Thursday, April 28, 2005

RAND: The Palestinians need an Arc

A team of crack analysts from the RAND Corporation have put their heads together and, after extensive research and consideration, determined what infrastructure the Palestinians most need in order to build a viable state:

A high-speed rail line.

More specifically, "a high-speed 140-mile interurban rail line, highway, aqueduct, energy network and fiber optic cable".

I kid you not.

Best of all, the proposed project - to be funded, naturally, by foreign development aid - would have a snazzy name: The Arc.

The primary function of such a project would be to provide the major transportation link for the West Bank. Its path and length - a 70-mile curve from Hebron to Jenin - arguably would connect the highest number of existing built-up areas in the shortest distance and at the least cost. The construction of the transportation line would invite the concurrent parallel construction of other needed lines for electricity, natural gas, telecommunications, and water. A national linear park could weave back and forth across the line as influenced by the landscape. The ensemble could have great symbolic power for the new nation. We propose to call it simply the Arc.

In the 106-page report, "The Arc: A Formal Structure for a Palestinian State", RAND addresses vital Palestinian economic and social problems such as urban sprawl, sustainable development, and automobile dependence. I'm not making this up.

To be fair to RAND, the report isn't meant to address matters of war and peace. They admit that much must be done in other realms before such infrastructure schemes can even be considered. Still, this scheme seems particularly far-fetched.

Experience shows that, as a collective, the Palestinians prefer fighting Israel to building their economy. When the latest assault against Israel was launched in autumn 2000, commercial ties were burgeoning, with joint factories, many Palestinians employed in Israel, and many Israelis shopping in Arab markets. The "second intifada" caused Palestinians severe economic suffering, but that didn't cause them to back off. They just added it to the list of their grievances against Israel.

Boatloads of economic development aid were poured into the Palestinian Authority since its founding in 1994. Some of it was channeled to corrupt officials, some of it was diverted for arms purchases, and the rest was used to build pointless "public works" which rarely benefited the public.

But assume for now that the Palestinians really are interested in peaceful development alongside Israel and transparency in government. This project still seems hallucinatory.

On the average, the Palestinians are poor. High-speed rail lines, fiberoptic cables and national parks do not address their real current needs. Their economy needs industry. It needs commercial investment. It needs international standards of quality. Most important, it needs the political, legal and economic stability which make business possible in any society.

To achieve that, they first need to reconcile themselves to living peacefully side by side with Israel for the long term. They need to disarm and disavow their terrorists and change the way they teach their children.

Until then, giving them a major transportation and communication network is like giving an unemployed street thug a car and a cellphone. They're nice to have, but they won't set him on the road to economic self-sufficiency. They might just make it easier for him to make trouble.

RAND describes itself as "a nonprofit research organization providing objective analysis and effective solutions that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors around the world". "Effective"? Or imaginary?

Meanwhile, I'll say it again: I don't believe there will be a Palestinian state. As students of logic know, once you presume the impossible, any conclusion is valid.

Hat tip: The Jerusalem Post

I've been reprinted

Jew Central has reprinted my recent post on cleaning your office computer. For some reason, they categorize it as Humor. Some people just have no respect for halacha!

Still, it's a pleasure to help them provide "informative, how-to and inspirational content to help Jewish professionals succeed". I wonder: Was the article informative, how-to or inspirational?

And I thought I was crazy!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Liberty and security - the Passover angle

It's not about a "slave mentality"
Shortly after their liberation from Egypt, the Children of Israel run into trouble. It starts immediately after they cross the Red Sea. They kvetch. What can we drink? You call this food? That's it, we're turning back to Egypt! At least there we got free food!

Contemporary rabbis with pop-psychology training (like most RIETS musmachim with their psych degrees) like to chalk this up to a residual "slave mentality" (see these, for example). You can take the Jews out of Egypt, but with a lifetime of slavery behind them they have no experience in taking responsibility for their lives and livelihoods. Ultimately, the generation of slaves must die to make way for a new one, raised as citizens of a free people, capable of fending for themselves in a new land.

Though there is some truth to this explanation, it doesn't satisfy me. Imagine the Israelites had never been slaves, but rather had voluntarily followed their leaders into the desert to make a new start as a nation. Had they then been confronted with a shortage of food and drink, would we not expect them to complain? Would they have been wrong to expect their leaders to have anticipated such circumstances? Would they have been wrong to turn to their leaders to solve the problem they themselves had led them into? Would they have been wrong to fear they had been poorly led and to reconsider their course?

Ah, you say, what's significant is not the complaining, but the willingness to return to lives of slavery in Egypt rather than suffer in the desert. But is this so shocking? How many people would prefer to die of thirst and starvation rather than subject themselves to enslavement?

Likewise, one might take them to task for a lack of faith in God to save them, especially after all the miracles they had witnessed until then. Yet how many of us would pass the same test?

A fundamental political truth
No, their behavior was fully to be expected. A fundamental political truth was at work: Given the choice, most people, most of the time, prefer security to liberty. They prefer comfort and stability, even at the expense of serfdom. New Hampshire notwithstanding, few of us are willing to "Live Free or Die".

