Dog bites man

If you were around when I was posting about rabies in China, and found the topic interesting (I do, but then again I'm an epidemiologist), you should check out this WHO dossier.
Saprophytic poets

Molds and bacteria feed on dead animals; that’s why the carcasses disappear after a while. But there might be a penultimate stage in the ecological cycle: the poet, notebook in hand, piling up metaphors on the lifeless creature.

I’m talking about the recent run in Slate of dead-animal poems. Dan Chiasson mused on the departed cockle in November. Then, on December 2nd, came Rick Barot’s dead, frozen gull. Barry Goldensohn, not to be outdone, meditated yesterday on toad skin.

I don’t know if this officially counts as a trend, and certainly these poems might have been written months or years ago. But Robert Pinsky, the official poet anointer of Planet Slate, seems to be awfully partial to memento mori.

I wonder why that is. My unfounded theory is that such dissection is a projection of the confessional impulse. I know, thinks the poet, that poetry is meant to plumb the Depths of the Soul, all the rotting-away and disease-unto-death that’s found there – what better objective correlative than an actual-factual animal, just like me, moldering away there where my pencil is pointing?

In the final analysis, thematics are independent of a poem’s quality. Barot’s poem is lovely and lyrical; Goldensohn’s is crude, verging on obscene (“How much of us will last, tough, stiff,/cured by summer sun. Our better towels/outlast our flesh. Are Nazi lampshades/holding up? Shrunken heads? Mummies?/Count on bones. Stone monuments. A few poems.”). But the general trajectory of these poems can be roughed out:

1. Description of the deceased;

2. Connection of the departed to some larger trend (death in general; natural decay; royal purple); and then the obligatory

3. meditation on our own unavoidable passing.

In any case, the next time I read another of these I wouldn’t be surprised if I were to shout out, “For God’s sake, leave the poor animal alone!”


The primordial soup

Today we went to B&H Dairy, an unassuming temple of the vegetarian palate on 2nd Avenue between 8th and 9th with lunch specials for under seven dollars. Width: a table plus a lunch counter; length: about eight tables. We sat in the back, and after we had finished eating (lox and bagel for Her, kasha varnishkes for Your Host), we were treated to a culinary renactment of the creation myth. A sturdy woman, not large but broad and solid of beam, made different sorts of soup in a number of sizeable plastic cans.

She did it like this. Each canister seemed to have a base of some sort (beets, I suppose, for the borscht, potatoes for the potato soup, and so on). She boiled an awful lot of boiling water in a very large metal pot and doled out steaming potfuls to each canister. She did the same thing with an impressively large quantity of noodles, which only some soups were favored with, and then made the rounds with various spices in small dishes, from which she dumped generous portions into each soup -- salt first, then something yellow. The borscht got a dollop of a concoction from a brown bottle labeled Seasoning.

All of this work with hot pots, boiling water, and confined spaces was done in sandals and ungloved. Such unceremoniousness producing such ambrosial results: Whitman, you should be living at this hour!

So (lehavdil and all that) that's what I think creation was like: no fireworks, no unfolding of some Rosenzweigian revelatory flower, just some simple orders: "Light! Darkness!" Then later: "Plants! Animals!"

Not that all of creation is as tasty as B&H. But we can certainly try.


"Then indeed would the human race be plunged into madness and despair"

We find ourselves in the midst of the Seven Days of Repentance, that hallowed period between the two High Holidays of Christmas and New Year's.

(I am inspired to make this remark in part by a recent post of Katle Kanye's. Among other things, he says: Every year I torture myself trying to understand what [Christmas] is. Is it like Purim, or is like Yom Kippur? Or Sukkos? Or possibly even Shavuos? Let me explain. The trees on the street and in the houses are definitely like the leaves of Shavuos, but many put their trees out by the window and that's a little like Chanukah, since that's pirsumei nisa. On the other hand the pretty blinking lights are leftover sukkah decorations, so it's Sukkos, and the trees are like schach, "so that your future generations will know." But then the midnight mass and the holy choral singing is like Kol Nidrei. Once the day comes, though, everyone gets drunk and puts on red hats, and it's a Purim-like atmosphere. With the turkey, of course, there's a taste of Simchas Torah. [...])

In this time of year, when the nation is in a fever of commercial intent, it might be useful for my non-Christian readers to try and understand a bit of the more interesting intellectual and spiritual meaning of Christmas. Our man Wystan (as Sarah Beck might call him) has thoughtfully provided us with his Christmas oratorio, "For the Time Being," and I thought there might be no better time to excerpt a goodish chunk of Herod's monologue. (Well, an even better time might have been on the 25th, but this isn't exactly a current-events blog, is it?) Of course, there's nothing whatsoever to learn about Judaism from this stuff. Not a thing.

If you wonder when I'm going to be blogging on more strictly Jewish topics, wait for my blockbuster post on the Tenth of Tevet, which I have no intention of writing.


[. . .]

I have tried everything. I have prohibited the sale of crystals and ouija-boards; I have slapped a heavy tax on playing cards; the courts are empowered to sentence alchemists to hard labour in the mines; it is a statutory offence to turn tables or feel bumps. But nothing is really effective. How can I expect the masses to be sensible when, for instance, to my certain knowledge, the captain of my own guard wears an amulet against the Evil Eye, and the richest merchant in the city consults a medium over every important transaction?

Legislation is helpless against the wild prayer of longing that rises, day in, day out, from all these households under my protection: "God, put away justice and truth for we cannot understand them and do not want them. Eternity would bore us dreadfully. Leave Thy heavens and come down to our earth of waterclocks and hedges. Become our Uncle. Look after Baby, amuse Grandfather, escort Madam to the Opera, help Willy with his home-work, introduce Muriel to a handsome naval officer. Be interesting and weak like us, and we will love you as we love ourselves."

Reason is helpless, and now even the Poetic Compromise no longer works, all those lovely fairy tales in which Zeus, disguising himself as a swan or a bull or a shower of rain or what-have-you, lay with some beautiful woman and begot a hero. For the Public has grown too sophisticated. Under all the charming metaphors and symbols, it detects the stern command, "Be and act heroically"; behind the myth of divine origin, it senses the real human excellence that is a reproach to its own baseness. So, with a bellow of rage, it kicks Poetry downstairs and sends for Prophecy. "Your sister has just insulted me. I asked for a God who should be as like me as possible. What use to me is a God whose divinity consists in doing difficult things that I cannot do or saying clever things that I cannot understand? The God I want and intend to get must be someone I can recognize immediately without having to wait and see what he says or does. There must be nothing in the least extraordinary about him. Produce him at once, please. I'm sick of waiting."

To-day, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. "God has been born," they cried, "we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters."

One needn't be much of a psychologist to realize that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn't have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.

Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions -- feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of school children ranked above the greatest masterpieces.

Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Priapus will only have to move to a good address and call himself Eros to become the darling of middle-aged women. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are twenty years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver tea-pots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, or malignant tumours, or four o'clock in the afternoon.

Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: "I'm such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow." Every crook will argue: "I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged." And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance. The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate. O dear, Why couldn't this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can't people be sensible? I don't want to be horrid. Why can't they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn't, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better? On the contrary it would make it far, far worse. For it could only mean this: that once having shown them how, God would expect every man, whatever his fortune, to lead a sinless life in the flesh and on earth. Then indeed would the human race be plunged into madness and despair. And for me personally at this moment it would mean that God had given me the power to destroy Himself. I refuse to be taken in. He could not play such a horrible practical joke. Why should He dislike me so? I've worked like a slave. Ask anyone you like. I read all official dispatches without skipping. I've taken elocution lessons. I've hardly ever taken bribes. How dare He allow me to decide? I've tried to be good. I brush my teeth every night. I haven't had sex for a month. I object. I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.


The City of God

What thou lovest well is felt violently.
Stays on in us. I know Paradise is not
the cypress tree God showed me as his heart.
Is not the country, is not beautiful.
It is the city streets in bad weather.
Small dirty shops with custard pastries
and coffee and steam-covered windows.
I do not speak the language of that paradise.
Why am I so happy to be going there?
Something rings and cries and shines
and is black in me. I am walking with it
into the City of Heaven. I will smell
all the people, my body hot inside the shop.
Rain will be falling heavily outside.

