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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Is there anything he can't be blamed for? 

Paul Hellyer, who used to be Canada's Minister of Defence and Deputy Prime Minister is hard at work trying to prevent war. Not a war between the west and Iran, or a war in the Middle East. Rather, a war of the worlds (link here):
On September 25, 2005, in a startling speech at the University of Toronto that caught the attention of mainstream newspapers and magazines, Paul Hellyer, Canada’s Defence Minister from 1963-67 under Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Prime Minister Lester Pearson, publicly stated: "UFOs, are as real as the airplanes that fly over your head."
...
Mr. Hellyer went on to say, "I'm so concerned about what the consequences might be of starting an intergalactic war, that I just think I had to say something."
No prizes for guessing who Mr Hellyer thinks is leading the world down the path of a Martian melee:
Hellyer warned, "The United States military are preparing weapons which could be used against the aliens, and they could get us into an intergalactic war without us ever having any warning. He stated, "The Bush administration has finally agreed to let the military build a forward base on the moon, which will put them in a better position to keep track of the goings and comings of the visitors from space, and to shoot at them, if they so decide."
Of course; that Texan Fascist/genius/chimp/dolt is going to start a war with ET. Luckily, the Reality Based Community is on Bush's case.

Below is an artist's (ie me) impression of what such an intergalactic war may look like, based on data provided by the French intelligence agencies:

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

It's a sad sign of the times... 

when kids get this as a present.

The New Zealand version of the Playmobil set features a baddy trying to sneak fruit into the country...

The Cult of Exercise and Diet: Today's asceticism? 

Prof Haym Soloveitchik (son of R' Yosef Dov Soloveitchik) is one of the Jewish world's greatest scholars. His primary field is medieval Jewish sociology and economics, but he has produced some of the most incisive commentaries on modern Jewish societies.

A little over 10 years ago, Prof Soloveitchik produced an essay called Rupture and Reconstruction: the Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy. It is the best study yet of Modern Orthodoxy in America.

In the course of tracing how Modern Orthodoxy has shed many of the ascetic tendencies and practices that used to be part of the religious Jewish life, and moved toward consumerism and gratification bounded only by the letter of Halachic law itself, Prof Soloveitchik makes a beautiful observation about the place of denial in the wider modern society (it applies to other post-industrial as well as the US):
Not that the ascetic impulse has now wholly disappeared from the surrounding society. There seems to be a fixed quantity of pain that people, in all periods, wish to inflict upon themselves for the sake of some distant, possibly unattainable, summum bonum. The rigors of monastic asceticism, or that of the flagellants, find their equivalent in our ceaseless exercise and unremitting self-starvation undertaken for the sake of Beauty or in the name of something called Fitness. Now, as then, it is those free from the immediate burdens of subsistence who most hear the call of that higher good and voluntarily undertake to wear the hairshirt. This impulse is often linked to an attempt to move backward in time. We strive, no less than medieval men, to move backwards in time, we to Youth, they to Eden. To them the body was born with the taint of original concupiscence; to us it acquires too swiftly the odor of Age. They mortified the flesh to enable the soul to escape the confines of the body, we to enable the body to escape the ravages of Time. Each of the two equally impossible, by all rules of common sense, yet each pursued with equal vigor. To be sure the overwhelming majority of people eschewed the rigors of asceticism, but probably never denied the rightness of the enterprise. Many, perhaps, even made some half-hearted attempts to engage in it themselves, much as exercise-bikes and running shoes gathering dust in countless homes stand as witnesses to an aspiration rather than to any actual endeavor. (My remarks refer to American society generally, rather than to the religious Jewish community, who participate tepidly, at best, in this form of asceticism. In this regard, at least, contemporary Orthodoxy is still unacculturated. Nevertheless, as this community is the subject of this essay, I felt it more appropriate to use "original concupiscence" rather than "Original Sin." The latter is alien to Jewish thought, the former is not. On man's fall and his diminished, concupiscent state, see, for example, Bezalel Safran, "Rabbi Azriel and Nahmanides: Two Views of the Fall of Man," in Isadore Twersky, (ed.). Rabbi Moses Nahmanidies: Explorations in his Religious Virtuosity [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass: 1983], pp. 75-106.)
Absolutely brilliant.

