Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Rudy talks tough on terror

From Rudy Giuliani's speech to the Republican convention:

Terrorism did not start on September 11, 2001. It started a long time ago. And it had been festering for many years.

And the world had created a response to it that allowed it to succeed. The attack on the Israeli team at the Munich Olympics was in 1972. That's a long time ago.

That's not yesterday.

And the pattern began early. The three surviving terrorists were arrested. And then within just three months, the terrorists who slaughtered the Israeli athletes were released by the German government -- set free.

Action like this became the rule, not the exception. Terrorists came to learn time after time that they could attack, that they could slaughter innocent people and not face any consequences.

In 1985, terrorists attacked the Achille Lauro. And they murdered an American citizen who was in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer. They marked him for murder solely because he was Jewish.

Some of those terrorists were released, and some of the remaining terrorists -- they were allowed to escape by the Italian government because of fear of reprisals from the terrorists.

So terrorists learned they could intimidate the world community, and too often the response, particularly in Europe, would be accommodation, appeasement and compromise.

And worse, they also learned that their cause would be taken more seriously almost in direct proportion to the horror of their attack.

Terrorist acts became like a ticket to the international bargaining table. How else to explain Yasser Arafat winning the Nobel Peace Prize while he was supporting a plague of terrorism in the Middle East and undermining any chance of peace?

When's the last time a prominent Democrat spoke like that? Why don't American Jews understand who's really on their side?

Monday, August 30, 2004

How many undecideds are there really?

We keep hearing about how tightly fought this presidential race is, how the candidates are struggling to appeal to the handful of remaining undecided voters.

The daily polls report vote percentages like 48-45 or 49-47, leaving 3-6 percent of the votes undecided. Most Americans, we're told, made up their minds long ago. What excitement! No doubt this will be another squeaker!

Well, it ain't necessarily so.

If the electorate were really so predetermined, why have we seen such variation in polling numbers? In major polls since June, Bush's percentage has ranged from as low as 41% to as high as 51%. Kerry's has been at 42% and at 54%. In August alone, Bush's numbers have ranged from 43-50% and Kerry's from 44-52%. Where does all this movement come from if most of the voters have already decided?

There are several answers, each of which tells part of the story.

  1. Margin of error. The least significant explanation is the well-known margin of error. Ranging from 3-5 percentage points depending on the sample size, this indicates how representative each poll sample is likely to be of the electorate as a whole. In other words, if you draw 500-1000 red or blue marbles out of a vat of 100 million, the laws of probability indicate that you'll likely be within 3-5 percentage points of the actual distribution of red and blue marbles in the vat.

    The margin of error is inherent to the science of polling. By pure chance, some polls will come out high and others low. The results of a single poll are thus not necessarily a reliable indicator of changes in public opinion.

    Why isn't this a sufficient explanation? Because the variations we see in polls are not limited to minor fluctuations within the margin of error. The margin of error explains how one poll can report significantly different results from others taken under similar circumstances. However, we see clear changes in polling trends over time, which are reflected in multiple polls simultaneously.

    In mid-July, Kerry consistently led the polls by 3-5 percentage points; now Bush leads by 0-3 points. These sorts of shifts have nothing to due with the margin of error.

  2. Sampling problems. Polling is not as simple as picking people at random and asking them questions. How do you select people? By phone number? What if some households have three phones for one voter, and others have three voters for one phone? What if these ratios vary by state, or neighborhood, or political preference? What about people who refuse to participate - that doesn't mean they don't vote.

    Pollsters go to great lengths to select their samples in a representative manner, or to adjust them afterwards to match the demographics of the voting population. But they don't often say much about what techniques they use, and none of the uncertainty involved in this process is counted as part of the margin of error.

  3. Voter turnout. Especially in the US, with its low voter turnout, a major factor in election results is which voters actually decide to show up on election day. This is notoriously hard to predict. It's much easier to say you're going to vote on the telephone than to actually get out to the polling booth.

  4. Leaners. Finally, the headline poll results don't reveal the biggest secret: they include undecided voters. Generally, the polltaker will ask, "If the election were held today, who would you vote for?" Then, if the response is "I'm not sure," they'll follow up with "Which way are you leaning?" Both the definites and the leaners are reported as supporting their respective candidates.