Chosen by the Lion

I am the one chosen by the lion at sundown
and dragged back from the shining water.
Yanked back to bushes and torn open, blood
blazing at the throat and breast of me.
Taken as meat. Devoured as spirit by spirit.
The others will return quickly to drink again
peacefully, but for me now there's only faith.
Only the fact that the tall windows I lived
with were left uncovered halfway up.
And the silence of those days I lived there
which were marked by your arrivals like
stations on a long journey. You write to say
you love me and lie awake in stillness
to avoid the pain. I remember looking
at you from within at the last moment,
with faith like a gift handkerchief, delicate
and almost fragile. This is the final thing.
Purity and faith, power and blood. Is there
nothing to see? Not memory even of forgetting?
Only the body meeting the body? What of faith
when it meets death, being when it is hard
to account for? The nipples you bit
and the body you possessed lie buried in you.
My faith shines as the moon in the darkness
on water, as the sky in the day. Does it hover
in the air around you? Does it come like
a flower in your groin? Or is it like before
when you were alone and about to fall asleep
saying out loud in the darkness, "Linda,"
and hearing me answer immediately, "Yes!"

-both by Linda Gregg
from Chosen by the Lion (Graywolf Press, 1994).
Is there a Chinese speaker in the house?

If so, can you tell me what this says? Especially the part near the bottom that mentions a certain Yiddish-speaking hatted cat.

Please e-mail me if you have any idea at all. Thanks!


Tony Judt is not entirely wrong

I am reluctant to write about matters Israeli-Palestinian: first, because of all the incoherent shouting on the right and left; and second, because the mammoth Middle East overshadows other, more subtle questions which are perhaps more important to leading a considered Jewish existence. Occasionally, however, an opportunity for staking out the middle ground presents itself. Thanks to Kesher Talk for providing a link to the relevant material.

Tony Judt's original essay in The New York Review of Books received much hostile press, and I can't say that it was undeserved. In defending himself against his critics, he repeats his main claim, which (as I discuss below) I find wholly false. On the way there, however, he makes some worthwhile points which are not commonly addressed by those who care about Israel. It is a pity that those points can only be made from those on Judt's end of the spectrum.

The core of his argument (as Judt himself states) is this: "This, then, was the core of my argument: it is not the state that is anachronistic (pace Walzer's misreading of me), but the Zionist version of it." I suspect that Walzer's "misreading" (actually quite a plausible reading) was an attempt to find the least objectionable construction of Judt's argument. For if we are meant to take Judt at the face value of this, his newest claim, there is something about the Zionist state which is "anachronistic" enough (read: "immoral enough," for the "anachronistic" state is one which does not conform to modern notions of political right) for the world to be rid of it.

It is theoretically possible (though, of course, quite improbable, and one pales at the thought) that a Zionist state, by the very immorality of its foundations, could cede the right to exist -- just like there have been actual states in history which should not have existed. Judt errs, however, in thinking that Israel, in its present incarnation, is immorally constructed. The important error in his argument is this. Israel is indeed flawed, and deeply so, but not in a more fundamental way than all nation-states are flawed. Michael Walzer, whose thought I am happily biased towards, makes this point in his response to Judt.

Let me explain further. According to Judt, while the European nation-states do indeed discriminate among applicants for citizenship, they do not discriminate in a fundamental way among all those who become citizens. It is only Israel, he writes, which discriminates between citizens based on their ethnic origin.

I don't think this is true. The alarm bells start ringing when one reads his description of the nature of Frenchness, a rush-job at the speed of special pleading ("But if someone is a citizen of, e.g., France, he or she is French and that is all there is to the matter, at least as far as the law is concerned."). As Daniel Boyarin pointed out in a talk of his I attended today, the French view of different minority religious communities is precisely that: a French view, strongly conditioned by Christian ideas of religion as distinct from ethnicity and nationality. For example, in its recent outlawing of "religious symbols" in schools, the French government made a serious category mistake, assuming that yarmulkes and head-scarves for Jews and Muslims serve just the same function as crosses for Christians: religious symbols. This Christian approach in the name of the French government (which does not even realize that its policy is conditioned in such a way) puts the lie to Judt's naive assumptions of a "neutral" Frenchness. Indeed, as Michael Walzer points out, it is only the United States which attempts to create in its political-cultural sphere a "neutral space," not beholden to any particular founding religion.

This is only one, comparatively minor example. The point is that many of the European states do indeed discriminate among their citizens -- and that Israel can do so in the same way, without jeopardizing the fundamental moral nature of its society.

Israel discriminates between Jews and non-Jews in two different ways. The first way, and most troubling, is discrimination not in keeping with any fundamental political values appropriate to a democratic state -- I mean those stated quite clearly in Israel's declaration of independence, according to which citizens are granted rights without regard to race or religion. It is in this category that Judt makes necessary points, for there exist those forces in Israeli society that would discriminate against Arabs in a fundamentally unjust way -- e.g., by denying them the right to live where they choose, through unjust search and seizure, through unjustifiable military persecution of innocents.

Judt is wrong in his assumption that such unjust discrimination is at the very foundation of Israeli society. The vital political culture that includes energetic defenders of and advocates for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and the political institutions which guarantee Arab participation, make it clear that such unjustice is the system's imperfection rather than its goal. Judt is right, however, to point them out. As we see in the unreflective Israel cheerleading of Abraham Foxman (who also responds to Judt), there are far too many leaders of the Jewish community who cannot bring themselves even to admit that Israel's political culture is capable of injustice!

There is another way in which Israel discriminates. "Discrimination" is perhaps not the right word for this activity, the characteristic of most nation states and one that Judt wishes to deny. France gives special treatment to French Catholics -- not in granting them a higher class of political privilege, but in granting them the status of majority. Those French who are defined this way, in terms of their culture and nationality (and who can deny that this is what comes to mind when thinkng of "the French"?), are differently treated by the political culture than French Muslims. Similar observations can be made about other European nation-states, including Poland, Spain, Italy.

Israel is founded on democratic, majority-Jewish principles, a nation-state in the tradition of other nation-states. It is also imperfect and capable of injustice. It is disheartening that so few public intellectuals seem able to accomodate these multiple truths.
The flames of speculation

In the tractate Horayos (or Horayot, for those of you allergic to Ashkenazic pronunciation), page 11b, there is an extensive discussion, one among many in the Talmud, of the ingredients and fabrication of the oil used to anoint the high priests. R' Yehudah is quoted as saying: "A certain miracle occured [נס אחד נעשה] with regard to the anointing oil: there were only 12 login, yet from that oil was anointed the Tabernacle and its vessels, and Aaron and his sons, through all the seven days of priestly initiation."

Does that story remind you of any other miraculous oil? Could it be that the Hanukkah tale (in Shabbos 21b), which includes the similar phrase "יום אחד נעשה בו נס" (on a certain day a miracle occured), was itself based on the story on Horayos, so that the Rabbis could forge a connection between Hanukkah and other holidays of Temple dedication (e.g. Sukkos)?

This is unfounded speculation, but for the life of me I can't figure out why it's wrong.

Maybe, if I get my gumption up, I can ask Daniel Boyarin. That's right, he of Carnal Israel is speaking tomorrow at 3 pm in the City of All Sins, at the 6th St. Synagogue.

(Whoops, I suppose tomorrow is today already. Yes, he's speaking on Sunday: Hayom hayom hayom.)


"Not to gaze at them like a fool"

(From Spinoza's The Ethics, Part I. The Samuel Shirley translation reads better, but this is what I found on-line.)

We must not omit to notice that the followers of this doctrine [of final causes], anxious to display their talent in assigning [such] causes, have imported a new method of argument in proof of their theory—namely, a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance; thus showing that they have no other method of exhibiting their doctrine. For example, if a stone falls from a roof on to some one's head and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God's will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance? Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. "But why," they will insist, "was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?" If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist: "But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?" So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God—in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance. So, again, when they survey the frame of the human body, they are amazed; and being ignorant of the causes of so great a work of art conclude that it has been fashioned, not mechanically, but by divine and supernatural skill, and has been so put together that one part shall not hurt another.

Hence anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those, whom the masses adore as the interpreters of Nature and the gods. Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also [. . .]


Department of Unsolicited Medical Advice
or: I Suppose That's What's Been Going Around At Shul Lately
or: Doctor Doctor, Gimme the News, I Gotta Bad Case of Diaspora Jew
or: I'd Hate to See What He Said At His Private Appearances

(The summary below is from YIVO News, Winter 2003.)

A. B. Yehoshua Prescribes Zionism as Cure for Diaspora "Disease"

Author A. B. Yehoshua maintains that Zionism's mission is to recast a historic Jewish fear of national sovereignty and power. Participating in YIVO's Distinguished Lecture Series [...], the Israeli novelist and intellectual prescribed Zionism as the medicine to treat what he sees as the Jewish disease called Diaspora. "Ultra Orthodox and Modern Orthodox, liberals and socialists, nationalists and bourgeois . . . the medicine has to be adjusted to each of them with regard to dosage, but basically the same medicine for everybody."

