What does it mean?

January 31, 2005

Great New Blogs

I've just, very belatedly, updated my blogroll with lots of great new blogs. Check them out!

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Trackback from Kesher Talk, Tu B'Shvat:
Tu B'Shvat is over, although there's one more seder tonight at the JCC, which I won't be attending as it is a very crunchy environmentalist event, and there will be much hand-wringing over the election, which I don't want...

Trackback from Kesher Talk, Never again:
Paul Wolfowitz at the UN Special Session on the Shoah:. . . We are proud of the role of our own American soldiers, the so-called �young old men� of 19 and 20 years of age, who and fought through...

January 30, 2005

Balancing Selection?

I've always loved this story:

In the year 1886 the Grand Trunk Railway wanted to build the Victoria Bridge and it would span the mighty St. Lawrence River and connect Montreal to the Kahnawake Reserve.

They contracted out the job to the Dominion Bridge Company. In exchange for being allowed to run the railroad through Mohawk Territory, Grand Trunk arranged for Dominion to hire some of the Mohawks as laborers to work on the bridge site. This decision would have a huge impact upon the lifestyle of many Mohawks, an effect that remains to this very day.

Their first job was to supply the stone for the large piers that would support the bridge.

When their shifts ended, they would hang out on the bridge watching the other workers to see what they were doing.

Even young Native children became curious and soon they were climbing all over the span, right alongside the men. The workers noticed that the Mohawk's agility, grace and sense of balance made it seem as though they had a natural disposition for heights.

When management became aware of this, they hired and trained a dozen tribal members as ironworkers. The original twelve, all teenagers, were so adept at working at high altitudes, they were known as the 'Fearless Wonders'.

They would walk on narrow beams several hundred feet above the raging river and yet it appeared as though they were just on a casual walk along a forest path.

From another source:

As one company official later wrote, "It was quite impossible to keep them out." Indeed, "As the work progressed, it became apparent to all concerned that these Indians were very odd in that they did not have any fear of heights."

What made the Mohawks such superb high steel workers remains something of a mystery. The legends assumed some kind of genetic advantage, but there is little evidence of this. Joseph Mitchell, in his scrupulous New Yorker article, "The Mohawks in High Steel," thought Kahnawake children in Brooklyn "have unusual manual dexterity; by the age of three, most of them are able to tie their shoelaces"—but Kanatakta, Executive Director of the Kahnawake Community Cultural Centre, suggests that it's more "a question of dealing with the fear."

What do you think accounts for this? Is it genetic? Cultural? Either way, it is pretty unusual.

(Cross-posted at Gene Expression)

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January 27, 2005

Holocaust of the future

Today is the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I often wonder how our history would change if little things had been different in those dark days. If the war had been won a little sooner. If the Allies had seen fit to bomb the railroads that supplied the death camps. If it had been a priority of some nation, somewhere, to rescue Jews. But in fact, not only was it NOT top priority to the US and the Allies to rescue Jews - their policies were determined, in part, by the effort NOT to appear to be fighting for the Jews. The argument that going to war against Nazi Germany would benefit the Jews was an argument AGAINST it.

Perhaps I am biased by feeling that there is something unique about the Holocaust. It is a horror that touched members of my family whom I knew, and others whom I would have known, had they lived. Of course, the Jews have no monopoly on suffering, and it could be argued that other peoples have suffered more - others have been exterminated entirely. Still, the scale of the Holocaust sets it apart - once you set aside the auto-genocides of various communist regimes, an altogether different kind of horror. But there are some other things too, I think. For one: the killing machine. The genocides that have taken place since World War II, like the ones before it, were committed with the standard weapons of the day - in fact the Rwanda massacres were committed largely with machetes. Only the Germans developed technology for the sole purpose of mass murder. Only the Germans made a science of genocide. It was the Holocaust of the future.

I was raised with the observation that Germany was the "most civilized" country in Europe before it embarked on the Holocaust - indeed the Jews of Eastern Europe looked to Germany as beacon of light illuminating the darkness of their lands. The message being: Don't think anyone is too civilized to kill Jews. The rhetorical question was always: Could it happen again? And the answer was always: Not in America. Not in Europe. We're democracies, we're... civilized.

But now we are engaged in a new World War. And now, once again, the US and its allies are doing everything possible to deny that winning it is good for the Jews. Once again, the notion that going to war will benefit the Jews is one of the strongest rhetorical points against it. Once again it is respectable to tell lies about Jews, which no right-thinker cares to rebut. But this time it's different: the Jews can fight for themselves. We may be small and weak, but compared to no power at all, it's a world of difference. Remember what Dick Cheney said, just a few days ago:

Well, one of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked, that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards. We don't want a war in the Middle East, if we can avoid it. And certainly in the case of the Iranian situation, I think everybody would be best suited by or best treated and dealt with if we could deal with it diplomatically.

Those Jews, all they can think of is saving themselves from genocide. It's just like them to go and prevent a nuclear holocaust, "and let rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards".

Imagine if Israel had been one of the allies in World War II.

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The Oslo War: View from Tel-Aviv

Lisa of On The Face (via Not a Fish) begins a series about the Oslo War. Although my story is quite similar to hers, give or take a few details, I don't remember it with the clarity that she does. My memory of the events is already fading. It's hard for me to remember what came before what. For example, what exactly was going on when Ariel Sharon was elected? I just remember that it was bad.

It was a hard read. It really took me back to those hard days. The fact that Lisa worked in a high-tech company adds to similarity between her story and mine. But it's a good read too. Excerpt:

The major suicide bombings didn’t start until the end of May 2001. For the first six months of the intifida, daily life in Tel Aviv wasn’t really affected. This was not the case for Jerusalem. Gilo, a Jerusalem residential neighbourhood, was shot at by Palestinian fighters in bordering Beit Jala throughout the month of December. Residents of apartments facing Beit Jala put sandbags in their windows, kept the lights turned off at night, and crouched low when they moved from room to room. One evening I was at my local laundrette, watching the news on the television mounted on the wall while I waited for my clothes to dry. The woman sitting next to me pointed her long, thin cigarette at the footage of bullets tracing streaks of light through the darkness and said, “It’s madness. Forty-five minutes away from here, there’s a war going on. And we’re sitting here doing our laundry.”


Soon after Sharon was elected, I saw a rather interesting interview on CNN. A veteran member of Barak's just-ousted Labour party and a prominent member of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) were interviewed, simultaneously but from different locations, by a studio moderator. At one point the Palestinian shook his head mournfully and said that Israel’s willingness to discuss peace had been called into serious question by the recent election of Ariel Sharon, the man who many believe was indirectly responsible for the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacres. At that, the Israeli Labour politician grew red in the face, rose up halfway from his chair, and, pointing his index finger at the camera, shouted, "We did not elect Ariel Sharon! You know who did?! You did! You! With your decision to initiate this violence instead of negotiating!"

"And we're out of time, gentlemen," said the moderator. "Thank you both very much and goodnight."

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Hannah Szenes (Hana Senesh)

Hannah Szenes (the spelling is her native Hugarian, in Hebrew: Hana Senesh - חנה סנש) is one of the best loved Israeli poets. Her most well known poem is halikha l'qesarya (הליכה לקסריה) - Walking to Caesaria (a Roman ruin on the coast of Israel):

אלי, אלי
שלא יגמר לעולם
החול והים
רשרוש של המים
ברק השמיים
תפילת האדם

Eli, eli
Shelo' yigamer l`olam
Hahol v'hayam
Rishrush shel hamayim
Braq hashamayim
T'filat ha'adam

My God, my God
May it not end forever
The sand and the sea
The rush of the water
The lightning of the heavens
The prayer of Man

I understand that the move Schindler's List ends with this song. This site tells Hannah Szenes's story. Here is what she wrote about that walk to Caesaria:

In the morning, I roam through the ancient ruins; in the afternoon, I walk in the fields, or to be more precise, on the land designated to become our fields. When I see with what fury the foamy waves rush against the shore and how they become silent and peaceful upon crashing against the sand, I think that our enthusiasm and anger is not much different. As they roll, they are powerful and vigorous and when they touch the shore, they break, they calm down and they begin to play like small children on the golden sand.

This is how her life ended:

Soon after, Hannah is recruited by the British Intelligence Services. During the winter of 1943-44, she and her companions parachuted into Yugoslavia in order to make contact with the partisans. For their part, the leaders of the Palestinian community - the yishuv - call upon them to come to the aid of the Jews threatened by the Nazis. They will accomplish both tasks, joining the partisans, conveying information to the Allies and urging their fellow Jews to secure Palestine. According to her comrade, Yoel Palgui, Hannah proves to be the most enterprising and determined of all. She is ardent about the Jewish question and about Israel.

On May 13th, 1944, Hannah and her comrades cross the Hungarian border in small groups. The Hungarian police arrest some of them including Hannah. She is incarcerated in the same prison as Yoel to whom she recounts the circumstances of her arrest and interrogations. The following are excerpts of Yoel's testimony:

She suffered the most terrible forms of torture without yielding. A missing tooth was testimony of their cruelty. They had whipped the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet. They had tied her up, forcing her to remain immobile for hours. They had beaten her so violently that her body was completely covered with ecchymoses. Her torturers wanted to know the radio code. They had discovered the transmitter that she had hidden before being captured and they wanted the correspondence code in order to send false messages and direct the Allies' bombers to their anti-aircraft guns. Aware of the importance of the code, Hannah refused to reveal it. (...)

The worst was yet to come for Hannah in the prison in Budapest. She certainly did not long to find herself again in the city of her birth. They threw her into a cell where, to her great sorrow, she met her mother. At a loss of words, she embraced her tightly and could only murmur these words: " Mother, forgive me, but I could not renounce my obligations. "

The Germans knew what they were doing. They threatened to torture her mother and to execute her before Hannah's very eyes if she refused to reveal the code. But she did not yield. Only those who knew how much she loved her mother could begin to imagine her suffering. For my part, I was shaken by her account and could not hide my bewilderment. How could she remain so calm and so steadfast? Where did she find the courage to sacrifice her mother, whom she so loved, rather than reveal a secret, upon which, it is true, the lives of many depended? Who knows? Perhaps her determination indirectly contributed to saving her mother? Had she yielded, the Germans would surly have executed her, sending her mother to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.

Imshin (I can't believe this is the first time I'm linking to her, I really like her site) tells about her special relationship with Hannah Szenes. Go read it.

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January 26, 2005

I am but dust and ashes - The world was created for me

According to Rabbi Bunim of P'shiskha, everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.

