Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chabad sources; uniqueness of Alter Rebbe

Just looking through different sources of the Rebbe about tzimtzum, I read again through the famous letter in which he discusses the shittos on the subject. This part caught my attention:
In our time, we have merited the revelation [of Chassidic teachings], and the concept of the tzimtzum has been explained at length — at least relatively so — and in many of its particulars, in the texts of the Chabad Chassidic teachings in print and in manuscript.

As such, one who desires to understand the concept of the tzimtzum has no alternative except to study these texts. To corroborate this, it is sufficient to compare the discussion of this issue in other texts — where it appears that for various reasons, these texts shied away from speaking in detail about the matter — to its discussion in the texts of Chabad.

Here is another instance of a meta-discussion — in this case about Alter Rebbe receiving the essence of Baal Shem Tov and his teachings and sharing it with us in an accessible way.

Thatcher and Greece

TRS sent me this video, as a comment on the on-going crisis with Greece, but he didn’t want to post it on his blog, since 1) he believes videos are past nisht, 2) he believes women speaking in front of men is past nisht (and a combination of the above is kal va’chomer past nisht).

Since I don’t believe in either (in fact, in less than an hour, I am planning to be listening to one Ms. Hurwitz speak in front of men and women), I’ll post it myself:

It’s very nice how she openly says the commonly observed truth: the Left have no concept of how money and economics works. Of course, some people love to step on the rakes again and again and hope that the next time, the stick won’t bump them into nose.

I have previously posted a link to another female leader being equally reluctant to be sucked in into the pan-European quagmire.

One more video with Thatcher:

My comment: it’s amazing how many [people] believe in the whole gap fallacy. I mean, what’s the bloody point of the gap being small? We do want most money in the hands of the people who invest it successfully, creating new and better-paid jobs and new and better products and services. Can you make a new version of an iPod? If not, you should give your money to someone who can. If you think you can, go to a bank and get a loan, and if the public likes your iPod, it will buy it, making you richer than average.

Money is not just ability to buy yachts. Money is the public’s vote that whoever has money is providing the people with good stuff and should continue doing so. It is no different from any other kind of vote.

A little common sense

Someone (a local Russian club, from whose e-mails I've been trying to unsubscribe for years) sent me the above t-shirt design. What do I say to that? Duh!

(Not "da", but "duh". Well, "da" too.)

[For people without a sense of humor, the above is a joke. I don't necessarily advocate for people — especially chassidish people — to start driving German cars or wearing Italian clothes.]

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Authenticity of Zohar

A series of articles by Rabbi Moshe Miller regarding the question of authenticity of Zohar, its authorship by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the claims and arguments of skeptics and response to them.

Both as a tool for battling foolish ignorance of certain elements and for one’s own education. Not for those afflicted with ADD, however.
The Zohar's Mysterious Origins

Arguments of the Skeptics

Responses to the Claims of the Skeptics

Other Claims and Responses

Other Claims and Responses (Continued)

United Kingdom before Margaret Thatcher

It is absolutely amazing how what seems to have been the state of the political system in the pre-Thatcher UK resembled the state of affairs in late (and crumbling) Byzantine Empire. This video shows some of the beauties of large governments:

I’ve posted this before. An excerpt from an interview of a Soviet dissident who had come to the UK just before Thatcher came to power (translated from Russian):
[After arriving to the UK] I was astonished by the extremely low level of life. Not as in the famished Soviet Union, of course, but impossible to compare with Switzerland, from which I escaped. London was filled with garbage, lines were snaking around the streets, stores were standing half-empty… The winter of 1978-79 was a winter of destruction.

The thing is: by that time, Britain was already long-ruled by socialists who destroyed the economy as only they know how. At that point, everybody was on strike — garbage collectors, transport workers… It was a sight to see! As soon as the railroad workers’ strike ended, the train drivers’ strike began. Then went the ticket collectors. Labor unions had huge power, and the country was inevitably rolling towards a cliff. I was just amazed — after Geneva I’d thought that all of the West was prospering. And it turned out that socialism got its hands on England too. Unbelievable! Such a great country brought to a level of some Bulgaria.

Fortunately, the elections were won by Margaret Thatcher. She came to power and started breaking apart socialism and saving Britain. The most difficult thing was to defeat the miners. It was unprofitable to mine coal in England, and every ton of coal was impoverishing the country. Just like in the Soviet Union — the more meat a collective farm produced, the more losses for the country’s budget. Thatcher started closing down the mines; the miners started striking, since they were accustomed to robbing their own country, being parasites on it. But the Iron Lady did not give up.

It wasn’t just the miners either! Dockers were the second major enemy. All the world by that time was already using high-efficiency container unloading of ships. But English dockers’ union was against the innovations, because container unloading increased productivity, leading to firing of additional workers. Sometimes it was like a comics strip: container-carrying ships would arrive at Dutch Rotterdam; there, everything was unloaded on trains and delivered to England by railroad. While the dockers were still getting paid, since the labor union forced this out of the business owners.

Or another idiocy… Socialists decided to defend English cinematography. Before, cameras were inefficient and had to be assisted by three people. Then cameras became better and could be served only by one person. But the socialists enacted a law where three people had to work on a camera anyway! What, should we fire a worker because of some progress?! At that point English cinematography could not compete with Hollywood and lost the juice.

Socialism is a national suicide. And Margaret with her iron hand started to choke it, saving her country. She showed utmost will not to give up. And she won. After that, the country started climbing out of the nightmare. And now England is one of the world leaders. It blossomed virtually in front of my eyes. No wonder Russian oligarchs come here…

Yet, socialism is not dead everywhere. [He goes on to give some modern examples where unions or state-sponsored monopolies drive prices up and slow down the progress.]

An illuminating encounter

Read e’s account of a Shabbos dinner, in which he attempted to bash stereotypes, but as usually happens in such cases, realized that stereotypes are not yesh m’ayin. Slight warning re: loshon ho’rah.

This reminded me of a few lines from Dovlatov:
Igor Yefimov had a party. There were about fifteen guests. Suddenly Yefimovs’ daughter, Lena, walked into the room. The poet Rein suddenly said: “Whom I feel sorry about is Lenochka. One day she will have to take care of fifteen graves.”

One day I met the poet Shklyarinsky with imported winter coat with fur.
— Wonderful, — I said, — coat.
— Yes, — answered Shklyarinsky. — It’s a present from Victor Sosnora. He gave me this coat for my birthday as a present. And I gave him as a present 60 rubles.

Chirskov brought a manuscript to an editor.
— Here, — he said, — is my manuscript. Please take a look at it. I would like to know your opinion. Maybe I can correct something, or change something?
— Yes, yes, — thoughtfully said the editor. — Of course. Please change it, young man, please change it.
And handed the manuscript back to Chirskov.
Actually, sorry, not these lines. I couldn’t find the ones I was looking for, so I am quoting it from memory:
— Would you like to accompany me to a dinner with N?
— N? No, thanks. I don’t like him. He’s too pro-Soviet.
— Pro-Soviet? N? Surely not!
— Well, maybe too anti-Soviet. What’s the difference? Go alone.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Arguments and duels

I was thinking just now about the nature of arguments. I used to love arguing. As the time passes, I come closer to the opinion that for the most part they are useless.

I say for the most part, because there are exceptions. Arguments can lead to one or both parties changing their opinions if: 1) one or both parties are intelligent and open-minded individuals, 2) one of the parties is authoritative (his/her opinion matters) to the other party for whatever reason. Since both cases are rare, the arguments leading to people changing opinions are also rare.