Addressing the topic, "The Future of the Zionist Revolution," Yehoshua insisted that the Jews' 2000-year exile from Israel was not imposed on them by non-Jews, but reflected instead "a neurotic choice that, despite the danger, anguish, and humiliation it entailed, helped alleviate the Jews' identity conflict."

For Yehoshua that conflict -- between universal religious faith in the creator of the cosmos and the narrow demands of nationalist identity -- began at Mount Sinai. The challenge to Zionism, he contends, is "to correct the aspiration that was established at Sinai, an aspiration full of pain and contradictions."

The author suggested that the correction is already taking place. In Israel, it is expressed through a tendency to secularize Jewish identity by emphasizing Israeli citizenship -- now being granted to increasing numbers of Christians, especially from Russia -- over religious faith. Conversely, in the Diaspora, he maintains, increasing numbers of ethnic non-Jews are being drawn to univeral elements of Jewish religious tradition, such as Kabbalah.

Some audience members felt that Yehoshua was advocating divorcing religion from nationality, and a future in which all Jewish nationalists in Israel would be known as Israelis, while Jewish spiritualists in the Diaspora -- both ethnic Jews and non-Jews -- would be called "adherents of the Jewish faith."

The lecture was the author's sole public appearance during his recent visit to the United States.


The Tragedy of the Tulsa Fullback (excerpt)

After the [poetry] class ended, a student who plays on the [University of Tulsa] soccer team stopped to tell [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko about the mixed emotions he felt after a coach refused to let him play in the team's final game. When he finished, Mr. Yevtushenko flung his arms out wide and commanded: "You must write about that feeling. Do not squeeze it inside."
from today's New York Times

"Play me, please, Coach! I'll burn up the net!"
My glory-dream's denied. The bastard said nyet.


Of fish and fetuses

(If you're not up to speed on the latest flap about fish and mercury, please see the articles here and here. Then return to the next paragraph. Happy reading! A special award will be given to the alert reader who figures out what the FDA is actually going to announce in the spring -- i.e. whether they will be making their advisory more or less stringent. There seem to be contradictory reports on the matter.)

I am an epidemiologist, but I'm no expert on the effects of methylmercury expsure. But in looking through the National Academy of Sciences sober and thoughtful 2000 report on the matter, it appears that we have here a classic problem of epidemiology and public health: how do we translate risk assessment into legislation?

There are several parts to this controversy. One involves the "action standard" of the FDA -- this is the methylmercury dose that would require the agency to take legal action -- and whether this is to be based on the EPA's advisory. In April, the FDA indicated that this would indeed be the case, making its own action standards some five times stricter. But two other relevant pieces of the problem should not be overlooked: the wording of the FDA's warning itself, and, perhaps most important, how we should implement public policy based on these advisories.

Of course, these different parts of the problem are interdependent. The "action standard" of the FDA, like the advisory level of the EPA, demands legal action on the part of the agency. So one cannot agitate for the highest possible level of protection without taking into account the results that such protection will have.

Let us assume, for the moment, that the EPA advisory level is scientifically justified, albeit the matter is actually quite complicated. The NAS report fairly characterizes as "strong" the evidence for neurological effects due to methylmercury. These effects are strongest, states the report, also reasonably enough, in fetuses and newborns, whose neurological development is still proceeding. However, this evidence is based almost entirely on either animal studies or studies of populations affected by acute mercury exposure. The several epidemiologic studies concerned with chronic exposure to low levels of mercury (more relevant to us tuna-fish folks, for example) give a mixed picture, and in fact the largest of these studies (the so-called Seychelles study) finds very few significant neurological effects. The NAS report further states (in its conclusion) that the average exposure in the United States is quite low in comparison to the recommended standards.

In short, the EPA advisory is based on scientific conclusions which find their strongest base not among common, everyday levels of exposure, but in above-average, acute exposure, and in animal studies. If the FDA adopts the EPA level, we need to understand that we are setting the bar of protection higher, erring on the side of biological effects that, while plausible, might not be commonly found in daily life. If, for example, the new data on mercury levels in tuna suggest that exposure in fetuses, newborns, and perinatal women might be higher than previously thought, one must still compare this increased exposure with the recommended standard -- which is in turn set as low as possible, in keeping with a standard of maximum protection.

In other words, we are dealing with a strong, plausible biological connection, which might or might not be plausible given chronic exposures of an average intensity. It's not implausible to suggest that the FDA mandates exposure levels so low as to be incapable of causing any measurable effect.

Here's where the hard part starts. A price is paid for every legislative intervention, and someone, somewhere, will be paying the price of that intervention. Is it worth it? Is it worth assuring that tens of thousands of children a year have their mercury exposure reduced to levels that could not possibly have any physiological effect? How much do we value, say, a variegated diet during pregnancy, or the health values of different sorts of fish, or a non-panicked approach to dietary recommendations?

A spokesman from the Environmental Working Group (the chief critic of the FDA's less stringent recommendations with regard to tuna) accused the FDA of abdicating its responsibility to "protect the public." But protection against what, and at what cost? Are we to be protected against a minimal risk, even if such protection incurrs costly and possibly unwarranted intervention?

I would encourage all my readers (my Daily Dozen) to forward my speculations to those more expert in the matter than I am, so I can help clear up my thoughts and the suggestions of this blog.


Khayele the Baptized

Below is my translation of an entry in Noam Starik's Yiddish blog. Any historical novelists out there?

A terrible tragedy occurred on June 5th, 1814, in the house of Dovid Slutski, the rabbi of Kiev. After the Sabbath meal, Khayele, the thirteen-year-old daughter, suddenly disappeared. By the next day the whole city knew that priests had kidnapped the rabbi's daughter and were planning to convert her to Christianity. Her father protested to the churches and their responsible authorities. The priests, for their part, stood their ground, claiming that the girl had freely converted to the Orthodox faith, and that therefore they could not help the rabbi.

The priests moved Khayele to a fanatic Orthodox family in Kiev that was known for baptizing Jewish children. They paired her off with a Christian named Ivan Popov, and gave her the name Maria; so it was that Khayele became Maria Popov.

But on June 25th, her 12th day in captivity, she managed to smuggle out from under the noses of her guards nine dramatic letters she had written on tattered green paper. From the letters themselves -- heart-rendingly naive in tone, in a childish spelling -- it also seems that she managed to receive the responses from her family.

[I have made no attempt to preserve the original variations in spelling. ZShB]

Letter 3:

Darling father dearest, please take me out of this house. God should let me get away from these Christians, and I ask you, father, get me out of here fast, you must come quickly because I am so weak I don't eat and I can't eat and sleep. God should let you come soon with health and joy and we should all see and we should all be happy together Amen. Darling father dearest, my mother is too weak to get through this, please come and don't delay, you should come soon with joy Amen. Dear sister Hedele, write me dearest in good health. God should let me see you soon in good health and joy Amen.

Letter 5:

Darling sister-in-law dearest, I received your note that you wrote. I thank you very much for it. Please, please get me out of this unclean house. Darling brother dearest, please write me about your health and my darling sister. It's awful that I am away from you and that they don't let me out of here to see my dear mother. God should let my darling mother get through the troubles that have happened. How awful it is that I left my father and that my father is not there and I am with the Christians. God should let us see each other in health.

I allow myself to speculatethat the rabbi's daughter, the 13-year-old, tried to get herself converted by her own free will, but afterwards she realized what she had done and felt awful. She tried to run away (say the historical documents) from her home, and sent the sad notes to her family, but by then it was no help. Since she had already converted, the priests were able to hold her. From the above-quoted letters ("How awful it is that I left my father") it seems that she went to the church willingly and volunteered to be baptized. She quickly awoke from her dream and some days later she wrote the desperate letters. Perhaps she became frightened when she was matched with Ivan -- she had not expected that much.

We don't know the end of the story -- the documents don't tell us. We've found out about this history through searching the archives of the Orthodox church. From the same documents we know that a legal case was begun against the father for accusing the priests of lying, kidnapping, and baptizing the daughter against her will. We have no written evidence of the outcome of the trial.

[The article is based on Shoel Ginzburg, A terrible page of history, Di Tsukunft, July, 1932, pp. 423-427.]


Gold, frankincense, and sambar: or, tasty ironies of the Diaspora

A professor told me yesterday that the department is considering having its Christmas party at a kosher Indian vegetarian restaurant. How often, I ask you, do one's culinary fantasies come true?

Now let's see: did Mary and Joseph prefer dosas or utthapam?

The other thing I'm wondering, going through in my mind all the members of the department, is how many Christians will be at this Christmas party. Maybe a token two or three.