The first phrase is spoken by Abraham when he realizes that he's bargaining with God over S'dom (סדום) and `Amora (עמורה) - Sodom and Gomorrah:

וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר

V'anokhi `afar va'efer

I am but dust and ashes

Genesis 18:27

The second phrase is from the Talmud, illustrating that we are all unique individuals, though we are formed from the same mould:

לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי
ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל
מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא
וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל
מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא
ומפני שלום הבריות שלא יאמר אדם לחבירו
אבא גדול מאביך
ושלא יהו המינים אומרים הרבה רשויות בשמים
ולהגיד גדולתו של הקדוש ברוך הוא
שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד כולן דומין זה לזה
ומלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טבע כל אדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון
ואין אחד מהן דומה לחבירו
לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר
בשבילי נברא העולם

L'fikhakh nivra' adam y'hidi
L'lamedkha shekol ham'abed nefesh ahat miyisra'el
Ma`le `alav hakatuv k'ilu ibed `olam male'
V'khol ham'qayem nefesh ahat miyisra'el
Ma`ale `alav hakatuv k'ilu kiyem `olam male'
Umipney shlom habriyut shlo' yomar adam l'havero
Aba gadol me'avikha
V'shelo' yihyu haminim omrim harbe rehuyot bashamayim
Ul'hagid g'dulato shel haqadosh barukh hu
She'adam tovea` kama matbe`ot b'hotem ehad kulan domin ze l'ze
Umelekh malkey hamlakhim haqadosh barukh hu tava` kol adam b'hotmo shel adam harishon
V'eyn ehad mehem dome l'havero
L'fikhakh kol ehad v'ehad hayav lomar
bishvili nivra' ha`olam

For this reason a single person was created (Adam was created alone)
To teach you that anyone who kills one soul of Israel
Is considered as if he has killed an entire world
And anyone who sustains one soul of Israel
Is considered as if he has sustained an entire world
And because of peace among mankind, so that one person won't say to his fellow
"My father is greater than your father"
And so that the apostates won't say "There are many authorities in heaven"
And to tell the greatness of the Holy One Blessed Be He
That a man mints many coins with one stamp, all of them the same as one another
And the King of Kings the Holy One Blessed Be He minted every person with the stamp of Adam
And not one of them is the same as his fellow
For this reason every single person must say
The world was created for me

Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37B

UPDATE: It occurs to me that the above is likely to be impenetrable without a little background. First of all, you have to understand that in the time it was written down (probably much later than when it originated) a tribal point of view was a fact of life. Thus, the passage first compares two Jews (souls of Israel) to emphasize our worth as individuals, not just as members of a tribe (remember this was written by Jews for a Jewish audience), the logic being that every individual is capable of being an ancestor to the whole world, thus by killing him you have also killed his descendents, i.e. everyone. The passage then compares individuals from different tribes, who are likely to say "my father is greater than your father" i.e. "the founder of my tribe is greater than the founder of your tribe". (The expression 'shlom habriyut' is stock phrase within Judaism referring to the explicit value of peace among mankind.) And finally proceeds to the common (in those days) but anti-Jewish idea of patron gods, i.e. that different tribes had different gods (we are familiar with this in the west from ancient Greece, where each city had a patron god), were people might be tempted to say "my god created my tribe and your god created your tribe". The passage winds up by exploring the wonders of sexual reproduction in that no two people are alike, even though God "minted every person with the stamp of Adam" - so that not only can everyone can claim to be God's original creation, but to deny it is to deny God - it would imply that He made you by accident.

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I read Rikki-tikki-tavi to my kids last night. I remember loving it as a child, and it's more self-contained than the Mowgli stories. It's a wonderful story. This is how it begins:

This is the story of the great war that Rikki-tikki-tavi fought single-handed, through the bath-rooms of the big bungalow in Segowlee cantonment. Darzee, the Tailorbird, helped him, and Chuchundra, the musk-rat, who never comes out into the middle of the floor, but always creeps round by the wall, gave him advice, but Rikki-tikki did the real fighting. He was a mongoose, rather like a little cat in his fur and his tail, but quite like a weasel in his head and his habits. His eyes and the end of his restless nose were pink. He could scratch himself anywhere he pleased with any leg, front or back, that he chose to use. He could fluff up his tail till it looked like a bottle brush, and his war cry as he scuttled through the long grass was: "Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!"

Noble indeed! He didn't shun the help of his allies, but also he didn't hesitate to do his calling. I remembered from childhood the images of Darzee, the good-for-nothing songbird, and Chuchundra, who is always "trying to make up his mind to run into the middle of the room", but is too fearful to ever do so. But Rikki-tikki-tavi is not the kind of hero who has to maintain his heroic pose, he is just himself.

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Trackback from annika's journal, Blog Potpourri:
Generalissimo Duane forsees a bigger fight over Alberto Gonzales than we saw over Dr. Rice. Let's hope his math is worse than mine. RatherBiased reports that CBS's "expert" Marcel Matley is accusing the network of harming his provessional reputation as...

Jews and Comanches

There's a certain kind of remembering that I think is unhealthy: it keeps us from moving forward. It's for this reason that I'm far from enthusiastic about the various Holocaust-related suits that are going on. Not because I think the defendants are innocent, but because I think it's unhealthy for the Jews: It's time to move on.

This is not to say that we should forget the past, on the contrary. I was very moved by this post (via Solomonia, also found here) by a David A. Yeagley, a Comanche Indian (I have long felt a kind of kinship with American Indians). I know how he feels. I, too, speak the "language of Europe", and like him I would find it easier to write about his suffering than mine:

Why would a Comanche Indian write an opera about the Jewish Holocaust? Shouldn’t an American Indian write about his own Trail of Tears? Why this convergence of cultural ethos? Why this crossing of paths?

I hear these two giant, genetic dirges in the same key. Both are the lamentations of unwanted people. But, the reason I chose to write an opera on the Jewish Holocaust has to do with my educational background and personal experience.

Although I’m an Oklahoma Indian, I speak the artistic language of Europe. It so happens that, since I was a young teenager, Jewish people have always valued what I have to say. They have appreciated me and my work. Therefore I have always felt close to Jewish people.

I trust the Jews with my tears. I once told a rabbi how I felt about Jewish people. I confessed, “I know if I really wanted to cry my heart out, I could come here (the synagogue) in the sanctuary, and just cry. No one would make me feel embarrassed. No one would shame me. No one would ask any questions. Everyone would understand. The Jews know.”

What would I be crying about?

The Indian story. It’s taken me many years to face it, but in my Comanche blood is written the worst historical trauma of all: to be free as the wind, then caged forever; to roam the prairie like a wild horse, then to be roped into everlasting confinement. Yes, I cry for an irreparable, tragic past. It is a doleful drone in my soul, a long, lonely drum beat.

I don’t know how to describe the sorrow. For all my education in the arts, I am mute. I have no voice. Yet.

I remember my composition teacher, Daniel Asia, at the University of Arizona. A nice Jewish boy from Seattle, Dan was wholly reluctant to talk about the Jewish Holocaust. He simply can’t. It is ineffable. I understand now.

UPDATE: Check out his blog. I really like it.

UPDATE: And don't miss this. Excerpt:

The Jewish Holocaust has always held special meaning to me as a Comanche Indian. The threat of extinction is a fear to which I can strongly relate.

Last year, I composed what I am told is the first grand opera on the Holocaust, "Jacek," a three-act story based on the personal life of Jack P. Eisner, 75-year-old survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and several concentration camps.

I met Mr. Eisner in Caesarea, Israel, on January 8, 1998. I was there for the debut of my newly composed chamber music, "Three Spirit Dances On The Bark Of An Ancient Stump." It was a three-movement duet for oboe and bassoon. I had rehearsed the music with Ayalet Ballin (bassoon) and Mirav Kadichevski (oboe), two young, brilliant music students from the Rubin Academy at the University of Tel-Aviv.

Mr. Eisner was kind enough to attend the concert. I was introducing a new system of harmonic organization and tonality, and gave my first public presentation of it in a pre-concert lecture.

I also introduced a new style of Hebrew cantorial chant, which I sang myself, and finally ended the concert with a performance on my Comanche flute, the type designed and made famous by Doc Tate Nevaquaya. (The late Doc Tate was noted as one of the top five Indian flute players in recorded history.)

As Mr. Eisner, my Israeli host Ted and I were walking home from Shabbat morning services, Ted – who had introduced me to Mr. Eisner – said, "Hey, Dave, you’re a good composer. Why don’t you write an opera on Jack’s story?"

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January 25, 2005

Let the voting begin!

The voting has begun for Jewish / Israeli Blog Awards (preliminary round). Rishon Rishon has been nominated for: Best Overall Blog, Best New Blog, Best Jewish Religion Blog, Best Jewish Culture Blog, Best Post (Maladapted to our Habitat), and Best Series (Valleys). Vote now and vote often (evidently you can vote every 24 hours!):

You can view all polls on one page by clicking here.
Voting Rules
1. Polls close late Sunday morning Israel time.
2. These polls are only for those categories whose number of valid nominations exceeded the cutoff number of 12.
3. Each of the categories is split into two groups. The top 6 vote-getters from each group will proceed to the finals.
4. All valid nominees in the following polls (which are not included in this preliminary round) automatically proceed to the Finals voting:
Best Overall 'Mega' Blog
Best Group Blog
Best Designed Blog
5. You can vote only once in 24 hours.
6. Please no cheating. It goes against the spirit of these awards, and ruins the fun for everyone. If I discover any cheating (automatic voting bots or multiple voters in one poll within 24 hours), the voters IP address will be banned, and the number of votes accordingly adjusted.
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January 24, 2005

Tu Bishvat

Tonight is Tu Bishvat (ט"ו בשבט) - the 15th of the month of Shvat. The Hebrew equivalent of Roman Numerals uses the first 10 letters of the alphabet for the numbers 1 to 10, the next nine letters are used for 20 to 100, and the last thee letters are used for 200, 300, and 400. According to this system, you would expect 15 to be 10 + 5, but this combination happens to spell a name of God, so instead 9 + 6 is used. The ninth letter of the alphabet is tet (ט) and the sixth letter is vav (ו), and if you pronounce tet-vav as a word, you get: 'Tu'. What looks like a quote between the tet and the vav, called gershayim (גרשיים) in Hebrew (literally, the dual of geresh, which is: '), is the way numbers and acronyms are written - the gershayim being placed between the second-to-last and last letters (geresh is used for abbreviations).

