9.29.2006

You know the holidays are beginning to get to you when...

...you have a dream about the Rema (Rav Moshe Isserles).

This is definitely the first time that I have had a dream in which either a rishon or an acharon has been mentioned. Seriously, people. This is freaky. I think this may be a sign that I am going to shul too much, and therefore hearing too many divrei Torah (words of Torah).

Feel free to fill in your own version of "You know the holidays are beginning to get to you when..."

Shabbat shalom!

9.28.2006

X-Men and Intersexuality

On Monday, I did two things. Well, I did more than two things, but two things that I did melded in my mind and raised some interesting issues.

I watched X-Men: The Last Stand, in which (don't think I'm giving away the story here) the government has discovered a way to permanently suppress the genetic mutation that gives the X-Men (and Women) their special powers. Then I read Elizabeth Weil's Sunday New York Times Magazine article about intersexuality ("What if It’s (Sort of) a Boy and (Sort of) a Girl?"), which is about Cheryl Chase's efforts to prevent doctors and parents from automatically performing surgery on infants born with ambiguous sexuality (male/female, not homosexual/heterosexual).1

The common denominator here is: When people are born with abnormalities, how much effort should we make to correct them? I guess to answer that, we first need to define what abnormal is. How much does something have to deviate from the average to be abnormal? With which drastic means can or should we intervene? How much do we know or can we assume about how being abnormal affects a person's overall well-being and happiness? How much does the desire to correct abnormalities reflect our best wishes for the person in question and how much does it reflect our own discomfort with human difference?2 Does it make a difference if we prevent abnormalities before birth; correct them soon after birth; correct them in childhood; or let it wait until the child is an adult and can decide for him or her self?

The premise in X-Men is that mutants (as the X-Men and others like them are known) generally want to be mutants, and regular human beings don't want them to be mutants. The humans both fear the mutants and are disgusted by them. This is complicated by the fact that some mutants dislike being mutants and wish that they could be normal, while others have adjusted to their differences and appreciate their special powers. (It is possible that mutants who dislike being mutants feel that way because humans revile them.) In the beginning, the government just wants to make this mutation-suppressing serum available, but then for some reason that was never quite clear to me, they decide that for the safety of the nation, they're going to have to shoot mutants with it against the mutants' will. This may be giving away the end, but some mutants are willing to hijack the mutant-suppressing technology for their own use, while other mutants seem viscerally opposed to using any means to change anyone's genetic makeup.

The way this movie frames the issue, it seems clear that no one's genetic makeup should be tinkered with against their will, no matter how mutated they are. It also seems clear from the film that if someone wants to get rid of their mutation, and thus their special powers, they should be free to do so.3

The New York Times article complicates issues, as real life tends to. It further complicates issues because it is talking about mutations or abnormalities that affect sex and gender. (Yes, both.) Babies who are born with XX/XY chromosomes that don't match their external genitalia, or babies who are born with both external characteristics of both males and females (to some degree), or with both testes and ovaries. It's complicated. When they're born, doctors don't quite know what to tell the parents. Incidence of ambiguous sexuality is somewhere between 1 in 2,000 (.05%) or 1 in 4,500 (.02%) live births, depending on whom you ask. They used to just assign a gender and do corrective surgery in infancy and then again later in childhood, and often didn't tell the child what the surgery is for. Cheryl Chase, who advocates on behalf of intersex people, has a different opinion:
Chase says she believes that every child should be assigned a gender at birth but that the assignment should not be "surgically reinforced" and that parents and doctors should remain open to the idea that they may have assigned the wrong sex. She contends that the most important thing is for a child to feel loved by her parents, despite her difference. An operation, she says, should not be done to assuage parental embarrassment or anxiety; it should be chosen, if it is chosen at all, by an intersex individual who is old enough to make her own decision and give proper consent.
Anyway, read the article. I remember discussing this in a women's studies class, and everyone sort of agreed with Chase, but then when you asked people what they would do if they had a child born with ambiguous genitalia, almost everyone said that they would have surgery performed before the age of consent. It's just too uncomfortable otherwise.

