Friday, January 30, 2009


This isn't a particularly Jewish topic, but it bugs me. And I'm seeing it more and more, in connection with the economic downturn and the political blaming surrounding it. Which is, the sloppy use of numbers to make politico-economic points. It only hurts one's own argument, to be presented with innumeracy (numerical illiteracy):

First example: a conservative Facebook friend wrote:

The so-called budget surplus under Clinton... well, the national debt rose from $4 trillion to $5.6 trillion during Clinton's time in the White House. How exactly that equates to a budget surplus is the kind of sleight of hand that economists are famous for

To which I responded:

Budget deficit/surplus is figured ANNUALLY, while the National Debt is CUMULATIVE.

So the small surpluses deducted small amounts from the national debt. Nowhere near enough to wipe it out, but at least Clinton's budgets didn't add to it, the last two years.

* * *

Second example, in a published Yahoo News story:


Q4 GDP down 3.8 percent, biggest drop since 1982

From the first paragraph:

The Commerce Department on Friday said gross domestic product, which measures total goods and services output within U.S. borders, plummeted at a 3.8 percent annual rate, the lowest pace since the first quarter of 1982, when output contracted 6.4 percent. GDP fell 0.5 percent in the third quarter.

There's a difference between CHANGE and RATE OF CHANGE. But that has eluded this writer. A 3.8% rate of change means that the GDP fell 0.95% (which is 1/4 of 3.8) during the fourth quarter. And it's not just a question of "the headlines are written by someone else," but later in the article we get this gem:

Analysts polled by Reuters had forecast GDP contracting 5.4 percent in the fourth quarter.

By 5.4%? Or at an annualized RATE of 5.4%, which would be a CHANGE of (5.4/4) or 1.35%?

If analysts were predicting a change of 5.4%, and we got a change of 0.95%, we're doing way way better than the analysts thought. If they predicted 1.35% and we dropped 0.95%, then we're still doing better, but not as dramatically.

If a car is moving 30 mph now, which is about 43 ft/sec, and 60 mph 1 minute later, it has CHANGED its speed by 30 mph, but has ACCELERATED (the word for rate of change of speed) by (43/60) ft/sec2, or 0.717 ft/sec2. Which is a very gentle acceleration.

Economics is largely a numbers game. When discussing it, it behooves one to make sure that one's assumptions are consistent, and that one's reportage of numbers is numerically consistent.

John Allen Paulos has made a name for himself writing about innumeracy. Read, and learn.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

More on R' Lookstein and BHO

I just received the sermon, more of a report, Rabbi Lookstein (RHL) gave last Shabbat at his shul. In it he further explicates his decision-making process, and some of the fallout. Since I haven't asked permission to repost, I'll summarize, but in the spirit of apei tlata (or in this case, apei tmanei meiot), high public interest and public defense of a TC (therefore a to'elet), it seems sufficiently public information to post. Ah, this sermon is already out there - this week's Jewish Press quotes it.

About 10 January, R’ Lookstein was invited by BHO’s (POTUS) Jewish liaison to be a backup for another Orthodox rabbi who was considering going. RHL said he would think about it, and to let him know what was happening. Later that day, he was invited, and accepted.

As of 15 January, JTA and other outlets knew that RHL would be speaking at the National Prayer Service, according to some googling.

Monday, 19 January, Rabbi Herring (RBH) called RHL, saying that another rabbi had called him in a tizzy, claiming to have been invited, and when he declined, that RHL had accepted, and why was RHL being allowed to represent Orthodoxy? It turned out that the whistleblower was a third party, who had not actually been asked (RHL investigated). RBH noted his opposition based on the issur of entering a church, and RYBS’ opposition to interfaith services, and suggested RHL consult a posek first, because, he intimated, the RCA might impose disciplinary action.

RHL consulted an Orthodox person who often represents the Jewish community in government, who said that he himself had recommended RHL for this, on the grounds that it would look bad for a Conservative and Reform Rabbi to do this, with nobody from the Orthodox, especially since the Orthodox didn’t particularly support BHO in the election.

