Category: Odds & Ends

A Pre-Purim Poem

The following is a sermon I gave at The Stanton St. Shul 02/27/2010 for Erev Purim. If memory serves, I believe I heard the main derash from R. Mordechai Friedman at Yeshivat Har Etzion but the poem is fully original.

I’m also proud to say this was the first sermon I gave which elicited applause. Most of my sermons typically evoke a standing ovation, though that’s probably due to kaddish.

The YUTOPIA Sermon Citation Challenge

Anyone who has heard my sermons knows that I like spicing up my talks with various non-religious references from popular and obscure culture. Perhaps my best/worst line was the following analogy: “The Jewish community is like Soylent Green – it’s made of people.”
I didn’t say they were always funny, but they do make sense in context.
Sometimes people get the references, other times they don’t, but I’ve taken the attitude that I’m just going to drop what I can and let people pick up what they may.
So I’d like to try something new as a challenge. This week I’ll actually take requests – you tell me what references to make (the general the better), and I’ll try working it into a coherent sermon.
In other words, hit me with your best shot, and I’ll hit you with my best peshat:

Lose Weight With Amazon! Click Here Now!

On my way to Israel I joked Twitter that I hoped I wasn’t overweight in terms of luggage. The truth is I could probably stand to lose a few pounds, or at least get better about exercising. Being in Israel certainly helps; when I was in Gush I dropped two suit sizes largely due to walking everywhere and eating less thanks to yeshiva food.
But in New York and working it’s perpetually difficult to find time/space to work out. As a Rabbi my schedule is erratic and I can’t afford the gyms. In Washington Heights I was better about jogging thanks to Ft. Tryon Park and I’m too scared to bike on the Lower East Side – try a bike land and you’ll see what I mean. Still, all these excuses don’t mean anything in the long term when faced with family medical histories.
My sister on the other hand is amazing, juggling a household with 4 kids, a job, active in the community, and still forces herself to do something be it jogging, learning to jump rope, or basic exercises with dumbbells.
Dumbbells! So simple, you can do plenty of stuff at home, a perfect solution! In fact there was a time I had some dumbbells. Years ago my great uncle Ben Yuter once randomly sent me two three pound dumbbells in the mail which should have made for a great conversation in the post office: “let’s see how much that weighs…” “Trust me, it’s 6 pounds.”
Before I try new stuff I typically search online to get a sense of how much things cost and what would make the best deal.1 Some sets looked intrusting, but I found something even more fascinating in the Body Solid Tools line. Sure looks like an ordinary a 7 pound dumbbell with purple coating, but the real bonus is further down the page. In the “Product Details” section I found this gem:

Shipping Weight: 6.4 pounds

Read that carefully: the shipping weight for a 7 pound dumbbell is 6.4 pounds.
Let one think this is an anomaly, the shipping weight for a 6 pound dumbbell is 5.6 pounds and the 8 pound ships at 7.6.
This is nothing short of revolutionary; Amazon has created a shipping system so advanced they can alter the weight of an object. I’m now thinking why bother with working out when I can just keep shipping myself via Amazon and lose .4-.6 pounds at a clip!
The best part is that after $25, I can even ship for free. Can’t get a better deal than that.

1. The “typical Jew” economics are really important when you’re paid like a rabbi.

New Commenting Policies

Now that I’ve moved to a more mature web space, I’ve decided to formalize some official commenting policies. Thankfully I’ve never had much of an issue in the past, but it’s probably useful to have something on the books.
I’d consider it a work in progress so any feedback or comments would be appreciated.
Within the new guidelines, that is.

Recent Happenings in YUTOPIA

By now my extended absences from blogging should come as no surprise. I’ve always held that real life must take precedence over any virtual identity. However, since I did promise an explanation, so here’s the scoop.

