My favorite gay-and-lesbian teshuvah

It took me this long to read Rabbi Gordon Tucker's teshuvah? It's as if all the questions and problems I have been having, all the points I have been fumbling after (and wasting precious bandwidth on, inelegantly and ineloquently, in this blog) have been encapsulated and justified. Go read. Let's talk. Dov W., are you out there? Come challenge.
Choni the Furrow-maker
A.k.a. the Plasterer. Or the Roof-smoother.

All these are alternate translations of חוני המעגל, generally known in English as Choni the Circle-Drawer. Listen to this particularly satisfying explanation of his name, from an article by Dr. Israel Rosenson.
There is a similarity between the עוגה (ugah) in this story and the עוגיות (ugiyos), round furrows around trees, mentioned in the laws of the intermediate days of festivals. "Irrigation ditches are watered during the intermediate days . . . but furrows are not made for vines" (Mishna Moed Katan 1:1).

According to this, Choni stands in the middle of the circle like a tree in the midst of its furrow-circle . . . to emphasize the dependence of a man's strength on his Creator.
Dietary epidemiology strikes again
The interesting epidemiological abstract of the week. Do you believe it?

Keep in mind that dietary patterns are devilishly hard to establish (never mind corroborate). (I talked here about the problems of dietary epidemiology. Michael Pollan debunked the whole field in a brilliant essay in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago.) Also, keep in mind that factor analysis is susceptible to subjective, nay idiosyncratic, notions of how factors should be defined. Nevertheless, this is an interesting abstract, particularly with the suggestion that a "Mediterranean" diet (olive oil, veggies) is associated with country of origin but not associated (negatively or positively) with diabetes.
Dietary Patterns and Diabetes Incidence in the Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study
Hodge et al.
American Journal of Epidemiology 2007 165(6):603-610

The authors investigated the association of dietary patterns and type 2 diabetes in a 4-year prospective study of 36,787 adults in the Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study (1990–1994). A total of 31,641 (86%) participants completed follow-up, and 365 cases were identified. Four factors with eigenvalues of greater than 2 were identified using the principal factor method with 124 foods/beverages, followed by orthogonal rotation. Variables with factor loadings having absolute values of 0.3 or greater were used in interpreting the factors. Odds ratios for diabetes incidence across quintiles of factor scores were computed by use of logistic regression, adjusting for age, energy intake, family history of diabetes, country of birth, and other factor scores. Factor 1, characterized by olive oil, salad vegetables, and legumes and by avoidance of sweet bakery items, margarine, and tea, was associated with country of birth but not with diabetes. Factor 2, characterized by salad and cooked vegetables, was inversely associated with diabetes. Factor 3, characterized by meats and fatty foods, was associated with increased diabetes risk. A range of fruits loaded strongly on factor 4, which showed little association with diabetes. Avoidance of a dietary pattern including meats and fatty foods, as well as adherence to a pattern including salad and cooked vegetables, is recommended.


The Emperor of Yiddish Words
Schaechter z"l, from 72nd Street to Bainbridgevke.

Mordkhe Schaechter, a linguist, lexicographer and rebbe of secular Yiddishists, died February 15. He was 79.

I became attracted to Yiddish when I was growing up in Louisville, Ky. Sitting in the back of Ms. Donsky’s German class, I often encountered Schaechter’s name while stumbling through week-old issues of the Forverts. On the basis of these references, I came to imagine a one-man Yiddish empire, an Academy of the Yiddish Language, publishing books, issuing edicts and deciding issues of style from a Yiddish Palace perched high in the mountains of Eastern Europe.

Read more in the Forward.
And you shall bind them (2)

A few days ago I talked about Rabbi Michael Broyde's prediction of the Conservative movement's imminent demise. What interested me were two throwaway statements: (1) "halachah is binding" (implying that this statement is unquestionably true for everyone, in the same way, at all times), and (2) American Jews can be divided into those who believe (1) is true and those who don't.

Comes a recent post by Jonathan Woocher on the Conservative e-mail list Shefa which nicely addresses point 2. So I'll quote it here in its entirety. Two points: although Broyde was trying to classify the whole of the Jewish community, Woocher talks here about the difficulty of defining the Conservative movement. I think the same difficulties apply to either, which is why I'm citing this. Second, the poster thinks it would be problematic for the Conservative movement to define itself based on behavioral criteria. I agree with this, probably for same reason as the poster. Indeed, it would be curious if behavioral criteria were not part of the C. movement's self-definition (such criteria being an essential part of halachah) - but only a part, since if it were the whole definition we would be a movement dedicated to self-policing and ruling people out rather than in.