Sensitive compression

Some do indeed get their due, though it takes a few decades. Kay Ryan, a Californian poet and the author of a half-dozen books, has fashioned her art not in the groves of M.F.A.-academe, but in the unregarded and unsheltered Mojave. She has whittled and shaped, whittled and shaped her words down to such gems as the poem published a few days ago in Poetry Daily:

The Light of Interiors
Kay Ryan

The light of interiors
is the admixture
of who knows how many
doors ajar, windows
casually curtained,
unblinded or opened,
oculi set into ceilings,
wells, ports, shafts,
loose fits, leaks,
and other breaches
of surface. But, in
any case, the light,
once in, bounces
toward the interior,
glancing off glassy
enamels and polishes,
softened by the scuffed
and often-handled, muffled
in carpet and toweling,
buffeted down hallways,
baffled equally
by the scatter and order
of love and failure
to an ideal and now
sourceless texture which
when mixed with silence
makes of a simple
table with flowers
an island.

Volume CLXXXIII, Number 2
November 2003

Among its virtues are the many internal rhymes; the idiosyncratic use and non-use of meter; the fact that the entire poem is 2 (!) sentences long; and the theme itself, which many a poet has tilted at and failed. (The only thing I'm not sure about is the imprecise, nearly cliched "love and failure.")

To learn more about Ryan's work, take a look at this fine essay by Dana Gioia. You might also like to look at her new poem Hailstorm in The Atlantic (though I believe it's inferior to the one above).


Back to the book(s)

I'm usually reading a number of books at once (my attention span is solitary, poor, etc.), and there are some I've been in the middle of for ages -- who knows if I'll ever make it through Proust? On occasion, though, I am moved to have another try at a tome that's been intimidating me from across the room.

A recent article in the new issue of Conservative Judaism got me to pick up an old unfinishable standby.* (The "new" issue that came in the mail is dated summer, 2003. A delay like that doesn't make it any newer, but it does lend an air of nonchalant, old-world charm, like the Yiddish journals I get in the mail dated many months ago.)

There are several essays of note. Eugene Borowitz, in "The Pivotal Issue in a Century's Jewish Thought," remarks on the contemporary force of the ethical model of Judaism even after the crumbling of its philosophical (read: Kantian) foundations: "the continuing power of the ethical vision even without a sustaining contemporary intellectual theory of ethics." In his concluding section, the author (himself a Jewish philosopher) well-nigh throws up his hands and leaves the field:

As one devoted to thinking and to the unity of God, I hope that one day our Jewish religious commitment to the ethical will come to a Jewish religious intellectual paradigm as widely accepted among us as was the modern one for much of the past century. But for the moment, it seems far more likely that we shall have many theologies expressing the diverse religious intuitions in our community, a situation not unlike the experience of most centuries in our long history.

Yes, well, we can always hide our face in the skirts of history: someone, somewhere, during some century of the interminable Exile, has done something comparable to what we are doing now. But that's cold comfort, especially when you have a good, long think about the "diverse religious intuitions" in our community. I might be an elitist, but I can't help but think that these intuitions, often poorly expressed and completely contradictory, are a mightly slim reed on which to build a theological infrastructure.

Not being a philosopher (nor even playing one on TV), I can't presume to offer the alternative, unifying religious-intellectual paradigm which Borowitz seeks. I am puzzled, however, that he doesn't mention the interesting developments in Christian philosophical theology. I am thinking of the well-received and widely-read (well, comparatively widely-read, at any rate) work of Alvin Plantinga, who's written some very interesting philosophy on belief in God -- how can such belief be warranted, given the obvious and manifold difficulties?

But about the book I was moved to pick up again: Borowitz refers to Franz Rosenzweig as a possible saving philosophical grace for Jewish thought in the coming century. This made me wonder if anyone (who's not writing their doctoral thesis on the book) has ever read The Star of Redemption all the way through. Then I realized that the book had been sitting on my desk for the better part of a year, a bookmark stuck somewhat forlornly near the end of the first Gate (if I'm remembering rightly what he calls the larger divisions).

Last night, while being the only person of two in the house not watching The Practice, I gave old Franz another try. Suffice it to say that I find it no easier going than the first time, but now I have a different approach. I think it might be the perfect book for the intelligent layperson: the Jew interested in theology not so much as a universe of philosophically defensible assertions, but as a rich, funky, literary raw material open for the soul's browsing. In other words, just the sort of various intuition which Borowitz is talking about.

There are some books, I think, which can only be read in this way, because trying to pin down the twists and turns of the argument might not be worth it, and even inimical to the spirit of the work. I think of Rosenzweig and (for example) Kook more as poets than rigorous philosophers, perhaps because I myself am more a poet than a rigorous philosopher. Their books should be not so much closely read as surfed, riding lightly on the waves of fever-pitch prose without paying so much attention to every questionable lemma.

*You'll note that the Web site hasn't been updated for a few years. Par for the course as far as the Conservative movement's Web presence goes, I'm afraid -- lots of muticolored gimcracks but a paucity of solid material.


China: Human Rabies Death Toll Continues to Rise

From: ProMED Digest V2003 #451
Source: Reuters Health online, Tue 25 Nov 2003 [edited]

Rabies cases leapt nearly 63 percent in China in the first 9 months
of 2003 as the people's mad affair with pet dogs deepened, the China
Daily reported on Tue 25 Nov 2003. Rabies, "mad dog disease" in
Chinese, killed 1297 people up to the end of September 2003, far
exceeding the 1003 deaths the Health Ministry reported for all of
2002, the newspaper said. This is the 5th straight year that China
has seen a big jump in rabies infections.

"Experts from the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention are
blaming the trend on pet ownership, the shaky quality of
vaccinations, the public's weak awareness of vigilance and the low
vaccination rate among dogs as the major causes of the rapid rise in
cases," the newspaper stated. Another factor was stray dogs running
wild on the outskirts of cities and in rural areas. The ministry said
earlier this year that rabies was the most deadly infectious killer
in China, well surpassing SARS and AIDS.

Pet dogs were shunned in the days of Mao Zedong as a symbol of
bourgeois decadence, and dog is still a popular restaurant dish. But
pet pooches have become increasingly popular in the last decade with
improved living standards.

- --

[Recent statements on the reasons for the increased number of cases
of human rabies in China have lacked consistency. The China Daily
article above attributes the increase in number of human deaths to
pet ownership and low canine vaccination rates. However a previous
ProMED-mail correspondent (see: Rabies - China (Guangxi) (03)
20031114.2830) observed that: "China has uniform compulsory
vaccination of pet dogs, and it seems to be rather stringently
enforced. If the owner is not carrying a vaccination certificate when
asked to produce it, the dog is often killed on the spot." In
contrast, "there is no requirement that dogs raised and sold for meat
must be vaccinated. The overwhelming majority of the dogs which have
been killed as a result of rabies outbreaks this year have been in
dog meat production areas, where there are few if any pet dogs." The
ambivalent attitude of the Chinese to dogs would appear to be a major
factor in the failure to control this outbreak. - Mod.CP (ProMED-mail moderator)]


Beneath every green tree (or: תחת כל עץ רענן)

They're putting up the wood frames down around 20th and 1st, and I'm looking forward to what goes in them.

Yes, I love the smell of Christmas trees. I walk through green gauntlets of them every year, around late November or early December, when the spruce-sellers put out their wares on the streets of Manhattan. I think the pleasure is heightened because I feel absolutely no associated responsibility: I enjoy the holiday and its trappings from afar without having to celebrate it.

The comparable Jewish feeling, of course, comes just after Yom Kippur, the time of the sprouting of sukkot -- but our religion (like any other) is not for unadulterated esthetic. The minute one thinks of sukkot, one thinks (in the same moment) of Sukkot, preparations thereof, building one's own booth, meal planning, recipe hunting, purchasing the four species -- the familiar mix of anticipated exultation and exhaustion.

But Christmas trees I can stroll among, knowing that my yarmulke identifies me as a non-purchaser (the sellers, in New York, know that much, in my experience), and thus able to enjoy gratification without committment. It is as if an entire religion were growing a garden for our benefit.

I do not consider Christianity a species of idolatry (I've talked about that before), so theoretically I should make a blessing on the scent. Perhaps I'll finally remember this year, on my way to minyan.


Two questions of momentous import, and a third it'd be nice to talk about over some Girl Scout cookies

Are you listening, readership? I want the answers to these on my desk by nine o'clock tomorrow morning. (It's too bad there isn't a column called "Ask the language hat Rabbi.")

1. When people say, on parting, "Be good," is it a colloquial rendering of the too-formal "Be well," or a wink-wink-nudge-nudge "You be good, now, you hear?", like "[Johnny] B Good"? And how would you know, O linguists, which one it was?

