What does it mean?

September 29, 2004

Sukot

Tonight is Sukot. Sukot is the first real holiday of the season – holiday in the sense of a time of celebration, and holiday in the sense of the Hebrew word hag. Originally, the term referred only to the three pilgrimage holidays: Sukot, Pesah, and Shavu`ot, though now the word is usually used generically. The word is a cognate to Arabic: hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca, and hug, in Hebrew, means circle. In any case, now that we’re spiritually cleansed, it’s time to party!

Well, maybe celebrate is a better word. For a lot of people (not me), Sukot is their favorite holiday. It involves the most paraphernalia, and the outdoors. First you have to build a suka (singular of sukot) – a temporary dwelling. Mine is in my backyard, but city-dwellers usually build them on their balconies. Most Israeli apartments have a suka-balcony – you can’t build a suka on just any balcony, for a suka must be open to the sky. I tried to find some good pictures of sukot on the net, without much success (maybe I’ll take some myself during the holiday – no promises), anyway here are three.

On Sukot we leave our sturdy, permanent homes, and dwell in flimsy sukot – for seven days. What does it mean, to dwell? Most of all, it means to eat. Traditional Jews are not allowed to eat anything of significance outside of a suka, meaning bread or other products made from flour. And, of course, sleeping. Fortunately, hamista`er basuka patur mehasuka – one who is sorry in the suka is exempt from the suka. This is important in northern climates, which are often quite cold on sukot. But in Israel, many people do sleep in their suka. In fact, in Israel it’s usually a delightful time of year.

For six months we have had no rain. The summer is long, hot, and dry. But now the seasons are turning. The days are rapidly shortening. It is becoming cooler. Soon, it will rain. It is a delightful time to be outside. Israelis can take it for granted, during the summer, that they can plan outdoor events without fear rain. But that freedom is coming to an end. But it is not a sad time, we celebrate the coming of the rains, for without water there is no life. Hebrew even has a word for the first rain: yore.

וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ

V’natati m’tar-ars’khem b`ito yore umalqosh v’asafta d’ganekha v’tiroshkah v’yisharekha

And I have given the rain of your land in its time, the first rain and the last rain and you have gathered your grain and your grapes and your oil

Deuteronomy 11:14

On Sukot, more than any other holiday, we are obligated to be happy.

Hag Sameah – Happy Holiday!

UPDATE: More here.

UPDATE: My suka (under construction) here.

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September 28, 2004

Diary of Egypt

A very interesting blog-diary of a trip to Egypt. Excerpt (via Winds of Change):

One point that stuck with me in particular was his notion of the Rational Peasant, because I had been walking around Cairo and seeing much behavior that struck me as bizarre. In Cairo, as opposed to places like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, it's nearly impossible to avoid being confronted with Egypt's endemic poverty. It's quite common to see fellahin walking with donkeys pulling carts loaded with vegetables, fruits, or bread from the rural areas south and north of the city--20 and 30 kilometers away from the point of sale (usually the side of the road). This, for instance, struck me as irrational in an era of highways, buses, and trains. Why couldn't these peasant farmers save themselves (and their donkeys) the trouble and simply sell their produce to a middleman, who would then transport the goods and sell to shops? Or band together with friends, borrow money, and purchase an old truck to share?

Obviously, many did so, or the streets would have been overrun with donkey carts. But what my new friend told me he had learned in his years of development work was that it was important not to assume that peasants hadn't considered these possibilities.

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September 27, 2004

Simply Yourself

Some years back a friend of mine casually remarked that most Americans were anti-intellectual. When I said, “I’m anti-intellectual too,” she was shocked. “Why?” she asked, incredulously. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember that I wasn’t satisfied with it. I wasn’t taking a principled stand; rather it was a gut reaction. It was just how I felt.

Over the years I’ve returned to the question from time to time, never really coming up with a satisfactory answer. Something just rubs me the wrong way about people who call themselves intellectuals. Here is one reason:

לא המדרש עיקר אלא המעשה

Lo’ hamidrash `iqar ele’ hama`ase

It is not the telling that is most important, but the doing

Pirqey Avot 1:17

I’m hardly ever satisfied with my translations, there are usually myriad possibilities, and I have to decide how far I’m willing to go from a literal translation, and how much poetry I’m willing to forsake for substance. But in this case, those myriad translations are directly relevant to the point I want to make. Specifically, midrash means variously seeking, learning, telling, and is also what we call the traditional stories that are recorded in the Talmud and other sources (you might call it Jewish folklore – but like the folklore of all traditional societies it is taken seriously). A beyt midrash is a house of study, a midrasha is a college (yes, cognate to Arabic madrassa), darash means seek. Stick in any of these words, and the saying is valid, and goes a long way toward explaining my anti-intellectualism. But there’s something better:

תמים תהיה עם ה' אלהיך

Tamim tihye `im a-donay eloheykha

Simple you will be with the Lord your God

Deuteronomy 18:13

This translation also requires some explanation for me to get my point across. Tamim doesn’t just mean simple, it also means honest, innocent, perfect, complete, finished, upright. Not as separate concepts, but all together – a whole worldview in one word. And everything the most intellectuals are not. What it means to me: Be who you are. Not an easy thing, I’ve had to work at it. But let me tell you, being who you are simplifies a lot of things. It also makes you more honest, perfect, complete, finished, upright, and oddest of all: more innocent. I mean this in both its meanings: not guilty and childlike. People have a sixth sense for t’mimut (tamim-ness), we instinctively find such people likeable. The mistake people make: to assume they are also fools.

That is my big problem with most intellectuals: they want to be complex when they should be striving to be simple.

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Terror nuts

David Warren writes a moving piece on terrorism. He relates:

A friend writes: "I find that reading the news these days, with hostage beheadings front and centre, is quite depressing. You have to keep up with all of the horrors; doesn't it drive you nuts?"

His answer:

No. It does not drive me nuts. I have no more right to allow it to drive me nuts, than I have the right to ignore it: for an evil on the scale of what we face demands a coherent response. This, in turn, requires a clear head.

The purpose of terrorism is to terrify: to drive us nuts, to leave us incoherent, to make us run away. To spread fear and confusion, feeding upon each other. To make, for instance, the American electorate think: "O dear, Iraq is a nightmare, we had better get out right away."

But that will not do. Instead, we must look, as calmly as we can, right into the heart of the carnage, and find, unblinking, a way to bring it to an end.

I certainly agree with these sentiments, but not with the specific answer to his question. We don’t have choice about what drives us nuts. It’s nonsensical in the way that a standard answer to this question is: How did you manage to succeed at XYZ? Answer: I had no choice. Well, a lot of people fail at what they try to do, and pay the consequences. The answer reverses his cause and effect. If you have a clear head, you won’t be driven nuts. It is well known that people panic not because they are faced with some horrendous situation, but because they don’t know what to do. People who know what to do, do it, though they might be scared they don’t panic. Similarly, people who know how they feel about the news aren’t driven nuts. Nuts is what you feel when your worldview is short-circuiting, and you feel compelled to ignore the new information which is causing the problem, rather than making the effort to rewire your worldview.

Israelis, for the most part, aren’t driven nuts. We go on living normal lives, going to work and school, shopping, going to movies. But we are all soldiers in the War on Terror: the terrorists have made it so. Children are taught in school to recognize and report suspicious packages. (Suspicious package: hefes hashud – חפץ חשוד – an everyday term, one of the first I learned when I moved here. You think this is awful? As I understand it, children in the US are taught to be suspicious of people. I think that’s a lot more awful.) You learn to expect bomb scares whenever you’re in a crowded place: the police clear you out while the bomb squad deactivates it, sometimes by blowing it up. You learn that if you forget your backpack on a park bench, it is liable to be blown up while you’re gone. And of course, you learn to wait for your car to be searched before entering a parking lot, to be searched going into malls, supermarkets, cafes, anywhere where there are lots of people. You learn that in the War on Terror, you are on the front line.

But since you know what to do, you do it.

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Trackback from trying to grok, STRENGTH:
A few months ago, a friend of mine was looking at my bookshelf. She commented on The Fountainhead there, saying that it was the worst book she'd ever read. I was puzzled, because I had remembered it being a very...

September 26, 2004

Prepare for War

I don’t pretend to have any tactical expertise when it comes to politics (economics is another matter). Though I do have strategic opinions, e.g. that the war in Iraq is a good thing – much better than the alternative – you won’t hear me saying that it should be fought differently. But you don’t see any subtitles up there at the top of this blog. That’s because its only theme is: whatever I want to write about.

I expect there to be a war after the US elections. And it doesn’t matter whether Bush or Kerry is president. That’s not a prediction, it’s a fact: that’s what I expect. Here’s why: Iran is going to have nuclear weapons soon. Israelis have been watching this happen for something like twenty years, maybe more. It was one of the factors that pushed Rabin into the Oslo accords – he wanted there to be peace before that happened.