Another way that arguments can be useful is by allowing the people involved to strengthen their position in their own mind. For example, oftentimes, when I argue with someone, I do not change my opinion in the end, but my opponent oftentimes asks questions which, though by themselves not convincing enough to change my opinion, nevertheless are interesting. After I look for the answers to the questions and find them, my position becomes even stronger.

Discussions are a completely different thing. People approach discussions with an open mind. They do not enter into discussions to defeat the opponent or even to uphold one’s view. They start a discussion to learn something new.

A difference between an argument and a discussion is that between a fight and rowing a boat together.

I have also noticed that arguments in the scientific environment are usually very short (not to be confused with the “academic” environment in general, where arguments in the hack-in-chaynik manner can go on and on). Probably because for the most part they are about facts, not, as they say in Russian, pouring liquid from a full cup into an empty one.

Which brings me to the main point of the post: throughout the history, duels have always been rather on the short side. Works of fiction (in literature and cinematography) portray duels as really long, drawn-out affairs, but in most cases, they took a few minutes at most. This included the duels in the West (both using swords and pistols) and in the East (e.g., a samurai duel consisted of a waiting period of intense concentration after which both samurai rushed towards each other and made one single movement — the one whose blow landed first usually managed to kill his opponent and went home).

Sometimes, however, the portrayal of duels is quite accurate. I give you two Western examples.

A more modern example, borrowed, no doubt, from cowboy movies:

An example from Napoleonic France (there is an even better scene from that movie, where they duel on foot, using rapiers, but I couldn’t find it):

Calmly nooh, me boy

(some strong language a little later, so beware)

More on the subject.

And now, a Jew from Odessa talking about Soviet soccer:

Stop playing with your food!

Food doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it can be quite creative (some images are past nisht).

For more creativity, see this (also a little past nisht).

For more food, see this and this.

Stay healthy

Being in a good shape and having good reaction can save your life.

Grasping G-d

This Shabbos we have concluded the yearly cycle of learning Rambam. In this video the Rebbe discusses the end and the beginning of the Mishnei Torah and explains what it means that the knowledge of G-d will fill the Earth as the water covers the sea.

The statement of R’ Sa’adia Gaon — “If I knew Him, I would be Him” — is well known. What is less known is the statement by Rebbe Rashab that, while he was meditating on the ideas of Chassidus, “I knew Him, and I was Him”. In the video, the Rebbe stresses the necessity of contemplating how there is nothing but G-d and uniting with Him in one’s thought.

Local communities

A study by Costello et al., 2009, published in Science Magazine (abstract) examined the populations of bacteria inhabiting different surfaces of human body. Here is Figure 1 from the paper:

(click on the image to enlarge)

I found the right-most panel (showing the relationships between the populations) interesting. Some of the results are a little surprising to me. Click on the image to enlarge.

In other news, a very funny post from e. (Possible loshon ho’rah alert.)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

British democracy

British democracy recognizes that you need a system to protect the important things of life and keep them out of the hands of barbarians. Things like the Opera. Radio 3. The countryside. The law. The Universities. (Both of them.)

And we are that system!.. We run as civilized, aristocratic government machine tempered by occasional general elections. Since 1832 we have been gradually excluding the voter from government. Now, we’ve got them to a point where they just vote once every five years for which bunch of buffoons will try to interfere with our policies...

This episode has an explanation why libertarianism and local governments are against the spirit of Britania.

The explanation of the idea here, starting at 4:12:

And the explanation of why the idea is anti-British starts above at 6:12 and continues here:

Now, in case you’re wondering, in the US, the idea that people are stupid and need to be governed and directed (or else, as one socialist fellow working for a bank told me, it will be like traffic without traffic lights) is shared by both conservatives and liberals. And, if the members of both major parties had their way, American system would be more similar to the one described above: a country run by the pencil-pushers and red-tape generators.

The only difference is: with the liberals it is more obvious, since they are clearly wrong on almost every issue, while the conservatives are wrong for the most part only about the big government part.

In this chart, the higher one is, the more evolved politically he or she is, and the better what he or she proposes is for the people and, on the other hand, the worse for the aristocracy that our government has grown into, like a tumor:

Or, to express this idea more clearly:

To me, this is just incredible. Socialists always say that it is the rich owners of the businesses that are sucking life force out of the poor. But it is the owners of the businesses that made cars, iPods, toilet papers, computers, cure for cancer, and air travel more accessible. Sure, you make them rich — but voluntarily, by buying their iPods! And in return you get — you guessed it — the iPods.

In fact, this is a form of democracy: consumers vote with their money who is the best at providing them with good products and services and who should therefore have the money to invest into making more products and services. If you like a Mac computer, you buy it, giving Steve Jobs money to create a newer model of Mac (or iPod, or iPhone). If you like PC, you buy one, giving Dell, HP, Microsoft or whomever, the money and power to develop their products further. Etc.

While the big government, which the socialists love, produces what? A lot of dead trees? (It is no wonder that most Universities are filled with liberals.)

After all is said and done, people usually cry out: but who will take care of the poor? Who will feed them, cloth them, cure them, educate them, and give them low-income housing? Well, provided that the poor are unable to afford all that themselves, after getting jobs existing in a healthy (i.e., government-intervention–free) economy, the same people who give taxes to the government to give back to the poor as charity, can give that money to private organizations. See here.

Creating Eretz Yisroel in golus

(The full extent of the territories promised to Jews by G-d)

Update: see the link and the quotes from a sicho below.

From here:
Each person can establish his own personal Israel, a place where G-dliness is revealed, no matter where he lives. Once, when a Chassid asked the Tzemach Tzedek whether he should go on Aliyah, the Tzemach Tzedek answered: “make Israel here.”

This statement is supported by a statement of the Meiri (whose name means “the illuminator”; his commentary sheds light on many questions, particularly on the topic of Teshuvah, about which there are many arguments between commentaries). Commenting on the Talmud’s prohibition to leave Israel, and also Babylonia (which in Talmudic times was a Torah center), he writes that any place which possesses Torah and Yiras Shamayim (fear of heaven) is like Eretz Yisrael and one is forbidden to depart from it except under certain circumstances.

Each Jew has a mission to make his portion of the world, wherever it is, a land of Israel, a land which desires to fulfill G-d’s will. If he meets with opposition, he must know that the name Israel was given over to Yaakov, because “he struggled with angels and with men and prevailed.” No matter what the challenge, a Jew has G-d’s blessing and promise of success and therefore, will not be affected by those who scorn him.
Also, an interesting summary of the Rebbe’s sicho regarding the fulfillment of the mitzva of yishuv Eretz Yisroel:
The Rambam explains that one way that we will know that Mashiach is the true Redeemer, is that he will gather together the Jews from the four corners of the world. This indicates that Jews have what to do in the four corners of the earth until Mashiach comes. The understanding of Chabad Chassidus is that wherever a Jew lives, whether in Australia, New Jersey [r"l], or any other city or country, his mission is to bring G-dliness and Yiddishkeit into that part of the world. That is a tremendous shlichus (mission) — to bring kedushah, holiness, into every part of the world, not just Israel. So there is a mission for Jews in the Diaspora until Mashiach comes. When Mashiach comes, then we’ll come to Israel.  [...]
The Rebbe points out that Israel is on a higher spiritual level than the Diaspora even now, after the destruction of the Temple. Many people do not truly think about what this means when they're living in New York or Miami Beach, before they make the decision to come here. Living in Israel means that you are taking on a responsibility to behave on the highest level of Yiddishkeit, because you’re in the King’s palace.