RHL also considered his great-grandfather’s precedent – the RaMaZ, then the doyen of American Orthodox rabbis, attended the funeral of Louis Marshall, sitting front and center in the Reform Temple Emanu-El, which would have contravened the RaMaZ’s successor (as rav of Boston) RYBS on going to heterodox synagogues.

21 January, RBH calls back just before an RCA Executive Committee meeting, RHL notes that he consulted with somebody, and explained why he went through with it, and it seemed RBH had accepted that.

RHL talks about the beauty of the service, the setting and the decorum.

RHL was allowed a few words with BHO during the picture-taking, in which he blessed him as one would a king, with shem & malchut, and thanked him for his statement on Sderot, to which BHO reiterated his agreement. They also talked about his name, Barak vs. the Hebrew pronunciation Baruch with a ‘ch’.

After the RCA issued its statement, the JTA called RHL for an interview, in which he said the things already reported. According to the Jewish Press, the RCA's press person said this wasn't a real press release, just a statement of policy about attending church services, not addressing anyone by name.

By 22 January, he had hundreds of emails supporting his action, including one from R’ Broyde (who is not a lefty-Chovevei-type as some would portray him – he founded a Young Israel, and heads one of the most respected permanent batei din) noting the Shulchan Aruch on violating goyish clothing for important governmental interaction; R’ Broyde’s own psak from the Tzitz Eliezer on representing Israel at a church service; and that R’ Shear Yashuv Cohen the chief rabbi of Haifa had attended the funeral of Pope JP2.

However, he bemoans the fallout of the RCA’s public opposition – it highlights a halacha that we really don’t need the whole world knowing about. E.g., the doorguard of the Middle School asked RHL “so why can’t you go into churches?” It makes the Orthodox look bad in the eyes of the non-Jews.

My conclusion? There is precedent, and RHL, far from being censured by the public, should be celebrated for having has Daas Torah [instinctive Torah response arising from one's lifelong immersion in Torah, as defined by R' Simcha Weinberg] match that of those considered greater than him. Further, his own community validated the decision, all 800 congregants giving him a standing ovation on Shabbos. The RCA does seem to have considered its position as a group, not just as an off-the-cuff remark from Rabbi Herring. Other rabbonim and precedents support him. So there's room for disagreement. However, all we small-time bloggers and commenters nipping at his heels mean nothing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Conservative Fractionation

The Conservative Movement is turning, from a big tent, into a bunch of squabbling factions. The latest split, where the Ziegler School (formerly University of Judaism), which split off from JTSA about 10 years ago for being insufficiently lefty, has now terminated its arrangement with Machon Schechter, such that its students, who normally spend a year in Israel, will now go to the fledgling Conservative Yeshiva.

Why? Because Machon Schechter, along with the rest of Israeli Conservative, still has some fealty to halacha, both behaviorally and as process. And I'm not even talking about the pre-1900 halachic process, but the Conservative Movement's own halachic process.

What distinguishes the Conservative halachic process? Centralization with pluralism. In theory, Conservatives are supposed to follow the Shulchan Aruch as modified by rulings of the Committee on Jewish Law & Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA). In practice, actual observance is pretty weak, but that's Jack Wertheimer territory, and not our issue.

The CJLS deals with big questions by soliciting papers, more or less teshuvot, and voting on them. Any position which attains six or more votes, becomes a usable position for the movement. It is then left to individual institutions - synagogues and schools - to decide which of the approved positions to take.

They held meetings to deal with the "gay rabbis" question, and wound up approving both yes and no positions. Machon Schechter, being more traditionalist (they don't allow driving on Shabbat, because the rationale was to get you to synagogue, synagogue already becoming in 1950 many people's sole Jewish activity, and in Israel there's a shul on every corner), chose not to accept gay rabbinical students. That should be fine, within the Conservative system.

But that wasn't good enough for the Ziegler School. Because Machon Schechter will not accept homosexual rabbinical students, Ziegler no longer considered them a fit destination for any students. Ziegler now has set its stance against the Conservative halachic process - not because they're pro-GLBT, but because they have abrogated the presumption of liberty, that each institution is free, within Conservative Judaism, to practice any position approved by the CJLS.

Which brings us to this article by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School. He wrote an article in a Conservative movement magazine on "halachic pluralism" and the need for Conservative to be a "big tent" movement, that was entirely disingenuous.

