What does it mean?

March 31, 2005

Maryland schools ban peanut butter and orange juice

"We wouldn't want them to be sharing peanut butter with other kids who might have a hypersensitivity," said Donna Heller, health services manager for Howard County schools. "Even with orange juice, we require a note from the parents."

Montgomery County schools treat orange juice as an over-the-counter medicine. A student must bring in a doctor's note to drink it, and only older students are allowed to carry it with them at school.

"If you had a very young kid, and they put it in their eyes, it could hurt them," said Judith Covich, Montgomery's director of health and student services.

Okay, I doctored the quote a little. Here's the original (via Best of the Web):

"We wouldn't want them to be sharing them with other kids who might have a hypersensitivity," said Donna Heller, health services manager for Howard County schools. "Even with hand and body lotions, we require a note from the parents."

Montgomery County schools treat sunscreen as an over-the-counter medicine. A student must bring in a doctor's note to apply it, and only older students are allowed to carry it with them at school.

"If you had a very young kid, and they put it in their eyes, it could hurt them," said Judith Covich, Montgomery's director of health and student services.

In response:

A bill pending in the Maryland legislature, however, would require school health officers to make sure students are allowed to wear sunscreen when they go outdoors on sunny days, a right that is not universally recognized in schools, according to cancer prevention advocates.

The problem, [State Congresswoman] Healey said, is that not all schools and school systems have properly trained health officers, and whatever the system rules, individual schools often vary in their approach to medicine and skin products.

"Their focus and their background and all their training is in pedagogy," Healey said. "They don't have an expertise in health care."

The problem is is not: "They don't have an expertise in health care" (of course, everyone with the proper training and expertise would naturally agree with me), the problem is that the authorities feel free to impose by state law or bureaucratic fiat whatever they think is best. The only reason that they can get away with it is that they compel you to send your children to the school of their choice. If the choice were placed in the hands of the consumers (or, in this case their guardians), schools which had silly rules wouldn't attract students. (Every private school that I know of has lots of rules that lots of people think are silly. Funny how they still attract students, maybe some people think they're not so silly after all...) Let the people professionals decide!

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Trackback from Kesher Talk, They tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat hamentaschen:
Meryl Yourish:Purim is the holiday where the Jews kicked the crap out of the Persians. And that was using only swords. A lesson for Iran to think about today.The story. And more on Purim and its customs here....

Belated blogroll update

Another belated blogroll update. Lots of great new blog links. Check them out!


2 Blowhards
Cousin Lucy's Spoon
Fire Ant Gazette

Observant Astronomer
Oleh Girl
Pillage Idiot
Power and Control
Seraphic Secret
The Glittering Eye
Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:12 AM  Permalink | Comments (7)
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March 30, 2005

Google Site Search

I changed my site search (on the left) from MT to Google. Check it out, it's pretty cool. I think it works much better now. The only disadvantage, I imagine, is that since Google crawls my site only about once a day, it might not get the last post or two. But usually you're looking right at those, so I don't think that'll be a problem. If you want to know how to get a Google search for your own site, go here (it's free).

UPDATE: Google has a blog!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 10:38 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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March 27, 2005

A forgotten right of individuals

Individualism: it is often heralded, by both friends and foes, as the essential American value, its contribution to the world, and the bedrock of US freedom, justice, and liberty. To which is contrasted collectivism: to America's friends, the evil excuse for tyranny, to its foes, a kinder, gentler way.

But this is a false dichotomy, one which never occurred to the founders of the United States, nor the writers of its Constitution. To them, the enemy was aristocracy, and man's desire to rule over his fellow. And an essential freedom was the freedom to associate in a collective. Indeed, one of the themes of early American settlement, continuing for several hundred years - long past its declaration of independence, was the desire of groups of people to break away from the old order, and to establish a more perfect society along new lines of governance, ideology, or belief.

It is a shame that this wellspring of ferment and diversity has dried up, squeezed between big government and the individual. It needn't be that way. True, the wide open, under-populated spaces have disappeared, so that it is no longer possible for a group to physically break away, and the complexity of our economy has made it impractical, even if it were possible. Nevertheless, it is possible to do much. But it would mean that the government would have to give up some of its monopoly rights.

Defense, trade, welfare, unemployment: I see no practical way to decentralize these things. But none of these are central to the collective. The binding forces of the collective: education, ideology, art, are well suited to decentralization. Amritas often talks about the Akaka bill: "The purpose is to protect over 160 race-based programs under court challenge because of a Supreme Court decision." I certainly disagree with granting one group of people special rights. On the other hand, I deeply sympathize with the desire of native Hawaiians to preserve their culture, and I think it's a crime for the government to impose its values on their children through the imposition of a $10,000-per-child fine (private school tuition) for non-compliance. Why not grant cultural rights to all Americans? Why not give all Americans the right to educate their children according to their heritage, values, and ideology? Why not give all Americans the right to support their cultural institutions, their arts and universities, as they see fit? Hawaiians aren't the only people who want to preserve their culture. Everybody has a culture!