Yet, this is precisely what was demanded of them on leaving Egypt. Arguably, the first principle of the Torah is its opposition to slavery. Our national story starts with the liberation from Egypt. We are enjoined to worship God alone, and to reject the legitimacy of any other power over us, human or otherwise. We are all equally created in God's image, and He alone is to be our master.

The civil laws governing Torah society are structured to establish individual liberty and the decentralization of power - the direct opposite of Pharaonic Egypt. The Torah regulates slavery to the point that it becomes more a state of temporary indentured servitude. All citizens are granted property, and, by implication, a degree of economic independence, in the form of a permanent plot of land. No authority is above the law of the Torah, not even the priests or the king. Rather than institute a system of public welfare, individuals are all enjoined to support the poor and disadvantaged themselves.

The authority of the family
Perhaps most important, the source of legitimacy for authority is not the state or the prophet, but the family. This is most evident on Passover night, when the nation's founding story is told in the context of a family dinner. It is the father's job to impart the tradition to his sons. Responsibility for education is his, not the state's or the priesthood's. Each family has its own, equally legitimate, chain of tradition tracing back to the Exodus from Egypt. No one can claim greater authority, greater authenticity of his connection to God, than anyone else.

This contrasts with Egypt, indeed with every tyrannical society in history. The first priority of an ideological society, be it Plato's Republic, communist Europe, Nazi Germany, or kibbutz Israel, is to destroy the family. The family is a threat, an alternative source of power to the collective. Collective societies sanctify the central regime, which controls everything from sustenance to - perhaps most importantly - education. The Torah does the reverse, granting each family an independent source of sustenance and sanctifying the respect and honor for one's father and mother, the source of education.

Furthermore, the only citizens without economic independence, whose sustenance is deliberately dependent on the gracious support of their fellow citizens, are those of the priestly class. The Levites have no territory of their own; they are scattered throughout society and are supported by charity. Far from holding power over their compatriots, they are dependent on them, serving them and God. Their power is moral and intellectual, not economic. And never until the Hasmonean dynasty do the priests capture political power.

Balance of power
Such a society, with political liberty, economic independence, and democratic dispersion of authority, may be far less secure than a centralized regime such Egypt with a powerful cradle-to-grave bureacracy. At times it will be too weak even to defend itself from external attack. It will be prone to internal instability and constant dissension. But only in such a system is the average citizen fully responsible for his economic welfare and that of his family and neighbors. Only thus can he be free of oppression by his fellow man. Only thus can he worship God freely, can he fully realize the individual potential given him by God.

Every society, every form of government, entails a balance between liberty and security. The Torah firmly shifts that balance in favor of liberty, calling on individuals to take responsibility to live in freedom, while trusting in God for their security. Organizing a society in accordance with such principles is a constant challenge, but it is a clear corollary to the Passover story.

Note: I've posted the solution to last week's Passover riddle - see the comments.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Reading for the festival of national liberation

David Ignatius identifies a resurgence of nationalism in recent world events. I'm not convinced there is anything new or surprising about this. I don't think nationalism ever disappeared in the first place. There is little new about most of Ignatius's examples.

It also doesn't worry me. Nationalism in the context of democracy is not (generally) dangerous. It certainly is not irrational. On the contrary, nationalism - meaning the assertion of the right to self-government and cultural autonomy by the people of a nation - is often the most sensible way for a free society to run its affairs. The main alternatives are usually empire or anarchy.

Interestingly, the subject of national sovereignty versus other models of sovereignty is a major theme throughout the Hebrew Bible, with nations contending with each other as well as with multinational empires and sovereign city-states. Generally, the Bible prefers a nation-state model for the Jewish people, though other models are also experienced. All yield mixed results; none produce long-term stability or security.

Passover marks the Jewish nation's first steps towards national soveriegnty, and is thus an appropriate time to study the question.

Over the years, Azure has run a number of articles in support of the nation-state and critical of "post-nationalist" supranational and subnational models. Recommended reading for Pesach:

Hag Herut Sameah!

A Passover riddle

Shamelessly stealing an idea from Gil, here's a last-minute riddle for Passover. I heard it from someone who heard it from an academic (whose name I forget) who lectured about the history of the Passover Haggadah. (If anyone else heard the lecture, please let me know who it was so I can credit him.)

The question: Of today's standard (Orthodox) text of the Haggadah, what part was added most recently? When and why?

My own followup question: What other part of the Hagaddah should have been changed for the same reason, but wasn't?

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Mystics and rationalists

When I spend too long among happy-clappy Breslovers who dance in the streets and commune with nature, hoppy-hippy Carlebachers who sing more than they daven, pseudokabbalistic Sephardim who are in awe of superstition, it brings out the rationalist intellectual in me. Judaism is about learning and fulfilling the mitzvot, not mystical significances, amorphous "spiritual experiences", emotional highs and rebbe worship.

When I spend too long among hyperintellectual Briskers, analytical hairsplitters from RIETS and Gush, Soloveitchikian "halachic men" who view the world exclusively through a priori religio-legal categories, religious professors who pray dispassionately in pure fulfillment of obligation, yeshiva bachurim who view zemiros as bitul Torah, it brings out the chassid in me. There is more to Judaism - and life - than is dreamed of in your philosophy.

Talmudic Man is a merger of Halachic Man and Aggadic Man.

