New York State Of Mind

Ok technically New Jersey, but close enough. Flights were delayed several hours bec of the weather. Long story short, I got on an “earlier” flight which landed 1 hour after I was planning on landing. At any rate, final essays are all done, loads on my mind, and now I actually have time to blog (for 2.5 weeks at least).
Loyal readers, this should be a fun week.
Now…must collapse

Posted in Personal.

Dear God

I’ve been working on two final essays for the quarter, so I’ve been slacking in blogging.
Really funny article on yahoo news. The Israeli Post office has been opening letters addressed to God and publishing excerpts of them on their website, sparking outrage from rights groups as a “violation of basic privacy laws.”
No mention if these rights would apply to the prayers people put in the Western Wall (“direct to the source”) or if herem D’R. Gershom applies to God’s mail.
Ok, back to work…

Posted in Personal.

Shabbat Shalom: Parashat Vayeitzei

I said I’d try to post some of my weekly divrei torah, so we’ll see how this goes. For now, just realize that this is part of the weekly Hillel announcements, and is hardly edited for mass publication. I usually have time for just a quick spell check, and sometimes not even that. Just try to enjoy what will probably be a unique interpretation of selected passages from the Torah reading or relevant midrashim.

The following was the most controversial derasha I gave last year as an intern (not typed verbatim – I’m in the middle of theorizing Judaism right now). If you feel you might be offended or otherwise upset, know that you have been warned.
It’s bothered me for some time that Leah tends to get shafted in Jewish thought. She is considered a secondary wife, and usually is viewed as inferior to her younger sister Rachel. As is my typical iconoclastic tradition (how’s that for a paradox) I suggest that Leah might deserve more admiration than we normally give her.

Bereishit 29:17 gives us the first descriptions of Rachel and Leah: Leah has “weak eyes” while Rachel was beautiful. However, these descriptions are not exactly parallel. Leah is described by how she views the world, and Rachel is defined by how she is viewed by others. While The Torah does not describe Leah’s appearance, it’s descriptions of their actions allows us to compare the utlook of the two sisters.

Although Leah’s having “weak eyes” is usually interpreted to be a physical deficiency, it is an adequate description for her “hashkafa” (outlook) on the world. Admittedly, Leah did get a raw deal. She gets forced into a marriage with someone who didn’t want to marry her, which probably created some resentment. We are told she was hated in 29:31 (although we are not told by whom in particular – perhaps by everyone). In naming her first three sons, Leah revealed more about her situation. 29:32 – Reuven is named because “God looked at my pain, for now my husband will love me.” However, things didn’t get much better, as Leah was still feeling pain and isolation from her husband and this was reflected in naming her next two sons Shimon and Levi (29:33-34).

For her fourth son, Leah doesn’t recall her situation. She simply calls him Yehuda as a thanks to God.(29:35) We are not told if anything changed between Leah and Ya’akov in the interim. It is clear, however, that she was going through a difficult time, and not surprisingly her faith was tested. Note her perception of Hashem’s involvement in her situation. First Hashem sees the pain (29:32), then he only hears the pain (29:33). In 29:34, Hashem isn’t even mentioned. However, when Leah names Yehuda she only mentions Hashem and nothing of her troubles. While it is possible that her marriage to Ya’akov improved during this time, the Torah gives no indication that it did. Rather, it seems that Leah was able to come to terms with her situation the best that she could.

Rachel, by contrast, is portrayed by the Torah as impatient if not impulsive. Out of jealousy, she demands Ya’akov give her children, to which Ya’akov responds that it’s in Hashem’s control, not his own (30:1-2). Rachel later demands the “dudaim” from Leah (30:14). When she finally has her first son, Rachel is hardly satisfied. She calls him Yosef – as if to say Hashem should give her another son (30:24). While Ya’akov prepares to flee from Lavan, Rachel steals her fathers idols and is less than forthcoming about admitting it. (31:19, 34-35) When she has her final son, she calls him “Ben Oni” – interpreted as “son of my pain.” (35:19)

Midrashically, many of these events are reinterpreted portraying Rachel more positively. Also in context, we cannot possibly know what Rachel was thinking at the time of each event. What we do know is that both Leah and Rachel faced different types of adversity (whose adversity was greater will also be subjective). Rachel, the beautiful one, never really matured. She handles her pain the same way up until the end, ruing her current situation. Leah, the one with the “weak eyes” developed her outlook, and gradually was able to accept if not enjoy her life. She might have had weak eyes, but they became stronger over time.

