What does it mean?

April 29, 2005

Shvi`i Shel Pesah

Tonight is Shvi`i Shel Pesah (שביעי של פסח) - The Seventh of Passover. It is not its own holiday, but the last day day of the seven-day Passover holiday. Nevertheless, unlike hol hamo`ed (חול המועד) - the mundane (as opposed to holy) intermediary days of the holiday, it is a day on which m'akha (מלאכה) - usually translated as 'work', though 'fabrication' would be more precise, is forbidden.

Since this year Shvi`i Shel Pesah falls on Shabat, there is not much left to distinguish it. On thing, however, is its special qidush.

On every Sabbath and holiday we say qidush (קידוש) - sanctification. It is a blessing, and a declaration of the sanctity of the day. Qidush for holidays are similar to each other, the only difference being the name of the holiday, and a short description of it. The qidush for the Sabbath, though, is mostly different. Eyn qidush ela’ bimqom s`uda (אין קידוש אלא במקום סעודה) – there is no qidush except in the place of a festive meal (Talmud Bavli P'sahim 101A), therefore, the blessing for qidush is always accompanied by a blessing for bread or wine. (The first item of a festive meal.) Here is the text of tonight's qidush:

ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם
בורא פרי הגפן

ברוך אתה ה' אלוהינו מלך העולם
אשר בחר בנו מכל עם
ורוממנו מכל לשון
וקידשנו במיצוותיו
ותיתן לנו ה' אלוהינו באהבה
שבתות למוחה ומועדים לשמחה חגים וזמנים לששון
את יום השבת הזה ואת יום חג המצות הזה
זמן חירותנו
 באהבה מקרא קודש
זכר ליציאת מצריים
כי בנו בחרת ואותנו קידשת מכל העמים
ושבת ומועדי קודשך
באהבה וברצון בשמחה ובששון הנחלתנו
ברוך אתה ה' מקדש השבת וישראל והזמנים

Baruch ata a-donay eloheynu melekh ha`olam
Bore' pri hagafen

Baruch ata a-donay eloheynu melekh ha`olam
Asher bahar banu mikol `am
V'rom'manu mikol lashon
V'qidshanu b'misvotav
Vatiten lanu a-donay eloheynu b'ahava
Shabtot limnuha umo`adim l’simha hagim uzmanim l'sason
Et yom hashabat haze v'et yom hag hamsot haze
Zman herutenu
B'ahava miqra' qodesh
Zekher lisi'at misrayim
Ki vanu vaharta v'otanu qidashta mikol ha`amim
V'shabat umo`adey qodsh'kha
B'ahava uvrason b'simha uvsason hinhaltanu
Barukh ata a-donay m'qadesh hashabat v'yisra’el v'hazmanim

Blessed are you O Lord our God king of the universe
Creator of the fruit of the vine

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe
Who has chosen us from among the peoples
And lifted us up from every tongue
And sanctified us with his commandments
And give us, O Lord our God, with love
Sabbaths for rest, special times for happiness, holidays and festivals for joy
This Sabbath day and this holiday of matzas
The time of our freedom
With love, a holy calling
A remembrance of the exodus from Egypt
Because you have chosen us and sanctified us from among the peoples
And the Sabbath and special times of your holiness
With love and desire, with happiness and joy, you have made our inheritance
Blessed are you, O Lord, who sanctifies the Sabbath and Israel and the festivals

As you can see, sanctification (qidush) is a recurring theme in the qidush blessing. The Sabbath is sanctified, the holiday is sanctified, even the Jewish people are sanctified. What does this mean, sanctification? In Judaism, at least, it means: To set aside for a holy purpose.

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April 27, 2005

Kantor's three visions of Israel

This embarrasses me even in Google translation:

The first Israel that I learned to love was the one of the Ă©pico sionismo: military, nationalistic and socialist Israel. The Israel that fought against means and the man. The Israel of the frank blows: of the executions of the members of Black September, of the elimination of I number two of Partido Palestinian Fascista (OLP) in Tunisia. I decide to me that history: I was a boy and she listens to it in the radio: a commando of eight men and two women disembarks a beach, enters the residence of the objective, eliminate to him. Without victimas civil and losses.

Later I heard speak of the feat of Entebbe, of the War of the Six Days, I read Oh, Jerusalem! and I saw Exodus. Also it used to read the Bible.

"All Israelite knows in his heart that our military camps are a sanctuary of God and THEY DO NOT HAVE to be like those of the pagans, whose object is the corruption and the sin, and that they look for to rob and to hurt to the others; on the contrary we fought to lead just to the Humanity towards the knowledge of God and a social order "

Guide for perplex, Moshes Maimonides, century X.