Interesting that at the seder we carefully carry out precisely-defined mitzvot, but the text of the haggadah focuses on storytelling. We fulfill halacha, but discuss aggada.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

How not to burn chametz

(The latest in a series of recent posts which, oddly, are actually related to the title of this blog. This time, I even discuss biur chametz!)

Take a walk through a religious neighborhood of Israel on Passover Eve, just before the start of the festival. Chances are you'll come face to face with substantial quantities of chametz. Bread, rolls, pitot, breakfast cereal, right in the middle of the street.

I'm referring to the smoldering remains of the morning's biur chametz, or burning of the chametz. In better organized locales it will be contained in barrels; elsewhere, it may lie in the middle of a vacant lot.

Let me clarify that no Jewish law is being violated. These remains of leaven have been abandoned ownerless (hefker) in a public area; chances are they have also been doused with lighter fluid to render them inedible. The halachic requirements have been satisfied. Yet still there is something unseemly about walking to shul for Pesach and passing piles of chametz along the way.

The problem arises because chametz is, perhaps surprisingly, difficult to burn.

Try setting fire to a challah roll and you'll see what I mean. The flame, assuming it catches, licks around the edges of the roll, charring the surface. Then, having consumed the available fuel, it goes out. The remainder of the roll is left intact and entirely edible. We might call it toast. Yum!

Fire requires both fuel and oxygen. Thus, it can survive only at the interface between the two - that is, the surface of the chametz. The interior can't burn due to the shortage of oxygen, and the fire can't penetrate to the interior because the charred exterior is no longer viable as fuel.

That's what usually happens when you throw a roll, or pita, or loaf of bread, into the fire for biur chametz. The outside will char, even throughly. But poke it with a poker and you'll find a tasty chametz interior.

A typical solution is to increase the surface area, for example by crumbling the chametz before burning it. Surprisingly, though, this doesn't necessariliy help. A pile of crumbs can be as impenetrable to fire as a solid roll. The outer layer of crumbs is burnt, and the rest remains untouched. Typically, also, many of the crumbs fall beyond the reach of the fire.

To thoroughly burn a pile of crumbs, you generally have to sprinkle the crumbs over a strong fire gradually, allowing each layer to be burnt before adding the next. This can take time, which is usually short on Erev Pesach.

In closing, some practical tips for burning your chametz. Make sure you leave enough time (and kindling) to prepare a strong fire and to gradually crumble your chametz into it. Equip yourself with a poker for tending the fire, and a supply of water for dousing it. You may need lighter fluid for preparing the fire and for drenching the chametz to render it both more flammable and thoroughly inedible.

Most important, take all appropriate safety precautions. Don't start a fire near a lawn or underbrush, or on asphalt. Contain it in a metal barrel if possible. Keep plastic out of the fire; it releases toxic fumes when burnt. Never leave a fire to smolder unattended. Always keep young children at a safe distance.

Have a happy, kosher and safe Passover!

Haveil Havalim #18 - The Pesach Edition

Monday, April 18, 2005

Have you tried living on a boat?

It can be cheaper than real estate!

Why real men love the holidays

Why Real Men Love Sukkos
  • Hammer, stepladder, two-by-fours, outdoor wiring...
  • When else is camping out a mitzvah?
  • Cool! Look at that bug zapper go!

Why Real Men Hate Sukkos
  • You want me to shop for branches?
  • And fruit?
  • And wave them around in public?

Why Real Men Love Pesach
  • Yossi, could you pass me the blowtorch? Nah, you don't have to turn it off first.
  • Don't bother me now, I'm handling caustic chemicals.
  • Just a second, I'm busy boiling the silverware.
  • Burn, chametz, burn! Look at that bread glow! Might as well toss in the plastic bag too.
  • Darling, please bring the basin to the table so the head of the household can wash his hands. How's the brisket coming along?
  • You call that maror? Where's the real stuff?
  • Another cup of wine anyone?

Why Real Men Hate Pesach
  • You won't catch me cleaning the kitchen! I've still got my dignity.
  • Are you sure pizza is chametz? Looks pretty flat to me.
  • What do you mean, I have to have less than a kezayit of karpas?

Why Real Men Love Yom Kippur
  • Food? Bah! I'm not hungry. I could go another day at least.

Why Real Men Hate Yom Kippur
  • Honestly, I really don't see what I have to apologize for.

Why Real Men Hate Shavuos

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Office Pesach cleaning guidelines

Disclaimer notwithstanding, with Pesach approaching, it's time I talked about it. I owe at least that to the increasing number of visitors who come here searching for "chametz". So here I bring you some Pesach cleaning guidelines for the office. (For previous Pesach-related posts, see here and here.)

I don't know why I haven't seen this issue addressed elsewhere. As always, I am not a rabbi. Don't rely on me for halachic advice; always make sure to ask your own rabbi if you have practical questions. And remember to take appropriate safety precautions in working with hazardous materials such as cleaning products.

Office Pesach cleaning guidelines


If you never eat at the computer, no Pesach cleaning is necessary.