First, he dismisses the Orthodox and Reform as single-idea groups, completely glossing over the wide range of ideologies that each group has, and their own internal struggles for identity and identification. He believes that Conservative is the big tent, and as such, must be pluralistic.

Artson writes:

We must be the denomination that does not impose a narrow litmus test for membership. Do you welcome gays into the movement but do so for halachic reasons? Then you are welcome in Conservative Judaism. Do you believe that the traditional prioritization of heterosexuality is the proper understanding of Torah but you demonstrate true honor to gays and lesbians? You are welcome here. Do you believe that the non-egalitarian Judaism with which you were raised – and still is practiced in many of our finest congregations – continues to be a beautiful way to express Torah and mitzvot? You are welcome in our movement forever. And do you believe that your place is best found in a congregation or an institution in which gender roles are not distinct? You are welcome as a Conservative Jew.

And yet, one of my most long-lasting encounters with an institution of Conservative Judaism was the court battle between Cong. Bnai Jacob and the Park Slope Jewish Center over membership rights in the single synagogue they had once been. The central issue? PSJC had instituted a litmus test, a loyalty oath on the membership form, that the purpose of the synagogue is to be egalitarian. The mechitza minyan that had been the synagogue until six months earlier was banished, expelled, thrown into the street on a Shabbos morning. The rabbi they hired shortly thereafter? Rabbi Jeff Marker, whom I encountered afterwards on mailing lists, who shares the militant-egalitarian view of the PSJC leadership. He has called for the Kotel plaza to go egalitarian, as it is the inheritance of all Jews. Except, of course, for the Orthodox.

So too here, Rabbi Artson calls for a pluralism, where those who don't think gays should be members of a particular institution, should be welcomed as Conservative Jews. But while the write hand dispenses chesed, grace, acceptance, the left hand dispenses din, restriction, a narrow litmus test - I may write about the acceptability of all views, but if your school doesn't accept my view, tough noogies, I'll cut off my affiliation with you.

Institutional Conservative Judaism has indeed become a big tent, one in which people set up armed camps in different corners and say "Can't admit the because the Torah they can't do what they want, much as we respect them as people, any more than we can accept the intermarried or the intentional shabbos-violator", while others say "No traditionalists here, because political correctness is all, and therefore all must be accepting of all, or we won't accept them." (Fuzzy militant-liberal thinking) Just like, say, the traditionalists vs. the autonomists in Reform, or the left-wing modern orthodox vs. the yeshivish (calling each other 'dwellers in Plato's cave' vs. 'haters of Israel') vs. the chasidim, and everyone against Lubavitch, in the Orthodox tent. Each wants the tent to itself, and push the rest out, while claiming that it's a big tent.

And when you realize that the Conservatives lost their real pro-halacha right wing 25 years ago, when the Union for Traditional Judaism split off over the ordination of women and the twisting of traditional halachic process that led there, the big tent is already not so big - everyone is just fighting over the left-most 2/3 of the tent, the right-most section being vacant.

Maybe Garnel Ironheart is right, that Conservative no longer has any claim to being halachic, but has become its own religion with a vague resemblance to traditional Judaism. Certainly its more personally-observant members are finding less and less home in their synagogues.

(hat tip: Osewalrus)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rabbi Lookstein's Prayer

The Jblog-o-sphere has reacted predictably to R' Haskel Lookstein's participation in the National Prayer Service celebrating the inauguration of President Obama. Some choose to condemn, some with a long baseline of American Orthodox policy see it as a good thing.

Reading the JTA piece, it looks to me like this was R' Herring shooting from the hip, in a CYA manner. This was not a considered RCA (Rabbinical Council of America, the organization of YU-trained rabbis) response on letterhead, it appears to be a JTA reporter calling up R' Herring for a response. The response was tepid, if there really is such a policy in place against a) entering churches, b) participating in interfaith services, as modern instantiations of the Torah's harsh rejection of non-Jewish religions.

Zogt R' Herring:

"Any member of the RCA who attends such a service does so in contravention of this policy and should not be perceived as representing the organization in any capacity."

