Lonely Man of Cake

July 22, 2007

Noah Feldman: Today’s Bar-Kamtza?

Filed under: America,Diaspora,Education,Faith,General,Judaism,Orthodoxy,Religion — lonelymanofcake @ 8:14 pm

I read Noah Feldman’s thought-provoking essay which appeared in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, and knew immediately that the article would draw a firestorm of criticism from members of the modern-Orthodox community, both because of what some might consider the inflammatory nature of some of the author’s comments, but more importantly, because of the timing of the article’s publication: during the nine days preceding the commemoration of the destruction of the Second Temple.

Although material discussing the destruction of the temple in rabbinic literature is scant, one returning theme is that the temple was destroyed because of the baseless hatred of Jews toward each other. Indeed, from the firsthand account of the events preserved by the historian Josephus, we may corroborate this as fact. By the time Titus arrived in Jerusalem, ready to purge the city of its rebels, no fewer than four groups of Jewish extremists fought for control of the city. The infighting verged on the outbreak of all out civil war in Jerusalem and even led to the burning of the precious food stores in the besieged city. The rebels in Jerusalem found themselves at odds with each other and also with the Pharisees and most other Jews in the country, who capitulated to the Romans without offering resistance.

The Talmud perpetuates the interpersonal hatred responsible for bringing down the temple with the story of “Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza”: A fellow is said to have planned a party, and asked his servant to invite his good friend Kamtza. The servant, perhaps out of confusion, invited one Bar-Kamtza instead, who just so happened to be the arch enemy of the host. Bar-Kamtza attended the party, perhaps seeing the invitation as an act of reconciliation on the part of the host. But the host would have no part of it and wished to eject Bar-Kamtza from the party, even after the latter offered to pay for his plate, for half of the cost of the party, and even the full cost of the party. The host grabbed Bar-Kamtza, and physically threw him out of the party. The insulted Bar-Kamtza was made to feel even worse by the fact that the rabbis sitting at the party did not intervene on his behalf. Bar-Kamtza is said to have then engaged in an act of subterfuge which angered the king and brought the destruction of the temple.

Noah Feldman is a 21st century Bar-Kamtza. He’s not perfect, but he has good intentions. He reaches out to the very institutions which leave him feeling embittered. To take the cropped photo as a metaphor, he attended the party, as did Bar-Kamtza, but was forcibly removed, with no explanations or protestations offered by his host, or by the rabbis who sat idly without intervening.

The unfortunate result reminds us of the subterfuge of the original Bar-Kamtza, who, wishing to avenge the silent rabbis, is said to have sabotaged a sacrifice offered by the king, inflicting a wound that the emperor would not have taken notice of but which would matter a great deal to the Jews, as it would invalidate the animal for sacrifice. Feldman did just that. The wound inflicted by his article should be apparent to the very community that rejected him. While people who are not close to the modern-Orthodox community may not fully appreciate the intricacies of Feldman’s criticism, the general repercussion, nonetheless, is the sullying of what had been the perceived pristine image of the modern-Orthodox movement in the eyes of the world.


June 7, 2007

Odd, But Familiar Dream

Filed under: Academia,America,Diaspora,Education,Judaism,Orthodoxy,Reality,Religion — lonelymanofcake @ 8:07 pm

There must have been copious amounts of MSG in my dinner last night, because I had a dream that was off the hook. What really set this dream apart was its vividness and highly realistic feel. Here goes:

I am approached by Richard Joel, the current president of Yeshiva University. He says: “We would like for you to be the next vice-president of Yeshiva University.” I hesitate. On the one hand, this is the institution that left me bereft of a “real college experience,” sold me short on Judaic studies, and that is slowly morphing into a trade school for the intellectually challenged. On the other hand, I have a very strong familial connection with the institution, and if you know who I am and what I’m talking about, it makes Richard Joel’s proposition quite eerie.

Joel clearly senses my hesitation. “Compensation is $100,000 per-month,” he says. I accepted the position immediately.

What does it all mean?
Should I be disturbed that even though I was morally conflicted about accepting the job, it was ultimately the bottom line that tilted the scales? Does it mean that I am hesitant to serve the community in which I was raised?

Or should I look at the positives:
I must have very high self-esteem if I dream about being offered such a powerful position at such a young age. (In the dream, I was myself, at my current age, and even “mentally” questioned how it was that I was being offered the job, given my age.) I felt up to the task and never questioned whether I was qualified to handle the burdens of the position.