Tu Bishvat is the New Year of the Trees:

אַרְבָּעָה רָאשֵׁי שָׁנִים הֵם
בְּאֶחָד בְּנִיסָן רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לַמְּלָכִים וְלָרְגָלִים
בְּאֶחָד בֶּאֱלוּל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לְמַעְשַׂר בְּהֵמָה
רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמְרִים בְּאֶחָד בְּתִשְׁרֵי
בְּאֶחָד בְּתִשְׁרֵי רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לַשָּׁנִים וְלַשְּׁמִטִּין וְלַיּוֹבְלוֹת לַנְּטִיּעָה וְלַיְרָקוֹת
בְּאֶחָד בִּשְׁבָט רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לָאִילָן כְּדִבְרֵי בֵית שַׁמַּאי
בֵּית הִלֵּל אוֹמְרִים בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בּוֹ

Arba`a rashey shanim hem
B'ehad b'nisan rosh hashana lamlakhim v'largalim
B'ehad be'elul rosh hashana l'ma`sar b'hema
Rabi el`azar v'rabi shim`on omrim b'ehad b'tishrey
B'ehad b'tishrey rosh hashana lashanim v'lashmitin v'layovlot lanti`a v'lay'raqot
B'ehad bishvat rosh hashana la'ilan k'divrey beyt shamay
Beyt hilel omrim bahamisha `asar bo

There are four New Years (heads of years)
On the first of Nisan the new year of kings and of the holidays
On the first of Elul the new year of tithing animals
Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say on the first of Tishrey
On the first of Tishrey the new year of (counting) the years and the sabbatical year and of the jubilee of planting and of vegetables
On the first of Shvat the new year of the trees according to the school of Shamay
The school of Hillel says on the fifteenth of the month

Rosh Hashana 1:1

The halakha follows the school of Hillel in this case (as it usually does), so the New Year of the Trees is on the 15th of Shvat - it is at this time that we can really feel the coming of spring. The daffodils and crocuses have past, but the most emblematic sign of spring, the blooming of the almond trees, has just begun. I have to say that I love Israeli seasons. The weather is always better than my native Boston. Though the summers here are long, they are dry (at least where I live, though not along the coast) - not hot and humid. Spring and fall are milder and more pleasant, and winter: just when I feel like it's about to begin - it's spring!

In the spirit of the day, I will relate a story from the Talmud, about Rabbi Yishaq, who describes his relationship to his student, Rabbi Nahman, comparing it to a tree, and wants to bless him:

אמשול לך משל למה הדבר דומה
 לאדם שהיה הולך במדבר והיה רעב ועיף וצמא
 ומצא אילן שפירותיו מתוקין וצילו נאה ואמת המים עוברת תחתיו
 אכל מפירותיו ושתה ממימיו וישב בצילו
 וכשביקש לילך אמר אילן אילן במה אברכך
 אם אומר לך שיהו פירותיך מתוקין הרי פירותיך מתוקין
 שיהא צילך נאה הרי צילך נאה
 שתהא אמת המים עוברת תחתיך הרי אמת המים עוברת תחתיך
 אלא יהי רצון שכל נטיעות שנוטעין ממך יהיו כמותך
 אף אתה במה אברכך
 אם בתורה הרי תורה
 אם בעושר הרי עושר
 אם בבנים הרי בנים
 אלא יהי רצון שיהו צאצאי מעיך כמותך

Emshol l'kha mashal l'ma hadavar dome
L'adam shehaya holekh bamidbar v'haya ra`ev v`ayef v'same'
Umasa ilan shepeyrotav m'tuqin v'silo na'e v'emet hamayim `overet tahtav
Akhal mipeyrotav v'shata mimeymav v'yashav b'silo
Ukhshebiqesh leylekh amar ilan ilan b'ma avarekh'kha
Im omar l'kha sheyihyu peyroteykha m'tuqin harey peyroteykha m'tuqin
Shey'he silkha na'e harey silkha na'e
Shet'he emet hamayim `overet tahteykha harey emet hamayim `overet tahteykha
Ela' y'hi rason shekol n'ti`ot shenot`in mimkha yihyu kamokha
Af ata b'ma avarekh'kha
Im b'tora harey b'tora
Im b`osher harey b`osher
Im b'vanim harey b'vanim
Ela' y'hi rason sheyihyu se'se'ey m`eykha kamokha

I will tell you a parable about what the thing is like
Like a person that was walking in the desert and was hungry and tired and thirsty
And found a tree whose fruits were sweet and and shade pleasant and true water passes beneath it
He ate from its fruits and drank from its water and sat in its shade
And when he was going to leave said: O tree, O tree with what shall I bless you?
If I say to you may your fruits be sweet, your fruits are already sweet
May your shade be pleasant, your shade is already pleasant
May true water pass beneath you, true water already passes beneath you
But: May it be willed that all the seedlings that sprout from you be like you
Even so you, with what shall I bless you?
If with learning, you already have learning
If with wealth, you already have wealth
If with children, you already have children
But: May it be willed that the children of your loins be like you

Talmud Bavli Ta`anit 5B

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January 23, 2005

Darwin and Bloomsbury

Since I discovered him, I have felt a kinship with David Warren: we both, in our respective ways, spent our youths and early adulthood traveling the world, and we have both come back to an unexpected home. Perhaps I have discovered the origin of our kinship. His latest-but-one article reveals his formative reading:

A friend and I once had a semi-public discussion about character-formation through books read in early childhood. I attributed my own moral outlook to Rudyard Kipling, via Just So Stories, and then Kim. He attributed his to Kenneth Grahame via The Wind in the Willows.

I now realize that the Kipling influence, which began as late as age five, could only have been superficial. The Pookie books
[see source for details - DB] are the true source of my Weltanschauung.

Nothing against Wind in the Willows. I didn't read it until aloud, as a parent at the bedside of a child. I was of course joking when I suggested that an early exposure to it might explain my friend's liberal propensities. As an adult, I found it finely written, clever, and sentimental, but lacking in the quality of nobility; one of those "empathy books", with elements of stand-up comedy.

It's probably just a coincidence that the people who have told me Wind in the Willows was their formative book have all been gliberals, leftoids, and sex perverts.

I think I had 'The Wind in the Willows' read to me in school, I remember of it nothing more than vague impressions. But Kipling's 'Jungle Book', and before that 'Just So Stories' (read to me by my parents, Kipling was un-PC even in those pre-PC days when I was a child) made an impression on me that has lasted a lifetime (I am now reading 'Just So Stories' to my own children, and have just bought the 'Jungle Book') - I, too, found them possessing a certain nobility, as David Warren said. I think it a certain adventurousness of spirit, a playful earnestness - nobility, I think, comes from bearing burdens lightly, from never taking oneself too seriously, yet being serious nonetheless. It it the opposite of idle self-importance. (Not that I want to belittle earnest do-gooders, with the proviso that they are actually doing good. It just helps, I think, to remember that Man tracht und Gott lacht - Man plans and God Laughs, a Yiddish proverb.)

So I was somewhat dismayed on New Year's Eve, when David wrote (in his usual thoughtful manner) a screed against evolution, and has since expanded his thoughts into a four-part series. Of course, history is not something that can be scientifically proven - we cannot prove that evolution is responsible for the origin of species any more than we can prove that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo - but we can martial a quantity of evidence that makes the alternatives vanishingly improbable. Though this, too, is dependent on the assumption that God is not deliberately deceiving us: there is no way to assign probablies to the notion that God created the world 5000+ years ago, complete with its fossil (and human) record. But, then, you could just as easily claim that the world was created yesterday, complete with each of our false memories. In that case, however, I would claim that there must be some intrinsic truth to our false memories (after all, God created them) that it behooves us to investigate. (Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto claims that God made the world logical only for mankind to understand it.) And so, back we get, to evolution.

In any case, I think all this is odd, because it seems that David's main objection is not science at all, but politics:

What distinguishes Darwinism, in the end, is the nasty figurative edge to it, the popular use of it to communicate "nature red in tooth and claw". It became associated very early with Victorian atheism, and does the missionary work of the old Bloomsbury set that lost its Christian faith in the mid-19th century. It is an ideology that continues to reach beyond the strict realm of biology, into areas of philosophy and theology with which it has nothing to do. It sells a cosmos that is blind, random, purposeless.

It is a religion, sez I; a religion with prophets like Thomas Henry Huxley, and Herbert Spencer, and Richard Dawkins today.

Personally, I have never had this problem. I didn't learn evolution from Huxley, Spencer, or Dawkins. My official introduction to evolution was in 10th grade biology, and it was preceded by a thoughtful disclaimer, where the teacher said something like: This is what most scientists think. You don't have to believe it - this is not a religion class - but for this class you have to know it. I, too, am offended by people who mix science and politics - even when I agree with the politics. True, science can lead to conclusions of political import. But arguments of fact and arguments of policy must be kept separate, otherwise facts will be rejected because of their supposed policy implications, to the detriment of both. And that is exactly what has happened. Unfortunately ideas, like people, are judged by the company they keep.

But David redeems himself, for this is how he concludes:

Evolution is, on the other hand, not a "crock" in the way it is presented by non-ideological science writers. E.O. Wilson, for instance (whose co-written book on The Ants was among the most wonderful Christmas presents I ever received), is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Richard Dawkins, who makes a point of throwing evolution in the face of believing Christians. Prof. Wilson is a gentleman; Prof. Dawkins is a pig.

And by the way, it would be no skin off my nose if every aspect of Darwinism were by some miracle demonstrated to be true. I would then have to accept it as a genuine insight into "how" God works.

And that is a sentiment that I can stand behind 100%.

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January 22, 2005

Beautiful Israel

Here's a bigger version of the satellite picture of Israel I linked to earlier. (Thanks Haim!) All of Israel's borders are clearly visible.

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January 21, 2005

Myers Briggs and Marriage

The following was written by my wife (INFP):

The Myers Briggs system is so practically relevant to making the best of relationship difficulties that it’s hard for me to sit by watching an exchange on this topic that does not address this aspect.

Specifically I’d like to jot down some observations on personality type and marriage. An old-school question with regard to one’s possible mate used to be “what do you have in common?” Presumably what there is to be had in common could be background or economic class, common interests, or similar personalities (the last two being related, as one’s personality influences his or her interests.) There was an intuitive understanding that a partnership required substantial commonality to weather the storms of the years. The folk-wisdom that contradicts this, of course, is that opposites attract - complementarity is what produces chemistry in a relationship, together with our own earliest patterns resounding within us (see Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want).

Ideally the challenges of juggling family life and the work world prove catalysts to personal growth of each partner. However, those stressors can also push a couple to the brink. A little insight goes a long way in softening this kind of known adjustment, and here is where Myers Briggs has real practical relevance. It can help you grope your way through a quagmire of personality dynamics in your relationship. I’ll offer a few examples of what Myers Briggs can and cannot shed light upon, sprinkled with a few Laws of Living (or Loving…)

Law I: Benefit of the Doubt - Assume the best motivations of your partner. It will help you tremendously in understanding what motivates his or her behavior if you learn to understand his or her personality composition. Myers Briggs traits create a framework within which certain trends in behavior are predictable, as are certain pitfalls. For example, if he’s a strong extrovert and she’s a strong introvert, she’ll consider quiet cuddling on the couch to be True Quality Time, and he’ll be bored out of his mind (after a year or so, especially if, as some modern couples do, they live in the same city!) Combine this with another strong contrast, such as Sensing/iNtuitive, and it gets stickier: she wants to talk about her deepest feelings and he dozes off on the couch, leaving her feelings hurt and her needs frustrated.