Here this:


Later I discovered my second Israel:

Hedonista, nocturnal and dionisiaco. An Israel of night vision, warm nights of sex and alcohol, stars in the sky and Mediterranean breeze. An Israel of men and women who redeem their mortality to rate rock. An Israel of electronic music and after-hours in the interminable summer of the desert and the sea. An Israel of hard work and physical risk by the day; of worked passion at night.

Here this:


I took much more in discovering the third Israel:

The one of the cabalistic companies of high technology and metaphors. The Israel of linguists and philosophers, of literatos rabbis who twist the Scripture and agnostic philosophers who permute the matter. The esoteric Israel, of that they do not look for supernatural beings, but of that knows that the supernatural thing is the Being. The Israel of the Messianic Era. Topology and monotheism. Exégesis and cryptography:

Here this:


This translation seems remarkably good to me, compared to other Google translations that I've tried. Usually I find them unintelligible, still I wonder how much I'm missing?

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April 26, 2005

Blogs 101 @ BusinessWeek

I forget that most people still don't know what a blog is. It's going to change, fast. BusinessWeek appears to be catching on:

Go ahead and bellyache about blogs. But you cannot afford to close your eyes to them, because they're simply the most explosive outbreak in the information world since the Internet itself. And they're going to shake up just about every business -- including yours. It doesn't matter whether you're shipping paper clips, pork bellies, or videos of Britney in a bikini, blogs are a phenomenon that you cannot ignore, postpone, or delegate. Given the changes barreling down upon us, blogs are not a business elective. They're a prerequisite. (And yes, that goes for us, too.)

There's a little problem, though. Many of you don't visit blogs -- or haven't since blogs became a sensation in last year's Presidential race. According to a Pew Research Center Survey, only 27% of Internet users in America now bother to read them. So we're going to take you into the world of blogs by delivering this story -- call it Blogs 101 for businesses -- in the style of a blog. We're even sprinkling it with links. These are underlined words that, when clicked, carry readers of this story's online version to another Web page. This all may make for a strange experience, but it's the closest we can come to reaching out from the page, grabbing you by the collar, and shaking you into action.

First, a few numbers. There are some 9 million blogs out there, with 40,000 new ones popping up each day. Some discuss poetry, others constitutional law. And, yes, many are plain silly. "Mommy tells me it may rain today. Oh Yucky Dee Doo," reads one April Posting. Let's assume that 99.9% are equally off point. So what? That leaves some 40 new ones every day that could be talking about your business, engaging your employees, or leaking those merger discussions you thought were hush-hush.

It goes on, and it's not bad for the MSM.

UPDATE: Here's BusinessWeek's blog.

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Trackback from Bunker Mulligan, BusinessBlog 101:
David found that Business Week has discovered blogs--and likes them. ...

April 25, 2005

Google Map of Israel - Satellite view

Click here. Try zooming in and out too.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 12:29 PM  Permalink | Comments (3)
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April 22, 2005


Tomorrow night is Pesah (פסח) - Passover, which occurs on the 15th of Nisan, the month of spring:

שָׁמוֹר אֶת חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב וְעָשִׂיתָ פֶּסַח לַה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ
כִּי בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב הוֹצִיאֲךָ ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָיְלָה

Shamor et hodesh ha'aviv v`asita pesah laH' eloheykha
Ki b'hodesh ha'aviv hosiakha H' eloheykha mimisrayim layla

Keep the month of spring and make a Passover [sacrifice] to the Lord your God
Because in the month of spring the Lord your God took you out of Egypt at night

Deuteronomy 16:1 (also here)

Pesah is one of Judaism's three pilgrimage holidays or hagim, singular: hag (חג) - cognate of Arabic hajj. It is probably the biggest family holiday of the year. While Judaism, in general, is a home-oriented religion, on Pesah this is particularly true. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all:

 לֹא תֹאכַל עָלָיו חָמֵץ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל עָלָיו מַצּוֹת לֶחֶם עֹנִי
כִּי בְחִפָּזוֹן יָצָאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם
לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ

Lo' tokhal `alav hames shiv`at yamim tokhal `alav masot lehem `oni
Ki b'hipazon yasa'ta me'eres misrayim
L'ma`an tizkor et yom set'kha me'eres misrayim kol y'mey hayeykha

You will not eat on it leaven. For seven days you shall eat matzas, bread of affliction
Because in haste you went out from the land of Egypt
In order that you will remember the day of your going-out from Egypt all the days of your life

Deuteronomy 16:3 (also here)

Jews are not allowed to eat, or even own, any kind of leaven for the seven days of Pesah (eight days outside of Israel). Most observant Jews put a lot of effort into cleaning their houses for Pesah, getting rid of all bread, cake, cookies, pasta, and anything that's made from leaven. And lots of processed foods contain leaven, which is defined as any mixture of flour and water that is not cooked within 18 minutes. The hard, cracker-like matzas that we use today are actually a humra (חומרה) - an additional stricture that was taken on in order to be perfectly sure that no bits of the flour + water mixture remain uncooked (say, in the middle of the matza). It is clear from reading the Talmud that the matzas of that time were soft, i.e. they could be used to wrap food. Indeed, soft matzas are still in use in many S'fardi communities.