Israel is regarded as the King’s palace, and there are certain rules of conduct in the King's palace which do not necessarily apply in some far-away corner of the kingdom. The question that anyone who wants to come to Israel must ask himself is: am I ready to make sure that while living in Israel, will I do my utmost to learn and practice, as is expected of someone who lives in the King’s palace? If you’re not ready to do that, then what are you coming to Israel for, to come and pick oranges on a kibbutz? That is not why Eretz Yisrael was given to us.

In Israel a person has to be on a higher level. He has to be much more careful with his mitzvos, as well as having many more mitzvos to fulfill, such as terumah and maaser, shemittah, etc. So a person who truly feels that he is on a high level in his or her fulfillment of mitzvos may consider coming to live in Israel. But for those who are not yet on such a high level, they might well be better off living outside of Israel, until they improve their Divine service. Only then should they even consider coming to live here.

Briefly, the decision to come to Israel should not be taken lightly; it’s a very serious decision, and these are some of the factors to consider before buying a ticket.
 I want to point out that the above sentiment is clearly different from the excuse that some people give that they are not “on such a madreiga” as to learn Kabbala or Chassidus. Their excuse is a clear nonsense, since learning Kabbala and Chassidus is an obligation for every Jew (or, in the very least, clearly enhances and changes qualitatively all of his learning and performance of mitzvos). And Chassidus Chabad was created by our Rebbeim specifically “for the masses”.

Of course, there is also this to consider:
When a person lives in the Diaspora, and looks upon his living there as a makom keva, a permanent place, because he has a good job and a nice home, etc., and because he hears that in Israel it’s hard to make a living, then he’s like a person who has no G-d. However, if this person lives in America, or England, or Australia, but his whole life is based on the feeling and the understanding that he constantly prays and wishes for Mashiach, so that the moment Mashiach comes he is ready to come to Eretz Yisrael, to the Beis HaMikdash, then that person is not permanently settled and locked in his exile.

The first factor to know is: how does a person look at his life in galus? When people are inculcated with this desire and longing for Mashiach, then it’s clear that America, etc., is not their priority; their priority is Mashiach and coming to Israel. Those people are not in the category of those that dwell permanently in the Diaspora. Therefore, the second half of the statement, “it is as if he worships idols”, does not apply to them. All of the people that stay in the Diaspora, (although they know of the holiness of the Land of Israel) — because they have a duty or mission to perform there, are also serving G-d, just as if they were in Israel.
I think an important question is: what is the purpose for which a person lives on the day-to-day basis? Is it for the physical pleasures and accumulation of riches and trinkets or for the service of Hashem? And even if he does, in his everyday life, pursue such things as a successful career, higher income, or even the superficial things like a bigger house — are these things for himself, or, again, has he made them (or at least is he trying to make them) into tools for his service of Hashem?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Find ten differences

...between the Church of England and the Church of Reform and/or Conservative Judaism. (Although, based on the dvar Torah I heard this Shabbos in the local presumably Orthodox shull... well, never mind...) Starting 0:30:

“...theology is a device for enabling the agnostics to stay within the Church.”

— One of them wants to get G-d out of Church of England, and the other one wants to get the Queen out.
— Well, the Queen is inseparable from the Church of England.
— I see. What about G-d?
— I think He is what’s called “an optional extra”.

See also this, starting from 1:26:

— I’ve heard he is very religious.
— Well, it’s all right for a bishop, is it not?

Friday, April 23, 2010

An inner compas

One usually hears a reference to an inner moral compass. There is, however, also such a phenomenon as an inner fashion compass. Now, I personally seem to be sadly lacking one, as most people who have seen me dressed during the week (and not on a formal occasion) can testify.

Seeing this picture, however —


— has reminded even me of this compilation.


Yes, I suppose that is a bit old for shidduch. On the other hand, I would say nothing is that old in reality. Not even Atik Yomin.

Interesting fact of life: hot air goes up, but ice cream, when it melts, goes down.

Also, the latest poll has finished. Unlike the last time, when most of my readers turned out to be heretics, this poll revealed that most of my readers are fanatics. Some are religious fanatics, and some are secular fanatics (fortunately, fewer than the religious ones).

To a question: “Can a tzaddik be wrong?”, 55% answered: “He cannot be wrong about anything”, 23% answered: “He can be wrong about anything”. Only a mere minority gave the more moderate answers: “He cannot be wrong, but he can be less right” (which was my official answer) — only 3 votes (13%), and “He can be wrong, but not about Torah” — only 2 votes (including my own vote from my work computer), or 9%.

I am not going to say that the prevalent fanaticism amongst the readers of this blog is good or bad; I just think it’s interesting.

Please answer the new poll.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Trees behind the forest

(click on the image to enlarge)

The picture above (source; courtesy of e) reminded me of a statement by the Rogatchover Gaon: “People say there are seventy faces in Torah. But I see ten faces. And if I was smarter, I would see only one face.” Meaning, the smarter and the more erudite in Torah (not to mention the holier) one is, the more one sees Torah not as a bunch of details, but as a small number of klalim (principles, main ideas).

I thought recently while studying Gemara with my chavrusa that this goal is important to keep in mind not just for the whole Torah but even for a small sugya.

(Also, check out “How the Rebbe saw Torah” to hear how one talmid chochom who would come to discuss nigleh with the Rebbe said that the Rebbe is like Rambam.)

On the other hand, I remember a statement by my local rabbi that if there is an inherent danger in studying deep sugyas of Chassidus, then it is in focusing on the “grand scheme” and losing sight of the everyday, simple things. Like thinking how by giving tzedaka one creates giluim in Atzilus, or achdus of Soveiv and Memalei, or Dira b’tachtoinim, but not thinking about the fact that you are simply helping another Jew.

I know, the immediate answer from most people is: well, the two are connected. Can’t have one without the other. And so on. And, yes, that is how it is supposed to be, but my point is: it is easy to loose sight of this.

There is a famous story with Alter Rebbe and Mitteler Rebbe. The latter’s little son once fell out of his crib and was crying. Mitteler Rebbe, who was sitting nearby, was so engrossed in his learning that he didn’t realize that his son was crying. Alter Rebbe came in from another room, picked up the child and calmed him. Then he told Mitteler Rebbe that “however deeply one is absorbed in study, prayer, or the performance of mitzvos, one must always have an ear open to the cries of a Jewish child”.

There is a similar story of Alter Rebbe being a chazan on Yom Kippur. In the middle of Neila,  the holiest prayer of the day, when the essence of one’s soul becomes truly united with the Essence of G-d, he stopped, took off his talles and left the shull. On the outskirts of the town a woman had given birth to a child. Alter Rebbe chopped some wood, lit up fire and cooked a soup for the woman.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Growing up quickly

View Krasnoyarsk in a larger map

A recent post from TRS made me think about how normally we excuse teenagers from their immature behavior by stating that they are, in fact, immature and have underdeveloped frontal cortices. (Most people perhaps don't phrase it this way, but the two statements are in fact congruent. Just like saying "he is not bar-mitzva yet" and "his body has not started its testosterone production fully".)

And yet we find stories of teenagers acting in a very responsible manner (oftentimes much more responsibly than many adults) when suddenly faced with responsibilities. The stories that come to my mind (because of my background) are of children during WWII. Somehow being left in blockaded Leningrad (where a few thousand people are dying every day from cold and starvation and cannibalism is prevalent) makes one grow up very quickly.

