He signed my title page!

If you know what this means, then you probably are a current or former graduate student, or related to one.

Feel free to leave appropriate sentiments in the comments. (If you don't know what the appropriate ones are, guess.)

More later on my continuing academic odyssey.


The Fig Tree
A poem by Israel Eliraz (b. 1936)

This fig tree's growing just as big as it can
as if it already grew here once.
That's the nature of this beauty, this tree growing with supreme sureness
inestimably greater than any sureness of mine,
looking at it this evening and eating its sweet fruit
of which only the honeyed idea of the infinite is sweeter,
that with all its attempts to come by and grow this tree
finally grew it, ring upon ring
fire within fire inexhaustible

Translated from the Hebrew by Z.Sh.B.


The Rabbinical Assembly and Rubashkin Meat Dependence

I wrote Rabbi Rafi Rank of the Rabbinical Assembly with my suggestion (well, rather more than a suggestion, but let's pretend I wrote with proper humility) that the RA forbid Conservative Jews to eat meat under the Rubashkin or Aaron's Best brand names, since the factory which produces these makes use of inhumane practices.

Rabbi Rank responds:

Thanks for your note to me and I applaud your desire for strength and bold moves. But let me tell you why the statement did not include a forthright prohibition of the meat. We did not render the meat assur because out in the hinterlands, there are many Jewish communities whose soul source of kosher meat is Rubashkins. I was not going to tell them that this meat was assur in light of the fact that there were no alternatives available to them. That would have placed such communities in a terrible bind and so when the issue of prohibiting the meat was discussed—and it was!—we eventually rejected it as a bad idea.

On the other hand, the statement does give my colleagues a great deal of latitude in how they might wish to treat the meat in their own congregations. And so, in my own congregation, here on Long Island (Syosset—have you heard of us?), I did tell my congregation not to buy that brand. But, of course, out here, I did not leave them without an alternative. This is, after all, Long Island.

I believe that I am not alone in telling my congregation not to buy the meat. The Rabbinical Assembly puts a great deal of trust in its rabbis and their bold yet reasoned decisions in behalf of their own communities. We produced a statement that would help them make their decisions and inform our laypeople exactly where we stand.

As for my under-publicized statement, it was under-publicized in the press, but it sure is making the rounds in the Cyber world!

Be well and Shalom—

Rafi Rank
President, The Rabbinical Assembly

I suppose the decision is a wise one. That's why I'm not a rabbi, I guess (together with many other reasons!), because I don't think through the communal impact of such things. Still, one would hope the RA would be rather more directive in its statements; it is not (merely) a guild for Conservative rabbis, after all, but also, whether it wants to be or not, a policy-making body for the Conservative movement. Surely there could be some information-gathering and
-dissemination, if not by the RA, then certainly the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, about which brands of meat use humane slaughter? My rabbi said he would look into it, but wouldn't such research be more efficient if done centrally?
Grande em Portugal

The Portuguese Jewish blog Rua de Judiaria ("Jews' Street") has named this humble site one of the Melhores Blogs de 2004. Well, shucks!


Abundance, worth, and greatness*

The Conservative Activists' Network is a grandly named e-mail list that Avi let me know about. Still too young for a bris, it already bears the Jewish name of Shefa (שפע, abundance). Its aim is no less than the "spiritual rebirth of the Conservative movement." (I'd settle for an interesting conversation.) Maybe it'll live up to its own pre-hype; in any case, I've signed up, and if anything of interest happens there I'll let you know.

Update: Maybe a financial rebirth is in order, along with leadership who knows where the money went.

*A phrase from the Sabbath liturgy (שפע, יקר וגדולה)
Correction: No it's not. It's שבח, יקר וגדולה -- praise, not abundance. I think I knew what I was writing was wrong, but I pressed on anyway! Nothing like exuberance in the commission of error. Thanks to anon for pointing it out.
The language of Cervantes

The service elevator is down the hall from my office. Here's what I heard this afternoon from two guys struggling with a large something-or-other (I didn't poke my head out to see what it was):

Puta. Mete fuerza, ¡coño!