    Take the August Los Angeles Times poll, for example. It reported Bush over Kerry 49%-46%, with 5% "don't know". But when asked whether they're certain of their votes or might vote for someone else, 16% of those who had supported a candidate said they might change their minds. So how many "don't know"s are there really - 5% or 20% (the original don't knows plus those who might change their minds)?

    Pollsters might say that most of the leaners will generally end up voting for the candidate they now prefer. But maybe they won't. Isn't that what they mean when they say they might change their minds?

So when you see poll results reported, remind yourself: About 20% aren't sure of their votes yet. Those who are might not turn out to cast them. And how exactly were the polling samples collected and adjusted?

Only then, keep in mind the margin of error.

Update (31 Aug.): T. Bevan of RealClearPolitics writes, "The Bush campaign estimates the undecided vote at about 7%. [Republican strategist Matthew] Dowd says the number of "true" undecideds is probably half that, about 3 or 4 percent."

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Attention aspiring cantors!

Rosh Hashana is fast approaching. If you're planning to lead services over the holidays, you might like to look at - actually, listen to - Virtual Cantor. Nearly the whole year's services are online for the listening.

Congratulations, Josh and Micha'el!

Talking cheese

On last week's Torah Talk radio show, Rabbi Yaakov Menken interviewed Rabbi Tzvi Rosen of Baltimore's Star-K Kosher Certification on a subject I've recently become interested in: kosher cheese (see here and here).

The audio stream is available at the site; the interview with Rabbi Rosen is about 43 minutes into the program. (The first half of the show, an interview with Artscroll's Rabbi Nosson Scherman, is also enlightening.)

My curious cheese curiosity has inspired me lately to start learning the laws of meat and milk. I've kept kosher all my life; it's about time I studied the rules!

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Greeting the new month

This is news to me: Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu describes a monthly gathering of thousands of Jews who walk the streets of Jerusalem's Old City singing psalms of praise to God:

Guitars, biblical trumpets, shofars, balloons, and flags with a picture of the ancient Temple and flags of modern Israel lead this surrealistic parade through the Old City alleys usually untouched by Jewish feet.

Men, followed by women, stop at a sealed ancient gate to the site of the Temple Mount and sing one or two psalms, dance to a Carlebach melody, and then continue to another gate.

So, are they inspired or just nuts?

(Either way, it's an interesting contrast with the little-observed kabbalistic practice of fasting on Erev Rosh Hodesh as a "Yom Kippur Katan".)

Monday, August 23, 2004

How to respond to the "Court"

Israel's supreme court has asked the government to set out its views on the "ruling" of the International "Court" of "Justice" which found Israel's security fence a violation of international law (see here).

Today, the Jerusalem Post suggests how the government should respond, considering this "an opportunity to give voice to the egregious wrong done to the people of Israel, without dignifying the ICJ's fanciful yet influential views with a direct response."

With all due respect to the Jerusalem Post - as they say, some of my best friends work there - surely Israel's legions of sophisticated experts on international law can come up with a more succinct response to the ICJ:

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

A hump in my cheese theory

One month ago today (it's Rosh Chodesh again) I suggested that perhaps the reason non-kosher milk doesn't coagulate, and thus can't be used to make cheese, is related to the biological fact that "the milk of ruminant animals differs from non-ruminant milk".

I don't have any more scientific evidence for that claim today than I did then, but I did want to get over a little hump in my theory. Anyone paying attention to last week's parasha would have noted the inconvenient fact that camels do chew their cud*, though they (and their milk) are non-kosher.

Fortunately, there is an explanation. Despite claims you may find at certain websites, camels are not true ruminants. Unlike cows, sheep, goats, deer, gazelles, giraffes, buffaloes and others, camels have only three stomachs.

Whether this explains the cheese question remains a mystery, at least to me, since I don't know what is it about rumination that inhibits coagulation.+

*Note that hares and hyraxes, though mentioned along with the camel as chewing the cud, clearly do not ruminate the way cows do; they just sometimes rechew their food.