This is not to say that partners with strongly contrasting personalities are doomed, but that the incompatibility which may manifest in specific areas is a known entity. You’ll want to walk in with your eyes open. The couple could agree to plan activities which appealed to each type so as to vary their time spent together, but most importantly they might avoid deep misunderstanding by realizing that their partner’s preference is not a personal slight.

A word on the limits of Myers Briggs to illuminate your life - its field is inborn personality traits, while some aspects of personality are learned. Issues such as difficulty in managing anger may arise, based on a pattern or experience in childhood, which cannot be decoded or predicted with Myers Briggs. Likewise, personality evolves over time, and marriage is a universal challenge to maturity. Law II: A degree of development is necessary to appreciate the long-term goals of family life, with its frequent requirement of delayed gratification, and its deeper satisfactions plus mundane day-to-day.

This said, there are some common problematic responses to the stresses of family life, such as escapism (hiding in your outside activities), martyrdom (making one’s family commitments one’s sole identity, without taking pleasure in it) and abusive behaviors, verbal, physical or otherwise. Your Myers Briggs profile can help you understand what within you drives you toward a certain problematic response, and perhaps help you see where you could use some healthy balance. A personality with a strong drive toward service and order might bury himself in his duty toward his family, although it’s especially common among women; a strong sensing-perceiving type, which is a classic thrill-seeker and athlete, will elect a more escapist route in response to stress.

In sum anyone already feeling confused or depressed about the state of a partnership might gain self-awareness and perhaps some new directions by investigating the role of type in the relationship.

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January 20, 2005

Myers Briggs meets the Skeptic

Amritas is skeptical about Myers Briggs:

I have long been suspicious of its four-scale system based on this Skeptic's Dictionary entry:

Furthermore, no matter what your preferences, your behavior will still sometimes indicate contrasting behavior. Thus, no behavior can ever be used to falsify the [MBTI®] type, and any behavior can be used to verify it.

That is reminiscent of Chomskyanism: in theory, no 'surface' structure can be used to falsify a proposed (invisible, inaudible) 'underlying' structure since 'transformations' can account for anything. (In practice, there are constraints on transformations, but even so, there is no hard evidence for them or for the 'underlying' structures that they allegedly affect. Saying that magic spells are not omnipotent still does not address the issue of whether such spells exist at all.) Something that is not falsifiable is not scientific.

I have never looked at the Skeptic's Dictionary before. My instincts are to be partial to it based on its name - I am skeptical by nature, myself. But I am very disappointed by this particular entry. Most of it amounts to little more than an ad hominem attack, i.e. attacking Myers and Briggs (the originators of the test) as individuals because they (may have) made some mistakes, and Jung, who came up with most of the original concepts, but likely wouldn't have supported the way Myers and Briggs developed them. The only comment about the test itself is the one Amritas quoted, and that is demonstrably false. Myers Briggs does make verifiable predictions, the fact that the predictions aren't 100% accurate in no way invalidates them - the question is only whether they are statistically significant, and anyone who has worked with large samples knows that they are.

A coworker of mine once came back from a business seminar and told me about the most amazing experience. The participants of the seminar (about 60 people) were given a Myers Briggs test and divided into groups of 5-6 that were as homogeneous as possible. Each group was then given a task of building something out its component parts - evidently something quite difficult, though I don't know what it was. What made it amazing was not just the variance in how well the different groups performed, but how different their approach to the problem was. "Some of the groups just gave up and chatted at the back of the room", my coworker told me with amazement (my coworker was an SJ, so her reaction is not surprising), "Your group did the best" she added, by which she probably meant NT - I doubt that there were 5-6 INTPs in a group of 60 business seminar attendees. She reported different styles of problem solving and cooperating, e.g. the SJs divided up the task, etc.

There's a certain pseudoscientific idea that if something is hard to measure, it doesn't exist. People who have this notion will often discount soft and fluffy ideas like happiness. I, for one, think happiness is an exceedingly important concept, whether or not it is hard to measure. And though I know of know way to objectively compare the happiness of one person to another, I have no doubt that some people are happier than others, and I trust my own subjective evaluations of the matter to be significantly correlated with the truth. Myers Briggs tests have this problem - they are dependent on peoples' self evaluations regarding a lot of soft-and-fluffy questions like, "Direct-contact group discussions stimulate you and give you energy - Y/N". Nevertheless, according to this paper:

Several researchers have studied the construct validity of the MBTI scores. Carlyn (1977) found evidence indicating that "... a wealth of circumstantial evidence has been gathered, and results appear to be quite consistent with Jungian Theory" (p. 469). Validity of MBTI scores is typically established by correlating the scores with findings from various personality instruments and inventories of interest. Statistically significant correlations have been found between MBTI scores, behaviors reflective of MBTI constructs, and persons' self-assessment of their own MBTI type (DeVito, 1985; Myers & McCaully, 1989). Using factor analysis, Thompson and Borrello (1986) reported that the factors were largely discrete in their sample, and all items had factor pattern coefficients higher than .30. These results supported the structure of the MBTI. More recently, Tischler (1994) noted that "... factor analysis provided unusually strong evidence that the MBTI items are correlated with their intended scales: the scales are almost factorially pure" (Tischler, 1994, p. 30).

Furthermore, if you measure the test-retest accuracy not as a binary outcome (e.g. S or N) but as a quantitative score, you find very high correlations, i.e. people near the middle will often flip, but their numerical scores won't change much. If you still think, like the Skeptic that:

The profiles read like something from Omar the astrologer and seem to exemplify the Forer effect.

Then take my advice in the previous post, and look at the description of your opposite. Ask yourself: which is more like me?

UPDATE: The Skeptic also warns, "There is also a pernicious side to these profiles: they can lead to discrimination and poor career counseling." Of course, if you are talking about individual cases you have to take into account that Myers Briggs tests are not 100% accurate, and assuming that they are can lead to unfortunate results. This in no way falsifies the theory, though it may limit its usefulness. My personal experience is that it's very useful even when I get it wrong (i.e. my subjective impression doesn't agree with the "objective" test). Why? Because it gives me a powerful way to think about the subject: The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms. A well-chosen terminology helps you to think, and understand. Whether or not I'm right about Razib's personality in the previous post, I'm confident that I'm right about the characteristics I examined, and that I understand something about his personality as a result.

UPDATE: I think that the main reason it's not taken more seriously in academia is that it was developed by non-academics. Who cares that it works in practice, and that thousands of profit-making enterprises that have to explain themselves to their shareholders spend money using it to help them do business. It doesn't have the right credentials!

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January 19, 2005

Myers Briggs

There's been some talk lately on Gene Expression about Empathizing-Systematizing. I haven't read the sources, but I must say it seems like just a rehash of a piece of a much more well-developed theory of personality that has been around for quite some time, and successfully employed in business and government: the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). (Interesting aside: Myers and Briggs were a mother-daughter team.) Since I don't think anyone can claim to intelligently discuss personality without relating to it, if for no other reason than to contest it, I will endeavor to introduce it now. Warning: this is my own slightly idiosyncratic view of the subject.

I, personally have used Myers Briggs productively in both my personal life, and on the job. I was first introduced to Myers Briggs about ten years ago, and it was a transformative experience. (Actually, I knew about it for many years without paying much attention, until one day I saw a book on someone's shelf and began to read...) I can't think of anything else, that can be learned in a couple of hours from a book, that can so utterly change the way a well-educated person sees the world. It was like suddenly being able to see a new color, and with a little reflection and experience it has thoroughly informed the way I understand people and interpersonal relations.

Myers Briggs describes personality types according to four pairs of traits. While often these are treated as binary choices: you are either on thing or the other; I think of them as endpoints of axes: you are somewhere on the continuum between them. An added complication is that personality types describe preferred modes of behavior, while well-rounded people are often quite skilled in behaving in their non-preferred mode, as this site says:

This is analagous to handedness, where you sometimes use your preferred hand (eg: when using a pen to write) and sometimes use your non-preferred hand (eg: the hand you use to change gear whilst driving a car is determined by the design of the car, not your preferences). [It's a British site. In the UK you shift with your left hand - DB]

OK, the first thing people always want to know is, "what's my type". Here are a couple of tests. I didn't take either one of them, so I can't vouch for them. But here's my test:

Extrovert/Introvert (E/I) - If you like to have lots of social relationships, if you enjoy meeting new people, if you often talk to strangers when you encounter them, you are probably an extrovert. If you prefer to concentrate on a few special relationships, if you don't like meeting new people, if you rarely talk to strangers when you encounter them, you are probably an introvert.

Sensing/Intuitive (S/N) - If you like to learn examples first, theory second, if you think in words, if you like details, you are probably sensing. If you like to learn theory first, examples second, if you think visually, if you are impatient with "irrelevant" details (though they may be essential to getting the job done), you are probably intuitive.

Thinking/Feeling (T/F) - If you like thinking about things or ideas, if you enjoy sparring (physical or verbal), if you prefer truth to peace, you are probably thinking. If you like thinking about people, if you especially enjoy making people feel good (or bad, in pathological cases), if you prefer peace (or war, in pathological cases) to truth, you are probably feeling.

Judging/Perceiving (J/P) - If you prefer to make a decision now rather than wait for more data, if you think that there's usually a right way to do things, if you like achieving goals whether or not the goal has any objective value, you are probably judging. If you prefer to wait for more data rather than make a decision, if you think there are usually many right ways to do things, or it usually doesn't matter too much how you do things, if you are comfortable with vaguely defined objectives, you are probably perceiving.

Follow the links above for a description of each of the axes. I think the hardest one to explain, and the most interesting is the S/N axis. (At least to me, for it characterizes my personality more than any of the others - I am an extreme N.) Sensing people tend to relate directly to inputs from their environment, while intuitive people tend to use these inputs to construct complex inner models, and relate to them. A lot of people have trouble differentiating between thinking and judging. If you're having trouble, look at their opposites, for some reason they're easier to distinguish.

So which type are you? (I'm an INTP.) Here are links to descriptions of each type.


Read the description of your type. Does it sound like you? Try varying one letter at a time, especially if you are not sure about one of the answers. Do these types seem somewhat like you? Now switch ALL the letters, how much does this seem like you? (These descriptions are short, and so much less impressive than the descriptions that appear in the book. The first version of this book was my introduction to Myers Briggs. There was another book that I liked better, at the time, but I can't seem to locate it.)

