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.

Sage Of The Age

Got a link for a quiz on 80’s music. No surprise on the results.

(And that’s without using Google to cheat)

Posted in Popular Culture.

Walking With Rabbi Miller

Looking for a good deal on Artscroll’s Stone Chumash (BN.com has it cheaper btw), I noticed their new book, “Walking With Rabbi Miller.”
I was somewhat disappointed that it’s about Rabbi Avigdor Miller and not Rabbi Israel Miller or his unheralded son Rabbi David Miller who barely has any mention of him on the web. Nothing against R. Avigdor Miller at all, but I think that serious Modern Orthodox Jews would benefit greatly from a book about R. Israel Miller and his family.
I only recall meeting R. Israel Miller once. When I was in Gruss a few years ago, we had a Hanukkah haggigah at his son’s apartment which was next door to his. He passed away a few months later. Those who know the Miller family know how unique they all are. For those that don’t, I can’t do them justice here.
I don’t know if the family is working on a book. If they’re not, someone should. Without any embellishments, it would be inspirational and a refreshing change from the typical mythic “gadol du jour” books and a must read for every Modern Orthodox Jew.
Any volunteers?

Posted in Jewish Culture.

Theorizing Asceticism In Rabbinic Literature

Thanks to everyone for their comments, e-mails, and IM’s about the “nice guy” post. Please feel free to continue sending in feedback. I’ll do a follow up sometime in the next week and a half or so.

Also, many thanks to Potter for telling me about ieSpell – a free spell checker for IE text boxes. Highly recommended – especially for bloggers.
Tomorrow I should be giving my presentation in the Theorizing Religion class on asceticism in rabbinic literature. The professor is writing a book and is using the class for feedback. I have an assignment to critique his thesis in general, and I’ll post that when it’s ready. In the meantime, I will focus on the current topic of discussion of Virtuosi Practices: Asceticism.

Dr. Riesebrodt views ascetic practices as the accepting of crisis upon oneself for the purposes of alleviating the crises of the laity. Meaning, when the virtuosi accepts the crisis on himself, the masses will reevaluate and devalue their own personal crises. This acceptance of crisis – or what would normally be considered crisis by the laity – may lead to an empowerment of some kind to perform some miraculous acts and to gain eternal life.1

I did not find sources in Rabbinic Literature which corresponded completely with the thesis. Most ascetic practices would either have a different purpose, and those actions which served the purpose are not typically “ascetic.” Fasting, would be a classic example of an ascetic practice. However, the virtuosi do these acts not for the masses to look upon their suffering and feel better about themselves but for repentance. R. Zadok fasted over 40 years so that the Temple would not be destroyed (B. Gittin 56a). Certain “individuals” fast during a period of drought, but if the drought continues this obligation extends to the community.(M. Taanit 1:4-5)2

There are instances of Rabbis going to extreme lengths to do mitzvot – especially facing financial hardship. When Hillel couldn’t afford the admission to the study hall, he climbed to the roof and was buried by snow.(B. Yoma 35b) This is certainly not a typical ascetic practice, but it does put the individuals’ daily struggles in perspective. Considering what Hillel did, it’s not so unreasonable for the masses to fit in some learning during the day.

These however are exceptional cases; normative Rabbinic law eschews personal asceticism.3 Shmuel calls someone who fasts (presumably optionally) a “sinner” and Reish Lakish says that a Sage is not allowed to fast because it will interfere with his “real” obligations.(B. Taanit 11a, 11b). Another formalized ascetic practice would be the Nazir who may not drink wine or get a haircut. The Talmud explains that even R. Elazer, who stresses that the Nazir is “sacred,” would only do so when there is no personal suffering.(ibid)4 Even in the event of drought, one should not necessarily resort to virtuosi practices. R. Shimon Ben Shetach nearly excommunicated Honi for his famed prayer in the circle.(M. Taanit 3:8)5

Dr. Riesebrodt’s thesis, as presented here, partially works for Rabbinic Judaism or at least from the sources I have seen.6 The definition of “crisis prevention” should be expanded to include vicarious suffering or repentance on behalf of the masses. Other Rabbis held themselves to a higher standard of observance, but I would not classify those actions as “ascetic.” I don’t know of any explicit sources which describe individuals accepting ascetic practices for the purpose of alleviating the crisis of the masses. If anyone knows of something I might have missed, please let me know. (Just try to understand I’m trying to keep this short and I can’t cite every possible source).

For further reading on asceticism in Rabbinic Literature, see Sara Epstein Weinstein’s Piety and Fanaticism. For general stringencies, see the “Humra” mekorot (parts 1 and 2) and the section on Rabbinic and Communal Leadership from my mahshevet hazal shiurim.