So he's not saying R' Lookstein did the wrong thing, he just said that this is against policy (is there such a policy, aside from a narrow interpretation of the Rav on interfaith dialogue?), and that R' Lookstein did not do so as a representative of the RCA. No personal censure, nothing, just "not according to our policy". Which looks more avoidance of condemnation from the Right, than like actual disapproval.

If one looks, one can find lots of snifim lehakel, reasons why one might be lenient here: it's a Protestant, not a Catholic church, so no statues (most of the modern statements about churches are expressed in terms of Catholicism, which has a greater claim to be idolatry); it's not interfaith dialogue, but a collection of ministers offering [mostly] non-denominational prayers that the new administration be a good one, guided by God and morality, and praying for the government is praised by Jeremiah; it was a summons to do honor to the ruler, rejection of which might be viewed as mored bemalchut, lèse majesté. All of which leads me to believe that R' Herring was caught off guard, without time to think about it and give a considered response.

Here's the sum total of R' Lookstein's words at the ceremony:

"May the President, Vice President, Members of the Cabinet, Governors of States and Territories, Mayors of Cities, and all in administrative authority who are empowered by our sacred trust lead this nation with wisdom and grace as they seek to serve the common good."

Nothing offensive [or is he praying to the king?] here.

R' Lookstein sent a letter explaining his actions, found here. He gives precedents from the English Chief Rabbis, and a relevant psak from the Tzitz Eliezer, approving of such actions. Among other things, he tells us in the original JTA article that he consulted with others "absolutely committed to halacha." Does this mean poskim? Or the leadership of his synagogue? I don't know.

Similarly, R' Shaul Robinson at Lincoln Square this Shabbat, while explaining why one should not go into a church, enthusiastically supported R' Lookstein for this action, on the grounds that refusal would be tantamount to lèse majesté.

My mother offered another explanation - once the Conservative and Reform rabbis were in attendance, R' Lookstein's non-attendance would have sent the message the the Orthodox do not approve of the new President. But the RCA itself had sent a letter congratulating Obama.

In fact, this last reason casts more doubt on the well-considered nature of R' Herring's answer. By sending a letter congratulating Obama, which presumably went through some group review and approval process, the RCA made it imperative that, if invited, one of their own must go. Otherwise they would be sending conflicting signals - we like you, but we'll decline your invitation to pray for you. By making this statement of R' Lookstein violating "policy", R' Herring puts R' Lookstein into a Catch-22, something I'm sure he would not have done, given some time to think about a reaction.

I'm not sure how the RCA can now explain itself without admitting to some egg on its face.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Rizhin Not Carlebach

MUSICAL NOTE by Cantor Sherwood Goffin
The Rizhiner Shir L’Atid Lavo

This Shabbat, during MeVorchim HaChodesh (the Blessing of the New Month) I will utilize the melody we have been singing every month for the past seven years. This is the Shir L’Atid Lavo, which is actually an old nigun of the Rizhiner Chassidim. It was always sung by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, after Mizmor L’Dovid at Seudah Shlishit, and often incorrectly attributed to him.

This nigun is now sung every Shabbat at many yeshivot in Israel; some on Friday evening, some Shabbat afternoon. The name implies a hope “for the future to come.” I therefore decided that this melody would be most appropriate for this prayer, in which we ask G-d to bless the future month and year to come. Please join me as we sing, and in it may we find tomorrow’s blessing for us and all our loved ones here and especially in Eretz Yisrael, a Bracha of Shalom that seems so elusive today.

Daven well and sing along!

© 2009 Cantor Sherwood Goffin and Lincoln Square Synagogue

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pesak, Subjective and Objective

Someone used a flawed syllogism to infer an untrue position of R' Soloveitchik in comments on the Hirhurim blog recently. In responding there, my old thoughts about this ten-year-old article, and its peculiar inferences about the Rav's ideas, returned to the surface, and I feel I should express them, if only to elicit clearer explanations of R' Twersky's ideas.

I enter into this with some trepidation, as R’ Mayer Twersky has been my teacher, and clearly cares about his talmidim personally, even those of us who were not in his regular shiurim at RIETS. But this article, written ten years ago, has bothered me for a long time. It seems very personal, but not, unfortunately, well argued.

