Richard M. Joel’s Investiture

YU posts on their website the text of Richard Joel’s inaugural address. It seems like a great speach – eloquent and more important, grounded in reality. This is where I find he differs from his predecesor. R. Lamm’s speaches and visions were abstract. While we would talk about the “ideas” of Torah U’Madda, he lost sight of what was actually happening in his own university. Joel appears to be more pragmatic. Not only does his have a vision, but his vision relates to what YU actually is at this point. Whereas R. Lamm rarely spoke to the students, Joel’s own children are recent students in the YU system.

I admire Joel’s commitment to excellence. YU certainly has the capacity to be at the forefront of numerous fields. There is no reason why Azrieli shouldn’t produce the leaders of Jewish education. Revel, with it’s impressive faculty should produce top-notch Jewish academics (and in fairness, they are improving). The major problem facing Joel is that he must change the culture of mediocrity prevelant throughout YU. Far too many people just want to “go through” YU without letting YU go through them. For most students, the plan is to get out as quickly as possible while doing the minimal amount of work. To establish a culture of excellence at YU, Joel must either change the attitude (not likely), or he must develop a critical mass of students with which he can gradually reshape the institution.

I don’t know if Joel has specific plans for how to change the culture of YU. If he does, he wisely didn’t annouce them. Part of the culture at YU is the automatic resistance to any forms of change. If anyone wants to make an imporvement, someone will resist. Thus, any attempts at progress will almost always be undermined. (Sort of like Newton’s third law of motion). Right now, I’m optomistic that Joel has a good sense of what needs to be done at YU. I can only hope he will be successful.

Posted in Academia. Tagged with , .

Sweet Home Chicago

The move is done – I’m finally here in the windy city. With much help from my mom, we the move went surprisingly smoothly. We rented a Buick Century from National. The rate wasn’t horrible considering it was a one-way rental. Ironically, we picked a car with IL plates. The trunk was massive and we got incredible mileage – the entire trip took 1.5 tanks of gas. Including two rest-stops, we were able to do the trip in about 12 hours. It helps when you can average between 70-95 MPH.

Coolest name in my building: M. Powers.

The accommodations rated a “Very Nice” on the JMSTM (Jewish Mother Scale). I basically have everything I need here and the area doesn’t look much worse than Washington Heights. The only real down side is that I have an 18 min walk to get to campus which will get really annoying in the sub-zero winters. I might be getting DSL here which will help with the blogging (and hopefully research).

Orientation is this Tues, followed by registration Wed-Fri, and classes start on Tzom Gedalia. So, I have one more slow day to settle in before the craziness starts.

Posted in Personal.

Ch – Ch – Ch – Changes

As I wrote in the title, this is my “sometimes” updated blog. I’ve tried to keep the posts here intelligent and/or humerous and to post only when I had something to say, or more importantly, the time to say it. There’s the rub. This week I am finally moving to Chicago and trying to get the student loans and finances in order. It’s an exciting opportunity, but terribly nerve-wracking. At any rate, I doubt I will be able to blog until after I’m done moving and things calm down.

Also, I have been told that the new YUCS machine is in, and assuming I can get a redesign done, I will be moving the blog over there. Not that I have anything wrong with Blogger, but MoveableType is a more powerful system which includes a superior commenting system than what I’m using now (not that I get so many comments, but just in case…).

So, by the time I post again, I’ll be in a new state on a new server.

“Turn and face the strange” indeed.

Posted in Personal.

The Pluralism Equation

Continuing my “Greatest Hits” blogging (while moving away from the Purim Torah), I wanted to revisit my Pluralism Equation. During my second year of smikha, I participated in Clal’s Rabbinic Internship Program. One of the goals of this program was to promote pluralistic dialogue between the various denominations, and they accepted a diverse group of students. In addition to myself, my group consisted of one student from Chovevei Torah, one student from Drisha (though not techinically a “rabbinical” student), one student from AJR, one from RRC, two from JTS, and two from HUC (one of whom graduated Cardozo Law School which makes him a YU graduate).