Well, with or without Oslo, doomsday has arrived. Iran is months away from nuclear capability, and Rahim Safavi, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards proclaims: "The time has come to wipe Israel off the map of the world."

Do you think Israel will sit idly by?

The most farcical thing I keep hearing on this subject is the claim that Israel can’t do anything, because unlike Iraq (whose French-provided nuclear capability was destroyed by Israel in 1981, to the condemnation of the world) Iran has spread out its program over 25 different sites. Well, even if they can’t destroy the program completely, they might be able to destroy enough of it to make producing a bomb at least temporarily impossible.

But I don’t think it will come to that, at least not if Bush is president, and probably not if Kerry is (he can’t be that stupid, can he?) either. The US is well aware the Israel simply can’t let this happen, and no amount of pressure will hold Israel back. On the other hand, letting Israel go though with the attack would be catastrophic to the War on Terror – it would enable Islamists to portray it to the Moslem world (and gullible leftists) as a war in support of the Israelis (an eerie reminder of World War II, when Roosevelt did all he could to prevent appearances that the US entered the war to support the Jews – to the point of bombing railroads all over Europe, but not the ones that lead to concentration camps). Therefore, the US will attack. The US is certainly capable of taking out 25 sites in Iran from next-door Iraq.

David Warren thinks Bush might be forced to act even before the election.

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Trackback from TexasBestGrok, Proverbs 3:8b:
David Boxenhorn points out the obvious: imminent war with Iran. War with or without the US. Would Israel really stand by and wait for the vaporization of Tel Aviv? Yet another reason I'm voting for Bush, even with my many...

September 24, 2004

Yom Kipur


Tonight is Yom Kipur (יום כיפור), the Day of Atonement. It is the other bookend to Rosh Hashana – the culmination of the Ten Days of Repentance (`Aseret Y’mey Hatshuva) which began on that day. On Yom Kipur we fast (no food or drink) from sundown tonight, till the stars come out tomorrow (about 25 hours). The Yom Kipur service takes up pretty much the whole day – depending on how quickly you go. Usually there’s about a two-hour break in the afternoon. It’s just as well, I don’t feel like doing anything else when I’m fasting, and the Yom Kipur liturgy is particularly beautiful.

Yom Kipur is often described as the most solemn day of the year, and it is. It is a time of introspection and atonement, which is why Egypt and Syria took advantage of this day to attack Israel in the Yom Kipur war. But it is also a day of joy, for it is assumed that we will atone, and we will be forgiven. Indeed, it is paired with Tu B’av as one of the happiest days of the year (There were no days so good for Israel as the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur – Ta`anit 4:8). It is also compared to Purim, a time when we celebrate the rescue of Persian Jewry from massacre – Yom Kipurim (Yom Kipur) is Yom K’purim (a day like Purim).

Nevertheless, it is a long, hard day. Because of its significance, many Jews who otherwise would never set foot in a synagogue are there – it is particularly difficult for them, being unfamiliar with the lay of the land. Like music from a foreign land, you can hear it as well as anyone, and understand it in a way, but totally miss its beauty and significance, unfamiliar with its idiom.

At the end of the day is final service: N`ila (נעילה) – the closing of the gates. The day is coming to an end. The sun is low; you can feel it getting darker. And the gates of heaven are closing. All day you’ve been praying with the same group of people, and last night too. The N`ila service fairly short. A particular effort is made to find a respected elder of the community to lead it. (The leaders of other parts are selected more for their voice, and are usually middle-aged.) There is a special intensity in the air. Over and over we cry out:

ה' ה' אל רחום וחנון
ארך אפים רב חסד ואמת
נוצר חסד לאלפים
נשא עון ופשע וחטאה
ונקה

A-donay a-donay el rahum v’hanun
Erekh apayim rav hesed v’emet
Noser hesed la’alafim
Nose’ `avon v’fesha` v’hata’a
V’naqe

O Lord, O Lord, God, compassionate and merciful
Long-suffering, abundant of kindness, and true
Preserver of kindness for thousands (of generations)
Forgiving iniquity, and crime, and sin
And cleansing (our sins) 

Over and over, not repetitively, but as a refrain that we keep coming back to. Each time it gets louder. We are exhausted from the long day, and from not eating or drinking, but we know that this is it. A continual theme for the last week has been being written into to the Book of Life, such as the following:

וכתוב לחיים טובים כל בני בריתך

Ukhtov l’hayim tovim kol b’ney britekha

And write for a good life all the children of your covenant

But now in this last hour, the theme has subtly changed:

וחתום לחיים טובים כל בני בריתך

Vahatom l’hayim tovim kol b’ney britekha

And seal for a good life all the children of your covenant

Finally, we get to the end and say seven times: The Lord is God! (ה' הוא האלהים), and that’s the end. The prayer leader says a celebratory qadish, and then:

לשנה הבאה בירושלים הבנויה

L’shana haba’a birushalayim hab’nuya

May next year be in Jerusalem, rebuilt!

I have never failed to feel a sense of elation at this point. I feel like I can fast forever.

May you be written and sealed in the book of life for good and sweet year!

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Trackback from Willow Tree, G'mar Tov:
My prayers for the day; may everyone who is fasting have a safe and easy fast. May we all be written in the book of good health and fortune. May Hashem keep us all safe and may this be the...

Trackback from Random Pensées, Day of Atonement:
Tonight begins the end of the High Holidays which began with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah and ends tonight with Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. I was going to write something about it. But Simon already wrote a great...

Trackback from The Head Heeb, Yom Kippur:
Those of you who've been reading this journal for a while know that I'm pretty firmly secular. I have a strong identification with the Jewish people and a substantial one with Jewish philosophy and ethics, but little patience for ritual....

September 23, 2004

When Jerusalem was an international city

In some quarters it is proposed to solve the problem of Jerusalem by making it an international city. How quickly people forget, it has already been tried. From Sarah Honig:

Before we attained national sovereignty (which some of us are eager to lose in Jerusalem all over again), the British ruled the holy roost, having secured a mandate from the UN's predecessor, the League of Nations. That was when Muslims began to evince emotional attachment to the Western Wall, where they claimed the prophet Muhammad tethered his steed Burak. Jewish wailing was tolerated there occasionally, following remittance of an exorbitant fee for the privilege - providing Muslim sensibilities weren't offended.

The problem was that there was no telling what would give offense.

THUS IN 1919 the Wakf declared that wooden benches, used by the old and infirm, were an insufferable desecration of Burak. The British promptly removed them. Meanwhile, Arabs began to regularly drive cattle and laden donkeys right through crowds of Jewish congregants. A muezzin was dispatched in 1920 to sound his loudest chants precisely during Jewish services.

Then the Wakf stirred a fuss over the shofar blown on holy days in front of the Wall. Eager to please and dispense international justice, the mandatory authorities outlawed the annoying blasts, beginning on Rosh Hashana, 1921.

Youths from the Revisionist Movement made it a point to sound the shofar at the Wall at the end of each Yom Kippur, judging this wasn't exclusively a religious issue but one of Jewish national self-respect. It was no mean feat, considering that in the name of their international mandate the British infiltrated undercover agents into the narrow alleyways adjacent to the Wall to apprehend potential transgressors with shofars in hand. To outsmart them, a number of horns were smuggled each time, usually secreted inside young women's bras. Several trained shofar blowers were always on hand, in case one was nabbed by detectives.

Between 1921 and 1947, not a single Yom Kippur concluded without the illegal shofar being heard at Judaism's holiest site. In fact, a new ritual was born. Reb Aryeh Levin (spiritual patron of underground prisoners) and the chief rabbis marched to the central Jerusalem jail after the close of each Day of Atonement with food to break the fast of the shofar blowers who had been arrested for their dastardly deed.

But the Wakf's shrillest outcry was raised in 1928 over a flimsy partition put up to segregate male and female worshipers at the Wall. The British lost no time in rectifying the situation and tearing down the offensive screen.

Jewish opinion of all political shades was outraged, but the premeditated disruptions at the Wall grew increasingly violent, till trumped-up tales of Jewish takeover attempts at the Temple Mount sent Arabs rioting countrywide on August 23, 1929. The bloodbath lasted for an entire week.

The rampages began in Jerusalem, but the most notorious massacre was perpetrated in Hebron, where 67 men, women and children were hideously hacked to death in a homicidal frenzy and the centuries-old Jewish community was dispossessed. Smaller Jewish enclaves in Gaza, Jenin, Tulkarm and Nablus were likewise dislodged.

The final verdict on the atrocities was handed down in 1931, when a League of Nations committee also prohibited the shofar.

Sound familiar?