Full disclosure: My mother is one of the founding members of the Lincoln Square Women’s Davening Group, and has served as its treasurer and on the Kiddush committee. For her, the sound of other women’s voices around her motivates her to greater concentration in prayer, both then and in the regular minyan. Until recent years, her Hebrew was not good enough to allow her to lead a service, so it was not a personal desire for leadership or performance that initially motivated her participation. But this explains some of my bias in favor of WTGs. Also, all the rabbis in whose synagogues and schools I was raised (R’ Riskin, R’ Lookstein, R’ Angel) today have women’s davening groups in their synagogues.

* * *

R’ Mayer Twersky wrote an article ten years ago on “Halakhic Values and Halakhic Decisions: Rav Soloveitchik’s Pesak Regarding Women’s Prayer Groups”. R' Twersky's article claims that his grandfather, R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, “posek for modern orthodoxy,” hereinafter “the Rav,” maintained a "consistent, unequivocal opposition" to WTGs [Women’s Tefillah Groups]. Other writers, notably the brothers Aryeh and Dov Frimer, give a different picture of the Rav’s positions relative to WTGs, that while he was opposed lechatchila, he was supportive bedieved. The reality is more nuanced than the presentation in R’ Twersky’s article. And the appraoches taken by R' Twersky to support that conclusion surprised and bothered me, as in my limited experience (I attended his shiurim at Lincoln Square Synagogue for 2-3 years), R' Twersky is a clear thinker.

On rereading the article, I see a lot of R' Twersky's unwavering opposition to WTGs, but fewer of the Rav's ideas on topic. There are various attempts to draw analogies between the Rav's stated positions on certain things, such as changes in custom and the ceremonial nature of certain synagogue practices, and WTGs.

For instance, R’ Twersky argues in his grandfather’s name, for the élan of Shabbat categorically prohibiting wearing T-shirts and shorts on Shabbat, and participating in sports, even if done within an eruv and therefore technically permissible. This leads into a discussion of an axiological approach to halacha, seeking the spirit of the law as it applies to the “etiology and telos”, originating force and goal, of halachic actions. That spirit of the law can then govern how the law is pragmatically applied.

* * *

The Rav writes in an article on the nature of prayer as avodah shebalev:

Their beauty, the majesty of strength, is revealed precisely in their naturalness, originality and spontaneity. And is not man who supplicates his Creator a gushing spring or even a mountain spewing fire? It is clear that prayer is the antithesis of ceremony with regard to the relationship between content and form, heart and word. Thus all these aesthetic emendations in prayer, instead of deepening the experiences will rob it of its content and soul.

This soliloquy is part of an argument against ceremonialism in prayer, the leader standing on a platform, wearing clerical robes.

R’ Twersky then algebraically makes this argument against ceremonialism apply to WTGs:

Nevertheless, his [The Rav’s] impassioned words also articulate with remarkable prescience and precision his unwavering opposition to such groups. We need only to shift the critical lens from inauthentic ceremonialism to misplaced emphasis on active participation and leadership.

It is a remarkable jump from the one to the other, from one situation to another, based on their own personal (family?) approach to prayer. I see no intrinsic similarity between ceremonialism and WTGs, other than both being things opposed by the author.

In earlier generations, we know, the flowery elaborations of chazanim such as Yossele Rosenblatt and others of the 19th and early 20th centuries, moved many to deep feeling of the prayers. Today, for the most part, such a style of prayer has fallen out of fashion, and R’ Soloveitchik’s plea for an emotional generator of depth-prayer speaks more to us. But the simple fact that styles of prayers have changed, argues against R’ Soloveitchik’s and R’ Twersky’s position that emotional depth is, or should be, the sole motivator of true prayer. Not all of us can conjure up such emotions on command. Many need some kind of external stimulus, be it the familiarity of Missinai tunes (the familiar prayer modes of the holidays, universally recognizable throughout Ashkenazi Judaism), or the heartfelt performance of a cantor, or the presence of similar voices to one’s own raised in prayer.