This sticky, complicated, uncomfortable situation is compared, in the article, to a child who is abnormally short. How much should doctors and parents medically shape the child before the child can understand what the issues are? Should s/he be treated with growth hormones? With surgery? What if the shortness doesn't cause any other physical or medical conditions, but is just a fact of life? Does a parent take into consideration the oft-spoken "fact" that taller people do better in life? (Not sure if that's been established with any statistical validity.) One doctor, who thought that parents had every right and responsibility to have gender-assignment surgery performed on infants and small children, said:
In Baskin’s view, being intersex is a congenital anomaly that deserves to be corrected like any other. "If you have a child born with a cleft lip or cleft palate or an extra digit or a webbed neck, I don’t know any family that wouldn’t want that repaired," he told me. "Who would say, 'You know what, let’s wait until Johnny is 20 years old and let him decide'?
I actually know someone who was born with two webbed toes (two toes kind of attached with skin), whose parents were asked if they wanted someone to snip them apart when she was born, and they said no. She has them to this day. They felt, I assume, that she was born that way and since it wasn't a problem in any way, why mess with it? There is something very nice about loving your child just as he or she was born, barring any clear medical necessity to intervene. Obviously, ambiguous genitalia, a cleft palate, or a webbed neck are more of a problem than a couple of attached toes, though.

I guess the broader issue that this raises for me is how important physical conformity is in our society. It bothers me a great deal. Now that it's possible to basically medicate or perform surgery or dye or wear tinted contact lenses so you can look and be (externally) anything or anyone you want, where do we draw the line? What about prenatal tests that show abnormalities and lead to abortions? Is an ideal world a world in which no babies are born with Down's syndrome? In which no babies are born blind, deaf, or with heart defects?4 In which no babies are born predisposed to depression or autism? In which all people are tall, thin, and blond, if we can scientifically show that those people succeed more in life, however we measure success?

In Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched by Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, she speculates that manic-depressive illness tends to run in artistic and particularly high-achieving families. It is well-known that many great, accomplished writers struggled with depression and/or alcoholism. Would artificially selecting aganist these traits deprive the world of art and music? I'm not suggesting that people go untreated (because that's just stupid, and a dead person won't be producing any art at all), only that parents and doctors might want to be careful when playing God. We have a lot to think about as a society in regard to medical intervention before and after birth.

If you don't believe me, just see what happens in X-Men: The Last Stand.

-------------------------------------------
1. It is the seventh-most e-mailed article from the NYT today, which means that lots of other people are reading it. Also, I wrote a paper on intersexuality in college. I wrote papers on lots of interesting things in college!
2. David Cutler once mentioned in a class of his that I took that people don't mind being "abnormal" or impaired as much as others without the impairment think they would or should. I e-mailed him to ask for some backup, since I had no idea if this was his idea or someone else's, and he sent me this exerpt from a recent working paper of his. The part that I italicized is the most relevant in this context.
Typically those who have experienced a condition rate it less severely than do those who have not (Sackett and Torrance, 1978; Slevin et al., 1990; Epstein et al., 1989; Ubel et al., 2003). A number of explanations have been put forth to explain this phenomenon. People with the condition may adapt to it over time, they may make a mental shift and rate themselves in comparison to other sick people (or to how healthy they could expect to be with their health problem), and/or those without the condition may focus too narrowly on the potential negative life impact of the problem (a focusing illusion)(Ubel et al., 2003; Kahneman and Tversky, 2000).

Sackett DL, Torrance GW. The utility of different health states as perceived by the general public. Journal of Chronic Disease 1978;31(11): 697-704.
Slevin ML, Stubbs L, Plant HJ, Wilson P, Gregory WM, Armes PJ, et al. Attitudes to chemotherapy: comparing views of patients with cancer with those of doctors, nurses, and general public. British Medical Journal 1990;300(6737): 1458-60.
Epstein AM, Hall JA, Tognetti J, Son LH, Conant L, Jr. Using proxies to evaluate quality of life. Can they provide valid information about patients' health status and satisfaction with medical care? Medical Care 1989;27(3 Suppl): S91-8.
Ubel PA, Loewenstein G, Jepson C. Whose quality of life? A commentary exploring discrepancies between health state evaluations of patients and the general public. Quality of Life Research 2003;12(6): 599-607.
Kahneman D, Tversky A, editors. Choices, Values and Frames: Cambridge University Press; 2000.
3. Perhaps it should even be covered by their HMO. The movie avoids this sticky topic. The issues of payment and reimbursement never come up. No long forms to fill out in triplicate, etc.
4. Ironically, medical advances in recent decades have enabled many premature babies to survive, albeit with various disabilities, so rates of some of these problems have risen in recent years.

9.26.2006

Refreshing dvar Torah for Rosh Hashana (and other times)

Nuqotw posted an amazing Rosh Hashana dvar Torah, also suitable for other occasions. I can't post a laudatory comment about it on her blog because I'm a loser without a LiveJournal ID (I jumped on the blog bandwagon after it was old news to my more geeky friends--and I use "geeky" in the best sense of the word), so I'll post them here.