+Actually, I don't know much about rumination at all, or coagulation for that matter. That's the magic of blogging - you can get attention without having to know what you're talking about.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The liberal case for sanctity

In the current issue of The Public Interest (Issue #156 - Summer 2004), Prof. Susan M. Shell of Boston College sets out what she calls The Liberal Case Against Gay Marriage.

Along the way, she makes what one might call a secular liberal argument for sanctity, and for recognition by the secular state of what one might call sacred events.

She doesn't call it that at all, but she effectively argues that certain life experiences, such as birth and death, are so inherently invested with transcendent significance that any society, no matter how secular or rationalist, must accord them special treatment. Sounds like sanctity to me.

Some excerpts (emphasis mine):

Update (Aug. 19): I've trimmed these excerpts further, since they were too long for easy reading.

Families are not infinitely malleable, as even champions of diversity must concede. This does not simply owe to considerations of size: A government that distributed children randomly, for example, could not be other than tyrannical. Even if it had the best interests of society in mind -- say, the principle of equal opportunity, radically understood -- a government that paid no regard to the claims of biological parenthood would be unacceptable to all but the most fanatical of egalitarian or communitarian zealots. Beyond its other functions--limiting female fertility, transmitting property, or providing companionship, for example--marriage is a way of honoring this central fact, which limits one's ability to regard practices of marriage as either wholly dependent on belief in a particular divine revelation or as wholly "socially constructed."

But marriage is not merely a matter of biology. That children can be "illegitimate" suggests that the biological facts of parenthood are not enough for social purposes. Disputes over fatherhood, for example, or variations in parental attachment to their children, make it reasonable for societies to supplement and sometimes override the natural bonds established by and through the processes of human generation. Marriage is, before all else, the practice by which human societies mark, modify, and occasionally mask these bonds. Like death, and the funereal rites that universally accompany it in one form or another, human generation has a significance that is more than arbitrary, if less than obvious. Marriage is the primary way societies interpret that significance, and it is doubtful whether any other custom could substitute for it adequately.


Generation and death

When considering the institution of marriage, a useful comparison exists between how society addresses the beginning and end of human life. Like death, our relation to which is shaped and challenged but not effaced by modern technologies, generation defines our human nature, both in obvious ways and in ways difficult to fathom fully. As long as this is so, there is a special place for marriage understood as it has always been understood. That is to say, there is a need for society to recognize that human generation and its claims are an irreducible feature of the human experience.

Like the rites and practices surrounding death, marriage invests a powerful, universally shared experience with the norms and purposes of a given society....

... If it is discriminatory to deny gay couples the right to "marry," is it not equally unfair to deny living individuals the right to attend their own "funerals"? If it makes individuals happy, some would reply, what is the harm? Only that a society without the means of formally acknowledging, through marriage, the fact of generation, like one without the means of formally acknowledging, through funeral rites, the fact of death, seems impoverished in the most basic of human terms.

Like generation, death has a "public face" so obvious that we hardly think of it. The state issues death certificates and otherwise defines death legally. It recognizes funeral attendance as a legal excuse in certain contexts, such as jury duty. It also regulates the treatment of corpses, which may not merely be disposed of like any ordinary animal waste. Many states afford funeral corteges special privileges not enjoyed by ordinary motorists. Funeral parlors are strictly regulated, and there are limits on the purchase and destruction of cemeteries that do not apply to ordinary real estate. In short, there are a number of ways in which a liberal democratic government, as a matter of course, both acknowledges "death" and limits the funereal rites and practices of particular sects and individuals. I cannot call a party in my honor my "funeral" and expect the same public respect and deference afforded genuine rites for the dead. And it would be a grim society indeed that allowed people to treat the dead any old which way -- as human lampshades, for example.

It's worth reading the whole essay while you're at it.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Oseh Ma'aseh Bereishit

Plans for tonight: watching the Perseid meteor storm. Unlike the Transit of Venus, this time I'm sure of the correct bracha.

My wife and I have a favorite dark spot about a half-hour drive from home where we go when we want to stargaze. It's been a long time since our last outing. It's not exceptionally dark there by starwatching standards; for good sites, you need to get further out of town than we can manage without a hotel stay. Israel's just too urban, and its cities and suburbs are too well lit.

The Israeli Astronomical Association is organizing a Perseids watching party in the Negev's Ramon Crater, but we don't have time for that kind of shlep. The Golan is also recommended, but too far for a day trip - or night trip.