Actually, my mother has recently befriended a young Russian couple. The husband's grandmother was 15 or 16 when the war started. Her father died in battle. So did her mother (the Soviets were very egalitarian those days). She had a younger sister and a younger brother. When the shelling of Moscow by Nazis started, she picked her siblings up and left. Where did she go? Well, she remembered that she had some relatives in Krasnoyarsk, so she went there, by foot. In the middle of winter. Where, you ask, is Krasnoyarsk? Well, just a bit north of Mongolia. The distance is about equivalent to that between Mexico City and Alaska (see the map above). Again, I repeat, in winter. Traveling on the roads so bad that German tanks had trouble getting through them (and this was on the European side of Russia; she had to go through the Asian side).

Not to mention all the 16-year-olds who fought in the army against Nazis. And the 15-year-olds who forged their dates of birth so that they could join.

Now, these are not stories of exceptional heroism. Such acts were commonplace. People did what they had to do. And not just in shelled Moscow. In shelled London too. In shelled Warsaw. In concentration camps. Each culture equivalent to its needs and its people's strength of character. Children nowadays are doing the same things in Africa, in India, in China, in the US South, when they have to.

So, I wonder: do their prefrontal cortices speed up in development? Or do they just do the right thing, not making excuses of maturity and anatomy?

Also (and this is really an old question of mine for those who are keeping track), what should the modern parents do? Surely we should not wish upon our children to encounter difficulties in life (the life will take care of that by itself). But certainly living in a golden bubble also has its averse affects.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Diplomacy vs. politics

It is simply too dangerous to let the politicians deal with diplomacy. Diplomacy is about surviving until the next century. Politics is about surviving until the Friday afternoon.

A fascinating clip about how democracy and politics vs. international relations works. Thanks to TRS for pointing it out to me. Now, this particular part interested me:

What fun! Well, surely UK have always been a bit self-centered, thinking it still determines which way the winds of the planet blow. It can’t be helped, I suppose.

The best part is the conversation of Bernard with the Foreign Office members starting at 4:00.

Of course, political games are the only thing that UK can do nowadays. US can resort to different tactics (starting 2:03):

— I have it from the ambassador in Washington that Americans are going to support the current government of St. George’s Island.
— In the UN?
— No. In battle. On the St. George’s Island. They’ll send 7th Airborn Division backed up by fleet.
(There must have been a Republican president in office in the show’s timeline.)

Volcano and Mt. Sinai

Volcanoes are well-liked in my family. My mother has ascended on a bunch of volcanoes of Kuril islands (Iturup, Kunashir, etc.). And a book about volcanoes was actually the first book I have ever read on my own.

Anyway, many people arguing against revelation at Sinai say that perhaps it was a volcano. Seeing the footage above, it is easy to see why these people are confused, mistakenly thinking that the ancient Jews could be confused. In other words (source):
Here is the proposed "explanation" of the belief in revelation at Sinai in terms of myth formation. Maybe the Jewish people were in the desert and there was a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. These are very startling events. These are very shocking events. They might even have been regarded as supernatural. Then maybe later people told them that they heard voices, saw visions and so on, and all of that elevated into the story of Revelation. This is the sort of "explanation" which myth formation offers. Here too the "explanation" suffers from both implausibility and lack of parallels.
1. In order to see how implausible the "explanation" is, let's take it in two stages. For the first stage, imagine that the story says of itself that it has been passed down continuously from the time of the event. In other words, the story says: "So-and-so many years ago the entire ancestry of your nation stood at a mountain and heard G-d speaking to them. They were commanded to tell the story of this event to their children, and they to their children, and the nation in fact did this." (There actually is something like this in the Torah itself - cf. Deut. 4:9-10, 31: 9-13, 19-21. But I will not use this below because it is not clear and prominent enough.)

Now we have to imagine a gradual process of taking a natural event and promoting it into a national revelation, ending with the story that this national revelation was always known by the nation. But before you arrive at the story of a national revelation no one knows about it! How are we supposed to imagine that the universal knowledge of the story is promoted gradually?

Now for the second stage, suppose that the story does not say that is was passed down continuously, but that the reader or listener will automatically assume that it will be passed down continuously. Then we have precisely the same problem as the last paragraph: how can a story which the listener assumes must have been continuously known be promoted gradually? This is the Kuzari's point: a story of a national revelation will not be forgotten, and the listener to whom the story is being sold knows this and will use it in evaluating the story and deciding whether to believe it. The problem of filling in the details of the gradual promotion of such a story is a great obstacle to the hypothesis of myth formation.

2. Now for the second problem, the lack of historical parallels. If the belief in the revelation at Sinai is the result of myth formation applied to a natural event, and if that is a normal sort of thing to happen, then it ought to happen more than once. We are not the only people in history that have witnessed earthquakes or who saw volcanic eruptions, or to whom typhoons took place, or tidal waves or other events that could be regarded as supernatural. If a belief in a public revelation could be produced by a natural event, it should have been produced more than once. It is very suspicious to say that here is a effect of a natural cause, a normal cause, fitting in well with human psychology and the normal human environment, but it only happened once in the history of the world!

This is especially true with respect to a belief like this, because a belief in a public revelation is the strongest possible foundation for a religion. If somebody goes up on a mountain and says that he heard G-d speak, either you believe him or you don’t believe him. It is then open for everyone else to doubt it and to say that he either made it up or had delusions. It is much more powerful logically to start out with a belief that an entire nation heard G-d speak.
Now if that kind of belief could have been made up then it should have been made up more than once. After all, it is logically the most sound foundation for a religion. In addition, ancient religions borrowed from one another, they were in contact with one another, they had a similar structure; they have the same sort of Pantheon, the same sorts of beliefs. Why wasn’t this element ever borrowed? Our belief goes back at least three thousand years. There was a lot of travel through our area of the world. How is it that no one picked it up?

Thirdly, Christianity and Islam desperately need this belief. Christianity and Islam in their early stages made strenuous efforts to convert Jews. Now, if you are a Christian or a Moslem missionary and you come to a Jew and you tell him that your leader is G-d, or that your leader is a Prophet and so forth, the Jew responds: “I don’t know about your leader, all I know is that my ancestors stood at Sinai, and you agree. You Christian, you Moslem agree that my ancestors stood at Sinai. How can I now abandon that? How can I contradict that?” What shall the Christian or Moslem answer? That is one of the reasons that they did so poorly in converting Jews. Because the Revelation at Sinai is a foundation that is very difficult to contradict.

Now, according to myth formation there would have been a perfect answer that the Christian or Moslem could have given. He could have said: “You are right, your ancestors stood at Sinai, but it happened again. Another public revelation. All of your ancestors, five hundred years ago, stood again at another mountain and heard the second edition, and we have the second edition.” Why did they not make up that kind of belief? If this is the kind of belief that you can make up, why didn’t they make it up?

So, if you are working on a scenario about how the original belief of the Revelation took place, you have an enormous obstacle to overcome. The more plausible your scenario is, the more difficult it is to explain why it didn’t happen to anybody else. You are sort of caught between two improbable alternatives. Either you create a very implausible scenario so as to protect yourself from the fact that no one else did it, but then it is implausible as an explanation as to how it happened to us. Or you create a very plausible scenario, in which case the question why no one else ever did it is simply impossible to answer.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The best profession

— You... uh... don’t know how I can raise fifty quid somehow, do you?
— Work?
— Bertie!.. No, I must think of some way. I need to put at least fifty quid on Ocean Breeze.

A microscope that is used as a door stop is a sadly lacking in the full expression of its potential. The same is true regarding a human being — not in the sense of one being a door stop, but in the sense of one not fully expressing the essence of what makes him unique amongst all creatures.