But more than the time spent cleaning the home, what makes Pesah such a home and family-based holiday is the Seder, when we gather to recall the story of the Exodus:

וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר
בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה' לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם

V'higadta l'vinkha bayom hahu le'mor
Ba`avor ze `asa H' li b'se'ti mimisrayim

And you will tell your son on that day saying
"Because of what the Lord did for me on my going-out from Egypt"

Exodus 13:8 (also here)

It is a festive meal, in which the extended family gathers around the table to tell story of the Exodus. It is certainly the most memorable yearly event of my childhood. There is an official text which is used, called the Hagada (הגדה) - the telling.  The Hagada opens as follows:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם
כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח
הָשַתָּא הָכָא, לְשָנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל
הָשַתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין

Ha lahma `anya di akhalu avhatana b'ar`a d'misrayma
Kol dikhfin yeytey v'yeykhol, kol disrikh yeytey v'yifsah
Hashta hakha, l'shana haba'a b'ar`a d'yisra'el
Hashta `avdey, l'shana haba'a b'ney horin

This is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt
All who are hungry - may they come and eat, all who are in need - may they come and make Passover
This year we are here, next year may we be in the land of Israel
This year we are slaves, next year may we be free men [literally: sons of freedom]

Does the Hebrew seem a little strange to you? If it does, it's probably because it's not Hebrew, but Aramaic. The instruction above the text in the Hagada that I linked to is:

מְגַלֶה אֶת הַמַצוֹת מַגְבִּיהַ אֶת הַקְעָרָה וְאוֹמֵר בְּקוֹל רָם:

M'gale et hamasot magbiha et haq`ara v'omer b'qol ram:

[The leader] uncovers the matzas, lifts up the plate [of matza] and says in a loud voice:

One of the commandments of Pesah is not to simply recall the Exodus, but to actually see yourself as coming out of Egypt. The opening of the Hagada recalls that time, as well as our present afflictions, whatever they may be.

However, the central misva (מצוה) - commandment of the Seder is to tell the story of the Exodus to the children. Thus, the hagada (הגדה) - telling of the Seder begins with a child's question:

מַה נִּשְּתַּנָה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת?

Ma nishtana halayla haze mikol haleylot?

Why is this night different from all other nights?

This question (it continues with four sub-questions, hence it is known as the "four questions") is traditionally asked by the youngest person present (who can). The rest of the Seder is the answer to this question.

More about Passover here.

I should point out that the traditional Hagada, as the story of the Exodus, is fairly impenetrable to one who is not familiar with it. So if you can, study it beforehand!

Pesah Kasher V'Sameah! (פסח כשר ושמח!) - May you have a happy and kosher Passover!

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Trackback from Bunker Mulligan, Rishon Rishon:
David always has interesting pieces of information on his religion, and much of it is of historical significance to Christians. This is a wonderful post on unleavened bread and Passover....

Trackback from The Fire Ant Gazette, Happy Passover!:
Passover greetings...

Where I grew up

Here's where I grew up. Cool, eh?

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April 21, 2005

Peacenik threatens violence

John Ray has been threatened by a "peacenik". Why is it that these types advocate understanding for tyrants and murderers but threaten violence against people whom they merely disagree with? Maybe they just feel kinship with their own kind?

UPDATE: John's assailant threatened him by quoting another source. That source has now responded. Most of his post amounts to no more than semantic games, with a liberal sprinkling of vulgar name-calling. But this, I think, is the closest thing the post has to content:

So, with a title like "Dissecting Leftism" he must really wield logic like a scalpel. Well, maybe more like an X-acto knife, or a dull steak knife. Well, not even that, but I hear safety scissors can be a formidable weapon.

Ah, let's just fisk the f****ing idiot.


You just know there's going to be trouble when someone can't get past writing their title without setting up a strawman. Who's a "peacenik"? A peacenik could oppose a particular war, but generally speaking it's shorthand for pacifism. You see how clever he's being? An aggressive pacifist. Haw, you usually have to pay for irony that thick. Unfortunately, opposition to the war in Iraq, which is an illegal, immoral war predicated on lies and misinformation that has cost the lives of thousands of people for no discernible reason doesn't make one a "peacenik". The more accurate term is "sane" or, for those who like a little variety in your synonyms, "not a wingnut".

