Tags: halakha


a three-pronged argument

We're outside shul on a snowy Friday night. Kid, aged about thirteen, is telling another kid not to make snowballs.

"Don't do that. You're carrying; you're touching snow, which is muktze; and you're wearing my gloves."

As Gabriel puts it - d'oraita, d'rabanan, and rude.
shiny jen

halakha yom iyyun

I forgot to post about the Halakha Yom Iyyun - a lot of the sessions were recorded, and you can download source sheets and watch the videos at http://www.mechonhadar.org/yomiyyun.

In particular, I heartily recommend the Opening Plenary: "Framing Halakhah: Law, Ethics, Philosophy or Values?" Professor Chaim Saiman, Villanova Law School - he had that kind of virtuoso skimming through his sources that you can only get away with when you know your topic ridiculously well, which is just good to listen to.

Originally posted at Dreamwidth. Re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at LJ integration. Pity, because they have principles.
shiny jen

Asking Rav Eitan

A goodly portion of Yeshivat Hadar spent this Shabbat in Riverdale, and I had the pleasure of cramming everyone into my apartment for (yummy potluck) lunch.

Following lunch, there was "Ask Rav Eitan."

Which is what? Well, here's a whole bunch of people who can see that their rosh yeshiva is entirely awesome, and they want to know what he thinks about fun questions like "Why is Judaism important?" Clearly nobbling him after Shabbat lunch, when he's too full of cholent to run away, is the best way of getting answers.

I jest. He wasn't trying to run away.

This is what was really going on:

When one's worldview isn't rendered in stark black and white, one has to find subtle shades-of-grey answers to any important question, existential or otherwise. One has gut feelings, or vague ideas, or half-formed rationales, regarding the big questions and the bigger picture, but fitting them together neatly is generally a bit beyond one, and we muddle along with more or less faith that it'll turn out okay in the end.

Then every so often you come across someone who has thought about all these things, and studied extensively, and is aware enough and articulate enough to express cogent, nuanced, informed, reasonable opinions. Sometimes they're saying clearly exactly the words you've been groping for; sometimes what they say or how they say it resonates with you so strongly that even if you don't quite agree, you want to hear more so that you can learn how to express your own opinions like that.

Here, you can see, is a way of constructing the security, the groundedness, which comes with the confident black-and-white answer, in the shades of grey one's intellectual integrity demands. Bit by bit you can muddle less and stand firm on sure ground; as people drawn to a measure of religious leadership, such grounding is a needed strength for ourselves and others.

So you meet someone in whose expression of the bigger picture you can see your own fuzzy approximations, but clarified and extended and set into place almost beyond recognition. It is a picture you have been trying to see; you have found someone who sees it, and you want to know all about the picture as they see it. Every last detail, so that you can see it through your own eyes and carry it with you.

That's what "Ask Rav Eitan" is doing, in a sense.

The next chapter here probably concerns the nature of the picture seen by the Yeshivat Hadar leadership, and why I think it is at present unique and hence uniquely important, but it's 1am so it'll have to wait for another day.

In any case, this was originally intended as a light-hearted post about how this Shabbat, when we were Asking Rav Eitan, and Rav Eitan was talking in rather powerful and compelling ways about how and why Judaism is the framework of his life, the doorbell rang.

Two Jehovah's Witnesses were at the door, one of them brandishing a much-worn Bible and the other with a folder of magazines.

In my apartment right now, flashed through my mind, there are three rabbis and a dozen people who spend all week learning Bible and Jewish canonical texts. I could invite these Witnesses into the lions' den. It would be hilarious.

But it would also be rather cruel and gratuitous, so I suppressed the fit of giggles that was arising and said politely "This really isn't a conversation we want to be having right now."

"Oh; why not?" one responded eagerly.

Because here are a group of yeshivaniks clustered round their rosh yeshiva hanging on his every word, I thought, you couldn't really have chosen a less likely target. Every single person in this room learns Bible on a level you've never even thought about. You'd get slaughtered. And nothing you can say could be anywhere near as interesting as Asking Rav Eitan.

"We're a bit busy right now," I said feebly, closing the door.

I hope they didn't hear the laughter.

Originally posted at Dreamwidth. Re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at LJ integration. Pity, because they have principles.
shiny jen

nigglebotting the burrahobbit

...God says to Israel “Keep Shabbat, and if you don't, you'll die. Okay, make me a sanctuary; here's how.”

We notice a certain lack of detail, here, rather as if one might say “Make sure to nigglebot the burrahobbit, or I'll kill you. Okay, about my library books...” If this Shabbat is so important, surely some instructions would be appropriate about now?

Rather than paint God as a vicious and arbitrary deity with a staggeringly short attention span, rabbinic tradition interprets the text about the sanctuary as doing dual duty, being at one and the same time a marvellously concise yet deep and complex set of instructions about this all-important Shabbat, yet also serving as an involved and evocative description of the sanctuary-buildng process.

