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.

MSNBC’s Kabbalah Corner

Does anyone else find interesting how much MSNBC covers the new-age Kabbalah craze? It could just be the standard mocking of stupid celebrities. Not only are people like Madonna and Britney prime journalistic fodder, but they won’t have to worry about the Kabbalah center suing them into oblivion for defamaiton unlike some other “religious” institutions.1
For example, in a recent Newsweek interview which appeared on MSNBC:

When Spears talks about the South Asian musical influences on ?In the Zone,? she says she?s ?been into a lot of Indian spiritual religions.? When asked if one of them is Hinduism, she says, ?What?s that? Is it like kabbalah??

So she’s not exactly a religion major.2 It’s possible she has some insightful comments about comparative religion. I doubt it considering her teacher has some trouble keeping her own Kabbalah straight. See for example, MSNBC’s review of Madonna’s new children’s book, Mr. Peabody’s Apples:

In her introduction, Madonna explains that ?Mr. Peabody?s Apples? is based on a 300-year-old Ukrainian tale called ?The Baad Shem Tov.? [sic] She says her instructor in Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, first turned her on to the story, which aims to demonstrate the power of words.

This could be a simple typo on the part of Madonna or MSNBC. Frankly I’m curious if Madonna knows something we don’t (undoubtedly she does, but regarding Jewish History. On second thought, scratch that too). Did the Baal Shem Tov have an evil twin? Or maybe this guy was a Hassid from the ‘Hood?
At any rate, I’m sure MSNBC will continue to humiliate the these two for many months to come. They just make it too easy.

1. What, you’d think I’d mention them by name? They scare me.
2. But a poster child for not learning Kabbalah until one turns 40. Incidentally, Madonna easilly meets the age requirement.

Posted in Odds & Ends, Popular Culture, Religion, Society.

Midterm Meltdown

I finished my take-home midterm today – to wiped now to do much. Next week, I give a presentation for Theorizing Religion on Asceticism In Rabbinic Judaism. Obviously, it wlil be a little different than my shiurim because of the nature of the class. Still, I get to do a quick intro to Talmud with a little mahshevet hazal thrown in. Not bad for a “secular” college.

Posted in Personal.

Marathon Woman

A big y’yasher kochech to Fresh Samantha on completing the NYC Marathon in her first attempt!
Her overall time of 8:24:51 earned her a close 34,649 place overall, 11,701 for women, and 2,906 for her age group.
8.5 hours of running – I’m getting tired just thinking about it. If you have a spare moment, pop on over to her site and share the love.
Congrats Samantha!

Posted in Odds & Ends.

Rapture and Reconstructionism

Shavua Tov everyone.
A few things on my mind before I get back to the take home midterm. The first is a response to a critique I found on Heimishtown. In my earlier rant on hareidi community I used the phrase “ever so humble self-proclaimed ‘Gedolei Torah.'” Heimishtown rightly points out that in that article the term “Gedolei Yisroel” was used not by the Rabbis themselves, but by the Yated Ne’eman Staff. My understanding is that the term “Gedolei Yisroel” is not just used by the masses to refer to their rabbis. The specific reference was to the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. If the rabbis are not part of the same organization, then I apologize for the incorrect attribution.
On a slighly different note, we had an interesting speaker come to the Hillel this week: Rabbi Dan Aronson, the Dean of Admissions at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). I must compliment him on two things. First, he carried himself like a professional. He was always polite and civil despite some rather obnoxious comments by a particular audience member (not me). Second, I always have a degree of respect for someone who admits when he doesn’t have an answer and he has to think about it some more. While this is an ethic commended in Avot 5:7 (or 5:6 in the Rambam’s version), many Rabbis I’ve met would instead fall in the alternative category of the Golem.
At any rate, there were two major critiques I had of Reconstructionism as he described it. The first is really more of a critique of Mordechai Kaplan, the movement’s founder. Admittedly, I have not read much of Kaplan myself, so for now I will rely on what I heard from R. Aronson. As stated on the RRC website, Reconstructionists “define Judaism as the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people.” R. Aronson then defined what he meant by “evolving,” “religious,” and “civilization.” However, I noticed he did not define what was meant by “Jewish.” It seems to me that this is a circular definition in that the term “Jewish” is used to define “Judaism.” Kaplan would certainly hold that some people are not considered “Jews,” but I do not know what that precise definition would be. Even resorting to ideas like a “symbol set” or relevant ethics, he would probably not say that a Christian who held these ideas would in fact be Jewish.
The other critique is more fundamental to the purpose of Reconstructionism. As presented to us, Kaplan was trying to stem rampant assimilation. Judaism needed to undergo consious changes in order to survive – the “traditional” model would not be sufficient to maintain the Jewish people. Judaism As a Civilization was published in 1934 (if memory serves). Not being alive then, I cannot possibly know what was the reality of Jewish life in America. However, despite the numerous problems througout the “traditional” world, I would think that it’s still in relatively good shape in that it’s not going anywhere. Yes, assimilation still happens, but I would say that I don’t think that the “traditional” models are going to disappear any time in the near or distant future.
Finally, there was one particularly poignant observation from one of the audience members. Kaplan writes about the need for Judaism to evolve in order for it to survive. However, he does not explan why Judaism ought to survive. What would make the “Jewish” set of understandings significant enough to warrent perpetuating? If it is just to preserve the history, then we could easily set up a museum for it and cease any form of observing it at all. Kaplan’s stated goal of combating assimilation only makes sense if there is something in Judaism that’s worth not only keeping, but keeing vibrant and alive. If there is indeed something inherently significant to Judaism – it cannot be divine by its nature since Reconstructionists do not belive in divine revelation of the Torah – then what would it be?
R. Aronson recommended Exploring Judaism as a good text to understand more about Reconstructionist Judaism. If there are any experts in Reconstructionism out there, feel free to post your comments.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship.

