Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Link to an Article that you Shouldn't Bother Reading

This article attempts to promote tolerance and whatnot, but its condescending, I-know-better-than-you-silly-people-who-take-religion-seriously attitude would drive religious people nuts and make them wary of efforts to make them get along.

Basically, they say, "Hmmm. The Koran and the Bible have passages that condone tolerance for outsiders and passages that imply that you gotta kill 'em all. Maybe if we could understand this issue, the religious people could get along."

Of course, their explanation of how these contradicting passages got in there is based on the assumption that the holy books were affected by the circumstances of the people writing them, not the eternal will and wisdom of G-d. The religious people--at least those who are fighting about religion--are never gonna accept any of that, so cut the crap. Just say you're going to expose the pettiness of religiously inspired prejudice.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Defending the True Faith

Borrowing a page from TRS' book, I'm posting something which I wrote back in the day, but never published publicly. I don't really agree with what I assert below, but neither am I sure how to explain the anecdote which I bring to support said assertion.

When we try to determine the halacha, G-d keeps an eye on us and steers us towards the right conclusion. Here's a story which shows us this process at work. This past summer, I toured Israel with a group of friends. At Masada, our tour guide told us a fascinating anecdote: archeologists were digging in Masada and found a pair of tefillin. As you probably know, there is a disagreement between Rashi and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam as to which order the parchment scrolls are to be put in the tefillin. When they found the tefillin at Masada, they opened them up and found that... the parchments were arranged according to Rabbeinu Tam. This seemed to imply that Rabbeinu Tam was "right," and Rashi was "wrong." But sometime later, they found another pair of tefillin... which were written according to Rashi.

I find this story amazing. The disagreement between Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam centers on how to interpret a Talmudic passage. One would think that either Rashi or Rabbeinu Tam understood that passage. The other must have gotten it wrong, thereby corrupting the Oral Law.

But if one of the opinions was merely a misunderstanding of the Talmud, then why were both types of tefillin used hundreds of years before the Talmud was written?

These tefillin tell us that G-d directs the disagreements of the sages. Both opinions reflect a true method of making tefillin. G-d puts the matters in our hands, but He guides our debate to keep us in line with His will.

This leads us to another question: why does G-d want halacha to be developed in this roundabout way?

Were the Torah, with all its nitty-gritty details, handed to us on a silver platter (or a desert mountain) it would be purely G-dly. G-d would be imposing His will on a bunch of people who weren't related to it. Conversely, were halacha entirely in our hands, it would become a human creation. In realty, Halacha is a little bit of both. A concept only becomes the halacha once a human mind has thought up the concept, played with it, examined it, tried to disprove it, compared it with other concepts, and shared it with other human minds. A true halacha must also be an instance of the will and wisdom of the Creator. It has within it that special spark that transforms physicality into spirituality and darkness into light. Halacha is a synergy of our reasoning and G-d's wisdom. Thus, Halacha relates to man and to G-d. And that's what gives it its power.

Sheesh. I wrote so formally back then. It's been a while since I wrote serious stuff.

Friday, August 21, 2009


In chassidus, we learned about the prototypical friendship: Reuven understands that by hanging out with Shimon he will gain something (witty words of wisdom, free Starbucks coffee, whatever) and therefore Reuven starts to love Shimon and spend time with him. (The nimshal being that through hisbonenus, one understands how great G-d is and starts to love him. Do not try this at home. It will not work. ואכ"מ)

That's not how my friendships formed. I became friends with people when external circumstances threw us together, even though we weren't especially compatible, and even though we didn't work on maintaining the friendship. Many of my closest friends were roommates. We never chose to become friends. We ended up in the same room by coincidence. But we ended up spending lots of time together and just getting to know each other. So we became friends.