Actually, the peak of the Perseids was forecast for last night, but, like most Israelis, I work on Thursdays. Not so on Fridays; I can afford to sleep in tomorrow. (In any case, it's unlikely to compare with the spectacular 1998 Leonids storm, which was likely a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.)

So: wonders of creation, here we come!

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

New Azure in the mailbox

Looking forward to reading the latest issue (18) of Azure, which just arrived in my mailbox. Looks interesting so far. Keep you posted.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Denigrating those with whom one disagrees

The current flap about Rabbi Hershel Schachter's choice of words in his discussion of women rabbis is utterly silly, and I won't address it. I disagree with some of R' Schachter's substantive arguments (though not others), but Rabbi Reuven Spolter is on the mark in his letter to the editor of the Jewish Week.

I would like to pick up on R' Spolter's closing, though:

If Modern Orthodoxy can only promote its ideology by denigrating those with whom it disagrees, then it becomes easy to understand why people choose not to be Modern Orthodox.

Unfortunately, this cuts both ways. To find denigration of ideological opponents, you need look no farther than Rabbi Schachter's very same essay:

We read in the papers that a certain "Orthodox rabbi" has stated publicly that "the stupidest thing about Orthodoxy is that they don't approve of women rabbis."

I don't know whether this is R' Schachter's phrasing or that of his editor. But note that the rabbi he takes issue with (apparently Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles) is not mentioned by name, and that his very credentials as an Orthodox rabbi are called into question by the use of scare quotes. Is this how a serious scholar relates to his adversaries? (I know this isn't a scholarly paper, but still!)

The Orthodox community - modern or otherwise - time and again is quick to exclude from legitimate discourse those who cross certain unstated lines, who dare to defend positions outside the consensus.

Murmurs arise suggesting that they are "not serious" or even "not really Orthodox" - despite the fact that the disputes generally deal with halachic methodology, not principles of faith. Certainly, none of them question the fundamentals of Torah mi-Sinai, as do the non-Orthodox movements.

Their arguments, when discussed, are often brought without citation or attribution, only to dismiss them, often derisively and without serious argument. Their books are covertly excised from beit midrash shelves, and mention of them is met with sarcasm or laughter.

Among those who have been subject to this treatment in recent years, to a greater or lesser extent: R' Eliezer Berkovits zt'l, R' Yitzhak Abadi, R' Emanuel Rackman, Rabbi Yitz and Mrs. Blu Greenberg.

Some examples (do I really have to prove this claim?):

Rabbi Mayer Twersky, in a heavily-footnoted essay, quotes and derisively dismisses Blu Greenberg without any attribution:

Recent feminist pronouncements vividly demonstrate the inherent dangers and ultimate direction of the movement. For example, some feminists have adopted the slogan, "Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way." Students of halachah immediately recognize the patent falsehood of this claim; students of history easily discern a classical manifestation of reformist ideology and tactics.

He does the same for R' Rackman:

Undoubtedly there is a halachic imperative which great rabbis have implemented throughout the generations that all legitimate halachic measures be adopted and resources marshaled to rescue agunot by securing a get. Nevertheless, the establishment of an unqualified beit-din (as recently announced) to annul marriages can only yield catastrophic consequences.

A chareidi website, Dei'ah veDibur, contains an "in-depth feature" excoriating the new phenomenon of sifrei Torah and other sacred texts produced by silk screening on parchment. The technique, which is highly controversial, is endorsed and encouraged by R' Abadi, formerly the posek of Lakewood Yeshiva, who defends it halachically on his website.

But the critical article, though quoting the website extensively, nowhere mentions R' Abadi by name. R' Ben Tzion Wosner of Monsey is quoted, though, describing R' Abadi as "a certain rav who is known as a lightheaded person who breaches fences and who in the past has already breached several fundamental fences and explicit halochos and traditions of our ancestors and rabbonim concerning the sanctity of the Jewish home."