Now comes the fun part. Myers Briggs doesn't just give you a way to describe yourself, it gives you a way to think and talk about personality. For example, the 16 types can be grouped in various ways in order to make more general statements, the most common is: SP, SJ, NT, NF. I often use this particular breakdown when interviewing candidates for a job. Usually I can figure out pretty quickly what a person's personality type is (and when I can't it says something too, that they're probably near the middle of the spectrum, or they're good at using their non-preference). It's my experience that the best predictor of success in a job is not ability but enthusiasm - so I want to know what motivates a person:

SP - Action: These people like activity. All the best athletes are SPs. Soldiers are usually SPs (but officers are usually SJs). The best salesmen are SPs. Lots of really good programmers are SPs - they're they guys that just love programming, I call them computer jocks. To be really good at something, you have to love to do it over and over again, only SPs are capable of this.

SJ - Order: These people love to make order out of chaos. They love directing things, planning things, organizing things. A lot of bosses are SJs. Good secretaries are SJs. Most schoolteachers are SJs. Lots of good programmers are SJs - they're the ones that will research and plan before methodically carrying out the task.

NT - Ideas: These people like thinking about ideas. They like solving problems (not the administrative kind), inventing algorithms, and architecting solutions. Most scientists and engineers are NTs (though a lot of engineers are SJs). Lots of good programmers are NTs (I'm one of those), but they're likely to view programming as a means to an end rather than an end in itself (in contrast to SPs).

NF - Empathy: These people like to help people and express themselves (to people). Naturally, they gravitate to the helping professions: teaching, medicine, social work, social advocacy. They also fill the ranks of artists, writers, journalists. I once saw a claim that they make the best salespeople, and I believe it, but few NFs are interested in sales. NFs are not likely to be interested in programming, but when they are they're motivated by the notion of helping people by what they write, or pleasing the boss.

The 16 types are not distributed equally in the population, by any means. Keirsey claims the following figures (I couldn't find figures for individual types):

SJ: 40% - 45%
SP: 35% - 40%
NF: 8% -10%
NT: 5% - 7%

Assuming that personality types are inherited (and I think they are - my mother is an INFP, my father is an INTJ, and my sister is an INFP), I think this is clearly a case of frequency dependent selection. My skills, for example, as an INTP, are in demand because they are extremely rare. But I don't think I would want to live in a world in which my type were common. I have trouble with a lot of everyday tasks that most people would consider extremely simple, and I'm glad that there are a lot of people around to help me out with them. A typical programming task (for example) can always use another good SP or SJ, but how many NTs does it need? Especially INTPs (NTJs can fake being SJs - their J side enables them to do what is called for at the moment). Ten thousand years ago, I'm not sure what we would do.

The other interesting skew in the percentages is on the T/F axis (and this brings us back to the origin of this post). The T/F axis is the only one which exhibits sexual dimorphism. About 75% of men are Ts, while about 75% of women are Fs. I am quite sure that this explains most of the differences in career choice that we see between men and women, plus a lot of other differences. Anyone ever notice that men and women tend to have different personalities? Does it come as a surprise that most women are feeling, while most men are thinking?

Okay, lets have some more fun. I claimed to be able to tell a person's personality type without much trouble. So let's pick one: Razib. (My estimate of his personality type tells me he won't mind.) First: E or I? Well, that's easy, he's one of the most extroverted people I know (and I don't even know him - I'm judging by the stories he tells, and the fact that he tells them at all), E. Second: S or N? That's a hard one. I would guess S because he writes so fast, and works through so much material. I don't think an N personality is capable of it. Also, his writing style can be very sensual, but that could be an F influence (we'll get to that). However, and this is why I said it was hard, he's clearly very good at building internal models. But I'll go with the preponderance of evidence: S. Third: T or F? Another easy one, he's clearly a thinker. However, I note that he's quite good at using his feeling side when he wants to, T. Fourth: J or P? I think it's a P, I just don't get a goal-directed feeling about him, nor do I see him express strong opinions about a lot of things, usually he keeps his options open: P. So there's my guess: ESTP. Is it right?

(Cross posted at Gene Expression.)

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January 17, 2005

Lessons of World War II

This will be short, because I really don't have much to say about it. It just occurred to me that that Europeans and Israelis took away opposite lessons from the trauma of World War II. The lesson the Europeans learned: War is bad, stop war. The lesson the Israelis learned: We have to defend ourselves. But when you look at it, it's not really so surprising. The Europeans let the Nazis roll over them, then sat back and watched as the US and Britain saved them. But for the Jews, it was too late. Nobody saved the Jews.

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Trackback from Willow Tree, Haveil Havalim Are Here!!:
So good morning everyone, hope you have your cup of joe, and are ready to kick back and see what's what this week in the Jewish blogverse. First because mornings are always confusing to me (what day is it?) I...

January 16, 2005

Pixy Misa on Logoism

Don't miss Pixy Misa's belated comment on Irrational Logoists:

Hi David. I missed this back when you posted it.

Perhaps I should explain myself further:

My position is that the Universe does not have meaning. The Universe simply is. (That's somewhat tautological, because I define the Universe as what exists, but anyway...)

Meaning is what intelligence generates when applied to the Universe. It does not, indeed cannot exist of itself; it is the product of the process of thought.

All this is just fluffy bunnies though unless we defined meaning. Until you do that, you can't say, for example, what you mean when you say "it would imply that an Islamist’s meaning is just as meaningful as Pixy Misa’s".

Certainly my worldview is more founded in reality, more productive, more conducive to happiness and learning in myself and my fellow man, than that of the Islamists. Does that make the "meaning" I have created for myself more "valid" than the "meaning" the Islamists have created for themselves? I dunno. But it's a hell of a lot better.

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Linguistic Expatriate

Amritas's second post talks about mulilinguals, he quotes Vivian Cook:

If most people, or indeed everybody, has multiple grammars in their minds, the idealisation to the monolingual native speaker is misleading, as inaccurate as saying we should study the breathing of human beings by looking at those with one lung rather than two. If the architecture of the human mind involves two languages, we are falsifying it by studying only monolingual minds ...

From my first contact with English-speaking expatriates in Israel, I was struck by how their English was infiltrated by Hebrew. These changes seem to fall into three categories:

1. Words for things not frequently encountered in the country of origin.

2. Hebrew words that are hard to translate into English, but are very useful.

3. Grammatical structures that are easier in Hebrew than in English.

In the first category would be words like eshel (אשל) - a cultured milk product like buttermilk, makolet (מכולת) - general store, qlita (קליטה) - immigration absorption, acculturation. In the second category are words like tiq (תיק) - any kind of carrying bag e.g. backpack or pocketbook, `agala (עגלה) - any kind of cart or carriage, davqa (דוקה) - a word which introduces a clause that contradicts what was previously said by another speaker.

But most interesting, to me, is the third category. Grammar is something we normally don't think about. What could entice someone to abandon the familiar structure of their native language and embrace the alien grammar of another? Let's look at an example:

זה הילד שראיתי אותו אתמול

Ze hayeled shera'iti oto etmol

That's the boy whom I saw yesterday

But among expatriates, you're likely to hear this:

That's the boy that I saw him yesterday

Which is a literal translation of the Hebrew. There are many ways in which English grammar differs from Hebrew, but only a few in which the English seems susceptible to replacement. What is special about these few instances? I would say that there is a natural grammar, if not a universal grammar, at least in the sense that some structures are easier (more natural) than others. In the English version, the object of 'saw' (him) is merged with the relative pronoun (whom) while in the Hebrew version it is still present in the surface structure. Doesn't that sound easier to you?

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Linguistic Conservative

Amritas, back from the undead, has a couple of interesting new posts up. In the first, he talks about descriptive vs. prescriptive linguistics:

Seriously, it might seem at first that the problem with linguistic conservatives is one of infinite regress. If older is better, then oldest is best, right?

But when people talk about how their language is in 'decline', they have no real intention of turning the clock back. They implicitly assume that their version of the language is 'perfect'. What they are really saying is, 'I don't want the language to deviate from what I see as its peak when I grew up in the year 19XX'.

I guess I'm a linguistic conservative of a different stripe. I don't think that one set of linguistic rules is intrinsically better or worse than another (assuming they are both fully expressive, which is true of any language that people really speak). On the other hand, the purpose of language is to communicate, and this is only possible if the speaker and the listener both know its rules. When language changes, it cuts us off from the works of our past, which we can then only appreciate in translation. In the case of English, very little was written before Shakespeare's time (Chaucer and Beowulf are two of the few exceptions), and Shakespearean English is still fully accessible, with only a little effort. On the other hand, I consider myself incomparably blessed by the fact that I can read 4000+ years of Hebrew literature in the original. It would be a real shame if Hebrew were to change so much that its speakers couldn't do it.

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January 14, 2005

Israel from the air

I have been keeping an eye out for some time for a good satellite picture of Israel. I finally found it! (Via mentalblog.com) The reason I was looking for it is that it shows one of the most amazing little-known facts that I know: You can see the borders of Israel from outer space!! The reason for that: Israel takes relatively good care of its environment. Most importantly, Israel makes sure that the land isn't overgrazed. I have seen it up-close myself. I once drove down the entire length of the Negev-Sinai border - from the Gaza Strip to Eilat. There's a security road there, which is now closed to the public because lately Egypt has been letting people take pot-shots across the border, but once it was open. It's amazing. I drove from north to south. On my left, the desert was covered with grasses and shrubs. On my right, sand. The desert areas provide the most dramatic contrast along Israel's borders, but look carefully at the map: you can see all of Israel's borders. You can see the outline of the West Bank, with the Jerusalem corridor in the middle. You can see the northern border with Lebanon. You can't tell from this view, but the border between Syria and the Golan is also clearly visible. You'd think this would gain us some points with the supposedly environmentally aware, but I've never heard any such thing.

UPDATE: If you know of any other good pictures of this nature, not too large, let me know.

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January 13, 2005

Linguistic Imbecile

You've probably figured out by now that I like linguistics. In fact, I can't remember ever not liking linguistics. Long before I knew that such a thing existed, and that other people thought seriously about such matters, I remember noticing that the consonants y and w were an awful lot like the vowels i and u (that's why they're called semivowels, but I didn't know that). I can remember being around 7 or 8 years old, and arranging the letters of the alphabet in different ways according to their characteristics: voiced/unvoiced, stop/fricative, point-of-articulation, etc. Of course, I didn't know any of those terms. For a long time, around age 10, I was interested in devising a spelling system with the minimum number of symbols, for example the 14 letters: b, c, d, f, g, j, k, p, q, s, t, v, x, z could be replaced with just five: 3 for points of articulation, and 1 each for voiced and stop. All this was inspired simply by observing the two writing systems I knew, since I had never even heard of linguistics. For example, I noticed that ph (sounding like f) is a p that doesn't stop the air flow, t is sometime pronounced like d, s like z, etc. Every once in while I would think of a new way to reduce the number of letters, and I would update my private hypothetical spelling system.