I love Spanish.

(No, I'm not going to translate it. It's hypocritical, I know -- I'm sure these words will offend some Spanish speakers -- but there you are. I contain multitudes.)


Well, it's a start

The Rabbinical Assembly, in its finite wisdom, has made some fraction of its teshuvot finally available on its Web site. What fraction, and why, is kind of hard to puzzle out. Most of the recent volumes (from 1981 to 2000) seem to be represented -- but not completely. And there's a tantalizing division between the "public" and "non-public" teshuvot. It's a good thing some of these responsa are being kept private; wouldn't want to flood the public with too much Torah, after all.

Thanks to Am Echad's Avi for the heads-up. (Or Am Ehad, or something. Figure out how you're spelling it!)

Update: My wife points out that I had to hear about this from a fellow blogger, and not from something so grubby as a press release or news article. That's the ticket; try to make sure no one knows about this!


How dumb are academics? No dumber than bloggers. Part XXIV

Mickey Kaus, in the permalink-free magic kingdom that is Slate, tries his hand at public-health research:
How dumb are academics? Part XXIII: Today's N.Y. Post reports on a Harvard School of Public Health Study that found "men tend to do less exercise and put on weight" after they remarry, even though they eat healthier diets. The
explanation, offered by Dr. Patricia Mona Eng:

Time demands of a new spousal role may preclude routine exercise.

Alternative non-Harvard-approved explanation for why they exercised
more before they remarried: They wanted to get laid. ... On second
thought, that theory may be crude and inappropriate. Sex isn't a big factor in
male motivation. We all know that. Stick with the "time demands of a
spousal role" business. Yes, that's the ticket. ... 4:37 P.M.
Down, Mickey, down! To use your own prose tics, shouldn't you (a) read the study itself, in what many speakers of English call "research" (or maybe the NY Post is good enough?), (b) figure out if sex was actually asked about in the study itself, if you're too busy trashing gay marriage to do (a), and (c) check your own super-size reverse snobbery at the door? Why, it might be that public health researchers understand their own research better than you do! Could that be possible? [No, never! --ed.] I await Kaus's refereed papers addressing these issues, executed, I am sure, with his own acute knowledge of research methodology. [Stop using big words! --ed.] ...6:35 P.M.


Sholom-aleichem, Gentlemen
The original version of this hymn.

Sholom-aleichem, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Though some the custom still observe,
And don't learn on Christmas Day,
I find a blat gemore
Makes the carols go away.

O Jesus was a nice Jewish boy
Jewish boy;
O Jesus was a nice Jewish boy!


Killing them softly

The blog Am Echad posts a letter from Rabbi Perry Rank, the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, about the relationship between shekhite [kosher slaughter] and tsar-baley-khayim [(avoiding) cruelty to animals], written in response to the controversy surrounding the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, which provides meat sold under the brands Rubashkin and Aaron's Best. (Of course, why would the RA letter be published on the RA's Web site? That might lead to public discussion and debate, and we wouldn't want that!)

The connection between slaughter and avoiding cruelty is not a simple one, as our rabbi, Laurence Sebert of Town and Village Synagogue, pointed out yesterday in a derashah. Shekhite per se does not involve (as far as I'm aware) explicitly humanitarian judgments, but rather a combination of diagnostic criteria (so to speak), to ensure that the animal is whole of limb and not at death's door, and mechanical criteria, i.e. with what equipment and process the slaughter is to be performed. Some would say that the definition of shekhite and related kashrus [kosher status] should be expanded so as to include tsar-baley-khayim as a criterion. This, I think, would be a mistake for a number of reasons. In short, I think that this would lessen the usefulness of both categories rather than strengthen the committment to tsar-baley-khayim on the part of kashrus organizations and overseers. (Another reason for not conflating the two categories is that it does not seem to be clear whether tsar-baley-khayim is doyrayse, of Torah law, or derabonen, Rabbinic law -- though I haven't studied the issue yet myself; however, from the Talmud it seems to be the former)

The OU, which responded to the original controversy, has now confirmed that Rubashkin meat is kosher. That is, the violations of tsar-baley-khayim at the plant in question were not deemed sufficient to place the kashrus of the shekhite under suspicion; see Simcha's post which I linked to above.