It’s just a matter of perspective.

Posted in Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah.

Random Revelations

The laptop arrived at the repair center before Thanksgiving. What this means practically, I do not know. However, there are a few things I did learn this week:

  • I have a new favorite place to work. (Thanks Miriam!)
  • I really hate macs.
  • AOL’s beta of IM looks much nicer, but it’s still buggy. (Random disconnects).
  • I need to do some editing on the blog design to account for smaller resolutions and variant color settings.
  • Structuralism ~= The Brisker Method (and not in terms of crispiness) – maybe more on this later.

Oh, and a hearty mazal tov to 2x former roommate Yossi Mandlebaum on his engagement to Carolyn Koch. (No onlysimchas link, God bless ’em).

Posted in Odds & Ends.

We’re #1!

It’s been slightly over a month since YUTOPIA moved from blogspot and we finally are the first website returned for “YUTOPIA.”
We’ve also returned the top link on Yahoo’s England search for “meaning of mendy in muslim religion.”
I am truly flattered.

Posted in Meta.

Happy Thanksgiving!

For the second consecutive year, I spent thanksgiving out of NY and thrown into someone else’s family dynamic. Wild and crazy family politics never tasted so good.
Actually, I enjoy the holidays more when the people are not so uptight and are just free to be their ususal wacky selves instead of putting on a show. There is no such thing as a “normal” family. Every one has their share of insane members. If a family seems perfect, that just means they bury the bodies in the basement.
Ever since the laptop has gone to meet its maker, I’ve been going through withdrawal. Hopefully I can get it back fixed soon, and I can finally get some work done (and stop my whining about it).
In other news…
Since I’ve been “elected” to the Yavneh board at Hillel I’ve been writing weekly divrei torah for the e-mail updates. Assuming I get it done early enough in the week, I may start posting some of the better ones. I will also be restarting the classes in rabbinic thought next quarter. Until I get suggestions or something comes up, I don’t expect to do any new ones right now. However, while I review the old sources, I’d like to finally write up the shiurim in (hopefully) intelligent essays.
Happy Holiday1 and Shabbat Shalom.

1. I suppose I could use “Hag Sameach” too. While Thanksgiving might not be a Jewish holiday, it does have the requisite sacrificial offering.

Posted in Personal.

Improving YU’s Kollel

Lacking a functional laptop, I’ve been working on a computer at the Hillel. I never thought I’d say this about YU, but their public computing system is far superior. Knowing it’s possible for YU to get some things right makes the politics all the more frustrating.
It’s far too easy to find faults in YU. Anyone can complain, but fewer offer plausible suggestions for improvement. On my mind today, specifically, is the YU smikha honors program.
YU’s rabbinics program, offers financial fellowships for students accepted into one of the honors programs. Most (perhaps all) of these programs require students to enroll in R. Hershel Schachter’s kollel, whereas the kollel is optional for other rabbincal students.
Similar to a “directed study” class, members of the kollel independently study talmud during the afternoon and are tested periodically. Failure to take or pass one of these tests will result in a delay in ordination.1
I recently had a conversation with someone who participated in this kollel and was somewhat critical of the testing system. According to this person, the tests are not so much on the talmud being studied as they are on R. Schachter’s thinking. If one is accustomed to R. Schachter’s derekh ha-limud system of learning, then these tests will not be unsual. However, the majority of rabbincal students have no prior experience studying with R. Schachter and would most likely be accustomed to a different system of learning. Since the honors program is contingent on the Kollel, the ramification is that in order for a rabbinical student to be elligible for an honors fellowship, he must eventually re-train himself to think like R. Schachter. This structure unnecesarilly restricts those talented rabbinical students who are not part of R. Schachter’system, especially since the kollel members are not actually taught by R. Schachter.2
I am not going to suggest modifying the kollel, but I do think YU has the resources to offer an alternative program for talented rabbincal students. Instead of testing the kollel students from a specific system, let the students develop as they have been trained. This can easily be accomplished by requiring these students to produce an article based on their learning of the year or of an important contemporary issue. Perhaps these articles could be published in a specialized kollel journal3 which would not only help fundraising, but it’s topics could contribute to the Jewish community at large. Therefore, rabbinical students who are so inclined may participate in the honors program with the intellectual freedom to develop their minds and the obligation to contribute to the Jewish community.
In my first-year class’s meeting with R. Lamm, someone asked the then-president why YU offers so many choices for smikha co-requisites and which one was “better.” Students can get an MA in education, social work, Judaic studies, or learn in kollel. What should a student do? R. Lamm sarcastically commiserated that YU has different options for different types of students. If YU is serious about its role in the Orthodox world, it cannot afford to allienate potential talent. It might be time for yet another option.