Got that? Strip away the empty rhetoric and you get this: "Unfortunately, opposition to the war in Iraq, which is an illegal, immoral war predicated on lies and misinformation that has cost the lives of thousands of people for no discernible reason doesn't make one a 'peacenik'." Now, there are definitely pros and cons to the war (and I, for one, think the pros far outweigh the cons) but it seems that the author of this statement doesn't want to grapple with them. A simple declaration of "illegal", "immoral", "lies", "misinformation", and "cost the lives of thousands of people for no discernible reason" should suffice. Illegal? I suppose, because the UN said so (well, actually, it didn't, but so what). Immoral? I don't suppose that fact that most Iraqis support the war against Saddam counts as moral justification - obviously Iraqis are moral zeros. Lies and misinformation? How is it that I (not to mention much of the blogosphere) was perfectly well aware of what was going on before the war with all these lies and misinformation? Cost the lives of thousands of people for no discernible reason? I suppose that the terrorist threat to kill millions is not a reason - oh, no, those good people would never use nuclear weapons or anything! The connection between Iraq and the war on terror is that Saddam supported terror. Yes, Iran and North Korea are bigger threats, but the best military tactic is not to start with the biggest threat, but with the weakest. Perhaps the tactic was wrong (I don't think so) but it certainly wasn't for "no reason".

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April 20, 2005

Burning the Spice of Life

Biur Chametz - in my orthography: bi`ur hames (ביעור חמץ), whose name is appropriate for the season, shares some thoughts on the spice of life:

When I spend too long among happy-clappy Breslovers who dance in the streets and commune with nature, hoppy-hippy Carlebachers who sing more than they daven, pseudokabbalistic Sephardim who are in awe of superstition, it brings out the rationalist intellectual in me. Judaism is about learning and fulfilling the mitzvot, not mystical significances, amorphous "spiritual experiences", emotional highs and rebbe worship.

When I spend too long among hyperintellectual Briskers, analytical hairsplitters from RIETS and Gush, Soloveitchikian "halachic men" who view the world exclusively through a priori religio-legal categories, religious professors who pray dispassionately in pure fulfillment of obligation, yeshiva bachurim who view zemiros as bitul Torah, it brings out the chassid in me. There is more to Judaism - and life - than is dreamed of in your philosophy.

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Some sense of the season

Well, in these days of cooking and cleaning and boiling pots and pans and children on vacation under foot I am coming down with a cold and, with a few spare minutes, would like to take some time out to share my sense of the season.

Passover comes on Sunday. Though this month - Nisan - is called in the Bible hodesh aviv (חודש אביב) - the month of spring, Israelis usually consider Passover, on its 15th, the beginning of summer. Indeed, it has gotten quite warm all of a sudden. I turned off the heating system a few weeks ago, and since then we've been living with the ambient temperature. Our house, like almost all houses in Israel,  is built of masonry and, cave-like, averages the daily temperature. The newfound warmth of the season gives us a sense of freedom, in keeping with the theme of the holiday, as does the end of the rains.

And I must say, that though I love diversity, I also love what one non-Jewish visitor of mine once called the "tightness" of the society I live in. When everyone's doing the same thing at the same time there's a kind of gestalt consciousness that's very agreeable to the soul. You always have something to talk about, an icebreaker, a shared vocabulary of metaphor and association. More: that shared vocabulary, metaphor, association is not mere faddishness, not a shared allusion to "Friends" or "Seinfeld" but a shared consciousness of wealth and depth, a timeless thing of intrinsic meaning, that binds not only you and your neighbors, but also your parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, and great thinkers and artists of the past and present.

I daresay that once this was more true of the US than it is today. When Hemmingway titled his novel, "The Sun Also Rises," I suppose he could count on his readers recognizing the quote, understanding its meaning, and resonating with the associations of its source. Somehow, it seems to me an impoverishment of the culture that this is no longer true. No offence intended to "Friends" and "Seinfeld" - but to me, it doesn't fill the void.

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April 19, 2005

Habent Papam

They have a Pope. I was looking for information about the new Pope and all I could find was this AP article repeated over and over. Don't any papers do their own reporting nowadays? But I did stumble on The Pope Blog, which I'll be checking for updates. Wikipedia already has an entry on Pope Benedict XVI!

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April 18, 2005

What we sound like

David Boxenhorn's Linguistic Profile:  

Mrs. Boxenhorn's Linguistic Profile:  

45% General American English 50% General American English
35% Yankee 30% Yankee
10% Dixie 15% Upper Midwestern
5% Upper Midwestern 5% Dixie
0% Midwestern 0% Midwestern

What Kind of American English Do You Speak?