1. Condensed version of the thesis. I will elaborate more in the overall review.
2. And even the “individuals” may be more inclusive. See B. Taanit 10b
3. M. Avot 6:4 does prescribe to live a life of privation. However, the 6th chapter of Avot is not Tannaitic. This statement does appear in later midrashic sources, but not anywhere in either the Jerusalem or Babylonian Talmud. There is no indication that wealthy rabbis like R. Chisda gave away all their money to follow this “mishna.”
4. R. Elazer HaKappar in the name of Rabbi emphasizes that the Nazir is a “sinner.” This dispute is commonly assumed to be between Rambam and Ramban with Rambam taking the position of Elazar HaKappar. Ramban only partially follows R. Elazer. See Ramban on B’Midbar 6:14.
5. He didn’t because he couldn’t argue with the results. The result is that it should by no means be considered to be a normative or accepted practice.
6. Technically, it works a little better than as presented here, but I don’t have time to explain the intricacies of the thesis.

Posted in Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship.

The Harm In Being Nice

I’ve resisted posting things based on my personal life mostly because I don’t know who reads this site. (Or paradoxically, because I know exactly who reads this site). However, I think the following observations might be useful to enough loyal readers to warrant revealing part of my personal life to the public.
Skipping most of the back-story, I recently went out with someone. We had a total of two dates in the span of roughly three weeks1 and things were going relatively smoothly.2 This past Friday, I called her up to wish her a “Shabbat Shalom” and to shmooze for a bit. Long story short, after telling me how nice I am, what a great guy I am, and what a great time she had, she said she didn”t want to continue dating because she couldn”t see it going anywhere, or in her words, “I can”t see us raising grandchildren together.” 3
This is hardly the first time this has happened to me, and I think it”s happened to several other guys as well. We”re nice, considerate, otherwise great guys and perhaps what a person is looking for, but for some reason this isn’t enough.
This used to frustrate me greatly. Honestly, I don’t hold a grudge against anyone – everyone is entitled to make decisions which they feel will gring them the greatest happiness. However, being at U of C pretending to be an academic, I decided to analyze this phenomenon. And like all good pseudo-academics, we have to first define our terms. What makes a guy a “nice” guy” My experience is that generally they will have several of – but not limited to – the following characteristics: kind, polite, sensitive, considerate of others feelings and emotions, often funny, often intelligent, good sense of the world, and will treat someone with respect. Sounds like a “nice guy,” no? If you’re female, it might sound like a typical shidduch offer, and odds are you’d be turned off immediately. If you meet someone like this in a normal setting, you might like him, but only as a friend – even though he might be a perfect match for you.4
Why then is it that the nice guys so often finish last? How can being nice actually be a turn off and harm someone”s chances for a meaningful relationship? I think the answer can be found in an old adage which usually has a different connotation:

“Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?”

The usual interpretation is that since men are only interested in one thing. Once they get it, they would see no need for a commitment i.e. marriage. I think the same logic holds true for women. Assume the popular myth that women want an emotional connection of some sort. If there is a “nice guy” around, she can the emotional support she needs from someone without having to commit. She may be able to confide in him, have him work around her apartment, help her with just about any crisis, and she doesn”t have to make any sort of commitment back to him. The guy will obviously put up with it, because after all, he’s “nice” and this is what nice people do.
So if there’s a person who is willing to do all this for you – with nothing in return, why would you consider a serious relationship with this person” You can go find someone else who is cooler, richer, better looking, or anything else and still have that “nice” person around when you need him or if nothing else works out.
Cow, Milk, Free.
I should note that there can be exceptions – in my case roughly 1.5 exceptions.5 But overall, I see that there can be a few options and I”m opening this up to discussion. What should people like me – us “nice guys” – do to get out of this?
The poll is open and will be for about two weeks. Comment as necessary below.
Poll Has Been Closed
See the followup post: Waiting On A Friend
The poll has now been closed, You may still view the results or if you’re too lazy to click the link:
43% – Stay nice – Something good will turn up eventually (29 votes)
3% – Stay nice – might not work for you, but why should everyone else lose out” (2 votes)
49% – Stay nice – just stop being such a wimp (33 votes)
6% – Get a complete attitude adjustment – might require mental reprogramming and/or labotomy (4 votes)

1. We were supposed to have had a third date sometime in there, but I got stood up.
2. Intentionally omitting details.
3. Which reminded me of the most comical breakup line I once got from someone in Israel: “I can”t go out with you anymore, because if I keep speaking to you, it would be bad.” How true. How very true.
4. I’m not talking about guys who come on too strong. I can understand how guys who throw themselves at women aren’t terribly attractive, and could probably use the system
5. No, I will not elaborate.

Posted in Jewish Dating, Personal, Society.