A philosopher (to use the term loosely) once pondered what professions express this potential to its fullest and reached a conclusion that they are those that require thinking, research or creativity. E.g., the profession of a scientist or a mathematician. Or the profession of an artist, a writer, or a musician. Of course, any profession can allow a person to express both his intelligence and creativity, and by participating in this profession then a person does not only earn a living but lives up to his title of a human being, a Homo sapiens (“a thinking person” literally — to differentiate one from Homo erectus, whose main distinction from the rest of the animal kingdom is in his upright posture).

Another philosopher, upon listening to the first one list the professions, remarked: “Surely you are forgetting the best profession of all — that of an heir.” More about it here (starting 0:54).

All of the above refers to the nations of the world. What about the Jews?

Well, although being a thinking and creative individual is of course a virtuous characteristic for a Jew, it does not touch the essence of who he is. Rabbi Gottlieb remarks that after having been introduced to someone at a cocktail party, the first questions to ask him or her are: “Where are you from?” and “What do you do [for a living]?” Because there is a difference between speaking to a person from California and from Texas. And there is a difference between speaking to a plumber and a cardiologist (despite the superficially similar nature of their professions).

Nevertheless, finding out about a frum Jew’s profession is useless. Avraham Avinu was a shepherd. Hillel chopped wood. Rashi was a wine merchant. Rambam was a doctor. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was an electric engineer. Therefore what?

My point goes beyond the fact that learning Torah and observance of mitzvos (and levels of and views on thereof) define frum Jews much better than the methods for earning a living. Returning to the above statement that being an intelligent and creative being defines the essence of who a human being is, one can say that being a servant of Hashem defines the essence of who a Jew is.

A Jewish soul is a part of G-d’s Essence. It resides in the upper spiritual realms and then descends into this world with but one purpose: to make it a dwelling place for G-d. It must learn Torah in this world, and it must do mitzvos with the objects of this world. For this purpose it must interact with the world — and according to the philosophy of Chabad, we do not shy away from this interaction. But to allow the world define and shape who we are, on any level, is foolish. If that happens, G-d forbid, then a Jew is worse than a microscope being used a door step. Because there is a finite distance (however great) between a microscope’s design and that of a stone, but the difference between the essence of G-d and this world is infinite.

It is up to us whether we live up to our fullest potential in our lives. And I don’t mean by the end of our lives. I mean every single moment we are in this world.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The necessity to learn Chassidus

(Tzemach Tzedek, the 3rd Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch)

In Derech Mitzvosecho, the Tzemach Tzedek differentiates between the opinion of those who list mitzvas ha’amanas Elokus (commandment of faith in G-d) among the 613 mitzvos and those who do not, deeming it a general principle, but nevertheless not a commandment.

People belonging to the second group, Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek explains, argue that one cannot command to believe in G-d, since first we must believe in G-d and only after can we make a choice to fulfill His Commandments. Secondly, existence of G-d is a self-evident fact, both from observation of the world and from our tradition based on evidence of the whole Jewish nation. Furthermore, using a deeper definition of faith, one cannot command to have feelings coming from knowledge of G-d’s existence and the fact that G-d is the source of all life, since once one has such knowledge, the feelings are automatic.

The counter-argument of the opinion that faith is indeed one of the commandments is that:

a) once a person is distracted, his natural feelings of love to G-d, due to above-mentioned knowledge of His being the source of the life, can dissipate; therefore, one must work on them constantly;

b) even though it is an easy task to know that G-d exists, it is incumbent upon every person to deepen that knowledge — which would include both philosophical proofs of G-d’s existence, which a person is commanded to study in detail, as well as kabbalistic and chassidic explanations of what G-d’s existence is and multiple levels within it;

c) even after having studied the above, we are still commanded to believe — with pure faith — about those aspects of G-dliness which are not accessible to the grasp of our intellect in a form of philosophical proofs. This refers to the Unity and transcendence of G-d, relationship of His Essence with His attributes (sefiros); the concepts of lack of change in His Unity and Simplicity, the reasons for His creation of the world, etc., etc. — all the concepts elucidated in detail in Chassidus.

We are required to believe in these concepts with faith, coming from the faith in tzaddikim and specifically our Rebbeim who revealed these concepts to us through ruach ha’koidesh, and we are required to study them in detail. This is all included in the mitzva of faith in G-d and knowledge of greatness of G-d.

More about the topic:

Are Jews required by Halacha to study Chassidus?
Is everyone obligated to study Chassidus?

You can start your study of the some of the above-mentioned topics by starting to learn:

Sha’ar HaYichud v’HaEmunoh (Gate of Unity and Faith), by Alter Rebbe
Sha’ar HaYichud (Gate of Unity), by Mitteler Rebbe, starting Ch. 7 and on
Ma’amorim of Frierdiker Rebbe
Likkutei Sichos by the Rebbe
Ma’amor Bosi LeGani by Frierdiker Rebbe and the Rebbe
Ch. 20 of Iggeres HaKoidesh by Alter Rebbe

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The art of proposing

I know a chossid (married for ten years already and with children, b"H) who, when the time came to propose to his kallah, asked her: “Would you like to go to the Ohel with me?” He thought himself incredibly smooth. His wife (as she confessed much later, with her husband sitting there) was thinking: “What a loser.”

Here is another excerpt from Three Men on a Bummel, this time regarding proposing. I must say, this method seems much smoother than the one above, although not without inherent dangers. It is also an example of how American English sounded to me (in terms of comprehensibility) when I just came to this here country:
A story is told of a Scotchman who, loving a lassie, desired her for his wife. But he possessed the prudence of his race. He had noticed in his circle many an otherwise promising union result in disappointment and dismay, purely in consequence of the false estimate formed by bride or bridegroom concerning the imagined perfectability of the other. He determined that in his own case no collapsed ideal should be possible. Therefore, it was that his proposal took the following form:

“I’m but a puir lad, Jennie; I hae nae siller to offer ye, and nae land.”

“Ah, but ye hae yoursel’, Davie!”

“An’ I’m wishfu’ it wa’ onything else, lassie. I’m nae but a puir ill-seasoned loon, Jennie.”

“Na, na; there’s mony a lad mair ill-looking than yoursel’, Davie.”

“I hae na seen him, lass, and I’m just a-thinkin’ I shouldna’ care to.”

“Better a plain man, Davie, that ye can depend a’ than ane that would be a speirin’ at the lassies, a-bringin’ trouble into the hame wi’ his flouting ways.”

“Dinna ye reckon on that, Jennie; it’s nae the bonniest Bubbly Jock that mak’s the most feathers to fly in the kailyard. I was ever a lad to run after the petticoats, as is weel kent; an’ it’s a weary handfu’ I’ll be to ye, I’m thinkin’.”

“Ah, but ye hae a kind heart, Davie! an’ ye love me weel. I’m sure on’t.”

“I like ye weel enoo’, Jennie, though I canna say how long the feeling may bide wi’ me; an’ I’m kind enoo’ when I hae my ain way, an’ naethin’ happens to put me oot. But I hae the deevil’s ain temper, as my mither call tell ye, an’ like my puir fayther, I’m a-thinkin’, I’ll grow nae better as I grow mair auld.”

“Ay, but ye’re sair hard upon yersel’, Davie. Ye’re an honest lad. I ken ye better than ye ken yersel’, an’ ye’ll mak a guid hame for me.”