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April 17, 2005

Archeological destruction is PC

I wanted to write about this, but the topic is so upsetting to me that I can barely read the stories. Luckily, Solomonia has done the work for me:

You didn't need to be a Buddhist to have been disgusted by the Taliban when they blew up those ancient Buddhist statues, and you don't have to be a Jew to be disgusted at the wanton Muslim destruction of ancient archaeological ruins on the Temple Mount.

Israeli archaeologists are sifting through the rubble of a garbage dump in order to recover the remains of antiquities destroyed and history lost as the Islamic Wakf, responsible for the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, built a new, enormous underground mosque and simply dumped what they didn't destroy.

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April 14, 2005

Combat is the best, brother

You have to see this Israeli commercial (via Balagan), advertising Baraq's fast Internet access. It depicts an Israeli visiting Iran, walking though markets, mosques, etc. wearing a T-shirt that says, q'ravi ze hakhi, ahi (קרבי זה הכי אחי) - [serving in a] combat [unit] is the best, my brother. It's very beautifully filmed. It ends with: bahayim ze `adayin bilti efshari aval ba'internet q'sharim k'elu nosarim b'khol yom (בחיים זה עדיין בלתי אפשרי אבל באינטרנט קשרים כאלו נוצרים בכל יום) - in [real] life this is still impossible but on the Internet connections like these are formed every day.

To fully understand the impact of this commercial you have to understand how deeply Israelis long for normalcy, how oppressed Israelis feel by the situation. It's much more than dealing with conflict every day, it's a feeling of isolation. Israelis are painfully aware that there's a big, beautiful world out there where we're not wanted. In the commercial, this is expressed by the Israeli walking nonchalantly, without apparent concern, as the Iranians eye him suspiciously - as if to say, "Even though you are suspicious of me, I would love to tour your country." It is an expression of the asymmetry of the situation: an Iranian really could walk though the streets of Tel Aviv safely, if he wanted to, and if he could get out of Iran. For an Israeli it's the reverse.

UPDATE: The English translation of the T-shirt requires some explanation. The word "combat" in Hebrew is clearly an adjective, so the mind automatically fills in the word "unit" - most people who serve in the army don't serve in combat units, and the combat units really are considered "the best". In English, on the other hand, the word "combat" alone would be assumed to be a noun, so it would sound like the guy is expressing his love of making war.

UPDATE: If what I wrote doesn't make sense to you, it might be because I left out an important detail in my description of the commercial. If you watch it, you will know why.

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Trackback from Solomonia, A Telling Vision:
Read David's post and then watch the Israeli TV commercial he links to. Then ask yourself in what other countries would that commercial fly? Iran? The PA? Keep guessing. And be real now. That game should tell you quite a...

April 10, 2005

Another take on the future

John Derbyshire predicts the future:

Looking back across the past few decades, it’s hard not to think that post-industrial modernism is headed all one way, everywhere it has taken a firm grip. Pleasure-giving gadgets and drugs are ever cheaper and more accessible. The distresses of life, especially physical sickness and pain, are gradually being pushed to the margins. As scientists probe deeper into the human genome, the human nervous system, and the biology of human social arrangements, that divine spark of person-hood that we all feel to be the essence of ourselves is being chased along narrower and darker passageways of the brain and the tribal folkways. Happiness itself, it seems, is genetic. And all this is headed…where?

We all know the answer to that one. It is headed to Brave New World. Our flesh is supposed to creep when our adversary in argument plays the Brave New World card. Brave New World! Empty and soulless! Eeeek!

This gravely underestimates the power of Aldous Huxley’s tremendous novel, which he sat down to begin writing just 74 years ago this month. The issue posed by the novel, as every thoughtful commentator (Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass, to name two) has pointed out, is: What exactly is objectionable about the world of Year 632 After Ford? As Kass says, the dehumanized people of that world don’t know they are dehumanized, and wouldn’t care if they knew. They are happy; and if they feel any momentary unhappiness, a pharmacological remedy is ready to hand. If being human means enduring sorrow, pain, grief envy, loss, accidie, loneliness, and humiliation, why on earth should anyone be expected to prefer a “fully human” life over a dehumanized one?

Most people won’t.

Needless to say, I have a different take on how it will play out.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at 07:49 PM  Permalink | Comments (2)
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Coyote Blog and School Choice

I recently added Coyote Blog to my blogroll. It's a great blog all around, and one of the the great things about it is he shares my opinion of school choice - that there's something in it for everyone, and the best thing about it is, well, choice:

At the end of the day, one-size-fits-all public schools are never going to be able to satisfy everyone on this type thing, as it is impossible to educate kids in a values-neutral way.  Statist parents object to too much positive material on the founding fathers and the Constitution.  Secular parents object to mentions of God and overly-positive descriptions of religion in history.  Religious parents object to secularized science and sex education.  Free market parents object to enforced environmental activism and statist economics.   Some parents want no grades and an emphasis on feeling good and self-esteem, while others want tough grading and tough feedback when kids aren't learning what they are supposed to.