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2 Soldiers die preventing suicide bombing

From the Jerusalem Post:

One of the witnesses to the attack, Gadi Ben-Ezri, 17, of Kochav Ya'acov, said he saw the soldiers talking to the woman, who turned out to be the bomber. After a blinding flash, he fell on the ground. Then he ran away with everyone else. But he turned around upon remembering his bag. It was then he saw the soldiers.

"It was just like in the movies. One was burning, the other was writhing slightly on the ground," he recalled, as he lay wrapped in a blanket at Hadassah-University Hospital, Mount Scopus, where he and many other witnesses were treated for shock.

"More than anything, I am thinking of the soldiers who died. Why was it them and not me? That is what hurts. The pictures of the soldier going up in flames and the other one lying on the ground are what keep flashing in front of my eyes.

But Michael Totten says we’ve won (via Instapundit):

Israel's triumph over the Palestinian attempt to unravel its society is the result of a systematic assault on terrorism that emerged only fitfully over the past four years. The fence, initially opposed by the army and the government, has thwarted terrorist infiltration in those areas where it has been completed. Border towns like Hadera and Afula, which had experienced some of the worst attacks, have been terror-free since the fence was completed in their areas. Targeted assassinations and constant military forays into Palestinian neighborhoods have decimated the terrorists' leadership, and roadblocks have intercepted hundreds of bombs, some concealed in ambulances, children's backpacks, and, most recently, a baby carriage. At every phase of Israel's counteroffensive, skeptics have worried that attempts to suppress terrorism would only encourage more of it.

He’s right, of course. Constant vigilance, good defense, and taking the war to enemy territory have brought the casualties down to a “tolerable” level.

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September 22, 2004

The Valley of Sex

I have posted before about peaks and valleys, but let me recap: A peak experience is exciting, exhilarating, scary, anxiety-provoking, interesting – all those experiences that get the adrenaline going, make the heart start pounding, whether positive or negative. A valley experience is just the opposite, it is peaceful, relaxing, homey – I’m having a hard time finding good adjectives, which is part of the problem – it is those experiences that give you a feeling of well being, of being at home in the world, the feeling that life is good.

A fundamental problem in western culture is that it doesn’t transmit the value of valley experiences. Peak experiences it knows well, we see them in almost every movie, TV show, novel, comic book, cartoon, etc. No doubt, part of the problem is that they transmit well over the media that we have available to us – you can use them to make some have a genuine peak experience. Valley experiences, on the other hand, are way undervalued – in fact, their value, even their very existence, is not transmitted by western culture.

Judaism, on the other hand, seeks to transmit both of them, where they correspond to the two fundamental forces of human nature: hesed (חסד) – sometimes translated as “grace”, and g’vura (גבורה) – sometimes translated as “might” – though neither term can be exressed in English by a single word. Hesed is a taking-in force, a static force, a being force, it is associated with the female essence (which men and women both have, though not necessarily to an equal degree), while g’vura is a going-out force, a dynamic force, a doing force, associated with the male essence (which, again, men and women both have). Looking at it this way, it is easy to see why it is so much easier to transmit peak values than valley values: It is easy to show doing, it is much harder to show being. You can vicariously experience doing. Can you vicariously experience being? Ironically, the only way to experience being is to do something, yourself.

The peak/valley dichotomy is closely related to the subject/object dichotomy discussed before. Peak experiences invariably involve the self interacting with the not-self (going-out). Valley experiences involve the self incorporating the not-self (taking-in). You feel at peace, one with the universe, existentially at home, when you incorporate the world into your self, when you identify with the world – when you love the world.

How is this achieved? My long-time readers will have guessed the answer already: by the tribal paradigm. Human beings are tribal by nature. Our natural habitat is the tribe. We need to belong to the tribe in order to have a feeling of well-being. We need to identify ourselves with the tribe, to feel: The tribe is me!

The thing I love most about Judaism is that embraces human nature. It is a traditional religion, which means that instead of embracing a particular ideology and imposing on society its logic, it embraces society’s logic (i.e. traditions), and from that formulates an ideology. Human nature is inherently tribal, therefore, so is Judaism. But Judaism builds on it, extends the paradigm. In contrast to the particularist tribalism of our hunter-gatherer forebears, Jewish tribalism is universal. Anyone (Jewish or not) can build their tribal world of their family, community, country, to include, finally, the whole world.

How is this done? It is done by creating relationships. Though we humans are limited in the scope of our actions – we can have relationships only with people nearby – we have been granted the ability to generalize. Thus, when the relationships around us are good – in particular our relationship with our spouse, family, and community – we can easily extend the paradigm outward, to take in ever more of the world.

This is what Judaism does; it is why I call it more a lifestyle than a faith. It is exceedingly concerned with these relationships, and maintains institutions to promote them. How do you promote relationships? By having people do meaningful things together. This is one of the functions of rituals, and Judaism has them on all three of the aforementioned levels. On the level of community is synagogue service. Jewish prayer is communal – the shaliah sibur (prayer leader) exists merely to keep people synchronized with each other, he has no special status – the importance of communal prayer is that it is communal.

On the level of family are numerous rituals: the festive meals on the Sabbath and holidays, building a Suka on Sukot, cleaning for Pesah, qidush, havdala, etc. In fact, it is often said that the center of Judaism is not the synagogue, but the home.

Finally, with your spouse, is sex. Now, don’t start thinking anything weird! The point I want to make (finally, getting to the title of this post) is just the opposite! There is a notion in western culture that sex is supposed to be a peak experience. Nothing could be further from the truth; sex is the ultimate valley experience! True, meeting somebody new, or doing something new, or scary, or unusual, is a peak experience, but none of this has anything to do with sex itself. This misunderstanding alone is responsible for a tremendous amount of misery – people for whom sex becomes boring, who as a result seek ever weirder or more dangerous sex. Desperately seeking sex, they are never really experiencing it – it is indeed a kind of addiction: though they seek ever more, more can never satisfy them.

I suppose you are still wondering about Jewish sexual rituals… Really, it’s nothing exciting! Traditional Jews abstain from sex for the first 12-13 days of a woman’s cycle. The night after the last day, the woman immerses herself in a pool fed by free-flowing water, and only then may the couple have sex. What valley can be deeper than reunion with your other half, and eternity?

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September 21, 2004

Happy Birthday Pixy Misa

Happy Birthday Pixy Misa!

Or, as we say here:

מזל טוב על יום הולדתך

Mazal tov `al yom holedetkha

 Congratulations on the day of your birth

 I owe you my blife!

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September 20, 2004

Spiritual Imprinting

A while back, jinnderella posted about sexual imprinting. This post is a timely (it touches on many themes of the season) companion piece to hers, for we humans are bisoular – we have two souls: an animal soul, which we share with voles and other creatures; and a spiritual soul, which is uniquely ours. Hebrew, in fact, has different words for them: nefesh (נפש), the animal soul, and: n’shama (נשמה), the spiritual soul. (Incidentally, n-sh-m is the root for breath, it is this that God blew into our nostrils in Genesis 2:7)

How many of you have fallen in love suddenly, as if struck by lighting? I have. (And have the double good fortune to be married to her.) It was not love at first sight, but at a certain point it hit me, like the proverbial thunderbolt. What happened? To answer that question, we have to go back a long way, in fact to the sixth day of creation, and Garden of Eden itself.

We are born in the Garden of Eden. It is a memory so powerful, that though we remember nothing of it, its shadow darkens every moment of our lives. We believe deeply that the world should be perfect; instead it is a place of thorns and brambles, where we eat by the sweat of our brow. Once we were one with the world, but now a great divide separates us. We live a half-life, circumscribed by the limits of our senses, disturbed by our dreams.

To some, our childhood is enchanted, to others, an enduring wound. But none come out unscarred by the collision with reality. No parent is perfect, no circumstance complete. Each yesterday a barrier to tomorrow, to the world, to life. And then we meet someone, and we know, we know that this person is our garden path to Eden: this person was made for me!

When God made man, he didn’t make him like the other animals: male and female. He made only one: Adam (which means, in Hebrew: Mankind). Now this Adam was not male or female, but a holy mix of both. Adam had two faces, one on either side of the head – in fact, two of everything, one male, one female, on either side of the body (a beast with no back) – but inside, they were in the most intimate connection, and most of all: one soul. But then, God said, “It is not good that the Adam should be alone” (Lo’ tov heyot ha’adam l’vado – Genesis 2:18). So He brought to Adam every living creature, and though Adam named them, he couldn’t find his match. Finally, God caused Adam to fall asleep, and while he slept, God took one of his sides (sela`, which can also mean rib, but is universally understood in Jewish sources to mean side in this case – it could be that the meaning: rib, was a later development) and made Woman.

And this story has the following remarkable ending (Genesis 2:24): That is why a man leaves his father and mother, and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

We leave behind the scars of our past (formed primarily by our parents) and join our mate as one being – with each other, and with the world.