I also liked 'grammar' such as I was taught, which wasn't much. I don't ever remember having a problem with it, even though it was widely hated by the smart kids I went to school with (I was in the top-rated school district in Massachusetts). But, when I got to college, the idea of studying linguistics was ridiculous to me. Why? Because I was not just a poor language student, I was a linguistic imbecile.

I started learning a second language at a young age, for an American: I started learning Hebrew when I was seven years old. I remember liking it at first, I had no trouble with the Hebrew alphabet. Since Hebrew writing is perfectly phonetic (you just have to learn one special rule: -יו at the end of a word is -av, not -ayv) it's no problem to read without understanding. But once we got to the language itself, my peers zoomed ahead leaving me completely in the dark. For the next six years I sat in Hebrew class not understanding a thing that was going on around me.

Several years later I entered seventh grade. In seventh grade they started teaching me French. It was my chance to redeem myself. For years I had been sitting in Hebrew class understanding nothing, without a prayer of ever catching up. Now I could start over at the same level as everyone else. We got quarterly grades in my school, and my first grade was a C. It was downhill from there. In eighth grade, while my 80 classmates went to French class, I went to a special study session with three other kids. One of them was a new kid who had studied a different language the previous year. I was used to being one of the smart kids, and now I was in the bottom 4%. One of three kids too dumb to learn French with the rest of the class.

In High School I took French again. Started from the beginning, again. My High School class had 500 kids. Out of those 500 were maybe a dozen who, for whatever reason (strange, I never asked) were taking French over. I was one of those kids. I stuck with this same class for three years, advancing a grade every year without learning a thing. I actually managed to do fairly well, getting Bs and Cs, but not by learning French. The reason I did well: All the tests were multiple choice. I became quite good at reverse-engineering the answers to questions, while understanding neither the question nor the answer. They tended to give choices which were all of which were variations of the right answer. The trick was to figure out which answer differed least from all the others.

Finally, I graduated High School, and went to University of Pennsylvania. They didn't have much in the way of requirements there, except for distributional requirements, but they did have two: You had to pass an English test and a foreign language test. I don't remember the English requirement - I took the test and passed as soon as I got there, but the foreign language requirement was supposedly the equivalent of four semesters of study. I decided, for personal reasons, to go for Hebrew.

So there I was, with years and years of Hebrew experience behind me, taking an intro to Hebrew class. I got a C. And, once again, it was downhill from there. I had a really nice Israeli grad student teaching me, but at the end of 3 semesters, she agreed to pass me only on the condition that I didn't take Hebrew the following semester. What to do? I needed four semesters to graduate. Not that it would be enough, in my case, since I would still need to pass a test. I figured that my only hope was total immersion. I looked for Hebrew programs in Israel. The next summer I went to Kibbutz Ketura (Qibus Q'tura in the orthography of this site) to learn Hebrew.

It was an eight-week work-study program. Half a day we worked, half studied. I got up before dawn every day at 3:45, got dressed, had a cup of coffee, and climbed into a tractor which would take us down to the fields. The sun would be rising over the mountains of Moab as we rode down, and it was COLD. We were all lightly dressed, because we knew it would be 110°F before we came back, but we all warmed ourselves by those first rays, and when the sun came fully over the mountains we were always grateful. We worked for four hours, came back at 8:00, and had a big breakfast. The food was quite simple, but as I remember it, it was very good. This was also the time when I learned to drink coffee. We made coffee out in the fields by throwing the grounds, some sugar, and water into an old cast-iron pot, and putting the pot directly into a fire which we built on the sand. The pot had a fixed handle arching over the top, which we used to remove it from the fire, hooking it with a convenient stick. The result was strong and sweet, a little burnt, with something of a metallic flavor. It was the best coffee I've ever had.

After breakfast, at 9:00, we'd begin the Ulpan. (Ulpan, in Hebrew, means studio, but it's also used to refer to classes in Hebrew as a second language.) There were two classes, which were called alef and bet, after the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. I was in bet, but our teacher explained to us that the class wasn't really at bet-level, according to national standards (in which there are 6 levels, alef to vav, after the first six letters of the Hebrew language), our class was more like alef plus. So there I was, after years and years of Hebrew study, including three semesters of university-level Hebrew, in alef plus.

It's not clear to me how important the class time was for me. By this time I was a kind of idiot savant of Hebrew. I knew Hebrew grammar backwards and forwards (better than I do today), and this was the kind of thing we spent a lot of time on in class. My weak point - so weak as to be non-existent - was comprehension and speaking. My vocabulary was lousy, but even when I knew the words I was incapable of understanding them when they were spoken. Translating each word, figuring out the root, pattern, person, tense, figuring out which words were which parts of speech, were all things I could do, but not nearly fast enough for it to be any use in understanding real speech. Speaking was a little better - if my listener was patient enough, I could, eventually, produce a grammatically correct sentence, assuming I had the vocabulary. I knew that this was what I had to work on, and for some reason, I also knew how.

My Hebrew teacher, back at Penn, had once told us in Hebrew, tapping her head, "You don't learn Hebrew through the head," tapping her foot, "you learn it though the foot." This is a play on on words, because 'the foot' in Hebrew is haregel, while hergel (same root) is habit. You learn language through habit - the foot. I had spent something like 15 years trying to learn Hebrew through the head, and somehow I knew that my head was getting in the way of learning it. Instead of trying to figure out the Hebrew around me, I made a deliberate attempt not to try to figure it out. Instead, I would just listen to it. Let it wash over me and though me. My Ulpan teacher was very nice, and it is probably because of her that I can speak Hebrew now. After lunch people would usually nap, and around 4:00 start socializing for a couple hours before dinner. (We seemed to gain an extra meal: breakfast was like lunch, lunch like dinner, and then there was another meal at 6:00!) Every day I would visit my Ulpan teacher and listen to her talk to her friends. In the morning, out in the fields, I was lucky to be paired up with one of the few other serious students, and we'd talk in Hebrew, to the best of our ability. I made every effort I could to immerse myself in Hebrew.

At the end of the eight-week program we spent one week touring the county. We combined forces with another Kibbutz, which had the same work-study program. There I met a student about at about my level who was willing to talk to me raq b`ivrit - only in Hebrew. We spent a lot of time in busses, going from one place to another, and we spent a lot of time trying to speak Hebrew.

Then one day - I remember this clearly - I was sitting on the bus, as usual trying to speak Hebrew with my fellow student, when suddenly I realized - I was thinking in Hebrew! And that was the end of the beginning. From that point on, I have never had a problem with foreign languages. Not Hebrew - I went back to Penn and easily got an A in the final semester, and even took a Hebrew literature class following that - and not any other language. Some years later I took a class in spoken Arabic (Jerusalem dialect) and had no problems - I was even one of the better students.

Something changed that day on the bus. It was as if a new module had been forged in my brain. It makes me wonder: What else can I do?

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Life has meaning

I just posted this on Gene Expression:

A long time ago I realized that I had a fundamental belief that wasn't going to go away even if reason told me that the evidence points in the other direction: Life has meaning. My choice was thus: (1) Embrace my true belief and run with it where it would take me, (2) Deny my true belief and be depressed, (3) Neither embrace it nor deny it, and live a life of timid anxiety. I chose #1, and it has taken me quite far from my birthplace. Not long ago I coined the word 'logoism' to describe this belief, after a long search in which I turned up nothing, surprising me because I wanted nothing more than an antonym to nihilism. The lack of this term indicates to me that not enough people are thinking about it. What are the implications of meaning? God? Or could it be something else? More here.

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January 12, 2005

A Godly life

Jinnderella has opened up comments on her blog, and it's become quite the happening place! I expecially liked this comment by Dymphna. Exerpt:

During my formative years I lived in an orphanage run by nuns. My whole day was punctuated with religious language (even at the age of six, I thought it strange to recite daily the prayer to St. Joseph for a happy death), but in addition there were religious icons everywhere. In other words, it wasn't just thought and language: there were compelling visual images as far as the eye could see. There were statues, crucifixes, holy cards with saints' images to contemplate; each element in the visual image had a deeper meaning, just as it did for those in the 13th century.

We prayed when we got up, we went to Mass before breakfast, we said grace before and after meals, we said the Angelus at noon. We prayed in class, after class and before going out to play. After supper we gathered in the chapel to say the rosary. And after our Recreation Hour we knelt down one last time before going off to bed. Our rewards often consisted of holy cards: images of saints whose lives we knew as well as we knew our own. The day was punctuated with vocalized prayer in the midst of an otherwise silent time. Even in silence we were supposed to pray. We learned to pray in the midst of any exigency. Lose your pencil? Pray to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things.

The months were punctuated with feast days: I know the saint for my birthday. The year was described within the confines of the liturgical year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, and Pentecost. Each season had its color and that color represented something. Lent, for example, was penitentially purple. Every moment was accounted for.

And God's language was, of course, Latin. "Ora pro nobis" responsively repeated in an endless litany left one's mind free to wander. Sometimes the words come back, unbidden but here anyway..."like a song on the radio."

What that experience taught me was that life had a deeper, higher and wider meaning than anything I could assign to it. From the outside it sounds harsh (btw, there are no horror stories to relate. The nuns were mostly kind, if a bit rigid) but as a lived experience it brought order out of chaos and I was grateful even while I longed for my mother. As Erikson said, children can survive anything as long as it has meaning.

Even more God-suffused than the average observant Jewish life (and that's saying a lot)! Though there are Jews who attain this level - just make the appropriate substitutions (and don't pray to anyone but God). I especially liked the last sentence, "children can survive anything as long as it has meaning" - it's true of adults too.

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January 11, 2005

Amritas lives

At least that's what he says:

I live. I'm working. Can't blog. No time. But I can still write a sentence longer than two words. Just one. That one. Good night. More later.

He's "zai Xin Zexi". That's Chinese for, "in New Jersey".

I can't wait to hear what that's all about.

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January 10, 2005

Another Mystic

Razib of Gene Expression reveals himself to be a mystic at Hot Needle of Inquiry. I always suspected him of it:

there is perhaps an order(s), truth(s), beyond our conception because of the cognitive limitations of our reality as an evolution-shaped mammal which somehow managed to slip over the hill which hides various insights from the rest of the animal kingdom.

i believe there are many other hills which hide many other truths. i don't think we have the equipment to really scale those hills...so i have hope in transhumanism and other such developments with which we might transcend the limitations of our minds. as wittgenstein said, "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." speech is a constraint on insight, but we are too dumb to figure out ways around these constraints. for now. i believe the day might come when "man" might take wing and lift himself above the hills which hide the full expanse of all that is from our sight and take in the fullness of it all in one fell swoop.