It is our right, as individuals, to associate in collectives.

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Hebrew Revival

Amritas has a couple of posts up where he talks about language revival. The bottom line: "language revival is indeed possible, but only if a complex set of factors are in place". Here are the reasons Amritas gives for the success of Hebrew's revival:

For one thing, Hebrew had no Goliath-class competitor in Palestine at the time. Even pre-Holocaust Yiddish was not to Hebrew what English is to Cherokee, Irish, etc. today.

Second, Hebrew had functional value: it united (and still unites) Jews with different native languages. But Cherokee, Irish, etc. already have English as a common language. It enables them not only to communicate within their nations and with each other, but with many people around the world.

Third, Hebrew had religious value. I presume that Cherokee have lost or are losing their native religion - whereas the Irish could still remain Catholic in English without a word of Gaeilge.

I recommend Benjamin Harshav's Language in Time of Revolution (sic; via Joel at Far Outliers), a study of the Hebrew revival. It deflates various myths about the revival. Hype was around back then too.

I have talked a little about the issue before:

We often hear about the miracle of rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language. It was miraculous, but in a slightly different way than is usually thought. The story goes that Eliezer Ben Yehuda “almost single-handedly” created Modern Hebrew from a dead language. Without diminishing the greatness of Ben Yehuda, this is simply not true. He was the leader of a movement which included a lot of people, but more important: Hebrew was never dead. Hebrew was the literary and intellectual language of the Jewish people throughout its history. Though it was nobody’s first language from about 500 to 1882 CE, when Benzion, Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s first son, was born, an enormous number of poems were written in it as well as works of prose, intellectual and rabbinical literature, even science. In this way it resembles many of the world’s languages: Latin in Medieval times, Sanskrit throughout most of its history, and Modern Standard Arabic. The birth of European national languages in the 18th century as literary languages led, eventually, to the demise of Latin. If it were not for the birth of Israel, the same movement would have led to the demise of Hebrew too. Today, few Jews outside of Israel know Hebrew. The miracle of Modern Hebrew is that it was created by the last generation that could have done it. One more generation and it would have been too late.

But even though I can list (some) reasons for its success, I really don't understand it. I still find it next to miraculous - in keeping with the the recent theme of Purim. (I haven't read the book that Amritas recommends, but I did spend some time previewing the book at the Amazon site looking for the reasons for Modern Hebrew's success - without any luck. I'd really like to know about the myths the book deflates. As far as I know, I don't believe any myths...) It is likely that graduates of Jewish day schools in the US approximate the language proficiency of Jews in Ben Yehuda's generation. In my experience this description from Amritas's post could apply to them:

What I have heard from one immersion teacher (anecdotal, I know) is that kids in her immersion classes even after several years still made elementary grammatical mistakes in their second language. I found that absolutely shocking. Perhaps those children in that specific program were fluent in the sense that they had perfect understanding of the target language and could generate comprehensible (but still ungrammatical) utterances with ease. That is admittedly far more than most North American foreign language students can do, so it is no mean feat, but many will erroneously assume that those students' 'fluency' entails 'balanced bilingualism' (equal proficiency in all aspects of both languages). It does not:

... [S]econd language skills of immersion students differ in noticeable ways from that of native speakers. For instance, immersion students appear to perform at comparable levels in tests of second language reading and listening comprehension, but they do not perform as well as native speakers in tests of production skills. Further, second language learners’ grammar in the target language tends to be less complex and less redundant than that of native speakers. It is also influenced by the grammar of their first language. Finally, their second language usage is decidedly less idiomatic than that of native speakers.

Again, that is still superior to most North American language learners.

In other words, they have achieved what I might call second-language fluency: they can express themselves fluently in the sense that they can communicate what they want, and understand what they hear, but they still make the kinds of mistakes that are typical of second-language speakers. (I think anyone who knows a second-language speaker of any language will know what I'm talking about.)  I can attest that even after years of speaking Hebrew, I can still make "elementary grammatical mistakes", especially when I'm tired or distracted, that a native speaker would never make. It's an odd thing, because I also have an instinct for what "sounds right" that I can rely on, it just doesn't seem to work 100% of the time, at least not as fast as I need it to. It's hard to learn a second language!