It's just one idea, but I like it so much that I can't stop turning it over in my head. Go read it in her original inimitable style, but the basic thought is: Yehuda (Genesis 38) is the first person in the Torah who does what we now call teshuva, but taking responsibility for his wrong actions and admitting, in public, that they are wrong. This happens when he says, "צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי," "She was more righteous than I." The Yehuda and Tamar story, which interrupts the flow of narrative in the latter part of Genesis, is irksome on so many levels, but this new insight may be enough to redeem it in my eyes.

I shall have to think about it some more.

9.22.2006

To New Beginnings

I was walking to work on the first day of September when I realized that by at least one measure, summer was over. People were starting to ask me, "So, how was your summer?" not "So, how is your summer going?" My stock answer was, "It was the same as the rest of the year," because, unlike friends of mine who were on academic calendars, I had worked all summer at the same job as I had the rest of the year, with only one brief vacation to visit my grandmother. But the summer is not exactly like the rest of the year despite my no longer being a carefree youngster with two or three months to play in the sun. Its end hit me harder than usual this year.

Summer still signifies freedom and possibility in ways that fall, winter, and spring do not. The end of summer is the end of free concert and movie season in New York. It's the end of "Maybe I'll go to more events in the parks this summer," because there are no more free events in the parks this summer. I will have to wait until next summer. The end of summer means that I will never have a proper 2006 summer vacation. I will have to wait until next summer. In short, the end of summer brings the end of a certain freedom, a certain possibility that almost anything might happen (in a good way).

This year, the end of summer also brought the end of a seven month relationship that began with the first, hopeful lengthening of days in January and was now ending as the days became noticeably shorter and the night lengthened.

As summer ends, nature is about to shut down and die for the winter (at least the non-evergreen part of nature). The leaves are about to fall off the trees. In Central Park, which I see on an almost daily basis, the gardeners are raking up the few leaves that have already dried up and fallen listlessly to the ground. What's still green is no longer the bright, happy, hopeful green of early spring, nor the deep, verdant green of mid-summer. It's the tired, dusty, exhausted green of September. Nothing will be bright and shiny and new again until the snow starts to melt and the first crocuses of spring appear in late February or early March.

As I was walking and thinking, it occured to me that Rosh Hashanah was around the corner and that seemed even more ludicrous. How can we celebrate the beginning of a new year when everything good is ending or dying or leaving? Why does the year begin just when the possibility of freedom--the possibility of possibility!--is snatched away and we begin to hunker down for the cold days ahead? "How cruel can God be?," I wondered.

Then I remembered (finally!) that I am not the center of the universe, and in other parts of the world, far away from New York, the parched days of summer are coming to a close, and the first rains of winter are only a month away. Things that died back for lack of water over the summer will become revived. New saplings will grow, and if we are lucky, the trees will bear fruit and the fields grain. In other hemispheres, the winter is ending and summer is on its way. The world does not revolve around the agriculture of Central Park. Other things are going on in the world, unbeknownst to me. Babies are being born; relationships are growing; houses are being built; people are starting on paths of study that will lead to new and wonderful things. New beginnings are about to blossom. It's only a matter of remembering that there is life outside of my own small, contained universe of vacations that didn't happen this summer and relationships that ended with people I loved. It's only a matter of watching and waiting patiently for my own new beginnings to show.

Rosh Hashanah is here, in other parts of the world the fields are about to sprout brand new greenery, and God promises us an infinite number of new beginnings as we make our way through life.

Here is to the possibilities of new beginnings and of growth, even as the leaves fall wearily off the trees in Central Park. Here is to the hope that this year will bring new, better relationships, the capacity to go off on a relaxing vacation, time spent with family and friends, and hale health for all. Here is to the wish that we may all find strength when we are tired, hope when we are sad, faith when we want to give up, and supportive friends wherever we turn. May 5767 be all that you hope for and more.

9.20.2006

Woman heads up Islamic Society of North America and Where are the Jews?

Interesting article in today's New York Times. I'm not sure why it was in the Metro section, since the appointment was announced in Chicago sometime "this month."

The appointment was only minorly controversial, it seems, and the issue might have been as much about her ethnicity as about her femaleness. (In addition to being the first female president, she is also the first non-immigrant president of the Society.) That is, some felt that the Islamic Society of North America should not feel that it has to appoint a native, white North American to this position in order to integrate Islam into North American life and to take away the stigma of terrorism. Someone in the article was quoted as saying, "'Somehow there is the feeling that someone who is white is safer and less scary,'" and that shouldn't be so.

As far as her gender and sex go, "Some naysayers grumble that a woman should not head any Muslim organization because the faith bars women from leading men in congregational prayers, but they are a distinct minority." That is promising. I was glad to hear it. I think she was helped by the fact that she had been a or the vice president for five years before she became the president, and she is a respected academic in Islamic Studies.