1. I personally did not participate in this kollel, opting for the M.A. from Revel instead. I am basing my assessments on the descriptions that I have heard from other people. The fundamental descriptions have been fairly consistent. If I am incorrect, let me know.
2. I am not evaluating R. Schachter’s system. I am merely acknowledging that there are other systems of learning, even within YU. For example, R. Tendler, R. Ben-Haim, R. Katz, and R. Weider all have unique styles of learning, none of which are R. Shachter’s.
3. Unlike “Beis Yitzchak,” this should be more accessible to the Jewish community, and the writing would be of a much higher caliber.

Posted in Jewish Culture.

A New Record!

I don’t want this to turn into Unbroken Glass especially after my earlier two posts about my personal life. However, I think I broke my record for quickest dating rejection:
Time: 50 minutes.
Reason: “Not mentally attractive.”
Completly unrelated, I have to send my laptop back for repairs, so blogging may be slow for a while. It’s really bad timing especially with the end of the quarter approaching, but dem’s the breaks.

Posted in Jewish Dating, Personal.

The Alphabet Of Ben Sira

A Not So Divine Comedy

Probably the most annoying part of attempting an ethnography of the CRC is the 2 hour commute (each way) via public transportation. On the other hand, I get to catch up on light reading. Today’s entertainment comes from Rabbinic Fantasies a collection of midrashim ranging from the Rabbinic Period through R. Nachman. Specifically, I was reading about the “Alphabet of Ben Sira” which is best known for giving us the midrash of Lilith. (And not to be confused with the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Ben Sira).
It’s a real shame this isn’t taught in Yeshivot – this stuff is off the charts on the unintentional comedy scale. According to the book, Ben Sira was the son of Yirmayahu and his daughter, though not through incestuous means. (I’d elaborate, but this is a family blog). At any rate, Ben Sira was born with a full set of teeth, the intelligence of an adult, and the personality of Stewie from Family Guy.
I quote from pages 171-172:

    “My son,” said his mother to Ben Sira, “don’t speak for the evil eye may fix its power on you.”
    “The evil eye has no authority over me. Besides, do not try to talk me out of doing what my father did. To me applies the proverb, ‘The ewe takes after the ewe, and the son follows the deeds of his father.'”
    “Why do you interrupt me my son?” his mother asked.
    “Because you know that I’m hungry, and you give me nothing to eat.”
    “Here, take my breasts. Eat and drink.”
    “I have no desire for your breasts. Go sift flour in a vessel, knead it into fine bread, and get fatty meat and aged wine – and you can eat with me.”

Awfully precocious for an infant, no? Just wait until he gets to school:

    Said the teacher, “You cannot be taught, for you are still too young. Our sages of blessed memory stated, ‘at the age of five years a child begins to study Bible.’ (Mishna Avot 5:24)”
    “But have you not learned,” Ben Sira asked, “The day is short, but the work is great’ (Mishna Avot 2:20)? And you tell me to sit and not to study because I am too young! In the cemetery I can see children younger than I who are dead. Who knows what will be, whether I shall live or die?”
    The teacher retorted, “How dare you instruct me! Our sages of blessed memory declared, ‘Whoever teaches the law in the presence of his teacher is deserving of death’ (B. Berakhot 31b).”
    Ben Sira replied, “You are not yet my teacher, for so far I have learned nothing from you.”

So, you might be wondering, what would a child like this be when he grows up? Well, later in his life he had an audience with Nebuchadnezzar (how he got there is an amusing story in its own right) and explained to him the answers of such philosophical questions as:

  • Why were farts created? (Ben Sira also cured Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter who had a thousand every hour. And you thought I had a hard time dating)
  • Why does the ox not have hair under its nose?
  • Why does the cat eat the mouse and not other rodents?
  • Why are the cat and dog enemies? (Thus explaining the history of cartoons in the process)

Remember that the guy asking these questions went on to command the army which destroyed the temple. For some reason, I would think he had more important things on his mind…or not.
Anyway, if you ever have two hours on the subway, The Alphabet of Ben Sira and Rabbinic Fantasies are highly recommended.

Posted in Random Acts of Scholarship.

Waiting On A Friend

My previous post “The Harm In Being Nice” generated a great deal of feedback. Thanks to everyone who posted, IMed, e-mailed, voted, and threatened. Although some people missed the point, just about everyone contributed something positive to the discussion.