If you sometimes eat chametz while working at the computer, the keyboard must be thoroughly cleaned of crumbs. There are two main approaches among the halachic authorities. The lenient position deems it sufficient to turn the keyboard upside-down and shake it vigorously until no more crumbs fall out. A minority of posekim, however, require the keycaps to be removed (this can usually be accomplished easily with a bit of leverage from a screwdriver) and the interior of the keyboard to be vacuumed clean of crumbs. Please consult your rabbi for advice.

Either way, if you plan to use the computer over Chol Hamoed, the keyboard should be covered. Some computer shops and kosher supermarkets will carry clear plastic keyboard covers which suit this purpose. Look for those marked Kosher for Passover.

If you consume hot liquid chametz at the computer, such as instant noodles or some types of coffee and hot chocolate, the keyboard must be kashered using hag'ala. Plunge the keyboard in a large pot of boiling hot water for approximately 15 seconds, or until sparks fly. The entire keyboard must be kashered, including the cable. We take no responsibility for the continued functioning of the keyboard after this procedure. If this is not possible, buy a new keyboard for Pesach.


Though it is smaller and less complex than the keyboard, the mouse is more problematic to clean for Pesach, as the mouse has a tendency to "drag-and-drop" chametz from place to place. Either buy a new mouse for Pesach, or learn the keyboard shortcuts.


A flat-screen monitor (LCD display) does not get hot and thus need not be kashered for Pesach. It is sufficient to clean it with a moist cloth.

A conventional CRT display, however, can get quite hot. If you use your monitor to heat up chametz, you must kasher it using libun gamur. Generally, this means heating it up until the surface glows. This can be done by applying a blowtorch for several seconds to each area of the surface. Make sure to unplug the monitor before trying this.

It is recommended to test the procedure on a small, concealed part of the monitor before applying it. If your monitor does not hold up well to a blowtorch, consider buying a new monitor for Pesach. (You owe it to yourself, anyway.) If this is not an option, you can cover the monitor with shelf paper or aluminum foil. Otherwise, avoid placing food directly on the uncovered monitor during Pesach.

Hard drive

If your hard drive has chametz in it, you have problems that Pesach cleaning cannot solve. It couldn't hurt to defragment, though.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Disengage or face the consequences! - III

Following up on this posting, an op-ed from yesterday's Ma'ariv newspaper. Once again, I apologize for any inaccuracies in the translation.

When opposition becomes a crime
Hagai Segal thinks that even though the right will respond angrily to strengthening the legislation against incitement, in fact it will just comprise a formalization of the existing situation. Even now the police and the state prosecution are waging an unrelenting war against the opponents of disengagement.

April 12, 2005

As part of of her fascinating ideological journey from right to left, [Justice] Minister Tzippi Livni is now working to increase the severity of the legislation against incitement. She proposes to repeal the need to prove a direct link between words and actions, and thus to enable the mass imprisonment of opponents of disengagement. Yet, experts and advisors are already scratching their heads in reaction to this proposal. According to them, the proposed amendment will not succeed in clarifying the grey area between legitimate criticism and incitement, and so the level of imprisonment will remain, alas, low.

So what can be done? Enact a new law, with straightforward and focused phrasing, to put an end to the vagueness. For example: "Anyone expressing public criticism of the disengagement plan shall be sentenced to five years imprisonment." Rapid legislation along those lines would greatly improve the efficiency of the judicial system, which now has trouble establishing the precise intentions of the various opponents of withdrawal. The short timetable for withdrawal prevents it from making clear distinctions between dangerous rabbis and less dangerous rabbis, between Uri Elitzur and Uri Ariel. Thus, it is obligated to act forcefully against anyone criticizing disengagement, whoever he may be, to create a sterile protective zone around our fragile democracy and the withdrawal operations.

On the right, there will surely be enraged reactions to such legislation, but in fact it would just comprise the statutory formalization of the current situatoin. Even now, the police and the state prosecution are waging an unrelenting war against citizens whose main sin is piping up against the uprooting of settlements. Not only blockers of roads or certified inciters have lately been at risk of incrimination and even imprisonment, but also peaceful demonstrators and gentle pamphleters.

Even an orange flag is dangerous
"The prime minister is corrupt," was written on the posters put up by a right-wing activist in Jerusalem last week, and he was immediately arrested. No doubt the police acted in this case, and in hundreds of similar others, in accordance with sweeping orders to clamp down on opponents of disengagement everywhere. They first arrest, sometimes also unleash powerful blows, and only afterwards ask questions, so that others will be intimidated.

These days flying an orange flag on a car is enough to get into trouble with the police. Even orange t-shirts are sometimes cause for arrest. Religious schoolgirls on a trip in the south were delayed twice by the police, for half an hour each time, because the level of orange dye in their clothing was too high for those in the blue uniforms.

Two weeks ago, after the Knesset voted against a referendum, MK Aryeh Eldad prophesied bitterly that this summer will see the outbreak of civil war. Tzippi Livni, the commissar of disengagement, was interviewed in response on Galei Tzhal radio, and let listeners understand that Eldad's remark will undergo careful review in her office. Take note: Eldad did not threaten to start a civil war, but only warned of it.

Add to this the four residents of Gush Katif held under house arrest for a month and a half now because of a small demonstration, the pride the new general of Central Command takes at arresting settlers "more than any of the generals who preceded me," and you will understand why even now the very opposition to disengagement is considered a criminal act. Tzippi Livni is working to grant that official status, nothing more.