“Maybe, Jennie! But I hae my doots. It’s a sair thing for wife an’ bairns when the guid man canna keep awa’ frae the glass; an’ when the scent of the whusky comes to me it’s just as though I hae’d the throat o’ a Loch Tay salmon; it just gaes doon an’ doon, an’ there’s nae filling o’ me.”

“Ay, but ye’re a guid man when ye’re sober, Davie.”

“Maybe I’ll be that, Jennie, if I’m nae disturbed.”

“An’ ye’ll bide wi’ me, Davie, an’ work for me?”

“I see nae reason why I shouldna bide wi’ yet Jennie; but dinna ye clack aboot work to me, for I just canna bear the thoct o’t.”

“Anyhow, ye’ll do your best, Davie? As the minister says, nae man can do mair than that.”

“An’ it’s a puir best that mine’ll be, Jennie, and I’m nae sae sure ye’ll hae ower muckle even o’ that. We’re a’ weak, sinfu’ creatures, Jennie, an’ ye’d hae some deefficulty to find a man weaker or mair sinfu’ than mysel’.”

“Weel, weel, ye hae a truthfu’ tongue, Davie. Mony a lad will mak fine promises to a puir lassie, only to break ’em an’ her heart wi’ ’em. Ye speak me fair, Davie, and I’m thinkin’ I’ll just tak ye, an’ see what comes o’t.”

Concerning what did come of it, the story is silent, but one feels that under no circumstances had the lady any right to complain of her bargain. Whether she ever did or did not—for women do not invariably order their tongues according to logic, nor men either for the matter of that—Davie, himself, must have had the satisfaction of reflecting that all reproaches were undeserved.

In tandem

Recently, I have quoted to you a story about a young couple so engrossed in a conversation that they lost track of their surroundings. Here is a similar story, but with different details.

I just want to remark on the effect that marriage has on one. Before marriage, it is likely to be so focused on one’s date as to lose sense of one’s boat. After the marriage, it becomes more likely to become focused on one’s bicycle and ignore the loss of one’s wife.

Other remarks, such as one regarding men and female dresses, are also true.

Actually, last summer, when I was in Catskill Mountains, I saw a young Breslover couple (a man and a woman) on a tandem bike. They seemed to be enjoying themselves quite a bit. As I continued going downhill (this was in the Lake Minewaska area), I saw another, slightly less enthusiastic couple: a large yeshivish-looking fellow, in a suit, going up the hill, accompanied by another yeshivish man of much thinner complexion. The men were eying people coming down the hill suspiciously, but seeing a kindred spirit in me (I was wearing my beard that day), asked me how far to the top.

And now the story:

Common sense is most uncommon...

... and eidelkeit is even more so.

I've heard recently that the Frierdiker Rebbe wrote in the description of his grandmother, Rebbetzin Rivka, the wife of Rebbe Maharash, that she had six children, and nobody in the home ever raised a voice. The parents never raised their voices at the children, the children never raised their voiced at their parents, and the children never raised their voices at each other. [Saying that the parents never raised their voices at each other is unnecessary.] Why? Because they were afraid? Because they were refined people.

This is what is fascinating about this parsha. Parshas Tazria talks about the concept of ritual impurity. It is a very eidel subject. To understand this subject, a person must be above viewing the world and Yiddishkeit in purely physical terms. And “physical” doesn't mean just physical pleasures or physical phenomena. “Physical” also means interpreting something spiritual as a metaphor only, without seeing the ruchnius in the concept — the literal, “mamosh”, ruchnius.

To appreciate these concepts, a person needs to be refined. And one thing about a person who is not refined is: he doesn’t know he is not refined. You tell such a person that listening to a certain kind of music, reading certain kind of literature, consuming certain food or drink makes him less refined, and he says: “Why? Where? I don’t see it.” Of course he doesn’t see it. A person who is used to eating at McDonalds doesn’t appreciate the difference between fast food and fine food anymore.

Rabbi Paltiel says: an eidel person speaks softly. Someone who speaks loudly and makes grub jokes doesn’t understand what is wrong with him. He doesn’t understand why it makes the other person uncomfortable. He says: “You’re afraid of your own shadow.” The other person is not afraid; he just finds grubkeit distasteful.

This is the difference between tikkun ha’middos through derech of Chassidus and through other means. By learning Chassidus, through exposure to G-dliness, the person becomes more refined himself and gains a deeper insight into eidelkeit, on all levels. To such a person saying that one should be sensitive to another human being is not necessary. Such a person doesn’t need to force himself to stop over-indulging in physical pleasures or to stay away from a bad company: he is naturally repulsed by such things.

I find this story, which I received today through e-mail, fascinating:
The chossid Reb Peretz Chein would often use the following משל at farbrengens: The chefs in the Czar's royal kitchen were busy preparing a lavish meal of stuffed calf for the visiting Kaiser William of Germany, the Czar's relative. Their efforts were very successful, and the Kaiser highly praised the dish, asking for the recipe so that his cooks would be able to serve him this extraordinary delicacy. The Czar ordered the chief chef to write a detailed list of ingredients and instructions, and Kaiser William left Russia for Germany looking forward to having such a delightful meal again. As soon as he arrived home, the Kaiser handed the recipe to his chef, asking him to prepare it for dinner. When the kitchen doors opened and the carefully prepared dish was served to the eagerly waiting Kaiser, he cried out, "What an unpleasant odor is coming from the food!" and the platter was quickly removed from the table.

Quite disappointed, Kaiser William wrote to the Czar demanding to know why his chefs could not produce the same delicacy, although they had carefully followed the recipe. The Czar asked his chef for a possible explanation, and after thinking for a moment, the chef burst out laughing: "It's quite simple! I hadn't included in my instructions that the intestines be burned inside out and washed thoroughly before being spiced and stuffed. It seemed unnecessary to mention something so obvious, but apparently it wasn't so obvious to the German chefs."
Of course, it is possible for a person to learn Chassidus for 25 years or more and still remain unrefined. Regarding this, the e-mail says:
The Frierdiker Rebbe said: Chassidus must make one into a chossid with chassidishe middos; otherwise, it can be called "חכמה" but not "חסידות". The path of chassidus is a broad and paved path; it is the fault of those young chassidim who learn chassidus in self made ways, that the clear path of chassidus is blocked. This is the result of learning without עבודה. [...]

Reb Lazer, one of the Alter Rebbe's chassidim, once stopped a yungerman who was walking down the street holding his tallis bag. "What are you thinking about now?" he asked. When the young man did not answer, he continued, "I'll tell you. You are thinking that though currently you are not conducting yourself in a manner that chassidus expects of you, when you will grow older, you will surely live up to those expectations. Well, I too entertained such thoughts when I was young, but experience has taught me that I was wrong! One must put effort into ’עבודת ה from a young age."

You need Light

When encountering the difference between Chakirah (Jewish philosophy) and Kabbala, one can ask the question: what’s the purpose of Light? After studying Chassidus, one can ask a more eidel question: if everything is about the Essence of G-d, and, indeed, only about this world, again, what’s the need for Light, intellectual understanding of the deeper aspects of a mitzva and emotions while performing the mitzva? If we reach G-d’s Essence through the physical deed itself, what else is needed?

Excerpt from Inyonei Toras HaChassidus. The second and third paragraphs are my focus; the first one is for the context. (The Rebbe is discussing the concept of acquiring a physical object through one’s daled amos. For more detail, see here.)
[T]he Yechida manifests itself (not only in the purification of the physical object which is outside the person; but also) in the different levels of the soul itself, the four levels of Nefesh, Ruach, Neshama, and Chaya. Only through them does the Yechida affect the physical object that is outside the person (though the arousal of the Yechida comes solely because of the purification [Birur] of the physical object).