I have always thought that these "softer" issues, rather than just test scores and class sizes, were the real "killer-app" that might one day drive acceptance of school choice in this country.  Certainly increases in home-schooling rates have been driven as much by these softer values-related issues (mainly to date from the Right) than by just the three R's.

So here is my invitation to the Left: come over to the dark side. Reconsider your historic opposition to school choice.  I'm not talking about rolling back government spending or government commitment to funding education for all.  I am talking about allowing parents to use that money that government spends on their behalf at the school of their choice.  Parents want their kids to learn creationism - fine, they can find a school for that.  Parents want a strict, secular focus on basic skills - fine, another school for that.  Parents want their kids to spend time learning the three R's while also learning to love nature and protect the environment - fine, do it.

Most of the time you hear about the quality issue, that public schools are failing, etc. While this is true, I, personally, don't find it very inspiring, and neither, it seems, does the public. Much more inspiring, I think, is the potential to educate your children the way you want. A positive vision is always more compelling than a negative one. It's also easier to communicate. The average person understands very little about economics, and hears some people saying that a free market will improve schools, while others say it will destroy the schools. Such a person thinks, "better play it safe, and leave things as they are". But how can you argue with a slogan like: "Educate your children the way you want"?

This is the kind of advertising campaign I'd like to see:

Two beautiful, well-dressed women walk into a car dealer, one black, one white. They both say, "I'd like to buy a car". The salesman asks the white woman, "Where do you live?" She answers with the name of some upscale neighborhood (the exact neighborhood would be chosen according to the metropolitan area of the ad). The salesman looks in a book, then rolls out a beautiful sports car. He then asks the black woman, "Where do you live?" She answers with the name of a poor neighborhood. Again, the salesman looks in his book, and rolls out a beat-up old car. Tagline: "You wouldn't let the government tell you which car to buy, why do you let them tell you where to educate your children?"

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April 07, 2005

Cognitive Dissonance

I was once told, in a tone of contempt, that observant Jews who live in the "modern world" live with cognitive dissonance: How can they believe those "Bible stories" and also believe evolution, geology, astronomy?

Well, as I have said before, Judaism is not too particular about how you believe the "Bible stories"-  though, most would say that you do have to believe them. Here are some of the most common answers:

1. Don't answer. Most people don't feel the need to answer this question.

2. Believe them literally. In other words, disbelieve the answers that science gives to evolution, geology, astronomy.

3. Believe them allegorically. In other words, the stories have a deep meaning, and are not meant to be taken literally.

4. Reconcile them. In other words, the Bible stories aren't really in conflict with science, if you understand them correctly.

None of these are my answer. Instead, I embrace cognitive dissonance. You see, there are two kinds of thought: rational and associative, and I see no particular reason why they both have to give the same answers in order for both of them to be true. Rational is: X implies Y. Associative is: X reminds me of Y. Science uses rational thought to establish its truth, and it is a very powerful method, for if we can prove X, or choose to accept it axiomatically, then we can know with surety that Y is also true. But associative thought is also powerful. It it the result of the workings of billions of neurons, and it is where those hypothetical Y's come from, which we prove by X. It is also the reason that we appreciate art, recognize our friends, and love our spouses. It is also, in my opinion, the way to understand the Bible. The truth of the Bible is literal, but not in describing the external world. Instead, it describes our inner world, the world of a hundred billion neurons.

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Moderation / Toleration

The original version of my previous post went on at some length about the various ways in which I disagreed with the the late Pope. I deleted those sections (ending up with a pretty bare-bones post) because I think it's in very poor taste to list the faults of a great man in his obituary. Great men will and should be remembered for their greatness, and not for their mediocrity, which is not to say that the Pope was in any way mediocre.

Most of the obituaries that I read mentioned briefly his importance in bringing down communism, and went on at great length criticizing him for his religious conservatism. What I want to know is, why do they care? If they are religious Catholics, then I know the answer to that question, and it is a good one: it is their church as much as the Pope's. But I doubt that many of the obituaries I read were written by religious Catholics. Most were probably written by post-Christian (or post-Jewish) New Yorkers or other urbanites. In what way does it bother them that their Catholic neighbors don't think it's right to have an abortion or get a divorce? And if they want to marry a person of the same sex? There are plenty of churches that will oblige. Inevitably what they call for is "moderation". Translation: views closer to their own.