The author is a resident of Ofra from the start, director of the news division of Arutz-7, former editor of Nekuda magazine, author of Dear Brothers about the Jewish underground and other books on the settlers and their neverending struggles.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Discussing the Exodus over four cups of wine

In a well-known passage in the Haggadah (okay, I guess they're all well-known), the sages invoke some creative textual interpretation to determine how many plagues the Egyptians really suffered.

Aside from the ten plagues in Egypt, says Rabbi Yossi the Galilean, they suffered another fifty at the Red Sea. Rabbi Eliezer sees his bid and raises him: Each plague was itself fourfold, yielding forty plagues in Egypt and two hundred at the sea. Not to be outdone, Rabbi Akiva finds the plagues to be fivefold, making fifty in Egypt and two hundred fifty at the sea.

Note that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva attended the famous all-night seder in Bnei Brak described earlier in the Haggadah. Perhaps that's where they were discussing Rabbi Yossi's interpretation of the plagues.

Growing up with this text, one takes it for granted. On reflection, though: What's up? Some of the leading Mishnaic sages are deliberating about the plagues in the Passover story, and all they can do is compete over who can fit more plagues on the head of a pin? It may be clever, but how does it contribute to deepening our understanding of the Exodus?

Following proper Dvar Torah form (as described by Rav Nathan Kamenetsky in this lecture), I'll let you think about that while I go off on a tangent, promising to return to the question later.

I'm not much of a drinker. Typically, I drink more alcohol at the Pesach seder than on any other occasion. Purim notwithstanding, only on Pesach do we have an obligation to drink four cups of wine. Since I drink so infrequently, I like to be machmir (stringent) on Passover, drinking four full cups of real wine, not grape juice. Consequently, by the end of the evening I tend to be a drop tipsy.

Not drunk, mind you. I've never been drunk and I have no desire to try it. By the fourth cup of wine I may be experiencing speak-before-you-think lightheadedness. Certainly not slurring-speech-and-staggering sloshed, let alone collapsed-in-pool-of-vomit drunk. I can still carry on an intelligent conversation, though it may be more of a challenge than usual. I may be more likely than usual to lapse into silliness or frivolity. Most of my family and friends don't notice anything out of the ordinary.

In case I'm not sufficiently clear: I find actual drunkenness repulsive, and inappropriate on any occasion, Purim included. But a bit of tipsiness seems par for the course after the seder's four cups.

It seems entirely appropriate, too. The rabbis obligated us to drink four cups of wine, not orange juice. Surely they knew what the effects would be. Some authorities doubt whether grape juice is even acceptable for the Four Cups, arguing that the alcoholic effect is part of the reason the mitzvah demands wine (of course, ask your rabbi if you have any practical questions). The Talmud suggests as much:
Rabbi Yehuda Ben Beteira said: When the Holy Temple stood, there was no rejoicing without meat, as it says (Deut. 27), "You shall slaughter offerings and eat them there and rejoice before the Lord your God." Now that the Holy Temple is not standing, there is no rejoicing without wine, as it says (Psalm 109), "Wine makes the heart of man rejoice." (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 109a).

When he talks about rejoicing through wine, I don't think he was referring to the sugar content.

R' Yehuda Ben Beteira's statement is breathtaking. He implies that, in the absence of the Temple, the closest we can come to experiencing the joy of participating in the Temple services is to drink wine. At the Temple, meat was slaughtered and consumed in celebration of the festival, symbolically representing the sharing of one's festival joy with God. Today, without a Temple, we can't experience the high of that closeness to God in the same way; instead, our substitute is to drink some wine, livening up our seder meal with the frivolity resulting from some tipsy lightheadness.

Again, this is not to say that we should get drunk. On the contrary, says the Talmud:
Mishna: Between the third and fourth cups, he should not drink.

Gemara: Why? So that he should not get drunk. But he is already drunk [from the first three cups]! What is the difference between wine during the meal and wine after the meal? Wine during the meal does not inebriate. (Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 10:6)

So we shouldn't quite get drunk, but can I be the only one to notice that most of the closing songs of the seder ("Nirtzah") have the structure of drinking songs? The repeated refrains with lengthening verses, the fixed rhythms, the simple lyrics? (For contrast, see most of our Shabbos songs.) Ki Lo Naeh, Adir Hu, Echad Mi Yodea and Chad Gadya are dead giveaways. Sober, they're monotonous and repetitive. Tipsy, they're enlivening and a bit challenging.

I'm all in favor of liveliness, but the focus of the seder is the discussion of the Exodus story. How exactly are we to engage in serious intellectual discussion while tipsy? Granted, the core of the discussion, "Maggid", takes place after only one cup of wine. But the aforementioned rabbis continued their discussions until daybreak. How much intelligent discussion can take place after four cups of wine and a sleepless night?

Judging by the plague-counting discussion, I'd say not much. The point of that story, I think, is that it doesn't matter. The story is brought to illustrate the principle set out earlier in the Haggadah: "Anyone who tells the story of the exodus from Egypt extensively is to be praised." We are required to discuss the Passover story, and the more the better. It's not about how well we expound upon the story, or how insightfully. It doesn't matter if the discussion is deep and intellectual or frivolous and lightheaded.