Not surprisingly, this is also a question in the Jewish community, and not only the Orthodox community. In the Orthodox community, the question arises: Can women serve as leaders, if they cannot lead prayers or be ordained as rabbis? KOE gave one answer. Some people didn't like it.

There is, some say, an issue of modesty that prevents women from being leaders even when there is no issue of knowledge or chayavut (halachic obligation) in mitzvot. This is the only argument I know of that prevents women from being presidents of congregations. I believe that a shul cannot be part of the Young Israel movement unless it specifically prohibits women from becoming the shul president. In pre-state Israel (i.e., Palestine), the question was raised, I believe by Rav Kook, about whether women should be able to vote in the Jewish state, or if they should "vote" through their husbands' or fathers' votes. Clearly, we have a ways to go before a woman will be even a national lay leader of the Orthodox Union or of the Agudah (who are so frum they don't even seem to have a website). In terms of their paid staff, women are: Associate Director of Financial Resources Development, Director of YACHAD, Director of Human Resources, and Deputy Director to the Executive Vice President for Community Planning.

This problem is not limited to the non-ordaining-women segments of the Jewish community. This troubles me greatly. Orthodoxy, across all of its sub-segments, has institutionalized sexism,1 but for the movements that claim not to, what's taking so long? It is a big problem at the Federation level, where leadership is not even religious in nature (it's communal). Shifra Bronznick's Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community is trying to rectify this, but I'm not sure how far they've gotten. Here is more information about who they are and what they do (or possibly don't do). I haven't heard much from or about them since they released a report in 2004 showing that women are very underrepresented in positions of leadership in the Jewish community.

The 2004 UJC/AWP report focused on the Federation, but I think it's equally true at other Jewish communal institutions and in the world of Jewish education, where men tend to be the principals, deans, etc., even though at the lower levels, it is mostly women who do the teaching. Again, leaving the Orthodox world aside for the time-being, are there women deans, chancellors, presidents of the CCAR, URJ, HUC, JTS, or UJ? I'm actually asking that because I don't know the answer.

All this grumbling about the imperfect state of our world means is that there is still a lot of good work to be done. Thank God.

----------------------------------------------------------
1. I don't think that authentic Judaism (however you want to define that) or halacha require institutionalized sexism to the extent that it is prevalent in Orthodoxy today. On good days, when I'm not totally disgusted with or apathetic towards the state of Orthodox Judaism today, I think you can create equal learning opportunities for girls and women, you can teach tsniyut in ways that don't equate women's bodies with shame, and you can provide opportunities for women to daven in a spiritually-uplifting and religiously-meaningful manner, without upsetting the mesorah or halachic system.

9.18.2006

A break from Torah to talk about gender and the sciences

Actually, it's too late, and I'm too tired, to do much talking. But here is an article from today's New York Times that covers a report recently released by a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences about why women are underpresented in all sciences in higher education despite having earned a relatively large percentage of PhDs over the past thirty years. There wasn't much data in the article, and I guess anyone can convene a panel of any number of "experts" and declare anything.

I would be interested to know how making the workplace more "family-friendly" would impact employee productivity, especially the productivity of women. I would also be interested in how it would affect the overall health and well-being of America's families, and the impact that that would have on education, domestic violence, and other social and criminal issues.

Second day of selichot

My favorite from this batch was the second piyut of the day (labeled 6, or vav, in The Metsudah Selichos), which starts with "Iviticha kiviticha." Favorite lines include:

"Bikirbi shicharticha."
"I sought You from within" or "I looked for You inside me."

"Dirashticha uvikashticha barichovot uvahshivakim."
"I sought you and searched for you on the streets and in the markets."

I love the idea of searching for God within oneself. The idea seems either pantheistic or post-modern or something vaguely non-frum (and maybe that's part of why I like it), but it rings true for me.

I also love the imagery of seeking God on the streets and in the markets, and the opposite images set up here of seeking God within ourselves on the one hand, and in the streets and markets on the other.

Later on in the piyut, in the last stanza, the phrase "bimitzvotecha mitchazkim" appears, and I love that as well. The idea of God's followers strengthening themselves (hitpa'el form of the verb) through mitzvot appeals to me. Much more, than, say, the attitude I sometimes encounter of "It sucks, it's hard, but you'll be rewarded for doing these at some point in the future." Strengthening oneself with mitzvot makes it seem like an active choice that one has, and one pursues, for one's own good, rather than to appease an often abstract God for whom we yearn and whom we seek, but whom we see so infrequently (which is what the beginning of the piyut is about).

That's it for now. We'll see what tomorrow will bring.