Have you noticed how often language of morality or sanctity is used in contexts of diet and exercise? Chocolate is "sinful"; the body is a "temple". Many people, in casting off religious morality and self-denial are acting similarly in worship of the self.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The IDF Conversion Programme 

One of the most divisive, and problematic political and demographic issues facing Israel in recent years has been nothing to do with Arabs -- rather, non-Jewish Russians. Approximately 1 million people from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) have immigrated to Israel since 1990, under the Law of Return; a controversial 1970 amendment to this law allows non-Jews who are spouses of Jews, or who have a Jewish grandparent, to become Israeli citizens. Although official statistics have not been kept, it is estimated that approximately a quarter of immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not Jewish according to Halacha (religious law). This proportion has risen, as most of the "more Jewish" population immigrated; in recent years, it has been estimated that 70% of FSU immigrants have been non-Jews.

Many of these non-Halachially-Jewish immigrants have contributed greatly to Israeli society in academia, sports and the army -- where more than a few have died defending the country (and have been denied burial in military cemetaries). But, nonetheless, there has also been great resentment at the arrival of thousands of non-Jews in the Jewish state, and a potentially dangerous situation -- fears of "two Israels" who are not able to intermarry, and lack even the most basic of common denominators, have run rampant.

Very few of these non-Jewish immigrants had any inclination to convert to Judaism, as the Orthodox conversion process is long, and requires the convert to make a commitment to a fully observant lifestyle that they are unlilely to keep up, and is at odds with much of secular Israeli society.

I remember reading, a few years ago, about a radical programme designed by the then-new head of the IDF's manpower division, Brig-Gen Elazar Stern. He proposed to create a conversion programme, that would use the facilities and societal position that the army had to allow those Russians who wanted to do so the option of converting. Warned of doubts that some rabbinical authorities would cast on army conversions, Stern challenged any rabbi to doubt the sincerity of a graduate of the conversion programme who had joined the IDF to defend the nation.

It is nice to read, in Haaretz of all places (link here) about the successes of the programme, and the number of immigrants who have chosen to utilise the opportunity to become a full member of the Jewish nation.

Locating a conversion programme in the IDF carries with it great advantages: the convert is freed from issues of making a living; issues of kashrut and Shabbat observance are taken care of; the all-encompassing nature of army service enables intensive courses to be undertaken in a much shorter timeframe than would otherwise be possible.

Controversially, it seems that the Bet Din (rabbinical court) used by the army to conduct the conversions is aware that many of the converts will not continue with an observant lifestyle after the army. Although the Shulhan Aruch grants a wide discretion to Batei Din when it comes to conversions, rabbis are generally cautious on this point. But in my opinion, it is on balance a wonderful thing to be able to welcome people into full participation in Jewish life -- and a most fitting reward for the efforts and risks they have taken to serve the people in the army.

Opinions, dear readers?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen, Israel's next Prime Minister 

Oh Dear.

Well, it's not like an ability to communicate to the outside world is important, or anything.

(Thanks to Silent Running).

N’oubliez pas nos frères 

With all the media coverage about the recent riots in French cities, it is well to remember the vicious levels of fear that French Jews have been living under in recent years.

The majority of Jews in France are Sefardim from the same North African countries as the rioters. Despite the economic and cultural success of a large number of them, there remains a large portion of the Jewish population in the same poor, crime-ridden neighbourhoods which have seen so much violence.

It was noted in the media that two synagogues were attacked in the riots (read here). However, what is most telling is that this does not represent a variation from the norm:
Jacki Brami, Garges’s rabbi, and his sons have been, "as usual", insulted, according to the anti-Semitism vigilance bureau.