But Israelis today speak without the kind of grammatical mistakes that second-language speakers make. They get gender right, they correctly form irregular plurals, their speech is fully redundant (i.e. agreement of gender and number of nouns, verbs, and adjectives). How did this happen, when I assume that almost none of the founding generation were able to do it with fluency? True, Modern Hebrew is simplified in some ways: phonologically, and in a few points of grammar (most notably, possessive pronoun suffixes are far less frequently used than they once were - but they have by no means disappeared).

Most Israelis my age are second or third generation Hebrew speakers. I don't know if it is possible any more to answer all the questions - but I'd like to know more!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 08:15 PM  Permalink | Comments (13)
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Trackback from Gene Expression, The Rebirth of Hebrew:
I have at times been critical of the usual story of the rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken language (last time here). Usually they focus on the fact that the ancient Hebrew language lacked vocabulary for many aspects of...

March 24, 2005


Tonight is Purim (פורים), the rowdiest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day we celebrate the rescue of the Jews of Persia from mass murder, as chronicled in the Book of Esther. The book is quite short, and corresponds closely to the modern four-point storytelling formula (starting with an introduction, introducing the problem one-quarter of the way through, a turn-around half way through, and the climax three-quarters of the way through), which makes for easy reading. The plot is full of twists and turns, but I will summarize it here in a few words:

Ahashverosh is the bumbling king of the Persian empire, ruling over 127 states from India to Ethiopia. He doesn't pay much attention to ruling his empire, but he sure loves to party! One day, after partying for seven days straight, he sends for his wife Vashti "in her crown" (Talmudic authorities interpret this as "nothing but her crown") - and she refuses to come. So Ahashverosh decides to divorce Vashti and look for a new wife. He looks far and wide and eventually decides to marry Esther, who is Jewish (but he doesn't know that). Meanwhile, Ahashverosh elevates Haman to the position of Prime Minister. Haman wants the people to, literally, worship him, but the Jews refused. (This kind of state cult in which the leaders were literally worshiped was quite common in the ancient world, including the Roman Empire. Before the rise of Christianity, the Roman Empire wisely exempted Jews from the state cult.) Haman is infuriated by the refusal of the Jews to worship him, and decides to kill them all, "from young to old, babies and women" (Esther 3:13). He casts lots to figure out the most auspicious day in which to do the deed, and comes up with the 13th of Adar. (Purim means 'lots', singular: pur - פור.) Esther, now queen, finds out about the plan and, with great trepidation, and intricate planning, tells the King. Ahashverosh is enraged, and hangs Haman on the gallows which he built for the Jews. But he cannot rescind the order to kill the Jews, so instead permits them defend themselves, and kill those who would kill them. The Jews are victorious over their assailants, and the next day, the 14th of Adar, celebrate their victory. It is that victory which we celebrate to this day.

I have left out quite a few interesting details, so I encourage you to read the whole thing! The end of the Book of Esther describes how to celebrate Purim:

 כַּיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר נָחוּ בָהֶם הַיְּהוּדִים מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם
וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב
לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה
וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ
וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיֹנִים

Kayamim asher nahu bahem hay'hudim me'oyveyhem
V'hahodesh asher nehpakh lahem miyagon l'simha ume'evel l'yom tov
L`asot otam y'mey mishte v'simha
Umishloah manot ish l're`ehu
Umatanot la'evyonim

As the days in which the Jews rested from their enemies
And the month which was turned around for them from sadness to happiness and mourning to holiday
To make them days of feasting and celebration
And the sending of portions [of food] each man to his friends
And gifts to the poor

Esther 9:22

So those are the three misvot which must be done on Purim: feasting, sending gifts of food, and gifts to the poor. As you might imagine, other, non-required, traditions have grown up around the day, the most prominent of which is dressing up in costumes. Put these traditions together and you get a kind of mirror-image of Halloween. Instead of dressing up as evil spirits, going door-to-door demanding treats and threatening tricks, the children dress up as kings, queens and heroes and go door-to-door giving out gifts of food.

It is a fun time to be in Israel. Go out into the streets of any city and you will see children (and often adults) everywhere in costume. In fact, I already saw a preview yesterday - the last day of school before the holiday, when children go to school in costume. Probably the most unexpected tradition on Purim is to drink during the feast:

עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

`ad d'lo' yada` beyn arur haman l'varukh mord'khay

Until one doesn't know the difference between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordecai"

Talmud Bavli M'gila 7B

Purim is the only day of the year in which it is considered meritorious to get drunk.

Purim starts tonight with a public reading of the Book of Esther. It is a festive reading. People get dressed up. It is a requirement to hear every word, but people bring noisemakers with them to the synagogue. Whenever the name of Haman is mentioned (and it's not mentioned for the first quarter of the reading, during which anticipation is building) people boo, stamp their feet, and make noise with their noisemakers. Some of you may have heard the expression "the whole megilla" to describe a long, intricate, story or explanation - it refers to this reading, as the Book of Ester is called, in Hebrew, M'gilat Ester (מגילת אסתר).