I believe that part of the difficulty in addressing questions of denominational identity, boundaries, etc., is that there are multiple dimensions of what we might mean by, say, “the Conservative movement.” We might be talking about the movement’s 1) ideology (and, of course, none of the movements has a single, coherent ideology, but rather at best a set of ideologies with certain common elements); 2) program (different than an ideology; this is what it actually focuses its collective energies on at any given point in time); 3) institutions (synagogues, seminaries, USCJ, RA, etc.); 4) people (not just the public figures, but the people one encounters or encountered in the past in shul, school, camp, etc.; and/or 5) style (as with ideologies, movements do have multiple styles, but the “styles” of Conservative and Reform Judaism are generally fairly distinct). My observation is that what attracts individuals to a particular movement may be any of these (singly or in combination). So, one may well be ideologically “Reform,” but have a social network largely made up of Conservative Jews and prefer a service with more Hebrew.

There is a natural and understandable inclination to believe that ideology should be the trump card in this deck. This would lead to saying, e.g., that if you don’t believe in the normative authority of Halakha (leaving aside for the moment what we understand Halakha and its normative authority to be), you really don’t belong in the Conservative movement. However, it’s not clear to me that we should privilege ideology in this fashion, especially since it is an arena in which multiple positions coexist. So, unless one is prepared to set either strict ideological boundaries (how would we enforce these?) or – even more problematic – behavioral boundaries (which is where this thread began: questioning whether those who do not follow “normative Conservative practice,” e.g., not eating non-Kosher food outside the home, should have their opinions counted on an issue like gay ordination), I’m afraid we are stuck with an ambiguous movement in an ambiguous world.

I, for one, am comfortable with this, since the alternative would in my view be far worse, namely a movement constantly checking its tzitzes. I would not find this a very appealing landscape on which to take my Jewish journey.


Happy 100th, Wystan!

This is always worth hearing -- not his best poem (or his best reading), but one of my favorites.


Should not have been a talmid-khokhem

I am trying to express my appreciation of Schaechter (as everyone called him) in a limit-yourself-to-800-words sort of way. Meanwhile, a thought from today's shiva call, where someone quoted a frum acquaintance of the deceased. "It's a pity [Dr. Schaechter] wasn't a Torah scholar," the acquaintance supposedly said, "because he was so medakdek [punctilious]."

Two possible responses: no, he shouldn't have been a Torah scholar, because then he wouldn't have been what he was. Torah scholarship is not so destitute, nor the Jewish world of intellectual endeavor so narrow, that every talent must be yeshiva-fied. We have minds aplenty and lots of problems to work on, from the nature of God to the proper number of bird sacrifices - to questions of language preservation and standardization.

In fact, Schaechter was a secular Jew. Some friends and I (they are academic Yiddishists who devote their life to the language and literature) are discussing his passing over e-mail, and one pointed out that our subject line (borekh dayen emes, "Blessed be the True Judge"), while an appropriate and natural response for some of us, is not appropriate for Schaechter. He was many things in his appreciation of the Jewish people, but religious he was not. He was a secular Yiddishist, an ideology with its own powerful advantages, blindnesses, and failings, not to be lumped into our own personal categories, no matter how much we are beholden to them.

Second is that being medakdek (הקפדה, דקדקניות) is not what I think of as necessary for a Torah scholar. Encyclopedic knowledge, certainly; exactitude, yes; but above all an inspired creativity. But creativity is a dirty word in some circles.


Mordkhe Schaechter olevasholem

Dr. Schaechter, the linguist, teacher, editor, lexicographer, and (for lack of a better word) rebbe of Yiddishists everywhere, has died. The funeral will be tomorrow.

Update: The Times obituary.


The first Valentine’s day

was Valentine’s last --
his head bid on by an apothecary.
A cut-rate martyr.
The last thing in his head (save the blade)
a tavern:

close, smoky, ringing with soldiers’ serenades to others’ wives
while in a darkened corner
he brooded over a wine-stained tabletop
carved with pairs of small crosses: Valentine’s
illegal young marrieds,
contra legem imperatoris.

He’s under the deepest coldest
dirt in Rome. On that spot, now, a couple stands,
kissing each other breathless,
waiting and forgetting
for the light to change -- hot blood and

no head.


And you shall bind them

Rabbi Michael Broyde wrote in the Jewish Week that Conservative Judaism is dying. Sad, don't you know, to see pure Jewish souls lost to the likes of Ramah and JTS. And it's all because we embraced the homosexuals and uprooted a clear "Sinaitic prohibition". (If, on the other hand, we had created a "Sinaitic prohibition" where none existed before, that would be okay. But I digress.)