“It’s business as usual,” Samy Ghozlan, head of the anti-Semitism vigilance bureau told EJP. “These communities are used to these daily assaults. It’s worrisome, but we fear the worst is still to come.”
What is most upsetting is the limp attitude of the authorities:
French authorities advised Jewish security officials not to publicize their fears, as such declarations could encourage rioters to attack Jews and Jewish community buildings.
In an article on French Jews emigrating to Quebec (link here), a day-school principal explains why he is leaving:
Mr. Barthel is the father of two young children. Last year, his children's school bus, belonging to a Jewish school in Epinay-sur-seine, a northern suburb of Paris, was set on fire. "The bus was empty when it was attacked, but still, nobody did anything about it, not the police, not the government."
It would seem that Jacques and Dominique would much rather the Jews continue to suffer in silence.
Anyone who has been to synagogues in Europe recently is familiar with the security measures that have been put in place; passports are often required (even in cities without `eruvin). Tragically, Jewish children are being forced to hide their identities for fears of vicious anti-semitic bullying, in an atmosphere redolent of another age:
Mr. Barthel explains the buddy system instituted at the Benvenuti school for children both arriving and leaving the premises. The students must travel in a pack and are not allowed to wear visible skullcaps or Stars of David anywhere but inside the school. They are also discouraged from dressing in a manner that Mr. Barthel calls "Shalala," meaning that they asked to refrain from dressing in a style which in North American parlance might be termed "Jappy."

This should not be acceptable. The French government should not be trying to buy quiet by casting the Jews to the wolves.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Marshmallow of Terror 

IDF forces, monitoring the Karni crossing from Gaza, made a shocking discovery today.
a truck laden with a new kind of terrorist ordnance: krembos with forged kashrut symbols (reported in Haaretz, link here).

For those who aren't familiar with these devilish little things, they are composed of chemical-laden marshmallow encased in chocolate. Here is a picture:


This depraved attempt reveals the true face of the enemy: not content to try and murder us physically, they are attempting to annihilate us spiritually by making us eat tref sweets. They will not succeed. Luckily, the Chief Rabbinate has marshalled the forces of the state to combat this dastardly plan. Score one for the mix of religion and state...

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Nostra Aetate and Interfaith Dialogue 

Forty years ago, the Second Vatican Council produced the Nostra Aetate declaration (which you can read here) renouncing the Catholic doctrine that God had rejected the Jews; further, it declared anti-semitism to be a sin.

I recently read an excellent comment marking the anniversary by Yitzchok Adlerstein. R' Adlerstein argues that Nostra Aetate was a watershed in Jewish history, halting two millennia of official attitudes of hate on the part of the Catholic Church's towards Jews and Judaism. Attitudes of hate that, in many instances, resulted in death and suffering.

This is obviously to be celebrated. However, the issue of whether interfaith dialogue is a goal that should be pursued is a more complicated one. R' Adlerstein states it well:
We in the Orthodox community are univocally opposed to the old kind of ecumenical dialogue, aimed at a cross-fertilization and interpenetration of religious ideas. That is out of the question to us, and has been rejected by all Torah authorities, including Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, who was perhaps the most explicit and verbose about his opposition. We should, however, be able to recognize that some kinds of discussion have nothing to do with prodding each other to understand or respect (or dilute) religious teachings. There are areas in which our moral and ethical values coincide, especially in the Kulturkampf against the hedonistic, material and secular alternatives of our shared host culture. Few Jews realize that it is not only they who feel like an embattled minority – that committed Catholics, too, despite their greater numbers, feel mocked, disparaged and marginalized by the image-makers of general culture. We ought to be able to cooperate in waging common battle to convince (by persuasion, not religious coercion) fellow Americans to hold on to our shared treasured notions (even as we disagree about details of their application) about the specialness of human life, and about the importance of G-d in human affairs and decision-making.

The relationship between traditional Judaism and Christianity is a complex one; perspectives range from condemning Christianity as idolatry (Maimonides) to seeing it as a legitimate form of worship for non-Jews (R' Menahem haMeiri). But in recent times, Orthodox Jewish figures have stayed out of the ecumenical sphere.

