Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In Which I Change My Mind About that Megillah Reading

Oh no, it was still awesome. I was just thinking about the people who insist on banging by Haman's name in a minyan where there is a strict no-banging policy. Earlier, I had dismissed the concerns of the gabbai who had tried to make a moral argument against banging (it's pretty selfish to bang and prevent others from hearing the words of the megillah) because we're obviously not at the fast megillah reading because of a desire to be super-yotzei the mitzvah; we're there to do it quickly.

But now I'm thinking, that if someone goes to a minyan that he knows is moving fast, and forbids banging, he is there to also appreciate the benefits of this fast minyan. He thus knows that the baal koreh will not pause when he says Haman's name. Thus, if he does bang, he will almost certainly cause people to not hear words. This sort of person is the worst! Here he is, davening at the fast minyan, so he gets to fulfill the mitzvah quickly, and then what does he do? He bangs by Haman's name out of some OCD reflex so he can feel frummer than everyone else, makes it slower for everyone else, and he then causes some other people not to be yotzei the mitzvah! Talk about hypocrisy!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Most Amazing Megillah Reading Ever!

By my reckoning, all over in 19 minutes! It was a potent combination of a recklessly fast leiner, and a strict no boo-ing policy. Usually, I have one without the other, but here there was both! Awesome.

Incidentally, before the leining began, the gabbai gave a short speech, admonishing everyone not to bang when Haman's name* is read. He told everyone that it was pretty selfish of people to make noise during the reading, as the whole point of the non-booing policy is to ensure that we can all hear every word. This was pretty funny, as that was most assuredly not the real reason we were all there.

The way I found the minyan was by following all the bums and unmarried people, and all the old people who don't give a ****, to the minyan where I knew there would be no children. We weren't there to hear every word (and I'm pretty sure the guy was so fast, I didn't hear everything anyway - yay!), we were there to go fast.

To me, it's not so much the amount of time it wastes, as it is just incredibly annoying. It just totally breaks up the narrative every six seconds. It's like reading a book, where every time the main antagonist's name comes up, someone shoots a cap gun two feet from your head. But I like the idea it makes me more religious because I irritate easily.

*His name is "Haman"!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why I Have Little Sympathy for the Hilltop Youth

West Bank Mama, whom I assume is a mother residing in the West Bank, has a heartfelt post in which she laments, in part, the conflict faced by those young renegade settlers who are always setting up new illegal outposts in the territories, only to see them torn down by the police or the IDF. Such was the fate that befell Chavat Gilad earlier this month. Basically, the conflict is that these very patriotic and ideological kids really love Israel, and really want to serve in the elite divisions of the IDF, but often find themselves at loggerheads with the enforcement arm of the Jewish State, most poignantly perhaps, when they, as teenagers, must make the decision whether to attend a protest that is bound to turn violent and thus lead to probable arrests (which is a black eye to any application to an elite unit), or whether to sit it out, thus betraying one ideal for another.

I call the post heartfelt because it does a good job of explaining a real dilemma for hilltop youth, but I still find it hard to sympathize with these kids.

Look. The Israeli government has a law: It is illegal to set up illegal outposts.* To the extent that you set up illegal outposts, you will come into conflict with the Israeli government. It's as simple as that. You don't want to come into conflict with the Israeli government? Then don't build illegal outposts! It's not like illegal construction is some sort of automatic involuntary behavior, like breathing or something. It's also not as if there is literally no place for these kids to live, or there is a dearth of space in Israel proper in which to build houses. There are plenty of religious Zionists who get on perfectly fine living in Israel, livin' the Zionist dream, and not breaking the law.

If you'd rather break the law to satisfy some ideological itch, then you've decided you care more about one facet of your ideology (the building of illegal outposts) than another (serving in a Jewish army). Which is fine. In life, you face choices. You can't expect to deliberately break the law of a state in a consistent and brazen-faced manner, and then plan to be welcomed by the elite units of that state's army.

It's the same conflict faced by patriotic muggers.

*I believe that the absolute best way to state a law is to present it in its most tautological form. Can't argue with that.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

How Very Surprising

Jeffrey Goldberg:

"There are signs that reality is forcing Prime Minister Netanyahu to the center, just as reality pushed Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, his two predecessors, to the center. Goldblog Central has been hearing rumors and intimations for some time that Bibi is going to announce something dramatic -- perhaps before a joint session of Congress (a friendlier audience than the Knesset, by a long shot). How dramatic? This is what is unclear. It's got to be pretty dramatic to keep Bibi's ostensible allies, President Obama and Angela Merkel among them, from giving up on him. According to Ha'aretz, Bibi has been telling associates that he fears the creation of a binational state in Israel's place if the country fails to allow the birth of a Palestinian state next door. He is even said to be thinking about endorsing a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. For a man like Bibi, a hard-edged nationalist, this would be quite something, and would invest a speech with suitable drama." [Emphasis mine.]