2. When I learned Spanish in high school, and soaked up a fair bit of it in Spain and Mexico, the way to say "How are you?" (or one of them, anway) was ¿Que pasa?. As long as I've lived in the U.S., though (both in California and in New York), I've always heard ¿Que pasó? from Spanish speakers. Past tense, that is, though it doesn't seem to be used that way. Any explanations?

Oh, and here's another thing I'm wondering about (this article in the Forward, about interreligious dialogue between Orthodox Jews and Christians, got me thinking). When Orthodox Jews say, quoting Soloveitchik, that one shouldn't engage in theological discussion with Christians, lest one fall prey to "relativism" -- what does that mean, exactly?

The strong version of relativism, if I may speculate for the sake of argument, might be something like this:

One should not find any points of comparison between Judaism and Christianity, lest the Jewish Gestalt be contaminated by association with an idolatrous faith.

Note that I do not hold Christianity to be idolatrous, but [most] sectors of Orthodoxy, and today's Orthodoxy in even greater measure, do. (Yes, I know about the Meiri, but I don't think he's all that popular these days . . .)

But the points of comparison do, in fact, exist, whether or not one seeks them out. How can one refuse to take notice of them, if the Jewish tradition has been shaped in part precisely by great thinkers and rabbis who made use of such comparisons in their creative life? (I'm thinking of Ibn Ezra and the Ramban, but I'm sure the list can be extended almost indefinitely.)

Thus I find this strong version implausible. But perhaps a weaker version is meant (and indeed, I think I've actually read something like this in essays on the topic):

One should not actively discuss points of theological comparison between Judaism and Christianity, lest the development and observance of the former be contaminated by the influence of an idolatrous faith.

Again, I find this implausible. The underlying assumption here, I think, is that all developments in religious Judaism are internal, driven by a mi-Sinai dynamic. If any Christian influence were to be allowed in, the chicken soup of Judaism would be rendered treyf . (And since Christianity -- to extend the metaphor -- is not milchig or fleischig, but treyf itself, any amount of contamination is unnullifiable.) But -- again with history! -- Christianity has influenced Jewish history in great measure and often to positive effect.

There must be some more convincing argument I'm missing. I'll have to read Soloveitchik's essay., although to tell the truth I find him much more convincing as a stylist and rhetorician than as a philosopher.

Oh, here's the article. The core of the argument, I think, rests on this passage:

This failure rests upon two misconceptions of the nature of the faith community. First the single-confrontation philosophy continues to speak of Jewish identity without realizing that this term can only be understood under the aspect of singularity and otherness. There is no identity without uniqueness. As there cannot be an equation between two individuals unless they are converted into abstractions, it is likewise absurd to speak of the commensurability of two faith communities which are individual entities.

The individuality of a faith community expresses itself in a threefold way. First, the divine imperatives and commandments to which a faith community is unreservedly committed must not be equated with the ritual and ethos of another community. Each faith community is engaged in a singular normative gesture reflecting the numinous nature of the act of faith itself, and it is futile to try to find common denominators. Particularly when we speak of the Jewish faith community, whose very essence is expressed in the halakhic performance which is a most individuating factor, any attempt to equate our identity with another is sheer absurdity. Second, the axiological awareness of each faith community is an exclusive one, for it believes - and this belief is indispensable to the survival of the community - that its system of dogmas, doctrines and values is best fitted for the attainment of the ultimate good. Third, each faith community is unyielding in its eschatological expectations. It perceives the events at the end of time with exultant certainty, and expects man, by surrender of selfish pettiness and by consecration to the great destiny of life, to embrace the faith that this community has been preaching throughout the millennia. Standardization of practices, equalization of dogmatic certitudes, and the waiving of eschatological claims spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experience of any religious community. It is as unique and enigmatic as the individual himself.

Again, the author quite reasonably elaborates upon his premises, as is his right -- but these premises are not so much argued as asserted. "There is no identity without uniqueness": not, I think, the case. Indeed, we can understand Judaism as a separate religion precisely through those points of contact and departure from other religions. It might be an Orthodox axiom (I don't know) to believe that Judaism is, in fact, entirely unique (unique in what way? at what level?), but I don't think I buy it.

The second, larger paragraph is, similarly, studded with ringing statements that are not grounded in disputable points of argument. I find this unfortunate. One community's religious being "cannot be equated with the faith and ethos" of another community -- but why can't one compare without equating? If, in fact, we don't find Judaism to be unique (still a confusing term: in all particulars? throughout all time?), then we could perfectly well compare it to Christianity, say, without equating the two.

"Each community is engaged in a singular normative gesture . . . it is futile to find common denominators": But, with all due respect, I don't find it futile. The Jewish community is engaged in a great "gesture" (if you will), and I do accept it as normative. But I can only call it "singular" in obeisance to the great power and beauty of Jewish life and thought, in the same way that a work of art is singular, but not unique in all particulars.

"Standardization of practices, equalization of dogmatic certitudes, and the waiving of eschatological claims spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experience of any religious community." Why does a non-uniqueness of eschatological claims qualify as a "waiving"? Could I not firmly believe in the coming of the Messiah in such a way as might apply to all (suitably qualified) human beings? Would not such a belief qualify as a Jewish eschatological claim? I assert that it would, though it might not meet the standards of the author's eschatological claims.

And lastly, even if I accept the author's terms (that is, my differing eschatological claim would indeed mean some sort of "waiving" of the Jewish uniqueness he has in mind), why and how would this "spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experience"? I find it strange that Soloveitchik here adopts the approach (which he caricatures in Halakhic Man) of homo religiosus: that of subjective claims of "greatness" and "vibrancy." I claim (though I am dust and ashes!) that my faith experience is indeed great and vibrant.

I should get some work done today. However, I want to conclude with the observation that Korn's justification, as given in the article, for his call to re-examine Soloveitchik's stance ("I contend that it wasn't a halachic position of Rabbi Soloveitchik, but a policy decision.") is somewhat strange. Given that Soloveitchik's position, as put forth in the essay, seems to be based on a philosophical approach to the Book of Genesis and to religious observance in general, how can Korn characterize it as a public policy decision -- unless he disagrees with the claims of the essay and doesn't want to say so?

PS: I'm glad the Forward is now glossing "halachah" as "rabbinic law" and not as "rabbinic canon law", which always gave me fits of giggles. Thanks, guys. Now if you could just stop glossing it altogether, and have faith in your readers' ability to use a dictionary . . .

Enentation comments


Hey, buddy! Need a facelift?

The guy at the shoeshine stand next to the entrance of Grand Central Station glances down at my shoes as I pass him, looks me right in the eye, and states rather than asks: "Need a shine?" I keep walking.

Good thing there's no barber shop there. Or confessional.


A useful mistake

The Conservative movement, or at least one of its leading figures, has characterized its most controversial psak (Jewish legal judgment) as a mistake. This is a classic case (beloved by the Jewish legal tradition) of lekhatkhilah (a priori) and bedieved (ex post facto). Given today's circumstances I would not have made such a decision, because I know how things turned out. Given the circumstances of the time, however, the decision was not unjustified. Can we call it a mistake, then? Yes, if we can do so without an air of superiority -- because it's a helpful and even an admirable mistake. The circumstances of that mistake, both at its commission and today, after the admission, can shed light on the positive and negative aspects of the Conservative movement. Perhaps if more mistakes like it were to be made, the direction of the Conservative movement could be changed for the better.

Conservative psakim are issued through the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, and it was this Committee (known to the "inside-baseball" crowd as the Law Committee, or the CJLS) which issues rulings -- and issued them in the 1950s, when the question of driving on Shabbat came up for judgment.

Only an excerpt of the psak is available on-line. (Isn't it ridiculous that the very movement which strives for a modern, open approach to halachah doesn't have the psakim of its Law Committee available on-line, in full and for free? One most console oneself with the Masorti movement's David Golinkin, whose sensible, well-researched teshuvot are worth destroying one's eyesight with PDFs that are not of the highest quality.) However, one can summarize as follows. The authors took into account the near-complete erosion of traditional Jewish religious life in considerable sections of the U.S., and in an attempt to make possible some modicum of Sabbath observance for those who would otherwise (through ignorance) be unable to observe individually, permitted them to drive to the synagogue, and there only, on the Sabbath.