M'gila means scroll, related to the words galil (גליל) - cylinder, gal (גל) - wave, galgal (גלגל) - wheel, and probably gila (גילה) - reveal, uncover, discover (< unscroll?). Ester, the name of the book's heroine, as well as Mord'khay (מרדכי) - Mordecai, the book's hero seem to come from the names of the pagan gods Astarte and Marduk. However, Ester can also be derived from the Hebrew root: s-t-r meaning hidden. The Book of Ester is the only book of the Bible in which God is not explicitly mentioned - it is the beginning of hester panim (הסתר פנים) - the time when God "hides his face" - when God's presence is no longer obvious. Indeed, v'nahafokh hu (וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא) - "and we will turn it around" (Esther 9:1) - is one of the themes of the day. What was once obvious as working of God is now perceived to be luck, as attested by the name of the day: Purim.

UPDATE: More about Purim here.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:34 PM  Permalink | Comments (5)
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Trackback from Winds of Change.NET, Podhoretz: Israel's Debates & Dilemmas:
They live with the knowledge that their choices may betray them to those who have never stopped desiring their deaths, and yet there is hope. Today is good Friday, yes - but it is Purim as well.

Trackback from Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim #15 - The Purim Carnival!:
Mirty Gets Married provides us with, among other things, the Unitarian view of Purim as well as her own take on the holiday. Purim easy? Try making 30 sets of Shalach Manos for your children's teachers and friends! And delivering...

March 23, 2005


I discover a lot of great blogs when they link to me. The Observant Astronomer is one such blog. Its author is, evidently, described by the blog's name. In this post he takes on the notion that, according to the Bible, the Sun revolves around the Earth:

We see the Sun rise and set, and so conclude that it is the Sun that is moving. But, is it reasonable to expect the Torah to say that "the Earth rotated eastward until the Sun was hidden by the body of the Earth" every time it wanted to refer to "sunset"? No one speaks in such a way, not even the modern, educated person, who knows that the Earth rotates daily on its axis. Indeed, chazal [hakhamim zikhram livrakha (חכמים זכרם לברכה) - wise men may their memory be blessed, i.e. the authors of the rabbinic tradition - DB] clearly state that the Torah speaks in the language of man. So why is it seen to be a contradiction that modern science says that it is the Earth that is rotating once daily, and not the heavens?

Whatever the centrism, the concept is that the object in the center is fixed, and the other object moves around it. If both are moving, then neither can be considered fixed. In any case, we must ask, "Fixed with respect to what?" Newtonian dynamics permitted the concept of absolute space and time, so that at least in theory there was a reference with which to fix things, even if the Sun wasn't nailed down to it. Under Einsteinian relativity, there is no absolute reference frame. All motion is relative, and the choice of reference frames, a convention. A reference frame that makes the required equations particularly simple, or their solution straight forward, may be preferred on those grounds, but such a reference frame is not otherwise more or less "correct" than any other. For solar system problems, the center of mass of the whole system is one such frame, but that makes the Earth's motion barycentric rather than heliocentric. All that is left is a dispute about an otherwise arbitrary choice of coordinate system.

The notion that the Tora speaks in "the language of Man" is central to understanding how it is interpreted according to the Jewish tradition. Another example of this principle at work is in describing the attributes of God, e.g. just, merciful, etc. Since God is unknowable, these words are only approximately descriptive - they are metaphors, no less than the obvious ones such as "the hand of God". It also explains why God seems to have emotions: jealousy, anger - clearly inapplicable, but we liken God to Man because Man, at least, we can attempt to know.

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March 17, 2005

Mind the subtext

David Warren:

I don't think any of these demonstrations would have happened without the extensive television coverage now spreading through the Arab and Islamic world of Lebanon and Iraq. Several of my correspondents in the region have pointed out, that Al Jazeera's "pro-terrorist" coverage in Iraq has backfired, because Arabs watching the footage of anti-government demonstrations take away a powerful impression that such demonstrations should be possible.

The subtext is more eloquent than the text in these cases. For, yes, Al Jazeera often only covers people marching against America and her allies. But also, yes, the Americans and their "running dogs" also permit such protests. Viewers know their own dictators permit no such thing. Or rather, have only started allowing that sort of thing as a way to release pressures that their police forces tell them are building, quickly, everywhere.

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March 16, 2005

Ideology, Democracy, University

Ever since I wrote my post on halakha and hashqafa I've been thinking about meta-ideology, and specifically the meta-ideology necessary to maintain ideological diversity. (What I mean by meta-ideology: ideology about ideology.) Actually, I've been thinking about this issue for a long time, but now I've hit on a new, and I think productive, way of thinking about it.