Mind you, I've been hearing this BS about a new Israeli peace plan for weeks and weeks, so I'll believe it when I see it, but I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The saddest thing about Israel's situation is that they keep on electing right-wing Prime Ministers who vow not to vigorously pursue a two-state solution, only to wake up a year or two into their terms and all of a sudden realize that, hey, a bi-national state would be really bad, and only then they start to tackle the problem with any urgency. Then, invariably, they get killed/fall into a coma/get taken down for massive ethics violations/whatever will happen to Netanyahu. Then, rinse and repeat.

Friday, March 4, 2011

This Can't Be Too Good

Things like this, from the Washington Monthly are kind of disturbing.

A helpful summation from Andrew Exum, if you don't have time to read the Monthly piece:

"We basically have a cadre of yahoos running around the country teaching our police forces to fear any and all Muslims, which, if you're trying to radicalize your Muslim population, seems like a damn good way to go about doing it. Very few of these yahoos have any formal training or education in radicalization or currents of thought in political Islam. One consultant they profile is from the minority Christian community in Jordan and has a decidedly hostile view of Islam which he proceeds to share with his audience."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The J Street Enigma Explained!

Ah yes, the "infamous Gaza 54." Their infamy only surpassed by their obscurity.

But seriously, this video exploits a basic confusion about J Street, and lobbies in general. If you're like me, you grew up thinking of AIPAC as the pro-Israel lobby. So, AIPAC = pro-Israel. If there were another lobby that purported to be pro-Israel, and yet took different stances on a wide variety of Israel issues in the name of being pro-Israel, we would be faced with a problem. Either AIPAC is not really pro-Israel, or this new lobby is not pro-Israel. But they can't both be pro-Israel. So, J Street or AIPAC?

The thinking then goes like this: AIPAC is an old and venerable institution, and nearly always (at least publicly) supports the official government stance of the State of Israel. Since one can assume that the Government of Israel (GOI) is pro-Israel (if they weren't, who would be?), then those who support the government of Israel must be the pro-Israel lobby. J Street, a lobby that frequently criticizes the conduct of the Israeli government, cannot be pro-Israel, at least, not when it criticizes the conduct of the Israeli government.

One problem with this analysis is that it conflates support of a government with support of vague ideas like country, Zionism and ethnic pride. While I would agree that the Israeli government cannot really ever be intentionally anti-Israel*, that by no means precludes the possibility of those who hold differing opinions being pro-Israel as well. For instance, J Street is the bane of the settler population in Israel. Certainly, the settler population has their fair share of vociferous and often violent disagreements with various Israel governments (including this one), but they would just as vociferously and violently dispute the notion that they are not also pro-Israel. And, while a Likud coalition currently governs the country, it was not too long ago that it was a Kadima coalition, and the Likud opposed the previous government. So, conflating support for a government or a specific policy with being pro-Israel is a poor rhetorical choice.**

But more generally, I wanted to parse out what lobbies are. I see two different kinds of lobbies, broadly. One kind are the ones that are engaged by specific entities, either corporations or countries or people, that seek to advance the political interests of their clients who pay them. Thus, Big Tobacco engages the services of tobacco lobbies. These lobbies are pro-tobacco in the sense that they advocate in favor of policies that will enhance the position of Big Tobacco. They know which policies will help tobacco because very often it is Big Tobacco telling them which policies will help them. When they publish studies that purport to show that smoking in children under the age of 5 builds strong bones and teeth, it is widely assumed that it is being published either in concert with, or under the direction of, Big Tobacco. It is impossible for such a tobacco lobby to act in opposition to Big Tobacco. Their raison d'etre, the reason they were created by Big Tobacco in the first place, was to help Big Tobacco. Big Tobacco creates them, and Big Tobacco destroys them. I call this agency lobbying.

Then there is something that's more along the lines of an ideological lobby, one that advocates on behalf of certain actions, irrespective of what the relevant actors who would be carrying out the actions think. The people who fund these lobbies fund them because they happen to agree with their goals. In an ideal situation, if their donors disagreed with their policies, the donors would withdraw funding, but the policies advocated should remain the same. So, let's say I love smoking, and wish it to remain as legal and lightly taxed as ever. To that end, I believe that smoking should be absolutely prohibited to children. I believe, that if children are allowed to smoke, although this may in the short run help Big Tobacco's bottom line, it will eventually create a backlash that will lead to perhaps all smoking being prohibited. This sets me up in a conflict with Big Tobacco, who is perhaps not as farsighted as I. We are both "pro-tobacco,"*** but we're very different sort of enterprises. I don't care if Big Tobacco jumps up and down and tells me a gazillion times that children are the future of tobacco, I won't care. An agency of Big Tobacco, however, will certainly care, and "be persuaded" by its client corporation.

It seems to me that AIPAC is like the agency lobby for the Israeli government. It supports whatever the government supports. It is as if it is engaged by the Israeli government to help convince the American government of the rightness of the Israeli government's point of view. If the government changes its view, and argues that removing settlements is good, then so will AIPAC.