I agree with Simcha that this is a public-policy issue and not strictly a kashrus issue. But I strongly disagree that we can now say "problem solved." Just the opposite. The letter from the RA refers to a responsum from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards published in 2000 (on-line thanks to Avi of Am Echad; also available in the 1991-2000 compendium of those responsa). Though the original teshuvah dealt with shackling and hoisting, an inhumane method of slaughter-associated animal handling now thankfully abandoned by most kosher slaughterhouses, the responsum notes in passing that certain sorts of animal pens are presumed to be inhumane, or, in the words of the Rankin letter, "inconsistent with our understanding of what it means to humanely treat an animal." There are humane alternatives, including what are called the Grandin pen and the ASPCA pen. (For more on this issue than you might ever have wanted to know, see this article by Dr. Temple Grandin.) It is one of the inhumane pens (called the Facomia pen) which is used by Agriprocessors, and will still be used even after this controversy (since the OU does not see any problem at the moment with the use of this pen itself).

I think the RA needs to go one step further than the OU. Conservative Jews need to be makhmir on tsar-baley-khayim -- or, in English: we need to be stringent in ensuring that animals to be slaughtered are treated humanely. Both the 2000 responsum and Rabbi Rank's letter place the onus on the slaughterhouses themselves. The teshuvah reads: "We rule that shackling and hoisting should be stopped." (Notice the absent clause. Who in particular is directed to do the stopping?) Similarly, the letter from Rabbi Rank urges "all those involved in shehitah to invest in and install those technologies that assure that the animal’s life is terminated speedily and with the humanity that Jewish law demands."

But this is not enough. As our rabbi pointed out, the issue will only be solved with consumer pressure, with strong and consistent behavior from individual buyers of kosher meat. They, that is, we, should tell our butchers, caterers, and groceries that we should not buy meat that is slaughtered in an inhumane fashion. Where do we start -- with what companies? Perhaps Rubashkin, if they use an inhumane pen.

In any case, the onus should be placed on the individual. For that reason, the RA should issue a psak, a legal judgment, forbidding (not recommending against, not suggesting, not hectoring, but forbidding) Conservative Jews to eat meat slaughtered in inhumane fashion, whether or not the meat is kosher. Such a psak would not conflate tsar-baley-khayim and shekhite, but would emphasize the importance of each. (What the halachic mechanism would be -- that I'm not sure about. Perhaps a takone, a rabbinic edict, or perhaps no explicit mechanism need be given, according to the way the CJLS works. There would also need to be a clear statement of the kashrus ramifications of such a psak: ideally, consumption of such meat from this time forward would be forbidden, but the meat eaten previously would not be rendered non-kosher retroactively; i.e. one would not have to kasher one's utensils.) Such an issur, act of prohibition, would be a powerful act in the service of the humane treatment of animals and (of lesser but still significant importance) the public face of Conservative rabbinics.

I plan on writing to Rabbi Rank to raise this issue; if any readers have any further suggestions on moving this proposal forward, I would welcome them.

P.S.: Another good source, in Hebrew, for discussions of shekhite is the long responsum by the Seridei Eish on stunning animals before slaughter, which he allowed. (It turns out, according to sources I've spoken to in the Conservative Movement, that Hebrew National uses the most humane methods of slaughter, since they stun the animals after shekhite.)