Beautiful, really. He is saying that just as our cognitive abilities enable us to perceive much more than other animals, so too another being might perceive that much more than we. It is a non-theist (not necessarily atheist) variation on the child-parent paradigm: just as we do things that make sense, which our children can't understand, so too our Heavenly Father does things that make sense, which we can't understand.

(BTW I don't believe that "speech is a constraint on insight" - I think that if our intellect is able to understand it, our speech is capable of expressing it. On the other hand, there are many things that we understand not with our intellect, but by other means. It is that which we find difficult to express: states of being, for example, or even such a simple thing as the taste of an apple.)

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Most life transitions happen rather abruptly, though they may be building up for some time. Probably a tipping-point phenomenon, where small quantitative changes suddenly add up to something qualitatively different. The first such transition comes about the age of three months. This is when babies start to smile, but smiling is really just one aspect of a much wider phenomenon. It is at this stage that babies begin to interact with their environment (other than the reflexive nursing instinct) - it's at this point that parenting starts being fun. (My wife disagrees with me on this point, but agrees that there's an order-of-magnitude change at three months.) It's no coincidence that Yokheved waited three months before sending her son Moses into Pharaoh's daughter's arms.

 וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן
 וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי טוֹב הוּא וַתִּצְפְּנֵהוּ שְׁלשָׁה יְרָחִים:
 וְלֹא יָכְלָה עוֹד הַצְּפִינוֹ וַתִּקַּח לוֹ תֵּבַת גֹּמֶא
 וַתַּחְמְרָה בַחֵמָר וּבַזָּפֶת וַתָּשֶׂם בָּהּ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד
 וַתָּשֶׂם בַּסּוּף עַל שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר:

Vatahar ha'isha vateled ben
Vatere' oto ki tov hu vatisp'nehu shlosha y'rahim
 V'lo' yakhla `od haspino vatiqah lo tevat gome'
Vatahm'ra vahemar uvazafet vatasem bah et hayeled
Vatasem basuf `al sfat hay'or

And the woman conceived and gave birth to a son
And she saw that he was good and she hid him for three months
And when she couldn't hide him any longer she took for him a box of rushes
And she daubed it with clay and tar and put the child in it
And put it in the reeds at the edge of the river

Exodus 2:2-3

The next transition occurs at about one year, when the child begins walking and talking. Suddenly he begins not only interacting with the environment, but doing that most human of all activities: communicating. The third transition occurs at about three years, when the child begins to understand the passage of time, and not unrelated: begins to be able to reason. And that, in the Jewish way of thinking, means it's time to start to formal learning.

There is a tradition followed by many Jews not to cut the hair of their sons until they are three years old. Some time on or shortly after their third birthday they get their first haircut. Israelis and Sephardic Jews call this a halaqa (חלקה), from the word halaq (חלק) - smooth, unadorned. Ashkenazi Jews often use the Yiddish word: upsherin - cognate/translation: shear off.

My son's halaqa was last night. It wasn't that big a deal, we mostly invited neighbors, with only a very few friends and relatives coming from outside a 5-minute-walk radius. Nevertheless they filled the house. The men took turns giving my son a brakha (ברכה) -  blessing, and snipping off a lock of his hair. We intended to finish off the job then and there, but our designated barber wasn't feeling well and the boy of honor was falling asleep (serving of the cake woke him up pretty fast), so we put it off until this morning.

Today they made a birthday party for my son in school, and admired his haircut. At 12 o'clock I went in and the school rabbi (not his usual teacher) came down and gave him is first "official" lesson. The rabbi showed my son a plaque of the Hebrew alphabet on which the letters had been traced over in honey. One by one he introduced each of the letters and had my son pronounce it. As he introduced them, he pointed out their distinguishing features ("see, the gimel has legs and she's walking", "the lamed holds her head high up", "the mem has a sister mem-sofit"). Then he let him lick off the honey.

I think that my son really connected with this rite of passage. There's a way in which the formative experience of a boy is dramatically different from that of a girl. Babies are born to identify with their mothers. The feeling of "I am my mother and my mother is me" is our first feeling of identification: it is from this point that our tribal identity expands outward. In a girl this process, under normal circumstances, proceeds smoothly from birth throughout her life. But a boy switches his most fundamental sense of identification from his mother to his father. My observation is that it's a gradual process beginning at about the age of one, and finishing by the age of three. From here may it expand outward!

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January 06, 2005

What I believe but cannot prove

Edge.org (via GNXP Sci-Fi) asks 120 intellectuals: What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? I read only a small fraction of the answers (I'm sorry, I have a life) but what I read was interesting. Of course it begs the question, what do I believe but cannot prove? It's late, and I have a cold. I don't have much time or energy at the moment to put into it, so I'll answer more briefly than the subject requires.

As I've said before, my most basic belief is logoism (that existence has meaning). But I guess I believe in some other things too, like hashgaha pratit (השגחה פרטית) - that God is watching over me, and in hishtadlut (השתדלות) - that if I try to do the right thing, God will help me out. I suppose that anyone who's been reading my blog can come up with a lot more things too.

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Trackback from Willow Tree, Touring the Blog World:
Here's a quick glimpse at what old friends have been saying. Rishon Rishon talks about believing the unprovable--linking to a series of articles by other great thinkers on the same topic. Lex of Neptune Lex, has a pic and post...


To our modern way of thinking, the universe is governed by forces of nature. Not that forces of nature are independent of one another: centrifugal force derives from the laws of motion, gravity derives from General Relativity, and presumably all forces derive from a Universal Field Theory not yet discovered. Traditionally, Judaism has a similar understanding of the governance of the universe. God, of course, is the ultimate governor of everything. And what are the forces of nature? In the language of Judaism, they are called angels. Angels are forces of nature: there are angels of wind and rain and angels that guard over people and nations, and of course there are spiritual angels.

Hebrew has several words meaning 'angel': mal'akh (מלאך), k'ruv (כרוב), saraf (שרף), ar'el (אראל), and probably some more that don't come to mind at the moment. The most generic word is mal'akh, which is related to the word m'la'kha (מלאכה) - fabrication, work. Angels are workers. In Judaism, they are specifically agents of God - they have no free will, and thus have a lower status than human beings. (Though, being without free will, they can't sin.) When an angel does something, it is as if God did it directly - only its appearances are indirect, as with any force of nature.

Angels, like forces of nature, are arranged hierarchically. Below God are Mikha'el (מיכאל) - Michael, and Gavri'el (גבריאל) - Gabriel. Which represent the forces of Hesed (חסד) and G'vura (גבורה), grace and might (i.e. the taking-in force, and the going-out force, explained in more detail here).  According to the Talmud, Michael is made of snow and Gabriel is made of fire, but though they work side by side, neither damages the other. In other words, though they are opposites, both are forces of good - they work together:

אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש
מיכאל כולו שלג וגבריאל כולו אש
ועומדין זה אצל זה ואינם מזיקים

Amar rabi shim`on ben laqish
Mikha'el kulo sheleg v'gavri'el kulo esh
v`omdin ze esel ze v'eynam m'ziqim

Rabbi Shim`on son of Laqish said
Michael is all snow and Gabriel is all fire
And they stand next to one another and are not damaged

D'varim Raba 5:11

Widening the hierarchy a little, we get the angels represented by the acronym, Argaman (ארגמן) - royal purple: Uri'el (אוריאל) - Uriel, R'fa'el (רפאל) - Rafael, Gavri'el (גבריאל) - Gabriel, Mikha'el (מיכאל) - Michael, and Nuri'el (נוריאל) - Nuriel. They appear in this line from the bedtime prayer:

מִימִינִי מִיכָאֵל
 וּמִשְּׂמֹאלִי גַּבְרִיאֵל
 וּמִלְּפָנַי אוּרִיאֵל
 וּמֵאֲחוֹרַי רְפָאֵל
 וְעַל רֹאשִׁי שְׁכִינַת אֵל

Mimini mikha'el
Umismoli gavri'el
Umilfanay uri'el
Ume'ahoray r'fa'el
V`al roshi sh'khinat el

On my right Michael
And on my left Gabriel
And before me Uriel
And behind me Rafael
And above my head the Divine presence of God

In fact, there are a myriad of angels. Most of the angels (not all of them) found on this page, for example, are of Hebraic origin. However, they play no part in Jewish theology: They are not worshiped, or prayed to - having no free will, that would make as much sense as praying to gravity, or to the wind. This, despite the fact that they are everywhere in the rhetoric of prayer. For example, every Shabat begins by welcoming mal'akhey hasharet (מלאכי השרת) - the ministering angels (of God), based on the following passage from the Talmud:

רבי יוסי בר יהודה אומר
 שני מלאכי השרת מלוין לו לאדם
 בערב שבת מבית הכנסת לביתו
 אחד טוב ואחד רע
 וכשבא לביתו ומצא נר דלוק ושלחן ערוך ומטתו מוצעת
 מלאך טוב אומר יהי רצון שתהא לשבת אחרת כך
 ומלאך רע עונה אמן בעל כרחו
 ואם לאו מלאך רע אומר יהי רצון שתהא לשבת אחרת כך
 ומלאך טוב עונה אמן בעל כרחו

Rabi yosey bar y'huda omer
Shney mal'akhey hasharet m'lavin lo la'adam
B`erev shabat mibeyt hakneset l'veyto
Ehad tov v'ehad ra`
Ukhsheba' l'veyto umasa' ner daluq v'shulhan `arukh umitato musa`at
Mal'akh tov omer y'hi rason shet'he l'shabat aheret kakh
Umal'akh ra` `one amen b`al karho
V'im lav mal'akh ra` omer y'hi rason shet'he l'shabat aheret kakh
Umal'akh tov `one amen b`al karho

Rabbi Yosey son of Yehuda says
Two ministering angels accompany a person
On the Sabbath eve from the synagogue to his house
One good and one bad
And when he comes to his house and finds a lit candle and a set table and his bed made
The good angel says: May there be another Sabbath like this!
And the bad angel answers: Amen - against his will
And if not, the bad angel says: May there be another Sabbath like this!
And the good angel answers: Amen - against his will

Shabat 119-B

In other words, it is a force of nature that things generally continue as they were. Nevertheless, we welcome the angels. Other examples: When you do a misva (comandment), an angel is born, when you say a blessing an angel is born, i.e. doing a misva or saying a blessing is a force (of good) in the world. I say this to my kids every day when they go to sleep:

הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגּוֹאֵל אוֹתִי מִכָּל רָע
יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים
וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבוֹתַי
אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק
וְיִדְגּוּ לָרוֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ

Hamal'akh hago'el oti mikol ra`
Y'varekh et han`arim
V'yiqare' vahem sh'mi v'shem avotay
Avraham v'yishaq
V'yidgu larov b'qerev ha'ares

May the angel that redeems me from all evil
Bless the children
And may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers
Abraham and Issac
And may they grow to a multitude in the midst of the earth 

Genesis 48:16

This is the blessing that Jacob gave to Joseph's children, Ephraim and Manasseh, before he died.

