't join in the cheers. Anonymity all too often means freedom from accountability. The shiddukh between belligerence and anonymity isn't just attractive; to many of the anonymous, it seems downright irresistible. At this point, they lose my sympathy. They corrupt their claims about freedom of speech and reveal themselves to be mere cowards.

It's easy for me to give advice, since I'm Modern Ortho in a shul that tolerates some diversity of opinion (and I'm probably pretty marginal in the shul at that), and so I don't have much to lose. Nevertheless, I'm not sure this freedom of speech is really that free if you have to hide all the time, or that the things being risked are always worth keeping. Imagine you make it known that you fail one or more of Maimonides' litmus tests for the true faith or that if you had a choice, you'd wear a six-panel yarmulkeh instead of a Toireh-miSinai-dikeh four-panel yarmulkeh. And now it's shiddukh time. A wonderful young person won't marry your child because his or her parents won't allow it because of your forbidden thoughts! Vey'z mir! And I'm not being sarcastic with the V"M—it must be a very painful situation. But on the other hand, does your child really want to marry someone who's so dominated by narrow-minded parents? Do you really want such makhutonim?

Well, as I said, it's easy for me to give useless and obvious advice, and the advice took me off topic. My real point is that abusive speech is bad, and doing it anonymously makes it worse.

Friday, June 29, 2007


At kiddush, a friend was telling me about a neighbor whose legally parked car got seriously crunched in her absence. Not at all the fault of the neighbor, who had liability insurance, but no insurance for damage to her own car. The neighbor is very nice--my friend likes her. The neighbor has a lot of problems besides the destroyed car--debts, troubles with her kids by different fathers, neither of whom she was married to.

My friend said, "She once said to me, 'Why does all this stuff happen to me?' I wanted to say 'Because you don't do Torah and mitzvot,' but I decided not to."

I replied, "Yes, it sounds like it was a good idea not to say that." Pause. "Is she Jewish?"


"Well, I guess the Torah and mitzvot thing doesn't really apply to her anyway."


My first reaction to this was "this is the kind of stuff that makes me seriously consider switching to the Reform shul that's walking distance from home." I mean, jeepers, come on. I mean.

My second reaction to the conversation--or, if you prefer, my first reaction to my first reaction--was that I'm being disingenuous here. Ovadiah Yosef traced Hurricane Katrina to the lack of Torah and mitzvot among the shvartzes, but this isn't quite the same, for the most part. There was nothing the victims of Katrina could have done to prevent the hurricane. In the case of my friend's neighbor, this is true only of the destruction of the car. The children out of wedlock and the debts are probably at least in part the fault of the neighbor--there may have been some bad decisions along the way. Talking about lack of Torah and mitzvot could just be another way of talking about responsibility and good decisions. As I discussed in my very first post on this blog, we Orthos sometimes talk about non-Jewish things in Jewish terms--Presbyterian shuls, Muslim yeshivas, and so on. The difference is that my friend wasn't being self-consciously and annoyingly cutesoid.

My third reaction to the conversation--or my second reaction to my first reaction, or my first reaction to my second reaction--is that this is a person who probably would have said "lehavdil!" if using "Torah and mitzvot" to mean all-purpose commonsense good decision making. Which means my friend probably did mean that the problems were caused by a lack of mamash Torah and mitzvot. In which case the Reform shul is starting to look good again.

My final reaction (at least for the moment) is that I should give the benefit of the doubt--go into dan lekhaf zekhut mode, as we say--to my friend rather than to my disingenuous self. Doubt benefits are fine, but it sometimes turns a little dishonest when you apply it too generously to yourself.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Considering the sources

Of Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, and Norman Finkelstein (see this New Republic item and this Chicago Jewish News item), the one I fear most is Finkelstein. This is because he's in Chicago and thus is the one I'm least unlikely to come into contact with. Their behavior would be unacceptable from an eight-year-old. Such behavior from an eight-year-old would need to be corrected, lest the youngster grow up to be a well-educated and sophisticated adult like Chomsky, Dershowitz, or Finkelstein.

(The New Republic link requires free registration. Unfortunately, you need to be a paid subscriber to comment at the site, so I'm commenting here.)