  • Once I got laid off1 I decided to use the time to remove my longstanding albatross of my U of C thesis. This, I should point out, is no small feat considering that previous attempts at finishing have elicited more panic attacks than paragraphs. At any rate, I managed to hunker down and actually managed to turn in a paper on secularization theories. The only problem was that my then adviser had since left and the new professors in charge thought the thesis was pretty much uninteresting or otherwise insufficient.2 After a near rewrite of the entire paper, it still wasn’t up to snuff and it was rejected.
  • So after basically writing two theses, I had to start from scratch again, but this time in conjunction with the new advisers. Following their suggestions and my own familiarity with the subject. I wrote a new paper dealing with the Conservative teshuvot on homosexuality and e-mailed it in last week.3 Thus, in a span of three months I researched and wrote well over 100 pages worth of thesis, with the last fifty or so in the past month alone.
  • In the middle of these theses, I also organized Mt. Sinai’s shavuot program and updated my own shiur on taxes and tzeddakah.
  • Oh, and I also wrote a piece for the upcoming issue of R. Marc Angel’s journal “Conversations” on the topic of “social justice”4
  • Anticipating burnout, I had planned on attending R. Aryeh Klapper’s summer kollel, but we got the dates mixed up and it actually started about two weeks before I had down on my calendar. This actually turned out to be fortuitous because…
  • I just found out today that my landlord is not renewing the lease on the apartment in which I am currently subletting. This means on top of being unemployed I also need to move out in about two months.

So yeah, it’s been an intense couple of months with neither respite nor resolution imminent. 5 Much has been neglected personally – I simply haven’t had the time to take care of myself as as I should.6 Despite the immediate concerns of job and dwelling, I’m still optimistic in the macro sense that this is yet another instance of being forced out of a comfort zone to grow in some way or another.
There have also been a few changes in the blog itself. I recently ported over all templates to MT4 which as you can see went must better than last time. Aside from some minor cosmetic changes, the significant perk is that commenting with the captcha actually works! This means no more bugs and no more Typekey registration.
Finally, I registered the domain names and for this site and the chords directory respectively. Currently these URL’s are only a masked redirect, but this may change in the future.7
And that just about covers it. I may try forcing myself to write again more regularly to maintain the outlet, but no promises.
Stay tuned for future developments…

1. Which I later found out to be another casualty of the Bear Stearns buyout.
2. Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that I didn’t chose the topic, but it was assigned to me from a faculty adviser. The problem was he left the university and the replacements didn’t like the new topic.
3. Advisers are on vacation and won’t look at it for another week. If it passes I’ll blog a summary.
4. More precisely, my perspective on which I hope to elaborate at some point.
5. Thankfully before I descended fully entered into “woe is me” mode, I found Kathryn Bertine’s recent and possibly final installment of her series “So You Wanna Be an Olympian” and found the last section to be particularly helpful.
6. I’ve even ignored my own 5 year blogoversary!
7. At the rate things are going it’s a good thing I don’t have a good pun for “Brave New World.”

Hakham Jose Faur Website

As one might expect most of my outlook on Judaism has been influenced by my father. Also nearly as obvious is that my father’s outlook has been extensively influenced by his own teacher Hakham Jose (Yosef) Faur. I have just been informed of a new website for Hakham Faur which includes several articles available for download. Though not not fully comprehensive there are some excellent ones up there, including Anti-Maimonidean Demons (PDF) in which I happen to be footnoted.
The discerning reader will notice differences between Haham Faur’s, my father’s, and my own writings (aside from the drastic dropoff in scholarship and sophistication as found on this blog). What was transmitted to me at least was more of a system of thought which could then be applied elsewhere, but will differ based on individual experiences.

Rambam’s Yehareg V’Al Ya’avor In Pseudocode

Last night in my weekly Rambam havruta, we started chapter 5 of Yesodei Hatorah. Rambam begins the chapter by discussing the obligation to sanctify God’s name (kiddush hashem) and its corollary prohibition against desecrating God’s name (hillul hashem). In providing examples, Rambam segues into the laws of yehareg v’al ya’avor – the conditions under which someone should allow himself to be killed rather than violate a commandment under duress.

But while the laws in Rambam are usually straightforward, the laws of yehareg v’al ya’avor have several qualifiers and criteria to evaluate, to the point that it became difficult to keep track of all of them in proper sequence. Being the computer geek that I am, I figured that pseudocode could come in handy. The following snippet assumes the functions do(); which entails preforming the sin in question and die(); means to allow oneself to be killed. It’s not necessarily the most efficient code mind you, but I’m going for maintainability.1

big3[] = {murder, idolatry, illicitSexualRelations};
if (governmentDecree == true){
else {
    if (big3[].contains(sin)){
        if (nonJewBenefits == true){
        else if (numJews < 10){             do();         }         else {             die();         }     } }

There, that should make everything perfectly clear.
Update: Seth Berger contributes the following optimized code:

if( (!governmentDecree || !big3[].contains(sin)) && ( nonJewBenefits || numJews < 10)) {     do(); } else {die();}