Dealing with controversial issues usually leads to heated conversations which are usually not productive. Instread, we spent the first half of the year gradually getting to know each other before we got to the serious and sensitive subjects. Furthermore, even before we began to discuss the issues, we were asked to create ground rules for our pluralistic dialogue to avoid inadvertanly offending each other. I don’t remember if anything specific was said which prompted me to write the following, but I felt the need to express my throught on pluralism in general. The following is a slightly modified version of what I submitted as a premise to my “Rules of Engagement.”

The Pluralism Equation
Before we can discuss the rules for “pluralism” discussions, we must first understand that essentially, all such definitions of “tolerance” or “acceptance” as it relates to pluralism are fundamentally the same. Every Jewish movement has its positions and every individual has his/her own interpretation of those positions. I will argue that for any given movement, or any given interpretation, there must exist some position(s) which will be considered “beyond the pale” of what is acceptable. If a movement defines itself as “Jewish” then it places certain restrictions or limitations on itself to justify that definition.

Allow me to demonstrate:

Let y[] be the set of all possible ideas. The set of ideas which cannot be tolerated or accepted, for lack of a better term I will call such ideas “bad,”1 will be represented as x[]. The contents of x[] will vary from denomination to denomination, and person to person.
P[luralism] is then the acceptance of the set of all ideas minus the set of bad ideas. Our formula may then be written as

y[] = 1
x[] = [bad0..badn] // Any set of someone’s “bad” things.
P = y[] – x[]

All movements and all denominations must follow this formula. In order for this formula to be significantly different, the set x[] must be empty in which case a movement or individual is accepting/tolerant of all possible ideas. Since this is extremely unlikely if not impossible,2 x[] will have a size of at least 1 and the equation remains meaningful. As long as there is something bad in x[], there is something which we do not accept/tolerate, we are placing our own defined restrictions on others. Although the size and contents of x[] may vary, the result is the same: people will accept/tolerate everything up to an arbitrary point.

This holds true for the different denominations of Judaism. The crux of this pluralism debate is twofold: The contents of x[] as it relates to Judaism as a religion and the contents of x[] as it relates to what is unacceptable opinions for discourse. Regarding x[] as it relates to Judaism, there must be some ideas which cannot be compatible with Judaism. Or for example, the idea of human sacrifices would not be acceptable/tolerated according to any of the Jewish movements. The same equation can be applied to the dialogue itself: a group will have discussions with another, provided certain conditions are met. Complete “pluralism” in this sense cannot exist. The point of this is to realize that everyone has their own standards and their own breaking points or “red lines” and therefore will have their own ultimatums for acceptance/tolerance. Therefore “pluralism” requires 1) acknowledging that we all have our own boundaries and 2) recognizing each individual’s boundaries. I have included a sheet to keep track of each individual’s boundaries.3 Questions and comments should be customized to the individual.

1. In that it is bad for an individual’s or a limited collective’s definition of Judaism, not in any objective global sense. For example, eating pork isn’t objectively bad, but it is unacceptable for some Jews.
2. Any system which is accepting/tolerant of all possible ideas would be nihilistic and anarchistic.
3. Note that this does not imply agreement, acceptance/tolerance, or legitimization for specific opinions.

Redux – not in the original submission
I don’t think I said anything new in this piece and I would be surprised if I found out I was the first person who said this (maybe not in this exact style, but I guess I was still feeling the effects of Discrete Structures). At any rate, I do get annoyed when I am told I “ought” to be more pluralistic since in essence I am being denied the very right to formulate my own opinions in deference to others. For example, one of the Clal memebers didn’t understand why Reform conversions were not accepted in Israel since after all, “we’re all Jews.” Not getting into the religious/political dynamic of Israel, if someone wants the right to define who is a Jew in his/her own way then that is their free will to do so. However, if one person or group wants the ability to define who is a Jew on the grounds of Pluralism, then they cannot deny the rights of others to do the same even if their definitions are mutually exclusive.

I remember R. Lamm writing someplace that if tolerance isn’t when you can see two legitimate opinions – that would be not making up your mind. Tolerance is when you firmly belive in something and can deal with others who disagree. You can therefore be an Orthodox pluralist and not be apologetic. You can give people the right to different opinions, and retain your right to your own. The nature and tone of the dialogue is not unique to religion, but basic civility of discourse.