My current interpretation is that the dream represents the crossroads at which I stand. The job offer is the looming specter of the probability that one day, come what may, I will invariably be drafted to the ranks of Jewish communal service. This is almost fait accompli. There is then the moral question: as ideal-driven as communal service may be, there are the occasional ethical sacrifices to be made. And finally there is the question of “selling out,” which is something I battle with every day: do I abandon my ideal line of work–whatever that may be–because a healthier income from a less ideologically rewarding job might be the ticket to a “better” life?

Stay tuned. These considerations will begin playing themselves out over the coming weeks.

May 3, 2007

Hesder Army News II

Filed under: Army,Israel,Judaism,Orthodoxy — lonelymanofcake @ 1:52 pm

The story that I brought to you on Friday regarding the new limitations on Hesder army service has (finally) been picked up by Ynet.

Reader/Cousin Yaacov hit the nail on the head with his important clarifications, but there is apparently more to the story. Under a program spearheaded by General Elazar Stern, the army has been trying for some two years already to “integrate” Hesder students into “regular” platoons. Until then, Hesderniks, or in the army parlance, Beinishim, served in homogeneous platoons, composed only of other Hesderniks.

To eliminate any ambiguity, Hesderniks can still serve in Golani and the Paratroops, but by doing so, they relinquish their “right” to serve in a homogeneous Hesder platoon, and must serve in an integrated platoon. The reason for the singling out of Golani and Paratroops given by a senior army official in the Ynet article: as it is, motivation to serve in these two brigades is high, and there would be no problem filling the platoons. In other words, even Hesderniks want to serve in Golani and Paratroops so badly, that they would have no problem serving in an integrated platoon. Many Hesderniks think otherwise and have sent a petition with hundreds of signatures to Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

The army’s motivation for ending a 30 year tradition of homogeneous Hesder platoons does seem a bit dubious. The commonly invoked rationalization that the army needs to be a melting pot and integrated experience holds true, from personal experience, even when Hesderniks have their own platoon.

A few years ago, I had occasion to sit down with General Stern and ask him a few questions about his planned changes to the Hesder system. Stern, though religious, did not go to Hesder and went through his army service as one of the few (if only) religious soldiers in his company. I think that this important biographical piece of information sheds light on where Stern is coming from. I asked him, from a logistical perspective, what happens when you scatter all of the religious soldiers among the three platoons that are in each company. Each platoon has a different time schedule. What happens if the religious soldiers from one platoon go the synagogue and start praying, and only 20 minutes later, the religious soldiers from another platoon are given time to pray? With a homogeneous platoon of Hesderniks, everyone prays together! Stern answered without flinching: They should pray outside of the synagogue.

I’m all for integration.  But there was nothing wrong with the status quo that warranted such drastic changes.

April 23, 2007

Frumkeit Confidential

Filed under: Faith,Judaism,Orthodoxy — lonelymanofcake @ 4:45 pm

I’ve been observing a trend for a number of years, and I feel that the time has come for me to publish my observations.  The premise is very simple: the practice of withholding what I consider to be “shareable” information has become a trademark of haredi circles and is increasingly infiltrating Modern Orthodoxy as well.

A typical example: Chanah Leah is dating Moshe Zalman, and the relationship is headed towards marriage.  As a relative of Chanah Leah, I would not be privy to the existence of the relationship until just before the engagement.  Neither Chanah Leah nor her family would dare disclose this premarital fraternizing of the sexes.

Another example: Chanah Leah and Moshe Zalman marry.  A few weeks later, she’s expecting.  A few months later, she’s showing and wearing maternity clothing.  But word of the pregnancy is not disclosed officially until the seventh, or even eighth, month.

Final example: Chanah Leah applied, and was accepted to a prestigious graduate program.  She denied to her friends that she had been accepted to any program, and only later came out with the news.

Why must impending happiness be treated, in some circles, as impending doom?

April 10, 2007

Passover Prohibition Predictions

Filed under: Culinary,Judaism,Orthodoxy,Passover,Religion — lonelymanofcake @ 8:24 am

I predict that 50 years from now, the following will have become normative prohibitions on Passover:

  1. Potatoes: There is no reason that potatoes should not be included in the same category as kitniyot. As potato flour can be easily confused with wheat flour, one should be able to consume neither potato flour nor potatoes.
  2. Matzah: Same as above. Ashkenazim will no longer be allowed to consume matzah as it will be considered kitniyot, given that matzah meal and flour can be confused.
  3. Matzah II: If you don’t eat gebrochts, you won’t be able to eat matzah either. Why? Because your saliva is no different than any other fluid that, according to this specific custom, can potentially cause fermentation (!) in the already baked matzah. Potential solution? Eating matzah with a dentist type suction device.
  4. Sugar: Potentially kitniyot. Why? Can be confused for flour.
  5. Cocaine: See above.
  6. Cranberries: Some folks refrain from eating pickles on Pesach because in Hebrew they are called חמוצים (chamutzim), and they have fabricated a custom which prohibits the consumption of foods containing the three letters of חמץ. Cranberries are called חמוציות (chamutziyot) in Hebrew…
  7. Oxygen: See above (חמצן).