J Street, on the other hand, is unaffiliated with the Israeli government. It has an ideological vision for a future Israel that it likes and wants to see brought to fruition, and seriously believes that its perspective is good for Israel. To the extent that it and the Israeli government advocate the same policies, that's great, but besides the point. Governments come, and governments go, but ideology remains.

*I suppose one could imagine a situation where a government was somehow covertly taken over by people who hate both themselves and the country, but that would be weird.

**Obviously, this isn't simply a mistake on the part of people who call J Street anti-Israel. The point is always to demonize those who disagree with you, and to ascribe to them malicious motives. If you believe in higher taxes, you hate America.

***We could even imagine a situation where I am actually looking out for the best interests of Big Tobacco - perhaps I am an investor. The banning of all tobacco products will not help Big Tobacco's bottom line in the long run, after all.

Was Rashbag Reform? (Or, at least, not Orthodox?)

Here's a mishna from Masechta Kerisus (1:7 - Soncino translation).

If a woman had five doubtful births or five doubtful issues she need bring but one offering, and may then partake of sacrificial flesh, and she is not bound to bring the other [offerings]. If she had five certain issues, or five certain births, she brings one offering and may then partake of sacrificial flesh; but it is still her duty to bring the other offerings.

It once happened in Jerusalem that the price of a pair of doves rose to a golden denar. Said R. Simeon b. Gamaliel, "By this sanctuary, I shall not go to sleep tonight before they cost but a [silver] denar!" Then he entered the Beth Din and and taught; If a woman had five certain births or five certain issues she need bring but one offering, and may then partake of sacrificial flesh, and she is not bound bound to bring the other [offerings]. Thereupon the price of a pair of birds stood at a quarter of a [silver] denar each.

To me, this seems pretty radical. Here we have Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, a nasi, changing a halacha purely out of social justice concerns. Now, I don't know a lot about this area of halacha, but I see few possibilities here.

Option A is that the original teaching of the Mishnah, that a woman was obligated to bring additional offerings, was mandated by the Torah. Then, Rashbag, in order to lower the prices of sacrificial doves, changed the meaning of the Torah to remove that obligation, because doves were too expensive. This is the most radical interpretation. This would be like changing the meaning of the constitution, something no Supreme Court justice would ever admit to doing. And certainly not for social justice purposes! Plus, you know, the constitution is man-made, and is thus an incomplete and flawed document. But the Torah is divine and perfect? How can Rashbag just change it to lower the prices of doves in the marketplace?

Option B is that the original teaching of the Mishnah, that a woman was obligated to bring additional offerings, was the consensus Rabbinical interpretation of the verses of the Torah. Meaning, that the Rabbis sincerely thought that a woman was Biblically required to bring additional offerings. Then, Rashbag, in order to lower the prices of sacrificial doves, overruled that interpretation of the Torah to remove that obligation, because doves were too expensive. This is still very radical. This would be more like uprooting a decades-old constitutional doctrine, in favor of social justice. Again, this is super-rare in constitutional jurisprudence. It's stranger, though, because while one Supreme Court may very rarely be comfortable saying that a previous SC's understanding of the Equal Protection Clause was wrong, or outdated, I would think it impossible to read of a Tanna taking this view of a previous Tanna. Were the older generations wrong? Did they misunderstand? But that doesn't even seem to be his argument. He doesn't seem to be saying that the previous generations of scholars misunderstood; he's just changing the rules because the rules are making doves too expensive! Weird!

Option C is that the original teaching of the Mishnah, that a woman was obligated to bring additional offerings, was a Rabbinical statute. Meaning, as far as the Torah is concerned, all a woman need bring is one, but the Rabbis said, for some reason, "Nah, bring five." Comes along Rashbag, and says, we're changing that Rabbinical law, because doves are too expensive. This is the tamest explanation, but still seems pretty interesting, because Rashbag is changing a d'rabbanan just because he feels doves are too expensive. I can see telling someone that they're still yotzei their obligations with one, but actually rewriting the law to make the price of a commodity drop? Still weird. Additionally, he doesn't explain his reasoning. Presumably, the Rabbis had a reason to mandate five. It may be an important reason, it may be not so important. It could be that ensuring a cheap supply of doves is more important. But what was the reason for the original ruling? Also, I'm a complete am ha'aretz in this field, but, facially, it seems strange to me that the Rabbis would mandate additional offerings for no reason. I mean, are they trying to put up a syug l'Torah, "just to be safe"? Safe from what? And do the Rabbis have the authority to mandate sacrifices that are not required by the Torah? Is there such a thing as korbanot mid'rabbanan (Rabbinically created sacrifices)?

In any case, I think it's pretty radical that we have a Tanna over here willing to change a straight up halacha, just to lower the price of doves; for social justice, really. Sounds almost Reform! Now why can't we solve the agunah crisis?