A key reason for that, at least in America, was this article by R' Joseph Soloveitchik, the leader of modernist American Orthodoxy in the 20th Century. It is necessary to read this philosophically-sophisticated essay, product of a uniquely brilliant mind, in depth. While shying from a definitive pesaq halacha (legal ruling) banning interfaith dialogue on religious matters, R' Soloveitchik evinced a cautious approach, with four main points. I will briefly summarise them (at risk of over-simplifying and doing violence to the author):
1. That Judaism is a separate faith community; we are not "brethren" of other faiths, even though, from a historical-social perspective, we share.
2. The religious experience and religious belief is not susceptible to standardisation -- it is inherently private, personal, and cannot be readily communicated outside of the faith community; however, it is important to communicate between faiths on matters of importance in the wider world.
3. It is crucial that Jews, ever the minority, do not expect or suggest that the larger community will change its beliefs and principles to be more congenial to us. This would lead to reciprocal demands which the Jewish tradition cannot meet.
4. We must not adopt a servile attitude; we have not the authority to speak for our ancestors, and those who died in sanctification of the Divine Name to trade in beliefs, attitudes and practices that are part of our Tradition.

This cautious approach had much to recommend it. However, it had a chilling effect; and to large degree, at least in the US, Modern/Centrist Orthodox religious leaders are no more involved in interfaith dialogue than their ultra-Orthodox counterparts. The issue of how to deal with R' Soloveitchik's approach, and its relevance to today, is the subject of an ongoing discussion with some of the world's greatest Jewish thinkers (link here). I particularly recommend the contributions of Marc Shapiro, R' David Rosen and Chief Rabbi Sacks.

Thedore Dalrymple on les banlieux dangereuses 

Theodore Dalrymple is a wonderful columnist: lucid, educated, and loaded with wordly experience. He works as a psychiatrist, largely in the British public health system and in prisons. As a sample, and an exposition of some of his views (rather depressing ones) on the fate of British society, read this. He believes that due to a confluence of factors, British inner cities are dens of abandonment of personal responsibility, cruelty, and yes, evil.

But his most prescient work (at least, so far), is this column from 2002 about the festering sores on the body of France that are known in French as "les cités": endless rows of featureless blocks in which the poor and the different are segregated. Dalrymple documents the total breakdown of law and order in the cités, which far predates (and is a major cause of) the recent violence.

(Incidentally, Dalrymple is not simply another Francophobe; in fact, he is retiring to France).

Officious bureaucracy, a latent (and sometimes overt) bigotry in French society, an economy stultified and inflexible labour laws that create diastrous unemployment, and the separation of these South African-style townships from the French cities has sown the seeds. Militant Islam is turning what would have simply been social problems into the fuel of deadly violence. Read this excerpt:
A profoundly alienated population is thus armed with serious firepower; and in conditions of violent social upheaval, such as France is in the habit of experiencing every few decades, it could prove difficult to control. The French state is caught in a dilemma between honoring its commitments to the more privileged section of the population, many of whom earn their livelihoods from administering the dirigiste economy, and freeing the labor market sufficiently to give the hope of a normal life to the inhabitants of the cités. Most likely, the state will solve the dilemma by attempts to buy off the disaffected with more benefits and rights, at the cost of higher taxes that will further stifle the job creation that would most help the cité dwellers. If that fails, as in the long run it will, harsh repression will follow.

But among the third of the population of the cités that is of North African Muslim descent, there is an option that the French, and not only the French, fear. For imagine yourself a youth in Les Tarterets or Les Musiciens, intellectually alert but not well educated, believing yourself to be despised because of your origins by the larger society that you were born into, permanently condemned to unemployment by the system that contemptuously feeds and clothes you, and surrounded by a contemptible nihilistic culture of despair, violence, and crime. Is it not possible that you would seek a doctrine that would simultaneously explain your predicament, justify your wrath, point the way toward your revenge, and guarantee your salvation, especially if you were imprisoned? Would you not seek a “worthwhile” direction for the energy, hatred, and violence seething within you, a direction that would enable you to do evil in the name of ultimate good? It would require only a relatively few of like mind to cause havoc. Islamist proselytism flourishes in the prisons of France (where 60 percent of the inmates are of immigrant origin), as it does in British prisons; and it takes only a handful of Zacharias Moussaouis to start a conflagration.

The French, after decades of ignoring, patronising, throwing money at problems instead of addressing them, are seeing the consequences of their failures; France will not be immune.