Essentially, if some creative procedure is involved in the latter, it is prohibited in some way in the former, but through the lenses and filters of rabbinic tradition, which makes it much more complicated and, crucially, highly adaptable. Thus, when electricity came on the scene, the argument “They didn't use electricity when they were building the sanctuary, therefore it is okay to use on Shabbat” is not employed. Rather, the lenses and filters, when applied to the question of whether electricity may be used on Shabbat, give two possible answers: Yes and No; orthodox Judaism came down on the side of No, for better or worse.

The twentieth century saw incredible changes, and when asked what the one most significant change had been, a certain octogenerian replied “Electricity.” Electricity is involved in practically everything we do. Ceding control of electricity for a day is surprisingly difficult.

Wednesday night (at the Riverdale Open Beit Midrash, every other Wednesday, plug plug) I was engaged in a discussion about how for us (me and chums, that is) refraining from sanctuary-building activities isn't too awfully difficult, but refraining from using electricity jolly well is.

My contribution today is that not-using-electricity, like nothing else, has given me the ability to sit back and let something go by. Often enough I'll be in an annoying situation where if only I had electricity - Google, or phone, or lights - I could fix it, and since I'm choosing not to use electricity, there's nothing at all I can do, so I have no choice but to sit back and let events take their course, and accordingly I might as well stop fretting about it.

I observe that this carries over into the rest of the week also. Sometimes I'll be in an annoying situation where I couldn't do anything about it even if I was using electricity, and being able to sit back and let it go by is an awful lot more comfortable than getting uselessly worked up. I wouldn't have said this, on account of not wanting to sound horribly preachy, but more than once a companion has said “How do you do that? How do you not let it get to you?” and I suppose this is part of how. Being able to take one aspect of Shabbat and apply it to the general sanctuary-building seems to increase my ability to cope with the whole. This I like, since it is more or less why I engage in religion in the first place.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go and nigglebot the burrahobbit. Shabbat shalom.
shiny jen

useful torah reading resources

From Yeshiva University, a couple of useful reference sheets by R' Josh Flug:

Reading from a Sefer Torah That Contains an Error

Maintaining and Repairing an Invalid Sefer Torah.

This is jolly jolly good for two reasons: first, that he's collected up lots of useful source references and put them together neatly in an outline of the main opinions. Second, it's much better you should hear it from someone with more learning and experience and authority and suchlike than me. :) So print 'em out and take 'em away.
shiny jen

hands up who saw this coming?

North Dakota's House of Representatives voted 51-41 yesterday afternoon to declare that a fertilized egg has full human rights.

This is a step towards banning abortion: to ban abortion, first you have to define where life begins, and this is what they've just done.

Observe that in order to define life, they've taken the broadest possible set of values - a maximally-inclusive definition. From one perspective, that's fair enough; I can see that one might prefer it over a time period or a hard-to-define growth stage. From a practical perspective, though, it's rather silly, starting with the problem that a fertilised egg is pretty damn hard to detect, and going from there. Working with extremes of scales can give you rather ludicrous results, and that'll happen here. (ETA: look, people are giving examples in the comments! Ludicrosities.)

Bearing in mind that it is just the extreme end of a scale, it plumbs straight into the broader debate of whether you can kill a foetus, so in that sense it's not a particularly significant ruling, just a significantly extreme one. To that debate I will say two things only:

Women have always had abortions and they always will. Making abortion illegal means women will die from botched abortion jobs. This is not civilised. I happen to think it's not civilised to force people to be pregnant, either, but since that's basically the underlying debate we can leave that aside just now.

Second, for the biblical morality crew: Exodus 22:1. If a thief is breaking into your house in the dark, you are allowed to kill him. Period. If it's daytime, so you could have investigated further, you may not, but if it is night, when they are simply an unknown quantity in your space, you can kill them without penalty, no matter what the situation turns out to have been. Think about that.
shiny jen

why I had ice-cream at kiddush

I nearly ran out of the sermon screaming this week.

Our rabbi is great, and his sermons are unusual - they're actually worth listening to. He's one of the rare people I will make an effort to hear, rather than sneak out to avoid; he doesn't say obnoxious stuff or stupid stuff, and quite often he says really thoughtful, interesting, intelligent stuff. So this week, when he said something that made me go hot and cold and trembly, it was an experience out of the ordinary.

I'm going to tell you about it because it's interesting, but remember that our rabbi is the nicest, kindest, most menschlik person you could imagine, and what happened is the fault of the culture we live in, not the fault of our rabbi. Our rabbi is a simply splendid chap and you should think very highly of him, please.

The subject was the Ten Commandments, and what the mystical commentary the Zohar has to say about "Do not murder," "Do not steal," and "Do not commit adultery."