P.P.S.: Other sources (compiled some time ago by Dr. Josh Backon) relevant to tsar-baley-khayim:
Based on a biblical verse (Exodus 23:5), the Talmud (Shabbat 128b; Bava Metzia 32b) prohibits cruelty to animals and this prohibition was codified by the Rambam (Hilchot Rotzeach 13:1) [although it's not so clear that that's what he's codifying: ZShB] and the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 272:9). However, the Rema (Even HaEzer 5:14) indicates that if there is any human need, the prohibition is overturned (see also:Biur haGRA there s"k 40, and the Noda B'Yehuda Mahadura Tinyana Yoreh Deah 10 as brought in the Pitchei Tshuva YD 28 s"k 10). See also: Shvut Yaakov III 71, Chelkat Yaakov I 30, Sridei Eish III 7, Chiddushei Chatam Sofer on Messechet Shabbat 154b, Binyan Tzion 108, Tzitz Eliezer XIV 68,and the Trumat haDeshen Psakim uKtavim 105.
Update: Avi of Am Echad comes through again (at this point I have to assume he's a Conservative rabbi, or a close relative or personal friend of one) with two CJLS responsa on stunning/bolting after slaughter.


Chanukah "Gelt"

I'm not much for frum music, most of which is covered in a thin layer of smarm (synthesizers, children's choirs just a little bit flat, holier-than-thou quoting of psukim [verses from the Bible] out of any context). But I'm a sucker for Yiddish music, especially Yiddish music written in my lifetime. And Yiddish rap? Well, sign me up. (I've tried my hand at some ersatz Yiddish rap, but it's a long story. We weren't as bad as you think we were.)

Lipa Schmeltzer, a badkhn (roughly speaking, a Yiddish MC), has a great rap called Gelt which is already old news among Charedim everywhere. I heard it a month or so ago for the first time, and my friend just sent me an MP3 of it. If you want to hear it, I'll send you a copy, though it's a large file, 5 megs or so. (I wish I could transcribe the words, but I haven't the time. Here's a parody in English, though, for the Yiddish-impaired.)

(Perhaps you might like to read about Lipa Schmeltzer in Arabic?)


Culture's bustin' out all over

If you're a student of Arabic, you know how few and far between Arabic blogs are. A free Arabic blog host might be an efficient way to spread democracy (what strength democracy, and of what kind, I dunno. But it can't hurt, I guess!).

Meanwhile, in Israel, Ashkenazic culture, including Yiddish, have been generally denigrated and ignored ever since independence. It doesn't help that the elite are of Ashkenazic heritage. This puts Ashkenazic culture in a double bind: it's relegated to an Nth-class status by Ashkenazim themselves -- remind me to tell you sometime how ill-run and money-wasting the "Yiddish Culture Authority" of Israel is, or how much little spoken Yiddish it promotes -- while becoming associated in the minds of the underclasses with the despised elite. The worst of both worlds.

There's a movement for Ashkenazic identity trying to point out the idiocy of this denigration (known in Hebrew as shlilat-hagolut, which one might translate as Diaspora denial). While I don't support this group's every ideological tendency (they're too "post-Zionist" for my taste), nor do I share their quasi-romantic and -mythological view of Eastern European Jewish culture, I think Ashkenazic culture and Yiddish are necessary elements of an Israel that's representative of a wide spectrum of Judaisms.


No-name poetry

I don't know how many of you are poets who enter book contests. (For those who don't: it's a convenient system for paying strangers to throw away your manuscript.) If you are, you've probably heard of Foetry, a Web site (run, appropriately enough, by a group of anonymous muckrakers) that finds behind every poetry contest a web of nepotism and conspiracy: judges awarding publishing contracts to their own students; workshop buddies selecting each other for Best Poet. After spending a few minutes in this heady atmosphere of paranoia and accusation, you might start thinking that poetry publishing depends on personal relationships as much as it does on the quality of the work. That's crazy talk!

Some of the accusations are serious and seemingly true, some overblown. (One editor is said to have awarded a prize to a poet whose [anonymous] poems he recognized from a workshop they had both taken together. So a poet recognizes the work of another poet. And?) Perhaps, though, the most well-grounded problems might be solved by a simple application of the Magic of the Internet.