From a halachic perspective, that is, if we focus our gaze only on a narrowly specified list of Shabbat prohibitions, it was a mistaken decision. (Those prohibitions are enumerated in detail in a recent Masorti responsum that comes to a different conclusion, unsurprisingly, based on the different conditions prevalent today in Israel.) But from a public-policy decision it was perfectly justified. Indeed, rare is the teshuvah (responsum) which does not have to balance Jewish laws of a smaller scale -- which is not to say minor -- against those which apply to greater numbers of people, or to entire communities. Many have said that the responsum made the mistake which Jewish law terms halakhah ve-eyn morin keyn: it is the law, but one does not rule that way. (Or as the limerick has it: "Don't shout / And wave it about / Or the rest will be wanting one too.") That is, the decision itself was justified -- it is, after all, better to drive to shul on Shabbos than to stay home and crank the stereo -- but one musn't disclose this permissibility in a public psak. This argument is unconvincing. While there was a danger -- presumably realized by the CJLS members of the time -- that the Conservative majority would interpret the ruling as permission to drive on the Sabbath, there was an equally clear and present countervailing danger: i.e. that thousands of Jews would languish in spiritual isolation for lack of means or ability to pray. The CJLS took both these sides into account, and ruled, quite reasonably, in favor of the latter consideration.

This is what happens in psak -- the delicate, tangible art of adjudication. Sometimes you get it wrong. Why is this mistake valuable? Because the Conservative movement is, I believe, the only institution which characterizes itself as halachic that can admit its mistakes. Though Orthodox rabbinical groups are wide-ranging, they are united in at least one particular: neither the adherents of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik (the "Rav"), nor those of the Agudah, nor anyone in between would be able to say of a given psak: This is mistaken. Of course, one is allowed to follow one psak rather than other, but according to Orthodox theology (by and large) the posek (decisor) is guided by the hand of God in making his halachic decisions. That hand cannot err.

I don't know what metaphor to use for Conservative responsa -- perhaps God is the mentor rather than the guide, the parent whom the child must respect but part from in order to achieve full intellectual and spiritual development. In any case, however, Conservative rabbis are, or at least should be, more honest about the dangerous fallibility of the path they tread. The decision about driving on the Sabbath is one example. The mistake shows us what could have been achieved over the past fifty-some years, and what we should aim at in the future: self-sustaining, Sabbath-observant communities following an egalitarian, religiously open, culturally rich model, drawing from the experience of Jews from every place on the spectrum but not beholden to them. Perhaps there is still time for this in what is left of the millennium . . .

This is not to say, though, that the Conservative rabbinate is always quick to admit its mistakes. (One could of course argue that Rabbi Schorsch's speech cannot even be characterized as an institutional mea culpa, and that the CJLS, like Agudah, will never admit its own error.) But I hope that the Sabbath-driving example will be an influence on Conservative institutions to acknowledge their own fallibility. I am thinking in particular of the issue of homosexuality, which the Rabbinical Assembly and JTS have been woefully timid in addressing, for fear of offending their right wing. (Where is the halakhah that "carves through the mountain" without fear or favor?) But more on that another time.

Enentation comments


China: Rabies Kills 312 People in Guangxi

From: ProMED Digest V2003 #435
Source: Xinhuanet, Tue 11 Nov 2003 [edited]

Rabies has killed 312 people in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in the
south from January to September 2003, a 152.9 percent rise over the total
rabies cases in 2002, according to the Regional Department of Health. The
figures show the impact of the growing number of pets in the country, which
has long been ravaged by infectious diseases. Local medical experts blamed
the public's weak awareness of the need for vigilance and the low canine
vaccination rate as the major causes of the [high number of cases of the]
deadly infection.

"The increase in pet ownership in Guangxi's urban and rural areas was the
major cause of the rapid rise in rabies cases," said Yang Jinye, deputy
director of Guangxi Diseases Prevention and Control Center. Stray dogs in
the rural areas also add to the risk of people getting bitten, according to
the official. There are currently some 6.2 million dogs in Guangxi, of
which less than 20 percent have been immunized against the rabies virus, he

A serious, fatal disease that can be transmitted by dogs, cats, livestock
and certain wild animals and birds, rabies infects and kills thousands of
people every year in China. Rabies, called "mad dog disease," has become
the most dangerous infectious killer in the country, easily surpassing
diseases like SARS , pulmonary tuberculosis, AIDS, and anthrax. The
ministry's statistics show only 854 deaths from rabies were reported in
2001, and the figure rose rapidly to 1003 in 2002. Some feared the toll
might continue to rise this year, since rabies outbreaks had ravaged
provinces like Guangdong, Hainan, Hunan, and Jiangsu this summer.

China has loosened restrictions on pets as more and more people in the
nation began to raise dogs as pets or guards. Beijing's dog lovers could
have restrictions on their pets relaxed and registration fees lowered after
a new regulation approved by the municipal government on 5 Sep 2003.
Registration fees of 5000 yuan (US $604) in the first year and 2000 yuan
(US $241.93) a year thereafter have been lowered to 1000 yuan (US $120.96)
and 500 yuan (US $60.48).

- --

[Along with the increase in pet ownership and the reduction in the pet
registration fee, compulsory canine vaccination in Beijing and other large
urban centres should be given priority in order to achieve an immediate
reduction in the appallingly high human death toll from rabies virus
infection throughout China. - ProMED-mail moderator]


Birth blessings

Friends of mine are expecting a child, and they asked: what blessing does one say at the happy event? I did a little bit of research for them, and the answer's not entirely uncomplicated. (Of course, a pedant -- this blogger, for instance -- is someone who refuses to give a simple answer.) Any erudition in this summary is not mine, but gleaned from a very useful article in Hebrew.

In tractate Brachot ("Blessings," of course) 59b, there is a distinction made between the blessing [Praised are you, God, Ruler of the universe] Who is good and does good (i.e. Hatov ve-hameytiv) and the Shehekheyanu. According to the anonymous source, the first is said when one hears good news that affects a number of people, while the second is said when the good news affects only the hearer. Examples given of the second case are the building of a new house (presumably a single-dweller unit!). An example given of the first case is the birth of a son. No blessing on the birth of a daughter is mentioned.

The unclarity of this Talmudic passage gives rise to many of the questions of future commentators. Is the birth of a son an illustrative or rather a defining and limiting example? Why is the birth of a daughter not mentioned? What if the parents prefer a daughter to a son, or welcome both equally?

Many traditional commentators adduce other references in the Gemara which suggest that a son is a preferable to a daughter. The halachic conclusions deriving from this are various. The Shulchan Aruch rules that one should say Hatov ve-hameytiv, but does not mention any blessing for a daughter. The Mishnah Berurah (a late 19th- and early 20th-century commentary on the Shulchan Aruch) reasons that the birth of a daughter should be at least as welcome as seeing a friend one has not laid eyes on for thirty days, which requires Shehekheyanu -- and thus requires this blessing in such a case.

Some communities have had the custom to recite no blessing, either because (a) it is generally unclear whether a son is preferable to a daughter by both father and mother; or (b) the true "glad tidings" are the news of the pregnancy, over which a blessing can't be said for technical reasons of timing.

I think these various routes have been mistaken, or, to be more generous, motivated by historical concerns favoring boys over girls. I would venture to suggest that the birth of either a boy or a girl is a piece of happy news bringing joy and benefit to all friends and family that hear it, thereby meriting the blessing Hatov ve-hameytiv. Of course, you are free to make your own decisions.
The physical basis of moral belief: The neuroscientists have done it!

In the New York Times, Sandra Blakeslee informs us of an earth-shaking discovery. If this article wasn't printed on the front page, it darn well should have been:

They do think they have solved one longstanding mystery, though. Most neuroscientists are convinced the mind is in no way separate from the brain. In the brain they have found a physical basis for all our thoughts, aspirations, language, sense of consciousness, moral beliefs and everything else that makes us human. All of this arises from interactions among billions of ordinary cells. Neuroscience finds no duality, no finger of God animating the human mind.

I must confess something: before I read this paragraph, I was dubious that the neuroscientists had done the heavy lifting of actually demonstrating this assertion. So it's convenient that reporters like Ms. Blakeslee, the gatekeepers of the Gray Lady, can decide when the burden of proof has been lifted. I am very happy to hear that this mystery has been solved, now that I've read it in the Times. Let us now plan the party! (Though we need to coordinate it with the celebrations of National Health Information Management Week. I'll have my people call their people.)


Please party responsibly

Seen on a banner hanging from the ceiling at Bellevue Hospital (where I do some of my research):

Celebrate National Health Information Management Week!

That explains my giddiness.


Pray get better

One of the basic difficulties of doing any medical study is something that's known to speakers of Epidemiologese as exposure measurement. If you're conducting research on the effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds, you need to measure your gamma rays. If you want to find out if fried chicken causes cancer, you either need to (a) trust the subject to faithfully record each and every visit to Popeye's; (b) somehow spy on them at home and on the way, with their consent; or (c) lock them in a room, provide them with food, and spy on them through a mirror. (All of these have been tried.) Dietary epidemiology is the black hole of untestable hypotheses, precisely because it's so hard to determine what people actually eat and when.