Read the entire column.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Bowing, prostrating, and R' Avraham ben haRambam 

After the destruction of the Temple, the practice of kneeling and prostrating oneself ceased to be a part of the Jewish prayer ritual. One major exception still exists, during the `alenu prayer on Rosh Hashana, and at certain points of the Yom Kippur service, in memory of the Temple ritual.

As someone with an (ironic, at times) admiration of the aesthetics of Islam, I always thought bowing was a cool part of worship. It seems that I am not alone. Prof RP Scheindlin, of JTS, writes (in Merchants, Intellectuals, Rabbis and Poets: Judeo-Arabic Culture in the Golden Age of Islam) about the strong Sufi influence on the philosophical book Hovot haLevavot of R' Bahya ibn Pakuda. He then talks about Islamic influences on prayer, noting that Maimonides codifies a requirement to wash the feet as well as the hands (see MT Hil. Tefillah 4:3; Ra'avad is stumped), that has no Talmudic basis and must have come from Islamic ritual. This is congruent with Rambam's admiration for the decorum and seriousness with which Muslims take the mosque.

Maimonides son, R' Avraham, goes further. Scheindlin notes that the Karaites had already adopted many Muslim mannerisms (eg sitting on the ankles, palms turned upward), R' Avraham tried to introduce many such rituals into rabbinic Judaism, as part of his effort to remodel Jewish thinking (in large part) along pietistic Sufi lines:
Many of these customs were adopted by Maimuni in his massive religious work, The Complete Guide for the Servants of God. Had Maimuni's recommendations been fully carried out, the morning prayer service would have included no fewer than 40 prostrations. He also ordained that, when the congregation rises to recite those prayers that must be said in a standing position, they are to stand in straight rows, a clear imitation of the discipline of the mosque so admired by his father.

But, as now, innovations that were seen as being from outside the tradition, especially those seen as emanating from other religions, were treated with suspicion, or worse. Thus
Anticipating objections on the grounds that his measures were innovations in religious practice and openly imitative of Islamic ways, he asserted that these practices actually originated in the Bible but had been forgotten because of the tribulations of Israel's history, and now had to be relearned from non-Jews (an argument that was used to justify many innovations in the Middle Ages, including the writing of poetry and the study of philosophy).

Fascinating stuff.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

BBC viewers commemorate Arafat 

The BBC has followed my lead and commemorated Arafat. In the BBC website's "have your say" section, reader comments are sought on Arafat's death, one year on (link here). Here are some of the choicest ones:
Yasser Arafat - a true, inspirational, dynamic and forthright leader of the times.

You'll always be remembered as the man who took a stand against Israeli tyranny

KEVIN ROONEY, Downpatrick

It's true. Because no other Arab leader had ever, y'know, tried to fight the Jews before...
In 500 years, when the history of this conflict is written, The sucessive US presidents and European Governments will be shown to have poor and immoral leaderships on this conflict. Yasser Arafat will remain a symbol of Freedom akin to Nelson Mandela. Controversial perhaps, but a symbol of man's ability to fight incredible odds and strive for somethign greater than himself. His place in history is assured of that I have no doubt.

Akram, London

Yes, just like Mandela. If Mandela had encouraged black South African children to blow themselves up in the middle of Cape Town and Johannesburg. And lied, pocketed at least $300 million while his people went hungry, and actually refused to come to terms with his opponents.

But this is the champion
I suggest that his name be posthumously changed to 'Yesser' Arafat as he was truly a man who welcomed peace in all its forms.

David Norton

I am speechless. Yes, I'm sure, if Clinton and Barak remember one thing about Arafat, it'll be that he's the man who just can't say no.

Truly, there are a lot of numbskulls out there. Interestingly, as BBC viewers and readers, they would tend to perceive themselves as some kind of intellectual elite.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

NZ politics are more like the US than I thought... 

Below is a map showing the party votes by electorate in the general election held in NZ last month. (US readers should note that, as opposed to the convention Red=Republican, here the blue denotes the conservative National Party, and red the left-liberal Labour Party).