What I mean is this: these days I am preparing a scientific paper to submit to the American Journal of Epidemiology, which requires that all submissions be blind. (I don't know how it works yet, but I imagine you provide an e-mail which the automatic system, but not the first readers, keep track of.) Why can't all poetry submissions, not just for contests but for journal publication as well, be handled in a similar fashion? If Foetry, or the Academy of American Poets, or Poetry Magazine/The Poetry Foundation wanted to do a public service, they could present a beta version of such a system. Poems would be submitted without any names or addresses, which would then be provided only upon acceptance.

The main objection would be the one currently made by many editors against e-mail submissions: they're already flooded, so why make it any easier to send them poetry? If that's the case, think up some bureaucratic busywork to go along with the poem. Require the submitter to fill out a trial-subscription form for the magazine or journal she's submitting to (the form would be on-line, but separate from the submission system -- that is, the busywork would have to be completed, but its information wouldn't be connected to the submission). Or -- if we're thinking scandalous thoughts -- why not charge a submission fee, of, say, a dollar a poem?

If we had truly anonymous on-line submission, coupled with some small hurdles to keep the volume of submissions manageable -- while that wouldn't guarantee good poetry, it might keep out some more of the bad stuff.


I Heart Richard Dawkins

Did you catch the fawning interview of Richard Dawkins in Slate by the ordinarily sober and skeptical Jim Holt (whose writings on contemporary physics I quite look forward to)?

"[If] one finds oneself smiling frequently in the presence of this Oxford don," we're told, "it is out of sheer enjoyment at his gift for rendering the most subtle evolutionary ideas absolutely lucid." Okey-doke. Let's hear it!
"Why did humans lose their body hair? Why did they start walking on their hind legs? Why did they develop big brains? I think that the answer to all three questions is sexual selection," Dawkins said. Hairlessness advertises your health to potential mates, he explained. The less hair you have on your body, the less real estate you make available to lice and other ectoparasites. Of course, it was worth keeping the hair on our heads to protect against sunstroke, which can be very dangerous in Africa, where we evolved. As for the hair in our armpits and pubic regions, that was probably retained because it helps disseminate "pheromones," airborne scent signals that still play a bigger role in our sex lives than most of us realize.

I'm no creationist, and I understand that evolutionary biologists have to rely on speculation (running time backward, after all, is not in their experimental toolbox), but I fail to see how this is any way "subtle," or anything more than a just-so story of the sort peddled by E.O. Wilson et al. Consider the counterfactual alternative: "The more hair you have on your body, the more protection you have against sunstroke, which can be very dangerous in Africa, where we evolved. As for the lack of hair in our armpits and pubic regions, that probably evolved because it helps limit the number of lice and other ectoparasites in our pheronomone-producing regions; pheromones are airbone scent signals that play a bigger role in our sex lives than most of us realize." Compare the stories, and I doubt that one is more believable than the other. Except that we happen to be mostly hairless -- and we fit an "absolutely lucid," data-free narrative to the facts. QED. Or something. (And what about the hair on [some of] our arms?) I'm sure there is an evolutionary path to our current hair distribution, but I think the truly lucid (or at least true) explanation has more to do with genetic distributions and physiologic limitations than any hand-waving about pheromones.

The big head-pounder comes at the end, though:
At this point, Dawkins' wife, the actress Lalla Ward, shimmered into the lobby to collect him. One could not help noticing that, in her radiant blondness, she is even more attractive than her husband. Book tours are hard work, so I regretfully relinquished the celebrated author. Still, I could not forbear asking one more question as he walked away.

"You've called religion a 'dangerous collective delusion' and a 'malignant infection,' " I said. "Don't you think you're underplaying it a bit?"

Dawkins turned, smiled a small fox smile, and said, "Yes!"

Let's share a chuckle (but not before we've admired Dawkins's beautiful wife) over the "delusion" and "infection" that is religion. Perhaps Dawkins, with his great gift and vulpine smile, or Holt, for that matter, could "render absolutely lucid" why these claims are true. Or is it just too "subtle"?


Hurrah for completely anarchical minds!
The Khazars at mealtime.