Update 2: Reuven Weiser corrects Seth's optimization since in Seth's code a non-big 3 sin could still result in do(); if a non Jew benefits. This is incorrect and should rather be:
if( (!governmentDecree && !big3[].contains(sin)) && ( nonJewBenefits || numJews < 10)) {     do(); } else {die();}
This sort of confusion often comes up with too much negative logic. We can flip things around to create a slightly more readable optimization:

if ( (governmentDecree || big3[].contains(sin)) || (!nonJewBenefits && numJews >10)){
else {do();}

1. For Brisker’s, of course

Great Moments In Package Design

A few weeks back I bought a generic pair of scissors from a downtown Duane Reade. Of the many ways in which a pair of scissors could be packaged, these in particular were attached to a cardboard backing with a metal washer fastening a loop around one of the handles. Thus after tearing off the backing, the loop was still firmly attached like so:

Now if only I had some utensil, device, or mechanism which could sever this superfluous and intrusive connection.
Oh wait….

Yamim Noraim Roundup – 5768

A few odds and ends today from non-work life:

  • Last night I posted my Rosh Hashana derasha which was a fun challenge to write and deliver. R. Schnaidman gave me a time range of 30-35 minutes which is normally beyond how long I can talk, so for the first time in many years I had written out most of it beforehand and spoke both from the sheets and extemporaneously. Feedback was positive, though one person asked if it was intentional that I didn’t cite any Zohar or Ba’al Shem Tov.

    I said yes, and politely explained that I was following my mesorah. After all, it was Rosh Hashana…

  • As certain individuals know, we had some now resolved issues with my landlord. Apparently, lots of other people had worse experiences: there’s a class action suit against them.
  • I know this is late for Rosh Hashana, but this song seems relevant (music starts at 2:18) even if it doesn’t count as an official zemer.
  • Speaking of simmanim, the line between what is an innocuous simman and outright avoda zara is somewhat complicated. I gave a shiur on it some time ago, and based on far too many conflicting sources, couldn’t reach a definitive conclusion. I did conjecture that the degree of seriousness which one takes these simmanim is likely proportional to the potential issur, with the litmus test being how one one would feel if the simman wouldn’t be performed. For example, R. Tendler once told us that a woman came to him Erev Yom Kippur looking for a chicken to do kapparot because if she didn’t, she would die that year. That, he said, was avoda zara.

    Regarding the simmanim of Rosh Hashana, I’m beginning to think that most are fine given that most are simply puns – some even bilingual puns. In other words, they seem more for entertainment purposes rather than a magical act. For another R. Tendler example, I first heard from him the one “lettuce, half a raisin, celery” = let us have a raise in salary.

    If you still take these seriously, then in addition to avoda zara problems, you likely have no sense of humor – which could pose problems when people start calling you an idol worshiper.

  • In what should some as no surprise, I don’t do kapparot following Shulhan Aruch’s admonition that it’s darkhei emori. I also have never been a fan of tashlich especially since a former Hindu co-worker once asked me, “what was that thing where you pray to the river.”

    However, for efficiency’s sake I suggest that next year we could work on combining the two practices during the asseret yemei teshuva by simply flinging chickens into the water – perhaps even feeding them bread first. I’m sure God would really appreciate that much more than doing them separately as it would double the mehillah power.

  • And on a more serious note, through a great set of hashgachic circumstances (and the ubiquitous chords directory I will soon be teaching an Introduction to Jewish Guitar. Even with some nervousness, I’m really looking forward to the entire experience which I hope to recount afterwards.

If I don’t post before Yom Kippur, Gemar Tov to all. Looking back at what I last year I don’t think I can even hope for less erratic blogging given my new work schedule. Despite the infrequent or sporadic posting, we still had an eventful year with preliminary thoughts and detailed rebuttal of the Conservative Teshuva on Homosexuality and the aftermath, a conflict and conversation in Washington Heights, the RCA’s gerut policies, and of course, the fiasco. However, I can and still will ask forgiveness if I have inadvertently or unnecessarily offended people through carelessness or laziness. Although I do stand by what I write I freely admit everything could use more editing, not just for typos, but for tone or imprecise syntax.
Naturally I have no idea what the next year will bring, but I do hope to at least maintain the status quo of quality (if not quantity). Thanks again for reading, commenting, and reminding me why I’m still at this nearly five years later.1
Shana Tova,
Update: I will be sans computer for a few days while it’s being repaired, and as such may be slower in responding to e-mails or the like.

1. Yep, it’s been that long; the forthcoming retrospective should be fun.