Judaism's emphasis on halakha (rules) results directly in freedom of hashqafa (ideology). That is, the fact that everybody agrees on the rules, and the fact that they are not derived from ideology means that no new ideology can challenge the stability of the system. Halakha (the way) specifies the rules of the road: drive on the right, stop on red, etc., and the fact that everybody follows them means that everybody is able drive to where they want to go. Imagine what would happen if traffic rules were derived from ideology, if people argued about whether you should drive on the left or right? Stop on red or green? Imagine if every town were free to set its traffic rules according to majority opinion, if traffic rules were a hotly debated issue, if the country were on the brink of civil war because of these differences of opinion?

It has occurred to me that for a democracy to survive while permitting ideological diversity, the vast majority of the population must be committed to a meta-ideology which permits ideological diversity. The United States Constitution serves exactly that purpose. It is a religious document, in the sense that its validity is not debatable. It is the basis of the American religion. (A good way to become a political pariah in the US is to reject the US constitution.) Its beauty is that, like halakha, it is a procedural document. It doesn't tell you what to think, it tells you what to do. Moreover, it demands that no laws can tell you want to think or say: laws can only tell you what is permitted or forbidden to do. (As an aside, this contrasts dramatically with the proposed European Constitution, which concerns itself mainly with ideology.)

In other words, the democratic religion (I cannot prove that democracy is good, except in terms of values which I also cannot prove, therefore it is a religion) requires something equivalent to "God wants the Jews to live according to halakha" (from the post below), something like: "It is required to live according to the constitution". (I can't think of better rhetoric that doesn't mention God.) But to promote diversity, the constitution must be such that advocates of any ideology (or at least a very wide range of ideologies) can point to it and say, "I'm okay because I support the constitution" - and that's exactly what the US Constitution provides.

With the possibility of ending this post on an anticlimax, I want to try to apply these ideas to academia. Academic freedom is supposedly a big deal, but universities, at this point in time, have exactly the wrong kind of freedom: There are no clear rules, instead there is a clear ideology to which you must conform. So let's try to turn the situation around: What sort of rules should there be? What should the academic meta-ideology be? Well, I know where to start: The scientific method. Unfortunately, the scientific method is not easily applicable to all fields of study, and it is true that in those areas where it is clearly applicable (physics, for instance) ideology is much less important. But, in fact, the scientific method (plus some statistics to make up for the difficulty of doing experiments) can be applied much more widely than it is. Fashionable fields like Woman's Studies or Black Studies are actually very amenable to the scientific method, if you are honest. And it's beyond me why Linguistics isn't a "true science" - you can really do experiments in many branches of Linguistics almost like you can in Physics. So the first rule of academia should be: I can say anything I want as long as I can back it up with the scientific method. I think that will get us far, but what about areas like Political Science, Literature and History? I don't know, but I'm open to suggestions!

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The Other Palestine

It is not often remembered that before 1948 the term 'Palestinian' referred exclusively to Jews. Arabs rejected the term, they weren't Palestinians, they were part of the Arab nation.

I just watched this interesting film about Tel Aviv, Palestine, from 1947 (via Not a Fish). It was very interesting to see what had changed, and what hadn't. I recognized most of the sites in Tel Aviv, the brand names, etc.

It was also interesting to see some important themes that we seem to have forgotten, for example the theme of freedom. The narrator makes a point that most people in Tel Aviv are engaged in peaceful industries, "I haven't heard an explosion since I got here," he says at one point.

One of the last lines of the film:

When he is asked, "Who are you, and where are you from?" he will say, "I am a Jew, and I am from Tel Aviv, Palestine."

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:14 AM  Permalink | Comments (4)
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Trackback from Willow Tree, So While I'm Blabbing about Juries:
Rishon Rishon is reminding us in who the original Palestinians were....

March 14, 2005

Halakha and Hashqafa

Two posts down, there is an argument in the comments about whether Judaism is complex. I think this is a problem of terminology (like many arguments, which is why I repeat: The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms) the question being: simple in what way? Judaism is complex in some ways, but has a very simple theology. In fact, I think that only two beliefs are required:

1. There is one God

2. God wants the Jews to live according to halakha

That is not to say that there aren't other Jewish beliefs, in fact there are a lot of them. There are also Jewish ideas, Jewish attitudes, etc. However, they aren't required. The binding force among Jews is not a set of theological ideas, but a commitment to a way of life: halakha (the way).

In contrast to halakha (הלכה) is hashqafa (השקפה) - ideology, viewpoint. There are many, many Jewish hashqafot (השקפות , plural of hashqafa). Some are hostile to each other, but by and large observant Jews are tolerant, and even revel, in their variety. However, even when hostile, you will not hear, "they aren't Jewish" - the worst you will hear is, "they are wrong about an essential thing" - hem to`im b`iqar (הם טועים בעיקר).