Update: R. Lamm discussed pluralism at one of YU’s Dorm Talks not too long ago. Thanks Avraham!

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Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava.

Masechet Bava Commie

The previous two posts were technically before my smikha days. My first year in smikha was also one of the more auspicious years in YU’s PR history. It started when YU removed stacks of the Commentator from Belfer Hall right before the annual open house. An embarrassed YU eventually compensated the Commie for the papers, but the fun didn’t stop there.

The story hit the mainstream press with YU being the evil supressor of free speach. The New York Times reported the story, and coincidentally was itself removed from campus. R. Lamm was even disqualified from US News’ ignominious Sheldon Award because “administrators are supposed to look the other way, not conduct the thefts themselves.” Of course, YU couldn’t do much about US News since they rely on them too much for their annual college rankings.

Censorship extented to Judaic Studies as well. Some of YU’s Roshei Yeshiva criticized the new Bible journal Nachalah and several copies also turned up “missing” after the SOY Sefarim Sale (it turned out that the Nachalah staff was to blame – since no one came to pick up the unsold issues, facilities management removed them.) Finally, the integrity of SOY’s prized publication “Beis Yitzhack” was compromised when two students dared to not only quote R. Saul Lieberman, but they actually treated him with respect.

With all this happening, we couldn’t just let this go by. I never attempted a fake gemara before, but this was too good to pass up. Ben came by my aparment and we created Masechet Bava Commie. While many fake gemaras just tell a story as it might appear in the Talmud, we quoted and paraphrased actual gemaras, rashis, and tosafot, weaving the shtick with actual sources to the point where we should have included mekorot with the Purim issue.

Posted in Shtick.


This next one came almost by accident. I was fooling around with an image editing program and I noticed one of the filters – I think it was called “charcoal” – created a similar effect as the Les Misérables poster.

That year most of the CS majors were not fans of the MIS department. This was probably due to MIS’ incompetence and stupidity.

After some more crude graphic work, I came up with:


The original plan was to have a completle musical, but we ran out of time and talent. So we just listed song titles, some of which made sense (Empty Chairs and Broken Cables), others private jokes (no more 501), and others were supposed to be changed before we went to print (Lovely Ladies).

It turned out that we didn’t need to write lyrics because people were making up words on their own. Go figure.

Posted in Shtick.

Hamevaser – The Song

One of the perks of doing the web page for The Commentator was that I had more input than I should have had with the Purim issues. For example, my first year I got the purim issue titled The Ordinary Potato (the common tater). The second year the purim issue was called Commie Sutra. This was also my doing, the result of an offhanded comment to Yishai Fleisher on the subway.

Around this time, I was also co-Editor-In-Chief of Hamevaser. This didn’t last terribly long. But, as I’ve done on other occasion, when I get too frustrated with something, I write a song parody. As you can imagine, the result is often strange or disturbing (and since I’ve learned to play guitar I can even do live performances). The following was one of my many collaborations with Ben Sandler and originally published in the Commie Sutra.

In Tribute to Dennis Leary (Sorry – no midi link available)

I’m just a regular Joe, an above average Jew
I spent two years at Gush, then I came toYU
I like Buber, and Plato, and books about Kant
I say “existential” whenever I want
My logic is flawless, my intellect pure
I’m a philosophy major, in Rav Rosenswieg’s shiur

But sometimes that just ain’t enough
To keep a man like me interested
oh no
no way
uh uh

So I’ve gotta go out
and get a mag with an elitist pretense
yea yea,
yea yea,
yea yea
yea yea yea yea yea

They hang out with guys named J, E, P, D
They talk about gout with Rabbi Carmy.


After one issue they fired Josh Yuter
Got Yehudit – ’cause Aton thinks she’s cuter


We try to find spouses in top Revel classes
I hear that the ladies go for guys in thick glasses


What if Tradition won’t publish this song?
What if I’ve strayed from the Rav’s Weltanschauung?
Maybe they’re right when they say that I’m wrong…

The Rant:

You know what I’m gonna do?
I’m gonna go back to that Hesder Yeshiva on a hill
and get myself a big M-16… with no safety
and I’m gonna get a huge kippa sruga
and a Breuer Tanach and big black beard and
a big, smelly, cigarette and a degree from the Machon.