The purpose of a Jewish life – of life itself – is often described as: Tiqun `Olam – Fixing the Universe. Our spouse is the key to fixing our own private universe. We instinctively recognize this: “this time, bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh” – this one is me. Little do we suspect, that this is only the beginning. At some point, though, we realize the awful truth: our match is not perfect (in modern times, when engagements are long, and marriages easy, this is the point where they usually break up) – in fact, all our old problems are still there! In reality, it is we scarred souls who are not perfect, and by healing our relationship, we heal ourselves, and thus enter the Garden of Eden, become one with eternity.

Why, you may ask, is the path so long and hard? The answer is unknowable, but let me just say this: When we were born into the Garden of Eden, our unity was profound but unconscious; we were back-to-back with our selves. Now we can unite front-to-front.

UPDATE: Jinnderella reposts at Gene Expression.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:36 PM  Permalink | Comments (7)
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Madonna is here

Madonna is here. I really don’t have anything to say about it, beyond what I already said. But some other people do: Alisa, Allison, Israellycool, The View From Here.

UPDATE: Okay, wait I do have something to say about this, from Israellycool:

While Madonna may be the real deal, the same cannot be said about the brand of Kabbala she is involved with. You see, it really is a brand, replete with merchandising.

I may or may not have something against Madonna’s brand of Kabbala (my impression is that it’s a lot better than the alternative: nothing) but I surely don’t have anything against raising money by selling paraphernalia. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it! Even religion has to support itself; it’s a lot better than any of the alternatives.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 04:43 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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September 19, 2004

Love and Fear

העובד מאהבה
עוסק בתורה ובמצוות והולך בנתיבות החוכמה
לא מפני דבר שבעולם
ולא מפני יראת הרעה
ולא כדי לירש הטובה
אלא עושה אמת מפני שהוא אמת

Ha`oved me’ahava
`Oseq batora uvamisvot v’holekh bintivot hahokhma
Lo’ mipney davar sheba`olam
V’lo’ mipney yir’at hara`a
V’lo’ k’dey lirash hatova
Ele’ `ose emet mipney shehu’ emet

One who serves out of love
Practices Torah and commandments and walks in the ways of wisdom
Not because of some thing that is in the world
And not because of fear of evil
And not in order to inherit something good
But does truth because it is truth

Maimonides, Hilkhot Tshuva Chapter 10

UPDATE: What is the connection between love and doing the right thing just because it’s right? Love is identification. When you love someone, you feel like that person is part of you. You do the right thing because you love the world: The world is your tribe.

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Trackback from Winds of Change.NET, Yom Kippur: Love and Fear:
Why should we do good, and in what state of mind? On this Day of Atonement, the Jewish sage Maimonides answers. So does the Islamic Sufi sage Rabi'a. But the greatest answer belongs to a Russian Cantonist.

Trackback from Simon World, Openings and closings:
I was once in a Jewish youth group and we had a Rabbi attend a session. He asked a simple question: why are you a Jew? The standard answer because of my mother was excluded. Why else? There were many answers. Because of the Holocaust. Because of anti-S...

In Israel 1 – 5

Here’s Jay Nordlinger’s whole series about Israel:

One, Two, Three, Four, Five

UPDATE: I added those links last night because I didn’t want to lose them. Now I have read them. Some excerpts:

From part one:

Already, I am wrapped in clichés. Every visitor to Israel says, "I can't believe how close together things are. The people, friendly or not, are on top of one another. The distances are insignificant. Everything is right in your face" — well, it's true. When the '67 borders are pointed out, guns (and other equipment) hostile to Israel seem directly up your snout.

From part two:

Journalists talk all the time about the hardship imposed on the Palestinians by the fence. They are "humiliated." Well, forgetting the countless lives saved by the fence, what about Israelis (asks the spokesman)? What about our hardship, what about our humiliation? Israelis have to go through security checks constantly. Their daily lives are disrupted. They drive to the mall, they have to have their car trunk inspected. They have to open up all their bags. They have to stand in line — in line after line. Life is a hassle.

From part three:

Israel "pays a price for its democracy," says Meir — in this country, a journalist is almost completely free of restrictions (he can't poke around in the nuclear facility); in Palestinian-controlled zones . . . well, that control is total. A journalist better watch his back. This can create a freaky imbalance in the news out of the region.

Meir talks some more about the fence, and other security measures, and the hardship they impose on Israelis — as well as Palestinians — as they go about their daily lives. (We touched on this in yesterday's installment.) But, despite being energetic complainers in general, Israelis don't complain much about this, says Meir — and then he tells a joke.

This Russian emigrant comes to Israel, and he's met by an official. Says the official, "Welcome to Israel!" "Thank you," says the man. "How was Russia?" asks the official. "I can't complain," says the man. "How were you treated there?" "I can't complain." "Could you provide for your family?" "I can't complain." "Were you comfortable?" "I can't complain."

"Well, tell me," says the official. "Why have you moved to Israel?" The man's eyes get big and he says, "Here I can complain!"

From part four:

Okay, let me fume for a second — it's an old sermon: There's no need for these Palestinian "refugee camps." None. (Besides, they're not necessarily refugee camps; they can resemble long-established villages or towns.) These endlessly abused people should have been absorbed decades ago. But they are kept in limbo for low political purposes — despicable.

Further: I can see with my own eyes how little space there is in Israel (including Greater Israel). (By the way, one of the most loaded terms you can use here? "Israel proper.") Jewish communities and Arab communities are cheek by jowl — sometimes the houses abut. Pre-fence, in particular, a suicide bomber had a shockingly easy time of it. In some cases, he needed only cross the street, and boom (literally, I guess).

A fact that gets a lot of play: Until the Six-Day War, the Knesset was within sight of the Jordanian army. That ought to have concentrated the minds of legislators.

Our group troops to Samuel's Tomb. Up high, you can see all the way from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. And suddenly it hits me, with terrible clarity: "push the Jews into the sea." Before, it was just a metaphor, just a staple of Arab rhetoric. But you can really see it: a drive from the east, push the Jews back, back . . . The image is not at all fanciful.

I might mention, too, that, in the old days, when Jordan controlled this area, you couldn't visit Samuel's Tomb — not if you were Israeli, that is. It took Israeli control to give all peoples access to holy sites, throughout the land. After the handover — whenever it occurs, and whatever shape it takes — will we all have access? Christians, Jews, Muslims? Hmm?

From part five:

Finally, I want to return to Metullah. At the dinner, I met a friendly couple — the parents of our host, the apple grower. (In fact, the father is an apple grower too — it is a family business.) The father doesn't speak much English, but his wife told me about his family. He was born in Germany. His mother had four children. All of her children — all four — were taken from her and murdered. Her husband, too, was taken from her and murdered. Her mother and father were murdered. Her grandmother was murdered before her very eyes. She herself survived a camp.

Let me run through the tally again: all four children; husband; mother and father; grandmother (before her eyes).

How do you go on from that? How can you possibly bear to live? Think of that, next time you consider yourself unlucky — think of that woman, and her four children, and her husband, and her parents, and her grandmother. And then think that she was not all that extraordinary.

Anyway, this woman married someone. She was about 40. She met a man who wanted to marry her, and they did. They had three sons — one born in Germany, the next two in Israel. All of them married. They had two children each. So that woman had six grandchildren. And she lived to a relatively advanced age.

This is how I think of Israel: a determination to live, in spite of the worst. A refusal to surrender to death. A refusal to succumb to evil. A decision to live. To keep living. To choose life, not death. To go on.


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September 15, 2004

Rosh Hashana


Tonight is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year (lit. head of the year). It is on the 1st and 2nd of the month of Tishrey, and is the beginning of three weeks of mo`adim – special days: Yom Kipur on the 10th, Sukot on the 15th, and Simhat Tora on the 22nd. I hope to cover each of them in their time (no promises).

On Rosh Hashana people don’t go out and get drunk (that’s a different day: Purim). Rosh Hashana is Yom Hadin – the Day of Judgment. It is paired with Yom Kipur – the Day of Atonement, the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kipur are known as `Aseret Y’mey Hatshuva – the Ten Days or Repentance or Hayamim Hanora’im – the Days of Awe (lit. the Awesome Days). Rosh Hashana is also known as Yom Tru`a – Day of (Shofar) Blowing, and indeed we blow the shofar 100 times on this day, heralding the coming year.