We must say as much as we can, continuing the mitzvah all night long if possible. Even if we're too tired or too tipsy to say anything of great significance. It doesn't matter if we're analyzing the nature of divine redemption or just counting how many plagues we can wring out of a verse. If that's the best we can do after four cups of wine, we're doing as well as Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva could that night. Regardless, we are fulfilling the mitzvah of the seder, of telling the story of the Exodus.

Postscript: Last year, the first cup went straight to my head, leaving me lightheaded through most of Maggid. On the plus side, suddenly I understood what the plague discussion signified!

In part, it's to offer offbeat Torah interpretations like this one that I started this blog in the first place.

The pope and the Jews

My overall impression of the late pope is that he was generally good to the Jews, though the relationship had its rough spots and we have every right to be critical of him where appropriate. Still, relative to what Jews have generally been able to expect from popes, that's a pretty good record.

That doesn't make the suggestion that we learn Torah in the pope's memory any less kooky. Good to the Jews or not, we don't need to go to exceptional lengths to honor the memory of a non-Jewish religious leader. It's enough that we express our appreciation for his kindness.

But the real reason I refer you to Josh's post on Chakira is for the comments, in which a young Catholic priest offers his thoughtful perspective on the pope's position towards the Jews. Take it or leave it.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Infinite mutual recursion

For computer geeks: There's a fascinating post on infinite mutual recursion over at Soccer Dad. Check it out.

Women and communal Torah reading - V

(Previous posts on this topic can be found here, here, here, here, and

Via Hirhurim: Rabbi Aryeh Frimer critiques R' David Sperber's argument in favor of calling women to the Torah in the latest issue (PDF) of the JOFA Journal.

See also the articles by R' Sperber and R' Frimer in the Summer 2004 issue (PDF).

(The next post on this topic can be found here.)

Disengage or face the consequences! - II

Following up on this posting, I bring you a report from Friday's Makor Rishon newspaper. Again, I apologize for any inaccuracies in the translation.

Signs of panic
The determination of the police to prevent all opposition to disengagement knows no boundaries: A ninth-grader who waved a sign, a doctor who scolded police over their manner of speech - all instantly became dangerous criminals

by Hodaya Karish-Hazony
8 April 2005

The seven 14-year-old youths who went out to demonstrate against the disengagement plan didn't imagine that they would so easily find themselves in confrontation with the law. Last Thursday between six and seven in the evening, the seven youngsters, ninth graders from Petach Tikva, had a free period. They decided to take advantage of the time, took a few signs bearing slogans against the withdrawal from Gush Katif, and stood on the sidewalk on Kaplan Street in the city, next to Rabin Medical Center.

"After a short while, four or five vans arrived and took us to the police," recounts Zvi Weisbart, one of the youths. "They said it was an illegal assembly. They interrogated us, each of us separately, asked us who sent us and demanded more details about the event. After a while they called the parents. They threatened and cursed one boy; it simply frightened some of us."

Zvi's father, Avi Weisbart, says he was made to sign a commitment that his son would not be present in the coming two weeks in a location where an improvised demonstration takes place, and that he would appear before a probation officer when requested to. In addition, the father signed for bail in the amount of three thousand shekels.

"In our street they once demonstrated, without a permit, against it being turned into a busy street. The police came then and politely asked them to disperse, I don't remember that they arrested or detained anyone for questioning. Here we're talking about good kids who didn't even make noise. Apparently there's a directing hand trying to shut people's mouths. And I thought we were a democratic state."

His son adds that this week another group stood in the same location, numbering eight youths. They too were similarly detained for questioning, but this time the amount of bail increased to five thousand shekels. "The police is trying to intimidate the right-wing activists," he says.

If you complain, you'll be arrested yourself
Dr. Shai Gross, who was severely beaten last week by police, still has difficulty recovering from "all this chaos," as he describes his condition. "You're in a sort of whirlpool, it's not the usual territory you're used to being in, and it's quite disconcerting."

Dr. Gross, a doctor at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, arrived last week at Haroeh Junction to meet his daughters, who were taking part in the women's march, "This Land is My Land." The police there spoke inappropriately to the marchers, and Dr. Gross protested about it and said the women weren't breaking the law.

Suddenly, the women who were present attest, five police officers leaped on him, pounded him with blows and slammed his head into the sidewalk. Gross was bound hand and foot, taken into the van and held in detainment overnight.

"Next weekend a court hearing will take place regarding the charge against me, and I'm still wondering what it's all about. My faith in the system has greatly declined since the brutal behavior of the police."

A woman who was a witness to Dr. Gross's beating approached the police station that evening to offer testimony about the incident. The police advised her to get away from there before she is arrested herself.

Update: Arutz-7 reports on another incident of police brutality. (Via Israpundit.)

Thursday, April 07, 2005


Finally got to sleep last night (so to speak) at 5:30am.

Could it still be due to my jetlag? I doubt it. I slept okay the night before.

The only upside: baseball. I watched a couple innings of the Braves-Marlins game at 4:00am. Consider it my season opener.

Come to think of it, why do they play baseball at 4:00am? Maybe they're jetlagged too?