And then I’m gonna come back here and teach intro to Bible
and tell everyone who just came back from Yeshiva in Israel
that the Torah was written by monks in twelfth century Germany
and everything they know is wrong and that the Gemara is really an
allegory for wine and love poetry.

And there isn’t a G-d damn thing anyone can do about it.
You know why? Because we’ve got the Rav. OK?
Harav HaGaon Joseph B. Soloveitchik.
And I was in his shiur for twenty years and I was his closest talmid
and I used to cook him breakfast and clip his coupons.

And the Agudas Yisrael and the Edah Chareidis and Neturei Karta
can have all the Gedolim they want and put me in cherem as many times
as they want, because We’ve got the Rav, OK?

The Rav isn’t dead, he’s just sleeping. And as soon as Dr. Brill
figures out how to revive him, he’s coming back, and he’s gonna be
pretty fed up with all you apikorsim. Imagine sleeping through minyan,
and mutiply that by fifteen million. He’s gonna come back and smash Rav Kahn
back to Mongolia and make YU co-ed just like Maimonides, OK, and…

Hey! You really are elitist!

Yeah, well why don’t you just SHUT UP and sing this song, OK???






Posted in Shtick.

Yoreh? Yoreh!

After four years of courses, shiurim, tests, and papers, I finally have the authorization to call myself “Rabbi.” My Revel transcript has all the classes and confirmation of passing the comps and official graduation will be forthcoming. This is however close enough to say I completed my requirements for smikha according to R. Bronstein – the only opinion which matters at this point.

So, now I’m a Rabbi. Technically this is my second smikha if you count this one, but considering how I helped write the “behina,” I don’t think people would take it seriously that I gave myself smikha. (Not like there are any other problems or anything).

I’m still busy with moving from NY to NJ and from NJ to Chicago and setting things straight with the program. So instead of actually thinking, and in honor of smikha, this week I’ll be doing the blogging equvilant of a “clip show” and post some of my more “classic” works from the past four years.

I figure I should show I did something all this time…

Posted in Personal.

Islam vs. Islamism Part II

The New York Post has an interesting exchange between Mr. Taheri and some Muslim readers displeased with his article on the Hijab.

I can’t say I’m terribly surprised at the reaction or the response. A traditional religious mindset is challenged by a modern rational position. Compare this discussion in the Islamic world to the attitudes expressed in contemporary literature on women’s issues in Judaism.

Posted in Religion.

YU Rank Out

Some of us “old timers” remember the Yeshiva University PR machine working overtime when YU was ranked in US News’ top tier of US colleges.

Side note: Of the Top 50 schools, YU was the only one to publicize its ranking (normally in the 40’s) on its website. This provided us with endless amusement as we were able to navigate the internet kiosks in Furst and Belfer through US News’ site to get to the other colleges. Few things looked as funny as YU’s internet kiosks displaying the home pages for Harvard or even Holy Cross University. YUPR has removed this front page link, probably because US News has restricted its rankings to paying customers.

Anyway, MSNBC has an article about Princeton Review’s own ranking system which is far more detailed than US News’.

YU isn’t mentioned under any category.

Understandably, YU isn’t a Jock, Party, “Reefer”, or Hippie school.

But one would probably expect YU to be in the top 5 Stone Cold Sober schools, or even Future Rotarians and Daughters of The American Revolution.

Is there something going on at YU that we don’t know about? Maybe they just visited us on Purim? If so how are we so low on either list?

It seems that the new president will have to choose the direction of YU in more ways than one.

Update: I just noticed Princeton Review’s entry for YU. Of particular note is the part at the bottom: “Students Who Apply to Yeshiva Also Apply To Brandeis University, Touro College, City University of New York.” (The link to Cuny doesn’t work). Interestingly, no one reciprocates.

Posted in Academia. Tagged with , .