The theme of the day is malkhuyot – kingship (of God), and the prayers of the day are designed to emphasize God’s kingship over the Earth. It works (at least for me). From the very first words, chanted in the special Rosh Hashana melody, I feel in my bones the majesty of this day. For me, the highpoint of the day comes with the prayer called: Un’tane Toqef. It is not a long prayer, but too long for me to post in triplicate in this blog (though I would like to), so I will post only one stanza:


בראש השנה יכתבון
וביום צום כיפור יחתמון
כמה יעברון וכמה יבראון
מי יחיה ומי ימות
מי בקצו ומי לא בקצו
מי במים ומי באש
מי בחרב ומי בחיה
מי ברעב ומי בצמא
מי ברעש ומי במגפה
מי בחניקה ומי בסקילה
מי ינוח ומי ינוע
מי ישקט ומי יטרף
מי ישלו ומי יתיסר
מי יעני ומי יעשר
מי ישפל ומי ירום

B’rosh hashana yikatevun
Uvyom som kipur yehatemun
Kama ya`avrun v’khama yibare’un
Mi yihye umi yamut
Mi b’qiso umi lo’ b’qiso
Mi bamayim umiba’esh
Mi baherev umi bahaya
Mi bara`av umi basama’
Mi bara`ash umi bamagefa
Mi bahaniqa umi basqila
Mi yanuah umi yanua`
Mi yishaqet umi yitaref
Mi yishalev umi yityaser
Mi ye`ani umi ye`asher
Mi yishafel umi yarum

On Rosh Hashana they will be written
And on the fast of Yom Kipur they will be sealed
How many will pass on and how many will be created
Who will live and who will die
Who in his time and who not in his time
Who by water and who by fire
Who by sword and who by wild animal
Who by hunger and who by thirst
Who by storm and who by plague
Who by strangulation and who by stoning
Who will rest and who will wander
Who will be quiet and who will be crazy
Who will be tranquil and will be troubled
Who will be poor and who will be rich
Who will be degraded and who will rise


It is a fearsome image: On Rosh Hashana your fate is written down, and on Yom Kipur it is sealed. In between is your last chance to change your fate through repentance. Of course, all the Jewish authorities reject this on a factual basis: God is always open to one who repents. Some say that God is especially receptive on these days, but in my opinion this is mixing cause and effect. It is man who is especially capable of repentance on these days. The very fact that they are dedicated to the theme of repentance, and on top of that the liturgy – everything in our environment is set up to facilitate it. 

On a lighter note, the day (like all holidays) is celebrated with festive meals. One tradition that I enjoy is the ceremony of simanim (signs). In the US it is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey as a siman (sign) for a shana tova umtuqa – a good and sweet year. But in Israel this custom has been expanded to any number of simanim. It works like this: You hold the siman in your hand and say, “Y’hi rason milfaneykha” – “May it be a wish before you” and then you say your wish, for example, “shet’hadesh `aleynu shana tova umtuqa” – “that you will renew upon us a good and sweet year”, and you eat the siman.

The fun part (at least for me) is that a lot of simanim are word plays. At our table, we take turns going around the table, people are free to use the ones in the book, or make up something on their own. Here are some from the book:

Leek (karti): sheyikartu son’eynu (that those who hate us will be cut off)
Beets (seleq): sheyistalqu oyveynu (that our enemies will go away)
Carrots (gezer): sheyiqra` roa` gzar dineynu (that the evil of our judgment will be torn up)
Pumpkin (qara’): sheyiqar’u l’faneykha z’khuyoteynu (that our merits will be read before you)

I probably won’t be back on line until Sunday. Until then: Shana Tova Umtuqa!

UPDATE: For the story behind Un’tane Toqef go here. For a full translation go here.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 08:44 AM  Permalink | Comments (6)
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Trackback from Simon World, Openings and closings:
I was once in a Jewish youth group and we had a Rabbi attend a session. He asked a simple question: why are you a Jew? The standard answer because of my mother was excluded. Why else? There were many answers. Because of the Holocaust. Because of anti-S...

September 14, 2004

Subjects and Objects

This is not a post about linguistics. It is a post about life.

Many Rabbis make the following point: While man has a subject-object relationship with the world, God is both subject and object – He has a subject-subject relationship with the world.

Judaism specifically requires man to strive to acquire the attributes of God, to the extent that we can. In a way, you can understand Judaism’s tribal point of view as an attempt to do just that for the subject-object problem. For Judaism doesn’t just encourage a tribal point of view at the level of peoples, but at every level: the family, the community, the people, humanity, the universe. In fact even the individual is included in this hierarchy (at the beginning). Remember my definition of a tribe: a group of people who behave altruistically toward one another. By this I don’t mean total altruism, I mean that in some predictable way (which can be predicted by members of the group), the members will refrain from pursuing their own best interest, and pursue the best interest of the group, or of another of its members. I will call this: the altruistic domain.

Though I have arranged the tribal groupings hierarchically, since altruism to the higher tribal units usually preempts altruism to the lower, this is not necessarily true: it depends on the altruistic domain. For example, if your brother is a murderer, you would probably feel obligated to turn him in: your altruism toward humanity has preempted your altruism toward your brother.

One of the beauties of this system is that it’s stable. Its stability is derived from the fact that each individual has total power over the tribal grouping. If you deem a person to have violated a group’s altruistic domain, you simply exclude him: you are no longer committed to the altruistic domain where this person is concerned. Compare this to the notion (commonly held to be the highest ideal) that we should be altruistic to all people all the time. Anyone who violates this altruistic domain can take advantage of anyone who doesn’t, and there’s nothing you can do about it except die. Eventually no altruistic people will remain.

But there is something, to my mind, even more beautiful than this: it corresponds to human nature. We don’t have to cut off any toes to fit into this shoe, and when we wear it, we feel existentially at home. I have frequently heard of cultures described as “guilt cultures” or “shame cultures” depending on the mechanism with which the culture makes people obey it rules: does breaking the rules make you feel guilty or ashamed? This is something else, let’s call it an “identity culture” – I guard my altruistic domain because I am a member of the tribe, and the tribe is me. I identify myself with the tribe, and when something happens to one of its members, good or bad, I feel that it has happened to me. I have expanded my sense of self. At least within a restricted domain, I have overcome the subject-object relationship, and created a subject-subject relationship.

It is this subject-subject relationship that enables us to approach Godliness. I can usually tell pretty quickly whether a person has a subject-object relationship with the world, or a subject-subject relationship, i.e. feels part of this word or separate from it, is one with the universe, or apart. Of course all of us, being human, are somewhere in between. But there seems to be a tipping point.

We humans seem incapable of internalizing a theory we don’t put into practice. Thus, I think, no one can feel at one with the universe without feeling at one with their family, and within the family at one with his or her spouse. When that happens, it is relatively easy to extend the paradigm to ever increasing numbers of people, and beyond.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:49 AM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Truth vs Objectivity

I try to avoid linking to the really big bloggers. I figure people don’t need me for that. But this post by the Instapundit does a really good job of summing up why the blogosphere is better than the mainstream media.

But there’s one thing I want to add. The mainstream media seems to be obsessed with the idea of objectivity. Well, there’s no such thing as objectivity. None of us are looking down from another universe; we are all part of this world. We all bring to our reporting our own worldview, formed by the home environment in which we grew up, our circle of friends, office politics, the particular dynamics of our job, etc.

We see the results in the mainstream media. A far left “expert” is put on TV to represent Israeli opinion. Thousands of witnesses to John Kerry’s character are ignored, while a few pages of clearly forged documents against Bush are rushed to press. And always, “Israeli spokesman says XYZ and Palestinian spokesman says ABC”. That’s what they call objectivity.

The blogosphere is different. While most blogs make no effort to be “objective”, they are committed to a higher goal, one that though unobtainable, is something that actually can be approached by human beings: truth. Of course, none of us have “a monopoly on truth” – there is always the possibility that we are wrong. But there is one sure way to approach it, perhaps slowly, but none the less inexorably: DON’T LIE. It’s very simple. Don’t lie, don’t base your arguments on lies, don’t lie by omitting what you know to be true. Just tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as well as you can, and use THAT as the basis of your argument.

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Trackback from Bunker Mulligan, Toward a New MSMâ„¢:
The experts in MSM™ have spoken. We in the blogosphere are incompetent to provide any real coverage of any topic. We are the Pajama Brigade. No, I don’t see blogs replacing newspapers or television newscasts. But anyone in MSM™ that...

September 13, 2004

In Israel


יהללך זר ולא פיך

Y’halelkha zar v’lo’ pikha

May a stranger praise you and not your own mouth

Proverbs 27:2

Here’re some interesting random thoughts from Jay Nordlinger, who’s now visiting Israel (via Timur-I-Leng via Amritas).

Some comments: Tummy tapping is done with a kind of metal detector on a stick. Jay found one of the few sensible-sounding professors in Israel: Israeli universities are at least as leftist as American universities.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 08:09 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Don’t you know who I am?

I love this cartoon. It’s the story of my life.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 04:45 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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September 12, 2004

9-11

I really wanted to write a 9-11 post on 9-11, but events conspired in my off-line life to keep me from it. This is my first 9-11 as a blogger, so I thought it would be a good time to tell my story, but since it’s already three years old, I thought, it won’t be much staler next year, maybe I should wait till then? Then I read Sarah’s post:

I went to see what she had to say on that momentous date. Nothing. I tried all of her links, and no one had even mentioned September 11th. I tried all of their links, racing through the internet trying to find anyone in their circle of "liberal" friends who thought that this date still held significance. I found one person who said that he had written a post about September 11th but then deleted it because "it is important to remember the events of 9/11, but let's not dwell on them."