Maybe I should contact the National Sleep Foundation after all?


Is it Shabbos yet?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Disengage or face the consequences!

I've taken the liberty of hastily translating this op-ed from yesterday's Ma'ariv. I apologize for any inaccuracies; occasional clarifying notes have been added in square brackets.

The regime reaches wits' end
April 5, 2005
Amnon Shomron has a shocking story: A doctor is brutally beaten and thrown in jail, a jail designated for opponents of the regime, just because the police thought he opposed disengagement. The dark days are already here.

A week ago, Dr. Shai Gross was brutally beaten by 6-7 police officers at Kfar Haro'eh Junction. The police violence towards him was shocking by any standard. Dr. Gross, a doctor at Rambam Hospital [Haifa], waited for a small group of marchers making its way along the side of the road from Netanya to Kfar Haro'eh, where they were to spend the night in Hefer Valley communities and then continue the march into Samaria. Gross was supposed to meet some of the group, his guests, and then go on to Beit Ha'am for an evening singalong.

When they reached Kfar Haro'eh Junction, the police were there too. A police officer forced them to enter the village, perhaps fearing they planned to demonstrate in the intersection. He didn't like the pace at which they walked, and called one of the women a fool. Gross scolded the officer for his language, and then it started: The officer, along with his uniformed colleagues, pounced on Gross, slammed his head into the ground, beat him all over his body, cuffed his hands and feet and threw him into the van. His 15-year-old daughter, who watched the incident stunned, approached the police and tried to rescue her father. But they pushed her away and threw her onto the road.

I visited him in the holding cell at the Netanya police station at 10pm, some five hours after the incident. He was still cuffed hand and foot, his whole body shaking and bruised, his vision blurred, consumed by anger and frustration. The police were kind enough to free his hands just for our meeting, after which they again handcuffed him. The duty officer refused to grant him a blanket. "He'll get that in [high security] Ma'asiyahu Prison." Ma'asiyahu? Yes, the first political prison in the State of Israel. There, according to the instructions of the State's Attorney and the police, opponents of the regime will be tossed.

The charge: Assaulting an officer
At 3am, he was transported to Ma'asiyahu, and the next morning he was returned to Netanya and brought before a judge. There, in less than 24 hours, with him tired, shattered and hurting, an indictment was already prepared and served against Dr. Gross on charges of... assaulting a police officer. The judge was also asked to hold him until the end of proceedings, but she refused and ordered him released.

This amazing story could take place only in a situation in which the prime minister encourages soldiers to beat right-wing demonstrators and the minister for internal security reprimands the chief of police for using insufficient force to prevent [demonstrators from] blocking the roads; one can only guess at the variety of guidelines given to commanders of police districts and stations and the officers themselves, until the moment when madness meets brutality.

The unbearable lightness with which the police and the prosecution prepare an indictment against a simple citizen with no criminal background, and the inhuman insensitivity with which a request is filed to detain him and deny his liberty until the end of legal proceedings, are present only because someone has deliberately loosened the reins. Beat the religious and the settlers, and hasten the disengagement.

The ill wind against the right, the settlers, the religious and their ilk recalls the bad days after the Rabin murder, in which the secular left let loose its hatred against the national-religious public, unmasked and unconcealed. But this time, the scheme has been joined by the students of Jabotinsky, graduates of the saison and the Altalena. They, it appears, know how to do it with pride, with brutality, and without a trace of courtesy.

The author is an attorney, the former editor of the Makor Rishon newspaper.

FYI: Opponents of the disengagement plan have launched a new group blog for information and activism: ENGAGE - For a Secure Israel.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Court upholds Shabbat law, but for the wrong reasons

As a frequent critic of Israel's Supreme Court, I have to give them some credit for yesterday's ruling upholding the law which prohibits the employment of Jews on Shabbat. The law, dating to the 1950s, was challenged on the grounds that it violates the 1994 Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation, which protects the economic liberty of employees.

The court ruled that the Hours of Work and Rest Law meets the criteria set out for such legislation:
"We accept that the Hours of Work and Rest Law as it relates to weekly rest hours, causes injury to the freedom of occupation of employers and employees," wrote Supreme Court President Aharon Barak. "[However,] this injury does not render the law unconstitutional, because it is in keeping with the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, it was legislated for a worthy reason, that is for achieving social welfare goals that are realized simultaneously with fulfilling national-religious considerations. [Furthermore,] the harm to freedom of occupation caused by the law is not excessive."

Despite the favorable outcome, the implications of this ruling remain disturbing. The court clearly sees itself empowered to decide whether a law - duly enacted by the sovereign Knesset - serves "a worthy reason", and, by extension, which social and political objectives constitute legitimate motivations for legislation. Effectively, the court has adopted a veto right over the Knesset.

The court also found support in the fact that the Bible describes Shabbat as having not only religious motives but also social welfare goals. By implication, were Shabbat only a religious observance, it would not be legitimate for the state to enact legislation imposing it.

Ultimately, though, I can't blame the court for this. Fault lies with the Knesset, which itself abdicated its legislative duties to the court. According to the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation:
4. There shall be no violation of freedom of occupation except by a law befitting the values of the State of Israel, enacted for a proper purpose, and to an extent no greater than is required....