Says Dershowitz,

What passes for Finkelstein-scholarship is charging me, and virtually every other pro-Israel writer, with plagiarism for citing material to their original rather than secondary sources. Anti-Israel as well as pro-Israel scholars use the same citation method because it is the one preferred by the Chicago Manual of Style and other authoritative sources. For example, Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer repeatedly cite primary sources for material they found in secondary sources. I proved this and challenged Finkelstein to level the same charge against these anti-Israel writers as he did against pro-Israel writers. He refused, because his is not scholarship; it is propaganda.

At first I had no clue what "citing material to their original rather than secondary sources" meant (or what the plural "their" referred to). I guessed he meant doing research in primary sources, but it seemed like a weird basis for a charge of plagiarism. He then tells us that this is the citation method "preferred by the Chicago Manual of Style and other authoritative sources." Fine, but he doesn't tell us what he actually means until the next sentence: "cit[ing] primary sources for material . . . found in secondary sources."

Before I get into what is going to end up being my main point, let's look at Dershowitz's style of argument: (1) This technique is OK; (2) if it isn't OK, then tu quoque anyway; (3) someone who doesn't like me called me names for doing it but didn't call other people who did it names.

"Tu quoque" is Latin for "I'm rubber and some other given personage (hereinafter referred to as "OGP") is glue, everything said OGP says bounces off of me and sticks to the above-ref'd OGP"; some translate it as "I know said OGP is, but what am I?" or "But said OGP did it too!!!!"

Back to this scholarly practice that Dershowitz advocates. Let's put aside the question of The Chicago Manual of Style for a moment and just use our own common sense. Imagine a law student in one of Dershowitz's classes who cites Roe v. Wade when he actually is quoting a book called This Is My Opinion on Abortion, and Everyone Who Disagrees with Me Is a Bad Person--a book he doesn't cite. Can we assume Dershowitz would find this OK? And I imagine Finkelstein quotes Dershowitz. Would Dershowitz be satisfied with scholarship that cites Dershowitz while quoting Finkelstein?

This type of research may or may not be plagiarism--this is a legal question that I'm not competent to answer--but it is dishonest; the researcher (or "scholar," as Dershowitz says) is pretending to have read something that he has not read. And it's also foolish--what if the secondary source got it wrong? Dershowitz says he "proved" that Walt and Mearsheimer did this. I don't know how he'd prove this short of surveilling them. Most likely he found that they'd repeated someone else's misquotes or typos. Which should show him why such a research technique is a very bad idea. Some day, I may look up Dershowitz's proof and report back to you. Or maybe I'll read what someone else wrote about the proof and pretend I read the proof itself.

Dershowitz says his method is "preferred" by The Chicago Manual of Style, and indeed the manual usually does use the language of preference. What does the manual actually say about Dershowitz's approach? According to the 15th edition (section 17.274, p. 727),

To cite a source from a secondary source ("quoted in . . .") is generally to be discouraged, since authors are expected to have examined the works they cite. If an original source is unavailable, however, both the original and the secondary source must be listed. (ellipsis in original)

"[M]ust"? Yes. As I said above, the manual usually talks about its preferences. When it gets worked up about having to point out the obvious ("authors are expected to have examined the works they cite"), it sometimes resorts to "must."

So Dershowitz's statement about the manual was a falsehood. That hypothetical student who cites case law when actually quoting some screeching screed may meet Professor Dershowitz's standards, but not those of the Chicago manual. Maybe Dershowitz was lying, but it seems more likely that he was just citing the manual while actually quoting someone who claimed to be quoting the manual. This would be a fitting punchline to an otherwise unfunny joke. On the other hand, maybe the New Republic was misquoting him. Or something.

What do we learn from this? First, if something makes no sense, that may be because it isn't true. (We religious fanatics, of course, should disregard this statement. Why? Because it makes no sense.) And read everything skeptically, even if you and the author are on the same side. After all, both Dershowitz and (if Dershowitz is to be believed) his opponents--people on opposing sides--use the same silly and dishonest research method. Dershowitz has published at least one falsehood, documented here, possibly because he used this method.

Second, if you actually look things up, that's excellent. If you don't, you should at least be honest with yourself and others. If you read Dershowitz's proof of Walt and Mearsheimer's foolishness, or if you figured it out yourself, go ahead, tell people about their goofy research technique. If you read the New Republic link or some similar chunk of primary Dershowitz, you can reasonably say, "According to Dershowitz, Walt and Mearsheimer are as lazy as he admits to being." Otherwise, you should say, "I read on some [self-conscious snickering and rolling of eyes] blog that Dershowitz admits to this silliness and implicates these other guys, so consider the source." Always a good idea.