If exposure measurement is tough for dietary studies, for which there are no lack of biologically plausible hypotheses, you can imagine the signs I would put up around the scientific minefield called Prayer and Health. For in this case, the methodological difficulties are intimately bound up with the theological ones. How does one define prayer? When is prayer "properly" done? What is the hypothesized mechanism of prayer? These are not merely matters of idle theological speculation, but questions that must be answered before any study gets off the ground. I haven't read many studies on this topic, only a few -- but those few not only failed to fly: they staggered a few steps and fell flat on their bellies. That's why it's so refreshing to read a critic on the subject sympathetically interviewed by the lay press. He perceptively points out that a misguided attempt to introduce "prayer" (however one might define it) into the standard of medical care might actually pervert both medical practice and religious observance, in the same way that theocracy works neither as religion nor as politics.

I particularly admired the interviewee's stalwart refusal to respond to the question, "Are you a religious person?" This is irrelevant to the topic at hand. Religious people, just like scientists, should be properly skeptical of implausible claims. True religious observance does not imply or require credulous acceptance of every claim on behalf of prayer, nor does it depend on dubious, pseudo-scientific validation of these claims.


Two orders of ribs

Valerie Wohlfeld
from Prairie Schooner


That rib Eve wove herself out of
arthritic in rain, foreign to the body's sanctum?

Serpent: curving rib cast-off—
scaly glitter and hoar—

dybbuk's uncoiled vertebrae,
flexuous maze of whorls?

Deaf, all snakes—
that rib exiled from body to body, silent,

—as even serpents' blood helix-wound
round veins, was not made to hear?

Eve Grubin
from The New Republic

Rib Cage

Eve slipped from its ridge
the only body part you don't
do evil with.

Modest, ticklish, open fan,
not quite sexual, not puritan.

Delicate accordion
--yawn, moan--
soul breathes through its comb.


Regarless [sic]

This morning I spent an extra minute or so in the voting booth just looking around. I figure I should get my tax dollars' worth, since actually choosing candidates takes about forty-five seconds (I am, after all, a yellow-dog Democrat). While reading the Spanish translation of Ballot Question 3, which in the original includes the phrase "regardless of party membership or independent status," I noticed the phrase sin imortar. "Hum!" I thought. "I don't know of any word imortar, but maybe my Spanish is rusty." Of course, it came to me as I was leaving the voting place: it should be sin importar. The poor "p" was forgotten.

I am confident that this typo will cause no election scandal. But shouldn't they have proofreaders for the Spanish translations too?


Public health: necessary coercion?

See this from the fall 2003 issue of Dissent; though bland and irreproachable, the article raises an important issue. I find the main points unexceptionable -- the problems start when the rubber meets the road and quite reasonable people fail to believe that public health practitioners are acting in their own best interests. I am thinking of the recent controversies over mandatory reporting of AIDS cases in New York state, where most of the parties on both sides of the dispute agreed that such reporting would be useful in controlling HIV transmission. Opponents of such reporting, however, claimed that AIDS constitutes such a stigma that it cannot be reported. What is one to say in response to the claim that invaded privacy is primary?

I don't think one can expect full cooperation even when the public health infrastructure (let alone the government as a whole) is regarded as trustworthy. Coercion means exactly that, and even when a government acts morally its constituents might still be displeased.
Non-partisanship of the purse: a note to New Yorkers

Please vote no tomorrow on Ballot Question 3, the proposition that would eliminate party primaries for certain elected offices in New York.

As is evident from a quick skim through the official election ballot that you got in the mail, there are an equal number of union officials and party functionaries lined up on either side of this proposal.

However, those political scientists and non-partisan public-policy experts who submitted statements for the brochure are unanimously against this proposal. They lay out several reasons for opposing it:

In those few cities in which non-partisan elections for mayor have been implemented -- it is indeed only a few; the 50+ figure cited by supporters conflates several different sorts of election design -- the blessing claimed by its supporters have not materialized. No massive spike in participation.

New York is by far the largest and most complicated city to implement such a drastic change. But the process by which the change has been proposed has been driven entirely by the desires -- I won't say whims -- of Mayor Bloomberg. I have nothing against the Mayor, but his attempt to portray himself as a populist is not convincing. He convened a commission to advise him on the change when his decision was already a fait accompli, and the popular movement he claims to head is only the movement of many "small pieces of green paper" (to quote Douglas Adams) out of his pocket and into the accounts of various political-advertising agencies.

I fear that our own apathy and Bloomberg's massive spending will guarantee victory for the proposition. The Times has a good article about the partisan politics motivating the "non-partisan" referendum.

That sinking data-feeling

Don't worry, I will not (yet) describe to you what my dissertation is about. After all, we've only known each other for a few months. However, I will now try to describe a feeling peculiar to the tightrope-walkers of the empirical world, whether they're scientists, poets, philosophers, or sociologists. (Or, hell, even non-academics. I'm provincial; what can I say?)

The data are dragging me down. Yes, that's right. I'm trying to put my as-yet-incomplete data through a few trial runs, to see what my model will look like when I have a complete set. It's not important what my model is. What's inescapable is the "oh, shit" in the pit-of-the-stomach when one realizes that the data might not show anything interesting at all, after months of painstaking collection (or browbeating of the people doing the painstaking collection for one) and months of data analysis after that.

And there's nothing I can do about it. Prayer won't help, since data don't listen to prayer -- just as the Rabbis claimed that angels don't understand Aramaic. The data drag you down while gnawing on your head. The mark they produce, if you could view the top of your own head, would look like a piece of published work, a PhD, or a satisfying creation of your own design, chained unbreakably to the empirical status-quo.


News on the Muse

There's a worthwhile poem by C.K. Williams in the current issue of The New Yorker. It's called "Doves"; it owes something to, and I think improves upon, the Phillip Larkin poem The Winter Palace. (It's a pity that the New Yorker doesn't see fit to excerpt its poetry selections on its Web site.)

There's some good stuff in the current issue of the Black Warrior Review. I particularly like the interviews called "Lives of the Poets". That said, I wish I were better able to appreciate the current popularity of McSweeney'sese, especially in the interview genre: nothing can be asked except with whimsy, nothing can be phrased except nonchalantly. Rank seriousness is to be avoided, perhaps because it is confused with bombast, cliche, or arrogance.

One of those interviewed is the poetry phenom Aimee Nezhukumatathil. She's younger than I am, but has published two more books of poetry than I have (i.e. two). Primed with this jealousy, I looked her up on-line, but found her poems to be worthy only of admiration and envy, not of bitter critique. Alas!

I'm sending off another manuscript this week to the Pathetically Hopeful Poets' Contest. (Not its real name.)


Apologia pro bloga sua, or: The jealousy of scribes increaseth wisdom

In the past week, while I was on vacation, Baraita posted several times on matters sublime and ridiculous. She also linked to (and mentioned) this blog; this generous mention has lit a leaping fire under the Readership Engine. Of course, this increases the pressure to write things that are actually worth reading. On this evening of re-entry, I hate to disappoint those who have come here expecting a quirky novella or two, but the only world-shaking and –remaking thing I have to share is this:

If you find yourself in Elkins, West Virginia, and have need of a vanilla milkshake, please go directly to Scottie’s of Elkins, at 430 Randolph Avenue (across the street from a smugly multicolored Safeway). Theirs is damn fine. (I know the ice cream wasn’t hechshered, but if one can’t fall off the wagon on vacation, then when can one?) From the placemats it appears that the diner is named after a dog. We also learned that the kind and helpful woman who waited on us (in between her end-of-day wiping down and polishing of various parts of the diner) works a 14-hour day, from 6 am to 8 pm, and will continue doing so until she puts her boy through college.

Actually, as long as I’m writing, I do have something else to mention about our West Virginia vacation. (There were so many points of beauty about it, from the old-time fiddlers’ convention we happened to be within Shabbes distance of, to the gaily yet somberly changing leaves, that I could go on for hours. I hope to touch on some of these other points in my Yiddish blog, too.) When I was in West Virginia with my wife, I was reminded yet again of how much I love churches.

This is not by any means the reaction a traditional Jew is supposed to have, for historical and theological reasons. However, I find both of these insufficient determinants of my present behavior. The Church – yes, the Church, but its present-day adherents, not to mention the Protestants of various hues (and especially those Americans of both sorts!), are not generally hostile to me or my people. Theologically speaking, it’s clear from the opening pitch of Avodah Zarah 2b (leaving Tosfos aside for a moment) that the Rabbis saw Christianity as idolatry. Well, as a rabbi friend said to me once, you either agree or you don’t. I don’t. (There are many instances of this, when the reasonably learned liberal Jew needs to decide whether he agrees with the presuppositions of Chazal – or, more precisely, whether those presuppositions are necessary for a morally halachic Judaism.) I won’t go into the details here, but I don’t think the trinity is a species of shituf (belief that the world was created by more than one god in partnership) any more than the sefiros are.