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January 05, 2005

The Western Wall

Hakotel Hama`aravi (הכותל המערבי) - the Western Wall is often described as the last surviving relic of the the Temple in Jerusalem. This is inaccurate on two counts. First, the Kotel (wall) is not actually a wall of the Temple, but part of a retaining wall built around the summit of the Temple Mount in order to increase the area on top. Second, all four retaining walls of the Temple Mount survive. So what's so special about the western wall? The Talmud explains:

אמר רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא
 הנה זה עומד אחר כתלנו
 זה כותל מערבי של בית המקדש
 שאינו חרב לעולם למה
 שהשכינה במערב משגיח מן החלונות בזכות אבות
 מציץ מן החרכים בזכות אמהות

Amar rabi yosey b'rabi hanina
Hine ze `omed ahar kotlenu
Ze kotel ma`aravi shel beyt hamiqdash
She'eyno harev l`olam lama
Shehash'khina b'ma`arav mashgiah min hahalonot bizkhut avot
Mesis min haharkim bizkhut imahot

Rabbi Yosey said in the name of Rabbi Hanina
Behold, this is what will remain standing after our walls (are destroyed)
It is the western wall of the House of the Sanctuary (the Temple)
That will never be destroyed ever, why?
For the Divine Presence in the west watches over us from from the windows because of the merits of the fathers
Peeks from the cracks because of the merits of the mothers

Bamidbar Raba 11:63

But there's another reason too:

כאשר נבנה בית המקדש, חולקה העבודה בין חלקי האוכלוסייה השונים. בניין הכותל המערבי עלה בחלקם של העניים, שלא יכלו להרשות לעצמם לשכור פועלים ובעלי מלאכה על מנת שהללו יעבדו בשבילם ולכן טרחו ועמלו על בנייתו במו ידיהם.

כאשר השמיד האויב את בית המקדש, מסופר ש"ירדו" המלאכים ממרומים ופרשו את כנפיהם על הכותל כשהם אומרים: "כותל זה, עבודתם של העניים, לעולם לא יחרב." (ע"פ אגדות ארץ ישראל).

When the Holy Sanctuary was built, the labor was divided among all the different sectors of the population. Building of the western wall turned out to be the portion of the poor, who couldn't permit themselves to hire workers or builders who would work for them, and thus went to the trouble and effort of building with their own hands.

When the enemy destroyed the Holy Sanctuary, it is told that angles "came down" from on high and spread their wings over the wall while saying: "this wall, it is the work of the poor it will never be destroyed." (According to Legends of the Land of Israel).

The Western Wall is often called Judaism's holiest site - but that's not true. Judaism's holiest site is the Temple Mount itself, especially the site of the Holy of Holies, roughly at its center, which is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock (not the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam's 3rd holiest site, which is nearby, also on the Temple Mount). Though the western wall is quite long, Jews usually pray in a particular place - the place along the wall which is closest to Judaism's holiest site.

So why am I talking about this now? There's a webcam at the Western Wall. I looked at it once a long time ago, and it was so slow and blurry that I never looked again - until yesterday. Now it's beautiful, clear and fast, at least if you have a broadband connection. I just looked now, and I see that it's raining. It's raining outside my window too, which makes it seem very real.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 01:27 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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January 04, 2005

Brookliner Landsman

A 'landsman', in Yiddish, is someone from the same country, or especially the same town as you. In my grandparents' time, it was common for Jewish immigrants from the same shtetl (hamlet) to form a landsmanschaft - a landsman's association, once they got to the Goldene Medina (Golden Country, i.e. the US). Yesterday I discovered a landsman of mine in the blogosphere: Daniel in Brookline. Brookline, Massachusetts was my hometown for the first 25 years of my life. Not just a geographical landsman, he appears to be an ideological landsman as well. An unusual thing for that part of the world. If you missed it, check out this comment that he left here on Rishon Rishon.

UPDATE: I just realized that Solomon of Solomonia is from Boston, a landsman in only a slightly wider sense of the word.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 06:55 PM  Permalink | Comments (5)
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January 03, 2005

Surfing the Tsunami

I think I was avoiding news of the Tsunami. The way I avoid reading about terrorist attacks. I've read enough of them. How many variations of tragedy to I need to read? It's all the same, only the details change. The dead, the maimed. The ones that almost died by a stroke of bad luck that turn good - or the opposite. But every once in a while I stumble over a story by accident, and then, of course, I am engulfed in the magnitude of it.

Back in September, I met Lisa of On The Face. So when I read this post about her friends in Sri Lanka, I felt as if they were mine too. They were surfing when when the Tsunami hit! It's all described in this harrowing comment thread. Before, during, and after. It leaves me speechless. Excerpt:

Basically we rode out the first huge wave on our boards and stayed above the water/wave while everyone else was being swept away and everything was being destroyed. Then the water pulled back out of the bay we were in and we barely managed to avoid being swept out to sea with the current. We landed on the beach after the first surge, but couldn't go ashore because another wave was coming, our surf instructor told us that it was a matter of life and death that we stay away from the shore so we started heading back towards the water before it surged back in. We really didn't know what to do. Unfortunately we had to cross some flood waters as they ran back from the inland to the sea - it was filled with mud, sand and debris. We were still attached to our surf boards and I was swept under the mud by my board in the middle of the river. I have to say that I did almost drown - I had the thought in my head that this was such a stupid way to die. Luckily, because I was still attached to my board (even though it had sucked me under in the first place) I was eventually pulled up to the surface with it before I blacked out. I managed to pull my board to me and flopped on top of it until I could breathe again, then started trying to look for Ran. He had jumped in after me and had taken off his surf leash so I was worried that he'd drowned. I couldn't find him, the second big wave came in and I was pushed on to the shore because I was too exhausted to fight the surge. I was able to catch some branches before hitting very much, then got off of my board and starting screaming for help. Some Sinhalese man ran up to me and led me to a 3-storey building where there were about 20 people on the roof. The waves came in and out for almost 2 hours and every time there were people being caught in it - I can't really describe the sounds and what it was like. I couldn't find Ran - though I thought I saw him about 1 km out in the bay being swept by the current out to sea. Then I couldn't see him (or what I thought was him) anymore. No one could really help me - the other people I was with were gone and all the boats had either been smashed on the shore or pulled out to sea. After some time the surf instructor (Yannick) came up the road during one of the times the water surged out of the bay and he was thrilled to see that I was alive. I was pretty hysterical by that time though and was trying to get back to the beach to find Ran. Yannick went out on his surf board to look for Ran three times - one time bringing in a body that all these Sinhalese assholes were telling me was my lost husband. I spent at least 2 hours pacing the shore with the water coming in and out destroying things every time, looking for Ran or his surf board (but I knew if I just saw his surf board that would mean that he wasn't attached to it so he would be dead) - I think I know a little bit about what hell must be like. I kept feeling that I was waiting so long and that I couldn't wait any longer, but then I thought if he was dead I would be waiting forever. I have never been so afraid or for so long in my life. Finally Yannick and this other woman we were surfing with pulled me away from the spot I'd last seen Ran and tried to get me up the road toward higher ground - and after about 5 min. we spotted Ran walking down the road towards us. It was probably one of those really cheesy Hallmark moments where a couple runs crying towards each other. I have never been so happy to see anyone before - I really did think he had died.


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Jewish / Israeli Blog Awards

Israelly Cool is hosting the 2004 Jewish / Israeli Blog Awards:

Nominations are being accepted in the following categories:
Best Overall Blog
Best New Blog 2004
Best Group Blog
Best Humor Blog
Best Designed Blog
Best "Life in Israel" Blog
Best Israel Advocacy Blog
Best Politics, Current Affairs, and Academia Blog
Best Personal Blog
Best Jewish Religion Blog
Best Jewish Culture Blog
Best Post by a Jewish Blogger
Best "Series" by a Jewish Blogger

Feel free to nominate Rishon Rishon for any suitable category. Remember, it's just a nomination, you don't have to vote for me! (Do I have to remind you that this is a new blog? It's my only chance in this particular category...)

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January 02, 2005

The economic program is working

Here's a good economic review of the past year. Exerpt:

Netanyahu's fundamental assumption is that Israel can achieve 4-5% growth by carrying out several measures:

  • Cutting public spending and taxes, in order to free up resources for the business sector and boost growth, by increased entrepreneurship and incentives to work.
  • Increasing the proportion of the population in the labor force, in order to accelerate growth, by expelling illegal foreign workers.
  • Slashing welfare allocations to groups that could join the labor force.
  • Gradually implementing the Wisconsin plan, adapted for Israel.

Market liberalization and rapid privatization will boost growth, as has happened in other countries. Countries undergoing liberalization can boost GDP by 1-1.5% a year.

I only hope it will continue:

The new government, especially its Mapai members, must recognize that Netanyahu's policy has achieved most of its goals, and should be pursued, with adjustments to meet national needs in 2005 and 2006.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:25 PM  Permalink | Comments (0)
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Stamp Tax to be abolished by 2008

Raised in Boston, USA, I think I learned about the American Revolution every year of elementary school, and one more year in High School. Featured prominently among its instigators was the hated Stamp Tax:

Also established was the Stamp Act, the first direct levy on the Colonies and passed to generate funds for the British. Newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets, broadsides, legal documents, dice, and playing cards were taxed by this act. Stamps, issued by the British, were attached to the taxed items to indicate that the tax had been paid. 

How surprised I was, on coming to Israel, to find the infamous Stamp Tax alive and well in another corner of the former British Empire: The Jewish State. Thankfully, Binyamin Netanyahu is getting around to repealing it, only 243 years late:

The Knesset Finance Committee today approved a gradual abolition of stamp taxes by 2008. The committee fully approved the Ministry of Finance’s proposal to eliminate stamp taxes in stages in 2005-2008.

In the initial stage, which will begin this Sunday, the tax will be abolished for mortgage and other loan agreements, residential leases, and other documents directly linked to these agreements (e.g. guarantees and liens).

Taxes on these documents will be the first to be eliminated, because they usually place a tax burden on the average citizen. Canceling this tax will cost NIS 300 million in the coming year.

That is, NIS 300 million saved by the citizens.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:08 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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Optimism about the Future

There are quite a few recurring themes within Jewish thought and ritual. Since this is a time of thinking about the future for much of the world, I thought it might be appropriate to mention one of them. It goes something like this: The Jews are a weak and despised people. Our lives are exceedingly precarious. Everyone wants to either kill us or convert us. Life is full of pain and suffering. Yet, we are optimistic.

I'm optimistic about the coming year.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 09:20 PM  Permalink | Comments (3)
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