A sea of blue, with a little sprinkling of red splotches. It just so happens that the red splotches include NZ's 5 largest cities, and Labour has ended up being able to put a government together. It seems that although the issues are different from those in American politics, the urban-rural split is as real as in the US:


(thanks: Rational Number)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The fall of the last taboo 

In his 1959 book This is My God, novelist and playwright Herman Wouk wrote an apologia for his Orthodox Judaism, defending it against the rampant proliferation of both secularism and non-Orthodox Jewish movements.

There was an episode in the book where Wouk contrasted the ultra-Orthodox Jew, with his old-world appearance and lack of savoir faire, with the modernised, Jewish American. The latter held the former in contempt, and was ashamed of him. At most, one could be a Jew in the home, but in the street, the moderniser resolved to be merely citizen. The intricate laws of the Sabbath and kashrut, the holidays and ther rituals -- were outmoded. However, even the frei Hebrew had his limits. In particular, if one were to suggest that pork had ever passed his lips, he would feel the need to satisfy his honour -- by physical means if necessary.

This meshes with history. Even though eating pork (at least in private) is not a yehareg ve'al ya`avor prohibition (one that someone must die rather than commit), Jews have historically submitted to death rather than eat pork, at least in public (see eg 2 Maccabees ch 7). And very often, a refusal to eat pork has been one of the last vestiges of commitment to Judaism to disappear, long after everything else has gone. Even those who may have eaten pork would do so in private, and not announce it to the world.

But things are changing. While some cling strongly to tradition (sometimes a little zealously, as I have noted...), the secular masses of the Jewish people are vanishing before our eyes. Both demographically, and in their connection to any form of Jewish practice, belief, or identity.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this article is symptomatic of a decline. The New York Times Style Magazine, an arbiter of what's cool for sophisticated urbanites around the world, has decided that pork is hip again. The article featured the opinions of top chefs extolling the hipness of swine-meat, and a discussion of a new book called Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them.

What did the author of the article, the author of the featured book on porcine cullinary and one of the quoted chefs have in common? They all have distinctly Jewish names.

In this day and age, nothing can be assumed from possession of a Jewish name. But either way, does it not state something significant that people who appear to be Jewish are publicly extolling the virtues of pig flesh. This is also not limited to America; Britain's most famous Jewish chef is also a propagator of pork.

It is understandable that the Jews who suffered under the Soviet Union, repressed and deprived of their religion, traditions and nationhood, became accustomed to pork -- and it is possible to sympathise with them in the problems this has caused in their move to Israel.

But in free countries where Jews have been successful and Judaism respected -- how can things have fallen so far?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Yasser Arafat -- memories 

It's hard to believe he has been gone for a year already.

So, to mark a year to the passing of Abu Amar, the Raїs, I present my dear readers with one of the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen. This is enough to give you nightmares.

Can someone identify for me the clergyman for whom Yasser was so fond? I have a feeling it may be Patriarch Ireneos I, but I am not sure.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

New link 

I have added the Dry Bones blog link to my blogroll (thanks in part to a surprise viist by the creator of Dry Bones, Mr Kirshcen, himself). He manages to sum up in a sketch the humour and sadness of being a Jew and an Israeli in a rather unfriendly world.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Shabbat Shalom 

Sabbatical greetings to all --
and a happy (and safe!) Guy Fawkes Night!

(to non-British/Kiwi/Commonwealth readers: Guy Fawkes Night , November 5th, commemorates the victory of intolerance, and the failure of the Papist gunpowder plot to blow up Parliament. We celebrate by letting off fireworks and burning an effigy of the chief conspirator).

Friday, November 04, 2005

A thought on Parshat Noah 

This week's Torah reading is Noah, the second portion of the Torah.

Something I noticed reading through the parsha, is in the wording, where God commands Noah how he is to save the animal species. First, read Bereshit (Genesis)7:2 --
מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה--אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם--אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ.
Of every clean beast, take seven of each -- man and his wife; from the beasts that are not clean, take two -- man and his wife;
and compare it with the next verse (7:3) --
גַּם מֵעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, לְחַיּוֹת זֶרַע, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ.
Also of the fowl of the air, seven of each, male and female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.
A noticeable difference between the two descriptions is the usage of the human-like description "אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ/man and his wife" rather than the "זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה/male and female" that one might expect (Onkelos doesn't read much into this, and translates here דכר ונוקבא as he does elsewhere).