I’d like to address some of the issues raised in the subsequent correspondence. I tried to address the phenomenon of why women would want nice guys as “just friends” as opposed to a more serious relationship. I argued that when a guy is loyal, considerate, emotionally sensitive etc. the woman would have the primary effect of a relationship without the commitment, employing the metaphor of “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free.”

This was just my attempt at explaining a phenomenon. Obviously, relationships are as complicated as the participants. Many people suggested contributing factors as “two sides of the same coin,” but the complexities more closely resemble AD&D dice. However, I couldn’t very well write about relationships with disclaimers every five sentences.1 That’s what followups are for.

Most people responded to the following scenario: woman breaks up with guy using the ever popular “you’re really nice, but…” line. Most of the time, this completely ends the relationship. My theory applies more to women who don’t want to date someone, but still want to maintain some friendship with the guy. I’m not saying that women should just continue dating someone just because. It’s possible the woman has her own legitimate reasons for not wanting to marry a guy, and she has her own reasons for not articulating them. I was taking the woman at face value: 1. that she thinks the guy is nice and 2. she just doesn’t “feel” it or see it going anywhere and that is why she is ending the relationship.

There could be any number of reasons why a woman wouldn’t want to continue dating a particular nice guy. She might not like the way he looks, they could have incompatible career goals, etc. Sometimes men come on way too strong which is also a turnoff. I also must stress that “niceness” is not a substitute for “personality.” Simply going through the motions of politeness just means you’ve been trained well – but it doesn’t say anything about who you are.2 Niceness might not cause a breakup, but niceness alone will not lead to marriage. If I may get biblical, sur mera must be followed by ase’ tov.

Can mixed friendships exist as healthy relationships? I think so under certain circumstances.3 Being able to talk to the other gender is not only useful for advice or different perspectives, but it also trains people to view the other gender as “people.” As early as high-school (perhaps earlier) the Orthodox world indoctrinates men and women about the dangers of temptation.4 The intent is admirable – to prevent rampant immorality and various other forms of sinning – and for the most part it succeeds (or at least better than the alternative). There is however an unintended consequence. By constantly emphasizing the avoidance of temptation, one is in fact placing temptation at the forefront. If every time I look at a woman I think, “must…avoid…temptation,” then I am really looking at the woman as a sex object to be avoided, rather than as a person.5

On the other hand, there can be downsides as well (aren’t there always). The hurt of the rejection will be proportional to the feelings felt by the rejected person. If these feelings are too strong, then a person might not be able to “get over” the rejection while maintaining a friendship. To use another personal example, there was a woman whom I liked and dated, and we broke up in the typical fashion. When I found that maintaining contact was too difficult for me emotionally, I withdrew. Recently, I was able to speak to her about a personal event,6 and she provided very useful insights.

As I mentioned, relationships are complicated and no single theory will account for all cases. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it and see what patterns have effected our own personal lives. For yet another perspective, see this salon article which comes courtesy of Dr. Manhattan.7

On that note, the poll results are in. With a whopping 68 people voting:
49% – Stay nice – just stop being such a wimp (33 votes)
43% – Stay nice – Something good will turn up eventually (29 votes)
6% – Get a complete attitude adjustment – might require mental reprogramming and/or lobotomy (4 votes)
3% – Stay nice – might not work for you, but why should everyone else lose out? (2 votes)

The clear majority says I should stay nice, with some discrepancy as to how or why. Some are pure optimists, while most voted that I should develop some sort of spine. I will start by not letting a silly internet poll determine my behavior. (I’ve been getting better at being nice without becoming a doormat and I will continue to do so).

I’ve also tracked down one of the people who suggested the lobotomy, and I’m looking for the others.

The final 3% of you are just selfish bastards.

1. And really, who reads footnotes?
2. Ignoring for now how long someone should give as a chance to “be him/herself”
3. Yes, I have seen When Harry Met Sally.
4. For more details and what some people are doing about it see End The Madness.
5. Before people start yelling at me about this, I’m not saying that we should let everything go. I’m just saying that there can be unintended consequences. When I was in Gruss a few years ago, R. Miller gave us mussar that married couples were too friendly with other’s spouses. He did not elaborate as to what “too friendly” meant, but I can assure nothing major happened. I think that this mentality reinforces how the people were raised in treating interactions with women as primarily being sexual.
6. The “.5” from the last post found this website.
7. Who ironically lives in the Bronx now.

Posted in Jewish Dating, Personal, Society.