9.17.2006

Nitzavim follow up

I posted this as a comment on the original post, but for those who missed it:

For the curious reader of JXG's comment, Rashi's explanation of the dots over "לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ," "for us and our sons," is that from the words of the verse (כח הַנִּסְתָּרֹת--לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד-עוֹלָם--לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת. 28 "The secret things belong unto the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law."), it seems that we could be punished for violating the revealed things but not the hidden things, which only God knows about. The dots, Rashi says, teach us that the Israelites weren't liable for violating the revealed things until they crossed the Jordan River, and accepted upon themselves the oath on Mt. Grizim and Mt. Aival, and were made responsible (areivim--there's probably a better translation for that than "responsible") one for the other.

Ooooooookaaaaaaay. I'm not sure how the dots teach that, but Rashi does say that they are "lidrosh," which may imply a not-quite-pshat reading (in case you couldn't tell by the content of what he says).

I heard some sort of drash (sorry I don't remember from whom) at some point about the Israelites accepting the Torah twice--once at Mt. Sinai and once in Persia, after the Purim story happened, when it says "kimu v'kiblu" in the Megillah. This Rashi in Deuteronomy would seem to imply that there was a third acceptance (or second acceptance, really), which happened after they crossed the Jordan. Interesting things to think about. I sort of feel, post-Enlightenment, at least in modern society, that each individual accepts the Torah and observance upon him or herself, because previous acceptances of it by ancient Israelites seem less relevant, somehow. All metaphysical aspects aside, it's as if we have the choice all over again, and we can each say "na'aseh v'nishma" or ditch it.

9.16.2006

First night of selichot

Tonight, we started reading selichot, the penitential prayers that precede Rosh Hashanah and are recited between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The prayers are interspersed with medieval Hebrew poetry. The poetry (sing. piyut, pl. piyutim) is long and sometimes tongue-twisty and I can never keep up with the congregation, but I always try to think about at least a tiny bit of what I say each day.

I think my favorite bit from the first night of selichot, is from the second piyut (as listed in The Metsuda Selichos). It says:

"Tov l'korehcha b'nefesh rahav."*
"You are good to those who call upon you with all their soul."
"Torchan nisoh u'lichalkeyl yahav."
"You bear their burden and sustain them."
"Yikar chasdecha alai yirhav."
"Expand Your precious kindness upon me."
"Ya'an koli leh-hazin bi'ahav."
"And give ear to my voice with Your love."

I'm just going with the Metsudah Selichos translation even though I think some of the words could be translated more richly or with more nuance.

I think I liked this particular verse of this piyut because I've done more than my usual amount of crying out to God with all my soul lately. I also love the image of a God who bears the burden of those who call out to God with all of their souls. I love that God's kindness is something expansive and expanding. Like, I imagine, a parent's love for a child, it doesn't run out, it just expands to fill the space needed. Finally, I love the idea of a God who listens to our cries--even our bitter, tortured, "Why are you doing this to me, God?" cries, with love. Maybe it seems sort of impossible, that anyone could love my voice sometimes. Certainly, all human beings would find it irritating at times. Hell, I find my voice, my complaints, my neuroses, my irritability, grating at times. But God, God listens with love. I also like the way this was stated, "Give ear to my voice with Your love." God's giving ear to our voices makes them, in a way. If we call out, and there is no God listening with love or with any other emotion, then it's as if we have not cried out at all.

The kindness, love, patience, and goodwill towards humankind expressed in this verse serve as a sort of response to the beginning of this piyut, which sounds like the voice of someone who is nearly crushed by the difficulties of living life (I'll spare you the poor Hebrew transliteration this time):

"The best of men is like a briar-thorn."
"The blameless and pure man has vanished."
"The righteous has been trampled."

Towards the end of the piyut, after the bit I quoted above, the poet writes (echoing Song of Songs): "Your beloved ones knock at your door with a sorrowful voice."

The trajectory of the piyut--its author can no longer reach out to a fellow human, is feeling utterly trampled, his heart is broken and laid open before God, God is almost his last hope or his last resort--is stunning in its emotional vibrance. (Is that sentence total BS worthy only of an undergraduate paper written at 3 am? Perhaps. I guess I still have it in me.)

Part of me feels that it goes a bit too far in the "We suck, now please save us God" tone, but, really, whom among us hasn't felt that way? My favorite part is still the part I quoted at the top, and I think I could almost do without the rest of this piyut. It's the sweetest, happiest part of the piyut, and it describes a God who listens patiently, not the fearful, punishing God whom we tremble before in the rest of the piyut and in others.

I think that "Tov l'korehcha b'nefesh rahav" may sum up one essential reason that I believe in tefillah (prayer).

--------------------------------------------------------------------
* Note that there is no rhyme or reason to my transliteration. In short, it sucks. I will happily insert a better version from anyone for whom this comes naturally. If anyone knows of an electronic version of the Hebrew, all the better!