All of these figures have taken and defended controversial positions on major topics. R' Berkovits proposed solutions to the agunah crisis in the '60s, and wrote in defense of halachic flexibility in Not in Heaven and Women in Time and Torah. R' Abadi argues, inter alia, that most commercial hechsherim are unnecessary and most urban eruvim are invalid. R' Rackman implements his controversial agunah solutions via his own beit din. R' Greenberg cooperates openly on Jewish education with non-Orthodox organizations. Blu Greenberg's Orthodox feminism crosses many traditional limits.

Whether I as an individual or we as the Orthodox community ultimately accept or reject each of these various arguments and innovations, I have no doubt that we are enriched as a community by the intellectual courage of the individuals behind them. They must be engaged intellectually, not shunned or derided.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Why Jews shouldn't get involved with Darfur

As this article makes clear, any attempt by Jewish organizations, however well-intentioned, to protest against atrocities committed by an Arab Muslim government only plays into the regime's hands. Instantly, the allegations become an Israeli plot to discredit and undermine an Arab state.

This is true no matter how many international human rights groups take the same position, and no matter how well founded the criticisms.

If conscientious Jews really want to help the victims of the Sudanese regime, they should step aside and let others lead the charge.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

The people on the bus go round and round...

Best-selling novelist and occasional haredi-basher Naomi Ragen touched off the latest religious-affairs kerfuffle in Sunday's Jerusalem Post. After innocently boarding an empty public bus in downtown Jerusalem, she was harassed by haredi passengers demanding she move to the back of the bus with the rest of the women. Modern-Orthodox Ragen refused to budge, demanding to know where the Shulchan Aruch requires that women sit in the back of a bus.

Apparently tacit understandings between bus company Egged and the capital's haredi community allow the passengers on perdominantly-haredi routes to designate the rear of the bus as the unofficial women's section. The driver ignored her constant harassment, doing nothing to intervene; neither did other passengers.

Today, the haredi position is defended by Shira Leibowitz Schmidt. While not condoning the passengers' rudeness, she argues that declining societal moral standards require greater stringency in separating the sexes. Were Egged not to cooperate with the haredi sector's voluntary separation, it would lose a substantial market segment to private haredi-run bus lines.

Readers, in letters to the editor, mostly back Ragen and share her outrage.

This episode raises several distinct issues:

  • Does Halacha indeed require separation of the sexes on public transportation, to the extend of a separate women's section? If so, why has it only recently become an issue for the haredi community?

  • Is Egged justified in accommodating this demand of the haredi community, at least on bus lines on which they are the main passengers (over 95% according to Egged)? Does it matter that Egged's franchise to run Jerusalem's city buses is awarded by the state? If the haredim demand separate seating on buses, should they be required to operate them privately? Must they choose between public transportation and their beliefs?

  • If Egged is tacitly running separated bus routes, should they at least inform the public explicitly?

  • Were the offended haredi passengers right to ask Ragen to move to the "women's section", had they done so politely? Was she right to refuse?

  • What does it say about the haredi community that no one protested the rude passenger's continued harassment of Ragen? What does it say about Egged that the driver failed to intervene? What does it say about Ragen that she took this incident to the newspaper?

Honestly, I'm not sure who's in the right here (though the harassing passenger is clearly in the wrong).

Update (August 9): More letters, including Egged's response and Ragen's response.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Hadran alach Masechet Taanit v'hadrach alan

As the sidebar indicates, today, God willing, my chavruta and I complete Masechet Taanit. The siyyum will be held this evening to mark a family yahrzeit.

Upon "finishing" a volume of the Talmud, it becomes painfully clear how much more remains to be understood, how much value there would be in starting it from the beginning again. We really do appreciate the words of the "Hadran" recited at the siyyum: May we return to you, Masechet Taanit, and may you return to us.

(Instead, though, we will be starting Masechet Brachot next.)

Free at last!

Israelis: If you thought your taxes were high, here's more confirmation. Last Monday was Israel's Tax Freedom Day, "the day in the year when we stop working for the government and start working for ourselves."

The only other western countries even close to Israel in overall average tax burden are Denmark and Sweden. The US and the UK are far less burdened.

Of course, that's on the average. Individual Israelis, depending on the makeup of their income and expenditures, may pay far higher taxes than average. Sometimes it feels like it's considered a privilege to be allowed any after-tax income.

Remember: Even God never demanded more than 20% (two tithes)!