Thus, the Knesset implicitly empowered the courts to determine whether a law restricting the freedom of employment befits the values of the State of Israel and is enacted for a proper purpose.

Still, the Court is not blameless either. It could have determined that language such as "enacted for a proper purpose" is so overly vague as to be meaningless. It could have ruled that whether or not a law "befits the values of the State of Israel" is rightly a decision for the people's elected representatives, not the courts. It could have concluded that, as legislation is the constitutional responsibility of the Knesset alone, the court will overturn a law only when faced with the most egregious of violations, rather than engaging in value judgments which require substituting the judges' preferences for those of the public.

For that matter, in this specific instance, the court could have avoided any discussion of values and legislative principles had it simply ruled that prohibiting Shabbat employment is not a violation of the letter of the law. "Every Israeli national or resident has the right to engage in any occupation, profession or trade," reads the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation. Barring work on Shabbat does not restrict the right to choose one's profession, just the right to engage in it at a particular time. It is not fundamentally different from legislation which restricts the hours a business can be open.

Scorecard: The court wins a point for reaching the right outcome. It loses two points for usurping the rightful role of the Knesset in deciding which legislation is worthy of the Jewish state. But the Knesset maintains its role at the bottom of the standings by repeatedly abdicating its legislative duties to the court, and then complaining when the court acts accordingly.

Vocabulary: Pillars of the fauces

I just came across this term in a book I'm reading, and, being the generous sort, I thought I'd share it with you.
Fauces, [L.]

1. (Anat.) The narrow passage from the mouth to the pharynx, situated between the soft palate and the base of the tongue; -- called also the isthmus of the fauces. On either side of the passage two membranous folds, called the pillars of the fauces, inclose the tonsils.

So the pillars of the fauces are the uprights on either side of the entrance to the throat.

Now you know.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Natan disappoints

Jetlag kept me from last night's lecture by Natan Sharansky at the Shalem Center on the political thought of Herzl. Judy from Jerusalem Diaries has the scoop. Unfortunately, it sounds like I didn't miss much.

Frankly, I'd rather see Sharansky return to activity in Israeli politics, rather than travelling the world to hawk his ghostwritten book and hobnob with world leaders.

Musings and ramblings

Is there a difference between musings...

...and ramblings?

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Trip report

Airport turbulence
The boarding call. The passengers, clutching their hand luggage, trudged out of the crowded, dingy, old terminal building and, unlike in most modern international airports, clambered onto buses to the aircraft, where they briefly braved the elements before climbing the staircase from the tarmac into the plane.

At their destination, they disembarked via a jetway directly into the spanking new terminal, a functional yet graceful building, with high windows allowing plenty of light. They had finally arrived in Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport, Terminal 3.

The first airport, in case you were wondering, was Terminal 4 of London Heathrow.

V'nahafoch hu asher yishletu hayehudim, hemah besoneihem. "And it was inverted, as the Jews ruled over their enemies" (Esther 9:1).

A mild-mannered reporter
At times I felt like Clark Kent, wondering whether anyone around me had guessed my secret identity. Most of my hits come from the eastern U.S. Anyone around me might be a blog reader! Have I leaked too many personal details? Were people muttering behind my back, "I bet he's Biur Chametz"? Were they just too embarrassed to ask outright?

Unlike Sarah, who openly communicates with her friends through her blog and drops unsubtle hints about her real name, I would prefer to remain anonymous. So maybe I should just stop alluding to personal details? It's not as if I do it that often anyway.

Then again, there must be a part of me which enjoys the thrill of risking discovery. It's like speeding on an empty highway, or running a red light at 3am, or blogging at work. How far can I go without being unmasked?

Not that it matters. It's not like I'm Superman anyway.

Sometimes I wonder, though: If I were blogging under my real name, would people take me more seriously, or less?

About jetlag: What she said. Except I am one of those "people with 'real' jobs" and it isn't any easier. I think it's harder; I have to manage to work "real job" hours while battling jetlag. At least freelancers can choose their hours.

Yesterday I was awake from 6pm-5:30am, then slept until 8:30am and dragged myself out of bed to go to work. If only I could just have worked through the night and slept through the morning! I did get started on my Pesach cleaning. Hopefully without waking the neighbors.

Incidentally, Ya'efet (Hebrew for jetlag) neatly combines Hebrew roots for "weary" and "flying", in a construction often used for words connoting illnesses. One of the more successful neologisms of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Fortunately, I'm not alone. With the shift to daylight savings time, millions of people around the world are now exhausted!
Daylight saving time makes Coleman feel tired. She doesn't get enough sleep, and the sleep she does get is poor.

The same is true for most of her family and an estimated 40 million other Americans who have sleep disorders.

The nonprofit National Sleep Foundation, in its efforts to raise awareness of the hazards of bad sleep habits, released a poll last week reporting that Americans sleep almost two fewer hours a night than 40 years ago. The consequences of that can be dangerous: Studies show accidents rise in the days after the spring time change and drowsy drivers can be as impaired as drunken drivers.

Months-long waiting lists for rooms in sleep labs attest to the demand for solutions to sleep-related misery.

I wonder what hours they work at the National Sleep Foundation?