Why is the Torah referring to animals using human terminology? "Ish" and "ishto" are human terms!

Bereshit 6:12 --
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה: כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ.
And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.
Rashi, in a famous commentary, explains the reference "all flesh" as including animals in the sinfulness as well (although Ramban points out that this is against the normal meaning of the word "בָּשָׂר"). Talmud Bavli (Sanhedrin 108a)explains the nature of the depravity and sexual perversion that was occurring. The animal kingdom were playing a full part in this, and deserved punishment alongside humanity.

So, what does this have to say about the wording "אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ/man and his wife"? I have a couple of thoughts on this point.

Perhaps, by referring to animals using human terminology, the Torah is telling us how low humans had sunk -- there was no longer any moral difference between them and animals, as they were reduced to their base instinctual nature. Or, that because of the prevalent perversion, humans saw animals as "men" and "women" (this meshes with the position of R' Yohanan in Sanhedrin).

But I also thought there might be a contrary message. Maybe the Torah is saying that the assumption that "humanity" is higher, and evil is somehow "animalistic" is not correct. We call a greedy person "a pig", a dishonourable person "a dog" etc. But animals are innocent of the yetzer hara` (evil inclination). Real, intentional, sin -- cruelty, perversion, wantonness -- are inherently human traits. This reminds me of a poignant passage from "Yosl Rakover Talks to God":
It is not true that there is something of the animal in Hitler. He is - I am utterly convinced of it - a typical child of modern man. Mankind has borne him and raised him and he is the direct, unfeigned expression of mankind's innermost, deepest-hidden urges.
By calling the antediluvean animals who had sinned "man and wife", the Torah is emphasising that violence and cruelty, חָמָס (hamas), is distinctly human.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

New links 

If you are eagle-eyed, you may notice two new links to your left.

Mar Gavriel's Sabbath Activities and Diqduq [diqduq: grammar (Hebrew)] is maintained by the eponymous (and psuedonymous?) Mar Gavriel. Mar Gavriel is a purveyor of random passages in Aramaic, as well as treatments of various scriptural, rabbinic, and other texts. As an additional bonus, we are treated to Gavriel's sabbath activities.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg), in addition to being a proponent of "God is a Trickster" theory, provides a unique take on Biblical passages. He has also been appointed Geek Orthodox Patriarch.

Calling all scholars of Mormonism 

I am aware that despite a declaration from the elders of the Mormon church, there is a sub-sect of the Mormon (LDS) Church that practises polygamy.

Although I am not at all familiar with the Book of Mormon, or the articles of faith of the LDS church, I am aware that they also respect the Bible.

This is why this is so confusing. It is not just the fact that a judge of all people has flouted the law of the state, but that it is a violation of express Biblical prohibition (Leviticus 18:18):
וְאִשָּׁה אֶל-אֲחֹתָהּ, לֹא תִקָּח: לִצְרֹר, לְגַלּוֹת עֶרְוָתָהּ עָלֶיהָ--בְּחַיֶּיהָ
And thou shalt not take a woman to her sister, to be a rival to her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her lifetime.
Perhaps the reasoning is that the Patriarch Jacob did so, when he married Rahel and Leah. This conflicts with the general belief of the Sages that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah (a good discussion of the problem can be found here).

Reliance on the actions of the forefathers notwithstanding, the rule of the Torah is now in force.

Why would someone would fashion their life around the principle of polygamy because their religious principles allow it, but do so in a fashion that violates Scripture?

If anyone is a scholar of LDS, and can explain this to me, that would be good.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

You don't exist but we'll kill you anyway 


Brilliance, from DryBones.

Trust a country where this is "justice" with nukes? 

As a post-script to President Ahmadinejad's comments, here is an example of the Iranian regime's justice system in action.

(Warning: pictures of mullahcratic barbarity may shock.)

I wonder if Helen and Winston would also find this "unhelpful"?

But of course the moral equivalence crowd say that they're to be trusted with nuclear weapons at least as much as the US and Israel

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