This approach to the etiology of prayer appears to be subjectivity presented as objectivity. R’ Twersky, based on the opposition to ceremonialism, contrasts tefilla from the depths vs. that which is categorically excluded from it, the desire for performance. Yet ask my father, or other chazanim, if performance qua helping the community's prayers, deepening their spirituality, doesn't aid in one's own experience of the prayers?

At one time of despair in my life, I was asked to lead a service. I told the [Lubavitch-trained] rabbi, “I had this awful thing happen recently, I don’t know if I believe in God right now, so I don’t think I should lead.” He responded, “Go ahead, perhaps this is just what you need right now.” And it was. Subjective expectations shape the experience of prayer, anecdotally (is there any other sort of evidence in this endeavour?)

Perhaps for the Rav, that is how he experienced prayer. Reading the Rav’s posthumous book, “Service of the Heart”, true prayer from the depths comes from depression and despair, existential uncertainty and fear. But not all of us are dominated by these emotions, certainly not on a daily basis, and certainly not before middle age. Perhaps others experience the depths of true prayer from other emotional stances?

* * *

R’ Twersky deals with the Rav’s equivocal language concering WTGs:

The foregoing analysis of the Rav’s axiological opposition to women’s tefilla groups illumines his careful choice of words in expressing his unequivocal opposition. The Rav consistently ruled that these groups were wrong, but did not invoke the term assur.

This article expresses R’ Twersky’s axiological opposition to women’s tefilla groups, while it expresses the Rav’s axiological opposition to synagogue ceremonialism as contrary to his personal experience of prayer. It takes R’ Twersky to apply the one idea to the other situation. The discussion of situations where “ein ruah hahamim nohah heimenu” is also somewhat forced – there seems to be little connection among the various situations listed, but much is made of the Rav’s saying “wrong if not assur” which apparently means, for R’ Twersky, “wrong and that’s it.” This is R’ Twersky’s rejection of the nuanced approach offered orally before the article came out (from R’ Riskin and others), and in writing in the Frimers’ article, without much explanation as to why he feels he [and we] must take this approach. This article appears to be a response to the Frimers, as it appeared in the very next issue of Tradition.

* * *

In one place, R’ Twersky seems to reverse cause and effect: WTGs “nolens volens [willy nilly] inevitably leads to the idea that the Torah has, God forbid, shortchanged women.” From what I can see, it's the other way around, and it's not the Torah that shortchanges women, it's rabbinic and communal attitudes, generated often in socio-religious milieux which are not ours. Torah, in all its ramifications, clearly does allow for this, it is rabbinic and communal attitudes and writings that suppress the maamorei Chazal that argue for greater women's expression in public prayer. While Catholic Israel (puk chazi) does play a role in psak, is it necessarily permanently dispositive? And if it is, the continuing existence of WTGs, while initially transgressive, willy nilly inevitably leads to a communal legitimacy.

* * *

R' Twersky takes the same questionable position that RH Schachter does. Noting that one cannot fulfill devarim shebikedushah in WTGs, which is clearly true, he assumes that women are somehow obligated in them in the first place, and therefore lose out on their mitzvah observance by not participating in a minyan. Which, as far as I can tell, they are not obligated, which is why they cannot constitute a minyan for their fulfillment. Why? It’s an obligation but it’s not?

Further, he argues that Orthodox egalitarianism, to which WTGs lead, is ipso facto contrary to the spirit of Torah, which makes distinctions between the sexes as among other categories. Egalitarianism, yes, and personally I would agree about the recent “Shira Chadasha”-type minyanim, where women receive aliyot and lein, and lead parts of the service which are not devarim shebikedushah. If anything, such services promote the idea that women are second-class citizens by dangling full participation in front of them, yet not permitting them entry. In itself, however, the WTG promotes the distinction - these services can ONLY take place in the community of women; in the community of men, the men take over and run everything.

* * *

The following paragraph neatly illustrates how R’ Twersky’s subjective opinion claims to be the objective truth, denigrating the subjective experience of participants in WTGs:

The testimony, albeit sincere and accurate, offered by some women that the tefilla groups indeed enhance their prayer experience in no way justifies the practice. Subjective experience cannot establish objective truth because often it simply reflects and is pre-determined by one’s a priori hopes and desires. Case in point: if one desires to assume an active, leading role within tefilla, upon achieving that goal one naturally feels fulfilled. This subjective, personal experience however only mirrors preliminary aspirations; it does not establish objective truth.