A parallel of this phenomenon can be seen in the power of the Essence of G-d, “whose Existence comes from Himself” [i.e., the Essence of G-d is the only level that does not derive its origins and sustenance from other than itself: it is its own source]. Though this power is specifically expressed through the creation of a physical being¹, nevertheless, eliciting this power of Essence into an independent being comes only through the Light, “the Light is that which mediates between True Being and created being. Thus, through the mediation of the Light, the power of Essence is enabled to bring about the existence of a ‘thing’ from complete and utter nothingness.” (Ma’amar “Yechayenu” 5694, ch. 14 [Sefer HaMa'amorim 5711 p. 391]; see also Iggeres HaKodesh Sect. XX.)

Similarly in the individual’s service: though the manifestation of Essence comes through the fulfillment of the mitzvos of action, nevertheless the manner of drawing the Essence into the performance of mitzvos is only through the inner powers: Intellect and Emotions. (See Likutei Sichos 111, p. 956, that for this reason Love and Fear are called “the paths of G-d”. Examine there further in detail.)
A more detailed explanation here (and in the whole sicha).
¹ In the above-mentioned sicho, the Rebbe says:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Be balanced; importance of emunas tzaddikim

(Frierdiker Rebbe)

I am reminded this morning of the following statement by the Kotzker Rebbe:

“A gutter iz a nar. A klugger iz an appikores. Un a frummer iz a rasha. Alle drei tsuzammen — a shtikel mentch.” — “A good person is a fool. A smart person is a heretic. And a religious person is cruel. All three together — you got yourself a mentch.”

Meaning, if you’re a kind person without intelligence or piety, you’ll be taken advantage of. If you’re a smart person without piety or kindness, you’ll analyze everything to the point of every idea crumbling into ashes and become a heretic, and if you’re pious, but not kind or intelligent, you’ll judge everyone and everything too severely. Combine them — and you have a chance to pass as a functional Jew.

* * *

 Another story which I am reminded of this morning is about talmidim of Baal Shem Tov, sitting around the table, listening to him giving kavanos for tkias ha’shoifer (blowing of the shofar) and mikveh. Then the students realized that what Baal Shem Tov was teaching contradicted the teachings of Arizal. None of them said anything, of course, and Baal Shem Tov himself didn’t say anything. One of Baal Shem Tov students, Reb Nochum (incidentally, a grandfather of Rav Nachman Breslover), who was a tzaddik gomur, found himself falling asleep. (The reason it’s mentioned that he was a tzaddik gommur, is that if normally he wanted to stay awake, his body could not tell him otherwise. So, this was not a normal occasion.)

As he fell asleep, he saw a dream. He was in Gan Eiden, and all the souls were running. He stopped one and asked: “Where is everyone running?”, and the soul answered: “What do you mean? Reb Yisroel Baal Shem Tov is going to give a chiddush in Torah.” So, Reb Nochum followed the souls and arrived at the place, where his teacher was standing and giving a lesson identical to the one Reb Nochum saw in the physical world.

Then, a young man with a black beard stood up and started arguing with Baal Shem Tov. And Baal Shem Tov argued back. After a while, the young man said: “You are right” and sat down.

At that moment, Reb Nochum woke up. Baal Shem Tov looked at him, smiled, and asked: “Nu? Ver iz gerekht?” (“Nu? Who is right?”)

Do you enjoy speaking like immigrants?

This was one of the funniest comments to this post:
Please speak English and use the verb “let” with an object, i.e. “My husband doesn’t let ME.” Do you enjoy speaking like immigrants??? Well, yes, I guess you do. But is doesn’t say much for your education or your job prospects.
I must say, I have always enjoyed speaking like an immigrant. I also enjoy walking, eating and drinking like an immigrant.

And now on the topic:

“I know nothing.”

“I learn it from a book.”

“Uno, dos, tres”.



“Typical of this place...”

“Don’t panic!”
“What else is there to do?”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Douglas Adams was incredibly funny. Some might also find him offensive, but not in American or Russian bullying way, but in that English, refined method.

One my favorite parts from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is:

"Whhhrrrr…" said Arthur Dent. He opened his eyes.
"It's dark," he said.
"Yes," said Ford Prefect, "it's dark."
"No light," said Arthur Dent. "Dark, no light."
One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about human beings was their habit of continually stating and repeating the obvious, as in "It's a nice day", or "You're very tall", or "Oh dear, you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright?" At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behaviour. If human beings don't keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months' consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favour of a new one. If they don't keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working. After a while he abandoned this one as well as being obstructively cynical and decided he quite liked human beings after all, but he always remained desperately worried about the terrible number of things they didn't know about.
"Yes," he agreed with Arthur, "no light." He helped Arthur to some peanuts. "How do you feel?" he asked.
Well, here is Douglas Adams on P.G. Wodehouse and a few others in English literature. Prepare to be offended.

Something in the air

As is well known, Alter Rebbe had three cheiderim: from Aleph to Gimmel. Cheider Aleph was more complicated than Beis, and Beis than Gimmel. Talmidim from a lower cheider were naturally not allowed to sit on the classes of a higher cheider. But the opposite was  also true.

One chossid from the cheider Aleph really wanted to hear what Alter Rebbe was teaching in the cheider Gimmel. So, he bribed some of the talmidim there (with promises of Chassidus) to sneak him in. He hid under a table. Then it turned out that Alter Rebbe was being delayed. So, he said: “I am going to sleep here in the corner; when the Rebbe enters the building, wake me up.”

After a while, Alter Rebbe suddenly entered the building, and the talmidim hurriedly woke the chossid up. He didn’t have time to wash nigleh vasser, but since one is not necessarily obligated to do so after having slept during the day, he just went back to his hiding place under the table. Alter Rebbe came in and immediately said: “Oy, there is ruach tumah in here.” The chossid jumped out from under the table and ran out.

* * *

A similar story had happened to Alter Rebbe himself. One year in Mezeritch, he didn’t have a metal cup for the seider. So, he kashered a glass cup by filling it up with water and letting it sit for a day and then repeating it two more times. According to most opinions — but not all — that is ok.

Then, when the seider was about to start, the Maggid was hesitant. He was waiting and waiting, and finally got up and started walking around. He came to Alter Rebbe and asked him about the origins of the cup. Alter Rebbe told him. The Maggid said: “There is a malach standing next to me and not allowing me to start the seider. He says that according to some, there is chometz on my table. Please throw this cup away — I will share my cup with you.”

This part of the story is my favorite: “According to some, there is chometz on my table.”

Monday, April 12, 2010

Where does it say that in Halacha?

For yet another time I am re-posting the quote below.

The context (this time) is a statement on one of the blogs that a solution to the “shidduch crisis” is to pull down mechitza — figuratively and literally, except in the cases explicitly mandated by Halacha (i.e., davening). The author of the opinion says, for example, that mehadrin buses in Eretz Yisroel which separate men and women are counter-productive to healthy opportunities for young singles to meet. To my surprised response: “Do you want the singles to meet on a bus?”, the author responded along the lines of: “What’s the problem?” (Note that I am not endorsing the mehadrin buses themselves or the behavior of chareidim on them. That’s a separate issue.)

To me, the answer (of what the problem is) is rather clear from multiple perspectives. I consulted with my rabbis to make sure I am not nuts, and they confirmed that at least in this issue I seem to be within boundaries of reason. I.e., that it is certainly an authentic value in Judaism that tznius goes beyond a skirt length, and that separation between genders goes beyond davening. There are very clear reasons for this that are, moreover, very rational.