P.S. I also like "Tov l'korehcha b'nefesh rahav," "You are good to those who call upon you with all their soul" because it reminds me of one of my favorite verses from Psalm 145:
יח קָרוֹב יְהוָה, לְכָל-קֹרְאָיו-- לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת. 18 The LORD is nigh unto all them that call upon Him, to all that call upon Him in truth.

9.15.2006

Nitzavim - some questions

My recent attempts to daven more by going to shul more were fairly successful during this past week, and I heard the first three aliyot of Parshat Nitzavim more times than I have in recent memory. Two things were bugging me all week, but I didn't get a chance to do any research that might have led to an answer. Perhaps I will have time over Shabbat. They are:

1. There is a well-known midrash that states that all Jewish souls were present at Mount Sinai when the Torah was given and the covenant was sealed between God and the Jewish people. And yet the verse clearly states:
ט אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. 9 Ye are standing this day all of you before the LORD your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel....
יג וְלֹא אִתְּכֶם, לְבַדְּכֶם--אָנֹכִי, כֹּרֵת אֶת-הַבְּרִית הַזֹּאת, וְאֶת-הָאָלָה, הַזֹּאת. 13 Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath;
יד כִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם, לִפְנֵי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה, עִמָּנוּ הַיּוֹם. 14 but with him that standeth here with us this day before the LORD our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day--

What's up with that? I guess you could just say that their bodies weren't there but their souls were, but the whole point of this seems to be that the covenant is binding upon even those were not present at Mount Sinai in any form. (This can be very hard for us post-Enlightenment Jews to accept, but that's a discussion for another time.) It's interesting, because after stating unequivocally that the covenant and the oath are also made with people who were not present at the time, the Torah continues:

טו כִּי-אַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-יָשַׁבְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר-עָבַרְנוּ בְּקֶרֶב הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר עֲבַרְתֶּם. 15 for ye know how we dwelt in the land of Egypt; and how we came through the midst of the nations through which ye passed;
טז וַתִּרְאוּ, אֶת-שִׁקּוּצֵיהֶם, וְאֵת, גִּלֻּלֵיהֶם--עֵץ וָאֶבֶן, כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב אֲשֶׁר עִמָּהֶם. 16 and ye have seen their detestable things, and their idols, wood and stone, silver and gold, which were with them--

This is clearly talking to a generation who had an intimate knowledge of slavery and other abominations from Egypt, and it starts with the word "כִּי," "because." It's as if to say that "I, God, am making this covenant with you because you, the listeners, had personal experience in Egypt." Later generations were commanded to feel as if (ki'eelu) they had escaped Egypt, which implies that they had not. And yet, they are included in the covenant, even though the reason that the covenant was made with their ancestors does not apply to them.

(Aside: I've never really been clear on the timeline of the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, so I'm not sure if the people who are "נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם," "standing this day," are the generation that left Egypt or if all of those people have already died (except Moses) and this is the generation that was born in the desert. Another thing to possibly look into over Shabbat.)

2. The second thing that was bugging me a little were the dots over "לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ" in this verse, which is just beautiful:
כח הַנִּסְתָּרֹת--לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד-עוֹלָם--לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת. {ס 28 The secret things belong unto the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law. {S}

I think that the little dots mean that Ezra the Scribe or the Masoretes or someone made some corrections/amendations to the text at some point, but I don't really remember. And there might be some other "frummer" explanation given, which would also interest me.

I think that Nitzavim is one of my new favorite parshiyot, joining Vayeira and others that I hold near and dear. Ha'azinu is also pretty damn cool. I have a lot of favorite verses in Nitzavim, but these may take the cake:

יא כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם--לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ, וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. 11 For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off.
יב לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא: לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה. 12 It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?'
יג וְלֹא-מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, הִוא: לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲבָר-לָנוּ אֶל-עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה. 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?'
יד כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד: בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ. {ס 14 But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

In many ways, these verses symbolize what is more important to me about Judaism, Jewish life, Jewish observant, spirituality...and life. Shabbat is about to start. Maybe I'll write more about this another time. (And I may come back later to add a bunch of links, since I've linked nothing in this post so far.)

9.11.2006

9/11

Right at this moment, there are sirens going by, and walking to work this morning, the weather seemed so similar to the weather on September 11, 2001.