I don’t want to be one of them – someone who doesn’t admit to the importance of this day. But in a way I am: 9-11, horrific as it was, was not a world-changing event for me. You see, living in Israel means experiencing a slow-motion 9-11, all the time, and it’s been this way for the last hundred years. Along with the sheer horror, the James-Bond-turned-disaster-movie come to life, was the realization that, for the first time, we Israelis were not alone in our misery.

We often hear about America’s “vacation from history” – that ended on 9-11. In Israel we had a similar vacation, we called it: Oslo. To say that I was skeptical of Oslo from the first would be an understatement, but even so I was swept up in the euphoria that followed the Oslo accords. For a diversity-lover like me it was a dream too sweet to turn away from. When everyone else faulted my logic, even I preferred to doubt it.

I saw the vision clearly: Not merely two nations living side-by-side in peace, but two nations intertwined: A checkerboard country, each nation interacting in peace with the other, nevertheless maintaining its own social institutions, pursuing its own destiny. But all this overlooked one small thing: Our partner-in-peace was a totalitarian, terrorist-supporting dictatorship. Their vision was nothing like mine. Not only did the incidence of terrorism not decrease, it actually increased. And that was just the ghastly tip of the iceberg. All kinds of crime increased dramatically. Car thefts, for example went up 500%, and burglary, once rare, became common. The Palestinian areas became safe havens for crime – the cost of theft plummeted. Where once the theft itself was 10% of the battle, the other 90% being safely selling the stolen goods, now the theft was all the battle, and by the unavoidable laws of economics, when costs tumbled, demand skyrocketed.

None of this led to disillusionment among much of the public. The problem: we weren’t doing enough! So, like an alcoholic curing his hangover with another drink, we had round after round of agreements. Each time we gave the Palestinians something new, and asked for the same old thing in return: the end of terror. The Palestinians probably thought they were on to something good (for them). What they didn’t know: That we would hit bottom.

It came, when our Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, in one last act of desperation, breaking all the “red lines” that he himself declared, and that the Israeli public believed in, tried to give them everything they asked for, in return for ending terror. And they refused. Why did they refuse? Because of one small detail that Barak, to his credit, refused to relinquish: A clear declaration by the Palestinians of an end to hostilities. An agreement that there would be no more demands. Arafat told Clinton: "If I sign this, the next time you will see me it will be my funeral." Instead, Arafat stared the Oslo War, or as he dubbed it: the el-Aqsa Intifada. (The pretense was that the Israelis were about to destroy the el-Aqsa Mosque.)

In response, we fully expected the world to rush to our defense, if not in deeds, then at least in words. The facts were clear. The Palestinians walked out, they started a war, they didn’t want peace. Nothing of the sort occurred. The Europeans found excuses, even the Americans found excuses, and always there was the inexorable demand for evenhandedness. That was Israel’s 9-11. One year later was America’s 9-11.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:38 AM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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September 10, 2004

Forgery Forgery Forgery

From CBS news:

Independent document examiner Sandra Ramsey Lines said the memos looked like they had been produced on a computer using Microsoft Word software. Lines, a document expert and fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, pointed to a superscript — a smaller, raised "th" in "111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron" — as evidence indicating forgery.

Microsoft Word automatically inserts superscripts in the same style as the two on the memos obtained by CBS, she said.

"I'm virtually certain these were computer generated," Lines said after reviewing copies of the documents at her office in Paradise Valley, Ariz. She produced a nearly identical document using her computer's Microsoft Word software.

In the Wednesday broadcast, 60 Minutes said the purported memos were "documents we are told were taken from Col. Killian's personal file. The program says it consulted a handwriting analyst and document expert who believes the material is authentic.

"As is standard practice at CBS News, the documents in the 60 Minutes report were thoroughly examined and their authenticity vouched for by independent experts," CBS News said in a statement.

This document expert (meaning me – full disclosure: I have no special expertise in this subject) is old enough not only to remember typewriters, but to have actually done quite a lot of work on them. He never saw a typewriter that could type a smaller, raised superscript, and doubts that one was standard issue in the US army during the Vietnam War.

He is also quite familiar with the automatic superscripting of “th” after numbers, e.g 10th – he once tried to get Word to not do it, and failed.

UPDATE: Don’t miss this great link on how blogging works (via Daily Pundit).

UPDATE: I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the document (via Amritas, also here). Doesn’t everyone know that typewriters produce equal-spaced fonts?! This document is what we call a proportional-spaced font. If you don’t believe me, take a look a the word “will” see how the “w” takes up as much horizontal space as the rest of the word combined?

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 02:17 PM  Permalink | Comments (4)
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September 09, 2004

Sarah in France

Now I know why Sarah feels the way she does about France. It is really quite shocking:

They would pretend not to understand me, even with the simplest sentences. (How hard is it to figure out that I'm asking for stamps when I'm in the post office?) Our teachers would praise the Taiwanese and Japanese speakers and then cringe when the Americans spoke and say things like, "Oh, you really need to get rid of that horrible American accent." Some landlords even banned English in the home, even when three English speakers lived together. Once when four of us Americans were walking down the street, a French person started yelling at us for speaking English to each other, telling us to go home if we wanted to speak English.

I have to smirk, though, at a memory of my own that comes to mind. In Israel the situation is quite different. Israelis love to practice their English on you. It is a big barrier to learning the language, especially when their English is better than your Hebrew. One of my tricks when a first came to Israel was to pretend not to understand them. Eventually they’d switch to Hebrew.

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The patriot and the dog


There has been a lot of talk about patriotism lately. In my opinion patriotism is a good thing – everyone should be a patriot to their own country. Patriotism is a form of tribalism, without it we are not fully human. But what exactly does it mean? Does it mean that we should support whatever our country does? Of course not! Key point: countries are not governments, countries have governments, and they can be bad ones! Can you imagine a German patriot during World War II fighting against the Nazis? Or a Russian patriot fighting the communists? I can. A while back Glenn Reynolds tied himself in knots trying to describe his relationship to the idea: My country, right or wrong:
I'm not a "my country, right or wrong," guy. But I do think that if patriotism means anything it means giving one's own country the benefit of the doubt -- of which, in the case of this war, there's not really much need for -- and that the people I was discussing in that post are doing quite the opposite and adopting a "my country -- of course it's wrong" attitude. To root for your own country's defeat is to separate yourself from its polity, to declare it not worth saving or preserving, to declare the lives of its soldiers less important than your own principles. It's not always wrong, but it's a very a drastic step, as drastic as deciding to mount a revolution, really, and yet it's often taken by superficial people for superficial -- and, as in this case, tawdry and self-serving -- reasons.
I certainly agree with the content of his words, but I think that the expression, “My country right or wrong” is a simple one, and easy to defend. It means: Right or wrong, my country is MY country. It is akin to saying, “My brother right or wrong.” Though I may think that my brother is a mass murderer and should be locked up for the good of society, I still love him and will be a loyal brother to him – e.g. I won’t disown him. (And yes, you can be patriotic to two countries, just as you can have two brothers.) You can’t necessarily tell from actions whether a political dissident is a patriot or a traitor – acting out of love or hate. But I grew up in the US, spent my first 25 years there, and I know that many people object to its actions because they hate America – not the other way around. 

Is John F. Kerry one of these people? I don’t think so. Rather, he seems to me utterly lacking in character. His opinions are whatever is most politically advantageous at the time. (In stark contrast to the President who, agree with them or not, has the courage of his convictions.) Nevertheless, this does have bearing on patriotism. Loyalty (to a country or a person) doesn’t mean putting their interests before your own, but it does mean not pursuing your interests at their expense. Kerry might well be guilty of this. Which brings to mind a passage from the Talmud, describing a time of calamity:

בית ועד יהיה לזנות
והגליל יחרב והגבלן ישום
ואנשי הגבול יסובבו מעיר לעיר ולא יחוננו
וחכמות סופרים תסרח
ויראי חטא ימאסו
והאמת תהא נעדרת
נערים פני זקנים ילבינו
זקנים יעמדו מפני קטנים
בן מנבל אב
בת קמה באמה כלה בחמותה
אויבי איש אנשי ביתו
פני הדור כפני הכלב
הבן אינו מתבייש מאביו
ועל מה יש לנו להשען על אבינו שבשמים 

Beyt va`ad yihye liznut
V’hagalil yeherev vhagavlan yishom
V’anshey hagvul y’sov’vu me`ir la`ir vlo’ y’honanu
V’hokhmot sofrim tisrah 
V’yir’ey het yim’asu
V’ha’emet t’he ne`ederet
N`arim p’ney z’qenim yalbinu 
Z’qenim ya`amdu mipney q’tanim
Ben m’nabel av 
Bat qama b’imah kala bahamotah
Oyvey ish anshey beyto
P’ney hador kifney hakelev
Haben eyno mitbayesh me’aviv
V`al ma yesh lanu l’hisha`en 
`Al avinu shebashamayim

The house of council will be for prostitution
And the Galilee will be destroyed and the outlaw will breathe easily
And people from the borders will wander from city to city and won’t settle down
And the wisdom of scribes will putrefy 
And those who fear sin will be become disgusting
And the truth will be not found
Youths will insult the faces of elders
Elders will stand for the sake of youths
Son will deride father 
Daughter will rise up against her mother, daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law
A man’s enemies will be members of his household
The face of the generation will be like the face of the dog
Sons not embarrassed in front of fathers
And on what do we have to lean? 
On our father who is in heaven

Mishna Sota 9:16

What is the meaning of, “The face of the generation will be like the face of the dog”? It is explained that this refers to the leaders, who will lead the way a dog leads his master: he runs in the direction he thinks his master will go, then looks back to see if he is following.