Please share your ideas. I’ll update this post as soon as I can think of more.

March 28, 2007

Pesach Petrol

Filed under: Biofuel,Diaspora,Faith,Judaism,Orthodoxy,Passover,Religion,Transportation — lonelymanofcake @ 3:59 pm

In thirty years, when rabbis will have issued a real prohibition against fueling with Ethanol on Pesach, people will find it hard to believe that this was a parody. (UPDATE: The New York Times caught the story [Times Select req’d].)

Of course, there is no (current) prohibition against deriving benefit from kitniyot, of which Ethanol is a derivative. I put “current” in parentheses because earlier last century kitniyot derivatives, like corn syrup, were permitted for use on Pesach as they fall under neither of the main “rationales” for kitniyot. This is no longer the case, with the Kosher for Pesach Coca Cola craze being a prime example. It wouldn’t surprise me if those who follow the mistaken custom of not consuming kitniyot on Pesach continue to expand the scope of the ban, much as they already have, until the innovated stringencies are so expansive that the people forget that kitniyot are not chametz. It is precisely in that type of atmosphere in which the ground would be fertile for a declaration that would prohibit even benefiting from kitniyot, Ethanol fueled vehicles included.

Many folks have extra sets of dishes for Pesach. Some people even have a totally separate kitchen for Pesach. Are we going to see special Pesach cars?

March 27, 2007

Cannabis Kitniyos

Filed under: Israel,Judaism,Orthodoxy,Passover,Politics,Religion — lonelymanofcake @ 4:51 pm

Israel’s (very secular) pro-marijuana party עלה ירוק (Green Leaf) has apparently entered the halakhic sphere and issued a notice which states that marijuana is considered kitniyot (definition), as it is related to hemp (or not), which is apparently kitniyot.

Some musings:

  1. It would be funny if marijuana was actually considered chametz. Would selling your chametz then be considered a criminal act? (Note: Kitniyot need not be sold.)
  2. Does inhalation amount to the halakhic standards for consumption? (The Gemara in Tractate Avodah Zarah speaks about this with regard to inhaling smells emanating from an idol worship ceremony. If I’m not mistaken, the Tosafists say that inhalation is to be considered a category of drinking… I’ll dig up the source.)
  3. What of hashish, which is a marijuana derivative?

I’m not sure how to read into the fact that this “psak” has so far appeared only in English language publications.

(Hat tip: yeho)

Matzah Bus

Filed under: America,Culinary,Diaspora,Judaism,Orthodoxy,Passover,Religion — lonelymanofcake @ 3:28 pm

Read about the matzah bus, or watch the video.  And is it just me, or do local news shows take themselves way too seriously?

March 21, 2007

You Know You’re an Apologist…

Filed under: Faith,Judaism,Orthodoxy,Religion — lonelymanofcake @ 1:10 pm

…for Orthodox Judaism, when the metaphor you need to resort to when attempting to justify the self-imposed cessation of halakhic development is… dirt.

March 9, 2007

Some Good Shabbat Reading

  1. Steven I. Weiss of Canonist has been duking it out with sociologist Samuel Heilman after Weiss reviewed Heilman’s latest book and pointed out some statistics which do not jive with math or logic. Start here for the book review (and comments), continue here (also with comments), and round it out here.
    1. Apropos Steven I. Weiss, if you ever feel like “you’ve reached the end of the Internet” and want some fantastic material, check out Weiss’s pioneering J-blog “Protocols.”  Though defunct for over two years now, Weiss and a small team of bloggers covered every major story of (Orthodox) Jewish interest since December 2002.
  2. The eventual impact of global warming may have global consequences far more devastating than “mere” environmental damage.  Read the introduction here, and the 25-page white paper, here.
  3. Dikembe Mutombo, the 7-foot 2-inch center for the Houston Rockets and the oldest player in the NBA, authored a groundbreaking study when he was a student at Georgetown in which he assailed “one of the sillier ideas of modern linguistics… that one language is as good as another, that no language is clearly superior to any other.”  His idea has been further developed with added criteria.  Spanish comes out on top; English is in second place.
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