A description by the "cranky 10th-century Armenian historian Movses Dasxuranci, from History of the Caucasian Albanians":

bestial, gold-loving tribes of hairy men.... an ugly, insolent, broadfaced, eyelashless mob in the shape of women with flowing hair....demented in their satanically deluded tree-worshipping errors in accordance with their northern dull-witted stupidity, addicted to their fictitious and deceptive religion....There we observed them on their couches like rows of heavily laden camels. Each had a bowl full of the flesh of unclean animals, and dishes containing salt water into which they dipped their food, and brimming silver cups and beakers chased with gold which had been taken from the plunder from Tiflis. They also had drinking horns and gourd-shaped utensils from which they lapped their broth and similar greasy, congealed, unwashed abominations. Two or three of them to one cup, they greedily and bestially poured neat wine into their insatiable bellies which had the appearance of bloated goatskins..... Possessing completely anarchical minds, they stumble into every sort of error, beating drums and whistling over corpses, inflicting bloody sabre and dagger cuts on their cheeks and limbs, and engaging naked in sword fights – oh hellish sight! – at the graves, man against man and troop against troop, all stripped for battle..... They danced their dances with obscene acts, sunk in benighted filth and deprived of the sight of the light of the creator.... They were also incontinent sexually, and in accordance with their heathen, barbarous customs they married their father's wife, shared one wife between two brothers, and married several women.
(Funny, I don't remember Yehuda HaLevi including a scene like that.)

From Idiocentrism, a/k/a John J. Emerson, formerly known as the ubiquitous commenter Zizka. Via Language Hat.


An EPYC web site

The next time someone wants to learn about Eastern European Jews, their lives, towns, and the language and culture they created, I'm sending them here.

(This doesn't mean that the site is error free. For example, one page about "internal bilingualism" -- the complementary use of Hebrew and Yiddish in traditional Ashkenazic culture -- displays the covers of two translations of Tolstoy's "War and Peace," one in Hebrew, Milkhama ve-shalom, and one in Yiddish, Milkhome un sholem. The two images are mixed up, though. Something else puzzled me: at the top of the site, the Hebrew title reads Tokhnit khinukhit lelimud tarbut yehudit. Why not tarbut yidish or yidit?)


Thanksgiving leftovers
and Denver relations.

There were traditional family greetings: the opening gambit of my lawyer-philosopher uncle that he had (yet again) found a great proof for the non-existence of God (nice try!); discussions of poetry with the other uncle who was there (who also, in jovial greeting, pumped my baby's hand many times, pump-handle style, to her great amusement); my daughter's discovery of the fun that can be had with a pair of grandparents.

There were traditional activities done in non-traditional ways: a Shabbos spent at two shuls (Friday night at this shul, at whose previous incarnation my Mom and Dad were married -- it labels itself as traditional but seems to be moving ever-rightward, or, with the mechitzah height, upward; Shabbos morning with the Reconstructionists, the shul my grandmother attends).

There were activities afforded by opportunity: two Scotch-on-the-rocks at my aunt and uncle's place, part of my graduate-student mental-health regimen. (I suppose the only true guarantor of graduate-student mental health would be a fifth of Scotch, neat. But I digress.)

There was the brined turkey. I had read about brined turkeys but never yet consumed one, which I did in Denver with gusto, brio, and relish. (Not to mention panache and afan. And ganas.)

On the airplane from snowy Denver to chilly New York City, I gnawed at the turkey leftovers in satisfied fashion while our daughter slept. The woman on my left murmured, "Your baby's so good!" That was before Blanca woke up and fussed for the last forty-five minutes of the flight. Repeat after me, ma'am: Keyn eynore. Keyn eynore.
A Vigil to Protest the Darfur Genocide

Candlelight Vigil to Protest the Ongoing Genocide in Darfur

Monday, December 13, 6:30pm

Washington Square Park, NYC (Fountain Plaza)

This multi-denominational event is co-sponsored by the students of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, NYU Law Students for Human Rights, the Darfur Rehabilitation Project and the American Anti-Slavery Group's New York Chapter.