Now, the bulk of the article is founded on the same mistaken premise beloved by Orthodox demagogues everywhere: that "Jewish law" is by definition what Orthodox rabbis say is Jewish law. Thus Conservatism does not follow Jewish law because (wait for it) Conservative Judaism is not Orthodox.

The author, I remind you, is a professor of law at Emory.

But even apart from this intellectual heavy lifting he does say something interesting:
The truth is that there is a grand divide in the Jewish community worldwide between two groups: those who think that Jewish law (halacha) is really, truly, binding and those who do not.
There are two implied propositions here:
1. Jewish law is binding.
2. Jews can be divided into two groups: those who think 1. is true and those who think 1. is not true.

What does it mean for halachah to be "binding"?

With "binding" in English we generally refer to a legal decision or agreement which the party or parties have agreed to follow beforehand, as in the phrases "binding contract" or "binding arbitration." An individual or body issues a decision on a contested point of law or procedure; the party must act according to that decision on pain of negative consequences.

Halachah is different. In some cases, a person presents a question to a rabbi on a certain matter, the rabbi renders a decision, and the person then acts according to that decision. This happens in a minority of occasions, even in Orthodox communities - thus I don't think that this what Rabbi Broyde is referring to in his characterization of halachah as binding. Rather, he is more plausibly referring to the body of halachah as binding.

Leave aside for a moment how we should define the body of halachah, because this is where R. Broyde and his Conservative colleagues differ. The problem is, for understanding "bindingness," that the situation of the Jew following halachah is different from the legal subject obeying a legal decision. For one thing, the source is not clear. Theologically speaking, the Source is clear, but halachah is many-layered, many-authored, and oftentimes internally contradictory. Thus, unless one asks a particular rabbi for a particular decision at that particular second, there are many particular elements of "Jewish law" one could hew to, or not. Even a given halachic question can be differently framed depending on how the "body of halachah" is understood.

The above is not to say that Jewish law is not binding. Of course I think it is! Merely that it is not enough, true, or convincing to say that "Jewish law is binding" means "I look in the Shulchan Aruch and I do what it says." The fact that I can disagree with one halachic source and agree with another makes any such characterization difficult.

In fact, given that halachah is so multi-faceted and non-unitary, it is no wonder that minds much greater than I have defined the bindingness of halachah as contingent on the existence of a community which sees halachah as binding! Thus we're right back to where we started, unless R. Broyde is of the opinion that "halachah is binding" means "Orthodox Jewish practice is binding."

Why all this throwing words around? Because if we are to divide American Jews into groups based on who thinks Jewish law is binding, it would help to get a handle on what this proposition actually means. Let's imagine we've done that (though we haven't), and return later to the issue of what American Jews think - even more complicated than the definition of "binding"!


You vant I should stand outside vit my horse looking at de snow?

Translation fans might be interested in Katle Kanye's Yiddish version of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, and my attempt inspired by his. There have been several earlier translations of the poem into Yiddish, but I can't find any of them right now.


The teaching of Jethro

We're familiar with the organizational content of the advice given to Moses by Jethro (Jithro, Yithro, Yisro(y), Yitro [is that why the rabbis say he has many names?]) - an management system, with leaders for various strata of the children of Israel. Something I was reminded of this year was the religious-educational content of Jethro's advice. This is Moses's explanation to his father-in-law of his approach:
14 And when Moses' father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said: 'What is this thing that thou doest to the people? why sittest thou thyself alone, and all the people stand about thee from morning unto even?' 15 And Moses said unto his ather-in-law: 'Because the people come unto me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a matter, it cometh unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbour, and I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.'

Jethro's preface to his words of advice bespeaks a different emphasis.
20 And thou shalt teach them the statutes and the laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.

Unfortunately, the translation (JPS 1919) betrays us somewhat here, for in the original, the same word (וְהוֹדַעְתִּי, וְהוֹדַעְתִּי) is used in Moses's explanation ("make them know the statues of God, and His laws") and in Jethro's ("shalt show them the way wherein they must walk"). The root implies knowledge, understanding, and a host of other things. But what 's most important is what M. and J. choose to convey: the laws versus the way wherein they must walk, codification versus (presumably moral) instruction. The dispute is an old one. Jethro's argument for the usefulness of teaching in time management is no weaker for being implicit: if you show the pople where to go, they might be less likely to bother you in the future with picayune concerns about law and custom.

In medical terms: talk with the patient while she's in front of you rather than just telling her what to do. You might help her self-improvement and save yourself time in the long run.
The football news you expect
From the sports blog you trust.

The score in this year's Super Bowl was 29-17. Both numbers are primes! This has happened twice before, in 1980 and 1970. I will guess that this is precisely as likely as one would expect this sort of thing to happen by chance. That, or it's a divine sign of maddening ambiguity. God's like that.