Shabbat Shalom: Parashat Noach

It’s been an unusally busy blogging week for me, which usually means I’ve either been hyper, annoyed, or both. Let’s end the week on a positive note, shall we?
Here it is “Arky, Arky” or “Rise and Shine”
Click here to sing along!
Guitar choirs: C F C DM7
(Chorus) Rise and shine and give God the glory-glory (x3)
Children of our God.
God said to Noah, “There’s gonna be a floody, floody” (x2)
Get those children out of the muddy, muddy, Children of our God.
Noah, he built him, he built him an arky, arky (2X)
Made it out of gopher barky, bary. Children of our God.
All of the animals, they came in by two-zies, two-zies (x2)
Elephant and kangaroozies, roozies. Children of our God.
Rained and poured for fortyday-zies, dayzies (x2)
Nearly drove those animals crazies, crazies. Children of our God.
Dove went out to take a peeky, peeky (x2)
Dove came back with twig in her beaky, beaky. Children of our God.
This is the end of, the end of our story, story (x2)
Everything is hunky-dory, dory. Children of our God.
(Lyrics from a comment here)
Shabbat Shalom
For added shabbat fun, try using this tune for D’ror Yikra and perhaps benching. Extra points if you don’t accidentally start singing Carlebach’s “Shomrim”

PlayPlay
Posted in Meta.

Golemic Proportions

One last post today and then I am so done. In honor of Halloween, MSN’s Learning and Reseach Center rates nine scary monsters from various cultures.
The Golem gets a 4:

Sometime around 1500, it seems, a certain Rabbi L?w [sic] of Prague decided to build a tireless servant. He shaped a heap of clay into a crude humanoid, muttered a spell and–say hello to the golem, a powerful pile of mindless matter that follows its master’s orders relentlessly.
Needless to say, it didn’t work out as hoped.

Three issues:
1. “Muttered a Spell” – I think even the Kabbalah Center would be upset with that description
2. “build a tireless servant” – Hey, the water carrier thing was just a cover for his true purpose – to thwart the blood libels attempted by the anti-semitic peasentry. (oh, and once to rescue a Jewish woman who was raised Catholic). I used to read the comics in the Jewish Press, and they wouldn’t mislead me. Not about this anyway.
3. Here’s the kicker: “Didn’t work out as hoped”??? What does that mean? Does anyone know of stories that involved the Golem going on murderous rampages? Ok, maybe the evil anti-semitic peasants got their blood libel plans foiled, but hey, they deserved it. And as we all should know from the X-Files, the golem only exists to extract revenge on the enemies of the Jews or to serve as their protectors like that episode of Gargoyles. Even Mendy got along with his golem.
Sorry, I’m in a bad mood today.

Posted in Jewish Culture.