UPDATE: Okay, I should have known it was coming. A reader asks, "Can a Jew believe in Jesus?" The answer is no, at least in the way a Christian intends that question. A Jew can believe that Jesus was a man, even a wise man, but he can't believe that Jesus was the son of God, or a part of God, or an embodiment of God: that would be a violation of requirement #1. You could believe that Jesus was a prophet, but then he would be a false prophet: "If there arise in the midst of thee a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams -and he give thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke unto thee - saying: 'Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them' thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God putteth you to proof, to know whether ye do love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. After the Lord your God shall ye walk, and Him shall ye fear, and His commandments shall ye keep, and unto His voice shall ye hearken, and Him shall ye serve, and unto Him shall ye cleave." (Deuteronomy 13:2-5) Jesus would be a false prophet because he advocated abandoning halakha - requirement #2. In contrast, I think, a Jew could believe in the entire Greek pantheon and still be Jewish, as long as he didn't call the Greek gods God, or worship them. The Greek gods are nothing like God, they are just powerful beings. We know that in the past many Jews believed in ghosts - ruhot (רוחות), spirits - shedim (שדים), etc. without it being a theological problem.

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No sole soul

John Ray writes:

From what David Boxenhorn says, modern-day Jews cheerfully accept several quite different accounts of the afterlife all at once! I must confess, however, that I don't at all understand how serious Jewish students of scripture can accept belief in an immortal soul in view of the number of times that those same scriptures describe the "nephesh" as mortal. I guess they must place a lot of emphasis on uses of the word "ruach" but Ecclesiastes 3:19 must give them a few difficulties there. That scripure says that animals and people have the same "ruach" ("spirit" or "breath") so Heaven must be overrun with billions of rats, cats and dogs (just for starters). Good if you want to have a chat with a dinosaur or a pterodactyl, I guess. Very confusing!

Well, there's a very simple answer to this: Hebrew has three different words for soul, and they are not synonyms. The words are: nefesh (נפש), ruah (רוח), and n'shama (נשמה), in that order. The nefesh is the soul that all living creatures share, it is the feature which distinguishes life from not-life. Perhaps a better word for it would be: life-force. This word can also be used to mean 'beings' or 'human beings' as in the phrase, "there are 10,000 souls in the city". The word for 'mentally ill' in Hebrew is: hole nefesh - 'soul-sick' or 'life-force-sick'. In Hebrew, mental illness is a disease of the soul, not the intellect. N'shama (its root: n-sh-m is also used in nasham - to breathe) is the kind of soul that only people have. When we speak of the immortal soul we use this word. It is also used to describe a person's spiritual presence, e.g. n'shama tova - a good soul. Ruah, often translated as 'spirit', is the link between the nefesh and the n'shama. It is associated with emotions. The word can also mean spirit in the sense of disembodied spirit, e.g. ruah ra` - an evil spirit. It can also mean simply: wind. The Hebrew word for spiritual is derived from this word: ruhani (its opposite is gashmi: material).

But there is also a not-so-simple answer to this question: Judaism doesn't concern itself with these kinds of issues. It is for this reason that "modern-day Jews cheerfully accept several quite different accounts of the afterlife all at once". I hope to speak more about it in my next post.

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March 13, 2005

Holy Hubris - `Azut D'q'dusha

They say a picture's worth a thousand words, and if anything, it is a vast understatement. Only the simplest picture can be conveyed, with even rough accuracy, in a thousand words. (I commented on one here. In this case they set to convey a message merely by dressing their model, and they succeeded with resounding success. The message was conveyed clearly and unambiguously to a wide audience, even when contradicted by the accompanying written message.)

If so for a picture, how much more so for a life? Many things can be learned only by living. Since he linked to my previous post, I took a tour of Wes Meltzer's blog: The Idea Salon. It is an interesting blog, and Wes is clearly a very bright guy. It is also filled with youthful hubris: of leaping into the fray not fully prepared. Not a bad thing, in my opinion. (He reminds me a little of myself at that age.) Hopefully, with time, it will mellow into mature wisdom. But for now, it speaks of initiative, of a chomping at the bit of life. There is an expression for it in Hebrew: `azut d'q'dusha (עזות דקדושא) - holy hubris. (Actually, it is an Aramaic phrase borrowed into Hebrew - literally: "hubris of holiness".) `Azut, perhaps even more than its English translation, has negative connotations: but this oxymoron refers to the necessity of action, of not being too humble to take the initiative, and do the right thing. No one is omniscient, there is always the possibility that our good intentions are all wrong. Nevertheless, we must boldly do what is right, as we understand it. As it is said:

בִּמְקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ

Bimqom she'eyn anashim hishtadel lihyot ish

In a place where there are no men strive to be a man

Pirqey Avot 2:5

There are many, many, often conflicting, explanations as to why God chose to give the Tora to the Jews (not all of them reflecting favorably on the Jewish people) but here is one that is not well known:

 מפני מה נתנה תורה לישראל מפני שהן עזין

Mipney ma nitna tora l'yisra'el mipney shehen `azin

Because of what was the Tora given to Israel? Because they have hubris.