And since when is moderation necessarily a good thing? The United States of America wasn't founded by moderates, it was founded by radical extremists who believed "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights". Be suspicious of people calling for moderation, it is usually a play on words intended to deceive you, and usually used by people lacking in a completely different virtue: toleration.

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John Paul II, RIP

I liked the Pope. And admired him. And, I think he is one of the heroes of the 20th century for his role in downfall of communism (not yet finished). This, despite the fact that I disagree with many of his stands on a wide variety of issues. For example, I agree with this:

There was a sense of divine intervention at the election of Karol Jozef Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II.

The first John Paul lasted only a few weeks before dropping dead. Albino Luciani was another in the long line of Italian-only Popes, stretching through five centuries, a vicar from the industrial shoreline behind Venice, a compromise candidate from the College of Cardinals, unsure of himself in his first official acts; a good man by the account of those who knew him, but promising to be ineffectual.

When he died, it was as if God called the cardinals back from the airport.

"Try again." They now went to the opposite extreme, and chose an "outsider," a Pole, a man of large human experience not only as priest, but before he ever became a priest.

The very greatest leaders in history are often, perhaps usually, outsiders - unlikely choices for the destiny that befalls them, at least in prospect. In retrospect, they seem as inevitable as John Paul II, or as Winston Churchill, or (on a lesser scale) as that other playwright-turned-saviour, Vaclav Havel.

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April 04, 2005

Hebrew, Modern and Mishnaic

Every once in a while I hear someone talk about how Modern Hebrew is not really true to its origins, that it has become a "European language" or some such thing. Though linguists can list many differences between Modern and Mishnaic Hebrew (its last spoken form before Modern Hebrew) I think that this is misleading, to say the least. Yes, Modern Hebrew has a large number of borrowed words, but the vast majority of them (I'd say something like 95%) are neo-Greco-Latin terms which can be said to be as foreign to English as they are to Hebrew. None of this takes into account the overall impression Mishnaic Hebrew gives to the Modern Hebrew reader: It seems old-fashioned, but not too different, and not hard at all to understand. I'd say it's comparable to reading a 17th or 18th century text in English. And what gives it its old-fashioned feel is not grammar, and not even vocabulary (very much) but more than anything else, its style. Take the first sentence of the Mishna:

מֵאֵימָתַי קוֹרִין אֶת שְׁמַע בְּעַרְבִית
מִשָּׁעָה שֶׁהַכֹּהֲנִים נִכְנָסִים לֶאֱכֹל בִּתְרוּמָתָן
עַד סוֹף הָאַשְׁמוּרָה הָרִאשׁוֹנָה דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר
וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים עַד חֲצוֹת
רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה עַמּוּד הַשַּׁחַר

Me'eymatay qorin et shma` b`aravit
Misha`a shehakohanim nikhnasim le'ekhol bitrumatan
`Ad sof ha'ashmora harishona divrey rabi eli`ezer
Vahakhamim omrim `ad hasot
Raban gamli'el omer `ad sheya`ale `amud hashahar

From when do they read 'Hear O Israel' in the evening?
From the hour that the priests go in to eat of their contributions
Until the end of the first shift, according to Rabbi Eliezer
And wise men say until midnight
Rabbi Gamliel says, until the the column of dawn goes up

Brakhot 1:1

If this text were written today it would probably be something like this:

According to rabbinic tradition, 'Hear O Israel' is read in the evening from the hour that the priests go in to eat their contributions, until midnight. However, according to Rabbi Eliezer, it is only until the end of the first shift, while according to Rabbi Gamliel it can be read until the column of dawn comes up.

I'm having trouble putting to words this difference in style. Can anyone help me out?

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April 03, 2005

Inspired by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Razib of Gene Expression writes a beautiful manifesto, inspired by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I don't have time, at the moment, to comment to the extent that I would like, but I would like to proclaim my support. This, despite the fact that I am not, as he says, of those "who brook no restrictions of custom and tradition, who take little interest in the wisdom of their fathers". I am a great supporter of diversity, I enjoy it esthetically, intellectually, and simply out of affection. But the key qualifier is: choice. My utopian society would facilitate diversity at the level of both the individual and group, but would simultaneously guarantee the individual's right to choose among the options available, or create a new one.

The thing that I would like to talk about more - and I don't know if I get to it at all (there is so much that I never get to...) is the experience of living with others' expectations of difference. It is an odd, and not always unpleasant, experience to be the incarnation of another's mythology. It is something that Razib and I share.

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April 02, 2005

Pursuit of justice

It is a continual theme of our lives, of great drama, folktales, a minor key in our music and art, a driving force in our religions, worldviews, and ideologies: the pursuit of justice.