One’s experience of prayer is not necessarily in line with one’s motivations and expectations. But that point is lost here: “one naturally feels fulfilled.” Not necessarily, but it’s more likely if one is given the opportunity. As Leary said of hallucinogenic drugs, one’s experience of prayer appears to depend on text [drug], set [etiology/expectations], and setting [personal/minyan/WTG]. While R’ Twersky emphasizes the first two as necessary components in the prayer experience, the third component is also important. Variants in all three change the subjective experience of prayer. If prayer is truly to be “from the heart,” ara`i not keva, it is hard to see how one can objectively quantify the proper personal mode for prayer. I fail to see the “objective truth” requirement in the personal experience of prayer.

* * *

R' Twersky's conclusion is imperative on all of us – to work on ourselves, learn the halachot and deeper meanings of the prayers, so that they will speak to us personally. We do not feel the emotional depth that our ancestors did, for various reasons, so we must take steps to make the prayers meaningful.

R’ Twersky expresses his heartfelt conviction that women’s tefillah groups are not only a bad idea, they are against the law as a matter of public policy. His revered grandfather clearly believed that WTGs were wrong as a matter of policy, but not, as a consequence of this policy, against the law. In making his case, R’ Twersky implies that only one path leads to true prayer for all, which in itself elides the distinctions among different types of people. This one true path is incompatible with WTGs, as well as with other extrinsic enhancements to prayers.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Linguistic Drift

I've started reading Joel Kraemer's recent biography of Maimonides. Right off the bat, an interesting case of linguistic travel shows up. In Cordoba, the bishop's palace is called the Alcazar. This comes from the Arabic al-kasr, meaning castle or palace, as it was built on the foundations of the local Caliph's palace. So where does the Arabic word come from? Latin, castra, meaning watchpost. From castra, we get castellum, meaning fortress, which becomes our Castle, even if it is a diminutive of castra.

So from Latin Castra, we get Arabic Al-kasr, which winds up back in Spanish as Alcazar. Yes, Spanish as a Romance language derives from Latin, but this word took a side-trip through the Convivencia.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Heroism of My City

The New York Times today reports that Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, hero pilot of US Airways 1549, has been invited to the Inauguration by President-Elect Obama. It’s nice to see that the airplane pilot is being so honored. I'd like to see the captain of the first ferryboat to arrive on scene be honored alongside (Capt. Vincent Lombardi of the MV Thomas Jefferson). Why?

I heard him speak briefly when Mayor Bloomberg issued commendations and thanks to everyone involved. The matter-of-fact way in which he and his crew reacted, bringing in the Coast Guard, and all the other ferryboats from NY Waterway who rescued the passengers and aircrew and brought them to shore - this is what brings tears to my eyes, over and over whenever I think of it.

Ordinary citizens, albeit trained to respond in emergencies, doing the right thing, the heroic thing, without a second thought - that is the greatness of the American spirit. That the pilot landed his plane on the river, safely - that is a tremendous thing, and speaks to the individual greatness cultivated by the Founding Fathers.. That the rest of the citizenry pulled together to accomplish a rapid rescue - that, to me, is even greater, and speaks to the spirit of Americans time and again, joining together to overcome adversity.

(Submitted to the NY Times, 19 Jan 09)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Impressions of Synagogue Services

MUSICAL NOTE By Cantor Sherwood Goffin
Guest columnist: Cantor Macy Nulman

In describing a service of the Synagogue where the Viennese cantor Solomon Sulzer and his choir officiated. Franz Liszt wrote in his work The Gipsies, “Seldom were we so deeply stirred by emotion as on that evening, so shaken that our soul was entirely given to meditation and to participation in the service.”