Sorry folks, but I'm going to need to bring another example from the Chassidic masters. The Frierdiker Rebbe says that there are two kinds of mercy: mercy from exaltedness ("romemus") and mercy from empathy ("hergesh," literally "feeling"). The first kind of mercy is what the king feels towards the beggar in the street. Something along the lines of, "I'm the big king. I have a palace and hordes of servants at my beck and call. You have nothing. All you have is a spot on the sidewalk near the subway's air shaft to keep you warm in the winter. I will mercifully give you fifty cents."

The Frierdiker Rebbe does not define mercy from empathy at much length (as far as I can recall), but this is what I think he means: I and my friend spend time together. We share with each other. There becomes some kind of connection, and the line between "I" and "you" starts to blur. He loses five dollars, and parts of his frustration leaks into me. His brother gets engaged, and I experience part of the joy. Why do I care if my roommate's brother gets engaged any more that if some random other guy gets engaged? Will it make a difference to my life at all? It doesn't make a difference. But it makes a difference to my friend. And what makes a difference to him makes a difference to me.

Many years ago my sister got a book out from the library about a pair of Siamese twins. They shared a stomach, so that when one of them drank, they both got drunk. That's friendship. Your alcohol affects my stomach, because we share parts of ourselves with each other.

So don't ask me why I care. I care because I feel for you. Because you're my friend. Maybe it was some silly set of circumstances that brought us together. That's irrelevant. "vi nisht vi" the circumstances were what they were, and we came together. So now we're together, and we share whatever experiences life sends our way.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A (Slightly) Off-Color, Super Cute Thing my Niece Said

My mom was holding my two-month old nephew. The nephew started to cry. Said my mother, "I would hold him, but he wants to nurse. I can't help him with that."

Says my four-year-old niece, "Because you nursed Tatty, and Mendel, and Sarah, so it would be germs if Moshe nursed from you."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Is 151 a prime number? Hmm... Let's check

Let X and n be natural numbers. If X has no factors less than n, and X is less than n squared, then X is a prime number.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Break from the Bible: I've got a secret that will fix your life!

A common phenomenon: a kind, caring person meets someone in distress. The kindly soul hears the basics of this person's distress and immediately sees a way out of it. Often the solution is something along the lines of "Adopt my philosophy of life, and you'll be fine." Based on the kind person's knowledge--which is often scanty, having just met the person in distress--this is really a great solution. After all the kind person's philosophy of life works for him or her, why shouldn't it work for his or her new friend in distress?

The problem is that the person in distress can't adopt the kind person's solution. And to make matters worse, the person in distress usually can't explain why he or she isn't jumping for joy and running off to implement the kind-intentioned but unimplementable advice. One who has a deeper understanding of the problem and the personality of the sufferer would see what's wrong about the solution. But the good Samaritan cannot. And the damsel or dude in distress can't explain what's wrong.

I was once the recipient of such well intentioned and unappreciated advice. It was given to me by someone to whom I affectionately refer to as "my shiktzeh." She had it all figured out. I should start living in the moment and relish meeting new people and experiencing new things. And if I'm stuck in traffic with an obnoxious carmate, I shouldn't sit and stew. I should say, "Great! I have another opportunity to get to know this person and understand a new perspective on life! Joy!" I shouldn't just eat ice cream. I should savor it, feel the taste, and smell the texture. I should really eat it. Then every meal becomes a treat and life becomes paradise. This is great advice. It worked for her. But it doesn't work for me. But I couldn't explain to her why it wouldn't work for me.

Yesterday I met a damsel in distress. I instantly saw how she should get out of distress. Although I didn't notice the coincidence at the time, the advice I gave her was basically "Live your life exactly the way I'm living mine." I couldn't understand why she didn't lap up my advice hungrily. And even more amazingly, I couldn't understand why she couldn't explain to me what was wrong with my advice.

What's the lesson? Don't think you know everything. Recognize that you cannot understand someone else's life just by chit-chatting with them for ten minutes. You probably don't understand even your own life after all these years.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Lord thy God is a Jealous God

for more information, read the beginning of Kings II