I was not living in New York at the time, but I was in Manhattan on September 10 and September 11, 2001 to do thesis research. I was at the Barnard library paying for microfilm prints when the student working behind the desk told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I sort of thought it was a joke. I paid for my microfilm and got into the subway, which went as far as 42nd St. and then a conductor said that it would not be traveling further south and that everyone should get off. He didn't say why. Some people in the car had heard of the plane hitting the tower, and some hadn't. I didn't really understand what it all meant. At that point, I think I was imaginging a small propeller plane or a single- or double-seater that wasn't going to do too much damage. I spent several hours in midtown, listening to radio reports from cars with their windows rolled down, watching TV broadcasts through the windows of appliance stores, and being witness to horror stories told by people walking uptown from Ground Zero. I somehow found another young woman who was also traveling alone, trying to get back to Boston. We got out of the city on one of the very first Amtrak trains to leave that day, and spent the entire trip back listening to horror stories from people who had been there and were getting out any which way they could. I'm not sure I ever really absorbed how traumatic it was, because I always felt that it was more traumatic for so many others, that who was I to feel traumatized? So I didn't. I just focused on getting back to Boston and starting another school year.

At this point, I feel sort of detatched from it all, sort of the way I feel detatched from the horror of Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami before it, which killed 230,000 people.

I'm also not sure what the best way is to commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, or those who died, given that I don't personally know anyone who died in the attack. I don't want to watch CNN's feed of the 2001 news broadcast, nor do I want to get worked up about how it's five years later and Ground Zero is still a big hole in the ground. I do get angry when I think about how lax security still at major public institutions/areas/airports in this country, compared to how it is in Israel. (It's a pain in the neck to constantly have your bags inspected in Israel, but I feel pretty safe there.)

In summary, I have nothing to say that hasn't been said better by someone else. (For example, Orthomom reposted her moving post from last year. Also, check out the New York Times' updated profiles of survivors of 9/11 victims.)

9.10.2006

Brain Sex

There, that caught your attention, didn't it? (Wonder what kind of weird searches will draw people to my blog now...)

In today's New York Times Book Review section, there was a review of a book that looked somewhat interesting, called The Female Brain (by Louann Brizendine). The review was mixed--it sounds like the book covers some interesting topics, but doesn't fully respect the intelligence of its readers (i.e., low on facts and hard numbers). It's also possible that Brizendine makes very general claims about men's and women's brains without sufficient evidence to back herself up. The first chapter of The Female Brain is online through the NYT if you want to read it.

If you want numbers, statistics, and data about brains in general, as well as about differences between male and female brains, this BBC website is a good place to start. And here is a quiz, developed by the good people at the BBC Science and Nature division, that can supposedly tell you whether your brain has more typically male strengths or traits or more female strengths or traits. I already completed all six parts (over a month or so), and can tell you my results later on. (Hint: Read these back-and-forth comments between me, my brother, and others in response to a post on International Women's Day last March.) Taking the quiz itself was interesting. I'm so competitive that I wanted to be good at all the parts, and I wasn't. (I doubt anyone would be. Let me know if you are so I can feel inferior. Thanks!)

Finally, something else, a bit lighter, from today's New York Times. It's a quick, funny read.

9.07.2006

Zoroastrians, Jews, Conversion, and Intermarriage

This article from yesterday's New York Times was interesting, and sad. I didn't know much about Zoroastrianism until I read the article this morning, but it seems like a cool religion as religions go. The article was about how the population of Zoroastrians is dwindling worldwide, such that one Zoroastrian priest asserts that there won't be any more Zoroastrians in a hundred years. It sounded a lot like the doomsday predictions that are made about North American Jewry every few years, but they have different issues than the Jews. There seem to be a few main causes for the dwindling population of Zoroastrians:
  1. They don't proselytize at all, and there is even a dispute over whether one can choose to convert to Zoroastrianism, because some feel that it is an ethnic religion rather than a universal religion.

  2. There seems to be no real social pressure within the Zoroastrian community not to intermarry, and because conversion isn't encouraged, and children of intermarried parents are not necessarily considered Zoroastrian, intermarriage = fewer Zoroastrians. The New York Times article said that, "some Zoroastrian priests refuse to accept converts or to perform initiation ceremonies for adopted children or the children of intermarried couples, especially when the father is not Zoroastrian." Intermarriage is particularly an issue now that Zoroastrians live dispersed all over the world, and are not concentrated in parts of India and Persia (Iran) as they once were.

  3. Zoroastrianism believes in gender equality and full education for women, so many Zoroastrian women become very accomplished professionally, and have fewer children.
This is all interesting in and of itself, but it is also interesting to compare it to Judaism, and the fears about Judaism being assimilated out of existence, at least in North America. It is clear that Judaism is in much better shape than Zoroastrianism, at least on a few counts.
  1. The first is that while Judaism doesn't proselytize, it certainly accepts converts. The method of conversion may be in dispute, but there is no doubt that Judaism is both a nationality and a religion, and that you can become part of the "ethnic" (transmitted through birth parents) nation by accepting the religion in one form or another.