Talmud Bavli, Beysa 25B

I too consider myself youthful, though I am quite a bit older than Wes. I can only hope that my hubris is appropriate for my age.

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March 10, 2005

Jewish Demographics

Kantor alerted me to this article by Spengler. It's definitely worth a read. Excerpt:

Animals breed by instinct, but faith in the future is a precondition for the reproduction of human society. Wounded animals crawl into a hole and die; humiliated cultures turn sterile and pass out of memory. Germany eschewed democracy for a reason, believing that its hope for survival lay in collective identity. In light of the facts, one might say that this belief was not incorrect, but merely evil and tragic. I do not believe that the Islamic world, either, will succumb to democratization along American lines without an upheaval on the scale of World War II.

I intend no criticism of Allied war methods. On the contrary: even the Jewish diarist Viktor Klemperer, with little access to information, knew that military logic made Dresden an inevitable target as German troops withdrew to Saxony from the east. Nuclear bombardment of Japan may have been a more humane alternative than a conventional invasion. The consequences of these actions were tragic in the true sense of the term, namely that they could not be avoided.

In any case, the former Axis powers and the former Soviet Union and its satellites occupy every one of the top positions on the death row of demographics. I refer to the United Nations' report "World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision".

At the top of the death list is Ukraine, whose population the UN projects to fall from 46 million to 26 million between 2005 and 2050. Democracy may have triumphed in Victor Yushchenko's Orange Revolution, but a generation from now only half as many Ukrainians will be around to talk about it.

Given the rate at which Ukraine exports women of childbearing age, that may be a special case, but by 2050 Bulgaria will lose more than a third, and Russia itself more than a fifth of its population. Japan (-12%) and Germany (-5%) do not look quite as far along the road to extinction, but the following half-century will do for them. By 2100, Deutsche Bank projects, only 25 million Germans will remain of the 82 million alive today.

None of this would have surprised the Nazis, who believed with paranoid fervor that Germany's national existence was in danger. One can hear the shade of Adolf Hitler saying, "You see, that is just what I anticipated and wanted to avoid! I warned the Germans that their national existence was in danger, and now you see that decadent democracy has finished us off."

What the "decadent democracies" of the United States and England finished off was the delusion of German racial superiority and chosenness as a master race. Hitler wanted Germany to be a new Eternal People, as I have written elsewhere (What the Jews won't tell you, November 4, 2003), and for that reason became obsessed with eliminating the Chosen People of Christian scripture, namely the Jews. The trouble is that Germany's desire to reproduce died with its delusions.

While I think that Spengler is right, as far as he goes, I would say there is more to this story. I don't think it will end the way he implies. For example, what's written above could also be said about Jewish demographics in the US. Currently, Jewish fertility is way below replacement rate, and taking into account intermarriage (which is around 50%) you get a fertility of about 1. By this prediction, Jewish births in the US will fall by 50% every generation. There are about 5 million Jews in the US today, so by this logic, in three generations, the population will fall below a million.

A scary thing to anyone who cares about a Jewish future. Fortunately, it won't happen. The mistake in the story above is to assume that the Jewish population is homogeneous. Specifically, what it ignores is the fact that about 10% of American Jews are observant, and their fertility rate is about 4.5, with essentially zero intermarriage, though a small number cease to be observant. Assume that 10% become non-observant (I think this is a vast overestimation - the real number is probably around 5% - and this ignores the number who become observant, which probably balances them out), and that they all intermarry (obviously absurd), which still leaves us with an effective fertility of 4. Meaning that the observant population doubles every generation.

Let's see how all this plays out:

Generation Non-observant Observant Observant % Total
1 4,500,000 500,000 10.00 5,000,000
2 2,250,000 1,000,000 30.77 3,250,000
3 1,125,000 2,000,000 64.00 3,125,000
4 562,500 4,000,000 87.67 4,562,500
5 281,250 8,000,000 96.60 8,281,250

Clearly, these numbers are a simplification. But I think they give a clear idea as to the trends. Assuming a generation to be 25 years, this projects 100 years into the future - a lot can change in 100 years, and will! Also, even keeping current trends steady, there will be more non-observant Jews than this table predicts (remember the simplifications in my assumptions).