Basically the Zohar chooses to blur the moral absolutes - i.e. there are many impulses which in moderation are very good things, and in extremis are really really bad. For example: the impulse that leads to stealing isn't actually bad, because Wanting Things fuels things like art and civilisation, just when it goes bad it becomes stealing. Getting inspiration from someone else is a sort of stealing, if you look at it one way, but it's not bad stealing. There's generally moderate versions of things which are good.

When giving a sermon you're supposed to bring an example from real life so that your congregation can connect on a personal level. Our rabbi knows his homiletics, and he told a story about a friend who wanted to lose weight. The friend would be so good denying himself fat or carbs or whatever it was, and then he would crack and eat steak and ice-cream and things and Stop Dieting because he had Failed.

This was the point where I wanted to get up and leave, get out, run away. You see why I was so distressed?

What are the sins in this sermon so far?




Being fat.


Not on purpose, you understand. That wasn't the point of the sermon. Nonetheless, that's what just happened, and it knocked me sideways.

The rabbi is speaking in the vocabulary of our cultural narrative, and we have a very powerful cultural narrative that says eating is a morally dubious act. To diet is to be virtuous; to eat as much as you want is to be grossly inappropriate. We surround ourselves with the message that no effort is too extreme, no sacrifice too great, if thinness will result. To be thin is a constant, all-consuming goal for an enormous number of people.

The cultural narrative, in other words, does seem to put eating on a par with murder, theft, and adultery, so it should come as no surprise that our rabbi chose eating to illustrate a point about impulses which have the potential to be socially destabilising on a grand scale.

For me, this eating-message isn't compatible with the Jewish message. The eating-message says: your body is gross and you are gross for letting it be that way, and if you work very very hard, it might one day be marginally closer to acceptable than it is now. But my Jewish message says: every human being is worthwhile; the world is good; to live is to reflect the Divine glory.

So it distressed me to hear eating being semi-consciously compared to murder. Validating the idea that bodies are inherently repellent by speaking about dieting in a sermon validates the idea that you can only be happy and healthy if you are thin. It validates a corrosive, body-hating, self-hating philosophy.

The stated message of the sermon was this idea that many things are good in moderation but damaging in extremes. I'm okay with this. I accept that too much eating can be damaging. (Likewise breathing too much oxygen.) That's a perfectly reasonable message for a sermon. But it concerns me that the subtle message, the one that is heard by the brain and not by the ears, the one that lurks in the subconscious, was far more sinister.

That was what I heard from the pulpit this Shabbat, and that was why I wanted to run out screaming.

P.S. Please remember to blame the culture and not the rabbi. It's not. his. fault. Okay?
shiny jen

small fixes, big solutions


We discovered an error in [our] Sefer Torah this Shabbat. The error...involves a Tav that should be a Hay.

There are two aspects to dealing with this; the theoretical and the practical.

The theoretical side represents hours and hours of study. Before you go anywhere near fixing a Torah, you've got to know why this is a total disaster, for instance:

and you have to learn the several thousand other potential disasters that a sofer has to know how to avoid.

However, the practical side of a fix like this is actually very easy. It's a tiny bit of knife work and a tiny bit of ink work.

I've put in the hours and hours of study, and we live in a digital world. Suppose Esther lives hundreds of miles away from any sofer, and her Torah has this problem. She takes a picture of the problem in the Torah and emails it to me. I can look at it, and chances are I'll know how to fix it. If she knows how to use a knife and ink, I can send her something like this:*

and she can fix the problem. She can be my hands over hundreds of miles. If necessary, we could use a webcam, so that I can see exactly what she's doing.

Of course ideally Esther's community would have a fully-trained sofer. But in the real world, I think this could be the next best thing. It's better than reading from a non-kosher Torah, and it's better than having the Torah languish unused until a sofer happens to come to town.

I think this could happen. I could take a day and teach people how to use these:

and how NOT to use them (can you identify the things there that you must NEVER NEVER use on a Torah?).

In a day, someone is not going to learn all the rules about how to fix letters (what do you do with something like that thing to the right? do you need to do anything?), but I believe they can learn enough that they can make basic repairs under remote supervision.

One might say that letting half-trained people loose on Torahs is a dreadful idea, with unlimited potential for havoc to be unleashed. However, of course one would teach boundaries. Fences around tricky areas. When not to attempt something. The importance of not overestimating one's ability. And it might very well be better than the present state of affairs, where entirely untrained people attempt repairs that are quite horrifying.

* NOTE: Don't try this at home. This is not Torah writing. This is Times New Roman. It would not look quite like this on a Torah.


That's my vision. I reckon I can teach someone to do this in a day, if they've got some arts-and-crafts background. Anyone want to have a bit of a Manhattan guinea-pig day?