Ernest Bloch, in a letter (4/5/1918) to his mother about a Hassidic service he attended on the Lower East Side of New York wrote, “And what music! Neither organ, nor instruments, nor choir. Everyone his own orchestra. I heard the most bizarre things: Chants, surely 3000 or more years old... Everything was vibrant, living, creating an extraordinary atmosphere. I dissolved with emotion. I was ashamed-ashamed to be so far away from the truth! Proud however still to be part of it.

from “Concepts in Jewish Music” by M. Nulman

Daven well and sing along!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Das Kugel Blitz

One fundamental issue that has been missed in the recent explosion of J-blog argumentation on James Kugel and the Documentary Hypothesis is, which fundamentals of Judaism are at issue.

I've had arguments with DH proponents in the past, on various mailing lists, and one point which has been made quite clear to me, is that those who argue for DH are not taking issue primarily with the Eighth Maimonidean Principle (the unitary nature of the Torah and primacy of Moses' prophecy), nor yet the Seventh (primacy of Moses' prophecy), but in fact the Sixth (existence of prophecy).

Denial of the Sixth Principle is a faith position, just as much as assertion of the Eighth Principle. There is no hard science to prove either one, there is only the assumption of the truth or falsehood of either one. And once one denies 6, then 7 and 8 fall as well. When the Torah is removed from Divine authorship, the only possible author[s] left is human, and then DH becomes possibly the best explanation of multiple apparent threads in the text.

Posters on Gil's thread Considering Kugel complain that:

" one - I mean no one - has asked if DH has adequately uniform and consistant answers (as in solutions DH as a discipline could agree on), to the challenges of "bible as literature", to phenomene chiasm, leitwort, acknowleged literary structures in Torah common to the ancient M.E. that show disregard for their JDEP divisions, the analysis of the scene, R. Yoel Bin-Nun, Herzog Teachers Institute (which has published work from observant AND believing Biblical Critics like Israel Knohl). Nothing. Not even on the historical conservative approach thats revealed the indications of Divine Encounter and the human in Torah found in the mesorah from R. Abraham Heschel in his Torah Min-HaShamayim (recently in english as "heavenly Torah"), the suggestions of R. David Halivni, or even some words from the Biblical Criticism-friendly orthodox rabbis being alluded to. no one brings any of this to the discussion."

But that doesn't answer the fundamental question. As has been explained to me, the academic consensus BEGINS with the rejection of prophecy. After all, the supernatural has no place in academic discourse as a causative agent. So it doesn't matter. Bring in all the literary arguments for single authorship that you like, you still won't convince the DH proponents that the Torah is MiSinai (TMS). At most you can demonstrate the plausibility of single authorship, but that will still be single human authorship. The posters fall into the usual trap of claiming that DH is the opposite of TMS. But it's not.

As for the various religious Jews who have lost their faith in the Divinity of the Unitary Written Torah, they have all kinds of rationales for their lack of faith, all of which cover up the real rationale - a real loss of faith, which then seeks intellectual post facto justification. Kugel is a rare exception, but even he seems to have lost some element of the True Faith.

As R' Micha Berger says, loosely, the mind is a terrific instrument for rationalizing decisions already reached by the heart, which is sort of the reverse of Pascal's "la coeur a ses raisons, que le raison ne connaît pas," or "the heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing." That some continue to be Orthoprax after losing faith in the truth of the Torah, is basically true Kaplanian Reconstructionism - that one continues to practice as an Orthodox Jew even while denying that God communicates with the physical universe. Only one such as Kaplan or R' Yitz Greenberg can truly hold such a position, because it depends on a deep emotional connection to the forms of traditional Judaism, which is pretty much impossible for someone raised without them.

In sum, then, argue DH vs TMS all you like, but realize that they are not actually opposites. DH proponents, consciously or not, assume that prophecy does not exist, while TMS proponents must assume that it does exist. Once one assumes prophecy does not exist, multiple authorship is a (the most?) reasonable interpretation of the textual difficulties of the written Torah. But literary studies demonstrating multiple authorship do not prove human authorship, do not disprove Torah MiSinai.

An afterthought: R' AJ Heschel considers Torah Min Hashamayim and Torah MiSinai to be the same concept, from different viewpoints. From God's perspective, it's Torah MiSinai, because that is where the Torah was given to the Jews, and thus the human race. From our human perspective, it's Torah Min Hashamayim, because it came from Heaven. In either case, the Torah is the record of our ineffable encounter with the Divine.