Back to the churches. Not only did we happen upon the Smallest Church in the 48 States*, but nearly every town we passed through in West Virginia, not to mention the rural roads we trundled down, was dotted by different flavors of Christian worship-house: Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, the odd Catholic church, and several examples of what are confusingly called “Church of God.” (As opposed to?) Such variety put me in mind of something that never was and never will be: the interdenominational shtetl, where shuls of every leaning and nusekh happily co-exist, and the Lord’s Day is Saturday.

*This claim may be questionable. Other contenders, some much more plausible, are listed here.


Attempted transcendence
Abraham Sutzkever's 90th-birthday celebration at YIVO

A prophet is apart from his people, yet a part of it: his remonstrations are centered on his audience's present-day concerns. Abraham Sutzkever, whose 90th birthday was marked last night at YIVO, is a prophetic poet of a different variety. While his contemporaries in 1930s Vilna saw poetry as an immanent art, anchored in the conditions of their time, Sutzkever strove to forge a transcendental poetry, which would protect (as one of his poems has it) even the snowman from melting.

While Sutzkever was both a victim and a participant, from his earliest youth to his formative middle age, of most major Jewish historical transitions of the twentieth century (the First World War, the Vilna Ghetto, the successes and final tragedy of Soviet Yiddish literature, the trial at Nuremberg, the creation and birth pangs of the State of Israel, victory in the Six Day War), he never saw himself as a "hardship case" (as Ruth Wisse of Harvard, the evening's main speaker, phrased it) -- rather, he has always sought to crystallize the Jew's history-challenging mission. As Wisse has it, "Materialists like Theodor Adorno have suggested that Auschwitz destroys the faith on which great poetry depends. This does not tell us anything about poetry after Auschwitz. It only tells us why the materialists have not written great poetry. Sutzkever's faith in poetry was no more subject to German power than Rabbi Akiva's faith in God was subject to Roman power, and it seems certain that his defiance of death derived from the apprehension of God's immortality. Defying the odds is the condition of being a Jew. Sutzkever also made it the condition of being a great poet."


Clearing away the miasma

Speaking of miasmas, and attempts to clear them away, there's a relevant article in the recent issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. Don't be scared, layfolk: though the prose is flatfooted and just plain incoherent in spots, the point is well argued -- namely, rather than squabbling over which Big Variable is to blame for a given disease entity, it'd be much more productive to consider the web of interacting variables.

(By the way, hostility gets top billing in the article because it's a commentary on a recent study devoted to that topic.)

Invited Commentary: Socioeconomic Status, Hostility, and Health Behaviors--Does It Matter Which Comes First?


Ghetto miasmas, and other apologias.

In her long article in the New York Times Magazine of this past Sunday, Helen Epstein patches together fuzzy, ill-considered statements of her own, together with unquantified and unsupported assertions by some epidemiologsts who should know better, into a strange claim that's sufficiently summed up by the following paragraph (the piece's conclusion):

Whatever the miasma is that afflicts America's minority poor, it is at least partly a legacy of the segregation of America's cities. These neighborhoods, by concentrating the poor, also concentrate the mysterious, as yet poorly understood, factors that make them sick. You'd almost think this new miasma was caused by some sort of infection, because of the way it seems to strike certain neighborhoods and certain types of people. I recently came across a research article by Angus Deaton of Princeton University, reporting that white people who live in cities with large black populations have higher death rates than whites with the same income who live in cities with smaller black populations. It made me wonder whether the deprived, polluted, roach-infested, stressful conditions in which poor blacks live aren't affecting all of us, to some degree. And even if we never find out what the miasma is, this possibility should scare us into treating this as the health emergency it is -- if nothing else will.

What Epstein calls a miasma (the use of such a term is a return to the days before germ theory -- in other words, an abject rhetorical surrender) is what epidemiologists and public health researchers routinely deal with in a variety of other situations: a confusing multiplicity of factors that influence disease. But these factors themselves, with all due respect to Epstein, are by no means "mysterious." Rather, these are the most common and deleterious of behaviors, smoking, drinking, and unhealthy diet, coupled with the those factors most common to poor (and often black) neighborhoods: lack of access to medical care, deteriorating buildings and infrastructure, and unsafe and unattractive neighborhoods. There is no reason why addressing these factors, together with the individual, societal, and governmental choices that make them possible, shouldn't lead us to a better understanding of why black people are sicker than white people. It is true, as Epstein points out, that our current understanding of the interaction of these factors cannot fully explain why black people are sicker than white people. Nevertheless, we need not have recourse to ill-defined psychological mechanisms in order to find the true explanation: we need only continue to study those concrete mechanisms of poverty and illness already familiar to us and well-defined in the literature.

It's curious that what Epstein calls the miasma seems to lose its miasmic nature the minute one crosses the boundaries of the poor neighborhoods in question. That is to say, causal relationships as we generally understand them are to be recognized (according to this account) when applied to actors other than the sick people themselves: for example, no one thinks that the various immoral, stupid, or ill-advised actions of various governments, those that have contributed to these health inequalities, are "mysterious" or "poorly understood." But the minute we start talking about what individual health decisions sick people might make that contribute to their illness (whether it be smoking, drinking, or diet), Epstein looses the bonds of ordinary causality and directs a miasma to be blown onto the scene.

I fear that Epstein is mistaking ordinary scientific confusion, which is attendant on any state of affairs of moderate complexity which scientists try to clarify, for a bona-fide health care mystery that she over-dramatically terms a miasma. It is far more likely that these health inequalities can be explained by a coincidence which is to our grief not at all mysterious: racism's consequences, poverty, lack of education, and the harmful mistakes real people make when leading their lives.


from The Temple (1633), by George Herbert:


Lord, with what glorie wast thou serv’d of old,
When Solomons temple stood and flourished!
Where most things were of purest gold;
The wood was all embellished
With flowers and carvings, mysticall and rare:
All show’d the builders, crav’d the seers care.

Yet all this glorie, all this pomp and state
Did not affect thee much, was not thy aim;
Something there was, that sow’d debate:
Wherefore thou quitt’st thy ancient claim:
And now thy Architecture meets with sinne;
For all thy frame and fabrick is within.

There thou art struggling with a peevish heart,
Which sometimes crosseth thee, thou sometimes it:
The fight is hard on either part.
Great God doth fight, he doth submit.
All Solomons sea of brasse and world of stone
Is not so deare to thee as one good grone.

And truly brasse and stones are heavie things,
Tombes for the dead, not temples fit for thee:
But grones are quick, and full of wings,
And all their motions upward be;
And ever as they mount, like larks they sing;
The note is sad, yet musick for a King.


Mile-long electrons, and why Niels Bohr was wrong.

Here's a fascinating interview with Carver Mead, who advocates disengagement from the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Or, in simpler language: he claims that electrons, and the whole wavy world of elementary particles, can be perfectly intuitive if not weighed down by theory.
Are Israelis satisfied with their lives?

Another survey of Jews, also riddled with problems (according to outside statisticians). (If you'd like to read it in Hebrew -- fun with statistics in the language of the Bible! -- here it is.)
Data stinks

Have you been following the flap over the National Jewish Population Survey? If not, see the editorial by J.J. Goldberg, the editor of the Forward, in the New York Times.

I'm not privy to the motivations of the UJC or the NJPS researchers in comparing two incomparable studies. I'm willing to believe that their ideological tendencies might have encouraged them to skew their presentation to the lay public in one direction or another.

However, those who have squawked the loudest over this study (Goldberg included) should realize that every study of this nature, and especially a series of such studies carried out over time, is susceptible to the problems of the NJPS: lack of comparability between results; results that differ widely among different sub-groups; over- or underrepresentation of different strata in the study population; and every researcher's favorite: data that's too skimpy and error bars that are too wide. Everyone who does research on populations (epidemiologists, physicians, sociologists, demographers) has to face these problems with a mixture of dread and brazenness, or they'd never get any work done. Such problems explain the ephemeral nature of so many ballyhooed developments in medicine, say, or epidemiology, which merit a Gina Kolata article but are retracted or revised months later with nary a ripple on A1 of the Times.

In short, it would be nice if the NJPS controversy (for the several hundred people who care about the game of Jewish demographics) would lead to a greater appreciation of the slipperiness of population science. I would be reluctant to ascribe the NJPS's problems to the ideological tendentiousness of its researchers. It's a lot more likely to be something simple and unavoidable: studies are hard, are always mistaken, and never tell you what you want to know.