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September 08, 2004

21st Century Ghost Dancers

Jinnderella asks whether Islamists are modern-day Ghost Dancers. I asked that question too, back in May.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:38 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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Osama Bin Laden: James Bond Villain

From Moorelies (via Amritas):

I am so tired of the Left portraying Bush and his cabinet as diabolical James Bond villains.

What I find amazing is how well Osama Bin Laden does fit the bill: Evil genius trying to take over the world from a secret cave in distant Afghanistan. He even has exactly the right kind of evil charisma for to play the part. And the idea of hijacking two airplanes to destroy the World Trade Center – that’s a James Bond plot if I ever heard one.

Truth is stranger than fiction. Honestly, I’m waiting for the movie.

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Yanis Kanidis – Hero of Beslan

I usually don’t learn the details of terrorist acts. I usually don’t get past the headlines: such and such a place, X dead, Y wounded. I don’t have to know the tragic details. But sometimes something gets trough. I wanted to cry when I read this article, from Yediot Aharonot, translated by Allison Kaplan Sommer. Excerpt:

The hostages who escaped told how the teacher repeatedly risked his own life in order to save the children. He moved explosive devices that the terrorists had placed near the young students, and tried to prevent them from detonating others. When the first bomb exploded next to the windows of the school, parents and children began to run out. The terrorists, trying to prevent their escape, threw a grenade at them. The elderly teacher ran to the grenade to prevent it from exploding on the children. One of the terrorists shot at the teacher to try to stop him and Yanis was wounded in the shoulder – but didn’t give up. With the last of his strength, he continued to run, jumped on the grenade, covering it with his body. The grenade exploded, and the body of the teacher absorbed the explosion, protecting the children around him from injury.

How can the same world contain people like Yanis Kanidis, and his killers?

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September 07, 2004

Celebrity Studded Comments

This has to be the most celebrity-studded blog-comments that I’ve ever seen: Glenn Reynolds, Steven Den Beste, and our own Pixy Misa and triticale. (You can see that I added my own comment at the end – how could I pass up the chance at such illustrious company?)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 08:51 PM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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September 06, 2004

Righteous indignation

Bjørn Stærk has an excellent post about interpreting religion. I find I am alternately amused and annoyed at people’s attempt to explain to me my religion. The problem, however, is not just their “superficial reading of the scriptures” but their inability to put down the lens of their own worldview to see the world through another’s eyes. Excerpt:

Outsiders are always tempted to explain religions in simplistic terms based on a superficial reading of the scriptures of those belief systems. Whatever else we disagree about, I'm sure we can all agree about that.

My own experience with this problem comes from reading atheist criticism of Christianity. I'm an atheist myself, but I used to be Christian, and I believe I still have a good idea of what protestant Christians really believe. And what I've noticed again and again is how simplistic and unfair much criticism of Christianity is. The atheist may quote the bloodier chapters of the Old Testament, and then tell a Christian that "you believe in an evil God!" Well, no, they don't. Most Christians I've known believe in a good and compassionate God.

To a liberal Christian, atheists may quote the Bible's many scriptures against homosexuality, and to a conservative Christian scriptures about love and forgiveness, concluding that Christians have somehow misunderstood the message of their own religion. Non-believers also use these scriptures to attack Christians who claim that Christianity is compassionate and ethical. "How can you say that, when you believe in a God who ordered all witches to be killed, and commanded the Hebrews to massacre civilians?"

These critics assume that there is one correct interpretation of the Bible, an essence of Christianity, and that, lacking faith, it is possible to discern that essence through logic. If a Christian believes that his God is compassionate, he's not just wrong because that God does not exist, he's also wrong because this God, which does not exist, is nothing like the Christian believes he is.

That is absurd. Why should a non-believer have opinions about how to interpret a religion he doesn't believe in?

I can vouch for the fact that the same is true for Judaism (just change the relevant details). However, with Judaism there’s another factor at play: Judaism is part of the Christian (and Muslim) religion, i.e. these religions have their own concept of Judaism which is theologically important to them. Unfortunately, it is somewhat different from the Jewish concept of Judaism – which, of course is not itself uniform. My personal concept of Judaism, which I do not believe to be exceptional, or objectionable to the vast majority of Jews, is one of the themes of this blog. If you are new here, and this subject interests you, look around. I am one of the horse’s mouths.

This is as good a place to start as any.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:26 PM  Permalink | Comments (3)
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Trackback from Heretics' almanac, Is there such a thing as religious "essence?":
Those who think of banning Islam (whatever that actually means) do so because they believe that the essence of Islam through some mysterious mechanism compels some of its followers to blow up school buses, put their women in bhurkas, and neglect their ...

True Tribalism

Amritas and I both frequently talk about tribalism. A major point of difference between us (there are only two, the other is here and here, but might be resolved here) is that he invariably uses the word negatively, while I use it positively. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to talk about it at length at this time, I hope to get back to it, but I want to catch Amritas’s latest post while it’s fresh – I think it contains a resolution:

Unfortunately, they [language and culture] are often abused as iconic tools for diasporic children seeking a sense of 'identity'. kevin kutabare kusoyama and his followers never cease to remind others that they are "Golden™, not AmeriKKKan". They cling to outdated stereotypes of tribes to deny 'the white inside'. Why do they hate Europpressors so much? Because (paraphrasing Walt Kelly) they have seen the enemy, and the enemy is them.

I think that tribalism is part of human nature, like love. When we can’t express it in a healthy way, we will invariably express it in an unhealthy way, as hate. I think the key word in the paragraph above is: outdated. It is a negatively-driven tribalism informed by a lack of tribal identity – devoid of inherent content. In my opinion, the way to deal with this is not denial – I am against asceticism in general as being inhuman and likely to backlash – instead, we should seek to fill the tribal void: find your tribe! Find the tribe that for you is a positive identification. It is easy to test whether your identification is positive or negative: Does it tend to make you love or hate identities other than your own?

To those of you who greet my thesis with skepticism, I offer this parallel: Can you imagine a misogynist man or a man-hating woman in a loving relationship with a person of the opposite sex? Clearly their feelings are driven by the absence of something that their human nature requires. What is the solution to their problem? To deny that love is important? To claim that love is bad? A man who finds true love will tend to love all women, and a woman all men.

UPDATE: Amritas responds.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:07 AM  Permalink | Comments (1)
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September 05, 2004

Armed School Guards

When Israeli schoolchildren go on a field trip they have to be accompanied by an armed escort. I think the ratio is one guard for every 15 students. If the teacher has a gun permit he or she can be one of the guards, usually they ask for volunteers from among the parents to make up the rest. I never gave this policy much thought: it was just one of the many security precautions we take. But evidently it has a specific history: Ma`alot. Strange that I had to go to NRO to find out, and I got there via an Indian immigrant to San Jose, California:

On May 31, 2002, as reported by Israel National News, a terrorist threw a grenade and began shooting at a kindergarten in Shavei Shomron. Then, instead of closing in on the children, he abruptly fled the kindergarten and began shooting up the nearby neighborhood. Apparently he realized that the kindergarten was sure to have armed adults, and that he could not stay at the school long enough to make sure he actually murdered someone.

That’s why nowadays terrorists are forced to blow themselves up. It isn’t realistic to think you can do a lot of damage and get away with it.