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה

Sedeq sedeq tirdof l'ma`an tihye

Justice, justice you shall pursue in order that you might live

Deuteronomy 16:20

And its thematic beauty is its persistent tragedy: we persist in believing, against all evidence, that justice can be done. This, I think likely, is one of the driving forces our religions: the necessity of reconciling our deep belief in justice (not merely its temporal imperfection, but even its platonic ideal) with the terrible foreboding that in fact there is no justice, and it cannot be done.

When I cast my eye over the world's problems I see numerous root causes, for the most part quite different from those seen by they who like to proclaim them - and I wonder what blinds so many people to things so obvious. I think this is one: the unwillingness to abandon the notion that justice can be done in this world, and its corollary: a villain must be found.

I didn't pay much attention to the Schiavo story until the last week or so, when its ubiquity made it unavoidable. Frankly, I found it boring, and I think that Amritas put his finger on its fascination for so many when he speculated about it last week: It is a psychodrama in which the villain has committed a heinous crime against the victim - but we don't know which is which. If only we can figure it out, though, justice will be done.

Such an analysis makes good fiction, unfortunately it doesn't have much to do with reality. Reality: The injustice had already been done, Terri Schiavo was in a "vegetative state", nothing could undo it. And most likely, there were no villains - indeed, the real injustice is the appetite of the public to find one. It is this injustice, this human-created injustice that we find in every difficult story - not least the one I live in: the Middle East.

In fact, neither legal nor ethical systems exist in order to create justice. Note that the passage above does not say, "pursue justice in order to establish it" - it says, "pursue justice in order that you might live". Their purpose is to create a system that is most conducive to living. Righting wrongs is rarely within the realm of possibility, but a good system will minimize their occurrence in the first place.

This is where justice comes in. Justice is not something that is administered, as we so often hear. The only thing that can be administered, in fact, is injustice. The only moral reason we have for administering injustice is to keep the system from disintegrating, to prevent, as much as possible, injustice from happening in the first place. And this, as the repetition of the word "justice" in the passage implies, is an unending task:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

Lo' `aleykha hamlakha ligmor v'lo' ata ben horin libatel mimena

You are not required to complete the work and you are not free to desist from it

Pirqey Avot 2:16

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Nadav and Avihu'

Several years ago there was a terrible accident involving a school bus in which a large number of children were killed. Shortly after, some silly rabbi said that the reason the children were killed was that they were driving on Shabat (שבת) - the Sabbath. This is the kind of story that the Israeli press loves, for it both confirms their prejudices, and is guaranteed to generate business (i.e. news) for them. Never mind that most rabbis condemn this line of thinking: the idea that we can understand God's motives, that we can ever know why He does anything.

At the time I was sharing an office with a left-wing anti-religious coworker (I very nice guy, don't get me wrong) who, of course, brought up the subject with me. To illustrate the notion that he was more truly religious than the avowedly religious he said, "I can't believe in a God that would kill innocent children because they violated Shabat". Without arguing his premise, I answered, "But you can believe in a God that would kill innocent children because the brakes failed?"

This week's parasha (פרשה) - Tora portion - contains the story of Nadav and Avihu':

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ
וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ קְטֹרֶת
וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה' אֵשׁ זָרָה
אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם
וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה'
וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם
וַיָּמֻתוּ לִפְנֵי ה'

Vayiqhu b'ney aharon nadav va'avihu' ish mahtato
Vayitnu vahem esh vayasimu `aleyha q'toret
Vayaqrivu lifney H' esh zara
Asher lo' siva otam
Vatese' esh milifney H'
Vatokhal otam
Vayamutu lifney H'

And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu each took his censer
And gave in them fire and put in them incense
And sacrificed before the Lord strange fire
That He hadn't commanded them
And fire went out from before the Lord
And consumed them
And they died before the Lord

Leviticus 10:1-2

This is considered a difficult story, for no reason is given for their death other than that God had not commanded them to do what they did. Indeed, the traditional reading of this passage is that Nadav and Avihu' had the best of intentions when they did what they did, and God punished them anyway. When it's written in the Bible it's considered a difficult story, yet we see this same story all around us: the best of intentions will not save us from being punished for our mistakes. It is one of the great mysteries of the world, and though we can neither understand it, nor avoid it, we can at least know how to confront it: to learn.

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In  Diary of an Anti-Chomskyite Benjamin Kerstein proves himself to be a talented writer of great intellectual depth - as well as a popular blogger. I must admit, however, that the political, or even the human, Chomsky doesn't interest me enough to hold my attention for very long (the linguistic Chomsky is another matter). So I would like to draw your attention to Benjamin's other blog, Gefen, where he directs his talent to, what is for me, more accessible subjects. His last two posts, for example, are exceptionally beautiful and fascinating.

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