My point right now is not to discuss the issue of tznius and solutions to shidduch crisis. I wanted to express my opinion that stripping Judaism to the bare bones of Halacha is, in and of itself, past nisht. (More on the topic here.) Now the excerpt from the post on Circus Tent:
Today in the US we have a whole range of people under 60, American born, whose knowledge of Judaism is based exclusively on books, and those books are the Shulchan Aruch and Gemora. Most of these people had parents who I am sure were fine people but left behind the emotional attachment to echte Yiddishkayt in Europe. Here they belonged to Young Israel synagogues and became very acculturated and lost that special hergesh. In America, Judaism was reduced to learning and doing mitzvos by rote. These people include most MO Jews, the so-called Yeshiva community, and even some “Amerikane Chasidim”.

On the other side we have people whose view of Judaism was shaped by seeing how their parents acted, felt, laughed, cried, talked and walked. These people tended to have a genuine Mesorah. They saw Judaism as more than just book learning, and the book learning included Midrash, Chassidus, Sifrei Mussar, vechulu. This people tend to be Chassidic and a few Misnagdim who come from European homes. And in the background of all of this loomed the Holocaust, not Coney Island! To the first category Rabbonim are “machinove”, automated people who act in a mathematical way, and have no emotions.
The second category knows that Judaism is more than the dry letter of the law.
Even though it is not the main topic of my post, my rabbi points out that the so-called “shidduch crisis” seems to be affecting the groups listed in the first, not the second paragraph (the ones whose mechitza is barely there as it is).

Update: the point of my quoting the above passage is not to compare the two types of communities, but to compare the two approaches to Torah.

Socialism on the road

(Ilya Repin, “Volga Boatmen” — click on the image to enlarge)

Reading this passage:
He and three other men, so he said, were sculling a very heavily laden boat up from Maidenhead one evening, and a little above Cookham lock they noticed a fellow and a girl, walking along the towpath, both deep in an apparently interesting and absorbing conversation. They were carrying a boat-hook between them, and, attached to the boat-hook was a tow-line, which trailed behind them, its end in the water. No boat was near, no boat was in sight. There must have been a boat attached to that tow-line at some time or other, that was certain; but what had become of it, what ghastly fate had overtaken it, and those who had been left in it, was buried in mystery. Whatever the accident may have been, however, it had in no way disturbed the young lady and gentleman, who were towing. They had the boat-hook and they had the line, and that seemed to be all that they thought necessary to their work.

George was about to call out and wake them up, but, at that moment, a bright idea flashed across him, and he didn't. He got the hitcher instead, and reached over, and drew in the end of the tow-line; and they made a loop in it, and put it over their mast, and then they tidied up the sculls, and went and sat down in the stern, and lit their pipes.

And that young man and young woman towed those four hulking chaps and a heavy boat up to Marlow.

George said he never saw so much thoughtful sadness concentrated into one glance before, as when, at the lock, that young couple grasped the idea that, for the last two miles, they had been towing the wrong boat. George fancied that, if it had not been for the restraining influence of the sweet woman at his side, the young man might have given way to violent language.

The maiden was the first to recover from her surprise, and, when she did, she clasped her hands, and said, wildly:

"Oh, Henry, then WHERE is auntie?"
— has reminded me of this post by arbat:
Another study in the University of Utah: people are sat in front of a wheel and watched how they drive. Then they are given a phone and watched how their driving changes. It turns out that less than 3% drive the car as well with the phone as without.

I am not worried about the study itself, but by the conclusion that the journalists will make out of it. Or, what’s worse, the politicians cheered on by the journalists. You see, the politicians have a Pavlovian reflex in response to any “scientific” study — to ban something. The obviously idiotic reaction to this study is to ban cell phone in the cars. Completely.

Why do I consider this reflex idiotic? Well, since you’re asking — imagine that such a study were conducted not with cell phones but with radio. Or music. Or a conversation on a topic interesting to the driver.
Imagine we start measuring how a young man’s attention is decreased from having a beautiful girl next to him. Or a woman, who has a husband sitting next to her and giving her advice on how to drive. Imagine you have a child in the back who needs to be told a story. Or two kids who are trying to take the Gameboy away from each other. Or a mother-in-law?

What do you think: will these things end up being less distracting than a cell phone or more? What should we do? Ban having passengers in cars? Ban audios and CD players?

What if a problem is not in the cell phone, but in the boredom of drivers that need to find some distraction?

Or, imagine a person who needs to call somewhere. Check that his child did the homework. Or talk to a client. Or call his wife, because he forgot to tell her that tonight his friends are coming over for a game of poker. Not to call in such situations means consequences. What do you think, should we measure how much his driving skills will deteriorate?
Now, within the last year, I have rear-ended a car once, driving at a slow speed (no damage done), while stuck in traffic on Belt Parkway and looking for a ma’amor on my mp3 player.  Before that, I had almost gotten into an accident several times because of one of the reasons listed above. Also from trying to figure out where exactly my GPS was showing me to go. But never from talking on a cell phone.

Gentlment, we are all sick

The scene is borrowed from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat:
It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement  without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular  disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every  case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch - hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down  the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly  turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into - some fearful, devastating scourge, I know - and, before I had glanced half down the list of "premonitory symptoms," it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever - read the symptoms - discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it - wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus's Dance - found, as I expected, that I had that too, - began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically - read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright's disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid's knee.
 Next time someone asks me what is the matter with me, I think it makes sense to answer the following:
I will not take up your time, dear boy, with telling you what is the matter with me. Life is brief, and you might pass away before I had finished. But I will tell you what is not the matter with me. I have not got housemaid's knee. Why I have not got housemaid's knee, I cannot tell you; but the fact remains that I have not got it. Everything else, however, I have got.

Speaking of chumros...

As I was re-reading a novella by one of my favorite writers, this paragraph caught my sight:
I bowed with my helmet on, and with the gloved fist I touched the coat of mail on my breast. I didn’t introduce myself. I had the right not to. The shield hanging by my side, turned back to front, was a clear sign that I wished to preserve my incognito. The knightly customs had by then assumed the character of commonly accepted norm. I didn’t think it a healthy development, but then the knights’ customs grew odder, not to say idiotic, by the day.
I suppose some things never change.

What do I like about Sapkowski, you ask? His sense of humor. For instance:
I bet my head that in Ireland Christianity will be a passing fashion. We Irish, we do not buy this hard, inflexible, Roman fanaticism. We are too sober-headed for that, too simple-hearted. Our Ireland is the fore-post of the West, it’s the Last Shore. Beyond, not far off, are the Old Lands: Hy Brasil, Ys, Mainistir Leitreach, Beag-Arainn. It is they, not the Cross, not the Latin liturgy, that rule people’s minds. It was so ages ago and it’s so today. Besides, we Irish are a tolerant people. Everybody believes what he wants. I heard that around the world different factions of Christians are already at each other’s throats. In Ireland it’s impossible. I can imagine everything, but not that Ulster, say, might be a scene of religious scuffles.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Rossini and sphiras ha’oimer

The best of all are those people that refuse to shave all 49 days of the Omer to be acording to the shita of the Arizal and Kabballah, and then they shave Erev Shavuos with a “leshem yichud” beforehand.

For those of you whose spirits have been sombered up by the seriousness of the previous post, a little sphera-friendly entertainment:

On a related topic, does chochmas chitzoinius even refer to science, or merely to stuff like this?