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Kind to the Cruel = Cruel to the Kind


I have seen it written in a number of places that the heart of the Right-Left divide is their views on responsibility. I would rather put it this way (from David Warren):
It is an axiom of human nature, true in all cultures at all times and places, that if you reward bad behaviour, you will get more of it. This is not rocket science, and yet in the name of "compassion" or from lesser desiderata, the fixed principle of those who are weak in heart and mind, is to go right ahead. "Liberals" I call them, but the reader may call them anything she pleases. They are the people who can always find a reason to reward bad behaviour -- invariably at the price of punishing the opposed good behaviour. This in turn leads to transvaluations of good and bad, demanding additional cartloads of "nuance".
Or, as the Talmud puts it:

כל מי שנעשה רחמן במקום אכזרי
סוף שנעשה אכזרי במקום רחמן 
 
Kol mi shena`asa rahaman bimqom akhzari 
Sof shena`asa akhzari bimqom rahaman 
 
All who are made to be compassionate in the place of the cruel 
In the end are made to be cruel in the place of the compassionate

Qohelet Raba, 7:16
 
More colloquially translated: Those who are kind to the cruel, in the end will be cruel to the kind. It is no coincidence that this sort of conservatism is associated with family values. Being a parent is one long object lesson in this truth. Any parent who shows “kindness” to his children in a way which rewards bad behavior will inevitably get more of it. Sometimes this sort of “cruelty” is the kindest thing you can do for you children. The trick to being a good parent is not in deciding “how strict” to be, but in figuring out when you must be strict, and when it is possible to be lenient. Those who shy away from this task – often on supposedly moral grounds, but actually reflecting moral cowardice – will not be doing their job. The same is true in economics and politics. In being compassionate you have to carefully consider the possibility that you are rewarding, thus encouraging, bad behavior. 

UPDATE: It turns out that today is an appropriate day for this post. This is just what I mean (via Alisa in Wonderland).

UPDATE: Amritas responds with a transliteration and a “robo-translation”.

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School Starts

I haven’t written a major blog post for quite a while. The reason? School started September 1st. Also the baby started at her mishpahton (root: sh-p-h, day-care in someone’s home, cf. mishpaha: family). That gives me three little ones who need to be hand-held the first few days. I would really have liked to follow up quickly on my Instapundit link with a really quality post, but the demands on my time have just been too great. Stay tuned, this too will pass. I have a lot of great posts in my head, hopefully some of them will get written!

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Israeli English-Language Blogs

I’ve just added an Israeli English-language blogroll. I invite you to visit them. If you are an Israeli English-language blogger, and not on the list, please let me know, and I will add you.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:57 AM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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September 04, 2004

Blogger Gathering

Just before I left on vacation I was discovered by Israeli blogger Alisa in Wonderland, ironically by way of Brazilian blogger Nelson Ascher. When I got back, I discovered, among 500 unread emails, an invitation to an Israeli English-language blogger gathering in Ra`anana (about an hour’s drive from here). I must say that I had mixed feelings about going. There were several reasons for that, first among them that I never considered blogging to be a social activity. I am by nature an introvert, I already have far more social connections than I am able to maintain, and I am not looking to increase their number. I got into blogging because there were things I wanted to express that are best expressed in writing. Of course, I have made quite a few cyber-social connections that I value – such is the way of the world. But I decided to go, in order to meet two people: Alisa in Wonderland, and Benjamin the anti-Chomskyite. Alas, Benjamin wasn’t able to make it, but I’m glad I went.

Having made the decision to go, I looked at the dozen-or-so blogs on the list of attendees. I hadn’t heard of any of them, except for Alisa in Wonderland whom I had just discovered. It was too much, they all ran together in my head. I drove down with a muddled image and a bunch of blog names in my head. At least, when introduced, I could say, “Oh you’re so-and-so!” with some modicum of honesty. When I got there, though, I found not a dozen bloggers, but around twice that number. Oh, well.

I did get to meet Alisa, and I discovered among the bloggers two people whom I already know: Rahel and Brian Blum. I didn’t know they blogged.

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September 02, 2004

Muslims Against Terror

I agree with Nelson Ascher (as usual), from the comments of this entry:

I'll only believe there's not a war of civilizations when the Muslims themselves come out and prove it to us: the burden of proof is upon them.

No doubt there are thousands of would-be Hitlers walking the streets of the US, Germany, and every other country. The difference is that none of these countries let them come to power. How long do I have to bear people saying that all religions have their extremists, or that all religions are extreme, or that all fundamentalism (which is a term that can only rightfully be applied to Christianity) is ___________ (fill in the blank)? Neither I nor any other non-Muslim can say what is the true Islam. Where are the Muslims Against Terror? Is it they who control the street, anywhere in the world?

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Clash of Worldviews

David Warren:

Baldoni's murderers sent a message to Italy and the West that his fellow pacifists seem incapable of understanding. It is that they don't make distinctions between infidels. They don't seek "fellow travellers" as the Communists did, when, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet state was massively funding, both openly and secretly, "peace" movements across Europe and America, as a way to subvert the Western democracies.

This is the mistake that was made in Spain: the popular willingness to believe that simply by getting out of Iraq, and staying out of Iraq, Spain could be freed of trouble. But the terror attacks on Madrid last March were, as we now know, planned long before the invasion of Iraq had even started, let alone before the Spanish government had thought of contributing a small contingent to help. The Spanish were assuming the Jihadis were thinking in a Western way: "You do this or we'll do that." But that is not how they think, at all.

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Welcome, visitors from Instapundit

Welcome, visitors from Instapundit. Stay a while and look around! Go here for more.

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September 01, 2004

Blogs win – always

Bunker Mulligan has a great post comparing Mainstream Media (MSM) to the blogosphere:

The Blogsville Gazette is written and edited by a very diverse group. Not diverse in the sense that MSM™ has of diversity. Real diversity. We have folks like Hewitt, Reynolds, Trunk, and Volokh who are lawyers. We have engineers like myself and SDB. We have teachers and soldiers. Sarah speaks about thirty languages and has lived and studied abroad, and is married to a soldier. Marc and David are linguists, and Alex is an international businessman. There are doctors with blogs. And housewives (is that term still acceptable?). Almost every country in the world is represented, and there are no electronic borders. Those are just a few I thought of without grasping for lists.

MSM™ has former politicians and journalism majors.

The Gazette has Instant Fact Checking for those who care to do a little research. We can also access all the government databases MSM™ could access, if they bothered. Misstatements of fact are dealt with quickly, and severely, in the editing room of the Gazette. Retractions follow, or discussion. Either one pulls us toward the truth. All agendae are represented, and all are challenged.

All this is true (well, almost), but I think it misses the most important feature of the blogosphere: in the computer world we call it parallel processing. The hardest problem regarding the news is not being able to access facts that you are looking for (though this can be hard), or even verifying them (which can also be hard), but figuring out which are important, among the myriad details that are accessible. The blogosphere solves this problem through parallel processing. Whenever I post something, or link to something, I am broadcasting a message: THIS IS IMPORTANT to anyone who might be listening. Any of my listeners who agree with me are likely to repeat the message, either by linking to it, or promoting some version of their own. BUT if no one, or few people, think it’s important, it will soon be forgotten. In this way, we create the roiling stem of a mushroom cloud that will quickly reach the Instapundit, the Volokh Conspiracy, et al, and explode outward. Then everyone will know. Our strength is in numbers. As of this writing, Technorati tracks 3,717,771 blogs, and doubtless there are more. With those kind of numbers, someone will be an expert in anything, and now we have the means to tap into this expertise. And it can come from the unlikliest sources, which no expert would predict. Who is wise? One who learns from every human being. Who would you trust more to give you the right answer? Four million randomly chosen people, or your buddies in the newsroom who were all chosen because the boss likes the way they think? The blogosphere has the characteristics of wise crowds, as set down by James Surowiecki:

1. Divesity of opinion – each person should have some private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the facts.
2. Independence – people’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them.
3. Decentralization – people are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
4. Aggregation – some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into collective decision.
Even if the mainstream media weren’t ingrown and biased, you would find that the blogs win – always.

(By the way, I’m a software engineer by profession, and I have been and hope to be an entrepreneur. At the moment, I am working on the successor to the World Wide Web, which will do things that no one has yet imagined – as did the World Wide Web. As a side effect it will solve Steven Den Beste’s problem. I take it as a complement that Bunker Mulligan made the mistake he made.)

UDATE: Eugene Volokh makes a similar point. To paraphrase: “I’m right because I’m a certified professional.” Academia meets none of the characteristics of wise crowds. Let’s call it a dumb crowd – that might explain why they keep getting things wrong.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:04 PM  Permalink | Comments (7)
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Trackback from annika's journal, Unbelievable . . . Predictable Old Media:
Amazing. CNN and Larry King just broadcast the tepid beginning of Michael Steele's speech before the RNC. And (so predictable it shouldn't surprise me) when he got into the middle of his speech and started to hammer on Kerry's record,...

Trackback from Ashish's Niti, Blogosphere is an example of Spontaneous Order:
I think Blogosphere is a very good example of Spontaneous Order that F A Hayek popularized. Spontaneous Order emerges from bottom up and is not a result of top-down human design.