  2. The second is that there is social pressure not to intermarry in at least parts of the North American Jewish community, although if one doesn't adhere to the religion, it is hard to see the value behind marrying a Jew. I don't think that some sort of vague guilt is a strong enough inducement against intermarriage to last for more than a generation or two. There also seem to be a lot more Jews around than Zoroastrians, and they might be concentrated more in a few urban areas, so it is probably easier not to intermarry if you'd rather not and you're Jewish. (Not that there aren't Jews spread far and wide in the US and Canada, but if you wanted to marry a Jew, you could probably find a few marriageable ones in any decent-sized city in either country.)
    Also, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism believes that the child of a Jewish mother and any father is Jewish, while Reform Judaism accepts any child of at least one Jewish parent as Jewish as long as they are raised in the Jewish faith (and not, say, also receiving formal instruction in Christianity). While intermarriage can often lead to assimilation in Judaism, it doesn't need to as it does according to some Zoroastrians.

  3. On the third issue, that of birthrate, I think we North American Jews probably have the same problems as the Zoroastrians, although we do have some Jews who have a boatload of kids. Still, average Jews in North America probably have fewer kids than average Christians or average Muslims in North America. (According to the April 2005 report, "Jewish Distinctiveness in America: A Statistical Portrait":
  4. Despite having more stable marriages, Jews have smaller families than other groups do....They have fewer brothers and sisters than any other ethnic/racial or religious group (2.4 vs. an average of 3.8); they are tied with Italians for the lowest number of children ever born (1.6 compared to an average of 1.9), but do have more children than those with no religion (1.2) and Other Religions (1.4). They have the smallest current household size of any ethnic/racial or religious group (2.5 vs. an average of 2.9).
So what?

I guess what all of this makes me think is that it's both good to discourage intermarriage as a dilution of the faith, and to encourage conversion and adoption of Judaism as one's religion for those who want it. Doing the opposite, as the Zoroastrians are, is not a recipe for success. And that makes me sad.

Mazal tov!

I don't know this couple, but I'm glad they're getting married. They look so...content together. The messages in the guestbook are sweet, too.

(And, no, I don't regularly check out OnlySimchas; I was looking for someone specific who got engaged, to wish them a mazal tov.)

9.06.2006

Spirituality on the Upper West Side

At OZ's Tuesday Night Learning Program last night, R. Dovid Wilensky spoke on "Retaining, Cultivating & Developing your Spirituality while living on the West Side." Did any of my local readers attend? What did he say? I'm curious. Is the implication that life on the Upper West Side concentrates on our physical and material needs, rather than on our spiritual needs? I wouldn't dispute that.

Personally, I haven't found retaining, cultivating, and developing my spirituality while living on the Upper West Side to more difficult than anywhere else I've lived, which I guess isn't saying much.

What does "spirituality" mean, anyway? People talk about it a lot these days, but few define it. I have some idea of what it means in a sort of hippy, Jewish renewal-ly context, but not so much at OZ. When I think of spirituality, I think of yearning to connect with something greater than oneself, and outside oneself. That yearning is sometimes expressed in deeply-felt tefilah, sometimes in music, song, dance, or other artistic expression. Having been educated in the Soloveitchikian model, I believe that spirituality can also be expressed through studying Jewish texts, through talmud Torah. However, that doesn't mean that praying, singing, dancing, painting, or studying are always spiritual experiences--they often aren't.

Conclusion: Spirituality is defined but what you bring to the experience of life, not by where you live.

(Except maybe if you're in yeshiva and/or you have someone bankrolling your life, so you can focus on just the spiritual, not the physical. I suppose getting rid of some of the trappings of our physical existence would also help, but I'm a packrat so I'm not heading in that direction.)

9.03.2006

How you found me, part 2

Yay, statcounter! (Part 1 is here, for those who missed it.) In no particular order:
More substantive blogging may follow, now that I know that I am a popular Jewish blog.

9.01.2006

On Teshuva

I feel the urge to write about teshuva (repentance), but I have been thinking about it so much that I haven't had time to write about it!

I have figured out what the bulk of my teshuva will constitute this Elul season, and I know that it is a lifelong process that will not be over before Yom Kippur. Sorry for being so cryptic, but I'm trying to figure out exactly how much the world needs to know about me. I think probably more than it currently does, but exactly how much remains to be seen. Be prepared for either big changes in this space...or more of the same.

In the meantime, read RabLab's musings on teshuva, and Josh Yuter's. I liked them both, although I suspect that I have a slightly different attitude towards teshuva than either of them.