In fact, the trend that this table predicts is already clear: I have seen it happen in my own lifetime. When I was growing up in Boston, about a generation ago, there were only two kosher restaurants, and observant Jews were so rare (even in the Jewish neighborhood where I grew up) that they were almost invisible. Now, when I go back to the old neighborhood I see observant Jews everywhere - and new observant neighborhoods have sprouted up elsewhere as well. (The nature of Judaism requires observant Jews to live in well defined neighborhoods, see here.) I stopped keeping track of kosher restaurants, there are so many of them.

While I am familiar with what's going on in the Jewish community, I think that something similar is happening in the US in general, and across the world. I have talked about it before, here.

UPDATE: Wes Meltzer responds. He thinks that observant Jews will become non-observant in the future at the same rate that they have in the past:

I am not going to dispute the fact that the ranks of the Orthodox will grow, as a consequence of their lack of birth control and intermarriage. But I don’t see it taking on the catastrophic numbers that so many commentators see. As the children of the Orthodox become well-paid doctors and lawyers and consultants like their parents want, most of them will feel the same pressure to fit in that my grandparents did, and they, too, will find themselves less observant. And particularly they’ll want to use birth control, so they can spend more per child of their new, high income on fewer children. Which means that not only are they more likely to be less observant, but that they’ll join the trend toward fewer children, too.

Wes has a very interesting blog, but clearly he has little experience with the observant Jewish community. They are already "well-paid doctors and lawyers and consultants" - yet show no signs of assimilation, and if anything their fertility is increasing. Clearly, something has changed, I talk about it here. (I admit, though, that the numbers above probably underestimate the future numbers of the non-observant Jews. Since my intent was to disprove the hypothesis that US Jews will disappear, I purposely underestimated wherever I could, for simplicity.)

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 11:12 AM  Permalink | Comments (24)
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Trackback from The Idea Salon: Weblogue, The demographics of the Jews:
In which Wes expresses his amazement at the notion that non-observant Jews are committing demographic suicide, assuming that the two Jewish groupings are non-fungible, like ethnic groups.

March 04, 2005

Simplistic about Islam

I'd like to thank all of you who keep coming by. I look at my stats and see a long line of zeros, and it makes me sad. (When the page has not been refreshed since the last visit, it sends a short "nothing changed" message instead of the whole page. Your browser then knows to redisplay the page from its cache.) The zeros mean that people keep coming by, but get nothing - kind of like having a visitor at dinnertime and not feeding them.

Amritas quotes David Frum:

We in the Western press often praise “moderate Islam.” But in practice, “moderate Islam” often turns out to be moderate in its actions only. As decent human beings, moderate Muslims will of course refrain from committing acts of oppression, cruelty, and terrorism. But intellectually, moderate Muslims have a difficult time explaining why these acts are “un-Islamic.”

I, too, am skeptical about the presence of a "moderate Islam" in any meaningful way. Yes, moderates exist, but they seem to have no following whatsoever. However, this is very different from saying that a moderate Islam cannot exist:

Socrates once posed a brain-twister to his disciples. “Is a good action good because it is approved by the gods? Or is it approved by the gods because it is good.” In other words – do the categories of right and wrong have an existence apart from divine will?

Islam’s answer to Socrates’ puzzle has been emphatic: An action is good because it is approved by Allah. There is no independent criterion of morality outside of the will of God. And since the Koran is an absolutely literal and accurate account of that will – since indeed in a deep sense the Koran itself actually incarnates that will – there is no independent criterion of morality outside the text of the Koran.

In other words: If the Koran says or teaches something that seems morally offensive, it is morality that is mistaken, not the Koran.

Intellectually, traditional Islam forms a closed system. You can exit the system (although the penalty for exit – apostasy – is death). But so long as you remain within it, the intellectual system forbids its own reform.

I would like to point out a few things. First, I don't believe that Islam takes the Qur'an (Koran) more literally than Jews or Christians take their holy books. After all, there are reams of Islamic discourse trying to figure out what it means. Note the wide differences among Jews and Christians (and between them!) - all of whom believe that they are following God's word. Second, there are already wide-ranging differences among Muslims, note particularly the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, but also wide-ranging differences among Shiites. Finally, I want to take issue with the phrase, "the intellectual system forbids its own reform". The same thing can be said about Catholicism, yet the Protestant reformation did happen.

UPDATE: The title of this post is a play on the Arabic root s-l-m, corresponding to Hebrew sh-l-m.

UPDATE: Thank you all for dropping by! I don't know when I'll be able to post next, but I at least plan on posting for Purim. So stay tuned.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:16 PM  Permalink | Comments (10)
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